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