Across the planet ‘democratic socialism’ has become an empty phrase, Britain notwithstanding. The bastions of the left no longer have an impact in the running of the country; the trade unions have had their wings clipped and the Labour Party seems to be deathly afraid of the ideology they are supposed to represent. There are many who consider themselves to be left of centre, but it doesn’t alter the reality that British (and indeed, world) politics operates within the intellectual paradigm of the economic right.
Socialism has had a long history of ineffectual factionalism, but there is a unique impotency in the actions of those who currently oppose neoliberal economics. The current government has been challenged (occasionally successfully) by a number of groups, but financial interests continue their march forward. Millions may march against reforms in the NHS and the welfare state, but the move towards increased privatisation has a sense of the definite about it. The world in which a Labour government was able to create the NHS and a welfare state is long gone, yet many still seem to operate under the misapprehension that the rules of the game remain the same.
For much of the history of industrialised capitalism there was a balance between production and capital; workers needed to be paid and capitalists needed labour. They lived in the same area, they used the same roads; there was an interdependent connection. Workers could fight for a bigger slice of the cake, the process may not have been easy, but the interdependence gave labour interests a place in the corridors of power. Big business was just one of the dominant forces in society, whilst they possessed immense influence, they were not omnipotent. Democratic socialism was able to engineer a massive shift in the quality of life for the vast majority of Britons and from the devastating destruction of World War Two we were able to forge something very special.
A lot has changed since then. Big business has not only asserted itself, it has become the world’s primary power. The interdependence that bound the working population and the owners of capital has been totally broken down. The movement of people around the globe has certainly increased, but the vast majority of people live and work in the same area they were born. Capital has shed that particular weakness, billions of pounds enter and leave economies in a second; money can go anywhere it wishes and leave just as easily. If the employees of a business want to be paid slightly higher, the business can be transplanted across the planet to a place where they can pay the employees half.
Governments fear raising (or even enforcing) corporation tax, to challenge the power of big business is to drive the money away. After the financial implosion of 2008, many in British society demanded that the banks (that had been saved with taxpayer’s money) step into line and play their part. There have been hard words from politicians, but they are terrified of angering the almighty financial interests.
The super-rich controllers of capital are themselves no longer part of any country; it doesn’t matter if they were born in Australia, France or Japan, they move around the globe with almost unrestricted freedom, their connection to their fellow citizens lost. In both of the World Wars wealthy young men died alongside their poorer counterparts, I find it hard to imagine that the children of the current elites would flock to the recruitment offices if a similar situation arose. In every respect capital has asserted its dominance, in the past four years the superrich in the west have been shaken by events, but have continued their concentration of wealth at an even greater speed.
Despite the fact we are apparently living in an ‘age of austerity’, the wealth of the Sunday Times Rich List actually grew between 2011 and 2012. With financial powers greedily solidifying their place at the top, there is a massive need for a societal countermeasure. Traditionally socialism played this role, but the adherents of greater economic equality are ineffectual and muted. This should not be surprising; they are hopelessly outclassed by the power of global business. Capital can flow anywhere at any time, labour remains stationary; providing an effective counterweight would require the advantage of capital to be neutralised.
People can’t flow as easily as money, but there can be links between socialists around the globe. A British labour union may be ineffectual by itself, but cooperative action with the international left may help challenge the overwhelming advantage big business currently possesses. The critical problem is that these trans-global connections are still difficult to maintain, even with the internet; trying to coordinate the vastly different cultural and ideological components of the democratic left is almost impossible. Whilst the representatives of worker’s interests are fragmented and isolated, big business is synonymous with global communication and organisation.
Until the left can internationally reach the understanding that coordination is a necessity, there is a no real reason to believe that the force of neoliberalism will face any major opposition. Internationalism has historically been a strong element in classical socialist theory; this ideological feature is now incredibly pertinent, if it can be harnessed financial and labour interests may reach a far healthier balance. Big business is now synonymous with globalisation; it’s time that the Left caught up.
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