Friday, April 14, 2006

Why can't Europe choose between Left and Right?

According to Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian and Mark Mardell of the BBC, last Sunday's election in Italy shows that Europe just can't choose between Left and Right. This was also shown in last year's German election, where - as in Italy - the Right was beaten by a small margin, and where, thanks to the SPD, Angela Merkel of the CDU ended up as the Chancellor of a Left-Right coalition. Among the many other things he has said, Berlusconi has called for a Left-Right coalition in Italy. Why are we getting all these stalemates?
In fact Freedland provides the answer himself. In Italy, he says, both Prodi amnd Berlusconi tried to steal each other's clothes; or to put it another way, given the basic acceptance by the Centre-Left of neoliberalism and the need for 'reform' (in reality counter-reform), the difference between the two sides is hardly understandable, because it hardly exists. In Italy there is the additional factor of Berlusconi's vulgarity, corruption and complete contempt for even bourgeois democracy, but at the level of basic programme, an overall vision of society, there is in fact hardly anything to choose between Berlusconi and Prodi. When there is no choice, it is hardly a wonder than people can't make up their minds.
The same was exactly true of Germany. Schroeder and Merkel agreed about 95% of everything. Only the PDS-Left party list stood out clearly against the neoliberal concensus (and in a way which - conspicuously - the Greens did not).
Jonathan Freedland says that the reason for all this is that the Left, demoralised after the collapse of the Soviet Union and defeats by the Right, has lost its alternative programmatic vision. While he means that something 'new' (and not too radical) has to be thought up, actually his analysis is mainly correct. Social democracy (and the ex-social democrats, previously ex-Stalinists, from the Democratic Left in Italy) have capitulated totally to neoliberalism, and indeed have proved among its most determined advocated (Tony Blair!).
There are several conclusions which follow from these obvious facts. First, the left needs to put forward an alternative, anti-capitalist, programme which addresses the broad concerns of millions, for example on questions like pensions, employment and social security. The far left in some places has got out of the habit of formulating and fighting for an anti-capitalist programme and lives by being 'anti' - anti the war, anti the cuts in social services, anti whatever the Right is doing. That is no longer enough, and it particularly implicates Respect in the UK, which seeks to make a living out of mainly being an anti-war coalition seeking Muslim votes. At the last general election it did have an overall programme, but this is mainly a formality.
Secondly, a Left anti-capitalist programme has to answer one question centrally - the issue of globalisation, international competition and 'competitiveness'. This is the basic case of the Right - unless 'we' (ie the working class) become more 'competitive', 'flexible' and prepared to give up our social gains, 'we' will be trounced by competition from India or China. Work more years, work more hours a week, be prepared to accept internationally competitive wages (ie low wages), give up job security and social welfare systems, put yourselves at the disposition of global finance capital!
The logic of this is ceaseless. Internationally competitive wages in this sense mean reducing European wages to absolute poverty levels. It is all based on a fallacy - that world capital can easily move the production of everything to China, which it evidently cannot (China in large part assembles goods manufactured elsewhere), and that world trade is free trade - which it is absolutely not.
Even under the WTO we have a regime of internationaly planned trade, mainly planned to the benefit of the rich. A socialist Left government may indeed be forced to take 'protectionist' measures to stop the dumping of ultra-cheap goods and the export of jobs. This would not be a measure taken against Indian, Chinese or Indonesian workers, but a measure taken against ruthless finance capital which so fearfully exploits them.
Italy, it is argued, depends a lot on manufacturing things like textiles, furniture and shoes - all of which are produced much more cheaply in east Asia. Over time of course a new international division of labour will emerge; in the short term it will be necessary to defend domestic workers againt what amounts to the export of cheap labour. A socialist Left government, in any case, would be compelled to plan its trade. The free movement of goods and capital is, after all, the programme of the neoliberal right, not of socialists.