“No longer does innovation come about through parties, trade unions, bureaucracies or politics. It is now dependent on individual moral concern. No longer do we look to political theory for an indication of what we should be doing; we need no tutors. The change is ideological and it runs deep.”
(M Foucault, 1978)
Back in 1978 I opened an article on the topic “Ethics and Revolution – the dialectical tension of the age” [i] with the quotation above from Michel Foucault; not merely to underline the change that was taking place in terms of social transformation but also because it struck me that that change was of great significance to anarchism and liberation struggles.
More than three decades have now passed since then and the course of history has repeatedly borne out what, back then, was more than plain to be seen: that “innovation no longer comes about through parties, trade unions, bureaucracies and politics”, that “nobody looks to political theory any more for guidance as to what we should be doing” and that “we have no need of tutors”. This does not mean, however, that there is not still an insistence – coming from various strands of the left (institutional left and supposedly “alternative” left alike) – upon the need to theorise about action before setting about it and that some grassroots groups are not still on the look-out for tutors …
All of the great upheavals of social contestation in the 21st century – from the “anti-globalisation” movement that kicked off in Seattle in November 1999, through to the “indignados” and the 15 M protesters of more recent times – share the same repudiation of “those churches that promise democracy for every class without distinction and yet deny their own faithful the most elementary freedom of expression unless they blindly swallow their watchwords” and of “high commands that, off their own bat, haggle over and agree everybody’s well-being” and of the “mammoth machines that wrest initiative, action and voice away from the individual person.”[ii]
That repudiation is prompted by the dismal prospect offered back then by successful revolutions, a prospect that has been borne out by the collapse of every single experiment in liberation attempted under the auspices of state socialism. A collapse that has allowed capitalism to extend its hegemony right around the globe and allowed to look like the only economic system capable of producing material comfort for the majority. This despite the fact that it remains such an unfair, irrational and menacing system as far as the human race is concerned.
The failure of state socialism
The greatest event of the second half of the 20th century and first decade of the 2ist was the failure of every single experiment that set out to change capitalist society by means of a Caesarist socialism imposed from the state. That socialism, which Marx and Engels argued was due to free humankind from exploitation and capitalist domination and steer it down the path of social progress finished up every time by restoring capitalism due to its failure to dream up and implement any model of progress beyond the capitalist model.
Is there any denying that? Any denying that every one of those “experiments” finished up turning capitalism into the very [paradigm of progress and helping to ensure that most human beings look upon it still “as the most efficient economic arrangement for ensuring the well-being of humanity”?
Acknowledged or otherwise, history teaches us that the reason for th extinction of the “great light from the East” (which ever since 1917 had been “brightening the hearts of all the world’s proletarians”) and of kindred “bright lights” elsewhere was the gradual smuggling back of market capitalism into state capitalism. A process of restoration that has pointed up the idealism behind the Marxist forecasts and been of crucial impact upon the current revolutionary doldrums and the deep-seated defeatism within the proletariat world-wide. So much as to leave it incapable even of holding on to whatever gains that had afforded it access, by means of capitalist progress, to an ever increasing consumerism.
There is simply no way of denying that capitalism has managed to mesmerise the labouring masses with the illusion of “comfort” and that they are now incapable of coming up with any form of progress beyond ever-increasing “comfort”. This hypnotic spell has allowed capitalism to become the model of Progress in every human society and ensured that they have been blinded to the dangers implicit in such “progress”. And not just because of the dirigiste promiscuity of the ever more voracious and unaccountable technocrats and political bureaucrats, the fruits of a technological “rationality” that has no problem coexisting with the most utter barbarism.
Such promiscuity is obscene and degrading; both because it treats us to the unseemly spectacle of societies preparing to venture out into the cosmos whilst millions of human beings still go barefoot and perish of hunger here on Earth, as well as because the human race is being de-humanised by having commodity rule thrust upon it. This irrational “rationality” continues to generate victims and executioners through the dream of/obsession with “comfort” and “efficiency”.
The collapse of liberation ideologies
Faced with the dismal reality of the world’s “revolutionary achievements”, the pretentious message of liberation of the liberation ideologies has faded away and no longer has any practical impact upon workers day to day existence. East and West alike, even if one stays a Marxist, Marxist-leninist, Trotskyist, Maoist (?) or anarchist, there is always the same striking mismatch between what is said or thought and what actually gets done. A mismatch that is indicative of the extent to which ideologies have served and serve still only to provide a clear conscience to men educated about their chains and the burden of the History they think they are forging. That clear conscience accounts for the endurance of the chains and of the history they would like to see altered.
Faced with the stunning resignation of the masses instructed in the mysteries of exploitation by these ideologies which claimed to be their redemption and of the grand notions that were supposed to be “leading humanity ever onwards and into an ever higher stage”, what is left of their revolutionary message of liberation?
How can anyone deny the fact that what remains is just a pile of plans, programmes and speeches as well as an ever-increasing and internalised dependency of man upon the state and the mechanisms of exploitation and domination?
That being the case, how does the belief in “revolution” survive? Or at any rate in the “revolution” that, ever since the days of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, etc., knew what it should have been. How can we forget what we have seen, not once but on every occasion when a attempt has been made to turn that “revolution” into a reality? How can we entertain the notion that next time it will not be what it was and how can we go on wanting to make revolution with the same authoritarian accoutrements of Power?
There is no denying that Marxism has been a theoretical and practical failure. But it is not the only liberation ideology responsible for the implosion of revolution. The blame is shared equally by anarchism, for, though it may not have managed thus far to ‘headline’ any successful revolution, it bears a guilt by omission. Even if only by virtue of the fact that it was absent from the social context in which such struggles were spawned and grew. And also because, in the current debate that pits the actual praxis of various historical models of socialism in power against the theoretical critique of an ethical neo-marxism and anti-marxism, anarchism still offers itself as yet another “-ism” among the many and consoles itself with a bleating “We were right!” So, despite its deeds, the anarchist critique of the State, anarchism’s contribution to the debate about the notions of ethics and revolution, freedom and socialism which might well be crucial to any questioning of power relations within society, it remains a wasted effort in that it also bears part of the blame for the debate’s being whittled down to an unadulterated ideological clash …
Whether we like it or not, socialism’s busted flush revolution concerns all revolutionaries and no anarchist can take any pleasure in the shambles. First, because anarchism’s not aspiring to Power cannot be put forward as a novel solution as long as the demobilisation of the masses persists and as long as the minute anarchist factions carrying on preaching in a vacuum. Secondly, because despite the severe set-back the Marxists have suffered in their staunch belief that the laws of History were working in their favour, the “dull-witted optimism of unquestioning faith in progress” lingers on in their speeches just as it does in the anarchists’ discourse. That belief paralyses action and finishes up facilitating acceptance of the established order instead of the subversion of it.
So there is nothing so damaging and naïve as the lamentations over the lost purity of the mythical ideal once embodied by socialism, or advocacy for a nostalgic return to myth as the only alternative to the depressing current reality. The relevant and consistent course is to acknowledge that reality and analyse the facts and performances that have helped make it what it is today; both in order to find out why capitalism has triumphed and why socialism (as a liberating praxis) via the state has become undesirable and the libertarian version of it more of a chimera than ever before.
The paradox may be an odd one because whereas socialism has never been as far away as it is today from accomplishing its liberating mission, the objective need for some sort of a coherent socialist praxis has never been as urgent and essential as it is today. So how can we not “question everything within the theory and practice of Marxism and of anarchism that has aided and abetted the preservation of capitalism and prevented the advent of the utopia implicit in the liberation paradigm shared by those two ideologies”? Especially now, when, more than ever, there is a need to revert to the ethical concerns behind the ideals of freedom, brotherhood and justice. Faced with dangers and menaces, that concern and pressing need wait for no man, but strive to deploy fresh approaches in order to subvert the economic, social and political fabric of capitalism and the state and, on that basis, lay the foundations for and – in the here and now – launch novel liberating experiments.
The issue of power
Unfortunately, the rejection of the new is notorious and irreversible within organisations incapable of questioning classical revolutionary ideologies. Proof of that is the fact that they cling to the condemnation and persecution of ideological dissent as well as abjuring the full, lawful exercise of the utopian function. Which is the only way the free man has of emerging and averting the transformation of such organisations into power struggle arenas, Small wonder, then, that the substance which used to feed and facilitate the devising and emergence of the new by means of ideological objections and dissent is these days as disparaged as it ever was. This despite the fact that there the pretence with such organisations that they still shun dogma and mythology.
Orthodoxy means – and not just within Marxist organisations – that the general policy line, central planning, authority, discipline and political power are still being imposed and autonomy, independence and self-government – in a word, freedom – dying out.
Don’t go saying that the ideology is one thing and parties and organisations something else. Because one has to choose: either it is the ideologies that are showing themselves to be incapable of influencing the militant praxis (in the sense of their liberating, fraternal, democratic, egalitarian postulates) , or it is the ideologies as such that carry within them the authoritarian seeds that consume them from within and inevitably end by corrupting them. And whether this is down to inability or sheer inconsistency is a matter of little consequence because in the end the upshot is the same; neither the ideologies nor the social structures professing them (the parties, the trade unions) can evoke any enthusiasm from among the masses. Instead, the masses shun them because the stench from them grows worse and worse and, within them, there is the same choking atmosphere as in the authoritarian world.
And this even though the issue of power[iii] has stopped being scrutinise as a conceptual/mental framework ever since the days when, with Foucault and others, power began to be thought of as a fabric of relationships of strength in everyday life rather than as merely some individual-to-state relationship. So Power id made feasible by relationships of power. Meaning the domination of one individual over another, one class over another. This, of necessity, does away with the notion/conviction that Power sits on some higher plane and can be “conquered” or “destroyed”; the revolutionary paradigm that Marxists and anarchists hold in common.
Hence the need to rethink the issue of domination and submission in the light of failed revolutionary experiences and of the knowledge brought to light by the human and biological sciences; for not only must we reactivate the revolutionary will to resist, but we must also tailor it to today’s reality. In order both to avoid the singular or multiple resistance’s that might emerge turning into fresh disappointments, as well as to find and espouse clear and coherent stances via a vis the age-old question of “voluntary servitude” which has greater relevance today than ever.[iv] For it is plain to see that even though Power is always embodied by cliques (no matter who these might be: but even more so when it comes to controlling the state) and even though those cliques spawn relationships based upon interests and affiliation, loyalty and dependency, it is those relationships that ensure that “so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations sometimes put up with a single tyrant possessed of nothing more than the power they have vested in him.”
The issue of servitude
So, if we are serious about getting to grips with the issue of transforming today’s 21st century society, , as Foucault puts it: not only is the “fight against all forms of power wheresoever they may be both the object and the instrument; in terms of knowledge, truth, consciousness and discourse”, but we must also acknowledge the import of the object of desire that induces us to accept servitude of our own volition. Because only by acknowledging that are we going to be able to change things and cease being slaves.
Capitalism and authoritarian consumerism have shown themselves – as hegemonic schemes – incapable of resolving the world’s serious issues (in that they offer a Progress that is not merely unfair and irrational but also destructive of the environment), so logic and common sense require that we come up with some fresh negation of the Established Order that will make it possible for us to be freed from alienation and come up with some authentic form of harmonious ecological autonomous coexistence … And we have to do it today just as we did it yesterday, not just for reasons of justice but, more so, for the sake of survival. And all because, given the predatory irrationality of market capitalism and state alike, we have no other remaining option.
What is the point of questioning the current system of hegemony unless we alter the object of desire that alienates us from it?[v] For it must be plain to see that such desire keep us tied to this society and its forms of exploitation and domination whilst it is all about having and, as a result, about “having more and more” (the capitalist “accumulation” that Marx described). And not just because the technological surge in the means of production (now presented as the “common good”) successfully disguises inequality and slavery, but also because the illusion of improvements to the “standard of living” (our ability to consume) then turns into the engine driving our actions. Actions that are inevitably circumscribed by that which gives them their meaning and by the value (or values) that society has set up to predispose us psychologically to acceptance of relations of dependency and submission.
Capitalism has managed to invest its ideology with “material force” – what Marx recognised as those ideas which “grab the masses” – and it has pulled this off without being required time and again to resort to its armoury of ideological schooling and physical coercion. We must be conscious of this and change the “object” of our desires; both in order to put paid to our alienation and in order to prevent capitalism’s being able to carry on with its historical ambition of ruling the planet; because only thus will we cease being complicit in the perpetuation of the system that alienates us and rules over us and which – also – represents a real threat to the continuance of our human adventure.
So what we face is a fight for our survival. A fight that of necessity implies a struggle for justice, because without justice, there can be no harmonious ecological autonomous coexistence. But we must embark upon it, not because a given ideology that demands that we believe in it thrusts it upon us, but rather because the survival instinct ought to make us aware of there being no option other than a socialism rooted in eco-self-governance, when faced with the private capitalism and state capitalism that are pushing us further into barbarism. Therein lies the dilemma. Ideologies, which are representations built out of notions that are forever closed serve no purpose. Which leaves us which being alert to what the present reality is and what it requires of us if we are to change it, unless we want to be complicit in such unconsciousness.
Octavio Alberola This article was written for the Chilean review EROSIÓN – revista de pensamiento anarquista:
In Rojo y Negro (CGT) 30/07/2014
[i] Published in El Viejo Topo, Madrid, No 19, April 1978. The Chilean Marxist sociologist Martha Harnecker lifted a quotation from it for her book La izquierda latinoamericana y la construccion de alternativas, published by Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in 1999.
[ii] Part of Martha Harnecker’s quotation from my article in the aforementioned book and in Reconstruyendo la izquierda, published by Siglo XXI publishers in 2008, talking about “the growing loss of belief in political parties and in politics generally.”
[iii] See the articles at: http://kaosenlared.net/component/k2/item/90888-michel-foucault-una-nueva-imaginacion-pol%c3%ADtica.html and http://smcomplejidad.com.foucault-o-la-etica-y-la-practica-de-la-libertad=..
[iv] Albeit that it was raised by Etienne de la Boetie as long ago as 1567.
[v] See the article at: http://www.alasbarricadas.org/noticias/node/28645