Radical interpretations of the present crisis
Last autumn, chapters of the Platypus Affiliated Society in New York, London, and Chicago hosted similar events on the theme of “Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis.” The speakers participating in London included David Graeber, Saul Newman, Hillel Ticktin, and James Woudhuysen.
The original description of the series reads: “Panel Description: The present moment is arguably one of unprecedented confusion on the Left. The emergence of many new theoretical perspectives on Marxism, anarchism, and the left generally seem rather than signs of a newfound vitality, the intellectual reflux of its final disintegration in history. As for the politics that still bothers to describe itself as leftist today, it seems no great merit that it is largely disconnected from the academic left’s disputations over everything from imperialism to ecology. Perhaps nowhere are these symptoms more pronounced than around the subject of the economy: radical political economy has witnessed a flurry of recent works, many quite involved in their depth and complexity; similarly, recent activism around austerity, joblessness, and non-transparency, while quite creative in some respects, seems hesitant to oppose the status quo mantra,“There is no Alternative,” with anything but nostalgia for the past, above all for the welfare state. At a time when the United States has entered the most prolonged slump since the Great Depression, the European project founders on the shoals of debt and nationalism. If the once triumphant neoliberal project of free markets for free people seems utterly exhausted, the “strange non-death of neo-liberalism,” as a recent book title has it seems poised to carry on indefinitely. The need for a Marxist politics adequate to the crisis is as great as such a politics is lacking.
And 2011 now seems to be fading into the past. In Greece today as elsewhere in Europe existing Left parties remain largely passive in the face of the crisis, eschewing radical solutions if they even imagine such solutions to exist. In the United States, #Occupy has vanished from the parks and streets, leaving only bitter grumbling where once was seeming creativity and open-ended potential. In Britain, the energy and anger of 2010 Student Protests and the 2011 London Riots, both, in the eyes of the Left, expressions of a shafted generation’s response to a crisis, has now somewhat dissipated. Finally, in the Arab world where, we are told the 2011 revolution is still afoot, it seems inconceivable that the revolution, even as it bears within it the hopes of millions, could alter the economic fate of any but a handful. While joblessness haunts billions worldwide, politicization of the issue seems chiefly the prerogative of the right. Meanwhile, the poor worldwide face relentless price rises in fuel and essential foodstuffs. The prospects for world revolution are remote at best, even as bankers and fund managers seem to lament democracy’s failure in confronting the crisis. In this sense, it seems plausible to argue that there is no crisis at all, but simply the latest stage in an ongoing social regression. What does it mean to say that we face a crisis, after all, when there is no real prospect that anything particularly is likely to change, at least not for the better?”
What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that PAS-London hosted on December 1, 2012 at Queen Mary College of the University of London. A full recording of each of the events held in this series can be found at: <http://london.platypus1917.org/500/>
Hillel Ticktin: First I’d like to thank the organizers and Lucy Parker. I think it is a good idea to have debates of this kind in order to bring the Left together.
I follow Marx in defining crisis as a situation in capitalism where all the contradictions come together. From that point of view, this really is the first crisis since 1945. Today the situation is very grave; it’s hard to say anything else. A number of Keynesian economists are calling it a depression. Just taking the statistics that appear in the newspapers—GDP growth or even the intended standard of living—it is worse in Britain now than it was during the Great Depression. It’s not worse in the United States, but it is pretty bad, and could get worse. So, there is no question of where we are. We are in a crisis.
The system itself does not know where to go, but we might begin thinking about the future in terms of a few possibilities. The crisis, or important aspects of the crisis, could in principle be resolved; we go back to where we were. I think this outcome is extremely unlikely. Another possibility is that the crisis carries on the way that it is now, with one problem arising after another, one attempt at dealing with the contradictions after another. It is not a coincidence that in Britain, the United States, France, and Germany, we have such weak responses from the government. They simply cannot deal with the real social tensions that now exist throughout the world. It is also possible that the polarities in the contradictions intensify to the point that society actually disintegrates. This is what happened from 1922 onwards: A significant portion of the population was forced to go outside the towns and grow their own food. Of course, the most optimistic possibility is that it we move over to the new society.
Those are the possibilities. Just stating them indicates where we are today. It is as barefaced as that. To understand that, we simply have to go back to understanding the background—the historical background, in fact—of capitalism over the last 150 years. Capitalism itself is not inherently stable. The working class, in principle, becomes increasingly powerful as capitalism develops, if not in theoretical, ideological terms, then nonetheless in terms of its actual position in society. To see this, we have only to look to the period after the Second World War, in which the mechanisms of capitalism were deliberately contained. Commodity fetishism and the reserve army of labor, however, could not be contained. They could not control the working class, a situation that led to the 1960s and ’70s, and then the pulling of the rug.
In volume three of Capital, Marx discusses crises of banking and so forth, and in every instance there has been a monetary crisis. If we look even in the past 50–60 years, the downturns always ended this way. There is a tremendous pile-up of money that cannot be invested. That is why we had all the discussion around money, the question of confidence, etc. Today you ask bankers, or anybody in the economy, “What’s the problem?” They say, “Confidence.” This should alert us to something terribly wrong about the word “confidence.”
In other words, one cannot look at the crisis simply as a technical crisis of banks. It is not. One necessary result of any crisis is the extension of credit to a breaking point. So one has to look not only at the banks, at credit or whatever, but also at the underlying aspects. The only issue to be discussed regarding banks is how they delayed the moment in which the crisis actually hits. People involved in finance wanted to enrich themselves, and did so. Of course, that endeavor became almost a criminal enterprise in itself, but it did so precisely because there was a pile-up of money. This was unavoidable once they decided that they would not go for growth, but instead would raise the number of unemployed people. We have to look at the crisis in terms of its form, but also in terms of the underlying class struggle. We have to bring together these two aspects.
It eventually became necessary for the capitalist class to effectively pull the plug on the Bretton Woods settlement—the Keynesian settlement—and try to get back to the 19th century. That is what they were trying to do under Thatcher, but they did not fully succeed. They are now trying to go the whole way. The essential basis of the crisis lies in the class struggle.
The capitalist class is not confident and it will not invest, so we have a pile-up of money. Take one bank, the Bank of New York Mellon. It has 27 trillion dollars in deposits just sitting there, not invested. They charge people for depositing money in the bank. You would have thought, given the needs of the world’s population, they might have dreamed up a few investment ideas—like trying to save the planet—but they are not interested. They lack confidence. They are convinced that, if they invest, they will not get a sufficient return or might even lose their money completely, which is perfectly possible, of course. So we are stuck. The only way they will invest is if the government guarantees the investments will return with sufficient profits for the next 20 to 50 years. The only way the government can do that is through what the right-wing demands all the time—as in the case of the Republican party, of the Christian-Democratic party in Germany, and of our Tory government—the abolition of welfare benefits, taking us back to the 19th century. But 19th century capitalism is impossible! We can’t have people in workhouses. The whole project they are putting forward is absurd. Many people say, “the whole project is crazy. It’s impossible.” It is impossible. But they have no other way out, so they are going on with it. That is where we are.
Saul Newman: My approach is somewhat different than Hillel’s—it’s more theoretical, a bit more philosophical, and less economic perhaps. I was asked to comment on whether or not this is a crisis. I would say the following: While capitalism has always been crisis-ridden, indeed, we can even say that crisis is the very motor of capitalism, the limit that allows it to reinvent itself. What’s different now is that I think this moment of crisis has become our common horizon. Crisis and indeed even catastrophe have become part of the symbolic order of capitalism. We live without a foreseeable future. We no longer plausibly look forward to the restabilization of capitalism or the return to life as normal.
There is an abyss confronting us. It is now impossible to think in the long term, to make forecasts and predictions. So this crisis is not simply economic, it is political: The failure, the nihilism of our political institutions is visible to all. The crisis is also social: We are confronted with the limits and the impossibility of a certain way of life, a certain form of identity, through which we had hitherto established a kind of familiarity or stability within capitalist social relations. The very way in which we see ourselves—as one who consumes, who invests, who plans for retirement—is now thrown into chaos. We simply can’t see ourselves in the same way. So the real crisis, from the point of view of capitalism at least, is that people have stopped believing in it. They have stopped having faith in it. People no longer believe that the system will resurrect itself. We see this quite clearly in the levels of consumer spending, which leads to a crisis of investor confidence.
Governments and financial systems want things simply to return to normal. They want to perpetuate our continual enslavement to the financial system through debts and consumer spending in the hope that it will kick-start the economy again. But this plan is not working. This crisis is much more serious than all the crises and crashes that have occurred before, and may prove terminal, because it is a crisis of desire. However, this crisis of desire cannot be addressed separately from the environmental catastrophe looming ahead of us, as a rapacious capitalism turns our increasingly barren world into wasteland. Any attempts to restimulate the economy will eventually run up against the limits of an exhausted material base. Yet, in the face of all this, I feel strangely calm, even welcoming the end of the storm.
The word “crisis” in Greek means a situation that has reached a decisive moment, specifically the turning point of an illness, after which either rehabilitation or the death of the patient will follow. We’ve come to see that there is no rehabilitation, no life, no future in the continuation of capitalism. Indeed, it might already be dead, and cannot be brought back to life through artificial means. What capitalism cannot survive is a crisis of desire, the possibility of a different form of subjectivity emerging in which the libidinal drives are no longer directed towards work and consumption for their satisfaction. For us, for humanity itself, recovery does not mean the recovery of capitalism, but rather the recovery of life and its autonomous organization beyond capitalism. It means, in other words, recovery of the future.
What will take capitalism’s place? Who can say? This is a time for invention, for experimentation, for new forms of autonomous self-organization, modes of exchange, new ways of being together. We can no longer look to the state for salvation. The state is a broken husk, an empty shell. The crisis means that we will have to build new networks of mutual assistance and cooperation. It’s time to stop lamenting the crisis and being angry with the government, which is an irrelevant puppet at this point. It’s time to start preparing for the future.
I have been asked to comment on changes since Marx’s time. Obviously, there have been many structural transformations—the shift to post-industrial capitalism in the West, the fragmentation and displacement of class identity, the emphasis on consumption rather than production. The collapse of the socialist workers movement has not made the overcoming of capitalism impossible. On the contrary, it may well be the condition for it. The fact that now there is no privileged revolutionary agent, which was always an illusory promise in any case, means that we need to reconsider the whole project of revolution and instead begin thinking in terms of insurrection.
I was also asked to comment on whether a certain kind of analysis of the world as it is can bring about any kind of change. All the sophisticated leftist analyses in the world have been unable to bring about any change because they are unable to account for the libidinal economy of capitalism, the way it organizes, intensifies, and constructs desire and enjoyment, what we may call jouissance in psychoanalytic terms. This is why the Marxists’ analysis of ideology in terms of truth, distortion, and “false consciousness” never worked. Our perpetuation of the capitalist system was not because we could not see things for the way they were. Rather, it is because our desire and our whole subjectivity were implicated in it because at some level, perhaps even in a masochistic sense, we enjoyed it.
What will finally enable us to see beyond capitalism is not when we finally see it for what it is, but when we no longer enjoy it. Or, in other words, when there is a vacation in our libidinal economy, in our whole subjectivity, such that we become invested in something else, we become invested in ourselves, perhaps for the first time, beyond the miserable category of the liberal-individual or homo economicus. The means by which we might transcend capitalism does not lie in developing a more scientific analysis. Marxism, of course, always had the aspiration of being a science. But what we require is the invention of new modes of subjectivity, new ways of life no longer channeled by, and conforming to, economic rationality.
As for Occupy, I do not see it as a class-based movement. It was certainly nothing like the socialist labor movement in the classical sense. The Marxist and socialist Left have no right to claim it. Indeed, what was surprising and generally innovative about this movement was its radical break with the politics and identity of the past. Rather than being constituted by class identities, it was a politics of what we might call “post-identity”: heterogeneous singularities that are not defined by a class background or by a kind of work, but that gather together and spontaneously arise magically around a common desire to create something different, to create an autonomous space in which new relations between people can emerge. These relations would no longer be based around fixed identities. This, not class identity, is the condition of insurrection today.
What was striking in Occupy was the absence of the usual modes of communication and representation. There were no demands, no programs, and no revolutionary blueprints, just the coming together of singularities without anything in common apart from a desire to create new relations and subjectivities. The mode of communication, on the contrary, was completely innovative, decentralized, and gestural. Lastly, there was no party, no centralized leadership, no form of representatives, no Lenin waiting in the wings to take over state power. Those times are over. The vanguard has fallen from its privileged place in revolutionary politics. It’s completely defunct. This is the time not of revolution, but of insurrection, the creation of autonomous spaces and relations and new collective intensities. Occupy gives a glimpse of the possibilities of the insurrection today.
David Graeber: The last panel I saw here ended with a comment that we have to create a situation in which the ruling class is actually afraid of us. One of the paradoxes of where we are now is that the ruling class is, in fact, terrified of us. We are the ones who don’t actually perceive it. Almost everything we see around us, politically and economically, has emerged from that fear. The people running the system are obsessed with whether we can imagine an alternative, precisely because they realize that no one actually believes in the viability of the system anymore. So we’re their greatest threat because at the moment there is something that seems like a viable alternative and no one has any reason to keep reproducing a system except a very small percentage of the population that no one particularly likes.
I like the analysis of the two cycles of post-war capitalism, which argues that the crisis we are in now, as of 2008, is a crisis of inclusion. According to this argument, in the immediate wake of World War II, there was a Keynesian convergence of strong wages with high productivity. Welfare states provided the basics of what Communists were asking for, at least white working class Communists in North Atlantic countries: “We will cut you in to a certain degree on the deal.” You can see this with all political struggles through the 1970s, with more and more people wanting in on the same deal, saying, “Well, what about us?” This was the case with excluded minorities in the Civil Rights Movement in America, working class elites in the global south, up to and including feminism.
At a certain point it breaks. Capitalism cannot work by offering a reasonable deal to the majority of the working class. It gets to a point where politically it cannot resist a certain level of demand. Then the whole thing falls apart and it has to start all over again. So in the 1970s the Keynesian system broke. Wages stagnated or went down. There was a huge extension of credit on all levels, from mortgages to 401(k)’s in America to the extension of microcredits to spur development in the global south. This crisis of inclusion comes to a peak in 2008, not insignificantly around sub-prime mortgages. The system falls apart.
This crisis really isn’t over. I was talking with somebody at the Federal Reserve the other day. He said, “Give it another two to three years, and there will be another 2008, except much worse, unless we do massive mortgage cancellation, and we can’t get that through politically.” The small percentage of the ruling class that actually cares about the long-term viability of the system has mostly taught itself to look at a two or three-year horizon. Those who take a longer view are scared shitless. They don’t know what to do. So how did this come about?
What’s actually going on in this last, post-1970s phase of crisis, is an obsessive prioritizing of the political over the economic. That is what neoliberalism really means. I recognized this at the IMF protest in 2002. It was after 9/11, and we were all demoralized and depressed. We showed up there—300 anarchists and some 5000 police. I talked to someone who was at the IMF meetings. They said everyone who had come for the IMF meeting went home demoralized and depressed. The cops essentially shut down the meeting. Then I realized that it is more important to the police that 300 anarchists go home feeling like shit, than it is that the IMF meetings actually happen. What does that tell you about how important they think we are? Almost everything they do is in a preemptive mode, even the war in Iraq. Why did they lose it? Because they were so obsessed with getting over the “Vietnam syndrome.” Make a war that could not be resisted at home. To make sure there was no effective anti-war movement, they calculated, “We have to make sure there are very few American casualties.” But in order to ensure that, they had to adopt more brutal rules of engagement, like killing children in Iraq. This alienated people so much that they don’t want the war, but the rulers don’t care. Ensuring the anti-war movement didn’t get off the ground was more important than winning the war.
It is analogous to what’s going on economically. Almost all the economic moves that we identify with neoliberal capitalism, such as the creation of precarious labor, for example, do not actually translate into more efficient labor. Even the mortgage crisis, and the increased dependence of everyone on debt, to some degree is one of the major answers to break the labor movement. Alan Greenspan actually admitted this at one point. If you have a mortgage you’re in debt and can’t really strike. It’s one of the mechanisms for bringing wages down. So they put all their cards on the political side. In the meantime, the weight of all these mechanisms to destroy alternative sources of vision—the capping of the educational system, for instance—put us in a paradoxical situation where the system is crumbling all around us. It doesn’t even claim to do the things it used to do. The one victory they can achieve in this war on the imagination is that no one can imagine anything else.
What we really have to do—and this is one reason why Occupy movement took the strategy that it did—is shouting in their face that there are other values and ways of existing that are possible. I mean, really, that’s all you have to do at this point, if you do that on a sufficient scale, because the system has entirely delegitimized itself. This explains the extraordinarily militaristic reaction to a bunch of people sitting around in a park.
James Woudhuysen: I’m very pleased to be here. I’d like to thank Platypus, who brought the weather with them. It’s sunny out there. It is nice to see people reading the Financial Times on the Left. I disagree with most of what’s been said today but I think this panel’s atmosphere of judgmental tolerance is the right one.
First, I’ll address one of the questions Platypus put to us: “Do we live in a crisis of capitalism today and, if so, of what sort—political? Economic? Social?” It is perhaps most strikingly a political crisis, because the capitalist class has no forward vision, no plan for growth, and not even a plan for raping the planet, as a lot of our ecological friends seem to think. Is it an economic crisis? Certainly. But while it’s all very well and good for Hillel to talk about the Great Depression or the 19th century, neither of those periods really saw what’s happening in Asia today, which hasn’t been discussed so far. Part of what we are seeing now is a crisis of innovation in the West. (There is a crisis of innovation in the East, but not to the same degree.) That is one way this crisis presents a new problem. It’s quite different from what happened in the 1930s or the 19th century. Is the crisis social? I think the unprecedented social factor of our time is the aversion to risk. I heard from our postmodernist friend that ideas were risky. That was fun to hear. I thought we were here for ideas!
Are capitalism’s laws of operation the same today? They’re the same-ish, in that the accumulation of the three things I’ve talked about—political stasis, innovation slow-down, and state-regulated risk aversion—have turned quantity into quality. So, the laws of operation are similar, but there is new stuff that really needs to be addressed.
I like Hillel’s remarks about the banks not being responsible for the crisis. I’m sure Hillel will go further in looking at the cash hordes of IT companies, of energy companies, and of pharmaceutical companies. They are really not that different from the banks. They are increasing their cash hordes, by refusing to invest in the future. They are lowering their research and development, which in the case of energy is extremely weak, while the Asians are increasing it. The extremely high level of risk aversion speaks to a subjective crisis that, characteristically, is not being addressed by the Left.
So then we come to the question, “Why do seemingly sophisticated leftist understandings of the world appear unable to assist in the task of changing it?” Well, I don’t know if they are sophisticated. At any rate, I’m delighted to hear the old canard from Saul here, who I would have thought knew better, that Marxism is partially about false consciousness. I urge you, go to Marx’s work. You will never see the phrase “false consciousness.”
As for the notion Saul has raised, about resources being exhausted: I don’t know whether you have read the papers or not, but various kinds of “peak oil theory” have disappeared in the last few years because so much oil is being discovered. No water is leaving the planet, sunshine has not been decreasing, not even in England. We have an enormous amount of energy that, with practical innovations, we could do a lot with. I don’t see a resource crisis. One thing we need to do is to address consumer issues, but not in an anti-consumerist way. I say, “Let’s hear it for refrigerators! Hooray for the fridge!” We need to take up issues like the fridge, not because they are a part of false consciousness, but because they are a part of popular consciousness. The Left is characteristically—as on Asia, as on innovation—unprepared to take up consumer issues except to concede to green and liberal sentiments.
As for intelligibility, the world is no less intelligible than it was before. With the new tools we have, it is difficult, but not impossible, to comprehend the world. But it has always been difficult. Albeit not completely so, our world is different from the past. The aforementioned crisis of risk aversion shows how capitalism today is very different, but so do seemingly mundane things like how parenting is now regarded as risky, leadership is seen as toxic, computers can catch viruses, obesity is an epidemic, and the widespread sentiment is that we all need to “nudge” our way along with the state.
The Occupy movement is the end of the old social movement, not a revitalization of it. It brings to a close the era of John Kennedy Galbraith, the era of Democratic Party dissent begun by Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, by Herbert Marcuse, Jane Jacobs’s Life of American Cities and Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The period from 1957 to 1963 was also the period of Vance Packard, who believed that advertising, the waste of packaging, and the exhaustion of the Earth’s resources were the big problem. Occupy is the final culmination of that bourgeois tradition of dissent. The early dissenters were much more eloquent than Occupy will ever be. That’s why Occupy cannot bother to introduce any demands—something that Saul applauds, but I put down to a lack of ideas. The Occupy agenda, insofar as it has ideas, is all about greed. For me, that shows us the Left’s commonalities with Obama and Cameron. “The root of all evil is the love of money.” That is an insight from the Bible, and I thank Occupy for repeating it.
Another question asks, “Is today’s crisis different from the crisis of Fordism beginning in the late 1960s and crystallizing with the oil crisis in 1973?” Fordism is a concept pioneered by the Euro-Communist wing, the Marxism Today wing, of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1980s. I think the view that we really have an oil crisis in the 1970s, rather than the early beginnings of the innovation slow-down that I have talked about, indicates that our sophisticated left-wing is not so sophisticated.
One of the main errors being made here today is indicated by the question, “Does the present crisis at least signal an end to neoliberalism?” Apart from Asia, there is one thing that hasn’t been mentioned here today—just a small thing, maybe you noticed it—the Leveson Inquiry. It shows that liberalism, not neoliberalism, is the main problem that we face today. The liberal desire to regulate the press is something that should concern us much more than Cameron’s reputed neoliberal tendencies. As a general point, we should also keep in mind that there’s no such thing as economics in Marxism; there is, rather, a critique of political economy.
Platypus also asks, “How do you avoid the danger of your theory simply confirming your past?” I think that is a problem. I’m always surprised how events seem to confirm my theories and yet things turn out much worse than I had ever surmised. We are in the era of predictable surprises. I like to think I know how bad things are going to get, but capitalism always surprises me.
What about the end U.S. hegemony as an outcome of this crisis? This is why I think discussing Asia is important. If you are not following the Senkaku Islands dispute between Japan and China and considering America’s role in that, then you can’t give a proper answer to this question. So, in this panel’s atmosphere of judgmental tolerance, I would urge more discussion of Asia and the Leveson Inquiry. The striking thing about the Senkaku dispute and the exercise of U.S. power now is that it is not a war for resources, any more than the Iraq war was a war for oil. Resources play a role, but they are not central. What is striking about events in the China Sea is the arbitrariness of international relations today, which reflects the fact that the ruling class has had no clear project for the 20 or 30 years following the wrap-up of the Cold War. In this respect, U.S. hegemony is in decline, but not in the sense of classical imperialist decline. It is more arbitrary and dangerous than that. We need to understand how this is a subjective crisis, not just one driven by the conventional search for raw materials or new markets. There is all of that, of course. Those old laws are still operating. But there is a whole lot of new stuff in there now which we need to comprehend, without imagining that we are very sophisticated.
Well done, Platypus, for understanding that the Left has been dead for a long time. You’re a bit late to the party, though. Some of us, I fear, attended the funeral a lot earlier. Nevertheless, if you want to join in now, realizing that we’re at the end of a period and not yet at the beginning of a new one, then I’m sure we can have a great time discussing these points.
HT: The question isn’t really what’s going to happen to Asia. It is quite clear where Asia is. China is not going to take over the world. Its level of productivity is below that of the United States by any criterion, and the Chinese economy is in tremendous trouble. It’s much more likely to disintegrate than thrive. So, we confront the same basic problem we have had for the last 150 years: capitalism in decline. Just look at Apple, the biggest, most important packaging company in the world today. It doesn’t invent anything. But what’s the issue? The question of innovation was, of course, discussed in the Second International. This “crisis in innovation” is not as new as you might think.
The rate of growth has been lower in the last 30 years—but, again, so what? The fact is that the vast majority of the people in the world don’t have enough. It isn’t a question of absence of resources but of inequality and the inefficiency of capitalism itself. Capitalism is unable to supply the needs of the majority of people and that applies to this country as well. In some areas of Scotland there is no point in cutting pensions because most people die before 65 anyway.
Capitalism can be overthrown. The forms of the future society are here. We can see in the present a future society run in the interests of the majority, a planned society run from below, in which the people take part in the planning and the antagonistic forms which exist today will be abolished. Still, despite what some here are saying, the majority of the people have no hope. The reason is because of what happened in the Soviet Union, which proclaimed itself socialist, but was actually the exact opposite. It was an absolute disaster. At the same time, people see that social democracy has failed. They have seen what the Labour Party has become. So where do you go, politically? The central issue today still is, How do we attain the level of production required in order to guarantee a good life for all people? To fulfill this task, you need a political party to take power.
SN: I think we probably all agree that we are living in a moment of crisis, one that is probably insoluble. What system of social relations can we move into? Is any alternative possible? You mentioned one possible path is to move into socialism, but what would that look like? Would that involve a revolutionary period? How can that be imagined today? The notion of class struggle was important in Hillel’s talk, but how do you reconcile that with the way class identities have shifted, fragmented, or become blurred? It’s clearly not the same kind of class dynamic today that existed in the heyday of the Marxist-socialist movement.
I liked David’s paradoxical formulation that neoliberalism is really about the predominance of politics over economics, and not the other way around. I also liked your idea of the power of movements like Occupy. These movements, the opportunities we have, are quite remarkable. This is not a time for desolation and gloom. On the contrary, it’s a time for some kind of political confidence.
James, the notion of false consciousness was Engels’s, not Marx’s, but you wouldn’t deny that Engels is central to Marxism. The notion of ideology and ontological distortion is central to Marxist politics, which has to explain why the working class, despite the objective conditions, does not revolt. I’m making what I take to be an uncontroversial point about how we can no longer sustain this notion of ideology, nor of the ontological. We do see reality, but we have a libidinal attachment to it.
Is there no environmental crisis whatsoever? Not a day goes by where one does not hear about the environmental crisis. Is that all a big conspiracy? I’m not sure of James’s position respecting the liberal regulation of the media. Are you for or against it? I think we can say that society has retreated to the media and to what may be called “communicative capitalism.” We shouldn’t necessarily be too worried about the regulation of the press, because power now lives with the media. It isn’t in the hands of government anymore.
DG: In different ways, I find myself in strong agreement and equally strong divergence from everyone. For example, I agree that capitalism has gotten to a point where it can no longer produce meaningful innovation in the way it once perhaps did. Now it’s the opposite. I think this is one of the key signs that it is in crisis.
The situation reminds me of a seminar I did in New York where I described what I take to be the changing class alignments that made the Occupy movements possible. The declining rate of profit and the financialization of capital creates a system whereby government and finance become so deeply intertwined that one can hardly tell the difference between them, and the whole thing becomes a means of rent extraction. The plight of an indebted college graduate, which 20 or 30 years ago probably would not have deeply moved the heart of the average transit worker, has become something people do identify with, because people with student loans can’t do what everybody else is doing, namely, liquidating their loans through default or otherwise.
When I gave this talk some Marxist sectarian came out and said, “I disagree with everything you say. It’s not greed. It’s not about greed.” I said, “What are you talking about? I never mentioned greed once.” Another person said that the whole idea of the individual as the only locus of politics is absurd. It is like people carry around in their pockets this prepackaged idea of what they are supposed to say. No matter what you say or do, they’ll just throw it at you. I’ve been to a thousand Occupy meetings and I don’t remember hearing the word greed once. Where is this criticism that Occupy is fixated on greed coming from?
I also don’t think that we are just better singularities at this point. It is more complex and we don’t necessarily have a language for it. There are new class segments and new forms of social alliances that are happening. The most important job for theory at the moment is to think through this, now that the party form is not going to be the way we represent ourselves or imagine social alliances. We need to think hard about what is happening now.
JW: I’m not saying there is no more innovation. There is innovation. If you look at pharmaceutical companies, they are still spending on research and development, but they are cutting budgets. Innovation hasn’t ended, but there is an innovation crisis.
Now, you’ve had the misfortune of going to a thousand meetings of Occupy, David. I’m sure you may never have heard the word greed, but I put it to you respectfully that the critique of bankers, with which Hillel began, is all about their executive pay, their bonuses, their greed. This has nothing in common with Marx’s political economy, if we want to be classical about it. Also, the hostility to consumption, the hostility to fridges by the Occupy movement—that too is hostility to greed. Again, I say: “Let’s hear it for fridges!”
Hillel said that people have seen through the Labor Party, they understand how bad it is. I think that is only partially true. Saul says we can see reality, but we have various libidinal attachments. When you say this, speak for yourself. It seems to me you’re hinting at the Green trope that the masses are guilty of false consciousness because they desire a new fridge. I don’t think that’s fair. When you say that power has shifted to the media from government, there is some truth in that. But you then go on to say that you are indifferent to press censorship. We face in this country the most serious challenge to the press that we’ve ever had. We face government regulation under the guise of independent regulation. This “independent regulation” would put the government in a position to police all of the left publications that we see here today.
Hillel, you say there’s always been a crisis and the age makes no difference; it is always the same crisis we are in. That seems a bit biblical to me. You know, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. As for life expectancies, thousands and millions of Scots are living longer lives. The same is true even in large parts of sub-Sahara Africa. The health of the population has qualitatively improved. That’s not to say the cup is not damaged in many places. But I think the problem that we face cannot be compared with the return to the workhouse that Hillel warns us of. We must understand what has changed, and that includes those things that have actually changed for the better.
Photograph from RIPC-London taken by James Heartfield. From L-R: Lucy Parker (moderator), Hillel Ticktin (with microphone), Saul Newman, David Graeber, and James Woudhuysen (not pictured).
Q & A
Regarding Asia, we should be focusing on the social movements currently taking place there: the big strike movement in China, the movement of landless laborers in India, the strike movement in Kazakhstan. The future of Occupy will be determined by how it relates to such movements outside the richest counties. Second, aren’t the “resource crisis” and “innovation crisis” two sides of the same coin? Just as capitalism alienates the relationship between humans, it also alienates humans and the planet they live on. James, you are right that the amount of fresh water has not changed in the last 30 years, but the way that industrial agriculture misuses that water in order to produce hamburgers for North American teenagers is a problem. The vast majority of R&D money in pharmaceutical companies is spent to produce drugs for unhappy people who live alienated lives in the First World instead of on generic drugs to save millions from early death in sub-Saharan Africa. Shouldn’t this so-called innovation crisis just be seen as the capitalist crisis?
Saul, you said that Marx was dealing with a more industrial class, whereas today we’re dealing more with office and service workers. But the core social relations between the working class and the exploiters have not changed, and this still empowers the working class to overthrow the system. Our power is the same as it was in Marx’s time. You also questioned what a socialist society would look like. But Marx specifically said he is not going to provide a recipe for the future of the revolution, because capitalism shapes your mind such that we cannot picture in advance what a socialist society is going to look like. Rather, you have to learn through struggle. We have to try for a revolution and learn, on that basis, what a socialist society would look like. You say, “Insurrection instead of revolution.” But isn’t insurrection what we have in Greece right now? That isn’t going anywhere. People can occupy the streets and the squares for a bit. But the next day the police will be back and oppositional energy will be dispersed. All the ruling class has to do in a crisis is stay where they are. An insurrection that fails to make a revolution will get nowhere. Movements eventually collapse in on themselves if there is no forward momentum, no actual establishment of goals and aims.
As to whether we are in a depression or not, doesn’t that hinge on more than purely economic figures, but on the place of a workers’ movement within it? Yet, we have no organized labor movement to speak of in Western countries. How does that figure in to your assessment of the overall situation?
HT: Does a depression in some way hinge on the ability of the working class to organize itself in order to take power? No, I don’t think that is why a depression takes place. I have followed Marx in defining depression in terms of all the contradictions of the system. One has to look at the system itself, its objective structures, and not just the subjective aspect. Today that structure is cracking. The next step is for the working class to take power.
Marx did use the word false consciousness. Commodity fetishism is that false consciousness. It’s very clear the way I use it. But once the class comes into existence as a class, the society dissolves. That has to be our aim: for the class to come into existence and the society to dissolve.
Depression is a collapse of the structure because the contradictions cannot be dealt with. At present, the mediating forms are failing to mediate; the structure begins to fall apart. The fact that the working class cannot act is unfortunate, but it seems to me we can explain it. Such an explanation would begin with the terrible disaster that was the Soviet Union. We would also need to address imperialism and the long, continuing subjection of the Third World. The breakdown in structure—and it is a structure—is taking place no matter what subjective feeling we have about it.
You cannot simply have an insurrection. There is a social structure, and it will defeat the insurrection before it even begins. This is one of the worst things you can dream up. Look at how many people have been killed in so-called insurrections. The last thing we want is tens of millions more killed, like the 50 million killed in China. Even in the national liberation struggles that the Left has supported, millions got killed. I’m not saying one shouldn’t take power. One should fight to take power, but an insurrection is crazy. That is the last thing we should be talking about.
SN: My point is not there aren’t classes anymore. It is true that classes contain different kinds of subjectivities now than they did in Marx’s time. But my point fundamentally is about the political expression of class. In movements like Occupy, class is not the key factor. It’s not the key identity. The very fact that you had people coming together from different classes and groups indicates that there is already a move away from strict class identity. Today, there is not the sort of direct relationship between class and politics that was always presupposed in Marx’s theory.
I also do not wish to say that socialism is impossible, but I do want to know what socialism, as imagined in Marx’s theory, might look like. The point you make about Marx not laying down a blueprint is true. Indeed, in my initial remarks I put the emphasis on experimentation. We do not need to have a vision of what socialism would look like for us to entertain the possibility of it. The point is an open-ended project, whether we call it socialism, anarchism, or autonomy. Certainly that project cannot, it seems to me, take the form of the revolutionary seizure of power and the use of authoritarian state power to build socialism. This brings me to the whole notion of revolution and why insurrection is something different. The whole logic of “revolution” is that it is a grand event led by the working class, but it’s not really the working class. It is the revolutionary vanguard that seizes state power and uses it to build socialism. That project is completely discredited by historical experience. It leads to exactly the kind of bloodshed Hillel was talking about.
So what is an insurrection? Insurrection is not an event, and it has to be seen as more than simply violent clashes with the police. The insurrection is an ongoing project of autonomy, an ongoing project of people choosing to live in new kinds of ways. What’s interesting in Greece at the moment is not so much the clashes with the police but all the various distributive and exchange networks that are emerging with the collapse of the state. To me that is what the insurrection is about: the ongoing process of elaborating and experimenting with new forms of exchange and new forms of cooperation.
DG: One last point on greed. When people in the workers’ movement in the 1860s or Marx’s Communist Party chanted slogans, they never actually said things like, “the organic composition of capitalism will inevitably lead to the acquiring of profit.” Slogans bring up specific issues in specific ways, starting a conversation where you can bring in your entire analysis. Slogans don’t simply quote the analysis.
I agree that the innovation and environmental crises are the same. One of capitalism’s great claims is that, even if things are terrible in numerous ways, at least it is creating meaningful technological advances that will eventually make make peoples’ lives easier and better. I don’t think capitalism can make that claim anymore.
Two things have happened. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, many decided that Marx was right about the organic composition of capital. There was talk of robot factories and the end of work, no more manual labor. The Situationists got everyone excited. The ruling class freaked out. There was a very self-conscious movement. There was a conscious shift away from space age technology that would compete with the Soviet Union because that was no longer seen as a threat. They put resources into medical technology, information technology, and finally military technology. Though we don’t have a cure for cancer, we have Ritalin and Prozac. These enable people to remain vaguely sane in the context of a crazed intensification of work that the information technologies made possible. So it’s all about technology that the researchers control. On the other hand, it is also true that, with all this money they’ve been pouring into the military, you would at least expect to have giant killer robots shooting death rays from their eyes and stuff like that. God knows they were working on it! But they haven’t been able to do it. A basic breakdown comes from corporate managerialism, tantamount to a generalized war on the imagination. This is happening on all levels, and has ultimately hobbled even the development of technologies that would benefit the ruling class.
JW: This is the first time I’ve heard false consciousness made equivalent first to commodity fetishism and then to Ritalin and Prozac. The questioner was entirely right. The social exploitation is the same even if the specifics have changed. One thing that hasn’t changed is the Left’s overestimation of itself. David said that the ruling class is scared of 300 anarchists and Saul is out to convince us that the autonomous spaces opened up by Occupy amount to an insurrection. But if you look at the code of conduct that the London Occupy movement insisted on, you had to raise your hand before you could speak. You could make no genderist or sexist remarks, nor say anything really that would not go down well in polite society. That overestimates the Left’s influence as well as its independence from bourgeois ideology. The adoption of a politically correct agenda by Occupy, its proceduralism regarding how you conduct meetings, and the belief that just because the four of us have the same type of genitalia, we have all been engaged in willy waving—that itself is bourgeois ideology. It confirms for me that the Left is very much self-absorbed and has no influence. We have been witnessing the death of the Left for many years.
I mentioned that the laws of motion are the same as before but with a lot of new stuff on top. I tried to hint at the new stuff. Politically it is bizarre to hear that the big problem with the pharmaceutical industry is that it makes drugs for unhappy First Worlders. In my view the pharmaceutical industry is not innovative enough. Ten years after the Human Genome Project we still cannot buy any personalized medicine off the shelves at Boots! That speaks to the crisis of innovation. Lenin himself observed that R & D was being socialized before the First World War. That was around the time the first commercial laboratory to investigate pure scientific principles was founded at General Electric. That is what happened in that period of imperialism. Today you face a situation where a pharmaceutical company doesn’t want to innovate, but rather invests in doing marketing, distribution, production, a little manufacture, and above all dealing with state regulations. They don’t want to develop the kind of drugs that we need in either the First or the Third World. They don’t want to invest in genetically modified trees like the Brazilians do, because nobody wants genetically modified anything in Europe. Genetically modified trees would be a great carbon sink. They grow in seven years, not seventy. But they don’t want to do that in the West because they are too risk adverse. They were not that risk adverse in the 1930s. FDR, for all his faults, said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We don’t hear that from Ed Miliband or David Cameron.
I didn’t think that I would have to make what I regard as the basic Marxist point that there are still two classes in society. One is the ruling class, and one is our class, and we still sell our labor power even if the nature of that exchange has changed to a certain extent. I would challenge the idea that the seizure of state power is not the way to go and that revolutionary parties are no longer one of the essential tools for change. I would say the exact opposite. But to use your words, you said there is an ongoing project for autonomy, an ongoing project for choosing to live in different ways. Can you clarify that? It sounds very wishy-washy to me. You talked about different networks in Greece, about delivering food and so on. It made me think of Golden Dawn giving out food, though I assume that is not what you were referring to. But that’s really what the Greek working class is being reduced to. Seizing power is the only way to change the situation. There is a lack of revolutionary leadership in Greece just like there is around the world.
HT: It’s absolutely true that the majority of society sell their labor power. They are the working class. It doesn’t matter if they are white-collar or blue-collar. It is also true that there are now more white-collar workers than blue-collar workers. But so what? They sell their labor power. The relationship remains the same. What has changed in the world (and I’m rather surprised that no one’s taken it up) is, of course, that we don’t live in a competitive society. Despite all the propaganda about competition, about how everybody has to compete with everybody else, about how everybody is a unique independent atom who has to fight everybody else in order to exist—which is the way the government puts it and the Labour Party doesn’t oppose it—in spite of that, the world is highly integrated. Society is more integrated than ever. In terms of the economy, what we see is an increasing degree of noncompetition. This is what explains the risk aversion being referred to.
When the government forces competition it is not really competition the way Adam Smith understood it in the 18th century. All it means is three or four firms all collude together. So, there is no incentive to produce new inventions. In this sense, capitalism is not supplying what it is supposed to. But of course it wouldn’t do that. What is capitalism about? Making everybody feel happy? Since when was that the case? Since when was it the duty of capitalism to feed everybody? Or, because someone brought it up, since when was it the duty of capitalism to keep everybody healthy?
On the question of drugs, no one mentioned antibiotics. Why are we not producing antibiotics? We all know they are running out. The answer from the companies is, “Well, if we went on spending money on antibiotics, we would cure everybody and we couldn’t sell drugs then.” The same argument is given for malaria. If we cured people of malaria, we’d no longer sell the drug that cures people of malaria. That is the nature of modern capitalism. Of course for the capitalist, capitalism is simply a means of making money. Accumulation takes him over. It isn’t that he is greedy. It is the nature of the system: “Accumulate, accumulate,” as Marx says, “that is Moses and the prophets.” No other law dominates us in that way, and this has remained true.
A question about laws of motion has been raised. The term actually goes back to the time of Adam Smith. Not that he used it, but one of his correspondents did. It is a general term, as it were, not just Marx’s. As we talk of the laws of capitalism, well, what is it that now exists? A society in which the government continues to play a crucial role. It’s not just a question of GDP, or about how this economic indicator is at 50% in France and at 40% here. Obviously what one is talking about is how we have become a more social society, one in which the majority can exert control. That has to be the ultimate aim of every human being. We can have a genuinely human society controlled from below, not from above.
SN: The problem that we have faced is that capitalism for a certain period of time kept us happy. It had certain vested interest in keeping us happy. That’s why it produces Prozac. We had a whole way of life based on overstimulation of the senses. Now this artificially infused happiness isn’t working anymore and we are experiencing generalized psychological breakdown. It seems to me depression and anxiety, for instance, are symptoms of this aspect of the crisis. This is why it’s precisely not a question of ideology but of our libidinal attachment to the very system that has enslaved us.
To my mind there is nothing is more wishy-washy than the idea that there is this apparatus called the state that you can seize. What does the revolutionary seizure of power look like? It is simply unimaginable today. Power has become dispersed, networked, and globalized. You lament the failure or the lack of revolutionary leadership in Greece. I would point to the absurd role that the Greek Communist—Stalinist—Party plays. It actually defends parliament against the anarchists, because they take themselves to be the only ones who can pronounce when the time is ripe for revolution. This is what the Communist Party has always done. They say, “We’re the ones who will tell you when it is time to revolt.”
DG: To my mind the problem in Greece is that there is way too much revolutionary leadership—37 different parties, all of which hate each other.
I want to address the question of whether the basic structure of exploitation and extraction has changed. In the U.S. at this point, I think 11% of profits come from anything related to industry. Most of that’s bullshit, too, because General Motor’s profits, at least until 2008, all came from financing and not from actually making cars. Calling that industry rather than finance is deceptive. So there’s been a change in where corporate profits come from. That is echoed by a change in how people actually relate to capital. Less and less is being extracted from wage, and more is directly taken. When I was in college they used to say that feudalism was a direct juro-political extraction of surplus whereas in capitalism it occurs indirectly through the wage. Today roughly 20% of the average American household income is being taken away directly. That is a change in the structure of capitalism that is going on right before us, one that explains a lot about the changing forms of opposition to it.
JW: There’s been a lot of discussion about pharmaceutical innovation, and that’s refreshing really. Hillel says they won’t sell antibiotics to people because that would make them too healthy. On the 70th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, I would reassure Hillel that the social legislation the report led to, as well as the legislation passed by Lloyd George after the Boer War, was quite concerned with the health of the population. It might not sound good to say it, but they needed a supply of labor power. What’s new about the situation is that plenty of so-called leftists will tell you that, because taking antibiotics will make you resistant to them, we should get into homeopathy, “natural medicine,” and all these other things the Occupy movement endorses. So it’s a bit of a problem to say, “It’s the same old capitalism, why aren’t you delivering antibiotic innovation?” It is the Occupy movement itself saying that we’ve had too much innovation.
I’m struck by how the other speakers took up a position of skepticism toward unhappy people getting pharmaceuticals. It was Richard Layard of LSE, founded by the Webbs, who advanced the happiness agenda. It is David Cameron who has wanted national wellbeing to be more important than gross domestic product. But Saul here wants to say that we’ve got mentally ill people because of the drugs. Ed Miliband raises the question of mental health, not with respect to himself (which would be worth discussing), but as “a real issue for Britain.” Such views don’t need attacking. They are simply the far right. A certain independence from liberalism is the main task facing the Left today. |P
Transcribed by Houston Small and Daniel Jacobs.
. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 742.