Where Next for the Left?

by Richard Seymour, International Socialist Network (U.K.) on June 12, 2013

First published by Lenin’s Tomb.

I. A few years ago, I think it was after Richard Barnbrook was elected to the GLA, we had an anti-BNP march through the centre of London. I remember meeting a grumpy blogger and journalist named Dave Osler, who remarked on how disappointing the turnout was. I said “yeah, I was hoping that for something like this we’d get 10,000 people out”. He raised his eyebrows and said, “funny you should say that, Louise and I were just saying that’s what it would be in Socialist Worker.” Get home. Log on, go to the Socialist Worker website, front page. 10,000.

So the first step that we need to take, the first skill we need to develop before we can go anywhere, is that capacity which George Orwell characterised as a “power of facing unpleasant facts”. Now, don’t lie to me – I know everyone in this room has at times felt the need to sell that really shit protest, that grim picket line, that by-the-numbers vigil, the demo that is about as populous as the Antarctic and every bit as lively, as a raucous and joyous moment of class defiance. Or, if you won’t admit to that, you’ll at least admit to having seen your protest reported in Socialist Worker and said to yourself, “fffffffffuck off!”

This tendency to talk up the prospects of a given moment comes from what seems to be a benign impulse, and perhaps even a savvy one. We recognise that the prospects before us depend in part on people’s subjective appraisal of the situation. If they are pessimistic, we wager, they’ll fall out of activism, and go and buy a lottery ticket – or, fuck it, a hundred lottery tickets, because if you’re gonna be a sucker… If you can keep their spirits up, remind them constantly of the resistance and struggle that is built into the system, that never goes away, that keeps open the possibility of new radicalism, then they’ll stick around and sell a paper or two. God help us if anyone actually sells a paper though. It’s a bit like the Jehovah Witnesses’ reaction when someone actually opens the door and lets them in – “fucking hell, really? No, there’s something not right about this. This situation is scaring me.”

The problems with this approach are manifold. First, a little exaggeration or embellishment has a tendency to slip into outright falsification. Second, this kind of easy, cheap realpolitik, this casual relationship to the truth, tends to be replicated in other ways – less palatable ways. Maybe one day you find out you’re the one being spun a line, for your own good. (Parenthetically, during the faction fight we often had recourse to the term ‘hacks’. It was understood you didn’t have to define this term – you’d know it when you saw it spraying spittle-lather all over you at point blank range. I think a pretty close definition is someone who knowingly, cynically, cooperates in being systematically lied to for their own good.) Third, the more you relentlessly accentuate the positive, the more you’re obliged to construct dogmas to rationalise the falsehoods and lend them some theoretical coherence. Finally, of course, it just stops being convincing for all the reasons I’ve mentioned. People stop listening. They may work with you, they may respect you personally, but they don’t consider your analysis reliable. In which case, every advantage you thought you’d obtained from consistently putting a smiley face on it has been lost; and a great many other things are lost as well.

II. What does facing unpleasant facts mean today? I think it means a few things. Obviously, the centrally unpleasant fact for many of us is that we have just left a party whose leadership systematically covered up and lied about rape allegations, and protected the accused from any serious investigation. Without wishing to reiterate what has already been said in earlier sessions — the question of rape apology and sexism on the Left — it seems obvious that there’s no iron wall between gender and other issues. And some the causes of failure in one area — dogma, sectarianism, hierarchical culture, all smothered in a chipper, ‘can do’ attitude — can easily contribute to failure in another. For those of us who left the SWP a few months ago, for example, we have hitherto completely lacked a conceptual schema by which to understand what’s happened to us, the Left, and the working class in the last thirty or forty years as a result of neoliberalism. I think Neil Davidson, who is still a member of the SWP, has been working to remedy that situation. But we have to be remedying it as well.

There was a moment when the sages of what became the SWP in 1977 spotted a trend that others on the Left were denying: the tide of solidarity was receding, and the right was gaining. After what had been an industry-led upturn driven, it seemed fitting to declare that over and announce a downturn. Manifestly, the schema of a ‘downturn’ turned out to be totally inadequate to capturing what would become the transformation of the class structure, the state, representative democracy, popular culture and subjectivities, by neoliberalism. A whole shift in capitalist civilization was taking place, against which various orthodoxies were set up only to crumble.

In our tradition, we have tended to treat neoliberalism as simply the spread of market forces and market values, predicated on extreme, atomic individualism – which actually concedes important terrain to the neoliberals. For example, the idea that there are such things as ‘market forces’, and not just various different types of markets embedded in various cultural and political forms; the idea that the values of neoliberalism can be derived in any simple way from some eternal ‘market’. It doesn’t work that way. Worse still is that our understanding of the downturn was always tempered by a tendency – I put it no more strongly than that – toward a catastrophist fundamentalism. No matter how bad things are for us, capitalism is always weak, in crisis, hurtling towards its final, self-consuming crisis. For that reason, we understood neither the originality nor the robustness of neoliberalism.

If you want to begin to understand what happened, you have to go back and read Stuart Hall. You have to read Policing the Crisis, and ‘The Great Moving Right Show’. Hall, whatever you think of his practical politics, grasped the breadth of the transformative project being undertaken by the neoliberals, the fact that it was a comprehensive attempt at constructing a new hegemony which operated as much on the level of culture, and ideology, and the techniques of governmentality, as on the level of industrial class struggles, and privatizations and so on.

But you know – and I don’t want to scandalise anyone here – you also have to read people working outside the Marxist idiom. People such as Foucault, who understood a number of things about neoliberalism that we never really did – something that is now being recognised by a number of radical writers. He read the neoliberals when few others did. And he understood that this was not identical with neoclassical economic dogma; nor was it a recapitulation of classical 18th Century liberalism; and nor was it ‘the market society’. He understood it as a comprehensive project for transforming society, right down to the micro-physics of self-hood. He wrote that neoliberals sought to install new techniques of ‘self-government’, that is disciplinary means, using incentive and punishment, of getting people to accept the idea of themselves as entrepreneurial agents, enjoying the thrill of risk.

We see this with the way in which welfare and the penal state is re-organised. It doesn’t necessarily reduce the costs of expenditure, but it does attempt to fundamentally change people’s behaviour — for example, if you have a small child, don’t just stay at home and look after her. Outsource the childcare to a minimum wage babysitter, and go out and bet on various opportunities on the market. Take a few jobs, buy some shares, reinvent yourself with new clothes and a new body, take a flutter in a casino – the revival of gambling under neoliberalism is not coincidental. If you’re not very good at this, then we have bureaucratic punishments, the casual sadism of everyday life, the pleasure of mocking and humiliating the wretched – the rise of the bear-baiting show, exemplified by Jeremy Kyle, is also not a coincidence.

Now people don’t change suddenly into Thatcherites; they don’t wholeheartedly swallow the neoliberal dogmas. But it gradually forms part of the fabric of their everyday experience: and the structure of incentives and punishments makes you a mug not to adopt certain neoliberal behaviours – turn your house into an asset, treat your body as a saleable commodity, refit your personality according to the needs of buyers on the labour market, and so on. (You see this increasingly with Facebook, where employer-friendly profiles show constantly exuberant, happy, sociable, well-connected people — fuck ’em.) It shapes culture not just in the sense of representation — films, literature, popular science, and so on — but in the Raymond Williams sense of ‘ordinary culture’, the anthropological sense, the way people live.

So when we look at polls that say that over 70% of people support welfare cuts, we know that this doesn’t mean they fully subscribe to the neoliberal project – its exoteric doctrines are too riddled with crudities and contradictions for that to be true. But we also know that they are profoundly affected by neoliberal governmentality, and the conception of themselves and everyone around them as entrepreneurial agents; and thus the conception of ‘the market’ as the almighty information processor and distributor of just rewards and punishments.

And we should see this as part of an ongoing, long-term project. If you think about the way student loans have been deployed, and the way the education system is being financialised, this is designed to impose a new kind of disciplinarity – even though the higher education system remains a state apparatus, it comes to be experienced not as a public good, but as a commodity that enhances your entrepreneurial self. And the more that is reinforced, the more it undermines — at an ideological level — the division between producers and consumers; the idea is that we’re all producers, and we’re all consumers. Some of us just happen to be more successful than others. Hence, the basis for ‘class consciousness’ is eroded.

Failing to understand the success of neoliberalism as a comprehensive political, economic and cultural project, and failing to understood its long-term hegemonic character, means we fail to understand the type of conjuncture we’re in, and the true balance of class and political forces. It means we’re always reactively adapting to trends, being wise after the fact, sometimes long after the fact. This is why we have been so ill-placed to respond to the financial meltdown and its various sequels, and did not anticipate or understand the reasons why neoliberalism would not merely survive the global recession but return with a vengeance. It’s why it was a shock to see so much passivity in the face of the recession and the cutbacks in employment — although, to be fair, even Mervyn King declared his surprise at that. It’s why it was surprising that so much of the austerity agenda was either embraced or faced with resigned acceptance. It’s why it made no sense when people seemed to accept the shift of blame from the system, from capitalism, to the poor: naturally, it was the bad entrepreneurs, the people who took risks and failed, that had caused the crisis. It’s why, when there are precious few signs of struggle, and what struggles do happen seem not to respect the patterns we are used to, we have no explanation. It’s why it was possible to talk of a ‘rank and file’ strategy in an era with no rank and file; as if the major radical struggles would take place among a militant cadre of public sector trade unionists in a traditional strike pattern, forgetting that the last great success for our class took the form of the poll tax riots. As if we could magic a rank and file into existence.

We need a fundamental reappraisal of the neoliberal era and its effects, and we need to be capable of responding by reconstructing from the micro-level up forms of solidarity and collectivism; forms of refuge from the savagery of everyday neoliberalism; and opportunities for collective action.

III. The next unpleasant fact that we have to face is the serious diminution of the left’s infrastructure over the decades. I don’t want to rehearse what we all already know – the decline of trade unions and their bureaucratisation, the decline of the Labour Left, the disappearance of several left-wing organisations and publications. And it’s not just the Left; there has been a general withering of popular voluntary associations, the decline of politics as such, and an increasing privatisation of social life. You know, we can talk about the rise of social movements, and I agree that has been an extremely important fact of the last forty years or so. But the striking thing about these movements is that they rarely leave much behind. They rise, there is a moment of euphoria, of expanded possibilities – and then the ruling class, the state, the police and so on, adapt, change tactics, find ways to shut it down, and there’s little to show for it. None of the successes are institutionalised, while the losses leave a psychic residue that warns people off.

Now if your aim is to be a small, mobile and adaptible group of theoretical and practical leaders, a sort of out-sourcing firm for left-wing protest movements which can take up the burden of theorising and organising a given movement – you know, “don’t you worry about blank, let us worry about blank” – then that’s not necessarily a problem. As long as you brand yourself well – and I must say that parties which talk about panache, flair and striking while the iron is hot, have done a better PR job than those which talk about ‘being an interventionist party’ – then you can corner the market each and every time. But that is, as I hope I’m making clear, a specifically neoliberal division of labour; and it’s a model we need to resist.

We need an infrastructure: which means we need to seek to create a convivial, democratic, organisation or ensemble of organisations with a genuinely mass base. I really mean ‘mass’ here. If we’re not trying to build mass organisations, then I’m afraid we’re wasting our time.

Why do we need that? Well, there are practicalities: we need something that can raise and handle money, because more and more of the things that make left-wing activism possible cost more and more money (like rooms in Universities, maybe) – that’s neoliberalism for you. But more than that, we need to overcome the privatization of social life, to provide a bedrock of collective activity against which neoliberal ideology and practices consistently break. I think we need forms of grassroots popular organisation, organised around the axes where people become politicised, whether it is education, housing, sexism, Islamophobia, council resources, or whatever it happens to be. We need Left Unity and the People’s Assemblies to be oriented toward this objective.

And we are so far from being where we need to be. There is a tendency for some to see the internet as providing a substitute infrastructure. And in a way, it does provide unprecedented opportunities. It breaks the ideological monopoly of the state-capitalist media. It reduces the costs of long-distance sharing of information. It certainly undermines hierarchies based on secrecy – something we have every reason to know about. But you know, I don’t know if you’re read Paul Mason’s book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere. My speech was going to be about Why It Isn’t Kicking Off Everywhere — then Turkey happened. Bastard. But in his book, he interestingly describes the sharing of information on the internet as ‘memetic’ – that is, analogous to the spread, reproduction and selection of genes in the biological world. The good ideas survive, the bad ones get winnowed out – purely through the format of individuals associating on an autonomous basis through the network. And he says that for many activists, this structure of networked individualism has provided a rough replacement for representative democracy.

Now there’s a problem here. The meme idea is more closely modelled on the metaphysical conception of the market that I mentioned earlier, than on any pattern of democracy. Nor does the selection of information in this pattern necessarily mean that good ideas win – because the internet, like every other technology, is articulated on existing hierarchies – economic, political and ideological class structures; and because this so-called ‘memetic’ structure, with its ‘trending topics’ and so on, favours short-term ‘buzz’, and the rapid and sometimes superficial assimilation of ideas, it lends itself to well-packaged, emotionally potent PR winning out, rather than good ideas. It’s not an infrastructure in and of itself, much less a parallel democracy; so we of course need to finally get to grips with the internet and its implications for practice, but we should not succumb to the consolatory notion that a technology will make up for all that we’ve lost.

IV. One last unpleasant fact. We have a tendency to talk about ‘resistance’ and a ‘rising tide of struggle’. Even where that’s not merely fanciful, by itself, that won’t save us either. The absences and short-comings I’ve mentioned above are long-term and structural, and have to be rebuilt over the long-term. You know, there’s a tendency for people, when faced with unpleasant facts, to say “can people stop being so pessimistic, look at Turkey” or “look at Greece”, or “look at Occupy”, or “look at Egypt”. Back in 1998, shortly after I first become a revolutionary socialist, I remember it was “look at Indonesia”. But these expressions of struggle and turbulence, magnificent and welcome as they are, are by no means adequate to the scale of the capitalist offensive; and by no means register in the balance of global political struggles in the way that decades of neoliberal success have. They are flashes of resistance in a long-term process of neoliberal transformation, where it is becoming particularly brutal and unjust – and thus far, the neoliberals, the austerians, whatever you want to call them, have not lost a single serious battle. Not one.

The lineaments of a neoliberal solution are very well advanced, the patterns of politics and representation that are emerging have started to congeal and take on a more settled form. We’ve lost so much time when the situation has been in flux. What we’re digging in for, in this context, is a long process of reconstruction and realignment — in which the flashes of resistance, wonderful as they are, provide opportunities to further that reconstruction, but aren’t themselves necessarily the beginning of a global reversal of fortunes that we need. To stress: we have to re-orient away from reactive politics, mobilising defensively in response to the latest offensive, with its concomitant theoretical vacuity and defensiveness; and toward patient, long-term work on every level. That’s how we will begin to rebuild.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Hoch June 12, 2013 at 6:32 pm

From those posts on his blog that I can understand (some of it is dense as f-), I’m pretty sure Seymour is one of the smartest folks on the Left today. And it seems like he’s moving in a less sectarian direction, less eager to rely on century old quotes from Russian revolutionaries to make his point, which is awesome. I think his recent bit about all of us being reformist in practical terms was pretty honest and brave. An example of facing unpleasant facts that he talks about here.

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Robert Gahtan June 12, 2013 at 8:13 pm

I think appropriate vaccination against what you describe, can be found in the following:
Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals, Randy Shaw’s The Activist’s Handbook, Marshall Ganz’s Why David Sometimes Wins, Lenin’s What is to be Done, Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, Aiden Ricketts’s The Activist’s Handbook, Prokosch and Laura Raymond’s, The Global Activist’s Manual. or the recently published: Playbook for progressives by Eric Mann

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Luke Elliott June 14, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Just FYI, Eric Mann’s organizing and writings are explicitly opposed to the ‘non-ideological’ organizing of Saul Alinsky.

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Mike June 13, 2013 at 1:30 am

Seymour’s comments are welcome and will resonate with many who are recovering former members of far left sect-cults (such as the British SWP).

The problem he touches on is this: you have a revolutionary organisation of, maybe, several hundred or thousand people. The perspective of the organisation is that mass radicalisation is a real short-term possibility (or even probability). However, the external world repeatedly refuses to behave as you expect.

So how do you recruit to and mobilise your organisation in such a context?

You construct a political fantasy world where small scale events (a strike, a march, a demo) are held to be indicative of an emerging (but conveniently unobservable) revolutionary process. This revolutionary potential can be unlocked by more activism, more paper sales, more recruitment, more committment to ‘The Party’.

Very soon your revolutionary organisation becomes incapable of engaging in a rounded and empirically-grounded manner with the external political world.

To preserve the group’s worldview certain ‘facts’ and ‘opinions’ are discounted and discouraged. Being a party member increasingly becomes a ritual of group-affirmation where being critical of key aspects of the group’s theories and practices is regarded as being inconsistent with membership and with Marxism itself.

Not only does this politically disable group members, it undermines the credibility and appeal of Marxist politics. To those outside the group being a Marxist appears to mean surrendering the ability to engage effectively with actually existing politics. Why on earth would anyone want to join or support an organisation such as that?

The alternative is to build groups and networks of cadres who are encouraged from day one to value dissent, evidence and patience. Part of this must involve the far left engaging in a deep self-criticism of their theories and practices in recent decades and why they have proven to be so ineffectual since the current global crisis began in 2008.

The formation of the International Socialist Network is a step in this direction. I suspect that many far left groups are still incapable of such self-examination – and may remain so for some time.

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JB June 13, 2013 at 10:48 am

I agree about the need to face the reality of the neoliberal reconstruction in the face. I would only like to emphasize that we need to face up to the fact that the neoliberal ideology has some real world backing to it. It reflects real social relations, real social processes, real research, real social and political experiments. The neoliberal ideology is an ideology that claims not to be such: it’s the ideology of “realists” and “pragmatists.” For example, the bit about Facebook profiles being built along the desires of corporations reflects the real reality that “happy” and “optimistic” people have been shown, scientifically, to experience better work outcomes than those without those qualities (the field of “positive psychology” has done a lot of work to provide an evidential basis for neoliberalism). Leftists need to engage with mainstream psychology, sociology, marketing, and economics, and come up with cogent reasons why “the facts” are being selected improperly, interpreted wrongly, or could be other than they are. We tend to be good at philosophy and history, and not so good at statistics and data. Unfortunately, it is the latter which forms the language of neoliberalism, at least at the academic level.

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PatrickSMcNally June 13, 2013 at 7:09 pm

The whole thing about workers looking happy is symptomatic of the character of modern First World capitalism. It’s not likely that anyone worries much about Bangladesh workers looking happy, just as Charles Dickens didn’t spend much time in Oliver Twist elaborating about workers looking happy. This is a characteristic of a social context where workers are actually able to potentially be happy because the worst forms of exploitation have been shifted outside of the First World.

It’s not likely that anyone is seriously going to refute those studies which show that cheerful looking employees are more likely to perform better in corporate USA. As long as this is posed as a central issue then that is really a sign that the decline of First World capitalism still has a way to go. That generally squares with everything else that I see.

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JB June 13, 2013 at 9:11 pm

I would suspect that the benefits of looking happy and having a positive mind set still apply in the developing world, but might be more clearly applicable only to the managerial class. But this is pretty much the case here too that those kinds of studies are aimed at the managerial and technical expert classes, it’s just that we have a fair number of low level service jobs that also require a cheerful demeanor as well under the heading of “customer service”.

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Luke Elliott June 14, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Agreed!

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Jon Hoch June 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Hey, so I know nothing about WSW or Socialist Equality Party. But from what I’ve heard TNS is all about non-sectarianism and a willingness to engage in electoral politics. So maybe TNS should give D’Art agnan Collier, a Detroit mayoral candidate, some coverage with some interviews or something.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/06/10/vide-m10.html

Shouldn’t North Star Socialists (© lol) lead by example and give this guy some play while also encouraging SEP to tone down their Trotskyist crap that turns off anarchists and Occupy folks who might agree with a lot of their platform?

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JB June 13, 2013 at 9:07 pm

y’know, the SEP is something people don’t really talk about much, because their ultra sectarian “we’re the only true vanguard and everyone else is pseudo-left” stuff makes them kind of laughable to most leftists. But the WSWS itself is a really quality site, and the level of writing and analysis is lightyears ahead of what most sites are putting out. I know when I started exploring socialism the WSWS was a huge part of my personal “conversion,” and the articles on the site get a fair amount of reposting on left liberal blogs like firedoglake and even some more mainstream settings (I even had an Literacy Teaching class once, where the professor brought in a WSWS article). I suspect that the Trotskyist crap might run too deep for the party behind the website to be much good to anyone, but perhaps if other folks made the opening initiatives, for example by backing Collier, there might be a possibility of bringing them into alliance with like minded groups. Their website is good, and it’s a shame it’s in the service of such a sectarian and narrow minded ideology.

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Andrew Coates June 14, 2013 at 8:09 am

I am glad that somebody is re-reading the Great Moving Right Show and Policing the Crisis. The ideas about authoritarian populism, (the popular side of what Poluantzas called the ‘strong state’) and the free market are still relevant – I was at the CCCS at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s and would also signal some writings about the ‘national popular’ which are of interest.

A useful lesson is that popular culture was, and is, an important area of political struggle.

But it was not just Hall’s later commitment to Marxism Today’s New Times and all that came in its wake – from Charter 88, tactical voting to the stirrings of New Labour – that were a problem.

Hall represented a ‘movementist’ strand in the first New Left.

Looking for the latest movements has marked that kind of politics for a long time, and Richard Seymour cites Mason’s book, which represents this in its purest form.

Have we nothing better than ‘reconstruction’ to offer?

I’ve been involved in refoundation, alternative, etc formations since the early 1980s.

I can’t see that they’ve led anywhere.

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Luke Elliott June 14, 2013 at 3:44 pm

I’m not sure I know enough of Hall’s politics (I love his theory) to understand what you’re critiquing. Since ‘refoundation, alternative etc formations’ haven’t worked, what do you suggest?

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