Monday, February 18, 2013

Comments on a Divided World, from Don Hamerquist

In the text that follows, Don Hamerquist addresses the current salience of imperialism, territory, and revolutionary organizing in the First World. This essay is prompted by the review of Zak Cope's Divided World Divided Class by Matthijs Krul, which was reposted to Sketchy Thoughts a few weeks ago. Don explains that "For Krul citations I am using generated page numbers from a print out of the version of the review and its single page of introduction that was on Sketchy Thoughts. These provide a rough guide to the relative locations of the citations, but may not translate accurately to other posted versions of the review. I considered not providing page citations, but I cite the document a lot and expect this will raise questions about interpretation, so this seemed like a better approach."

Here are Don's comments:
It’s not usually wise to comment on a review of a book that one hasn’t read, and I haven’t read the Cope book, Divided World Divided Class, although I hope to shortly. On the other hand, the time I’ve spent functioning politically with, and at times within, variations of radical Third Worldist anti-imperialism provides some insight into Cope’s arguments and some measure of agreement with his political conclusions.  However, just so I can be corrected on any possible misunderstandings, I’ll begin by sketching out my understanding of that position as it relates to some points I’d like to make about Krul’s review.

When Arghiri Emmanuel’s book, Unequal Exchange, was distributed in English in the early 70s, it was received as both a supplement and a correction to Lenin’s theory of imperialism - a theory that was showing some wear as its political context, the crisis of the more or less organized left at the outbreak of WWI, receded further into the past. Lenin’s theory didn’t adequately foresee subsequent decades of perpetuation and expansion of inequalities within and between diverging national forms of capitalist ‘development’. It didn’t explain how distinctively different social and class relations in the capitalist center and the capitalist periphery would be reproduced for decades after the onset of the “general (read final) crisis” of the “highest (also read final) stage” of capitalism.    

Emmanuel provided an approach to national oppression resting on a conception of unequal international exchange that in turn was based on Marx’s theory of prices of production in Volume 3 of Capital. He argued that, under certain assumptions, the economic relationship between low wage countries and high wage countries resulted in a transfer of value from the former to the latter. This process worked largely through exchange, through ‘trade’, and, while not excluding the element of extra-economic imperial coercion that is central to Lenin’s conception, it was not dependent on it. From Krul’s review and some other things that I have read, I understand the Cope book to be an attempt to expand the base of empirical support for the position that Emmanuel and others outlined in more general theoretical form. If I’m wrong about that, I can only hope, it doesn’t make the rest of what I say completely without value.

Emmanuel’s theory clearly pointed towards an accelerated weakening of the potential for internationalism and revolution among a growing, objectively privileged, stratum of the working classes in the capitalist center. While not necessarily replacing the processes that Lenin described as a basis for a labor aristocracy, this argument went well beyond the - essentially temporary - “crumbs” of superprofits that Lenin stressed, and pointed towards a massive long-term enlargement of the base of common interest between workers and capitalists in the imperial center. Then as now, this argument was politically unpalatable to large sections of the metropolitan left and it was widely challenged on both theoretical and practical grounds. Emmanuel’s book ends with extensive appendices where he debates these issues with Charles Bettleheim, a preeminent Maoist theoretician at the time. (Parenthetically I would say that Bettleheim made virtually all of Charley Post’s arguments in the early 70s –in substantially greater detail, with more coherence, and without the benefit of knowing certain things that we all should have picked up from the four decades of subsequent history.)

Just as Emmanuel’s positions were anathema to the mainstream metropolitan left, they have a continuing popularity with various critiques of Eurocentric radicalism and with an array of approaches to revolution on the periphery, including versions of prolonged people’s war. They also play a role in many Global South vs. Global North, “Bandung Conference”, perspectives that promote a radical third world socialism; e.g. Amin, Gunder Frank, and Wallerstein. (I would argue that this last category is essentially either utopian or reformist – or both – although many disagree.)

As Kersplebedeb notes in the introduction to Krul’s review, one of the advantage of the theory and politics of unequal exchange is that: “it strikes many of us as ‘obvious’ on a gut level.” (Review, p. 1) It appears to explain what is undeniable: the growing inequalities between center and periphery; the secular trend towards social passivity in the global North and West; and the continuing turmoil and rebelliousness in the global South and East. And it does this by assuming that these phenomena are interconnected and interdependent – mutually reinforcing - a point which also seems to some of us to be “obvious”.  Whenever the other side of the debate doesn’t simply ignore and evade this reality, it generally asserts that these processes are essentially independent of each other and the residue of unexplained issues is poorly explained through an unpersuasive combination of productivism and workerism.

Before getting to Krul’s review of Cope, I want to consider some of Emmanuel’s theoretical assumptions and raise some possible impacts of the changes in the global context since the late sixties when he actually wrote his book. I hope this will indicate the need for an expanded and modified framework of explanation to support the political conclusions of Third Worldist analysis that should be supported.

Emmanuel assumes a tendency towards profit equalization over a territorial area with an unlimited mobility of capital, but with no mobility of labor. Beyond this, he implicitly, and the like-thinking early Samir Amin explicitly, assume the existence or the real potential for a socialist territorial alternative to the capitalist world market. This ‘socialist camp’ is central to the state-centric oppositional politics that both of them suggest.

There are problems with both of these assumptions. International labor flows, specifically including labor mobility between periphery and center, are a major feature of contemporary capitalism. Any perspective that disregards them or diminishes their importance will encounter major problems. Just as clearly, the disintegration of  actually existing socialism into the capitalist world market makes it improbable, if not impossible, that any hypothetical national liberation state, New Democracy, or similar territorially-based transitional stage to ‘socialism’ will exercise substantive self-determination over basic economic processes for a meaningful period of time. Both of these problems raise doubt about the continuing relevance of the territorial state-centric national liberation framework used by Emmanuel and most Third Worldist radicalism – probably including Cope, and certainly Krul, who speaks of the importance of; “…vast transfers of value from the developing countries (my emphasis) to the developed ones…”. (Review, p. 6)

However, whether or not the Third Worldist framework provides an adequate explanation for it, the “gut level” feeling about global inequalities still is grounded in a significant reality. Inequality within and between segments of the working classes and poor are issues of overriding significance for any viable revolutionary strategy. These inequalities provide much of the content of the competitions among the oppressed and exploited on which the minority power of capital rests, and they constitute a more important element of the rule of capital than the always challenged, “monopoly of legitimate force” enjoyed by its state formations. Confronting the entire gamut of inequality must be the substance of internationalism and emancipatory politics.

Since my opinion of Negri’s current politics and much of his theoretical position is quite low, I’m reluctant to raise his views as a positive alternative to the Third Worldist perspective, although he explicitly presents them that way (see Empire, p. 333, for an example). Nevertheless, I think Negri and Hardt’s Empire provides a superior framework for dealing with the issues of equality and oppression that are based in the current relationship between capitalist center and capitalist periphery. This framework doesn’t exclude unequal exchange, but it emphasizes other aspects of growing inequality and oppression, while pointing out significant areas of tension and stress where these can be better confronted on a class rather than a national basis. These brief excerpts from Empire will give some sense of this point and will hopefully provide a context in which some of the issues with Krul’s review can be clarified.

“… the spatial divisions of the three Worlds (First, Second, and Third) have been scrambled so that we continually find the First World in the Third, the Third in the First, and the Second almost nowhere at all.” (Empire, p. xiii)
“Workers who flee the Third World to go to the First for work or wealth contribute to undermining the boundaries between the two worlds. The Third World does not really disappear in the process of unification of the world market but enters into the First, establishes itself at the heart as ghetto, shantytown, favela, always again produced and reproduced. In turn the First World is transferred to the Third in the form of stock exchanges and banks, transnational corporations and icy skyscrapers of money and command. Economic geography and political geography both are destabilized in such a way that the boundaries among the various zones are themselves fluid and mobile.” (Empire, p. 253-254)
“Empire is characterized by the close proximity of extremely unequal populations which creates a situation of permanent social danger.” (Empire, p. 336-337).
“From India to Algeria and Cuba to Vietnam, the state is the poisoned gift of national liberation.” (Empire, p.134, Negri’s emphasis)

Let me raise two processes, one based in the periphery and one in the center, that illustrate how this framework has the potential to illuminate current social conditions that tend to elude the Third Worldist analysis:

Negri’s conception of the “First World” becoming established in the “Third World” points towards new types of distorted and unequal social relations in the capitalist periphery. These emerge in contradictory relationships between new and growing ruling groupings, that are closely tied to the capitalist global system, and rapidly urbanizing working masses that are losing their ties to land, common areas, and collective resources. These processes can be partially explained in terms of national oppression, but in such a framework important elements of the extension to the periphery of what Marx terms “real subsumption” will not get adequate attention.

After the products and resources of the periphery are forcibly integrated into unequal capitalist relations of global distribution, the most valuable resource of these societies, their productive working populations, are also forcibly integrated into capitalist labor forces. A simple emphasis on the transfer of value from periphery to center tends to treat labor on the periphery as an undifferentiated oppressed unity confined within national social formations. In actuality the element of differentiation, particularly in terms of gender, is of primary importance and the effects of this differentiation cut across territorial boundaries and political jurisdictions in the capitalist periphery.

These are complex processes of expanded and continuing primitive accumulation with consequences that go beyond the separation of those who work from the tools and resources necessary for their minimal self-sufficiency. They cause involuntary and disruptive population movements in general, but more specifically they contribute to gender defined labor forces on a transnational level where a rapidly increasing proportion of women workers are employed at wages that challenge the reproduction of their labor power, while an expanding segment of working age men are permanently marginalized from the ‘legal’ economy. These processes are expedited, and at times resisted, by an array of quasi-state and civil society formations that indirectly and directly enforce labor discipline and control insurgent potentials - in large part through perpetuating male supremacy by overt force, not infrequently, military force. The fact that this occurs in areas that are increasingly characterized by hollow or failed governmental structures gives the results a de facto legitimacy despite all noise about rights and humanitarian interventions.

When it comes to the treatment of the capitalist center, the Third Worldist perspective is prone to make outside of time characterizations of the labor aristocracy. The general argument is that an expanded transfer of surplus value to the center equates to an expanded basis for a social democratic class collaboration that, in turn, equates to greater political stability for capitalism. The capitalist aristocracy of labor enjoys economic and social privileges that may entail some short run deductions from capitalist profit, but these costs are strategically justified by its centrality to the social order needed to maintain and expand capitalist profits over the longer run. This leads Krul to an endorsement of what is apparently one of Cope’s political conclusions:
“…the Western working class currently is not revolutionary, and in fact cannot (Krul’s emphasis)be revolutionary without majorly violating the expectations of Marx and Engels’ theory of historical materialism.” (Review, p.6. I’ll return to this point often.)
One feature of any aristocracy worth the name is that it is essentially hereditary. A capitalist labor aristocracy will only serve its function for capital, if it is a relatively stable network of privileges passed down through generations. So it is certainly a relevant issue for Third Worldist perspectives if, on the balance, processes in the capitalist center are undermining and fracturing this historic base of political support for the hegemony of capital – or if they are not. Negri’s conception of the Third World invading the First World and establishing itself at its heart – an image with deep Third Worldist roots extending back to Martin Nicolaus’s debate with Ernest Mandel in the sixties, points towards “…a situation of permanent social danger”. This “danger” relates to possibilities for major disruptions of the equilibrium provided by the social democratic labor aristocracy. In my opinion, any political perspectives that assume a continuation of current levels of metropolitan stability conflicts with a lot of contradictory evidence – including some that is introduced in the concluding sections of Krul’s review.

Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that relatively affluent, typically white male, metropolitan workers are on the cusp of becoming militant revolutionaries or that their narrow sectoral demands have a newly acquired radical significance. It does mean that they are increasingly disaffected from what many of them had previously thought was ‘their’ country, ‘their’ government, ‘their’ system – and that there is an increased likelihood that they will eventually begin to act out this disaffection. Unfortunately, without some major changes that don’t appear to be on the horizon, the bulk of any militance and radicalism is likely to be right wing in character, but, nevertheless, this does not bode well for the stability of metropolitan capitalism.

Beyond this there are many other destabilizing elements in the capitalist center that don’t depend exclusively on what this relatively privileged working class fraction does or does not do - including a number of situations marked by that “social danger” from the “close proximity of extremely unequal populations” that Negri mentions. However, at this time I am only arguing that unless the Third Worldists only intend to explain a past that is being superceded, they must either challenge the accuracy of this estimate of current trends toward destabilization and possibilities of social ruptures, or they must adjust their cannot be revolutionary” estimate of the political impact of unequal exchange value transfers on the Western working classes.

This brings me more directly to the Krul review of the Cope book. I’d like to approach it somewhat in reverse, beginning from some of its conclusions before looking more carefully at the content of the argumentation. I think that these conclusions, and specifically some of them with which I have considerable agreement, don’t fit the major themes of the argument, giving the complete product a certain schizoid character.

Krul presents his conclusions quite casually at the end of the review. Consider the following:
“In the current period, the capitalist classes of the First World seem inclined to go more and more against the historic compromise of social-democracy, and the social-democracy is therefore declining in historical vigour proportionally to the shift of capitalist production from the First to the Third World in search of lower wages and higher profits.” (Review, p. 9)
I agree that this is a partial description of the actual tendency of metropolitan capital, although I might quibble about whether it involves a ruling class ‘inclination’ rather than a circumstances imposed compulsion. However, Krul doesn’t seem to appreciate the implications of this passage for the political positions that earlier sections of his review have substantially endorsed.  He has advanced a conception of global capitalism in which value transfers from the periphery become, “an almost total compensation for the domestic exploitation of the First World working class” (Review, p. 6), providing the economic basis for a much broadened social democratic consensus that involves, “…a wider and wider section of the working class of the center.” (Review, p. 6). If that is the case, what are the new calculations and/or new pressures that are inclining the “capitalist classes of the First World” towards a course that will certainly disrupt a relatively functional element of capitalist stability in the center, the arrangement that has provided important support for its capacity to exercise power in the rest of the world – specifically, what Krul terms the “historic compromise of social-democracy”?

Perhaps Krul is pointing to some new and greater threat that demands additional resources; e.g.; the political emergence of the toilers of the East that the later Lenin named as the ultimate guarantee of the working class revolution everywhere. But if there was once a period when it was possible to believe that the movement for national liberation in the oppressed ‘countryside’ was successfully encircling the urbanized center of world capitalism, that period is decades over – and has left behind its own list of unanswered, but still very pressing, questions. 

The concluding sentences of Krul’s review raise the issue more starkly, but still without providing any clear direction:
“This world monopoly is now that of the ‘West’ so-called, and every day it is more broken while every day the Western working class fights to maintain it. What will we do?” (Review p. 10)
Who or what is breaking the, “world monopoly…of the West”, if it actually is becoming… “more broken” every day? Since according to Krul, the, “…Western working class fights to maintain it”, what has changed, if anything, with respect to who they will be fighting with, and who against? What social forces do these changes allies and opponents represent – and how will this “fight”  be conducted?

There is an entire line of analysis that attempts to deal with a portion of these issues on a global level. I’m thinking about Wallerstein and, more specifically, Giovanni Arrighi (The Long Twentieth Century). Their positions emphasize contradictions in global capitalist processes and, at least recently, have moved away from the focus on revolutionary processes in specific national social formations on the periphery that is associated with modern Maoism and its nationally specific notions of prolonged people’s war. I don’t see any necessary conflict between this ‘world system’s’ view and Negri’s conception of empire – at least not on the issues that are of concern here.

Arrighi maintains that successive cycles of global capitalist expansion have been associated with the emergence of a distinctive world hegemonic state, and that there is always some tension between the capitalist hegemon, that functions in part according to a “territorialist logic of power”, and capitalist production that functions according to a universal logic of accumulation. This leads to “…recurrent contradiction between an ‘endless’ accumulation of capital and a comparatively stable organization of political space”. (see Arrighi, p. 27-34 for the general argument)

According to Arrighi, writing in the last years of the twentieth century, this “recurrent contradiction” is currently exacerbated by the decline of the U.S. as world hegemon, with - after he discounts first Japan and then China - no viable successor in view. He sees the contemporary content of the contradiction as follows:
“The uncontainability of violence in the contemporary world is closely associated with the withering away of the modern system of territorial states as the primary locus of world power…Combined with the internationalization of world scale processes of production and exchange within the organizational domains of transnational corporations and with the resurgence of suprastatal world financial markets, these unprecedented restrictions and expectations have translated into strong pressure to relocate the authority of nation-states both upward and downward.” (Arrighi, p. 331)
I have some agreement with these views, but I’m not sure if Krul or others sympathetic to more traditional Third Worldist national liberation politics do as well. However, even if Krul’s conclusion does point to the disruptions and dislocations associated with the decline of the U.S. as the last in a series of Western world hegemonic states, it is still questionable to treat the U.S. as equivalent to the “West”. But the “world monopoly” that Krul describes as broken, but still defended by its working classes, has been presented as the hegemony of the “West”, and not that of the U.S.

In any case, I agree with Krul on two points. First; the working out of the contradictions between profit maximization and political stability in the core territories of the global capitalist system, does leave traditional social arrangements …“more broken every day”. Second; to the extent that the working class in the center confines its resistance to rearguard actions that defend increasingly eroded structures of relative privilege, the best outcome is to bind itself more tightly within its strategic subordination to capital, while the worst is to expand the social base for fascism.

However, I think that Krul goes substantially beyond these points when he appears to argue that the metropolitan working class’s acceptance of the role of junior partner in a failing enterprise is fixed in concrete and beyond effective political challenge from the left. This subordination is presented as a necessary political outcome from the overwhelming capacity of the, “…ruling classes of the center to buy off the exploited working class of the center with the proceeds of this imperialist rent” (an imperialist rent which through social democracy is then) “…shared with a wider and wider section of the working class of the center.” (Review, p. 4). This then expands the sectors of the metropolitan working class that, as Krul has said and as I will regularly repeat, cannot be revolutionary”.

I do like this conception of the way that social democracy has functioned to broaden and generalize the base of class collaboration, however at this time I’m concentrating on problems with this overall approach. First, in my experience politics that are grounded in conceptions of objective material privilege, as is the case with the Third Worldist analysis, generally tend towards overly deterministic conclusions about the linkage between these relative material advantages and the ideas and actions of those that objectively benefit from them. Krul hints at a criticism of one possible form of this reductionist mistake when noting that Cope; “does not wholly avoid the common notion among Third Worldist Marxist writers that the economic analysis as such necessarily generates a set of strategic political concerns…(and – d.h.)…one simply cannot make the leap from historical and political economic analysis to strategy…” (Review, p. 8).  However, it would seem appropriate to ask Krul whether it is not true that his statement, “…the Western working class… cannot be revolutionary”, is exactly such a leap from “analysis to strategy”?

While there certainly are problems if a particular analysis is applied in such a doctrinaire way that it submerges other significant elements of politics, the criticism that Krul implies only deals with a secondary aspect of a larger issue. More important problems emerge when the economic and political reality that is the object of the analysis is presented as the necessary and sufficient cause of the ideas and behaviors of specific social groups. This is a big problem even when the material analysis of conditions is essentially valid. It is a larger problem when this analysis is flawed. It is not possible to adequately explain social action as a mere effect of social circumstances. The essential premise for the possibility of revolution always rests on the potential for enlightened social action to modify and even transform circumstances. Forgive me for an illegitimate argument, but without such a dialectical potential, what graduate student, privileged by definition, might become a revolutionary – and we do see many of them around.

At various points, Krul implies that he – and not only Cope or other Third Worldist theorists that he is reviewing – regards an expanded base for social democracy as equivalent to an expanded social democracy and from this point concludes that the metropolitan working classes (or at least major parts of them) are necessarily non revolutionary. I’d like to respond to this view with a deeper consideration of the implications of two passages from Krul, beginning with a restatement of the full version of the one that I’ve been citing ad nauseum:
“…the Western working class currently is not revolutionary and in fact cannot (Krul’s emphasis) be revolutionary without majorly violating the expectations of Marx and Engels’ theory of historical materialism.” (Review, p. 6).
“This labor aristocracy, so formed, then no longer fulfills the one special role the working class has in Marx and Engels’ theory of historical materialism: namely, to be unable to emancipate itself without overthrowing the conditions it itself reproduces with its labour.” (Review, p. 4).
The first citation combines an accurate description of Western working classes in a first clause, with a second clause that is, at best, an eminently debatable assertion about Marxism. The low regard that Marx and Engel’s had for the English working class in the last half of the nineteenth century, particularly with respect to its attitudes towards Ireland, was based on their estimates of its response to relative privileges. In this case, and in similar ones, substantial “revolutionary…expectations” for a working class segment that is heavily privileged, knows that it is privileged, knows that its privileges are the consequence of the oppression of other workers, and is set on retaining its privileges, certainly are a matter of self-delusion. However, even for a completely determinist view, logic requires that, if privileges are being eroded rather than expanded, any identification with ‘their’ capitalism will be shaken and revolutionary possibilities can be expected to emerge. This is even more likely, if, as is typically the case, the erstwhile privileged sectors have no real understanding that their relative affluence is related in any way to other worker’s impoverishment, and instead have regarded their advantages, assuming that they even recognize them as advantages, as a deserved reward for past struggles and present productivity, rather than as ‘privileges’.

More important, this implied conception of the revolutionary process, at least insofar as such a process is both anti-capitalist and liberatory, leaves out a crucial element. Revolution involves a break with capitalist patterns of competitive consumption; it projects needs that capitalism cannot satisfy and demands that capital cannot completely co-opt. These necessary ruptures with capitalist normalcy are possible, “be their wages high or low”, as someone has said. The issues of material privilege certainly impact the essential struggle for real equality and are thus always relevant to revolution - but they are not all that is important to the process.

This leads to the second cited passage, and its treatment of the, “one special role the working class has in Marx and Engel’s theory of historical materialism.” Laying aside the ambiguity surrounding the theory of historical materialism and the massive debates about its ‘correct’ interpretation; and laying aside as well, the real possibility that Marx and Engel might not provide the final word on the issues that confront us a century and a quarter after the end of their productive collaboration, I’d question both the point being made here and the manner in which it is being made.

We can begin by agreeing that working class revolution must emancipate all social groups in the process of eliminating capitalist production relations and the classes that constitute these relations Then the first question being posed is: can the sections of the working class in the capitalist center that have gained ‘more’ under capitalism commit to anti-capitalism; while the second question, assuming that such relative advantages haven’t completely ruled out this possibility, under what conditions and through what processes will more advantaged sections of the working class commit to anti-capitalism.

I answer the first question in the affirmative. Some of what Krul says implies that he might disagree, but I’m inclined to doubt it. A literal application of that position would treat struggles for improvements in material conditions and expansions of formal democracy in the capitalist center as entirely negative for revolutionary prospects – at least to the degree that they achieve some partial successes. It’s one thing to argue against incremental reformist notions that see revolution as the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow path of sectoral improvements in working and living circumstances. It’s quite another to see the reform struggle as only an inevitable process of corruption of some initially pure revolutionary impulse.

This is an impossible position to translate into any effective practical revolutionary politics in the capitalist center. And for those Third Worldists that might be inclined to discount any revolutionary possibilities in the capitalist center, it’s important to recognize that the same type of critique would also apply to partial struggles in the capitalist periphery – although in a distinctive manner. In the center, the reformist distortion is more likely to take the form of limiting struggles because there is ‘too much to lose’ by challenging capitalism. In the periphery, the reformist distortion can take the form of limiting struggles because there is ‘too much left to win’ within capitalism.

Leaving any implications with respect to peripheral capitalism for examination in a different context, let’s assume that the possibility for some relatively privileged sectors in the center becoming revolutionary is not completely ruled out. Krul might recognize a relatively limited revolutionary possibility in the working classes of the center, although one that is commonly approached in a reformist and opportunistic fashion. Recognizing that the magnitude of this potential and the political approaches required to materialize it will still be potential differences, I could agree with such an estimate. However, some clarifications are still needed to move this past a formal level.

What ‘more’ do the social democratic segments of the working classes of the West have that is ‘too much more’? Can this ‘too much more’ be quantified - with a recognizable break point between where it is determinant and where it isn’t? Is the crucial characteristic primarily a matter of higher wages – real or nominal, and, if so, how much higher? Does the counter revolutionary side of ‘too much more’ relate to the length of the working day, or to the breadth of the franchise, or to the stability of the social security net? Do segments of the metropolitan working class that are not white and male, but that also do have relatively more, also have ‘too much more’?

When these matters are worked through, I very much doubt that Krul’s conclusions about the metropolitan working class – “…unable to emancipate itself without overthrowing the conditions it itself reproduces with its labour” – will mark out any significant distinction between the working classes of the center and those of the periphery. Both areas require a rupture with existing patterns of struggle and accommodation. Although the specific form and content of the rupture will certainly vary, the one essential element that will be involved in both areas is the frontal challenge to all of the forms of inequality that are embedded within oppression and exploitation.

I’d like to conclude this comment by briefly noting some other interesting points that Krul makes in his review. These may or may not be integral to the questions about the existence and the impact of the labor aristocracy in the West. I think that they are, others may not, but at the very least they are important matters in their own right. I’d mention three such topics that Krul’s review raises: the question of the ‘socialism’ of the ‘actually existing socialism’ variant; the conception of social democracy; and the conception of fascism.

In a larger statement on the continuing relative weakness of revolutionary movements in the West, Krul says; “…in being more serious about supporting the so-called ‘really existing socialisms’ elsewhere in the world, the Moscow line parties and ‘Eurocommunists” were arguably still more useful than the current leading groups.” (Review, p. 6). This seems to mean that “serious” support for the socialist camp so-called was, and presumably still is, good politics. This is a common theme among certain Maoist tendencies that are looking to separate what was positive from what was negative in our history. While it’s hard to disagree with the disparagement of, “…the current leading groups”, assuming I properly understand the reference, none of this ‘really existing socialism’ was socialism in the only meaningful sense of that term, as a transition to communism. This was a ‘socialist camp’ that made communism appear undesirable and confirmed prejudices that it was not possible. Its failures and crimes bear more responsibility for the mass rejection of revolutionary communism as an objective, than any of the actions or the ideologies of capitalism. There’s nothing good here and – although there are important things to be learned, that has nothing to do with sifting through the wreckage for some trinkets that might still work.

This is the first time that I have seen the combination of an endorsement of the Comintern 3rd Period conception of “social fascism” with an endorsement of the post-Dimitrov WWII popular front. In my view they fit together and gain an essential similarity as successive massive errors. I think that Krul’s position, insofar as I understand it from this review, involves a mistaken conception of both social democracy and fascism. I think that a radically different conception of each of these is a vital core for an adequate revolutionary strategy, and a more complete understanding of the relevant history wouldn’t hurt either. This is already embarrassingly long-winded for what it set out to be, so I’ll leave it there for the moment, but I am intrigued by the issues and prepared to follow them out in more depth. However, not to repeat some of the problems with this piece, I’d first want to read some of the additional material that Krul indicates he has written.

Don 2/17

1 comment:

  1. Like Don, I haven’t read the book in question (although I hope to), but nonetheless I’m going to throw in some thoughts on the underlying issues raised by Cope, by Krul, and by Don. I think it’s undeniable that the concept of imperialism remains indispensable for understanding the world, the great division of global “north” and “south”, and it seems obvious that the “fruits of imperialism” must have a strong bearing on the social calm in the north relative to the often rebellious upheaval of the south over the last hundred years. Beyond this, though, details of mechanisms and results – and changes over the past 30 years and more – get complicated.

    In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, anti-imperialism seemed to many (myself included) to offer a strategic pathway to emancipation on a world scale, via wars of national liberation “surrounding the cities from the countryside,” peoples wars establishing new democratic states moving to socialism, linking with struggles of the most oppressed and sectors of the working class in the imperialist homelands. That was quite a while ago, and the intervening 40+ years have brought deep changes such that, it seems clear to me, none of this offers anything like a pathway or strategy for revolution or liberation in today’s world. (I don’t mean to imply that the above was an adequate strategy at the time, but simply that it had a plausibility then that it no longer does.)

    Some of these changes can be usefully framed by the two sorts of “relocations” which Don cites from Arrighi and Negri:

    - The relocation of the authority of nation-states both upward and downward

    - The relocation (or frequent finding) of the first world in the third and the third in the first

    There’s an interrelation in that both have to do, I believe, with the weakening of the system of territorial states, each state supposed to be the seat of armed force and legitimate authority, and (supposedly and in principle) organized according to the logic of “one nation, one state.” Without quibbling about the precise extent to which this was actually the case, it’s clear that it was this sort of set-up, its logic and its ideological force, which formed the backdrop to both imperialism in its 19th/20th century forms, and the struggle against it, in the form of struggles for national liberation. These two relocations have meant the tremendous complication of this configuration and set-up.

    It seems pretty clear that these points of analysis and change bear strongly on the crucial political question facing us – how do we see (or how can we see) the emancipatory possibilities in the contemporary world?

    I don’t know how to answer this question, but I want to raise the possibility that a concentration on questions of labor aristocracy is not a promising avenue toward answering it.

    In the first place, as Don implies, the position of the more privileged sectors of the working class of the metropolitan center is slipping and eroding, for reasons related to the larger shifts and changes of which the above “relocations” are part. (That this erosion is generally leading those affected in a rightist direction has been apparent; at the same time, as Don points out, their disaffection ‘does not bode well for the stability of metropolitan capitalism’.)

    Given all this and more (it’s not a simple situation and I’m conscious of the very incomplete nature of what I’ve said, even in extremely sketchy form) –- Is labor-aristocracy-privilege the most important aspect of the radically shifting configurations of power and authority in the world? I don’t mean to say or imply that imperialist privilege is not important in understanding and acting in the world, but that simply leaving things at that is too apt to lead to not granting importance to the sharp changes in both the modes of operation of imperialism and within both center and periphery, and the unanswered questions they pose for a real strategy.