Notes on Political Angst in 2018

I haven’t written much lately…partly for personal reasons. I’m old and my head and hands find it increasingly difficult to combine chain-sawing and wood splitting with thinking about politics and manipulating a keyboard. However there are some more general reasons for my silence that others may share to some extent. We’re at a political moment that is disorienting on many levels. Experiences that should strengthen us do the opposite. Opportunities and potentials explode on the scene only to disintegrate almost as quickly as they arise…generally leading to increased demoralization rather than providing the foundation for new initiatives. And such initiatives, to the extent they attempt to develop functional and resilient structures on a left mass or left cadre basis, start too small and tend to quickly get smaller—fragmenting and imploding over dismayingly similar conflicts—typically routine dilemmas and disruptions that we should have learned how to deal with, but quite apparently haven’t. And this all happens when a number of features of objective conditions appear to favor the emergence of a generalized opposition to established power.

It’s not much of a comfort, but these problems aren’t unique to our sector of the left, to this part of the world, or to this period of history. This is where I think it might be helpful to remember Gramsci’s oft-cited words about the characteristics of a period where the old is dying but the new is not ready to be born:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying but the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.1

Not that that such an observation provides much comfort either!

For some decades we have lived through a period where capital’s global triumph also marked the beginning of its secular crisis. The ruling class’s chronic and expanding difficulties in maintaining capital’s productivity and profitability interact with growing fault lines in its political legitimacy and effective power…shredding the pretensions that capitalism marks the end of history that were widespread not so long ago. Our dilemma…or one of them…is that this underlying crisis doesn’t develop uniformly. It passes through rough cycles and we are at a relatively bad point in the latest of these where capital is achieving some adaptive successes. One of the benefits of being quite old is that I have lived through a number of such cycles, including the end days of the one that initiated in an earlier period of capitalism—the depression of the ’30s. Hopefully I’ve maintained sufficient political awareness to provide some context and perspective for the current left malaise.

If we take 1935, 1968, and 2009 as points of significant breaks in capital’s evolutionary stability—a rough periodization that I know doesn’t apply uniformly across the global terrain, although it works for most of the capitalist core—they start from sharp breaks with political routine characterized by a flowering of radical possibility. Elements of creative spontaneous struggle appear everywhere and look to be inexorable. What previously seemed utopian or even impossible becomes a basis for live action on a mass level; mass action that includes widespread epistemological breaks that appear to foreshadow the emergence of a mass revolutionary subjectivity. Experience indicates that every cycle of crisis and the explosion of political possibility that accompanies it lead to an adaptive response of capital on both the level of profit (the economic) and that of power (the state). For examples; the emerging conflict between nationalism and globalism—too simple a dichotomy I know—is both an index of crisis and a path towards a possible capitalist recovery. The juxtaposition of an autonomous fascism with new forms of globalized social democracy should be understood in the same vein in my opinion.

Failures to adequately understand these circumstances promote some distinct left responses and an assortment of illusions. One such rests on the expectations that the dramatic changes of the moment of crisis are linear and incremental—and will define the political context for an extended period—if not permanently. A possible implication of this view—familiar in our tendency—is to limit our role to facilitating the mass process and, above all, to avoid becoming an obstacle to them—even as such processes begin to lose their oppositional potential. An alternative approach of others on the left sees the transformed political scene as the long-delayed fruits and validation of past labor and takes steps to implement a claim on organizational leadership. In the process the “vanguard’s” politics become either irrelevant or more frequently, indistinguishable from those of overt reformists. The best that can be said about such positions is that they fail to recognize major characteristics of these cycles of struggle.

Unfortunately, moments of general insurgency tend to be short-lived and, like the initial burst of popping popcorn, they are followed by increasingly sporadic and incomplete explosions of the lagging kernels. This process creates some forks in the road for radicals where diminishing grouplets search for better outcomes from fewer struggle opportunities while attempting to survive as groups and individuals. This frequently contains a tinge of desperation and results in a moralistic exhortative approach to political work that is not sustainable with normal-assed people. At the same time an increasing fraction of the momentarily radicalized lapse into cynicism or accommodations to some variant of reformist politics—which itself is often only a stepping stone to cynicism and passivity. As the reality of a mass epistemological break with established politics recedes into nostalgic memories and overly hopeful estimates of current forces, we quickly find ourselves in a period which the jaded among us call a lull—sometimes not very helpfully. I think it’s useful to think about what can and should be done in such a “lull”—particularly if it can be kept in mind that no lulls will be permanent.

I want to raise two related responsibilities and opportunities: first it’s important to use the opportunity to collectively think about our circumstances; and second this collective thinking should never lose focus on the potential for the radically changed circumstances which will certainly materialize. Sooner, I think, rather than later. Just a few words on both points!

I emphasize the importance of combining attempts to develop a radical collective will with an organized approach to developing capacities to think collectively—involving exchanges of estimates and hypotheses between positions that don’t agree and don’t necessarily look to reach agreement; exchanges designed to expand critical participation in the discussion rather than gaining adherents to some version of the truth; exchanges that aren’t subordinated to organizational empire-building or distorted by assumptions that the relevant questions are self-evident and that adequate answers are close at hand.

My initial assumption is that the general instability of the situation—the “flailing and churning” within capitalist power and the diverse questioning of its legitimacy and permanence—will turn out to be decisive. However, that is certainly open to question and challenge and I recognize that history is not clearly on my side on the issue. While this assumption is in some tension with the need for clear and critical political discussion that is not weighed down with a lot of preconceptions, I think it is vitally important to focus on the circumstances, objective and subjective, that raise possibilities for breaks, “events,” qualitative changes in context, and to propose approaches to deal with the possibilities that these will create.

  1. “Wave of Materialism” and “Crisis of Authority,” Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers, 1980: p. 276.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Randy gould,

    Excellent, Don.
    I have not always agreed with you, but I have always respected your thoughts.

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