Listen, there are alternatives to raw, brute capitalism
No, Capitalism is Not the Only Way to Order Human Affairs -- by Andrew Murray/Guardian
For nearly two decades, the Thatcherite dictum that "there is no alternative" has been used to stifle serious challenge to the way the world is run, and right now there seems to be an increasingly urgent insistence that there is only one possible social and economic future for us all. It isn't just the hard men of the moneyed right asserting that capitalism is the only way to order human affairs. Liberals are also now unshakeably convinced that there can be no alternative to capitalism - unless perhaps it is a collapse into some variety of barbarism.
Timothy Garton Ash recently declared here that "global capitalism now has no serious rivals - but it could destroy itself" while Martin Kettle pronounced socialism incontrovertibly dead with no prospect of a second coming. And the latest issue of Prospect magazine polls 35 intellectual movers-and-shakers on "what's next" for a world moving beyond left and right. Only the historian Eric Hobsbawm and US academic Andrew Moravcsik believe that left and right will remain "plainly central", in Hobsbawm's words in the new century. From the rest, we get dystopian warnings of technocracy defeating democracy, new forms of terrorism, random use of nuclear weapons, more God, even something dubbed by Michael Lind the "war of Patria vs Plutopia". The philosopher Jonathan Rée summed it up best: "We are now facing a crisis both of hope and of serious collective argument."
That is certainly true of many intellectuals - though, judging by opinion polls, less so of the wider public - but perhaps they have buried left and right and embraced the new world order too soon. As in most of the rest of the world, the gap between rich and poor in Britain has grown under a Labour government. Privatised industries have turned out to be ramshackle rip-offs. Women are still paid far less than men, Britain's children are the most deprived in the western world, fascists are winning council seats and workers can get sacked in a canteen by megaphone. And that's before we get on to the neo-colonialism which is making a catastrophic comeback, amid bloodshed and racism.
But our opinion-forming and governing classes have evidently convinced themselves that no form of socialism has anything to do with solving the problems of the world today. A litany of crises like these would once have had Blairite stalwarts like Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn condemning the system that generated them. But we can be confident that there will be no discussion of any alternative to the private ownership and control of our resources or of a transfer of economic and political power to the majority in the phoney Clarke-Milburn "debate" on Labour's future. This silencing of the S-word might make sense if capitalism, having been given the whole world to itself to do its worst with for the last generation, was delivering the economic, social, moral and environmental goods. Maybe not, the post-socialist would say, but the economics have been settled, with capitalism leaving socialism a distant second in the prosperity race. And anyway, even to the extent that socialism once had something useful to say, the world has now changed out of all recognition.
This is dodgy history and worse futurology. The Britain of the 1960s and 1970s was only socialist in the nightmares of capitalists, but it had some of the elements which made for a better society. Public ownership and full, stable, employment underpinned not merely high levels of economic growth, but also a radical improvement in the lives of the working class, protected by a strong trade unionism which, while far from as mighty as subsequent myth-making has suggested, did at least prevent those at the bottom being pushed around at will by those at the top.
Even the Soviet Union's place in history looks different depending where you stand. Russians today miss its relative egalitarianism, welfare and public economic control, not to mention the more stable inter-ethnic relations, if not the one-party authoritarianism. Meanwhile in Venezuela, for the first time in a generation, there is a government committed to establishing socialism. Of course, the movie can't be rewound. Twenty-first century socialism in Britain or elsewhere cannot look east for inspiration, nor will it be the work of coal-miners and shipyard workers. But what could it offer?
For a start, socialism makes possible the re-establishment of democracy whether at national, multinational or global level. Capitalist globalisation has become synonymous with democratic powerlessness as all important decisions are taken further away from the people affected and concentrated in the hands of ever fewer corporate bosses, private equity and publicly traded alike, for whom the common weal cannot be their priority. It also raises the prospect of a more peaceful world. The idea that unchallenged capitalism meant universal peace - quite popular in the early 1990s - hardly takes much debunking now. A system that replaced fighting for scarce resources with the global management of them offers the chance both of sparing lives and of the decisive action necessary to save the planet.
And there is social justice. There is little sign of gender or race inequality within countries, or between the rich world and the poor, being eroded, much less eliminated, despite recent global growth. Rather the opposite. If you think greater inequality is fine, then you'd better get back to your hedge fund desk. But there are far more people in trade unions and the anti-war movement than there are selling guns to despots or trading oil futures. And of course there is an alternative.
(Andrew Murray is chair of the Stop the War Coalition and communications director of the TGWU email@example.com)