The wave of publicity in preparation for the broad internal market of 1992 has struck a powerful chord throughout Western Europe, including in a traditionally introverted country such as Britain where opinion polls suggest that large sections of the population are considerably more enthusiastic than their government about a new continental identity. Even more striking has been the popular response to the new leadership in the Soviet Union—a response going far beyond sectors mobilized in the new peace movement of the eighties, and one so strong that the nato establishment has been forced to abandon, or has great difficulty in carrying through, elements of its plan to establish techno-military superiority in Europe. This is not just a question of the reformist impetus behind perestroika and glasnost, nor only of the disarmament initiatives launched by the Soviet government, important as both of these have been. The recognition by the Gorbachev leadership of the interdependence of world politics and economics, together with repeated references to the common European home, represent a potent challenge to the Cold War Atlanticism that served as the ideological cement of the post-war capitalist order and contributed to the national and organizational divisions of the European Left.

The Left in Western Europe now finds itself in a quite original situation where the task of renewing its own programme and organization is posed at the same time as the development of new kinds of European-level politics. Or rather, the two tasks are posed together, in a complex way that we are only now beginning to grapple with. Of course, everyone attending this coloquio is in some way descended from the experience of socialist organization in the pre-1914 Second International, and the internationalism of the best forces within that tradition remains an inspiration for us today. footnote This is not the place to go into the subjective and objective reasons why that tradition broke down in August 1914, and why it ultimately failed to regenerate itself in the Third International and the subsequent history of the twentieth century. But we do need to grasp the scale of the change that has taken place. A hundred years ago, as European capital was plunging into the accumulation race that would lead to the First World War, the socialist movement could rightly claim to be the inheritor of the Enlightenment ideal of a Europe in which national antagonisms had been overcome. Today, after decades in which labour parties and trade unions in Western Europe have thrown their weight behind the accumulation strategies of their respective national capitals within a framework of Atlanticist loyalism, the ideological and organizational basis for socialist unity in Europe has still largely to be re-created. And it has to be re-created in conditions where a tightly circumscribed European agenda is being defined by the needs of massive capitalist corporations operating at an international level, but where for the first time since 1947 the political division of Europe is being questioned in the East.

It has become almost a commonplace to say that the labour movement lags behind capital in its international coordination and consciousness, and various explanations have been given for this starting with the simple discrepancy in financial resources. But it is hard to believe that today’s labour movement—which, despite a certain decline in recent years, rests upon far stronger unions than half-a-century ago—is materially less capable of reaching the level, if not the forms, of international life attained in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If the Socialist International, for example, is little more than an inorganic collection of parties, this is essentially because its various national leaderships have seen no political basis for joint action or, to put it another way, have lacked any vision of Europe and the broader world that does not start from the requirements of the dominant fractions of national capital. Ironically it is only now, when decisive sections of capital are moving towards a restructuring of the West European market, that the Left is beginning once again to conceive of itself as a potentially international force. More ironic still, it is mainly the revival of Ostpolitik tendencies within the Bonn establishment which has placed on the agenda of the West European Left the possibility of re-forging links with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This is a time of important new prospects. But there is also a grave danger that the Left will simply be carried along by the Europeanist rhetoric of 1992, failing either to see the real social-economic content of the project or to grasp the opportunity to advance a European programme of its own.

The 1992 project can only be understood in the light of the neo-liberal reorientation of economic policy that began in the United States and Western Europe in the mid seventies. The post-war capitalist growth model, it is widely agreed, rested upon a distinctive articulation of six elements: (a) increasingly concentrated production of standardized commodities within a structure of Taylorized work routines; (b) a high-wage, high-productivity, high-employment capital—labour bargaining system, providing an expanding market for consumer-goods output; (c) a higher level of state ownership, particularly in infrastructure and basic industries; (d) fiscal redistribution of income within, and to a limited extent between, social classes; (e) Keynesian mechanisms of demand stimulation; (f) public provision of universal systems of health, education, income support, etc. Now, in different ways and at different rhythms, all of these pillars have come under attack over the past fifteen years. The main trends have been: (a) decentralization and ‘flexibilization’ of the production process; (b) segmentation of the labour market, with high levels of structural unemployment; (c) privatization or deregulation of sectors of the economy owned by the state; (d) a sometimes quite sharp cutting of redistributive taxation; (e) a tendency towards privatization, reduction or segmentation of welfare-state services. The precise justification of this shift, and certainly the degree to which it has been put into practice, have varied considerably with the inherited political discourse of each ec country, but there can be no question that we are facing a general trend that is making itself felt even in non-ec countries like Austria or Sweden.

In the ideology of neo-liberalism—or perhaps ‘anarcho-capitalism’ would be a more accurate term—the post-war model set up a number of barriers (powerful trade unions, ‘restrictive practices’, state monopolies, fiscal disincentives) which constrained the rationalizing dynamic of the market and prevented private capital and national economies from adapting to new opportunities and a changed international environment. The aim of the various restructuring programmes of the last decade has thus been to increase the profitability levels of private capital—first of all by creating more favourable labour-market conditions (wage—skill segmentation, erosion of trade union rights and bargaining positions), but also by reducing corporate and middle-class taxation and by opening up new areas for investment through privatization drives. Whether large-scale unemployment is to be an intrinsic part of the model, or whether its main function is as a transitional discipline lowering the expectations of the labour force, is a question that can hardly be determined in advance. What is clear is that a decade of neo-liberalism has brought precious little new investment in productive industry, and that more government effort has gone into bogus youth schemes and various forms of statistical manipulation than into serious attempts to bring down the rate of unemployment in Western Europe.