• The Urgent Call for a Society of Solidarity

  • Έφι Μπόλκε | 20 May 09
  • Institut für Gesellschaftsanalyse der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung

    (Effi Böhlke, Lutz Brangsch, Michael Brie, Mario Candeias, Erhard Crome,
    Judith Dellheim, Conny Hildebrandt, Christina Kaindl, Dieter Klein,
    Günter Krause and Rainer Rilling).


    The brave new world of neoliberalism lies in ruins. Its wealth turned out to be robbery, sham and deceit. The left is in a new situation. Without its self-transformation and the development of a capacity to act that is adequate to the times, it will squander for a long time to come any possibility of becoming a force of social, ecological, democratic and peace-promoting social transformation beyond capitalism. This paper, presented here in a shortened form, aims to contribute to the discussion of the strategies of a left that is renewing itself within the crisis of neoliberalism.

    Neoliberalism in crisis

    The hard-pressed, insecure, plundered polity is supposed to pay the bill of a more than thirty-year long orgy of redistribution from bottom to top, from the public to the private. Millions have lost not only their jobs, but also their homes and pensions. The financial crisis is intertwined with a cyclical economic crisis and the exhaustion of previous fields of growth of a self-centred society and the information technology revolution. At the same time, the costs of global warming are exploding and removing from hundreds of millions of people the bases of their livelihoods. There is the danger that the interwoven economic crises will lead to more repression and to stronger constraints on competition and that the solutions found by the elites will become the lever of a perfected system of neocolonial exploitation. 

    Neoliberal responses to the over-accumulation crisis

    The crisis of neoliberal financial-market capitalism broke out in the centre of the system and has a key systemic cause: it was triggered by a previously unrecognised autonomisation of the financial sphere with respect to other economic fields and the inclusion of all social fields in speculative financial businesses beyond any possibilities of social or state organisation.

    Fundamentally, in the face of the real relations of forces, different ways of overcoming the current economic crisis are thinkable and are to be viewed from as historical a perspective as possible. All of these thinkable ways out of the crisis are of a political nature and do not emerge spontaneously from the economy. They all presuppose active dimensions of the state. It would be a catastrophe if the economic crisis were to be associated with a collapse of such dimensions of the state.

    One can attempt to direct the surplus capital into new fields of investment. A current possibility, in no way to be discounted, is also an inflation policy, inseparable from extreme social and international tensions. The opening up of new fields of accumulation and the inflationary devalorisation of capital can also go hand in hand. If the current tendency of over-accumulation of capital is not stopped, the explosive material of an even greater financial, economic and social crisis will build up.

    The social crisis of financial-market capitalism and the necessity of system alternatives

    Whether or not the momentary crisis becomes a systemic crisis is an open question. As a structural crisis of capitalism, however, it is in many respects a social crisis of capitalism.

    First: with the crisis of the radical market mode of regulation whose exposed expression is the financial crisis, the ideology of neoliberalism has been shaken.

    Second: neoliberalism has brought forth structures that are not viable. Important goods for a life with human dignity were produced in a completely unsatisfactory way. The current crisis pushes large parts of global society into growing insecurity and increasingly leads to rebellions on the part of those hardest hit in the foreign and domestic peripheries. Protest and resistance are forming on all levels, still fragmented and frequently without clear direction, but they are growing.

    Third: democratic governmental forms have been implemented in many countries in the last twenty years. At the same time, the social, economic and cultural basis of democracy is being undermined. 

    Fourth: neoliberal capitalism has also squandered its legitimation on the terrain of domestic and foreign security. In the Iraq War, the imperial claim to establish order in every region of the world according to the paradigm of the West, and with military violence when other methods were not available, has failed. Expenditure on armaments and war are preventing the financing of development in the South and of public services even in the rich countries.

    A new orientation of social forces

    Very diverse forces are working on projects, tendencies and scenarios for the reestablishment and/or development of bourgeois capitalist domination. Just as in the crisis of Fordism from 1968 on, different crisis factors are coming together, which are met by an intensification of the old mechanisms of regulation, at the same time as something new is already coming into existence. The following tendencies within neoliberalism, which at the same time point beyond it, are developing at the moment in parallel:

    A new state interventionism

    The rulers are reacting to the crisis by rapidly and suddenly changing the open, decades-long contempt for the state – in reality, always active even in neoliberal capitalism. This contempt is giving way to massive state interventions. The state rescue actions also include elements – even if very limited – of a consensus in favour of support for low-income social groups, the limitation of manager incomes and even in favour of at least a consideration of state participation in industrial enterprises. The bank rescue packages were followed by anti-cyclical state programmes. Within the EU, the Lisbon Strategy, despite all its problems, has been maintained. 

    The regulation of the financial markets and the struggle over a new Bretton Woods

    The future of the global financial system has now become the centre of the debate: both restorative forces, that want to use the state and its finances for the re-establishment of the old order, and “crisis gamblers”, who want to win from the crisis, are pitted against reformist initiatives that clearly want to go beyond the previous status quo. A real break with neoliberalism, however, cannot yet be discerned. 

    A public New Deal

    With the renewal and the reconstruction of the public sphere, especially through new investment programmes in public infrastructure, education and health systems and the creation of new jobs in those branches, particular groups around President Obama are attempting to make up for the crash of the US economy and to deal with the crisis of reproduction and jobs as well as to offer new kinds of consensus to the lower social groups. A public New Deal is supposed to provide the reconditioning of the general conditions for the reproduction of capital.  

    A green New Deal

    A green New Deal comprises a state-initiated and massively subsidised transition (transformation) to an “ecological” mode of production that opens up new fields of accumulation for capital seeking investment possibilities (the further commodification of natural resources in the field of biodiversity or gene technology; technologies for ecological increase in productive efficiency and energy conservation); new investment and speculation possibilities open both new markets in certificate or emission trading and in ecological consumption. Nature and environmental protection becomes a commodity, which limits the possibilities of solving the ecological crisis. The green New Deal is thus not the solution of the ecological crisis; rather, it is the attempt at its development in the sense of a re-establishment of expanded capitalist accumulation and hegemony over the inclusion of progressive oppositional groups and interests of the subalterns.

    Millennium goals and the struggle for a more just world order

    Global catastrophe or global cooperation – tendencies towards a global cooperative capitalism are intensified under the pressure of this alternative.

    A great signal for the cooperative reduction of poverty in wide regions of the globe was the decision on 8 Millennium Development Goals at the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in September 2000. Supplementary steps were agreed upon at previous and following conferences. However, the reality in the developing countries belies the weakness of international cooperation against poverty.

    Tendencies toward international cooperation are exerting an effect on global environmental politics. In the last minute of the negotiations during the environment conference in Bali in December 2007, the USA, still under Bush’s presidency, saw itself constrained to vote for a compromise proposal, which opened the way for Kyoto follow-up controls. The ecological components in Obama’s economic programme confirmed that.

    The emergence of an entire range of variations and the competition provided by post-neoliberal developmental paths

    The Washington consensus was already delegitimated before the crisis; after the crisis it will be completely gone. The USA and Europe cannot alone determine the rules of the game, nor is a transnational consensus recognisable. 

    In South American, strong social movements have toppled governments, centre-left governments have been brought to power, participatory approaches to politics and economics based on solidarity have been deployed, and indigenous movements have forced an acceptance of another way of dealing with representation, public life and property.

    Also, in India, strong movements of peasants, the landless, “untouchables” and networks critical of globalisation have been formed. Even more clearly, China’s state capitalism or the investment policies of the Gulf states seek – from above, of course – to bring capitalist dynamics and state-controlled development, through a selective opening, to another level, and thus to determine (more) independently the future of their countries. In Scandinavia, despite neoliberal hegemony, various elements of another type of capitalism have at the same time been maintained. 

    Internationally, inside the WTO another G20+ was formed, as a loose union of countries of the “global South”, in order to create something as a counterweight to the negotiation power of Europe, the USA and Japan and to strengthen the position of the “global South”. Whether or not these developments will lead to the formation of a new capitalist bloc with its own hegemonic political or imperial ambitions, is still not clear. 

    As counterweights to the transnational institutions like the IMF, the World Bank or the WTO, regional integration projects have been promoted that go beyond them, like Mercosur or ALBA in Latin America; cooperation between China, Japan and South Korea or the ASEAN states is slowly being deepened, and regional development banks like the Banco del Sur have been founded.

    Nevertheless, we should by no means overlook the fact that people in Africa continue to be worn down and are massively confronted with free trade demands. The Millennium Development Goals were not reached.

    A new authoritarianism

    For years now, we have seen a right movement on the part of particular social groups. The precarisation of modes of labour and life and the thinning out of the so-called middle classes is linked to the return of strong exclusion / respectability boundaries, authoritarian educational and service notions as well as an exacerbatim of immigration politics and exclusion. With the assumption of government power by unambiguously right-wing parties, there is the attempt to forge a social consensus, under the banner of nationalist appeals, between the upper and lower strata of society. 

    In terms of foreign / imperial policy, the war on terrorism is emphasised as a war of cultures and linked to the intensification of security and control policies. The asylum and immigration policies of the EU aims overwhelmingly at economic gain and treats people as “security risks”. Repressive measures are implemented in an intensified form against oppositional positions, and also in social policy: the bolstering of police and the broadening of their scope, along with the “punishment of the poor”, are supposed to guarantee the latter’s assimilation and prevent their unrest.

    For its own hegemonic project, authoritarianism is certainly not sufficient, since its attractiveness and economic potential remain limited. Just as bio-dictatorial measures are only imaginable as a tendency within other hegemonic projects or for limited and defined regions and locations, so authoritarianisms and even elements of fascistoid politics can only have an effect if they are complementary to other projects and support them. 

    What is to be done? Left politics in times of crisis

    The depths of the current crisis will not lead to the implementation of enduring solutions in the short term. The still unbroken predominance of the neoliberal forces of financial-market capitalism blocks fundamental alternatives. There is a constellation of openness and of transition that can perhaps last a decade. Since many fundamental problems will not substantially be dealt with, the danger of even worse financial, economic, ecological and social crises grows.

    The rulers are divided. The conflicts of interest and confrontations that are linked to this, the unavoidable search for compromises and the consequence of ever new partial steps, offer the left the opportunity of bringing its own positions to bear.

    In large parts of German society, however, Die LINKE, the unions and many social movements have in fact so far not been given a capacity for building the future. In Europe, it is not the left that determines the agenda. Globally as well, the positions developed above all in the context of the World Social Forum process, while certainly strong enough to question the legitimacy of neoliberalism and the current search for solutions from above, are still too weak to intervene directly in setting the course.

    The chief task of a renewed left will be:

    • to connect the resistance to the shifting of the consequences of the crisis onto the wage workers, the socially weak and the Global South, on the one hand, to the development, on the other, of a perspective oriented to the values of global solidarity, to organise social struggles and to network;
    • to create room for collaborative work and self-organisation of protagonists who are ready to develop alternatives and to live them;
    • to confront, with great decisiveness, the reactionary solutions of continued expropriation, de-democratisation and new wars;
    • to prevent the conservative continuation of neoliberalism by other means,
    • to support progressive forms of state intervention, of renewal of the public sphere, of socio-ecological transformation and solidaristic global development;
    • and in all this, to develop approaches to a transformation beyond capitalism, as well as to introduce and to realise steps toward socio-ecological transformation with the implementation of elements of a society based on solidarity.

    All of this requires transformative processes within the left movements themselves, transformation of the relations among them and the ways of life represented by them.

    The strategic triangle of left politics

    The left can intervene simultaneously on three levels: by protest, critique and education, struggle over the interpretation of the crisis and the development of solidaristic forms of process, as well as by intervening in decisive processes and practical organisation. It must prove itself within the strategic triangle of left politics, that of (1) social learning, (2) the broadest coalition politics and (3) the transformation of social property and power relations.

    Education and the effective development of common alternative positions in the public sphere

    Emancipatory educational work in unions, social movements, citizen initiatives, in firms, schools, universities, in parties and churches as well as in the media and in the parliaments is the condition for overcoming the cultural hegemony of neoliberalism and its guiding principles of a market society, an authoritarian state and of people as entrepreneurs of their own labour power and life services. Education means, against this background, creating the foundations for common acting in solidarity and encouragement of the self-organisation of all protagonists interested in alternatives from the local to the global level.

    The left should advance proposals, in parliamentary and also in extra-parliamentary contexts, that pick up on and push further determinate aspects of this agenda (reconstruction of the social security system, tax reform, state intervention in private property rights, capital regulation, ecological transformation, conjunctural programmes, security policy, etc.).

    In conditions of economic crisis this struggle must be tied to a new internationalism. Mass propaganda using concrete examples demonstrating that things can be different, the promotion of forms of exchange of experience, in which the experiences of the individual can become a common good..  these are all important forms of learning and education in this situation. Forms like social accounting from below or the monitoring of budget policies are further examples of forms that aim at education through transparency.

    The confrontation with the causes and the global consequences of economic crisis must lead to one’s own culture of resistance in the face of all the insecurities and dangers. Precisely in crisis periods, left-wing movements need to see themselves as networks where solidarity can be lived and security can be found.

    Putting concrete alternative projects on the agenda

    Left-wing movements must in particular work where they are strongest – and this means above all on the local and municipal level and in the workplace. It is necessary to foreground political actions which similarly aim at the implementation of democratic forms of social regulation and against shifting the consequences of the crisis onto society. The struggle against poverty: 2010 in the EU is supposed to be the year of fighting poverty. Its effective preparation and realisation should not be subordinated to “the crisis”.

    Redistribution from top to bottom and from private to public: The accumulation of wealth in the hands of ever fewer people and social groups is a monstrous nightmare for society. Part of the appropriate response would be the removal of social security from the grip of the financial markets and the renewal of the social security systems on foundations of democracy and solidarity. 

    The socialisation of the finance sector: the financial system in its totality must be brought under public control. It is to be geared to the needs of municipal and regional development, to the support of projects of supranational integration and cooperation in solidarity.

    First, there must be assurances that the cooperative banks and municipal savings banks are maintained and democratised. Second, there must be a fundamental re-organisation of the business model of public banks. The European Central Bank (ECB) must be drawn into the dialogue on European economic strategy alongside the Council and the European Parliament. There should be a further structural pillar: a council or a board of civil-society actors. 

    Economic democracy: all enterprises and workplaces must be compelled to adopt co-determination. The economy should no longer remain a democracy-free space. Here we need the development of alternative economic models in the context of factory- and enterprise-level co-determination and beyond. Central here in the current context of the crisis is the question of the future of the auto industry and armament production, but also of those sectors that are now promoted in the context of ecological modernisation. Public support should proceed in the form of direct enterprise participation by the public authorities, and be linked to an extension of co-determination rights, including a new type of co-determination of the regions as well as of ecological and consumer organisations, and the obligation of orienting themselves to socio-ecological transformation. This is at the same time the foundation of a broad support of small and middle-sized enterprises. 

    Democratising democracy: Democratic cooperation and radicalisation of democracy are important forms of learning about politics, about power relations, about room for manoeuvre and the limits of society. They legitimate alternatives and resistance, they can be used in order to establish a space for solidaristic action. This calls for democratisation of budgetary policy through public budget analysis and participatory budgets as well as support of initiatives for remunicipalisation, in order to delegitimise the integration of municipal finances and public property in speculative businesses as well as in questionable concepts of budget consolidation.

    Politics of new full employment and decent work: It is time to re-orient the idea of publicly supported employment sectors away from its current character of superficial post-illness intervention, and instead in the direction of new active and democratic economic and social structures. Publicly supported employment sectors should be understood as a process of the creation of new spaces of cultural and social-service delivery, self-organisation and initiative from below and integration of solidarity and thus as a basis of new directions of an economy of solidarity as well as of the development of economically and socially sustainable business.

    An educational system of solidarity and the renewal of public spaces of democracy and culture: Social transformation is only possible if access to education, democratic cooperation, art and culture are decisively transformed and the social selection within the educational system is overcome. Here we need fundamental reorganisation of the education system, beginning with the extension of an integrated early childhood support, the introduction of community schools as “schools for all” and places for being together solidaristically, the providing of a meaningful life in childhood and youth, of the interrelation of learning, playing, mutual help, democratic co-determination, of self-development and of practical social projects.

    Renewal and democratisation of the municipal economy as a central axis of economic-political initiatives with the focus of energy provision, health care and transportation. Connected to this would be a corresponding qualification of the labour of municipal representatives within monitoring bodies in the sense of a real participatory communalisation of public services beyond the old patronage economies and paternalistic welfare. The municipal economy must be the point of departure of a socially and ecologically oriented regionalisation of economic cycles.

    For a free public transportation system: An essential step in social and ecological transformation would be the implementation of a transition to a public transportation system that would make it free for the users and ensure high levels of individual mobility also for socially weak groups.

    Peace policy and commitment to global development in solidarity: We need an increased capacity to build the future in more parts of the world as a precondition for sustainable development in the world in general: the security and defence policy strategies and guiding principles of the EU and its member countries should be subjected to moratoria. Wide-ranging debates at all political levels should clarify what “security in a globalised world” means.

    For a society of solidarity

    The era of a lack of alternatives is over. If the rulers are compelled to address systemic causes, then possibilities of intervention from the left and from the bottom strata of society also open up. But how can they be unleashed and used? It is time to put on the agenda the perspective of a transformation that points beyond capitalism, the goal of a society of solidarity.    

    The socialisation of losses can and must be opposed by the demand for socialisation of the control over property. Aid for the industry of the fossil-fuel epoch has to be replaced by a conversion to solar energy sources. The left should respond to the announced return to a failed “social” market economy with the demand to proceed in the direction of a society of solidarity with a socially and ecologically regulated mixed economy with strong public, common economic sectors as a step in the direction of a socio-ecological transformation. The continuation of a politics of world trade and development in the interests of the North can be opposed by the concept of working together in solidarity.

    If it is widely thought that what is needed is simply better informing the self-centred private individual, the Homo Oeconomicus, and making him take more explicit responsibility, then the left should stand for another concept of the human being – that of self-determined acting people who take their own matters into their hands solidaristically and strive for the whole richness of life.

    The concept of a society of solidarity is a concept of the re-appropriation of these productive forces with the goal of overcoming the destructive tendencies of the last decades and the awareness by the masses of their own power to solve the problems of the world together. This regards all levels – the local, the regional and the global. Another world, a world of solidarity, is not only necessary; more than ever it is also possible.