The current crisis of capitalism has sent shock waves through the world markets that have reverberated through national governments into the lives and homes of millions of working people across Europe. From one perspective, what we are seeing is a crisis of neoliberalism, that is, the strategy of capital since the 1980s to undo the gains of the postwar social-democratic settlement and enrich the minority capitalist elites at the expense of the rest of us. This model seemed to be working very well; it even provided economic growth in many countries for a short time, though, as was later revealed, the growth was predicated on an unsustainable model of debt and financialization which destabilized the world economy.
Now the message of the minority for the majority is clear: austerity. A lost decade, perhaps more, in Europe as we have to get used to tighter belts and a less luxurious lifestyle – not that some of us ever enjoyed that much luxury anyway. As Marx wrote 160 years ago, the capitalists will privatize the profits and socialize the losses.
Afraid of their own shadows
Nowhere can we better see the barbaric consequences of the present capitalist system and the logical conclusion of the neoliberal paradigm at work than in today’s huge global inequality: a recent Oxfam report showed that 85 people now own more wealth than the poorest 3.4 billion people on the planet.
Now that the gloss has come off capitalism, its democratic credentials look tarnished. We see diktats imposed on countries, autocrats in place of democrats, and increasing surveillance on people by our governments – otherwise known as spying. No longer can we expect those of each generation to live better lives than those of the previous one. No longer can we say that the market, left to its own devices, can make the world a better place.
In the face of the inevitable attacks on the working class and the poor, there have been protests and resistance, but much of it has been muted and has failed to really threaten the austerity agenda. Why is this? Part of the problem is that the leaders of these movements (social democrats, trade union leaders and so on) know what is at stake. In such a deep crisis of capitalism, it is necessary to raise a protest only about the austerity, not to create a movement that could challenge the system. These people are afraid of their own shadows; they are too afraid to unleash the forces at their command lest they accomplish the one thing they don’t want to do – win. After all, that would pose the question: What kind of alternative is there to austerity? More fundamentally, what kind of alternative is needed to a system that creates the need for austerity?
The debate here is based on the view that the Left is impotent and weak in the face of the crisis. There is some truth to that. The Left has been caught in disarray, unable to rise to the historic struggle in which it finds itself. But this is not true everywhere. In Greece, the growth of left coalitions like Syriza shows that people are hungry for an alternative when the crisis reaches down into the very depths of the national soul and threatens a collapse of the entire country.
The new left parties that have emerged across Europe in the last decade are caught between trying to reclaim the space vacated by social democracy as it transformed itself into social liberalism and reforging a new radical left agenda. There is serious debate within these parties about policy and direction, but what they think is their strength – an appeal to a nostalgic, left, social-democratic model of the past – is actually their weakness. The Right are the ones setting the agenda, the ones who have claimed the word “reforms” and turned them into something that is used to undermine our working conditions and wages and to dismantle the social wage.
Communism is possible
The rational basis for the radical Left is still clear today and is in some ways even clearer. But the disjuncture between its arguments and its level of support is even wider. Breaking out of the far left ghetto means finding new ways to connect with people for whom the 1917 revolution is a bygone era. It means breaking from limiting oneself to only defensive struggles in order to advocate an alternative vision of society
If the Left is to make gains elsewhere, it cannot pull its punches. It needs a more through anti-capitalist critique of the crisis simply because it is only possible to marshal the full moral and martial arguments against capitalism from a proposed alternative. Otherwise, all we do is tinker with the system at the edges. A bold and clear call for more democratic control of the economy, for a system in which the 1% no longer control the commanding heights of industry and finance but in which the people, the workers, the service users make the decisions. In the face of a market system spun out of control, we need to repopularize the idea of democratic planning as the only credible solution to inequality and environmental destruction at the hands of profit-mongers. In the words of the late Rudolf Bahro, worth thinking about today if politics is the art of the possible, the Left has to be resolute in its belief that “Communism is not only necessary, it is possible”.