The Financial Crisis: Notes on Alternatives
The Bullet, Socialist Project (Canada)
November 24, 2008
Over the last quarter century, the left in most of the developed world has been marginalized as a social force. The 'culture of possibilities' for left alternatives has correspondingly narrowed. But historic changes, above all the discrediting of neoliberalism, hold out the potential of at long last reversing that earlier defeat. With the continuing financial turmoil and the global economy about to enter the worst downturn since the great depression, the desperate need
for alternatives is clear enough; the question is whether we can develop the capacity to once again be a relevant social actor.
To this point, this opening for the left has been primarily polemical. Its true of course that in the recent elections, politicians - in Canada no less than in the U.S. - continued to insist on their allegiance to lower taxes and to run from significant redistributions in income, let alone wealth or power. In the U.S., an affirmation of American patriotism remains the condition for raising even moderate criticisms of foreign policy. But neoliberal ideology is reeling and the delegitimation of freer markets as the solution to everything has already made the right more defensive on economic issues than it has been for a generation. They can no longer get away with calling for the freeing of corporations and financial institutions from regulation to 'unleash the creativity of markets,' or rejecting out of hand state involvement to address social needs.
Moreover, the depth and global scope of the downturn will leave the state with little choice but to introduce massive public expenditures. Working families, experiencing the frightening erosion of their effective savings - their pensions and home values - have already started to cut back on consumption in order to rebuild some future security. Private investors, seeing few opportunities and reacting with caution and uncertainty toward the future, are not investing. For the immediate future, neither private incentives nor freer markets, neither the easy hand of more credit nor the promise of more exports, will end the news of failing companies and rising unemployment. Only public investment has a chance of leading an economic revival.
All this is important to account for: it may even mark the end of an era. Yet, we need to be sober about how far the crisis and responses to its can, in themselves, take us. Even if the rhetoric and some of the practices of neoliberalism are modified, a good deal of the structures, power, and logic of that earlier period remain firmly in place. Globalization and free trade are not going away. The recent G-20 meeting accomplished little, but it did confirm a commitment among the participating states to avoid 'protectionism.' Barring a complete breakdown, finance will certainly have a new institutional look, but the new regulations will serve to revive and strengthen the role of a smaller number of larger private banks domestically and internationally.
Nor is the intensified competition and restructuring that has destroyed jobs and undermined workers' confidence going away. The pressures on autoworkers, for example, are about to get worse and structural adjustment programs in the third world - though they may now be more contested - will continue. And while the subprime crisis had to some support against
foreclosures, this remains narrowly separated from the roots of the problem in decades of wage restraint, poverty and the refusal to make housing into a right rather than a commodity.
As for the American state, it has certainly lost some of its sheen. But here, too, the reality is not an imminent end to the American empire and reversal of its postwar leadership role. The centrality of the American state continues: no other state can (or even wishes to) replace the U.S.; the crisis has reconfirmed the world's dependence on the U.S. financial system; and the resolution of this now international crisis rests fundamentally on the actions of the American state in leading a more or less coordinated response. Thinking About Alternatives
In trying to come to grips with what needs to be done, it is useful to begin by acknowledging our limited capacities at this time. We can challenge some of the details surrounding the resolution to the financial crisis, but we can't play much of a role in solving that crisis; our focus must be elsewhere. Abstract calls for 're-regulation,' with their assumption that states and markets stand in opposition to each other, can further confuse rather than politicize those we're trying to mobilize. As the most recent state interventions make clear, given the current balance of social forces, regulation is about finding a technical way to preserve markets in the face of their volatility, not about any fundamental reordering of relative power in society to conform to social needs. Even where the government's involvement has allowed particular capitalists to fail, the content of state intervention has revolved around reconstituting and thereby preserving, the power of financial capitalists as a class.
Similarly, looking for the answer in some broader return to the good, old, pre-neoliberal days misunderstands the connection between then and now. Neoliberalism was a response to the unsustainability of the earlier period. The crisis of the 1970s was rooted in working class pressures on corporate profits, which led corporations to slow down their investment and
threaten to shift capital abroad. At the time, some sections of the left presciently saw that the options were polarized: if there wasn't greater control over banks and corporations, along with a move towards democratic planning, then workers would be crushed in order to restore corporate power and profits - as they in fact were. To go back to that earlier period would therefore only reintroduce the previous conflict, and restore its underlying question: whether corporate power would be restored to solve the crisis, or whether a fight could be made for a democratic alternative.
There is another factor that must be integrated into our thinking about alternatives: the extent to which the working class has been integrated into financial markets. After the 1970s, with wages held down, workers of necessity turned more and more to credit as the form through which they accessed consumption. As well, they looked to a rising stock market to boost their pension funds, and those with homes cheered rising house prices because the increase in their wealth reduced the need for savings and so allowed greater consumption. In terms of class formation, this further fragmented the working class; while the struggle for wages and public
benefits depended on and built class solidarity, looking to credit (and lower taxes) to sustain their private lives led to an atrophy of collective capacities. In the current crisis, the implications of that relationship to financial markets became all too clear: in spite of popular anger over the bailout of Wall Street, there was in the end a general - if reluctant - acceptance of the bailout's necessity to 'save the system' they had become dependent on.
No less important in undermining the working class as an oppositional force is the stratification that developed over the past three decades inside the working class. That internal inequality has tended to cause resentment and divisions from both those who
seemed to be doing relatively well and those marginalized. The former were more easily isolated when corporations demanded concessions since even with concessions they would still be ahead of most workers; the latter were often blamed as the cause of rising taxes on those working hard to support those who were not.
The strategic question we now face might be restated as follows. All alternatives must begin with people's needs, but can we also structure our responses so they strengthen the capacity of the working class to act independently of the logic of capitalism, while also restricting to at least some degree the power of capital? Assuming that the financial crisis does stabilize, there will still be a major recession and a period of slower growth as the aftermath of the crisis 'unwinds.' In that context, two questions will come to the forefront of politics: who will pay for the aftermath of the crisis, and what form will the solutions to reviving the economy (and not just finance) take?
Given the impact of the housing crisis on so many Americans and the extent of the delegitimation of the financial sector, it is rather amazing how little direct resistance has occurred. No marches, no community takeovers of foreclosed homes, no mass expressions of frustration and anger. Since the financial volcano erupted in the midst of election campaigns in the U.S. and Canada, it might have been expected that the electoral process would become a catalyst for widespread discussion of dramatic alternatives, but this too has been remarkably muted. In Canada, one indicator of the popular political malaise is that voter turnout in the recent election was the lowest in a hundred years; this could not be said of the American election yet in putting so much hope in an Obama victory, foreclosure victims waited rather than acted. The first point is therefore that any specific actions in defence of working people's
homes or savings, jobs or social programs, should be actively encouraged and supported.
But what of more general demands we might raise at this potentially radicalizing moment? Three such demands which were raised by the American left in the period preceding the bailout seem to address both popular concerns and hold out the possibility of carrying a larger strategic weight: universal health care (currently being eroded though still very legitimate in Canada), the development of the public pension system, and the building of public infrastructure.
Each of these demands reduces working class dependence on markets and the private sector. In the U.S., universal health care means not losing your benefits if you lose your job and a consequent lessening of the internalized pressure to strengthen 'your' corporation, through concessions if necessary, in order to hang on to your family plan. Public pensions mean less dependence on the returns your pension or mutual fund get from growth in the stock market and security against the increasing trend on the part of corporations to gut union pension plans. Public infrastructure, especially if that includes addressing the environmental crisis, provides jobs and shifts the focus from depending on market incentives to possibly do the right thing, to directly doing it.
But more than that, each of the above reduces private control over our lives - whether that be health insurance companies, the managers of institutional funds, or the corporations that are otherwise expected to drive economic stimulus through further tax breaks and a favourable 'climate' (which generally means less favourable to popular rights). And most important, because of their focus on universal rights and collective needs, such demands tend to overcome the divisions within the working class and contribute to building class unity and solidarity.
A fourth demand, public housing, raises another crucial dimension of universal rights and gets to the contradiction that triggered the financial crisis: policies that kept people in poverty limited their ability to make mortgage payments and this could only be hidden for so long. The answer here is not only to move away from the market as a solution for the poor, but to demonstrate the broader potentials of the public provision of services: can we imagine a kind of housing that in addition to being innovative and affordable includes a new sense of community and relationship to the surrounding city - that is housing that is exemplary of the potentials of public intervention?
As for the ever-present question of who will pay, there's no better place to start than 'make the rich pay', all the more so given the fortunes that were made on the way to the present disaster. This has generally focussed on income taxes, but it should include wealth since it is wealth above all that is so monstrously distributed in both Canada and (especially) the USA. But targeting the rich is not enough. To be effective, the reach of tax increases will also have to extend into the working class, and this will mean challenging populist anti-tax sentiments which reinforce a particular kind of individualism that damages class solidarity and any vision of collective needs (It also undermines basic self-interest in that tax cuts are generally sold on the basis of passing on a few hundred dollars to workers while the bulk of the tax breaks go the rich, and the cutbacks to pay for all this fall heavily on the working class.)
Yet, redistribution alone won't solve the crisis: savings will have to be mobilized to support the major infrastructural programs. This can be financed through government bonds, much as such bonds were mobilized to pay for World War II. In today's case, given the current fear within the business community of investing in anything because of the present uncertainty, it is in fact primarily government bonds that could provide a secure outlet for their money.
Because any such reforms would be attempted in a society that is still capitalist, they would come up against inevitable limits. Growing social programs depend on a growing economy, but if growth depends on the private sector, how can you both challenge and keep private capital at the same time? Won't they refuse to invest if they aren't happy enough or leave the country for greater profitability and freedom elsewhere? In addition to asking why people are in poverty in the first place, innovative housing can't be separated from rethinking the urban spaces the housing is part of (including the need for accessible transportation, especially if the housing is outside city centres).
For social democrats, such contradictions have meant retreating into more moderate demands. This has failed and the lesson is not to lower our expectations but the need to think bigger and prepare to go further. If democracy is a kind of society and not just a form of government, the economy - which is so fundamental to shaping our lives - will eventually have to be democratized. This will have to include nationalizing the banks and turning them into a democratically run public utility that supervises the rest of the financial system and allocates national savings. If domestic or foreign-based capital threatens to move (as they will do earlier rather than later) we must be ready to put capital controls on the agenda. But if we want to channel society's savings to meet social needs - and this is of course the main reason for controlling the social surplus - the controls will have to be on domestic capital flows as well as internationally.
This ultimately raises the question of planning. If, for example, we take the environmental crisis seriously, then it's not enough to tack on some environmental projects to rebuilding the public infrastructure. Addressing the environment will mean transforming everything about what we produce and how we produce it and this can't happen through haphazard market decisions by individual businesses, which are only moved by profits and won't act if they don't know where others will ultimately go). The crisis in auto reinforces this point. A bailout alone, even if it modifies the kinds of vehicles being built, will not overcome the reality of excess capacity. Rather than closing productive facilities, why can't they be converted to produce the new or modified products an environmentally conscious economy will need? As well,
given that auto is generally concentrated in certain communities, the issue is not so much a crisis in auto as a crisis in these communities. In Windsor, for example, where thousands of autoworkers have already been laid off before the latest crisis, what's needed is a revival plan that includes auto, but also extends to public infrastructure and the range of social services that give a richer meaning to the notion of 'community.'
These issues of planning raise all kind of technical and democratic questions that should not be underestimated, but the most important issue it forces us to address is the question of power. The precondition for thinking about social change is that we develop the capacity to transform the distribution of power in our society.
It's in this context of developing individual and collective capacities that the question of work-time, which has faded from lists of working class demands, must somehow be revived. The labour movement has long advocated reduced work time as a way of sharing the better full time jobs and therefore opening up new jobs, or at least preserving existing ones. This can be very important in particular sectors and is also a valuable solidaristic principle. But its greatest
significance lies in another working class perspective that goes back to the earliest days of trade unionism: the recognition that full citizenship and political participation demands the time to do so - the time to read, think, learn, attend meetings and events, debate,
take part in strategizing, and engage in organizing others.
From Alternative Policies to Alternative Politics
There are three final points that need to be emphasized. First, the triad of immediate resistance, developing policies for broader cross-country mobilization, and raising the 'big' questions such as nationalizing the banks, are not to be understood as stages of activity. The point is not to take one step first and another more radical step later but to find ways of trying to integrate all three simultaneously. Local resistance, for example, is part of all stages; its success is both dependent on and a condition for mobilizing around larger national issues. Similarly, it would be a mistake to postpone the call for transforming the private banking system into a democratically run public utility 'until we are ready.' We will only become ready if we place it on the agenda from the very beginning and integrate it into other demands and struggles.
Second, the greatest contradiction confronting 'the movement' today lies in the gap between good ideas and the capacity to fulfil them. The main barrier we face is not so much the absence of alternative policies (though these still need a lot of filling out) as the weakness of our alternative politics. This is not simply about pooling our diverse strength. Rather, it involves recognizing that in light of past failures, a dangerous future and potential new openings, each section of the movement needs to rethink what it does and how it does it as a precondition for coming together in an entirely new way.
Third, it is difficult to imagine an alternative politics that can match what we are up against without an organization whose focus is on building the essential relationships and political capacities across sections of the movement and within them. There should, for example, be hundreds if not thousands of meetings taking place every week across the country to discuss what we currently face and what to do about it. But this simply can't happen spontaneously. How we build this kind of capacity is what the question of 'alternatives' is ultimately about.
Sam Gindin teaches political economy at York
Has Working Class Consciousness Collapsed? The "crisis of the working class subject"
by Phil Hearse
International Viewpoint undated
The crisis of working class representation is a familiar theme in the left internationally, the idea that because of the shift to the right of mass social democratic and Stalinist parties, or because of their collapse, the working class lacks a political force that can defend its interests in the national political domain.
Class consciousness: "The awareness of individuals in a particular social class that they share common interests and a common social situation. Class consciousness is associated with the development of a 'class-for-itself' where individuals within the class unite to pursue their shared interests." --Online Dictionary of Social Sciences
In many countries efforts have been made to create, or begin to create, broad left parties that can begin to resolve this crisis. However the idea of the "crisis of the working class subject" takes the analysis one step further, saying in effect that class consciousness has declined to such a degree that the overwhelming majority of working class people have no consciousness of themselves as part of a class that has its own interests other than those of the ruling class; using Lukacs' distinction the working class is a "class in itself" but no longer a "class for itself". If this is correct of course then it has big implications for socialist analysis and strategy.
We argue here that the idea that the working class is no longer a "class for itself" is an exaggeration, but like most caricatures is based on aspects of reality that socialists have to identify and integrate into their strategy and tactics. Consciousness, especially mass consciousness, is a dynamic factor that is subject to change and sometimes, in periods of crisis, is subject to abrupt shifts. So any attempt to capture and interpret mass working class consciousness is likely to be partial and one-sided. Before we get into the detail of that we have to say something about the changing structure of the working class, in Britain and internationally.
John Major in 1996 argued that "we are all middle class now"--in other words working class living standards have risen to such a degree that the difference with middle class people have become blurred. However Cumbria University academic Phillip Bond has recently argued the precise opposite-- the "middle classes" are being forced into the working class (1).
He argues, "The middle classes are no longer earning a living wage while a new global super class has over $11 trillion in off shore tax havens...Forty years ago a single skilled manual wage was enough to provide a living for a working-class man, his wife and family. Now even a middle-class couple with both partners working can't bring in enough to make ends meet.
"The golden age for the salaried worker across all the OECD countries was between 1945 and 1973, when ordinary working people gained their highest percentage share of GDP. Since then the real wages of the middle and working class have stagnated or fallen, while income for the rich has rocketed and that of the super-rich has hit the stratosphere.
"The facts are astounding. Contrary to the delusions of the free-market fundamentalists, the Thatcher/Reagan revolution has come at a great cost to the working and middle classes. In the US, the top one per cent have seen a 78 per cent increase in their share of national income since 1979 with the bottom 80 per cent of the population experiencing a 15 per cent fall.
"Far from being a tide that raises all boats, neo-liberalism has undermined the wealth and security of the majority of the working population. In Britain for example, the liquid wealth of the bottom half of the populace has fallen from 12 per cent in 1976 to just one per cent in 2003, while the top 0.01 per cent in Britain are taking a larger share of national income than at any time in modern history and have seen their incomes rise by more than 500 per cent in under a generation.
"Wage earners have coped with this structural shift by taking on unprecedented levels of debt, working more and asking their partners to join the workforce. Family life has suffered; children see less of their parents than at any time in the last 100 years and since nobody has any time, civic life has virtually vanished.
"But there are signs that the general population across the globe has had enough of this rampant inequity. According to a recent FT/Harris poll, huge worldwide majorities consider income inequality to be too great. The percentages against this global shift to the rich are remarkably consistent: 87 per cent in Germany consider income inequality to be too great, 76 per cent in Spain agree. Even in Britain 74 per cent of people believe the rich should be taxed more and the poor less. What is most striking is that 80 per cent of the Chinese concur."
While outrage at the excesses of the super rich are important and point to the likelihood of future growth in class consciousness, it is not necessarily an indication of a "class for itself" now. Indeed the very economic and social changes that Phillip Bond points to have been responsible for a decline in class consciousness. In our view the fundamental factors driving this have been:
* The experience of defeat of working class struggles in the 1980s and 1990s, which has undermined confidence in collective action and solutions, and with it greatly reduced trade union membership. In Britain the key turning point was the defeat of the 1984-5 miners strike and the Wapping strike that followed.
* As a result of these defeats and as a consequence of the restructuring of the workforce associated with them, a decline in the percentage of the working class involved in manufacturing, and thus a sharp decline in the number of large, factory-based workplaces with a tradition of working class organisation and their replacement with generally smaller service-based work places.
* In Britain especially, through the semi-destruction of the social housing stock by Margaret Thatcher, forcing people into an immense economic effort to find somewhere to live and forcing people to rely on their own capital, generally in the form of a house, to find resources for their old age.
* As a consequence of these defeats and declining confidence in collective action a general ideological retreat that finds its expression in the "dumbing down" of popular culture and the absurd cult of celebrity and the dreamworld of fame. This aspect is particularly important among young people who are likely to be apolitical and have no experience of trade unions, although there are important counter-examples, most importantly the involvement of young people in the environmental movement.
Where has the working class gone?
The basic answer to this question is: nowhere. The restructuring of production internationally has shifted the focus of manufacturing industry south and east so that China is now the "workshop of the world" and countries like India and Indonesia are increasingly industrialised. But that doesn't mean that the vast majority of the population in countries like Britain aren't working class. The latest available figures of workers by industry in Britain show this, as can be seen from the following table:
Occupation Percentage of the work force
Public administration, education and health 27%
Banking, finance, insurance etc 15%
Distribution, hotels and restaurants 21%
Energy and water 1.5%
Transport and communication 7%
Other services 7%
Source: Nasima Begum, Office for National Statistics: Labour Market Trends
The same study shows that something like 14% of the workforce has some managerial or supervisory role--everything from directors to checkout supervisors.
In each of these categories the overwhelming majority of the workforce are proletarians, ie people whose labour contributes to the production and reproduction of surplus value. But the subjective experience of the working class is now very different to what it was in the 1930s or even the 1960s. The "massification" of the working class has ended, with many people working in smaller work units. In larger workplaces like call centres, the workers are likely to be low paid, highly regimented and un-unionised. Working class organisation depends on struggle and the building up of organisation and consciousness over time. It would be incredible if call centres and the like had emerged fully unionised from the beginning. So the decline in unionisation is striking: from just over 13 million workers in 1979 to just over 6 million today.
But do these people, unionised or not, consider themselves to be working class? According to a survey published by the National Centre for Social Research in January 2007, 57% of people said they considered themselves to be working class, a figure that the Centre itself said was "staggering". In the light of the ideological bombardment through the media telling us we're all middle class, that someone with a mortgage and a car is middle class, 57% is an amazing figure, even if it's down about 10% since the 1960s.
Interestingly the number who consider themselves working class is far in excess of those who work in "blue collar" manual jobs. According to a BBC report of the survey, "...only 31% of people are actually employed in what are categorised as traditional 'blue collar' occupations, according to the survey. The number who consider themselves working class far outstrips this" (2). In other words, large numbers of those who work in call centres, warehouses, banks and hairdressers still consider themselves to be working class, even if they're not in a union.
So it seems that, in Britain at least, the working class still exists as an objective category and that very large numbers of them consider themselves to be working class. But does this amount to a "class for itself". Clearly consciousness of being part of a class is just a spit away from recognising that that class has its own interests but a much bigger step away from finding the means for fighting for those interests.
However two factors need to be taken into account here. First is the economic crisis which is likely to be prolonged. Like all economic crises this is a huge assault on working class living standards and conditions. Probably unemployment will be in the millions within a year or two. Price rises at something over a real figure of 10% for poorer working class families (who spend more of their income on food and energy) are catastrophic for workers whose wage increases have been held at 2% or thereabouts for several years. While growing unemployment is likely to be a disciplining factor it is highly likely that we shall see in the next period a big increase in strike action, particularly in the public sector. Already we've seen important strikes of local government workers and others this year. The likelihood is that trade unionism will grow in this period and not decline, and struggle naturally leads to an increase in levels of class consciousness not their decline.
The second factor, alluded to in the Phillip Bond report quoted above, is the growing anger many ordinary people at the huge disparity between the super-rich and everyone else. Neoliberalism has meant the ascendancy of finance capital and the swiveling of production to priotise high profit luxury goods (3). What ordinary people see is that the super rich are rewarded for incompetence and idiocy and working class people are punished for the mistakes of the rich.
The Northern Rock example is very eloquent. Former chief executive Andy Kuipers who pioneered the "lend money we don't have" business model that led the bank to become bankrupt was given more than £1m in "compensation" for having to go. Northern Rock meanwhile is making 1,300 workers redundant and leads the market in house repossessions for those who are falling behind with their mortgage.
More generally the massive profits of the energy sectors and supermarkets are obvious to everyone as is the fact that the super rich generally pay little or no tax while enjoying luxury lifestyles. An amusing take on this was the popular response of Italian holidaymakers. According to Alexander Chancellor:
"As other people have to tighten their belts, do without luxuries, and scrimp on their holidays, one wonders for how long they will put up with the arrogant ostentation of the super-rich, and when they will start to insist that they take some of the pain as well. There are signs, indeed, that the worm is already beginning to turn. Fat cats arriving in dinghies last week at Sardinia's Emerald Coast were pelted with wet sand by resentful holidaymakers trying to stop them disembarking. The flotilla of celebrities from a luxury yacht moored out at sea was led by Flavio Briatore, co-owner of QPR football club and manager of Renault's formula one team.
"Briatore, accompanied by his new showgirl wife, Elisabetta, who now spends a lot of time shopping in London, had come to inaugurate a new beach restaurant that he recently transformed from a popular bar into a heavily protected retreat for luxury yacht owners and their guests, the daytime equivalent of the nearby Billionaire night club that he also owns. Briatore and his VIP guests arrived in three motorised dinghies to a storm of protest by holidaymakers already crowding the Capriccioli beach. They screamed and swore and shouted, 'Louts, go home.' They drenched them with water from their children's buckets. They hurled wet sand at them." (4)
This little incident is indicative. As the crisis deepens impatience with the super rich and celebrity culture will grow enormously reinforcing a developing class consciousness.
The real issue: strategy and tactics
Nonetheless, anger and resentment, and the possibility of future struggles, do not a "class for itself" make--not necessarily. A huge job has to be done to rebuild working class combativity and organisation, something that will take a whole historical period. What implications does that have for socialists? Tactics are born of overall strategy and since the working class remains the only social force capable of effecting a transition to socialism, its struggles remain at the centre of socialist concerns. However at this time there is a dispersal of fields of struggle, of campaigns and issues that do not necessarily find their focus in the organised working class. But it is not, and cannot be, a question of getting involved in 101 campaigns and "waiting for the working class" to achieve a higher level of organisation and consciousness at a future time. On the contrary both in terms of issues and fields of struggle a working class orientation is immediately relevant.
Let's take first of all the issue of community struggles. Many issues of course present themselves first and foremost as a concern of the local community, for example hospital closures or post office closures. Campaigns on these issues are legion. But the leadership of them is contested or potentially so. Tories and even the BNP frequently involve themselves in these fights or give them demagogic support as a way of attacking New Labour. The answer to this is not just active socialist intervention but linking up with the local labour movement in general and in the first place with the trade unions involved--something that happens spontaneously on many occasions. Building alliances including the unions promotes trade unionism in the wider community.
Moreover taking central political campaigns into the labour movement both strengthens those campaigns and helps politicise and radicalise the movement. The environment is an obvious example here. This is a central political issue that needs the kind of social weight behind it that can only be eventually supplied by the organised working class. Here and now activist groups play a vital role and something like the climate change camps couldn't function without them. For socialists it is a question of forging alliances which centrally involve the labour movement.
Revolutionary socialists are not trade union fetishists and understand full well that a "labour movement orientation" can degenerate into getting labour movement bodies that only activists attend to pass worthy resolutions that have no implications for action. Many campaign activists are sceptical about the labour movement and understandably so. Even so, unions and working class struggle remain central to our long-term strategy and the tactics of alliance building that we pursue today.
Dangers of lumpenisation
Because of the death of social democracy as a force fighting for any kind of reform, sections of the white working class where de-industrialisation has taken place--the so-called "sink estates"--are prone to lumpenisation and the growth of the BNP. Of course the BNP is building a classic fascist alliance involving sections of the petit bourgeoisie as well as luimpensised workers. But key areas of BNP support include areas like Barking and Dagenham, Stoke-on-Trent and towns in the Manchester conurbation that are precisely areas of extreme deprivation with high unemployment, high levels of crime, drug abuse and general despair. It is becoming increasingly obvious that traditional "anti-fascist" activities of the ANL type, while remaining important, will never crack this issue in the long term. Only a rise of working class struggle and the building of a mass working class political alternative can challenge the BNP's attempt to monopolise the political vacuum the collapse of social democracy has left in these areas.
Once again however the left cannot adopt a spontaneist, wait and see attitude, hoping for a working class upsurge and the appearance by some magical process of a broad left alternative. Class politics, of the kind provided by Respect, aids the development of class consciousness and trade union struggle.
Global working class
Neoliberal globalisation has created a new, global working class. The decline of the peasantry and the rise of the proletariat globally creates the basis for a new class politics on a truly global scale. As Paul Mason documents in his book Live Working or Die Fighting (5) the emergence of a new class consciousness will be a long and complicated process. In China massive struggles happen daily, largely hidden from view, but the development of a working class consciousness and organisation is proceeding slowly. In Vietnam this year dozens of strikes (6) have occurred in factories owned by the transnational corporations and this is indicative of the likely development in many countries.
Class consciousness may have declined in Western countries, but a decline does not denote an absence. To truly become a "class for itself" the working class, in Britain and elsewhere, has not just to fight for its immediate interests but to fight for an historical alternative. This is a work in process. Socialism is not inevitable but only the working class can develop the consciousness and organisation to bring it about. That certainty remains at the heart of socialist strategy and tactics.
3. See M. Chossudovsky, The Globalisation of Poverty, http://globalresearch.ca/globaloutlook/GofP.html
5. See: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Live-Working-Die-Fighting-Global/dp/0436206153
6. See "Vietnam labour strikes scare foreign companies" http://asia.news.yahoo.com/060409/afp/060409020352business.html
This article will appear in a future issue of Socialist Resistance.
[Phil Hearse writes for Socialist Resistance in Britain. He is the editor of Marxsite (http://www.marxsite.com).]
Obama's Election: Lessons for Defeating White Supremacy and Rebuilding Revolutionary Resistance
by Michael Novick,
Anti-Racist Action-Los Angeles/People Against Racist Terror (ARA-LA/PART)
The election of Barack Obama has been greeted in a variety of ways: elation and relief (tempered by fear of a racist backlash or assassination attempt) by supporters, particularly US Africans; predictions of enhanced recruitment opportunity by organized white supremacists; doomsday predictions by conservatives. On the left there have been "exposes" of Obama's Zionism, militarism and dismissal of the particular needs of Black people or the working class. A group of DC anarchists has called for a disruption of his inaugural.
But any analysis needs to start from this reality: masses of people in the US feel they have helped make and change history by electing Obama. His victory is indeed historic in many ways. It required the largest voter turnout ever, and the highest percentage of registered voters to vote in decades. Obama gained a clear majority, the highest percentage by a Democrat since FDR except for Johnson's landslide after the JFK assassination. He ran the most expensive campaign in history. He is the first "bi-racial" (called Black or African-American) president-elect, and incidentally the first child of an immigrant, the first Hawaiian-born, one of the youngest, and by far the least "embedded," president. Moreover, his was the first victory by a self-proclaimed 'anti-war' candidate in the midst of a war. But Obama's victory hardly signals that we are a "post-racial" society, as evidenced by the self-contradictory self-congratulation of those who proclaim that "by electing the first Black president" we have shown that we are "color-blind." Exit polls showed that about a fifth of 'white' voters acknowledged that "race" was a significant factor. Interestingly, of those, 30% voted for Obama. One explanation of this is the fact that Obama's race made his intellect acceptable. US voters would never have elected a 'white' candidate as obviously intelligent as Obama. Yet they accepted and understood that a 'Black' candidate would have to be twice as smart, twice as cool, as any 'white' to have a chance to succeed.
Paradoxically but perhaps most essentially, Obama's election is also a manifestation of the extent of the radical left's weakness, irrelevance and inability to communicate. Over the past eight years of Bush misrule, what effective strategies or serious ability to develop a countervailing force or consciousness has the left or the anarchist movement manifested? In that vacuum, people made a judgment that Obama represented the best hope for the kind of change that could be achieved through electoral means. This was not merely because he was 'Black,' but because he was intelligent, calm, organized, and an effective and reassuring campaigner. McCain's charges of 'inexperience' didn't stick because Obama was attractive specifically as a relative outsider not deeply corrupted by long tenure in Washington, DC or in office. His mild centrist critique of the Iraq war made 'sense' in a context in which the anti-war movement had proven incapable of making a dent or marshaling an extra-parliamentary opposition and resistance to the war. Within the Democratic Party spectrum -- and the anti-war movement has been tailing the Democrats for years-- he was the electable 'opponent' of the Iraq war.
To imagine that a proclamation of opposition to Obama's inauguration as a capitalist, imperialist and statist will do anything to overcome the left's weakness, irrelevance and inability to communicate -- in fact, that it will do anything other than deepen and intensify those failures -- is the height of arrogance. I have a different take on what we have to do or learn in response to Obama's victory. It starts with the perspective that the greatest on-going weakness of the left strategically and politically is a refusal to recognize the nature of this society as an Empire based on white-supremacist settler colonialism. Related to that is our greatest tactical flaw, an inability to practice authentic self-criticism, through which we learn from our errors and defeats in order to eventually overcome them and win. Our failure to do that has engendered a deep defeatism in masses of people
-- manifest as accommodation to Empire and unwillingness to struggle against or even make a sharp break with the system.
One thing this election has demonstrated is how far into the past the revolutionary militance of the civil rights and Black power movements and the mass anti-imperialist opposition to the Vietnam War and domestic colonialism have receded. McCain's inability to make the Bill Ayers smear stick to Obama was because not only Obama but most of the electorate was no older than 8, or perhaps not yet born, when Ayers was an armed-propaganda radical. That period of revolutionary optimism, when the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army or the WUO were the tip of the iceberg of a massive upwelling of rebelliousness and armed resistance, is now ancient history. (Speaking of white privilege and class, Obama never would have associated with ex-BLA members, nor would any have been on the board of an Annenberg charity.) No amount of posturing could "Recreate 68" (or even 2000) in Denver for the DNC or in DC for the inaugural. 47% of high school seniors in the US today were registered to vote in time for the election, and I suspect an overwhelming majority of them cast their first ballots. They were born while the first George Bush was president! Who better to speak to them than Anti-Racist Action, which has historically been an attractor of high schoolers? Yet ARA's current ability to do outreach, education, agitation and organizing in high schools (or prisons, factories, community colleges or the military) is miniscule.
The DC call relates that anarchists opposed and disrupted the last two inaugurations, and therefore should do the same again. This flawed reasoning lacks a material analysis of the consciousness of masses of people in relation to the electoral process and the presidency. Bush's two stolen victories undermined the authenticity and legitimacy of the electoral process and of the imperial presidency. For his first inaugural, he was anointed president by the Supreme Court after having lost the popular vote. For his second, he was plagued by an unpopular war and evidence of vote flipping and vote suppression. Protesters and disrupters were speaking for millions when we denounced the inaugurals and the presidency, and our message fell on receptive ears.
The current situation is far different, and blaming it on the voters is another example of the left's lack of self-criticism and ability to grow. Obama's victory signals a new lease on life for the presidency, electoral politics and the two-party system. Obama won by a clear majority, in which voter suppression was a negligible factor and in which all minor parties together barely hit 1% of the vote, including McKinney, Nader, Barr and Baldwin combined. His inauguration, even apart from the historicity of his "Blackness," is being welcomed by the overwhelming majority of the US population as proof of the "mystery and majesty" of electoral democracy. In that context, a disruption wouldn't express the unease of the general population in a radical and uncompromising way, but would be taken as an alienating slap in the face. It wouldn't be seen as a call to a higher form of direct democracy, but as a rejection of the popular will expressed through a peaceful, honest and democratic election and transfer of power.
Now is the time for a sober reassessment of how to grapple with these new realities. Obama did not merely collect millions of dollars from hundreds of thousands of people -- he established a relationship with them. He organized effectively tens of thousands of volunteers, and turned out tens of millions of people to vote. Why has the left or the anarchist movement been incapable of inspiring, stimulating or organizing anywhere near that level of support, involvement, voluntarism or participation? How can we start to do so?
Obama accurately read the demographic, technological and ideological changes that are taking place in the U.S. and effectively offered himself and his campaign as a vehicle for implementing or realizing some of the aspirations those changes have generated. Obama seized on the opportunity of the latest and deepest capitalist economic crisis to develop a compelling narrative of how a lack of regulation, a lack of attention to the 'middle class,' and an arrogant unilateralism in 'foreign policy' weakened the economy, national security and the fiscal stability of the state. Neither the statist left nor the anarchists are anywhere close to having the intellectual, political or organizational capacity to challenge that narrative or that definition of "change."
Unless and until we engage in a thoroughgoing self-criticism and re-orientation towards an anti-colonialist politics of decolonization as the basis of an effective anti-capitalism, we will be playing with ourselves on the sidelines of history.
We need to put forward and undertake effective organizing strategies, not merely demands, for self-determined direct action against economic and environmental devastation, mass incarceration, militarism, occupation and anti-immigrant hysteria. We need to participate in building self-reliant communities of resistance. It is only oppressed and exploited people who can make revolution, and save the planet by saving ourselves. Go to the 25% of 'homeowners' who owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth and unite them with the homeless. Go to 30% of "War on Terror" veterans who report no earned wage income, and who have massive unemployment rates, and help unite them with GI resisters, with teens resisting recruitment, or with millions of prisoners and their families. Then we can begin to make some history of our own. http://la.indymedia.org/news/2008/11/222050.php
The editorial above appears in the November-December 2008 issue of "Turning the Tide: Journal of Anti-Racist Action, Research & Education," Volume 21 Number 6. A free sample copy of the entire issue is available by writing ARA-LA, PO Box 1055, Culver City CA 90232, emailing email@example.com, or calling 310-495-0299. (Give us your postal mailing address, please.) Subscriptions are $18 a year in the US, $28 institutional/international, payable to Anti-Racist Action at the above address. Comments and responses are most welcome. PDFs of recent back issues are available on-line at www.aratoronto.org
Theses on Hegemony and Imperialism
by Michael McIntyre
Monthly Review/MR Zine
November 15, 2008
1. Hegemony requires a durable historic bloc in control of a state.
2. Different factions of the historic bloc can compete to control a government (bourgeois democracy).
3. Regimes can change (locus of sovereignty, constitution, bureaucratic institutions) without change of historic bloc (passive revolution).
4. A historic bloc can also gradually mutate without change of regime (molecular transformation).
5. Passive revolution and molecular transformation do not necessarily preclude hegemony, but they index flaws in the historic bloc.
6. A stable historic bloc requires both material and cultural hegemony.
7. Material hegemony requires economic sacrifices of a corporate kind by the dominant class in favor of other members of the bloc.
8. Material hegemony constructs a bloc that includes the dominant class, core allies, and disposable allies.
9. Material hegemony can only be sustained if it is able to incorporate new, rising class fractions without losing core old ones.
10. Cultural hegemony is not to be confused with ideological domination, the naturalization of power, or legitime Herrschaft.
11. Culture is not to be confused with a set of agreed-upon propositions (orthodoxy) or unexamined assumptions (doxa)
12. Culture is the set of differences that make a difference, or differentiating differences.
13. Cultural hegemony is primarily a relationship within the historic bloc, not between the dominant and dominated.
14. Cultural hegemony buttresses the historic bloc's concrete phantasy of its fitness to rule.
15. Cultural hegemony requires the absence of invidious or stigmatizing differences within the historic bloc.
16. Gramsci is therefore not a theorist of dominant ideologies.
17. Nor is Gramsci a theorist of superstructures.
18. Least of all is Gramsci a theorist of the revolution manqué.
19. Hegemony is a regulatory, not a statistical norm.
20. Italy very clearly not a case of hegemony.
21. The Jacobins, against whom Gramsci measures the Risorgimento, were not successful hegemons either.
22. The Prison Notebooks appear to contain no sustained historical analysis of a successful hegemonic regime.
23. Hegemonic projects therefore usually fail. The question is how do they fail and how does that failure matter?
24. Imperialism denotes a pact of domination that asymmetrically incorporates a foreign elite or class into the pact of domination.
25. "Pact of domination" is a broader term than "historic bloc." The latter at least implies a hegemonic project.
26. "Foreign" is the trickiest word here.
27. Symmetric incorporation of a transnational dominant class is not imperialism (Robert Cox).
28. Transnational rule through capitalist institutions is not imperialism (Hardt and Negri).
29. "Imperialism" incorporates both formal and informal empire, but this distinction elides some more important distinctions.
30. The locus of sovereignty is the sine qua non of the distinction between formal and informal empire.
31. The source of political initiative is not the same as the locus of sovereignty.
32. It would be difficult to imagine the political initiative resting with the dominated country in a formal empire.
33. But it is not hard to imagine the political initiative resting with a dominant class from the periphery in the informal empire.
34. The dominant class in an imperial pact of domination need not come from the metropole.
35. In a formal empire, the imperial state always extracts revenue from the local populace, but neither the imperial state nor metropolitan capitalists necessarily exploit the local population directly through production.
36. A pact of domination is not a historic bloc when the state is nearly absent and the pact exists only to stabilize a regime of extraction.
37. A thin pact among elites to maintain a state does not incorporate a historic bloc.
38. When imperial pacts of domination include a historic bloc, they can achieve material hegemony, but not cultural hegemony.
39. Imperialism cannot exist without invidious or stigmatizing differentiating differences between the metropole and periphery.
40. Those invidious differences cut right through the historic bloc.
41. Race is the basis for imperial difference.
42. When race can no longer be spoken as the basis for imperial difference, a reified form of "culture" takes its place.
43. The most successful form of imperialism, therefore, is still a form of "failed hegemony": material hegemony without cultural hegemony.
44. Such a historic bloc can last for decades and survive regime change.
45. Such a historic bloc finds it much more difficult to recreate itself in response to changes in class formation.
46. Non-metropolitan members of this historic bloc are cast as culturally subordinate members of the bloc.
47. Their membership is justified on bases that are ad hoc, reified, and mystified.
48. This mystification draws sharp lines around the provisionally included and the reified exclusion of all others.
49. That reified exclusion cordons out new rising class fractions.
50. Old members of the bloc embrace and defend their own mystification.
51. A mystified historic bloc gives rise to a mystified resistance.
52. That resistance, conventionally called millenarian, is in fact sacramental.
53. A sacrament is a sign that accomplishes what it signifies.
54. Sacramental resistance is therefore a resistance that relies on the power of performatives and quasi-performatives.
55. Sacramental resistance can always be trumped by brute force.
56. A fundamental shift in resistance occurs when that resistance becomes rooted in the world of production.
57. The protagonists of such resistance replace the sacramental idiom with the idiom of instrumental action.
58. Resistance rooted in the world of production cannot simply be eliminated.
59. If an imperial pact of domination achieved both material and cultural hegemony, we would stop calling it imperial.
60. Nonetheless, the distinction between imperial domination and national expansion is not post festum (i.e. too late).
[Michael McIntyre is Assistant Professor of International Studies, DePaul University. "Theses on Hegemony and Imperialism" was prepared for the conference "Rethinking Marxism 2006," Amherst, Massachusetts 27 October 27, 2006 and posted on the Morbid Symptoms blog http://morbidsymptoms.blogspot.com/2006/11/theses-on-hegemony-and-imperialism.html on 2 November 2006.]
Various statements of various Communist and Workers Parties of the World prior to the 10th International meeting of Communist and Workers’ Parities