Hegemonic uncertainties and Hobsbawm’s Unmarxism
One striking thing about the current crisis is the inability even of seasoned economists to surely predict what’s going to happen next. Waking up last Saturday to News Briefing on Radio 4, I was struck by the tone of the commentary. The G20 protests and summit had been ongoing the previous two days and yet no one was willing to say if the agreements of the summit would actually ‘fix’ the global economy. Such a contrast to the constant repetitions of the idea that ‘socialism is dead’!
When I hear this, I always feel moved to ask, “How do you know?” When the finest proponents of capitalism are showing doubt and disagreement as to how we emerge from this simple crisis of capitalism, how is it that so many untutored minds can readily dismiss the idea of socialism? The issue is very much in doubt, I would contend. Moreover, as Goran Therborn drives home to me, state-planning is far from absent from the world economy and national states themselves have far from receded from view, even relative to the income of multi-national enterprises.
Even such limited objectives as the rebuilding and restructuring of welfare initiatives are not, therefore, excluded.
Our side are just as bad, of course. Eric Hobsbawm writes this morning for the Guardian under the title, “Socialism has failed. Now capitalism is bankrupt…” Hyperbole aside, one would have thought that Hobsbawm, considered one of the world’s greatest historians (not by me!), could have come up with something better – though the politically illiterate follow close behind him. The article itself, while better constructed in certain ways than his Age of Extremes, continues to prove that Hobsbawm has long since ceased to be anything resembling a Marxist.
His eminence declares that, “We don’t yet know how grave and lasting the consequences of the present world crisis will be, but they certainly mark the end of the sort of free-market capitalism that captured the world and its governments in the years since Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan.” A lot of people on the Left have been talking like this, as though somehow, magically, a new consensus will emerge to challenge the old, one that will bring about the end of free-market capitalism in its current form, or as though economic stimulus packages are a return to the heyday of welfarism.
This failure to pay due regard to the processes of capitalism, rather than capitalism ‘the idea’, is unmarxist. There is certainly a clear economic impetus towards change, but what sort of change? Will it be a change forced by a reorganised, re-energised labour movement, or will it be the change determined by world leaders, increasing rather than decreasing the tempo of the free-market capitalist project? I submit that, for now at least, it is going to be the second option and that Hobsbawm is therefore wrong in every particular.
Capitalism, the series of complementary processes, is subject to its own internal dynamics and is subject to human action. That human action takes place within the co-ordinates of an inescapable class struggle. The participants might not choose to recognize it, or may choose to deploy fancy Weberian or Foucauldian terminology to obscure the key fissure, but nevertheless, it will be human action in the form of class struggle (or, by virtue of renewed hegemony, class consensus) which determines the direction of capitalism.
Nor, whatever happens, is the process irreversible. It does not take an expert in Kondratiev wave theory to suggest that periodic ‘collapses’ of capitalism are both necessary and healthy from the point of view of the capitalist economic system as a whole (rather than from the point of view of any single participant). Nor does it take an expert historian of the labour movement to see that we encourage far too much psychological investment in booms and collapses, a factor in post-Depression complacency and post-Soviet despondency.
Hobsbawm completes his article with a passionate exposition of the need for a ‘progressive’ agenda, outlining why affluence can never be an end in itself, when regarded from the perspective of the working class (though Hobsbawm would not be so vulgar, any longer, to invest that term with its proper significance!). I agree completely with his battle-standard raising on education, living conditions, decent jobs and the need for collective action, but I cannot condone the absence of some practical suggestions.
It is irony itself, that a man so dismissive of nationalism should be reduced to appealing to an undifferentiated ‘people’, mystifying that concept in exactly the same way that nationalists mystify the concept of ‘the nation’. Of course, we can expect nothing less from a merchant who peddled theories of the strange death of the working class; denuded of his marxism, Hobsbawm cannot see whereabouts human action can be most decisively aimed to stymie the ruling class agenda, at the present time.
I can’t claim to know either, but I can make a few suggestions. Having faced the stark reality of more than a decade of globalisation, it should be well within the understanding of even the most basic worker that the instruments of socialist representation and organisation can no longer be constrained by national boundaries. When French truckers go on strike, British ports must refuse to handle French imports. When German car manufacturers go on strike, their lower paid brethren in Poland must follow suit.
Only by building networks towards this goal will we begin to reassert the social weight of the labour movement. It’s also easy to start small; Ireland and the north of France are pretty close by. French railway workers, especially in the heavy industrial branch, go on strike not irregularly – and our own RMT are currently involved both in actual strikes and in further ballots. It is time to work together, seeing past the white cliffs of Dover and beyond the straits of Holyhead.
We get so many speakers from Venezuela and other more exotic locations, and yet solidarity action at such a distance has a very limited record. Meanwhile, the speakers who come over from France or Germany, whilst given equal billing and accorded every hearing, are preaching to merely choirs of true-believer Trotskyist sects, because that’s the only type to turn up at public meetings organised by the (former) Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire and their British comrades, instead of liaising with the unions to actually pull together a real meeting.
With, like, dissenters and everything. This is the beginning of the path we need to tread. The G20 protests were a success, in that they categorically and once again exposed the police as little more than the armed barbarians of the State. Whether individually they’d prefer to spend time with their family or over a cold beer, while behind those masks they are the prison guards of a free people. It’s time, for once, to actually capitalise upon success, while the social issues of capitalism are still hot-button topics.
The alternative is that, like the anti-war movement, the fact of the march itself is seen as a success to be emulated and repeated constantly, until finally bereft of all but the most hardcore and the least in need of convincing by pamphlet or argument.