Plus câ Change? By William Bowles

31 August 2004

Being incapacitated for the past couple of weeks has had one positive effect, namely, I’ve been able to think and read without being constantly pressured to produce and edit for the site at my usual frenetic pace. And indeed, as I lie here, propped up in bed, my shoulder nagging away in the background and the monitor of my laptop now held open by a piece of string and gaffer tape, quite a few ideas, long in gestation have coalesced. Whether I’ve got it right is of course, still an open question, but if nothing else, the events of the past year prove one thing: the more things change, the more things stay the same.

The confusion on the ‘left’ about the nature of the Left and what kind of policies it should pursue is however, understandable when we look back over the past fifty-plus years of struggle in the developed world against capitalism and the articulation of an alternative, shaped as it has been by anti-communism and the Cold War.

For on the one hand, the Left has long adopted a romantic view of the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggles that have dictated the events of the last fifty years and which has been accompanied by an over-inflated sense of its own importance and on the other, a deep sense of insecurity/inferiority brought about by our relationship with the then socialist world that with all its faults – self interest and so forth – knew which side it was on. But whose side are we really on?

The largely futile debate surrounding the ‘Anybody But Bush’ issue has yet to be echoed here in the UK with an equivilent ‘Anybody But Blair’ ‘debate’ that will doubtless arise with next year’s election fast upon us. The real importance of this ‘debate’ has been, with notable exceptions, largely overlooked for it revolves not around the elections per se, but over the kind of vision we have of an alternative to capitalism and the strategies and tactics we need to achieve it.

Moreover, the ‘debate’ has been shaped by a very small number of people who constitute the intellectual ‘elite’ of the Left based in the US and the UK, an elite that seems to be divided along a ‘fault line’ that has on one side those whose ideas have been shaped by what is called the far left and on the other, those who lean toward the ‘liberal/left’ or social democratic view of things.

What divides these two facets and why is it important to us? Before trying to answer this question we need to have an understanding of the current state of capitalism and why it’s got itself into such dire straights. For the events of the past year reveal the fundamental weakness of the capitalist system and a crisis that has been building since at least the 1970s and one that is contrary to appearances, been exacerbated by the demise of the Soviet Union and the socialist world.

For whilst the imperium crows about its ‘victory’ it is confronted by a deep malaise that is as much subjective as it is objectively based in economic realities that for us in the developed world at least, reveals the utterly bankrupt state of affairs.

Two things have brought us to this state: one is the crisis of the over-accumulation of capital brought about by the ‘final’ revolution in capitalism production – information technology – that has made possible increases in productivity that make the First Industrial Revolution pale into insignificance, as it has vastly reduced the need for mass employment (and hence mass consumption) and on the other, the spread of these production technologies to areas of the world that were previously merely markets for the capitalist world’s products.

At first, the defeat of the Soviet Union and its re-incorporation into the so-called Third World meant that its vast productive capacity and highly educated workforce would not present the West with serious competition but then along came China that embraced capitalism without being impoverished and reincorporated into the Third World. And whilst in the short term, China as a vast reservoir of cheap labour for the West meant that the West could maintain its level of profit, within in very short space of time, China has developed the internal capacity to produce its own consumer products on par or even superior to the West’s (much as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea did in the 70s and 80s).

Faced with this reality together with China’s increasing demand for energy to power its own economic revolution, the West is confronted with a major dilemma, a dilemma that has only two outcomes: economic collapse or war with China over resources and markets (and hence war on the rest of the planet).

For the moment, collapse can be staved off because of the stranglehold the UK and the US has over the global financial system that in turn, enables it to ‘siphon’ off a surplus that bankrolls its rising debts. This in part explains the occupation of Iraq for on the one hand it reflects the power of the petro-dollar to bankroll US capitalism and on the other to advance its military encirclement of China and Russia (a strategy that parallels the military encirclement of the Soviet Union in the previous period).

However, this is not the 20thcentury. The old Cold War rhetoric, so carefully constructed over decades to demonise the Soviet Union in the eyes of the West’s domestic populations is entirely inappropriate in the current context. Ergo, the ‘War on Terror’. But as a tactic to deal with the real issues that confront the imperium it falls far short of expectations. For one thing, it’s no use in its struggle with China and secondly, it has led to the other aspect I referred to, the capitalist state’s loss of legitimacy in the eyes of its own populations that presents far more danger than Osama ever has or ever will. Ergo, the rise of the Corporate Security State.

Of course, the ‘War on Terror’ and the construction of the Security State are two sides of the same coin served as they are by the same need for surveillance and control of populations lest they decide to reject the imperium’s policies. And herein lies the key to the issue of the elections and the role of the Left. Seen in this light, the policies of BushKerry or BlairHoward are the same. Both favour the continuation of the occupation of Iraq and expansion of the ‘empire’ and both support the continued construction of the corporate state. In other words, within degrees both support the continuation of the status quo.

The electoral struggle that has subsumed so much of the Left’s energies over the past decades has always revolved around the idea of a ‘lesser of two evils’ approach to the role of the established political parties, the idea being that pressure can be brought to bear on the more ‘progressive’ party in power. Yet the history of this approach has been proven to be utterly bankrupt as the inexorable drift to the right of the ‘social democratic’ parties attests, culminating in the UK with the Blair government and in the US with the effective merging of Democrat and Republican parties.

Those who argue that Kerry is ‘better’ than Bush entirely miss the point, for the issues that scare the Left regarding another four years of Bush are intrinsic to the system, not to Bush. On the two key issues, the occupation of Iraq and the extension of the empire and the destruction of civil and political rights, there is no difference between Bush and Kerry. The rest is mere electoral posturing.

If it can be said that there is a positive aspect to the current situation then it is the exposure of the ruling political class and its phony adherence to ‘democracy’ that the demolition of our civil rights has revealed. Quite clearly then, the struggle over the defence and by definition, extension of our democratic rights is central to our struggle (the Iraqis seem to be taking care of the occupation issue without our ‘help’).

The importance of this aspect of the struggle to defeat imperialism extends way beyond the formal, legal rights embedded in laws because of the key role the media now plays in the preservation of capitalism and the symbiosis between the two, that is both historical and now technological in nature. If one aspect of the struggle for socialism is control over the means of production then today for it to be truly meaningful this struggle has to be extended to the control over the means of communication and in the broadest possible sense that is, of culture. This is an issue that is now openly global in nature (when before it was ‘merely’ colonial).

The Left meanwhile, seems to be stuck in a time-warp, waging a battle with weapons that now seem curiously outdated, belonging as they do to struggles that we lost and to objective conditions that no longer exist.

I think to find proof of this we need look no further than the victory of the Bolivarians in Venezuela and the fact that the ‘left’ is still arguing over whether or not Chavez is truly ‘revolutionary’ as if we have any say or for that matter, control over the situation in Venezuela. The same pertained to Aristide in Haiti as it does over who is revolutionary in Iraq.

Worse still, where is the analysis and resultant struggles to connect the issues of Venezuela, Haiti and elsewhere with ours here in the developed world?

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