Can a Radically Human Project be Renewed in the Twenty-First Century?

Like that other momentous date — 1984 — the year 2001 seemed an impossible destination while the greater part of the world was moving towards it. What would happen when the ’19’ fell away and we became the first people in fifty generations to change the number marking the millennium? On the one hand it reminded everyone of how prosaic change is, of how the old is mixed into the new. Despite having long since abandoned the idea of a future of jetpacks and food pills, there was always some corner of the mind which imagined we would wake up to a substantially changed reality: cities of new surfaces, a life of new textures and qualities, a substantially transformed existence. Of the momentous changes that have occurred in our thinking about the world over the past decades, not the least has been a change in the way we think about change, its possibilities, its limits. Few people nurture the hopes for short-term change that they held even twenty years ago. Yet few could have anticipated how sour the short-term prospects would turn out to be, how rapidly we would be sent hurtling backward — out of September 11 and into a war that may be the next in a series of a generation of wars, with the remnants of a liberal public sphere under relentless attack.

Yet it is not those events and possibilities, bleak though they may be, that mark out the really great transformation of our age — for the Left, and for the Western world as a whole. Beneath the surface of current events, a far more substantial change has occurred — the disappearance from the Left political imagination of the possibility of a world transformed in the image of human equality, freedom and possibility (whether it be called the socialist project, communism or whatever). That possibility, which has been the horizon within which political action has been set for so many for so long, has slipped away — at least insofar as any significant group or class of people are concerned. Such a possibility was common to both the old Left and the 1960s New Left, however differently the means and manner of it might have occurred to them, and it remains part of some people’s political imagination today. But large numbers who participate in the activist Left do so without that horizon, and indeed often in determined rejection of it as an alibi for the ethical duty of political struggle. That is not to say that no one is selling utopia or a new communism — the success of Toni Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire is evidence of the desire for a transforming vision. But the curious thing about texts such as Empire is the manner in which they are taken, not as literal blueprints for revolution, but as inspiring fictions to guide one along the way. As a matter of crude realism, there is an increasing divide between the way people imagine a world that should be — but which would more likely never be realised — and a more realistic mental map of the future that they apply to everyday political activity.

This has its advantages and disadvantages, as I shall discuss, but the most important thing to note is the ‘great divide’ between a Left oriented towards goals that were as existential as they were ethical — the liberation of authentic human being — and a current Left whose ethical imperative gives it features more in common with a movement such as the nineteenth century anti-slavery cause. Somewhere along the way, a more concrete form of a radically imagined way of being human got lost. That is not to say anything new, but merely to recrystallise what many people are carrying around in their heads — a growing realisation of the final exit of this sort of radical political dream. In this short overview of what the Left was and is and could be, I want to look at the origins of that endpoint, and suggest a more optimistic possibility — that an idea of the future could emerge that is more limited than dreams of old, but is nevertheless one of a transformed human reality, achieved by current political (in the widest sense of the word) struggle.

You can go back a long way in a search for the point at which the idea of a wholly or substantially transformed world began to slip away. One could go to the late 1970s, when the New Left collapsed, when the Chinese cultural revolution delivered the opposite of what many people had hoped for in Third World revolutions, and when the central Marxian arguments of inevitable crises and contradictions at the heart of the capital accumulation process came under challenge from the works of Piero Sraffa, and other participants in the ‘value controversy’. Baudrillard and other postmodernists made a decisive leap out of hope after May 1968 and into ‘a long period of melancholy’, as Lyotard put it. Further back, in the early 1960s, Saul Bellow’s character Herzog, in the eponymous novel, assesses himself as a mid-twentieth century man ‘under great pressure … after the late failure of radical hopes’. At the same time, the minimal progress towards liberalisation in the USSR was going into reverse, and the limits of planned economies as instruments for growth were becoming apparent. Orwell writes in the late 1930s that ‘hardly anyone talks about socialism these days’. And on it goes, back one could suggest right into the period of Marx himself. The strange process by which Marx’s works came to us in reverse — the mature published works first, followed by those that he and Engels had left ‘to the gnawing criticism of the mice’ — has obviously shaped the political imagination of the century in a manner that is both more influential and more contingent than we are often willing to admit. Where Marx had gone back into the details of capitalism in Capital, and pursued more open-ended speculation in parts of the Grundrisse, and where writings such as the Critique of the Gotha Programme had ventured only the most limited speculations about the form socialism and the transition to communism might take, the early writings offered the prospect of a human society delivered from contradiction, with our relationships to nature and each other being wholly free, authentic and ‘poetic’ (in the sense of being both creative and sensuous, in the particular and the universal). Equality and the abolition of scarcity are taken to be a subset of that achievement.

Mediated through the writings of figures such as Marcuse, Fromm and Paul Goodman in the United States, and transformed by figures such as Debord and Castoriadis in Europe, their popularisation arrived at a time when Leninist models of organisation and the deferral of hope had come into substantial disrepute. They intersected with a rise of mass extended education that created a modern personality and culture with new emphases — cosmopolitan, synthesising, desirous of recovering some of the particularity and spirituality of the world that had been lost in the rise of consumerism. The early Marx both helped to shape that sensibility, and then appeared in front of it as a blueprint for immediate revolution. Its idea of what communism would be, influenced not only the Western cultural revolution of the 1960s, but also the counter-revolution that followed. Having set the bar so high in what could be achieved within a single generation, the fall back to the consciously nihilistic ethos of the 1980s — where value was collapsed into price — came as a relief, a retreat from impossible historical demands. By the late 1970s the manifest failure of the planned economies to coordinate complex production systems seemed to confirm Hayek’s argument that socialism was a more wasteful and less rational system than capitalism. The arguments of the Sraffians such as Ian Steedman suggested that the labour theory of value was, at its root, a metaphysical conceit, a philosophical error — and that overturning it showed that neither a crisis of falling rate of profit, nor one of underconsumption could be relied upon to shake capitalism at its core. There was no inevitable passage to socialism. Most experiments with communalism and other forms of immediate communism foundered on the contradictions between the complex, individualised, but real needs of the participants, and the naive and abnegatory demands that the lifestyle made on people. Even the most moderate programs, such as the Swedish trade union plan for the transformation of capital into public shareholding, and the social democracy of the first Mitterand Government, were defeated by the growing globalisation of financial capital. As a mass idea, socialism, or any form of democratic non-market complex social organisation, more or less winked out of existence for about fifteen years. Works such as Alec Nove’s Economics of Feasible Socialism attempted to put forward a more modest long-term program, but they did so with the air of someone sending out a message in a bottle, not knowing where it would be picked up, or by whom, or when.

When a global protest movement of some force did re-emerge in the late 1990s, it became clear that the minutiae of a post-market global economy was not high on the agenda — nor would it have been politically possible or prudent for it to be. Major sections of it are guided by the existential vision of the early Marx, but in a bifurcated and limited way. Few imagine that things will get anything other than less worse in their lifetime — the radical lifestyle component of the movement is taken as both a compensation for an awareness of the world’s grinding misery, and also as providing occasions of momentary communism — major protests, actions, raves where ecstatic structures of human connection emerge. Hakim Bey’s article on this phenomenon — what he calls the ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ — has become perhaps one of the most influential pieces of writing for the new global social movement. It represents both an insight into new possibilities and a retreat into a more limited sense of what is possible.

This much has been oft-remarked upon. Less frequently observed is this central paradox. Socialism (a post-market organisation of scarcity economies) and communism (an organisation of a post-scarcity economy) have never been less explicitly discussed or thought about, yet their real historical possibility has never been more visible. All critiques of socialism relying on supposedly innate human acquisitiveness or individualisation are worthless, though they have a dim grasping of some of the problems of integrating a socialist system into highly abstracted, extended and complex societies. The most challenging critique of an extended socialist system in practice was first advanced by Hayek in the 1930s — that socialism failed not because of the limits of human nature, but because of the limits of human knowledge and communication. The process by which planned economies would have to call back and send out production decisions based on mathematical modelling would always lag behind the shifts in price and utility created by the previous round of decisions. Such a system would therefore mis-allocate resources even in terms of its own plans. Black markets would spring up within the interstices of the planned economy, and only political coercion or an overwhelming sense of national purpose — such as made viable the ‘war socialism’ by which Britain was run during World War II — would keep the system on track. Hayek observed that a workable planned economy would involve repeated rounds of millions of mathematical decisions in real time and that socialism was hence impossible.

Millions of decisions in real time — it should be clear to most that we have long since passed that technical point. The rise of the supercomputer and the new practices of massively parallel computing are creating machines which can perform billions and even trillions of calculations per second — far more than Hayek could have dreamt of, even twenty years ago. Indeed what is striking about the spread of global interlinked networks of commerce and communication is the degree to which the apparatus of a post-market economy is developing within the shell of global capitalism — far beyond the point at which Marx imagined that capitalism’s revolutionary innovation might have ceased.

Thus here is the paradox. At the time when the productive forces that would make socialism (as it has been understood) possible have finally emerged, actual thinking about the material basis of a socialist or communist society has all but disappeared. There are a number of reasons why this has occurred, all profoundly interconnected. By the time the economic question fell out of the bottom of radical left debate in the late 1970s, the 1960s social movements had repudiated the old left definition of their concerns as economically determined and had begun to bud new subcultures. Their fusion to a burgeoning global economy and a mediatised world in the 1980s created identities whose existence was based on the assumption that meaning would continue to be made by the consumption of images and commodities. As public cultures within the West became open rather than closed, transgressive rather than bordered, as the bohemian periphery became the centre, the old alliance between the industrial working class and the ‘intelligentsia’ broke apart. The latter could now realise some of the dreams they had attached to socialism, within image capitalism — as could a privileged section of the former. Socialism continued to carry with it the language associated with a period of absolute scarcity, such as the Great Depression. After the revolution the workers would ‘take things over and run them’. In the context of a world which offered a range of leisure goods and services in exchange for eight hours alienation, this became not merely uninteresting, but repellent. As the first generations born and brought up within ‘the society of the spectacle’ came to young adulthood, the cultural field became the place where transformation and revolution occurred, and the process of disentangling oneself from the myriad discourses by which one was constructed became a pressing personal task. The latter process was responsible for the rise of ‘cultural studies’ and ‘code theories’ such as post-structuralism as compelling disciplines — one which took the place that psychology, and history, had hitherto occupied in personal formation. The basic understanding of economics, the sense of it as a field for possibility, fell away, and a widespread ignorance of the most basic economic concepts, Marxian or otherwise, took over.

The material world returned to radical attentions in the mid-90s, courtesy of the founding of the WTO and the cementing of a new stage in the neoliberal economic world order. More precisely, it was courtesy of the first opposition to it — the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994. The first guerrilla movement to use the internet in a way that earlier uprisings had used shortwave radio and newspapers – to create the visibility that guaranteed survival — the Zapatista solidarity networks connected with a range of autonomist and anarchist groups in Europe and parts of the US. These in turn became the foci of the groups who fomented the series of ‘branded’ protests around the meetings of global financial authorities — beginning with the J18 (June 18) 1999 protests against the G7 in Cologne. Simultaneously, identity politics in the US had begun to connect with economic questions via the rise of uberbrands such as Nike. Concerned initially with the way in which these shaped identities, attention moved to their physical production in the harsh and exploitative free-trade zones springing up around the world, and a powerful campus-based anti-sweatshop campaigning formed.

Passionate, powerful and inspiring as the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement has been, its progress rapidly demonstrated that the Left had lost the old ways of talking about economics and had not yet found new ones. The movement was never anti-globalisation of course; it is anti-neoliberalism, but has been labelled as the former by the relentless energy of its opponents. The internet’s capacity to make every point on the network a transmitter and receiver, had been at the base of the movement’s success. The quantitative change in information flow had created a qualitative one which superseded the role of parties or committees in coordinating activity. The merry chaos and information overload this created was not a major problem in the first stage, when the overwhelming imperative was to simply destroy the illusion of global consensus regarding neoliberalism.

As things have progressed, something more has been required and this has exposed not only major divisions within the movement, but a series of unanswered questions about the economic alternative that is being proposed. One section of the movement is clearly reformist, and its goals are the transformation of free-trade global structures such as the WTO into genuinely regulatory structures for the protection of labour rights, environmental organisation and the like. Another is anti-industrial. Between these extremes is a radical middle in which marxist and radical liberal sentiments vie for dominance. The radical liberal component is deeply ethical in its arguments, regarding the horror of global sweatshops, destruction of pre-capitalist community forms with rich cultural lives, and so on. The marxist element draws on these themes, but its dilemma is clear. A marxist should celebrate the development of the productive forces that neoliberalism provokes — while all the while campaigning for labour organisational rights and similar — as the necessary stage on the way to a global proletariat. That most marxist-oriented groups have been shy of doing this openly, is a measure not only of their awareness of a much greater scepticism towards technology and development throughout the Left, but also of a gap in the account — a way in which the possibility of a socialist world could be represented to people, in a manner that does not make it sound like a vegie co-op organised on a global scale. Initially this was deferred by the admonition against detailed programs that was part of Marx’s critique of French utopian socialism. In the recent round of the anti-globalisation movement, the emphasis on a purely critical and negative position — the enormous No — has been necessary to avoid the fractious rending apart process that occurred amongst radical groups attempting to make common cause in the 1980s.

This avoidance of a program fudges the issue — as is clear from consulting the Communist Manifesto with its point-by-point plan for a transition at the end. Yet it is the very content of that programme that points us to the difficulties of advancing a program for what socialism or communism might be in the current context. Reading of the simple suggestions that ‘housing will be assigned by lottery’, for example, is to tap back into a world prior to the swinging-closed of the door of the iron cage of bureaucracy, of the observation/discovery of the will-to-power, conspicuous consumption, and much else. Marx was forward thinking enough to observe that ‘today’s desires are tomorrow’s needs’, but he could not foresee the way in which needs/desires would become open-ended, that they would admit of no limit. A socialism derived from a marxist perspective has an implicit idea that, at a certain level of satisfaction, needs will be sated, and a rational and non-fetishised approach to the world can be developed. Things will lose their role as carriers of status and exchange-value and become what they are, present themselves to the person, who will then reacquire an interest in the particular and sensuous nature of the world, thus becoming ‘poetic’, creative, protean.

In the global North, it has become clear that there is no limit to the process by which desires are converted to needs. Nicholas Xenos has pointed out the way in which that process was being opened up by the beginnings of consumerism in shopping arcades and advertising in the final part of the nineteenth century. More recently, Humphrey McQueen has noted the way in which ‘natural’ tastes can be constructed or transformed by the global economic processes. Marx anticipated the degree to which consumerism would take on a spiritual dimension, and become a way in which ‘having’ would be substituted for ‘being’, but he could not have anticipated the endless potlatch that contemporary consumption would become, or the degree to which it would take over people’s fantasies of happiness.

The signal fact of this is the manner in which gambling, and mega-prize lotteries in particular, came to the fore as socialism lost even its vestigial hold on the popular imagination. The lottery is a social bargain on a universal scale — it proposes that whole social classes will give up their claim to a common improvement in exchange for the possibility that a vanishingly small number of them will be lifted into extreme wealth by a random process. The remainder live off the vanishingly small possibility that it will be them next week. The popularity of the lottery is a recognition that desires/needs have gone beyond the point at which everyone could be satisfied, and offer instead the possibility that one might be the person for whom they are satisfied. It is alienation raised to a new degree — one is sold nothing but possibility, chance. It is a new and more streamlined expression of the manner in which the ceaseless manufacture of new needs makes the very notions upon which the idea of ‘socialism’ was built.

One of the entry points for the Arena project has been the degree to which marxism drew on a series of presuppositions about innate human nature — suppositions that could not be sustained. That led to a consideration of what the nature of an authentically human society might be, shorn of the fantasies and unanswered questions present at the core of marxism.

Years later, post-modernism tackled these issues with the label of ‘essentialism’ that itself became a fetish. An information society produced a theory that suggested that the world was, in fact, information, and this proved irresistibly attractive to one social class — the information producers themselves. At the same time, massive changes were occurring in the relationship between the sciences, technology and industry. Thirty years after the identification of DNA and advances in neurology, the ‘post-human’ industries exploded into being — bio-technology and psychopharmacology. The latter connected with the new discipline of evolutionary psychology to give a new picture of human being — a brain-mind machine, capable of multiple interventions, which could transform subjectivity. The super anti-depressant Prozac was the first of these; now wave upon wave of new drugs promise to control ever more specific areas of human behaviour, from shyness to worrying. The former is by far the more confronting, since it offers what some types of leftists and futurists (largely sci-fi writers such as Ursula LeGuin and Philip K Dick) had anticipated — the flight from human corporeality to a post-human existence, as a cyborg, or as a post-biological creature. The successive identification of genes, spurious or real, for organic diseases and then for alcoholism, depression, coupled with birth technologies, cloning and live organ transplants offered the full realisation of an economy in which every aspect of existence — the particular features of the reproduction of human life included — has been drawn into the circuit of production. Post-modernists (especially US post-modernists such as Donna Harraway and Judith Butler) have drawn on these events as the source of a new and higher potential for human liberation, in which subjectivity becomes stripped of any contingent form of embodied existence — gender, race, ‘disability’ — whatsoever.

When we ended the first series of Arena, and inaugurated a magazine and a theoretical journal, it was in the context of these theoretical and practical developments. Our attention was turned substantially to these historical processes, principally because they were indicative of a trend that ran deeper than capitalism itself — and that was the tendency towards the ‘taking up’ of all forms of life into a single mode of instrumental abstraction — a global hitech realm of post-human subjects. Not only that but there was room within the marxist tradition for approval of such a process. We would go beyond our limited, embodied natures and become the socialist ‘supermen’ that Trotsky talked about in his more speculative pieces.

Increasingly, the Left is split between groups divided not only by their means, but also by their ends, as well as how they think about the very sort of political ends desired. Once the Left within the Labor Party shared with those outside it the belief that everyday life would be qualitatively transformed by a democratic socialist system, whether by parliamentary or other means. Now the ideas of what is possible have diverged so widely that they are different sorts of things. The tinkering with allowances and programs — from the paltry form of maternity leave being discussed to education vouchers — has almost wilfully submerged one whole dimension of politics, the part of it that is an argument about values and the way we should live, rather than about accommodating institutions to the way people happen to live.

A second strand is the radically post-modern or anti-industrial neotribalism of a number of groups within the global social movement, a revival of themes that have been in the Left since its inception, and well before. The contradictions of these groups — often communicating via the global telecommunications system that sustains the internet — are well-known. Although many such groups acknowledge the need for some level of activity other than the tribal or the communal, their accounts of such are rarely worked out.

The third group are those who have given themselves over entirely to a vision of an alternative world, with a deliberate disregard for its practicality — Bey’s ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ is an example of this, as is the importance placed on ‘flows’ and ‘deterritorialisation’ in the writings of people such as Negri, Agamben, and many of the groups either influenced by them, or exploring similar themes. Here there is an abandonment of any attempt to give a credible account of what sort of institutions people would live in and through — it is as if a silent division of political labour had been agreed to, with dreamers untouched by practicality, and policy works unmoved by a vision.

Not the least of the factors contributing to this has been the degree to which one social class hitherto charged with doing a lot of the ‘dreaming’ — the intellectually trained, those who work in scientific research and humanities and the arts — have seen their status shift radically within the last twenty years, and particularly the last ten. For a period roughly coincident with the existence of the New Left, key sections of such groups saw the realisation of their own cultural and political needs and desires in a world transformed economically and socially — a world that was not merely rational but reinvented, made anew. What has happened since is not merely that the economy has been fused to scientific research to a degree hitherto unimaginable, but that the economy of the 1990s became the field within which the most extreme visions could be realised. Bio-technology, virtual reality, psychopharmacology, space exploration — it was the supercharged market that could deliver this new world. This new historical circumstance brought not only the ‘post-modernists’ over with it, but also sections of the old Left — witness the trajectory of elements within the UK Revolutionary Communist Party, who eventually became coalesced around an online publication called Spiked, and which sees its role as combatting any attempts to place limits on the promethean growth of capital — and scientific rationality — chiefly religion, the pervasive culture of risk minimisation, and the Green movement. In this widely held view it is any form of socialism which becomes, not the enabler of freedom, but the limit upon it.

To overturn that false dichotomy would appear to be one of the core tasks of reimagining a Left for the twenty-first century. Here the concerns that have been of particular interest to us connect with the broader and more traditional concerns of a Left.

The widely held idea is that one must have either a dream of unbounded human possibility or no vision of a transformation at all has not only come about because of the legacy of Marx’s arresting vision, but because one aspect of that vision appeared in the new technolgies set within the market in the 1980s and 1990s — first the infinite extension of the media, and then the technical possibilities came to seem like something to which one had a right, the only possible place in which one could find one’s true being.

Any suggestion that one should think about the way in which the infinite extension of these things would undermine all that makes us human and which grounds meaning — embodiment and connection via abiding face-to-face groups — tends to get sidelined. How could one imagine limits? More specifically how could one consent to the vision of socialism developed most fully by people such as Michael Albert and others of ‘Z’ Magazine — a ‘total democratic’ model in which the control of each workplace, each production network would be subject to the endless control of meetings, committees, dialogue? It should be clear that this is not freedom from necessity but a total submission to it, via the fetish of democratisation. The expansion of production, media and scientific knowledge could not be humanised by ‘democratic’ control if such processes had expanded to all areas of life, they could only be humanised if they were set within a variety of ways and modes of life that were consciously chosen as more grounded expressions of the human. In other words, a transformed world — call it communism if you like — would have vastly expanded production capacity in some areas, and even a degree of bio-technology and some cyborgisation as part of medical treatments. And a certain amount of hitech production for use — controlled not through total democratisation of production, but as some non-expert oversight of expert processes — in the manner of the ‘technology boards’ that Sharon Beder describes in this issue. But, crucially, it would have areas of life which had been consciously and explicitly drawn out of highly abstracted levels of production, and regrounded in collective and small-group labour. One could imagine that key aspects of food production, shelter, furniture, education, entertainment and other processes would be partially regrounded in this manner, and that cultural limits would be placed on a range of post-human bio-technologies. Thus communism would not be a supersession of all hitherto existing modes of production and interconnection, but one which incorporated them all as freely chosen life activities. Thus large-scale production would have been socialised, but money, markets, and small-scale property ownership would continue to exist — most importantly small-group production and interconnection would be drawn back out of the historical dustbin into which it had been ushered by the coming of capital and media. The absurdity of much intellectual properties — in particular the patenting of nature — would have long since been abolished.

This prospect is not near, though nor may it be as far away as we think. A serious stumble by capital — particularly in the more prosperous parts of the world — would make visible the enormous and imminently socialistic networks that have developed within it, and their lack of reliance on market coordination. But that makes clear that the area of greater importance is the irreducibly political-cultural project of ‘choosing the human’ — of making visible the degree to which the encounter with nature and the necessary world is what must be chosen in order to realise the authentic and genuinely human existence that communism promises.

In the immediate future, we face a world seemingly as far away from that as ever — one of remorseless globalisation and the drawing in of all life to a global market on the one hand, and a series of wars between the major power blocs on the other. Whether these occur or are forestalled, we face in the next decades a challenge to life and being less in keeping with 2001, and more redolent of 1984. Beyond that, or from within it, the prospect of grasping a fully human existence continues to beckon.

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