Emmanuel Wallerstein: Lazy Leftist.

Emmanuel Wallerstein is one of the longest-running shows on the global left-wing stage. He all but invented the notion of seeing the world economy as a system, and was one of the brightest stars of “dependency theory” which argued the obvious fact that the goal of the rich world was to make the poor world dependent upon it. So he is no dullard, though admittedly he is getting on a bit..
However, he recently came to South Africa to deliver a Harold Wolpe lecture. Very well; no bad thing to have a little encouragement for the left. Even better, he got onto the After Eight Debate; unusual to have anyone with an IQ in three figures speaking to Tim Modise, that tongue unrolled for the ruling class to wipe their boots and arses on. And what did he say?
Basically, that we face a crisis of capitalism. A crisis, he observed, which has been going on since the early 1970s. A structural crisis of capitalism which capitalism cannot resolve. It must therefore be replaced by something else. The struggles of the next few decades will determine what this will be. Let us hope, according to Wallerstein, that these struggles, which are surely to be dominated by the left wing, will lead to a relatively left wing successor to capitalism.
Amen, one might say. But hang on. Just what is this crisis of capitalism? Why is it that capitalism seems to be doing so nicely today, with the biggest American banks proposing record bonuses for their underperforming CEOs, using the money kindly given them by the U.S. taxpayer? (Or Lloyds Bank demanding a fresh £20 billion bailout simultaneously with a comparable-sized new issue of shares.) Why, in short, are they saying “Crisis? What crisis?”
A crisis of capitalism is a situation where a significant number of the most important capitalists lose their capacity to dominate society through the use of their capital — where they lose their political power. It happened in the great financial crash in France towards the end of the Directory which brought in Napoleon. It happened to some of the American “robber barons” (not all, of course) in the 1873 crash. It happened, not so completely but quite significantly, in the early 1930s, when American capitalism was forced to turn to state sponsorship in order to survive (although because they refused to allow the state its head, they did little more than survive — but at least they survived, which is better than happened in Germany and Austria at much the same time).
This sort of crisis has not happened since then. Of course there have been serious crises and there have been failures of capitalist enterprises. There have been bubbles bursting. Notwithstanding, the trend of capitalism has been towards continuous success for the capitalists. The structural crisis which Wallerstein was talking about was not actually a crisis of capitalism — between 1973 and 2008 capitalists made, if anything, more money than they had made between 1945 and 1972. What, however, was significant was that in the advanced capitalist countries, while the capitalists were getting more money, the workers and the petit-bourgeoisie were not getting more money. This seemed to be a problem, although it was not perceived as a problem, not even by the workers and the petit-bourgeoisie, who blamed themselves when they did not blame the Communists, the blacks, the unions, the Mexicans and the Arabs.
What’s interesting about this is that Marx predicted that there would be continuously-intensifying crises of capitalism. These would derive largely from a falling rate of profit, which would require more and more intense exploitation of the workers, who would gradually become more and more radicalised, until at last there would be the supreme crisis of capitalism which would create a revolutionary situation where the workers’ radicalism could boil over into a seizure of power, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and all that jazz. It’s a reasonable assessment of the situation, and many thought in the 1930s that it had come, but it hadn’t. It must be emphasised that Marx wasn’t an idiot and that the idea of intensifying crises of capitalism are plausible, and that the idea that such crises might lead to a revolutionary situation cannot be ruled out as ridiculous, neither in 1870 nor in 1968 nor in 1985.
However, Wallerstein’s thesis appears to be that this final crisis has arrived — or why else should he be talking about what is to come after capitalism? In other words, there is to be a revolution, although Wallerstein did not use such words (perhaps not wishing to shock the shell-like ears of his audience). But is this really that sort of crisis, and is this revolution really going to arrive?
The answer to both questions seems to be “No, definitely not”, and the reason for this is that conditions have changed. Not economic conditions — political conditions. The chief alteration in political conditions since the death of Karl Marx has been a tremendous enhancement in the power of the state. The state commands subservient obedience in Western societies in a way that it has not done in the past. It is also much more completely under the control of large corporations than ever — and this change has occurred substantially since 1973. In the 1960s, although the British and French and German governments were biassed towards the interests of their ruling classes, none of them ignored the interests of the working classes. Even their most conservative political parties were obliged to listen when the trade unions spoke up, and although the trade unions were mostly anything but radical leftists, they certainly represented a different voice from that of the corporate ruling class. (Incidentally, in those days not all of the ruling class was completely corporatised.)
Today, the government and the state pay absolutely no attention to the interests of anyone but the ruling class. Trade unions might just as well not exist, except as glove puppets performing to the whim of the government. Left-wing parties no longer exist; even left-wing rhetoric no longer exists. But this has happened, not simply through repression, but through indifference, co-option, and the decision of the left to abandon principle, policies and structures in favour of corporatism.
This is why it has been possible to organise a very different response to this capitalist crisis as compared to previous ones. The current response has been extraordinarily confident in its willingness to compel the general public to finance the consequences of incompetence and corruption on the part of bankers and big businessmen. It has been exceptionally timid in its reluctance to compel bankers and big businessmen to refrain from being incompetent and corrupt. In short, it has turned the state from a facilitator of an appropriate economic climate for neoliberal capitalism, into the unlimited provider of funds for neoliberal capitalism (not a banker, for a banker would expect a return and in 2008-9 the sole return on “bailouts” is a demand for more).
In other words, the capitalists are not in crisis. They are doing very nicely. They have been able to impose their crisis on the rest of us, quite openly and with the full support of the state and its armed forces.
Now, it is true that imposing their crisis on us is expensive. It means that there will, in the long run, be much less money for the rest of us. However, by borrowing immense sums this problem is being deferred. Meanwhile the rest of us are being mobilised in the great struggle against somebody else way over there, and therefore distracted from the fact that all our pockets are being picked.
What did Wallerstein say about this? Virtually nothing. There was almost nothing which he could say, for the above does not simply mean that the workers and petit-bourgeois are gullible. The above is also an indication that there is no left to compel the newspapers and electronic media to cover the facts, no left to expose the facts, no left to picket or riot or even disseminate leaflets with the facts. There is only a universal right blanketing the West like a suffocating fire-retardant. In other words, the problem is not that Marx was wrong about his analysis of capitalism. The problem is not even that Marx was wrong about revolutionary conditions arising. The problem is that the Left has systematically abandoned its capacity to exploit a revolutionary condition when it arises.
This is not new. In Argentina when the economy collapsed, the mass-based political organisations did nothing. It was left to organisations of housewives and random street blockaders much like the South African service delivery protesters — the “piqueteros” — to do something. These disorganised, politically immature and numerically weak groupings nevertheless brought down three governments in a single week. Had there been a real Left in Argentina in 2000, Argentina would now be a Marxist-Leninist state. But there was not, and so Argentina was handed back to the soft right.
The grim fact, therefore, is that Wallerstein’s understanding of the capitalist situation is much too apocalyptic, and fails to acknowledge that capitalism has adapted sufficiently to make it unlikely that it will crumble under the present crisis. Nor, indeed, is the ecological crisis likely to make capitalism go away. (What do the capitalists really care if nine-tenths of the population of the world die off? They have plenty of mercenaries to guard their perimeters and they are not related to anyone in those nine-tenths. At most they might feel a little guilty as they watch TV. If they bother) Nor, unfortunately, is there any sign that anyone is trying to develop anything to make capitalism go away, or to promote anything to supplant it. Wallerstein seems to think that this will happen as if predetermined, forgetting that while men do not make history as they choose, they bloody well won’t make it at all if they don’t choose anything. On the contrary, all the signs are that the Left is patiently waiting for capitalism to stabilise itself so that the Left can go on complaining and remaining in the same powerless rut it has been in for thirty years.
In some ways the global Left is a little like a gaggle of movie actors. They know how to do it, all right. They know how to talk about it, most certainly. They can show you what it looks like when they do it. But in the real world, they will never do it. They are not paid to do it. They are paid to pretend and to put it all on. It seems that even good old lefties like Wallerstein have been infected by the virus of virtual left-wing reality. Possibly nothing can be done about this. However, at the least we should be careful about taking these good old lefties too seriously. They seem to be, well, intellectually and morally lazy, lacking the vigour and even the corrupt opportunism of their predecessors which sometimes enabled them to actually do things.
Or perhaps they have just lost hope?


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