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2012: The year that politics disoriented the Left

The political prediction business is not one you should engage in unless you’re either willing to repeatedly admit erroneous forecasts (one of Ben Eltham’s most endearing qualities) or to march on obliviously ignoring them (most of the rest of the commentariat). It’s even worse for us Marxists, as we’re notorious for having accurately foretold five out of the last two recessions. The problem is that history unfolds dialectically in the real world, and not simply through a logical derivation from some initial starting point.

Anyway, I had a go at forecasting in mid-2011, and when recently prompted to return to this by Colin Barker I was surprised at how well my scribblings had stood the test of time. For instance, I wrote:

Strikingly, in this interconnected world, the organisational forms, language and methods of activism first provide inspiration and are then adapted to local circumstances. We’ve seen this, for example, with the invocation of camps in city squares, starting in Egypt, then in Spain and finally fusing with repeated general strikes in Greece — in each case playing multiple roles: organisational hub, political centre, liberated zone of radical democracy and symbolic assertion of collective stewardship of the commons. There are irreducibly national characteristics to each revolt, and yet the international connections and implications are hard to miss.

I added:

It is important to grasp what is going on here in a way that mainstream Left commentators find impossible because they take as given fundamental divides between economic, political and ideological spheres of social structure and contestation. The Egyptian revolution’s social character lies not in its immediate institution of a new hegemony (that’s clearly a long way off as I write this) but in the fact that the apparent autonomy of these domains collapses under the force of the entrance of the mass of ordinary people onto the stage of history.

Looking back, three of my projections from then struck me as having developed further in 2012: (1) the return of political-strategic questions as a challenge to the new movements, (2) the outlier — but not ‘exceptional’ — character of the situation in Australia, and (3) the disorientation of the Australian Left in the face of the further decay of official politics.

The return of the political

Since I wrote, the irruption of social-revolt-from-below, emerging from civil society, has provoked a response from political society and the state. Gramsci talks about how the ‘enwrapment’ (involucro) of civil society by political society means that any serious challenge from below forces politics into the mix. I think Gramsci is getting at how a ‘pure’ challenge from civil society is impossible; the very action of challenging dominant elites forces a certain symmetry on the movement from below.

You can see this perhaps most clearly in Spain because the indignados movement was initially so anti-political (‘none of them represent us’) in response to the complete failure of the Left of the political class (PSOE), even rejecting official trade union participation, yet this so quickly had to be broken down because the question of posing some kind of political alternative was a central challenge. So you have some sections of this ‘we refuse to participate in politics’ movement suddenly talking about building a ‘Spanish SYRIZA’. Or you have people infuriated by the sell-outs of the unions quickly learning the need to intervene strategically into the workers’ movement to push and overcome their leaderships.

In each situation, rather than the very ‘movement-y’ rebellions that we were seeing in mid-2011, we have now relocated onto a terrain where politics intrudes in every calculation. So, in Egypt there have not just been questions of what to do about the Muslim Brotherhood, but of how to relate to thoroughly bourgeois elections in order to better position the movement to challenge the state.

In Greece, where political parties retained a stronger base than elsewhere we still saw the old political class fall apart, the anti-political aspects of the movement erupt in the squares, and yet politics has reasserted itself in the form of how to challenge the pro-Troika governments, with the very rapid electoral rise of SYRIZA as the immediate expression of this in the May and June elections.

In Quebec the movement had a massive energy and self-organisational capacity, but it also clearly drew on past traditions of dealing strategically with state and political actors (the interviews I’ve read with the movement leaders are probably the most focused on intricacies of strategy and tactics by leaders of any of the movements of the last 18 months).

In the United States, to take a negative example, the inability of most of the Occupy movement to go beyond powerfully symbolic actions left sections of it open to co-option by either the Democratic machine (cleverly running not on Obama’s strengths but that he wasn’t the other guy, capturing the spirit of resistance to the 1% without actually offering anything substantial in terms of challenging them) or being pulled by right-wing libertarian strands within it.

The talk of a ‘Spanish SYRIZA’ speaks to how it’s not just movement organisation that learns lessons across national borders, but how the political lessons get transmitted. But, again, the national specificities are important — there is already a ‘Galician SYRIZA’precisely because the national question is an important way that local elites can try to reshape the struggle from below into cross-class projects with a potential to stabilise the situation. This seemed to come through in Quebec also, where the mainstream Left nationalism benefited more than the movement-associated radical party, because the former could draw on the reformist traditions of the Quiet Revolution in a way that made more sense to wider layers of people not directly associated with the student protests.

Crisis with no easy resolution from above

I finished my 2011 post by arguing that the current period had features of both the 1930s and 1968. I think this is still a useful way to think about it, because the global capitalist crisis limits the space for more moderate and stable pro-capitalist hegemonic projects to be constructed, as they were once the movements started to reach impasses in the 1970s. This is not to say they can’t arise: SYRIZA is the classic example of how quickly they can come to dominate the Left. But to just see their rise misses the precariousness of the position they find themselves in, and to be tempted to simply fall in behind them as the best thing possible. The crisis ensures that things are more fluid than that.

That’s also why I think the warning in my post about the far Right is important — not because it can automatically take power, but because if a more radical Left politics (one that genuinely points beyond the system creating the instability) is not constructed then the far Right’s extremist program and actions will look less repellent to many who feel crushed by the crisis and who are questioning the value of ‘normal’ democratic institutions. The rise of forces like Golden Dawn since I wrote bears this out (it has risen at the same time as powerful new Left reformist forces and social struggles).

The other issue is that the balance of forces can seem to shift very quickly. Too many (Slavoj Zizek among them) suggested the Egyptian revolution as having run out of puff with the apparent ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood, without seeing that the economic, political and ideological moments were part of a greater whole. When there is setback or confusion on one front then there is a danger that revolutionaries will feel prematurely crushed. Clearly the revolt has regained momentum and, interestingly, just as Morsi won some amazing foreign policy authority through his intervention in the Gaza conflict he almost immediately made a misstep that dramatically destabilised his position.

So far there have been few clear ‘defeats’ for this new wave of struggles, suggesting that the problems for our ruling classes outweigh their ability to outmanoeuvre and/or frontally crush movements that are still in the early phases of making ‘successive approximations’. I think we’re in for a prolonged period where ruling elites will find it hard to regain their footing for any stretch of time.

This is of central importance here in Australia, where we’ve had a very mild economic downturn and relatively low levels of open struggle and yet our political class and institutions are shaky — still in charge but with low levels of authority. The danger is that the Australian Left reads off the current state of play as one of all-powerful right-wing governments facing passive subaltern classes. This struck me most forcefully when I started to explore social attitudes surveys from Greece to try to get a sense of the political crisis that preceded SYRIZA’s dramatic rise. The basis of that surge lay not just in the scale of the economic crisis and the massive resistance to austerity, but the way this intersected with a secular discrediting and hollowing out of the official political system.

The perplexity of the Australian Left

I point to this because, as The Piping Shrike notes, Australia’s relative lack of economic catastrophe and social resistance helps clarify the crisis of official politics better than in those countries where more dramatic events appear to be the sole causes of ruling class problems. Our outlier status is not a reason for surrender to ‘exceptionalist’ arguments, but for trying to grasp concretely how the local conjuncture fits into a greater global whole. Not understanding this also risks violent mood swings when following the fortunes of Australia’s official Left in the opinion polls — rather than comprehending the deeper crisis over which these shifts play out. This incomprehension also lies behind the pathetic predictive record of the Canberra commentariat.

There have been two erroneous responses to this situation on the Australian Left.

One response, near hegemonic and exemplified by the trajectory of the Greens, is to simply accept the coordinates set by the old political order. For all the Greens’ positioning as ‘doing politics differently’, once the ALP was in power federally from 2007 the party became progressively less critical of the narrow consensus in Canberra, and with the 2010 deal with Gillard they became closely associated with a deeply unpopular government. This is evident not just in the Greens’ involvement (for example) in selling a climate package little different to what they correctly rejected in 2009, but in their getting caught up in the empty partisanship that obscures the essential agreement between the major parties on almost all policy issues. The problem here is not that the Greens have failed to address politics but that they have adapted the limits imposed on it by the major parties — even on the issue (asylum seekers) where they have taken the strongest stand. The irony, of course, is that in proving themselves constructive players within the political class they have tarnished much of their reputation for providing a genuine alternative to its petty, self-interested manoeuvres.

The other response has been to see resistance from below as the solution — to simply counterpose social movement and trade union struggles (perhaps mixed with some Marxist ideology) to attacks from Gillard or state premiers. It is not that we don’t need more social resistance — we desperately do. But, as I have tried to outline above, the emergence of radical struggle will not automatically lead to new forms of politics winning out. The question of how politics is concentrated around the state, how it is not just about arguments but relations of force, needs to be addressed concretely, in its historical specificity. A general ideological response, as necessary as it is, is also insufficient.

Perhaps, then, with all this in mind, it is best to end with a quote from Gramsci, where he outlines the method of the ‘active politician’, here using Machiavelli as an example on which to riff:

The active politician is a creator, an initiator; but he neither creates from nothing nor does he move in the turbid void of his own desires and dreams. He bases himself on effective reality, but what is this effective reality? Is it something static and immobile, or is it not rather a relation of forces in continuous motion and shift of equilibrium? If one applies one’s will to the creation of a new equilibrium among the forces which really exist and are operative basing oneself on the particular force which one believes to be progressive and strengthening it to help it to victory—he still moves on the terrain of effective reality, but does so in order to dominate and transcend it (or to contribute to this). What ‘ought to be’ is therefore concrete; indeed it is the only realistic and historicist interpretation of reality, it alone is history in the making and philosophy in the making, it alone is politics. [Gramsci, Selections From The Prison Notebooks, p. 172]

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Comments

  1. I think saying that we’ve got a mix of the 30s and 1968 is profoundly unhelpful. Different people have different understandings of those histories. Unless you are addressing a specific audience which shares a codified understanding of those references? I recall the IST used to use such bizarre formulations as “the 1930s in slow motion” which to me just made things more confusing! And too bookish.

    However, this comment is brilliant to my mind: “The danger is that the Australian Left reads off the current state of play as one of all-powerful right-wing governments facing passive subaltern classes. This struck me most forcefully when I started to explore social attitudes surveys from Greece to try to get a sense of the political crisis that preceded SYRIZA’s dramatic rise. The basis of that surge lay not just in the scale of the economic crisis and the massive resistance to austerity, but the way this intersected with a secular discrediting and hollowing out of the official political system.”

    That kind of resignation to passivity is the real problem for the Australian far left in my opinion. Sigh.

    • Hi Ben

      The reference from the original post to “1968 + 1930s” is from what I wrote last year, and is not intended to be particularly deep, but to recognise that we are not seeing a simple re-run of the late 1960s — an idea that was being bandied about at the time in some quarters. Here’s what I wrote:

      ‘The revolts in the Middle East and Europe look very much like 1968 at one level, and so currently seem distant from today’s Australian situation, shaped as it is by the political defeats of the Left and working class over the last three decades. Yet on another level there is a fundamental difference: When 1968 happened the long “Golden Age” of capitalism was only beginning to fray at the edges. Resistance emerged when rising expectations and confidence from below — economic and political —increasingly clashed with the system’s ability to deliver. In the end it was economic crisis that opened a space for elites to re-establish control via a program of restructuring that later became neoliberalism. Today’s context is one of decades of neoliberal class war from above followed by the deepest global crisis since the 1930s. The ruling class starts with little room to dole out reforms to placate dissatisfaction. Rather, the opposite is true and they are leading the attack.

      ‘Thus struggles that erupt will inevitably be more bitter, and the conclusions drawn from economic privation will flow more directly into political questioning. This also implies that politics will be more central than ever, because simply saying that “we shouldn’t pay for their crisis” (as fundamentally true as that may be) will not deal with the need for an alternative program — not one designed to salvage the elite from their morass, but one that can articulate the energy and aspirations of the subaltern groups into an alternative hegemony. These will not be the only policies and programs on offer as reactionary forces seek to recast the crisis in terms of nation, race and other divisions.’

      (See: http://left-flank.org/2011/07/22/beyond-the-age-of-austerity-a-new-pattern-of-resistance-and-revolution-emerges/)

  2. So your quoting of your predictive powers suggests that you predicted that the politics that was going on would keep going on. Thanks, Nostradamus. Any thoughts on the ’13 Brownlow? Apart from that self-puffery, a very good article.

  3. I like the Gramsci quote – I note that his term “effective reality” is what the Trotskyist movement considers “objective reality”, but too often they see it as something “something static and immobile”, a “natural force” almost like geology (with its periodic movement and earthquakes). In recent times I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who have said, “In this objective situation we can’t do much except propaganda tasks.” (i.e. we have to wait until things change before the left can grow). But it’s not just that this avoids the difficult task of transcending the situation, but it avoids the fact that the right are constantly ‘active’, constantly constructing their hegemony, and hence ensuring that the effective reality remains an “objective reality” with little or no struggle. That is, the entire question of hegemony is sidestepped.

  4. The trotskyist movement isnt homogenous, take for example the excellent work the Trotskyist Platform (check their new 2013 journal on facebook) have been doing on the issue of Syria, they are miles ahead of the rest of, the trotskyist left

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