All That Melts into Air is Solid: A. Sivanandan
In this two-part essay, A. Sivanandan critiques the New Times current developed within Marxism Today, and its influence on the rhetoric of Labour in the 1990s.
Dedicated to those friends with whom, out of a different loyalty, I must now openly disagree.
New Times is a fraud, a counterfeit, a humbug. It palms off Thatcherite values as socialist, shores up the Thatcherite market with the pretended politics of choice, fits out the Thatcherite individual with progressive consumerism, makes consumption itself the stuff of politics. New Times is a mirror image of Thatcherism passing for socialism. New Times is Thatcherism in drag. 1
Inevitably — since New Times' gestation in Marxism Today was marked by the latter's preoccupation with finding an electoral riposte to Thatcherism, in oppositional politics, taking a cue from Tory successes at the polls to formulate a programme for an anti-Thatcherite coalition of forces. What was it about Thatcherism that appealed to such vast cross-sections of people? How could it be turned to Labour's benefit? How should Labour itself change in terms of principles, policies, pacts, in order to wrest the electorate from Thatcher?
There was an appreciation in these questions of the massive changes that Thatcherism was bringing about in society while Labour was still sulking in a troglodyte past, but, as yet, there was no understanding of the basis on which the Tories were able to carry these changes through. The answers owed not a little, therefore, to the Tory vision of change and tended to appropriate those areas in which the Tories were operating successfully (markets, share-ownership, council housing) to see how they could be recast in a Leftish mode or mould. There was no understanding, that is, that the “ideological hegemony” that Marxism Today was so quick to construct for Thatcherism was based on the Tories' instinctive and profound understanding of the sea-change in capitalist society issuing from the technological revolution in production, and of the consequent need to give people direction, guidance, ballast, “assure them of certain certainties.” Labour was adrift, rudderless, its moorings in the working class unhinged by the dissipation of the class itself, and hanging on to the driftwood of trade unionism, while Thatcherism charted an assured and defiant course through troublesome seas. “Authoritarian populism” only explained why Thatcherism had found a hold among the people, but not why people were prepared to put up with it.
There was no attempt on the part of Marxism Today to rethink society from the ground up in terms of Marxist analysis — no attempt to rethink Marxism itself on the basis of the new liberatory revolution in the production process. But, then, they had already arrived at a reinterpretation of Marxism down a different route: through a disillusion with Soviet communism and a leaning towards its revised mode in Eurocommunism. The first acknowledged the failure of “actually existing socialism” to enlarge bourgeois democracy and enrich individual freedom, and the second subscribed to the view that the only way the working class was ever going to capture power in advanced capitalist societies was through bourgeois electoral politics and not through violent revolution. The split within the CPGB, with the “old guard” taking the Morning Star (the party newspaper) and the new appropriating Marxism Today (the party journal), signalled the change in the journal's direction towards a politics of the possible. But as yet it did not know quite what it stood for or where it was going. What was its philosophy? How did it see the world? Throwing out revolution and class war empirically was all very well, but where was the ideological underpinning for it? What was the journal's constituency? To whom was it speaking if no longer to the working class? Where would it locate itself, find domicile?
In the beginning...
The philosophy came from the theoretical practitioners whose own disillusion with communism and Marxist orthodoxy sent them back to re-examining the original texts in search of the true Marxism, reinterpreting them for our times and setting up schools of thought, in the process, to interpret the reinterpretations and to announce, through sundry disciplines and theories (philosophy, linguistics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, deconstruction ...), the consummate and conclusive finding that reality itself was a matter of interpretation, construction, presentation — of words, ideas, images. “Philosophers,” they might have said with a nod to Marx, “have interpreted the world; our task is to change the interpretation.” And in an information society where “the word is ... as ‘material’ as the world” and a consumer society where the mode of presentation is all, their claims found a ready home in a “with it” Marxism Today.
The ideology, along with the constituency, came from another strand of intellectual Marxism' 2 which provided theoretical confirmation that economic determinism and class reductionism were non-Marxist and things of the past. The economic base did not determine, even “in the last instance,” the ideological and political superstructure. They were all more or less “autonomous instances,” “articulating” with each other, influencing and being influenced, in all sorts of “conjunctures.” Politics, therefore, was a matter of positioning in and through and vis-a-vis these conjunctures — and culture was the mode in which such positioning was expressed. Hence there was a cultural politics (as distinct from a political culture) or, rather, all sorts of cultural politics which, having challenged all sorts of “social blocs” in civil society, would at some auspicious moment of time come together in a network of alliances heralding the transition from capitalism (to what they are not sure). Accordingly, the agent of change in the contemporary world was not the working class - which, in any case, had ceased to be (if it ever was) a class for itself and was therefore incapable of revolution — but the new social forces such as women, blacks, gays (and, soon, greens) who were themselves informed and impelled by the politics of the person. Later, the “new Marxists” would try to usher in a dimension of class through the back door of “the politics of difference” but, for the nonce, it was the new social forces, irrespective of their differing class personae, which were the carriers of the new socialism or, rather, the trackers of the transition.
These, at any rate, were the building blocks of new Marxist arguments, refine them how they would. How they put them together, from time to time, as required by various “conjunctures,” would of course differ from the way that I have played around with them here. But that is the great strength of this sort of autonomy: it allows you to be ad hoc, opportune, open-ended, pluralist. The only thing you have got to be sure of is your identity — and there was a politics around that too, autonomous of course, that you needed to construct, but to that anon.
As for domicile, location, Marxism Today was to find these in the thinking of a Left intelligentsia eviscerated of class and the counsels of a Labour Party thrashing around for a showing at the polls. In France and Italy the Eurocommunists were parties in their own electoral right, but in Britain Marxism Today, having broken with the “Stalinists,” had no comparable base — nor, presumably, having broken so violently with the theory and practice of the vanguard party, could it countenance one. Labour, besides, was the established party of socialism. The point was to influence it, infiltrate it or, more accurately, “hegemonise” it. (Old Marxists infiltrate, new Marxists “hegemonise”.) 3
Thus, New Times was born in the throes of political pragmatism under the sign of cultural theory bereft of economic reasoning. And the last proved disabling of the whole project. For, in throwing out the tool of economic analysis along with the ideological baggage of economism, the new Marxists were unable to bring to New Times the understanding that all the seismic changes in society and culture that they were so adroitly and bravely describing stemmed from (and in turn contributed to) the revolutionary changes at the economic level, at the level of the productive forces, brought about by the new technology. Here was an ongoing revolution, the size, scope, comprehensiveness of which had never been known in the history of humankind and it was passing the Left by — till Thatcherism inadvertently brought it to their notice. And even then, what the Left understood was the scientific and technical magnitude of its achievements, summed up in Sir Ieuan Maddock's phrase that electronics had replaced the brain as once steam had replaced muscle. But its sociological size — that Capital had been freed from Labour — had escaped the Left altogether. The Labour Party was too sunk in its own stupor of trade unionism to see that the working class was decomposing under the impact of the new forces of production and that old forms of Labour organisation were becoming frangible.
The old Marxists were, similarly, too wedded to orthodoxy to see that the old relations of production were disintegrating and new ones being born in their place. They had for so long been fighting for the emancipation of Labour from Capital that they could not bear to think that it was Capital that was now being emancipated from Labour. So ensconced had they been in their own beliefs and dogmas and sentiments that they were fearful of venturing out into a changing world and taking it by the scruff of the neck.
And the new Marxists, who had daringly abandoned all such fears and inhibitions and acknowledged and celebrated the cultural and social changes that were going on, were unable, because of their premature apostasy, to connect them concretely with the emancipation of Capital from Labour or root that emancipation in the economic basis of production. Instead, they held up the changes to justify their apostasy.
So that when Marxism Today finally came to acknowledge the importance of economic change for an understanding of New Times (in the special issue of October 1988), the economic was still given only a walk-on part on to the “post-Fordist” stage. Coming to terms with New Times, wrote Martin Jacques in the editorial, “means first understanding what New Times are, what they mean. ... At the heart of New Times is the shift from the old mass-production Fordist economy to a new, more flexible, post-Fordist order based on computers, information technology and robotics.” But there the concern with the economic ceases for “New Times are about much more than economic change. Our world is being remade.” Yes, but how? “Mass production, the mass consumer, the big city, big-brother state, the sprawling housing estate, and the nation-state are in decline: flexibility, diversity, differentiation, mobility, communication, decentralisation and internationalisation are in the ascendant.” That's fine as a description of what's going on, but where's the analysis? In the process our own identities, our sense of self, our own subjectivities are being transformed. We are in transition to a new era.
Of course “we are in transition to a new era.” Of course things are changing radically. And of course these changes are not just at the economic level. But the changes in society, culture, politics cannot just be juxtaposed with the economic; the economic cannot just be “read off” from them any more than they could be read off from the economic. They derive from the economic — still.
Or take Stuart Hall's listings in his "Brave New World” article — one on the economy and the other on the “broader social and cultural changes.” The first itemises “a shift to the new ‘information technologies’; more flexible decentralised forms of labour process and work organisation; decline of the old manufacturing base and the growth of the ‘sunrise’ computer-based industries; the hiving-off or contracting-out of functions and services; a greater emphasis on choice and product differentiation, on marketing, packaging and design, on the ‘targeting’ of consumers by lifestyle, taste and culture rather than by the Registrar General’s categories of social class; a decline in the proportion of the skilled, male, manual working class, the rise of the service and white-collar classes and the ‘feminisation’ of the workforce; an economy dominated by the multinationals, with their new international division of labour and their greater autonomy from nation-state control; the ‘globalisation’ of the new financial markets, linked by the communications revolution; and new forms of the spatial organisation of social processes.” Brilliant, clear, to the point, exhaustive: all the elements of the "post-Fordist” economy are there.
The “social and cultural” list, general here, but worked out in the course of the article, lists “greater fragmentation and pluralism, the weakening of older collective solidarities and block identities and the emergence of new identities associated with greater work flexibility, the maximisation of individual choices through personal consumption.”
There is, of course, no causal connection here between the two, the economic and the social-cultural. They are “associated,” they may even be seen to be walking hand in hand, but the one does not follow from the other, influence the other, make the other possible. What is it that makes for “greater fragmentation and pluralism” (list 2) unless it is the fragmentation of the working class and hence the obfuscation of class in general? And how has that been brought about if not by “a shift to the new ‘information technologies’; more flexible, decentralised forms of labour process and work organisation; decline of the old manufacturing base and the growth of the ‘sunrise’ computer-based industries; the hiving-off or contracting-out of functions and services” and a “decline in the proportion of the skilled, male, manual working class, the rise of service and white-collar classes and the ‘feminisation’ of the workforce” (list 1) — changes, that is, in the mode and relations of production? (Let's keep the old terminology for now because the new is yet to be born with the new post-Fordist “system.”)
How have “the older collective solidarities and block identities weakened” (list 2) except through the “decline of the old manufacturing base, the rise of “more flexible, decentralised forms of labour process and work organisation,” and “the hiving-off or contracting-out of functions and services” (list 1)? And how have these come about if not through “the shift to the new technologies” which enables Capital not only to do away with mass production lines and the mass employment of workers on the same factory floor but to move the workplace itself around, from one cheap labour pool to another, as required by profit and the market. (Note how, in his refusal to be “determinist,” Hall leaves out of his reckoning the massed-up workers of the Third World, on whose greater immiseration and exploitation the brave new Western world of post-Fordism is being erected, and cannot be persuaded back to them even when the item on “multinationals with their new international division of labour” resonates with their presence.)
Similarly, “the emergence of new identities” (list 2) cannot just be “associated with greater work flexibility” (list 1); it is largely made possible by greater work flexibility which in turn is made possible by the new technology. And “the maximisation of individual choices through personal consumption” (list 2) comes also from retailers' ability to lay “a greater emphasis on choice and product differentiation, on marketing, on packaging and design, on the targeting of consumers by lifestyle, taste and culture” (list 1) based on computerised information and supply systems which allow them to gear supplies to taste, demand and time.4
And what is this “spatial organization of social processes” Hall is talking about which exists apart from the spatial organisation of economic processes?
All the significant social and cultural changes that we are passing through today are similarly predicated on economic changes. To try to understand New Times without understanding that fundamental relationship is like trying to comprehend nineteenth-century society and culture without understanding the industrial revolution that gave rise to it. We are living through similar times where everything is being shaped, influenced, conditioned by the revolution in the productive forces.5 Economic determinacy might be said to have flagged with the economic decline and “class failure” of industrial capitalism in its last decades and to have been discredited by the success of the cultural revolutions of the 60s, 1968 itself and the “theoretical revolutions of the 60s and 70s — semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism” (which Stuart Hall assures us were, along with feminism and psychoanalysis, key episodes in the passage to “New Times”).6 And all of this may have confirmed the theoretics that the economic was one of several (“autonomous,” “articulating”) “instances.” But today, when Capital has come out of its crisis, refurbished, regenerated and radicalised by the revolution in the productive forces — and Capital is nothing if not an economic project — how can we overlook the crucial role of the economic without offering hostages to Capital? Even as individuals, how can we here, now, caught on the crest of that revolution, impacted by it on all sides, believe that the economic shapes nothing? Even the question of personal transformation, the “reforging of ourselves as individuals,” and our preoccupation with our identities stem from the upheavals occasioned by the economic revolution of our times. Yes, we are being remade, but if we overlook the occasion for that remaking, we overlook those myriad others who are being unmade by the self-same revolution.
The economic determines “in the last instance” still — but shorn of its class determinacy. For the very revolution that restores the base-superstructure relationship to something like its former importance is also that which does away with the working class in its pristine form, shape, size, homogeneity of experience, unity of will, clout, and emancipates Capital from Labour. And the more Labour tries to hold Capital in thrall by withholding its labour, the more Capital moves towards its emancipation through yet more information technology, yet more labourless productive regimes, yet more recourse to the captive labour force in the periphery. The relations of production, that is, have changed with the changes in the level of the productive forces: information (in the sense of data fed to computers, robots, etc.) increasingly replaces labour as a factor of production; Capital no longer needs living labour as before, not in the same numbers, in the same place, at the same time; Labour can no longer organise on that basis, it has lost its economic clout and, with it, whatever political clout it had, whatever determinacy it could exercise in the political realm. What is crucial here is not that the productive forces have altered the balance of dependency between Capital and Labour, but that they have altered it so radically as to allow Capital to free itself of Labour and yet hold Labour captive.
And that is what moves the terrain of battle from the economic to the political, from the base to the superstructure and appears to throw “the language of politics more over to the cultural side” and render the subjective important. However, the battle itself is neither about culture nor about the subject, but — still — about the ownership and control of the means of production and the exploitation of workers. Only now, the centre of gravity of that exploitation has shifted from the centre to the periphery and, within the centre, to peripheral workers, home workers, ad hoc workers, casual, temporary, part-time workers — all the bits and pieces of the working class that the new productive forces have dispersed and dissipated of their strength. Exploitation has not gone out with class determinacy or inequality and poverty with the working class as we know it. The battle is the same as before — only it needs to be taken on at the political/ideological level and not at the economic/political level.
Thatcher's real lessons
Mrs Thatcher saw the time and seized it. That was her genius. The productive forces were pregnant with a new economic and social order. Labour and labourism blocked its passage. It required Mrs Thatcher to take a knife to the unions before the new order could be born. And with that deft bit of political surgery, she determined what course the new economic order should take, whose interests it should serve. And she sold it to the people in a clear, simplistic ideology that spoke to their self-interest and their self-esteem in a time of deep uncertainty and pother — with the help of a press which was itself dying for change and knew it could get it only from her. The time brought forth the woman. And she cast the time in her image.
The new Marxists, in addressing Thatcherism as an electoral and ideological phenomenon, failed to give sufficient importance to the economic and social order it was constructing. Themselves predisposed towards a politics of position, their aim was rather to align the Labour Party with the new class of skilled and semi-skilled workers who were replacing the old Fordist mass worker, the expanding clerical and office workforce of the service sector which was replacing industry as the locus of employment and the new social forces that were increasingly replacing class constituencies. These were the people who could swing the electorate Labour's way. What were their demands and aspirations? How should Labour refashion itself to meet the claims of the new share-owning working class? How could Labour be made to relate to the new social constituencies, such as women, blacks, greens, etc., which had no “clear-cut class identity”? The whole point of Thatcherism as a form of politics has been to construct a new social bloc. Could Labour do the same? Could it abandon its traditional class perspective and accept that a social bloc has to be “constructed out of groups which are very different in terms of their material interests and social positions”? And could these “diverse identities” be welded together into a “collective will”? Thatcherism in its second term did not make a single move which was not also carefully calculated in terms of this hegemonic strategy. It stepped up the pace of privatisation. But it took care, at every step, to harness new social constituencies to it, to “construct” an image of the new share-owning working class, and to expand the bloc, symbolically, around the image of choice. Could Labour relate to the fact that “increasingly, the electorate is thinking politically, not in terms of policies, but of images” — not that policies don't matter but that they don't “capture people's imaginations unless constructed into an image with which they can identify.” If Labour was going to be the majority party in any deep sense, it had to find a strategy for modernisation and an image of modernity; instead of rallying and mobilising the past, it had to find a “convincing alternative scenario to Thatcherism for the future.”
There is an outline of a programme here for Labour to win over the constituencies on which Thatcherism's electoral hegemony continues to rest, but it is not one that speaks to the needs of that third of the nation that Thatcherism has dispossessed, which after all is socialism's first constituency. And (hence?) there is no reference to the ideological shift that Labour would have to make to accommodate these new constituencies, though ideology, we are told, is “critical” to the construction of new social blocs. What, in any case, is this (new) ideology that could relate to the interests of the new constituencies and the underclasses — and are the new social forces a classless monolith? Or (alternatively?)7 is there a “hegemonic strategy” that needs to be built around images that would “expand the bloc symbolically”? For “elections are won or lost not on so-called real majorities but on (equally real) symbolic majorities.” These images, would they be the same sort of images around “choice,” around a new share-owning working class, etc., that Mrs Thatcher constructs? And how shall these speak to the dispossessed, how capture their political imagination? Or are there alternative images/policies that Labour can construct which can still keep it socialist at heart?
How, again, should Labour relate to the race-, sex-, gender-based social movements? On what terms? What is so profoundly socialist about these new social forces is that they raise issues about the quality of life (human worth, dignity, genuine equality, the enlargement of the self) by virtue of their experiences as women, blacks, gays, etc., which the working class movement has not just lost sight of but turned its face against. But if these issues are fought in terms of the specific, particularistic oppressions of women qua women, blacks qua blacks and so on, without being opened out to and informed by other oppressions, they lose their claim to that universality which was their particular contribution to socialism in the first place. And they, further, fall into the error of a new sectarianism — as between blacks versus women, Asians versus Afro-Caribbeans, gays versus blacks, and so on — which pulls rank, this time, on the basis not of belief but of suffering: not who is the true believer but who is the most oppressed. Which then sets out the basis on which demands are made for more equal opportunities for greater and more compound oppressions in terms of quotas and proportions and that type of numbers game. That is not to say that there should be no attempt to redress the balance of racial, sexual and gender discrimination, but that these solutions deal not with the politics of discrimination but its arithmetic — giving more weightage to women here and blacks there and so rearranging the distribution of inequality as not to alter the structures of inequality themselves. In the process, these new social movements tend to replace one sort of sectarianism with another and one sort of sectional interest for another when their native thrust and genius were against sectarianism and for a plurality of interests.
Equally, what is inherently socialist about the issue-based new social forces such as the green and peace movements is the larger questions they raise about the quality of the environs we live in or whether we live at all. But to the extent that the green movement is concerned more, say, with the environmental pollution of the Western world than with the ecological devastation of the Third World caused by Western capitalism, its focus becomes blinkered and narrow and its programmes partial and susceptible to capitalist overtures. Or, to come at it from the opposite direction, it is precisely because the green movement overlooks the centrality of capitalism and imperialism in the despoliation of the planet that it overlooks also the narrowness of its campaigns (the US Greens attack “addictive consumerism” while ignoring the inability of whole sections of the population to consume at all) and the limitation of its vision (the German Greens boast that their movement is “neither to the right nor to the left but in front”). And for that self-same reason it fails, too, in its claim to connect the global and local, the collective and the individual — and therein fails its own trust and promise.
So, too, does a peace movement which does not, for instance, see that to preserve the world from a holocaustal nuclear war also involves preserving the Third World from a thousand internecine wars sponsored and financed by the arms industry of the West.
There are simple, basic connections to be made here within and between the various movements. They are connections which are organic to socialism, but they can only develop if the new social movements open themselves out to the larger social issues and to each other; move out in a centrifugal fashion without losing sight of the centripetal-move out, that is, from their particularities to the whole and back again to themselves, enriching both, in an unending traffic of ideas, struggles and commitments; weave the specific and the universal into a holistic pattern of socialism which, so far from failing the parts, continues to be informed by them.
But that is not how the new Marxists visualise the new social forces. They do not ask what it is in the philosophy and practice of these movements that needs to be constantly reviewed and rectified if they are to make a continuing contribution to a modern progressive socialism. They do not seem to accept that there can be contradictions within and between the movements or that their practice often plays into the hands of capitalism and is therein negated. Instead, they tend to romanticise the movements — feminism especially, as though in a backlash of socialist guilt, romancing the feminine now where once they romanced the class — regarding them as the catalysts or, in their language, “the leading edge” of change.8 Perhaps they needed to, as a tactic, as a gun trained on the male, heterosexual citadels of socialism. But it is one that has backfired precisely because it has not looked to its own fallibility. It is not enough to ask what it is that the new social forces bring to the socialist movement without also asking what it is within these movements that could be corrupting of socialism.
But then, the axes on which the new social movements revolve are single-issue and identity-based politics which are of themselves self-defining and enclosed particularities tending to burrow into themselves for social truths and answers. Identity politics, in fact, seems to claim that the struggles of the self over its various personae — social, sexual, gendered — are by their very nature (for one does not struggle alone) social and political struggles: they impinge on how society regards women, blacks, gays, etc., and challenge the prevailing mores and ideology, in a sort of metaphysical dialectic between the personal and the political. The laboratory of social change, it would appear, is the self, but the self is also in the world and so the world changes with the changing of the self and the self with it.
"At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards…"
Eliot was also a dialectical metaphysician.
The new politics
Politics is not just out there any more, says Rosalind Brunt — in study groups and meetings and vanguard parties — but here in the person, in “the continuous making and remaking of ourselves, and ourselves in relation to others.” It is in the way people experience the world through “the many, and increasing, identities it offers: ... a colour, a gender, a class, a nationality; ‘belonging’ to a family, having a child of your own; relating to colleagues, friends, comrades, lovers.” It can no longer be said that there is a politics outside ourselves — politics is in the person — or that to be political is to talk about “the system, the state, the working class, the Third World” — everything is political. “What people do as political acts,” remarks Beatrix Campbell in the same issue of Marxism Today (with a caveat that she is possibly being “trivial here”), “is they read, they buy, they refuse to buy, and they commit all sorts of acts which are about participation in the culture. It's only nutcases in ever declining political organisations who think the only political act is to go to a meeting.”
Power, for Brunt, is “not simply a force coming from above and governed by one set of people, the ruling class.” Power is everywhere and “it operates horizontally as much as vertically, internally as well as externally.” Even sex, goes on Rosalind Brunt paraphrasing Foucault, “so far from ... being a natural, biological given, central to our identity ... is socially and culturally constructed and has a history brimming with power points.” But “where there is power there is also a ‘multiplicity of points of resistance,’” particularly in the way that historical identities are constructed — in “reverse discourse,” for example, where a homosexual subject, say, can “start to speak on his/ her own behalf, and begin to shift to another, more ‘empowering’ discourse that describes an identity that transcends the original vocabulary of pathology and illness. Hence the self-defining movements of ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ politics — a defiant and celebratory ‘coming out.'”
That, according to the New Timers, is what is exhilarating about New Times: the shift to the subject, the personal, the individual. Everything is in our hands now. We are not determined by “impersonal structures,” “objective contradictions” and “processes that work ‘behind men's (sic) backs.’” We are not conditioned by class, class is no more — the working class certainly, not as we knew it, anyway — and the dominance of production relations has gone with it. Everything has been thrown on to the cultural side. “All interests, including class ones,” says Stuart Hall, “are [now] culturally and ideologically defined.” That is where the struggle is. That is where we challenge the various power blocs in civil society. And “far from there being no resistance to the system,” Hall assures us, “there has been a proliferation of new points of antagonism, new social movements of resistance organised around them, and consequently, a generalisation of ‘politics’ to spheres which hitherto the Left assumed to be apolitical: a politics of the family, of health, of food, of sexuality, of the body.” Or, as Beatrix Campbell puts it, “there's a plethora of collective comings and goings in what you might call ‘civil society’ that are outside the political system.” There is, that is, not just one power game any more but several, and not just one political line but a whole lot of political positions — and hence “a politics which is always positional.”
And personal. Because the personal is the political. And personal politics is also about the politics of consumption, desire, pleasure — because we have got choice now. New Times affords us choices, all sorts of choices, of how we dress, eat, live, make love, choices of style, design, architecture, the social spaces we occupy. The individual has been opened up to the “transforming rhythms and forces of modern material life.” Commodified consumption? Maybe, but “have we become so bewitched,” asks Stuart Hall, “by who, in the short run, reaps the profits from these transactions and missed the deep democratisation of culture which is also a part of their hidden agenda? Can a socialism of the twenty-first century revive, or even survive, which is wholly cut off from the landscapes of popular pleasures, however contradictory a terrain they are? Are we thinking dialectically enough?”
Equally, are we thinking socialist enough? And what, in any case, is this dialectic about materialism which is not itself materialist? Should we become so bewitched by “the deep democratisation of culture” that we miss out on those who reap the profits from these transactions? How do you gauge democratisation — by its spread or the spread of effective choice — and how deep is it that it deprives a third of the population of such choice? And why in the short run? Because profit is short and culture long? Or because subversion is a commercial proposition only in limited runs and the transactors know when to call the tune, change the demand, “democratise” some other (reactionary) bits of culture. In an age of “designer capitalism,” as Robin Murray terms it, who “shapes” our lifestyles? Who still sells us the ideas that sell us the things that we buy? Who lays out for us “the landscapes of popular pleasures”? Should we not be suspicious of those pleasures which, even in a post-Fordist era, tend to be turned out like hamburgers, mass-produced and mass-oriented? Should we not, instead, find pleasure in being creative in ourselves and in our relationships with others now that we have got the time to be creative in? Can a socialism of the twenty-first century survive which does not develop landscapes of creative leisure for people to be human in?
New Times also sets great store by the feminist concept that the personal is the political. But how that concept has been interpreted (because it lends itself to such interpretation) and used has led to disastrous consequences in Left local authority politics, especially as regards race, and in the fight against racism generally. By personalising power, “the personal is the political” personalises the enemy: the enemy of the black is the white as the enemy of the woman is the man. And all whites are racist like all men are sexist. Thus racism is the combination of power plus prejudice. Remove the prejudice and you remove the cutting edge of power; change the person and you change the office.
Hence the fight against racism became reduced to a fight against prejudice, the fight against institutions and practices to a fight against individuals and attitudes. And those Left councils which carried out anti-racist policies on this basis found themselves not only ineffectual but open to the accusation that their approach to the collective good often ended up in individual injustice. The McGoldrick affair — where a white headteacher was suspended because her alleged (personal) racism was said to stand in the way of Brent Council's wholly valid policy to recruit more black teachers — was a case in point. Another was the lesson introduced into some Racism Awareness Training (RAT) classes whereby people were so sensitised to the pejorative use of the term “black” that they baulked at asking for black coffee. Which then gave credence to stories such as the one broadcast by the Daily Mail that Haringey Council had banned teachers and children from singing “Baa Baa Black Sheep” in its schools as it was racist.
All of which went to create the image of the “Loony Left” which, as Stuart Hall so rightly says, bolstered “Thatcherism's hidden ‘moral agenda’ around those powerful subliminal themes of race and sex” and helped her win the election. But if, as Hall insists, the Left is to learn from its mistakes, it must also be said that it was precisely the policies arising from the personal is the political “line” (around “those powerful subliminal themes of race and sex”) that played into the hands of the Right and provided them the modicum of truth necessary to sustain the Loony Left image in the public mind.
The “personal is the political” has also had the effect of shifting the gravitational pull of black struggle from the community to the individual at a time when black was already breaking up into ethnics. It gave the individual an out not to take part in issues that affected the community: immigration raids, deportations, deaths in custody, racial violence, the rise of fascism, as well as everyday things that concerned housing and schooling and plain existing. There was now another venue for politics: oneself, and another politics: of one's sexuality, ethnicity, gender — a politics of identity as opposed to a politics of identification.
Carried to its logical conclusion, just to be black, for instance, was politics enough: because it was in one's blackness that one was aggressed, just to be black was to make a statement against such aggression. If, in addition, you “came out” black, by wearing dreadlocks say, then you could be making several statements. “The one which I think is important,” declared a black intellectual in a radio programme recently, “is the statement it makes to the white people that I have to deal with as a professional, as a scholar, as a historian and other things which I do, and it tells them that there are certain things they can't do to me because I have a power behind me that they can't comprehend.” Equally, you could make a statement, by just being ethnic, against Englishness, for instance; by being gay, against heterosexism; by being a woman, against male domination. Only the white straight male, it would appear, had to go find his own politics of resistance somewhere out there in the world (as a consumer perhaps?). Everyone else could say: I am, therefore I resist.
Of course, the individuals who could leave the black community to its problems and mind their own were those who were not directly affected by them: the emerging black middle class of functionaries and intellectuals. The functionaries found commitment, if not profit, in ethnicity and culture, the intellectuals found struggle in discourse. That way they would not be leaving the struggles of the community behind but taking them to a higher level, interpreting them, deconstructing them, changing the focus of struggle on the sites of another practice, theoreticist this time.
The flight of the intellectual, however, is not confined to the black community — that is a particular type of flight: new, raw, immediately noticeable, because the blacks have achieved some sort of upward social and economic mobility only in the last two decades or so. It is part of a larger, smoother, more sophisticated flight of Left intellectuals from class — a flight that was already intimated in the philosophical excursions of theoretical Marxism and the politics of Eurocommunism but found objective justification in “post-Fordism” and the disintegration of the working class.
Continue to part 2.