The boat has not left: a reply to Gregor Gall



In his broadside against the global Left, Gregor Gall claims that the Left has lost all credibility.  This is a common complaint in tune with criticism from the Right, a case of Stockholm Syndrome.

The Left is not the force we would like it to be. I agree with some of Gall’s points, and I write this article to add to the conversation, to keep it going.

But despairing calls of ‘why haven’t the workers joined us in our struggle?’ do little to help.

We know that monolithic neoliberalism is not actually a monolith.  It is a program that has eddies and flows; it is riddled with contradictions. Nonetheless, it profoundly affects us.  Everyone sees themselves as capitalist agents, with ‘the market’ as an almighty power that distributes punishment or reward based on one’s ability to participate in it.  And this form of discipline (to use the Foucauldian term) continues to be enforced, undermining fundamental class divisions.

What neoliberalism does is turn us all, ideologically, into middle class producers as well as consumers.  Appeals to class consciousness in relation to the means of production duly begin to disappear.

If we fail to see the success of neoliberalism in its micro-politics as well as its overall order we become blinded about the types of conjunctures we find ourselves, and the actual balance of class and political forces.

Gregor notes that the Left failed to take stock of the global economic crisis. This is because we have become reactive rather than being able to anticipate, and so we cannot understand how neoliberalism not only survived the crisis but also strengthened itself through the implementation of austerity.

We can’t just hope to create a leftist rank and file of thin air once the crisis has hit. What is necessary is a deep rethinking of neoliberalism, so we can start developing micro and macro forms of solidarity, collective organisations that provide opportunities for collective action and places to hide from the brutality of everyday neoliberalism.

This is already happening in the Global South and even in parts of Europe.  Solidarity collectives among the most impoverished appear both out of an absolute need to survive but also as a new way of thinking about organising.

Although there are many problems in Latin America, broad left-wing programs have large support in many nations there.  Even communist parties, unimaginable in Australia, have wide support on the continent that suffered the brunt of a neo-liberal adjustment.

I don’t mean to romanticise these struggles but rather to point out that the global Left is not one large collective that rises and falls together.  As neoliberalism affects nations and peoples in different manners, the opportunities are also different. We need to recognise how capitalism shifts its crises geographically, and therefore the opportunities for the Left to react also shift.

What’s more, the only reason these opportunities’ present themselves is because of the years of subaltern organisation that have taken place beforehand.

We in the West cannot wait for the next crisis to hit before people become so desperate they look for new forms of organisation. We need to think about how neoliberalism atomises people and how to overcome this, planting the seeds of a stronger Left.

The first step is not to change reality to fit our dreams but to change our dreams. We can’t wait for the magical event that turns us into a revolutionary force.  In reality, capitalism is the real revolutionary force. We need to do what Zizek says, be realistic by asking for the impossible. There are plenty of examples of the hidden potential, from Syriza to the indignados movement, but these were not established by reacting, but rather by organising for the long term.

Philosopher Jodi Dean uses psychoanalytic theory to show how ‘drive’ is the capitalist mode of being. Capitalism is not orientated toward anything in particular but moves easily from one object to other: hence its ability to reinvent itself.  It is a circuit that almost thrives on failure, with each new failure creating a new enjoyment. Capitalism is like being stuck on Youtube, always clicking one more video, in an ultimately unsatisfying repetition.

The effects, of course, are personally and systemically destructive. But if we continue to act reactively, then we too are stuck in this system.  Instead (to use Dean again), a ‘desire’ should be created, a view towards an unachievable horizon. For the Left, this horizon should be a desire for a collective form of organisation.

One of the consequences of ‘really existing socialism’ was the destruction of this impulse in the Left.  We turned to reactive identity politics, convinced that utopia would only lead to dictatorship.

Yet even if a social upheaval culminates in a recomodification by capitalism (as critics suggest happened after the May ’68 uprising), that which was lost persists as a dream. Whenever we are engaged in radical emancipatory politics, we should remember what Benjamin said: there is no such thing as an ‘authentic’ revolution but nonetheless each left-wing movement is also directed to the past as well as the future. It can use dreams, however small, from the past on the way to finding a new freedom.

This might be only theoretical musings. But I do think there needs to be a shift in our thinking, a move to unified front that could come out of the creation of a new horizon, rather than simply reactive programs.  We need to rediscover the lost dreams of the past, and patiently work for the long term.

I do not have all the answers. But, at a practical level, there is an urgent need to organize and mobilise workers and the unemployed towards a broadly leftist horizon, rather than continuing to react.


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