The 21st century is witnessing a gradual disappearance of traditional conservatism. With the disintegration of the USSR, liberal capitalism and internationalist interventionism lost their appeal.
Current conservatism, says Philipps O’Brien of the University of St Andrews, is essentially nationalist, populist, evangelical and anti-science. Reverence for leaders is also a prominent feature of conservative parties in the United States, Britain, India and elsewhere. The radical right does not seem to care about the fundamental norms and practices of democracy, in addition to rejecting cultural pluralism and minority rights. Donald Trump has placed the fringe at the center of Republican Party politics.
The line between the right and the far right has become more blurred not only in the United States and Europe, but also in India. Globally, the traditional left or the institutionalized left is also in constant decline showing signs of senescence. The death of socialism has been pronounced many times. Socialism as a currency of political discourse has also long since vanished.
At first glance, Kristian Niemietz’s book, Socialism: The Failed Idea that Never Fails, encapsulates the zigzag course of socialism. However, with the rise of the demented fringe of the right, the broad left and socialist ideas are becoming attractive again, even if the centre-left remains bitterly divided. Some commentators believe that socialism has become a young, hip, hip movement.
According to a 2019 YouGov poll, 70% of millennials now say they would vote for a socialist. John Roemer of Yale University argues in his book, A Future for Socialism, that “socialism is not dead but simply needs to be modernized”. Egalitarianism, for Roemer, is the calling card of socialism. Socialism is a term of abuse for Republican Trumpists. For them, Obama and Biden are socialists. Small thanks that they weren’t branded Commies.
Nevertheless, calling oneself a socialist is no longer a political death sentence in the United States. As Nathan J Robinson writes in his book, Why You Should be a Socialist, when Senator Bernie Sanders began his presidential campaign in 2016, “only a fringe dared to use the label… (now) many carry the ‘socialism’ as a badge of pride Socialism is a loose term because it has been used to refer to an extraordinarily wide range of political and economic beliefs.
Socialism and Communism have been used interchangeably by many which has done great harm to the socialist movement all over the world including India. After the SPD-led coalition in Germany and the centre-left in Norway came to power, the millennial left seems to be stirring again in Europe and elsewhere. Centre-left governments are also in power in Greece, Slovakia, Malta, Portugal and Spain.
In Latin America, the new left has made impressive progress. French economist Thomas Picketty says it’s up to history to decide whether the word “socialism” is definitely dead or not. For him, this “remains the most appropriate term to describe the idea of an alternative economic system to capitalism“. Picketty believes that the world needs “a decentralized, federal and democratic, ecological, multiracial and feminist socialism”. Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor of Jacobin magazine, argues that socialism should be understood both as a redistributive and emancipatory ideology and as a “radical extension of democracy”. However, he admits that Marxism has become a “super academic hobby that has lost its political urgency”.
The centre-left or all the other avatars of the left are bitterly divided. The party’s discredited evangelists have done far more damage than anyone who left or fell for the blandishments of the dominant parties in power. Leftist orthodoxies are another problem. Many members of the traditional left remain reluctant to admit that they now have more in common with the right.
Most socialist leaders in India have been co-opted by the BJP and other centrist parties. Some, of course, chose political irrelevance and remained true to their universal ideological home. Today, socialists have virtually no representation in parliament and state legislatures. Even in the United States, two socialists have been elected to the House of Representatives and in New York there is one socialist in the state legislature. Socialists are not part of any political discourse in India. The protagonists no longer find themselves in faculties or university courses; they are sometimes found in university libraries.
According to a Gallup poll, 60% of Americans have a favorable view of capitalism while 38% are well disposed towards socialism. Franklin Roosevelt has often been called a socialist thanks to his New Deal program. The mainstream left in Europe has lost much of its moorings as support for the color blue has evaporated. The old working class does not exist and the left parties have therefore lost their traditional base. As Leonid Bershydsky argues, “the old proletariat has been replaced at the bottom of the class hierarchy by a new precariat, people working in the service economy with little chance and little desire to organize.”
In Europe, what has emerged is the big left which includes the Greens, the pro-European and anti-European left, the pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear left. For example, as John Lichfield explains, the French left has three options: stay at home, vote for candidates they hate, and vote for someone they hate. The Yellow Jilets movement in France apparently refuses to accept anyone as its leader. His supporters simply refuse to work together. Given the slow decadence, the socialist party in France is no more than a shadow of itself.
According to Le Monde, the party has barely 22,000 members. Socialist Party presidential candidate Anne Hidalgo continues her election campaign despite indications that she has no chance of qualifying for the second round of the competition in April. As Le Monde put it, the candidates of the socialist party are swimming “in their own lane and none of them wants to move an inch”. The French left has lost its “compass”. It is perhaps premature to see the fluorescence of socialism. Old-fashioned socialism with a heavy dose of extensive government control is buried forever. However, the rise of techno-capitalism, inequality and a growing tendency towards oligarchy and authoritarianism have opened up avenues for the centre-left. Its future depends on the degree of persuasion and feasibility of an alternative to capitalism offered by the left.
Even conservative commentator Robert Heilbroner conceded in his Commentary magazine column that some form of socialism will be the predominant economic system in most parts of the world “in our lifetime”. In Europe and America too, socialism “will constitute the image of a society against which capitalism will be measured by its detractors”. The alternative proposed so far by millennial socialists remains utopian. They have to convince the world that they are the ones who know how to make it happen.
(The author is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)