Platypus Review 55 | April 2013
Last summer, the Frankfurt chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted the latest iteration of “The 3Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance,” a series of events for which speakers were invited to reflect on the contemporary state of anti-capitalist politics. Similar events were previously hosted in New York in 2007 and Thessaloniki in 2012. Panelists included Thomas Seibert of Interventionistische Linke, Janine Wissler of Die LINKE/Marx 21, Norbert Trenkle of Krisis, and Daniel Loick from Goethe University Frankfurt; Jerzy Sobotta moderated. What follows is an edited and translated transcript of their conversation, which was held on June 25, 2012, at Goethe University Frankfurt.
Thomas Seibert: I don’t believe that the Left is at a historical low point today. The Left reached a nadir in the nineties, which was a depressing time, when many former leftists abandoned the Left. This has been reversed today, especially since 2011, since the return of a protest form that was thought to have become historically obsolete, i.e. of insurrections based on people rallying in public squares. Then they stay there and demand the overthrow of the government.
Let me begin, however, with a definition: resistance is rebelliousness and revolt. I see resistance as located in everyday life, in small matters such as sabotage at the workplace, skipping work, or located on an even smaller scale. You can also detect resistance where the political unconscious comes into play: people get sick by the thousands, for example, and mental illnesses have increased by 40 percent in Greece in the past months. The most determined form of resistance in its classical form occurred in Tottenham, England, in 2011. These sorts of riots are a central pillar of collective resistance, that is, rebelliousness and revolt.
Many people who see resistance as their approach to politics do so because they have turned away from such concepts as reform and revolution. And they do so to avoid posing the difficult questions that arise from the issue of reform and revolution: Are we confronted with a totality? Do we arrest this totality? How do we overcome this totality? There is a tradition on the Left that simply evades such questions that have supposedly become historically obsolete; these vexations are instead replaced by a notion of resistance, which is limited to specific aims, rather than at the social totality. This idea is evident since the 60s, in the work of Michel Foucault, and has appeared again and again since the 80s-90s. Such approaches no longer pose the question whether the whole, which is to say capitalism, can be abolished. This is seen as too complicated, unattainable, or simply theoretically wrong-headed. This is where this micro-political resistance comes in.
Yet, such politics are misguided, I believe, and for a very logical reason: If this is your conception of politics, you reaffirm your position as reactive to the problem of oppression, which will always go on.
About reform and resistance I would just say: No specific strategy and no specific form of protest have definitely failed historically. It is naïve to say that this or that has definitely failed, and if someone says something has failed, I would like to know what, specifically. Let’s take parliamentary politics: Some say the reformist approach has definitely failed, as has the attempt to seize power and thus change society, and so too have spontaneous revolts and guerrilla tactics. All of these strategies have failed, that is true, but I would still say that how these different strategies address the question of social transformation—the abolishment of present forms of domination and exploitation and of present forms of subjectivization—remains central. I aim at the simple formula: “by any means necessary.” Although, of course, I would say that some things have been tried and should no longer be applied.
The question of a revolutionary rupture needs to be posed in a differentiated manner. We know that we are faced with various forms of domination and exploitation, and some of these will certainly not be overcome by means of a swift revolutionary rupture, such as in the case of overcoming patriarchy. Still, the abolishment of capitalism will entail the suspension of the logic of capital, however long you take that period of transition to be. Thus, I don’t believe we can do without a conception of a revolutionary rupture.
Let’s pose the matter of reform, revolution, and resistance more concretely by acknowledging that everything begins with resistance. The Left has to have a positive relation with emerging revolts, without saying, of course, that it approves of them in principle.
Norbert Trenkle: I would like to stress the need to overcome the conception of resistance as micropolitics, and instead refocus on the totality. The terms “reform” and “revolution” have become deeply infected by the logic of capital. In fact, they are a reflex of the consolidation of capitalism, and for that reason no longer useful for the supersession of capitalism. Their meanings have changed too: Reform today means the cutback of social rights, of the rights of workers, or in other words, a thorough economization of society. And revolution implies nothing more than the overthrow of some authoritarian regimes to make way for free markets or, at best, an attempt to introduce democratic rights.
By this, I don’t mean to say that these terms have simply become suffused by neoliberal dogma, although they are rather closely connected with the social process of bourgeois society, in that they are subjected to the historical trajectory of the continued expansion and permanently revolutionizing means of production. However, this basic process has become a metaphysically bloated conception of philosophy of history, particularly in its classical formulation, with its emphasis on progress. Marxism, on the other hand, already regards bourgeois society as a transitory phase, directed toward a higher social formation. “Reform” and “revolution” stand in the tradition of this conception of progress and refer to it. Despite the fact that those two terms are antagonistic, they both share similar points of reference and are closely related, since they both imagine that the historical process is pushing them forward. We need to liberate ourselves from this metaphysical conception of social transformation as it is infected with the real metaphysics of bourgeois society.
By real metaphysics I mean that our actions are already anticipated by unconscious processes, or in other words, what Marx calls the “fetish,” a reification of social relations which rules over people. Liberation or emancipation can thus only mean a liberation in terms of the unconsciously presupposed that rules over people although they are their own social relations. This also implies that emancipation cannot be formulated with metaphysical or historico-philosophical categories.
Bourgeois-capitalist society has reached its limits. This, however, is not a historico-teleological interpretation but the result of the immanent contradictions of capitalism. This process does not point into some beyond, but rather to the fact that the limits have been reached. We are at a point at which we are forced to confront the question of what will follow next, since we are in a situation in which the whole of capitalist society has been formed through these contradications, and not only in its objective structures but also in its structures of consciousness. This means that there are no prerequisites for emancipation that we can relate to—these prerequisites have to be created first. Likewise, there is no presupposed “us,” no prior subject, but this “us” has to be created first through our reified consciousness.
The question of tactics and forms of protest poses itself anew once we become aware of the limits to our own consciousness. The same is true for the problem of immanence and transcendence, or, in other words, what kinds of immanent demands can be raised while at the same time pointing to the transcendence of this society. Neither the tactic nor the form of protest is the problem but rather the question what our cause is all about. First, there needs to be a negative identification of the liberation from this reified process, and secondly an appropriation of material wealth. The crisis of bourgeois society has emanated from the paradoxical fact that this society is too rich. Therefore, the answer to the question of what our cause is all about is access to material wealth and an emancipation from this form of value, for only then can forms of actions and tactics be determined anew.
Daniel Loick: I am afraid that I am a representative of exactly these Foucauldian micropolitics of the post-68 generation, with its insistent stress on everyday concerns, to which Thomas and Norbert are so fundamentally opposed. Frankfurt is where Helke Sander, at the delegate conference of the SDS, helped establish a new phase of the feminist movement. We can still learn from the speech she delivered and from the feminist politics of the generation of ’68. The feminists pointed to the fact that a change in economic relations does not necessarily result in a change of gender relations. Rather than merely relieving women in private life, for example by organizing education in a solidary or collective manner, it meant the opening up of a new area of political struggle. Previously private matters were now understood as political. What resulted from this new conception of politics was the fact that social transformation was no longer thought of within the same confines of reform versus revolution.
Let me therefore put these 7 theses up for debate:
1. Let’s put an end to economism: There is no primary or secondary contradiction, no base-superstructure relation, or real subsumption, or social totality, no deduction from the economy, or reducibility, no determination, and certainly not “in the last instance.” Capitalism, sexism, racism, neo-colonialism, anti-semitism, and many other processes of marginalization, exploitation, and oppression all compose an ensemble of forms of domination. They are interrelated, of course, at times promoting each other, at other times opposing each other. However one can never deduce the temporal or logical priority of one of these elements.
2. No division into “political politics” and “everyday politics”: Reproductive and nurturing labor needs to be made visible and distributed fairly. Our daily lives are a terrain for political struggle. The private sphere is neither subordinated nor of secondary importance to political struggle. Demands for a just organization of housework and child-rearing, and for solidary care are not merely meant to present women or other excluded persons with equal access to the sphere of “real” politics; it’s rather the other way round so that men and other privileged people are forced back into the sphere of “real” politics.
3. No fear of your own success: Progress in the fight against a relation of domination is not invalidated by the fact that it does not come about at the same time with success in the struggle against all forms of domination. The feminist revolution of 1968 is not less revolutionary because capitalism was not abolished at the same time. That is not to say that our own success cannot be integrated and domesticated or that individual forms of liberation in the end cannot have an ambivalent or ironic outcome. Those who claim, however, that post-68 forms of liberation have not really changed anything, or, even worse, have been the harbingers of post-Fordist or post-modern labor relations, merely continue the privileging and prioritizing of transformations of a so-called “base.” Those purporting the priority of some totality are really always only concerned with some part, namely the economy, and only a certain part of the economy.
4. No “tabula rasa” and no catharsis: Since we face a multitude of relatively autonomous forms of domination that are not congruent with one another, it follows that the idea that one simple “rupture” will radically alter reality is unrealistic and misleading. There are always several fronts at which we need to fight, several alliances or enmities. The term “revolution” either needs to be given up upon entirely or reformulated in such a way that it can include the heterogeneous temporalities of emancipatory movements.
5. There are no longer any barricades: We must not conceive of all forms of domination in the same way that we conceive of capitalism. Some forms of domination constitute antagonistic oppositions; some are intimate and run through our own bodies (such as gender dualism). There are militants within bourgeois institutions and enemies in my bed. Some demands can be put into rights, others require changes of attitude; some struggles aim at changing a material regime, others at a cultural or symbolic one. Relations between parents and children are a relations of domination. But these relations cannot be solved by the guillotine or through tax incentives that reduce them to problems of economics. Such issues can only be adequately resolved through the recognition of specific needs of the subaltern.
6. Put an end to aniconism: We need to develop and establish new relationships in the here and now. These forms of how we want to live need to be tried, reflected upon, revised, and published. There is no reason why we need to wait for the day after the revolution. We can begin now.
7. Occupy your life: What is truly exciting and encouraging in global protest movements that we are currently witnessing is precisely that they take seriously the specific aesthetics of existence which rest in activism. It seems that, from the beginning of the Occupy movement, discussions about the organization of our everyday lives have played a major role; from the beginning the activists have not pushed aside the cultural dimension of protest, but rather affirmed it. In almost all documents from Occupy, the experience of living together collectively is emphasized, the experience of sleeping in tents, of debating, gathering, and the emotions and affects related to it. Occupy rejects the interpellation of a personified addressee or the fiction of a grand social subject. And as a side effect, Occupy showed that activism need not be ascetic or sad, but that there is a lot to win even today, once we set up together a new and defiant life.
Janine Wissler: Far from having reached a historical nadir, the contradictions today loom so large that, on the contrary, the Left and anti-capitalist politics should be able to relate much better to the social consciousness than was the case during Fordism. That is, in times of huge growth rates, when many parts of society could, in one way or another, get something out of the growth, when there was an actual improvement of the quality of life, the contradictions in the system are less obvious. It seems obvious to many people that our current social and economic problems will never be solved if the prevailing power and property relations remain intact. The Occupy and Blockupy protests, the latter with about 25,000 participants, are great developments. However, I also argue that, especially in Germany, social movements have had great difficulties gaining a foothold.
I would follow Thomas’s definition of the term “resistance.” There are different forms of resistance, which can be concerned with single issues, can be long-lasting, can be very individualized, or can take place on a mass scale in the shape of social movements. It is the task of the Left therefore to endorse these kinds of resistance and to lead them in a way from the concrete to the universal. It should be made obvious that it doesn’t make sense in the end to just fight the symptoms of a sick system. How can you put an entire system into question though? It doesn’t work to merely win reforms and improvements step by step and then hope to arrive at a better society. Reforms can be taken back; indeed, the last few years in particular showed that advancements once gained can be taken back, so that the universal does have its limitations.
In the last few years and decades struggles for positive reforms have not had priority, rather we have only witnessed defensive struggles, which were meant to impede political setbacks. There were no mass protests that raised demands which pointed beyond the status quo. We can see this in struggles within higher learning or at workplaces. It seems that the fight for positive reforms has retreated into the defensive and the term “reform” has been perverted completely. If you think of reforms today, you think of deterioration, and not of anything positive.
If we do talk of reform and revolution, however, reformist parties should be criticized for never raising the issue of what stands in the way of social movements and for never properly addressing what keeps people from fighting for their interests together. The reason for this oversight is that the dominant principle within reformism is that you make policies for people, as their proxies. The idea seems totally lost that you can fight for self-emancipation, i.e. that people can engage in politics by fighting for their rights themselves, by making policies on their own.
I concur with the critique of economism. Nevertheless, it is actually important to discuss how exploitative and oppressive regimes are interrelated, and how they condition one another. I also agree with the sentiment that the fights against racism and against the oppression of women are independent struggles. It would, of course, be wrong to deduce everything out of the class struggle. We do need to consider where we can find correlations. I, for example, cannot imagine how women are supposed to be free in an unfree society and vice versa. That is why Daniel’s arguments seem absolute. There are seemingly naturally objective reasons why it makes sense socially that women are not equal to men, but if you get rid of the economic reason, you erase the objective foundation of inequality. We need to reflect on how we can link the struggle for the equality of women with the fight for a better society. History has shown that it was precisely during times of revolutionary upheavals that women were able to gain the most rights. Think only of 1918 when women gained the vote. Those were times when you had progressive developments and revolutionary situations all across society. Thus, we need to discuss those issues alongside one another without regressing back to the old debate around secondary contradictions, as such debates are harmful to the Left.
TS: I feel thrown back into the old debates of the 70s. Back then, I always used to say the same things that Daniel said just now, and they were always the vantage point of my politics. But we are in the year 2012 now; we have accumulated a lot of experience since the 70s.
There was a time when politics was defined as what the party does against the state and capital, always under the leadership of men, and everything else remained part of the private sphere, at best a secondary contradiction, to be dealt with after the revolution. To counter this, the dualism of micro- and macro-politics was introduced, which defined the entire micropolitical field as an area of resistance. All the old questions remain, though, and you’re not an economist if you stress that. There are different forms of domination, and they all follow their own logic. Of course, capitalism is not the only system of domination. But it is an essential one (but certainly not the only one) that runs through all the other ones. If you deny this fact, only the left-liberal position remains, which at best aims at taming the anarchy of capitalism.
Let me introduce the old, “evil” Leninist dualism of trade unionism versus politics. Trade unionism includes everything we accumulate spontaneously in our everyday lives, which is then articulated, e.g. in union demands. This was to be done away with and replaced by what the party dictated. Looked at from today’s point of view, this is of course a flawed position. However, there is a moment contained in it in which we can rediscover our experiences of the last 30 years: The division into trade unionism versus politics also meant the division of those who could not see beyond their own interests, who could only focus on their specific grievances, and were unable to offer more resistance. Lenin coined the term economism for the labor movement of his time, but you can also speak of a trade unionism of women, the youth, the sick, and of ecologists—it is a real problem that needs to be transcended. You need to move beyond this and constitute yourself as a political subject. I believe that those who set out to oppose the SDS have themselves been corrupted and gotten stuck in a specific trade unionism of their own. That doesn’t diminish their activities. Still, we need to ask how an entire generation could become saturated with questions of better child daycare and changed gender relations, which have all changed so dramatically. And, once again, we need to re-pose the question of the political subject who arises to fight in the name of all.
NT: Naturally I reject the accusation of economism. Driving this sort of attack is a truncated understanding of capitalism and its underlying features. It makes a difference whether I speak of a capitalist society whose basic process is the logic of the value form, or whether I say, “Everything is determined economically.” Those are entirely different things. There is a historically specific character to this society which is comprised in this way of being constantly “driven,” of this compulsion to constant acceleration, this necessity of always overthrowing everything, including the means of production, and penetrating all of society with capitalist relations. In no way is this merely an economic relationship, but relates to the most intimate human relationships, in other words, to the way in which people interact with one another. When we speak of subjects who understand themselves to be in constant competition and who have to act accordingly, then we’re speaking of human beings who are forced to objectify the world and themselves. We can observe this at its most obvious in the fact that I need to sell myself day after day as the commodity labor power. But things reach even farther: the need to objectify yourself and face the world as an objective process, i.e. facing something that is objectively alien to you—that’s something specific to capitalism, and which penetrates all forms of domination that persist in it. In other words, it’s not just about some sort of “economic process,” but rather about something that preconditions all social relations, and is thus also not easily grasped as it operates prior to everyday relations and actions. That’s reflected in the way people think about society. For example, the construction of a collective subject such as “the nation” is a form of metaphysics, i.e. when I identify with a meta-subject and I consequently submit myself to it. In this close way of looking at things we realize that it naturally does not have anything to do with economism but with the way I behave toward this society.
The “perverseness” of the term “reform” that Janine talked about expresses itself in the fact that the historical process which expedited reforms and allowed greater latitude within bourgeois-capitalist society has exhausted itself. The shift of the dynamic of capitalist accumulation to the financial markets has taken place because it saw in this move a strategy to avoid this underlying crisis of capitalism for a few decades. Not only has the latitude been narrowed, but the balance of power has also shifted in a way such that what once was meant by reform, i.e. gaining social rights and leeway in labor relations, does not work anymore. That’s what is meant when we talk of the “perverseness” of the term “reform.”
DL: I’ll grant you this: I, too, support the abolition of capitalism. What I find problematic, however, is the deduction of some kind of priority of the economic sphere before all other forms of domination, be they of a temporal or of a logical nature. The autonomy of struggles means that there are various autonomous, overlapping spheres that mutually influence one another, but there is just no prioritization. The belittlement of micropolitics overlooks the seriousness of those forms of domination and how difficult it is to change things on a small scale. Have you ever tried changing yourself? This is the toughest thing of all!
Foucault did not refuse to face the totality. He simply answered this challenge differently, by opposing the brand of Marxist thought that was dominant in the Communist Party of France, which took as its basic premise the category of the social totality. It was this that Foucault countered with the belief that micropolitics were heterogeneous and constituted local power relations which you have to resist locally as well as globally.
There are two dangers for the Left: corruption and conformity. The institutionalization of the Left can cause it to lose and betray its own ideals. That is what it needs to look out for and develop mechanisms to counter. The second danger is that of conformity or Stalinism. This is what Foucault opposed. When Thomas says, even after all the experience of avant-garde politics, that we should strive to achieve socialism “by any means necessary,” my alarm rings! The concept of the political needs to be reflected on critically; the experiences of Stalinism as a temptation for the Left demands reflection. We do definitely exclude some “means!”
JW: I believe that even struggles for the most minor improvements, such as better child daycare, are absolutely legitimate and necessary. The question is rather whether we stop at those.
In her essay “Reform or Revolution,” Rosa Luxemburg makes clear that she does not confront those matters as contradictions. On the contrary, in the fight for reforms we sow the seeds of a new society and the consciousness that this other society is possible, even though, to be sure, Luxemburg also explains how it does not suffice to only fight for reforms. Contemporary power relations as well as property relations are intertwined and the Left cannot lead struggles based on a conception of capitalism that detaches one from the other.
Q & A
What role do you ascribe to the political as a way to engage history, as a means to learn to understand things in a new way, such that the object of critique is itself changed and thus also our own understanding of this object of critique?
TS: The political does have a dynamic of its own. You would be mistaken, though, to assume that the political process can put everything into a new direction without being embedded in the restraints demanded by politics. I think that the political process contains the unpredictable, the non-deducible, the unexpected and surprising, sudden openings that no one is expecting. The political considerations of the comrades in Cairo only a few months or even a few weeks before the events in Tahrir Square took place within an entirely different horizon than after fall of the Mubarak. Everyone thought the Mubarak regime would last forever, that they would have to essentially adapt to this world dominated by Mubarak, and this was especially true for the left in Egypt. When the events in Tahrir Square unfolded, the Left, which until then still had been marginalized, was suddenly agitating in an entirely different context—this is the momentum of the political and it goes beyond mere “resistance.” At the level of the relationship between the micro- and the macro-political, the question arises, “What kind of rupture within your life exists once you decide to remain the political subject after having certain experiences?” If I take a historical look back at my own life I can definitely say that a giant part of my generation has been corrupted.
NT: The Greens, like Die Linke or any other party that tries to change anything by engaging in the political process, face structural constraints. When you take the case of Die Linke joining in on austerity measures when they were in a coalition government in Berlin a few years ago it had to accept the budgetary logic of sustaining only that infrastructure which can also be paid for. This is what happens once you enter into politics. That way, I am already wrapped in all the constraints that define capitalist logic, and all of this is the case in a time in which I have less leeway politically because capital accumulation is faltering. Soon we are left with the so-called “pragmatists” who accept systemic constraints and execute them. That is how a political class emerges which is nothing more than an operative of this logic, which is to say, of the logic of financial feasibility and the fact that this money necessarily is taken from capitalist accumulation.
JW: Nevertheless, you do need to look at the social configuration of the Greens. They neglected the social question from the beginning. I agree that the Greens in a way are the expression of the demise of a movement, and that they conformed in face of institutional constraints to coalitions, parliaments, and governments by really believing they could change the system. The Greens were able to achieve much more and impact consciousness far more by means of extra-parliamentary activities than what they were able to accomplish during the years they were actually governing. Once the Greens entered into parliament, they accepted constraints, budget consolidations, and the rollback of the welfare state, while appearing politically helpless.
However, there are also important reasons why Die Linke exists as a parliamentary force, since in its absence, the Right would be able to gain all the more at the polls. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if SYRIZA had become the strongest party in Greece. You cannot explain SYRIZA’s success at the polls without taking into consideration the mass movements of the last two years in which there have been 17 general strikes in Greece. It does make a difference whether you can count on mass movements as a government to get through reforms, or whether you can’t, and in Greece, SYRIZA could have gone the road of accommodation in a coalition with PASOK. However, they could have also begun to fundamentally question things and dispossess the Greek ruling class, and this could have initiated an entirely new conversation in Europe on the fiscal compact and the so-called “rescue measures.”
TS: It was good that SYRIZA did not win the elections! They would likely have not survived a victory because they would have been faced with constraints early on. All leftist forms of politics—the new social movements and the old ones, social democracy, Marxism-Leninism, anarchism—are responsible for some parts of the historical failures of the Left; yet they also have elements that I wouldn’t want to forgo. And then there is the possibility that projects such as SYRIZA, which is something else entirely, can emerge. SYRIZA is a new constellation and its platform is of a leftist social democratic nature, in which post-Maoists, post-Trotskyites, anarchists, and upright left social-democrats can participate. This has never existed historically, and it’s extraordinary, which is cause for optimistim.
Shouldn’t we ask, “What is to be done?” rather than argue over whether the Left was dead? Would this not be a way to address such issues more productively? Isn’t the end of latitude within capitalism a chance to develop politics independent of it?
NT: Indeed, I think that the term “reform” cannot be applied, for instance, to the governments in Latin America. Chavez’s regime does not achieve the political goals it sets for itself, and it is also, as is commonly known, pretty corrupt. What is much more interesting is the space it has opened up for social movements. On the political and institutional level, questions over how to finance things will always come up. Such questions never arise on the level of grassroots politics. There you can say: We don’t care how things will be financed. Instead, we just take the houses, the land, the resources and use it according to our needs. And we organize. I wonder what different sorts of latitude are opened up here. Can you still speak of politics in this case? At any rate, you definitely can’t talk of reformist politics here—it is something totally new.
JW: Look at the movements in the Arab world, the mass movements in southern Europe, and then look at what’s happening in Germany with regard to the crisis. We are immediately faced with the problem that the economically strongest country in the Eurozone has a level of class struggle that is incredibly low. This naturally has something to do with the fact that the strategy to counter the crisis in Germany was entirely different than in southern Europe. Germany did the opposite of what is expected in the south. Here, we went the way of social partnership, which is part of the problem too: In Germany we have the fewest strike days, whereas our unions are the most powerful ones in Europe, and still wages are decreasing. But it should be Germany where protests and resistance against enforced austerity measures and cutbacks are staged. What we are seeing now reminds me of the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s that occurred in the Third World, which, in the end, entirely disempower people.
What’s supposed to have changed so substantially such that there is no more leeway in capitalism, as Norbert claimed? And how have reforms become impossible? Isn’t the logic of capital he talks of as old as capitalism is?
NT: If we measure the growth of productivity in material goods, we have seen a four- to six-fold increase in the last 30 years, but under capitalist conditions people have become dispensable en masse. Due to this enormous increase in productivity the dynamic of accumulation, which pushes capitalism forward, has been undermined. That is why we have seen this shift to the financial markets. Capitalism today can only sustain itself by the accumulation of fictitious capital. That is the reason they say, “There is no alternative.” Central banks have to pump money into the markets and states jump to the rescue when banks are threatened to collapse because this dynamic of fictitious capital needs to be sustained. And this is what is so dramatic about the changes that have been wrought since the 1960s and ’70s.
This dynamic of fictitious capital cannot be sustained forever. Yet every time the Left debates wealth, this debate takes place in the category of money, which is a key point and needs to be debated. Those so-called mandatory spending cuts result solely out of the necessity to sustain the accumulation of (fictitious) capital. However, capitalism increasingly uses up future value in the present to sustain production, and this is precisely what has reached its limits. This is what presents itself symptomatically as the necessity to cut spending. Now is the historical moment in which we need to broach the issue of the kind of wealth we want.
TS: Whether reformism is possible now or not cannot be derived out of any analysis of the momentum of capital, no matter how refined it is, since the fact that reformism was possible in the 20th century was essentially the result of the October Revolution. Capital always resisted concessions, but the October Revolution terrified the bourgeoisie so much that they were suddenly willing to make concessions after all.
What I would expect from a reformist project in the 21st century is that it would have to brace itself for the permanence of an autonomous contradiction from society and accept it as such. This would be a reinvention; it would be a project that tries to acknowledge the autonomy of the street and the autonomous self-organization of people even in moments of conflict. For that you need a solidary communication of people from both camps—the moderate and the radical left. Never before was the dialogue between these camps led in such an open, multifaceted and solidary manner, and on such a long-term scale, as is the case today. There are radically left organizations, such as the Interventionistische Linke, who still work on the problem of how to establish the autonomy of all, and if we succeed in establishing dialogue on a long-term basis, then we have a model for such a reformist project.
What this can achieve, however, will depend on whether people will revolt, just as the October Revolution was such a revolt, and opened up the possibility to spread—as it did, as a matter of fact—despite repeatedly failing. The October Revolution inspired anticolonial movements that ultimately led to the collapse of colonialism. This was the essential reason why we had reforms in Central Europe. This presents an option for us to pursue. Otherwise I’d suggest we just retire for a while and think—for example, by reading Adorno.
How important is Adorno’s critique of the ’68 generation’s understanding of resistance and of their actionism? Is it perhaps more topical today than it was in 1968?
DL: This conflict took place in a situation in which all were partly wrong. On the one side you had students protesting at lectures and erring fundamentally in their assessment of Adorno and of the actions they took against the Institute for Social Research. It sucked just as much, though, that Adorno called the police. We can learn something of the relationship between intellectuals and social movements: Both need to be part of a social transformation. For that you need space and time to think, and this is what Adorno was doing in the face of the pressures of the street. But of course he was wrong in his assessment of this movement.
However, I do think the accusation of pseudo-activity is wrong. What’s the prefix “pseudo-” supposed to mean? You can explain it by a conception of society as a dominating totality, so that nothing short of its complete abolition can be counted as “real” activism. Such a conception is wrong, and this is where Adorno erred. You have to give him credit, though, in that he himself never complied with this verdict. Adorno did involve himself in politics. Not only did he give lectures and write texts, but he also intervened just as much in practical politics, such as in his stances on pedagogy. This is a specific kind of politics, namely a reformist one. This is what Adorno pursued, while opposing an activist kind of politics. He did so for various reasons we can debate. We could ask whether he assessed the situation adequately; he said the time for this sort of activist politics was over and that we needed a different kind of politics. Here, too, I disagree with him. Nevertheless, Adorno had some important criticisms that I think are still valid. But the term “pseudo-activity” is unwarranted, and it’s not helpful for today’s struggles.
TS: Although I appreciate Adorno, I thought his criticism of the student movement was mistaken then, and still is. He was incapable of accepting what was happening in front of his own eyes. On the subject of pseudo-activism: This aspect is the most important one when you evaluate the question of how to become a political subject! If things are the way they are, you need to take the right to hold off, instead of getting lost in pseudo-activism. My background is in the non-dogmatic, post-Leninist, half-Maoist left of the 1970s, and from a certain point onward I was surrounded by Greens and Autonomists. I allowed myself to withdraw from those discussions and to think, because I thought that which was being offered did not resonate with me for various reasons. However, when, in the early 1990s, neo-Nazis set fires to several buildings that housed asylum seekers, it became clear to me that I had spent enough time thinking and I needed to be active again. Thus, there are times of pseudo-activism, and it’s part of being seriously political that one avoids simply becoming entangled in activism. Yet, if you back out completely, you stop being a political subject.
JW: What’s important is not whether we have arguments on the Left, but whether a concerted effort or praxis emanates out of such an argument, for it makes little sense to argue unproductively over things if we cannot reunite in the end. This is where we need to ask, “What is it that we can actually agree on now, and what is the task for the Left today?” |P
Transcribed by Gregor Baszak, Markus Niedobitek, Nicolas Schliessler, Jerzy Sobotta. Translated by Gregor Baszak.
. See Platypus Review 4 (April 2008) at </2008/04/01/the-3-rs-reform-revolution-and-“resistance”-the-problematic-forms-of-“anticapitalism”-today/> and Platypus Review 53 (February 2013) at </2013/02/01/the-3-rs-reform-revolution-and-resistance-the-problematic-forms-of-anti-capitalism-today/>.
Book Review: Ian Birchall. Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. London: Bookmarks, 2011.
Platypus Review 55 | April 2013
THE SOCIALIST WORKERS PARTY (SWP) is the largest political party left of the Labour Party, and has been active on the far left since 1977 and before that as the International Socialists since the 1960s. The party was led by Tony Cliff until his death thirteen years ago, and Ian Birchall, who has written this diligently researched memoir, is still a member since joining in the 1960s. Birchall’s “warts-and-all” examination is motivated by a marked unhappiness about A World To Win, the autobiography which Cliff apparently wrote based on recollection, without access to the relevant documentation. Cliff, Birchall remarks, was sometimes abrasive and “often underestimated the contributions of other comrades” (ix, 543). However, whatever its deficiencies, A World to Win narrates the story of the SWP pretty much as it appeared to Cliff, as one that was inseparable from his own life story. And as Cliff made clear, “there was no time in which militant workers were so open to us as in 1970–74,” under the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, “not before and not since.” Yet if we take this claim seriously, no organization better embodies the failure of the British workers to take power than the Socialist Workers Party, which has endured for more than half a century, though not for the reasons that its leaders think. Indeed, it might be argued that Cliff’s real achievement was to found a movement that rode a wave of disaffection from mainstream politics, unburdened by too many dogmatic ideas.
Birchall recounts that Tony Cliff joined the small Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League in Palestine before coming to Britain after the Second World War. The movement he joined faced some big problems. First, like all far left groups, it was guilty by its association with the repressive dictatorship that Stalin had built in the USSR. Second, the Trotskyists were saddled with an analysis that the economic crisis would get much worse after the Second World War (the destruction of the war had laid the basis for a revival). Third, globally, the working classes were divided between the peoples of the developing world, who were denied their freedom by military imperialism, and those of the developed world, who tended to support reforms offered by the state.
It was in this context that Cliff started to develop new theories to explain the new conditions in which the Left found itself, along with his early collaborators Mike Kidron and later Nigel Harris. He broke with orthodox Trotskyism to argue that the Soviet Union was not socialist, but actually capitalist, “state capitalist,” only masquerading as socialist (anti-Stalinists like Max Schachtman and Raya Dunayevskaya drew similar conclusions, and later some Maoists argued the point). He also countered the prevailing claims of the Marxist left that the 1960s would be years of crisis, arguing that government spending on arms would boost the economy, what Cliff referred to as the “permanent arms economy.” Lastly, against British comrades who believed in the importance of Lenin’s argument about imperialism, Cliff held that it was not the highest stage beyond which capitalism could develop, but the “highest stage but one.” Together, Cliff thought of the theories of “state capitalism,” the “permanent arms economy,” and the end of imperialism as a “troika” of intellectual achievements.
Although Birchall does not acknowledge it, these were not really theories so much as an intellectual spinning of the facts, worked up to avoid specific problems. It was wise to say that the International Socialists did not want to make Britain into the Soviet Union, but bizarre to say that what was wrong with Stalinism was that it was capitalist, as if “capitalist” were a word that you applied to anything that you did not like. For as Kidron went on admit, the “state capitalist” “analysis was never a general theory,” and the “permanent arms economy” was a piece of Keynesian thinking. These “theories” saddled the group with false prognoses that had to be reversed later on. The spending on arms, which was credited with preserving capitalism, was later credited with precipitating a new crisis. And while the International Socialists thought that Lenin’s theory of imperialism was superseded in the 1960s (just as the conflicts in Algeria, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, South Africa and elsewhere were mounting) the SWP later embraced the struggle against imperialism in 2003 when it rallied to support for what the party called “the resistance” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
None of this “theorization” was all that important to the growth of the International Socialists. But it shows that, from the outset, a convenient indifference to dogmatism sat well with the organization’s pointedly anti-intellectual approach. What Birchall’s portrayal inadvertently illustrates is that rather than working through the difficult history of the Left, Cliff’s approach was to travel light, jettisoning theories that did not seem to fit, making up new ones to fill the gaps. While the classical Marxist tradition held that the key question of socialist organization was class consciousness, Cliff dismissed it, thinking that most workers were already socialists and that their bigger problem was class confidence (282). It is in this vein that Alex Callinicos, who inherited the mantle of chief theorist of the SWP, has argued it does not matter too much if workers “have reactionary ideas on questions such as race, the position of women and so on”—the key thing was that they build their confidence through struggle.
Birchall owns up to a philistine side to Cliff’s Party: “On occasion in the SWP there had been currents of workerism and anti-intellectualism, and Cliff himself had sometimes been guilty of encouraging them,” (546)—but even that is to talk down the failing. Birchall documents that Cliff often told students, “Don’t waste your time reading books!” And that even Callinicos was told not to bother pursuing a doctorate on Marx’s Capital because Cliff had already settled issues of its interpretation (344). Cliff’s anti-intellectualism was not so strange in the 1960s, when hippies painted Blake’s saying, “The Tigers of Wrath are Wiser than the Horses of Instruction,” on the walls of Notting Hill, and Jay Landesmann recommended the “university of life” above college brain-washing. While Landesmann boasted that his children got “the worst education money could buy,” Birchall reveals that Cliff offered his daughter Anna £5 for every exam she failed (390).
With its emphasis on activism, an iconoclastic view of received opinion, and an emphasis on change from the bottom up, the International Socialists caught the mood of the 1960s student revolt. Cliff’s group recruited impressive young comrades in Paul Foot and Gus MacDonald in Glasgow, the polymath Peter Sedgwick and the brothers Christopher and Peter Hitchens at Oxford University, the Women’s Liberationists Irene Bruegel and Sheila Rowbotham, Eamon McCann of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, and the sociologists Laurie Taylor and Jock Young.
In the early 1960s, when they were known as the Socialist Review Group, the International Socialists worked as “entryists” inside the Labour Party, lifted by the mood that ended the wasted years of Tory rule and swept Harold Wilson’s modernising Labour Party into power. The grubbier compromises of Wilson’s non-ideological, managerial approach disappointed the idealism of those who had voted him in and the International Socialists drifted out of the Labour Party alongside them. While Wilson and his minister Barbara Castle were proposing an official incomes policy, Cliff caught the militant trade unionists’ mood with a small, well-selling book, Incomes Policy, Legislation and the Shop Stewards (1966). Cliff’s one tenacious view was that the International Socialists would stick close to whatever action there was and not let any dogma get in the way; unless they recruited a core of activists, he intuited, they would have no influence. Tellingly, the group ignored its own theoretical view that anti-imperialist struggles were irrelevant and threw itself into the militant student protests against the Vietnam War.
Cliff sought to tighten up the IS group, which was hitherto quite loosely cobbled, through talks and actions, a bit like an anarchist group. He had once set out Rosa Luxemburg’s arguments in favor of working class spontaneity and the “mass strike” as the way to achieve power. But then he altered course, arguing for a “Leninist” party of “democratic centralism,” pressing the need for discipline in the IS. Birchall takes this intellectual turn seriously, although, to my mind, Lenin’s name was invoked more as an incantation than with any real understanding. For, despite what Birchall assumes, it is debatable whether Luxemburg and Lenin held opposite opinions on the issue of party discipline. But the main innovation was that the new group would follow orders. Ted Crawford remembers that the leadership were trying to “hurry things up” and had adopted an attitude of “not in front of the children” (358). Cliff, Kidron, Chris Harman, and Callinicos thought that the discussion of Marxist theory in the party’s branches and discussion bulletins would put workers off the party. They were particularly irritated when David Yaffe and others used Marx’s theory of crisis to show that the state expenditure-led post-war growth had reached its limits. Kidron referred to this as an instance of “Talmudic” reasoning and he stuck to his Keynesian argument that arms spending would offset the recession. The critics who held that the party needed a better understanding of Labour’s grip on the working class were denounced as “paleo-Marxists” and “Abstract Propagandists” and expelled, an episode that Birchall prefers to forget. The lesson seemed to be that socialism had to be dumbed down to appeal to workers.
The International Socialists’ investment in student protests of the 1960s was thus followed by an involvement in the explosion of working class militancy in the seventies. Alive to the need to challenge the Communist Party’s influence among trade union activists, especially shop stewards, Cliff’s student recruits sold the IS newspaper outside factories in order to meet workers. He held that the explosion of protest in France was the result of the “years of depoliticization” and “the deep alienation of workers from traditional organizations” like the official trade union movement and the socialist and communist parties (306). The International Socialists thus challenged the mainstream left for influence just as rank and file militancy was on the rise and thereby transformed itself into a party.
Hacking through the detail, Birchall does not make the point that between 1968 and 1974 the European working class was as close to power as it had been since 1919–23. Industrial militancy went off the chart. In Britain a panic-stricken ruling class attacked militants, sending them to prison (as with the building workers known as the Pentonville Five and then the Shrewsbury Two), drawing up ration books, putting rebellious industry onto a “three day week,” waging clandestine guerrilla warfare in Italy and Belgium; in Northern Ireland the troops were sent in as an army of occupation, setting up internment camps to suppress the rebellious civil rights protestors. There was no absence of working class confidence as voters backed the striking miners when Prime Minister Heath went to the country on the question of who governs. The failure of the revolution in Britain, though, was pointed. While the ruling class was preparing a clampdown, the working class teetered on the brink of challenging them, and then fell back, uncertain what to do.
The Socialist Workers Party called for more strikes and more solidarity, but when an election was called, it lobbied workers to vote for Labour! When, in 1972, the question of state power was put most starkly in Northern Ireland, the Socialist Worker supported the intervention of British troops.
After the arrest of five shop stewards (the “Pentonville Five”) who disobeyed a court order to cease picketing, a series of strikes and protests swept Britain, culminating in the Trades Union Congress’s call for a general strike in July, 1972.
As is well known, the round of strikes went on, but at a high cost. In 1975 a conference document sounded a note of caution: “we overestimated the speed with which the economic crisis would drive workers to draw revolutionary political conclusions” (376), but of course there was no reason that workers would draw revolutionary conclusions if no political movement was making that case. The SWP’s apolitical militancy just left all the political decisions in the hands of the Labour Party, who were waiting in the wings to take over when Heath’s government lost control. Labour’s plan to halt the crisis was a “Social Contract”—a government-brokered restraint on pay. Cliff drew up a new pamphlet, “Crisis: Social Contract or Socialism” (1975), but what it had to offer working class militants was more strife, but no way out, concluding:
We are entering a long period of instability. International capitalism will be rent by economic, social and political crises. Big class battles are ahead of us. Their outcome will decide the future of humanity for a long time to come. (375)
Some of those who were tasked with building the new factory branches of the party in the early seventies, like Jim Higgins and Roger Rosewell, were burned out, and complained that the perspective was unrealistic. Birchall sums up the party’s failure by blaming the other side:
The hopes of the IS in the early 1970s were not realised because the Labour government succeeded in enforcing its Social Contract and large-scale industrial conflict virtually came to an end… reformism proved rather more resilient than had been expected. (405)
That, of course, was precisely where the SWP had failed. It never sought to challenge the Labour Party for political leadership amongst the working class, choosing instead to build influence through trade union militancy.
Struggling to explain the setback, Cliff developed what was called the theory of the “downturn,” which was no theory as such. It was just an empirical statement of the decline in strike activity. Cliff’s view of the working class was essentially sociological. They were defined by their relation to the means of production and they were more or less confident. Workers were organized in trade unions committed to the state socialist policies of the Labour Party. Reformist socialism was the ideal around which the working class had formed itself. When that ideal proved to be a failure, the working class did not “draw revolutionary conclusions” because there had been no political struggle for such conclusions. Instead, the organized working class took the failures of socialism personally. Some were angry; many more were defensive, or altogether demoralized. Cliff’s theory of the “downturn” only reflected the appearance of falling militancy, but left out the decisive factor, the absence of an alternative to Labour that might have become a focus for renewed struggle.
The party’s philistine outlook on questions of race and sex equality was at its strongest in the mid-1970s when there was a concerted push to win working class support. All social questions were reducible to the relation of exploitation of the working class “at the point of production.” The political realm was discounted as unimportant, and the struggle for rights illusory. Women’s liberation was treated as a secondary question, and the student milieu self-consciously adopted what they took to be working class attitudes towards women. The International Socialists’ out-and-out hostility to gay rights went so far that a gay caucus organized by Don Milligan and Bob Cant was broken up (424, 440)..
So, too, did the organization struggle to understand the race question. The International Socialists had challenged racism among dockworkers in an infamous walkout in favor of the anti-immigrant cabinet minister Enoch Powell. Still the group thought of racism as little more than divisive ideas, and could not understand the connection between nationally based reformism and the denial of rights to blacks. Racism, they thought, would fall away when workers united in struggle. When police’s targeting of black youngsters provoked riots in Brixton in 1981, Socialist Worker insisted that the rioting had nothing to do with race, but rather a united black and white protest against unemployment.
Where they did feel comfortable talking about race was in the movement against the far-right National Front (NF). The SWP attempted to connect the anti-racist struggle against the NF with the popular anti-fascist mobilization against Germany in the Second World War. Racism was reduced to a question of fascists who were outside the realm of respectable opinion that the Anti-Nazi League would defend. It was a campaign that footballers and bishops could support because it cast the race problem as one of extremists who were alien to British society.
In the eighties, the SWP survived by amplifying the “anti-Thatcher mood,” joining protests and such strikes that were provoked by the employer’s offensive. “There is real hatred for this Tory government,” Cliff intuited, but “this hatred is accompanied by a very widespread impotence” (451). When left-wingers tried to take control of the Labour Party, putting up Tony Benn for deputy leader, Cliff was skeptical not of the revival of state socialist policies but that this resolution-mongering would be a distraction from building in the workplace. Birchall tells the story as if the SWP had savagely criticized the Benn campaign, but at the time the headline of Socialist Worker was “Benn for Deputy.” An entente or division of labor emerged where Benn and the other Labour Party leftists would outline the socialist policy at the podium (mostly about state control of industry), but the willing foot-soldiers of the SWP would prove their worth by organizing the grassroots support, whether gathering canvassers in elections or helping organize demonstrations and building support for strikes.
The party’s defensiveness was writ large when Yorkshire miners struck over a program of pit closures. The weakness of the strike was the division between the militant miners and the rest. Leftist hero of the 1974 strike Arthur Scargill had been elected president of the union and was close to the militants, but feared that a national ballot would have been beaten. It was the militants’ weakness that they sought to sidestep the rest of the membership by avoiding a ballot and instead picketing out the pits in support of those threatened with closure. From the outset “the strike was not solid,” and many miners saw the lack of a ballot as a justification to work on. Instead of challenging the evasion of the activists around Scargill and calling for an all-out campaign to win a national ballot, Cliff made a virtue of the strike’s weakest point, and Socialist Worker denounced rank and file democracy as “ballot-itis” and a concession to Thatcherism. The ballot was not held; the miners stayed divided and lost. Yet more problematic was Scargill’s nationalistic “Plan for Coal,” which claimed that coal was profitable for British industry, as if miners’ interests coincided with capitalist success—the SWP simply ignored the meaning of the Plan for Coal. Birchall makes the interesting point that Paul Foot talked strategy on the phone to Scargill throughout the strike (485). Later Cliff dishonestly tried to shift the blame onto the miners’ leader for the strike’s failure, much to Foot’s dismay, when every step Scargill took had been supported by the SWP. With the miners’ defeat, the “downturn” became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Blaming the working class was always easier than trying to understand that it was the Left that had failed.
The SWP seemed set to fall into decline alongside the rest of the Left. On the other hand, the other rivals were falling by the wayside: the Communist Party was irreparably wounded by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Workers Revolutionary Party run into the ground by its hysterical leader (until a bankrupt leadership overthrew him by uncovering a sex-scandal); the Militant Tendency had been expelled from the Labour Party. In a very small pond, the SWP was the larger fish.
In the last decade of his life, Cliff read the runes of the class struggle, detecting a “new mood” (504). Waiting for the upturn would become the party’s business, and successive events were singled out as the turning point: the middle England protests against the closing of the last mines, the anti-capitalist protests in Seattle, or most recently the expected fight back against Tory cuts. At times popular disaffection would even lead to great carnivals of protest, like the anti-poll tax campaign that culminated in rioting in Trafalgar Square in 1990. In 2003, protests against the Iraq War grew massively as they too became a focus for popular disaffection with the political establishment led by Tony Blair in Britain, who led Labour’s return to office after a 17-year hiatus. The SWP threw itself into those protests, seeing them as a return to mass opposition, but it did not understand that, despite appearances, the dominant sentiment was an anti-political mood of disengagement—pithily captured by the inward-looking slogan “not in my name.”
Stop the War protest in London, February, 2003.
On the back of the Gulf War protests, the SWP took its most ambitious move yet, founding the RESPECT coalition with George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob and Ken Loach to fight against the Labour Party in the elections. Just as they had handed over political leadership to the Labour left in the 1980s, so too did they let the old Labour MP Galloway draw up the platform for Respect. There were two main platforms: the first was anti-war, and for a domestic social program, RESPECT offered a revived platform of social welfare and nationalization drawn from the Labour manifestos of 1945 and 1983. RESPECT could rally disaffected Labour voters, and Galloway worked younger Muslims who were put off by the Iraq war. But it was not a stable coalition, and in Galloway, the SWP had created a monster whose ego could not be contained. Opportunistically, Lindsey German offered to downplay the SWP’s policies on women’s oppression, especially if these were going to jeopardize Galloway and Muslim voters. Still, Galloway refused to be a puppet of the SWP. The coalition split, with an exposed SWP obliged to stand its own “left list” to save face—but getting a desultory vote.
What Cliff and the leadership of the organization that followed him could not understand was that they were not really seeing signs of an upturn, but following the symptoms of popular disaffection with politics. Often misunderstanding these symptoms of depoliticization and decay as positive features of a “new mood,” the SWP could live off the growing disaffection, but at a high cost. Each successive attempt to kick the party into gear with yet another mobilization would lead to demoralization, and increasingly to factions and splits. These factions would usually claim to be trying to go back to the roots of the International Socialists before it all went wrong—though they never could work out where it was that had gone wrong. What Birchall’s book documents is that it is the IS tradition itself that is flawed; the current leadership has merely adapted to this flawed inheritance rather than questioning it. The anti-political bias of the International Socialists relates to the contemporary mood, but appealing to people on the basis of their contempt for politics, in the end, is bound to demoralize them, so that the rate of attrition among the members leaves the party running to stand still. |P
. Tony Cliff, A World to Win (London: Bookmarks, 2000), 111, 124.
. See for example Alex Callinicos, “Is Leninism Finished?,” Socialist Review, January 2013.
. Borrowed from TN Vance in Michael Kidron, “Two Insights don’t make a Theory,” International Socialism, Series 1, No. 100 (July 1977), <www.marxists.org/archive/kidron/works/1977/07/insights.htm>.
. Alex Callinicos, “Politics or Abstract Propagandism,” International Socialism Journal Series 2, No. 11 (Winter 1981): 122.
. See also Cosmo Landesmann, Starstruck (London: Macmillan, 2008), 99–100.
. Martin Shaw, “The Making of A Party,” Socialist Register 15 (1978): 123.[]
. Michael Kidron, “For Every Prince There is a Princess,” IS Internal Bulletin (March 1973), <www.marxists.org/archive/kidron/works/1973/03/yaffe.htm>.
. See Alex Callinicos, “Politics or Abstract Propagandism,” International Socialism Series 2, 11 (Winter, 1981). Ian Birchall seconded the motion to expel Yaffe and his followers.
. See also Bob Cant, “A Grim Tale The I.S. Gay Group 1972–75” Gay Left, No. 3 (Autumn, 1976).
. Even then the leaflet they put out made an issue out of Powell’s writing Greek Verse, as if to say that really he was upper class and probably a homosexual.
. Cliff, A World to Win, 193.
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: </2012/12/01/radical-interpretations-of-the-present-crisis-london-12-1-12/>
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.