Magazine article New Internationalist

Rescuing Socialism

Magazine article New Internationalist

Rescuing Socialism

Article excerpt

The Left is so demoralized that even in the worst recession in 70 years, it poses no threat to capitalism. Most who 'like to think of themselves as on the Left' (that refuge of fantasy), ritually deplore the loss of popular support, bleakly placing faith in 'the swing of the pendulum' or telling each other that 'the world has changed' and we must make the best of it.

Why socialism capitulated after so faint a struggle continues to mystify socialists. In Britain, the 1984 miners' strike was seen as an heroic last stand; but the Ideological battle had long been conceded. Socialism perished long before the Thatcher years; the roots of the labour movement were never deep enough to prevent it from being assimilated into the system it came into existence to oppose.

Socialists conceded defeat by accepting the capitalist evaluation of wealth. Instead of resisting the melting down of all the riches of the world to money, socialism yielded early to the reductive calculus of Its enemy. In doing so, the nobility and beauty of its vision of alternatives were forfeited. The baleful ghost of Marx hovers over this process: his admiration for a world convulsed by the dynamic upheaval of capitalism doomed his socialism, which became a short-lived heretical aberration. And a kind of indelible afterglow of Marx continues to stain what is now no alternative to capitalist growth and expansion.

Yet throughout the industrial era there have been many more thoughtful and humane definitions of wealth. Leaving aside the magnificent ambiguities of scriptural admonitions ('Remove from me vanity and lies; give me neither poverty nor riches'), denunciation of capitalist accumulation has always been widespread, although It has been drowned out in recent years by the triumphal march of the universal market.

Oliver Goldsmith, as early as 1770, described the effects of this limited understanding of wealth. In The Deserted Village, he deplored 'ten thousand baneful arts combined to pamper luxury and thin mankind'. He spoke of the labourer's 'best riches' as 'ignorance of wealth' and railed against the 'rage of gain'. His long, sad poem was prompted by agricultural 'improvements', which enclosed the commons and evicted labourers. It speaks today to the uprooted of Africa and Asia; and reminds us how an earlier critique of wealth was buried beneath the obsessive productivism of industrialism - a critique later dismissed as Utopian by a more 'manly' Marxism.

Not all alternative accounts of wealth were formulated by socialists. In Signs of the Times, Thomas Carlyle in 1829 protested against the materialism of a mechanistic society: 'All our systems and theories are but so many froth-eddies or sandbanks, which from time to time [Nature] casts up, and washes away. When we can drain the Ocean into mill-ponds, and bottle up the Force of Gravity, to be sold by retail, in gas jars; then may we hope to comprehend the infinitudes of man's soul under formulas of Profit and Loss.'

A covetous machine

John Ruskin spoke in 1862 of the 'delusion' of political economy, which sees the human being as merely a 'covetous machine'. He declared: 'All wealth is intrinsic, and is not constituted by the judgment of men. This is easily seen in the case of things affecting the body; we know that no force of fantasy will make stones nourishing, or poison innocent.' Although he reckoned without the advertising industries of the 20th century, which were largely dedicated to disproving this conviction.

William Morris In 1883 made the distinction between wealth and riches. 'It Is not wealth which our civilization has created, but riches, with its necessary companion, poverty; for riches cannot exist without poverty, or in other words, slavery. All rich men must have someone to do their dirty work, from the collecting of their unjust rents to the sifting of their ash heaps. Under the dominion of riches we are masters and slaves.' William Morris saw humanity wasted, in one way or another, by poverty or excess. …

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