The New Left and Its Discontents

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IUC Dubrovnik 2010

In contemporary social and political theory in the last twenty years, there are two currents that are of crucial importance in rethinking modern economic-political and cultural global constellation: neoliberalism and socialism. Although it seems that after the fall of Berlin wall we have witnessed glorious victory of neoliberal doctrine, the events in last two decades have shown at what extension such a victory was temporary, brittle and deceptive. If the left and Marxist social theory have traditionally been placed into the wider cultural framework of modernity, then neoliberalism and so-called Third Way as its contemporary ideological disguise are denominator of postmodern tendencies. The main idea of my essay is to give brief critical overview on some recent philosophical and political theories that deal with contemporary constellation of leftist and neoliberal forces, i.e. to give appropriate interpretational framework to the dialectics of capitalist modernity. After concise elaboration of economic-political and social-intellectual parameters of recent social theory, I will try to provide summary of main currents into certain doctrine and critically evaluate its relevance in the scope of respective social constellation. Both neoliberalism and new left in the previous decade have invested their creative energy into the utopian thought, which means that a huge variety of radical thinkers get into the business of imagining real utopias, the fact by itself interesting enough and invigorating for constructive and critical debate, even more if we have in mind that, historically speaking, leftists and socialism have hold the monopoly over utopian ideas. In the same manner, there is emergence of surprisingly new theological turn that left had made in the recent years, turn denoted by numerous leftist thinkers as a result of radically new conceptualizing of terms of universality and solidarity (I will address that issue later on), which does not only mean that rightists have lost monopoly on Bible, as suggested by one author, but also that a major change took place in regards to restructuring discursive field of leftist theory whereby the new thinking of collective emancipation had emerged. This is only one of several examples of big structural changes in the field of social theory, and to appropriately analyze them it is necessary to begin with the simple premise of this text, a premise upon which there is a need for building fundaments for contemporary analysis of phenomena such as neoliberalism and socialism.

This assertion is very simple: today both capitalism and leftist ideas are in deep crisis. However, the major difference, as Russian social scientist Boris Kagarlitsky argues, is that the crisis of the Left is moral and ideological, not economic and predominantly social as it is the case with neoliberalism or its political cover of Third Way that used to legitimize its means. Against hegemony of neoliberal concept he wrote trilogy New Realism, New Barbarism, The Twilight of Globalization and The Return of Radicalism, trying to develop discussion on the reasons of demise of leftist politics that primarily went wrong, as shown in the last part of his trilogy, in institutional and organizational meaning of the term. His attitude is clear: contrary to some Western interpretations, wild transitional capitalism and underdeveloped postcommunist democracy in Eastern Europe and Third World have shown that there is a strong need for universal new left thought as only relevant and pertinent alternative to what he named “new barbarism” arguing for alternative socialism or barbarism, because there is no third way. If we take a look upon historical situation, leftist ideas and socialism have dominated in the 60’s and 70’s in Europe and around the globe, intellectually hegemonized all major centers and articulated idea of collective emancipation, from socialdemocratic Sweden and France in 70’s to Tokyo and Far East. And then, suddenly, this leftist tide withdraws, as scenically depicts Göran Therborn in his book From Marxism to Post-Marxism, leaving the space for the arrival of devastating neoliberal tsunami. Socialist and leftist structures fall apart, and Marxist ideas have drowned in the global deluge. That was a time for triumph of liberal capitalism which tried to show itself as moral “capitalism with the human face”, and the fall of Berlin wall became a “new play of liberalism” with totalitarian disposition of the world as a horizon of enacting biopolitical power that all natural sciences turns into biosciences, humanity into barbarism and political economy into microphysics of power of imperial forces.

However, if we look upon this argumentation from another perspective, it is obvious that the victory of neoliberalism was actually shattered: some authors claim this is the end of neoliberal utopia that died twice: first, at 9/11 when terrorist attack ruined very fundaments of democracy and developed countries of the world led to the abyss of biopolitical surveillance and psychosocial fear and mistrust, and second time in year 2008 with the beginning of deep economic crisis on the global scale, whereat it was proven that even the hardcore neoliberal democracies such as USA have to impose socialist solutions such as redistribution of wealth in order to mitigate the crisis (basically, loss of money of big private companies was restored and refunded from national budget, as it was the case in communist countries, with a major difference that private capital was saved thanks to taxpayers, i.e. common citizens). As Michael Hardt convincingly argues in his text Collective ownership in communism where he questions relations between Marxism and biopolitics, the rule of capital has been put on a trial. Hardt criticize Keynesian system where he sets out difference between private (capitalism) and public (socialism) ownership, arguing for some kind of communist collective ownership, clearly from contemporary perspective instead of referring to historical Marxism from the previous century. Two basic principles in this text are to bring back the concept of communism its original meaning and to critically question biopolitical, non-material production based on hegemonic position, which are the point easily related to the ideas he developed (together with Negri) in crucial political writings in the last decade, books Empire and Multitude. Hardt asserts that one of the main battlefields today is the battle between material and non-material ownership, meaning that neoliberalism is strongly against the idea of collective ownership, whereby for instance, big corporations (such as pharmaceutical companies, software companies or large capital that turns public space into the private one) are basically privatizing collective good and wealth of mankind stealing it from those who claim they own it, be it citizens of First world or peasants of Third world.

In that sense, neoliberal process of accumulation by dispossession or expropriation is both dangerous and unacceptable, and leftist didn’t find appropriate response to it, except some kind of “cognitive capitalism” which goes from profit to annuity, i.e. patents or free software as means for, as Hardt claims, alternative way of production, so-called communism of collective goods, whereby biopolitical aspect of communism stems from idea of elimination of that kind of private ownership or, on the other hand, in increasing level and part of collectiveness in capitalist economy. From that perspective we can clearly see well-known Multitude as new subject of transformed bipolitics. It ought to be mentioned that in contemporary neoliberal, and unfortunately also partially leftist theory we can hardly see notions of class and solidarity, notions that have been almost completely removed from public discourse as ideas that are supposed not be mentioned in decent discussions. The notion of class, which not long ago used to be one of the major concepts in leftist discourse and debates, in recent times, had been removed from theory. As Therborn asserts, it was inevitably due its defeat in capitalist class struggle, but also because postindustrial demography was removed from its former theoretical, i.e. geographical center. The notion of class seems to disappear from leftist narratives, and became only one of the ideas in mainstream sociology, and its social presence became undistinguishable after it was incorporated into political philosophy of discursive hegemony, mainly in the work of Laclau and Mouffe. Therefore, Etienne Balibar is right when, speaking of universality of antagonisms, claims that class is one of the determinative structures that covers area of social practice, but it is not the only one. The lack of global class analysis Kagarlitsky would have definitely ascribe to the weakness of the left that refuted even traditional notions of proletariat and working class, assuredly because those terms are not appropriate in today’s postfordist era which needs their supplementary rethinking. The same relates to the idea of solidarity that is almost completely removed from expert but also public discourse and needs to be reconsidered (as, for instance, Hauke Brunkhorst did in his book on solidarity), in order to incorporate it into the body of recent leftist thought. In the same way as impact of new technologies (such as pirates, free software or internet surveillance) creates new challenges to capitalism and open field for leftist struggle, the notion of solidarity as well imbue and saturate fabric of society, challenging neoliberal ideology to question its own leading principles that led it to the edge of own demise and perdition.

Hardt and Negri

The structural problems of capitalist economy and neoliberal capitalism are more and more becoming apparent and ostensible, unlike the period immediately after the fall of Wall when the leftist movement on a global scale was in ruins, and every form of leftist, even socialdemocratic politics was doomed to failure and marginalized. Insofar, dramatic social and economic recession that modern capitalist societies are faced with, is a result of well-known utopian vision on the end of history, and the Left was right because it did not accept (or not completely, at least) this new postmodern utopia. If neoliberalism, despite its economic failure, will continue to rule on the position of ideological hegemony, we will witness situation that Kagarlitsky described as “new barbarism”, already at work in Eastern Europe whose political and economic space is ruled by ruthless capitalism leaving behind devastating social consequences. Socialdemocracy as the most important component of non-marxist left should answer differently than hiding under the skirts of Third Way which Alex Callinicos in his book of anticapitalist critique Against the Third Way describes as “the best ideological disguise of neoliberalism”, claiming its responsibility for social injustice and lack of sense of solidarity. If we speak from the perspective of 21st century, hundred years of various socialist blunders and fallacies, as well as marxist practical deficiencies, than we ought to rethink of making some other long-term and long-lasting alternative which would have in mind that leftist thought is not completely exhausted today as it seemed at the end of previous century, and that Marx and his ideas are still relevant today. Considering problems with which it is now faced, left should fill the gap created as a result of collapse of neoliberal project and decline of capitalist social and economic power, and to organize and reform it on all levels, beginning from theoretical reformulations to concrete formation of influential political parties. In terms of various authors, left should come back to the true notion of politics which is today completely blurred and to formulate programs of solid social development which would be more that mere theoretical statements.

Accordingly, one should have on mind that left here denotes a huge variety of different theoretical and political positions. Already mentioned Therborn in his book tried to locate recent leftist politics on the basics of theoretical (Marxism as intellectual tradition) and political parts (socialism as social order contrasted to capitalism), naming quite respectable number of contemporary leftist tendencies: Marxism, hard Marxism, neomarxism, socialism, neomarxist left, non-marxist left, scientific Marxism, postmarxism, socialism and capitalism. We could easily object to this division that it overemphasize marxist thought inside left tendencies, but respective diagram, just as author notes, ought to be understand as quite approximate map only marking recent positions, separating theoretical from political part. In that sense, we should ask obvious question: which kind of leftist though would be most appropriate as a position that could actually operate on all levels and indeed become leading and invigorating power to solve problems I tried to sketch in this text, beginning from the failure of neoliberalism to create valuable platform for “capitalism with human face” to the growing of new walls after the demise of Berlin wall that serve in order to stop people from moving but giving the opportunity for capital to move freely, especially to forbid movement of those who do not belong to the favored class of the First world, those who are (in Hardt and Negri’s terms) multitude as a new subject of biopolitics. Therefore, what is the true position among those above mentioned which is the most authentic and reliable to preserve leftist legacy and at the same time to put it up (in the sense of Aufhebung) on the higher level of theoretical reflection and socialist practice in the reformist sense of socialist currents? If liberal democracy has not won the battle after the collapse of communist regimes and Berlin wall that was, according to some authors, the last revolution of modernity which “brought to the last consequences transparency of materialist nature of neoliberal capitalism, than it means no radical revolution of existing world have taken place”. According to Badiou, we can only register the change whereby state is “legitimized by another sort of representational power of ruling community” than those based on representation of social interests of citizens. Looking from that perspective, we may not ask the classical question “in what way is the idea of communism and socialism today relevant and pertinent, or can it be used as a tool for theoretical analysis and political praxis?”, but to pose Adornian, quite reverse question: how would today’s situation look like from perspective of classical socialist idea from the past, i.e. how would founders of socialist movement experience today’s leftist legacy?

This scrambled perspective is necessary to look upon bipolitical situation beyond the cult of humanist culture, the condition of developed neoliberal world in which the ideology becomes merely “post-political struggle for values”. It is done with euphoria of end of history, and neoliberal capitalism has also shown its “apocalyptical potentials”: it produces permanent insecurity and instability, leading to the “risk society” and deep economic crisis, biggest since Big Depression seventy years ago. In order to succeed in battle against logic of capital, as Kagarlitsky repeatedly notes, left has to return to its roots, to marxist critique as radical alternative to global capitalism that would again emphasize its centennial and partially forgotten aim of creating just society relying on greater level of solidarity and creation of its own ideological hegemony in Gramscian sense of words, beyond mere criticizing global economic system in different versions of antiglobalization movements. Maybe we should not consider distance towards any explicit socialism which is the label of today’s European political left solely as deficiency, considering the fact it is more important that certain postsocialist leftist agenda formulates itself as relevant and productive player both on local and global scale, as a project with clearly reachable aims. It is quite different with theoretical neomarxism which is opposed to recent political leftist movements. It is represented by authors whose intellectual creativity is not mitigated by the very fact that Marxism underwent historical defeat, so they further and in original manner invoke marxist legacy defeating it from “neoliberal conformism”. Political philosophy that has been formulated on those traces much more inherited from classical European philosophy than from critical theory or sociology, so at very best two Hardt’s and Negri’s books could be considered as neomarxist attempt to set forth a platform for democracy on a global scale, emphasizing possibility of transformation by some powerful event (by the way, not written in capital letters, as in Badiou’s onto-theological notion of that expression) and by demand to radical upheaval of Multitude which is not afraid to call into mind Lenin’s State and Revolution as inspiration for “destruction of sovereignty”. Between triangle of social science, politics and philosophy there is a whole range of leftist thought that seems to be tenacious and tough, despite the fact it seems that it relinquish oneself to defeatism and to accept the game of “capitalism with human face” instead of its overcoming.

In conclusion, intellectual creativity of the left has not stumbled, and attempts to revitalize leftist ideas from the past are occurring under the agenda of repeated questioning of very fundaments of socialist-marxist hegemonic doctrine, this time deprived of its historical burdens, i.e. burden of missed opportunities and defeated political systems. It seems that now is the time for turn, for thematic change of discourse that will know how to cope with capitalism which in many people around the globe produces grievances and anger. At the same time, there are new areas of struggle, so what has here been said about internal divisions inside leftist movement and its socio-political engagement is partially related to the “peripheral” parts of the global system, e.g. the destiny of capitalism in 21st century would probably not depend on the events in Europe or USA but in the periphery of the Empires, in the countries of Latin America, in Asia, especially China whose fascinating juncture of capitalist economy and repressive communist regime forces us to think about “Asian tigers” as new economic superpower that could possibly soon accrue old imperial hegemons. The path which world is following in economic and ideological way is indeed sinuous and old concepts of its interpretations are no longer valid in proper analysis. The emergence of what postmarxist sociologist Manuel Castells named “network society”, relying on informational notion of network as social cohesion that interconnect social systems is also important in new version of thinking world as wired Empire, a big ball or sphere with the center everywhere, and periphery nowhere, where both the sovereign and his opposition are depicted as wired powers. Correspondingly, web as such does not have any “political affiliation”, which can be also a serious obstacle in creating some sort of global front because anyone can overtake the place of power: the power is simply diffused and scattered. In short, what are the tasks of leftist thought and practical affairs in today’s wired and globalized world? The left is indeed on the crossroad between ruling elite and multitude; today it seriously lacks proper political functioning, but not politics of return to old-fashioned socialism: the main task is to fulfill old Marxist claim for freedom of every man as a condition to freedom for everyone. It is of vital importance to fulfill the political gap that neoliberal capitalism left behind and to overcome old conflicts and paradigms in order to reach the horizon of accomplishment and fulfillment of old ideas based on new positions and new situation, adapted to today’s world and new social circumstances. In that sense, famous opposition already established by Rosa Luxemburg (“socialism or barbarism”) is once again vital for survival of social fabric because in the case of failure, the leftist themselves will be responsible for triumph of barbarism. It is also necessary to return notions of class and class struggle as well as solidarity, deregulation and redistribution of goods into the political discourse of left. There is a need for promise and recommitment to act morally in order to put in question unjust system of global capitalism and its local political representatives, and if the left alone would not have enough strength for that goal, than the consequences for the entire global political, economic, social and cultural system will be lethal and fatal.

Author Profile
Tonči Valentić

Tonći Valentić is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Textile Technology, Department of Fashion Design, the University of Zagreb, where he teaches courses in Media Theory, Sociology of Culture, Semiotics of Fashion, and Cultural Anthropology. He received his Ph.d. in Sociology from University of Ljubljana. He contributes regularly to a variety of Croatian and foreign cultural magazines, as well as author and translator. His publications include: Multiple Modernities (2006), Camera Abscondita: Essays on Ontology of Photography (2013), Archipelago of Contemporary Philosophy (2018) and Media Construction of Balkanism (2021).