Capitalist Realism: Challenges for the Left

by Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper on November 22, 2012

The following remarks were delivered at Historical Materialism 2012 by Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper, in a discussion of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. The audio original was posted at the Anti Capitalist Intiative. Transcribed and edited for text by The North Star.

Simon Hardy: Each new generation, each new movement, each new struggle itself always occurs within the context of what came before it, within the social conditions which are already established. We’ve just written a book, which is coming out soon called Beyond Capitalism, which is what our two talks are based on. Really what we are grappling with is a very serious problem in which, with all the tremendous possibilities and opportunities we have – we live in a world of Occupy, a world of the Arab revolutions (the actual word ‘revolution’ has come back into mainstream political dialogue now, that hasn’t happened for quite some time), strikes, massive protests so on – yet despite all of that, in a country like Britain, which is actually on the cutting edge of some quite serious austerity measures, the anti-cuts movement here is quite weak. And I don’t think that the revolutionary left has particularly grown in the last few years out of all the various struggles we’ve been involved.

Certainly, I’ve been on the left now since 2001 as an activist and I think that the revolutionary left now is actually quite a bit smaller than it was around 2001, so I think we kind of need to, not despair or go home or anything like that, but we need to introduce some of these problems and begin to think about them. Because when the left talks about the problems of, say, working class and popular mobilization, there seems to be two bifurcated ways of looking at it. Some times people talk about confidence. They say the problem is that there isn’t enough confidence, workers aren’t confident enough, so what we need is a really big demonstration, we need some more strikes, that will make workers more confident. Of course, that is true, if you have lots of demonstrations and strikes, then workers become more confident, and its kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Certainly the problem that we had in Britain from last year is that we had the biggest strike since 1926, a very large demonstration on pensions and cuts more generally, but then because of the sell-out of pensions and cuts more generally, all that confidence which was being built up dissipated very quickly. In 2012, we’ve really felt that problem because of the sell-out of the pension struggle. That’s a structural problem of the organizations that people rely on to mobilize them, the trade unions and workers organizations, People think that these organizations will be the things which can help them towards liberation, but within the context we are dealing with at the moment they can also be the organizations that can lead to quite serious disappointment and actually to the demobilization of struggles.

So you have confidence on one side. Other people say, well there’s a crisis of leadership, that’s the main problem. The working class is ready to go basically, but the problem is we have these bastards at the top of the trade unions, these people holding everyone back, and so we need a new leadership in order to take things forward. Of course, if there was a revolutionary leadership, then everything would be great, but in the context of the last few years there hasn’t been a large upsurge within the wider worker’s movement of people necessarily even looking for that new kind of leadership and trying to establish much more radical forms of organizational leadership. So, I think what Luke and I were thinking about, certainly we go into more detail in the book, is trying to develop some deeper understandings of the reality of the post-1991 world, and the conditions in which the left is operating today. And I just want to focus on three main ones.

The first one, of course, is the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whatever you thought about it, its class character and so on, within the wider consciousness that was seen as a defeat of the alternative, a defeat of communism or socialism more generally. Different tendencies and groups on the left have different explanations for why it happened, but it happened. There’s been a general shift to the right, and I think one of the reasons the 1990s saw such a powerful resurgence of capitalism, neoliberalism, and so on, is precisely because the pro-capitalist forces actually seized hold of some of the things which have been associated with the left previously: the idea of democracy, the idea of modernity. Those things were our property in the past and suddenly with the collapse of the Soviet Union, they’d say actually socialism clearly can’t provide those things for you, the standard of living was actually very poor. If you want democracy, it has to come with the market, the two are linked. That was quite a popular idea, and I think that really gave neoliberalism and the Washington consensus quite a hefty punch in terms of the way that it was pitching itself. As for the left’s response, we did our best; we had the anti-capital movement after 1999. But even today it’s still very much limited to the idea of resistance, and this is a point that would have to be linked to militant modernism. The left does its best at resistance, strikes, protests, conferences, and so on, but its resistance is often not necessarily linked, or there’s still a gap, between the resistance we want to carry out now and the strategic goals that we are aiming towards in the future. It’s a bit like Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust, who describes himself as the “spirit of perpetual negation”. That’s sometimes how the left ends up, in that kind of logic. We’re negating, we’re trying to save things, we’re trying to stop cuts from happening, but what’s the alternative vision? Where do we want to actually take society.

The second factor is, I think, something you can see today, and is the result of the previous process that I mentioned: quite serious organizational and political conservatism by some forces on the left. Within the trade unions, clearly business unionism, for example credit card unionism, a trade union movement which emphasizes helping you get a lawyer for an employment tribunal rather than collective struggle to defend people in the workplace. We don’t need to rehearse those arguments, but clearly the trade unions today are not often in the militant position that sometimes they have been in the past and definitely should be today.

On the more radical left tradition though, I think you get two quite distinct positions, and there is not a lot of dialogue between them. On one hand the autonomous, libertarian tradition and on the other hand those people who self-define as Bolsheviks today, Leninist, Trotskyists, and so on. The autonomous libertarian tradition, you can see with things like Occupy, can itself be quite creative, think outside the box, and come up with new protest movements or slogans, which the more traditional old left doesn’t necessarily come up with themselves. The idea of the 99%, the whole Occupy movement itself, we really have to thank them for shifting the terrain of the debate in more popular consciousness from the problem as public sector pensions and back towards finance capital and corporations. That was really what Occupy helped to achieve. But at the same time, there were real problems that Occupy had. We had an obsession with individual autonomy, as some kind of basis, the absolute prerequisite for any kind of political organization. The individual must come first, any kind of collective which might begin to look like a hierarchy is automatically disregarded – quite an anti-political movement in some degree, in the sense that it is a social movement buiding utopian spaces against capitalism, but if you talk to them about questions of power, the question of reorganizing society on a more fundamental, central or regional level, a lot of people run a mile from that.

On the other hand, the Bolshevik tradition, which is where I come from, is often quite unimaginative. It’s been a real problem in the last few years, that despite the seriousness of the crisis, despite how fundamental the actual changes are that the bourgeoisie is trying to enforce, not just in Britain but in other countries, there is very much a sense of coming along in the same old manner, similar kinds of front campaigns are built, similar kinds of arguments are made. There doesn’t seem to be much creative thinking about how the revolutionary left, which often has much better ideas around the question of political power and so on, can get out of its kind of ghetto on the far Leninist-Trotskyist left, and try to get out there a little bit more. And that’s sort of the point that Luke and I are beginning to move towards in the book, that actually both traditions have very positive things they can contribute to building a movement in the current struggle, but both of them are going to have to leave behind their dogmatic assertions which haven’t necessarily got them as far as they want to get. I think if you talk to many libertarians, they are not where they want to be, and many Bolsheviks are definitely not where they want to be in terms of building a mass revolutionary party either.

What we’re grappling with, and Luke will go into some of the ideas we are developing about it, is what we slightly pretentiously call the Marcusean problematic. The revolutionary nature of the working class, what is it that is frustrating it in this particular conjuncture of politics? Of course it’s a truism to say that it’s never as revolutionary as the revolutionaries want it to be, but what’s the actual convergence of different structures and agencies and tendencies in the current situation which is holding it back? In that sense Marcuse, he’s interesting because obviously he had a much more pessimistic view on the potential of working class consciousness, and then towards the end of his life after 1968 he kind of revisited some of his arguments and put forward some more positive ideas. But a lot of the things he identified in One-Dimensional Man and the writings in the mid-1960s if anything are even worse today: the question of bureaucratism, the weakness of the left, the decline of working class consciousness, alienation more generally in society. I think that these things if anything have actually intensified and got worse, and in the same time the revolutionary left has not been able to keep up with the challenges and renew itself. So what we need to be thinking about as a revolutionary movement, whether you’re from a more libertarian tradition or a more Bolshevik tradition or whatever, we need to be thinking a bit more creatively about how can the left better organize itself so that when social crises happen, when the potential for new movements emerges, the left is able to intervene (which is actually a terrible word, because you shouldn’t be intervening, you should be an organic part of it anyway), but intervening in some way in order to popularize revolutionary ideas and to fight any anti-political sentiment that might exist. I think that’s the point that we need to think about. I’m not a subjectivist; I don’t think if we only we did this or that a little differently then everything would be wonderful and we could just power ahead. There are clearly objective problems, as I’ve tried to outline, so how can the revolutionary left begin to organize itself in a less dogmatic, more pragmatic way and more creative way in order to be able to take advantage of the system at the moment?

Luke Cooper: I just want to read out a quote from Lester Thurow who was writing at the end of the 1990s in a book called The Future of Capitalism. He is certainly not a Marxist scholar, but I think he speaks very powerfully to some of circumstances that Marxists confront in the post-2008 world. He asks, “what does a society do when its problems start emerging, like falling wages in the United States, yet nobody has any idea about the alternative to the status quo. Suppose you didn’t believe in capitalism, well what do you believe in? The answer is you wouldn’t have anything to believe in anymore. And that means the dominant system, capitalism, loses the ability to reform itself because if you look at the reforms made to capitalism over the last 140 years, things like pensions, healthcare, unemployment insurance, they were all done under the pressure of socialists who said if you don’t do this we are going to take over, where there is no one about to take over anymore.”

So if we look at the response of global elites to the financial crisis since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, we can see very visibly how this prophecy made at the end of the 1990s has been realized. Today capitalism lacks an other in the sense of an opposition that it could define itself in relation to, and which could in turn by appearing to actually threaten the existence of the system compel ruling elites to reform. I think why this argument resonates with us is because it poses the question of what happens to capitalism when it is left to its own devices, when it has achieved such a degree of cultural hegemony that there is no mass anti-capitalist challenge any more.

Now I think what we found interesting about Mark Fisher’s argument around capitalist realism is that it captures the nature of this seemingly post-utopian conjuncture, which then I think for us immediately informs the challenges for the radical left. Because the challenge for the radical left is to overcome the condition of capitalist realism, to actually present, and create a fear again that socialists are about to take over. So we talk in the book about the importance of a new left, but I think it’s worth, in that context, identifying some of the problems with that term in itself. We’ve seen many times where activists and intellectuals in the radical movement in the post-war era have invoked the need for a new left. The term was used after the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 by the intellectuals and activists who were breaking with Stalinism at the time. It was obviously used again in the radicalization of 1968 and became very identified with the rise of feminists and black liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s. It was also used by Eurocommunists in the late 1970s through to the 1980s, and perhaps most troubling of all from a Marxist perspective is that it was used by Tony Blair in his notion of New Labour in the 1990s. Keeping that in mind, we have to recognize that the idiom of a New Left does not necessarily have any political content. It is a question of form, so it needs to be given concretely a political content at the level of strategy. But the reason nonetheless why the question of a new left will always recur or develop is because we obviously as Marxists recognize that we live in conditions that are continually changing and transfomring, and that these transformations in captialist society inevitably destabilize existing political organizations and hierarchies, and they pose new challenges around how to go forward.

There were two parts of Mark Fisher’s argument about capitalist realism that I think are really important. Firstly, he locates the capitalist realism as something that was fought for and won in the workplace, and this affects how the working class is able to in a practical way relate to radical politics. In the 1980s you could relate to radical revolutionary politics at the level of the workplace in a way that is much harder to do now. And that’s crucial to think about, because for most people’s political activity the workplace is their starting point… If you’re talking about the emergence of a mass anti-capitalist politics it has to be ultimately rooted in the workplace for large numbers of people.

Secondly, he sees the role of New Labour as fundamental to the consolidation of capitalist realism. This is hugely impotant, because if you think about how Thatcher ideologically articulated her politics, it was always done in terms of the enemy within. So it recognized that class politics was an essential cleavage in society. You had to smash and defeat the working class in order to go forward. Now what Labour and Tony Blair did quite successfully, we have to admit, is that they promoted the idea that class was no longer an operative relationship in society, the class cleavage should be therefore abandoned, and indeed it was in workers’ interests to support and promote the neoliberal paradigm. Although neoliberalism has been pretty generalized across Western Europe, that arguably does make the idea that it was in workers’ interests to support the neoliberal project perhaps a specific feature of Blair and Blairism. People like Gerhard Schröder, for example, always invoked the notion of class compromise in advancing their neoliberal arguments. So, these all create new conditions and challenges for the left. We need to be naturally careful of the idea of false novelty, that these new changes and conditions render all previous experiences and revolutionary traditions somehow obsolete by the new world in which we live in. Nonetheless I think’s it is our feeling that there is a central theoretical lacuna on the radical left. It’s our inability to capture and understand the extent of the transformations in working class culture that we’ve seen since the 1970s, and address politically how that should affect our preconceived notions of revolutionary political organization. So I want to outline three of those.

Firstly, the idea of networked individualism. I agree that in the hands of Paul Mason and other writers in the anticapitalist movement this can be used as a reified concept that particularly doesn’t take into account the central role of class hierarchies in the consolidation and development of capitalism. But nonetheless I still think that the radical extension of the cultural idea of individualism and individuality has been a hugely important and continuous development that we’ve seen over the last thirty years or so. Now i think this really shows the need for Marxists to grapple with a Marxist account of individual freedom that relates directly to the political organizations that we seek to build. This isn’t the first time that we’ve been faced with that question. There is a rich tradition of Marxist theoretical writing that stretches back to Marx himself on how the individual can realize their freedom through autonomous yet collective activity with other people. But we need to think very carefully about how that premise of historical materialism relates concretely to the revolutionary organizations that we seek to build.

Secondly, I think we need to try to get our heads around the dialectic of progress that we have seen over the last three decades, because we think that sometimes there is a tendency to just automatically assume that everything we’ve seen in the neoliberal epoch is ipso facto bad. We need to really think about how the changes in capitalism that we’ve seen in that time, and the consolidation of post-Fordism in the West in particular, but not exclusively, actually create changed conditions that we we need to response to and new opportunities as well as challenges. It’s easiest to list a few of those out: the growth in working class organizations, the extension of democratic rights and freedoms globally, and perhaps its controversial to say, but you could add the destruction of the Soviet Union and the improved position of women and ethnic minorities in Western society. We need to think about the processes that led to those occurrences and how they’ve shifted our culture and understanding of individualism.

How does that relate to the organizations we are trying to build? All of these things of course have been bound up with a strengthening in the ubiquity of American liberalism as a political, economic, and cultural system, and I think this really underlines a comment that Marx once made about the nature of human freedom itself. He argued that “freedom is so much the essence of man that even its opponents realize it. No man fights freedom, he fights at most the freedom of others. Every level of freedom has therefore always existed only at one time as a special privilege, and other times as a universal aspiration.” I think if you look at how the idea of freedom has been generalized across, say, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements, and individualism and autonomy, we see the truth in what Marx was saying, the way in which freedom and democracy can be appropriated. So I think the political conclusion from that has to be the idea that the left needs a positive analysis and set of claims that reclaim that terrain of modernity.

Finally, and I haven’t got much time to go into it, we think there needs to be a new common sense amongst Marxists that plurality, political plurality, and social plurality are facts of human life. So if you want to build effective radical political organizations, then they have to have at their starting point a recognition of social and political plurality. And I think there are very positive things that we can point to politically in terms of formations that have addressed this questions, that have recognized plurality in Europe over the last ten years. SYRIZA would be one such organization, the New Anticapitalist Left in France would be another. That doesn’t mean that they are perfect ideal types to be copied and rendered everywhere regardless of political context or regardless of political criticisms that they might have, but they do represent attempts to build a more pluralistic left, and in that sense they have an inherently positive quality.

  • Arthur

    Much too “academic”. Starting point should be sharp rejection of the pseudo-left as profoundly reactionary, including anti-democratic.

    Re Soviet Union. When there was a left people who sympathised with the Eastern European police states were universally despised and regard as enemies posing as leftists. “Social-mperialists” and “tankies” were common epithets. Trots and anarchists had confusing analysis as “Stalinist” but nevertheless were not apologists for the Brezhnev regime. When it collapsed anyone even mildly progressive was glad to see it go.

    Naturally anti-communists emphasized that collapse of the Soviet Union was a defeat for the left. But the “left” that ended up seeing it the same way simply had nothing whatever in common with any genuine left.

    Its hardly surprising that these forces have continued getting weaker.

    Nor is it suprising that initial attempts to build something different have suffered from the anarchistic problems of Occupy.

    More difficult to explain is the lack of popular mobilization concerning economic crisis. The pseudo-left cannot be blamed for this as they have no mass influence anyway. Unfortunately the article does not shed any light on this.

    This remark of Luke’s seems relevant:

    “…we need to try to get our heads around the dialectic of progress that we have seen over the last three decades, because we think that sometimes there is a tendency to just automatically assume that everything we’ve seen in the neoliberal epoch is ipso facto bad. We need to really think about how the changes in capitalism that we’ve seen in that time, and the consolidation of post-Fordism in the West in particular, but not exclusively, actually create changed conditions that we we need to response to and new opportunities as well as challenges. It’s easiest to list a few of those out: the growth in working class organizations, the extension of democratic rights and freedoms globally, and perhaps its controversial to say, but you could add the destruction of the Soviet Union and the improved position of women and ethnic minorities in Western society. We need to think about the processes that led to those occurrences and how they’ve shifted our culture and understanding of individualism. ”

    I get the impression of “trying to get our heads around” the glaring reality that the pseudo-left is a consistntly reactionary trend openly hostile to even the slow pace of progressive change in modern capitalist society. This is followed by an appeal for “pluralism” so as to give some space for less reactionary ideas. What’s so difficult about simply treating the pseudos as enemies?

    • Brian S.

      The problem, of course, Arthur is that every minigroup sees themselves as the sole “keepers of the true flame” while everyone else are apostates (or “pseudos” as some like to sytle them). Applying your algebraic formula, we then get a left in which everyone treats everyone else as enemies. Emotionally reassuring perhaps, but a recipe for eternal irrelevance.

    • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp

      “More difficult to explain is the lack of popular mobilization concerning economic crisis.”

      This varies a lot from country to country. Greece, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy I think are at the forefront in Europe since 2008; all of them have mass worker organizations on both the economic and political field, “pseudo” and otherwise, as well as militant traditions. Iceland’s mass mobilizations (comparatively mild compared to Greece’s) helped pressure the government not to bailout insolvent banks unlike just about everywhere else.

      In the U.S., we are far, far behind on all fronts. The last militant strikes by workers were almost half a century ago, the unions have all but ceased to exist, and the socialist left… I won’t even use the proper epithets to describe.

      What all this has to do with “capitalist realism” is kind of beyond me. I believe there is a tendency to over-think and over-complicate the fact that one side has been handing us our asses in the class war for a long time.

      • Arthur

        Brian, the pseudos know very well who their enemies are. The “keepers of the true flame” are irrelevant. What does matter is that the masses or “general public” cannot be attracted to anyhing left when outright reactionaries are presented as leftists. There was only a small hard left the in the sixties, but it was real and it could not have existed if it did not regard the sort of stuff presneted as “left” these days as enemy politics.

        Pham Binh, I agree the situation is significantly different in different countres. In Australia we’re still at the tail end of a boom so the lack of oppositional mobilization is less surprising than in the US.

        Despite trying to follow the reports (eg here) I can’t claim to have any “feel” for what’s going on in Europe. But although there seems to be more happening than in the US or Australia it still seems to be so much less than what one might expect as to require reflection and explanation.

        “Academic” over-complication won’t help but given just how little understanding we have of what’s going on it would be difficul to “over-think”

        • Brian S.

          @Arthur: “There was only a small hard left in the 60s” and – there’s an even smaller hard left today (having recently spent an couple of desultory hours with 50 bedraggled comrade attempting to display solidarity with the European general strikes, I am acutely aware of that fact) . You can be as “hard” as you like but with that kind of trajectory no sane member of the “masses” is going to see you as in any degree “real”.

          • Arthur

            Brian. There is no “trajectory” connecting the small but “real” left that actually did exist in the 1960s and was seen by sane people as “real” with what you have to agree no sane person could regard as “real” today.

            Confusion on this point could result from not having had the opportunity to be in it when it was “real”. Sane people did not (and should not) spend desultory hours with bedraggled “comrades” in attempts to “display solidarity”. The various trot groups who engaged in such pathological behaviour were relatively insignificant. Their “trajectory” went from having no connection with the real movement to continuing to have no relevance without much impact from there not being a real movement to not have a connection to.

            The trajectory for what was real is simply that the mass base for it had its demands me by the accommodations made in the retreat from waging imperialist wars like Vietnam and the generational/cultural shift post 1960s.

            For activists in more “real” organizations, not having a real movement to connect to mattered rather more since they were not the sort of people willing to engage in pathological behaviour. (Some were, and mistook the withdrawal of the overwhelming majority of activists as “apathy” or “backwardness” compared with their own willingness to participate in pointless wastes of time, but even among those, very very few ended up in the current pseudo-left – the overwhelming majority of people who were politically active in the sixties have no interest in the pseudo-left whatsoever).

            I remain puzzled as to why there has not been another wave of rebellion like the 1960s since, but it is no surprise that the previous movements could not continue without new issues that were real to a mass base.

            • Brian S.

              @Arthur. I don’t know what heroic acts your bit of the left was engaged in during the 60s, but mine (at least in the countries I was living in) was mostly standing around in bedraggled groups showing solidarity WITH someone or other (Vietnamese NLF, Irish Republicans, miners,etc.) or showing solidarity AGAINST someone or other (racists fascists, neocons) . The difference was that in those days there were a lot more of us (both in my particular grouplets and in the left as a whole). As a result we (or us and those we were solidarising with) managed to bring down two reactionary governments in the course of standing around. Not much chance of that today.
              “The various trot groups who engaged in such pathological behaviour were relatively insignificant.” Well, words like “relatively” are always a licence to spout nonsense but I wouldn’t consider the American antiwar movement, May/June ’68 in France, and the “No platform for fascists” movement (and the later anti-poll tax movement) in Britain as “insignificant”.
              Your question about why no similar wave of rebellion like the 1960s has taken place since is an interesting one. First, I don’t think that that the starting premise is right: there has been a wave in some quarters – Occupy and its cousins like the Indignados; the anti-Iraq war movement (which generated larger demonstrations in the UK – and possibly elsewhere in Europe – than the anti-Vietnam war movement); the anti-globalisation movement (more global, multi-dimensional and synchronised than the 60s). The environmental movement and a host social movements. of These are different from 60s but not I think quantitatively or qualitatively less significant in aggregate.
              But there are two significant differences that represent relative weakness: one is the absence of the organised (or semi-organised) labour movement (and here I think we need to look in part at the way in which social structures have changed in the last 4 decades+); and the other is the fact that these social upsurges have coincided with the continuing decline of the far left. And for that I think you need to looks at the issues currently being discussed in posts here (organisational fragmentation, chronic sectarianism, outdated theorising) plus perhaps others we haven’t identified yet.

              • Arthur

                I have the impression the movement around Vietnam was less “real” in Britain than in the US and Australia because Britain was not directly involved in the war. Trots participated, but were not a major force in the Vietnam movements in either the US or Australia. They were comparable in strength or weakness to their current position but completely dwarfed by varous tendencies claiming to be Maoists on the “hard left” and by revisionists (Communist Party and allies) on the “soft left”. My understanding is that “Maoists” in Britain were of no significance and rather like Trots and Trots were much more prominent (in a movement with much less impact).

                The anti-globalization movement was overtly reactionary and helped consolidate the pseudo-leftism. Leftists are internationalists, not anti-globalists!

                The environmental movement was likewise overtly reactionary and highlighted the disappearance of the left from the scene.

                Occupy has been a welcome development potentially opening some space for less stultified thinking. Perhaps a harbinger of spring but in nowhere near comparable and still needing to overcome the damage done by environmentalism, anti-globalism etc as well as the natural anarchist tendencies in such initial stirrings.

                The Iraq demonstrations started out twice as big as the biggest Vietnam demonstrations but collapsed IMMEDIATELY because the organizers knew nothing about either Iraq or the US policy and the war turned out to be nothing like what the (mainly conservative) demonstrators feared. There was no subsequent “movement” AT ALL.

                When you mention “bringing down two reactionary governments” I can only assume you are referring to routine parliamentary elections.

                The term “mostly standing around in bedraggled groups” is quite vivid and has a ring of truth to it. That is NOT what the sixties was like where it was real. Not your fault, but you missed out on something worth understanding.

                We are agreed on the need for further discussion of issues already raised here and others to understand absence of organised labor movement and far left, including “complicated” thinking.

              • Arthur

                PS “No Platform for Fascists” and the “Poll Tax” were 1990s rather than 1960s. If that was your experience then certainly there would have been a lot more of you then than now, but it would not give you any insight into the completely different situation in the sixties when there was a qualitatively different level of mass movement. The 1980s and 1990s continued a period of decline which began in the 1970s and continues today (but which WILL end).

                • Brian S.

                  @ Arthur: “No Platform” was in the 1970s (c.1974) and the poll tax from the late 80s ; “My experience” stems from the Selma (Alabama) solidarity marches of 1963 to, well, last week.
                  I’ll defer to you on matters Australian, of which I know little, but elsewhere you are pretty off key.
                  At its height the British Anti-Vietnam war movement mobilised two demonstrations of over 100, 000 (some place the October ’68 demo at 200,000). The organisation of those was almost entirely in the hand of “Trots” (indeed of one very small Trotskyist group); as was the (much smaller) movement in Canada. In the US the Trotskyists were among the main organising force of the mass anti-war movement (although their own forces were not that large – but nor was that of any other tendency). The pro-Soviet CPs played a very small role (if any). In France a very large anti-war movement was jointly coordinated by Trotskyist and Maoist groups.
                  I can see now why you think there has been no “wave” of revolt: you exclude anything that is not fully in agreement with your views . Both the anti-globalisation and anti-Iraq war movements had/ have a sharp anti-imperialist content. In the UK, the Iraq protests were preceded by the most extensive and sustained public discussion of a foreign policy issue since Neville Chamberlain arrived back from Munich. While the movement may not have continued the sense of betrayal over Blair’s Iraq policy remains a powerful influence on public attitudes towards the political elite up to the present.
                  Try taking off the blinkers, Arthur.

                  • Arthur

                    Re “No Platform” I misunderstood it as a reference to the 1990 NUS policy here:

                    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Platform

                    Anyway, if you were politically conscious at the time of the Selma Alabama marches in 1963 then you didn’t miss out on the sixties.

                    Despite my demonstrated ignorance of British political issues such as “No Platform” I still have the impression the British movement over Vietnam was significantly less “real” than in the US and Australia. The numbers mentioned are comparable to those in Australia, with a population many times larger. There are obvious reasons why the US movement was far more intense than in Australia given the relatively minor role played by Australia in a primarily US war of aggression (and in addition it followed and was related to the earlier civil rights movement). Since Britain was not directly involved at all, the movement was naturally weaker.

                    Nevertheless, the sixties had an impact throughout the Western world (not to mention the Chinese cultural revolution and events in Eastern Europe). I’m sure there was a level of mass involvement in Britain too, qualitatively different from anythin since and that your vivid expression “mostly standing around in bedraggled groups” is not a reasonable description of those rallies of 100,000 or so . Given that you were around then I find it surprising you don’t acknowledge the difference.

                    What were you describing as “mostly standing around in bedraggled groups” if not something qualitatively different from the sixties movements?

                    I believe you are correct that Trotskyists were as significant as Maoists in the French sixties and I already mentioned that Maoists were insignificant in Britain. Within Australia Trots were also more prominent in Sydney (where the movement was much weaker). Basically there is an inverse proportion between the significance of a mass movement and the role of Trots within it. They were quite minor in the US movement (see Peter Camejo’s article here for a remarkably clear expression of WHY there is such a strong negative correlation between mass movements and Trot sects).

                    If you think blinkers are required not to see the spectacular and instantaneous collapse of the Iraq war movement as similar to the successful Vietnam movement then you haven’t even begun to think about why it failed. I guess maintaining blinkers about that is an essential part of remaining convinced that your analysis was right. After all, since you know you were in the right, how could it possibly be the case that instead of building the initial protests about Iraq would simply fade away? Therefore it didn’t happen. Furthermore anyone who can’t see that it couldn’t have happened must be wearing blinkers!

      • Brian S.

        @Binh: “one side has been handing us our asses in the class war for a long time.” Perhaps, but that looks to me like a tautology = “we’re being defeated because the other side is winning” (or vice versa). That still leaves us with the task of explaining WHY. Why have labour movements like the US and British, which in their times (and in varying degrees) , been powerful, militant, and generative of important radical currents, and continental European labour movements which have been even more radical, if in an uneven way, been so ineffective in the run up to and unfolding of this massive capitalist crisis? Answering that requires a lot of “complicated” thinking, and Mark Fisher’s notion of “capitalist realism” ( “within a capitalist framework there is no space to conceive of alternative forms of social structures. … the 2008 financial crisis compounded this position; rather than seeking alternatives to the existing model we look for modifications within the system. The crash confirmed within the populace the necessity of capitalism rather than shake it loose from its foundations.”- Wikipedia gloss) – may provide least one relevant starting point for that theorising.

        • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp

          “Why have labour movements like the US and British, which in their times (and in varying degrees) , been powerful, militant, and generative of important radical currents, and continental European labour movements which have been even more radical, if in an uneven way, been so ineffective in the run up to and unfolding of this massive capitalist crisis?”

          I really can’t speak on Britain. In the U.S., here is my answer: the structural divorce of reds and the unions crippled both since the 1950s. This was masked on the union side by the post-WWII boom during which the capitalists resisted but usually capitulated to short, episodic, non-militant strikes and the occasional wildcat led by radicals in the 1960s. When the mid 1970s rolled around, the capitalists threw the post-WWII social contract out the window and three decades later, here we are. The radicals were unable to merge (or re-merge) with the workers’ movement in large part because of their “Leninist” practices, whether by the American Socialist Workers Party, the Revolutionary Communist Party, the International Socialists, or anyone else.

          It has been half a century at least since the U.S. has seen or experienced militant struggles by the working class in any real sense. The wildcats at the Post Office and in Detroit in the 1960s-1970s were exceptional to the overall trend towards class peace in the 1945-1973 era.

          • Joe Vaughan

            In fact, as Howard Zinn reminds us, the beatdown of the American Left has been under way for more like a century, with “progressives” like Teddy Roosevelt in the lead.

            After T. Roosevelt wound up on Mount Rushmore, cousin Franklin and Ronald Reagan were added in a spiritual sense to that array. As that Reagan-lover Obama never fails to testify, the myth of American greatness requires that we venerate both. To do less would be to abandon “progress” and “the American dream.”

            Meanwhile, raid after raid, and the best propaganda money can buy, have driven the once-thriving left to the margins of the social margin.

            It has taken two world wars, numerous small imperialist predations, and repeated waves of Red raids, HUACs, and McCarthy terrorism to land us in this predicament, as well as the self-destruction of Stalinism. And still thinking people are driven to the left by the contradictions of advanced capitalism.

            Speak up for “socialism” in the average American workplace, and see how quickly you wind up on the street or in a dumpster.

            If the left is dead, what is it that that people are so afraid of?

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  • Brian S.

    A useful opening of a very necessary discussion. I must confess that Mark Fisher’s essay caught my eye some time ago and is sitting on my bookshelf – but as yet unread. I will reprioritise it and may return to this discussion once I have taken it in, and certainly once I have had an opportunity to assimilate Simon and Luke’s book.
    In the meantime, some preliminary comments:
    I identify with many of the points made in this post (importance of collapse of Soviet Union; Marcuse’s insights; need to revisit libertarian / social democratic legacies) .But I also think it is necessary to return to and reevaluate the foundational concepts of the Marxist framework and its derivatives. The post refers to the need to “understand the extent of the transformations in working class culture that we’ve seen since the 1970s”. I would suggest that first we need to understand the transformations in working class STRUCTURE in that period., and their significance.
    A key opening question: to what extent was the “proletariat” of Marx (the “class with radical chains”) an “overdetermined” category – ie to what extent was its claimed historical role a product of its location at the universal contradiction of capitalism (the extraction of surplus value) and to what extent the product of historically more limited sociological factors (the large factory; the assembly line; the company town; Fordism). If we take the latter out of the equation (as post-Fordism does in the West) what exactly are we left with, how does its social dynamic work, and what are its political implications.? Is it time to revisit the Mallet-Gorz “new working class” or do we need to travel into new territories?
    I look forward to the discussion.

  • Andrew S

    I’ll keep it short and say I think this is great. Very intelligent analysis with insights that are willing to adapt without losing a Marxist core. Look forward to more.

  • Arthur

    Its important to understand that unemployment and Depression demobilize workers rather than mobilizing them.

    Mass mobilization is much easier when you can win!

    In order to be able to mobilize in conditions of economic crisis there has to be clear prospects for overcoming the crisis through that mobilization.

    It would be absurd to claim that anything any left groups are currently proposing, however well intentioned, could be taken seriously as offering such prospects.

    It really is way past time to study how capitalism works and how to move beyond it. While the ruling class remain the only people with proposals on how to run things, they will have to continue running things. Vague aspirations and good wishes are not a serious alternative that anyone out of work could put their energy into instead of looking harder for work.

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