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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Lament on the impotence of democratic politics

Craig Murray’s latest post looks at the latest 2 examples of the collusion between government and commercial interests (Vodaphone and BAE systems (the giant aerospace company); notes the lack of public interest; and draws the pessimistic conclusion that "Conventional politics appears to have become irretrievably part of the malaise rather than offering any hope for a cure. But political activity outwith the mainstream is stifled by a bought media”. It’s worth giving the larger quote -
Sadly the comments on Craig’s posting (219 comments at the last count!) failed spectacularly to address the issue – descending to the religious ravings which are becoming an all too familar part of such threads. My own contribution (at the tail-end) was a rather pathetic appeal for a bit more humility in such discussions.
Instead of asserting opinions, can people not perhaps in these discussions share more quietly and analytically some of the perspectives which are out there on the possibilities of political and social action? For example, I've just finished reading the inspiring 2003 book "One No and Many Yeses" by Paul Kingsnorth. At other levels there are the writings of David Korten and Olin Wright's recent "Envisioning Realistic Utopias". Political parties and corporations remain the last protected species - and we should focus our energies on exploring why this is so; why it is so rarely investigated - and how we change it
All this gets us into the same territory I was trying to map out recently when I posed the question about
what programme elements might actually help release and sustain people power in a way which will force the corruption of modern elites to make significant and lasting concessions?
But, coincidentally, one of my other favourite blogs has produced a review of David Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital which I recently referred to as possibly offering a more solid analysis of the problems we face. Harvey’s book is not an easy read - and this review sets the book’s main arguments in the wider conext of other leftist writers who have faced the fact that there is something systemic in the latest global crisis. At this point, be warned, the langauge gets a bit heavy! All this reminds me of Ralph Miliband (father of Ed) ’s Parliamentary Socialism ((1962)which argued the basic pointlessness of the social democratic approach (The other 1,000 page book which arrived recently is in fact Donald Sassoon’s One Hundred Years of Socialism!).
Strange how few books come from political or economic academics offering broad, critical analyis of current political and economic life. David Harvey is a geographer! And the best stuff on the role of pension funds (and how they might be changed) is by a Marxist intellectual not associated with academia – Robin Blackburn. Both Paul Kingsnorth and Bill McKibben – who write on alternative systems - are campaigning journalists. Will Hutton who casts a periodic eye over the philosophical infrastructure which underpins the Anglo-saxon economic system (Them and Us is his latest 400 page blockbuster) is also a journalist. The only UK academic I know who has written blunt analyses about the nature of our political system is the political development scientist – Colin Leys – whose time in Africa has clearly given him an important perspective his British academic colleagues lack. Sociologists are the masturbators par excellence - altough Olin Wright is an honourable exception with his recent Envisioning Realistic Utopias from the USA. In America the only challenging stuff comes form speculators like Nassim Taleb and George Soros – although Nobel-winning Joseph Stiglitz is an enfant terrible of the Economics profession and of World Bank and IMF policies there; and Paul Hawkin made us all think a decade or so ago with his Natural Capitalism.
Of course all this reflects the economic structure of the knowledge industry – with rewards going to ever-increasing specialisation (and mystification) – and, more recently, the binding of university funding to industrial needs. When I was in academia in the 1970s, I was shocked at how actively hostile academics were to inter-disciplinary activity. And the only Marxists who have managed to make a career in acadamia have generally been historians – who posed no threat since they offered only analysis or, like Edward Thompson, action against nuclear weapons. I have a feeling that the first step in bringing any sense to our political systems is a powerful attack on how social sciences are structured in the modern university – using Stanislaw's Social Sciences as Sorcery (very sadly long out of print)as the starting point. Instead of ridiculing Macburger Degrees, we should be honouring them as the logical extension of the contemporary university system.
I wonder if French and German social scientists are any different. Jacques Attali (ex-Head of the EBRD) is a prolific writer – although his latest book Sept lecons de Vie – survivre aux crises has abolutely no bibliographical refereces so it is difficult to know his reading. And has anyone really bettered the dual analysis offered in Robert Michel’s 1911 Political Parties which gave us his Iron Law of Oligarchy and Schumpeter’s (1942) Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy – and its minimalist concept of democracy as competition between the elites? And does that differ significantly from the emergent Confucian Chinese model set out in Daniel Bells’s latest book??? I realise that these last few references are a bit cryptic and will return to the theme shortly.
What I suppose I am trying to say is that change requires (a) description of what's wrong (making the case for change); (b) explaining how we got to this point (an analytical model); (c) a programme which offers a relevant and acceptable way of dealing with the problems; and (d) mechanisms for implementing these programmes in a coherent way. We have a lot of writing in the first three categories - but I find that most authors think the task is finished when they produce at page 300 the outline of their programme. Craig's started his blog with a strong assertion -
British democracy has lost its meaning. The political and economic system has come to serve the interests of a tiny elite, vastly wealthier than the run of the population, operating through corporate control. The state itself exists to serve the interests of these corporations, guided by a political class largely devoid of ideological belief and preoccupied with building their own careers and securing their own finances.
A bloated state sector is abused and mikled by a new class of massively overpaid public sector managers in every area of public provision - university, school and hospital administration, all executive branches of local government, housing associations and other arms length bodies. All provide high six figure salaries to those at the top of a bloated bureaucratic establishment. The "left", insofar as it exists, represents only these state sector vested interests. These people decide where the cuts fall, and they will not fall where they should - on them. They will fall largely on the services ordinary people need
The 2 sentences of his with which I began this long piece strike to the heart of the issue which must be addressed -
Conventional politics appears to have become irretrievably part of the malaise rather than offering any hope for a cure. But political activity outwith the mainstream is stifled by a bought media.
The question is how (if at all) do we break out of this impasse? Or do we rather build an explicitly imperfect world on the Michels and Schumpeterian insight?
So thank you, Craig Murray, for sparking off this rant - which I have dignified in the title with a more musical Celtic word - lament!
Looking at the post-2008 financial disasters, it could be considered that capitalism had shown, to use the unfashionable words of Engels, that “the crises revealed the bourgeoisie’s incapacity to continue to administer the modern productive forces.” (Anti-Dühring) The way was open for groups within a vanguard (renamed ‘socialist anti-capitalism’) to develop a political project. For Alex Callinicos, this is the occasion to remedy the “chronic weaknesses” of the increasingly diffuse (not to say, chronically ineffective) “alter-globalisation” movement – worldwide protests at capitalist injustice. Demands “against the logic of Capital” would now have resonance. His recent book - The Bonfire of Illusions - argued for “democratic planning” “democratically taking control of the financial markets, nationalising under workers’ control”, “extending social provision” and even a “universal direct income” (Page 141) Callinicos bases his politics on the “strategic role of the organised working class” allied to the anti-capitalist ‘movement’. One might say that he considered the moment ripe for his general ‘anti-capitalist’ strategy, described in An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto. (2003). Through trade unions, social associations and party shapes all these forces should be “engaging with states to achieve reforms.” This, he asserted, is not ‘reformism’ but a revolution through “democratic forms of self-organisation” to “progressively take over the management of the economy.”
A different ‘anti-capitalist’ position, with more influence than the organised left usually gives it credit, refuses any engagement with the state and conventional politics – indeed with parties as such. John Holloway, whose presence looms large on this terrain, places faith in a multitude of do-it-yourself ‘refusals’ of capitalist servitude. In Crack Capitalism (2010) he wishes us to develop our “power to”. To pursue this objective through established politics, through parties and the state, (‘taking power’) is to enter a “false terrain”. “A political organisation which focuses its action upon the state inevitably reproduces these characteristics of the state as a form of relations.” (Page 59) Left-wing parties get absorbed and transformed.
His anti-partyism apart Holloway remains partly on the same terrain as Callinicos. He asserts “capitalism is in its deepest crisis for many years”. But instead of making politics, the moment has come simply to “stop making capitalism”. Does this, as Harvey claims, depend entirely on a picture of the ‘activity of labouring (Page 133) In fact Crack Capitalism supports a ‘refusal’ so all-encompassing it extends from not turning up to work to guerrilla warfare in the jungle. “We start from being angry and lost and trying to create something else (Page 20 Crack Capitalism). How exactly do we halt the “terrific destruction that surround us? For that, “There is no right answer, just millions of experiments.” (Page 256)
Harvey does not neglect his own wide-ranging search for shoots of resistance to capitalism. As a result of the crises, there will be, a “prolonged shake-out in which the question of grand and far-reaching alternatives will gradually bubble up to the surface in one part of another.”(P 225) There are the “alienated and discontented” who “for whatever reason, see the current path of capitalist development as a dead end if not to catastrophe for humanity.”(Page 340) There are the “deprived and dispossessed” – from wage earners, the ‘precariat’ in unstable employment to the landless. Nevertheless, there are no certainties about “who the agents of change will be”. Indeed The Enigma of Capitalism is not certain about political agencies at all. The problem is the more acute in that for Harvey, like Callinicos in The Enigma of Capital it is the “state-finance nexus” that has to be changed. The Enigma of Capital considers that left progress ultimately depends on “seizing state power, radically transforming and reworking the constitutional and institutional framework that currently supports private property, the market system and endless capital accumulation.”(Page 256)
There are some left strategies, which have concentrated on changing the institutional framework, the ‘state-finance nexus’. Robin Blackburn’s response to the “credit crunch” was to advocate a “public-utility finance system” on a supranational and “eventually global basis”. Blackburn convincingly argues that a seriously anti-capitalist government would have to grapple with credit and money. Such a regime could “curb corporate excesses, re-direct resources to useful ends, promote egalitarian goals, and build the capacity for popular invigilation and administration of financial and corporate affairs.” (New Left Review. No 56. 2009). The problem is that for the moment the prospect of any government adopting this scheme is as remote as the successful popular uprisings of which Blackburn finds few signs.

The Barriers to the Left.
So what is holding the left back from becoming a real political force, let alone taking power? For Harvey the central problem is that,
“in aggregate there is no resolute and sufficiently unified anti-capitalist movement that can adequately challenge the reproduction of the capitalist class and the perpetuation of its power on the world stage. Neither is there any obvious way to attack the bastions of privileged for capitalist elites or to curb their inordinate money power and military might. There is, however a vague sense that not only is another world possible……but that with the collapse of the Soviet empire another communism might also be possible.”(P 226 –7)
It is not just that the alienated and discontented have at best only a ‘vague sense’ of something better. A stable political way of identifying the problems of those deprived and dispossessed is not obvious either. There is no “political force capable of articulating” the alienated-discontented-deprived-dispossessed groups in an ‘alliance’ or giving voice to a coherent programme and strategy that would offer a real alternative to capitalism.”(Page 227) For Harvey Lenin’s question, What is to done? cannot be answered. We are caught in an insoluble dilemma. The “lack of an alternative vision prevents the formation of an oppositional movement, while the absence of such a movement precludes the articulation of an alternative?” (Ibid)

This Vodafone episode offers another little glimpse into the way that corporations like Vodafone twist politicians like around their little fingers. BAE is of course the example of this par excellence. Massive corruption and paying of bribes in Saudi Arabia, Tanzania end elsewhere, but prosecution was halted by Tony Blair "In the National Interest". BAE of course was funnelling money straight into New Labour bagmen's pockets, as well as offering positions to senior civil servants through the revolving door. Doubtless they are now doing the same for the Tories - perhaps even some Lib Dems.
It is therefore unsurprising the BAE were able to write themselves contracts for aircraft carriers which were impossible to cancel and that their New Labour acolytes were prepared to sign such contracts. It is, nonetheless, disgusting. Just as it is disgusting that there is no attempt whatever by the coaliton to query or remedy the situation. There is no contract in the UK which cannot be cancelled by primary legislation.
Meanwhile, bankers' bonus season is upon us again and these facilitators of trade and manufacture are again set to award themselves tens of billions of pounds to swell the already huge bank accounts of a select few, whose lifestyle and continued employment is being subsidised by every single person in the UK with 8% of their income. This was because the system which rewards those bankers so vastly is fundamentally unsound and largely unnecessary. Money unlinked to trade or manufacture cannot create infinite value; that should have been known since the South Sea Bubble.
Yet even this most extreme example of government being used to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of everyone else, has not been enough to stir any substantial response from a stupoured, x-factored population, dreaming only of easy routes to personal riches, which they have a chance in a million of achieving.
Conventional politics appears to have become irretrievably part pf the malaise rather than offering any hope for a cure. But political activity outwith the mainstream is stifled by a bought media

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