High profile leftists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are popularising the idea of socialism in the US – is Scotland and the UK falling behind?
SPEAKING in his State of the Union annual address [6 February], US President Donald Trump declared that “we will never be a socialist country”.
This is a sign of the times. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and the new left thinkers and activists around her are exerting a pull on lawmakers and policy chiefs. Dozens of Democrats in Congress have supported her Green New Deal plans including presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker. A sign of her reach is that even established ‘corporate-Democrats’ like Al-Gore have had to make friendly noises.
There are very real limitations to this influence of course, and Democratic leader in Congress Nancy Pelosi is determined to undermine the emergence of socialism wherever she can. Trump’s most public of attacks on socialism is partly about trying to exploit divides in the Democrats that can only become wider as the race between Presidential candidates heats up.
But it is also about the President’s own weaknesses. ‘Make America Great Again’ is on its way out for ‘Stop America Becoming Socialist’, a message he hopes will appeal to the US ruling class regardless of their schism on Democrat v Republican lines.
It’s a message Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser, has brought to the rich again and again. He tells sceptical audiences from the US to Europe that the choice is a populism of the left or the right.
The rise of Corbynism in the aftershock of the 2015 Tory election sweep was a major boost to American socialists, who found their feet with Sanders in the following months of the US presidential primaries.
That seems a long time ago already. Has the socialist threat this side of the Atlantic become bogged down in the chaos of the British state’s decline?
“I do think that part of the reason there is stagnation around the concept of socialism right now in Britain is about the crisis of the state, so that everything is seen through the constitutional lens,” says Cat Boyd, a co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign and trade unionist.
“The days of the British road to socialism are over. The fact that there is a socialist in charge of the Labour party is a good thing, but if you think that people who are resisting austerity in Scotland are just going to sit back and turn out a vote like Scotland has been expected to do for Labour, and think that will result in significant changes, that’s laughable.
“The channelling of all political forces into a single party whether that’s the SNP, which has a lot of socialists in it, or Labour – these vehicles are only for certain aspects of a socialist project. They cannot on their own unwind or challenge through parliamentary means the power of capital.”
Ocasio-Cortez and those around Democratic Socialists of America and Justice Democrats have had success in channelling the mood of Occupy Wall Street in 2011 into a socialist challenge to establishment politics in the electoral sphere. It remains possible that Sanders could emerge as the Democratic frontrunner in 2020. But Boyd worries that in the UK there is a danger that the pursuit of a Labour government could become a bottleneck for socialist politics.
“You need to have your independence from a political party. We experienced that during the independence referendum. When RIC stopped overtly challenging the SNP when they began to talk left, we lost a lot of ground. We didn’t put our flag out and say ‘this is our longer term project for radical change in Scotland’. That’s also the danger for socialists in other parts of the UK, that you are hedging your bets on one tactic, and it has to be seen as one tactic in the overall socialist project.
“Getting Corbyn into Number 10 would be great. It could make a huge difference to the lives of working class people. Universal Credit being scrapped, wages going up. But there are parts of the state you cannot vote out. The City of London, the royal family, this wider array of institutions. They are not going to disappear with a Corbyn government, there is going to be a lot of pressure on that government and you need to have external forces outside of a party to move forward.”
SNP MP for Edinburgh East Tommy Sheppard doesn’t think there is an effective socialist politics organised around the Labour party leadership.
“Whilst its clearly an alternative to what we’ve seen from the Conservative or Labour front benches in recent years, it doesn’t look like a contemporary or relevant alternative,” he says.
“I think there might be people in Momentum who might agree with me. The Labour party leadership now is…there is a big schism there between the older command economy type socialism of the campaign group as it was, backed by [Unite leader Len] McCluskey and other senior players in the trade union movement. And on the other hand the grassroots influx that there has been in recent years that has come primarily from environmental, human rights, gender based type single issues [campaigners] where people have a much less statist view of what socialism means.”
Ocasio-Cortez has popularised the idea of a 70 per cent top rate of income tax on earnings over $10 million per annum, and was praised by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for “rocking the boat”. But the Scottish Government has shied away from increasing taxes on the richest Scots since the devolution of income tax in 2016. Is socialism really on the agenda in Scotland?
“For me socialism has to be about collective action by people. It can only ever be a grassroots, bottom-up phenomenon,” Sheppard says.
“Sometimes it will involve nationalisation of a sector of the economy, but other times it might just mean creating a public framework that obliges industry owners to work within it, and deliver what you expect in terms of wages, environmental standards.”
“For example, I’m very much in favour of progressive taxation and we need more of it, but taxation is about redistribution of wealth but what about the initial distribution of it? I think we should be asking more questions about who owns what and how wealth is distributed in the first place.
“We need to build a movement for social change, in my view key to that is constitutional change but with the end being social and economic change.
“We have got some authority and some power under the flawed devolution settlement, so we need to do that to the best of our ability. But the ability of the SNP to do stuff is severely constrained.”
Were it not so constrained, does Sheppard think that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Education Secretary John Swinney and Finance Minister Derek McKay would advance a radical socialist agenda?
“Absolutely. I’m convinced that if they had the formal powers they would welcome the opportunity to do an awful lot more than they are able to do at the minute.”
This brings us back to the ideological faultlines of UK politics, where competing nationalisms are in play. Is this nationalist framing undermining the construction of a socialist v capitalist dichotomy emerging across the pond?
Ewan Gibbs, a historian of the labour and socialist movement and a lecturer and the University of the West Coast of Scotland, thinks that’s certainly the case in Scotland.
He says: “Politics in Scotland – especially under devolution – has narrowed to meet the outlook of a governing caste that is not quite as directly connected to big business as its UK level counterparts. The sorts of state administrators and their third sector allies who hold so much powerful sway in Scotland – epitomised by Sturgeon herself – are primarily motivated by finding the ‘solution’ to the symptoms of contemporary capitalism’s ills: poverty and inequality.
“The nation provides a strong ark for a brand of nationalism that articulates a universal interest, whilst also creating a convenient political enemy – Westminster – on which the reality of primarily economic processes is blamed. Socialists in Scotland will succeed to the extent that they can spread a politics of confrontation in the official political arenas but more so in workplaces and communities.
“In the past, working-class movements in Scotland have further succeeded as far as they were able to themselves contest and lay claim to national consciousness and deploy it in their own interests.”
But is there really a distinctly British socialist strategy now, with the country crisscrossed with schisms from Brexit to Scottish independence, with Corbyn always under pressure from the majority of his backbench MPs and much of his shadow Cabinet, who are more in the Nancy Pelosi mould than Ocasio-Cortez?
Tom Blackburn, co-editor of content exploring the development of the socialist movement away from the Westminster bubble for the popular New Socialist website, thinks that socialist politics is still in a germinal stage in the UK.
“I’m reminded here of Ralph Miliband’s reflections on ‘socialism in one country’ in [his book] Socialism for a Sceptical Age: basically that the role of a left government, coming to office after so many years in the political wilderness, isn’t so much the establishment of socialism but rather of kicking off a very long-term process of social reform aspiring towards socialist objectives. I think this is fundamentally the right perspective in our time, and in the political context we’re faced with now. Individual, isolated governments (as a Corbyn government would most likely be) can only make so much progress.”
Even this modest goal however is hampered by the years of defeat, demoralisation and neoliberal consolidation, a major handmaiden of which was the Labour party, particularly in its New Labour mode.
“You still hear Labour politicians gesturing towards federalism, but even now very little flesh has been put on the bones,” Blackburn said. “Regional inequalities throughout Britain are massive, and won’t be addressed with regional investment banks alone. It does seem to me that the hoary old Fabian idea that you can simply implement benevolent reforms from on high once you get your hand on the tiller of state power is, sadly, still alive in zombie form.
“There have been some positive developments recently, particularly with the launch of the party’s community organising unit, but I do still find myself wondering whether the Labour leadership or the Labour left at large really appreciates the difficulty – as well as the necessity – of rebuilding the movement as a social and cultural presence as well as a political force. The party’s collapse in Scotland was hardly a fluke: winning back people’s trust there is a lengthy process if it’s to happen at all, and the same goes for much of Wales and many of the former heartlands in England.”
The UK is at a fragmented political juncture for the left, where socialists are divided between different parties and entangled in often competing political strategies. But it’s also true that the success of Ocasio-Cortez and co can be seen with rose-tinted glasses from afar: many of the policy demands of the left in the Democrats, such as on healthcare, are not even as radical as already long-established facts of life here, and thus do not embody the same radical hue. America has not been through a social democratic phase in the way post-war Europe did, and thus American socialism has not fully learned some of the limitations of that politics.
That’s a point Boyd is quick to point out: “The US brand, what Trump is terming socialism, it’s pretty mild. Obamacare is ‘socialism’, free education is ‘socialism'”.
Blackburn concurs, but argues that the left in the US could still be on the verge of an important breakthrough.
“I’m less convinced that the US left has as yet revived ‘socialism’ except rhetorically, though in the circumstances, even this is to be welcomed. It seems to me that what’s being revived in the US is New Deal liberalism, but this obviously represents a substantial advance over the kind of pabulum still being peddled by clapped-out Clinton Democrats. A Sanders presidency, if it came to pass, could certainly be a game-changer for the left in Europe.”
Of course socialism is not just an intellectual movement. Neither Corbyn, nor the new socialist lawmakers in the US, nor the Scottish independence movement, appeared in a vacuum. They emerged from social movements and widespread anger at the failure of the traditional capitalist order to resolve the fundamental problems of people’s lives. It is likely a coherent socialist strategy can only emerge through the mass intervention of working class people into a chaotic political scene.
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