The Poetry of the Past

I apologize for my long posting hiatus, I have moved recently and that process took a considerable amount of time and energy.  I have also been spending a great deal of time reading Sam Williams’ “A Critique of Crisis Theory” blog and pondering its implications.  In any case, I felt I should take the time write a post to mark May Day and take stock of the current state of the Left.

Marx famously states in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that “The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future.”  He argues that in this the social[ist] revolution will be distinguished from all previous revolutions, as it will not be plagued by the “self-deception” required for a new class of oppressors to imagine that their overthrow of the ancien régime is a great act of heroism.  Insofar as a socialist revolution would abolish class society there is a certain plausibility to Marx’s argument, but his injunction to draw only on the “poetry of the future” remains puzzling.  How are we to find poetry in that which is fundamentally unknowable?  The future exists for us only as an extrapolation of the past and the present, its substance is beyond our horizon of disclosure, and it therefore possesses for us only a phantasmagorical reality.  In the 1970s the collapse of capitalism seemed assured.  In the 1990s the opposite appeared true.  In both cases our general vision of the future was mistaken.  The injunction to rely only upon something so fickle is radical in the extreme, so radical that it makes the injunction to overthrow the capitalist system of exploitation appear conservative in comparison.  Yet are not these two injunctions reliant upon one another?

It is not only Marx who makes such a call to rely upon the poetry of the future.  The original French lyrics of “The Internationale” call upon us to “render the past a blank slate,” and a similar sentiment is captured by the famous 1968 slogan “All Power to the Imagination!”  While the slogan of the May Events is often dismissed as little more than the empty words of capricious Baby Boomers in their youth, or as a playful jab at Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, if taken seriously it seems almost an exact repetition of Marx’s injunction.  What is the “poetry of the future” after all, if not the imagination?  Such notions appear foreign to our current age, more suited to the giddy heights of the boom phase of the industrial cycle than the depths of a depression; not least of all to our social democrats, who fret endlessly about “proving their economic credentials” in the midst of this crisis.

Indeed, Marx’s statement that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” constantly finds validation amongst the social democratic camp, who seek to dress up their discredited “Third-Way” policies in the faded glories of the postwar welfare state.  The poetry of the future is a foreign concept to the social democrat, or at least only appears to them second hand in the form of neoliberal techno-utopianism.  While the term opportunism may have fallen out of favour in recent years, the social democratic pattern of speaking the language of solidarity and enacting the program of austerity can only be described as such, and is represented by a seemingly endless stream of morally and intellectually bankrupt “socialists” and “progressives” paraded before the public, of which French Presidential Candidate Francois Hollande is only the most recent.

Yet this shameful display is not simply opportunism.  No doubt there are many social democrats who find austerity distasteful and would rather pursue a program that could improve the living standards of the working class.  Yet here they are met with the intellectual bankruptcy of social democratic program, which persists in its fool’s errand of redeeming the exploitative capitalist system despite decades of proof that their quest is doomed to failure.  The economic theory supporting social democracy is so suspect that even the social democrat does not adhere to it, instead following the “left” neo-liberalism of the Third Way.  Yet this leaves the social democrat with almost nothing distinguishing them from the bourgeois parties and flustered when election time rolls around.  In this moment of crisis they call upon the critique of neoliberalism and its attendant spirit of nostalgia for salvation at the polls.

While the critique of neoliberalism is of some analytic value in understanding the changes in the composition of the capitalist class over the late 20th century, it is a profoundly ambivalent discourse, lending itself both to a radical critique of capitalism and a profoundly conservative “defense” of social democracy.  Indeed this explains its enormous popularity, as it has served as an intellectual and discursive bridge connecting the revolutionary and reformist left.  It could support both the revolutionary David Harvey of recent years and the reformist David Harvey of the “New New Deal.”  While there is no doubt some value to the alliance the neoliberalism critique has fostered, there are profound dangers that it has engendered as well.

In simple terms the critique of neoliberalism tells the story of the decline of a largely white and male industrial working class and the rise of a financialized and globalized capitalism.  This shift is conceptualized primarily in terms of changes in ideology and state policy (While the Monthly Review School does provide some more indepth economic background to the analysis, this is usually the part of the analysis that gets left out of popular accounts).  The tendency in the critique of neoliberalism is to lay the blame for the decline of the working class on the rise of a neoliberal policy elite, and not on the catastrophic failure of Keynesianism in the 1970s that lead to the rise of this elite.  This is because the reformist Left (including social democrats) holds a strong affinity to (Neo-)Keynesianism and does not want to abandon the central premise of Keynesianism – that smart economic policy can “manage” the contradictions of capitalism and thereby broker a lasting class peace.  If they did abandon this position they would be forced to accept that class antagonisms are not superficial phenomena, but rather fundamental to capitalism, and that social democracy can only thrive under highly specific and localized conditions.  We are therefore told that if only the capitalists would lend a sympathetic ear to the Left-Keynesians, and if only finance capital was brought to heel through stricter regulations the whole dreadful affair of neoliberalism would come to an end.  It does not seem that there is much serious support for these notions within social democratic parties themselves, as they continue to chart a rightward course, but these ideas form the intellectual bedrock of the majority of the reformist Left.  The problem is that the 1970s did happen and that the ambitions of Keynesianism have been considerably reduced.  The social democrats therefore have what might be called half of a critique.  They deplore the terrible social consequences of neoliberalism, but they have no credible alternative to it.  They therefore perpetuate a politics of nostalgia, which yearns for the days when there was confidence in the Keynesian “solution.”  Insofar as this politics provides a common basis for resistance to austerity it does have a positive aspect. Yet this positive aspect is contradicted by what happens when social democrats get into power and find themselves unable to articulate an alternative to the neoliberal dictates of “the market.”  The resulting “triangulation” is profoundly demoralizing for the working class who find themselves betrayed by their elected “representatives.”

A further problem with this politics of nostalgia, is that is it can just as easily be utilized by fascists as it can by social democrats.  Because it primarily relies on a mythic “poetry of the past” it is eminently susceptible to co-option by the far right, especially when fascists make use of the ideology of Strasserism, which is a perverted form of socialism that operates on the dichotomy between producers and parasites instead of that between workers and capitalists.  The distinction between these two dichotomies, is that in Strasserism industrial “productive” capitalists are considered the workers’ allies (because they provide steady work) while parasitic finance capitalists are considered the enemies of both workers and industrial capitalists.  It is not difficult to see how the politics of nostalgia could be adapted for promoting this ideology, and indeed this is exactly what Marine Le Pen has done in France.  Parasitic immigrants and finance capitalists are portrayed by Le Pen to be assailing France and to be attacking the social safety net.  The Socialists and Gaullists are all the same after all! If they are all one triangulating neoliberal elite, then aren’t the communists secretly just the same too?  Only the fascists, it is proclaimed, can save France from her enemies.  That this is merely a cynical exercise in manipulation goes without saying (As Strasserism was abandoned once Hitler had gained power, so too will it likely be abandoned if France turns to fascism) but if the Left cannot present a credible alternative to the status quo it is to be expected that some workers and even unions will be swayed by the fascist line, and if the crisis worsens they will be joined by the frightened petty bourgeoisie, removing all obstacles to fascist dominance.

As Marx wrote “The social revolution…cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future.” The “poetry of the past” upon which today’s Left has built its support is a foundation of sand.  What is desperately needed is a poetry of the future that dares to imagine an alternative – not an alternative to neoliberalism (Keynesianism) but an alternative to capitalism.  The Left’s attempts to prove its “economic credentials,” (that is, to prove that it can better facilitate capitalist exploitation than the Right) are not only doomed to fail, they are dangerously pushing the working class into the arms of fascism.  Every time a social democratic party implements an austerity program, they are implicity confirming their belief that the interests of labour and capital are ultimately identical.  The logical outcome of that perspective is fascism, and it can only be rejected through the articulation of a socialist program that emphasizes the ultimate independence of labour from capital as the source of all wealth. Interest in socialism is growing, and alternatives to capitalism are increasingly being discussed amongst the far left (My post about the work of Cockshott and Cottrell is one example) yet the topic remains strictly taboo amongst most “socialist” parties.  The time to develop a real alternative to capitalism is running short, the threat of fascism is on our doorstep.  Is it not time to cry “All power to the imagination!” and look to the poetry of the future once again?




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2 responses to “The Poetry of the Past

  1. As time permits, I intend to work my way through your prior posts. I continue to learn from your deep and careful thinking and to challenge myself through your perspectives. I am not a scholar, but I like to learn from them when I can. Thank you.

    Regarding the particulars: You make a lot of good points in this post. I will not try to run through them all. The austerity agenda is terrible policy and politics for “the left.” I live in the U.S., in the unpromising Deep South to be specific. In the U.S., there is no functioning left counterpoint to the Republican position. Middle of the road “liberalism” has been demonized as Marxist-Leninist for generations, going back to the New Deal and even earlier. “Liberals” like Woodrow Wilson were racists and some unions were racist, and they lined up in support of WWI. I hate this century-long status quo, which was not changed but rather preserved by the weak New Deal. But how do we change it? Really? I do not see any reason to not participate politically and support Democratic candidates because they are willing to support somewhat better things than the plainly reactionary Republicans. That is the reality of being a responsible participant in a capitalist society that follows democracy-lite/executive committee of the capitalists politics: elect pathetic Gores or waste your vote and indirectly elect Bushes. I refuse to do the latter.

    So how does this status quo change? To use the term of your post, it is untenable to expect voters in my country, and probably yours, to desire a country without a capitalist system in part because they cannot “imagine” one. But this is not just a U.S. or North American problem but a global problem. Where around the world is a non-capitalist country that U.S. or Canadian voters could ever wish to emulate? What would interest their imaginations? Not any authoritarian state capitalist, faux socialist, regime. To the best of my ability, I am BEGGING in the cyber world for Cuba to not follow the way of China/Vietnam. The Caribbean and Latin America countries, including Cuba, in my view are the world’s best hope of supplying something good for the “imaginations” of all the globe’s citizens. Within my poorly-informed perspective, to embody a humane socialism is within Cuba’s grasp, but it will never be the shining light of which it is capable if it does not respect democratic and human rights. I might have been a committed socialist myself as a young man, instead of waiting until my later middle age, if I had only seen a good example somewhere to emulate.

    So to me, the true battle for socialism is to get President Raul Castro to not go the way of China/Vietnam and to get him to allow Cuba to embody democratic and human rights within a constitutional humane socialist society. That is the only poetry that I think just might rhyme.

    I love reading from scholars of Marx, be they at Monthly Review or at your blog. I fear, however, that there always is the risk that we will fail in our need to be the fully “critical” left. Many times the poetry of the past includes too much focus on Marx’s writing and not enough on demonstrating and improving specific socialism in the here and now. How does a socialist system work? What from “actually-existing socialism” is usable? The vanguard and undemocratic approach I have zero confidence in, but then again, I have zero confidence in capitalism.

    Thanks again.

  2. Yes there may be some points we can emulate from the Cuban example (their agricultural policy is a famous one) but there are precious few examples of socialism in the world today. This is precisely why thinkers such as Alain Badiou have become fixated on the “idea of communism.” Because they cannot see any concrete developments to theorize from they have abandoned the Hegelian/dialectical method and adopted a more idealist or Kantian perspective, which is a position historically more commonly occupied by anarchists like Noam Chomsky.

    As Panitch and Gindin have argued in their new book The Making of Global Capitalism, there is little comfort we can take from the current situation. All there seems available to do is to support working class struggles and work through what theoretical problems we can (with our imagination) so that when the next cycle of struggle erupts we are better prepared for the fight. In the case of the US South the UAW’s fight to unionize the Nissan auto plant in Canton Mississippi seems to be of great significance. The UAW is making practical use of theories of global capitalism developed of the last 10 years, and theories of intersectionality in an attempt to break out of the geographical limitations that their national base had trapped them in. The odds certainly are against them, but their ability to display determination and innovation in this fight is admirable.

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