A Socialist’s Lament

socialismLet’s be clear about one thing: the New Democratic Party of Canada was never a socialist party.

For all the hands wrung and tears shed over its newly amended constitution, the NDP, since its formation in 1961, has always been a social democratic party like any other, and social democracy has been standing a respectful distance away from true socialism for nearly a century.

Once upon a time, Europe’s social democratic parties may have been the standard-bearers of Marxist orthodoxy, but following the infamous “schism” in the international socialist movement over World War I and the Russian Revolution, the parties lost their left wings to the newly founded communist parties. This division was cemented in 1919 when the German Social Democrats violently stamped out the short-lived revolutionary movements and administrations that had overtaken the country.

Over the decades that followed, social democrats — by their actions if not their words — abandoned all pretense of overthrowing the system and established themselves as modernizers and civilizers of market economies, as champions of the Keynesian, welfare-state consensus which took hold over Western Europe and North America following World War II and which, far from threatening the survival of capitalism, may well have saved it by making it more palatable to the masses. They favoured mixed economies, social safety nets, progressive taxation, government regulation, and nationalization of certain key industries, but rarely did they attempt inroads against the still overwhelmingly private ownership of the means of production or the role of markets in setting prices and distributing wealth.

Social democrats, as many commentators have stated, are merely liberals who “really mean it” (just as “democratic socialists are social democrats who really mean it,” Tony Wright has added).

As the postwar consensus unravelled in the 1970s and 1980s, social democracy continued its rightward drift. Social democratic parties were slower and more conflicted than their liberal and conservative counterparts about climbing aboard the neoliberal train, but they were largely unable or unwilling to resist the tide of history favouring privatization, deregulation, tax cuts, and reduced government spending.

Canada’s NDP has been no exception to this worldwide social democratic trajectory, especially with its current leader’s avowed skepticism over tax hikes and openness to free trade agreements. Now, the decision by the party to scrub its constitution of any reference to socialism — save for a token mention of “social democratic and democratic socialist traditions” — means only that its words have finally caught up with its actions.

Like other socialists, I consider this a depressing development, but not a particularly momentous or surprising one. It is the direction of the party’s long-term evolution that I find unfortunate, rather than the recent symbolic amendment which is only a symptom. True, I have never voted for the NDP or any other notionally socialist or socialish party at the federal or provincial level. For my own reasons, I have always chosen to prioritize my environmentalism over my socialism (although the two are not exactly as separable as this statement implies). But it nevertheless has been — or rather, would be — a comfort to know that there is some party in Parliament still willing to fight the good fight long after it has ceased to be fashionable.

Socialism is a notoriously pluralistic ideology, composed of adherents both scientific and utopian, revolutionary and evolutionary, authoritarian and democratic, statist and libertarian. (Many of them attack one another with a hatred and vehemence leftists seem only to display towards their own kind.) Certainly not every socialism necessarily represents an advance over every capitalism, but by exploring beyond the free market horizon, we are at least offered a chance to expand democracy from the political realm to the economic and to embrace a mode of production that does not require infinite, ecologically destructive growth for its very survival.

Capitalism means economic rule either by elites or by impersonal “laws.” Socialism, potentially, means economic rule by all who are impacted by the economy — workers, consumers, communities at large.

Canada’s New Democrats have survived their version of the UK Labour Party’s “Clause IV” fight, and they undoubtedly believe themselves to be more electable as a result. They may be right. But their slow, lumbering move to the centre also represents a surrender in the battle of ideas, leaving the country poorer in the process.

Who will take up the cause now?


On Growth and Its Limits

Sustainability diagram

George Monbiot offers a fascinating insight in the wake of last week’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro. While rightly deriding the declaration adopted by world leaders for containing little more than meaningless fluff, he notes an evolution in diplomatic language regarding the environment over the years from “sustainability” to “sustainable development” to “sustainable growth” to, most recently, “sustained growth.”

This seems as good a time as any to launch into a topic dear to every environmentalist’s heart: the growth debate.

Intuitively, it does not make much sense to suppose that infinite economic growth is possible in a finite world. Natural resources are limited, as is the Earth’s capacity to absorb pollution. To observe that we have not yet run up against any economy-shattering limits is to miss the point. Such undying faith in growth, according to biologist Paul Ehrlich, “is roughly equivalent to bragging about one’s ability to write a bigger check each month, while paying no attention to the balance in the account.” And while many predictions of ecological doom have come and gone, miscalculations over timing do not get us off the hook. The fact that limits exist, and that the world will eventually reach them unless we radically change course, is a matter of ecological, physical, and mathematical necessity.

It is here that three points need to be made.

First, the counterargument: human ingenuity (the ultimate free lunch!). Infinite economic growth need not be unsustainable, this line of reasoning goes, provided that it is geared towards such environmentally beneficial ends as recycling, mass transit, and wind farms. Technological fixes and the brilliant minds that think of them will always keep us a step ahead of disaster.

Unfortunately, such solutions will merely delay the inevitable rather than prevent it — which is not entirely a bad thing. The challenge of convincing the world of the monumental socioeconomic change that is needed is not to be underestimated, and environmentalists so far have not been up to the task. In this context, buying time is an important part of any strategy for sustainability. However, the time available to us is limited. Yes, we can substitute renewable for nonrenewable resources, but even the former have fixed rates of regeneration. And gains in energy efficiency are circumscribed by the laws of thermodynamics. Growth can be “green” for only so long before reverting to more familiar forms of ever-increasing production, consumption, pollution, and depletion.

A second consideration: distribution. If what I say is correct, we will eventually have to bring an end to economic growth or else have such an end forced upon us by the laws of nature. In fact, since the world population’s current ecological footprint is already too large to be sustained, we will almost certainly need to “degrow” — to reduce the overall size of the global economy. This is easy enough for somebody in a rich industrialized country to say, it might be objected, but what about those in the developing world, those for whom higher incomes are not a matter of greed but of basic dignity and survival?

My answer, sadly, will not make the job of persuading my fellow First Worlders any easier. The only morally acceptable way to pursue degrowth is, at the same time, to massively redistribute wealth both between and within nations. This means that while the global economy as a whole shrinks, the world’s most impoverished countries will continue to grow until their standards of living improve. Developed countries, meanwhile, those with wealth to spare, will need to “pick up the slack” and degrow even further until some kind of equilibrium is reached. This is the only way to bring about global environmental sustainability without pushing the world’s most desperately poor further into destitution.

My third point is one that makes even environmentalists a little uncomfortable: when we talk about growth, what we are actually talking about is capitalism. Private enterprise needs endless growth to survive. Without it, competitive market economies are reduced to zero-sum games where one person’s win is literally another’s loss. This is why recessions and depressions carry such heavy human tolls. While a no-growth economy could easily be environmentally sustainable, it would not be socially sustainable unless we transition to a completely different mode of production.

That’s right, comrades, I’m talking about the dreaded S-word! (Maybe Joe Oliver was right. Maybe greens — at least some of us — really are radicals.)

So, of the many forms of socialism out there, which should we adopt? How do we get there from here? How much time should we allow ourselves to make the transition? And how do we go about convincing regular people, to say nothing of those with money and power, to embrace such fundamental change?

I leave these questions to someone more knowledgeable than I. In this post, I prefer to restrict myself to superficially discussing limits to growth and their moral and economic implications, and to marking the lack of long-term solutions from last week’s Rio+20 conference. But as always, I am happy to entertain contributions of ideas, strategies, and criticisms in the comments section below from any whose human ingenuity is not quite so subject to natural limits as mine.