The Broken Memory: Left Unity and Neoliberal Fragmentation

by Adam Turl on July 20, 2015

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“The most profound defeat of the past three decades has been the retreat of the socialist left and the consequent lowering of both social and political expectations — both in what we hope for and what we believe we can collectively achieve. The idea of socialism has been sidelined as pie-in-the-sky. But what is really utopian is the promise that a better life within capitalism is around the corner. The radical must increasingly declare itself the practical.” (Sam Gindin)

“That’s how the enemy wants us. He wants us small, speaking a language no one understands, in a minority, hiding behind our traditional symbols. He is delighted with that, because he knows that as long as we are like that, we are not dangerous.” (Pablo Iglesias)

The revolutionary socialist left faces a crisis of imagination.

Most of us cannot really imagine an organized mass alternative within present-day capitalism (let alone a full-fledged post-capitalist polity). This is not meant as an insult. This difficulty is not borne of individual or political failure. It is a product of large social forces beyond any single socialist, tendency or organization. We organize protests and issue analyses. We unpack the ABCs of Marxism (as we see it) in study groups with talented millennial workers and students. We occupy town squares and block highways. Some of us have gone on strike or helped run independent political campaigns. Comrades (from Socialist Alternative, Solidarity, Kasama, Jacobin, International Socialist Organization, Workers International League, Socialist Party, Red Party, Philly Socialists, Socialist Action, among many others) do impressive (as well as the necessary if mundane) things that keep the socialist tradition alive. On a (usually) local level socialists (can) leaven the rise of struggle.

But it is now more than six years since the onset of the Great Recession. Despite substantial interest in anti-capitalist ideas among millennials the socialist left in the U.S. is hardly larger than it was in the 1990s and the 2000s. Not even the embryo of a large-scale alternative has begun to cohere. Something is not working.

This would seem counter-intuitive. In 2011 Occupy Wall Street gave rise to a national movement that militantly confronted the question of inequality. We have seen revolutionary crises in the Middle East and beyond. Left-of-center governments have taken power in much of Latin America. SYRIZA is poised to take power in Greece. Young organizers in Ferguson and St. Louis waged a two-month battle on the streets that launched a new struggle for civil rights, incorporating militant tactics borrowed both from Occupy and the history of past movements. Fast food workers have walked off the job in protest of low wages. In Seattle, Kshama Sawant, an avowedly socialist candidate, won election to the city council and helped propel forward a $15 minimum wage law. Meanwhile, the basic precepts of free-market capitalism have been called into question for millions. Immiseration and austerity (while less severe in the U.S. compared to some European states) breed misery in the working-class. Millennials, who indicate a preference to “socialism” (in some form) over “capitalism,” are the most multiracial generation in U.S. history. They are far more socially progressive than either the Baby Boomers or “Generation X.”

As Paul Heideman argued recently on Jacobin:

“What is going to come after neoliberalism?” It was the question on many radicals’ lips, present writer included, after the financial crisis hit in 2008. Though few were so sanguine about our prospects as to repeat the suicidal optimism of previous radical movements (“After Hitler, Our Turn!”), the feeling of the day was that the era of unfettered marketization was coming to a close. A new period of what was loosely referred to as Keynesianism would be the inevitable result of a crisis caused by markets run amok. Five years later, little has changed. What comes after neoliberalism? More neoliberalism, apparently. The prospects for a revived Left capable of confronting it appear grim.

Sam Gindin, in an article titled “Art in the Age of Fatalism,” recalls the earlier impact of the “one-sided class war:”

Yet — and this is the disheartening paradox of the period since roughly the early 1980s — the reversal of capitalism’s [post-war] promises led to no substantive crisis in its authority, and the neoliberal practices that brought us to the most recent economic crisis were subsequently not discarded but intensified.

He continues:

At a moment that should have led to the most serious discussions of alternatives to capitalism, such alternatives have in fact further receded from public deliberations.

The gap between the current moment and the socialist left is, in large part, a product of two-interrelated processes: the narrowing of the socialist left due to the circumstances of its historical evolution and the transformation of capitalist economic and social life under neoliberalism.

Neoliberal Fragmentation

To be sure, neoliberalism is an epochal but not structural change. Nostalgia for pre-neoliberal capitalism, particularly the post-WW2 compromise, obscures both what was horrible about capitalism in that period, and the self-contradictory nature of the corporatist model (see below). Neoliberalism has, however, reproduced patterns of atomization and fragmentation, in both work and other social relationships, which undermine the socialist left. At the same time neoliberalism shapes the nature of spontaneous responses to capital and oppression (for good and bad).

The virulence of neoliberalism is in its remaking of everything—from the state to cultural and individual relationships. “Classical liberalism always assumes the coherent individual self as the basic unit,” Heideman continues, “Neoliberalism, by contrast, sees people as little more than variable bundles of human capital, with no permanent interests or even attributes that cannot be remade through the market.” This fluidity and hyper-atomization is a central feature of the moment. It must also be noted that the mediated socialization of the atoms is also a central feature—in social media, production networks, franchised services, etc. This mediation socializes while also “embedding” the market in all institutions and interactions. This helps explain both the strength and weakness of the current resistance (a relative ease to “spontaneity” but a relative difficulty in coherence, see more below).

While Marxists have been right to argue that neoliberalism did not fundamentally alter capitalist relationships, we have often been too quick to minimize the substantial changes that have occurred. In the U.S. average job tenure has trended downward for decades. Employees have mostly become variable and moveable units in a global process of production. U.S. manufacturing, once the “stronghold of the working class,” now accounts for barely twelve million workers total (less than 10 percent of the total workforce). As Gregg Shotwell puts it, “We are all temps. We are all disenfranchised. We are immigrants in the land where we were born” (quoted in an article by Gindin).

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And, as a class, we are not fighting back. The unionized workforce is less than 12 percent of the total workforce. Despite the impressive actions of fast food workers, strikes barely register. In 2013 there were only 15 work stoppages (lock outs and strikes) of more than one thousand workers in the U.S. While organized labor continues its decades long nose-dive, the broader reformist left has allowed itself to be co-opted by finance capital in the form of NGOs. The Democratic Party continues to serve, without much cover, as the graveyard of social movements. For example, the primary role of Al Sharpton and his National Action Network in the post-Ferguson struggle has been to contain and marginalize the young activists who started the movement. Sharpton has not been a “duel-edged sword” but a blunt and crude weapon aimed at the heroes of Ferguson.

Meanwhile the small radical left, already split between anarchists and socialists, is then split again into dozens of different anarchist and socialist subgroups and currents. This fragmentation and impotence of the principled left, and the utter capitulation of most of the broader left, is born of the fragmentation and seeming impotence of working-class life under neoliberalism.

Of course the left cannot limit its opposition to neoliberal capital alone. As Peter Frase notes, the post-war compromise between labor and capital was “an inherently contradictory and self-subverting order” for both labor and capital. As much as the neoliberal turn fueled workers’ militancy in the 1970s, young workers also rebelled against the prospect of being trapped in stultifying, if relatively well-paid, manufacturing jobs. For millions of workers “job security” became as much of an albatross as unemployment.

While most of the socialist left has far greater horizons than a mere return to the pre-neoliberal era, nostalgia borne of our longstanding connections to organized labor can distort our approach to liberalism. It is the instinct within organized labor to measure the neoliberal assault by what was lost. But we have to remember that the neoliberal state will never play the social role it played during the post-war consensus, let alone the New Deal. Not without a social rupture comparable to the 1930s or 1960s rebellions (and even then…).

The Democratic Party of 2015 bares little resemblance, in terms of its economic and social policy horizons, to the reformism of the New Deal and Great Society eras (however limited). So the left finds few allies among the liberals (in NGOs, among politicians, even among the better labor leaders). We must look to each other and to the grassroots. We must come together to present a counter-narrative to the all-encompassing narrative of neoliberalism: “a distinct alternative vision.”

Millennial Radicals

The psychology and character of resistance in the younger generation is also shaped by the history of triumphant neoliberalism: a generation that came of age in an increasingly multi-racial cohort, with the constant drumbeat of war culminating in economic crisis and growing inequality.

As Colin Jenkins argues, “the emerging forms of Leftism within the Millennial generation are far removed from the highly romanticized brand of Communism that occupied prior generations. The Soviet system has been six-feet deep for going on two decades.” While the nature of the Soviet state was a central question to every young radical prior to 1991, it is largely a footnote today.

“They have not been influenced by Cold War propaganda, red-baiting, McCarthyism, Trotskyist polemics against Mao, anarchist hatred towards Lenin,” Jenkins argues, “Because of this, they tend to approach theory with open minds. This piecemeal approach allows them to consider different points, varied nuances, and a host of ideas without letting in-fighting cloud the broader movement.”

This is both strength and weakness. The ideological openness is inherently alien to sectarianism (a strength). However, it is an openness that has been separated from the lessons of history by the catastrophes that befell the left in the 20th century. This openness calls out for the patient reconstruction of a coherent framework through participatory discussion. In other words, theoretical openness can ratify current social fragmentation or be part of the process of reconstructing a Marxist totality: a popular Marxist narrative for the present world. Over determined theoretical certainty will appear as alien to the best Millennials. At the same time an abandonment of Marxist theory will reproduce the fatalism that still permeates much of social life (at least in the U.S.). We have to rebuild this as equals. We cannot do that divided into a dozen different groups.

As Gindin writes:

It might seem that emerging social movements, coming out of a new generation and bearing the slogan of “another world is possible,” stand in direct contrast to social democracy’s limited horizons. But their theory and practice, unfortunately, is also debilitated by a more subtle acceptance of the world as it is…

For all their energy, passion, and tactical creativity, the efforts of activist youth from 1990s through Occupy have tended (some notable exceptions aside) to be sporadic, localized, and symbolic. There has consequently been little consolidation of spaces of resistance and equally limited development of capacities for substantive popular outreach.

The (relative) spontaneity of demonstrations can be the expression of a differentiated totality, a democratic combination moving toward our goals without sacrificing individual subjectivity, or it can be an echo of neoliberal fragmentation and atomization. Similarly, the insights of “identity politics” can be used to build solidarity, or ratify fragmentation.

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Our Organizations

This is why the ideological origins of our organizations, the various splits from the second and third internationals, no longer make sense in the present moment. Absolute theoretical clarity, in the short and medium term, is less important than the urgency to re-socialize the socialist movement. The most important task for the socialist left is the projection of the broad outlines of a political, economic, and cultural alternative. This means a return to the “good news” gospel of early Marxism.

This is not to argue that the fight against Stalinism, or the very real differences between Trotskyists and Maoists, or the arguments within these tendencies are not important. It is to argue that the reasons for clear organizational separation on each and every point no longer exist. This is particularly the case among many Trotskyist trends.

The impetus for the third international’s separation from the second was the actuality of world revolution. Mass socialist parties aimed to divert working-class energy into support for counter-revolutionary “reformist” governments. Forming separate revolutionary parties made sense. Unfortunately, we are now left with miniature versions of those revolutionary weapons, without the structures (the mass reformist parties) they were meant to fight. Against all our intentions we have created an arcane language; a dozen different shibboleths that unnecessarily divide the present socialist movement.

Explaining the split between Solidarity, the ISO, Socialist Alternative and the WIL to the best young radicals is not unlike discussing the theological schisms between rival popes. The best young radicals hear:

Yes. We are all against capitalism, for workers’ democracy, revolution, against racism, against imperialist war, consider ourselves Marxists (and Marx was all about working-class unity) but we disagree with Lenin slightly more or less than these folks, and don’t get us started about Alan Woods. Or the faction fight in the IS in late 1970s. Or the downturn perspective in the 1980s. Or the split in Labor Militant.

No one cares except the initiated.

There are real arguments. Socialist Alternative’s (U.S.) position on Palestine is simply wrong. And that debate should be had out, as should the others, with a sense of scale, proportion, and time. Interestingly, the relative isolation and separation of our tendencies means these debates aren’t really being carried out in a meaningful way.

Waiting for Bolshevik Godot

One of the lessons of the Sawant victory was that the socialist left can’t wait for “objective conditions” to shift. I am not arguing that we have not worked hard and done good work. We have. We have also made mistakes. But we can no longer hope that pushing liberals and reformists into action, or merely being the leftwing of the spontaneous struggles, will lead to a qualitative political shift in the near term. The Sawant victory showed that we must initiate activity and project the socialist alternative in militant but accessible terms.

As Pablo Iglesias of Podemos argues:

I know very well that the key to understanding the history of the past five hundred years is the emergence of specific social categories, called “classes.” And I am going to tell you an anecdote. When the 15-M movement first started, at the Puerta del Sol, some students from my department, the department of political science, very political students — they had read Marx, they had read Lenin — they participated for the first time in their lives with normal people.

They despaired: “They don’t understand anything! We tell them, you are a worker, even if you don’t know it!” People would look at them as if they were from another planet. And the students went home very depressed, saying, “They don’t understand anything.”

[I’d reply to them], “Can’t you see that the problem is you? That politics has nothing to do with being right, that politics is about succeeding?” One can have the best analysis, understand the keys to political developments since the sixteenth century, know that historical materialism is the key to understanding social processes. And what are you going to do — scream that to people? “You are workers and you don’t even know it!”

The enemy wants nothing more than to laugh at you. You can wear a t-shirt with the hammer and sickle. You can even carry a huge flag, and then go back home with your flag, all while the enemy laughs at you. Because the people, the workers, they prefer the enemy to you. They believe him. They understand him when he speaks. They don’t understand you. And maybe you are right! Maybe you can ask your children to write that on your tombstone: “He was always right — but no one ever knew.”

Such points, and the points made earlier in this article, are about the orientation of the socialist left, not merely the question of regroupment or unity. Socialist unity, however, could facilitate such an orientation. Working together we can be a far more substantial tribune for the “good news” of Marxism and socialism. Together we are more likely to organize a popular counter-attack to neoliberalism: to establish an identity between our analyses, as Iglesias argues, and the feelings of the majority.

While an historic meeting uniting the socialist left might not be possible in the short term (although I hesitate to say so for fear of giving cover to a certain entropic inertia), steps should be taken. As Gindin argues, in terms of overcoming the paralysis of organized labor, we should seek “intermediate forms:” steps toward creating a new and wider movement.

Intermediate Forms

The following are some ideas for such projects:

1) Form an electoral alliance of all the socialist groups and independent socialists that favor working-class democracy and oppose the Democratic Party, to focus on running openly socialist local political campaigns, particularly in the cities and campus-areas. In 2014, socialists running for office, independent of the Democrats, on open-socialist or other party tickets, got more than 800,000 votes nation-wide. That was without a concerted or co-ordinated effort on the part of (most) existing socialist organizations. Imagine what could be done to spread the socialist gospel with a co-ordinated effort in 2015 and 2016.

2) Publish a joint-socialist website with an editorial board of comrades from multiple organizations as well as independent socialists. Related, the entire socialist left needs to rethink the question of the “paper” (without knee-jerk attacks on or defenses of Lenin). Whatever one thinks of Lenin, much of the work of the “revolutionary paper” now happens organically through social media (organizing protests, generalizing reports from them, sharing local police and capitalist outrages, etc.). The other questions of the paper, the unification of disparate socialist circles (one of Lenin’s chief motivations for Iskra), needs to be organized by active socialists via a website. Unlike Lenin, our disparate socialist circles are largely small national organizations with theoretical differences on the 20th century (but often-greater agreement on the 21st).

3) Publish a joint-socialist journal on theory and history, again with an editorial board of comrades from multiple organizations as well as independent comrades. As we work together, we need a space to have patient and comradely discussions about our past disagreements (above) as well as figure out solutions to the contemporary problems not one of our traditions is prepared to solve on its own.

4) Establish an annual national conference organized by multiple organizations to promote socialist ideas and debate, project a larger organized socialist alternative, discuss our struggles in person and patiently discuss our differences.

5) Create national list serves, or similar devices, for comrades in various organizations doing similar work (anti-racist, anti-sexist, service worker actions, etc.) to share ideas and reports.

6) Begin a discussion among members in and between socialist organizations about regroupment and refoundation.

There may be more and better ideas. But one thing is clear to me: if the “party is the memory of the working class,” it has been shattered into dozens of pieces. We should start putting it back together.

Adam Turl is a socialist, artist and writer who lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He writes at the Evicted Art Blog.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Darwin26 August 2, 2015 at 5:19 am

Nothing to disagree with here… but how? i suspect i should look a long ways into the future ~ a long ways to the ballot to be sure ~ but back to square one ~ “Organize” on this anniversary of Fellow Worker IWW Frank Little’s murder in Butte, Montana (tho Joe Hill said it /it’s a IWW thing) ~
All the points for growing the Socialist Movement are here.


FranG April 13, 2016 at 10:14 am

Damn! There was a NeoLiberal movement, and I missed it. For years I’ve felt that the Dems were better than the Republics, but not liberal enough for me. But voting for Ralph Nader because “Al Gore is no better than George Bush” equals George Bush. When you gather your coalition, consider including AARP. We’re not all Millennials. True, we seniors were outnumbered by youth at Occupy, and I would despair that my cohorts were cheering me from their recliner chairs, but lots of us still have the energy to tag along swell the throng, and vote.


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