Tag Archives: Politics

Friends and Enemies

As I wrote in my review of it, I found Jacques Derrida’s book on the “Politics of Friendship” often jumbled and confused, full of complication that seems to be there simply for the sake of it. But buried underneath the obfuscation he does make some insightful points.

One section in particular discusses the importance of enemies in politics. This might seem counterintuitive in the context of a discussion about friendship but on reflection makes sense. Unfortunately – but not surprisingly – even after a second reading I couldn’t find a suitable quote to summarise Derrida’s thought. The key chapter is five “On Absolute Hostility”.

Post war western democracy was founded on the fear that a viable alternative existed. The communism of the Soviet Union had survived the turbulence of the Great Crash in better shape than the west, and had mobilised enormous resources to defeat Nazi Germany. The west defined itself by its opposition to the eastern bloc. Nations considered friendly were those which shared the same enemy, and included some that might not otherwise have been thought friends (and whom the west later turned on once communism had disappeared, such as Saddam Hussein).

When the communist bloc collapsed in the early 1990’s there was initial euphoria among the political class in the west, followed quickly by a palpable sense of panic. Organisations such as NATO were left wondering what their role in the new world might be. Countries including Britain and the United States struggled to define an effective foreign policy based on ethical standards rather than global struggle, leading to much hand wringing and subsequently to difficult interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and elsewhere.

9/11 presented the United States with a new enemy and the “war on terror” provided a new sense of purpose. Once again the identification of an enemy has driven not just foreign interventions, but also who is thought of as a friend. And in a mirror of the ‘mccarthyite‘ period of the 1950’s and the fear of a ‘red terror’ this split between friend and enemy is both external and internal, with widespread and unjustified suspicion of local Muslim populations and concern about ‘domestic terrorism’.

In other words the sense of certainty, grounding politics with an understanding of what it is “for”, has returned bringing an almost visible sense of relief. Once again the west can define what it is against, who it’s friends are. Whether this represents anything more than a means to channel support into the incumbent regime is another question.

Derrida, Jacques The Politics of Friendship (Verso, London, 2005)

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Review: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy

The main challenge with this book is wading through the opaque philosophical style in which it is written. Laclau & Mouffe do however make some interesting points.

At it’s core the book seems to be a rejection of a mechanical and deterministic versions of Marxism. The emphasis is on the development of the concept of ‘hegemony’, and the first part of the book traces its use through thinkers from Luxemburg to Lenin to Gramsci. Laclau and Mouffe seek to develop the concept further into something which can be used to underpin a modern approach to politics.

The key point is that society is not structured in monolithic economic classes whose existence determines how ‘superstructural’ elements are constructed. On one level this seems sensible. It is common sense that political action is built on coalitions, and that any successful revolution will be the same.

That an economic ‘base’ does not mechanically determine a social ‘superstructure’ is surely obvious and I think Laclau and Mouffe are wrong however not to see this already in Marx. There is a divide between his theoretical work, in which her operates at a high level of abstraction to make the underlying ‘laws of motion’ clear. Conversely in his political work such as “The Civil War in France” and “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” Marx uses his theory for more practical analysis. In theory, Marx presents society as containing just two classes to simplify the analysis. In practice he understands that it is more complicated than that.

In fact, developing this theory of hegemony leads the authors to remove the class based element from their analysis almost completely. And that doesn’t seem correct either. They make what seems to me to be a theoretical justification for the ‘third way’ approach and identity politics. What they propose is that people fit into society through a range of different and often conflicting identities which are not determined by economic class, and that this complexity is growing in modern capitalism. The role then of progressive politics – in the absence of an apriori class conflict which has been removed from the analysis – is to stitch together “coalitions of the willing”. In pursuit of what goal, if the liberation of the oppressed class cannot be the goal, it is not clear.

I say ‘seems to’ though because the mode or expression is very challenging indeed. I’m sure this seems reasonable to the authors but it does not help with deciphering what it is the they are trying to say.

In short, this is a book with a lot of value in thinking about what sort of progressive alliances are likely to be necessary if the left is to be successful under modern capitalist conditions. But hamstrung by removing the theoretical underpinning provided by Marx and the analysis of how the ‘laws of motion’ of the economy interact with society to constrain what it is possible to achieve. In the absence of this underpinning it becomes unclear what the goal of progressive politics is, and ends up being a justification for the ‘third way’ approach of Clinton and Blair.

Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso, London, 2014)

Review: Capitalizing on Crisis

This is a technically complex work of sociology unpicking and analysing trends in US society, economy, and politics over the course of forty years from the 1960s to the 2000s.

Krippner’s basic thesis is that successive policy decisions over the course of this period, each in response to immediate challenges, have ‘financialised’ the US economy. In other words, have shifted the focus of profit making from investment in productive activity to the ownership and exchange of financial instruments. Even major industrial companies come to make significant portions of their profit from activity in the financial market. This shift has significant implications for how the economy is managed, and the location of future crises.

Krippner demonstrates this through a detailed analysis of economic data and a systematic review of policy shifts during this period. Although this is somewhat dry in places the case is convincing. She defines three separate phases. First the deregulation of the domestic financial market as an attempt to get to grips with the social crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, offering policymakers a ‘reprieve from difficult political choices’. Second the response to the fiscal crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s with growing government deficits which altered the relationship between the domestic and global markets driving a ‘dramatic expansion of credit in the US economy’. Finally on the realisation relying on market mechanisms offered in fact very little restraint on consumers, corporations, or governments how approaches to monetary policy developed incrementally in the period up to 2001 to control the demand for credit through interest rates (as opposed to regulation of the supply).

Although the book was first published in 2011, Krippner stops short of the 2007-9 financial crisis, indicating in the introduction that she considers this to represent a separate stage of development that requires a separated analysis. That said it is clear that the ‘depoliticisation’ of economic decision making that Krippner outlines is a significant factor underpinning the later crisis. As Krippner explains, in making this change the expectation had been that the market would impose a discipline on economic behaviour that political actors were unwilling to do. In fact this has turned out not to be the case at all. The market has promoted and validated a lack of restraint particularly in relation to credit which has left us more exposed than ever to the risk of financial crisis.

Although this is not Krippner’s intention, her analysis is a neat fit for the Marxist view of the long term tendency of the rate of profit to decline (see writers such as Robert Brenner and Michael Roberts). The declining profit possible in productive industry leads to speculation in what Marx called ‘fictitious capital’. This growing financialisation becoming increasing unstable and leading inexorably to crisis. The picture here is one that provides a deep-seated explanation for the financial crisis of 2007-9.

So this is a fascinating book with many implications for further analysis. If a touch dry in places, it is detailed, well researched, and a thought provoking discussion of what underpins the modern economy.

Krippner, Greta Capitalizing on Crisis (Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2012)

Review: How Will Capitalism End?

Wolfgang Streeck may not in fact answer the question that he poses in the title of this book, but it is still a superb read.

How Will Capitalism End” consists of a set of essays and speeches from the German sociologist published previously in New Left Review (and elsewhere) and organised around the theme of the challenges to capitalism. Each is a thoughtful and valuable contribution to the analysis of modern capitalist, it’s impact on society, politics, and environment, and what our options for the future might be.

The opening essay sets the tone. It poses the suggestion that capitalism has so successfully eliminated all opposition to it’s conquest of politics and society that it’s destructive nature now has free rein without constraint from organised labour or political control. The end result will be the long slow death of capitalism’s ability to deliver for the majority of its inhabitants, without the prospect of its replacement by a different system which can pick up the baton as Marx originally envisaged.

The remaining essays work around similar themes. The emphasis is on the impact of the neoliberal project to disconnect the management of the economy from political and social control. This can be seen in Streeck’s characterisation of the changing nature of the state leading towards the current “consolidation” state where having passed successively through private debt then public debt stages now exists to ensure that we reliably meet our obligations to asset holders.

Another theme of Streeck is the divide between social rights and free markets. Where the democratic state prioritises providing public services for its citizens identified through elections. By contrast the “consolidation” state prioritises the contractual claims of creditors and the servicing of debt. The tension between these two has been a major driver for social and political change since the second world war.

This is a thought provoking and very readable set of essays which should be of interest to anyone who doesn’t accept the orthodox economist world view.

Streeck, Wolfgang How Will Capitalism End? (Verso, London, 2016)

Marx and the state

I wrote about some of the tactical points brought out in the articles in the third volume of Marx’s political writing published by Verso in an earlier post. The other important work of Marx’s in this book is “The Civil War in France” where he analyses the Paris Commune, Europe’s most significant revolutionary event since 1848. The seizure of power by the Paris workers prompts Marx to think about the nature of the state, the impact of its seizure by the working class, and the nature of state power after the revolution.

For Marx the structure of the state is inherently connected to the nature of the economic system on which it is based. So in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” he says:

“…the various states… have this in common, they all stand on the ground of modern bourgeois society although the degree of capitalist development varies.”

(Marx 2010, p. 355)

And in “The Civil War in France”:

“[the state’s] political character changed simultaneously with the economic changes of society.”

(Marx 2010, p. 207)

However Marx’s attitude to this capitalist state seems deeply ambiguous. On the one hand while Marx portrays the make up of the state as being broadly determined by developments in the wider society and economy, he also gives the impression that it is separate from it with an element of independence. It is not simply the tool of the ruling class. Characterising the state of the French late Second Empire he says:

“it was the only form of government possible when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation.”

(Marx 2010, p. 208)

In other words implying that it is an independent ruling entity dominated by a ruling class perhaps, but not an organic part of that ruling class. It is therefore a mechanism that the working class could perhaps take over and operate for its own purposes.

On the other hand, he is clear that the state is something that must be overcome by the revolution and is not simply a set of mechanical levers that can be taken over and operated by the working class:

“…the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”

(Marx 2010, p. 206)

And of the specific progression of the Second Empire:

“the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of class despotism.”

(Marx 2010, p. 207)

Marx outlines how the Paris Commune represents a clear break and a separate form to the bourgeois state of the Second Empire. A “working body” where the representatives were revocable and paid workers’ wages and supported by a National Guard of the people rather than a professional army. By constituting a new structure outside the existing state the Commune represented an opportunity for truly revolutionary change.

“It was essentially a working class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”

(Marx 2010, p. 212)

“The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule.”

 

(Marx 2010, p. 212)

Here Marx seems to be saying that the state is not an independent entity to be taken over by the working class movement and used for its own purposes. Instead the existing state is inextricably linked to the domination of the capitalist class, and therefore rather to be wholly overthrown and replaced by a new and separate structure.

This is crucially important for deciding the strategy of a movement aiming at the fundamental transformation of society. Should it work within the existing ‘rules of the game’ or seek to subvert them? In “The Civil War in France” Marx is writing about a specific contemporary event rather than outlining theory and this obviously colours his approach, but well worth studying for all that.

Marx, Karl The First International and After (Verso, London, 2010)

Thoughts on Marx and tactics

The final book in the three volume collection of Marx’s ‘political’ writings “The First International and After” covers the later period from the First International onward. It contains pamphlets and articles written for the International, letters and a range of other short documents and journalistic work. They show Marx grappling with the tactical issues of the day, many of which remain relevant, in particular on the relationship of different ‘progressive’ groupings in the state and politics.

The English Trades Unions formed a significant part of the International, and yet in the “Inaugural Address” Marx is clear that it is not sufficient to simply pursue the short term interest of the working class within the existing system through improvements in working hours and wages. These are ‘economic’ goals which are important, but should be subordinate to the movement’s longer term goals.

To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes.

(Marx 2010, p.80).

In other words revolution – a fundamental change to the system – remains the overarching goal of any genuine movement of the left. Marx makes a similar point from a different angle when discussing the co-operative movement in the “Instructions for Delegates to the Geneva Congress”. Co-operative production allows workers to begin developing economic mechanisms which undermine the root of capitalism.

We recommend to the working men to embark in cooperative production rather than in cooperative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork.

(Marx 2010, p.90)

In other words overturning the system is the key aim of the working class movement, and that requires both economic and political action with a focus on the long term.

This isn’t the whole story though. Later in the same “Instructions for Delegates to the Geneva Congress” Marx proposes a specific programme starting with a demand for limitations on the working day. So Marx is maintaining both a general overall strategy (the importance of political revolution as the ultimate goal) along with a specific tactical programme for immediate action (improving the lives of workers through ‘economic’ measures).

The “Prussian Military Question” similarly focuses on the tactical position of the German workers, whether to support the bourgeois parties in opposition to the aristocratic and feudal state over the issue of changes to military service.

It is in the interests of the workers, therefore, to support the bourgeoisie in its struggle against all reactionary elements, on condition that it remain true to itself.

(Marx 2010, p.144)

The workers can form tactical alliances to pursue short term goals, but must retain a focus on its long term interest – the overthrow of capitalism itself.

Marx indicates a similar dual role for Trades Unions as part of the movement. Rather than viewing Trades Unions as focused primarily on the economic or ‘tactical’ and working within the existing system, Marx points out that they fight both the immediate struggle and have a role in preparing the ground for fundamental change.

If the trades unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wage labour and capital rule.

(Marx 2010, p.91)

However at present, the unions are “too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital” (Marx 2010, p.91).

It is interesting for thinking about this combination of short term and long term goals for the movement that Marx characterises England as being ready economically for revolution, but needing a truly revolutionary movement to take advantage of it (something it hasn’t managed to do in the years since either).

The English have all that is needed materially for social revolution. What they lack is the sense of generalization and revolutionary passion.

(Marx 2010, p.116)

This implies that Marx certainly did not believe that the revolution would happen ‘naturally’ as working class consciousness developed. In other words there is no historically determined inevitability to the revolution, ‘reformism’ is a blind alley. In pursuing short term goals, the left must keep the long term vision in mind, still something that it seems to struggle with (in Britain at least) where working within the system too often seems to have led to a failure to pursue substantive change.

Marx, Karl The First International and After (Verso, London, 2010)

Corbyn and the crowd

In “Crowds and Party” Jodi Dean unpicks the nature of individualism and the impact of crowds in modern ‘communicative’ capitalism. I’ve written briefly about individualism in an earlier post and here I want to make a brief additional note about what Dean writes about crowds, and in particular draw a link from that to the recent British general election campaign.

Dean takes a psychoanalytical approach to understanding crowds using the work of Freud and Lacan among others. The key point here is that a crowd can create a rupture in the status quo. A point through which it is possible to see that things might be different than how they are now. Crowds are able to force a gap which can be held open and form a focus for politics – and a radical party of the left can keep that gap open and use the energy of the crowd to drive for systemic change.

The Labour Party campaign during the recent general election was certainly based on large rallies which brought together crowds of supporters. This was in marked contrast to Conservative Party events held in anonymous hangars to prevent anyone not invited from gaining access. These Labour events were visibly full of energy and passion. Corbyn is a strong speaker to a crowd, and the result was a sense of momentum and enthusiasm not seen in British politics for a while.

Add to this the decline in the influence of the traditional print and television media dependent on the party press office machinery, and the increasing influence of social media and the ‘peer to peer’ spread of news, and the ‘crowd’ seems to have had a profound effect. It created an opening for the prevailing view on the necessity of ‘austerity’ to be challenged. Unforeseen by most media commentators, the Labour Party was able to use this moment to secure a better election result than expected. More importantly they have changed the terms of debate. The Conservatives may have won formally, but they are now having to bend their government to the issues mobilised during the campaign.

In other words, what we are seeing now with Jeremy Corbyn is something which might be thought of as approaching an Event in the sense used by Alain Badiou – a concept also touched on by Dean briefly. The question now would seem to be whether beyond the confines of the election campaign Corbyn and Labour can keep the gap opened by the intrusion of the crowd open in the way described by Dean, and drive home the progressive shift it has started.

Dean, Jodi Crowds and Party (Verso, London, 2016)