Freedom under capitalism, or against it ?
It has been a rare treat to be engaged in a genuinely constructive and interesting discussion in the blogosphere. Doesn’t happen as often as it should… I refer to the debate between myself, Bob from Brockley, Peter Ryley, New Centrist, Peter Ridson, Never Trust a Hippy and one or two others about the meaning of progressive politics today. It began with my article arguing that the global ideological divide between left and right had been superceded by the divide between pro-Western and anti-Western. I can’t do justice to all the nuances of the discussion here – anyone interested can follow the links – but the biggest criticism made of my political standpoint has been that it allegedly involves making peace with the existing order here in the UK (or the West) in order to focus solely on progressive change abroad. Linked to this is Ryley’s important and valid point, that
even if a left party gets into power, it can be constrained by the power of other institutions, such as big business, and by international politics and economics. When democratisation has produced left victories in the developing world recently, they have been undone by debt, trade and ‘structural adjustment’.
The essence of our disagreement may be over the extent to which progressive change is possible or desirable within the existing liberal-capitalist order, or whether we should ultimately be fighting for the overthrow of this order and its replacement by one based on a different form of property relations – i.e. socialism.
I’ll confess to being thoroughly disillusioned with what I consider to be the politics of unrealisable left-wing ideals, which is why I have less time than some of the comrades in this discussion for distinguishing between different varieties of radical left-wing politics. It may be true, philosophically speaking, that anarchists who support autonomous communes are fundamentally different from statist socialists who support a centrally planned economy, but given the unlikelihood that the ideals of either will ever be realised, I do not consider it particularly worthwhile to discuss such differences. What matters is where one stands on concrete issues relating to struggles that are actually taking place.
There are plenty of things wrong with the existing order here in the UK, and plenty of worthwhile fights left to fight. We need, for example, to free people from the oppression and misery of living on sink estates; break the hold of crime and violence over our young people; restore their belief in the value of education and self-improvement; provide child-care for single mothers to enable them to work; provide homes for all our citizens and residents; integrate all our ethnic and religious minorities into our citizenry; and so on. My personal belief is that the UK’s social problems are caused more by lack of education and opportunity for those lower down the social ladder, and by deficiencies in popular culture among the population at large, than they are by poverty or inequalities in wealth. I view, for example, the fact that our Labour government is committed to the target of half of all school-leavers going to university as more inspiring than any number of radicals writing about public ownership of the means of production. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush…
The point has been made that the welfare state in Britain was not simply the product of Labour’s 1945 election victory. Ryley argues:
Universal suffrage was preceded by instruments of working-class self-help – trade unions, co-operatives, self-improvement societies, friendly societies and the like – which were eventually replaced by the welfare state.
I never suggested otherwise. But a pluralistic political order was necessary for such instruments of working-class self-help to blossom, and democracy was necessary for a political party arising from the labour movement to take power and replace these instruments by the welfare state.
And this is the key point: real, meaningful change is possible under the existing liberal-democratic order, whereas there is no reason to believe that this order can be overthrown and replaced by something radically different and better. If I have ‘made my peace’ with the existing order, it is not because I think the existing order is perfect, but because it is an existing order that can be improved, whereas the radical-left alternatives do not offer any realistic prospect for successful progressive change.
There is, furthermore, so much in the existing liberal-democratic order that is good – something that radical leftists seem strangely unwilling to recognise. People of all genders and sexual orientations are mostly free to dress as they like, travel freely, sleep with whom they like and choose their profession without being arrested or persecuted. Our young girls don’t have their genitals mutilated; our gay people are not executed. Our workers have health-care, trade unions, TVs, cars and foreign holidays; their children can go to university if they want. Our cities are devoid of crowds of hungry, ragged children scavenging for food in rubbish bins. We are free to speak, write or demonstrate against our government. Our ethnic minorities are protected by laws against racial discrimination. I find it very difficult to understand why my desire to spread these benefits to the population of the world as a whole makes me a traitor to left-wing values, while those who prioritise giving the already relatively well off population of the West even more benefits than they already enjoy should be considered the ‘true’ radicals.
Which brings us back to the question with which we began: of whether the inequalities in wealth and power under the global capitalist order make it impossible for large parts of the Third World to enjoy the standard of living, the rights and the benefits that we enjoy in the West; whether Third World countries will always be kept down by the richer countries that profit from their exploitation (there is also the question of just how many people globally could enjoy Western levels of access to heating, electricity and consumer goods before the environment collapses altogether, but that is a problem we would have to address even in a hypothetical post-capitalist world, and is the subject of a whole other discussion).
There are in fact several cases of countries, thoroughly exploited economically by the developed West, carrying out successful national-liberation struggles to achieve their independence vis-a-vis the latter.
Turkey – the Ottoman Empire – was a virtual economic colony of the Western imperialist powers before World War I; foreign control was established over the Ottoman Public Debt, while under the system of the ‘capitulations’, foreign merchants in the Ottoman Empire and their native collaborators were exempt from taxation and from the jurisdiction of the Ottoman courts. True to Lenin’s model of how imperialism works, the economic colonisation of the Ottoman Empire by European capitalism culminated during and after World War I in foreign invasion and the attempt by the victorious British, French and Italians to dismember the Anatolian Turkish heartland and divide it into zones of influence. If there was ever – in the history of the world – a genuinely anti-imperialist movement of national liberation, then it was the movement led by Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalists, which not only saved the Turkish heartland from territorial dismemberment but freed it from foreign economic domination. And this was carried out under a Westernising regime that set Turkey on the path to post-war alliance with the US and NATO membership; today, the Turkey created by this revolution is attempting to complete the process by joining the EU. Liberation from Western domination meant joining the West.
We can tell a similar story about Ireland, whose liberation after formal independence in 1922 from British domination was slow and painful, but which is today a prosperous EU member. We can compare the Turkish and Irish experiences favourably with those countries that liberated themselves from Western domination under the banner of a radically anti-Western or anti-capitalist ideology – China, Cuba, Iran. Their experiences show that the anti-Western, anti-capitalist cure may be worse than the Western neo-colonial disease. For all the qualifications that must be made (Turkey’s oppression of the Kurds; Ireland’s domination by conservative Catholicism; the restriction of personal freedoms in both countries; etc.), the Turkish and Irish experiences show that not only is it entirely possible for colonised countries to achieve genuine national and economic liberation within the global capitalist order, but that this is best achieved under the banner of a Western-style or Westernising nationalist ideology, rather than an anti-capitalist or anti-Western ideology.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I at least have some idea of what kind of politics has borne fruit in the past, both here in the UK and globally, and what has proven a dead-end.
PS Peter Ryley and others have suggested I have been unfair to the blog ‘Drink-Soaked Trots’, and have failed to appreciate the diversity of views represented by its contributors. While I indeed appreciate and respect several of these contributors, the overall tone of the blog is defined by the hatred, poison and negativity spewed copiously by the lumpen, semi-literate ‘Will’ and by one or two others. Their anger is entirely familiar to those of us who have dealt with people from the Spartacist League, or from one or two of the splinters of the old Workers Revolutionary Party; it is the anger of those who react to their ever-growing political isolation, marginalisation and irrelevance by becoming ever more rigid and ever more sectarian, which in turn leads to further isolation, marginalisation and irrelevance, and to further anger. And so on.
Consequently, the voices of the ‘distinguished authors and journalists from both sides of the Atlantic’ at DSTPFW that Peter mentions are simply drowned out by the voices of sectarian hatred, frustration and bitterness. Not to mention the unending stream of vulgarity and abuse which any civilised person must find disgusting. You may be a distinguished author, but if you live in a cage with animals, people may reasonably mistake you for a monkey.
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