Austerity politics and the public household.

Author:Gamble, Andrew
Position:Tough choices: Labour and the economy

In his famous essay on 'The ends of history' reflecting on the eclipse of socialism at the end of the twentieth century, Perry Anderson set out four possible futures for the movement, which for much of the twentieth century had seemed to supporters and opponents alike to be in the ascendancy (Anderson, 1994). The first possibility was oblivion: that the various socialist and social democratic parties and movements of the twentieth century might disappear without trace, and if remembered at all would come to be regarded as historical curiosities, political experiments that belonged to the process of transition to the modern world but that left no lasting legacy. The second possibility was transvaluation: that, after a period of demoralisation and defeat (which might last decades or even centuries), some of the ideas and objectives might be resurrected in a new form and new context, and influence later movements for social change and social justice. The third possibility was mutation: that there would be no sharp break in continuity. Instead, the parties and movements of the left and centre-left might successfully adjust and evolve in the face of new circumstances, while retaining a recognisable identity and connection with the traditions of the past. The final possibility was redemption: that at the nadir of its fortunes socialism might be reborn. Liberalism had recovered from decline and defeat between 1914 and 1945 to re-emerge triumphant again and become the dominant doctrine and common sense of the post-war world. Anderson, writing at the beginning of the 1990s, speculated that some new world crisis might make socialism once again relevant and necessary, although he conceded that, as with the earlier rebirth of liberalism after 1945, this would have to be a socialism purged of its flaws and past mistakes and reinvigorated by its inclusion of other traditions.

All four possibilities are still in play, but, in the midst of a new world crisis, there are as yet few signs of a rebirth of socialism or of the parties and movements of the left and centre-left. Instead the left hovers uneasily between mutation and transvaluation, occasionally flirting with oblivion. It still has much to say about social justice, human rights and public services, but it no longer has much to say about capitalism. In the past a particular analysis of capitalism and how it might be reformed or replaced was what defined the left. Unless the left can recapture a sense of how it wants to reform capitalism, rather than simply relying on capitalism to provide the state with resources to redistribute, it is hard to see it regaining a meaningful role. When Francis Fukuyama presented his reworking of the end of history, the crux of his argument was that capitalism and democracy reigned supreme because all the alternatives to them, including all versions of socialism, had been tried and found wanting. History had ended because there was no fundamental principle that any longer divided left and right in the various senses that had persisted since the French Revolution. The terms were redundant because no one contested any longer on grounds of principle the existence of either democracy or of capitalism.

Fukuyama may have recanted some of his views, but his basic argument still dominates debate on the future of the left. Is it any longer possible to imagine a different way of organising the economy? This question is hard enough, but there are two further questions, about class and about the state, that the left must answer in thinking about whether or not there is a future for socialism or for social democracy.

Statecraft and interest groups

The reason why the left has become disorientated is that many of the frameworks through which it once viewed the world and imagined the future no longer seem to represent reality accurately. It is now sometimes forgotten how central class was to political thinking on the left. It generated powerful sets of assumptions, one of the most deep-rooted of which was 'the forward march of labour', the idea that the combination of collective organisation of the industrial working class in trade unions and mass political parties in the new era of universal suffrage would prove unstoppable. Whatever setbacks were encountered, these would prove temporary, and the eventual triumph of the organised labour movement would be assured. Its industrial and political strength would prevail, since it represented the great majority of workers and...

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