History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism by Moishe Postone (pdf 18pp)
This article is an analysis of the reasons behind the malaise of the Left which has in common some of the themes discussed at this site as well as raising some new angles
For example, the following quote outlines the superficiality of the reflexive anti-Americanism of many on the “left” in response to the 9/11 attacks:
“Let me elaborate by first turning briefly to the ways in which many liberals and progressives responded to the attack of September 11. The most general argument made was that the action, as horrible as it may have been, had to be understood as a reaction to American policies, especially in the Middle East. While it is the case that terrorist violence should be understood as political (and not simply as an irrational act), the understanding of the politics of violence expressed by such arguments is, nevertheless, utterly inadequate. Such violence is understood as a reaction of the insulted, injured, and downtrodden, not as an action. While the violence itself is not necessarily affirmed, the politics of the specific form of violence committed are rarely interrogated. Instead, the violence is explained (and at times implicitly justified) as a response. Within this schema, there is only one actor in the world: the United States.
This sort of argument focuses on the grievances of those who carry out such actions without engaging the framework of meaning within which those grievances are expressed. The actions that flow from those meanings are taken simply as expressions of anger, however unfortunate. Such arguments neither interrogate the understanding of the world that motivated this violence nor critically analyze the sort of politics implied by violence directed intentionally against civilians. Consequently, such arguments can become implicitly apologetic rather than political; they make little attempt to understand the strategic calculations involved — not so much of the bombers as of their handlers — and ignore issues of ideology. It is a serious error, for example, to interpret the felt grievances underlying a movement like al-Qaeda in narrow terms, as an immediate reaction to American policies and Israeli policies. This ignores too many other dimensions of the new jihadism. For example, when Osama bin Laden speaks of the blow inflicted on the Muslims eighty years ago, he is not referring to the founding of the state of Israel but to the abolition of the caliphate (and, hence, of the purported unity of the Muslim world) by Ataturk in 1924 — long before the United States was involved in the Middle East and before Israel was established. It is noteworthy that the vision he
expresses is more global than local, which is one of the salient features of the new jihadism, in terms of both the struggles it supports (transforming them into manifestations of a single struggle) and its driving ideology. And an important aspect of the global character of that ideology has been anti-Semitism.
Addressing anti-Semitism is crucially important when considering issues of globalization and antiglobalization, even if it can be subject to misunderstandings because of the degree to which the charge of anti-Semitism has been used as an ideology of legitimation by Israeli regimes in order to discredit all serious criticisms of Israeli policies. It is certainly possible to formulate a fundamental critique of those policies that is not anti-Semitic, and, indeed, many such critiques have been formulated. On the other hand, criticism of Israel should not blind one to the existence today of widespread and virulent anti-Semitism in the Arab/Muslim world. As I will try to elaborate, anti-Semitism poses a very determinate problem for the Left.”
The analysis of anti-Semitism is a major theme here. He describes modern anti-Semitism as the “socialism or anti-imperialism of fools” which:
“…understands the abstract domination of capital — which subjects people to the compulsion of mysterious forces they cannot perceive — as the domination of International Jewry”
Other themes covered in this Postone essay include:
- There is discernable historical pattern of capitalist development that can be analysed. This is shown in part by the similarity of policies adopted by the mainstream political parties. For example, aspects of the welfare state have been undermined by both conservative and “progressive” parties since the 1970s. Postone contrasts this with the exaggerated indeterminancy of post structuralist thinking, that there are no discernible patterns of development within modern capitalism.
- The current lack of deep thinking is in part a hangover from the Cold War era with its tendency to take sides US imperialism versus Soviet communism or other variants of taking sides following the Sino-Soviet split.
- Globalisation has weakened the ability of the nation state to act independently and contributes to the hollowness of the political class
- The relative economic decline of Middle East countries (the swamp – “per capita income in the Arab world has shrunk in the past twenty years to a level just above that of sub-Saharan Africa”) has created a political vacuum which has been filled by Islamicist movements which represent “the spread of a fetishized anticapitalist ideology which claims to make sense of a world perceived as threatening”
- Revolutionary movements do employ violence in their struggle against the violence of counter revolutionaries. But the type of violence used by terrorist organisations like al Qaeda, on the one hand, in targetting innocent civilians and the Viet Cong in focusing on military targets, on the other hand, indicate profound differences in political outlook.
Unlike this site, Postone does stop short of supporting the Iraq war: “This does not, in any way, mean that proponents of progressive change should have supported the Bush administration and its war” and I think incorrectly depicts the real intentions of Bush when he says, “although the Bush regime speaks of democratic change in the Middle East, it will not really help effect such change.”
Towards the end he summarises some of the features of the Left impasse as he sees it:
“In my view this impasse expresses a complex crisis of the Left related to a perception that the industrial working class was not and would not become a revolutionary subject. At the same time, this crisis was related to the end of the state-centric order. The power of the state as an agent of social and democratic change was undermined, and the global order was transformed from an international to a supranational one. I would like to briefly outline an additional aspect of the reification associated with the impasse of the Left in the face of the collapse of Fordism. Neoliberal global capitalism has, of course, been promoted by successive American regimes. To completely conflate the global neoliberal order and the United States would, nevertheless,
be a colossal mistake, politically as well as theoretically. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the hegemonic role of Great Britain and the liberal world order was challenged by the growing power of a number of nation-states, most notably Germany. These rivalries, which culminated in two world wars, were referred to as imperialist rivalries. Today we may be seeing the beginnings of a return to an era of imperialist rivalry on a new and expanded level. One of the emerging ongoing areas of tension is between the Atlantic powers and a Europe organized around a French-German condominium.”
Much to discuss here, since Postone has taken a big bite at a big question: the malaise of the “Left”.