Socialism at the Millennium
Capitalism's World Disorder: Working Class Politics at the Millennium - Jack Barnes
Whose Millennium?: Theirs or Ours? - Daniel Singer
On the Eve of the Millennium: The future of democracy through an age of Unreason - Conor Cruise O'Brien
Much of the 'political' discussion about the Millennium in Britain has been dominated by criticisms of the workings of the millennium commission. As many cynics have opined, the erection of an oversized tent in an old wastewater of London marked by a smudge on most maps, and an out of place fairground ride, smack of a failure of imagination all round. Clearly there is much mileage in poking fun at a Government that continuously speaks of a New Britain and a new vision, yet relies on Marks and Spencer to sponsor its Millennium exhibition's section on fashion. More significant though is whilst social inclusion and social justice have become the political ethos of the new government, what is notoriously absent from any of the proposed Millennium festivities, is any real public debate on the nature or future of Britain at the turn of the century.
Clearly the year 2000 is nothing special in itself - we need attach no real importance to the particular show of numbers on the dial. Indeed the Swiss, that nation with a real penchant for horology, believe the real millennium should be celebrated a year later. What is significant for the socially and politically initiated is not the event itself, but the meaning that will inevitably be attached to it. For many commentators it is a safe bet to discuss the C21st in terms of the era of information technology and a globalised polity. For others, perhaps those who seek to fulfil their readers desire for drama, will couple this development with warnings of the potential disintegration of the world along the lines of exploded ethnic, cultural and national conflict. Such predictions, suitably vague to encompass all that might happen, will be popular because such a prognosis arises out of the prevailing consciousness as the dominant developments of the C20th.
One of the reasons it is critical to question the millennium discussions, is the clear danger that the understanding of the last century will be hermetically sealed. It has already become a commonplace utterance to speak of the past ten decades as the age of extremes, the era when' grand ideological narratives collided with such force that the destiny of millions where shaped uncontrollably from on high. Still reeling from a post-cold war triumphalism, fascism and communism have become points of unquestionable political reference for much of the Western establishments prescriptions for the middle-way of liberal democracy - where toleration and abhorrence of excess have seemingly conjoined.
For most then, a return to old discourses about the social is impossible. Capitalism and liberal democracy are the name of the game, as the C20th has proved, any imposition of an alternative social system would upset the balance of freedoms and responsibilities that are enshrined in the tradition of Western democracy. Below we shall look at three different critical engagements with this discourse, each of which in its own respect offers something towards an understanding of our inglorious past and troubled future. I say troubled because although Capitalism is ascendant this has occurred whilst the negative effects of its operation have become increasingly apparent.
Barnes's book Capitalism's World Disorder is indeed a timely piece. This is a hefty volume with an expansive breadth of scope that aims to reveal the real workings behind the much mystified socio-economic world. The standpoint adopted is unashamedly that of the unreconstructed left for whom the designations of Capitalist and worker have lost little of their explanatory appeal. Published by Pathfinder for the (American) Socialist Workers Party the book is comprised of a collection of speeches from Party conferences over the last 5 years.
One of the strong points about the book, is the recognition that the logic of Capital's expansion on the world market is not the only logic of Globalisation. Dismissing much of the ideological gloss that free-market apologists for the market have invested in the term, Barnes is keen to point out that alongside capital expansion, there are correlated changes in the nature of labour, that have a political significance. A case in point is the recognition that closely linked to the internationalisation of capital, is the establishment of more rigid frontiers between traditional nation states, designed to restrict the flow of labour. Responding to what he believes is seen as positive in these developments, Barnes points out that Capital develops with its contradictions i.e. its own logic points towards the internationalisation of the labour force. Though we might not share Barnes confidence that such an economic development has an inherently positive consequence, his contribution is to demonstrate that we should observe these economic processes in their totality.
Somewhat predictably the volume orientates around the axis of a counter position of the might of global capital and capitalist states on the one hand, and on the other a opposition to capitalism that has been galvanised by 'radical youth', and 'revolutionary workers'. The retention of its working polarisation between capital and worker, is both the importance and shortcoming of the book. Indeed any resonant aspects of this book, come from its desire to treat capital and labour in their organic unity. Yet the fact that it takes the antagonisms between the two as its crucial content, does not enhance its explanatory ability. The more implicit problem is the subjective approach to the simple working counterposition that is the foundation of his book.
The practical focus of the book is obvious from the start. Barnes is speaking to the SWP and the content is always geared towards the practical political needs of that organisation, often at the expense of an objective view of things. Indicative is that whereas the book needs to exemplify in strongest terms the increasing power and hegemony of capitalist relations, in order to fuel a drive to recruitment - it also fuels the notion that the revolution is just around the corner, that 'young people are becoming radicalised' and that workers are beginning to fight back and demand political answers.
Many on the old left have little left except this kind of optimism. Yet in Barnes, the examples of resistance from the young and the working class are extremely eclectic and do not bear much scrutiny. A case in point is when Barnes turns to look at the United Kingdom. Apparently Britain is pregnant with a new surge of 'social protest led by the example of the downtrodden and war weary catholic population in Northern Ireland. Rather than understanding the current state of play of radical politics in terms of the general state of defeat - every instance of protest in the world is simply twisted around to present the idea that the revolution is just around the corner if only the SWP could be more effectively proactive in shaping those struggles. Although the author recognises that 'a gap exists between the assaults by the capitalist rulers and the beginning of any sustained counter-punching by the Working Class' - he seems to think that the gap can be filled by backslapping and comradely talk, mistaking often quite incoherent and reactionary political developments for ones that can be channelled in a positive direction.
Though in his study important facts about the nature of exploitation are shown to the reader, we have to be wary that the limits of Barnes analysis will be taken as the limits of a class based understanding of society.' There are many difficulties with Capitalism's world disorder. It is a clear example of preaching to the converted, where the questions posed and answers given are geared towards solidifying the internal logic and understanding of a political organisation, whilst any correspondence to the real world decreases. Indeed its blinkered outlook prevents it from recognising that simply pointing out the failings of capitalism, does not necessarily lead to a radical agenda.' We are often faced with environmentalists and ecologists who read the devastating consequences of capitalism, as the inherent destructive consequences of the activity of man. Often behind seemingly radical confrontations between the young and the state, the moving force is a deep seated contempt for politics.
After the initial triumphalism that accompanied the fragmentation of the Eastern bloc, it was quickly noticeable that the problems of capitalism were coming under scrutiny. With the collapse of the major challenge to a market run economy it became somewhat easier to be critical of the forces of the market. so long as that critique did not point to anti-capitalist alternatives. Suddenly stripped of its ideological trappings, the bare face of Capital was apparent to many. For instance it soon became clear to the East that they had won the' freedom to yearn after Coca-Cola and Levi's. Capital moves to - or Capitalists invest in - places where it can accrue profit. To consume one has to produce. Rather than Capital simply rushing into the new markets in Eastern Europe, it did so slowly and selectively
At the same time as the world has embraced the market, criticisms of its internal disorder have considerably increased. One market did open up, it was for a rivulet of books, many from the traditional right, bemoaning the ravages of Capital. With the absence of its alternative, from all quarters, Capitalism was stripped of its varnish and sheen.' In describing the capitalist world as one of disorder, Jack Barnes is the unlikely bedfellow of George Soros; in lamenting its inequality of wealth, Barnes shares the stage with Philip Roth.
The internal contradictions of capitalism as a social basis for production do need to be pointed out. However, the left needs to be wary that these ideas have popular appeal not because of a positive sense of the possibilities for a different type of society, but precisely because of' a deep seated cynicism about politics and the possibility of change. Singer's book makes this crisis of alternatives its centrifugal force. Though sharing many of its criticisms of Capitalism Whose Millennium? has a more powerful argument than Barnes, because it addresses the crisis of capitalism in this political context. Rather than simply trying to radicalise mainstream consciousness, the point of Singers book is to make an argument for a positive political project, mediated through a review of the historical precedents that have shaped the appearance of politics in the here and now.' His particular areas of concern are Russia , Poland and France which are treated with a sobriety and lucidity that is on occasion quite arresting. After reading the sanguine call to arms of Barnes, Singers book is indeed a relief to the reader.
Though the itinerary has less scope than Barnes, Singer's whistle stop tour of the C20th, gives shape and depth to how the idea that there is no alternative arose. Though we should take the Marxian allusions such as the pretension to 'move from the particular to the general' with a pinch of salt, there is much in Singers analysis. His discussion of the Soviet Union is a case in point. After describing the problems of the Soviet Union in terms of their truncation from the international division of labour, he goes on to show that the present problems in the region, are the result not of (as popular prejudice would have it) the problem of transition from Stalinist Communism to Capitalism, but the product of the operation of the laws of capital themselves. What we have in Russia for instance, is not an economy struggling to change to the whims of the world market, but a society now fully embedded, (and seemingly much the worse for it) in the laws of operation of profit based production. Moreover what could have been a more fitting context for this inauguration of capitalism, than a transformation that came from above rather than below, one in which people were objects rather than subjects of the revolution.
This fact is important as it indicates that 'the light will not come from the East', from a demoralised and subjugated masses. For Singer we need to look to the West for the potential battle ground.
By focusing on the crisis of alternatives, Singer is more sensitive to the role of the left. He remains similar to Barnes in that he acknowledges that Capitalism is in a state of crisis, that rates of output growth and labour productivity are anything but increasing. Moreover, globalisation is understood as a process whereby the rule of capital is extended, as a process of control rather than liberation which is but the gloss of pundits of the information technology revolution. Singers analysis is different though in respect to the fact that he is sensitive to the defeat of labour, and can thus appreciate how large sections of the left in the 1970s began to surrender to capitalism as the only alternative - at the very time when Capitalism was entering into major structural crisis.
Important for Singer is to show that we need a notion of an alternative before there can be any sustained political action. He is able to view the left as an objective element in our recent history in a way that Barnes can not. Though for Singer reinvigorating a leftist agenda does mean showing that real equality is not possible under capitalism, this is couched in the subtle understanding that the conditions for an equal society must come from the bottom up. The implications of such a position are that a correct understanding of the nature of radical forces is the only way to comprehend the possibilities of a radical socialist future. Singer's book ends by outlining what an alternative society might look like, and how it could come about through the combination of forces organising themselves around real egalitarian principles. Much of this we can take or leave, and recognise that if a social subjectivity were existent these ideas would be given more concrete shape by the agents involved in that process. Singer ends on an optimistic note, namely that the 1995 strikes in France were the seeds of a new growth of labour activism. What these events did show is that the rule of capital is open to question, yet it is too soon to draw the conclusion that they are the beginning of the new or the last whimpers of the old.
So far, we have looked at two approaches which are familiarly left-wing, though the latter more subtle and appealing in its ability to characterise the central political problem of the here and now.' Both books have positioned themselves in a class based understanding of the world, and both point out in a limited way, that though the rule of capital has been extended in far reaching ways, this occurs at the same time as its economic crisis.' Yet crucial to understanding the crisis of alternatives, the contemporary disbelief that radical political change is possible, is the recognition of the political crisis of the establishment that has accompanied its economic crisis. When we talk of the defeat of the labour movement, it is important to recognise one of the element of this being an ideological attack on the idea of determinative action. When socialist goals and working class emancipation are linked it is customary to the point of banality to rejoin, what about Russia? When people point to the example of the Soviet Union, what are they really saying but 'it is impossible to rationally co-ordinate a collective society'. Proponents of this point of view will point to an aggressive or selfish human nature, or inherent greed and corruption in any political institution.
To the left this is a familiar argument and the better responses normally state that capitalism forces people to behave in certain ways, or that what is endemic to a social system are naturalised to be the eternal properties of man. These protests are undeniably justified. Yet what is more significant is that the rationale behind the attack on socialism and its conception of human nature simultaneously undermines the credence with which capitalistic institutions such as the state, law and morality are based. This is to say that by denying the possibility of mans ability to control his destiny, the higher aspects of the liberal view of the individual as a rational agent becomes difficult to defend . It is difficult to sustain an argument for democracy when the justification for such a system arises from the negation of the idea that mankind has the possibility to control its own future.
This is why O'Brien's book, On the Eve of the Millennium adds an important shade to this complex picture. O'Brien makes no pretensions to understanding the world in terms of capitalism or the working class. Indeed he is unashamedly elitist.' What O'Brien is particularly sensitive to though is an intellectual degeneration. Crucial is O'Brien's identification of the destructive character of various intellectual currents in the West. Writing back in 1994 when political correctness was all the vogue, he derisively dubs this and Multiculturalism; Orwellian Newspeak. For O'Brien, the ethos of political correctness that has been imbibed by Western institutions has very quickly become a mockery of our culture. In his polemic against American students who chant 'Western cultures got to go', O'Brien makes a few brief yet insightful observations. Perhaps most importantly, O'Brien points out that these students are merely echoing the opinions of their institutions their lecturers and popular ideas, rather than their enthusiasm being based on a generational impulse. Their is little positive in their rejection of Western culture, they do not seek to replace it with other forms. What they really appear to be reacting to is culture itself, and in so doing (despite anti-capitalists pretensions) are questioning one of the central aspects of what it means to be human. Even if this pseudo-radicalism is directed against an old elite, one can not help thinking that it verges on the edge of nihilism. If so we ought to be wary of precisely what Barnes sees as radical in today's youth.' O'Brien as a member of that old elite, is clearly disgruntled by the apathy and cynicism that he finds rooted in multiculturalism, deconstruction and political correctness. Yet when O'Brien turns to defend reason as the idee maitresse of the modern world he simply fails to come up with the goods. O'Brien would like to think that these currents are a passing phase, due die out in the next quarter of a century through their own contradictions. What is somewhat troubling, is that O'Brien uses the contentless anti-elitism of the pluralist left, to springboard his own defence of the Enlightenment as an elitist project. And who does he invoke in his defence, but dear old Edmund Burke!
What is telling about O'Briens' book, is that though he recognises that in the current era, democratic and enlightenment values are seriously under threat, his only defence is to revert to an elitism. Though he doubts the survival of the British monarchy, he fears its disappearance will threaten democracy in Britain and the West. All O'Brien can imagine as a message for the future is a defence of tradition. Yet what should we learn from the C20th?
O'Brien has a clear answer - we need to become aware of 'the dark side in ourselves'. Whilst O'Brien finds it incumbent to defend reason and democracy, he appears to find it difficult to reconcile this with his rather pessimistic views on human nature.'
For O'Brien democracy is all about elections, and to get elected politicians must vie for popularity. Democracy is degraded into a popularity contest. Indeed democratic institutions have strayed from their core enlightenment principles and have become hypocritical, as exemplified by America's military intervention in Haiti named 'Operation restore democracy' (writing in 1994 O'Brien missed out on the far richer hypocrisy of Nato's recent attacks on the Serbs). O'Brien's problem is much the problem of the establishment, his incoherence is symbolic of the lack of cohesion of the hegemonic class itself that has lost its identity with the death of its other.
Writing about how most commentators flinch away from the reality of the world, as in for instance relations between North and South, O'Brien suggests we are heading towards a collective madness. The reader waits in awe for the intellectual to tell us what this reality is.
For O'Brien this reality turns out to be a Malthusian nightmare, 'an overcrowded world'. A world in which the position of the West O'Brien makes analogous to the survivors in a life boat on a stricken sea, who under orders from the Captain, sever the hands of those clinging on to the boat from the water' - to protect the 'privileged' from drowning. We can but gaze with incredulity' at such a base vision. One fears that the intellectual must have been projecting when a few pages earlier he writes '...how can you apply reason to the human situation if your cognitive processes have decayed, or been debauched, to such an extent that you are being presented, and are presenting yourself, with a falsified picture of the human situation'. How indeed!
O'Brien's inability to identify capitalism as the source of world economic problems leads him to conclude that the problem in the world is people, whether too many or not enough of the right kind we leave to the guessing. We pointed out above how the hegemonic class naturalises capitalist relations. In times of' economic dynamism this can lead to positive affirmations about mans potential, in times such as these, it can to lead to miserable and depraved nightmares that verge on the medieval. It is time for progressive forces to show that the true defence of reason means moving forward rather than defending a conservative elitism.
Apathy and misanthropism certainly characterise the contemporary political climate. Yet this political climate has its origins in the political crisis of the establishment as much as the disintegration of the left. The significance this has for a progressive agenda is that new forms of resistance must align themselves to a positive view of mankind's potential. The political incoherence and moral disarray of the establishment, will not continue for ever. Yet currently it indicates that the ruling elites are ideologically circumscribed in their ability to show any meaning in human affairs. Western establishments are losing their formal adherence to enlightenment values, which their social system prevented from being realised. The collapse of the right's monopoly on notions of universality, progress, reason and equality, gives the left the opportunity to pick up these principles for ourselves, and show that the true realisation of their content is only possible when capitalist relations are too buried in history.
The likelihood of a radical social transformation seems today a dim possibility. But the potential seems so dire, partly because many of us, with the Bourgeois elites, have lost our faith in reason and man. But the limits of the ruling classes are not the limits of man, and what was good in the enlightenment is better preserved in the socialist project than that of the decadent class. What is up for grabs at the moment is the battle for ideas. Young people find little meaning in the world, not in spite of, but because of the hegemony of contradictory social relations. In our critique of the world and its false representation, we can provide people with a radical knowledge and a radical meaning that might yet fuel their fires. The consolidation of the left in today's climate, millennium or no millennium, means picking up the gauntlet that history has thrown down. The power of an anti-capitalist critique today is as strong as therein, it is able to defend what it means to be human. By presenting alternatives to capitalism, we are invariably asserting one of the most essential facets of this. Reason allows us to understand the meaning of mans activity and social organisations as processes of becoming and overcoming. The socialist project that consciously embodies this transformative principle, must demonstrate that the defence of reason is only possible by making it a reality, the working basis of our social organisation. The power to change ourselves and our environment through reason are qualities that make us human. The restatement of this at the core of a progressive politics, ought to help forge the framework whereby political struggle can once again reach a point of revolutionary rupture.