Where the fuck is the ‘revolutionary subject’ in the European crisis?
An interesting question from George Magnus of the banking giant UBS via Zero Hedge: “Why Are The European Streets Relatively Quiet?”
To understand the background of Magnus’s question we have to go to 2010. At that time, the economist Michael Pettis predicted Europe would have three years or or so to impose its “labor restructuring” before all hell broke loose and national politics descended into chaos:
“I don’t in any sense pretend to be an expert on the subject, but one of the things that surprises me is that as far as I know (perhaps because I am looking in the wrong places) and in spite of very clear historical precedent, very few analysts, even the greatest euro-skeptics, are wondering about the changes in electoral politics that are likely to take place in Europe over the next few years as a consequence of the euro adjustment. For example Wolfgang Munchau has an excellent article in the Financial Times in which he concludes, like I did in my post last week, that:
The eurozone is manoeuvring itself into a position where it confronts the choice between two alternatives considered “unimaginable”: fiscal union or break-up.
Obviously I think he is right, but I would add that the window for that choice is a small one. If Europe doesn’t move quickly, within two or three years it will probably be very difficult, if not impossible, to engineer fiscal union. By then domestic politics are likely to be too unstable for the European political elite simply to arrange union over the heads of the citizenry.”
But here we are five years after the outbreak of the global crisis and almost three years after Pettis wrote his words, yet still European working classes are offering only limited resistance — nowhere near the sort of political chaos the bourgeois apologist Pettis imagined.
Since, like Marxists, the European fascist states and their apologists were expecting mass political upheaval, they are more than a little surprised at this. The lack of effective resistance probably explains more than a little of the over-reach in the Cyprus events. Facing what increasingly appears to be a working class robbed of its ability to even defend its basic economic interests, the fascists have moved to enforce a ruthless austerity while facing minimal political risk.
What they have found instead is quite another problem altogether: despite the lack of working class resistance, no matter what measures the EU imposes on the European working class, economic activity and profits contract. Every time they cut another pension or layoff another worker, the economy of the euro-zone declines more than proportionally. Gut Greece’s state spending and within a matter of time Cyprus banks fall, Spain’s crisis deepens, France spirals into recession, Italy’s politics comes unraveled.
Still the lack of response by the European working class to this assault is raising the core question of the period within Marxist and anarchist and libertarian circles:
“Where the fuck is the revolutionary subject?”
As the Zero Hedge writer notes, after an initial wave of protests from 2008-2011, the working classes of Europe seem have fallen into a lull. According to the writer, the question raised by this lull is whether “the social fabric of Europe is more robust than we thought, or … is the calm deceptive?” By “social fabric”, of course, is meant the political control exerted by bourgeois relations over the political life of the working class.
The Zero Hedge writer notes that “social unrest” is both “highly uncertain, complex and ambiguous” and capable of rippling through the society. It is, in other words, the very definition of contagion of which much has been made in the media over the last few years. At least in part, the “contagion” most feared by the Troika is not the contagion of bank failures or sovereign defaults but that of a pan-European working class political movement. The ineffectiveness of the working class’s response to “austerity” forces banksters and government officials alike to wonder if the present lull is “real”.
The UBS writer, from whom the Zero Hedge blog is drawn, argues events have seriously damaged the “trust” the workers have in European social-democracy and this is true no matter its weak and ineffectual political expression. Every worker can look at Cyprus and realize that, should conditions “require”, the EU will be coming for her savings and pension. A law to this effect is already in place in Spain, one of the larger EU members. Says the writer:
“If a rising number of people give up on the willingness and ability of their institutions to address grievances, then the lull is most likely deceptive.”
Which is to say, the breakdown in trust of the European working class in national governments is a time-bomb at the heart of European politics that could erupt with unpredictable results at any time. The writer notes, “We have been here before”, suggesting, appropriately, that the crisis of the 1930s led to Auschwitz and World War II. Although there are differences between then and now, the writer argues the same social problems are asserting themselves:
“… the problem today, as then, is the same, namely the inadequacy of mainstream, political channels to address rising public concern about the loss of economic security, social stability and, yes, cultural identity.”
These, of course, are euphemisms for the rise of fascistic grouplets already present in many European parliaments who, many warn, are only the leading edge for a potential return to the interwar period of the 1930s. But it is also a euphemism for the growing antistatist sentiment and elements within the movements against austerity that was seen in the Spanish civil war.
Clearly the writer at Zero Hedge and the bankster at UBS on which this post is based are looking for an increasingly chaotic political response to the crisis. They are trying to grapple with the seeming inability of the workers of Europe to assert basic economic interests against a savage assault. The tail risk identified in the blog is a political tail risk — the collapse of governments committed to “restructuring” in one form or another. It is the tail risk of increasingly “extremist” parties coming to power and putting an end to the austerity regimes being imposed. But not only this, as in the case of Cyprus, the tail risk of ruling parties themselves coming apart at the seams.
UBS poses the question raised by the attempts to restore profitability in Europe:
“Let’s assume nothing changes, and that while European elites debate how – or if – they can build strong European banking, fiscal and economic institutions, with the required transfer mechanisms between creditors and debtors, the economic lot of European citizens, an unhappy one for five years now, shows no improvement. This seems a decent assumption.”
This “decent assumption” is based on a basic and well understood lesson of the Great Depression: An austerity regime does not, and cannot, work in the middle of a depression produced by absolute overaccumulation of capital. The only result an austerity regime produces in such a depression is a political-economic catastrophe. Austerity is in not only bad for the working class, it is “bad for business”:
“… in creating a social backlash that results in greater uncertainty, and therefore inertia, when it comes to corporate hiring and capital spending. As a result, output and public sector tax revenues suffer, reinforcing the negative dynamic between debt and the economy.”
Which is to say, if the fascist state reduces its expenditures even as the economy is contracting, it only accelerates the contraction. This, in turn, leads to an intensification of the political struggle: “the number and the severity of incidents of unrest rise sharply.”
This scenario is pretty much standard fair for political-economic thinking in the fascist era, and likely to be accepted as credible by bourgeois and Marxists pundits alike. The UBS piece notes that there has, in fact, been this sort of regressive state reductions in a wide number of countries. The impact has varied, suggesting some countries more than others are able to weather the crisis. The working class has so far tolerated incredible levels of unemployment — of depression-level unemployment and worse — but, surprisingly, without any of the chaos Pettis predicted. This is leading banksters to add their voices to those of Marxists, anarchists and libertarians:
“So why are the streets relatively quiet?”
The UBS writer says he has no idea, and none of the explanations he can think of appear to account for the incapacity of the working class to defend its interests. Is it demographics? “Perhaps the baby boomers have expended their protest energy!” The population of youth, 15-29, is growing, but the writer suggests they need a “catalyst”. (He doesn’t explain why.) Perhaps, he opines, families are acting as a buffer to the harsh reality of austerity regimes. The writer is not satisfied with any of his potential answers, and we should not be satisfied with them either.
What makes the question so important is this: Marxists and other anticapitalists have been banking on the emergence of a political opposition to capitalism — an anticapitalist movement — triggered precisely by a severe crisis and a staggering assault on the living standard of the working class of just the sort we are seeing. It is an article of faith that this must happen sooner or later. This anticapitalist movement has been predicted for more than one hundred years — even Marx made a prediction to this effect at one point. The single example of this sort of political response to a severe crisis occurring during all that time, however, is not very encouraging: the Great Depression resulted not in the emergence of a much anticipated anticapitalist society, but a society of barbarism, bringing fascism, two wars and 100 million dead in its wake.
The lack of effective working class political resistance to the austerity policies within the EU leads to one of two typical explanations: 1. people are just not hurting enough in this crisis; or, 2. decades of reformist ideology have taken its toll on the working class. In any case, Marxists, anarchists and libertarians can no longer ignore a question that is now central to all discussion: What has happened to the working class? Why is it not fighting to defend its interest?
And let us not be fooled on this point by specious arguments to the contrary: there is no possible substitute for the working class’s political revolutionary action in any reasonable political theory of anticapitalist transition — none at all. You can try all you want to find or propose a substitute drawn from disparate elements of society, but that shit ain’t going to work. No individual element, nor combination of elements, nor all elements other than the working class taken together can fill its role. Which means we have to face a profound theoretical problem: Not only is the working class not playing the role “history” assigned to it, it no longer even has a significant organized presence in most countries. (PDF)
I would argue that this is entirely to be expected: the very idea of a proletarian political revolutionary subject is itself a contradiction. Holloway started down this path of reasoning, but stopped short of the implications to be derived from his argument that seizing the state could not be the aim of the anticapitalist struggle. If seizing the state is not the aim of the proletarian revolution, it cannot be the means of achieving its aims as well. The aim of the proletarian revolution and the means by which these aims are achieved must be identical — they must be one and the same. The working class is unique in this sense that its aims and means cannot exist apart from it — i.e., apart from the individuals who compose this class. The aims, means and actual empirical existence of these individuals must, therefore, be identical.
Politics is the realm of the state, the realm of interests within society making themselves visible as a power standing above and over against society. If Marx was correct, the working class is incapable of precisely this sort of disassociation of its interests from itself. The working class cannot have class interests that appear in a form distinct from the real palpable interests of each individual. On the one hand, this places the working class at a distinct disadvantage in its conflict with the bourgeoisie that Holloway clearly identifies:
“For over a hundred years, the revolutionary enthusiasm of young people has been channelled into building the party or into learning to shoot guns, for over a hundred years the dreams of those who have wanted a world fit for humanity have been bureaucratised and militarised, all for the winning of state power by a government that could then be accused of “betraying” the movement that put it there.”
Struggling within bourgeois forms must lead to bourgeois outcomes, as the history of the Soviet Union made clear. But it is not just the “revolutionary” political efforts of the class that has led it into a dead end, the reformist, European social-democracy has failed no less than its revolutionary counterpart. Despite composing the overwhelming majority of the democratic republic, and despite the reduction of the bourgeois class to an insignificant clique of parasites, the working class has been unable to realize itself in any political form.
Is the notion of a political revolution historically obsolete?
It is not as though the Soviet Union failed, but German Social-Democracy succeeded — both failed utterly and entirely. And it is not as though Leninism failed only in Russia and Kautskyism only in Germany — they have both failed without exception everywhere attempted. At best, in both cases, the working class can be said to have constituted by political means its own exploiter. This suggests the failure is not accidental or a result of problems peculiar to each, but to the very notion of a political revolution itself.
On the other hand, the inability of the working class to realize itself in a political form may imply this class of social laborers may already be its own realization. If the aims, means and the actual empirical existence of these individuals are identical, the social producers must themselves be the realization of those aims and means. There is nothing more to be added to them to complete them as the realization of themselves. The capitalist mode of production appears in this idea as the scaffolding within which this new subject is built, which scaffolding simply can be kicked away at the appropriate time. Marx employed a similar analogy: describing communism as a new society being born directly from the old one. In any case, his argument suggests communism is not a thing to be created “after the revolution”, but the actual existing form of society right now.
To be sure, this was not completely true of Russia in 1917, nor Germany in 1932 — and it certainly was not true when Marx argued with Bakunin in 1875. In that sense, a political revolution during which the working class seized power and set out to emancipate itself, was always, up to now, a sort of premature birth. So long as the proletariat has not achieved its final constitution, said Marx, it acts “within political forms which more or less belong” to the bourgeois epoch.
The idea that communism may already be present in its fully developed form right now runs into some obvious theoretical difficulties. As tweep @StArCrAfT_2K objected to me this week “a communist society is [a] classless, stateless, moneyless society.” Clearly the present society is neither classless, stateless or moneyless. This would suggest a communist society exists right now, only insofar as we exclude classes, the state and money.
But here’s an interesting observation: the “money” we use is a worthless token issued by the state — a token that capitalism made necessary because (in Bernanke’s words) commodity money (gold. silver, etc.) became “massively non-neutral”, and would no longer circulate as capital. Which is to say, capitalism itself has already ‘abolished money’ within the money form itself. What survives of money is a worthless vestigial remnant — a worthless token issued by the state. The function of this remnant is not only to separate the worker from her productive labor, but to continually tie her subsistence to her labor long after this was historically necessary. The aim the state sought by the abolition of commodity money, therefore, is to maintain the existence of a class society.
Surprisingly we have all the elements of a transcendence of capitalism in one place: class society, the state and money — all of which depend on each other to prevent the realization of the proletariat as the new communist society. The realization of communism — of a society founded on directly social labor — requires this identity, but more than this it requires that class, the state and money can no longer be identical. It assumes that the state and money are already effectively divorced one from the other.
This, interesting enough, is a condition already realized in the EU. On the one hand, we have the European Central Bank, the monetary authority; while, on the other hand, we have the states composing the single currency area. Europe is interesting today precisely because of this divorce, because money itself has been ‘liberated’ from the clutches of the nation state. The triumph of neoliberal monetarism — with its demand for the independence of the central bank from democratic supervision — has turned out to be just another step advancing capitalist society to its demise.
Why might this be true?
Critical to counter-cyclical Keynesian economic policy, states must be able to increase deficit expenditures during times of economic depression. The expansion of fascist state expenditures is achieved by counterfeiting the national currency during economic depressions. By stripping the nation state of its monetary sovereignty and placing it in the hands of an indifferent monetary authority, neoliberalism has effectively kneecapped the capacity of fascist states to respond to crises. In the absence of monetary sovereignty, EU fascist states are dependent on a monetary authority whose sole concern is “financial stability”. What this means is the fascist states of the EU may have lost their capacity to extend the life of wage slavery and class society. The state must more and more appear in the two most hated forms in bourgeois society: as the tax collector on one hand, and as the debt collector on the other.