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The Trap the Left built for itself
©João Romeiro Hermeto
Almost a hundred years after Lukács’ essay History and Class Consciousness came about, western emancipatory movements find themselves in a much more fragile situation than back then, despite capitalist foundations being now severely eroded. This article examines the reasons why anti-capitalist forces remain paralyzed at the very same moment that social-objective conditions appear to be so favourable to anti-capitalist endeavours.
The constant surprise of the so-called political Left, when right-wing politicians, armed with anti-system discourse, win elections and gain vast popular support, speaks volumes about its own stance. Not only it is striking its incapacity to understand the ongoing tendencies of reality but also its incessant search for scapegoats. Thus, this political enterprise becomes part of a vicious circle, for the political Left bases itself on concepts, considered not only morally but also epistemologically superior. Insofar as the political Left considers being always right for carrying an abstract pure moral reason, then not only it can never learn from its mistakes but also reality itself appears wrong. Instead of trying to understand the real dynamic of current social processes, this political Left reasoning brands people’s leaning towards reactionary solutions simply as stupidity.
Not only must the anti-capitalist struggle relinquish being the custodian of (pure) concepts, which would allegedly qualify itself as the sole bearer of justice, but it must also understand two crucial aspects of the nature of concepts. First, concepts do not hold meaning in themselves, historical processes of social relations are in constant transformation, and, accordingly, the meaning of all concepts as well. Second, capitalism does not only appropriate wealth, nature, and labour, but not less important also discourse. Thus, when the political Left uses uncritically concepts of justice, democracy, human rights, and equality, it reinforces status quo values and by doing so delegitimates its own practice. Hegemonic power makes use of existing concepts and changes their meaning by attaining the hegemony of practices which embeds and gives real meaning to them.
This process has two dimensions: one historical, another theoretical, and, in reality, both are intimately intertwined.
Beginning with the historical process, not only in the western core but in the whole western sphere of influence the struggle against capital, namely the anti-capitalist struggle has endured many battles to finally be virtually obliterated during the post-World War II period. While the contemporary political Left deliberates about justice claims, namely struggles within the system, the capitalist elite knows today as it already knew before World War I, that the Marxism and Socialist-Communist movements represent the biggest threat to its hegemonic power. Thus, western elites, armed with their governments, and “intelligence” (spy) agencies, have been holding ground against their perceived threats. On the one hand, the Frankfurt School – claiming to be Marxism heirs – has declared the inexistence and anachronism of class struggle; on the other hand, the elite has been waging class war against Marxism intellectuals, the working class – western and beyond –, and most of the people in the global south, where most raw materials are to found, which are needed to enable the existence of western capitalist societies by the means of exploitation of nature and man. Human exploitation occurs first and foremost at the level of labour, which, in capitalism, has a particular mode of existence. Of course, society or a group or even an individual can be exploited by capitalism while being outside of the capitalist process of production. Even today, there are countless examples, for instance, many small farmers work as independent producers but their surplus is subjected to the capitalist logic of accumulation, production, distribution, consumption, and reproduction. Even if a capitalist industry improves its own efficiency, it does not have a direct positive effect on the small farmer’s production. This formal process of subsumption of labour still happens today and helps us understand the neocolonial capitalist relations between underdeveloped and developed nations. Understanding the conditions does not mean romanticizing agriculture, as most land redistribution struggles do, in opposite direction to what Lenin’s critical reflections have taught. This absolute form of surplus value is diluted into a more efficient and technical relation of exploitation, namely the extraction of relative surplus value, which occurs when and where capitalist relations advance and mature. It goes without saying, neither form exists in isolation as absolute forms, they help us understand the different moments with dominant relations, specific contexts, and historical dynamics, as their proportions vary depending on the many social conditions. It also facilitates the comprehension of how moments of crisis unfold, during which the extraction of absolute surplus value tends to increase, thus, working hours and the state of precarity intensify while labour benefits and rights slip away. This more brutal everyday life creates new objective and subjective pressures which can be compensated extra-economic elements (see below).
Today much is said about neoliberalism and, to some extent, postmodernism as well, nonetheless, these are not doctrines or schools of thought, but strategies of social-political control, deterrence, and hegemony. To understand them as lab experiments, namely as isolated phenomena, is to miscomprehend the historical process, which connects them among Keynesianism, vulgar Marxism, social democracy, existentialism, structuralism, irrationalism, critical theory, etc. Scholars have provided thoroughly and unequivocal research revealing the historical process, in which the elites co-opted western intelligentsia (thinkers, scholars, artists, etc.) and, accordingly, shaped a new cultural memory, novel social values, self-affirmative scientific endeavours, etc. These programs have been so successfully implemented that today, the political Left does not even recognise its existence, in other words, the subjectification of reality, where individual feeling, wants, and identities emerge at the centre of the intellectual social debate and stage, appear to be the result of an organic process/development of reason, which deemed the current subjective worldview based on identities morally and epistemologically superior to Marxist struggle against capitalist exploitation and control.
The political Left has become unknowingly the neoliberal Left, it atomises social problems, treating objective pivotal questions as subjective problems, achieving, consequently, a total relativization of objective reality.
This appears a cul-de-sac in itself. How can the neoliberal Left engage in critical thinking and action, when itself has become incapable of practising them? Today, it confounds the process of relativization and subjectification as critical attitudes, failing to recognize the shallowness of its moral criticism void of critical content. More than ever, the political Left, now the neoliberal Left, needs theory before it can act. However, its theorization has become an aprioristic denial of concrete reality, pure idealism fetishized and travestied in laden moral concepts, yet emptied of content. As Mao Tse-Tung taught, the first act of the critique must be self-critique. The critique before revealing the limits of contemporary social practice must therefore understand the limits of itself. All the exhaustively repeated concepts must be understood within their historical contexts and perspectives. By calling any adversary fascist, the neoliberal Left has voided the important historical concept of fascism from its meaning. Or, by pledging equality, the neoliberal Left does not distinguish between the communist equality of the generic human being and the bourgeois equalities of capitalist law and economy, which equalizes the whole of humanity throughout an ever-growing process of reification, namely people become things, commodities subjected to the capitalist laws of alienation (juridic), appropriation (political-economic), and trade (economic).
But the problem is still aggravated by the neoliberal Left’s repulse and demonisation of reality. As a result of capitalist elites’ plundering of whole nations with war, throwing millions of people into migration, producing everlasting exploitation of nature, and pushing millions of workers into precarization; the working class looking for some relief seeks shelter within the rolls of family, religion, and political promises. If a politician gets the neoliberal seal of approval of the neoliberal Left – such as Kirschner, Morales, Mujica, Boric, Lula da Silva, etc. –, then itself proclaims the end of history, namely an uncritical assessment of victory of justice against injustice. Or, if the religion embraced is the one of the Market as God, namely within the parameters of capitalist rule, then it declares itself laic and agnostic, thus the bearer of a higher truth of capitalist realism. And finally, if the family ensures the nurturing of identity politics, then, according to its judgement, this signals an evolution and commitment to a better, freer society. Yet, the neoliberal Left does not provide a critique of the capitalist system. If a politician presents himself as anti-systemic (either a party, such as German AfD, or a candidate, such as D. Trump), then the masses adhere to it, even if it only appears anti-systemic. If the religion chosen by the masses is not that of the Market as God, then it is, as Marx put it, the expression of real misery, the mind of mindless condition, thus, the need of religion expresses the need for this illusion; for religion is not an illusion in itself, it is what enables one to overlook the rotten of law, economy, politics. And finally, if the family appears as a bastion of hope, safety, and community, it is because the real social nexus is crumbling to such a degree that the smallest social circle, namely the family seems to provide the last unity for hope.
Outside of the selected circles of academics and the upper middle classes, exists the real struggle of most people: how to pay rent, put food on the table for their children, make ends meet to provide for electricity, clothing, warmth, health, security, coping at the same time how to sustain the illusory social wants that capitalism enforces into people’s mind by the means of propaganda, marketing, publicity, and advertisement, as social musts. All in all, the economic pressure appears to be immense for most part of the average people. On the other hand, the privileged classes of the bourgeois intelligentsia, which became the voice of the political Left as the neoliberal Left, criticizes – from its own perspective of privilege – every single decision of the working class. It has neither a critical historical assessment of the concrete social conditions nor empathy for the suffering of the many. The academic and mediatic publications speak volumes about the shock of cultural values between these two privileged and unprivileged classes. The enlightened portion of the bourgeois politicians, now self-proclaimed as progressives, push – also uncritically – the agenda promoted and developed by the intelligentsia. The result could not be more obvious. The masses seek politicians paired with their contemporary values of crumbling capitalism: namely anti-systemic at a political-economic level, and conservative at the levels of religion and family, while those enlightened politicians and thinkers demonstrate being shocked and extremely puzzled by the ballot results.
While a portion of the western “progressive” Left has caught up with the fact that the British Labour Party, German Grün and SPD, US-American Democratic Party, etc. not only are not but also cannot be part of the solution, they still believe in the so-called western democratic system, where capitalist elites control the economic, the political-economy, the legislative, the public opinion, the politicians and political parties. This paradox is better understood when one looks outside the immediate sphere of the west and the reaction of the same progressives. First, with the same enthusiasm that they call for Global South recognition, they also push upon the same Global South all the western values as again morally and epistemologically superior in themselves. No other better arrangement is possible than the model of capitalist western democracy. Second, the same dichotomies that appear in the core of capitalism exist in the periphery, however, progressives believe that neoliberal candidate A is good while neoliberal candidate B is bad – looking neither for their concrete practices beyond mere discourse nor their history (genesis, alliances, self and class interests and conflicts, etc.). Do they simply not look into it or do not know how? It is vital to understand that the use of concepts and the lack of theory play a fundamental role in this process. For instance, in Brazil while President Bolsonaro (and his allies) and Former President Lula (and his allies) have been almost complete similar when governing the country, the former is called a fascist, the latter a liberator. Yes, their discourses may differ, yet their practices are shockingly alike. (Any resemblance with the United States is not a mere coincidence.) Also, their histories have parallels. While Bolsonaro was a captain of the army, before entering politics, Lula and his party were created by the military dictatorship to shield the government against left-wing opposition and communists, becoming the left wing of the military. Thus, strikes and protests were coordinated between the military, capitalist elite, and workers’ representatives, such as Lula. While before his election, Bolsonaro went to the United States, where he saluted the US-American flag, prior to his 2002 victory, Lula and his party members – forbidden from entering the United States – not only entered the country but went to the White House to receive the empire’s blessing. After that Lula signed the so-called “Carta aos Brasileiros”, revealing how his government would not only not challenge dominant power but assist it as well. From an economic dimension, Bolsonaro’s government represents a true continuity with Lula’s and Dilma’s neoliberal governments, which for their part represented also an endurance with the former neoliberal party in power PSDB (with President F.H. Cardoso). During all different governments, both the financial capital and primary goods exporting elite benefited the most with the big private banks in charge of the economy. During election rallies, both parties (PSDB and PT) would publicly present themselves as great antagonists, as Bolsonaro and Lula also do now. Yet, Lula was against Bolsonaro’s impeachment, in discourse they are adversaries, but in practice, a bipartisan agreement persists over all the relevant questions. The vice-president chosen by Lula in the 2022 election is Geraldo Alckmin, who not only is a member of Opus Dei but also from the party, which Lula and his party publicly reproached for being their greatest adversaries and the greatest threat to Brazil before Bolsonaro emerged in 2018. The hole is much deeper – for instance, the so-called coup d’état against President Dilma was orchestrated with the support from Bolsonaro by the conservative vice-president Michel Temer also chosen by Lula –, along these lines, the Monroe Doctrine has much deeper roots in Latin American than commentators, either willingly or ignorantly, acknowledge, and similar stories can be seen all over the continent (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay, etc.). Paraphrasing Tom Jobim, understanding Brazil and Latin America is not a task for amateurs, a critical analysis must, therefore, once and for all forfeit these simplistic binary reasonings of good and bad that ignore all relevant nuances.
This theoretical problem has further dimensions. It is worth mentioning, even if just briefly, another one. Most of the political Left, when not completely subjugated by and to neoliberalism, has a tendency in deifying poverty and admonishing development. Not only poverty is not considered something crucial to be overcome, to be fought against, but it appears, instead, as an element of subcultures that need protection to remain pure. Thus, little effort is made to improve the quality of life in slums. Instead of building infrastructure and objective transformation, one needs, following this romanticized logic, to introduce palliatives. These palliatives pursue fighting discrimination and prejudice but unknowingly promote instead exactly that. It is paternalistic in saying what is needed and racist enough to deny life improvements, which appear superfluous and sub-culturally disruptive. It introduces the need to use concepts such as community substituting the slum concept, yet it poses a constant obstacle to creating a community beyond the reality of the slum. Its idealism is not simply romantic but more importantly destructive. It normalizes and beatifies poverty and conditions of misery. On the same token, poor socialist countries are accepted as alternative models to substitute capitalism, it looks neither the local objective conditions of countries, such as Cuba, which suffers an over 60 years old embargo, making development a nearly impossible task, nor the objective conditions of the masses in capitalist countries that required becoming part of a political process of action and consciousness instead of receiving a socialist-model from abroad, which overlooks the different subjective and objective conditions among different societies. On the other hand, experiments in the soviet countries or the successful but still emergent Chinese socialism are not only overlooked but completely reproved. The former for being swept as a general failure, overlooking the many complexities and attempts involved. The latter is also all in all denied achievements for lack of purity and its capitalist elements. Both accounts lack again historical and theoretical discernment, for socialism is a social practice that cannot be defined a priori nor contain elements of purity. Socialism is a transitory stage beyond capitalist rule and requires experimentation and a constant process of revolution. However, revolution appears as a concept that cannot be taken as something abstract and universally equal. A revolutionary process within a socialist country must be one to supersede capitalist old elements and not one to overthrow the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the west, one can still find roman, medieval, and feudal institutions, yet they do not render capitalism less capitalist. In China, there is capital but not capitalism. Property and the relations of production have changed and are changing. Capital does not rule society, the workers’ party rule capital. Of course, this is a delicate balance of power, whose outcome cannot be defined a priori. But it is imperative to learn from concrete examples, being Cuba or China, the Soviet Union or Venezuela, etc., without falling into the bourgeois binary trap of moral reason.
The contemporary stage of capitalism still can be regarded as imperialism, yet its barbaric levels appear to be becoming ubiquitous in both social and spatial dimensions. The solution for the many existing and emerging problems does not seem to be at hand, for the status quo changing its neoliberal mask to a more neoliberal-proto-fascistic one can only provide more of the same in slightly different shape and colour – outside of the western core, fascistic-neoliberalism has been forcibly implemented for more than 50 years. Trump and his likes have changed the discourse to conquer the minds and hearts of the people but in reality continue to promote capitalist exploitation by the neoliberal PPP (private-public partnership), which enables a constant transfer of wealth from the masses to the capitalist elites, leaving some minor wealth for the compensatory appropriation by its political and bureaucratic operators. On the other hand, the effective inexistence of an anti-capitalist Left is masked by the neoliberal Left’s subjectification of reality, which obliterates learning from history and theory, and denies the weapon of critique to drawing the limits of action. As capitalist possibilities seem exhausted, the revolutionary practice appears an absolute necessity. A revolutionary process does mean neglecting real people, their struggles and values, objective struggles withhold ontological priorities over subjective struggles. These struggles beyond the immediate sphere of labour must become part of the resolution of concrete problems, conflicts and contradictions within the process of the labour struggle. For instance, if the financial system is to be appropriate, democratized and run by the people, thus, transforming its objectives from speculation and profit extraction towards instead the management of social resources to be invested, then people of different credos, colours, sexualities, etc. must find ways to work together to achieve this goal. Thus labour entails an ontological priority as it is a practice towards concrete social goals, nevertheless how labour activities are performed requires the coming together of real people with different both subjective and objective conditions and backgrounds, which appear then as processual necessities and contradictions to be resolved.
The imperialist phase of capitalism created the mental colonization of the political Left, and thus, a major impasse. As the middle class makes confusion between money and capital, it imagines that buying and selling acts are what constitutes capitalist relations, and so does the contemporary Left confound between rhetoric and action. Capitalism appropriates everything, including discourse – so, while the Left focus on concepts and aprioristic definitions, and forgets theory, history, and methodology, the capitalist-powers reign sovereignly and hegemonically, for they rule not through coercion but consent.Postscript. After I had finished writing this article, I became aware of Josep Borrell’s new speech for the launch of the European Diplomatic Academy – part of the European Union’s official bureaucracy. In itself, this speech could inspire a whole new article, but here I just want to highlight the fallacy seen in the dichotomy between the western liberal discourse of democratic values versus its concrete racist, fascistic, colonialist practice of aristocratic values filled with selective memories and distortion of reality. Borrell said: “Europe is a garden. We have built a garden. Everything works. It is the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion that humankind has been able to build – the three things together.” In contrast: “The rest of the world – and you know this very well, Federica – is not exactly a garden. Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden. The gardeners should take care of it, but they will not protect the garden by building walls. A nice small garden surrounded by high walls in order to prevent the jungle from coming in is not going to be a solution. Because the jungle has a strong growth capacity, and the wall will never be high enough in order to protect the garden.” Hence, it is not that he is against a wall to divide European Eden from the outside jungle of barbaric people, but a wall would not be good enough, so the solution he proposes is the same playbook being used for the last 500 years: more colonialism/neocolonialism. On the one hand, in Europe everything does not work, except with one considers the European Union’s machine of corruption and lobbyism, then one might have to agree with Borrell’s assertion. On the other hand, a major part of the world problems cannot be disassociated from European colonial and neocolonial rule and interference: slave trade and markets, slave labour, wars, extraction of raw materials, plundering, more wars, World War I, World War II, European liberal colonial empires, fascism and NAZI-fascism, racism, eugenics, imperialism and neoliberalism, environmental destruction and exhaustion, the extermination of uncountable species, mass concentration camps, genocides, shock therapy, and the list goes on. Therefore, when he further asserts that: “The gardeners have to go to the jungle. Europeans have to be much more engaged with the rest of the world. Otherwise, the rest of the world will invade us, by different ways and means. Yes, this is my most important message: we have to be much more engaged with the rest of the world.” Then he provides historical revisionism, projects and transfers blame on the victims, and withdraws any responsibility for the infinite crimes committed by Europeans and European rule. The capitalist elite knows only one game with very defined rules: domination, exploitation, appropriation, and accumulation; until the political Left faces this fact, it will continue to be fooled by the good cop, bad cop strategy, in other words, the capitalist one party system with competitive character will continue to provide the capitalist elite with the rhetorical tools to legitimate, justify, and naturalized its domination while most people are left high and dry.