Socialism for all, not just for the rich

23rd April 2012

Owen Jones, author of Chavs and LRC member writes about the socialism we need today. Owen will be speaking alongside Tony Benn and John McDonnell at the LRC’s opening event at the Brighton Festival fringe.

There’s plenty of socialism in Britain – well, if you’re rich enough that is. The banks that caused the crisis were bailed out by the taxpayer, and allowed to carry on much as before. Private companies like A4e scrounge off the state, as do private profiteers throughout our public services: the NHS is about to become an ever-more lucrative opportunity for private health firms like Care UK. Train companies enjoy three times more public subsidies than were handed out in the time of British Rail. Private landlords are able to charge extortionate rents, knowing that the state will spend billions of pounds subsidising them through housing benefit. The wealthy enjoy tax relief on their pensions worth billions. Socialism for the rich is booming in Britain; for everybody else, it is capitalism with ever fewer restraints.

Instead of socialism for the people at the top, we need socialism for everybody else. But it’s worth clarifying what I mean by ‘socialism’. Certain ardent New Labourites were happy to appropriate the word, but strip it of any real political meaning. Odd though it is now to imagine, but when Tony Blair ran for the Labour leadership in 1994, he spoke of ‘socialism’ - but tried to redefine it as ‘social-ism’, or an emphasis on community values. For most of his followers – if they ever use the term – it boils down to platitudes like ‘fairness’ (who says they believe in ‘unfairness’?), or motherhood and apple pie.

But socialism – for me – is about building a society run in the interests of working people, by working people, instead of one organised around the interests of profit. It is about extending democracy to every sphere of life – and that doesn’t just mean the world of politics: it means the economy, too.

A coherent socialist vision has been lacking for a long time. That’s because the left was battered by a series of overwhelming crises: the rise of the New Right from the late 1970s onwards; the defeats suffered by the labour movement, long the backbone of the left; the demoralisation and desperation caused by the trauma of Thatcherism; and the neo-liberal triumphalism that followed the end of the Cold War, summed up by Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History’. Even leftists who vehemently opposed Stalinist totalitarianism were consumed by the tidal wave of ‘There Is No Alternative’ that swept across the globe – which saw European social democracy shift rightwards; the old Communist movements dissolve, splinter or collapse; and even African national liberation movements like the ANC abandon their previous commitments to nationalisation.

We remain in the midst of a very serious crisis of capitalism, but it was never certain that the left would automatically benefit from it – in the 1930s the Labour Party was nearly wiped out in Britain, and fascism swept across Europe; after the 1970s, we ended up with Thatcherism and Reaganism. But if we start offering a coherent alternative, we could have at the least the opportunity to tap into the growing sense of anger and frustration that exists – and, crucially, organise it and give it political direction. Back in October, ICM found that 37% thought the Occupy movement was naive because there was no alternative to capitalism; but 51% felt that ‘the protesters are right to call time on a system that puts profit before people.’

Democracy would be at the heart of such an alternative. Take the bailed-out banks: a classic example of ‘socialism for the rich’. The British people were forced to prop them up with billions of pounds, but they don’t have any control over them. Instead, they should be taken under genuine social ownership, with elected management boards. The banks would then be forced to operate in the interests of society as a whole, rather than their shareholders - for example, helping to promote those parts of the economy, like renewable energy, we should want to build.

We wouldn’t have a return to the old-style form of nationalisation developed by Peter Mandelson’s grandfather, Herbert Morrison, in post-war Britain. That created bureaucratic top-down public corporations that were not properly responsive either to their workers or to their consumers. We should call for real democratic ownership. If we reversed the disastrous privatisation of the railways, for example – a policy backed by the overwhelming majority, according to polls – we could have a management board with elected representatives of workers and passengers. It would be a public service directly accountable to those who use it. That’s a model that could be equally popular elsewhere – starting with the energy companies, perhaps.

A new socialism would build an economy run in the interests of the real wealth-creators – the workers who keep the country ticking. A society built around the interests of profit is as irrational as it is unjust. But it will never end unless we start developing a genuine coherent alternative that resonates with working people. It’s nearly four years since Lehman Brothers came crashing down – what are we waiting for?

Get tickets to see Owen Jones and John McDonnell MP, ‘In Conversation with Tony Benn’ on 12 May at the Brighton Festival fringe.

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