Thursday 27 October 2011

On the poverty of anti-capitalist imagination

Europe is in turmoil. The financial system is close to collapse and the watchwords are solidarity, anti-capitalism and greed. You could be forgiven to think that this is a scenario written by Marx and his followers. Yet, the default position of every politician in East and West is repair and reform, not revolution. Why? What happened to the convictions of the left? Where are the radical plans for the social and political transformation of our societies? 
The most striking aspect of the deep political, economic and social convulsions across Europe and America is the almost complete absence of communist, socialist and leftist voices in the debate about how to change our societies for the better. To be clear, there are many who are bearing the anti-capitalist banner. The anger and disillusion with capitalism is real and palpable. Yet prick those anti-capitalist discussions and the hot air escapes instantly, deflating the big balloon of anti-capitalist rhetoric. There is not a single serious proposal for social, economic and political re-structuring that has not been either already adopted by the moderate centre ground (banking reform; taxes) or is itself a beacon of moderation (pension reforms in the public sector). 
What happened to the great ideological struggles, the antagonistic clashes of the past? And where are the socialist blueprints of Jerusalem? After the election of Tony Blair, many commentators complained that the main political parties had become less tribal, crowding together in the centre ground. Has the population followed suit? Are we becoming more moderate in our political convictions? 
There are several factors that may have contributed to the slow death of socialism as a radical political transformative force in developed countries. The first is welfare and the increase in wealth. As a greater section of society becomes better off, those who only have to loose their shackles (Marx) become fewer. The most vocal supporters and campaigners for a left cause are now sons and daughters of the middle and upper middle classes, and you cant help feeling that their convictions have more to do with youthful rebellion against their parents than with their familiarity of the Marxist analysis of the accumulation of capital. 
Another important factor is the decline of labour struggles as manufacturing, and the friction that comes with employment issues, has been exported to China and the emerging economies. In its wake Western societies have become far more adept at developing mechanisms for resolving labour conflicts, while governments have also largely accepted that the spill over effect of prolonged labour disputes into the economy should be avoided. This tempers everyone’s taste for fights on the streets. 
The most important factor however may be something else: a widespread acceptance that communism does not work, a lesson learned across Europe as the legacy of Post-Communist Revolutions makes itself felt. You only have to visit Lithuania, Estonia or Poland to see the remarkable transformations of those societies that have toiled for decades under communism. They are the striking examples of how communism worked under a false premise: that making everyone more equal economically also meant that everyone was better off. Under communism all these countries faced an enormous amount of problems: economic, social, political, and environmental. What killed ‘real existing socialism’ in the end was the inability to change. 
That’s why socialism is so absent from our debates on how to change societies today. Socialism has no answers to the most important question for the survival of any society: how to maintain change. It is essentially a doctrine of stasis, simultaneously failing to demonstrate a path to a better society and, once established, how to keep it alive through constant reform. 
Marx was deeply hostile to the idea of reform and change. He fought many of his philosophical struggles against those who developed a blueprint for gradual change of capitalist society. This lack of thinking about change became the achilles heel of communism. Only radical and sudden revolutions could bring about communism, and once established, there were no plans to evolve in the face of difficulties. It was a recipe for ossification. 
Hence socialist and communist proposals on how to deal with the current crisis are absent. The idea that we simply throw out anything we know and start with a blank sheet on Monday has lost its appeal long time ago. Those who blame capitalism for the latest crisis know this and therefore their shouts for anti-capitalist solutions never advance beyond those words. Regret it or not, he highpoints of our debate on solving the current crisis are provided by Red Tories and Blue Labour philosophers. We have lost a radical critique of capitalism but perhaps we are the better for it. 

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