Where is the Left? By William Bowles

25 May 2004

“The paralysis of the US leftist intellectuals, their inability to express solidarity with the Iraqi resistance is a disease which afflicts all “leftist” intellectuals in the colonial countries. They are fearful of the problem (the colonial war) and fearful of the resolution (national liberation). In the end, the comforts and freedoms they enjoy, the university applause and adulation they receive in the colonial motherland weighs more heavily than the mental costs of a straightforward declaration of support for the revolutionary liberation movements. They resort to phony “moral equivalences”, against the war and against the “fundamentalists”, the “terrorists”, the ‘whoever’ who is engaged in their own self-emancipation and has not paid sufficient attention to the self-appointed guardians of Western Democratic Values. It is not difficult to understand the absence of solidarity with liberation movements among the progressive intellectuals in the imperial countries: they too have been colonized, mentally and materially.” – James Petras, Left’s failure to support Iraqi resistance

Perhaps the question should be, what is the Left? There is something of an irony in the fact that as the imperium stares directly into the face of defeat in Iraq, the Left is bereft of an alternative beyond pulling out and a condemnation (of sorts) of imperialism’s latest adventure. It has been suggested to me that this is because we are suffering a crisis of confidence in the viability of the socialist project. In other words, aside from platitudes, we have no alternative to offer.

In part it may well be because we no longer know what the ‘Left’ is due in no small measure to a radical shift to the right by so-called social democratic forces, in the UK best represented by Tony Blair and a revanchist Labour party. But I think the answer is far more deep rooted and finds its source in a lack of a theoretical framework for a truly socialist solution to the crisis of capital. And, as Petras says, we’re just too damn comfortable and mentally colonised.

But what the Left cannot escape is the fact that capitalism is facing a crisis that has no historical parallel, a crisis that is manifesting itself in the most unlikely manner, in a crisis of confidence in its ability to rule. Yet when faced with an opportunity to challenge the right of capital to rule, the best we can do is retreat into a discredited social democratic ‘solution’ of a pre-Blairite Labour Party or in the US, a barely discernible variant of the current Bush administration.

I rarely venture into the theoretical aspects of economics, and for a number of reasons. One because the reader will likely get bored and two, because the ruling elite conned people into regarding economics more as a ‘force of nature’ over which we have no control, much like the much touted idea of ‘human nature’, as something cast in concrete. But without a sound economic alternative to Capitalism, we have nothing to offer except moral outrage.

Yes I know this sounds like a cop-out, but it will take more than a 1000-word or so essay to go into the mechanics of capitalist economics other than produce simplistic explanations of greed and the entrenched interests of an inherited system of privilege grown gargantuan in its power to simultaneously seduce and destroy.

But there are certain facts that cannot be ignored, for strip away all the bullshit that the imperium peddles about ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’, the issues come down to the ‘free market’ and the protection of the capitalist way of life. Even the ‘bible’ of the imperium, the Project for the New American Century or PNAC emphasises the fact that the entire enterprise is about the preservation of ‘free market capitalism’. And dig a little beneath the surface of many of the statements about spreading democracy and in small type you’ll read that it’s really about spreading the ‘philosophy’ of the free market.

So what does this ‘philosophy’ consist of? No more than a defence of the status quo that is purportedly supported by a load of rubbish about ‘human nature’ and what amounts to a blind acceptance of the existing conditions and that people can’t be changed. We will always be greedy and selfish and conveniently of course, some of us (a tiny minority) are ‘better equipped’ (greedier and more selfish?) to succeed than others. That the ‘others’ are invariably poor, lacking in education and born into situations of inequality and lack of access to resources is effectively a self-perpetuating system. The statistics bear this out, for the children of the better off and better educated are invariably going to be better off and better educated as well.

The media for its part also accepts and peddles all this twaddle without question, that with all its faults, capitalism is the best thing ‘we’ve come up with’, so one looks in vain for any analysis that looks beneath the surface of events for deeper causes to the malaise we confront.

But when all’s said and done, the bottom line is economics – the way we stay alive, whether a peasant eking out a subsistence existence or someone in a developed economy. As Marx pointed out, the forces of production determine the nature of the society we live in, that ours is more complicated than that of a peasant economy doesn’t alter the ‘laws’ that govern production, merely unpacking them becomes more difficult (and easier to cover up).

The problem is compounded by the fact that the entire edifice we like to call the media has a vested interest in maintaining the mystical nature of economics, after all, the media is either privately owned and wants to keep things that way or the state as the manager of capitalism has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo on behalf of the capitalist class it represents.

Yet there is no getting away from the fact that aside from the issues of justice and the rights of the oppressed or if you like sheer immorality of the West’s onslaught on the planet, the major problem that confronts us is that of persuading working people that there is a better way of organising the economy than the runaway train we call capitalism. For as long as we are not able to offer a realistic alternative, people will stick with the ‘devil they know’.

So how do we get around this problem? And why have we failed to produce a working alternative to capitalism? For many the ‘fault’ lies with the only examples we had, the Soviet Union and the various and sundry versions that came about as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Setting aside the vast propaganda machine that for a century has sought to portray socialism as either ‘unworkable’, ‘idealistic’, a product of the ‘anti-Christ’ or denying the essential nature of people as being selfish, individualistic and suppressing people’s motivation to succeed by virtue of their own struggle, it cannot be denied that socialism in one form or another has only come about in poor countries, often with a peasant or agrarian economy that was either a colony of the West or simply lacked the essential economic development needed to build a viable socialist economy as Marx foresaw it.

And here, racism has played a central role in the process, for it has effectively split the human race into two, rationalising privilege on the false assumption that the poor (conveniently largely people of colour) are somehow incapable of being anything other than poor without ‘our’ leadership and ‘guidance’ and moreover, that it is capitalism that unleashes the potential for people to better themselves.

And it’s here, at the intersection of the ideology of racism and that of capitalism that the struggle for ‘hearts and minds’ is taking place, for the advocates of capitalism equate socialism with ‘sapping’ the power of the individual an idea that it equates with the equally false idea that the poor of the world will be denied ‘opportunity’ if they are ‘enslaved’ by socialism. Socialism is by definition, an appeal to the ‘lowest common denominator’, an idea that fits in with the idea of a ‘lesser breed’ of people.

The problem of course is that capitalism has been able to co-opt working people and furthermore, as a response to the appeal of socialism, it adopted many of the aspects of a socialist economy such as social security and state intervention including nationalisation, into the anarchic nature of capitalist production, in a word – planning (that nasty word that is used to denigrate socialism but okay if it’s used to prop up capitalism). Indeed, nationalisation was used not only to forestall the demands for socialism but also when capitalism was unwilling to foot the bill or simply incapable of producing the goods.

Without getting into an internecine fight over what is ‘real socialism’ or indeed why capitalism has proved to be such a tenacious survivor in spite of its regular crises and propensity to start wars in order to either take out its competitors or solve its innate inner contradictions, without a viable alternative, exposés and moral putdowns of the evils of capitalism, mean little in the long run. For we are forever waging defensive battles, attempting to hold ground that is continually being cut from underneath us.

Moreover, the demise of the Soviet Union has meant that we no longer have the ‘excuse’ of blaming our failures on the ‘bad example’ the Soviet Union set for socialism. So what’s our excuse now?

There’s no getting away from the fact that for the majority of people in the developed world, life is comfortable, if insecure and fraught with all manner of ‘subjective’ ills and the failure to deliver the one thing it promised, ‘happiness’. Indeed, unhappiness would seem to be the one thing people have gotten along with the material wealth we have.

Yet failing a viable alternative to never-ending consumption and the insecurity of debt, are we doomed to go down with the ship of (the capitalist) state? There are those who argue as such – good riddance to bad rubbish they say but without advocating an alternative (except some quasi-fascist nonsense about some ideal society that would survive after the ‘surplus’ population has been conveniently eliminated through war, famine and pestilence).

The problem is made all the more vital by the fact that unrestricted capitalist development now threatens the ball of rock and water we live on – Spaceship Earth – a fact that even the most ardent supporters of arbitrary capitalist growth can no longer escape, no matter how much they twist the statistics, let alone the morality of a system that gobbles up resources and people in the name of some never-ending and ultimately unattainable objective called ‘progress’ or growth.

So there are two interlinked issues that have to be faced by those of us who live on the parasitic portion of the planet: develop a viable, sustainable and realistic economic system that can replace the insanity we live under now and intrinsically linked, shake the habit that grips us by the throat, that paralyses us by exploiting our fears of the ‘other’, of losing what doesn’t belong to us in the first place.

So what’s the problem? Why can’t the Left get it together? In part, the problem lies within our own history, a history that on the one hand we try to escape from and on the other are forever retreating into.

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” – Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

So on the one hand, we are the product of the past century, a century that started with the emergence of the first attempt at consciously organising society in a more rational and equitable manner but under the worst possible conditions: backwardness, famine, war and wholesale opposition from the capitalist world that included invasion, isolation and sabotage. Not the best of conditions under which to attempt something that had never been done before, but it’s all we had and ultimately it was our only yardstick, all else was theory.

And to add to the problem, the crises of capital and threat of socialist revolutions across the rest of Europe and elsewhere led to the rise of Fascism and ultimately to WWII. The post-war situation was hardly any better with the advent of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Nevertheless, even under these conditions the colonies of Europe fought for and won at least a nominal independence, something the West has never forgiven them for nor accepted anymore than it accepted the victory of socialism (whatever its faults).

The ‘counter-revolution’ of the Reagan-Thatcher years effectively rolled back the gains of the previous decades, especially in the now independent countries of the world and here we can definitely say that the socialist bloc failed them utterly, for by now they had degenerated into a hereditary system of very limited privilege, at least by Western standards, ultimately collapsing under their own weight with only nominal resistance from the state (surely a sign that the alleged totalitarian regimes were finally sustained by little more than words).

The re-imposition of ‘free market’ economics has seen hundreds of millions of people lose what little they had gained since WWII and without the ‘buffer’ of the socialist bloc, virtually defenceless.

These are the conditions under which the imperium is attempting what I believe to be the last final grab before it too disintegrates. The issue is simple, either they will drag us toward total barbarism that is, a more general war or, we organise and develop a coherent alternative.

In the West, I believe our best bet lies in the potential of the European Union and explains why Blair having chosen to back Bush has decided to exploit the most backward and conservative elements of British society in severing ties with the European Union. Whether this is real or merely an opportunist pandering to backward-looking elements of British society in order to hang onto power remains to be seen. What is clear, is that we are not only running out of options, we are running out of time.

The challenge then is clear: to develop a real and workable alternative that embraces the entire planet, that transcends the nation state and national borders. We have the tools, we have the wealth to realize it, what we lack is courage and the conviction to carry it through.

Addendum:

Wonderful thing the Web. My good friend and comrade Patricia Murphy Robinson, sent some clips from the magazine “Socialism and Democracy” that I’m adding here as they are totally on the ball as regards what I have been going on about. And I think you should pay their site a visit:

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