Political upsurge vs ideological decay: “What’s Left?” August 2018, MRR #423

Metaphors are powerful. Metaphors are poetry disguised as prose. People who use metaphors claim they’re a shortcut to truth and meaning.

Last month I used the biological metaphor of species complex to tease out additional structure and definition of the usual Left/Right political compass. In the process I promised to cover various social contexts in given historical periods that illustrate increased Left/Right political conversions and crossovers but instead managed to drop yet another metaphor by using Mao’s metaphor with politics and war. From the 1960s war on poverty and the 1970s war on drugs to the 21st century wars on terrorism and the truth, the metaphor of war has been much used and abused. Instead, I’ll use another metaphor from Mao to “put politics in command” in coming to terms with political change, conversion, and crossover socially and historically. In the process, I will renege on my previous promise by severely limiting the scope of this inquiry to the rise of and interplay between the New Left and the New Right.

Karl Marx wrote “[c]onstant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” in arguing that the French 1789 Revolution was the first bourgeois revolution of the capitalist era. The notion that capitalism was born of revolution and continues through constant revolution—economically, politically, and socially—has been challenged by Ellen Meiksins Wood and Robert Brenner who trace its origins back to the “peaceful” agriculture revolution of England in the 1700s. Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, in turn, trace the kernel of capitalism all the way back to 1250 and the Mediterranean Venetian/Genoese commercial empires. But while capitalism’s genesis and initial features are in dispute, the constantly replicating, ever expanding, relentlessly revolutionizing reality of capitalism—from its embryonic beginnings to the present world capitalist system—is not.

Today, we live in an all-encompassing capitalist world. But socialism in one form or another arose to oppose capitalism roughly from 1820 onwards, with the concerted Communist challenge lasting from 1917 to 1991. The division of the world into two contending camps—capitalist vs socialist—was problematic all along. The left of the Left argued that social democracy was only state liberalism, that Leninism was merely state capitalism, and that both were not actual alternatives to capitalism. Further, a non-aligned movement of countries arose after the second World War to challenge the notion of a bipolar either/or world based on two competing power blocs. By the 1960s the rise of the New Left joined divisions on the Left, splits within socialism, and non-capitalist/non-Marxist options vying for recognition.

The seemingly intractable Cold War standoff between “the Free World” (which wasn’t free) and “the Communist Bloc” (which wasn’t communist) allowed a New Left to effloresce worldwide. In the United States, white college students of liberal, radical, and sometimes Marxist political bent formed organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The New Left was directly powered by the motors of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and ran in dual-engine-mode alongside the hippie youth counterculture throughout the 1960s. It had no unified intent—whether criticizing orthodox Marxist and labor union movements, furthering and revitalizing the Left’s historic goals, or creating an entirely novel, unique Left—but its vitality and energy generated a plethora of corollary social movements, from the Black, women’s and gay movements to various Third World solidarity movements and the ecology movement. Anarchism revived from the dead, Trotskyism came in from the fringes, and Maoism found prominence via the New Communist Movement. 

Forming, changing, revising, or reversing one’s politics in those heady days when political boundaries were rapidly expanding and highly fluid—or non-existent—was common, and often meant rapid-fire crossovers or conversions. Last column I mentioned Murray Bookchin who started out as a Stalinist, became a Trotskyist, and ended up an influential anarchist communist. More telling was the political journey of Karl Hess. As Barry Goldwater’s speech writer in 1964, he was widely credited for the famous Goldwater line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Eventually he became a left anarchist, joined SDS and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), championed back-to-the-land and intentional urban communities, and promoted appropriate technologies and left-right libertarian unity.

The New Left reached its pinnacle in 1968, which Mark Kurlansky rightly called “the year that rocked the world.” “To some, 1968 was the year of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Yet it was also the year of the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy assassinations; the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; Prague Spring; the antiwar movement and the Tet Offensive; Black Power; the generation gap; avant-garde theater; the upsurge of the women’s movement; and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.” To this add the student/worker uprising in Paris of May/June, 1968. But 1968 simultaneously witnessed the failure of the New Left, starting with the collapse of SDS itself. For all the hype that Paris 1968 was a near-revolution inspired by the Situationists, Mouvement Communiste points out that for the most part French workers passed on the rioting to sit passively watching their TVs in a vindication of the persuasive Madison Avenue power of the Spectacle.

The recuperative powers of capitalism proved far greater. The cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s were often profoundly individualistic, even libertine, something that capitalism easily coopted. This was something more than that 1968’s rebellious youth “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.” (John Lichfield; “Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968,” The Independent, 9/23/08) “[S]ince 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the New Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” (Geoffrey Wheatcroft; “It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” Guardian Weekly, 9/5/08) The year 1968 may have changed the world, but after “the revolution that wasn’t,” most everybody went back to their normal lives and conventional jobs.

Finally comes the power of out-and-out reaction, starting with Nixon and culminating with the neoliberalism of Reagan and Thatcher. It’s not by coincidence that the neofascist Ordre Noveau and the New Right Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne (GRECE) emerged in France in 1968. The latter, founded by Alain de Benoist, demonstrated what Kevin Coogan wrote in Dreamer of the Day that: “periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the ‘Red-Brown alliance’ in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’.” And make no mistake, the 1970s and 1980s were a period of profound ideological decay.

The Right retrenched and regrouped after 1968, not only halting the surge of the Left—both Old and New—but eventually gaining unquestioned ascendence while presiding over the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the dispersal of the political Left, and the contraction of the labor movement. The European New Right (nouvelle droite/ENR) was minuscule compared to the rest of the Right however, and it certainly was microscopic compared to the New Left to which de Benoist grandiosely juxtoposed his efforts. While the 1960s were a worldwide political and cultural phenomenon, de Benoist fantasized about the “metapolitics” of “culture wars” and “right-wing Gramscianism.” To Fascism’s organic hierarchies, militarism, anti-egalitarianism, and elitism, de Benoist tacked on a faux revolutionary élan, “the right to difference,” and a Europe of a hundred ethnic flags, then called it all groundbreaking. It was his claim to a sui generis fascism-by-euphemism in the ENR that succeeded in seducing the by-then jaded American New Left academic journal Telos.

Telos started publishing in May, 1968, and was committed to non-conformist critical political theory, analyzing all manner of neo-Marxist, anarchist, New Left, and Frankfurt School debates. But by the early 1990s, with the sorry state of “real existing socialism” and the disappointments engendered by its failures—or worse—its successes, coupled to the Left’s need for intellectual schema plus its desire for the “next big thing” in the form of new political paradigms, the disillusioned neo-Marxists and anarchists of Telos jumped at the chance of engaging with the ENR in debating de Benoist’s bright shiny bullshit. The discussion was initiated enthusiastically by the ENR and fueled by an American anti-intellectual populism, resulting in an ENR-Telos rapprochement by 1999. Telos became the most prominent crossover to the dark side, switching from once vigorous New Left to ever necrotic New Right.

In times of radical social change, political change is vibrant and vital. In times of reactionary social decay, political change is deformed and grotesque.

[This analysis of the ENR-Telos political dance owes much to Tamir Bar-on’s Where have all the fascists gone?]

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Capitalism In Crisis or Without End: “What’s Left?” September 2017, MRR #412

This is the conclusion to my overlong analysis last column of the crisis of the Left and the crisis on the Right (Party like it’s the 1960s: “What’s Left?” July 2017, MRR #410).

Our story so far:

Interregnums are instances of revolutionary class conflict, either regional and diffuse (Great Peasants’ War, 1524-25; English Glorious Revolution, 1688) or more consolidated and national (French 1789 Revolution, Russian 1917 Revolution, Spanish 1936-39 civil war). Related regional interregnums were strung together into a broad, territorial interregnum (religious conflicts/wars across continental Europe, 1517-1648), while associated national interregnums were linked into a global interregnum (WWI through WWII, 1914-1945).

The French 1789 Revolution gave rise to our modern Left-Right political landscape and modernity itself. The Right is both a revolt against the modern world and a reaction to the Left. In Europe, the moderate Right and reactionary Right were joined by a Fascist Right, while in the United States various radical and new Rights emerged. But in the face of international socialism and communism after WW2, an effort was made by Buckley and the National Review to define, unify, and defend an official conservative movement.

When the Left in the 1980s experienced a crisis due to the defeat of organized labor, the collapse of real existing socialist regimes, and the decline of Marxism, the Right underwent a corresponding crisis. More fractious than the Left due to its non-programmatic, non-rational nature, the Right exploded, particularly in patriot and populist terms. The secular, religious, and xenophobic Right can barely contain the proliferation of groups and ideologies, unlike the Left which neatly divides into antiauthoritarian, parliamentary, and Leninist types.

Because the Right is invariably a reaction to the Left, when things fell apart and the center on the Left could not hold, mere anarchy was loosed both on the Right and the Left. The crisis of the Left was matched by a crisis on the Right—with mindless proliferation, sectarian infighting, and growing Red/Brown crossover on the Right—which in turn marked the beginning of another global interregnum. But what is the cause of this crisis on Left and Right, and of the global interregnum? Is it the fabled Marxist final crisis of capitalism?

First, I need to backtrack.

I called myself paleo, more or less orthodox, and old school in my Marxism when it comes to class struggle, modes of production, and the origins of modernity. Yet I’m also hep, au currant, and with it when it comes to updating my Marxist political economy with a little world systems theory (Braudel, Wallerstein, Arrighi). Capitalism started to develop in embryonic form as a world system of exploitation and appropriation as early as 1450, and went through two cycles of capital accumulation (the Genoese and Dutch cycles) prior to the British cycle which acted as a context for the French 1789 Revolution and Europe’s industrial takeoff. So not only is it correct to call the English civil war (1642-51) a prequel to the bourgeois revolutions that ushered in the modern world, it’s clear that the Renaissance prefigured the Enlightenment, and that the modernity of Machiavelli and Hobbes presaged the modernity of Locke and Rousseau. The extensive trading networks, market relations, and commercial expansion of capitalism prior to 1750 did not possess capital’s “relentless and systematic development of the productive forces” that the industrialization of the British cycle initiated, as Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Woods noted. Whether we call the period from 1450 to 1750 pre-capitalism or proto-capitalism or market capitalism, we need to distinguish it from modern capitalism proper after 1750. Hence the use of the French 1789 Revolution as a convenient benchmark for the advent of modern industrial capitalism, modernity, and modern Left-Right politics.

The Marxist-influenced world systems school argues that each cycle of capital accumulation responsible for the rise of the current world economy is comprised of commercial, production, and financial phases. The commercial phase is characterized by making profit from trade and commerce—simple circulation and exchange. The production phase is distinguished by making profit from the whole process of industrialization—building factories to produce commodities, hiring workers, paying them less than what the commodities are sold for, and then valorizing the resultant surplus value into capital. The final financial phase is typified by making profit from investing in everything else that makes money—trade, commerce, manufacturing, factory production, services—which is just one step removed from simple exchange and circulation once again. What is most profitable in this three-phase cycle schema is the production phase because that’s where infrastructure is produced, the working class is reproduced, and capital is fully valorized. The commercial and financial phases are merely making money off of circulating money, and the financial phase in particular is seen as capitalism in decline.

This tripartite model is problematic and weakest when it comes to the pre-industrial Genoese and Dutch cycles, and only comes into its own with the British and American cycles. What’s more, its best to take this theory as descriptive rather than prescriptive. The center for world capitalist market power shifted from Genoa, through the Netherlands and Britain, to the United States, where it is predicted to shift again, probably to Asia, since American-centered capitalism is financializing and thus in decline. But will that shift occur? Or are we in the End Time, the final crisis of capitalism?

This model works admirably well in describing what happened when American-based capitalism changed from production to finance, which can be pinned down roughly to 1973. The Keynesianism of the Kennedy/Johnson era transitioned to the neoliberalism of the Thatcher/Reagan era when the political and cultural unrest, growth in social programs and expansion of the welfare state, and strong organized labor and strong middle class of the 1960s gave way to the rollback of government regulations, the welfare state, the public realm, and unions of the 1980s. The neoliberal trend began when the rank-and-file labor rebellions and wildcat strikes of the 1970s were routed, then was formalized with the defeat of organized labor by Reagan’s breaking the PATCO unions and Thatcher’s trouncing the striking miners, and was finally enshrined with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Marxism appears to be bankrupt. This is, of course, the beginning of my crisis of the Left and on the Right, and my global interregnum. But why did it happen?

The short, Marxist answer is that the change from Keynesianism to neoliberalism, from affluence to austerity, from production to finance, is due to a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. If I had to choose between the lively polemics and exhortations of the 1848 Manuscripts, Communist Manifesto, and Critique of the Gotha Program versus the dry scientific analysis of Capital’s three volumes, I would choose the former every time. That’s because my mathematical chops are seriously lacking, even though I think there are insights to be had in Marxist economic statistics, formulas, and models. One such outstanding Marxist economist was Henryk Grossman whose work The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System attempted to formulate mathematical laws of capital accumulation, how it operates and why it falls short. The tendency for the rate of profit to fall (mainly due to the changing organic composition of capital) can be offset by capitalism’s creative destruction (state austerity, economic depression, war).

In the grand scheme of things then, when capitalist production became less and less profitable the economy transitioned to finance capitalism. Neoliberalism as the ideology of finance capitalism is all about deregulating and financializing the economy, rolling back the welfare state, crushing organized labor, and privatizing the public realm to reverse the falling rate of profit, and as such it’s a rightwing ideology of capitalist decline and crisis. Will this be capitalism’s final crisis as originally predicted by Marx himself, or simply the shift of capitalist power in a world economy to Asia as currently predicted by world systems theory? I can’t say, since I’m being descriptive and not prescriptive. But is capitalism-without-end really possible, or are we quickly reaching the planet’s carrying capacity for cancerous economic growth? That’s a question that will have to wait for a future column.

NOTE: Financial capitalism is a whole system, to include the state and most corporations, not merely the international banking system. This must be made clear in a time of Left/Right Red/Brown crossover politics. I’m particularly leery of talk about “international bankers” or that not-so-clever portmanteau “banksters” because it so easily slips into teleological conspiracy theory and “international jewish” idiocy.

FOOTNOTE: After La Méditerranée, Braudel’s most famous work is Civilisation Matérielle, Économie et Capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe (Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800). The first volume was published in 1967, and was translated to English in 1973. The last of the three-volume work appeared in 1979.[9] The work is a broad-scale history of the pre-industrial modern world, presented in the minute detail demanded by the methodological school called cliometrics, and focusing on how regular people made economies work. Like all Braudel’s major works, the book mixed traditional economic material with thick description of the social impact of economic events on various facets of everyday life, including food, fashion, and other social customs. The third volume, subtitled “The Perspective of the World”, was strongly influenced by the work of German scholars like Werner Sombart. In this volume, Braudel traced the impact of the centers of Western capitalism on the rest of the world. Braudel wrote the series both as a way of explanation for the modern way and partly as a refutation of the Marxist view of history.[10]

Braudel discussed the idea of long-term cycles in the capitalist economy that he saw developing in Europe in the 12th century. Particular cities, and later nation-states, follow each other sequentially as centers of these cycles: Venice and Genoa in the 13th through the 15th centuries (1250–1510); Antwerp in the 16th century (1500–1569); Amsterdam in the 16th through 18th centuries (1570–1733); and London (and England) in the 18th and 19th centuries (1733–1896). He used the word “structures” to denote a variety of social structures, such as organized behaviours, attitudes, and conventions, as well as physical structures and infrastructures. He argued that the structures established in Europe during the Middle Ages contributed to the successes of present-day European-based cultures. He attributed much of this to the long-standing independence of city-states, which, though later subjugated by larger geographic states, were not always completely suppressed—probably for reasons of utility.

Braudel argued that capitalists have typically been monopolists and not, as is usually assumed, entrepreneurs operating in competitive markets. He argued that capitalists did not specialize and did not use free markets, thus diverging from both liberal (Adam Smith) and Marxian interpretations. In Braudel’s view, the state in capitalist countries has served as a guarantor of monopolists rather than a protector of competition, as it is usually portrayed. He asserted that capitalists have had power and cunning on their side as they have arrayed themselves against the majority of the population.[11]

It should be noted that an agrarian structure is a long-term structure in the Braudelian understanding of the concept. On a larger scale the agrarian structure is more dependent on the regional, social, cultural and historical factors than on the state’s undertaken activities.[12]

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