|READING GUIDE TO:
Sivanandan A (1990) Communities of Resistance... writings on black
struggles for socialism London: Verso. Chapter Two All that
Melts Into Air is Solid (also in Race and Class 31, 3
This is a marvellous polemic against the 'New Times' project, and, more broadly, the gramscian project to launch a new politics for the 1980s. Sivanandan is the Director of the Institute of Race Relations (which also published Race and Class). I also like the fiery, scathing but funny style of this piece -- you won't see many written like this these days, I fear!!
'New Times is a fraud, a counterfeit, a humbug. It palms off Thatcherite values as socialist... makes consumption itself the stuff of politics... New Times is a mirror image of Thatcherism passing for socialism.' (page 19). The flaws arise because it is founded in the desire to formulate a programme for an anti-- Thatcherite coalition. There is no proper account of the appeal of Thatcherism, so the programme smuggles in Conservative vision and policies, and tries recast them. The programme did not explain why people put up with Thatcherism, nor does it try to tease out the roots in the changes of the production process which are needed to rethink socialism and marxism. Instead, it reworked marxism from the existing options of Stalinism or EuroCommunism. The question remains -- who is the new constituency?
The new philosophy emanates from 'theoretical practitioners', who were concerned to examine, and reinterpret texts, to produce new interpretations, to fit the modern consumerist world. Other theorists rejected economic determinism, but this led to an over-emphasis on culture and cultural politics, which were fragmented and separated in terms of challenging social blocs, but which was still capable of unity. These new social forces were preferred to class, and were 'informed by the politics of the person'. Class was reintroduced, via the 'politics of difference', but later on. The apparent flexibility of the analysis is through its opportunism, and pluralism: only the notion of identity is constant.
The journal Marxism Today has become the locus for the new groups, free from social class, and free from the Labour Party The Communist Party is not suitable as a base either, especially after the condemnation of infiltration of the Labour Party. 'New Marxists hegemonise' [ search for a new party? try to influence people without being in a party?] (page 23). Economic determinism has been abandoned, so any kind of economic analysis has been abandoned, leading to a widespread ignorance of the scale and importance of changes in the new technology, where 'Capital is now emancipated from Labour' (page 24). These changes are often mere excuses for apostasy in the New Left (page 24).
The economy was finally dealt with in a special October 1988 issue of Marxism Today -- via the notion of post - Fordism. This concept is OK as a description of diversity, differentiation, decentralisation and so on, but it offers no explanation. The usual over-emphasis on the culture or ideological simply offers the reverse of economic determinism. Take Hall's piece in that issue, 'Brave New World': economic changes are discussed through the notion of information technology, flexible labour, targeted audiences and segments, globalisation and the new spatial dimensions and so on, all of which are sound as descriptions. In terms of social and cultural history, we learn of the fragmentation of the old way of life, and the emergence of new individualist, consumption-based ways of life instead. However, the economic and the socio-cultural are only 'associated'. The old vocabulary of modes and relations of production still offers a much better explanation. Hall is so keen to avoid determinism that he ignores these links, and how the manual labour of the Third World is vital to developments in the West too (page 27). The article by Murray in the same issue is better, but Hall ignores it. For Sivanandan, the whole development has been triggered by economic changes beneath the surface. Economic determinism seems absent from the cultural revolutions and theoretical innovations of the 1960s (including semiotics) which are so crucial for Hall. There is of course still a base and superstructure in our society, but this time without a working class. It is still productive forces that have led to changes in the relations of production, although organised labour has lost its economic power and thus its political power too. Nevertheless, the battle is still really about ownership and control, even if this battle is carried on at the margins and in the periphery: this is why it now appears in the West as located on the political/ideological level and not the economic/political level.[We have 'exported our class struggle' as other analysts put it]
Thatcher saw some possibilities and decided to destroy Labour as the only block on the new economic order. The New Marxists ignored social and economic changes and devoted themselves to a limited 'politics of position'. This concerned building alliances between the Labour Party and new semi-skilled workers, rather than the traditional class constituencies, in order to try and form a new social bloc from various peripheral groups welded together. This involved a fight at the level of images in politics, just like with Thatcherism, especially a fight over the image of modernity. None of this appeals to Labour's traditional constituents, but this ideological shift away from them is smothered: it comes out in Hall's snide attacks on the old Left and on racist proletarians. Are the new social groups meant to be classless, and should the left to fight only at the level of 'symbolic majorities'? If we are to deal in images, whose should they be -- the same as Mrs Thatcher's, only now offered to peripheral groups? Or should they be new images, especially ones which might reconcile the old constituents?
The 'new social movements' based on race, sex, and gender are socialist, and they are needed to restore the vision of 'genuine equality, the enlargement of self' to the working-class movement: but the problem is how to universalise them, and overcome their parochialism and sectarianism. There are dangers too, involving partial adjustments of inequality within an overall structure. The problems are similar to those facing the issue-based social forces, like Greenpeace: greens especially ignore the centrality of capitalism (which is the problem, not excessive consumption in general ) and are too focused on the affluence of the West, rather than on the necessary poverty of the Third World. In this sense, they are too naively apolitical, and so fail to connect the global and the local. Peace movements are obsessed with nuclear war in the West, rather than the thousands of local conventional wars in the Third World (page 33). Connections can grow, but only if they're open to the larger issues. The New Marxists do not analyse, and they romanticise, ignoring contradictions and elements hostile to socialism -- they are also over-concerned with tactics (page 34). They simply assert that struggles over the personal must be social too, involving dubious concepts of society [and exploiting the slipperiness of the term 'must', which we have noticed before].
Brunt, in the Marxism Today special 1988, sees struggle on identity everywhere, even in mundane and routine 'political acts... [which include to]... read, buy , refuse to buy' (says Campbell). Power is also everywhere, following Foucault. Multiple power leads to multiple resistances via 'reverse discourse', generating empowering discourses, as in 'coming out' about one's sexuality. Apparently, such liberation would meet no more constraints by objective structures, especially no class conditioning: 'all interests, including class ones, are now culturally and ideologically defined', says Hall. The new political struggles lie outside of official politics and thus are 'always positional' (Hall again). [I am reminded irresistibly of the micropolitics of an academic department here!]. Personal politics leads to the nice side of consumption and choice. We are assured that this is not just an effect of the culture industry, of course, because that would be 'undialectical', and involve cutting ourselves off from 'the landscapes of popular pleasures' (still Hall) (page 37). [Incidentally, Sivanandan notices in passing the emergence of new secular religions like counselling: these are also Thatcherism in drag]
Sivanandan argues for the reverse: New Marxism misses out materialism and profit, the exclusion of one third of the population from choice. There seems to be some optimism that democratization must be a long term trend. Instead, they should ask who shapes the landscape -- and shouldn't socialism shape one, instead of just widening access to one? (page 37).
Personalising politics can mean locating the enemy of 'women' as 'men', that of blacks as whites and so on. Oppression is seen as arising from the prejudices and powers of individuals. Such policies have led to the disastrous purges of individuals by Left authorities, or to the excesses of RAT [an aggressive form of anti-racist training, once popular in Left circles]. There has been a backlash in response against 'loonies'. Indeed, the loony left has been a key ingredient in Thatcher's success, admits Hall, in his piece 'Thatcher's Lessons' (same special issue 1988) -- but personalising politics has been responsible! The emphasis on the personal also emphasises ethnic divisions rather than black solidarity, and other splits: individual issues replace concerns with the community, or an over-emphasis on being a black person, being black enough, on the symbolic level, has become more important than having a socialist commitment. Personal politics means everyone is 'right-on', except white, straight males: there is no need to develop commitment -- 'I am, therefore I resist' (page 39). This was good news especially for those middle-class blacks who got committed, but at the level of culture and discourse, who began reinterpreting and deconstructing discourses, and thus changing the focus of the struggle to theoreticist practice [Paul Gilroy?]. This was part of a larger flight of intellectuals from class: they found justification in post fordism and the disintegration of the working class (page 40).
The 'farewell to the working-class' had led only to the usurpation of newer agents of social change, the new 'information class'. Even this was in reality split into economic information and political/cultural information specialisms [with no real need for the latter?], but at last the intelligentsia had emerged as a class. They believed they had a real influence on subjectivity, and thus on politics, and thus developed their own war of position rather than a war of manoeuvre or of revolutionary overthrow [these are references to Gramsci's fashionable terms, of course]. The intelligentsia used Marxist ideas for their own purposes, although this is not to deny that academic analysis is still needed. Academic issues should not be over done, however: there are still real issues like unemployment and poverty, even if the working class has disintegrated. Similarly, the State does more than set the limits to personal liberations -- it possesses huge coercive power, which anyone who really challenges it soon encounters. After all, Mrs Thatcher simply abolished the libertarian GLC [Greater London Council -- much defended as a site for the new politics of popular alliances among the oppressed] and all its new blocs and forces -- 'their politics of position only helped them take it lying down' (page 43), and moral outrage and shock was the only response -- and a rock concert!
Civil society is not an even terrain for all to play on -- the poor know best the 'intersection of consent and coercion'. Politics should focus on them, and on 'lowest-common-denominator' politics, especially in terms of the Third World, women, black people and proletarians. A universal ideology must underpin specific oppressions -- 'Class, even as a metaphor, is still the measure of a socialist conscience' (page 44). But the New Marxists see 'the subject' as some category with its own history and moments -- the 1960s, feminism, the new theoretical revolutions (as in Hall's piece again). This launches the politics of the subject (including 'international humanism', page 45).
Individualism is now at the core of the Left's vision, a better version than Mrs Thatcher's individualism. Old Labour statism has been rejected, and replaced with new intermediate collectivities, 'including private companies and institutions'. Choice helps us assert our differences, and this is preferred to Marx on fulfilment in the community! This strategy arises from those with choices, with additions for those less well-off. It leads to lunacies like 'individually based collectivism' (directed at Leadbetter in the 1988 special). Redistribution gets a bare mention.
Consumption is described in Hall's piece as 'lyrical'. We all do it, and use our purchases to 'code' , using goods. Sivanandan doubts that this is all that universal -- do 'those who use cardboard boxes under Waterloo Bridge... [intend merely]... to signify that they are homeless'? (page 47). The poor know who they are, and seem to cope without goods!
The article by Murray offers similar problems. He advocates movements which take on the State through the market, such as campaigns over pollution and consumer rights. The market apparently responds better than the local State -- but why does it respond? Murray acts as if 'the motive of market researchers and retailers was... [not]... profit' (page 48).
Emphasising the subjective leads to the complete omission of imperialism. The Third World exists only as a 'site for popular culture and popular politics' [' the famine movement' in one of Sivandan's marvellous phrases] (reference to an article by Hall and Jacques in Marxism Today July 1986). Politics here becomes a matter of second remove, trying to alter 'the view of governments to alter the Third World', to be organised by a 'caring people -- by pop stars... millionaire pop merchants effecting a powerful transition for young from popular culture into popular politics' (page 48). Hall and Jacques claim the Band Aid phenomenon [pop stars produce records for no payment, and the proceeds go to Third World charities] has dealt a blow to 'the ideology of selfishness -- and thus one of the main ideological underpinnings of Thatcherism'. Sivanandan argues that it has obscured the real issues, like multinationals and economic dependency, and shifted attention from a 'discourse of Western imperialism to a discourse on Western humanism' (page 49).
There has been a shift from economic determinism to cultural determinism, 'from changing the world to changing the word' (page 49), 'a socialism for disillusioned Marxist intellectuals who had waited around too long for the revolution -- a socialism that holds up everything that is ephemeral and evanescent and passing as vital and worthwhile... every shard of the self is a social movement'. This is 'an eat, drink and be merry socialism, because... [we New Marxists know that]... tomorrow we can eat, drink and be merry again' (page 49 - 50). [Irresistible stuff --even those being insulted must have laughed!!]
Capital, of course, fragments the self, but now we are to have no class to bind us together again. Even the universal liberal bourgeois values -- equality, justice, and so on -- are threatened by an unrestrained capital, because all these values arose really from the tension between capital and labour. There is no attention or contradiction any more: no real bourgeois culture, but only a petit bourgeois culture of accommodation to capital. The values and traditions of solidarity still remain [-- but for how long?]
There still are struggles in communities of resistance, in the new underclass, and among the excluded. These are difficult to organise, but they still come together over issues, as so still are 'organic communities'. Broadwater Farm was one example [protests over the policing of the state led to serious fighting, the stabbing of a policeman, and the subsequent arrest of some black people, some on dubious charges which had to be withdrawn later], the 1979 Southall demonstration showed another, while the aftermath of the death of Blair Peach was a third [Peach was protesting about policing at a demonstration, when he was chased by policemen from the Special Patrol Group, and he subsequently died -- I am trying to put this in as neutral a way as I can. The subsequent investigation was inconclusive, and no policeman was charged]. There been a number of self defence actions among black people, and subsequent court cases and campaigns, like those in Newham [ about the wrongful arrest of black people and a death in custody]. On the international front, there have been women's campaigns against Israeli terror on the West Bank, campaigns among Tamils and Kurds. These look like New Marxist extra-Parliamentary groups, but with a difference -- they are based on grassroots and concrete issues, rather than navel-gazing or single-issue politics; the participants are aware of the depth of their struggle from local to State, and for the need for real politics to struggle against capital. They have no time for personal politics. Their morality arises from a 'simple faith in human beings, morality in practice'.