Reclaim Theory by Martin Eiermann
Of all the places to root one’s criticism of the Old Left, the bible is perhaps a rather unlikely one. Yet there it is, right in the words of Matthew 9.17, where Jesus addresses the Pharisees:
“Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine in new bottles, and both are preserved.”
What a great phrase against religious heresies, against corporate practices of “rebranding” and “repackaging”, against consumer deception, against the perpetual cycle of newer products, better smartphones, faster cars that feeds on the creation of desire and has long shifted the focus from innovation to salesmanship. And what a good characterization of the stagnation of the Old Left.
If there is one thing that has repeatedly frustrated me in recent weeks and months, it is the almost instinctive reaction of certain parts of the Left to seek consolation in history. The Old Left is a small section within the Occupy movement – a few faces at the General Assemblies in London, a member or two in various working groups – but they are vocal and determined. And they sometimes represent something of a socialist version of Godwin’s Law: The longer a conversation continues, the greater the possibility that someone will invoke Marx – and shut the conversation down soon afterwards. It’s hard to argue with words that have long been at the heart of Left theorizing about the world.
Here’s the problem I have with them: As soon as the window of opportunity opens, the inclination is to turn to Marx, to Gramsci, to the rhetoric of class struggle and the methodology of dialectical materialism. They turn to thoughts and conceptualizations that are a century old – and describe a world that looks distinctly different from the world we inhabit and contest today – and apply them not as abstract models but as how-to guides for revolution and as descriptive accounts of global inequalities and injustices. “The only solution – Revolution!” – sentences like it seem to confuse insights with fervor, and accuracy with the seeming authenticity of traditional Leftist thought. It is as if someone tried to sail around the world with a flat-earth map from the 12th century, or as if a surgeon decided that cancerous cells could best be cured through bloodletting. I recently stumbled even upon an article that tried to resurrect the idea of communist revolution: The internal contradictions of capitalism had finally been exposed to all eyes while the spread of social media had lowered the threshold for the ultimate, international, communist revolution. Occupy was the vanguard, but soon enough, the masses would follow. You could almost hear the faint singing in the background: “Arise ye campers from your slumbers / arise ye prisoners of want / for reason in revolt now thunders / and at last ends the age of cant.” Quite simply, I did not believe it.
William Kristol and other conservatives are actually quite correct to have objected to the Marxist rhetoric that is often found in the periphery of Occupy camps. But they have done so for the wrong reasons. Talk about “class struggle” is not, as Kristol contends, a sign of the “anti-democratic” nature of Occupy but rather a symptom for severe theoretical confusion. I believe in the future of the Left, and in its ability to alter public and political discourses about social, economic and political issues. But I am concerned that the rhetoric of yore presents an obstacle rather than a powerful tool in that task.
This does not mean that Marx, Gramsci and Co. have become unimportant, and that their heritage should be dismissed. To the contrary: Gramsci’s writing about “pessimism of the head and optimism of the heart” remains one of the most eloquent expressions of the activist’s credo. Marx’s worries about the inherent conservatism of rights-based arguments – see “On the Jewish Question” – can be seen everywhere. Recent court decisions about the legality of same-sex marriage are good news – but they are the exception rather than the rule. The judiciary, as Marx pointed out, often serves as the ultimate bulwark of the status quo.
To be clear: This is not an attack on the sincerity and commitment of those who count themselves as avid Marxists. Rather, it is an appeal to complement those ideas and theories with new insights, new thinkers, new realities. The message is one of theoretical audacity rather than ideological retreat. Rather than asking whether we want to be “neo-” or “post-” or whatever other form of Marxism, why do we not attempt to define ourselves and the problems we want to address in more contemporary terms?
No doubt: We are standing on the shoulders of giants. It is not surprising that TIME Magazine – hardly a bastion of fellow travelers – listed both Marx and Lenin on its nominee list for the “Person of the 20th Century”. Without the great thinkers of the 19th and 20th century, there would have been no Communist movement in the rural South in the 1920s. John Maynard Keynes might have had different ideas about macroeconomics, the anti-colonial and post-colonial struggles would have looked differently, feminism would have adopted a different rhetoric, as would the globalization movements of the 1990s. Even neoliberal ideologues would have been affected: Who knows what enemy they would have attacked, or which accusations they would have raised against Obama? In other words: The status quo of the Left (and of politics more generally) cannot be disentangled from its history. We cannot understand the arguments of the 21st century without understanding their relation to the proverbial giants.
In retrospect, logical connections emerge: Did Marx not warn us against the need for capitalism to create new markets? Did Gramsci not speak of the persistence of hegemonies? True – but here’s the catch: Understanding relationships is not the same as drawing up blueprints. The world we are describing and contesting today is far different from the world of the industrial revolution or the interwar years. Whoever blames Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” for the current financial clusterfuck fails to see that Smith’s book was written well before the advent of any kind of true market economy. It described the world of late feudalism and sketched out a vision. Little did Smith know that his words would eventually be caught in the middle of a bloated, predatory, distorted and dreamy financial system that pursued its own implosion with blissful arrogance. Little did Marx and Gramsci and even Habermas know about the effects of globalization, the spread of digital technology, the mobility of capital, et cetera.
The particular shape of the vestiges of hegemony and economic expansionism today can hardly be explained by their theories. Marx might be able to tell us that power induces exploitation. But who is exploited, how, and for what reasons? “Das Kapital” won’t help us.
We live in interesting times. Many truths that seemed deeply entrenched even two years ago are up for discussion. The logic of growth and the rhetoric of capitalism show cracks, mounting debt begs to be remedies with new economic policies, while frustrations with the political process have burst into the mainstream. Even those who used to dismiss ideas from the Left as “mad” now concede: The only madness is the belief that we can simply continue as before. “The field”, as Zizek recently said in an interview, “is wide open.” We have many new bottles – new discursive frameworks, new movements, etc. – that demand to be filled. It would be sad if they were filled with old wine, even when it is deeply red. Contemporary problems demand contemporary articulations.
There is certainly no shortage of ideas: Clay Shirky or Zeynep Tufekci have a thing or two to say about communicative action. Simon Levin has done great work on applying insights from ecological systems theory to the banking sector. Roberto Unger has sketched out a transformative project of radical reformism. Charles Beitz writes eloquently about political and justice. Helmut Anheier brings statistical knowledge to the idea of civil society. Ulrich Beck theorizes the idea of a “risk society”. Joseph Vogl traces the dangers of living at the expense of the future (think credit card debt and environmental destruction). Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have looked at modern hegemonies. Tim Jackson writes persuasively on the dilemma of economic growth, Judith Butler on gender issues. The list goes on and on.
Change is an innovative endeavor. We might know our point of departure, and we might have a vision for the future. But the steps in between – who knows! Rather than retreating to entrenched foundations, we might thus want to reclaim the idea of innovative thought. Just as we aspire to courageous acts of disobedience and defiance, we might also aspire to courageous ideas. After all, the intellectual history of the Left is a history of daring thinkers. Marx diverged from Smith or Hegel, Habermas pushed beyond Adorno and Horkheimer. Their theories rose to prominence precisely because they seemed to offer new insights into new social and political phenomena. They were new wine in new bottles – and both were preserved.
Martin Eiermann lives in London, where he studies human rights and social theory and serves as co-editor of The Occupied Times, the OLSX newspaper.