Thursday, May 01, 2014

'Action', 'struggle' and other boring cliches

You know how it is.  You're in a socialist meeting, and someone makes one of those cliched speeches reciting examples of 'struggle', importing the need for 'action' over this or that issue, and generally   Forget about 'action' and 'struggle' for a second.  What we really need, at this point, is less 'action' and more philosophy.

I am, of course, being a little mischievous here.  What could be better designed to incite accusations of idling inside the academic bubble (puh-leeeeze)?  But I am also being serious.  It is hardly controversial by now that a form of leftist hyper activism can act as a type of passivity, insofar as it prevents one from having to address a real problem.  This is what I mean by 'action'.  Likewise, I am invoking Gramsci's use of the term "philosophy".  There is, in addition to the systematic philosophy of intellectuals, or the "philosophy of praxis" embodied in the mass socialist parties (remember those? no, me neither), the "spontaneous philosophy" of everyday life, the "common sense" through which people get on with things.  And what I'm complaining about is the type of 'intervention' that doesn't take ideology, or "philosophy", seriously enough.  

I've banged on enough, I think, about how neoliberals have been able, through a slow transformative process, to insinuate their precepts into everyday life.  The way this works is that elements of real world experience are linked to ideological thematics so persistently that the connection becomes automatic.  So, for example, the claim that markets are more efficient was given ballast by the notorious inefficiency of certain nationalised industries.  The idea that public sector workers are just greedy bastards who need to be subject to some form of market discipline is supported by the really lavish incomes of certain politicians and senior civil servants, and also by the growing gap between the pay and conditions of public sector workers who remained unionised and private sector workers who largely did not.  The idea that 'there is no alternative' is sustained by the historical collapse of all really existing alternatives.   You get the point.

Once people are already 'living inside' an ideology, once it is taken for granted, once the connections it makes are automatic, it becomes much more difficult to contest and dislodge.  More so if the apparent alternatives implode, surrender or otherwise vacate the terrain.  What happens then is that the elements of discontent and the antagonisms around which 'struggles' arise become disarticulated from any underlying 'philosophy'.  Now these antagonisms can't be simply incorporated into the dominant neoliberal ideology, and as such stand out as disruptive elements, dysfunctions which can only be explained away by means of various 'common sense' expedients.  But absent an articulating 'philosophy' to which they are linked, these individual 'struggles' will remain just that and will be too easily encircled.  The same problem actually applies to those national campaigns, those "systems of alliances", that seek to contest wider political problems such as austerity or fascism.  They are necessary but, by themselves, likely to be ineffectual.  For example, the collapse of confidence in any systemic alternative, and the absence of a socialist 'common sense', really undermines the struggle against austerity.  Because for any critique to be effective, and mobilising, it needs to answer certain obvious questions such as what the alternative strategy is - and it needs to be able to answer those questions in a way that resonates with the "spontaneous philosophies" of heterogenous class layers.  Part of what we need to be doing is reconstructing the baseline socialist 'common sense' within which 'struggles' become intelligible.

This is one of the many reasons I think there is an urgent need for Left Unity, as it seems to me the most likely vehicle through which such an enterprise can be initiated.  You can't expect this of every local struggle, or they'd cease to be local struggles.  You can't even expect it of the People's Assembly, because the more specific it becomes in its positive demands, the narrower it is, and thus the less useful it is as a campaigning tool.  The job of Left Unity should in part be, through electoral and campaigning work, to rebuild a socialist 'common sense' - obviously not the same thing as developing a formally correct programme.  This is a delicate task of negotiating a workable series of 'lines' between forces that are far to the left of where most potential supporters and recruits to Left Unity would be.  But if the resulting policies and positions are broadly acceptable, then they can be used to popularise socialist ideas in a way that the pathologised, injured, or beshitted groupuscules of the far left are just presently not able to do by themselves.  That includes you, RS21.