Tag Archives: Socialism

Stephen Hastings-King, Looking for the Proletariat: Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Problem of Worker Writing (Leiden: Brill, 2014)



The book is about the history of the group from 1949 to 1967, and its aim is to present the movement “as something other than a merely sophisticated variant of revolutionary Marxism” (p. 3). Socialisme ou Barbarie is considered in its specific historical context, when communism is already declined in a political paradigm (Stalinism) and takes shape in bureaucratic structures and institutions. In the first two chapters of the book, the author shows how the Hegelian framework of Marxian writings and its abstract laws are called into question, together with their Stalinist and Trotskyist interpretations. In France, the former give birth to bureaucratization: there is a separation between dirigéants and exécutants, and hierarchies are built according to the role performed inside the PCF (the French Communist Party) or the CGT (the General Work Confederation, that is the communist trade union). The Trotskyists, on the other side, go against the Stalinist falsification of Marxian writings, but they are not revolutionary enough, since they have lost contact with their proletarian basis.

In the third chapter, Stephen Hastings-King points out how Socialisme ou Barbarie, through a historical and sociological interpretation of Marx, makes a phenomenological operation. It tries to assume the point of view of the worker and to analyse production, relations, and language from this perspective. According to what Lefort argues in ‘L’experience prolétarienne’ (1952), one can say that “only workers can know and write about their experience: revolutionary theory must be confined to analysing and interpreting what they write” (p. 108). Socialisme ou Barbarie is fundamentally an intellectual movement, which tries to redefine revolutionary theory through a new reading of Marx and his Leninist interpretation. However, every reflection will remain on an abstract and decontextualized level, if it does not refer to reality: in this case, the latter is represented by the productive life of the working class.

Giving his book the title Looking for the proletariat, Hastings-King wants to show that all the efforts of Socialisme ou Barbarie are aimed at understanding the workers, helping them to acquire class consciousness and to shape political actions. This is the reason why the movement gives prominence to worker writing. The fifth chapter of the book shows how the group, through the newspaper Tribune Ouvrière, tries to give a voice to the collective at the factory of Renault Billancourt, whose political context is clearly defined in the fourth chapter. Hastings-King points out similarities and differences with another worker newspaper, the Detroit-based Correspondence project. After that, the author writes about Tribune Ouvrière and the role that Socialisme ou Barbarie plays in the process of its production, printing, and distribution.

In the sixth chapter, the identity of Daniel Mothé is analysed. His true name is Jacques Gautrat and he works at Renault Billancourt. His experience as a métallo and his revolutionary ideas lead him to write several articles, all of them published in the Socialisme ou Barbarie review. His literary identity is very interesting from a phenomenological perspective, since each “version of Mothé is hyletic: a view from a particular position. Each position is shaped by a certain number of directional social relations. […] The most important of the predicates, the one on which the others rely, that organises and enables them to exist, is the narrative function” (p. 249). Mothé reflects on Gautrat’s experience through the lens of Marxism in its Socialisme ou Barbarie’s interpretation. Sometimes it is not clear if Mothé or Gautrat is speaking, but it does not matter: the idea of a “natural” or “ingenuous” way of writing, supported by the Correspondence group, is rejected by Socialisme ou Barbarie. Every text is a product of self-reflection and self-consciousness.

Mothe’s ‘Journal d’un ouvrier’ is very important to understand how Marxist ideas are experienced by the proletariat: it shows the impact of Fordism on the rhythm and condition of workers, the conflict between the latter and the trade union, which is manipulated by the Communist Party, the attempt to act through independent collectives. The language spoken by the Party has no meaning for the proletariat and sometimes it is used to justify anti-revolutionary actions. According to Mothé and Socialisme ou Barbarie, the only way to save Marxism is to take the point of view of the worker, to support direct-democratic collectives, and to help proletariat in organising its future political actions.

Stephen Hastings-Kings is very precise and punctual in describing the life of the movement, through continuous references to their historical, social, and political context, and an efficient use of their written sources. There are also a bibliography and a clear index, helping the reader to find his way through the book. This work is theoretically well supported by references to Marx and Marxism, and to pivotal authors in phenomenology, especially Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. One should also give credit to Hastings-King for the smoothness of his language.

Tra utopia e realtà: Olof Palme e il socialismo democratico. Antologia di scritti e discorsi, (ed. and trans.) Monica Quirico (Rome: Editori Riuniti university press, 2009)

Monica Quirico has produced a nicely edited and translated work that collects together into Italian some of the writings and speeches of the assassinated Prime Minister. The volume consists of an introduction by the editor-translator and a division of Palme’s work into four sections: socialism and democracy, Swedish reform, the Neo-Liberal offensive and solidarity without limits. The book also possesses a useful glossary that succinctly explains various acronyms and persons of interest.

As one reads the speeches and writings of Palme, one is struck by their relevance for today. The texts reveal a politician that was formed at a time when social democracy was not only viable and rich with promise, but one also finds an astute awareness of the threat of Neo-Liberalism and the difficulties and challenges posed by globalisation and a globalised economy. With the collapse of the Left and the dominance of a globalised market-place politics, Palme still offers hope, even after his demise. One feels the palpable urgency of his message and his commitment to improving society and the state of the world.

The Introduction, written by Quirico, presents a biographical sketch of Palme, outlining the sources and influences that helped shape him throughout the various periods of his life. Born into a Conservative family, Palme developed a deep concern for injustice and inequality while studying both in Sweden and abroad. Quirico sets the stage for her readers to begin to appreciate the various concerns and programmes of Palme’s politics. Section One focusses on the speeches and writings of Palme that examine the nature and struggles of socialism and democracy. I should note, here, that the writings and speeches contained in the volume are not arranged in a strict chronological order; rather, they are organised around certain themes, which the editor-translator has rightly identified as indicative of Palme’s political vision and legacy. One sees in this section Olaf Palme’s struggles with various forms of socialism and how they represent themselves at the international level. Palme rejects communism as a viable form of socialism, as it undermines individual freedoms. The communism that he has in mind is the Soviet form. He is also critical of capitalism, for it values profit over individual and collective wellbeing. In fact, striking in Palme’s speeches and discourses is his conviction that individual wellbeing is intimately linked with societal or collective wellbeing, including global community. Democracy and active participation in democratic politics requires a just distribution of goods so that all peoples can actively participate in government. Palme identifies work as an important social mechanism that will allow more active participation. Unemployment eats away at the very possibility of a more communal and active sense of political life. He remarks, “The fight against unemployment takes on a crucial value in this respect, if we wish: to avoid wasting our economic resources; alleviate social tensions and personal suffering that stem from unemployment; maintain trust in our democratic form of government and reinforce democracy. Full employment not only creates wellbeing, it also distributes it. There is no greater division than between those who have work and those who do not. Moreover, the person who now suffers runs the greater risk of being unemployed. All that has been said up until now can sound quite obvious, so much so that it may ring as commonplace. But the problem is that such obvious commonplaces are not often spoken. It is good to repeat them, lest we forget them.” (99 Translation mine)

Section Two collects together some of Palme’s work on social reforms in Sweden. Here, the Swedish statesman’s commitment to the welfare state model of politics is very clear. There is an emphasis not only the intimate connection between a just and equal economic distribution of goods—an economic vision oriented toward a more encompassing goal of communal good rather than individual profit—and democracy, but one also finds here his conviction that solidarity is vital if Sweden is to carry out its social welfare values. We read: “The strength of a welfare state for all…is: it is just in and for itself such that all may benefit; it makes possible a redistribution among people in different phases of life and among different social groups; it is balanced because it consists of both rights and obligations for all; it protects the most vulnerable. International comparisons reveal how inefficient selective politics are in trying to lead those who live in conditions below average; it creates liberty, avoiding the enclosure of persons in a state of dependency, which could be difficult to get oneself out of; it offers autonomy. Individuals can live their lives, even when they become ill or old; it guarantees freedom of movement, for rights follow the person wherever he or she may be; it consists of a limited bureaucracy insofar as it does not revolve around the rise and fall of certain economic conditions, which is opposite to systems that only concern themselves with the most marginalised of a society.” (161–61 Translation mine) The section ends also with Palme reminding Swedes of their uniqueness in the world and their global contribution, especially concerning advances in social wellbeing and the environment. He sees Swedish unions as making vital contributions on this score.

Section Three is one of the most poignant and salient sections of the book. Quirico has collected here Palme’s writings and discourses on the Neo-Liberal offensive. Given that, today, we have completely succumbed to the Neo-Liberal model, especially in the West, what Palme criticises and fears have come true. In many ways, reading these speeches from our present point of view makes him seem like a prophet. The late 1970’s and early 1980’s introduced massive economic difficulties on the world stage. One feels in the texts of this section the effects of massive unemployment, an increased cost of living due to inflation and high interest rates and the fleeing of European and North American labour markets by producers of goods in favour of places where labour is cheaper and, therefore, more profitable. The social democratic and welfare state models advanced by Palme are under severe attack as unable to sustain the goals he claims it could promote. He comments on the dissolution of unions in North America and England: “To launch a politics directly aimed at workers, especially when it deals with unemployment, social security, etc., is to attack the union, incriminating its legitimacy as the voice of its members. This is what is happening in country after country. This is why it is necessary that unions react, uniting their respective forces at the international level. The strong unions of Sweden have a particular responsibility in this battle for human rights and the freedom of unions. It is to you, I am convinced, that the future belongs.” (194–95 Translation mine) Today, unions have lost their voice and workers are subject to the whims of the markets—the security of the welfare state is no longer.

Section Four concludes the volumes with a hopeful message and, perhaps, a useful tool to mobilise us against the excesses and faults of a globalised Neo-Liberal economy, with its recent crashes in 2008 and 2011. We find here various addresses that Palme gave against apartheid as well as in former war-torn Vietnam. Ultimately, solidarity, especially at an international level, is invoked as a source of change and reform; it can also prevent us from falling into a politics of fear and oppression. Solidarity is no longer local, but global, and it entails a profound social responsibility—one that Palme lived whole-heartedly, for example, as mediator in the Iran-Iraq war and in his fight against apartheid. “All of us have a role to play in the struggle against apartheid. I have reported to United Nations and to other agencies of the measures of our government. We are actively engaged so that other countries may adopt, in turn, measures similar to ours. One of the reasons why we are concerned that our actions are compatible with those of others at the international level is so that the probability increases that others may follow our example […]” (260 Translation mine)

Unfortunately, Olaf Palme’s life came to an abrupt and unexpected end with his assassination in Stockholm in 1986. With his death, his fight for a more democratic society based on justice, equality and a communal well being rooted in solidarity and responsibility also came to an end. Quirico has given us an important resource for preserving and studying Palme’s legacy and political message of the need for certain values that preserve and promote human life and society as well as create a more just and equitable world. Perhaps Palme’s speeches and writings may help in reinvigorating the left or producing a new social democracy. Only time will tell.


Joseph Femia (ed.), Vilfredo Pareto (London: Ashgate, 2009)

However, apart from Pareto’s posthumous peak of fame in the 1930s and 1940s, when his work inspired a generation of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, genuine engagement with his studies has been actually quite rare over recent decades. To most contemporary researchers, Pareto is primarily little else but a name in the “rosary” of great dead white men encountered during one’s undergraduate studies, and then a label for two mathematical notions that young academics must familiarise themselves with. Even Pareto’s crucial contribution to political science, namely his theory about the circulation of the elites, seems to be poorly known these days.

Perhaps, as Joseph Femia—editor of the volume hereby reviewed—suggests in his concise yet comprehensive introduction to the life and work of “the hermit of Céligny”, it is true that Pareto’s cynical notion of social equilibrium, his lack of faith in human progress and collective enlightenment, his elusion of the comfortable categories of normal science, and the overwhelming theoretical as well as historical analyses in which he indulged for the sake of scientific completeness, scholarly precision, intellectual integrity, and academic pedantry make of Pareto one of the least inspiring authors that ever reached the status of “classic” in any discipline.

Yet, several scholars of the 20th century did read his work, no matter how uninspiring, depressing, tedious and taxing it could be. And they did not only read it, but also recognised its remarkable character and its profound insightfulness. In particular, many seemed to find Pareto’s work extremely appealing in connection with the general decline in individual liberty, social wellbeing and collective hope informing the aftermath of the First World War and of the ensuing boom-bust financial cycle of the 1920s, which unleashed the Great Depression and the affirmation of fascist regimes all over Continental Europe.

Some scholars, albeit fewer than in the inter-war grim interlude, have kept finding Pareto congenial after that time. Amongst them, Femia has proved himself to be one of today’s main experts on Pareto within Anglophone academia. In addition to the volume reviewed hereby, to him we owe two further recent books on Pareto: Pareto and Political Theory (New York: Routledge, 2006) and Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries (London: Ashgate, 2012). Whereas the former, as the title indicates, focuses upon the work of Pareto as a political thinker, the latter, co-edited with Alasdair Marshall, explores the ramifications of Pareto’s contribution for contemporary areas of inquiry, whether sociological (e.g. stratification research), economic (e.g. monetary issues) or humanistic (e.g. rhetorical reasoning).

The 2009 volume that Femia edits comprises three parts, each containing essays on Pareto by variously influential scholars of the 20th century. Specifically, Part I focuses upon methodological aspects of Pareto’s contribution to the social sciences, most notably sociology rather than economics, written in the 1930s and 1960s. Part II explores broader aspects of his social theory and includes studies written between the 1960s and 1990s. Two of them deserve a special mention, i.e. “Vilfredo Pareto’s Sociology in his Letters to Maffeo Pantaleoni” and “Introduction to Pareto’s Sociology” (pp. 67—87 and 89—112), for they were authored by Italy’s leading liberal thinker Norberto Bobbio and constitute a sort of “classics” in Italian Pareto studies. Noteworthy is also “Pareto, Vilfredo: Contributions to Sociology” (pp. 171—80), written by US action theorist Talcott Parsons, who is probably the most famous heir of Pareto’s in the Anglophone world. Part III discusses Pareto’s politics, especially with regard to English-speaking countries, and offers reflections over the last three decades of the 20th century by, inter alia, Nobel-prize economist Amartya Sen (“The Impossibility of a Paretan Liberal”, pp. 267—72) as well as Joseph Femia himself (“Pareto and the Critique of Justice”, pp. 317—29). All together, these essays represent the most articulate introduction to Pareto’s social and political thought, as well as its reception over the past 70 years, currently available in the English language.

What is more, given the high quality of the scholarly work selected by the editor, such an introduction avoids the unfortunate yet widespread oversimplifications and blatantly erroneous depictions of Pareto’s thought, which is often “pigeon-holed” into science-worshipping positivism, psychological reductionism and proto-fascist authoritarianism.

Certainly, Pareto did attempt to apply the induction- and experiment-based scientific methods of physics and chemistry to the study of social phenomena. He did so in order to stress and charter the uniformities of human behaviour due to fundamental instincts and mental dispositions characteristic of our species, as well as to criticise much-venerated democratic regimes qua demagogic plutocracies. Nevertheless, he never denied the limitations intrinsic to the observation-constrained, abstraction-prone, descriptive, probabilistic hypotheses of the natural sciences. Indeed, even the field of economics, which he himself had contributed to formalise by adopting elements of the mathematics used in physics, had been abandoned by Pareto because of its inability to grasp the non-rational elements of the human psyche, which caused rationality-based economic models to fail regularly and inevitably in their predictions about the future. As Pareto had come to realise, the actual social man was not much of an homo economicus. C.B. Macpherson’s 1937 essay “Pareto’s ‘General Sociology'” (pp. 3—16) in Part I of Femia’s book is most relevant in this respect, as it accuses Pareto of adhering too much to the allegedly value-free methods of empirical science, yet revealing as well Pareto’s awaraness of the profound differences existing between the study of inanimate or animal phenomena and the study of value-driven human beings.

Analogously, Pareto researched and categorised the fundamental instincts or sentiments (“residues”) determining human action within societies and commonly rationalised post-factum into fallacious arguments (“derivations”) and doctrines (“derivatives”) in order to please yet another sentiment of ours, that is, our desire for explanations that sound logical to us. However, he never denied the ever-changing creative power of the human being as a semiotic animal, who is capable of activating and intensifying certain instincts and dispositions by engaging in symbolic activities. The tension between the fundamentally non-rational universal constant of “residues” and the possibility for self-reflective, cunning minds to manipulate them intelligently is discussed in Bobbio’s work as well as in the 1972 essay by Vincent Tarascio chosen for this collection (“Marx and Pareto on Science and History: A Comparative Analysis”, pp. 145—58), which also belongs to Part II.

Even less did Pareto deny the dangers to social order and public wellbeing stemming from political doctrines fostering despotism, censorship, nationalism and racism. Indeed, Pareto was very much an old-fashioned 19th-century liberal, who certainly disapproved of universal suffrage and other socially “dangerous” socialist aims, but commended the peaceful, direct male democracy of small Swiss cantons as the best example of political life in his age and regarded the liberty of the individual as paramount. In nuce, Mussolini’s deification of the State and his charismatic leadership of the masses did not belong to Pareto and their common association is, as S.E. Finer called it, “a misfortune” (“Pareto and Pluto-Democracy: The Retreat to Galapagos”, pp. 305—15; 305).

A scientist but not a devotee of scientism, a pessimist about human reason but not an irrationalist, and a conservative liberal but not a fascist: Pareto was a complex man and a complex thinker. He tried to mirror in his work the complexities of human phenomena themselves, thus avoiding explanatory shortcuts and ideological simplifications that would have probably granted him a much wider audience and a much broader appreciation. Femia’s book, which contains selected essays by some of the most eminent intellectuals who have written about Pareto over the last seven decades, bears witness to such complexities. It is therefore no easy book to read; yet no more candid depiction of Pareto’s approach and investigations would be possible.

Göran Greider, Ingen kommer undan Olof Palme (Stockholm: Ordfront, 2011)

To the pressing return of Palme’s figure in the debate on the future of Swedish Social Democracy an intense book by Göran Greider – poet and journalist, one of the ten most authoritative intellectuals in Sweden – has remarkably contributed: Nobody escapes Olof Palme[1]; an evocative title for a work which is not meant as a biography but rather as a “walk”, taken during and just after the 2010 electoral campaign, across Palme’s life as well as through the changes occurring in the Swedish Social Democratic party – and in Sweden in the whole – under the last decades (subsequently to Palme’s death).

Greider’s path – made up of meetings with old and new activists, in Stockholm as well as in more peripheral areas – starts from four places in Stockholm with a symbolic value in Palme’s life: Östermalm, the upper class neighbourhood where he grew up; Vällingby, the ultra-rationalistic suburb where the Palmes moved to in the 1950s; the street (Västerlånggatan) in the Old Town, where he lived in the last years of his life; and the road (Sveavägen) in the modern city centre where he worked (the Social Democratic party has its head office there) and where he was murdered.

In the first chapter (Östermalmsgatan) Greider points out that the Swedish Conservative Party (Moderaterna), although claiming the legacy of Tage Erlander (Palme’s predecessor, prime minister from 1946 to 1969, the age of the making of the impressive Swedish public sector), still looks at Palme as a taboo. Unless… he is not purified by any Socialist corruption. Greider is persuaded that exactly this embarrassing contamination explains why the centre-right parties as well as the Social Democrats try in any way to escape Palme.

The second chapter (Tornedalsgatan) focuses indeed on the biographies (by Henrik Berggren, by Kjell Östberg and by Klas Eklund[2]) offering an embalmed portrait of Palme as statesman (and in the case of Berggren’s work, also trying to turn Palme into a liberal). After all, why should the upper class give up claiming the most talented politician grown up from its own ranks (although unfortunately gone over to the enemy)?

Greider makes clear that his own aim is on the contrary to discuss the most controversial elements in Palme’s political career. The author’s thesis is that the Social Democratic leader can be understood only in the light of the social movement, aiming at a social transformation, which he led from 1969 (when Palme was appointed party leader and subsequently prime minister) to 1986, both in power and in opposition: the working class and its allies. According to the author, “the movement is the message”, as he makes clear already in the short Introduction, coming back to this idea in the second chapter, where moreover he points out that nowadays in Sweden the only political organization aiming at, and succeeding in, building a political movement is the xenophobic party, the Sweden Democrats.

In the light of these worrying processes, Greider questions one of the commonplaces about the crisis of the Left all over Europe: what is needed – in Sweden and not only – is not so much to work out again the transformation thinking (it is not ideas and analysis which are missing), but instead to find new forms of organisation for social movements.

The author is critical with the influential historiographic trend explaining the ideological development of Swedish Social Democracy as a gradual but at the same time unavoidable removal, from the 1930s onwards, of all Socialist core ideas; starting of course from Socialization, being replaced by the more reassuring – and thus more suitable to ensure Capitalists’ support – social democracy.

Greider recalls the great visions the Swedish Social Democrats built upon the cross-class consent they enjoyed, stressing that these were not inescapable paths, but instead the outcomes of choices made by the labour movement: first the “people’s home”, launched in 1928 by Per Albin Hansson and since then revised several times as slogan; then, between the 1950s and the 1960s, the “strong society”[3], to refer to the need of an active role of the State aiming at safeguarding citizens’ welfare. In both cases, socialization played no role. Nevertheless, Greider asks himself: what does it mean that in the last years of Palme’s life, after more than four decades of Social Democratic rule (yet interrupted by the centre-right government 1976-1982), almost four workers out of ten had a public employer?

By doing so Greider raises the question as far as the identity of Swedish Social Democracy is concerned, i.e. the role of the State in re-shaping the power relations between classes. His answer is that such an achievement reflected an unmatched degree of socialization of the economy. According to Greider’s analysis indeed the SAP did not restrained its intervention to a socialization of incomes, but rather built an imposing public production system. This is exactly the history which has been removed: the making of a “embryonal Socialism” in Sweden. The centre-right can not take possession of it, because of the incompatibility with its own social-liberal vision; furthermore, this history makes many Social Democrats feel uneasy as well.

After making amends for the sins of Soviet Socialism, it is time, Greider writes in the third chapter (Västerlånggatan), to look forward: if not nowadays, in ten, twenty years the good “utopia” contained in Communism will become topical again.

The great chance missed by the Swedish Social Democracy, the third crossroad it had to face, is indicated by Greider in the debate on wage earner funds, started in the early 1970s (but with earlier roots) from the awareness that capital formation should be increased without helping at the same time wealth concentration. Put forward in 1975 by the trade union economist Rudolf Meidner, the proposal provided the establishment of funds – stocks being strategic property – to be administered by workers and constituted through the transfer of a share of annual corporate profits; they were supposed to shift gradually the ownership in medium to large companies from employers to workers. The SAP strove to turn the funds into an instrument of capital accumulation; when they were finally introduced by a law, in 1983, had no longer anything to do with the original proposal, being rather an element within a general anti-crisis policy. That, too, as well as the People’s Home and the Strong Society, was a choice, Greider stresses, without playing down at all Palme’s contribution in neutralizing the subversive component of the funds, in the face of the hysterical reactions from business circles.

The divide between Palme and his successors is identified by Greider not in the capacity to take unpopular decisions – which Palme, too, took, and which the author accepts as hard lesson of politics – but rather on one hand in Palme’s attachment to Democratic Socialism and on the other hand in his successors being unable to make it clear that, notwithstanding unfavourable circumstances, the aim is still the same: to ensure equality and safety. It is not by chance that what is considered worthy being celebrated in Palme is his internationalism, not his democratic socialism, i.e. not the politician who recalled the Socialist legacy always present (even though in an underground way) in the party history.

In the final chapter (Sveavägen) Greider points out to the two conditions which can allow a revival of Democratic Socialism in the XXI Century. The first is that as long as we live in a capitalist society, Marxism, yet not self-sufficient (but rather to be supplemented by the Green thinking and by social movements other than the labour one), remains the best conceptual tradition we have at our disposal in understanding – and in changing – reality. The second condition is to give raise to new social movements and at the same time to revitalize the existing ones, too often unable to communicate with each other.

The goal is, once again, with more urgency than ever, labour liberation.



[1] G. Greider, Ingen kommer undan Olof Palme, Ordfront, Stockholm 2011.

[2] See M. Quirico, Olof Palme: One Life, Many Readings, “Nordicum Mediterraneum”, 2011, VI, 1.

[3] At that time the distinction between State and civil society was weak, in the Swedish political lexicon, thus the translation into another language has to take into account this ambiguity, due to the close relation between the two spheres. See L. Trägårdh, The Paradox of Swedish Political Culture: State and Civil Society in Sweden, Introduction to State and Civil Society in Northern Europe. The Swedish Model Reconsidered, ed. by Id., New York-Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2007, pp. 1-3.

Olof Palme: One Life, Many Readings

In short, historiographic reflections have been penalized by a kind of personality cult, even if reversed in the case of Palme’s opponents.[1]


1. Literature on Olof Palme


His spectacular political career, on the one side, and his tragic end, on the other side, have nourished – already when Palme was still alive – a thriving and deplorable literary genre made up of speculations on his demoniac nature, his crimes, or at best his inadequacies;[2] as well as conspiracy theories of all kinds and hundreds hypothesis on the murder.[3] . In the end of the 1980s the first biography came out, written by the journalist Björn Elmbrant:[4] it is still an unavoidable reference. It was followed later by the purely political biography written by the journalist Peter Antman and by the Social Democratic politician Pierre Schori,[5] who was State Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the second Palme government. Collective volumes[6] followed too, including contributions that focused on particular aspects of Palme’s politics/policies (first and foremost the foreign one)[7], and memoirs by representatives of the Social Democratic Party.[8]

Due partly to the awareness that much was left to be studied with regards to Palme’s life and political role, and partly to the approaching 25th anniversary of his tragic death, recent years have witnessed a renewed biographic effort, thanks first of all to the monumental work (nearly 900 pages) by Kjell Östberg, a historian who has devoted great part of his scientific production to social movements and to the relationship between intellectuals and politics. One could wonder what was left to be said about Palme after this two-volume biography, published between 2008 (1. I takt med tiden. Olof Palme 1927-1969 – Behind the times. Olof Palme 1927-1969[9]) and 2009 (2. När vinden vände. Olof Palme 1969-1986 – When the wind turned. Olof Palme 1969-1986[10]). Nevertheless, in 2010 two more works were published: the short Palme, by Klas Eklund,[11] who was one of the economic advisors of the second Palme government; and the impressive (more than 700 pages) Underbara dagar framför oss. En biografi över Olof Palme (Wonderful Days in Front of Us. A biography of Olof Palme)[12] by Henrik Berggren, historian but above all leading writer of “Dagens Nyheter”, the most influential Swedish newspaper, which typically endorses “independent liberal” stances.

The aim of this article is not to review the last three biographies mentioned above, but to try to identify their methodology, so to speak, then singling out – in a way which may come across as arbitrary – some of the controversial points in Palme’s political career (leaving out both scandals and vulgar attacks), as they will prove to be good opportunities for comparing the interpretations given by their authors.[13]

2. Different ways to tell a life

Eklund’s book differs from the other two works for it is part of a series devoted to the Swedish Prime Ministers in the last hundred years (i.e. from Karl Staaff to the present PM Fredrik Reinfeldt). Each volume is meant as a quick introduction to a specific PM, and in fact Eklund’s Palme is a fairly simple political biography (with only a limited attention to Palme’s private life). Nonetheless, its final section (Arvet efter Palme, Palme’s legacy) makes it different from a flat list of facts and dates. In a few pages, the author takes indeed a stock of Palme’s outcomes and failures and then even goes so far as to try to imagine what could happen if Palme had not been murdered — a kind of counterfactual history, in other words.

Östberg’s and Berggren’s biographies show at first glance a similar structure, not only due to their remarkable length, but also insofar as both aim at an in-depth reconstruction of Palme’s life and role, as well as of the world around him (i.e. 20th-century Sweden and international, history). The title of the first volume of Östberg’s biography, Behind the Times, summarizes very well the author’s starting point, as it is made clear in the Introduction: first of all, the idea that Palme went across several ages during which history turned more than once to a new direction; secondly, the acknowledgement that Palme showed an extraordinary talent for grasping the Zeitgeist and the changes affecting it, and therefore was in the best position for exerting an effective influence on what was going on.

Östberg’s approach is not at all individualistic.[14] His biography is rather a history of Palme within the history of the Swedish labour movement and of its changing relationship with Capital, with a swinging from collaboration to conflict that took place exactly under Palme’s political apex. That does not imply that Palme’s individuality is sacrificed in the end, but rather that the dilemmas which he had to face and the choices which he made are understandable only in the view of the power relations between classes and of the pressures upon the labour movement and its organizations coming both from the Right and from the Left. That explains why the two volumes of Östberg’s biography represent an imposing picture of 20th-century Swedish political and social history.

To sum up Berggren’s work is a trickier task, because of a kind of paradox which somehow undermines it. The main perspective is definitely individualistic, with regards both to the methodology – Palme’s behaviour (as a person and as a politician) is often, too often perhaps, interpreted from a psychological and philosophical point of view – and to the interpretation – Berggren portrays Palme, whom he states to have voted for in 1982 and 1985,[15] far more as a liberal than as a socialist. On the other hand, it is exactly Palme who disappears eventually in the demanding history of Swedish culture and, in a way, Swedish civilisation in the 20th century, which constitutes the actual core of the book. Though fascinated by the gallery of poets, artists, film-makers, theorists and journalists – besides politicians – that Berggren recalls and outlines with great skill, the reader can not help wondering: “where has Palme gone?”

3. “Class treason”

One of the more investigated turning points in Palme’s life are the reasons that led a talented offspring of one of the most influential families in Stockholm to join the Social Democratic Party (SAP) in 1951 – after drawing attention to himself as student leader on an international scale –, only to be appointed two years later as secretary of the then prime minister, Tage Erlander, at the age of twenty-six years.

All three authors stress the formative impact on the young Palme – until then holder of the conservative vision (even if with social and international openings) inherited from his family – of the journeys made around the USA (1948), Eastern Europe (1949) and Asia (1953). These experiences meant the dramatic discovery of a reality made up of misery and oppression.[16] All three authors refuse the common yet misleading explanations focusing on Palme’s opportunism: a young man with his background could have chosen far more promising careers. Besides, that the Social Democratic Party, in power since 1932, would have kept its position until 1976 was something that no one in the beginning of the 1950s could expect. On the contrary, many took for granted the forthcoming end of the Social Democratic age, as the party, perhaps as a consequence of being so successful, seemed unable to renew itself.[17] Why the labour movement then?

Eklund puts forward the easiest explanation: Palme joined the SAP because of his ideology: anti-colonialist, reformist, anti-communist.[18]

Östberg’s thesis is summarized in a few words in the very last page of the second volume, but his whole work illustrates it. Two were the driving forces which turned Palme into a Social Democrat: the awareness that the world was about to change – and that he was in the best position, with his talent and his social and intellectual network, to contribute to a new age – and what Palme himself called the “joy of politics”;[19] a feeling, the latter, that evokes the portrait of the politician by vocation outlined by Max Weber:

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth – that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say “In spite of all!” has the calling for politics.[20]

As to Berggren, he argues that one could expect that Palme would choose a career in politics, due to his interest in social problems, as well as in journalism or research, due to his strong liking for intellectual life; but in the former case, siding with the Right; while in the latter keeping a more distanced approach to the public debate. What Palme did was to combine these two alternatives by turning to political engagement in the ranks of the Social Democratic party. Palme’s unexpected choice was therefore twofold, as both an active role in politics and even more so a left-wing position did not belong to his social background, even if Berggren often insists on the continuity between Olof and his grandfather, Sven, the founder of the family fortune, who advocated social reforms.[21] It is noteworthy that Palme’s political radicalism and the reformism that both Eklund and Östberg point out as one of Palme’s main features (with Östberg referring to it in a double meaning: the awareness that reforms were needed and the talent for bringing forth reforms), are kept in the shade in Berggren’s work. Yet, what comes in the spotlight is an overall attitude of cultural radicalism that, in Sweden, is traditionally associated with the Liberal party.

4. Radicalism abroad and compromise at home?



One could be tempted to wonder whether the biographers’ conclusions as to Palme’s joining the labour movement have influenced their interpretation of his politics as a whole; or whether on the contrary the opinions on Palme’s place in Swedish history, developed at the end of their works, have favoured a retrospective reading of Palme’s first controversial step, that is to say, “going over to the enemy”, as his decision was perceived by many of his class peers. Whatever the answer, it is most interesting to see what kind of connection is established in the three biographies between the talented upper-class young man who committed himself to the struggle for the labour movement and the worldwide-known politician who displayed his radicalism in foreign affairs and was nevertheless inclined to compromise in domestic politics, both with the opposition parties and with the business community. What the biographers face here is the debate about Palme’s position within the party, and his role within the history of Swedish Social Democracy as a whole.

4.a Foreign policy

Palme’s radicalism in foreign policy has been related above all to his firm condemnation of the Vietnam War, which created considerable troubles to Sweden in its diplomatic relations with the USA. This was an irony of fate, given that Palme has been defined by many — Östberg and Berggren among them[22] — as the most American among Swedish politicians, due to his education, his journeys and his contacts in the USA.

Palme expressed his contrariety to the American military intervention in Vietnam in a few well-known speeches and articles: the so-called “Gävle speech” delivered in 1965, when Palme was minister of Transport and Communication;[23] the speech held at the Vietnam demonstration on February 1968,[24] when Palme was minister of Education and Culture and marched close to the North-Vietnamese ambassador in Moscow – and the picture came out in hundreds of newspapers all over the world; the article on Song My (a Vietnamese village destroyed by 19-20 years-old US soldiers) published in 1970,[25] when he was already prime minister; and finally Hanoi, Christmas 1972, a speech broadcast on the Swedish Radio and which is worth being quoted:

We should call things by their proper names. What is going on in Vietnam today is a form of torture.

There cannot be any military justification for the bombings […].

People are being punished, a nation is being punished in order to humiliate it, to force it to submit to force.

That’s why the bombings are despicable.

Many such atrocities have been perpetrated in recent history. They are often associated with a name: Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice, Sharpeville, Treblinka.

Violence triumphed. But posterity has condemned the perpetrators.

Now a new name will be added to the list: Hanoi, Christmas 1972.[26]

Östberg presents the reader with the diverse reactions raised by Palme’s statements. For most of his party fellows his engagement on such an issue not only was absolutely sincere, but also in line with the labour movement tradition of internationalism; right-wing representatives complained his home (ab)use of foreign policy, aiming at opposing the growing influence on social movements gained by the New Left in the 1960s; others have seen in his position a sign of his opportunism and careerism: he benefitted from the solidarity movement with the Vietnamese people and strengthened his position within the party and/or consolidated his reputation as international politician.[27]

Eklund maintains that thanks to Palme’s Gävle speech “it became legitimate to criticize the USA”, and that his statements shifted the whole Swedish debate on international affairs to the Left. At the same time, he notes that the Vietnam issue strengthened Palme’s political identity, anointing him once and for all as an icon of the new time; because of his age (38 when the War started), no one among the Social Democratic representatives was more suitable than him to undertake the task of competing with the New Left for the “hegemony” on the new social movements.[28] Berggren shares this analysis, emphasizing furthermore Palme’s skill in awaking a kind of national feeling, a sense of honour which moved a little country like Sweden to express its indignation in an unusually plain language. The words “Swedish neutrality” – which under the Second World War had got a quite bitter taste – came to be related to the solidarity with the struggle for independence of Third World nations. That is why Berggren refers even to a paradigm shift, as Palme introduced an interpretation of what was going on in Vietnam which challenged the one up to then prevailing, i.e. that the USA fought always and only for democracy, yet without embracing a Communist perspective.[29]

The home impact of the debate on the Vietnam War is also the focus of Östberg’s chapter Vietnam!.

The starting point whereby to explain Palme’s behaviour is the same, i.e. the Social Democrats’ awareness that they were in danger to lose support from the Left, and that the person in the best position to try to resist that trend was Palme, whose anti-communism was well-tested. Unlike Eklund and Berggren however, Östberg is more sceptical about the outcomes of this strategy: if Palme succeed in keeping the party together around the Vietnam issue, the SAP lost nevertheless the battle for the hegemony on the Vietnam movement. It was not devoid of significance that business – including trade of military technology – and intelligence relations between Sweden and the USA were not affected by the turbulence roused by Palme’s vehemence, and that did not increase the SAP’s credibility among the New Left activists. Östberg’s conclusion is that the Vietnam War did not ruin at all Palme’s attachment to US liberalism, with its belief that the best way to resist Communism was to gain influence on radical social movements. But Palme was in no way a pure pawn in the party’s hands (as Eklund and Berggren, too, acknowledge); he did not hesitate to make statements that in few hours could compromise years of careful diplomatic relations. It was not Palme to create the Vietnam issue; but his role in putting it on the agenda can not be underestimated.[30]

On the occasion of the Portuguese Revolution (1974) some of the core values in Palme’s view of international affairs came again in the light, according to Östberg: colonialism vs liberation struggles, poor countries vs rich ones, democracy vs fascism as well as communism, great powers vs small States. In the neutralization of the pressures aiming at questioning the Western Order, the Socialist International played a crucial role, and Palme, thanks to the influential example of his country, was in the forefront – in his own way: not by clash but by dialogue, favouring a reformist outcome of the Portuguese revolutionary phase.[31] Eklund discusses shortly the event, by writing that Palme contributed to avert the danger of a too radical shift to the Left and secure the establishment of a Democratic government;[32] while Berggren puts the accent on the rapproachement that took place on that occasion between Sweden and the USA, as both countries feared  revolutionary developments in Europe.[33]



4.b Home politics

It is a widespread opinion that Palme, in spite of his radicalism in foreign policy — which however, as we have seen, is to be understood in the light of his effort to put forward Social Democracy as a successful alternative to Communism — showed a willingness to compromise when domestic policy was concerned that often aroused dissatisfaction in his own ranks. If there is a wide consensus on the wave of reforms passed by his first government (1969-1976) – on gender equality, Welfare State, labour markets – that consolidated the notion of Sweden as a “model” country, other issues were highly controversial, both within the labour movement and in the relationship with the opposition. Here the focus will be on Palme’s line with regard to the wage earners’ funds, a cross which went along with him from the middle 1970s to 1983, and the so-called “Third Way”, the economic policy introduced by Kjell Olof Feldt, minister of finance in the second Palme government (1982-1986). By examining these issues it will be perhaps easier to understand Östberg’s, Eklund’s and Berggren’s concluding remarks on Palme’s role in the history of Swedish Social Democracy.

Between 1975 and 1983, under the influence of the radicalization of society and of the debate of the perverse effects of the solidarity-focused wage policy[34] – a cornerstone of the Rehn-Meidner model, i.e. the Swedish model for economic policy from the late 1950s onwards – the Swedish labour movement discussed the proposal put forward between 1975 and 1976 by the leading economist of the General Labour Confederation (LO), Rudolf Meidner, so as to establish employee funds (löntagarfonder) that would gradually shift the ownership in medium to large companies from employers to workers.[35] The principle “equal pay for equal work”, aiming at avoiding inequalities among employees, caused that profitable companies, not being required to pay wages commensurate with their higher profits, found themselves with a surplus that was not being redistributed among the workers, thus ultimately widening the gap between capital and labour.[36]

The debate on Wage Earners’ Funds turned into a hot potato for the Social Democrats, who were about, in 1976, to face an uphill general election. Certainly, these funds did not help; the right-centre parties and the Employers’ Association charged the labour movement with the will to introduce in Sweden a socialism of the Eastern kind.

The question which is interesting to raise when comparing different interpretations of Palme’s politics is not so much why he was against the funds – his whole political education and experience led him to oppose socialization – but rather why the prime minister managed the issue in a way which has been blamed either as ambiguous (by the supporters of the Meidner plan) or passive (by his opponents). Eklund and Berggren focus on the latter problem, the more “tactical” one, though not leaving out entirely the ideological dimension. Eklund’s starting point is his own personal thesis, whereby Meidner’s plan went far beyond what up to then had been discussed within the labour movement – and what in fact was needed – in order to resist the concentration of property; as it aimed at socializing the Swedish economy, it was not consistent with the Swedish model, which – as Eklund recalls – has identified in taxation, legislation and the Welfare State the counterbalance to Capital. On the other side, however, Eklund acknowledges that Palme was aware of the discussion which was going on within the LO, even if he expected that at the end the Union leadership would invite its activists to a realistic approach. But it did not go this way. As to the party leadership, after the 1973 general election, even if still in power, it had to face the “lottery-parliament” (the seats in parliament were equally divided between the two blocks) and it seemed not particularly interested in the issue; that is why Palme and his colleagues in the government did not follow it close up from the beginning.[37]

Berggren agrees on the idea that Palme, reluctant to interfere in the debate within the union, relied on the LO chairman, Gunnar Nilsson, in order to neutralize the funds; the latter nevertheless had to take into account the appreciation which the funds enjoyed among the workers. Furthermore, the personal relationship between the two labour leaders was not so good. Berggren points out as well that Palme had difficulty in understand the plan’s core in itself. It seems that Palme said, referring to the LO’s support to the plan: “They have gone further than what I had thought in my most unrestrained imagination!”[38]

Eklund discusses also Palme’s political calculations: besides the workers’ support to the project, it must be borne in mind that when the confrontation on the funds actual set up took place, between 1978 and 1980, the SAP was in opposition and for the first time Palme’s leadership was questioned, not so much because of the electoral defeat in 1976, but due partly to his “flirt” with the Liberal party (then in power by a minority government), and partly to his intense engagement in international affairs (e.g. the Socialist International, the commission on disarmament, the Iran-Iraq war). Additionally, his upper class background could expose him to criticisms from the labour movement, if he dared go against the union on such a crucial issue. Finally, though against the funds on principle, he could not but support them in the face of the opponents’ attacks: the enemy was not allowed to settle the labour movement’s programs.[39]

Compared to Berggren’s and Eklund’s, Östberg’s work devotes more attention to the ideological implications of Palme’s dilemma. In the author’s view, the wage earners’ funds were the major issue among those which forced Palme to take a definite position between market and planning: it was unthinkable under that circumstance to keep the balance peculiar to the Social Democratic Third Way. Meidner’s Plan was – this is Östberg’s view – perhaps the most ticklish question Palme had to face. Paradoxically, the challenge – to question private property – did not come from the Left, but from the pillar, together with the SAP, of the Swedish way to reformism, that is to say, the union.

Whose influence on society was, in the first half of the 1970s, at its peak; but at the same time, the Swedish Employers’ Confederation started right then its ideological and political counterattack. Palme’s strategy was first to postpone the issue (after the 1976 general elections) and then to neutralize the most “subversive” elements in the plan, stressing from the beginning its compatibility with a market economy. And at last the aim – to reassure the business circles – was achieved by adding a fourth goal to the three formulated by Meidner (to transfer a quote of profits from capitalists to workers; to oppose property and wealth concentration; to establish workers’ influence on the economy through property): to favour capital formation, for the benefit of industrial investments. This was not exactly what had aroused, in 1975-1976, the union activists’ enthusiasm. In the early 1980s, the Meidner plan, then completely perverted, came to be incorporated into the program against the economic crisis worked out by the SAP.[40]

Noteworthy is that while the three biographers agree that the law on funds passed by the parliament in 1983 and introducing a pension funds scheme, had nothing to do with Meidner’s original plan, they differ as far as the effectiveness of Palme’s line is concerned. For Eklund, the whole discussion on the wage earners’ funds was one of Palme’s worst failures from an ideological point of view, as he stayed all the time on the defensive and contributed to a deep demoralization in the labour movement’s ranks.[41] On the contrary, Palme’s strategy seems to Östberg to have been successful, in terms of impact on the public opinion: he could neutralize the plan, without provoking too serious inner splits.[42] Berggren is more neutral, just joining under the category of “symbol-politics” the impressive demonstration against the funds held by the Employers’ Confederation on October 4, 1982 and the passing of the law few weeks later.[43]

The program against the ongoing economic crisis implemented by the second Palme government and to which, as we have seen, the wage earners’ funds were utilized, is considered as well one of the most controversial chapters in his political career.[44] In 1982 the minister of finance Kjell Olof Feldt presented three alternatives: an expansionist policy; a restrictive one; and what he called “the big bang”, that is to say, a policy aiming at stimulating investments and production, but at the same time squeezing domestic demand by means of devaluation. The last one was accepted. On this point, it is of particular interest to read Eklund’s points, as he was one of Feldt’s staff members. According to him, Palme and Feldt failed in the task of curbing the spiral of inflation, provoked by unrestrained wage claims by the unions. Palme showed once again – this is Eklund’s thesis – his weakness before the unions, portrayed by the author as a short-sighted organization, unable or unwilling to grasp the requirements of the economic system.[45] However, in the pages dealing with the “war of the roses”, that is to say, the unions’ dissatisfaction with the SAP’s profit-oriented economic policy, the author recognizes that the labour movement had to accept major changes in the Swedish model yet with no return (e.g. an active industrial policy or wage earners’ funds worthy of the name).[46]

Berggren is content with reporting Palme’s satisfaction for the economic recovery, which he comments upon in an interview given on February, 28 1986 (mind the date) when he declared, with a tragic irony of fate, that 1986 was a year full of opportunities,[47] thereby acknowledging that Feldt’s policy was effective and that the Social Democrats had once again fortune on their side.[48] Yet, the long-term consequences, both economic and political, of the shift begun under Palme are not deepened by Berggren. They come instead in the forefront in Östberg’s work, where it is pointed out that the real nature of the ”Third way” (as the new economic policy was called, i.e. neither expansionist nor restrictive) was bound to be widely discussed. Was it consistent with a Social Democratic orientation or did it mean the surrender to Neo-Liberalism? Certainly Palme supported his minister of finance, and he did so by arguing that the new economic policy was a condition for preserving the Welfare State.[49] Nevertheless – and this is one of the crucial points in Östberg’s biography – Palme accepted it as a necessary evil, while to Feldt’s eyes the policy was dictated by a long-term adaptation, perceived as unavoidable, to a more market-oriented political climate. As a sign of the ideological disagreement between the two leading Social Democratic politicians, Östberg brings forward Palme’s disappointment when Feldt made a statement in favour of the privatization of Swedish pre-schools; also in his last interview, few hours before being murdered, Palme confirmed his strong support to the public sector, which he regarded as a key aspect of modern civilisation.[50]

Berggren too reports Palme’s firm reaction to the openings to neo-liberalism made by his minister of finance, but the interpretation of their relationship is definitely different. Palme was moved, Berggren argues, not so much by the concern of safeguarding a distinct Social Democratic platform, but rather by tactic calculations: a breakdown in the labour movement tradition would have caused inner splits and favoured the building of a competing party on the Left. Berggren agrees that Palme was against privatization, but at the same time the author believes that the prime minister shared many of Feldt’s viewpoints and perhaps that is why he reacted so firmly. With a member of the government staff Palme indeed seems (Berggren unfortunately does not refer to any source) to have made clear his awareness that increased competition, effectiveness and freedom of choice within the public sector (a condition that Berggren should have emphasized) were needed.[51]

Eklund’s version is somehow in the middle: he recognizes an ideological gap between Palme and Feldt, but reduces it essentially to a matter of make-up: the former kept a more traditional rhetoric when arguing in favour of the new economic policy, while the latter made no secret of the fact that the “Third way” was part of a process of “modernization” of the national economy.[52] Palme’s early and vehement condemnation of the dangers inborn in Neo-Liberalism – social atomization, destruction of the environment, democracy turned into an empty box – is not mentioned here.

5. Continuity or breakdown?

Maybe Palme was only tired or even depressed because of the long time in the frontline, the many troubles that he had to face from the very beginning since coming back in power in 1982 (the U-boat affair, the Bofors and the Harvard scandals, incessant union unrest), and the many personal attacks that he suffered from; maybe he was planning to leave, perhaps accepting an appointment as United Nations (UN) Commissar on Refugees, or staying on for a while.[53] What is certain is that everything was shattered by the shots which echoed in the evening of February 28, 1986.

Berggren, with a choice that can be disappointing to the reader and nonetheless reveals some elegance, stops his long story then, when the Swedish prime minister died in the heart of the city where he had spent all his life, not far from his childhood home, close to the SAP building, next to the wife he had been married with over nearly thirty years.[54] Nothing is said on the inquiry that followed.

Eklund shortly summarizes what happened in the aftermath: the widespread belief that a murder of a prime minister can not but be the outcome of a plot; the only person ever charged with the crime (and then released) being a single and violent individual, Christer Pettersson; the kind of private investigation (backed by the SAP leadership) which did its best to confirm the PKK (the Communist party of Kurdistan) hypothesis.[55] Eklund writes nothing about the tremendous failure of the Swedish justice in an inquiry that has exceeded even the one on the murder of US president John F. Kennedy.

Östberg’s second volume takes up in the end an epic style: on the one hand we follow a man and a politician who was fed up, worried for the world and for his own safety, getting older and no longer as unquestionable as he had been in the 1970s;[56] on the other hand, we enter the opaque area of hate campaigns arranged by a blend of different groups, ranging from the extreme right of the Employers’ Confederation to unaffiliated anarchic psychopaths, affecting Palme in his last years more than ever before.[57] In other countries the relationship between a murder and the preceding hate campaign against the victim has been regularly scrutinised, apart from the person who materially committed the murder; in Sweden this scrutiny has been less common. Under this perspective, Östberg definitely contributes a significant study. Besides, his chapter devoted to the murder and the ensuing inquiry is a useful and involving reconstruction of what happened and what ought not to happen, yet without trying to add one more Truth about the murder to the long list of hypotheses – some of them pretty fanciful – formulated until now.[58]

After twenty-five years the murder is still unresolved, the SAP has lost two elections in a row (2006 and 2010), and Palme remains a controversial issue. Who was Olof Palme? Which was the connection between the Olof Palme who made the US government fly into a fury due to his condemnation of Imperialism and the Olof Palme who backed the business-friendly “Third way” in economic policy?

It has to be noted here that the three biographers are all fascinated by his talent, meant both as intellectual brightness and as ability in problem-solving (hence Palme’s success in bringing forth actual reforms); yet they acknowledge too that this talent could turn into a double-edged weapon in the relations, both political and personal, with others.[59]

In Eklund’s final remarks, Palme appears as the highest expression in Sweden of the 1950s and 1960s Zeitgeist: the commitment to achieve demanding and long-term reforms; nevertheless he is also described as unlucky, for his appointment as prime minister in 1969 took place at the same time when the Golden Age ended, and he was not inclined to face a downward age.[60] What has been perceived by someone as Palme’s ambiguity or contradiction, or, worse, opportunism, depended instead on a diverse approach to the different fields of reality: Palme was left-wing as far as social, educational and foreign policy were concerned, but he was right-wing as to economic and security policy. He personified the unending swing in Swedish Social Democracy between Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy.[61]

Berggren’s interpretation is equally continuity-oriented: Palme was a democrat, moved to politics more by an “existential” choice than by an ideological conviction; along his whole life, he remained a pragmatist. As such, his role can not be defined either as a Cold War soldier (under the 1950s standard banners) nor as an anti-imperialist (under the 1960s and the early 1970s ones). Rather, Palme showed the typical Social Democratic ability to achieve viable arrangements. After tracing Palme’s relationship with politics back to his existentialist philosophy – a puzzling thesis broadly developed in the book– Berggren goes further in his accentuation of Palme’s individualistic dimension – and in the removal of the socialist one. The other distinguishing features that he singles out are indeed, besides the international perspective, Palme’s belief that the individual has a duty to pursue what he maintains to be Truth and Justice, and Palme’s strong volunteerism.[62] In the end, according to Berggren’s biography, Palme seems to have shared with Swedish Social Democracy only an attitude to compromise, on one side, and to modernization, on the other side; the latter element implied also to improve people’s living conditions, but more in a liberal perspective (i.e. to give everybody the chance to lead his own existence) than in an endeavour to make society more equal.[63] According to Berggren’s analysis, Palme’s awareness that society can safeguard freedom only by securing equality (and in a substantive meaning) is negligible.[64]

Östberg’s conclusions are more complex with regard to the dilemma continuity vs breakdown. Palme was behind the times until the Golden Age went on; in the mid-1960s he was able to understand, thanks to his good relationship with intellectuals and young people, that the Zeitgeist was changing. That favoured the portrait of him as a radical, but also the disappointment of those who had misunderstood Palme’s position. He was not a radical, Östberg stresses; rather he took his place in the party centre-wing. His condemnation of colonialism and violence was sincere, and at the same time perfectly consistent with his reformism: he hoped and believed indeed that sooner or later the countries fighting for their liberation would have followed the Swedish way, that is to say, the achievement of political, social and economic democracy by reformist politics. Somehow he contributed to the radicalism of that age without being a radical.[65] The impact of the reforms passed under his first government was such as to raise in many (both sympathizers and opponents) the question: are the Social Democrats about to reverse the Swedish system?

To this climate Palme contributed by the radicalism accompanying the passage of the reforms. But – Östberg insists on this crucial passage – when the borders of Swedish reformism were questioned, e.g. on the occasion of the debate on the wage earners’ funds, he refused to go over. He lost touch with the Zeitgeist, as the historical phase when he had developed his ideas and approach – the age of the trust in never-ending economic growth and therefore in an increasing Welfare State– was over. This loss was not Palme’s failure, but the result of the challenge issued by the ongoing economic crisis and the spreading of Neo-Liberalism to the whole Swedish Social Democracy. From the 1950s to the 1980s Palme maintained a unitary vision, although trying to tailor it to changing conditions: the task was to extend democracy from the political dimension to the social and economic one, yet without questioning private property.[66] Such was Olof Palme in fact: when blaming the USA and the USSR for their arrogance and oppression, when putting gender equality on the agenda, when flirting with the Liberal Party, or neutralizing the more demanding union claims; he was a Social Democrat, who experienced the shift from an age when everything seemed possible to a crisis undermining all the certainties and requiring new answers.

How and whether Palme’s heirs have succeeded in this hard task: to be up to the new challenges without getting rid of the Social Democratic tradition – hence of Palme’s legacy too – is today, at least apparently, matter for discussion, in one of the toughest phases of the party’s history.

[1] See Å. Linderborg, Socialdemokraterna skriver historia. Historieskrivning som ideologisk maktresurs 1892-2000, Stockholm, Atlas, 2001, pp. 108-111.

[2] See B. Östergren, Vem är Olof Palme? Ett politiskt porträtt, Stockholm, Timbro, 1984; Claes Arvidsson, Olof Palme. Med verkligheten som fiende, Stockholm, Timbro, 2007. Noteworthy is that the publisher of both these highly polemic works, come out at a distance of twenty-three years, is the same, the new-liberal think-tank “Timbro”.

[3] Among the many possible references, K. and P. Poutiainen, Inuti labyrinten: om mordet på Olof Palme, Stockholm, Grimur, 1995 (on the domestic track); J. Bondeson, Blood on the Snow. The Killing of Olof Palme, Ithaca, Cornell University, 2005 (on the track related to the traffic in arms); H. Hederberg, Offret & gärningsmannen: en essä om mordet på Olof Palme, Stockholm, Atlantis, 2010 (guilty: Christer Pettersson, the only person sentenced, yet then released, for the murder).

[4] B. Elmbrant, Palme, Stockholm, Fischer&Rye, 1989.

[5] P. Antman, P. Schori, Den gränslöse reformisten, Stockholm, Rabén Prisma/Tiden Debatt, 1996.

[6] See E. Åsard (ed. by), Politikern Olof Palme, Stockholm, Hjalmarson & Högberg, 2002, focusing on Palme’s view of politics, massmedia, foreign policy and rhetoric.

[7] See for instance A. Kullenberg, Palme och kvinnorna, 1996; U. Larsson, Olof Palme och utbildningspolitiken, Stockholm, Hjalmarson & Högberg, 2003;  A.-M. Ekengren, Olof Palme och utrikespolitiken, Umeå, Boréa, 2005; G. Björk, Olof Palme och medierna. Umeå, Boréa, 2006.

[8] See I. Carlsson, Ur skuggan av Olof Palme, Stockholm, Hjalmarson & Högberg, 1999 and T.G. Peterson, Olof Palme som jag minns honom, Stockholm, Bonnier, 2002.

[9] K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden. Olof Palme 1927-1969, Stockholm, Leopard, 2008; see, on this e-journal, IV, 2009, 1, my review.

[10] Id., När vinden vände. Olof Palme 1969-1986, Stockholm, Leopard, 2009; I have reviewed both the volumes in Olof Palme e i venti della storia, “Meridiana”, 2008, 62, pp. 233-243.

[11] K. Eklund, Palme, Stockholm, Bonnier, 2010.

[12] H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss. En biografi över Olof Palme, Stockholm, Norstedts, 2010.

[13] In order to accomplish such a task, I will profit by the “confrontation” among the three biographers arranged by the “Liberala Klubben” at the ABF (Arbetarnas bildningsförbund, Workers’ Educational Association) in Stockholm, on December 8, 2010, which I attended to.

[14] See K. Östberg,  Inledning, in Id., I takt med tiden cit., pp. 13-14.

[15] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 8.

[16] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 61-68 (on the USA), pp. 74-76 (Eastern Europe), pp. 104-106 (on Asia);. H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 111-141 (USA), pp. 156-159; K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 22-23.

[17] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 108-112; K. Eklund, Palme, p. 24.

[18] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 24.

[19] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, p. 421.

[20] M. Weber, La politica come professione, in Il lavoro intellettuale come professione (1919), Torino, Einaudi, 1983, pp. 120-121; for the English translation, see www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/ethos/Weber-vocation.pdf.

[21] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 109.

[22] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, p. 394; H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 313-315.

[23] One month after the speech, the USA embassy in Stockholm sent a report to the State Department in Washington where the event that Palme would be appointed as the next prime minister was faced with anxiety. Cfr. K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, p. 279.

See the English translation in http://www.olofpalme.org.

[25] See O. Palme, For My Lai in our hearts… (1970), and a partial English translation of it in Olof Palme speaking. Articles and Speeches, ed. by G. Banks, Stockholm, Premiss, 2006, pp. 137-141.

[26] See O. Palme, Hanoi, Christmas 1972 (1972), in Olof Palme speaking, pp. 141-142.

[27] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 165-166.

[28] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 43.

[29] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 355-357.

[30] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 309-311.

[31] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 131-139.

[32] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 64.

[33] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 517-518.

[34] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 527.

[35] See the English translation of the 1975 Report, R. Meidner (with the assistance of A. Hedborg and G. Fond), Employee investment funds : an approach to collective capital formation, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1978.

[36] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 72.

[37] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 72-75.

[38] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 529-532; Palme’s quotation p. 531 (the Author yet does not refer the source of Palme’s statement).

[39] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 76-77.

[40] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 247-256.

[41] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 78.

[42] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 258-259.

[43] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 627-628. The confrontation on the wage earners’ funds, that is, the inner splits between the LO and the SAP and within the SAP, and the bourgeois mobilization, is however reconstructed quite hastily by the author.

[44] According to Östberg, it is one of the most controversial issue in the whole Swedish contemporary history. See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, p. 299.

[45] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 91-92.

[46] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 103-104.

[47] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 655.

[48] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 617.

[49] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 301-304, within the chapter on The War of the Roses.

[50] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, p. 312.

[51] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 639-640.

[52] See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 93.

[53] Eklund’s idea is that Palme would have left in 1987, or perhaps two years later (after the 1988 general election), and that his successor would have been Anna-Greta Leijon; in other words, the SAP would have elected its first female party leader in the late 1980s, and not in 2007. Paradoxically, Leijon’s political career was damaged due right to a scandal involving the party leadership which had to do with the inquiry on the murder of Palme. See K. Eklund, Palme, p. 123.

[54] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 657.

[55] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 106-107.

[56] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 366-385.

[57] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 362-365.

[58] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 386-405.

[59] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 108-109; K. Östberg, När vinden vände, passim; H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, passim.

[60] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 108-109 and 113.

[61] See K. Eklund, Palme, pp. 120-121.

[62] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, p. 179.

[63] See H. Berggren, Underbara dagar framför oss, pp. 333-334.

[64] See P. Antman, Arvet efter Palme , in P. Antman, P. Schori, Den gränslöse reformisten, pp. 45-48.

[65] See K. Östberg,  I takt med tiden, pp. 394-396.

[66] See K. Östberg, När vinden vände, pp. 417-418.

Eight Noble Opinions and the Economic Crisis: Four Literary-philosophical Sketches à la Eduardo Galeano


Until control of the issue of currency and credit is restored to government and recognised as its most conspicuous and sacred responsibility, all talk of the sovereignty of Parliament and of democracy is idle and futile… Once a nation parts with control of its credit, it matters not who makes the nation’s laws… Usury once in control will wreck any nation.

            William Lyon Mackenzie King

Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.

      Albert Einstein

Philosophers are often and rightly accused of dealing too much with the past, pondering endlessly upon origins, reasons and causes, and too little with the future, leaving hardly any room to proposals, solutions, or calls to arms. To prove myself capable of the latter kind of activity, and despite the unavoidably old noble opinions quoted above, I shall keep Minerva’s owl nailed to a perch. Though Pythonesque, this little cruelty should delay any backward-looking blathering of mine, which is to come eventually in the other sketches.

After all, we are facing a dramatic twofold crisis, ecological and economic, which even uninfluential public figures like the current UN Secretary and US President have acknowledged and denounced as deadly. As for the title under which I allow myself to do so, I shall be content with declaring myself a professor of philosophy who has studied value for some time, i.e. what is important and what is not. In this pursuit, which I regard as valuable, I have reached a fairly simple conclusion: that which keeps all of us and our descendants alive and well is very, very important indeed. Those who deny it or claim my claim to be unscientific can do so because they are tacitly doing all that is necessary in order to stay alive and well enough to be able to talk a lot of nonsense.

But let us dwell no further on this simple subject, about which I have written around fifteen complicated essays in the past ten years—I need another nail… Worthy of Epicurus, I can offer a tetrapharmakos to today’s world, confident to be received by no-one in useful time, for that seems to be the fate for all who dare criticise—as I am going to do—large-scale private banking, the profit motive as paramount,  the private ownership of strategic resources, deregulation, and the managerial mind. Some may even call me a “socialist”, as though it were a derogatory and disqualifying term, similar to “criminal”, “pervert” or “rascal”. Probably, given the notoriety of Italians and academics, “old pig” or “bore” would be more fitting insults. Politically, however, I would describe myself as “life-grounded”, not “socialist”. Still, I shall not mind and endure the epitaph with grace, even gratefulness. I shall keep company with Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte of Saint-Simon, Albert Einstein, and Bertrand Russell. An aristocrat, a physicist, and a logician…


First, fundamental medication, upon which all else depends: nations should establish, or in most cases re-establish, good public banks. Why? Well, here is something that should have become obvious to anyone who has eyes to see and a fat wallet. As stated by Russian President Vladimir Putin when speaking last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the economic crisis that we are witnessing today has destroyed, in about one year, approximately twenty-five years of pecuniary wealth, i.e. the sort of wealth that our intrepid yet “virtual” capitalists were aimed to produce in the first place. Private banks and financial institutions, left to their own devices by prolonged tidal waves of worldwide deregulation, brought themselves down and, with them, much of the world’s “real” economy. Do you remember the real economy? If it goes down, down go also the starving children of unemployed sub-Saharan family fathers. Down into the earth they go, whilst shareholders moan for lost profits and fire a few more people to ease their pain.

Clearly, many private banks cannot do their job unaided. As they were busy concocting mathematically byzantine derivatives and variously vehicled securisation packages in the deregulated shadow of global finance, they forgot about honest bookkeeping, sound reserves, mutual trust, and other basic old-fashioned principles of chronically anachronistic banking. They even forgot about that primitive slave invention, morality. Alas! Such is the genius of the invisible hand free from State direction or, as Icelandic philosopher Mikael Karlsson dubs it, “the invisible brain.” This is not meant to be an insult to anyone, unlike “socialist” or “pervert”. The so-called “Free Market” promoted by “deregulators” has no visible brain, insofar as State-centred social and public planning is regularly rejected as anathema. Still, who came to the rescue of self- (and other-) destructive private banks? The State.

Turned into the banks’ pork-barrel, the State has thrown trillions at the banks in order to keep them afloat—in the Land of the Free, in Great Britain, in Benelux. Was it necessary? No, for the State could have simply taken over the banks. Was it desirable? No, for public banks, still run in communist countries such as China and North Dakota, can spur development, employment, and take far fewer risks than private ones.

It must be emphasised that it is not enough for the State to own the banks; these must be run like public banks i.e. banks for the public good. Some morality is required in the process. Prudently restricted by various strings, these public banks can respond more easily to the needs and aims of actual populations, rather than to the whims and fancies of absentee owners or of their volatile servants, that is to say their bonus-benefitting managers.

What am I saying? Have public banks and run them as such. They must spur real development, not inflate bubbles that transfer wealth from the bottom to the top. Will it hurt the shareholders and wealthier customers of private banks? Certainly. They have already enjoyed the State’s helping hand; it may be time to repay the State with gratitude. Doesn’t anyone remember how to do it? Read history books, study the European Payments Union of the 1950s, ask retired Italian or French bank managers, use your imagination. A few rules of thumb may assist those who lack enough imagination:

(a)  Ban financial and currency speculation, at least within and via public banks: the casino belongs to “competitive” gamblers. Yes, people who used to claim that they would succeed or fail like Promethean heroes… Before they all asked for help to the Great Nanny, of course, lost as they were on their er-rand. And please, let the State never again salvage these hypocrites from their own myopic greed. They are now trying to wash their guilty conscience by returning one hundredth of what they have received from the public purse, whilst re-filling their pockets at the State’s expense, with fierce bearish appetite

(b)  Lubricate the real economy, if forward-looking, so as to launch much-needed public works, create long-term employment, and generate steady streams of income within the nation. Public banks can do so, at low interest rates: they must be profitable, but not at all costs

(c)  Monitor inbound and outbound capital flows, so as to direct investments to socially beneficial areas, and counter tax evasion as well as tax avoidance: far too much has been denied in the past to the very public purse that has then saved the incompetent affluent from themselves. And remember that a stable currency and genuine economic sovereignty can only be secured by abandoning the disastrous freedom of capital flows that has flooded the world with crisis upon crisis since the 1980s: tequila, vodka, whiskey or brennivín, ouzo, they all taste the same

(d)  Secure reserves by compelling the capitals of public bodies, pension and social security savings, and the revenues of public banks to be invested in the public banks themselves. The State must be as free as possible from the bondage and the blackmail of its current masters i.e. foreign direct investment and international bondholders

(e)  Pay bank managers State salaries comparable to those of other leading promoters of public wellbeing—surgeons, health-&-safety inspectors, judges—and avoid attracting the covetous, self-indulging, big-jet and big-penthouse penis-length-comparing “best and brightest” who plunged the world into a massive crisis. Communities need not such beastly best and brittle brightness. Forget them and their barbaric macho ethos—made of turrets of money, performance-enhancing bonuses (as though they alone were working), fee-demanding buddies-consultants, and PR companies using invariably words like “aggressively” and “targets”.

Finally, do not underestimate the fact that it is difficult to deal with cronyism by voting new governments into office. Yet it is much more difficult to do the same thing by waiting for anonymous and short-lived shareholders to reform their servants, who are so free from supervision as to jot down any number they like in the books without anyone finding out. As Adam Smith forewarned us some time ago, the corporation is amongst the least competitive and the most corruptible of human institutions, hence amongst the most damaging to the proper functioning of capitalism.

And inflation? Don’t worry. Nobody talks about it—a sudden silence. After all, common people are no longer able to buy anything, not even on credit. If anything, the real problem to come will be deflation. Besides, more than 90% of the money circulating around the globe is the result of financial leverage by private institutions. Still, old-fashioned, knee-jerk reactions may be reoccurring soon: pensions and salaries must not go up, for the poor must repay the money lost by the rich; States must rein in public expenditures, which they have been doing for thirty years, unless there was a war to be fought; public assets must be privatised, so as to further enrich the incompetent and further weaken their only saviour; cheap money must stop (now), lest we tax the wealthy to give some jobs to the restless youth, etc. By the way, how is it that bonuses for bank managers could always go up? It must be the same people who think that only private firms can be valid multipliers…

It is ironic that, after two decades during which we had been told that the State and, for that matter, its independent Central Banks could not issue money for schools, hospitals, public works and social projects, quite mysteriously they started printing so much money. Sure, they now tell us that we need private banks to keep credit flowing, for credit is the life-blood of the economy. Without it, there shall be no green-spanning across the meadows. And yet, enterprises and households worldwide are still struggling to get the credit that they need. In truth, the selectively generous Central Banks’ cheap money benefits financial speculation, which is where the trouble started in the first place. How could ever a heartless economy pump any actual life-blood?

Indeed, in California, the local government is at risk of being terminated by the refusal of private banks to subscribe local public bonds because “unsafe” i.e. the State of California could go bankrupt. “What a cheek!” my mother would say, and she has dealt with banks for most of her life. The banks refusing to purchase these sunny bonds today are the same banks that were saved by public money yesterday, when it was raining. But there is more.

Were even these banks to provide enterprises, households and public authorities with the credit they need, they would not do it for free, for the common good, or for a little interest; they would do it for profit, and for as much of it as they can get. Thus, things would be so arranged and, sadly enough, they are being so arranged, as to have public money given very prodigally to private banks, so that these banks may give it to the public far less prodigally.

What is more, in order to be worthy of the bailed-out banks’ money:

  • Enterprises have been reducing their workforce to be more “competitive”
  • Households have been returning their homes to banks that had sold highly reliable mortgages towards the purchase of… homes
  • The State has been thinning out its already skinny body in order to be attractive to the banks, which the State has just rescued from themselves

After decades of TINA-like reduction of all that is public, public money is being given to glaringly incompetent private banks so that their losses be made public and their profits, which were always private, recover and be still private. In the process, public money is not used to counter dwindling employment, secure houses, and, say, fund hospitals, schools, university research, care for the elderly and the mentally ill, public gardens, public football fields, archaeological preservation programmes, amelioration of penal institutions, better garbage collection, sanitation and, why not, aid to starving children. How many tramps will get trapped in the revolving doors of the wealthy’s tower?

That the State may have money for the bankrupt banks but not for its own social functions, it is something that defies imagination, morality, and even legal obligations. Many of them ratified the International Covenant on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights, didn’t they?


Second, life-saving medication: if you skip the middle man, operate good public banks, and have money to use for the common good, then launch a vast programme of green public works. More severe and threatening than the economic crisis itself is the ecological crisis. Ask the United Nations about that. The former crisis threatens fat wallets at the top and starving children at the bottom, yet at different degrees of dangerousness. The latter crisis threatens all equally with death. The grim reaper is the great leveller. Since so much private enterprise has caused the ecological crisis in the first place—the smoky days of the Industrial Revolution—and has continued it in the face of scientific alarm calls as old as Britney Spears, then it is advisable that the State be able and willing to step in and, both by regulation and by direct economic action, reverse the tide.

Forget speculative carbon emission quotas and reduce carbon emissions; ban outright or force rapid conversion of the most obvious forms of life-destructive economic activity; tax the remaining polluting activities and de-tax non- or less-polluting ones; have a major public company undertaking proper refitting of houses on a massive scale so as to make them less energy-consuming; create large public recycling facilities so as to counter illegal dumping of waste at large; found and fund new public research centres for the development of green technologies, free from the yoke of short-term corporate desiderata; ration carbon-based power and use it only for vital and life-enhancing activities…

There are so many tokens of environmentally constructive planning, yet so few that have not been resisted as “too costly”, “too rigid”, “too much for us, who have already done so much”, etc. Were only the people uttering such phrases to consider seriously the fact that they can be so garrulous because the environment is still, barely, able to support them, their bodies, their minds, and the natural and social infrastructures that have allowed them to grow, socialise and, limitedly, mature…

In addition to a life-enabling aim and a counter-cyclical alternative to depressing austerity, politics would also regain its dignity by having a green mission. Strangled by powerful yet incompetent lobbies, and fettered by incompetent yet powerful central banks, politics has been reduced for far too long a time to day-to-day management of production costs in the domestic market and salesmanship in the foreign ones.


Third, important medication: since some neighbours may not like your policies and your currency, then they might respect your resources. States should increase or secure public control of strategic assets: water, oil, gas, the knowledge of its own population—this knowledge having been fostered by public education, healthcare provision, and cultural activities.

Whether by safeguarding the revenues originating in natural resources that would otherwise enrich few and often foreign shareholders, or by reclaiming a knowledge-based industry that would otherwise be outsourced by corporate giants, the State must secure a steady source of income for itself and for the nation’s economy. This income alone should help democratic governments to respond to their constitutional sovereigns, not to rating agencies and “markets” whose lords regularly reside offshore.

As Norway’s long experience in State-run oil extraction and refining illustrates, it is the one and only “trickle-down” strategy that has produced tangible results for an entire nation. States’ assets are not a factor of market distortion, but a factor of production—and one that can help businesses to grow by providing cheap goods and services, as opposed to the endless and costly bloodsucking of postmodern privatised economies. Ideally, it would be good for States to regain control over money-creating central banks, but there are limits even to one’s dreams.

Incidentally, even the many wars paid by the American public purse to secure control over other nations’ oil, or at least force its trade in US dollars, indicate that the public control of strategic assets is not so foolish an idea. And yes, also that getting bombed may be a risk for the nations pursuing the path recommended hereby. Apart from the landowners, cunning agents and financial moguls who have charged prices well over any real cost of production, for all others there is no such thing as a free lunch—Miltons have always known the devil very well.


Fourth, integrative medication: since some powers-that-are may not be pleased with your plans, make sure you can deal with them. Create a just fiscal and regulatory framework, which empowers the population at large and weakens the usual lobbies: close tax loopholes and tax breaks for the usual lobbies; withdraw passports and freeze assets of tax fugitives; tax rents (land, inheritances, capital gains) and de-tax hard work, so as to reward merit and distinguish sharply between earned and unearned income; end subsidies, legal privileges (e.g. limited liability) and tax-breaks to private companies, lest they never compete in a truly free market; nationalise the companies that are too big to fail, as John Kenneth Galbraith advised us to do long ago; reclaim research and development grants and whichever other public credit given to private firms leaving the country; confiscate the assets of companies outsourcing to countries with lower labour and environmental standards; put regulatory agencies and grassroots associations on the boards of private and public companies to fight corruption; inspect constantly and reward those inspectors who discover illicit activities.

Taxes matter. Especially when there is an ever-richer tiny elite of super-rich whose fortune comes as a long free lunch over accumulated wealth, whether in property or capital. They hardly ever pay taxes. They pay fewer than most, since someone else paid taxes before them: those who actually earned that property or capital in the first place. In truth, they may quite simply avoid taxes by shoring their assets off to tiny islands or Alpine valleys. The members of this tiny elite are above and beyond the common citizen, whilst their trusted and highly paid managers rarely go to jail when guilty of fraud or cheating. Above-and-beyondness is a transferrable asset too. If and when hijacked by this elite, States are likely to commit suicide by taxing those who work instead. And if the people sweating and bleeding don’t have enough money, then State activities are to be reduced in the name of, say, the Big Society–of the hopeless and of their hopeless resilience.

In brief, internalise costs that have been externalised regularly and mercilessly at the expense of natural and societal well-being; and effectively re-regulate the disastrously de-regulated playground of the free enterprise–especially but not exclusively of the virtual type–whose only known freedom is that which cages every possible aspect of reality into the life-blind logic of profit-making.

Will anyone undergo this cure? History will tell. And history is full of surprises. Who would have ever thought, for example, that little furry animals could outlive giant dinosaurs and become the first species ever capable of destroying the ecological structures that allow them to live!


Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation.

         John Maynard Keynes

There are two ways of conquering a foreign nation. One is to gain control of its people by force of arms. The other is to gain control of its economy by financial means.

       John Foster Dulles

In the year 2003 I published a review of Value Wars, written by Canada’s leading value theorist John McMurtry. In it I provided an account of the stunning whistle-blowing by World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz vis-à-vis “deregulation” and “globalisation”, two terms that had been dominating economic and political discourse for some time. Quite unexpectedly, and rather shockingly, a well-connected, mainstream, Nobel-prize-winning economist denounced the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for implementing over a period of at least twenty years a merciless four-step process of re-colonisation of independent nations by international private capital. This was the sort of suspicion that radicals like pop singer Bono Vox and Polish actor Karol Woitila, better known as Pope John Paul II, had been voicing for a long time. As for John McMurtry, he took due notice, since Stiglitz’s revelation was consistent with his own description of world affairs as directed by the profit-motive of the few versus the vital interests of all others. Preferring truth to originality, I endeavoured to spread this description of world affairs around me. In fact, I had given lectures about it, also in Iceland, before 2003.

Nobody seemed to care, however, at least here in the north. Stiglitz’s views were not widely discussed and even less were they taught at the university level, except by a few—sometimes foreign—eccentrics. McMurtry’s views, hadn’t it been for the same eccentrics, would have been left to gather dust in local libraries. Meanwhile, the policies of deregulation and enthusiastic participation in globalisation were not halted. On the contrary, in the year 2003, the three largest public banks were privatised. Immediately, they started to sail the seas of international speculation, never seen before in Icelandic history. “Carry trades” and “financial leverage” became mantras recited on the first page of all newspapers, whilst the businessmen who were dubbed the “new Vikings” set out to raid foreign banks, enterprises, supermarkets, and football clubs, with money that they did not have. But such is late- (or post-) modern capitalism, or “the Icelandic way of doing business”, as I was told back then. Besides, it would appear that only professional economists are entitled to teach about why they, unlike a mere philosopher like McMurtry, got it so wrong. And there’s so much to learn!

What did Stiglitz’s whistle-blowing describe? And how does it apply to the Icelandic case?

First, the permeability of the nation’s borders to private foreign capital is increased by deregulating capital trade and privatising strategic national assets. Barriers, bottlenecks, and “obsolete” protections are removed, whether material or immaterial. Nobody quite remembers why they were there, and even fewer wonder why. Above all else, money must flow. That’s the consensus, at least in the district of Columbia, which is obviously populated by zealous reformers. Their principles are crystal-clear: “public is bad, private is good.” They believe in “The Free Market”, whatever that may be thought to be; and they believe in it so ardently and unflinchingly that Stiglitz and others refer to them as “market fundamentalists.” They even set complicated rules at roundtables to force dissenting markets to be free. Anyhow, this very first step, which may take some time, is achieved by lubricating slow-moving and slow-thinking local politicians, business leaders, present and future ideologues with adequate amounts of grease. Grease, yes, such as co-opting these people into the international jet- and yacht-set, promising or securing that they will have their own golden toilets, washing their brains at spectacular conferences and exclusive think-tank meetings, baptising their best and brightest first-borns in the sacred founts at the sacred shrines, stirring their simmering jingoistic sentiments, or bribing them straightforwardly—indeed Stiglitz talks of this process as “briberization”.

Secondly, money flows into the country. A bubble ensues; in fact, a cyst. Depending on the country’s economic conditions, the cyst can take different forms, but all of them eventually become painful. In the case of a reasonably well-off country, glittering streams of foreign capital inundate the land, turning modest entrepreneurial fields into a glorious harvest of unprecedented projects. Thus refreshed, the local currency and the local shares pupate into surprisingly light-winged and seemingly fertile young fairies, whose well is said to be full of diamonds. Moreover, the nation’s financial institutions become large fountains that can quench the thirst of anyone who is eager to drink from them, including those who do not need it, but have the misfortune to possess a belly. New buildings spring up like mushrooms in the vast new wetlands, luxury and consumer spending—mostly dependent upon credit—fly high like gleaming droplets out of a geyser’s mouth. So mesmerising is this sight, that more permeability is actively sought.

Then, the cyst bursts. As swiftly as it flew in, so does the money flow out. A rumour, a token of gossip, an unfortunate diplomatic incident, a well-paid expert report, or a speculator’s premeditated signal to his colleagues rapidly reverses the tide. The flood ends. A drought follows. Projects—and buildings—remain unfinished, half-mast, like flags at a funeral. The wombs of local currency and local shares reveal themselves sterile; it was all make-up, they now say, even the wings; you should never trust the books. The well in the garden is dry, and full of stones. Moreover, the fountains are dry too. Around them, stunned, jobless, emaciated peons, indebted up to their eyeballs, drown into whirling sand clutching their plasma TV sets. And their TV heroes have not come to save them, be they crusading party leaders or Viking raiders. Who will?

Nobody is without friends, especially after having become part of the international jet- and yacht-set, educating his own children in the best schools, or attending eye-opening conferences and meetings. Not to mention those friends who have already proven so generous in the past. In truth, after having advised on how to render the country prosperous, they now spare no saliva explaining what can be done in order to rescue it from its unfortunate plight. Thus, money is poured back into the nation. High interest rates are, however, de rigueur. One does not give much to drink too easily to a friend who has already drunk too much. What kind of a friend would he be?

The third step is therefore to make up for the mistakes of the past and repay one’s generous friends. Whatever wealth remains must be scrupulously collected so as to honour the debt—or so as to secure further loans. Debt gives salvation from debt, as gamblers understand so well. Certainly, the wealth of the wealthy is better left untouched: they are the producers, the life-givers, blessed fountainheads of the nation’s wellbeing, which needs them so badly under the burning sun of the new sad day. They must be treated kindly, lest they or their wealth be forced to flee by too rapacious and visible a hand—some have already fled, they whisper. The wealth of the poor—or of the poor-to-be—is a better starting point. After all, they may have little, but there are many of them. Besides, since they have little, they cannot flee as easily as the rich, nor can their wealth flee. And whereas the wealthy can go bankrupt and be resurrected cleansed of their debt, like the imperishable Phoenix, ordinary mortals honour their debts, willingly or not. They may protest, but law and order are the last two public sectors whose resources are cut off, unless successful ways are found to privatise them too.

Finally, as the nation struggles in debt and turmoil, groaning so loudly as to disturb its neighbours, the generous friends come back to help. They cannot remain untouched in the face of so much poverty and violence. They have new “plans”, “strategies” and “packages” to sort things out. Yet, to implement them, national borders must be removed completely and an iron framework of conditions for investment and development must be imposed in order for the nation to become a proud participant in fully liberalised, multinational free trade. For example, its tax environment must be suited to foreign investors—may God bless them—and its population as flexible as unthinking reeds in gushing new brooks, to which they contribute sweat and tears.

By the way, where does Iceland stand now? Probably it stands at the threshold of deciding whether to plunge headlong into step three, with signs of the fourth step already lurking behind the waterfalls harnessed for hydropower.


In all normal civilisations the trader existed and must exist. But in all normal civilisations the trader was the exception; certainly he was never the rule; and most certainly he was never the ruler. The predominance which he has gained in the modern world is the cause of all the disasters of the modern world.

  Gilbert Keith Chesterton

The economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable, and we should face up to that.

  Lawrence “Larry” Summers

It has been long known that Europe catches a cold whenever the United States sneezes. Yet things get even worse when the immune system of rules and restrictions to international capital and currency trade has been removed altogether. Iceland and some young, yet already former, free-market miracles on the Baltic Sea did catch pneumonia this time. Ironic indeed, as they are just another group of market miracles turned into meltdowns—Asia had a few of them in the 1990s. Miracles seem short-lived these past few decades… Though if truth be told, even Lazarus died, after having been brought back to life.

Historians of the future, if there shall be any and if they will be honest, are going to wonder and ponder upon how such intelligent and highly educated “knowledge economies”, capable of the finest mathematical-financial wizardry via the fanciest computer technologies, could bestow upon themselves so much avoidable pain, destroying in the process not solely further scores of planetary life support systems, but also man-made social infrastructures that have generated, depending on the country, genuine welfare for up to three or four generations. These future historians will be at pains to conceive of powerful, well-off, democratically elected representatives who listened to foreign bankers, and not to their own citizens, rushing to implement, whenever they could, multilateral agreements on investment robbing their own cabinets of much of their power.

These future historians will probably fail to empathise with and understand such bizarre people, very much like Voltaire, who could not really explain why our forefathers were willing to slaughter one another over the correct interpretation of the Holy Trinity. After all, they had never seen it (or them?) and Jesus himself had never said anything clear, if anything, about it (or them?). Not to mention the centuries that humankind spent warring, raping, disembowelling, burning, maiming, chaining, flogging and excommunicating one another because of errors of interpretation. Obtuseness is incredibly resilient. And we are not so different today. Check the Athenian cradle of our civilisation if you don’t believe it.

Yes, embodied and expressed by the very same conventional people at the helm of the world’s public and private financial affairs, the wisdom arising from the ashes of the current crisis is astoundingly similar to the one that caused the crisis. Are you indebted? Take on another loan. The private banking sector has betrayed you? Restore it with public money and run it as before. The world’s economy is a gilded cage run on behest of under-taxed oligopolists, tax-evading rentiers and idle absentee owners that squeeze money out of the real economy through banking charges, debt repayments, service fees, monopoly and land rents? Keep it going and call it a “free market”. People are suffering, jobless, and with their tax money siphoned to the creditors that inflated the bubble? Show them tough love and deprive them of further healthcare, education, culture, wages, pensions, childcare, subsidised water and power. Austerity measures turn a crisis into a depression? Implement more of the same measures. The environment is running amok in the so-called free-market environment? The market will fix it; in the meantime, profit will keep being extracted from increased prices in oil, gas, polluting consumer goods, and cancer treatments due to the ecological collapse of the planet. Apparently, the only green rules acceptable are those that transfer further money from the public purse into private pockets. All others are resisted as “costly”, “distorting”, “rigidifying”, “liberticidal”, which may be true—and good. The one and only truly binding international environmental regulation that, so far, has saved us from extinction, preventing excessive UV-irradiation, was a top-down imposition from Montreal.

But life, not to mention a happy and healthy life, has never been the paramount goal of the pursuit of profit. War was and still is a major source of profit, towards which public subsidies to private firms are given generously… Well, they call them “research & development” grants or “national security” strategies… Disease-causing pollution has been mostly an externality that had nothing to do with profit, until pharmaceutical conglomerates found a way to exploit that too. Slaves and their children were most profitable for many, many centuries. Wage slaves… Oops! The flexible working poor and their children are very profitable today too.

And for what must all this wisdom be endured? To give money to people who have money. They have enough, one would believe. They should start communicating it to those who have nothing… little… less. Jesus and Aquinas regarded this as obvious. No, it is not obvious. Money is never enough, especially to those who need yet another fancy dress. But why are these people non-satiable? Why do they complain, lobby and shift electoral allegiance whenever taxation on capital gains is vented? Why do they transfer their fiscal residence to tax havens, whilst benefitting from handouts of the State they are deserting? Why do they outsource productive structures to countries squeezing labour out of turnips, if youngsters are not available? Why do they say that “they have already done enough” whenever life-saving regulation is discussed? Why do they care more about the interest rate they can get, than they care about how their money is invested? Why do they oppose healthcare, old-age pensions, education and culture for all, while they enjoy it for themselves?

It is competition, they answer. There isn’t enough around for all of us, only for the really tough ones, who can then live in much-deserved luxury. But why do people compete for having more for themselves, instead of, say, competing for beauty, generosity, selflessness, equal distribution, full employment? There can be so many different and more constructive competitive aims in life: just look around. Nuns, school teachers, barefoot physicians, rocket scientists, marine biologists, old fishermen, young artists… They may not all dislike some cash, but they do not live for it, or at least they try not to. Since Divine Will is out of fashion, and if you press them long enough, the luxury-deserving competitors are going to tell you, eventually, that we are cruel wolves. How naïve was I! I thought that they were cruel wolves… The world is a cruel place—those ferocious nuns… Nobody waits for those left behind—and they don’t. The market forces accept no barrier. As one of their fairest ideologues so frequently stated, there is no alternative; it is human nature. A hidden philosophical anthropology…

And yet, none less than their poorly understood hero Adam Smith taught us long ago something very different in the opening page of his greatest book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

This is certainly not the one and only betrayal of Smith by current capitalism. After all, his market was meant to be free from rentiers, who now run the show. Anyhow, why so much mercilessness, then? Have we become worse human beings? Have we lost our humanity? Have we found ways to outcruel the cruel, underfed, superstitious peasants, who, when not breaking skulls in the name of God or King or Country, killed and maimed animals on a farm? Well, as modern and proud of our science-technology as we can be… Well, yes… Overall, subtly, we have. The thinning of solidarity that embraces the whole humankind, which a German-sounding French warmonger studied in depth, is a weaker barrier to the undergoing evil drives.

Or, at least, we have done our best to train impressionable young minds to being ordinarily callous and participating in the most spectacularly life-destructive economic system ever seen on Earth—a system that, as denounced by the scientific community for the past thirty years, has turned the survival of our species into a big question mark. Much is done in this direction, routinely, thousands of times a day, so that our youth may become more beastly than ruffians and more abrasive than criminals. But how? Simple. We (mis-)educate them, and we have tools for (mis-)education that no emperor or church of old has ever owned or mastered. Only a couple of totalitarian dictators gave it a go or two in the blood-drenched century of Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen… But how, where? Open your eyes. Watch.

Our TVs and media are replete with commercials. They are meant to accompany you from the cradle to the grave. Selectively and scientifically trained marketing strategists, creative psychologists and advertising gurus are paid to induce desires in the subtlest and most effective manners, starting with our children’s delicate souls. These desires will blossom into poisonous “new needs”, as these “experts” call them. These weed-like flowers being sheer wants perceived as genuine individual needs, the delayed satisfaction of which is to generate a sense of inadequacy, anguish, frustration, isolation, or envy towards those who do satisfy them. And these are the only flowers that must grow; hence they are everywhere. Children no longer need an imagination. Marketing strategists make sure that the only pictures that children can have in their mind are those that sell. They speak already like TVs: why shouldn’t they replicate TVs in their brain? Eventually, as grown-ups, these children will be branded, like slaves of old, or cattle still is today. Perhaps, like the slaves of old, they will enjoy freedom one day a year. Or maybe all the days will have been taken away by marketing strategists, who wish to celebrate the sales of Valentine’s Day, Mother’s day, Father’s Day, Marketing Strategist’s Day…

You don’t believe me? Go to any primary school and you will meet hordes of little creatures dressed according to the latest fashion code, or pestering their parents to be so dressed. Those who are not there, because they are busy sewing the actual fashion items, may well try to rob them from the horde one day. These little brats! They want and want and want scores of items that they do not need, the possession of which, moreover, does not grant happiness at all, despite the glittering promises. Were it so, no new purchase would be “needed”, and that would be bad for business. Certainly, one may learn to control such a powerful impetus, but it takes years of self-re-training. Not even hunger and utter destitution placate it. Not even the full awareness of not being able to afford those consumer goods. Nothing will ever erase the deep-rooted psychological mechanisms implanted into our souls when we were little. Is this enough? No, there is more to it.

Our TVs and media are replete with role models—and the medium is the message. Rich and wanna-be-rich people of all sorts shine even when performing the most ordinary activities, such as shaving or concealing their stench with perfume. From slutty heiresses to pimping rappers, from cosmetically mummified bad actors to ignorant footballers, from divorce-addict hair-died tycoons to soon-to-be-millionaires answering questions or showing their private parts in public—these are the saints and blessed inspirers of the modern secular creed. They may be confessing their own sins to a TV host, confident that their words will be forgotten. What remains, instead, is the scent of money that perspires through their placenta-creamed pores. A powerful aura.

The same aura surrounding the action hero, who fights, kills and kidnaps for the sake of justice, peace and freedom…  There he comes! Dressed in an Armani suit, he jumps out of a Mercedes, talking briefly on his Nokia. He checks his Rolex, then gets into a Ferrari and drives to Chez Maxim’s. There, he meets a beautiful young lady, whose Valentino dress will soon be ripped at the Hilton’s. And there he’ll kick the guts out of the villain, smashing his Patek Philippe and ruining forever his Dolce & Gabbana jacket… Justice is served. Peace is conquered. Freedom triumphs. That’s the message, isn’t it? And if not much of the beautiful young lady is shown, then children can watch too.

Poor people are less frequently shown. They don’t sell as well as our hero. Moreover, they don’t buy. There exist notable exceptions, though. Poor men and poor women are sometimes on display, like animals at the zoo, to be observed, mocked and, on Christmas day, to feel sorry for. Other times, they are actively humiliated on screen by policemen, judges and other masters of entertainment. Crime, ignorance, savagery: what a show! Once again, as long as it sells, keep it up. There, in the spotlight, for less than fifteen minutes and amidst commercial ads, the poor can shine like greasy piglets on spits, or like the tin their most unfortunate children collect in garbage dumps.

What is the result of this Blendungsroman? Go to any secondary school and you will meet cell-phone-talking walking replicas of the rich, parading themselves in the corridors. Give them an opportunity to put down a “loser”, and they will savour it like their own parents, whose SUVs and triple-mortgaged houses are punches into the Joneses’ stomachs. Even poverty is a risk worth taking to cast the rich’s aura.

The silent walking replicas of the poor are usually in other schools, unless they have dropped out of school already to find a job that will secure their poverty. Some are hiding in the toilets. They are poor and they know it. They look poor. It is not only their clothes that say it, but their bodies. They have bad teeth, small tits, big noses. Their parents have wrinkles. They can’t get fixed, like those people on TV, or their replicas and the replicas’ parents. To cope with this obvious inferiority, they breathe in. In Italy, they sniff cocaine to think that they too are rich. In Rumania, they sniff glue to think that they too are sniffing cocaine.

Either way, none of these kids must worry about being politically active. It is too dangerous. Yes, youngsters still remember how to bark: they haven’t been beaten up into silent submission, yet. Some will have to be locked up, so that trade be free. Don’t give them any wrong ideas. That’s socialism—or any bad “ism” of the day. Don’t give them hope. That’s socialism. Politics is best left to corporate employees, who siphon public money to their shareholders and, God be gracious, to their own bank accounts. That’s the free market. These employees alone are capable of understanding why unemployment is natural and inequality good. They’ve got talent. They’ve got the degrees that get you good jobs. Therefore, unless they are corporate employees, not even the kids’ parents have to worry about politics. Like these happy few, the kids’ parents can take happy pills too or, if pills are too expensive, drink themselves out blind.

Drunk, the poor parents can cope better with the trauma of seeing their children die. Each country has its own special way of sending new winged angels to God. In high-tech market-miracle India, they die of cholera in open-air sewers, where they were looking for edible scraps. In coup-idity-ruled Honduras they die poisoned by pesticides in a free-market plantation, so that the bananas people eat in Canada be not too pricy. In revolutionary France they die stabbed by an angry pusher in a dark alley, but they were not really French after all. In peace-loving America, they die fighting for human rights in another country, since their own country denied them a future. How was it possible? They had trained them at killing people since they were three, on a stolen X-box… Maybe they should have trained them at doing something else, but there is no videogame that teaches you how to free a political party from corporate diktats or join a trade union… Is this enough? No, there is more.

Our TVs and media are replete with experts telling us that greed is good. They are the most interviewed and consulted members of the intelligentsia of our community. Sometimes they even become our presidents, ministers, mayors and godfathers. Go to any university. Some of them feed on tenure and enjoy healthcare and pension benefits, whilst arguing that you shouldn’t have them. You will discover that there is an entire discipline built upon that notion.

If truth be told, a few of its adherents do remind their students, on leap years, that the profit-motive of the homunculus œconomicus is just one drive amongst many. This drive becomes one and insatiable for the sake of toying with mathematical formulae, not for the sake of describing reality, which never works quite like the models do. Facts can be so obstinate. Theory is much more flexible. Occasionally, on elective days, these beautiful souls mention even mysterious, metaphysical, unscientific words: “ethics”, “morality”, “duty”, “respect”, “goodness”, “virtue”, “governance”, “responsibility”… They don’t fully grasp them, though, for they slip out of books and balance sheets. Sometimes they even get their students to learn some history, thus half-stuttering what sort of devastation this homunculus and its leit-motive have caused. Still, these are exceptions, divagations, and the students, between the end of their studies and the beginning of their careers, know it very well.

Our MBAs and the many branches of science and engineering dependent upon private sponsors and future corporate employers are the convent-barracks where our crusading novices, more or less geeky and asocial, are told that only numbers really matter. The fate of a paterfamilias and of his family does not. They are told that persons are not persons: they are costs, opportunities, capital, markets… They are all sorts of things that can be converted into monetary units—numbers, in fact—though most definitively they are not persons. In fact, such things, be they free individuals or free communities, can turn into dependent variables. And if some of these things are laid off by a firm that rationalises an otherwise irrational workplace—what a madness it must have been!—then it may be time to invest money in that firm. If the right numbers go up, then things are just as they should be. If they don’t, they can be massaged. If they still don’t, they can be fixed. If they still refuse to go up, then a couple of hospitals plus half a university, as long as they are public, can be sacrificed to a return to growth.

In the streamlined world there can be recoveries without jobs, business opportunities in famines, increased flexibility via insecurity of employment and future bread, full employment at the natural unemployment rate, goods that do a lot of bad things, and market miracles that melt into destitution because of something bad but the pious market. What lesson is learnt? Everything in the world exists in order to maximise the money of investors and/or their managers. Even old, wrinkly countries must be attractive to such people or face their own demise. Make the rich richer. That is the one and paramount commandment. Such merciless homunculi are no fiction; they are science-fiction: they drive around in Dalek machines. Indeed, to those who do not simply rob and run, being merciless is a fiduciary duty. Apart from this, everything else goes.

Yes, everything else, unless you get caught and cannot pay the best lawyers—what a shame. Business words of the business world tell no lies: lack of scruples is “determination”, mercilessness is “having balls”, inhumanity is “being committed”, callousness is “professionalism”, locust-like behaviour is a “hedging”, stealing traditional knowledge is a “patent”, depriving people of knowledge is a “copyright”, poisoning the destitute is “mutually beneficial trade”, taking public-sector resources to guarantee private profits is “hard work”, threatening employees with unemployment is “personnel management”, gambling is “trading futures” and other cabalistic formulae “over the counter”, oligopolies are “economies of scale” and cartels are “free markets”, sending knowingly drivers to die because of a few faulty cars is a “cost-saving measure”, sending knowingly air passengers to die because of reduced safety controls is a “cost-saving measure”, corruption of inspectors is a “cost-saving measure”, corruption of politicians is “lobbying”, and rent-exacting parasites are “the productive class”. The list goes on and on. Read the news and enjoy the game: destroying peoples is “restructuring”, keeping them poor is “preventing inflation”, colonising a nation is “opening markets”, withdrawing rights is “reform”… By the end of it, you almost believe what they say.

Has any student still doubts or feels uneasy? Then he is told that all is well, for all ends well. Yes, those things that we unscientifically call “people” may seem to be suffering, poor things. And the others, crony criminals who have nothing to do with the free market, are the exception, though the rule just wants to be like them. After all, those exceptional exceptions were on the cover of glossy magazines like Capital, the Cosmopolitan of people who “have balls”… Don’t worry. Everything will be alright. Just wait—that’s what my old priest and the party commissar would say… The invisible hand of the self-regulating market is going to look after all of them. Free from State intervention and from trade unions—for only capitals may associate and go on strike if they don’t like a government—the invisible hand is to generate endless bounty for all—the invisible bounty? Most of the world’s trade is virtual, after all…

Such is orthodoxy today, for which even a Pope’s distribution chests are heresy, utter hilaireous bellocs… If you claim that small is beautiful, the giants get angry: go make your shoes elsewhere! Today, you no longer need to be red to be a danger. It is enough to be as white as a dove. The Market God likes hawks, whose endless preying is the source of all that is good. His transparent hand turns into water all the blood that these hawks spill. As to the tallest shrines, they are no longer erected for the glory of the Sun, Athena or Almighty God, but for the likes of Morgan Stanley. Behind all this, a hidden theology… Maybe Divine Will should be in fashion again.


The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

   Franklin Delano Roosevelt

 To avoid glaring inequality or widespread misery I am ready to sacrifice some, or all, of my freedom… I should be guilt-stricken, and rightly so, if I were not.

Isaiah Berlin


The child empathises with the dying bird. The adult empathises with the starving child. The nurse attempts to ease the pain of the terminal patient. The teacher smiles patiently at the pupils playing in the courtyard. The schoolmaster hides his unease as the ancient oak is felled. The gardener watches wildlife documentaries on the TV. The mayor goes on holyday to his cottage on the lakeside. None of them likes to be ill. All of them fear death. All of them experienced curiosity or elation as they held a newborn creature in their arms. All of them have been compassionate at some point. All religions have praised divinity as the fountainhead of all that is. Whether physically, emotionally or mentally, all of the above have exemplified the ultimate source of all values.

Years of research about value have led me to conclude that nothing is more valuable than that which allows value itself to emerge: life. Without life—biological, emotional and mental—there can be no value, whether ethical, aesthetic, economic or political. Those that deem life’s value instrumental acknowledge its value nevertheless. Besides, none of them seems likely to prefer beauty or other values to eating every day and being in good health: take away their bread, and they will sell their dearest painting… Of all crazy philosophers ever alive, only a handful rejected life as a value and one alone behaved in a way that denounced actual indifference to life: Pyrrho the sceptic, whom his friends prevented from walking under carts and falling off cliffs. One. As for the few who told us that life is a valley of tears and an endless stream of horrors, none of them ever stopped eating, drinking, and philosophising, i.e. one of the activities that they clearly enjoyed the most. But what can the lives of crazy philosophers teach us about economic matters?

As usual, philosophy can reveal the heart of an issue. If life is so crucial, indeed the source of all values, then it can be inferred that a successful economic system provides universal access to vital goods across generations. Economic efficiency means that the lives of all benefit from it and nothing is spoiled to the point that those who come after us may not benefit too: resources are left for others the way in which we would like to have them left for us, if not better. Improvement is a possibility. An economic system that achieves its vital aims more effectively, thus opening the door to a richer fulfilment of planetary and human potential, is yet a better system. On the contrary, an economic system that does not fulfil its vital aims, either because access is limited to few or some, past or present, or because it delivers goods that are deadly, detrimental to life or irrelevant to life needs, whilst leaving some of these needs unanswered, is a failure.

The current economic system is a failure. As repeatedly denounced by the international scientific community at its highest and most representative levels, human civilisation has become for the first time in its history a threat to the planetary environment that allows for humanity’s own existence. There is no aspect of the Earth’s environment that has not been depleted in the three centuries that have seen the affirmation of capitalism worldwide: the biosphere-protecting Ozone-layer, breathable-air-producing and reproducing pluvial forests and oceanic life-systems, self-regenerating water aquifers, nourishing-food-producing arable spaces, and natural-equilibrium-maintaining and science- and technology-inspiring biodiversity. The continuation of life as we know and enjoy it is at risk.

Much has already been destroyed beyond repair, to the point that bioengineering is being discussed as a tool to cope with the most tragic consequences of “development” awaiting us. Emblematically, one nation of the world is planning already the purchase of land in India in order to transfer its entire population there upon the day when the ocean will have swallowed their ancestral islands. And yet, in the face of current profit losses, all this is treated as secondary. Just read the news and you shall see that the focus of collective action is upon a “return to growth”, as though the sad and deadly harvest of greed were not still vivid before our eyes.

What is more, the mantra of competition goes on unchallenged. But competition for what? To generate profits? And why? Why should rich people become richer? There’s more than enough to go around. Even more ludicrous is the idea that schools, healthcare, free time, old-age security, peace of mind and all those gains for life that people acquired in decades of blood and humanity should be dismantled so that competition be won. By whom? What sort of victory is the augmentation of the money heaps of people who already have it, whilst the quality of life and the living conditions of most are worsened?

F.D. Roosevelt told us seventy years ago that greed is not only bad morals, it is also bad business. When business’ sole purpose is to make as much money as possible as soon as possible, then the somewhat constructive role that business may play in society disappears altogether. It doesn’t matter if any private business actually makes a lot more money, gets bigger internationally or pervades even more diffusely the lives of millions: the standards of evaluation and appreciation for the constructive role of private business belong to the sphere of public wellbeing. And public wellbeing cares about long-term indicators: happy workers retiring in good health, healthy mothers making plans for their children’s education, educated youngsters looking forward to playing on the beach with their grandchildren. If this horizon disappears, then you’d better start to worry. Private business is known to have played far too often a destructive role, as everything, the long-term survival of private business included, can be sacrificed to man-eating Baal.

Short-termism, combined with the relentless pursuit of profit, characterised roaming Goths, wooden-legged pirates and cigar-loving gangsters. The entrepreneur, the glorious creation of modern capitalism, has always been expected to be something different. Restrained by family and personal pride, religious morals, annual dividends, trade unions and other 20th-century legal suasions, his horizon has been defined as a somewhat distant future, his playground the real world of flesh-and-bone persons like him, his reward the admiration of affluent or fully employed fellow citizens that participate in and benefit from his endeavours.

As long as alternative economic systems were either widely discussed or experimented with, the entrepreneur had to justify his existence by creating some tangible, albeit sometimes debatable, token of social worth, such as employment, community networks, or nice new gadgets. Only the speculator, hardly distinguishable from fraudsters, trotted relentlessly upon a different path. But speculators were said to be the exception, not the rule…

Yet the day came when Gordon Gekko and his friends got to control more than three quarters of what is still incautiously dubbed “world trade”. The decades of my life, infested by Maggies, yuppies and wall-less oligarchs, launched “The Financial Revolution”, a pivotal process in contemporary history that no historian has yet so baptised: let this label be my grand legacy to international scholarship.

An equally bombastic historian used this term in the 1960s to describe the emergence of public creditors in 18th-century England… It doesn’t quite compare, I’m sorry. We’ve just witnessed thirty long years of national barriers coming down—and how long it took for both nations and their barriers to come into existence!—so as to allow for a gigantic flood of miraculously leveraged liquidity springing out of… books and vast pools of capital formed by privatising public money in all of its shapes, squeezing profit from de-unionised workforces threatened by—what a coincidence!—unbarred international competition, and such ingenious tokens of financial engineering that only professional mathematicians could make sense of them. All this money travelling much faster than any good or service ever before: computers have replaced the pens and ink of old. The world of Gekko and other reptilian inhabitants of city hedges and wall streets is indeed a very bizarre world.

Originally, these creatures were meant to trade pieces of paper granting a share of the profits made by fairly large private companies. It is something that had begun in Genoa a long time ago and that their trading partners, the Dutch, had brought to the North Sea around the year 1600, sailing thence to the New World, another Genoese discovery… But a share of the profits may be less remunerative than profiting from shares. Gekko’s forefathers started betting on rises and falls in the price of those pieces of paper, sometimes causing them by moving massive amounts of money or dropping a few words into the nearest ear…

In the days of poor old Nixon, in the Big Apple, they traded about 20 million stocks every day. Today they trade 1600 million or so—and there’s more fruit in the basket than just a big apple. Also, as of Nixon’s time, they started playing games with the world’s currencies, namely the money with which common people buy their bread. Again, they started slowly, about 20 billion USD a day, but now, after “freeing” trade worldwide, they are up to 2 trillion. It is by far the largest chunk of trade in the world and it has one severe drawback: it makes the form of trade that normal people think of when they hear the world “trade”—buying and selling bananas, timber, cars, computers, etc.—much more complicated. Not to mention buying bread. But the reptiles don’t worry: they own the future. They buy and sell it.

Actually, they take bets—only a tiny fraction of trade in existing “futures” fulfils the official excuse that these are ways to hedge against risks on purchases of actual goods—on nearly anything that can be grown, mined or brought into existence, influencing the price of all sorts of goods, including the bread that common people wish to buy. Still, since even this casino was not big enough, the reptiles added onto the table the so-called “derivatives”, which are pieces of paper whose value is derived—hence the name—from something else, whether another piece of paper or a price arising from combining a few of them. Anything goes. Also because you can buy or sell these pieces of paper any way you like—over the counter, under the counter, beside the counter… You can actually buy and sell the option to buy or sell them, for short-termism can be so short that, to spare time, it allows certain persons to sell what they don’t have.

Is this too complicated? Too silly? Well, today, around the globe, there’s an ocean of derivatives, for a value of about 500 trillion USD. It is a lot of money… Strangely enough, however, the reptiles that invented them also felt the need to insure themselves against any risk that may ensue from trading in… derivative paper. So they started buying “credit default swaps” from insurance companies and let their friends and colleagues, the bankers, pile them up as assets, claiming that these “swaps” were as sound and good as gold itself. Probably they would have started taking major bets on them as well, had the entire mathematically engineered and economic-science-backed system failed from collapsing under its own virtual weight. Too much genius had been spent for the business world to bear. Under so much talent and foresight, the reptiles’ joints felt suddenly empty of market force. Amazingly, the invisible hand was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, the State ran to their rescue and gave them a visible, reinvigorating bailout with other people’s money, lest the bank’s own mouthpiece uttered “BBB” or some other silly rating. And that’s where we stand today. The real suffering surrounding us, from the unemployed Spanish worker to the starving Senegalese farmer, is due to a virtual catastrophe. And if the starving Senegalese farmer tries to move to Spain, he shall meet a wall and possibly drown in the sea, while frustrated unemployed Spaniards, trained by modern corporate journalists, will hate guts those that didn’t. Strangely enough, these migrants are to be loathed, not the freely migrating virtual capital that cannibalised both Senegal and Spain.

Like all human endeavours, business can be either good or bad. To know what makes it good or bad, what is nobler than money, means to know how to measure real growth, real development, real utility, real goodness. Who, though, after Pareto’s Protagorean reinvention of economics, is allowed to know what real value is? Certainly not serious economists, who can only acknowledge preferences… The Pope may know, perhaps. He claims to be right like no-one else and that’s maybe why so many people cannot stand him: who likes an old moralising grandpa, in an age in which we are told by our media gurus to give into any juvenile urge of ours that can make them a buck?

Or maybe any living creature knows: they’re all God’s creatures, after all. Yes, even by watching slugs and bugs we can evince something important, which degree-honoured geeks may have neglected while sitting in front of an inanimate computer screen. They are not forgivable, though: no matter how much you masturbate, avatars are not human beings. Here comes the slap; Zen masters should love it: entomology can rescue economics from its value slumber. Vade ad formicam. What a twist! Or maybe not. It all started with Mandeville’s bees, to be honest…

Let me be brief and clear on this. What consistent pattern of behaviour can be observed amongst slugs and bugs? Watch them in your garden, if you have one. Or go and watch them in a public garden, if it hasn’t been sold to developers. As small and allegedly stupid as they are believed to be, all invertebrates try to do their best to survive at all times. And when they take risks, it is because they either look for food, shelter, safety, or attempt to ensure the survival of their species. As economically irrational as animals can be, these small beings can even sacrifice individual utility—one’s safety, food or head—for the sake of keeping, indeed at times just making, their young. Future generations matter, to them. Some seem even to care for their fellows in the anthill, hive or nest in which they live… Life, in truth, matters to living creatures, and yet life can be sacrificed, for more life may thus ensue. The only higher value that life acknowledges is, in fact, life.

And yet, in today’s world, money is still prioritised over life. Listen to our leaders, and with the exception of a pair of Caribbean politicians that corporate media describe regularly as lunatics, what matters most to most who matter most is to keep “growth” going. Capitalism or the “free market”, as they like labelling it despite its dictatorial logic, must keep generating profit, free from State intervention, which does not serve that one paramount end. All this is held, despite the well-known biocide implications of such a process. Yes, capitalism is responsible for the ecological degradation that we are living in with, and leaving to, our children. Has nobody really put together the Industrial Revolution and the collapse of the planet’s life support systems?

I shall help you: the causal link between the pursuit of profit and environmental degradation becomes visible every time environmental regulation is resisted as “too costly” or by-passed by illicit behaviour or by off-sourcing to countries that have actually little such regulation or none at all. Unless business is forced forcefully to comply with existing regulation, which is much more difficult in a barrier-free worldwide market, common praxes show that the primacy of profit persists over, say, not killing other people by dumping toxic waste onto them.

Indeed, in economics, it is methodologically impossible to address the environmental preconditions that make life possible and can secure its long-term flourishing. To the eyes of the economic observer, bread is as much and legitimately a “good” as nuclear waste, as long as a lawful market exists for both of them. It is only through direct State intervention that a bad “good” becomes officially what it is: a bad—and that is just the first step, for enforcement is yet to be secured from lobbying and bribes.

States alone can ban slavery, organ trafficking, child labour, exploitation, air pollution or aquifer poisoning as the bads they are. States alone can make the real economy and earned income primary, and the virtual economy and unearned income secondary. There is nothing intrinsic to market mechanisms leading to that and we have known it for nearly two hundreds of years. Read Charles Dickens’ subversive novels to get a clearly bleak picture. Also, ecosystems are “externalities”, as the language of economics reveals, at least as long as they are not turned into a cost by environmental legislation, into a loss of profit by reduction in reputation and actual sales, or into a market opportunity by persistent spoliation of it—see the oxygen cans sold in the subway in Tokyo.

Protecting life and the environment is something that runs against the logic of profit, even if some business leaders may themselves desire it ardently. Profit can only relate to the value of life instrumentally: as a means to further profit. Money is a fetish, and one that eats living creatures and their dwelling spaces if that generates revenue. Nothing leads profit-driven “rational” agents to doing that which is necessary for planetary survival and, for that matter, for a decent social life on a vast scale. Even public health, the most obvious case of socially beneficial public agency, is opposed as unprofitable hence bad. Not to mention all the money that is made by “growth” via sales of carcinogenic “goods”.

As the world’s money is controlled by gargantuan private institutions and managed to enrich their rich shareholders, even if it means strangling debt-ridden public authorities and diverting resources from public sewers to private coffers, there is little hope that the dominating logic may change. Some used to argue that money should be controlled by public authorities and managed for the public good, as written in certain constitutions… But we have already talked about such a peculiar notion. For the moment, let’s see whether the Philosopher-Kings of Greece will crumble because of the Goths, after being failed by Chelsea-resident haven-seekers and the advice of Goldmen-sackers.

Past, Present and Future of Social Democracy: The Debate (?) in Italy and the Nordic Experience

1. The weakness of the Social Democratic tradition in Italy

To such a question is devoted one of the rare reflections on Social Democracy published in Italy, in 2009, i.e. Giuseppe Averardi’s book The mutants. Why the post-communists have rejected the Social Democratic choice. According to the author (a journalist and former politician), during Gorbachev’s leadership in former USSR,  the belief prevailed within the PCI that both Communism and Social Democracy were to be abandoned, as both had failed[2]. However, in addition to this historical judgment, a crucial role was played by the will to keep together the traditional electorate, who used to consider Democratic Socialism as the betrayer of the working class, whilst the leadership was imbued itself with the same hostility[3]. Averardi disregards the influence played by the presence, and then by the collapse, of the Socialist Party (PSI) on the PCI leadership’s line of action. At a first time (1989-1992), the choice of a Social democratic option would have implied for the PCI-PDS to be absorbed by the rival party[4] – which had not been questioned by the fall of the Soviet system. Later, after the early 1990s trials for bribery and corruption involving the leaders of PSI, the Social Democratic wing within the PCI found itself bereft of its main external partner, coming out weakened in the power struggle within the PCI[5].

Averardi’s main thesis is that, like mutants, the Communist leaders changed, under the pressure of external events, the party form, but not the party machinery, which survived untouched, and neither their mentality, which remained Stalinist[6]. Hence the failure of the project, nourished between 1995 and 1998, by Massimo D’Alema (a key-figure in the 1990s-2000s party history, as he became Italy’s prime minister in 1998-2000). D’Alema wished to convert the Democratic Party of the Left into a Social Democratic Party[7]; but he failed, and so did his successor Walter Veltroni’s (another prominent party representative), who attempted to transform the party into a liberal-socialist organization[8]. The final point is the PD, which is a generically liberal party along an American political line. This is an outcome to which “Repubblica”, the newspaper now in the frontline against Berlusconi, has strongly contributed, with its determination to avoid a Socialist landing-place for the post-communists[9]. Averardi’s conclusions are disconsolate: once abandoned revolution, the heirs of the PCI believe no longer either in reformism, and, as good Stalinists, have entirely fallen back on the management of daily power. “This is their plague and at the same time the misfortune they have thrown the country into”[10].

2. A double crisis: Social Democracy and Capitalism as well

In the light of this poor gift for Social Democracy on the side of the Italian left, it is not unexpected that the debate on the turn that Socialism can take in the XXI Century focuses mainly on foreign countries (and makes use of foreign contributions). There is a general agreement on the crisis that Social Democracy is going through; at the same time, no one forgets to stress that the financial crisis that shook the international economy in 2008 – with lasting consequences – is a turning point too. Yet European Social Democracy seems unable to turn the lack of confidence in the free market to its own advantage.

According to the already mentioned D’Alema (founder and chairman of a foundation, “Italianieuropei”, which is among the few research-centres promoting a reasoning on Social Democracy in Italy), two are the reasons for such a débâcle. First, the managerial shift carried out by socialist parties in the second half of the 1990s has assured their permanency in power, but it has not undermined social inequalities (which, on the contrary, have increased); turning themselves more and more into neo-liberal forces, socialist parties have made themselves jointly responsible for such an outcome. Secondly, these parties have restricted themselves to national perspectives, giving up the chances implied by European integration[11]. Both these arguments are a recurring complaint in the diagnosis of the crisis from which Social Democracy is said to be suffering. Let us start with the Socialist leveling-off on Neo-Liberalism.

Massimo Salvadori, one of the most prominent Italian scholars of Socialism and Communism, focuses on the impact produced on Social Democratic policies by the changes in the production system, the fall of Socialist bloc, the neo-liberal counterattack, and the Chinese opening to the free market. Exactly when Social Democracy was celebrating the end of Communism, it came to be stricken by the attack to the State, in every respect. Globalization, for its part, compromised the power of politics over the economy, sealing the triumph of wild capitalism. In the face of such an upheaval, Social Democracy has given in, from a cultural and from a policy-making point of view, splitting up between Renewers and Traditionalists. The outcome has been a withdrawal from the two main targets of 1) defending the weakest social groups and 2) facing economic powers. By pursuing obsessively the middle electorate – giving up the task to organize what once were called “subordinate classes” – Socialist parties have betrayed their identity, to the advantage of the Right[12].

Paolo Borioni, expert of the Nordic model, points out nevertheless a kind of symmetric process, particularly clear in Scandinavian countries[13]: while Social Democracy absorbed more and more right-wing values and policies, the Right, for its part, was reducing its laissez-faire aggressiveness; today it avoids ideological confrontation, defining itself as a centre force; it is very careful not to question openly the Welfare State, which rather is slowly worn down. Clearly, the right-wing Welfare State is not a vehicle of equality; on the contrary, it turns into a kind of refuge for those who are left out of competition; but it works to some extent, at least as a populistic instrument for consensus[14].

Giuseppe Berta, economic historian and author of the only recent book (even if very short) entirely devoted to Italian Social Democracy, insists upon the convergence of the opposite fronts; while once upon a time one could talk about a “labour capitalism” (following Schumpeter), nowadays it seems to be suitable to resort to the concept of “capitalistic Social Democracy”. In the age of globalization, Social Democracy has found out to be forced to adapt itself to capitalistic requirements, giving up its original claim to transform society[15].

3. European Socialist parties’ state of health

Typically, the main culprit for the rejection of genuine Social Democracy is said to be Tony Blair. Even if New Labour has been, together with the Nordic socialist parties, the only left-wing movement able to catch the importance of changes occurring because of globalization, instead of ruling them out, it is often accused of having complied with them far too much[16]. What Blair did was to put a humanistic breath on a Thatcher-inspired politics[17]; his New Labour accepted the so-called “turbo capitalism” of the 21st century, shifting from a collectivist ethics to full-fledged individualism: in this view, emancipation becomes the outcome of a process made by: education – skills improvement – and competitiveness on the labour market[18].

The German Social Democratic Party, SPD – as one of its MP, Angelica Schwall-Düren,  points out – spent the eleven years in power (first as ruling party, later in the grosse Koalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU) engaged above all in technocratic modernization, i.e. reforms were put forward without discussion with the citizens, who therefore did not identify themselves with those policies. No participation, no consent. In the light of such a line of action,the catastrophic electoral result of the SPD in the last general elections (September 2009) should not come as a surprise: 23%, the worst result since 1949[19]. The difference between New Labour and SPD lies, in Berta’s analysis, in the greater determination of the former as to the rejection of Socialist tradition; the SPD being more hesitating, albeit its policies show no autonomous profile: the party does not distinguish itself from the others in any significant respect[20].

As to the French Socialist Party, Zaki Laïdi reminds us that it was in power for only fifteenth years (i.e. with Mitterand and Jospin) out of the last fifty. Being traditionally not a labour party, it has suffered from a deep split between the national level (ruled by an ideology with no obvious connection with social reality) and the local one (quite pragmatic).[21].

There are nevertheless in the European political landscape two (seemingly) successful cases: the Greek and the Spanish one. The journalist Panos Papoulias acknowledges yet that the victory of the Greek Socialist Party (PASOK) in the 2009 elections has been due not secondarily to the failure of the conservative government, even if it must not be neglected the cleverness of the party in exploiting the discontent aroused by the 2008 economic crisis. But now the PASOK has to face several and demanding challenges[22].

Before the widespread love affair with Barack Obama[23], the only political leader able to give the European Left some hope back, in the last decade, has been Josè Luis Zapatero. His governments have been indicated like the demonstration that even in the XXI Century the Left can successfully rule a country, without betraying its ideals. The historian of Spain Alfonso Botti, nevertheless, even if commending Zapatero’s good record (in foreign policy, civil law, Welfare State, minorities protection), warns that, because of the 2008 economic crisis, his golden age is behind him. Then Botti wonders what kind of Socialism Zapatero has represented: not a working class’ expression, but a mix of Social Democracy and political Liberalism, with its emphasis on the extension of civil rights and individual freedom; a modernization strategy, aiming to bring near to the party new social groups (mainly the youth and women). If Spain proves to be today a tolerant and hospitable country, its economy shows weak roots; Zapatero has not been able to modify substantially the labour market, the banking system, Spain’s fiscal policy. Revealingly, the Spanish success has not involved a decrease in social inequalities[24].

4. Globalization/localization: threat or opportunity?

As mentioned above, Social Democracy is often blamed, not only for its falling into line with the Right, but also because of what philosopher Antonio Negri calls its “geopolitical failure”: instead of making the EU into a political subject, in every respect (that would have been, in Negri’s analysis, the last chance to salvage whatever possible), Social Democratic parties have allowed it to become a maidservant of the USA. Furthermore, they have offered little resistance against identity-oriented and populist forces. In brief, European Socialists have not understood either the crisis in national sovereignty or the one in government, that is to say, the shift to governance, a key-word in the moderate-left debate nowadays[25].

Giuseppe Vacca, chairman of the Gramsci Foundation, reminds that, in the 1970s, Socialist parties replied to the challenges of that time by the pro-European shift, for they were aware that the so-called “social compromise” could be preserved only at a continental level, However, from the end of the 1990s they have delegated the rule of economy to the European Central Bank, which has implied the priority of monetary stability, not of growth; hence,the return to national economic policies, and of the missed chance of European integration, esulting into the worst crisis suffered by Reformism in the post-war age. Indeed, within the EU, political initiative is more and more in the hands of the European Popular Party[26].

On the other hand, Berta stresses that, compared to the golden age of Social Democracy, the territorial dimension has changed too. Nowadays, the real decision-making centres are no longer nations, but urban areas, macro-regions, as shown by localist movements in  Italy and Belgium above all. It is a “federalism with a metropolitan ground”, a “borgomasters’ Europe”[27].

Are Social Democratic politics still conceivable, in an age of globalization and localization? And furthermore: is Social Democracy going to regain credibility, thanks to the severe lesson given by the economic crisis of 2008 as regards to the alleged virtues of the free market?

That the recent collapse of international capitalism can pave the way for a Social Democratic resurrection it is not a common belief. It depends, on one hand, on the awareness of the differences between 1929 and 2008. Back in 1929, capitalism was said to be done for good; today, a Socialist economist such as Giorgio Ruffolo can sentence that “not the days are numbered, of capitalism, but the Centuries” and that, “at least in a discernible historical perspective, capitalism is essentially not irreplaceable” [28]. On the other hand, unclear are the will and capability, on the side of Social Democratic Parties, to renew their identity without wasting their traditions and achievements (first of all global thinking and Welfare State). A complicated balance; how to achieve it? Here the answers differ greatly.

If someone, like the philosopher Giuseppe Bedeschi, gets rid of the problem hastily, pressing for more Liberalism within Social Democracy[29], others  work out more concrete proposals. Negri, for example, urges Socialist parties – which are upon death’s doorsteps, in his opinion – to commit themselves to the following tasks: 1) to organize brainwork, favouring the alliance with the working class; 2) to create a Welfare-oriented income distribution (starting from a productive system that must be tailored to actual human needs); 3) to achieve a democratic control of the financial system, turning the measures introduced in order to face the peak of the crisis into permanent features, then removing unearned incomes, which must go back to the community (in Negri’s view, this is a basic point, for those who aim to improve democracy); 4) to strengthen the European Union, breaking apart the NATO alliance; finally, 5) to show courage, if necessary even bypassing the worn polarization between Left and Right[30].

D’Alema for his part believes that the best therapy for Social Democracy would be to rediscover social conflict and labour (not only blue collars, but also craftsmen and minor entrepreneurs) and to improve democracy, at every level (from the local to the global one);. Also, politics must recover its supremacy over the markets, but without falling back into an outdated centrally planned economy. D’Alema wishes as well a renewal of the struggle against social inequalities (thanks to a redistribution of wealth), which have been exacerbated by the crisis occurred in 2008; wealth must be produced not by low wages, but by innovation, both in products and in processes. Shortly, D’Alema’s thesis is that Social Democracy is over, it is an old experience, depending as it is on conditions that  no longer exist. However, its vital elements – democracy, equality, innovation – must be preserved, adjusting them to the present circumstances[31].

Different is Salvadori’s conclusion: from the 2008 crisis, Social Democratic aims come out strengthened; what is needed is a strategy free from the race to the middle of the political spectrum and the recovery of a leftist identity, with a commitment to join together the varied world of subordinate employment, to integrate immigrants, to safeguard secularism and pluralism, and to protect the environment[32].

Berta is fascinated by New Labour’s new course: under Gordon Brown and David Milliband, the party seems to take some distance from Blair’s age, reminding that the task is to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor and therefore that the market cannot be left unrestrained; the language of social solidarity must be restored, even by the regulation of economic activity[33]. But what is more astonishing, in Berta’s book, is that, after 110 pages spent in repeating a sentence to death for Social Democracy – warning reformist parties that they are wrong, if aiming to go back to the past – in the final part of the work the author glorifies… Keynes’ relevance to the present; not Keynesianism or the mixed economy, dead and buried as well as Social Democracy, but Keynes’ theories (never applied, according to Berta) about the relationship between liberalism and socialism. In other words, centre-left-wing parties have to test, with a pragmatic attitude to reassembling, if Keynesian lines of action – economic efficiency, social justice and individual freedom – can turn into their own agenda[34].

The more well-constructed proposal comes from Borioni, and, consistently with his research-field, it is inspired to the Nordic model, particularly the Danish one. Yet the core of his reasoning is not flexicurity in its Italian declination (Borioni here refers to economists like Francesco Giavazzi of Bocconi University) or in the European one (Barroso), that is to say, a mainstay of current market economy. On the contrary, Borioni emphasizes the role of flexicurity as a policy intended to influence – thanks to the Welfare State – the market itself. The way out of the crisis lies, for Social Democracy, in planning the economy on the basis of three aims: (1) jobs (labour market policies and higher wages, in order to favour market expansion, abroad and at home), (2) Welfare (such as competitiveness incentives) and (3) innovation (i.e., a specialized system production): in other words, the shift from “turbo capitalism” to a “patient capitalism”, with finance coming back to its maidservant role. If most of the Italian scholars restrict their attention to the developments in the UK and Germany, Borioni turns to Norway as a success story: Social Democrats have once again won the elections thanks to a politics based on: few fiscal reliefs; public investments not in colossal projects, but instead in works achievable in a short time (such as maintenance of infrastructure); a good relationship with the trade unions; and a definite opposition to populism and xenophobia. The basic assumption, in the Norwegian Social Democrats’ strategy, is that competitiveness requires the inclusion of everybody and the latter must be ensured also by using State-owned oil revenues as a long-term fund to preserve the Welfare State[35].

5. Concluding remarks

There is no Italian way to Social Democracy: because of the historical reasons that have been recalled hereby, but also owing to intellectuals’ and politicians’ incapacity to face the challenged to Social Democratic policies and reformism as a whole, especially in connection with the Italian peculiarities. There is no reference to territorial lacks of balance, for example, and to the backwardness of the national economic system. The weak social groups who should constitute the target of centre-left-wing policies remain indistinct and secondary. Furthermore, inequalities are mentioned only with regards to their economic dimension, which obviously is fundamental, but not exhaustive. Gender equality is completely absent from the debate; and one can with good reason wonder how the issue can be avoided, in a country where the female employment rate is among the lowest ones in Europe, with the following economic, but also cultural and political, marginalization of women. Let alone the discrimination that other social groups (e.g. immigrants and homosexuals) also suffer from.

The poorness of the Italian debate is not unexpected, as already pointed out: the party which was the natural candidate to sponsor a debate on Social Democracy has instead adopted a confuse profile; in the effort to seduce the moderate electorate, it has displeased the traditional one without succeeding in gaining new votes, and now it is drowning in a sea of pornographic scandals and judicial inquiries.

The party which nowadays seems inclined to receive the Social Democratic inheritance,  i.e. the Party of the Communist Refoundation, has been deleted from parliamentary institutions in the last general elections and it is now engaged in safeguarding its survival, struggling between identity-oriented pressures (the preservation of a Communist tradition) and the search of economic and social policies suitable to XXI Century Italy and Europe.

As to leftist intellectuals, they seem to be marginal in a country where the public opinion spends more time in talking about the prime minister’s sexual life than about the ongoing economic crisis.


[1] On the shift from PCI to PDS to DS, see I. Ariemma, La casa brucia. I Democratici di Sinistra dal PCI ai nostri giorni, Venezia, Marsilio, 2000.

[2] See G. Averardi, 1989-2009 I mutanti. Perché i postcomunisti hanno rifiutato l’opzione socialdemocratica, Roma, Datanews, 2009, p. 88. Marcello Flores, historian, is however of a different opinion: during the several transformations (from PCI until PD), the party leadership, shocked by the fall of Communism, has not been able to realize that Social Democracy as well is over; such a blindness, with the consequent attempt to merge two outdated culture, i.e. the Social Democratic one and the popular-Catholic one, in the Democratic Party, has prevented the discontinuity which is required in order to give Left a new identity. See M. Flores, Una sinistra ancora in cerca di una nuova identità, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, pp. 39-42.

[3] See G. Averardi, pp. 109-111. See also A. Possieri, Il peso della storia. Memoria, identità, rimozione dal PCI al PDS (1970-1991), Bologna, Il Mulino, 2007, p. 289.

[4] See I. Ariemma, p. 58.

[5] See E. Macaluso, Al capolinea. Controstoria del Partito Democratico, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2007, pp. 50-52.

[6] See G. Averardi, p. 102.

[7] See G. Averardi, pp. 120-131.

[8] See G. Averardi, pp. 144-145.

[9] See G. Averardi, pp. 160-161.

[10] See G. Averardi, p. 227.

[11] See M. D’Alema, Editoriale, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, pp. 10-11.

[12] See M. Salvadori, Considerazioni sul passato e il presente della socialdemocrazia europea, “Italianieuropei”; 2009, 4, pp. 31-32.

[13] On Sweden, see M. Quirico, Il socialismo di fronte alla realtà. Il modello svedese (1990-2006), pp. 215-227 (Una conclusione provvisoria. Le elezioni politiche del 2006).

[14] See P. Borioni, La socialdemocrazia: perché perde, perché potrà vincere, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, p. 65.

[15] See G. Berta, Eclisse della socialdemocrazia, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2009, pp. 11-18.

[16] See A. Negri, Sul futuro delle socialdemocrazie europee, “Italianieuropei”; 2009, 4, p. 22.

[17] See P. Borioni, p. 71.

[18] See G. Berta, pp. 24-26.

[19] See A. Scwall-Düren, La SPD nella trappola della credibilità, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 22-26.

[20] See G. Berta, pp. 28-34.

[21] See Z. Laïdi, Perché il Partito socialista è in crisi?, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 36-38.

[22] See Panos Papoulias, La vittoria elettorale dei socialdemocratici greci e il suo significato per il centrosinistra europeo, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 53-57.

[23] See G. Berta, pp. 52-56.

[24] See A. Botti, Il socialismo di Zapatero nella crisi della SD europea, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 44-52.

[25] See A. Negri, pp. 20-21.

[26] See G. Vacca, Il socialismo europeo e la globalizzazione. Le radici della crisi pp. 70-73.

[27] See G. Berta, pp. 63-64.

[28] See G. Ruffolo, Crisi dell’economia e declino della socialdemocrazia, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, p. 43 e p. 44.

[29] See G. Bedeschi, La crisi della socialdemocrazia, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, p. 63.

[30] See Negri, pp. 23-24.

[31] See D’Alema, pp. 12-14.

[32] See Salvadori, pp. 34-35. Papoulias follows a similar line, when listing the challenges the PASOK is going to face. See Papoulias, p. 59.

[33] See Berta, pp. 75-85. On Brown and the recent developments within Labour, see R. Liddle, L’impatto della crisi economica globale sul futuro della socialdemocrazia europea, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 14-21.

[34] See Berta, pp. 112-126.

[35] See Borioni, pp. 72-75.