From Socialist Voice, June 2010

The limits of social democracy

Part 2

The failure of the social democrats to address class is apparent in the continuing onslaught on public servants and the public sector. The attitude of the Labour Party, as reflected by its leader, Éamon Gilmore, has been disappointing. At the height of the propaganda offensive against the public sector last year, Gilmore went on national radio and sold the game by agreeing that substantial cut-backs in the number of civil servants were necessary, and did not exclude the fifteen thousand job losses being mooted at the time.
     More recently, when low-paid workers were taking industrial action in the Passport Office, Gilmore went on national radio to attack the workers and undermine their action. These are the actions of a leader who does not have any sense of class solidarity or understanding of the class nature of society and the struggles that are being waged over pay and conditions.
     He would rather embrace the “commonsense” consensus of the establishment (i.e. the public sector is bloated, inefficient, and unsustainable, and the pay, conditions and pensions of civil servants are inflated, over-generous, and unaffordable) than defend the public sector as an essential element in providing decent lives for ordinary citizens, or the right of workers in the public service to decent pay and conditions and also respect.
     The trade union leadership has shown much the same frame of mind on these issues. It is hard to think of a single trade union leader who has stood up and insisted that public services are essential for the common good and a decent society. The privatisation of these services is one outcome of a reduced public sector, which has been shown to be socially detrimental time and time again.
     In England, for example, poor people pay more for electricity because the companies insist on coin meters for them at a higher cost per unit, while the better off can avail of discounts for paying by direct debit. In the continuing struggle over pay and conditions in the public service, the trade union leaders have also failed to identify the class issues involved and to defend the class interests of workers.
     In the two deals negotiated by the public-service union leaders (the taking of unpaid leave by civil servants in order to cut the pay bill, and the concession of massive changes in conditions and work practices in the public service in exchange for no further pay cuts), either the leaders did not ask themselves the obvious class question—Who is paying for the recession under these terms?—or they had little problem with the answer: The workers will pay for it.
     Clearly, the trade union leaders are not anti-worker, but in the social-democratic mind-set that has been fostered over decades of partnership they no longer seem able to identify class interests and class struggles.
     The Irish Times series “Renewing the Republic” is another example of the shortcomings of social democracy, although it should be acknowledged that not all the contributors were social democrats. (Of course there were no socialists involved.)
     The series was characterised by a shared commonsense view of “the state of the nation.” In this view, Ireland is battered and broken, both financially and morally, in the wake of the Celtic Tiger; people have lost any sense of themselves and ourselves in the greed and selfishness of that period; corruption, inefficiency and managerial and political failure are among the important causes of the present debacle; and there is now an opportunity to put things right and renew the republic.
     What is lacking is any hint that the way the economy and society are organised needs to be examined, that the problems may be structural and systemic, that the problems may not be a blip or malfunction of the system but the consequences of it. Not surprisingly, then, the solutions offered in the series offer only a cleaner, better form of what we already have in the economy and politics.
     It is still shocking that Irish social democracy and the other commentators can only suggest reducing the number of TDs, reforming or abolishing the Seanad and cleaning up corporate governance practices as a means of renewing the republic.
     Socialists understand the crisis in terms of capitalism and class. Capitalism is the problem; it is the cause of the recession and the other issues that concern the social democrats. Throughout the history of capitalism, humanity has suffered cyclical crises in which the lives of ordinary people have been devastated; and this will continue to recur as long as we live under capitalism. In the immediate struggles over government budgetary and economic and social policy, the most important questions are who is paying and what is the money being used for. Intrinsic to this is what kind of society we want: one that aims to serve the common good and the needs of the many, or one that embeds inequality, privilege, and misery.
     Where the social democrats, no matter how well intentioned they are, can only promise a better, fairer capitalism, we want to transform capitalism and its class relations to create a society where workers and all citizens democratically control all aspects of the economy and society.
     While we may travel part of the road with them in making demands on government and business for more social justice (higher taxes for the rich; no cuts to social welfare; a universal health-care system, free at the point of use; etc.), we must always be aware of the shortcomings of social democracy and the necessity to keep class and class interest at the heart of our understanding and strategies.

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