Rethinking Communism for the 21st Century
With the increasing realisation that capitalism cannot solve the world’s problems, there has been a resurgence of interest in the concepts of justice, equality and, yes, even the taboo one of ‘communism’. With books like The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists by Daniel Dorling we are seeing more and more intellectuals questioning the basis of the present system. In 2009 over 1000 people came together in London to attend a sell-out conference on “The Idea of Communism”.
The title of Prof. Swyngedouw’s recent paper published in the radical geography magazine, Antipode, is perhaps a little off-putting: The Communist hypothesis and revolutionary capitalisms: exploring the idea of communist geographies for the twenty-first century. It is an academic paper and not intended for a wider audience. However, what is surprising and significant is that here we have a mainstream academic – a professor of geography at Manchester University - calling for a revival of the “communist idea”.
His paper begins with the words: ‘This essay starts from the presumption that “the communist hypothesis” is still a good one…’ He goes on to argue that ‘the idea of communism requires urgent rethinking in the light of both the “obscure” disaster of twentieth century really existing socialism and the specific conditions of twenty-first century capitalism.’
Like fellow iconoclastic academic, Slavoj Zizek, he argues that we need to look again at the idea of a communist society as a viable alternative to a capitalism that is intellectually as well as in practice bankrupt. He agreed to explain the ideas underlying his paper to Morning Star readers.
He says that the persistent outlawing of the name “communism” and its erasure from the pages of self-respecting journals over the past two decades has been so effective that even its utterance is looked upon with suspicion and distrust.
So why has he decided to utter it at this time?
He says that since the student rebellions of 1968 even the study of geography became radicalised and more academics realised that politics and economics also take place in specific geographical contexts and couldn’t be ignored.
‘In an age in which anything and everything can be discussed,’ he says ‘the very idea of communism as a positive injunction seems to have been censored and scripted out of both everyday and intellectual vocabularies. It is only tolerated in sensationalised accounts of the “obscure disaster” of twentieth century “really existing socialism”, or in romanticised Hollywood renditions of communist heroes like Che Guevara.’ He talks about the “obscure” disaster of 20th century communism because, he argues, the neo-liberals have only condemned it in its totality, as a dystopia, and the left hasn’t undertaken a proper critique of the experience. Although we have to learn from that experience, he is adamant that we have to completely rethink the concept of communism in the light of the profound changes that have taken place in capitalism itself and the imminent threats to our environment and indeed life itself.
What does “communism” signify for him, I want to know?
Swyngedouw sees equality and democracy as the central concepts that define communism; communism without them is a contradiction in terms. He argues that these principles can only be achieved through self-organisation and self-management. He sees no roles for a coercive state or a ‘leading’ party.
He argues, perhaps controversially, ‘that the key markers of twentieth century communist politics – state, party and proletariat – require a radical reworking. I would insist,’ he says, ‘that neither state nor the party are any longer of use to think the communist hypothesis.’ He doesn’t deny that the state and political parties have roles to play, but they cannot be the main actors or means to achieving communism he insists.
‘The idea of communism retains a subversive edge,’ he notes, ‘and in spite of the failed experiments it still evokes the idea that a different world is not only imaginable but is also practically possible. But it must be a communism that is egalitarian and allows the self-development of each, and then it will retain its great mobilising potential. To work towards such a goal, political organisation needs to be rethought.’
So how can we rethink communism for the twenty-first century, I ask?
‘The communist idea is nothing,’ he says, ‘without the will to do something new, without the will to become political subject ie as an individual acting upon and transforming our environment. The majority of people,’ he argues, ‘are unhappy with the present situation and want change, but are not sure how to go about achieving the changes they desire, because they are told over and over again that capitalist neo-liberalism is the only option.’
‘While we need to come to terms with the disaster of twentieth century communism, it is also necessary,’ he emphasises, ‘to undertake a critique of the repressive state capitalism in “the West”. Capitalism,’ he says, ‘reinvented itself in the seventies and recaptured the imagination of the majority – capitalism could deliver material wealth and well-being. Many lost hope; there was no political controversy and neo-liberalism appeared to be the only show in town. Conservative restraint was replaced by the imperative to enjoy. Liberation was experienced as the search for surplus value as well as surplus enjoyment. Political equality faded as a central concern; demands for equality became defined as the equality of difference, and justice became the right to enjoy one’s own individual freedom. Democracy itself became synonymous with the freedom to exercise individual choice, and consuming became the highest freedom; market equality replacing political equality.’
He maintains that neo-liberalism also ‘wiped out working class politics’. The triumph of neo-liberalism represented ruling class victory. This victory has also been accompanied by the tactics of de-politicisation of the people with the media now so concentrated and providing a basic fare of triviality and non-political gossip alongside the cultivation of fear.
He quotes Marx on the domination of capitalism by the financial sector and argues that capitalism’s resurgence is closely connected with the geographical transfer of basic exploitation to regions like SE Asia, but also the privatisation of the environment, water, gene pools, minerals and intellectual property. However, with the recent collapse of the banking system the whole edifice of capitalism was threatened with collapse. Only unprecedented state intervention, characterised by Newsweek as: ‘we are all socialists now’ has temporarily saved it.
‘In the final decades of the twentieth century industrial labour lost its hegemony in the “North” and,’ he says, ‘in its stead “immaterial labour” emerged, ie labour that creates immaterial “wares” like knowledge, information software, communication resources etc. Industrial labour has been transferred elsewhere, and it is there where new industrial (class) struggles are emerging and will intensify. In the global “North” new forms of struggle will and are emerging which do not revolve around ownership of the means of production but directly around the ownership of the products of this immaterial labour, as we have seen in the battles over free downloads and access to internet resources.’
He doesn’t see democracy – as so often narrowly defined in the West, as a set of political institutions and their associated political procedures, such as ‘free’ elections – as the solution, but argues that it must be a democracy that involves everyone participating in society on an equal basis. Equality, he stresses, is the very premise on which a democratic politics has to be based. However, he stresses, political democracy is not about expressing demands to an elite to rectify injustice, but in conquering freedom and equality for ourselves. For Swyngedouw this means that the ‘place of power is kept structurally vacant’ ie power remains with the people and is not vested in or ‘handed over’ to some representative body or individual. He envisions a situation where the state is replaced by self-organisation and self-management. He says the very name of communism invokes the egalitarian concept of ‘being in common’ and this includes the idea of the ‘commons’ ie that all natural resources, including land, and indeed life itself, belongs to us collectively and should be collectively stewarded. We need to think beyond resistance towards transformation. He sees the communist idea as a transformation of the commons. This, of course, raises vital questions of property relations in respect to common resources.
‘The key task,’ he finally underlines ‘is to rethink communism again and this will require serious debate about what an equal, free and self-organising being-in-common for the twenty-first century might be all about. It will, he argues, ‘require a restoration of trust in our theories, a courageous engagement with painful histories and geographies, and, above all, abandoning the fear of failing again…There is no alternative!’, he stresses adamantly.
Prof. Swyngedouw’s essay is also available in the book: The Point is to Change It, edited by Castree N., Chatterton P., Heynen N., Larner W. and Wright M.W. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).