The Future and How to Get There: A Leftist Critique of the Modern Left
By Ashley Frawley –
In the late 1990s, political scientist Alan Wolfe remarked that ‘the right won the economic war, the left won the cultural war, and the center won the political war.’ Today this conclusion no longer seems as self-evident as it did even a decade ago. No one needs to be reminded that Trump and Brexit signified, triumphantly or horrifyingly depending on what side you were on, that the tenuous consensus of the last decade of the twentieth century has finally given way. And yet, there is nothing to replace it. Everywhere we hear about the devastating effects of this or that policy on the working class, that fascism is on the rise again, and yet in spite of the gaping hole in politics desperate to be filled, the left seems to have doubled down on the culture war. How has this happened?
Conspiracy theorists have made much of the role of the Frankfurt School of German neo-Marxists and their supposed role in a plot to bring down Western civilization. And yet there is something about the legacy symbolised by the Frankfurt School’s suppression of economics in favour of cultural criticism worth considering. That is, the abandonment of the economic critique of capitalism that once existed as the foundation on which was built a vision of a future radically different—and radically better—than the present speaks volumes about our present predicament.
A Totalising Critique
Typified by the cultural emphasis of the Frankfurt school, successive generations of leftists, some operating under the Marxist label, but the majority rejecting it, have turned their back on the one component of Marxist theory most central to its explanatory and revolutionary power – its account of the capitalist economy—a system in which the things we need to survive are produced not for need or even consumption, but for exchange.
Marx’s account of this system and the contradictions it entails begins not from human nature, nor emotions such as greed, nor mistakes in public policy, but from the proper functioning of the system itself, whose very proper functioning leads it to undermine the basis of its own existence. Not inevitably of course, but through destructiveness that successively makes more and more obvious its transient character.
That is, where other writers of his time tended to naturalise or harmonise the current state of affairs as the outgrowths of human nature or biology, Marx posited historically specific and systemic causes. When these contradictions came to head, most visibly in times of economic crises, they gave human beings a glimpse of capitalism’s ultimate impermanence. Take for instance the way that Marx understood the observation, dating back at least to the time of Adam Smith, of a tendency for rates of profit – the driving force of capitalist production – to fall over time. The notion that profit rates tend to fall leading towards progressive stagnation and recourse to countervailing tendencies to restore profitability was, in one form or another, widely accepted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To capitalism’s most astute observers, it gave an inkling that capitalism might one day end. Without profit, as the political economist David Ricardo realized, the ‘motive for accumulation will diminish with every diminution of profit and will cease altogether when their profits are so low as not to afford them adequate compensation for their trouble’.
For Ricardo and his followers, this theoretical endpoint, ‘at which the wealth and resources of a country will not admit of increase’ was viewed with trepidation; it was the ‘bourgeois “Twilight of Gods—the Day of Judgment”’ as Marx put it.
Some, like John Stuart Mill, tried to cast these tendencies in a more positive light. It’s a harmonious ‘stationary state’, he said, to which capitalism is simply naturally advancing. Yet, as the stubbornly economically myopic member of the Frankfurt School, Henryk Grossman put it, this amounted to no more than an attempt to ‘appease capital with the idea that a stationary state would in no sense jeopardise the general progress of “human improvements” ’, since no one invests except to receive a return on investment. For Marx, Mill belonged to the school developed after the antagonisms of capitalism had become clear, in which it had become necessary to ‘harmonise’ the claims of political economy with those of workers and to ‘reconcile irreconcilables’.
While previous economists had attempted to naturalize, harmonize or otherwise portray this tendency as exogenous to the capitalist system, Marx’s explanation lay within the system’s very functioning, its ironic inability to realize sufficient profit from the material wealth produced. He repeatedly emphasized that these limits are neither natural nor harmonious, acting as underlying drivers towards increasingly destructive crises that see workers thrown out of work, factories left idle, machinery rusting and commodities rotting in warehouses, so that the profit rate can be restored.
For Marx, capitalism’s ability to create vast riches that must be periodically destroyed while the great mass of humanity goes wanting testifies that its barriers are not absolute. In such destructive crises, it becomes increasingly clear that capitalism is not, as he put it, ‘an absolute mode of production of wealth but actually comes into conflict at a certain state with [wealth]’s further development’. In other words, for Marx, if capitalism undermines its own growth, it does not mean that humanity needs to hold back, but that capitalism is holding humanity back.
Critique without critique
It’s a long and complicated story as to how these ideas came to be buried beneath a mess of endless cultural criticism. Yet it is difficult to express the importance and impact of their loss. The repudiation of the radical economic critique by the majority of those identifying with the leftist label has severely restricted critiques of capitalism and has deprived them of their ability to represent a serious threat to the existing order.
On the contrary, lacking a strong understanding of the capitalist system and confining itself to personal and cultural critiques of the status quo, the predominant critical outlook of today often represents a dangerous mirror image and even reaffirmation of the dominant ideologies it claims to criticise. The rejection of a ‘totalising’ critique of the economic system and implicit acquiescence to the ethos of ‘no alternative’ has confined criticisms to ‘this’ or ‘that’ element of the capitalist system, as though (to paraphrase Zizek’s famous line) just as we have our coffee without caffeine, we can have our capitalism without its destructive essence. More significantly, filling the vacuum left behind by the economic critique, have arisen romantic and psychological critiques of the capitalist system. And it is on these two trends—romantic and psychological critiques of capitalism—pervasive at present, that I want to focus.
From the outlook that began to emerge in the post-war period, the economic critique of capitalism began to be more and more rejected as unbearably stifling and deterministic; a totalising metanarrative, to use Lyotard’s terms, that attempts to monopolise interpretations of reality. Besides the postmodern attack, the advance of the economic critique of capitalism was also dealt a decisive blow in the academic realm by the claim that Marx’s theory is internally inconsistent. This debate is well beyond the scope of this essay, but it is worthwhile to note that such claims have since (its proponents claim at least) been refuted.
However, the abandonment of Marxian economics and the widespread embrace of capitalism as the end of history was preceded by much more salient factors than obscure academic debates. Still resonant experiences of the past century, the Great Depression, two world wars, the Holocaust and gulags, have made the Enlightenment faith in progress, reflected in the Marxian hope of transcendence, seem perilously naïve. As a result, the past half century has been characterised by a deep disillusionment with ‘big ideas’, of which Marxian economics is perhaps the archetype—that promised to explain society and which could be wielded to radically change them for the better.
Rigid determinisms and the desire to bend the world to human will are widely seen as the cause of widespread misery and the source of totalitarianisms. Moreover, the economic analyses of the traditional Left seemed further discredited by the prosperity of the post-war boom. Marxism itself came to be seen as part of the ‘problem of modernity,’ rather than its theoretical solution. Yet on the other hand, growth liberalism, which sought international security through economic security, following the optimistic example of developed nations, seemed discredited by unequal development and persistent instability. Like the socialism it sought to counter, economic growth became no longer a solution, but a problem in itself.
The New Left’s abandonment of the economic critique saw the rise of a largely cultural critique of capitalism, which more and more saw the masses not as the solution, but as the cause of problems. Turning their back on Marx, they were less interested in how to unleash abundance but on the moral decay it seemed to engender.
At the same time, Ayn Rand complained that the New Left would triumph not because they were right but because there was no one left to defend progress in the sense of material improvement.
Already by the end of the 1950s, Daniel Bell was able to declare the end of ideology. Compounded by the failure of really existing socialism, the widespread acceptance of Margaret Thatcher’s famous ‘TINA’—‘there is no alternative’ (to capitalism)—has effectively narrowed the scope of the political imagination. In its place has stepped the liberal democratic consensus—that market society is the only society feasible, and in which improvements are affected through piecemeal democratic reform. In the vacuum left by these totalising ideas, we are left with piecemeal critiques of the current system. Social stratification is here to stay, and that’s fine, it seems, so long as the exploiting classes are sufficiently physically diverse (and ideologically homogenous).
In essence, the left has damned itself to fighting a never-ending culture war. Over the past few decades, it has fought this war on two fronts—the romantic and the psychological. These are presented as criticisms of capitalism, but they constrain themselves to representations and dare not—and indeed cannot—penetrate deeper. In many ways they are interrelated, but let’s start with the romantic critique.
The Romantic Critique
Of course, the romantic critique of capitalism, characterised by a rejection of, among other things, the tallying up of life in terms of money, the replacement of human craftsmanship with sterile machinery, the coldness of profit motive, etc., has always existed within capitalism.
It is what Marx referred to in the Grundrisse as capitalism’s ‘legitimate antithesis.’ But in the last decades it has acquired a renewed salience, becoming what several theorists have analysed as an essential feature of modern culture. Romantic anti-capitalism essentially represents what Michael Sayre and Robert Lowy refer to as a ‘cultural protest against the modern industrial/capitalist civilization’ in favour of pre-capitalist values.
Rejecting industrial society’s sterile quantification, the romantic longs for a re-emphasis upon the ‘qualitative’, or those values left-off the balance-sheets of modernity, and for a return to a time (real or imagined) in the pre-capitalist or less developed capitalist past when those aspects of the world deemed lost were still present. [Yes, it is just like Tyler Durden’s Project Mayhem in Fight Club].
Early romantics set, as Raymond Williams put it ‘the idea of an ordered and happier past […] against the disturbance and disorder of the present’. But what is different about the romantic impulse of the present however, is that it is far less likely to sincerely desire a wholesale return to the past in face of the uncertainties of the present (although this does exist). Rather, in a context in which modern society has no future, the present has gained exponentially in importance. The desire then, is for stasis. In this ‘resigned’ or ‘reformist’ incarnation of romanticism, while intensely critical of the present, there is nonetheless an acceptance of its inevitability. Instead of fixating on a moment in the past, the contemporary romantic hopes that the problems and excesses of the present can be ameliorated through a restoration of the values and virtues that are missing. The resigned romantic bears, as Sayre and Lowy write, ‘a conviction that the old values can be reinstated, but the measures advocated to reach that goal are limited to reforms: legal reforms, the evolution of consciousness and so on’. Thus, they continue, ‘there is often a striking contrast between the radicalism of the critique and the timidity of the solutions imagined’. Of course, it should be noted that even the phrase ‘anti-capitalism’ is too much for the modern outlook. What most people seek, anti, skeptical, and pro-capitalist alike, is its re-enchantment through feeling.
Some of my own research has looked at the rise of ‘happiness’ as an ostensible critique of capitalism—that is, emotional wellbeing is often counterpoised to economic growth as a radical alternative goal for society. Aside from the imaginary world of markets without growth, the solutions proposed essentially reflect a desire for the re-enchantment of modernity through juxtaposition of quantitative and qualitative accounts and widespread re-education in more ‘virtuous’ pre-capitalist ‘truths’ and values about happiness.
There is an idealisation of the exotic and a conviction that solutions to the problems of today can be sought in lost wisdoms, less developed countries, or, in its more ‘radical’ varieties, through returning to a point in the capitalist past when the socioeconomic system was less developed. In this it ironically echoes ‘textbook neoliberalism’ which presents, as Nick Deschacht has put it, ‘a fictitious capitalism without big corporations (perfect markets) and longs back to a period before the monopolist stage of capitalism’. Deschacht’s example of the 2013 documentary Happiness Economics illustrates these trends particularly well, glorifying the semi-feudal relations of Ladakh, a remote region of northern India bordering Tibet, in spite of its less idyllic repressive aspects.
This is to be expected. Typically associated with small producers whose precarious position finds them, as Marx and Engels describe, ‘constantly hurled down into the proletariat by the action of competition,’ romantic anti-capitalism has historically held an ambivalent relationship to working class movements. It is little surprising then that the romantic viewpoint has expanded and generalised in an era characterised by the latter’s decline and in which capitalist relations of production have been depoliticised and naturalised. As contestation over production that traditionally characterised right and left-wing politics has waned, political disagreements have been confined to the realm of consumption. Divorced from the industrial base, modern consumer society finds it difficult, as Vanessa Pupavac has written, ‘to imagine socially organizing, expanding and enhancing industrial productive forces for the benefit of humanity and the environment,’ and has ‘instead been attracted towards anti-industrial, feminized ideals’.
Romantic anti-capitalism, as a segment of critique, has its revolutionary aspects. But its preoccupation with loss, its passionate rumination upon suffering, ultimately deflects attention from the causes of that suffering and the irrecoverability of the past.
Attempting to cultivate human virtue may be a worthwhile cause in itself, but more often such projects are enacted out of the firm conviction there is some moral failing that is ultimately to blame when things go wrong. Feeling and attention are drawn to the expressions of injustice and deflected from their deep and systemic causes.
The preoccupation with lost values blinds it to the forces of history; failing to penetrate deeper to the underlying facts, it searches for magical solutions to the contradictions of the present. The focus on industrial capitalism as the ‘fall,’ according to Raymond Williams, has become a pervasive myth of our times and source of the ‘protecting illusion’ that ‘it is not capitalism which is injuring us, but the more isolable, more evident system of urban industrialism.’ I would add to this, the other enduring myths currently gaining ground—that it is not capitalism but this or that psychological failing or even ‘economic growth’ that is the problem—the latter of which contains within it the implicit argument that capitalism is by its nature a system of equilibrium, a ‘fact’ everywhere belied by the chaos and destruction brought on when the economy fails to grow at a sufficient rate.
In Marxist terms, the intense focus upon subjective alienation leaves the objective sources of that alienation untouched. Indeed, one can be perfectly content in a situation of grave injustice. As Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, one of the worst effects of injustice is that people are often quite unaware of their situation and have to be told of it by meddling outsiders. ‘[T]he most tragic fact in the whole of the French Revolution is not that Marie Antoinette was killed for being a queen,’ he continued, ‘but that the starved peasant of the Vendee voluntarily went out to die for the hideous cause of feudalism.’ I do not doubt that many slaves were happy and many slave owners were kind. If all were, would this absolve the institution?
Although Marx appreciated the romantic critique, and often utilised it himself, he warned of the limitations of ‘that kind of criticism which knows how to judge and condemn the present, but not how to comprehend it’. While romanticism often represents a healthy critique of the present, the trouble arises when romanticism is all there is.
The Psychological Critique
The romantic yearning for the re-enchantment of modernity has often taken the form of an emotional or psychological critique of the present. While also perhaps effective as part of a broader criticism, it similarly reflects this inability to look deeper into the mechanisms of capitalism as the source of critique and instead represents an intense rumination upon its effects. But if the problems of capitalism are primarily psychological, then I would invite therapy as a solution rather than a wholesale revolutionary upheaval of the existing system. Indeed, the latter seems like overkill, not to mention particularly damaging to the masses already so easily damaged by the system as it currently fumbles along.
Where the vocabulary available to those seeking to politically engage the public has significantly narrowed, the psychological critique offers a morally neutral means of connecting with the broadest possible audience. But it does this, I think, at great cost. For instance, the critique of the organisation of work has for decades now increasingly focused on its impact on mental health. As the argument goes, the modern organisation of work causes people to be stressed out, depressed, and is conducive to mental illness. However, it is interesting to note that the word ‘stress’ did not always exist as a dominant frame through which negative experiences of work were discussed. However, in the last decades, as collective movements have dwindled, the word stress has become more and more in vogue. In many ways, ‘stress’ is a deflection of the often alienating experience of work back upon the self—its internalisation. More importantly, if work is predominantly a psychological problem, then the solution is similarly psychological. Hence, in practice what was once intended as a totalising critique of the organisation of work and even the relations of production has in practice produced a small-scale, therapeutic response. It has invited and even demanded greater intervention into the private sphere of workers’ minds. Now, not only do you have to be exploited. You have to enjoy it.
Similarly, the psychological critique of capitalism’s main claim is that capitalism causes mental illness. In its ‘revolutionary’ form, the argument is that it must therefore be superseded (but it is by no means always articulated as such). There are at least three things wrong with this. First, it posits a fragile vision of the human subject and unwittingly echoes the dominant construction of human beings as powerless victims of circumstance, not powerful actors, capable of consciously bending history to our will. These are people more likely to be damaged than do damage in response to adversity. They need to be protected, not freed. Of course, both the powerful and the vulnerable subject are possible, though not inevitable, outcomes of the human condition.
Yet the criticism of the liberal, rational free-willing subject as a myth has reified the vulnerable subject as the only ‘truth’ of what it means to be human. And thus, whatever lofty aims one may have had in mind when initially forwarding these arguments, it has resolved itself in the ever-present and ever more authoritarian demand for ‘safety’ as the ultimate goal of any and all actions.
Protection, it might be added, is also a double-edged sword. Although the claim to victimhood and protection of vulnerable groups has been successful in gaining a public hearing for the claims of a variety of groups, protection and freedom may not be compatible aims, and indeed, might even come into contradiction with each other. Take for instance the case of indigenous peoples in North America and Australia. As Dian Million describes in her excellent book Therapeutic Nations, the invitation to communicate victimhood via endless atrocity tales on the same stage as claims to self-determination has led to the undermining of the latter. Never mind their own nations, how can people supposedly so damaged by victimisation be expected to take care of their own children? Is it surprising then that both Australia and more recently Canada have experienced crises in terms of the removal of indigenous children from their parents?
Second, the solution is far disproportionate to the problem. If the main issue with capitalism is psychological damage, who is to say that what comes after capitalism won’t be similarly disorienting to the fragile human psyche? And what about the painful, even violent process of getting there? I prefer drugs.
Finally, there is a widespread sense that there is an eternal human nature that is out of step with the current system and to which society must be made to harmoniously conform. But as Plekhanov once wrote ‘Either human nature is […] invariable, and then it explains nothing in history, which shows us constant variations in the relations of man to society; or it does vary according to the circumstances in which men live, and then, far from being the cause, it is itself the effect of historical evolution.’ Our extraordinary resilience and capacity to refashion society and in so doing refashion ourselves underpins not only our current condition, but also our ability to revolutionise that condition in the future. In a given social arrangement how we act and behave might be more or less predictable, but in an earlier epoch, few could have had even an inking of how different the future would be and how strange the human beings inhabiting it.
The economic critique offered a totalising vision in which the problems of capitalism lay not in its quantification, nor estrangement from the past, nor in the minds of passive individuals. Instead, the problems lay in the system itself: its ironic tendency to both create and destroy, to free and imprison, to give us a hint of what the future could be, but not a way to get there. The way forward is not therefore to intensely ruminate upon the ill deeds of the rich nor even the suffering of the poor, but to focus on the potentials of the future being kept from us and a sincere appraisal of the system itself. If we can do this, we might just figure out how to get there.
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