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Salvage Perspectives #2: Awaiting the Furies
Salvage left our last perspectives in anxious willing-to-be-wrong-ness about Greece. Everyone on the Left knows how the story has played out. The bad news is very bad. The radical left group Syriza came to – unprecedented – power. It struggled. It railed against the austerity that had devastated its economy and society. And then, ultimately, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, its leadership capitulated to its creditors, to finance and austerity.
Many furious comrades walked out, to reconvene as Popular Unity, to contest the snap elections which returned the newly domesticated Syriza to power. Popular Unity was wiped out.
Greece loomed large over our first perspectives document. It was our hope, and then it was the opposite. It made our hearts beat faster; then, as we predicted, it broke them.
Yet here we are again.
The Corbyn Event
Called upon to chivvy the demoralised, Trotsky – or at least the apocryphum by that name – would say, ‘The darker the night, the brighter the star’. The implication being that such a star prefigures dawn. Salvage has suggested, rather, that what few stars are visible are dim, and mostly dimming further. That the task for the Left is to live and fight in darkness. Our call is for a crepuscular, rather than a celestial, Marxism.
But our hard-earned pessimism (further ruminations upon which feature in this issue, from Salvage’s editor-in-chief Rosie Warren) has the humility to be surprised, the Sehnsucht to hope to be, and joy when it is.
Since our first issue, a certain new illumination has become visible. It is not ‘stellar’ – that unhelpful insinuation of epochal shift and a dance of inexorable political syzygy. It is more of a streetlamp. But light is still fucking light, and any such glitch in the neoliberal ‘postpolitical’ is a stunning and unexpected reproach to that totality.
Centres have been failing to hold for some time. The weakening of the representative link between social base and political apparatus, and the erosion of traditional forms of political control in neoliberalised democracies, will continue to throw up opportunities for weakly rooted forces to make dramatic advances. Though historically rare, these are perhaps to come with increasing frequency as old forms and presumptions decay. It is imperative that we are receptive to such opportunities, and nimble in our reactions.
Still. We did not in the least expect that actually-rotting-social-democracy would extrude the most radical, left, activist leader the British Labour party has ever had.
Jeremy Corbyn’s success is astounding. Almost parodically gentle and unassuming in person – a normcore reimagining of Nye Bevan – his election, unthinkable scant weeks before it occurred, is a true political Event. It is more vital even than the Scottish independence referendum, if not dissimilar in character, and springing from related roots.
His victory was crushing: a 59.5 per cent first-round win, a win among all sectors of the party, from unions (57.6 per cent) to supporters (83.8 per cent) to members (49.6 per cent). The triumph was built on a vigorous grassroots campaign, given a fillip by the large anti-austerity demonstrations in the preceding June – and was, paradoxically, inconceivable without the decline of the trade unions and the Old Labour Right with whom they had, for years, so comfortable a relationship; or the mortal threat posed by new Tory anti-union laws, to which only Corbyn among the candidates offered spirited opposition.
The New Labour project has suffered a massive defeat. For now, its ideologues flounder, furious and babbling, their vaunted shark-like political efficiency now the flapping of beached toadfish. They rummage for invective in a ragbag of psephological gibberish, personal smear, truculent entitlement, nostrums as rank as old milk, class spite, and misplaced ideologemes from foreign culture wars. (On the BBC, former Blair aide John McTernan ragingly denounces John McDonnell, Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, because McDonnell ‘does not believe Britain’s the greatest country in the world’. The attack would be merely vulgar in its American homeland: in Britain, it is beyond absurd) As we wrote immediately after Corbyn’s victory, Salvage savours these Blairite tears.
The Left will not, however, be equal to the challenges to come if we once again leap to bad hope – we have seen, many, many times, where that ends. Salvage unstintingly celebrates Corbyn, but we emphasise, too, the precipitously steep odds against his victory culminating in a radical transformation of the balance of wealth and power – or even of surviving the next few years. This is neither cynicism nor despondency, but clear-sighted analysis: of capitalism; of the class system; of the influence of neoliberalism on popular ideology; of the limits of the Left; of the erosion of traditional working-class power. It is precisely to strive to avoid the outcome that we stress its likelihood. It would be a dereliction to gloss over the difficulties.
These have been evidenced from the start by the contradictory and mendacious attacks on Corbyn from the Conservatives, the Labour right, and from our unconscionable media. This campaign has smacked of desperation and a degree of disarray, but it has had effects, forcing some retreats from both Corbyn and McDonnell. In particular, the latter’s tactically confused response to Osborne’s ‘fiscal charter’ – committing, meaninglessly and with puppet-show flourish, to running surpluses in ‘normal times’ – showed the extreme difficulties of strategising his radical reformism in a pit of snakes. No one envies McDonnell his task. His ultimate opposition to the charter was welcome: that it required a u-turn was not.
Corbyn’s overwhelmingly hostile parliamentary party is apt to force him into damaging compromises, or habitual crises, or both. And Corbyn himself, committed to a ‘broad church’ and a ‘collegial’ approach, has signalled early on through his appointments and concessions that he understands his isolation.
In its very scale, its defeat of the internalised claim that There Is No Alternative, Corbyn’s victory will galvanise the Labour right. They will not forgive this humiliation. Numb inertia is no longer their instrument: they will have to remember how to fight again. And they very soon will.
The soft right of the Labour Party, most ably embodied in the current Deputy Leader Tom Watson, is biding it’s time with far more decorum and unscrupulous strategic nous than the petulant, exhausted Blairites. And when it strikes, it will find allies on the soft Left, which is if anything more anxious to put Corbynism to death than those to its right.
We strive to be part of a victory in that fight, and/but we must also prepare to lose (again), to soften that blow, if it comes, as best we can. Because if Corbynism is defeated brutally enough, it could leave the ideological horizon far worse than had there never been Corbynism at all.
‘Project Fear’, the strategy of the ‘No’ campaign in the Scottish referendum, is useful synecdoche for a broader neoliberal tactic: the ruthless instrumentalising of the sense of a lack of agency among the ruled, inflected by shame, insecurity and the anxiety that punishment will be the reward for considering anything better. Certainly, Corbyn’s victory has not – yet? – forestalled the Cameron-Osborne programme of hyper-austerity. But whatever the outcome of the Corbyn Event, it has struck Project Fear a severe blow – though it would be a serious error to think that it cannot recover.
For now, there is a window in which a new degree of political debate has become possible, perhaps – to the aggrievedness of those who built their political careers on decreeing it passé – even inevitable. Intelligent Conservatives have grasped with more rigour than the shell-shocked Labour right how Corbyn’s courteous wrenching of the agenda beyond agreed limits demands ‘clear intellectual arguments’, in Alan Duncan’s words, ‘to discredit socialist thinking for good’.
Salvage looks forward to ruthless combat on that score.
Corbyn and his allies, and the Left more generally, must of course take advantage of whatever occasional opportunities occur. But crucially, we must also, appraising the overwhelming forces against us, develop ways to help build the working-class movement from the grassroots up. To start to construct effective, patient, urgent strategies for these times. In Greece we are witness to the tragedy of what happens when that is not done in time.
Of course we can’t know the details to come of the Left’s priorities vis-à-vis Corbyn’s project, but a few areas are clear.
First, Corbyn has stated repeatedly that he ‘doesn’t do personal’ and called for a ‘kinder politics’. He has not risen in response to slander, nor stooped to dirty fighting. This, Salvage contends, is admirable, sincere – and strategically doomed in the face of the onslaught to come. He is restrained from a certain ruthlessness by the very decency that has helped make him so popular.
Not only would we not try to dissuade him from his approach, we would not succeed if we did. His prefigurative interpersonal demeanour is inextricable from his popular appeal, and seems to be a constitutive – utopian – component of his politics.
But faced with the hounds of reaction, Corbynism needs attack dogs of its own; McDonnell is on his best behaviour, and is only one person. This is one area the Left can help. We can bring the hate that Corbyn will not. Never uncritical of his project, always tugging leftward, it will be a political necessity – and a pleasure – to counter the poison of the right with our own fire.
Corbyn, it seems, really does have a beautiful soul. We, thankfully, do not.
Second, the radical Left finds itself in the bizarre position of standing with the Labour leader, against the bulk of his parliamentary party. For those of us outside the Labour Party, that means arguing and working with, relating to and learning from not only the grassroots, but that embattled leadership. Corbyn’s degree of success will to a substantial degree dictate the extent to which a wider anti-austerity and anti-imperialist agenda can find traction.
Most obviously this means we must try to build mass and activist support. We also have a role to play at the level of ideology.
Neoliberalism has, for years, depicted itself as seamless and hermetic: now a hairline crack appears in its carapace. We must up our propagandist game, hard, make it appropriate for this – likely brief – moment.
For years much of our struggle has simply been to insist that the boundaries of discussion were other than what was decreed: that case has now been made for us by Her Majesty’s Opposition.
Austerianism, the logic of neoliberalism and the relationship between capital and the state are being officially challenged in ways we haven’t seen for a generation. The old slogans, if they were ever helpful, are inadequate now.
Third, though we must not be constrained by the institutions, extending solidarity to the Labour leader does mean taking his project seriously, and it is electoral.
Revolutionaries have talked for a long time – with good reason – about the death of reformism. Not now. We can’t comfort ourselves with purism, scared of power.
The paradox of the system’s degeneracy and collapse, we have argued, is that unlikely insurgencies will be thrown up startlingly close to the corridors of power. Perhaps even have chances to enter them. To varying degrees and with varying and varyingly radical programs, newly configured socialist groups are beginning to contest the structures of official power in Greece, Spain, Argentina, Slovenia, among others. Even Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nomination in the US, vastly less radical than these others, represents an attenuated echo of this politicised ‘antipolitical’ trend.
It is not only our job to try to ensure that this continues, that there are more wins, for Podemos, for the United Left, for Corbyn’s Labour Party, but to have programmatic proposals in case we are successful.
In the economic sphere, we have previously highlighted (and will return to) Costas Lapavitsas’ claim that, for Marxists, the best tools for the daily, radical management of capital are Keynesian ones. Must all Marxist economists be Keynesians until the day of the abolition of the growth model? Of the money form? These, and equivalents in other spheres, are concrete questions now. There may be victories, but they will not overthrow the rule of capital. Not yet. The sheer distance between the Left and power has meant we have had it easy, at least on this axis: we haven’t had to think about it much.
It must become the role of the Left to start the long process of building up possibilities of institutional power, and to formulate the most radical possible reformist measures for non-revolutionary times.
Fourth, to the extent that we can build in the drabbest everyday, we must also be that everyday’s left dream. In thinking seriously and concretely in terms of this kind of reformism, we cannot take our gaze off the horizon beyond any such reforms. A more vast and total reconfiguration.
In the first issue of Salvage we began an ongoing investigation into the relationship between agitating for essentially amelioratory measures to improve the lives of masses under capital’s global reach; and for confrontational measures that accelerate social contradictions – an executive strategy of tension. We mooted that in non-revolutionary times, these aims may be unsublatable, evasive of any such suturing.
We suggest that the traditional ‘Trotskyist’ aspiration to ‘dialectically’ conjoin them, through a ‘transitional program’, or with any other magic fairydust, may no longer be possible, if it ever was.
Instead, Salvage proposes an alternative approach: an ongoing superposition of incommensurables. The seriousness of our commitment to radical reformism over the longue durée of dark times is in constitutive contradiction with our unflinching fidelity to an antinomian refusal of the very grounds on which it must operate. A communism.
The Movement of People
At the borders of the European Union, exiles from Syria, Libya, Eritrea, Afghanistan lay siege to the physical architecture of xenophobia. They would not live under Bashar Al-Assad’s barrel bombs nor Isis/Daesh’s executioners: they likewise refuse – or try to refuse – to drown in the Aegean Sea to appease the ideological discharge of uneven development, the pus of the value form.
It is a commonplace of the Euro-Atlantic ruling class that the voting public are racists, whose inability to keep up with the inevitable demands of global competition expresses itself in a lashing-out at newcomers. There is no doubt, of course, that alongside that ruling-class contempt, there are plenty of racists and racism in Europe, that the rags profiting from pictures of dead children will soon get back to demonising their parents.
But the emergence of a movement within European countries in physical and political solidarity with the exiles, the sight of welcome parties at the borders, breaks these presumed laws of political physics. Bourgeois politicians have had to respond to this unsanctioned and mostly unsentimental solidarity. Angela Merkel – anxious to shore up the European project – fleetingly and in unlikely (and unjust) fashion, is applauded for her ‘Open Doors’. The movement provokes a protean and politically complex set of responses – a furious debate between wings of the European ruling classes over strategic merits of repression versus accommodation versus buck-passing.
Doors briefly open and walls go up: long-established laws of free movement are suspended overnight. The ‘refugee crisis’ exposes, to those from whom it was previously hidden, the border as violence.
The first death of this refugee crisis at the hands of border forces comes. In mid-October, a 25-year-old Afghan man – whose name has not been released at the time of writing – is shot dead by a Bulgarian border guard. There will be more.
If the Greek crisis has reaffirmed the imperial character of power within the EU, the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ has shown its external face. ‘Europe is not experiencing a refugee crisis’, as Sam Kriss has put it, ‘refugees are experiencing a Europe crisis’.
The numbers fleeing Syria in particular are vast as a proportion of its population, but tiny relative to the population of the EU. According to the UNHCR, 400,000 people reached Europe’s shores in 2014-15 – something less than 0.1 per cent of the EU’s population. Germany alone requires more people to enter its labour market every year. For us, freedom of movement is an internationalist principle – still, it is worth taking the time to rubbish the empirical claims made to back up xenophobia.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees have travelled to immediately neighbouring states. A million have found their way to Lebanon, adding 25 per cent to its population. The entire population of Syria could be resettled in Europe and increase the population by 4.5 per cent, and this in a continent whose population increase is dwindling below the ‘required’ replacement rate. Salvage is not concerned with capitalists’ needs for labour power – we merely point out that any claim that shrinking, senescent Europe is ‘full-up’ is a canard.
People will always move. Especially to escape war, torture and economic collapse. Whatever sadisms the EU employs at its borders or floats upon its seas, they will always move. Nor is migration, and the monstering of the migrant, new. Quite unprecedented is the phenomenon of exodus as social movement. Salvage made its public debut on a demonstration of some 40,000 people in London, organised by Syrian exiles, making clear demands for free, safe and legal movement for refugees. There were similar demonstrations in Denmark and Germany. Their basis lay in the solidarity networks delivering aid to refugees.
There remains, of course, widespread racism and xenophobic reaction. In the UK, Home Secretary Theresa May claims that immigration makes it ‘impossible to build a cohesive society’, in a gutter speech so unrelentingly vile that even the Institute of Directors expresses its astonishment and disapproval, and an editorialist in the hard-right Telegraph describes it as ‘awful, ugly, misleading, cynical and irresponsible’. Henriette Reker, candidate for Cologne Mayor, is stabbed by a racist complaining about her ‘support’ for refugees. Concerned by such racist violence, some in Merkel’s CDU propose rewarding it, erecting a fence, remarkably like the one the German government criticised Hungary for building. Rainer Wendt, the police union chief, wants to start a chain reaction. ‘If we close our borders in this way, Austria will also close the borders with Slovenia. That’s exactly the effect we need.’
Merkel, however, is unlikely to bow to this pressure to create a Europe of criss-crossing wire. She wants instead to keep the unsightly borders beyond the EU itself. The union is mooting $3.4 billion in aid to Turkey, for its help in this endeavor. This is our rulers’ debate: whether to have a Europe of razor-wire, or a Europe surrounded by razor-wire.
This we have come to expect. It is the demonstrations of welcome mark a genuine break – another glimmer.
Salvage enthusiastically supports this new movement. We learn from these insistent refugees. We argue for a shift from calls for horizontal multicultural tolerance, to those of class-based intolerance from below. For directed hatred without borders.
One odd ‘radical’ response to all this has been the socialist solipsism that the mobilisation of such large numbers was insincere, because it took the emotional prod of the harrowing photograph of a dead child, Aylan Kurdi, to provoke it. As if the key political takehome is that we cared about dead children before it was cool.
A related accusation is that the demonstrations, or in some cases the physical act of helping refugees out of the sea, represent a ‘White Saviour Complex’. If such a critique means we should not obscure the wider relations of imperial power then we could hardly agree more. But such acts of – perhaps subjectively apolitical, or, better, pre-political – solidarity objectively undermine those very relations. Presumably these critics would not rather live with the ‘White Drowner Complex’ of the European ruling classes?
Mostly, such critiques are poses, hackish and self-regarding and inflected by the preening of the ‘internet left’ – but then who amongst us has not dwelled in such a glass house? More enlightening for its symptomaticity was Slavoj Žižek’s article in the London Review of Books.
There, the links between two political trajectories are clear: the strange Europeanism in which Žižek has previously indulged as a botched response to identity politics; and the Left Burkeanism (widely shared on the Anglophone and traditional Arab Left) towards the Syrian Revolution, and the counter-revolution that has created the bloody vortex where Syria used to be.
Žižek recycles the co-ordinates of bourgeois debate on the refugee issue so precisely one wonders if he is épatering les Marxistes: swarms of non-Europeans, bearers of a potentially hostile culture, pouring in to take the Europeans’ jouissance, etc. Liberal elites, far from the front line, pushing a tolerance on publics whose intolerance is a rational response to the influx, and so on. Žižek advises that ‘we’ must humanely manage the flow, compulsorily dispersing refugees so that they do not form communities, keeping a vigilant watch on their potentially dangerous religious culture.
Salvage trusts our readers enough not to waste time enumerating all the obvious ways in which this position is grotesque. One aspect, however, is worth stressing: whereas Žižek’s argument proffers a vague culturalist compassion, somewhat to the right of Pope Francis, the current exodus towards Europe has, we repeat, become a social movement.
Anyone watching the mass approaches to the border, the occupations of train stations and the marches along motorways, can see that these are demonstrations for political demands. The slogan chanted in Budapest’s main train station was ‘Freedom!’ The revolution expelled by Assad and Daesh has ended up at the EU’s border fences.
A common attitude on display on the Left is that the Syrian revolution has at best been a civil war between Ba’athists and Islamists. Some have taken a stronger line, regurgitating the regime’s claims that it has been under attack by a Western-Zionist-Takfiri conspiracy since 2011. This is to obscure the organic link between the refugee movement and the Syrian Revolution, leaving solidarity campaigns disarmed in the face of Islamophobic attacks, and underestimating the politicisation of the refugees.
Assad lost no time in using the crisis to bolster his narrative, tweeting ‘if you are worried about refugees stop arming terrorists’. When many on the Left have effectively taken this as their line, we have passed from the realms of campism, of some un-nuanced and notional ‘anti-imperialism’, to that of bad faith and fantasy.
This bad faith is important not merely with regard to its own truth-claims, but for what it says about the Left’s self-image and concomitant actions. A flawed analysis, narcissism and activist-conservatism are here all mutually reinforcing.
The proximate bad faith lies in the account of the Syrian Revolution. At a deeper level, there’s a gross misrepresentation of reality (including to oneself, perhaps) in the clinging to an image of imperialism from the high point of US unilateralism, circa 2003. This is nostalgia for a time when the Left seemed to be a player, when the Stop the War movement was in a coherent political confrontation with that Bush-era imperialism, rather than an impotent observer of a bloody and widening gyre.
Does the bad analysis or the self-aggrandisement come first? Yes. The bad analysis or the self-aggrandisement comes first.
Anti-anti-Assad-ism has it that the refugees are fleeing Syria because the US and its allies have funded an Islamist counter-insurgency against an anti-imperialist regime. Plans are supposedly afoot for more extensive intervention, for regime change along the lines of Baghdad 2003. Daesh is the weapon deployed (all of the Syrian oppositions being assimilated into it in this account), and it was, in the words of Seamus Milne, ‘incubated by the West’s supporting and arming an opposition they knew to be dominated by extreme sectarian groups’.
Scepticism on any of these points can provoke heavy-handed contempt for ‘gullibility’ about the perfidious US. So let us be clear: that the US would be willing to carry out this (or almost any other) plan is not in doubt. Whether it did, however, in this case, and whether the Syrian revolt was as so depicted, are questions susceptible to logic and evidence. In fact, the popular revolutionary character of the Syrian uprising in its early days has been documented by participants and observers – the Syria Freedom Forever website being an excellent point to start. Partisans of this imperialist conspiracy narrative, however, are somewhat impervious to such data.
There certainly is an imperialist intervention in Syria, one in which the US and UK are participating. It is, though, not aimed at removing the Ba’athist regime but, tacitly, at maintaining it, in such a form as can govern at least part of the country. For a year this coalition has been bombing Syrian targets – or in the UK’s case, British citizens in Syria whom David Cameron has taken it upon himself to assassinate. Not a single Syrian regime target has been struck. It is Daesh which has borne the main brunt of the bombing, but their ideological and military competitors on the armed Takfiri right, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and opposition battalions affiliated with neither party, have also been attacked.
But this anti-Daesh air campaign is in the main a sideshow. The imperialist power busiest in Syria is Russia, working with its local ally Iran. Russian troops are now deployed in near-combat roles in Syria, Russia unleashes ferocious air-strikes occasionally against Daesh, mostly against other Assad opponents (provoking slathering Russophilia in sections of the British press, left and right): the Russian foreign minister has called upon the US military to co-operate with them. The presence of Iranian, Afghan, Iraqi and Hezbollah Shi’a militias shoring up Assad – indeed, giving the regime orders – is old news. It is this concatenation of extra- and intra-regional forces that most actively seeks the partition of Syria to advance their interests: in Istanbul in August, representatives of Tehran and Nasrallah met leaders of Ahrar al-Sham (the authoritarian Sunni militia dominant in the Aleppo countryside) to discuss such a plan on a local level. There were no Syrian negotiators on the regime side.
If there is no evidence of direct external intervention against the Syrian regime – to the contrary – then what of the claim that Daesh is a creation of the US? It is obviously true that it would not exist without the occupation of Iraq. That is not the same as claiming the US created Daesh, let alone in a burst of evil genius – and, to be clear again, we need no convincing of the evil, the genius, or the evil genius of the US administration, only that there is, to put it mildly, insufficient evidence for this particular claim.
The Assad regime itself enjoyed a far closer relationship with these Takfiris, providing lines of logistical support to them during the resistance to the US occupation of Iraq and the civil war that ensued from it; releasing them from prison at the outbreak of the Syrian revolution; leaving their positions untouched while flattening opposition civilian areas; buying oil from the fields they have seized. Not only is it not the case that Daesh and the regime are the only protagonists in Syria: they are barely enemies.
The US has, in truth, directly funded and armed a militia in Syria: 54 men, in total. Other prospective members abandoned the programme because it was demanded that they fight Daesh, not Assad. Contrary to the anti-anti-Assadists, then, the armed opposition, in other words, have refused imperialist aid to maintain their strategic autonomy.
The only faction in Syria able to call on significant Western military aid – indeed to call in US airstrikes in their fight against Daesh – are the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Unity Party, an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK) and its militia the YPG (Popular Protection Units). Recently, reports have emerged claiming that US special forces are aiding the YPG on the ground – which is telling, if there is truth to the claims from some other rebel groups (and, unsurprisingly, Ankara) that the PYD has been willing to collaborate with Assad. Rather than being condemned by the global Left, as was – in usually, if not always, unthinking fashion – the Free Syrian Army, for calling for Western intervention, the PYD has been lauded.
For the most part the Left has failed to deal with the complications or implications of such a political dilemma, of embattled progressive forces demanding – and in this case amply receiving – aid from imperialism. This refusal to engage stems from the Left’s allergy to looking complexity and tragedy square on, to situations wherein all options are equally bad, where there is nothing for which a radical Left can meaningfully call. The most common response is simply to ignore the US alliance with the PYD, and to elide all Arab opposition (some of whom actually fought with the YPG against Daesh in Kobane) with Daesh.
The 2003 nostalgia, reading Syria as a continuation of the moment of Bush-Cheney militarism, is a flight from reckoning both with the impotence of today’s Left, and with the shifting realities of geopolitics. In its understanding of the Arab revolutions and their consequences, and of the nature of contemporary imperialism, it is a failure.
We must start from the recognition that the so-called ‘Arab spring’ was revolutionary in character – not excluding Syria – and that the barely-comprehensible butchery and reaction in the region is a consequence of the defeat of those revolutions.
In the absence of a rooted, at least partially organised, agent of change with some conception of social relations to come after revolutionary confrontation, and with the potential to strive for any political hegemony, this is what revolutions will be like. There is none better to wait for. We must own that contradiction, not flee from it into nostalgic fantasy. There is a politics that demands the masses stay in their place because what’s likely to replace oppression is chaos, but it is that of Edmund Burke and Joseph De Maistre, not Marx or Luxemburg.
The civil wars in Syria, and their inverted image in Yemen where the Sisi counter-revolution has now committed ground troops, is not comprehensible through the lens of US power à la 2003. Those committed to that optic should ask themselves why they are so invested. The geometry of contemporary imperialist rivalry – multi-, uni-, or even a-polar – remains obscure. Salvage will devote future pages to its investigation.
The external Great Powers, Russia and the US, continue to support their clients and pursue their interests, as they always will. And their local clients – and the clients of those clients – pursue their own, in a rubble of fractured counter-revolution, in which it is no surprise they often find themselves at odds with the trajectories of their (former) patron(s), in multiple, sometimes contradictory, directions.
The petro-reactionary state of Saudi Arabia is the main supporters of the Sisi counter-revolution in Egypt: but Sisi is an ardent admirer of Assad, against whom are ranged such forces as Zahran Alloush’s Army of Islam, backed by Saudi Arabia. While the Saudis collaborate, then, with the US campaign against Daesh in Syria, which has, if loosely and uncomfortably, brought together the Iranians and Americans, Riyadh pursues an even stronger line against the loosely pro-Iran Houthis in Yemen.
This is not 2003.
A Lot or a Little?
As Salvage goes to press, China has released its quarterly output numbers, putting the economy’s growth at 6.9 per cent over the last year. Analysts treat economic statistics from the PRC with generous mounds of salt: the debate is not whether they are untrustworthy, but how untrustworthy they are. As the Financial Times has it,‘[s]hould we distrust China’s growth figures a lot or a little?’
The question might be asked more generally about official claims for the state of the economy and the robustness of the system right up to the point that it falls down and goes boom.
This is not to fall into the default enthusiastic ‘fundamentalism’ of the far Left, by which every boom is a lie, a glitch or a dead-cat bounce, and every hiccup a crisis. There are two problems with such claims, mirroring the particular and general oversights that we have identified as bedevilling socialist strategy in geopolitics: real recoveries are always depicted as in some sense ‘epiphenomenal’, which, if they are, they are in a not-very-interesting nor strategically helpful sense; and more generally, underlying the depictions is a breathless enthusiasm, a sense of teleology. Disavowed, naturally: the non-inevitability of resistance is dutifully cited. And yet, and yet: the sense is always that with this crisis, now more than ever, #therearemassiveopportunities fortheleftinallthis.
Salvage is not sceptical about the cyclical and secular trends towards crisis identified by Marx. In such matters we are impeccably orthodox. And in these days of sclerotic finance, there is an important truth to the leftist cliché that ‘recoveries are getting shallower, crises deeper and more protracted’. The point, though, is to disabuse ourselves of the implicit delight in that fact, the wide-eyed ‘After Lehman Brothers, Us’ stares.
We did pay for their crisis, after all.
So there are two questions. When George Osborne tells us, as he did six times in his recent Conservative party conference speech, that we are in a recovery, do we distrust him a lot or a little? And what are we going to do about it?
In answer to the first, currently we distrust him a lot – and are galvanised by that, and equally full of foreboding and cautious scheming.
In our first perspectives, we highlighted the frailty of the global economic recovery, and most especially the underlying feebleness of the Chinese boom. As if to prove that the trope of shocked traders looking at computer screens had not yet been exhausted, the main Chinese indexes recently lost $4 trillion of their capitalisation in a few weeks. The tremulousness this trading-floor volatility provoked was brief but intriguing. The collapse itself is easy to see as the correction of an exuberant moment – the main Chinese indexes having more than doubled in capitalisation in the year from the summer of 2014 to June 2015, only to lose a third. The stop placed beneath the fall came in the form of state commitments worth more than $500 billion.
The summer crash in China is not necessarily a harbinger of a new systemic collapse: nor, most likely, the end of the old one. The Great Recession itself is passed, but no alternative social compact, no recomposition of the basis of accumulation emerged commensurate with the problems that crisis revealed. As a result, policy makers – that fraction of the ruling class empowered to govern in the interests of capital, and to manage the crises that the pursuit of those interests provoke – have come to rely upon levers of decreasing utility. Chief among these has been monetary policy, since any fiscal leverage has been declared off-limits by permanent austerity – though, as we will say, there is a chance that may be changing. The origins of the Chinese stock crash lay in the state response to a slowdown combined with over-investment: at the time of writing, the financial press is fixated on the possibility that the US federal reserve may raise interest rates with a rough consensus that, dove or hawk, there is no less worse choice.
This is not to suggest that American, or Chinese, capitalism is once again at the point of collapse. The US Institute of Supply Management purchase managers’ index (a useful proxy for the state of mind of the accumulation community) decreased by 13.39 per cent from summer 2014 to summer 2015 – a noticeable slowing but far from the deep trough of 2008. Remarking, with satisfaction, that ‘developments in Greece have so far not resulted in any significant contagion’, the IMF offers their usual steady-as-she-goes forecast. Unspectacular, mediocre, middling-at-best recovery has been bought by the contradictory means of redoubled suppression of demand amongst the popular classes on the one hand, and extravagant largesse towards big capital, in the form of QE and ‘zero-bound’ interest rates, on the other.
But today it’s not just eager Marxists who read the auguries as bad. ‘We’re in a hard landing,’ analyst Danny Gabay has told the BBC. ‘We haven’t got to the bottom yet … What China has done is very much the same as what the Americans did, the British did, the Europeans did, and the Japanese did before all of us. Massive credit surge, all of it went on real estate, prices have fallen, there’ll be a banking day of reckoning’.
As premier Xi Jinping’s visits the UK, the Conservative government tilts enthusiastic and Sinophilic, announcing a new ‘Golden Era’ of economic cooperation – trade deals, joint space programmes, an extension of the renminbi/sterling swap line, various other goodies. It doesn’t look wildly secure, at either end. The great Chinese shark doing most of the tail-thrashing is sluggish and listing, as even the British Treasury has acknowledged. And what of the little Brit remora hoping to clamp onto it?
The UK recovery has been, in the words of the Office for Budget Responsibility, ‘notably subdued’ – that is, the slowest in British history. And one predicated on what PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts will be an average household level of close to £10,000 in unsecured debt by the end of 2016 – the highest ever in cash terms. The total household debt-(including secured debt)-to- income ratio looks set to reach 172 per cent – higher than the previous peak, in the run-up to the crisis. The one we are, recall, over.
There will be another financial crisis, before three years are out. How bad, and what it might mean, in terms of its social impact, and of the political strategy with which we engage with it, is an open question. It is one that, with preparation, the Left can try to be ready to answer in our favour.
The politics of finance and austerity will continue to play out in increasingly unpredictable ways. On the one hand, there are moments the glimmers die. Alexis Tsipras and Syriza, in the face of the historic Oxi vote, the rejection of austerity for which they pleaded, decide that slow self-Pasokification and the hobbling of the unleashed political energies that brought them to power, is the lesser evil.
On the other, there are glints in unlikely places. In yet another example of the unpredictability and volatility of the times, the eminently mainstream and centrist Liberals under Justin Trudeau have just lurched from distant third place to take power from the hated Conservatives in Canada, explicitly and precisely on a pledge to overturn austerity economics.
Trudeau won on a promise to increase the deficit, to fund infrastructure projects and stimulate the faltering economy. And just to triple underline the point and the political paradox, the Liberal surge occurred in almost perfect antiphase to their left rival, the social-democratic New Democratic Party, which pissed away its own initially front-running position, having committed to a balanced budget – thus accepting the austerity agenda.
Certainly, there were other much less hopeful factors to the election – not least a strong and nasty vein of Islamophobia. But, far more than Obama’s pragmatic, quiet distaste for the excesses of austerianism, here the stewardship of a major ‘western’ economy has been decided in large part on an explicit rejection of the austerity project.
It would be a fool who would trust the Liberals: the point here is that there is another crack in the consensus. We must all breathe another sigh of relief that, however cack-handedly it was done, McDonnell regained the nerve to stand against Osborne’s blackmail, and oppose the new austerian mercantilism. These straws in this wind suggest that there is at least a chance that the debate will continue to shift. The widespread and, in its scale, unanticipated fury at the Tories cuts to tax credits – another attempt to deflect the cost of the agenda – bodes well for this.
The question of immediate, quotidian economic strategy has, for the first time in decades, become key for the far Left. It is for this reason, and precisely because we do not pretend to have the answers, that we will return to it in future issues.
A Strategy for Despite
We have noted several glints and glimmers and glows we intend to nurture, to understand, in which we take stern and cautious pleasure. Around them it remains dark, and Salvage will continue its efforts to pick a way through. Perhaps with some of these glows to illuminate a way.
These documents with which we open each edition of Salvage can only possibly, of course, be synoptic. There will always be more issues we could, should, have discussed, that are omitted for reasons of space and time and exhaustion. We have not yet engaged with the new uprisings in Palestine, nor with the toxic sump of the US presidential elections, a journey through the checkpoints of cruelty, with the hypnotic Trump-function stamping its way through all the worst byways of the political unconscious like a pantomime figure drawn with far too broad a brush by a hack scriptwriter.
Here we have only considered a few key issues, chosen for their particular salience to our project: how to live and struggle in the midst of this. How to be a socialist now, here, without illusions. How, ultimately, to tear through the badness to what we still believe could be beyond.
Sometimes it seems hopeless, and yet, and yet. We go on, despite that.
As well as that preposition – in spite of, regardless of, in the face of – the word ‘despite’ has an older meaning as a noun. Contempt; disdain; spite itself; an outrage committed.
We seek to understand and plan what we must do, what we already do: Salvage, like countless activists, like all the clear-eyed Left, goes on in the face of outrages, despite capitalism’s despite. We must formulate a socialism and yet; a socialism in the face of; a socialism that can survive the contempt and spite of the rulers, and that weaponises its own back at them.
We need a strategy for despite.