Tom O’Brien is the host of the From Alpha to Omega. This interview was completed just before the Cyprus banking crisis and thus was not mentioned.
C. Derick Varn: Your podcast topics seem to vacillate between sort of “left” Keynesianism and more traditional Marxism, what in your experience of the Irish economic crisis led you to see the two as more complimentary than it may seem from a distance?
Tom O’Brien: The current crisis from an Irish point of view seemed to have been caused by a massive buildup of private debt, aided and abetted by the usual neo-liberal deregulation and regulatory capture.After the crisis erupted, we also found out about the flaws in the monetary architecture of the Euro – how it operated like a gold-standard and prevented national central banks from funding their government expenditures. My reading on the topics of debt and monetary matters led quickly to the current work of radical Post-Keynesians, who predicted this monetary crisis as early as 1992 – the famous British economist Wynne Godley laid it all out in an article for the London Review of Books. The work of Steve Keen, on the acceleration of the growth in private debt as an accurate predictor of crisis was also particularly important in understanding the Irish situation. The Post-Keynesian view of why such debt bubbles occur, is the Hyman Minsky view that stability is itself destabilizing. That seemed a little convenient and not as convincing an argument as Marx’s ‘Tendential Fall in the Rate of Profit’, which gives a more direct causal explanation as to why there was such a shift from industrial capitalism to financial capitalism and outright speculative behaviour in the western developed economies. This, I think is probably closer to the real root of the problem, and works well as explaining the current neo-liberal experiment, which can be seen as a massive drive to basically increase the rate of profit. The work of the radical post-Keynesian school seem to have developed important insights into the nature of money, that might have very important implications for Marxist economics,and indeed for those seeking to understand how to alleviate the current Eurozone crisis.
C.D.V.: Do you think that Keynesian or Post-Keynesian insights are limited to circulation problems?
T.O’B.: As a non-economist, I would have to say that what I see as the main Keynesian / Post-Keynesian insights are the stabilizing effects of government deficit spending, the role debt plays in the boom-bust speculative cycle, and the ‘Chartalist’ or ‘Modern Money Theory (MMT)’ school which tries to describe the workings of our modern floating fiat currencies. The standard Keynesian deficit spending insight, when allied to the MMT school of thought, lead us to radical conclusions as to what we can achieve in capitalist economy. They shine us to a path where government deficits don’t matter, where the economy can be managed to grow in a reasonably smooth fashion. It could also lead, I am tentative to state, to a scenario where the falling rate of profit can be endlessly jacked up in nominal terms, and thus help to avoid that Marxist crisis of capitalism. Convincing these individual, isolated, ideologically hide-bound capitalists of the merits of these policies for the system as a whole, has been something pretty difficult to achieve for these Post-Keynesians, as their policies play more into the hands of the workers and the industrial capitalists than the financial capitalists currently in charge of the system. However, even if all the Post-Keynesian insights were put into play, all they would in reality likely achieve would be the stabilizing and speeding up of the existing capitalist system, enabling it to chew through all our dwindling natural resources at a quicker pace than ever. Their insights say little about the alienation of workers, the meaninglessness and arbitrariness of capitalist production, or the inherent exploitation of the capitalist mode of production.
C.D.V.: What role do you see social democracy as having in the current EU crisis?
T.O’B.: That’s a very difficult question. It seems most of the social democrat type parties across Europe have been in bed with the financiers for years now. In the UK Tony Blair and Gordon Brown let the city run riot, so they could fund their health and social spending increases. In Greece we see how the Socialists have imploded over their support for Austerity and inability to stand up to the ECB and the Germans. In Ireland we have seen the perennial party of power, Fianna Fail, lose 75% of their seats. The neoliberal mindset seems to be as deeply rooted in the social democratic parties as in those of the conservative/right parties of Europe. With the parties of both the left and the right in Europe essentially offering the same unwanted medicine to the people, we are likely to see major radical political changes in the make-up of our politics in the coming years. It seems pretty doubtful that Social Democrats can survive as power political parties in their current form unless they break from their bank-friendly policies. The policies of the ECB/IMF/EU troika are a huge destabilizing force in Europe, and the likelihood is for years more of depression-like economic performance. But if South America is any guide, it may take decades until we have the formation of new dominant left political movements capable of taking power.
C.D.V.: Have your opinions on this fiscal matters changed since you began your podcast?
T.O’B.: Not since I started the podcast, no. But over the last 3-4 years I have read a great deal about monetary matters, the design of currencies, and the role of money creation in societies. I have been interviewing a lot of the best people on these matters about their work on the show. I must say, however, that the Modern Monetary Theory people do have a reluctance to talk about the risks of endless stimulus. They say that deficits don’t harm us once there is the raw materials and human labor to absorb all the issued debt/currency, but talk little about what are the limits to these very raw materials. Most of the good scientific research I see, like the Limits To Growth studies, which show major problems in the coming decades and probable economic collapse, point towards the likelihood of catastrophic resource constraints in the near future. I often find myself wondering: ‘What Marx would have made of the likely coming material conditions?’
C.D.V.: Do you think there is an ideological blinder on that part of MMT?
T.O’B.:I do think there is an ideological blinder in MMT on this issue. But it is far from just MMT economists who ignore the likely upcoming resource crunch. The net energy we receive from our oil, gas, and coal production after getting the stuff out of the ground and into our cars and homes is dropping steadily. More and more of our oil and gas is coming from difficult to reach places, and we have to put more and more energy in, to get our new energy out. This should be a very stark warning to us that our economic system is about to undergo tremendous strain. It should be noted, that the Soviet system’s oil production peaked in the 1980’s, which is likely to have played a very important role in the collapse of Soviet Union. Indeed, Egypt’s oil production peaked in 1996 and became an oil importer in 2007, so I think we can expect many more of the Middle Eastern power structures to fray as the energy surplus from oil and gas production begins to drop.
We must realize that just because when we ran out of trees for firewood we could use coal, does not mean we can easily find ourselves a new energy resource. In fact it means just the opposite – that we have one less energy source left to exploit. Economists are acting like the beer-drinker who thinks there will always be more beer in the fridge, because for the last 6 times he went to get a beer there was always one there. Just like the beer-drinker, they won’t be too happy when they find out all we had was a six pack. None of the existing replacement renewable energies look like they have the ability to scale up to meet this challenge. Economists assume that technology will rescue us, but this is a pretty big assumption.
It’s fairly easy to see that the dominant schools of economic thought largely reflect the interests of those in power, so we can’t expect the high-priests of capitalism to preach too loudly about the contradictions at the core of their belief system.
C.D.V.: Well, many green thinkers also accuse most Marxists as being blind to the resource depletion issue. There are some strong exceptions, I think, including Marx himself, but in general, this has been the case for reasons that don’t have anything to do with capitalism. What do you see as a valid answer to resource problems?
T.O’B.: One of the core insights Marx gave us into capitalist economies is that capital always seeks to grow through productivity increases. Growth is the eternal mantra of economist from both the right and the left. Now with our resource constraints in clear sight, the options left to us are pretty stark. We either have to drastically cut our consumption levels, or our population, or maybe both. The distribution of how those resources are spent are extremely inequitable as well. But such a vast reduction in consumption levels would create absolute havoc for those who own the means of production, so it’s unlikely they will voluntarily give up control. They still might get lucky, some new energy source could materialize or the science could be flawed. So, I expect we will see those in charge of the current system just plough along merrily with their fingers crossed until we get to such a stage as the conditions get so bad and they are overthrown, or the whole global system of production kind of peters out. But the problem with any such new system that comes into power, is that it will have to be based on a new kind of production not based on growth, and most likely not based on value production. There is quite large scope for theoretical work on how such a system would work. Many of the left-movements today speak of a ‘Green New Deal’, which doesn’t deal with the core expansionary drive of capitalist production in the slightest. Robin Hahnel has an interesting new book, Of the people, By the people – The Case for a Participatory Economy, describing how such a participatory economy could work, which is well worth the read and does a fine job of talking of how such a system could work. It offers little though, in how we should work to get there. When it comes to the demographic problem, the only country I know of with a vastly reduced population today compared to 1840 is Ireland, and that only happened through that oh so benign a mix of imperialism, famine, and mass emigration. It doesn’t bode well.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
T.O’B: I would like to point to some of the tentative positive political ideas that are starting to take shape around the world at the moment. The emergence of the Occupy movement globally, the Indignados, and the 5-Star Movement in Italy all in their own way are pointing to failure of our liberal representative democracies to work for their citizens. It’s starting to become more and more obvious to more and more people that the corporations and the banks control their politicians and stand in the way of the radical change that is needed. I think there is a great desire for a sustainable society where wealth and power is equitably distributed. Hopefully these movements are the sparks that will fire the neurons of those involved to come up with new theoretical works that can help us to lay the foundations of the new societies that we seek.
C.D.V.: I find the last bit interesting, if you would forgive a one last follow-up: What exactly do you see as the promise of the 5-Star movement?
T.O’B: Over the last 150 years we have seen many nationalist revolutions succeed. Some of these new governments may even have enacted fairly radical policies, like the welfare state or land reform. But over the years, as the original revolutionaries grew old and left the political stage they gradually became replaced by a managerial class of politicians, lacking the political spine of their predecessors. Countries like Ireland, for example, experienced a new wave of career politicians, of varying levels of corruption and a willingness to suck up to the capitalist class to gain power. The citizens of these countries have learned that the problem wasn’t just that they didn’t have self-determination as a colony, but that the structure of society and it’s political superstructure also plays a critical role. In the words of The Who – ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss’.
The 5-Star movement, is essentially expressing what a hell of a lot of people in the capitalist west think of politicians – they are a bunch of lying, power hungry, money grabbing, turn-coats. And they are sick to death of it. This is a real blast against the political superstructure, if not, perhaps, the base-structure of production. I see in this the germs of a possibly revolutionary change in how we govern ourselves. Noam Chomsky always talks of how power is terrified of real true direct democracy, because those in power can’t let people actually vote as they wish. Even redneck republican voters in the US. when polled on individual issues are basically social democratic in nature. I don’t think that the 5-Star movement is perfect in its structure, or that I agree with it’s policies – I don’t know enough about it to have a definitive opinion, but I think it does shows us exactly where the political pulse is right now – decentralized structures of power devoid of politicians and their games. It seems to be a return to the libertarian socialist tendencies of the past. It is also a rejection, I believe, of the old vanguard party model of the radical left parties, and left-theorists out there should be taking note.
Greg Sharzer has a Ph.D. in Political Science from York University, Toronto, Canada, where he studied political economy and social movements. His activism includes participating in anti-poverty, trade union and migrant rights campaigns. When not thinking about politics he enjoys cycling, films with subtitles, gourmet coffee and all the other trappings of a petty bourgeois lifestyle. He currently lives in Seoul, South Korea.
C.Derick Varn.: Why do you think Localism rears its head so regularly in times of capitalist crisis?
Greg Sharzer: I think it’s a natural reaction to defeat to turn inward and try to control what’s around you. Marx describes it happening in the 1850s, as a reaction to the defeats of the 1848 revolutions. Workers can’t overthrow the state, so they form cooperatives and try to make life a little easier for themselves. Some believe that they don’t need to overthrow anything: that their alternatives will form a critical mass and carve out spaces away from capitalism.
The psychological imperative to form a virtue out of necessity is understandable; but I think it’s incumbent upon us as historical materialists to critique it. I don’t think this means denouncing localists as naive, utopian, etc.: many share our dislike of the symptoms of capitalism and are therefore potential allies. But localism, as I argue in No Local, is a fundamentally petty bourgeois phenomenon – it can’t solve the problems it identifies, because it harkens back to an ideal pre-capitalist time (that never really existed in the first place.) Particularly during a crisis, we have to assert some home truths about capitalism: that capitalist firms have to grow – or at least, shrink less quickly – than other firms or die; that the problem isn’t one of scarce resources but of irrational and unequal resource use; and that, far from retreating into some mythical local space, we have both the chance and the tools to create a truly international workers’ movement.
There’s no lack of things to be angry about, and there are plenty of mobilized people willing to give a systemic critique a fair hearing. It may be the case that, due to the degeneration of the workers’ movement, localist ideas will gain greater traction; but that just makes the task of promulgating Marxist arguments all the more pressing. If we’re smart about our interventions, we can have results. I think Syriza in Greece is one example of this.
One is the sheer pace of change. In the developed world, we’re used to decay and stagnation. Infrastructure gets repaired, at best – no new public goods are built, and a lot of existing public goods, like health care and transport, are abandoned or given to the private sector. It’s like capital’s collective leadership has given up trying to create the necessary conditions for accumulation and is just engaged in warfare between its various fractions and with the working class. Now, clearly this happens in South Korea – president-elect Park wouldn’t be talking about chaebol reform otherwise – but it remains striking how much South Korean capitalism, freed of longterm institutional barriers and prior infrastructure, can remake space.
The ongoing development of Korea’s high-speed rail network, and the continuing expansion of the metropolitan Seoul subway, are two examples. I’m often struck by the comparison with Toronto, where I lived on and off for 20 years, during which time successive governments failed to build an extra five subway stops. They’re finally doing so, to be open by 2015 after many years of construction. A developmentalist state appears to be much more willing to respond to the needs of accumulation. This isn’t a straightforward process: Park Bae-Gyoon, whose work as a critical geographer I’ve recently encountered, writes on how different coalitions vie for investment in their corners of the country. The outcomes of development aren’t inevitable: but the state appears firmly committed to shaping and reshaping South Korea as a regional hub for capital. That this is possible, and even seen as desirable by a firmly neoliberal government, puts paid to the notion that capitalist crisis means stagnation, or that Keynesian stimulus is necessarily a progressive phenomenon.
The second feature which I find fascinating is how capital treats the existing social-cultural terrain. It’s not true that capital has to destroy previous forms in order to impose a bland, homogenous corporate version of globalization. Rather, capital is clever – or just rapacious – enough to take pre-existing forms, commodify and sell them back to the Korean working class.
The impact of the pace of change appears, naturally enough, to be a level of anxiety about the future among Koreans themselves. 30 years ago, Korea was largely a peasant society: today it’s a highly industrialized, fully capitalist one. From a relatively insular place – a peninsula effectively made into an island by the Korean War, as a friend told me – Korean capital is successfully globalized, to the extent that other poor countries are sending experts to study its development model.
But rather than eliminating old cultural forms, this process has reinvigorate them. For lack of a better term, I’m calling this ‘neoliberal hybridity': the ability of capital to reinvent, repackage and sell the culture that capital’s very presence has eliminated. For example, I went to a friend’s wedding, which was billed as traditional. And indeed it was: bride, groom and families wore traditional Korean hanbok, the groom asked for the bride’s hand in marriage from her mother, and the bride was bundled into a box to be carried to the reception afterwards. This all took place in a lavish, traditional Korean home… on the fifth floor of Lotte World, a giant mall run by a chaebol. Everything had been reconstructed as a better version of an old Korean home. You could buy souvenirs and rent outfits; the house was painted in wonderfully bright colours which would never fade, since they’re not exposed to the elements; the acoustics were marvelous, since there was no wind. After the reception, you could go shopping at a luxury department store or visit a multistory indoor theme park shaped like a giant dome – all within the same building.
Later I asked the (Marxist) groom whether he found it strange that such a traditional ceremony could take place in such a contemporary place; he responded, “Capital will sell anything.” It struck me that the reason capital can sell history back to a people is because it’s constantly undermining that history. What it takes with one hand, it gives with the other – and makes a profit on it. We see the bolstering of cultural forms to the degree that they’re threatened, while at the same time the progressive elimination of any claim to authenticity those forms once had.
Whether this is new or not – postmodernism has been around in many guises for decades – it’s something that I think we in the west could learn from. Used to a more sedate pace of change – or, less charitably, the slow decay of our society – our cultural changes are easier to handle. Those of us with a cosmopolitan bent can believe we delight in absorbing new forms. I think it’s easy to forget that, when those changes are sudden and intense, there can be an equally intense desire for the past, which capital is only too happy to commodify.
This applies to Korean culture; but, I’d argue, it also applies to localism in the west. Nostalgia, or more fundamentally, fear of the future, can be channelled into either giant malls or farmers’ markets by capital. As Marxists, our task is to be as rigorous as possible about our political economy and the strategic questions that flow from it, lest we fall prey to that kind of easily-commodifiable desire for stability. We may lack the resources and creativity of capital, but we don’t have to solve its crises, and therein lies our advantage: we can focus our energies on resistance.
C.D.V.: Do you see localism as having a romantic or even reactionary characteristics?
G.S.: Localism absolutely has a romantic side. This is clearest in the idealization of rural life and small communities that pervades localist literature. And this has political consequences as well. In No Local, I identify localism as a form of petty bourgeois politics: a desire to evade the class struggle and find a ‘small’ way out. But Marxists have long argued there is no opt-out, no neutral ground. By trying to impose a false harmony on the irreconcilable antagonisms of capital and labour – neither left nor right but small – localists in fact serve the needs of capital. They disorient the workers’ movement by suggesting confrontation can be avoided, delaying the necessary strategic thinking that needs to happen to build the fight-back. The only people who benefit from this are the capitalists, who find potential opposition directed away from making demands on the state and corporations, instead turned inwards towards self-help.
This romantic idea isn’t new: one of the things I find so depressing about localism is it rehashes debates that were settled 150 years ago. Take the famous passage from the Communist Manifesto, where Marx takes on the localists of his day. Note that he’s sympathetic to denunciations of capitalism’s excesses:
This school of Socialism dissected with great acuteness the contradictions in the conditions of modern production… It proved, incontrovertibly, the disastrous effects of machinery and division of labour; the concentration of capital and land in a few hands; overproduction and crises; it pointed out the inevitable ruin of the petty bourgeois and peasant, the misery of the proletariat…
But Marx was a historical materialist: for him, social organization was based on a specific mode of production, a way of organizing how wealth is produced and used. That form – capitalism – already dominated. The property relations that buttressed small, local production had disappeared. To try and recreate them meant imposing an old form on new content – the proverbial bolting the stable door after the horses have fled:
In its positive aims, however, this form of Socialism aspires either to restoring the old means of production and of exchange, and with them the old property relations, and the old society, or to cramping the modern means of production and of exchange within the framework of the old property relations that have been, and were bound to be, exploded by those means. In either case, it is both reactionary and Utopian.
Marx saw the writing on the wall: petty bourgeois forms of production would persist but would never dominate the economy again. The rise to power of capitalism meant the end of small-scale ownership, of production for use, of artisanal production as a means of social production. This was fast disappearing by 1850; to promote it meant being “reactionary and Utopian”, an unworkable politics of nostalgia.
He was being a little triumphalist when he predicted petty bourgeois socialism’s demise: “Ultimately, when stubborn historical facts had dispersed all intoxicating effects of self-deception, this form of Socialism ended in a miserable fit of the blues.” It appears that, like the petty bourgeois themselves, localist politics make peroidic comebacks – in times of crisis, as your previous question pointed out, and then they serve a purpose.
To take one example, the Wall Street Journal recently posted a feature on up-market chicken coops and garden tools. Aside from showing that capitalism will commodify just about anything (for those willing to spend $258 on a shovel!), it speaks to the nostalgia driving localism: ‘“It’s what I did with my grandmother—the chickens, the gardening, the canning, the bees,” Ms. Zimmerman says. “It is my Zen—a memory of what made me feel safe and good and warm.” And jars of homemade honey make great gifts, she adds.’
I want to emphasize that this is a completely understandable, emotional reaction to turmoil: if the world is beset by crisis, go back to an imagined past – your own or what you’ve read about – where things were simpler and in balance. Or, put more historically materially, a time when fewer aspects of daily life were commodified, and there was more room for ‘independence’. The WSJ focuses on those willing to pay top dollar for this petty bourgeois fantasy, but of course that’s not all localists: many are poor, trying to save money in their own lives and be gentler to the earth while they do it. There’s no shame in being romantic! – except that, as a basis for political strategy, it fails to understand how the capitalist economy works and what to do about it. The only reason localism is prominent now, is because of the continuing paucity of alternatives posed by the workers’ movement and the revolutionary left. The pull of romantic anti-capitalism is a symptom of our historical weakness.
C.D.V.: Why do you think Marxist organizations have been so ill equipped to offer an alternative in the developed nations?
G.S.: The failures of Marxist organizations have been cast in particularly sharp relief lately, thanks to the ongoing crisis of the SWP. Its mishandling of rape accusations against a leading member, in a way that would make Stalin blush with flattery, have led, first of all, to the trauma of the woman raising the issue and the distress of those trying to support her. In turn, this has led to right-wing smears in the media against the entire project of Marxism and to dogmatic defences of ‘Leninism’ by the party leadership.
But if there’s a silver lining to this pitch-black cloud, it’s that a principled minority are taking the opportunity to link the scandal to a broader critique of left organizing. Tom Walker, Richard Seymour, China Mieville and others have suggested that Leninism is a method, not a blueprint for the future. Lenin can teach us about the nature of capitalism and the rapacity of the ruling class – but how to become a clandestine party under a Tsarist dictatorship, or how to be a tight cadre organization in the midst of civil war, are less relevant lessons.
This debate gives me cautious hope that Marxists organizations haven’t failed in the First World* – or at least, they’ve failed in useful ways. It’s true, we haven’t made the revolution. However, a revolution has too many variables to predict in advance. Even in hindsight, the political, economic, cultural, historical, etc. factors that create a revolutionary movement are hard to understand. We can learn from the past and apply those incomplete answers to an even more incomplete present. (And it’s worth adding that although the revolutionary record in the Third World is certainly better than the First – most were brought down by the low level of material development and the resulting idealism of revolutionary elites, leading to corruption and dictatorship.)
So, given that context, where did we go wrong? I think Marxists applied lessons from the past too mechanically, modelling revolutionary groups on what appeared successful in Russia, China, and elsewhere. This led to inflating the successes of those revolutions, becoming blind to their failures, and a lack of attention to understanding the First World variety of capitalism. Some Marxists have tried valiantly to understand what’s different about developed capitalism – I’m thinking of those inspired by Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, the James-Dunayevskaya groups, the Situationists – but often they were split off from workers’ and social movements, for reasons outlined succintly in Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism: the retreat into academia and the rise of successful reformism.
I think those groups had valuable pieces of the whole, while circumstances prevented them from influencing the broader movement and putting those pieces together. That’s the main reason for a mass revolutionary party in the first place: to bring the uneven experiences of the class’s vanguard fighters together, to learn from each other. Marxists weren’t together and failed to learn those lessons. We didn’t understand the Cold War as a major contributor to reformism and got sidelined by social democrats; we didn’t understand the significance of the ‘new social movements’, a particularly egregious failure considering how seriously earlier socialists took movements against sexual, gender and racial oppression. And this separation from the bulk of social movements meant that Marxists were powerless to lead the opposition to neoliberalism when its cold winds blew into town, atomizing and institutionalizing what remained of the 60s and 70s upsurge.
On one hand, many critical leftists are learning these lessons. On the other, context matters. It’s not an accident that, post-WW2, there was a layer of trade union bureaucrats able to provide real material benefits to their members, in the process splitting them from more exploited sectors of the working class. Why make a revolution when there’s tangible evidence that things can get better if you don’t rock the boat? I don’t think austerity breeds resistance – there’s nothing more demobilizing than poverty and unemployment. But the opposite may be true: the historical compromise between labour and capital, involving labour relinquishing control over production in return for regular raises, may have led to communism appearing obsolete. That’s not strictly a battle of ideas – rather, it’s a way to explain how the material world is being re-organized. Marxists could have the most logical critique of capitalism, but that wouldn’t mean much when capitalism appears to be making everything better, at least at home.
In fact, considering these pressures, I’d say that Marxists did pretty well; we rescued Marxism from the cold, dead hands of Stalinism and experimented with any number of different organizational forms. We broadened our theory, and re-acquainted ourselves or learnt anew about women’s liberation and gay liberation. Yes, we have lots more to learn, but my point is that the record is not one of constant defeat. We were outmaneuvered but did the best with the small forces at our disposal, making plenty of mistakes along the way. Now, when our forces are scattered and marginalized, those mistakes become magnified.
What can we do better? We can question and resist oppression in broader society, and if necessary in our own organizations, if we’re lucky enough to have those organizations. This doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel: there’s plenty of evidence that building mass, democratic, militant social movements are what build people’s confidence to transform capitalist society.
We need to retain political organization by socialists, whether that’s called a party or something else. This is a major weakness of all localist theory, left or right: it believes economic and political spaces can be detached from broader political economy. Then, when small-scale experiments achieve even the slightest success, they’re either coopted or destroyed by the state and capital. (It goes without saying that small-scale experiments that challenge nothing at all, like community gardens or farmers’ markets, are allowed to exist in perpetuity, unless they raise land rents.) Independent, from-below political organization helps fight that coercion and cooptation, by posing the question of resistance and how to win reforms. Marxists should be proud of that legacy.
The past is important, but so is the present. We face attacks from all sides – capitalist austerity, fascist reaction, and so on – and we have to learn how to organize through fighting back. These questions are always concrete: we can only answer ‘how to build a revolutionary party’ while we’re figuring out how to fight the cuts, oppose Zionism, fight for indigenous liberation, and so on. Done right, those movements pose broader questions of how to overturn oppressive power structures. At this point, Marxists become relevant – not as bearers of a programme, but as historical investigators and political strategists. We can say to those activists, “We know in broad outlines how capitalism works; can you help us to refine and correct that picture? Can we help each other to fill in the gaps?” I think that if a modest, questioning Marxism emerges out of the present political and economic crises, then there’s hope for our tradition, in both the First and Third Worlds.
(* I’m using the old ‘new left’ terminology of First & Third here because I still think it’s the best way to describe imperialism, as an unequal relationship of whole regions subject to combined and uneven development. I think “developed/underdeveloped” risks sounding neutral, while “Global South/Global North” lacks precision.)
C.D.V.: What do you see that is concerning you about the “left” in North America after Occupy?
G.S.: I think the Occupy movement had a kernel of truth in it: the desire for direct action and a willingness to organize and protest differently. The left’s failure to have any significant impact on imperialism in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the intense disillusionment with the Democratic Party after Obama’s first election, led to a novel circumstance: an upsurge in radical anti-establishment sentiment and absolutely no organizational or political place for it to go. As a response to the usual ‘marches to nowhere’ of the Left, Occupy’s willingness to question traditional organizing was a welcome development. Any leftist group worth its salt was at Occupy, not because it agreed with everything the movement did – there was lots to disagree with, from the voluntarism and moralism to the drug abuse and even murder that marred some Occupys – but because serious leftists know a new movement comes from struggle, and it’s not up to us to dictate the forms that struggle takes. A formally correct leftist criticism, about the lack of revolutionary organization and trade union focus at Occupy, was sectarian and irrelevant in that context. Our task was to debate and participate in the many real questions Occupy posed, from the meaning of work to the occupation of native land, and many groups deserve praise for that engagement.
It’s true that without ongoing organizational expression, Occupy was doomed to fail. But we should get no joy from pointing that out. Rather, I think the task is to harness that energy to the more concrete, place-based struggles that continue to erupt after Occupy. The Quebec student strike of 2012 is the best example: it took a bread-and-butter issue – tuition rises – and married it to the sweeping social criticism of Occupy. Thanks largely to its socialist organizers, the strike was able to identify the context of tuition rises: neoliberalism in education and commodification in society at large. The strike was neither economistic nor flaky: it was a recognition that the working class is open to both leadership over ‘real’ issues and radical change. To oversimplify and continue the food metaphor, if a strike is the ‘bread’, and Occupy was the ‘roses’, the Quebec student strike, and its radical leadership, gave Quebec students both.
The latest example is Idle No More, which displays many of the same characteristics: a focus on the brutal realities of native life in Canada, with a willingness to experiment with new forms of protest and make ‘maximum’ demands that would require vast changes in the state and capital to carry out. It’s been successful to the degree that it refused to be limited to partial demands: while resolutely local, Idle recognizes the shared circumstances of indigenous localities, linked by national state oppression and exploitation by international capital. You can’t get either more grounded, or more visionary, than that.
So, that’s where I see the future of the left after Occupy. Participating in, and if possible, leading the many struggles against austerity across North America, while recognizing that new approaches are needed to engage new activists, across generations. I’d be concerned if utopianism or business unionism predominated; but Maple Spring and Idle No More are hopeful signs that radicalism can be grounded in real-world struggles.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
G.S.: A friend of mine put me onto these timely t-shirts. I think they’re a cautious sign that the sheen is starting to wear off localism. A backlash was inevitable, particularly when localism is taken up by the well-off and lifestylist petty bourgeois. That backlash can degenerate into a right-wing populism directed at so-called cultural elites, or it can be an opportunity to question how capitalism works and what resistance is. The localist project was bound to be popular as an end-run around the contradictions of capitalism, a wish-fulfilment for those who want to believe in a non-contradictory modernity, that we can deal with the capital-labour antagonism by avoiding it. Of course that was never going to happen, but it takes time for the evidence to accumulate that piece-meal reforms – local consumption, local farming, local money – don’t have any impact on capitalist crisis. The longer economic turmoil continues, the more the evidence begins to mount. So people are searching – not necessarily for answers yet, but at least the right questions. If growing your own chickens doesn’t change the crisis in food production, doesn’t end factory farming and doesn’t alleviate hunger, what will? If providing community garden space doesn’t boost nutrition for poor communities, why not? If, despite your best efforts, the world is still getting rapidly worse, that can be disillusioning for activists, not to mention terrifying. But in that case, there are two options: abandon any attempt to change the world – in which case, localism will become a fall-back, ‘at least I’ve got mine’ pre-occupation of the comfortably afflicted – or go deeper and explore how the economy and ideology really work. I hope that my critique of localism can contribute to the latter process. So that when thousands of localists realize that their fresh vegetables and farmers’ markets make them feel better but do nothing to stop economic and ecological decline, they won’t give up; instead, they’ll move beyond localism to struggle.