Author Archives: 4harrisons

Recovering Modernity

“Post-modernism” is not something I’ve previously really engaged with as a concept or got to grips with what it means, other than in a superficial way. Which is why I was interested to read the refreshingly simple description of “modernity” presented by Goran Therborn in his book “From Marxism to Post-Marxism?” against which to assess “post-modernism”:

“Modernity is a culture claiming to be modern, in the sense of turning it’s back on the past… and looking into the future as a reachable, novel horizon”

(Therborn 2018, p.121)

He then goes on to give a little more context to this basic statement:

“Rather than trivialising the concept of modernity by attempting to translate it into a set of concrete institutions , whether of capitalism of politics, or into a particular conception of rationality or agency so that it can more easily be philosophically targeted, it is more useful to deploy it solely as a temporal signifier, in order to allow it to retain its analytical edge.”

(Therborn 2018, p.121)

“Modernity” is therefore a world view focused on progress, one in which things are getting better, which looks to the future and is actively seeking ways of moving towards it. In a brief segment at the end of her book “The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View” Ellen Meiksins Wood characterises this as developing from the Enlightenment based on increasing “rationalisation”.

“rationalisation of the state in bureaucratic organisation, the rationalisation of the economy in industrial capitalism, the rationalisation of culture in the spread of education, the decline of superstition, and the progress of science and technology.”

(Meiksins Wood 2017, p. 182)

Modernism therefore implies belief in an overarching view of the world that defines how progress happens and the mechanisms that drive change. Throughout much of the twentieth century at least two world views were available that might be thought of as upholding this view of progress, including both Soviet Communism and post war liberal democracy.

With this in mind, Postmodernism can then be defined in opposition to ‘modernity’ as:

“a questioning of, or loss of belief in, the future narratives of the modern.”

“Insofar as ‘forward’ and ‘backward’, progressive and reactionary, have lost all meaning, we have entered a post-modern world.”

(Therborn 2018, p.122)

Boltanski and Chiapello in their book “The New Spirit of Capitalism” similarly describe a postmodernist approach as viewing the state of the world as “chaos unamenable to any general interpretation”. (Boltanski & Chiapello 2018, p. 345).

This loss of belief in “the future” means the loss of a set of criteria against which to judge things. The old analyses are no longer valid, and therefore no longer provide a guide for future actions. Politically this shift was one of the factors underpinning the move of left wing parties from socialism to a “third way“. If capitalism is not progressing towards it’s eventual supercession then the best that can be hoped for is to reach an accommodation with it. With collapse of Soviet communism and the perceived irrelevance of Marxism, the left lacked any overarching analysis of the shape of the world, and therefore any view of what it was ‘for’. The only rational choice left to progressives in a post-modern world is working out how to make capitalism a bit nicer.

The end result has been a consensus of support across the political spectrum for a neo-liberal economics that has delivered a world which is increasingly unequal, polarised between asset holders and non-asset holders. There is a growing feeling of dissatisfaction, particularly among the young who have been disproportionately impacted by the implementation of nearly unopposed capitalism.

But without a strongly organised left articulating an alternative view of what is possible, that dissatisfaction has nowhere progressive to go. That doesn’t mean it disappears. Rather it migrates to political movements which are prepared to critique the current state of affairs and offer an explanation, even if it is not a rational one. In recent years this has meant Trump and Brexit.

In other words, the progressive left needs to recover its belief in the modern and find the overarching analysis of the world to underpin a call to action, and which can then be used to create a coherent manifesto for practical policies for change. I think there are some signs of this analysis developing but there’s still a long way to go.

Therborn, Goran From Marxism to Post-Marxism? (Verso, London, 2018)

Meiksins Wood, Ellen The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Verso, London, 2017)

Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, London, 2018)

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Review: The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View

A fascinating re-examination of the genesis of capitalism, along with some thoughts for what that might mean for its future. The origin of capitalism has been the subject of debate, particularly within the Marxist intellectual sphere because of its significance for how it might finish. The first part of this book is taken up with a summary and brief review of this debate. Meiksin Wood’s focus is on the “commercialisation” approach and its variations. In short Meiksin Wood’s view is that this is based on the presupposition that the logic of capitalism (profit derived from exploitation of production based on workers who do not have independent access to the means of production) is eternal, awaiting only the removal of fetters to be released and grow. Even various strands of Marxist thinking see capitalist laws of motion sitting within feudalism simply waiting to be unleashed. Gradual accumulation through trade eventually reaches a tipping point allowing the existing bourgeois in the cities to overturn their feudal chains.

In Meiksin Wood’s view this is wholly unsatisfactory, taking as given what itself needs to be explained – that is how did capitalist relations and forms of property come to be created in the first place. It is not sufficient to simply assume that capitalism existed latent within feudalism waiting to be released. This would mean that we accept the view common in capitalist economics that the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism represent eternal rules valid throughout the whole of human history. And yet we know that capitalism appeared late, with most societies functioning in non-capitalist ways.

The second and longer section of the book outlines Meiksin Wood’s view that the genesis of capitalism was in fact a specific response to the conditions in rural England in the early modern period. Rather than being driven by the commercial accumulation of wealth, or by technological change, capitalism grows out of the relations of production in the countryside where the development of changed relations between aristocratic landlord and tenant farmer imposes the imperatives of the market on both producers and appropriators. These relations of production, and the creation of a unified national market for domestic products, create an agrarian capitalism that provides the foundation stone for future developments. The bourgeois of the towns and the development of international trade is therefore not what underpins the creation of capitalism, rather it is the changes in the English countryside.

This is an excellent thought provoking discussion of the issues surrounding the development of capitalism in the early modern period.

Meiksins Wood, E The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Verso, London, 2017)

Opium of the People

Religion is the opium of the people” is a frequently quoted phrase by Marx whose meaning is more ambiguous than it is I suspect often taken for. In this short post I want to capture briefly the interpretation given it by Sven-Eric Liedman in his book “A World to Win” recently re-published by Verso in English translation.

The phrase, is often taken to mean that religion is used by the dominant forces in society as a mechanism of control over the working class, something manipulated cynically as a means to keep the working class quiescent. It seems more than likely that this is a view conditioned by the nineteenth century Opium Wars between the British Empire and China.

Liedman disagrees. He states that in fact Marx was using opium in what might be described as a more ‘self-medicating’ sense. Religion is the drug that allows the exploited and oppressed to

“It is thus the shortcomings of the earthly life that constitute the breeding ground of religion.”

(Liedman 2018, p.99)

He then goes on to quote a longer passage from Marx to demonstrate the point.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

(Liedman 2018, p.99, quoting Marx “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”)

There is an interesting example of a very similar phenomenon in the description by Cyril Mango of the world view of inhabitants of the medieval Greek Byzantine Empire. Mango describes the invisible world of demons and evil as felt to be very much part of reality by the average Byzantine. What’s more the existence of demons is used to make sense of the world around them, of things for which in the absence of modern science the existence of demons provides a ‘rational’ explanation. Mango notes that

“It would be a mistake to dismiss these as a product of superstition, unworthy of the historian’s consideration.”

(Mango 1998, p.159)

Mango quotes many examples from the lives of saints where ordinary people gain comfort from the intervention of monk or other holy man who drives the demons away. The medieval Byzantine experiencing ‘real distress’ searched for something that could make sense of the world around them, and found the answer in the invisible battle between good and evil, and the comfort of religious protection.

Marx is making a similar point. Superstition and religion are a rational response by ordinary people to the oppression and misery of their daily lives, something that can make sense of what they are experiencing and provide comfort.

Liedman, Sven-Eric A World To Win (Verso, London, 2018)

Mango, Cyril Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome (Phoenix, London, 1998)

Marx, Karl Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (First published in 1844, available in translation at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm)

Review: A World To Win

This book is billed as “the life and works of Karl Marx”. However despite it’s size it is not a comprehensive story of the life of Marx and his family. Liedman covers the basics, tracing Marx’s travels across Europe before ending in London, touching on the poverty of his early years there. As soon as the story reaches the beginning of the drafting of Capital, the personal side begins to fall away, and Liedman concentrates more closely on the construction of Marx’s master work. The story of Marx’s personal life is better told by Francis Wheen’s biography (“Karl Marx”), or possibly (and with more theoretical rigour) by David McClellan’s “Karl Marx, His Life and Thought”.

Liedman’s is better at working through the development of Marx’s theory. This he treats as a single continuous process and dismisses the idea of an “epistemological break” in his thought, as proposed by Althusser among others. Marx’s thought clearly did change, and Liedman does well at tracing how his use of constructions such as “essence” changed over time.

It takes a while for Liedman to get into his stride – the discussion of some of the earlier work feels somewhat cursory – but once he reaches the core economic work, beginning with the “Grundrisse”, the book hits its stride. While nowhere near as close or comprehensive reading as David Harvey’s “Companions” books, this is a well written outline of the development of Marx’s analysis of economy and society. Liedman does well at bringing out a number of crucial concepts, including internal relations, and the (in)famous dialectic, but also things like the contrast between form and content for example. He also seeks to place Marx within the contemporary intellectual context, including his relationship to Darwin, and developments in science which Liedman presents as having a significant influence on Marx’s thought. As an overview of Marx’s theoretical approach and method, the book broadly works albeit at a relatively high level.

Liedman’s evaluation of Marx is very obviously positive, and while this isn’t necessarily a problem in the discussion of Marx’s work itself it becomes more so in the chapter which covers his successors and “marxism” in general. For example Liedman clearly disavows Stalin as bearing no relation to Marx – a fairly standard line on the political left, but one which is (rightly in my view) challenged by Slavoj Zizek. The Stalinist terror remains one possible historical outcome from Marx’s work, and the modern followers of Marx have to find a way to deal with that.

It is marred by a small number of errors of either copy editing or translation, which jar the experience of the reader from time to time. Other than that, it is a coherent and useful introduction to Marx’s theoretical approach, with a bit of biographical detail attached.

Review: In Defense of Lost Causes

This book is typical of Zizek’s style, in other words an eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary. The opening proposal is to defend a range of revolutionary thinkers and events which history looks on unfavourably. This ranges from Robespierre to Heidegger’s flirtation with Nazi Germany, to Mao and the Cultural Revolution. From this initial premise Zizek spins out across his usual dizzyingly wide frame of reference.

One theme is repetition. History is not pre-determined presenting instead a range of possibilities, some of which are retro-actively identified in the past to justify where we are today. This underpins the discussion in particular of Stalinism. Zizek urges the left to accept that Stalin represents one path out of the civil war in Russia in 1918-20 and the situation Lenin had reached by his death in 1924. But this does not make it the only possible path. It is odd that liberal thinkers who are so keen to criticise Marx for a perceived economic determinism in his approach to history also often see a direct line from Marx to the gulag. Instead, rather than trying to deny Stalin as ‘deviating’ from Marx we should accept it as one path, while seeking to ‘repeat’ Lenin so that we can seek a different outcome to the revolution. A similar point is made by Alain Badiou in his “Communist Hypothesis”.

Written in 2008, and therefore before the financial crisis, Zizek also takes aim at the liberal ‘third way’ with it’s acceptance of capitalism as the background of life, and something which we can only seek to ameliorate. The resulting failure to pursue radical outcomes ends with a gap where a progressive left ought to be, leading to all sorts of distortions from radical Islam to right wing populist demagogues. This is a common Zizek theme which he has discussed before, but which is prescient in the context of when the book was written.

The afterword to the second edition finishes by discussing the uses of violence, drawing a line between violence used in pursuit of revolution and that used to defend the existing order. I’m not sure this is entirely successful, but it certainly delivers what I suspect Zizek was aiming for, which is a provocative challenge to the standard liberal left view of the world.

If it is slightly less successful than some of his other books, that is probably for two reasons. First that having been written ten years ago it feels somewhat dated after the financial crisis. Second it includes several long sections where Zizek responds to criticisms levelled at him by other writers, which I’m sure are important to Zizek but sit oddly with the rest of the book and seem quite abstruse.

The related post I wrote on ‘repeating the past’ is here.

Zizek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, London, 2009)

Repeating the past

Received wisdom dictates that Marx’s theories have been wholly discredited by the attempt to implement them made by the Soviet Union. Capitalism won, the west declared the end of history, and the left accepted defeat and the necessity of capitalism under the “third way” of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

In “In Defense of Lost Causes” from 2008 Slavoj Zizek tackles the failures of a number of radical movements, from the Terror of the French Revolution to Stalinism and the Cultural Revolution in China. One thing Zizek challenges is the characterisation of the horrific consequences of these episodes as an inevitable consequence of revolutionary outbursts, that there was only one possible path forward. Does the path taken historically represent the only possible route out of the revolutionary situation?

Discussing Heidegger, Zizek notes that he “locates the future itself into the past”

“not, of course, in the sense that we live in a closed universe in which every future possibility is already contained in the past, so that we can only repeat, realize, what already is present in the inherited texture, but in the much more radical sense of the “openness” of the past itself: the past itself is not simply “what there was,” it contains hidden, non-realized potentials”

(Zizek 2009, p.188).

In other words history is not a deterministic linear process, but nor is it entirely contingent. There are only a limited range of future possibilities and these are built into the past. In this sense therefore we should not reject Stalinism as a ‘distortion’ of Marx or a betrayal of the revolution. We should fully accept it as a natural (but disastrous) path out of the situation in Russia after the revolution, but not the only possible one.

It is in this sense that Zizek suggests we should “repeat Lenin” (or Mao, or Robespierre etc.). Not so that we can repeat the same linear path of failure, but so that at the critical points we can take a different route in pursuit of a more equal society.

Five years after the revolution, Lenin himself seemingly understood this point. He wrote (although he did not finish) an article which was published in Pravda shortly after his death. Here he uses the analogy of a climber ascending a high peak but having climbed high realising that it is too difficult to reach the summit by continuing the path he has chosen.

“He is forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps, but one that will enable him to reach the summit.”

(Lenin, 2002)

A similar point is made by Alain Badiou in “The Communist Hypothesis“. It is important to acknowledge that the attempts to put communist theory into practice have failed, and not only failed but also resulted in some of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. This is a conclusion that it should be possible even for partisans of the left to agree now that these attempts are safely in the past.

But this does not mean that we have to accept the conclusion drawn by the supporters of the “third way” with it’s acceptance that the attempt to create a more equal society is structurally doomed to failure.

All of which leads us back to Marx and one of his most famous lines, from “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte“:

“Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”

(Marx 1973, p.146)

As Bertell Ollman suggests in “Dance of the Dialectic” (Ollman 2003), Marx is proposing that we “read history backwards” seeking the roots of the present in the past, and using that to develop our understanding of the future. The failure of Soviet communism does not invalidate this insight.

So progressives should continue to look for different pathways to the summit. As Zizek explains, the lesson is that of Samuel Beckett from Worstward Ho “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Zizek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, London, 2009)

Marx, Karl (ed. David Fernbach) Surveys from Exile (Pelican, 1973)

Lenin, Vladimir Notes of a Publicist (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/feb/x01.htm, 2002, accessed May 2018)

Badiou, Alain The Communist Hypothesis (Verso, London, 2015)

Ollman, Bertell Dance of the Dialectic (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003)

Reforming Capitalism

Coming back to reading Slavoj Zizek after a break is always an interesting experience. I picked up “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously” in the Verso end of year sale and it is the usual eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary.

In this book he picks up themes developed from an analysis of a range of protest movements in 2010 and 2011 from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. One thing he specifically challenges is the desire sometimes heard in response to these protests to ‘democratise’ capitalism, to bring it under the control of the rational liberal state.

“There is no lack of anti-capitalist sentiment today… What as a rule goes unquestioned… is the democratic-liberal framework as a means of fighting against these excesses.”

(Zizek 2012, p.86)

A common assumption is that what is missing from the Occupy movement is a political programme. Something that can be fitted into the democratic system and voted for. That somehow the system can be made better if we all just want it to change a little more. That the unfocused nature of the protest is part of the problem.

But we are now at the end of the last attempt to make capitalism ‘nicer’. Under pressure from the collective effort required to defeat fascism and from a seemingly triumphant Soviet communism a number of concessions were made to the working class. Britain saw the creation of the National Health Service and the construction of a welfare state to provide support “from cradle to grave”. These concessions have been under sustained assault since the late 1970s, gradually dismantled in the name of ensuring that the economy remains ‘competitive’.

Perhaps the search for ways to mitigate the worst impacts of capitalism on the “99%” or “ordinary working people” is doomed to failure from the start.

“we should read the ongoing dismantling of the Welfare State not as the betrayal of a noble idea, but as a failure that retroactively enables us to discern a fatal flaw of the very notion of the Welfare State.”

(Zizek 2012, p.15)

In other words that creating a welfare state and leaving capitalist relations in place is at best a short term solution. Capitalist economics will only tolerate its creation when under pressure, will perceive it as a barrier to profit making throughout, and will move quickly to its destruction when it can.

In fact, the liberal state cannot respond to anti-capitalist protest in a way which addresses the root causes of the problem. Democracy has proved to be “impotent in the face of the destructive consequences of economic life.” (Zizek 2012, p.88). We must look outside the existing system for a solution. Occupy Wall Street’s role according to this view is to open up a space for the existing system to be challenged, and as such it does not need to present a programme. But there remains work to be done to transform the energy of protest into transformative change.

“what is conspicuously absent is any consistent Leftist response to these events, any project of how to transpose islands of chaotic resistance into a positive program of social change.”

(Zizek 2012, p.133)

What this implies then is that the Corbyn project is misguided. We cannot realistically defend past victories or rebuild a mythical golden age of social democratic capitalism. We need to be much more radical than that.

“It is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic procedures as the sole framework for any possible change, that blocks any radical transformation of capitalist relations.”

(Zizek 2012, p.87)

What is at risk is that all Corbyn will achieve is to harness a youthful and energetic protest movement to the next failed attempt to make capitalism nicer.

Zizek, Slavoj The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Verso, London, 2012)