A Washed Up, Marginal Reply to Chris Bertram

I think Chris Bertram is someone well-worth reading.  It’s clear the feeling isn’t mutual.  In a Sunday piece in the always engaging Crooked Timber, Bertram wrote of the fragmented European left and examined what remains of it.

He correctly identifies the bankruptcy of the “technocratic quasi-neoliberal left,” that band of Third Way “modernizers” who took over the continent’s venerable social democratic parties during the last few decades.  They have little to show for compromises made in pursuit of power and their policies have continued to undercut the very social forces that made the reforms of the past century possible.  Their only appeal, Bertram concludes, lies in that they are “slightly less bad than the full-on right-wing.”

Bertram’s second current is left-populist, “blue Labour,” those culturally conservative workers who are worried about neoliberalism’s effect on their communities, as well as the influx of low-wage, migrant labor.  They want to win elections to effect change just like the New Labourites, but don’t share the latter’s natural aversion to extra-parliamentary mobilization.  Alas, these workers are running counter to History, as market reforms continue to erode their ability to organize and articulate themselves politically.

There’s also the “eco-left,” an egalitarian, somewhat inchoate formation united by a common mistrust of growth and the traditional “more is better” leftist posture.  He sees this group, from Zapatistas doing combat drills in the Lacandon Jungle to Nick Clegg’s jaded lovers, as capable of organizing “resistance to government policy and implement[ing] alternative ways of living in the here and now.”

And then there are the holdouts: “An old Leninist hard left.” A group fit to be summarily dismissed, as “Washed up, marginal, authoritarian and unappealing.”

Whereas, the present center-left electoral alliance is an uneasy coalition of the first two currents (Third Way social democrats and their mass base), Bertram recognizes this as an unstable partnership and suggests that “blue Labour” and its equivalents across the advanced capitalist world will either move to the “eco-left” or succumb to the promises of right-wing nationalism.  Ideally, the political content of an eco-populist alliance would be a commitment to a world with a shorter working day, full employment, and job sharing.

These are admirable goals, but Bertram’s analysis and proposed strategy leave much to be desired.  For starters, he presents a false choice between environmental sustainability and consumption.  “Pro-growth” and “abundance” are bandied about like insults, relics of the “science-fictiony” imagination of a bygone generation.  This stance is part of a worrying trend that challenges a basic radical assumption: “Billions of the world’s population live at close to the level of subsistence.  The material advances of modernity, the product of generations of labor and political struggle, await them.”  My apologies if I’m exceeding my daily anachronism quota, but I find this a position worth defending.  The solution to our social problems remains more growth and not less.

Bertram fails to identify the way in which growth has registered tangible improvements in the quality of contemporary life.  One needn’t paint too rosy a picture of China’s ascent or brush over the brutal remaking of its working class to acknowledge that material wealth has grown along with productive forces, that this is a good thing, as well as a precondition to any future post-capitalist transformation, and that the desire of Indian and Chinese workers (or Western workers, for that matter) to relish in the fruits of their labor is a laudable instinct.  Demands to reduce emissions and tackle climate change, demands to prioritize long-term development over short-term exploitation of natural resources, need not be wedded to a fear of growth and consumption.

This is not as vulgar as it may sound nor am I embracing a form of neo-Taylorism.  Continued growth has made it possible, in theory, to liberate ourselves more and more from the toil and alienation of the labor process.  As Chris Maisano writes in Jacobin’s winter issue (though he may find me straying too close to a productivism for his tastes),

Near the end of Volume 3 of Capital, [Marx] famously argues that the “true realm of freedom” lies beyond the sphere of material production, and that “the shortening of the working day is its prerequisite.” While the necessity for people to do some sort of potentially alienating work to ensure social reproduction will likely never be totally abolished, it should entail “the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature.” So long as the Left does not seek to fundamentally alter the labor process nor shorten the working day to the least amount of time possible, it fails to act on what should be its most fundamental principles.

The radical left, I mean the “washed up, marginal, authoritarian and unappealing” left, seeks to marry more (wealth, freedom) with less (work).  This requires the democratic application of technology, an end to unemployment, and a radical re-orientation of our social priorities.  I can’t fathom what kind of unappealing authoritarianism it would take to fashion consensus around a political platform that, “eschews wealth-creation and rising living standards.” I, on the other hand, am sticking with that tired old bastard Bill Haywood: “Nothing’s too good for the working class.”

Bertram’s political strategy is just as problematic. He appears to legitimize the cultural grievances of “blue Labour” and proposes more concessions in their direction, as opposed to confidently defending the right of people to free movement across open borders.  If you don’t have a bold growth agenda, if you aren’t proposing a massive jobs program, the kind of policy that attracted the working class to labor parties in the first place, it makes sense to opportunistically adapt to an increasingly xenophobic political climate.  The immediate gameplan is simple: Defend the gains of the past and team up with romantics who abhor the idea of rising living standards.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out why workers would get behind such a program, you aren’t alone.  Bertram, however, “see this group growing ever larger over time, as the environmental crisis becomes deeper, and as promises based on growth become both harder to keep and harder to translate into real improvements in quality of life.”  In his defense, if the old truism is correct and the political right, movements based on fear and not hope, are more apt to benefit from crisis than leftists, then maybe he’s on to something.

The Marxist left is a spent force.  Bankrupt and burdened by the awful legacy of the last century.  Sectarian and fragmented.  Impotent and lacking both organizational and intellectual discipline.  Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the vision of democratic forces in this milieu still has something appealing to offer to humanity.