Showing posts with label Marxism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Marxism. Show all posts

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Capitalism and Social Movement Theory

You don't have to be steeped in social theory to realise that the kind of society we live in is bound to have a huge impact on the things that happen in that society. And yet social movement scholarship these last 20 years has acted as if this law of sociological gravity does not apply. But when the theoretical perspective that consistently gives the weight of wider social relations due recognition is Marxism, you can understand why some scholars might prefer to fight shy of integrating capitalism into the analysis of movements. But it's not just a matter of political reticence. The kind of Marxism passed off as Marxism is mechanical, clunky, economically determinist and crudely reduces everything to narrow understandings of class. If that's Marxism then, how could it possibly make sense of social movements around women, race, sexuality, disability and nationality?

Well, in my opinion, it can. And so do social movement scholars Gabriel Holland and Jeff Goodwin. Given the history of social theory since the unlamented demise of the USSR, sometimes the basics of a Marxist approach need restating time and again. Their 'The Strange Disappearance of Capitalism from Social Movement Studies' article in the excellent (but ludicrously expensive) Marxism and Social Movements does just this. Here's a segment summing up why Marxian methodology is vital for getting to grips with all kinds of movements.
Capitalist institutions (factories, railroads, banks, and so on) or institutions that capitalists may come to control (such as legislatures, courts and police) are often the source or target of popular grievances, especially (but not only) during times of economic crisis; these institutions, moreover, shape collective identities and solidarities - not just class solidarities - in particular ways; they also distribute power and resources unevenly to different social classes and fractions of classes; they both facilitate and inhibit specific group alliances based on common or divergent interests; class divisions, furthermore, often penetrate and fracture political movements; and ideologies and cultural assumptions linked to capitalism powerfully shape movement strategies and demands. The effects of capitalism on collective action ... are both direct and indirect (that is, mediated by other processes) and are the result of both short- and long-term processes. 
Holland and Goodwin, in Barker et al (eds) 2013, p.85
Stated this way, it's common sense. For a case study on social movement history that operates with these principles, I recommend this book.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Herbert Marcuse on Dialectical Logic

In order to really know an object, one must grasp and investigate all sides of the object, all its relations and 'mediations' ... Second, dialectical logic requires that the object be taken in its development, in its 'self-movement' ... in its transformation. Third, the whole of human praxis must enter into the 'definition' of the object, as well as the critique of its truth, since as a practical determination the object is bound together with what is necessary to man. Fourth, the dialectical logic teaches that 'there is no abstract truth'; truth is always concrete.
Cit Douglas Kellner (1984), Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism, p.52.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Why the Great War Was Not Stopped

A century on and the establishment are still soft-soaping it. So no Dave, no. Britain didn't declare war against Germany for the sake of poor little Belgium, the rights of small nations or for the defence of neutrality. Those then groaning under the weight of our empire might have had a thing or two to say about these matters after all. These were the good reasons. The real reasons, which did not make war an inevitability, was acting to prevent French and Belgian channel ports from becoming German naval bases, and putting the Wilhelmine upstart back into its box. Cold, hard interests carried the day in the lead up to the declaration. Humanitarian concern was so much flim-flammery.

The question is why was this senseless and utterly unnecessary slaughter allowed to happen? Recall the extraordinary Basel Congress of the Second International in 1912. It passed a manifesto declaring the following:
If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.

In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.
Fine words. Stirring words. This was not the rhetoric of some cranky sect gathered in Switzerland's version of Conway Hall either. The Second International was a mass movement. Its sections ranged from important working class parties to organisations numbering millions of members, affiliates and supporters. The German Social Democrats were the jewel in the crown, and its formal commitment to Marxism provided the International its shared intellectual reference point. Yet with the outbreak of war, Lenin reportedly fell off his chair and condemned his copy of Vorwärts (the SPD's paper) a forgery for reporting that the party's deputies had unanimously voted for war credits in the Reichstag. How did the mighty movement committed to turning imperialist war into class war fall apart? Why did sections of the Second International, with a few exceptions - most notably the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks), rally to their national colours?

The contemporary revolutionary opposition lay responsibility for international socialism's betrayal at the feet of its leaders, and the argument has changed little in the intervening century. Rather than doing the right, revolutionary thing, the official Marxists of Germany, Austria and France, and the Labourists of Britain took the opportunist road, of treading the path of least resistance. Yet this was not a failure of nerve. Long before 1914 Rosa Luxemburg was regularly polemicising against the revisionism and opportunism of the SPD line. Her argument was that for a clique within international Social Democracy, their position as party and union bureaucrats invested them in the small gain here, the compromise there. They had become mediators of the relation between capital and labour. When push came to shove they jumped into the nationalist camp of war to maintain their privileged position, and were happy to deliver the factory and battlefield fodder to imperial interests. Lenin had made a not too dissimilar analysis of trade unionism and the class struggle in his maligned and misunderstood What is to be Done?. When he returned to his senses he took Luxemburg's basic position and argued the collapse of the International was thanks to a 'labour aristocracy' encompassing party and union bureaucracies, but taking in all kinds of layers of relatively privileged workers. While also dependent on selling their labour power for a wage, their higher living standards were brought by the "super profits" extracted from the colonies. As beneficiaries from colonialism, they had an immediate interest in maintaining empires and therefore acted as bourgeois contaminants in the workers' movement. As they had extended their sway through those movements, so social democratic and labour parties succumbed to reformism and, latterly, chauvinism and war fever.

This tale, with little modification, still passes for an explanation in Trotskyist and Stalinist circles. It is, however, obviously false. Not only was no evidence forthcoming proving the transfer of "super profits", but it also neglected to mention that Germany's "empire" was economically negligible, and Austro-Hungary had no colonies at all. Their wealth stemmed not from imperial plunder but international markets in economic competition with the other great powers. The second problem is an implied elitism, of assuming that where the leaders go the masses shall meekly follow. Had your Eberts, your Scheidemanns, your Hendersons, et al rallied workers to the class war banner then the July crisis would have grown over into a crisis of capitalism.

While the argument is a non-starter, it does avoid having to ask awkward questions about the political capacity of Europe's working class at that time. In Britain, the first six months of 1914, there were over 40 million strike days - only the strikes of 1921 and 1926 saw greater numbers taking industrial action. That July, St Petersburg was paralysed by 135,000 workers taking strike action and calling for the monarchy's abolition. Workers were conscious of their interests and were quite prepared to stand up for them in the workplace and against the authorities. How to explain the about face, of militancy evaporating and millions flocking to sign up? To answer the question is to put a huge question mark over the viability of revolutionary socialist politics. While Luxemburg and Lenin were right that the upper echelons of the labour movement had become integrated into their respective national capitalisms, so had the majority of workers themselves. Far from plain sailing, nevertheless Britain was a representative democracy of sorts and had improved the lot of working people through piecemeal grind here, strike action there. Ditto for imperial Germany and republican France. The parties and organisations of workers had wrested significant concessions from bosses and governments. Allied to rising living standards, pragmatism appeared to work. This was the early phase of the attempted institutionalisation of class conflict, and it seemed to be working. The majority of workers had a stake in the bourgeois state, in their nation. Conversely, despite double-digit growth, Tsarism in Russia and its struggle to maintain the autocracy actively stymied the rise of its growing working class. By denying it a stake in their system, Russian proletarians were more combative, more open to revolutionary ideas, more likely to resist the call to war - and even then they were not totally immune.

As organised labour movements found their feet and successfully prosecuted their interests it's small wonder the increasing sense of advance, of security, of solidarity contributed to nationalism's mass appeal. Hence when declarations of war were met with outbreaks of class peace, it was the case the leaders were following the workers, not the other way round. The Socialist International was not able to prevent the war because the working class enthusiastically went along with it. It wasn't just the lamps that went out across Europe one hundred years ago. The hope European capitalism could be brought down by revolutionary socialism was snuffed out too.

Image: Crowds celebrate in Trafalgar Square after Britain declares war on Germany.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Inequality and British Capitalism

As we saw the other day, inequality has become so pathological that capitalism could seize up. When lucrative markets are locked down, when governments bow and scrape to big business, when social mobility is choked off, and the unobtainable opulence of the vanishingly few is crassly paraded in front of the many, capitalism is going out of its way to court an existential crisis. Though, of course, there is no one as such to blame for this state of affairs. And that's the most terrifying thing about the system. Capitalism is blind. Market-driven production for profit means our economics are only interested in basic human needs if there's money to be made. It's how hunger in the advanced nations can co-exist with Google Glass. It's how worsening climate change runs alongside the "greenest government ever" making it even easier to allow fracking. Forget the invisible hand - we need to talk about the invisible wrecking-ball. This is why the likes of Nick Hanauer has to pen memos to his fellow plutocrats about inequality, because left to its own devices capitalism will drive itself off a cliff.

What does inequality mean to British politics? Everything. There are many kinds of inequality out there, but in Britain, the world's first capitalist nation, its politics has long reflected the class relations capitalism produces and depends on. The Conservative Party was - and still is - a coalition of land, business and finance. And Labour, basically, a coalition of everyone else. The former represents money made from the labour of others, the latter the labourers who make money for others. So when it comes to the question of inequality, where do the parties sit? How do they address the problem?

Well, the Conservatives do not. We are told the Tories have a long-term economic plan. Dave and co are eager to utter those words at every available opportunity. But do they, really? More on that another time. For now, whether in possession of an economic plan or not, they certainly do not have a programme for addressing inequality. In fact, is it even recognised as a problem? Clearly not. For them, inequality is good. Rip out the social security safety net and you have a mass of people who, of necessity, will queue up for the latest zero hours, minimum-wage offering down the dole office. And this is a good thing. If you're ever fortunate enough to receive a ministerial letter from the DWP, they wax lyrical about the mental a physical health benefits of being in work. Low paid work encourages employees to graft harder, to work their way up the greasy pole. It demands discipline and self-responsibility. Best of all, low wages are attractive to overseas investors. Where else in Western Europe can you find a benign corporate tax regime, excellent transport links to the continent, and an educated work force on the cheap?

Previously, I've mentioned, from the standpoint of British capitalism, how dysfunctional the Tories are. They are, but that's because they pursue the short-termist logic of individual capitals. Every business strives to produce commodities at minimum cost, thereby reducing the risk each commodity represents when it goes on sale and maximising the potential realisation of surplus value (see point nine, here). Examples of how businesses go about this is the introduction of labour-saving technology, IT systems, greater surveillance and supervision of the workplace, forcing through temporary and zero hour working. We could be here all day listing the means by which individual capitals wring every bit of surplus value possible out of their employees. And, of course, they have an interest in keeping the work force as individuated and atomised as possible. Disorganised workers do not challenge management decisions. Disorganised workers accept whatever pay and conditions are thrust upon them. So trade unions, wherever possible, are a no-no. The Tories are basically governing Britain as if it was Amazon or McDonald's. Grind the workers down, pretend there are no long-term structural problems, and celebrate inequality not just as a virtue, but a selling point.

Labour is different. Forget the far left fairytales you might have been patronised with, Labour has always been a party of capitalism. Let me repeat that. Labour has always been a party of capitalism. Yet, because it is a labour party, it has a varied and patchy batting record for the interests of working people. Working people here is everyone who, of necessity, works for a wage or salary in all the possible jobs you can think of. And interests are their particular and general interests as they exist within the system. Also, as a party of labour, it is suffused with the potential to become something more than just a better manager of British capitalism. But more about that another time too. As big business abandoned Labour prior to the 2010 general election, it has become more dependent on affiliated unions and cash raised by party members. The party's circumstances may be reduced, but it is much clearer about the problems British capitalism faces. Look at the emerging party programme. Decentralisation of government, 50p tax, jobs guarantee, attacking land banks, no EU referendum, reversal of NHS marketisation, higher minimum and living wages, ambitious house building programmes - even the maligned training or no benefits for the young unemployed - they slot together as scaffolding around a creaking, tottering capitalism stubbornly stuck in relative decline. Ed Miliband talks an awful lot about inequality, and has even mentioned the S word. This, of course, is not socialism. It's a vision of a managed capitalism different to the 1945-79 Keynesian consensus, but not entirely dissimilar. It's a vision in which inequality is eroded, in which the power of the state breaks capital's collective investment strike, and gives stability and security to millions of people without it.

It is the party not based on capital that can see the general interests of British capital most clearly. Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution is seldom spoken of these days, let alone used intelligently to shine a light on capitalism's guts, but an occasionally useful tool it remains. For those not au fait, it's basically the thesis that nascent capital in colonial or semi-colonial countries were not capable of leading anti-imperialist revolts and developing a national capitalism because their immediate interests were too bound up with those of the occupier's capital. Only proletarian-led forces, which are free of those interests, have the capacity to take power and get development moving. Whether that has been confirmed or refuted by subsequent history need not detain us here. Yet, surprisingly, it has some purchase on the position of social democratic and labour parties in the advanced countries. After the war, as British capital lay exhausted and its bourgeoisie rudderless, in six short years Labour restructured the system. It could not be any other way. The Tories through a million and one ties of friendship and kinship were bound to the old, inefficient and exploitative way of doing things. From an existential stand point, they were incapable acting as Labour did. And so it is the case today. We scorn at the prospect of Dave ever standing up to the hedge funds, the fossil fuel lobby, private health, because they're his mates, his bedfellows, the bedrock of the Tory Party. The Tories cannot enforce the sort of reforms endorsed by Labour because acting in the interests of capital-in-general means going against the interests of the capitals-in-particular they are heavily dependent on. Labour's different social base allows it, compels it to act differently.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, we've had to endure 25 years of triumphalism, of dog-eat-dog capitalism being the only game in town, of scorn poured on claims of socialism's superiority to capitalism. Yet the historical egg could be on our ideologists' faces. Marx is very clear that socialism is a real movement, a real tendency in really-existing capitalist societies. Trade unions and labour parties are vehicles and incubators of that movement and, in Britain, is the only political force capable of saving British capitalism from itself. What a lovely irony.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Class Struggle as a Process of Production

I have just finished Michael Lebowitz's Beyond 'Capital', which is a truly extraordinary book. In lieu of a proper post this evening, here's a small chunk.
Just as every activity of the worker alters her as a subject who enters into all activities, similarly the process in which workers struggle for themselves is also a process of production, a process of purposeful activity in which they produce themselves in an altered way. They develop new needs in struggle, an altered hierarchy of needs. Even though the needs that they attempt to satisfy do not in themselves go beyond capital, the very process of struggle is one of producing new people, of transforming them into people with a new conception of themselves - as subjects capable of altering their world. (2003: 180)
I might write something ample about it over the long weekend.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Three Varieties of Post-Marxism

1. There's what you might call 'political' Post-Marxism. Anyone who's been around the academic lefty bloc and/or were privy to the strategic 'New Times' debates of the 1980s will have an idea what this is about. Basically, in a nut shell, the class politics Marxism depended on had clearly collapsed by the end of that decade. Rather than increasing numbers of workers, capitalism had bequeathed an expanding middle class, a tendency to smaller workplaces, a consumer culture that eroded traditional senses of solidarity, and a new politics organised around identity and oppression - not class interest. In short, Marx's approach to politics was clapped out and no longer relevant.

Perhaps the most (in)famous example of political Post-Marxism was Laclau and Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. While they argued class politics was outdated, they went further and suggested it was never really a runner in the first place. Starting with a mechanistic interpretation of Marx's notorious base/superstructure metaphor in the 1859 Preface, they argue that capitalism - for Marxism - calls into being the working class and clusters them in ever greater concentrations. With every crisis of capitalism the numbers thrown into wage labour grow exponentially, but so does the workers' capacity to organise themselves into labour movements, cooperatives, and parties. The official Marxism of the 2nd International (1889-1914), according to Laclau and Mouffe, believed revolution and socialism was inevitable - the capitalist cogs would grind out socialist product eventually. As we know, the outbreak of war shattered that perspective.

Laclau and Mouffe track how Marxism subsequently came to cope with this confounding of perspectives through Luxemburg, Lenin and Gramsci. Their basic argument is that Marx's "economism" guaranteed the political primacy of the working class, and forecast that it would behave in a set of theoretically prescribed ways. When it did not as per the 2nd International's schema, Lenin went back to the drawing board. His insight that in Russia the working class needed its own revolutionary party to negotiate the fractured strata of a decaying autocracy and lead an alliance of workers and peasants required no mechanical schema. Revolution was a question of politics, of winning revolutionary socialist hegemony. Hence there is a contingency - Lenin has the sense to realise socialism was not inevitable and was something that had to be prosecuted through class struggle. And its instrument, of course, was the party. The view was telescoped out and generalised to the advanced west in the wake of the October Revolution. Socialism was not inevitable, it was a matter of skilled leadership to tip politics into revolutionary crisis. Where Laclau and Mouffe were concerned, whereas Lenin's view represented an immeasurable advance on what went before it was still mired in economism. They argue that Lenin treats the workers as a simple given whose existence is underwritten by capitalism. This is an effect of what they call "suturing", of preserving the coherent narrative of Marxist thinking. In this particular case, whereas an alliance should, theoretically, be a democratic clash of ideas they argue Lenin's suture, resting on an essentialist notion of class, closes down its democratic potential and subordinates it to the (autocratic) party.

Their analysis of Gramsci runs more or less along the same lines. They suggest he developed Lenin's conception of hegemony by extending class struggle to all facets of social life, and talked up the democratic potential of the 'historic bloc' - the alliance of classes needed to knock down capitalism's door. They suggest that this approach recognises the political complexity of the revolutionary movement, that everywhere and at all times socialism has to make sense to its varied participants, speak to their interests, and explain the opportunities and challenges as they present themselves. Hegemony doesn't just happen, it is constantly and continuously negotiated. However, in their view Gramsci's adherence to Marxism hobbles its democratic potential in much the same way as Lenin's does. Rather than just letting different interests democratically interplay, Gramsci yokes them to the revolutionary party that is, yet again, underwritten by the privileged position occupied by the working class. Contingency and complexity is effectively rode roughshod over - messy reality is squeezed into an ideological schema. Laclau and Mouffe take the negotiated character of hegemony and run with it. If it has to be negotiated, a historic bloc isn't fixed by "class interests" from the outset. This emerges over time as an outcome of the movements within it. Following this true, if a bloc's identity is accomplished after the fact then what use is there of fixed class categories from Marxism? For Laclau and Mouffe, there isn't any - they're purely ideological: stitches of the suture Gramsci performed.

If hegemony is ensured by a negotiation between the different subject positions contained within it (as it is in Gramsci) this suggests identity with a historic bloc is not fixed apriori by class. It is therefore only a short leap to the position that the principle of identity is unfixity; that it is established as social processes play out.

The consequences here are two fold. In the first place there is no necessary correspondence between the working class and socialism, meaning that no position can be privileged above another. Secondly, socialism must be articulated by negotiating between the different positions emerging from and shaped by multiple struggles. This in turn must lead to a rethinking of the symbolic unity that secures an historic bloc, but without the closure provided by class. In other words, for Laclau and Mouffe, the starting point is the idea of socialism and the job of intellectuals is to rally support around it.

There are other varieties of political Post-Marxism, but fundamentally they deny the applicability of class politics and argue that Marx has to be transcended because his notion of class interest is inseparable from the struggle for wages and conditions at work. As we know, life is richer, fuller and more complex than that.

2. Then we have what you might call 'sociological' Post-Marxism. There is a close correspondence between this and political Post-Marxism - if the former's the practice, then this is the theory. This is the assumption - and it is often an assumption born of ignorance - that social development has some how gone past Marxism, that the concepts and the method Marx elaborated no longer have any purchase. Forget your use values, your circuits of capital, wage labour, and so on and embrace the new.

There are almost as many strands of Post-Marxist theory as there are Trotskyist internationals. But most are relatively well known. Take Jean Baudrillard. He made his journey from a mix of Marxism, semiology and psychoanalysis to a distinctive Post-Marxism in which reality, as such, can no longer be spoken of. His key work of transition was his 1972 collection of essays, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. He argued that Marx's analytical split of a commodity into use and exchange values needed supplementing by an additional concept - sign value. He argued that commodities in societies increasingly dominated by a consumer culture, the 'use' of a good became less important than what it signified. For example, at work a number of students and staff prefer to queue up at Costa than the equally good, cheaper but unbranded Union-owned coffee bar. Why? Such questions Baudrillard hoped to answer with this concept. Hoped until, that is, he abandoned this project entirely for the one he became known for. Beginning with his critique of Marxism in The Mirror of Production, he argued that society has become so heavily mediated that our sociality is bounded by self-referential recursive systems, or simulations. Each of these attempt to create or 'simulate' a bounded universe in which the governing set of rules have the answers. Thus Marxism, neoliberalism, Scientology, postmodernism, all make claims to the truth but their appeals to reality mask the production of a simulation, which cannot have a relationship with the "real". Baudrillard's argument is a bit more nuanced than that - I toy with it a little bit in this analysis of Peaches Geldof - but this is the jumping off point.

Good old Michel Foucault is sometimes considered a Post-Marxist, though he never used the term himself. He acquires this label not because he abandons "class analysis" (his work on power operates at the level of individual subject formation), but because he eschews the old Marxist warhorse of ideology. The emphasis of the 'second phase' of his work - his Nietzschean-inspired genealogies of power/knowledge. His accounts of the convict-as-subject and the formation of sexuality in the 19th century power argued that institutions charged with the management of populations - prisons, hospitals - developed specialist knowledges that more or less constituted the subjects of that knowledge. As Foucault put it:
There are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterise, and constitute the social body and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated or implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse. There can be no exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operates through and on the basis of this association. We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth. (Power/Knowledge 1980, p.93)
These historically have given rise to disciplinary techniques the focus on positioning and conditioning human bodies by constituting those bodies as certain subjects. When you join the army, training breaks you down and rebuilds you as a particular kind of subject. When you're in prison, the regimen of locking up, work, recreation, etc. is about trying to create a certain kind of subject. In the workplace, established procedures for doing things, work hours, rules, all work together to inculcate a subject. In all these cases the techniques that position and manipulate human bodies are backed up by the power of surveillance, the idea that "being seen" conditions soldiers, convicts and workers to abide by the rules, follow the conventions, and act like the subjects they are supposed to be. What room here for ideology, for the ideas that sit in our head and command our activities in accordance with ruling class imperatives? There isn't any. The politics of ideology have given way to the politics of truth, wrote Michele Barrett in her savaging of the Marxist approach to ideology.

In different theoretical camps, I suppose you could say Pierre Bourdieu is a Post-Marxist of sorts. He applied Marx's understanding of how economies worked to what he describes as 'social fields', but went beyond Marx by emphasising symbolic struggles and the process of subject inculcation that came to fruition as "players" in these fields pursued non-economic forms of capital. The "heir" to the Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas also sits firmly in the camp. His social theory emphasises communicative action and the contradiction between colonising (technocratic, impersonal) systems vs the social "lifeworld" - both of which are 'beyond Marxism'. And a quick word about Zygmunt Bauman, whose 'liquid modernity' apparently speaks of a slippery dynamism to modernity absent in Marx's writings about the subject. Hmmm.

3. The third kind of Post-Marxism might surprise you. You could call it Marxist Post-Marxism, Post-Post-Marxism, Marxism after Marxism, or just plain old Marxism. It is basically the observation that all the Post-Marxist "refutations" of Marxism are nothing of the sort. Where they do not lapse into outright irrationalism, one can find stray whiskers from Marx's beard in their critiques of essentialism, their unconscious dialectics and historical materialism. True, some of the material they cover Marx did not and could not have written about. But Marxism, among other things, is an open-ended research project. His entire work acts as an invitation to social analysis not because absolutely everything is in Capital, but because it's unfinished. In my opinion, as Lukacs put it, Marxism first and foremost is a question of method.

What sense should this be considered a variety of Post-Marxism then? Sadly, it's not a matter of just saying to our Post-Marxist chums that their readings of Marx are wrong and stumping up the textual proof to confound them. Even though, in large measure, they are badly mistaken and do fundamentally misunderstand Marx's contributions (whether wilfully of honestly). But there is a reason for this. Althusser's former student, Etienne Balibar puts it in The Philosophy of Marx that the fragmentary character of Marx's work, the multiple revisions his work underwent, the sketching out of concepts in the early part of his career and later abandonment or transformation into something else and tendency to use expressions at cross purposes to his method is the fountainhead of muddle and confusion. If you want to portray Marx as the sensitive, nuanced analyst and critic of capitalism - a non-essentialist and deeply historical thinker and activist who is not only deeply relevant but, in many ways, remains the most modern interpreter of our age; you'll find him. But the other Marx is there too. The one with the clunky mechanical materialism, of the impersonal forces driving capitalism to its inevitable collapse - he's still about. The Marx who wrote unpleasant things about certain nationalities and condemned whole peoples as 'non-historic', he's knocking about in the Collected Works. The Marx waxed lyrical about alienation from some kind of essential species-being, that youthful fellow is still read and passed off as the finished product. And the Marx whose remarks about ideology have led generations of radical thinkers to treat human beings as if they're the brainwashed prisoners of the ideas in their heads, sadly, he's taken as the real deal too.

Balibar argues that ultimately, Althusser's reading of Marx was about liberating all that was valuable from all that was not. Althusser didn't manage it because he over-egged the pudding in certain respects, elaborated a non-essentialist but equally creaky and "theoreticist" reinterpretation of Marx, and got completely weighed down in philosophical proofs of Marxism's scientific credentials which were, ultimately, unnecessary. But for Balibar, Althusser's argument about an epistemological break between a 'young' and 'mature' Marx was largely correct: after the 1844 Manuscripts which dealt with alienation came the unpublished German Ideology in which Marx and Engels elaborated their distinctive post-philosophical social theory for the first time. From then on, concepts like alienation were incorporated into the abstract processes that enable capitalism as a system to yield a surplus from the exploitation of labour power. Likewise ideology, which - as Barrett pointed out - was treated as incorrect, mystifying ideas that benefited the powers that be in the German Ideology assumed less importance in Marx's overall analysis. Ideology became something after the fact, as Žižek noted.

For Balibar, as Marxism is compromised not just by the contradictory complexity of its founder but also the various offshoots, including the brutal bastard children of Stalinism and state "socialist" modernisation, "Marxists" should not fix on the label and feel free to abandon it. In this sense, Balibar's understanding is Post-Marxist but not Post-Marx. His project and that of a great many thinkers and activists not affiliated to and sometimes opposing Althusser's reconstruction of Marxism rescue, run with and elaborate Marx's concepts; they use the materialist method he developed with Engels to make sense of the world. A Marxist analysis of how Marxism became something far removed from all that is dynamic and wonderfully scandalous about a tool for interpreting and changing the world needs to be done, but until then the work that stands on Marx's shoulders should get on with its business without worrying about labels and let its veracity speak for itself.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

All That Is Solid ...

Names matter. Take A Very Public Sociologist, for instance. What does it say? Well, it suggests the author is a self-defined sociology fan. That's pretty unambiguous. What then is a public sociologist? If you're not party to the discipline's debates, chances are you wouldn't know public sociology is a movement that, surprise surprise, seeks engagement with the public. Why is it that criminologists, economists, journalists and even psychologists get a look-in when it comes to opinion pieces and talking-headery. Where's our slice of the action? But there's more to it than courting the dubious celebrity of punditry. Sociology is the study of society, of social organisms from basic one-on-one interactions (sometimes involving humans, sometimes humans and their machines) to our increasingly global civilisation. It is the one discipline capable of assimilating the insights of the aforementioned, and much else besides. Sociology, if it's doing the job properly, should be able to speak to everyone. We're all members of a society, so research and theory about how that society works should avoid being a stranger to the people who populate them.

Okay, so we have public and we have sociologist. But A Very? It's a bit nonsensical, really. It bends grammar and underscores with thick eyeliner the public part of its coupling with sociology. For those who care about such things, it suggests yours truly is desperately trying to make a statement. Of explicitly and unambiguously aligning oneself with a camp. But worst of all, A Very Public Sociologist's biggest crime is not the crude positioning, nor even the faint whiff of pretentiousness. No, what it is is bloody ugly. True enough, if it sits uneasy in the mouth, if you have to repeat the name whenever someone asks what your blog is called then it probably isn't right. And if I'm truthful, after nearly eight years of filing digital copy off and on I'm sick to death and bored with the name. It's time for a change. The moment is here for a re-skin.

And this is it. All That is Solid ... is lifted straight from the Communist Manifesto, but in this context owes more to the late Marshall Berman's classic All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. This work, which I will never forgive my undergrad and postgrad lecturers for not recommending I read it, crams into its 384 pages what it's like to be a 'modern'. It takes you through Marx, Goethe, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky and the streets of Paris, St Petersburg and New York. The book tracks and pins down a shifting, wriggling, contradictory, transforming experience that resist the tacks Berman pushes into it. But what he brilliantly conveys is the dynamism and dialectics of the modern world. Who needs postmodernism and its fripperies when it is Marx - that most despised, maligned and wilfully misunderstood magister of 19th century social thought - who sketched out the processes that blindly throw human development at breakneck speed into the future.

Now I've had time to read substantial pieces again, I've been rediscovering that most modern (and modernist) side of Marx. His was an unfinished work, but it is fundamentally open-ended - just like the fates of human societies themselves. Marx praised capitalist modernisation for the wonders it had accomplished, but condemned it for the potential it systematically throttled. Fundamentally, the task now remains the same as when his famous document was penned. That is to look unflinchingly at the world, to understand it, and to change it. This impulse motivates many hundreds of millions now, even if they don't use the same language to express it. And this is the tradition I remain attached to. Hence why this blog has taken a new name that is an equally explicit and clumsy act of position-taking. But let's not stay lofty and principled - the truth is All That Is Solid ... sounds much better than the old one. And that's despite now sharing a name with a Glaswegian coffee shop's defunct blog.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The fare will continue the political and social commentary. The forays into theory. The sectariana. The Labour hackery. The dance music. There definitely won't be any poetry. The blog's eclecticism, one man's experience of and projection onto a digital canvass of transient whimsies will keep on keeping on in its own merry, dizzy way. The URL remains the same, no need to play with links or - for me - to lose the tiny ledge this blog has hacked out of Google's edifice.

Funnily enough, I didn't time the blog's makeover and rebirth with Easter. But doing so doesn't make it redolent of the holiday's religious significance. Rather think more of your average Easter egg. Crack them open, hold it, let it melt over your fingers before it turns to chocolatey mush in your mouth. It is fleeting - their shells are gone in the blink of an eye, its memory a trace for however long its garish over-packaging lies around. The Easter egg condenses much more than sugar and cocoa. The velvety textures that glide over the taste buds explode with the flavours of modern civilisation itself. They, like every other commodity, are a cell packed with the social DNA that can be decoded and read. Unravel that and you can read how our society works, how it makes things, arranges things, and wastes things. The Easter egg exemplifies the temporary, fleeting character of modern experience. It therefore is appropriate that this blog, which is primarily dedicated to make sense of such things, rebrands itself today.

Image credit

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Why Marx Was Right

I'm currently reading Terry Eagleton's Why Marx Was Right, a little book that came out in 2011. And, I have to say, it is possibly the best short introductory work to Marx and Marxism I've read. And I've read a lot. Taking a set of common charges made against Marx (Marx was a determinist, Marx hated individualism, Marx is outdated, Marx foreshadowed Stalin, etc.) Eagleton patiently but clearly explains why those objections are mistaken and in so doing sets out Marx's stall for him. The Marx that springs from the page is a profoundly positive thinker and comrade sceptical of grand theoretical claims, and who hated oppression and tyranny wherever it raised its ugly head. Althusser fans will be disappointed it's the Marx of the Paris Manuscripts who gets bandied about here but it doesn't matter. Getting across the view that Marx is exciting and relevant is more important, and Eagleton does that in spades.

As I'm in a lazy mood tonight, here are a few bits and bobs from the book.

On revolutionary identity:
Marxism is meant to be a strictly provisional affair, which is why anyone who invests the whole of their identity in it has missed the point. That there is life after Marxism is the whole point of Marxism. (p.2)
On the USSR
The Soviet Union played a heroic role in combating the evil of fascism, as well as in helping to topple the colonialist powers. It also featured the kind of solidarity among its citizens that Western nations seem able to muster only when they are killing the natives of other lands. All this, to be sure, is no substitute for freedom, democracy and vegetables in the shop, but neither is it to be ignored. (p.14)
On socialism building on preceding modes of production
The Marxist narrative is not tragic in the sense of ending badly. But a narrative does not have to end badly for it to be tragic. Even if men and women find some fulfillment in the end, it is tragic that their ancestors had to be hauled through hell in order for them to do so. And there will be many who fall by the wayside, unfulfilled and unremembered. Short of some literal resurrection, we can never make recompense to these vanquished millions (p.61)
On Marxism and equality
Genuine equality means not treating everyone the same, but attending equally to everyone's different needs. (p.104)
On economic determinism
The most compelling confirmation of Marx's theory of history is late capitalist society. There is a sense in which his case is becoming truer as time passes. It is capitalism, not Marxism, which is economically reductionist. (pp.115-6)

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Engels on Stoke-on-Trent

North of the iron district of Staffordshire lies an industrial region to which we shall now turn our attention, the Potteries, whose headquarters are in the borough of Stoke, embracing Henley, Burslem, Lane End, Lane Delph, Etruria, Coleridge, Langport, Tunstall, and Golden Hill, containing together 70,000 inhabitants. The Children's Employment Commission reports upon this subject that in some branches of this industry, in the production of stoneware, the children have light employment in warm, airy rooms; in others, on the contrary, hard, wearing labour is required, while they receive neither sufficient food nor good clothing. Many children complain: "Don't get enough to eat, get mostly potatoes with salt, never meat, never bread, don't go to school, haven't got no clothes." "Haven't got nothin' to eat today for dinner, don't never have dinner at home, get mostly potatoes and salt, sometimes bread." "This is all the clothes I have, no Sunday suit at home."

Among the children whose work is especially injurious are the mould-runners, who have to carry the moulded article with the form to the drying-room, and afterwards bring back the empty form, when the article is properly dried. Thus they must go to and fro the whole day, carrying burdens heavy in proportion to their age, while the high temperature in which they have to do this increases very considerably the exhaustiveness of the work. These children, with scarcely a single exception, are lean, pale, feeble, stunted; nearly all suffer from stomach troubles, nausea, want of appetite, and many of them die of consumption.

Almost as delicate are the boys called "jiggers", from the "jigger" wheel which they turn. But by far the most injurious is the work of those who dip the finished article into a fluid containing great quantities of lead, and often of arsenic, or have to take the freshly dipped article up with the hand. The hands and clothing of these workers, adults and children, are always wet with this fluid, the skin softens and falls off under the constant contact with rough objects, so that the fingers often bleed, and are constantly in a state most favourable for the absorption of this dangerous substance. The consequence is violent pain, and serious disease of the stomach and intestines, obstinate constipation, colic, sometimes consumption, and, most common of all, epilepsy among children. Among men, partial paralysis of the hand muscles, colica pictorum, and paralysis of whole limbs are ordinary phenomena. One witness relates that two children who worked with him died of convulsions at their work; another who had helped with the dipping two years while a boy, relates that he had violent pains in the bowels at first, then convulsions, in consequence of which he was confined to his bed two months, since when the attacks of convulsions have increased in frequency, are now daily, accompanied often by ten to twenty epileptic fits, his right arm is paralysed, and the physicians tell him that he can never regain the use of his limbs.

In one factory were found in the dipping-house four men, all epileptic and afflicted with severe colic, and eleven boys, several of whom were already epileptic. In short, this frightful disease follows this occupation universally: and that, too, to the greater pecuniary profit of the bourgeoisie! In the rooms in which the stoneware is scoured, the atmosphere is filled with pulverised flint, the breathing of which is as injurious as that of the steel dust among the Sheffield grinders. The workers lose breath, cannot lie down, suffer from sore throat and violent coughing, and come to have so feeble a voice that they can scarcely be heard. They, too, all die of consumption.

In the Potteries district, the schools are said to be comparatively numerous, and to offer the children opportunities for instruction; but as the latter are so early set to work for twelve hours and often more per day, they are not in a position to avail themselves of the schools, so that three-fourths of the children examined by the commissioner could neither read nor write, while the whole district is plunged in the deepest ignorance. Children who have attended Sunday school for years could not tell one letter from another, and the moral and religious education, as well as the intellectual, is on a very low plane.

Condition of the Working Class in England, pp 232-4 (1969 Panther Books edition)

Monday, 10 February 2014

Obituary: Stuart Hall

I was very sorry to hear about Stuart Hall this afternoon. A figure who tends not to get much coverage in academe or the left these days, his impact on the social sciences and socialist politics in Britain was deep and influential. When I started studying sociology in the early-mid 1990s, Hall's work cast a benign shadow over the British intellectual scene. His was an attempt to come to grips with how politics and culture worked together for the benefit of prevailing configurations of class and power. In 1978's Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and the Law Hall and his colleagues took up the idea of the moral panic.
When the official reaction to a person, groups of persons or series of events is out of all proportion to the actual threat offered, when ‘experts’, in the form of police chiefs, the judiciary, politicians, and editors perceive the threat in all but identical terms, and appear to talk ‘with one voice’ of rates, diagnoses, prognoses and solutions, when the media representations universally stress ‘sudden and dramatic’ increases (in numbers involved or events) and ‘novelty’, above and beyond that which a sober, realistic appraisal could sustain, then we believe it is appropriate to speak of the beginnings of a moral panic.
- Hall et al. 1978, p.16
Building on famous work done by Stanley Cohen on media portrayals of Mods and Rockers, these panics are a contrived sense of crisis hyped up as threats to the moral fabric and social order. The threats posed decent, hard-working people - unruly youth subcultures then, an objective alliance between Jihadists and paedophiles today - demands "action", usually in the forms of more intensive policing and a return to a disciplinarian life that never really existed. As far as Hall and his comrades were concerned, there was more to panics than press hyperbole. There were an ideological symptom, a cultural convulsion of a society founded upon irreconcilable class interests. As such moral panics spoke to a deep objectless anxiety permeating ways of being in advanced capitalist societies. A panic worked to scoop up as many (not all - no one is "brainwashed") people as possible to direct their unease at groups that might act as attractors for inchoate anger. Abstract processes of surplus extraction and capital accumulation are out, pinning the blame on "people like them" is in. Hall and co. also noted how threats, as defined by the great and the good, can be associated with harmless but supposedly related behaviours. A moral panic can therefore also involve a 'signification spiral', where other groups, subcultures or modes of conduct can be coded as troubling. Persistent panics around delinquent youth has seen the gathering of all teenagers in public places (especially at night) branded as problematic. High school shootings over the water were occasions for hand-wringing about Marilyn Manson and violent video games. And so it goes. The loser is social life as a whole - it becomes ever more miserable, anxious and paranoid. But the winner is social order which, for the most part, carries on.

Perhaps Hall's greatest contribution, politically speaking, was his approach to Thatcherism. As a good Gramscian well aware of the political crisis of the 1970s, Hall quickly realised that, while she was still in opposition, there was more to Thatcherism than the usual soundbitery. Thatcher was more than an office-seeking politician, she had a project for remoulding British society. In the context of a crisis in the state's political economy, her 'authoritarian populism' combined a hard law and order pose with tough anti-immigration and borderline racist rhetoric (the National Front collapsed in 1979 because voters swayed by their outright racism had somewhere to go). It's us vs them-ism, a virtuous 'we' against a non-white, semi-communist, semi-totalitarian Other. Can you spy analogous logics at work betwixt populism and moral panics? Hall was worried, and later proven right that Thatcher's Tories might create an alliance between sections of different classes. The populist rhetoric went with the promise of a popular capitalism - a shareholder, home-owning democracy. Freedom to buy one's council house, freedom from strikes and union bullies, freedom to be successful, this was Thatcher's promise as she waged class war against the labour movement and, by extension, the interests of all working class people including her own supporters. Closing state-owned industries, creating vast private monopolies out of tax payer-owned assets, and using North Sea oil revenues to fund tax cuts for the rich; what Thatcher was about was the greater subordination of Britain to the blind whims of capital. Ironically, her authoritarian populism - founded on popular anxiety - created the conditions for its retrenchment.

Hall clearly understood what Thatcher was about, and you can see echoes of her authoritarian populism in Conservative Party electoral strategy still. But when it came to alternatives, Hall was associated with the so-called Eurocommunists of the old, official Communist Party and their house journal, Marxism Today. His Gramscian appreciation of Thatcher implied that the left, the CPGB, Labour - mark your preference, needed to be in the business of forging alliances of its own. Unsurprisingly, the disintegrating communists and the feud-wracked Labour Party were in no position to do so. Hall and others' 'New Times' work did attempt to come to grips with the crisis of the labour movement and try and chart a way forward, but there were few takers beyond the commentariat and the vanishing communist party. That is until Blair came along who, in the early years, attempted to create a Blairite populism of his own.

Academically, Hall was indispensable as the head of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. Cultural Studies is now largely absent from faculties across the land now, but in its heroic early phase in Britain, under Hall it produced a great deal of politically-charged work grappling with problems of culture, social order and power. Hall's own Marxism, which he never repudiated, set the tone for intellectually exciting and radical work throughout the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately, Cultural Studies' will-to-truth was replaced by a glossy, verbose will-to-shop by the early 00s. Perhaps reflecting the different times, at times the discipline had more-or-less become 'philosophy-goes-to-the-mall'. I am sure Hall would not have approved.

With the loss of Stuart Hall, the left loses another of its good men. I therefore hope his passing encourages a wider reflection on and engagement with his politically-charged writings. You would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting tribute.

NB You can read another of Hall's famous articles here: The Great Moving Right Show.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Capitalism and Nature

It's not customary for me to do a reply to a reply, but Boffy made a couple of comments on this piece looking at the progressive creds of the Greens that begged replies requiring more elaboration than the character count comments boxes allow for.

Boffy's first point replied to my observation that, "Wealth and power insulates the owners of capital from the consequences of climate change to a degree. As human beings their long-term interest lies in a post-capitalist future. But, in a society such as ours, while people own capital, in a very real sense capital owns people and they are compelled by the dynamics of accumulation to follow their short-term interests as investors." He noted that capital can act in the interests of capital-in-general on occasion, and cited examples of Wedgwood's campaigning for limits on working hours. The NHS is another example of an institution that benefits both those who use it and capital-in-general through the provision of services that allows living labour to, well, live longer.

Of course, it's obvious that capital can act in the interests of capital-in-general, and that these might on occasion coincide with the "universal" interest. Businesses currently active in the green energy and energy efficiencies market, by pursuing their self-interest, also carry as a germ the interests of wider capital. After all, it does need a planet. The problem is that presently capital-in-general is not pursuing a green course. Global investment in renewables (which, of course, are not all carbon neutral sources) fell to $254bn last year, from $288.9bn in 2012 and $317.9bn in 2011. Meanwhile, investment in fossil fuels stood in excess of $600bn in 2012 (source). The invisible hand is clapped over capital's eyes. Add to that the fracking gold rush, tar sands and North Pole oil we have a clear case of capital getting pulled along by its short-term interests. The state in its capacity of the manager of capital's common affairs could intervene, as it has in Germany (though not without its problems) but it too has to look out for the fortunes of "its" individual capitals. The UK is home to two big oil concerns. It has a financial interest in the taxes they return, the people they employ and the various UK pension funds invested in them. Only a successful mass movement, a technological breakthrough or an unmitigated, unambiguous climate change disaster in capital's heartlands could shift its monomaniacal pursuit of fossil fuels.

Boffy's second point referred to the second antagonism of capital, that exists alongside the ultimate irreconcilability of capital and labour. I wrote "Capitalism is despoiling the environment. We as human beings, as thinking animals, are as part of that biosphere as any other organism. The extreme weather, the droughts, the water and food shortages, all these nightmares stalk our future as capitalism interferes with and imperils our ability to reproduce ourselves as a species. Capitalism therefore is hacking away at its roots, at the human bodies that make its existence possible." Boffy responded by suggesting this typified a 'balance of nature' approach, that the environment is a static entity we humans should guard at our peril; and that capitalism is quite capable of improving the environment too.

Well, no. The environment, like social systems, is a dynamic, shifting entity. And it goes without saying that we're talking environments here. Humans grew out of natural evolutionary processes and, inadvertently, attained a (blind) mastery over its subsequent development as a species. And yes, this bit of Engels does stand up to modern anthropological evidence. We are as much social as we are labouring animals. In fact, they're both sides of our "species being". To survive humans have had to labour and cooperate with each other to eke out an existence, and as human communities evolved into permanent settlements and then class-based civilisations, there has been a tendency over time to harness greater quantities of natural wealth to human need by actively changing the environment. The relationship we have with the natural world is always mediated by a particular mode of production. What you might call "natural necessity" - the extent to which human communities are dependent on the vagaries of the environment - diminishes as our capacity to transform our surroundings and make it productive grows. The development of granaries, for example, meant civilisations wouldn't necessarily meet disaster in the event of a drought. This only became possible at a certain point in our history when we had developed the requisite social knowledge gained from hard experience. Long-term storage became less of a necessity as more land was ploughed up, and trading relationships established with regions enjoying a different climate.

As the technology in our possession at any point in our history varies, and because our "metabolic" relationship with the environment is always structured by the character of our organisation of production, the natural world has had variable "carrying capacities". The six billion or so human beings alive now are made possible by the application of modern agricultural techniques, shelter and heating. For most of us, who now live in towns and cities, our relationship to nature is very heavily mediated by a web of social relations. Very few people in Britain have a direct productive relationship with crops and animal husbandry. A vanishingly tiny amount still rely on the food they grow or raise to survive "off-grid". The overwhelming majority of us are dependent on food produced and sold for profit on the market. In feudal times, the tying of the peasants to the land and the complete lack of any social dynamic pointing to greater food productivity meant an economy barely capable of of supporting a tenth of the population of the present day UK. Go back further still before the discovery of agriculture and at the mercy of natural necessity, the Earth's human carrying capacity was measured in the hundreds, if not the tens of thousand.

Hence natural limits, what the environment can sustain is always socially conditioned. But just as capitalism has so far proven the most successful mode of production in terms of the numbers of humans it can support, that doesn't mean its transformation of the environment is entirely beneficial. Capital has taken natural wealth and transformed it. But the waste - the pollution, the discards, that has nowhere else to go but back into the environment. Historically these issues have been relatively localised. Poisoned rivers, filthy air, hazardous materials, these have tended to damage ecosystems on local scales. This can and has impacted on human health and blighted certain regions throughout capitalist industrialisation. But these can be cleaned up and restored, albeit at often great cost. The problem now, however, is that climate change as a result of almost three centuries burning of fossil fuels has thrown vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. The Earth is now warming in a way that is out of kilter with its natural cycles of warm and cool periods. As the oceans heat, storms become more likely. As the ice caps melt, sea levels rise. As the temperature goes up, droughts get more common. The directionless, chaotic character of capitalism is changing the environment unintentionally, and changing it for the worse. Climate change can only but affect the carrying capacity of the natural world in regard to us and the other species we share the planet with. Capitalism might come up with ways of mitigating its impact, such as the proliferation of vertical farms or replacing submerged land with floating cities. It all depends whether the markets are there.

Among other things, capitalism is a frustrating mode of production. It has brought us to the threshold of a permanent golden age for our species, where not only can the individual needs of each and everyone of us be met by existing technology but also gives us the potential to live truly good lives according to our inclinations. It has allowed us to develop scientific technique to such an extent that we can develop detailed knowledge about the natural world and the human societies that inhabit it. And capitalism has enabled us to identify a creeping disaster that could imperil the lives of billions. Yet the rudderless character of capitalism, short of devastation and/or massive pressure from below means its stuck. Until that happens, we're stuck too.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Are the Greens Progressive?

Are the Greens a progressive party? Are they enemies of the labour movement that need combatting alongside the Tories, UKIP, LibDems and the rest? I ask because, as Graun readers may have seen, Ian Sinclair posed the question last week; "why does the left ignore the Green Party?" It's a fair enough question to ask. Ian provided a list of policies most Labour types wish we would take on board. Wild ultra-leftist promises like renationalising rail and public utilities, which also happen to be backed by the public at large. All progressive, all would go some way to making Britain a better place to be. Yet the reasons why the left and the labour movement don't treat the Greens favourably is only partly thanks to the enduring image of sandal-wearing, lentil-snorting hippy-types. The main reason, which is occasionally articulated by the far left, is that the Greens are anti-modernist and mainly based on an "alien" class force - the petit bourgeoisie. Or so we're told. Is that really the case? Are the Greens an organisation the left should shun, despite their demonstrably centre-left political programme?

The basic tenet of Marxist approaches to capitalism is the antagonism between the owners of capital and the owners of labour power. The former need the latter to work in their factories and offices to churn out commodities. The latter require the former to pay them a wage to reproduce themselves physically and culturally/intellectually as human beings. Capital appropriates the social surplus by not paying labour the full value of its labour power, and constantly struggles to take more and more of a share of that surplus. Labour, for its part, resists and wants to extend the amount of value it receives as a wage. So the class struggle in capitalist societies is set. It can be ameliorated to an extent by the law, state intervention and collective bargaining between individual capitals and workforces but as base the conflict is fundamentally irreconcilable. It is less a contradiction, more an antagonism. From this the (at times under cover, at times in the open) struggle is manifested across a social formation in all manner of ways. The classical Marxists used to talk about the contradiction between the social character of production and the private character of appropriation, and the lock jam between the forces and the relations of production.

This, however, is not the only irreconcilable antagonism capitalism cannot escape from. Capital-in-general has an incessant compulsion to grow. Individual capitals (businesses) have to win new markets or corner existing ones to keep the show on the road. Whether ambling along or chasing the money, capital is constantly on the move. If it stands still in comes a competitor and it's out of business. When Hobbes spoke of his war of all against all, it was as if the existential life of capital-to-come imposed itself on the past and was refracted through his pen. Or perhaps he caught something of the spirit of the then nascent English bourgeoisie? Either way, capital consumes vast quantities of labour and resource to churn out commodities that, in turn, (hopefully) yields a profit in competition with other commodities in market-based economies. This insatiable craving to consume natural wealth and transform it into something else is the basis of capitalism's second antagonism. Capitalism plunders the ground, fells forests, drains lakes and diverts rivers, exhausts the land, poisons the air and the seas, and has put enough carbon into the atmosphere to make the warming of the climate unavoidable. And, despite this being the scientific consensus for over 20 years, the world's biggest polluters are unwilling and unable to decarbonise their economies. As with all things, there are markets for green technologies but from a power generation point of view, they are niche and are likely to remain so as fossil and nuclear fuels rule the roost. Yet the problem will not go away. Capitalism is despoiling the environment. We as human beings, as thinking animals, are as part of that biosphere as any other organism. The extreme weather, the droughts, the water and food shortages, all these nightmares stalk our future as capitalism interferes with and imperils our ability to reproduce ourselves as a species. Capitalism therefore is hacking away at its roots, at the human bodies that make its existence possible.

Under the first antagonism, it is simple to see who the vehicle for a society based not on class struggle but on the sharing out of the surplus is. And that, of course, is the propertyless class of people who depend on their labour power in order to live. That counts in the immense, overwhelming majority of people alive today. Yet the second antagonism pits capitalism against the environment and people-in-general, at least on paper. Wealth and power insulates the owners of capital from the consequences of climate change to a degree. As human beings their long-term interest lies in a post-capitalist future. But, in a society such as ours, while people own capital, in a very real sense capital owns people and they are compelled by the dynamics of accumulation to follow their short-term interests as investors. For as long as that continues, it will be the propertyless - mainly in the developing world - who bear the brunt of climate change. The universal interest is always filtered through the prism of class divisions and struggle.

Labour movements are the natural home for environmental as well as class politics, right? That is the case, generally speaking, in the global south. Not in the countries of advanced industrial capitalism. Up until the 1960s, labour movements and socialist/communist parties had very little to say about environmental matters. Partly because the countries of "actually existing socialism" emphasised economic growth and development above all to overcome backwardness and catch up with the West. And partly because the core constituencies of those parties and movements were fixated with producer politics, of redistributing wealth, of securing a greater share of the surplus product expropriated by capital.

Rising affluence and a crisis-of-expectations fed into the revolutionary explosions of the late 1960s. Consumer conformity was out in the West, quality-of-life issues were in. In a dialectical chuckle history is fond of, the satisfaction of material wants, the post-war roll in of greater economic security made possible post-material politics. Ronald Inglehart argued that as countries become more affluent and educated, the less concerned the populace are with productivity deals and wage bargaining. This was the basis for the new social movements of the late 60s and early 70s - women's liberation, gay liberation, anti-war, anti-racist/black power movements. And in the conventional political arena, the 1970s saw the founding of Green Parties across Western Europe. In other words, Green Parties were thoroughly modernist in origin.

Politically, the early Greens were a mixed bag. In Germany, the Greens were effectively the party political wing of the radicalised new social movements. In stodgy old Britain, the Green Party's forerunner, People, was a conservative (some might say misanthropic) sect with deep green, Malthusian overtones. It was less a case of capitalism's dynamics paving over the environment and more an expression of an essentialist will-to-power the thinking ape had. Overpopulation was the problem - there was scant, if any, awareness that the planet's "carrying capacity" shifts depending on the dominant mode of production and application of technique. However, as the 80s wore on Green Parties across Europe became uniformly left (more or less). Shades of deep green dropped to the ground like discarded leaves, though the concern with overpopulation remains. The main factor driving this was the rest of Europe catching up with Germany. Die Grünen was more than just a condensation of New Social Movements, it spoke to an actually-existing constituency. These were born after the war, tended to be well educated (formally speaking), and were concentrated in the professions and/or public service. Like the parties themselves, the natural turf of the Greens were a thoroughly modern development. Hence in the old Marxist idiom, this constituency were less petty bourgeois in the classical sense. Their location in social space was marked by modest but comfortable amounts of economic capital, and a wealth of cultural capital.

From the standpoint of British politics, Labour and the labour movement has, at core, always been an alliance between workplace organisation and socialist societies that represent certain professions. The expansion of the state since 1945 has seen Labour scrap it out with the Liberals and the Tories for hegemony over this important, growing and confident constituency. The Greens however are a natural outgrowth of this category of middling public sector/professional. Thanks to the trajectory of the LibDems and evacuation from it of the Tories, the battle to come here will increasingly be between the Greens and Labour. Therefore, sociologically speaking, as a party of a fraction of the labouring classes that has grown from the expansion of public-oriented services based on need, the Greens are part of a progressive bloc of class fractions who, like Labour's core constituencies, ultimately live with one foot in the realisation of a socialist future.

True, the Greens' record in politics is far from spotless, as my erstwhile comrades point out. I'm not even going to start talking about the problems at Brighton Council. Then again, the things many Labour councils are being forced to do as Pickles hammers local government of the wrong political colour are comparable, and the difficulties faced there have been replicated up and down the country. Yet, despite that, the Greens and Labour are both progressive parties. They are both rooted in the antagonisms that cleave deep into British capitalism. As neither are revolutionary parties but seek to change Britain's political economy, both parties ultimately have an abiding commonality of interest that goes beyond manifesto commitments. Labour is, of course, much larger and as both fish from overlapping parts of the same pond, this presents Labour an electoral headache it could do without come 2015. But if we want to make nice with other parties, if we want to talk about relationships we need to bear in mind who our natural political allies are and not go after them as if they are scabrous traitors.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Marx on the Power of Money

That which is for me through the medium of money - that for which I can pay (i.e. which money can buy) - that am I, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of the money is the extent of my power. Money's properties are my properties and essential powers - the properties and powers of its possessor, Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality, I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore, I am not ugly for the effect of ugliness - its deterrent power - is nullified by money. I, in my character as an individual, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame, I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and therefore so is its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest.

- Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Harmondsworth: Penguin, p.128

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Žižek on Ideology

I have finally got round to reading Žižek's The Sublime Object of Ideology and it is absolutely fascinating. I'd like to share this very short extract because a) I'm too lazy to blog properly tonight and, b) I'll never look at ideology the same way again. Some context is necessary.

The traditional Marxist understanding of ideology - and by traditional I mean dominant wisdom - positions it as a sort of naive consciousness. That is people under the spell of ideology misrecognise the true state of affairs. They cannot identify their real position in the order of things, nor apprehend society as it really is - a stratified social formation in which the majority are exploited by a tiny but immensely powerful ruling class, who rest on their private ownership of the economy's commanding heights. To frustrate this state of affairs, it is the job of Marxists/revolutionaries to help people become conscious of the fact they're part of a collective mass with a direct material interest in getting rid of capitalism.

Žižek argues we need to get past this understanding. It's old hat.
If our concept of ideology remains the classic one in which the illusion is located in knowledge, then today's society must appear post-ideological: the prevailing ideology is that of cynicism; people no longer believe in ideological truth; they do not take ideological propositions seriously. The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself. And at this level, we are of course far from being a post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way ... to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them. (Žižek 1989, p.33)
Eh?

Ideology does mystify the real state of affairs, but it does not operate primarily at the cognitive level. Ideology is something other than people walking round with wrong ideas in their heads. It's far more powerful than that. Žižek demonstrates his argument in relation to Marx's theory of commodity fetishism. Because of our separation as wage earners from the fruits of our labour, as individuals that are simultaneously atomised and collectivised by the gigantic endeavour of commodity production, society can appear to be an immense collection of commodities. Objects - things - stand in for real relations between people. Commodity fetishism which is continuously reproduced is therefore responsible for promoting different ideologies, depending on your position within the overall scheme of things, that fundamentally misrecognise the fact that all of this is the alienated activity of human beings.

The step Žižek takes is on the basis of a very simple observation. People know that this is the state of affairs. When someone hands over money in exchange for a good, they are aware that money is not imbued with magical powers, that it doesn't grow by itself, and that it is a simple sign that works as an agreed medium of exchange between people. The thing is the way we have to act towards one another is as if money possesses fantastical powers, as if the whole system is one of objects, not people. Commodity fetishism is not observed by thought, rather it is a result of our practice. Thus the immense conglomerate of commodities, the roller coaster ride of a global economy driven by capital accumulation structures the activity of our species across the planet. But it, the alienating power, the abstract processes of capitalism are just that. They do not as such exist. It's just that we act as if they do. Hence we are guided by fetishistic illusions - and it is this what ideology really denotes, or rather as Žižek puts it, 'ideological fantasy'.