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Between Ideology and Public Discourse July 17, 2015

Posted by guestposter in Marxism, The Left.

A very welcome guest post from Gavin Mendel-Gleason, from Spirit of Contradiction

Our political and economic system is in crisis. There is a crisis of affordable housing, of decent jobs, of cuts to public services and cuts to social welfare provisions. There is a crisis of democracy which shows itself at every level from the impotence of local democracy through the county councils right up to the technocratic structure of the EU and the impenetrability of the ECB to any form of democratic input. There is a debt crisis of the states of Europe, precipitated by the financial crisis of 2008 which has seen enormous amounts of public funds diverted to paying private investors; investors who had gambled spectacularly found their losses covered by the public.

The water charges campaign in Ireland saw the first major evidence of a backlash to this state of affairs. People began resisting the imposition of a new charge, which was indicative of the spate of increases in taxation to the general public while public services were simultaneously being cut. However, despite the mass mobilisations and many climb-downs by politicians in direct response to this militancy, we still face momentous challenges in finding a way out of our crisis.

Power today clearly lies in the hands of multinational corporations and international finance. This view is widely held, with adherents from popular economic academics such as Piketty, to your average punter on the street. Any time someone stands up and says: “But we should tax the profits of corporations and investors so we can fund public services” we are told that this is impossible because it would render us uncompetitive. Each country is forced to provide the lowest corporate tax regime possible, all competing with each other to attract capital from one another. We find ourselves in an endless race to the bottom. The countries of the EU do not have any fiscal autonomy, and the capacity to “print money” to restart the economy is non-existent.

And while all of these facts about the invincibility of investors and the vulnerability of the public are well known, in Ireland there is no strategy to get out of our predicament which enjoys sufficiently widespread popularity that it might lead to an alternative. The articulation of egalitarian political alternatives is of course the historical role of the left broadly defined.

Public Discourse as the Alternative

Because of the weakness of the left in Ireland, many have looked abroad for inspiration. In other countries there are left wing movements which have significantly more traction and who have articulated an alternative. One of these is Podemos, a Spanish party which has come out of the social movements in Spain against austerity and which has grown meteorically. Since its foundation in 2014, it has managed to capture the imagination of between 15% and 25% of the electorate according to polling data. Because of this rapid rise, it is of particular interest to those impatient for change.

The main thrust behind Podemos is an idea that a major, perhaps even primary problem of the left is the inability to communicate effectively with the electorate. The thesis is that our difficulty is in essence a question of proper messaging. Podemos are not the only group to propose such an idea, but they exemplify the approach, and are certainly among the most successful in demonstrating it. Further, the approach taken by Podemos has been theorised, incorporating ideas from the Latin American left, from the theorists Laclau and Mouffe, and Podemos’ own Íñigo Errejón.

The messaging of Podemos, which they have theorised as a counter-hegemonic narrative, spells out in both abstract and concrete terms a means of contacting the public imagination. It echos Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about creating a discourse with the potential to communicate a new “common sense” with a new “historical subject”. The new “common sense” is meant to articulate in simple terms the broad discontent that people have with their subordination to elites, and the new “historical subject” are the people who find themselves currently powerless, but who could become the protagonist for transformative change.

Part of the concrete strategy taken by Podemos is the promotion of universal values, such as peace, equality and solidarity. The other is the promotion of democracy and a highlighting of the attenuation of democracy in various spheres. These approaches follow closely on the theories of Laclau and Mouffe. Laclau and Mouffe attempted to overcome what they judged the archaic dichotomy between working class and capitalist class. For them, for any theory to have the capacity to be “non-alienating” – ie not creating a false “other” – it would have to be based on universalisms. At its extreme this has led even to arguments of abandoning the left/right dichotomy in politics as old and outdated.

There is also a highly technical (and indeed, empirical!) component to this approach, which seeks to utilise knowledge of mass communication, of sound-bytes and imagery and of distillation of message, in such a way that it is most immediately palatable to the greatest number of people.

In addition, Podemos has an uncomfortable relationship with the idea of the party form. The widespread discontent among the public regarding the political choices that they currently have (in both Spain and Ireland), the consistent shift to the right of the previously social democratic parties, and the widespread feelings of powerlessness have given rise to a general antipathy towards political parties. People feel that political parties and politicians don’t represent them, that they are not trustworthy, and that they are, at the end of the day, worthless from the standpoint of making their voices heard. Podemos has attempted to “square the circle” by casting itself as a new type of social movement, one capable of articulating a programme and of engaging people in politics, but not in the old way. Theorists attempting to square this circle have, however, failed to articulate what sort of pragmatic techniques are necessary to improve the internal functioning of parties, or indeed, how we would know if we saw an improvement. It presents itself as a critique without putting forward a constructive solution aside from vague platitudes about participation and engagement and in not doing things the old way.


The Economist on Piketty May 6, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Books, Capitalism, Economics, Inequality, Journalism, Marxism, Taxation Policy, The political discourse, The Right.

I bought the Economist because the cover said it has an article about Piketty. (Reading articles about his book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, is quicker than reading the book!)

The headline on the actual article is weird: “Bigger than Marx”. That is true neither of the physical heft of the book nor, if everything I have read about it so far is valid, of the contents.

And then the content of the Economist’s review: 13 paragraphs: two are neutral; four approving; seven critical of the book. The Economist cites five critics of his thesis or aspects of it and zero supporters.

Not that I’m terribly surprised at their overall view, but they might have been subtler. Or maybe I should applaud their transparency.

Copyright and the Marxists Archive April 25, 2014

Posted by Oireachtas Retort in Internet, Marxism.

As noted by Mark P.

A statement on Marxists.org

Lawrence & Wishart, who own the copyright for the Marx Engels Collected Works, have directed us to delete all texts copied from MECW Volume 1 through 10. Accordingly, from 30th April 2014, no material from MECW is available from marxists.org.
English translations of Marx and Engels from other sources will continue to be available.

The details aren’t entirely clear, I presume the website are not at liberty to disclose much more, but this is a potentially interesting one. One notable comment I spotted

L&W own all post-1991 English translations of Marx and Engels, and all translations of Gramsci; Ocean Press own all translations in all languages of Che Guevara; Pathfinder Press own a large percentage of all English translations of Trotsky. All these organisations, were formerly Party presses, supported by the voluntary labour of dedicated Marxists, are now capitalist firms, and all are enforcing their ownership to prevent this material from being available free to the world on the internet.

The story is timeless, written in letters of blood and fire as I once read somewhere, but radicals, ‘radical publishers’ and their solicitors mirror a much larger enclosure of digital commons. Something which continues on an alarming number of fronts.

The Marxists Internet Archive is a formidable achievement in itself and in the way we think about the web in 2014. The Communist Manifesto went online in 1993. Then and since, all the work has been done for free and available for free. Used by millions, even archived at UCC. There is a bit but not a whole lot you wont find and in fifty odd languages.

So, the interesting bit. I wonder what the response will be. Will it be a few tweets, petitions and people grabbing what they can before it’s gone.  Or will there be any sort of organised response to save what is there for everyone? Could there be?

Has been suggested that there is little to be gained commercially from the take down but also that publishers may have new circumstances, owners or partners where they are obliged to take a harder line. I would be surprised if there were not suitable pre- 89 translations to plug the gap but I guess there wouldn’t be much of an issue of this were the case.

The site came under sustained attack a few years ago which allegedly originated in China.

“We are not 100 percent sure this is the Chinese government; there are a lot of possibilities,” said Brian Basgen, who has worked on the archive since 1990. But he noted that the archive has been temporarily banned by the Chinese government before, about two years ago. “There is a motive,” he said. “They have done it to us in the past. What they are doing is targeting just the Chinese files.”

This is probably much more mundane but intellectual property rights works a lot quicker than computer wizardry these days.

Below is a desk in the British Library reading room.


Where Karl Marx wrote Kapital using books available to everyone.

Jonathan Sperber Podcast on Karl Marx July 28, 2013

Posted by Garibaldy in Books, History, Marxism.
1 comment so far

Interesting podcast on the Guardian about Karl Marx with the historian Jonathan Sperber, author of the recent Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. See here for a Guardian article by Sperber on Marx and here for a review essay of Sperber’s book by Marc Mulholland at the Dublin Review of Books.

Interview with Rayner Lysaght May 20, 2013

Posted by irishelectionliterature in Marxism, Video interview.

Rayner O’Connor Lysaght author ‘of The Story of the Limerick Soviet ‘ was born into an affluent family in North Wales. While a student in Trinity College Dublin he became interested in left- wing politics.

In May 1967 Lysaght became a member of the Irish Workers Group a Trotskyist political party. Lysaght later left the Irish Workers Group and joined the breakaway Socialist Labour Alliance; the Irish section of the Fourth International.

In 1972 he was instrumental in organising the Revolutionary Marxist Group who along with the Peoples Democracy and the Irish Republican Socialist Party called for the legalisation for abortion in Ireland.

Given over 50 years of political activism Lysaght gives his analysis on the current developments within capitalism.

This is his story, in his own words.

John Lanchester on Marx April 10, 2012

Posted by Garibaldy in Books, Marxism.

Over the last few years, related to Whoops, his book on the economic crisis, John Lanchester has written in the London Review of Books some extremely interesting stuff on the economic crisis (we’ve discussed him here, here, and here). I’ve just come across a podcast and article by him from the LRB. The podcast is an hour long lecture, and I haven’t listened to it all, but the article seems to be the essence of the lecture, although there are some differences (a greater attack on the way modern economics works in the podcast for example).

The article is called Marx at 193, and is essentially about what Marx’s analysis of capitalism might or might not tell us about the world today. Lanchester condemns the failure of economists to seriously pursue the possibility of an alternative to capitalism in a post-Soviet world that has seen “the near terminal meltdown of the global economic system in 2008”, before going on to argue that

The financial system in its current condition poses an existential threat to Western democracy far exceeding any terrorist threat. No democracy has ever been destabilised by terrorism, but if the cashpoints stopped giving out money, it would be an event on a scale that would put the currently constituted democratic states at risk of collapse. And yet governments act as if there is very little they can do about it. They have the legal power to conscript us and send us to war, but they can’t address any fundamentals of the economic order. So it looks very much as if Marx’s omission of the word ‘capitalism’, because he foresaw no alternative within the existing social order, was an instance of his crystal ball functioning with particularly high resolution.

He offers a discussion of Marx’s views of what money is and where value comes from, before offering some discussion of how the theory of surplus value applies to the world of digital products.

When you start looking for this mechanism at work in the contemporary world you see it everywhere, often in the form of surplus value being created by you, the customer or client of a company. Online check-in and bag drop at airports, for example. Online check-in is a process which should genuinely increase the efficiency of the airport experience, thereby costing you less time: time you can spend doing other things, some of them economically useful to you. But what the airlines do is employ so few people to supervise the bag drop-off that there’s no time-saving at all for the customer. When you look, you see that because airlines have to employ more people to supervise the non-online-checked-in customers – otherwise the planes wouldn’t leave on time – the non-checked-in queues move far more quickly. They’re transferring their inefficiency to the customer, but what they’re also doing is transferring the labour to you and accumulating the surplus value themselves. It happens over and over again. Every time you deal with a phone menu or interactive voicemail service, you’re donating your surplus value to the people you’re dealing with. Marx’s model is constantly asking us to see the labour encoded in the things and transactions all around us.

Lanchester addresses the question of conditions for the proletariat in the developing world, using the example of the world’s richest company, Apple. He also says (a dodgy assumption we might think) that in the western world, the majority of the population is now bourgeois, dependent on the proletariat in the developing world.

Its bestselling products are made at factories owned by the Chinese company Foxconn. (Foxconn makes the Amazon Kindle, the Microsoft Xbox, the Sony PS3, and hundreds of other products with other companies’ names on the front – it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that it makes every electronic device in the world.) The company’s starting pay is $2 an hour, the workers live in dormitories of six or eight beds for which they are charged rent of $16 a month, their factory in Chengdu, where the iPad is made, runs 24 hours a day, employs 120,000 people – think about that, a factory the size of Exeter – and isn’t even Foxconn’s biggest plant: that’s in Shenzhen and employs 230,000 people, who work 12 hours a day, six days a week. The company’s answer to a recent scandal about suicide rates was to point out that the suicide rate among Foxconn employees is actually lower than the Chinese average, and that it turns away thousands of applicants for jobs every day, and both of those facts are true. That’s what’s really shocking. These conditions are equal to or better than most of the equivalent manufacturing jobs in China, where most of the world’s goods are made, and that life is widely seen among Chinese workers as preferable to the remaining alternatives of rural life.

He argues that this is close to the vision of the exploitation of the proletariat presented by Marx. Having praised Marx as a critic of capitalism, he moves on to critique Marx. He starts with class, arguing that Marx’s organised and conscious proletariat does not exist. He also states that what the Chinese call Mass Group Incidents (protests or riots by large numbers of unhappy people) have nothing to do with class, something which again we might wonder about. Lanchester argues that Marx, like everybody else, could not foresee the many different forms capitalism has taken in different countries. He argues that a single analysis for such a variety of forms may not work. He develops the argument that capitalists respond to pressures and do things against their own interests for reasons such as ethical demands in the west producing pay rises in China, or even philanthropy, that go against the profit motive. This is part of a broader argument about us having more complex and contradictory economic activity, e.g. as workers or as pensioners or potential pensioners, that Marx did not foresee.

Lanchester essentially argues that the reforms that have been instituted since Marx’s day and the developments in things like life expectancy disprove significant aspects of Marx’s analysis, regarding immiseration for example (there are of course questions over whether Lanchester has understood what Marx meant by immiseration). Marx also missed, he argues, that the massive productive capacity of capitalism he saw so clearly would reach a point where the entire system of capitalism itself became unsustainable. He gives the example of water usage – there simply isn’t enough fresh water in the world for everyone to use it at the level people do in the US.

His conclusion runs along the following lines

So the question is whether capitalism can evolve new forms, in the way it has so far managed to do, and come up with property and market-based mechanisms which deflect the seemingly inevitable crisis that will ensue, or whether we need some entirely different social and economic order. The irony is that this order might in many respects be like the one Marx imagined, even if he saw a different route to getting there.

An interesting article from Lanchester, then, as always. It raises some of the problems those of us on the Marx-inspired left face, even when dealing with sympathetic people. Class consciousness and class struggle are seen essentially as old hat, and the fact that they don’t exist today in the way Marx expected (or it could be argued we saw in the C20th) means that they won’t exist in the future. This, I think, is what Lanchester was talking about at the start of the article where he explained that he is an empiricist but Marx wasn’t. He doesn’t say There Is No Alternative, but you get the feeling that even though he talks of the need for one, he doesn’t know where to start setting about trying to create one, and is rather hoping than some form of eco-collectivism will emerge. There seems to be a lot of pessimism of the intellect going on. The article certainly belongs, it seems to me, to the school of thought that Marx got a lot right about capitalism, but not much right about what to do about it.

He argues too that the welfare state may well have caused Marx to rethink his entire model. Along with his argument about all the different forms of capitalisms in different countries, we can see that the article perhaps looks for points where it can disagree with Marx without considering possible counter-arguments – the underlying sameness of the varieties of capitalism (at least in the eyes of capitalists) for example, or a consideration of what role class conflict played in the creation of the welfare state, or its defence. In the pages of the LRB years ago, Perry Anderson talked about zones of resistance to the neo-liberal model, picking out Latin America in particular. Lanchester seems not to have thought outside the west and China and Singapore; which is surprising, given the prominence of the BRIC concept in the broader media.

Interesting stuff, reminding us how many assumptions based on current experience, TINA and the end of history that we have to combat if we are to make a Marx-inspired message for social change, as opposed to a Marx-inspired critique of capitalism) practical in the eyes of huge swathes of the population.

Book Review. Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism 1840-2011 February 8, 2011

Posted by Garibaldy in History, Marxism.

Once again it is evident that even between major crises, ‘the market’ has no answer to the major problem confronting the twenty-first century: that unlimited and increasingly high-tech economic growth in the pursit of unsustainable profit produces global wealth, but at the cost of an increasingly dispensable factor of production, human labour, and, one might add, of the globe’s natural resources. Economic and political liberalism, singly or in combination, cannot provide the solution to the problems of the twenty-first century. Once again the time has come to take Marx seriously.

This is the conviction that has motivated Eric Hobsbawm to produce a collection of his essays on Marx and Marxism. Written over 50 years, these 16 essays range in length from 6 pages to over 50; most have been published before, but not necessarily in the form or language they appear in here. The book is broken into two sections, the first looking at aspects of the work of Marx and Engels themselves, and the second looking at the history of Marxism as it grew into a significant political force. It’s impossible to read these essays without marvelling at Hobsbawm’s range of knowledge, not least his linguistic skills: the essays and the footnotes are a stark reminder that those of us without German are doomed never to fully appreciate the writing of Marx and Engels (Hobsbawm makes the point that he has never read an English translation of the Communist Manifesto that has the power of the original), nor to read some of the best scholarship on their work and ideas (for which we would also need, say, Russian, French and Italian). Given the controversies over translations changing the meaning of ideas (Hobsbawm cites the phrase “the idiocy of rural life” as something that has been mistranslated, saying it should be something more like the isolation of rural life), again we will never be able to truly make our minds up for ourselves.

Not of course that that necessarily matters. We have a sense of what we think Marxism means, and operate on that basis. If it turns out that there has been some confusion over what Marx meant, it doesn’t mean that we would have to change our ideas. At the same time, it could be that a lot of Marxist contempt for rural life was based on a misunderstanding. Still, hard to read Hobsbawm’s book without a sense of regret at not having access to the range of material he does.

The book is a bit of a strange read. It mixes the the history of the intellectual development of Marx and Engels and close analysis of their texts with the publication history of their major works and that broad history that sweeps over countries, periods and issues (from politics to science to art) that Hobsbawm does so well. It serves as a reminder of the gap between the academic study of Marx and Marxism, and the way the works are approached by those seeking to apply them to practical politics. The second half of the book has more coherence than the first. It is, essentially, the story of the influence of Marxism from the 1880s to the start of the current century, with reflections on who Marxism appealed to and why and various points. Much of what Hobsbawm says, especially in the chapter ‘In the Era of Anti-Fascism 1929-45’, is very convincing, although I found that there was an overconcentration on the attitude of intellectuals to Marxism to the detriment of why Marxism appealed to the working class at various points. These sections are mainly taken from a multi-volume history of Marxism produced in Italy that Hobsbawm edited with other Eurocommunists, including his hero Franz Marek, so it may be that his brief was to deal more with intellectuals. This focus on intellectuals seemed to me to cause him to overstress the extent to which people had turned their backs on orthodox Marxism in the second half of the twentieth century in favour of other variants. It could also be that this is one of a number of points where Hobsbawm’s own political commitments, which largely don’t openly colour what is being written, creep in to the work. I’m fairly sure that Trotskyist readers, for example, will feel that is the case when the Spanish Civil War and some other issues come up.

The main influence of Hobsbawm’s own politics on his interpretation of Marx and Engels, however, does not come in sectarian sniping, but rather in the influence on his overall outlook of his thesis outlined three and a half decades ago in The Forward March of Labour Halted. Bastardising it to a large degree and mixing it with arguments he made elsewhere, he has argued that the proletariat as traditionally understood, the manual working class, was in decline in advanced capitalist countries, both as a proportion of the population and in terms of its class consciousness. It could no longer be seen as capable of changing society on its own, and so communists would have to seek firmer alliances with other social and progressive forces than they had previously thought necesary, and this would require changes in both ideas and strategy and tactics. This belief may or may not come out of an undercurrent in parts of the book that once Marxist parties decided to work the system, they effectively became reformists rather than revolutionaries. The second major influence that runs throughout the book is a belief that the collapse of the socialist states has rendered the Leninist model definitely outdated, something he had probably concluded before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He has, therefore, given up on the idea of proletarian revolution, but not on the possibility of the transformation of society that would see the removal of capitalism as we understand it.

This Marx believed would lead to the supersession of capitalism, a prediction that still sounds plausible to me but in a different way from what Marx anticipated.

In very broad brush terms, when it comes to the ideas of Marx himself (and also Engels), Hobsbawm argues that there remained throughout a Hegelian legacy; Marx and Engels had come to conclusions early in their lives about the need for the liberation of mankind; what then happened was that they married this to their more hard-headed analysis of the flaws of capitalist society and the role of class conflict in human history. Their desire for the liberation of humanity led them to draw conclusions about the ability and historic mission of the proletariat that the facts turned out not to support.

I’m not going to try and outline each essay, but rather mention some I found the most interesting. On the suggestion of our commenter Bakunin, I recently read Kevin B. Anderson’s Marx at the Margins, which among other things argued that towards the end of his life Marx became much more critical of capitalism as he viewed its impact on the colonies, and that he saw the Russian and Indian village as offering alternative roads to socialism than that likely to take place in Britain and the other advanced capitalist countries. Certainly some thought provoking stuff in the book, although personally I’d wonder about putting Ireland at the margins of capitalism in the same way as the colonies or Russia. But that’s an argument for another time. Having read Hobsbawm’s 50-odd page introduction to Grundrisse in this collection, I’m less convinced of the novelty of Anderson’s arguments than I was, and still more impressed with Hobsbawm than I had been. Also of great interests were the two chapters on Gramsci, especially the first, in which Hobsbawm argues that he was the first thinker to fully elaborate a Marxist theory of politics. As already mentioned, I found the chapter on the era of anti-fascism particularly interesting, and in my view it provided an excellent insight into the mentality of the people attracted to communism in this crucial period. The reflections on 1983-2000 – Marxism in Recession – are also interesting for the various reasons Hobsbawm discusses for its retreat, that expand far beyond the collapse of the USSR.

So is the book worth reading? Absolutely (despite the fact that the cover still mixes up the publication dates of the Manifesto and Capital volume I). Hobsbawm states that to solve the problems faced by the twenty-first century, we must ask Marx’s questions. I’m not sure the book does actually set out to show why that is the case, although the introduction to the Communist Manifesto from 1998 addresses that to some extent. Nor is there a great deal to be learnt for practical politics from this book, other than some reflections on how communists in the past sought the balance between pragmatism and principle, and the need to constantly analyse the world around us using Marxism as a tool, not scripture (even if we don’t all end up with the Forward March of Labour Halted). Inevitably there are elements of repetition. Nevertheless, it gives a greater understanding not only of Marx and Engels, but also of those who followed them, and the impact of society and politics on their ideas. As a work of both the history of ideas and the history of political culture, it is a masterclass, and is the product of a long life spent reading and thinking about Marx and Engels and their ideas with one of the finest minds of the twentieth century.

Hobsbawm on Where We Are and Where We Might Go January 16, 2011

Posted by Garibaldy in Books, British Politics, History, Marxism.

The prospect of a new Eric Hobsbawm book is always one to pique your interest. And today in the Observer, there is an interview with Hobsbawm on How To Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism. Unfortunately, the interview is conducted by Tristam Hunt MP, but still makes for interesting reading (there’s another, and shorter, interview in the New Statesman, and a review in the Daily Telegraph here). I have to say though that one’s confidence in the publishers and those writing about it is slightly diminished by the fact no-one seems to have noticed it is 162 years since The Communist Manifesto was published, and not Das Kapital.

So what is the book about? It is a collection of previously published and new essays, including, Hunt tells us, “some fine new chapters on the meaning of Gramsci”. Hobsbawm seems to be arguing that the current crisis has breathed new life not only into interest in Marx, but also into the possibility of systemic change, though he is unclear as to how it might come about.

he rediscovery of Marx in this period of capitalist crisis is because he predicted far more of the modern world than anyone else in 1848. That is, I think, what has drawn the attention of a number of new observers to his work – paradoxically, first among business people and business commentators rather than the left. I remember noticing this just around the time of the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto, when not very many plans were being made for celebrating it on the left. I discovered to my amazement that the editors of the [in-flight] magazine of United Airlines said they wanted to have something about the Manifesto. Then, a bit later on, I was having lunch with [financier] George Soros, who asked: “What do you think of Marx?” Even though we don’t agree on very much, he said to me: “There’s definitely something to this man.”

Hobsbawm sees the resurgence of Marx as coming about in particular from the fact that the crisis has proven neo-liberal economic orthodoxy completely wrong – we are in a crisis of a kind it said could not happen, in his view. The collapse of the USSR and associated countries, in Hobsbawm’s view, by removing a lot of the passion from the situation, allowed people to look at Marx afresh. Globalisation has become the victim of its own success.

You see, in a sense, the globalised economy was effectively run by what one might call the global north-west [western Europe and North America] and they pushed forward this ultra-extreme market fundamentalism. Initially, it seemed to work quite well – at least in the old north-west – even though from the start, you could see that at the periphery of the global economy it created earthquakes, big earthquakes. In Latin America, there was a huge financial crisis in the early 1980s. In the early 1990s, in Russia, there was an economic catastrophe. And then towards the end of the century, there was this enormous, almost global, breakdown ranging from Russia to [South] Korea, Indonesia and Argentina. This began to make people think, I feel, that there was a basic instability in the system that they had previously dismissed.

Hobsbawm continues his in his view that one of the main consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union has been the destruction of any meaningful form of social democracy.

In fact, one of the things I’m trying to show in the book is that the crisis of Marxism is not only the crisis of the revolutionary branch of Marxism but in the social democratic branch too. The new situation in the new globalised economy eventually killed off not only Marxist-Leninism but also social democratic reformism – which was essentially the working class putting pressure on their nation states. But with globalisation, the capacity of the states to respond to this pressure effectively diminished. And so the left retreated to suggest: “Look, the capitalists are doing all right, all we need to do is let them make as much profit and see that we get our share.”

That worked when part of that share took the form of creating welfare states, but from the 1970s on, this no longer worked and what you had to do then was, in effect, what Blair and Brown did: let them make as much money as possible and hope that enough of it will trickle down to make our people better off.

The significance, he says, of the current crisis is that living standards are clearly failling once again, and so the question of reformism will emerge once more.

Again, he continues with a pre-existing line, namely his argument that the traditional proletariat is no longer sufficient to change society on its own. Instead, it must form the backbone of progressive alliances. Hence Hobsbawm stating that

Today, ideologically, I feel most at home in Latin America because it remains the one part of the world where people still talk and conduct their politics in the old language, in the 19th- and 20th-century language of socialism, communism and Marxism.

Against some of the more excitable comments about the student protests, Hobsbawm questions the extent of the shift in student consciousness and reminds Hunt that the last major student protests (i.e. 1968) didn’t actually amount to all that much (an argument I have a great deal of sympathy for). In another argument I have some sympathy for, he seems unimpressed with Zizek as well.

I suppose Zizek is rightly described as a performer. He has this element of provocation that is very characteristic and does help to interest people, but I’m not certain that people who are reading Zizek are actually drawn very much nearer rethinking the problems of the left.

Hobsbawm, like everybody else on the left, feels that the coalition is taking the opportunity provided by the crisis to pursue a Thatcherite ideological agenda.

Behind the various cuts being suggested, with the justification of getting rid of the deficit, there clearly seems to be a systematic, ideological demand for deconstructing, semi-privatising, the old arrangements – whether it’s the pension system, welfare system, school system or even the health system. These things in most cases were not actually provided for either in the Conservative or the Liberal manifesto and yet, looking at it from the outside, this is a much more radically rightwing government than it looked at first sight.

I don’t think I’d agree with the remark that the government didn’t look this rightwing from the start. I think that was an illusion about Clegg and the Orange book LibDems, and perhaps even about Cameron, that some of the British centre-left allowed themselves to indulge in, culminating of course in the Guardian’s deluded and foolish call for progressives to vote LibDem. Hobsbawm calls for the Labour Party to concentrate on defending public services from cradle to the grave, and pointing to improvements it made in power. In other words, to move further to the left than Ed Miliband has positioned it so far.

Hunt points out that Hobsbawm’s book’s final paragraph notes that

the supersession of capitalism still sounds plausible to me

. Hobsbawm’s response suggests that he believes a move to socialism unlikely, but that he thinks the neo-liberal era may well be left in the past.

The record of Karl Marx, an unarmed prophet inspiring major changes, is undeniable. I’m quite deliberately not saying that there are any equivalent prospects now. What I’m saying now is that the basic problems of the 21st century would require solutions that neither the pure market, nor pure liberal democracy can adequately deal with. And to that extent, a different combination, a different mix of public and private, of state action and control and freedom would have to be worked out.

What you will call that, I don’t know. But it may well no longer be capitalism, certainly not in the sense in which we have known it in this country and the United States.

In a sense then, there’s not a lot new in this interview, and probably not a lot new in terms of Hobsbawm’s views on contemporary politics, as noted by the Telegraph review. I suspect that for the CLR audience, those of us who read it will find the more historical, philosophical or interpretive reflections on Marx and his followers as being of more interest than Hobsbawm’s political message, which seems perhaps unduly limited and perhaps defeatist.

David Harvey Interviewed in the Weekly Worker August 1, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in Marxism, Political Philosophy.

I stopped reading the Weekly Worker some time ago. It bore a certain lurid fascination with its accounts of the sometimes bizarre goings on in the various British far left groups, interspersed with the occasional interesting long article. At the end of the day though, most people read it for the gossip, and with blogs having taken on that role, there didn’t seem much point in wading though its often deeply strange screeds any longer. However, I was flicking through its archives this weekend, and came across an extended interview from June with the current doyen of the left on the web, David Harvey. Definitely worth reading in full; both for his basic analysis of the crisis but especially for Harvey’s reflections on the idea of the historic mission of the proletariat, which help put his overall ideas, and what benefit they may have for political activists, in better persepective.

Asked about what has surprised him about the crisis, he talked about the class nature of the crisis, and the propagadanda that stock market recovery meant the economy had recovered.

what surprises me is how clear and unambiguous the nature of this crisis is and – paradoxically – the inability of people to grasp what is happening and why, even when it is staring them in the face.

It seems he isn’t a regular reader of the Sunday Independent, nor are its columnists fans of his.

Now nobody sane would attribute the current crisis to the idea that labour has too much power. I have not heard greedy unions blamed this time around, as opposed to in the 70s. At that time, you could say the crisis really was in the labour market and in shop-floor discipline.
Since then we have had the mass disciplining of the working classes by offshoring and by technological change. If that ‘peaceful’ process did not work, people like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and general Pinochet were ‘invented’ to do it violently.


More Hunt On Engels May 9, 2009

Posted by Garibaldy in Capitalism, History, Marxism.

Tritam Hunt discusses Engels’ classic The Condition of the Working Class in England in today’s Guardian. As with his last piece on Engels, this is an advertising move, this time for a new Penguin edition of the work he has done an introduction for. Hunt compares the Manchester of Engels’ time to modern conditions. It’s an interesting and depressing read.

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