Thursday, September 28, 2006

The breathless excitement of Kapital.

A commenter on one of the post's below asked me why I had bothered to kill a dead theory, namely that of the late Scottish marxist Bill Warren. Well, why not? If I pose as a dead marxist, surely I'm allowed to kick a dead marxist's theories around. Partly, one uses individuals as a magnifying glass to illustrate larger issues. More importantly, however, I was simply flabbergasted that such a platitudinous paean to capitalism could have been produced and taken seriously by some as a marxist work. Fred Halliday, the esteemed (and let's be honest, estimable) international relations theorist, is deeply influenced by Warren's work. Halliday, notably, has argued that the left should support the occupation of Iraq on much the same grounds as he feels it should have supported the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Simply put, given a vapidly progressivist estimation of capitalism (which Halliday attenuated in his review at the time but didn't reject), and given a broadly critical support for Soviet Russia as the systemic successor of capitalism, it was simple enough to lazily regard all opposition to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan as inherently reactionary (and to treat that as if it was all that mattered).

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Halliday saw fairly immediately where this logic should take him - he supported the American war on Iraq in 1991, and shortly thereafter suggested in his deeply sympathetic encounter with Fukuyama that the left should embrace the idea that capitalism had a universalising dynamic, wanted to make the rest of the world much like itself, needed no enemy and would therefore bring progress. He accepted that the idea of 'progress' is problematical in itself, but nevertheless cleaved to it. Eloquently expressed half-truths and profound falsities like these have since reverberated in Halliday's polemics. Since in this perspective the left should accomodate itself to a reformed capitalism, a left-wing capitalism with the possibility of reviving the socialist movement at some unspecified future date, and since capitalist states are the bearers of 'progress', all remaining oppositional movements must be necessarily reactionary. Certainly, movements of national liberation, especially those inflected with Islamism, are to be opposed as obstacles to progress whether in Iraq or Lebanon.

For Halliday, as for Warren, capitalism was, through imperialism, raising the productivity and culture of non-Western societies and thereby providing the means by which socialism might take hold, which is Niall Ferguson with a happy lefty ending tacked on (although even Ferguson is not as clumsily dismissive of the brutal legacy of colonialism as Warren is, his formula is much the same - that it was on balance A Good Thing). Halliday now sees imperialism as the guarantor of 'rights', which reflects the Whiggish liberalism of both himself and his predecessor. And how! In his bid to prove how progressive capitalism was, and to exculpate imperialism, Warren argued that 20th century horrors (WWI, Nazi concentration camps, Vietnam) if unprecedented in terms of absolute numbers killed, were nonetheless “relatively equivalent in their impact to the enormities and brutalities of earlier centuries, the ravages of the Golden Horde or the Thirty Years War”. “In fact, the horrific atrocities, the propensity to large-scale indiscriminate slaughter, and the racism of Nazism were not at all unprecedented in history. What was unique ... was the sense of moral outrage felt by a large proportion of that section of humanity culturally closest to the Germans: the rest of Western Europe, North America, and Australasia. This moral outrage stemmed from the feeling that Germany had betrayed the Western heritage, reverting to earlier barbaric centuries”. The "Western heritage" not including genocide, concentration camps, slavery, racism etc. But in fact, Warren eagerly credits capitalism for everything made possible by past struggles often against incipient or expansionist capitalism, often as an attempt to curtail it: political democracy, anti-racism and universalism, opposition to slavery, civilisation, the mere sense that mass murder is bad and wrong. He credits capitalism with having invented the very notion of mankind, but is apparently totally blind to the sense in which capitalism has relied on the negation of universality, because he himself relies on that negation. Only by viewing "pre-moderns" as meriting the enforced 'progress' that imperialist violence, expropriation and mass starvation brings (in a way that moderns are conveniently exempt from), can he sustain his position. Capitalism, we are told in passages explicitly inspired by the neo-Smithian free market apologist David S Landes, liberates human creativity. The theory of alienation implies that? Capitalism martials human creativity, milks it, utilises it, directs it, but certainly cannot be said to free it in any important sense.

Underlying much of this is an important question that lies without the province of this post, namely the extent to which capitalism was necessary as a stepping stone to socialism. I'll mention in passing that I am increasingly sceptical about this proposition, and tend to see the logic as an unnecessary concession to teleology, indeed as an arbitrary constraint on the historical imagination since we cannot and do not know what might have happened, what agencies might have been convoked had things been otherwise. Capitalism's train of creative destruction might well prove to have been an immensely costly opportunity, but only if we are able to sieze control of it before it kills us all. That seems to me more commensurate with the marxist attitude, in which capitalism can be understood as in different ways both the best and the worst thing that has ever happened.

But there is a more immediate question and that is the extent to which the acceptance by marxists and the radical left of liberalism, its absolute hegemony as a world-view, has been pernicious, has undermined and derailed the socialist critique. In the name of progress, secularism, rights, anti-totalitarianism or any other silly little thing that enters one's head, one can always abandon opposition to imperialism and even to capitalism. (And one will be rewarded well for it, since to have a collection of nominally left-wing intellectuals assuring their audience that there is something in the Cold War or the 'war on terror' for them, that it is to do with their deeply held principles, is extremely useful.) It seems to me that the acceptance of liberalism disarms socialist criticism at every turn, so that an ahistorical, unproblematised and often provincial insistence on rights discourse or on progress leads its adherents to conclude that oppressed people have no right to self-defense. Take the strictures about Palestinian terror: isn't the insistence that Palestinians only ever use means that would sit well with Michael Walzer, the theorist of Just War (jus ad bellum, just add water) an attempt to make sure that they don't resist, since materially no other military means exist for them, and no diplomatic means avail themselves? Similarly, an insistence on secularism means that Palestinians have no right to eat and no right to self-government because the voted for Hamas and we can't send food via the Hamas government etc. The abstract, utterly unmaterialist insistence on 'mutal recognition' by Israel and Palestine of one another delivers much the same verdict since Palestinians had the temerity to vote for a government that doesn't accept the necessary right of Israel to exist as a state.

This happens again and again and those who espouse such nonsense are sometimes given to blaming it on poor old Marx, because he took an ambiguous position about India and because he and Engels took an abysmal position on the slavocracy's invasion of Mexico and loathed Bolivar and Pasha. But Marx was not a commodity and nor was he the fucking Oracle. He was the originator, the pioneer of historical materialism, but he wasn't born with it fully formed in his understanding and he didn't necessarily develop every aspect of it to its logical conclusion. No, the precedents for their politics are Mill and Bentham, and the precedents for their superhero worship are in popular petit-bourgeois literature.