Socialism and Electoral Politics In the Global North
In the most recent Quebec election, April 6th, 2014, Quebec Solidaire, the farthest left of any electoral party in Canada, increased its share of the vote from 6% to 7.6 %, and its number of seats from 2 to 3. Its party platform includes a comprehensive green energy policy, ending tuition fees at all institutions of higher education, a plan for creating a public sector bank to fund socially valuable institutions and projects, proposals for more strictly regulating the private banking sector, a plan for reforming the tax code to provide more funds for supporting and enhancing public institutions, policies securing the traditional and treaty rights of the people of the First Nations in the case of a vote for Quebec sovereignty, and new legislative protections for workers and unions. In Europe there are much stronger electoral parties to the left of the dying social democratic project. In Germany, Die Linke received 8.2 % of votes in 2013, which (under Germany’s proportional representation system) translated into 64 seats. More impressively, in Greece, Syriza, a union of left parties, garnered 27.1% of the vote in the most recent elections. In Europe as a whole the newly formed Party of the European Left is preparing to contest elections for the European Parliament on an anti-austerity platform.
Can any politically useful conclusions be drawn from this small and admittedly unscientific sample of recent electoral results? Let me suggest four:
1) The collapse of social democratic parties into system-managers has created space on the left that can be occupied by parties whose platforms address the structural causes of widening income inequality, the destruction of social solidarity and public goods by neo-liberal austerity, the domination of all spheres of social and cultural life by corporate power, and environmental crisis.
2) The more severe the crisis and the more deeply implicated in its perpetuation traditional social democratic parties are, the more successful electoral left-alternatives to social democracy can be. In Greece, the Social Democrats were compromised by their role in the on-set of crisis and their support for the austerity policies demanded by European banks. The ever-more ruthless cutbacks have created social catastrophe, with a reported unemployment rate of 26.7% in January, 2014. In this context, Syriza polled 27% of votes in the most recent election. Conversely, in comparatively more stable contexts, left-alternative parties poll lower (but still statistically significant) numbers of votes.
3) Without a proportional representational system, a statistically significant number of votes cannot be translated into a politically effective number of seats.
4) Even under worsening social conditions, the example of Greece suggests that social crisis will only push electoral support for anti-capitalist left parties into the 27 % range (far below the “vast majority” for whom democratic socialists claim to speak). Hence, under all social conditions it seems imperative for anti-capitalist parties to find new ways to explain what their positive social, political, and economic goals (“socialism”) really mean for the lives of people whose support they seek to win.
What Do We Mean By Socialism
Is there any objective social and historical evidence that supports the belief of democratic socialists that they speak in the interests of the “vast majority?” I believe that there is, but it cannot be found by asking people whether they are “anti-capitalist” or “socialist,” but whether they are in favour of public services and institutions. Let me cite three recent Canadian polls to explain what I mean.
In a nationwide poll in 2011, Nanos Research found that 94 % of Canadians favoured public over private health care. In a poll taken in 2011, in the midst of government attacks on public broadcasting, 69 % of Canadians favoured the same or increased rates of funding for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. More generally, a recent poll proved that Canadians would support higher taxes if the revenue gains were used to support social programs.
“Well, these numbers prove nothing,” I can hear more stern Marxists than myself puff. They abstract from class and race and gender and poll people under the nationalistic abstraction “Canadians.” Hence, trying to draw political conclusions from their results is tantamount to accepting nationalist myths and succumbing to social democratic reformism. What we need is a systematic demonstration that capitalism cannot resolve its crisis. Only a revolutionary movement, led by workers but involving all oppressed groups as equally contributing members, can overcome capitalist contradictions.”
I admit that this argument could be true, but I also look across my study to see dozens of Marxist systematic demonstrations of the contradictions of capitalism, and then out my window into my city, devastated by the on-going economic crisis, but quiet and peaceful (i.e., not in revolutionary upheaval against the bourgeoisie). So, while granting the possibility that the rigorous Marxist objection is correct, let us at least entertain an alternative interpretation of what these polls might teach about building the sorts of parties and movements that solving capitalism’s structural problems will require.
In each of the polls cited above, what do the majority of respondants support, at the level of social principle, when they express support for these public institutions? Let me suggest four answers.
1) They support the principle “from each according to his or her needs.” The best evidence here is the extraordinary support for the public health care system. The principle of public health care is that each receives the health care she or he requires, not the health care for which she or he can pay. This principle is the opposite of the principle of capitalist consumer markets: each gets what he or she can afford. The principle of distribution according to need is a socialist principle, but if one asked the same group of Canadians if they supported a “socialist principle of resource allocation” it is certain that nowhere near 94 % of people would agree. Perhaps socialists should seek political support by pointing to the ways in which socialist principles are already realized (imperfectly) in institutions people actually value and not by trying to convince people of the truth of an argument that the whole of capitalist society must be overthrown.
2) They support using collectively produced wealth for democratically decided and socially life-valuable purposes. Belief in this principle is indicated by support for higher taxes to support more investment in social programs. Social programs are designed to identify and meet needs that the market fails to satisfy. At the level of social principle this demonstrates a commitment to the value of each person’s life and a recognition that capitalist markets harm lives because they cannot satisfy all the needs that must be satisfied in a good life. If this conclusion is true, then public institutions funded by deductions from collectively produced wealth are a necessary condition of a good society and good lives, and support for a progressive taxation system is evidence of support for this more general principle. Again, the more general principle is socialist, even though people who accept it might not identify themselves as socialists. I think the values and the principles are more important than the name one gives one’s political identity. The political way forward is to build from the value base towards new practical struggles to rebuild the system of progressive income tax to better fund existing public institutions and create new institutions (a national drug strategy, for example) with the new revenue.
3) They support the value of non-commercial cultural production. While just as in the case of public health care the institutions of public television and radio broadcasting can be criticised for their actual performance, such criticism does not entail rejection of the principle underlying the mandate of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: to tell stories that are important, not stories that are money-valuable. Like all traditional broadcasters, the CBC is facing the challenge of audience fragmentation that new media is posing. It is also facing the additional burden of contending with a Conservative government ideologically opposed to the non-market value that CBC’s mandate commits it to serving. Public support for the CBC even in the face of funding cuts and declining viewership is thus again a sign of belief in another important socialist principle: not everything of cultural value is of commercial value, and that markets, while they may be arbiters of taste, are not, for that reason, arbiters of cultural value or aesthetic quality.
4) Collectively, these polls demonstrate majority support in Canada for the use of collectively produced wealth to meet needs that would otherwise be unmet by capitalist markets. In other words, they demonstrate support for a conception of socialism (as I defined it in another post) as “institutionalized reciprocal care in those dimensions of our lives that require collective effort.” (Socialism and Snow Shovelling) When people focus on concrete issues of access to resources and quality of the good provided, majority opinion favours socialist principles. Is not the rational political conclusion to draw from this evidence that socialists– those who believe that ultimately a society based upon the principles discussed above must replace capitalism- should henceforth focus on concrete issues of policy, not theoretical demonstrations of capitalism’s long term impossibility? This conclusion is the opposite of that which most revolutionary democratic socialists to the left of social democracy have drawn over the past 40 years. In consequence, policy has been ceded to social democrats moving further and further to the right while revolutionary democratic socialists have largely taken refuge in systematic academic criticisms of capitalism.
The best of this work has generated deep insight into the structural problems of capitalism, uncovered hidden implications of the core ideas and values of Marxism, and produced brilliantly original decodings of the ideological messages of popular and high cultural semiotic systems. Has any of it advanced the struggle to reclaim life time, life space and life resources from their subordination to capitalist money value? Most of the hard work of reclaiming life space, time, and resources was accomplished in the previous two centuries, by a vast array of social struggles- workers, women, racialized minorities, gays and lesbians– fighting not for wholesale revolutionary change, but for access to wider spaces of free self-creation, more time for reflection and interaction, and more access to the life-resources that enable valuable and valued lives. Cumulatively, those struggle partially institutionalized the socialist principles noted above.
“Ah, yes, but the key is “partial,” the rigorous Marxist rejoins. All these reforms were not sufficient to overthrow capital and the capitalist class, and because their power was left intact, these victories were precarious. Hence we still need a revolution on a Leninist model, in which, as Zizek says, (In Defence of Lost Causes) the “divine violence” of the people will sweep away bourgeois power and rebuild society anew, as Marx demanded, on the basis of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Now this sort of bad poetry might strike some as uncompromisingly radical and revolutionary, but it is eminently ignorable (and is in fact ignored, by the powers that be, although for reasons that escape me not by some political philosophers who ought to be able to see its true vacuity) because it has no addressee interested in trying to put it into practice.
Instead, the ruling class worries about more prosaic struggles to save public institutions threatened by austerity. These struggles, defensive and “reformist” as they may be, can actually work, as in Spain, where determined fightbacks by health care workers and community members have saved hospitals from privatization. If one is serious about the goal of revolutionary change (rather than trying to sound radical and uncompromising), then the only efficacious means (if we judge as an historical materialist ought to judge, on the basis of historical evidence) are patient, long-term, dare I say “gradual” struggles organized by specific projects of life time, space, and resource reclamation. Given the enormous efforts of women, workers, and demonized minorities of all sorts to open the institutions of political power to their votes and their participation, it would be self-undermining to repudiate the institutions of parliamentary and republican government as undemocratic in essence. If parties can be built that are willing to use institutionalized political power to legitimate and protect recovered space, time, and resources, and to build links across borders with likeminded parties, then there is indeed a “parliamentary road to socialism,” although it would be a long, long road. Nevertheless, with one’s feet planted on a real road each step brings one closer to a real destination; “leaping” in thin air just lands you on your arse in the exact same spot from which you leapt.