21st Century Socialism, by Jeremy Gilbert
Reviewed by Bob Copeland
This is an easy to read of just 128 pages that helps to explain:
The differences between capitalism and socialism, with some helpful explanations of terms that are widely used but often not understood.
How neo-liberals took control of our economy and government.
A way forward to a more socialist economy that is needed if we are to start taking the climate emergency seriously before it is too late (if it isn’t already).
Liberalism and Neoliberalism
There is a really good passage at the end of the first chapter that explains the differences between Liberalism and Neo-liberalism, which I have summarised as:
Liberalism – puts the rights of the individual above those of the community. It values: individual freedoms, privacy, autonomy and property. So privileged individuals have greater rights as it is easier to exercise personal freedom if you are rich, white and male.
Neo-liberalism is an aggressively pro-capitalist version of liberalism, Striving for privatised public services, deregulation, lower taxes for the rich, with minimal public spending. Competition in everything, An insecure compliant population.
One of the important points made is that our society is neither capitalist or socialist, with elements of both present today. The last 40 years though have seen the few socialist elements that remain just about hanging on. The author explains why socialists shouldn’t be looking to overturn the existing order in one fell stroke, but should instead focus on a more a gradual reversal, with those policies that command widespread support to gradually redress the balance. He says that the neo-liberal drive that has brought us to our current sorry state of affairs started slowly in the 60s, but only really got going in the 80’s.
Most now fully understand the folly of selling off our national infrastructure, and the impact that this has had on the cost of access to basic services such as energy, transport, education, health and social care and justice. Reversing this is now very popular, but here, as in the US, the grip that the neo-liberals have over government and party politics means that it matters less and less what the public actually want.
Commodification and Accumulation
If there is a constant chord that runs through the text it is that of commodification and accumulation. Capitalists originally made profit by making things to sell, and in order to keep growing they had to keep inventing new products and find new people to sell them to. The neo-liberals realised that there was a limit to the number of commodities that people would own, so they looked at making public services that we all depend on – such as transport, water, education, housing, care etc – into commodities.
“… capitalism tends to impose commodification where it is not needed or wanted” (p. 39)
“… commodification of education services completely transforms the nature of the relationship between teachers and students, changing it from a collaborative bond into a simple trade between buyer and seller” (p.17)
The levels of accumulation have now reached dizzying heights. Fewer people are now owning more and more. Hidden behind all sorts of shell companies, this elite group exercises enormous power supported by a new managerial class
“….by the end of the 1990’s, this new managerial class had taken over not just most major organisations; it had taken over governments and the leadership of most major political parties, creating a professional political elite of politicians, journalists, lobbyists and think tank “experts”.Whatever party this elite claimed allegiance to, its real loyalty was to their own social group and to those above it in the social hierarchy.” (p. 66)
One driving force behind those who funded the Brexit campaign was the threat to them posed by the laws on beneficial ownership that were being introduced by the EU. These laws obliged member states to establish the identities of who owns what corporations and property, so that they could be taxed appropriately. Making this information public would shed too much light on who the members of this elite group actually are.
The core neo-liberal programme never had widespread public support, but managed to achieve political control…
“In the US & UK wealthy capitalists spend hundreds of millions on lobbying government and acquiring control over media institutions … giving them enormous influence over political outcomes” (p.18)
Socialist institutions came about in a totally different way. The NHS was based on the medical aid society in Tredegar, Wales, where its founder Aneurin Bevan was able to fight against those in his own party who opposed the socialist model being adopted, because he had the backing of his political base, the miners in South Wales. The miners had benefited from a radical popular education, they knew and understood the issues, and were not going to have the wool pulled over their eyes. This brilliantly illustrates the importance of ordinary people understanding the struggle for reform within their own communities over the past 200 years. Think of Peterloo, the corn laws, the Tolpuddle martyrs, the Chartists, the Great Reform Act and the rise of trade unions.
Today many children in this country pass through school with more understanding of the struggle for social reforms in the United States than in Britain. In the 1920’s many people didn’t have the opportunity to continue their education, but Trades Unions and the Labour Party helped to provide community facilities like the Oakdale Workman’s Institute (now rebuilt at St Fagans National Museum of History in Wales). Inside there is a library with a reading room, a place where people could meet, read and discuss how best to improve their lives. This is a key aspect of making change happen.
The need for continuing education across society was clear 100 years ago, and it is just as vital today.
“Poor, uneducated people are not stupid. But by definition they have access to fewer and less reliable channels of information than other people…. It takes a lot of resources to reach them and give them information….. Rich white men like Berlusconi (Rupert Murdoch or Donald Trump) use their resources to tell poor people a story.” (p.89)
So it is that so many believe that problems in society are due to foreigners and feminists, rather than to policies intended to support capitalists.
The final chapters set out what needs to be considered when trying to rebalance society from a socialist perspective. Key as ever is to apply the lessons from history, and to build a movement with strong public support for change that brings people together to counter the lack of representation and accountability in our parliament today.
At the end the author writes
“Any movement that wants to challenge the domination of capitalism…. must seek to confront in every way the idea that humans are, or should be, inherently competitive, individualistic, asocial while also refusing to have any truck with nationalist, racist or misogynistic thinking” (p.126)
There is no one party or organisation that can build such a movement, progressive parties must be able to set their own dogma aside, and be prepared to work together at every level to bring about the changes needed.