What will be done?
Europe today is a continent pockmarked by conflict. From Bristol to Barcelona one can see the outlines of struggle being waged by political parties and labor unions as the noose of austerity mercilessly draws tighter. What is then to be said of Sweden, and of the swedish Left party?
Perhaps some guidance can be found in one of Jonas Sjöstedt’s recent travels. As the European troubles head off into the next act, the leader of the swedish Left party recently visited a Cloetta factory outside of Gävle. Cloetta, maker of many classic types of swedish candy, recently decided to move its production line out of the country. Sjöstedt, distraught at this recent example of the rampant ”greed” of profit-maximizing corporations (as if there were other kinds?) promises to never eat the particular brand of candy again. Meanwhile, as the social democratic model itself rots away into nothingness in country after country, Ida Gabrielsson – former leader of the party’s youth organization – begins her newspaper career by writing an editorial on how the swedish state ought to solve the housing crisis by simply building more houses. A sign of the times, to be sure. Were one so inclined it’d be easy to imagine a fitting score for these two swan songs of social democracy: either in the quiet humming of french spy drones zipping over poor suburbs or in the screams of british Eurofighters who – togheter with aircraft carriers, submarines, and an army private security goons – ostensibly protect the olympic games from ”terrorism”. The gangreous, stinking death of social democracy seems irrevocably joined at the hip with the cancerous growth of the surveillance and security apparatuses, and Sweden is certainly no slouch in this regard. One only has to look back at the passing of the IPRED act to see how little democracy truly matters in Sweden when put against ever more pressing ”security concerns”.
History repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce. If the tragedy today is the sight of social democratic parties all over Europe completely powerless to stop the razing of the social democratic model (or themselves eagerly wielding the neoliberal sledgehammer), the farce in the tireless repetition of this sordid play. The parlimentary left today seems kin to the shambling zombies out of a John Romero movie: ponderously repeating the same set of stunted, jerky movements, as if by doing the gestures they did in life they could perhaps recall what it meant to be truly alive. Listening to the rhetoric of the swedish Left and reading its various promises and grand claims, one has a hard time distinguishing them from the pre-election promises of PASOK. They too made the point that they were fundamentally opposed to further privatizations and deep cuts. As we all know by now, things did not turn out quite that way. Today, reflexive distrust of politicians seems more naturalized and wide-spread than any feudal religiosity, and yet the promises we hear today go no further than cries of ”It’ll turn out better this time, honest!”. Yes, it’s unfortunate that political promises often go unfulfilled. Yes, it’s sad that this keynesian siren song has yet to produce results elsewhere. But this time will be *different*, which is why you should still vote for us. It’s as if the hidden message is that prior to today every leftist politician had been secretly crossing their fingers behind their back, and as long as you keep your eye on their hands to prevent them from doing so again everything will somehow go back to normal.
Why are we today left with so many lofty promises, so many tacky slogans, and so few positive results? This is not generally not a question that anyone dares to ask, let alone answer. Instead, all we get is a repulsive diet of more lofty promises mixed with populistic, sappy outrage at ”greedy” conservatives and bankers. To be fair, this is not a problem that lies solely with the swedish Left party, quite the opposite. But the reason that all it can produce seems to be sound and fury lies in the fact that, much like the labor movement, its current organizational form and dominant ideology is no longer capable of achieving the goals it has set for itself. One cannot dispute that the swedish labor movement achieved real results through its strategy of compromise and ”keeping the peace”, but neither can one deny that this time has definitely ended. If one wants to get back into the fight it is not enough to arm oneself solely with cheap moralism about ”greedy bankers” and ”irresponsible capitalists”. The question needs to be asked: what allowed those old strategies to work, and what happened between then and now that rendered them ineffectual? Once this sort question is posed, the answer often isn’t hard to find; Leo Panitch is one of the people who have written at length on the sort of structural changes that are of concern here.
It’s easy to say that the swedish state simply needs to build more housing to resolve the housing shortage. It’s far more problematic to ask why this hasn’t been done: this, after all, runs the risk that you’ll find an answer that you don’t want to hear or simply cannot afford politically. Indeed, what does one do if the solution to the housing shortage is one where the old parlimentary model proves insufficient, if the actions that need to be taken are not conducive to immediately winning the next election? If one traces the lineage of the Left party back to its roots, one finds an organization that used to exist in more spheres of life than simply the parlimentary one. A political party that mobilizes, educates and organizes people both in their homes, in their schools and on their workplaces has a far greater potential to achieve political change, and, much more importantly, it is also insulated against the corrosive ebb and flow of parlimentary tides. In stark contrast to this, the modern Left party lives and dies to the jittery heartbeat of push polls and focus groups.
Many people took the financial meltdown as a sign that neoliberal policy would finally be defeated, that people would open their eyes to the true horror lurking behind the glitzy presentations about freedom of choice and the market ”effectiveness” siren songs. Today we can safely say that things turned out in quite the opposite way. The timetable of austerity has been accelerated immensely, and through it we have a parlimentary left that has been completely cowed by crisis, content to lower its expectations and making only ”realistic” demands. Of course, the authors of this particular brand of ”realism” are none other than the very same gentlemen who caused this financial catastrophe in the first place. And what does Sjöstedt actually say about Cloetta’s decision to relocate its production? He points out that Cloetta were still making a profit in Gävle and that the move *wasn’t necessary*, that the wages asked by swedish workers – while higher than others – would not and did not totally impede Cloetta’s accumulation of profit. Sjöstedt places himself in the weird position of trying to defend Cloetta’s interests with more fervor than Cloetta itself does; it is all somewhat reminiscient of the old factory worker who has just been laid off, desperately trying to convince his employer that he can still work, that he can still generate a profit. This avenue is generally hopeless: it simply *isn’t true* that the old worker can work hard enough and fast enough to justify his wage and benefits in the face of a younger temp worker doing the same tasks for less than half the pay. Of course the boss is greedy, and of course Cloetta tries to maximize its profits. This is all in their respective job description, and so it will remain no matter the personal qualities of the people in charge. Cheap moralism simply gets you nowhere in this situation.
The only constructive thing to do is precisely to NOT identify with the goals and interests of the entity in question, and establish your own logic (one opposed to wage labor, for example) as the dominant one, as the logic that should rule the production and distribution of goods and services. The worker should not be paid by how much profit he generates; rather he should be paid because a society where people are left to starve is fundamentally inhuman. Of course, as history teaches us, such an imposition requires some measure of (political) force for it to have a chance of being successful. But unless you are directly prepared to challenge Cloetta’s right to make a profit, any arguments about profit that you can field are bound to fall flat. We should not forget that during the majority of the Left party’s history, this was an explicit, central element of its politics: the rejection of wage labor *as such*. Yet, now that the swedish social democratic party is thoroughly rotten, the Left party has eagerly recycled its old ideology and mannerisms as well as managing a pale simulacra of earlier social democratic political programs. However, the swedish social democratic party contracted this rot for a reason: nothing could be more foolish than to expect to be able to don its moldy trappings without falling prey to the very same contagion.
At a lecture in Uppsala I had the chance to personally ask Sjöstedt how he and his party planned to avoid falling prey to the same sort of political implosion that has struck many other european left parties who have talked the talk but failed to walk the walk. It was obvious the question startled him, and I did not get a coherent answer in reply. I will therefore try to draw up some basic outlines of the changes that are necessary for a Left party that wants to avoid the choice between either the slow, lingering death of growing irrelevancy or the remarkably quick alternative in the form of electoral collapse following a string of broken promises.
Firstly, the Left party needs to abandon this pitiful ”realism” that guides its policy today. The current campaign of the youth organization within the party is very telling in this regard. It’s name translates into something akin to ”The Precarious Generation”, and it tells of how the youth of today is torn between growing debts and rampant insecurity in the face of a ”flexible” job market and a wilting social safety net. All true, of course. Yet, this campaign represents nothing but the most base form of political opportunism: it correctly points out the horrors of today’s job market and the crippling anxiety and insecurity that follows in its wake, but it does so only so it can wax nostalgic about the old keynesian ”golden age” of social democracy. The welfare state is being dismantled, we are told, by the rampant greed of ”bankers” and ”conservatives”, and we only need to vote the right way to turn the trend, rewind the clock, raise the taxes and reinstate the class compromise. As tempting as this prospect might be, at least to some, it still does not change the fact that this ”analysis” is a joke. The collapse of social democracy cannot be placed at the feet of a few people who happen to be more greedy than most, nor are the vast structural changes to the economy and labor market of the past sixty years the ”fault” of this or that person. Reinstating reflationary keynesian policy in today’s world is not simply a matter of flipping a switch, nor is it not a matter of wheter you ”want to do it” or not.
Wistfully reminiscing about social democracy in the old days will not bring the structural conditions back that allowed it to exist in the first place, and were you to try to re-enact it in Sweden today you would experience severe capital flight as well as a host of other problems. The way to prevent capital flight is of course through capital controls, but this runs head first into the brick wall that is the European Union, not to mention various other international treaties Sweden is a part of. So then, does this nostalgia about social democracy signal a real political will to take on the international community, to openly buck the European Union and the German consensus, a willingness to accept and live with the severe trade sanctions that would inevitably be placed on a rogue country trying to break free of this system of free trade? No, it is simply cowardly political opportunism of the worst sort. Were the people behind the campaign to be given a popular mandate they would be in a mind to keep their promises for a couple of minutes until they realized the gravity of the political costs associated with them, after which they would simply resign to cutting more and cutting deep.
The thing to do here is to abandon social democracy and its unstable class compromise altogheter. It simply does not and will not work under the conditions we find ourselves in. Yet, the Left party has so thoroughly surrendered itself to the narrow intellectual horizons imposed by its enemies that today even a stolen, thoroughly censored and completely anemic social democratic political program must seem like an almost unspeakably radical course of action to its leadership. This simply will not do. It is no longer a matter of wheter to settle for the devil you know or risking it all for a chance at the jackpot, as in the popular game show ”Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. The problem is that this safe, boring, comfortable social democracy is no longer a fallback option, and one can either resign oneself to whatever devil-take-the-hindmost society that will shortly follow, or one can dare to retake the authorship of the future. We need a form of politics that can actually work, but it will not come from the Left party as long as it cannot muster up the courage to act rather than simply react to changes imposed by others by means of hostile populism and infantile nostalgia.
One only needs to go to a party function to see this dysfunction manifest itself. The Left party still sings the internationale and various other old songs at its gatherings, it still has portraits of Marx on some of its walls, and so on. But in the hands of party members these rituals and callbacks take on the tone of cynical mockeries: the songs are still sung, but the idea that people actually *believed* in them at some point is met with nervous or derisive laughter. Today’s Left party inherits or steals its traditions; it’s almost impossible to imagine that at one point it still had the power to CREATE them. The day – if it ever comes – that the Left party and parties like it retake the right to create politics will also mark the day where one finally see the creation of new songs, songs that are every bit as filled with beauty and meaning as any classic you’d care to name. As things are currently, however, one cannot help but imagine a look of consternation from Marx’s cracked canvas up on that wall, as I’m sure the man himself would have been aghast at seeing just how empty and hypocritical the rituals invoked in his name have become.
Secondly, the Left party must find new ways of organizing itself and the people it supposedly seeks to reach out to. As was implied earlier, at one point SKP (short for the swedish communist party, the original name of what eventually became today’s Left party) existed in people’s workplaces and in their social lives, and this allowed it to effect meaningful change and be a real threat regardless of parlimentary success. While the social democratic party still retains at least some pale shadow of its former organizational pull in the swedish worker’s movement, the Left party’s connection to anything other than the next election result has completely and utterly atrophied. Given that parlimentary means are more and more limited even in the sense of what sort of economic instruments are available once you *do* get in power, an alternate means of organization is not just a question of survival but it also presents perhaps the only way to effect the sort of changes that people want. While this is a topic that is far too serious for me to deal with here, one thing should be made clear: the organizational form itself has to be new. How else to reach out to and engage the growing population of fractured and precarious temporary workers? A simple trade union approach will not work here, nor should we settle for anything of that sort. The marginalized, alienated and the precarious have to be brought to bear somehow, for what hope of progressive change do we otherwise have?
Moreover, if one reads the autobiographies of people active during SKP’s heyday, it’s clear that it was by its nature a very different beast. New members had to go through a political education that included a very broad reading list, seminars, and very active discussion groups. Today, when the party membership consists more of academics than stevedores, the level of political education within the party is nothing if not abysmal. Party members are not required to know anything about, say, economics, nor does the party try very hard to help educate those who are still interested in figuring out the inner workings of the current political economy. It is simply impossible to achieve radical political change from a position of ignorance; all one can muster from such a lowly perch is cheap populism and nothing more. In closing: whatever the specifics, the Left party needs to regain its institutional capacity to act as an educator, and whatever organizational form it assumes must also be able to transcend the ever growing limitations associated with merely organizing workers inside their workplace. So far neoliberalism has been very adept at fracturing workers both through the way the work is structured and through the growing precarity of employment itself: if this is a battle we cannot well expect to win on their terms, it is up to us to shift the battle to a terrain of our choosing. One only needs to look at the dwindling and narrow-minded labor unions to see the heavy price of failure in this regard.
With all that said, the original question still remains: what will be done? My intention is not to defend the Left party or to frame it as merely a matter of time before it comes around. Rather, this has been a (far too incomplete) effort to establish the ground rules, the most basic challenges that need to be overcome for any european parlimentary left party who hopes to hold onto political relevancy. Is it then likely that we will see a development of this sort? I’m not an optimist in this regard, far from it. It can certainly be said that the swedish Left party finds itself in a slightly better tactial position than, say, the british Labour party, but this is hardly high praise. Institutions are merely tools however: their further survival should always be a question of usefulness, not sentimentality.
We have inherited the institutions that be from our predecessors. Our task is simple: either to make them work, or to give them the burial they deserve. Perhaps there exist the space for truly progressive politics among some parts of the current european parlimentary left. If not, it may very well be that only the loose earth of a freshly turned grave will allow the seeds of the new to take root. Either way we have our work cut out for us.