Sunday, February 21, 2010

The New Left, What Now?

This week at The Notes Taken, I showed that once you scratch the surface of the goings-on at the Texas State Board of Education, that you discover a much larger political process controlled by right-wing political hacks, Jason reviewed James L. Hevia’s English Lessons: the Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China, and we announced our first call for papers on 'The Futures of Sartre's Critique.'

The idea behind the CFP is searching out what futures Sartre's later work might have, premised on the anniversary of the publication of the first volume of the Critique of Dialectical Reason. It turns out that it is also the quinquagenarian anniversary of The New Left Review, and that they have also been taking stock of their accomplishments and setting up goals in the face of the seemingly unstoppable locomotive of capitalism. Susan Watkins' editorial, "Shifting Sands," is a sober look at the situation (I strongly suggest reading the whole piece). She assesses the recent history of the economic crisis that surfaced in 2008, and compares it to the crises of 1873, 1907 and 1929. One of the primary actors missing in the post-2008 world is organized resistance to capitalism (this again raises the question of what the Tea Party protests are doing, but it's clear that they are often manipulated by the money of big interests, and it is even clearer that they offer no alternative political vision barring their general failure of political imagination in rehashing just about every conservative cliché possible). And unlike the previous crises it is unclear whether we are undergoing a hegemonic shift in global politics, from the US to China.
A principal reason for the continuing strength of American hegemony lies in the victories of the neo-liberal project, which always involved both an ideology and a programme. The first took a series of forms—monetarism, Thatcherism, free-market Third Way, triumphal globalization—now behind us. But the revolutionary effects of the programme remain. Social relations have been reconfigured across the globe: finance capital severed from national industry and integrated into global wealth circuits, decorated with new celebrity-media elites; the white-collar workforce, public or private, subjected to new market norms and compensated with small-scale financial assets; a two-tier working class, with most of its youth in the casualized sector, deprived of organizational reach and political project. Perhaps the most striking feature of the 2008 crisis so far has been its combination of economic turmoil and political stasis. After the bank and currency crashes of 1931, governments toppled across Europe—Britain, France, Spain, Germany; even in 1873, the Grant Administration was paralysed by corruption scandals after the railroad bust, and the Gladstone Ministry fell. The only political casualties of 2008 have been the Haarde regime in Iceland and the Cayman Islands authorities. As unemployment mounts and public-spending cuts are enforced, more determined protests will hopefully emerge; but to date, factory occupations or bossnappings have mostly been limited to demands for due redundancy pay. That neo-liberalism’s crisis should be so eerily non-agonistic, in contrast to the bitter battles over its installation, is a sobering measure of its triumph.
While the formative years of the NLR were shaped by immediate political movements, they've now retrenched for the longue durée. In the absence of a broad alternative to capitalism, to "attend to the development of actually existing capitalism remains a first duty for a journal like NLR." This, she notes, takes various forms, from the world systems analysis of Robert Brenner to Giovanni Arrighi, through theory (Zizek gets a nod), to work on local struggle against imperial hegemony.

The questions and problems that are outlined by Watkins, and that one would think align with those of the other contributors to the NLR, have also been on my mind lately. More specifically, how do world systems analysis, philosophy/theory and local struggles combine? I ask this question like this because the answer then becomes particularly tricky. I will keep it to an academic or intellectual level, because I just don't think I can answer from a 'local struggle' perspective. If "neo-liberalism’s crisis should be so eerily non-agonistic," what can we do? It seems to me that we need to reject the narrow confines of academic expertise to build a coherent 'cognitive map' (as Jameson might say) of contemporary capitalism. How to orient this map: that is the question.

Thus we contribute to (as professors and writers), and act within, a hegemonic ideological struggle, to establish a critique of contemporary capitalism while suggesting an alternative. But to work effectively this requires keeping capitalism as the center of critique, rather than nebulous concepts such as modernity, or culture, or secularization, or technology, or whatever academics propose that falls under the category of political critique that I call the ABC: 'anything but capitalism.' And, rather than propose resistance as the alternative, we need the concepts of solidarity, discipline and organization, where local struggle can confront oppression with its own structural fortitude.

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