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.