The boat has not left: a reply to Gregor Gall

In his broadside against the global Left, Gregor Gall claims that the Left has lost all credibility.  This is a common complaint in tune with criticism from the Right, a case of Stockholm Syndrome.

The Left is not the force we would like it to be. I agree with some of Gall’s points, and I write this article to add to the conversation, to keep it going.

But despairing calls of ‘why haven’t the workers joined us in our struggle?’ do little to help.

We know that monolithic neoliberalism is not actually a monolith.  It is a program that has eddies and flows; it is riddled with contradictions. Nonetheless, it profoundly affects us.  Everyone sees themselves as capitalist agents, with ‘the market’ as an almighty power that distributes punishment or reward based on one’s ability to participate in it.  And this form of discipline (to use the Foucauldian term) continues to be enforced, undermining fundamental class divisions.

What neoliberalism does is turn us all, ideologically, into middle class producers as well as consumers.  Appeals to class consciousness in relation to the means of production duly begin to disappear.

If we fail to see the success of neoliberalism in its micro-politics as well as its overall order we become blinded about the types of conjunctures we find ourselves, and the actual balance of class and political forces.

Gregor notes that the Left failed to take stock of the global economic crisis. This is because we have become reactive rather than being able to anticipate, and so we cannot understand how neoliberalism not only survived the crisis but also strengthened itself through the implementation of austerity.

We can’t just hope to create a leftist rank and file of thin air once the crisis has hit. What is necessary is a deep rethinking of neoliberalism, so we can start developing micro and macro forms of solidarity, collective organisations that provide opportunities for collective action and places to hide from the brutality of everyday neoliberalism.

This is already happening in the Global South and even in parts of Europe.  Solidarity collectives among the most impoverished appear both out of an absolute need to survive but also as a new way of thinking about organising.

Although there are many problems in Latin America, broad left-wing programs have large support in many nations there.  Even communist parties, unimaginable in Australia, have wide support on the continent that suffered the brunt of a neo-liberal adjustment.

I don’t mean to romanticise these struggles but rather to point out that the global Left is not one large collective that rises and falls together.  As neoliberalism affects nations and peoples in different manners, the opportunities are also different. We need to recognise how capitalism shifts its crises geographically, and therefore the opportunities for the Left to react also shift.

What’s more, the only reason these opportunities’ present themselves is because of the years of subaltern organisation that have taken place beforehand.

We in the West cannot wait for the next crisis to hit before people become so desperate they look for new forms of organisation. We need to think about how neoliberalism atomises people and how to overcome this, planting the seeds of a stronger Left.

The first step is not to change reality to fit our dreams but to change our dreams. We can’t wait for the magical event that turns us into a revolutionary force.  In reality, capitalism is the real revolutionary force. We need to do what Zizek says, be realistic by asking for the impossible. There are plenty of examples of the hidden potential, from Syriza to the indignados movement, but these were not established by reacting, but rather by organising for the long term.

Philosopher Jodi Dean uses psychoanalytic theory to show how ‘drive’ is the capitalist mode of being. Capitalism is not orientated toward anything in particular but moves easily from one object to other: hence its ability to reinvent itself.  It is a circuit that almost thrives on failure, with each new failure creating a new enjoyment. Capitalism is like being stuck on Youtube, always clicking one more video, in an ultimately unsatisfying repetition.

The effects, of course, are personally and systemically destructive. But if we continue to act reactively, then we too are stuck in this system.  Instead (to use Dean again), a ‘desire’ should be created, a view towards an unachievable horizon. For the Left, this horizon should be a desire for a collective form of organisation.

One of the consequences of ‘really existing socialism’ was the destruction of this impulse in the Left.  We turned to reactive identity politics, convinced that utopia would only lead to dictatorship.

Yet even if a social upheaval culminates in a recomodification by capitalism (as critics suggest happened after the May ’68 uprising), that which was lost persists as a dream. Whenever we are engaged in radical emancipatory politics, we should remember what Benjamin said: there is no such thing as an ‘authentic’ revolution but nonetheless each left-wing movement is also directed to the past as well as the future. It can use dreams, however small, from the past on the way to finding a new freedom.

This might be only theoretical musings. But I do think there needs to be a shift in our thinking, a move to unified front that could come out of the creation of a new horizon, rather than simply reactive programs.  We need to rediscover the lost dreams of the past, and patiently work for the long term.

I do not have all the answers. But, at a practical level, there is an urgent need to organize and mobilise workers and the unemployed towards a broadly leftist horizon, rather than continuing to react.

Andrew Self

Andrew Self is a journalist and teacher from Melbourne. He tweets at @andrewself.

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  1. “unless we wait for the next crisis in (or of) capitalism to provide the basis for the connection between the radical Left and the masses of citizens…” is how Gall left of his argument, and a “we” is all pervasive here too…

    “We need to rediscover the lost dreams of the past, and patiently work for the long term.”

    A pronoun takes the place of a noun as an element of structure. I take / took the problem to be that there exists no such leftist structural solidarity, which makes these appeals to a “we” an abstraction?

    1. You make a good point on the use of ‘we’, and it is something which would require more attention. However in the case of this article I simply mean ‘we’ in those who identify broadly with a leftist program.

  2. In your own words “We know that monolithic neoliberalism is not actually a monolith. It is a program that has eddies and flows; it is riddled with contradictions.”
    It is also not a conscious actor, nor anything more than a conceptual grab-bag of no literal use in discourse with anyone outside the hardened left.
    Yet, you have neoliberalism “strengthening itself” post-GFC, as though it wore a conscious oppositional actor sworn to devour the left whole. And apparently all we need to do is to reconceptualise this evil in order to mitigate it.
    Fighting “neoliberalism” is Quixotic and absurd. Fighting its practical absurdities puts the left in lock-step with every uncertainty and misgiving around globalisation, fraying of traditional community structures, etc. etc
    But please, let’s do away with the edifices and the terminology, and the need to somehow locate an evil that needs to be overturned. Where that might be understandable in the left’s historical context, it’s not helpful for its future.

    1. Thanks for the points Adam.
      You’re correct, neoliberalism is not a conscious actor, and I could have made this clearer.

      But I don’t contend that the left fight neoliberalism on its own terms, quite the opposite as I point out in the second half of the article. I argue that the left needs to create long term goals, desires etc that are not completely reactive and build from there. In other words, look towards a horizon, rather than fighting crisis to crisis.

  3. I welcome Andrew’s desire to keep the conversation going.

    He makes some important points. Gregor’s discussion is insufficiently sensitive to the uneven global condition of the left. There are some important popular movements against neoliberalism (not just in Greece) that should feature in any attempt to assess where the left stands today.

    Gregor writes from the UK (I believe). His analysis strikes me as particularly relevant to the wretched state of the radical left there – but not everywhere else.

    But some of Andrew’s points lack clarity and coherence.

    For example, Andrew states that ‘everyone sees themselves as capitalist agents…neoliberalism turns us all into middle class producers’.

    Really? Do they? Does it?

    Do the low-paid contract cleaners that sweep up after Andrew has spent a day reading Foucault and Zizek in La Trobe’s library see themselves as ‘capitalist agents’ and ‘middle class producers’?

    Of course, I don’t know how they see themselves. But ‘capitalist’ and ‘middle class’ strike me as unlikely forms of self-identity in this instance.

    Undoubtedly some people do buy into the idealized rhetorics, images and identities promoted by aspects of neoliberal culture.

    But if Gregor is guilty of overgeneralizing from the UK experience, Andrew seems equally guilty of overgeneralizing from the few who have adopted forms of self-identity over-determined by contemporary market logics.

    So yes, I agree with Andrew that we need to better understand the micro-politics of neoliberalism. We need to understand how people make sense of and rationalize their immediate situation and the world around them. And that requires theory – but theory that is grounded in socio-economic realities, not speculative philosophy.

    In Socialist Register, Sam Gindin has written about how many working people negotiate neoliberalism, not by internalizing its idealized forms, but by adapting pragmatically to the demands it makes in the interests of simply getting by.

    The task for the left is to develop a counter-narrative rooted in a counter-movement.

    It needs to politicize those aspects of daily life that people reluctantly regard as inevitable (insecure work, low pay, increasing indebtedness etc) and offer an alternative vision that they regard as credible and attainable.

    And this is where I think Gregor is right. While the radical left in the UK (and Australia) has developed powerful critiques of neoliberalism, it has failed to offer an alternative that connects with most (or even a significant minority) of working people.

    And, in part, that is because the radical anti-capitalist left is dominated by groups incapable of much more than offering hyper-abstract solutions (‘socialism now!’) that most workers rightly regard as irrelevant, unworkable and so not worthy of their time and attention.

    But this hyper-abstract politics is not simply an accidental political error. It is a reflection of the radical left’s cultural detachment from the working class it claims to represent.

    Much of the left has attempted to compensate for its lack of social and political weight by retreating into dogmatism, clinging to outmoded formulations to explain its political irrelevance that avoid critical self-reflection.

    So a key task for the left is to recognize its own failures, to break with dogmatism, and instead develop forms of politics appropriate to the geographically and historically specific nature of the class formations they seek to transform.

  4. Michael,

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    I take your point that not everyone will openly identify as being capitalist agents, but this is precisely the point. If people self identify or not, the fact remains that we are these very agents. Many of our dreams, desires are measured and based around capitalist success as good producers and consumers, and also as you highlight all in the need of ‘just getting by’. Many of us are fully aware of what late capitalism is doing to us, but we still act as these agents. This is part of the reason it is difficult to broaden the left base.

    But I agree with the need to create a counter-narrative based in a counter-movement and as I argue, I think this has to come out of a larger, long term desire rather than reactive politics.

    And as for the (slightly backhanded) remark about the hyper-abstract nature of this article. It is only a short article contributing to the debate which obviously includes many other facets and strategies.

    But theory is important in thinking about these issues, and just because I’m a PhD student, it does not mean I am disconnected from the world. (In fact, I have to work a low paying job to support myself while doing a PhD.) It is all too easy to bring in some form of anti-intellectualism for the left’s problems. I am not calling for some dogmatic ‘intellectual’ idea for the problem, just suggesting other ways to think, debate and construct.

    I can fully agree with your last point though:

    “So a key task for the left is to recognize its own failures, to break with dogmatism, and instead develop forms of politics appropriate to the geographically and historically specific nature of the class formations they seek to transform.”

    That is exactly what I would call for.

    All the best.

  5. Andrew

    No back-handedness or anti-intellectualism was intended.

    Abstraction and theory have an important role to play in politics – otherwise we end up framing what we think, say and do by reference to what appear to be universal and eternal constraints.

    The problem is how to make use of theory and abstraction in ways that are politically useful and which avoid dogmatism. Hence the importance of the empirical mode of investigation (in place of empiricism).

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