As the living conditions of ordinary people inevitably worsen under capitalism and as its wars cause increasing devastation, tides of protest rise up from the population. The ruling elite then seek to stem these tides before they reach flood state.
In 2008, the tide was rising to dangerous levels as millions of people worldwide took to the streets to demonstrate against US military and economic imperialism. The elite then defended against a revolutionary flood by heralding the promise of “Change you can believe in.” They presented a candidate who seemed to be the total opposite of their previous servant, George W. Bush. Barack Obama promised a new era of peace abroad and progressive policies at home. America and the world loved him. His rhetoric of cooperation instead of confrontation won him the presidency and the Nobel Peace Prize. The tide of protest drained away, mollified by his charisma.
Now the tide is rising again, angrier this time from being duped. And again the elite are seeking to stem it. Their liberal media are taking a populist tone: “Yes, the system is broken, really in need of repair. The financial markets should be regulated to avoid these destructive orgies of greed that have concentrated too much wealth in too few hands. We should even consider tax measures that would redistribute some of this and give the ordinary person a fair chance.”
As a model for these changes, some liberal commentators are pointing to the social democracies of Europe. Stephen Hill’s new book, Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age, champions social democracy, claiming it combines positive features of capitalism and socialism by using market regulations and welfare measures to produce a high level of general prosperity. He enumerates the benefits of public health insurance, environmental protection, access to education, decent wages, unemployment benefits, and secure retirement, and suggests we can adapt these in the USA. This call for a kinder, gentler capitalism based on the European model can also be found in The Nation magazine and in groups like Move On. It sounds good, and it was good for a while, but now it’s disappearing in Europe.
In the past, the social democratic movement did lessen the gap between rich and poor in Europe, creating a more even distribution of wealth. The labor movement was strong, and unions were able to improve wages and working conditions. But that has changed now. Throughout Europe the power of unions has been eroded. From steelworkers to school teachers, wages are being forced down and working conditions worsened. Public health care, unemployment benefits, and pensions are being reduced, environmental protections weakened. Education is becoming more expensive. Poverty is on the rise, as are the riches of the corporate owners. The glowing promise of Europe with which American liberals are trying to lure us no longer exists. The reactionary changes that began in the USA in the 1980s are now rolling across Europe, implemented in many cases by parties that call themselves social democrats or even socialist.
These parties, like the Democratic Party in the USA, are firmly under capitalist control. Their progressive policies were permitted only because they served the needs of capital at that time. But that time is gone and so are those policies. That was the time of Keynesian capitalism, when the main market for products was the home country. Wage increases were tolerated then because they stimulated consumption. Now the market is global, and corporations face severe competition from emerging industrial powers such as China and India, which have far lower labor costs. To compete with their prices, US and European corporations must slash wages and benefits. The only way they can maintain dominance now is to impoverish their workers and invade other countries. The system demands that.
The friendly mask that capitalism wore in the USA and Europe has been stripped away, revealing the predatory beast beneath. We are beginning (just beginning) to get the same treatment as workers in the client states. This process is not generated by the greed of a few individuals, nor can it be reversed by social democratic reforms and regulations. This process is inexorable because it’s the essence of capitalism. It’s the nature of the beast to devour.
The image of European social democracy is a corpse that American liberals have resurrected in order to raise false hopes that progressive change is possible within capitalism and that the Democratic Party can lead us there. It’s this season’s “Change you can believe in.” The first was a lie and so is this one.
We need to refute these illusions and hold to a militant course that will raise the tide of protest into a flood of rebellion. The only solution is revolution. That doesn’t mean setting bombs. It means organizing a mass political movement based in the working class that will overthrow capitalism and build democratic socialism.
William T. Hathaway is an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. His latest book, Radical Peace: People Refusing War, presents the experiences of war resisters, deserters, and peace activists in the USA, Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Chapters are posted on a page of the publisher’s website. He is also the author of Summer Snow, the story of an American warrior in Central Asia who falls in love with a Sufi Muslim and learns from her an alternative to the military mentality. Chapters are available at www.peacewriter.org.