A response to http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/aug/17/left-politics-capitalism-recession and the ensuing discussion especially here: http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=4551
Andy Beckett’s assessment of the lefts potential in the face of capital’s crisis is a tad impressionistic – sketches of a rain-soaked sectarian stallholder here, the tempo of speakers at the SWP’s marxism fest there. Yet he also accurately reveals the potential that socialist ideas could have in the current crisis. Nevertheless, in assuming the ‘left’ could have taken immediate advantage of the crisis of capitals neo-liberal phase, he perhaps overlooks the real reasons why that ‘left’ has vanished and departed the stage of history.
There has for a long time been a crisis in working class politics, – a profound crisis for the labour movement and for socialism. . The central problem was the inability of the labour movement to adapt to the new conditions of the class struggle in the last quarter of the twentieth century .
Traditional Social Democratic politics fitted the phase of ‘organised capitalism’ (or state monopoly capitalism) – a model that flourished around the world in different forms in the mid twentieth century but then began to break up alongside the crisis of capitalism between 1968 and 1973. Capital soon formulated its response to its crisis – the advance of neoliberal globalisation, or what we once called ‘Thatcherism’. However, the traditional, conservative and nationalistic politics of social democracy and Stalinism were unable to respond.
We all know the history. Domestically the syndicalism and sectionalism of the British Trades Union movement was no match for Thatchers political and organised class war offensive, which mobilised the full powers of the state and the social alliances around the ruling class to crush the miners. Thatcher spent more on the war against the miners than on the Falklands War to crush the working class ‘enemy within’. In response, the Trades Union leaders stood by and failed to mobilise the necessary solidarity strike action across society that would match the determination of Thatcher. Then the Labour Party responded by totally capitulating ideologically and adopting Thatcherism or neoloberlism as its own creed for itself. At the same time, the centrally planned system of state organised capitalism in the Soviet Union (once the most advanced part of the world capitalist system at its mid twentieth century zenith) was unable to match the globalised networked economies that ‘western’ neoliberalism was now discovering. Social Democratic and Stalinist ideas finally disintegrated, removing the main ideological glue from an already defeated and decomposing working class. The end result of all this was ‘new labour’ and now the current reality of an exhausted and discredited rightwing labour government facing the beginning of a profound and protracted global crisis of capital.
Unfortunately rightwing racist and nationalistic ideas will find resonance in this situation, as we saw across Europe at the Euro-elections. But capital has long burst the bounds of its nationally organised social democratic forms, and gains its enhanced power over the working class from ever more globalised relations. Therefore it can only be successfully confronted by another globalised class. And at the same time capitalism has made the working class ever more international – through migration and globalisation, although this appears as the current source of working class weakness and division. Thus the current battles for the heart and soul of the working class – the attempt to combat the forces of racism and xenophobia – represent a key factor in the working classes recomposition as a global class, and the rediscovery or reforging of its power at a new level.
In order to transform this situation, however, we must not only wage battles over racism and nationalism, important as these are. To succeed, these struggles must be connected to the project of building mass united working class self-defence against the capitalist recession. As we have witnessed on a small scale at Vestas on the Isle of Wight – the workforce of a previously un-unionised factory in a conservative area can rise to significant heights of militancy and class consciousness very quickly if they take action for themselves. The tactic of occupation can sometimes now make sense in the face of job losses. Furthermore, it represents a new horizon of possibility, overcoming the associations that previous tactics of simple sectional strikes have with defeat – a memory stretching back to what became the great defeat of 1984-85.
Visteon and Vestas on their own have a limited (but growing) impact. But what if a site the size of Corus Steelworks with thousands of workers went into occupation against job josses? What if there were several regional such actions simultaneously? It is not inconceivable to start to talk about ‘tipping points’ in the balance of class forces.
Of course part and parcel of such a fightback would be the development of a new political programme to transcend the failures of the past, of social democracy, economism and reformism – as well as of both stalinism and sectarianism. One of the most significant new developments since the late twentieth century has been rise in consciousness about the environmental crisis. As capitalism proves unable to make the transition to a sustainable techno-economic base, other more cooperative social forms and forces must step in and take the lead. The vestas occupation represents the potential for a new counter-hegemonic alliance of environmentalism and trades unionism that can begin to challenge the logic of capital. Ecological socialist solutions must therefore become a key part of the new programme for the recomposition of the working class on a global scale – once more as a class for itself.
There are many other dimensions for this potential socialist renaissance that lie latent within our contemporary capitalist society: Capitalism relies on ever more cooperative forces of production – appropriating the ‘commons’ of scientific and academic knowledge for its ‘knowledge based economy’ or generating the possibility for the free flow and distribution of all knowledge, art, culture, entertainment via information technologies such as the internet. Marx’s original insights on the contradiction between capitalism’s increasing reliance on cooperative and socialised forces of production versus its dependance on their private appropriation grows more relevant as capitalism develops. The battles over these ‘commons’ therefore become more intense. For example, capitalists are currently attempting to stifle the potential of the free sharing of culture through shutting down the file sharing sites and imposing more rules of privatised intellectual property. But only this week it was reported that thousands of people were joining anew ‘pirate party’ for the UK to fight for the right to share against this privatising offensive (and also to fight against the surveillance, or database state) These are some of the new contours of the class struggle that the new programme must recognise and organise around.
Of course such a programme requires organisation. A new programme takes form as it becomes a focus for organising around, just as the experience of organising the class struggle help develop and refine the programme. Organisation and programme are mutually constructed or dialectically co-produced by each other.
And this will take its time, over the coming months and years, in the many new forms of struggle that emerge. Beckett assumes socialists would be the immediate and instant beneficiaries of the woes of neoliberal capitalism. But given the obsolescence and decay of all forms of social democracy, stalinism and nation-state organised capitalism this is not surprising. The new movement and its programme can only be developed in the concrete struggles that are coming as this crisis of the capitalist mode of production drags on over the coming years. The working class and many others will create new forms and locations of resistance. Socialists must attempt to weave these together into a new political paradigm. This act of weaving new cloth requires the real threads of real social struggles, – it cannot be conjured from thin air in an instant. At the same time, this longer term perspective in no way negates the urgency of seizing the initiative in the struggles of the present.