February 4, 2015

Comments on renewing the left in Britain

Posted in Class Struggle, Crisis, Europe, Greece, Politics, United Kingdom tagged , , , , , , , at 13:08 by Matthijs Krul

Since the electoral success of the left social-democratic Syriza coalition in Greece, and the immediate challenge to austerity and the rule of finance capital in Europe that it represents, many people are understandably keen to consider how this could be repeated in the UK. While it is clear to everyone that Syriza is not presently a revolutionary outfit and not seeking to become one in the short term, it is equally clear that for a sustained left challenge to the politics of the last few decades to emerge from this countermovement requires a deepening of political organization of the left across Europe. The northern European left has an important role to play here because of the very real possibility of isolating a left confined to Greece alone, or even just Greece, Portugal, and Spain. If we are to break the back of the intellectual coalition between the neoliberal social imagination and the economic policies of austerity and debt enforcement, it is of the greatest importance that the left in the creditor countries makes a priority of making the enforcement of such regimes by their own governments impossible – not just domestically, but internationally. In the current European context, internationalism is not just a desirable principle but an absolute precondition for success.

Given this problem, it is worth looking at some of the analysis of Syriza’s success and the possibilities of replication elsewhere that has been making the rounds. One starting point is the discussion by comrade Pierce Penniless of what it would mean to renew the left in Britain, taking inspiration from Syriza. This discussion is based on a series of discussion points raised by a certain ‘Alexander Trocchi’, attached to the post. The main points for Trocchi of why Syriza succeeded was the combination of its ability to become the electoral weapon of the social movements, and its integration of both ‘horizontalist’ and ‘bolshevik’ elements on the basis of uniting behind a (fairly moderate) programme for the short term. However, Trocchi also points to a few other points of significance: the funding of political parties in Greece, allowing membership to more effectively lead to large-scale mobilization, the collapse of the extant social-democratic party, and its charismatic leadership in the person of Alexis Tsipras (and perhaps we should now add Yanis Varoufakis too).

However, as Pierce also points out, quite a few of its claims as to what it would take to replicate such dynamics in Britain are contestable, to say the least. I agree certainly that some of the strengths of Syriza derive from its ability to become the electoral front for a variety of social (and political!) movements, and this is something for which potential on the British left scene exists and is not currently realised. Other points are also surely right but not easy to replicate – one cannot for example engineer the collapse of the Labour Party just like so; on the other hand all European social democracy has for a long time been suffering a slower version of the death that is now described as ‘Pasokification’.

More dubious are the claims ‘Trocchi’ makes about ‘identity politics’ as a major inhibiting factor for the British left, or for that matter the presence of ‘Islamic leftism'; I do not know enough about Greece to say for sure, but I rather doubt that identity issues are irrelevant there, and I do not in any case know of any evidence that either of these political phenomena have been a problem to forming a more fundamental left political organization. Rather the opposite: so-called identity politics often acts as a mobilizing factor, stemming from the confrontations people face on an everyday basis with the structures of social and economic life, and are in that sense as good as any union in the classical Marxist analysis: namely in generating the awareness of conflict between the fulfilment of human needs and the organisation of society. Equally, I don’t think that George Galloway’s opportunistic coalitions are particularly significant for the left as a whole. His modest successes have had little to do with some kind of fundamental religious defect in the British left, but rather with his campaigning on a consistent antiwar platform, combined with his Labour Party skills at mobilising local ‘community leaders’ and ward bosses to his advantage. Generally, one of the problems of the author’s analysis is the use of rather straw figures for contrasting the Greek situation to ours – ‘horizontalism’, ‘Bolsheviks’, ‘Islamic left’ etc. are not really defined, nor is it evident that their counterparts do not exist in Greece as well.

In a sense this expresses one of the actual problems of the British left, namely its rather stubborn refusal to first analyse the political and economic situation empirically before deducing what mechanisms and ideologies have most salience within it: something more than a little ironic given the long British tradition of excessive empiricism. Having said that, I want to add a few critical notes both to ‘Trocchi”s claims and to Pierce’s discussion in somewhat the same style as the original, since the question itself is really worth asking, and I think it is right to discuss the various answers that have been given to it in a straightforward way. So here are some provocations intended to sharpen this discussion a bit, written on purpose in a kind of ‘stream of consciousness’ fashion that hopefully stimulates discussion more than it suggests definitive answers.

1) There is I believe no prospect whatever of the Labour Party splitting into a left and right wing any time soon, nor are British unions at all interested in generating such a situation. People have been talking for years about how ‘when the Blairites take over’ the party would split and the opportunity for alliance with the Labour Left would come. But this is illusory. The party is already firmly in the hands of the right and in fact almost always has been in the history of its existence, and more often than not the unions have firmly preferred it that way. British unions are too weak to challenge even the rule of its ‘business wing’ even within their own party, let alone at a national level; and they are timid beyond even what is justified by their weakness. The lesson they have learned more than any other from the confrontation with Thatcher is that when an open war breaks out between their side and that of capital backed by the state, they will lose. If this was true in the 1980s, it will be true a fortiori now, and they know it. Simultaneously, they are too conservative and nostalgic in their social base and political outlook respectively to attempt any kind of regeneration based on new kinds of unionism, direct action, and so forth. The only split that can occur in the Labour Party is the split of the right from the left, not vice versa, as exemplified by the SDP and by the expulsion of the RMT. And unless the right massively overplays its hand in this, the result is simply the isolation of the left. The Blairites have proven to be competent enough not to overdo this, as shown by their willingness to indulge Ken Livingstone even after his direct challenge to Labour’s official policies and candidates in London. This being the case, there is no immediate collapse of Labour on the horizon, and talk of ‘general strikes’ is especially illusory. If Labour fails to win the upcoming election, this will probably strengthen the right over the centre (David Miliband over Ed Miliband), but these kind of factional shifts in a fundamentally centrist party are not where we should seek our own opportunities.

2) It does no good to accuse Syriza or its supporters of ‘electoralism’. Generally, the accusations of electoralism and the subsequent back and forth about parliamentary power give more heat than light. Of course the power to control the capitalist state ultimately resides in the combination of the property relations that are the legal foundation of capital and the social relations of production that are its material foundation, plus the use of violence to enforce and reproduce these relations. Parliamentary power can affect the property relations to some extent, but the amount of leeway that exists there is very variable and ultimately depends on extra-parliamentary struggle and confrontation. But this is obvious: everyone knows this. When Lenin suggested that Communists take part in “even the most reactionary Duma”, this was not a sign of his belief that the limited franchise talking shop created by the Czar’s advisors was the instrument of revolution. Equally, neither Syriza nor its (radical) supporters think this is the case: indeed Syriza functionaries have several times said the contrary. The only relevant question about electoral participation, in Britain or Greece or wherever, is whether the ability of socialists to advance social revolution, which itself depends on the class struggle in general, is increased or decreased by it, all things considered. That being said, I think there are relatively few situations in which parliamentary participation is worse than abstentionism, and I certainly do not think that this is true in Greece. Even for morale reasons alone the victory of Syriza is significant in stemming the tide of austerity, and I do not see any a priori reason to believe that it would weaken the larger social struggle in Greece.

3) In any case one observes that generally the social struggle reaches a peak very soon after the imposition of the worst reactionary measures, and then dies down within a few years at the visible level – but retains or even increases its radical potential even when seemingly slumbering in the lap of civil society. This pattern is visible in the UK and in Greece as well, where great solidarity and cooperation at the everyday level, as well as some cases of heroic strikes and occupations, have gone together with a very weak level of larger organised movement of opposition in the recent period. The Greek unions have, as far as I can tell, as little capacity to affect things in Greece as they do in the UK.

4) One factor that is relevant in electoralism that is not mentioned in the analysis often is the impact of the voting system. There’s no reason at all to think that the Green ‘surge’, if it were to materialize, would affect anything as long as the net outcome is at best a gain of 1 MP. The room for any party to be an electoral weapon of left parties and movements is much narrowed in countries that have highly restrictive voting systems like the UK does, and for this reason this is a matter of significance beyond policy wonks and LibDem naifs. It is worth pointing out that Syriza obtained its result under conditions of a more proportional representation, and that in fact its actual seat tally is an overrepresentation of Syriza MPs compared to its share of the vote – a ‘bonus principle’ introduced by previous governments of the Greek establishment precisely to keep a radical challenge out and to diminish the necessity of working with such a party! This has now backfired because of PASOK’s complete collapse.

Nevertheless it underlines that the restrictions on the possibility of electoral action in the UK greatly limit relatively the potential for a Syriza-type formation to translate a broad membership base into an equally significant electoral and institutional front. This goes also for the funding of parties based on members, something which is favorable to radical parties with a greater activist base – a fact used to its advantage by Syriza, but also for example by the Socialist Party in the Netherlands. Since the UK allows neither of these possibilities to be used, the electoral strategy must be correspondingly different: trying to maximize the number of candidates standing, for example, or using electoral participation as a means of gaining short-term political traction is probably hopeless.

5) It is worth pointing out that Greece has not suffered the worst austerity regime ever – this dubious honor surely goes to Russia in the 1990s. It is to Syriza’s credit, and indeed more so to the credit of the Greek people, that the political results of this have been considerably better there. That said, one aspect of Syriza’s reformist tactics that is underappreciated is the fear of fascism: Yanis Varoufakis has said multiple times that his desire to save the European Union and even the Eurozone within it is motivated not by love for these institutions, but because for him saving the EU as such against the New Right in Europe is an essential precondition for the survival of the left. Whether this is true and whether their tactics are helpful or counterproductive in this regard is debatable, and a discussion that should be had intensively in the coming months. But it should be understood as part and parcel of the peculiar combination of radical intellectuals and reform-oriented short term policies of Syriza, and if it has merit, it should be kept in mind elsewhere also.

An important dimension here is the dimension of time: Syriza’s reformist tactics are aimed at the very short term, whereas the question of ‘Grexit’ and its potential consequences, or the possibility of an alliance with left parties elsewhere (if they should win), arises in the short to medium term. Equally, the KKE’s critique of Syriza, namely that over time their reformism can only disappoint the hopes and radical potential of the situation, must be kept in mind: what is good in the short run can become actually an aid to the radical right (as the ‘real alternative’) in the longer run.

6) Coming to the point of mass organisation: the first observation is that Syriza is, in fact, a ‘lash-up’ of a number of divergent Communist parties (sects) from Maoists to Eurocommunists, plus elements of the left of social-democracy. This coalition came together a considerable time ago to form an electoral front of the left outside the more classically Marxist-Leninist KKE, in particular to make the connection between party organisation and the electoral and organisational possibilities this offers and on the other hand the significance of the ‘social movements’. The original formation of 1989 actually consisted of an ad hoc coalition between the KKE and the various Communist factions that had left the KKE or were outside it. The KKE left the coalition after the fall of the USSR when it made a turn towards ‘fundamentals’, following party congresses in 1991 and 1996 which focused on rebuilding the party (very damaged by the collapse of the USSR) according to traditional Third International lines, quite contrary to the general rightward trend of other ‘official’ Communists. This meant the loss of the largest and most organised faction of this coalition, but the alliance of the other groups endured.

What is significant here is to point out that throughout the 1990s this coalition remained in existence while achieving virtually nothing at the level of electoral results, membership growth, or other kinds of impact based on size. After the departure of the KKE, the coalition (Synaspismos) never achieved over 5% of the vote, usually hovering around 3% or so in national elections. In 2004, this extant ad hoc coalition then merged with more independent left-wing groups, including the DEA – formerly the UK SWP’s sister party in Greece. The charisma of its new young leader, Alexis Tsipras, certainly helped, but even so the new Syriza coalition did not get beyond the usual numbers for far left groups in continental parliaments. It is only with the current crisis and the great economic, social, and political changes it entailed that Syriza suddenly rocketed upwards into its current position.

The reason I discuss this is because this is exactly the type of narrative that many on the British left do not consider possible: that various sects can coalesce in an ad hoc way, achieve very little in the short run, and yet by the sheer fact of sticking together and forming the alternative over the long run can come to play a historic role in national politics (even if just as a political instrument). The sheer fact of party organisation does undeniably play a role here, despite the understandable skepticism of the ‘horizontalists’. While formations like Left Unity and similar groups are easy to sneer at (and there is perhaps reason to do so), it is worth observing the fact that Synaspismos and even Syriza started out in no way organisationally or politically differently to these. What seems to have made the difference is to a small extent the willingness to keep a more or less broad and nonsectarian party form going that could be identified as a ‘pole of attraction’ and the basis for communication and organisation with social movements, and to a greater extent simply the seismic shift in economic and social conditions.

Here I am afraid that the primacy of historical materialism must be recognised: the success of Syriza, such as it is, is much more the product of historical and economic factors outside the control of any of the parties or activists than it is the result of any merits or demerits of Syriza itself. Even the collapse of PASOK is the symptom of a major shift in the allegiance of the Greek working class that resulted from the falling away of old patronage networks under the pressure of austerity: a sequence of causal relations not in any way brought about by Syriza, but instrumental for its current significance. Something similar applies to the experience of the KKE, whose economically superior and more radical programme has nonetheless totally failed to bring about any reinforcement of its political or social ability to intervene: even of the unemployed vote in Greece no more than 5.4% went to the KKE.

Therefore if we want to take Syriza as a model – and there should certainly be debate about whether one should – then it may actually make more sense to have a Left Unity type organisation than it may seem, despite the evident inability of such a party to affect events in the short term. (It is generally, I suspect, the case that the British left has a rather short-termist perspective and is liable to swing wildly from one panacea to another; something perhaps the result of the lack of a large ‘official’ Communist party historically, so that the strategies and possibilities for the radical left have never been properly ‘tested’ on a mass basis.) One must then allow that such a party can only justify its existence by operating in the long run, rather than expecting any results in the here and now, so that the emphasis should be rather on playing Syriza’s role as ‘weapon of the social movements’. That this is likely to produce a rather left-reformist outlook must then be accepted as the necessary consequence of present European conditions, as Syriza has (but the KKE has not). Equally, these conditions themselves must be understood as constraining the possibilities in addition to the political-institutional limitations peculiar to the UK that I described above. By this I mean that the only meaningful ‘base’ for such a party is not the working class as such, but rather at the electoral level all those whom one can draw away from Labourism into a more principled oppositional social-democracy, and at the organisational level only those sections of the population for whom something more radical than Labour is a real economic interest (plus, perhaps, leftwing intellectuals like Syriza has in great numbers). The worst delusion of the British left in this regard is always to expect that a rich imperialist nation like the UK will somehow produce within 10 years a class conscious working class that is interested in a revolutionary programme. If the KKE’s programme cannot do this in Greece, a considerably poorer country with a long legacy of leftwing resistance to imperialism and dictatorship, then it is certainly for a long time outside the reach of the British radical left.

7) The real question is then the choice between the KKE’s approach and that of Syriza. For the KKE, the strategy is to build on the basis of its own unions and sections of the organised working class, and to maintain an explicitly revolutionary programme; but one combined with an appeal to an ‘Anti-Imperialist, Anti-Monopolies Democratic Front’. Effectively, this combines 1) party unionism, 2) a principled programme and 3) an old fashioned Marxist appeal to working class unity. Its effectiveness in Greece is very limited, and in the UK I suspect would be zero. Galloway’s experiences show that the significance of anti-imperialism and a strong antiwar programme should not be underestimated, but it is insufficient on its own. Chatter about ‘monopolies’ is jargon that belongs in the 1950s, and I doubt anyone will be much enthused by such calls for working class unity without an actual basis for such unity to exist – something less and less the case in the increasingly segmented labor markets of the West. Moreover, in the UK no real party unionism can exist as long as Labour maintains its current structure: this is shown by the total inability of the Socialist Party of England and Wales to translate the RMT union’s membership into votes for its electoral front (TUSC). The same thing applies, for that matter, to Scargill’s futile attempt at building a party based on the NUM left. Whether it may perhaps be possible to undertake such an approach in the longer run, especially given the cowardice and weakness of the existing UK unions, is worth discussing; but the anti-union legislation in the UK does not make the prospect encouraging.

Syriza’s strategy, on the other hand, is as described above: a coalition of left forces with a relatively weak immediate social base, but united on the basis of an explicitly reformist rather than revolutionary programme. The rise of Syriza really has come – as senior members themselves acknowledge – because of its principled rejection of austerity and its image as standing outside the existing power structures, which in the current Western political climate is extremely helpful. Precisely because its function as an electoral and organisational vehicle could accommodate a great deal of different groups and movements, combined with its reformist outlook corresponding to the reality of most Greeks since the crisis, it had the necessary flexibility and organisational knowledge to seize its moment. That the leadership and constituent parts consist mostly of much more radical members than its party programme is in this sense a help, because it gives (hopefully) the necessary theoretical and strategic overview over the complex relations of political economy that such a party needs in order to avoid serious mistakes. However, this does come at a considerable cost: as the KKE never fails to point out, such a strategy also makes the party itself in the longer run rather more a hindrance than a help to achieving actual social revolution, if it does not go beyond its ‘principled social-democracy’, for all the reasons the traditional critique of reformism provides. This is therefore a strategy justified under particular historical circumstances and with a certain temporality, and this must not be forgotten.

8) The bottom line therefore for me is that Syriza shows that a viable coalition of left forces is indeed possible, despite the pessimism of the British left on this point, and that the party form can indeed function as a weapon of existing sects and movements of social struggle. However, the question of time and circumstance is the most important. Syriza’s ‘Marxist social-democracy’ is justified in the short term by the circumstances of Greece and the possibility it offers, but it is not to be mistaken for a long-run strategy, either politically or organisationally. Equally, the potential of such a coalition of left groups is not to be measured in the short term, and its greatest enemy is the expectation of short term successes under conditions totally unfavorable to revolutionary militancy. Such expectations have historically in the British left immediately led to demoralization, splintering, and wild shifts of ‘line’. Rather, one must combine a longer organisational view with a willingness to adjust strategy to shifting economic and social circumstances – in particular a realistic assessment of the conditions of British unionism, changes in working class composition and outlook, the significance of British imperialism, and so forth.

This sounds obvious, but so often in the radical left the ‘wish is the father of the thought’, as the expression goes: whereas the expectation in the short and medium term must be that the room for maneouvre and the social base of such a formation is limited. To do the most within those limitations is more valuable than illusions of being a ‘mass party in miniature’. Since in the UK no immediate economic or political need exists to form another left-reformist outfit next to the Labour Party – at least as long as the Labour left remains within that party – there is no need at all to copy Syriza’s programmatic approach. Rather, the so to speak ‘propagandistic’ emphasis on principled opposition to war and austerity can be the most relevant strategy in the short term as long as this crisis endures, not least by emphasizing the contrast with Labour’s own approach in this regard. One does not for that reason have to undertake Syriza’s extreme short term rescue and repair operations, so that there is no reason why a more principled, perhaps even more direct action oriented programme could not be combined with wider appeals of the kind that have brought the SNP and the Greens into the spotlight in recent years. Ultimately, the potential of any formation of this kind will depend on the vagaries of longer term economic and social factors which are totally outside the control of any small left party, and therefore neither puffed up expectations nor sectarian ‘mass party’ ambitions are helpful. Being honest; not expecting too much; and combining wide appeals against the neoliberal order with strategic concentration on those segments where potential exists is probably the best recipe against demoralization, and the best way to keep a coalition together in the long run. “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories“.

April 6, 2014

Book Review: Richard Seymour, “Against Austerity”

Posted in Book Review, Class Struggle, Economics, United Kingdom tagged , , , , at 15:21 by Matthijs Krul

It’s easy to be against austerity and neoliberalism; it is less easy to say something meaningful about it, and to take stock of the Western situation in a sober and critical way. To do this is the purpose of Against Austerity, the most recent work of the hand of Richard Seymour, blogger at Lenin’s Tomb and (ex-)member of various radical groups in the UK. Although the cover blurbs present it as a strategy for defeating austerity and reviving the left, most of the book by far is actually concerned with analyzing what austerity is, how it relates to neoliberalism, state and class strategies, ideology, and economics. While these topics are by now fairly well-trodden ground in left analysis, there is perhaps a need for a popular synthesis of the various theories and interpretations offered in the literature, and this book helps fill that gap. Combining — as is Seymour’s wont — Poulantzian/Gramscian state and class theory with the economic interpretations of the crisis offered by the school of Panitch & Gindin and Duménil & Levy, this work offers a (brief) political economic reading of the crisis that is fully integrated with a strategic and political conception: neoliberalism as a class offensive of financial capital and its state integration to recompose the state-economy relationship and indeed the very structure of ‘the market’ and its society itself. As Seymour puts it: “what we are witnessing, under the auspices of austerity, is not just spending cuts. It is a shift in the entire civilisational edifice of capitalism, deepening an equivalent shift that began in the 1970s” (3-4).

What does this shift consist of, according to him? The author discusses a fairly broad range of phenomena, and the discussion of the crisis and its strategic meaning ranges from economics to class, to state, and to ideology. Let’s take the economics first. The general thesis of the crisis interpretation may be summed up as the Panitch-Gindin-Duménil-Levy school. That is to say, the view that neoliberalism entails an intensification of existing trends towards ‘financialisation’, seen as the dominance of finance capital over other capitals and its stranglehold on the state; an attendant rise in inequality and more open class warfare, as opposed to the welfarist compromises of the boom period when manufacturing capital was in charge; and a shift from consumption to an investment orientation. When it comes to the state analysis of neoliberal economics, however, Seymour (in my view rightly) takes his cue from Philip Mirowski: the neoliberal state presents itself as a ‘small government, free market, individual responsibility’ type liberal regime of familiar sort, but in reality neoliberalism means an enormous increase in the state’s repressive authority and even in its reach over all aspects of life. The difference is that the state is now used to create markets and market dependence where none existed before, or where it was attenuated by welfarist ‘obstacles’. The neoliberal state is a regime of (re)imposing market relations into the fabric of everyday life wherever possible, and it is in this context only that the combination of increasing authoritarianism (at least compared to the 60s-70s) with the new conservatism and the drive to (anew) outsource and commodify all labour can be understood.

Financialization also comes into the class analysis. After all, one of the characteristics of neoliberalism (all agree) has been the increasing indebtedness and financial ‘enmeshing’ of Western workers. Also, the centrality of finance and the finance-state alliance in the United States to the workings of the international economic system since the end of Bretton Woods, as documented by Gindin and Panitch in The Making of Global Capitalism (London/NY 2013: Verso) has generated (or imposed) similar alliances elsewhere in the Western world. The upshot of this is that, on this interpretation, finance has become the central nervous system of capitalism and that financial capital has become the leading sub-class (hegemon) within the ruling class alliance. Unpacking Seymour’s Gramscian-Poulantzian jargon, the social relation that is the state is always in some sense a reflection of the struggle of different classes and class forces. In this particular case the alliance between corporations, banks, political parties, civil servants and so forth that dominates the UK is led by finance capital and its direct or indirect representatives in politics: the often-observed City-Westminster nexus.

Yet in the state analysis, Seymour rightly emphasizes that the neoliberal austerity alliance is not an impregnable unity. On the contrary, neoliberalism is as any movement an alliance of different ideas and forces and has a fragmentary nature. If cohesion is created by the dominance of the particular interest of finance over the whole, even other sectors of capital, the strategies pursued on this basis also entail risks and potentials for division. The wholesale attack on the conditions of social reproduction as they have grown in the postwar era more aggressive and sweeping than even in the Reagan-Thatcher years, and this means that either Marx’s ‘moral’ historical element in the reproduction of labor will be pushed down to a systematically lower living standard for the Western working class; or it could mean sufficient disruption and resistance that this social reproduction itself is threatened and the attack has to be called off. The former appears to be happening now, but the latter was the picture of the earliest wave of neoliberalism in the 1970s, and this shows the importance of organized labor resistance to raising the risks of an austerity strategy for the ruling class.

Similarly, the pursuit of debt reduction, cutting government expenditure, public employment and so forth makes sense from the viewpoint of financial capital — as it strengthens credibility and therefore creditors — but it threatens through the ensuing conflict and contraction the position of weaker elements of capital, such as manufacturers and those dependent on international trade. Such state intervention as exists in the economy is explicitly to defend finance capital at all costs, hence the bailouts, but there are also other elements of the ruling class alliance and global stability to keep in mind, not least politically. Hence Seymour rightly notes that “the divisions among elites over whether to proceed with austerity reflects both the risks of the project and divergences of short-term interests” (94). This solves the riddle of whether austerity is ideological madness or whether we should adopt the ‘rational choice’ view that this ruling class must be right about its own interests: it depends on what segment of the alliance we are talking about.

This brings us to the question of ideology, which perhaps more than anything else (unless it is the decline of unionism) defines our current era. Here, Seymour is perhaps at his best. As is obvious to all, but often handwaved away in the wishful thinking that passes for much left analysis, the situation ideologically is very grim. In the UK, fewer people now support the old ‘welfare’ set of views than even at the height of the ‘winter of discontent’ in the late 1970s that inaugurated Thatcher’s rule. The new ‘common sense’ imposed by decades of virtually unchallenged neoliberalism and the demise of the Soviet Union — the latter a factor Seymour barely mentions — has quite successfully imbued the current generation of young people with an ethos of individual careerism, of identifying with the discipline of the market. While this generation is much more progressive than the previous on questions of gender, sexuality, race and so forth, it is also much more neoliberal in terms of the relationship of individuals to society and its political economy — a trend visible throughout the Western world. In addition, Richard Seymour gives due attention to the counterpart of this common sense: the increasing violence and authoritarianism against those who resist or transgress the new discipline of the market and its inequalities and exploitation. From forced labor to obtain benefits to the escalation of police tactics, it is especially the women and people of colour of the Western world who make up much of the working class that bear the brunt of this offensive. The rhetoric of ‘scroungers’ and benefit dependence only legitimizes this new ‘liberalism without a human face’, and the more the state and its remaining welfare system present themselves as modes of exercising neoliberal authority, the less they are seen as universal achievements of citizenship in a high-wealth society. Seymour brings out this vicious cycle of our current times quite well.

There is much to like about this book. It is a clear and well-structured read: it starts off rather blocky and posturing in the beginning (for which I am just not the right audience) but improves over time with an at times fairly detailed analysis of the relationship between the rule of finance capital within the neoliberal state and the concrete strategies, alliances, and ideological ‘strong redescriptions’ this entails. Refreshing especially are two important things about this work: firstly, Seymour’s resistance to wishful thinking and hand-waving optimism. He describes the utter weakness of the left’s resistance, the decline in unionism and the small likelihood of its recovery, and the increasing neoliberalization of the Western common sense in no uncertain terms. Secondly, he rightly points out how identifying neoliberalism simply with ‘free marketeers’ and seeking a restoration of the old welfare capitalism and union alliances to combat it is an illegitimate and impossible exercise in old union worker nostalgia and doomed to collapse before it ever gets off the ground. He emphasizes how much unions have now come to rely on public service workers for their base, the last relatively privileged and secure bastion against the labour market, and how the neoliberal offensive on this point is destroying even that base as we speak — without any clear counter-strategy to be seen. The spirit of ’45 is an obscene display of delusional nostalgia, and should be rejected wherever it appears, and Richard Seymour does not indulge it — which is rare among the left in the UK, although such politics of nostalgia is much less evident in the United States. On the whole, this book does what should be the starting point of any Marxist analysis: it describes with sober senses how bad the radical left’s strategic position is, unhindered by the shibboleths or blinders of sect strategy.

Admittedly, I have some disagreements with the analysis as well, both larger and smaller in nature. Although these are all points on which people can reasonably disagree, I’ll mention a few points of difference here. One is that I think Seymour still concedes too much to the existing union structure, despite his justified emphasis on the need for a ‘new unionism’. The Owen Jones argument that unions are still the ‘biggest democratic institutions in the UK’ and the like simply does not convince, and masks the real issues of organized workers in the West. Firstly, if we criticize liberal democracy for being a sham democracy in some respects, being structurally set up to favour the elites and by demobilization and abstention excluding much of the working class, then this goes a fortiori for the unions. Even in the United States general elections will reach a 50% turnout or so, whereas union leadership elections are often decided on a turnout of about 15%. That does not bode well for an argument about their democratic content. Moreover, the dependence of Western unions on public sector workers. While the conditions and makeup of the public sector workforce is increasingly like that of private sector work, the strategic position is different. Public sector workers are more subject to the neoliberal ideological resistance to the state apparatus, making them seem ideal examples of wasteful obstacles and parasites to be cut; they’re often, as state representatives, in ambiguous relationships to workers (think of teachers or social workers); and they depend way more than private sector workers do on a general reserve of public support and solidarity. In Chicago, the CTU managed to triumph on this basis, but in most cases the long-term trend is not good for public sector-heavy unions.

Finally, there is also a certain analogy between the ‘Labour is defined by its members, therefore should be supported’ and the ‘unions are run by workers, therefore democratic’ arguments: both ignore the way the structure of membership is set up to prevent the use of that instrument for any anti-capitalist purpose under current conditions. A new unionism would mean a radical reformation of the existing union structure just as it would require a doing away with Labourism (something Seymour does agree on). It is worth noting that in various polls, from the US to Australia, people systematically indicate that unions are among the least trusted and liked institutions in the West — comparable to big business and parliaments, in fact.

Another point concerns the economic analysis. While I do not want to go into too much technical detail that will likely bore or confuse a general left audience, it is at least worth noting that some of the economic reasoning that underpins the book is disputable. While I readily agree with Seymour’s analysis of neoliberalism in the Mirowskian style, i.e. as the imposition of markets by a stronger (and even sometimes bigger) state rather than a classic free market offensive, I am less enamoured than he is of the Gindin-Panitch-Duménil-Levy approach to the crisis. Everyone can agree that the proximate cause of the crisis lay in the financial system and its particular overexposure to bad debt, and that this bad debt in turn has its roots in the stagnation (though not necessarily decline) of worker compensation. But it does not follow from this that long-term financial trends are the dominant ones in explaining global capitalism since the neoliberal turn of the 1970s. The argument that opponents of this school do not take finance to be a ‘real’ part of capitalism is misplaced; while indeed the populist narrative sometimes leans towards seeing finance as merely parasitical on capitalism, none of the Marxist economic literature on the crisis does this. It is clear that the credit system and finance are central to capitalism, as one can find in Capital volumes 2 and 3. But it is also clear that if finance is essential to capitalism, it is equally incapable of generating new value in the system, and this — rather than its circulation or the imposition of competition and productivity increases for their own sake — is the lifeblood of capitalism at a global level. This does not make finance irrelevant, fictitious, or parasitical, but it means that a purely financial explanation of longer term trends in capitalism is less plausible within a Marxist economic analysis, because less ‘microfounded’ (as the neoclassical economists would put it). Perhaps, of course, such Marxist analysis is wrong — post-Keynesian theory, for example, does indeed give good reasons to support a wholly financial explanation of long-term crisis tendencies, relying on the interaction of expectations and demand, and this is something we find repeatedly in Seymour’s book next to the Marxist literature.

This points to some of the inconsistency of the economic analysis proposed by some of Seymour’s narrative. He attacks those who see declining rates of profit (identified by Marx himself as one of capitalism’s most important crisis tendencies) as central to the long-term analysis of crisis trends in capitalism by using two arguments: 1) that profits have been at a record high before and after the crisis; and 2) that such an argument is teleological and implies there is a ‘final crisis of capitalism’. Neither of these is convincing. The first is a common reply to the ‘rate of profit’ literature on the crisis, as in Andrew Kliman and Michael Roberts, but it rests on a conceptual misunderstanding. The historically high profit rates Seymour cites are, besides being uncorrected for inflation (!), stocks of profit. What determines investment in Marx’s theory, however, are rates of profit — returns on investment. Not absolute amounts, but returns as a percentage of a capital invested. If capitalist A invests $1000 and gets $100 back, and capitalist B invests $100 and gets $50 back, then it is A who will be outcompeted, not B. A should have invested in B’s production process (or finance, or trade, or whatever) and made $500 instead of $100 on his capital, and it is precisely the role of finance to make such distributions of investments happen, and thereby to equalize (and maximize) the rate of profit. It is precisely these rates of return that are advertised in all the financial literature and that play the same role for capital as the ’200 or 500 a year’ in rents (or interest) did for the Mister Darcy types in the Austen and Brontë novels. In fact, Seymour himself notes that “what matters to capital is the rate of profit on investment” (69)!

Why does this matter? Because whether or not Kliman and Roberts are right in their statistical analysis, it seems evident that a rate of profit analysis can explain why despite all the neoliberal offensives and despite 500 billion bailouts and the governments more or less begging capital to invest (as Seymour notes in his book), no investment is forthcoming. The left is no serious opposition; the unions are moribund; the government gives capital all it wants; and it does not invest. This baffles the Obamas and the Osbornes, who have only neoclassical economics to go by. The high-profit view also has no explanation of this, but the low rate of profit view does. There lies the relevance of this debate among Marxists.

The second counterargument should also be addressed, because it applies to the broadly SYRIZA-type strategies proposed by Seymour. While I think he is probably right that this kind of Eurocommunist ‘broad alliances’ and ideological offensives are about the best we can achieve at the moment, I think we should recognize that this is a position of weakness. The liberals are winning, and while a long-term offensive of ideology may hit the neoliberals where they are weakest, it is not likely to reverse the arrangement of forces in the short or even medium term. It is therefore very nefarious when nostalgic analysis substitutes for sober senses in this regard, as Seymour observes. But this applies also to the strategic implications of the inconsistency mentioned above, between emphasizing the need for investment and accumulation on capital’s part on the one hand, and simultaneously insisting this requires more consumer demand on the other. This is a fundamental mistake. Contrary to the Keynesian analysis underpinning this argument, according to Marx’s economics it is not the case that capital accumulation requires high worker consumer demand, nor therefore does it require the state to intervene on this basis to guarantee it.

The state does indeed often, since the Great Depression, intervene to prop up — in various ways, according to the class configurations in charge — the consumption levels of the working class. But this is for political reasons, and defended as such: Roosevelt and LBJ alike were worried about riots, uprisings, and revolutions, not about ‘multipliers’ (in fact Roosevelt famously campaigned on an austerity agenda). If this seems implausible, remember that capitalism accumulated quite fine in the Victorian age, even if regularly wracked by crises, despite the subsistence level (or lower) consumption of the workers, and the same thing is true for capital outside the West — a dimension Seymour barely mentions at all in his discussion of the political economy of the crisis. (I could here go into the relevance of the global dimension for the strategic problem of whether we should prioritize the living standards of Western workers in the face of globalized value flows, and also the absence of a discussion of the transnational capitalist class in this work. But arguably that would go too far for a review of a popular book mainly concerned with domestic strategy.) The importance of this argument rests in this: 1) that it would be wrong to think that the liberal state cannot go beyond a small bandwidth of austerity and repression; 2) that it would be wrong to think that any form of ‘demand side’ politics would do better than austerity at overcoming the crisis from the standpoint of capital.

The mistake here is a common one, and by no means limited to Seymour, but it entails confusing the needs of capital accumulation with the needs of the working class. It is precisely Marx’s point that the two are disjoined under capitalism. The conditions of capital accumulation are determined by the rate of profit and the variables that constitute it; whereas Marx pointed out that saying a crisis consists of insufficient demand is a tautology. (It must be noted this is recognized by some post-Keynesian literature as well.) The upshot then is that we must resist the urge to promote Keynesian solutions as an alternative to austerity ones for growth, i.e. capitalist accumulation, although of course we can and should defend the welfare state, good public services etc. on other grounds. It also means that we should not think that austerity is irrational or a mistake on the part of the ruling class compared to the possibility of a Keynesian alternative, as most of the center-left suggests. Not to suggest Seymour is one of them, but there is perhaps an unexamined tension between his interpretation of the economics and the most important observation in the book: that “if we attempt to ground our criteria in terms of the dominant criteria of what is good for capitalism, we cannot win” (159, emphasis omitted).

If I seem to spend exaggerated attention to the economic discussion in this book — which is only a part of the whole — I apologize; this just happens to be my main subject of interest at the moment. But the relevance of economic analysis of the crisis remains important to any strategy as well, as I’ve hopefully shown, and that is a major concern of this book. That said, I think on the whole this is a readable and useful guide to the interrelationship between austerity, neoliberalism, and the state at the level of strategy and ideology, and these are perhaps the book’s main foci in any case. It will disappoint the more ‘left communist’ skeptics, in its Eurocommunist-Gramscian approach, but this is itself a product of the limitations of our times. Aside from the usual minor errors — Alex Andreou is not called ‘Alex Alexandreou’ (102n56); Krugman is not ‘marginal within his profession’ (126) — the book has much to offer in terms of a sober and nuanced analysis. This goes especially in the UK where the trend towards nostalgia, wishful thinking, and resisting empirical and strategic reconsideration is so strong. As Richard Seymour puts it in the conclusion: “if this book has been intended to do anything, it has been to find a way to drop those fetishes… assimilate the reality of our present situation, and soberly assess the challenge posed by austerity, without losing sight of the objective — which is to navigate our way out of this impasse” (152). To that aim this book is certainly a worthwhile contribution.

December 1, 2013

Book Review: Sheila Rowbotham et al., “Beyond the Fragments”

Posted in Book Review, Class Struggle, Patriarchy, Politics, Theory, United Kingdom tagged , , , , , , , , at 21:00 by Matthijs Krul

Introduction
The collection of socialist feminist arguments and lectures collected in 1979 under the title Beyond the Fragments is due a re-read in our present times. After the crisis in the SWP and the lengthy debates on the relationship between Marxist organisation and the ‘social movements’, often as vituperative as they have been inconclusive, the need to go beyond the fragments of each individual movement and find resources for a common purpose is as great as ever. What is striking about this collection is therefore how little dated it is – the occasional reference to the influence of the CPGB or the rule of Callaghan’s Labour aside, most of it reads like it had been written last week. For this reason, it is worth revisiting especially the opening essay by Sheila Rowbotham, which takes up most of the book. While the other two essays, by Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, emphasize also the practical and organisational significance of the women’s movement on the politics of the radical left, it is Rowbotham’s essay that most thoroughly gives a theoretical exposition of the flaws and failures of that radical left in taking up these lessons. Read the rest of this entry »

June 18, 2013

The Spirit of ’45?

Posted in Class Struggle, Communism, History, Politics, Social-Democracy, United Kingdom tagged , , , , , at 22:15 by Matthijs Krul

Leftwing filmmaker Ken Loach has launched a movie and corresponding campaign in the UK called “Spirit of ’45”. Already avidly promoted by the usual union and Labour left figures, the purpose of the movie is to have working people speak on behalf of the social-democratic achievements of the 1945 Labour government, and what these meant for them. This was the government that radically expanded and restructured the British social system, transforming it from a country of austerity conservatism into one of the main bulwarks of social-democracy – the pinnacle of course being the introduction of a healthcare system wholly free at the point of use, unprecedented then as it indeed still is now. Many left-leaning British people understandably have a certain pride in these accomplishments, and the Labour Party has been coasting on them in its claims to working class loyalty for practically all of the postwar period (“party of the NHS”). The purpose of the corresponding campaign is to revive this sense of pride and loyalty towards social-democracy, presumably in the hope that this will strengthen popular resistance against the attempts by the current conservative-liberal coalition to privatize swathes of the NHS, reduce or abolish elements of the ‘welfare state’, and generally to force market exchange where there was redistribution.

As a purely defensive campaign to mobilize for genuine reforms away from the basis of capitalist social relations, that is the mediation between working people through ‘free’ markets, and in favor of some manner of organized and collective solidarity, this is fair enough. Yet the spirit of ’45 is a ghost which, once conjured up, may turn out to do more than haunt the conscience of the coalition. The spirit of ’45 is first and foremost the spirit of nostalgia, a nostalgia for an idealized past of Labour governments and miners in caps speaking at union rallies. This makes it, as many of the commentators on the right promptly pointed out, little more than an extended political broadcast for the Labour Party. And this shows its limitations: not only would the Labour Party of Ed Miliband probably unrecognizable to the members of Attlee’s cabinet, but anyone whose political horizon is wider than that of Labour has little reason to be enthused by this. Read the rest of this entry »

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