- Capitalism and Alternatives -

The struggle against capitalism and the US socialist Left

Posted by: Samuel Day Fassbinder ( Citizens for Mustard Greens, USA ) on April 15, 1999 at 11:07:22:

In Reply to: 10-4 Good Buddy posted by Winslow Wacker on April 14, 1999 at 10:50:50:

WW: I can understand keeping an eye on racism, sexism, and "the folks in charge", but why keep an eye on "privileged white fratboys who like boasting of their libertarian beliefs on the Net"?

SDF: 1) I'm tired of their spam. There was a particularly disgusting one I noted awhile back who was spamming the chat boards at nytimes.com .
2) I had to teach those little brats for four years as a teaching associate at a university.

3) They are the next generation of toadies to the "powers that be."

Perhaps my dislike of the above subset of human beings has clouded the issue of precisely why I dislike the ideologies of privileged white male individuality, even though I'd myself admit to being a privileged white male. I'll try to clear that up here.

WW: Seriously, I think politics based on gender, race, ethnic groups, nations etc. are bad because they are divisive in our collective struggle against capital - oh well.

SDF: Is there a struggle against capital? Perhaps an examination of the reasons why one would want struggle against capital would explain why it's hard to find a struggle against capital in the world of the present.

Perhaps some people are answering that they want to struggle against capital because they want to be free from sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination, so for them some manifestations of identity politics are useful. I'm sure, however, that the atmosphere of bickering which certain patrons of identity politics have generated (I remember well their disruption of the 1985 anti-apartheid protests at the University of California campuses) has led to a diminution of that part of the "struggle against capital" that may once have endorsed "identity politics." So the anticapitalists bicker with each other. Would they have really made a difference, if they had never encountered identity politics? I don't see that, either.

The "struggle against capital," if there is one anymore today, appears to me to be basically reliant upon the notion of "utopian dreaming," the consideration of the possibilities of liberation as a series of counterpoints to the unliberated realities of the present. What is the point of struggling against capital of one doesn't know what one is struggling for? As I said here in my quotation of Habermas:

What can be outlined normatively are the necessary but general conditions for the communicative practice of everyday life and for a procedure of discursive will-formation that would put participants themselves in a position to realize concrete possibilities for a better and less threatened life, on their own initiative and in accordance with their own needs.

I know, Habermas is thick stuff even when translated from even thicker German. But bear with me here: identity politics brought up the possibility that the conditions for actually using Habermas's celebrated "procedure of discursive will-formation" that would put us in a position to struggle for a "better and less threatened life" (i.e. communicative action) had NOT been met. The advocates of identity politics also usually specified that there had to be some working-through of internalized and socialized racisms, sexisms, heterosexisms, silencings, etc. before the abovementioned "procedure" would allow us to do anything good at all, to allow us to "struggle against capital" for something we knew was better. After having discovered that important truth, however, the patrons of identity politics appear to have ruined their game for everyone by their obsession with their power to demonize white males (even though many white males might "deserve it").

Having said that, however, I'm sure that this recommended ideological "working through" is indeed a good idea, perhaps, for some of the readers of this message. After all, even if the "struggle against capital" were to succeed, what is to insure that the force triumphing over the lackeys of capital will create a better world? Perhaps this is why the patrons of identity politics bicker so furiously, because even though they have asked this question more sincerely and persistently than old-line Marxists, they still don't know the answer to this above question. Having appealed to various groups who feel an urgent need to be liberated, identity politics cannot itself spell out the liberatory alternative.

(Furthermore it is to be observed that identity politics is no substitute for anticapitalism. Simply allowing more privileges to be granted to women, nonwhites, etc. will do nothing to dislodge the system granting the privileges, nor will it change the positions of the white males at the very top. Witness Margaret Thatcher for instance.)

The glaring weakness of the appeal to the "struggle against capital," on the other hand, besides its time-consuming and often counterproductive engagement with identity politics, is that the old struggle against capital, the struggle waged by artesans mentioned in E.P. Thompson's THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS, has died, and nothing of its prominence and strength of revolutionary mobilization has arisen to replace it. There are compelling economic, social, and world-historical reasons for this being the case. As Craig Calhoun notes in THE QUESTION OF CLASS STRUGGLE:

From Marx's day to the present, the conditions of revolutionary mobilization have been continuously eroded in the advanced capitalist countries. This does not in itself mean that workers have increased their share of capitalist wealth or lost the "objective interests" they may once have had in a different form of society. It need not even mean that techniques of ideological cooptation or police repression have improved or their use intensified. What it does mean is that the social strength of workers' communities, their links to one another, and their dependence on a traditional way of life incompatible with modern capitalism have been greatly reduced. At the same time, the distinction between the beneficiaries and victims of capitalism has become less clear.

Workers have almost never had nothing to lose but their chains, and in any case the degree of their immiseration hardly predicts their radicalism. (Please note, dear reader, that Calhoun is arguing that the progressive dispossession of the people-as-a-whole predicted by Marx in CAPITAL, as a result of the process of capital accumulation he outlined, is not going to provoke a revolution all by itself. -SDF) On the contrary, the question is what workers have had to defend. Some defenses need to be radical, even revolutionary, because workers (or peasants, or "the people") cannot both save what they value and adjust to capitalist, colonial, or imperialist conditions. Other defenses can be reformist, because there is no fundamental and immediate contradiction between what workers want and what elites need, only a quantitative competition. The economic, social, and cultural goods which people have are more important motivations and bases for collective action than what they stand possibly to gain.

So white males themselves might be able to use identity politics selectively, so that they themselves are conscious of the realities of white male ideology (as distinguished from white male bodies, which of course won't go away), & perhaps create a new basis (which has yet to appear and is perhaps being occluded by identity politics today) for the struggle against capital. This is all utopian dreaming of course.
WW: : Theories of imperialism continue to be used to camouflage the degradation of wageworkers' lives in "imperialist centers", notably western Europe and America.

SDF: I understand, from hints and rumors I've heard about the socialist Left in the US, that identity politics has been used, corrosively and in an authoritarian way (& by the authoritarians you and NJ cited), to destroy its base for dreaming of doing whatever it was that its tiny cadres in the US had dreamed of doing in the first place. If the socialist Left in the US has been a political force at any time since the early 1970s, however, I'm not aware of it.

Having experienced "identity politics," however, mostly from people who knew little or nothing of Marx, whose apex in life was either a very local struggle for "their people" or tenured professorship in a university, people who appeared to me to have little connection to authoritarian Leftism, I can claim that "identity politics" is a bigger thing than Maoism or Leninism would make of it.

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