Gilles Dauvé looks at the 'globalisation movements' of the early 21st century, their critique of capitalism and vision of revolution, in an introduction to a 2003 Swedish collection of his texts.
Something has happened since the second edition of these essays in 1997: an “anti-capitalist” movement has become popular since the Seattle riots in 1999.1 But we are faced with a paradox here. The aims of the small minority that was defeated thirty years ago have now reappeared as the starting point of an active protesting majority. Most of what “ultra-left”, “councilist”, “situationist” or “anarchist” groups struggled in vain to push through in the 1960’s and 70’s currently seems to be accepted, or even taken for granted.
(Let’s leave aside the “society of the spectacle” theory, now tamed into a socially innocuous cliché.)
“Socialist” countries? It’s as if everybody had always known there never existed any workers’ paradise in any country.
The October Revolution? One may disagree about causes and dates, but it’s obvious that whatever workers’ power there was soon turned into bureaucratic power.
Unions, Labour parties, CPs? Of course they’re organs of social conservation. They always have been.
Leninism? Only the most backward among us still bother about party-building.
Workerism? Nobody will now dare to silence you on the pretext that you don’t walk into a factory every morning.
In 1970, the critique of the “commodity” was an oddity, reminiscent of profound but slightly obscure passages from Marx’s early works. Millions now want to do away with a commodified world.
Similarly, the critique of industry and technology used to appear as a Western luxury, even indecent in relation to mass poverty which left-wingers believed could only be solved by mass production. Do you remember reading an article against nuclear power in 1965 in a leftist paper? In 2002, questioning industrialization and technology goes without saying (and thinking).
Only a minority asserted that “revolution” did not mean better managed production to fulfil people’s needs, but a change of everything we do and are, a “critique of daily life”. Now millions of summit disrupters and demonstrators the world over don’t want more of the same, but a change in mores, sex, housing, food, etc.
Therefore, “revolution” itself is thought of quite differently. In 1968, pointing out the festive dimension of insurrection was regarded as petit-bourgeois. Thirty years later, changing the world means fun, and soldier-like discipline belongs to the past: no more beloved leaders speak from a rostrum to a passive audience that keeps silent until it starts clapping. We witness a practical rejection of traditional politics, and autonomy is the keyword.
In other words, nearly everything that the revolutionary wave of the 60’s and 70’s had so much trouble trying to put forward is now often too obvious even to be thought twice about.
What a tiny revolutionary minority regarded—and still regards—as repulsive (Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, leaderism, the myth of socialist countries, etc.) is currently dismissed as irrelevant or outdated. And the essentials of an understanding of our society, commodity and profit for example, are as superficially accepted and hyped as they were ignored before.
This is where the flaw lies. The shortcoming of present anti-capitalism does not derive from its domination by reformers. This is inevitable at the birth of any large social movement, and further developments may be able to go beyond these limitations.
The crux of the matter is that all the points we listed are indeed vital to a critique of this society, but that the current movement disconnects them from each other. However relevant and forceful it can be, each aspect loses its subversive potential when it’s partialized. In the past, “capitalism” (equated to bourgeois rule) was denounced as the absolute evil, the abolition of which would free us of everything. Today there’s no absolute, and everything is relative. “Capitalism” is only one mighty enemy among many. Demonstrators support an addition of single issues, each group emphasizing its specific cause. Redundant workers ask for jobs, gays ask for gay rights, ethnically oppressed people ask for a minority status or for a nation2 ... while the global coherence of the whole is taken for granted: the money world. In a nutshell, people against profits.
In the past, the totality to be transformed was an out-of-reach nearly metaphysical being called “capitalism”. The proles were the salt of the earth. The ultimate goal was otherworldly, “communism” was another word for paradise, Marx was a prophet, and revolutionary theory was made into religion. Nowadays we’ve moved from the transcendent to the immediate. The age of prophets is over. There is no proletarian Messiah. There is no beyond. The unity of the totality to be altered is everywhere and nowhere, so don’t worry all that much about centrality, just start here and now, and grassroots action will finally put enough pressure on the State to modify it in a humane way.
In 1960, most militant workers and leftists fought for bread and roses in the future, but in the meantime hardly questioned their present, accepted sex roles, prisons, the cult of progress, etc. They equated revolution with building the prerequisites of communism. Now no-one wishes to sacrifice generations for a paradise to come: common wisdom repeats the conditions of our emancipation already exist, and are for us to grasp and use in a different way. “We want the world and we want it now”...
So far, the (necessary) rejection of the religious aspect of would-be revolutionary activity has led to in a renewed belief in a gradual peaceful transition to socialism uses (though nobody uses such grand words any more).
Even radicals in the anti-capitalist milieu interpret social change as a sum of rights (women’s rights + children’s rights + workers’ rights + immigrants’ rights + ... ) to be imposed upon this society, with the implication that imposing enough rights would eventually bring about a different society. For instance, many radicals are extremely reluctant to tackle the combined issues of sex and identity. The 60’s left-winger ignored homosexuality: the early XXIst century anti-capitalist casts a favourable eye on the gay ghetto. He or she also often disregards a thorough critique of feminism as a sign of male chauvinism.3 One sometimes feels that militant anti-capitalism merely adds violence to political correctness.
It’s interesting to see what is actually attacked, not by the anti-globalization media darlings, but by the activists. What exactly do they mean by doing away with “profit”?
In the old days, exploitation was denounced as theft, and the capitalist as the factory owner that got rich through under-paying manpower. Socialism (Leninist as well as social-democratic) was supposed to put an end to this thanks to a fair wage: the elimination of the parasitic class would enable the worker not be robbed any more to pay for the luxuries of his rulers. At the same time, central planning would suppress bourgeois anarchy and re-allocate resources according to the needs of the toiling masses. Nowadays, although much is made of the extravagant salaries and stock options top executives pay themselves, profit is rightly understood as a social (not an individual) process, but it’s still perceived to fairer, more sensible use. Commodity, value and profit are clearly seen as social relationships, but still ones that could be checked if they were somehow or other managed by and for “the people”...
Vulgar Marxism at least stated (only as a principle, of course) that any wage-labourer was exploited. Now “exploitation” is a synonym for casual work, manufacturing car parts 10 hours a day in a Mexican maquiladora for a starvation wage. Quite true. But this restrictive definition implies that 6 hours a day for a generous pay creating educational software in a consumer-friendly environment-friendly gender-friendly ethnic-friendly company, could be a positive step towards a better world. Sweating at McDonald’s is exploitation. Growing organic food for a Health Shop is... what?
A symptom of a deepening of social critique is always an attempt to address the cornerstone of our society: the wage system. Wage labour is “theft”. It is domination indeed. But it is more. The wage system is the buying and selling of labour power in order to put it to work to make more money. These two dimensions go together. Splitting the critique of money (even with the most devastating talk against universal commodification) from the critique of labour nullifies both critiques. It’s now fashionable to proclaim that the world is no commodity, and on the other hand to ask for far-reaching changes in work processes and practices. But if the two are separated, the fundamental notion that this world is based on the buying and selling of one very special commodity (labour), and that the suppression of that particular commodity is the key to the suppression of all others—that notion is lost. So the only solution is for commodity exchange to be controlled, and for labour to be granted protective rights. And what could achieve that, except a democratized State? In other words, if we can put checks on the running of this world, we mustn’t try and change it into another.
In “Fordist” times, social-democracy and Stalinism were born out of the real social contradictions which they expressed and helped pacify, via undeniable reforms and an improvement of the workers’ lot. As everybody knows, Fordism has undergone a deep crisis. What most people don’t know is that it hasn’t overcome its crisis. This is not to say that it can’t or won’t: we don’t believe in decadence. This is to say that so far, although a new “system of production” is on its way, it is still far from maturation. Today’s capital is better at de-structuring than re-restructuring.4 The anti-capitalist movement probably is one of the results of the ambiguity of the present period.
It is most pleasant to watch world leaders having trouble meeting anywhere without being disturbed by unruly crowds. But let’s point to a contradiction: these protesters and rioters are unable to stop the series of defeats that keep happening in the workplace. Labour is still very far from preventing casualization, flexibility, work intensification, wage freezes, massive lay-offs, etc. There is a huge gap between street militancy and shopfloor militancy.
Our own answer to such a situation can certainly not be to exhort the broad masses or the small minorities to more radicality. Let others try and speed up the class struggle. The only thing we can do is to contribute to what the situationists called a “unitary” critique of the existing world.
Taken from the Riff-Raff website.
- 1 For an historical account and assessment of the anti-capitalist movement, see Aufheben, n.10, 2002. (Brighton & Hove Unemployed Workers Centre, 4 Crestway Parade, Hollingdean, Brighton BN 1 7 BL, United Kingdom).
- 2 A weakness of current anti-capitalism has been its inability to come forward with a re-appraisal of national liberation, in the Balkans as in Palestine or the Mexican jungle.
- 3 See For a World Without Moral Order and Alice in Monsterland. Alice... was republished by The Communicating Vessels (c/o Mutual Aid Portland, PO BOX 7328, Portland, ME 04112, USA).
- 4 Here we can only state this point without having enough space to prove it. See our Whither the World?.