Last Editorial - Radical Chains

Margaret Thatcher and John Maynard Keynes
Margaret Thatcher and John Maynard Keynes

"The message that the end of stalinism and the defeat of communism are the same has not been effectively contested. Yet the irony is that if the working class had never tended to communism, the likes of Hobsbawm, Marxism Today, the official communists parties or even Stalin's USSR would have been neither possible nor necessary."

Submitted by griddle on February 10, 2012


radical chains no.5

There is no shortage of issues for struggle. There are any number of workplace issues, especially over intensification of work, and there are community struggles relating to general environmental issues as well as welfare struggles. The need to struggle forces itself on us at every turn. The problem now is the crisis of social vision; it is not so much the prevention as the end of communism that we appear to face today. The loss of social potential directly influences the conduct as well as the aims of everyday struggle. It is the potential for change, the vision to go beyond capital that enables struggle to contest the logic of capital.

Today that logic is generally understood in terms of globalisation. The free movement of capital is linked by commentators not just to the limitation of working class struggle but also to the end of a working class social vision. The various world financial crises have asserted the key element of the global economy that capital can avoid particular labour and go elsewhere. What this comes down to is simple enough. Bourgeois strategy today starts from the assumption that the working class cannot be communist. This also implies something else: the communist vision is a practical issue for everyday struggle. Struggle requires a communist perspective for everyday success.

Capital may have free movement but it cannot accumulate as pure exchange value; whatever its power before particular sections it cannot avoid the working class as a whole. It may dream of abstract labour but there cannot be accumulation without a circuit through concrete labour. We can do without them, they cannot do without us; yet while it may be long past time that we cracked down on this dependency culture it seems even more embedded than before.

Of course there is an irreducible obstinacy in the class. This continues to limit the logic of capital but it is not extended because of the loss of vision under the lasting influence of stalinism. Where people had once hoped for and believed in an alternative vision of society there is at best doubt. Whether we like it or not the fate of that vision is tied into the left and who today is willing to trust the left? The influence of stalinism goes deeper than the far left would like to accept. The end of the Soviet Bloc and the dissolution of the official communist parties have been used to underline the message that the working class could offer no alternative. Today many can claim with little risk of refutation that capital has won. While The Communist Manifesto may include accurate descriptions of capitalism, it was crucially wrong, says Hobsbawm, in assuming that the working class tended to communism. The Manifesto should have been written by Carlyle or some other advocate of moral community; Marx's whole analysis of alienation could be stripped from his work for that cleaner brighter uncluttered look. However much some of us like to applaud ourselves as never having been infected by stalinism, the message that the end of stalinism and the defeat of communism are the same has not been effectively contested. Yet the irony is that if the working class had never tended to communism, the likes of Hobsbawm, Marxism Today, the official communists parties or even Stalin's USSR would have been neither possible nor necessary.

In its crisis, however, the prevention of communism has created a situation where nobody can reinvent communism. This is not a matter of opinion, of whether a particular individual believes in, or acts for communism. The problem is how can communism reappear as a social movement after fifty years of stateised administration of the working class in the name of communism and social democracy.

We can only grasp the consequences of the end of the Stalinist era if we grasp the extent to which anti- stalinism was formed by what it opposed. Opposition shared aspects of stalinism that eventually sabotaged any chance of offering an alternative. The most damaging notion was the identification of planning with hierarchical administrative processes. For Stalinists the centralised subordination of the USSR was achieved socialism. The principal problem is that opponents of stalinism have not been so far from taking up the same position. It is not just that many trotskyist groups had at best an ambiguous view on Soviet planning; even those who have moved away from trotskyism have accepted that there was planning in the USSR. Some clung to the notion of something called 'nationalised property relations'; others rejected all working class content within the USSR but argued that it was capital that was planning in the Soviet Union. The common feature was a notion of planning as abstractly rational rather than as a social activity. In this the left and far left were joined in a last ditch attempt to preserve an Enlightenment project. Even those who rejected this external project have not escaped. Dropping the whole notion of planning in favour of the class struggle as an end in itself, they have tended towards a romanticism of struggle that lost any critical edge as it sought out subjects for heroism.

The common theoretical problem in visions of planning has been the separation of subject and object. As a rational process planning has been conceived of as something performed by an individual: given a set of aims, a set of means follow with something like a logical sequence. This is the Enlightenment plan of Reason. While planning is to some extent recognised as social this is only accepted as a residual content. Democracy may be involved in selecting aims and targets but can then be separated from the process of rational administration. Hence, for ex-. ample, the plan could be compared with the organised administration of a factory. The USSR, considered as one big factory, simply required either democracy or trade unions or some other counter-plan from the class. What all these conceptions lacked was a notion of planning as a social process in and of itself, as an end and a means that cannot abide exterior objectivity. Planning requires active participation and not the passive acquiescence that most of the left were content with.

Planning arises within the class itself as a necessity for full participation in struggle, a necessity that fully socialises individual responsibility and abolishes the hierarchical administration of struggle. It develops into a social vision since struggle cannot but be founded on need against exchange and so on the enrichment of need against exchange. Administration developed as a response to the emergence of planning, from capital's necessity to re-establish external discipline for needs once the logic of exchange has been punctured and lost its objectivity. Administration fostered the division of the wage by which economic and political spheres were separated for the prevention of communism. Formal recognition of need was the key because it allowed a political channel for welfare and an economic channel about conditions. This separation was crucial for the relation of subjectivity to objectivity. On the economic side political considerations tended to objectivity while from the political side economic arguments were the language of external discipline. For many this division appeared to be overcome in principle, within the total administration of the USSR.

There were not many Marxist groups that, despite opposition to stalinism, did not also think of the USSR - or some variety of the Labour Party or of local government - as 'ours'. Underlying this was a pessimistic view of the working class as subject. Planning did not arise from the social existence of the working class but was something outside, something rational. The survival of this Enlightenment version was down to the disaster in Russia and its pernicious influence through stalinism. Especially in the absence of world revolution during and after the Second World War, it became almost impossible for any group to found radical theory on working class subjectivity. The confusion of administration with planning became common to both the right and the left and because this confusion was part of the opposition to stalinism we can characterise a whole historical era as trotskyist.

The most notorious group holding this confusion of planning with administrative processes was the Tories. The Tory Party was an alliance of groups joined by the necessity to oppose the development of the working class. It could point to the disaster of the USSR while taking a pragmatic view on partial suspensions of the law of value. Crisis for this form of Toryism came with the defeat of Heath by the miners and the spread of class struggle in the late sixties and early seventies.

Defeat prepared the way for acceptance of the idea that all limits on the law of value were on the path to serfdom rather than preventions of communism. Where before some modicum of socialism was taken as necessary for order, it had now become anathema because it had failed to anticipate and contain working class aspirations. Hayek became the central ideological figure in a party that had up to then emphasised pragmatism, realpolitik rather than ideas. Although Hayek's ideas originated in middle Europe in opposition to stalinism and nazism, in Britain they came to represent more petit bourgeois and smaller capitalist groupings within the Tory Party.

While capital as a whole was monopolised and so not ideologically obsessed with the dream of a free marker, the political cal situation required for them also a decisive ideological shift. The attack on the working class that was to follow could not be intellectually open, even if obvious to everyone. The free market provided the ideological point of unity even if for some it was a real dream in which a thoroughly impoverished notion of free individuality could flourish. It is indicative of the stalinisation of the left that it was unable to mount an effective critique. Lacking a social vision founded on the emancipation of the individual from the objective bondage of exchange, the left could only thunder about society being more important than the individual.

For capital as whole the free market programme was the means of disorganising the working class and imposing impersonal external discipline. It was the means to attack every position of advantage from which the working class had conducted the struggle of the sixties and seventies. It held together attacks on nationalised industries and on legislation protecting trade unions. Crucially, it could associate these and many aspects of the welfare state with a stalinist notion of planning that was discredited amongst the working class. Such was the need for cohesion in the attack on the working class and so important was the association of radical aspirations with stalinist administration that the idea of the free market became far more than a convenient means of attack. So complete did the free market ideology have to be that some of the most vicious politics occurred within the Tory party itself - the attacks on the 'wets' for example.

This deliberate streamlining of the Tory Party was necessary for the task it had to perform, indicating the extent of the crisis it faced, but left it with little to build on once it had succeeded. Once the Soviet Union fell, once the old welfarism in the Labour Party was defeated, once struggles were contained, the reasons for unity behind an ideological free market programme had gone. The Tory Party had been transformed into a carrier of the stupidest little bourgeois ideas, so little that its aspiration for a free market collapsed with intellectual exhaustion at the thought of the political implications of a free market in Europe. More importantly, the old discipline on Tory party unity had also gone since the working class no longer represented an alternative vision. With nothing to keep the party in check, and no viable ideological basis for a party that had disowned pragmatism, there was little of substance except the desire to keep power, a desire that by itself must inevitably be corrupted by the narrowest forms of self-serving. All they can do now is complain that the Labour Party have nicked their best ideas. Unless they escape the ludicrous side-show of a little nationalism which the bulk of the bourgeoisie, for the moment, find unnecessary, impractical, and even an embarrassing obstacle to the spread of capital, the Tory party may never be elected again.

The current Labour Party has its roots, in the overwhelming and humiliating defeats inflicted by the Tories in the eighties. Those defeats were also the defeat of its role as a party of administration linked closely to the unions and able to deliver a viable pact with the working class. It was scarcely surprising that the Labour Party was defeated; with the break up of their income policies of the seventies it was obvious that they could not deliver the working class.

But working class rejection of the Labour Party went further than the fight against income control. The Party had come to represent many of the aspects of administration that were objectionable to a great mass of people. The formal recognition of need that was the basis of the welfare state had delivered new forms of misery. Formal recognition did not mean the abolition of scarcity; the signal of recognition was the waiting list. Perhaps more important was the quality of what you waited for. You could, for example, be housed but had no say over the quality of housing, over the running of repairs, over the environment in which the housing stood and so on. Especially in local government the Labour Party had approached, if incompletely, the stalinist vision of planning. Thatcherism was able to strike a chord with a large section of the working class; the sale of council houses along with other measures that reduced the impact of administration appealed to a deep distrust of what had come to be understood as planning and positively offered some control over everyday life even if highly curtailed by the discipline of exchange.

The defeat of the old Labour Party by thatcherism also provided an opportunity for that party. In the thirties, Keynes had rejected the Labour Party as a party capable of government because its lead ing elements, however sensible, would not be able to control the radical left within the party. Now that left has been effectively sidelined. Blair has been able to reconstruct the Labour Party as the party of government. The removal of Clause 4, however absurd, signified a new control over the party made possible by the crisis of social vision. The relationship to the trade unions has been changed as the party moves towards being a party of single membership levying through the credit card.

Blair is the first leader of the Labour Party who will not betray the working class. There are one or two people who did not listen or arrogantly assumed that others weren't listening. They will, indeed do, shout betrayal. In fact Blair has done an excellent job in doing what he said he would do. He has said clearly 'we will get rid of the Tories but in return for this revenge expect nothing and perhaps if you are lucky you might get a bit more.' Blair represents a Labour Party that no longer has to deliver the working class out of the clutches of a more radical alternative.

This does not mean the working class is forgotten. It remains central. While the welfare state will be changed, probably run in a chronic crisis mode, it cannot be abolished. Blair has indeed promised the 'unthinkable' but this does not yet mean the kind of confrontation that an abolition of the welfare state would lead to. Those on the left who still expect this should be cautious about basing any political strategy on this non- eventuality What we will more of is a restructuring of the terms of the welfare state. If we take up the old leninist trick of predicting total disaster we will be unable to grasp what is actually going on. Far left catastrophism was always a cop-out that relied on a quantitative degradation of wages and services that it hoped would compel revolt from a class that was essentially regarded as otherwise passive; it fell short of affirming the positive supersession of private property by social planning.

Many free marketeers were driven by the ideal of the free market as an achievable utopia but they have really only constituted a lunatic fringe. The erosion of the welfare state under the guise of the free market has been able to promise nothing that could replace the welfare state. The free market could offer no vision of social order that could sustain bourgeois society for the longer term. It is no accident that Thatcher was indelibly marked by the phrase 'There is no society'.

Worse though than the ultimate vision of the marketeers was the disorganised manner in which they never reached it. All efforts to achieve the freemarket have involved ever more draconian administrative intervention and new layers of management in the public services with the proliferation of unelected government bodies. For every attempt to remove or cut down on welfare another avenue was created. The crudest of these was the ad hoc extension of access to invalidity benefits. The Tories were ideologically opposed to the welfare state but could not ignore the consequences of removing aspects of it; they ended up with a mess that actually undermined what they were looking for. It is significant that a previously strong free marketeer such as John Gray has found it necessary to assert the importance of some conception of morality or community as a vital addition to a market and as the basis for reforming welfare. It has been the Labour Party that has picked up this agenda with its stress on atomised responsibility and on duties. Of course this has not meant they avoided the problems of getting rid of welfare to impose work while keeping it to preserve order. The free market was successful in disorganising the working class but while conditions for accumulation have marginally improved they have done so at the cost of new social problems that threaten in turn the basis of a social order for capital in the longer run.

While the welfare state has been undermined it cannot be destroyed without potentially disastrous consequences for capital. Developments we shall see in the future will be similar in form to the Jobseeker's Allowance in that moral behaviour expected for successful operation of the market will become codified in regulation, laws, policing, in general administration. As community is observed not to exist, as the effects of its absence become increasingly apparent in various crimes, pointless drug taking, and forms of anti-social behaviour, so in short, just as life fractures, as the atomism of the market is achieved so community will become the transcendental morality. The more money succeeds in governing society, the less the bourgeois mind is able to exist as a coherent whole. Social thought fragments into competing doctrines and disciplines, all of which urge different and incompatible solutions to differently described problems and the state comes forward as the bearer of social morality.

As forms of administration are seen to collide with market logic in allowing escape from the market so administrative morality will develop yet further to reassert the market through new rules, deals and procedures. The new Labour Party will extend administrative coercion in the name of community. What cannot be real - community founded on the atomism of labour power - is made compulsory.

There is nothing interesting about the future offered by the Labour Party. They do not even offer some of the ranker visions of socialism that once emanated from that party. They propose a modest administration of capital for which we can expect some degree of success in global competition with some degree of limited insurance against individual failures. What is offered is more work and discipline yet the conditions of work have reached a point of crisis. The only scarcity faced today by humanity is entirely self-induced. The capability for production in the richest sense is immense. Indeed it is so immense that without the self-discipline of the immediate producers we threaten our own environment. For this reason alone the capability for social production needs to be realised. Just as important is the continuation, alongside the immense productive powers of the planet, of the poverty of the majority. For many life is worse than it has ever been yet we have developed the means in technology to surpass the external imposition of work. The rapid development of computers and potential for automation are immediately present but they are simply the platform for a yet greater potential. Some scientists are now saying that the implications of their latest scientific researches, for example in nano-technology, are so dramatic that they must warn us of their social consequences. Just as vision departs from the social world so those who are not even looking for it find the necessity for its retrieval.

Humanity is distinguished above all by its ability to act in the present according to its imagination of the future; but today this is impoverished with the ridiculous indeed minute ambition to get capitalism working a mite better. Meanwhile scientists speculate about machines that will work at such small (nano) levels that their energy requirements will be effectively zero and their capabilities, for example in the precise rearrangement of atoms, so immense that it will be meaningless to speak of work as having any other discipline but desire. If scientists are imagining this kind of future then we may well ask why we should hang on to stale visions derived from the continuing discipline of exchange?