Confusion in the ranks By William Bowles

20 September 2006

Do you believe in synchronicity? Yeah, I know it sounds like some mystical new age crapola, but it is a fact that the creative process is driven by—well who knows what—quantum physics? All those impossible entities whizzing around (metaphorically speaking) in our brains that make connections, driven by an impossible number of combinations that we call the imagination that are the sum (and then some) of what we are born with and all the experiences we go through from birth that end up making us what we are.

Quite by chance? I viewed a fascinating interview (listen to the audio) last weekend with one of my favourite writers, JG Ballard who I have been reading since I was a teenager. Ballard is, as far as I know, not a socialist and probably doesn’t even regard himself as a political writer yet his stories have always explored the terrain of the subjective, that interior universe, an area most lefties are leery of precisely because it is difficult to nail down and open to a wealth of interpretations.

His novels, from ‘The Drowned World’, a prescient description of what is no longer a science fiction vision and written in the early 1960s, through to his masterful ‘The assassination of President Kennedy considered as a downhill motor race’ to his explorations of suburbia and our erotic addiction to the motor car (eg ‘High Rise’, ‘Crash’ and ‘Super Cannes’ to name but a few), come the closest to revealing the fantasies that capitalism so masterfully exploits.

Enslaved by our imaginations and longings, the capitalist dream has become for many millions, a nightmare. That a writer like Ballard should have been exploring the nightmare for over fifty years, should surely teach us something about the nature of capitalism and importantly, those of us raised under ‘advanced’ capitalism and who call ourselves socialists, something about just how difficult it is for us to understand ourselves.

I have wrestled with these contradictions for pretty well my entire life, in an effort to reconcile my creative life with the political realities that are, once you know the score, impossible to ignore. Some are driven insane by the contradictions and even kill themselves, so painful is the paradox.

My good friend and comrade, Patricia is merciless in her analysis of my own contradictions, sparing me nothing, there are no ‘magic bullets’:

‘I’m used to this agony of yours. But take seriously your Brit “humus” padded cell. Well, that’s the class padded cell. Calcified. Tough!!! Go and apply; I’ll be sitting on your left shoulder, muttering, move, motha, move!’

Yet the enslavement of us ‘privileged’ people is no less slavery than those of the barrio or township, comfortable though it maybe, indeed it is the very comfort that enslaves us. A simplistic answer is that the poor have nothing to lose which accounts for Chavez’s Venezuela, but the harsh reality is that in gaining our comfort we have lost our humanity. Deprivation comes in many forms as Ballard’s writings demonstrate so vividly.

All of my life I’ve been a socialist, I was brought up in a socialist family and culture albeit one ‘embedded’ in a capitalist society. The forces that shaped my parents generation was, as with their contemporaries, shaped by the Bolshevik Revolution, Fascism and the crisis of capitalism of the 1920s and 30s.

In turn, my generation was shaped by the ideas I inherited and that were further shaped by the Cold War, Vietnam and for me, especially the Liberation struggles of Africa, Latin America and the Civil rights movement in the US. Yet all are part of a continuum of struggle that extends all the way back to the Paris Commune and the birth of the Labour movements of the 19th century and the monumental achievements of Marx and Engels in unpacking capitalism, ideas that are not only just as relevant today as they were over 150 years ago but ideas that are now intrinsically embedded in the cultures of every country on the planet.

And in spite of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the relentless attacks of imperialism on all and every attempt to chart an alternative course, socialist ideas not only survive but have found a new lease of life directly as a result of the current imperialist onslaught on the planet. Typically however, they have occurred where one least expected them to emerge; in Latin America, but then, if there is one lesson we should have learned from history it is that events rarely, if ever, pan out the way we expect them to.

It is therefore no surprise, at least to me, that right on the heels of the war against the ‘Evil Empire’ there should have come the ‘War on Terror’ as the overthrow of the Soviet Union has not only NOT solved the inherent contradictions of capitalism, it has in fact sharpened them, revealing the simple fact that underpinning all the propaganda and just plain bullshit that pours out in an endless stream, is an economic system that is in terminal decay.

This decay is made all the more visible because it now threatens the existence of every living being on the planet. It is no exaggeration to state that we have reached the very edge of a precipice. One would have thought therefore, that there would be a global clamour for a fundamental change in the way we live, and I contend that there is, it’s just that, at least in the developed world, it has not manifested itself in the most obvious of ways.

It can be argued that just as capitalism faces its own crisis of confidence, we on the Left, also face our own crisis of confidence, not surprising really if you consider that for the better part of a century, we have assumed that just as night follows day, socialism would follow capitalism and moreover, it would have only one form that could be reached by only one path.

Instead, on the one hand, we see a resurgence of religion as a source of inspiration for change, but change that harks back to an earlier time in a vain attempt to create an illusory ‘good old days’. In the developed world, the same yearning for meaning finds expression in the current obsession with our ‘roots’, with a history that industrial capitalism has all but obliterated.

Between them, they reveal much about the fundamentally bankrupt nature of capitalism that ultimately cannot satisfy peoples’ real needs, whether physical or spiritual. Thus whether it is the mosque, mall or museum that people turn to for sustenance, none supply an answer that addresses the problems we confront.

That people should turn to the past or the fantasy of conspicuous consumption is not surprising given the failure of socialism to capture the imagination of the oppressed as well as the alienated, a failure that imperialism has tried to exploit to its advantage and expressed most vividly if inaccurately with the slogan ‘the clash of civilisations’.

That Islam has become the driving force of opposition to imperialist predations is not surprising given the failure of socialism to offer a viable alternative anymore than it has to do with any alleged international terrorist conspiracy let alone the ‘clash of civilisations’. As they say, nature abhors a vacuum and for a variety reasons Islam fits the bill as a clarion call for the dispossessed and downtrodden.

If capitalism can claim any kind of ‘success’ it has been in the general rejection of politics and the political process, at least in the developed countries and this is a phenomenon that the Left has been party to by failing to understand the past and reinterpret Marx in the light of such reappraisals.

Marx understood because first and foremost, he was an artist, driven by the creative impulse, a lesson lost on most so-called lefties, who would reduce the human experience to nothing more than slogans.

Yet all is not lost and indeed, it is the very failure of the imperialist project to make this the ‘American Century’ that has led countries like Venezuela and Cuba to find a new and invigorated source of strength to resist the ravages of capital. Again, it is the imperialists who are only too aware of this newfound appeal. With a few exceptions, the Left has been once more left in the lurch if you’ll forgive the pun and I’m not entirely alone in this view.

If nothing else it should teach us just how poisonous anti-communism has and continues to be just as its new form, albeit one that has its basis in the ideology of racism, Islamicism, serves the same purpose.

Although the anti-globalisation movement has tended to reject socialism as a solution, it has yet to offer a coherent alternative, but without leadership and a coherent philosophy that can focus such grassroots participation, we run the risk of allowing dogmatism and a ‘we know best’ view to dominate once again. This is why the failures are just as important as the successes, for it is only by analysing why those countries that attempted to break ‘the chains that bind’ failed that we can gain some insight into the way forward.

Now you may wonder Ballard and Chavez can be so joined at the hip so-to-speak, but if we are to liberate ourselves it takes the fusing of the two halves of our separated selves, just as the two halves of my brain seek some kind of reconciliation, resolution. I try to do it through my writing as it is all I have to offer and it’s a painful and quite often humiliating experience, a veritable mindfield full of snares that threaten to blow me up as I try to negotiate my way.


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