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Nearly 70,000 cases of covid infection were reported yesterday, 8th January. Of course that’s officially confirmed cases and the real number of infections will be much higher. A small but significant proportion of those people will go on to be hospitalised and a small but significant proportion of them will die in the next few days. As we are often reminded, as if to reassure us, most of these victims will be over 60 and/or have various ‘underlying medical conditions’, but there are at least a couple of important ways in which this narrative of reassurance is both troubling and misleading. First, this narrative, intentionally or not (and I think it often is intentional when seized upon by various covid deniers and ‘lockdown sceptics’) effectively relegates people over 60 and those with ‘underlying conditions’ (and the list of these conditions is much more extensive than people normally realise) to more or less sub-human status: those whose deaths and lives are apparently relatively unimportant. Secondly, the fact is that you just don’t know if you are ‘vulnerable’ or not to this virus – no one can be sure that they are ‘safe’ from it. Indeed it’s currently thought that one in 20 people who develop symptoms on infection might suffer symptoms lasting more than eight weeks and, further, a significant number of those people remain unwell for several months (at least) after infection. This isn’t ‘just’ elderly people or those with ‘pre-existing health conditions’, but includes relatively young, relatively fit and active people like me – I’m 45 and before I became very ill with long covid last summer I used to weight-train in a serious and focused way at least 3 to 4 times a week. There are many, many people in more or less the same position as me currently and, given the rates of infection at the moment, many more will find themselves in a similar place over the next few weeks and months. Those who think – selfishly and incorrectly – that the pandemic is of little concern to them personally really ought to think again.
I wanted just to record my experiences of the long limbo of long covid over the past 9 months or so.
I’m pretty sure I know where and when I was infected and indeed who passed it on to me. In late March, a day or two before the first lockdown came into effect I walked into York city centre with a bravado that turned out to be hubris. I’m not a natural risk-taker, but paradoxically perhaps this instinctive aversion to risk sometimes prompts me to do stupid stuff in conscious rebellion against the cautious prohibitions commanded by my over-active Super Ego. I like to stick two fingers up to its finger wagging every now and again. It was a mistake this time and one I’m still paying for. I was in town to prove to myself that I wasn’t scared and, while I was at it, to pick up some bottles from the very nice Belgian beer specialist on Stonegate and to use a Boots gift card I’d been given months before. This was before masks in shops became mandatory and before people really started to wear them. While queueing in Boots I noticed, too late, that the cashier had a nasty cough. I was too embarrassed to leave the line before it was my turn to be served, and I remember thinking ‘you fucking moron’, not sure whether I was directing the insult at her or at myself. Both I suppose. She must have known this was a symptom of covid and, for that matter, her store manager must have known it too – she should have been told to self-isolate and supported on full pay. I can’t be 100% sure I got the virus from her, but it seems highly likely. Sometimes I wonder if the elderly woman who was behind me in the queue is still alive.
At first my symptoms were extremely mild. I remember waking up with what felt like a mild hangover every day in mid-April that I would shake off by mid-morning. Then I got splitting headaches every now and again and would often feel very tired in the afternoon, and I had a slight tickle in my lungs when I took a deep breath in but I felt no more than very slightly ‘off’ and was still able to function more or less normally – whatever ‘normally’ means in lockdown at least. In fact, while I suspected I might have a mild case of covid infection (and self-isolated), for a long while I put this feeling of being very mildly off-colour down in all probability to psychological side-effects of lockdown since I didn’t have any of what were then seen as the ‘classic’ symptoms – fever, continuous coughing, loss of taste or smell. In fact between April and August I was actually able to step up my workout routine – I bought some resistance bands just before the gyms were shut down and worked out pretty much every day for a couple of hours at least. I’ve probably never been fitter or stronger than in those few weeks.
The only strange thing that happened to me in that time was a series of panic attacks – 5 or 6 of them in a 24 hour period. I’ve never had anything like that before. Just before each attack I was watching something on my laptop or looking at my phone when I developed a sudden, deeply uncanny sense of deja-vu followed by a rapid and overwhelming wave of terror. I remember feeling that something extremely bad had happened and/or that there had been some sort of evil presence in the house the night before. Each time it lasted only a few seconds but left me shaken and trembling for a long while afterwards. In retrospect I think this was when the virus got into my nervous system. But apart from this odd 24 hours I felt only mildly under the weather for the first few months.
Then in August, when they relaxed the lockdown restrictions, I met up with a friend for a few hours in the city – we just talked and drank coffee in a couple of socially distanced outdoor venues and went for a walk along the river. On the 15 minute walk home to my house I suddenly felt very ill, like I was going to faint and collapse in the street. I only just made it back to my home and crumpled on the sofa where I lay for a few hours with a heavy physical and mental exhaustion that I have never experienced before. Over the next few days my health rapidly and frighteningly deteriorated. The headaches became permanent and the tickle in my lungs became a feeling of uncomfortable tightness. Further symptoms, often bizarre, followed in a gathering cascade. One day when I was out for a careful, short walk in the sun I noticed that that the fingers on my left hand felt swollen and uncomfortable – like the feeling you get when you come into the warm having been outside without gloves on a very cold day – and soon after I developed arthritic pain in my knuckles that migrated to the backs of both of my hands. I woke up with terrible pains in my hands in the early hours of each morning and soon after most of the joints in my body were clicking and popping loudly with any movement. Walking became uncomfortable – my hips, knees and ankles ached and were often very stiff. In addition I had a feeling of what I can only describe as ‘heaviness’ and ‘unresponsiveness’ in my legs – almost as if commands from my brain to move would be held up somewhere in my nervous system in a lag of a few microseconds. About the same time I developed shakes in my arms and terrible aches in my shoulder joints making it impossible to lift my arms above chest height without agonising jolts of pain. Strange knocking and thumping feelings in my chest followed. I developed severe pains in my back and down both sides of my rib-cage.
At my worst, in early to mid September, I had a couple of nights where I literally thought I was going to die. Both times I went to bed with a strange feeling like there was a stream flowing up through my chest into my left shoulder and down the length of my arm and woke up in the early hours with that arm completely dead – numb and useless, I couldn’t feel it at all and I couldn’t move any of my fingers on that hand. I thought I was having a stroke and considered dialling 999 with my useable hand. I didn’t do it, but I did draft goodbye messages to my family on WhatsApp on my phone, to have them ready to send if I felt myself going. Sounds completely absurd now but it felt very real at the time. About the same time the vision in my left eye blurred and I found it difficult to read anything on a screen and I also developed crippling myalgia in my shoulders and neck. I was taking paracetamol and rubbing ibroprofen gel into my shoulders and back around the clock just to manage the constant pain. I also had pretty bad ‘brain fog’. Basically it felt like my brain was encased in cotton wool and that I was somehow removed from reality, like I was watching everything – including my own activity – from behind thick glass. I would have spells of intense de-realisation and head spinning vertigo when I turned my head quickly or when I looked from brightness to shadow (peering out of the window into the sunlight and then back into the house for example would leave me extremely disorientated).
The psychological dimension to all of this, as you might imagine, was pretty bad. I was deeply depressed and I was convinced that I had a degenerative chronic illness and that my life was pretty much over. Thankfully at about this time I read on a long covid support group page on Facebook that over the counter anti-histamines were alleviating a lot of sufferers’ symptoms. I bought some and in a couple of days the worst of the myalgia and the brain fog lifted, plus the arthritis and headaches noticeably subsided. Somehow, through all of this I had managed to prepare teaching for a new 3rd year course that I was taking over in the Autumn term – but I don’t think I would have been able to teach it had I not started on the anti-histamines in late September. Thankfully my department were really good about supporting me by first prompting me to have an occupational health assessment, and then moving all my teaching online – I simply would not have had the strength or energy to walk around on campus between seminar rooms for any in-person teaching.
I thought I was getting better in October, but like many long covid sufferers I’m hit by ‘relapses’ that seem to follow any period of apparent recovery in an interminable cycle. None of these relapses have been as bad as when it was at its worst in September, but each one is a demoralising and crushing blow mentally. It’s like glimpsing light at the end of the tunnel and then realising each time it’s yet another truck hurtling toward you to knock you flat for a week or two. At the moment, 9 months or so from first contracting the infection, I have pretty bad fatigue and concentration problems (I can’t read more than 5 pages for teaching purposes without my mind shutting down), tightness and pains in my ribs and chest – I think it’s my lungs – I have a little bit of arthritic stiffness in my joints and any form of even mild physical exercise leaves me with ‘heavy legs’, cramping pains in my calves and clicking joints in my ankles, knees and hips. I know from a couple of previous attempts at (very cautious) resistance bands workouts that even light strength training leaves me with post-exertional malaise and precipitates a relapse for at least a fortnight afterwards. In fact this inability to exercise is what’s getting me down the most. I really enjoy weight training and indeed it became a very important part of my routine over the past 10 years or so. It provides me with crucial psychological benefits (anxiety-reduction, self-confidence) as much as physical ones and it really is a source of anguish to me that I haven’t been able to do it for 5 months or so now with no end in sight. I’m sure I’ve degenerated physically over the past few months and lost a lot of muscle bulk which is just heartbreaking. I know it’s not the biggest tragedy in the world but it’s really shit for me.
These last 9 months have been like living in limbo for pretty much all of us – lives on hold while we wait for the pandemic to pass. While I don’t claim to have had it worse than many others – I’ve not lost a loved one to the virus for example, and I can’t imagine what it must be like to be old and isolated or to have a child with a chronic health condition and to be shielding them in fear for their life – the nowhere I’ve inhabited along with thousands of other long covid sufferers for months has been particularly alienating. This weird liminal space between not-quite-chronic sickness and not-quite-health, not really one or the other but both, is a no-place in which you can’t really make plans for the future and in which it’s even difficult to dare to imagine a future different to the no-place present – a future when I’m well and can do the things that I used to take for granted again. It would be nice to be able to go for a walk for example or to do the vacuuming without feeling half-dead afterwards. I don’t know how long this is going to last and when I’m going to get better or if I ever really will. I heard recently that post-viral symptoms among those who contracted SARS-COV-1 (very similar apparently to the long haul symptoms stemming from Covid-19) lasted between 12-18 months and that on this basis outer limit recovery times for those with long covid are likely to be in this range – so that’s something. Certainly a significant number of long haulers who fell ill in March/April seem to have recovered – but not everyone has the same range or severity of symptoms. I’m waiting for a referral to a lung specialist and to a long covid clinic and I hope some progress will emerge from that.
So it’s been a pretty shit 9 months. If I, as a fairly fit, not that old person with no known ‘underlying conditions’ can get it, so can you and so can the people you care about. Don’t be complacent and don’t be an idiot.
I can’t remember a time since the fall of the Soviet Union when the terms ‘communism’ and indeed ‘Marxism’ were so much a part of everyday political discourse. Indeed there’s something rather bewildering about the return of these terms from the margins for someone like me whose politically formative years coincided with an era (the Fukuyama-Giddens-Blair mini-Ice Age) in which even to call yourself a ‘socialist’ was to invite incredulous laughter and was taken to announce an other-worldly disconnect from reality. It wasn’t even hostile scorn as I remember. Much worse than that, it was scorn accompanied by a kind of patronising head-patting and an ‘awww bless, it’s so lovely that people still believe in all that stuff’. Conservatives weren’t scared of socialism. They thought it was funny and cute because it was to them obviously and definitely very dead. It has been strange, then, to watch these terms steadily encroach again into mainstream political debate both as positively embraced markers of political orientation and, equally, as really abject and dreaded features of the bourgeois political imaginary.
To a large extent the return of these terms to the everyday political lexicon reflected the rise of various leftist formations across Europe and the United States in the post-2008 era of austerity and permanent capitalist crisis – Syriza, (Unidas) Podemos, the Left Bloc, the movement that coalesced around Jeremy Corbyn within and outside the Labour Party and the movement that cohered in the Bernie Sanders electoral insurgencies. While none of these formations, of course, pivot(ed) on communist or Marxist politics as such, the return of a (relatively) radical left challenge in the context of a deeply shaken status quo permitted a certain disinterment of these previously half-buried terms whether in the form of bourgeois histrionics about for example a communist intention among the Labour front bench to ‘nationalise sausages’ or in terms of opening up an ideological space for young people to begin to explore new-old left horizons.
What’s harder to explain, however, is the continued currency of these terms in mainstream political discourse beyond the defeat and/or incorporation of these electoral insurgencies. While you might expect a certain hangover of interest and identification with these terms among swathes of the newly radicalized (and re-radicalised), you might also expect that the current definite and unmistakable ebbing of the leftist electoral insurgency (capped by the electoral defeat of ‘Corbynism’ after a long period of strangulation, and the smothering of the Sanders presidential campaign*) would produce immediate relief and a rapid forgetting of previous anxieties on the part of conservatives. But why, then, would Boris Johnson defend his recent ‘New Deal’ (lol) plans for post-covid state intervention with the statement, ‘My friends, I am not a communist’ – a headline-grabbing quip, yes, but a quip that implies a certain preoccupation with a sort of shadow Other, too close for comfort, with which he wishes to disassociate himself.
To some extent the BLM insurgency has inserted itself within the space recently vacated by leftist electoral challenges – and indeed to the extent that it can mobilise mass anger and direct confrontation with the state on the streets it represents, embryonically at least, a challenge to the status quo that potentially runs much deeper than, say, the Sanders presidential campaign. Certainly the right are terrified of it – but it’s not immediately clear why it should be seen, as the right seem to see it, as contiguous with (a sort of continuation and Phase 2 of) the ‘Marxist’ plot to put Sanders in the White House. Why for example, should the Republican Senator, Matt Gaetz tweet ‘Black Lives Matter is a Marxist movement’? The Reds, it seems, are still very much under the bed in conservative nightmares.
The disjunction between these nightmares and reality is all the more stark given the extent of the current disarray on the left. It’s not just that a series of leftist electoral challenges were contained and defused, it’s that their defeat clearly revealed the feet of clay on which leftist organizing has been built for many years. As Sai Engelbert has recently argued in a widely read article, the ultimate failure of socialist politics to resonate widely at a time of ‘systemic crisis, mass disillusionment with ruling class representatives and institutions, and regular as well as rapid popular (often, if not always, class based) explosions of discontent’ is testament to the fundamental weakness of the left.
Indeed the current covid-19 crisis – which shines a very clear light on the ‘long-term systematic contradictions and injustices of global capitalism’, which has at least temporarily punctured the neoliberal TINA narrative and unmistakably revealed the enormous mobilizing capacities of the state and of powerful collective solidarities too cohering (often from the ground up) on widely shared commitment to some more or less egalitarian idea of the ‘common good’ – has been, for many on the left, the moment when the penny finally dropped. If the left cannot even intervene effectively to shape the political narrative in relation this crisis – which cries out for leftist solutions and opens up a clear window of possibility for radical reconfiguration of the economy and polity – then this very clearly indicates a condition of extreme enfeeblement.
As Engelbert suggests, one by one, the historical exhaustion of the major traditions on the left has been revealed. The ‘vanguardist’ tradition embodied most obviously in Trotskyist and semi Trotskyist organisations has clearly fizzled out – their de facto irrelevance becoming abundantly clear with their effective sidelining in relation to the various (broadly) left populist surges that saw radicalizing young people flock, for example, to the movements around Corbyn and Sanders while completely bypassing the various Leninist groups. Neither have these groups appreciably capitalized on the collapse of these left populist projects. The old CPs are dead or zombified. The bizarre explosion of ‘Marxist-Leninist’ cosplaying on twitter is testament to this really – it could only really take off as a kind of semi-ironic pastiche in Europe and the US in the context of the historical wreckage of actually existing ML parties. It’s from the various strewn fragments and pieces of this wreckage that virtual identities can be constructed and played around with online, conveniently divorced from any obligation to actual ML party discipline. And of course, the defeat of Corbyn and Sanders looks very much like the final curtain for social democracy, after (what we can now perhaps admit was) a last ditch one-off attempt at a sort of Kamikaze resuscitation on the part of a coalition of forces largely to the left of social democracy – much to the enragement of most soi–disant ‘social democrats’ (read social liberals) embarrassed by the partial reanimation of the not-quite-corpse they had long since deserted during and after the collapse of the post-war settlement.
So what is going on here? Given that the right must also be aware by now of their own political hegemony and the desperate condition of the organized left why does their nightmare fear of ‘communism’ seem to persist?
On re-reading the Communist Manifesto to prepare a couple of lectures recently I was struck by several things that I’d either not noticed or forgotten from previous readings. One brief line that resonated with me in a new way for example was the famous remark (one of a few phrases drawing on imagery of necromancy and alchemy) that bourgeois society ‘has conjured up such gigantic means of production and exchange’ and ‘is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’. This image functions to illustrate with a certain memorable literary flair the main line of argument in the text of course which is that the developmental logic and trajectory of capitalism tends to undermine itself in the long run in terms of the immensely disruptive crises it constantly throws up and in terms of the majority class that it produces – the proletariat – in whose interest it is to abolish that system and in whom, moreover, capitalism unwittingly but increasingly vests the strategic capacity to do so.
But there’s also I think the suggestion of a psychological dimension to this too – in particular, something hinted about the collective psyche of the supposed masters of the system. Doesn’t this image suggest a certain hubristic terror on the part of the bourgeoisie – as if it recoils in fright and regret at the dark and uncontrollable forces it has unleashed?
Certainly there are other passages that suggest the bourgeoisie is itself terrorized by the remorselessly monstrous logic of a system that it simply cannot control – a system that indeed subjects the bourgeoisie to a certain kind of domination and unfreedom. The celebrated sequence of paragraphs laying bare the in-built tendency for capitalism to rapidly spread out overseas, linking areas of the world together in tightly enmeshed structures of investment and trade (what until a few years ago we used to call ‘globalisation’), for example, begins with this striking formulation: ‘The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe’. Note that the bourgeoisie is chased – almost as if it tries to flee in desperation and horror from a pursuing monster that always follows and is always-already present in its shadow.
Indeed we should remember that the famous imagery of the ‘spectre’ that all ‘the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise’ in the preamble to the Manifesto refers not so much to any (as yet) real, material forces of communism but precisely to a phantom – a largely imaginary fear that the old powers project onto the figure of what they take to be ‘communism’. Indeed, Marx and Engels’ frame their task in the Manifesto in these opening lines as precisely to dispel this ‘nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism’ – not that the analysis they present is exactly designed to allay bourgeois fears of course because they go on to present the bourgeoise with good reason to tremble. But the point is that at the time Marx and Engels were writing the Manifesto the processes in and through which capitalism was working to undermine itself set out in the text were very much in their infancy. Certainly in 1847-8 the proletariat did not yet consitute the majority of the population across Europe, large areas of the globe had yet to be firmly enmeshed within the developing world market and no communist movement as such really existed – the First International was more than a decade and a half away from formation and even that, of course, (briefly and unstably) cohered only small and scattered forces. It is interesting then that the Manifesto should begin with this reference to an as yet imaginary terror on the part of the ruling classes in Europe that frames the whole text, and that references to a psychology of barely repressed horror and anxiety on the part of the bourgeois in relation to the society they have created run through the narrative.
Could it be then that this narrative rests, in part, on the suggestion that a certain collective inner torment is a constitutive element of bourgeois thought and behaviour – as if the drive to accumulate, to grow, to expand and so on is at least partially determined by a repressed (and self-defeating) desire to escape from the terrifying, destructive and uncontrollable forces they have themselves unleased and are condemned to reproduce? Perhaps there is even the suggestion that they know, at some level, that the social order they have conjured up is unsustainable, headed inexorably toward disaster and that the instability of their system will make them, ultimately, as the Manifesto puts it in passing toward the end of Chapter 1 ‘unfit to rule’ – ‘unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society’. In fact, going further, doesn’t the tormented, haunted psyche of this ruling class imply a secret yearning for release from this hellish order? In this sense isn’t the ‘Spectre of Communism’ a projection that both conceals and expresses a repressed longing for the thing that will free the bourgeosie from its torment?
So, back to the post-2008 context and a system beset by permanent and constantly deepening economic and political dysfunction, lurching from one crisis to another. Perhaps we can see current obsession with ‘communism’ on the part of the political representatives of the bourgeoisie as intensified expression of these long-running nightmare-desires. If the bourgeoisie has at some level always secretly desired release from the forces it is condemned to reproduce and has always suspected that it is simply ‘unfit to rule’, how much more strongly must it feel the weight of this repressed terrible knowledge at a time when the exhaustion and indeed necrosis of a system that has more and more clearly reached its limits – that seems to offer little now other than further descent into climate crisis and a continuing death-spiral toward nastier and nastier forms of right wing authoritarian government – has become clearly apparent.
Indeed, might we see the increasingly grotesque and buffoonish guises of its chief political representatives – utterly absurd smirking clowns like Trump and Johnson – as a sort of disguised cry for help? The clown show at the White House and in Downing Street expresses a deep self-loathing and a kind of pleading to be put out of its misery. The ruling class no longer has any respect for itself. It wants to be relieved of the terrible burden of its authority. It sees ‘communism’ everywhere because it wants to see it everywhere because it secretly longs for an end to capitalism and its own abolition as a class.
The great trajedy, of course, is that the left is in no position to grant them their desire.
*The Left Bloc and Unidas Podemos had greater success in terms of reversing the austerity agenda – the former in ‘confidence and supply’ support for a social democratic minority government in Portugal and the latter in continuing government coalition with the PSOE – but they hardly look like radical leftist insurgencies any more if they once did.
I read this article by Charlie Post in Jacobin today – What Strategy for the US Left. It’s a critique of an article by Vivek Chibber. Both were written a while back but my eyes was caught by the prominence of the concept of ‘non reformist reforms’ – Chibber advocates it and Post is a critic.
I’d love to write a full response to this if I had any confidence at the moment, but I thought I’d just scribble down some immediate thoughts.
I think Post is bang on in many of his criticisms of Chibber’s essay – *market socialism* really?? The fundamental thing Post puts his finger on is that most ‘reformist’ accounts of socialist strategy completely ignore the structural reliance of the state (and indeed *society*) on capitalist profitability – what Fred Block and Adam Przeworski refer to as ‘business confidence’. This is why there can be no unbroken line of reforms leading from capitalism to socialism.
But what annoys me about Post’s argument is:
1) Post makes absolutely no reference to the originator of the concept of ‘non reformist reforms’, Andre Gorz, who did precisely orient this concept in terms of a ruptural strategy.
2). As usual the focus is on the concrete obstacles in the way of attempting to use the capitalist state for socialist purposes but the correctness of the revolutionary strategy is simply asserted without any indication of any of the surely considerable concrete obstacles that might attend that. As usual it’s assumed that workers councils and a parallel workers’ state can and will spontaneously spring up and moreover develop to the very advanced point at which they might provide a credible total alternative in a situation of dual power in a state like the US. As usual Zero evidence for this.
3). Capital’s structural power applies to capitalist *society* in toto – not merely to the state. We are all highly dependent, in capitalist society, on capitalist investment. A mass movement outside the state in no way escapes this somehow. In a predominantly capitalist economy an investment strike, lay offs, severe inflation on consumer goods etc will cut across soviets as much as they would cut across the capitalist state. A mass movement outside the state does not somehow float free of the various problems of ‘business confidence’. The problem is private ownership of the means of production. The problem is not overcome in any other way than via expropriation – whether this is done by the existing state or something else is wholly secondary. The main problem is- how do we hope to get to the point at which expropriation (under democratic control) is actually on the agenda as an immediate possibility.
4). Gorz (and indeed Poulantzas) were simply making the (wholly obvious) observation that any process of radicalisation in an advanced capitalist democracy will not and cannot by-pass the state. Can you really imagine, against all the recent historical evidence, any process of socialist radicalisation not – at first at least – finding (partial expression) in some sort of electoral challenge? Structural Reform is simply recognition of this blitheringly obvious reality and an attempt to think through the process of harnessing it, to take it to the point where rupture becomes an actual possibility rather than an abstract orientation in a strategy of magical thinking
In this post I want to summarise and discuss Balibar’s text – regarded now as something of a Marxist classic, and certainly a very impressive defence of the fundamental logic of the argument Lenin sets out in State and Revolution in particular. In the post that follows this I’ll move to a critique of Balibar, informed in part by Nicos Poulantzas’ perspective in his later work.
Etienne Balibar’s On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat is almost certainly one of the most, if not the most, conceptually sophisticated defences of the arguments Lenin establishes in The State and Revolution (and closely associated texts such as The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky). First published in 1976, Balibar’s book was very much a product of specific political circumstances. It was written as a political intervention in the debate within the French Communist Party (PCF) over the party’s decision at its 22nd Congress to expunge references to ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ from official party aims (and indeed to renounce this concept entirely as outdated and unsuitable for modern French conditions) and to substitute for this the objective of a ‘democratic road to socialism’. The book can be regarded as part of a wider theoretical dialogue over the ‘Eurocommunist’ trajectory of Western European CPs at the time. Indeed the PCF’s decision to drop the objective of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ should be seen in the specific context of the turn to a strategy of ‘broad’ electoral alliances on the part of the French, Spanish and Italian CPs (from 1972 the PCF had oriented its political strategy on a ‘Common Programme’ with the Socialist Party and Left Radicals) and their concurrent attempts to distance themselves from the USSR.
The other major text to emerge from this conjuncture – and from the debate within and around the PCF in particular – was Nicos Poulantzas’ State, Power, Socialism, first published two years after Balibar’s book. Indeed, we can see these two texts as polarised antagonists in this confrontation – Poulantzas elaborating a theoretical justification for a ‘democratic road to socialism’ (although we should be careful to remember that Poulantzas was well to the left of the PCF leadership – his ‘Left’ Eurocommunist conception of the transition to socialism was by no means shared by Georges Marchais), while Balibar sought to defend classical ‘Leninist’ principles. As with State, Power, Socialism, however, On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat retains a very sharp relevance today that rises above the specific historical context in which it was written. It’s an attempt – an extraordinarily rich and lucid one at that – to articulate, in a rigorous way, the logic of Lenin’s thought in relation to state power and the transition to communism and I don’t think Balibar’s sophisticated interpretation/defence of ‘Leninist’ precepts in these respects has ever been surpassed. As such, it’s well worth investigating Balibar for what his text has to tell us about the continuing salience of Lenin’s thought as formulated particularly in State and Revolution.
Balibar’s book begins with his core argument (and the major thrust of his intervention in the debate within the PCF) – that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is not (as Graham Lock puts it in his introduction to Balibar’s text) ‘a policy or a strategy involving the establishment of a particular form of government or institutions but, on the contrary, an historical reality’ (Lock, in Balibar, 1977, p. 8). It is, as Balibar later puts it, ‘the reality of an historical tendency‘ – ‘a reality, just as objective as the class struggle itself, of which it is a consequence’ (Balibar, 1977, p. 134). Indeed, the dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing other than socialism itself understood as the historical period of transition between capitalism and communism. As such, it is ‘not a matter of choice, a matter of policy: and it therefore cannot be “abandoned”, any more than the class struggle can be “abandoned” except in words and at the cost of enormous confusion’ (Lock, in Balibar, 1977, p. 8).
The first chapter is a very interesting critique of the way in which, as Balibar sees it, those proposing that the concept should be dropped tend to present the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ [henceforth DoP] as a particular regime, or a particular set of tactics that may well have been unavoidable given ‘Russian conditions’, but which would be unnecessary and inappropriate for an advanced bourgeois democracy such as 1970s France. Here, Balibar extrapolates an amusing kind of complicity between the ‘Tankie’ faction of the PCF and their Eurocommunist opponents. Both fundamentally agree that the DoP is ‘what existed in Russia’ (the authoritarian one party state etc.) – but while the former maintain that this provides a ‘model’ to be implemented elsewhere too, the latter reject it based on a simplistic counterposition between ‘dictatorship’ (appropriate for ‘backward’ conditions) and ‘democracy’ (possible and appropriate to the Western European context). This latter Eurocommunist position, as Balibar further suggests, allows the party leadership to pull off a dextrous manoeuvre in which it can distance itself from the USSR and proclaim its own (parliamentary) democratic credentials while also appearing to maintain some kind of fidelity to the October Revolution and (perhaps more importantly) side-stepping any potentially awkward questions about its historic support for, and formerly ultra-loyalist justification of, Stalinist practices in Russia (and beyond).
But there’s another kind of complicity between Eurocommunism and Stalinism too. In a really fascinating section Balibar recounts what he sees as an historical antecedent of the PCF’s abandonment of the DoP – ‘it was the Soviet Communists themselves, under Stalin’s direction, who first historically “abandoned” the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Balibar, 1977, p. 49 [hereafter, all references are to this text unless otherwise indicated]). Specifically in 1936, on the occasion of the introduction of the new Soviet Constitution, it was proclaimed that the class struggle was over in Russia, and that as such ‘socialism in one country’ had been achieved. It was not claimed that classes had been abolished, but that relations of antagonism between them had been eliminated and that, consequently, the Soviet state was now the ‘state of the whole people’. What this implied, of course, was that the period of DoP (the period in which a specifically proletarian state had been necessary to suppress the old ruling class) had been superseded in Russia and, further that the DoP constituted a temporary stage of transition toward socialism which was itself a distinct historical stage of transition toward communism and indeed a discrete mode of production in its own right characterised by state ownership of the means of production.
The complicity here with the PCF’s Eurocommunist perspective was that the latter adopted similar assumptions in relation to the DoP and socialism – namely, the DoP was simply an historical mini-phase of dictatorial transition to socialism understood as a mode of production in which a universal state of the ‘whole people’, shorn of its class determination and in some sort of direct control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, would superintend a society in which class antagonisms had been overcome. The only difference is that the Eurocommunists imagined that they could move straight to ‘democratic socialism’ (at least after an initial preparatory period of reform under ‘advanced democracy’) without the need for an intervening phase of ‘dictatorship’. But socialism, Balibar argues, is nothing other than a phase of heightened class struggle – a contradictory and dialectical terrain in which two modes of production (capitalism and communism) overlap and fight it out and in which the embryonic communist potentialities thrown up within capitalism are made progressively more and more real (or not – it’s a conflictual struggle and as such the outcome is not pre-ordained) – and a phase of transition, moreover, that has to be understood to be synonymous with the DoP. Further, the Eurocommunists’ (essentially bourgeois) counterposition of ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’ as distinct alternatives rests, for Balibar, on a fundamental misrepresentation of classical Marxism’s understanding of these terms. More than anything this misrepresentation obscures the reality, from the classical Marxist perspective, that parliamentary democracy is itself a type of dictatorship. Specifically it is a particular form taken by the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’.
The main interest of Balibar’s book for me, however, is his account of what he takes to be the basis of the theory of the DoP as you find it in Lenin, and Balibar’s subsequent elaboration of a ‘more complete analysis’ (p. 63) on these foundations. The theory of the DoP, Balibar remarks, ‘can be summed up in outline in three arguments, or three groups of arguments, which are ceaselessly repeated and put to the test by Lenin’ (p. 59). These three theoretical arguments, as articulated by Balibar, are really very striking and boldly stated. The first deals with state power. Balibar sums it up thus: ‘State power is always the political power of a single class, which holds it in its capacity as the ruling class in society’ (p. 59). This implies that in capitalist society, as Balibar goes on to make plain, ‘State power is held in an absolute way by the bourgeoisie, which does not share it with any other class, nor does it divide it up among its fractions’ (p. 59). He goes on to point out that this thesis ‘has the following consequence: the only possible historical ‘alternative’ to the State power of the bourgeoisie is an equally absolute hold on State power by the proletariat’ (pp. 59-60).
The second argument focuses on the state apparatus and can be summed up ‘by saying that the State power of the ruling class cannot exist in history, nor can it be realized and maintained, without taking material form in the development and functioning of the State apparatus’ (p. 60). The core of this ‘State machine’ is constituted by the repressive state apparatus(es), though Balibar also remarks that Lenin never claimed that this core was the only aspect of this ‘State machine’. This repressive core Balibar comments, comprises ‘on the one hand, the standing army, as well as the police and the legal apparatus; and, on the other hand, the State administration or “bureaucracy”‘ (p. 60). This second thesis, he goes on to say, implies that ‘the overthrow of the State power of the bourgeoisie, is impossible without the destruction of the existing State apparatus in which the State power of the bourgeoisie takes material form’ (p. 60).
These first two arguments, Balibar argues, were not ‘discovered’ as such by Lenin – they were explicitly present in the writing of Marx and Engels. But Lenin’s contribution was, first, to ‘rescue’ these arguments from deformation and obscurity in the context of the opportunist drift of Second International social democracy and, second, to insert them ‘for the first time in an effective way into the field of practice’ (P. 61). The third argument, however, though not without its precedents, was much more Lenin’s own contribution and was discovered by him as the product of class struggles in Russia in the revolutionary period (and thus this discovery post-dates the writing of State and Revolution). This argument is the one that we have already encountered, partially, in the first chapter – that it is only communist social relations that are really incompatible or irreconcilable with capitalist ones and that socialism is a contradictory phase of transition from one mode of production to the other. This, Balibar, says ‘implies that socialism is nothing other than the dictatorship of the proletariat’ – further, the DoP ‘is not simply a form of “transition to socialism”, it is not a “road of transition to socialism” – it is identical with socialism itself’ (p. 62).
Having identified these three core arguments Balibar then sets out, over the three chapters that follows, to elucidate them in more detail and draw out their further implications. One of the fundamental components of the first argument is the (strikingly Poulantzas-like) view that state power is relational – the state ‘rests on a relation of forces between classes, which it develops and reproduces’ (p. 88). Like Poulantzas, too, Balibar makes an analytical distinction between ‘state power’, on the one hand, and the ‘state apparatus’ (or what Poulantzas refers to as the state’s ‘institutional materiality’) on the other. This conceptual move (and its attribution to Lenin as a distinction at least implicit in his thought) allows Balibar to develop a very interesting interpretation of some of Lenin’s writing though I am not at all convinced that Lenin really does work on the basis of this conceptual framework. For example, Balibar suggests that the rather notorious line in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky that the ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws’ is not so much, as it is often interpreted, a statement celebrating arbitrary violence without limit or restraint, but instead a statement indicating the extra-legal (or pre-legal), a priori status of the class balance of forces. Just as, for classical Marxism, bourgeois law and state apparatus, in the final analysis, are rooted in a particular set of class relations that exist prior to that law and that state apparatus (and which the latter two both reflect and reproduce), so the DoP must rest, too, on a particular balance of class forces that, in the final analysis, boils down to force. Class exploitation under capitalism is a relationship of force – whether or not the state apparatus takes a parliamentary democratic or authoritarian form. In the same way the DoP – whether or not it takes a highly repressive political institutional form – rests, in the end, on the class supremacy of the proletariat. Now, perhaps, this is an entirely obvious reading of Lenin, but I have to say that it never occurred to me before that this was what he meant – and I also have to say that I’m not really very convinced by it. I’m not convinced, that is, that this is what Lenin is really getting at in the passage just quoted and I’m sceptical that he does in fact make the wider analytical conceptual distinction Balibar says he does. Nevertheless it is food for thought.
State power belongs, absolutely, to a single class, Balibar argues, because the state is fundamentally rooted in class antagonism and in ‘the reproduction of the whole of the conditions of this antagonism’ (p. 77) – there is no third way between the maintenance and extension of this exploitation (i.e. the class interests of the bourgeoisie) and the struggle for its abolition (i.e. the class interests of the proletariat). Thus state power is either the possession of the bourgeoisie (the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) or the possession of the working class (the DoP). It also follows from this, Balibar comments, that because state power is rooted in, and reproduces, class exploitation and domination it is thus the possession of the ruling class as a whole and not merely or mainly any of its internal fractions. Further, there is no part of the state, or any of its functions, that lies outside the field of class determination. Balibar draws here on Lenin’s polemic against Vandervelde (that we’ve encountered in a previous post). He has in mind those Eurocommunist arguments that seem to suggest, like Vandervelde, that certain state apparatuses or functions manifest or serve a ‘general social interest’ – the state in ‘the broad sense’, in distinction from class repressive apparatuses (the state in ‘the narrow sense’) – and might thus, once the worst bits of the state are ‘lopped off’ (Engels!), serve a post-capitalist ‘universal social interest’. The whole of the state under capitalism is always absolutely the political power of the (whole) bourgeoisie.
What this in turn implies, of course, as we have seen, is that the whole of the existing state apparatus (which is the material form taken by the state power of the bourgeoisie, but not purely the same thing as the underlying balance of forces) must be overthrown by the proletariat and a new one, manifesting the material-institutional form of their state power constructed in its place. Balibar insists, as Lenin does of course, that the essential pivot of opportunism is its position on the state apparatus in this respect. It’s not necessarily that opportunism deviates from classical Marxism on the abstract question of the exercise of power, or denies that the proletariat must ‘take power’, or even that it refuses to use the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – ‘Social-Democratic opportunism, from Kautsky to Plekhanov to Leon Blum, always formally referred to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”‘ (p. 89). But they did so, while ‘at the same time emptying it of its practical content, the destruction of the State apparatus’ (p. 60).
The state apparatus performs two essential and intertwined functions Balibar argues (again, not unlike Poulantzas) – first it organises and unifies an otherwise fractious ruling class, and second, it organises the domination of society under that single ruling class. But the precise forms that this general double function takes will differ according to the mode of production. This leads Balibar to remark that it is imperative that we ‘grasp a very important fact, which Lenin constantly emphasised’, which is ‘the fact that each great historical epoch, based on a determinate material mode of production, comprises tendentially one type of State, i.e. one general determinate form of State’ (p. 95). ‘A ruling class’, he continues:
cannot make use of any type of State apparatus; it is obliged to organise itself in historically imperative forms, which relate to the new forms of class struggle in which it is held fast. The feudal-ecclesiastical type of organisation is completely ineffective as a means of organising the class rule of the bourgeoisie. The same general point is true of course with respect to the dictatorship of the proletariat. If the class struggle fought out by the proletariat is of a different kind from that of the bourgeoisie, it follows that, even if it does need some kind of State apparatus, it cannot purely and simply make use – as if they were instruments which could be manipulated at will – of the standing army, the law courts and their judges, the secret and special police forces, the parliamentary system, the administrative bureaucracy, immune from practically any form of control by the people…, etc.. (p. 95)
Rather a lot here seems to ride on the phrase ‘purely and simply’ (reminiscent in this sense of the famous ambiguity in Marx’s ‘cannot simply lay hold’ phrase!) and as we shall see Balibar seems to muddy the waters a little bit in his discussion of the forms that the ‘smashing’ of the bourgeois state apparatus will take, but the main thrust of his argument is the emphasis on the ‘absolute’ hold of the ruling class over ‘its’ state. A new ruling class must replace the entire old state apparatus (that manifests-reflects a particular class balance of power and particular forms of exploitation) with an entirely new type of state apparatus. Just as state power is either the state power of the bourgeoisie or that of the proletariat, a particular form of ‘state machine’ (set of apparatuses) is either a capitalist machine or a working class one. The main, defining characteristic of the proletarian state apparatus, Balibar argues, is that it institutionalises mass proletarian democracy – it functions as a sort of vector and fulcrum for the direct intervention of the masses on the political scene. In this way there is a qualitative difference between bourgeois democracy and proletarian democracy and this is also an indication of the way in which the institutions of the bourgeois state apparatus – especially its core ones – are incompatible with the DoP.
This intervention of the mass of the people in the state apparatus and in the exercise of state power as it increases is also, simultaneously, the main vector for the process of the state’s ‘withering’. Since the communist mode of production which socialism, as an historical epoch of transition, takes as its objective and destination is a classless and thus stateless society, however, the state machine of the DoP must be regarded as a hangover from the capitalist mode of production with which it is still entangled. In this sense, Balibar suggests, every state apparatus – even a ‘state of a new type’ under the DoP – is always bourgeois, even when workers use it against capitalist social relations. This argument (though not I think unproblematic for his wider thesis) allows Balibar to be clear, in a way that I don’t think Lenin is in the key writings we’ve looked at, that the proletarian state at all times necessarily represents a potential threat to the working class that they must constantly guard against (as we’ve seen Lenin tends to assume an absolute synonymity between the proletariat and its state). Since the proletarian state is proletarian, but also in some sense always bourgeois – a hangover from a dying mode of production – Balibar comments that ‘the notion of the proletarian State itself designates… a contradictory reality, as contradictory as the situation of the proletariat in its role as the “ruling class” of socialist society’ (p. 122). But what overall ‘defines the dictatorship of the proletariat is the historical tendency of the State which it establishes: the tendency to its own disappearance, and not towards its reinforcement’ (p. 122).
Some of the most interesting passages in Balibar’s book (but for me also some of the most frustratingly opaque) are to be found in the section where he discusses ‘[w]hat has to be “destroyed”‘ in relation to the bourgeois state apparatus (pp 99 – 110). He is (fairly) clear, along with Lenin (at least in theory rather than in practice) that the repressive apparatus (which comprises, remember, ‘the bureaucracy’ in addition to the organs of direct coercion) must undergo ‘immediate destruction’ as ‘both the condition and a first consequence of the revolution’ (p. 99). But this does not mean that ‘all aspects of the bourgeois State apparatus can be destroyed in the same way, by the same methods, and at the same rhythm’ (p. 99). The ‘destruction of a whole State apparatus, and its replacement by new political forms of organization of the material and cultural life of society, cannot be carried out immediately, it can only be immediately begun‘ (p. 102). In this sense ‘this process of destruction’ can take no other form ‘than that of a lengthy class struggle which is already in its preparatory stages before the revolution, and which becomes fully acute afterwards’ and here Balibar takes aim at what he calls the ‘”ultra-left” idea of the immediate abolition of bourgeois institutions and the appearance out of the blue of new, “purely” proletarian institutions’ (p. 105) which he says is a myth that Lenin explicitly repudiated.
Now there’s a lot here that’s not exactly very clear. He appears to be saying that while the repressive institutions must be destroyed immediately, other organs of the bourgeois state apparatus (although I’m not certain about this…. what does he mean, precisely, by the word ‘aspects’ in the phrase ‘aspects of the bourgeois state apparatus’??) might be incorporated in the DoP – although he gives no indication of what these might be. He also appears to be saying that institutions of mass democracy cannot be set up overnight and that the institutions of the DoP must provide, in a sense, a period of apprenticeship for the working class – a phase of experimental political education which begins in advance of, and which must also extend beyond, the moment of the revolutionary seizure of power – before they can fully develop. He also appears to be saying that the bourgeois state apparatus resists destruction in as much as forms of parliamentarism and the wider social division of manual and intellectual labour are allowed to reproduce themselves within soviet type institutions (are these the ‘aspects’ of the bourgeois state apparatus that survive the initial revolutionary ‘smashing’ process rather than specific organs as such – or perhaps they are additional aspects that survive alongside these organs??). Things are not really made much clearer in this respect by the one relatively concrete example Balibar chooses to illustrate this longer term process, which is a remark from Lenin about the need to get ‘”pro-Soviet politicians into parliament'” for the purposes of ‘”disintegrating parliamentarism from within“‘ (Lenin, in Balibar, p. 106) – but this is clearly a tactic to be implemented before the seizure of power and tells us nothing about the survival of specific institutions afterwards.
The final part of Balibar’s argument (though the book also contains a ‘dossier’ comprising extracts from contributions to the debate at the PCF’s 22nd Congress – including a really interesting contribution from Althusser – and also Balibar’s postscript) focuses on the third key argument identified above. We’ve encountered the major dimensions of this argument previously, but Balibar supplements this with some interesting additional considerations. Among these he argues (along with Marx of course – but I think Balibar puts it particularly well) that communism should be seen as a ‘real tendency, already present in capitalist society itself’ and that this is true in ‘two senses, which are not originally directly related’ – on the one hand ‘in the form of the tendency to the socialisation of production and the productive forces’ and, on the other, ‘in the form of the class struggles of the proletariat, in which first the independence, and then later the ideological and political hegemony of the proletariat are manifested’ (p. 135). The particularly sharp and fascinating bit of Balibar’s argument here, however, is where he points out that while under capitalism these tendencies remain quite distinct (standing, in fact in mutual opposition – acting on each other in a conflictual relationship), under the DoP, to the extent that the working class take control of the process of the development and socialisation of the productive forces, these tendencies begin to merge. And to the extent that they merge, ‘the socialization of production tendentially ceases to take the capitalist form’ (p. 136) and segues into communism. ‘The history of the dictatorship of the proletariat’, as Balibar remarks, ‘is the history of the development and of the resolution of this contradiction’ (p. 136).
It’s in this ‘economic’ sense, then, in addition to the ‘political’ dimension of the proletarian state (though of course these two dimensions are not wholly distinct and the tendential movement toward communism also progressively merges ‘political’ and ‘economic’ relations), that socialism/the DoP represents a contradictory reality that expresses within itself a battle between two different modes of production. In this way, as Balibar rather nicely puts it, socialism is ‘two worlds within the same world, two epochs within one single historical epoch’ (p. 146). The transition from one to the other can only take the form of a long process of struggle, but moreover, this process can only unfold if, from the start, it is understood that ‘the effective realisation of socialism is only possible from the standpoint of communism’ (p. 63). That is, communism should not be treated as a distant ideal – i.e. the idea that first we consolidate socialism and only then, beyond that, does communism come on to the historical agenda. Instead, Balibar argues, socialism is nothing other than a process in which communism – already present as a ‘real tendency’ – is progressively instantiated.
Balibar, E. (1977) On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (London, NLB).
50 free online copies of my article in Critique are available here:
Rooksby, Ed (2018) ‘”Structural Reform” and the Problem of Socialist Strategy Today’, Critique, 46:1, 27-48
This paper begins with the observation that the left-wing movements that have enjoyed significant political advances in Europe recently share a broad strategic orientation. They seek, that is, to combine electoral and parliamentary activity on the one hand with extra-parliamentary mobilisation on the other. Crucially, these formations seek to utilise parliamentary channels to introduce radical reforms and thus a central component of their approach is to form a ‘left government’ within the institutions of the capitalist state. Despite the failure of Syriza in office I argue that the radical left has little option but to work with these ascendant left formations and attempt to radicalise them from within. I suggest that in order to do so the radical left must transcend the twin dead ends of reformism and Leninism and the historical strategic impasse bound up with the counter-position of these strategic poles. I argue that a strategic perspective elaborated by a minority current within Syriza provides useful resources for navigating a route beyond this impasse. I then show that this perspective can be further elaborated and refined by drawing on theoretical resources associated with the concept of ‘structural reform’ developed in the late 1960s and 1970s. I argue that the work of Nicos Poulantzas and André Gorz is especially useful in this regard.
Here’s something I wrote for the work blog. It’s a bit derivative – but not much to say as yet that’s not already been said.
We have just, as the veteran broadcaster Jon Snow remarked on Friday, witnessed ‘one of the most remarkable election results in modern British history’ – and it is a result, moreover that has fundamentally shifted the basic coordinates of politics in Britain. Political ‘business as usual’ as we have known it for the past few decades is, quite simply, over.
Though the Tories won the greatest share of the vote and the most seats – and thus ‘won’ the election in the sense that they have been (only just…) returned to government – it is apparent to everyone that this election result was, for them, an utter catastrophe. The gamble on which May staked everything was to call a snap election in order to capitalise on an apparent post-referendum swing to the right in UK politics and thus solidify her leadership going into the Brexit negotiations with a large parliamentary majority. To say that May’s wager didn’t pay off would be an understatement – May miscalculated disastrously, leaving her authority severely and perhaps fatally weakened. Indeed the process that has seen her rapidly transformed from the ‘strong and stable’ darling of much of the media punditocracy to the pathetically diminished figure we see now scrabbling for a parliamentary alliance with the sectarian, homophobic reactionaries of the DUP in order to shore up her crumbling position has to be one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in post-war British political history.
May is now, as George Osborne remarked with brutal accuracy in a TV interview, a ‘dead woman walking’, deeply despised and increasingly isolated within her own party. However it’s probably unlikely that there’ll be a leadership challenge any time soon if only because most Tories fear triggering another general election which would almost certainly put Corbyn in 10 Downing Street.
That Labour should now be within striking distance of government power is surely the most remarkable dimension of the political earthquake we have just experienced. Just a few short weeks ago Labour was 20 points behind in the polls, and Corbyn’s personal ratings were recorded at a dismal minus 23 points (in comparison with May’s plus 28). The conventional wisdom across almost the entirety of the media and political class was that Labour was heading toward humiliating defeat and possible oblivion. Indeed, right up until the exit poll was released on Thursday night few even among Corbyn’s supporters really believed that the party could hope realistically for much more than survival as a major political force.
Given this, the party’s electoral performance was astonishing. Labour enjoyed its biggest surge in vote share since 1945, – up by almost 10% compared with 2015 to 40% of the total vote, winning nearly 13 million votes and increasing its number of seats by 30. This result is all the more incredible when you consider that over the past two years Corbyn has faced a relentless campaign of open hostility and sabotage from within the Parliamentary Labour Party and several attempts to oust him from the leadership. What is more he was subjected to a barrage of daily vilification from large swathes of the media over the same period – and not just from the traditionally Tory press. Most columnists for the generally Labour supporting Guardian, for example, have displayed little but contempt – or at best condescension – toward Corbyn and his supporters since he first won the leadership.
So how did Corbyn’s Labour do it?
Part of the explanation lies in the complete ineptitude of the Tory election campaign. There was of course, the debacle of the so called ‘dementia tax’, and the revelation, on the campaign trail, of May’s robotic awkwardness and inability to connect emotionally with ordinary people. Her failure to attend the BBC leaders’ debate – looking for all the world like someone scared of debating directly with her political opponents – might well have been a turning point in terms of her personal rating with the electorate. However, the atrocious Tory campaign cannot, in itself, explain Corbyn’s success. For that we need to look at the Corbyn team’s strategy and the way his campaign resonated with large numbers of people.
Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party rested from the start on the idea that the party’s fortunes could be revived by attracting lost voters and those who felt alienated by the prevailing political landscape. That is, he argued that the party should reject the Blairite machine-politics of ‘triangulation’ that focused on competition for a relatively small number of ‘centre-ground’ ‘floating voters’, and concentrate, instead on tapping a deep well of relatively disenfranchised voters including, crucially, the young (who tend not to turnout in large numbers during elections). This was to be done, in large part, by campaigning on distinctive left social democratic policies – putting clear red water between Labour and the other parties – and, just as importantly, by transforming the party into something like a party/social movement hybrid that sought to mobilise its members into a grassroots mass campaigning force. This leadership pitch was extraordinarily successful in catapulting Corbyn to the leadership and in galvanizing an active and mobilised base of support among the party membership to defend him from the various ‘coup’ attempts set in motion by the party’s right wing establishment. But while this had worked well within the party among a relatively small number of people, it was not clear that the same approach could be successful beyond the party itself among the electorate as a whole at the level of a general election.
Confounding all of his critics, Corbyn and his team proved beyond doubt on June 8th that this approach could indeed work at a national level. The turning point in Labour’s election campaign was clearly the release of the party’s manifesto – a bold document full of public spending, redistributionist and growth-centred social democratic policies that broke with the politics and economics of austerity. The manifesto seems to have resonated deeply with wide sections of the electorate sick of many years of cuts to public services, stagnating wages and rising inequality. The Corbyn team’s gamble was that a relatively left-wing manifesto (by recent standards) would tap hidden but deep reserves of support among swathes of voters for the sort of policies that previous Labour leaderships had abandoned in their efforts to ‘triangulate’ and chase the ‘centre ground’. It paid off.
The early leak of the manifesto – whether this was deliberate or not (there is some suggestion that a pro-Corbyn source ‘leaked’ it to ensure that the manifesto pledges couldn’t be watered down by the Labour right) – also ensured that Labour was able to shape the agenda for the election campaign. Labour refused to concentrate their fight on the terrain preferred by the Tories – the issue of Brexit – steering the debate toward issues of inequality, public spending, healthcare and education. Though Corbyn was taxed initially by pro-Remain forces within Labour for his apparent fudging on Brexit, this manoeuvre appears, in retrospect, to have allowed Corbyn to side-step and close down an issue that threated to divide the Labour camp. Indeed psephological analysis of the vote indicates that Labour managed to hold on to (usually older) Leave voters in sufficient numbers while cohering the lion’s share of votes from those who supported Remain.
The turning point in Labour’s fortunes – the release of the manifesto – coincided with the period when broadcast media election rules kicked in. As Corbyn’s close ally John McDonnell has pointed out the more balanced broadcast coverage that this ensured enabled many people to see, for the first time, Corbyn for the ‘honest, decent, principled and indeed strong leader he was’. Seeing Corbyn speak directly and relatively unfiltered by media hostility and bias, people generally liked what they saw – especially in comparison with May’s wooden and uncharismatic performances. The Ashcroft poll indicates that it was indeed in this period in the final weeks before the ballot that Labour won people over in large numbers – 57% of those who voted Labour made their decision in the last month before the election.
The most striking thing about the voting figures, however, is the way in which young voters turned out for Labour – 67% of 18-24 year old voters (and well over half of 25-34 year olds) chose Labour. Various reports have suggested, moreover, that turnout amongst the youth vote surged to an impressive 72% – vindicating Corbyn’s decision to orient his campaign toward the young and those who do not normally choose to vote. This high turnout for Labour was almost certainly driven, to a significant extent, by the way in which the Corbyn campaign managed to mobilise active support among young people. It was for the most part, young people who joined the Momentum canvassing teams that flocked to Labour marginals and populated Momentum’s phone banking efforts. Further, it seems clear that a largely spontaneous pro-Corbyn campaign of video, meme and joke sharing (replete with its own tongue-in-cheek idiom – ‘Arm John McDonnell!’, ‘Corbyn is the absolute boy!’) emerged among the young on social media – Twitter especially – largely under the radar of established media commentators. Thus the youth turnout for Labour may well have been driven in significant part by an organic peer-to-peer social media effort that simply bypassed traditional forms of media that were largely hostile to Corbyn.
These factors cohered to produce what is surely one of the biggest political upsets in Britain in living memory. Corbyn has been transformed in a matter of days, from an utter outsider – largely derided in mainstream political discourse – to a Prime Minister in waiting. It’s worth pointing out, furthermore, that it is not just the Tories who look now like a spent and largely defeated force. Corbyn’s success was also a defeat for the Murdoch press and tabloid media who threw everything at Corbyn during the campaign with little apparent effect. The days when Labour politicians used to feel they had to bow and scrape before the right wing press are now over. It was also a humiliating defeat for the ‘centrist’ punditocracy that dominate the broadsheet and broadcast media in whose conventional wisdom – right up until the exit poll – Corbyn was leading the Labour party into oblivion. They look rather silly now. Most of all, perhaps, Corbyn’s electoral success was a devastating blow to his enemies within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Indeed, one thing is for sure – New Labour and the Blairite faction in the party are now truly dead and buried as a serious political force.
What all of these defeated groups shared in common were what we might call neoliberal assumptions – or assumptions characteristic of the neoliberal era in British politics. They simply took it for granted, that is, that you cannot succeed electorally on a left-wing manifesto, that voters are motivated more by fear and self-interest than they are by appeals to community and the public good, that they prefer ‘belt-tightening’ and privatisation to expanded investment in public services and above all that people have fully and irreversibly internalised the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to the ‘free market’-driven order. With Corbyn’s near victory confounding these assumptions, British social democracy has roared back into life after many years of dormancy and with it an ideological space has opened up, shifting the horizons of the possible, allowing us once again to envisage and work confidently toward a kinder, more equal and more humane social order.
Obviously, there’s some thinking to be done about the relationship between the Corbyn surge and Brexit. There’s a conundrum here for those of us that saw the Brexit vote as a reactionary turn in UK politics that cemented a new hegemony of the hard right (see post below). If that’s true, it was a very short-lived hegemonic moment. Clearly there’s an ‘anti-establishment effect’ thread running through all this that is probably rooted strongly in disenchantment with political ‘business as usual’ that the left might summarise in a nutshell as ‘neoliberalism’. This is a highly volatile sort of political ‘mood’ that can, if skilfully articulated, resonate equally well with both left and right wing framing narratives and which can thus swing left or right very rapidly. But there’s more to it than that isn’t there given the different demographic bases of the two votes – in particular it seems to be the young that swung it for Corbyn (overwhelmingly Remain in outlook). So while Corbyn held older Leave voters in sufficient numbers it was really the way in which he cohered broadly Remain – and certainly anti-‘hard Brexit’ forces that seems to have swung it.
This isn’t to say that Corbyn set out to cohere these forces explicitly – in fact part of Corbyn’s success came down to the way in which Labour successfully shut down questions about Brexit and focused their campaigning on other things. What I mean is that the social forces driving the Corbyn surge were substantially different in composition to those that powered the Leave victory.
Maybe there’s also something to be said in relation to the emerging irrelevance of the very terms of the hard right’s political domination (combined with the utterly cack-handed incompetence of the May campaign). The Corbyn campaign – against all the advice of the centre-ground punditocracy and most of the PLP – simply refused to fight on the Tories’ terms. They could have – and would have under any other leader – fought a ‘controls on immigration’, Blue Labour type campaign. But they didn’t. And so it turned out that all the fortresses and earthworks that the Tories had constructed to embed their domination on their chosen post-referendum battle terrain just turned out to be irrelevant, because Corbyn chose to fight on a totally different continent in a totally different type of war that galvanised and mobilised the young beyond the normal channels of parliamentary electoral politics.
I’ve recently finished reading Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future: PostCapitalism and a World Without Work (Verso, 2013), to see what all the hype’s about. It’s very enjoyable, though not without a few frustrating weaknesses and gaps in the argument. In summary Srnicek and Williams advance an audacious argument, drawing on a Promethean ethic of ‘synthetic freedom’ and an understanding of humanity as a ‘transformative and constructible hypothesis’, for the formulation of an unabashedly universalist, progressivist strategic vision – one that pivots on the notion of ‘left moderity’ – for a ‘future-oriented left’. The key element in their argument is that any forward looking left can and must seize upon the opportunities opened up by what they claim is an objective trend toward far-reaching automation and the concomitant expansion of the ‘surplus population’ (surplus to the requirements of production that is) in advanced capitalist economies.
A (Rather Lengthy) Summary
The argument begins with an interesting critique of the predominant form of strategic thinking on the contemporary left – what the authors term ‘folk politics’. The basic coordinates of this thought, according to Srnicek and Williams, are shared among the major surviving clusters of leftist thought – from social democracy, through Trotskyism to ‘horizontalism’. Among other things ‘folk politics’ is rooted in an always-already defeated posture of reactivity and ‘resistance’ to the onslaught of a relentlessly dynamic antagonist – capitalism – that is always ceded the strategic advantage of initiative. The ‘folk political’ in its various forms falls back on the valorisation of the immediate, the particular, the unmediated, the ‘authentic’ and so on (most obviously in the case of ‘localism’, but also in horizontalist faith in quite impractical and ungeneralisable forms of ‘direct democracy’, face to face consensus decision making etc.) in doomed and ineffectual opposition to the universalising logic of capitalism and the complex structures and social relations it generates and manifests that can only be grasped at the level of theory, the abstract, ‘totality’. At it most ambitious ‘folk politics’ promotes ‘prefigurative’ spaces – such as Occupy assemblies – that manifest a sort of strategic bad faith. These utopian spaces are quite unsustainable, ephemeral and are often deliberately transient in duration and as such present little challenge to the established structures they purport to oppose. ‘Folk political’ forms are, more often than not, ritualistic rather than properly political in the sense of activities that are really oriented towards social transformation- activists, for example, go through the motions of organising for this or that umpteenth march, building for this or that umpteenth assembly etc. etc. without a clear idea of what they would do next were they to make a breakthrough. There’s an interesting anecdote in this regard about an anti-globalisation protest outside a summit where the protesters succeeded in breaking down a crowd control fence and then more or less simply stood there awkwardly, not knowing what to do next. The fence wasn’t supposed to come down. This was all rather embarrassing. This wasn’t in the script. This was a revelation of the essential truth of the ‘folk political’ moment – leftwing politics has been reduced to the status of theatre.
In opposition to this Srnicek and Williams suggest that the left should take a leaf from the neoliberal right’s playbook. In an interesting chapter the authors present a Gramscian analysis of the construction of neoliberal hegemony. They show how neoliberal intellectuals, finding themselves politically marginalised under conditions of post-war Keynesian hegemony, set out to play a long game- a war of position – operating on the basis of an integrated strategy that fused long term vision (thinking beyond the boundaries of the then politically possible) with short and medium term measures to reshape the ideological terrain in such a way that those boundaries were surpassed. The organisational hub of this network of dissident thinkers, the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS), provided the key forum in which this strategy combining the visionary with the pragmatic – long-term goals with immediate tactics – could be elaborated. Over decades, they constructed a ‘counter-hegemonic infrastructure’ of think tanks and other nodes of ideological dissemination rooted in university departments and among journalists, teachers and other ‘second hand dealers’ in ideas (Hayek’s term) in order to gradually transform the prevailing ideological terrain. A key tactic here Srnicek and Williams note (drawing on Stuart Hall of course) was to co-opt and transform core political terminology/concepts such as ‘modernity’ and ‘freedom’ in order to articulate and embed them within a neoliberal frame of reference. The gradual construction of this ideological infrastructure and the molecular transformation of political and economic ‘common sense’ provided neoliberals with powerful advantages when Keynesian political economy entered crisis in the 1970s – they had a compelling alternative vision, a well-rooted narrative and a highly organised infrastructural network already in place that allowed them to seize their chance to install neoliberalism as the new ideological common sense in remarkably rapid fashion.
Srnicek and Williams contend that the left – or at any rate a left that wants to win – has to act in a similar way. The MPS operated in a decidedly non-‘folk political’ manner and just like them, the left must develop a compelling vision of an alternative that is rooted in a serious analysis of the historical conjuncture and its probable trajectories and associated possible points of leverage for a left politics, together with a set of concrete demands that can intertwine with this analysis and an organisational infrastructure too to steer this process of counter-hegemonic contestation.
Many of Srnicek and William’s observations in relation to the construction of neoliberal hegemony and their call for a ‘Mont Pelerin Society of the left’ feel like commonplaces, but one of the things that’s distinctive and valuable about it, I think, is that it’s strongly rooted in and flows from their critique of ‘folk politics’. What’s most distinctive and arresting about their argument however is what they go on to sketch out in terms of the suggested parameters and core ideological-political substance of a left counter-hegemony that would be fit for purpose today.
The first step in the elaboration of an effective ideological orientation for the left, they argue in what for me is one of the strongest chapters of the book, must be to reclaim for leftist politics a future-oriented conception of ‘modernity’ and its component universalist normative commitments. Capitalism, they note, is ‘an aggressively expansive universal’ – the law of value is a dynamic process that tends to penetrate, colonise and transform all aspects of the social world at both an extensive level (drawing more and more of the world’s population into the global market and wage labour relationships) and at the intensive level too (the absorption of more and more of our experiences and ‘lifeworld’ into commodified relations). One of the most damaging effects of the postmodernist turn, they suggest, was that it proclaimed its radical anti-universalist ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ at the very moment when, under the impetus of the ascendancy of neoliberalism, capitalism entered into its most universalising phase. Against this, Srnicek and Williams argue, the left must pose its own counter-universal narrative and vision.
In particular the left must rediscover its commitment to ‘modernity’. As the authors usefully point out modernity is best understood as a ‘repertoire of conceptual innovations revolving around universal ideals such as progress, reason, freedom and democracy’ (p. 71). They note, too, that the idea of modernity – as against ‘pre-modern’ thought – ‘introduced a rupture between the present and the past’ and, with this break, ‘the future is projected as being potentially different from and better than the past’ (72). The notion of modernity, that is, encompassed the idea of the possibility both of progress and also of emancipatory change. Historically, then, this was the natural ground of the political left – indeed, and as Srnicek and Williams remark, what set it apart from the right (oriented toward the defence of traditional order) was the left’s ‘unambiguous embrace of the future’. They go on to argue that this situation was reversed in the era of neoliberalism and postmodernism in which the latter sought to break the link between modernity and progress on the one hand and emancipation on the other and in which neoliberalism successfully co-opted the rhetoric of ‘modernisation’. Today, the ‘folk political’ left seek only to conjure up dispersed, ephemeral and token forms of ‘resistance’ while the right proceed with grand projects of ‘social engineering’ declaring the free-market order to be the uncontested realisation of the inner logic and telos of history. Fukuyama was only ventriloquising the common sense of the emerging neoliberal order when he argued that liberal capitalism had become the inevitable destiny of all societies and the end point of human development.
So, for the authors, the urgent task for the left is to rediscover something of its previous confidence in its own distinctive grand narratives of progress and liberation and to contest the terrain of modernity. Of course, postmodern type thinkers tend to argue that modernity and its universalist ideals are inherently Eurocentric and responsible too for driving and imposing various forms of oppression and injustice such as racism and colonialism. Srnicek and Williams are clear however that while the idea of modernity and its component values took on a particular resonance in Europe historically they have also rooted themselves organically in numerous cultures beyond Europe. Indeed, the assertion that modernity’s core principles are somehow inherently European risks orientalising non-European cultures and seems to carry the implication that non-European cultures are ‘naturally’ devoid of reason, freedom and so on. Further, while ‘European modernity was inseparable from its “dark side”‘ (p. 76) – the slave trade, genocide and so on – the ideals it proclaimed also provided conceptual tools for struggle against these wrongs too. Abolitionists, anti-colonial movements, struggles for gender equality for example all drew on the normative resources of modernity to contest the terms in which they were instantiated. Indeed, as Srnicek and Williams point out, political struggles today are inevitably struggles within the space of modernity and as such the left must contest and shape this field rather than seek to abandon it.
According to Srnicek and Williams a left modernity must comprise three essential components: an image of historical progress, a universalist horizon and commitment to human emancipation. Commitment to the idea of progress does not necessarily mean a commitment to historical inevitability or a uni-linear model of development as in Kautskyian Marxist type teleology. Instead, Srnicek and Williams argue that progress should be understood as ‘hyperstitional’. That is, ‘as a kind of fiction, but one that aims to transform itself into a truth’ (p. 75). Our vision of the future should operate as a kind of motivating force – a sort of performative statement about how the world ought to be, ‘catalysing dispersed sentiment into a historical force that brings the future into existence’ (p. 75). As such progress is a matter of political struggle to bring itself into being. As Srnicek and Williams put it:
Pathways of progress must be cut and paved, not merely travelled along in some pre-ordained fashion; they are a matter of political achievement rather than divine or earthly providence.
Nor should universalism be taken to be synonymous with homogeneity. Universalisms, as Srnicek and Williams argue, always contain an inner tension – an internal dynamic that means they are never complete. So for example the ideals of liberty and democracy are never finished projects. They have an immanent tendency to undo themselves – to demand to be taken further, more fully realised. They are always open to contestation and interpretation. Further, they may be instantiated in different ways and may take different forms in different contexts. The demand for a left modernity is not a demand for some future harmonious perfection or universal sameness. Modernity is a project of perpetual fission and permanent revolution.
The third element essential to the elaboration of a left modernity – commitment to human emancipation – should pivot on the expansion of what Srnicek and Williams term ‘synthetic freedom’. This term is used to describe an understanding of liberty as something constructed and (like other components of modernity) a process that is always in becoming rather than a given, static attribute or an accomplished state of being . As against ‘negative liberty’ – being left alone to get on with things – ‘synthetic freedom’ is about (perpetual) expansion of our capacity to do things – about having access to the resources that allow us to achieve certain effects, and as such is intertwined with and inseparable from power. It’s not just about making existing options viable – but increasing our options beyond what is currently possible. It expands as our technologies and knowledge expands and it’s also in large part a necessarily collective endeavour, reliant on the provision and development of collective resources rather than the property of unobstructed, unencumbered individuals.
Underlying the concept as, Srnicek and Williams remark, is an ‘image of humanity as a transformative and constructible hypothesis’. ‘There is no authentic human essence to realise’, they comment, ‘no harmonious unity to be returned to, no unalienated humanity obscured by false mediations’ (p. 82). We are what we transform ourselves into being – ‘we are open-ended projects to be constructed in the course of time.’ So there’s an ethic of flourishing at work here only it’s not so much about flourishing understood as the realisation of given capacities or the satisfaction of set, essential needs, but the claim that humans flourish best when they act to transform and revolutionise their mode of being. It’s about seeking to go beyond current barriers and limits, both technological and biological and would encompass, for Srnicek and Williams, experimentation with physical modification and augmentation, the further development of AI and cyborg technology and the colonisation of new planets. All of this ties in, of course, with their observation that the universalism of (left) modernity conceals an inner dynamic of permanent revolution that can never be final or complete. Perhaps its partly for this reason that Srnicek and Williams (wisely) choose not to use the term ‘positive liberty’ – a concept that for Isaiah Berlin of course tended to rest on perfectionist assumptions and which carried the seed of ‘totalitarianism.’
Having sketched the broadly philosophical orientation of a counter-hegemonic strategy for today’s left, Srnicek and Williams go on to elaborate a vision of the (near) future and a series of concrete political demands that could help to shift society in that direction. As they point out, our strategic vision and our tactical demands must resonate with existing tendencies and developments. We need to identify progressive and utopian potentials in existing political, economic, ideological and technological accomplishments and trends and seek to draw these out, accelerate them, more fully realise them and clear the way for further emancipatory changes.
Their main claim in this respect is that capitalism in on the verge of a serious ‘crisis of work’. They argue, much as Paul Mason does in Postcapitalism, that the tendency toward ‘secular stagnation’, ‘jobless recoveries’, growing unemployment and precarity in the labour market is being driven by increasing automation. Indeed automation is, they claim, set to expand exponentially – some 47-80% of current jobs, they remark, are fully automatable within the next 20 years. This development, of course, threatens to throw up a serious reproduction problem for capitalism. There are two dimensions to this problem. First, it seems to threaten an emerging crisis of underconsumption – with fewer people in work (in the absence of other large scale sources of income) supply is likely to constantly outstrip effective demand. Second, it threatens to create a very large ‘surplus population’ for whom unemployment no longer functions as an effective disciplinary mechanism. If there are virtually no jobs to be had for large swathes of the population then the ‘reserve army of labour’ is permanently disbanded and the imperative systemic function it performed ceases to operate.
Srnicek and Williams suggest that given these emerging problems capitalism may soon be forced to implement something like a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and indeed point to the growing traction of the idea of UBI among even mainstream politicians and economists.
These are developments that the left, they claim, should seize on and seek to amplify in order to push them in a radical direction. The left has an opportunity to shape the ideological terrain here since these material developments promise to shift the horizons of the possible (and necessary) in terms of common sense assumptions about work, wage-labour, free time and so on and lend themselves quite readily to a leftist ideological narrative and vision of the near future. They open up the possibility of a world without work.
As they note UBI breaks the link between wage labour and consumption and seems to depend for its operation on egalitarian distribution criteria strongly tied to human needs satisfaction or perhaps more specifically a conception of a basic threshold standard of living necessary for functioning well as a citizen. The automation of production, distribution, retail and so on frees up human lives (significantly or even entirely) from drudgery and workplace boredom and alienation. It expands the amount of leisure time available for citizens to develop their personal relationships, interests and capacities – to exercise their ‘synthetic freedom’. In other words, objective tendencies in capitalist development today seem to be taking us in the direction of the fulfilment of classic leftist demands. Indeed, as Srnicek and Williams point out, one of the oldest demands of the labour movement was reduction in the length of the working day to allow workers ample time for rest and, moreover, ‘for what we will’.
They’re clear however that progressive outcomes will not emerge spontaneously – automation and the expansion of unemployment might take particularly inegalitarian, exploitative and authoritarian forms. Further UBI is likely to be set at a minimum threshold level designed perhaps to subsidise low-paying firms and might indeed provide an excuse for the right to dismantle the welfare state if leftist forces and social movements don’t struggle vigorously to oppose this. So the left needs to intervene strategically in order to struggle to shape the various outcomes of the coming crisis of work for egalitarian and human ends.
To this end Srnicek and Williams identify four (mutually reinforcing) key strategic demands for leftist struggle in the coming period:
- Full automation
- Reduction of the working week
- Diminishment of the work ethic
The first three are fairly self-explanatory. They resonate with each other in that, for example, the expansion of automation allows for a rapid increase in productivity that allows the working day to be shortened and indeed they suggest the need for human labour to be entirely eliminated in great swathes of the economy, while the provision of UBI provides (ex-) workers with a replacement source of income. There’s also a sort of positive feedback loop at work here in that the withdrawal of human labour – accelerated by the reduction of the working week and the weakening of the link between work and income – provides further incentive for employers to automate.
One of the key benefits of UBI, Srnicek and Williams point out, is that it would ‘overturn the asymmetry of power that currently exists between labour and capital’ in that it gives ‘the proletariat a means of subsistence without dependency on a job’ and thus increases their power to choose what work they take on if any. It ‘therefore unbinds the coercive aspects of wage labour [and] partially decommodifies labour’ (p. 120). One of the effects of this is that it is likely to empower labour in relation to capital (at both an individual level in terms of the balance of power between employer and employee in particular jobs, but also at the collective level too) and would tend to force employers to increase wages and improve working conditions – especially in various forms of degrading, dangerous and otherwise unattractive work. Further, rising wages for the worst jobs would provide a further incentive to automate them entirely. It would also be much easier to organise and sustain strikes given that workers could fall back on UBI.
These demands, of course, would require a radical shift in terms of union activity. Srnicek and Williams envisage trade unions organising around the above demands to reduce working hours without loss of income, negotiate and promote job sharing arrangements and to be at the heart of an emerging (genuinely) voluntary form of work flexibility on the terms of workers themselves. In fact workers’ organisations would be one of the driving forces behind the gradual emergence of a ‘post-work society’ – seeking, in an interesting (if slightly doubtful – where would they get their subs?) reversal of their main role hitherto, to eliminate rather than defend jobs. In a rather neat quip the authors envisage the labour movement adopting the demand for ‘full unemployment’ as its major slogan.
One of the biggest obstacles to this project, the authors argue, both within and without the workers’ movement, would be ideological – the deeply culturally ingrained work ethic. This is where the fourth of their above demands comes in. It would involve struggle to loosen the grip of the pervasive idea that work is in itself somehow morally virtuous. Interestingly Srnicek and Williams locate this ethic in the quasi-religious idea that you must suffer before you deserve reward – you endure work in return for remuneration. In this respect, of course, a post-work oriented left would be able to tap into and articulate strongly rooted desires and grievances – most people hate their jobs after all. Most stress and anxiety is work (or income) related. For most people work is not a source of liberation or fulfilment – it enslaves them and in many cases is literally killing them.
The authors are not quite clear about the relationship between these four demands and the rest of the argument that follows in their book. However they seem to be intended as the core programmatic pillars of a wider counter-hegemonic strategy that they go on to sketch out. Much of the remainder of the book is spent examining ‘three possible sites of struggle – over the intellectual, cultural and technological mediums of neoliberal hegemony’ (p. 132). Such struggle would involve the elaboration of utopian narratives, pluralist economics and the ‘repurposing of technology’ in each of those sectors respectively. The last of these is by far the most imaginative and interesting. Drawing on historical experiments in democratic economic planning such as the Lucas Plan in Britain and Cybersyn in Allende’s Chile, the authors argue that a core part of the left’s counter-hegemonic approach must be to seek to exert popular control over 1). existing technologies in order to ‘repurpose’ them for human and egalitarian ends and 2). the design and implementation of new technologies, so that what they call ‘socio-technical infrastructures’ can gradually be aligned with leftist, radically democratic objectives and the expansion of collective ‘synthetic freedom’. The demand for full automation is to be understood in this context. It is not that the sphere of production should be given over to some sort of technocratic accelerated robo-capitalism while human citizens confine themselves to the sphere of leisure and consumption. Srnicek and Williams see the automation process under leftist hegemony as vector for the transformation of workers into the collective masters of production. A radical reduction in the working week and the partial de-commodification of labour via the UBI would provide a basis for the democratic leverage of power over how technologies are designed and implemented and over the purposes they serve.
The main agent(s) of this strategy would be a populist movement brought into being and cohered by what Srnicek and Williams call a ‘broad ecology of organisations’ operating ‘in a more or less coordinated way, to carry out the division of labour necessary for social change’ (p. 163). They criticise the ‘organisational fetishism’ of established left wing politics – whether the horizontalism of autonomists, or the democratic centralist party form of Leninists – arguing that only a pluralism of forces operating both within and outside the ambit of electoral politics and the state can coordinate the necessarily complex process of radical social change. There ‘is no vanguard party’, they note, only a variety of ‘mobile vanguard functions’. One of the major necessary tasks of such an organisational ecosystem would be to construct an ideological infrastructure – much like that built by the MPS – comprising various agencies and hubs of research, training and information dissemination.
This movement would be guided by a vision of a post-work world – the end-in-view toward which the four major demands outlined above are designed to propel society. Srnicek suggest that this post-work society of extensive automation + UBI would still be a society dominated by capital, but one in which the hegemonic grip of capitalist ideas and capitalist power would be substantially undermined. Srnicek and Williams propose that we should think about the shift from neoliberalism to a post-work society as a similar process to the historical shift from social democratic capitalism to neoliberal capitalism. It would be the establishment of a new hegemonic consensus within the parameters of capitalism. They suggest that post-work society should be regarded as a new point of equilibrium – it would provide conditions of relative coherence and stability across economic, political and social spheres. But it would also provide a platform from which to launch further struggles to take society into a truly post-capitalist world. In this sense the demands they propose are intended as ‘non-reformist reforms’ (they’re clearly drawing on Gorz here though they don’t reference him in relation to this concept). That is, though rooted in real tendencies and immediate imperatives, they strain at the limits of what capitalism can allow, shift the horizons of the possible and empower progressive forces to further radicalise their struggles. The authors emphasise, though, that the counter-hegemonic struggle they elaborate could only unfold over the long term – it’s a project that could be realised over ‘decades rather than years, cultural shifts rather than electoral cycles’ (p. 108). I have to say, however, that it’s not very clear whether they are talking here about the time it would take for the new post-work hegemony (within capitalism) to consolidate or whether they mean, here, the emergence of a fully post-capitalist order.
Clearly there’s lots of challenging, innovative and useful stuff here. It’s certainly one of the books that I most enjoyed reading in the last few months. One of the most admirable things about the book is that Srnicek and Williams are trying to come up with something new here – a fresh and coherent strategic perspective rooted in real developments in capitalism and in society more broadly, that breaks from the often rather painfully stale perspectives and practices of so much of the contemporary left. Though (too) much of their focus in the section on ‘folk politics’ centres on the perhaps rather too easy target of ‘horizontalist’ politics, much of what they say here does feel relevant to wider (and to my mind, more dominant) sections of the left. This is a left dominated, in its social democratic incarnations by ‘cargo-cult Keynesianism’ (a term coined I think by James Meadway) as if a return to pre-neoliberal economic policy could somehow magically summon up the structural conditions of post-war boom in which these policies could again achieve traction. In its major Marxist variants its dominated by what Srnicek and Williams characterise as ‘historical re-enactors’, caught in a sort of nostalgic-mythological longing for the conditions of Russia 1917. Both of these strands specialise in ritual and displacement activity. Both of them look backward to conditions very different to the ones that prevail today and expend a lot of energy in the effort to convince themselves that nothing fundamental has changed.
Srnicek and Williams are surely right to argue that the left needs to produce a coherent vision of the future rooted in real tendencies – a future-oriented narrative that connects with conditions as they are today and that plots the rough outlines of a path to take us from our present to this better future. What they manage to elaborate in this book is a compelling ‘real utopia’ in E O Wright’s sense of the term – a set of ‘utopian ideals grounded in the real potentials of humanity’, a ‘destination with accessible way stations along the way’ and a sketch of ‘institutions that can inform our practical tasks of navigating a world of imperfect conditions for social change (Wright, 2010: p. 6). What I particularly like is the way in which they manage to combine a long term vision of future objectives with immediate tactics while also allowing for a necessary open-endedness in terms of the journey from the short term to the long term ends in view. They manage to negotiate quite deftly between two pitfalls of strategic orientation – eschewing on the one hand the idea that there’s a set series of predictable steps from here to socialism following this or that strategic model (emphasising quite rightly that we can’t know much in advance and must construct the road as we walk it), while on the other hand also eschewing the tacit reliance on some sort of miraculous bolt from the blue implicit in so much radical thought where, for example, a revolutionary situation complete with advanced soviets and factory committees somehow emerges alchemically from the quotidian routine of paper selling, petition circulation and the organisation of regular branch meetings. Their emphasis on the elaboration of ‘non-reformist reforms’ as the necessary vector of social transformation is, I think, absolutely right.
I’m also rather taken with their unabashed muscular universalism and their insistence that the key principles of modernity – and indeed the concept of modernity itself – is indispensable for the left. I think it’s true that the left just is in the game of asserting the rightness and truth of certain norms for all humans universally. There’s little point in pretending otherwise, though as Srnicek and Williams rather deftly show, to be committed to normative universalism and the associated concepts of human emancipation and progress is not necessarily to impose a closed or homogenous model of life on everyone, nor is it necessarily to fall victim to the superstition of historical inevitability or unilinear development.
There’s something very attractive, too, about the Promethean ethic they elaborate centred on the notion of ‘synthetic freedom’. As a quasi-humanist of sorts naturally I’m not wholly sold on this, but I do think they make compelling points here. One of the things they get right, in my view, is their suspicion toward the very idea of an ‘unalienated’ condition of being. I’ve long been rather dubious in relation to many accounts of alienation – in fact perhaps toward the very concept itself. The problem is that the notion of alienation seems to rely for its critical force on the possibility of its opposite. Capitalism is condemned among other things for the alienation it engenders and while this is fine if we’re simply talking about degrees of alienation (i.e. neoliberal capitalism is particularly alienating and this is a bad thing), it often seems to be condemned for producing alienation in itself with the implication that it will be abolished under post-capitalist conditions. But what on earth would an unalienated state look like? When sketched out these visions often seem to me to describe self-evidently absurd and, in fact, definitely inhuman visions of ultimate harmony and perfection that no one in their right mind would want to experience. In fact, isn’t the nature of human being itself inherently a condition of alienation – of at least partial separation and distance from the Real – isn’t this separation in fact constitutive of sentience itself? The abolition of alienation in this account would mean the extinguishment of sentient being – death. If you want to exist in an unalienated state, well there’s plenty of time for that ahead of you in the graveyard.
I think they’re also right to have little truck with the romantic notion of the inherent ‘dignity of work’. They’re right, in my view, that this is claptrap. It’s a sort of hyper-moralised masochism that rests on religious myths of redemption through suffering. Humans like to be busy, we like to create and to act on and transform the world around us and the conditions of our existence – but this isn’t necessarily the same as ‘work’ as such.
Despite its strengths and the myriad things I like about it Inventing the Future has real weaknesses too in my view. One of the frustrating things about the book is that it’s often not clear – especially in relation to the elements of the long term (decades long) counter-hegemonic approach they set out in the last chapters – if they are talking of the transition to a post-work society or transition to post capitalism. It’s clear that they see the former as a step toward the later, but it’s not clear if a post work consensus is something to be achieved in the relatively near future or whether it’s that they are talking about in relation to the decades long gestation period.
Relatedly, as suggested above, it’s not precisely clear what the relationship is between the four key demands they set out and the later focus on the three terrains – intellectual, cultural and technological – of counter-hegemonic struggle. The four demands are clearly transitional demands, but the authors also say that the focus of the chapter in which they are outlined is to elaborate a vision of a desirable and achievable future (a real utopia) with the strategy for getting there outlined in later chapters. It’s a bit disorienting. Perhaps it’s just me but it’s hard to see how these chapters dovetail.
There’s also a strange wobble in their argument in relation to the current tendency toward rapid automation. After having argued that the near future is likely to bring the automation of a large proportion of work, they rather suddenly admit that the evidence in relation to world productivity growth suggests that in fact there might not be any radical trend toward automation at all. True they provide some counter-evidence here, but then make the rather odd claim that even if there is no tendency toward far-reaching automation this doesn’t matter, because their argument pivots on the normative claim that there ought to be full automation rather than a descriptive one. Their thesis rests, that is, on the claim that the left ought to position itself as the key agent of full automation. But this is a rather awkward argument. The drift of their argument up until this point (which is soon buried) is that the left should seek to take advantage of an objective tendency in capitalist development – to position itself for the coming crisis of work so that it is able to intervene to shift the political-ideological terrain decisively. Suddenly, though, it seems that there may not be any such objective tendency at all.
Further, there is something awkward about the logic of their counter-hegemonic strategy. This, of course, is presented as a way of leveraging power in such a way that from an initial position of relative weakness, the terrain is gradually shifted in your favour. The trouble is that many of the tactics they suggest for building up the power of the left and the class power of working people seem to depend on the prior possession of the very power that the tactics are designed to generate. So there’s a sort of circularity here. So for example, the demands to reduce the working week, radically extend automation and implement generous UBI are presented as ways to increase the class power of workers (by reducing the supply of labour and partially decommodifying it too) – but in order to struggle successfully for such demands on these terms surely demands substantial class strength in the first place. This circular reasoning, I think, runs through the entire book (indeed perhaps it’s a feature of counter-hegemonic strategies generally?)
A related difficulty is that it’s quite hard to see why (and how) capital would accept many of the measures Srnicek and Williams propose. True, a lot of their argument rests on the observation that class struggle is not always a zero-sum process (Wright is very interesting on this – See Wright, 2010: 337-65) and that in the context of the coming crisis of work capital and labour might share certain common interests in relation to the productivity enhancing gains of automation and the elimination of the problem of ‘surplus population’. Nevertheless they observe that capital would probably find inegalitarian and authoritarian ways of dealing with these developments if left to its own devices and that the left must struggle to impose the demands they propose on a more or less reluctant bourgeoisie. So, for example, they argue that the a post-work oriented left should struggle to convert increased productivity stemming from automation into the further reduction of work. Productivity gains should be channeled into increasing leisure time rather than boosting output. But this, of course, runs counter to the logic of capital. Remember that 1950s and 60s futurologists claimed that we’d now be working 2 or 3 day weeks because of vastly improved productivity. What happened to that? Why, in fact, are we generally working longer hours and suffering from more and more overwork? The answer is that capital has a systemically rooted preference to take the profitable option – giving people more time off doesn’t tend to boost profits, whereas increasing output does. Why would near future capitalists be any less profit oriented?
You also wonder how and why capital could be forced to grant a generous UBI rather than a subsistence level one tied perhaps to various forms of privatisation, marketisation and the dismantling of traditional forms of welfare provision. At one point Srnicek and Williams draw on Michal Kalecki’s well-known observation that capitalists tend to resist full employment policies because they know that in such conditions the threat of the sack loses its disciplinary character and the balance of power between capital and labour thus tilts in favour of the latter. Surely this suggests that capital would be very reluctant to accept the implementation of generous UBI. Even if technically it made economic sense in terms of maintaining healthy levels of demand and politically, from a social order angle it also made sense in terms of pacifying the ‘surplus population’ and binding them to market consumption, in terms of the balance of class forces it may well be seen as an unacceptable measure. There’s plenty of evidence, of course, that the capitalist class as a whole is often willing to accept lower rates of growth, even recession, as the price paid for the smashing of workers’ collective strength (the Greek bourgeoisie’s preference for austerity over the expansion of demand is a case in point).
Something running implicitly throughout the book, I think, is a tendency to exaggerate the importance of the ideological stakes in class struggle and a corresponding tendency to play down the more material elements. So, for example, the narrative in relation to the counter-hegemonic struggle waged by the MPS seems to suggest that the ascendancy of neoliberalism was almost wholly determined by superior ideological manoeuvres. So, too, the shift to a post-work consensus seems to be something that could be effected almost wholly through various discursive and agenda-setting battles at the level of ideology. But of course the neoliberal turn was as much a response to real pressures on profitability and the obsolescence from capital’s point of view of the post-war Keynesian model of growth as much as it represented a paradigm shifting victory in the battle of ideas. The problem with the analogy Srnicek and Williams draw between the shift from social democratic Keynesian hegemony to neoliberal hegemony on the one hand and their vision of a future shift from neoliberalism to a post-work hegemonic framework is that this shift to neoliberalism resonated strongly with capitalism’s material interests, whereas it’s not so clear that the post-work paradigm would. No matter how elegant and compelling a post-work narrative might be, the bottom line for capital (which after all possesses structural power in terms of its control over investment decisions) will be the question of what happens to profits.
For these reasons I find the idea that a post-work regime would function as a point of equilibrium – a stable way station on the road to post capitalism rather unconvincing. A political economy in which labour had been substantially decommodified and the collective power of (former) wage-earners boosted vis a vis the capitalist class – let alone one in which investment decisions were increasingly shaped by democratically determined criteria (thus further undermining the authority of capital) – is unlikely to be characterised by relative class harmony. It is likely to be a society in which capital was fighting tooth and nail to roll back the gains won by (ex-) working people in order to reimpose its domination.
Further, the question of the state is conspicuous by its absence in Srnicek and William’s argument. As the concentrated site of political power under capitalism it is really rather odd that the state is hardly mentioned in the book at all. It’s all the more surprising given that traditional socialist debates about strategy almost always pivot on this question. In fact I can’t help thinking that the two major (and interconnected) problems of socialist transition – state power and the structural power of capital to veto reforms that threaten to undercut its fundamental interests – are danced around and avoided in the book. You wonder whether this, indeed, is the major function of socialist thought in relation to’ counter-hegemonic strategy’. That is, it provides a way of talking around and avoiding these central dilemmas.
The other really striking absence in the book is the obvious question of what full automation would mean for capital given Marxist thought in relation to the labour theory of value and the Tendency for the Rate of Profit to Fall. Marxian economics, of course, seems to suggest that given labour is the source of value, a radically rising organic composition of capital (let alone full automation) is likely to lead to a calamitous fall in the rate of profit. It seems to suggest, therefore, that full automation under capitalism is a contradiction in terms. Srnicek and Williams certainly seem to be operating within the Marxist tradition of thought and for this reason it is really strange that their only nod toward this issue is a throwaway line on page 144 about the need for left wing economists to do more research on the likely effects of automation on the TRPF. This surely is a fundamental problem for their thesis.
Furthermore, for all their emphasis on the need for an orientation on the future there is something definitely retro and nostalgic about Imagining the Future and indeed the wider Accelerationist milieu. There’s a distinct fascination with the iconography of the Soviet space programme, Bogdanov’s Red Star and indeed there are unmissable overtones of 20th Century Socialist Realism to Accelerationist discourse – it seems to me to evoke images of heroic square jawed cosmonauts staring out into the middle distance. Indeed – maybe this is just me (and, a confession, I love retro Soviet iconography, cyborgs, AI, SF… ) – isn’t there something very male about all of this?
Finally, for all the attractions of Srnicek and Williams’ Promethean vision of humans seeking to go beyond technological and biological constraints there is, for me, something rather inhuman – or at least incomplete – about it too. Srnicek and William’s vision of human liberation is a vision of the heroic and grandiose – space travel, the colonisation of new planets, experimentation with cyborg technologies and biological modification. But there’s not much warmth here. Isn’t socialism about slowing down as much as anything – about providing people with the time and security just to be and to make the most of their valued relationships with others? Isn’t socialism just as much about having the time to talk and laugh and love – to really and fully experience and enjoy the mostly quotidian things that provide us with a sense of meaning, belonging and satisfaction – as it is about any grand, heroic quest to transgress this or that limit. There has to be a place for the latter of course, but Srnicek and Williams’ vision of the future is, for me, rather a cold one.
So Inventing the Future is not without its gaps and weaknesses. But I still think it’s a really valuable book that raises important issues and questions. The most valuable and admirable aspect of it, for me, is that Srnicek and Williams are trying to do something that’s both ambitious and necessary. They are trying to rethink socialist strategy for the 21st Century beyond the slogans, rituals and habits of thought of what they call ‘folk politics’. We need more of this.
I’m reading Carmen Sirianni’s Workers Control and Socialist Democracy (1982, Verso). It’s a detailed historical and theoretical analysis of institutional forms of popular power that emerged during the revolutionary period in Russia. It studiously avoids romanticism and the breezy sort of revolutionary mythos characteristic of most sympathetic accounts of soviet type institutions. I recommend it highly. These comments in the introduction, I think, are absolutely right and indeed indicate an attitude indispensable for any honest, rather than self-deceiving, socialist thought:
The history of socialism has been the history of the problem of democracy. Marx himself developed the foundations of socialist thought through a critique of the democratic heritage of the French revolution. The result was a redefinition and a radicalisation of both form and content. Marx’s critique and the struggles of the working classes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rendered liberal democracy profoundly problematic. And yet early Marxian socialism never really rid itself of the problem. Nor have we today. From the original critiques of the anarchists to those of… Weber and Michels, this was evident. With the Russian revolution and its aftermath, it became inescapable. The future of socialism remains the problem of democracy
…. responsible theorists and activists must admit this openly – we still do not know under what conditions genuine socialist democracy can flourish. We really do not yet know whether it is truly possible, especially in its more radical forms. Marx’s conception of a ‘free association of producers’ can serve as an impetus for analysis, but hardly as its touchstone. What are the specific institutional contours that might make possible the rational use of collective resources (including advanced technology) in a way that is consistent with active participation in collective decisions, a high degree of individual freedom, and relatively equal work and life opportunities? Platitudes about transformed human beings with completely new values and unbridled technical capacities, about complete decentralisation and the liberatory warmth and simplicity of face-to-face democracy, about the explosive potential that will accompany the end of capitalism or the state, will not bring us one step closer in theory or practice to a society in which real human beings can democratically and collectively control a material and social world that is inevitably recalcitrant, existentially threatening, and extremely complex. Only if we openly recognize that as yet we have no complete solutions to the problem of socialist democracy – and no easy solutions exist – can we proceed with the task of developing a historically grounded and empirically relevant theory of it.
Much of the left has an emotional attachment to a myth of romantic insurrection. It’s by no means alone in this. Liberalism has its own mythical narratives of glorified violence too and of course all state regimes are founded on acts of violence – whether these are celebrated in sanitised mythical form (Bastille Day, Independence Day…) or sublimated and disavowed. I’m no pacifist. I’m as violent as the next person, as are you. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Sometimes it is better than the alternatives. Sometimes it’s necessary. But if it is, it’s a tragic necessity (and it must have limits). Don’t romanticise it. The ‘rage of the people’ looks like those pictures of bloodied young conscript soldiers in Istanbul cowering from the blows of the crowd. It’s boys being lynched. It’s sordid, cruel, nasty, demeaning. Look it in the face. Grow up.