Axess magazine here (Swedish required, English version below)
FROM the 1880s to the 1980s, socialism defined what it meant to be left wing. European leftists aruged about what socialism meant. Russian, Chinese and the poor world socialists murdered each other in disputes about what socialism meant. But on the basic point there was agreement. To be left wing meant believing that the common ownership of the means of production offered the best way forward for humanity.
There was a hierarchy or pyramid. Socialism in one of its many forms was at the top. The next most desirable form of society was what left-wingers foolishly called capitalist democracies: countries like yours and mine with mixed economies, universal suffrage, bills of rights and welfare states. At the bottom of the heap were the most detestable regimes imaginable: fascist, communalist or confessional societies, which used insane conspiracy theories and pseudo-science to divide people by ethnicity or creed. Nazi Germany was the clearest example of what the left used to hate.
Move forward into the 21st century and the left has changed beyond recognition. Socialism is dead, destroyed by the terrible crimes of the communists and the success of market economies, most notably in Asia. There are still people who call themselves socialists but no serious political movement anywhere in the world believes it can improve society by nationalising the economy. This is a huge defeat because the case for socialism was economic as well as moral. Socialism was meant to bring a higher and more productive economy. According to Marx, its triumph was inevitable. Today it is its failure which seems predetermined.
People who say they are on the Left now favour higher rates of taxation and the provision of public services by state monopolies, and are justifiably wary of private corporations and financial markets. Yet when their politicians take power they often turn to the market for solutions to the practical problems of running modern societies. They bring in private businesses to run public services or create a market in education by giving school vouchers to parents.
They are not selling out merely reflecting the true state of parties of the Left in the democratic world, which are everywhere cautious and flexible. They can no longer inspire enthusiasm for vast schemes of state control because they no longer believe in them themselves – and nor do most of their supporters when they are honest with themselves.
Political writers have discussed the death of socialism at length, but few have noticed how the leftism that has emerged from the wreckage finds it easy to go along with right wing and extreme right wing ideas that the 20th century left at its best opposed.
I will explain what I mean with the help of a few scenarios that I hope a Swedish reader will recognise.
· You study the ideology of radical Islam and realise it is a liberal nightmare. It includes the subjugation of women, the murder of homosexuals and of any Muslim who of his or her own free will decides to change their religious belief, the imposition of a theocratic state, the denial of freedom of speech and conscience and the anti-semitic conspiracy theories of Adolf Hitler. You discover that from the Iranian revolution onwards, whenever radical Islamists have seized power they have murdered liberals and leftists. Having reached these rather obvious conclusions, you read the press from a random sample of European countries, and find that without exception its is liberal rather than conservative newspapers which excuse the radicalism of the reactionary right.
·A bomb explodes in Stockholm killing 100 people. Within minutes, the radio is filled with the voices of leftists who blame the Americans, the Israelis and the Swedish government for mass murder. Not one criticises the terrorists or the ideology that motivated them.
· Sudan revives its genocidal campaign against the peoples of Darfur. You want to protest, but notice there are no large demonstrations to join in Sweden or any other European country. You realise that people who call themselves liberals will not protest about crimes against humanity they cannot blame on the West. Such atrocities no longer stir their hearts.
·You pick up a copy of Ordfront and read that ‘The Israeli Goverment Runs the Swedish Media,’ You are not as surprised as you once would have been when a friend tells you that Ordfront is a left-wing newspaper. In the 20th century, those who said that a conspiracy of Jews controlled the media and governments were Nazis. Now they are leftists You point out the shift to a friend who works on Swedish television’s media monitoring programme. She can’t see the story.
·At a meeting in Stockholm, you hear a Dutch Muslim feminist, who has escaped from forced marriage and sexual abuse, call on Swedish liberals to fight against the oppression of women. A distinguished social democratic thinker stands up and accuses her of being ‘provocative’. When the leader of a small revolutionary party screams from the back of the hall that she is ‘a tool of the neo-cons, racists and Zionists,’ the audience applauds.
· You enrol in a cultural studies course at the nearest university and notice a strange phenomenon. In the past, conservatives defended reactionary religions in the poor world, while leftists believed in progress and enlightenment. In the lecture hall, you hear radical academics condemn challenges to tradition as ‘cultural imperialism’ and denigrate the ‘oppressive’ values of the Enlightenment.
A few of these examples may be exaggerated, but not I think by much. The hierarchy of the 20th century vanished with the collapse of socialism. Now the worst form of society is western democracy, particularly American democracy. In the past conservatives made excuses for fascism because they mistakenly saw it as a continuation of democratic right-wing ideas, while left-wingers condemned it without equivocation. Now in Europe and North America leftists excuse fascistic and reactionary movements and ignore their victims, even when the victims share left wing ideals.
Their native far-right parties are an exception. As long as racists are white, they have no difficulty in opposing them in a manner that would have been recognizable to the traditional left. But give them a foreign far-right movement that is anti-Western and they treat it as at best a distraction and at worst an ally.
If the worst side of the old left was its failure to confront communism, the best was its camaraderie. European socialists supported strangers who shared their values. Today an Iranian feminist, an Iraqi democrat or a Kurdish socialist is highly unlikely to receive solidarity from Europeans who call themselves left wing, particularly if the supposed leftists are middle class intellectuals. At best they will be ignored. At worst they will be denigrated.
If you think the phenomena I am describing are simply the result of the disastrous Bush administration, I would agree with you up to a point. But they were developing long before Bush came to power and show every sign of continuing after he has gone.
In any case, a left that still had life in it and a European liberal tradition that meant what it said would have had no difficulty in dealing with Bush in an honourable manner. It would have opposed the second Iraq war, deplored the errors and brutalities of the occupation while supporting those Iraqis who fought al-Qaeda and insisted that they wanted something after 35 years of the genocidal Baathist regime. Support was forthcoming from parts of the old and declining labour movements, but the dominant voices on the liberal-left in the media, universities and political parties stayed silent as al-Qaeda slaughtered Iraqis without compunction. ‘Internationalism’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘fraternity’ now feel like dead words from a lost age.
Even the one foreign cause that does inspire the European left, the Israeli confrontation with the Palestinians, is far less altruistic than it seems. Very few on the left are prepared to support Fatah, which for all its faults is a recognisable national liberation movement that may build a Palestine worth living in, while deploring Hamas, which wants impose intolerable burdens on Palestinian women, gays, trade unionist, secularists and Christians.
The inability to discriminate between democrat and theocrat is a sign of vacuity. Today’s left cannot tell its friends from its enemies because it has no programme for a better world. Blaming its decadence on Bush is as foolish as holding America responsible for every conflict in the world. Deeper historical trends explain the hypocrisy of our times.
1. The rise of consumer politics.
In the 1960s, those who longed for a radical transformation of the status quo, as many people do at some time in their lives, could draw comfort from revolutionary leftist movements that were sweeping the world from Cambodia to Chile, as well as the strength of the student radicals in their own countries. History was on their side. Millions were moved by their slogans.
Since the fall of socialism, revolutionary leftism has died everywhere except in Latin America, and even there it is sickly and shallow.
The main threat to the status quo comes from radical Islam and the corrupt nationalisms of China and Russia. Far Leftists are open in their support for jihadis. The apologias from some liberals are so comprehensive that they must also support radical Islam in their hearts. At some level these people understand that they have nowhere else to go now that the revolutionary guerrillas and communist regimes of the 20th century are history. A love of violence and hatred of their own societies – well merited or otherwise – leads them to conclude that any killer of Americans is better than none.
Noam Chomsky in his political writings and the cultural theorising of Michel Foucault and the postmodernists anticipated the 21st century left ideology. Read them and you find a leftism without a practical political programme has taken the place on socialism and anti-fascism. All they have is a criticism of the existing order. In this mental universe, no movement that challenges the existing order can be unambiguously condemned.
Say what you like about them, but a communist or social democrat in the 1940s had clear ideas about how to transform society. Today, there is no radical alternative that serious people believe they can use, just practical ways of adapting to changes in the economy and environment.
A paradoxical consequence of the death of the socialist idea is that leftism now suits the consumer society very well. Because there is no coherent left wing political programme, anyone can affect a leftish posture, just as anyone can walk into a shop. For example, if I were a socialist, you might agree with a proposal I was making. But because I believed in socialism I would have to add that I also wanted the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, penal taxation, and workers’ control. If not you, then other readers might back away saying that my ideas would lead to disaster. Modern leftists do not have to risk alienating potential sympathisers with programmes that might make them uncomfortable. They rarely have proposals for a new ordering of society. They are merely against the West in general or America in particular, both of which, God knows, provide reasons aplenty for opposition. If someone points out that as leftists they have a duty to fight crimes committed by ultra-reactionary movements, the new left ideology instructs them to say that it is ‘hypocritical’ for westerners to criticise when they carry so much guilt. The correct course is to do and say nothing.
The collapse of socialism also explains the general inability of leftists in Europe and North America to work on behalf of feminists, democrats and leftists in the poor world. If you do not have a positive programme yourself, how can you see strangers as comrades who have the right to your support?
These perfidies may be scandalous but they chime with the psychology of modern consumerism. Shoppers don’t like altruistic commitments. They have no appetite for boring meetings to raise public consciousness and the lobbying of politicians to change policy.
When I go into the homes of the richest people I know, I see Naomi Klein and Michael Moore on their shelves and think, ‘Why am I surprised? The Left is no threat to the wealthy any longer. Being a leftist is a lifestyle choice. It carries no costs and no obligations.’
2 Liberal disillusion
So far I have been talking about the consequences of defeat. But the second half of the 20th century also saw enormous triumphs. European left-wing movements gave the masses better housing, full-time education, employment rights and comprehensive health cover. If you could travel back in time, and tell the reformers of the Sweden of 1908 what your country would look like today, they would be astonished and delighted.
You would then have to explain to them that the triumph of your shared ideals had the unexpected consequence of turning the liberal intelligentsia against the white working class. The workers let down the intellectuals. They did not lead the charge towards a socialist society as the intelligentsia told them to. They did not use relative affluence the welfare state to acquire a taste for avant-garde art and atonal music. On occasion, they voted in large numbers for politicians the middle class left despised – Reagan, Thatcher, Bush and Sarkozy. And all too clearly in the cities of Europe and North America, the utopian plans of the 20th century social reformers did not always create a better society but dependency, family breakdown and crime.
You can see the disappointment of the middle class in the attempts to prevent democratic votes and deny freedom of speech. The centralisation of decision making in the undemocratic bodies of the European Union, the fondness for asking unelected judges to take political decisions and politically correct speech codes all flow from a belief that the working class cannot not be trusted to think as the middle classes would like it to think.
Beyond a fear that they cannot win majorities in open elections, the liberal middle class across the developed world feels a deeper unease. History no longer seems to be going its way. Market economies undermine the status and comparative wealth of the public sector managers who dominated modern states at the high tide of social democracy in the mid-20th century. Financiers and industrialists have acquired fantastic wealth and political status, while the liberal middle classes lingered in jobs their rulers despised for their failure to be market-orientated.
Modern democracy is a system that no longer pleases them. They are less likely than they once would have been to oppose clerical fascist movements and stand up for the best values of their societies.
3. Multi-culturalism and its Discontents.
Our progressive intellectual of 1908 would be as astonished by the triumph of human rights as the growth of the welfare state. Women, homosexuals and blacks – groups which had been discriminated against for millennia – have won full legal equality. A measure of the transformation is that it is now impossible for a conservative politician who is against equal rights for homosexuals to become the leader a mainstream European centre-right party.
Again, there is an ambiguity, however. Although the extraordinary success of campaigns against sexism, racism and homophobia vastly improved the lives of millions of individuals, post-modern liberals did not see them as individuals but as categories. They developed an identity politics based on group definitions that was anti-individualist in its assumptions. They treated women, members of ethnic minorities, gays and others as of blocs with communal interests. Their simplifications weren’t always pernicious — a campaign to tighten the law on domestic violence, for example, is a campaign for women not this or that woman. But postmodern multiculturalists have taken the liberal idea of tolerance and pushed it into an extreme relativism which holds that it is wrong for liberals to attack previously disadvantaged groups – ‘the other’ – even when ‘the other’ espoused ideas which were anti-liberal.
In short, it has become racist to oppose sexists, homophobes and fascists from other cultures.
Such attitudes are a disaster for progressive forces in the poor world, most notably the Arab world, and in Europe’s immigrant communities. We are now in the extraordinary position where liberals consider it ‘left wing’ to argue that the emancipation of women is good for white-skinned women in Europe but not for brown-skinned women in Tehran. Post-modern multi-culturalists have picked up the reactionary anti-universalist philosophies of the counter-Enlightenment and dressed them in modern clothes.
From the 9/11 atrocities on, the stupidest citizens of the western democracies could be in no doubt that forces were swirling around the globe that would murder them on a vast scale. This is a short and simple point to make, but we are frightened and think it is better to say nothing about the treatment of women, the attacks on freedom of speech, the psychopathic ideologies, medieval hatreds and raging conspiracy theories in case we provoke the killers.
Fear is the most powerful of human motives. Add in the despairing and reactionary turn modern leftish thinking took after the collapse of socialism, the tolerance of the intolerable inculcated by post-modernism and the doubts about democracy in the liberal mainstream, and I hope you can see why so many can’t oppose totalitarian movements of the far Right or even call them by their real names.
However understandable the denial, it remains as pitiful a response to Islamism as climate change denial is to global warming. Both sets of deniers believe that we can carry on as before living our safe, consumerist lives as if nothing has changed.
We cannot in either case, and must face the threats of our time. Reasonable men and women can disagree about how we face them, but we will not be able to see them plainly until we have cleared away the mountains of junk that block our view. The 21st century will not have a left that is worth having until we do.