Lair Of A Squirrel Red


Marxism, Mao and Politics by Rob
January 18, 2008, 4:59 pm
Filed under: China, Maoism, Marxism, Rob, Theory

Over at Splintered Sunrise an interesting conversation was developing on Badiou, one to which I tried to make a contribution. Anyway some of the points that were made got me thinking a bit, so here I just want to say a few things. Central to this discussion was the question of why the Cultural Revolution might form an important event for some people on the left; my explanation as to why it might follows below, and segues into some more general considerations on Marxism.

My general contention here is that the Cultural Revolution and Maoism more generally, appealed to the late 1960s and 1970s left for a series of interconnected reasons. My key argument is the inadequacy of a Marxist theory of politics, and of the ‘superstructure’ more broadly conceived. In the period after the World War One and the 50s and 60s the state of Marxism – and certainly of ‘official’ Marxism – was pretty moribund. Despite a supposed adherence to Lenin, what we tended to see was a certain mechanical Marxism. In this schematic conception of history, what drove social change was contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production. This conflict is ‘resolved’ by class struggle, which eventually replaces one mode of production with another.

So in this conception politics and political action is conceived of as being determined or as actualising economics. This type of Marxism doesn’t really have a theory of politics strictly conceived. But this approach brings numerous problems with it. The first problem for this conception is how to explain the relationship between economic and political action. How is it that class struggle can move (as Gramsci put it) from an economic-corporate phase, to a hegemonic phase? And this itself brings the problem from the other direction why is that the contradiction has not yet been actualised. This is of course the classic starting point for a lot of contemporary Marxist theorising – why in the advanced capitalist countries has the working class not taken power?

The answer to this question can’t be found purely in economistic considerations (e.g. the dull compulsion of economic relations) because to look at it this way basically forestalls social change forever (or until the next crisis). In response to this you get the (thankfully long dead) Trot line about a ‘crisis in leadership’. But even the crisis in leadership line is making a grasping attempt to go beyond certain economist lines and move to a more political explanation of the crisis. Basically, then, it seemed that the situations on the ground demanded an examination of the role of ‘superstructure’. But not just as a ‘reflection’ of the base, but in its capacity as decisive. Because the entire issue necessarily must move outside of the economy and onto political and cultural grounds.

And it is here that the Mao becomes central. Mao’s heterodox Marxism represented a fairly innovative intervention into this impasse. This can particularly be seen in Mao’s On Contradiction. Basically, Mao argues that any social totality is a complex of interacting contradictions, all of which contribute towards development and change. However, in every social totality there is a principal contradiction, which serves to give a specific character to all of the other contradictions:

There are many contradictions in the process of development of a complex thing, and one of them is necessarily the principal contradiction whose existence and development determine or influence the existence and development of the other contradictions. For instance, in capitalist society the two forces in contradiction, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, form the principal contradiction. The other contradictions, such as those between the remnant feudal class and the bourgeoisie, between the peasant petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie, between the proletariat and the peasant petty bourgeoisie, between the non-monopoly capitalists and the monopoly capitalists, between bourgeois democracy and bourgeois fascism, among the capitalist countries and between imperialism and the colonies, are all determined or influenced by this principal contradiction.

Such a position is a very interesting one, and we can find echoes of the argument in Althusser’s notion of a totality structured in dominance (and of course we would since Mao is an acknowledged influence on Althusser) and even in Lukács earlier discussion of the role of totality in Marxist thought. The point here is that one can immediately recognise Mao had constructed a theoretical edifice which might be able to bridge the impasse described above. Here we can see a way to articulate the primacy of the contradiction between the forces and relation of production; without having to rely on that for change. The point here is that as a principal contradiction it could shape political ‘contradictions’, even these contradictions became vital.

However, Mao goes further than this. He also argues that every contradiction has a principal and subordinate aspect. It is the principal aspect which will (eventually) supersede that subordinate aspect and so bring change. But further to this Mao argued that in a given struggle around a contradiction, things would develop to the point where what was the principal aspect could become the subordinate aspect and vice versa:

We often speak of “the new superseding the old”. The supersession of the old by the new is a general, eternal and inviolable law of the universe. The transformation of one thing into another, through leaps of different forms in accordance with its essence and external conditions — this is the process of the new superseding the old. In each thing there is contradiction between its new and its old aspects, and this gives rise to a series of struggles with many twists and turns. As a result of these struggles, the new aspect changes from being minor to being major and rises to predominance, while the old aspect changes from being major to being minor and gradually dies out. And the moment the new aspect gains dominance over the old, the old thing changes qualitatively into a new thing. It can thus be seen that the nature of a thing is mainly determined by the principal aspect of the contradiction, the aspect which has gained predominance. When the principal aspect which has gained predominance changes, the nature of a thing changes accordingly.

So the vision Mao here articulates is one which – in contrast to ‘official Marxism’ is a dynamic one; emphasising struggle. But the coup de grace, and what I would argue made Maoism so attractive to (particularly) the French left is the following passage:

Some people think that this is not true of certain contradictions. For instance, in the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production, the productive forces are the principal aspect … in the contradiction between the economic base and the superstructure, the economic base is the principal aspect; and there is no change in their respective positions. This is the mechanical materialist conception, not the dialectical materialist conception. True, the productive forces, practice and the economic base generally play the principal and decisive role; whoever denies this is not a materialist. But it must also be admitted that in certain conditions, such aspects as the relations of production, theory and the superstructure in turn manifest themselves in the principal and decisive role. When it is impossible for the productive forces to develop without a change in the relations of production, then the change in the relations of production plays the principal and decisive role. The creation and advocacy of revolutionary theory plays the principal and decisive role in those times of which Lenin said, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” When a task, no matter which, has to be performed, but there is as yet no guiding line, method, plan or policy, the principal and decisive thing is to decide on a guiding line, method, plan or policy. When the superstructure (politics, culture, etc.) obstructs the development of the economic base, political and cultural changes become principal and decisive. Are we going against materialism when we say this? No. The reason is that while we recognize that in the general development of history the material determines the mental and social being determines social consciousness, we also — and indeed must — recognize the reaction of mental on material things, of social consciousness on social being and of the superstructure on the economic base. This does not go against materialism; on the contrary, it avoids mechanical materialism and firmly upholds dialectical materialism.

Obviously, this is long, but I think it basically helps to illustrate the attraction Maoism held for certain people. The whole point is Mao has seriously broken with ‘official’ Marxism, and has attempted to theorise the political. Although Mao presents this as somewhat limited, the implications of this passage (particularly from where we sit) are fairly wide-ranging. Key to my argument is the notion that:

When the superstructure (politics, culture, etc.) obstructs the development of the economic base, political and cultural changes become principal and decisive.

But the whole point – at least so far as Marxists were concerned with in the West – is that it is always the ‘superstructure’ which obstructs the development of the base. Because if we are talking about the standard economic conditions which make things ripe for revolution (in the schematic sense) – well they’ve been here for God only knows how long. So what is the allure of Mao for him politics and culture become central. It thus seems that – quite accidentally – Mao addressed the central concerns of the left in Western Europe, since he attempts to theorise the primacy of the political/cultural whilst remaining a materialist. No matter what people think of Mao (and obviously opinions are not high), this particular theoretical position seems interesting.

Now, with this in mind, we can make a few other considerations. Firstly, it might be argued that this position – which stresses the importance of conscious, political action is a ‘Leninist’ one. Well, yes, I’d agree with that entirely, and it’s certainly something that Lenin articulated rather well. But the point is that Leninism – especially in the time period in question – was associated with the ‘Marxism’ of the USSR, which – to all intents and purposes – had reverted back to the Marxism of the second international. Secondly, insofar as Leninism was taken up by the Trotskyist movement it was (1) not always that great and (2) not likely to be taken up by people inside of the official communist movement. That is why Maoism managed to sink its roots into France, I feel. The milieu from which these people came from was one in which official communism (in the form of the PCF) was all powerful – both politically and philosophically – for a time, Maoism seemed to represent an critique of official communism from within the official communist movement.

Another point to bear in mind is that very similar philosophical positions are put forward (in whatever way) by the early Lukács and Gramsci. It’s no coincidence that interest in these two only began to grow around this period – they address precisely the same issues which I’ve outlined above. But Lukács had the great misfortune of being alive at the time; reconciled with the official communist movement and he had of course basically renounced much of History and Class Consciousness. Gramsci, had not yet been translated (I don’t think), and again, he had the misfortune to be placed at the service of the PCI, which even before its explicit Eurocommunism had started moving in such a direction.

So, my point about Mao is that he seemed to address some of the central problems of the time, in an innovative way. This was only reinforced by the fact that the events of the time seemed to suggest political action needed to be theorised. Because not only did the inaction of the working class need to be theorised – but also the action that had sprung up in the late 60s. So in particular, it proved quite difficult for ‘official’ Marxism to theorise les evenements of May ’68, and its response to what was a pretty huge moment was risible to say the least. This is also where the importance of the Cultural Revolution comes in. The Cultural Revolution appeared to be an actualisation of the theoretical positions outlined above. Here politics and culture were assuming the decisive role in transforming China. The emphasis on mass mobilisation obviously chimed with what was happening in ‘the West’ in a way that the experience of the Soviet Union could not.

It also strikes me that there are some other interesting threads that could be picked up (although I will decline to do so for now). Firstly, this concentration on the political (whilst maintaining that these struggles were ‘coloured’ by the principal contradiction) helped provide a way to explain struggle amongst groups not traditionally mobilised by the left (e.g. people who weren’t the manual working class). Secondly, Mao of necessity assumed a crucial role in the attempt to articulate a Marxist understanding of anti-colonialism and development. The inter-twining of the language of Marxism and decolonisation led to some very odd attempts to theorise these issues. Furthermore, most Marxists seemed (and pretty much still do) to accidentally condone mass death in the Third World – which is never a good way to make friends and influence people.

I rather look forward to seeing Splintered post on diamat.

Cross posted to my other abode (which I am determined will regain its readership!)

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The State of Official Marxism in China Today – David Kotz by korakious
December 13, 2007, 12:03 pm
Filed under: China, Communism, law, Marxism, Neoliberalism, Theory

The following is from the archives of Monthly Review. David Kotz, author of “Revolution From Above: The Demise of the Soviet System”, one of the best works on the fall of our Soviet motherland, gives a report on the various views aired at a conference on property rights held in China. The similarity of the terms of the debate to those in the late USSR is striking

During November 13–14, 2006, I participated in an “International Conference on Ownership & Property Rights: Theory & Practice,” in Beijing. This was not just an academic conference, it was related to a sharp debate taking place in China at that time over a proposed new law on property rights.1 Although none of the presentations at the conference made any direct reference to the proposed new law, everyone knew that it was the subtext of the conference debate.

The positions put forth by the participants in this conference provide an interesting window into the ideological struggle over the direction of social change in China. They illustrate the ways in which Marxist language and Marxist propositions, intermixed with ideas drawn from mainstream Western neoclassical economic theory, are used today in China to support the completion of China’s shift to private property and a market economy. Below I will reproduce some of the statements and positions voiced (and written) at this conference. But first some background information will help to place the statements in their historical context.

The supporters of the proposed property rights law were arguing that further economic progress in China required that private ownership of business enterprises and other assets must be made more secure. To achieve this end, a new law was needed specifying, and more importantly guaranteeing, the rights of owners of private property.

Critics resisted the proposed new law, charging that it represented a step toward abandoning the socialist system. They argued that guaranteeing private property rights, and elevating them to the same level as public property rights, would undermine the key role of state owned enterprises (SOEs) in a socialist system. To make matters worse, critics charged, the new law could potentially even safeguard the ownership claims of those who ended up in control of former SOEs that had been privatized through a corrupt insider deal.2 This would encourage further fraudulent privatizations of SOEs. Further, they argued, it would legitimize the exploitation of labor which occurs in private enterprises.

Such political debates are normally difficult to observe in China. This debate had been taking place in various locations in Chinese society, including academic institutions and various Communist Party and state institutions. The above conference provided a way for an outsider directly to observe, and even participate in, this debate.

The main sponsor of the conference was a little-known bureau of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) called the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau. The conference was cosponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation of Germany, which is attached to the Party of Democratic Socialism. The latter is descended from the Communist Party of the former German Democratic Republic.

While there were a few foreign participants, most were from China. The Chinese participants included professors from various Chinese universities, researchers from the Academy of Social Sciences, and some party and state officials. Among the latter there was one from the Development Research Center of the State Council, which provides policy advice to the prime minister, and one from the Central Party School. The foreign participants were quite diverse intellectually and politically, with most of them selected by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. I am known in China as a critic of neoliberalism in general, and privatization in particular, and I was invited to present a Marxist analysis of ownership and property rights in the United States that might be relevant to the property rights and privatization debate in China.

It has long been commonplace to read in the mainstream media that political debates in China are typically conducted, not just behind the scenes, but in a kind of Aesopian language. In this conference Marxism was the official language of discussion, at least for the Chinese participants. Despite the enormous transformation of China’s economic and social system since the beginning of what is called the “market reform and opening” in 1978, a kind of “official Marxism” remains the formal state ideology and the language for discussion of economic issues. Thus, most of the Chinese speakers at this conference, whichever side of the debate they were on, couched their views in Marxist language and often used traditional Marxist propositions to buttress their claims. However, Western neoclassical economic thought has become dominant in the leading economics departments at universities in China, and in many cases it was neoclassical ideas that underlay the comments of the speakers, whatever the language used to express them.

A final relevant piece of background information concerns the class structure of China today and its relation to the CCP. Originally membership in the CCP was open to workers, peasants, and intellectuals. The rapid development of private business starting in the early 1990s created a class of indigenous capitalists who, while wealthy and increasingly influential, were at least officially barred from membership in the ruling CCP. Then a few years ago, after a sharp political struggle, the CCP membership rules were changed to open membership to “entrepreneurs.” Reverberations of that political battle, as well as the one over property rights, could be heard in some of the conference presentations.

Readers can now appreciate the remarkable statements and positions put forward by various participants in this conference. In a few cases I provide a direct quotation, but most of the statements below paraphrase the main theses or points made by various Chinese speakers at the conference. Each statement below was made by at least one Chinese speaker, and some were repeated, with variations, by several speakers. In some cases I have added interpretive or clarifying comments in brackets. I begin with statements by participants who favor the current direction of social change in China—which represented the vast majority of speakers—and end with pronouncements by the few who either oppose China’s march to capitalism or are at least resisting the distortion of Marxism to justify that march.

Statements and Themes from the Conference

  • When an SOE is turned into a joint stock corporation with many shareholders, it represents socialization of ownership as Marx and Engels described it, since ownership goes from a single owner to a large number of owners [among others, this was stated by someone from the Central Party School].
  • If SOEs are turned into joint stock corporations and the employees are given some shares of the stock, then this would achieve “Marx’s objective of private ownership of property.”
  • In dealing with the SOEs, we must follow “international norms” and establish a “modern property rights system.” [As in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, the terms in quotes were euphemisms for capitalist norms and capitalist property rights.]
  • Enterprises can be efficient in our socialist market economy only if they are privately owned. [This statement, voiced by several people, comes directly from Western “neoclassical” economic theory.]
  • SOEs exploit their workers and are state capitalist institutions, and SOEs often have a very high rate of exploitation. [The point was that privatizing SOEs will not introduce exploitation or capitalist relations since both are already present in SOEs.]
  • The nature of ownership of the enterprises has no bearing on whether a country is capitalist or socialist. Enterprises should always be privately owned and operated for profit. What makes a country socialist is that the government taxes the surplus value and uses the proceeds to benefit the people through pensions and other social programs. [Along with justifying privatization, this implies that, as China’s economy becomes much like those of the United States and Western Europe, China is not abandoning socialism since, by this definition, all of the industrialized capitalist countries are actually socialist.]
  • The United States has companies with millions of shareholders, which is a far more socialized form of ownership than anything that exists in China.
  • “[After the Second World War] Capitalism not only gave up its fierce antagonism to labor, but even began combining with labor….Modern capitalism…is gradually creating a new type of capitalism that is more like socialism.”
  • The CCP followed the correct approach, in line with classical Marxism, during the period of New Democracy [i.e., the period directly following the 1949 liberation, when the party said it was completing the bourgeois democratic revolution but not yet trying to build socialism]. The change in policy after that period [when the party shifted its aim to building socialism] was an error, and instead the New Democracy policy should have been continued. [This was spookily similar to the widespread argument in Moscow in 1989–91 that the Soviet Communist Party should have stayed with the New Economic Policy of 1921–27, which called for a mixed economy with a significant role for private business and with market forces playing the main coordinating role.]
  • Besides current labor and past labor [the latter the Marxist term for the labor required to produce the means of production], there is a third type of labor, namely “risk labor.” Marxist theory should take account of this third type of labor, which is expended by those who take risks through entrepreneurship. [The obvious point was that “entrepreneurs,” i.e., capitalists, are a type of worker, and hence it is correct that they are allowed to join the Communist Party.]

As I listened to these themes—and as I raised questions about them in the question/discussion periods—I had a strong feeling of déjà vu. Many of them were the same themes I had heard (and had argued against) in Moscow in 1991, the last year of the Soviet Union, coming from Soviet academics and party and state officials.

Now for some comments by Chinese conference participants that swam against the private property and privatization tide:

  • A thorough study of the original German versions of Marx and Engels’s writings on communism shows that they clearly viewed communism as involving the abolition of private property. Those who have argued that this idea arose from a mistranslation of Marx and Engels’s works are mistaken. We should not distort Marxism to justify current policies. [Some “Marxists” in China have been arguing that Marx and Engels never actually wrote that communism would involve abolition of private property.]
  • Privatization is not the right solution to the problems of the SOEs. The right to use capital should belong to the workers and serve their interests.
  • “Informal privatization” [in which an SOE’s director illegally turns it into his private company] creates capitalist enterprises and should not be permitted.
  • While some SOEs may have low profit rates, profitability is not a good measure of an enterprise’s contribution to social and economic welfare.
  • The many Chinese economists who support the theories of Ronald Coase [a rightwing British property-rights theorist who is known for opposing any significant state regulation of private business] are mistaken. The Chinese followers of Coase claim that Marx had no theory of property rights and that Coase supplies the property rights theory that China needs. On the contrary, property rights are the legal manifestation of production relations, a relationship which Marx analyzes at some length. Contrary to Coase’s view, private property is not necessary for efficiency. Public ownership should be primary. [This older leftist academic economist cited at some length statements by the well-known U.S. left-of-center economist Joseph Stiglitz condemning the work of Coase. The reliance by a leftist Chinese economist on the pro-capitalist—yet somewhat heretical—U.S. economist Stiglitz to make a criticism of Coase reminded me of 1991 in Moscow, when the few leftist Soviet economists struggled to criticize free market theory by citing people such as John Kenneth Galbraith.]

Notes
1. The new “Property Rights Law of the People’s Republic of China” was passed by the National People’s Congress on March 16, 2007.
2. After such corrupt insider privatizations, the newly privatized enterprise is often then sold to a third party, who at least officially was not involved in the original privatization process. Opponents charged that one of the provisions of the proposed new law (article 106) would hold the final owner blameless and secure that person’s right of ownership, as long as the final owner could claim that she or he obtained the property with “benign intent.”



Historical Materialism Conference – Part 2 by korakious
November 12, 2007, 8:05 pm
Filed under: Historical Materialism Conference, Marxism, Palestine, Rob, Theory
Wow. Apparently my notes on the fisrt plenary session were pretty long. The notes for the next session ‘Islam and American Imperialism’ are a bit less so. Not becuase the talks weren’t interesting, but because I’d already sat through one long session and the lecture theatre was rather sophorific, owing to the temperature and layout.

The backdrop to the talks is the increasing resistance to American imperialism and the lack of a clear socialist alternative to it. This leads – on the part of the Socialist Register, who organised the plenary – to a crisis of agency. It therefore becomes necessary to analyse the new movements that have arisen so as to conceptualise the current conjuncture.

Gilbert Achar – Imperial Uses of Islam
Achar began his talk by examining the ‘clash of civilisations’ paradigm, one which he described as pervasive on both a conscious and unconscious level. This view basically suggests that Islam and the West are engaged in a clash of civilisation and there can be no middle ground between them. This view is common to both Western Islamophobes and Islamic fundamentalists – who tend to characterise Islam and ‘the West’ is implacably in conflcit with one and other, and view this conflict as defining our current age.

But Achar notes that this is not the view of Western governments. Western governments tend to differentiate (in their rhetoric) between ‘good’ Muslims and ‘bad’ Muslims, they don’t view things as a clash with Islam but a clash within Islam. Achar also argues that Huntington himself doesn’t hold with the way in which his theory has been interpreted. Achar argued that Huntington is in fact a ‘global multiculturalist’, insofar as he thinks it’s a good thing to have different ‘civlisations’ existing worldwide, he opposes mutliculturalism nationally because he wants to preserve Western culture in its heartlands. Furthermore, Huntington dismisses universalism as imperialism (in the perjorative sense) and argues that a project of imposing Western values will end in disaster. In other words Huntington appears as a traditional realist.

Achar argued that it is this realist Huntington that has informed US policy towards Islam. His first (and very good) example is the United States’ alliance with Saudi Arabia, a state which is in fact the US’ oldest ally in the Middle East. It has historically (and still does) served as the cornerstone in the US global stratey, particularly in combatting anti-imperialist nationalism. But of course Saudi Arabia is probably the most ‘fundamentalist’ state in the whole of the middle-east. In fact the US supported Saudi fundamentalism in Afghanistan. He further notes that plenty of fundamentalists were willing to colloborate with the US invasion of Iraq.

The point for Achar is that the US has used fundamentalism for its own ends and fundamentalism has often been (and is still) willing to colloborate with US imperialism when they had the chance. He then listed the examples of the Muslim Brotherhood and assorted other instances.

Achar’s basic point here was that at best we can call Islamic fundamentalism ‘anti-Western’ but it is only sporadically and inconsistently ‘anti-imperialist’. This of course has implications for how Marxists should approach Islamist resistance to US imperialism. At the very least when struggling with them it is necessary to view them with ‘distrust’ and attempt to spread our own ideas within their ranks.

One person’s attempt to critique Achar’s approach was based on the argument that notwithstanding our ‘subjective’ opposition to the domestic policies of the fundamentalists, they might nonetheless be ‘objectively’ anti-imperialist, since they are fighting imperialism. I wasn’t there was the response, but surely Achar’s argument is not about the political programme’s of Islamists, it’s about their record of supporting imperialists when they think it is to their advantage. Such a position of course means that while they may be ‘objectively anti-imperialist’ in a given instance the question is whether they will consistently hold this position. Achar’s analysis seems to suggest they won’t (and also that the imperialists won’t consistently target them either) so this has to be the position to proceed from.

Bashir Abu-Manneh
For my money Abu-Manneh’s speech was probably the most interesting of the lot, particulary because he engaged in some interesting theoretical anaylsis. Abu-Manneh’s speech was composed of three arguments:

  • The Palestinians have been in a state of seige since 1991
  • The Palestinian elite has collaborated with the Israeli state
  • The above two factors have led to the emergence of a specific form of resistance, one which has entrenched militarisation and depoliticisation

The first thesis is simple enough to understand. Israel has continuously interevened in the occupied territory, denying the right of freedom of movement throughout the West Bank and Gaza strip and within Israel itself. This process has culminated in the creation of the apartheid wall, which has formalised the process by physically closing off vast swathes of the West Bank. This – of couse – is all very uncontroversial stuff. But Abu-Manneh further argued that this has destroyed any meaningful sense of spontaneity amongst the Palestinians. It has tended to eliminate any proper sense of the Palestinians as a collecitive entity who are capable of collective action. Palestinians have been alienated into individuals, families etc.

The second thesis is another one which I think is uncontroversial. It seem incontrovertable by now that the Palestinian Authority has collaborated with and legitimated the occupation – corrupting and nearly destroying the Palestinian’s national aspirations. Abu-Manneh related an anecdote whereby the PA would always be there to stop attacks on settlers but would be mysteriously absent when there was an Israeli attack in the occupied territory. In line with this Abu-Manneh argued that the PA has consciously undermined any attempts to organise outside of the PA. To top it all off, when the PA did stop collaborating it was attacked by the Israeli authorities.

The combination of the two above factors leads to Abu-Manneh’s third argument. The point of these factors is that they have pushed Palestinian strategy towards militarisation. Firstly, this is because any meaningful political resistance seems impossible. The Palestinian’s traditional representation – Fatah – has been collaborating since Oslo. Furthermore, it is difficult – if not impossible – to develop political positions and mobilisation when freedom of movement is physically restricted. Furthermore, political action seems so difficult precisely because the Palestinians have lost their faith in their own capability for collective action. This depoliticisation means that solutions based on mass action seem impossible, which naturally seems to lend support to the idea that small acts of military resistance are necessary.

But it is not just the content (military acts) that are shaped by these social conditions, it is also the form. This is because the small military action per se is – in some respects – a collective political act. This would certainly seem to be the case when one considers the links between militants and political parties. The ultimate culmination of the tendency towards atomisation is the emergence of the suicide bomber as a ‘weapon’ in the struggle against of Israel. This of course makes a lot of sense, because the suicide bomber is the precisely opposite of a collective political struggle. Thus, the tendency towards atomisation and depoliticisation, combined with the concomitant process of militarisation tends to produce the ultimate individualist military act – the suicide bomber. Although, as Abu-Manneh points out, we shouldn’t exaggerate the degree to which suicide bombing has become the norm, and ultimately as a tactic it has proved counter-productive, since it tended to fit the Palestianian struggle into the discourse of terror.

What I really like about this analysis is the way in which it traces the particular configuration of Palestinian resistance back to the social conditions in which it operates. This is a much better position to take than just ‘condemning’ particular forms of resistance without understanding why they gain popularity or the opposite but related one of just saying ‘it’s understandable because they endure so much’. It’s therefore good to see someone take a materialist position on this issue. What’s also interesting is the degree to which Abu-Manneh’s position dovetails with Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness. This is because capitalism itself has a natural tendency towards depoliticisation (reification), alienation and fragmentation, of course these tendencies are often counteracted.

I think invoking Lukacs is useful for another reason. Abu-Manneh’s preferred solution to the problem is to replace this strategy of individualised militarisation with one of collective self-mobilisation. Well, this is fine in practice, but the whole point is that the situation Abu-Manneh outlined has already shown precisely why this collective self-moblisation is going to happen, and certainly not spontaneously. This is where Lukacs is especially relevant. Because Lukacs core insight is that the proletariat can’t just spontaneously organise against capitalism. What is needed is something that can take the viewpoint of the proletariat but do so in a way that transcends the reifying tendencies of capitalism. That is to say a vanguard party. In the Gramscian analysis this Party is composed of the organic intellectuals who arise from the class in the midst of struggle. And this is what Abu-Manneh’s analysis really seems to lack – the need for a conscious organising element of the Palestinian people able to mobilise them against the Israelis. But of course the other problem is that the people who you would expect to be able to fulfil this role in Palestinian society are – as Abu-Manneh argued – completely compromised. This – perhaps – is why he didn’t delve into this question, as it is one to which there doesn’t seem to be much of an answer.

Unfortunately I missed the last talk because I needed to get home, so I can’t comment on that. More stuff will follow over the rest of the week. This will reveal how horribly theory-obsessed I am, however, and no doubt I will be much looked down-upon for it.



Historical Materialism Conference 2007 by korakious
November 12, 2007, 12:13 am
Filed under: Historical Materialism Conference, Imperialism, Marxism, Neoliberalism, Rob, Theory
As you probably already know, this weekend was the annual Historical Materialism Conference, which I had the good fortune to attend. Unfortunately I missed Friday’s sessions (prior commitments) which meant I didn’t get to see Zizek (damn, damn, damn, damn) but the rest of the Conference was pretty damn good. The first thing to say is that despite the current poisonous climate on the left (and particularly as between the SWP and everyone else) the atmosphere at the Conference was really good (bearing in mind there was a mix of people from different traditions there), everything felt very comradely (although of course the interventions were occasionally slightly cutting) and everyone seemed to get along well enough. So, as is usual in the old blogosphere I thought I’d give a [not so brief] summation of those sessions which I did attend.

Saturday

I rolled in a bit late on Saturday, so I missed the first session of the day. Not that I would really have listened to it much. The next session I attended was on ‘Marxism, Pashukanis and the Law’. In this session I actually ‘presented a paper’ on Pashukanis, Legal Nihilism and Legal Strategy, which I will probably put up here at some time (once I’ve cleaned it up a bit – the notes were really only intended for my consumption only). There weren’t too many people here (although there were a few), which was kind of predictable, as law is not a particularly glamorous topic for Marxist analysis. There were two other contributors aside from me – Andreas Harms presented a paper on ‘Commodity Form and Legal Form’ and Bill Bowring presented a paper on ‘International Law, Lenin and Self-Determination’. Both of the papers were of high quality and we got some good discussion in as well. It feels kind of weird summarising this session, so I’ll leave it for the atendees to do so (hopefully some of them blog).

There weren’t any more ‘sessions’ for the day, as it extended into a ‘meet the editors’ session and a lunchbreak, I did have some pretty interesting conversation during this period, so it was all to the good.

The next ‘session’ was a plenary one, featuring some rather big hitters, the talk was on ‘Neo-liberalism and Neo-imperialism’ and the speakers were Alex Callinicos, Robert Brenner and David McNally.

Robert Brenner
The central thrust of Brenner’s argument was the relationship between the war in Iraq and the US’ geopolitical strategy. Brenner argued that the Iraq war was a puzzling phenomenon which represented a real rupture with previous US strategy in content if not form. Brenner argued that during the 2000 election no one would have predicted that the Iraq war would come around in the time that it did. The Republicans seemed to have a fairly low-key foreign policy, certainly not the type of messianism that seemed to characterise them post-9/11. Furthermore, it was argued that the US had fulfilled its three key strategic aims (which it had held since World War 2); these aims were

  1. To freeze and weaken ‘communism’, third world statist nationalism and statism more generally so as to allow the free movement of [US] capital throughout the globe.
  2. Consolidate US hegemony in Japan and Europe – depriving them of their ability to disrupt the framework of international capitalism; key to this aim was depriving them of their military power and compensate them for this by providing them with security.
  3. As a consequence of the above two aims the US intended to implement a neo-liberal agenda throughout the world, with all the consequences thereof

Brenner argued that the US was willing to do this since US capital was so powerful that it didn’t require the formal protection of the US state. So on this reading the US had – according to Brenner – recognised the essential validity of the Leninist critique of imperialism – namely that monopoly-capital imperialist states vying for domination of the world’s resources inevitably culminated in war, which was not conducive to the continued position of the US and global capitalism. To combat this the US entered into a ‘radical Kautskyite’ project of restructuring the global situation as above – the only question was whether the US was disciplined enough to continue enforcing the consensus.

All of this was encapsulated in the term ‘New World Order’ as used by Bush et al. This meant that there was a new approach to the international use of force:

  • Don’t use force unless you can use massive amounts of force
  • Other conflicts should just be ‘policing’ or assymetrical conflict
  • Avoid committing ground troops if you can – use cruise missiles, bombs etc.

All of ths as summarised in a phrase by Madeline Allbright that ‘military force’ but not war should be used (which got a big laugh from the audience, but really the distinction isn’t as ridicoulous as it first, certainly international law tends to distinguish between the use of military force and an armed attack or war). This was basically a neo-liberal form of imperialism and one in which generally states toed the line (the thrid world accepted the neo-liberal consensus the [not yet] axis of evil was going to the table, etc.).

So US policy in Iraq has to be understood in relation to this. It is therefore necessary to view US policy towards Iraq in this context. What the context what seem to suggest is that no US adminstration would really want regime change in Iraq, as this would be internationally counterproductive – it would be costly, destabilising and could whip up Arab resistance across the Middle East. Futhermore, the Shia could not be trusted to serve as a counterweight to Iran. This is why Saddam was not overthrown following the first Gulf War and a policy of ‘containment’ was pursued in relation to Iraq.

Against this backdrop the recent war in Iraq does seem to be a break (and to a lesser extent so does Afghanistan). Brenner’s next task is to explain how this could happen. Brenner traces the strategic rupture to the ascendence of the neo-conservative movement within the American state apparatus and their huge influence within the State Department. It was only with 9/11 that they were able to gain control over foreign policy.

Brenner then gave an internal examination of this movement. According to Brenner the key theoretical position for the neo-conservatives is the ‘fungibility of force’. By this they mean that American military domination can be used to do anything, and the neo-conservatives were interested in ‘harvesting the fruits of military dominance’.

It is then necessary to understand how the neo-conservatives gained this power. Brenner roots the neo-conservative movement in the Republican far-right, who had taken over Congress in 1994. They had always had trouble gaining power and were only able to do so by pushing the foreign policy aspect. Once they had gained power they acted as a ‘Shadow Cabinet’ that pushed Clinton into all sort of things (like passing the Iraq Liberation Act) but they could only achieve limited success and certainly couldn’t impose their domestic agenda. But 9/11 changed all of this and gave the neo-conservatives the pre-text they needed to actualise both their domestic and international agenda.

Brenner’s analysis was pretty damn interesting (he’s also a very good speaker). I quite liked his focus on concrete, ‘micro’ US politics and the way in which they interact with the global sphere, a Gramsci quote seems particularly relevant here:

Do international relations precede or follow (logically) fundamental social relations? There can be no doubt that they follow. Any organic innovation in the social structure, through its technical-military expressions, modifies organically absolute and relative relations in the international field too. Even the geographical position of a national State does not precede but follows (logically) structural changes, although it also reacts back upon them to a certain extent (to the extent precisely to which superstructures react back upon the structure, politics on economics, etc.). However, international relations react both passively and actively on political relations (of hegemony among the parties). The more the immediate economic life of a nation is subordinated to international relations, the more a particular party will come to represent this situation and to exploit it, with the aim of preventing rival parties gaining the upper hand (recall Nitti’s famous speech on the technical impossibility of revolution in Italy).
Gramsci, The Modern Prince

So I actually thought that Brenner’s analysis was a niecly dialectical one, similar in the way that Gramsci presented it. I also see nothing a priori wrong with the ascription of such a decisive role to a ‘subjective’ factors. Especially as these subjective factors are in a dialectical relationship with the objective situation (Lukacs comes immediately to mind on this point). This isn’t to say that I think Brenner is entirely right, but I don’t think we dismiss his analysis out of hand.

Alex Callinicos
Callinicos delivered another pretty awesome speech (you will hear this a lot, because I thought the quality of this session was absolutely stellar, even if the sweltering heat of the lecture theatre left much to be desired!). Alex presented his argument as one diametrically opposed to Brenner’s. He argued that Brenner had only given us description, but no analysis – we can’t just see Iraq as a random event we need a larger perpective and so must look at the historical connection between liberalism and imperialism.

Callinicos noted that the US has always eschewed formal imperialism – and continuously legitimated itself with reference to this. He looks back to the ‘imperialism of the open door’ – in which the role of military power was only to enforce the conditions of a liberal world economy, this of course should not – as a rule – involve the use of ground troops. The predecessor of this type of imperialism was the ‘imperialism of free trade’ practiced by the British Empire in the 19th century and Britain relied heavily on informal empire in Canada and China. The US has a consistent, radical version of this.

Following World War 2 the US dominated the advanced capitalist world and built up a series of institutions, but this liberalism was only ever transnational. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the US was able to convert this transnationalism into global liberalism. This means that for Callinicos there was no fundamental break in the project – and it was one vigorously pursued by the Clinton administration. For Callinicos therefore, Clinton was the true pioneer of the fungibility of military power.

But of course hegemony is always about force and consent, and they are always combined in different ways. The manner in which these methods are combined is what differentiates the neo-cons from Clinton. Thus, for Callinicos this is a matter of quantity not quality there is no rupture. Callinicos further argues that the Bush administration was radicalised post-9/11 and that in this context the neo-cons cannot be considered ‘mad’. He argues that in the face of the increasing threat of China’s economic power a rational argument could certainly be made out for the US using its only comparative advantage in this conjuncture that of military force. Iraq was therefore important because rising captialist powers were dependent on its oil and the US needed to assert this.

The question Callinicos thinks we need to ask is ‘what are the interests of US imperialism’? When we do this we understand that the US ruling class is complex and the best strategy is always a contested question – we have to look at te question of the imposition of ideology on a world scale, and the geo-political is central to this.

All well and good – but I think Brenner responded pretty well by saying ‘we don’t really disagree on much’. I think this is probably the case – all they really disagree is whether there is a qualitative or quantitiative difference between Clinton and Bush (which sounds big but – meh – scales). Brenner just helps us to understand why it is that one side won the argument. But I’d actually go further than this. Callinicos seems to argue two contradictory things. On the one hand he argues that there is no rupture between Clinton and Bush, but on the other hand he seems to argue that China posed a qualitatively new threat to the US. Because of course post-WW2 there has been no capitalist power that posed a threat to the US in the way China has (although I guess the state-cap people would argue the USSR was a rival capitalist power, so maybe change the reference to post-1989?), since every other ‘threat’ was pretty damn friendly to the US, and were happy to allow the US maintain Pax Americana. So, on this reading, Alex seems to be arguing that the emergence of China has disrupted the ‘radical-Kautskyism’ of the US, since it doesn’t accept the US’ managerial role. But surely this would indicate a rupture, in line with Brenner.

David McNally
Although I really liked the first two talks David McNally’s was far and away my favourite (I think much of the audience agreed with this too). In contradistinction to the first two McNally’s position was to start from a general theoretical analysis and proceed from there. So for McNally the central point of depature was that of Marxist value theory. We need to begin from this perspective – so McNally argues – because we live in a world of alienated social relations and theory must de-fetishise them.

McNally’s talk revolved around 5 arguments:

  • Neo-liberalism involves radically extending and intensifying the commodity form
  • This is achieved through ‘monetarising’ more and more aspects of human life
  • This involves the extension of primitive accumulation
  • This occurs on a variety of levels and entails imperialism
  • World money becomes decisive

So McNally’s basic argument is that the phenomenon we call ‘neo-liberalism’ must be understood as the extension of the commodity form – not a conscious project of the capitalist class but a result of the value form itself. It is fundamentally connected to new forms of discipline, and is primarily exercised through the discipline of money – the IMF, the World Bank etc. This leads to a reversal of the partial decommodification of labour.

Dispossession is also fundamental to this (hence the importance of primitive accumulation) because land has to be converted into capital. But since this land is occupied by other people, they have to be turfed off. For this reason there is a nexus of land, violence and dispossession – which gives rise to new enclosures and modalities of class struggle arise against this. Furthermore, ecological disaster is incorporated into this, so disasters which displace people are taken advantage off (Hurricane Mitch was used to get rid of the Honduran indigenous population).

McNally further linked this process to militarisation – war is of course central in ‘clearing out’ areas of land, be that through death or fleeing. All of this has also led to a great rise in the industrial reserve army, which has grown massively as people have been forced out of their land in the process of dispossession.

McNally went on to criticise the approaches of David Harvey and Rosa Luxemborg, who he thinks failed to properly elaborate the ‘laws’ of this economic process – meaning they cannot properly theorise it. Instead they often remain at the level of (very powerful) description. [He also made a really interesting point about dialectics and subjects positing their own presuppositions – but I’ll ignore that]. Further, his problem with Rosa’s approach is that she assumes this form of imperialism requires permanent occupation, which is clearly not the case, as the discipline of money suffices to compel national elites to implement dispossesion.

McNally then went on to focus heavily on what he called ‘world money’. By this he means the currency which serves as the ‘global’ medium for exchange. He argues that there has beeen an intensification of unequal currecny exchange, with the global South losing out on this. But the concept has been under theorised, and it is important, because the state that issues ‘world money’ will get the surplus on exchange, and so can appropriate value. This means that different nation states struggle over who is to issue world money.

McNally argues that this can be illustrated by the Euro project in the European Union, where the states of the European Union have tried to create a currency with all the characteristics of world money. McNally describes this as a form of inter-imperialist rivalry and denies that such rivalry need be militarised.

McNally ended with the argument that we need to emphasise anti-neo-liberalism and anti-imperialism highlight the need for a de-commodification of labour – that is to say the socialist revolution (which earnt him a rousing cheer).

What I really liked about McNally’s talk was the way that he was able to articulate linkages between his theoretical paradigm and our practical trajectory. His analysis does explain rather well a lot of contemporary phenomena in a basic theoretical way, and I think this is to be welcomed.

Ultimately, I think all of these talks worked well, and frankly if we could have combined them all into one big talk it would have been awesome. So David sets the economic-theoretical scene for us, Alex embedded it in a broader historical context and Bob examined the specific way in which ruling classes responded to the broader need for the expansion of value. Each therefore had the merit of contributing to a totalising perspective, and with a little work we could trace the analysis of value directly into Alex’s and Bob’s talk. Of course this is the inherent weakness of the short talk format, but nonetheless I was impressed by this session.

OK, I’ve clearly gone on long enough, so I’ll stop now, and do something else. Tomorrow (maybe?) I want to at least outline the talk on ‘Global Flashpoints’ that was also on Saturday, particualrly as I felt it offered a really interesting perspective on the Palestinian resistance.