Saturday, 5 August 2017

Who'd be a democratic socialist? Depends on what you mean by it

On 21 October 1966, 40,000 cubic metres of stones and mud slid down a hillside in Wales. In their track stood the village of Aberfan and Pantglas Junior School. 116 children and 28 adults died.

Aberfan: aftermath of disaster
The heap that slid was slurry from the nearby coalmine. It had been dumped for years on top of known springs. The constant flow of water made it unstable and many voices had been raised in concern.

The slagheap was the responsibility by the National Coal Board. It had taken control of the coal industry when it was nationalised by Attlee’s iconic Labour government. It was headed by Alf Robens, a former Labour MP who had held the position of Minister for Power in that same government.

Robens falsely claimed that the disaster could not have been foreseen. He strove to minimise the Coal Board’s contribution to reconstruction, which only proceeded when a new Labour government under Harold Wilson came up with some money, though that didn’t stop £150,000 being taken from the charitable fund for the disaster (ultimately paid back by yet another Labour government, under Tony Blair).

Why do I recall that story now?

Because just recently some friends on the left accused me of not being a “democratic socialist”. I don’t take offence at such attacks: they merely balance charges of being a “raving socialist” levelled at me from the right (the centre-right: I don’t knowingly have friends in the hard right). Still, it’s a criticism that deserves consideration.

I’ve always thought that central to socialism is the slogan, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. There are huge difficulties with this principle, not least that no one can really say what anyone’s needs are.

Generally, many socialists accept as an intermediate step the slogan, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution”. Achieving even that would be a huge step forward. And we’re a long way from doing so.

A recent report reveals that chief executives of top UK companies are, on average, paid in a year what someone on a median income would take 160 years to earn.

Major company chief executives may be doing an important job. But their claims to take responsibility are empty. When companies go wrong, Chief Executives generally just move on. Tony Hayward, Chief Executive of BP at the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, has taken up lucrative new positions with Glencore Xstrata and Corus. As his history shows, these top executives aren’t always as competent as one might hope: the link between ther contribution and reward is hard to see. Certainly, it isn’t established at 160 times median pay.

Tackling this kind of problem strikes me as central to democratic socialism.

Sadly, however, those who most loudly proclaim their socialism take what to me seems a far more reductionist view of socialism. They equate it with nationalisation of industry which they conflate with people’s control. That sounds democratic. Indeed, with people’s control it would seem likely that a more socialistic approach, linking remuneration to contribution might be adopted.

Sadly, the real experience of nationalisation is that it produces not people’s control but state control. The bureaucrats who run nationalised industries don’t act in the interests of the people, but generally in the interests of the self-proclaimed elite that includes men of Tony Hayward’s ilk.

Aberfan shows how such bureaucrats can be sucked into the game and ignore the legitimate claims of ordinary people. I sympathise with the Aberfan father who wanted the cause of his son’s death to be recorded as “buried alive by the National Coal Board”. The same coal board would do Thatcher’s bidding and bury the entire British coal industry less than twenty years later.

It also saddens me that many friends on the left line up with the Brexit camp in the great debate that dominates British politics. In a pamphlet on the subject, an MP for whom I have great admiration expressed his surprise at the fact that the far right shares his desire to leave the European Union. Only his surprise surprises me. The driving force for Brexit is fear of immigration and a nationalistic loss of local state power – a fundamental concern of the far right.

On the other hand, one of the few forces to have resisted the hegemony of the Tony Haywards has been the EU. It has ensured the adoption of employment laws that are anathema to the top executives. It represents a bulwark against the kind of behaviour of employers that marked the National Coal Board and Lord Robens at Aberfan. It guarantees freedoms, including the freedom of movement, that give wage earners the right to pursue the best opportunities for themselves anywhere across the world’s largest trading bloc.

Why would any democratic socialist want to give any of that up?

Brexit: "bringing back control" to hand it to Washington?
Thanks for sharing, @AnnEnglishRose

So, friends who doubt my democratic socialist credentials, here’s my answer: if democratic socialism is reduced to state control of industry and a nationalistic refusal of merged sovereignty with our neighbours, then certainly I want no part of it. If, on the other hand, democratic socialism means battling against the injustice and regressive effect of inequity, revealed in individuals being paid 160 times more than others for delivering not even a fraction of 160 times as much; if it means working with other nations to defend our rights and extend our prosperity; why, then democratic socialism is precisely what I believe in.

And isn’t that precisely what the Labour Party should be about?

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