Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Utopianism of Reforming Capitalism

Book Review: "What We Are Fighting For: A Radical Collective Manifesto" – ed by Federico Campagna and Emanuele Campiglio

What We Are Fighting For consists of 20 short articles written by various thinkers and activists connected with the anti-austerity and Occupy movements that have emerged in recent years.

Where it is at its best, it is essentially Marxism in disguise. Michael Albert’s ‘balanced job complexes’ is a concise reformulation of what Marx described as ‘ending the division between mental and manual labour’, whilst Richard Seymour’s discussion of the ‘new model commune’ essentially outlines the functions of the early Soviets.

Occasionally, the Marxism is overt. Peter Hallward’s defence of the notion of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is a useful reminder that radical forces will be viciously crushed if they ever start to make an impact – and as the author of a detailed study of the repression of the Haitian popular movement in recent years, it is a lesson with which he is all too familiar.

Where it is less good is where it neglects class analysis altogether. Some writers fall victim to the all-too-prevalent trap on the left of treating neoliberalism as a policy choice, rather than simply the natural expression of crisis-era capitalism. The danger here is that this can lead to a deradicalised nostalgia for the days of Keynesianism: not only uninspiring as a vision of a future society, but impossible to deliver for a capitalism operating in a different economic climate – not to mention the immorality of demanding a return to a social democracy that was predicated on colonial and neocolonial exploitation. Pettifor even presents 1930s USA and Britain as models, as they “threw off the chains of private banking” by, in the case of the British Tory administration, leaving the Gold Standard. But a ruling class forced by workers’ revolt – mutiny in this case - to adopt measures to save its own skin should hardly operate as the yardstick of progressiveness.  One wonders what those who were on the receiving end of means tests and benefits cuts would make of this depiction of the 1930s as an era of progressive government.

Owen Jones is also here, employing his masterly trademark combination of stating the bleeding obvious whilst totally missing the point. A new working class movement must, he tells us, demand well-paid jobs. Thanks Owen!

The problem with presenting the capitalism that existed thirty years ago as some kind of ‘radical alternative’ is that it thoroughly emasculates the term. Certainly critiques of neoliberalism are useful – but only if neoliberalism is properly understood as the mechanism of bourgeois exploitation in the era of capitalist crisis, and not simply an unfortunate and misguided policy choice.

As Alberto Toscano points out in his contribution, it is today precisely reformism – with its dreams of reinstating a system that was the product of entirely different social conditions – that is now utopian, akin to demanding that the sun come out at midnight.

Where the book succeeds, then, is less in its analysis and more in its commitment to the process of beginning to map out alternatives to capitalism. The Mondragon cooperative movement in the Basque country and practical examples of democratically controlled finance from Vietnam make Milford Bateman’s chapter interesting reading. Shaun Chamberlain highlights the importance of creating counter-narratives to challenge the hegemony of ruling class mythology and posits that our “fundamental challenge” lies in “challenging and changing the stories that define success, identity and meaning in our culture”. David Graeber develops this theme by arguing for the need to redefine certain key terms that have been colonized by the enemy, such as work, democracy and communism, to rescue their meanings from the parodies they have been reduced to by the ruling class.

A further theme that emerges is that of democratization of the economy: emphasizing the fact that capitalism is a fundamentally authoritarian institution, in complete contrast to its own pious claims; and self-government, therefore, is its antithesis. Albert’s contribution, sketching out what a genuinely participatory economy might look like, succeeds in opening the debate as to how a socialist society might actually work.

There are other interesting suggestions here: Dan Hind, for example, discusses the practicalities of organizing a democratic, publicly commissioned mass media. Whilst not possible until after a revolution, in my view, envisioning post-revolutionary possibilities is nevertheless a worthwhile activity; and, far from being an exercise in pie-in-the-sky utopianism can actually become a motivational subjective force for revolution in itself. The danger is that without a revolutionary outlook behind such ideas, there is always the possibility that these ideas can be embraced, neutered and sold back to us by a capitalism hungry for new ideas; as Campagna puts it, “capitalism [always] manages… to follow our requests to the letter and to return them to us realized, if slightly modified. That slight modification, as we all know, is the tiny poison pill that turns all our ‘realized’ demands into even tighter chains.”

The book’s tagline is a misnomer: it’s clearly not a manifesto. But it is a step towards the kind of debate necessary if one is to be written. 

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