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Historical transformations in social-political context

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 12 | May 2009



Marx ridiculed the idea of having to “prove” the labor theory of value. If Marxian theory proved to be the means whereby the real relations of bourgeois society could be demonstrated in their movement, where they came from, what they were, and where they were going, that was the proof of the theory. Neither Hegel nor Marx understood any other “scientific” proof.

The more concrete the negation of the need, the more abstract, empty and flamboyant becomes the subjective mediation.

— C. L. R. James, “Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity” (1947)

THE PRESENT CRISIS has prompted numerous calls for a reconsideration of "socialism" and even for a return to Marx.[1] It seems to augur fundamental changes, changes met with no less fear than desire.

We in Platypus have anticipated, since our inception in 2006, the possibility of a "return to Marx," and have sought to inform the terms in which this might take place. We have sought the re-opening of historical issues on the Left with the intention of their fundamental recon­sideration, taking nothing for granted, so that we could definitively close the books on stale "debates" in which the "Left" has remained stuck for more than a genera­tion, since at least the 1960s. Given the confusion reign­ing on the "Left" today, the urgency for this is evident.

The difficulty in addressing the present crisis of capi­talism is that almost all commentaries on it, not least those emerging from the Left, begin with a fundamen­tal misrecognition. We are not so much living through the crisis of capitalism as capitalism itself is the crisis. Capitalism is the — permanent — crisis of modern society. Only conjuncturally does capitalism become appreciably worse. But the history of capitalism is, whether in a fine-grained or a broad-gauged way, the history of going from one crisis to the next. It is in this sense that present circumstances and future prospects for capitalism must be addressed.

The election of President Obama is being regarded as an ambivalent phenomenon in this respect: On the one hand, Obama is saddled with responsibility of resolv­ing the crisis merely in order to restore some status quo ante, whether this is conceived as the 1990s heyday of Clintonism, before George W. Bush messed things up, or the post-WWII welfare state of the Roosevelt to Nixon years. On the other hand, Obama's election is taken to express or indicate the possibility for more radical change, towards which his administration might be pushed. But perhaps neither response to Obama is appropriate. Such prognostication ignores the history of transformations in capitalism, of which the present crisis might be only the latest occasion.

Whatever changes may or may not be brought about by Obama (or despite him) in response to the present crisis, his administration cannot solve the problems of capitalism but only transform them. The changes that take place will matter to the extent that they lay the groundwork for the next period of history under capital, structuring the conditions under which any future struggle against capitalism must take place — just as contemporary social forms are the accumulated effects of prior attempts to master the dynamic of capital in modern history.

To grasp the stakes of the present, we need to antici­pate potential changes, rather than simply getting swept up in them. We need, paradoxically, to try to remain "ahead of the curve," precisely because, like everyone else, we are conditioned by and subject to forces beyond our control.[2] For what is missing is any agency adequate to intervening against capital (or, more accurately, to intervening from within its unfolding process) with more democratic results.

The historical forces currently at work are beyond anyone's, including Obama's, control. However, the danger that the crisis presents is worse than this, which is, after all, the persistent characteristic of capital. The danger lies rather in the illusion that because of the economic crisis the workings of capital, which before had remained hidden, have now somehow revealed themselves to plain view. To grasp such workings requires more than experience. It requires us to attend to the vicissitudes in the history of theory, to distinguish affirmations and apologetics from critical recognitions.

The fate of Michel Foucault's critique of modern soci­ety in the mid-20th century, during its last third and the first decade of the 21st century, can tell us a great deal about both the historical changes since the 1960s–70s "New Left" and the high 20th century social-political forms against which Foucault's critique was directed.

Foucault's work of the 1960s–70s retains great cur­rency in our time because it expresses discontent in a form that can find affirmation in the transformed society that came after its initial formulation and publication.[3] Foucault's work was susceptible to being transformed from critique into affirmation and even common sense. This fact alone tells us a great deal about the historical changes with which Foucault's work is bound up.

If Foucault's work was expressive of forms of discon­tent that helped give rise to post-Fordist, neo-liberal capitalism since the 1970s, if the re-found "anarchism" with which his work has such great affinity has become the predominant form of radical social-political discon­tent on the supposed "Left," this is because Foucault's critique inadequately grasped its object, the Fordist capitalism of the mid-20th century. Consequently, when we read Foucault now, his work tells us — and affirms us in — what we already know. Only rarely, and, so to speak, despite itself, does it task us in the present. Only rarely does it help us to separate the critical from the affirma­tive, so that the one is not smuggled in under cover of the other. Hence, the question necessarily arises: Does Foucault's work actually challenge us? Or does it merely entertain?

Film still, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Film still, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

The "New Left" in the 1960s–70s thought it was rebel­ling against capitalism, and thought it was doing so more profoundly than the preceding "Old" Left was able to do. But now it is difficult to deny that it was responding to one particular form of capitalism, one already in the pro­cess of dissolution. The New Left did not reach deeply enough to affect much of the subsequent transforma­tion of capitalism in the 1980s–90s, but it did serve to legitimize the replacement of what had grown obsolete. We read and accept, e.g., Foucault's work, though we no longer have Fordist capitalism to critique. What we have instead is post-Fordism, of which Foucault's work and other New Left thinking has become apologetic. If we find affirmation in Foucault, it is because we have long since flown the cuckoo's nest of Fordist capital and are no longer in the care of Nurse Ratched.

By contrast with theories such as Foucault's, Marx's critical theory of capital has come up for repeated reconsideration since its origins in the mid-19th century, and will continue to do so, so long as capitalism as Marx understood it continues to exist. The other social thinkers whose work remain subject to such reconsid­eration — whose thought continues to haunt us in the present — are those bound up in the historical trajectory from which Marx's thought emerged, those that predate, are roughly contemporaneous with, or are immediately successive to Marx, such as Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Freud. Beyond these, the thinkers after Marx who primarily claim our interest are those who most rigorously pursue the Marxian prob­lematic, such as Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukács, Benjamin and Adorno. This is because, like Marx, the best 20th century Marxists were able to perceive and grasp both the most fundamental, perennial historical problems of life in capital as well as the problems of the struggle to overcome them. The recurrent "return to Marx" is thus a feature of our objective social life and will remain so. There is a reason why Marx does not fade as other thinkers do.

In his important 1989 work The Condition of Post­modernity, David Harvey provided an excellent account of how transformations of capitalism do not leave old forms entirely behind, but rather reconstitute them. For instance, Harvey argues convincingly that the form of capitalism that emerges after 1973 ought to be under­stood as post-Fordist, as the transformation of Fordism rather than its overcoming, just as 20th century Fordism was a transformation of the preceding, 19th century "liberal" form of capital.[4]

So the present crisis of post-Fordist/"neo-liberal" capitalism points not to the end of neo-liberalism, but rather to its transformed continuation. We will be mov­ing into a period in which are accumulated and recon­figured the historical legacies of all previous periods of capitalism: the liberal one of the mid- to late 19th century; the era of monopoly capitalism and imperial­ism of the late 19th to the early 20th century; the Fordist era of the high/middle 20th century; and the neo-liberal era of the late 20th century. The question is whether this compounding of the problems of capitalism since Marx's time makes it more politically and theoretically intractable.

Preceding forms of discontent with capitalism histori­cally found their expression (however uncertainly) on the Left, and these were transformed along with capitalism itself. The history of the Left is thus closely bound up with changes in the problem it has sought to overcome since the mid-19th century. The exhaustion and underly­ing despair of the "Left" today can be traced to its becoming lost in a tangle of seemingly insoluble problems that have accumulated since Marx's time. None of the problems raised in the history of preceding generations of the Left have been successfully worked through. All continue to haunt us.

What makes the present transformation of capital­ism very different from preceding ones, however, is the absence of a Left, an absence that points to a problem of consciousness. If we are haunted by the past, this is largely in a repressed way. By treating the past as "an­cient history" we proclaim it to be no longer relevant. For this very reason, it is unclear whether and to what extent the problems of contemporary capitalism have been brought to conscious recognition.

While every historical crisis in capitalism has been met with (premature) announcements of its demise (whether welcomed or regretted), a history of the Left's conception of capitalism can help us understand the changes that capitalism has undergone. Specifically, such a history would tell us how acutely (or not) the problem of capitalism and its potential overcoming have been grasped on the Left historically, and this, in turn, would help to reveal lingering theoretical problems. By helping us to better grasp the problem of capitalism, we could better understand how it has survived up to now.

The disadvantage with which we approach the present crisis is conditioned by the absence of a Left that could be meaningfully critiqued and practically challenged, as Marx and the best Marxists did in prior periods. There is no Left to push forward. This severely constricts our ability to actually get a handle on the present.

Whereas prior periods provided the Left with a rich symptomology that could be critically interrogated and thereby advanced, the pathologies we must work through today threaten to be entirely phantasmal. We might be left in coming years wondering why anyone ever made such a great fuss about "credit default swaps" and the like. The sufferings of the present might strike future considerations of them as having been quaint.

To better understand the world we need to try to change it. But the paralyzed consciousness on the "Left" prevents any attempt from whose failure we might learn. Still, a critical encounter with the enigmas of past attempts to change the world might help motivate our thinking and action in the present. The restive dead will continue to haunt us, though they might be made to speak. They are the only meaningfully acute symptoms available in the present. |P

[1]. For instance, see: Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas, "We Are All Socialists Now" in Newsweek February 16, 2009; and the on-going forum on "Reimagining socialism" in The Nation, with contributions by Michael Albert, Tariq Ali, Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher, Jr., Doug Henwood, Christian Parenti, Robert Pollin, Rebecca Solnit, Immanuel Wallerstein, et al., beginning in the March 23, 2009 edition with Ehrenreich and Fletcher's article "Rising to the Occasion." See also my letter in response, published in the April 20, 2009 edition, on the relation of Marx­ism to reality, utopia and the necessity for revolution.

[2]. See, for instance, recent Nobel Laureate in economics Paul Krugman's "loyal opposition" — supposedly from the "Left" — to the Obama administration's policies, signaled by a New York Times op-ed column on how the policies were slipping "Behind the Curve" (March 8, 2009), followed by another column, "Conscience of a Liberal" (March 21, 2009) and the Newsweek cover story on Krugman by Evan Thomas, "Obama's Nobel Headache" (March 28, 2009).

[3]. See, for instance, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1963), The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966), The Archaeology of Knowledge (1971) and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975).

[4]. Harvey's more recent work, beginning at least with The New Imperialism (2003), up to and including his recent essay published in the Platypus Review 11 (March 2009), "Why the U.S. Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail," has become more ambigu­ous if not incoherent, politically. He has therefore fallen below the threshold of the insight of his earlier work, which recognized the pitfalls of the nostalgia for Fordist capitalism that his more recent work evinces. This nostalgia is apparent in Harvey's call, like others on the "Left" in the grip of the memory of the 1930s–40s, for a "new New Deal." On the other hand, Harvey repeats standard post-1960s warnings about supposed imperial "decline" that have proven unwarranted through the several cri­ses the U.S. has weathered successfully since the Vietnam War debacle and the collapse of the post-World War II Bretton Woods system under Nixon.