Sunday, October 26, 2008

A political muddle

Zygmunt Bauman, guardian.co.uk, October 26 2008

Gerhard Schröder declared 10 years ago, during the Third Way and New Labour honeymoon, that "economic policy is neither left not right. It is either good or bad". Ten years later, we are allowed to conclude that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. When he made his declaration, 11 out of 15 governments of the then European Union were run by socialists. Now, election after election, country after country, the left is elbowed out from positions of power. In the course of the last decade, social-democratic parties have presided over the economic policy of privatisation of gains and nationalisation of losses. They ran states preoccupied with deregulation, privatisation and individualisation.

At the end of the New Labour decade, Gordon Brown leads the all-European effort to mobilise the taxpayers into the campaign to recapitalise the capitalist economy, saving it from the consequences of its own greed and inbuilt suicidal tendency. There is almost nothing left to distinguish left from right in economic, or any other, policy.

And there is no distinctly left vision or credible program that would appeal to the imagination of electors and convince them that good economic policy may be synonymous with left economic policy. Following the line of Third Way thinking, to be left meant to be able to do more thoroughly the job that the right demands to be done but fails to do properly. It was Tony Blair's New Labour that laid institutional foundations under Margaret Thatcher inchoate ideas of "there is no society, only individuals and families". It was the French Socialist Party that did most for the dismantling of the French social state. And as to the post-communist parties in east-central Europe, renamed as social democrats, they are the most enthusiastic and vociferous advocates and most consistent practitioners of unlimited freedom for the rich and leaving the poor to their own care.

Over more than a century, the distinctive mark of the left was to believe that it is the sacrosanct duty of community to care for and to assist all its members, collectively, against the powerful forces they are unable to fight alone. Social-democratic hopes to perform that task used to be invested in the modern state, powerful and ambitious enough to limit the damage perpetuated by the free play of the markets by forcing the economic interests to respect the political will of the nation and the ethical principles of national community. But nation states are no longer as powerful as they used to be or hoped to become. The political states once claiming full military, economic and cultural sovereignty over their territory and its population are no longer sovereign in any of those aspects of common life.

Genuine powers, the powers that decide the range of life options and life chances of most of our contemporaries, have evaporated from the nation state into the global space, where they float free from political control: politics has remained as local as before and therefore is no longer able to reach them, let alone to constrain. One of the effects of globalisation is the divorce between power (the capacity to have things done) and politics. We have now power freed from politics in the global space, and politics deprived of power in the local space.

That development left the socialists without the crucial (the only?) instrument intended to be used in the implementation of their project. Simply, a social state guaranteeing existential security to all can no longer be constructed, nor survive, in the framework of the nation state (the forces that would have to be tamed for that purpose are not in the nation state command). Attempts to use the weakened state for that purpose were in most cases foiled under the pressure of exterritorial, global economic forces or the markets.

Increasingly, social democrats revealed their sudden inability to deliver on their promise. Hence the desperate effort to find another trademark and legitimation. The Italian Democratic Party or for that matter the Polish Left and Democrats, exemplify the destination to which that search leads: total absence of trademark and legitimation. In this form, the distant offspring of the old left can count only on the failures of their adversaries as their sole electoral chance, and on the disaffected and angry victims of those failures as their only electoral constituency.

The first collateral casualty was the issue of existential security. That past jewel in the left's crown has been dropped by the parties wrongly called left; it now lies, so to speak, on the street – from which it has been promptly picked up by forces equally wrongly called right. The Italian Lega is now promising to restore the existential security – which the Democratic Party promises to further undermine by more deregulation of capital and trade markets and more flexibility of the labour market, and by a yet wider opening of the country doors to the mysterious, unpredictable and uncontrollable global forces.

Only, fraudulently, it interprets the causes of existential insecurity differently from the left of the past: not as a product of the capitalist free-for-all (freedom for the high and mighty, impotence for the lowly and resourceless), but as the outcome of the well-off Lombardians needing to share their wealth with indolent Calabrians or Sicilians and of the need, common to them all, to share their means of living with foreigners. They forget that the immigration of millions of ancestors of the 21st century Italians to the US and Latin America enormously contributed to their present riches.

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