“Brexit” and the recent US presidential election are symptoms of the crisis capitalism has wrought. People are hurting and it has become obvious that instead of “trickle down” we have, in Arundhati Roy’s words, “gush up”. Even mainstream media carry articles suggesting neoliberalism has had its day.
Many of the problems right-wing populists and fascists talk about are real. These problems are used to manipulate people's legitimate fears into prejudice and hate. Reformist left parties like the Labor Party here or the Democrats in US do not offer an alternative as long as they stick to neoliberalism. In fact, their neoliberal policies have driven, and continue to drive, people into the arms of right-wing populists and fascists. They have paved the way for Trump, Hanson and the like.
To demonstrate that socialism is a viable alternative, it is important for the Left to present a coherent view of the world and to remember that the “third way” of reformist left parties with their embrace of neoliberalism in the 1980s was not their first betrayal of the working class: One of the most devastating betrayals occurred at the beginning of World War I when the socialist leadership in Britain, France, Belgium and Germany supported the imperialist war on the side of their respective ruling classes.
The Socialist Women’s Movement was first to oppose this betrayal at a conference at Berne, Switzerland, in March 1915 by proclaiming that “Only the united determination of the people can stop the slaughter ... Down with capitalism … Down with the war! Onward to socialism!”
At the conference at Zimmerwald, Switzerland, in September 1915, delegates declared: “The war that has occasioned this chaos is the outcome of Imperialism, of the endeavours of the capitalist classes of every nation to satisfy their greed for profit by the exploitation of human labour and of the treasures of Nature.”
Lenin's "five basic features of Imperialism" of 1916 capture some of the main economic aspects of neoliberalism: the creation of monopolies through the concentration of production and capital, the creation of a financial oligarchy based on finance capital, the importance of the export of capital, the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations, and the division of the world among the international trusts.
By the end of the war, as John Riddell has pointed out, “the slogans of Zimmerwald were being voiced by millions of workers and soldiers across Europe. In 1917 and 1918, they carried out revolutions in Russia, Germany, and several neighbouring countries”.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm held the Bolshevik Revolution to be the most influential event of the 20th century, maintaining that historic developments since then can best be understood as counter-revolution spear-headed by fascism.
The failure of the revolutions in Germany and elsewhere left the Bolsheviks without outside support and “faced with the peculiar dilemmas of an anti-capitalist revolution catapulted to power over a largely pre-capitalist empire of peasants”. This and the outside interference in the civil war contributed to “real socialism’s” inability to establish a society based on cooperation and solidarity.
Michael Leibowitz recently wrote “Capitalism, Marx stressed, inverts everything. Characteristic of capitalist relations of production is that ‘it is not the worker who makes use of means of production, but the means of production that make use of the worker’. … Within the capitalist system, Marx concluded, ‘all means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers’.
“Missing from ‘real socialism’ was protagonism of the working class — protagonism in the workplace, protagonism in the community, protagonism throughout society. The result was predictable: alienation in the workplace, low productivity, and the desire for alien products; the result was ‘apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production.’ ‘Real socialism’ did not merely fail to produce rich human beings; its second product was a working class with neither the will nor the strength to prevent the restoration of capitalism. That path is a dead end.”
While it is important to analyse the reasons for the collapse of “real socialism”, it is at least as important to acknowledge its achievements, such as improved literacy, universal healthcare, education and provision of housing. People who grew up under “real socialism” are often shocked at the callousness with which the current capitalist system leaves people on the streets without any protection — they grew up in a society where everyone’s basic needs were met. The return of capitalism has resulted in a dramatic decrease in life expectancy.
The existence of the Soviet Union increased the pressure on the capitalist classes in the West to make concessions to the working classes regarding pay, working conditions, health, education and welfare after World War II. The economy was booming and no-one questioned that the services providing for community needs should be set up and run by the governments of the day. David Harvey calls this the phase of “embedded liberalism”. It achieved a significant narrowing of the gap between the rich and the rest by increasing the material wealth of the middle and working classes.
The movements of 1968 threatened the status quo in the West. In the 1970s the economy stagnated threatening profits. Neoliberalism was the next wave of the counter-revolution. It was the ruling classes’ tool to discipline and disempower the working class. It reversed the direction of the redistribution of the share of wealth through capital accumulation by dispossession, including the privatisation of public services and assets
Neoliberal think-tanks glorified “free markets” and “free trade”. Imperialist countries appropriated and perverted the meaning of freedom and democracy. The emphasis was on “individual rights”. Just as capitalism had led to the fragmentation of manual labour earlier on, its neoliberal version led to the fragmentation of intellectual labour in education, science and health. Education and public debate became all about different “truths” not about a coherent view of the world or an understanding of connections between different aspects of historical developments. Margaret Thatcher announced TINA (There Is No Alternative).
The reformist left parties did more than just go along with it. Under the guise of the “third way” they implemented neo-liberalism through welfare cuts, privatisations, public-private partnerships and other betrayals of left wing values. Their reformist agendas started pushing the working classes back into the misery from which they had escaped after World War II.
As it became undeniable that austerity is a mechanism for making the rich richer and the poor poorer, cracks started appearing in the neo-liberal hegemony, including “Brexit” and the election of Trump. Recently, even Paul Keating agreed with Sally McManus when she said neo-liberalism had run its course.
The political, economic and environmental crises we are facing present dangers as well as opportunities. We must take seriously the danger of a continued slide towards fascism. Rather than demonising working class people who have been seduced by the promises of right-wing populists and fascists, we must show that people like Hanson or Trump have nothing to offer that will actually help them.
Another danger is the temptation to blindly rail against such dangerous people as Hanson or Trump and to dismiss them outright. They are products and symptoms of neoliberalism. Their success is based on voicing concerns many people genuinely have, no matter how misguided.
Instead, let us emphasise that neoliberalism is just the current version of imperialist capitalism. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel — Lenin exposed many of the essential features of today’s neoliberalism back in 1916! Above all, let us seize this opportunity to provide a coherent view of the world and an alternative to the Hansons and Trumps. The choice we face is between barbarism and socialism.
[This article is adapted from the author's presentation Imperialism and the Emperor's New Clothes, part of the What Trumps Money Now? workshops organised by Socialist Alliance New England at Armidale in December 2016.]