At the recent* Alliance Party national conference Jim Flynn, emeritus professor of politics at Otago University, gave an informative account of the busting of the USUS housing bubble in 2007, explaining how the banking system got caught out when the housing bubble burst. Flynn explained that an important part of his “social-democratic” analysis was looking at the world through “class spectacles”. Nevertheless, he seemed to accept, rather than challenge the basic pillars of a capitalist economy. For example, he talked of banks having a “legitimate function”, which is to spread risk for investors and to match those who have money to lend with those who want to borrow. But surely, looking through “class spectacles”, reveals that the wealth capitalists invest and the “return” on investments, comes from the exploited labour of workers. How can any part of this system be considered legitimate? Another gripe: Flynn’s solutions to financial crisis seemed very technocratic. Several times he mentioned the idea of a committee of academics (on one occasion this was to include business leaders too) who would regulate the banks and other corporations and “tame the market”. But why would the corporations submit to being tamed? One theme that Flynn returned to several times was the lack of a “social-democratic culture” and the need to build one in the US and NZ. For those not so familiar with political jargon Wiktionary gives a useful definition: A “social democrat” is:
A supporter of social democracy, a political ideology which in its contemporary form aims to reform capitalism democratically through state regulation and state sponsored programs which work to ameliorate injustices inflicted by the market economy.And “social democracy” is:
A moderate political philosophy that aims to achieve socialistic goals within capitalist society such as by means of a strong welfare state and regulation of private industry.When he talked of “social-democratic culture”, I took Flynn to mean a situation were social-democratic policies (such as a strong welfare state and government regulation of the market) are the standard or common sense response of politicians and business leaders, to any problem or crisis. Leaving aside the question of whether social democratic policies really can tame the market and ameliorate injustices of capitalism, the question of how to fight the dominance of market ideology and push social-democratic, socialist or generally left-wing ideas back into the mainstream, is an important one. As you might expect from a professor of politics, Flynn’s ideas on how this might be done seemed to come back to the work of academics and other experts. However, this wasn’t the main topic of his talk and he and the Alliance may well have other ideas about how to rebuild a left-wing culture. One answer is to look at how the mass socialist movements that existed 100 years ago were built in first place. Flynn mentioned the tradition of the US Socialist Party, and it’s greatest leader Eugene V Debs (1855–1926) [pictured below]. For Debs promoting socialist ideas and political campaigning went hand in hand with union organising, industrial action and other grass roots campaigning. I think that this remains the way forward for the left today.
* OK so it was on October 17, which isn’t all that recent. It’s just taken me a long time to finish off this article.