Three cheers for old socialism

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I suppose Stéphane Dion thought he was delivering a knockout blow when he hit out at Jack Layton for championing "old socialism." Funnily enough, the raging crisis in world finance is revealing the merits of public ownership, the distinguishing socialist characteristic. Eminent authorities, no socialists, are suggesting than rather than give over $700 billion to American banks in need of liquidity, in exchange for bad mortgage debt, the U.S. government should be taking ownership positions in the banks. The best guess is that the U.S. banking bailout will not restore normal lending. After all why should the U.S. government expect that a crisis aided and abetted by easy money could be solved by adding yet more easy money?

Meanwhile, in the French language leadership debates, Radio-Canada had the courage to feature a questioner from New Brunswick who aggressively touted nationalization of Canadian petroleum resources as the best way to deal with rising gas prices. Layton carefully took his distance from the questioner: we do not favour nationalization of petroleum. Of course an election campaign is no place to make party policy on the fly, especially when every mainstream media outlet in Canada is looking for ways to diminish the NDP. But for oil and gas the old socialist answer looks better than anything on offer.

Without committing itself to collective ownership of the means of production (which still makes sense however) the NDP should bring the nationalization of petroleum, and the banks for that matter, into the national political conversation.

For instance, in response to the New Brunswicker, it is true that about 80 per cent of the world petroleum reserves are publicly owned, and that only Canada, and the U.S. allow private companies to have their way with public assets in this key strategic sector.

It is also true that the concentration of the immense economic power that accrues to the giant oil companies has a huge impact on the political process. Since Lyndon Baines Johnson, Texas congressman, senator and eventually U.S. President in the 1960s, Houston has played a disproportionate role in American party politics on everything from tax policy - compensating companies for the loss of future revenue due to the depletion of reserves that occurs as they produce a barrel of oil and sell it for profit - to the politics of the Middle East.

Current U.S. President George W. Bush is only the most extreme example of how big oil and democracy do not go hand in hand. Indeed, Canadians do not have to look any further than Alberta under Ralph Klein, or Canada under Stephen Harper to see how great oil wealth can distort public priorities on environmental protection, aboriginal rights, taxation, labour market policy and social spending.

Election 2008 is all about who gets to eat what the Liberals have left on their plate. The Bloc want the Liberal vote in Quebec, the Conservatives aim to keep the big business Liberal wing of the party for themselves, while the Greens and NDP are fighting it out for the urban, social Liberal vote.

The real issue is not who gets to replace the Liberals, it is who gets to overthrow the economic and political system that is choking many Canadians, and holds out little promise in protecting the environment. One old socialist, that would be Karl Marx, suggested that when the capacity to meet human needs through production of goods and services, was obstructed by out of date social relations engendered by that production, the existing social relationships would have to change. Just as Marx expected workers would overthrow capitalists, today, citizens need to get rid of an economy designed to destroy the planet, impoverish most of its inhabitants, and create widening inequalities.

Watching bankers who have got in trouble while printing money for their friends, get rewarded for their mistakes by getting bailed out by the U.S. government, might be just what is needed to get some much needed attention to old socialist ideas of justice, freedom, and solidarity.

Socialism comes from the Latin word socius. It means friend and ally. In a world distinguished by war, and exploitation, the idea we should treat others as friends and associates makes more sense than ever. Let us hear three cheers for old socialism.

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