Sunday, October 30, 2011

Angela Davis at Occupy Philly posted by Richard Seymour

"We talked about the importance of building a movement that is inclusive, but recognising that the unity of the 99% must be a complex unity.  Movements in the past have primarily appealed to specific communities.  Whether workers, students, black communities, Latino communities, women, LGBT communities, indigenous people, or these movements have been organised around specific issues.  Like the environment, food, water, war, the prison-industrial complex.  Speaking of the prison-industrial complex.  This is the movement I have been personally associated with.  We have tried to call attention to the inoperable damage prison and the prison-industrial system has inflicted on our community.  So we have called for a reduction of the prison population.  Decarceration - decarcerate Pennsylvania.  And we have called for the eventual abolition of prisons as the dominant mode of punishment.  But we have also called for the revitalisation of all our communities.  We have called for education, health care, housing, jobs, hope, justice, creativity, equality, freedom!  We move from the particular to the general.  We have come together as the 99%.  There are major responsibilities linked to your decision to assemble here in communities.  How can you be together?  I evoke once more Audre Lorde.  Differences must not be merely tolerated but seen as a fund of polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.  Finally, let me say a few words about my home town, Oakland, California.  You have heard about the police assault.  Scott Olsen remains in the hospital.  Oakland General Assembly met in the renamed park Oscar Grant Park and responded by calling for a general strike on November 2nd.  Many unions have already supported the call.  I end by sharing the language of the poster: decolonise Oakland.  We are the 99%.  We stand united.  November 2nd, 2011, general strike, no work, no school, occupy everywhere.  Occupy everywhere."

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Friday, October 28, 2011

OWS vs. the Octopus: On Making a Demand posted by Richard Seymour

Guest post by Ruth Jennison and Jordana Rosenberg

The biggest and broadest social movement we have seen in this country since the anti-Vietnam war protests has begun.  The anti-capitalist revolts in Seattle, the movements to establish and defend the rights of the undocumented in Arizona, the defense of organizing rights in Wisconsin, the robust and indignant response to the murder of unarmed black men by the Oakland Police Department have prepared the way, nationally, for this moment.  Internationally, the revolutions in the Middle East have raised the flag of full transformation.  These are our waypoints, our history, our archive of how we got here.  

The question we have asked ourselves, for so long now, has been: how far can they push us before something breaks?

Something has broken.  And re-formed.  And billowed – radiant and heterogeneous – into existence. 

In the face of barrages of moralizing media campaigns that told us that overspending on our credit cards and living “outside our means” was the reason for the recession, we now have the blossoming of an entirely more accurate alternative narrative.  Since at least the 1970s, the financialization of our economy has coincided with an unprecedented transfer of wealth from working people to the 1%.    There has been a near absolute reversal of the gains won by working class militancy in the 1930s, as well as a gutting of the gains won for people of color in the long civil rights era.  Such reversals at the level of finance and policy have been put in place through a steroidal injection of resources into the prison system, the police forces and wars: the repressive apparati of finance capital.

Even as veterans of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, nothing could have prepared us for the scope of what we have seen and participated in on the streets of New York.  Everything you have read about the tremendous energy generated by Zuccotti Park is true.  We have seen and love: transit workers shoulder to shoulder with tweens coming to social consciousness; street corner debates at the edges of Zuccotti that last so long the children fall asleep at the feet of their parents; when the food committee crosses the city to bring pizza to your working group, and your voice remembers it has a body that needs to eat; when the National Nurses United sets up voluntary shift rotations that make it feel just a little bit easier for the differently-abled to stick around, march, and wheel; when the human mic shouts “Free Mumia,” and it rings, in waves several times over, through One Police Plaza.

Zuccotti has given us a taste of what we want.  Even the briefest breath of the air outside of full alienation feels like enough to strengthen us for the fight ahead.  No-one wants this moment – so hard won – to end.  But there is a temptation to say that the occupation itself is the revolutionary movement.  Such a perspective partakes of some mixture of the long tradition of utopian communitarian social movements, a defanged lifestyle politics – whose injunction to “be” the change you want to see in the world has at times substituted for collective action – and the simple fact that the de-alienating atmosphere of this moment just feels really good.  

And this same utopian whiff of de-alienation produces the sheer optimism that re-opens a historically healthy and crucial question for any social movement: the question of what we want.  We have seen that there are diverse elements, in many working groups, that want to demand something in excess of the occupation itself.[1] These elements have not congealed, in any way, around a single set of demands. They are passionately interested in discussing the concerns of other groups, and constituencies, and communities.  In the remainder of this piece, we argue not for a specific set of demands, but wish to address concerns about the raising of demands in general.

Those elements beginning discussions about demands do face some some steep questions from the rest of the movement.   For the sake of clarity we have broken these questions down roughly into 3.

1)     What is the Occupy movement? 

Is it a clearinghouse – a hub? the center of a constellation? a member of the constellation? – by which other groups are inspired and to which other groups might bring their demands for solidarity?  We have seen this structure functioning quite well in rallies with Verizon workers, the anti-police brutality and anti-Stop-and-Frisk demonstrations, the foreclosure auctions, and so on.  There has been nothing – not even Zuccotti itself – that has been more inspiring than these actions.[2]  But, after the raid on Occupy Oakland last night, the terms of both solidarity and of demands have intensified.  Almost immediately, there was a call for the removal of mayor Quan from office.  This demand resonated nationwide not as a divisive or premature silencing of debate, but as a cohering of the movement around necessary next steps.  Today, the Oakland GA voted to call a General Strike for November 2nd. What solidarity actions should we take in New York?  Nationwide?  How does Oakland’s sharpening of demands affect the Occupy movements around the country?  It seems that, to even survive as a hub (much less to morph into an anti-capitalist movement that is able to truly challenge the State’s violent protection of the interests of the 1%) we may need to make some demands.

2) To whom do we make these demands? 

Wall Street, or. . .the State? We cannot make demands of Wall Street.  Wall Street, while it has taken on properly golemish proportions in the OWS movement, is not a coherent entity.  It is tentacular.  A blind and deaf octopus.  Here, we might draw on the wisdom of the anti-Vietnam war movement, the Panthers, the sit-down strikes and the unemployed workers’ movements of the 1930s.  All of these movements had a double vision, an ability to produce syncretic understandings of the way that the State and capital work together to ensure the status quo.  The Panthers provide us with a particularly strong model: holding community-building in a tense and mutually constitutive dialectic with demands for the full restoration of what has been stolen, denied, or hidden from view. The vitality of such a perspective finds an echo in the strength, within OWS, of the solidarity actions against police brutality.  It is not coincidental or simply reactive that we have mobilized so strongly against police brutality.  It is not only because we have been pepper sprayed, tear gassed, and targeted with rubber bullets, that our largest, loudest, and most passionate marches have cried out against the violence of the State.  It is because we realize, in these moments of extreme violence, that when we speak out against capital, it is the State that answers.  It is the State that protects the interests of the 1% – the State that arms itself and brings itself down upon us, in the form of arrests, pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets.   

3)Another question that has been percolating in the movement is: what happens   if you hazard a demand and lose it?   

This is an understandable concern. For those of us too young to have participated in the fire last time, we have needed to read about vibrant cultures of resistance and victories in peoples’ history books, and in our archives.  If many people are being radicalized now, or given a sense of political community and possibility for the first time, there is a hesitation to hazard a demand and lose it.  Moreover, OWS is a loose constituency of many groups with many differing demands.  Within it, there may be concerns about marginization by the movement itself.   Many of our comrades of color might look with suspicion at a historical record scarred by the watering down and sidelining of crucial demands by white progressives and liberals.  But, if we want to evolve from a sheerly populist movement to an anti-capitalist movement with teeth, we need to have these debates.  We need to synthesize and motivate around the needs and wants of our constituents.  In the understandably protective feelings that people have about the occupation, some are expressing fears that demands will divide us.  But, if “divide” means that we lose the democratic opportunists and the Ron Paul supporters, maybe we should see it as less of a division, and more of a clarification of ourselves as principled anti-capitalists.  Furthermore, demands have an inimitable power to further conversation and debate that ripples far beyond us.  It is the fabric through which people discuss their relationship to OWS, and through which people who can’t occupy that particular space – for reasons of geography, health status, job, and so on – can take the debates to their communities.

And, if we don’t win a demand?  Demands function in many ways.  They exfoliate discussion, they clarify our objectives, they extend the optimism and vision of the occupation to real-life contexts.  The forging of the demand is itself a laboratory for the revolutionary process.  It necessarily entails and encourages a living dynamic between ourselves as the movement and those not yet in the movement.[3]

What, after all, is a demand?  That we liberate New York, or Oakland, or Cleveland from the grips of financiers?  That we must have returned what was stolen from us and given to the banks and to the 1%?  That we deserve to live a life free of police repression and violence?   That we want an end to imperialist projects and wars, and the restoration of social services and education?  If any of our hesitation to demand comes from a fear of losing, let’s look around us and see how strong we are.  For the first time in a lifetime.

[1] In terms of this question, we speak of our experience of New York alone.  
[2] Erika Marquez, "The Zucotti/Liberty Park occupation seems to be, indeed, a symbolic (and, sure, material) interpellation to the monopolistic, speculative real state/space control in the city. Yet, this temporary space seizure must give place, as it is occurring right now, to decentralizing the occupation. To barrio GAs, to school occupations, to one-night occupations, to occupying airwaves." Notes from an Occupied New York City, After October 14," in Lana Turner Journal
[3] Vijay Prashad’s conception of a succession of demands/victories  as a way to nourish the “radical imagination,” is particularly germane here.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Police terror in Oakland posted by Richard Seymour

The question was always going to be posed.  How do you stop the police from physically dismantling your protest by sheer overwhelming force of arms?  How can you uphold your right to protest when that right is gainsayed by tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds?  When armed paramilitary police are running around like storm troopers - the cliche is appropriate - assaulting unarmed and non-violent protesters?  When, having literally broken bones and smashed skulls, the chief of the police department can tell the press, "I think we allowed people to exercise their rights to free speech and free assembly"?  And when the mayor - who was herself a target of Occupy Oakland's criticisms - can commend the police on a "a generally peaceful resolution to a situation that deteriorated"?

The debates on LBO Talk suggest two reasons not to be surprised by the police action.  The first is that local Democratic Party machines are just as apt to resort to repression as the Republicans; and the second is the proliferation of Joint Terrorism Task Force franchises throughout the police during the Bush era - as is typical, a 'counter-terrorist' weapon has been largely refined and used in combat with workers and the Left.  So what can one do?  If you resort to tooling up and having running battles with the police, like the Black Bloc do, the police always win.  At any rate, the problem isn't ultimately kinetic force, it's political force.  Even at the moment when the police bring out their weapons, the chances of their being successfully faced down depend on political organisation not weapons.  It is at the level of politics that the problem has to be countered.  Yet, if you try to work around it by negotiating with local authorities, the mayor's office etc, you may end up having making your protest inoffensive and ineffective, at which point you may as well pack up and go home.  The bourgeoisie fears "mob rule" more than anything at this point - by which they mean, they fear a surfeit of democracy.  If you're doing anything remotely effective, the ruling class should be put out.

As far as I can see, the only possible solution is the one opted for by Occupy Wall Street - broaden the movement within the working class.  The tactical alliance with unions was probably decisive in stopping NYPD's attempt to 'clean up' Liberty Plaza.  Even that isn't necessarily sufficient.  The Oakland occupation was, until last night, one of the largest in the US.  It had already made links with major unions, as well as with several other occupations across the country.  Labour organizers had come along to help out.  They were doing everything they could do, and making a success of it.  But this didn't stop the police waiting until the early hours of morning, and going on the rampage against children, women in wheelchairs, whoever - the cops weren't there to discriminate, they were there to break limbs.  Even so, if Occupy Oakland has a chance of reviving and facing down this terror, it is because of the organisational alliances they formed, the political support they assembled, and the coalition of forces willing to continue to support them.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

On Utoya posted by Richard Seymour

I've written a contribution to a new ebook, 'On Utoya: Anders Breivik, Right Terror, Racism & Europe', which is now available for purchase:

‘The teenagers who gathered at Utøya that day could not imagine that they would be enrolled in the ranks of those murdered by the Right’

In a challenging new book, a collection of Australian and British writers respond to the terrorist attack by Anders Breivik, and attempts by the Right to depoliticise it.

On July 22, 2011, Anders Breivik, a right-wing writer and activist, killed more than sixty young members of the Norwegian Labour Party on Utøya island. Captured alive, Breivik was more than willing to explain his actions as a ‘necessary atrocity’ designed to ‘wake up’ Europe to its betrayal by the left, and its impending destruction through immigration.
Breivik’s beliefs – expressed at length in a manifesto, ‘2083’ – were part of a huge volume of right-wing alarmism and xenophobia that had arisen in the last decade. Yet Breivik, we were told by the Right, was simply a madman – so mad, in fact, that he had actually believed what the Right said: that Europe was in imminent danger of destruction, and extreme action was required.
On Utøya: Anders Breivik, right terror, racism and Europe is a response to this attempt to deny responsibility, and any connection of Breivik’s act to a rising cult of violence, racism, and apocalyptic language. The editors and authors shine a light on Breivik’s actions, and argue that they cannot be understood abstracted from the far Right racist and Islamophobic social and political conditions in which it emerged.
Organised, written and produced within three months of the killings, On Utøya is a challenge to anyone who would seek to portray this event as anything other than it is – a violent mass assassination, directed against the left, to terrorise people into silence and submission to a far-right agenda. It concludes with an examination of the manufacture of hate and fear in Australia, and considers what is needed in a Left strategy to deal with the growing threat of far Right organising.
Edited by Elizabeth Humphrys, Guy Rundle and Tad Tietze, with essays by Anindya Bhattacharyya, Antony Loewenstein, Lizzie O'Shea, Richard Seymour, Jeff Sparrow and the editors.

You can read editor Tad Tietze's article on right-wing attempts to depoliticise Utoya here.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

On demands posted by Richard Seymour

Our own bat020 on this presently fraught subject six years ago:

...if we admit the possibility of a non-hysterical demand by the popular masses – a slogan, let us say – what would it look like? Here I'd suggest that the answer lies in the direct converse to the famous (and eminently hysterical) situationist graffito "Be realistic, demand the impossible!". Rather than formulate realistic but impossible demands, our "demands" must be unrealistic but nevertheless possible. And moreover they should be addressed diagonally, ie to both the ruling elite and the popular movement simultaneously, or more precisely, they should formally pose a demand addressed to the elite, but actually raise a slogan that engages and resonates with the movement – mobilising it and thereby subjectivating it from within.

A neat example of this was provided by an Independent front page last week. It was dominated by a table whose columns listed four "options" for the future of British troops in Iraq: what the option was, its pros and cons, who was calling for it and what its likelihood was. The leftmost column was "troops out now", called for by the Stop the War Coalition – and likelihood of this happening was, in the Independent's eyes – nil.

But while calling for troops out now is certainly "unrealistic" within the framework of bourgeois politics, it is nevertheless clearly possible – nothing in principle prevents it from happening. And it is the very raising of this demand from the radical left that has exacerbated divisions in the elite about what to do re Iraq. The demand forces its own possibility and reconfigures the frame of what is considered "realistic". One only need recall that prior to Stop the War demanding troops out now, the question of withdrawal from Iraq was never openly discussed in the bourgeois media – why, to even entertain the possibility would be Giving In To Terrorism... now we are treated to the bizarre spectacle of Simon Jenkins calling for rapid withdrawal, with a string of MI6 "experts" in tow!

But more important than this slogan's effects on the ruling elite, its exacerbation of a "crack in the big Other", is the mass political subjectivity that emerges through this crack. "Troops out now!" acts as a rallying point for anyone repulsed by the lies and prevarication that have characterised Blair's imperialist theatrics. But it simultaneously consolidates the anti-war movement, forcing all those involved to discern where our power lies, what our strengths are, and how we can rely on those strengths and powers instead of those of any putative Master figure.

One final example, this one taken from Bolshevik lore. It was June 1917 and Kerensky had formed a provisional government that included the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries – but also representatives of the capitalist parties such as the Cadets. The Bolsheviks refused to join such a government. But what was their demand/slogan to be? Their choice was "Down with the ten capitalist ministers!" – and Trotsky later explained the rationale behind this choice:
The enormous role of the Bolshevik slogan "Down with the ten capitalist ministers!" is well known, in 1917, at the time of the coalition between the conciliators and the bourgeois liberals. The masses still trusted the socialist conciliators but the most trustful masses always have an instinctive distrust for the bourgeoisie, for the exploiters and for the capitalists. On this was built the Bolshevik tactic during that specific period. We didn't say "Down with the socialist ministers!", we didn't even advance the slogan "Down with the provisional government!" as a fighting slogan of the moment, but instead we hammered on one and the same point: "Down with the ten capitalist ministers!" This slogan played an enormous role, because it gave the masses the opportunity to learn from their own experience that the capitalist ministers were closer and dearer to the conciliators than the working masses.

The precision of this slogan is astonishing. It cuts like a chisel at a fracture that only an understanding of class struggle allows one to discern. It acts simultaneously as a populist demand and a mobilising slogan. It separates those who are willing to fight from those who are not, to use one of Trotsky's characterisations of the united front. And it is a model for what our response should be to the obscure face-off between popular movements and liberal political elites that increasingly characterises this conjuncture.

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On consensus posted by Richard Seymour

How, then, would society make dynamic collective decisions about public affairs, aside from mere individual contracts? The only collective alternative to majority voting as a means of decision-making that is commonly presented is the practice of consensus. Indeed, consensus has even been mystified by avowed "anarcho-primitivists," who consider Ice Age and contemporary "primitive" or "primal" peoples to constitute the apogee of human social and psychic attainment. I do not deny that consensus may be an appropriate form of decision-making in small groups of people who are thoroughly familiar with one another. But to examine consensus in practical terms, my own experience has shown me that when larger groups try to make decisions by consensus, it usually obliges them to arrive at the lowest common intellectual denominator in their decision-making: the least controversial or even the most mediocre decision that a sizable assembly of people can attain is adopted -- precisely because everyone must agree with it or else withdraw from voting on that issue. More disturbingly, I have found that it permits an insidious authoritarianism and gross manipulations -- even when used in the name of autonomy or freedom.

To take a very striking case in point: the largest consensus-based movement (involving thousands of participants) in recent memory in the United States was the Clamshell Alliance, which was formed to oppose the Seabrook nuclear reactor in the mid-1970s in New Hampshire. In her recent study of the movement, Barbara Epstein has called the Clamshell the "first effort in American history to base a mass movement on nonviolent direct action" other than the 1960s civil rights movement. As a result of its apparent organizational success, many other regional alliances against nuclear reactors were formed throughout the United States.

I can personally attest to the fact that within the Clamshell Alliance, consensus was fostered by often cynical Quakers and by members of a dubiously "anarchic" commune that was located in Montague, Massachusetts. This small, tightly knit faction, unified by its own hidden agendas, was able to manipulate many Clamshell members into subordinating their goodwill and idealistic commitments to those opportunistic agendas. The de facto leaders of the Clamshell overrode the rights and ideals of the innumerable individuals who entered it and undermined their morale and will.

In order for that clique to create full consensus on a decision, minority dissenters were often subtly urged or psychologically coerced to decline to vote on a troubling issue, inasmuch as their dissent would essentially amount to a one-person veto. This practice, called "standing aside" in American consensus processes, all too often involved intimidation of the dissenters, to the point that they completely withdrew from the decision-making process, rather than make an honorable and continuing expression of their dissent by voting, even as a minority, in accordance with their views. Having withdrawn, they ceased to be political beings -- so that a "decision" could be made. More than one "decision" in the Clamshell Alliance was made by pressuring dissenters into silence and, through a chain of such intimidations, "consensus" was ultimately achieved only after dissenting members nullified themselves as participants in the process.

On a more theoretical level, consensus silenced that most vital aspect of all dialogue, dissensus. The ongoing dissent, the passionate dialogue that still persists even after a minority accedes temporarily to a majority decision, was replaced in the Clamshell by dull monologues -- and the uncontroverted and deadening tone of consensus. In majority decision-making, the defeated minority can resolve to overturn a decision on which they have been defeated -- they are free to openly and persistently articulate reasoned and potentially persuasive disagreements. Consensus, for its part, honors no minorities, but mutes them in favor of the metaphysical "one" of the "consensus" group.

The creative role of dissent, valuable as an ongoing democratic phenomenon, tends to fade away in the gray uniformity required by consensus. Any libertarian body of ideas that seeks to dissolve hierarchy, classes, domination and exploitation by allowing even Marshall's "minority of one" to block decision-making by the majority of a community, indeed, of regional and nationwide confederations, would essentially mutate into a Rousseauean "general will" with a nightmare world of intellectual and psychic conformity. In more gripping times, it could easily "force people to be free," as Rousseau put it -- and as the Jacobins practiced it in 1793-94.

The de facto leaders of the Clamshell were able to get away with their behavior precisely because the Clamshell was not sufficiently organized and democratically structured, such that it could countervail the manipulation of a well-organized few. The de facto leaders were subject to few structures of accountability for their actions. The ease with which they cannily used consensus decision-making for their own ends has been only partly told,6 but consensus practices finally shipwrecked this large and exciting organization with its Rousseauean "republic of virtue." It was also ruined, I may add, by an organizational laxity that permitted mere passersby to participate in decision-making, thereby destructuring the organization to the point of invertebracy. - Murray Bookchin, 'What is Communalism?: The Democratic Dimension of Anarchism'.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Discovering the capitalist network posted by Richard Seymour

Obviously, the New Scientist is disingenuous to pretend that no studies have hitherto confirmed global structures of ownership in this pattern, or that it has thus far been the preserve of - what else? - 'conspiracy theory'.  There has been tonnes of sociological work on the workings of capitalist class power, the role of corporations and finance, etc.  Nonetheless, this looks serious:

From Orbis 2007, a database listing 37 million companies and investors worldwide, they pulled out all 43,060 TNCs and the share ownerships linking them. Then they constructed a model of which companies controlled others through shareholding networks, coupled with each company's operating revenues, to map the structure of economic power.
The work, to be published in PloS One, revealed a core of 1318 companies with interlocking ownerships (see image). Each of the 1318 had ties to two or more other companies, and on average they were connected to 20. What's more, although they represented 20 per cent of global operating revenues, the 1318 appeared to collectively own through their shares the majority of the world's large blue chip and manufacturing firms - the "real" economy - representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues.
When the team further untangled the web of ownership, it found much of it tracked back to a "super-entity" of 147 even more tightly knit companies - all of their ownership was held by other members of the super-entity - that controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth in the network. "In effect, less than 1 per cent of the companies were able to control 40 per cent of the entire network," says Glattfelder. Most were financial institutions. The top 20 included Barclays Bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and The Goldman Sachs Group.

The research was apparently aimed at finding means of stabilising capitalism - an impossible dream.  The significance of these findings lie elsewhere.  It isn't about networks of 'conspiracy' either.  Capital is value in motion.  The class power of the capitalist class derives from its accumulation of surplus value by putting money into circulation as capital.  These figures illustrate the concrete effects of the neoliberal phase of capital accumulation, in which the combined structures of imperialism and financialised capitalism have concentrated the control of surplus value, and thus of investment and all the prerogatives and benefits that come from that, in the hands of a very small number of people disproportionately based in Manhattan: that's the Dollar-Wall Street regime.  It is on the basis of that general understanding that one can then drill down into the subject of networking and class cohesion, which is what is meant by 'conspiracy'.  One of the points made in Michael Useem's study, The Inner Circle, is that class-wide perspectives and solidarity among the corporate ruling class is underpinned not just by social cohesion, philanthropy, lobbies and political action committees, but by practises such as the sharing of managers between multiple firms, dispatching promising managers to be non-executive directors on other company boards, etc.  Such practises allow capitalist directors to gain a 'business scan', and collectively form part of what Useem calls the 'interlocking directorate'.  Financial corporations play a particular role as the nerve centres of production, and the centralisation and concentration of capital has been most advanced in this sector.  This means that the 'interlocking directorate' is much more condensed within finance.  So, these findings can be used to expand on previous work to illustrate something about the current distribution of capitalist class power.  It's the 1%, stupid.

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Revolutionary crisis posted by Richard Seymour

"And Professor Pouthas added that when the 1848 revolutions broke out, "its leaders and instigators were intellectuals devoid of political experience, not men of action". This amateur aspect of the protesters of 1848 is repeated today. A description wouldn't be very different from Professor Pouthas'. In 2011 one would say the "leaders and instigators" of the protests are women's rights organisers, self-employed IT consultants, middle-class, jobless squatters, unemployed music teachers, freelance artists, charity volunteers, social workers and media studies students, all of whom, like their predecessors in 1848, are "devoid of political experience, not men and women of action". Surely, one might reflect, there is nothing to fear from such a group.

"On Sunday, some 500 of them held an assembly and agreed on nine points. The process is likely to have been laborious. For participants were reminded that deliberation takes time, that eloquent and confident speakers are not necessarily right and that conditions will not favour the merely quick-witted. ...

"Nonetheless, what the men devoid of political experience did in 1848, and the inexperienced protesters in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt did, is simply to endure, to keep the spark burning. There are two characteristics of a pre-revolutionary situation – a valuable insight widely shared and the endurance of those who hold it. We have the first, but it is not yet clear whether we have the second." (Andreas Whittam Smith, 'Western nations are now ripe for revolution', The Independent, 20th October 2011)

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Greece on the brink posted by Richard Seymour

Greek austerity plans "threaten growth", they say.  They go on to add that "The economy is forecast to shrink by 5.5 per cent this year, and a further 2.5 per cent in 2012, bringing the total contraction since 2008 to 14 per cent."  There is no growth to threaten.  That is why Greece is on the brink.  That is why the state is dysfunctional, with ministers and international financial inspectors locked out of government offices by striking civil servants.  That is why the government fears "complete lawlessness" as the state's capacities disintegrate in several ways.  That is why new forms of militancy have emerged, with struggle committees arising to express the popular goals.  That is why the whole infrastructure is shut down in major and small ways every day by strikes and protests.  That is why the "mother of all strikes" is shutting Athens down.

Of course, the resistance is very exciting, but the level of resistance and upheaval is proportionate to the level of social distress.  A constellation of capitalist powers, from the banks to the IMF, EU, European Central Bank, and the government itself, are putting the Greek working class through an incredible trauma.  On every possible index, from wages to poverty, unemployment, working conditions and health, they are being put through the grinder.  Living standards have taken an unprecedented plunge.  And every time the austerity measures produce a renewed contraction, and make it impossible for the debts to be repaid, the banks come back for more, demanding further austerity and more bailouts for financial corporations.  They don't care how much suffering it causes.  This is mainly because it is an imperative for the major European banks to retain solvency and keep the Euro afloat as a global currency.  This is also an imperative for large sectors of European capital, in whose interests the EU has been constructed.  If the problem is insoluble on capitalist terms, and if there isn't going to be a renewed wave of capitalist growth, then I think the 1% would sooner take as much as possible and wait in their fortressed enclaves for the deluge to hit the 99%.  

It's not just Greece.  The reason we have seen a global movement erupt is because capitalism is an international system, and it's doing the same thing to all of us, everywhere.  What was done to the Third World in terms of structural adjustment is now being done to the working classes in advanced capitalist societies.  What is being done to Greece is being rolled out across Europe.  This means that what happens in Greece, as a weak link in the capitalist chain, is of incredible importance to what happens to us.  There is no immediate happy ending in sight.  Whether the Greek government forces through austerity, or is compelled to withdraw from the Eurozone and default on its debts, things are going to be very difficult.  As long as Greece is subordinated to the logic of capitalism, it is faced with a choice of evils.  

This is one of the reasons that, while there is a very powerful mass movement, it is not yet united around a clear alternative.  The idea of default and withdrawal from the Euro is advanced by many on the Left, who point out that the EU system is exploitative of peripheral countries, and that the most predatory lending and austerity measures are being forced on Greece by European institutions far more than by the IMF.  Germany in particular hopes to become, as Costas Lapavitsas puts it in his recent Socialist Register article, "undisputed master of European capitalism" as a result of the crisis.  But social democracy across the continent is placing its hopes in a 'good euro'.  These formations exert a gravitational pull on other left parties as well as the union bureaucracy.  Radicals to the left of social democracy, such as French economist Michael Husson (quoted here), argue that default and withdrawal by itself would not shift the balance of forces in favour of workers, pointing to the example of British capitalism which is outside the Eurozone.  While there's an element of truth in this, it ignores the core/periphery relationship, wherein Greek subordination within the EU is a major factor in its austerity drive and in intensifying the exploitation of Greek workers in general.  And since it is increasingly unlikely that default will be avoided, it is crucial that there is a leftist pressure to ensure it happens on terms that are relatively beneficial to the working class.  Above all, though, there needs to be a response to austerity at the continental level.  Lapavitsas argues that "working people in both core and periphery have no stake in the success of the EMU", and that radical left strategy across Europe should be based on this understanding.  This would involve different concrete proposals in each country, as the precise forms of exploitation differ in each case.  In Germany, the focus should be on raising domestic demand, breaking wage restraint and moving away from an export-led economy.  In the peripheral countries, it should be on finding radical ways of dealing with the debt/deficit burden.  But the social forces assembled behind this should also operate at a pan-European level: a Europe-wide general strike, coupled with a political campaign for a social Europe involving the left parties - the Portguese Left Bloc, Die Linke, NPA, etc. - is surely the minimum plausible response.

Things are moving very fast, and in such circumstances of organic crisis, as Gramsci reminds us, the troops of many different parties can suddenly pass under the banner of one party that better represents their interests.  The left parties have been gaining spectacularly, even if they remain divided, and even if the bureaucratic, parliamentarist and Stalinist elements have arguably held the struggle back in various ways.  Yes, the ruling class has its trained cadres, and changes its personnel and programmes much faster than opponents.  It is highly adaptible.  Just look at the way "corporate leaders say they understand protests".  Look at the way New Democracy are trying to capitalise on the government's woes; if social democracy has lost its ability to achieve austerity through bargaining, the ruling class will just turn to the Tories to use the whip instead.  But in such times, the ruling class can also lose the capacity for initiative.  It can make catastrophic mis-calculations, attack at the wrong moment, lose the loyalty of sections of its repressive apparatus. 

The situation is extraordinarily precarious.  It's important to remember that even amid the confidence and optimism of militant struggle, social misery of the kind Greece is going through also produces enormous despair.  And ruling classes have always been able to benefit from the disruption caused by strikes.  A serious setback for the struggle would be toxic, strengthening those who want to blame the strikes for the misery, and even worse those who want to scapegoat and terrorise immigrants, Muslims and the oppressed.  At the moment, even the lower middle class are effectively on strike.  Tax collectors aren't collecting taxes; and small businesses aren't paying VAT.  If it isn't the 99%, it's at least the 80%.  (Though, as is reported today, 99% of Greek small businesses and shops are closed for the strike.)  Their success now depends entirely on how those forces are placed, politically and strategically.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and the US working class posted by Richard Seymour

"The movement is still very young, and it’s very hard to gauge support for it. But one labor official shares with me a very interesting data point: Working America, the affiliate of the AFL-CIO that organizes workers from non-union workplaces, has signed up approximately 25,000 new recruits in the last week alone, thanks largely to the high visibility of the protests.
"Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America, tells me that this actually dwarfs their most successful recruiting during the Wisconsin protests. “In so many ways, Wisconsin was a preview of what we’re now seeing,” Nussbaum says. “We thought it was big when we got 20,000 members in a month during the Wisconsin protests. This shows how much bigger this is.”"

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Visiting Occupy London posted by Richard Seymour

I went to visit the Occupy London site at St Paul's today.  I went with the specific intention of getting people to talk to me about what their goals were, what the strategy was, and how they viewed the politics of the occupation.  To this end, I went round nabbing people for interviews, and eventually ended up talking to someone at the media tent.  Before delving into the politics of Occupy London, I want to describe what's involved in sustaining such an activity for those who aren't able to be there.


First of all, Paternoster Square, the original target of the occupation, is still sealed off by police.  The cops, though, have relaxed their position since Saturday  Apparently, they've been told to 'dress down', which means adopting a less confrontational approach.  So, a conurbation of dozens of tents has gathered around St Paul's cathedral.  Out front are tents and banners.  Along the side are a free food stand, a small generator powering 'media tech', a media centre where you can usually find someone to answer questions, an information point, a first aid area, a 'surplus' tent where people can donate useful goods, a place where people wash dishes, a space where people make signs, and a regular garbage collection service.  Since the police removed the toilet facilities on the pretext of 'cleaning' them, and did not replace them, the occupiers have had to send out teams to visit local businesses and work out arrangements with them.  All of this infrastructure is run by the occupiers.  It is actually a Herculean labour.  Some of the people working on the occupation are donating an hour here or there after work or between shifts, while some are there full-time.  There are constantly people milling around performing basic tasks, while others engage with the police or members of the public.  It's not unknown for well-heeled City workers to stop and vent their displeasure, before being drawn into very public debates.

Despite the emphasis on avoiding 'leadership' in the traditional sense, there is an elaborate division of labour involving working groups on every area of the work that needs to be done to keep the thing going.  These report back to the general assembly, which tends to be held at between 12-1pm and then again at 7pm each day.  I won't labour the details of process.  The principles of consensual ratification and decision-making are familiar enough by now.  Essentially, when asked to vote on a proposal, you can vote 'yes', 'no', or 'block'.  Only if someone 'blocks' a decision does a majority not result in a motion being passed.  This means that if someone has serious objections, their ideas or interests have to be taken into account somehow.  Of course, this is intended to frustrate the emergence of any kind of centralised leadership.  "We don't need another Scargill, or another Swampy, I was told.  We don't need another leader they can cut down."  At the moment, the swarm is prevailing over the vanguard.  Naturally, I'm sceptical of all this, but it's only fair to say that everyone I spoke to said it had worked quite well.  At any rate, the occupation is digging itself in somewhat and it seems to be well enough organised for present purposes.  


But where can Occupy London go?  I wanted to dip my toe in the water of the politics of the occupation, so I asked about the heterogenous political elements present, and what people thought was the dominant tendency.  There is an idea, which I heard a few times, that "this is not about left and right".  One person I spoke to said explicitly that it was not just a left-wing event, and explained that there were many present who wouldn't call themselves left-wing.  Strangely, this insistence sits alongside a set of classic left-wing ideological articulations.  Catherine at the media centre said that "these old ideas of political divisions are not necessarily relevant," before going on to add, "because this is about the 99%, this is about the have-nots, versus the have-yachts."

This emphasis on popular unity versus the extremely rich was a recurring theme.  Another person said that he didn't object to anyone earning £50,000 a year.  It was the top 1% concentrating the wealth among themselves; and even within that 1%, increasingly steep wealth gradations.  Worse than that, it's these people who "have an enormous amount of leverage over decision-making in government ... things are happening without consent, in democratic or so-called democratic countries."  One example given was the secret loans by the Federal Reserve to banks amounting to $1.1 trillion in 2008 which - whether justified on economic grounds or not - was conducted in an extremely undemocratic and secretive manner.  So it's the immense political power of centralised capital, especially financial capital, that is motivating this.

Catherine went on: "We're talking about the super-rich who meet in their little clubs and get to divvy up the world according to what suits them."  The apparent rejection of left-right divisions is congruent with a rejection of traditional party politics, "where you just have clientelism and self-serving elites and people who are just trying to make sure they've got a bigger slice of the pie."  This is perhaps one reason why you won't find left-wing stalls or newspaper sellers there - not necessarily because they've been banned, but because at the moment it's hard to know how they would be received: as welcome support, or as interlopers?  Yet, it doesn't come with a suspicion of trade unionism, as is the case in some continental occupations.  The outreach team is building up relations with trade unions and I understand that a delegation of the occupiers will visit a picket line at Blackfriars' station.  Trade unionists visited to speak to the occupation, and deliver leaflets about the 30th November strike, and were extremely well received.  The occupiers' first statement included support for the general strike and the students' action on 9th November.  Moreover, the demands of Occupy London are of a sort that anyone on the Left could embrace; few on the Right could. There is, naturally, a section of the Right that will share the occupiers' hostility to the banks and monopoly capital, but they will agree on nothing else.  My feeling is that the aspiration toward a popular bloc of the 99% against the uber rich is eventually going to prove chimerical.  But people will find that out in due course.


The next thing I wanted to know about was strategy.  I suppose this comes up partly because of the way the early demands juxtapose concrete proposals for meliorative reforms with declarative statements on the need to move beyond the present system - with no mediating steps between the two.  Given that the entrenched power of the top 1% is considerable, and that the friction they can muster to prevent the passage even of moderate reforms is not negligible, I just wanted to know what thoughts people were having about how to navigate toward that systemic alternative.  Generally, the answer is that it's too early to say what the long-term strategy will be: that's what we're here to find out.  "We're on day three," Catherine reminded me. "The whole point of consensus decision-making is that we don't know what the answer is, and that we have to come to that answer through a process which is inclusive, which is democratic".  The main goal at this point has been to "get the discussion started", another said.  There is a tremendous amount of confidence that the answers will emerge organically in the situation.  We're just getting step one finished; we'll work out steps two and three as we go.

This is related to the political indeterminacy of the movement thus far.  "What we have agreed," I was told, "is that the current system is not working and that it needs changed.  And we have some suggestions for that, which include that idea that we need regulators that are truly independent from the institutions which they regulate, that we need government that works for people not the corporations, and that we put people before profit."  I would say that this combines the social democratic impulse, with an anti-capitalist impulse.  Of course, the 'system' is not named: it could be capitalism, or it could be neoliberalism.  And many of the demands are certainly compatible with capitalism continuing to exist.  Objectively, though, the demand that the "world’s resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich" is one that can only be realised outside of capitalist social relations.  So, it's a reformism radicalising in the direction of an anti-systemic stance.  The main thing for the occupiers is that whatever the precise manner in which that indeterminacy is resolved, they are creating a sort of working polis in which it can happen democratically.


If the occupiers are thus far not resolved on any particular strategy, they are much clearer about tactics.  An essential component of their tactical repertoire is, as I've mentioned, the outreach team.  This is where they look for groups of people with whom they have an affinity of interests and seek to build solidarity, and exchange support.  In this respect, they're doing exactly what Occupy Wall Street protesters did, which had the result of bringing the union movement down on their side.  This re-kindled an historic coalition also witnessed in Seattle, and it ensured that when the NYPD tried to clear out the occupiers from Liberty Plaza, union members helped organise their successful self-defence.  In the Sixties, student, anti-war and anti-racist movements helped catalyse and radicalise class struggles.  Today, the students movement and the occupations are playing a similar role, giving confidence to rank and file workers.  I would bet that the 'Yes' vote in the union strike ballots for 30th November will be that bit higher because of the global #occupy movement.  The alliance between the radical left and the labour movement is one that strengthens both sides.

Occupy London are also concerned to avoid unnecessary enmity or friction.  This is particularly important as it would not be beyond the police in this country to use some ridiculous legislation to clear out the occupation.  Getting the support of the canon for their presence on church grounds was thus crucial in terms of their negotiating position with police.  "We are not black bloc," they say, and mean it.  They aren't seeking a confrontation with police.  Indeed, many seem to take the view that the cops are, as some Wall Street protesters put it, "one bounced pay cheque away from being on this side".  I doubt this is actually true.  I know that individual police officers have their own grievances with aspects of the system, and are unhappy with the cuts they're experiencing.  But I also expect their institutional commitments to prevail over any such grievances.  Historically, when state authority has decomposed under the pressure of popular movements, it has been the armed forces rather than the police that has split.  Nonetheless, the occupiers seem to have it right: they have a struggle with the police that is currently conducted in terms of publicity, ideology and negotiations.  Shifting it onto the terrain of conflict, where the police have the overwhelming advantage, would be foolish.  


The sign on the wall says 'Tahrir Square, EC4M'.  The sneering article on Huffington Post UK, observing this, quoted someone saying "it's not remotely like Egypt".  Well, of course it's not like Egypt.  This isn't a revolutionary situation, but merely a punctuating moment in the temporal flow of class struggle.  But the purpose of slogans mentioning 'Tahrir Square' is to accentuate the internationalism of the movement, to point to its deep systemic roots, to express solidarity with the Arab Spring, to hope that this is the beginning of our own Spring, and to identify the commune as the political form of these aspirations.  At the most prosaic level, it expresses the movement against austerity in its most 'political' moment, complementing the 'economic corporatist' moment of trade union struggle.  It identifies the political class rule of  the 1% as the key problem; the colonization of the representative state by big capital.  And it proposes its own direct democratic answer.  Of course, Occupy London is not yet a commune.  But it is the germ of a commune.  Perhaps its fruition will be when the germ takes seed in the heart of productive relations; when the commune is the workers' answer to the power of the 1%.

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Strategies for the anticapitalist transition posted by Richard Seymour

#Occupy is an interesting combination of a kind of protest, a direct action and an organizing forum from which further actions can be planned and launched.  The biggest of the 950 protests and occupations today has been in Puerta del Sol (which is absolutely packed), where one of the first such occupations was launched, explicitly taking inspiration from Tahrir Square.  Reports from many of these dozens and dozens of occupation sites today suggest that there are detailed tactical discussions going on, organised along painstakingly consensual lines.  (Dan Hind has written an elegant introduction to the model of the People's Assembly being deployed here.)  But just as consensus is about procedure not goal, so #occupy is a tactic, and not a strategy.  And the meaning of a tactic varies drastically depending on the strategy into which it's integrated.  The return of, if not an actual socialist offensive, mass antisystemic movements means that strategy is back on the agenda.  At the same time, the pursuit of more immediate agendas has allowed a modus vivendi to emerge among potentially competitive groups, but it has also meant that the strategic question tends to be suspended in practice.  So, before moving on to the rest of the Poulantzas stuff, I just wanted to sketch out a few observations on the relevance of strategic thought to this movement. 

For the sake of argument, I'll assume that this movement is basically aimed at transcending capitalism somehow.  I'm aware that this is not a realistic assumption. The immediate demands of the movement have been for plausible reforms, while the long-term goals of the occupations have yet to be resolved.  It's too early for that to have happened.  But it's not possible to speak of strategy without assuming shared goals, so I'm assuming a shared commitment to some form of anticapitalist transition.  Computing the possible scenarios for such a transition is not utopian thought, in the negative sense, but the most hard-headed labour of conceptualisation.   It involves descending carefully from the most abstract hypotheses, through a series of mediations, to the most concrete determinations.   At the most abstract level, this can include rigorous conceptual work on something as apparently esoteric as value theory.  We saw with the (sometimes heated) discussion of Poulantzas that defining 'non-productive' labour with reference to the extraction of surplus value, and then deciding whether it belongs to the working class, has potentially profound political-strategic consequences.  Negri's account of value and the concept of 'immeasurability' has a similar role in co-determining certain of his strategic orientations.

I say strategic thought is not utopian 'in the negative sense', because one of the authors best known for utopian thinking, William Morris, also put the same impulse to work in elaborating strategies for the transition to socialism.  (Here I'm cribbing the discussion from Perry Anderson's Arguments Within English Marxism).  Morris' work preceded the long strategic divide between revolutionaries and reformists, but the problems he addressed himself to were exactly those that would cause the divide, and he had sufficient foresight to see it coming.  For the sake of brevity, I'll say that he generally (not without complexity) took the side of revolution in this debate.  He argued that the structural unity of the capitalist order was such that it could not be gradually reformed out of existence.  The parliamentary system, he suggested, could potentially be used by revolutionaries but would usually be of greater use in sustaining the 'fraud' of the rulers and securing the acquiescence of the ruled.  And he argued that the capitalist state would have to be opposed by a counter-power, a commune, a Committee of Public Safety representing the combined power of the working class, forming a rising new pole of legitimate authority that can "be sure that its decrees will be obeyed" rather than those of Westminster.  He thought it would be a violent process, largely because of the insurmountable opposition of the capitalist state.   And he foresaw one of the most important conditions for revolution: the decomposition of the state in a situation of dual power, as sections of the army break away and support the revolutionary government.

I'll leave the thumbnail sketch of his views there, and just draw your attention to what I think anyone could learn from this.  For what is at stake in Morris' exposition is a detailed, insightful analysis of the nature of the problem - class society, the capitalist mode of production, capitalist class power, state power, ideology, and their intersection - as well as of the possible agents of opposition (the working class and its allies), the potential forms of power that they might have (the commune, the Labour Combination, the Committee of Public Safety) and the difficulties they could face (ideological illusions, poor leadership, a greatly superior opponent, etc).  And while Morris doesn't himself subject each plank of his thinking to exacting critical enquiry, nor press his analyses to the most abstract points - it's a piece of futurology, not sociology - those organising for the anticapitalist transition would necessarily have to develop a rigorous body of analysis along those lines.  That's what the project of historical materialism, and the profusion of strategic concepts such as 'hegemony', the 'united front', and so on, is essentially about.

So, we have a movement that is undertaking a great challenge, that of creating a viable movement to create a viable, systemic alternative to capitalism.  It is not committed to a single route to that end.  This is no disadvantage in itself for the time being - it is only disadvantageous if the question of strategy is neglected when it needs to be debated.  But the methods of organising being settled on, the assemblages of agents organised around them, and the manner of their inclusion, do bear a strategic freight.  Implicitly, for example, the decision to occupy a public space and 'reclaim' it is an attempt to create a form of direct democracy that recognises the undemocratic nature of the capitalist state.  Or, again implicitly, the fact that these germinal communes are being created in squares and not in workplaces indicates that, whether or not class is recognised as a central antagonism behind this struggle, productive relations do not form a direct strategic locus for the organisers  There are a number of similarly implicit strategic arguments one could draw out from this movement and its tactics thus far.  But the point is that it remains implicit as yet.  The issues will become more explicit as the agenda of the movement advances, its problems become more complex, and the conditions of viable unity are more and more urgently on the agenda.

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

#Occupy posted by Richard Seymour

Follow events at #Occupylsx for London updates.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Poulantzas and socialist strategy - part I posted by Richard Seymour

Nicos Poulantzas' detailed and sometimes difficult writings on fascism, dictatorship, the state, capitalism and social classes, were all written with the goal of elaborating strategic concepts to assist the advance toward socialism.  This series of posts deals with some aspects of Poulantzas' thinking on political strategy (the whole corpus is obviously far too rich and varied for me to anatomise here), beginning with a look at his ideas on class and class alliances.  The idea is not simply to see what, if anything, we can find useful in his strategic conclusions today.  It isn't even to decide whether we should agree or disagree with his ideas (Poulantzas' relationship to Eurocommunism will come up consistently, particularly in the final post in this series).  It is mainly to look at the method, the steps involved in the development of his strategic concepts.  It is to see what complex strategic thinking looks like.  If nothing else, in a period when strategic thought on the Left is recovering from a long quietus (see the late Daniel Bensaid's wonderful essay here), the theoretical depth and novelty of Poulantzas' arguments would make him an important contributor to the emerging debates.

I should make it clear that Poulantzas' views evolved and altered in ways I can't properly summarise.  Suffice to say that there is an important shift between an early historicist phase, which I won't go into, a structuralist phase, evident in books such as Political Power and Social Classes and Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, and a later phase where he gradually abandoned some of his Althusserian commitments, which can  be seen in Fascism and Dictatorship and his final book, State, Power, Socialism.  (Althusser's maligned influence deserves some recuperation - fortunately, Gregory Elliot's superb revision of his legacy has been reprinted recently).  I should also say upfront that many of the criticisms that follow are 'immanent', taking Poulantzas' marxist framework for granted and faulting him for not following his precepts through to their logical conclusion.  This isn't to attack Poulantzas for departing from revealed wisdom in "some holy text" as he might have put it, but simply to judge his writing by standards he himself adopts.

Part I: Classes, the 'new petty bourgeoisie' and class alliances
According to Poulantzas, socialist strategy is weakened by a failure to properly grasp changes in the class structure of contemporary capitalism: "it was on this question, among others, that, as we now know, the socialist development in Chile came to grief."  The major development that warranted attention was the growth of "nonproductive wage-earners, i.e. groups such as commercial and bank employees, office and service workers, etc., in short all those who are commonly referred to as 'white-collar' or 'tertiary sector' workers".  (Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, pp. 193)   There was a tendency at the time to assess this in terms of the 'embourgeoisement' of the working class and thus the dissolution of hard class boundaries.  Others, like the French Communist Party (PCF) to which Poulantzas adhered, theorised this group as an 'intermediate stratum' within a series of strata that exist independently of either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie.

Poulantzas holds that it isn't sufficient to describe this layer as a strata: the "class specificity" of this group had to be grasped.  It could not just be subsumed into the wider categories of bourgeois and proletarian either, because the effect of this was to dissolve both categories by compelling theorists to introduce new theoretical determinations that weakened their explanatory power.  Theorising them as simply part of the extant middle class tended toward the same conclusion, since such accounts regarded the middle class as a "stew in which classes are mixed together and their antagonisms dissolved, chiefly by forming a site for the circulation of individuals in a constant process of 'mobility' between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat."  The result was that classes simply ceased to exist as classes.  (Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, pp. 194-9)


The starting point for his own analysis was the structuralist framework that he took over from Louis Althusser.  Thus, he explained that the concept of class refers to "the overall effects of the structure on the field of social relations and on the social division of labour".  (Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, p. 199)  This structure comprises several distinct regions: "everything happens as if social classes were the result of an ensemble of structures and of their relations, firstly at the economic level, secondly at the political level, and thirdly at the ideological level".  (Political Power and Social Classes, NLB, 1975, p. 63)  This draws from Althusser, who holds that the capitalist mode of production comprises an articulation of distinct economic, political and ideological levels.  Classes must be determined by all three levels - at least, so the early Poulantzas claims.  Importantly, however, the economic level bears the strongest freight of determination here.  It is in the structures of 'economic exploitation' (the appropriation of surplus value by the bourgeoisie), 'economic ownership' (the power of the bourgeoisie to dispose of economic resources for various uses), and 'economic possession' (the power of the bourgeoisie to organise and determine labour processes), that class is determined first and foremost.

Poulantzas draws an important distinction between class determination and class position.  The former is an objective determination: the working class is such due to its situation within the matrix of the capitalist mode of production.  The latter is relational and partly subjective.  A class can adopt a position that converges with that of another class, without altering its objective class determination.  For example, a section of the working class (Poulantzas cites the fabled 'labour aristocracy') may take a position identifying with the bourgeoisie, but "the adoption of bourgeois class positions by a certain stratum of the working class" would not "eliminates its class determination".  Class position has some bearing on class determination, however.  Classes are "reproduced according to the reproduction of the places of social classes in the class struggle".  This, of course, leaves open the possibility that the class struggle will fail to reproduce the places of social classes, or will radically disrupt their efficient reproduction.  (Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, pp. 201-3)


Poulantzas chooses to define non-productive wage earners as the "new petty bourgeoisie", asserting that "they belong together with the traditional petty bourgeoisie".  (Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, p. 204)  Defining the petty bourgeoisie correctly, he argues, is "the focal point of the Marxist theory of social classes" because it shows that "relations of production alone are not sufficient, in Marxist theory, to determine the place a social class occupies in a mode of production ... It is absolutely indispensable to refer to ideological and political relations".  (Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism, NLB, 1974, p. 237) So, it's clear that in identifying a "new petty bourgeoisie", he is making both a strategic political intervention which will have profound consequences for the elaboration of class alliances and hegemonic manouevering, and a theoretical intervention in the sociology of classes.

But on what basis does he identify this "new petty bourgeoisie" as a class apart from the working class and akin to the "traditional petty bourgeoisie"?  Poulantzas asserts that the layers that Marxists have traditionally identified as petty bourgeois - small property owners who do not exploit wage labour, or only very occasionally - are actually transitional elements proper to pre-capitalist modes of production: this is why Marx expected them to be subsumed over the long-term into the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.  (This has in fact been an observable trend.)  Yet, the "new petty bourgeoisie" identified by Poulantzas seems to be very different - it is not a mass of small producers, but wage earners who do white collar work, mental labour, but do not contribute directly to the production of surplus value. Despite the fact that they are waged, Poulantzas says that their non-productive status excludes them from the working class.  To explain this position, he cites Marx to the effect that the distinction between productive and unproductive labour is "not derived from the material characteristics of labour ... but from the definite social form, the social relations of production, within which the labour is realised."  Thus, "productive labour in a given mode of production is labour that gives rise to the dominant relation of exploitation of this mode ... productive labour is that which directly produces surplus-value, which valorizes capital and is exchanged against capital"  (Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, p. 211)  Thus, those who perform non-productive labour do not produce surplus value and are thus not central to the reproduction of the dominant relation of exploitation under capitalism.  This, for Poulantzas, excludes them from the working class.


Having said all this, their exclusion from the working class (and from the bourgeoisie) leaves them in a middling position.  It doesn't automatically mean they are part of the petty bougeoisie and, as noted, they are very different from traditional petty bourgeois in terms of productive relations. The unity of traditional and new petty bourgeois layers is secured, Poulantzas argues, within the political and ideological regions where they have similar effects.  That is to say, in the polarised situation created by the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, they occupy an intermediate position.  Their 'negative' definition, arising from their exclusion from the two' fundamental' classes, means that they are not a 'fundamental' class, have no long-term interests in this struggle, and will tend to vacillate as a consequence.  They will also converge on certain basic ideological positions: their hatred of the rich combined with fear of proletarianisation will tend to lead them to "status quo anticapitalism" where they embrace property but oppose monopolies in favour of more opportunity and competition; this segues into the second position which is an aspirational faith in "the myth of the 'ladder'" of opportunity; the third is an unwavering belief in the class-neutral position of the state, "statolatry".  Because of their shared political and ideological positions, then, they comprise a single class.   (Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism, NLB, 1974, pp. 237-44; Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, pp. 206-12; Bob Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Analaysis, Macmillan, 1985, pp. 169-70)

Critics of Poulantzas' class analysis point out that it involves a break with Marx's own method.  The whole conception is built on what appears to be a non-sequitur: that is, an illegitimate extrapolation from certain arguments in Marx.  It is not clear, even from Poulantzas' selected quotes, that Marx excluded 'non-productive' labour from the working class.  Indeed, there are several passages that suggest that the division between mental and manual labour that Poulantzas focuses on is not central to Marx's definition of class.   Poulantzas' analysis of the new petty bourgeoisie attributes to politics and ideology, more than one's objective situation within the productive matrix, a determining role in one's class position.  Not only is this incompatible with Marx, it also contradicts Poulantzas' own statements to the effect that there is an objective class situation that is more important in defining classes than their orientation in any "concrete conjuncture of struggle".  (Quoted, Bob Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Analaysis, Macmillan, 1985, p. 164).  Even within a recidivist structuralism, Poulantzas' argument seems odd.  Recall that in his early work he did insist on the idea that class should be determined at all three levels of the mode of production, but insisted that the economic level had the primary determining role; here, he not only puts the primary determining role at the level of ideology, but he denies any but an indirect economic input.

Lastly, some absurd conclusions appear to follow from Poulantzas' narrow definition of the working class: for example, assuming that the working class only includes those engaged in direct productive or extractive industries, some 70% of the US workforce would be petty bourgeois, and only 20% working class.  (see Alex Callinicos, 'The "New Middle Class" and socialist politics', in Chris Harman and Alex Callinicos, The Changing Working Class: Essays on class structure today, Bookmarks, 1987, p. 19)  Nonetheless, the strategic conclusions that follow from Poulantzas' class analyses are clear.  Poulantzas took from Gramsci the idea that hegemonic struggle was the normal form of political class struggle in a capitalist society.  He argued that the working class needed to build hegemonic alliances similar to those built by the bourgeoisie.  But if the working class does not form a clear majority, then it is arguably in need of a particular kind of hegemonic cross-class alliance: the Popular Front. Thus, for Poulantzas, the need to win over the petty bourgeoisie was central to the anti-monopoly, anti-imperialist alliances behind Union de la Gauche in France, as well as the possibility of the anti-dictatorship alliance in Greece turning into an anti-imperialist and anti-monopoly alliance.  (Bob Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Analaysis, Macmillan, 1985, p. 149)  Given the outline of the petty bourgeoisie's political and ideological dispositions that he has given, this will tend to require the dilution of any agenda for socialist transformation.  Poulantzas was operating on the left-most end of Eurocommunism, and did not go as far down the road of eschewing class politics and anti-imperialism as some did.  Yet, concessions to the economic policies and political tactics of fractions of the bourgeoisie (the 'interior' or 'domestic' bourgeoisie, which may or may not exist), as well as to the purviews of the petty bourgeoisie, were essential to his strategic perspective.


Before leaving the subject of class, it's worth stating that one of Poulantzas' most telling insights concerns the way in which 'class interests' should be understood.  Here, he rejects the idea the idea that such interests can be determined from the relations of production themselves.  The historicist (Hegelian) problematic sees class as a subject of history, with interests that can be inferred from its role as a factor in historical transformation.  This raises the problem of how a class becomes aware of those interests and moves from being a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself.  It also raises the deeply problematic notion of "false consciousness", to explain how a class fails to grasp its own interests.  Instead, Poulantzas argues that 'class interests' are not computable outside the field of 'class practises' in a given conjuncture.  That is to say, at any moment in the development of the class struggle there will be a series of 'objective' and 'subjective' factors which limit the working class's possible range of actions.  These form a 'horizon of action', defining the maximum possible advances against opposing classes at any given moment.  One of the determinants of this horizon is the form of political representation that the class has, which means that the 'interests' of a class in a given moment are susceptible to modification by political intervention, even if the objective circumstances have not changed.  (Political Power and Social Classes, NLB, 1975, pp. ; Bob Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Analaysis, Macmillan, 1985, pp. 153-4)  As Jessop points out, this puts the emphasis on "strategic calculation" rather than objective, given facts.  It also has certain political consequences, inasmuch as it avoids the potential elitism of parties or their intellectual cadres presuming to be the bearers of an objective, historically given truth. 

The ensuing posts deal with Poulantzas' ground-breaking work on the state, his arguments on the power bloc, and finally his orientation toward Eurocommunism.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cameron's immigration spiel posted by Richard Seymour

Me in The Guardian on Cameron's latest immigration spiel:

The increasing frequency with which Cameron is turning to immigration as a rallying theme is arresting. He needs it to inject excitement into a dysphoric party faithful and revive the flagging ideological props of the administration. He sidelined the anti-immigrant xenophobes before 2009. Now his speeches are increasingly littered with demagoguery – anecdotes about forced marriage being used to evade immigration controls being an example of note-perfect Powellism – and pander to the chauvinist sentiment once characterised by Christopher Hitchens as "John Bullshit".
Cameron may grow more attached to such rhetoric as the ideological self-confidence of the government evaporates, and as it becomes more embattled by adverse economic and political conditions. But the danger for him in doing so is that he isn't very good at it. His "toughness" looks ersatz because it is; his promises seem phoney because they are; he is unconvincing because he is unconvinced by his own rhetoric. There are others on the right who know better how to play with this fire, and Cameron is arguably giving them the ammunition with which to depose him when the time comes.

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The Class Struggle in Greece posted by Richard Seymour

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Orwell on the liberal defence of murder posted by Richard Seymour

I skimmed through Homage to Catalonia while reading up for The Liberal Defence of Murder, but missed his pointed insights on the "best strategic opportunity" of the Spanish Civil War.  I cited the French government's refusal to free Abd-el Krim, and the Spanish Republic's unwillingness to support Moroccan independence, as a tragic example of self-defeating pro-imperialist politics on the Left helping the fascists to succeed.  This is Orwell:

But what was most important of all, with a non-revolutionary policy it was difficult, if not impossible, to strike at Franco's rear. By the summer of 1937 Franco was controlling a larger population than the Government--much larger, if one counts in the colonies--with about the same number of troops. As everyone knows, with a hostile population at your back it is impossible to keep an army in the field without an equally large army to guard your communications, suppress sabotage, etc. Obviously, therefore, there was no real popular movement in Franco's rear. It was inconceivable that the people in his territory, at any rate the town-workers and the poorer peasants, liked or wanted Franco, but with every swing to the Right the Government's superiority became less apparent. What clinches everything is the case of Morocco. Why was there no rising in Morocco? Franco was trying to set up an infamous dictatorship, and the Moors actually preferred him to the Popular Front Government! The palpable truth is that no attempt was made to foment a rising in Morocco, because to do so would have meant putting a revolutionary construction on the war. The first necessity, to convince the Moors of the Government's good faith, would have been to proclaim Morocco liberated. And we can imagine how pleased the French would have been by that! The best strategic opportunity of the war was flung away in the vain hope of placating French and British capitalism. The whole tendency of the Communist policy was to reduce the war to an ordinary, non-revolutionary war in which the Government was heavily handicapped. For a war of that kind has got to be won by mechanical means, i.e. ultimately, by limitless supplies of weapons; and the Government's chief donor of weapons, the U.S.S.R., was at a great disadvantage, geographically, compared with Italy and Germany. Perhaps the P.O.U.M. and Anarchist slogan: 'The war and the revolution are inseparable', was less visionary than it sounds.

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