Europe�s roots in social justice: The European Idea
By Gaither Stewart
Online Journal Contributing Writer
Apr 25, 2008, 00:19
Without a tear in their grim eyes,
They sit at the loom, the rage of despair on their faces:
We have suffered and hunger'd long enough;
'01d Germany, we are weaving a shroud for thee
And weaving it with a triple curse.
We are weaving, weaving.�
(The Weaver�s Song by Heinrich Heine: the song of the Weaver Rebellion
in Germany in 1844, in which the proletariat proclaimed its antagonism to the
society of private property.) 1844.)
ROME -- For the first time since Mussolinian Fascism
outlawed them early last century there will be no Socialists and Communists in
the new Italian Parliament elected in general elections in mid-April. The
�radical Left� was swept out of Italy�s parliamentary life by the devastating
victory of the Right, led by the populist Silvio Berlusconi.
In one stroke both the old Left clinging to its hammer and
sickle symbol and the new Left of social forums and road blocks and local
agitation have vanished from the Rome Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.
The radical Left must now pay the high price for its
participation and support of the defeated Center Left government. It must pay
dearly for the temporary privileges it enjoyed and a few cabinet ministers
during the two years in which it gained the label of the ��no� party� because
it said �no� to proposals for solutions to many pressing social and economic
issues considered �progressive� by the majority. Above all, the radical Left
must pay for its own internal dissensions over symbols, names and day-to-day
tactics as to which current represents the true Left and which is the correct
road to achieve social justice. Right or wrong, the radical Left in government
failed the electoral test. In the April elections the glorious Left of the
Italian Communist Party that in the 1970s had one-third of the nation�s vote
did not even garner the 4 percent vote necessary to enter the Chamber of
The sad reality is that the Italian political establishment
and electors alike turned a deaf ear to the radical Left�s program centered on
Karl Marx is credited with coining the phrase "social
justice." However, since the times of absolutism no one has been be able
to conscientiously oppose the pursuit of
social justice in a just society, of which the Left has been the vanguard.
Opposition to social justice is, as one says, like shooting at the Red Cross.
In Marx�s vision
-- as demonstrated in English history in his times and much more so in the USA
and multinational-capitalist Europe today -- the more powerful a state, the
less inclined it is to seek out the causes of social ills by examining the principle
of the state itself and the organization of the society of which the
state is the official expression. In fact, history shows that the sharper is
political power, the more incapable it is of comprehending social problems.
Populist Berlusconian Italy today, in an era of �home, car and TV for the
masses,� is destined to be emblematic of that condition. The Italian electorate
is no smarter than American voters. It is simply not true that �the people� are
always right. Modern propaganda is too powerful, popular understanding too
French Revolutionaries held social ills to be the source of
political problems, not the political state as the source of social ills.
Robespierre regarded both great wealth and great poverty -- precisely the
economic situation in the USA and Europe today, in Mississippi as in Italy -- as
an obstacle to pure democracy.
Paradoxically, after years of political anarchy, Italy suddenly finds itself in
a theoretical two-party system modeled on the USA, and likewise headed toward a
one-party system in practice. The electorate�s exclusion of the radical Left
from Parliament has set the stage for the arrival of a modern form of
authoritarianism in Italy, as anyone with an eye for history knows is
The new era has already been dubbed a �gentle dictatorship.�
Social justice and equality
It is a truism that the more powerful a person is, the less
he needs from others and as a corollary the weaker is his morality. If you are
powerful enough you can do without morality, like the rich man who can permit
himself the luxury of not carrying money in his pockets and acting as if he
were poor while wallowing in wealth. That is the way of the world.
Let�s have a look at what still distinguishes the USA from
Europe. Bernard Chazelle, a computer scientist at Princeton University, writes
in his devastating essay, Saving The American Left: The Case For A New
Progressive Creed: �By virtually
any measure, the United States is the least progressive nation in the developed
world. It trails most of Western Europe in poverty rates, life expectancy, health
care, child care, infant mortality, maternity leaves, paid vacations, public
infrastructure, incarceration rates, and environmental laws. The wealth gap in
the US has not been so wide since 1929. The Wal-Mart founders' family owns as
much as the bottom 120 million Americans combined. Contrary to received
opinion, there is now less social mobility in the US than in Canada, France,
Germany, and most Scandinavian countries. The European Union attracts more
foreign students than the US, including twice as many from China. Its
consensus-driven polity, studies indicate, has replaced the American version as
the societal model to which the developing world aspires.�
Well, so much for US claims to progressivism!
Cynics scoff outright at the idea of the equality of human
beings. The difficulty of achieving redistributive policies for the defense of
the unprotected is confirmation of the low esteem for equality. I don�t know if
a majority agrees, but certainly many people and their elected representatives
are quite content to let Equality lie quietly and undisturbed in the
Nonetheless, the idea of egalitarianism continues to exist,
as do political policies that at least tend to remove obstacles that
make men less equal. In modern Europe that characteristic still distinguishes
the political Left from the Right: the Left aims at greater equality, the Right
at less. (I can�t consider these old terms outdated! On the contrary.)
So deeply entrenched is the social idea that not even
rightist governments of France, Germany and Great Britain can eliminate it.
Though it staggers under constant neoliberal attacks, in Europe no electoral
program without strong social appeal can hope for victory. The promises and
immediate acts of both Sarkozy and Berlusconi zero in on economic benefits for
the poor. Not only does the social idea survive in all of Europe. Moreover, on
the Left, even the utopian theme of the removal of what has been
considered the chief obstacle to equality since ancient Greece, private
While writing his Grundrisse (Outlines) and Critique of
Political Economy, Marx noted the �ignorance� of economists who proposed that
private property was basic to production, whereas history, Marx said, showed
that it was common property that was basic. In the Socialist view, the
concept of private property lies at the source of social exploitation. A glance
at practically any economic analysis of US-European reality suffices to
illustrate the objective reality of the great and growing wealth-poverty divide
in the world of the rich.
Chazelle notes �palpable excitement out there on the
American Left,� but, he quips, �it is a pity there is no there there.� America
has lefties, he says, but no left. That tends to be a world problem. Today, the
Italian radical Left must recreate a Left. Yet, the Left as an idea, as people,
with all its faults and divisions, its constant talk, its hopes and
disappointments, and the ugly reality of power, survives. In Europe, as in the
USA, it survives.
Chazelle: The American left is in the throes of an existential crisis. Some
say it's a failure of nerve, others a loss of belief. It is the latter.
Neoliberalism has sucked the oxygen out of the left by deflating the political
sphere to the economic one. The left must articulate a new creed around three
principles: empowerment (the economic is ancillary to the political); social
justice (the disadvantaged have an unconditional claim upon the collectivity);
and decency (the state may not humiliate anyone).
The goal, Chazelle continues, is a society that, first,
preserves equal liberties; second, attends to the needs of the disadvantaged.
All citizens are granted an unconditional claim upon the collectivity to be
accorded the minimum resources necessary for a life of dignity and a genuine
sense of belonging. Freedom from humiliation is never to be made contingent on
any norm of conduct (such as law abidance). Equality of opportunity is sought
as the fairest means of redistributing access to fundamental liberties.
One shrugs or one shudders before the contrast of such
normal social goals with the realities created by rampant, sick Americanism and
illogical, super patriotism, steeped in the national conviction of American
exceptionalism of the majority who, in the name of God and nation, back
exportation of �democracy� and do not care a whit for social solidarity at
home. Americans have chosen �blind love for their country� over the social
justice true patriotism should but does not demand.
When European leftists ask me about universal health care in
the USA, I recount my covering of the US presidential elections in 1992 for
which I chose North Carolina as my sample. From Rocky Mount to Asheville, I
asked one and all their opinions of proposals for a national health service --
from newspaper editors to city and religious leaders to the man on the street.
People shrugged at my question. Some said, �Well, if they want to give it to me
free.� Nearly all repeated propaganda about the free choice of doctors. None
had clear ideas about Canada�s excellent national health service. Most had no
idea what universal health care even meant. No one came out in favor of it. I
came away with the idea that no political platform based on universal health
care could succeed in the USA. No platform without it could succeed in Europe.
The welfare state
Malthus� theory rings almost modern today, considering
Darfur or much of Africa south of the Sahara. Remember that economic madness?
Since the population threatens to exceed the available means of subsistence, it
goes, benevolence is pure folly, an open encouragement to misery. The state,
therefore, can do nothing but leave misery to its fate, and at best facilitate
the death of those in want.
No. 63, August 7, 1844, in �Critical Notes on the Article The King of Prussia
and Social Reform,� Marx deals with the relation of the political nation to
pauperism when it was a national epidemic in England . . . at a time when the
political body never dreamed of social reform. He noted the popular �discovery�
that the chief cause of the condition of English pauperism lay in the Poor Law
itself! It was discovered that charity as a means of combating social evils
fostered social evils! Pauperism was held to be an eternal law of nature. The
English Parliament concluded that pauperism was a state of misery brought on
by the workers themselves and should not be regarded as a misfortune to be
prevented. It was a crime to be suppressed and punished.
But, today, in the USA, we have our �freedom!� A freedom
which grants every man the chance to pull himself up by his bootstraps -- and
become a CEO or even president! But in Old England the system of the workhouse
came into being in this way -- i.e., houses for the poor devised to deter
the indigent from seeking a refuge from starvation. In the workhouses, charity
was ingeniously combined with the revenge of the bourgeoisie on all
those wretched enough to appeal to their charity.
In contrast, though poverty in America today -- Appalachia
for example -- has many causes, insufficient national wealth is not one of
Marx wanted to explain the split between civil society,
which is also economic life and political society, or the state, which by
nature is incapable of removing the social roots of misery precisely because of
the cleft between public and private life. It was here that Marx arrived at the
idea of revolution. Socialists should not reject the idea of political
activity. But it is essential to avoid substituting political action, which is
action from the standpoint of the state, for social revolution. A social
revolution involves the �whole.� Through social revolution the individual
becomes part of a real human community. Socialism requires political activity
but as soon as �its goal, its soul, emerges, socialism throws its political
In a hateful
and deceitful article, �Requiem for the Left,� in FrontPageMagazine of August
5, 2005, Barry Loberfeld in his contorted manner asks what justifies the
concentration of "welfare dollars in the hands of government" except
the (mad) notion that society will starve the poor but the State won't? And
informs us that yes, the government will be more compassionate and generous
with the people's money than the people themselves, before then lamenting that
this limited welfare state continues to grow beyond its limits (possibly with
socialized medicine as the next domino).
The idea of social
justice arose as a revolt against political absolutism. With a government, such
as monarchy that holds absolute power, it is impossible to speak of any
injustice on its part. If it can do anything, it can't do anything wrong, which
is precisely the way Americanist superpatriots conceive of their government
today. Justice as a political/legal term begins only when limitations are
placed upon the sovereign and law defines what is unjust for government to do.
For example, the U.S. Constitution established that government could not arrest
citizens arbitrarily, sanction their bondage by others, persecute them for
their religion or speech, seize their property, or prevent their travel.
Also, economic power
should be a positive check on government power, and vice versa. But if the two
are combined, look out! Control of such massive power can lead only to tyranny.
Prior to the USA situation today in which political and economic power is
Power, a good example of this combination was the Italian model in the first
half of the twentieth century under Mussolini's Fascism.
The European Idea
In Europe early last century the concept of social justice
appeared. I have labeled that concept �the European Idea.� That European
achievement is still foreign to other ears. Ideas of social justice combined
with government by consensus and pride in freedom form the European Idea. It
made Europe unique. It is opposed to the idea of government by one man or, as
today in the USA, of government by an elite. The very dialectic between democracy and despotism distinguishes Europe.
Europeans have known corrupt and despotic government but they belong elsewhere.
They are not European. Also Europe is greedy and rich. And it has a violent
past but today its violence is contained. The key is that until today modern
Europe has been social-minded.
Now after the
electoral victory of Berlusconi in Italy and Nicolas Sarkozy in France, coupled
with the demise of Labour in Great Britain, Europe appears intent on imitating
the American idea, which is not social.
In that sense,
Europe seems bipolar -- social democracy versus tyranny. Manichean. A battle
between good and evil. According to the European Idea, social
citizenship must be unconditional, especially that of its most vulnerable
members. Responsibility for the weak is a civic virtue that society should
European Idea is greater than mere ideology, it is reeling today under the
blows of individualistic neoliberlism and globalization. Every day in Italy, in
Europe, rampant market ideology threatens social justice, the high point of European ideology. And the menace comes
from Europeans themselves, who seem ready to discard 2,500 years of evolution.
Meanwhile the social idea resists. It resists in the
organizations of the political Left, in Italy, in a defeated and suffering
Left. It is evident that Europe stands
at a crossroads. Above all, the European Left wonders what is to be done? The
historical struggle has at times resulted in more weight to social programs --
at other times, to despotism as happened in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. As
today in the USA. After World War II, the needle of time shifted westward, to
the USA, the great democracy, one once believed, based on the rule of law. The
USA was recognized as the defender and bastion of liberty.
This, however, is a
gray area. One has doubts about what really happened. In any case, neither
before the demise of the positive American image, nor after, has the American
idea ever been the European idea. For the American idea throws overboard the
heart of the European idea, social justice, which Europe acquired after a
century of struggle. For the European Left, the American idea is symbolized by
its ugly, rapacious eagle with its terrible eyes, ready to devour the weak. The
European Left is anyway right -- capitalism has failed just as the excessive
state presence of Communism in the East failed.
In Europe, social
solidarity became the heart of its ideology, thanks to early Social Democracy
and Socialism. In contrast, that social instinct is absent in American
ideology. For that reason the Socialist movement is largely absent in the New
World. That is the key -- the social instinct. The great divide between
European and American ideologies, the political watershed of the twentieth
One wonders why
Europe has not been able to play the social role it seemed destined to play.
Some still cite the decadence of the Old World. I receive �fan� letters
speaking of decadent, degenerate, homosexual, sick Europe. Used historically,
decadence is a big word. It was fashionable among writers of the 19th century,
like Baudelaire and Mallarm�, and Wagner and Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, all
those who found inspiration in the decline of the Roman Empire. Of course,
Europe has truly been morally decadent at times, as decadent as its World
Church headquartered in Rome!
But there exists
also something called social decadence, the corruption of man by man in the
political sphere, the individualistic abandonment of man to his own fate. And
that, my friends, is the American idea that modern Europeans such as Nicolas
Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi want to emulate.
Yet, there is that
great social divide, the oceanic divide, separating the Old and the New worlds.
Of course social programs are expensive. And no one wants to pay. No one!
Nowhere! Nonetheless, until recently, Europeans accepted the reality that every
society has a certain number of vulnerable people incapable of making it alone.
Europeans made a social pact to care for them. So they pay. And the poor and
the sick count on it.
Europeans know that
that is not the case in America where it�s every man for himself. One doesn�t
even have to ask which is more humane, more democratic, more progressive, more
socially advanced, more desirable. The problem is the price! Today, much of
rich, greedy, avaricious Europe -- the Berlusconis and Sarkozys -- is tempted
to follow America and abandon the social state -- in favor of the American
economic system that rewards the rich beyond all imagination. In these days
while �wise� electors voted out their Left defenders of social justice, the
executive director of a major Italian authority resigned with a recompense of
17 million euros, about $25 million, the equivalent of about 1,000 years of a
There is no doubt
that the anti-social American dream has become a nightmare for many Americans.
Brutal American realities substantiate the European Idea: US militarism and
imperialism, the use of America�s poor as cannon fodder in Iraq and
Afghanistan, the American jailhouse for blacks, capital punishment in Christian
America, inaccessible medical care for many, wide and inexplicable poverty in
the world�s richest country. The
organized European Left instead believes that the �social idea� can reverse the
direction of the world of rich getting richer, poor poorer. But not vague
concepts like universal brotherhood, nor the equality of the damned. The social
idea means each man as part of society.
After the failures
of Socialism-Communism in East Europe it is not always easy to defend
Socialism. (But I firmly believe history will someday rewrite that story.) Yet,
whatever name you give it, the social idea cannot simply die. As a demand for
social justice it is alive in Europe because it is Europe�s heritage, a
tradition since Greece 2,500 years ago. The question is, will the European
Union continue to evolve as a union of multinationals dominated by religious
fundamentalism in imitation of America? Or will it be a union of Social Europe?
There is a chasm
between Social Europe and neoliberal, market-oriented Europe that cannot solve
the contradictions of unemployment, underemployment, precarious employment and
social poverty. Even some of the Right is aware that unchained market economies
are not the answer. Italy�s right-wing economist and incoming economics
minister, Giulio Tremonti, just published a book against globalization
which he accuses as the source of world poverty.
The Left calls for
systems of social economy -- cooperatives, mutualities in the health sector,
non-profit companies, a social Europe at the service of the people, and
generator of social justice. Is this then Left? Is that all? And anyway, some
Europeans wonder, what is the difference today between Left and Right? The same
difference as ever! The demise of Communism in East Europe doesn�t mean that
concepts of Right and Left are dead. Today�s Right remains elitist,
hierarchical and racist. It opposes the democratic process. It is pessimism. It
believes man is evil and must be dominated. The Right is impatience with
traditional political parties. Right is anti-progressive.
defeats, Left still means progress, reforms and the idea that man can be
better. It is a desire to change things that do not work. It is the defense of
the weak. In sum, Left is the European idea. Left is also an emotional quality.
Left comprises a general spirit like the French Revolution. It is a search for
still unknown social forms and includes balanced budgets, anti-crime and
electoral reform, ideas that still reflect fundamental values of social justice
and solidarity. Left is above all social equality.
Does that mean then
the maligned welfare state?
Although the welfare
state has suffered many setbacks, it also has many achievements to its credit.
The social welfare state is Europe�s great achievement that distinguishes it
from the rest of the world. It is part and parcel of the European idea. Even
European Nazism and Fascism had to name their systems social. The problem today
is a new start. That is the way the world must go.
The European idea is
thus alien to the union of Europe�s market economies. The direction of the
European Union of today is instead the final step toward its social decadence.
Neoliberlism�s triumph would be Europe�s defeat. Today, Europeans are cutting
social programs as no authoritarian, right-wing Mexican government could ever
do. That path would end the European cycle. Europe would cease to be a model.
Big or small, United Europe in imitation of the USA will not work.
Brutal American realities substantiate the European Idea:
capital punishment in Christian America, militarism, the use of America�s poor
as cannon fodder in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American jailhouse for blacks,
inaccessible medical care, wide and inexplicable poverty in the world�s richest
Gaither Stewart is a Senior Special Contributing Editor at Cyrano�s Journal. He lives in Rome.
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