Sunday, July 08, 2012

On Democratic Socialism

Revolutionary socialists have a narrative. In that story, the capitalist system and the power structures that sustain are overthrown by an uprising of the workers, more or less organized, and more or less led, by a party of revolutionaries with a sense of opportunity and a winning program. The power of the state is more or less seized and used to destroy the power of the capitalist system and its ruling class.

Democratic socialists have a narrative too. In their story, a party of reforming socialists wins an election, takes over the reins of the state, and uses its power to re-organize the economy and redistribute wealth and power. This doesn't happen all at once, but the first steps towards it prove sufficiently successful and popular for the reforming socialists to be re-elected and take the plan further forward. Society thereby becomes more fair, equal and humane, without all that nastiness of fighting in the streets and firing squads.

In their occasional engagement with revolutionaries, democratic socialists are keen to point out how rare successful revolutions have been in advanced capitalist countries. Uprisings are neither necessary nor possible, and the revolutionaries are indulging themselves with a retro-bolshevik fantasy rather than taking part in the serious work of proper politics. A fair point.

But how realistic is the democratic socialists' own narrative? For it to make sense we have to believe:
  • That a party of the left will actually adopt and seriously advocate a program of major reforms – in the face of the criticism and ridicule that it will face from its external opponents and the mass media, and despite the internal resistance to adopting policies which are 'unrealistic' (that is, counter to the interests of the rich) or 'unpopular' (that is, criticised by the mass media).
  • That the party will be able to win an election on the basis of this program – even as the external criticism builds, and the army of 'independent experts' from mainstream economics, think tanks, and 'business leaders' constantly explain why it runs counter to the natural laws of the market.
  • That after it has won the election, it remains committed to the program, despite all the further obstacles and discoveries about how difficult it is to implement in the face of obstruction from within the machinery of the state (including both the bureaucracy and the organs of state only nominally under democratic control), and continuing domestic and international pressure.
  • That the powers of the government are sufficient to carry through much of the progam, despite the limits set by 'the rule of law', international treaty obligations and the power of the financial markets.
  • That despite all the inevitable setbacks the party remains popular enough to win further elections so that its steps towards a fairer society can be sustained rather than reversed – and of course, that the government is not overthrown by force or other means, or that its ministers do not meet with unfortunate accidents or assassination at the hands of 'lone gunmen'.
We don't need a whole hand to count the examples where this has happened. Most of these relate to historical episodes where the legitimacy of the 'natural laws of the market', and/or the authority of the traditional ruling class, has collapsed as a result of manifest economic catastrophe, defeat in war, or collaboration with an external enemy. In other words, the democratic socialist narrative is as much a fantasy as the Trotskyist wet dream of a re-run of October 1917. It isn't going to happen.

The Swedish example is probably the closest that reality can offer to match the democratic socialist narrative. What is striking about it is (a) that it has been replicated so rarely – few other European countries have seen long unbroken periods of rule by democratic socialist parties and (b) how similar the result is to what has been achieved in other northern European countries without the repeated electoral success of democratic socialists.

Take Germany, for example. Here too, as in Sweden, there is a different model of capitalism, with a greater role for direct state intervention in the productive economy, more tightly regulated labour markets and housing markets, alternative frameworks for finance and investment, and a modicum of redistribution to protect the weakest and innoculate against the spread of 'social problems' resulting from the market allocation of wealth. And there's legislated worker participation in management, equality legislation, tight environmental regulation. And all this sits alongside a fundamental unequal distribution of wealth and power, private ownership of the media, capital markets which are open to international participation. For democratic socialists in Anglo-Saxon countries, Angela Merkel's Germany is the pinnacle of what they might aspire to.

All this rather begs the question: if the German model of capitalism is what we are aiming for, what is the point of democratic socialism? If there is a 'realistic' aspiration for something more, apart from sustainable careers for democratic socialist politicians in administering this utopia, then I think we should be told. And if not, and this kind of 'feasible socialism' of redistribution and intervention through market mechanism is the best we can hope for, then maybe it's not the party of the left that ought to be the object of our attentions, but the party of the democratic right – perhaps the problem isn't that we have the wrong socialists with the wrong program, but that we have wrong conservatives.