[Note: this was written in June 2012 for the Labour Left's Red Book Vol.2. This publication does not appear to have come out and shows no sign of doing so. Figures are slightly out of date now. Please also note that it was written for a particular audience and I'm much less confident about the possibility of a left-wing Labour government than I may appear to be in this piece!]
It must be clear now to all those with some grip on reality that George Osborne’s austerity strategy simply isn’t working. The most recent figures show that the UK economy has slipped back into recession with two consecutive quarters of negative growth (-0.2% in the last quarter of 2011 and -0.3% in the first quarter of 2012). These figures in isolation, furthermore, do not tell the full story about the dire circumstances in which the British economy languishes. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, since the crash of 2008 the UK economy has fared worse than it did even in the 1930s at the time of the Great Depression. It’s not just in Britain, of course, that austerity has clearly failed. The dreadful economic and social consequences this strategy are plain to see in countries like Portugal and Spain – and, at their most extreme, in Greece.
Thankfully an economic and political alternative, spear-headed by the new French President, Francois Hollande, is emerging in Europe. In Britain, however, the Labour leadership still remains wedded to a remarkably timid critique of the government’s austerity programme. It is true that Miliband and Balls insist, like Hollande, on the need for growth, but their criticism of government policy hinges on the idea that the coalition is cutting ‘too far, too fast’ . In other words the Labour leadership do not reject austerity as such – they call, merely, for a less vicious version of the coalition’s programme of cuts.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, it is interesting to compare the timidity of Labour Party thinking today with the relative ambition and creativity of party thinking during the last period of economic downturn. During the crisis of the 1970s a collection of figures and groups clustered around the Labour left produced a radical, left-wing programme for economic recovery – ‘the Alternative Economic Strategy’, or AES. At the heart of the AES was the idea that a well-designed programme of state driven investment could not only stimulate growth and thus provide a solution to the pressing, immediate problem of economic stagnation but could also combine this with a longer-term, fundamental restructuring of the economy in the interests of the vast majority. As I hope to show here, some elements of AES thinking provide useful resources for the construction of a socialist alternative to austerity today.
In what follows I outline the nature of the current economic crisis and explain how it emerged from longer-term trends and developments. I then specify a series of possible measures and policies which could be implemented as part of a programme for recovery and socialist change, drawing especially on the resources provided by the AES.
The Tory-Lib Dem government usually claims that the crisis was caused by ‘profligate’ public spending under Labour (although how exactly spending on schools and hospitals in the UK precipitated a global crisis is never quite explained) – and, closely bound up with this is the idea that the key pre-requisite of economic recovery is slashing of ‘unsustainable’ public debts and deficits. These claims are nonsense. For one thing, as Reinhart and Rogoff have concluded from a detailed study of 44 countries over 200 years, ‘the relationship between government debt and real GDP growth is weak for debt/GDP ratios below 90% of GDP.’ The UK’s gross public debt at the end of 2007 (i.e. before the financial crisis took hold) stood at less than 50% of GDP – which, incidentally, was far lower than the average across the Eurozone and the OECD and 10% lower than Germany’s public debt/GDP ratio. For another thing, as James Meadway points out, the ‘UK’s most sustained period of economic growth, over the post-war boom, was a period of exceptionally high public debt.’ Both the public debt and deficit shot up after the onset of financial crisis and recession, but the direction of causation is immediately obvious here – the coalition’s claim that sharp rises in public debt and deficit precipitated the crisis is, in fact, to get things back to front.
Whatever else they may be, the coalition leadership is not stupid and the political narrative they have settled on in relation to the debt and deficit is certainly not simply a misunderstanding on their part – the claim that the crisis stems from fiscal profligacy and that, therefore, the solution is to roll back public spending is a deliberate falsification designed to smooth way for, and to justify attacks on, the public sector and the welfare system. This is an objective to which, of course, many Tories (and Orange Book Liberals) have long been committed. The Tory-Lib Dem narrative, however far from the truth it may be, has been enormously successful and has now, indeed, attained a sort of hegemony within popular and media discourse, largely framing the terms of mainstream debate in relation to the recession and austerity. Like many such hegemonic ideological strategies, the narrative has an uncomplicated, simple to grasp core message – that the recession was brought on by the last government ‘spending too much’ – which can be propagated with ease through endless repetition in the Tory press and in political sound-bites. The degree to which this simplistic narrative has been successful in shaping popular understanding of the crisis can be appreciated when you look back at how far the terms of mainstream debate have shifted since the onset of the financial crisis. In the initial stages of the crisis, popular anger was directed at the banks and media stories in relation to the financial crisis tended to highlight ‘irresponsible risk taking’, ‘greed’ and so on, on the part of bankers. Then, relatively abruptly, in 2009/2010, the blame shifted from the financial system to public spending – this was the point at which the neoliberal right, which had initially been stunned and disoriented by the crash, started to gather its wits and formulate the ‘fiscal profligacy’ narrative which now dominates political and economic discourse. The apparent ease with which the banking crisis was smoothly and seamlessly transmuted, in the popular imagination, into a crisis of public finances bears witness to perhaps one of the most brilliantly effective ideological manoeuvres in recent political history.
Widespread popular acceptance of the notion that public spending somehow caused the crisis helped to prepare the ground for Osborne’s austerity programme. As a political strategy to provide ideological cover for an assault on the public sector, this has so far proved fairly effective (as the 270,000 public sector workers sacked last year can attest). As a strategy for economic recovery, however, austerity is failing miserably and is, in fact, making the economic situation much worse. As Meadway explains, there ‘is a simple mechanism at work’ here:
Cuts in government spending shrink demand in the economy. As demand shrinks, firms sell less. Firms that sell less cut wages and make redundancies. Demand falls still further, and a vicious circle of decline is established. Cutting spending to reduce a deficit leads to bigger deficits as unemployment rises and taxes fall. Austerity is self-defeating.
As Meadway points out, this is the sort of ‘death spiral that helped define the Great Depression’. The austerity mongers of today have simply disregarded one of the biggest lessons of the 1930s which is that governments need to stimulate demand in times of economic crisis, not suffocate it.
The core, defining feature of the recession today is indeed a major crisis of demand and, intimately bound up with this, a serious deterioration in ‘business confidence’ in future growth prospects. Private sector investment has collapsed – investment by firms is down by about £48billion from its 2008 peak – but there is no shortage of liquidity or savings in the economy. Indeed, the Financial Times recently reported that ‘companies globally are awash with cash’ and that UK firms, specifically, are sitting on an estimated £750 billion. As Burke, Irvin and Weeks amongst others have noted, ‘No sustained recovery can take place without breaking this pattern’ – and since the private sector is unwilling to invest, the public sector must take over this investment function. The situation calls, in other words, for a classically Keynesian stimulus strategy of state driven investment to boost demand and thus, in turn, to boost ‘business confidence’.
Nevertheless it is important for the left to go beyond calls for a Keynesian type stimulus. Keynesian inspired social democratic analyses of the crisis tend to argue that it was brought on by the inherent weaknesses of the particular model of capitalism that has been dominant for the last thirty or so years – neoliberalism – and the process of ‘financialisation’ that has accompanied it. The call, from these quarters, essentially, is for the reining-in of finance capital and for a return to the much more strongly regulated, mixed-economy, model of capitalism that characterised the pre-1970s post-war order. But this analysis does not take adequate account of the deeper, systemic determinants of the crisis. It is also far too optimistic about the capacity of the planet to absorb for much longer a return to high rates of growth in consumption. We need to develop a better grasp of the longer-term and systemic determinants of this crisis and a better appreciation of the limits to further growth which make any attempt to return to ‘business as usual’ on the part of capitalism hugely problematic.
The current crisis represents the breaking down of a series of temporary solutions to a major crisis of capitalism that emerged in the 1970s. In effect, the international economy has gone full circle and returned, after a few decades of (largely debt-fuelled) growth based on various temporary fixes, to the relative stagnation in which it languished around forty years ago. In order to understand the crisis today, then, we need to examine the development of the global economy over the past few decades.
Robert Brenner has shown that the advanced capitalist economies entered a crisis of profitability at the end of the 1960s. Indeed, according to Brenner, these economies have suffered from relatively low rates of profit ever since. The reasons for this are disputed – various explanations have been put forward. These are complex and I cannot set them out here. Nevertheless, one determinant is clearly capitalism’s tendency toward overaccumulation of capital. The logic of capitalism is one of perpetual accumulation – capitalists are forced, under pressure of competition, to recapitalise and reinvest in expansion a proportion of the surplus they produce. The corollary of accumulation at the level of the firm is, at the aggregate level of the economy as a whole, economic growth. The volume of capital flow must constantly increase. If capitalists encounter blockages in this process – if they fail to expand the volume of surplus they produce – the effect must be that they run into severe problems. At the level of the economy as a whole, absence of growth brings recession or depression. All of this requires, of course, that new profitable outlets for investment are found so that the surplus can be absorbed and accumulation can continue. Overaccumulation of capital – lack of profitable investment opportunities – lies at the root of capitalism’s crisis tendencies. One major reason behind the crisis of profits that emerged in the late 1960s, then, was that firms encountered increasing constraints on opportunities for profitable investment as the post-war boom (founded, amongst other things on the opportunities opened up by the massive destruction of capital in the war and by post-war reconstruction) petered out. The effects of this can be seen in the marked slow-down in rates of growth from the 1970s onwards compared to previous decades (the average rate of annual GDP growth in Western Europe from 1950-73 was 4.79%, while from 1973-03 it averaged 2.19%).
Capitalism responded to this crisis in several ways. It sought to ‘go global’ in order to seek out cheaper pools of labour and to open up new investment opportunities abroad. Under Thatcher and Reagan especially, it launched an assault on trade unions and pushed up unemployment in order to weaken organised labour and drive down wage costs at home. Finance was also, increasingly, deregulated in order to soak up excess capital looking for profitable outlets. Some of the initial solutions, however, soon created further problems for capital. Repression of wages, of course, drove down workers’ spending power and thus reduced the rate of effective demand. Capital’s solution to this problem was to extend the credit system and to ramp up debt-fuelled consumer spending. This strategy intertwined with wider moves to deregulate finance and with the rapid acceleration of ‘financialisation’. Credit-fuelled consumption, together with asset price inflation drove growth for a while. However, this solution, in turn, eventually became the source of serious problems for capitalism because it ‘ultimately led to working-class over-indebtedness relative to income that in turn led to a crisis of confidence in the quality of debt instruments’. The crisis that emerged in the US ‘sub-prime’ market brought into full view the extent to which major financial institutions had become perilously overextended and, indeed, the extent to which growth had been reliant on ballooning of debt.
What we saw, then, from the 1970s onwards was a series of temporary fixes to a deeper structural problem in which each fix raised further problems that had, in turn, to be temporarily solved with further fixes. Indeed Capitalism, as David Harvey points out, never really resolves its crisis tendencies – they are merely shifted around, postponed and held off. Capitalism finds a way of overcoming one crisis only to discover, sooner or later, that the terms of this solution, in turn, throw up new problems which develop into a new crisis. As all of this suggests, crisis is inherent to capitalism. Crises are not anomalous events, deviations from the ‘natural’ or normal functioning efficiency of capitalism. They are part and parcel of the logic of the system. They stem from capitalism’s systemic imperative – perpetual accumulation (for accumulation’s sake) under the pressure of competition.
Further, Harvey suggests that capitalism may well find it particularly difficult to find its way out of this crisis and get back to adequate rates of long-term growth. Capitalism, he suggests, is running into serious constraints in relation to the ‘capital surplus absorption problem’ and this, indeed, is a key problem underlying the current crisis. It is generally agreed, as Harvey points out, that a ‘healthy’ capitalist economy must expand at a rate of about 3 per cent per annum. This means, of course, that more and more capital surplus must be absorbed – more and more profitable investment outlets for this growing surplus must be found every year. In 1950 global capitalism needed to absorb $0.15 trillion in surplus capital, in 1973 it needed to find new outlets for $0.42 trillion and, if we are to return to 3 per cent compound growth today, $1.6 trillion in surplus capital would need to be profitably invested. If sustained growth returns the world economy will need to absorb some $3 trillion in surplus capital by 2030. This, Harvey remarks, is ‘a very tall order’. The depth of the current crisis may well be a reflection of this problem.
It is worth noting that ‘financialisation’ represented a response to very real pressures on profitable accumulation – it was a way of soaking up excess capital given the weakness of profitability in the productive sector. The deregulation of the financial markets and the concomitant extension of credit and debt did not simply represent, as social democratic and Keynesian theorists tend to suggest, an ideologically driven, bad policy choice on the part of neoliberals. A solution to the problems we face then, cannot be as simple, as some sort of return to the post-war ‘Keynesian consensus’ in which financial regulation is tightened up and the financial markets put back in the box from which they escaped after the 1970s. The real structural pressures to which ‘financialisation’ was a response are still there and remain unsolved.
One of the biggest problems humanity currently faces is, of course, the looming ecological crisis. There is an overwhelming consensus amongst climate scientists that the planet cannot absorb the huge amounts of CO2 currently being pumped out into the atmosphere for very much longer without triggering irreversible climate change. Furthermore, human activity since industrialisation has had a hugely damaging effect on the Earth’s biosphere as a result of demand for ever increasing amounts of food, water, mineral resources, fossil fuels, timber and so on – and this destruction is continually accelerating. Massive deforestation, pollution, destruction of entire ecosystems and species extinction are some of the effects. This ecological crisis is largely driven by capitalism’s insatiable need for expansion. The logic of perpetual accumulation for accumulation’s sake compels capitalism to plunder more and more of the planet’s resources, burn greater and greater quantities of fossil fuels and fill the atmosphere with more and more CO2. It is surely clear, however, that infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is a logical absurdity. We are approaching the point at which the planet can no longer support ever increasing rates of consumption – and thus we are approaching the point at which the economic system becomes wholly incompatible with ecological sustainability.
We have seen, then, that the current crisis is the latest (and most serious) of a series of crises that have plagued capitalism since the petering out of the long post-war boom and stems from a major underlying structural difficulty – chronic overaccumulation of capital. We have also seen that financialisation and neoliberalism represented responses to real pressures on profits on the part of capital – these processes were not simply ideologically determined choices on the part of political leaders. Given all of this it is difficult to see how a stable, long-term solution to the current crisis can be found within the confines of the current system except through massive destruction and devaluation of overaccumulated capital (letting unprofitable firms and banks go bust) to restore the rate of profit – but this would be a dangerous strategy which would almost certainly involve a prolonged serious slump. Further, we have also seen that the planet is, anyway, unable to support for much longer any return to perpetually accelerating growth in consumption – capitalism is simply incompatible with ecological sustainability. So while, in the short term, a public spending stimulus is needed to drag the economy out of the immediate crisis of stagnation and to get people back to work we also need to develop plans for massive structural reform of the economy so that we can begin to shift society towards a new economic model which is ecologically sustainable and governed by the priority of satisfying democratically determined human needs rather than by the insatiable and destructive drive for profit.
Back to the AES
The AES was formulated in broadly similar economic circumstances to the ones we are in currently. The basic thinking behind the strategy centred on the notion that the crisis then could be ‘resolved’ in one of two general ways – in the interests of big business and the wealthy or in the interests of ordinary people. The first kind of ‘resolution’ would involve an attack on wages, the labour movement, the public sector and the institutions of the post-war consensus (and this, indeed, was the way things worked out with the coming to power of Thatcher). The second, alternative route, however, would involve a ‘resolution’ of the crisis in such a way that would produce a much more egalitarian and democratic society. For more radical variants of the AES, this second route would entail the beginnings of a transition to socialism rather than to a beefed-up version of the post-war mixed economy system. Most variants of the AES shared all or most of the following key elements in common:
- A major policy of expansion to stimulate growth and reduce unemployment based primarily on increases in public spending
- A democratically determined national economic plan which would identify national macroeconomic priorities and coordinate these with planning at the level of the firm
- Nationalisation of major financial institutions
- Stringent controls on international capital movements
- A National Investment Bank to channel financial resources in line with strategic national economic priorities
- An industrial strategy based on extended public ownership of key firms and statutory planning agreements with large private firms
- Powers to control prices and imports
- The democratisation of the economy through the involvement of trade unions in the planning process and through introduction of industrial democracy in nationalised industries
- The radical redistribution of income and wealth through for example a steeply progressive tax system
At the core of the AES, then, was a plan for the massive reflation of the economy, which it was hoped would pull the economy out of recession and increase employment – but this public spending stimulus would be harnessed in such a way that would lead to major restructuring of the economy and to radical social transformation. In particular, power would be shifted away from big business and big banks and a strong measure of democratic control would be asserted over the economy. This was a serious response to the crisis of the 1970s which sought to find a radical, socialist resolution of the problems it was clear that the social democratic form of Keynesian demand management that had characterised the ‘post-war consensus’ could not deal with – and which was spurred on by the realisation that if a left-wing route out of crisis was not found, the free market right were waiting in the wings to unleash their own brutal form of resolution.
In some ways we find ourselves in a similar situation today. We are in a deep crisis and it is clear that the policies of economic management that have characterised the past few years – (tacitly) based on credit fuelled growth and asset price inflation – are simply not viable anymore. We face a free market right insistent on austerity which, as it becomes clear to them that their current policies are not working, is likely to turn to even more vicious measures. Beecroft’s recent proposals on labour market ‘flexibility’ are an early indication of the sort of route they are likely to go down – attempts to dilute or remove important workers’ rights and force down wages. We desperately need to assert a left alternative and it seems to me that the AES provides some useful resources for thinking about the kind of programme that might be needed. Of course, I am not going to suggest that the AES could be transplanted wholesale into current circumstances. Clearly it was formulated in a specific conjuncture and there are parts of it that would not be appropriate or relevant today. Nevertheless there are elements of AES thinking that we can draw on.
An Alternative Economic Strategy for Today
As we have seen, the only way to break out of the current spiral of decline is to end austerity and to boost growth through raising demand. A socialist economic strategy would begin with a massive stimulus package financed through public borrowing. Such a programme should more than pay for itself (and, further, help to reduce the accumulated debt) through the kick-starting of economic growth and thus the generation of increasing tax revenues and the lowering of unemployment benefit payment costs. Furthermore, restructuring of the tax system – stamping out tax avoidance, implementing a robustly progressive income tax regime in which the wealthy and the super-rich are required to pay their fair share and the implementation of a land value tax together with a ‘Robin Hood tax’ on the banks and perhaps a ‘Tobin tax’ on international currency transactions (though the latter would require international coordination) – would raise enormous funds to cover government investment.
Direct government spending is not the only way to deliver an economic stimulus. As we’ve seen one of the AES policies was for the utilisation of a National Investment Bank. Indeed such an institution has been proposed by several commentators today as a means for addressing the current crisis. Burke, Irvin and Weeks, for example, propose that a National Investment Bank could draw directly on the financial resources of the part-nationalised banks (the government still owns 83% of RBS and 41% of Lloyds-TSB) to invest in sectors of the economy prioritised by the government. Such an institution, further, would be able to raise large funds from private capital markets.
This spending would be carefully and strategically targeted – investment would be designed to kick-start more sustainable growth, create jobs and to reorient the economy away from its excessive reliance on the financial sector and debt-fuelled consumption toward more productive economic activity. Priority areas for investment should include investment in green, low-carbon infrastructure – particularly in transport and in energy. The UK has long suffered from low rates of investment in public infrastructure and a major investment push to bring it up to international standards would generate jobs and growth. One of the major areas for investment should be renewable energy based on wind, wave and solar power which would radically reduce carbon emissions and also create jobs in manufacturing, construction and engineering. A major scheme to make existing homes and businesses more energy efficient would also generate considerable employment and help to reduce the national carbon footprint still further. In addition, a publically funded project to build new, affordable and energy efficient houses would create still more jobs.
In addition, government policy should include a strategy for the managed downsizing of the financial sector. The authors of the ‘Green New Deal’ have put forward some useful ideas in this respect. They suggest, for example, that tighter controls on lending and credit creation are introduced. This might include the reintroduction of stringent ‘fractional reserve requirements’ on private banks. They propose the forced demerger of large banking and financial groups and (bound up with this) the separation of retail from investment banks. They suggest that all derivative products and other exotic financial instruments should be subjected to strict regulation – only products approved by government would be allowed to be traded. Further, they argue for the imposition of robust capital controls to allow the state to exert control over the national inflow and outflow of capital and thus restore some measure of ‘policy autonomy to democratic government’ in the face of otherwise destabilising international financial movements. Coupled with the channelling of investment – perhaps via the National Investment Bank – into manufacturing production and research and development, measures like these would help to rebalance and restructure the economy away from over-reliance on the financial sector.
The sort of programme outlined above incorporates, or at least echoes, some of the policies that went to make up the AES of the 1970s and early 1980s. Though the AES was associated with the left of Labour there is no reason why the programme I have just described could not be implemented by a ‘moderate’ left-of centre party committed to mildly social democratic objectives – there is no reason, given the seriousness of the current crisis, why the current leadership of the Labour Party could not commit itself to a similar set of policies without too much trauma. If we on the left, however, want to go beyond a sort of green ‘muscular Keynesianism’ toward a programme for the far-reaching democratisation of the economy and for a transition toward an economic logic based primarily on production for need rather than for profit – as, indeed, I suggested is necessary given the scale of the ecological crisis we face, given capitalism’s inherent tendency towards crisis and given the deep structural crisis of capitalism currently which is likely to place severe limits on growth over the long-term (though growth via stimulus is certainly possible, we are unlikely to repeat the experience of the decades long post-war boom before slump sets in again) – we will need to push, in addition, for measures resembling the more radical components of the AES.
A more radical programme would include, in addition to the above, nationalisation of major banks and financial institutions under democratic control and the bringing into public ownership under democratic control, too, of a string of industrial firms. Taking a large proportion of the financial sector into public ownership would allow financial resources to be allocated according to social, ethical and environmental criteria. Similarly, the nationalisation of industrial firms would allow their activities to be oriented increasingly towards socially useful and environmentally sustainable production. Furthermore the bringing into public ownership of much of the heavy manufacturing and engineering sector would help to facilitate the major, coordinated industrial restructuring and research and development investment that would be necessary for the design and construction of a green national energy infrastructure. As advocated by the architects of the AES, our socialist strategy could include the development of compulsory planning agreements between the government and large private firms. These planning agreements would allow the government to secure major firms’ compliance with national strategic economic objectives. The planning agreements system would also be designed to allow access to information on major private firms’ investment plans, product development, import requirements and so on which would help with the identification and modification of national planning objectives.
Radical forms of collective democratic management and workers’ control could be explored within nationalised firms. Furthermore, as proponents of the AES suggested, trade unions and worker delegates could be involved in the formulation of planning agreements alongside government representatives and employers in order to democratise, to some extent, planning in private firms. Democratic planning at the level of the firm would be integrated into a wider, national system of planning. Broad, strategic macro-economic parameters would be decided at the national level – perhaps on the basis of a series of alternative plans drawn up by planning experts which could then be voted on by the population as a whole or by democratically elected national representatives. Within these established overall guidelines the details of the national plan could then be progressively filled out on a decentralised basis – at a regional and local level, and also at an industrial sector and production unit level – on the basis of democratic deliberation, negotiation and majority voting. Workers’ councils within nationalised industries under democratic control, for example, would be responsible for the day to day running of their firm but would manage productive activity within the planning framework elaborated democratically at, for example, sector, local, regional and national levels. Of course, democratic planning and control should not be confined to the narrowly ‘economic’ sector. The entirety of the public sector – the education system, welfare system, NHS and so on – should be opened up to collective, democratic and participatory forms of management.
The basic aim of such a radical strategy would be to introduce a socialist logic to the functioning of the economy (and society more widely) that would help us begin to break with the logic of capitalism. As ordinary people, through experience of democratic planning, became more confident in their capacity to make investment decisions and organise production and so on collectively, this logic could be progressively extended to encompass the entirety of the economy. Of course, different kinds of socialists will have different views in relation to whether and to what extent such a process of socialist transition could be a smooth and gradual one. Many would argue that, sooner or later, such a process of transformation would encounter intense (and structurally embedded) forms of resistance from capital that would necessitate a choice between retreat and complete reversal of socialist reforms or, alternatively, a swift and radical break with capitalism. But socialists of many persuasions could agree on something like the package of reforms described above as at least a way of starting a process of socialist transition – whatever shape we think such transformation must take eventually. It is also worth pointing out that such a strategy would depend for its success on the existence of friends and allies implementing similar processes of transformation abroad. Certainly a country attempting to go it alone with such a strategy would – at least beyond a certain point – find itself hopelessly isolated in the face of hugely powerful international economic and political forces. But socialists have long known that socialism must be international if it is to exist at all.
Of course it might be objected that it is very difficult to see how a radical strategy such as the one described above could ever even come on to the political agenda, let alone be implemented, in the UK. Making this objection, however, would be to underestimate the depths of the current crisis and the potential for a further very drastic worsening of the international economic situation. At the time of writing, the Eurozone is teetering on the edge of collapse – which threatens to plunge us into another acute financial crisis at least as serious as the one that hit in 2008 and, perhaps, an extremely serious global slump. Even if this nightmare scenario is avoided, the international economy looks set for years of stagnation or low growth – especially if the architects of austerity continue to have their way. This means years of growing unemployment and increasing hardship for many. It’s in these conditions that socialist ideas are likely to gain more and more traction – but only if the left is prepared to think big and articulate clear and ambitious solutions appropriate for the enormity of the problems we face. I’ve suggested, here, that some of the ideas developed amongst the British left during the last major economic downturn – the ideas that went to make up the AES – provide valuable resources to help us in relation to this task.
 Lex, ‘UK corporate tax: a missed opportunity’, Financial Times, 12 March 2012
 Brenner, Robert (2005) The Economics of Global Turbulence (London, Verso)
 Harvey, David (2010) The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism (London, Profile Books), p. 117
 Ibid. p. 117
 Ibid, pp. 26-27, p. 216
 Ibid, p. 27
 This summary of the AES’s key features follows quite closely, but is not identical with, the summary provided in Conference of Socialist Economists London Working Group (1980) The Alternative Economic Strategy: A Response by the Labour Movement to the Economic Crisis (London, CSE Books), p. 6.
 Ibid, p. 24
 A detailed model of a democratically planned economy is set out in Devine, Pat (1988) Democracy and Economic Planning: the Political Economy of a Self-Governing Society (Cambridge, Polity).
First published on Left Unity March 25 2013
For the first time in a long period the conditions for the emergence of a broad left coalition of forces in the UK capable of attracting large-scale support seem ripe. These conditions have been generated and shaped, in my view, by four major interconnected political and economic developments. These developments themselves comprise a series of intertwining factors, some of which are best conceptualised as ‘structural’ and some of which pertain to a more subjective sense of possibility among people on the left.
The first and most obvious of these is economic crisis and austerity. This has posed in very immediate terms the question of how best to defend jobs, living conditions and the reforms and concessions in relation to healthcare, education and welfare won in struggle decades ago and which are now being stripped back in a determined assault. But it has also posed the question, again in immediate terms, of whether or not our current economic system is, in fact, compatible, over any prolonged and sustained period, with decent welfare provision and conditions of life and work for the majority – whether or not recession and government attempts to roll back social reforms won in previous phases are predictable, cyclical features of capitalism. However you answer this second question you are forced to confront further questions: how best to push back capital’s war of attrition against welfare (which has been a feature of international capitalism for the last 35 years or so – austerity is simply the intensification under conditions of acute crisis of longer term tendencies) and impose some sort of renewed post-war social democratic settlement, or how best to go beyond capitalism itself and build a more democratic, humane and sustainable alternative. The crisis and austerity that is, confronts us with fundamental and pressing questions in relation to organisation and strategy. It is in this context that the idea of the construction of a new organisation of the left has been put firmly on the political agenda.
The second development is closely meshed with the first and is that it has become painfully apparent to many of the Labour Party’s erstwhile supporters and activists that Labour is not an effective political vehicle for the organisation of resistance to austerity (let alone for the implementation of a counter-offensive against capital). Of course, many socialists will never have had much faith in Labour’s capacity for seriously and radically advancing the interests of working people – especially in the context of economic crisis when capital’s demands for wage repression and ‘labour discipline’ for example become much more pressing on states – but recent developments have shaken the faith of many more people who previously were prepared to give Labour the benefit of the doubt, or to hope that it might be reformed and won to a more left-wing perspective from within. Ed Miliband’s rapid dash to the right on issues like immigration after his victory in the Labour leadership election of 2010 as the putative candidate of the left (those horrified ‘Red Ed’ references in the tabloid press seem absurd, indeed, quaint now in retrospect) was a big disappointment to many of the party’s activists and supporters. More recently, we’ve seen and heard Ed Balls say that Labour would be ‘ruthless’ in power about cutting public spending and Jon Cruddas claim on Newsnight that ‘food banks are here to stay’ even under a Labour government – indeed that the emergence of food banks across the country is a ‘positive development’. Add to this the grotesque spectacle in the past few days of the Labour front bench refusing to oppose government proposals for removing the right to strike for Home Office employees and, further, party leaders putting pressure on Labour MPs to abstain in a vote on a crucial ‘workfare’ bill and it must be obvious to all but the most blind that Labour is just a lost cause for the left. There has, I think, over the last few weeks and months been a pronounced acceleration of a longer term process of disillusionment on the part of Labour’s core supporters and activist base and, correspondingly, a growing willingness among many of them to countenance the prospect of leaving Labour to join a new organisation – in particular, the Left Unity initiative.
The third major factor shaping this new political conjuncture in the UK is an external one – the international influence and prestige of Syriza (and perhaps, to a lesser extent, the Front de Gauche). The Syriza phenomenon has demonstrated that it is possible for a coalition of fairly disparate left forces to win mass support with a clear anti-austerity agenda and to win such support very rapidly. More than this Syriza have shown that it is possible, not just to build up and organise a mass movement of resistance to austerity, but also to challenge seriously for power. Of course the specific economic and political conditions of Britain and Greece are very different – most obviously the crisis is much more acute in the latter – and so we cannot think that Syriza provides a ready-made organisational/strategic model which we can somehow transplant wholesale into the UK. Nevertheless it does provide us with useful lessons and guidelines. Perhaps the most important dimension of the Syriza phenomenon, however, is its morale-raising effect. Socialists across Europe are looking at Syriza and, for the first time in a very long time, are thinking, ‘My God, we really can challenge for power and we really can win!’ The psychological impact of this should not be underestimated.
The Syriza effect interacts with and strengthens the second development mentioned above – the loosening of Labour’s political hegemony – further contributing to the sense among many of its erstwhile supporters and activists that that it is possible to build an effective political force to the left of Labour. It has also contributed a renewed sense of possibility among more radical left groupings. Not least Syriza has convinced many radicals used to working in small, relatively isolated groups that in fact the reformist and revolutionary left can work together effectively in a common organisation which is characterised by democracy, pluralism and a culture in which it is accepted that not all political differences can, will or need to be resolved into a common ‘line’ in order for the coalition to operate successfully: the kind of organisational structure/culture that Simon Hardy has described in terms of ‘dynamic tension’. The Syriza effect, then, has encouraged a broad range of people on the left to start thinking seriously and with confidence about building new alliances, and, moreover, to act on this sense of possibility.
There is a fourth development which closely interacts with the third. This is the recent partial implosion of the SWP. Whatever you think of recent events in that party (and I’m in no position to comment knowledgeably on them, so I won’t try) the SWP bust-up has clearly shaken up the political landscape on the radical left, loosened the SWP’s erstwhile hegemony over that terrain and thus put things substantially in flux. I would certainly be against taking a sectarian or hostile approach to SWP members (and there is, I think, some danger of this at the moment) but I also think it’s true that the recent splitting and weakening of the SWP has had at least one positive effect in that it has opened up a new space for realignment among radical left forces and the left more widely. In the context of, and in interaction with, the Syriza effect discussed above this has created a very promising and exciting situation for building a new, broad coalition.
These then are, in my view, the main developments that, in intersection and interaction, constitute a new conjuncture on the UK left – one in which a significant and lasting realignment of forces has become a definite and realistic possibility. The conjuncture poses big questions for us all. The main one, of course, is the question of the organisational form that a new coordination of forces should take. This question can only be resolved finally in practice and part of the very process of realignment will be to experiment with forms of organisation and coordination – a settled structure can’t be imposed at the outset, but must be allowed to emerge more or less organically.
Nevertheless, three broad models so far seem to have emerged, at least in embryonic form. These are by no means entirely mutually exclusive models – but they do have important differences of emphasis which would take the emerging movement off on divergent trajectories of development should any of them become dominant.
The first of these is what we might call the ‘Owen Jones model’. In a recent article Owen made the entirely welcome and valuable call for a new ‘networked movement of the Left’ which would encompass activists from both within and outside the Labour Party. Owen is quite clear however that he does not favour the establishment of ‘yet another party of the Left’ and argues that the main task of the networked movement would be to put pressure on the Labour Party in order to force it to the left. While I believe that the general strategy of building a mass movement in order to push sympathetic political representatives in parliament and government to the left and in order to hold them to their promises is right (or that at least it should form part of a wider strategy on the part of the radical left) I do not believe that it’s at all feasible to centre such a strategy on the Labour Party. It should be entirely clear to all observers by now that the central core of Labour is thoroughly impervious to socialist ideas – and in fact that it always has been. The Labour right has a permanent stranglehold on the party and indeed, more than this, the party is structurally embedded in the capitalist status quo. The idea that the party can be won or forced very far to the left – let alone to the extent that it might seriously challenge core capitalist interests – is simply wishful thinking. Sadly many talented socialist activists over the years have thrown themselves into a war of position within the party seeking to win it to the left only to be lost forever within the party’s labyrinthine bureaucratic committee structures never to be seen again (and this is indeed what these structures are designed to do – contain, exhaust, demoralise and absorb the Labour left).
The second model is the ‘People’s Assembly’ currently supported by a range of left figures such as Mark Steel and Tony Benn, and in which the driving force seems to be a previous splinter group from the SWP – Counterfire. While, again, this is a very welcome development and there is no reason not to support it wholeheartedly, I am slightly sceptical about this project and would not want to see this approach form the centrepiece, as it were, of a new organisational model. The main problem here is that I think we need a firmer structure – we need a party form (like that of Syriza). If we are serious about changing society for the better then we need to be serious about taking power too – and for this we need to be organised into a party structure. There is no reason, as I’ll argue below, why this party should not (like Syriza) take a relatively decentralised, pluralistic form – but we do need some sort of central coordination in order to be effective.
The third model – and the one I think is most promising – is the Left Unity model. Left Unity (there’s a statement its rationale here and some ideas about basic principles here) sees itself as the embryonic form of a new broad church party of the left. It models itself in relation to Syriza and to other successful groupings like the Front de Gauche. It seeks to provide a unifying, coordinating structure within which relative disparate groups and elements on the left can work together and pool their resources. It is precisely the sort of thing that we need. Already the most open and outward looking radical socialist groups such as Socialist Resistance and the ACI, together with the new International Socialist Network – all of these groups themselves relatively pluralistic works in progress – have pledged their support. But, more than this, the most encouraging thing about Left Unity is that, with the help of Ken Loach’s recent appeal, it seems to be pulling in traditional Labour supporters alienated by the party’s inexorable drift to the right. Winning over a sizeable chunk of Labour’s constituency of activists and supporters has long been the Holy Grail of the radical left and Left Unity seems, so far, to be pulling this off – there is a long way to go here, but it’s certainly made a promising start.
Of course, an alliance of revolutionaries, reformists and ‘left reformists’ within a federal type party structure raises all sorts of organisational and strategic dilemmas and potential problems – but what possible sort organisation doesn’t raise its own difficulties? Not the least of these is that it will have to confront the classic (and in my view inevitable) dilemma of socialist strategy – the reform/revolution problem. Certainly a party which aims to transform society fundamentally and which also commits itself to a political strategy that would involve, if it was successful, actually taking part in, or even forming, a government faces the problem of whether it is possible to use state power to help effect a transition to socialism or whether such an approach would, inevitably, saddle it with the responsibility of managing capitalism in capitalism’s interests.
Of course this is not an immediate problem in the UK – though it certainly is for Syriza in Greece. Nevertheless if Left Unity continues to develop we will need to give some serious thought to big strategic matters. I hope to contribute some thoughts in relation to the big strategic picture in a later article on this site.
Talk 12/3/13 Ruskin College, Oxford
John Gray: Prophet of Doom (or ‘of Straw Dogs and Straw Men’)
Context: work in progress. Book on the British conservative(ish) philosopher John Gray.
What I’m going to do here is outline some of the key arguments I’m going to make in this planned book – clearly I can’t go into all of this in great detail and I’m having to leave a lot out (both in terms of setting out what Gray argues and also in terms of setting out what I argue). Useful for me because it means that I get to test some of this out and see what people think about it.
I’m also aware that probably most of you won’t have read Gray and probably won’t know much, if anything about him, so I can’t just launch straight into a critique, I’m going to have to first outline the ideas that I’m going to take on. May have to rush over some of it and may have to leave some of it out.
I’m going to focus for the most part on two of Gray’s recent books, Straw Dogs: thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002) and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007) – these are the books in which Gray has the most interesting things to say and are also two of his best known.
Straw Dogs, I think, is pretty good and Black Mass is awful. But it’s worth pointing out that Black Mass is the book in which Gray tries to fill out in detail some of the rather aphoristic claims that he makes in Straw Dogs – the fact that the book where he tries to fill this stuff out is dreadful of course tells us something about the quality of argument in Straw Dogs once you get past the dazzling audacity of that book.
And Straw Dogs is an audacious and impressive book. I have a bit of a conflicted relationship with it. It’s one of the few books I’ve ever read which really shook me up and gave me a new perspective on things that I’d previously taken for granted. The term mind-blowing is a bit over-used, but if anything I’ve read recently comes close to that cliché it’s Straw Dogs. I recommend that everyone reads it if they can. It’s a very bleak book – a meditation on the tragic meaninglessness of human existence and the desperate illusions we cling to in order to trick ourselves that it does have meaning – and I first read it shortly after my dad died which may well have intensified the book’s effect on me. It is a very powerful book and it does confront questions which I think we all need to confront and which I think we’re being dreadful cowards if we don’t.
Having said that I think that pretty much everything Gray argues in Straw Dogs is wrong – some of it in fact is downright repellent and some of it too is, I think, politically dangerous stuff. It also veers close to comedy sometimes in terms of what Terry Eagleton has called his ‘lugubriously amusing’ ‘extravagant pessimism’. Indeed Eagleton says of Straw Dogs that for Gray ‘even nihilism implies too much hope.’
So who is John Gray?
A British philosopher/political theorist born in County Durham (to a working class family) in 1948. He taught at LSE and Oxford – now retired. Prolific writer of books – many of them written for a ‘popular’ market (one of his strengths in my view – too many academics write for a cloistered specialist academic community).
One of the things he’s famous or notorious for is his constantly shifting views. He takes up a political and philosophical position in one period only to ditch it in another and move on to something else Over the past 40 years he’s been, variously, a social democrat, a Thatcherite, he flirted with New Labour, an Oakeshottian conservative, a Berlinian liberal. More recently he’s taken what I call his ‘dark turn’ with Enlightenment’s Wake (1998) followed by Straw Dogs and Black Mass – which is a move into something like a default conservatism or ‘liberalism of fear’ rooted in a kind of despairing pessimism. Paul Kelly has described him as ‘an intellectual gadfly who never holds a position long enough to become a target for serious and sustained critical examination’.
But there are common themes running through much of Gray’s work and furthermore these themes become especially pronounced in his latest phase – the dark turn.
Among the most consistent elements of his thinking are scepticism in relation to ‘grand projects’ of social change, rejection and condemnation of the ‘utopian’ strands of thought he argues underpin most or maybe even all modern political ideologies (but particularly Marxism), belief in the ineradicability of human conflict, insistence that humans are bounded, limited and flawed creatures no different, essentially, from any other animal, and a general mood of political pessimism. Indeed all of these core beliefs flow from each other.
So let me outline – very roughly – Gray’s ideas in these areas as articulated in his most recent publications and also outline – again very roughly – the contours of the line of argument I want to take up against him. I’ll focus on three, interconnected things: what Gray has to say about ‘progress’, about ‘utopia’ and about what he has to say about the animal nature and being of humans. The being of human beings.
Grays’s Critique of Progress and Utopia
Gray is perhaps most famous or notorious for his arguments in relation to what he calls the ‘myth of progress’. According to Gray this myth animates most modern political ideologies. Post-Enlightenment thought is almost entirely utopian and premised, tacitly or not, on some form of historical teleology. That is the idea that human history has a semi-mystical goal toward which there is some sort of inexorable progression. It’s the idea that human history (and therefore human individual lives within this history) has a definite direction like a story and will reach some sort of culmination point – a climax toward which everything has been building.
According to Gray modern political ideologies are sublimated, secularised forms of apocalyptic Christianity. Modern political ideologies, that is, are the ‘continuation of religion by other means’. The notion of social ‘progress’ –making the world a better place – which animates most of these pol ideologies, has its roots in the Christian narrative of sin and redemption and, more than this, in millenarian visions of the final defeat of evil and the coming of a kingdom of God on Earth.
All of them – but most notably and obviously for Gray, Marxism, – claim to be based on some understanding of the direction and thus the meaning of history (that there is some greater purpose and meaning to the chaos of everyday events) and that this will culminate in some final Armageddon-like show-down and then the coming of paradise on earth. So, for Gray, the revolutionary proletariat = Christ, the bourgeoisie = Satan, socialist revolution = the final battle of good and evil and communism = Heaven. The Communist Manifesto = the Bible.
Interestingly this is also true of other political ideologies – liberalism for example – which, for Gray, are similarly premised on the idea that human history is gradually converging on a single form of ‘universal civilisation’ – a way of life (democratic capitalism) which is right and just for all people and beyond which there can be no further progression. This is seen most clearly in Fukuyama’s End of History thesis.
This is similar to what Frank Kermode argued in his study of apocalyptic narrative The Sense of an Ending. Kermode argued that the notion of the end of the world performs a comforting psychological function. As story-telling creatures humans crave narrative order — we want to identify a beginning, a middle and an end in (and to) our lives and the world around us. Above all, we desire a sense of meaning which is dependent on this narrative coherence. The idea of apocalypse — a literal end of history — for Kermode was one of the most ancient versions of these age-old attempts to construct a narrative coherence, and thus impose an apparent meaning, in relation to human existence.
Kermode’s argument suggests that since it helps to satisfy deep-rooted existential needs, apocalypticism is probably a permanent feature of the human psyche. And indeed that it keeps cropping up again and again – it has been transferred from its mystical religious beginnings into secularised political forms today.
Gray’s story, basically, is that apocalypticism (and ‘progress’ which is bound up with it) is specifically western and rooted in Christianity. Gray argues – rightly actually – that early Christianity was an apocalyptic cult which expected the imminent transformation of the world, the overthrow of worldly Roman power and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth. The historical Jesus almost certainly believed that the end of the world would happen during or just after his lifetime – indeed Jesus and his disciples were probably a kind of political-religious revolutionary cult which combined political aims with religious ones. A bit like Al Qaeda – only a bit nicer and not premised on indiscriminate mass terrorism.
When the end of the world didn’t happen, Christianity gradually transformed itself. St Augustine’s contribution, according to Gray, was to reformulate Christian thinking so that the coming of the Kingdom of God is seen as a spiritual event rather than something that would happen in the material world. Heaven is shifted from the world – to some spiritual life after death. (This also made Christianity much less politically dangerous for Kings and rulers!).
But, Gray argues the original apocalypticism of Christianity lingered on in heretical cults like the Pelagian heresy (humans inherently good and evil can be eradicated from the world) and re-emerged powerfully in the middle ages in various peasant revolts – like the revolt led by Thomas Muntzer which was fired by the Millenarian belief that an uprising of the poor could bring on the apocalypse and create Heaven on Earth. It similarly inspired radical various movements in the English Civil War such as the Ranters and Diggers.
But it was the Jacobins in the French Revolution who converted Christian apocalypticism into a secularised ideology. It claimed to be based on science and reason, but argues Gray was, underneath it all simply a modernised form of the same old Christian apocalypticism. It was then taken up by Marx and then the Bolsheviks. These modern movements, Gray argues, were driven by the insane belief that a perfect utopia – a Heaven on Earth – could be built. A fanatically determined vanguard of warrior monks – the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks – would through heroic action be able to make a spark which would transform the world and finally banish evil and suffering from human existence.
Like Kermode, Gray argues that any attempt to realise paradise on earth – whether in a religious or secular form – is doomed to fail and is moreover incredibly dangerous. This is because the attempt to do so will always bring huge amounts of violence and suffering. Partly this is because the fanaticism of those trying to do this will only lead them to intensify their attempts when they see that Heaven on earth is not actually appearing. Their dogma drives them, not to give up or moderate their demands in the face of the evidence, but to blame ‘dark forces’ for the failure of heaven to materialise and move to more and more extreme violence to deal with imagined conspirators and traitors.
Although Marxists are clearly Gray’s main target here – he also applies this, interestingly to neoliberals. These, for Gray, are semi-theological dogmatists too whose response to the failure of neoliberal policy in say structural adjustment policies (or indeed austerity) is to prescribe more of the same medicine.
For Gray, then, we should give up on the idea of ‘progress’ which is just a bit of make-believe rooted in ancient religion and which has been responsible for most of the worst atrocities of the modern period. We should go instead for a form of neo-Hobbesian modus vivendi in which the main task of politics is simply to fend off the worst evils for as long as possible. A form of polity which seeks to manage and contain conflict rather than to achieve any sort of final settlement or perfection. Gray thinks of this as the authentic face of liberalism – a modest, live and let live tolerance. We should just give up on ‘grand projects’ to solve problems once and for all.
The idea of progress in ethics and politics expresses a deep seated utopian conviction – fundamental to the modern age – that human beings can somehow transcend natural limits and become ‘masters of their own destiny’ and this, similarly, has Christian roots in the idea that humans are qualitatively distinct (since they are made in the image of God and possess souls) from other animals.
According to Gray we must give up these myths and instead accept that we are no different from other creatures – no more able to take charge of our own destiny or overcome the limits of our flawed and bounded natures than are other animal species.
Animals do not see themselves as having a purpose or causes – they don’t see life as having a meaning. They just exist. Why should it be any different for us? We must abandon ‘anthropocentrism’.
But this latter thought takes a particularly dark turn in Straw Dogs and another collected book (Heresies). Drawing on a dark form of ‘Gaia theory’, Gray describes humanity as a particularly hateful form of parasite – a grotesque sort of pestilence on the Earth. This ‘exceptionally rapacious primate’, ‘Homo rapiens’, is, for Gray, a species ‘not obviously worth preserving’.
The first thing to say is that while Gray presents himself as a radically iconoclastic thinker much of this isn’t really very new. Indeed Gray rehashes a lot very familiar tropes with quite a long history. I’ve already mentioned Kermode – who said a lot of this stuff before, but you can also see the influence of postmodernism, the new philosophers of the 1970s, Cold War anti-communism arguments about totalitarianism, the end of ideology thesis of the 1950s and indeed the idea that Marxism is just a dressed up form of religion which is probably as old as Marxism itself. He also rehashes some very familiar reactionary – literally reactionary I mean – arguments culled from Burke and de Maistre.
These sorts of accusations Gray levels at Marxism – allegations of millenarian utopianism, mad ‘perfectionism’ and self-deceiving refusal to accept the limits and flaws of human nature – are, of course, ten a penny when it comes to conservative and liberal criticism-by-way-of-caricature of Marxism and the far left. But unusually, for Gray, mainstream forms of liberalism and even traditional conservatism are also implicated in this critique. That’s perhaps the only real innovation here!
Gray’s argument in relation to humans’ place in the natural world is very slippery. Gray moves from the truism (with a characteristic sleight of hand) that humans are animals and that they are products of natural evolution like any other species to the falsehood that humans are no different from other animals. It is a non sequitur however to insist that because humans are animals, humans are therefore no different from other animals. It is like saying that because whales and centipedes are both animals, a whale is no different from a centipede. All animal species are appreciably different (otherwise we would not be able to categorise and group them into species in the first place) and these differences stem from their particular courses of evolutionary development. To argue that humans have a unique capacity to alter the conditions of their existence – to adapt their environment and in so doing to alter their own behaviours and forms of life – is not at all incompatible with observation that humanity is one species of animal amongst many. It is just that our particular trajectory of evolution – the development of our species-nature – has furnished us with the capacity to adapt our conditions of existence in a way that no other species is capable of doing. We are, in a sense, historical beings as well as simply biological beings in that our behaviour is shaped as much by our history as by our biology – but we are only the historical beings that we are because of the kind of biological beings that we are (the kinds of bodies and brains that we have evolved). We are the only creature that can make history and to say this is not at all to rely on some sort of metaphysical or mystical premise about humanity which runs counter to the theory of evolution.
It’s also worth saying that Gray uses the concept of nature in such an all-encompassing sense that it actually drains it of all meaning making it useless as a concept. One of Gray’s main arguments for example is to say that because humans are part of the natural world all of our behaviour is natural too – so for example because plastics manufacture is one way in which we behave, or the creation of the internet, both of these things manufactured synthetics and the internet are just as natural as a spider’s web or termites’ nest. In one sense, of course, this is perfectly true – but in another sense it makes the term nature meaningless because the logic of Gray’s argument is that absolutely everything – every conceivable thing – is natural. So if ‘the natural’ describes everything it also describes absolutely nothing since there’s nothing to contrast it with or judge it against.
In any sense in which the idea of ‘the natural’ makes any kind of sense, in fact, human behaviour and being is not entirely natural. In fact, in my view, what is at the root of the distinctiveness of the human is the kind of subjectivity we have which is based precisely on a kind of quasi-alienation from the physical world around us. Unlike most other creatures we are not really in and of the world – we do not simply do or simply exist – we critically reflect, we’re reflexive creatures able to reflect on the conditions of our existence and indeed to reflect on our own state of subjectivity.
Zizek describes this as a sort of void or tension at the heart of what it is to be human – we are always already at one remove from the world around us and so human consciousness is marked by a kind of perpetual melancholy – a sense of loss. We’re seeking something – which is to be reconciled with the (Lacanian) Real around us which can only come with non-existence or, in other words with death. Freud had a similar idea with his ‘death wish’.
But the main point here is that although we are animals we are different from other animals and that this difference is paradoxically rooted in the trajectory of evolution of our species in which again, paradoxically, our evolutionary development enabled us to step outside of the natural selection process and exert a conscious control over our collective lives.
Gray’s assertion that modern political ideologies are simply forms of secularized Christianity remains just that – a sheer assertion which is never convincingly demonstrated. He never provides any strong reasons for us to accept his argument that any politics of significant reform or change must necessarily depend on some sort of tacit historical teleology. Gray performs a kind of sleight of hand trick in which all movements for reform are assimilated into a self-evidently mad form of ‘end of history’ ‘perfectionism’ – and then he sets about savaging the straw man he’s set up. As Blackburn notes ‘[n]early all human action, including political action, goes on without paying even lip service to any gospel of Progress in the abstract’. ‘We face’, Blackburn continues, ‘individual problems, some of them urgent, and one at a time try to do something about them’. This is just as applicable to most radical and revolutionary political projects of social change as it is to any other.
Of course it’s true that modern Western political ideologies bear the stamps and traces in many ways of Christian thought – but this is because they have grown up in contexts in which Christianity provided much of the intellectual, ethical and institutional framework for thought in politics, philosophy and ethics. But so did modern science. If science can have attained some sort of autonomy from its early religious roots there’s no reason to think that politics could not have either. It’s also true that the forms of thought Gray favours – Berlin, Machiavelli, Burke – also grew up in this context and yet Gray seem to believe that these are not tainted by Christian apocalypticism.
In fact it is just true that history is precisely a story of people collectively transforming the world – sometimes for the better and sometimes not. In fact you can imagine Gray’s equivalents in the 18th and 19th centuries arguing that the abolition of slavery was a utopian project and that it was just the way things where – you can imagine it because they did argue this. But slavery was abolished. Working class men and women did win the vote. Ordinary people did struggle for and win reforms from the state. All of these struggles depended on the belief that these things were possible and that the present state of things could be reformed or abolished.
Of course Gray doesn’t deny that these things happened or that these things weren’t good things. And this is one area in which his argument runs into big trouble – trying to account for this and to explain it away. Addressing the fact of the abolition of slavery directly Gray is forced to state explicitly a definition of utopianism (ie millennial type political projects depending on the idea of progress) which he avoids up to that point. His definition is this:
‘A project is utopian if there are no circumstances under which it can be realised’ – but this seems to rest on a tautological process of reasoning whereby the test of whether something is impossible or not is whether or not it is impossible. But the question of the possibility/impossibility of a particular political project – socialist revolution say – is exactly what’s in dispute. It can’t be settled simply by verbal assertion one way or the other – but that’s effectively what Gray tries to do.
Gray simply asserts the absurdly caricatured view that Marxism is inherently utopian – that it’s interested in a perfect society of ‘ultimate harmony’ being ‘parachuted into the present from some metaphysical outer space’ (Eagleton). If this was what any serious Marxist, let alone Marx, has ever said (or anything like it) this would be a good criticism – but of course no serious Marxist thinker has ever said such a silly thing.
In fact famously Marx was hostile to utopian visions of the future and Marxism has traditionally set its face against utopian thought. Marx’s approach was ‘to seek to discern the outlines of an alternative already implicit within present society’ – not to imagine some blueprint of a perfect future – and seek to ‘unlock the contradictions which forestall its historical emergence’ (Eagleton).
Marx’s definition of communism as ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’ is precisely anti-utopian and situates it in the here and now in concrete struggles. It is an existing process and something which unfolds dialectically rather than a fixed, abstract vision of the future.
So socialism isn’t simply thought up in theory and then imposed on reality. It is something which is already implicit in the fabric of the current order. It has already sunk roots. It already has some kind of embryonic existence.
Further, most radical, revolutionary movements are not driven by dreams and visions of a future society – most of them are driven, in fact by immediate and relatively modest problem solving concerns. In my view socialist change, including the process of revolution itself, is best conceived as a series of practical responses to concrete problems and pressures – even if these practical and immediate measures add up to far-reaching social change and even if they are implemented rapidly.
Secondly no Marxist has ever thought that such a thing as a perfect society could ever exist. All they have argued is that the main sources of some of the worst features of human society hitherto can be done away with. But there will still be conflict, antagonism, disagreement, personal tragedy, accidents, illness, unhappiness…. How could there not be?
Far from demanding paradise on Earth, socialist aspirations are actually rather modest. They are that everyone should have enough to eat, and have access to decent housing, healthcare and education; that people should exert democratic control over the workplace and the economy as a whole; that everyone should have access to the resources they need in order to live fulfilling lives and that the economy should be geared towards human wellbeing rather than the unsustainable pursuit of infinite accumulation. These aren’t outlandish, utopian aims. They’re perfectly sensible.
The final thing to say here is that there are two kinds of utopian. The first believes in a perfect society. The second believes that the future will be pretty much like the present. John Gray is the second kind of utopian. There is nothing more utopian than imagining that the current way we live will carry on for ever. ‘This pays an extravagant compliment to one of the most sickeningly fragile systems ever’ (Eagleton). Capitalism is deeply unstable and carries with it a sort of destructive impulse – it continually undermines and subverts itself. The idea that it is a permanent fixture is a joke.
Just to return to the idea of apocalypse to finish off with, though, in some ways apocalyptic thought – ironically perhaps – is, in a sense, perfectly legitimate today. We do face an imminent apocalypse of a sort.
In the last few decades it has become increasingly clear that we are heading toward an ecological disaster. We could say, in fact, that belief in impending apocalypse has today become perfectly rational. The scientific consensus on climate change is a consensus on the imminence of global catastrophe.
You don’t need to go to any crazed, wild-eyed mystic these days to encounter apocalyptic visions. You can get them from impeccably mainstream organisations such as the World Bank. Given the scientific consensus on climate change and the threats it poses, the most irresponsible fantasists today are not those predicting catastrophe, but climate change deniers and, equally, the neoliberal faithful confidently expecting market forces, left to their own devices, to come up with some last minute ‘technological fix’.
But the incompatibility of capitalism with environmental sustainability is clear. Capitalism is driven by an insatiable need for growth. The logic of perpetual accumulation for accumulation’s sake compels capitalism to plunder more and more of the planet’s resources, burn greater quantities of fossil fuels and fill the atmosphere with more and more CO2. The ecological crisis stems from the contradiction between, on the one hand, a system predicated on the logic of perpetual and infinite growth and, on the other, a planet with finite resources and a finite ‘carrying capacity’ in terms of the amount of consumption it can support, and the amount of greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution it can absorb.
Many people today have no faith in the idea of an alternative – and this is, at least partially, because their understanding of what a socialist alternative might be is coloured by the caricatures put about by people like John Gray. Indeed we live in the era of what the theorist Mark Fisher terms ‘capitalist realism’ – ‘the widespread idea that capitalism is the only “realistic” political economic system’. Indeed we live at a time in which (in Žižek’s phrase) ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’.
But while it may be easier for now to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, we must accept and act on the truth that if we don’t put an end to capitalism, capitalism will eventually put an end to us.
First Published by MR Zine, 21 December 2012
So the world didn’t end after all and the ‘Mayan apocalypse’ turned out to be another in a long line of doomsday-related tall tales and hoaxes. No doubt a hard-core of Armageddon enthusiasts who really did believe — or wanted to believe — that the ‘Mayan prophecy’ was anything other than a load of cobblers will look suitably sheepish for a decent interval between emerging from their bunkers and beginning the search for their next apocalypse-fix. But, of course, the ‘prophecy’ spoke in some way to a much broader range of people than the tiny minority who took it at all seriously. How else do we explain the intense media interest? Even if the tone of this coverage was heavily tongue-in-cheek, an amused form of fascination is still fascination. The truth is that the idea of apocalypse is powerfully attractive.
As Frank Kermode suggested in his study of apocalyptic narrative, The Sense of an Ending, the notion of the end of the world performs a comforting psychological function. As story-telling creatures humans crave narrative order — we want to identify a beginning, a middle and an end in (and to) our lives and the world around us. Above all, we desire a sense of meaning which is dependent on this narrative coherence. The idea of apocalypse — a literal end of history — for Kermode was one of the most ancient versions of these age-old attempts to construct a narrative coherence, and thus impose an apparent meaning, in relation to human existence.
Kermode’s argument suggests that since it helps to satisfy deep-rooted existential needs, apocalypticism is probably a permanent feature of the human psyche. Indeed, Kermode argued that Nazi and Communist ideology represented secularised forms of apocalyptic myth — both of them positing an overarching meaning to history which would culminate in a final armageddon-type showdown followed by the arrival of a politicised variant of Heaven on Earth. This sort of analysis has been taken up more recently by the philosopher John Gray for whom most modern political ideologies — socialism particularly, but also (interestingly) many forms of liberalism — are disguised, sublimated forms of millenarian Christianity. Both Kermode and Gray warn of the dangers of apocalyptic belief — particularly in its modern forms — since it carries with it a utopian impulse which, they argue, produced the holocaust and the gulag and further, for Gray, the misery and malnutrition stemming from neoliberal ‘shock therapy’.
It may well be that the most dangerous thing today, however, isn’t apocalyptic thinking but precisely to dismiss the notion of world-wide catastrophe out of hand. In the last few decades it has become increasingly clear, indeed, that we are heading toward an ecological disaster. We could say, in fact, that belief in impending apocalypse has today become perfectly rational. The scientific consensus on climate change is a consensus on the imminence of global catastrophe.
You don’t need to go to any crazed, wild-eyed mystic these days to encounter apocalyptic visions. You can get them from impeccably mainstream organisations such as the World Bank. Given the scientific consensus on climate change and the threats it poses, the most irresponsible fantasists today are not those predicting catastrophe, but climate change deniers and, equally, the neoliberal faithful confidently expecting market forces, left to their own devices, to come up with some last minute ‘technological fix’.
Unlike the traditional form of dramatic ‘big bang’ apocalypse envisaged in various myths, however, climate disaster is likely to unfold in a gradual, insidious way — a process in which conditions become steadily more and more intolerable as heatwaves, droughts, flooding and pressure on food supplies become worse and worse. This is apocalypse as imagined by T S Eliot: ‘This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper’.
Slavoj Žižek has argued that society generally is in a state of denial in relation to climate change: ‘We know the ecological catastrophe is possible, probable even, yet we do not believe it will really happen.’ As he suggestselsewhere our half-submerged anxieties are displaced — we find more acceptable and comforting substitutes to stand in for and obscure the real source of our fears. Indeed it seems highly plausible that current fascination with the ‘Mayan apocalypse’ is itself an instance of this process of displacement.
One of the major reasons we find it hard to face up to the reality of ecological crisis is that it is a systemic crisis rooted in the logic of the capitalist economy. This is a difficult thought for many to accept because it implies that environmental disaster cannot be averted without moving beyond capitalism. This is a daunting prospect — but the incompatibility of capitalism with environmental sustainability is clear. Capitalism is driven by an insatiable need for growth. The logic of perpetual accumulation for accumulation’s sake compels capitalism to plunder more and more of the planet’s resources, burn greater quantities of fossil fuels and fill the atmosphere with more and more CO2. The ecological crisis stems from the contradiction between, on the one hand, a system predicated on the logic of perpetual and infinite growth and, on the other, a planet with finite resources and a finite ‘carrying capacity’ in terms of the amount of consumption it can support, and the amount of greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution it can absorb.
The looming environmental crisis, then, demands radical solutions. It necessitates the construction of democratically planned economy based on the logic of sustainable production for need. But what about the objections of people such as Gray — isn’t the very idea of socialist change a dangerous form of millenarian thinking? Gray’s argument however rests on a caricature of socialist thought. As Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Front de Gauche has argued, socialism is best understood as a series of practical responses to concrete problems. Far from demanding paradise on Earth, socialist aspirations are actually rather modest. They are that everyone should have enough to eat, and have access to decent housing, healthcare and education; that people should exert democratic control over the workplace and the economy as a whole; that everyone should have access to the resources they need in order to live fulfilling lives and that the economy should be geared towards human wellbeing rather than the unsustainable pursuit of infinite accumulation. These aren’t outlandish, utopian aims. They’re perfectly sensible.
The biggest obstacle to the transformation of the system and the averting of ecological catastrophe is psychological and ideological. It’s what Mark Fisher terms ‘capitalist realism’ – ‘the widespread idea that capitalism is the only “realistic” political economic system’. Indeed we live at a time in which (in Žižek’s phrase) ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’. Mayan apocalypse-mania is perhaps a direct reflection of this condition. But as this mania passes and is forgotten, the real catastrophe looms ever larger. While it may be easier for now to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, we must accept and act on the truth that if we don’t put an end to capitalism, capitalism will eventually put an end to us.
First published by the Guardian ‘Comment is Free’, 19 December 2012
According to a series of recent opinion polls the UK Independence party (Ukip) has overtaken the Liberal Democrats to become Britain’s third most popular party. Though, plainly, this is not good news for the Lib Dems and further confirmation of their continuing slide into oblivion, it’s clear that the Conservatives have the most to fear. Indeed the Times reported on Tuesday (paywalled link) that the Tories have lost a sixth of their support over the last two months, with much of this going to Ukip. For those of us on the left, anything that threatens to damage the Tory vote might be regarded as welcome. Nevertheless, as Owen Jones recently cautioned, we should be wary about Ukip’s rise – indeed we need to start taking Ukip seriously as, in Jones’ words, a “potential menace”. In order to do this we need to be clear about what Ukip represents.
What’s behind Ukip’s increasing poll ratings? At first glance the shift in support from the Tories to Eurosceptic Ukip might be interpreted as being driven by current events in the eurozone. Interestingly, though,only a quarter of those considering voting Ukip see the EU as one of the top three issues facing the UK. Indeed, the recent swell in Ukip’s support may have much more to do with defection of Conservative supporters over the issue of gay marriage, which Ukip unequivocally opposes. Furthermore, Lord Ashcroft recently suggested that Tory voters are moving to Ukip because they’re attracted to its much more draconian stance on immigration and “benefits culture”.
Here we come to an apparent paradox. Ukip positions itself on the traditionalist and socially conservative right on issues like homosexuality and immigration and yet, at the same time, loudly trumpets its libertarian credentials – proclaiming itself to be a “democratic libertarian party” for example. But how can we square an apparently libertarian philosophical outlook with the promotion of socially illiberal and authoritarian policies?
Some argue, given the apparent conflict, that Ukip aren’t libertarian at all. But this is to misunderstand libertarianism. In reality there’s no conflict. As paradoxical as it may seem, rightwing libertarianism has always been a deeply authoritarian political philosophy. It claims to value liberty in some general and all-encompassing sense above all other principles, but the particular types of freedom libertarianism seeks to defend and extend are always, tacitly and implicitly, forms of liberty for the few at the expense of the many. Thus libertarianism stands for the unfreedom of the majority.
There are basically two key historical strands of libertarian thought (which have, over time, become intertwined). The first is based in the liberal natural rights tradition associated with John Locke. Locke argued that individuals have a natural, God-given right to ownership of their own person and thus, by extension, an absolute entitlement to the products of their own labour. This forms the basis of the libertarian commitment to the sanctity of private property. The second strand is rooted in the classical liberal economic thinking of figures such as Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer and, more recently, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. The basic thrust of this strand is that unencumbered “free” markets will always tend towards stable equilibrium. Both strands converge on the view that individual freedom is paramount, is synonymous with the defence of private property rights and best flourishes when forms of collective, democratic and/or state intervention (such as regulation or taxation) are minimised.
There are many problems with these arguments – it’s clear from the historical record that free markets certainly don’t tend toward spontaneous order and stability. Further, libertarians have never come up with a convincing way of demonstrating the existence of any “natural right” to property – Locke evades the problem simply by asserting that such rights exist because God decreed them.
The most important thing to grasp about libertarian thinking, however, is that its particular, very narrow, understanding of liberty is an indication of its class basis. Liberty is defined almost exclusively in terms of private property rights. When approaching issues such as progressive taxation, trade unions, welfare and economic regulation the libertarian will present all of these things as threats to individual liberty. But whose liberty in particular do these things plausibly threaten? All of these measures, in fact, can be regarded precisely in terms of the expansion of freedom – for employees, the poor, the unemployed and so on. It is clear that for all its explicitly proclaimed devotion to the defence of freedom in the abstract, libertarianism is in fact most concerned with defence of the particular and exclusive freedoms of the wealthy, employers and the powerful.
This is, at the same time, a defence of radical social inequality. Hard-nosed libertarians have always been clear about the need for robust systems of law and order – recognition (though not often explicitly stated as such) that social inequalities breed crime and social discontent. Ukip’s policy commitments to double the number of prison places and to free the police “from the straitjacket of political correctness” sit squarely in this tradition.
But it’s not merely class hierarchy that libertarianism implicitly defends – it’s also committed to other forms of domination. Take “race” for example. Libertarian thought has been marked by a distinctly racist dimension from its very beginnings. Spencer, for instance, propounded social Darwinism and favoured a legal ban on interracial marriage. Notoriously, Locke referred to native Americans as “savage beasts” and, indeed his Second Treatise can be read as an elaborate defence of the colonial expropriation of native Americans. It is entirely in keeping with libertarian tradition, then, that Ukip is radically hostile to immigration and to “multiculturalism” (a familiar dog-whistle term for the racist right).
Ukip is also committed, of course, to the defence of uncompromising heterosexism and this often takes vile forms – Ukip MEP Roger Helmer for example recently suggested that gay marriage legislation opened to the door to incestuous marriage. In both cases – immigration and gay rights – Ukip is seeking to tap into an aggrieved sense of rightful superiority on the part of relatively privileged groups and to bolster it through various forms of discrimination against inferior others.
Libertarianism often presents itself as the polar opposite of fascism. In fact libertarianism and fascism have long been bedfellows. Mises supported Mussolini’s squadrismo and regarded fascism as a welcome “emergency makeshift” that would save “European civilisation”. Hayek was an admirer of Pinochet’s Chile. Libertarian support for fascist regimes rested on the observation that they constituted bulwarks of militant defence for private property and associated social hierarchies in the face of perceived or actual threats from the left. This tradition of close co-operation is continued by Ukip today in its various alliances with far-right groups in Europe, with whom Ukip shares a fear of immigration, gay rights and “multiculturalism”.
So in the end there’s no real paradox in relation to Ukip’s libertarianism on the one hand and its “illiberal”, authoritarian social conservatism on the other. Libertarianism has always been committed to the restriction of liberty for certain groups in order to augment the freedom (manifested in and through wealth, power and status) of privileged sections of society. If we were to ask, then, whether Ukip is authoritarian or libertarian, socially conservative or libertarian, or even whether it’s far right or libertarian, the answer in each case would be that it’s both. There’s no contradiction.
First published by the Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ July 15 2012
What does conservatism stand for? What is its core, motivating commitment? In the light of the various divisions within conservative thought today – between, for example, one nation and new right conservatives – some political theorists have concluded that the doctrine is simply incoherent. Others argue that conservatism has only ever been a rag-tag bundle of beliefs, prejudices and vague sentimental attachments rather than an organised, unified philosophy. Nevertheless, the fact that parties and movements thinking of and calling themselves conservative, for all their factiousness, have been such a prominent and permanent feature of the modern political landscape suggests that they’re bound together by some sort of shared, deeply rooted rationale.
We can certainly identify several central themes running through conservative thought. The most obvious is the desire to conserve, and a general suspicion of social change. Closely connected with this is the importance of tradition which reflects, for the conservative, the accumulated wisdom of the past. Long-established institutions and practices have evolved over many generations and are thus, say conservatives, “tried and tested”. Change, if it must come, should be cautious and pragmatic. Society, for the conservative, is best understood as a complex, organic whole which must be allowed to evolve at its own pace. Other central themes include the idea of human imperfection and the importance of authority for social cohesion. Further, conservatives often claim to value freedom over other political principles.
The trouble, as Ted Honderich argues, is that none of these central themes seem to provide a firm or distinct underlying rationale for conservatism. Take the suspicion of change. Clearly, conservatives are not against all social change, yet the kinds they’re for and those they oppose remain largely unspecified. Matters are not made clearer by reference to the value of long-established traditions because the question remains: which ones?
Conservatives are not generally noted for vociferous defence of labour movement traditions – the well-established tradition, say, that one should not cross a picket line – whereas they tend to be quite keen on those associated with the monarchy. Yet, if they were committed to the value of tradition as such there would be no reason to prefer the latter. Neither do we get closer to a clear, distinctive rationale when we consider caution and pragmatism – Fabian socialists are committed to incremental reform, too, yet they’re clearly not conservatives. Furthermore, conservatives such as Thatcher have themselves implemented far-reaching programmes of reform. So it’s not radical, rapid change, per se, conservatives oppose.
We encounter similar problems in relation to freedom and authority. Conservatives can’t be for all and any form of freedom or authority. Further, one would be hard pressed to identify any major political tradition that doesn’t claim liberty as a central principle or which doesn’t advocate certain forms of authority. The conservative view of human nature is not as distinctive as it might at first appear – one does not have to be on the right to think that humans have a natural capacity for selfishness.
So how might we identify the fundamental rationale? The circumstances of modern conservatism’s birth are illuminating in this regard. Some of the ideas we associate with conservatism go back many centuries, but as a coherent political doctrine, conservatism is a very modern phenomenon which developed in response to the radical challenge of the French revolution. Indeed, it’s widely agreed that Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France represents the founding text of modern conservatism in which its core ideas were first coherently formulated.
It’s clear that what most alarmed Burke about the revolution was not the violence (he wrote before the terror set in) and it will not do either to say that it was the overthrow of the constitutional order as such that really angered him (he supported the American revolution). What he really feared about the French revolution was that it was driven by, and put power into the hands of, what he called “the swinish multitude” – it perverted “the natural order of things”, which was that the wealthy should rule and the poor should remain subordinate.
This is the core commitment of conservatism. In the name of general principles such as tradition, order, authority and moderation, they seek to preserve particular relations of power. They defend privilege from those who threaten it. As Corey Robin puts it, conservatism is “a meditation on – and theoretical rendition of – the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back”.
As such, conservatism is, very precisely, a reactionary ideology. It’s also – contrary to what conservatives usually claim – an activist ideology. It is, as Robin puts it, an “idea-driven praxis” much more than it is simply a disposition or outlook. For this reason, conservatism has always been remarkably dynamic. The long-term defence of privilege necessitates a high degree of tactical flexibility. Conservatism has not merely reacted against the left; it has also consistently appropriated and adapted the left’s ideas. The most obvious example here is the idea of democracy, which conservatives once vigorously denounced, but which they later claimed as their own.
The gradual acceptance of the idea of democracy reflected in part the strategic imperative of broadening conservatism’s social base. From the time of Burke onwards, the right grew increasingly aware that it must widen its appeal beyond a small class of aristocrats. As Robin explains, it realised that “the masses must either be able to locate themselves symbolically in the ruling class or be provided with real opportunities to become faux aristocrats themselves in the family, the factory, and the field”. The former path was epitomised by nationalist and imperialist politics whereby the working class at home was made to feel part of an elite in relation to the colonised.
The latter path involved broadening and, in a sense, partially democratising the series of hierarchies to be defended – the power of husbands over wives, for example, and of employers and managers over workers. More recently, conservatism has sought to mobilise resentment and fear on the part of relatively privileged groups (or sections of society which at least feel they ought to be superior) in relation to other subordinate or putatively threatening groups – immigrants, benefit claimants, unionised workers, single mothers and so on.
Social inequalities and hierarchies can be defended and secured in different ways. The defence of wealth and property-power when threatened might be organised, for example, through authoritarian means or, alternatively, through free-market policies (the predictable effects of which are to transfer wealth upwards). This, in part, explains the heterogeneity of conservative parties and movements. But all conservative politics pivot on a fundamental commitment – defence of privilege and inequality.
First published in Historical Materialism, 20: 1, pp. 21-30. Available on Brill’s website. Published here on my personal website under the terms of Brill’s publications and copyright policy.
Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Mark Fisher, Winchester: Zero Books, 2009
Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? is a provocative polemical analysis of the narrowing of political horizons that has occurred over the past couple of decades and of the powerful ideological grip that capitalism holds on the collective, social psyche, destroying our capacity to imagine political alternatives. Fisher seeks to illuminate the major cultural and social effects of a post-Cold War politico-ideological condition in which (according to Žižek’s well known observation) ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’. Building on this analysis, Fisher identifies some key tensions and contradictions in the ideological armour of contemporary capitalism and extrapolates from this some tentative strategic propositions for the anticapitalist Left. This review-article argues that, while Fisher’s book provides valuable conceptual and strategic resources for the Left, it is hamstrung by several weaknesses – not the least of these a tendency to make unconvincing, sweeping claims about the novelty and distinctness of what Fisher terms ‘capitalist realism’ and a tendency to present a caricature of current left-wing thinking.
critique of everyday life, capitalist ideology, philosophy, bureaucratisation, strategy, cultural
criticism, book-reviews, Marxist political theory, neoliberalism
Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? is a provocative account of the prevailing ideological conditions of contemporary capitalist society. It is a short polemical analysis of the powerful ideological grip that capitalism exerts on the collective psyche, destroying our capacity to imagine political alternatives. This is Fisher’s first book, but many readers may be familiar with his website, ‘K-Punk’, which brings radical criticism to bear on a broad range of cultural subjects and issues. The same wide-ranging eclecticism is evident in this book in which the author draws on a welter of examples and ideas from both ‘popular culture’ and ‘high theory’. Fisher’s style of exposition has a fast-paced, free-wheeling quality to it reminiscent of Slavoj Žižek’s writing – and, indeed, there is a Žižekian audaciousness to many of the ideas that Fisher puts forward.
‘Put at its simplest,’ Mark Fisher explains (in an interview in which he discusses his book), ‘capitalist realism is the widespread idea that capitalism is the only “realistic” political economic system’. One of his central arguments in Capitalist Realism is that this idea has become the major legitimating ideological prop of the capitalist order today. Capitalism no longer presents itself as the ‘best’ social system amongst a range of possible alternatives in order to secure the ideological conditions necessary for its reproduction, but as the only feasible social order. It was, for Fisher, the collapse of the ‘actually existing socialist states’ of the Eastern Bloc that ushered in this new form of ideological legitimation. With the disappearance of these regimes and with the apparent final discrediting of the alternative they had claimed to represent, capitalism was free to present itself as ‘the only game in town’. Fisher suggests that capitalist realism is the first really successful totalitarian ideological system – ‘totalitarian’ in the sense that it permeates deep into the psyche of contemporary individuals, structuring their understanding of the possible and erecting invisible barriers and limits to thought and to the imagination. Under conditions of capitalist realism, indeed, the idea of any practical alternative to capitalism becomes not just ‘unrealistic’ but literally unthinkable – as Fisher puts it; ‘it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to [capitalism]’ (p. 2).
Capitalist realism incorporates, for Fisher, a kind of atemporality. It announces that we have reached the ‘end of history’ and, in so doing, obliterates any sense of time as a constantly progressing continuum. Instead we live in an eternal present. Under conditions of capitalist realism it becomes apparently self-evident that (in Terry Eagleton’s words) ‘the future will be pretty much like the present only more so.’ The ‘futurity of the future’ is cancelled. Indeed, for Fisher, Francis Fukuyama’s famous but widely derided thesis (developed at the very beginning of the period in which capitalist realism emerged) articulated a certain fundamental truth. It was not, contra Fukuyama, that the world was converging on some stable liberal utopia of free trade and perpetual peace. On the contrary, Fisher indicates that the world of capitalist realism is characterised by the ‘normalization of crisis’ (p. 1). What Fukuyama correctly articulated was a vision of the ideological self-image of the post-Cold War period that would come to predominate – an apparent narrowing of the bounds of political possibility and a widespread sense that capitalism had not only defeated its major manifest Twentieth Century challenger, but that it had also, in so doing, destroyed once and for all the very possibility of serious challenge to its ascendency.
The cancellation of the future, Fisher argues further, also robs of us of the past. Without novelty and change the significance of the past evaporates into nothingness. Capitalist realism’s eternal present gives rise to a collective social and cultural malaise. The absence of future and past drains the present of all meaning. Contemporary individuals, for Fisher, inhabit a melancholy and sterile world stripped of hope. It is a deeply unhealthy state of affairs in psychological terms which gives rise to profound anxieties and neuroses at both an individual and social level.
Fisher admits that his thesis is, in many ways, similar to Fredric Jameson’s account of postmodernism. Fisher argues, however, that this does not make capitalist realism a superfluous concept because what Jameson called postmodernism has become so deeply embedded in the collective psyche and the lived reality of people today that it has undergone a kind of qualitative transformation. As Fisher comments elsewhere, ‘Capitalist realism, you might say, is what happens when postmodernism is naturalized’.
Having provided an account of the contemporary cultural malaise, the author’s focus shifts to an analysis of what he argues are two major aporias in capitalist realism and to a discussion of how these might be exploited by the left. Capitalist realism only appears to be seamless and all-encompassing. The naturalisation of capitalism is a measure of capitalist realism’s effectiveness as an ideology but all ideological systems, Fisher suggests, no matter how deeply embedded in the social fabric, have their weaknesses. The way to combat capitalist realism is to identify and tease out its gaps, tensions and contradictions. ‘Capitalist realism’, he states, ‘can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible “realism” turns out to be nothing of the sort’ (p. 16). The two major contradictions in capitalist realism on which Fisher concentrates are mental health and bureaucracy. Many of Fisher’s examples in relation to these two aporias are drawn from the world of Further Education.
Contra the neoliberal assertion that ‘free-market’ consumerism is liberating for individuals, neoliberal capitalism, according to Fisher, ‘installs a perpetual anxiety – there is no security: your position and status are under constant review’. In such conditions a range of mental health problems – depression especially – proliferate. Since today’s burgeoning rates of depression and other forms of mental illness are largely socially and structurally generated they cry out, as Fisher argues, for radical social and political solutions. Yet ‘the current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness’ (p. 37) and insists that these are treated simply in terms of biological-chemical imbalances within specific individuals. The ‘chemico-biologization of mental illness’, Fisher notes, is ‘commensurate with its depoliticization’ (p. 37). Nevertheless, mental illness is one area in which capitalist realism might be challenged by left forces prepared to ‘repoliticize’ depression and mental distress – as Fisher argues, the ‘“mental health plague” in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is [actually] inherently dysfunctional’ (p. 19).
The second aporia on which Fisher focuses is bureaucracy. Neoliberal capitalism likes to present itself as radically anti-bureaucratic. Neoliberalism, indeed, is often defined against an antithetical bureaucratic Other – ‘socialism’ or post-war social democracy which was supposedly characterised by inefficiency, institutional sclerosis and bureaucratic centralisation. Yet the official ideology of neoliberalism ‘is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism’ (p. 20). Fisher points out that ‘new kinds of bureaucracy – “aims and objectives”, “outcomes”, “mission statements” – have proliferated, even as the neoliberal rhetoric about the end of top-down, centralized control has gained pre-eminence’ (p. 40). In fact, these new forms of administration and regulation are, if anything, much more intensely bureaucratic than previous kinds.
As he does for mental health, Fisher draws on examples from the world of education. The bureaucratic measures that he specifies will be painfully familiar to many readers of this journal – endless implementation of new procedures designed to assess and ‘measure’ teaching and research ‘performance’, the grading of research ‘output’ as part of the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ and countless other forms of ‘target’ fetishism, hoop-jumping and pointless quantitative assessment of often unquantifiable forms of labour. As Fisher points out, these new forms of bureaucracy are certainly not confined to Higher and Further Education – they are ubiquitous throughout much of the public sector (and beyond). Such measures are, in a qualitative sense, much more oppressive and stifling than earlier Fordist forms of bureaucracy, Fisher suggests. This is because those subject to these procedures are forced to become complicit with them – they demand, and indeed very largely consist in, a kind of perpetual ‘auto-surveillance’ or internal policing on the part of individuals caught up in this system of administration and assessment.
Fisher points out that, inevitably, a ‘short-circuiting’ process occurs. Those caught up in this regime of surveillance know precisely what sort of data the system requires – what sort of ‘audited representation’ of their ‘performance and output’ it wishes to see – and so ‘work becomes geared towards the generation and massaging of representations rather than to the official goals of the work itself’ (p. 42). The auditing process, then, becomes more and more pointless – less and less reliable as an indicator of actual work ‘performance’ and increasingly useless as a means of actually improving ‘standards’. Bureaucracy in neoliberalism becomes an end in itself – sui generis – but which requires ever increasing layers of management and of (further) bureaucracy to administer.
Fisher identifies an interesting process of collective pretence that accompanies this system of bureaucracy – one that, ironically, resembles one of the processes that characterised those most bureaucratic of states in the Eastern Bloc. In the Stalinist states, Fisher suggests, (presumably) all of those responsible for the administration of the system must have been aware that it was shabby and corrupt. Yet they were required to pretend that they had not noticed – to act as if the official ideological representation of the system was accurate. A similar process occurs under neoliberalism – everybody caught up in neoliberal regimes of surveillance knows (and, indeed, everybody knows that everybody knows) that the bureaucratic tasks they are required to carry out are pointless, but continue to perform them anyway. Here, Fisher brings in Lacan’s concept of the big Other. Who, Fisher asks, is the consumer of the bureaucratic data we produce? Who is the naïve, gullible subject for whom this material is prepared? It is the big Other. We carry out these tasks in order both to conform to the expectations of this collective fiction and in order to trick it.
The ideologues of neoliberalism like to argue (much as the postmodernists have) that free-market capitalism does away with collective fictions (‘there is no such thing as society’). Yet the continuing centrality of the big Other figure in the collective psyche under neoliberalism gives the lie to this claim. This is one of the ways in which, for Fisher, the self-image of neoliberal capitalism is contradicted by its actual practice. The major point Fisher draws from his analysis of bureaucracy, however, is that the anti-bureaucratic credentials that neoliberalism claims for itself are claimed falsely. Fisher believes that capitalist bureaucracy is a weak point that can be exploited in order to loosen the capitalist realist ideological grip on the contemporary imagination. He argues that the left should build on the desires for a massive reduction of bureaucracy that neoliberalism tapped into but has been incapable of satisfying. Reduction of bureaucracy requires a struggle to democratise the workplace, Fisher suggests – an assertion of worker autonomy.
In the final chapter, Fisher advances some further suggestions in relation to a strategy for the defeat of capitalist realism. He argues that the recent credit crisis and bank bail-outs have severely discredited neo-liberalism and that this has opened up a significant space for strategic manoeuvre on the part of the left. Yet Fisher warns that the current crisis of neoliberalism is not yet a crisis of capitalist realism and that, further, the left is still wedded to modes of thought and methods of organisation and struggle that will prevent it from successfully converting this crisis into a serious challenge to capitalism itself. Fisher implies that many on the left hoped or even expected that the credit crisis, when it broke, might bring down capitalism. However, ‘speculations that capitalism might be on the verge of collapsing soon proved to be unfounded’ (pp. 77-8) and further: ‘It quickly became clear that, far from constituting the end of capitalism, the bank bail-outs were a massive reassertion of the capitalist realist insistence that there is no alternative. Allowing the banking system to disintegrate was held to be unthinkable.’ (p. 78.) While the assumptions of neoliberalism were seriously shaken by the crisis, those of capitalist realism were not. ‘We can now see that, while neoliberalism was necessarily capitalist realist’, he comments, ‘capitalist realism need not be neoliberal’ (p. 78). Even so, capitalist realism is yet to settle on a coherent replacement for neoliberalism and this period of uncertainty on the part of capital presents a significant opportunity for the left.
Fisher feels, however, that the organised left is currently hamstrung by its continuing adherence to inadequate and out-dated ideas. For example, Fisher excoriates the left for ‘limiting its ambitions to the establishing of a big state’ (p. 77). He criticises, too, its unimaginative attachment to old forms of industrial action. The most significant problem, he suggests, is that the left is committed to the politics of what he calls ‘immobilization’ – that is, protest in the name of resistance to change rather than to struggle for change. The politics of immobilization implicitly concede that ‘capitalism can only be resisted, never overcome’ (p. 28) and furthermore, according to Fisher, often amounts to a demand that governments return to the comforting certainties of Fordism – a nostalgia for a bygone social-democratic capitalism rather than any sort of challenge to capitalism itself. However, ‘an effective anti-capitalism’, Fisher continues, ‘must be a rival to Capital, not a reaction to it. … Anti-capitalism must oppose Capital’s globalism with its own, authentic, universality’ (p. 79).
The key to building such an oppositional, rival universality, according to Fisher, is to resurrect and take seriously the concept of the ‘general will’ – that is ‘the idea of a public space that is not reducible to an aggregation of individuals and their interests’ (p. 77). As Fisher indicates in his interview with Fuller one could understand the concept of the ‘general will’, here, in terms of an alternative big Other – an egalitarian and socialist big Other. Here, Fisher draws on Žižek’s arguments in relation to the inescapability of the big Other – of the inevitability and necessity of such a symbolic fiction for society to function. What he proposes, is the construction of a new symbolic fiction that could be counterposed to the prevailing one(s) under capitalist realism in order to provide coherence to a socialist challenge to the system. In this respect Fisher’s approach shares much common ground with Badiou’s ideas in relation to ‘the communist hypothesis’ and with Peter Hallward’s work on ‘the politics of prescription’ – indeed Hallward, like Fisher, seeks in particular to revive the idea of the ‘general will’ or ‘will of the people’ as the appropriate politico-philosophical embodiment, or bearer, of a new egalitarian symbolic fiction.
Such an egalitarian big Other will not emerge spontaneously. One of the prerequisites for the emergence of such a collective identity, Fisher suggests, is that individuals are freed from the consumerist lassitude in which they are currently trapped and this requires organised political intervention on the part of what Fisher terms a ‘Marxist Supernanny’. The idea of a ‘Marxist Supernanny’ is certainly one of the most provocative ideas in the book and one with which many readers will be instinctively uncomfortable. In the TV programme Supernanny the eponymous protagonist turns up at the houses of parents with out-of-control children to ‘sort out problems of socialization that the family can no longer resolve’ (p. 71). Invariably the problem Supernanny identifies is that the children have not been provided with the ‘order’ or ‘structure’ that they need. Supernanny knows that children are unable to identify their own interests and that without an authority figure in charge who will refuse to cave-in to their immediate demands, their behaviour will degenerate into a chaotic hedonism that, in fact, makes them profoundly unhappy. A ‘Marxist Supernanny’, according to Fisher, would do much the same thing for society as a whole. It would identify the structural causes that give rise to social dysfunction and would ‘be the one who laid down limitations, who acted in our own interests when we are incapable of recognising them ourselves’ (p. 76). Fisher is never quite clear how seriously we are meant to take the idea of a ‘Marxist Supernanny’, what organisational forms it would take, or who exactly might act in its name. Nevertheless, he does indicate that ‘artists and media professionals’ might play a key role. He calls for those employed in broadcasting to produce intellectually challenging pieces of work – to return to something like the BBC’s post-war public service ethic. This kind of ‘paternalism’, Fisher suggests, is not the same as ‘elitism’. On the contrary, it treats its audience with respect – as people capable of dealing with complex ideas.
Fisher is attempting to do something very important in this book. His aim is to grasp the central features of the political-ideological landscape in which we are currently located, and to identify a possible route of exit. It has a practical, strategic purpose – and fresh strategic thinking is precisely what is needed at a time when, even though capitalism is being shaken by severe economic crisis, the radical left seems incapable of making significant political headway. Nevertheless, Fisher, in my view, is not entirely successful in this endeavour and, despite its considerable strengths, the book contains several weaknesses.
I remain unconvinced by one of Fisher’s central contentions: that we have moved into a period qualitatively distinct from others in terms of the prevailing ideology. Fisher shares with postmodernists, in my view, a tendency to exaggerate the novelty and distinctness of the present – and there indeed (notwithstanding Fisher’s, for me, not wholly convincing attempts to draw a distinction between capitalist realism and the condition of postmodernity) is one indication of the non-novelty of capitalist realism. The feeling of having reached ‘the end of history’, in which it seems there is nothing left to do but to play with the wreckage of past belief systems and with inherited cultural and artistic artefacts now drained of all meaning, is nothing new. Fisher, indeed, references T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published in 1922, which surely articulates the very sense of melancholic cultural and social paralysis, disillusionment and atemporality that Fisher suggests is characteristic of capitalist realism.
Fisher’s account of capitalist realism can be situated within a broader trend in recent thinking – a return to a discourse of chronic alienation. The recent anarchist text, The Coming Insurrection, for example, although very different in many respects, shares much common ground with Fisher’s book in terms of its diagnoses of the various sicknesses and neuroses afflicting modern society – characterised by a stultifying collective sense of alienation. There is much in common with Oliver James’ recent work on mental distress and alienation under conditions of neoliberalism too. Nevertheless, this discourse is very much a revival of ideas that have been in circulation for many decades. One can see very similar accounts of how capitalism gives rise to acute alienation and deep rooted social neuroses in texts from the 1950s and 1960s – in the work of Fromm, Marcuse, Debord and R. D. Laing for example. All of this suggests that there is nothing really very new about what Fisher observes in terms of modern alienation.
Fisher is right to argue that the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ has come to define politics and economics in the present period to an extent that has probably never been seen before and that this has entailed major social and cultural effects. However, I doubt that this narrowing of political horizons in recent years has been quite as dramatic as Fisher suggests. As we have seen, Fisher suggests that the collapse of ‘Really Existing Socialism’ was one of the major catalysts for the onset of the capitalist realist assumption that capitalism is ‘the only game in town’. The logic of Fisher’s argument implies that the apparent alternative represented by ‘Really Existing Socialism’ came to be seen by most people not simply as one form of alternative, but as the only alternative to capitalism – and this seems about right. But for a long time before the Eastern Bloc states collapsed, very few people saw the alternative they represented as an attractive one. So, long before capitalism appeared to become the only feasible political and economic system, it had seemed, to many people, to be the only acceptable one. The difference between acceptable and feasible, here, seems to be minor. If capitalism appears to be the only acceptable system then it is, for all intents and purposes, the ‘only game in town.’ One could argue, then, that the onset of capitalist realism, as Fisher describes it, began long before 1989.
In fact one often feels that what Fisher is really addressing here is not so much the social effects arising from the apparent closing down of alternatives to capitalism in recent years, as those arising out of the apparent closing down of alternatives within capitalism. The last few decades, of course, have seen a relentless assault on the tenets of social-democratic politics and Keynesian economics by neoliberal ideologues. It has been so successful that alternative schools of thought within bourgeois economics and politics have been almost entirely excluded from the mainstream. This, it strikes me, is where most of the narrowing of political-economic horizons has occurred in the period on which Fisher focuses. Of course, none of this is to suggest that Fisher is wrong to argue that the idea of socialism has been largely banished from the purview of popular consciousness. I think he is mistaken, however, to suggest that disbelief in the possibility of socialism is qualitatively more advanced today than it was before 1989 and mistaken, furthermore, to suggest that it is the ideological domination of capitalism in a general sense, rather than the domination of a particular (and particularly noxious) variant of capitalism that really defines the present period.
One of the major frustrations of the book is that Fisher is never quite clear about what exactly capitalist realism is – or, at least, where its conceptual boundaries lie. Of course it is quite possible to grasp what he means by the concept in the broad terms that are set out towards the beginning of the book; that it is a ‘pervasive atmosphere’ (p. 16) – the ‘widespread sense’ (p. 2) that there is no alternative to capitalism. It becomes a rather slippery concept, however, as the book progresses and as Fisher tries to add further substance to the term. In Fisher’s discussion of mental health and bureaucracy, for example, it is never made clear whether Fisher sees the forms of mental illness and the ‘audit culture’ associated with neoliberalism as, in some sense, component parts of capitalist realism (that is, as manifestations of capitalist realism itself), as symptoms of it (as illnesses/processes distinct from, but directly caused by, capitalist realism), or as pernicious social effects of contemporary capitalism more widely which are simply reproduced indirectly by capitalist realism (in that the latter helps to reproduce capitalism). This frustrating vagueness at the heart of the book might well be bound up very intimately with Fisher’s fast-paced writing style. The free-wheeling way in which Fisher writes is one of the book’s pleasures but it has an unfortunate flip-side – one can’t help feeling that Fisher’s argument has a certain cavalier quality to it. That is to say that it tends to move from idea to idea without quite dwelling on any of them long enough for Fisher to really consolidate his argument or reasoning before moving on to the next one. It is easy to suspect, as one is hustled along to the next dazzling point, that, if Fisher stopped to examine more closely the concepts and ideas he develops, many of them might start to unravel.
I was unimpressed by some of what Fisher had to say in relation to left-wing strategy. There is always something implicitly old-hat about claims that we are living in ‘new conditions’ that require ‘new thinking’ and the jettisoning of ‘old-fashioned’ forms of organisation and struggle. There is a history of such claims on the left that goes back at least as far as Bernstein – leftist thinkers have regularly proclaimed established socialist political traditions to be ‘out-dated’ ever since (Crosland, Lyotard and Giddens amongst others). This is not to deny, of course, that the left needs to adapt its thinking to changing circumstances. Fisher rather overstates his case, however, with exaggerated claims of novelty that many readers will feel they have encountered many times before. It does not help that Fisher tends to present a misleading picture of established left-wing thinking. When he writes, for example, that ‘it is now evident that the credit crisis will not lead to the end of capitalism all by itself’ (p. 78), it is clearly implied that some on the left thought this might happen. What serious left-wing thinker, however, believed that the crisis might lead to the collapse of capitalism ‘all by itself’? Fisher advances another caricature in relation to the left’s approach to the state. Since when have the contemporary radical left wanted to set up a ‘big state’, rather than to radically democratise what are currently state functions? Perhaps Fisher is talking about ‘the left’ in a broader sense here – encompassing social democrats and the centre-left – but, if so, he does not make this at all clear.
Fisher’s excoriation of the left for its commitment to ‘immobilization’ and ‘resistance’ to change is also rather wide of the mark. Fisher is right that a crucial part of any anti-capitalist strategy must be the development of an authentic socialist universality. However, he is wrong to suggest that resistance to capitalism, on the one hand, and the construction of a serious challenge to it, on the other, are mutually exclusive strategies. The traditional Marxist approach to this, of course, would be to say that there is a dialectical relationship between defensive struggles to resist the depredations of capital and offensive struggles to replace it. One cannot help feeling that Fisher is presenting a caricature of ‘traditional’ socialist thought in a rush to proclaim the necessity of new thinking.
Amongst the most interesting things about Capitalist Realism is that Fisher tries to rehabilitate a number of concepts that have become quite unfashionable on the left – key amongst these, ‘authority’ and the ‘general will’. Indeed ‘authority’ is, for many, a dirty word – something regarded as self-evidently politically suspect. One of Fisher’s purposes is to ‘think through the opposition between authority and authoritarianism’. Many left-wingers simply assume that the two are synonymous, but ‘it is clear that culture and politics can’t proceed without some kind of authority structure’. This is an important point and Fisher is to be admired for his unabashed defence of the necessity of authority. Similarly, Fisher, in my view, is right to argue that something like the notion of the ‘general will’ is indispensable for the left and for any conception of socialism.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to know what to make of the closely related suggestions Fisher makes in relation to left-wing ‘paternalism’ and what he calls a ‘Marxist Supernanny’. I am still unsure exactly how seriously or how literally we are meant to take these ideas. Clearly, an element of tongue-in-cheek playfulness is involved. It is also fairly clear that the concept of the Marxist Supernanny is bound up with Fisher’s ideas about a left-wing big Other – that is, the Marxist Supernanny refers as much to a collectively shared symbolic fiction as it does to an elite minority of individuals. Nevertheless it does also seem to signify the latter. There is something worrying about this. As we have seen, Fisher’s points about the necessity of authority are well made, and one would not want to fall into the kind of political childishness that regards any kind of leadership as, by definition, dangerous. Further, in terms of the ‘paternalist’ activity of specific individuals performing Supernanny functions, it is reasonably clear that Fisher has in mind, for the most part, nothing more sinister than what Fuller describes as ‘accentuating cultural seriousness’ – risk-taking on the part of artists, broadcasters and other cultural workers willing to produce intellectually demanding work for wide public consumption. Even so, there is still a disquieting element of political elitism to all of this – Fisher’s focus, in terms of strategy, seems to revolve very closely around the idea of action by a small group of people to free the majority from a state of childish wretchedness in which they are incapable of identifying their real interests for themselves. There is nothing about a dynamic of interaction between leaders and led, nothing about democratic mass action. One wonders how Marxist this Marxist Supernanny really is.
Capitalist Realism, then, fails to convince in several key respects. The problem often boils down, at least in great part, to Fisher’s tendency to make unsupported and sweeping claims – not least in regard to the supposed qualitative distinctiveness of the capitalist realist present. Nevertheless, for all its shortcomings and ambiguities, Capitalist Realism remains a valuable work of innovative social theory. It is also a highly readable book, not least because of the quality of Fisher’s (often very wry) anecdotal observations of life in capitalist realist society. If for no other reason I would recommend the book to colleagues on the basis of his extraordinarily satisfying description of ‘call center angst’ (p. 64). There is, however, much more to recommend the book than this. There is, for one thing, an impressive commitment to strategic thinking – Fisher wants us to think seriously about how to take advantage of the current economic crisis and the whole book is geared towards this aim. His identification of neoliberal bureaucracy and mental health as two key weak points in the seemingly impenetrable ideological armour of contemporary capitalism, are especially important contributions in this regard. Fisher’s argument would have been strengthened if he had been more careful to substantiate his claims in relation to the supposed novelty of the current period. The argument could also have been made stronger, perhaps, if it had considered the extent to which the prevailing assumption today that ‘there is no alternative’ is rooted in the apparent closing down of alternatives within capitalism – alternatives to neo-liberal capitalism that is – just as much as in the apparent collapse of confidence in the possibility of socialism. Further, Fisher’s ideas in relation to strategy might have been improved had he attempted to integrate his discussion of authority and concepts such as the ‘general will’ and the ‘Marxist Supernanny’ into a more dialectical account of the relationship between leadership and mass struggle ‘from below’ in socialist politics.
Reviewed by Ed Rooksby
Badiou, Alain 2010, The Communist Hypothesis, London: Verso.
Eagleton, Terry 2002, ‘A Shelter in the Tempest of History’, Red Pepper, available at: http://www.redpepper.org.uk/A-shelter-in-the-tempest-of
Fisher, Mark 2009, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books.
Fukuyama, Francis 1992, The End of History and the Last Man, London: Penguin.
Fuller, Matthew 2009, ‘Questioning Capitalist Realism: An Interview with Mark Fuller’, MR Zine, available at: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/fisher271209.html
Hallward, Peter 2005, ‘The Politics of Prescription’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 104, 4: 769-789.
Hallward, Peter 2009, ‘The Will of the People: Notes Towards a Dialectical Voluntarism’, Radical Philosophy, 155: 17-29.
James, Oliver 2007, Affluenza, London: Vermillion.
James, Oliver 2008, The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza, London: Vermillion.
Jameson, Fredric 1991, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso.
The Invisible Committee 2009, The Coming Insurrection, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Wilson, Rowan 2010, ‘Mark Fisher’, available at: http://www.readysteadybook.com/Article.aspx?page=markfisher
Žižek, Slavoj 1999, The Ticklish Subject: the Absent Centre of Political Ontology, London: Verso
 Wilson 2010.
 Eagleton 2002. Eagleton uses this phrase in a slightly different context, but it seems appropriate here.
 Fukuyama 1991.
 Of course, Fukuyama believed all of this to be true rather than merely apparent.
 Jameson 1991.
 Wilson 2010.
 Here, indeed, Fisher goes beyond Jameson in identifying specific weak points in the almost all encompassing grip of capitalist ideological hegemony and in offering some relatively concrete suggestions in relation to a counter-hegemonic offensive.
 Wilson 2010.
 As Fisher points out, Lyotard’s notion of ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ mirrors neoliberal claims that free-market capitalism dissolves the collective fantasies of earlier periods.
 Fuller 2009.
 Žižek 1999.
 Badiou 2010.
 Hallward 2005.
 See Hallward 2009.
 The Invisible Committee 2009.
 James 2007 and 2008.
 Fuller 2009.
 Ibid. On this point see also Žižek 1999.
 Fuller 2009.