Tuesday, March 09, 2004

The party of the proletariat must support the movement of the peasantry

Doug Henwood & friends have written an excellent peice on the intellectual paralysis of the left (the real left, not "democrats")
Steve Duncombe, a NYC-DAN activist, author, and NYU professor, says his fellow activists "think very little about capitalism outside a moral discourse: big is bad, and nothing about the state except in a sort of right wing dismissal: state as authoritarian daddy."

Activistism is also intimately related to the decline of Marxism, which at its best thrived on debates about the relations between theory and practice, part and whole. Unfortunately, much of this tradition has devolved into the alternately dreary and hilarious rants in sectarian papers. Marxism's decline (but not death: the three of us would happily claim the name) has led to wooly ideas about a nicer capitalism, and an indifference to how the system works as a whole. This blinkering is especially virulent in the U.S. where a petit-bourgeois populism is the native radical strain, and anti-intellectualism is almost hard-wired into the culture. And because activistism emphasizes practicality, achievability, and implementation over all else, a theory dedicated to understanding deep structures with an eye towards changing them necessarily gets shunted aside.

Marxism's decline isn't just an intellectual concern - it too has practical effects. If you lack any serious understanding of how capitalism works, then it's easy to delude yourself into thinking that moral appeals to the consciences of CEOs and finance ministers will have some effect. You might think that central banks' habit of provoking recessions when the unemployment rate gets too low is a policy based on a mere misunderstanding. You might think that structural adjustment and imperial war are just bad lifestyle choices.

One might add that this is perhaps the most utopian of dreams, but it would be churlish to rain on this parade: the more thinking the better, if you ask me (particularly considering the continuing eagerness to write off any idea that might be associated wth marxism from nominally left commentators who do have a theory). And yet, Henwood et al. continue:
Unfortunately here at home, those with the confidence to discuss such questions are too often the ones with the silliest ideas: at the 'Another World Is Possible rally' during WEF weekend, speakers waxed hopefully of a world in which all produce will be locally grown. That's absurd, unless you're planning to abandon cities, give up on industrial civilization, and reduce the world's population by 95%.
This, I submit, is precisely the kind of cant that is in desperate need of analysis. Will civilization really end if we stop shipping flavorless Chilean strawberries to NYC in January? I am not even sure that the industrialized model of commodity crop production is essential to "our" way of life, and I have certainly never seen a thorough analysis of the question. Not, of course, that a global transition to sustainable agriculture would solve the problems that bother Hendwood and friends, but no one has ever figured out what it would do.

Doug's new site also has a transcript of his excellent interview with Slavoj Zizek, and info on his new book, which you should buy.


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