Beyond Capitalism by Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper is an ambitious attempt to contextualize the crisis of the international left, a left that has proved unable to stop austerity. Following Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism, Hardy and Cooper lay heavy emphasis on socialism no longer being viewed as a credible alternative. They argue that Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” mantra has infected the outlook of Britain’s Labour Party and union leaders to such an extent that these forces continually capitulate to neoliberalism rather than act as bulwarks of resistance. Meanwhile, the left that rejects capitalist realism — the notion that capitalism is the only realistic or possible social system — is dominated by competing sects, from the thousands-strong but now disintegrating Socialist Workers Party to the dozens-strong Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), none of whom can mobilize the necessary forces to get around the Labour Party and the union leaders.
This conundrum forms the backdrop for the formation in 2012 of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative (ACI), of which Hardy and Cooper are leading members. They helped launch ACI after leaving the Trotskyist League for a Fifth International’s British section, Workers Power, which participated in ACI but got going once the going got tough.
Beyond Capitalism covers so much topical ground that it is difficult to write an adequate book review. For example, Hardy and Cooper make passing remarks about consumer culture in the West in several areas of the book without fully developing or exploring the political implications of their remarks, making a summation of their views almost impossible. Their discussion of the Labour Party’s long-term shift rightwards is similarly underdeveloped. They speak of a “far reaching transformation that has taken place in the heart of the Labour Party” (51) but then point to financial figures indicating that “the Labour Party as a whole has become highly dependent on the unions” (52). The reader is left to guess what this “far reaching transformation” consists of, whether this means that it is impossible for the party to move back to the left, whether yet another left-of-Labour party needs to be built, or whether Labour even remains a workers’ party in the authors’ view.
In the chapter “Working class; old and new,” Hardy and Cooper discuss the rise of what is popularly known as the precariat, a proletariat stripped of its economic security by temp agencies, freelancing, outsourcing, contract work, and home work. These practices undermine unions at the grassroots level by replacing the solidarity engendered by daily struggles with management and mutual, collective exploitation on the job with the struggle of individual workers against one another for hours and pay. With the rank and file of unions crippled, the relative weight of conservative, highly paid union bureaucracies increased. These bureaucracies proved unwilling to venture down the risky and dangerous path of militant (illegal) struggle to defend the status quo, instead preferring the path of quiet, slow destruction despite the occasional token strike or demonstration. As a result, unions have been all but wiped out in Britain’s private sector.
Hardy and Cooper’s remedy for this dismal state of affairs is a militant rank and file movement. How such a movement could begin to develop given the changed terms and methods of exploitation that the authors claim have created a “new” atomized, individualized working class is a question they do not explore. How can the precariat fight temp agencies and contract work? Is such resistance even possibile? Instead of confronting the questions that logically arise based on their own analysis, the authors fall back on generalities and truisms about rank-and-file worker activism.
The other problem with this chapter is the complete absence of any empirical analysis regarding shifts in employment. It is commonly believed that employment in the retail, health care, and education sectors as a proportion of the labor force has increased over the past four decades in the West and declined in heavy industry, mining, and industrial mass production — is this the case? If so, what does it mean for union organizing and workplace struggle? How has the global division of labor changed during the neoliberal era? No historical discussion of class structure is complete without examining how the changes in the relations of production, distribution, sale, and consumption are related to changes in the forces of production, distribution, sale, and consumption.
The bulk of Beyond Capitalism is focused on two interrelated crises, that of the capitalist social order and that of the left. Oddly, Hardy and Cooper contend that “the decline of left wing politics” is “a problem for capitalism” (1). They quote Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci at length to describe this dilemma:
In every country the process is different, although the content is the same. And the content is the crisis of the ruling class’s hegemony, which occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example), or because huge masses … have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity, and put forward demands which taken together, albeit not organically formulated, add up to a revolution. A ‘crisis of authority’ is spoken of: this is precisely the crisis of hegemony, or ‘general crisis of the state’. It consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. (16)
To claim that there is a crisis of ruling class hegemony or authority in the current political moment is mistaken. Like much or perhaps most of the Marxist left since 2008, Hardy and Cooper talk about the crisis of world capitalism as if 2008 never ended, as if the trillion-dollar bailouts did not stabilize the system, as if capital did not force labor to bear the cost of saving insolvent institutions from bankruptcy, as if uncompetitive units of capital were not wiped out and restructured.
In Gramsci’s terms, ruling classes the world over did not fail “in some major political undertaking”; they succeeded. As a result, tenuous profits and tepid growth have returned. Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal are the exceptions to this rule. While these nations are in the midst of being forcibly restructured and will likely play a calamitous role in the next slump, the demands of protesters in Athens, Dublin, Milan, and Lisbon “taken together” do not “add up to revolution.”
Although the 2008 crisis cracked capitalism’s consensus ideologically, nowhere was or is capitalist rule (hegemony) in danger. The “decades of austerity” that the authors tell us “will be the norm in a number of Western countries” (2) are not signs of the capitalist system’s weakness and fragility but of its strength. The 1% are riding high and robbing the old, the sick, the pensioners, and what remains of the unions not because they must but because they can. “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” as Thucydides put it.
This is not to say that austerity and neoliberalism are arbitrary policy choices driven by personal greed or vindictiveness. But to view both as life-or-death matters for capitalist rule is to repeat Trotsky’s catastrophist mistake of declaring the “death agony of capitalism” in 1938. Within a decade of Trotsky’s obituary, capitalism expanded in an unprecedented way, and workers in the West were able to win (or were granted) reforms previously thought to be beyond the system’s capacity such as Britain’s National Health System.
If there is only one lesson Marxists should learn from the experience of the 20th century, it is to never underestimate the enemy’s ability to adapt, to reform, to concede this or that battle for the sake of winning the war.
While Hardy and Cooper’s catastrophism is mild and subtle where Trotsky’s was ridiculous and obtuse, overestimating the severity of the 2008 crisis (a phase that is now behind us) means underestimating capitalism’s resilience and denying the possibility of significant reformist advances. The latter error leads them to dismiss the government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela as “left populism” that “merely superficially obstruct[ed]” capitalism, one of many “false dawns” for the socialist movement (129). This characterization is misleading. The changes wrought by Chavismo were not “superficial”:
- The extreme poverty rate fell from 23.4% in 1999 to 8.5% in 2011 while unemployment was cut in half.
- Democratic reforms such as the Bolivarian Constitution enshrined rights for workers and the oppressed and subjected the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) to a democratic vote, creating a legal hurdle that proved insurmountable to FTAA.
- Chávez’s democratic and economic reforms intensified Venezuela’s class war, and the masses struck back against the elite’s coup attempts and lockouts to defend and extend these reforms, leading to a transformation in mass consciousness. First elected in 1998 with 3.7 million votes, Chávez’s vote doubled in 2006 to 7.3 million, and in 2012 reached 8.2 million; the respective eligible voter participation figures are 63.76%, 74.69%, and 80.52%, a staggering achievement in terms of mass participation in a revolutionary process.
Hardy and Cooper go on to claim that the Chávez government’s “distinctiveness simply lay in the fact that so few states globally still had the view that a degree of state planning is important to the healthy functioning of a market economy,” (129) as if Chavismo was an ideological aberration rather than part of a broader trend all over Latin America of center-left and left governments reversing the tendency towards greater and more draconian austerity measures. Consider the achievements of the Evo Morales government in Bolivia, elected as the Movement Towards Socialism candidate in 2005 on the back of successful mass mobilizations to nationalize the country’s gas resources:
Between 2005 and 2011, Bolivia’s poverty rate declined by 26% (from 61% to 45%). The extreme poverty rate fell even more, by 45%. An estimated 1 million people joined the ranks of the ‘middle class.’ The World Bank has officially recognized Bolivia as a lower-middle income country, a ranking that affords more favorable credit terms.
If this is “neoliberalism reconstituted” as socialist scholar Jeffrey Weber claims, we need more of it.
The experience of Latin America’s left governments shows that austerity can be systematically stopped only when left forces win elections and govern within the framework of the capitalist state, the key institution responsible for neoliberal policies. Daring to win against austerity necessitates confronting the enemy inside the enemy’s lair, the state. Refusing to govern in our interests means allowing them to continue governing in theirs.
The second pertinent point about Chavismo that poses a problem for Hardy and Cooper’s analysis concerns the ramifications of Chávez’s ideology. Although he spoke of “socialism for the 21st century,” he was not a Marxist nor a proponent of proletarian revolution:
I don’t believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don’t accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Reality is telling us that every day. Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don’t think so. But if I’m told that because of that reality you can’t do anything to help the poor, the people who have made this country rich through their labour – and never forget that some of it was slave labour – then I say: ‘We part company.’ I will never accept that there can be no redistribution of wealth in society. Our upper classes don’t even like paying taxes. That’s one reason they hate me. We said: ‘You must pay your taxes.’ I believe it’s better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing … That position often strikes me as very convenient, a good excuse … Try and make your revolution, go into combat, advance a little, even if it’s only a millimetre in the right direction, instead of dreaming about utopias.
In other words, Chávez qualifies as a capitalist realist from an orthodox Marxist standpoint. This is significant for Beyond Capitalism for the following reasons:
- It means that rejecting capitalist realism is not a necessary precondition for successfully resisting austerity.
- The failure of Labour Party and trade union leaders to resist cannot be attributed to their fealty to capitalist-realist ideology.
- Most importantly, while the reformist utopia of a kind, gentle, humane capitalism is obsolete for us as Marxists, a less brutal, less barbaric, and less inhumane capitalism is not obsolete for the tens of millions of fighters around the world who mourned Chávez’s passing. The growth of reformist consciousness on a mass scale in the West along the lines of Chavismo would be a welcome development, an undeniably positive and tremendous step forward from the “apathy and cynicism” that Hardy and Cooper acknowledge permeates mass consciousness today (18).
Despite deriding Chavismo as “left populism,” Beyond Capitalism is positively glowing about the “left populism” of Occupy. Perhaps this is because Hardy and Cooper felt and tasted Occupy’s revolutionary impulse for themselves when it reached Britain’s shores, while the Bolivarian revolution remained foreign to them due to geographic, linguistic, and cultural barriers. Whatever the case may be, their eagerness to learn from and incorporate the positive lessons of the Occupy experience into left practice is a breath of fresh air compared with the usual Marxist obsession with its failures and shortcomings. Harley Filben of CPGB berated the authors for assessing Occupy’s Global May Manifesto positively, writing:
Several pages are dedicated to discussing the ‘Global Mayday manifesto’, a document promoted by some Occupy activists, which the authors wish to take as some kind of model – or at least a serious starting point (pp. 98-101). In reality it is an end-point – a verbose headstone on Occupy’s grave, the latter movement having already devolved in the US into the array of liberal campaigning organisations that gave it birth, doing no doubt useful activism around issues such as house foreclosures.
Such crowing in hindsight is reminiscent of Menshevik wiseacres who seized on the Soviet government’s difficult position in the 1920s to justify their hostility to the October Revolution. That Occupy would be unable to outgrow its bureaucratic horizontal process after the evictions rendered that process unworkable was not something that could have been known in advance. No one embarks on a strike, struggle, occupation, or revolution knowing exactly which turns to make at what moment beforehand. Marxism is not Mapquest. Hardy and Cooper readily admit this throughout Beyond Capitalism, and the CPGB would do well to learn from them.
The Road Ahead
The last two chapters of Beyond Capitalism concern the way forward for the radical left. They begin discussing this topic by surveying the fire last time — the wave of protests against global capital beginning with the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Curiously, they argue that “the depth of the radicalisation we witnessed in the early 2000s actually went far beyond anything that we have seen since Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008” (137). This assertion is untenable given that the post-Lehman radicalization has led to over 20 general strikes in Greece, set the stage for the Arab Spring, and spawned Occupy which propelled “capitalism” and “socialism” to the top of Merriam-Webster’s most looked-up definitions in 2012. Surely this last fact is relevant to an analysis that depends so heavily on the concept of capitalist realism.
From there, the authors turn to the experience of new left parties — Rifondazione Communista in Italy, Die Linke in Germany, Left Bloc in Portugal, P-SOL in Brazil, SYRIZA in Greece, and NPA and Left Front in France — and warn that “attempts to suspend the strategic divergence between reform and revolution indefinitely are ultimately ill-fated” (142). They argue further that such attempts are not only ill-fated in the long-run struggle between capitalism and socialism but in the short-run struggle over “how we choose to resist capitalism,” which “can drive a sharp wedge between reformists and revolutionaries, one which threatens the unity of a unitary party” (142).
The myth that reformists and revolutionaries cannot be in the same party is the political cornerstone on which “Leninist” sects are built. The authors broke from and explicitly reject the “Leninist” model throughout Beyond Capitalism, but apparently they still accept many of its premises.
How revolutionaries should deal with reformism is a topic that needs fresh thinking given that Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution was not a hands-on organizing guide but an ideological polemic against Eduard Bernstein’s heresy that the workers movement had no need for the socialist movement. The notion that reform or revolution is an operative either-or principle in most situations is wrong. Such a dichotomy rules out the possibility of a militant, combative reformism, a reformism that seeks a compromise with capital and the state but on terms that capital and the state will violently resist, a reformism that will not shrink from forcing the enemy into making such detrimental compromises.
This blind spot makes it difficult for Hardy and Cooper to assess SYRIZA properly. They claim SYRIZA’s leadership “ultimately stands for austerity-lite politics,” (150) but then a few lines later they criticize ANTARSYA for refusing to join its ranks, arguing that SYRIZA is “promoting an end to austerity” (152). So revolutionaries should join, promote, and support a “very far from … normal reformist party” (152) since it includes revolutionary grouplets despite its “austerity-lite politics” (150) and the fact that SYRIZA “will attempt to negotiate new compromises — a new social contract — in conditions where capitalism cannot afford such a settlement” (104)? From ANTARSYA’s point of view, the inclusion of revolutionary elements in SYRIZA would appear to be a classic case of reformists co-opting the revolutionary left, thereby validating Hardy and Cooper’s earlier warning that attempts to unify the two trends into a single party at this juncture are “ill-fated.”
Hardy and Cooper are on much firmer ground when they contend that new left parties should avoid a primarily or exclusively electoral focus (144) and instead have one foot in the electoral arena and one foot in the streets. SYRIZA is just such a party, a fact they laud:
Upon their electoral breakthrough in May 2012, SYRIZA called for local assemblies and the base of the party expanded outwards into vast outdoor local meetings, so the impact of the election was to inspire mobilization that, if it was consciously extended could, in principle, lay the basis for a profound transformation towards direct democracy. (151)
Unfortunately, Hardy and Cooper do not dwell on SYRIZA’s inner- and extra-parliamentary character even though such positive examples are hard to come by. SYRIZA arose organically out of years of cooperation between its Trotskyist, Maoist, and eurocommunist components in the anti-globalization, anti-Iraq war, and Social Forum movements of the early 2000s. The activism of its rank and file during the student movement in 2006-07 earned it its first major electoral success on the eve of the 2008-09 economic crisis that paved the way for its breakthrough into mainstream politics.
If SYRIZA gains a majority and forms a government, will it betray its supporters as Hardy and Cooper predict (104)? Must it begin creating organs of “direct democracy” almost immediately upon assuming office, as they claim (103), to avoid selling out? Time will tell. The leadership’s refusal to water down SYRIZA’s anti-austerity stance for the sake of forming a unity government with pro-austerity parties in 2012 is a strong indication that it will try to implement its program upon taking office as Chávez did rather than capitulate as Hollande did immediately after the French election. Left governments in Venezuela and Bolivia have shown that people power working in tandem with capitalist state power (and the democratic legitimacy and legal authority that comes with it) can defeat the 1%’s coups, lockouts, and sabotage. There is no reason to assume that the same combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forces in Greece will be any less potent against the inevitable resistance of the banksters, big business, and big powers, especially when Europe’s workers and students are already in motion on a scale not seen in decades. SYRIZA assuming office and beginning to roll back austerity would inaugrate a new stage in the Greek and European class struggle, a more complicated, difficult stage fraught with peril but a stage that promises to be deeper, broader, and more intense as well.
Minimum, Maximum, and Transitional Programs
The last problematic element running throughout Beyond Capitalism is the notion of transitional demands/program as opposed to minimum demands/program. At different points in his life, Trotsky held that the distinction between social democracy’s minimum and maximum programs, between a radically reformed capitalism and a global classless society, was either obsolete or an impediment to revolutionary change. In 1938, he expanded on this notion and claimed that “transitional demands” could form a bridge between battles for higher wages and ending wage-slavery, that is, between reformist and revolutionary struggles. Capitalism’s inability to satisfy these transitional demands would cause the working class to wage a revolutionary fight to overthrow capitalist state power and establish socialism as a mean of obtaining said demands.
Following Trotsky, Hardy and Cooper eschew minimum demands because their supposedly reformist, un-radical content fails to address Rosa Luxemburg’s famous dilemma “betwixt and between” “the day-to-day struggle” and “the social revolution.” They write:
[W]e need to find a means through which to build social strength and power over time – the “war of position” – and simultaneously through our own “offensive” actions against the seemingly perpetual insurrection against working-class living standards. In the communist movement of the 1920s and later amongst the Trotskyists of the 1930s, the tactical-strategic answer was conceived along the lines of “transitional demands.” These were policies that when taken up by large sections of the working class brought them into conflict with capital, for they challenged its monopoly over the running of the “economic sphere,” with demands for workers’ control in industry and the abolition of business secrecy. In the absence of the labour movement establishing a new type of state that could render these gains permanent by generalizing democratic control of the economy across society, then such demands were temporally circumscribed because ruling capitalist elites would not tolerate this interference over their informal monopoly over all aspects of economic life for any length of time. But they would open up an antagonism between labour and capital through which the true nature of the system might be exposed, laying the way open for social revolutionary change. (154-155)
The demands advanced by a struggle or political force do not determine its reformist or revolutionary character. Karl Marx co-authored a program for the French Workers’ Party calling for a six-day week instead of a five-day week; this did not make him a reformist. Demands are always contextually specific; who is raising what demand and why? Who is opposing this demand with that one? Who stands to gain or lose from implementing said demands? Do these demands enjoy broad and growing support, or do they fail to resonate and lead to a struggle’s isolation and defeat? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. Demands have no power independent of the people and organizations raising them and cannot transform a reformist struggle into a revolutionary one or constitute a bridge between a reform struggle and a revolutionary struggle because revolutions depend on the consciousness, organization, and militancy of living people, on how far they are willing to go, on how many millions have been stirred to stand up and fight, and last but not least, on what price they are willing to pay to win what they want. The masses are the “bridge,” not the demands.
The failure of transitional demands to ever gain a hearing, become popular, or be “taken up by large sections of the working class” (155) since Trotsky invented them in 1938 speaks to the fact that socialism cannot be achieved by manipulating or tricking the masses into launching a fight they are not ready for by getting them to adopt “special” demands supposedly beyond the bounds of capitalist social relations. Furthermore, revolutionaries should not push for demands in opposition movements in order to expose “the true nature of the system” (155). That would be the same stale propagandism that Hardy and Cooper warn against (122).
Conclusion: Marxism for the 21st Century
Although this book review has focused on areas of significant disagreement, broadly speaking Hardy and Cooper could not be more right that the left – and the far left in particular – needs an overhaul in order to become an effective force. It is hard to disagree with the central points of their chapter, “Drawing Conclusions”:
- The crisis of the left is still the crisis of the sect.
- The drive to new political formations … is a response to a reality that a sect-ridden left is a left that will inevitably fail.
- Strategy beyond the sects – an evolving process.
- A pluralistic Marxism is required.
- Practice-informed strategic thinking is required.
- Reclaim democracy as a left-wing idea.
- A credible extra-parliamentary politics.
- Build grassroots movements from below.
- Labor struggle is always a social struggle. (155-159)
Beyond Capitalism’s strong point is its rejection of the politically bankrupt and intellectually sterile sect model over its inability to practice pluralism, embrace progressive elements of prefigurationism, seamlessly integrate Occupy-style creativity, and boldly experiment with new ideas and methods. Hardy and Cooper’s forward-looking, anti-dogmatic, and reality-based approach in Beyond Capitalism is what Marxism for the 21st century needs if it hopes to thrive and not simply survive.