Europe’s Roots in Social Justice: The European Idea

By Gaither Stewart     

Without a tear in their grim eyes,
They sit at the loom, the rage of despair on their faces:
We have suffered and hunger’d long enough;
‘0ld Germany, we are weaving a shroud for thee
And weaving it with a triple curse.
We are weaving, weaving.’

(The Weaver’s Song by Heinrich Heine: the song of the Weaver Rebellion in Germany in 1844, in which the proletariat proclaimed its antagonism to the society of private property.)

For the first time since Mussolinian Fascism outlawed them early last century there will be no Socialists and Communists in the new Italian Parliament elected in general elections in mid-April. The “radical Left” was swept out of Italy’s parliamentary life by the devastating victory of the Right led by the populist Silvio Berlusconi. In one stroke both the old Left clinging to its hammer and sickle symbol and the new Left of social forums and road blocks and local agitation have vanished from the Rome Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The radical Left must now pay the high price for its participation and support of the defeated Center Left government. It must pay dearly for the temporary privileges it enjoyed and a few cabinet ministers during the two years in which it gained the label of the “’no’ party” because it said ‘no’ to proposals for solutions to many pressing social and economic issues considered “progressive” by the majority. Above all the radical Left must pay for its own internal dissensions over symbols, names and day-to-day tactics as to which current represents the true Left and which is the correct road to achieve social justice. Right or wrong, the radical Left in government failed the electoral test. In the April elections the glorious Left of the Italian Communist Party that in the 1970s had one-third of the nation’s vote did not even garner the 4% vote necessary to enter the Chamber of Deputies. 

The sad reality is that the Italian political establishment and electors alike turned a deaf ear to the radical Left’s program centered on social justice.
 
Social Justice

Karl Marx is credited with coining the phrase "social justice". However since the times of absolutism no one has been be able to conscientiously oppose the pursuit of social justice in a just society, of which the Left has been the vanguard. Opposition to social justice is, as one says, like shooting at the Red Cross.

In Marx’s vision—as demonstrated in English history in his times and much more so in the USA and multinational-capitalist Europe today—the more powerful a state, the less inclined it is to seek out the causes of social ills by examining the principle of the state itself and the organization of the society of which the state is the official expression. In fact, history shows that the sharper is political power, the more incapable it is of comprehending social problems. Populist Berlusconian Italy today in an era of “home, car and TV for the masses” is destined to be emblematic of that condition. The Italian electorate is no smarter than American voters. It is simply not true that “the people” is always right. Modern propaganda is too powerful, popular understanding too weak.  

French Revolutionaries held social ills to be the source of political problems, not the political state as the source of social ills. Robespierre regarded both great wealth and great poverty—precisely the economic situation in the USA and Europe today, in Mississippi as in Italy—as an obstacle to pure democracy. Paradoxically, after years of political anarchy, Italy suddenly finds itself in a theoretical two-party system modeled on the USA, and likewise headed toward a one-party system in practice. The electorate’s exclusion of the radical Left from Parliament has set the stage for the arrival of a modern form of authoritarianism in Italy, as anyone with an eye for history knows is contagious.

The new era has already been dubbed a “gentle dictatorship.”

Social Justice and Equality

It is a truism that the more powerful a person is, the less he needs from others and as a corollary the weaker is his morality. If you are powerful enough you can do without morality, like the rich man who can permit himself the luxury of not carrying money in his pockets and acting as if he were poor while wallowing in wealth. That is the way of the world.

Let’s have a look at what still distinguishes the USA from Europe. Bernard Chazelle, a computer scientist at Princeton University, writes in his devastating essay, Saving The American Left: The Case For A New Progressive Creed: “By virtually any measure, the United States is the least progressive nation in the developed world. It trails most of Western Europe in poverty rates, life expectancy, health care, child care, infant mortality, maternity leaves, paid vacations, public infrastructure, incarceration rates, and environmental laws. The wealth gap in the US has not been so wide since 1929. The Wal-Mart founders’ family owns as much as the bottom 120 million Americans combined. Contrary to received opinion, there is now less social mobility in the US than in Canada, France, Germany, and most Scandinavian countries. The European Union attracts more foreign students than the US, including twice as many from China. Its consensus-driven polity, studies indicate, has replaced the American version as the societal model to which the developing world aspires.”

Cynics scoff outright at the idea of the equality of human beings. The difficulty of achieving redistributive policies for the defense of the unprotected is confirmation of the low esteem for equality. I don’t know if a majority agrees but certainly many people and their elected representatives are quite content to let Equality lie quietly and undisturbed in the Constitution.

Nonetheless, the idea of egalitarianism continues to exist, as do political policies that at least tend to remove obstacles that make men less equal. In modern Europe that characteristic still distinguishes the political Left from the Right: the Left aims at greater equality, the Right at less. (I can’t consider these old terms outdated! On the contrary.)

So deeply entrenched is the social idea that not even rightist governments of France, Germany and Great Britain can eliminate it. Though it staggers under constant neoliberal attacks, in Europe no electoral program without strong social appeal can hope for victory. The promises and immediate acts of both Sarkozy and Berlusconi zero in on economic benefits for the poor. Not only does the social idea survive in all of Europe. Moreover, on the Left, even the utopian theme of the removal of what has been considered the chief obstacle to equality since ancient Greece, private property, survives.

While writing his Grundrisse (Outlines) and Critique of Political Economy, Marx noted the “ignorance” of economists who proposed that private property was basic to production, whereas history, Marx said, showed that it was common property that was basic. In the Socialist view, the concept of private property lies at the source of social exploitation. A glance at practically any economic analysis of US-European reality suffices to illustrate the objective reality of the great and growing wealth-poverty divide in the world of the rich.

Chazelle notes “palpable excitement out there on the American Left,” but, he quips, “it is a pity there is no there there.” America has lefties, he says, but no left. That tends to be a world problem. Today, the Italian radical Left must recreate a Left. Yet, the Left as an idea, as people, with all its faults and divisions, its constant talk, its hopes and disappointments, and the ugly reality of power, survives. In Europe, as in the USA, it survives.

Chazelle: The American left is in the throes of an existential crisis. Some say it’s a failure of nerve, others a loss of belief. It is the latter. Neoliberalism has sucked the oxygen out of the left by deflating the political sphere to the economic one. The left must articulate a new creed around three principles: empowerment (the economic is ancillary to the political); social justice (the disadvantaged have an unconditional claim upon the collectivity); and decency (the state may not humiliate anyone). 

The goal, Chazelle continues, is a society that, first, preserves equal liberties; second, attends to the needs of the disadvantaged. All citizens are granted an unconditional claim upon the collectivity to be accorded the minimum resources necessary for a life of dignity and a genuine sense of belonging. Freedom from humiliation is never to be made contingent on any norm of conduct (such as law abidance). Equality of opportunity is sought as the fairest means of redistributing access to fundamental liberties.

One shrugs or one shudders before the contrast of such normal social goals with the realities created by rampant, sick Americanism and illogical, super patriotism, steeped in the national conviction of American exceptionalism of the majority who in the name of God and nation back exportation of “democracy” and do not care a whit for social solidarity at home. Americans have chosen “blind love for their country” over the social justice true patriotism should but does not demand.

When European leftists ask me about universal health care in the USA, I recount my covering of the US presidential elections in 1992 for which I chose North Carolina as my sample. From Rocky Mount to Asheville I asked one and all their opinions of proposals for a national health service—from newspaper editors to city and religious leaders to the man on the street. People shrugged at my question. Some said ‘well, if they want to give it to me free.’ Nearly all repeated propaganda about the free choice of doctors. None had clear ideas about Canada’s excellent national health service. Most had no idea what universal health care even meant. No one came out in favor of it. I came away with the idea that no political platform based on universal health care could succeed in the USA. No platform without it could succeed in Europe.

The Welfare State

Malthus’ theory rings almost modern today, considering Darfur or much of Africa south of the Sahara. Remember that economic madness? Since the population threatens to exceed the available means of subsistence, it goes, benevolence is pure folly, an open encouragement to misery. The state, therefore, can do nothing but leave misery to its fate, and at best facilitate the death of those in want.

In Vorwärts, No. 63, August 7, 1844, in “Critical Notes on the Article The King of Prussia and Social Reform,” Marx deals with the relation of the political nation to pauperism when it was a national epidemic in England … at a time when the political body never dreamed of social reform. He noted the popular “discovery” that the chief cause of the condition of English pauperism lay in the Poor Law itself! It was discovered that charity as a means of combating social evils fostered social evils! Pauperism was held to be an eternal law of nature. The English Parliament concluded that pauperism was a state of misery brought on by the workers themselves and should not be regarded as a misfortune to be prevented. It was a crime to be suppressed and punished.

But, today, in the USA, we have our “freedom!” A freedom which grants every man the chance to pull himself up by his bootstraps—and become a CEO or even President! But in Old England the system of the workhouse came into being in this way—i.e., houses for the poor devised to deter the indigent from seeking a refuge from starvation. In the workhouses charity was ingeniously combined with the revenge of the bourgeoisie on all those wretched enough to appeal to their charity.

In contrast, though poverty in America today—Appalachia for example—has many causes: insufficient national wealth is not one of them.

Marx wanted to explain the split between civil society, which is also economic life and political society, or the state, which by nature is incapable of removing the social roots of misery precisely because of the cleft between public and private life. It was here that Marx arrived at the idea of revolution. Socialists should not reject the idea of political activity. But it is essential to avoid substituting political action, which is action from the standpoint of the state, for social revolution. A social revolution involves the ‘whole’. Through social revolution the individual becomes part of a real human community. Socialism requires political activity but as soon as ‘its goal, its soul, emerges, socialism throws its political mask aside.’

In a hateful and deceitful article “Requiem for the Left” in FrontPageMagazine of August 5, 2005, Barry Loberfeld in his contorted manner asks what justifies the concentration of "welfare dollars in the hands of government except the (mad) notion that society will starve the poor but the State won’t? And informs us that yes, the government will be more compassionate and generous with the people’s money than the people themselves, before then lamenting that this limited welfare state continues to grow beyond its limits (possibly with socialized medicine as the next domino).
 
The idea of social justice arose as a revolt against political absolutism. With a government, such as monarchy, that holds absolute power, it is impossible to speak of any injustice on its part. If it can do anything, it can’t do anything wrong, which is precisely the way Americanists-super patriots conceive of their government today. Justice as a political/legal term begins only when limitations are placed upon the sovereign and law defines what is unjust for government to do. For example, the U.S. Constitution established that government could not arrest citizens arbitrarily, sanction their bondage by others, persecute them for their religion or speech, seize their property, or prevent their travel.

Also economic power should be a positive check on government power, and vice versa. But if the two are combined, look out! Control of such massive power can lead only to tyranny. Prior to the USA situation today in which political and economic power is Power, a good example of this combination was the Italian model in the first half of the Twentieth Century under Mussolini’s Fascism.

The European Idea
 
In Europe early last century the concept of social justice appeared. I have labeled that concept “the European Idea.” That European achievement is still foreign to other ears. Ideas of social justice combined with government by consensus and pride in freedom form the European Idea. It made Europe unique. It is opposed to the idea of government by one man or as today in the USA of government byan elite. The very dialectic between democracy and despotism distinguishes Europe. Europeans have known corrupt and despotic government but they belong elsewhere. They are not European. Also Europe is greedy and rich. And it has a violent past but today its violence is contained. The key is that until today modern Europe has been social-minded.

Now after the electoral victory of Berlusconi in Italy and Nicolas Sarkozy in France coupled with the demise of Labour in Great Britain, Europe appears intent on imitating the American idea, which is not social.

In that sense Europe seems bipolar—social democracy versus tyranny. Manichean. A battle between good and evil. According to the European Idea, social citizenship must be unconditional, especially that of its most vulnerable members. Responsibility for the weak is a civic virtue that society should promote.

Though the European Idea is greater than mere ideology, it is reeling today under the blows of individualistic neoliberlism and globalization. Everyday in Italy, in Europe, rampant market ideology threatens social justice, the high point of European ideology. And the menace comes from Europeans themselves, who seem ready to discard 2,500 years of evolution.

Meanwhile the social idea resists. It resists in the organizations of the political Left, in Italy, in a defeated and suffering Left. It is evident that Europe stands at a crossroads. Above all, the European Left wonders what is to be done? The historical struggle has at times resulted in more weight to social programs—at other times, to despotism as happened in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. As today in the USA. After World War II, the needle of time shifted westward, to the USA, the great democracy, one once believed, based on the rule of law. The USA was recognized as the defender and bastion of liberty.

This however is a gray area. One has doubts about what really happened. In any case, neither before the demise of the positive American image, nor after, has the American idea ever been the European idea. For the American idea throws overboard the heart of the European idea, social justice, which Europe acquired after a century of struggle. For the European Left, the American idea is symbolized by its ugly, rapacious eagle with its terrible eyes, ready to devour the weak. The European Left is anyway right—capitalism has failed just as the excessive state presence of Communism in the East failed.

In Europe, social solidarity became the heart of its ideology, thanks to early Social Democracy and Socialism. In contrast, that social instinct is absent in American ideology. For that reason the Socialist movement is largely absent in the New World. That is the key—the social instinct. The great divider between European and American ideologies, the political watershed of the twentieth century.

One wonders why Europe has not been able to play the social role it seemed destined to play. Some still cite the decadence of the Old World. I receive “fan” letters speaking of decadent, degenerate, homosexual, sick Europe. Used historically, decadence is a big word. It was fashionable among writers of the 19th century, the view of French writers in the 19th century—like Baudelaire and Mallarmé, and Wagner and Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, all those who found inspiration in the decline of the Roman Empire. Of course, Europe has truly been morally decadent at times, as decadent as its World Church headquartered in Rome!
   
But there exists also something called social decadence, the corruption of man by man in the political sphere, the individualistic abandonment of man to his own fate. And that, my friends, is the American idea that modern Europeans such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi want to emulate.

Yet, there is that great social divide, the oceanic divide, separating the Old and the New worlds. Of course social programs are expensive. And no one wants to pay. No one! Nowhere! Nonetheless until recently Europeans accepted the reality that every society has a certain number of vulnerable people incapable of making it alone. Europeans made a social pact to care for them. So they pay. And the poor and the sick count on it.

Europeans know that that is not the case in America where it’s every man for himself. One doesn’t even have to ask which is more humane, more democratic, more progressive, more socially advanced, more desirable. The problem is the price! Today, much of rich, greedy, avaricious Europe—the Berlusconis and Sarkozys—is tempted to follow America and abandon the social state—in favor of the American economic system that rewards the rich beyond all imagination. In these days while “wise” electors voted out their Left defenders of social justice, the executive director of a major Italian authority resigned with a recompense of 17 million euros, about $25 million, the equivalent of about 1000 years of a worker’s salary.

There is no doubt that the anti-social American dream has become a nightmare for many Americans. Brutal American realities substantiate the European Idea: US militarism and imperialism, the use of America’s poor as cannon fodder in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American jailhouse for blacks, capital punishment in Christian America, inaccessible medical care for many, wide and inexplicable poverty in the world’s richest country. The organized European Left instead believes that the “social idea” can reverse the direction of the world of rich getting richer, poor poorer. But not vague concepts like universal brotherhood, nor the equality of the damned. The social idea means each man as part of society.

After the failures of Socialism-Communism in East Europe it is not always easy to defend Socialism. (But I firmly believe history will someday re-write that story.) Yet whatever name you give it, the social idea cannot simply die. As a demand for social justice it is alive in Europe because it is Europe’s heritage, a tradition since Greece 2,500 years ago. The question is, will the European Union continue to evolve as a union of multinationals dominated by religious fundamentalism in imitation of America? Or will it be a union of Social Europe?

There is a chasm between Social Europe and neoliberal, market-oriented Europe that cannot solve the contradictions of unemployment, underemployment, precarious employment and social poverty. Even some of the Right is aware that unchained market economies are not the answer. Italy’s rightwing economist and incoming Economics Minister, Giulio Tremonti, just published a book against globalization which he accuses as the source of world poverty.

The Left calls for systems of social economy—cooperatives, mutualities in the health sector, non-profit companies, a social Europe at the service of the people, and generator of social justice. Is this then Left? Is that all? And anyway, some Europeans wonder, what is the difference today between Left and Right? The same difference as ever! The demise of Communism in East Europe doesn’t mean that concepts of Right and Left are dead. Today’s Right remains elitist, hierarchical and racist. It opposes the democratic process. It is pessimism. It believes man is evil and must be dominated. The Right is impatience with traditional political parties. Right is anti-progressive.

Despite recent defeats Left still means progress, reforms and the idea that man can be better. It is a desire to change things that do not work. It is the defense of the weak. In sum, Left is the European idea. Left is also an emotional quality. Left comprises a general spirit like the French Revolution. It is a search for still unknown social forms and includes balanced budgets, anti-crime and electoral reform, ideas that still reflect fundamental values of social justice and solidarity. Left is above all social equality.

Does that mean then the maligned welfare state?

Although the welfare state has suffered many setbacks, it also has many achievements to its credit. The social welfare state is Europe’s great achievement that distinguishes it from the rest of the world. It is part and parcel of the European idea. Even European Nazism and Fascism had to name their systems social. The problem today is a new start. That is the way the world must go.

The European idea is thus alien to the union of Europe’s market economies. The direction of the European Union of today is instead the final step toward its social decadence. Neoliberlism’s triumph would be Europe’s defeat. Today Europeans are cutting social programs as no authoritarian, right wing Mexican government could ever do. That path would end the European cycle. Europe would cease to be a model. Big or small, United Europe in imitation of the USA will not work.

-Gaither Stewart is a Senior Special Contributing Editor at Cyrano’s Journal. He lives in Rome. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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