Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Left Standing Still: 2008

12 months ago when I sat down to do my traditional end of year round-up, I ended with the pious hope that things would be much better for the left by the time 2008 came to a close. Well, now we're here, has socialism advanced any during the course of the last year?

If you can use one word to sum up 2008, that would probably be 'crash'. There's no need to go into the specifics of the crisis - it's been talked about plenty of times. But from the standpoint of leftist politics, we are moving into a period that offers greater opportunities than any time since
Labour came to power. The government and the bosses are clear they expect our class to pay the price for their crisis. Business is calling on the government to freeze the minimum wage in 2009 (a call likely to fall on sympathetic ears). Firms are shedding jobs right, left and centre with more high street names facing difficulties, if not collapse. Then there are the drastic cuts in public spending Brown and Darling have promised to help pay for the borrowed cash that bailed out the banking sector. All these plus other manifestations of crisis not mentioned will spark resistance and grow a potentially receptive audience for socialist ideas. But this process is not automatic. There are challenges thrown up by 2008 that need to be overcome.

Chief among these remains the Labour party itself. You could be mistaken for thinking history has a sense of irony. While the crisis was bubbling beneath the surface of mainstream political consciousness, the government was lurching from one crisis to another. The 10p tax fiasco, the dithering over Northern Rock, the very public mislaying of sensitive government data, the open jostling for Labour leadership; more and more it was exposing itself as out of touch and bereft of ideas. The
Tories were no better, but at least their liberal-inflected conservatism represented something of a change. And then came September's stock market collapse(s) and the recession. But Labour's dismal fortunes, that saw them lose two by-elections in safe seats, were turned around by Brown's affectation of dour seriousness and crisis management. Incredibly the Tories' lead in the opinion polls were slashed from 20 points to single digits (some firms put the Tory lead as low as a single point). There is some evidence suggesting the gap has opened up slightly, but Labour have managed to go from a catastrophic position to being in with a shout for a fourth term. Not that we will see an election in 2009, mind.

What's this got to do with the left? Electorally speaking Labour was, up until the summer, undergoing a slow process of decomposition. Layers of its support were either clinging on for want of something better, had turned their back on mainstream politics, or were willing to give the likes of the BNP a go. Enthusiastic Labour voters were rarer than principles on the government's front bench. But the crisis and Labour's "decisive" action in saving the banks has, if the polls are to be believed, arrested this process. In short, Labour support has firmed up. This argument can be applied to the
Glenrothes by-election, where the government's vote increased, even though the SNP closed the gap. The two socialist candidates came nowhere.

There are more consequences for the left than fractions of percentage points at election time. The government's turn from neoliberalism to (rightwing) Keynesianism has opened a
new political space for social democrats, old labourists, and other lefts remaining inside the Labour party. Their influence on the party apparat maybe negligible, and the avenues for "reclaiming" the organisation remain closed (the hope the National Policy Forum could be influenced from the left proved unfounded). Nonetheless it will be viewed by some as an opportunity to put forward Keynesian-inspired social democratic policies, which is what the likes of Jon Cruddas and his friends in Compass are doing. Others will hope Brown's rediscovery of Keynes is advance notice of a turn to the left. Whatever the case, the emerging New Labour consensus around state intervention, the actions the government have taken, and the poll recovery will glue the Labour left more solidly to the party.

If this habit of mind is abroad in Labour circles, you can bet your bottom dollar it's making headway in trade union bureaucracies. Among the unions that are affiliated to Labour, it appears as if the government can do anything with no consequences from the organisations the party still depends on for funding. Threaten to
part-privatise the post office? The CWU leadership protests, but will cling like a limpet to Labour when the debate on disaffiliation comes up at their annual conference. Or how about below-inflation pay rises and public sector job cuts? Unison's bureaucrats show their displeasure by shoveling millions into Labour's bottomless pockets, derailing opposition and attacking activists who dare stand up for their members. What the union tops lacked until now was a coherent justification for sticking with Labour. Brown's crisis measures provide that. But that's not all. A general election due in the next 18 months, and the polling numbers commanded by the Tories will have concentrated the minds of union leaders. Utterly convinced some crumbs will fall from the Brownite table eventually, this layer of the labour movement will do everything it can not to "embarrass" the government. Do not expect much in the way of leadership, unless a groundswell among the members force them in that direction.

We must be careful not to over-egg the pudding. Labour has major problems, not least its
historically low membership; but the confluence of events in the latter half of 2008 has strengthened it in the short term. This means the project of building a new workers' party has become more difficult. If we look at the fortunes of the CNWP, it cannot be said the campaign has made any big steps forward organisationally. Individual membership is now available, but there hasn't been thousands of new signatories. There is no real independent life. Nor is it particularly well-known. But what the CNWP has achieved is to keep working class political representation a live issue among trade unionists. Its supporters have tabled motions on this issue at numerous union conferences, and it has tacit backing from among the labour movement's most militant trade union leaders: Mark Serwotka, Bob Crow, Matt Wrack and Brian Caton. However, and at the risk of being called a pessimist, the RMT-sponsored conference is unlikely to mark a watershed moment in developing a new workers' party. The strengthening of the affiliates' links with Labour could knock on to Labour-supporting layers in the RMT and FBU, potentially limiting Crow's and Wrack's room for manoeuvre.

Matters are not helped by the state of the far left. The split between the
SWP and the majority of the rest of Respect rumbled on and on. It poisoned relations between key layers of leftist activists while, generally speaking, reinforcing negative opinions about the SWP among those not involved in the dispute. Probably the most ludicrous moment of the whole dispute were the London Assembly elections and the mayoral contest, when former comrades faced off against each other. The votes gained, including for the Socialist Party in Lewisham, were pretty poor. Disunity played its part (one of the "iron laws" of political science is that the electorate tends to punish division), but again, Labour overwhelmingly retains the support of the layers we need to win over. Poor election results are unlikely to tempt the ever-cautious trade union bureaucrat into supporting a left alternative.

But, on the plus side, the far left has put on members this year. Looking at the SP experience, most of these are young and new to socialist politics, but there are layers of experienced comrades who were previously active in
Militant returning to the fold. Going on snippets from the SWP documents on Socialist Unity, it appears those comrades are having a similar recruitment experience too. (Is it the same in Scotland?) But can these numbers make a difference? If applied intelligently and strategically, they can, and as we began by observing, the recession will open new opportunities for doing so.

The situations with the Labour party, the unions, and the limited impact of new workers' party arguments are because, in capitalist terms, it is politics as normal. In 2008 the working class was overwhelmingly passive and has not made its presence consistently felt in the political arena. As long as this situation continues, the chance of a new workers' party coming to fruition appears remote, which is frustrating because if several unions did take the initiative it could have a catalysing effect. On the other hand, as things stand, it is more likely a new party would come about on the back of mass class action. Putting energy into building up trade union organisation in the workplace and a presence in our communities is probably the most profitable use of our small resources, while continuously making the case for the new party. If our class does show movement, the left can grow significantly. If not, will 2009 be another year of standing still?

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Capitalism and Historical Materialism

In his essay, 'The Changing Function of Historical Materialism' (unfortunately, not yet available online), Lukacs considers the application of historical materialism and its relationship to capitalism and the class struggle. To reiterate Lukacs's position on historical materialism, it "is no doubt a scientific method by which to comprehend the events of the past and to grasp their true nature. In contrast to the historical methods of the bourgeoisie, however, it also permits us to view the present historically and hence scientifically so that we can penetrate beneath the surface and perceive the profound historical forces which in reality control events". But historical materialism is more than this, more than a mere research programme. He continues "in the case of the class struggle of the proletariat, the war for the liberation of the last oppressed class, the revelation of the unvarnished truth became both a war-cry and the most potent weapon. By laying bare the springs of the historical process historical materialism became, in consequence of the class situation of the proletariat, an instrument of war" (Lukacs 1968, p.224).

Because historical materialism is intimately linked to the position and trajectory/destiny of the working class, for the bourgeoisie to admit to any of its truths would mean transcending, in thought, the limits of bourgeois consciousness, and therefore abandon its ability to fight for their class interests. But that said, the key position of historical materialism - the decisive role played by class struggle in history (which is ordinarily denied by bourgeois thinking) - can appear at two moments in the history of ruling class thought. First at the moment the bourgeoisie locks horns with the land-owning aristocracy of feudal society and struggles for hegemony over society. And second is during the final revolutionary crisis of capitalism, when the bourgeoisie faces its dissolution. But at times, despite this, they are more than capable of a hard-nosed appreciation of reality, especially among those circles at the sharp edge of managing capitalism, such as employers' associations and state elites. This kind of thinking may be regarded by them as for "internal use only", but from the standpoint of historical materialism, they remain fully within the limits of bourgeois thinking. As
we saw in Lukacs's essay on the contradictions of bourgeois philosophy, society confronts the capitalist as an alien power, but one that can be understood as a force of nature, and which can be manipulated and second guessed to accumulate capital. Within this narrow horizon of action, instrumental rationality is possible, up to and including when the capitalists face an uppity workforce. However, Lukacs argues that while this can be the case, capitalism is in the process of objective decline, and as it does so the opinions and ideologies of the ruling class become ever more incoherent.

If we are in a period of decline and it's only a matter of time before the revolutionary crisis hits, wouldn't the expected acknowledgement of class struggle in bourgeois discourse mean it possesses
greater coherence? Lukacs says no, and the reason for this can be laid at historical materialism's door: there has been an unconscious and unacknowledged partial capitulation to Marxism. Economics, for example, is no longer "completely bourgeois". The discipline's development in pre-revolutionary Russia, for example, was heavily imprinted by so-called legal Marxism. The same was true in the influence Marxian economics had on mainstream Japanese political economy in the inter and post-war periods. As far as Lukacs was concerned, any branch of economics associated with planning or war owe debts to historical materialism. This situation is an effect of the increasing social weight the proletariat possess in society. More specifically, the ideological crises in the international workers' movement (in chronological order up to the time of History and Class Consciousness; individual socialists entering bourgeois governments; the move of sections of the movement into outright reformism; the formal split between social democrats and communists marked by the foundation of the Communist International), saw defections from the proletarian camp to that of the bourgeoisie. With these new "adherents", capitalism, which no longer possessed sufficient organic ideological resources to meet its systemic needs, now had parliamentary socialism to buttress their legitimacy. This meant the bourgeoisie had more ideological weaponry at their disposal, but the greater range is ultimately a recipe for confusion on their part, not clarity.

Despite this, the consciousness of the working class grows and that of its antagonists decline, thanks to the power of historical materialism. In response, the bourgeoisie have launched numerous critical counterattacks. One they often have recourse to is what they see as turning historical materialism against itself. If it is the case that bourgeois ideologies are functions of capitalist economic realities, doesn't this apply Marxism too? Among the smug, this may be a killer argument, but for Lukacs, it doesn't undermine the scientificity of historical materialism nor threaten a lapse into relativist irrationalism:
The substantive truths of historical materialism are of the same type as were the truths of classical economics in Marx's view: they are truths within a particular social order and system of production. As such, but only as such, their claim to validity is absolute (p.228).
Marx performed a substantive investigation and critique of the political economy of his day in the three volumes of Capital and elsewhere, and the same can be done to historical materialism by applying its categories to its emergence and function. The ability to do so does not weaken its scientific claims because of the intimate, dialectical relationship it has to proletarian interests, but enhances it. Bourgeois thought, on the other hand, is incapable of doing so.

But like all claims to validity, the theoretical object 'capitalism' is not the same thing as really-existing capitalism. It is an approximation whose truth claims can be tested by practice. The "purer" capitalism is, the more fully it has penetrated the fabric of society, the closer the approximation historical materialism achieves. The purity, or rather maturity of capitalism is determined by the extent to which economic forces act like natural forces and extra-economic compulsion has, on the surface, largely been dispensed with. It is the capitalism we in the West are familiar with, where the economy has assumed independent and autonomous powers
vis the rest of society. For historical materialism, this means it is confronted with crucial differences when it analyses pre-capitalist societies and the transition period between it and its feudal forebear. The key discrepancy is the absence of reification in these social formations. Capitalism is dominated by the phantom forces called up by the processes it sets into motion - as we saw in Lukacs's essays on reification. Its predecessors are definitively conditioned by nature: its vagaries predominate over what could be spoken of as the "laws" of feudal society. Feudalism's relationship to nature and its organisation of production and extraction of the surplus is qualitatively different to the corresponding relations in societies where capitalism was beginning to emerge, and mature capitalist societies. Therefore using historical materialism in these different contexts requires subtlety and, especially, an appreciation of the specifics of the era's class struggles.

Returning to the Marxist analysis of mature capitalism, economic relations, despite the autonomy of the economy, are never purely economic. They are shot through with relations of force and the threat of force. They are the sites of countless battles between employers and employees. They are the stuff of class struggle. If we return to the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it did not take place because the new production system maturing in the womb of the old was more productive, its victory, instead, was won because the nascent bourgeoisie won the class struggle against the feudal aristocracy. Lukacs notes there are also historical moments where the class forces representing each mode of production are balanced out. The old system is no longer hegemonic, but the new hasn't been able to stamp society definitively with its character. Engels in the
Origin of the Family pointed out the state can assume an independent role in these circumstances and become the dominating power in society - the absolute monarchies of the 17th and 18th centuries being cases in point.

What definitely didn't happen in the transitional period was a gradual and peaceful takeover of society by economic relations. And so it is with the transformation of capitalism into socialism. The economic plans hatched by the capitalist class to deal with crisis are simultaneously plans of struggle. If the proletariat is mainly passive, as is the case in the present balance of class forces in Britain as it enters a serious recession, and it continues to remain so, the capitalists will struggle to get the working class to pay for the crisis and prepare the ground for future growth. But if the proletariat is conscious, the crisis can bring the class antagonism between socialist production and privatised appropriation out into the open. "Solutions" become objects of struggle - the capitalists and proletariat put forward their positions and battle it out for hegemony. And as with previous transitions between modes of production, what is decisive are the relations of forces.
Violence is the decisive economic factor.

The function of historical materialism changes once again. The tool of historical analysis, the weapon of class struggle, becomes an aid for constructing socialist society if the proletariat wins the class struggle. This is an entirely different situation for it to operate in. But projecting forward, Marx and Engels forecast that a victorious working class would use historical materialism in a context where collective social action is determined by the collective social will, socialisation and democratisation crashes through and transforms institutions, and crucially, labour no longer confronts the working class as an object in thrall to an alien power. And every conscious turn in constructing socialism is a qualitative leap forward in the understanding of historical materialism, which dialectically informs its capacity to assist the conscious regulation of society, and so on. The dialectic of theory and practice finally and permanently become fused.

A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Solidarity with Hicham Yezza

Many readers will be familiar with the case of Algerian-born Hicham Yezza. He, along with Rizwaan Sabir, were arrested at their Notts Uni office back in May under the Terrorism Act. Sabir, whose postgraduate research specialism is fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, downloaded an Al-Qaeda training manual (from an official US government website!) and forwarded it to Yezza for printing. This was picked up by university IT staff, which was passed up the management chain, who in turn informed the police. Both men were taken into custody for six days, and then released without arrest.

It seems they were arrested under suspicion of committing thoughtcrime. Research into extremism involves handling all manner of questionable material, and this a basic given as far as academic values are concerned. But this was not a good enough explanation for the counter-terrorist police. They extensively quizzed Yezza about his activities in Nottingham's anti-war movement, his role as the editor of local magazine,
Ceasefire, and about his comrades on the staff. The Free Hicham campaign reports what happened next:
Not having been charged under the Terrorism Act, Hich was immediately re-arrested minutes after his release for charges under the Immigration Act, in a move that was considered by many (not least Nottingham South MP, Alan Simpson) to be highly political and suspect. Despite Hich’s publicly-declared intention that he was determined to fight the charges in court, and that he was seeking detailed legal advice, an order for a fast-tracked deportation was suddenly issued on May 23 and a deportation flight was scheduled for June 1. The Home Office planned to remove Hich from the U.K. after thirteen years’ of residence less than three weeks after his arrest under the Terrorism Act. Thanks to a huge campaign of protest at this injustice, including the biggest demonstration in the university’s history, a successful legal challenge was mounted and the fast-track deportation was cancelled.

Nonetheless, the Home Office refused to grant Hich temporary release whilst his case was being reconsidered. He subsequently spent a total of three weeks being moved across the country from one Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) to another, in the process spending over twenty-five hours being transported in secured transit vans. During the course of his detention, he endured significant physical as well as emotional pressures from the detention authorities, including a forcible removal from Colnbrook IRC to Dover IRC. On June 16, an application lodged by his legal team to have him released on bail was successful despite strong opposition from the Home Office.
The Home Office have since charged Yezza with immigration-related offences, but offered to drop them if he left the country "quietly". Then came a deal that would have allowed Hich to stay until he had his day in court, a position the Home Office has reneged on. They aim to deport him after a short hearing due on 8th January.

The persecution of Yezza is political. Rather than admit the misuse of the already draconian Terrorism Act the authorities would prefer to hush it up by disposing of their inconvenient victim as quickly as possible. But this is literally a matter of life and death. There are fears Hich could face torture and possible execution if he returns to Algeria. As far as the government is concerned, what's a life against their precious deportation figures? Donations to the campaign and what you can do to help are detailed

Edit 08/03/09: Hicham Yezza update here.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Top Tunes of 2008

We all know the music industry has been holding its collective breath for this moment. The Brits and the Mercury Music Prize are all fine and dandy and nice to have, but the only one that matters is the top ten as determined by your dear host.

Without a shadow of a doubt, 2008 has been a dire year for pop music.
Coldplay disappointed us all by coming back after pledging to stay away for a very long time. Katy Perry was number one for ages with a lame tune that sold by the bucketload. Tip for up and coming stars: faux lesbianism still sells. And, inexplicably, the no-marks from X-Factor continue to shift product. In other words, 2008 was as crap as 2007 for pop.

But all is not lost. There may have been a lot of crud bubbling up through the world of dance (the rise of the
barely-remixed remix; the coming of the Scouse House-specialising radio spin-off, Clubland TV; bassline; the continued existence of Scooter), but there's been some great stuff as well. Here's the coveted AVPS countdown of 2008:

Black and Gold - Sam Sparro
Miracle - Oceanlab
I Lust U - Neon Neon
Body Crash - Buy Now
This Is My Life - Euroband
Crimewave - Crystal Castles
Slave of My Mind - Kiko
Sirens of the Sea - Oceanlab
Blind - Hercules and Love Affair

And here it is, the best tune of 2008,
Armin van Buuren feat. Sharon den Adel with In and Out of Love. Two words: just beautiful. Play it, Sam!

What were your musical highlights of 2008? Anyone you fancy in the new year?

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Most Wanted Nine for 2009

Last year AVPS had a go at this meme. Always keen to fill some space, these are the nine things I would most like to see over the next 12 months, however fanciful or unlikely.

1) For the rumour that Tommy Sheridan's going to end up in
Celebrity Big Brother turns out to be false. The left could do without another of its "personalities" making a fool of themselves, especially now when political space for a credible socialist alternative is opening up. If Sheridan does go on, AVPS will not be rushing to justify his actions.

2) While we're on a Sheridan tip, surely 2009 will be the year the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service will decide to drag the
Sheridan Seven into court. Or not. In my opinion seeing these comrades in court, regardless of the side one took in Sheridan's case against News of the World, will do nothing but damage the left in Scotland all over again. The decision for the COPFS not to prosecute on grounds of insufficient evidence is the best outcome to this very sad affair.

3) For the
RMT-sponsored conference on 10th January to take concrete steps toward setting up a new workers' party (I did say fanciful was okay!)

4) The situations in Bolivia, Venezuela, Greece and Pakistan remain heavily pregnant with possibilities for socialists. The economic crisis could add more countries to this list. I hope 2009 sees these processes play out in a positive direction, which in turn will impact on the formation of class consciousness in other areas of the globe. Let our class be much stronger by the time I write my year in review 12 months hence!

5) I asked for a doubling of the
Socialist Party's and CWI's membership last year. It didn't happen, but the only globally-organised Marxist tendency ;) certainly put on weight in terms of members and influence. In 2009 I would still like to see the doubling, but also for other left organisations and the trade unions to grow well too.

6) 2008 was a mixed year for the right and far right. Let 2009 be a year when the
Tories, the little englanders, the fash, and reaction of all kinds exit stage right.

7) Something has to be said about leftyblogland, I guess. Looking over our community, it's good to see none of the "stalwart" bloggers have come a cropper. New blogs, more connectivity and cohesion, a growing audience, and better relationships between the left and blogs about feminism, LGBT, anti-racism, disabilities activism would be very nice indeed. And essential too.

8) Every year for nearly the last 84 years, the comrades of
Coventry SP have had to fight an election campaign of some kind or another. For their sanity, could Gordon Brown do them a favour and not call a general election in 2009?

9) And last but by no means least, it's high time I finished my
PhD! I hope my efforts will prove sufficient enough to have the blighter completed, bound, and ready for examination by June time.

There we have it, nine most wanted for the last of the noughties. Time to tag nine blogs who will spread the meme far and wide. So how about
Leftwing Criminologist, Harpymarx, Madam Miaow, Jim Jay, Though Cowards Flinch, Stropps, Splinty, Mod, and the newest kid on the blogging block, Bones Without a Sense of Direction. If you're not named, still feel free to let your nine loose on the world!

Friday, 26 December 2008

Girls of the Playboy Mansion

It is said that "respectable" men when confronted with their collection of Playboy magazines claim they "buy it for the articles". Alas, no such argument is available for Girls of the Playboy Mansion (or The Girls Next Door, as it is known in the US). In the UK it is screened on E! channel, the international purveyor of TV chintz, celebrity hagiography and conspicuous consumption. If there is a television show worse than Girls, chances are it will be on the E! schedule.

Each episode follows a familiar and well-worn format. Hugh Hefner's three girlfriends,
Holly Madison (until recently, "Hef's" girlfriend number one), Bridget Marquardt (#2), and Kendra Wilkinson (former girlfriend no. three) typically run about, exclaim everything to be "awesome!", show a bit of skin, and have a party. Their lives seem a relentless round of shopping, meeting the latest Playmates, eating out, playing pranks or buying presents for Hefner and going on tour; in other words, lives lived completely without effort. Their existence outside of the 24 hour party narrative the show constructs sometimes receives the skim treatment. Holly does the occasional bit of sub-editing for Playboy; Bridget has a masters in broadcast journalism and has appeared in several celebrity-based "reality" shows; and Kendra "works" by inhabiting a similar niche in the TV ecology as Bridget. All three have regularly posed for spreads in Playboy, which scarcely rank as drudgery.

Likewise with
Sex and the City, Girls displays a universe in which class and work is bleached out by opulence. But unlike SATC, this bourgeois effortlessness extends to Hefner too. The impression this supposedly behind-the-scenes look into life at the mansion gives is of a man who spends his days draped in silken dressing gowns and his captain's hat while selecting what photographs the next issue of the magazine should feature. The really interesting stuff, such as the political economy of Hefner's (apparently faltering) empire never gets a look-in. The nearest we got to a "true" look at the operation was during a fifth season episode when Holly candidly revealed the Barbie-like criteria required for an anniversary playmate.

Girls is interesting because of the demographic it aims for. The show does feature nudity from time to time, but it is primarily about selling image and lifestyle to young women. Anyone hoping for titillation are guaranteed disappointment. But for those who stick with it, they can expect exaggerated displays of conspicuous femininity and consumerism. The TV environment the "girls" (aged 29, 35 and 23 respectively) inhabit sees them regress to infantalised states, with regard to their styles of speech, their emphasis on play over work, and in their relationship to Hefner. Needless to say, this doesn't convey the most empowering of messages. It suggests that if women conform to the slim-but-large-breasted body type, your best bet at success is to play up your femininity, flaunt your body and submit to the heterosexual ideology of the male gaze. This is where the value of being a woman lies.

This neatly synergises with the rest of the
Playboy empire, and the world of pornography at large. The kinds of subjectivity and body image Girls encourage not only helps develop the habitus appropriate for the incoming generation of women entering the porn and glamour industries, but also reinforces the conforming pressures on women to serve the economy of heterosexual male desire heavily shaped by the images it promotes.

Girls is shamelessly trashy, but far from harmless. Disinfect your TV after viewing.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Overcoming Reification

The third and final part of Lukacs's essay on reification and alienation, 'The Standpoint of the Proletariat', deals with the experience of reification and how it can be overcome.

As we have seen in the previous posts, reification is only possible on a mass scale with the coming of capitalist society. As commodification draws in more and more social relations and subjects them to its thrall, this not only makes possible the phenomena of mass consciousness, but also its immediate impregnation and moulding by reification. However, reification is experienced differently across the classes. For the bourgeoisie reification feels reassuringly familiar. The abstract position of the individual vs an object-oriented social world can easily be read off from the competitive relationships between capitals and the relation capital has with the inputs that enable accumulation. Reification for the bourgeoisie endows them a subjective position that broadly corresponds to their objective relationships and allows them to function in them. It is different for the working class. Its experience of reification engenders a sense of disempowerment and being-dehumanised. In as far as the reified subjectivity of proletarians matches that of the bourgeoisie it is fleeting and transient.

Lukacs argues the difference in how reification acts upon the classes can be illustrated by philosophy; by comparing their respective methods of historical inquiry. Utilising the example of the machine, for Lukacs bourgeois economics traditionally conceptualises it as a discrete, autonomous entity. But the functions machinery discharge in the production process reappear in bourgeois thought in a contorted form: as its immutable, individual essence. From this reified perspective the production process appears as a series of disjointed independent objects whose meanings and roles derive not from the part they play in production, but from their internal essences. The solution, as Lukacs puts it:
If change is to be understood at all it is necessary to abandon the view that objects are rigidly opposed to each other, it is necessary to elevate their interrelatedness and the interaction between these 'relations' and the 'objects' to the same plane of reality. The greater the distance from pure immediacy the larger the net encompassing the 'relations', and the more complete the integration of the objects within the system of relations, the sooner change will cease to be impenetrable and catastrophic, the sooner it will become comprehensible. (Lukacs 1968, p.154).
This is precisely what bourgeois thought cannot do. It is predisposed toward prising apart subject and object, and dissolving reality into rival perspectives whose main 'achievements' are a celebration of the irrational of the real; or a subsumption of everything to highly abstract and over-theorised formal rules; or the development of pretty shallow concepts content to describe the immediate appearances of capitalist society without excavating beneath the surface. In short, bourgeois thought is trapped within the terms of reification, which in turn is fulled by the (unconscious) collective experience of the bourgeoisie as the ruling class.

Lukacs demonstrates above the fundamental difference proletarian thought has vis its opposite number. It proceeds from an understanding of the position the class occupies in history in the present, and the process by which it came into being. As far as Lukacs is concerned, it is a philosophy dependent on conceiving history as an interconnected process, as a totality. But there's more. Immediacy is the limiting horizon of bourgeois thought. Empiricism, the worship of accomplished fact, is as far as it can go. But the first move of proletarian philosophy is to puncture immediacy. As the subaltern class in capitalism, workers are subject to the full force of the system. Employment/unemployment, enfranchisement/disenfranchisement, development/underdevelopment, sexism, racism, homophobia, inequalities and environmental despoliation is the concrete experience of our class as a collective. But for the bourgeoisie, cosseted as they are at the pinnacle of their system, in general the struggle of the working class with these forces exist as abstractions for them.

In a sense, the working class exists as a hypothesis where the bourgeoisie are concerned. They are things-in-themselves akin to Kant's noumena and belong to the system of objects, no different to any other resource that can be manipulated to meet their ends. But labour is qualitatively different to the other elements of accumulation. Labour can be trained to produce commodities and fulfill the tasks desired by their employers, in return for a wage. But it can become conscious of its situation. Labour power is the only commodity that can create value, and simultaneously conscious of itself as a commodity. For Lukacs this introduces something new into commodity relations - what is the objective other outside capitalist experience is the social reality, the terrain of concrete, sensuous experience for the working class. Therefore, as the bourgeoisie works to expand the universe of commodity production, the proletariat emerges with its distinctive interests and modes of thought that reflect this experience.

What this means for reification is a tension between proletarian existence and the forms of thought the former engenders. It is limited by the extent to which labour power is commodified. Consciousness, for the majority of wage earners, is not sold in the same way as it is for bureaucrats, stratas of management and salaried professionals - "the more deeply reification penetrates into the soul of the man who sells his achievement as a commodity, the more deceptive appearances are" (p.172). Their work demands they submit more totally to reified thought. They are about administrating the system, which requires they adopt the habits of reified thought typically associated with their masters. These layers are blind to reification too and are likely to lapse into status consciousness.

However, returning to the working class and reification, Lukacs is careful to avoid suggesting that the positioning of the proletariat under capitalism means an automatic overcoming of reification. Throwing the working class together in social production is an essential prerequisite, but it is not sufficient in and of itself. The consciousness arising from the proletarian standpoint has to be deepened by developing its understanding of history. From this point of view, what appears as the effect of irrational behaviour or forces of nature for the bourgeoisie are grasped as products of human activity, and can be understood as such and worked upon to transform them. This possibility requires not only the abolition of the immediacy of reified relations in thought, but also recognising the possibility and desirability/necessity of their supersession through practical activity. Once this position is achieved, if the latter is discarded there is always a danger of a slip back into fetishised thought. The struggle to retain this is to keep the fusion of theory and practice going, which is simultaneously the act of history becoming conscious of itself. And it is the working class that is the material agent embodying this consciousness, which by its efforts as a conscious agent can put it into practice through the construction of socialism:
Reification ... can be overcome only by constant and constantly renewed efforts to disrupt the reified structure of existence by concretely relating to to the concretely manifested contradictions of the total development (p.197)
The wedding of theory to working class political practice is the master key for overcoming reification. Theory, derived as it is from the totality of proletarian experience, plots the coordinates of action by judging where it can be best applied. Therefore, proletarian thought is eminently practical and pragmatic. Truth is tested by practice, and its ultimate success is determined by the extent the proletariat is formed into a class for itself, that is the first class in history not only conscious of its circumstances, but conscious of what needs to be done to transform society according to its interests. This is the point where the subject and object of history, a split that runs through bourgeois thought, is reconciled in practice. In Lukacs's phrase, when the working class is fully conscious, it is the identical subject-object of history.

'The Standpoint of the Proletariat' is a treasure trove of insights and arguments about the lacunae of classical philosophy, the relation between species being and nature, and the place humanism occupies in Marxism. But Lukacs's fusion of theory and practice is his enduring message, and one that has become more timely as we enter the present period of crisis.

A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Can the Left Argue Honestly?

A consistently frustrating feature of the British far left for me is our polemical culture. There's nothing wrong with debates between different socialists and rival currents, in my opinion, though I suppose it could be off-putting to the casual observer. All the more reason for arguments to appear measured, comradely, and concerned with getting to the truth of the matter. Unfortunately it is very rare we reach this standard, and shows our movement still has a lot of growing up to do.

Take this line from Alex Callinicos's
contribution to number four of the SWP's pre-conference bulletin, for example:
The problem is compounded by the fact that we have seen the most important working- class action this year – the public-sector pay revolt – collapse in the last couple of months. This is all the more significant because it was the doing of the left wing of the union bureaucracy. This partly because of the pessimism of large sections of the left – the apparent belief of the Socialist Party, for example, that economic recession automatically means a collapse in working-class resistance.
As a member of the Socialist Party and a reader of its publications, this came as a bit of a shock to me. It makes you wonder how the SP can simultaneously hold the belief that we're entering a more favourable period for socialist ideas while the very agency of those ideas, the working class, is politically paralysed. Is this a case of dialectics moving in mysterious ways? Or is it a clumsy misreading of the SP's position by brother Callinicos? It's certainly a case of the latter. The nearest SP publications have come to describing such a scenario is the idea the economic downturn could stun sections of the working class. And guess what, there is some evidence this is happening. Take for example the acceptance by JCB workers of wage cuts in return for no job losses, as opposed to a struggle to defend their position (an agreement management has already reneged on). Or take the Woolworth's fiasco - there is resistance, but primarily of a petitioning/Facebook campaigning character. See the narrow vote in the PCS ballot for strike action. Some of the responsibility can be heaped in the sections of the trade unions, but it tends not to be the case of bureaucrats derailing action. Rather it's a case of the passivity of the membership that let them get away with doing very little, which itself is a legacy of decades of neoliberal attacks. But whatever, recognising how a recession can impact on some parts of the class in the short term is not it is the same thing as saying that recession means a collapse in working class resistance, is it?

Unfortunately, this has probably gone down into SWP legend, alongside the fiction the SP is weak on LGBT rights, we do not stand in elections, and all members are required to carry a photo of the executive in their purses and wallets. But this is a two way street, and it's only fair and balanced we take a look at the myths that have aggregated around an SWP position. And the one that comes to mind is
Tony Cliff's theory of the downturn in the class struggle, which he formulated in the late 1970s. This theory was not, as it immediately appears, an argument that class struggle was going to be less intense in the 1980s. Instead it was a forecast that workers' disputes would tend to be of a defensive character. Not all struggles, but the general trend would be in this direction. It was not an iron law and could have been changed by, say, the victory of the miners. But it has become generally accepted that Cliff and his comrades had come up with a recipe for passivity - the same crime Callinicos accuses the SP today!

All too often workers in the polemical foundry take opponents' political positions and bend them into shapes unrecognisable to their author. This is used to attribute foolishness to that position, which in turn feed into the established divisions on the left. Wouldn't it be better to take arguments in their own terms and respond to them as they stand? How about it? Is it too much to expect the far left to develop a polemical culture that owes more to understanding and solidarity over invective and distortion?

Saturday, 20 December 2008

'Nice' Capitalism

If you believe some of the crap right-wing bloggers and commentators write, Robert Peston, the chap pictured to the left, is the man responsible for the cataclysm that has engulfed Britain's banking system. The spectre of Marx no longer haunts the nightmares of your average city traders. Instead it is the demonic face of the BBC's business editor that has earned a place in their deepest anxieties. And now, Peston's at it again. At the risk of incurring the displeasure of all those who've grown fat on the neoliberal diet of deregulation and privatisation, Peston has forecast the emergence of a new, 'nicer' capitalism is just around the corner. The question is, can this forecast be justified?

Peston's report starts off with a line up of what the next 12 months are likely to bring. And these are, unsurprisingly, reduced consumer spending, job cuts and a continuation of market volatility. But unlike a run-of-the-mill recession, if that's what you could call the Tory bust of the early 90s, this crisis "will affect the relationship between business and government, between taxpayers and the private sector, between employers and employees, between investors and companies". But, apparently, in a much nicer way.

The debt crisis has knocked the stuffing out of global capital and battered the confidence of the once-invincible Masters of the Universe. And what is more they have no solutions to the predicament. All they have proven capable of doing is to crow ignorantly against the vast bail outs by governments. Against one, albeit hitherto hegemonic section of capital, the likes of Brown and Bush have, by their actions, asserted the interests of capital-in-general. For Peston, "the system's salvation may require it to be kinder, gentler, less divisive, less of a casino where winner takes all".

The new capitalism, propped up as it is by taxpayers' cash, has opened key sectors of the economy to political pressure, and as more firms go cap in hands to government over the short to medium term, this space is likely to widen. As Peston argues, the private sector will have to behave in a way that legitimates the use of public monies. In theory it means more management visibility and accountability, a greater understanding of the problems and anxieties facing employees, and fewer inflated salaries with astronomical bonuses. However, for Peston this should not go hand in hand with a new protectionism, which he believes would reverse the 'gains' of globalisation.

Unfortunately Peston's speculations end there. But where he drops the baton, Jonathan Rutherford and 'left' Labour MP, Jon Cruddas take it up in their latest contribution to Liberal Conspiracy. They argue the crisis and the interventions the government have been forced offer a political opening to the left. They argue for the development of new business models, structures of corporate governance and packages of new regulatory mechanisms that the banks will be subject to prior to their being returned to the private sector. At the centre of their plan is a national strategic investment bank that would be the driver of planned economic development, such as infrastructural and sustainable development, and all this would proceed alongside a process of rebuilding local democratic institutions. In short, what Rutherford and Cruddas offer is a 'new' social democracy for our times.

There are problems though. Rutherford and Cruddas have a vision that does not go far enough. It is even tame by social democratic standards. For example, looking at the experience of the past 30 years, is it really a good idea to return the banks to the private sector? Theirs is a strategy entirely governed by the paradigm of keeping capitalism going, hence the lip service paid to democracy, and then at the margins of their proposals. A socialist strategy would entail nationalising the lot but under the democratic control of those who work and bank there, and also with input from the government. Socialisation and stabilisation are the socialist watchwords.

But Peston, Rutherford and Cruddas are right to identify the existence of a new political space. Social democrats can argue it offers an opportunity to tame the capitalist beast. Socialists could use it as a wedge to argue for more thoroughgoing measures that point beyond commodity production and exploitation. However, at present, there are no significant social forces won to either perspective. Because the labour movement remains at a low ebb and our class is largely unorganised, what is the likelihood of either approach winning out in the battle of ideas in the short term? At the moment Rutherford and Cruddas's ideas are like the strategies of the far left: straws in the wind. However, at least the far left are out there week after week putting their alternatives across to the public. Since New Labour has been gutted of most of its social-democrat aligned activists, who's going to spread their reform-minded gospel?

Friday, 19 December 2008

Branch Meeting: Not the Christmas Quiz!

The sturdy proletarians of Stoke Socialist Party met last night for the brightest event on our calendar. Forget Socialism, regional meetings, the branch AGM and the national conference. None hold a candle to the festive winterval extravaganza that is the Stoke SP Christmas Quiz! Who can resist the carefully selected bottle of the finest wine and the glory of the bragging rights for the next year? Not I!

Without further ado here are the 19 questions compiled by Sister M (not pictured). You can check the answers in the comments box and let the world know your scores. So, are comrades sitting comfortably? Then I will begin:

1) Who wrote the
News from Nowhere?

2) In what country has there been recent rioting over the killing of a teenage activist by the police?

3) What date (dd/mm/yy) was Iraq invaded by the US-UK led coalition?

4) Which union has launched a witch-hunt against four of its own activists?

5) Who won this year's US elections (aside from the American ruling class)?

6) Who wrote
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists?

7) Which member of the
Socialist Party is standing in the USDAW presidential elections?

8) Who failed to sell its 800 outlets for one pound?

9) Who said no to the Lisbon Treaty in June?

10) What do the initials 'NSSN' stand for?

11) Whose membership list was leaked onto the internet?

12) Who stopped a Chinese arms shipment to Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe?

13) Which film director supported the Shelter workers when they went on strike earlier in the year?

14) What anniversary did the NHS celebrate this year?

15) How many years is it since the guns fell silent in the Great War?

16) What was the name of the migrant worker who was killed by the police in Stockwell tube station?

17) Which 13 year old cooperative closed in January?

18) Who said "we are and always will be pro-enterprise and pro-competition as a government"? And where was it said?

19) Which publication started haunting the ruling classes across Europe 160 years ago this year, and who was it authored by?

Now turn to the comments for the answers and find out if you beat the branch champion ...

Thursday, 18 December 2008

John Rees and Revolutionary Elitism

Just what the world needs, another post on the ongoing ructions in the SWP! Well, as a blogger I'm a firm believer in difference through repetition, so I will allow myself the indulgence of tackling some of the issues around the debate in the SWP, particularly the semi-official discussion document on "united fronts", socialist recruitment and leadership, by John Rees (pictured). Also it's not like me to plug the Weekly Worker these days, but sect-kremlinologist extraordinaire, Peter Manson, has written a rather good commentary that puts some flesh on the factional bones.

But first things first I want to address the complaints some SWP comrades have been making on the relevant discussions over at
Socialist Unity about the public nature of debate, before moving on to some of the points in Rees's document that demonstrate differences between how the SWP has traditionally built their organisation, and how the Socialist Party has built ours.

A few comrades have expressed their frustrations at these discussions being leaked because it's "not fair" non-members should get to read them before most of the membership have had the chance to talk about them in their branches. There's also the suggestion that seeing public discussions about the issues by non-members would somehow impact negatively on that taking place inside the party. So I asked myself whether things would be much different if the shoe was on the other foot and it was the SP that was leaking documents right, left and centre in the middle of an important strategic dispute? While it would be nice for members to see and discuss the issues first, is the sky going to come crashing in if documents are publicly available elsewhere? Second, might they not enhance the reputation of the organisation concerned among class conscious workers and socialist activists who take an interest in these sorts of debates? Couldn't it be seen as an opportunity to engage with an intelligent and active periphery who during the course of a public debate be drawn closer to the party? And finally, how can an organisation hope to withstand the tough conditions of a revolutionary situation if it is brittle enough to come apart when a few discussion documents escape the orbit of its membership? Facts are in this day and age
all organisations are significantly leakier - if a revolutionary organisation of more than a few dozen members is having a debate chances are the arguments will turn up somewhere in public. This is a reality we're all going to have to get used to.

Rant over.

John Rees's document is a most interesting piece, outlining as it does the positions that mark him off from his erstwhile fellow central committee members. Brother Rees is understandably angered by the shoddy way he has been treated by the leadership. He points out that the
Respect experience - how the SWP operated within it, the strategy it promoted for the formation, and its collective response to Galloway's mild criticisms were all backed to the hilt by the central committee. With the dropping of Rees from the outgoing CC's recommended slate due to be placed before the 2009 conference, it's clear to all that in the absence of a critique of Rees and of a thorough-going self-criticism, it is he who's being made the patsy for everything that has happened. Be sure you have to accept a large dollop of myth-making to go along with Rees's Respect narrative, but he is correct to write "to reduce the complex history of the very real successes and the demoralising demise of Respect to the failures of one comrade is doing a disservice to everyone who was involved or wants to learn from the experience".

For Rees the road leading to his downfall began last November, shortly after the two wings of Respect had split. The issue was recruitment to the SWP. Lindsey German had produced a document on the issue, which earned her a denunciation at the CC meeting from national secretary, Martin Smith. It seems sister German had mentioned the unmentionable, which Rees now repeats: why has the SWP not recruited as well as it should have done, given a more favourable turn in the political situation and the work it has done among various movements and campaigns? His answer is that some of it is partly due to the "classless" character of radicalisation, and partly because the SWP hasn't been geared up enough to take advantage of its opportunities. The party should have done more "united front" activity, and have promoted itself more aggressively inside them. Instead the party developed an uneven membership as it pursued the anti-capitalist/global justice and anti-war movements with those members who were willing to go along with the optimistic perspectives the CC developed for them. The result was a layer of members who were utterly disoriented and came to see the problems with Respect as a fractional problem for that element of the party engaged in that work, and not a something the party as a whole should take up. While Rees is happy to hold his hands up to the problems attendant of an uneven strategy, he clearly implies that other elements on the CC were not pulling their weight - instead they seemed happy just to get the members paying their direct debits so the SWP's "permanent" financial crisis does not come home to roost.

It is good that Rees sees no future for the SWP in a retreat into its sectarian bunker. Unfortunately, it is less desirable that he fetishises the role of the leadership. As he puts it, "to do anything in the party the leadership must, in a certain sense, exaggerate. You have to overcome the natural inertia that exists in any organisation. Organisations have set patterns of work inherited from the past, ways of doing things, tried and tested methods that were developed and set in place for good reason ... if you want organisations and the people who compose them to change they must be political convinced, motivated and the inertia within them has to be counteracted. You have to ‘bend the stick’". It seems what Rees has in mind is substitutionism whereby the leadership substitutes itself for the membership, which is an amorphous (mini?) mass who do not play any role in determining the fate of their organisation. It is as if the "jobs, homes, lives around which political activity has to be fitted in" are a barrier to the party, to possessing the right political judgement, which is uniquely the province of the full time activists. Surely, if one wants to be old-fashioned and Marxist about these matters, having revolutionaries who are immersed full-time in an apparatus that, in Rees's words, "is necessarily devoted to raising money rather than raising the number of members"
leading the organisation is a very bad idea. It is a recipe for isolation from the lives and experiences of our class and insulates the leaders from properly understanding the strategies and tactics best able to connect with it. The voice of the wider membership who are connected by a million and one ties to the class are dismissed.

I think this is one key difference between the SWP and SP. While it is true the SP possesses a full time apparatus and is led by an executive committee of full time activists, the distortions and the by-passing/denigration of the rank-and-file does not happen. Why? Going from my experience, it appears that SP full timers, including those who work in the national office, remain very much rooted in the life of the branches. Building sustainable and self-perpetuating branches through the development of local political strategies is the way the SP builds its organisation, and is something every member of the party is involved in. It means full timers out in the regions find their work guided more by local branch strategy than recruitment and fund-raising targets issued by the centre. By virtue of this method leading cadres are able to keep their feet on the ground and make them better able to assimilate the lessons from the branches when it comes to the development of new analyses and strategies. It's not a perfect system and I'm sure ex-comrades have their atrocity stories, but by and large it serves the SP well.

SWP comrades could do a lot worse than take Rees's advice about turning outwards, but they should also look at how their comrades over in the SP do things rather than lapse into revolutionary elitism.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Playing God

When I'm not doing university work or party stuff my relaxation time is divided up between blogging, flapjacks, reading, oatmeal and raisin cookies and (occasionally) the classic seven-year old computer game, Civilisation III. For readers unfamiliar with the game, the player begins at the dawn of human history with a single settler. You found a city, build military units, erect an infrastructure, build more settlers, found more cities, and so on. For you to succeed in winning the game the player needs to successfully combine the roles of chancellor, scientist, diplomat, cultural patron, and general to ensure you retain that competitive edge over your rivals.

Assuming almost God-like powers over your civilisation, building an empire over 6,000 years of human history can be completely absorbing. Each victory condition requires different strategies to win, and all the opponents are pursuing their particular take on world domination. You might want to build cultural artefacts and great wonders in peace, but you'd better be prepared for enemy armies snaking over your borders ...

What is interesting about Civilisation III are the things it says about the nature of the nation, its gendered division of labour, the character of history and bourgeois consciousness. Who knew computer games could brim over with all manner of not-so-obvious ideological goodies?

Beginning first with gender, the first point of interest is the graphic representation of population in the game. These come under two broad types: the units and the citizenry. The former are characterised by their mobility and manipulability. There are dozens of different units capable of particular functions and tied to a certain level of technological development. Workers and settlers respectively build infrastructure and found cities, while military units provide the means to defend the home territory or attack the neighbours on land, and later sea and air. The second kind of representation is more or less passive. These are the population of the cities themselves. Here the player directs the citizenry to produce whatever is required, be it units or infrastructure that increases the city’s performance. The population is graphically rendered by a row of faces along the bottom of the city screen indicating whether they’re happy, content, or sad. The player has to ensure that the latter do not outnumber the enthusiastic citizens or the city will fall into civil disorder, ceasing production and tax contributions until the balance has been restored. Finally, the player is provided with five advisers whose responsibility is to oversee the domestic, military, trade, diplomatic, cultural, and scientific aspects of the civilisation. Their function is to provide advice.

What is significant to note is that all units are either male or gender-neutral. The settlers are men with backpacks and the workers go from bare chested loin-clothed slaves to men in dungarees. Up until the discovery of motorised transport all land military units are discernibly male, from Conan the Barbarian look-alikes to extras from Saving Private Ryan. Then they come to be replaced by tanks, mechanised infantry, and modern armour. On the sea and in the air boats and planes represent the military. The only female unit to have appeared in the
Civ franchise – the spy – did not survive the cross over from the second to the third game. Women however do have equal graphical representation on the domestic front. The gender split in the cities and on the advisors panel is 50/50. Yet it is the positions occupied by women and men on the latter that is most telling. The domestic advisor, alongside the trade and culture representatives are women. The men on the other hand are responsible for the military, science, and foreign affairs. In terms of the game mechanics, the ‘female aspects’ are concerned with the internal operation of a civilisation whereas the aspects that explicitly attempts to provide a competitive edge over rival nations is the preserve of men. Therefore Civ III sets up a privileged binary in which men perform the active and visible role of exploiting the land, conquering new territories whereas women are effectively privatised and invisible, relegated to the boring tasks of advising the player on the budget or recommending the building of more temples. Yet despite this graphical privileging of men over women, the game engine does not deny the importance of the domestic space. A civilisation with a well-run economy, high cultural rating, and happy populace in all likelihood implies a powerful and technically advanced military. The male/female binary operates at the surface of the game, at the level of graphical representation whereas the actual mechanics itself recognises their dialectical interdependence.

There is a more fundamental ‘forgetting’ that is located in the way the game plays: a repression of conflict. At first glance this appears an absurd claim to make. One of the chief pleasures of
Civ III is amassing an army and sending it over the border to annex a juicy city or territory, repulsing the counter-attacks as you go. The game encourages this style of play; three out of the victory conditions depend on military action. But what the game does is perform a ruse similar to that found in bourgeois philosophies of history: conflict is externalised. Using my most recent game as the English as an example, it began at 4000 BC with a settler, a worker, and a scout. The first act was to establish London, then found more cities and eventually colonising/conquering a good proportion of the world’s surface. In that time the English went from spear-chucking cavemen ruled over by a despot to a vast metropolitan democracy with a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Despite these dramatic changes, the civilisation was as English in 2000 BC as it was in 2000 AD; it remained orange on the territorial map, and the rule of Elizabeth I was uninterrupted. In other words, the game evokes a discourse of the nation and constructs it as an essential continuity. This is reinforced by the way the player has to relate to their chosen civilisation. Civ 3 positions the player as a god-like manager who has to guide their nation through 6000 years of history, therefore the essential continuity is also established at this level, through the act of playing the game.

What does this continuity have to do with conflict? Earlier it was noted how the player must manage the happiness of their city dwellers otherwise the city would fall into disorder, temporarily suspending the contribution it makes to the civilisation. From the standpoint of game management, when it does occur it is usually a small inconvenience. However, when the player wishes to progress to a more efficient kind of government the whole civilisation tends to fall into anarchy. This is the most threatening moment in the game. Being unable to adequately feed the population, raise money, or build anything; it is a potentially life-threatening situation that other civilisations could take advantage of. Though order is eventually restored and the game continues, the moment of anarchy is where
Civ III’s discourse starts to unravel. Despite trying to repress internal conflict by programming it as a transient phenomena and not allowing it to alter the distinct identity of the civilisation, it nevertheless erupts out of this moment and begins to destabilise the discourse of national continuity that the Civ III game engine evokes. It suggests that not all interests are identical with that of the nation and that there are always struggles that cannot be assimilated by a frame that reads history through nationalist spectacles. Therefore from this ‘inconvenient’ moment in play, the beginnings of a repressed history of patternless conflict between classes and groups begins to infect the national-continuity metaphysic, threatening the discursive foundations on which Civ III is based.

Then there is the standpoint of management itself, which is the distillation of the individual bourgeois point of view. As we have seen time and again in the various posts to this blog on Lukacs'
History and Class Consciousness, reality confronts the bourgeois individual as an unalterable and alien set of laws that can nevertheless be plotted and responded to to satisfy one's egoistic needs and accumulate capital. All the elements - levels of resources, luxuries, entertainers and specialist citizens, production - are so much objects to be managed. There appears to be no qualitative differences between them. The game engine of Civ III confronts the casual gamer in much the same way as any other computer game - one acquires a feel of the game, an understanding of its mechanics and develops strategies that can makes the best of the situation. But control is illusive (unless you dig into the game code) and there is always a possibility your opponents could turn against your carefully-crafted position, you suffer several nuclear meltdowns, or the world slides into runaway global warming.

All that said, it does not mean one cannot enjoy games like
Civ - it just means keeping your wits about you and realising the habits of mind so-called God-games engender ...