A farewell to class
Marcus Strom reviews:
Beyond Right and Left: new politics and the culture wars
by David McKnight (Allen & Unwin, $24.95)
The path from erstwhile Marxist to academic apologist for the system of capital is a well-worn one. Most who have travelled this path have drifted into obscurity. Not so David McKnight. He remains an advocate for social change, albeit with a twist.
Beyond Right and Left is an attempt to marry his disillusioned socialist past with what he regards as a deep social conservatism among working Australians. He claims to be inventing a new humanism, or at least to starting to ask the questions that will take us there. But what he offers by way of this 'new' humanism are vapid abstractions that take us no further than some sort of warmed-over "third way" between socialism and capitalism. His project is a
"moral framework [to] challenge the right on its own grounds of conservatism". The source of such morals remains undisclosed, other than some primordial human essence. Instead he states
"classical conservatism … offers a useful model for framing a new kind of value-based politics". He allows classical conservatism the moral high ground on such matters as passion, solidarity and family.
"Until the rise of the new social movements, especially feminism and the Green movement, conservatism had a strong hold on the non-rational, moral, emotional and spiritual side of politics." Leaving what is rational to one side, this says more about his former Marxism than it does of any genuine praxis for human liberation. What of the emotional and spiritual drive to defend the Spanish republic in the 1930s? What of the struggle of the Chartists, or the Irish nationalists and the Easter uprising? What of the suffragettes, not to mention the Paris Commune and the Bolsheviks daring to "storm the heavens"?
For 150 years the socialist left was a radical force in society - and this was good, he says, because it has "civilised capitalism". But that is all over, says McKnight. We were never going to get anywhere carrying pictures of Chairman Mao. But in today's rapidly globalising economy, neo-liberalism is the radical force. It is capital that is tearing down the old certainties of family, community, state. Gone is conservatism's commitment to noblesse oblige and a paternalistic approach to the working masses. The alpha and omega of capital is profit, he has discovered. Yet this puts the right into a conundrum: if neo-liberalism is the new source of uncertainty, fragmentation and dislocation, what of its rhetorical support for family, tradition and moral values?
This is where McKnight's new humanism enters the frame. The former stronghold of the right - conservatism, tradition and moral values - is the very ground upon which the left must fight its battle against the extremism of neo-liberalism. He favourably quotes Tony Blair's "third way" guru, Anthony Giddens:
"We should all become conservatives now … but not in the conservative way". Despite McKnight's protests that his new humanism
"is not a prescription for a meek and mild middle way, or for a third way", it is no accident the book from which he quotes is Giddens' Beyond Left and Right.
While McKnight's journey is hardly original, it (just) manages to remain within the parameters of social-democracy, if not socialism itself. But despite his erroneous conclusions he has thrown up some useful ideas - not least of which is an understanding of the strength of John Howard's counter-reformation. He successfully challenges us to ponder why the right has been so successful while the left has waned. However, his outlook is fundamentally pessimistic. McKnight sees no way out of capitalism, but grasps helplessly for a phantasm that will allow civil society to keep "commercial values" at bay.
This review is hardly a heresy hunt, for the body of "Marxism" from which the author has emerged is riddled with flaws. And most of what parades as Marxism today is a sick parody of the methodology of historical materialism. Yet it is clear McKnight's grasp of Marxism is fundamentally wrong. This is important in understanding his path from editor of Tribune, the former Communist Party's newspaper, to cheerleader for abstract moral values. For him, Marxism was and is an economistic, deterministic, soulless body of thought from which only tyranny could emerge. This was the sort of Marxism spoon-fed to generations of socialist activists last century; and it is against this that he rebelled.
McKnight emerges from what is called the New Left; a movement that was a petty-bourgeois response to changes in society as well as a reaction to conservatism in the communist movement. The New Left comprised radicalised elements in the 1960s and 1970s who believed there was a short-cut to social transformation through various social movements: women's liberation, gay liberation, environmentalism. What had passed as Marxism through most of the 20th century belittled such movements for liberation as secondary to the class struggle. It should be no surprise that when such movements became social forces in their own right, they did not in the main seek alliances with the working class and the old left; this allowed feminism, anti-racism and environmentalism to easily be incorporated into the mainstream. The New Left often drifted into ultra-leftism and its rhetoric of "multiple oppressions" (which no doubt there are) argued against giving privileged space to class in any analysis of society. Set loose of a working class anchor, such perspectives were bound to drift into bourgeois methodology. Hence we have femocrats, "official multiculturalism", political correctness, the pink dollar and deep-green anti-humanism.
McKnight reflects on the New Left. He says:
"It's now clear that the socialist component of the New Left was the last gasp of an older left, not the promise of a renewed one." The irony is, of course, that McKnight's current course is the actual last gasp of the old left. The collapse of Western Stalinism and its idealised mirror, the New Left (or Eurocommunism) is part of the same process. While some have held on to various forms of these views in a semi-religious way, others, such as McKnight, have merged with the leftwing of official society to become its apologists. Witness former Marxism Today editor Martin Jacques, whose think-tank "Demos" now acts as consultant to Tony Blair; or David Aaronovitch, former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and active supporter of Bush and Blair's invasion of Iraq.
Of course Stalinism and Eurocommunism were both antithetical to genuine Marxism. One a mechanical and teleological (mis)interpretation of Marxism, the other its idealised and social-democratised opposite. The journey from determinist Marxism to bourgeois liberalism is not uncommon. Ellen Meiksins Wood, a Marxist and contributor to Monthly Review, says:
"It is not surprising that, for many people, there has been a more or less direct route, with or without a stopover at Althussserianism, from determinist Marxism to what seems the opposite extreme. Determinism is always bound to be disappointed by history. In particular, technological-determinist Marxists, imbued with a teleological conviction that the automatic development of productive forces would mechanically produce a revolutionary working class, were bound to feel betrayed by the real working class responding not to the prophecies of a metaphysical materialism but to the exigencies of history. The intellectual history of the (stunningly rapid) transition from the structuralist Marxism of the sixties and seventies, through the brief moment of 'post-Marxism', to the current fashions of 'post-modernism' has in large part been the story of a disappointed determinism." (Democracy Against Capitalism, page 9)
This partly explains McKnight's journey, but it is not the whole story.
It would be easy to dismiss McKnight as merely one more disenchanted voice emerging from the detritus of mechanical "Marxism". But he has attempted to grapple with some issues usually outside the parameters of the mainstream left. His observations on multiculturalism, identity, the family and the strength of Howard in the "culture wars" are useful in rearming the socialist left for future battles.
Culture wars and multiculturalism
First, the "culture wars". His argument goes something like this. The radicalised baby-boomers transformed much by way of social freedoms, sexual proclivities and cultural expectations. Bypassing the working class, which the New Left regarded as conservative, he says the terrain for these battles
"was not the factory floor but public culture". And these "advocates of social change began to people the new bureaucracies of government". Further, "the battle cries for liberation of the 1970s turned into a government-sponsored political correctness of the 1980s and 1990s".
I have much sympathy for this argument. It was the rush of the New Left to embrace "culture" above class that allowed the traditional conservatives and the Liberal Party to lead the backlash against such top-down finger waving from "cultural élites". McKnight recognises this as a source of strength for Howard in wooing his "battlers". The same politics led to the brief frisson of interest in Pauline Hanson's One Nation. He further recognises the importance of intellectual tenacity and consistency from the early advocates of neo-liberalism and correctly notes the absence of 'conviction politics' in the labour movement. However, in idealist fashion, he does not posit the rise of neo-liberalism within the context of class struggle. It arose because of the material needs of capitalism to defenstrate an increasingly confident working class. For McKnight its rise is reducible to a battle of ideas.
McKnight identifies a similar process within official multiculturalism. This is of particular importance after the Cronulla riots. Multiculturalism has become official government policy. Rather than being about its initial impetus - democratic unity from below - multiculturalism has been preached from above as a celebration of difference. And as capital rapidly globalises, where everything solid melts into air, previous familiarities about identity evaporate. As Sydney University sociologist Ghassan Hage said, Anglo-Celtic Australians felt they were left without a stall at the multicultural fair. Alongside this process a cohesive and unifying class identity has faded. Where McKnight does notice the diminishing of class-consciousness, he just shrugs and says it is natural, inevitable, rather than recognising it as part of the ebb and flow of class struggle. He reveals a failure to escape a teleological and deterministic methodology he thought he had left behind with his socialism.
Of course, "mainstream Australia" doesn't need a stall at the multicultural fair. It runs the whole kit and caboodle. However, what "Anglo" disaffection represents is not just a disillusionment with multiculturalism, but a dislocation from bourgeois society itself. Yes, "official" Australia has its Anzac Day myths, the Boxing Day Test, mateship and, um, not much else. For anyone with the stomach, the Kerry Packer memorial service showed the Australian ruling class in all its splendour: and it didn't have much to show for itself. Five minutes of chanting "Come on, Aussie, come on"? No wonder "Anglos" feel ripped off. Of course, what it is to be Australian is contested terrain, and rather pander to the official view of "Australianness", battle should be joined for an identity based on our democratic past and for a republican, socialist and internationalist future.
Another "insight" from McKnight is that the left need not vacate the ground of "family values" to the right. This again shows more about where the author comes from than what a genuine left stands for. It is not new that capitalism has a contradiction with the family. On the one hand it requires unpaid female labour to reproduce workers. It proffers a hypocritical and sanctimonious vision of the family. On the other, its rapaciousness attempts to keep male workers in the factories and offices for as long as possible while drawing more female labour into the workforce without taking responsibility for childcare.
So while McKnight's insights on Howard's culture wars, multiculturalism and the family are worthwhile, they are at best nothing more than refreshing observations, rather than strategies for moving progressive politics forward. At worst, his panacea is for further unity around an 'improved' bourgeois state; a nationalist agenda.
Capitalism and the market
New Capitalism, as McKnight calls it, is nastier than the old capitalism which nice men such as Malcolm Fraser used to run. Of course, the rapacious spread of globalisation and the erosion of social fabric that capital brings are real, yet such outcomes are the function of class struggle, not a technological inevitability. Rather than seek a return to a golden age when "community mattered" within the fabric of capital (a nationalist-utopian impossibility), we should be seeking the supercession of the capital system, envisaged on a world scale.
Unfortunately for McKnight, no matter what phantasm you attempt to invoke, third way, new humanism or even old-fashioned social-democracy, you cannot control the capitalist beast. And McKnight's project is nothing more than another attempt to tame capital through its own state.
Having abandoned a flawed version of Marxism, he has essentially embraced a version of Max Weber's causal pluralism. He has moved from one semi-religious understanding of the world to another set of idealist nostrums in which the market and capital become historical universals, not specific and historically contingent developments within the capitalist mode of production.
It is possible to reject the knuckleheaded determinism of the "official Marxism" of the 20th century and rediscover the democratic and dynamic core of Marx's methodology. We can be a bit better informed than merely using a clumsy social model where "base" mechanically determines "superstructure". McKnight is incapable of doing this. Instead, he sets up his own straw figure of Marx to easily knock him down.
Of course the history of modern society, as well as all hitherto existing societies, is not that of technical progress, but of class struggle. And it is the lifeblood of class struggle that is missing from McKnight's worldview.
Take his view of classical conservatism, which, McKnight would have it, has been abandoned by the right. For him, this is an "organic" philosophy (as opposed to awful things like Reason and the Enlightenment); it deals with emotion, common heritage and so on (things, apparently that socialism cannot have a bar of). While McKnight accepts that conservatism may have its ugly side (virulent nationalism, xenophobia, militarism), there is another story for him: a belief in the common good.
"This led conservatism to encompass the idea of the public interest and of public institutions which are not run for commercial purposes". A noblesse oblige, if you will.
"This was the basis on which conservatism - albeit sometimes grudgingly - supported public health care and public education, as well as a myriad of other public goods."
Albeit sometimes grudgingly. Where is the struggle of the working masses in this? Social welfare, shorter working hours, public education, the right to vote; all these were won through the historic struggles of our class, not handed down through the generosity of 'our betters'. McKnight gives credit for the social gains of the working class to a somewhat ennobled paternalism from our betters. At best, this is McKnight unwittingly discovering a strategy of the ruling class to give a few concessions in order to stay in power. At worst, it obliterates class struggle from the political map.
McKnight embraces the historical universalism of the market as a democratic force. All hitherto existing societies, for McKnight, have denied the natural order of the market and capital. All future societies are impossible without it.
Yet here is one of his central problems. McKnight identifies unadulterated capitalism in its neo-liberal manifestation as the central enemy of his new humanism. While McKnight is critical of socialism, this is heartfelt with whimsy and regret. It is neo-liberalism upon which he takes his main aim.
McKnight centres his criticism on neo-liberalism's attempt to hold together "two quite contradictory beliefs". He says the argument that
"modern neo-liberals value both civil society, including the family, and economic efficiency, is flawed". He says, correctly, this argument "relies on artificially separating the economy from the family and civil society - that is, talking about them as quite distinct and largely unrelated concepts".
However, McKnight's new humanism rests on the same shonky foundations. Six pages later, he writes:
"Market mechanisms can be useful in the economic sphere but are destructive when routinely applied to the wider society." Here it is McKnight who treats the economy and wider society as "quite distinct" concepts.
This is McKnight's central flaw. His own failed Marxism has led him to accept the universality of bourgeois constructs: the eternalism of the market. Of course, he accepts the market can go too far (but so did neo-liberal theorists like Hayek). Yet the only thing standing between the extremes of the market and the conservative moral values he now cherishes is his new humanism. But this is merely an idealist construct. It is based on nothing more concrete than a honey-coated view of humanity. Its separation of 'the market' from 'wider society' is nothing more than warmed-over Weber. By assuming a universalism in what are actually very specific social conditions under capitalism, McKnight can see no way beyond the commodification of labour power.
Classes take the form of specific relationships within a specific mode of production. Under capitalism, the extraction of surplus is done through economic means. This is unique. In all previous societies, surplus has been extracted largely through extra-economic means. And while all surplus extraction relies on the legal framework of a society and hence ultimately the armed might of the state, the separation of economic and political creates a very specific terrain for class struggle in capitalism.
The capitalist class, terrified its existence may indeed be temporary, requires ideology that projects the existence of capitalism way back into antiquity. Hence Weber's rejection of class as the central contradiction in modern society. For Weber, there is "causal pluralism": various forms of social power combine and recombine in a variety of ways. It is pointless, indeed retrograde, to look for central power relations. Sound familiar? In modern parlance, post-Marxists would say there is no one central form of oppression, our "multiple identities" are over-determined by many contradictions in society and class should not retain a privileged position. McKnight adopts a very similar position.
This allows him to assume the very thing that we need to explain. Why is capitalism so dominant? For McKnight, assuming the universality of markets explains this problem away. Thus it was for Weber. Indeed, McKnight praises Weber in his book.
"Weber's framework offers profound insights into a globalising, post-socialist world dominated by neo-liberalism."
McKnight has a fantasy view of capitalism. On the one hand he wishes to utilise its "democratic" market to harness human activity, while on the other using a new moral framework to keep the wolf from baying at the door. The following neatly sums up his muddleheaded view of the way markets operate.
"If we treat parents, children, family, friends and neighbours as we do when we buy and sell in the market, we would destroy those relationships." So it's OK to have a commodified relationship with a sweatshop worker in Indonesia, because we have never met them. By accepting capitalism and its market as the social metabolism of life, then we accept that human beings are just another commodity to be bought and sold in the market. How this does not dehumanise us, McKnight is unable to say.
McKnight's analysis rarely strays to a global vision; it neatly ignores the mass famines, diseases, infant mortality, forced migrations and wars that are commonplace in modern society. He says:
"To recognise the strength of markets in certain situations is not to give a carte blanche in all circumstances." Yet nowhere does McKnight reveal his genie that is able to stop capital trampling throughout our social relationships, commodifying our human interactions. Without a trace of irony, he notes that
"modern markets are always embedded in elaborate social, cultural and political frameworks, and the most powerful market economies today also happen to have the most powerful states". (p69) This, of course, is no accident.
The book fails to dismantle the neo-liberal fantasy of state non-intervention. If anything, it accepts it. Yet it is the continuing decline of the law of value in advanced capitalist economies that is driving the capitalist class in its attempt to (re)assert the market in all aspects of society. Hence neo-liberalism's drive to privatise everything. Laws on "deregulation" are actually another layer of regulation; an attempt to "deregulate" capital flow while increasing the regulation of labour. Freedom for property, not for labour. Hence the attack on unions and the increased paranoia around "illegal" labour.
Of course the attempt to overcome the decline of the law of value is coming up against a few little problems. Hence war in the Middle East, the war on terror, a deliberate attempt to foster a climate of fear alongside an increased religiosity and superstition in the upper echelons of power.
"The most powerful market economies today also happen to have the most powerful states." Of course they do. Without powerful states, modern capitalist markets cannot function. They are not mechanisms of freedom, but mechanisms of coercion.
McKnight embraces the Greens as a new conservative social force that fits his new humanism model. He says:
"Green politics are not based on class … the enemy is not capitalism, but relentless expansion of an industrial system … Instead of the socialist logic to abolish all private ownership and markets, it makes environmental sense to use market mechanisms to raise the price of timber from native forests, of coal, of oil and of fresh water in order to reduce their depletion." Yes. People should pay more for fresh water! This logic lays the blame for capitalism's environmental catastrophe at its victims, not its perpetrators.
Of course the modern Green Party is an unstable petty-bourgeois political formation; its overall direction is to seek a "green compromise" with capital. In this sense, McKnight is right to point to the 'conservative' credentials of Green politics. At its worst, it is about preserving the environment as it is, rather than developing humanity's relationship with it. This is the source of the muddleheaded Kyoto accords, which seek to further commodify the environment through the trade of carbon-dioxide futures. McKnight also shares with some Greens a deeply anti-human and Malthusian approach to population and living standards that put his claims to be a humanist in some doubt.
"The lifestyle of advanced industrial countries like Australia cannot be generalised to the rest of the planet's inhabitants." And: "To generalise to all human beings the current living standards of countries like Australia … is simply not possible." He says it is
"frightening to see what happens as China sets out to do this". And further, in one of McKnight's rare forays into talking about the future, he says:
"Creating a sustainable society based on human values will necessitate stopping the growth of human population".
McKnight generalises the lavish lifestyles of the upper echelons of advanced capitalism. While we need to consciously rework humanity's relationship with nature, to tell the majority of the world's population not to aspire to better living standards is environmental imperialism. And any political philosophy that calls for a halt to population growth is more likely to end up a dystopian nightmare than a land of harmonised humanist collectives.
The source for much of these errors lies in McKnight's flawed vision of what socialism is anyway. For him it really is a philosophy of material deprivation, not one of human liberation. His view of Marxism is of a soulless, economistic and determinist vision of society, where human needs are subordinated to the output of steel, tractors and pig iron. And while some societies were built with that vision using Marx's name, genuine Marxism has nothing to do with such anti-human nostrums.
McKnight reveals that his socialism was based on a simplistic understanding of society and the assumption of an automatic relationship between class as structure and class-consciousness. He conflates class-in-itself and class-for-itself. He refers to the decline of consciousness among South Coast miners in New South Wales, who traditionally supported the Communist Party. For Marxists, the decline of consciousness in this period should come as no surprise; we have suffered defeat after defeat. But for McKnight it seems to have shattered a naive belief that the objective position of workers in society would mechanically produce a subjectively revolutionary consciousness. This is not Marxism, it is religion. To refrain Meiksins Wood, McKnight was
"betrayed by the real working class responding not to the prophecies of a metaphysical materialism but to the exigencies of history".
The decline of class-consciousness is a result of the class struggle and the balance of class forces, not the inevitable outcome of a new technical phase of capitalism.
E. P. Thompson is perhaps the best advocate of a materialist understanding of the relationship between class as objective relation in society and class-consciousness as a process. Meiksins Wood notes in Thompson's understanding, differences between class-consciousness, i.e.: the active awareness of class identity, and forms of consciousness shaped by class situations without finding expression in an active class identity. To deny that people in the western suburbs generally have a different outlook on life to people living in Elizabeth Bay is nothing short of mad.
"A world view based on class presumed that workers would develop a collective interest and that this would be expressed in trade unions and labour parties. But this class-consciousness is demonstrably changing and fading." And later he says
"there will be no return to some simple, over-arching capital-versus-labour division in society". These passages perhaps show clearest of all that McKnight's misconception of class politics and class analysis - his socialism - was riddled with naive assumptions. No wonder his socialism has collapsed. There never was a simple capital-versus-labour division in society. He should look at the mote in his own eye before damning the rest of us. No wonder he was disappointed his South Coast miners bought themselves big houses rather than follow him to the barricades.
However, McKnight's disappointment reveals a flaw in not only his own Marxism, but the Marxism dominant throughout the last century and unfortunately into the new millennium. McKnight says the decline of socialism is
"the story of the decline of a worldview built on material deprivation, which gave almost exclusive primacy to the economic facts of life as the forces that determined politics and ideas, rather than beliefs and values." Unfortunately this is true. But this version of socialism has nothing to do with Marxism and its humanist program of liberation. We have seen the decline of a mechanical Marxism that has seen its day.
Our task now is for a renewal of historical materialism and of the politics of conviction and human liberation. Marxism does not present us with a mechanical view of the world. It does not, despite what McKnight says, understand human nature in a two-dimensional way. Marxism is not a form of dogmatic social constructionism; it does not believe
"in the totally plastic nature of humans and hence their perfectibility". Marx would have laughed at such rubbish.
Our conviction politics must be based in the struggle for liberty of labour, not freedom for property and the market. Marxism as method and outlook is based in our collective and individual hope for a better world, but is able to base these dreams within material reality. David McKnight's shattered vision of a mechanical Marxism may have led him to embrace the despair of the market and the utopian fantasy of a civilised capitalism. It should not lead the labour movement in such a futile direction.