Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Class and common sense posted by Richard Seymour

I haven't read Owen Jones' new book, Chavs, which is garnering rave reviews in the press, but we know the problem that it addresses. Briefly that, in the last generation or so, there has been a conscious effort on the part of the ruling class to obliterate class as a political-ideological category, and a basis for political action. And, concurrent with this there has been a rise in more or less explicit forms of class chauvinism, some of it expressed in the obnoxious ideologeme, 'chavs'. Only an era which has revived Victorian attitudes concerning 'respectability' and the 'deserving poor', in which poverty is habitually pathologised and 'wealth creators' extolled, could we have a flesh and blood Etonian of royal pedigree in Number Ten. Over the last dozen or so years, there has been a substantial rise in inegalitarian political attitudes, a drop in support for redistribution and, confluently, a more modest but real drop in the number of people who think of themselves as being 'working class'.

It is axiomatic that public attitudes are complex, with clusters of seemingly contradictory attitudes expressed on the same subject. The most recent social attitudes survey (British Social Attitudes, 27th report) confirms this with its mixed bag of results giving socialists reasons to cheer and mourn. But this is banal, what we would expect. The question is in what overall direction does the balance of these composite attitudes tend; in what direction is the trend over time? The authors of the survey find that on such matters as welfare, poverty and wealth redistribution the public has shifted to the right and ascribe this to New Labour's tenure in office. Most interesting for my purposes, though, are the findings on the 'race to the top'. These findings disclose a set of attitudes which in the relevant ideological struggles would tend to favour the right. They find that most people think of themselves as upwardly mobile, and believe that 'meritocratic' factors such as "hard work" are the most decisive in determining one's success (as compared with 'ascriptive' factors such as class, or race).

When you consider that this is not merely debatable but absurd, that hard work is very far from being a more important factor in success than class background (or race, gender, etc), it becomes apparent just how much ideological ground work has had to be done to construct this 'common sense' worldview, and how much the constituents of this 'common sense' had to compete with and displace every day experience. Of course, there are classically reformist attitudes expressed in there, with majorities feeling that the rich are paid too highly (even if they underestimate just how much the rich are paid). This is why, when an actual tax increase on the rich is proposed and implemented (the 50p rate), it is widely popular. But this is still in a context in which only a minority explicitly support redistributionist policies, and in which the tax was represented not as redistribution but purely as 'fairness' - as in the rich paying a 'fair share' of the burden of the recession. A more serious objection, perhaps, is that the answers to such questions would likely reflect aspiration, or self-justification, rather than literal truth-claims. People say 'hard work' got them where they are, or will get them where they want to be, because it seems to validate their efforts. To say otherwise seems disempowering. They don't literally believe such things. Yet, this is precisely the point. If people find validation in rightist nostrums, then to an extent they have come to inhabit the values of the right. In the same way, there are all sorts of reasons why someone might say "we are too soft on crime", but such utterances necessarily belong to the symbolic territory of reactionary-authoritarianism, and the person reproducing them is treading that territory.

So, what does it mean when majorities inhabit this ideology of 'meritocracy', even with qualms? First of all, we are speaking here of a 'common sense', that is a "mass popular philosophy", consisting largely of ways of seeing that are 'traditional' rather than 'organic': people believe it because it is something that people have believed for some time; because people with authority say it is true; because one's peers have born witness to it; because it makes a certain sense of one's efforts; because in the past such beliefs have served 'people like us' well. Not all of these are bad reasons to believe a thing. Common sense is ideological, and ideologies, as Gramsci said, "'organize' human masses, they form the terrain on which men move, acquire consciousness of their position, struggle, etc.". Common sense has an "imperative character", producing "norms of conduct", and is thus formative of the political situations we struggle in. We operate on common sense, some of whose constituents are progressive - "The personality is strangely composite: it contains Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history at the local level and intuitions of a future philosophy which will be that of a human race united the world over" - as part of our efforts to develop a new 'good sense'.

The meritocratic 'common sense' is one which we, of course, have to work on. It contains certain tensions, and the reality will never live up to its ideal. So we may occasionally attack layabout Lords and monarchs, 'funemployed' rich kids, and so on, as such things defy the common sense that one does and should get ahead through 'hard work'. Yet we mainly have to work against it. For to believe that, even if one is not well off, then with sufficient hard work one can be, is to believe something about the market, about the creation of wealth and about the relative abilities of one's fellow human beings. It is to believe that market distribution is broadly reflective of effort, that wealth is mainly accumulated by those who contribute the most (thus chairmen work harder than cleaners), and people are naturally very unequal in their abilities. If you believe the system itself is basically meritocratic, even with some significant problems in need of reform, this introduces a bias in your thinking that may lead you to resent scapegoated minorities such as Muslims, single mothers, the unemployed, immigrants and others who appear (because the popular press says so) to get more help than you do, thus partially explaining your failure to enjoy more success than you have. It would also lead you to think that those who do not work are 'cheating' - if they only worked hard, they could get ahead, but instead they choose to waste idle hours while draining taxpayers' money. The bottom 20% of households with no one in employment, no car, no mortgaged property, no savings, etc., are thus pathologised as 'shameless' (tm) wasters, redeemable if at all through missionary work, or police intervention. This is not say that majorities hold the ideas I have outlined as potential corollaries of the meritocratic credo - but significant minorities appear to, and they do so in spite of their basic absurdity and apparent contradiction with other ideas that the same people say they hold.

The 'Chavs' phenomenon condenses many of the themes of this savage creed. It charges poor people with getting ideas above their station, with being feckless and irresponsible with money, tasteless, stupid, drunk, thuggish, and barbaric. In the guise of lewd satire, celeb-bashing and tart social commentary, it gives us a hit of class hatred. It references, and caricatures, the outward signs of social problems such as poverty, alcoholism, bad education and so on, but does so in the manner of a taxonomising anthropologist or zoologist, naturalising these very signs as qualities of a particular social sub-species: here a 'pramface', there a 'Croydon facelift', and mark the Burberry and inauthentic branded wear. The 'chav' is a folk devil, the quasi-satirical subject of the last decade's repeated moral panics about the 'underclass': nightmare neighbours, feral youths, ASBO kids, and so on. It is the byproduct of a neoliberalised social democracy which, in its acceptance of 'free markets', low taxes, and the language of meritocracy, was unable to directly challenge the growing inequality that, as a consequence of the unimpeded operations of the market, reached new peaks under New Labour. And it was under New Labour, rather than under Thatcher or Major, that the meritocratic 'common sense' was effectively popularised. It was New Labour that shifted the ideological terrain to the right, arguing for right-wing ideas and communicating them far more effectively to popular audiences than the Tories ever could.

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Not saving the Liberals posted by Richard Seymour

Dan Hind makes some astute observations here, on the need to break the coalition before the next election. He argues for a strategy designed to split the Liberals, and in so doing save them from historical oblivion. A few observations, then.

I would guess he rightly judges Labour's position, which is that the last thing they want at this point is political power. The Blairites are convinced that they would have to implement the same cuts as the Tories are doing, (ex-chairman Peter Watts has even bizarrely claimed that opposing cuts is hurting Labour), and that it would be much easier to allow them to get on with it. The Labour soft left doesn't yet have a coherent alternative, or at least not one they're able to articulate or willing to fight for. Neither side really wants to re-open an old civil war, though the Right are better placed to wage it if it comes. So, they are sitting it out, passively awaiting the Tory meltdown and their dream ticket in 2015. Their strategy would involve striking the correct poses in the face of catastrophe, while nonetheless doing little to prevent it. (Dan does not say, but we should note, that this has significant consequences for the conduct of the labour movement's resistance to austerity. If the trade union leadership subordinates its actions to the objective of getting 'their' party in government, then that most certainly entails an attempt to keep the lid on militancy).

Where I think Hind is wrong is in assuming that the Sage of Twickenham is some sort of radical liberal, a Yellow Booker rather than an Orange Booker, who could reconstitute the Lib Dems as some sort of progressive force. The source of this bafflingly, stunningly ridiculous idea is probably Vince Cable himself. Cable has been laundering himself as the 'left' conscience of the coalition for some time, though he has always been a continental 'economic liberal', a privatizing free marketeer, and a primary founder of the 'Orange Book' tendency. He has recently described himself as a 'social democrat', in an interview in which he seemed to vaguely rebuke the finance-led cuts strategy that he has participated in, with some qualms. But by his own account you can't believe a word the man says. More fundamentally, to attempt a rescue of the Liberals as a potentially reformist agency is to miss what is happening here. Dan fears that if the Liberals are wiped out, there will be some horrible stalemate, in which the Tories and Labour compete over an ever diminishing space in the middle ground, prosecuting the same basic neoliberal policies while the balance shifts periodically between social liberalism and authoritarianism. But if enough Liberal MPs can be tempted to break from the Orange Book freaks, then Liberalism can be reconstituted along '1908' lines, and electoral competitive pressures could still force the major parties to adopt beneficial reforms. Hence, save the Liberals.

The problems with this are various - we shall leave aside the disparity between ambitious ends and inauspicious means - but perhaps a good starting point is to look at the current electoral realignments. The haemhorrage of the Liberal vote in England, and the surge for the SNP in Scotland should be considered as parallel elements of the same process. This is not the first time we've seen such sudden, sharp alterations in political composition - consider the rise of the SDP after 1981 and the concomitant contraction of Labourism. It is the sort of realignment that Gramsci spoke of, regarding a period of 'organic crisis': "At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression ... [this] occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example), or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petit-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity." (Emphasis added) A logical result is "the passage of the troop of many different parties under the banner of a single party, which better represents and resumes the needs of the entire class" at a speed "almost like lightning in comparison with periods of calm". ('Hegemony, The State & Civil Society').

The point here would be that the current recomposition of the electorate looks epochal rather than merely conjunctural to me. This does not mean it is irreversible, but that political solutions based on reversing such trends are conservative and perhaps oriented toward situations that are no longer pertinent. The Liberals' capacity to operate as a sort of surrogate social democracy reached its high point (and what a thrilling zenith that was) in 2005, oweing to the war, Blair's unpopularity, and a load of festering discontents over 'New Labour'. The war isn't over, but it's ceased to be foregrounded at the ballot-box; Blair is gone; and 'New Labour' has lost control of the Labour Party to a union-backed candidate. In the meantime, the Liberals had experienced an internal putsch against the mildly social democratic Charles Kennedy by the Orange Bookers. This process was mandated by the party faithful. In 2011, the Liberals are part of a privatizing, cutting, war cabinet, and show no signs of wishing to be anything but the Whigs to Cameron's Peelites. Beg their MPs, send them letters, petition and doortep them... but with their polling average at 10%, their leader a national hate figure unable to visit a daycare centre without being picketed, and their party mauled in local elections, is there any sign of anyone listening? The great majority of them have already voted for the cuts; they made their decision, knowing what to expect. And it isn't because they're masochistic - it's because they believe that if they hold on until 2015, growth will have resumed, people will feel prosperous, and the electorate will duly reward them.

This brings me to my next point, which bears on the sort of pressure that would be required to compel MPs to shift their position. Parliamentarians, as we have come to know, are effectively insulated from popular pressure by the institutions they work in. The ancient caricature of politicians chasing every vote, greasily promising all things to all people, vacillating to appease a mercurial popular will, doesn't even raise a smirk these days. Political careerism in this era means, above all, clinging doggedly to unpopular orthodoxy ('principle') and representing it as the only game in town ('realism'). Yes, they still worry about losing their seats, but as long as the general wipeout isn't too severe, then the effective ones can always be looked after. Since the Liberals are betting on a revival by the end of this five-year term, and since they almost all accept the argument in favour of cuts, they will calculate that pissing off millions of voters is a short-term risk they can afford to take. They certainly won't be inclined to take seriously the threat that the local anti-cuts committee will turf them out of office. Unless.

The only kind of pressure that could, for example, turn 38 cuts-supporting Liberals into anti-cuts radicals is the kind of disruption that would worry their bosses, and their bosses' bosses. We're not talking about protests, riots, occupying public or commercial facilities, or even big one day strikes. They've planned for that. They're ready to police it. We're talking about a fundamental, enduring and self-perpetuating realignment of leftist, labour and oppositional forces, their emergence as a militant political alliance such that capital began to worry for its ability to maintain control without making serious concessions, and such that the long-term viability of the parties making up the coalition was under threat. The coalition is, yes, highly unstable, fragile, comprising antagonistic components... but its breakdown would not have to work to the benefit of the anti-cuts Left. It could just as easily permit a re-polarisation of the Tory bloc, with perhaps some new Liberal allies incorporated, to the Right. Only if there were an anti-cuts campaign whose 'message' is being communicated with compelling force, and that campaign had something to do with the breakdown, would it benefit the Left. Yet, it is precisely such mobilisation that would hasten the contraction of the centre ground and thus help reduce the popular basis for Liberalism. It seems to me that at this moment in history, the destruction of the Liberals would be an aspect of our advance; and that to attempt to rescue them, even on a radical basis, even through threats and protest, would be a detour down an historical cul de sac.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Tories and (the ideology of) crime posted by Richard Seymour

The Tories, we know, are the party of order. They stand for decent, law-abiding tax-payers, and would like a little less solicitousness toward the criminals if you don't mind. But not these days - or at least not at this precise moment, for our affairs are highly volatile. The Tories are allowing themselves to be out-flanked to their right by Labour on this issue. How could this be?

Tory ideology has always included seemingly contradictory elements. Since Thatcher, the central antagonism within the Conservative Party has been between the 'mods' and the 'rockers' - the liberal right, and the reactionary right. The liberal right is concerned primarily with ensuring a stable investment condition for the efficient accumulation of capital. It is opposed to state authoritarianism on immigration and public order. The reactionary right favours the same basic economic policies, but prefers tough controls on immigration, even where these harm business interests, and a punitive criminal justice system. I would say that, very broadly speaking, these positions reflect class perspectives, inasmuch as the small business sector of the Tory party is probably more threatened by crime and social disorder than the sorts of financial corporations and multinational service industries that the Tory leadership is allied with. I would suggest that the petite bourgeois element in the Conservative bloc has never been less influential than it is in this unstable coalition, and this has allowed a certain pro-business liberalism to dominate.

Of course, the divisions don't break down quite as neatly as this schema suggests. Consider that even that greengrocer's daughter Margaret Thatcher conceded that prison was an expensive way of making bad people worse, placing her to the left of Michael "prison works" Howard on this issue. Her administration, while beefing up the coercive powers of the state in several respects, also acted on Home Office research showing that locking up young offenders just didn't work, using cautions instead of detention. Still, I think that the current administration, while comprising different strands, is thus far more socially liberal than past Tory governments and that this is an unstable situation because it derives from its unique character as a product of civil service initiative that gives it a certain independence from the typical Tory base. It is also, relatedly, one that is conducting deep cuts in the criminal justice system. This is upsetting not only the police, who are now looking to Labour to defend them, but also some of the more 'traditionalist' Tories such as David Davis, who fear that it will undermine the party's reputation on law and order.

This would be a more persuasive fear, perhaps, if this authoritarian disposition hadn't actually contributed to the Tories' reputation as the 'nasty party', and thus reduced their electoral appeal. Even in the hard right leadership of Iain Duncan Smith, an attempt - ultimately unsuccessful - was made to liberalise the party's approach to crime and social issues. Oliver Letwin, as shadow home secretary, sought to establish rehabilitation as a central Tory theme in a new "tough, but caring" approach to crime, which actually looked softer than the New Labour approach. Cameron, taking note of the polls, has attempted to re-pivot the Tories' language on the basis of a defence of 'English liberty' against New Labour nanny state authoritarianism. Appointing Ken Clarke as Home Secretary confirmed this approach, and it's certainly a logical one while in coalition with the Liberals. In addition, the Tories are committed to their austerity remedy and within that solution they have little choice but to cut deeply across the board: they can't protect the criminal justice budget without coming down even more catastrophically on social services, and thus incurring an even greater risk of provoking revolt.

Even so, anti-crime crusades have traditionally worked to buttress Tory support and co-ordinate ideological responses to ongoing crises, particularly since the Sixties - even if these have little to do with crime itself. The issue of crime articulates a number of classic Tory thematics: 'family values', since divorce and single-parenthood is supposed to contribute to an increase in youth crime; 'welfare dependency', since welfare is supposed so subsidise the sort of dysfunctional 'lifestyle' that leads to crime; 'discipline', since indiscipline in schools is held to create unruly human beings; 'responsibility', since it is argued that crime is made easier by a culture that diminishes individual responsibility (for poverty, unemployment, ignorance, etc.) by transferring the blame to society; and so on. It enables a number of punitive responses to the effects of capitalist failure. Crime is also bound in a set of connotative linkages with race, culture and nation: the criminal is the ultimate Other, the anti-social outsider, and criminality is proof of Otherness, of a lack of respectability and entitlement. Think of statements along the lines of, "there is a very real problem with a small number of Muslim men, who...", or "black on black violence is a very real problem, which...", or "illegal immigrants shouldn't be allowed to come here to escape punishment for crimes they committed in their own countries". Even if such discourses are no longer as viable as they once were, even if social authoritarianism is declining as the population becomes more educated, there is still no other issue on which conservatism enjoys such an in-built advantage, and there surely remain residual moral and political attitudes which, in a crisis, can be accessed and mobilised to the advantage of a reactionary agenda.

In addition, one of Lord Ashcroft's recent polls (for what it's worth) indicates that among potential Tory voters who backed other parties in the last election, a big issue was the perceived lack of priority given by the Conservatives to crime. A recent Yougov poll [pdf] confirms that the current administration is seen as being less 'tough' on crime than the last government, not a state of affairs the Tories will be happy with. (Labour, predictably, will be fucking delighted, though the poll results also suggest that 'toughness' is neither automatically nor uncomplicatedly popular.) Lastly, most importantly, as austerity bites and gives rise to an increase in property crime, as well as intense social conflicts, the Tories will want to 'police the crisis'. We have already seen how the student protests led to a major escalation in police repression, with the government bestialising protesters to justify their actions. A crackdown on 'violent crime', stimulated by a moral panic over some incident or other (involving Muslamic ray guns no doubt), would provide a pretext for future mobilisations, justifying a shift in resources from welfare to policing and validating the state's coercive powers. Such was the calculation that the Thatcherites made even before the Ridley Plan estimated that the social conflicts likely to be unleashed under a Tory administration would call for a massive expansion of policing.

The Tories are seemingly not well placed to exploit any sudden passion for punishment that arises as the result of a criminal outrage. Yet there are elements of Cameronite ideology that would enable a transition here. If, in the Sixties and Seventies, the ideologeme of reaction was "the Violent Society", for the Tories today it is "the broken society". The Tories have maintained that for the last decade or so that Britain is a society experiencing moral degeneration due to the breakdown of communities and families. They intend that their responses should be seen as 'humane' - promoting social action through the 'third sector' and so on. But it would be logical within those terms to reach for punitive solutions once the 'Big Society' dog fails to bark. And indeed, a deepening of the crisis, a couple of quarters of negative growth, a financial crash, a series of defaults in the eurozone, or any number of highly plausible scenarios in the foreseeable future, could finish the coalition as it presently is. In which case, the material basis for the current Tory leadership's relative social liberalism would vanish.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Top Gear posted by Richard Seymour

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Big Society is a big load posted by Richard Seymour

Me in The Guardian on the government's "giving" white paper:

That this government should extend the logic of the market to charity is no surprise, and is congruent with their wider agenda of attacking the institutions that underpin social solidarity such as welfare and the NHS. Part of this goes back to the influence of Marvin Olavsky and the doctrine of "compassionate conservatism". Olavsky's role in moulding George W Bush's early public discourse is well known. Bush spoke of raising "armies of compassion" to unleash "an outpouring of giving" through a structure of incentives and neighbourhood initiatives supporting social entrepreneurs. The government had to "get out of the way" to allow people to give; taxes and public spending were no answer to social problems; only the transformative personal encounter between the social entrepreneur and the needful victim constituted genuine compassion.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Spanish Tahrir posted by Richard Seymour

A guest post on the astonishing uprising in Spain, by quilombosam. Discuss:

“On 15thMay 2011, around 150,000 people took to the streets in 60 Spanish towns and cities to demand “Real Democracy Now”, marching under the slogan “We are not commodities in the hands of bankers and politicians”. The protest was organised through web-based social networks without the involvement of any major unions or political parties. At the end of the march some people decided to stay the night at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. They were forcefully evacuated by the police in the early hours of the morning. This, in turn, generated a mass call for everyone to occupy his or her local squares that thousands all over Spain took up. As we write, 65 public squares are being occupied, with support protests taking place in Spanish Embassies from Buenos Aires to Vienna and, indeed, London. You probably have not have read about it in the British press, but it is certainly happening. Try #spanishrevolution, #yeswecamp, #nonosvamosor #acampadasolon Twitter and see for yourself. What follows is a text by Emmanuel Rodríguez and Tomás Herreros from the Spanish collectiveUniversidad Nómada.


15THMay, from Outrage to Hope
There is no doubt that Sunday 15thMay 2011 has come to mark a turning point: from the web to the street, from conversations around the kitchen table to mass mobilisations, but more than anything else, from outrage to hope. Tens of thousands of people, ordinary citizens responding to a call that started and spread on the internet, have taken the streets with a clear and promising demand: they want a real democracy, a democracy no longer tailored to the greed of the few, but to the needs of the people. They have been unequivocal in their denunciation of a political class that, since the beginning of the crisis, has run the country by turning away from them and obeying the dictates of the euphemistically called “markets”.

We will have to watch over the next weeks and months to see how this demand for real democracy nowtakes shape and develops. But everything seems to point to a movement that will grow even stronger. The clearest sign of its future strength comes from the taking over of public squares and the impromptu camping sites that have appeared in pretty much every major Spanish town and city. Today––four days after the first march––social networks are bursting with support for the movement, a virtual support that is bolstered by its resonance in the streets and squares. While forecasting where this will take us is still too difficult, it is already possible to advance some questions thatthis movementhas put on the table.

Firstly, the criticisms that have been raised by the 15thMay Movement are spot on. A growing sector of the population is outraged by parliamentary politics as we have come to known them, as our political parties are implementing it today––by making the weakest sectors of society pay for the crisis. In the last few years we have witnessed with a growing sense of disbelief how the big banks received millions in bail-outs, while cuts in social provision, brutal assaults on basic rights and covert privatisations ate away at an already skeletal Spanish welfare state. Today, none doubts that these politics are a danger to our present and our immediate future. This outrage is made even more explicit when it is confronted by the cowardice of politicians, unable to put an end to the rule of the financial world. Where did all those promises to give capitalism a human face made in the wake of the sub-prime crisis go? What happened to the idea of abolishing tax havens? What became of the proclamation that the financial system would be brought under control? What of the plans to tax speculative gains and the promise to stop tax benefits for the highest earners?

Secondly, the 15thMay Movement is a lot more than a warning to the so-called Left. It is possible (in fact it is quite probable) that on 22ndMay, when local and regional elections take place in Spain, the left will suffer a catastrophic defeat. If that were the case, it would be only be a preamble to what would happen in the general elections. What can be said today without hesitation is that the institutional left (parties and major unions) is the target of a generalised political disaffection due to its sheer inability come up with novel solutions to this crisis. This is where the two-fold explanation of its predicted electoral defeat lies. On the one hand, its policies are unable to step outside a completely tendentious way of reading the crisis that, to this day, accepts that the problem lies in the scarcity of our resources. Let’s say it loud and clear: no such a problem exists, there is no lack of resources, the real problem is the extremely uneven way in which wealth is distributed, and financial “discipline” is making this problem even more acute every passing day. Where are the infinite benefits of the real estate bubble today? Where are the returns of such ridiculous projects as the airports in Castellón or Lleida, to name but a few? Who is benefiting from the gigantic mountain of debt crippling so many families and individuals? The institutional left has been unable to stand on the side of, and work with, the many emerging movements that are calling for freedom and democracy. Who can forgive Zapatero’s words when the proposal to accept the dación de pago1was rejected by parliament on the basis that it could “jeopardise the solvency of the Spanish financial system”? Who was he addressing with these words? The millions of people enslaved by their mortgages or the interests of major banks? And what can we say of their indecent law of intellectual property, the infamous Ley Sinde? Was he standing with those who have given shape to the web or with those who plan to make money out of it, as if culture was just another commodity? If the institutional left continues to ignore social movements, if it refuses to break away from a script written by the financial and economic elites and fails to come out with a plan B that could lead us out of the crisis, it will stay in opposition for a very long time. There is no time for more deferrals: either they change or they will lose whatever social legitimation they still have to represent the values they claim to stand for.

Thirdly, the 15thMay Movement reveals that far from being the passive agents that so many analysts take them to be, citizens have been able to organise themselves in the midst of a profound crisis of political representation and institutional abandonment. The new generations have learnt how to shape the web, creating new ways of “being together”, without taking recourse to ideological clichés, armed with a savvy pragmatism, escaping from pre-conceived political categories and big bureaucratic apparatuses. We are witnessing the emergence of new “majority minorities” that demand democracy in the face of a war “of all against all” and the idiotic atomisation promoted by neoliberalism, one that demands social rights against the logic of privatisation and cuts imposed by the economical powers. And it is quite possible that at this juncture old political goals will be of little or no use. Hoping for an impossible return to the fold of Estate, or aiming for full employment––like the whole spectrum of the Spanish parliamentary left seems to be doing––is a pointless task. Reinventing democracy requires, at the very least, pointing to new ways of distributing wealth, to citizenship rights for all regardless of where they were born (something in keeping with this globalised times), to the defence of common goods (environmental resources, yes, but also knowledge, education, the internet and health) and to different forms of self-governance that can leave behind the corruption of current ones.

Finally, it is important to remember that the 15thMay Movement is linked to a wider current of European protests triggered as a reaction to so-called “austerity” measures. These protests are shaking up the desert of the real, leaving behind the image of a formless and silent mass of European citizens that so befits the interests of political and economical elites. We are talking here of campaigns like the British UKUncut against Cameron’s policies, of the mass mobilisations of Geraçao a Rasca in Portugal, or indeed of what took place in Iceland after the people decided not to bail out the bankers. And, of course, inspiration is found above all in the Arab Uprising, the democratic revolts in Egypt and Tunisia who managed to overthrow their corrupt leaders.

Needless to say, we have no idea what the ultimate fate of the 15thMay Movement will be. But we can definitely state something at this stage, now we have at least two different routes out of this crisis: implementing yet more cuts or constructing a real democracy. We know what the first one has delivered so far: not only has it failed to bring back any semblance of economic “normality”, it has created an atmosphere of “everyman for himself”, a war of all against all. The second one promises an absolute and constituent democracy, all we can say about it is that it has just begun and that is starting to lay down its path. But the choice seems clear to us, it is down this path that we would like to go.

Tomás Herreros and Emmanuel Rodríguez (Universidad Nómada)
(hurriedly translated by Yaiza Hernández Velázquez)
please feel free to distribute, copy, quote…
1 Dation in payment or datio in solutionem, the possibility of handing in the keys to a property in lieu of paying the debt accrued on its mortgage.”

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hobsbawm posted by Richard Seymour

Away you go and have a read of my piece on Eric Hobsbawm in Red Pepper:

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Monday, May 16, 2011

The Tories and the NHS posted by Richard Seymour

The NHS has always been a vulnerable point for the Tories. They neither like nor trust what it stands for, how it works, but cannot assemble a viable coalition in favour of its destruction. Today, David Cameron has attempted to justify the present government's privatizing measures by claiming that they are the only way to meet a funding crisis that will hit the service in the next few years. That is, they intend to underfund the system by at least £20bn by 2015, and claim that the dire effects of this can only be avoided through their 'reforms'. But note what they're not saying. This is David Cameron's explanation:

"If we stay as we are, the NHS will need £130bn a year by 2015 – meaning a potential funding gap of £20bn.

"The question is, what are we going to do about that? Ignore it? No – because we'd see a crisis of funding in the NHS, over-crowded wards and fewer treatments. Borrow more so we can chuck more money at it? No – because we can't afford to.

"Ask people to start paying at the point of delivery for it? No – because, as I said, the NHS must always be free to those who need it. There's only one option we've got, and that is to change and modernise the NHS to make it more efficient and more effective and, above all, more focused on prevention, on health not just sickness.

...when I think about what our NHS will look like in five years' time, I don't picture some space age institution, a million miles away from what we have now. Let me make clear: there will be no privatisation, there will be no cherry-picking from private providers, there will be no new up front costs people have to pay to get care."

This is obviously disingenuous. There will be privatization, and it will not make the service more efficient, either in terms of cost or patient outcomes. And the claim that this new system will look anything like the one we have now is a ham-fisted insult to reason. But the Tories are not seriously attacking the 'common sense' of the NHS. At the level of discourse, they are not making any inroads whatever into the principle of a taxpayer-funded, free national healthcare system. They dare not even try. Instead, they depend on a manouevre pioneered by Thatcher, that of exploiting a crisis of underfunding to argue for the reforms they want to see, which are then coded in apparently neutral, anaesthetizing phrases: not privatization - good heavens no! - efficiency. This is Stuart Hall writing back in 1988:

Mrs Thatcher has personally taken charge of the crisis - always an ominous sign. 'The impression which the prime minister was trying to create was that she was pleased that talk of crisis by the opposition and health professionals had opened up the NHS to her radicalism. Her spokesmen countered the impression of government panic by stressing that she was "seizing the tide of public perception"' (The Guardian Jan 27). The talk is now exclusively about 'alternative ways of funding' (which every post-Thatcherite child of nine knows is a code-phrase for the massive expansion of private medicine and privatisation within the NHS) and 'breaking the barriers to greater efficiency' (which we know is a codephrase for destroying COHSE and NUPE).


the balance of ideological advantage slowly turns Thatcherism's way, because the specific issue of the NHS is secured for the Right by a deeper set of articulations which the Left has not begun to shift. These include such propositions as: the public sector is bureaucratic and inefficient; the private sector is efficient and gives 'value-for-money'; efficiency is inextricably linked with 'competition' and 'market forces'; the 'dependency culture' makes growing demands on the state - unless ruthlessly disciplined - a 'bottomless pit' (the spectre of the endlessly desiring consumer); public sector institutions, protected by public sector unions, are always 'overmanned' (sic).; 'freedom' would be enhanced by giving the money back to the punters and letting them choose the form and level of health care they want; if there is money to spare, it is the direct result of Thatcherite 'prosperity'; and so on.


We may have to acknowledge that there is often a rational core to Thatcherism's critique, which reflects some real substantive issues, which Thatcherism did not create but addresses in its own way. And since, in this sense, we both inhabit the same world, the Left will have to address them too. However, squaring up to them means confronting some extremely awkward issues. One example is the fiscal crisis of the welfare state - the ever-rising relative costs in the NHS as the average age of the population rises, medical technology leaps ahead, health needs diversify, the awareness of environmental factors and preventive medicine deepens and the patterns of disease shift. The fiscal crisis of the welfare state is not simply a Thatcherite plot, though of course Thatcherism exaggerates it for its own political ends.

The Left's answer is that there is more to spend if we choose; and this is certainly correct, given Britain's pitiful comparative showing in terms of the proportion of GDP spent on health amongst the industrialised countries. But only up to a point. At the end of this road, there are limits, which are not those set by Thatcherism's artificial 'cap' on spending but those limits set by the productivity of the economy itself. What the Right argues is that, once this limit is reached (even at the USA's 10.7% rather than the UK's miserable 5.9%) there is then not much to choose between rationing by price (which they would prefer) and rationing by queue (which is what has been going on in the NHS for decades). Naturally, they prefer rationing by price, since it increases the incentive to the patient to save on costs and puts pressure on the 'health market' to become more efficient.


simply 'spending more on the NHS' comes up against the barrier of the failure of the Left so far to elaborate a strategy for an expanding economy. On the other hand, where it hits the road block of the unpopularity of higher taxation in the form of that entrenched figure (which, at the moment, belongs exclusively to the Right) - the 'sovereign taxpayer'. Thatcherism is also held in place by this ideological figure of 'economic man', the measure of all things, who only understands cash-in-hand, readies-in-the-pocket, and who apparently never gets ill, doesn't need his streets cleaned or his children educated or to breathe oxygen occasionally. Clearly, the NHS issue cannot be won in terms of the NHS alone. If Thatcherism wins the argument about 'wealth creation', 'prosperity' and 'taxpayer freedom', it will, sooner or later, win the argument about privatising the NHS.

Now, it so happens that Hall exaggerated the popular appeal of Thatcherism, and over-estimated their ability to erode public support for socialised health care - but discount for it and the same issue looms before us. Look at that last sentence from Hall again. If the Tories win the wider argument about austerity, they may not win the argument for privatising the NHS, but they will certainly make their case for this vandalism more plausible. The austerity narrative says that the state has over-extended itself and must contract to a more manageable scale; that the productive capacities of the economy are being over-burdened by the high taxation needed to support the welfare state; that prosperity can only be restored if business is allowed to get on with investing under relaxed conditions (albeit with some safety barriers built in to the financial sector in a vain attempt to protect the system from its instability). Naturally, therefore, "we can't afford" to pay for the NHS. The obvious lessons are that the Left, to counter this, has to have an alternative growth strategy, and; this has to be elaborated in an unabashedly ideological way, because what is at stake isn't just a bureaucratic-managerial matter of efficiency but rather of the priorities and direction of the whole society. I think there may be some in the Labour leadership who understand this, but they are no more able to act on this understanding than Gordon Brown was capable of being the 'secret socialist' of reactionary nightmare and centre-left masturbation fantasy.

I select the NHS to focus on because, apart from the fact that Cameron has made this intervention today, it's the Tories' weakest point, the issue on which we can assemble the broadest social forces. The middle class suburbs are up in arms about what's being done to healthcare every bit as much as working class boroughs. The Tories have already had to retreat on this, and the issue divides the coalition somewhat. We have them beating a tactical retreat before a serious shot has been fired. Yet, if what Hall referred to as the "political-ideological thematics of Thatcherism", which today are concentrated in the politics of austerity, remain in place, then they will be able to continue to come back for more. Even if the Tories do not succeed in getting all that they want, they will gradually get some more of what they want; and more importantly, they will find that their occupancy in power is not disturbed by their losing an election. New Labour, operating within a broadly Thatcherite mode, took the logic of privatization and marketization in the health service further, faster, than the Tories had been able to. Labour's leaders today cannot think or articulate a politics outside of austerity, which leave us with a desperate need for a counter-hegemonic campaign to do just that.

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

How can the Left win? posted by Richard Seymour

I. The Right. The Right's response to the 2008 slump was fast and effective. They first participated in an enormous leveraging of the state, through the unprecedented bail out of financial institutions, then took every opportunity to explain that the problem was one of over-spending and indebtedness. It wasn't just the banks who had been too gluttonous. That old bogey, the socialist state, bore responsibility for burdening the British people with larcenous rates of taxation, in order to fund a useless and intrusive welfare state that left people miserable and dysfunctional. It's important to recognise how well-timed and well-pitched this was.

Prior to 2008, the Tories could not have made this argument and anticipated making any headway with it. Instead, their strategy was to match Labour's spending totals and conduct a war of position over the priorities within that accepted framework. But in a sequence notably punctuated by the quasi-comical (underwhelming, on its own terms) parliamentary 'expenses' scandal, the Right engaged in a series of manouevres which blamed Labour 'over-spending' for the deficit - 'over-spending' which, until then, they were committed to continuing. And they were given credence by a majority of the British people for a period of time. There was something very Thatcherite in the manner in which the Right sought to mobilise a certain residual culture of masochism behind austerity - you have over-indulged and must now repent. They operated on a series of connotative linkages, eg, between household and state expenditure, in which the private fear that one has borrowed more than one can afford to pay back is bonded to the ideologeme which holds that the state is always inefficient, always over-spending, necessarily unproductive, and always in need of perpetual down-sizing. This is the petit-bourgeois manner of thinking, univeralised - the nation imagined as a corner shop that has to balance its books and keep an eye out for thieves. Of course, no recipient of state largesse is more inefficient, and less productive, than the 'benefit scroungers'. Tory propaganda duly worked on this theme, and Osborne swung the axe heavily in the direction of the welfare lifeline. Polls tended to find that people approved of this aspect of the cuts agenda.

II. The Left. Until the student protests, the Left was beset on all sides by a pervading dysphoria and utter perplexity. We know the script after all. The capitalist system goes into an unprecedented global crisis, every stable co-ordinate of the political-ideological universe is unsettled, governments start borrowing and spending like crazy to stave off a complete collapse, suddenly the bastardised Keynesianism of 'old Labour' is back in vogue. In such circumstances, the Right should be on the back-foot and class struggles should take off. And by 'class struggles', I don't simply mean strikes and factory occupations. It is in the nature of capitalism to multiply sites of antagonism, and in each of these class will be present in different ways, whether it's over healthcare, supermarket chains, women's oppression, immigrant labour, the media, or war. Notably, the struggles that did emerge, in Vestas, Visteon, the Lindsey oil workers dispute, the Tower Hamlets lecturers' strike, etc., cannot be reduced to simple labour-management disputes over jobs, pay and conditions. Rather, each contained a pronounced 'political' element - the environment, pensions, education, immigration, etc.

Given an organic crisis in capitalism, a crisis in productive relations that could not be localised, but necessarily radiated to every political and ideological relation embedded in the system, the Left should have been aggressively making advances on multiple fronts. The Left should have been taking territory and hostages, leaving opponents reeling. But this is not what happened, barring the few flare-ups which I mentioned. And the case of Lindsey, which resulted in thousands of workers marching for "foreigners out!", showed that such struggles as did take off did not have to benefit the Left. This is the point at which, traditionally, one warns against 'vulgar economism' and 'workerism', but this is only a real temptation among a few hold-outs of the Left influenced by traditional labourism - recall that Gramsci's critique of 'economism' was aimed at the reformist trade union leadership. The more prevalent error today is to think that Leftist politics can be conducted without any orientation toward class. Still, it's hard to see how the Left, even discounting for its currently depleted, scattered state, could have done much about the level of class struggle. It was forced into a positional struggle, an ideological battle, in which the 'common sense' of neoliberalism initially prevailed over the competing 'common sense' of social democracy.

III. The War of Position. While we anticipate major social struggles continuing over the next few years, with no certainty of avoiding catastrophe much less of attaining victory, the 'war of position' will continue to be as important as outright combat. Indeed, ideological, parliamentary and cultural struggles do a great deal to prepare the pre-conditions for more militant forms of combat such as the withdrawal of labour, factory and university occupations, and other disruptive actions. Here, the Right has long understood something that the Left will do well to remember. Whatever the plane of crisis, whatever the axis of struggle, the issue can always be put another way.

The crisis of capitalism became a crisis of over-spending, just as the crisis of poverty became a crisis of social dysfunction, and a crisis of authority in the British state became a crisis of 'multiculturalism'. The Right didn't win all the arguments in 2008-9 - far from it. If the washout of yesterday's right-wing 'Rally Against Debt' is any guide, and it was plugged in the media far more than it deserved to be, there is hardly any enthusiasm for the latest assault on welfare and public services. But the Right doesn't have to win all the arguments, or generate enthusiasm. Its near monopoly of the popular and broadsheet press, along with the complicity of the centre-left, allowed it to operate on genuinely popular assumptions, absorbe the elements of popular discontent and polarise them to the Right.

The majority do want to keep some sort of well-funded public sector, don't favour privatization in the NHS, support state education, and blame the bankers for the recession. But distrust of the state (for some good reasons - the Tories focused a lot of their fire on New Labour authoritarianism and centralisation) is also widespread, as is discontent with how money is spent (again, for some good reasons - think of the PFI boondoggles). Anti-immigrant sentiment is at an all-time high, disdain for beggars and benefit recipients is widespread, and support for redistributive politics after thirteen years of New Labour in office is now a minority pursuit. Meanwhile, local councils are often encountered as some of the most inept, obstinate, and coldly indifferent bureaucracies in the country. So, with a near Pravda-esque capitalist realism propagated through the state and capitalist media - and one is struck by how often it is still taken as 'obvious' that some cuts have to be made somewhere - it only remained for the Tories and their allies to furnish the popular imagination with endless examples of alleged 'waste', incompetence, and fraud. Local councils spending your money on Muslim-only toilets, benefit fraud, illegal immigration, 'health tourism', etc. But things don't have to be this way.

IV. Winning. Left-wing campaigns have focused on reminding people that they hate the rich, really resent them and their power and arrogance; that they don't trust the Tories; that they like having free healthcare and schools; that the despised bankers caused the crisis, and not ordinary people; that mass unemployment is a social ill for which they will suffer; that they're against the wars for which there is endless government money; and that if they think the state is inefficient, they have already tried the private capitalism of Enron, Worldcom and Lehman Brothers. Since it is normal for people to entertain conflicting ideas and ambitions, the aim is firstly to shift the weight of emphasis along the continuum away from reactionary resentment and toward popular and class-based anger. Secondly, it is to destabilise the austerity alliance by attacking their weak links, and shaking free some loose elements ripe for re-appropriation. For all that we repeat that the ruling coalition is a Thatcherite one, we also have to constantly bear in mind its historical specificity. It is an unstable government, binding Whigs, Peelites, and High Tories, Thatcherite mods and rockers, Europhiles and Atlanticists, social liberals and reactionaries, have-a-go-heroes and hoodie-huggers, finance capital, producers, the petite-bourgeoisie and the progressive middle class. Attacking the unity of this coalition and dispersing its constituents is a precondition for any meaningful advance. Thirdly, the aim is to re-articulate many of the same elements operated on by the right into a new majoritarian leftist political mobilisation.

UK Uncut is an interesting political intervention in this respect. It can never fulfil the latter two remits, but look at its contribution to the former. There's been an awful lot of focus on its method of organising, which may be facing a crisis as it comes under the steamroller of police repression, but far more important is what it has said, the way it has interceded in the ideological field, drawing attention to the underfunding of the state by the rich, the state's leniency toward the rich, and the fact that cuts are not inevitable or necessary but rather a class-loaded 'ideological' project. From a peevish, sectarian perspective, one could write it off as a sort of middle class 'people power' movement that will change sfa. But that would be to miss the point entirely. It already has changed what it set out to change: the field of signification. This advance is highly circumscribed, was not achieved by UK Uncut alone, and leaves much work to be accomplished by other forces - but it's still not to be sniffed at.

The second goal, of shattering the coalition, which the Tories depend on to impose their version of austerity, is not something that one could just assume would happen as a result of the 'contradictions' of the coalition. It is something that has to be worked on. The student protests rightly targeted Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems as much as the Tories, turning the renegade Liberal leader ("wolf-eyed replicant"...) into a national hate figure, running the Liberals down in the polls, and ultimately making it difficult for them even to show their faces in public. I cannot understand the approach of those who say that the Tories are the real enemy and that therefore the venom toward the Liberal leadership is a waste of good spleen. It's because the Tories are the 'real enemy' that they have to be isolated, and this coalition broken. As of now, the Tories still don't have enough support to win an election by themselves. They briefly commanded an electorally viable plurality in the period from 2007 to 2009, but have since 2010 been back to their normal range votes, tending to be somewhere between the low to mid-thirties - this despite the astonishing ineptitude of a Labour leadership that never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Every time the Tories come out with some right-wing poison about immigration or 'integration', it places the coalition in danger. The harder they push for the deepest cuts, for privatization, the more the Liberal leadership has to placate its shrivelled 'social liberal' conscience. When the Tories hammered the disastrous AV campaign, it consistently put the Liberals on the back foot. Now they have nothing to show for their gambit, a sort of queen's sacrifice - bar the cuts, and the steadily accumulating ranks of knights, bishops and pawns on the Tories' side. The only rational thing for the Left to do in such circumstances is to keep hammering away, by every available means, until the coalition splits, or enough Liberals defect to trigger an early election.

The third goal, that of re-articulating the elements of popular discontent into a majoritarian leftist response to austerity, has proved more difficult. Let's not deny what has been achieved. The turnout for the big TUC rally was amazing, as deep as it was broad, truly representative of the British labour movement and its periphery - and what a powerful movement that could be if it decided to move all as one. There are real pressures for mass, coordinated strike action coming from below in every trade union. This hasn't turned into independent, rank and file initiative in most cases. Largely, the direction remains in the hands of the bureaucracy. But the pressure is there, and is contributing to the build-up for a mass strike on 30th June. But the attempt to build a national political campaign against cuts with similar social depth is taking time. Actually, there are several competing vehicles, and not one of them is adequate on its own; not one capable of extending beyond its party basis and periphery. While each broadly has the same analysis of the cuts, they all operate in different ways, relate to different constituencies, and address a different aspect of the same problem. Such parcellization almost guarantees that these vehicles will remain confined to the extant left, unable to harness wider forces. This isn't to play the sad old finger-wagging game of simply denouncing 'divisions on the Left', wryly referencing 'Life of Brian' for the boreteenth time, as if anyone is actually in favour of such divisions. Sometimes, these divisions are necessary, or have a legitimate basis, or are unavoidable; sometimes they aren't. There's no way, at any rate, to simply over-ride these. So, somehow, the different groups have to find the appropriate level at which they can engage in unified action, in order to coordinate publicity and solidarity campaigns, locally and nationally. One could envision, for example, a multiplicity of possible structures (more or less centralised, or federal, depending on the degree of agreement between the factions involved, and the degree of democracy each mode of organising permits) to which different campaign groups could agree to affiliate for a fee, and which would seek the funding and support of the trade unions, etc.. The alternative is to allow the political direction of the anti-cuts movement to be fixed somewhere between a Labour leadership that actually argues for (slower, less savage) cuts, and a trade union leadership some of whose big battalions have resigned themselves to doing the bare minimum to oppose cuts.

Of course, it isn't just about merging the vessels of the extant left into a single flotilla, at least not for its own sake. It is only worth doing if it increases the combined efficacy of the forces involved. But the point is to coordinate ideological and cultural counterpoints to the politics of austerity, which task seems to require a pooling of resources and combination of forces. As and when struggles emerge, unpredictably as they will, the aim is that they will not emerge in a socio-symbolic field cultivated exclusively by the Right, so that they merely appear as law and order problem, but in one where their actions are intelligible as logical and worthy responses to a widely apprehended injustice. This will be particularly important as, increasingly, we're forced to operate in the space between purely impotent civil society protest and illegal and potentially dangerous adventurism. The state hasn't been able to operate through cooptation and consent since the 1960s, and has thus tended increasingly toward the authoritarian end of the spectrum of rule. The criminalisation and suppression of protest, however peaceful and formally within the law, is consonant with that. The police will need to continually justify their mode of highly repressive policing without being seen as the armed wing of a particular government, which would be a threat to their legitimacy. Thus, they have to turn a growing number of protests into heavily fortified battlegrounds, with their opponents pre-designated as violent criminals. The propaganda battle is, of course, partly dependent on class struggles taking off. That is why some of the propaganda stunts are themselves miniature 'actions', forms of deliberate disruption. But even as they do, there can always be simultaneous work going on to reinforce the principles of articulation, the political logics by which diverse contestations are brought into a coherent whole. Opportunities for parliamentary mobilisation may come into this, although recent election results seem to have indicated that in most cases it's close to useless for left-of-Labour forces to stand their own candidates. But there will be other elections, where it is more plausible to stand: student and trade union bodies, local councils, etc. Certainly, legal battles will be important, as the recent G20 verdict demonstrates. Anti-fascist and anti-racist work will be important, as a desperate Tory party is apt to shore up support by attacking minorities. All of this can be done best if it is done with a constant focus on shifting the balance of common sense away from the neoliberal pole, and in the process transforming the contents of mainstream social democratic thinking in a leftist direction.

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Monday, May 09, 2011

Public sector pay myths posted by Richard Seymour

Me, in The Guardian, tackling the tired old myths about public sector pay, rehashed in a new Policy Exchange report:

According to a Policy Exchange report highlighted by the Telegraph, public sector workers are 40% better off than their private sector counterparts, if wages are taken on an hourly basis and pensions are included. This is a longstanding claim on the right, used to justify attacks on public sector pay and pensions. The problem is that neither the numbers, nor the narrative, are on the level.

1. The report doesn't compare like with like. Public sector workers are more skilled on average than private sector workers. This has always been the case, but the tendency has been increased in recent years as low-skill jobs have been contracted out, and the public sector incorporates more graduates...

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Quilting point posted by Richard Seymour

"The class character of an ideological discourse is revealed in what we could call its specific articulating principle. Let us take an example: nationalism. Is it a feudal, bourgeois or proletarian ideology? Considered in itself it has no class connotation. The latter only derives from its specific articulation with other ideological elements. A feudal class, for example, can link nationalism to the maintenance of a hierarchical-authoritarian system of a traditional type - we need only think of Bismarck’s Germany. A bourgeois class may link nationalism to the development of a centralised nation-state in fighting against feudal particularism, and at the same time appeal to national unity as a means of neutralising class conflicts - think of the case of France. Finally, a communist movement can denounce the betrayal by capitalist classes of a nationalist cause and articulate nationalism and socialism in a single ideological discourse - think of Mao, for example. One could say that we understand by nationalism something distinct in the three cases. This is true, but our aim is precisely to determine where this difference lies. Is it the case that nationalism refers to such diverse contents that it is not possible to find a common element of meaning in them all? Or rather is it that certain common nuclei of meaning are connotatively linked to diverse ideological-articulatory domains? If the first solution were accepted, we would have to conclude that ideological struggle as such is impossible, since classes can only compete at the ideological level if there exists a common framework of meaning shared by all forces in struggle. It is precisely this background of shared meanings that enables antagonistic discourses to establish their difference. The political discourses of various classes, for example, will consist of antagonistic efforts of articulation in which each class presents itself as the authentic representative of ‘the people’, of ‘the national interest’, and so on. If, therefore, the second solution - which we consider to be the correct answer - is accepted, it is necessary to conclude that classes exist at the ideological and political level in a process of ar ticulation and not of reduction.

"Articulation requires, therefore, the existence of nonclass contents - interpellations and contradictions - which constitute the raw material on which class ideological practices operate. These ideological practices are determined not only by a view of the world consistent with the insertion of a given class in the process of production, but also by its relations with other classes and by the actual level of class struggle. The ideology of a dominant class does not merely consist of a Weltanschaung which ideologically expresses its essence, but is a functioning part of the system of rule of that class. The ideology of the dominant class, precisely because it is dominant, interpellates not only the members of that class but also members of the dominated classes. The concrete form in which the interpellation of the latter takes place is a partial absorption and neutralisation of those ideological contents through which resistance to the domination of the former is expressed.

"The characteristic method of securing this objective is to eliminate antagonism and transform it into a simple difference. A class is hegemonic not so much to the extent that it is able to impose a uniform conception of the world on the rest of society, but to the extent that it can articulate different visions of the world in such a way that their potential antagonism is neutralised. The English bourgeoisie of the 19th century was transformed into a hegemonic class not through the imposition of a uniform ideology upon other classes, but to the extent that it succeeded in articulating different ideologies to its hegemonic project by an elimination of their antagonistic character: the aristocracy was not abolished, in the jacobin style, but was reduced to an increasingly subordinate and decorative role, while the demands of the working class were partially absorbed - which resulted in reformism and trade-unionism. The particularism and ad hoc nature of dominant institutions and ideology in Great Britain does not, therefore, reflect an inadequate bourgeois development but exactly the opposite: the supreme articulating power of the bourgeoisie’s. Similarly, ideologies of dominated classes consist of articulating projects which try to develop the potential antagonisms constituting a determinate social formation. What is important here is that the dominant class exerts its hegemony in two ways: (1) through the articulation into its class discourse of non-class contradictions and interpellations; (2) through the absorption of contents forming part of the ideological and political discourses of the dominated classes. The presence of working class demands in a discourse - the eight-hour day, for example is insufficient to determine the class nature of that discourse. The political discourse of the bourgeoisie also came to accept the eight-hour day as a ‘just’ demand, and to adopt advanced social legislation. This is a clear proof that it is not in the presence of determinate contents of a discourse but in the articulating principle which unifies them that we must seek the class character of politics and ideology."

Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism - Fascism - Populism, NLB, 1977, pp. 160-2

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Sunday, May 08, 2011

Respect mah authoritah posted by Richard Seymour

I am a public intellectual, and you will respect mah authoritah!:


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Saturday, May 07, 2011

"Unmitigated evil" posted by Richard Seymour

This is amazingly bonkers:

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Friday, May 06, 2011

Ashdown: it's all about the cuts posted by Richard Seymour

I don't really have time to write anything substantial on the Liberal wipe-out, or the SNP's out-flanking of a very shabby Labour campaign in Scotland, but it's worth at least noticing this:

Ashdown said: "The central proposition of this parliament stands: 'Is George Osborne's economic judgment right?' I believe it is. The whole of British politics now rests on that single proposition. The fortunes of the coalition, the fortunes of the two parties in the coalition and the fortunes of the Labour party rest on that."

This, following a colossal tantrum about the Tories' dishonesty in the No2AV campaign and hints that the coalition would be more of a 'business' arrangement from now on (by which we are to understand that previously it was a honeymoon?), boils it down nicely, wouldn't you say? It certainly explains why the Liberals will hang on through any loss, any humiliation, any ostensible betrayal. Their number one priority is not education, electoral reform, or tax justice. Their number one priority, Cable's fooling-noone histrionics to one side, is to protect and advance neoliberal capitalism through the most savage cuts agenda in living memory. That's all they're hanging in for now.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Imperialism and revolution posted by Richard Seymour

Me on US intervention in the Middle East Revolutions in Socialist Review:

Until this point Washington's model of "liberation" in the Middle East was the mass cemetery and torture chamber that it created in Iraq. The Obama administration is trying to offer a new model amid this revolutionary upsurge. Increasingly, all signs are pointing towards a negotiated settlement which excludes Gaddafi but protects the basic contours of the regime. This is what is signposted by the "pathway to peace" document signed by Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy. It will be, if it happens, a typical imperial carve-up. That would constitute, not a victory for the Libyan revolutionaries, but their confirmed defeat.

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Monday, May 02, 2011

A Note on New Labour and trasformismo posted by Richard Seymour

A while ago I wrote of Labour's "aim to represent and convoke the working class as an agency for reform" while also governing in the interests of capital. I received a missive shortly after this, urging me to go further. "This is the sort of thing that could have been written forty years ago," my correspondent suggested (I paraphrase), but "I'm not sure it does exactly this any longer." Indeed, it was written forty years ago - I was quoting more or less directly from Stuart Hall's Policing the Crisis.

Recently, proceeding through a catalogue of Gramscian writing on New Labour, I found a few pieces which might help update the picture. One was by Hall ('New Labour’s Double-shuffle', The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 27:319–335, 2005), another by Will Leggett ('Prince of Modernisers: Gramsci, New Labour and the meaning of modernity', in Mark McNally & John Schwarzmantel, eds, Gramsci and Global Politics: Hegemony and resistance, Routledge, 2009). Both read New Labour as a particular hegemonic project operating within neoliberalism, but with a specific accent that distinguishes it from simple re-heated Thatcherism. This accent derives from the specific social basis of New Labour as "a social democratic government trying to govern in a neo-liberal direction, while maintaining its traditional working-class and public sector middle-class support". New Labour is a "hybrid regime" comprising a dominant neoliberal strand and a subordinate social democratic strand, and the latter is constantly being "transformed" into the former (Hall).

The New Labour vanguard had been forged in conjuncturally specific circumstances, but its import was epochal. So, while New Labour represented an adaptation to a profound, organic, long-term shift in the global patterns of capital accumulation, the agency within Labourism that forced this adaptation through was cultivated in the 'party modernization' process of the 1980s which was ideologically signposted by the sociological arguments progenerated by Marxism Today - ironically, as Leggett points out, the very current of analysis with which Hall was closely associated. This analysis held that the processes at work in contemporary capitalism were rendering traditional forms of social democratic collectivism obsolete. Labourism had to respond to this fact if it was to win another election. Hall was not one of those who uncritically celebrated this situation - far from it, in fact - but the 'New Times' orthodoxy played a key role in justifying Kinnock's purges of the Left, and his rightist lurches. From this tendency emerged some of New Labour's organic intellectuals, such as Geoff Mulgan. 'Third Way' politics is unthinkable without this prior ideological ground-work.

So, what did the Third Way seek to do? A key term in Hall's critique of Third Way politics is 'transformism' (trasformismo), a concept which operates at a certain level of abstraction while retaining a certain concreteness. That is to say, it is a highly descriptive term, referring to a technique of governance employed by the centre during and after the Italian Risorgimento, in which radical-popular social goals are incorporated and 'transformed' by the political centre, enabling a bourgeois hegemonic bloc to carry through a 'passive revolution' without empowering subaltern classes. Yet, it can be abstracted to a limited extent, deployed - with due care - to other situations. In the case of New Labour, transformism takes the form of "a long-term strategy" to transform "social democracy into a particular variant of free-market neo-liberalism". (Hall) This entails efforts to "co-opt, fragment, and dilute oppositional
actors and demands" (Leggett) This can be seen discursively in the energetic New Labour attempts to cast their agenda in terms of the legacy of the Attlee government, the 'socialism' of Richard Crossman, etc. NHS privatization reforms are, pace Blair, "firmly within Labour’s historic battle for social justice", fully consistent with Bevan's original agenda. If this looks like evasive double-talk, it's because it is: spin is not incidental to the New Labour project, but actually central to its hegemonic operations.

The antagonism within New Labour, between its neoliberal leadership and the basis in organised labour, is what explains the tendency to resort to vacillating jargon, queen among whose cynosures is 'pragmatism':

"The key thing to say about New Labour is that its so-called ‘pragmatism’ is the English face it is obliged to wear in order to ‘govern’ in one set of interests while maintaining electoral support in another. It isn’t fundamentally pragmatic, any more than Thatcherism was—which doesn’t mean that it isn’t constantly making things up on the run. In relation to the NHS, Mrs. Thatcher too was pragmatic in the short run (‘‘The NHS is safe in our hands!’’), yet strategically an anti-pragmatist (the internal market). As with the miners, she knew when to withdraw in order to fight again, more effectively, another day. Pragmatism is the crafty, incremental implementation of a strategic programme—being flexible about the way you push it through, giving ground when the opposition is hot, tactically revising your formulations when necessary (having given us ‘the enabling state’ and the celebration of ‘risk,’ the distinguished Third Way guru, Anthony Giddens (2002), now effortlessly slips us on to the forgotten problem of equality (!!) and ‘the ensuring state’—as more businesses absolve themselves of their pensions obligations). Pragmatism requires modestly shifting the emphases to catch the current political wind, saying what will keep traditional ‘heartland’ supporters happy (‘‘It can come across a bit technocratic, a bit managerial’’—the P.M.), whilst always returning to an inflexible ideological baseline (‘‘. . . the fundamental direction in which we are leading the country is correct’’—the P.M.)." (Hall)

Pragmatism, alongside 'modernisation', served to give the impression that New Labour policy nostrums were natural, uncontestable, and inevitable, though they were none of these things. These were hegemonic strategies, designed to give moral and intellectual leadership, and fundamentally alter the 'common sense' of political discourse, rationalising production and producing a new 'collective man' (cf, 'Americanism and Fordism'). This new 'collective man' is "not to expect handouts from the state, but is to be flexible, hard-working, entrepreneurial and a good consumer: a citizen-consumer". (Leggett) Labour could have won an election and governed as a moderately left-of-centre reformist party, but the Blairites were intent on fighting within public opinion, particularly within Labour's base, for their social agenda, which centrally involved turning social justice, poverty-reduction and public service delivery - traditional social democratic concerns - into aspects of neoliberal governance. For that reason, the 'activist state' - involving not Keynesian corporatism, but rather a plethora of marketised institutions that deliberately blurred the boundaries between the state and civil society - was crucial to the New Labour lexicon.

But New Labour's transformism would not have been effective at a discursive level of it weren't for occasional concessions to progressive, democratising values at the level of policy. These included the minimum wage, the devolution of powers, the working families' tax credit, some limited trade union rights, the human rights act, increased maternity leave, and - importantly - the expansion of public services through the very neoliberal means that it sought to normalise in the terrain of social democracy. Without these sorts of measures, the efforts at transforming social democracy into neoliberalism - which, recall, depended on coopting, fragmenting and diluting oppositional actors and demands - would not have been as effective as they were. Such measures disoriented and disorganised opposition, allowing the "fundamental direction" to remain untouched.

The remaining question is exactly how much success New Labour enjoyed in this hegemonic mission. It has been noted by pollsters that the experience of New Labour government moved the electorate to the right on a whole series of social questions, on egalitarianism, wealth redistribution, welfare, and - not the least of these - nationality, immigration and citizenship. The limits of this shift, however, are clear when it comes to popular attitudes regarding the core institutions of social democracy which New Labour sought to fundamentally restructure. Privatization did not become more popular with the electorate, and the Left organised some decent, effective public campaigns on this issue, around the railways, the tube, housing and hospitals. New Labour worked most effectively here where it divided and coopted the opposition. Pro-imperialist ideology, and support for the thermonuclear-tipped Anglo-American alliance that was central to New Labour's mission, sharply declined. Any Labour leader who advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament in the 1980s would have been crucified; today, he might be feted by a decent majority of the electorate. Dirigiste sentiments seem to have remained relatively stable among Labour voters, probably increasing as a result of the crisis. Most importantly, New Labour's electoral viability, and thus its ability to make its programme effective, is at rock bottom. Labour might be able to win another election as New Labour, but this would only be effective for as long as no strong opposition emerged. It certainly couldn't work in Scotland or Wales, where alternative reformists forces are already able to run rings around any Labour leadership that disappoints its base.

An emerging trend in New Labour thinking that is not quite Blairism, and doesn't entirely pivot on the moral and political individualism typical of the latter at its apex, is this 'Blue Labour' trend. Its key spokesperson, Lord Maurice Glasman, is a student of Karl Polanyi, and among its supporters are communitarians like Jon Cruddas. It remains, for that, a trend within New Labour, supported by pro-market ultras like James Purnell, which aims at upholding the basic New Labour assault on traditional social democratic collectivism: the language of mutualism, for example, provides a way of doing so without departing from neoliberal nostrums, and indeed any trend that comes from within New Labour will uphold a variant of neoliberalism. (Here I can't assent to Leggett's suggestion that New Labour possesses the intellectual resources to provide an alternative to neoliberalism). In an era when the majority are expected to accept severe reductions in their living standards, the figure of the acquisitive, self-interested individual that motivated Blairite transformism is no longer adequate or even minimally realistic. Instead, we are required to do more with less, to be self-sacrificing for what is ostensibly the greater good, to hold society together even while the mechanisms of social solidarity are de-funded and eviscerated. Hence, any potentially hegemonic formation within New Labour would have to proffer some 'Third Way' between atomised individualism and social democratic collectivism. It would have to go further, however, as it could not secure consent for a modified austerity project without offering some targeted concessions and relief, and without some modest encroachments on the wealth of the richest. Yet, to even state this is to underline just how weak and unstable such a project would be, how much more obvious its antagonisms would be, and how much less efficient its hegemonic operations would be as a result.

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Sunday, May 01, 2011

Hegemony, war of position and organic crisis posted by Richard Seymour

I. Hegemony. In normal conditions of bourgeois rule, the ruling class exerts its domination partly through moral and intellectual leadership. It purports to rule for the good of the whole, not merely its own particularistic interests. Under capitalism, the central good that the bourgeoisie promises to bring to the social whole is growth, from which we may all benefit, even if we do not benefit in equal proportion. The benefits would not exclusively take the form of gradually increasing income, but also peace, political stability, technological and informational advances, cultural development and so on. The bourgeoisie's promise is that its rule serves a wider developmental purpose, which no alternative adequately rivals.

But in fact, there's no necessary reason why anyone should consent to this social image, which attributes 'growth', the sign for accumulated, alienated human labour, to a reifed capitalist 'market'. There's no necessary reason why anyone should even believe that these benefits actually follow from capitalist 'growth', for they very often do not. Nor is there any necessary reason why people should accept this arrangement as just, or 'natural', or 'inevitable', and acquiesce in it. And, of course, many people do not. But the production of social images takes place within an antagonistic and asymmetrical power relation, and the bourgeoisie exerts strategic control over most of the means through which social images are produced and disseminated. So, for bourgeois hegemony to be operative, it has to have achieved decisive leverage over the production of ideology, through universities, the military, the church, media, the parliamentary state, and so on; and the interests and aspirations of subaltern classes have to be plausibly incorporated into the ruling ideology. This requires the production of "tendentially empty signifiers" (Laclau, 'Structure, History and the Political') through which particular interests can appear to represent universal interests. These tendentially empty signifiers - family, market, justice, nation, hard-working, consumer, tax-payer, decent*, etc etc. - permit a certain equivalence between particulars, linking them, and anchoring them in a discourse beyond particularism. (*It is actually an over-statement to consider any of these signifiers 'tendentially empty', which is why Vološinov's analysis of social multi-accentuality comes in handy).

Since ruling classes are nationally constituted, moreover, they tend to represent their particularist interests first as national interests, and then only secondarily as contributing to planetary embetterment, or at least not inhibiting it. If the ruling class in question stands in an imperialist relationship to other other societies, then that ruling class will represent the national interest in missionary language - manifest destiny, the civilizing mission, containment, democracy promotion, etc., - concerning the nation's extra-territorial role, but this is always subordinate to the national interest, represented in the international terrain as as 'enlightened self-interest'. So, bougeois hegemony in an imperialist state can operate by appearing to meet the needs of subaltern classes within the imperialist mission itself, through their participation in demonstrations of national/racial supremacy, and their apparent benefiting from the fruits of that supremacy.

II. 'War of Position'. In its zenith, the bourgeoisie is capable of delivering sustained social transformation without surrendering its hegemony with respect to subaltern classes; it can take initiative and dictate the pace and nature of social reform; thus, the period following the organic crisis of 1848 is one of sustained reform, and qualitative social transformation, often under pressure from the working classes, but never exactly at their bidding or to their requirements. Similarly, there emerged new national states whose creation was directed by bourgeois-aristocratic initiative, without a popular Jacobin element driving their construction. In these states, notably Italy and Germany, the bourgeoisie could create independent centres of capital accumulation with fully fledged bourgeois cultural and political institutions without the working class taking leadership. This process, Gramsci dubbed 'passive revolution'.

For as long as the bourgeoisie retains its hegemonic position, the prospect of an immediate revolutionary assault on its power bases remains distant, upheld only as an intellectual-moral horizon by revolutionary parties until such time as circumstances change. In these circumstances, what Gramsci calls the "Forty-Eightist" position (referring, of course, to 1848) calling for insurrection against the state is, he claims, historically superseded by the rigidification of state authority and civil society organisation. The 'war of movement' becomes a 'war of position': "The massive structure of the modern democracies, both as State organisations and as complexes of associations in civil society, are for the art of politics what ‘trenches’ and permanent fortifications of the front are for the war of position". (Gramsci, 'The State and Civil Society'). Gramsci was not heterodox in this position, as Peter Thomas has shown - Engels, Lenin and Trotsky had all employed this insight, the latter insisting that conditions unique to Tsarist Russia would not be replicated in stable capitalist societies, and so the class struggle would have to be waged with a view to the specific conditions inhering in those states. The 'war of position' is not a chosen strategy, but a mode of political struggle enforced by circumstance. A 'war of movement' is available where a society is held together by force, where its power is concentrated in the instruments of repression, rather than consent. In advanced capitalist social formations, the bourgeoisie has successfully confined the proletariat's struggles to the sphere of civil society, which dictates where and how the war must be fought. This war will be conducted by means of ideological campaigns, trade union mobilisations, legal-democratic protests, etc. All of this is intended to exploit 'contradictions' in ruling ideology; turn exploited against exploiter; amplify demands for attainable reforms (both for its own beneficial purposes, and to socialise cadres of workers in militant struggles); raise reasonable but unattainable demands to illustrate the limits of the system's ability to meet social aspirations; and in the process convoke new constellations of potentially counter-hegemonic political forces.

III. Organic crisis. Until one day... An 'organic crisis' is a complete crisis of society and state, not merely of the capitalist market, but of the bourgeoisie's political and cultural institutions, and its sources of hegemony. It constitutes a crisis in the authority of all affected bourgeois states, and stimulates subaltern movements on an international level. A crisis of authority "occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example), or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petit-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity” (Gramsci, 'State and Civil Society').

It is precisely such a generalised crisis that rescues the "Forty Eightist" position from a purely niche, antiquarian, or fetishistic interest, justifying the idea of a permanent revolution taking on the state directly. The ruling order suddenly seems brittle, the civil society no longer as robust, existing channels for popular expression no longer capable of deflating radical critique. Something like this could be said to have occurred in the Middle East. However, in the short-run, such crises are dangerous for the Left. Not all strata can reorient themselves at the same pace - traditional ruling classes have numerous trained cadres, and changes men and programmes with greater speed than opponents. For example, the Left was initially wrong-footed by the crisis of 2008, not helped by it.

One might argue that the revolutionary process in the Middle East reinforces the view that such scenarios only unfold in states with weak civil society organisations, frail or non-existent democratic legitimacy, overwhelmingly dependent on force. This, however, would overstate the extent to which the ancien regimes in the recent revolutionary states, Tunisia and Egypt, were dependent on consent. It was precisely because such consent broke down, and the social basis of their regimes narrowed, that they eventually fell. Mubarak's fall, for example, was precipitated by: a financial crisis; the weakening of state capacity; the defection of important class fractions (particularly the middle class and rural poor); the shattering of elite self-confidence; the transfer of loyalties of strategically significant intellectuals to opposition, which cultivates its own cadres of organic intellectuals; and finally a popular unwillingness to tolerate the old order, even at the cost of privation, injury and a number of deaths. These processes would have been accelerated by the regime's undemocratic nature, and its considerable cultural and socioeconomic distance from the ruled, but they are far from unique to such regimes. An organic crisis can afflict any regime. It would be historically short-sighted not to expect the features of such crises to recur not just in Third World autocracies, but in the Euro-American capitalist core in the near future.

Five years ago, a little noted article appeared in The International Political Science Review. By Adam Webb, the article entitled 'The Calm Before the Storm? Revolutionary Pressures and Global Governance' anticipated "a global revolutionary crisis". This would probably take place within a generation, he forecast, and would be prefaced by a systemic global economic crisis equivalent to the prolonged 'troughs' of the 1930s and 1970s. Such a crisis would intersect with an existing sense of injustice about the inequity of global wealth accumulation, and drive political radicalisation. But this would not result in revolution if the world system and the national regimes comprising it enjoyed sufficient legitimacy to weather the storm. The reason why such a crisis can become revolutionary is because the existing order is brittle, increasingly lacking democratic legitimacy even within the 'developed' capitalist core.

This is a feature of neoliberal governance, which saw "that ‘unstable equilibrium’ between coercion and consent which characterizes all democratic class politics" tilt "decisively towards the ‘authoritarian’ pole" (Stuart Hall). Limited democratic participation was replaced by market-driven decision-making. The fragile, antagonistic nature of this hegemonic project, which involved somehow suturing together a series of 'contradictory' subject-positions, meant that it could only survive through the weakness of its opponents. Indeed, it had derived its initial energy from exploiting unpopular aspects of the old social democratic centre, and of certain labour movement practises, in order to divide and weaken opponents. But given a sufficiently ecumenical crisis, and the revival of radical forces of opposition, the patent weakness of its civil society bases, the lack of popular participation in the regime (even in its limited corporatist forms), and its lack of ability to absorbe and 'transform' popular demands, all become abundantly plain.

On top of this, the national regimes founded on such social pacts are increasingly integrated into global transgovernmental institutions designed to reinforce their lack of responsiveness to popular pressure, to insulate their law-making and economic decision-making processes from popular majorities, while capital has sought to free itself somewhat from controls by national states. The Middle East revolutions show that those who expect 'globalization' in this sense to render the capture of national states irrelevant are mistaken. But if there is a scalar shift taking place in the operation of capitalist power, it is not as yet matched by a global civil society capable of buttressing this transnational power's legitimacy. This affects the level at which revolutionary struggles are pitched, as they increasingly have a regional dimension analogous to the regionalising tendencies within capitalism itself. It also means, however, that reactionary 'anti-capitalist' forces could emerge predicated on national, ethnic or religious revival, particularly if the contending forces reach an impasse, neither able to impose a solution, allowing a charismatic Bonapartist/Caesarist leadership to emerge and carry through a 'passive revolution' that preserves the basic class structure while introducing substantial social changes. Such a tendency is not restricted to, but is most dangerous in, the imperialist states.

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