The following is a modified form of a response I wrote to a discussion on the Somethingawful.com forums about the state of American Leftism. I was responding to a question addressed to the thread by a left-liberal who asked what leftists hoped to achieve through their actions, and how they thought minimal reforms won here and there could ever realize socialism. While my answer addressed these issues somewhat obliquely, it was well received by the thread, so I thought I would cross-post it here after some editing.
Whether these arguments are made in good faith or not, they are still serious questions…which basically were the inspiration for this thread in the first place. I can’t speak for all leftists, but my personal belief is that the first thing we have to do is overturn the crushing ideological fallout of the combined fall of the USSR and the Chinese decision to go all-out capitalist.
First it’s important to understand why the events of the late 1970s to early 1990s were so devastating for socialism as a movement. Many people who hold nostalgia for the Soviet system or Maoism suggest that the more fragmented geopolitics of the Cold War allowed for spaces in which movements for liberation could arise. There is some truth to this, but the disappearance of this geopolitical “gap” is only one reason why the collapse was so devastating.
One point about the collapse of the USSR in more or less democratic revolution is that it was not succeeded by democratic socialism, but rather by a vicious application of cowboy capitalism and the rise of a series of brutal gangster states. Many of the eastern electorates turned towards reactionary nationalism in the bitter wake of the “end of history.” Movements like Solidarity were attempting to build democratic socialism, and from for example a Trotskyist perspective they held out the possibility of the long awaited rise of the Eastern Bloc proletariat to working towards a more authentic socialism (The workers would take back “their” state). Let’s not forget that the crowds were singing “The Internationale” when the Berlin Wall came down. Yes it was probably half-ironic, but only half. The bitter end to this struggle seemed to signal the end of the socialist project. You can also throw in the utterly disappointing results of the South African revolution as contributing to the feeling of hopelessness. Of course all these events are connected to the unquestioned ascendancy of Western capitalist power (embodied by the US Military) but that power would never have been effective in the face of a global revolutionary movement. That movement never materialized and instead the masses of the world basically decided to get on with the work of building capitalism and hoping they would get a lucky break out of the whole thing. The American long-term bid to build up capitalism (partially through favourable economic terms and partially through genocide) in Asia paid off in spades, as the Asian Tigers were seen as a beacon lighting the way for the third world.
Aside from these political factors, there was the economic failure of the Soviet Gosplan model and the Yugoslavian market socialist model. At the same time that geopolitical realities foreclosed the possibility of experimentation with other possibilities, “the alternatives” dramatically collapsed. Simultaneously, information capitalism seemed to breathe new life into capitalism as a dynamic and revolutionary force. It was no longer seen as yesterday’s model, but rather the dauntless herald of a prosperous and sublime future. It also managed to seize the coveted title of “rationality.” The situation that had held earlier in the century, where capitalist ideology was seen as mystification, was reversed and “scientific socialism” became seen as empty dogmatics. Furthermore through globalization capitalism managed to seize the mantle of internationalism as well. No longer was it seen as the ideology of parochial imperialist rivalries, but rather as the medium through which vibrant new commodities from the world over could come together in the creation of a global culture.
Additionally the ideology of liberalism was resurgent in this new age. Collectivism of any kind started to be viewed with suspicion, and “Communist” China served, and continues to serve, as a constant symbol of the futility of revolution.
What were leftists left with in this situation? The critique of consumerism continued to maintain its popularity, manifesting itself in various consumption-oriented political movements like “Buy Nothing Day.” The net result of this movement seems to have been little more than the encouragement of the diversification of commodities according to more specific demographics. Those who could enjoy the “good life” of ample spending on consumer goods struggled to distinguish themselves (In the sense Bourdieu meant) and the critique of the “mainstream” worked well to encourage this market.
Another inheritance of the Left that still held some force was the critique of the crisis tendencies of capitalism. At the start of the 1990s this held little weight in the Global North, but the persistence of crises have managed to revive some interest in the subject. Aside from selling some books, this appears to be one aspect of Marxism that cannot be appropriated by capitalism. However in the absence of any revolutionary movements or a vision of the future the critique of political economy is a “criticism from the standpoint of nowhere” and doesn’t hold much force.
Yet another front on which leftists were able to fight was in defence of the welfare state and unionization. This however is basically a dead end, because without the threat of socialism these demands on capital are always dependent on the vitality of the rate of profit. An unhealthy capitalism means an unhealthy welfare state and unions in crisis. This contradiction has lead most mainstream leftists to adopt various forms of Post-Keynesian fantasizing about printing their way out of the crisis tendencies of capitalism.
The anti-imperialist struggle and the struggles against oppression on the basis of “identity” showed some vitality in the post-1980s period, but they have been unable to articulate revolutionary terms on which to carry on this struggle, yielding mixed results, although probably representing the only area in which the left has actually made any real progress in the last 20 years.
Finally the movement towards localism (which given the collapse of an international revolutionary movement made considerable sense) combined with the environmental movement to oppose reckless capitalist development, but was basically only able to effect a fighting retreat, as activists adopted the language of “stakeholders” (Which is the language of corporatism, where the interests of capital and the people are assumed to be ultimately convergent) and tried to their best to find ways to argue that capital could be a force for good if it adopted the right “policy mix.”
Faced with all this reaction, I think the most important thing at this point in time is for the left to reclaim three areas: 1) Internationalism 2) The vision of the future and 3) Economic legitimacy. Without internationalism each struggle feels isolated and localism will never been anything more than localism. 2011 saw at least some revival of this internationalist spirit on the left, not just Flo Rida singing about how awesome he was touring the world as a capitalist success story. Similarly the left needs to reclaim the future. If all we can imagine for the future is dystopia we will never be motivated enough to build socialism. This is basically the work of artists, conjuring up an image of what might be (See: Jameson’s Archeologies of the Future). It would be good to see more artists extrapolating out of the development of the new sharing cultures of FOSS and remix culture to imagine such an image. Finally the left must fight to achieve at least a niche of respectability in economic discourse. This has to be accomplished not only through the criticism of monetarism, Austrianism, and the various forms of Keynesianism, but also through critical assessment of the 20th century communism experience and theorizing of other possibilities on that basis. Krugman and other economists recent “discovery” of immiseration in the form of “capital-biased technological progress” suggests that such an opening may be available if we fight hard enough for it.
I feel that if advances can be made on all these fronts socialism may once again be on the agenda.