Friday 5 December 2008

Marxism and the Crisis

Revisiting Marx: is Marxism still revelant?, 18 November, LSE and David Harvey on the Communist Manifesto, 20 November, ICA

You wait ages for an interesting meeting on Marxism to come along, then two show up at once. The credit crunch seems to have injected a new vigour into ideas that many thought buried back in the 20th century. Whilst Gordon Brown and others members of the political and financial elite are talking about reviving Keynesianism, there’s also been a more muted, but potentially more encouraging, renewal of interest in the ideas of Marxism to help understand the contemporary situation.

One sign of this has been two meetings held to promote the publication of a ‘luckily’ timed new edition of the Communist Manifesto. David Harvey, a professor at the University of New York and prominent Marxist theorist, the author of the introduction of the new edition, spoke at both, managing to attract some well known proponents of Marxism to the panels, and a surprisingly large and young audience, for both events. At the first debate at LSE, Harvey was joined by Leo Panich, a professor at York University, Ontario, and Meghnad Desai, Emeritus Professor at LSE, and possibly the only self-professed Marxist member of the House of Lords. The second, at the ICA, had Harvey in conversation with Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, chaired by Seamus Milne, the Guardian journalist.

Harvey’s introduction at both debates was fairly similar. Comparing the New York fiscal crisis of the 1970s with the current crisis, he maintained the current crunch wasn’t the ‘end of neoliberalism’ as many had claimed, but in fact fully consistent with it. The real nature of neoliberalism as a ‘class project’ to cement the power of the bourgeoisie is being continued by the financial domination over the state that the ‘bailout’ represents, along with the massive centralisation of wealth and tendency towards monopolisation that is accompanying the downturn. He suggested the capitalist class might face a ‘crisis of legitimation’ to go with their economic one, as their talk about the free market bringing liberty and riches for all increasingly comes into conflict with the reality of having to impose austerity on the working class.

Meghnad Desai took a slightly different tack, arguing that whilst the works of Marx are relevant, traditional ‘Marxism’ may not be. He said that Marx understood that crises aren’t some kind of defect of the capitalist system, but an inherent part of its operation. He also examined how ideology changes as capitalism develops, suggesting that social democracy and Keynesianism are just as capitalist ideologies as neoliberalism. He also defended the continuing progressive elements of capitalism, suggesting that the neoliberalism of the 1980s and 90s did more for third world development than aid programmes, by allowing capital to move to more profitable sites of production in India and China. He reminded the audience that western consumption had been underwritten by third world surpluses in recent years. He argued that capitalism’s democratising tendencies – ‘capital respects no borders’ – would be seen in coming years, as trade rules, for so long dominated by the G7, would be redesigned to benefit the emerging economies. He finished by suggesting two tasks for those looking towards Marxism at the current conjuncture; to understand the incomplete nature of Marx’s critique of capitalism and aim to advance and develop it, and to understand why capitalism holds enduring appeal to many, particularly in China and India.

Panich began by asking two questions: does the aspiration for thoroughgoing social change expressed by Marxism still exist; and if so, are the analytical tools provided by Marxist thinking still capable of theorising and expressing that aspiration? He took a look at the state of the contemporary left in the US, who have a tendency to either advocate the most unrealistic populist demands, or only push for small reformist concessions. Their inability to come up with a coherent and persuasive response is evocative of isolation from the working class; making radical demands in the abstract, without a base of support, (such as Michael Moore’s proposal that Wall Street not be bailed out), is unconvincing. Panich argued that ‘state vs market’ dichotomy that many on the left believed in was wrong, and that a Marxist interpretation of the state could understand why. He suggested that we had to understand the development and failure of working class parties in the 20th century, and begin to rebuild the democratic solidarity that had created them the first time around.

Two days later, Furedi’s response to Harvey’s assessment of the situation was, like Desai, to suggest a reassessment of some elements of what is generally understood to be the Marxist politics. Furedi argued that whilst much of Marx’s critique of the economic operation of capitalism was very pertinent at the moment - the tendency of the rate profit to fall, overproduction, etc., - other factors had made it more an historical document than something of immediate relevance. Furedi argued the Manifesto underestimated the ability of capitalism to restructure itself, overestimated the political maturity of the working class, and, understandably, did not anticipate the 20th century experience of fascism, Stalinism and capitalist restructuring, which effectively destroyed the political independence of the proletariat as a class. He suggested that much of what passes for ‘anti-capitalist’ politics nowadays is pale shadow of its former incarnations – Marx’s politics was more than the redistributionism that so often passes for left wing thinking nowadays, and that much of society had given up on the modernist project altogether.

The audience contributions at both debates covered a plethora of issues ranging from whether China and India would become imperialist powers, despite their colonial experience, to the role of business schools in articulating capitalist thinking.

Time Magazine with Keynes on the front cover, December 31, 1965

At the LSE event, some of the questions focused on the usefulness of Marxism, with accusations that it is an ‘economic determinist’ philosophy. Harvey defended Marx, describing the multifaceted and subtle understanding of how the various ‘moments’ of social existence – nature, the economy, politics, ideology, religion – all impacted and changed each other as society advanced. Other questions challenged Desai, suggesting that he had an overly passive view of the situation, and that the working class needed to organise to combat the recession. He defended himself, suggesting that Marx’s concept of a socialist society was to be achieved by developing through capitalism and transcending it. ‘We tried socialism within capitalism, which was European social democracy, which didn’t work, we tried socialism outside of capitalism, in the USSR, which was barbaric. Socialism will come through developing beyond capitalism.’ He accused many Westerners of becoming disillusioned with the developmental side of capitalism just as it was beginning to produce results for the third world.

On the Thursday, I asked Harvey if he was overestimating the inclination of the working class to spontaneously organise – why would a recession lead to activity rather than passivity? And to Furedi, I asked what the implications of his diagnosis were – should we, like Desai had advocated two nights earlier, just sit back passively and let capitalism play itself out? Other questioners perused a similar line, one suggesting that previous defeats for the working class movement, such as that in 1848, had been catastrophic, but militants had picked themselves up to try again. Why couldn’t we do the same even despite the experiences of the 20th Century?

Harvey agreed there is no linear relationship between recession and radicalism, as the individualised response of criminality had been one outcome of previous recessions; however he said that Furedi’s focus on the depoliticised western working class ignored forces ‘on the periphery’ who were still militant, such as the south American left led by Hugo Chavez, and the recent overthrow of the Nepalese monarchy by a coalition led by Maoists. Furedi spoke of his experience as a child during the 1956 Hungarian revolution; how a passive and defeated people had very rapidly rediscovered their ability to make history, through the right ideas being available at the right time. However he warned that contemporary radicalism, which more resembled the ‘reactionary socialism’ critiqued by Marx in the Communist manifesto, was not going to provide any way out of the current depoliticised impasse.

All in all, these question and argumentative discussions represented a real step up from the usual one dimensional agit-prop that characterises many left wing meetings. Whilst I by no means agreed with all (or any) of the speakers, their attempt to really get to grips with the current situation was refreshing. Furedi and Desai’s realism seemed most convincing to me – they looked at the world as it is, complete with a depoliticised working class and a shift in power to the east - not how they would have liked it to be (a common fault on the left).

But the problem of what we can actually do with these insights remains. Desai’s idea that we can sit back and wait for capitalism to exhaust itself might have a reassuring feeling of historical inevitability about it, but is an essentially passive stance. Capitalism’s continued development is by no means assured – in fact, until the 1990s, it was largely impossible for the capitalist system to bring real economic development to anywhere outside of the old ‘big powers’ of the G7. And the idea of the development of human society as a predetermined linear process separate from political intervention (common amongst many Marxists in the early 20th century) was blown away in 1917 by Lenin’s seizure of power in semi-feudal Russia.

Furedi’s idea of the historical defeat of working class consciousness has its potential problems too. Whilst the fact that ‘there is no alternative’ to the market, at least in any real sense, is a pretty much objective fact, and the collective solidarity of the old working class is long gone, the course that we take from that realisation is by no means fixed. Do we attempt to create afresh an understanding of the limited nature of the capitalist system in the group of people (the working class) with the means and motive to overthrow it? Or do we, as Furedi has suggested elsewhere, ‘defend capitalism from its small-minded opponents’ (1), as they present a greater threat to the broader project of human emancipation than capitalism itself, at least in the short term? I’d contend that those enemies of progress may prove less of a daunting obstacle if we confront what drives and sustains them, and what ultimately they are complicit in – the irrational nature of our current society.

Although clearly much work needs to be done, these meetings were an encouraging starting point for understanding just that irrational basis for our current economic difficulties, and perhaps for beginning to change them.

(1) Furedi F, Capitalism after the ‘credit crunch’: what is it good for?, spiked 30 November, 2008

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