Is Social Democracy Dying? – Part 2

I would venture there are three reasons why social democracy is pretty much kaput: 1) a flawed ideology 2) the power of capital and 3) a propensity for selling out and drifting to the right.

1) Flawed ideology

Ever since people have exploited other people’s labour for their personal gain, it’s long been the dream of the slave, serf, peasant or worker (those who create wealth, in other words) to change this relationship. Instead of simply handing over the wealth they generate to the slave owner, feudal lord, land owner, landlord, merchant, monarch, corporate CEO, boss and the affluent (those who exploit labour), working people have struggled to keep this wealth for themselves and use it for their own personal and communal benefit.

To this end, working people have fought to garner greater control over the economic levers of power, trying to wrest it away from the wealthy and business classes and right-wing political parties. In short, the idea of socialism is that wealth remain in the hands of working people, that it be equitably distributed, and they control what happens to it, and economies be subject to more planning in order to end the destructive boom/bust cycle of market economies. Moreover, it was essential that the fortunes amassed by the economic elites be expropriated and returned to workers.

A simple notion, right? And when Marx and Engels came along in the 1800s, they posited that capitalism and industrialization would give rise to a disciplined working class that would finally take power for themselves (and 150 years later, that goal looks no closer to being achieved).

That was the dream. But when the social democratic movement split about 100 years ago, and the revolutionary/communists and social democrats went their separate ways, the biggest cause of this division was how to achieve socialism and what exactly it would resemble? The revolutionaries saw power being attained through armed struggle/insurrection, while social democrats saw it happening through elections. The revolutionaries sought to remove the capitalist elites, expropriate their wealth and take away their power. The social democrats? Well, here is where things get a little unclear.

Generally-speaking, social democrats do not want to remove capitalists from the commanding heights of the economy, nor expropriate their wealth. Instead, they want to work with capital in partnerships, curb its power through regulation, and divert more of the profits to working people. When Tommy Douglas gave his folksy parables, he didn’t suggest removing capitalists or ending capitalism but merely diverting more of the wealth away from the bosses into the pockets of workers.

And expropriation of wealth and assets? Some social democratic parties advocated the nationalization of some industry, but generally they weren’t so keen on this idea either. When the Waffle faction emerged within the NDP in the late ‘60s, calling for nationalization of whole sectors of the Canadian economy, the party brass was uncomfortable with this notion. It sounded too radical for their tastes and so the Waffle was drop-kicked out of the NDP. In 1990, when the NDP won in Ontario, the first thing Bob Rae did was dump the party plan to nationalize public auto insurance after the insurance industry kicked up a fuss. Today, there is nothing in the federal NDP’s platform calling for nationalizing industries or expropriating the power and wealth of capital. The NDP says that economic prosperity can be reached “through proper regulation, strategic investments in both physical and social infrastructure and a long-term sustainable economic growth strategy.”

So, the message from Western social democratic parties is that workers cannot expect the exploitation of their labour and creativity to end, or the wealth they create remain in their hands. Or they won’t continue to live in a state of perpetual economic insecurity. Or they will have any true control over their economic destiny. Nothing as inspired as that.

Today, the message of social democrats is that maybe, perhaps, you might get a bigger paycheck and a few social programs and laws that tilt in your favour. But, ultimately, economic power will remain steadfastly under the control of the corporate elite.

This, however, is a problem. After all, today’s capitalists have demonstrated they can’t be trusted with the stewardship of the global economy. In fact, they are criminally reckless in this regard.

The wreckage created by the casino of speculation in the global financial industry has cost, around the world, tens if not hundreds of millions of people their jobs, life savings, homes and futures. In Canada, the business community is busy selling off our resources and most prized corporate assets, while the financial industry plunders whatever it can. They have driven down wages, privatized services, moved good jobs overseas, demanded tax breaks and laxer regulation. Therefore, trying to create partnerships with these people is like going into business with the mafia. It’s a ludicrous idea.

Which brings us to our second reason why social democracy is increasingly irrelevant:

2) The Power of Capital

When I read the NDP’s economic policies I think they really have no connection to the real world.

Today’s world is dominated by transnationals so enormous that they dwarf nation states. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest public corporation, has global revenues of (US) $408-billion and more than 1.6 million employees in 15 countries. ExxonMobil has global revenues of (US) $310-billion, controls 72 billion barrels of oil in reserves and operates 37 refineries in 21 countries. GE has global revenues of (US) $157-billion and controls assets worth (US) $782-billion. These corporate behemoths employ legions of lobbyists and lawyers, and can finance PR and political campaigns and move factories and jobs wherever they choose.

Then there is the financial industry and the $50-trillion dollars at its disposal. Short-sellers alone can bring down Wall Street investment banks (as they did in 2008 with a wounded Bear Stearns), and drive up the cost of oil and food prices to exorbitant levels, as they have in the past two years.

Many social democrats will remember, misty-eyed, the good times when they could win major concessions from capital. But that occurred mostly in the immediate post-war era, when the Soviet/communist bloc was at the apex of its power, and corporate elites were in a great panic. They were willing to make concessions for fear that militant, socialistically-minded working class movements would gain too much traction. To them, social democrats were seen as the lesser of two evils (the other evil being communist parties).

But with the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early ‘90s, the corporate sector no longer saw a necessity to make concessions to workers and social democratic parties. “For years, the ruling interest of the Western world saw themselves in mortal combat against communism,” Michael Parenti, the American leftist political scientist once observed. “For years they had to tell their working class that you live better than they do under communism. For years they had to present a capitalism with a human face. Now that the Soviet Union is gone and communism is gone, they have pulled the plug. The time to cast off all restraints is here. The competition for your hearts and minds is over. There is no competing system which you might think of turning. There is no need to tolerate any accommodation with those who have to work for a living.”

As former CAW research director Sam Gindin has said, capitalists decided the Keynsian compromise had to be dispensed of: after all, it gave workers too much security and confidence.

Therefore, today’s social democrats are living in a fantasy world if they really think that today’s corporate behemoths and the global financial system sees the need to make concessions to workers or unions, or can be pressured into doing so.

But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, a particularly left-wing social democratic party gets elected and decides it’s going to nationalize some industries or natural resources. Challenge the power of capital, in other words. What would happen?

Well, the last century is littered with the consequences of such governments being so bold. Some examples: in 1953, the CIA re-installed the Shah after toppling the democratically-elected government of Iran after the Iranians tried to nationalize their country’s oil industry; in 1954, the CIA engineered a coup against the democratically-elected government of Guatemala after it tried to expropriate unused land owned by the United Fruit Company; in 1964, a leftist government in Brazil who supported the peasantry was toppled in a military coup backed by the US; in 1973, the Chilean government of Salvador Allende was brought down in a CIA-backed military coup after Allende moved to nationalize Chile’s copper holdings. And in 1975, the US helped topple the Labor government of Australia in a “Constitutional Coup” after the government moved to nationalize the country’s natural resources. More recently, in 2002, the US supported Venezuela’s business class when it engineered a coup against the government of Hugo Chavez after he moved to garner more control over the state oil company.

But that’s not all. The international corporate community has the ability to economically isolate and strangle countries whose governments challenge their interests. Prior to the coup in Chile, the country’s economy was brought to the brink of ruin by a boycott engineered by banks and the US manipulation of the copper market (CIA director Richard Helms famously said they would make Chile’s “economy scream”). In Australia, the 1972-75 Labor government also saw investment from the US, Japan and Europe dry up due to  a “strike by capital”. And then, of course, there’s Cuba, which has endured an US economic embargo going on 40 years.

And let’s not forget the power of the global banking system: it can make it prohibitively expensive to borrow money, or simply turn off the tap of credit.

The notion that a federal NDP government, even if so inclined, could actually bring about meaningful economic change, moving to nationalize our natural resources, banks and corporate sector, or divert more profits to workers, without a backlash from international capital seems naïve.

Which brings us to the third reason why social democracy is dying:

3) Selling Out

There is much that we can be grateful for in respect to the impact and legislative track record of social democratic parties. With the support of workers and unions, they managed to introduce (or fought for) socialized health care, welfare, unemployment insurance, and protections for workers, tenants and the environment. None of this should be diminished.

Unfortunately, most of these gains were made during an earlier economic and political era when it was easier to obtain them. As the capitalist elites have become more intransigent and unwilling to make concessions to workers or leftist parties over the past 30 years, social democratic parties have discovered they now have little wiggle room. As a result, they no longer are parties of sweeping ambitions. They are parties of moderate and minor reforms. They now bill themselves as more humane managers of free enterprise.

Moreover, despite their radical origins, social democratic parties have drifted to the right, often to become more electable. In fact, when push comes to shove, social democratic parties invariably disappoint their supporters and turn against workers and unions.

In Europe, for example, when the Socialist Party in France, led by Francois Miterrand, got elected in 1981, they moved to nationalize some banks and industries. But high unemployment drove them off the left agenda and they tacked right. In 1985, Mitterand okayed nuclear testing near New Zealand and ordered the bombing of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior, killing a photographer on board. When two French secret agents were arrested, the French moved to impose economic sanctions on New Zealand unless they were released, and set off a nuclear bomb anyway. Mitterand also set up a special wire-tapping unit that reported to him and ordered the bugging of 150 politicians, reporters and opponents. His ability to enact his socialist program generally floundered.

In Italy, the Socialist Party under Bettino Craxi took power in 1983 and allied itself with the right wing. His economic policies included eliminating a wage price system to ensure workers’ wages kept up with inflation, resulting in more strikes as workers now had to fight for higher wages. In 1992, the party was caught up in a massive corruption scandal, which involved taking bribes from industry. Craxi himself was charged and he fled to Tunisia to escape prosecution in 1994 where he died in exile.

In the UK, the Labor government under Harold Wilson (1964-70) did nationalize the steel industry, but also turned on its union supporters and suggested wildcat strikes be banned. When the Callaghan government was elected in 1976, they enacted wage and price controls in order to curb inflation, leading to bitter strikes, setting the ground for the election of Margaret Thatcher. And during the Thatcher years, the Labor party distanced itself from the militant mineworkers’ strike and tried to isolate its militant trade union wing. When Tony Blair took over in the mid-90s, he took up the mantra of the “third way”, which was designed to move the party to the centre. In reality this meant reducing the influence of the labor movement and reneging on promises to tax the wealthy.

Blair even reached out and got the endorsement of media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The Labor government did some positive things, such as a introducing a child tax benefit, but on the whole their economic policies were designed not to interfere with the market. “They presented themselves as finding the answer to the problems of free-market Thatcherite capitalism, but essentially what they did was embrace it,” said York University political scientist Leo Panitch earlier this year. “They embraced the city of London and the banking system fully, including taking a lot of money from them. In terms of increasing inequality in Britain, in terms of leaving Britain very vulnerable to the power of financial capital, in terms of vast regional inequalities, it has certainly not been a success in social terms.”

Then there was Blair’s support for the invasion of Iraq and his government’s fabricating of evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

In Canada, the federally NDP was slow and lukewarm in its fight against free trade during the 1988 election, allowing the Liberals to grab the high ground on that issue. In Ontario, when the NDP was elected in 1990, the Rae government passed some of the most progressive legislation ever seen, including an anti-scab law, excellent tenant protection laws, spousal benefits for gays and lesbians and a moratorium on building nuclear power plants.

But, as I mentioned, they reneged on public auto insurance and then bought into the deficit hysteria whipped up by the media and introduced the social contract to cut $2-billion in civil service wages. When the public sector unions refused to open collective agreements, the government imposed the cuts anyway, thereby dividing the labour movement. And with it, the government’s mojo vanished and they got creamed in the next election and the party has never recovered. Rae went to work for a corporate law firm and joined the federal Liberals.

The drift to the right by social democratic parties has made them barely indistinguishable from liberal parties. And this is a problem because the economic solutions we need don’t entail more of the same old same old. We need to challenge capital and capitalism and the basic underpinnings of this horrible economic system. And until social democratic parties do so, they will increasingly become irrelevant in the face of our burgeoning economic woes.


  • pretty depressing huh- however I do have a response Bruce- a poem I wrote earlier this summer- still not finished but it will be coming out next year in a collection. ED Finn said he thinks I have potential!?

    Economic poetry is making a comeback especially now that the numbers now have Stephen messing with them.

    Can you imagine billions of dolllars and years of work to build a fairly legitimate information tool, and have it destroyed in a summer. They could bring back the manditory census, and it would not matter- Stephen destroyed the culture, and he knew that is all it would take- if they were actually a little smarter they would give in a restore the census and make back the political losses, as they have already destroyed the census regardless. So in the hopes of lessening the depressing message you give us Bruce- reader beware- this poem could lift you up.

    Dreaming with an Ideal By Paul Tulloch Aug, 2010

    Pushing and shoving and the
    crushing of lives,
    from one just to another’s unjust.

    Why do these shadows dance
    with such a fevered pace to
    ignorance and destruction

    Harvested are the livelihoods,
    Hauling away smiles
    and joy by the truckload.

    Filtered and sorted,
    scolded and locked up.
    Synthesized lifetimes,
    stacked up and efficiently spaced

    Lifetimes bundled up
    in their bright packaging,
    shelved with the notions of
    Hope, promise and deception,
    mixed and complimented
    substituted and omitted.

    Finally on a conveyor belt,
    the scenery passes by,
    Spilling from the brim
    comes forth the colours
    of lies, the cowardliness,
    and the greed
    ripping through the flesh to the core.

    The essence, torn and shattered, collected and wasted

    Falls numbingly to the ground.
    In a heap.

    Still, quiet, obedient,

    From the light amongst the shadows
    Comes forth an emotion,
    so proud and beautiful
    it points directly into the
    faceless deception.

    The ideals and it’s stare,
    Sit cross legged,
    and converse with the tired,
    speak with the beaten and
    Scream to the broken.

    Come together,
    Under this banner of we.
    Come forth out of the shadows
    and the packaging of acceptance.

    Reach out to the ideals,
    Bathe your head in the relief of protection.

    A union made- welded to the core of humanity.
    To outlast all that is averse.
    Erecting a sigh and the forgotten feelings
    of safety,
    In numbers
    In numbers
    of more than one.

    Dreaming with an Ideal By Paul Tulloch Aug, 2010

    Pushing and shoving and the crushing of lives,
    …from one just to another’s unjust.

    Why do these shadows dance with such a fevered pace with ignorance and destruction

    Harvested are the livelihoods,
    Hauling away the smiles and joy by the truckload.

    Filtered and sorted, scolded and locked up.
    Synthesized lifetimes, stacked up and efficiently spaced

    Lifetimes bundled up in its bright packaging, shelved with
    Hope, promise and deception, mixed and complimented
    substituted and omitted.

    Finally on a conveyor belt, the scenery passes by,
    Spilling from the brim comes forth the colours of lies, the cowardliness,
    and the greed
    ripping through the flesh to the core.
    The essence, torn and shattered, collected and wasted
    Falls numbingly to the ground.
    In a heap.

    Still, quiet, obedient,

    From the light amongst the shadows
    Comes forth an emotion,
    so proud and beautiful it identifies the deception.

    the ideals and its stare,
    Sit cross legged, and converse with the tired,
    speak with the beaten and
    Scream to the broken.

    Come together,
    Under this banner of we.
    Come forth out of the shadows and the packaging of acceptance.

    Reach out to the ideals,
    Bath your head in the relief of protection.

    A union made within the core of humanity.
    To outlast all that is averse.
    Erecting a sigh and the forgotten feelings
    of safety,
    In numbers
    In numbers
    of more than one.

  • the last version was my older – sorry I did not mean to paste it

  • That was somewhat depressing. I hope you have a part 3 in the works that’s “how do we resuscitate social democracy” or otherwise go forward because your conclusion in this article basically said that we need the parties to do what hasn’t really worked for the past 40 years.

  • Bruce,

    So how do all the constraints you outline not equally apply and then some to a more revolutionary (as in profound socio-economic change) left? It is not as if the revolutionary movements managed it all that well in the end. That both revolutionary and social democratic socialism met the same end hardly is an arrow in your analytical quiver.

    That is to say, any such analysis like the one above also needs to account for the fact that the revolutionary socialist path was tried and also failed.

    So what did all types of socialists get wrong? If we can’t answer that question then all this is really a futile exercise in staring at the ashes.

  • While I agree with most of what you write, the problem with your essay is that it breeds exactly the kind of hopelessness expressed in the preceding comments.

    This should not be the case. Canada is a wealthy country that could easily resist the effects of foreign economic pressure. It could nationalise its natural resource industries and (I would argue) turn them into public interest enterprises fairly easily. As long as it paid compensation it would not be in contravention of either trade rules or, more importantly, punishing investor protection rules.

    The federal government could maintain high levels of domestic employment through fiscal intervention in the face of retaliation, if any, that did take place.

    In the end it is an issue of political mobilisation (and propaganda) and it is there that the right and its allies have beaten us so badly.

  • I don’t think rise of Neo-conservationism in 1980 was connected to the fall of Communism in 1990. The threat of radical socialism in North America died out in the 1940s or 1950s.

    I’m not sure what happened in 1980 to change things. Maybe it was a mixture of stagflation of the 1970s and the leaders suddenly realizing they could convince people to vote against their own interest.

  • The 19th century split has been done to death in the academic socialist literature. Its fun to read, but the lesson we are supposed to draw does not make much sense to me.
    The more recent split, say, after the Ontario NDP threw out the waffle, and before they threw out the CAW, has been between those who want to participate actively in electoral politics, and those who prefer social movements, or independent socialism. This is a serious one that the New Politics Initiative tried to address.
    I think your part II is the starting point: how do we de-legitimize capital as the organizing principle for our life? Starting with the failure of Soc Dems to live up to their ideology as you do seems to imply strong capital is due to the failure of socialist politics. I think this misinterprets the economic history of the past 150 years, let alone the imperial history.

  • I’ve noticed more and more on this blog calls for radical changes to the economy. I don’t think these ideas would be considered “progressive”, which implies slow change. Perhaps the name of this blog should be changed to “The Socialist Economics Forum”.

  • Travis makes a fundamentally important point. Any revival of socialism as an alternative must come to terms with the historical record of both social democracy and state socialism.

    You fail to draw a distinction between social democracy and democratic socialism. Kautsky espoused the latter against Bernstein long before Communism- a transition to a different form of economy, but via the democratic as opposed to revolutionary road. That was also the vision of the Swedish trade union movement well into the 70s (cf Meidner and the Bennite wing of the British Labour Party.)

    Are there objective limits to social democratic reformism under “neo liberal globalization” , as opposed to self-imposed constraints.? Yes but the former can be exaggerated. It was only some thirty years ago that Canadian social democratic parties nationalized parts of the resource sector (potash in Saskatchewan; natural gas in BC) or greatly increased the share of resource rents going to the public purse. Not to mention taking over the auto insurance industry. The federal NDP pushed for and got FIRA, PetroCan etc etc

    What stops us from doing this today other than lack of imagination and political will?

  • In answer to Travis I would like to suggest a few possibilities.
    One is that historically, we had one current committed to radical transformation and to violent revolution, and another current committed to peaceful electoral approaches but only minor change. It might be argued that currents committed to peaceful routes to change, but also to radical transformation as the change to be sought, have not failed in the same way (although some have gained power only to be toppled violently).

    Venezuela would be the main current example of a case that has not yet failed, where the issue of transformation remains in play. Who knows where it will go?

    The second suggestion I would make is that revolutionary socialist movements relied on centralism, dismissing the anarchist argument that the structures you build to create the revolution will be the structures you end up with after the revolution, and so revolutionary organizations must themselves empower the people to rule them. This was a mistake. Modern socialists need to incorporate anarchist ideas, implementing “bottom up” control and organization from the get-go. Luckily I believe to a fair extent they are trying to.

  • Travis said:

    “That both revolutionary and social democratic socialism met the same end hardly is an arrow in your analytical quiver.”

    Revolutionary socialism had to be killed; social democracy gladly accepted being euthanised for the sake of the poor bourgeois. That’s a rather substantial difference, no?

    “the fact that the revolutionary socialist path was tried and also failed.”

    Given outside constraints, what do you expect?

    “In the end it is an issue of political mobilisation (and propaganda) and it is there that the right and its allies have beaten us so badly.”

    Nothing at all here about the deliberate decimation of North American socialists, my-oh-my no . . . .

    “Get out the vote” doesn’t really work if people have been exiled, given strong incentive to leave their country, jailed, shot, etc.

    While I’d be the last one to praise socialism in the fSU as a model to follow whole-heartedly, neither will I forget that social democrats and those to their right have (and always have had) no qualms about opposing those to the the left of social democracy.

  • Someone mentioned the New Politics Initiative. I was somewhat involved in that for a while, and I noticed a basic problem with it: It favoured the idea of popular participation and decision-making, but had no mechanisms or process for causing that to happen within the NPI. So, lots of people talked and came up with interesting ideas, but there was no avenue for turning their ideas into action and few for even communicating those ideas to the leadership of the movement.
    This is all too common. If you don’t get serious about process issues, in the end a movement will either become an old fashioned hierarchy by default or just fall apart after a while as initial energy goes nowhere and people get tired and disillusioned.

  • yes I do rec all the NPI and I went to a few of the meetings and found a similar issue.

    It is a fundamental issue that like labour, left political movements have struggled with and personally this is at the root of a lot of unions problems – lack of shop floor participation. I will take anybody on within the labour movement and put that issue front and center as why so much within the labour movement has went the way it has. Which has wider implications for social democracy.

    I work alot with the internet and labour unions, and just leave it at this- the internet is not something the labour movement should fear- but somehow, given the lack of development in this area, leave me to conclude that with such an ultimate participatory tool, I cannot even find a copy of my collective agreement online- that should be a basic! (the grey beards still rule everything- and now my beard is getting grey) Hurry up!! One way communication is not going to win over members!

    Sorry for all you labour types on here but that is my experience after the last 3-4 years of experimenting and working within the labour and internet area.

    I know it is not the panacea for social democracy or labour, but it is a tool- pick the phracking thing up and start using it! Members and voters don’t bite- yes they may have questions- but hiding is not getting you anywhere. Cost was a problem 10 years ago, but it is not any more.

  • Todd,

    I was not trying to ring the bell. I had something else in mind. I agree that any account of the failure of state socialism that forgets the white war, 2nd World War and the cold war is not going to be a very interesting account of why state socialism failed. Nor is it very productive to talk about the failure state socialism in countries where socialism was so mixed in with national liberation struggles in the context of a neo-imperial cold war.

    What I was trying to get at (and I did not articulate it) was that there is something about the technocratic vision which, even if inspired by a deep humanism, actually produces pretty sterile public institutions which treat subjects as objects of public policy. I think that is the central failure state socialism and social democracy. Swapping technocrats for owners, or institutionalized poverty management for poverty does not fundamentally alter social relations.

    Marx critiqued capitalism because he understood how the labour-capital relation systematically deprived human beings of their power to develop and exercise their subjectivities in and through the creation of objects that is to objectify their subjectivities. Under are present system of mixed capitalist markets and so-called socialist institutions (eg welfare, medicare, EI etc.,) workers cum citizens are continually forced into a role where they are objectifying other peoples subjectivities.

    This not some pie in sky theory, take a cursory look at the HR literature and it is littered with scientific studies of the best strategies to get workers to fully commit to their work. And time again the finding is confirmed that people work harder and more productively when tasks and outputs are self-directed. What would welfare look like if the people who used it were empowered to realize some part of their subjectivity in the design of services they were receiving? How could the creative capacity of the poor be developed? How could welfare policy be designed so as to enable citizens realize their own humanity and share it with others? And we could ask these same questions about all of are public institutions even for those that serve the middle-class (gainfully employed workers)

    Socialism on this definition is an emancipatory project. Thinking along these lines allows us to develop an immanent critique of not just capitalism but state socialism and social democracy. And it can allow us to design a political program that will increase not decrease the amount of liberty experienced by the vast majority of citizens.

  • “This not some pie in sky theory,”

    Never said it was, and I have little problem with your suggestion: you have to start somewhere close to where we are.

  • are = our (twice). I have never been very good at clean drafts but I think the French is making me worse. There are also a series of articles missing in the comment above.

  • I liked Paul’s comment (at 7:26 am).

    I often freak when I see ‘authorities’ who I consider to be on my side talking at me and, worse, talking in less than plain English. ‘The people’ (in North America) are so easy to push around that even their (actual) leaders are tempted to do it. (For which reason I often say that ‘the people’ can be their own worst enemy, something that I feel the people need to hear from useful leadership incidentally.) Elites (Western elites and Leninist vanguards, to borrow from Chomsky; pgs 367,368 of “Deterring Democracy”) abound, sadly, and they like their positions of privilege and power and have all of the characteristics (conscious, active aloofness) of those who jealousy guard that, and they are found on the Left and the Right. They are as distant as the meaning of much of what they convey. The people need leaders who will blow that trumpet that sounds a distinct call to arms and nothing less. (Why did the Bible remain in Latin, which the people, the majority, couldn’t understand, for so long? It was a way for those in authority to keep that authority. Only they could dispense the truth and claim to be worthy receivers of it, since no one could know anything different. And that gave them power, with all that that brought.)

    It’s not like it’s a difficult proposition. Plently of thinkers have provided plenty of ammunition if would-be leaders of the people want to fight back against the exploitative special interests, the operators of the corporatocracy, in earnest. Educated and informed people have been analyzing and reporting and writing and lecturing all over the place for years about the fact that our elites are at war with the people, elucidating ‘how’ they are at war with us. Now and then the language is amazingly clear and useful. “Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man” couldn’t be more useful. Naomi Klein’s writings, especially “The Shock Doctrine,” couldn’t be more useful. William Greider, John Ralston Saul, Linda McQuaig, Murray Dobbin and others do a wonderful job of educating the people, if the people want to be educated. I really like the simple idea expressed in the title of Robert Frank’s book “Richistan” ( The reality of elites and their view of democracy and their aloofness, while waging class warfare, is also stated clearly and colorfully by David Korten in his book titled “When Corporations Rule The World.”

    Noam Chomsky wrote “Deterring Democracy,” a tour de force and my first real exposure to politics. It was information overload and I loved it. My motivation for reading that was not your usual motivation. I am religious (which hasn’t prevented me from maturing and learning and unlearning). I thought, in a simplistic fashion, that I was getting ammunition to use against those who preached democracy when I bought and read Chomsky’s book. I was taught that what I wanted to support was theocracy, not democracy. That was a long time ago. For a long time I would not talk about democracy in positive terms, which isn’t to say that I lied to myself about facts reported by others outside my religious group.

    That was so, until I realized that I could embrace, in a realistic fashion, the idea of democracy without abandoning my belief in theocracy (which doesn’t exist on earth at this time, pretenders notwithstanding).

    I’ve always found discussions about social democracy vs democratic socialism to be confusing and, ultimately, not very useful. Unfortunately – recalling my aversion to language used by authorities whose guidance I look to – one (of ‘the people’) must adjust one’s wrong thinking in order to take in the informed dialog and instruction of seemingly strange talking authorities and experts in order to get from A to B, from not knowing what’s going on to knowing what’s going on. For example, If everyone in the alternative media is talking about (as in ‘mentioning’) social democracy (which I sort of see as embodying a redundancy, but What do I know?) or democratic socialism, in the course of talking about this or that (let alone discussing those systems themselves), then I have the choice of listening in on those discussions and knowing, hopefully, what I badly need to know, or else reacting with impatience and/or anger at the nonsense I’ve run into in the course of running away from other nonsense spouted by a powerful Right that can babble at us because it doesn’t need anything from us except for us to get out of it’s way.

    The people need to wake up and revolutionize ‘following’. We need to sensitize ourselves to the language of elites (which involves also noting when things that need saying aren’t being said) and know when we are hearing it. We also need to speak up and demand that bottom up socialism (or people’s democracy, which I don’t think we’ve seen on a national scale for a long time, if ever, as Linda McQuaig’s book titled “All You Can Eat” discusses), which those of us who like the ‘civil’ in ‘civilization’ desire, requires that we get there by having high, firm standards of screening for any leadership positions in any people’s organizations, whether they are unions or other orgs. And everyone ‘must’ agree to that and ‘must’ agree to start there. Otherwise, We end up with traitorous leaders. And how do we get to the necessary first step of having a real social movement without the well intentioned participation of unions?

    And here’s a thought having to do with practical considerations, for those who are partial to them. Haven’t we figured out yet that it’s easier for the corporatocracy to bend a single individual, such as a leader, than it is for it to bend a crowd that is larger than it is? Therefore, We need ways to guard against that kind of attack. An approach that isn’t so lackadaisical when it comes to following leaders might be just what the doctor ordered.

    I too have a real soft spot for anarchism. I don’t believe that adults should have power over other adults. Ever. (And I’m very aware that others might think I haven’t thought about how to reconcile that with my religious beliefs. They would be very wrong.)

  • As to religious beliefs and anarchism, consider this quotation from John Ball, a preacher, in 1381:

    “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”

    Shortly thereafter he was hanged, drawn and quartered, like so many other freedom fighters. But it goes to show: A belief in human equality and freedom is not a new thing, nor does it depend on secularism. I’m not religious myself, and I find some forms of religious belief and practice deeply unethical, but it doesn’t have to be.

  • I actually worked on the local campaign to get that omnibus LGBT spousal rights bill passed here in Ontario back in 1994, and I’m afraid you’re mistaken: it wasn’t passed.

    It failed by about five votes.

    Which made me nearly despair, as of the six local MPPs who were all NDP, five voted against their own government and defeated the bill. I nearly moved back to Toronto.

  • Arby thanks for writing such a well written comment, it taught me a some interesting lessons. There is a real life mirror to you comment, none other than Obama. A man elected through an Internet funded grass roots campaign, and now betraying a huge proportion of his base. I have established some linkages with the American left and theyvare seething right now, from bad healthcare reform to wall street fixation.

    Talking with Doug Henwood the other day we got into some of this issue, and a lack of a ground floor button in many left wing elevators.

    Personally I do think it is part of the root causation of low voter turnout.
    I could write so much more but will leave it at that.

    Great comment arby.


  • Thanks Paul. I haven’t got the smarts that folks here have, but I at least know enough to visit from time to time and listen in. Sometimes I’m frustrated with those who do have smarts, as I’ve noted and for the reasons I’ve stated. Sometimes I find that all I can do is listen and learn, which is fine. I don’t have any formal education worth mentioning.

    On that subject, I have a self education – mostly class politics – that doesn’t help me to advance in our brutal capitalist system. On the contrary, I only get myself into trouble when I open my mouth. I had to struggle mightily to keep quiet the other night when I was at the computer at the work station I sit at and a maintenance guy kept asking me to look up the name of his grandfather (it may have been), who started the poppy thing here in Toronto or maybe over a wider area (I forget the details). I just didn’t want to have to tell him what I thought about war and a holiday that in fact glorifies it and serves the agenda purpose of rightwing governments. He finally went quiet, but our conversation (three way w 2 guards and the gentleman in question) continued and we were talking about Nazis. So I quickly typed in the famous quote by Martin Niemöller that starts something like ‘first they came for the communists…’.

    That, unfortunately, emoldened him and he came around the corner and into my desk area and said type in… I did so, we found the entry (William Carr) he wanted us to look at and I even found a pic of his ancestor, but I didn’t say anything. And we all stayed friends. And that was good, but negative. And that’s how it is for us right now.

  • Glad to see some ‘out of the box’ commentary on what is happening here. I agree with most of this. Concering what needs to be done – my thoughts are here – .

  • Arby,

    I liked your post to but I am going to challenge you on something. One of things we know for example is that union members do not in the majority vote for the NDP. Union leadership, however, in vast majority does and most unions are affiliated with the NDP. Under your model of leadership it is not clear that unions should support the NDP.

    And it was on this basis the CAW declared itself politically neutral (Gomperist?). On your reading of things it would seem as though this was a principled move by leadership to bring the union’s official position closer to that of its members. Yet, many commentators at the time viewed this move as an opportunistic move; some went so far as to call it a betrayal. (note to readers of this comment I am not taking a position on this here merely using it as an example. No offence is intended to anyone).

    So while I share your general scepticism and agree that many of our leaders are merely opportunistic I am not sure what it would mean to have leaders always act in the interest of their members. Democratic principles try to solve this problem by substituting the majority position as the interest of the people with some limitations thrown in so that those who are of the *minority* position do not have their liberties totally trampled on by the *majority*.

    There is always a problem when trying to aggregate up from the desires and needs of the individual to the social. So I would agree that we need better (as in more deliberative and accountable) forms of democratic practice. But I do not think that is possible to fully represent individuals at the level of the institution.

    And I think it is because of this ontological fact–reality–that opportunistic behaviour exists and why it is not always possible to identify opportunistic behaviour until it is too late. Obama being a good case in point.

  • Paul said:

    “Talking with Doug Henwood the other day”

    Never a bad thing.

  • Hi Travis. I recall the developments you refer to, but not in detail.

    Travis: “So while I share your general scepticism and agree that many of our leaders are merely opportunistic I am not sure what it would mean to have leaders always act in the interest of their members.”

    Arby: If I’m reading your post right – I haven’t slept for over a day – the implication in your post is that it was a bad thing for union leaders to stop supporting the NDP wholeheartedly so as to behave more democratically. I think there’s an easy case to be made for doing just that, as long as it’s done in conjuction with a drive to open up the electoral system and make elections less of a ritual and more a cause for hope among voters. One, The NDP isn’t, in my view, especially worthy. Two, Acting democratically isn’t automatically a bad thing.

    Then again, I also understand strategic voting. When you have only bad choices, you may have to make the best bad choice, provided you can morally justify participation.

    It’s hard to pull the people away from the consumerism and self-tranquilization they engage in and to politicize them. (Between the harsh work culture here in North America and the propaganda about capitalism being the true religion that you should embrace [by working too hard for too little] so as to be able to show your devotion to money via spending, our capitalist class can’t lose.) It’s hard to get them to care about themselves enough to do that. As I was explaining to someone today, The people have so far to go to just fix the electoral system, let alone get it to work for them, that it’s all but impossible. How much work would it take to just fix one element one element of it, such as the role of lobbyists, for example? (I also brought up the subject of electronic voting machines made by rightwing organizations and proven to be faulty [and requiring but not always having a redundant paper trail], and hanging chads, but that happened down south.)

    And the problem isn’t just big, but it’s getting bigger because corporacrats are wise. They are busy consolidating their power and passing crazy laws that do things like entrench the idea that money equals free speech and corporations are above the law. So the task is huge.

    But I do believe that it’s the right task to undertake, whatever the prospects for success are. When I tell people that we need to care and start educating each other, rather than passively take in the propaganda that the establishment depends on to dumb us down, I work my way around to bringing up the example of the referendum on changing the electoral system here in Ontario. The only way that something – small, but all big jobs are made up of many small jobs – like that happens is when the push comes from below by people who have become politicized sufficiently and are talking to and supporting each other, until a threshold is reached where action occurs. It’s just that in this case, The people weren’t quite there. And the strong corporatocracy government was able to fight the weak people on this and win. The provincial government didn’t sufficiently fund the education part of the referendum and that was enough to allow the people to lose steam. Propaganda from the Right probably assisted. But I digress.

    All solutions stem from caring. I recommend not prescribing first and foremost. I recommend encouraging people to care first and foremost. And I recommend that the people do their own kind of gatekeeping and stop bad leaders in their tracks, before they lead.

    Then we can let (acceptable, competent, well intentioned) leaders lead, in confidence. (Which isn’t to say that they should lead in a dictatorial fashion rather than a democratic fashion.) And when they make mistakes, then we can forgive them and move on. It’s part of caring. And therefore, it will work out in the end.

    A leader must be measured before being fitted with the mantle of leadership. And you do that by determining his or her intentions. One way or another, You must do that. Intentions, not perfection, are everything.

  • Provocative article by Bruce and a good and necessary debate. Bernstein made an important discovery and was pilloried for it. He said that Marx had been right about the inevitability of socialism but had been wrong on the timetable…that capitalism wasn’t about to collapse any time soon. The estimation of socialists around the time of Kautsky, Luxembourg, Lenin was that imperialism represented capitalism in its death throes and all that remained for socialists was the organization of the working class for the final push against it. Those who disagreed were “traitors”.
    That estimation proved just a tad optimistic and led to terrible consequences that socialists live with today. World War One became a litmus test-to some it was proof that socialism was on the international agenda; to others the struggle for social revolution had to be put off to some indefinite future. There was not only an ideological split, but an organizational one that should frame any discussion about the future of social democracy. Kautsky abandoned his rose-coloured glasses but whistled past the graveyard trying to mediate between two solitudes, while Luxembourg paid with her life for an aborted and adventurous revolution whose time had not come.
    Lenin and Trotsky’s adventure of 1917 and the formation of the Comintern set the split in stone, and I’m not sure it has been canvassed properly.
    Social democracy and feudal socialism practiced in the Soviet Union and elsewhere were joined at the hip, their mutual distrust/hatred notwithstanding.
    Thus with the fall of the Berlin Wall, capitalism’s triumphal sound not only fell on the rubble of the SU and Communist Parties, it also fell on international social democracy-“socialism doesn’t work” became a material force in the minds of millions.
    The scramble to distance social democracy from the Communist “experiment”, continues as leaders of social democracy now scramble to find their feet under the onslaught from capital. The separation of immediate reforms of capitalism from the perspective of ultimate social change is now haunting social democracy. The lesson: reforms without that ultimate perspective is doomed to disaster. That should frame the debate, and I for one believe that simply writing off social democracy as a spent force, in an a-historical context, may just compound an historical error of judgment.
    A footnote: the building of the mass trade union movement still carries all the baggage from the historical split, e.g. caucuses and bureaucracies that MAY have meant something fifty years ago, but now offend membership sensibilities, and stand in the way of the mobilizations that are needed to block capital’s onslaught.
    The age old dilemma for socialists is back on the table…how to link reforms to fundamental change. The Communists, despite several post-1917 attempts, never got it right. Understandably, neither did international social democracy. Saving our planet and the gains of the past seventy years may depend on socialists getting it right this time.

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