Richard Seymour: The British left badly 'needs to change course'

The following are excerpts from a much longer article, "The actuality of a successful capitalist offensive", that appeared on Richard Seymour's website, Lenin's Tomb. Seymour is a leading member of the new IS Network, which is one of a number of developments on the British left that may encourage progress towards a regroupment of the left. The full article is available HERE.

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By Richard Seymour

March 29, 2013 -- Lenin's Tomb, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Richard Seymour's permission -- We've been waiting five years for a coherent left-wing response to the recession. We've been waiting three years for a coherent left-wing response to the cuts. Two years ago, I was asked at a talk how we could communicate the socialist solution to the crisis; I said it would be nice if we had one. It would still be a step forward today. If the extant strategies, groups or alliances were sufficient to deliver this, we would have it by now.

As it is, the only interruption to our "pervading dysphoria and utter perplexity" was brief, if giddy -- followed by the briefer tumult of the riots and the panicked reaction from the Party of Order. The trade union movement fought, not an expansive struggle allowing it to hegemonise a wider movement against the cuts, but a typically narrow "economic-corporatist" battle for a pensions deal roughly equivalent to what a Labour government would have offered. The last year was one of uninterrupted, quiet defeat for the most part. Labour continued to adapt to forces to its right. The government promised more cuts. The left-of-Labour forces remained fragmented, with each group championing its own 'united front' project. As for a left electoral project, a look at Trade Union and Socialist Coalition is enough to die a little inside.

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Why have things been so bleak? We continually hear that the system is in "crisis". This should be great news for us, surely? We hate the system. This should be the moment when the left advances and begins to prise open the integument...?

We have a number of apparently self-serving, but ultimately self-defeating, consolatory lines about this. For example: the left is weak, yes, but the system is weak, and so is the ruling class and its governments: their hesitating, divided response to the crisis shows us this. However, the Euro-American ruling classes, whatever divisions and uncertainties have inhibited them in their short-term, tactical orientations, have displayed extraordinary unity on the long-term strategy of "austerity". And such has been their success in colonising the dominant parties, that parliamentary opposition to this objective is negligible, and almost entirely provisional and technocratic in articulation. And as much as the resources of the bourgeoisie have been tested, they have yet to a lose a serious fight.

Another, subsidiary, example: an underlying weakness on the part of the ruling class may be inferred from the fact that "they" attack us in such a ferocious and indiscriminate manner. The logic here is that if the government and employers have to launch a sweeping, frontal attack on the living standards of the whole working class, this itself proves that the system is losing its ability to support the traditional bases of consent. Okay: there is an element of truth in this. But a prima facie ground for distrusting this logic is that if and when "they" attack us with anything less than full, sweeping force, that too is interpreted as a sign of weakness. The government's early complacency led many of us to underestimate its technical virtuosity.

Yet there is no sign of a simple, indiscriminate attack. In fact, the attack is not so frontal; it is a phased assault, deploying a diverse array of techniques which effect layers of the population in an uneven fashion. This is more sophisticated than simply "salami-slicing" the working class, and defeating one section then the next, and so on. It involves mobilising residual and active elements of discourse to constitute new social categories, who are targeted in discrete ways. Consider, in addition to the greedy union member with gold-plated pensions, and the skiving benefit scrounger, the new phenomenon of the bedroom scrounger, the welfare recipient who is under-using space in her flat and should be removed to a pebble-dashed cupboard in Thamesmead. There are also, let us not forget, "our people", "the strivers" who are opposed to "the skivers", and who are being offered certain material incentives even as their overall standard of living stagnates or declines.

A third example is the idea that because the cuts "can't work", the project will begin to collapse. In a sense, this is true. If the objective is GDP growth, then in the short run, austerity will just keep undercutting investment and growth. And of course it is also true that, in the long run, even if a new source of dynamism is found, these measures will just store up further pathologies. As a result, we can presume that both Marxists and left-Keynesians are "proven right" in a different way every time the economy starts to dip again: the cuts "aren't working". This will undermine the authority of elected governments, just as much as unelected central bankers. It will produce incredibly bitter class struggles which it would be prudent to anticipate in our strategies. Yet, we find that the government actually benefits, to an extent, from a "crisis" mindset -- linked to a set of articulations about deficit, overspending, living beyond our means, etc. etc. We find that by invoking the crisis, blaming the scroungers and systematically lowering expectations -- they aren't promising us high times, but years of grim belt-tightening before the good old days return -- the government gives itself a very long leash. Like Mrs Thatcher, the coalition government says "iron times", "backs to the wall", etc., and achieves a degree of quiescence as a result.

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All of this is hardly to deny that the system is in crisis, or that this crisis will continue to produce bitter class struggles. I have defined the current situation as one dominated by an "organic crisis", meaning a long-term, structural, multi-layered crisis that calls into question the ability of the whole system to reproduce itself. However, it is to say that this much over-used term "crisis" has been doing a lot of covert intellectual and propaganda leg-work, which obscures what is really happening. Let us dissect it a bit. What exactly do we mean by a "crisis"? In terms of the capitalist system, the dominant image from mainstream economics and bourgeois social science is of a state system that more or less efficiently reproduces itself until some imbalance or bad behaviour causes it to have a temporary rupture. In most cases, this is plausible, because the recession passes, and dynamism resumes. But in periods like the present, it loses even this surface resonance. That is why attempts to conserve the status quo end up having to be projects for its fundamental overhaul and renovation.

There is an obverse view which is not much more useful. This is the "fundamentalist" catastrophism according to which capitalism is always progressively moving toward its worst crisis yet. At the base of this is a valid Marxist insight, which is that the elements of a capitalist crisis are not exogenous or heteroclite, but actually integral to the reproduction of the system itself. That is, the system is reproduced through class struggle and intra-capitalist competition, which are the basic antagonisms that, through various mediations, tend to result in crises. These are the antagonisms behind the so-called "law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall", through which Marxists explain the most basic drive toward crisis: put crudely, capitalists in competition with one another strive to cut labour costs and reduce prices; they overaccumulate capital in doing so; they also reduce the total pool of potential profit, so that while individually they might hope to maximise their market share and thus profits, in the long-run they tend to create a crisis of profitability across the system. In the "fundamentalist" version of this theory, the successive stages of capitalist development show a marked tendency to "sharpen" crisis tendencies; the "resolution" of each crisis, unless it involves a truly cataclysmic destruction of capital, merely stores up more pathologies. At last, the concept of "crisis" is stretched so that it comes to cover a certain stage of capitalist development. The whole system, since a certain threshold, has been in a permanent state of crisis.

Such an approach occludes what is truly relevatory in Marx's account of crisis, which is that permanent crisis tendencies are part of the system's health and its dynamism. Of course there will be symptoms of ongoing crisis while the system is booming! Of course it will be rotting away in parts even while it is engorged, hypertrophic, in others! Subsuming long periods of reproduction and growth into the concept of crisis erases its specificity. Linked to this approach, sometimes, is an economistic reflex according to which the resulting class struggles erupt first on the terrain of industry, the direct capital-labour relation, which then results in a straightforward feedback from an economic crisis into a generalised political crisis of the system. The result of such an approach is that, when a real crisis does occur, far from preparing one adequately to act on it, it produces an apocalyptic complacency: this is, if not the final crisis of capitalism, certainly one of the last death convulsions, which will produce many symptoms along the way. We can tick them off as they arrive: industrial militancy, political instability, the revival of left reformism, the rise of fascism, etc. Eventually, the "contradictions" will be sharpened to the extent of producing a revolutionary situation. The task of Marxists in such circumstances will be to assist in this sharpening, through propaganda and interventions, while trying to provide the political leadership workers will need as they progress to that final battle.

If you don't recognise the above (only slightly caricatured) sketch, by the way, you could conclude that it isn't aimed at you. But I assert that such fatal tendencies do exist and are discernible in the way that revolutionaries have responded to the current crisis.

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I have argued ihat the ruling classes are usually best situated to respond proactively to a crisis, and to take advantage of it. The obvious corollary of this is that the institutions of the working class, and the left, are usually not so well situated. Stathis Kouvelakis made the point that a real crisis of capitalism is also a crisis of the left, both revolutionary and reformist. This is only logical. For while reformist parties get comfortable with governing in a particular way -- maintaining a client base in office; cultivating their popular base by mobilising them against the government when out of office; sustaining their links with the trade union bureaucracy at all times -- revolutionary parties get used to a certain method of self-reproduction, a certain routine, a certain balancing operation between different components of the party, and a certain set of perspectives that either guide their concrete actions or (as is often the case) soothe the symptoms of aimless drift and sharp, barely explained turns, with a general theoretical anaesthetic. A crisis upends all of that. The reformist party has to re-define its base, as traditional constituencies and political identities are shaken up; old methods of governance, be they welfare-capitalist or neoliberal, must be radicalised or abandoned. The revolutionary party likewise finds itself in need of new perspectives, a new base, a break with routines and entrenched dogma.


The left needs to change course, badly. To be more specific, I think we need:

i) an anti-austerity movement capable of mobilising a hegemonic majority against the cuts. The "crisis" will not do our work for us. It will affect people and relations in all sorts of ways, but our opponents will be working hard to construct a particular "lived relationship" to the crisis that favours them. There is an article in a recent issue of the thrilling Parliamentary Affairs about the "Winter of Discontent", which you might want to read in order to see how this is done. It demonstrates how the right operated on lived experiences of hardship, violence and social breakdown in order to produce the imagined experience of a crisis produced by union power, nanny-statism and tax-and-spend "socialism". Remember that this in an era when workers were suffering massive de facto pay cuts and the Labour government was cutting spending and embracing monetarism to appease the International Monetary Fund. Many workers were won to the Tories on the basis of this mythology. The point is that the alignment of forces can by no means be taken for granted because of the assumed historical pattern of capitalist crisis: political subjectivities have to be constructed, assiduously, along the main lines of antagonism. In the UK at the moment, there is no generalised political, cultural, social or industrial counterpoint to the Right's efforts. That's one reason why it was so easy to demonise the riots: there was only a weakly entrenched narrative that the cuts were probably going a bit too far, but a far more deeply rooted narrative that there was not enough discipline in schools, too much immigration, too much easy welfare for "chavs", and too much freedom for "feral youths". That's why the most dynamically growing force at the moment is the [far-right] UK Independence Party. We need a campaign that prepares the terrain around existing struggles and ahead of coming struggles and outbursts, that explains them in advance as responses to unbelievable class aggression and brutal state violence, not as the criminal actions of social deviants.

I think we need a generalised, "nationwide" campaign encompassing various levels of initiative. We presently have a series of localised fights, such as the impressive struggle in Lewisham over the hospital closure, and the heroic fight by Sussex students and staff against privatisation, but by themselves these are not sufficient. The "unevenness" of these campaigns reflects the unevenness of the effects of austerity, as well as the way in which the British government is trying to isolate certain groups. This is obviously not good for us. Strategically, its a priority that we overcome it. Of course, we do not need a nationwide campaign with little or no democracy, where a general strategy is set by a small steering committee, and local campaigns have to accommodate it. The point of a nationwide campaign should be to federate existing struggles in a democratic way that is led by the grassroots. Any general "line" that emerges has to come from concrete experiences of activism not from a coffee-flogging cognoscenti. For that reason, any such campaign probably needs a broad elected national leadership composed mainly of people who have earned the right to lead in campaigns, and a relatively federal structure with a great deal of autonomy for local groups. The slightest whiff of hectoring phone calls, back-room lobbying, finger-wagging from the lectern, presenting fait accomplis worked up behind closed doors, etc., will be the ruin of any organisation aspiring to be the institutional basis for an anti-cuts movement.

ii) a realignment of the left-of-Labour left. I think in this case we need a narrower form of organisation that is capable of concentrating the experiences and perspectives of anti-cuts activism in a way that a broader movement could not. An anti-cuts movement would probably have to be open to participation from right-wing Labourites who favour prudent, slower cuts, as well as anarchists who want to picket the offices of those same Labourites; as such its line could not be too defined. We need to popularise not just a moralistic rejection of the cuts, but an alternative analysis of the crisis and a serious, detailed set of solutions. These solutions wouldn't be based on a "neutral" measure like how effectively they contribute to GDP growth. There is no socially neutral way of resolving a crisis. Not only do such solutions have costs which must be borne differentially according to class, race, gender, etc. They typically involve transforming, attacking, inventing, reorganising, or annihilating the institutional and relational bases of particular types of class power. A left-of-Labour party would have to identify a number of in principle achievable measures that would a) plausibly gain mass support, and b) alter the balance of class forces if implemented. For example, nationalising the banks and turning them into public utilities, would be a popular measure and it would also hit at an institutional nerve centre of the dominant form of ruling class power today. It would also, in principle, give any government tremendous leverage over the economy, a resource with which to plan green investment, job creation, etc. We do not have to kid ourselves that an elected government could just wave a wand and make this happen; the point is to develop an analysis and a set of concrete objectives would help the sorts of social struggles that would make it possible.

Now even if it were once possible, it is no longer realistic to expect the Labour Left to fulfil this role. It is recovering a bit, and will continue to do so for a while, but it is far too weak relative to the dominant forces in the party to be able to take a leading role in articulating a radical left response to austerity. As for the Greens, they have made it clear: they oppose austerity in principle, but will do nothing stop it if given control of a budget. Something else is needed.

So, is this a recommendation for a "British Syriza" or, worse, a "Seymouriza" (as some bastards have suggested) or "Sino-Seymouriza"? Yes and no, in that order. I am not in favour of abandoning the project of independent revolutionary organisation, as I'll explain momentarily. Further, as I favour Scottish independence, the "Syriza" I propose wouldn't exactly be British. Nor would it look very much like Syriza, as the social and political forces available for such a project in the UK are totally different and reflect different historical experiences and different immediate challenges -- we don't have to address the problem of the eurozone, for example, in a population that has generally been pro-euro.

But everyone notices that the Scottish National Party, the Greens, George Galloway and any plausible alternative can take big chunks of Labour's base away at a moment's notice. We all know that Labour's electoral recovery is extremely tentative. It's obvious that the break-up and break-down of its base is part of a secular process in the neoliberal period that is also affecting European social democracy. So, if we're as smart as all that, we should be doing something about it.

The creation of a radical left party has been slower and more hampered in the UK than elsewhere in Europe. I do not believe this is because of the mistakes of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). If you look at the constituents of some of the successful groups, I suspect you'll find a lot worse by way of authoritarianism, sectarianism and opportunism. Rather, it is because of the greater difficulties in generating a significant split in social democracy due to the serious defeats inflicted on the left in the UK, and particularly the defeat of the militant wing of the labour movement. No other Western European labour movement experienced defeats like this. The result was Labour's wholesale capitulation to neoliberalism well before any other European social-democratic party. After this, there was simply no general political basis from which the remaining rump of the Labour Left could mount a challenge to the leadership: they could oppose the policy consequences to New Labour's neoliberalism, but had no plausible alternative political-economic basis for their opposition, much less to lead a split as did Oskar Lafontaine in Germany, or Jean-Luc Melenchon in France. Only the 'war on terror' produced such a split in the UK, and that was too small and narrow.

Nonetheless, it remains a compelling fact that Respect didn't have to crash and burn in the fashion that it did; and that, even after the launching and crash-landing of previous left formations, small, committed and talented groups of people with sometimes gaping flaws seem to have been able to surprise Labour in its former heartlands. All it takes is a name, or a local campaign with resonance. Now, if left at that, they would simply be vanishing, "last gasp" blips of resistance to the further neoliberal takeover of politics. But the current conjuncture is one that will be formative of a generation or so. Whatever stable political forces can be forged now are likely to last.

iii) a realignment of the forces of the revolutionary left, which are hardly in an optimal state of organisation. There is no historical or conjunctural need for the 57 varieties of revolutionary socialism to be distributed in twice as many sects, groupuscules and minorities of one. But to unite them in an effective organisation has never been a simple matter of stitching together the existing fragments. They are too committed to their trademarked orthodoxies, their turf, their routines, their hierarchies and their internal cultures. Any serious new party or formation would have to be heterogenous, open to heterodoxy and far less bureaucratically centralised than the existing revolutionary sects. Realignment requires the old fragments to be shaken up and, in a sense, radicalised: this is the potentially productive aspect of the crisis.

But let's be honest: such realignment will also require a discursive process akin to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. If we need realignment, it's because there has been a general failure. To a large extent, and self-righteous protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, I think what is wrong with the SWP is also wrong with much of the wider left. It's not good enough for a bunch of revolutionary socialists to try to unite around the lowest common denominator of agreeing about the SWP's latter day treachery. Every participant, particularly if they come from an existing sect, would have to be capable of a minimum of honesty about why their own political tradition did at best no better in practical terms than the SWP. Those who aren't capable of that much honesty probably wouldn't get us very far anyway, whereas those who simply want to strip the carrion from the carcass may as well stay away.

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Grim though this analysis may seem, there are three possible causes for optimism in the next year.

First, a horrible scandal is also the occasion of a form of radicalisation on the left, particularly the revolutionary left, in which many people are literally re-evaluating their root assumptions. This percolation is itself indicative that people are wrong to simply assume this is yet another stage in the ongoing mitosis of revolutionary groupuscules. There's a feeling -- don't you share it? -- that as nasty and depressing and shaming as this crisis has been, something has been unblocked by it, and new possibilities have been created.

Second, is the People's Assembly idea, which has achieved a lot of media coverage and has the support of sections of the Labour Left, the trade unions, celebrities and obviously Counterfire. The People's Assembly is attracting some criticism for the fact that its big "arrival" is marked by a celeb-driven rally in a swish Westminster venue at a cost of £25,000, rather than a democratic conference where actually existing campaigns participate in decision-making. But it would be churlish not to get involved and try to change it in a democratic direction. And third, is the Left Unity initiative for a new left party, which I think has achieved 6000 signatures thus far. (I have signed and, for what it's worth, I think you should too.) The fact is that if half of that many people joined a new party right now, you would have the basis of a reasonable sized radical left party.

Clearly, there's a lot still to work out. It's still a nebulous initiative, and the basis for individual and group affiliation is not yet clear. Nonetheless, local Left Unity groups are springing up with plenty of support after just a couple of weeks or so. This suggests a degree of initiative and energy that hasn't been seen on the Left for a while.

There is your hope, if you like. It's about as far from bland, upbeat can-do puffery as it's possible to be, but it is hope.