Universal basic income is a disarmingly simple idea based on a disarmingly simple premise. The digital revolution threatens massive technological unemployment; ergo, every citizen should be paid a basic income regardless.
In his magisterial One Hundred Years of Socialism, Donald Sassoon described how, under the influence of the 19thcentury German leader Karl Kautsky, the European social democrat movement embraced a mechanistic scheme by which the immanent crisis of capitalism would somehow issue in a transition to socialism. This conveniently offered a reassuring fatalism about the future and a legitimation of cautious reformism in the meantime.
While the world stops for Nelson Mandela’s departure from it, his iconic status is unquestioned. Yet there is a more complicated underlying narrative to tell.
As South Africans prepared for the huge funeral of their former president, Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela, in Pretoria on Sunday, the memorial service in Johannesburg spoke volumes: 52 presidents and 16 prime ministers attended to share in the global political stardust attaching to the man, while his successor, Jacob Zuma, was booed by a section of the domestic crowd.
The current crisis of legitimacy of the EU can be traced in a path-dependent fashion to its roots in the aftermath of World War II. Subsequent historical distance has elided together the anti-fascist popular consensus across the continent after the defeat and delegitimisation of Nazism with the elite integration ‘project’ which came to fruition in the 1957 Treaty of Rome.
Painting scenarios for Europe has two virtues. First, it acts as a warning: actions taken or, even more importantly, not taken now will have consequences—including potentially disastrous ones—in the future. Secondly, amidst the yawning gap between rulers and ruled across the continent it can convey the public message that ‘another Europe is possible’, which can address the fundamental experience of insecurity and uncertainty on which the populists of the far right are trading. Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects of the scenarios painted by Maria João Rodrigues is that in three out of four of them—‘muddling through’, a fragmented eurozone and a two-tier Europe, excluding the least likely, progressive alternative—such anti-European, nationalistic forces represent a growing threat, as a colleague and myself have recently addressed in a paper for the European Network Against Racism.
Europe has been a neuralgic issue in UK politics for four decades, ever since the then Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, took the state into the then Common Market, alongside the Republic of Ireland and Denmark.
While one positive outcome of that coincident accession has been the rapprochement between Britain and Ireland, transcending a century marked by nationalist antagonisms (now quarantined in Northern Ireland), the UK never learned from the experience that there are other ways of organising society and doing politics — Denmark’s welfare model, for example — than those long taken for granted at home.
The Mission of Social-Democratic Politics
Liberal socialism or social democracy emerged in mass form in the late 19th century, with the launch of the Second International on Bastille Day in Paris in 1889—100 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall placed its deformed successor in history’s dustbin. While its participants were often enthused by a vulgar-Marxist narrative—in which it was conveniently presumed that a catastrophic crisis of capitalism would issue in the socialist utopia—in practice they operated from day to day according to the pragmatic slogan of the German ‘revisionist’ Eduard Bernstein: the movement is everything, the goal is nothing. Socialism became not an end in itself but what socialist parties did.
In recent decades, in parallel with the reduction of organisational sociology to management theory, industrial policy has been encapsulated in two words: ‘shareholder value’. Based on neo-liberal assumptions about the inherent imperfectability of unregulated markets—for capital as well as labour—this US-dominated discourse has reduced the complexity of the industrial ecosystem to a single question, the ‘principal-agent’ problem of aligning the interests of executive directors with company shareholders.
Jim Callaghan tried to be avuncular and reassuring when he returned from a summit in the West Indies in 1979, as disputes with public-sector trade unions over pay controls defined Britain’s ‘winter of discontent’.
But the next day the loose journalistic ethics of the Sun turned this into devastating ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ headlines, at the prime minister’s expense.
Four months later, Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street, posing as a Churchillian ‘strong’ leader and ditching the post-war economic consensus on Keynesian demand management.
The expert on western European politics Peter Mair has diagnosed a ‘hollowing out’ of politics in recent decades, as parties have become less representative voices for diverse groups of the citizenry and more mediatised vehicles for members of a detached political class to insert themselves into government. This is particularly clear in France, with its presidential system: Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s fall from grace demonstrated that the future of French socialism had effectively been reduced to a decision by a latter-day medieval political prince as to whether he would deign to subject himself to popular election.