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The Dusk of Social Democracy

What a blessing it has been. Here we are at the beginning of the silly season. A time when news traditionally evaporates in the heat of a British summer. A time when journos are reduced to inventing trivia to fill in the spaces between newspaper advertisements. Perhaps it was through Saint Francis de Sales, journalists’ very own patron saint, that divine blessings – yes plural – were so delivered to us.

If so, thank God for Brexit (the UK exiting the European Union) and the lesser star dust of UK Prime Minster resignation, replacement, and government reshuffle. The media managers really did get a break and good cause for celebration. No need to send their minions into the wilderness in search of tales of endless woe about the opposition Labour party. In particular its leader, by popular acclaim and parliamentary disclaim, Jeremy Corbyn.

The majority of Labour Members of Parliament (MP) don’t much care for Comrade Corbyn. Although the majority of party members outside the hallowed halls of Westminster appear to be quite pleased, supporting his consistent leftist positions on the economy, social affairs and international conflicts. Old hat socialism, say the MPs who thought former prime ministers Blair and Brown had well and truly buried the hatchet in that particular scalp.

The media men and women are nothing if not focused. Corbyn can never be elected and Labour will be in opposition for a decade or more, they say. And I suspect, they hope. Even worse may be in store. The party could split. Rich backers will payroll the modernizers, ranked on the reduced benches of the once great social democratic tradition. A leftist rump of Stalinists, Trotskyites, anarchists and fellow travelers carrying placards of protest will be left out in the cold.

Who is to say what the future holds? The past is a safer bet. Is it not true that even in the recent past, under capitalism but with social democracy in attendance, the days were brighter and the nights less lonesome? Where now there is despair there were once qualifiable signs of hope and a better future. Job security and other gains in industrialized societies, decolonialisation in much of what was once called the Third World, which asserted itself through the Non Aligned Movement and in other ways.

But that hasn’t lasted. The British Labour party and others of the social democratic tradition may lick their wounds but the condition is terminal. It’s had a good run; from the end of WW2 until the mid 1970s. Then the rot set in. There are some who said it would always be thus, others who denied it and none it seems, who were able to stop it.

An indicator that the end was nigh was writ large in the early 1970s. The US, in an effort to preserve home grown capitalism decided to abandon the gold standard. The US dollar was no longer valued to a certain fraction of an ounce of gold. It took some time to play out but the finance dudes won the day. The oligopolies of the extraction and manufacturing industries along with transport, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness, to say nothing of the media, fell in behind. Political parties of the left, right and centre changed step.

Social democracy holds the position that capitalism is part of the reality of life and the best course of action is to ensure that those without meaningful capital get the best deal possible within the confines of this particular reality. The reality can be challenged, stretched, made to include those who have traditionally been excluded. Improvements in the general condition of women are a good example of this last point.

Just accept the reality then live with it and work to improve it, says social democracy. To be fair, not all of the British Labour party believed acceptance was the only option. Being seen as a mass party many believed Labour was in a position to make radical changes beyond the pale of the predominant reality. Others believed it was capable of fundamental leftward change.

Another post WW2 paradigm was to be shattered. During the 1990s the reality which was the Soviet inspired model of socialism imploded. The oligopolies were emboldened as finance capital was now calling the shots. They saw new markets. New markets for recruiting cheap labour, acquiring raw materials to be processed under conditions more to their liking, and selling goods and services, often to a new class of well heeled buyers.

Given this, social democracy had its license to operate under the system of representative democracy revoked. It had become surplus to requirement. In Britain a long list Labour leaders, assisted by the media, took their party to the recycling plant. New Labour was the new ‘business friendly’ byproduct, fit for a brave new world. Some among the membership resigned, some protested. Others gladly accepted the new mantle, others played follow the leader. And, I don’t doubt, some are still playing follow the leader.

Along this arc of history, starting in the early 1970s there have been less spectacular stellar catastrophes. The decline of the shop stewards movement in the manufacturing industry is one. The movement of radical Christians who found a home and cause in Liberation Theology, is another. Perhaps not so well known or understood in the countries of north Atlantic hegemony, it is badly missed in Latin America. Alongside this is the Non Aligned Movement of poorer nations.

Yet another stellar catastrophe of the spectacular variety has risen above the horizon. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) represent the enfants terribles of monopoly capitalism’s free trade deals. President Obama and State Department officials now appear on TV speaking of “trans Atlantic” in a context which would have previously been expressed by the word NATO. Be alarmed.

These proposed shake downs are reminiscent of that scene in Godfather 2 where the assembled bosses of the Mob meet in pre revolutionary Havana to work out business deals. The Batista dictatorship offered the perfect setting for their carve up of the narcotics, illegal gambling practices, prostitution and protectionism trades.

One of the bosses remarks that in Cuba, 90 miles from the US, they are in partnership with a friendly government, free to make profits without, “the goddamn Justice Department and the FBI.” To which Michael, the up and coming Godfather replies, “We’re bigger than US Steel.” No Lincolnian impediments such as, government of the people, by the people, for the people.

What an inspiring vision it offered the Mobsters. And how it has come to pass in today’s reality. Be done with government interference and interventionist thinking inspired by social democracy. Privatise public services, deregulated the private sector; that’s the new role of government.

Brexit, has had a good airing though the media this summer. By the time the next silly season comes around a new headline may well be flavor of the month – Breakup. The constituent parts of the UK are contending with internal contradictions. Scotland is gaining momentum in the call for independence from the UK while pleading to remain in the EU. Some in Wales have similar independence aspirations; contagion could b in the air. Northern Ireland continues to be defined by its own in-built archicture; the international border with the Republic of Ireland.

If the UK atom is split, can the centre hold, can social democracy survive in this new, more predatory world? Probably not, in my view. The powers that be in the darkening world of neoliberalised/neoconservatised capitalism have no reason to give it space. So what is the future for those on the left, with their historic view of stages of socialism and communism?

UK newspapers are full to the brim of articles about Labour intrigue, infighting and contradictions. This is not solely a question of competing personalities and inflated egos. It’s a product of where the party is at in this historical time span and in the political space which now exists. To survive (if only in name), Labour must change and not back to social democracy. The oft vented and so far ill defined option of democratic socialism, in the face of home grown aggression and imperialist might, is largely untried.

The answer for the left, if indeed there is an answer, is probably that only time will tell. The political environment likely to exist after Breakup is hardly going to be confined to the UK. The European Union will feel the rattle of the same contradictions that shook up the off shore islands. If the peoples of the UK and indeed the world, continue to show irreverence for the establish order and those who would impose it on the people then there is hope that something new will emerge.

When Albert Einstein was exercising his mind with splitting atoms, relativity, infinity and space time he said we should be thinking in terms of new dimensions. Whatever the new dimensions of the post Brexit and post Breakup reality are, we, the people, should be defining them and reaching out to grab them.

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Sam Gordon worked in a Belfast factory, then an engineer in the merchant navy, a trainer, researcher and co-coordinator of community projects in Scotland. A graduate from various universities, on a good day he claims he’s a decorative artist and sometimes writer. Most days he’s a blacksmith, welder, and painter in Nicaragua.

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