History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism
As is well known, the period since the early 1970s has been one of massive historical structural transformations of the global order, frequently referred to as the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism (or, better, from Fordism to post-Fordism to neoliberal global capitalism). This transformation of social, economic, and cultural life, which has entailed the undermining of the state-centric order of the mid – twentieth century, has been as fundamental as the earlier transition from nineteenth-century liberal capitalism to the stateinterventionist, bureaucratic forms of the twentieth century.
These processes have entailed far-reaching changes in not only Western capitalist countries but communist countries as well, and led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and European communism in addition to fundamental transformations in China. Consequently, they have been interpreted as marking the end of Marxism and of the theoretical relevance of Marx’s critical theory. And yet these processes of historical transformation have also reasserted the central importance of historical dynamics and large-scale structural changes. This problematic, which is at the heart of Marx’s critical theory, is precisely that which eludes the grasp of the major theories of the immediate post-Fordist era — those of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jürgen Habermas. Recent transformations have revealed those theories to have been retrospective, focused critically on the Fordist era, but no longer adequate to the contemporary post-Fordist world.
Emphasizing the problematic of historical dynamics and transformations casts a different light on a number of important issues. In this essay I begin to address general questions of internationalism and political mobilization today in relation to the massive historical changes of the past three decades. Before doing so, however, I shall briefly touch upon several other important issues that become inflected differently when considered against the background of recent overarching historical transformations: the question of the relation of democracy to capitalism and its possible historical negation — more generally, of the relation of historical contingency (and, hence, politics) to necessity — and the question of the historical character of Soviet communism.
The structural transformations of recent decades have entailed the reversal of what had appeared to be a logic of increasing state-centrism. They thereby call into question linear notions of historical development — whether Marxist or Weberian. Nevertheless, large-scale historical patterns of the “long twentieth century,” such as the rise of Fordism out of the crisis of nineteenth-century liberal capitalism and the more recent demise of the Fordist synthesis, suggest that an overarching pattern of historical development does exist in capitalism. This implies, in turn, that the scope of historical contingency is constrained by that form of social life. Politics alone, such as the differences between conservative and social democratic governments, cannot explain why, for example, regimes everywhere in the West, regardless of the party in power, deepened and expanded welfare state institutions in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, only to cut back such programs and structures in subsequent decades. There have been differences between various governments’ policies, of course, but they have been differences in degree rather than in kind.
Such large-scale historical patterns, I would argue, are ultimately rooted in the dynamics of capital and have been largely overlooked in discussions of democracy as well as in debates on the merits of social coordination by planning versus that effected by markets. These historical patterns imply a degree of constraint, of historical necessity. Yet attempting to come to grips with this sort of necessity need not reify it. One of Marx’s important contributions was to provide a historically specific grounding for such necessity, that is, for large-scale patterns of capitalist development, in determinate forms of social practice expressed by categories such as commodity and capital. In so doing, Marx grasped such patterns as expressions of historically specific forms of heteronomy that constrain the scope of political decisions and, hence, of democracy. His analysis implies that overcoming capital entails more than overcoming the limits to democratic politics that result from systemically grounded exploitation and inequality; it also entails overcoming determinate structural constraints on action, thereby expanding the realm of historical contingency and, relatedly, the horizon of politics.
To the degree we choose to use “indeterminacy” as a critical social category, then, it should be as a goal of social and political action rather than as an ontological characteristic of social life. (The latter is how it tends to be presented in poststructuralist thought, which can be regarded as a reified response to a reified understanding of historical necessity.) Positions that ontologize historical indeterminacy emphasize that freedom and contingency are related. However, they overlook the constraints on contingency exerted by capital as a structuring form of social life and are, for this reason, ultimately inadequate as critical theories of the present. Within the framework I am presenting, the notion of historical indeterminacy can be reappropriated as that which becomes possible when the constraints exerted by capital are overcome. Social democracy would then refer to attempts to ameliorate inequality within the framework of the necessity imposed structurally by capital. Although indeterminate, a postcapitalist social form of life could arise only as a historically determinate possibility generated by the internal tensions of capital, not as a “tiger’s leap” out of history.
A second general issue raised by recent historical transformations is that of the Soviet Union and communism, of “actually existing socialism.” Retrospectively, it can be argued that the rise and fall of the USSR was intrinsically related to the rise and fall of state-centric capitalism. The historical transformations of recent decades suggest that the Soviet Union was very much part of a larger historical configuration of the capitalist social formation, however great the hostility between the USSR and Western capitalist countries had been.
This issue is closely related to that of internationalism and antihegemonic politics, the theme of this essay. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War opened the possibility of a reinvigorated internationalism that is globally critical. Such an internationalism would be very different from those forms of “internationalism” characteristic of the long Cold War, which were essentially dualistic and, in terms of their form, nationalistic; they were critical of one “camp” in ways that served as a legitimating ideology for the other, rather than regarding both “camps” as parts of a larger whole that should have been the object of critique. Within this framework, the post-1945 world contained only one imperialist power — the hegemon within the other “camp.” This basic pattern also holds true for supporters of China following the Sino-Soviet split, with the difference that the other “camp” was constituted by two imperialist powers—the United States and the USSR. Nevertheless, the critique of imperialism remained dualistic: a critique of one camp from the standpoint of another camp.
Yet the first decade of the twenty-first century has not been marked by the strong emergence of a post – Cold War form of internationalism. Instead it has seen a resurgence of older forms, of hollowed-out after-forms of Cold War “internationalism.” This essay presents some very preliminary reflections on this resurgent dualistic “internationalism,” as an expression of an impasse reached by many antihegemonic movements, while reflecting critically on different forms of political violence.
The impasse to which I am referring has been dramatized recently by many responses on the Left, in the United States and in Europe, to the suicide bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, as well as by the character of the mass mobilizations against the Iraq War. The disastrous nature of the war and, more generally, of the Bush administration should not obscure that in both cases progressives found themselves faced with what should have been viewed as a dilemma — a conflict between an aggressive global imperial power and a deeply reactionary counterglobalization movement in one case, and a brutal fascistic regime in the other. Yet in neither case were there many attempts to problematize this dilemma or to try to analyze this configuration with an eye toward the possibility of formulating what has become exceedingly difficult in the world today — a critique with emancipatory intent. This would have required developing a form of internationalism that broke with the dualisms of a Cold War framework that all too frequently legitimated (as “anti-imperialist”) states whose structures and policies were no more emancipatory than those of many authoritarian and repressive regimes supported by the American government.
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I would like to thank Mark Loeffler, Claudio Lomnitz, and Bill Sewell for very helpful critical comments.