Latest blogpost from The Word From Struggle Street - an anticapitalist blog from Brisbane. An attempt to make sense of the debate in Australia around Corbyn.
Everyone is very excited about Jeremy Corbyn losing the election (except perhaps Van Badham). Since it was expected by the great and good that he would be crushed by the Tories the momentum of the campaign and the impressive increase in Labour’s vote share and seats won have thrown more disorder into a world political situation already rich with it. Like many I have been enjoying the schadenfreude of it all as all the morons who would pretend to rule us are shown to be the morons they are.
But more than this there is a real excitement about the result. I saw on Facebook that Craig posted a particularly apt quote from the end Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism:
The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again. (Fisher 2009, 80-81)
Not losing as badly as we were told Labour would lose seems almost like a victory. Certainly, it has thrown the May government into crisis. When you have been down this long…
But what does it all mean? I’ve got no special insight into Corbyn or his campaign. Rather I want to take the opportunity to place in one spot my thoughts on the febrile debate that is going on amongst friends and comrades in Australia: does Corybn’s ‘success’ mean that a similar electoral strategy based around a revived social democratic program is a promising path for anticapitalists? I want to respond in a way to that doesn’t see us all collapsing into either some opportunistic and doomed electoral project nor some ‘sub-Debordian’ (to quote James Butler) rigid denunciation that forecloses the possibility of something novel happening. This has been promoted by a number of discussions with comrades such as with Karen (who is in Socialist Alliance) and with Tadeusz Tietze (whose work on anti-politics with Liz Humphrys(2013, 2015) has been influential on me). (Note: I do not engage with their arguments directly nor obliquely here and what I have written should not be seen as a specific critique of their positions – it is a clarification of my own thinking). I also want to take account of how developments in Brisbane have shifted my view.
There seem to be two schools of thought amongst comrades that pre-existed before the election and into which the results are then slotted. The first, common to socialists and social democrats, is one that takes every swallow for the storming of the Winter Palace and sees in Corbyn a realisable project that could contribute to a way out of capitalism. The other approach is to see nothing new in Corybn or even worse a continuation of failing efforts that are trapped within the capitalist order. These two approaches also tie together with approaches to agency. Either a frothy voluntarism that sees activists as being able to create social movements from their pure sweat and commitment or a deterministic pessimism that argues that we are all caught in the thrall of the tectonic movements of the deep dynamics of the social order. Both are right and both are wrong. To paraphrase Marx we make history but not in the circumstance of our choosing (1992b, 146)
What are we to make of all of this? Let’s step back and try to imagine what ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’ would actually look like (Marx and Engels 1973, 57)? What would it actually take to overcome capitalism?
We have no idea what form this would take and how much it may draw on or be different from the past. At the very least we could say it would have to involve hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of people, in a country like Australia, actively coming together and being involved in the effort to both abolish the state and completely overturn the capitalist mode of production. The invention of new forms of collective decision making, new ways of organising our creative labour with each other and the earth and new ways to distribute of our creations. This would involve countless meetings, demos, occupations, strikes and street fights. It well could verge on something like a civil war. It would mean people who have never met, probably didn’t and don’t like each other, actively cooperating on the deepest questions of social organisation. It would mean people previously imprisoned in and divided by the hierarchies of identity breaking out of these and starting to encounter each other anew and working together under the most challenging circumstances. It would probably involve bitter arguments, the constant potential of disastrous failure and a heap of chaos and confusion. It would mean learning to live differently, from top to bottom, whist making sure the capacity for life is undamaged, indeed improved. We would have to reinvent how we manufacture medicine whilst ensuring there is no interruption in its supply. It would involve utopian experiments between strangers and the desperate struggle to keep the power on and the shelves full – radical reinvention and the necessity of consistency. The twin dangers of going too fast and leaving most people behind, thus being isolated and crushed or going too slowly and being recuperated back into the social order dance around each other…
It would involve an eruption of activity that currently seems impossible – or a least like a miracle ‘awaited but unexpected’ (Virno 1996, 209).
If we have any anchor for optimism it is in our self-antagonistic existence within capitalism (Holloway 2010). That in our lives as workers, paid and unpaid, we don’t simply fit within our roles. Rather we exceed them. The social order is fileted with countless moments of dignity, rebellion, solidarity and refusal. This dignity exists both lived in the texture of everyday life and also in the great sweep of history we inherit. Just because the spectacle of normality obscures them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Therefore, following the Zapatistas, we have a methodology of the inverted periscope and the buried key – we trying to look at the volcanic conditions under the surface of society and to revive the hopes and experiences of history. ‘In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy and the poor prophets of regression, we do recognise our brave friend, Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer – The Revolution!’(Marx 1992b, 300).
This antagonistic dignity exists within specific concrete realities within a determinate social formation. This is what we can call class composition. In a specific historical moment the antagonism between capital and labour is organised in particular way, due to the technical and organisation arrangement of work, the dynamics of accumulation, the domination of certain ideologies, the peculiarities of the social order, the hierarchies of identity and the kinds of organisation that fit with these. ‘For each historical phase of class struggle, we identify a compositional type of working class, which is at its core not only its location in the overall process of production, but also the series of experiments with struggle, comportments, and the way determinate and life needs come to be renewed and newly defined’ (Negri 2014, 11). This is a living process of recomposition and decomposition: of attempts by us to improve our lives and solidify our power and attempts by capital to further divided us and subject us to work and the commodity. ‘By “political recomposition” we mean the level of unity and homogeneity the working class reaches during a cycle of struggle in the process of going from one composition to another. Essentially, it involves the overthrow of capitalist divisions, the creation of new unities between different sections of the class, and an expansion of the boundaries of what the “working class” comes to include’(Zerowork Collective 1992, 112). When one reads Marx’s work on the class struggle in France what you see is a constant emphasis on process, that the working class must move through struggle after struggle to transform itself so it has a sufficient collective understanding and collective power to realise communism. And that this process isn’t smooth – but rather is constituted by a series of leaps, ruptures, defeats and retreats.
But how do we get from a general statement about the living potentiality of rebellion to actual rebellion? There is neither straight road nor any clear historical evidence that revolutionaries make revolutions – in fact it is probably the reverse. Rather it is only the intersection between the unfolding dynamics of capitalism, the movement of re/decomposition, random chance and unseen events and efforts by concrete individuals organising together that create the possibility of something more to emerge. Lenin is often the name most associated with agency, with a will to power and the force of an organisation (The Party) overturning the world. But if you look at his writings in 1917 you see him caught up in a cascade of events and attempting the truly Machiavellian effort to exert organised virtu on and within the thunderstorm of fortuna. All we can do is to try to understand the dynamics and balance of forces within the specific determinate social formation we live in and work out what may be a useful effort to push things in the direction we want. All we can do is to attempt contingent experiments within the unfolding dynamics of capital accumulation, chaotic events and the processes of class decomposition and recomposition in ways that try to add the latter. To my mind this involves at a minimum getting involved in struggles where you are, developing and sharing theoretical understandings and collective investigations and research, and building events and apparatuses that bring comrades together and circulate experiences and debates.
So what about Corbyn? I have to say that even if Corybn won in the future it is unlikely that he could implement his manifesto. This is because his government would be under the immediate and immense pressure of capital flight and an investment strike as well as the intransigence of the state. If he did apply it is unlikely that it would either/and solve the current problems for capital or create a viable road out of capitalism. This is because the global stagnation of capital arises from over-accumulation not lack of demand and we can’t legislate away social relationships. On top of this I think the general ultraleft and anarchist critiques of elections are compelling. So do elections play any role in our recomposition? Mainly ‘no’ and in fact are often harmful, but sometimes rarely, and importantly, ‘yes’.
What is interesting is not really Corbyn or his shadow cabinet – rather it is the thousands of people involved in the campaign. People act within the horizon of what they understand as possible. The massive influx of people into the Corbyn campaign may be seen as part of a series of attempts going back to the student protests, Occupy, the riots; of different fractions and elements of the class experimenting with their power. ‘One strand of the Corbyn influx – and some of the most vocal activists – comes from the young movement of students and anti-austerity activists who found their voice in 2010-11, and found an institutional foothold in the party in the last couple of years, having made a turn shared with other parts of the European new left towards parliamentary engagement after probing the limits of street protest.’ (Butler 2017).
And the defeat-that-feels-like victory matters too. It matters that young people poured out of clubs in Newcastle in the early hours of the morning chanting Corbyn’s name. How has their horizon of the possible shifted?
I’ve seen this play out in Brisbane and this is what has made me rethink the lack of nuance in my understanding of elections. The election campaign of Jono Sri for Brisbane City Council and then his victory brought people together and increased their range of what they thought is possible. This has flowed on into the blossoming of the Right to The City struggle which is attempting to increase collective power against the housing crisis and rapid reshaping of the urban environment. It is excessive of the boundaries of local government politics and directly connects to the material needs of mainly young people in the inner city. It has included such efforts as the recent attempt to directly communise a piece of land.
This doesn’t invalidate the critique of parliamentarianism or mean that we should throw away our Luxemburg. Rather the major core of this critique remains valid. The state remains the foremost force for the reproduction of society as a capitalist society and is simultaneously caught in the dynamics of capital accumulation. It is just ‘one node in a web of social relations’(Holloway 2002, 13). The experience of ongoing participation in parliament is to recuperate social struggles and normalise them with the dominant framework. The party structures themselves work to corral any insurgent developments. And elections remain, as they did in Mai 68, ‘a trap for fools’ – that is when we are actually out on the streets in great numbers, when things are actually kicking off, one way the system will defend itself is to demand everyone go home and to the ballot box to defuse and control our power. Parliament shouldn’t be our focus. There are other places to be: spaces we actually live our lives in. We can attempt to increase our collective power within them, circulate experiences of struggle and demystify the social order. Most of the time parliamentary politics should be left to the idiots and arseholes that flock to it.
As Badiou (2017) writes:
Getting hysterical about election results, in a both depressing and declamatory fashion, is not only useless, but harmful. It is to take a position on enemy terrain, helpless and with no solution. We must become indifferent to elections, which at most correspond to a purely tactical choice between abstaining from playing in this "democratic" fiction, or else supporting this or that competitor for conjunctural reasons, which we define precisely within the framework of communist politics, otherwise foreign to the rituals of state power.
But there is that caveat there that sneaks in under his otherwise resolute anti-electoral stance: ‘supporting this or that competitor for conjunctural reasons, which we define precisely within the framework of communist politics’.
And this caveat can be used when something unexpected happens. That despite all that we know about elections sometimes that movement around them is excessive. People come together, their hopes get lifted, they organise and debate and argue, they talk to friends and neighbours. The horizon of the possible expands. As much as that all this gets sucked into the normalisation machinery then this works to decompose us; as much as it increases people’s collective confidence then it works to recompose us. Sure I wouldn’t focus my efforts on an election campaign – but other comrades have. And part of the impact of these efforts seems pretty positive.
How then should those of us outside of these efforts relate to them? Especially when we have useful insights to offer? Po-faced dismissal? Funnily enough generally people don’t respond well to being told they are shit. Also opportunistically chasing after ever whiff of something exciting with a bundle of newspapers under your arm attempting to sell people the revolutionary party you have in your back pocket doesn’t work much either. If something is going on, something confused and contradictory, something that might vanish into ephemera or congeal into a more durable part of the real movement then we may have something to add to these conversations and debates inside the class. We should try to express ourselves in a way that might be heard. This I think tends to be more possible if we already have some form of relationships of solidarity, respect and trust. That we identify with the animating desires of our comrades that take shape in an election campaign even if we critique the form of its expression.
We can take advice from one of Marx’s letters to Ruge.
Nothing prevents us, therefore, from lining our criticisms with a criticism of politics, from taking sides in politics, i.e. from entering into real struggles and identifying ourselves with them. This does not mean that we shall confront the world with new doctrinaire principles and proclaim: Here is the truth, on your knees before it! It means that we shall develop for the work new principles from the existing principles of the world. We shall not say: Abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us provide you with true campaign slogans. Instead we shall simply show the world why it is struggling, and consciousness of this is a thing it must acquire whether it is wishes or not (1992a, 208-09).
Badiou, Alain. 2017. Let’s lose interest in elections, once and for all! Verso [cited 13th June 2017]. Available from http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3190-let-s-lose-interest-in-elections-once-and-for-all.
Butler, James. 2017. Reality of Running. Verso [cited 12th June 2017]. Available from http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3261-reality-is-running.
Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative. Winchester, UK Washington, US: Zero Books.
Holloway, John. 2002. Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. London: Pluto Press.
Holloway, John. 2010. Crack Capitalism. London: Pluto Press.
Humphrys, Elizabeth, and Tad Tietze. 2013. Anti-politics: Elephant in the room. Anti-politics: Elephant in the room [cited 7th April 2016]. Available from http://left-flank.org/2013/10/31/anti-politics-elephant-room/.
Marx, Karl. 1992a. Early Writings. Translated by Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton. London: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review.
Marx, Karl. 1992b. Surveys From Exile: Political Writing Vol. 2. London: Penguin Books.
Marx, Karl , and Frederick Engels. 1973. The German Ideology Part One. 3rd ed. New York: International Publishers.
Negri, Antonio. 2014. Factory of Strategy: 33 Lessons on Lenin. Translated by Arianna Bove. New York: Columbia University Press.
Tietze, Tad, and Elizabeth Humphrys. 2015. Anti-politics and the Illusions of Neoliberalism. Oxford Left Review (14), http://oxfordleftreview.com/olr-issue-14/tad-tietze-and-elizabeth-hymphreys-anti-politics-and-the-illusions-of-neoliberalism/.
Virno, Paolo. 1996. "Virtuosity and Revolution." In Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, edited by Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno, 189-210. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.
Zerowork Collective. 1992. "Introduction to Zerowork 1." In Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War 1973-1992 edited by Midnight Notes Collective, 109-14. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.