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Salvage Perspectives #1: Amid This Stony Rubbish
Salvage because we are wrecked.
Because we need a strategy for ruination.
The Left, Marxist and not-so-Marxist, is used to taking economic crises as watersheds between different epochs of capitalism. The ‘long depression’ of the late nineteenth century begat the time of global war, rival imperialisms, revolution; the interwar Great Depression a generalised and occasionally diluted state capitalism, the trentes glorieuses and the long ’68; the end of that epoch was punctuated by the crisis – time of the 1970s and its resolution in ruling – class offensives, privatised industries and an atomized recomposition of the exploited. It was not naive to expect that the crisis of 2008 would replace what we call ‘neoliberalism’ with a new, distinct phase. And indeed, the catastrophic stuttering of the neoliberal strategy of consolidating the state as enabler of financialised accumulation prompted widespread predictions of recomposition, even along neo-Keynesian lines. Some, in hope or terror, even anticipated a possible more general refusal of the logic of capital: hence the slew of articles on the ‘return’ of a Marx who had never gone away, and the panicked declaration of George W. Bush that ‘this sucker could go down’.
And popular insurgencies did occur: the Arab uprisings; Greek and Spanish anti-austerity movements; Occupy!. Yet state managers succeeded, without too much trouble, in absorbing the losses of finance capital into national accounts, shifting the consequences of the crisis onto citizens. ‘We won’t pay for their crisis!’ the placards said. But we did. We still do. And the signs all suggest that we will continue so to do.
If the shopworn metaphor of ‘zombie’ accumulation once captured something of the post-2008 political economy, it does no longer. The recomposed social settlement at the end of neoliberalism was more neoliberalism. At best, countersystemic movements and parties faced – and face – the grinding and reinvigorated power of international financial institutions; at worst their lots were dissipation, obscurity, or catastrophic counter-revolution.
In the UK, this trend of reaction continues with the recent ‘shock’ victory of the Conservatives in the general election, their majority a worse outcome than the worst-case scenarios imagined by (almost) anyone on the left. Today the default optimistic can-do of the British Left has rarely looked like so distasteful a joke.
Not of course that there is but one ‘Left’. Salvage addresses all, of all traditions, sincerely committed to radical change. But – seeing left Labourism and reformist aspirations, let alone what in the US might be termed ‘radical liberalism’, as fundamentally limited at best, complicit with capitalism at worst – we are properly concerned with more radical milieus: socialism; left anarchism; Marxism in its various flavours; and others. Salvage emerges from the context of the British far Left, and though we hold that the pathologies we diagnose are not solely local, that our analyses and criticisms will ring familiar with many international activists, particularly in the English-speaking world, it is of that culture and set of traditions that we speak in particular.
To respond to the political wastescape in which we find ourselves with the far Left’s traditional nostalgia, its bromides, its mindfulness, its hunkering down, its combinination of myopia and hyperactivity, its insistence that #therearemassiveopportunitiesfortheleftinallthis, would be worse than inadequate: it would be a dereliction. A bleaker perspective is necessary.
Hope must be abandoned before it can be salvaged.
But as capitalism plumbs depths, the Left spirals into unprecedented crisis. As radicals we must face our own failures. It is not enough simply to point to vignettes of previous hope-in-(far-worse-)suffering – the Warsaw Ghetto, the Spanish Civil War, Apartheid and Baathist prison cells and the like – and call for comrades to toughen up. Toughness is not the point, though plenty of that is, and will be, required. The martyrs invoked by such comparisons had the vision of a better world etched on their prison walls. They felt, even if for reasons of world-historic error, that they were moving with some meaningful tide, and there were thousands around them who thought likewise.
There is not a single individual on the Anglophone far Left who can say the same and be considered sane.
So, why do this at all? Why Salvage?
As Naomi Klein, among others, has argued, without a vast social upheaval in an unprecedentedly quick time frame, anthropogenic – or rather, as Dan Hartley points out in this issue, capitalogenic – climate change will destroy the foundations of human civilization. We wish we could share the belief that the necessary movement will emerge in time to avert this catastrophe, but we do not.
We do, however, hold that even a ravaged planet is worth fighting for. And that even if the best we can do is ask the question ‘Who killed the world?’, there will still be a struggle over the right answer. In short, we fight not because we have a chance, but because we have no choice.
It is now common, and welcome, to see theories queered, gendered, decolonized, and Salvage is committed to such renovation, to learning from those traditionally in the peripheral vision of most of the organised Left. And, indeed, from those more actively and shamefully patronised – or worse – by those who should be their allies. From trans activists, whose years of struggle against not only the Right, but trans- exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), have rigorously wrenched away essentialism from theories of gender, and thanks to whom we have seen the sudden and startling recent shift in the cultural visibility of trans people. From sex-workers’-rights activists, who have long challenged the far Left – and an increasingly wider audience – to cease their uncomfortable silence on sex workers’ struggles. They have shifted the debate away from that of the so-called ‘morality’ of sex work and on to a terrain of sex work, of workers’ rights, solidarity and the violence of law and the state. Such approaches, exemplified in the writings of Melissa Gira Grant, have nuanced and strengthened a robust and anti-moralistic theory of consent – encompassing both (explicitly) monetised and non-monetised sexual relations – to include what, in Playing the Whore, she provocatively terms ‘unenthusiastic’ consent. The articles by Morgan Merteuil and Magpie Corvid in this issue inaugurate Salvage’s ongoing engagement with such questions – and with wider related issues of agency and subjectivity.
Our thought must be repurposed, our theories salvaged, for a now-closed historical horizon – always with the aim of puncturing it anew. We seek to build a salvage-Marxism. From what we have inherited we keep what we can and reject what we must. We search history’s dump to reclaim the best of what the Left has discarded. Salvage commits to test and temper and tamper with this developing outlook, in comradely debate with all those committed to building a serious radical movement.
Though Salvage is made up of activists, it is not – yet, perhaps – an activist project, but an investigative one. It emerges from distinct lineages, and its founders differ, sometimes substantially, on many issues. We are united not by party lines but broad perspectives and principles – one being a non-dogmatic approach to theory (so though we take it as imperative to learn from all we publish in our pages, they cannot be assumed to share our perspectives). We share uncertainties, questions, and a reading of many of the Left’s traditions, including its ‘optimism’, as barriers to meaningful political action. And we hold that there are specificities to contemporary capitalism that have a savage effect on the grounds for mass, rebel, class consciousness, simultaneously as they make their own destruction ever more necessary.
It is true that mass hopelessness is a powerful weapon in the hands of reaction. It does not follow, however, that the task of the Left is therefore to counter that with relentless, reflexive and thus evacuated hope and optimism. Bad Hope reinforces Bad Despair. In their warnings that ‘pessimism’ is disempowering, the Left fails to notice how unutterably disempowering is their a priori hope; that the disappointment it invariably provokes segues into voluntarism, moralism, guilt and burn-out; that ultimately unwarranted ‘positivity’ costs as many activists as much or more as does allegedly demobilising ‘pessimism’.
Analysis of some situations should provoke pessimism. To think otherwise is faith-based politics. Where pessimism is a rational response and optimism a counterproductive pathology, the former must be embraced precisely as part of a political strategy, in order to build a foundation on which hope might eventually become appropriate.
Pessimism is not cynicism. There are countless cynics on the current and former Left: faded social democrats turned social neoliberals; predictable contrarians beating the new working class with an imagined vision of the old; would-be insurgents keeping their hands clean while the oppressed Do It All Wrong and waiting for someone, somewhere to make the miracle that will end capitalism overnight. We have no doubt that our opponents will – with the weary Olympianism of Meryl Streep’sfaux-Anna Wintour genealogising Anne Hathaway’s ‘lumpy blue sweater’ in The Devil Wears Prada – attempt to educate us on the long, pitted, varyingly reputable history of Left pessimism, from Sorel and Adorno to the toxic epigones of Living Marxism, and declare that there’s really nothing new here.
Let us save our critics sneering time and proclaim frankly that they are, in this respect, right: aspects of our optic will be perfectly familiar. We believe, nonetheless, that it is rigorous, and urgent, and right. Or if not right, at least productively wrong. It would be difficult not to be less wrong, and less unproductive, than the approach of a far Left still exercising techniques as unthinkingly as if by muscle-memory, with the smugness and sanctimony of disavowed failure.
Because it is not just the perspectives of the Left but its culture that must be revolutionised. Do away with the drab, bullying, defensive and dishonourable norms – along, in some quarters, with a newly testerical grandstanding moralism, the worst aspects of the ‘internet Left’ opportunistically imported, leaving all its renovatory best behind. All this is necessary if we are to build, for the first time in a long time, a movement and milieu not only that we need but in which it is possible to be – to think, act and live.
A habitable Left.
There are stirrings. Among the scattered, demoralised, and/or inadequately demoralised flotsam of the Left – of which Salvage counts itself a component – there are those seriously pursuing these issues, debating organisational questions, asking what are the party and/or post-party forms appropriate for radical activism in this era. Salvagewelcomes, and intends to be part of, these still-inadequate glimmers.
Salvage has had its fill of left functionalism, the Trotskyist’s anxiety at admitting surprise or shock or uncertainty, the too-quick-off-the-mark ‘explanations’ for everything that could ever occur, leaving an audience correctly suspecting that no more beats would have been skipped had an exactly opposite phenomenon ‘needed’ explanation. A theory which so precipitously explains everything explains nothing.
We commit to left humility – to listening and learning as hard as we theorise, rather than declaiming the rote answers we were taught.Salvage strives to be an assemblage appropriate for its time, its influences and innovations combined in distinct configuration.
Contrarianism for its own sake is at best stupid, at worst despicable: contrarianism in the face of that which must be countered is survival. Our commitment to emancipation is undimmed. We simply insist that our comrades in that endeavour realise – and act upon the realisation of – just how hard this is going to be. This quarterly, which we offer to all who are obsessed with politics, art and the parameters of our culture, is born of that shared horizon.
Salvage cleaves to revolution.
There is some good news. There is a global legitimacy crisis in representative democracy. In the UK, this is evident in the diminishing stakes of conventional politics. Contra the received explanation of Labour’s defeat – that English voters, at least, fled disgusted from the Full Communism implied by such measures as a rent cap and energy- price freeze – the main parties still bicker over what Tariq Ali has called the ‘Extreme Centre’. The reconstitution of the state along ultra-Thatcherite lines, through the austerity project – its groundwork pre-legitimated by New Labour’s acceleration of the party’s rightward drift – has been overwhelmingly successful. Above that base, however, the hegemony over which the parties squabble is increasingly ragged.
The Conservatives did not win their outright majority with resurgent authority. This was, rather, the triumph of ‘Project Fear’, the ruling-class strategy by which the browbeaten political subject is warned that even to hanker for even minuscule change is to invite catastrophe. Pioneered by Labour in the Scottish independence referendum (beneath the slogan ‘Vote No – it’s not worth the risk’), Project Fear came back to destroy its makers. Project Fear affirms that any attempt to end the austerity project – unapologetically stewarded by the Conservatives – is to invite the punishment of history. It has for now (certainly in England) simply succeeded.
The ruling class does not need the consent of the ruled: it is content with their regret that they cannot be other than ruled by it.
The secular trend towards the fracture and dissipation of political parties’ authority continues: but for the Conservative Party at a lesser rate than Labour. Even in the hollow non-space of late capitalist democracy, the party of property retains a structural advantage. The media, financial and gentrification-industrial elites who constitute the soul of bourgeois England remain committed to its banner: some private letting agencies sent letters to tenants, as they did before the Scottish referendum, seeking to influence votes. The new vision of the future is a property developer stamping on a human face, forever.
The crisis of the Labour Party has proved much deeper. The traditional demographic base of the Labour vote, in great numbers, simply stayed at home. Social democracy always played a dual role in the capitalist state, providing on the one hand a means of managing social conflict, and on the other a transmission mechanism for certain working-class demands through an electoral programme. In the absence of significant social conflict or a working-class movement prepared to make demands, it is no wonder that the question ‘What is Labour for?’ is being asked.
It is a symptom and constitutive irony of this widespread political degradation that the Dramatis personae of this election, the most important since 1997, were mostly ruling- class mediocrities not even very good at their jobs. It is for the Scottish National Party’s bucking of this trend, rather than out of any particular enthusiasm for their anodyne social democracy – though their real if milquetoast reforms should not be gainsaid – that there is bitter pleasure to be had in their annihilation of Scottish Labour. Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond actually seek, and seek to persuade, a mass political base, and do so with skill: they are an example of actually-existing bourgeois democracy, thanks to the movement called into being by the independence referendum. Even the most SNP-cynical Leftist can enjoy Nicola Sturgeon’s consummate outmanoeuvring of the sclerotic Labour and Conservative Struldbrugs. This accompanied, of course, by a certain level-headed anti-nationalist jouissance at the slow-motion fracturing of the British state. And, crucially, the SNP’s was a victory from the left, giving an obvious lie to the psephologically and analytically illiterate Blairite insistence that redoubled social neoliberalism, under the loathsome title of ‘aspirationalism’, is a route back to power for Labour.
The international crisis of representative democracy is inextricable from recessionary neoliberalism: emaciated budgetary options, resulting from neoliberalism’s and the rich’s non-negotiable red lines in a recessionary context, further diminish already limited democratic choice. This process, documented in Wolfgang Streeck’s Buying Time and Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void, is especially advanced in the UK. In the words ofRichard Seymour, ‘Westminster politics’ is ‘increasingly irrelevant to the lives of citizens, except in so far as it panders to spite’ – to which we might add contempt, the other great affective excrescence of the time. What is missing is an insurgent response from those at the receiving end of such.
This is an epoch of surplus contempt and insufficient hate.
The breakdown of political authority itself, of course, is an excellent thing. Insofar as it should open cracks for oppositional forces, it is a contradiction we thoroughly wish to accelerate. But thus far the Left has signally failed this challenge: in the UK electoral context – by no means the most important arena, but not irrelevant, and symptomatic – its various lash-ups and united fronts against austerity and the ‘Extreme Centre’ were utterly, profoundly, and predictably humiliated. It would be a great comfort to believe they were merely irrelevances, rather than actively counterproductive.
Incomparably more exciting expressions of what one might call this politicised antipolitics are the (faltering but not stalled) rise of Podemos in Spain, the election of Syriza in Greece, and the astonishing explosion of Black-led fury in the #blacklivesmatter uprisings against the murderous racialised power-structure of the US police. Certainly these must be celebrated, but, even more crucially, they must be understood, respected, offered solidarity, and learned from. It is a fool who claims that there are no such moments of hope, no outbreaks of opposition: neoliberalism does not destroy our souls. How could it? But it does infect them. How could it not?
Things can, and seem likely to, get worse. The far Right continues to rise, though it, too, thankfully – though regrettably less dramatically than the Left – is bedevilled by the crisis of authority and legitimacy. Civil war and ill-discipline besets especially the ‘non-traditional’ formations of the hard Right, such as UKIP’s dogwhistling nostalgia and neo-Atlanticism, the re-tooled blood libel of Germany’s Pegida, Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France.
UKIP’s four million votes, however, bespeak much greater support than the single seat granted it by the British electoral system, and it has a good chance of building, once the inevitable post-election squabble is done with. The FN’s crisis, meanwhile, shows every sign of being, in its own terms, productive: now Marine Le Pen has purged her father from the organisation, it looks sets to emerge as strong as ever. Towards all such groupings not only vigilance and traditional methods but newly creative and implacable hate must be organised.
Fascism, after all, is culturally (re)- habilitated. When a minor social media personality deploys the mass drowning of migrants to moot the use of gunships against refugees she compares to cockroaches, one wonders how far right the ratchet of political culture can turn. In the context of the disempowered neoliberal political subject(ivity) such murderous-minded racism, displacing the viciousness of the austerity settlement, can and will develop. Expect more, and worse of this.
Such social sadism, performative cruelty of this kind, clearly has uses, and is by no means pathological or inimical to the system. At a certain point, though, it can become supererogatory, even to a degree that can open space for a critique – or for consolidation of reaction.
The ‘functional’ brutality and oppression of class rule and its ‘excesses’ are complexly and mutually constitutive, the line and relation between them unstable, shifting and unclear, but they are not opaque to investigation. We will return to them in future issues.
That such surplus viciousness is increasing, becoming banalised and quotidian, is not unimportant. It is a sign of social degradation, and of what we might call decadence. Indeed, the Marxist tradition of ‘decadence studies’ – of the senescence of capitalism, along with its cultural forms – is ripe for a revisiting. Where, however, that study has sometimes implied a historical determinism, salvage-Marxism proceeds from the certainty that there is no certainty of capitalist collapse, and/but/ because we live, already, in the landscape of such a collapse; of profits and superprofits sustained in a rubble of declining profit rate by undefeated and increasing exploitation, relative and absolute.
Concomitant with such strategies of exploitation are those of oppression: mechanisms of ‘rational’ domination, everyday sadisms, and operatic barbarities in a totality, an excr/essential capitalism, uneven and combined punitivity.
On such a basis the economic recovery limps along, qualifying as such only relative to the deep troughs of the recent crisis. Its weakness should not be underestimated – certainly it is not by capitalists. UK productivity remains low while the housing bubble inflates (yet) again. Such short-term social predation can only become long-term capitalist instability; the Conferederation of British Industry complains that export growth ‘continues to disappoint’, and investment remains untenably low. Perhaps most important globally, given its recent tenure as economic last resort, is the hedged and increasingly embattled performance of China. Its construction sector is down 12 percent in a year, and its mining sector down almost 23.9 percent. Three recent cuts in benchmark interest rates and a loosening of mortgage policies have not stopped the (cash) money supply growth dropping from 6.7 to 3.2 percent, fixed-asset investment falling from 13 to 9.4 percent, and total social financing, the total of loans (credit and debt) in the country, falling by 32 percent in a year – and 11 percent in a month.
The world economy’s recovery is weak and unstable, and without resilience or policy ammunition to deploy in the case of – inevitable – future crises. HSBC’s chief economist Stephen King has described it as ‘an ocean liner without lifeboats’. The recovery from the Great Recession, more nakedly imposed at the cost of exploited classes than any since the 1930s, is real. However, it was wrung out with every tool available to ruling-class policymakers and the result has been rather meagre.
As Neil Davidson argues in the pages of this issue, it would be a mistake to conflate neoliberalism with capitalism tout court, and the extent to which the former is sustainable as a management project, even within its own terms, is moot. There is, though, no room for Red triumphalism or crowing in this. Recoveries can and will continue to occur, declining profit rates notwithstanding. Nor is it inevitable that a crisis will translate into the growth of anti-systemic forces. This much is regularly, dutifully, if too often with palpable skepticism, acknowledged en passantby the Left; what remains unrecognised is that sustained and system-level resistance seems more remote than ever.
To be clear, this is not due to an outright ideological triumph of the right. Austerity remains deeply unpopular, but – and this is the political paradox – not only are levels of unionisation and industrial struggle historically low, but the voices and organisations fighting austerity receive much sympathy, but little political traction.
Such sympathy aside, it is necessary to face the extent to which, in the context of cruelly rationed resources, the attempt to generalise a neoliberal subjectivity, consciousness predicated on a zero-sum social game, has hardened attitudes. In a 1989 British Social Attitudes survey two- thirds of those expressing a view thought unemployment benefits were too low, and a third that they were too high: that proportion is now almost exactly reversed. Now, not only do fewer than 1 in 10 of those surveyed think immigrants should have automatic rights to benefits, but over 50 percent of supporters of all main parties believe migrants’ benefits should be restricted to six months or less. In a recent survey of 6,000 school children carried out by the organisation Show Racism the Red Card, 60 percent believed it true that ‘asylum seekers and immigrants are stealing our jobs’.
Of course, such statistics obscure as well as illuminate ideological truths: whether someone holds unemployment benefit to be too high with an embattled regret at what they perceive as tragic necessity or with a swingeing spite for the poor is not unimportant. Nonetheless, there is no question that the ideological terrain is one on which the Left is very much on the defensive.
Austerity has never been an intellectual mistake, even where its edicts have hobbled economies – it is a project to reconfigure the state. Though it has its fanatics, it is important not to exaggerate its nature as a (purely) ideological, let alone ‘irrational’, fanatical, movement.
George Osborne, for example, has always been pragmatic about tempering his enthusiastic actually-existing ‘austeritism’ on the ground when necessary (for example, allowing borrowing to rise when his original growth targets stalled). Such flexibility underlines the strength of the project.
Austerity – not a single phenomenon, but an overlapping set of local strategies for distinct if overlapping ends – is predicated on the notorious TINA ideology – There Is No Alternative.The dogged assertion of this saw by capitalism’s ideologues bespeaks, of course, an anxiety about its patent falsehood. This is not so much a weakness – austerity is not weak – as an intrinsic instability, that inheres in the very fact that itmight be otherwise. Concomitant with their vociferousness that the project can’t change (and their more or less subtle pragmatism on this point where necessary), its clercs must always be ready – the instant social scepticism spreads too far or grows too dangerous – to allow that it can.
This can manifest, if subtly and requiring of decoding, in unlikely ways at unlikely moments. Osborne himself, after Syriza’s electoral victory in Greece in January 2015, urged restraint ‘all around’, and insisted that ‘both sides must act responsibly’. In the context of an other, vocal, ‘hard’ austerian agenda insisting at that very moment on Greek capitulation or nothing, such a seemingly meaningless even-handed platitude at least winked at the possibility of compromise, a shift to a less simon-pure ideological terrain.
But the moment shifted: Osborne’s primed and subtle ideological rowback was unnecessary. In part for specific reasons of German hegemony in Europe, in part due to the continuing triumph of ‘haute’ neoliberalism, Syriza is again – and without even camouflaged negotiations – squeezed by a ruthless prioritisation of finance.
It has become uncontroversial, among many of its partisans as well as to its critics, that US international power, while still dominant, is waning. The degree of that decline occasions ferocious debate, but there is no plausible argument that the US is now more powerful than it was a decade ago. The emerging imperial geometries are less clear, andSalvage will explore them in future issues. One possibility is that the shift is towards a more multivalent world, rehabilitating a quasi-classical Bukharin-Lenin position on inter-imperial rivalries. Nonetheless, the current shift is not equally distributed.
At the time of writing it displays in particular two peaks, or troughs: a pugnacious Russia; and a confident (if decreasingly so) China. That these powers can retain and even increase their relative strength, while in the case of the latter facing down a faltering economy, and in the case of the former a full-blown economic crisis, itself bespeaks the relative decline of the US. The old (and biggest) dog is at the start of what it is attempting to make a very slow decline. It retains much life and fight.
As the uneasy, unspoken holding agreement between the US and Russia over Ukraine shows, the US/NATO vision of imperialism cannot have everything precisely its own way. It is, then, of necessity, strategically prepared to accommodate a degree of regional truculence (which should not be overeagerly interpreted as a crisis of imperialism itself). There may, however, be a more perplexing and less familiar phenomenon: one that, for want of a better term, we might call ‘apolar imperialism’.
Around the world – nowhere more than in the Middle East – not only the sheer number but the overlapping complexity of the conflicts highlight both the continuing (if declining) absolute strength, the historically relative weakness, and the increasingly polyvalent strategy of the American Empire. The contenders to imperial power, and its clients, seem unable to achieve any grand strategy of their own – being equally as hedged around, empowered and undermined by a decadent system of accumulation as the US.
The US implicitly tilts towards Iran in Syria, considering Tehran’s ally Assad a least-bad option compared to the opposition ranged against him, in either its Takfiri or its (denuded, isolated, disoriented) revolutionary form. The US also collaborates with Iran against Islamic State and its affiliates (opportunist and otherwise) in Iraq. At the same time Russia funds a client (Assad) unable to defeat his opponents, or exercise command and control over the militias trained or imported by his other backer Iran: a fractal image of dissipating authority, from the Supreme Leader to the lowliest shabiha. In Yemen, meanwhile, the US is supporting the House of Saud, ranged implacably against Tehran – and thus finding common tacit cause with, among others, Takfiris again – and against Iran’s allies the Houthis, the powerful Shi’ite group allied with Iranian interests that, along with a secessionist movement in Southern Yemen, is largely responsible for the overthrow of President Hadi. That overthrow was carried out ostensibly with reference to the revolutionary legitimacy of the post-uprising National Dialogue Conference: but in alliance with the forces of the former President Ali Abduallah Saleh, the very regime whose fall was demanded in 2011.
The political complexity of this conjuncture has been illustrated in the Left’s – understandably – cautious response to Yemen. Socialists have, unusually, been sluggish to come out with ‘a line’. As lines do emerge – whether officially, semi-officially or by informal insinuation – they are often hesitant and uncertain. This is not in itself criticism, certainly not of beleaguered comrades in the Arab revolutionary Left; it is entirely appropriate to be openly uncertain where claims of certainty would bespeak only bravado.
It seems clear to all anti-imperialists that the US/Saudi axis must be opposed. What has been less straightforward is whether that implies a vaguely ‘campist’ understanding of the Houthi/Iran axis as a ‘lesser evil’; an implacable ‘plague on both your houses’ position; or formal statement of the latter combined with nodding and winking towards the former.
This last position is increasingly common on the Left. Made explicit, its parsed content – essentially, that there are struggles in which all main protagonists are equally unworthy of support but that some are more equally unworthy than others – may be defensible: indeed, in the Yemeni case, Salvage teeters towards such a position. But when, as too often, it is combined with shifty disingenuousness, when one’s analysis is insinuated rather than frankly stated, including in its uncertainties, it exemplifies a familiar form of dishonest left politics.
Complexities demand explicit, rather than implied, nuance, as well as the humility to state unsureness and to know one’s propagandistic place. There have always been situations in which the Left has – sometimes knowingly – lacked adequate knowledge regarding what ‘calls’ it should make, or even whether any such would be appropriate; it has been far less common to admit this. The issue is traditionally avoided either by appending to a description of the situation some unconvincing exhortation or other, or by issuing that preliminary analysis in declamatory enough fashion to make it seem as if it was a call to some action.
It need not, as some imply, blunt the edge of anti-imperialism to recognise the increasing obscurity and complexity of geopolitics in the conjuncture of slowly fracturing power. In most contexts the Left must fight for a specific side and/or demand. Understanding the (miniscule) size of one’s influence should directly inform what form such demands take, and in what direction. Most often they will, of necessity, be directed most clearly towards those elsewhere than in the situation’s ground zero, towards others watching in despair and confusion, against a consensus of contempt.
Nor does it automatically bespeak a diminution of a commitment to attacking the weakest link in imperialism to acknowledge that there are these situations, possibly an increasing number, in which, given the balance and nature of forces on the ground, there will be little for which the Left can meaningfully ‘call’ at all. It must be faced up to that in some such painful circumstances all we can offer is analysis. The battles between Islamic State and US- and Iran- backed imperial proxies in Iraq is one such agonising example, for which the admonition to ‘increase revolutionary unity on the ground’ is, to put it politely, insufficient.
This does not at all imply political withdrawal or indifference: rather, a patient, difficult and appropriate humility about our historic inadequacy and weakness. Nor is this acknowledgement to advocate any right-drifting ‘realism’: there are certainly contexts, even including those of severe left weakness, in which a loud and unflinching oppositional demand may be a vital and radicalising move. The distinction between such cases and those in which making ‘demands’ is unhelpful will not always be obvious, or amenable to clarification by algorithm: it will require attention and open- minded debate, to which we intend to devote future pages. But whatever that difficulty, we must metabolise the fact that to grandstand delusionally can actually weaken us; and that to do so based on the selfish and unpolitical basis of one’s own desire for relevance is unforgivable.
Breaking with an addiction to ‘making demands’ and ‘issuing calls’, as if we may influence policy or improve the world or ourselves by slogan, will be an important part of a shift to a Left fit for purpose: it is one of the best chances we have for creating a stronger movement that actually can, seriously and rigorously, make meaningful demands, and issue powerful calls.
In the scob-ends of his presidency, Obama, demob-happy, appears to be indulging a few wan remnants of liberalism, including a multilateralistrealpolitik, driving US liberals to unedifying delight.
We may acknowledge certain concrete results of such manoeuvres – say, the rapprochement with Cuba, the drawing back from preposterous confrontation with Iran – as more desirable than the previous business as usual. They are, though, expressions of a calculated strategy to slow imperial decline, an inextricable component of the same foreign policy that drones death on Pakistani, Afghan, and Yemeni villages.
The sole glimmers of a more systemic foreign-policy shift have recently been visible on the question of Israel. Obama’s counter- trolling of Netanyahu does not represent a break with Zionism, but a sympathy with that wing of the US policy establishment for which the costs of giving so long a leash to Israel, the ill-behaved local attack dog, outweighs the benefits.
It is improbable that the insinuated change in policy will be sustained after Obama. The genuine strategic difference between the US and Likudnik Zionism on the most effective methods of Palestine- management (the construction of a quisling state versus an ongoing campaign of politicide) are likely to be cast as a personal spat between two heads of state.
It remains distantly possible that the US will discipline Israel and demand that it accommodate some carefully constructed comprador Palestinian state. This would not, of course, be ‘support for Palestine’. The shift in public consciousness over which, including in the US, is a remarkable testament to years of efforts of anti-Zionist and Palestine-solidarity activists.
Zionism, particularly right-wing American Zionism, is currently nasty because it is ideologically weak. We must kick it while it is down.
And then there is Greece. The unprecedented election to government of a radical Left grouping in the Greek elections of January 2015 has been an event of unparalleled importance to the international Left. The pages of this first issue of Salvage contain two articles on Syriza and the Greek situation: here we will only mark that the outlook for the forces of the Left continues to worsen. At the time of writing, Grexit, the nuclear option, is clearly on the table – but it was put there first by the austerians of Europe. Syriza’s room for manoeuvre is not nil: but it is small, and rapidly diminishing.
Analytically, the situation has thrown up questions of the relationship of the far Left to both ‘movements’ and to the state, of the nature of political demands in such a specific, highly embattled and finance-hedged context.
If we proceed from the understanding that a role of the radical Left, in power and not, is to negotiate between the agitation for policies that ameliorate and strengthen the lot of exploited and oppressed against the ruling class, and simultaneously to pursue a strategy of tension, to accelerate social contradictions with an eye to a more vastly fundamental reshaping – sharpening the sense of what Trotsky called ‘the social lie’, aspiring to revolution – then the Greek situation has demanded we up our game. When such immediate and such asymptotic demands are not identical, nimble theory is required.
To give just one example – one so fascinating and, we believe, so agenda- setting that we intend to return to it in depth in future issues – in aninterview with Jacobin, discussing reformist economic measures, the left Syriza MP and Marxist economist Costas Lapavitsas made an astonishing and frank claim: ‘Let me come clean on this. Keynes and Keynesianism, unfortunately, remain the most powerful tools we’ve got, even as Marxists, for dealing with issues of policy in the here and now.’
It may be that Lapavitsas is simply wrong: that there is a distinctly Marxist economic policy for the ‘here and now’ of a non-revolutionary situation. Thus far, however, his claim remains uncontested, a shocking statement of our aporia and an undecorous uncovering of the common, if rarely admitted, Marxist practice of supplementing calls for revolution with bolt-ons taken foursquare from Keynes’ notebooks. (Indeed, Lapavitsas tweaks the Marxists for their shyness: ‘Whether some people like to use the ideas and not acknowledge them as Keynesian is something I don’t want to comment upon, but it happens.’)
Salvage declares not agreement but fascination with this claim. If false, it needs to be disproved: if true, to be formalised as part of a systematic Marxist economics. It has the immense virtue of shoving front and centre this complex question of political demands. In a non-revolutionary situation, how does one – can one – accelerate contradictions and make a brutalised economy best work for those despised by neoliberalism and the ruling class?
Syriza’s victory raises such crucial questions, of the Left, of power, of reform and revolution in a bad time.
Perhaps the contradiction between the horizon of revolution and Lapavitsas’s ‘here and now’ cannot be overcome. Perhaps an effective, or least-ineffective, strategy must be built from that very non- dialectic: perhaps there is traction in, rather, a superposition and simultaneity of two traditionally counterposed strands within salvage-Marxism: a long-term ‘institutional’ counter-hegemonic strategy drawing on left-Eurocommunism, and a relentless antinomic left-Bolshevik insistence on rupture.
We do not presume the answer, but insist on the question.
There are other important considerations with regard to Greece, of affective politics, and beyond. Work on Salvage began months before the Greek election, and it is no exaggeration to say that Syriza’s triumph has shaken our thinking and feeling. In the scale of the – albeit instantly embattled – victory, the abrupt access of a radical movement to structures of institutional power, the sheer stakes, the sudden concretisation of questions hitherto abstract, the scale of the aspirations for change and the irruptive fury of a mass No, it has been the single most important political phenomenon informing our recent analyses, and our souls.
In its early stages it shifted us towards a kind of sincere and non-rote hope that, calloused by decades of defeat and socialist injunctions to accentuate the positive, we had all but forgotten we could feel. Subsequently, and increasingly, as the Syriza government has made decision after decision that we can understand but cannot support, as room for manoeuvre has narrowed, it has steered us towards a desolate urgency, a politicising, and an earned pessimism.
This is very different from the invested and eager pessimism of Syriza’s pre- emptive far-left detractors – very often the same people in thrall to reflexive so- called ‘hope’ so quick to criticise us for our ‘disempowering’ despair – who went treachery-hunting on day one with an unbecoming eagerness, more committed to their own sectarian rectitude, and to Syriza’s failure, than to its success on terms and by strategies other than their own. Syriza’s decline does not vindicate them.
For salvage-Marxism’s pessimism to be rigorous, by contrast, it must be no such dogmatism but a pre-emptive potential aftermath. We have come to it after many failures, and now in guarded advance – but it is conditioned by the fact that we are always truly open to its other. For which ‘hope’ is too weak a formulation.
Much closer is the German Sehnsucht. In this expression of utter yearning, for something familiar yet undiscovered, is a sublation of delight and sorrow that CS Lewis described as ‘the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what’, ‘an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction’. ‘Joy’, in fact, was his idiosyncratic translation, a joy he insisted be ‘sharply distinguished both from happiness and from Pleasure’, and ‘might almost equally well be called a particular kind of … grief. But then it is a kind we want.’
It is a kind we want. We went into this true, toothed hope in Greece prepared to have our hearts broken. As it looks likely that they will be.
To earn its – real – pessimism, salvage-Marxism is always-already surprised by joy.
Salvage because the messianic moment of Marxism has been and gone. Because history was not redeemed.
There was always a glow at the horizon, a Red sublime; and, now veiled by rubbish fires, there is still a glow at the horizon. But it has gone from being that of a sunrise to that of a sunset, without ever passing through day.
No, this is not midnight of the century. But it is a long dusk. We require, in this half-light, a crepuscular Marxism.
For Ali Shariati, the human subject was ‘located between mud and providence’. Once, perhaps: now we live between history’s garbage and a failed salvation.
‘We have to stop imagining’, in Judith Butler’s recent words, ‘that repair is possible. That full repair is possible.’ But still we struggle to jury-rig tools, to rise.
Because between salvation and garbage there is salvage.