austerity, Capitalism, Conservative Party, Crisis, Democracy, economy, Housing, Ideology, Labour Party, Marxism, NHS and healthcare, Politics and economics, UK, UK housing crisis

Dousing the fires, Part Two: The UK’s economic, social, and political crises

Dousing the fires: On the crisis of hegemony, the forthcoming war of manoeuvre, and how only love can win this war

Part Two: The UK’s economic, social, and political crises

As usual, if you prefer to listen to the blogpost, you can do so below here.

In the first article of this five-part series, I set out my overall argument and presented a brief summary of Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and how economic crisis (a crisis of capital) destabilises hegemonic orders. In part three, I will offer evidence to show how we’re in deep in a hegemonic crisis and how the ideological landscape has been dragged dramatically leftwards in recent months and weeks. However, first, I need to demonstrate the depth of the economic, social, and political crises provoking this ideological, hegemonic crisis. This is what I do in this second article.

Economic crisis

Let’s start with the UK economy. Here, I’ll rely on the outstanding Marxist economist Michael Roberts’ analysis and data. This will be a whistle-stop tour. UK growth rates are stagnant. While unemployment is at very low levels, real wages are falling and inflation is at four year highs. Indeed, as Michael Roberts reports, ‘British households have suffered the longest stagnation in real incomes in the last 166 years!’ Precarious labour and low-income self-employment are on the rise and worker productivity increases are stagnant.

real wage growth

Retail sales are now falling and even the housing market looks like it has finally peaked, with transaction volumes beginning to tumble. This is hugely problematic because it has largely been continued consumer spending and house price inflation keeping things afloat. With wages falling, consumption has been increasingly sustained by debt (credit cards, payday and personal loans) and with UK private debt to GDP ratios near historic highs and savings rates at historic lows, the wheels look ready to come off again. Despite the slump in the pound, the UK’s trade deficit continues to widen.

Uk current account to GDP

The key underlying indicator of the health of a capitalist economy from a Marxist perspective – the profit rate – has shown some improvement in recent years. However, this, according to Roberts, is concentrated among large tech and finance firms who have shored up profits through share buybacks. Profits are set to fall as the outcomes of persistently low investment levels take effect through 2017.

business investment

In short, Michael Roberts forecasts that the UK economy is about to ‘enter a period of stagnation at best’ and, with similar patterns elsewhere, ‘there is every likelihood of a new global recession in the next year or two’. So, nine years on, with literally trillions spent on bank bailouts (in 2008) and virtually free money for banks, corporations, and rich people through quantitative easing (printing money) and asset inflation (house and stock market bubbles) and billions taken from the hands, mouths, and stomachs of the poorest and most vulnerable (austerity), and we’re still neck deep in the shit…and sinking. And this is how we sink…

Social crisis

As for the depth of the social crisis, let’s start with our schools. According to the National Association of Head Teachers, 18% of schools are in deficit and 71% are only balancing their books by making more cuts to equipment and, increasingly, to staff teaching hours and positions. The National Audit Office says that schools will have to find another £3billion in savings in the next five years to cover the government’s funding shortfall.

As for our health, the NHS is, according to the British Medical Association, at breaking point. It reports ‘bed occupancy at record highs, social care on the brink of collapse, and patients unable to reliably access general practice’. NHS trusts across the country are reporting record deficits. The government had to pump in £1.8billion in emergency payments last year just to keep many afloat. It is surely a matter of time before the first declares insolvency. Last year, junior doctors conducted a series of strikes primarily not over pay and conditions, but the safety of the system. With Brexit looming, the NHS now also faces a recruitment crisis. Recently, a 96% fall in overseas applications for nursing positions was reported!

NHS_crisis_headlines.jpg

Then there are health crises – 15% smoking rates, 7.8 million binge drinkers, 1 in 4 is clinically obese! As for mental health, according to the Mental Health Taskforce to the NHS,

‘One in four adults experiences at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any given year…Mental health problems represent the largest single cause of disability in the UK. The cost to the economy is estimated at £105 billion a year – roughly the cost of the entire NHS.’

The political economy of mental illness is stark.

‘People with mental health problems are also often overrepresented in high-turnover, low- pay and often part-time or temporary work. Common mental health problems are over twice as high among people who are homeless compared with the general population, and psychosis is up to 15 times as high. Children living in poor housing have increased chances of experiencing stress, anxiety and depression.’

Relatedly, sufferers of mental illness are disproportionately ‘people in marginalised group…including black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, disabled people, and people who have had contact with the criminal justice system, among others. BAME households are more likely to live in poorer or over-crowded conditions, increasing the risks of developing mental health problems.

The Taskforce’s report is an indictment of our so-called ‘criminal justice’ system: ‘As many as nine out of ten people in prison have a mental health, drug or alcohol problem. Finally, the Taskforce spells out that mental illness increasingly means a premature death:

‘Suicide is rising, after many years of decline. Suicide rates in England have increased steadily in recent years, peaking at 4,882 deaths in 2014. The rise is most marked amongst middle aged men. Suicide is now the leading cause of death for men aged 15–49.’

And, due to austerity, as need is greatest, provision is ebbing away.

‘In its recent review of crisis care, the Care Quality Commission found that only 14 per cent of adults surveyed felt they were provided with the right response when in crisis, and that only around half of community teams were able to offer an adequate 24/7 crisis service…The number of adult inpatient psychiatric beds reduced by 39 per cent overall in the years between 1998 and 2012.’

Let’s look at two of the most basic areas of human need – food and housing. The number of three-day emergency food supplies given out by Trussell Trust Foodbanks has exploded from 25,899 in 2008-9 to 1.2 million in 2016-17! The reasons given are predominantly due, unsurprisingly, to low incomes and delays or changes to benefits payments. This goes on while an estimated 6 million tonnes of food are wasted each year in this country! Capitalist efficiency there, huh. The number of hospital beds taken up by patients with malnutrition has trebled since the economic crisis and austerity began.

foodbanks.png

Finally, a brief look at the desperate housing crisis: the highest house prices and highest percentage of incomes spent on rents in Europe; the number of rough sleepers has risen by over 140% since 2010, but the number of ‘hidden homeless’ – people staying with family members or friends – is far higher; whilst over 200,000 houses are empty across the UK.

And now we have the unspeakable, gut-wrenching tragedy of Grenfell Tower. One fridge explodes and a 24-storey block of flats burns down killing scores of men, women, and children. Their only crime was being poor (and non-white and immigrants largely). While residents plead and beg for health and safety concerns to be addressed, £8million is spent on nothing more than a patch up job with cheap, flammable cladding so as not to offend the eyes of the world’s wealthiest who live behind gates nearby. More on this later.

We’ve gone on a whistle-stop tour of broken Britain. Perhaps this final statistic sums it up most powerfully: over a quarter of all children in this country live in poverty! Oh and by the way, Two-thirds (66 per cent) of children growing up in poverty live in a family where at least one member works.

Political crisis

So, this is the depth of the economic and social crises that provide the context to the unfolding political crisis. An out-of-touch, unelected Conservative Prime Minister calls a snap election. The combination of a cynical, illegal, and shambolic Tory campaign and a well run Labour campaign and genuine social democratic manifesto galvanises working class and young voters to deny the Conservatives a parliamentary majority.

May called the election to shore up a negotiating position on Brexit with the EU that was very weak before the election. She and her Party now have no credibility in Brussels at all. The Grenfell Tower disaster has exposed the corrupt core of the UK political-economic system and has weakened an already teetering government yet further. Her government’s Queen’s Speech (the main new pieces of legislation a new government aims to put through) was shorn of virtually all manifesto social and economic pledges. May now looks to shore up her parliamentary position with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, a party Frankie Boyle described as ‘the political wing of the Old Testament’ and a party and leaders with clear ties to unionist paramilitary terrorist groups. In the meantime, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is so popular in many circles that he’s headlining at Glastonbury!!

The Tory Party is now in a profound, possibly terminal, crisis. I say this advisedly. We are talking about a political party with around just 100,000 members. A similar number of people to that protested outside the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester last year! The average age of a Party member is now around 60! If this government falls and a Labour or progressive coalition is elected, electoral reform towards a proportional representative system (in which the number of votes a party gets actually corresponds to seats) may push the Party to the margins. Its resurrection may require a full conversion to fascism.

In this article, I have offered an overview of the profound economic, social, and political crises gripping the UK right now. I have done this in order to set out the underlying material context creating the current ideological crisis. In the next article (the third of five), I will offer evidence for this ideological crisis, this crisis of hegemony, and how the ideological landscape has been dramatically dragged leftwards in the last two years, decisively and transformatively so by our recent general election.

Thank you so much for reading.

Solidarity and love,

Joel

Capitalism, Crisis, Culture, Democracy, Ideology, Labour Party, Left-wing politics, Love, Marxism, Neo-liberalism, Philosophy, Politics and economics, Socialism, transformation, UK

Dousing the fires: On the crisis of hegemony, the forthcoming war of manoeuvre, and how only love can win this war – Part One: introduction and understanding ‘hegemony’

Dear readers,

If you prefer to listen to this blogpost, you can do so right here…

Part One: Introduction and understanding ‘hegemony’

The world is ablaze!! In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Portugal, Pakistan, London, fires burn, destroying lives and fuelling the fires of righteous rage spreading across our entire planet.

The fire that burned down the high rise Grenfell Tower in West London two weeks ago killed dozens (hundreds?) of (overwhelming Muslim and non-white, immigrant) working class people. All people with love in their hearts feel grief and, yes, a burning anger.

In the glare of these fires, why would anyone call for social theory?! Why the hell should we think about theorising about the state of the world when we are called by the most excruciating anguish to act in it right now?! It sounds crazy, but I want to argue that we need theory right now to make sense of our situation so that we can act in the most effective ways. When I say that I want to talk about Italian political philosopher and activist Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony I fear I can almost see readers’ eyes rolling back in their heads, but, please, trust me, stick around. It matters. It matters so profoundly. I’ll try my best to convince you why and how.

Gramsci

In this series of articles, I will first set out Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and why understanding hegemony is vital to any process of personal journey towards, and collective struggle for, real freedom. Basically, I will argue that ruling groups cannot maintain power through violence alone, so the construction of a dominant culture, a dominant understand of ‘common sense’, and a naturalisation of an arbitrary, artificial, and unjust social order is required. In short, the construction of a hegemonic ideology is essential. Over the last thirty years, this ideology has been neo-liberalism. A hegemonic ideology requires underlying social and economic stability to be credible. An economic crisis gradually weakens its foundations. This is what has happened here and all around the world. Because of the 2008 crisis and continued falls in living standards, very few believe in the core mantras of neo-liberalism anymore – ‘free’ markets, privatisation, pure self-interest, financial markets, austerity. Neo-liberalism as functioning ideology is dead. This means that ruling groups have to rule ever more through violence – physical, yes, but also communicative, that is, the politics of hate and fear. It also means that there is an opening at last for a politics of hope – both ideological and material. That is, there is a space for groups to present a hopeful vision of and for humanity and a concrete programme of action to achieve it. This is what has happened recently with Labour’s resurgence in the recent election. This has transformed the ideological landscape, our collective understanding of ‘common sense’.

thatcherTINA

In the second article, I take us on a whistle-stop tour of the nature of the economic, social, and political crises affecting the UK right now. This establishes the foundations and context for the current hegemonic crisis.

In the third article, I offer evidence for both why neo-liberalism is clearly dead (as hegemonic ideology) and for this recent dramatic shift leftwards in in the ideological landscape.

In the fourth article, I take a bold step and offer a prediction of what will happen in the UK within the next 12-24 months. Usually, the optimism of my will trumps the pessimism of my intellect, but here, perhaps for the first time, my pessimistic (realistic) intellect wins out. I predict a very scary scenario in which the Tory government falls and a progressive government (Labour majority or coalition) is elected. That’s not the scary bit! The new government then faces the collective wrath of the state and capitalist factions (army, police, financiers, corporations, political class, and media) who do their utmost to bring down the government and the movements behind it. What I describe is the emergence of a real ‘war of manoeuvre’ in which opposing social forces take their struggle beyond the cultural terrain into direct economic and even physical confrontation. That’s the scary bit!

In the fifth and final article, I will set out a four-fold framework for winning this war through the democratisation of power and the empowerment of democracy. This framework is underpinned by the principles of radicalism and love. By radicalism, I mean a governmental strategy and policy approach that addresses the root causes of crisis and injustice and makes no reformist compromise to social forces systemically opposing our ambitions. It is people and planet against capital. There can be no compromise and history’s battlefield is littered with the corpses of failed revolutions sold out by reformism. By love, I mean a micro-political commitment, that is, a commitment in each of our local communities, families, workplaces, and our hearts to a democratic culture of love – non-judgment, non-violence, empathy, listening, dialogue, and, wherever possible, consensus.

These failed democratic revolutions were also cut down by bureaucratic statism. However, the first component of the framework is a temporary state socialism. I advocate a temporary and necessary state socialism to defend against and expropriate the forces of capital; to sustain the people in the midst of crisis; and to begin and support a far greater democratisation of political and economic power. This democratisation of political and economic power, the second component of the framework, must take the forms of municipalism and co-operativism. Municipalism means establishing local control of councils and neighbourhood assemblies for communities to control and run local resources. Co-operativism entails the democratisation of companies through worker takeovers and conversions to worker-run co-operatives. The third component of the framework requires the continued post-election mobilisation and organisation of citizens on community, regional, and national levels to defend the election victory and to push the government, lured by reformism or cowed by crisis, towards radicalism and democratisation. The fourth and final component entails the vital micro-politics of democratisation – the democratisation of our culture and our very selves through collective learning. Ultimately, only water can overcome fire; only love and hope can overcome hate and fear.

I conclude with a call to all of us to get informed, to get ‘shock-proof’ (as Naomi Klein puts it), to get involved locally and nationally, and to open ourselves to love.

Hegemony

What is Gramsci’s theory of hegemony? In order to secure stable rule, ruling groups use the cultural institutions of society (media, education, civil society) to create if not active, but at least passive consent around the status quo. You might not like the society you’re in, but, through your constant exposure to the papers, TV, films, schooling, etc, you come to accept the ‘reality’ you see as normal, inevitable, and even natural. Stable rule through passive consent requires the production of an ideology so profound that you don’t even know it’s there. It’s ‘hidden in plain view’. One central way of thinking about what hegemony produces is our collective ‘common sense’ – that which becomes so ingrained in us as to be instinctive and unconscious.

The hegemonic ideologies of neo-liberal capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and more, then, are constructed through cultural institutions and disseminated through the countless words and images we see. Indeed, we reproduce hegemony ourselves through our own language, signs, mannerisms, clothes, bodies each day.

Hegemony is never totally stable because there is always resistance. However, one thing that capitalism has been amazing at is colonising and co-opting this resistance and invariably commodifying it. A potential social threat ultimately becomes simultaneously a point of social catharsis and a money-making opportunity. Think, for example, of the punk movement of the 1970s and 1980s or rap/hip-hop in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hegemony is a vital, I would say, fundamental, social theory because it helps us to see how we (our supposed freedom, our ideology, our subjectivity, our very selves) are produced. Indeed, crucially, hegemony is not just a cultural theory; it is a political economic theory because it shows not just how we as pliant citizens, but also productive workers and desirous consumers (not to mention stereotypical gendered and racialised roles) are produced. In short, we need to understand hegemony – the conditions of our mental enslavement – if we then want to pursue and struggle for our genuine freedom. We also need to recognise that all the institutions of society are battlegrounds in a social war and that this war is going on not just out there in society, but in here – in our family homes, in our kitchens, our bedrooms, our hearts, our minds, our souls.

Hegemony and crisis

An emphasis on the material foundations of cultural hegemony is crucial because this emphasis then sheds light on the conditions that either help to concretise or destabilise hegemonic orders. However partial and jaundiced the ‘reality’ that is constructed through the media, there has to be some correspondence to the reality we actually experience for the foundations of a hegemonic order to stand strong. It is in periods, then, of profound and prolonged social and economic crisis (crises of capital) that the widespread passive social consent for a hegemonic order begins to collapse as the perception gap between these mediated and experienced realities grows. Consequently, as, for reasons spelled out eloquently by David Harvey here, crisis is inevitable in capitalism, so are corresponding crises in the underlying/overarching hegemonic order.

Image result for cultural hegemony

We are living in such a period of material (ecological and socio-economic) and hegemonic (ideological) crisis. The ‘Great Recession’ triggered by the 2008 Financial Crisis is almost a decade old and living standards in post-industrial Western societies continue to decline as inequality continues to grow. In the second of this series of five articles, then, I will lead us on a brief overview of the situation here in the UK by way of example to capture the depth of the economic, social, and political crisis we face. We can then move on to look for evidence of hegemonic crisis too. That’s the focus of the third article.

Thank you so much for reading.

Solidarity and love,

Joel

Capitalism, Culture, Ideology, Media, Politics and economics, Television, UK

On Comic Relief and charity generally: make charity history!

Here’s a post I wrote two years ago at the time of the last Comic Relief Day in 2015. I re-read it and it still resonated with me, so I’m reposting here.

Sorry I’ve not been writing. I will start writing again soon on some thoughts about the nature of ‘post-truth’ and how to respond.

Let me know what you think.

Best wishes,

Joel

 

Capitalism, Crisis, Culture, Democracy, Education/learning, Environment, Evolutionary consciousness, Food, Globalisation, Knowledge production, Marxism, Network versus hierarchy, Patriarchy, Politics and economics, racism, transformation

WTF is going on?! Ultimate contradiction and the struggle for humanity

Dear friends,

I hope that you have enjoyed your summer. I have. I’ve been off for almost all of it – first, recuperating from my injuries and, second, looking after my kids. I can’t deny that it has been tiring and occasionally exasperating being with three kids all day in what often seem to be ceaseless processes of negotiation, mediation, disciplining, imploring, insisting…and relenting. But, the moments of true love and joy have been countless – moments of simplicity: of play, of love and kindness among siblings and with one and with multiple children, in summer fields, eating ice creams, stargazing, picking berries, and just being together. I cherish them. But, another summer is behind us and we’re back into the school routine.

I find myself currently without employment and in quite an uncertain position, but, as I work things through and find employment, I am not short of work to do and plans to hatch. I will be spending the Autumn writing up five articles based on my experiments in and experiences of radical democratic pedagogy both within and beyond the university. I will also be turning the website designed alongside students at Warwick earlier this year into reality. It’s called ‘Moneypedia’ and will be a site designed to invite users into participatory processes of learning about money – about the world of money, our lives within in, and possible alternatives beyond the current system. I’m also continuing to work with nine other people to build the foundations of the Centre for Transformational Learning and Culture. We’ve now produced a development plan/funding proposal and we are awaiting news from one potential funder. We’re also going to be trying to build a networked community of people and organisations involved in the very broad area of transformational learning and culture, so contact me if you want to join that group.

*********

What I plan to do in a series of blogs over the next couple of months are to write up some reflections on what I think is going on right now in our world. I want to argue that in recent months we have been experiencing the increasing intensification of the collapse of our entire living system and that, overall, on the level of humanity, this is being experienced as ultimate contradiction. It’s experienced as ultimate contradiction because it embodies the struggle between the old dying system and the new emerging system on a global level.

When we talk about systems far too often we overlook the fact that we are these systems – these systems are our relationships with each other and they live and function within and through our minds and bodies – so, living with ultimate contradiction is very tough indeed. It is toughest, of course, for those suffering the greatest pain at the expense of the old system who often experience their lives not as contradiction, but as intense and unambiguous pain. What I want to contribute to above all with my life is the pedagogical movement to help people suffering the pain of social injustice, oppression, and exploitation – whether receiving or inflicting this pain – to recognise the social and systemic source of this pain and to recognise themselves as agents in unison with others with the power to end this pain and transform their lives and world. So, one thing I try to do is write blogs like this.

What I’ll do in this series of blogs is the following. First, I’ll explain a bit more about what I mean by ‘ultimate contradiction’, systems, and dialectics. Then, I’ll offer real life evidence for this ultimate contradiction being played out and intensifying, i.e. evidence for the old dying and the new emerging. I’ll do this by breaking things down into blogs focused on economics and ecology; politics; and race, gender, and disability. I will basically try to show that the economic crisis is terminal and that people are already organising themselves in ways that herald a move to a post-economic system that is grounded in common trusteeship rather than private ownership. It is ‘post’-economic in the sense that economics exists because scarcity exists and the new system will transcend scarcity. One central expression of this is the move to sustainable ecological relations and the transformation of currently ecocidal ‘externalities’ of waste and pollution into new recyclable inputs into closed-loop processes of food, energy, and industrial production. In the political realm, I will focus not just on the breakdown of old political parties and the emergence of new, but I will argue that we are in the early throes of Copernican revolutionary transformation in leadership from a Ptolemaic practice (everyone orbits the big man) to the emergence of a truly democratic practice of leadership. I think that the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn in the UK represents this revolution in leadership and the rise of Donald Trump represents the fascistic response of the old. In the areas of race, gender, and disability I will look at the hideous rise of violent and other hate crimes by civilians and police against oppressed groups across the world and consider the recent emergence of the resistance movements this upsurge has spawned. I will explore the links between racism, patriarchy, and disabilism and capitalist and ecological crisis. Finally, in a blog on culture, I will focus on the crisis within our institutions producing knowledge and culture and argue that, while the current system does its best to repress it, the information revolution cannot be held back and is the technological catalyst for the new emerging social ecological system of humanity. I’ll try always to relate it to our personal lives to show how this ultimate contradiction is situated and played out within us all.

So many human beings have fallen into the egotistical trap of thinking that their period of history was the most crucial period. Mind you, if history is dialectically evolutionary, they were/are probably right. I do think, however, this is the most monumental period for humanity because now we have evolved our cleverness to a point where we are affecting things at a planetary level. The trick now is to convert our cleverness into wisdom. We need to wake up to the realisation that we are beings embodying and expressing universal evolutionary consciousness and that, since each one of us is (a unique and beautiful) part of the one reality of the universe, we need to use that realisation to create a life system in which both the system as a whole and each and every individual living part of that system can thrive and flourish. This is our historical task. We now have the scientific and technological knowledge to realise this. The obstacles are political and pedagogical. They are political because it is through politics that the old uses power to resist and repress and the new seeks power to transform and emerge. They are pedagogical because human transformation and emergence is a pedagogical process: we change through learning.

What is fundamental to emphasise, then, is that systemic change is no mechanistic process; that the old could well destroy the new (and the foundations of our social ecology with it); and so we need to recognise ourselves as living agents of universal consciousness with the power to take our species, our planet, possibly our universe to a way higher level of evolution. I will end with a call to all of us, but particularly young people, to get involved in catalysing and leading the processes that destroy the old and bring in the new.

In the meantime, watch these two talks. The first, by Daniel Schmachtenberger, is a more scientifistic perspective on WTF is happening; the second is an incredibly powerful argument by Aph Ko for the intersectional systemic nature of all forms of structural oppression, exploitation, and violence.

Thanks, as ever, for reading. Back soon

Joel

austerity, Capitalism, Ideology, Left-wing politics, Marxism, Politics and economics, UK

Is austerity ideological?

Hello!

I know this post isn’t immediately topical, particularly with the focus on the fallout from the ‘Panama Papers’. But, sadly, austerity remains topical after eight long years now and it’s a point I’ve wanted to make for a while, so here goes…

Is austerity ideological?

Very often we hear left-wing critics of this and many other governments’ programmes of austerity describe these policies as ‘ideological’. Indeed, here is the widely read blogger ‘Another Angry Voice’ calling it ‘ideological austerity’. Here’s another example on alternet. And here’s the opposite claim: Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, a crucial figure in the imposition of austerity, labelling critics as ideologues (the original source of Tusk’s comments are behind a paywall on the FT’s site).

Ideological austerity

These accusations of ideology seem to come more from the social-democratic, reformist left-of-centre rather than the more radical and revolutionary left. This is not surprising because the claims betray a somewhat naive misunderstanding of the nature of both austerity and ideology that springs from an initial unquestioning acceptance of the permanence of the current political-economic order and a desire merely to ameliorate conditions within it. In stark contrast, a more radical position – one that literally gets to the ‘roots’ of issues – situates itself, as best as possible, outside of the system, seeing, in this case, capitalism’s historical contingency and ultimately terminal contradictions, and imagining and building alternative futures.

Permit me then, dear reader, to make the following two points:

First, since ideology is the name we give the intellectual apparatus that allows us to make sense of our world, everything is ideological. We could not imagine human life nor society without ideology. Consequently, austerity as economic strategy is obviously ideological; equally ideological are all alternative strategies.They are both the products of beliefs and assumptions about: the nature of the problems in the economy, their origins, and how to fix them; the nature of an economy itself; the ethics of economic production, labour, exchange, consumption, and distribution; the nature of an economy as a discrete social realm of action; the nature of human beings as economic agents; and far more besides.

Second, by labelling austerity as ‘ideological’, Keynesian reformists seek to assert that the strategy is irrational, i.e. that, since it should be patently clear to all that the policies of austerity are economically damaging and counter-productive, the only possible explanation for their continuance is a blind ideological devotion on the part of policymakers to a discredited neo-classical economics. However, from a different perspective – the perspective of capital itself – austerity is totally rational. Through the austerity strategy, capital can: put the cost of the crisis onto workers; accumulate further through the regressive policies of austerity and the state support for financialisation, asset inflation, and debt-based money creation; and, perhaps most crucially, depress workers’ wages to a point that profitability can be revived. This perspective is revealed by a Marxist critical political economy that recognises capital as wealth/social power in continuous need of expanding accumulation. The same perspective identifies the contradictions within capitalism that austerity exacerbates, particularly politically destabilising inequality and poverty and the impoverishment of the working people needed to keep buying commodities that exacerbates a debt crisis and depresses economic recovery, and, of course, first and foremost, the labour-capital contradiction that defines and cannot be reconciled within capitalism. Finally, it is also a perspective that recognises that the current crisis is not, as the Keynesians insist, a crisis of ‘effective demand’, but is, fundamentally, rather a crisis of profitability. However cheap central banks have made their money (and now we even have negative interest rate policies (NIRPs!) in countries like Sweden and Japan and even talk of the need for ‘helicopter money‘!), banks and ‘investors’ are taking it and sticking it in financial markets and property rather than investing it in productive economic sectors. This is resulting in dangerous asset market bubbles and is also turning many economies, the UK economy above all, into perfect structures for parasitism, sucking up the money of the poor (and middle class) through rent and debt. This will soon end in a new, more violent financial and subsequent economic crisis that will lead to far more serious political turbulence across the world that will, once more, lead us to fascism or democratic political revolution.

For far more details and for a Marxist political-economic perspective from a real economic expert, check out Michael Roberts’ outstanding blog, The Next Recession. I urge you to read it.

Thanks, as ever, for reading my blog. I’m off now to Aarhus, Denmark to go to this!

Best wishes,
Joel

Art and Culture, Capitalism, Critical pedagogy, Education/learning, Marxism, Politics and economics

What does the economy look like? And why does it matter?

 

Question: What does the economy look like?…

The mainstream economist’s answer: ‘Why! GDP, of course!

‘An economy,’ a mainstream economist might retort, ‘is nothing more than the combined economic activity of all ‘households’ in any given location – say, a region, a nation, the world. So, if you want to see what an economy looks like, consult the charts that portray these aggregated numbers’. The specific chart that visually depicts our national economy is, of course, that portraying ‘GDP’ (Gross Domestic Product).1

GDP ONS

 

To be fair to mainstream economists, the GDP figure and chart does spur subsequent investigations into, and depictions of, other, subsidiary sectors: trade, manufacturing, consumption, employment, etc. But, it remains the case that were one to ask most economists what the economy looks like they’d probably show you the GDP chart.

 

The supply-demand curve

The historical GDP chart tracks our interminable quest for that holy grail – economic growth. If economic growth is the proclaimed overarching objective of our society then the path to this objective lies through the venerated ‘market’. Aesthetically, the sanctity of the market is revealed to us in the ‘supply-demand curve’. This simple two line chart shows us how the Lord weaves his miracles daily, bringing forth social order and justice from atomised chaos with each wave of his ‘invisible hand’. For atheist free-marketeers, God is the market itself.

 

demandsupplycurve

 

This sanctification of the market serves as a foundational myth of our economic religion – established in the ‘scriptures’ of founding texts, peddled by the priesthood, and reinforced and institutionalised in schools, universities, TV programmes and films every day of our lives.

 

The minimalist aesthetic of hegemonic microeconomics

This is not a blogpost debunking the preposterous myth of the free market. It is a post focused on how our economy is portrayed aesthetically. From this perspective, then, I think it is safe to share Susan Buck-Morss’ conclusion that that the hegemonic economics of today, neoclassical economics, is ‘microeconomics’…

‘Minimalism is characteristic of the supply-demand curve, none of the substantive problems of political economy are resolved, while the social whole simply disappears from sight. Once this happens, critical reflection on the exogenous conditions of a ‘given’ market situation becomes impossible, and the philosophy of political economy become so theoretically impoverished that it can be said to come to an end.’

What does this all mean? As I understand it, a central political function of neoclassical economics is to depoliticise our society. By using their technical equations and graphs to depict the economy, economists perplex us into accepting that the status quo is the natural and only possible social order. They also point our attention to exchange and consumption away from the politics of production and work. Neoclassical economists, the aspiring physicists of the social sciences, using their ‘scientific expertise’ to close down political possibilities.2

Only by reducing the complexity of individual and social life to this degree can one create an aesthetic as minimalist as the GDP or supply-demand curve chart to represent the ‘economy’ – an entity that structures, and is structured by, millions, indeed billions, of human beings.

This is not to dismiss the usefulness of using graphs and charts to reveal important economic trends and factors. It is, instead, to argue that when economists reduce the aesthetic portrayal of the economy to such graphs they render invisible the social and close the politically possible, making those exploited within the current economic system invisible and silent.

 

Seeing the unseeable

Visibility and invisibility are at the very heart of the issue here, for repoliticising our economy means attempting to somehow show that it comprises billions of unique human lives connected and structured through social relations of power. Above all, a political economic attempt to answer the question of what the economy looks like must try to show that what is invisible when we try to see the economy is just as real as the visible, if not more so. This, on first consideration, shouldn’t be that hard. We all believe in the existence of things we can’t see: electricity, gravity, microorganisms even. But, the complexity and dynamism of social systems and structures mean that their existence can’t be scientifically seen or aesthetically represented in similar ways. They are, as Karl Marx put it, ‘real abstractions’.

 

turkish food porn.png

 Gratuitous Turkish food porn!

Take a look at your next plate of food. Now try to think of all the human beings, animals, and natural contributions involved in ensuring its presence on your table. When you really start to work it through, you soon realise that we’re talking about countless combinations of literally millions of human beings and living creatures. Just because we have not met them does it mean we have no relation to and with them? Their labour, their very lives, have played a vital role in sustaining our own. There can be no more materially real relation than this, yet, no visible trace of this collective labour, energy, life can be seen on our plates. An understandable response to this is to feign blindness. But, if we remain blind to our place within the complex social system that we call our economy how can we see beyond the end of our own forks? How can we how to change our economy, our society, for the better if we can’t or won’t see it?

 

‘Cartographies of the Absolute’!

This is the dilemma admirably addressed by Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkel in their recent book Cartographies of the Absolute. When one gets past the intellectually terrifying title, one finds, in many places, some no less terrifying prose. Yet, Toscano and Kinkel’s contribution to our question is important.

 

1439234375_Cartographies

This graphic was produced by William Bunge as appears on the front cover of Toscano & Kinkle’s book ‘Cartographies of the Absolute’

 

Writing in the Marxist tradition, and taking us on a wonderful tour of contemporary art and film, the ‘absolute’ that the authors confront is none other than capital itself – the entity, the force that binds us all in relations of coercion, exploitation, and alienation each day, each very minute. Capital is everywhere, pulsing ceaselessly through our transplanetary and biological veins, making our very world go round, making and remaking our very selves. Capital produces us and we produce capital. And, as Toscano and Kinkel rightly emphasise, since capitalism is full of antagonisms and contradictions, we are too. Capital is, then, for the vast majority of humanity, the ‘absolute’ force shaping our lives and fates. And, yet, its very absoluteness, its ubiquity, makes it unseen, ‘hidden in plain view’. This is why we can’t realistically hope to see ‘the economy’ – the economy is the totality of global class relations within which we ourselves are immersed. Ultimately, as Frederic Jameson puts it, any attempts at mapping the whole economy ‘disorient under the banner of orientation’.

 

The view from below

There is no need, however, as Toscano and Kinkel themselves emphasise, to let this conclusion paralyse us intellectually or politically. Though we must discard any efforts to map this absolute, we still need some kind of cognitive mapping to inform our political understanding and our strategic actions. Frederic Jameson contends that ‘the view from the top is epistemologically crippling’.3Let’s proceed instead then from the bottom. If the dominant way that our economy is aesthetically depicted serves to render silent and invisible its greatest victims then let us listen to those rendered silent and let us find out what economy they can see.

So, what does the economy look like from below? Here’s one view. Dear readers, I proudly present what I call the ‘Flo Chart’!

 

The Flo Chart

The ‘Flo Chart’!

 

This picture was drawn by me, but it’s reproduced from memory of the original which was drawn by a wonderful woman called Flo during the first PPE (People’s Political Economy) learning group I ran at The Hub, a community centre in Hodge Hill, Birmingham back in the Autumn of last year. I asked the group to express in any way they wanted what they thought and felt when they heard the word ‘economy’. This is the picture that Flo produced in response to that question. Flo is an older woman who, by her own admission, has no formal understanding of economics or what an economy is. Listening to her tell us all, quite openly, the extreme challenges that life has thrown at her, it was clear where Flo saw herself and others at The Hub within her Flo Chart: very much at the bottom.

It’s an amazing picture to analyse. What I see I’m tempted to call ‘the absolute’. I see everything, everyone contained within this balloon (this bubble?). I see a few on top and others falling down to join ‘the masses’ at the bottom. I see the huddled folk at the bottom keeping the air in the whole thing by plugging up the balloon. The Flo Chart shows our ultimate interdependence – those on the top need those on the bottom. They would quickly fall to Earth if those below were to unplug the balloon.

Clearly, the Flo Chart makes no scientific representation. No data is being displayed here. But, if the GDP chart shows us an economy then the Flo Chart shows us the politics of, the unequal social relations structuring, that economy. Moreover, the Flo Chart shows us the artistry, the eloquence, the intellectual and creative power (and potential) of the dispossessed. The view from below isn’t just indispensable for getting a better view of (understanding) our economy, our society, it’s indispensable because the process by which people at the bottom of our economy, our society are invited to share their vision is, when it’s done right, a process of intellectual and, ultimately, political empowerment. In short, working with people at the bottom is central to building our democracy and democratising our economy.

 

Re-envisioning our economy

People are intelligent, insightful, and creative. Without knowledge of social theory, they might not always have the words or concepts to articulate their intelligence, but, still, their intelligence and creativity comes out, often with devastating power. The task of folk like me (I’m falling slowly in the middle), with knowledge of social theory, is to help people at the bottom to cultivate their own intelligence to see further. The word ‘theory’ comes from the Greek ‘theories’ meaning ‘to see’, ‘to behold’. When we combine the social knowledge that everyone has with the scientific knowledge that some are privileged to have then we can produce the transformational knowledge we need to reimagine and recreate our world.

The question of what our economy looks like is of fundamental, of foundational, importance. It’s the firm basis on which we can rebuild. Seeing our economy to the best of our abilities requires looking from multiple vantage points not least from below. We need to create a vision (or visions) of our economy that combine our shared experiential with our scientific/theoretical knowledge and, indeed, our emotions. It’s important because only from this foundation can we start to re-envision – to reimage and recreate an economy within our society – in a truly democratic fashion.

In the second part of this blog, I will offer some ideas, drawn from my own praxis of community education and theoretical work, for how we can generate collective visions of our economy as foundations for re-envisioning ourselves and our society.

1The Gross Domestic Product figure measures the total monetary value of all goods and services produced in an economy over a given period of time. It is usually expressed as a percentage rise or fall compared to the previous year or quarter.

2Although we see the establishment of a separate realm of human activity in classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Smith and Ricardo were still very much interested in understanding where economic value came from and, while they reduced social and political relationships to the bourgeois technical language of inputs/outputs, investments, profits, and returns, they did at least recognise that value was created by human labour. It was the ‘Marginalist Revolution’ of the final third of the 19th Century, lead by William Stanley Jevons in England, Carl Menger in Austria, and Leon Walras in Switzerland, that sought to bury any notion of the origin of value as somehow social and political, dethroning classical political economy with the theory of marginal utility. Instead of any consideration of social theory and value, economics became, and remains to this day, a consideration of utility and prices. The only social theory here is really that ‘man’ is out to satisfy his desires and minimise his work. This quest for ‘marginal’ utility (and avoidance of marginal disutility) – how much he will give for any additional unit of something he desires – combines with the positioning of the market as optimal mechanism for blindly, but efficiently, allocating scarce resources in the economy to form the cornerstones of the neoclassical economic religion.

3I understand this to mean that, rather than enhancing our understanding of our common humanity, our ability to see our planet the Earth from above, for example, has, conversely, increased our sense of bewilderment and powerlessness.

Education/learning, Politics and economics, Singapore, UK, UK housing crisis

Learning materials for current UK housing crisis

Hi there,

I’ve put together these resources for the next meeting of our learning group, Oxford Democracy-Builders. It’s at 8pm on Weds 2nd December probably at the West Oxford Primary School, but I need to confirm that. So if you’re about please come along. No need to read anything. No test. It’s just a friendly and welcoming discussion where every single person brings something unique and important.

house-of-the-commons_8268

Housing Crisis learning materials

What’s going on?

House prices: Mind the gap, BBC, 14th October 2015 (video)

Where can I afford to live? BBC Housing Calculator

Youth homelessness figure eight times higher than Government admits, says charity

If you’re a family on the National Living Wage, here’s where you can afford David Cameron’s new starter homes, The Independent, Oct 7th, 2015

 

Why?

Housing Crisis: Mapping the drivers

Unaffordable housing: causes, consequences, solutions, Institute for Economic Affairs, 12 March 2015

George Osborne’s housing-based revival stands on flawed foundations, Larry Elliott, The Guardian, October 5th, 2015

Buyers from outside Oxford pushing up city property prices, Oxford Mail, 20th February, 2015

The Economist, The Tories’ affordable-housing plan is a middle-class giveaway, Oct 8th, 2015

Britain is suffering from a housing crisis – who is to blame and how can we fix it?, The Independent, 10th Feb, 2014

Renting your way to poverty: welcome to the future of housing, Danny Dorling, The Telegraph, 2nd June 2015

 

A ticking time-bomb?

Deutsche Bank: We can already see how London’s insane property bubble will end

Mortgages: Nearly one million ‘face difficulties’

 

What can we do?

The taxing question of land

Proposal to build 3.5m homes in 40 UK towns wins the £250,000 Wolfson Prize

Housing: It’s in Our Hands

 

Capitalism, Ideology, Politics and economics, Socialism

Knowing our left from our right, Part Five: Get real, get utopian!

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…

stalin_gulagThe ‘gulag’: Where all attempts at socialism end up?

Their arguments

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…

 Indonesia 1965The Indonesian anti-communist genocide of 1965, backed by US government

(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.

AWIP

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!

Joel

Education/learning, Ideology, Media, Politics and economics

Knowing our left from our right, Part Four: Complexity versus simplicity

In this series of posts about the left-right divide in politics, I began in the first post by arguing that the media portrays anything even remotely left-wing as ‘extreme’, ‘hard’, or ‘far’ left. In the second post, I argued that the usual definition of left-right as expressing one’s economic preference for how scarce goods should be produced and allocated by either states or markets first reduced politics to a very narrow economism and second was a red herring. In reality, even supposedly ‘free market’ policies have always required a huge amount of state intervention: to construct new markets requires bulldozing in an ideological, geographical, and, sadly, physical way. We’re talking huge levels of coercion and, frankly, mass murder to create and maintain a market society. I also argued it wasn’t even the case that markets define our economy. They’re very secondary to the huge organisational power of corporations which increasingly block market dynamics.

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 this fourth post, I’ll argue that one main reason why right-wing ideas have had such success (beyond the obvious fact of their relentless daily propagandizing by the media) 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 thinking.

iceberg

‘It [is] easier for [the superstitious] […] to remain in the state of ignorance in which they had been born, than to destroy that whole construction, and think up a new one […] Nature has no end set before it, [and all] final causes are nothing but human fictions’ (Baruch Spinoza).

Depth versus superficiality; Complexity versus simplicity

Right-wing ideas are generally based on superficial and simplistic interpretations of reality. In the sphere of economics, for example, the reality we experience is taken as the whole story. Money is just what we see it being: a unit of account, a store of value, a means of exchange. Right-wing thought doesn’t look below this surface to see the exploitative social relations hidden by monetary transactions. They say a cup of tea is a cup of tea. I say it’s a cup of tea, but it’s also disastrous agricultural monoculture; its colonial and neocolonial violence; it’s overflowing latrines and the distended belly of a starving little girl. In the social and cultural sphere, again economists reduce people to ‘homo economicus’ – a self-obsessed, unchanging, cold calculating shell of a human being. Right-wing thought generally sees discrete subjects and identities where there is really blurring, fluidity, and complexity: men are men, women are women; there are boys and girls, black and white, discrete cultures and nationalities. Left-wing thought challenges this superficiality and offers depth. Left-wing thought says that, while men or women might be different biologically, the reasons they might be different socially are invariably not natural, but are socially constructed; that race is totally socially constructed; that nations and nationalities are largely constructed and the closed, distinct cultures that supposedly traditionally define them are actually fluid, melded with and shaped by countless others.

The world is far more complex from a left-wing perspective. For me, this means, again, that only left-wing politics allows for true democracy, social richness, and human individuality. But the devil has the best tunes, it seems. When individuals or groups feel worried or threatened about their economic future or security, attempts at explaining the complexity, interdependence, or hidden structural reality of their situations can be futile at best or paternalistic and counter-productive at worst. In contrast, appeals to tradition – to the nation, the race, family values – can work best in societies with low education and high media power. In the economic realm, getting beyond the superficial is particularly hard. ‘They are taking your jobs, milking your benefits systems’ works much more readily.

Nonetheless, the fact is that reality is deep and complex and the simple myths the right uses to soothe, enrage, or blind you are myths. Myths enslave us; only truth is freedom. What this means is that critical thinking and, I believe, shared learning are the paths to individual and collective freedom. That’s why I personally focus on community education and doing blogs like this. But the broader challenge isn’t beyond left-wing political strategy at all. The strategy lies in combining evocations of community, empathy, solidarity, justice, and freedom – the qualities that only the left truly espouses – with eminently persuasive and attractive arguments and plans. Nor is it in any way true that the most oppressed groups in society are any less intelligent and cannot also very often see the true nature of their realities, the true roots of their oppression. Indeed, it is only really in the past four decades that a working class culture founded on and expressive of these left-wing ideas and values has been successful, yet not entirely, destroyed. What is true is that we have lost a huge amount of individual and collective self-belief, hope, and pride. Consequently, as I see it, there are two coinciding challenges. Convincing our fellow citizens that the values and strategies we espouse are not fanciful but are actually pragmatic and realistic is the first challenge, but since our commitment to democracy means that all should participate in designing and building our future, this challenge overlaps with the urgent need to help our fellow citizens, after decades of overwhelming material attack and cultural denigration, to rebuild their self-belief, hope, and pride. That, for me, is the focus. It really does come down to a politics of love triumphing over a politics of fear.

Thanks, again, for following this series of blogs. In the next post, I’ll follow on from this argument that left-wing thought offers a more complex and deep view of reality to argue that the utopianism many express is actually far more realistic than the ‘reality’ that the right tell us we have to get with.

Joel

Capitalism, Ideology, Philosophy, Politics and economics

Knowing our left from our right, Part Three: Social justice and human freedom

In the first of these posts about the left-right divide in politics, I argued that the media portrays anything even remotely left of centre as ‘extreme’, ‘hard’ or ‘far’ left. I said that the left-right divide was crucial and expressed ideological divisions themselves reflective of fundamental material social divisions. I then offered 10 ideas expressing my supposedly ‘far left’ views which, i believed, made me a regular intelligent, sensible, and caring human being.
In the second post, I argued that the left-right divide wasn’t really about what we were generally told it was about, namely the appropriate balance between states and markets in economic matters i.e. the production and allocation of resources.
In this post, I’ll begin to argue what I think it’s really about. Here, I’ll talk about social justice and human freedom

What left-wing politics has always historically been fundamentally about is the struggle for social (and environmental) justice – for the liberation of working people, of women, of people of colour, of sexual minorities, of disabled people, of anyone classed as ‘different’ by those with the social power to define difference. Here, I would say that, with the exception of this first category, the left-wing aligns with liberal thought against conservatism and, of course, fascism. The liberals travel with us a fair way down this road, but we part when we get to the market…

On the question of social justice and human freedom, just like the states-versus-markets red herring, right-wing thought generally presents us a similarly false binary or spectrum between supposedly opposing political ends: social equality and individual freedom. We are told that if we want social equality then we must suppress individual freedoms, but that if we prioritise individual freedoms then social equality must suffer. On a superficial level, this seems true. Our current extreme individualist financialised-consumerist capitalist society seems to offer us ultimate individual freedom. We are told that we can take and quit whatever job we can find; we can choose from seemingly infinite consumer products to satisfy our needs, desires, (or ‘utility’ as economists call it); we can buy and consume whatever, whenever, wherever we like; we can entrepreneur our very selves; and we can get the credit freely to do it all. This what human freedom is, we are told.

Liberal, bourgeois thought starts with the individual. Its goal is the maximum freedom of that individual. Our contemporary society is the triumph of liberalism – the reign of the individual. And, yes, the consequence is inequality, vast, perhaps unprecedented, economic, social, and (beyond formal voting rights) political inequality.

Conservative thought begins with the imagined and idealised social grouping, usually the nation. Its goal is order. In eras of capitalist crisis, liberal dreams of freedom end in conservative, fascist realities of order and control – what capitalism requires when individualist fantasies of market freedoms crash and need rebooting.

As I understand it, left-wing thought starts with the individual and society. Here’s how the famous anarchist Emma Goldman put it…

‘There is no conflict between the individual and the social instincts, any more than there is between the heart and the lungs: the one the receptacle of a precious life essence, the other the repository of the element that keeps the essence pure and strong. The individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence – that is, the individual – pure and strong.’

Emma Goldman

Left-wing thought critiques the flawed and sociopathic egoism of liberals. It recognises all human beings as ‘social animals’, as Marx put it. We are all socially constructed. We cannot eat, reproduce, work, find meaning, or live satisfying and joyful lives without each other. Yet this recognition of the social is of course, totally inimical to conversative thought and ambition. Opposing the conservative desire for order, it seeks the fundamental, indeed revolutionary, reordering of society. What that society might look like, how it should be attained are, sadly, questions which have historically been at the heart of much bitter infighting within leftist organisations.

This emphasis on the social does not mean that left-wing thought eschews liberals’ rightful emphasis on human freedom. Indeed, I believe that only under conditions of radical democratic socialism/anarchism can each individual truly pursue and fulfill their personal freedom and individuality. Why? Because under such conditions we wouldn’t have to compete against our fellow human beings to work for others in jobs we hated; technological advances wouldn’t benefit private firms but would allow us all to do far less necessary work, freeing us up to pursue the creative passions within us all; capitalism has been integral to establishing and institutionalising other horrific forms of discrimination and oppression such as patriarchy and racism, which would be hugely alleviated (but by no means automatically ended) by capitalism’s demise; and capitalism’s demise would also allow us to establish an economic system in harmony rather than in conflict with our ecosystem. So, where liberals and lefties part company is over individual freedom and the market. Why? The answer to this question comes back to a comment I made in the intro to this series of posts: because ideology has material roots. Liberalism is the ideology of the bourgeosie. Therefore, liberal freedom is not fundamentally about human freedom; it is about the freedom of capital and the freedom to possess, to own, to have. This is a freedom of having, not of being!
So, liberals see the market either as an unequivocal socially neutral mechanism for facilitating maximal individual freedom or able serve this function so long as it is well regulated and its worst ‘externalities’ ameliorated. In contrast, eft-wing thought focuses less on the market itself and far more on the structurally exploitative and oppressive nature of capitalist social relations that function through the market. Rather than the supposed ‘hidden hand’ of the market that Adam Smith told us turns the selfish pursuits of individuals into socially beneficial outcomes, lefties see the ‘hidden abode’ of production, the workplace, far away from the ‘noisy sphere’ of the marketplace within which the ‘secret of profitmaking’ – the exploitation of labour – is revealed. We also see other hidden abodes of exploitation and oppression – throughout society in the ‘social factory‘, throughout our ecosystem, throughout all cultural institutions, and, of course, within the traditional family and household itself. We all like a good market, but a good market is a truly free one; it is not one in which we are compelled to sell not just our goods, but our very bodies and souls each day. In reality, as Marx put it, our market society offers us a double freedom: the freedom to work and the freedom to starve. This is a concept of freedom founded on a realistic and explicit understanding of power.

So, for me, while left-wing politics has perhaps been most positively and accurately associated with social struggle, the political visions of democratic socialists/anarchists of the so-called ‘hard’ left are far more compatible with the true individual freedoms that transcend the mirages of freedom that the right-wing advertisers, politicians, and financiers promise us. Whether it’s ‘arbeit macht frei’ or ‘credit macht frei’, the dreams we are peddled are false, are backed by violence, and are sustained, as David McNally put it, only by ‘the dreams of the poor’. We need to dream differently. We need to dream together.

Thanks for following this series on the left-right divide. Click here for the next post in which I explore one key reason why right-wing ideology has proved so powerful in recent decades in particular: it offers simplicity. But life is complex and simplicity is invariably simplistic. Stay tuned!

Joel