Argument: Response to “Which Socialism?”

Argument: Response to “Which Socialism?”

Argument on Socialism: H. Brand

The following is a response to the Summer 2010 symposium on socialism. Read Michael Walzer’s reply here.

THE CORE relationship in the capitalist economy, hence in civil society at large, is that between employer and employee. It is a relationship always subject to the adversarial tension between the requirements of profitability on one side, and the need for an adequate income and security on the other. The authors of the symposium barely allude to it. “Class struggle” has long become an unfashionable term, but what would more aptly define the repression of workers’ efforts to organize (by legal and extra-legal means), the cutting of wages to “competitive” levels, the coercion of still employed men and women to increase productivity? Why can the crisis of unemployment, which like no other factor weakens the economic and political status of labor, not to be resolved or at least mitigated by massive public job creation programs—if not because much of corporate business and their allies in congress will it that way?

“Socialism in the making,” as I understand Walzer, is embedded in civil society and the various political freedoms its constitutions and legal traditions vouch for. Socialism in the making is a movement agitating and working for social progress, i.e., it requires steady work and such insurgencies against entrenched interests as steady work prepares for. Walzer has in mind Eduard Bernstein’s dictum, voiced in the 1890s: “I have…little interest or taste for what is generally called the ‘final goal of Socialism.’ The aim, whatever it be, is nothing to me, the movement everything.” (Emphasis in the original.) In seeking to clarify this remark, however, Bernstein subsequently wrote that the socialist movement indeed has an aim, namely the pursuit of a “principle.” He refers to this principle (I believe) as “social progress,” “the general movement of society,” for whose advance the socialist movement must work and agitate. (See Peter Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism, New York, Collier Books, 1962, p. 74, 75.)

Thus, Walzer writes, “What is most important…is not the final realization of socialist goals, but the process by which they are realized.” Perhaps so. But the “process” can be disrupted, subverted, as has been the intent, partially successful, of right-wing forces in the United States and possibly elsewhere. Bernstein wrote that famous passage in the 1890s, in an era of optimism. Would he have written or repeated these lines at the time of the First World War? During the interwar years, labor and its socialist representatives scored significant gains, in Germany, France, England, only to be defeated, the gains vitiated by fascism, the depression, war. And I recall one of our debates in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when Michael Harrington thought that America’s war in Vietnam was the “most reactionary thing” that could happen; the social advance promised by the “war on poverty” was stymied.

Civil society is of course the premise upon which Walzer builds much of his argument, with which I am in sympathy. As Walzer discerns, civil society is an arena of struggle—but I feel that there is a smoothness of style of his essay which causes a reader to overlook or to minimize the political threats to the civility to which we have become accustomed. Reading the essay one would not have a sense that it appears amidst a great economic crisis.

Walzer speaks of the “reestablishment” of the dominance of capital over labor in the last three decades, and of the time having come for a “new insurgency” like that of the 1930s, as a remedy for the inequalities of American society. Labor’s insurgency resumed after the Second World War with its great strikes in the automobile, electrical, and other industries—but the “reestablishment” of capital’s dominance occurred with the passage of the Taft-Hartley legislation in 1948. The law weakened or effectively prevented the unionization of workers in the states adopting its relevant provisions, promoting the location (or relocation) of industries in search of lower labor costs and a more docile work force.

In vital respects, capital rivals the power or at least the authority of the state, the legitimate representative of civil society. Among the employer’s—management’s—prerogatives is the adoption of labor-saving or other technically advanced equipment, regardless of disemploying effects. Computers, for example, can and do incorporate many repetitive tasks, disemploying men and women often unable to find comparable work or to train for alternative work. Management’s right to relocate business operations cannot be legally challenged, no matter the consequences for working people and communities left behind. The opportunities that relocation may offer are enhanced by global investment’s possibilities. In brief, “Individual capitalists are in charge of a wide range of decisions which, because of their consequences for the general welfare of society, are in fact public policy decisions taken by private capitalists”—so argues Charles Lindblom. (Cited in Donald Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism, p. 768.) These decisions may subvert the purposes of civil society, one of the more striking examples of this having been the decline of Midwestern industrial areas into what became known as the “Rust Belt.”

I’ve noted above that business and its congressional allies would fiercely resist any meaningful job creation program undertaken by the government. Unemployment heightens management’s ability to set working conditions to its advantage. Monetary policy’s priority has for decades been to guard against inflationary price increases, rather than a full or high employment policy. The Maastricht Treaty of 1991 sets fiscal and other monetary sign posts rather than the reduction of unemployment as prime targets—“the clearest indication of the ideological victory of the forces of conservatism.” (Sassoon, One Hundred Years, p. 448). Unemployment weakens the labor unions, one of whose basic purposes is to keep wages out of competition so as to prevent downward pressures on working conditions. “Social democracy is unsustainable in a situation of high unemployment,” writes Sassoon (p. 448). The unemployment rate projected by the American government for the more “normal” years ahead is around 5 percent of the labor force—a rate that is likely to be one of the challenges confronting “socialism in the making.”

Walzer effectively identifies civil society with socialism (or social democracy), noting three features which, in combination, define socialism. They are political democracy, state regulation of the market, and the provision of welfare and certain public services. These features reflect or manifest the socializing trends in an industrial society with a highly developed division of labor, but they cannot be termed social-democratic inasmuch as “(T)he distribution of power in society reflects not only legal relationships, but also the uneven distribution of wealth…The great project of socialism was the construction of an economic system which made real equality possible.” (Sassoon, One Hundred Years…, p. 449).

All that Walzer says about the state’s regulation of the market etc. is true, but the question is what are the limits of such regulation. The answer, or at least one of the answers, is that even though corporations own the means of production created by the efforts of society at large, those means are the “rightful” property of the corporation over which it can dispose as it sees fit (as long as it abides by the relevant health and safety regulations). And as indicated, such disposal is not necessarily in line with the state’s—society’s—macro-economic goal of high employment and rising incomes. It is a goal for which all contemporary states must strive since their very order or stability would otherwise be at stake, let alone the fiscal basis of the welfare state.

The need for such provisions is universal; non-democratic as well as democratic states have had to adopt them, again for the sake of their very social-political order. In the United States (I don’t know about elsewhere) the fiscal base of welfare provisions is hollowed out by many profit-seeking institutions, including private hospitals, health-care insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and so on. A large number of the working poor (at least 25 percent of the American labor force) are in need of welfare–a need which remains largely unmet. Strengthening of the welfare state requires not only more regulation but a far more equitable distribution of income. These needs clash with many of the interests of capital—a clash that endangers civil society. Socialism-in-the-making may be a desirable path of human progress, a worthwhile project of the Left, but it faces great historical struggles.

Horst Brand is a member of Dissent’s editorial board.