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Why hasn’t Socialism made a comeback?

2010 February 26
by Paul Vallely

“I’m 58,” the steelworker said as he left the plant on Teesside for the last time. “I won’t be able to get another job at my age. I suppose I’ll just watch the television for the rest of my life.” There was something terrible in his face as he spoke. It wasn’t sorrow or even anger. It was the blank desolation of despair. Here was a man with nowhere to turn. His only triumph was that he kept control of his emotions and maintained his dignity in a moment when it seems that his entire life has been wrenched from him by forces outside his control. And in the face of them he felt impotent and utterly disempowered.

Control over our own lives is something which is fundamental to our identity I thought the next day, in an altogether more trivial circumstance. I had been sat in a traffic jam and on impulse had turned down a side-street to find an alternative route. I did three sides of a rectangle and rejoined the jam pretty much back where I would have been had I endured the wait patiently. But I felt better. I had driven further, used up more petrol and added a little to global warming and yet I had felt the master of my own destiny. I had enjoyed the illusion of purpose and progress which is the psychological antonym of impotence.

So what will we find to make ourselves feel better in the light of the lack of control we increasingly feel over our lives? The danger is that we will turn into side-streets which take us nowhere better. David Cameron came up with such a wheeze last week when he suggested that the solution to disgrace of the bankers’ continuing bonus is a People’s Bank bonus which would sell off our taxpayer stake in the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds at a discount to those fortunate members of the public who can afford it. Far more than such a gimmick is needed; politicians need to find a way of outlawing the paying of bonuses in banks which are owned by the taxpayer. The public are rightly angered at the idea that this cannot be done.

And there are so many other aspects of latter-day global capitalism which are provoking new levels of indignation. There has been widespread disquiet at the idea that a US multinational like Kraft can buy-out a successful British business like Cadbury and do so not just by borrowing $7bn – but borrowing it from RBS, a bank owned by the British taxpayer. And the system of leveraged buy-outs which, from the 1980s onwards, plagued the business world have been stripped of their protective business jargon by the case of Manchester United whose owners borrowed to buy the club and then transferred what they owed to the company itself – which went from being the richest club in the world to last month announcing that it was £700m in debt.

The political damage which is being done by the public’s sense of powerlessness at such outrages could well turn out to be far more profound than the flurry over MPs’ expenses. That scandal can be sorted by fairly simple measures which are already being put in place. But on the big issue of disempowerment politicians have given up the ghost in the face of the seemingly unchallengeable ideology that the globalisation of the world economy means there is no alternative to acquiescence in the scandal that the Indian owners of the viable Corus plant on Teesside have refused to sell it to anyone else because that would create competition for their other plants.

One of the most surprising factors amid all the global financial meltdown has been the absence of any calls suggesting state socialism or communism as solutions. Perhaps people remember from the last century that those were costly diversions down a side-street which turned out to be a cul-de-sac. But if our politicians continue to fail to act in the face of churning public indignation those old siren systems may yet reassert their lure.

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