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‘Culturally, we’re in a phase of permanent revolution’

August 16, 2011

 

 

‘You can see the impulse of the British to close in on old images of themselves in order to tighten their little island, drawing their suits around themselves, to defend themselves against all this otherness pressing on them…and I look at young black and asian kids in their third generation who have been boon here and brought up here, so they’re not from anywhere else…you know and I just think creatively, culturally they’re just on top of the world, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from but culturally they are enormously in a rich creative mode […] You’re asking me, how can people live without some sense that there’s an ultimate truth or ultimate scale of values, and I don’t know but I don’t any longer think that this is just a transitional phase, that we’re moving on to some other more settled period. You know I think we’re culturally in a phase of permanent revolution.’ – Stuart Hall, speaking on the BBC in the late 80s

 

British society is a society divided by class; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, until we manage to overthrow these capitalist bastards. Britain is divided into the aristocracy, who do quite blatantly still exist and are born into this world with a silver spoon securely lodged up their arses. Next is the middle class or the bourgeoisie, which is that historical ruling class of the French and Industrial revolutions, who launched society into capitalism, supposedly destroying feudalism in favour of equality and liberty for all. And then there is everyone else. This ‘everyone else’ cannot really be called “the working class” or “the proletariat” anymore because the working class is a politically self-aware social entity based on an ethics of solidarity and produced by a certain era of capitalist production, namely the Fordist model of mass production. Contemporary (or post-Fordist, as it is sometimes called) production is much more heterogeneous and subtle in its exploitation of labour, and this has also made this ‘everyone else’ fragmented and divided against itself. This doesn’t mean that the class system has changed in any fundamental way; Marx’ analysis of surplus value still applies and is still the starting point if you want to work out which class you belong to (hint: if you earn a wage, you are not a capitalist; and unless you have aristocratic blood, you are probably part of the working class. Small business owners are traditionally referred to as the “petit-bourgeois”)

Today we are faced with renewed competition on the front against capitalism: the Conservatives. The anti-capitalism of the Conservatives is of course ideological; their economic approach is still fundamentally capitalist/neo-liberal. However, David Cameron and his horde of fellow idiots want to reintroduce an essentially pre-capitalist order of privilege and power back into British society, an order that is based on “family values”, “tradition”, “respect” and above all “morality”. They too strongly criticise the dehumanising effects of capitalism and its erosion of society, but where Marxists bring in class analysis and socio-economic, historical explanations, the Conservatives fall back on empty universals that barely conceal class ideology. Marx called this tendency reactionary. It is a tendency to look backwards instead of forwards in time, it romanticises the past and cannot cope with the present. The first socialists manifested this tendency, and what distinguished them from Marxists was their utopian flavour instead of analysing capitalist society scientifically. According to Marxist theory, capitalism itself contains not only irreparable contradictions, but also the conditions for socialism within itself: labour within capitalism is already socialised, the working class only need to take control of productive forces and shed exploitation.

What about New Labour? We often hear how New Labour and the Tories are pretty much indistinguishable, a view that coincides with the total disillusionment with politics within society, leading to the conclusion: ‘there’s no point in voting, they are all the same!’ This conclusion is correct, but there are still basic differences between the two main parties. Ironically, from a socialist perspective, New Labour was the capitalist party proper. It believed totally in the ideology of the market; they genuinely tried to abolish class in favour of a meritocracy. Of course, we know that capitalism itself is based on a division of wage-labour and capital, creating its own internal class antagonism. The Conservatives, on the other hand, try to reconcile the market with the idea that there is a section of society that naturally deserve to control and profit by this market. This is impossible, and I think the pure neo-liberal economists are right when they say that any interference in the market creates economic problems. Again, this shows how Marxists and Conservatives attack capital from totally different perspectives: we think that capitalism is defective and should be aufgehoben (difficult to translate, but really nails what I’m trying to say; vaguely synonymous with “superseded”) into socialism; the Conservatives see the potential in capital to make them richer than ever before, if only they could reintroduce a feudal hierarchy and system of naked power/repression. There is no internal “fix” for the contradictions of capitalism, it’s only gonna get worse and worse until we reach a point of economic/ecological apocalypse. The only other option is socialism, now. The necessary conclusion to come to is that we cannot vote against capitalism.

 

 

Anyway, one positive result of the reappearance of conservativism onto the socio-economic scene is that it has produced a corresponding antagonistic class. As I have already said, it cannot be called the “working class”; it hasn’t really got a name yet because it is a new historical phenomenon that is produced by these contemporary forces. It probably bares closest resemblance to the early anti-industrial movements of the 18th century: the Chartists, Utopians, etc. I might be completely wrong here, as my knowledge is a bit ropey. But similarly, there was a dual reaction to capitalism and industry from left and right, the former being lead by an avant-garde of liberal middle-class intellectuals and the latter a bitter reaction by the former feudal ruling class: the aristocracy. So, back to the present, the reappearance of reactionary conservativism has produced a corresponding avant-garde of middle class intellectuals. Anyone living, writing and arguing in London can see this very clearly. Marx is back in fashion.

But there is also a radical “underclass” element to this revolutionary movement; the recent riots attest to this. And also an international, post-colonial background to the British unrest, often referred to as the “Arab Spring”. At this point in time I am unable to synthesise these factors into an overarching Marxist perspective, but I will say that the notion of an “underclass” seems extremely dodgy to me. I know that Marx talked of a lumpenproletariat, but I would have thought that the underclass are just a particularly destitute part of the wider working class, and one that is even further away from achieving the class consciousness necessary to overcome their conditions of exploitation in solidarity with their proper comrades.

Whatever we do, as part of this growing anti-Conservative, anti-capitalist movement, we must act in solidarity with our class. The rioters shouldn’t attack their own, only capital, and we shouldn’t join in with denouncing the rioters in terms of morality and/or criminality. We can criticise the riots as a social phenomenon created by the conditions of exploitation and alienation that are necessary factors in our choice of economic foundation: (neo-liberal) capitalism. Not only will capitalism itself produce this kind of social unrest, because it naturally intensifies the division of wealth, despite what the neo-liberal economists say (because they do not see the contradictions as internal, only external, which is why they can maintain the ideology of liberalism and equality against empirical data – the capitalist utopia); but the added combination of conservativism with neo-liberalism creates a totally irrational element in society, which is only the manifestation of the totally irrational contradiction of these two ideological elements. As I have just mentioned in brackets, neo-liberal economics insists that the market should be totally left alone and that this will lead to prosperity for all and stabilisation, yet David Cameron and his bandito army seek to interfere in the market in order to secure wealth for a reactionary ruling class. This is an impossible combination.

It is a shame that people get hurt and stressed in times of social unrest. In a perfect world (a socialist one?), no one would inflict pain on anyone else. In really existing society however, pain is being inflicted all the time, mostly from the top downwards. Modern capitalism is entirely founded on a history of violence: the dispossession of the cottage industry before any welfare existed; Empire and the genocide of many tribes and native peoples; neo-colonialism, the enforced spread of “democracy” in the past fifty years to ensure fuel-supplies; and the list is almost endless. The point is that we take for granted the violence of the history of capitalism every time we buy, produce and/or sell commodities. Not only that, we sit in school and listen to the history of the modern world with a dispassionate attitude of “historical destiny” (‘it was shit for the early working class wasn’t it?’ ‘Yeah, but it was shitter before, and now its better’). We are all to blame, and all knowledge is subject to the process of reification. But don’t fucking stand there and tell me that the violence of the riots is ‘criminality pure and simple’ Cameron, you total wanker!

I believe that socialism can come about in our lifetime (I’m 29, how old are you?!) and that we don’t need to wait for the internal self-destruction of capital. If we do, things will get so much worse, especially taking into account the ecological effects. I am somewhere between a “utopian” and “scientific” Marxist (see Engel’s Utopian and Scientific Socialism and part III of The Communist Manifesto), which is to say that I believe that if we analyse capitalism as it evolves using the tools that Marx introduced in his later work, we might be able to imagine an alternative to it that we could call Communism, or anything else. It might turn out totally unexpected (it might turn out worse!), but I think that the first step must be to always act in solidarity with other; mainly our fellow exploited and alienated comrades, but perhaps this solidarity might catch on across the class divide and we might win over some influential capitalists (like Engels!). I believe that imagining an alternative is in itself a revolutionary act, and any alternatives are critical of the status quo (see Fredric Jameson on utopian SF in Archaeologies of the Future); but this properly academic act of imagination must always be backed up with practical action, i.e. political activism and possibly even violence. If contemporary capitalism is based on the principles of competition and profit, then we should act on principles solidarity and charity. But genuine charity, not the “Big Society” idea of a bunch of social entrepreneurs fucking up communities and creaming off fat paychecks from government coffers.

– Prof. Grave Riddle, Visiting Fellow, UfSO

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2011 1:12 am

    Well, it’s great to see UfSO has started to churn out articles more actively. But, this article is a bit watery. For a start, how does the Stuart Hall quotation relate to any of rest of the article?

    But, there’s no point pedantically trolling your efforts. So, just a few points that I hope will be constructive.

    1) I’m not at all sure about your “class” analysis. The artistocracy, i.e. the Royal Family, &c, certainly still exists and continues to own profitable land and other assets. But, they are not an important and active class in contemporary British society – and certainly not the dominant class. They are a mere residual feature of a class structure that has been surpassed. Really, the only function they continue to serve is a “spectacular” or mythic one, as a locus for rallying nationalist sentiment.

    The bourgeoisie is certainly the dominant class, and we can pick out key sectors – e.g. finance – as particularly hegemonic. Indeed, finance currently has a very strong and direct relation to the political elites who are, in fact, the deputies of the bourgeoisie.

    This class has elaborated a mass of “organic intellectuals”: salaried ‘professionals’ – public and private sector workers who organise and direct a range of bureaucratic, administrative, managerial, legal, and cultural functions. These intellectual workers are internally stratified, from those who are deeply invested in capitalism, occupying positions of prestige and fully able to take their cut of surplus value, to those whose labour is thoroughly exploited and whose jobs are increasingly precarious, e.g. the strata of low-paid office workers, teachers, nurses, etc., and even those pursuing certain prestigious professions such as journalism and academia (where we’re seeing an increasing and deliberate use of ‘redundancies’ and ‘casualisation’ as a means of lowering wages). This middle-class is thus becoming increasingly divided between a narrow, well-paid elite and the “squeezed middle” who, I would argue, currently dominate left-wing protest. For, left-wing protest between 2009-2011 has chiefly organised around the public sector. And students are chiefly the children of this “middle-class” of professionals, and the future employees who will take on these professional roles. With austerity – and even before austerity – I think we can honestly say that the increasing concentration of wealth is leading to an increasingly proletarianisation of these workers: i.e. a more naked exploitation; increased workloads; increased precarity; and attacks on benefits, e.g. pensions, and the means by which this social group previously progressed itself (and its offspring), e.g. education, savings, home-ownership (mortgages).

    Then there is the working class proper, which is non-professional labour: in construction, manufacturing, transport, cleaning, etc. In the longview, large sections of this class have been made unemployed by the demolition and privatisation of (unionised) industry in this country by Thatcher and neoliberalism. Globalisation was a means for driving down labour costs on a massive scale. Others have been made redundant more recently by the recession, e.g. construction workers. The young have been particularly badly hit in a situation where society refuses to either educate or employ them. I would also argue an ‘underclass of the dispossessed’ exists, partly the result of structural unemployment, which is used to keep wages low. Whilst this group may be a structural part of the proletariat, it exerts a real and ideological presence, given that unemployment and other social and economic disadvantages have become hereditary for certain social groups.

    2) The important thing is that I really object to your cyclical notion of “the reappearance of reactionary conservativism [which] has produced a corresponding avant-garde of middle class intellectuals,” similar to those of the (19th century, btw) Chartist and utopian-socialist movements. Firstly, because the situation is completely different, including the function of nationalistic and moralistic conservatism. But, mostly I object to this because what the riots demonstrated was the class tensions within the leftist movement, dominated as it is currently by (middle-class) public sector workers and students. Far from proving the existence of a middle-class avant-garde, the riots proved the complete irrelevance of the left to certain exploited sectors of society. It also exposed the class prejudices of these middle-class leftists who, being (albeit precariously) invested in this capitalist society (via employment and education), acted on the whole with revulsion to the riots, claiming for itself wholly false and ridiculous political sophistication. We have only to think of the way in which so many ‘leftists’ distanced themselves from the ‘directionless, apolitical thuggery’ of the riots to see a schism between the left and the most exploited sectors of society which is rooted in class distinctions. This ‘political sophistication’ is in fact revealled as a real apoliticism and lack of seriousness on behalf of the unionist/student left.

    3) Finally, I object to your fetishisic notion of progression and reaction. Particularly of note is the attempt to understand Cameron’s conservative ideology, which you distinguish sharply from the New Labour project (which you describe as a failed and contradictory push for meritocracy). I’m not quite sure what to make of this latest wave of Tory moralism, but I would note that it’s more widespread than you seem to think (certainly Eddy boy has had a go at it, too). Apart from being a damage limitation excercise, a means of papering over the social antagonisms caused by the cuts, I think it may also have much to do with forming a new ‘ethical’ liberalism in the face of the collapse of what David Harvey recently called ‘feral capitalism’. In short, this moralism goes hand-in-hand with Gideon’s recent call for banking legislation that will apparently *overcome* the contradictions of capitalism by reducing financial risk. Measures include legislating higher bank reserves, separating speculative investment banking from other banking activities and tittering about excessive bonuses. The new “ethical liberalism” is what we’re beginning to see pushed across the board (Cons, Libs, Labs and internationally), combining a nice dose of populism into the usual neoliberal mix. That, and not “reaction”, is what I would hypothesise this bullshit is all about.

    Best wishes Dr G. Riddle, and all at UfSO!
    Wit

    • flashbank permalink*
      August 17, 2011 10:08 am

      Hi Wit, thanks for commenting so much and so articulately on our posts, we should make you an honorary UfSO academic! (You are welcome to join, as is everyone else; no tuition fees🙂

      I don’t see how your points change my argument that much, I mean “ethical liberalism” is the same in effect as what i was calling reactionary capitalism or whatever – basically the Tories are trying to get all the slices of the cake and eat it, or whatever the phrase is (sorry, slightly German). They want the profits and class advantage of capitalism, but they are still stuck in a feudal way of thinking. Their ideology of morality is genuine, but mistaken. And they will cause more crises because capital doesn’t like state interference (apparently).

      I really don’t think that the riots represent a split within the left; they have nothing to do with the “avant-garde”, but they are expressions of the contradictions and results of these contradictions within neo-liberal capital, combined with the reactionary interference of the Tories. Theirs is an “non-literate” protest, to nick a concept from Raymond Williams. And I really do think it can be linked in a non-band wagon way with the earlier student protests. The kids see unrest, they see reasons being articulated why the government are wankers and how the banks have messed things up, they see money still being made by capital, they see that protest is happening and that it maybe even looks like fun, etc. I think it makes more sense to simplify things and see the whole of us exploited and the supposed “underclass” together, and this is the only way we will put together a revolutionary movement. All unrest is anti-something, its not mindless.

      And I also think that you’re idea of ‘the working class proper’ is nonsense. Yes there are particularly menial jobs which are badly paid, but then some cleaners make a decent living and are technically self-employed; as are gardeners, builders, carpenters, etc. I mean this is obvious, but factory work is a shrinking part of the economy, so again, it makes more sense for us to think if all wage-labour together, and not let us be divided by the ruling class. Those on welfare and unemployed must be given a hand up into class consciousness because we have been sold on the idea of the “underclass”, which is shit – pure ideology (and again very Tory, ‘lazy, benefit families, etc’)

      Just watching the News and hearing about the drug cartels in Mexico. Some say they should attack the problem socially, which means including the extremely poor who would turn to the drugs trade with some kind of meaningful role in the economy. Same applies here, the answer is to admit the appalling division of wealth, face up to the fact that there aren’t any jobs that people want to do, admit the minimum wage is an embarrassment, etc.

      Anyway, thanks again for the comments

      Prof. G Riddle

  2. flashbank permalink*
    August 17, 2011 10:10 am

    Ps the Stuart Hall quote related to the riots, and I just thought it was amazing.

  3. August 17, 2011 7:37 pm

    Thanks for your reply : )

    Well, I stick by points 2 and 3 for the following reasons, but with slight adjustments.

    I agree with you that it makes sense to see us all as part of one exploited class. The “middle-class” is subjected to many of the same tendencies as the working-class, chief of which is that both are economically exploited and vulnerable in times of capitalist crisis (i.e. all the time). I also agree that we must not let ourselves be divided, but should stand together in solidarity.

    BUT, we must also recognise that their exists a real stratification within this overall “proletarian”, i.e. exploited, class (yes, this may be ‘ideological’, but ideology has a real weight and substance). The riots and, most of all, the response to the riots made this abundantly clear.

    Let’s look at a couple of comments from the #riotswhitewash post:

    One “smithereen” wrote:
    “These riots are not the howl of the oppressed – they are the zenith of consumerism. They are the psychopathic crowd-think of late capitalism. These people were not rioting for food or injustice. They were rioting for Adidas, Sony and Kappa.”

    Another wrote:
    “These rioters were looting for high end capitalist products. That’s not something I want to stand in solidarity with. Fighting the state and the inequalities of the system is fine, but looting for the goods that oppress you is not.”

    Here we have certain self-proclaimed “lefties” dismissing the rioters’ actions and distancing themselves from these actions. It doesn’t matter really what their argument is, because what we’re seeing is simply political rhetoric used to intellectualise a class-based revulsion. That is to say, the revulsion of those who have some investment in the system (via education, employment, possibilies for social mobility, etc) towards actions taken against that system. When the chips were really down, when the acceptable limits of “liberal democracy” had really been transgressed, these people expressed their allegiance to the status quo.

    And you know what, it’s part of a wider trend, within the student movement. We have only to think, for example, of the complete hollowness of so many of these calls for “student-worker solidarity”. Which workers? How, when, what solidarity? There have been some good initiatives, and sometimes students have been able to throw their lot in with the union movement – e.g. March 26th, and local anticuts initiatives. But, for the most part this is empty and meaningless rhetoric. This is even more the case when it comes to those who are not represented by unions, e.g. the social groups who chiefly made up the rioters – the inner-city unemployed and non-student youth. What initiatives exist here? This is also why I talked of the irrelevance of the left to the rioting social groups, because, sure we might be suffering from the same system, but we currently experience this and struggle against it in very different ways. We cannot obscure this, because it points to certain real weaknesses in the current unionist-student dominated organised leftist movement.

    Fortunately, some groups seem to recognising this fact. E.g. BARAC and even the Stratford RMT, if you look at their resolutions in response to the riots:

    – campaign against cuts, for police accountability, for jobs, and for the rebuilding of working-class communities in the interests of their residents
    – organise in local communities and provide constructive, effective forms of resistance
    – oppose attacks on civil liberties that may come in the wake of the riots
    – organise the unemployed, young workers, and those in insecure, low-paid employment

    Let’s hope these initiatives have real substance.

    I’ve already written too much, but I stick by point 3 because I think the idea of an “ethical liberalism” is part of a broader tendency of reforming the finance sector: e.g.

    “Robin-hood” tax: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/aug/17/european-markets-hit-robin-hood-tax?intcmp=239

    “Separation of investment and retail banking”: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/15/george-osborne-ringfence-banks
    &c.

    In short, this isn’t reaction; it’s the continuing “evolution” of neoliberal capitalism and its institutions, as they struggle to manage the development of capitalist crises. The “ethical turn” is the attempt to lend political and ideological coherence and leadership to the current push by the “centre” (left, right it doesn’t matter; Greece has a “socialist” President) for these economic and social changes. In short, it’s new, not a return to the old… That’s my hypothesis, anyway. Perhaps there isn’t a massive difference, since I suppose it does appeal to those longing for some imaginary, simpler past, as much as to those longing for a more rational, “progressive” future.

    By the way, I’m hoping to organise something national around the issue of the exploitation of postgraduate Teaching Assistants. It would be great if I could post an article about this on here at some point in the near future? You have my email address, I think🙂

    Sorry to blather, all best!
    Wit

    • flashbank permalink*
      August 19, 2011 9:15 am

      Yeah, for sure. Just send it to the UfSO email address when you have finished it.

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