The civil society plague: the middle class and its discontents – Miguel Amorós

The civil society plague: the middle class and its discontents – Miguel Amorós

A critical outline of the main features of the civil society or citizens’ movement, understood as a response of the managerial middle class to its ongoing proletarianization in the current crisis; its ideological basis, a “postmodern version of bourgeois radicalism”, its program, “consciously opportunist”, and its ranks filled with “careerist” tyros, it merely aims at a realignment of the party system of capitalism in order to resuscitate capitalist growth by means of an improved administration of the existing system combined with social democratic reforms whose goal is not socialism, but to “save the middle class” and to create jobs for large numbers of unemployed college graduates.

The Civil Society Plague: The Middle Class and Its Discontents – Miguel Amorós

That economics and politics go hand in hand is an elementary fact. The logical consequence of this relation is that real politics must be fundamentally economic: the market economy has its corresponding market politics. The forces that direct the world market also exercise de facto control over the States, with regard to both foreign and domestic policies, and this same control is also exercised at the local as well as the national level. This is how it is: economic growth is the necessary and sufficient condition for the political stability of capitalism. Within capitalism, the party system evolves in accordance with the pace of development. When development is in high gear, politics tends to take the form of a two-party system. When development falters the political panorama diversifies, as if in compliance with a homeostatic mechanism.

Capital, which is a social relation originally based on the exploitation of labor, has appropriated all human activities and invaded every sphere: culture, science, art, everyday life, leisure, politics…. The fact that every nook and cranny of society has been commodified means that all aspects of life itself function in accordance with mercantile standards, or, which amounts to the same thing, it means that they are ruled by the logic of capitalism. In a market-society with such features there are no classes in the classic meaning of the word (separate worlds in confrontation), but rather an undifferentiated and malleable mass in which the class of capital – the bourgeoisie – is no longer clearly demarcated, while its ideology has become generalized and its values have come to regulate all behavior regardless of class differences. This particular form of blurring the boundaries between the classes does not reflect a diminution of social inequality; quite the contrary, social inequality is much more accentuated, but, paradoxically, it is perceived less distinctly, and, as a result, there is less real combativity. The bourgeois way of life has penetrated the non-bourgeois classes, liquidating the desire for radical change. Wage workers do not want any other lifestyle, or any other kind of society, or, at most, they want a better position within the existing society, i.e., more purchasing power. Violent antagonism is relocated to the margins: the greatest contradiction is now rooted in exclusion more than in exploitation. The main actors in the historical and social drama are no longer those who are exploited on the market, but those who have been expelled, or have chosen to separate themselves, from the market: those who are situated outside of the “system” and who tend to act in ways detrimental to it.

Mass society is a standardized, but tremendously hierarchical, society. Its commanding heights are not staffed by a class of owners or rentiers, but rather by executives who constitute a veritable managerial class. Power therefore derives from one’s function, not from one’s possessions. Decision-making is concentrated in the highest echelon of the social hierarchy; oppression, mainly in the form of precarious employment and exclusion, wreaks its havoc in the lowest part of the social hierarchy. The intermediate layers neither feel the sting of oppression nor do they concern themselves with it, they just acquiesce. During periods of economic crisis, however, the phenomenon of oppression ascends the social scale towards them, dragging them downwards. These strata, usually called the middle classes, then awaken from their apathetic condition, upon which the party system was based, contaminate the social movements and engage in political initiatives which take the form of new alliances and parties. Their goal is obviously not the emancipation of the proletariat, or a free society of free producers; in a word, their goal is not socialism. Their objective is much more prosaic, because the only thing that they seek to achieve is to save the middle class, that is, to save it from being proletarianized.

The geographic and social expansion of capitalism entails the expansion of sectors of wage workers linked to the rationalization of the production process, the development of the tertiary sector in the economy, the professionalization of public life and statist bureaucratization: government officials, consultants, experts, technicians, white collar managerial staff, journalists, members of the liberal professions, etc. Their status is derived from their academic training, not from their ownership of the means of labor. Classic social democracy perceived these new “middle classes” as a stabilizing factor that made possible a moderate reformist politics, and, of course, their further development allowed the process of globalization to be maximized without too many difficulties. The exponential growth in the number of students was the most eloquent sign of their prosperity; unemployment among college graduates, on the other hand, has marked the devaluation of their training and therefore has served as an indicator of their abrupt proletarianization. Their response, of course, does not adopt anti-capitalist characteristics, which are completely foreign to their nature, but is embodied in a moderate revision of the political scene combined with a fervid attachment to the social democratic reformism of the past.

The middle class finds itself at the heart of modern false consciousness and does not contemplate its own specific condition as such; in its view, its condition is universal. It sees everything through its own particular lens, exacerbated by the crisis. With regard to its mentality, everyone is middle class and must express themselves in the prefabricated language that has been provided to them by their thinkers (Negri, Gramsci, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Baudrillard, Mouffe, etc.). As for its politics, everyone is a citizen, that is, a member of a community of voters, and everyone must enthusiastically participate in elections and in the technical machinery to mobilize voter participation: postmodern ideological cretinism, on the one hand, and technologically-equipped parliamentary cretinism, on the other. Its worldview prevents its supporters from understanding social conflicts as class struggles; for them, such conflicts arise from the incorrect distribution of assets, a problem whose solution lies in the hands of the State, and therefore depends on the political hegemony of the political formations that best represent the middle class. The middle class reconstructs its political identity in opposition, not to capitalism, but to the “caste”, that is, to the political oligarchy that has made the State its own patrimony. The other corrupt sectors, bankers, real estate developers and trade union leaders, are relegated to a secondary level. The middle class is the fearful class; it is set in motion by fear; ambition or vanity appear alongside confidence and tranquility. Its class enthusiasm is completely exhausted in parliamentarism; the electoral conflict is the only battle that it thinks of waging, since there is no place in its plans for a frontal confrontation with the source of its fears, power, and its highest priority is to restore its pre-2008 status.

The concept of “citizenship” offers a substitute identity wherever working class community has been destroyed by capital. Citizenship is the quality of the citizen, a being with the right to vote whose enemies are apparently neither capital nor the State, but the old majority parties, the major obstacles standing in the way of the desperately beleaguered middle class’s march on the institutions of the State. The ideology of civil society, which is the ideology of a middle class that has been mistreated by the global market, is not, however, merely a variation of Stalinoid workerism; it is instead the postmodern version of bourgeois radicalism, and therefore the vanguard of social regression. Not even for the benefit of its public image does it recognize itself in anti-capitalism, which it considers to be obsolete, but instead it embraces a more or less populist kind of social liberalism. This is because the crux of civil society ideology is the decline of the middle classes and their real aspirations, however much it may avail itself of the support of the masses who are at risk of exclusion, but who are too disoriented to act autonomously, and of the social movements which are too weak to impose a reorganization of civil society outside of the economy and the State. In this sense, civil society ideology, which is the successor and heir of the failed neo-Stalinism of the IU, MC, and IC type,1 perseveres despite its frustrated desires for leadership and its inferiority complexes, although it preserves certain authoritarian eccentricities of its own and uses one or another symbol for purposes of establishing an identity. The civil society program is a program of parvenus: it is extremely flexible. Principles do not matter; its strategy is consciously opportunist, because, despite the fact that it makes use of almost every unemployed political adventurer, its ranks are generally composed of careerists who are new on the political scene and who propose only short-term objectives.

No civil society program will call for the socialization of the means of life, generalized self-management, the suppression of the political specialization, council administration, communal ownership or the balanced distribution of the population on the territory. The civil society parties and alliances simply call for a redistribution of “wealth” that would expand the mesocratic base, that is, they agitate for certain institutional budgetary allocations that would mitigate the precariousness of labor and absorb into the workforce the majority of unemployed college graduates, intentions which by no means threaten to bring about a break with the past. They do not even enter the political arena as enemies; their talk about changing the 1978 constitution is not sincere. They have not yet set foot in the ring and yet they still display realism and moderation in abundance, building bridges to the reviled “caste” and even making deals with some of its parties. They are aware of the fact that, once they are consolidated as organizations and possess enough influence in the media, the next step will be the management of the existing system in a more clear and effective way than it was previously managed. They do not subscribe to any destabilizing measures because the leaders of the civil society movement must show that the economy will develop more smoothly if they are the ones at the helm of the ship of state. They must perforce present themselves as the hope of salvation for the economy, which is why their project identifies progress with productivity, that is, it is developmentalist. They therefore advocate industrial and technological growth that will create jobs, redistribute income and increase exports, whether this is to be achieved by way of reforms of the tax system, or by the intensive exploitation of territorial resources. The least that can be said of these proposals is that the jobs that they would create will be socially useless and will not respond to real needs. Economic realism is in command and complements their political realism: nothing outside of politics and nothing outside of the market—everything for the market.

The relative upsurge of the civil society movement, including its nationalist variants, is indicative of the relative exacerbation of the economic crisis which, far from deepening the social divide and laying bare the causes of oppression and leading to a conscious and organized protest movement that calls for the destruction of the capitalist regime, has instead resulted in their dissimulation and concealment, allowing for the emergence and development of a false opposition that, far from challenging the system of domination, reinforces and supports it: a crisis that has stopped halfway. Nonetheless, social oppression and alienation are profound, and over the long term they cannot be camouflaged as questions of politics, but will end up arising as social questions. The outburst of the social question will depend on the return of the real social struggle, a struggle which is foreign to the media and politics, a struggle saturated with initiatives born among the most uprooted sectors of the masses, the ones that have little to lose if they decide to cut the bonds that tie them to the cart of the middle class and if they cast aside bourgeois prejudices against nature. Today, however, these potentially anti-system sectors seem to be exhausted and incapable of organizing themselves autonomously, and that is why the civil society movement is running rampant in their ranks, gently knocking on the door of the existing institutions and asking for permission to enter.

Miguel Amorós
Transcript of a talk scheduled to be given at the Cafetería Ítaca in Murcia on April 30, 2015.

Translated in April 2015 from the Spanish text provided by the author.

  • 1. IU: Izquierda Unida—United Left—founded in 1986. MC: Movimiento Comunista—Communist Movement—founded in 1971. IC: Iniciativa per Catalunya—Initiative for Catalonia—founded in 1987 [Translator’s note].

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Alias Recluse
Apr 26 2015 17:47

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Spikymike
Apr 28 2015 11:17

This text (which came to my mind when commenting in the 'Is Adademia harmful to the revolutionary cause?' thread here) draws some interesting possible connections between the longer term evolution of global capitalism, the current phase of capitalist economic crisis, the changing role of capitalist management and more particularly the relationship between academia and recent 'civil society' political movements (taking an appreciative swipe in the process at the likes of Negri, Gramsci, Deleuze and other theorists popular amongst some in our milieu) but is perhaps a bit too' broad brush' in it's sweep to be usefully applied to some of the specific experiences such as the 'occupy movement', or the rise of SYRIZA etc discussed on other threads here.

I've dipped into a number of other short texts by Amoros posted by AR and had similar problems with them - particular doubts about his references to nationalism and territory. Few if any of the now many such texts on the site seem to have resulted in much critical comment even by AR but perhaps I'm missing something?

Alias Recluse
Apr 28 2015 23:40
Spikymike wrote:
This text (which came to my mind when commenting in the 'Is Adademia harmful to the revolutionary cause?' thread here) draws some interesting possible connections between the longer term evolution of global capitalism, the current phase of capitalist economic crisis, the changing role of capitalist management and more particularly the relationship between academia and recent 'civil society' political movements (taking an appreciative swipe in the process at the likes of Negri, Gramsci, Deleuze and other theorists popular amongst some in our milieu) but is perhaps a bit too' broad brush' in it's sweep to be usefully applied to some of the specific experiences such as the 'occupy movement', or the rise of SYRIZA etc discussed on other threads here.

I've dipped into a number of other short texts by Amoros posted by AR and had similar problems with them - particular doubts about his references to nationalism and territory. Few if any of the now many such texts on the site seem to have resulted in much critical comment even by AR but perhaps I'm missing something?

Most of the short pieces by Amoros that I have posted here on Libcom are notes or transcripts of talks given at movement social centers or bookstores, etc., in Spain, and are for that reason tailored to the specific audience of radical left-anarchists in that country. For the most part they were not written for publication. So they are often "topical", repetitive, and discursive. They address issues of importance for Spanish anarchists, or issues which Amoros thinks that Spanish anarchists should think about. "Snapshots" from the contemporary Spanish anarchist scene, so to speak.

The "Territory", for instance, is a concept that is intended I think to characterize and provide a theoretical orientation for a certain kind of contemporary protest against destructive economic development (high speed trains, fracking, urban development, etc.), a kind of protest that has garnered significant support in Spain, even from previously non-political, ordinary folks. In Spain, Italy and France, anyway, these kinds of movements are serving as rallying points for protests that are based on assemblies and direct democracy, at least at first. While they may eventually fail or be sidetracked into reformist or electoral politics, or otherwise just run out of steam, Amoros sees this kind of protest as initially escaping or potentially escaping from the stifling framework and control of the big parties and trade unions, and therefore displaying possibilities of "autonomy" and generalization, because the parties and trade unions, which only want to "manage" the crisis of capitalism (a major theme in Amoros, the EdN and Semprun), are all in favor of economic development regardless of the social and ecological cost. More generally, the concept of the "Territory" appears to be an updated version of the Reclusian (Elisee Reclus, not Alias Recluse!) anarchist (and not just anarchist) perspective on the merger of city and countryside, and as such is only one aspect of a broader revolutionary perspective which is largely consonant with the views of many if not most of the contributors and authors featured on Libcom. While it may not be entirely original, I think that the concept of the Territory is nonetheless an honest attempt to tackle current issues from a libertarian perspective, conceived in the heat of the struggle.

I am not really sure what you mean by his references to nationalism: he seems to me to have a critical-historical view of national or regional "identity" movements (he is based in Catalonia, and therefore has a bird's eye view of this phenomenon), and merely approves of their rejection of the destructive aspects of development (not just in terms of "landscapes" but also socially) while denouncing, for example, the capture of these movements by local front men and pimps for global capital (political demagogues, real estate developers, etc.) who merely intend to sell out their constituencies and ravage the land.

In my view, however, Amoros does seem to come close to a "sociological", managerial concept of the ruling class with his "partiocracy" and the putative leading role of the middle class. This may also be a reflection of specifically Spanish conditions. I don't know. It does not seem possible that politicians and managers in Spain can actually exercise any more "power" than their counterparts in the USA, who respond blindly to the fetishistic forces of the economy which are outside of their control, like everyone else.... Anyway, the idea that a mass movement of managers and journalists and academics would form a "civil society" party in the United States to rescue the middle class and give jobs to college graduates is pretty hard to swallow. The middle class here is just as atomized as everyone else and is just as imprisoned in the ideology of "every man for himself". If that is what the civil society movement is, it is not in the cards for the US. Not now, anyway. And besides, according to Amoros, the civil society movement is at least in part based on Social Democratic nostalgia, which, pace Chomsky, is currently completely irrelevant in the US.

I think the problem with his critique of the civil society movement, which you maintain uses too broad a brush, is that there is no civil society movement here (in the US, anyway) and Amoros's critiques just seem to be of little interest to English speaking readers for that reason alone. We are a long way from a Podemos-type movement here that might seduce anarchists to engage in electoral politics. Some anarchists, I understand, see these kinds of movements not as staging points for integration and cooptation of young activists into the political-economic management of capitalist crisis, but as potential springboards and recruiting pools for a libertarian social movement, and don't want to just criticize them from an ivory tower. Such hopes were entertained for Occupy. Stranger things have happened in the past, after all. We shall see. Amoros does not share these sentiments, at least with regard to what is happening in Spain. Amoros is concerned about the fact that many Spanish anarchists are falling for the blandishments of the civil society movement: this is a problem that we don't have here, not only because there is no civil society movement, but because anarchists are not a significant social force in English speaking countries. So, maybe one problem is that Amoros's critique is focused almost entirely on Spanish conditions, which are naturally the ones he is most familiar with and concerned with changing.

Well, that's "my two cents", as we say here in the States. I could go on, but sitting in this armchair way up here in this ivory tower for so long has made me too lethargic and pessimistic. Spikymike has shamed me into participating in the discussion forum! Shame on you, Spikymike!

Spikymike
Apr 29 2015 18:26

Well I'm quite pleased to have ''shamed'' you and found your response very hepful. Given my critical approach to modern day Zapatismo and more recently to the adapted Bookchinite theories of the PKK inspired movement I was unclear if Amoros references to the radical potential of some aspects of territorial nationalist resistance to global capitalist modernisation might find him supportive of these very different movements to those you have alluded to.

Alias Recluse
Apr 29 2015 22:05

I think somewhere he makes a positive reference to Mexico (Chiapas, I think), but not with respect to the Zapatista Movement as a whole or as an institutional construct but just one aspect of it. It might have been in the context of a discussion and illustration of the concept of "Territory". As far as I know, Amoros has not expressed support for the PKK or the Zapatistas. I think this would be unlikely, considering his political trajectory, which includes participation in the post-situationist milieu in Spain and France during the "Spanish Transition" of the 1970s and then the Encyclopedie des Nuisances in the 1980s.

Spikymike
Apr 30 2015 09:03

OK sounds positive. I will get round to reading some more of the texts you have posted here. I'm a bit oldfashioned in my reading habits - wonder if perhaps PM Press might be interested in publishing a collection of Amoros stuff in English language hardback sometime?

Alias Recluse
Apr 30 2015 12:05

Some of Amoros's texts that have a more "old-fashioned" focus are "The Two Anarchisms" (on the history of anarchism in Spain between the 1870s and 1920), "Professional Anarchy and Theoretical Disarmament" (on Alfredo Bonanno and "insurrectionism"), "Report on the Assembly Movement" (on the Spanish Transition), "Afterword to the History of Ten Years" (on the 1970s and the origins of the EdN), "Primitivism and History", "Revolution and Primitivism", "Primitivism in Technological Society" (three critical essays on primitivism), and "Nostalgia for Origins" (on nationalism, conservatism and traditionalism).