Hi! Welcome to this series of posts about the left-right divide in politics. Here’s the story so far…
In the first post, I argued that the media portrays anything even remotely left-wing as ‘extreme’, ‘hard’, or ‘far’ left. I then offered ten beliefs I hold that supposedly made me extreme but which, I thought, made me a sensible, intelligent, caring human being. In the second post, I argued that the usual definition of left-right as expressing one’s preference for the state or markets to produce and allocate scarce goods was an anachronistic red herring. In reality, capital needs the state to force us to be ‘free’. Moreover, I argued that markets were very secondary to the huge organisational power of corporations which increasingly block market dynamics. This, by the way, isn’t some aberration as economists would see it; this is the inevitable reality of economic power.
In the third post, I argued that only left-wing thought understood the true nature of human and social freedom and proposed concrete visions and ideas for us to create a society in which maximal individual freedom could coincide with and sustain social peace and justice. In the fourth post, I suggested that one main reason why right-wing ideas have had such success (beyond the obvious fact of their relentless daily propagandizing by the media and the sheer political power of the state) is because they offer simplistic solutions or promises based on superficial interpretations of reality. These are false, but they can satisfy and help avoid us doing the harder work necessary for our freedom – independent critical thinking. In societies with low levels of critical education and historical knowledge, such ideological frameworks can quite comfortably maintain the status quo. In crises, it gets trickier and, therefore, more violent. Here’s the next post in this series and it’s about realism…
There comes a point in any debate where those on the right, or those on the left who lack the imagination or faith, interject and say ‘well, this is all well and good and sounds absolutely lovely, but now can we get back to reality?!’ The right-wing argument then goes that all previous attempts at such fantasy have ended at the gulag i.e. the mass repression and murder of millions of people by totalitarian dictatorships (the most famous exposition of this idea is ‘free-market’ icon Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom). A more sympathetic, but equally dismissive, version suggests that the economic and political power of the corporations and financial markets comprises an insurmountable and permanent barrier against such naive dreams, that dreaming this way is thus an irresponsible waste of time, and that the only realistic progressive strategy is to accept the status quo, but to work with the CEOs and bankers to try to win small but significant concessions to alleviate the worst consequences of global capitalism (see perhaps Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy and Making Capitalism Fit For Society here). This would be the social democratic argument, broadly put. At the optimistic end of this social democratic perspective stand those reformists who believe in an ethical capitalism that can serve shareholders, bosses, workers, society, and the environment alike in a harmonious positive-sum relationship. This tends to be promoted by idealists, not in the sense of abstract dreamers, but in the sense of people who believe that the world is made up of ideas rather than historical materialists like me who think that ideas are crucially important, but that history since the Agricultural Revolution has been driven by the conflict between antagonistic social forces (a great place to start here would be Neil Faulkner’s A Marxist History of the World or this lecture with the same title). The ‘ethical capitalism’ ideal is also promoted, unsurprisingly, by those corporate elites with a liberal conscience like Bill Gates and major US foundations like the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations.
So, in this post, I will politely thank those well meaning conservatives or faithless or naive liberal reformists for patronising and dismissing my intellectual utopianism, but I will stick to my guns, and I will stick to my guns by offering four arguments for why, actually, left-wing utopianism is more realistic than their supposed realism. Here goes…
(1) Only mass violence has repressed democratic socialism so far
First, on the argument that socialism is only good on paper and that history shows it can’t be realised, there are many arguments here. I will cover the stuff about human nature in the next and final post. Instead, I‘ll stick here to history and just say that the failed attempts of the past were far more to do with the superior power and relentless and violent intervention of capitalist forces. Only the murder of countless millions of left-wing activists (like me) have ensured socialism’s failure so far. I’ll just point you here to two examples that are of contemporary significance. First, because we’ve just had to go through the annual ordeal of the shameful jingoism that is Remembrance Day, here’s a great short article by Paul Mason on the real reasons behind the end of World War One. Second, since we’ve just commemorated its fiftieth anniversary and because so many people should know about it, here’s something on the hundreds of thousands of peaceful people murdered with US support by the Indonesian regime in 1965. Two examples out of hundreds where capitalist violence crushed democratic intention or, at least, potential. That’s not to ignore the brutality of the ‘really existing socialist’ regimes that have emerged. Beyond the persuasive argument that these were often more like state capitalist regimes with extraordinarily high levels of centralised power and economic control, I’d just argue that they disprove nothing about the viability of democratic socialism. Furthermore, as I argued in the second post, and as the current Eurocrisis incontrovertibly shows, capital requires authoritarian force. To survive, capital must oppose real democracy. In a fit of prosopopoeia, conjuring the spirit of capital itself, Alan Sugar, a famous supposed UK ‘entrepreneur’ recently said he’d move to ‘communist’ China if the current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was elected Prime Minister. I think we’d be fine without him, without them all, indeed.
(2) Capitalism is moribund. Condition probably terminal
The next argument for why left-wing utopianism is actually also hard realism is that capitalism is moribund. It seems to be dying. Even zero interest rates and the effective printing of $12trillion via quantitative easing have failed to revive the patient. All that’s really been achieved is the enrichment of the richest and the revival of old and the creation of new asset market bubbles. Evidence for a new global downturn is growing. This will soon be greatly exacerbated by a new financial crash.
(3) Capitalism is blocking technological and scientific progress
Third, the only arguably redeeming trait of capitalism was the technological dynamism it fuelled, but now capitalism is blocking this dynamism. To be clear, this technological dynamism wasn’t primarily driven by capitalists’ intrinsic love of technology. Capitalist firms pursue profit and only profit. They are legally obliged to maximise it. However, for two main reasons, capitalism is now blocking technological and related social progress. First, because working class organisational power is so weak, capitalists can try to revive profitability the lazy way – by cutting labour costs – rather than the more expensive but ultimately more sustainable way – by investing in new technology to boost productivity. Hence, all these MNCs sitting on billions of cash, choosing to buy back their shares rather than invest. Second, because information can be reproduced at almost zero cost, this new information revolution means we can now collaborate online, sharing and exchanging, producing together. There is no price on something that can be produced, stored, and shared for almost free. Hence, the only way to continue their ‘free market’ is to lock down monopolies. Think Google, Apple, Facebook. What do Google and Facebook do? They sell us back to us. Apple hook us onto their hardware so it can hook us into buying its software. There’s no rational reason why we can’t all own, say, the Beatles greatest hits for free. TTIP, the huge multilateral ‘trade’ treaty so many are protesting against, isn’t really so much about trade as it is about the real ‘IP’, not ‘investment, but ‘intellectual property’. We don’t need capitalism anymore. We can own, share, and develop our own ideas, thank you very much. The internet makes that possible. We need to liberate the internet to liberate ourselves. For far more on this see Paul Mason’s excellent Postcapitalism and Nick Srinicek & Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future (the latter I haven’t yet read).
Everything stated here regarding technology is the same for science, particularly medical science. Think of the regular scandals we hear about pharmaceutical firms blocking access to life-saving drugs for the poor. Capitalism has to go.
(4) Capitalism is destroying our planet, our species
Finally, capitalism is destroying our ecosystem and climate. That’s the reality. One of us has to go – capital or us. Think that’s a false binary? Well, the fossil fuel companies now have reserves over four times more than the amount calculated we need to stay within burning in order to have any chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees by 2050. Their financial future and prosperity depends on those reserves – reserves they’ve invested billions in identifying and readying. Ours depends on those reserves staying in the ground. But, it’s more complex than that because their financial prosperity is tied up with ours via our pension funds and economies. That’s why the only realistic option is ending capitalism. Ultimately, capitalism is a social system founded on and requiring private ownership and continued and growing exploitation of land and labour. It is incompatible with human health and sustainable social and ecological relations.
(5) Capitalist realism is sustained by those who proclaim it
Much of the ‘realism’ the right-wingers parrot is discursive, i.e. imposed and reinforced through their own saying so. I’m not denying the real material power of corporations, bankers, and governments, of course. But all empires, regimes, governments can and do fall, and, by defining reality as the permanence of the status quo, those who do so, whether wittingly or unwittingly, perpetuate the same reality. Those who say that to imagine another world is naive and impossible either have a vested interest in this current unjust world or a total lack of faith in their fellow humans. They also have little understanding of history. Some of them may want change and might just be scared (and that’s understandable), but then that’s not an intellectual argument that’s an emotional one. Whatever the motive, by saying what they do, their words actually serve to maintain the status quo in our collective heads.
So, in short, here are five powerful arguments against the naysayers and for why they might consider a dose of the realism they so readily prescribed.
Another World is…Necessary!
Paul Mason has called on us on the left to be ‘unashamed utopians’ (in his Postcapitalism book). I am one. At the very same time, I also see my politics as way more realistic than those who seek to narrow our definition and imagination of reality to the perpetual crisis management of current desperate and terminal state of affairs we now endure.
True left-wing politics, for me, has always been utopian. Now more than ever it is obliged to be. But our utopianism must be a ‘concrete’ or ‘real’ utopianism. It must be grounded in a rigorous, scientific analysis of our current conditions. To quote my favourite band, Fat Freddy’s Drop, ‘we’ve got to know where we’re coming from before we know where we’re going to’! We’ve got to know our history and our political economy. We know the phrase ‘Another World is Possible’ that expresses utopian hope. When we combine it with the realism I’ve just offered, we might suggest that left-wing thought and activism today should centre around the slogan ‘Another World is Necessary!’
Right, in the last post (here), I will make a more philosophical case (combining it with some empirical evidence) against the right-wing one-dimensional, static and misanthropic view of human nature. I’ll argue that all right-wing claims about freedom and democracy are rhetorical cos they are there to defend an oppressive and exploitative social system. I’ll argue that we’re totally up for this sharing and co-operating stuff; that it’s in our essential nature; that we’re doing it already, all of us everyday; and that, ultimately we urgently need to bring in a social system that is based on sharing and co-operation and allows our generous, co-operative impulses to flourish. I’ll finally argue that left-wing thought today should be based on what French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls the ‘equality of intelligence’.
Thanks, as ever, for reading this!