Problematising the Left (II): A Representative of the Masses.

July 2, 2014

Patrick Bond has appeared on these pages before. Some call him a sell-out and a hypocrite; the Creator has other words for him, superficially less harsh but actually no more sympathetic. Like Proyect he writes extensively for Counterpunch, being their only African correspondent apart from a lonely enthusiast for the Eritrean junta, and has played a major role in explaining why no leftist should ever support the South African government in any initiative which it ever takes. Since the South African government’s initiatives have often (at least in the past) clashed with Western desires, this suggests a softer, more gentle variant of Proyect’s ostentatious toadying to NATO. But Bond is very widely respected on the left, who incessantly quote him, and the essays to be looked at here emanate from the Znet website which is run by a fan of the “Parecon” movement, a movement essentially restricted to the Znet website, perhaps fortunately.

The reason for looking at these essays is not to dump on Patrick Bond, but to try to understand what is going on with him, precisely because he is so influential. If he is saying things which are false or foolish, it is clear that a lot of people on the left wish to hear things which are false or foolish. A close examination of his work — which unfortunately will take time, so this is going to be a long and boring screed which many will wish to avoid — is thus appropriate, and is also something which virtually never happens on the left because everybody apparently wishes to believe what he is saying without any criticism; to this extent he is like Noam Chomsky, except that Bond has never been accused of anti-semitism, fascism or unpatriotism, either because nobody outside the left is listening or because somebody in power finds his writings useful. (This will be explored later.)

Two essays are to be considered, not because they are representative but because they are easily accessible:

1.)     South Africa’s “Very Good Story” Of Social Democracy;

2.)     BRICS and the Tendency to Sub-Imperialism;

Bond’s analysis of South African social democracy is not neutral — nor should it be, of course, since Bond is a Trotskyite and therefore dislikes social democracy on principle. In practice, social democracy across most of the world is a widely-disliked ideology because virtually all of its practitioners have sold out to neoliberalism. Those who actually practice social democracy, like the government of Ecuador, prefer to call it socialism (which by any sane standard it isn’t).

However, the purpose of Bond’s analysis, expressed in the second paragraph, is not simply to expose South African social democracy as yet another sham, but to claim that it is a “patronage system . . . to help explain why the ANC gets votes”; that is, he is saying that the ANC gives money and delivers services to the poor simply so that they will vote for it. This neatly accounts for the embarrassing fact that the party standing in the recent elections which represented Bond’s views received only 0,07% of the vote (and even the party which Bond pretends to endorse, the EFF, received less than 7%).

But this is actually a horrifyingly right-wing argument. It closely resembles Mitt Romney’s notorious remark shortly before the 2012 American Presidential election, that a huge number of Americans would vote for his opponent because they mooch off the state. It is also an argument which, in South Africa, is most closely associated with the racist extreme right (who view blacks as clowns) or with neoliberals casting about for arguments against social spending. It is also, by the way, unsubstantiated by any evidence. This reminds us of Harvey’s observation that the far left often adopts uncomfortably neoliberal perspectives.

Another thing about this argument is that Bond immediately contradicts himself by saying that the ANC isn’t actually giving money or delivering services to the poor. It’s all a lie told to fool — who? Obviously not the poor who would notice if they weren’t getting money or services. Presumably, then, to fool the middle and upper classes, who all vote against the ANC anyway. So we are left with no explanation for why more than three-fifths of the South African voters went for the ANC last May. It seems that Bond’s argument is taking him around in very silly circles.

Bond then cites a corporate economist, Alan Hirsch, saying that the government’s approach is “northern European”, and cites another of the government’s backers as the SA Institute of Race Relations. These points should certainly alarm any serious leftist because of their source; if Hirsch, a neoliberal, thinks that the ANC is doing the right thing, it is very probable that it is not. (Indeed, the National Development Plan, which Bond nowhere mentions, and the National Health Insurance programme, which Bond, as we shall see, has stupidly bought into, are neoliberal initiatives of the present ANC government which big business understandably favours.) The SAIRR, which started out as the voice of white Anglophone phoney liberalism, subsequently shifted into supporters of the fascist Inkatha movement and the repressive policies of the apartheid regime and then, after liberation, shifted again into corporate neoliberal propaganda, is a long-standing opponent of everything the ANC did. If it has come to like the ANC, this suggests that something fundamental has changed within the ANC — but Bond does not notice this because he is incapable of providing context, and hence incapable of political analysis.

When Bond says that South Africa cannot be called “northern European” because only 15% of the national budget is spend on direct redistribution from rich to poor by means of cash payments to the indigent and disabled, he is talking absolute nonsense. 15% of the budget (6% of GDP) is a huge amount for redistributive spending. If this is failing to promote equality, then the forces opposing equality outside government must be enormous. However, Bond waves away the elephant on the dining-room table because he wants to focus his attention on the skunk under the sofa.

Bond then says that “[t]hese social grants were inherited from the apartheid regime” which is a flat lie and which invalidates all of Bond’s other observations on the subject. The apartheid regime gave whites some money, coloureds and indians less, and africans almost nothing; most of this money entailed pensions and disability payments. The social grants system introduced in the twenty-first century (after the ending of the GEAR policy), in response to recommendations made earlier by Sue Lund, were far wider; they entailed giving money to the sick (a key response to the HIV epidemic), to support children, and to promote foster care (a response to HIV orphans). Bond brushes all this aside as electoral machinations.

Bond is quite right to blame the “Washington-Consensus policies adopted by the National Party” for the collapse of employment in South Africa. This should focus some attention on the corporate interests which promote these policies — and such propaganda as the allegedly “inflexible” labour market, although Bond claims, quite falsely and on the basis of a neoliberal source, that South Africa’s protective labour laws don’t exist. Unfortunately, Bond veers off to blaming the Treasury, claiming that the immense roll-out of electricity, sanitation and water supplies in the first post-liberation decade never happened, citing gee-whiz percentages without providing sources. This suggests that Bond is more interested in rhetoric than reality; for one thing the roll-out did happen, but for another thing, this roll-out has nothing to do with employment, because producing pipelines, digging pit latrines and stringing power-lines doesn’t provide much employment. Of course, “infrastructure upgrades” are supposed to attract capitalist investment, but this hasn’t happened — which should lead a serious analyst to study why capitalists aren’t investing, but manifestly Bond is not a serious analyst.

He adds, in another non sequitur, that “social-grant spending was, over time, less progressive – i.e., less directed to the poorest – in 2006 than in 1995”. Since there were no social grants in 1995, and social service spending was overwhelmingly directed to the white, coloured and indian communities, this is an impressively nonsensical claim. It proves to come from “Stellenbosch economist Servaas van der Berg”, a right-wing economist whose argument is devoted to the notion that money spent on job creation is wasted. In other words, Bond is being neoliberal again. (He is, however, correct to criticise the enormous amount of public spending on corporate interests — the NDP and the NHI in particular would deserve criticism.)

He is also correct to criticise the outsourcing of social services, which almost everybody who has studied the matter considers a bad idea. However, the person whom he chooses to represent the discussion is someone almost entirely unqualified to discuss the matter — a journalism professor at the conservative Rhodes university, whose professorship is corporate-funded. This strongly suggests that not much attention is being paid to serious issues like this by the left.

Of course, nobody else is, either. It turns out that the SAIRR is supporting the ANC’s service delivery and poverty reduction record on the basis of no research whatsoever. Bond correctly points out that the figures on service delivery and poverty reduction in South Africa are utterly unreliable. (Nevertheless, a brief trip around rural areas and townships shows that water, electricity and sanitation, along with other services like roads and public housing, have indeed been delivered, and Bond admits that the government is massively redistributing wealth; Bond’s contention that everything has got worse since 1994, a favourite claim of the racist far right, is not borne out by the evidence.) There is, besides, no point in condemning the SAIRR for telling lies or blowing smoke out of its arse; it is not an organisation with any serious credibility on any subject.

Bond also points out that there are lots of protests about service delivery, which is true. However, these protests are almost invariably protests about corrupt allocation, or about inadequate allocation (very often, local authorities promise more than they can deliver, or simply plunder their service delivery coffers) and are directed towards more equitable allocation, or more effective provision, of services already available. Which means that the services are there; it’s the system providing them which is not working properly, and the public, far from wanting to overthrow the system, wants to reform it. This goes against Bond’s thesis, so he doesn’t discuss it, but it helps to explain why the public voted for the government which put that system in place.

An area where Bond says that things have got better is in the provision of antiretrovirals, the only case where he trusts the statistics without question. However, he says that this has nothing to do with the ANC, which actually developed the policy and provided the drugs, but instead was attributable to the Trotskyite Treatment Action Campaign, which did none of those things. This looks odd (although it allows Bond to offer praise for his boss, University Vice-Chancellor Makgoba, for accusing the South African government of genocide).

Without getting into anything controversial about the workings of government which we know almost no facts about, Bond’s narrative here is nonsense. That is, he talks about “the battle for free generic (not branded) AIDS medicines”. This battle was fought by the Mbeki government, especially Health Minister MaNtombazana Tshabalala-Msimang, who negotiated to purchase cheap (not free) generic antiretrovirals from Brazil, against what Bond correctly calls “Big Pharma, the Clinton-Gore government in Washington, the World Trade Organisation, Intellectual Property rights in general” — that is, Big Pharma took the South African government to court under the Intellectual Property Rights laws of the World Trade Organisation, with the support of the Clinton-Gore administration. Big Pharma, predictably, won out against the South African government. But Bond claims that the South African government and Big Pharma (and its allies) were on the same side. This is a bizarre falsification of history which is inexplicable, since this was all going on before the propaganda blasts of Big Pharma and the US government came to dominate the South African media.

It is also nonsense because, since the case failed, it had no impact on the treatment of HIV. The Treatment Action Campaign did not call for the provision of generic medicines; it called for the provision of branded medicines — nevirapine, which turned out to be both useless and poisonous, and zidovir, which at the time was much too expensive for mass use in South Africa. Thus the issue was the reduction of the (ridiculously inflated) price of zidovir, an issue which the TAC never raised because it would have antagonised its funders (which were Big Pharma and the US government). One can criticise the Mbeki government for its shilly-shallying and its sometimes bizarre pronouncements, but Bond’s entire argument here is nonsensical and based on lies.

This, of course, is a matter for the historians. Much more troubling is Bond’s gullible claptrap about contemporary healthcare scams. He refers to “the badly needed National Health Insurance” as something which must be supported. But National Health Insurance is an attempt, as in the United States, to hand over public healthcare to the medical aid schemes, funded by taxpayers. Bond demands that more money be spent on this proposal for a huge transfer of wealth to the financial sector. As such, Bond is blindly following neoliberalism, and also blindly believing the lies told by the ANC leadership at Polokwane — always a bad idea, as Julius Malema discovered. It is, perhaps, not surprising thereafter that Bond justifies his claim that South Africa is the most unequal and class-divided society in the world on the basis of data provided by the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Is there any neoliberal bullshit which Bond does not serve up as chocolate ice-cream? Apparently not. (Of course South Africa is a highly unequal society, but one does not have to use imperialist propaganda to show this.)

His conclusion (after much blather about the Marikana massacre) is that “a new anti-apartheid movement is rising quickly: a class struggle with enormous potential”. He has been telling us this now for twenty years. So far no sign of this has appeared and insofar as radicalism and resentment of the government has arisen it does not resemble the anti-apartheid movement at all. Also, of course, with the partial exception of Bond who did a small amount of peripheral work for a Charterist organisation in the early 1990s, the conspicuous participation of Trotskyites in the anti-apartheid movement was their fulsome support for the white regime and their deep-seated hostility to anyone who tried to topple it, so Bond’s comparison does not work well.

What one can say about this mass of inconsistent verbiage is that Bond is responding to the fact that the government is widely criticised by liberal intellectuals and has lost some support (though not decisively) in the black and coloured middle class, by trying to pretend that this is generating a revolutionary situation. This is a pitiful fantasy, and it is the same pitiful fantasy expressed by Trotskyites everywhere, which may have something to do with Bond’s popularity among Trotskyites elsewhere. It is something like cosplay; people childishly dressing up as revolutionaries and competing to see who can be most outrageous. Except that when a Japanese nerd dresses up as Black Canary, she does not pretend that she is actually reducing crime statistics, whereas the cosplay communists pretend that the world revolution is just around the corner from their playground.

This might seem harmless if ludicrous. Unfortunately, the golden thread running through this entire essay is that of neoliberalism. Virtually every source that Bond cites to support his thesis is right-wing. He clearly supports big corporate interests over healthcare and uses right-wing arguments against social grants. The only neoliberal source which he criticises is the SAIRR. This suggests that his hostility to the right wing and to neoliberalism is entirely instrumental; he doesn’t like the SAIRR when they support the ANC (in the past he has used their unreliable commentary when they were against it).

This raises an interesting point: that Bond’s concern is not to improve conditions in South Africa, but simply to get rid of the ANC. The latter does not automatically lead to the former, but this does not bother Bond, and hence the shallowness of his analysis and his eagerness to use dubious or spurious sources to buttress his often self-contradictory arguments. This does a little resemble Proyect’s contention about impotent people trying to piggyback on the struggles of more powerful people; it seems that Bond, like the TAC, is yoking himself to reactionaries in the hope that they will succeed, so that he can (in his own mind, at least), take credit for this, just as the TAC took credit for a provision of antiretrovirals which they actually obstructed for some years.

Bond’s bizarreries may be excusable because of the extraordinary nature of South African Trotskyism, operating in a society where real leftism brushed aside the cosplay variant and took actually existing power. There are also Bond’s personal problems; he has never forgiven the ANC after he was sacked from the dysfunctional RDP office, and his own personal support for the corporate stooge Jacob Zuma means that he is personally complicit in Zuma’s disastrous policies — hence his ambiguous and dishonest attacks on them. One might expect him to have a somewhat less risible world-view about the actual world. After all, he is not a South African, but Irish, and trained in the U.S. Trotskyite traditions which brought us great leftists like, er, James Burnham and Paul Wolfowitz. So what does he have to say about the world outside South Africa’s borders?

Bond’s line on BRICS is fairly simple: BRICS is, or could be, a sub-imperialist force.

But what is imperialism, and what is sub-imperialism? These are very tricky questions for Marxists, because imperialism arose, in the late nineteenth century, as a major new force driven by capitalism, whereas orthodox Marxism contended that imperialism was a hangover from feudal times or even earlier. Theoretically such a new social formation might have been the harbinger of a new economic mode of production, and the latter obviously did not exist, so how could the former arise according to Marxist theory? Various theorists leapt forward to explain imperialism in terms of capitalist competition for resources, or a search for markets, or the formation of aggressive ideologies by the ruling class as a result of individualism and alienation, but none of these was altogether satisfactory although many were extremely interesting as explanations.

Sub-imperialism would then be imperialism within imperialism — that is, a country or some other force pursuing imperialism on behalf of a larger country or a greater force. But if imperialism is driven by capitalism, what would sub-imperialism be driven by? Presumably out of desire for capitalist advantage of some kind — or else imperialism would not be directly driven by capitalism, but would have to be seen as part of the “superstructure” created by capitalism to serve its interests, and would be best analysed on relatively orthodox bourgeois grounds (which in fact is the way in which Marxists analysed imperialism anyway, although they claimed otherwise).

Indeed, without discussing actual imperialist activity, Bond claims (quoting himself, as he does frequently in the essay) that aspects of the BRICS countries “suggest a pattern deserving the phrase sub-imperialist”.

At first glance this seems implausible. Brazil, South Africa and India were all themselves portions of empires; China and Russia were victims of imperialist aggression. Granted, before their revolutions China and Russia were empires themselves, and one could argue that both countries exercise imperial powers within their borders to some extent, but they do not display the expansionism characteristic of empires.

As to sub-imperialist behaviour, Galeano argues that Brazil’s attack on Paraguay in the 1860s was motivated by sub-imperialism regarding Britain, and one could argue that Brazil under the dictatorship was sub-imperialist at least in theory, being suborned to the United States. South Africa under apartheid was arguably a sub-imperialist state. China’s attack on Vietnam could be seen as serving sub-imperialist goals. China, Russia and India supported the American attack on Afghanistan, but this could be seen as an anomaly. On the whole there has been little sign of sub-imperialist activity by these countries in the twenty-first century — with the exception of Brazil’s support for the Franco-American attack on Haiti, and that was a relatively minor episode. Russia and China, instead, have been notably unsympathetic to American imperialism, while Brazil has been sympathetic to the Bolivarian movement in Latin America. So where does Bond get his evidence from?

From Rosa Luxemburg, who accounts for imperialism in terms of the expansion of capitalism into previously non-capitalist spheres. This seems completely inappropriate for twenty-first century imperialism in a world wholly saturated in capitalist modes of production. Then, Bond cites “capitalist crisis conditions” for the rise of imperialism, and since these exist in the BRICS countries they must lead to imperialism. This is to take the explanation before the evidence, of course. In addition, Bond appears to be conflating neoliberal practices with imperialism itself, citing trade agreements and investments as evidence of imperialism. The problem with this is that trade agreements and investments may buttress imperialism, or provide pretexts for imperialism, but by themselves they are not necessarily imperialism. In effect, Bond is making imperialism a synonym for capitalism so that he can accuse countries which are capitalist of being imperialist, which is conveniently meaningless and contradicts his claim (which is actually more or less true) that sub-imperialism entails a “regional gendarme role”.

In addition, Bond says that since imperialism was superexploitative of its domestic labour, therefore, the fact that Bond views domestic labour as superexploited in China or South Africa under apartheid (providing no evidence in the former case, and offering only the Marikana massacre as alleged evidence that apartheid labour relations remained the same after apartheid) means that these countries must surely be imperialist. This is the reverse of a syllogism (all cats are four-legged, all dogs are four-legged, ergo all cats are dogs) and shows either intellectual disintegration or a desperate desire to prove something for which no evidence exists. It is also reminiscent of Stalinist logic, in that a conclusion is first reached, after which it is proved by reference to Marxist scriptures and arguments from authority.

Thereafter, Bond says that since the right-wing private spy company Stratfor believed that the South African military was “able to project into south-central Africa”, therefore South Africa was subimperialist. Apart from the reactionary nature of the source, which demonstrates only what one corporate entity thought, it obviously doesn’t determine whether such projection was sub-imperialist or something else. Bond then attempts to legitimate this dubious argument with reference to the conflict in the Central African Republic in 2013, where South African soldiers originally deployed to train the CAR military were redeployed to defend the capital and the government of President Bozize, but were defeated by a huge rebel army which had invaded the CAR out of Chad. Bond claims that this was an example of sub-imperialism, justifying his claim through allegations in two neoliberal newspapers which alleged, without providing hard evidence, that the operation had been launched to protect mining interests in South Africa connected to the ANC.

If these latter claims had been true, then the question of sub-imperialism would not arise; either the affair was a matter of South African imperialism, or it was a matter of governmental corruption, using the army to protect private investments. However, Bond also leaves out the rather obvious point that Chad was under French military occupation at the time, and that the invasion by the rebels could not have been conducted without French connivance. In other words, there was (to put it mildly) more than one imperialism at work there.

Bone then proceeds to argue that since Luxemburg said things, they are automatically true, and therefore whatever she says legitimates his claims about the BRICS countries (although actually his quotes from Luxemburg all relate to massive crises of capital which are not obviously present in the BRICS countries anyway). None of this proves anything much.

Again, Bond has to claim (quoting himself yet again) that “the role of regional gendarme is not just ‘peace-keeping’ but transferring surpluses from the hinterland to the sub-imperialist capital city, and often from then to the imperialist headquarters, as is especially evident for contemporary South Africa”. But a gendarme is not the same as a domestic tax collector, nor is it the same as “to lubricate, legitimize and extend neoliberal political economy”, and incessantly quoting yourself to support your allegations is not a particularly valid set of arguments. Furthermore, when he remarks that “the forms of BRICS sub-imperialism are diverse”, he quotes people again talking about investment even though they claim to be talking about sub-imperialism.

Indeed, he then talks about how the BRICS countries are facing public protests (generally exaggerating the significance of these and politically decontextualising them) and pretending, without evidence, that these represent “class struggles against super-exploitation”. This is exactly like Bond’s earlier tactics — especially since many of the protests which he cites are bourgeois urban elite protests much like those of Venezuela, and some suspect that these protests themselves were promoted by imperialist powers. Also, of course, this is much like the conclusion of Bond’s other essay cited here, in which he pretends that liberation will come through the people, which might be the case but has almost nothing to say about sub-imperialism.

It is clear that Bond has not proven that sub-imperialism exists in any of the BRICS countries, not even South Africa, and it also appears that this is because Bond does not understand what sub-imperialism is. His use of Marxist material is extraordinary in its shallowness and his argument would have been less confused and less transparently dishonest without it. However, without any hard evidence and without a coherent argument, Bond is unable to prove his case.

In which case, why does Bond want to prove it at all? It is clear that Bond dislikes the South African government, but what has he against the Brazilian, Russian, Indian and Chinese governments, and why is he trying to demonstrate, in defiance of evidence and credible argument, that they are sub-imperialist countries? Such sub-imperialism could only truly be sub-imperialism on behalf of the largest capitalist country, which is the United States. It is of course clear that capitalist expansion under such circumstances would often benefit the interests of the United States, and this is what enables Bond to pretend that capitalist expansion equals imperialism.

But in that case every country in the world, with the exception of North Korea and perhaps Cuba, is a sub-imperialist country and Bond’s point is a tautology. Why, then, single out the BRICS countries? The most likely reason is that they are a bloc devoted to challenging American hegemony, mostly out of national interest, and refusing to kowtow to NATO control. No doubt it is the national interest part of this which Bond most objects to — but nationalism is again hardly unique to BRICS.

So in the end it appears that what Bond is complaining about is precisely that challenge to American hegemony; that under the guise of a screed against sub-imperialism, Bond is writing in praise of imperialism. This is not altogether unlike the other essay in which Bond writes supposedly against neoliberalism, but utterly ignores the fountainhead of neoliberalism in South Africa, the corporate system and the South African ruling class, and makes an attack on a ruling political party which amounts to a call for the opposition to take power — and the opposition is more neoliberal than the ruling party.

How is it that a supposed leftist is supporting neoliberalism and imperialism, purportedly in the name of the very people who are being crushed by those forces, and while claiming to be opposing these things which are also opposed to the left? It is tempting to assume that Bond has simply been bought out by the enemy, that he is a “bloody agent”. However, this is a facile argument. It is also tempting to assume that Bond is siding with the powerful because he wishes to be on the winning side, as Proyect’s argument goes. However, the United States has not scored many victories over Russia, China or in Latin America lately, so this would be rather problematic if true. Also, both of these essays were written for an American website with a predominantly American audience, and a criticism of American imperialism in such places is hardly controversial; instead it would probably arouse applause. It seems reasonable to assume that Bond’s misguided politics arise out of misguided principles.

A proposition: Bond’s problem is a lack of any sound political analysis, born of a lack of ideological rigor, but coupled with a powerful commitment to moral purity. That is, he wishes, not to be on the side of the winner, but on the side of the good guy. The actual battle, in terms of global imperialism, is a battle concerned with the lesser evil: should the world be dominated by the corrupt and violent oligarchy of the United States, or by a concert of corrupt oligarchies, less violent than the United States and possibly subject to being played off against each other in order to make space for counter-hegemonic forces? Put that way it is obvious that the multiple corrupt oligarchies is better, but this requires one to support corrupt oligarchies. This is the problem faced by anyone supporting Gadaffi, Assad or even Putin. The answer, all too often, is to ignore the corruption of the oligarchy being supported and focus all attention on the evils of their enemies. This is legitimate as far as it goes because the enemies tend to be very evil, but it does sweep the ugliness of the regimes being supported under the carpet.

Bond is simply swinging to the opposite extreme. His pursuit of purity means attacking corrupt regimes which might otherwise be supported. “Do not back these people, because they are rascals”, is what he proclaims, both about South Africa and about the world, and then sits back smugly because he has stood up against bad behaviour. After all, other people will criticise the bad behaviour of the Americans or the French or whoever; it is up to Bond to point out that the victims of American and French imperialism are just as bad as, or worse than, those imperialists, and therefore should not be defended.

Of course, if you do not defend the weak against the strong, the strong tend to win. The whole tendency of Bond’s political analysis is that the strong should win. But the other tendency of Bond’s analysis is that, when the strong win, he will be there to say that they were wrong to win, to complain about their victory, and to predict that somehow, someday, the weak will win out.

But they will never win out with Bond’s assistance, and that seems to be the problem with the whole Trotskyite movement.

Problematising the Left (I): A Leftist Who Found The Road To Success.

July 2, 2014

For the next little while this weblog is going to attempt some intelligent criticism of the left for a change. Of course the Creator is not interested in the opinions of mere mortals, but at the same time it’s worth noting that some mortals have put things quite neatly (if not altogether accurately). One such is David Harvey, who in his latest book legitimates his developing thesis with the following words:


What remains of the radical left now operates largely outside of any institutional or organised oppositional channels, in the hope that small-scale actions and local activism can ultimately add up to some kind of satisfactory macro alternative. This left, which strangely echoes a libertarian and even neoliberal ethic of anti-statism, is nurtured intellectually by thinkers such as Michel Foucault and all those who have reassembled postmodern fragmentations under the banner of a largely incomprehensible post-structuralism that favours identity politics and eschews class analysis. Autonomist, anarchist and localist perspectives and actions are everywhere in evidence. But to the degree that this left seeks to change the world without taking power, so an increasingly consolidated plutocratic capitalist class remains unchallenged in its ability to dominate the world without constraint.


There’s a great deal wrong with Harvey’s analysis, or at least superficial and vituperative, but there’s also a very large grain of truth, as we shall see later. The business about blaming it on Michel Foucault and “largely incomprehensible post-structuralism” is both false and shabby, but it is true about the small-scale fetish, the lack of class analysis, and the rubbish about changing the world without changing power and the consequences thereof.

If Harvey is right, then, (and in this spheres he is) there is something wrong, something above all else lacking in direction and self-confidence, about the left. What is worth examining about the accusations in this paragraph is that there is huge contradiction within the behaviour of the left. They are supposedly leftists but reject the class analysis which is the most important tool of leftism; they are opposed to big oppressive power, and then refuse to organise in such a way that they could challenge it. Most suggestive, if they are libertarian or neoliberal, they would then have internalised intellectual structures which were invented to attack them, and thus are placed in the position of turkeys unconsciously liable to vote for Christmas.

It might seem like a big jump from this to an individual who doesn’t at first sight seem much like this. Louis Proyect is certainly no anarchist nor post-structuralist, and he entered the American far left long ago enough to view such concepts with some scorn. Proyect, who blogs under the “Unrepentant Marxist” label (the Creator has asked before why anyone should expect a Marxist to be repentant; it smells of defeatism) is not a complete nobody on the left; he moderates the “Marxmail” discussion group for Kommunist Keyboard Kommandoes. He’s also also the film critic for the Counterpunch website run by a big cabal of old independent Trotskyites, formerly lead by the late ultra-leftist and red- (and green-, being brought up in Ireland)-diaper baby Alexander Cockburn.

Counterpunch is hard to characterise politically these days, but it might best be seen as anti-establishment and above all else, anti-imperialist. If you hold the opinion that a Western government intervention somewhere in the world is destructive (and these days that is a fairly safe bet) then you can air that opinion in Counterpunch. To that extent it’s a rather narrow website, and one of its failings is that it tends to say the same things over and over again, as if we were all too dumb to understand them said only once (or perhaps because its authors are trying to keep the steady hum of imperialist bullshit in the mass media at bay).

Proyect fits in very poorly with this discourse. His line is, in fact, almost diametrically opposite to it. (Possibly Counterpunch tolerates him because they like his reviews, or because, like most of their contributors, he’s been around forever.) The Unrepentant Marxist supports the fascists and oligarchs of the Ukraine against the Russian menace. Proyect supports the Salafists and Gulf dictator-potentates in Syria (while denying that they are Salafists or that they are dictator-potentates). He previously supported the Salafists and CIA spooks in Libya. Just to complete the trifecta, he’s a huge fan of the military dictatorship in Thailand. It would seem, in practice, that wherever Obama sends his spooks and mercenaries, there we will see Louis Proyect, fluffing up their phalluses.

This would seem a little peculiar for a leftist. One could understand a leftist feeling that the Russian government is far from attractive, that the Assad oligarchy is extremely unattractive, that the Gaddaffi dictatorship was fairly nasty, and that the Thaksin regime in Thailand was hardly democratic. Thus leftists might feel entitled to sit out such conflicts and concentrate on other things, such as movies, or basket-weaving, or whatever. However, Proyect isn’t just critical of these forces, he is also uncritical about the forces which are attacking them — ignoring, or simply lying about, the extremely odious nature of the Ukrainian coup leaders, the Syrian and Libyan rebels, and the Thai military, so that he does not need to feel embarrassed on his website. To be fair, he is sometimes embarrassed when people point out the nonsense he is writing in comments, provided that they do so politely, and the fact that he allows comments and does not delete criticism is a point in his favour. Still, all this is not left-wing behaviour at all; on the contrary, it’s consistently choosing the side of the most odious and destructive and reactionary faction available. What’s going on?

Proyect offers an interesting insight into this when he attempts to account for why some people writing on the Counterpunch website (which he does not name) refuse to follow his lead and instead criticise the American-backed jihadis in Syria. He suggests that these — people like Chris Hedges — are people who have spent their entire lives in the left, and therefore in a weakened condition, in permanent opposition, without power. Therefore, when they discover an opportunity to acquire power vicariously, by supporting someone in authority, they immediately do so. It is a kind of cowardice, he suggests, bred of never having had a success and thus endorsing bad guys who are successful.

That’s a very interesting claim. On the face of it, however, it seems like the kind of argument that a drunken reactionary like Christopher Hitchens would pull out of his arse in an attempt to stifle debate. It is, after all, not clear that the Syrian regime is going to win the civil war, given the forces which it is up against. It is far from clear that the Donbass separatists in the Eastern Ukraine are going to win the civil war, given the forces which they are up against. The Thai government has been overthrown in a military coup, and the Libyan government was destroyed by foreign invasion. These are hardly examples of circumstances likely to be attractive to disgruntled, impotent power-worshippers. (One would also ask why, if Hedges and his friends are indeed despairingly clutching at victorious forces regardless of their moral status, they are all such big supporters of the Palestinians against the Israelis.)

Meanwhile, Proyect’s characterisation of the perspective of his leftist antagonists is thoroughly dishonest (and knowingly so). There are virtually no serious leftist supporters of the Syrian government in the Western world. (An attempt by an Italian commentator to pretend that such existed, published in Znet, was extraordinarily unconvincing and devoid of evidence.) Instead there are a lot of leftists who are critical of the Syrian rebels, either because they distrust their Islamic fundamentalism or because they distrust their obvious dependence on Western imperialist support and adherence to Western imperialist goals. One can argue that the overthrow of the Assad regime is more important than such quibbles, but this is growing increasingly difficult (which is why Proyect falsifies the nature of the Syrian rebel movement, more or less along the lines of NATO propaganda).

It’s notable that an extremely well-informed commentator on the subject, the Angry Arab, was for a long time an adherent of a “plague on both your houses” position, never failing to refer to the “lousy Syrian regime”. More recently the Angry Arab has been enthusiastically praising the Syrian elections. These are obviously rigged, and it is democratically absurd to hold them in the middle of a civil war — but many Syrians not under the gun of the regime have trooped off to vote, thus showing their tacit support for the regime and giving the lie to the claims of those like Proyect who claim that it is unquestionably illegitimate. The Angry Arab’s shift in focus suggests that he has finally decided that, lousy or not, the Assad dictatorship probably deserves support against its still lousier opponents. This, indeed, looks like the reason why most of the leftists who choose to line up in support of Russia or Syria, or who opposed the invasion of Libya or the overthrow of the Thai government, chose to do so. Also, they noticed that their government’s support for the destabilisation of governments in these regions and the installation of friendly governments in places like South Sudan or the Central African Republic had been a catastrophic disaster.

This is also the biggest odd point about Proyect’s claim. If these are people whose morale has been sapped by incessant defeat, and who are therefore inclined to run into the arms of power and associate themselves with it, why are they opposing powerful forces in their own country? The conspicuous thing about the positions taken by the people whom Proyect condemns is that they are all criticising the policies of their government. In contrast, Proyect is siding with his own government, although allegedly on impeccably Marxist grounds which might not suit Mitt Romney, Barack Obama or Victoria Nuland.

In all these cases, Proyect’s account of why people do not do as he does is blindingly obviously invalid about them — but it is curiously apt as an account for Proyect’s own motives. (A Projection, in Freudian terms.) He is, after all, a revolutionary in spirit, and therefore can express enthusiasm for revolution in Syria or the Ukraine or Libya, regardless of the actual nature, agenda and origin of that revolution. Thus he can vicariously experience the activities which he is not able to perform (as Arthur Koestler remarked about the glee with which the French greeted the Winter War while they were sitting on their behinds behind the Maginot Line). Best of all, he can do this in confidence that nobody in authority will criticise him, because he is in full effective agreement with them.

That doesn’t prove that Proyect has sided with NATO and the CIA simply because he would like to be on the winning side for once. It is more than likely that it is a lot more complicated than that. For instance, it is quite possible that Proyect has been so long divorced from real power of any kind that he has come to see everything in abstract terms. More to the point, since he has no organisational affiliation, he has nobody to point out that his deviations from the party line are not in the best interests of the broader Movement. Instead, when he goes to leftist gatherings, he devotes a lot of time to futilely denouncing them on his blog because they are doing silly things like opposing imperialism, colonialism and oppressive military rule. He can’t stop them from denouncing the wrong things, of course — but what he can do is remember that his side is the one that counts, the one with the money and the nukes and the agents and the aircraft carriers and the brave and bold politicians who dare to finance puppets all over the planet and tell lies about their democratic credentials. In other words, once he has become a dissident, there is nothing to stop him from becoming a traitor, because he no longer acknowledges any entity which could make such a charge, apart from the comments threads on his blog.

Can we learn something about the modern left from this horrible example, which so plainly parallels the observations made by Harvey?