Magazine article Monthly Review

Socialists and the "New Conservatism"

Magazine article Monthly Review

Socialists and the "New Conservatism"

Article excerpt


By the crucial test of what it has done for the vast majority of people, the "new conservatism' has been a grievous failure wherever in the advanced capitalist world it has been in power: the most blatant example of that failure is "Thatcherism' in Britain. But Reagan in America has also increased poverty, strengthened the repressive apparatus of the state, encouraged managerial authoritarianism, provided a favorable climate for casino capitalism, and relied on the arms race to provide fuel for the U.S. economy. After years in power, the "new conservatism' has left these societies more unequal, more violent, more inhuman, and more prone to crisis.

However, the new conservatism has at least had one major success--it has shifted political debate much further to the right. A great deal that had come to be taken for granted in economic and social terms in the three decades following World War II has since the mid-seventies been powerfully and effectively challenged.

The success of this challenge does not lie in the conversion of the mass of the population to "Thatcherism' or "Reaganism': there is no good evidence of such mass conversion. In fact, the evidence points to the continued popularity of many welfare services even among those who voted for Thatcher or Reagan. This, incidentally, shows the extent of mass dependence on collective social and other services and the severe limits of private enterprise in defining and meeting human needs, however loud the rhetoric of "market populism' may be.

The success of the new conservatism lies rather in the demoralization and loss of confidence which has affected large parts of the Left, and the mood of defensiveness and retreat which has gripped very many socialists. In the sixties and seventies, there occurred a flowering of ideas about human emancipation and a confidence in the possibility of moving beyond the welfare state and capitalist democracy. This was expressed in the radical movements inspired by feminism, ecology, student protest, black resistance to oppression and discrimination, sexual liberation; and it was also represented in the shift to the Left in social democratic parties, for instance, in Sweden, France, Britain and elsewhere. Indeed, the "new conservatism' was in part a reaction to the challenges these movements and pressures seemed to present to the existing social order; and it is the failure of these challenges to fulfill more than--at best--a small part of their promise which has greatly contributed to the present mood.

That mood assumes many different forms, from the bitter and wholesale rejection of earlier and now derided convictions to the resigned belief that not much by way of reform is possible, and that to ask for more is futile and dangerous. But whatever form the mood assumes, there can be no doubt of its prevalence: the sag of conviction in the ranks of the socialist Left in the last few years has been nothing short of dramatic.

Even here, however, the "new conservatism' cannot claim to have initiated the current. Its real source lies in the failure of social democratic governments to achieve more in the years in which they have been in power, and their resort to orthodox conservative measures to try and cope with the economic and financial crises which they confronted. Nor should we overlook the successful resistance of orthodox social democracy to new socialist ideas and pressures--for instance the defeat of "Bennism' in Britain, the retreat from the Common Program in France, and the renunciation of the socializing purposes of the Meidner Plan in Sweden.

Moreover, social democratic failures helped to highlight the fact that between the kind of state interventionism within the framework of capitalism which social democracy favored, and the often barren rhetoric of the revolutionary left, there was no effective agency remotely available to take up the task of socialist transformation. …

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