Documentation: The Last Social Democrat

Triumphalism is not in order. Certainly, state communism, as we have known it for generations, is staggering in defeat, but democracy, as we would have it, has not yet won. Many questions crucial to the outcome still hang in the balance; policies and theories being thrust upon Central and Eastern Europe are untested and abstract; and the forces that sustain freedom and, democracy are too often being elbowed aside.

What am I talking about? I am talking about the proposition that the prize, the bright grail of human liberty, won in the streets and workplaces by the courage and daring of plain people, is in danger of being appropriated by the complacent elites and grey establishments of Western society.

I am talking about the myth that the collapse of communism is the victory of capitalism and the final vindication of raw market theory. Yes, communism has lost, its credibility stands in tatters, and it has been found before mankind guilty of sins that even God cannot forgive. But to equate the fact with the transfiguration of Western finance and commerce, the Harvard Business School and the Chicago School of economic doctrine, is the sheerest nonsense.

Millions upon millions have found out, in the hardest way and in grueling detail, exactly what is wrong with communism. It is up to those who cherish democracy to do what we can to see that they do not now proceed to discover what is wrong with the jungle of the unregulated marketplace.

Both have something elemental in common. Both can atomize society by reducing humans to the level of isolated survivors. Both can be lethal to the institutions of civil society that make life tolerable to ordinary people. They are not so much opposites as mirror images.

The mouthpieces and organs of business enterprise would have you believe that freedom and democracy are borne on the wings and in the pockets of capital. Yet, they were nowhere on the battlegrounds where freedom was born again, except as distant co-conspirators with the forces of oppression.

Indifference to Human Values

The same institutions of finance and commerce that are now so timid and reluctant to risk anything in the emerging democracies of Central and Eastern Europe without the most generous guarantees, incentives, and licenses, were eager to lavish billions in loans upon the former regimes and roll them over and over again until they snowballed into the most onerous burdens now borne by these new governments.

I recall the words of an American banker who reacted to the 1981 declaration of martial law in Poland and the arrest of Solidarity’s leaders with these words: “Who knows which political system works? The only test we care about is: Can they pay their bills?”

Nor is this indifference to human values a recent attribute of business enterprise. It has been quite consistent through history. Gentlemen of commerce and industry the world over thought that Pinochet was peachy and Franco was dandy. Nor, if left to their own devices, is Saddam Hussein outside their pale.

I have no quarrel with capital and with free markets, as such. Trade unions emerged from them, learned to live with them, and became the instruments through which they are humanized.

Capital is neither moral nor immoral but simply necessary. As for markets, it has been justly noted that few relationships between people are as innocent as the exchange of goods and services for money.

But amid all the current glorification of free markets and privatization, I think it timely to sound a cautionary note. Certainly their agents and high priests have not been and are not now the trustworthy tribunes of democracy and human rights in the world at large.

That the state should micromanage all property and transactions is clearly absurd, not just in economic theory but more importantly in plain common sense. It vastly overburdens, undermines, and discredits the just role of the state in human affairs and impairs the prospects of those of us who believe that there is such a role as a true servant of the people.

Clearly, in Central and Eastern Europe there needs to be a major withdrawal of the state from ownership and management to its area of competence. The extent of that withdrawal ought to be determined not by dogmatists, as was the overwhelming extension of state power, but by democratic debate and decision.

As government recedes and an acquisitive class gains influence and power, unless social democrats and trade unionists aggressively pursue their roles, freedom will remain at risk, and a great gulf will open into which human beings will fall to ruin. It is our task to bridge and fill that gulf.

Free markets have their own severe limitation. They do not, unless compelled, discern the difference between employment and exploitation. They do not clean up after themselves. And, as they sometimes boom, so do they sometimes bust.

Free markets dispense many values, but not justice—except in the sense noted many years ago, on his deathbed, by an old gunfighter of the American West, Bat Masterson. He is reputed to have said:

There are those who maintain that, in this old world of ours, everybody gets about the same break in life, and that may be true. I have observed, for example, that everybody gets about the same amount of ice. The rich get it in the summertime, and the poor get it in the winter.

Here in the U.S., our current savings and loan disaster should serve as an object lesson of the danger of free market idolatry, and of the fact that while government may properly recede to its rightful sphere, it cannot safely recede beyond it.

The central enduring issue of this day and this century emerges from the dual nature of the state in human affairs. The state embodies and magnifies the frailties of man and his capacity for good or ill. The state entrenched and unopposed is, in its extremes, an engine of oppression, sweeping hordes into the ovens, the camps, or the

Gulag, and enlisting seemingly normal people by the thousands into the discharge of that mission.

The state, held within democratic bounds by free citizens jealous of their rights, is the indispensable instrument of human progress.

Those safeguards allow us to promote the benign uses of the state for positive ends. That pursuit is just as vital to the future as is constant vigilance against the dark side of authority.

  • Lane Krikland

    Joseph Lane Kirkland (1922 – 1999) was a US labor union leader who served as President of the AFL-CIO for over sixteen years.

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