Archive for December, 2012

The idea of apocalypse in the age of ‘capitalist realism’

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.

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Ukip are true libertarians

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 SmithHerbert 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.

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What does conservatism stand for?

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.