High Tide Socialism in Low Tide Times

October 25th, 2018  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Some recent discussion on Twitter has me thinking again about one of my longstanding projects, and something I want to do at book length soon: the contradictions of building social democracy.

My basic outlook, as described in the linked essay, is that the socialist project must be conceived in terms of “building the crisis”, or “building social democracy only in order to break it”. That is, we win reforms that strengthen and nourish the working class, and lessen its dependence on capital. But in so doing, we create a situation that is intolerable to capital itself, a moment of truth that must either smash the entire system or restore a reactionary state of affairs.

To understand this dynamic, it may be helpful to periodize the historic tasks of the socialist movement, as they correlate with the political-economic environment.

There are, I would say, two distinct types of crisis that arise, when the class war between labor and capital reaches an intense pitch. One of them happens when labor and the left is extremely weak—wages are low, workers are disorganized, lack of effective demand leads to stagnant growth, and sheer desperation leads to an upsurge in militancy and protest.

What we have been living through since 2008, manifested in Occupy and Black Lives Matter and the new wave of socialist elected politicians and the teacher strike wave and even #metoo along with much else, is this type of crisis. I could write a book on the low-wage, high-debt, precarious economy that has driven millenial politics in this direction, but Malcolm Harris already did it so just go read that.

The politics of an age like this are what I call “low tide socialism”. It is a socialism that aims to rebuild the organs of worker power and the social welfare institutions that shelter workers from the ravages of capitalism and the market. It is, in other words, the project of building 21st century social democracy. The parameters of its united front are defined by New Deal liberalism (and Bernie Sanders mind you, democratic socialist nomenclature aside, is a New Deal liberal). Its exponents include one of the most powerful tendencies within the Democratic Socialists of America, as represented by The Call

I support most of the demands of this kind of low tide socialism: health care and education and housing for all, green jobs, massive unionization, and so on. But once again: where does this project ultimately lead?

It leads to the second crisis. The crisis of “high tide socialism”. That is, what do you do when your workers movement and welfare state begin to press against the limits of what the capitalist class will accept? Can you expropriate the expropriators and sound the death knell of private property? Or does capitalism’s thermidor restore accumulation on the basis of private wealth’s austere dictatorship?

This is how I view my various critical interactions with other socialists and liberals as to the necessary radicalism of socialist politics. I see myself, essentially, as a high tide socialist operating in a low tide environment. In practical terms, I am allied in my daily work with low tide socialists pursuing incremental reforms and a new social democracy. However, I think they greatly err by viewing the question of confronting the high tide crisis as something to be put off until “after the reformolution”, as it were.

When last we were at high tide, we saw efforts like the Meidner Plan, policies that pushed the welfare state in the direction of true socialization of the means of production. These attempts were failures, beaten back by brutal capitalist counter-attack. And they failed, I believe, because the very parties and movements that had so successfully built social democracy had rendered themselves totally unable to conjure the militant forces that could have made society ungovernable, and truly overcome the rule of capital.

What would “the Meidner Plan armed” look like? We didn’t know then and we don’t know now. But we need to figure it out. And the time to do that is not when high tide finally comes—a high tide that, like the real high tide of the other second crisis, may be higher than ever before. The time is now.