There have been at least two great intellectual failures in the last hundred years - the first is Marxism-Leninism and the second has been the liberal rejection of some of the central insights of the Marxists.
Class But Not As We Know It, Jim
This is not to praise Marxism except as an analytical tool under defined condiitions because Marxism is, fundamentally, a poor guide to our human condition. Despite its alleged materialism, it is an idealist philosophy.
Idealism is sanctioned lying about the world. Marxism is Hegelian which, in turn, is an historicism derived from the Western Christian tradition which, in turn and philosophically, is ultimately an adaptation of Platonism.
The trajectory from Plato's Cave to the Gulag has been well if simplistically argued by others but the summary is that this Western tradition of idealism is ultimately religious and 'spiritual' and that it can kill when brooked. History is on my side as I write this.
But the proverbial baby has been thrown out with the bath water in at least two respects. We have forgotten Marx' and Engels' insights that politics and culture derive intimately from economic conditions and that, though each person is greater than his class, there are class interests in politics.
Modern liberal democracy has tried to eliminate the language of class because it is not convenient for its preferred model of professionals organising functional coalitions of special interests and lobbies to share out the benefits of growth - but when growth falters, then Marx becomes analytically relevant.
Where Should We Be Looking
For this reason, in trying to understand what might develop out of the current economic crisis, we have to return both to theory and to what is happening where we are not looking - much as in 1910, we might have been wise not to ignore intellectuals in Zurich or school teachers in Bavaria.
We should be studying not the machinations of the ideologues of the future (that is the job of the security services) but what they are saying that resonates with those who are either resentful of the current order of things or who are suffering and have the energy to do something about it.
It is that last clause that matters 'who 'have the energy to do something about it' - because there are an awful lot of resentful older middle class people, intellectuals and poor and vulnerable people who sit in their armchairs or on their sofas and have neither will nor ability to act.
Indeed, liberal democratic hegemony (indeed, all hegemonies) ultimately relies on inaction - that moan in the pub, grumble in front of the TV, meaningless letter to The Times, rant in a Facebook comment. None of this morphs into organisation or action. It is the 'art of being ruled' (stealing Wyndham Lewis' phrase).
This is why the Occupy Movement, the hackers of LulzSec and the Anonymous operation both fascinate and appall the establishment. They alternately have to try to contain them within their laws and infiltrate them with progressive rhetoric or secret policemen (the Tsarist model).
Who Are These People?
But who are these people as a class? Not who is behind the 'attacks' or 'occupations' because some might as easily be provocations by the establishment as genuine acts of revolt, but who is participating not only in 'new' models of political action but in confused riots as states weaken?
We have written elsewhere about the new anarchism but it is the class base of this movement that interests us here - and further investigation suggests that we are not seeing something new but something very old, the blockage of the aspirations of an educated young by the failed old.
This is a movement of graduates and not of workers (though there is a separate union-driven public sector defence movement whose self interest is so apparent that even very liberal middle classes resent their claims) and of persons who are 'cleverer' than their parents.
We get back to Marx. As in the print revolution of the 1500s, a revolution in communications has created a new technological and economic structure where value has shifted from one generation to another but where the necessary political or cultural change is lagging.
It is an old theme of these postings but the new technologies are not so much removing the ability of intermediaries to make surplus value for themselves out of their oligarchical control of knowledge (the professionals, if you like) but are making an older generation of intermediaries wholly redundant.
Paul Mason's Analysis
The young who know things the old do not know, including the absurdity of many of the rules designed to hold the old system together, are using new technologies to combine and protest in ways that are entirely new.
A recent Left Futures posting referring back to an earlier analysis of Paul Mason of BBC Newsnight that gave a number of reasons why this needs to be understood and, to a degree, embraced if we are to transit from one world to another without repression and killing. This is our gloss on that work.
- Young graduate women are emerging who are not stuck in the feminist resentments of the older generation but simply get on with practical organisation in their own interest and what they believe to be right - Mason is right that educated women are at the core of protest
- Ideological formulations are dead. There will be Marxists, conspiracy theorists, faith-based loons, environmentalists and liberals but none of them can control a propaganda process or impose an organisational model that stifles internal dissent or insists on a 'line'.
- An international 'elite' of protesters is emerging who operate quasi-professionally across borders or who supply technical skills across a borderless internet. This is an analogue with the intellectual diaspora dissidents who fuelled the rise of anarchism and Marxism-Leninism.
- The central economic issue is debt at a time of lack of employment opportunity. The protests might rapidly disappear with job creation or free education and debt forgiveness but States are in no position to deliver these during the current crisis.
- If this problem of a generation without prospects and with old codgers getting in the way is causing difficulties in the West, then it is boiling up to violent proportions in the many countries where there is now a massive demographic bulge of frustrated urban young.
- Organised labour is pretty well bankrupt as a revolutionary force. It has been a conservative force against 'clercs' since the 1940s but it has degenerated further into being representative largely of those who are already ensconced within the State - a truly conservative interest at this time.
- Protest as 'fun' - this should not be underestimated because contemporary protest permits people to 'take a day off' and join a camp. There is a history of carnival and, of course, situationist theory to fall back on, quite consciously so amongst urban anarchists.
There is also no reliable narrative of 'threat' to hold the majority against protest. Truth to tell, a lot of armchair establishment supporters are equally supporters of protest and see no contradiction in this - we have seen churchmen and Tory MPs expressing sympathy for the frustrations of the young.
The educated young activist now has a better understanding of power relations than his forebears. The older generation would move forward on idealistic hope and then become crushed by defeat. The young do not run on hope but on manipulative skills as effective as those of their opponents.
Of course, this fluidity and lack of ideology is also a weakness in the street. Occupy events have proved weaker on the ground than they might have been because they have attracted every type of conspiracy nut, weak-minded New Ager and middle class narcissist looking for self-expression.
It also brings us back to class because, as Mason points out, young activists are driven by this core understanding of power but not by allegiance to class or, bluntly, any real comprehension of economics.
The situationism in contemporary revolt is there for all to see and I am certainly not saying that the young should adopt Marxist models for success, quite the contrary since the end result would be bureaucratism, authoritarianism and soullessness, but there are issues here of organisation.
We are only suggesting, by referring to Marx, that this is, despite its lack of self awareness, a form of class action because it is based, despite itself, fundamentally on economics and on technological changes to the means of production and that this leads to some interesting 'internal contradictions'.
But the intellectual base for rejecting Marxism as anything more than analytical tool is well summarised in a quotation between French intellectuals that Mason offers. Foucault advises Deleuze:
We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation [a nod to Marx], and, to this day [second half of the twentieth century], we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power [which Mason and we think is now being fully understood]
The problem of organisation is a profound one because the current model of power relations only offers inclusion within liberal democratic coalition-building or the sort of bureaucratic organisational ability that allowed socialists to out-manouevre the anarchists between 1910 and 1940.
The New Anarchism?
The logic of current protest is different but it is, as yet, unclear how it can 'organise' at all. The fundamental self interest of the young and the Darwinian struggle between memes within that generation suggests that their primary tools are their effect on the market and withdrawal from the law.
By withdrawal from the law, I mean not lawlessness but something entirely different and more dangerous to the system - forcing the elite to acknowledge that its authoritarianism is unenforceabe in any practical sense. The internet language of 'work-arounds' when systems fail springs to mind.
The protests are, we are told by Mason, based on 'autonomy' and personal freedom within a democratic framework and (self-evidently) on opposition to state-protected special interests such as Wall Street and the finance markets.
This is where things start to get confused because if Anonymous and libertarian socialists are anti-capitalist, it is also clear that the Greek riots are about preserving an economic system that was socialist in the worst sense - corrupt at every level including the level of the working classes themselves.
The libertarian young Italians coming to London to escape local corruption are in direct class opposition to young public service workers expecting to be feather-bedded for life. Anonymous is with the first and Occupy is increasingly representing the last.
Conservative Welfarism And Personal Autonomy
On the one side, hackers, anarcho-libertarians and situationists and, on the other, a special interest socialistic coalition of state workers, liberals and communitarians. These are very different movements and they cannot work long together.
The 'neo-socialists' are appealing to the police by saying that they are protesting to protect their pensions (and making headway with that argument), while the libertarians are wondering what the police are doing there anyway.
The State also needs economic growth and surplus capital to impose law and order so reducing the need for law and order to its core becomes necessary - and this is why we now have serious public debate on the treatment of sex workers and the war on drugs.
There is some complex intellectual negotiation going here - between justification for tax expenditure on guns and butter, about what constitutes threat to the people and what constitutes threat to the State and about public intrusion into private life.
The Anonymous campaign against child pornography and the Lulzsec exposure of child porn sites is interesting because it drives an unexpected wedge between left-libertarians on appropriate behaviour and accountability but also offers populist support for 'right' laws. This is 'work-around' in action.
States & Protest
It is likely that States have identified or are identifying elite operatives and are already busy not merely tracking but 'turning' and infiltrating them. The operatives are often well-heeled and not representative of most of the young by any means - state funds can permit new entrants to rise rapidly.
There is also a rather sinister potential turn to events that the more naive activists may not see. State bureaucrats may see protesters as allies in bringing the market to heel and protecting the tax base for precisely the sort of activities that Anonymous was set to expose.
Paradoxically, the alliance of States and liberal coalitions might be rather convenient for authority when faced by the demands of finance capital and the Occupy and Anonymous movements may be useful in shifting the terms of political trade back towards 'auctoritas'.
Yet another issue for the protest movements is one already well identified in the mainstream media ... er, what do they actually want?
The 'internal contradiction' here is that much of the rhetoric is anti-State and yet the jobs and free education can only be provided by a strong State with a decent tax base and here we have a possible convergence of State and liberal aspirations at the expense of personal autonomy and libertarianism.
Liberty or Jobs?
In both New York and London, the Occupy protesters appear to be targeting finance capital rather than government and to be drifting from the territory of Anonymous (which emphasises state action as generally 'wrong') to territory associated with socialism and social liberalism (more state is needed).
This internal contradiction is profound, mirroring that between anarchism and socialism in the late nineteenth century and representing the difference between libertarian ideology and the self interest of the coalition of the vulnerable threatened with penury by the current crisis.
We are already seeing libertarians moving away from the Occupy Movement as it falls into the hands of the traditional Left (not helped by an Archbishop backing it).
The point is that the real reason we are in economic crisis is not 'imperialism' (which is unwieldy and expensive but probably pays its way in market access and access to resources) but the massively greater social spending and job creation programmes of social liberal states.
When Anonymous strikes at US behaviour in Iraq, it is striking at the State as both imperialist and liberal capitalist (including its size and welfare basis) whereas when Occupy protesters seize territory, they want the State to remain big but do the 'right thing' i.e. give them economic prospects and security.
Anarcho-Libertarianism or Neo-Socialism?
This internal contradiction is so profound because it is about whether the new generation will be led by neo-socialists wanting to over-turn capitalism by means of the State or anarcho-libertarians wanting to get the State out of the market and stop supporting some big capitalists.
The unpredictability of things lies in another point made by Mason - that there are a multiplicity of narratives from which both the young and the dissatisfied older citizens can draw.
Fundamental world views do not change but the expression of those views can change very rapidly under the influence of the internet. Support or withdrawal of support from causes no longer takes place within a narrative of 'solidarity' or 'loyalty' but one of 'truth' or 'effectiveness'.
This is why older generation liberals are confused and are becoming reactionary. There is now no fixed feminist, black or gay narrative any more than there is a nationalist or working class narrative. There is just 'my' or 'our' narrative according to who I am or to the interest of my adoptive tribe.
Constant self development and neo-tribalism mean enormous adaptability and flexibility but they also difficulty in pinning people down to organised collective action as opposed to participation in an action organised by others from which they may withdraw at a moment's notice.
In this struggle between modes of resistance, nothing is as yet predictable. Church, unions, police and military may join the protesters for a neo-socialist solution or States may have to adapt to situational anarchism by reducing their scope and being better at what they do. Either is possible.