Blog post

All That Melts into Air is Solid: The Hokum of New Times (Part 2)

Part 2 of an essay by A. Sivanandan.

A. Sivanandan 4 February 2017

All That Melts into Air is Solid: The Hokum of New Times (Part 2)

Continued from part 1.

The new class

From then saying “farewell to the working class” to electing themselves the new agents of change in New Times was but a short and logical step. For the shift from industrial to postindustrial society or, more accurately, from industrial to information society did not just remove the industrial working class from its pivotal position but threw up at the same time a new information “class.” Since, however, information operated differently at two different levels — at the economic, as a factor of production (information in the sense of data fed to computers, robots, etc.), and at the political, as a factor of ideology, so to speak (information as fed to people) — the combined economic and political clout of the old working class also got differentiated, with the economic going to the technical workers and the political to the “information workers,” the intelligentsia. And in a society “over-determined” by the political/ideological, the intelligentsia, who had hitherto no class as such, had come into their own. Except that the Right intelligentsia knew that the means of information were in the hands of the bourgeoisie and they were merely the producers of ideas and information and ideology that kept the bourgeoisie in situ, while the Left intelligentsia were convinced that the ideas and information and ideology they produced would overwhelm, if not overthrow, the bourgeoisie itself.

Every mode of production, as Marx has said, throws up its own classes. Capitalism is still the “mode” in his sense, but the method of production has undergone such qualitative change as to shift the balance of influence between the economic, political and ideological instances and, with it, the balance of class forces. In today's post-industrial society that balance has shifted to the middle classes and their most vociferous wing, the intelligentsia, who as purveyors of information, ideas, images, lifestyles find themselves in an unusual position of power to influence the way people think and behave — or, as the new Marxists would put it, the way the “subject” is “constructed’ and, since ideologies “work on and through the subject,” the way politics is constructed, too. For the New Times intelligentsia this means dragging Marxism with them to their own intellectual terrain, altering the battle-lines to suit their bent and equipment, engaging in wars of position that never lead to a war of overthrow or “manoeuvre,” challenging not the coercive power of the state but altering the ideological hegemonies in civil society, not through the instrument of the party as before but through the construction of alternative social blocs that would coalesce existing Left/centre parties. Central to the project, of course, are the new social forces.

But the mode is still capitalist, the struggle is still against its coercive power as embodied in the state. The working class might have disintegrated, but the bourgeoisie has, for that very reason, got stronger. There is still exploitation and oppression and hunger among the vast majority of the world's population. There is poverty and unemployment right here, in our midst, that arises from the unequal distribution of wealth.9 That again is in the hands of the state, held there by the state.

There may well be all sorts of “resistance to the system,” as Stuart Hall suggests, in civil society today, all sorts of new social movements and “a politics of the family, of health, of food, of sexuality, of the body.” And they may even succeed in pushing out the boundaries of individual freedom. But the moment they threaten to change the system in any fundamental way or go beyond the personal politics of health, food, sexuality, etc., they come up against the power of the state. That power does not need to be used at every turn, just to intimate that it is there is sufficient to change the politics of the new social forces, personal politics, to a politics of accommodation.

Civil society is no pure terrain of consent where hegemonies can play at will; it is ringed around, if not with coercion, with intimations of coercion — and that is enough to buttress the system's hegemony. It is only in challenging state power that you expose the coercive face of the state to the people, sharpening their political sense and resistance, providing the temper and climate for “the construction” of more effective “social blocs.” Conversely, you cannot take on the dominant hegemonies in civil society without at some point — at the point of effectiveness, in fact — falling foul of the system.

It is inconceivable that we should go on talking about resistances in civil society and ignoring the power of the state when Mrs Thatcher has used exactly that to limit the terrain of civil society, keep government from the people, undermine local democracy, abrogate workers' rights, hand over water to businessmen, make education so narrow and blinkered as to make the next generation safe for the Tories.10 The Greater London Council (GLC) might have succeeded in constructing all sorts of social blocs and movements (the pride and joy of the new Marxists) to challenge Tory hegemony, but all that Mrs Thatcher had to do was abolish it. The abolition, though, might have been stayed if the social blocs and forces that the GLC had generated and/or supported had a politics that could have opened out to each other and formed a solid phalanx of resistance to the encroachments of the Thatcherite state. Instead, their politics of position only helped them to take it lying down.

Nor is civil society an even terrain of consent, a plateau of consent, with no “cliffs of sheer fall.” It drops sharply for the poor, the black, the unemployed. For them, the distinction between the mailed fist and the velvet glove is a stylistic abstraction, the defining limit between consent and force a middle-class fabrication. Black youth in the inner cities know only the blunt force of the state; those on income support (8 million on today's count) have it translated for them in a thousand not so subtle ways. If we are to extend the freedoms in civil society through a politics of hegemony, those who stand at the intersection of consent and coercion should surely be our first constituency and guide — and a yardstick to measure our politics by. How do you extend “a politics of food” to the hungry, “a politics of the body” to the homeless, “a politics of the family” to those without an income?' How do any of these politics connect up with the Third World?

The touchstone of any issue-based or identity-based politics has to be the lowest common denominators in our society. A women's movement that does not derive its politics from the needs, freedoms, rights of the most disadvantaged among them is by that very token reformist and elitist. Conversely, a politics that is based on women qua women is inward-looking and narrow and nationalist and, above all, failing of its own experience. So, too, the blacks or gays or whoever. So, too, are the green and peace movements Eurocentric and elitist that do not derive their politics from the most ecologically devastated and war-ravaged parts of the world. Class cannot just be a matter for identity, it has to be the focus of commitment.

But even if, as the new Marxists have it, class is only one of a subject's many identities, it is still his or her class identity surely that makes a person socialist or otherwise. What makes for that identity may be an individual's direct experience of hardship, or it may stem from one's capacity to see in one's own oppression or oppressions as a woman, a black, a black gay, etc., the oppression of others, or it may derive quite simply from “the truth of one's imagination.” But unless it informs and underlines the subject's other identities, the politics of identity becomes a narrow, sterile, self-seeking exercise. You don't have to live in poverty and squalor to be a socialist, as Beatrix Campbell so derisorily implies, but the capacity to identify yourself with those who do helps. By the same token, the “politics of pleasure,” which the new Marxists warn us we must not knock, could hardly be one of socialism's priorities — nor the pursuit of personal gain its morality. Class, even as metaphor, is still the measure of a socialist conscience.11

But there's the rub. The new Marxists do not see the self as something forged in and forging the struggle to change the world, but as fragmented identities inhabiting different social worlds, “with a history, ‘produced,’ in process. These vicissitudes of the subject have their own histories which are key episodes in the passage to new times” such as “the cultural revolutions of the 1960s ... feminism's slogan that ‘the personal is the political’ ... the theoretical revolutions of the 60s and 70s — semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism — with their concern for language and interpretation.” And it is this “return of the subjective with a vengeance” that New Times proudly presents.

The "return” of the subject to the centre of the political stage brings with it, of course, the politics of the subject: individualism, consumption, choice, the market, sexuality, style, pleasure, “international humanism.”

The big waffle

Individualism, for New Times contributor Charlie Leadbeater, is what the Left now needs “at the core of its vision of how society should be organised” — a “socialist individualism,” of course, a “progressive individualism,” an “expansive individualism,” a “democratic individualism” even, in contrast to Mrs Thatcher's “constrained, narrow, materialistic individualism.” Labour and the Left had abrogated individual rights and choices through statism, and Thatcherism had seized upon them to construct its own vision of society. It was time now for the Left to reappropriate the individual — an individual with responsibilities, however, not just rights. For “if the Left stands for one thing, it should be this: people taking responsibility for all aspects of their lives.” No more nanny state, no more asking “what can the state, the council, the professionals, do to solve this problem for people.” Should this sound like Thatcherism, Leadbeater hastens to assure us that, in addition to individual responsibility, there would also be collective provision. But how, if not through the state and local authority — and for whom, if not the needy? And are we then not returning to the “theological collectives ... of state and class”? Through “intermediate collectives,” answers Charlie Leadbeater, composed perhaps of “individuals, private initiatives, even companies,” operating within a “space” provided and regulated by the state. But how is this different from Heseltine's compact for the inner cities?

The individual must also have choice, in consumption, lifestyle, sexuality and so on, because “the dynamic area of most people's lives is where they can assert their difference from others.” There's “new Marxism” for you, and yet the old man whose name they take in vain said that it was “only in community with others” that the individual has “the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions, only in community ... is personal freedom possible.”

But that apart, the question of choice in Leadbeater's scheme of things does not emerge from the position of the choiceless, those deprived of choice, deprived of purchasing power. It relates, in the first instance, to those who already have and stresses, therefore, the importance of the market in delivering choice. When Leadbeater does turn to the problems of the less well-off, it is to tag on feeble provisos to market solutions, such as regulating competition, or to offer up sundry collective actions which are themselves “conceived and expressed individually.”

The stress on the individual leads Leadbeater to the market and Thatcherism, the anxiety not to be found out leads him to “collectivism,” and he ends up as a man divided against himself in “individually-based collectivism” — that is, as a social democrat. At one point he even goes beyond “collective action” to mention redistribution, but it is not the redistribution of wealth. That, though, would have been to shift the centre of gravity of new Marxist argument from consumption to distribution — which, after all, is where socialism begins. The fulfilment of choice in an unequal society is always at the expense of others and is, in that, a negation of choice, of freedom.

It is in Stuart Hall's writing, however, that consumption reaches higher, even more lyrical, levels and requires to be quoted at length if only for its poetry. If “the preoccupation with consumption and style” appears trivial, he warns us, it is “more so to men, who tend to have themselves ‘reproduced’ at arm's length from the grubby processes of shopping and buying and getting and therefore take it less seriously than women, for whom it was destiny, life's ‘work.’ But the fact is that greater and greater numbers of people (men and women) — with however little money — play the game of using things to signify who they are. Everybody, including people in poor societies whom we in the West frequently speak about as if they inhabit a world outside of culture, knows that today's ‘goods’ double up as social signs and produce meanings as well as energy. There is no evidence that, in a socialist economy, our propensity to ‘code’ things according to systems of meaning, which is an essential feature of our sociality, would necessarily cease — or, indeed, should.”

I do not understand the last sentence and even the previous one seems meaningless to me — or it is in “code.” But what “social signs” do “today's goods” have for the poor in “poor societies” except that they have not got them, the goods? And what “meaning” or “energy” do they produce except that those who have do not give and those who have not must take? Who are these people who, in our own societies — “with however little money” — play the game of using things to signify who they are unless it is those who use cardboard boxes under Waterloo Bridge to signify that they are the homeless? They know who they are: they are the poor and they do not have things to play games with. It is they — both men and women — who think, who know that “the preoccupation with consumption and style” is trivial. And Hall's bringing in male sexism in matters of “shopping and buying and getting” does not elevate consumption any higher. If, on the other hand, what Hall is trying to say is that poor people find meaning, express themselves, in “consuming” the goods they cannot afford precisely because they are poor, that again is special pleading to bring consumption closer to the heart of socialism.

Consumption is also where Robin Murray, alas, stubs his socialist toe. He first, like the other New Timers, excoriates the Left for being reluctant to take on the question of consumption. And like Stuart Hall, in another passage to New Times, Murray, too, develops a powerful argument for those movements in civil society which have taken on the market and the state over those issues of consumption where “the social and the human have been threatened” — such as “the effects of food additives and low-level radiation, of the air we breathe and the surroundings we live in, the availability of childcare and community centres, or access to privatised city centres and transport geared to particular needs.” But he cannot help singing a paean to the market: “which local council pays as much attention to its users as does the market research industry on behalf of commodities? Which bus or railway service cuts queues and speeds the traveller with as much care as retailers show to their just-in-time stocks?” One would have thought that the motive of market researchers and retailers alike was profit, not use value.

With “the return of the subjective” has also gone the notion of imperialism out of new Marxist reckoning — the ravaging of the Third World, the exploitation of its peoples, the theft of its resources, ecological devastation. The Third World is no longer out there as an object of struggle; it is here, in the minds of people, as an anodyne to consumption, in the personal politics of the subject — an object of Western humanism, the occasion for individual aid, a site for pop culture and pop politics. The “famine movement,” the new Marxists call it, “people aid” to the Third World — making the plight of the Third World come through to people through mass gigs, mass runs, telethons — mass culture at the service of “mass politics” — the politics of selfish consumption relieved by relief for the Third World — altering, if not the fate of the Third World, the views of government to alter the fate of the Third World — (governments tied up with multinational corporations, governments governed by multinational corporations) — altering people's politics, lifting people's horizons “beyond even the boundaries of Europe, to Africa” — a mass movement for the moment, initiated not by the Left but outside it — by caring people — by pop stars who put “‘caring for others’” on the map” of rock culture (because “every fan knows how much it costs a star to give a free performance”) — millionaire pap merchants effecting a peaceful transition for the young from pap culture into pap politics.

“Who would have guessed in 1979, or even perhaps in 1983,” ask Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques writing in 1986, “that the plight of the Third World would generate one of the great popular movements of our time?” And not just that: “with the rise of the Band Aid/Live Aid/Sport Aid phenomenon, the ideology of selfishness — and thus one of the main ideological underpinnings of Thatcherism — has been dealt a further, severe blow.” In fact, “the famine movement's capacity to mobilise new forces,” especially the youth, has “helped to shift the political centre of gravity.”

On the contrary, all that it shifted was the focus of responsibility for the impoverishment of the Third World from Western governments to individuals and obscured the workings of multinational corporations and their agents, the IMF and the World Bank. Worse, it made people in the West feel that famine and hunger were endemic to the Third World, to Africa in particular (the dark side of the affluent psyche), and what they gave was as of their bounty, not as some small recompense for what was being taken from the poor of the Third World. And, in the language of the new Marxists (more or less), a discourse on Western imperialism was transmogrified into a discourse on Western humanism.

What New Times represents, in sum, is a shift in focus from economic determinism to cultural determinism, from changing the world to changing the word, from class in and for itself to the individual in and for himself or herself. Use value has ceded to exchange value, need to choice, community to i-dentity, anti-imperialism to international humanism. And the self that New Timers make so much play about is a small, selfish inward-looking self that finds pride in lifestyle, exuberance in consumption and commitment in pleasure — and then elevates them all into a politics of this and that, positioning itself this way and that way (with every position a politics and every politics a position) into a “miscellany of movements and organisations” stretching from hobbies and pleasure to services.

A sort of bazaar socialism, bizarre socialism, a hedonist socialism: an eat, drink and be merry socialism because tomorrow we can eat drink and be merry again ... a socialism for disillusioned Marxist intellectuals who had waited around too long for the revolution — a socialism that holds up everything that is ephemeral and evanescent and passing as vital and worthwhile, everything that melts into air as solid, and proclaims that every shard of the self is a social movement.

Of course, the self is fragmenting, breaking up. But when in Capital's memory was it never so? Capital fragments the self as it fragments society, divides the self as it divides labour, develops some aspects of the self at the expense of others, encourages specialisation, compartmentalises experience and hands it over to professionals for interpretation, conceptualisation, and keeps the self from becoming whole.

Up to now we had the homogenising influence of class to hold us together, but this, as the new Marxists so rightly point out, was a flattening process, a reductive process, mechanical, and as destructive of the creative self as Capital.12 That influence of class is gone from us and all its comforting, stultifying adhesions of procedures and organisation. There is nothing “objective” to hold us together, our selves are let loose upon the world, and even the freedoms won in that great period of industrial working-class struggle are being threatened.

The emancipation of Capital from Labour has left a moral vacuum at the heart of post-industrial society, which is itself material. The universalist bourgeois values which Bill Warren wrote about — “equality, justice, generosity, independence of spirit and mind, the spirit of inquiry and adventure, opposition to cruelty” — and which sprang precisely from the creative tension between Capital and Labour are endangered by Capital's emancipation. The Factory Acts which took children out of work and women from the mines and gave them the light of day, the Education Acts that opened their minds out to other worlds and the world, the Public Health Acts which stopped the spread of disease and plagues — all came out of the tension, the hostility, between Capital and Labour.

Freedom of speech, of assembly, the right to withhold one's labour, universal suffrage, sprang not from bourgeois benefice but from working-class struggle. All the gains of the period of industrial capitalism were the creative outcome of social contradictions — the heart of dialectical materialism. The welfare state was its apotheosis.

Those contradictions are not as eloquent any more. The “service class” of the post-industrial society which has displaced the working class of industrial society does not contest Capital but is accommodating of it and secretes a culture of accommodation, a petit-bourgeois culture. Where once the tension between the bourgeoisie and the working class produced “bourgeois” culture and “bourgeois” freedoms, the lack of tension, of hostility, of “class hatred” even, produces a petit-bourgeois culture and petit-bourgeois values.

But there are still the values and traditions that have come down to us from the working-class movement: loyalty, comradeship, generosity, a sense of community and a feel for internationalism, an understanding that unity has to be forged and reforged again and again and, above all, a capacity for making other people's fights one's own — all the great and simple things that make us human.

Communities of resistance

Where those traditions have taken hold and come alive today are in the struggles of the people in those spaces that Thatcherism and new Marxism alike have obscured from public view: in the inner cities, among the low paid and the poor, in the new underclass of homeworkers and sweatshop workers, casual and part-time workers, ad hoc and temporary workers, thrown up by the putting-out system in retailing, the flexisystem in manufacturing, and the hire and fire system in the expanding service sector, and among refugees, migrants, asylum-seekers: the invisible workers who have no rights, no claims, no roots, no domicile and are used and deported at will.

By their very nature and location, the underclass are the most difficult to organise in the old sense of organisation. They do not submit to the type of trade union regimen which operates for the straight “official” workforce — but they come together, like villagers, through hearsay and common hurt, over a deportation case here or a death in custody there, to take on the immediate power of the immigration officer or the police and to go beyond it, if that is where it takes them, to oppose the power of the state itself as it presents itself on the street. They come together, too, over everyday cases of hardship to help out each other's families, setting up informal community centres to help them consolidate whatever gains they make. These are not great big things they do, but they are the sort of organic communities of resistance that, in a sense, were prefigured in the black struggles of the 1960s and 1970s and the insurrections of 1981 and 1985.

Broadwater Farm was such a community. Relegated to a concrete ghetto and deprived of basic amenities and services, jobless for the most part and left open to crime, the inhabitants of the estate came together to create a life for themselves. They set up a nursery, provided meals and a meeting-place for pensioners, established a recreation centre for youth and built up, in the process, a political culture that resisted police intrusion and proceeded to take on the judiciary and the press over the mistrial (the press trial in fact) of Silcott, Braithwaite and Raghip.

In 1979 the whole of Southall — Asian, Afro-Caribbean, white; the young, the old; women and men; shopkeepers and householders — shut up shop and went off to demonstrate against the incursion of the National Front into their town and were savagely beaten up by the police. Hundreds were injured when mounted police and riot police charged into the crowds — and Blair Peach, a white anti-racist campaigner and teacher, died at the hands of the Special Patrol Group. But that death did not die in the memories and campaigns of white groups and black organisations who took up the question of police accountability and brought it to the attention of a larger and larger public. From these campaigns came the setting up of local police-monitoring groups and council police committees. People were alerted now to the deaths, especially of young blacks, in police or prison custody, and from that has grown a distrust of inquest procedures and the demands for public inquiries in their stead. In April 1989, on the tenth anniversary of Blair Peach's death, activists from all over the UK and Europe gathered in Southall to commemorate his memory and pledge themselves to his legacy of struggle against racism and fascism.

It was also from the failure, wellnigh wilful, of the police to protect working-class Asian families from racial harassment and attack, following Mrs Thatcher's “this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture” pronouncement, that the call for the self-defence of the black community arose. And when a few months later Judge Argyle imposed savage sentences on the Virk brothers for defending themselves with spanners and jacks (they were repairing their car at the time) against the unprovoked attack of a racist gang, the Asian community, elders and youth alike, realised that it was as futile to look to the judiciary for justice as it was to the police for protection. From that “self-defence is no offence” campaign sprang similar campaigns — in Newham, for instance, on behalf of Asian youth who had defended young children against racist attacks on their way from school (the case of the Newham eight). Which in turn raised the question of the pastoral role of teachers in protecting children against racial harassment.

The most celebrated of these campaigns arose from the defence of Manningham against impending fascist attack by twelve young Asians (allegedly) armed with Molotov cocktails. They were charged with conspiracy, a charge so wholly disproportionate that it outraged ordinary people and brought to the defence campaign support from a whole cross-section of groups — women, gays, students — who had hitherto not made the “racial attack” issue their own.13 Meetings across the country, regular newsletters and mass marches were to alert communities everywhere to the issues involved: problems in policing, attacks by fascists and racists in black areas, racism and political bias in the criminal justice system, a wish by the state to smash militant black organisations. It was the success of the community defence campaign as much as the legal representation in court (which was itself “changed” by the community) which got the twelve acquitted.

These campaigns in turn were to strengthen the resolve of local authorities to outlaw racism, from council housing for instance. And in November 1984 Newham Council took the unprecedented step of evicting a white family, the McDonnells, for persistent harassment of their black neighbours.

Similarly, the issue of deportation and of the rights of children to join their parents, taken up by trade unions and legal and civil rights bodies, were initially raised by women's organisations — black and white. And from these issues the realisation arose that the question of deportation and children's rights had got to be seen and fought in the larger context of the quality of family life generally — and gave rise to the campaigns over child benefit, unsavoury surveillance by the state of marriages (to make sure they were not bogus), the racist and sexist nature of nationality laws and the “internal,” unseen, unknown, unaccountable control of black families — via the police, education, welfare and social services.

It is a community of women again, predominantly middle-aged women, which has helped keep alive in Britain the issue of Israeli terror in the Occupied Territories, protested against the treatment of women Palestinian prisoners, collected funds for the children detained during the intifada, confirmed their fellow women in Israel in their struggle against the occupation. Week in and week out for two years a Women in Black picket has stood each Saturday in silent protest outside the Israeli airline office in London — informing people, collecting signatures, arguing the issues with passersby. The irony is that these women are for the most part Jewish women and that the catalyst for their movement came from a realisation in Jewish feminist circles that their politics of identity was too narrow, historicist and self-indulgent — and betraying of a sisterhood that should embrace Palestinian women as well.

Recently, the campaign to prevent the deportation of Tamil asylum-seekers from the UK involved a fight between the judiciary and the Home Office over their legitimacy. But the whole issue of the would-be-refugees, tortured by the Sri Lankan government, brought up Britain's role in the training of the armed forces and intelligence networks of repressive regimes and the implications of tourism in such countries. And when two Tamil asylum-seekers working (for want of work permits) as night security guards in a Soho amusement arcade were burnt to death, the issue became one of the superexploitation of a new rightless, peripatetic section of the working class and led to an exposé of the profits made by the leisure industry.

It was, again, the migrant workers and the Refugee Forum which fought for the rights of Kurds who had to flee Turkey in 1989. The feeding, housing, clothing of the Kurds, help with translation, appeals for the right to remain, were all undertaken by community groups themselves. Outrage over arbitrary detentions and deportations by the Home Office (which led to the self-immolation of two Kurdish asylum-seekers) brought out various migrant and black communities onto the streets in demonstrations and meetings.14 Just as in the case of the Tamils, the Kurds, too, threw up crucial issues which the movement had to embrace: the conditions of work in East London's sweatshops (where the Kurds found employment), the use of chemical weapons (by Iraq) on the Kurds, Britain's collusion through NATO with Turkey's armed forces and, therefore, its harassment and torture of the Kurdish minority.

The joint struggles of refugee, migrant and black groups in Britain not only help to sustain the links between racism and imperialism and between racial oppression and class exploitation, but have also been at the forefront of the attempts to build a network of European groups against a new European racism in the run-up to 1992. And only last month (November 1989) activists from black settler groups, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers based in Holland, Germany, France, Denmark and the UK came together in a conference in Hackney to launch a Communities of Resistance Campaign across Europe.

All these activities may constitute a “miscellany of movements,” “a plethora of collective comings and goings” outside mainstream party politics, as the new Marxists describe them. But there the resemblance to anything they have in mind ceases. In the first place, these are collectivities, movements, that issue from the grassroots (if the term may still be used) of economic, social and political life, from the bare bone of existence, from people who have nothing to lose but their chains, nothing to choose but survival, and are therefore dynamic, open, organic. They are not inward-looking, navel-gazing exercises like identity politics or narrow self-defining particularities like single-issue politics. They do not, in other words, issue from the self but from the community, not from choice but from need, and are organic in the sense of sharing a common life.

Secondly, these movements do not stop at the bounds of civil society or confine their activities to its boundaries. They know from experience that beyond civil society lies the state, behind civil society lurks the state, on every street corner the state, at the Job Centre and the town hall, in the schools and at the hospital, whether demanding your rights or asking for guidance or just trying to lead an ordinary family life — local state or central, it matters little, as Thatcherism goes on eroding local authority, except that that, too, is now their fight. The struggles stretch from civil society to state and back in a continuum, effecting material changes in the life and rights of ordinary people and extending, in the process, the bounds of civil society itself.

Thirdly, what these movements throw up, by their very nature, are not diverse cultural politics but a multi-faceted political culture which finds authority in practice, tests theory in outcome, and works towards a wider political movement commensurate with our times, but unrelenting still of its struggle against Capital. The point is to overthrow capitalism, not to join it in order to lead it astray into socialism.

Hence and fourthly, these movements have little sympathy with the notion of the personal is the political because this has tended in practice to personalise and fragment and close down struggles. The personal is the political is concerned with what is owed to one by society, whereas the political is personal is concerned with what is owed to society by one. The personal is the political is concerned with altering the goal posts, the political is personal is concerned with the field of play. The personal is the political may produce radical individualism, the political is personal produces a radical society. The personal is the political entraps you in the self-achieving, self-aggrandising lifestyle of the rich, the political is personal finds value in the communal lifestyle of the poor.

Finally, there is an unspoken morality about these movements which stem from a simple faith in human beings and a deep knowledge that, by himself or herself, the individual is nothing, that we need to confirm and be confirmed by each other, that only in the collective good our selves can put forth and grow.15

This means that to come to consciousness of one's own individual oppression (which the new Marxists so eloquently point to as a sign of New Times) is to open one's sensibilities out to the oppression of others, the exploitation of others, the injustices and inequalities and unfreedoms meted out to others — and to act upon them, making an individual/local case into an issue, turning issues into causes and causes into movements and building in the process a new political culture, new communities of resistance that will take on power and Capital and class.

Moralistic? Morality is material when it is forged on the smithy of practice into a weapon of ideology. “If you want to know the taste of a pear,” a Chinese saying goes, “you must change its reality by eating it.”


1. I am interested here in the :economic, social and political shape" of New Times as presented in the special issue of Marxism Today (October 1988) and elsewhere, not in the eclectic manifesto for New Times as presented to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

2. I am not interested here in distinguishing the various strands of Marxism or in periodising their appearance(s).

3. If the Militants were the moles, Marxism Today was the cuckoo.

4. Robin Murray says as much in his article “Life after Henry (Ford)” in the same issue, but, judging from the attention he gets from his fellow contributors, he must have been inserted in the interests of pluralism. 5. “The entire industrial revolution enhanced productivity by a factor of about 100 …” but “the micro-electronic revolution has already enhanced productivity in information-based technology by a factor of more than a million — and the end isn't in sight yet.”

5. Stuart Hall must have found it difficult to include the black struggles of this period in his “key episodes” (despite their being the precursors and inspirers of the feminist movement) because they combined the struggles of a people and a class: rooted the cultural and the political in the economic.

6. The writings of the new Marxists are so non-committal as to make definition difficult.

7. In pursuing “the leading edge of change,” the new Marxists ignore the basis of change.

8. In May 1988, 8.2 million people in Britain were dependent upon supplementary benefit. In the year 1988-9 tax cuts for individuals in the richest 1 per cent of taxpayers were £22,680 per person, a sum greater than the total income of any single person in the bottom 95 per cent of the population.

9. The interests of the state and of the government, declared the Attorney General, later Lord Chancellor, after the Ponting case, are identical.

10. In 1985, 5.42 million people (10 per cent of the population) were living in poverty or on its margins, a rise of 33% since 1979). Families with children experienced a steeper rise in poverty than other people on low income; 6.45 million people in families with children (26 per cent of all families with children) were living in poverty or on its margins, an increase of 55% since 1979. In 1987 there were 107,000 households who were homeless; 64 per cent were households with dependent children; 14 per cent had a member who was pregnant (Poverty, Summer 1988 and Winter 1988-9).

11. From the point of view of the new Marxists, of course, this may well sound like a class reductionism of the mind.

12. “Capitalism ... destroys the human possibilities it creates... Those traits, impulses and talents that the market can use are rushed (often prematurely) into development and squeezed desperately till there is nothing left: everything else within us, everything nonmarketable, gets draconically repressed, or withers away for lack of use, or never has a chance to come to life at all.”

13. Among those who sat in on the trial each day was a young white home-help. Her anger and commitment was later to be channelled into a series of biting cartoons in the Institute of Race Relations publication How Racism Came to Britain (which the Secretary of State for Education then tried to ban from schools).

14. These are not the party-hacks' meetings that Beatrix Campbell inveighs against but practical meetings to work out rotas for volunteers at community centres, panels of lawyers to take up cases, etc.


Filed under: marxism, political-theory, weekend-read