this post also features on off-guardian
As I had last month, I’d wanted in my three reads this month to start addressing the alarming bellicosity of Washington in respect of several nations, but most frighteningly China. For those with some inkling of the material factors placing the West and Eurasia on a collision course, such beating of war dreams – aided as ever by the ‘liberal’ Guardian – is to be expected, but its predictability makes the warmongering no less worrying.
All the same, I’m again placing China on the back burner. My choices for May are integrally connected, for all their surface disparity, by the question: where do we go from here?
The financial resources government has made available for a pause in economic life show the viability of non-capitalist economic planning. But as in 2008, such largesse will come at huge cost to ordinary people unless the labour movement can show leadership and substantially influence, if not control, the narrative. Via bankruptcy, de facto insolvency and debt, key sectors of the economy can be held to ransom by government for regressive state intervention and social engineering.
Whatever our views on lockdown, in principle or in the spatchcock manner of its UK and US implementation,2 it is going to end. But on whose terms? Will the interests of big business be the sole guide to any return to work?
Of course they will – unless challenged with greater unity and consistency than so far seen from organised labour … from small businesses wrecked by a lockdown whose attendant promises of protection look like so much hot air even as big capital demands bailouts in that socialism-for-the rich fashion we saw in the wake of 2008 … from a disenfranchised precariat for whom compensation has been slow, bureaucratic, unfair and inconsistent … from worried parents and … well, feel free to make your own additions to this roll call of the dispossessed-through-disempowerment in our hollow, revolving door charade of democracy.
That challenge must focus too on the safety of workers. An early salvo in Britain has been the response of the teachers’ union, NEU. Since teachers hold huge potential power, less through their overt role as educators than their half hidden one as child minders for the UK economy, rightwing media have been predictably swift to damn them.
This question – who calls the shots? – informs the first of my three reads this month.
Dissident circles are often nerdy hobby groups (715 words)
The mind can turn anything into a toy for the ego, and this is never more clear than in online discussion forums. Even forums dedicated to disentangling from ego are dominated by Buddhism nerds or Advaita nerds ego-sparring … This is equally true of anti-establishment forums of all sorts, debating whose sub-sub-subfaction of leftism is better or whose coronavirus theory is right …
Shortest and simplest of my May reads is this piece by Caitlin Johnstone. I’ve chosen it for two reasons. One, she pairs speaking truth to power, at which she excels, with calls to embrace our spiritual nature. (I hate the s-word but it’ll have to do.) That aspect is buried, as Marx incisively lays bare, by our alienation under the commodity fetishisms of capitalism. Caitlin’s ongoing attempts at synthesis – we might go so far as to say ‘healing’ – chimes with me, graduate from both a Trotskyist and, a decade on, ‘spiritual’ cult. Each had much to offer, and much to deplore.
Two, implicit in my first read is a call to suspend sectarianism in uniting to challenge big capital over its presumed right to dictate the terms of ending lockdown. My third read, addressing the demands of working toward the end of capitalism, carries the same implication.
I’m not speaking of burying division in ‘rainbow alliances’: candy floss coalitions guaranteed to blow apart at the first test. Debate is necessary, and must be robust. But how to conduct it?
A tragi-comedy of the human condition is our pairing of marvellously sophisticated reasoning power with the emotional maturity of an adolescent chimpanzee. Teachers of ‘enlightenment’ call for subjugation, even annihilation, of the ego3 but I’ve seen no evidence that such a thing is possible. Living gurus have feet of clay – corrupted by sex, money and/or addiction to power – while those conveniently dead are scrubbed spotless to serve agendas they are in no position – “when did I ever say I was a fucking saint?” – to challenge.
With the monster in us all, courtesy and respect in those necessary debates are of the essence. We might even aspire to a modicum of self awareness! Next time we slam down an ‘opponent’ – her aims not so far from ours when we really get down to it – for having The Wrong Take on this issue or that, we might pause to ask, what are we trying to do here? Change a rotten world? Be The One Who Knows? Take dark pleasure in the ignorance and stupidity of The Other?
For most of us the honest answer is and always will be that our motives, even on a good day, are mixed. What we’re speaking of here is doing what we can to stay in touch with our best instinct, and at least try to rein in those others. The bad news is we’ll never slay the monster. The good news is we don’t have to. We just have to give it a little less food is all.
Here’s the Big Read, a piece by Chris Wright in Dissident Voice (reproduced in CounterPunch). It addresses a dilemma I’ve wrestled with for a decade. If you’ll excuse my certainty on this small point, it is a truth universally acknowledged, by all unbiased persons looking seriously into the question, that capitalism long ago ceased to work for most people. Its accelerating inequalities – not just obscene but systemically destabilising – are matched by an intrinsic tendency to war in a nuclear age, and to reckless trashing of the planet.
To borrow from Lenin, what is to be done?
I know the ‘parliamentary road to socialism’ to be an oxymoron. I know too that the vanguard party model of revolutionary change is outdated. In the face of a modern capitalist state – its monopoly on violence and coercion honed in the world’s hell holes from Aden to the Gaza; its surveillance technologies beyond the wildest dreams of twentieth century totalitarianism – the idea of ending bourgeois rule with armed bodies of workers’ militias is a childish pipe dream.
It is also, a point Wright explores in some depth, at root unmarxist. One of Marx’s profoundest insights is that the seeds of revolutionary change are sown when new means of production are held back by the social relations of the old. But they come to fruition only when new relations of production are in place. The classic cases being the French Revolution and American Civil War. Both succeeded because, over decades and centuries, the social and property relations vital to capitalism’s ultimate triumph over the inefficiencies of feudalism and slavery had been built.
By contrast, the idea of revolutionising the social relations of wealth production by first seizing state power and then using it to build socialised property relations is idealist. In fact, though it be near blasphemy to say so, the great man himself had his thoroughly unmarxist moments!
Still more idealist is the proposition that bottom-up resistance movements, thrown into being by the relentless logic of capital itself, can seriously challenge the status quo. Imaginative at the level of tactics – witness the chutzpah of Occupy and Gilets Jaunes – but lacking in strategy and blind to the lessons of history, they are doomed to fail.
So what to do? Turn our back on all three? And on other tendencies thus far unmentioned: the cooperatives, trade unions, people’s banks and other mechanisms capitalism itself ushers into being? Far from it, argues Wright. All have strengths as well as limitations. The challenge as he sees it is that of renouncing both sectarianism (see Caitlin) and impatience. On the latter, it may be argued that humanity hasn’t the luxury of allowing the dialectics of real revolution to play out over the century or so Wright envisages. That is true. But the revolution all thinking people crave will not come about simply because it has to. It will come about if and when – and only if and when – the circumstances, material and objective, of its emergence are in place.
Which is to say that it may never happen. This outcome, given capitalism’s existential threat, is a distinct possibility. But how could that be any excuse for our refusing to try?
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- The link for this first read is one step removed. It goes to a post on my site which hosts a second link to the full text, also accessible from this piece in the Canary.
- As a friend pointed out recently, “Even the [deeply flawed] Imperial College model, alleged to be the sole criteria on which decision making was based, factored in only 50% of the populace adhering to any kind of strict lockdown.”
- ‘Ego’ is here used in the sense of arrogant self importance, not the very necessary self organising principle understood in some branches of psychoanalysis.