Ideology is such a lonely word

Kevin Rudd’s 7700 word essay on the global financial crisis, published in this month’s edition of The Monthly, was a remarkable contribution to serious political debate by a sitting Prime Minister. What isn’t remarkable given its length and lack of humor is that it appears to have gone down like a lead balloon. Mentions of the essay in the media seem generally restricted to pointed criticisms of it from members of the Opposition or their sympathisers. A few journalists (such as The Australian‘s Matthew Franklin) have even had a go at “Julie Bishoping” the Prime Minister, on the somewhat flimsy pretense that 26 words of the essay’s 7700 words were almost identical to a passage that appeared in an recent Foreign Affairs article. Err… ouch [wet noodle limply falls to ground].

For the benefit of those who haven’t splashed out on the magazine, I am going to try and offer a hopefully more level-headed summary over the fold.

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Modern politics and that dirty, dirty word

One of the most obscene political words that one can use today, should one attempt to use it in some positive light, is of course socialism. To attempt to suggest that any particular socialist government might have achieved some good things for the country during its time in office is effectively tantamount to saying that you wish that George Bush or Kevin Rudd could be more like Joseph Stalin. In public discourse, we may as well just pretend that the word “socialism” and variants thereof have been blacklisted by some global, authoritarian political language regime. In the new political lexicon compiled by the enlightened victors of the Cold War, everything whatsoever associated with socialism is bad – or worse, evil. For some, this faith in the fact that socialism and everything associated with it is evil transcends the intellectual and becomes a quasi-religious fervour. As sure as Satan is evil, for such people, you can rest assured that socialism is evil as well.

In mainstream political culture, the central avenue through which this curious treatment of the word “socialism” emerges is through the world’s major centre-left political parties. The Labour Party in Britain and the Australian Labor Party have both publicly exhibited some embarrassment at retaining a reference to socialism (being a dirty word, and all) in their respective party constitutions. Soon after Tony Blair assumed the leadership of the Labour Party in 1994, the party voted to change the wording of Clause IV of its constitution to “modernise” the party’s relationship to the so-called “socialist objective”. The revised clause does interestingly make a reference to socialism (albeit qualified with “democratic”), but removed the admittedly anachronistic references in the clause to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. The Australian Labor Party has also discussed dropping the “socialist objective” from its constitution given socialism’s “taboo” status, with Kevin Rudd even going so far as declaring that he has “never been a socialist and never will be a socialist” after being elected Opposition Leader by the party in December 2006. To that, one would have to wonder precisely what Kevin Rudd means by “socialist”, given his known religious views and support for public health and education.

All this namby-pamby tip-toeing around the word socialism does, for someone like myself who believes that not everything associated with socialism is evil, intellectually grate. It makes comments like these from London Mayor Ken Livingstone in an interview with The Guardian seem quite refreshing by comparison. Here is Red Ken on some of the challenges facing the world today:

“All the politics of the post-war period was about the clash between the Soviet Union and America, and virtually all issues ended up being subordinated to that,” he says, “Now, the question is, what is the most a socialist can achieve in a global economy? What do we do about climate change bearing down upon us?

“In a sense, it brings us back to the basic socialist tenets. The only way you get through this is by sharing and planning, resource redistribution, allocating priorities – the market isn’t going to get us out of this. The market is a brilliant system for the exchange of goods and services, but it doesn’t protect the environment unless it’s regulated, it doesn’t train your workforce unless it’s regulated, and it doesn’t give you the long-term investment you want.”

Livingstone goes on to heap praise on Hugo Chavez, which is probably unfortunate. However, his beautifully succinct statement above, which summarises some of the limitations of markets with respect to some of the major problems facing the world today, is unequivocally, undeniably true, regardless of if you think Karl Marx was an economic Satan or not. It is true that Livingstone is portrayed in the media as a stereotypical leftist (and he certainly does his part to perpetuate that perception), in a way that perhaps Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd are not. However, one does somewhat wish that the leaders of centre-left parties like the Labor and Labour Parties would use reality as a device for crushing at least part of the stigma associated with the s-word.

Socialism as a body of thought is not in any sense equivalent to communism. The vast majority of people who refer to socialism in positive terms today do so out of deference to the humanistic and compassionate qualities of the ideology, not to the horrific calamities instigated in its name. Stripping away the irrational bonds of the taboo enforced by some intellectuals about this peculiarly modern dirty word, the truth of the matter is that we are all socialists now, at least to some extent. The “sharing and planning” that Livingstone speaks of is a basic, critical human activity that is inextricably embedded within the infrastructure of modern human society, and if compassionate and effective civilisation remains a desirable goal for the human race, we should hope it long remains there.