Saturday, January 05, 2008

Left in Crisis

Responses to the Robert Brenner-Sam Gindin debate (7 December 2007), as well as the debate itself, make me think, yet again, that it would be better for leftists to drop the oft-asked question -- "Is capitalism in crisis?" -- and ask different questions.

Capitalism as a mode of production will never be in crisis on the global scale. There are always global economic trends, some of which negatively impact profit rates sometimes, but their impacts differ dramatically from one nation to another, depending on their political economies, social structures, and (most importantly) cultural conditions (which alone are subject to leftists' interventions at least to a certain extent even before leftists find themselves in a position to change political economy and social structure on the national level).

Capitalism is always changing, but more profound changes happen during some periods than others, changes that amount to transition from one regime of accumulation to another regime, shifting from old national and inter-national political structures functional to the old regime to new national and inter-national ones that better fit the new regime. The emergence of US hegemony, made possible by the Second World War whose outcome ended the age of inter-imperialist wars, was one such shift; the end of the post-WW2 boom was another such shift; the possibility of the end of the dollar hegemony on the horizon today may be yet another shift.

Each transition presents popular classes with political openings. The question is whether popular classes are so organized and motivated to take advantage of them. It is on this crucial question that Brenner and Gindin agree: whether or not capitalism is in crisis, it is certain that leftists, especially leftists in the North, are, in large part due to the undeniable problem of increasing atomization of working people in the North, working people in the USA above all, and in no small part due to the absence of a systemic alternative1 to capitalism that inspires people and commands their allegiance.

When people are neither organized nor motivated to take advantage of the openings, the ruling classes will, establishing a new regime of accumulation.

Even when and where people are organized and motivated, they are not necessarily organized and motivated by forces and ideas that come from the Marxist tradition.2 "Indeed, for the moment at least, Marx has yielded the historical stage to Mohammed and the Holy Ghost. If God died in the cities of the industrial revolution, he has risen again in the postindustrial cities of the developing world," declares Mike Davis ("Planet of Slums," New Left Review 26, March-April 2004).

Recognizing the same phenomenon, Aijaz Ahmad says:

The secular world has to be just twice over: in terms of what it has defined for itself, and also to ward off the claim that God would have given better justice. That is to say, the secular world has to have enough justice in it for one not to have to constantly invoke God’s justice against the injustices of the profane. ("Islam, Islamism and the West," Socialist Register 2008)

But how? In more practical terms than Davis and Ahmad, Randhir Singh clarifies what is to be done: "better negotiate the necessary trade-offs between economic development and social justice, between requirements of productivity or efficiency and environmental sustainability or quality life which is not entirely a matter of material progress or economic growth" ("Future of Socialism," MRZine, 29 December 2007). And yet it is far from self-evident to all, the least of all to the religious, that secular leftists are better at negotiating the aforementioned trade-offs -- as well as another trade-off, that between liberty and security -- than those who "invoke God’s justice against the injustices of the profane," given the experience of state socialism of the 20th century and still existing governments led by self-identified socialists or other secular leftists.

The crisis of the secular Left will thus continue. Recognizing that as the more urgent problem than whether capitalism today is dynamic or stagnant is the first step toward overcoming it.

1 The idea of socialism of the 21st century, struggled over in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, is still in its infancy, at present more an alternative to US hegemony and the neoliberal regime of accumulation than an alternative to capitalism as such, and forces that pushed and have kept Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, and Evo Morales in power are composed of contradictory classes and political currents.

2 At least consciously. The Marxist tradition, however, has left indelible marks upon all forces of popular classes, even those that have expressly rejected it:

[D]espite the fashion for comparing it with political movements of the far right, Islamism could more accurately be described as "Islamo-Leninism." If Leninism is a secular movement that denies its origins in religion, Islamism is an avowed religious movement that suppresses its debts to secular thinking; eschatological thinking is equally central to both. (John Gray, "Faith in Reason: Secular Fantasies of a Godless Age," Harper's Magazine, January 2008, p. 88)

I'd qualify Gray's remark: those who may be properly called "Islamo-Leninists" are those Islamists, such as the Islamists of Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas, who have the capacity to build mass organizations of popular classes for their own national projects inflected with populism and anti-imperialism, not to be confused, for instance, with terrorist cells of Al-Qaeda-type Islamism.

Read it in Spanish: Yoshie Furuhashi, "La izquierda en crisis," Traducción Néstor Gorojovsky, Critical Montages, 6 de enero de 2008.