Marxism and peripheral peoplesLouis Proyect does us a service posting from Stanley Diamond. I haven't read the book, but it's very much of a piece with a large literature on Marx, Rousseau, the nature of progressivism and our valuation of the contribution of bourgeois society, the relation between primitive communalism and post-capitalist communism, the role of the division of labour, and the fate and social destiny of the metropolitan proletariats.
I think that these and related questions to which Diamond refers are properly part of our conspectus of concerns and I have only tended to avoid them because they tend to get captured by academic marxism, with its general sterility and futile tail-chasing. But marxism-space is getting cleaned-up, so maybe it's time to address these matters at last, the more especially because there is a good political reason for doing it, several in fact. And this means we can avoid the aridity of professorial marxism. The reasons are (a) the coming together environmental and indigenist struggles with more conventional/traditional labour movement/marxist foci and (b) the clear signs of (in historical terms) dramatic new political and economic crises which seem to herald tectonic change and which may usher in an epoch of open revolutionary struggle and capitalist retreat. Since the convulsive nature of these changes is bound to assume a catastrophically contradictory form, we are right to speculate on what in any case no amount of empirical prediction (by definition) can prepare humankind for. Speculation is the only means we have.
We are witnessing two seemingly unstoppable but opposed processes: the runaway technologies of late capitalism conjure up a lifeworld which will have outgrown the division of labour which is an outgrowth of commodity production, and will thereby throw into terminal crisis capitalist commodity production itself.
This brings to an end the era which began only in the present interglacial, when widescale flooding and risen oceans put an end to truly nomadic human society and imposed settlement and agriculture as a condition of survival, at the same time that contemporary global warming made crop development and rotation possible. The interconnectedness of settled societies was from the beginning based on something quite different from the unity achieved by pre-settled, primitive-communal hunter-gatherer society. It is true that there was extensive long-distance trade even in neolithic times, and French flint was exchanged for Mediterranean metalwares, etc. And there must have been war. However, these processes were essentially marginal to the human lifeworld. With settlement, war for plunder, slavery and the invention of coinage, writing and the emergence of the state, these processes became central, the human lifeworld became inverted, patriarchal and deistic, for the loss of nature entailed the consolatory creation of god(s). These changes resulted in the creation of economies based on divisions of labour and the apportionment of human activity by (measured) time (the metrics of time and space coincide with the invention of coinage, the creation of settled markets and the emergence of states), the emergence of social classes and of human alienation as an attribute of normal existence.
>From its first origin commodity production encompassed the projection of human subjectivity into embodied others (religions, states, codes of behaviour, philosophy, society as an abstract constellation of roles pre-existing the human subjects who became bearers of the roles, character-masks of specific relations). It is clear that commodity-production in its earliest, simplest forms, buried now in remote antiquity, contained the seeds of our present lifeworld in which human intersubjectivity not only prefigures the social machinery but is disappearing into it; meanwhile the existential world of nature is re-emerging as a dark chaos inhabited by millions and hundreds of millions of human rejects whose fate is at best highly uncertain. The number of rejectees is growing and will continue to grow into an imposing number of perhaps 7 or 8 billion humans. This is other pole of contradiction. It is increasingly difficult to see what policy can or will be applied to this 'excess' other than extermination: which in any case has been a policy of successful colonialists.
Capitalism cannot survive not only or just or even mainly because of its human costs and planetary burdens; the real reason it cannot survive is because of its tendency to extinguish the commodity-form itself. Marx was the first, not to suspect this is so, but certainly to pin down the ineluctable social logics which make the demise of capitalism mandatory, which simply guarantee that it cannot survive and is historically transient. But it is clear that the disappearance of capitalism is also the extirpation and supersession of something much older: namely the entire history of human civilisation during this interglacial. This is why this epoch of transition is turning out to be so prolonged (it isn't at all, actually, considering what's at stake), tragic, bloody and exceedingly dangerous. It entails the reappropriation of nature and the termination of political economies of money, exchange, markets, states and divisions of labour. Such a process, which began in this century with the first successful proletarian revolutions, is bound to take several centuries to accomplish, even though revolutions have the knack of speeding up historical kinematics to a fantastic extent, so that the history of years and decades can easily be compressed into days or weeks, and so that the fracturing of vast logjams, the frozen archaic structures Diamond refers to, which seem to overpower us with their awful, intractable immensity, can occur almost overnight, in the twinkling of an eye. Thus, American capitalism is founded upon a specific form of urban society which is based on a a gigantic accumulated physical infrastructure and which has created a florid, diverse profusion of life-forms in all its niches, like coral islands on submerged reefs which took eons to create. Nevertheless this whole society is doomed and will disappear. The only question is, what timescale is involved and how painful the process will be. But it cannot survive (it's manifestly too parasitic on the rest of the planet to continue for long, in any case). For all it's vivid everyday life and cultural complexity and richness, this lifeworld is already as much history as are the Aztecs. More so, in fact, since all previous techno-urban complexes only prefigured this; what lies beyond it is something different.
If we address this historical dialectic, as Marx did - as Diamond says - 'in the language of an abstract, world-historical process', then much of our concern about Marx himself, about his evolving stance towards precapitalist society and his seemingly overridingly contradictory commitment to or belief in the liberatory potential of the metropolitan proletariats -- fades into insignificance. There is a development of his thought, but no real contradiction, and Marx's abstract theoretical conclusion, based on nothing more or less than the analysis of capitalism contained in the Grundrisse, Capital and Theories of Surplus Value, is valid today and has been borne out by events.
We need to rigorously criticise and reject out of hand the notion that Marx was over-optimistic about the revolutionary Úlan and capabilities of the European and American working classes and that he suffered from a gross foreshortening of historical perspective, both which Diamond seems to suggest. Each moment in history in some sense is complete and sufficient unto itself. It was perfectly proper for Marx to celebrate the Paris Commune and to participate in the life-struggle of the proletariat of his day, emphasising its role as the natural and only gravedigger of capitalism. Did this make Marxism a racist or closet colonialist? Even if we did not have the benefit of such things as the ethnological notebooks and the clear evidence of his growing interest in the emancipatory potentials of such things as the zemstvo, the answer would still be no, based on nothing more than his critique of political economy, allied perhaps with his speculation in the Grundrisse and elsewhere about the long-range future of the system, of the future of science and technology and the inherent tendency of capitalist commodity production to hypertrophy, to overgrow, invading and congealing throughout all the hitherto uncolonised dimensions of nature, before involuting into its opposite: an intelligent lifeworld with no human-nature boundaries.
It was not written in stone that the organic community which the world proletariat showed signs of becoming, during the period from 1847 to the demise of the Second International. The early history world socialism is the history of a colossal upthrust of working class organization, struggle, sacrifice, growth of consciousness and ideological praxis and attempts at constructing inner hegemonies; through many different forms of organisation, none of which have entirely lost their relevance, from friendly societies to cooperatives, trade unions, syndicalists and mass electoral parties. This history did not result in any thing its protagonists foresaw or hoped for. They believed that capitalism was so corrupt, inhuman and anarchic that its survival was problematic beyond the next decade. Marx was a person of his time in believing such things and it would have been inhuman NOT to have believed such things. Yet Marx's thought and writing is everywhere shot through with presentiments of deeper, almost geological time-frames, with slower but in the end more decisive tectonic movements, and with a search for more decisive and fundamental reasons for denying longevity to capital, reasons which he subjected to the merciless scrutiny of his criticism, at whatever cost to his own more sanguine and truly human expectations.
Although the upthrust of the C19 workers' movement resulted in the calamity of chauvinist wars, conscription to social imperialism and the debacle of the Second International, it also resulted in 1917, in the epoch of open revolutionary and national liberation wars and in the clear understanding that war with the bourgeoisie must be fought along military lines, with absolutely no quarter asked or given (this is the most precious finding of all). The civil society is not a space which can accommodate political forms of class struggle, even though economic forms of struggle have long been co-opted to civil society. The displacement of the locus of political struggle against the rule of capital, from the metropolitan interiors to the colonial world of imperial subjugation, became central to history after 1917. This cycle of class struggle, too, has ended in apparent failure. But the hollow and meretricious claims to universal, transhistorical truth, of the liberal ideologists of markets and globalism, reveal with stark clarity that the only thing which is illusion is the notion that the workers can ever be finally defeated or that the goal is not communism. While capitalism had the American midwest, Africa, India, the whole of Asia, the east European breadbaskets, to open up, colonise and exploit, and while every explosion of proletarian discontent could be absorbed within the horizons of bourgeois nationalism or later of social imperialism, or while such ready mechanism for defusing discontent as mass migratory movements, existed, it was never in the bounds of possibility that the social and political movements of the time could result in the demolition of capitalism. Yet the confluence of domestic class struggle with burgeoning industrial production and urbanisation provided the fuel that energised imperialism and colonialism. Class struggle within national boundaries has always had an irrepressible tendency to spill over national boundaries, as declining profit rates resulting from intensified class struggle, exacerbated imperialist rivalry and colonial war; the connection between imperialism and the labour movements of the second international, exemplified in the unquestioned dominance of chauvinist, corrupt and opportunistic leaderships, is a matter of documentary history. But this very process produced 1917 and the irruption of the masses into world history in wholly new, revolutionary forms. And it was entirely conceivable that that revolutionary wave could have succeeded, and just as their forebears had been convinced that capitalism could not survive the next recession, so did the multimillioned masses who supported the leaders and politics of the Third International.
This litany of seeming failure, and the seeming absence of the masses from contemporary history, in the metropoles anyway, is what lies behind the pessimism of the intellectual left, but it is misplaced. We live in an era of unparalleled imperial ostentation, which is based on the use, the exploitation and the *using-up* of all the great resources it has accessed in 250 years of plunder: the commons of peasant agriculture, of fossil energy, of the oceans, of the colonised landmasses, have all been exploited and there is little to show beyond the glitz of the metropolises. The commons of DNA remains, and the hope of virtualisation, which is no more than the hope of hiding from history. It is a futile hope. Capital cannot virtualise the world; but it cannot exterminate the unwanted.
We are celebrating the death of King Hussein of Jordan, whose dynasty and country is an artifact of British imperialism, a monstrosity whose only purpose, in common with similar anti-popular artifacts, like the emirates, Kuwait, Saudi etc., is to fragment the Arab nation the easier to plunder the Middle East's spectacular resources. The articulations of this interconnected world-system mean that one cannot speak (and never could) of neocolonial revolution in abstraction from class struggle in the metropolises, and vice versa. The one is a function of the other. The overgrowth of US imperialism is conditioned by the failure of world socialism and the collapse of the USSR: the blank despair in the one place is mirrored in the unreasoning euphoria in the other. If this were not the case, if it was not true that the wealth of the metropoles was bought at the price of the misery of the rest: if it was at all possible to speak of 'development' in capitalist terms, then one might conclude that Marx was wrong. But it is the case.
The failures of the socialist movement are actually only the first hesitant steps of a social class which is still learning to navigate the world. The maoist dream of encircling the metropolises was the faustian consummation of Lenin's glance at the colonial world, of his hope that this would substitute for the treason of the metropolitan proletariats. But it cannot happen this way, we also know that now. The working class must walk on both legs if it is to walk at all. First of all, the working class must learn not seek the aid and succour of its enemy. Must learn to be as rationally pitiless, as devoid of mercy, as the enemy, more so in fact. The enemy has shown through all its adaptations to misfortune that it needs the proletariat; only know is it beginning to believe it does not and to suspect that it may have to extinguish it. But workers have always known that they do not need the bosses. Only fear of assuming responsibility for history has stayed their hands, but they have many ghosts to exorcise. History is traumatic, like a birth, not like a death. It is a simple truth that many will prefer death to rebirth. Even the most oppressed will seek refuge in illusory consolations, obscurantist dreams, and will not automatically flock to our banners. There is no help for this and no way round it. Those who have already made their false accommodation with the enemy, the compromised proletariats of the metropoles, will suffer much and still not be won to our banners, preferring to seek for and probably to find, mass extinction in tribal wars, fratricidal irredentism, theocratic madness. There is no help for that either. Glacial change in moral and normative institutions will inevitably result in qualitative changes, evolutionary punctuation-points when the magma slips and moves (the peak of Mount Everest is made of marine limestone; geology teaches nothing else but the significance of such cataclysmic transformations).
At no time since 1945 and not perhaps since 1917, has the global equilibrium of capitalism been so fragile or so prone to upheaval. Yet the surface stasis can linger on for years or decades while the ice is only gradually loosened through many preliminary shocks. Such apparent stability is itself a dangerous catalyst of still more intensive shock and ruptures. The formidable, iron grip of the late American imperium over the surface of everyday life especially in the neocolonial peripheries, has almost no historical precedent and itself suggests the presence of titanic forces pressing up from below. The first crisis which results in ideological delegitimation in the discourses of democracy, markets, stability, growth and human rights, will lead to an unsealable rupture in the surface of the system and the irrepressible outburst of spontaneous social forces on wide geographic and social terrains, which are bound to trigger a profound systemic crisis of hegemony in the metropoles and also a mass process of rejection of the mechanisms of repressive desublimation which bind entire classes into duress. There have been fragmentary episodes of such mass emancipation during the last forty years. They prefigure more sustained and powerful social impulses in the future. They were and will increasingly be sites of mass repudiation of the law of value, and there will increasingly large surfaces over which the writ of valorisation does not run; capitalism has already failed to incorporate the masses in Africa, in rural India, in rural China, and in the former Soviet Union, and not only there. Where valorisation does not hold none of the institutionalised process of Enlightenment reason can take root, and the masses are forced in direct, immediate, concrete and everyday-life ways to choose between barbarism or the spontaneous creation of forms of solidarity and collective activity. In the past few years capitalism has rolled up its map in large parts of the world; the forced repatriation of plunder to the metropoles, particularly the USA, has created bubbles of pseudo-prosperity but at the awesome price of abandoning huge territories, and of conceding the final failure of capitalist rationality and the invincibility of valorisation as the only method of incorporation as workers, consumers etc. This is an insupportable price to pay. It is evidence of a direct, obvious and undeniable contraction of the world market. It is a symptom of irretrievable capitalist decline, a process full of tremendous moment, deeply suggestive of future and yet more cataclysmic breakdown. How can these territories and social spaces be recolonised? In my opinion, they cannot be. Capitalism is already dying in large parts of the planet; that is the reality which is too large to see (like walking round the Empire State building and not noticing it's there).
600 million rural Indians cannot be conscripted into Indian capitalism, which has already entered crisis after its flirtation with globalism. They are an indigestible lump of humanity which the system is already choking on. Another half billion Chinese are in the same boat. Everywhere you look it's the same story: everywhere, except in the US, which is why the US is a terrible magnet drawing tidal waves of immigration which doom the US population to rise to half a billion in 50 years or less, a number which is environmentally completely insupportable without radical changes (i.e. a catastrophic disruption) in present patterns of N American urban life, work and consumption.
In the Marxism list and Leninist-International we have and will do much more to analyse the conditions of life in Latin America, eastern Europe and Asia. We need to do much more, and we need to try to bring together these different strands of analysis and to study their interactions more. It is instructive that the most optimistic marxists and revolutionaries (on the evidence of these lists) hail from the neocolonial peripheries: we should build on those strengths, too.