Ideology Belongs to Historians

The left has been caught flatfooted by the gilets jaunes movement in France. While we debate whether it is a right wing, anti-tax protest or a left wing, anti-austerity movement, the protestors have mostly gotten on with it. In truth, it seems to be a mix of both. The left’s persistence in demanding ideological clarity and defined objectives first before expressing support for any movement has been our undoing for years. By waiting for a movement to arise that perfectly conforms to our preferred views, we have undermined any possibility of radical politics actually taking hold. Worse, we hand opportunities to move the conversation forward over to the right. The gilets jaunes are a perfect example of this as the movement was immediately co-opted in Canada by far right pro-oil, anti-immigration white nationalists. Weak as the left is, what we need more than anything is to establish meaningful solidarity and to enable the growth of radical networks that can offer hope and a place for the would-be leftists to direct their energy. Instead, we wring our hands about ideological purity whenever there is a glimmer of such possible movements and while we debate what we should do the police clear out the parks and arrest our comrades.

What we need to remember is that there is no such thing as ideological purity. No revolution has coherence in the moment. It is only after the fact that such defined objectives are grafted on to the revolution as a whole. The figures who achieve historical notoriety are left to speak for the revolution as a whole. Yet, if you read through the archives of the Bolsheviks, what stands out most is the constant disagreements. In the aftermath of the German Revolution of 1918-19, the Social Democratic Party leader Friedrich Ebert had the communists Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht killed (a bit of history conveniently forgotten by those who like to blame the Nazi’s rise to power on the Communist Party’s unwillingness to subjugate themselves to the SDP).

Instead of endless in-fights concerned more with establishing credibility within a chosen faction, at some point (desperately soon given the state of the world) we need to take action, even if doing so means sacrificing some of our ideological purity in the present. History is unlikely to remember us anyway. If we continue as we are, there might not be anyone left to do any remembering at all. Are the gilets jaunes good or bad? Right or left? A real revolutionary moment or a temporary flash-in-pan? I don’t know, but I do know that the far right will further seize the initiative if we do not act, and act decisively, soon.

Capitalism in Fundamentally Unethical

There have been a couple telling examples of the inherent unethical nature of capitalism that it seemed valuable to make not of here. The first is Canada’s participation in the renegotiation of NAFTA. Under globalized capitalism the maintenance of such trade agreements is of crucial import and the fact that you are dealing with a country currently carrying out genocide against migrants from the global south is less relevant than the need to maintain trade or the consequences of that trade to either the people living in the country in question or to the environment (as NAFTA serves as a serious barrier to Canada’s ability to produce effective climate legislation, even if the government was inclined to actually do anything about climate change, which it obviously is not).

The second example is from the recent revelation that the Canada pension fund has invested in US immigration detention firms in addition to other anti-social corporations such as ExxonMobil, Philip Morris, and the defense contractors General Dynamics and Raytheon. The defense provided by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board is extremely telling and sums up quite effectively why there cannot be a moral society under capitalism: “CPPIB’s objective is to seek a maximum rate of return without undue risk of loss. This singular goal means CPPIB does not screen out individual investments based on social, religious, economic or political criteria.”

The crucial dichotomy between capitalism and socialism is the difference between how they conceive economic relationships. For capitalism, economic relationships are essentially asocial. That is, they occur under the auspices of the market and can be studied and modeled independent of any consideration of morals or ethics. The effort to keep economics separate from the study of ethics has been an effective tool in enabling the growth of the extractive capitalism of globalized financialization under neoliberalism. The only imperative of governments in this view is to make sure that capital growth continues unabated. Though in in principle few deny the need for some financial and economic regulation, in practice there are little consequences to financial malfeasance as long as the perpetrator is wealthy enough and the victims not. Hence, the banks that caused the 2008 financial collapse were bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars and are now positioned to do it all over again (a courtesy not extended to their victims) or the Nazi profiteer IG Farben (which knowingly used concentration camp slave labour, participated in experiments on concentration camp victims, and produced Zyklon B, among other crimes. Though a number of IG Farben’s executives were convicted after the war, their sentences were comparatively light in consideration of the magnitude of their company’s crimes. For instance, Fritz ter Meer, who was involved in the planning of the Auschwitz satellite camp Monowitz – which was built specifically to provide IG Farben with slave labour – was sentenced to only seven years and after his release served as the supervisory board chairman of Bayer AG). While broken up after the Second World War, it is now larger than ever in the form of Bayer (which recently purchased Monsanto for $63 billion).

Socialism, on the other hand, is fundamentally the study of economics from an ethical point of view. That is, what Karl Marx was trying to understand was how capitalism affected workers. He wished to develop a theory that explained the exploitation of workers by employers and to make clear that this exploitation is a fundamental feature of capitalism. Thus, under the capitalist mode of production the worker will always be exploited and this exploitation increases over time. While history has demonstrated that the exploitation can be temporally tempered by labour organization, such attempts to limit the worst abuses of capitalism while keeping capitalism itself in place are doomed to fail in the long run, which we can clearly see with the ongoing collapse of postwar social democracy.

That Marx’s position was foremost a social and ethical one can be seen in his definition of value as “socially necessary labour time.” By defining value in this way he explicitly ties his theory to social relationships rather than to abstract mathematical concepts. Thus, commodity exchanges on the market cannot be understood without recognizing their human consequences. We cannot make any meaningful progress toward a just society unless we recognize, as Marx did, the need to begin our understanding of economics from the point of view of ethics. Thus, we continue to live in a world where people profit off of imprisoning children and refugees, genocide and warmongering, and the ongoing destruction of the environment. That the response to efforts to stop such egregious crimes are claims that meaningful action will negatively affect the economy is a perfect summation of the moral poverty and catastrophic limitations of capitalism.

The Black Hole of Democratic Socialism: The Decline and Fall of the Italian Communist Party, 1976-1991

Since 2016 the left has been increasingly seen ascendant for the first time since the 1960s or 70s. At the very least, the left has begun to play offense instead of defense for the first time in a long while. No longer marginal curiosities, it is now faced with the possibility of power. One question that has garnered online debate is that of what that path to power should look like, or, more precisely, what route is most likely to obtain the left’s goals? Unlike in previous eras, there is no real revolutionary left and all prominent participants in the debate accepts that the left should work with existing political parties and within the current system. Whereas once pragmatic incrementalism and cooperation with the center was once considered a betrayal of the left, now the reformist Democratic Socialists of America represents the furthest boundary of plausible radicalism.

There has never been a singular left and that is perhaps truer now than ever. Certainly, there is no consensus as to what policy goals should be pursued. Indeed, it is questionable whether developing clear, implementable policy is even useful socialist praxis. Those who believe that it is have devoted much time and effort to a strategy of infiltrating the existing political system in order to apply pressure from the left (an approach often indistinguishable from crass entryism). The Democratic Socialist approach seeks to shift the needle to the left. The argument is that introducing clear policies to the public discourse will result in a corresponding shift in what is considered possible. That Medicare-for-All has been endorsed by probable Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination has been pointed to as evidence that this approach is working.

It is useful to remember, however, that the left has been ascendant before. Indeed, in real terms it weaker than it has ever been. When one leaves the enclaves of twitter and one finds, instead, decimated labor unions and an almost complete lack of institutional power. When something approaching a socialist does manage to achieve a victory, he is subjected to a three year long smear campaign calling him, amongst other libels, an anti-semite by a vicious centrist establishment that would rather Boris Johnson run the UK than a social democrat. Even the supposed bastions of Marxism, the universities, are in reality among the leading institutions of neoliberalism and have long been stripped of what radicalism they ever had in favor of reproducing the social hierarchies and the “human capital” demanded by capitalism. It is, therefore, crucial to understand how the left has failed in the past to wind up in its current condition. In this piece I will present the example of the Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano, hereafter the PCI).

The PCI is useful for us to consider because in 1976 it appeared to be on the verge of real electoral success and looked to enter the Italian government for the first time. It was by far the most successful and militant Euro-Communist party and at its peak had over 2.6 million members. Moreover, the period between 1967 and 1976 was one of intense activity for the Italian left between the 68ers in the universities and a succession of strikes by Italy’s militant, and at the time still growing, trade unions. These actions had put the establishment under considerable pressure and had forced real changes to a conservative Italian society. The Italian example is appropriate and significant because despite having considerably greater advantages than the left enjoys today, the democratic socialist approach that it would pursue following the 1976 election would fail utterly and completely. The PCI was not able to translate its significant support or the momentum of the period of social radicalism between 1967 and 1976 into the social and economic transformation that it desired. The demise of the Italian Communist Party demonstrates the vacuity and lack of imagination or ambition at the heart of democratic socialism. It lacks the revolutionary characteristics necessary to compel real social change; instead, it cannot but be coopted by the right.

Enrico Berlinguer’s Grand Alliance

In the 1976 Italian election the PCI received a historic best share of the vote with about thirty-five percent—just three percent less than the total claimed by the Christian Democrats (DC) who had effectively ruled Italy since the first post-fascist election in 1948. When combined with the Socialist Party (PSI), the Italian left had managed forty-seven percent of the total vote. For the first time, then, it was presented with the tantalizing possibility of forming government and had the potential political power necessary to pursue real reforms to the Italian state. However, he PCI’s leader, Enrico Berlinguer, declined to make a common cause with the PSI against the DC in a moment when cracks had emerged in the DC’s hegemonic grip on Italian politics. Berlinguer had developed a strategy in 1973 of a “grand alliance” of the major Italian political parties and it was this approach that he continued to follow after the election. Rather than an alliance with the Socialists, he pursued a coalition with the DC. He did so because he believed that this was the only way for the Communists to gain access to the government. An alliance between the Communists and the Christian Democrats would signal the reasonableness of the PCI leadership and would minimize reactionary fears. He hoped to advertise his party—particularly to the Americans who were adamantly opposed to the PCI joining the government—that everything was within the bounds of normal politics. If he tempered the radicalism of his party and slowly infiltrated the government he believed that he could avoid the reactionary response typically received by governments that were perceived as a threat to the interests of capital and the United States.

Berlinguer’s fears were not unfounded. His 1973 strategy was an explicit response to the US-supported military coup that brought down the democratically elected left-leaning government of Salvador Allende and replaced it with the far right military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Whether Italy would have been at risk of a military response if the PCI and PSI had formed government cannot be known, but the United States made sure to express their opposition and at the bare minimum it could have expected the punitive economic sanctions taken against France after François Mitterrand was first elected president in 1981. Such sanctions would have compounded Italy’s ongoing economic crisis.

The PCI, thus, premised its actions on Berlinguer’s belief that the most important thing was to protect Italian democracy. If the PCI moved too quickly, it would upset the fragile political order and would assure a violent response from the right. In this view, Berlinguer drew upon the historical example of the anti-fascist alliance formed in the period of 1943-47 and, in particular, Palmiro Togliatti’s cautious refusal to back revolutionary action at the end of the Second World War. Togliatti had rejected demands for revolution by partisans who had spent much of the previous years engaged in militant opposition to fascism and as a result had the conceivable military organization with which to execute such a revolution. As Togliatti believed such a revolution would be quashed by the American military who were occupying Italy and that the Soviet Union was not in position to offer the Italian Communists any help, he preached the need for a more cautious, incremental approach.

By the mid-1970s the Euro-Communist parties, of which Italy’s was the largest, sought to separate themselves from the Soviet Union on the one hand and European social democracy on the other. Since the Hungarian revolution and the construction of the Berlin Wall, Soviet communism was associated with autocracy and authoritarianism while social democracy was merely reformist and had failed to pursue any real transformative policies. While the social democratic governments had attempted to soften the worst capitalist injustices, it did so from within the confines of capitalism. Berlinguer presented his leadership as offering a “third way,” one that was neither Soviet totalitarianism nor social democratic reformism—though he never clearly articulated what, exactly, differentiated his party from the social democrats or how the PCI would bring about a transition away from capitalism.

In pursuing his grand alliance with the Christian Democrats, Berlinguer alienated the socialists who had already taken a conciliatory approach to the DC and by 1976 had become accustomed to playing a key role in Italian politics. Moreover, in 1975 they had elected as their leader the ambitious Bettino Craxi who hailed from the party’s right flank. Craxi did not forget the snub. As a result an irreparable rift was formed between Italy’s left-wing parties and under Craxi the PSI would go its own way. In 1976 there might have been a possibility of a left-wing coalition against the DC, by 1979 there was no hope of this. Meanwhile, the grand alliance with the DC had come to nought. Berlinguer was unable to obtain meaningful representation for the PCI in the Italian government and the DC instead used the alliance to foment the break between the PCI and PSI. His efforts were further undone by the violence of Italian politics in the late-1970s and, in particular, the kidnapping and murder of the Christian Democrats’ leader Aldo Moro in May, 1978. Rather than initiating a transition to a new socialism, Berlinguer’s strategy benefitted the rise of neoliberalism that would begin under the prime ministership of Bettino Craxi in the 1980s.

While Togliatti’s cooperation with the center/center right in the aftermath of the Second World War was justified as a pragmatic necessity for a country not ready for revolution, by the mid-1970s Italy was crying out for radical action. If it was not the time, it was hard to see when it ever would be. Berlinguer may have sought to protect Italian democracy from the combined forces of the far right and a deepening economic crisis that he saw as a deliberate strategy intended to counter the mobilization of the students and trade unions on the left, but the outcome was instead the very permanent shift to the right that he had feared and sought to prevent. In chasing respectability Berlinguer emphasized the strong state and largely abandoned the reform of prisons and police or safeguarding the right to dissent. More damningly, instead of freeing Italy from clientalism the communists actively participated as soon as they were given an opportunity. Rather than being a force for change, they turned out to be the same as every other political party. In the 1979 election they would lose 1.5 million votes from their 1976 result.

The End of the Italian Communist Party

In 1987 Umberto Bossi, the leader of a regional party, the Lega Lombarda, was elected to the Italian senate and in 1991 a number of northern regional parties merged to form the racist, anti-European Lega Nord under Bossi’s leadership. Bossi’s movement was animated by the perceived failure of the Italian establishment to deal adequately with the mass migration to the north from southern Italy and the continued economic and social disparities between the northern and southern parts of the country and against the multiculturalism represented by the pro-European, cosmopolitan liberal politicians. While not exactly fascist, his party gave new voice to racist resentment that had long simmered under the surface of Italian politics. Two years after Bossi was elected to the senate the Soviet Union collapsed and with it the intellectual foundation upon which the PCI rested was broken.

In response to the end of Russian communism, Berlinguer’s successor Achille Occhetto announced that the PCI would change its name and abandon the communist moniker in recognition of its transition from doctrinaire socialism to democratic socialism over the previous two decades. At the XXth and final Congress of the Italian Communist Party in 1991 sixty-eight percent of the delegates voted in favor of the new name, Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) while a small faction of militants followed Armando Cossutta and Pietro Ingrao to form the Rifondazione Communista (RC). As historian of Italy Paul Ginsborg observed, “the PCI had been born a party intent on making socialist revolution, it gradually became, by one of those exquisite ironies of history, the champion of the very ‘burgeois’ democracy it had vowed to destroy” (Ginsborg, 2003, p. 161). In doing so it had brought about its own destruction.


By the election of 1992 the writing was on the wall for the remnants of the traditional Italian political parties. The PDS and RC received only 16.6 and 5.6 percent of the vote respectively. Combined, their share of the vote was less than the PCI had received in any election since the 1940s. The ex-communists were not the only ones on the decline, the DC found itself with less than thirty percent of the vote for the first time in its history. The Lega Nord, meanwhile, increased its support from 0.5 percent to 8.7 percent. Two years later the Lega Nord and Umberto Bossi would be instrumental in the election of Silvio Berlusconi.

None of the traditional parties were able to recover their previous status. The PSI has been the most electorally successful and formed a number of governing coalitions; however, its increasing embrace of the political center undermined it in much the same way that the same impulses resulted in the collapse of the French Socialist Party under François Hollande. The neoliberalism of the 1990s was not able to address the economic and racial tensions that would be exacerbated by the European Union and its commitment to failed, punitive German economics that is characterized primarily on the extreme opposition to public debt. In 1994 Berlusconi seemed an anomaly. In 2018 the centrist government led by Matteo Renzi was defeated by an anti-establishment party founded by a comedian. After three months of negotiation a coalition between M5S and the Lega Nord led by the far right nativist Matteo Salvini (who had pushed Bossi out of the League a few years earlier).

None of these developments were inevitable; instead, they were the unforeseen consequences of pragmatic compromises by the left. It is impossible to know what the outcome would have been had Berlinguer pursued a radical left strategy when presented with the opportunity in 1976, but the historical evidence strongly suggests that ‘temporary’ coalitions with the center-right in the name of pragmatism or realism only serves to undermine the moral authority from which the left draws its credibility and strength. The center is a black hole into which the left must not willfully fall yet again.

Perry Anderson. The New Old World. London: Verso Books, 2009.

Paul Ginsborg. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Paul Ginsborg. Italy and Its Discontents: Family, Civil Society, State, 1980-2001. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Frederic Spotts and Theodor Wieser. Italy: A Difficult Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

The Failure of Left-wing Imagination

“Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”
Fredric Jameson, “Future City”

Over the course of the last year North America and parts of Europe have seen the left return to a prominence that it has not had for decades. One aspect of this newly ascended left that has particularly struck me has been how limited its socialist imagination has remained. In the United Sates we find the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders to be the most popular politician in the country. In the United Kingdom, a committed socialist in Jeremy Corbyn is the apparent next prime minister. Meanwhile socialist organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America quintupled its membership in the matter of a few months. A majority of voters under the age of thirty-five express support for socialism and hold a negative view toward capitalism. Yet, despite this change in fortunes that few would have predicted even a couple years ago, many of the most prominent members of the left remain unable to imagine a socialism that goes beyond an idealized version of Scandinavian socialism.

Rather than demand radical anti-capitalism, many prefer a pragmatic fight for a few tangible goals such as universal healthcare or the $15 minimum wage. These are important causes in that they offer material improvements to the lives of millions and thus should not be discounted just because they are inadequate; however, the entirety of the socialist ambitions cannot be limited to recreating 1950s-60s social democracy. A defense for the current narrowness of left-wing imagination is that, as a friend put it to me on twitter, we have to work within the “window of possibility.” In other words, radical socialism is not possible at the moment and, therefore, we need to moderate our ambitions and focus on immediate, pragmatic goals. Social democracy dominated much of Euro-America until the 1980s and the social democratic policies like medicare/Medicaid remain extremely popular despite decades of conservative attacks. Thus, the revival of social democracy appears to be eminently practical. Social democracy did not come into being because it was the furthest left option available. It was, in fact, a rather weak compromise that sought to protect the core interests of capital against the socialist threat.

As I argued in a recent article about the right flank of the British Labour Party from the 1950s through to the present, pragmatism is the guise under which the centrist obscures anti-left ideology. In the case of Labour, its right-wing members persistently made the argument that the British are inherently conservative in nature; therefore, it was necessary to ease them into socialism. The British people might be amenable to specific socialist policies (for instance, the NHS, once it became established was, and remains, enormously popular), the argument went, but they had no truck with radicalism. Thus, socialism must be presented in a moderate package and doled out piece-by-piece so that people would have time to get used to the idea and not be overwhelmed by too much change all at once. In practice, however, the result of such an incremental approach is primarily to undermine socialism. Instead of working slowly toward ever greater socialism, the so-called moderates are unceasingly intransigent in their resistance to socialist objectives. Thus, the Labour right made significant contributions to the conditions that resulted in Thatcherism and once Thatcher was elected consciously took actions that ensured she remained in power.

It is not the moderates who affect left-wing change or get things done. Instead, the moderates are the ones who inhibit real change as they seek “pragmatic” “compromises” and “bipartisanship.” Their real objective is to protect capital against a left-wing “populism.” The consequence of this is that capital and the bourgeoisie maintain their positions of power and are able to undermine and undo leftist gains. The process by which social democracy has been undone by neoliberalism over the past forty years is one obvious example. A more rapid example can be seen in the speed by which the Venezuelan bourgeoisie has acted (with the support of the US) to break apart the important social gains achieved by the Bolivarian revolution.

We can see a possible alternative unfolding right now in Portugal. For years the country has been ruled by alternating centre-right and centre-left governments and the Troika was able to impose its austerity economics on the nation. However, recently the Portuguese left has gained enough political power to force the centre-left away from its neoliberal norms and toward more leftist, anti-austerity policies, which have been highly successful in the immediate term at improving the material conditions of the Portuguese people. It is essential to recognize that this would not have happened without the constant pressure of the Portuguese communists whose objectives are considerably more radical and whose imagination is far greater than simply reducing destructive, cruel and economically disproved austerity policies.

As Daniel Finn has recently explained in the New Left Review:

From the French and Italian communists to Denmark’s Socialist People’s Party, erstwhile radicals have been repeatedly drawn into service as impotent appendages of the centre left, and paid a stiff political price. By resisting the temptation to enter Costa’s government, and extracting modest but tangible concessions in return for external support, the Left Bloc and the pcp have steered a path between sectarian closure and political neutralization, and still have the opportunity to put more radical solutions to Portugal’s distress on the table when the next Euro-crisis intervenes.

The example of Portugal, then, provides a tangible example of the importance of a greater socialist imagination than just Scandinavian social democracy. It is only by constant, persistent pressure from a strong and committed radical left that meaningful leftist reforms will take place. As the Democratic Party has shown over the past few months, the corporate centrist will expend considerable effort and accept significant political cost in order to impede the implementation of a leftist agenda.

The Nancy Pelosis and Chuck Schumers of the world are not allies of the left and should not be expected to act as such. However, the self-identified left possesses a fairly broad range of views from the revolutionary communists to the socialists to the social democrats and it is crucial to recognize that part of what separates the Marxist-Leninist from the social democrat is the boldness of their imagination. The social democrat cannot imagine a world without capitalism and, therefore, considers it futile to try to achieve such a world. Because they lack a grand vision, social democrats are left to seek small victories within the confines of capitalism. Yet, as I have argued in this short piece, even these limited ambitions will not be accomplished without a robust radical left. Even if one believes that the path to socialism is through small, incremental gains over time, it is clear to me that these moderate gains will only occur under heavy pressure from the far left. Thus, it is essential that we do not limit our imagination of what can be achieved to merely Scandinavian social democracy.

There’s No Such Thing as Absolute Free Speech

The American Civil Liberties Union has once again thrust itself into controversy. This time the furor was caused by its plan to defend white supremacist and failed author Milo Yiannopoulos over the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s refusal to allow ads for his book be displayed on public transit. The ACLU has a long history of defending Nazi free speech and the case is consistent with their general purview. Indeed, it’s actually rather tame as far as the ACLU goes. Nonetheless, coming as it does at a time when fascism and white supremacy is more visible than has been the case since at least the 1960s, the ACLU appears highly misguided to many on the left.

The debate has tended to be framed as one side arguing we shouldn’t defend Nazi speech because it is hate speech and does real harm and the other side arguing in support of an ideal of absolute free speech. Glenn Greenwald, for example, takes this line in his discussion of the controversy. He summarizes the absolute free speech position in this way:

If you’re someone who cares about the free speech attacks on radical leftists, Muslims, and other marginalized groups, and tries to defend those rights in court, then you’re going to be genuinely afraid of allowing anti-free speech precedents to become entrenched that will then be used against you when it’s time to defend free speech rights. The ACLU is not defending white supremacist groups but instead is defending a principle.

Essentially, then, we must defend them because in doing so we also defend our own right to speech.

Unfortunately, I find the ACLU and Greenwald’s position on this issue to be hopelessly naïve at best and completely out of touch with the actual reality in which we live. Greenwald goes on to say:

It’s always those whose views are deemed most odious by the mainstream that are the initial targets of censorship efforts; it’s very rare that the state tries to censor the views held by the mainstream. If you allow those initial censorship efforts to succeed because of your distaste for those being targeted, then you lose the ability to defend the rights of those you like because the censorship principle has been enshrined.

There are two assumptions supporting this argument and, unfortunately, neither is true. The first is that fascism and white nationalism is marginal and politically irrelevant, which clearly does not correspond to reality. The fact is, the state does not discriminate equally against the right and the left. Under capitalism power will always favour the far right over even modest leftism because the far right does not undermine capital. The second problem with Greenwald’s argument is that it depends on the right to act in good faith. Unfortunately, in the real world the right does not care about protecting free speech or democratic values if doing so interferes with advancing right wing political objectives.

Moreover, free speech is already incredibly circumscribed and there will always be functional limitations to speech whether these restrictions be social, economic or legal. The ACLU argument is concerned only with defending against legal restrictions and does nothing to address the far more significant economic barriers to speech. As a socialist, what is far more important than defending absolute free speech is to focus on capitalist power structures and recognize whose speech is most vulnerable. Instead of expending resources on defending Nazis we must continue to attack the power structures that enable fascism. The reality is that attacking capitalist power includes denying speech to fascists. When Greenwald writes, “this overflowing naïveté is what I’ve always found most confounding about the left-wing case against universal free speech: this belief that state authorities will exercise this power of censorship magnanimously and responsibly,” he essentially misses the point. The state is an instrument of capital and these fights are not happening in the context of state power. The leftist opposition to fascist speech has little to no expectation that state authorities will be on our side. Indeed, the capitalist state is irredeemably the enemy.

To summarize, absolute free speech is not possible in the real world, which means there will always be certain factors impinging on individual free speech. Often this is a good thing because it is part of the basic social norms on which day-to-day social interactions depend. However, speech is also limited according to more problematic factors such as economic means. For instance, a wealthy person has greater resources to make their views known and less personal risk in doing so. Thus, the more important concern is to undo economic barriers as part of the primary socialist objective: destroying capitalism and establishing a classless society. We have to acknowledge that a classless society does not inherently mean a society with absolute free speech. There will almost certainly continue to be some degree of social, and likely legal, restrictions on speech, just these restrictions will no longer be defined by the interests of capital. The argument that we must defend Nazi speech because otherwise our speech is at risk too is absurd because left-wing and minority speech is already deeply circumscribed. Moreover, the entire argument depends on the good faith of the right when in reality the right does not give the slightest shit about protecting the left’s right to free speech. Ultimately when you are expending limited resources defending Nazi speech you aren’t defending free speech, you’re just defending Nazis.

It’s a Big Tent and You’re Not In It: A Short History of Labour Moving to the Right

A bit ago Tony Blair’s chief whip Hilary Armstrong was on the BBC talking about Jeremy Corbyn. She claimed that while Blair was Prime Minister he had protected Corbyn from being kicked out of the Labour caucus despite Corbyn regularly voting against the whip because Blair appreciated the different point-of-view that Corbyn brought to the table. The point of this story, for Armstrong, was to argue that the historical strength of the Labour Party, and especially under Blair’s leadership, was that it was a “broad church.” By rejecting dogmatism, the Labour Party was supposedly able to accommodate a diversity of political positions that reflected the UK as a whole. According to Armstrong, Corbyn’s personal leftist convictions have undermined this broad church coalition. Thus, it is imperative that Corbyn make room for so-called moderate Labour MPs and give them the same freedom to register their convictions that Blair supposedly gave Corbyn. Of course, this ignores that Corbyn spent his first year as leader trying to appease opposition from the right by members of the Parliamentary Labour Party who responded to Corbyn’s efforts by attempting to force him out as leader. One rather doubts that Blair would have been so ecumenical toward Corbyn if he had actually represented a threat to Blair’s leadership. Instead, Corbyn spent the entirety of the Blair administration relegated to the backseats and far from any actual position of power or influence.

Tony Blair, of course, was one of the leading practitioners of triangulation. Like Bill Clinton, his political ideology was based on the conviction that the electorate is essentially conservative in nature and for a left-wing or liberal party to succeed it needed to find the perfect goldilocks position. According to the triangulators of New Labour, Labour needed to cast-off its far left radicalism and move to the political center in order to win. When Blair won a sweeping victory in 1997 the theory seemed to have been proven. While Labour has been in decline ever since, those such as Hilary Armstrong who endorse Blair’s approach continue to maintain what Labour needs to do is adjust to the right to find the current vertex on the political triangle. There is, however, a long history of this debate between the left and right factions in left-wing parties (for example, look up the Mensheviks) and the notion that Labour needs to move to the right in order to win electoral victories was not invented by Tony Blair. Indeed, the debate has been raging for the entirety of the party’s history.

In 1945 and in the aftermath of the Second World War, Clement Atlee’s Labour Party shocked the British establishment by crushing Winston Churchill’s Tories in the 1945 General Election. Labour won nearly 50 percent of the vote and went from 154 to 393 seats in Parliament, resulting in a majority of 196 over the Conservatives. Labour took advantage of this substantial mandate to initiate an ambitious program of social democratic reforms. Major industries were nationalized and a public housing program was initiated in response to the deplorable slum conditions and widespread housing shortages faced by the poor. Most significantly, the National Health Services (NHS) was established in 1948 under the direction of the committed leftist Aneurin (Nye) Bevan. The Atlee Labour government’s achievements were substantial and significantly changed the shape of Britain for the better. However, Britain remained under the shadow of the Second World War and continued to be deeply constrained by debts. In 1950, five years after the war, war rations had yet to be lifted. Meanwhile, the benefits of Labour’s initiatives were yet to be fully realized. Thus, the nearly two hundred seat majority of 1945 was reduced to just five seats in the 1950 General Election. A year later Labour lost to Churchill’s Tories in an incredibly closely fought election that saw the Tories winning the majority of seats despite losing the popular vote.

Once the Tories got back into power they accepted the large part of Atlee’s reforms, adopting what was termed the Postwar Consensus. In doing so, the Conservatives managed to co-opt the popular elements of Labour’s program while also benefiting from coming into power as the UK finally began to recover from the strains created by the Second World War. Thus, Labour found itself stuck on the outside and the Conservatives looked to be securely ensconced on office for the foreseeable future.

During the Atlee administration there had been significant tension between the left and right factions of the Labour Party, which was divided into Bevanites (after the leader of the Labour left Nye Bevan) and the Gaitskellites (after the notable representative of the Labour right, Hugh Gaitskell). The tension between the Bevanites and Gaitskellites particularly began to build when Gaitskell, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced charges for NHS dentures and spectacles. As this violated the NHS’s principle of free treatment on which it had been founded, Bevan and Harold Wilson (the President of the Board of Trade) resigned in protest. After Labour lost the 1951 election, the tension continued to mount as Gaitskell and other members of the so-called moderate faction argued that Bevan and his supporters risked leaving the Labour Party irrevocably tainted with the stain of far-left radicalism—especially sensitive considering as Cold War tensions grew in the 1950s.

In the political climate that followed Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous secret speech in which he denounced Stalin and revealed the extent of Stalinist purges in the 1930s, Gaitskell and his supporters directly tied Bevanite radicalism to totalitarianism. For instance, Gaitskell claimed, “There are extraordinary parallels between Nye [Bevan] and Adolf Hitler. They are demagogues of exactly the same sort…There are minor differences but what is striking is the resemblance.” (Thus, the centrist claim that the far left and the far right are actually the same is nothing new, but simply the continuation of an old theme). Meanwhile the young Gaitskellite MP Roy Jenkins saw Labour’s 1955 defeat to the Tories, now led by Anthony Eden, as further proof that Bevanite radicalism was toxic to the majority of Britons. According to Jenkins, “the electorate is extremely Conservative-minded and we can never win except with the kind of attitude represented by the right-wing leadership.” Jenkins comments came in conjunction with Atlee’s resignation as leader following his defeat in the 1955 election.

For Labour to return to power, Jenkins believed, it would need to turn to its right flank and choose Hugh Gaitskell as leader. Jenkins’s position prevailed in the ensuing leadership contest and Gaitskell was chosen over Bevan. Despite widespread expectations that they would form the next government, Labour lost the 1959 general election to the Tories, now led by Harold McMillan (who had replaced Eden after Eden resigned in ill-health in 1957 following the humiliation of the Suez crisis).Tellingly, Gaitskell blamed his loss on Labour’s failure to depart “sufficiently from its old ‘working-class attitudes’” as the British people were ‘radical’ but not socialist and wanted a “‘left of centre radical party’ which would make social changes without being revolutionary or authoritarian.” Somehow for the centrists it is never their politics, but their party’s far left that is to blame for defeats.

In 1963 Gaitskell died suddenly at the age of 56. Led by the more left-wing Harold Wilson Labour was finally able to return to power after thirteen years when they achieved a narrow victory in the 1964 general election. Labour would form the government from 1964-1970 and again from 1974-79. After Wilson resigned in 1976 Labour was led by James Callaghan who lacked Wilson’s personal popularity. Meanwhile, the country was faced with economic crisis as inflation topped twenty-three percent in 1975. Efforts to combat this inflation strained relations between Labour and the trade unions and further exacerbated already high unemployment. Between by-election losses and defections with the breakaway Scottish Labour Party, by 1977 Callaghan was reduced to a minority government. After widespread union unrest through the winter of 1978-79, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives delivered a crushing defeat to Labour in the 1979 election.

Thatcher’s Tories represented a complete repudiation of the postwar social democratic consensus. As such, she set about to undo as much of Atlee’s welfare state as she could manage with the same determination as Bevan et al had shown when setting it up. Faced with such a comprehensive defeat Callaghan resigned and was replaced by grandee of the Labour left Michael Foot. Foot was seventy-seven years old and had first been elected to Parliament in 1945. Foot had not just been a committed Bevanite when Bevan was around for the term to mean something, but was Bevan’s biographer. The Labour right, who had been largely quiet during the electorally successful Wilson years, roared back to the fore in protest of Foot’s selection as leader. Foot, they bellowed, was a dinosaur of the past and was wholly unsuited to dealing with the present. Thatcher’s election demonstrated that the electorate had shifted significantly to the right and that the welfare state was failing. As they always do, the so-called moderates argued that Labour needed to move to the right if they were to have any hope of returning to power. As the voters had shifted right, so must Labour.

In this battle between the right and left, the right demonstrated their commitment to maintaining Labour as a big tent. A group of four prominent members of the Labour right, including our old friend Roy Jenkins, left the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party on the grounds that Labour had become infiltrated by Trotskyist factions and was too left wing. This so-called Gang of Four was eventually joined by twenty-eight Labour MPs. The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberal Party before the 1983 election and received twenty-five percent of the vote—only two percent less than Labour’s 27.5 percent; however, Labour won 209 seats to the SDP-Liberal Alliance’s 23 and the bulk of the 1981 defectors lost their seats. The principle accomplishment of the SDP, thus, was ensuring that Thatcher was comfortably re-elected and able to continue to dismantle the welfare state.

Despite the obvious role played by the SDP defection, Foot’s 1983 loss was seen as a repudiation of the left-wing manifesto on which Labour had run. Strongly socialist, the manifesto had advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher taxes, more interventionist industrial policy, the abolition of the House of Lords, the nationalization of the banks, and the exit from the European Economic Community. Gerald Kaufman infamously called the 1983 manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history,” a sentiment that effectively summed up how it was received by the so-called moderates and the British establishment. Having lost the election, Foot duly resigned and the more right wing Neil Kinnock took his place. The SDP-Liberal Alliance held long enough to contest the 1987 election, but saw their support decline significantly. While the Liberals won the same number of seats as in 1983, the SDP were reduced to only five. As a result the SDP and Liberals merged in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats.

Meanwhile, despite Labour’s shift to the right under Kinnock, Labour was unable to defeat Thatcher in 1987. There was one last gasp by the Foot wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1988 when a faction of left wing MPs, led by Jeremy Corbyn, challenged Kinnock’s leadership. In the ensuing leadership contest Corbyn and his supporters put up another old grandee of the Labour left, Tony Benn (first elected to Parliament in 1950). Kinnock comfortably defeated Benn’s leadership challenge as he received the support of nearly ninety percent of the vote in Labour’s semi-democratic leadership contest. Corbyn took his defeat gracefully stating that, “What we have achieved is a degree of activity and discussion of socialist values which would not have happened without the leadership contest” and that he believed would “result in stronger socialist policy in the long-run” for the Labour Party. With Kinnock’s leadership more firmly entrenched and Margaret Thatcher pushed out as Conservative leader, Labour went on to lose to John Major’s Tories in the 1992 general election. It was not until 1997, under the leadership of the Tony Blair, that Labour finally managed to defeat the Tories and end nearly two decades spent in the opposition.

For the Blairites, his 1997 election and subsequent re-elections in 2001 and 2005 proved the right flank of the party correct. It was Blair’s careful calibration of centrist policies designed to appeal to the widest swath of the electorate that led to Labour’s victories. Of course, when Blair won his first election the Tories had been in power for eighteen years. Considering that in an even moderately health democracy one party rarely holds office for such a long period of time, it seems rather more likely that rather than Blair’s political strategy being particularly transformative, the country was simply tired of the Tories and ready for an alternative. Regardless, Blair’s premiership meant that the Labour right, which had been fighting for dominance since Hugh Gaitskell was comparing the left-wing Nye Bevan to Hitler in the 1950s, had finally triumphed over its left flank.

Over the next thirteen years Labour largely governed like moderate Conservatives and continued to follow the neoliberal policies of deregulation, free trade and privatization initiated by Thatcher. When Labour lost to the Conservatives in 2010 the Blairites did not undergo any deep soul-searching about their policies; instead, they continued with the same old lines about the general conservatism of the British electorate and the need to follow a moderate path so as not to alienate swing voters. The rank-and-file membership saw things differently and after the mediocrity of Ed Miliband they chose the unabashedly left-wing Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. Running on a left wing platform for the first time since 1983 (when Corbyn was first elected to Parliament), Labour refuted the expert prognosticators who saw Corbyn’s leadership and their left-wing manifesto as a repeat of Foot’s so-called suicide note. Instead, Labour achieved its largest gains since Atlee in 1945.

Far from on death’s door, Labour now sits as government-in-waiting. Tony Blair and his acolytes have responded to Corbyn’s leadership with constant opposition and direct challenges to his leadership. Going into the 2017 election, Tony Blair urged would-be Labour voters to instead vote for the Liberal Democrats or pro-European Union Conservatives rather than support Corbyn. Despite Corbyn’s electoral success the Labour right continues to challenge his leadership. Meanwhile Blair has begun to suggest a move reminiscent of Labour history, if the Labour right is unable to remove Corbyn as leader he and a collection of wealthy pro-EU donors like Richard Branson (who became a billionaire profiteering from Thatcher’s privatizations) have floated the idea of starting their own party. This despite the notable failure of the SDP the last time this was tried, despite Blair’s enormous unpopularity in the UK and despite the fact that a fiscally moderate, socially liberal, fervently pro-EU party already exists in the form of the Liberal Democrats and that platform managed only eight percent of the votes and twelve seats in the just completed election. But then, Blair’s ploy, like the SDP, is a power play than an electoral strategy. The Labour right is more interested in protecting their corporate friends and the cosmopolitan center of world finance which they have helped to transform London into at the expense of the rest of the United Kingdom than they are concerned about defeating the Tories. Indeed, the Blairites have more in common with Theresa May than with Jeremy Corbyn.

So much for a big tent.

Joseph Stalin pinpoints the failure inherent in social democracy

The aim which the Americans are pursuing, arose out of the economic troubles, out of the economic crisis. The Americans want to rid themselves of the crisis on the basis of private capitalist activity, without changing the economic basis. They are trying to reduce to a minimum the ruin, the losses caused by the existing economic system. Here, however, as you know, in place of the old, destroyed economic basis, an entirely different, a new economic basis has been created. Even if the Americans you mention partly achieve their aim, i.e., reduce these losses to a minimum, they will not destroy the roots of the anarchy which is inherent in the existing capitalist system. They are preserving the economic system which must inevitably lead, and cannot but lead, to anarchy in production. Thus, at best, it will be a matter, not of the reorganisation of society, not of abolishing the old social system which gives rise to anarchy and crises, but of restricting certain of its excesses. Subjectively, perhaps, these Americans think they are reorganising society; objectively, however, they are preserving the present basis of society.

That is why, objectively, there will be no reorganisation of society.

Nor will there be planned economy. What is planned economy? What are some of its attributes? Planned economy tries to abolish unemployment. Let us suppose it is possible, while preserving the capitalist system, to reduce unemployment to a certain minimum.

But surely, no capitalist would ever agree to the complete abolition of unemployment, to the abolition of the reserve army of unemployed, the purpose of which is to bring pressure on the labour market, to ensure a supply of cheap labour. Here you have one of the rents in the “planned economy” of bourgeois society. Furthermore, planned economy presupposes increased output in those branches of industry which produce goods that the masses of the people need particularly. But you know that the expansion of production under capitalism takes place for entirely different motives, that capital flows into those branches of economy in which the rate of profit is highest. You will never compel a capitalist to incur loss to himself and agree to a lower rate of profit for the sake of satisfying the needs of the people. Without getting rid of the capitalists, without abolishing the principle of private property in the means of production, it is impossible to create planned economy.

From this interview between H.G. Wells and Stalin, which is also entertaining for Stalin’s disdain for Wells.

What Stalin recognized was that social democracy cannot succeed over the long-term because it does not reorganize the capitalist structures of power. While social democracy does a good job of providing moderate improvements to the material conditions of the working classes, it exist within capitalism and is therefore deeply limited in terms of what it can accomplish. Such material improvement does offer an empowerment of the marginalized groups that benefit most strongly from social democracy, but eventually the capitalist classes are able to re-assert their power, as seen by the abandonment of social democracy beginning in the 1970s in favour of neoliberalism. Another clear example can be seen in the collapse of chavismo upon the death of Hugo Chavez and the decline in the price of oil that Chavez had largely depended upon to fund his social programs. Chavismo failed not because it was socialist, but because it was not socialist enough. Though Chavez improved the conditions of the working class in Venezuela, he did not attempt to break the political power of the bourgeoisie.

Social democracy is but a temporary check on the destructive force of capitalism.

Grenfell Tower Fire: Infrastructure Disasters as Portends for Major Ideological Shifts, or, Why Neoliberalism is Finished

The slow demise of social democracy was marked by a series of tragic infrastructure disasters that seemed to make clear the insufficiency of the postwar consensus. As Margaret Thatcher sought to privatize Britain and tear down the welfare state she was helped along by a series of highly public disasters. These included the Bradford City stadium fire in 1985, in which 56 were killed, the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989, where 96 Liverpool fans were killed in a human crush, and the King’s Cross fire in 1987, which resulted in 31 deaths. The United States did not have tragedies on a corresponding scale, but there the decline of social democracy was accompanied by disasters such as the collapse of an eighty foot section of the West Side Highway in New York City in 1973. These disasters were all the consequence of severe under-investment in infrastructure and were made acute by the manufactured budget crises that enabled the success of the anti-social democratic agenda.

In the late-1970s London appeared dilapidated and crumbling. Neoliberalism responded in the way it responds to everything. Public assets and services were privatized and banking regulations were loosened. It was under Thatcher that the idea of the Public Private Partnership really began to be developed, though her primary actions were to sell off as much as the state as possible. Such privatizations have been a constant of the last thirty years as underfunded governments sell their assets to private investors in return for capital in the present. This comes at the cost of long-term income for the government in question while the services themselves become both more expensive and of lower quality. However, when the first round of privatizations were taking place, financial centers such as London or New York City were flooded with capital. London became a city of bankers and lawyers and the city took on the appearance of wealth and success. It has become considerably shinier as rentier landlords have sought to turn the entire city into luxury housing for money launderers. The entire city has been given an attractive highly flammable façade, chosen because it saved £5000 over the fire resistant alternative.

Thus, the Grenfell Tower fire points to two structural failures of neoliberalism. The first is that neoliberalism is a rentier economy that works entirely by extracting an ever greater share of the wealth from the bottom and transferring it upwards. It is inherently destructive in the long-term because it is incapable of creation. All that neoliberalism can do is squeeze greater rents out of what was already there to begin with while actively destroying all sources of production. Thus, Britain has become nearly fully deindustrialized since the 1980s and is now reliant entirely on the banking industry (which make most of their profits laundering money for druglords and dictators and other criminal behaviour) and the property market in London (which also profits heavily from money laundering). Meanwhile, most of the population has been reduced to poorly paid service jobs while basic life goals become ever more unattainable and even just daily survival more difficult.

This points toward the second failure of neoliberalism. Because it cannot create wealth, the neoliberal economy cannot survive in the long-term. In order to continue to extract rents, the capitalist class is forced to continue to drive up property values (such as through loose banking regulations that allowed the sub-prime loans that created the US housing bubble that collapsed to cause the 2008 financial crisis) and to constantly seek ways of reducing costs. The need for lower costs escalates moves toward off-shore manufacturing, automation, efforts to push down wages and, most significantly, the widespread tax avoidance carried out by corporations and the capitalist classes. Thus, the constant since 2010 has been austerity as necessary services have been horrifically and criminally defunded while multibillionaires and politicians alike hide their money in tax shelters.

Infrastructure crises are portends to major ideological shifts because they make it impossible to hide how the status quo has failed. The cruelty and inhumanity of neoliberalism has been laid bare by entirely avoidable disasters such as at Grenfell Tower or the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. In the UK it has been recognized by many over the last several years that the status quo had failed Britain, but there was no real alternative. Thanks to Blairism, Labour Party offered little different than what the Tories did. Worse, it had been Labour who had led Britain into the financial crises that resulted in the present austerity in the first place. The only groups presenting an anti-austerity argument were the nationalists (while the neo-fascist UKIP has received the bulk of the attention, not all nationalist parties are far right as demonstrated by the center-left SNP). The lack of a viable, credible left has allowed neoliberalism to continue in its increasingly violent death throes for the last decade. As of the just completed UK election, this is no longer the case. The mantra of Margaret Thatcher was that “there is no alternative,” Jeremy Corbyn has provided an alternative. In the immediate wake of the Grenfell Fire, the anger has been rightly directed toward the authors of austerity and the ideology that caused it.

Margaret Thatcher was wrong. There is an alternative. The death of neoliberalism has been evident since at least 2008 for anyone with a brain who has been paying attention (so not David Frum), but until recently there was a very real possibility that it was going to be the far right who would benefit. It was far right movements led by elites disguised as populists who were the only ones really offering a different vision of the future than the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short life of man described by Thomas Hobbes. These movements were led by frauds like Donald Trump, Nigel Farrage, Boris Johnson and Marine Le Pen, but at least they weren’t telling people whose lives have been crushed by de-industrialization and the collapse of coal mining that actually things are already great. The shift to the far right was a move of desperation, but fascism has always appealed to a small, but significant, part of the population in times of economic deprivation. Moreover, fascism is amenable to the capitalists because it does not challenge their economic power or threaten their ill-gotten wealth. Until last week it appeared as though neoliberalism would collapse into fascism or some sort of Mad Max dystopia. Whatever allows the rich to cling to their gold is acceptable to them no matter how many die as a result.

Fortunately, for the first time the leader of a mainstream, leading political party has been willing to make a clear, left-wing case against neoliberalism and to present a positive, socialist vision of the future. The right-wing establishment threw everything they had at Corbyn to little avail. Though idiot centrists have taken up desperate rearguard action in defense of the status quo and desperately point to Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau as signs that neoliberalism is not dead, but it is too late for them. The cruel failures of neoliberalism are too transparently obvious to fool the masses any longer.

Lessons from Jeremy Corbyn for the NDP

In 2011 the New Democratic Party of Canada unexpectedly experienced what was termed the “Orange Wave” as the party went from 36 MPs to 103. For the first time in its history the NDP formed the official opposition in the federal parliament. This Orange Wave was largely due to spectacular results in Quebec where the party took 59 of 75 seats despite having not entered the election expecting to seriously contend. Indeed, the election day saw results such as the election of the Ottawa bartender Ruth Ellen Brosseau despite the fact that she had taken a break in the middle of the campaign to go on a previously booked vacation to Las Vegas.

The NDP’s surprise success was the product of a couple factors. The Liberal Party had been in decline since Jean Chrétien was made to resign as leader and Prime Minister in 2003 to make way for his impatient rival Paul Martin. Chrétien rewarded Martin by dumping a major scandal onto his lap. Martin’s inability to deal with the scandal effectively combined with mediocre performance as prime minister. At the same time the Canadian Alliance (né the Reform Party) and the Progressive Conservatives had finally managed to execute the merger back into a single right wing party that they’d been trying to work out for several years. As a result, Martin’s Liberals crashed out of office in 2005 and Stephen Harper’s Conservatives managed to form a minority government. In the years that followed the Conservatives were able to consolidate their position and obtain a majority. Meanwhile, the Liberals went through a series of ever more mediocre leaders from Paul Martin to Stéphane Dion and finally to Michael Ignatieff.

At the same time as the Liberals were in their steady decline to minor party status, the separatist Bloc Québécois were also on the downswing. This meant what had been the two primary parties in Quebec since the 1990s were both moribund at the same time. Socially liberal, much of Quebec was not inclined to vote the Conservative Party, especially with the ex-Reform Party’s record of anti-Francophone sentiment. Thus, the NDP suddenly appeared as a viable option for the first time.

These structural changes are important to remember when thinking about the 2011 election, but at the same time it must also be acknowledged that Jack Layton ran an excellent campaign that fit the moment perfectly. While the Liberals went strongly negative and ran a campaign meant to target the significant segment of the Canadian population who loathed the authoritarian and hard right politics represented by Harper’s Conservatives, Layton offered a positive alternative. Layton’s campaign was relentless optimistic and built heavily on the personal charisma of Jack Layton – an optimism and charisma that was given added weight by the knowledge that he was dying of cancer. The weakness of the Liberals and the BQ, the antipathy in certain parts of Canada (especially Quebec) toward the Conservatives and the aspirational and charismatic campaign of Layton all combined to lead the NDP to their best result ever in a federal election.

Jack Layton would die only a few months after the election and the NDP was faced with the challenge of how to replace him. In that leadership race they were forced to contend with what did the 2011 election results mean? How could they take this unexpected success and build on it in the next election? In dealing with these questions, the NDP took entirely the wrong lessons and chose the centrist Tom Mulcair as the new leader. As leader Layton had worked to push the party to the right and redefine it as socially liberal and economically moderate. The party leadership took this shift away from the party’s left-wing roots to be one of the crucial elements to Layton’s success in 2011. They interpreted the Liberal Party’s decline as terminal and saw the opportunity to finish re-branding the party as a standard center-left party and establish themselves as the moderate alternative to the Conservatives. Thus, they chose the former Liberal Mulcair as their new leader and firmly rejected any move back to the left.

Unfortunately for Mulcair the Liberals managed to get their act together and made the charismatic and attractive Justin Trudeau their leader. When the 2015 election was called the NDP went on the attack and completely failed to replicate the positive campaign of 2011. Worse, they had carefully calibrated their policy positions to head off attacks that they were far left nutters who would bring Canada’s economy to ruins (the Conservatives obviously made these attacks anyway). This meant that Trudeau was able to actually position the Liberals to the left of the NDP and siphon away some of the NDP’s support while the NDP failed to make significant ground among so-called moderate voters who largely stuck with the Liberals. In the end it was the Liberals who defeated the Conservatives. Since taking power Trudeau has set about pursuing an aggressively neoliberal agenda in between topless publicity appearances. There is some evidence that his initial popularity has begun to wane as it becomes clear what kind of prime minister he actually is and he’ll not easily be able to campaign to the NDP’s left in the next election.

Which brings us to the just completed election in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn has been a committed socialist, anti-imperialist and social justice activist since he was first elected at the height of the Thatcher years in 1983. While the Labour Party triangulated to the right under Tony Blair, Corbyn remained committed to his principles even though it left him isolated and relegated to the back benches. When he was unexpectedly elected leader by the Labour membership in 2015 the moderates who had long dominated the party were aghast and spent the last two years denouncing Corbyn. Instead of causing the death of the party, however, his campaign wrought widespread excitement, especially among the youth vote, and rather than being decimated, he oversaw the largest growth in Labour’s share of the vote since Clement Atlee in 1945 and Labour’s highest percentage of the vote since at least Blair’s second majority in 2001. Corbyn did all of this without compromising any of his core beliefs. He refused to move the party to the right and had the confidence to put out a thoroughly social democratic and strongly anti-austerity manifesto that turned out to be extremely popular. While the Tories still hold the most seats, they failed to win the record numbers that many had predicted. Rather than destroyed, Labour looks positioned to overtake the Tories in the next election. The centrists have been utterly discredited (though they continue to deny this reality).

While all of this has been going on the NDP has been in the midst of a leadership campaign. The candidates in this election at least suggest that the effort to turn the NDP into a Tony Blair style center-right party have been abandoned; however, the party appears to remain unable to embrace its roots and reject the destructive capitalism supported by the Conservatives and Liberals. Though all the candidates have made economic justice a centerpiece to their campaign, none of them describe themselves as socialist on their campaign website. Similarly, none take an unequivocal stance against imperialism.

I opposed Mulcair in 2011 because I opposed the continued shift to the right he represented. I continue to believe that if the NDP is to offer a meaningful alternative it needs to reject milquetoast centrism completely and utterly and, in line with Corbyn in the UK, have the confidence and moral integrity to embrace socialism. It is the only way forward for the party, but it is also the right thing to do. Ultimately, the right thing to do is more important in my view than the immediately pragmatic. What good is it to win an election if it costs you your soul?

Becoming Neoliberal: An Introduction

The time appears to have come for full-throated defenses of the neoliberal center. While this is an improvement over idiotic denials that neoliberalism even exists, it is at best intellectually dishonest and ahistorical in its understanding of the economic and political history of the world between 1945 and the present. A recent version of this “actually neoliberalism is good” genre has been brought to us by Noah Smith (though my personal favorite remains this oxymoronic call for a “radical center”). Smith’s argument is weakened by the fact that he apparently doesn’t know anything about the history of neoliberalism and only the vaguest sense of what people who criticize it are talking about (“Many will disagree, but to me FDR seems like the original neoliberal”). I have been working on putting together a set of posts on the emergence of neoliberalism and this one will serve to introduce the concept and give some very brief context.

Before we can go any further, the first step required is to define neoliberalism. According to Smith it is a vague and slippery term. Of course, neoliberalism isn’t actually any less well-defined than most terms. For example, try defining capitalism. Nonetheless, Smith suggests this definition: “It loosely refers to free-market economic ideas, combined with a technocratic, incrementalist approach to fixing market failures and redistributing wealth.” It’s not a great definition and misses a lot of the key underlying ideology that has resulted in the left’s opposition to neoliberalism and also shows why Smith thinks that FDR was a neoliberal. In his essential book on the history of neoliberalism, David Harvey defines neoliberalism as:

A theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices.

The snide retort is that it’s basically just a definition of capitalism and thus is meaningless as a critique. That is actually kind of the point, since neoliberalism is a conscious reference to nineteenth-century liberalism. Unlike how liberal tends to be used today, liberalism in the nineteenth century (especially Victorian Britain) meant free markets, global trade, colonialism and industrialization combined with a general sense of egalitarianism (thus opposition to slavery, child labor, etc.). Neoliberalism is a form of capitalism in which the primary role of the government is to protect and expand the rights of global capital. This is why recent “free trade agreements” are more concerned with intellectual property law than reducing tariffs.

As Smith demonstrates, you can easily frame the basic principles of neoliberalism in a way that makes it sound ridiculous to oppose it, but Smith’s defense exists entirely removed from any historical context. There are two key elements missing from Smith’s article. First, what preceded neoliberalism? Why did it become the dominant ideology and why did it come to power when it did? Second, what has been the result of neoliberalism? Essentially, what have the neoliberals done?

Calling FDR the first neoliberal is absurd and ahistorical because FDR was, in fact, the leading representative of the political economic consensus that came before neoliberalism: social democracy. Social democracy came to power as a result of the Great Depression and the Second World War. The catastrophic failure of the banks that resulted in the Great Depression demonstrated to center-leftists like FDR the imperative that banks be regulated and the citizen protected against the worst excesses of capitalism. The deprivation that occurred as a result of the Depression led to the creation of state welfare as governments began to see protecting the welfare of their citizens as their primary duty. The Second World War that immediately followed the Depression created conditions of total warfare in which the government rapidly expanded into every aspect of life. This meant that a level of government involvement in the economy that was previously unimaginable became accepted as necessary to the circumstances.

After the war, social democracy established itself as the prevailing worldview and social democratic ideas took hold in much of the so-called developed world. These ideas included universal healthcare, public ownership of key utilities, the massive expansion of access to secondary education, social security, the forty hour work week, widespread unionization, and so on. The social democratic victory seemed so complete that in the 1960 presidential election Richard Nixon campaigned on a social democratic platform. It turned out, however, to have been at its peak and would soon be faced with sustained pressure that would ultimately lead to its collapse. The Nixon who became president in 1968 did so in part because he was able to successfully reinvent himself and moved significantly to the right.

At its core conservatism is a reactionary worldview and the reactionaries responded immediately to the new social democratic consensus. As they regarded social democracy as an incipient socialism, a number of notable individuals such as Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman set about to establish a coherent critique of social democracy and to articulate an alternative. At the same time a group of conservative reactionaries within the Republican Party (led by the likes of William Buckley and the John Birch Society) sought to reconstruct the party along explicitly racist lines. As I will show in a future post, racism was a crucial element to the collapse of social democracy and the rise of neoliberalism and remains a core feature of neoliberalism to this day.

Despite what its defenders claim, neoliberalism has had devastating consequences. It has resulted in the significant decline in wages at the same time productivity and corporate profits have skyrocketed. It has ensured governments protect corporate interests and not the environment, which has meant that we’ve completely failed to meaningfully address climate change. Governments have handed over their regulatory power to corporations, leaving banks free to engage in ever more destructive and criminal behavior at the same time that individual freedom has become increasingly circumscribed and normal people subjected to constant surveillance in what have become privatized police states. Yet, the first neoliberal politicians were embraced with enthusiasm. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were elected with historic majorities and remain popular even now when the disasters created by their policies are clear to be seen by anyone willing to look. It is important to recognize that the prescriptions advocated by neoliberalism were appealing to many in the context of the 1970s. Neoliberalism was a conservative reaction to social democracy, but when it arrived on the national stages in the 1970s, it was responding to real failures. Its solutions turned out to be far worse for most than the problems it claimed to solve, but this was not obvious to most voters at the time. Indeed, it is not obvious to most voters even now with the benefit of hindsight.

While social democracy was vigorously opposed by conservatives from the outset, it was not until the 1970s brought economic crises sufficient for it to be overthrown. When such crises arrived, it was the conservatives who were ready with a coherently expressed alternative that. The upshot of the groundwork laid in the 1940s and ‘50s eventually came to fruition in the 1970s. Social democracy operated in parallel with the rapid growth of Western economies following the Second World War and resulted in nearly thirty years of steady wage growth. By the 1970s, however, the social democratic economy was beginning to show significant signs of strain. Infrastructure that had largely been built during the depression was increasingly outdated and in need of repairs. Governments (especially municipal) were struggling with debt. After twenty-five years of growth, the economy was hit with recession. Finally, after the tumult of 1960s politics and the major changes it had wrought (Civil Rights, anti-war protests, decolonization, the 1968 protests), the middle classes were ready for some conservatism.

My goal is to provide some historical context in order to demonstrate both why neoliberalism was popular and why social democracy failed. In doing so, I hope to offer a detailed refutation of ahistorical centrism so that we can move forward with a clear-eyed understanding of where we have come from and what a truly leftist alternative can be. The first of these posts will be on the 1975 New York City bankruptcy crisis.