what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Breakdown of the social agreement

Winston Churchill was the source of great quotes – one of which was “If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” Pity he didn’t say something about what happens to political beliefs after you become 60! Of course, a lot depends on the context – both personal and social. And I don’t suppose I am alone in having moved even more left in the past decade.
I have always had a fairly critical perspective on the power structure – but could never join the more radical left in its specific prescriptions. I was too sceptical about social engineering. I profoundly believed in social progress coming from a balance of power. My mistake was to imagine that the power elite accepted the new balance of power which had been forged by the middle of the last century.

An important article on the Social Europe site by an adviser to the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees puts the failure of the European social democratic movement to make any real electoral headway in a useful historical context -
The current deep ideological and political crisis on the broad left can only be understood in the context of the rather socially peaceful post World War II period, the heydays of the social welfare state and the existence of a class compromise between labour and capital in Europe. This historic compromise was the result of a very specific historic development, in which capitalist forces gave concessions to the well organised working class in Western Europe to damp its radicalism and win workers’ support in the cold war against the Soviet Union. However, in the dominant trade union and labour movement these historic specific achievements gradually formed the basis for a generalised social partnership ideology which became more and more delinked from the analyses of the power relations on which it was built. Thus, it also led to a certain depoliticisation and deradicalisation of the trade union and labour movement. The historic role of the Social Democratic parties became to administer the class compromise, rather than to mobilise the working class for further social progress. This is very well illustrated by the fact that the political and ideological crisis really hit those political parties as the class compromise started to disintegrate from around 1980 – and capitalist forces launched their neoliberal offensive.
What we have seen in Europe over the last 30 years is therefore governments which have pursued some kind of neoliberal policies whether they have been right wing, centre or so-called centre-left governments. The Social Democratic Parties in the EU member countries have, without exception, supported all the neoliberal constitutional amendments of the EU, and the entire construction of a Singel Market, which in reality has been a systematic project of deregulation, privatisation and undermining of trade unions and social welfare.

Most of the European trade union confederations are clinging to what in EU language is called the ‘social dialogue’. This means that they act as if the post World War II class compromise is still intact, and that bi- and tripartite cooperation between labour, capital and the state is still the most effective way of promoting the interests of workers. That the class compromise has come to an end, and that the social forces with which they seek dialogue are attacking public services, wages, pensions and the very fundamental trade unions rights day and night, do not seem to weaken most European trade union organisations’ belief in social partnership and social dialogue as the main way forward…..
The European social model, such as we know it from its heyday, has at any rate been abandoned in reality by the European elites, even if they continue to pay lip-service to it.
A solution to the crisis, built on solidarity, will require massive mobilisation in order to change the balance of power in society. Only if the trade union and labour movement is strong enough to pose a threat to the existing economic order, will the speculators and their political servants start to give in. That is why support for those who are now fighting to contain this cutback policy is so crucial. The restructuring of the political left seems to be part of the task. Either the trade union and labour movement will manage to defend the social progress gained via the welfare state, or it risks being left with a right-wing authoritarian and socially degraded Europe. A great part of the social progress of the last century is at stake.
Open Democracy is running a special series at the moment on various aspects of the global crisis – and I recommend one contribution which carries the marvellous title Alternative Finance Radicals – infusing rebellion with entrepreneurial activity. Two reasons make it a worthwhile read – first the number of links it gives to relevant work elsewhere (a rare generosity these days); and, second, its arguments for the need to break down the barriers which separate people who could be working fruitfully together -
Left-wing, rebellion-based approaches make bold stands against systems perceived as unjust, while entrepreneurial creativity-based approaches seek to make those systems redundant by bypassing them. Both are forms of subversion, although the latter tends to require a keener engagement with the mainstream. Financial activism, traditionally associated with economic justice ‘activists’, should also be thought of as including those who are proactively building new models outside of the traditional activist ‘scene’. Perhaps the ideal is a hybrid radical, well-versed in the micro-level practicalities of alternatives, and possessing an entrepreneurial flair infused with the rebellious spirit of critical theory. Encouraging hybrid radicals entails overcoming silos, and that’s part diplomatic mission, and part a co-ordination problem. It’s also about articulating a common vision that cuts across different networks with different immediate priorities and internal languages.
Two useful blogs I came across today are by Marxist economists – Michael Roberts writes in a clear and forthright manner and gives important data on the global crisis as it is affecting Europe. Another, Critique of Crisis Theory, is theoretical and much harder going – but the link I have given contains a fascinating account of one man’s intellectual journey over the past 40 years.
Until now, Boffy’s Blog was my only Marxist voice – and his latest commentary on ageing, the health service and the public spending cuts in the UK is a good example of the baroque treasure you often get on his site.

For a more concrete example of how corporate power deals with its so-called partners, have a look at this great John Harris video on what it’s like to be the owner of a “tied” pub in the UK (tied, that is, to a brewery giant)

A year ago
I commented on a promising European initiative by the Guardian – a new site which
as well as drilling down into different nations, we are also keen for the site to reflect – and inspire – more wide-ranging pan-European debates about the future of Europe as an idea and as a project, something that feels particularly urgent in this time of economic, political and social flux”.
My comment was that
"The barrier to our understanding of development in other European countries is not just linguistic. It stems also from the intellectual compartmentalisation (or apartheid) which universities and European networks have encouraged in our elites. European political scientists, for example, have excellent networks but talk in a highly specialised language about recondite topics which they publish in inaccessible language in inaccessible journals. What insights they have about each other’s countries are rarely made available to the wider public. The same is true of the civil service nationals who participate in EC comitology or OECD networks – let alone the myriad professional networks. We talk about gated communities – but they exist virtually as well as physically.
The potentially exciting thing about this venture (as I understand the proposal, it will be a blog site) is that we would hear from than the voices of politicians and journalists. Several of the (ex-pat) respondents on the discussion thread offered to write. Others suggested big names (eg Umberto Eco; Julian Barnes; Claudio Magris; Hans Magnus Enzensburger. I mentioned Geert Mak and Jan Morris). On reflection it would be good to have the contributors to this site being those who know their subject without necessarily being a professional specialist and who can write elegantly (without necessarily being a journalist).
Spiegel and le Monde are easy partners since they already have English versions. But there are a few European level ventures worth plugging into the venture eg Sign and Sight which translates outstanding articles by non-English language authors and Eurozine which is a network of 75 European highbrow journals and translates interesting articles into at least one major European language. I've added these two to the Links on the right-hand column on this blogsite".
Sadly, the hope of the site has not been realised. It has, indeed, an abandoned look about it - sign of the times perhaps as the national shutters go up.....
I'm in Ploiesti at the moment and a nice Romanian site has a good post on one of its small museums.

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