What Chance for Progress in 2012?
The Year 2012 will be one of continued crisis and severe hardship for the many. Despite a virtual implosion of global capitalism, the left and progressive forces nowhere seem able to mount a serious challenge, never mind topple the rotten system which also becomes ever more capable of fragmenting, integrating or redirecting whatever opposes or challenges it.
The arguments for a non-capitalist form of society are ever more pressing and increasingly obvious. However, without a party or organisation strong and magnetic enough to give focus and leadership, this awareness will not be translated into meaningful action, despite the many welcome and heroic city square occupations, demonstrations and pickets outside banks.
Most would agree that some sort of radical change of the present bandit capitalism is necessary if humanity is to progress and flourish. Facing environmental catastrophe, widespread poverty and inequality, increasing unemployment, crises in our healthcare and education systems, lack of adequate pensions, a severe housing deficit and rising crime levels, few could argue that the present system is fulfilling society’s needs or that it offers a stable future. Such a crisis in the past would have spurred an enormous development of the left, but this is not happening. Trade unions remain on the defensive almost everywhere and working people, by and large, appear to acquiesce to the blackmail of economic crisis and budget deficits. Most of the new social movements reject organisation, ideology and politics as they have known them in the past and as they present themselves today. While we need new thinking, it cannot be reduced to ‘revolution via the internet plus blogging and tweeting…a refusal of politics, the demand for power from below, a revolution without the seizure of power may contain partial truths, but runs the risk of becoming merely a fossilized subculture,’ as the recently deceased Italian communist Lucio Magri wrote.
Why has this profound crisis not produced a resurgence of the left? The answers are complex, but there are undoubtedly a number of central ones.
Marx and Engels clearly saw that outmoded productive forces would become fetters on the development of more advanced production relations, and that has become more obvious than ever, but it hasn’t led (as the two predicted) to the overthrow of the old relationship; we have not witnessed a growing proletariat with increasing class consciousness challenging the status quo. In fact, in the western world, the industrial productive forces (as described by Marx) are becoming increasingly less significant numerically and socially, and their contribution to GDP has also diminished. Relations of production are now more fragmented, less cohesive or socially significant than ever. We have also seen a profound set-back in the development of class consciousness – avidly promoted over the years by the media. Our society today is more fragmented than ever, on the social, cultural and political levels. Certainly class and class interests are no longer as clear or black and white as they were decades ago. For the left to bang on about the ‘working class’ as if nothing had changed since the height of 19th century capitalism, is a refusal to recognise this new reality.
The Political Map has changed
The role of the mainstream political parties has changed too. They no longer clearly represent different class interests in society, but have become self-perpetuating and self-selecting elites content to argue over which one can best manage the same system. None has a mass membership base any longer, or strong local parties that truly represent their populations; there dwindling memberships are also ageing. They have become electoral machines geared to the reproduction of governing castes and turning out their dwindling votes once every few years.
The overwhelming majority of the population has become so disillusioned with politics as a whole that it has switched off. This is a dangerous situation, because the political elite will continue to govern and make policy, with or without popular mandate. Already in the highly developed north we have seen how an increasing rejection of politics can open the way to a spiral of revolt and repression (viz. the recent riots). The concentration of social injustice in marginalised sectors and zones has also made social conflict less unified and transparent and has removed the cohesiveness of organised masses that for decades breathed life into political democracy. This runs parallel with a wider ideological crisis linked to general social attitudes, the decline of mass parties as activist organisations capable of unifying and mobilising interests and behaviour in a common culture or project.
But worldwide, despite an impending environmental catastrophe, a system in chaos and leaderships in denial, most people are continuing their daily lives as if little has changed. Of course there are continual protests, but like the recent ‘anti-capitalist’ occupation movement, they are undertaken by smallish groups that have been able to galvanise much public sympathy, but this has not led to an expansion of the movement itself. The big exceptions have been, of course, the heroic uprisings in the Arab world.
Within this whole debate we can’t ignore the key role of the media. Their role has become key in moulding consciousness, and in counteracting and negating a class consciousness developed in daily work and social relationships. What is also new is the leap in the manipulative power of these media and their close inter-relationship with the major centres of economic power. They are continually reshaping the common sense of the times, moulding cultures, lifestyles and values, especially among the subaltern sections of society. This lends public opinion a confused and indecisive character and leads to political apathy. Education itself is being supplanted by fast-moving mass media and their message of passivity.
What role for the Labour Party and Trade Unions?
The Labour Party was created by the unions in 1900 in order to ensure working people had adequate representation in parliament. We don’t have to go into details of Labour Party history to argue that, today, it can hardly be said to represent those interests any longer. The fact that parliament itself has also become a largely impotent force in the context of our globalised economy and the power of the banks and multinationals means that the representatives we elect to sit there have little power. Traditional parties are, today, characterised by a less representative and ageing membership. A conception of the party as the exclusive locus and instrument of politics is no longer valid. The political system as a whole has entered a new crisis and impotence as the role of nation states has declined and spawned institutions divorced from democratic input
The trade unions and the left in general, today, have to look beyond parliamentary representation if they wish to promote a shift towards implementing policies and changes in society commensurate with the needs and goals of their members and constituents. Those needs and goals can no longer be channelled or indeed implemented through the sort of political party we have traditionally assumed represented working people, and certainly not through an impotent parliament. There is also a general ossification in the organisational forms of the workers’ movement. Traditional forms of organisation and methods of waging the struggle for better pay and working conditions are no longer effective, particularly within the context of the complex legal restrictions on workers’ rights. Working people now find themselves in a losing battle to defend things like public services, pensions, job security as well as living wage levels that most of us thought had been won for good. The present functioning of the economic system has proved incompatible with long-standing social gains, a universal welfare system, stable full employment and elements of participatory democracy in the most advanced societies.
A secure future for working people will depend less than in the past on trade unions, but more on a defined and clear political project and on forging instruments that directly impact on the structure of the state, the economy, technological strategies and educational apparatuses. Trade unions, in the past could rely on the power of a collective labour force, but that is no longer the case, due to a fragmentation of workplaces and workforces, increased mobility of labour and the instability and temporality of the work-place itself. These factors are continually subtracting from the vanguards, i.e. working class grass-roots organisations and leaderships are continually being dismantled or destroyed.
It is today perfectly feasible to reduce the hours of the working day and thus create more jobs and provide people with more leisure time, but who’s making the demand? Unions and the left need to look beyond the horizon of paid work; without free time, paid work becomes a hollow and frustrating state of restlessness.
The political institutions of capitalism in the present post-industrial phase have also changed. Parliament once formed the nerve centre of decision-making, the instrument of powerful hegemony, but has now become an empty ritualised instrument for rubber-stamping what has already happened, a mediation and administrative support for a power that exists elsewhere, in the citadels of finance and transnational corporations.
A party of unity and concensus
Today we have a whole range of organisations independently pursuing aims of social change, but each alone is weak and incapable of forcing through such change, yet there is little consciousness of the need, nor willingness to attempt, to focus on those goals through closer co-operation with others. A strong party of the left could perform that role, but it could only do so by reconstituting itself in a different way, sloughing off much out-dated traditional thinking and party political baggage.
Such a party, even more so today, would need to work openly inside the various progressive organisations, but at the same time recognising the other’s autonomy; the party would need to engage with them, not just ‘represent’ them. It would have to become a unifying force, an agent and organiser of society, whose role is to promote struggle and stimulate intellectual and moral reform. In the past, in many countries, the Communist Party played such a role and could still do so.
It would have to work with and through these many organisations, whether they be environmental, trade union, feminist, racial or social, not to impose its own ideology, but to listen and learn, to offer organising and ideological advice, to help promote consensus and effective action, to invigorate new generations of activists and the concerned to take political action together as the only means of challenging the present hegemony of big finance and corporate power.
The chronic effects of short-termism
The very nature of capitalism (and this includes the subservient governments administering the political system) means that the necessary long-term decisions are not being made; everything is based on short-termism. This includes not only decision-making on a factory or organisational level but at the highest levels too. This is reflected in the prevailing model of consumption and the extreme concentration of powers in research planning, technology and growth strategies, which is in the hands of decision-making centres remote from the regions and populations affected by them. They are controlled by the companies and organisations whose priorities are short-term profit rather than social good. Reality shows that the choices of investment and location are not taking us in the direction we need to go if humanity’s survival is to be guaranteed.
The environmental question offers good ground on which a communist project could base its critique of the system and could also provide a momentum to transform and qualitatively enrich that critique, taking it beyond economistic or utopian ways of thinking. The environmental question needs a communist project and organisational form to unite the many different social subjects and interests, to identify the real roots of the problems and to assert a power capable of addressing them as a whole as well as helping to change people’s minds.
Some growing social needs are of unquestionable importance - healthcare, education and urban planning – and can only be properly satisfied in the form of collective production and consumption. This is why government attempts to privatise these services at the behest of the big conglomerates, is leading to such chaos and seriously deficient services. The present attacks on the welfare state, benefits and pensions are reversing years of achievements won in struggle, and annulling post-war consensus politics. Despite strikes and vigorous campaigns the unions have this time been incapable of reversing the process.
The great historical merit of capitalism has been precisely its ability to channel much of the surplus product into accumulation; this made it possible to accelerate the development of productive forces. But the history of capitalism has not been one of ever widening prosperity; indeed it has led, in many parts of the world, to forms of inequality and more brutal and widespread exploitation than before. We have seen how capitalism has led to the growth of mega-cities with sprawling suburbs in the less developed countries, we’re also seeing a ghettoisation of city centres in the developed north, both leading to a chaotic degradation of life.
To view all these pressing social issues as manageable with a reformed or recuperated capitalism or capable of being addressed by means of welfare and aid, is to misunderstand the depth of the crisis and the underlying, deep fracture in the system. However, on an ‘ultra-modern’ terrain there is a possibility of reviving communist thinking and struggle. There is an organic link between the large mass of the marginalised and impoverished and the traditional workers’ movement and new sectors emerging from the qualitative contradictions of post-industrialism.
At the peak of capitalist development, the workers’ movement found favourable terrain for its struggles and managed to wring important concessions from the capitalists. That is now changing for the worse. Prosperity is diminishing and inequality is increasing. On a world scale the gap in living conditions has widened inexorably between north and south. In the highly developed world income differentials are widening again after a period of narrowing, and a significant fringe of society is once again falling beneath acceptable thresholds of minimum existence. The less industrialised south is now largely trapped between the pressures of increasing population and the break up of traditional forms of self-sufficiency; its economies are spiralling downward to below subsistence level. The region is over-burdened with foreign debt and its environments have been degraded. The present forms of injustice and new poverty are expressed in the less developed world particularly as a cumulative process of marginalisation creating a broad social stratum without hope and being pushed towards degenerate cultural forms (e.g. fundamentalist fanaticism or racial conflict and barbarism).
Does the Chinese model offer a lesson?
Finally, in this whole context the Chinese experience is illuminating. Faced with the implosion of the socialist world, after 1989, China realised that capitalism was the only show on the road, but its inherent contradictions and solely market-oriented strategies were incompatible with its population size and largely rural population. So what has arisen (something never envisaged in either Marxist or capitalist thinking) is a country led by a Communist Party with centralised planning and strict regulatory mechanisms overseeing a mixed, but largely capitalist economy. This has enabled the country to attract foreign investments and to rapidly industrialise; its population has experienced rising living standards and a broad satisfaction of consumer demand. It has meant that the ruling party has been able to direct, monitor and adjust investments and infra-structure projects, tightly control its own banking system and set the country's priorities with little outside interference. Of course, this transformation has not been a smooth one or without its problems – there is an increasing gulf between a small elite of super-rich and a mass of still relatively poor workers; there has been environmental degradation on a massive scale and there is still widespread corruption and restricted democratic freedoms. But it appears to be working better, in terms of stability, than the capitalist world elsewhere. Can this model be sustained? Is it one to emulate? It is undoubtedly too early to answer those questions, but it deserves a more intense scrutiny. Japan, too, has a system without political alternation, resting on a committee of all the country’s major economic powers, it also has, like China, a high degree of conformism among the mass of the people. Its economy, despite recent environmental catastrophes and the world economic crisis also appears to be weathering the storm.
(This article owes a great debt to the writing of the lately deceased Italian communist Lucio Magri, whose historical reflections in his book ‘The Tailor of Ulm’ is a great source of ideas for the left)