“The linguistic construction of post-capitalist hegemony opens a space for the engendering of the public sphere”. Sounds ominous and deep. Sounds knowledgeable. Then what about the next sentence: “The illusion of praxis carries with it the discourse of the public sphere.” amd the next: “The emergence of normative value(s) opens a space for the ideology of the public sphere.” I could write a whole essay about that topic in the style that typified the so-called post-modernist explosion in social sciences in the 1970s and beyond. Aah, Pomo, the nonsensical shift in literary endeavour that has set the Left back as much as the embrace of Monetarism and, more generally, neo-liberalism. This blog continues to add to the material we are working on as part of my next book (with co-author, Italian journalist Thomas Fazi), which traces the way the Left fell prey to what we call the globalisation myth and formed the view that the state has become powerless (or severely constrained) in the face of the transnational movements of goods and services and capital flows. This material will be part of the final section of the book, which we are sort of calling a ‘Progressive Manifesto’, designed to guide policy design and policy choices for progressive governments. We also hope that the ‘Manifesto’ will empower community groups by demonstrating that the TINA mantra, where these alleged goals of the amorphous global financial markets are prioritised over real goals like full employment, renewable energy and revitalised manufacturing sectors is bereft and a range of policy options, now taboo in this neo-liberal world are available. The book will be published in 2017 by Pluto Books, London. This blog examines the way the Left became entranced with post-modernism and fell into the trap of disappearing into crevices of meaningless at the expense of a focus on class struggle and a coherent critique of capitalism. We argue that critique is an essential part of the revitalisation of the Left political struggle against neo-liberalism and the restoration of the Left as a political force.
Thankfully, I can get the The Virtual Academic: a random sentence generator to do the work for me. Beautifully crafted nonsense.
Or I can get whole academic papers written by the Postmodernism Generator which will save me time and demonstrate how erudite I am (not!).
The Marxist tradition had developed in the Age of Englightenment, which had concerned itself with trying to understand perception and the existence of objective reality.
Marx responded to the central belief systems in that period by advancing his notion of historical materialism, which, in short, posited that:
1. We can understand the objective reality (a central Enlightenment construct) of Capitalism by understanding the logic and dynamics of class conflict or class struggle.
2. Class struggle is a central focus of any attempt to understand the dynamics of capitalism.
3. Within this conflict, the working class can identify as a collective, which can transform history and move the mode of production from capitalism to socialism and then, ultimately, to a communist state.
Human agency, organised into classes (defined in relation to ownership of the material means of production, which bestowed on the owners the capacity to exploit the non-owners by expropriating the real output that they produced in surplus of subsistance need) was thus at the centre of Marx’s ideas on historical development.
Postmodernism emerged in the late 1960s in fact, as a response to disillusionment with the radicalism of that time that had been engendered by attempts to apply the ideas of Marx and others.
It was a period where the ‘Stalinism’ of the Soviet and Chinese states were becoming increasingly unacceptable to Marxist-oriented thinkers in the West.
It was obvious that these regimes were brutal and had lost the plot with respect to the main message of Marx – to liberate workers from capitalist oppression and chart a course towards a free state in nature for people to prosper – materially and intellectually.
It was also a time after the French rebellion in May 1968 failed (along with major ructions in Japan, Mexico, Germany and Spain and elsewhere) and the splintering of student groups into factions (Brigate Rosse, Baader-Meinhof etc) saw them descend into so-called revolutionary modes of action (aimed at overthrowing the state and NATO etc), which were otherwise known as drug infested, criminality.
And, globalisation was placing new pressures on national economies to evolve and become more open. At this point, the emergence of neo-liberalism, which is often, wrongly, conflated with the global development of supply chains etc was nascent but still not dominant.
Marx’s conceptualisation of the world conforms with the ideas of the structuralists that suggested a reality existed and could be understood by inquiry of the objects which form that reality. These objects were defined by the social relations embedded in the organisation of production.
So there is a cultural reality with practical manifestations that can be changed by organised human agency (changing who owns the means of production, for example). This reality was understood by reference to historical epochs where the organisation of production had changed.
Another way of thinking about this is that meaning lies below the appearance. In the Capitalist system, it ‘looks’ as though workers are paid a wage for the hours they work and freely exchange their labour for that wage.
But that appearance doesn’t help us understand the essential class struggle driving the exchange.
In modern terms, the firm agrees to pay a wage to the worker for a given working day (which itself might vary according to various rules). At that point in the exchange the firm has purchased the labour power, which is the capacity to work. No actual labour services have been purchased in that transaction.
The task of management then is to organise, muster and deploy that labour power in a controlled way to ensure that for the time the worker has agreed to work they are delivering the desired flow of labour services to the firm.
It is in that way that the firm ensures they produce enough output from the labour power purchased, which upon sale, will return the funds outlayed on wages (and other materials the workers use) and leave a sufficient residual – profits – which will satisfy the objectives of the owners of the firm.
A study of the modern labour market therefore has to be conducted within the context of the primacy of managerial control and the need for the capitalist firm to maximise the flow of labour they gain from the labour power they purchase.
Unlike the exchange of a banana for cash, where the supplier gets to enjoy the ‘use-value’ of the cash and the purchaser the ‘use-value’ of the banana outside of the terms of the exchange, the ‘use-value’ of the labour power – the flow of labour – is enjoyed by the capitalist within the ambit of the exchange.
That is a fundamental difference between the labour market exchange and a normal product market exchange.
But there is basic conflict underpinning this exchange which sets up the need to control the generation of the ‘use-value’ of labour power.
We assume that workers will typically desire to be paid more for working less and capitalists want to pay the least for the most flow of labour services. We could frame this tension in more complex ways and, indeed, Marx and his followers have done that.
This is not to say that business firms do not provide good working conditions and seek to reward their workers in many different ways. The point is rather that they do that without jeopardising their control function or their capacity as purchasers of labour power.
For Marxists, it was essential, therefore to go to the essence of a situation (of a perception) to create the ‘grand narrative’.
Please read my blog – The labour market is not like the market for bananas – for more discussion on this point.
The Post structuralists (Roland Barthe, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jean-François Lyotard, etc) became increasingly popular and we started to hear about “decentering” or the “death of the author”, which considers meaning to be in the eyes of the beholder rather than anything a writer might desire to convey.
It is almost impossible (and futile) to actually pin down what post-structuralism is.
In the Marxist literature, the Post-structuralists were in revolt against the idea that coherent knowledge (about, for example, the existence of surplus value) was available by analysing the structure of ownership within a production culture.
They argued that we are incapable of understanding the entirety of human society and we must thus concentrate on pieces of this puzzle by seeking information about it rather than drawing generalisations based on the mode of production.
Information is generated by a pluralism of countering interests which are not restricted by the desire to be consistent with any ‘grand narrative’ (based on class).
Michael Foucault added that (crudely) everything is relative – there is no discernible and truthful narrative running through history that is resistant to objective interpretation.
There might be an objective reality but we can never know it because, in the words of Jacques Derrider “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”, which means I have dared to introduce the post-structuralist notion of Deconstruction, and should take a break for a cup of tea so I can forget that I did that.
The point they were trying to make is that there is no meaning in a text as a whole. A given text is capable of multiple interpretations because it is constructed of many contradictory and irreconcilable meanings. Meaning only comes from relating words to other words and exploring the differences (the classic example is to contrast house with shed).
I don’t really want to go into these arcane offerings here in much detail. I spent many an hour as an undergraduate and post-graduate student and then some more later coming to terms with them.
What we end up with is a notion that takes us away from Marxian class categories and focuses, instead, on studying elements of political power, the use of language and narratives as the way of gleaning meaning. This is also defines new arenas of political struggle that are diametric to those defined by the class struggle of Marx.
Here I am referring to the rise of feminism, movements against homophobia, multiculturalism and the other disaggregated (from class) movements that occupy the so-called ‘progressive’ Left these days.
Marginality is no longer described in class terms but rather in terms of cohort identity and fragmentation of consciousness has resulted.
Marxian exploitation is replaced by individual cohort oppression as the fundamental expression of struggle. There is nothing general.
The hegemony of the capitalist gives way to the power struggles between husband and oppressed wife, or gay and homophobic, between racist and object of racism, and all the rest of the individual power struggles that define the cultural struggles.
So class struggle is not the path to liberation but, rather, laws designed to overturn ‘glass ceilings’ (for example) become the desired end.
The class struggle was about solidarity of a collective. But this new post-modernist idea of struggle has no collective (society) only unities that span Marxian class boundaries.
We encounter the strange bedfellow case where feminists (who might be capitalists or workers) are now fighting for the same end!
Moreover, the institutions that might have evolved (or evolve) to promote the class struggle for workers – such as trade unions or political parties – become subjugated to these non-class struggle foci.
So we see political parties that were originated to defend the workers as a class against the vicissitudes of capitalist power becoming vehicles that reject the class struggle as the overarching form of the political activity and, instead, become obsessed with issues relating to issues like womens’ rights to be on corporate boards etc as an expression of what they believe to be the progressive voice.
The focus against ‘capitalism’ is replaced by a focus against racism (for example) and the roots of the racism and the way the capitalists might use the sentiments to divide and conquer the workers is lost.
By deconstructing and decentering meaning – anything goes, but the development of a working class consciousness that is capable of pushing capitalism towards a more liberated socialist epoch is lost.
In the introduction to her 1995 book, Ellen Meisksins-Wood wrote (pages 1-2):
[Reference: Meiksins-Wood, E. (1995) Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.]
Intellectuals of the left, then, have been trying to define new ways, other than contestation, of relating to capitalism. The typical mode, at best, is to seek out the interstices of capitalism, to make within it for alternative ‘discourses’, activities and identities. Much is made of the fragmentary character of advanced capitalism – whether that fragmentation is characterized by the culture of post-modernism or by the political economy of post-Fordism; and this is supposed to multiply the spaces in which a culture of the left can operate. But underlying all of these seems to be a conviction that capitalism is here to stay, at least in any foreseeable historical perspective.
The reformulation of the left’s relation to capitalism as a making of space within it, rather than a direct challenge to and contestation of it, helps, among other things, to explain the major shift from traditional discourses of the left, such as political economy and history, to the more currently fashionable ones; the study of discourses, text, and what might be called the culture of ‘identity’. If Marxist political economy and history are intended to challenge capitalism as a totality head-on from the vantage point of its anti-thesis, socialism, ‘cultural studies’ (conceived in the ‘post-modern’ way) and other favoured post-left enterprises are defined by the notion that the terrain of politics is within and between the fragments of capitalism, especially in the academy, where discourses and identities can be deconstructed and proliferated without material constraints.
In a fragmented world composed of ‘de-centered subjects’, where totalizing knowledges are impossible and undesirable, what other kind of politics is there than a sort of de-centered and intellectualized radicalization of liberal pluralism? What better escape, in theory, from a confrontation with capitalism, the most totalizing system the world has ever known, than a rejection of totalizing knowledge? What greater obstacle, in practice, to anything more than the most local and particularistic resistances to the global, totalizing power of capitalism than the de-centered and fragmented subject? What better excuse for submitting to the force majeure of capitalism than the conviction that its power, while pervasive, has no systemic origin, no unified logic, no identifiable social roots?
(emphasis in original)
In the late 1960s and beyond, the Marxist radicals who were despairing and getting older (graduating and entering the workforce) without seeing any path to overthrow the capitalist hegemony before them turned to this post-modernist agenda with a relish.
Unfortunately, as Meiksins-Wood observes, this has come at the expense of fragmenting the focus on class and, instead, pursuing a diversity of struggles, none of which challenge the basis of capitalism.
Moreover, none of which challenge the dominant economic narrative that maintains the legitimacy of capitalism and the aims of capital to extract as much real income as possible from the production process.
The conservatives have exploited this post-modernist divergence by advancing the so-called ‘politics of envy’ to offset any insinuation that the capitalist system produces distributional outcomes that are not remotely proportional to the effort put into production.
Whenever distributional outcomes are challenged – for example, propose increasing taxes on the higher income recipients (note I don’t use the word “earners”) there is hell to cry and the defense put up always appeals to the old tags – “socialist class warriors undermining incentive”, “envy”, etc.
In the 1980s, when privatisation formed the first wave of the neo-liberal onslaught, we all apparently became “capitalists” or “shareholders”. We were told that it was dinosauric to think in terms of the old class categories – labour and capital.
That was just so “yesterday” and we should just get over it and realise that we all had a stake in a system where reduced regulation and oversight would produce unimaginable wealth, even if the first manifestations of this new “incentivised” economy channelled increasing shares of real income to the highest percentiles in the distribution.
We were told that ‘trickle-down’ would spread the largesse.
Meanwhile the ‘leftist’ academy were bogged down in deconstructing the hermeneutics of some such or another. Or telling us about “The legitimation of panopticism reinvents itself as the project of system” or that “The historicization of agency is, and yet is not, the fiction of millennial hedonism” (all courtesy of the Random Sentence Generator).
In between sipping their lattes in fashionable coffee houses near their offices, and enjoying the lingering sweetness of their almond croissants, these leftists were engaged in fierce battles about cultural identity and the power relations within households.
All important for sure but not at the expense of a leftist-centred awareness of the importance of ‘class’.
The importance of class was exemplified in 2006 by Warren Buffett’s suggestion that “There’s class warfare, all right … but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning” (Source).
Class is alive and well and in prosecuting their demands for higher shares of real income, the elites have not only caused the crisis but are now, in recovery, reinstating the dynamics that will lead to the next crisis.
The big changes in policy structures that have to be made to avoid another global crisis are not even remotely on the radar.
And the post-modernists have another sip of their skinny lattes.
Most of them (if not all) are oblivious to the realities of the fiat monetary system and the overlay that the class power exerted by capital have for the policy choices that are made within that system of monetary organisation.
That ignorance, in turn, has contributed significantly to the demise of the Left as a progressive political force.
Post-modernists are often fervently political but at the same time their political voice avoids a critique of capitalism as a system. They want gender equity, or same-sex marriage (who wouldn’t) but avoid discussions about overthrowing capitalist production relations.
In the last week, a splinter group has formed, for example, in The Greens (in Australia) called ‘Left Renewal’ which issued a Statement of Principles that said:
That our struggle for social justice brings us into irreconcilable conflict with the capitalist mode of production, and all other forms of class society. This requires us to take a strong stance on the struggle of the working class. We further understand that the working class extends past the factory, and includes homeworkers, sex workers, and well beyond …
That capitalism is a violent and antagonistic relation between workers, and those who exploit them. As workers, whether or not we are waged, we experience perpetual violence and that this violence must be brought to an end. We therefore fight to bring about the end of capitalism.
The press has indicated that it is a struggle between the ‘hard-Left’ and the “tree Tories” (my expression is Neo-liberals on bikes.
The Fairfax press article (December 22, 2016) – Hard-left faction forms inside Greens aiming to ‘end capitalism’
The Greens federal leader immediately labelled this group as ‘anti-Green’ and issued a statement which among other things said:
Of course the Greens do not support the overthrow of capitalism or any other ridiculous notions of the sort.
The Greens are, of-course, not a progressive force in Australian politics because they have been seduced by the dominant neo-liberal macroeconomics myths and want to balance fiscal affairs etc.
Ellen Meiksins-Wood remedy is that “historical materialism still provides the best foundation on which to construct” (p.2) a “critique of capitalism”.
This would approach capitalism “in a way exactly antithetical to the current fashions: the systematic unity of capitalism instead of post-modern fragments, but also historicity – and hence the possibility of supersession – instead of capitalist inevitability and the end of History” (p.3).
No-one is advocating a return to the ‘deterministic’ construction that might or might not have been relevant in the C19th industrial beginnings of Britain.
But the starting point for an informed critique of capitalism and alternative Left manifesto has to be that Capitalism is a historically-specific system of productive organisation with attendant ownership relations, which create the conflictual relations that drive the system dynamics.
No-one is advocating a word-for-word (literal) interpretation of Marx and all his related theories about the transformation of capitalism into socialism.
But as Meiksins-Woods notes (p.9) the Left became obsessed with “post-modern fragments” and moved “rapidly away from the critique of capitalism” and has pursued “intellectual activity in place of class struggle (p.10).
At the heart of capitalism are the antagonistic social relations and they warrant focus.
Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The youth movements that have driven the Occupy activities are now re-focusing radical action against the corporates – against the economic machine. Against the use of economic power to suppress the development of worker consciousness as a class.
They are attacking the multilateral institutions that allow the capitalist hegemony to survive and extract increasing amounts from the productive system at the expense of workers (such as the World Bank and the IMF).
We are now seeing a backlash against so-called ‘free trade’, which is nothing of the sort, but masquerades as such.
But we are not anywhere nearly out of the post-modernist haze that is clouding the Left. When Leftists quote Michel Foucault (1990: 94) to me and tell me that (for example):
Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations, and serving as a general matrix—no such duality extending from the top down and reacting on more and more limited groups to the very depths of the social body.
I realise that we have a long way to go.[Reference: Foucault, M. (1990) The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction, New York. Random House]
In her critique of Foucault, Nancy Hartsock (: 170) summarised this as “Power is everywhere, and so ultimately nowhere”.[Reference: Hartsock, N. (1990) ‘Foucault on Power: A Theory for Women’, in Nicholson, L. (ed.) Feminism/Postmodernism, New York, Routledge, 157-172.]
Another way of thinking of this issue is to contrast the concept of economic, social and cultural rights with civil and political rights. The post-modernist era has shifted focus to the latter at the expense of the former.
This, is in part, a product of the Cold War where the West tried to claim the higher moral ground by claiming that it was fine to have full employment and high quality, health care and education but if people were not free to say what they wanted then the nation was nowhere.
It is interesting that the defender of the free world (supposedly), the United States, never ratified the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights because they separated economic, social and cultural rights, which are articulated in Article 22 as being “indispensable for … dignity and the free development of … personality” were not human rights (Source)
The US believed that ratification would leave it “vulnerable to criticism from its ideological enemies” during the Cold War in relation to its treatment of racial minorities.
The UN addressed this issue in this Fact Sheet – and claimed that there is no distinction between the two ‘types’ of rights.
It said that during the Cold War:
The market economies of the West tended to put greater emphasis on civil and political rights, while the centrally planned economies of the Eastern bloc highlighted the importance of economic, social and cultural rights …
It also said that:
… economic, social and cultural rights have been seen as requiring high levels of investment, while civil and political rights are said simply to require the State to refrain from interfering with individual freedoms.
This difference has been exploited by neo-liberals who are happy to negotiate civil rights with various minorities but are aghast at the idea of running fiscal deficits to generate full employment (and advance economic, social and cultural rights).
So it is in the interests of the elites to divert attention towards debates about civil and political freedoms within the context of the capitalist system – as per the Greens insistence that it is pro-capitalism and just wanting to save the planet!
I will come back to this topic another day.
The series so far
This is a further part of a series I am writing as background to my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state. More instalments will come as the research process unfolds.
The series so far:
The blogs in these series should be considered working notes rather than self-contained topics. Ultimately, they will be edited into the final manuscript of my next book due later in 2016.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2016 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.