1990s >> 1996 >> no-1108-december-1996

A Vision for Our Time

  Capitalism is in crisis, but not so much on the economic front as in the political arena. There was a time when those who opposed capitalism could put forward an alternative vision — albeit one based on state-capitalism — but now both Labourites and Leninists have given up completely and the only vision remaining is the one put forward by Socialists — real Socialism!


What George Bush, with the verbal inelegance of an aristocratic drunk addressing his deepest thoughts to his tired servants, called “the vision thing”, is distinctly missing from world politics right now. When Bush used the term, in the midst of the 1992 presidential contest against Grinning-Boy Bill, he was referring to his recognition that elections had come increasingly to be no more than extremely expensive battles to win power in order to achieve no particular political goal. Politicians more than ever are concerned with winning power, regardless of any belief that their use of it can meaningfully change very much. Hie recently televised debates—less gladiatorial battles then flea races—between Clinton and his grandfather (Dole) had about them all of the intellectual sustenance of an advertising war between McDonalds and Burger King. Both cost loads to sell, not much to buy, tasted the same and were horrible. Is it any wonder that approximately half the electorate in what prides itself as being “the biggest democracy in the world” did not even bother to go out and vote.


Not only between the American political midgets has vision disappeared. It is now almost a cliche to say that nothing divides the main parties in Britain Years ago socialists would speak of voting Labour or Tory as a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee; we were regarded as cynics for refusing to distinguish between the two major parties of capitalism. Now we are in the majority. Voters who elect Labour to power will do so on the firm understanding that this is a party not significantly different in outlook and policy from mainstream Toryism. The Murdoch Empire can rest contented that the next British general election will be held within a virtual one-party state: whoever is elected will be Murdoch’s man. But even the Murdoch Empire is bereft of vision: its sole interest is in making more profits out of public misinformation, but has no fundamental concern whether the profit system or the structure of disinformation is governed by parties of the right or the left. Indeed, they have realised, as socialists did long ago, that the left and right wings are merely symmetrical parts of the anatomy of a single vulture: The Capitalist System.


Voodoo economics
In the 1980s the Big Vision was capitalism itself. This was capitalism’s most audacious political moment, for it involved an attempt to win not mere tolerance but popular support for the system of institutionalised class exploitation. For a while the politics of audacity appeared to succeed. Remember the news reports of elderly pensioners queuing in the cold to buy gas shares and ex-miners setting up personal computer businesses in stagnant pit villages and newly-married suckers jumping for joy at the right to buy their council slum? With a mixture of much champagne and cocaine, the Falklands slaughter and a fair bit of economic good luck, the small minority who own this country had reason to smile in the heyday of Thatcherism. That was before the recession; before they started closing down the small businesses, repossessing the mortgaged homes and discovering that neglect of the inner cities had created veritable war zones amongst the dispossessed. The vision collapsed. The Magic of the Market, as the Eighties witch doctors called it, now stinks in the nostrils of those who were its victims.


Theoretically, the 1990s should have been even better times for the capitalist vision than the Thatcher/Reagan years had been. After all, the greatest single ideological bogey-man of the Cold War popped his clogs and buried himself in the ice. Socialism was declared to be dead, dumped somewhere amidst the rubble of the Berlin Wall. That it was state capitalism which imploded and that its Leninist creed was inimical to the Marxist vision mattered little. Triumphalism was in the air. To be sure, the Old Left, wedded religiously to the Leninist project, collapsed into defeatism in exact timing with the Right’s triumphalism. But it was as hollow a defeat as it was a triumph. Leftists started writing articles conceding that the fall of the Kremlin Empire meant that visions of transcending the market had been proved wrong. But Russia had never sought to transcend the market; even within their own rhetoric of lies and distortion it was only ever pretended that they were successfully planning the market. So, the Left, without market planning as a vision, has fallen into bed with any old tart from the Stock Exchange. The Right is still cleaning its wounds after its equally spurious and nefarious exercise in running a “free market” which was far from free. In reality, there are not that many ways of running capitalism. The scope for dressing up policies for its administration is remarkably narrow. The death of vision is no more than a recognition of this truth.


Given up the ghost

So, capitalist politics has run out of ideas and stands dull and visionless. The 1996 edition of the Socialist Register (edited by Leo Panitch and published by Merlin Press for £12.95) has as its title, “Are There Alternatives?” The book contains a good chapter on Australian Labour governments and their attacks on the working class and a “Santa Claus Doesn’t Exist!” — type essay by Colin Leys who has discovered that labour “no longer think of socialism as an alternative social and economic system to capitalism” (p. 8). There is an odd debate towards the end about forming a new party and Arthur’s SLP (a cross between the disgraced CP and the exhausted ILP) is floated as a possible lifeboat for the demoralised left. But all in all, if the contributors to the volume were entirely honest, they would have added one word to the front title: “NO”. They clearly have no alternative.


Mind you, at least they have retained their sanity if not their candour. Jacques Derrida, the principal cabaret act of the new post-modernist circus, is evidently off his rocker. His new book. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International reads as if it was composed under the influence of seriously hard drugs. Derrida’s thesis (which is rather like speaking of the philosophical theme of a Jeffrey Archer novel) is that Marx’s reference to the spectre haunting capitalism should be seen as a metaphor for a study of ghosts. Here is the first paragraph of the first chapter:


   Maintaining now the specters of Marx. (But maintaining now [maintenant] without conjuncture. A disjointed or disadjusted now, ‘out of joint’, a disajointed now that always risks maintaining nothing together in the assured conjunction of some context whose border would still be determinable.)


It does not improve. One can imagine the sagaciously nodding heads of the sincere and gullible audience at the University of Califomia where Derrida first gave the lectures that were to become his great work of Marxist ghost-hunting. Did a little boy at the back whisper even slightly audibly that the Emperor is naked? Was he asked to leave lest he disturb the concentration of the post-modern disciples? Or did he go away, buy a handgun and say as the bullet went through his head “If that’s the answer, who wants to live to find out the question?” Derrida and his fellow post-men are the Rasputins of the late twentieth century. Just as the Russian fraudster offered metaphysical hope to a ruling class in the midst of Checkhovian despair, so the post-modern con-men sustain an illusion of intellectual nourishment within a system which has become bulimic about any ideas which are not accompanied by a business plan. Post-modernism is the clairvoyance of an end-of-the-pier intelligentsia; the perfect characters for an end-of-the-system drama.


For where can capitalism go from here? Sure, it can reform its constitutional arrangements, re-organise its power blocs, fight here for markets and kill a few million there over ancient territorial rivalries. It can resurrect the zeal of medieval religious madness (in the USA one-in-five people declare themselves “born again”; the naked ignorance of the mullahs’ rule spreads here and there), but these are aberrations of the lost or the backward or both. In the end Saudi businessmen will drink whisky and follow Murdoch into the secular depravities of mammon, just as Americans will jump finally with an adulterous crook like Clinton rather than a moral fascist like Buchanan. The big, bad, bulldozing old visions of capitalism will not succeed. It’s Pepsi and Oprah that rule the house of yawns now.


The only credible alternative vision to running capitalism is to not run capitalism at all and thereby not let capitalism run our lives. What is important about this enduring and exciting socialist vision is its profound credibility. Firstly, it has never been tried. Secondly, the idea of production for use rather than profit is simple and makes sense to millions of people. And thirdly, it is the only conceivable way that society will not get worse and worse to five in. The practical alternative to living under capitalism, with all of its inevitable problems, is to establish consciously and democratically a different system of society in which production is owned by all, controlled by all and making wealth and services available to all. The Old Left has never advocated this, being too busy in its tactical efforts to win reforms of capitalism, elect Labour governments and defend the indefensible regimes of state capitalism. The Right opposes the socialist alternative, but always gets a metaphorical bloody nose when it engages in debate with the case for socialism. For the truth is that the Right is intellectually uninspired and can only ever win arguments when they are fighting against opponents with radical visions for capitalism.


New Labour, whatever it might want, does not want socialism. Socialism is an alternative which Blair has rejected. That he has done so is a sign of his limited vision, but also of his honesty and socialists should have no reason to berate the man for that. When three years into the next government society is still in a mess, or is in worse mess than now, nobody with any integrity will be able to blame this as the failure of socialism. On the contrary, the socialist vision will still be there, as urgent for the twenty-first century as it was in the wasted decades of this tragic century.

Steve Coleman