Correspondence with a friend

14 Aug

Life is not an easy matter. We cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless we have before us a great idea to raise us above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness. Leon Trotsky

*

Why do Western intellectuals have such a tough time distinguishing cynicism from scepticism? How hard can it be? Cynicism is the position of choice for arrogant cowards since (a) you don’t have to risk anything and (b) you get to feel superior to those who do.

Scepticism by contrast calls not only for rigour and a modicum of originality in sifting claims to arrive at truth. In my neck of the woods the truth once established, e.g. that beneath a facade of democracy the West is ruled by gangsters, does not make you popular. Many will dismiss it out of hand as ‘extremist’ (read: too far outside the slit window of corporate media purview). Some will say truth does not exist else cannot be known (either way a self negating claim). Then there are hard core cynics who’ll pretend to agree while insisting that China, whose rise those same gangsters dread, is “just as bad” 1

… so can we all please go back to sleep?

(The gangster truth I liken to knowing the world to be a sphere orbiting the sun when orthodoxy has it as a disk, with the sun doing all the heavy lifting. I once read a sci-fi yarn of a realm where everyone is blind. A one-eyed stranger arrives. Is he made king, as per the proverb? Of course not! He is reviled and as I recall – it was a while back I read this – extradited on spying charges carrying a 175 year jail sentence.)

In fact some educated folk are so far gone in their confusion as to take pride in their cynicism. With patronising smile held to a polite flicker, they shake their wise heads and tell us:

I’m too much the cynic to fall for that …

Which to me is like discreetly bragging about being a paedophile.

*

Why such widespread cynicism among the intelligentsia? Is it Darwin’s assault on God that still – try as we might to shrug it off – unsettles us? 2 Or curtain call on colonial rule?

No? Hungary ’56 then – and/or Watergate ’72-74?

Did loss of formal Empire sow seeds of doubt, for those who still believed in a supreme deity, that God might not be an Englishman after all? Did the bloody crack-down in Hungary – eight months after Nikita Kruschev had held forth in the Kremlin on the misdeeds of Stalin 3 – have a similar effect on Left intellectuals the world over as they made confetti of their Party cards?

Then there’s Watergate (and Vietnam) to herald, or synchronise, a slow and barely conscious slippage of faith in a Free World whose authority – police and judiciary as well as politicians – could be trusted unconditionally.

One tries to avoid reductivism of course. In any case the origins of intellectual cynicism matter less than that while it anaesthetises and protects, it also neuters and enervates. To these ends it is facilitated by a neoliberal philistinism which hijacked and sucked dry all that was good about postmodernism – as the latter’s most prescient critics had, forty years ago, told us it would. The overall effect being to marginalise our intellectuals, those on the left especially, as pointlessly walking confirmation of Trotsky’s words.

*

All of this leads to a series of recent exchanges with a friend. I reproduce them with that friend’s permission on condition of anonymity. A few edits remove irrelevances inevitable when pals correspond, and/or redact clues that might otherwise enable ‘jigsaw identification’.

Those aside, nothing has been altered, save for addition of two editorial notes, clearly flagged as such.

Friend:

Looks like the rightyhos are really going for it

https://www.pressgazette.co.uk/what-is-gb-news-everything-you-need-to-know/

The link is to an item on a new right-wing broadcaster, its advertisers having second thoughts. See this post for how ad reliance makes a mockery of ‘media independence’, including that of the BBC and its non British equivalents.

Me:

I think this is the critical bit:

within four days of the launch at least 11 advertisers had already suspended their marketing with the channel, or at least paused it to review its content.

Tariq Ali’s term, the extreme centre, springs to mind. Modern neoliberalism gains too much from its ‘woke’ clothing to put any real weight behind such a venture. (And as with left media, the market discipline of advertising obviates any need for conspiracy.)

You know, I could almost sympathise with Trump’s supporters. The ‘liberal establishment’ did indeed fight very, very dirty. That I don’t sympathise is because Trump’s supporters were as wrong about him as his enemies were. Both saw in him something different. He was not, and there was far more continuity in his policies – especially but not exclusively his foreign policies – than is recognised.

Neoliberalism doesn’t – for now at least – need a maverick Right. Such forces only have a place when there’s a real threat to capitalist rule from an organised left – think Italy and Germany in the interwar years. To be sure, there is a very real and very frightening drift towards greater authoritarianism but this is often as not coming in with IdPol cover, to  applause from ‘progressives’. For the time being, fascism and even social conservatism are out of step with realpolitik.

Friend:

I don’t see a few advertisers pulling or ‘reviewing’ their marketing strategies regarding GB news signifies a shot across its bows so much as the kind of diffusion the same advertisers trade in.

I remember veteran Syria watcher and Indie columnist Patrick Cockburn raising a couple of cheers for Trump’s foreign policy schtick a year or two since. In terms of Realpolotik the failure of the left to  organise or even agree about much is characteristic and ongoing

I don’t personally see a generic difference between state capitalism and western capitalism since they’re all competing for resources and markets.

Me:

I don’t see a few advertisers pulling or ‘reviewing’ their marketing strategies regarding GB news signifies a shot across its bows so much as the kind of diffusion the same advertisers trade in.

Nor do I. Mine is a different point. In itself “a few advertisers” means nothing. I speak of it as (possible) indicator, not as the phenomenon itself. The two are quite different!

I remember veteran Syria watcher and Indie columnist Patrick Cockburn raising a couple of cheers for Trump’s foreign policy schtick a year or two since. In terms of Realpolotik the failure of the left to organise or even agree about much is characteristic and ongoing

It is. Your point being?

I don’t personally see a generic difference between state capitalism and western capitalism since they’re all competing for resources and markets.

Much of the far left, ie the Trotskyism to which I once subscribed – would agree with you. I no longer do. A critical difference between China and the West is that its capitalists – for now needed, as shown by the hundreds of millions lifted from extreme poverty as even the US controlled World Bank acknowledges – are subordinate to state planning. In the West it’s the opposite. Socialism it ain’t – how could it be when the Western left’s failure to make revolutions obliged China to adapt to global conditions of entrenched [neo-] liberalism? – but for capitalism’s most intelligent critics, like me (:-), the biggest problem is its anarchic laws of motion. These drive it to ecocide, war, and levels of inequality as dysfunctional as they are obscene. Indeed, from a certain point of view industrial capitalism, barely three centuries old and already in its advanced monopoly stage of imperialism, is its own worst enemy! Might the CCP lose its grip on its capitalists? It might. But till I see hard evidence of that happening, I see China’s rise as the only ray of hope in the dark circs in which humanity finds itself.

It’s hard to avoid cynicism. It is the position of choice for arrogant cowards – and we all have that in us – because (a) we don’t have to do anything and (b) get to feel superior for good measure! But hard as it is, purely personal responses to the state we’re in have for me at any rate proved over and over to be sterile dead ends.

There’s a lot more to say and I hope we do. I may want to publicise this exchange (anonymously on your side, unless you wanted to go public yourself). Would you object? We could perhaps continue the dialogue on my site …

Friend:

Is it coincidence, irony or sadly inevitable that iPhones, the acme of consumer capitalism,  are made in China incorporating rare metals bamboozled (probably) out of hard-up African republics?

Me:

No it is not coincidence. China’s rise owes a great deal to its recognition – again in the face of the Western Left’s failure to make its own revolutions – of the need to adapt to global conditions of entrenched neoliberalism. It has caught the Empire by surprise precisely by the speed of its move from sweatshop for the West to challenger for dollar hegemony.

OK for me to post our exchanges?

I should perhaps have responded specifically to my friend’s allusions to China’s relations with Africa. (Gleaned, I dare say, from corporate media whose trustworthiness rises and falls in inverse ratio to the importance our rulers attach to the subject.) But the work of contrasting Belt & Road with the West’s abject failure, over centuries of exploitation, to lift that continent from impoverishment is a big subject whose surface I barely scratch in posts like this. Ditto that of contrasting the terms, on the one hand of development loans by the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), on the other those of IMF and World Bank loans conditional on the ‘market reforms’ which deliver state sectors in the global south to an avid Wall Street.

Friend:

Yes if you think it worthwhile but I prefer to remain unattributed – so I can feel free to contradict myself!

Me:

Cheers – yes, will preserve your anonymity. I hope to have this up soon, unless distracted by global events!

In general I don’t like prolonged political debate offsite. One thing I learned early as a blogger is that some folk will, at no risk to themselves – or, other than gish-galloped read this and this and this” links, any real input on their part – have me do all the heavy lifting for their momentary diversion. I want to know people are serious before putting much effort into engaging them. I’ve more important things to do.

That said, people may seem time-wasting, aimless intellectuals but beneath I sense, rightly or wrongly, a genuine yearning for truth. I once had a convo with [a mutual friend long deceased] on this, apropos the Lennon song, Just gimme some truth.

Be that as it may, I have in the past gotten useful posts from offsite as well as BTL exchanges. Wouldn’t dream of naming my interlocutors without their say so.

* * *

  1. To criminally naive liberals I say, no; China is not worse than the West. To an infantile far left I say, no; China is not “as bad” as the West. It is not China which now circles the globe with its military bases and, in war after aggressive war, slaughters millions and condemns tens of millions more to terror and destitution.
  2. Season 3, Episode 18 of Frasier – Chess Pains – explored with its customary wit the twin phenomena of the son’s need to defeat the father, followed by his mourning that victory.
  3. Six years ago, in a post making a very different point, I wrote: 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the first since Stalin’s death. Realising it was him or them, and with the big man’s corpse still warm, a group of second tier leaders had had the truly frightening Beria arrested, tried and shot to leave Kruschev as First Secretary, a position restored to that of ‘first among equals’. To 1500 stunned delegates – observers were excluded, while a transcript had to await Gorbachev and Glasnost  for publication – he spoke for four hours on ‘The Cult of Personality and its Consequences’. He denounced Stalin’s crimes, not least the torture and mass executions of loyal party members on risible charges. He told of foreign policy catastrophes (one aiding the defeat of Britain’s General Strike, another delivering Mao’s finest cadres into the murderous hands of the Kuomintang), of mass starvation by agrarian folly and of WW2 losses as needless as they were appalling.”

5 Replies to “Correspondence with a friend

  1. These are very important arguments. And they strike at the root of what is called Trotskyism but isn’t.
    The ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’ slogan missed the point which was that the ‘degeneration’ of the Russian Revolution was forced upon it by a combination of imperialist aggressiveness and social democratic treachery.
    It has only been in recent years that I have realised that I was always wrong in promoting the Hungarian workers rebellion of 1956 myth (does anyone recall Andy Anderson’s Solidarity pamphlet?) and that the CP ‘Stalinists’ were right about it.
    The reality is that it was very convenient in the depths of the Cold War to be able to disassociate ones politics from the Soviet Union but, for the most part, the Soviet Union was on the right side-anti colonialism, anti racist, anti imperialist- while attempting to change the politics of an eastern europe that had been dominated by fascists and anti communist reactionaries between and during the wars. I seem to recollect on the provincial margins of the IS Group a short period in which the ‘leadership’ refused to support the Vietnamese NLF on the grounds that Ho Chi Minh was just another state capitalism fan and a Stalinist.
    We can see the corruption of the Third Camp politics in the support that so many of the faux left are giving imperialism in Syria.

    • “Neither Washington nor Moscow” was indeed point-missing and – as you’ve said before on this site – cowardly in its opportunist pandering to manufactured sentiment in the West. To be fair, many 4th International sects found it too much to swallow, and continued to call for “critical but unconditional defence of the Soviet Union”. NWNM was the strapline of IS, later SWP, and had its theoretical underpinnings in Tony Cliff’s depiction of the USSR as a “state capitalism”.

      But while those sects baulked at its usefulness to a cold war West, the S-C term still has currency on the far Left, and even for dilettantes of more or less Leftist disposition. And it serves the same purpose: a cynical (not always consciously so) throwing of hands in the air to declare “a plague on all their houses!” (Subtext: “let’s all go back to sleep”).

      Folk I otherwise respect are still saying China is state capitalist. It’s not that I disagree – though as with post Yeltsin Russia there’s a gaping lack of empirical work by the Left of China’s political economy. Nor do I call them cowards. Rather, the trotting out of the term (with “Stalinist”, “bureaucrat” and even the quaint “epigones” and “bonapartist” not far behind) as damning indictments speaks to me of a failure to think; rather, to rely instead on the old formulaic comforts which have gotten the Left precisely nowhere.

      I see the same mindless mantras informing the Left’s response to imperial carnage in the middle east. The difference being that here I do suspect cowardice as well as sterile orthodoxy. How else are we to read those who, in the face of media blitzkreig, cry “neither Washington nor Damascus” and call for “international solidarity with the Syrian working class” – when they know as well as I do that this is so not going to happen?

  2. Regarding iPhones what was the deal between Apple and the Chinese? – ‘you get the materials and make them, we’ll do the software and market them’ explain how that happened, can’t . Then there’s the Huawei which the Chinese seem to be taking very seriously like there’s more than just supra nationalism (if that’s the right word) involved. I don’t get that either .

  3. Some of those groups were even aligning themselves at the time with Thatcher and the imperialist narrative about the Mujahedin being ‘freedom fighters.’ And they are still at it. Acting as shills for Establishment narratives across a range of issues. One might even begin to think they were being run by the security services?

    On the matter of Soviet Russia the early period under Lenin will have been a crucial time in the restructuring of Russian society in the aftermath of the revolution. In comparative terms there was a lot of catching up to do and unfortunately Lenin seems to have attempted to import ready made Western (US) methods, techniques and approaches based on Taylor’s Scientific Management and what became known as Fordism at a time when industrial work organisation in the West was moving on from those methods as a result of certain limitations. Like their rigid autocratic structures and processes.

    Whilst those methods certainly helped the nascant Soviet State to modernise it’s industry at the time in rapid order – achieving five year targets in four years – they never moved on and as a result it made a significant contribution to ossifying Soviet society. Even in the seventies you could see this in the Radio Moscow English Service which weekly transmitted a half hour slot of some functionary reading off latest production figures in a manner which would have warmed the cockles of Frederick Taylor’s* stop watch.

    Ironically this tick in a box approach seems to have been either reimported or taken up in the West since the emergence of the silicon chip and the explosion of computing and communications power.

    *Apparently, the legend was that Taylor at one point turned the attention of his methods to the game of tennis. Redesigning a larger bat to make the game more ‘efficient.’

    • You sure about the timing of ‘Speedy’ Taylor’s adoption in the Soviet Union Dave? I thought it came decidedly within Stalin’s era, the context being the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, and no revolution in sight in Britain, and consequent decision to “build socialism in one country”.

      Even Trotsky, in The Revolution Betrayed, acknowledges the tremendous gains in the core sectors – coal, steel, electrification – under the ferocious five year plans of the thirties. (The legendary Stakhanov was the Soviet epitome of Taylor’s ideal worker.) Those gains served the USSR well when Hitler tore up the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as Trotsky alone had said he would. He wasn’t always right against Stalin. But in grasping not only the contempt in which Hitler secretly held it but, more generally, that fascism marked something qualitatively different in its horrors, he was way ahead not only of Moscow orthodoxy but of the West too. Recall that as Trotsky was saying these things large sections of the British and American ruling classes were backing the Nazis as a “bulwark against communism”. In these circs the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was not immoral, in the sense the ahistoric and idealist verdicts of Western liberalism insist it was. But it was entered into naively by Stalin. Of this there is no end of evidence.

      Did that Pact buy precious time? That’s one of the great questions of the 20th Century and I swing back and forth on it. On the one hand the USSR was able to dismantle and ship plant 3,000 miles east as Barbarossa advanced, enabling her to put more planes in the air, more tanks in the field, than either Hitler or Churchill/Roosevelt had believed possible. On the other, during that ‘bought’ time, Stalin’s show trials took out many of her ablest commanders. Whatever, I’m tending to do as bevin has done, and give far more credence than I once did to the possibility that, given the appalling situation in which the USSR found itself in those decades after revolution and ‘civil war’, Stalin may for all his undoubted brutalism, and for all its distorting effects not just on the USSR but the third international at large, have been historically necessary.

      Which is pretty tangential I suppose. Let me get back – at last! – to something more immediately relevant: your remark about Left backing of the Mujahadeen in the 80s. (Again see my exchange with bevin, above, for how such a stance flows from the cowardly and unprincipled IS/SWP slogan: neither Washington nor Moscow, and the characterisation of the USSR as “state capitalist” – a descriptor I regard less as problematic in itself; more for its legacy: in particular with regard to China today and the Ba’athisms of the middle east.) One small example was Doris Lessing, who like many others had left the Communist Party (South Africa’s in her case) after Hungary ’56. Come the Soviet arrival in Afghanistan, which had far more legitimacy, even in purely geographic terms, than the past twenty years of US occupation, she was one of the Mujahadeen cheerleaders. Make of that what you will.

      Great novelist, of course …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.