The Cold War – phase 2
What are we to make of the Real Democracia Ya! protests in Spain? The first thought that comes to my mind is that it isn’t only or even primarily an event within Spanish politics but more a local skirmish within what can only be considered a much larger war. This may sound a bit far fetched, but I think a reasonable case can be made that the Cold War never really ended; it just transitioned to a different phase. The Cold War was, after all, largely about the suppression of an ideology that workers should rule rather than wealth. The belief the Cold War was simply a battle between democracy and totalitarianism and that Europe was under a real threat of invasion from the Soviet Union is rejected by most credible historians. The risk to the capitalist system was never from the armed might of the Soviets, it was always the soft power of an ideology – the ideology of socialism. Conceptualizing the current struggle between the globalizing power of capital and idealistic notions of social democracy as a continuation in different form of the same essential battle as the Cold War seems useful since it draws attention to the fact that the opponents are essentially the same. Social democracy may seem a far lighter threat to concentrated wealth than socialism but a global hegemony of social democracy would be devastating to oligarchic interests and open the door to a deeper non-capitalist system. Make no mistake, there are very powerful interests that want to put a final end to social democracy.
The threat was strong in the immediate years after World War II. Under the fear of socialism and a reality of a strong workers movement, the elites of the US and especially Europe were forced into providing unprecedented benefits to workers. The US instituted an old age health program, expanded social security, and greatly increased the minimum wage. Europe went much further. Workers were guaranteed a month or more of vacation, extended sick leave, pensions, health care, and much else. Wages increased substantially everywhere.
The high water mark was in the 70’s but the tide’s been ebbing ever since and with increasing speed. With the defeat of communism in 1989, the first phase of the Cold War drew to a close. Soviet communism was defeated but the ideology of social democracy was not. And most of Europe still avidly believed in social democracy. If we consider the Cold War as a fight against an ideology, then clearly the war was not concluded. We can now see that a second phase of the war began in the 80’s and its target was not the Soviets but the actual populations within the heart of capitalism. The current crisis represents the most intense stage yet and I think, in fact, we’re in the key battle of the entire Cold War – a war that’s always been one between the power of concentrated wealth and utopian ideas of socialism. A classic war that Aristotle would have understood completely – oligarchy versus democracy.
And just like the first phase, the key territory is Europe. That’s because the war’s largely been won in the US. Workers there still look in the mirror and see themselves as the rugged individualists of prior centuries but the sad reality is that they’re little more than serfs, forced to work long hours with little security, almost no benefits, and ever declining wages. Meanwhile their social security and medicare health benefits, the most meager in the “1st world”, are under attack from both right and “left”. Republicans especially were once too fearful to openly call for slashing these benefits but no more: the defeated enemy is too easy a target.
The important battle’s in Europe because the old world is the last bastion of the quasi utopian ideology of social democracy. The forces of oligarchy – the unbridled power of capital – are aiming all their guns at the European worker with the goal being the final destruction of the idea of a welfare state. All workers have a stake in this fight for if the vision of a social democratic society is destroyed there and replaced with the grim unequal world of Hayekian neoliberalism and its cage of competition, markets, global finance, and stark individualism, it will be extremely difficult to resurrect it again anywhere. The Cold War will be over and the new world of oligarchy will finally begin. It will be a very sad day if Europe becomes America.
This is not a war of guns but of ideology. It’s a war against democracy waged within the structure of democracy. It’s perhaps the most complex and indirect war on a people that’s ever been tried. The current phase of this Cold War has been conducted over the past couple decades by elites of both the center-left and center-right parties who together have been seeking to end social democracy and push their populations toward the American version of neoliberal capitalism. The US is the ultimate attractor for the neoliberals within the European states and for the European Union as a whole. Liberalism is hegemonic within the higher strata as we can clearly see by the strategies of the EU and the European Central Bank. The paradigm is that the welfare state is no longer sustainable and that Europe “to compete” must move toward an American style of capitalism. Globalization offers no other alternative. The role of these Serious People is to communicate this fact to their child like populations who are ignorant of this reality and drag them toward the new world of 21st century competition as quickly as local politics permit. A Serious Person proposing policies against this consensus is quickly condemned as a radical populist.
Many of the liberalizing changes over the past years, (like Germany’s Agenda 2010), were instituted by the social democratic parties against the will of the people who would then predictably vote them out and replace them with the only alternative – the center-right party. The European Union project, utterly undemocratic, is the most powerful of the neoliberal assaults as it requires all states to fully open their markets to foreign competition and subject their workers to low wage pressures from Eastern Europe and globally. Each country is allowed only tiny budget deficits and those which don’t comply, like Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and Spain today, are treated by EU authorities in the exact same manner as the IMF traditionally has treated its “clients”. The power of the currency is stripped from these previously sovereign states and is now controlled by the most radically conservative monetary authority in the world. An authority that, in its obsession with protecting the power of money, is willing to raise interest rates despite massive unemployment everywhere outside of Germany. States that don’t measure up in their global competitiveness have no option other than the destruction of wages and living standards.
But the elites, despite their vast power, have not yet won. For all the conniving of the politicians, the neo-classical economists, and the elites of the media, the liberal direction they seek to impose is rejected by very large percentages throughout Europe. This is a fundamental disconnect that gives us great hope.
The European worker seems to have but two choices – fight against this slow motion destruction or crumble just like the Americans. We have a view of modernity that assumes we’re on a steady rising path of prosperity and democracy. The opposite is the Indian one of cycles. It’s a disgusting thought but there’s nothing in physics which says we can’t cycle downward into a new form of serfdom. That is exactly what’s at stake today.
It’s difficult to see what the proper strategy should be for the worker. Voting in and of itself is not meaningless but history has certainly shown that center-left parties will screw the worker almost as quickly as the center-right. What they campaign on and what they do in office are two very different things. And when the population gets angry at the betrayal of the center-left government, what happens? They elect a center-right government! In some ways, I think workers are more protected when the center-left is out of office since then they provide a bit of institutional opposition. New truly democratic worker parties are clearly needed along with drastic reforms of representative parliamentary systems. I don’t see how the needed changes can occur without massive on the street protest.
So, back to Spain. The demonstrations in the Puerta del Sol are inspiring and one can only hope they continue and expand. The center-left PSOE, true to form for center-left parties everywhere, has betrayed the workers over the past years instituting cruel levels of austerity at a time when the country is in a full blown depression. It’s almost certain the center-right PP party will gain power next year as voters express their disgust with the PSOE. The PSOE will probably then adopt some of the rhetoric of the crowd and appoint a new leader but nothing much will change. The attack is always bi-partisan and that’s the essential wisdom the Spanish protesters have grasped. President Zapatero clearly displayed the nature of the system today with a clear refutation of the Spanish people. Despite the massive protests and overwhelming defeat of his party based on his policies, he said his priority remains to continue carrying out his economic policies as long as he has the necessary parliamentary support.
Politics tends to move globally as a unit and it’s therefore unhistorical to think of it as specifically nation based. Virtually all countries since the 80’s have moved en bloc to the right after moving en bloc to the left after World War II. It’s a global phenomenon which shouldn’t be surprising if we accept the Cold War premise of this post. Given that, it’s probably not reasonable to think one country – especially a less powerful one like Spain – can stand alone and buck global forces. The direction of Spain’s politics could therefore depend heavily on what happens in the more powerful states – especially Germany and France. Both of these countries have strong progressive currents and solid percentages are against the descent into liberalism. The short term hopes for Spain, I think, will be influenced heavily by the actions of people in these key states. Without strong support, Real Democracia Ya is facing a huge uphill struggle. The protesters, after all, are fighting against every government in the world including their own. What odds! But if they were able to convince a majority of their countrymen to support the cause and bring forth credible leaders, success would not seem completely out of the picture. The fight, after all, must start somewhere.
Leon Trotsky, key leader in the Russian Revolution, scholar, and avid opponent of Stalin, had this warning to the Spanish left in 1931 as quoted today by the World Socialist Web Site:
The spontaneity—which at the present stage constitutes the strength of the movement—may in the future become the source of its weakness. To assume that the movement can continue to be left to itself without a clear program, without its own leadership, would mean to assume a perspective of hopelessness. For the question involved is nothing less than the seizure of power.
These seem to be very wise words for today.