A New Map for Our Lost Politicians: Socialism versus Capitalism? Forget It. Go Back to the Pre-Marxist Era and Renew the Battle between Freedom and Fairness. (the Nsessay)

Article excerpt

Let us start with a proposition that should command general, if not universal, consent. British politics is in a less than perfect condition. None of the main parties exudes much self-confidence. All behave as if they have blundered into a strange new land. Labour looks ill at ease and at odds with many of its supporters, despite its second landslide victory. The Conservatives do not know whether they will survive at all as a major political force. The Liberal Democrats have more MPs than any third party for 70 years, but cannot decide whether to be Labour's critical friend or implacable foe.

Enveloping all three parties is the knowledge that fewer people belong to political parties than for many decades. Worse, on 7 June last year, for the first time since the arrival of full adult suffrage, the true victor was the abstention party.

Could all these things be connected? Are we facing not a series of separate malaises, but a single transcendent phenomenon? My thesis is that British politics is in the throes of a fundamental transition, of the kind that happens every 70 or 80 years. From the early 1920s until the 1990s, the main contest was between socialism and capitalism. One of the principal tasks of national politics was to manage that contest in a democratic manner. As long as it remained unresolved, the battle lines remained comfortably familiar. Labour activists mused about building a Clause Four paradise; Tories dreamt about banishing socialism for ever.

Then capitalism won. Not primitive, laissez-faire capitalism of the type that Marx deplored, but a more qualified and regulated version, operating within political systems where the state plays a far greater role than the founder of communism ever imagined. The best form of capitalism remains a matter of dispute, but the large question -- which basic form of economic organisation is most likely to advance prosperity -- has been settled. Look to the streets of Seattle or Genoa, let alone the caves of Afghanistan, for a credible blueprint for a modem, non-capitalist world, and you look in vain. The central truth of our time remains: within the democratic world, there is no significant group that proposes to abolish capitalism altogether, even as a long-term objective.

Yet the language and institutions of the old contest linger on, like fading film stars revered more for their past Oscar-winning performances than for their current roles. We still talk about left and right; the two biggest parties are still Labour and the Conservatives. But there is no agreed 21st-century goal for either.

That, fundamentally, is why the parties look lost. They are lost. The political terrain has changed and they do not have a map.

This should be a great historic opportunity. We have the chance to move on from a debate that finally grew sterile and restricting. Once we acknowledge that both traditional socialism and completely laissez-faire markets are bad ideas, even as distant dreams, we are able to move on to new ways to debate the nature of social progress. Ours should be an age of political liberation.

Liberation, note: not revolution. Not everything from our recent past should be thrown away. The contest between capitalism and socialism provided a framework in which pragmatic democracies could evolve. This framework is worth preserving. Whatever the details -- whether or not they have proportional representation, for example -- almost every stable, mature and efficient democracy is dominated by two large, competing political blocs. One is in government, while the other aims to replace it at the next election.

The democratic glory of the contest between capitalism and socialism was that it gave shape, purpose and valuable stability to political competition in much of the world. Britain offers a perfect example. Providing that neither side in the argument pushed its power too far when in government, both enjoyed room to dream. …