Frédéric Lordon: What’s left for the left?
Frédéric Lordon, author of Willing Slaves of Capital, asks: With François Hollande’s Socialist government in disarray and the banks holding us all hostage, can a divided left act to end their tyranny? For that is the whole point of the left.
The public debate today is marred by mindless pronouncements, lazily repeated by experts and the media. The most toxic is surely the statement that the political categories of “left” and “right” are obsolete, and that their opposition is a thing of the past. There is a disturbing similarity of form between the expressions “neither left nor right”, used by the far right, and “beyond left and right”, used by the extreme centre.
It is surprising and ironic that the right and extreme centre are thinking along the same lines, the former pursuing the delusion of unanimity and reconciliation under the eternal banner of national identity, and the latter operating on the principles of rational management, which must “necessarily” attract general support — and it will no doubt take some time for the media that ferociously defend this unanimity to realise how much they have in common, in the language they use, with those that defend the other.
French prime minister Manuel Valls’s pompous statement that “yes, the left could die” (1), revealing his own sinister plan under the guise of a sombre prediction, seems to settle the matter, especially as a few pessimistic thinkers agree. Régis Debray told Le Nouvel Observateur (2) this July: “The left is already dead; what survives is either pathetic or a parody. Perhaps we should be worrying about something else?” But this statement contains two misconceptions: the first is the confusion of left as a category with its pitiful party political manifestations; the second, a reminder of the idea that “if you don’t take care of the left, the right will take care of you.”
It is astonishing that “left” in France should now implicitly refer solely to the Socialist Party (PS), which clearly no longer has anything leftwing about it. And while the right could (and perhaps even should) die, the left is made of sterner stuff. For it is an idea. It stands for true equality and democracy. One would have to be blind to believe that it is an idea past its time. It is still having an impact; indeed it has only just begun to do so.
To restore the left-right polarity, and fight the poison of denial, “left” must be redefined so as to give a clearer picture of what it means in an era of globalised capitalism. In fact that is quite easy: equality and true democracy cannot be achieved when society is in the grip of unfettered capital — both as a system and as an interest group.
No idea of limits
That capital aims for total control follows inevitably from the very process of accumulation, whose nature is to go on indefinitely. The concept does not embody an idea of limits, which means that the only limits it is likely to encounter will be external: the depletion of natural resources or political opposition. In the absence of either, the process is bound to grow like a cancer, in intensity and in extent. In intensity, through the endless pursuit of greater productivity; in extent, through expansion into new areas, geographical territories untouched until now — Asia and now Africa — and new areas of commercialisation.
Capital, as a system and a social group, is a force. It is in the nature of a force to pursue its affirmative urges so long as it does not encounter a stronger, opposing force. This is why, in the absence of any significant opposition, capital is concerned only with asserting control over society. It is a tyranny, sweetened perhaps by consumption and entertainment, but still a tyranny.
It is therefore easy to see that being leftwing means adopting a certain stance towards capital. More specifically, if one accepts the notion of equality and true democracy, and recognises that capital is a potential tyranny, and that equality and democracy have no chance of becoming reality under that tyranny, one must conclude that being leftwing means refusing to accept the supremacy of capital.
The events that began with the financial crisis of 2007-08 offer some telling illustrations of this way of looking at things: the banks, the “responsibility pact”, unemployment insurance. In each case, one can see the true nature of capital — its desire to assert total control over society — and, by implication, what it means to be leftwing.
The banks had to be saved
However justified it may have been, the scandal over the rescue of the banks in 2009 was misplaced. It was not the rescue itself that was scandalous; it was the fact that they were saved without anything being asked of them in return, that they were implicitly given carte blanche to go straight back to their old tricks. The banks had to be saved, or we would have perished ourselves; their position in the social structure of capitalism means that a widespread collapse would have brought down the entire credit system, and the payment system in particular, and would have caused all of the general public’s deposits to vanish. This would have ended all production and trade in the space of a few days, knocking us back into an economic Stone Age.
The conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is not that we should have been content simply to save the banks. It is that, having saved them, and ourselves along with them, we should not have allowed them to run the risk of getting us into trouble again. If we accept that banks occupy such a sensitive position in the overall structure of capitalism that their excesses automatically force society to choose between paying for their rescue or perishing along with them, it follows, first, that the banks are effectively holding us hostage, and second, that the left, seeing the inevitable consequences of this situation, must take steps to change it.
If the present configuration of the banking/financial sector makes it inevitable that the whole of society will be taken hostage, then the financing of the economy cannot be left to private capital, with its uncontrollable tendency to abuse the system. The bank rescue of 2009 should at the very least have been conditional on the de-privatisation of the entire banking system, first through nationalisation, then through socialisation — to keep the hostage-takers at bay.
If one sees the problem in these terms, it is clear that the Hollande-Moscovici-Sapin policy on “banking reforms” is at best negligence, at worst collaboration. In an unguarded moment among friends — at the annual Cercle des Economistes gathering, traditionally attended by all those most committed to the system — finance minister Michel Sapin, the last of these three little pigs (they are round and pink, just like piggy banks), let slip the truth, though without revealing his innermost thoughts, which are probably more on the lines of “the financial sector is our darling” (3).
It is no longer surprising that these three politicians, like the mindless journalists, should reserve the term “hostage-taking” for the actions of striking postal and railway workers. Nor was it surprising when they all enthused over the “responsibility pact” and the so-called socialism of supply, whose central axiom is that, since salvation lies in business, one must give in to its every demand. Giving in to all of the hostage-takers’ demands is a marvellous idea — for just as in the banking sector, they are using blackmail. In fact, blackmail seems to be a fundamental part of the capitalist system.
A gun to your head
Capital takes salaried workers hostage individually, since selling one’s labour is the only practical solution in an economy based on division of labour, where no one is able to meet their own material needs except through commercial exchange. When access to money is essential for survival, and the only means of access is working for a salary, it is clear that, ultimately, being a salaried worker is like having a gun to your head. And if salaried workers occasionally forget this, to the point where such a view of their situation seems to them to be an exaggeration, because capitalism has chosen to enrich their laborious existence with pleasurable distractions (such as consumption and “self-fulfilment” through work), they can also suddenly remember it, when the mask comes off and they face the harsh reality of bullying and job cuts.
But capital is also able to hold salaried workers hostage collectively, because its position in society means that it controls production, the launch of projects and investment — which it can easily suspend if it judges that its demands have not been fully satisfied. Basically capital is able to tell society (especially now that globalisation has broadened its scope for strategic offshoring and arbitrage): “Reduce the contribution rate, make the labour market more flexible, let me pay whatever dividends and stock options I choose, to whoever I like, or I’ll pull out.”
Private capital has de facto control of society’s material interests; its decisions affect our prosperity or poverty. So it is natural that, with nothing to check it, capital should make more and more demands, threatening to paralyse the economy if they are not met, especially as no government seems prepared to refuse them. There is no sense in trying to identify a point beyond which capital would cease to make further demands and go back to work. For there is no such point: just look what capital has obtained over the last 30 years — especially the spectacular gains it has made since its historic collapse, at a time when a party that still claims to be part of the “left” is in power.
In short, to be leftwing means to refuse to give in to this chronic blackmail, to reform the structures that make it possible and give capital its hold over society. One might consider: restricting the mobility that gives capital so much room for strategic manoeuvre (offshoring, movement of capital, registration of corporate headquarters in other countries, access to offshore zones); limiting the tribute companies pay to shareholders by means of a SLAM-type tax (4) and setting a limit on total shareholder remuneration; de-financialising the economy, first by closing the stock market (5) and then by considering, on the model of the récommune (6), removing investors from their position as decision-makers regarding production; and reasoned protectionism, which would end unregulated competition, not only between salaried workers but also between social models.
Contesting the supremacy of capital also means making it face up to its responsibility for the wrongs it has done to society. These wrongs are not just accidental, they are fundamental to capital as a force making for the constant re-division of labour, in other words, for destruction and downgrading, as much as for innovation. Marx and Engels were well aware that “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” (Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848).
A trail of corpses
Nothing can prepare society for the damage done by this continual process of change. When the benefits this process is intended to impart do materialise, it is always well after the damage. Africa will soon enter the global age, and will inflict on China the same kind of damage that China has inflicted on Europe; MP3 players have replaced CDs just as CDs replaced vinyl, digital photography has replaced silver halide film, and smartphones have replaced cameras. The march of capitalism is a process of perpetual destabilisation that leaves behind it a trail of corpses.
Capital as a social group is engrossed in the game of capital as a system, the game Joseph Schumpeter described as “creative destruction”. But neoliberal ideologists have remembered only the first of these two words, which they use to justify the system. They must be reminded of the true sense of the whole expression — that capital destroys as much as it creates, and always builds on its own ruins. But capitalists would much prefer to indulge their “creative” passion without being reminded of its destructive consequences, and to go on “creating” (that is, exploiting) undisturbed.
In the face of this self-interested intellectual blindness, the true meaning of a “responsibility pact” would be, not the unconditional surrender of the “caring” right, but a position based on an analysis and on the logical conclusions drawn from it. If capital is by nature a “constant revolutionising of production”, if the downgrading produced by continual change is the necessary effect of the creative desire that capitalists invest in their “game”, then capital is entirely responsible for the destruction caused by its “creations”.
Rather than seeing unemployment insurance as protection against breaks in an individual’s employment, which makes it possible to avoid confronting the fundamental issues, one should see it as an essential compensation for society’s (temporary) acceptance of the games that capital plays. Peugeot, Alstom, Fralib, Continental and Goodyear are the results of a game indulged in by capitalists, whose material subsistence is in no danger: a game of competition, of capital movements, of mergers and acquisitions — the heady process of globalisation seen as an exciting war game and an existential adventure.
Paying for the damage
If capital wishes to play games, it must pay for the damage it causes. That is the responsibility of which it should constantly be reminded. If society continues to be dependent on capital for its material needs, and capital continues to do as it pleases with issues that are crucial to society, then society must protect its higher interests by laying down the conditions under which it will tolerate this situation.
These conditions would be nothing out of the ordinary. Capital should offer compensation to the unemployed and to casual workers, compensation for falls in income, for the flexibilisation and casualisation of employment, and the disruption to daily life: it should be reminded of the privileges it enjoys, and pay up without arguing. But instead, it has been exempted from paying €40bn in taxes and employer’s contributions. And worse, these measures have been given the name of “responsibility pact”, a contemptible antiphrasis that absolves capital of all responsibility.
So we must always remind ourselves that to be leftwing means not accepting capital’s existence without question and not simply mopping up the mess through taxation. The position of the left in relation to capital is, therefore, a political power relationship that upholds the sovereignty of the non-capitalist masses against that of profit.
This definition of left is a fairly broad one, since it does not make any prior assumptions as to how to deal with capitalism itself and invites a debate on its overthrow. Affirming an anti-capitalist sovereignty can therefore mean acknowledging the obvious presence of capital, with a view to defusing its attempts to assert total control. And it can just as easily mean dreaming of ending that control — for example, by generalising and legalising the récommune principle, or by defaulting on public debt, which by instantly bringing about the collapse of the banks would give us the opportunity to buy them up for a song, and remodel them as we see fit, first by nationalisation/seizure, then by transformation into a cooperative system of banking (7).
The remaining issue is whether this relationship with capital should be adopted at national, European or some other level. It is clear that if the left (as defined above) is to contest the domain of capital, then we need a high level of political activity, debates, meetings and demonstrations, which, given the need for a common language, would be hard to achieve except within the borders of a single country.
This June, representatives of the casual workers’ organisation CIP-IDF (Coordination des Intermittents et Précaires d’Ile-de-France) forced their way onto the building site of the Philharmonie de Paris concert hall to talk to the construction workers. These workers were from a number of different countries, and many were illegal immigrants. Not only were they fearful because of their precarious situation but they were unable to communicate with one another, and therefore unable to coordinate their efforts in fighting for their rights. They are helpless against their despotic employers, who are well aware that dividing them linguistically makes it easier to rule them.
Locally based lefts
At the risk of offending the alter-globalist elite (bi- or trilingual, accustomed to travelling and given to thinking that everyone shares their abilities), international action, which is perfectly possible and indeed desirable, cannot possibly be as intense or extensive, nor can it have the same impact as action that begins at national level. This certainly does not exclude the complementary virtues of international contagion and emulation. There will not just be one left — which would be international from the start — but many. These lefts will be locally based, but keen to talk to and support one another.
Only academics, unconscious of their odd position in society, could overlook the concrete conditions required for concrete action to the extent they do. And only academics could disdain anything that takes place at national level, that is to say almost all of the real — as opposed to the imaginary — struggles that take place. In other words, only academics could continue to pursue the elusive “international” dream: anti-capitalist politics can only be intra-national.
Everyone knows how lively academic debates can be, but they not important. As has always been the case, the issues will be resolved by events, in an unpredictable way. But their resolution will be guided by an ambition to achieve sovereignty in the service of equality and true democracy — sovereignty, because that is the name for collective affirmation of a way of life and of collective decision-making, especially when it is opposed to an oppressive regime such as that of capitalism.
This idea cannot die, in spite of the obsession with identity that believes it is possible to dissolve left and right in eternal Frenchness, the blindness of the “rational management” grouping who believe that they are “going beyond left and right” but are in fact merely imitating the right, of the media’s confusion of the left with leftwing parties, of the actions of a few “political assassins” who pretend to fear killing off the left but whose greatest ambition is to do just that. This idea is only 200 years old, and it is still in its prime; events continually justify it, and the scandals of today call for it urgently. The future belongs to it.
By Frédéric Lordon
Copyright 2014, Le Monde diplomatique
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See more from Frédéric Lordon here.
(1) Statement by Manuel Valls to the national council of the Socialist Party (PS), 14 June 2014.
(2) 3 July 2014.
(3) At an economic conference in Aix-en-Provence, on 6 July, Sapin said: “Finance — good finance — is our friend.”
(4) See Frédéric Lordon, “Enfin une mesure contre la démesure de la finance, le SLAM” (At last, a measure against the excesses of the financial sector: the SLAM), Le Monde diplomatique, February 2007. SLAM (Shareholder Limited Authorized Margin) is a tax proposed by Frédéric Lordon, whose purpose is to limit profits so that enterprises in the real economy are not governed solely by share price concerns.
(6) By analogical formation on the model of “republic” (res publica), the French wordrécommune (res communis) means “a common thing” belonging to a collective. All the members of the collective have the right participate in the making of decisions relating to it. A production collective (a business), for example, is by definition a res communis. The concept therefore represents the introduction of the principle of democracy into economic life. See Frédéric Lordon, La Crise de trop(A Crisis too Far), Fayard, Paris, 2009.
(7) Frédéric Lordon, “Notre stratégie du choc” (Our shock strategy), La Malfaçon: Monnaie européenne et souveraineté démocratique (The Production Defect: European currency and democratic sovereignty),Les Liens qui Libèrent, Paris, 2014.