Saturday 10 March 2018
21st Century Socialism and a New Left Project?
This is an extract from a piece written by Stephen Maher entitled ‘Crisis of the State, Crisis of the Left: Articulating Socialism After the Anarchist Moment’ and first published at The Bullet
I argue that key foundations from the Marxist tradition can still serve as an essential basis for this project, avoiding the pitfalls posed by the critiques summarized above. First is the idea that the commodity is not a ‘thing’, but rather the fundamental relation of capital – what Marx called “the economic cell form.” Capitalism, as the historical mode of existence of capital amidst other relations and logics, brings the penetration of this relation ever deeper and ever wider into our life-worlds.
This therefore brackets questions of cultural difference. Capital, and the commodity form that is its social foundation, is not reducible to a property of any particular culture. Indeed this form has taken hold of and transformed the social relations of ‘Western’ countries just as it has in other places.
Moreover, the basic operation of capitalism lies in the interaction between value and use-value. Capital constantly reorganizes concrete, qualitative reality to serve the infinite production and circulation of abstract value. Qualitative use-values do not matter to capital, only the endless accumulation of quantitative exchange-value. Thus what Marx referred to as a “dialectical inversion”: exchange-value is the only use-value for capital.
In other words, for capital, the only useful things are those produced for the purpose of exchange in pursuit of the endless accumulation of abstract value. The abstract becomes concrete; quality becomes quantity; use becomes exchange; and freedom becomes slavery. Indeed, because the value-form is abstract, this appears to be the result of individual free choice: the threat or use of force is normatively prohibited in the sphere of commodity exchange, which Marx referred to as “the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham.” The exchange of commodities, including labour-power, appears to be a purely voluntary, individual act.
The coercion that constitutes the foundation of class in capitalism originates elsewhere, in that sphere liberalism explicitly deems “apolitical”: the “private” realm of production. As Marx wrote in characteristically colourful fashion (Capital Vol I):
“we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face ‘No admittance except on business.’ Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.”
Workers themselves produce the force – capital – that dominates them; it is none other than their own alienated life energies turned against them. As Marx shows in Capital, capitalism is uniquely a system in which the instruments and conditions of production dominate human beings, rather than serving as an extension of conscious human will and collective social planning. Since investment decisions are based on the need to accumulate abstract value, the ability to produce value for capitalists – rather than meet collective social needs – becomes the primary determinant of the social division of labour, and the ends to which our collective human energies are devoted.
Moreover, capitalists themselves do not merely ‘plan’ the economy, but are themselves ruled by the value-form, which enforces its sovereignty via the “coercive laws of competition.” Capitalists must accumulate or perish: “Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets.” Thus the “law of value” appears over and above conscious human will in shaping social relations and directing society’s productive forces, an objective force that seizes upon human subjectivity and directs it to alien ends – the ends of capital. Capital therefore becomes the subject, while the true subjects (human beings) are instrumentalized as inorganic objects.
Capital must be understood not as a closed totality but rather as a totalising logic within the relentless totalisation in progress that is history. To base our analysis of history on a conceptual totality is to assume, in Althusserian or Hegelian fashion, that we can construct a logical model that fully captures, on the basis of its inner necessity, the actual movement of ‘really-existing’ capitalism. It conflates the logical with the ontological. Though he explicitly criticized Hegel, Althusser’s “structuralism” reproduced a very similar ontology, albeit substituting the abstract coordinates of a ‘structure’ for the Hegelian ‘totality’.
The provisional nature of knowledge, and the process of discovery via proposing hypotheses, is in both cases replaced with absolute certainty about the shape of the real derived from self-generating abstract theoretical constructs. In both cases, reality is reduced to the notion, and in both cases, the result in political terms is to potentially justify forms of despotism. This is fundamentally at odds with an approach that, understanding subjectivity as rooted in the basic properties of the human organism, sees that the historical ‘totality’ is never complete, but always in a state of becoming, of being made in the concrete life activity of really existing human beings.
This leads us to interrogate the real for its causal interconnections, and to approach human beings as conscious subjects whose capacities for free creative labour are to be emancipated through the revolutionary project. In other words, it points toward a different conception of both epistemological and political representation.
Even though capital is not a closed totality, capitalist social relations exert basic pressures upon conscious human beings, including class struggle, competition (over consumer markets, investment, intellectual property, within firms themselves, and more), tendencies toward concentration and centralization, and systematically recurring crises. But these tell us nothing about the direction of history, or the particular manifestation of these tendencies in different places and times.
As conscious subjects, human beings exist in a relation to their situation. This is not to deny that they are conditioned, merely to suggest that they cannot be reduced to their condition. If we are to understand capitalism, we must come to terms with the dynamism with which it has been created and re-created by conscious human beings as a historical process.
It is this moment of subjective human creativity, operative at every ‘level’ and in every ‘sphere’ of social relations, which, at base, is responsible for the dynamism of capitalism. And this is precisely what makes it impossible to study human societies as if they were governed by mechanistic laws.
It is only by examining the nature of these projects, constructed within and against specific institutional assemblages that are constantly being remade amidst structural conflicts and synergies, that we can hope to decipher the movement of history. This also means that if capitalism will not simply collapse “on its own”: if it is to be overcome, we must overthrow it.
How, then, are we to connect this theoretical basis for a 21st century socialism to an organized political intervention that is all but absent today? Firstly, one should be clear that the rise of the right in the current conjuncture (sketched out above) is a direct consequence of the weakness of the left. In the absence of an organized radical left, the only force capable of articulating the anxieties stemming from the social dislocations wrought by neoliberal restructuring has been a nationalist and xenophobic right.
Meanwhile, the crisis of neoliberal hegemony has entailed the collapse of post-1990s “Third Way” Social Democratic forces, which moved away from articulating a class-based politics based in universalistic demands for the decommodification of social services and human labour power. Instead, they hitched their wagons to the neoliberal horse, limiting their political horizons to questions of identity and inclusion within a corporate-dominated liberal capitalist order.
In fact, since the capacity for labour to oppose Social Democratic parties is limited in the absence of a credible alternative to their left, such parties have served as particularly effective vehicles for pushing neoliberal restructuring (albeit at a slower pace), reinforcing the idea that “There Is No Alternative.”
As a result, the legitimacy crisis of neoliberalism has also eroded popular support for even the most well established and deeply rooted Social Democratic parties. Nevertheless, as the emergence of the new left parties in Europe indicates (to say nothing of the meteoric rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders within traditional parties), although the rise of the right poses significant challenges, the collapse of the neoliberal center also presents an opportunity for the left to present a bold, transformative political vision.
The best way for left forces to regroup – while recognizing the crucial difference between organizing the left and organizing the class – and seriously put a progressive break with neoliberalism on the agenda is to unite fragmented issue-based struggles within a broader socialist vision. Indeed one of the biggest shortcomings of the New Left social movements was their willingness to forsake the goal of broader social transformation in favour of individual issue-based struggles, such as war, the environment, women’s rights, and so on.
The task for us now is to find ways to reintegrate these crucial struggles with a longer-term vision for fundamental social change. We must recognize that though important reforms can be won, capitalism is unable to fully accommodate demands for social and ecological justice. Therefore we must go beyond simply opposing neoliberalism.
Similarly lacking in strategic vision is the contemporary ‘anti-fascist’ discourse focused on fighting the hard right. Though many left groupings are now apparently relying primarily on this anti-fascism as a mechanism for building the left, simply opposing the far-right leaves us de facto defending neoliberalism unless we can come up with a positive program to collectively build toward something else.
The best strategy for confronting the hard right is to destroy the conditions of despair and alienation upon which it feeds by formulating a bold yet credible program for breaking with neoliberalism and building toward a brighter future. This must not simply write off, but speak directly to the concerns and anxieties of those who have thus far found voice only in the chauvinist nationalism of the hard right. It must work to identify and pragmatically confront the forces responsible for the devastation of working class communities in recent decades. The intensifying ecological crisis makes this all the more urgent.
The basic principles that must animate a contemporary left program are clear enough. These include changes in the organization of our communities, including de-commodification of social services and developing ‘green’ ways of living, working and playing. It also involves reinvigorating workplace organizing, and building the democratic and activist capacities of the labour movement in conjunction with social movements and community activists, including through such campaigns as the Fight For $15 in the US and $15 and Fairness in Canada.
But the neoliberal restructuring of the state and the economy, including the decline of state fiscal capacity and the global restructuring of accumulation, are such that neither unionization nor social movement activism alone are capable of bringing the broader political changes that are essential to rebuilding the power of the working class.
Given the neoliberal restructuring of production, even implementing relatively mild reforms by historical standards today requires a radical confrontation with capital. The old question of “reform versus revolution” is ever less relevant. The more pertinent issue is whether we can implement reforms that are robust enough to withstand the pressures of capital’s totalizing logic, which have intensified over the neoliberal period.
An augmented left, from this perspective, could take the form of what Greg Albo has called “a political ecology of movements and forces” working toward another world, and supporting a struggle on the terrain of the state to transform it and move toward a genuinely democratic society.
This requires building a political infrastructure that can reproduce and amplify popular power, animated by principles of class struggle and mutual solidarity and seeking to construct democratic systems of production and distribution for use rather than exchange. It means overcoming alienating commodity relations with organic human bonds founded upon mutual respect and solidarity. And it means facilitating the production of new, class subjectivities that can support these efforts, and serve as the gateway to a society in which collective human flourishing is truly possible.
Stephen Maher is a social critic and PhD candidate at York University in Toronto.