What happens to international law when justice is the name of power? The Chinese intellectual scene has been transformed by the emergence of a New Left. Its leading theorist explains how and why the neo-liberal consensus of the early nineties broke down, and considers what a radical agenda should look like as social and political problems mount.
A decade ago, German and Japanese capitalism were widely held superior in economic performance and social cohesion to American or British. Will it force all other societies to conform to its rules? Ronald Dore doubts it. An elegy for Derek Jarman, meditating on the meanings of the monochrome he took from Yves Klein for his last film, confronting death.
From Lessing to Greenberg, criticism of the arts was founded on the distinctions made between them. Does technology today irreversibly ruin these? Peter Gowan on Jeffrey Johnson, ed. What are the patterns, and what will be the consequences—social, cultural, political—of the massive influx of immigrants from lands south of the Rio Grande into North American cityscapes?
Buy print issue. Programme notes articles. Robert Brenner. It was not to be contested but supported, in good faith and in line with its own principles. If the distant day were to come when it too had outlived its usefulness and must be superseded, this would have nothing to do with anything the Left had done or thought. Such was the reality that any sensible politician had to recognize—or howl at the moon. In the space of a few years, the scene has changed profoundly. Inequalities in income, power, quality of life, both among and within the various regions of the world, are re-emerging and continue to deepen.
The new functioning of the economic system is demonstrably incompatible with the preservation of long-standing social gains: universal welfare, full and stable employment, participatory democracy in the most advanced societies; the right to national independence and some protection from armed intervention, in the case of underdeveloped regions and smaller nations.
New problems are looming: the accelerating degradation of the natural environment; a moral decay in which individualism and consumerism, rather than filling the vacuum of values created by the crisis of millennial institutions, instead deepen it into a dichotomy between dissipation and neo-clericalism; an advancing crisis of the political system, rendered powerless by the decline of nation-states, and replaced by institutions insulated from popular suffrage—itself hollowed out by mediatic manipulations of consensus and the transformation of parties into electoral machines geared to reproducing a governing caste.
Even in the realm of production, growth rates are currently declining and economic equilibria appear unstable, a set of conditions that seem to be more than conjunctural. Financialization generates unearned income, with the frantic pursuit of immediate profits as its twin; it therefore deprives the market itself of criteria by which to gauge its own efficiency, or to judge what it should produce.
Finally, and as a consequence of all this, we are witnessing a decline of hegemony, ever-multiplying conflicts, and a crisis of the world order. The natural response has been the deployment of force, even the resort to war, which has in turn exacerbated rather than resolved the existing problems.
Professor Peter Hallward
We might concede that this framework is overly gloomy and one-sided; that such worrying trends are as yet in their early stages. We might also admit that other factors—technological innovation, for example, or the even more surprising surge to prominence of vast, once Third-World countries—can compensate for such tendencies or check them.
Lastly, we might concede the novel breadth of the social base that has benefited from an earlier, widely diffused round of accumulation, or that elsewhere hopes to attain a prosperity it has previously been denied: forces that would shore up a consensus, or reject a radical change whose outcome is uncertain. Communists have often made the mistake of advancing catastrophist analyses, for which they have paid the price. Yet none of this alters the fact that a turn has taken place, earlier than anyone had feared or hoped. The future of the world seems to offer little reassurance—not only to suffering or rebellious minorities, but in mass common sense, to broad layers of the intelligentsia, even in some sectors of the dominant class.
We are not in the turbulent climes of the 20th century, but nor are we breathing the serene air of the Belle Epoque which, as we know, did not end well. In the space of a few years, movements of social struggle and contestation in the realm of ideas have appeared on the scene, surprising in their breadth, durability, plurality of subject positions and novelty of themes. Dispersed, intermittent movements, lacking a unitary project and organizational structure, for the most part these are more social and cultural than political. They have arisen out of the most diverse situations and subjectivities, and they reject organization, ideology and politics as they have known them, above all in the forms in which these appear today.
Nevertheless, these movements are in constant communication with each other; they identify common enemies whom they name in full. They cultivate ideals and experiment with practices radically opposed to the current order of things—and to the values, institutions and powers that embody that order: modes of production, consumption and thought; relations between classes, sexes, countries and religions. In that sense, they are fully political, and carry weight. I would like to think so, but I doubt it.
Here too we must confront the facts—without despondency, but without pretence.
Ellen Meiksins Wood – Political Marxism and the Social Sciences
It cannot be said that things are gradually taking a turn for the better, or that the lessons of reality will soon produce a general shift in the balance of forces in favour of the Left. The marriage of convenience between the Asian and American economies has facilitated an astonishing take-off by the former, while guaranteeing the latter imperial profits and allowing it to consume beyond its means.
At the same time, the current arrangement has contributed to European stagnation, and its longer-term dynamics, costs and outcomes are difficult to grasp. The European Union, for its part, has not developed into an autonomous force, but has instead resumed its subordination to the Anglo-American model—and its foreign policy—in still more accentuated form. In economics as in politics, no New Deal is in the offing.
The Attlee Governments, 1945–51
In Latin America, after many years, popular, anti-imperialist forces are in power in several countries, but it is Lula who seems to have the wind in his sails. In Central Asia, as in Eastern Europe, clients of the us are multiplying. In France and Italy, the Left has never been in such disarray.
How should we assess the forces ranged against the system? The outlook is not a comforting one. It is certainly important that the new social movements remain on the scene, and that in some cases they have expanded to new regions or contributed to a replenishment of political energies. They have, at any rate, drawn attention to critical problems that had previously been dismissed: water, climate, defence of cultural identities; civil liberties for minorities such as immigrants or gays. For in the major battles in which these movements were involved as a unit—peace and disarmament, abolition of the wto and imf , the Tobin Tax, alternative energy sources—the results have been trifling, and initiative has declined.
Pluralism has proved to be a limitation as well as a resource. Organization can be rethought as much as one likes, but it cannot forever be reduced to the internet or re-runs of world forums. Refusal of politics, power from below, making revolution without taking power—rather than being stages of a journey, partial truths which should not be renounced, these risk becoming elements of a fossilized subculture, a repetitive rhetoric that prevents self-reflection or an exacting definition of priorities. Finally, alongside the new movements—although through no fault of theirs—a different type of radical opposition has emerged, inspired by religious or ethnic fundamentalism, whose most extreme form is terrorism, but which influences and involves significant numbers of people.
Turning to the still-organized forces of the Left that have courageously resisted the collapse of the post era, have taken part in attempts at renewal and worked alongside the new movements and union struggles, the balance sheet appears still leaner. After years of work in a society in turmoil, these forces remain marginal, divided among and within themselves.
In electoral terms they score between 5 and 10 per cent in Europe, and are therefore caught in a dilemma between minoritarian radicalism and electoral pacts, whose onerous constraints weaken them further. In drastic summary, the reasons for this impasse might be defined as follows. Neoliberalism and unilateralism are an expression of a more profound and permanent alteration to the world-capitalist system, which has taken its original vocation to the extreme. Its features include: dominance of the economy over every other aspect of individual and collective life; dominance within the economy of the globalized market, and within the market of great concentrations of finance over production; within production, dominance of services over industry, and of immaterial goods for a consumption that has been induced, as against real needs.
We are also witnessing a decline of politics, as nation-states are overshadowed by agreements made above their heads, and political systems are hollowed out by a fragmentation and manipulation of the popular will that should guide and sustain them. Finally, there is the unification of the world under the sign of a specific hierarchy, with a single preponderant power at its apex. A system, then, which is seemingly decentred, but in which the critical decisions remain concentrated, in the final analysis, in the hands of the few who possess decisive monopolies: in ascending order of importance, over technology, over communications, over financial and over military power.
Underpinning the whole is property, in the shape of capital in constant, unflagging pursuit of its own valorization—a process that has become entirely autonomous with regard to territorial location and any alternative goals that might otherwise have constrained it. With the vast mediatic means at its disposal, capital can directly shape needs, consciousnesses, lifestyles; it can select the political and intellectual caste; it can influence foreign policy, military spending, lines of research; last but not least, it can reconfigure labour relations, choosing where and how workers should be recruited, and finding the best means for undermining their bargaining power.
In comparison to earlier phases, the most significant novelty lies in the fact that, even where it enters into crisis or records a failure, the system nevertheless manages to reproduce its own bases of strength and interdependence, and to destroy or blackmail its antagonists.
It summons, and at the same time buries, its own gravedigger. To challenge and overcome such a system, what is required is a coherent systemic alternative; the power to impose it and the capacity to run it; a social bloc that can sustain it and steps and alliances commensurate with that goal.
Freed from the myth of chiliastic conquest of state power by an opportunist Jacobin minority, there is still less reason to subscribe to the hope that a succession of scattered revolts or small-scale reforms might spontaneously coalesce into a great transformation. I do not use these terms by chance. Rather, I refer to a whole historical experience that explicitly posited the theme of anti-capitalist revolution led by a working class, in turn organized in parties which, in Italy as elsewhere, for decades brought millions of people into this undertaking; which fought and won a world war; ruled major states, shaped societies, and influenced the fate of the world; and which in the end—and certainly not by chance—degenerated and was heavily defeated.
For better or worse, it left its mark on almost an entire century. A first task for the new era, then, is to draw up a balance sheet—in a spirit of truth, whatever the convictions with which one begins and the conclusions at which one arrives; without fabricating facts, without offering excuses or separating lived experience from its context.
The aim must be to distinguish the contributions made to decisive and permanent historical advances; to reckon the tremendous costs they entailed, the theoretical truths attained and the intellectual blunders committed. In sum, to recompose the thread of a titanic undertaking and dramatic decline, not seeking to make allowances or to pursue an impossible neutrality, but aiming at an approximation to the truth.
In tackling this agenda, we possess the extraordinary privilege of knowing what course events finally took, as well as the stimulus of finding ourselves once again in a crisis of civilization. We must make use of the present to better understand the past, and understand the past so as better to orientate ourselves in the present and future.
The type of investigation I am proposing here is tremendously difficult—and the motivations that should guide it no less so. Second, because it is still so fresh in the collective memory that it is hard to attain the requisite critical distance. Further, such an investigation runs counter to the prevalent consensus of today, which not only considers this chapter closed, but in general denies that history can be deciphered, as a whole and in the long term—and therefore sees no value in situating the present within that history, or in developing the appropriate interpretative categories.
Finally, at the outset of a critical reading of the past, any challenge to the consensus would require, more than ever before, the ability to provide a fitting analysis of the present and a project for future action this was the strong point of Marxism, even in those aspects which proved transient. For my own part, I feel a certain generational as well as individual responsibility to contribute to such an undertaking by reconstructing and investigating some crucial points in the history of Italian Communism.
The motivation for this is not autobiographical, nor is it provincially restrictive. On the contrary, the choice—circumscribed, so as to be able to speak of a concrete object—implies a working hypothesis, going against the grain; one that imposes, and perhaps ultimately permits, some general conclusions.
Today there are two prevalent readings of Italian Communism, mutually opposed for a variety of reasons. The first argues, in more or less crude form, that from the end of the Second World War at least, the pci was always in substance a social-democratic party, albeit without wanting to admit as much, and perhaps without realizing it. Only towards the end was it forced to surrender and change its identity.
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Yet both readings are contradicted by innumerable historical facts, and they also erase what was most original and interesting about the Communist experience. But by the same token, its subsequent decline and eventual dissolution into a force more liberal-democratic than social-democratic compel us to explain how and when the attempt failed.
They make it possible, that is, to identify the objective and subjective reasons behind a particular trajectory, and to ask whether better paths were available that might have served to correct that course. If this hypothesis is correct, then the history of Italian Communism might have something important to say about the overall experience of republican Italy and of the Communist movement in general—helping to gauge the latter in its best version, and to grasp its limits.
In an entirely different context, perhaps the equally singular Chinese experience would be a comparable field for investigation, with its entirely unexplained past and indecipherable future. Many historians have written on the history of Communism—providing a wealth of information and scholarship on the period between the Russian Revolution and the years after World War Two; in more episodic form, full of lacunae and prejudices, with regard to the subsequent decades, running up to the present.
Yet we still lack a comprehensive assessment and balanced judgement of either period. At fault for this are not so much the controversies that have arisen—more than justified—as a discrepancy between accurate examination of the available sources and partisan pamphleteering.