The defeat of the French left in the presidential and legislative elections was fair punishment for its lack of vision. Social democracy is still based on the exploitation of the third world, with which Europe must now create a new relationship.
This year’s catastrophic election results in France destroyed any illusions created by the victory of the no campaign during 2005’s referendum on the proposed European Union constitution. The origins of the current crisis of the French left can be traced back to its failure to live up to the commitments it made during the 1981 election. Within two years of victory, the new socialist government abandoned its programme and, with no social or economic policies to pursue, resorted to an unenthusiastic neo-liberalism. Its discourse became purely moralistic, proposing antiracist, feminist and antifascist values in an attempt to distinguish itself from the right.
At a practical level, the left’s main initiative was European construction, with the principal effect of ruling out any alternative to neo-liberalism. By encouraging this process in the name of values – especially anti-nationalism – the Socialists and Greens created an institutional mechanism designed to protect them from their own audacity, and that of their rank and file. In a bid to insulate the political process from the influence of the people, they handed over responsibility for as many decisions as possible to an unelected bureaucracy open to the influence of private lobby groups. Elections would continue, but they would be of little importance. And no serious political alternative would be proposed: no New Deal, no structural reform, no common leftwing programme, no Italian road to socialism.
Unsurprisingly, the beneficiary was the hard right, whose very different values – discipline, law and order, the nation – appeal far more powerfully to minorities. Programmes based on values are designed to allow those who support them to sleep with a clear conscience and forget questions about the real balance of power in the world. (Most people find it easier to describe themselves as good citizens than as good antiracists.) The right’s economic policies are perfectly consistent with the European structures established by the left and the Greens. On the issues of Europe and values, the right has been victorious on battlefields mostly chosen by the left yet on which the left was bound to lose.
To succeed, political movements must believe what they say. The victors on the right have not been the Keynesian, conservative wets (as Margaret Thatcher called them), but the hardliners. Until the left can come up with something better than moderately rightwing policies, it has no chance of winning. To change that, it must go back to the roots of the conflict between left and right. It must see beyond values, like feminism or antiracism, which the modern right is quite happy to adopt. It must address the fundamental question: who controls the economy?
A belief in socialism
When 18th century liberal thinkers envisaged a society of small independent producers, the idea of a free market and hostility to the power of the feudal state and the church made sense. But the emergence of big business led to the increased socialisation of production and raised questions about the private ownership of the means of that production. The fundamental principle of socialism is that once the process of production has been effectively socialised, its control must also be socialised, if we are to realise the hopes for freedom expressed by classic liberalism.
Once the means of production, and the means of information that emerged during the 20th century, are in private hands, specific individuals possess vast, almost feudal power over the rest of the population. Today the real successors of classic liberals are the proponents of socialism; while those who currently describe themselves as liberals are the supporters of a particular form of tyranny, that of the employers – and, often, of a violent form of state control through US military domination of the rest of the planet.
Socialism, as I describe it here, is a natural response to the problems associated with the development of capitalism. The fact that it is rarely discussed any more is evidence of the effectiveness of the targeted systems of indoctrination known in our societies as education and information. The question of socialism has nothing to do with the crisis of capitalism, the destruction (real or imagined) of nature, or the alleged bourgeoisification of the working class. Because control over one’s own existence is a fundamental human aspiration, the question will not go away as living standards rise, and it does not require a catastrophe to bring it to the forefront. The more our survival-related biological needs are met, the more our strictly human needs for autonomy and freedom demand to be satisfied.
It is a mistake to believe that nobody cares about socialism any more. One leftist position that retains its popularity is the defence of public services and workers’ rights, now the main areas of struggle against the power of capital. The whole point of European construction is to preserve the appearance of democracy while dismantling the social Eden – social security, mass education and public health care – which is an embryonic form of socialism that remains popular.
Sadly, the near disappearance of a socialist perspective from political discourse affects many aspects of everyday struggle: there is a huge difference between protesting against abuses committed by a power whose legitimacy one acknowledges, and fighting for short term objectives against employers’ power that one regards as fundamentally illegitimate. This is exactly the difference in the past between reforming and abolishing slavery, between enlightened monarchy and republicanism, or between colonies run by native collaborators and national independence.
A major transformation
Liberal thinkers deride Marx because the anticipated transition to socialism in developed capitalist countries failed to happen. One response should be that the system under which we live is not just capitalist, but imperialist as well. Europe owes its development to the existence of a vast hinterland. Imagine that Europe was the only landmass on the planet and that all the other continents had never risen from the oceans. There would have been no slave trade, no South American gold, no emigration to North America. What sort of societies would we have built without a constant supply of raw materials, cheap immigrant labour, imports from low-income economies, and a supply of educated people from the developing world to rescue our collapsing education systems? We would have had to save drastically on energy, the balance of power between workers and employers would be radically different, and the leisure society would not exist.
Socialism failed in the 20th century largely because the countries where capitalism generated a degree of cultural and economic development, where the elements of democracy existed and where, consequently, it was possible and necessary to go beyond capitalism, were also the dominant countries in the imperial system. Imperialism has two consequences. Economically it allows dominant nations to delocalise problems to the periphery. Strategically it has a divide and rule effect: western workers have always enjoyed better living conditions than their equivalents in the developing world and acquire a feeling of superiority that helps stabilise the system.
This is why decolonisation was the most significant transformation of the 20th century. It freed hundreds of millions of people in Asia and Africa from a racist form of domination. Its effects will continue into this century and bring a definitive end to the historical period that began with the discovery of America. Europeans will have to adjust to losing the benefits associated with our privileged position in the imperial system. At present the Chinese have to sell us millions of shirts to buy an Airbus; but once they can build their own Airbuses, who will make our shirts?
There is a potential for conflict between the main beneficiaries of globalisation – those whose control of capital enables them to exploit the workforce in Asia – and the huge majority of the population in the West who have no such luck. Because it lives in the developed world, that population finds itself forced to sell its labour power at a price that is no longer competitive in the global marketplace. This implies more exclusion and a crisis for the welfare state; but it could also mean a resumption, in a new form, of the class struggle.
Adapting to decline
The developing world is becoming more autonomous in other respects. The US is bogged down in Iraq, unable to extract itself from an unwinnable war unless it renounces its imperial ambitions. Iran‘s nuclear programme confronts the West with the choice of backing down or embarking on a catastrophic war. At a more symbolic but significant level, Israel suffered a second military defeat at the hands of Hizbullah in 2006. The political and military victories of Hamas are a sign of the failure of the policy of collaboration with Israel adopted by some members of the Palestinian elite after the Oslo accords. All these unexpected events have provoked a serious crisis of confidence among world leaders.
The main problem facing Europe is to adapt to our decline: not an imaginary decline in relation to the US, but a real decline compared with the developing world. The ruling class of the US is trying to maintain its hegemony by force; its failure can only intensify the Empire’s crisis, while the European right still fantasises that we can solve our problems by imitating the US. The radical left generally ignores the question of decline; behind its rhetoric, it continues to defend social-democratic, Keynesian policies that globalisation has severely undermined.
The absolute priority is to prevent western populations from falling for US-Israeli fantasies of the war on terror and Islamo-fascism (to which a dangerously large part of the French left have already succumbed). This is symptomatic of the western left’s long tradition of incomprehension of peripheral conflicts.
Historically, change has often come from the periphery. The October 1917 revolution and the Soviet Union’s role in the victory over the Axis powers had an enormous impact upon decolonisation and upon the possibility of creating a social-democratic Eden in Europe. The victory of the colonised nations led to a number of progressive changes in Europe during the 1960s. If we make the effort to understand and take account of it, the current revolts in Latin America and the Middle East may force radical changes upon the dominant powers. Which may mean a less depressing future for the rest of us. ________________________________________________________
Jean Bricmont is professor of theoretical physics at the University of Louvain (Belgium), author of Humanitarian Imperialism (New York University Press, 2007) and co-editor, with Julie Franck, of Chomsky (Herne, Paris, 2007)
Translated by Donald Hounam
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