The past and future of the Left
The 'Left' that has emerged as victorious is one whose ambitions are defined and delimited by the political culture of capitalism. So what's actually left? asks Guy Rundle.
Sep 28, 2009
The 'Left' that has emerged as victorious is one whose ambitions are defined and delimited by the political culture of capitalism. So what's actually left? asks Guy Rundle.
Part two of Guy Rundle’s musing on the state of the modern Left. It’s long, so we’ve linked it to our website. (Read the first part here)
Years ago, I remember seeing a Hinze cartoon in the study of a friend, a Left Labor activist. It showed an inner city 90s teenager — opshop clothes, funny haircut — with a placard “no third runway” about to go off to a demo. “Coming to the airport protest Dad?” she said to an aging figure hunched over a chunky 90s computer. “No thanks, I’ve got to write another article on the death of the left,” said the harried, bearded figure.
It was clear that Hinze’s sympathies were with the kid, but it was also possible to read it another way. The idea that the left had come to be represented by this most pissant of campaigns, simply to stop something, not even a whole airport, just a runway. The father may have been despairing, repetitive, and quietistic, but he was thinking. He had passed up the blandishments of reflex activism for the harder yards. Faced with the temptation of losing himself in reflex opposition, at least he was doing nothing.
The global Left looked at its lowest ebb in the 1990s. In fact it a globally unified Left had died in the 1970s, the victim of failure on every front. The USSR had failed to liberalise and develop after Khruschev, and was a stagnant and seemingly permanent monolith. By the later 70s, Mao’s cultural revolution had come to be seen as less a triumph of proletarian culture than a process of chaos and destruction. The Western experiments in counterculture had largely collapsed, into heroin and hippie entrepreneurship. Finally, the social democratic parties in the West had retreated from such plans as they had to extend the transformation of the market economy.
The most significant of these was the Meidner Plan, originating from Sweden. Under this scheme the government and trade unions would gradually buy up controlling shares in the stock market, making in the end a net transfer of the major parts of the economy to the public sector — which would continue to be run as market entities for the most part. Small business and most retail would continue to be private, but the core of the economy would be set by social institutions. The plan, in various versions was part of the thinking of various governments, including Whitlam’s and Harold Wilson’s in the UK. Political defeat and the global ‘stagflation’ recession put paid to it, and the late 70s vacuum of cultural and political defeat served as a prelude to the Thatcher-Reagan era.
Up to the 1970s, whatever their manifest differences, a government as mainstream as the UK Wilson government could feel that it was part of a global left in dialogue with Cuba, Yugoslav market socialism, new left activist groups, western communist parties, democratic socialist parties, Nimbin communes, radical trade unions and so on and on. Variations around social issues — free love and drugs versus communist puritanism — were incidental to the core of a Left vision which was that the economy, the process by which society materially reproduces itself, should be controlled by other than private property.
By the mid 1980s, that phenomenon was sundered utterly. There was no Left. Social democratic and Labour parties had abandoned any notion of a counterpoint to the market, and had accepted instead what was known as ‘social market’ politics — let the market run things, regulate it to a degree, and supplement what it cannot do. The USSR was no model for anyone except dinosaurs, China was on the capitalist road, the failure of other third world models — from moral catastrophes such as Pol Pot’s Cambodia, to mere failures such as Nyerere’s Tanzanian ‘African’ socialism — had created a drought of alternatives, radical trade unions were transforming themselves into tech-progressive organisations (‘microchips with everything’ as the Communist Party Oz left review editor David Burchell titled Laurie Carmichael’s article on how unions should ram-rod the information revolution).
In the West, the left intelligensia were detaching themselves from Marxism as well. The works of Foucault and Baudrillard were making their way into the western academy, arguing that Marx’s materialist arguments were merely part of a 19th century framework of ideas, that there was no simply expressed ‘truth’. Ian Steedman’s key work Marx After Sraffa, a study of the Italian economist Piero Sraffa demonstrated that Marxist crisis theory — that capitalism was doomed by its internal processes — could not be sustained. By the account of Australian pomo theorybot McKenzie Wark (I’m sorry, but that’s his name) this was the exit point for many young theoretical things.*
Thus in the 80s and 90s, things took off in many different directions. The ‘Labor Left’ was no longer a left — it was a centre-right party supporting capitalism. The remnant ‘Marxist revolutionary left’ lost many of its sprightliest people, and became a set of ossified Troskyist cults, a cryogenic movement freezing itself until the revolution happened. The emergent ‘green left’ took up the remnants of the counterculture and the radical ‘new left’ critique of a system based on growth and consumerism, and the ‘cultural left’ based in a rising ‘new’ class of culture/knowledge producers, became focused on socio-cultural identity ad rights.
Through the 80s and the 90s, the neconservative right — neoliberal in economics, socially conservative — was in ascendency (in Australia, Labor fought its tide to a compromise position), while the cultural left dominated the world of left ideas and possibilities. On the collapse of the USSR, the term ‘capitalism’ disappeared in the west altogether for most of the decade. The 1994 ascension of Tony Blair to head the British Labour Party, Paul Keating’s combination of privatisation and radical nationalism, issues of gay rights and identity, etc etc – the economic question simply disappeared.
It returned to the west in the late 90s, with the global ‘anti-capitalist’ movement, largely kicked off by the European solidarity wing of the Zapatista movement in Mexico, which had started the resistance to NAFTA by taking over several towns in Chiapas in 1994.
Nevertheless, a unified Left has never returned. The mainstream Labour and social democratic parties manage and mitigate capitalism. The green and social movement left campaign for a range of global social justice issues, but not for a positive substantial alternative. The remnant Marxist parties have no connection with the dwindling industrial working class they purport to represent. The cultural left, having achieved practically all of their aims, can be stirred only to an occasional defensive measure, in issues like the Bill Henson photos case. A very small ‘theoretical left’ attempts to think beyond both eternal capitalism and the rigid categories of Marxism.
The anti-capitalist movement waxed and waned. Whether its rise and fall was due to its absence of a unifying positive message, or the impact of 9/11 and a set of changed global relations can be debated endlessly.
By the mid-2000s, the neoconservative movement that had captivated the last thirty years, had thoroughly exhausted itself. The victories of Rudd, Barack Obama, even the replacement of Blair by Brown, suggested a shift. Paradoxically, the victory of the European right — Reinhardt in Sweden, Sarkozy, Merkel — also strengthened this, since they changed almost nothing in their countries’ social market/social democratic base, their political victories thus consolidating that tradition, and putting a genuinely neoliberal European right even further out of reach (which, given that the growing alternative is a reactionary, chauvinist populist Right is not necessarily a good thing).
The ‘Left’ that has emerged as victorious is that ‘social market’ movement, its ambitions defined and delimited by the political culture of capitalism — market dominance of both the economy and the culture, of how people are shaped and their relationships structured, and an open-ended process of economic growth measured through the purely quantitive assessment of GDP.
That ‘social market’ politics is often mislabelled ‘social democracy’, most recently in Robert Manne’s long piece in the Oz’s ‘left’ series on Saturday. But social democracy was a movement still concerned with changing the very nature of society, by changing the basis on which it worked — from one dominated by property and profit, to one dominated by abilities and needs, and a qualitative assessment of better and worse – that a shortage of dialysis machines needs to be addressed by turning over some of the capacity for producing stretch limos, and the slightly crazed mantra (‘we can do it all!’) is no answer.
Today, there are all sorts of meetings or proposals for reviving ‘the Left’ — all of which sound like a giant corporation trying to find a new brand to get behind, now that the spats industry has gone into decline. They are of little use, because they work on the assumption that society has not changed in fundamental ways that make the old idea of a Left obsolete.
What was the Left? It was the organised labour movement plus a number of leaders, intellectuals and activists, drawn both from its ranks, the liberal middle class, sections of the religious community etc. At its core was not only a class, but the assumption of a substantial rank-and-file — a sort of head-and-body form of organisation which mirrored the industrial world of the factory from which it sprang. Leadership, marching in lock-step, a focus on taking economic power were seen as ‘natural’ and the ‘way of left politics’, because they mimicked the form of life.
That left split with the birth of the ‘New Left’ in the 60s, which explicitly rejected that form and those priorities — and drew instead on its own life experience, largely that of student and bohemian life, to suggest a diffused and individualistic model of organisation, and an idea of imminently utopian change (‘sous les paves, la plage’ — ‘beneath the paving stones, the beach’ – meaning, in Paris 68, that in pulling them up and chucking them at people, you were also digging down to the natural, playful world).
From that movement sprang one that would prove more durable — the green left, emphasising for the first time that the Left should not be about more, but about less: less consumption, less waste, less destruction. In the ensuing decades, the political form the Green Left has taken is parliamentary and social democratic — its program is overwhelmingly one of restraint and regulation of economic processes, rather than of a change in their character.
More importantly, the rise of the green left also put two ‘lefts’ fundamentally in opposition to each other. The old Marxist/social democratic left had been interested in increasing society’s productive base, and running it in a different way. The new green left took the old ‘new left’ critique of industrial civilisation as alienated etc and twinned it with the growing evidence of biosphere destruction by business-as-usual. However the more parliamentary the movement has become, the more it has departed from suggesting an alternative basis to life, one radically buying out of the dominance of industrial civilisation, to one regulating it.
The ‘promethean’ left and the green left clashed as early as the 1970s, in Australia with the tussle over the Green Bans movement in Sydney. The leadership of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation — Mundey, Owens and Pringle – had sparked a mass social movement which not only saved much of heritage Sydney, but extended the idea of what unions should do (as Pat Fiske’s great doco ‘Rocking the Foundations’ shows, one of the final strikes was against a Sydney Uni college, to force it to change its policy of expelling homosexuals.) The NSW BLF’s point was that workers making a qualitative assessment of what they did and didnt build was a massive political shift, and movement forward.
The NSW BLF campaign was knocked on the head by Norm Gallagher and the federal leadership, Maoist-oriented, who were partly concerned (reasonably enough it might be said) that the increasingly wild worker-student-anarchist campaign would expose the union to an attack it could not win – but also that the business of Marxists was not to be preserving the old, but creating the new, and eventually taking control of it.
Today, a lot of those Maoists and Prometheans — Chris Pearson, Keith Windschuttle, Piers Akerman — have turned up on the right rather than the left, from whence they reserve their greatest fury for the Greens. But it is effectively a restaging of an earlier intra-left dispute. (you can also see this in the substantial anti-Green campaigns by the UK Spiked group, the successors to the small-but-influential Revolutionary Communist Party.
Thus we have the strange spectacle today of a Labor ‘left’ which is really a centre-right regulatory outfit, a ‘green left’ which is really a social democratic-left regulatory outfit, and a ‘cultural left’ which has no real interest in the economic base at all. The genuine Marxist left is a small, ossified remnant, whose capacity for discipline and focused work can still generate impressive change (despite the high profile cultural leftists, 90% of the grunt for the anti-mandatory detention movement was Trots, in the end) is useful, but whose broader message sounds like something from the 3rd century church fathers.
There is, in that respect, no ‘Left’.
So why is this man smiling?
The answer is firstly that the contradictions of the global system (yes, yes, The Holy Grail) are now so obvious, apparent, and in motion that not merely the prospect but the necessity of real cultural-political change in the future is now evident – though it is harder to see from Australia than just about everywhere else.
The second is that those who look for old-style parties and lock-step organisations for signs of political life are looking in all the wrong places. Without rethinking it, they have taken up the old metaphor of the road, and the journey as the image of left political struggle, seen that we’re not very far along it, and concluded that things are dire. But society has changed so that that metaphor no longer applies, and causes you to miss what is immanent (though not imminent) in global society.
Take the contradictions first. The global financial economy is based on a model that has barely lasted a decade without shuddering in a near-collapse. It involves the western economies turning themselves over to consumption, service sales and rents (on IP mainly) as their core activities, supplied by China, India etc, who are turning themselves into giant factories to supply them.
This arrangement has allowed the global economy to cook the books on the main problem that capitalist development always faces – that of overproduction (keep wages low, and you deprive yourself of consumers. Raise wages and you lower profits). China’s enormous supply of labour has made it possible to operate as one giant factory, with the consumers elsewhere (ie in the West). How do you keep this going? You lend the West the money to consume beyond any possible return of its own withered productive base.
Whatever patches have been put on patches since September last year, one thing is obvious – the West is broke. It has been broke for five years, if not longer. Australia is an exception, due to resources, Sweden due to retaining a high-end industrial base. But the big guys — the US, the UK, continental Europe — are in deep trouble.
But so too are the developing nations, for a declining ability to sell to the West means the necessity of developing their own consumers — at which case the roaring growth rates begin to slow. This is primarily a political problem for at that point, China gets ‘stuck’. Its current social contract between city and country is that city people will get very rich, and offer country people the chance to make better money than back-breaking subsistence farming, with the prospect of intergenerational betterment. Once that slows, the
Ditto in India, which hasn’t really begun to modernise. The short expression of all this is that global capitalist development is not a replay of western capitalist development — for the simple reason that western capitalist development depended on imperialism and third world underdevelopment to keep firing. The idea that these billion+ societies are going to turn into western countries, with 1% directly involved in agriculture, is fantastical. The levels of industrial overproduction would be so monumental that we would have to find people on Jupiter to sell shit to.
Long before most people realise that things simply cannot happen that way, the gears will have crunched. What will animate the world in this century will be conflict between country and city (and country-within-the-city, ie the global slums) in a way that makes the Chinese Revolution of 1949 disclose its true character as mere curtain-raiser. Once it becomes clear to the global country that the flow of wealth has diminished to sub-trickle.
Of course this conflict intersects with another contradiction — that of biosphere impact. Quite aside from climate change, it is obvious that levels of consumption, and the management of production, is so chaotic that radical change — involving a shift in the idea of property — will become necessary. Two matters in particular cannot not have an effect — the collapse of global fish stocks, and a resultant collapse in the food chain, and global demands on ground water due to commercial agriculture, and resultant regional eco-catastrophes. Both of these conditions threaten within a generation, both are beyond our current ability, and possibly any conceivable ability, to create a techno-fix. They will become motive forces in history, because they will intersect with the above raw deal between the city and the country. It is not western Greens who will be driving this, but hundreds of millions of peasants, whose only two choices are struggle or death.
The third contradiction is in the West, and it is the deforming effects that the political-economic system has on our culture. Uniquely in history, the contemporary west has made the cultural system subject to the economy, made it its market, raw material and dumping ground. For a century or more this process was held in check by conservative institutions, and, when these collapsed, attacked by the counterculture, which provided an alternative. When that collapsed, the commodity and the commodified image moved to the centre of social life. Since the commodity is essentially nihilistic – a commodity is simply something whose value is expressed in terms of every other value – its effect, initially liberating from inherited authority (the church, etc) is ultimately nihilistic too.
Socially, the effects of this are to create increasingly atomised societies, in which it is increasingly impossible to imagine solidarity or close connection beyond the immediate family – and then to offer as a substitute either a cynical and masochistic celebration of atomisation (ie most reality TV shows) or literal-minded religiosity, essentially channelled from the middle ages, ie from the last pre-capitalist period.
Psychologically, the effects are to create increasingly ungrounded people. If the society you grow up in is atomised, then an identity never ‘sets’. The liberation that offers is the freedom to determine your own identity. What it removes is the capacity for any identity to be meaningful.
The effect is that a vague depressive sense of nothingness becomes the psychological common cold of hypermodernity. It is then addressed as a disease, and treated with medications (anti-depressants) which stimulate the brain chemicals (such as serotonin) which used to be replenished by meaningful social life. Push this sort of culture for another generation, build a world where ever larger numbers of people live in this world of shadows, and eventually that deep-seated and often unvocalised sense of deep futility will become a historical force in its own right.
Really, I think most people, reflecting on the world as it is, have some intimation of the triple crisis as I’ve sketched it out above. What does not appeal is the idea that socialism is any sort of answer – associated as it is with state-heavy systems, either torpid or lethal or both. Nor does any sort of party or organised political activity suggest itself as even comprehensible to people who live within an atomised world.
What does make radical change possible, sudden and likely however is that processes of self-management are immanent, there beneath the surface, within hypermodernity, in a way they haven’t been previously, to a sufficient degree. That’s a result of better education, intellectual labour – but also about the fact that we all spend so much time thinking about how systems work.
Imagine for example, that the next global capitalist crisis – 2010, 2017?, December? – caused the holding corporation that owned our power utilities to collapse, in a way that was beyond the government to refloat with a bailout (because the government itself was now all bailed out out). Would we simply persist in darkness? Or would, after some disruption and confusion, the engineers and managers who had been running the thing anyway, simply continue to run it. Would they and others be able to use the networks already existing to keep power supply intersected with other areas of the economy, using a mixture of money and free exchange, but without the notion that this was simply being done to return dividends to shareholders? Would they appoint an interim board of control, preserve managerial and scientific hierarchies etc.
Would it then become clear, from practice, not from theory, that a power station is a social institution, not a private one, and that a whole set of arrangements that are neither private ownership nor state control can be made in running our lives?
Does that not only seem a morally better alternative, but the more likely outcome of the century than the continuation of existing arrangements? And a reason why it was better, in that Hinze cartoon, to do a bit more hunching over a laptop, and a little less reactive protesting?
The question of course is whether all that I’ve suggested can be argued as a moral rather than simply necessary development — which will have to wait for part three of this two part series.
*Piero Sraffa could lay claim to be the zelig of the 20TH century. Settling at Cambridge University in the 1920s, he is cited in the prefaces to both Keynes’s General Theory and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations as a key contributor and essential inerlocutor. He edited the 14-volume collected works of Ricardo, though, as JK Galbraith remarked, this sometimes involved no more than a few minutes work a day. His sole book, a 1960 work, a 62-page work Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities took him 32 years to write (or get around to writing), and provides a logical demolition of both Marxian labour value economics and neclassical economics. Those interested in his proof that neoclaissical economics is logically incoherent voodoo should see Steve Keen’s Economics, the Naked Emperor.
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