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There is a crisis haunting anti-capitalism, a crisis of aimlessness.

 

At a time when there is an apparent resurgence in anti-capitalist activism across the world it might seem overly obviously, perhaps annoyingly churlish, to ask what precisely anti-capitalism is objecting to? A likely response might go something like this: ‘It’s obvious is it not? One only needs to casually glance at the figures to see the mess we are in: inequality between rich and poor growing year on year, high levels corruption and profiteering in the financial sector, growing unemployment, worsening real average wages, the disappearance of the middle class, governments marching in step to the corporate drum, the increasing militarization of the police, the privatization of public institutions, representative democracy reduced to management for capital, ecological catastrophe looming, the retreat of the commons. . .the list goes on and on. One does not need to have studied all those thousands of pages of Theories of Surplus Value to understand that the system is rotten head to toe. Even if we disagree on the precise nature of this monster called capitalism, we all know what’s wrong with it and what needs to change.’

But do we?

Today there are a plethora of nominations for the object of anti-capitalism, from the insipid Smithian critique of its monopolistic tendencies (not long ago invoked by Business Minister, Vince Cable), to generalised anti-corporatism, to environmentalist anti-growth advocacy. Added into the mix are voguish theoretical reformulations from the continental school, whose anti-capitalism insists upon the way capitalism constrains ‘lines of flights’, suppresses difference, encourages the techno-scientific domination of nature, and so and so on. This ideological stew of negativity against capitalism tends to assume that given the totality of capitalism in the 21st century that there is little point in specifying what the critique of capitalism is – and this pluralistic common sense also warns against insisting upon any one objection against other conceptions. Whether or not this is a legitimate position, though, is open to question. For many of the above concerns could well be contradictory; or worse, certain rejections of capitalism could be merely transitive with more encompassing critiques such as the expansion of disciplinary technologies of governance, modernity, or even science itself. If we cannot agree on what the object of our critique is – what is the specificity of this thing we call ‘capitalism’? – how can there be any certainty that our critiques are targeting the same thing? Moreover, how do we know that the systems we wish to supersede this nebulous object are proximal enough so that given the rise of a new regime of post-capitalism (however construed) it would not be less preferable according to some conceptions than the regime we presently inhabit today?

Of course, one way around this problem would seem to be to return to Marx himself, as it is clearly Marx’s critique of capitalism, no matter whether advocated or derided, that comprises the reference horizon for all alternative anti-capitalisms to this day. Yet, here, to our surprise, things get no clearer, for there seems to be even in Marx’s writings  rather diverse potential bases for anti-capitalism.

Is it the old thesis from The Communist Manifesto that a communist regime would liberate the forces of production once the socialisation of labour is held back from the inhibitions of private property? This conception would imply that anti-capitalism is ultimately tied to the efficiency of production and the cause of eliminating material scarcity. How credible a basis for anti-capitalism this is today in light of the obvious successes of capitalism in ramping up efficiency, agricultural production, and commodity manufacture is not clear. There are certainly areas of the economy where private ownership has inhibited development to eliminate scarcity – one thinks of the UK’s housing crisis – but it does not seem generalizable enough to warrant an overthrow of the entire economic regime. Further, predominant environmentalist critiques might suggest that it is in fact the over-production and wastefullness of contemporary capitalism which is  the problem with it, not the inverse. It appears a dead end is reached this way.

So could it be instead that Marx’s proof from Capital, wherein it is shown that all profit derives from the exploitation of labour, which gives us a more solid, contemporary ground for anti-capitalism? This route would definitely go some way to explaining how vast inequalities develop under free market capitalism. Alone, however, it does not appear enough. Why? Because when Marx was writing the absolute deprivation of the working classes was such that exploitation was synonymous with extremely poor material conditions for workers. At least in most Western countries a combination of welfare statism and the rise in the overall levels of production has shifted the objective referent somewhat. Exploitation and inequality lose some of their material bases for stimulating and necessitating a comprehensive overthrow of the system and they then, in contemporary conditions, need to be supplemented by moral appeals to justice. Yet history tends to show that as long as people see overall standards of living going up they will tolerate exploitation and inequality. If, following the present crisis, this no longer remains the case then perhaps this critique will regain some of its potential, and people will want a post-capitalist world that eliminates exploitation and reduces inequality. But that remains to be seen. I wouldn’t bank on it.

Is anti-capitalism just a call for 'real' democarcy?

Could it be the more political argument then? This would focus on the working classes taking power and instituting a properly democratic regime like the Paris Commune. The point here would be avowedly political: the bastards at the top do not represent us, we want real, direct democratic participation of the working classes (or 99% – why not?) in government. Yet is an argument for more democracy a necessarily anti-capitalist one? In a context which presumes that the real enfranchisement of the masses would be of necessity anti-capitalist like in the 19th century it makes sense, but today? Is it not just more likely that a political anti-capitalism based on true democracy would just result in a fairer, more distributive capitalism, but at the end of the day still capitalism nonetheless? For me this is the shallowest interpretation of Marxist anti-capitalism.

The final candidate for Marxist anti-capitalism would work from Vol. III of Capital, and is probably the most unpopular one today. With Marx’s theory of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, the corollary prediction is that this leads to economic crisis, and furthermore that the only possible resolution to these crises is the destruction of capital allowing the accumulation process to begin afresh – either that or long term economic stagnation. Because the decline of the rate of profit is also premised on an increasing percentage of capitalist investment going into technological means of production (i.e. automation) this would imply growing unemployment too. So anti-capitalism, thus conceived, would be based on doing away with crisis, unemployment, and finding a new motor for development other than the profit motive. It is an appealing thesis, but one that hinges on its central prediction being true. If it is true, the options are stark: its stagnation, crisis and decline or a new system. The problem is short memories. Capitalism can recover after the crises, and what’s to say people won’t just accept these awful periods as necessary evils for the least worst economic system on offer?

So it appears that even Marx under contemporary conditions cannot give us an unequivocal basis for anti-capitalism. Hence the recent appeal amongst the left for invoking the objective possibility for ecological catastrophe. Here, at last, we seem to have in our hands an undeniable, scientifically proven imperative for instituting a new socio-economic regime. Capitalism is premised on growth and unrelenting expansion, ergo if we want to solve the ecological crisis we need to be anti-capitalists. What’s wrong with this argument? It’s flawed because it works by proxy. Sure, given the current supremacy of capitalism there is no doubt there is some responsibility, but capitalism is not carbon emissions. Carbon emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels because they are easiest way to extract energy from the earth and this energy is necessary for the development of material well being. It seems likely that any technologically advanced civilization would have had to go through a period of fossil burning to raise general living standards as a first source of energy extraction. Therefore, there is an implicit transitivity of this critique a critique of science and development per se.

To compound the woes of ecological anti-capitalism, what does the communist future look like that says to people, ‘capitalism can’t do it, only we can make the tough choices to keep your material standards of living the same or worse?’ Probably a communist future that never comes to be. Or alternatively, a communist future that ends up the exact opposite of the optimistic vision Marx originally laid out in The Communist Manifesto. It seems incredibly unlikely that people would commit to major economic and social change for the purpose of institution of ecological austerity, even if complemented with eliminating exploitation and reducing inequality.

So where am I going with all of this? I want to argue that, quite the opposite, what post-capitalism needs is an imaginary that intersects the above justifications with a positive vision of the future that capitalism has failed to deliver. And part of this means rescuing the most lasting merits of the Soviet experiment. For while everyone can agree that the USSR had many failings, it remains the case that the artistic, architectural and technological development it stood for was in many cases a widely recognized concrete achievement. No one can deny the quality of their space programme. Even recently in London there has been two major exhibitions showcasing some of futurist ambitions of Soviet communism: Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Red Skies season of Soviet science fiction at the British Film institute.  There is an element of aesthetics here as well as actual ambitions. The primitivist image of the far left today is more and more beginning to mirror the world of ecological austerity they argue only they can institute. Tents, dogs on a string, soup kitchens – it is not always clear whether the squat aesthetic of activist left is not just a necessary consequence of direct action, or an ambition for the future itself. The point is, how on earth will communist groupings ever hope to attract enough people committed to radical change without some sort of vision for the future which feeds peoples’ desires for something different than capitalism nowadays delivers? And one thing that capitalism today seems particularly poor at is large scale, technological projects. Whilst we clearly have the money and technology – even as a fraction of the social surplus – to develop moon bases and plan a trip to Mars there simply is no will to do so at present because of the absence of a Cold War space race or any profit motive. Whereas small scale gadgetry has developed at an incredible pace with capitalist profit incentives, this has not been matched by commensurable progress with large scale technological developments.

In sum, in order to recapture the imaginary of people, to allow them to associate communism not simply with just, if miserable conditions of equality and ecological austerity, we need to return to the point where the average person on the street would look at the below image and say ‘Beautiful. But it’s just a dream; we would need communism before we ever see that come true.’

Only communism can make the future come true

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We all know the police are bastards, but why has the left seemingly settled on fighting police brutality as the final horizon of activism in a time of economic depression? What about fighting for new economic ideas?

A recent post by LSE based International Relations scholar, Nick Srnicek, asked ‘Has the Left given up on economics?‘, arguing that in spite of living through one the greatest economic depressions in history the left has notably failed to incorporate economic analysis or alternatives into its program for change. What we have, instead, is the usual focus on racism, police brutality, defending the welfare state, and such like issues – a repetition of the kind of lowest common denominator politics of resistance little different to what the left focused on during the boom time. Of course, the reasons for this state of affairs are just as much political as to do with the collective psychological state of the left. A counter post here makes a few important points on the institutional reasons for the weakness; the most important of which I consider to be the lack of support by union structures for developing and disseminating alternative economic analysis. As a supplement to this, I would also add that the current predominance of (neo) anarchist ideas in activist communities – with the valorisation of sponteneism, horizontal (non) organization, and a focus on means rather than ends (so called prefigurative politics) – serves to reinforce the irrelevance of expert, technical analysis of economics. Ultimately, the end game of this kind of extreme democratic politics cannot tolerate analysis that would privilege the scientific knowledge of a minority. But in any case, the above political argument is not the focus of my present commentary, so I will leave that aside for another day.

Here, I want to present what I believe to be one possible reason for the seemingly minimal influence of economics on left wing politics: the fact that the Marxian economic project has stalled on a number of levels. As a Marxist myself, I feel at liberty to place at least some of the blame for this at Marx’s feet, even if, of course, contemporary Marxists should shoulder most of the weight of responsibility for the state of affairs. In brief, there are two levels at which I think Marxian economics has stalled:

  1. Failing to work through the categories elaborated in Capital to more adequately conceptualise transitionary structures to post-capitalism.
  2. Not bringing Capital up to date in terms of economic model theory, hence leaving it as a limited ‘fundamental structural model’ of the economy, unable to incorporate enough variables and economic objects into its analysis.

1. Capital and post-capitalism

There is a persistent tendency within Marxism to reduce the economic to the political, as if none of the economic laws under one system carry across even during a period of transition to another system. This is reflected in the somewhat endless debates regarding to what extent Capital represents simply a critique of capitalism or a work of positive economics? One could certainly make arguments both ways. My personal view on this matter is that by the time on reaches Vol. III it becomes indisputable that Marx had, whether intentionally or not, created a work of positive economics with tendential predictions unique to the Marxian economic paradigm. That is, the exploitation labour theory of value leads to a theory of tendencies within the profit rates not found elsewhere in other economic theories, dependent upon historically variant relative composition of capitals, and also leading to a theory of tendencies in employment levels.

Now, none of this fits very neatly with Marx’s political philosophy, which is all about the real, historical political movement. One of the mysteries during my research into Marx as part of my PhD thesis is why, if Marx felt his own analysis mostly useless for thinking a post-capitalist society, did he seemingly invest so much time in it? And why, at the end of 20 years study, did he abandon his economic studies to learn Russian and focus almost exclusively on events there, even to the point of ditching the thesis that communism would preserve the best of capitalism to endorsing the populist idea that peasant communes could act as a direct launch pad for communism?

My feeling is that Marx never really resolved these issues intellectually. You see the same thing in his mathematical writings, where he never really reconciled himself with abstract mathematical entities, trying to shoehorn the whole of calculus into the study of variable magnitudes. So the legacy of this Marxian reduction of abstract logics to the real is the presumption – common across most of the left in fact – that a revolutionary political upheavel would be sufficient to create a new historical dynamic to reconfigure the economic. What follows from this presumption is the idea that left wing economics may be able to analyze capitalism and critique it, but – and this ‘but’ is what I want to contest – the categories it uses to do so are no use to us in thinking what an alternative, transitionary structure might look like. Lenin repeated much the same line in State and Revolution where, despite a chapter nominally devoted to economic transition, the focus is unrelentingly political. For two reasons I believe that today such a position is untenable.

Firstly, because after the experience of 20th century communism, post or anti capitalism has been fully associated with the command economy. It may be the case that workers’ self-management is held out as a potential model that never received a proper test, but the fact that this never materialized seems to suggest that it would not, alone, hold out promise for transcending capitalism. Secondly, and surely as a result of the first point, today the left seems to lack any positive economic vision; and this lack of ideas is now part and parcel of the problem the left has drawing people in under a program for radical change. Most of the unpoliticised general population are not willing to put their faith in political upheavel necessarily leading to a better economic state of affairs, and they associate, in the absence of any countervailing evidence, the leftwing economy with simply a return to the state run, command economy. So ideas for post-capitalist changes are needed. Even simple, single policies that would begin a transitionary process would be welcome.

2. Capital out of date?

Marx’s Capital has recieved a rough ride ever since its publication. Even in the late 19th century it must have been percieved as antiquated, relying upon an unfashionable Hegelian mode of exposition and a radicalised Ricardian labour theory of value that would soon be superseded by the marginalist neoclassical thinkers. Things got no better once the critiques of inconsistency rolled in; critiques that only recently seem to have been laid to rest with the TSSI interpretation pioneered by Andrew Kliman, Alan Freeman, and others. So only today, almost over 150 years after Capital Vol. I was published, do we have a workable Marxian paradigm shared by a community of scholars, and used to conduct econometric work – generally focusing on the long term tendency for a declining rate of profit in explaining crisis.

Why do I believe TSSI Marxism is not enough? The most glaring problem seems to be because there is no clear epistemological reasoning as to why this consistent economic set of laws represents reality most accurately. This allows critics to accuse it of being out of date, and solely reflecting a mode of accumulation associated with Victorian era industrial production, of no relevance to IT, finance, the service sector, and immaterial labour in general.  In this context reliance on Hegelian reflection theory as a grounding epistemology is obviously completely inadequate.

Moreover, its dialectical construction seems to leave just too many holes, or residual, undelineated categories. The entire financial edifice, for one thing, is simply lumped into an undifferentiated sphere of exchange. Marxian economics does not seem to extend much further than looking at underlying profit tendencies and capital compositions within a limited, fixed number of categories. The problem thus appears to be how to expand it from simply a posited set of fundamental structural laws to become a complete model able to incorporate more variables and levels of analysis. The impedimenta to this progress appears to be Capital‘s generally dialectical structure (and I write this with a few caveats – for example, I do not believe it is an irrevisably dialectical theory) which makes it very hard to add more variables and levels of analysis. For Capital to become a more serviceable model of the economy it needs to rest on a foundation that would allow it to add more levels of analysis that would ultimately be able to be fed into an econometric model – not, that is, circumscribed to only intuiting very long run tendencies simmering beneath the surface of economic phenomena.

In order to achieve this, I believe a model of Capital needs to focus on its strongest aspects. This would ditch some of the philosophical baggage around commodity fetishism and any unworkable categories, and focus on where it does best – namely on the hypothesis of long term profit tendencies being responsible for more short run economic phenomena such as crisis and financial movements. The model would need to be explicitly a temporal model of how various structures in the economy interact. We also want this model to be revisable to the introduction of new variables and structures. It has to be an open model able to incorporate all relevant structures and phenomena. The axioms of geometry provide a good example here. Euclid’s axioms are consistent, but when placed in an ‘inner model’ on the surface of a sphere they break down, leading to proofs of the independence of some of the axioms and the need for revision. We need to be able to do the same thing for economic theory – we need to be able to test our fundamental structural model to make sure it does not rely on dogmatic assertions.

What I have sketched above is no small task. Indeed, from my initial research into economic models there appears to be very little out there to begin with – there is no off the peg model structure into which Capital‘s categories could simply be dropped. At present it thus feels like something of a tabula rasa effort, and to be successful it will no doubt need to be a collective project conducted amongst colleagues, some of which will have to be more technically and mathematically proficient than I.

The ultimate point of this endeavour is based on the wager that there is a structural truth to the economic crisis to be discovered (in the realist sense), and that a correct diagnosis will help the project to conceive a determinate economic project on the left, and give us tangible ideas to fight for.

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Slavoj Zizek: Just an entertaining 'shock jock', or a sophisticated and engaged philosopher?

Slavoj Žižek has always been a controversial figure, attracting devotion and revile in equal measure. But it is only recently that I have noticed something of a popular front forming against him—with a combination of far left bloggers and everyday cynics rejecting him in synch. Of the former category, Louis Proyect, for one, accuses Žižek of being a ‘shock jock’ and has taken issue with his misrepresentation of Lenin merely to outrage liberals. Richard Seymour portrays him as a racist, cheering on pogroms against the Roma—a charge converging with those of rightwing critics such as Adam Kirsch writing in the New Republic regarding Žižek’s alleged anti-semitism. Why do I feel both these characterisations are unfair? And what do I feel is motivating this anti-Žižek front? This blog post attempts to answer both these questions by rebutting both Proyect and Seymour’s charges.

Proyect’s ‘Lone wolf’ Žižek

In his post Proyect makes a good point about the fact that Marxist theory needs to be a collective discussion rather than just pursued by a ‘lone wolf’ like Žižek theorising for maximum impact to secure their academic niche. Or, it would be a good argument if I believed that was all Žižek was up to; because whilst he does have the tendency to drift off into mere provocation at times, I would say that for those who follow his work he has a clear political project in confronting the tepid sentiment of our time and the numerous discourses of liberal anxiety. So insofar as Proyect’s charge is correct it is valid, but also insofar as one can intuit a necessity to Žižek’s provocations then the ‘lone wolf’ charge does not stick. After all, given the shrunken and introverted nature of the Marxist left, if to be a ‘lone wolf’ means to pursue your debates beyond its confines and not necessarily just in discussion with other Marxists in pursuit of doctrinal purity, then I don’t see that as such a bad thing. I came to Marx and Lenin very much mediated though Žižek’s work, and I imagine he has pulled many others in too to what would otherwise look like a fairly stale field of regurgitated orthodoxy. Similarly, for all our gripes about how he deploys and conceives ‘the idea of communism’ (included his flat out claim regarding the absolute, unmitigated disaster that were all communist regimes in the 20th century) he has nonetheless been instrumental in putting the word back on the semantic horizon of the left, creating the attenuated possibilities for an articulation of a more radical politics.

These good points to Žižek’s political project have to be balanced against the less appetising tendency of his critics to seize upon almost anything (from either a left or rightwing perspective) in order to hammer home their crusade against him. In the process it is little recognized how the motivations of these criticisms point to entirely opposite commitments. On the one hand, there are those critcisms of Žižek from a liberal-lefty, postmodernist academic perspective, which see him a regressive turn to an outdated politics of universalism, Marxism and revolution. For these critics it is Žižek’s unwillingness to concede to the new politics of difference that riles them. Into the mix is thrown a certain amount of jealousy regarding his academic stardom and ressentiment about his marriage to an Argentinian model. Needless to say, inasmuch as we conceive the left’s project as related to class struggle and the overthrowing of capitalism, few of these critics would be said to have anything but the vaguest sympathies to the cause of the left. On the other hand, for critics like Proyect and others I have run across online, it is precisely the lack of purity for which Zizek must be held accountable. Every reading of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin he provides is pored across for inconsistencies, to draw up the charge sheet for the prosecution. The problem is that by not recognising Žižek as at least on the same side of the emancipatory, Marxist cause, critics like Proyect loose sight of the fact that at least they can have a debate with someone like Žižek. Given that most of Žižek’s critics come from a political and philosophical perspective that would consider the likes of Proyect as retrograde to the point of complete irrelevance, one should probably recognize the theoretical ally in Žižek rather than expending copious energies to slaughter his deviations from within the Marxist debating chamber. That is not to say don’t criticize: just to say, have some perspective on things.

Seymour’s racist Žižek

Richard Seymour of the blog Lenin’s Tomb (also author of The Liberal Defence of Murder & The Meaning of David Cameron, and all round rising theoretical star of the British Socialist Workers Party) has also been grinding an axe against Žižek for some time. Initially Seymour was enamoured by Žižek — despite outrage at some of his opinions — but around 2006 that started to change. Seymour confessed:

Perhaps it’s transference, but I used to think that Zizek had all the answers. Even when he was wrong, I assumed he knew it and was being contrarian, using the cunning of reason to provoke thought and all that rubbish. Even now when he’s writing absolute pig shit like this, (apparently a re-mix of this and this), I feel the urge to say “well, he didn’t meanthat“. But he did, and does. To clarify, practically everything in Zizek’s latest is a regurgitation of increasingly common Eurocentric – well, actually, Christian supremacist – platitudes about Islam and secularism.

From this post Seymour’s gripes becomes apparent: his charge is that scrape beneath the seductive theoretical exterior and you will simply find a warmed up liberal with Eurocentric and racist tendencies. “The seductive Lacanian packaging positions the “ire” at the Muhammad cartoons (which Žižek still doesn’t acknowledge as racist, only blasphemous, only disrespectful within the confines of religion) as a reaction to the West as perceived through a distorting phantasmatic screen, “a complex cobweb of symbols, images and attitudes”: this would be more impressive if Žižek did not reveal his own “complex cobweb” in the process.” From here on Seymour’s criticisms of Žižek have effectively operated via a single strategy: take Žižek’s reflections on a subject, from whatever angle they might be, and simply shout them down with charges of racism: a kind of rhetorical ‘nuclear option’. No one likes racism — a single Cartesian point across the political spectrum, aside from the far right — so repeatedly charging your opponent with it operates as vicious tool of deligitimation, and allows one to not even enter debate. In fact, to even debate the alleged racist’s position would be to enter into the same racist discourse. The example above acts as a case in point. Here, Seymour simply asserts that cartoons lampooning Muhammed are racist, ergo any attempt to think the reaction to them as anything more than justified rage against an obviously evil act of injustice is also racist.

This type of tautological rhetoric is repeated in his most recent post regarding Žižek’s commentary on an attack on a Roma community. For balance I will reproduce the quote isolated by Seymour and what I think is Seymour’s most substantial commentary on it.

Žižek wrote:

There was, in Slovenia, around a year ago, a big problem with a Roma (Gipsy) family which camped close to a small town. When a man was killed in the camp, the people in the town started to protest against the Roma, demanding that they be moved from the camp (which they occupied illegally) to another location, organizing vigilante groups, etc. As expected, all liberals condemned them as racists, locating racism into this isolated small village, while none of the liberals, living comfortably in the big cities, had any everyday contact with the Roma (except for meeting their representatives in front of the TV cameras when they supported them). When the TV interviewed the “racists” from the town, they were clearly seen to be a group of people frightened by the constant fighting and shooting in the Roma camp, by the constant theft of animals from their farms, and by other forms of small harassments from the Roma. It is all too easy to say (as the liberals did) that the Roma way of life is (also) a consequence of the centuries of their exclusion and mistreatment, that the people in the nearby town should also open themselves more to the Roma, etc. – nobody clearly answered the local “racists” what they should concretely do to solve the very real problems the Roma camp evidently was for them.

Seymour commented:

This was actually a response to a pogrom which observers compared to Kristallnacht. If the police hadn’t driven the gypsies out, the racist mob would have done so with fire and blades. But Zizek has no hesitation about regurgitating the classic anti-gypsy propaganda (they’re anti-social, they cause trouble, they basically bring it on themselves), championing of the racist mob and its ‘legitimate concerns’, counterposing the decent locals to snooty metropolitan elites, channelling the resentment of the ‘little man’ while slandering the little man’s victims. Richard Littlejohn wishes he could get away with this level of barbarism.

Seymour refuses to countenance the idea that there are any legitimate antagonisms, even only in addition to the pure racist frenzy driving the mob. Žižek’s stab at metropolitan, liberal condescension is taken simply as a ruse to allow his own racist instincts some veneer of criticality. But really, is it so incredulous that there were genuine frictions over safety and property in this instance? And does to even consider that possibility make one a racist? It seems to me that there is a hysterical, liberal view of racism — in a purely voluntaristic, moralistic register — at work in Seymour’s denunciations of Žižek. Rather than thinking through structurally how racism is intertwined with class, economics, culture and mechanisms that perpetuate real racial divides and concrete problems with race vectors (those structurally constructed and emergent upon racism), Seymour’s absolute scepticism tends towards the liberal position Žižek is criticising, so it is no wonder that he is so upset by Žižek’s repeated criticisms of liberal anti-racists.

What is the deeper explanation for all this? We enter the realm of conjecture now, but I don’t think Seymour’s running battle with Žižek can be disassociated from the politics of the Socialist Workers Party. For a great deal of investment has been made by the party in the last ten years in defending the victimised Muslim, combating Islamophobia, anti-fascist campaigns and anti-racism music festivals, and so on. Indeed, the stock and trade of the SWP has increasingly come to be a variant of liberal anti-racism, with the establishment of permanent united fronts with Tories, rightwing Muslim groups, and so on.  So there is a lot at stake for the party in whether or not liberal anti-racism is the correct paradigm. Žižek has thus become a target for party-political reasons.

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Photo from the only Modern Movement demo, with Plane Stupid infiltrator in the background!

The following post is composed of reflections and recollections based on my experience inside the short lived campaigning group, Modern Movement, now defunct since 2009. I try to avoid drawing on the immense ammunition my involvement in this group has provided for possible character assassination or ridicule and try to stay at the level of observations fit for the purpose of what it tells us, more generally, about the way the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and its continuity institutions work—an anatomy, that is, of a group straddling the fine line between a committed cadre and a middle class cult.

But first, before these insights, a few good words about my former colleagues. Something which can be said of the new generation of recruits clustered around the Institute of Ideas is that they are on the whole more personable and open minded than the old RCP stalwarts. Indeed, the clique that originally banded together to form the majority of Modern Movement’s members were drawn to do so on the basis of their dissatisfaction with the present line of the continuity RCP’s leading lights—Frank Furedi, Claire Fox, etc.—and a desire for a space to stake out their own unique positions on the new issues thrown up by the 2008/09 financial crisis. From the start they  evinced a solid work ethic and seriousness, which is not to be underestimated. Meetings were kept on time, minutes taken, and names and slogans brainstormed efficiently.

Amongst the leaders of Modern Movement (henceforth MM) there was an unshakeable sense that our initial mission to support the construction of a third runway at Heathrow airport was an important and timely intervention that needed to be made. I might add that I also, and continue to support the general aim of MM to defend cheap flights. Yet for all the formal agreement on ends, the justifications of why we were supporting these aims were exposed to very little theoretical reflection. My sense was that it was supposed that we were all meant to know that flights meant progress, and that was justification enough for the endeavour. Ultimately this lack of theoretical consolidation, alongside the more banal procedural disputes and personality conflicts, led to the group’s eventual dissolution.

It all moved very quickly, and despite the fact that the group was supposed to be autonomous from the Institute of Ideas—it was never merely a front group—those members closest to the IoI quickly assumed leadership positions. These positions were never put to any form of democratic deliberation; moreover, democracy was always considered something of an embarrassing liberal formality, in contrast to the vague ‘Leninism’ the self appointed leaders espoused.

There were numerous examples of this ethos at work. From the highly formalistic meeting at Rob Killick’s workplace, to the insistence that only the ‘leadership’ speak to the media at the public demonstration, to even weirder secret invites to Capital reading groups. Those closest to the IoI seemed to be actively attempting to replicate the attitudes and approach of the RCP as closely as possible. There was a simmering sense of hostility and unease that permeated every meeting; a sense that screws were being turned and covert factions formed—and this before the ideological divisions surfaced. A pre-demonstration meeting came very close to a punch up, as one active group member insisted on a democratic decision as to whether to bring a loudspeaker, whereas the leadership clique seemed to consider the idea that a democratic decision should be made as entirely inappropriate. James Heartfield, who was standing nearby at the time, found this all very amusing, quipping that it ‘only takes two Trots to form a faction’!

Uncomradely behaviour is one thing; ideological infighting is another. One member of the group submitted a comment piece to the Guardian timed to be published on the same day as the demonstration. The text was passed through the leadership clique and to the surprise of the left leaning member all references to MM’s support for airline workers were systematically stripped away, leaving only something that read like a carte blanche endorsement of the likes of RyanAir. Thus, the schisms began to seriously open up.

In the short space of a month or two a left and a right faction of MM started to appear. Broadly speaking the rightwing leadership clique were closest to the IoI, most reverent for the traditions of the RCP, dismissive of democracy, and pro-capitalist. Conversely, the leftwing faction were more insistent on marking a break from the old formulas of the RCP, operating in a democratic fashion and taking an openly anti-capitalist line. These differences came to ahead in the build up to the G20.

MM planned to make two interventions timed to coincide with the G20. Firstly, by having a physical presence during the protests; and secondly, by organising a series of meetings to flyer at the events. In the planning process for the meetings, I came into my first contact with personality cultism. It is a curious phenomenon; one that leaves you feeling both bewildered and slightly pitiful for those under its spell. Things exploded when one member of the left was charged with organizing a meeting and Claire Fox was suggested as a speaker. The member rejected the suggestion and wanting to bring in someone from the ‘outside’. All hell broke loose. Within seconds there was shouting, screaming and almost tears. The idea that someone would not want to bring in Fox or Furedi was deemed to be highly political suspect and almost an insult to the rightwing members in itself.

The bust up probably marked the beginning of the end for this short-lived organization. On the email lists, relations between the left and the right further deteriorated. Members of the right started to flake away, leaving the rightist leadership clique increasingly isolated. And then, suddenly, they just quit. With the scales having tilted decidedly in favour of the left the democratic decision to take an anti-capitalist message to the G20 was too much for the leadership to stomach. They had made it clear from the start that only ‘loons’ go around calling themselves Marxists or anti-capitalists nowadays. In private one had admitted to being a secret, ‘right wing Marxist’ and described the chapter on the working day in Marx’s Capital as the worst thing Marx ever wrote.

In these dying debates it transpired that members of the leadership clique had been circulating our communications to Claire Fox. It was likely to be also on her advice that once MM moved to the left, and thus outside the parameters of IoI discourse, it would no longer benefit the future careers of those people to remain in the organization.

And so in a microcosm there you have a demonstration of the kind of shenanigans favoured by the post RCP. Secrecy, an aggressive ‘Leninism’ based on no respect for democracy, a tight control over ‘the message’, often at odds with the real aims. It could be added that the IoI itself reflects all these tendencies. Essentially a fringe political party in all but name, but lacking even the faintest trace of internal democracy, debate over fundamental principles or tolerance of dissent from Frank Furedi’s ideology. Evasiveness over core ideology is even promoted amongst new recruits; and as such, for all the endless show debates put on by the organization, there is next to no theoretical exposition or discussion of their central beliefs. The ‘line’ spread both inside and outside is that there is ‘no line’ and, as O’Brien tells Winston in Orwell’s 1984, 2 + 2 does equal 5.

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The new Routemaster design: a rightwing bus?

Over the past couple of London mayoral contests why has the issue of the London Routemaster bus taken on a weirdly strange prominence? In the absence of any underlying differences between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson’s politics or priorities a semblance of political antagonism has been pried out of the debate over the old Routemaster design versus the bendy buses. One design is positioned as representing the left, and one design that of the right. It represents what we could see as a contest between a decision procedure pitting idealistic principle against hard nosed utilitarianism. On the one hand, emotive and inclusive principles are forwarded on a social justice basis for replacing the Routemaster buses—one injury jumping on and off is too many, they are not accessible to disabled people, and so on. On the other hand, the utilitarian argument accepts that occasional (even if rare) injuries are the price one has to pay for efficient transport and that the interests of the majority are overridden by pressing for universal, if seldom necessary, demands for access to all buses by the disabled population.

Yet there is no obvious class angle here, and so I would question whether there is any left-right distinction to talk of in the debate. Even given the success of a global communist revolution I think the questions surrounding utilitarianism would remain: its exact limits and remit. What is dangerous here, and why I think the left is currently in retreat everywhere against a wave of populist backlash against ‘political correctness gone mad!’, is the abandonment of basic utilitarian arguments to the right.

The same problem is iterated in the climate change debate. On the left climate change is presented as an all-or-nothing battle for survival, with advocates of the do nothing camp placed in the guilty company of the likes of Sarah Palin and the BNP. But surely the question of whether to cut carbon is, like the Routemaster bus, one of a utiltarian calculation. Since it is highly unlikely that class forces will be mobilised one way or the other on the question (since the source of the problem is not, at root, socially antagonistic) it is thus for policy makers a utilitarian issue. That is, weighing up costs and benefits and making a decision beneficial to the majority.

Recently, I have been reading Bjorn Lomborg’s book ‘Cool It’ about climate change. He makes a convincing argument that measures at adaptation would be more cost effective and beneficial than carbon reduction. Indeed, he even raises the point that in many way warming could be beneficial to a great number of people on this earth. I have not read all of the book yet, but what looks likely to be a weakness from a leftwing perspective is the lack of any incorporation of class analysis. We hear a lot about global poverty and absolute conditions of immiseration, but very little about the future standards of living and political strength of the growing industrial working classes in China and India.

There is a similar weakness of leftwing critics of parochical ‘do nothing’ advocates in the West. They claim that this position affirms Western privilege and that Marxist advocates of it have renounced their internationalist credentials. And yet, again what seems to be lacking is any gesture towards a utilitarian reasoning. What may have negative effects for rural dwellers in Africa, may, through the attenuated development of the productive forces in China and India, have positive effects for the growing urban working class and their political prospects there. Of course, this is to grossly simplify the argument, but I hope you get the picture.

The danger is that climate change apocalypticism comes to be the global left’s bendy bus. Something neither representing the interests of the global working class, nor matching up to any reasoned utilitarian calculation of the majority’s interests.

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The bulging shelves of bookstores' philosophy shelves: only possible due to institutional support

There have been numerous pieces on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF) about the Middlesex philosophy closure, usually protesting it on the basis of the department’s research excellence. Below the line, though, some commenters have questioned the very purpose of philosophy: particularly of the continental variety. Surely as resources are squeezed by recession, their argument goes, such a decadent subject, contributing so little to the economy and practical skills has a hard time justifying its existence? Some even suggested that philosophy is something that should just be done in one’s spare time, and does not warrant either a teaching post, or years of full-time commitment to study.

There seem to be a number of naïve assumptions underwriting these suggestions. The first reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my undergraduate students after our last seminar of the term. A few pints in, he asked, like many of them tend to, ‘why do you only want to teach?’ I explained that teaching a related subject in a university is one of the few ways you can have both the mental space and a sliver of free time available to attempt to make philosophical breakthroughs. He had different plans though: he was going to be CEO of a company, and write landmark philosophy books—like a Cicero figure, of sorts. I wished him good luck; but in the full knowledge that nowadays with tens of thousands of philosophers working full time in their fields, the idea is fanciful that anyone can engage at that level of thought in their spare time. It is simply incredulous that we can return to the days when Enlightenment gentlemen wrote treatises in their spare time; and headed to the salons at nighttime to discuss them. All those that engage with contemporary philosophy will know that like most else in the modern world philosophy is not immune to the increasing specialization, division of labour, and depth of knowledge required to produce new knowledge in the field—precluding any retreat to an amateur approach. Like most other professionalized fields, that is, it requires institutional support for its intellectual labour.

There are what are in classical economics are called ‘externalities’. These are effects produced by the operation of the market that are not internalized within the market itself—like the costs of pollution, for instance. However, things sometimes work the other way. Production unsupported by the market that the market gains from quite unilaterally, without bearing the cost of it. Recently I was invited into a major publisher’s office to discuss their new philosophy line. They had done the research; in the marketplace philosophy is thriving. So there is obviously a large demand for these works. But for anyone who knows much about publishing it will not come as a shock to learn that for the authors there is little more than pocket money in royalties produced for all but a handful of authors like J.K.Rowling. It is thus the case the institutional support of universities permits the supply of such rich philosophical works available to the general public at a cheap price. If philosophers were, god forbid, forced to try and make a living from the royalties of their books, the whole system would be unsustainable at anything less than something like £500 a pop! The point being that even to for people to study philosophy in their spare time—at least to the standard available from any inner city bookstore at a reasonable price—it is precisely only institutional support which enables that in the first place.

This leads into the second accusation: the idea that there is no need for philosophy in the first place. Science allows us to build computers, bridges and put rovers on Mars, what can philosophy claim to contribute? Isn’t it all just a bit of a waste of time? But really this is a gross abstraction from the real world.  Few would deny that there is a persistent human tendency towards asking the ultimate questions. Questioning the cosmic, existential and greatest social-political questions has hardly withering away with capitalist modernity. In this sense I see philosophy, particularly of the continental variety, as serving principally the continuation of the Enlightenment project. This can be seen, most instrumentally, in drawing out the meaning of the multiple scientific and mathematical discoveries of the last three or four centuries. Alone science permits great technical advance, and yet this is not enough to render these insights meaningful for people’s everyday lives. In the other sense, I also see philosophy as filling in the hole left by the vacation of religion. Philosophy as a secular project seeks to understand what previously was attributed to divine causes. In my opinion it is the case that if philosophy withers, religion can return with vengeance. Cut philosophy, get theology.

Are attacks on philosophy correlated with the return of theology?

Indeed, under New Labour we have seen the introduction of faith based schools, and whilst I don’t (as yet) have the figures to back it up my gut instinct is that whilst philsophy departments have been consistently under threat, theology departments have done rather well. The Arts and Humanities Council, for instance, has a huge Religion and Society program underway. They also recently finished a large project on recovering all of Isaac Newton’s theological writings. In the last ten years theology has, through a combination of intellectual fashion and, I suspect, a well financed revenue stream made great inroads into philosophy itself. It is increasingly  expected that philosophers be familiar with the arcane metaphysics of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotas. So, the predictable Marxist that I am, I would argue that we need to defend philosophy precisely because it serves to keep religion and theology at bay.

This argument and others can be debated at the ICA event: ‘Who’s Afraid of Philosophy’.

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Nick Clegg. Clapping or praying?

This winter was one of the coldest and deepest for a long time. Snow fell, and stayed. Even now we have only had a few weeks respite from an otherwise permafrosted year. For political pundits, however, there was one event anticipated which was going to introduce exciting change into our lives: the British general election, 2010.

But even here, despite the white-hot molten suspense the media have attempted to stoke for months now, well, the end result looks more like more of the same. In lieu of any real shift in social forces underlying the representative system we have had a predictably samey result to what has come before. A widely discredited and despised NuLab government has been punished with a hung parliament, of which they could possibly hold on to power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

But let’s leave that aside. What I want to list are the sheer levels of unfufilled popular notions about this election. All the things which were promised, then never delivered on.

  1. Cleggamania. Cleggmania may be the most chimeric social phenomenon in recent history. Whilst he was meant to have to have blown open the race, and reconfigured all the existing electoral coordinates, in the end the Lib Dems did hardly any better than the last election.
  2. BNP breakthrough. The BNP—that terrible bogeyman compelling honest Joe six-pack dissillusioned with all the mainstream parties to vote in any case—they in fact gained none of the seats they fielded candidates for. Their share of the vote went up, but there was no decisive swing to them.
  3. The Big Society New Tories. The Big Society idea inspired by the Phillip Blond red Tory faction fell totally flat. No one knew what the big society was; no one cared. The Tories would probably have done better just sticking to a more blatantly neo-Thatcherite position.

Fact is, the whole battle of ideas promoted by the media—vacuous differences over how to phase in cuts, political villains, gibberish ideologies, and so on—never conferred to the interests of any real social forces. It remains the case that if you want to see any real political change, it will only come from changing the objective alignments of deep social forces and social blocs. Whilst liberal pundits—The Guardian newspaper as the primary repository for such sentiment—continue to believe that simply triangulating interesting ideas and showy rhetoric represents a way forward, the advantage Marxists have is to understand exactly why this fails, when others are simply scratching their heads in disbelief.

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