Melting Into Air?

Against the Current, No. 158, May/June 2012

Sheila Cohen

The Crisis and the Left
Socialist Register 2012
Leo Panitch, Greg Albo and Vivek Chibber, editors
Merlin and Monthly Review Press, 2011, 306 pages, $25 paperback.

WE SHOULD BEGIN by celebrating the glories of the Socialist Register, which has been presenting overviews of capitalism and its discontents since 1964 — even longer than Against the Current. Yet precisely because Socialist Register is a voice of “the left,” its contents can often reflect the frustrating obfuscations of that ill-defined body.

Diagnosing what is wrong with the existing system is not, as they say, rocket science, particularly for “the left.” Yet since the SR 2012 volume is titled The Crisis and the Left, the reviewer is obliged to take seriously the question of what, if anything, “the left” might do about the crisis.

The back cover promises that “This volume…opens up a debate on possible strategies…which will continue in the 2013 [volume] on socialist strategy for the 21st century.” Yet at times, reading through the distinguished contributions to this volume, one is struck by the extraordinary (if implicit) acceptance of global capitalism — particularly in the three concluding essays, grouped as a “Symposium on the Eurozone Crisis and Left Strategies.” It’s as if the contributors, living in a world at best of left-leaning social democracy, can’t or won ‘t imagine a world beyond those largely academic borders.

Above all, most of the contributors — David McNally being the most important exception — offer only occasional references to that class which Marx identified as the gravediggers of capitalism. Where workers do get a mention, it tends to be as passive victims rather than potential vanquishers of the system.

But to the contributions. Leaving aside David Harvey’s somewhat self-interested rejection of “favoured versions of Marxist crisis theory [such as] falling rates of profit, underconsumption or whatever” (7) for his own favored emphasis on the sub-prime mortgage debacle, we arrive at McNally’s immediate reference to “a new wave of working-class insurgency” and his observation that “the age of austerity has raised the bar for movements of resistance, obliging them to undertake much more militant and oppositional practices…” (36).

Here is someone talking sense. Yet as McNally himself points out, “it is not that resistance has been lacking; it is simply that the modes of resistance thus far have generally been inadequate.” Despite this clear-eyed acknowledgement, McNally can remind us on the next page of the many militant and innovative strategies conceived and adopted by workers “such as the ‘bossnappings’ that reverberated across France in 2009.” (49, 50)

To this one could add the occupations and unofficial strikes that for a moment recaptured the spirit of working class struggle in Britain the same year, not to mention — much more pertinently — the massive strike waves that have resurged in southeast Asia, and the struggles of the Arab Spring.

McNally’s argument continues to be highly salient when, after acclaiming the creative and courageous spirit of protest captured in militant street-based protests of youth and students across north Africa, the Middle East and Europe, he points out that “Only where they have fused with mass protest by organised workers’ movements have youth uprisings been capable of overturning governments and transforming the political terrain….Insurgent movements of youth lack the economic clout of workers’ struggles, which can shut off the flow of business profits.” (51)

Where’s the Power?

With this simple truth, and the key examples set in the context of the Arab Spring provided in the next few pages, McNally identifies the key — in fact indispensible — role of those old-fashioned gravediggers of capitalism, the working class.

This recognition seems mainly absent from most other contributions to this volume. Ursula Huws’ essay “Crisis As Capitalist Opportunity,” for example, provides a worthwhile and highly informative analysis of the impact of the mass privatisation and Toyotaism of public services carried out in the neoliberal era; she also usefully criticizes the “focus [on the left] on ‘cuts.’” But Huws is able to conclude only with a call for “new forms of organisation…that recognise the common interests of a global proletariat, with globally-organized employers” — undoubtedly desirable, but an abstraction in the absence of strong workplace-based struggles. (81)

A similar utopianism, so common as to be almost routine on “the left,” emerges in the conclusions to Larry Lohman’s strategically weak contribution on “contradictions of neoliberal climate policy.” He suggests that “calls for ‘better regulation’ or ‘crackdowns on corruption’ can intersect fruitfully with the more strategic, long-term campaigns for decommodification of the earth’s carbon-cycling capacity” waged by a variety of grassroots organizations, including the important Via Campesina. (102)

But we can “call for” all we like. As the activity of the left has shown in the wake of the failed working class upsurge of the 1960s and ‘70s, without economic “clout,” most obviously generated by workers’ withdrawal of labor, our calls are unlikely to be answered. (For an extended discussion of the problem see S. Cohen, Ramparts of Resistance: Why Workers Lost Their Power and How to Get It Back, Pluto Press 2006.)

Readers will expect and in fact get more from the veteran supporter of poor people’s movements, Frances Fox Piven. Yet in the wake of the juggernaut of attacks on the poor in this most wealth-generating of eras, Piven’s essay “The New American Poor Law” is pessimistic. Invoking the “hope of Wisconsin,” which has indeed lit up the left, she is forced to point out that “the protestors have not yet won…” and that, as part of the context that confronts them, “The juggernaut will be hard to stop.” (121) [On the Wisconsin upsurge, see also Allen Ruff’s review essay in this issue of ATC — ed.]

While noting the importance of a movement including “the worst-off whose circumstances are so closely bound to the circumstances of working people generally,” Piven here doesn’t reach back into her own impressive research into the explosion of working-class organization which erupted, quite unpredictably, out of the almost equally miserable conditions of the early 1930s.

The following contribution by Nicole Aschoff, “A Tale of Two Crises,” an examination of restructuring in the auto industry, again doesn’t produce much in the way of a strategic perspective, though it is vigorous in documenting the staggering betrayals of auto workers by their own unions. Aschoff does point to the way forward when she described a “historic turnaround” in 2009 when Ford workers voted against concessions.

As so often, the rebellion was sparked after “workers had had enough.” According to workplace activists, “when [UAW president] Bob King asked members if they could hear him, a worker shouted ‘No!’ sparking a chorus of ‘No’s,’ footstomping and clapping. King left without another word.” (144)

The contract was rejected by over 70%, rising to 90% in some locals. In the long historical sweep of working-class rebellion this may sound mild, but it points the way forward as genuine grassroots rebellions can: in the language of the working class.

Aschoff also refers in a footnote to the role of Soldiers of Solidarity (a grassroots network of autoworkers featuring the redoubtable Greg Shotwell) as providing the “only challenge from labour” in recent years to the Delphi auto-parts corporation and others. Such rank-and-file networks are illustrative of one of the most significant forms of working-class organization — workplace-based committees bearing the potentially transformative features of direct democracy and a “workers’ council”-style structure, even in embryo.

The left needs more discussion of such formations, a field of research given a valuable start in Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzelini’s compilation (Ours to Master and to own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present, Haymarket 2011).

With a joint Adolph Reed-Merlin Chowkwanyun collaboration on “Race, Class, Crisis,” we return to the realm of political “discourse” around ethnicity, but these authors sharply challenge this discourse for its avoidance of class.

Perceptively linking the theoretical privilege allocated to “race” to an Oprah-style concern to “create competitive individual minority agents,” the authors castigate the “at best self-righteous and lazy-minded expression of the identitarian discourse that has captured the left imagination in the United States since the 1990s” by contrast to “a politics grounded in political economy and class analysis.”

This critique is prefaced by the equally perceptive comment that “these decidedly non-leftist policy prescriptions flow from the leftist frame of choice for analyzing the racial minority experience in the crisis of 2008. In choosing that frame, rather than fundamentally rethinking default approaches in the face of changing historical circumstances, the left has simply dusted off, rinsed and repeated.” (167) Readers familiar with Adolph Reed’s trenchant polemics on these issues will recognize both the style and substance of the argument.

A Coherent Revolutionary Direction?

An equally important exception to the generally vague perspectives of this volume is Adam Hanieh’s overview of the Arab uprisings, which, following on its account of the role played by world markets in the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), portrays the recent struggles in that region as bearing a “logic [which] inevitably challenged the dominant relations of power across the region as a whole.”

As Hanieh comments, such uprisings are “a further reminder of the inseparability of the ‘political’ and ‘economic’ spheres under capitalism” and — still more inspiringly — have raised “the significance of wider unity in the Middle East…A glimmer of this powerful vision could be witnessed — albeit briefly — in the moment that Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were all seeming to move in a coherent revolutionary direction…” (193).

To this inspiring trio has more recently and — so far — tragically been added the example of Syria, while the revolutionary trajectory in all three “Arab Spring” instigators has been sidelined (temporarily, perhaps?) by illusory and to say the least shallow forms of bourgeois “democracy.” Yet the impulse inherent in these grassroots revolts cannot be so pessimistically dismissed, arising as it does from the wellspring of exploitation.

As Hanieh concludes his contribution, “It is this revolutionary potential of the Arab uprisings for the world market as a whole which embodies the greatest fear of both the GCC ruling classes and all the imperialist states.” (194, emphasis in original)

Such revolutionary potential appears sadly lacking from the “socialist” Latin American states, or at least their governing regimes, as documented in the next contribution (“The Singularities of Latin America”), whose author Claudio Katz rightly points out that the initially grassroots mobilizations in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, while “widely surpass[ing] the normal conventions of social protest…did not involve challenges to the capitalist nature of the state [or] develop forms of popular power or military outcomes that characterize social revolutions.” (205)

But it’s the failure to acknowledge the “challenges” to that state so clearly arising from the Chinese sweatshop that is so disappointing about the next contribution. The discussion of “Sinomania” by Ho-Fung Hung, while documenting the social polarization consequent on the “single-minded pursuit” of “rapid economic growth” by China’s party-state from the 1990s onwards, singularly fails to describe or analyze the impact of such policies on the Chinese working class on the basis of anything other than a simplistic perspective of underconsumption.

The only reference to the massive — and massively exploited — Chinese working class is in the author’s judgement that “[t]he key to reducing China’s dependence on exports is to boost the consumption power of the working classes.” (228) But China’s “dependence on exports” is surely not the issue here — or at least not for anyone who could describe themselves as a socialist rather than a rather conservative Keynesian.

While the courageous mass strikes that have rocked the country in recent years receive a mention, it comes in the context of apparent acceptance that “These instances of unrest were widely reported in China’s media [???] and seemed to successfully force the foreign capital concerned to make significant concessions…” Not if LaborStart is to be believed, they haven’t (recent postings are still recording suicides while appealing to Apple and other global corporations to reduce their “sweating” of student labor).

The author’s conclusion that “rebalancing the Chinese…economy will require a political solution which could bring improvement of the working classes’ share of economic growth” (230) seems inadequate at best in what presents itself as a “Marxist” analysis.

The strain of “underconsumptionism” riddling many of the contributions to this collection continues with Jan Toporowski’s “Eastern Europe: post-communist assets in crisis,” with its largely dismissive reference to the 1980s Solidarity struggles in Poland and the comment — no doubt empirically accurate —  that “the inability of communist governments to sustain living standards and democratic engagement led to their downfall.” (245).

At the same time, Toporowski’s concluding suggestion that “the collapse of communism…was an opportunity for the labour movements in those communist countries to install social democracy and capitalism directed by social priorities” (246) is rather bewildering. Whatever this means, it hardly rings as a clarion call to confront the very forces battering the labor movements in our own, occasionally “social-democratic,” capitalist nations.

Along similar lines, Peadar Kirby’s analysis of Ireland’s economic collapse seems to find solace in the “alternatives” suggested by such bodies as the Labour Party and Irish Congress of Trade Unions, not so far distinguished by their willingness to fundamentally challenge capitalism. As the author himself implies, Labour’s proposals for a Constitutional Convention to draft “wide-ranging reforms to the political system” (261) are hardly likely to rock the European juggernaut.

Kirby’s conclusions return to the grassroots, arguing soundly that the current crisis “may be turned into an opportunity for fundamental changes…through the determined struggle of the Irish working people.” (265) Yet this accurate conclusion is left hanging in the absence of any previous strategic analysis of how any such (so far hypothetical) struggle might develop, or be supported by the left.

The concluding “Symposium on the Eurozone Crisis and Left Strategies,” despite its explicitly strategic objectives, is again disappointing. Elmer Alvater’s piece on “crisis dynamics,”impeccable in its overview of events, tells us that “there are only two paths in Europe right now…one towards the disintegration of the eurozone; and a second towards the strengthening of ‘European statehood’…” (284)

Alvater’s assessment and critique of the European left is almost entirely focused on its “accept[ance of] the formation of the European Monetary Union as regulated by the Maastricht Treaty.” (285) No one is arguing that the left should  have “accepted” Maastricht, but there could be said to be other forces at work in the failure of the left to combat neoliberalism in this particular form.

The next contribution, by Costas Lapavitsas, quite rightly points out that “[t]he point of departure of a radical strategy ought to be that working people have…no stake in the success of the EMU.” But since many if not most workers are painfully aware of this (at least in practice), such a strategy merely repeats the invocatory and largely impotent “calls” of much left analysis.

When Lapavitsas suggests that “The strategy for the left in core countries ought to include further steps to monetary union,” and adds that “A further step would be control over the financial system,” we slide from somewhat drab utopianism back into, at best, left reformism. (295)

Michael Husson’s final contribution calls for a “total change of perspective that takes the creation of useful jobs as a starting point,” to include: “(1) a radical change in the distrivbution of income; (2) a massive reduction of working time; and (3) a repture with the capitalist world order, beginning with ‘really existing’ Europe.” (301, 306)

This package would certainly be a great improvement in the program of the pathetic existing social-democratic parties. Such demands are not in any way “wrong” — how could they be? — but they are, to say the least, lacking in any =concrete, let alone class-based, strategy for achieving the required state of affairs.

The historic problem of the left, revolutionary or reformist, has been our illusion that “demanding” will make it so. If “we” — whoever we are, and irrespective of whether the working class is or is not included in that equation — issue these demands, place these headlines on our revolutionary newspapers, include them in our political programs, then…But the end of that sentence, like the demands themselves, is rarely attained.

The obsession of the “left” with program over outcome, with wishes more than with concrete struggle, is unfortunately replicated only too clearly in this admirable volume of an admirable series. Perhaps — in all kinds of ways — 2013 will be better.

May/June 2012, ATC 158