In November 2007, transform! organised a conference entitled “The Reform of the Revolution”. The title was chosen to convey two theoretical political objectives, namely: the reformulation of – that is, the giving new form to – the idea of a radical transformation of society, and at the same time, a radical critique of the historical concept of revolution itself.
Two critical phenomena are coming together at the beginning of the new century: On the one hand, the crisis of neoliberalism, whose full implementation was supposed to lead to the “end of history,” that is to an era of growth and of economic and social stability – by contrast, today there is the risk that the world economy could be shaken to its foundations through a crisis of the international financial system; on the other hand, the forces arrayed against neoliberalism, especially in Europe, have still not succeeded in developing common, coherent political projects that are capable of winning over a majority of the population. Even the anti-globalisation movement which arose at the turn of the century is having a difficult time conceiving of a transition from resistance to political alternative. How then, in the current relations of exploitation, domination and repression, do we locate and understand tendencies to a transformation that would transcend the system? In different words: Where can we locate, within the inner contradictions of contemporary capitalism, which knows no boundaries, the approaches that could bring about a political unity of the very diverse forces which can be mobilised in the struggle for a new society, and how can we find, after the dramatic upheavals at the end of the 20th century, a new language in which these forces and their struggles can express themselves?
Hence the question is: can a revival of the radical left be achieved without it degenerating into a non-critical apology for the forces of domination, of which a growing number of the liberal left have been guilty? Without degenerating into the naturalisation of capitalistic social relations? Without losing sight of the political goal of overturning such relations?
The reintroduction of the concept of revolution into the political vocabulary may be useful for this reason, as it may allow us to free ourselves from the grip of anaemic, subordinate pragmatism, and to recapture that independence and radicality, that analytical and political courage, that has been missing in recent years. But what does the word “revolution” actually mean? Would it be satisfactory or even meaningful to use the word “revolution” in the sense in which it was understood during the “short 20th century?”
During the 1920s and ‘30s, Gramsci undertook a similar project with regard to the concept of revolution in the western capitalist world. Defeat in the West, together with the abstractness, in that particular context, of a conception of transformation reduced to the question of the “takeover of power”, led Gramsci to produce novel forms of analysis and new theoretical categories. In the succeeding decades and up to the present day the radical left has faced this question of societal transformation. The reform of revolution encompasses a new understanding of state and civil society in a left strategy of political parties and social movements, reflecting the need for transformative molecular changes and effective breaks – problems which Rosa, Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, the Austromarxists, the anti-fascist popular fronts in Spain and in France, Nicos Poulantzas, the left currents of Eurocommunism and others dealt with, but now need to be redefined in a different period of capitalist development, under different circumstances of transnationalisation and in view of the various experiences of social movements.
Gramsci saw in Americanism and Fordism first of all the endless innovative capacity of the governing classes and the capitalist system as a whole – its ability to incorporate in its own innovation a whole series of forces, aspirations and changes resulting from the struggles of new players on the historical-political stage – albeit by ‘passivising’ and subordinating the independent aspirations of such players. Gramsci’s notion of ‘passive revolution’ as not only strengthening but transforming bourgeois rule may contribute to a more rounded understanding of the hegemony exercised during the 1980s and ‘90s, on the basis of new technologies, by the ‘revolution without revolution’, which we call ‘capitalist globalisation’, and by the neoliberal, post-Fordist system of capital accumulation.
Meanwhile the way social conflicts have been processed has gone through succesive re-articulations of the ruling project, from conservative-liberal neoliberalism through social-democratic and finally to authoritarian neoliberalism. Thus we ought not to conceal the presence within this “revolt of capital” of an attack on the democratising processes perceived as responsible for the crisis and as a hindrance to capital accumulation. Here it also becomes clear that states or new state forms – national as well as transnational elements of statehood – still play an important role in capitalist societies. The question that arises then is: In what way can the general expansion of the new state instruments of repression and control and its glaring contradiction to the promises proffered by neoliberal hegemony – promises of the establishment and expansion of fundamental rights of freedom – be turned into a weapon with which neoliberal hegemony itself can be cracked open?
The question is more complicated than it may at first sight appear because the restricting of the rights of citizens and of freedom can find majority support to the extent that the argument that this is necessary in order to deal with external threats, like terrorism and immigration flows, convinces people. Taking the post-Fordist transformation of contemporary capitalism as a point of departure therefore does not mean imagining that these developments describe all societies in the same way and that they do not have different effects in different societies. As regulation schools for example, argue, capital accumulation in the capitalist wealth and power centres presupposes the reproduction of both Fordist and non-Fordist modes of production and life in different sectors. The old exists alongside the new, forms the complex social reality of today’s world and generates incoherent social experiences. This provides one of the foundations for the mass effectiveness of contemporary fundamentalisms in terms of politics and world views, among them also a new nationalism.
A realistic left transformative strategy must, while opposing fundamentalisms, be able to absorb very varied forms and experiences of the neoliberal restructuring of capitalist societies, namely new forms of subjectivity, which also produce new emancipatory possibilities, alongside, however, new, more intensive forms of exploitation and repression.
Above all this requires us to acknowledge the central role played by the radical political movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, in bringing about the crisis of the system of capital accumulation established after the Second World War, prior to their defeat by the change in the political scenario at the end of the 1970s. And not only this. It was these movements which, through their protest against Fordism’s characteristic division of labour and hierarchisation of societies, including gender hierarchisation, induced the terminal crisis of so-called “actually-existing socialism” in Eastern Europe. In so doing, they also subjected to criticism the strategies of the Western Communist movements connected to these Eastern systems.
Further, this way of analysing the changes in contemporary capitalist societies requires the acceptance of an ambivalent reading of the ensuing network-based, post-Fordist, globalised, flexible form of capitalism, together with the acknowledgement that certain impulses from the political movements of the 1960s have been incorporated into this new form of capitalism. The ‘new spirit’ of capitalism, its new values, its capacity to mobilise its own productive energies, the hegemonic force it has succeeded in exercising, are all the result of a differentiated, ambivalent process characterised not only by repression, but also by the cooptation of certain aspects of, and certain players in, the process of social transformation.
Acknowledgement of this historical development is useful not only from the analytical point of view, but also in political terms, since it points to an ability to perceive the persistent ambivalences inherent in the anthropological transformation of recent decades; an ability to grasp the presence and development, also within this new capitalist hegemony, of a series of distorted, opaque processes of democratisation (globalisation, individualisation, liberation, disalienation) and of transformation, inspired by the social movements and players of the 1960s; for example, the evolution of popular culture and means of communication, the development of the post-patriarchal family, the furtherance of the feminist and sexual revolutions, and the emergence of new forms of labour organisation.
Of course within neoliberal hegemony, these elements take a neoliberal form, where the progressive elements are entangled with new forms of coercion, self-marketisation and subordination. The altered positioning of knowledge and subjectivity, on the one hand, is linked to an extended relative autonomy of the workers in the labour process. The higher the degree of “scientification” (Verwissenschaftlichung) of activities, the harder it becomes to ensure a direct control over the labour process. However: due to capitalist imperatives autonomy is limited to activities favourable to the competitiveness of the corporation. This forces employees to internalise flexibility, efficiency and entrepreneurial thinking. The real subsumption of labour to capital reaches an historically and qualitatively new stage. Therefore the concrete relation and level of self-exploitation and autonomy is an object of everyday (class) struggle. So the question is: How do we put our finger on those needs and social interests which although mobilised by neoliberalism point in an emancipatory direction; how can these be collectivised; where do group interests contradict each other and to what extent can such contradictions be absorbed and transcended into a political strategy?
One of the core issues of the (second) women’s movements (see e.g. Simone de Beauvoir) was the criticism of the gendered division of labour, the forcing of women into patriarchal matrimonial relations where they were – for the most part – excluded from (full-time) employment and, being dependent on the male family breadwinner, relegated to the realm of the private. Now this becomes obsolete in a strange way precisely through the neoliberal reconstruction of labour relations and welfare state. Female labour becomes self-evident at the same time as jobs become scarce and competition increases because of structural unemployment. In opposition to the paternalist state and family relations of (Western) Fordism, the market passes on the responsibility to the women themselves, linked to the promise that personal activity and willingness to perform can potentially lead to success. In order to offer her whole labour power on the market, a female labourer is – following Marx – not only free to sell her labour power and free from the burden of owning the means of production, but also free from socially necessary reproductive work (“the threefold free female wage worker”).
Gender, class and “racial” differences are nowadays combined in a complex way. The working poor in rich capitalist societies is overwhelmingly made up of women, while successful career women have been able to emancipate themselves from old forms of family by falling back on cheap female – often illegal – immigrant labour power for domestic work.
The third wave of the women’s movement made it possible to radicalise the way we understand gender relations, by expanding the latter to include the symbolic and linguistic representations of patriarchal relations of domination. In so doing, the historical emancipatory theories linked to the labour movement, among them Marxism, also became an object of feminist critique. From this arises the question of what this expansion and radicalisation of the critical theory of capitalism to include the critique of patriarchy means for today’s understanding of the emancipation and development of left transformative strategies. To what extent is it possible to combine the Marxist analysis of social structures and the feminist critique of the symbolic relations of domination?
Nevertheless, the impersonal domination of the market promises new freedoms. Quite correctly, the 68 movement and the women’s movement criticised the oppressive aspects of a paternalist and patriarchal welfare state that pressed the free development of individuals into a straight-jacket of standardised ways of life. The neoliberal movement picked up this criticism, turned it around and radicalised it. It presents tendencies to social crises as consequences of “over-regulation”, as general crises of state control, that is to be met with down-sizing and deregulating the state. Against welfare-state tutelage neoliberals oppose the emphatic discourse of individual freedom that – articulated differently – is also emphasised by the left; here the reactionary impulse of the neoliberals meets the emancipatory aspiration of the left, but now in the context of altered relations of power. Thus, former 68ers, Greens and social democrats themselves became driving forces of an orientation towards self-responsibility and de-étatisation – a process Gramsci called “trasformismo”.
By adopting such a perspective, taking into account the new dimensions and qualities of restructured capitalism, and thus its contradictions, the left may be better equipped to break out of that defensive (and thus conservative), ghettoised corner into which it has been forced by the neocapitalist offensive.
One sign of this incipient radical new direction is the series of social movements that emerged at the turn of the new millennium. The advent of such movements marked an epoch-making transition, as triumphant neoliberalism gave way to an emerging profound crisis in the hegemony of the governing classes on a global scale, a crisis that has constantly deepened ever since. The intention here is not to encourage or lend support to a sterile apology for the movements, and thus overlook their weaknesses, their redundant features and failures and the symptoms of stagnation and crisis which they are apparently now undergoing. Rather, what is needed is an in-depth, critical understanding of the work of these movements, and of the underlying reasons for the emergence of their difficulties and deficits.
Just as neoliberalism could turn people’s subjective needs, arising in reaction to the crisis of Fordism, into an instrument for the transformation of the given social relations, so the social movements represent the subjective expression of an objective worldwide necessity, namely the need to intervene against the destructive social effects of an unbridled free market (Karl Polanyi).
One of the most characteristic features of the new movements is that in their struggle for alternative solutions they tend to favour, both linguistically and conceptually, an analysis based on the notion of the public sphere as a common good rather than a state good. The renewed critique of the processes of privatisation and commodification no longer looks to the past, but attempts to go beyond the criticism of the state apparatus, in search of new common institutions (that is, new forms of democratic involvement and control, and new forms of cognitive and practical cooperation).
Another new aspect related to the transformation of capitalism is that the social movements situate the removal of barriers on the part of the globalised economic processes within the context of the global environment and the limits of ecological capacity. It is universally agreed within the radical left that integration of ecological and social thinking is necessary. However, certain theoretical consequences of this are less clear: If, as regards the ecological crisis, concepts like “productivity,” “labour,” and “development” or “progress” have lost their innocence, how does our understanding of emancipation change? Will these concepts become superfluous or do we need to define them anew? What ethic of producing, distributing (on a global scale) and of consuming does this make necessary? Apparently a requisite in the striving for a new hegemony consists in the integration of an emancipation of very many dimensions. Can this occur on the basis of a single knowledge or does revolutionary subjectivity not rather demand being fundamentally based on a plurality of theoretical world views?
The movements have managed to overcome substantial difficulties and to begin to lay the foundations for a new, critical, transformative subjectivity. This new wave of intermittent, discontinuous, metamorphosing movements offers a material basis and subjectivity for the reconstruction of a political project for change. However, the same movements, while they helped to get the question of transformation back onto the political agenda, have also underlined, once again, the definitive decline of the old model of socialist transformation.
What appears to be necessary here, in fact, is the ability to confront contemporary subjectivity and anthropology critically, but without nostalgia. We need to perceive their ambivalent features and to see them as potential sources of a new, critical antagonism and transformation, as we prepare to face the new challenges before us.
This seems particularly important now that the hegemonic and structural downturn of the capitalist cycle is increasingly evident.
The same could be said of representative democracy’s traditional institutions. Once again, we need to perceive a number of ambivalences, and to realise that representative democracy is not only emptied of significance by the upward transfer of power and sovereignty – by the so-called forces of ‘globalisation and empire’ – in favour of supra/meta-national capital and power; and to see that it is also being attacked by the broad demand for sovereignty from the grassroots – that is, by people’s desire for independence, for the reappropriation of the power to take those decisions affecting them – which is grounded not only in the decline of the legitimacy, representativity and efficacy of all existing representative institutions – but is also being relativised by the wealth of knowledge, skills and means of communication, both individual and network-based, that people now possess, and which both permit and require new forms of regulation (coordination, organisation, connection, cooperation, competition and separation). This is why criticism of the undemocratic trend in contemporary society, which has served as a catalyst for the no-global movement, and of a multitude of other social, political and cultural movements, does not propose the restoration of lost constitutional forms, but the search for other new, democratic, participatory, post-representative forms. Here the questions of new forms of mediating institutions, of different relations between self-organisation and representation in a perspective of absorbing state into civil society, comes into play. Does this mean that, as an emancipatory project, it is a matter of a substitute for representative democracy by direct or participatory democracy, or is it the complementing of representative institutions by participatory practices at which we are aiming? Or will this question remain open for a long time to come?
What importance – if any – do democracies constituted as nation-states have in the age of globalisation? What role do regional integrating spaces, like Europe, play in an emancipatory strategy, and in what ways can participation and self-determination be conceptualised in a global framework?
Finally, we would like to give another example of ambivalence and shift of paradigm: the creation of a political space which, in a certain sense, lies beyond the paradigm and notion of the political as perceived up to now. Once again, we are talking about a process that has accompanied capitalist globalisation, and may be defined as the privatisation of the public sphere and of social life, the reduction in the public sphere, the parallel extension of the scope of non-public powers, and the emptying out of politics and democracy as such. Nevertheless, there is also another parallel process currently underway, which has accompanied the decreasing faith in the instruments of representative democracy, and which may be defined as the creation of a public space beyond the state, or a public space over which traditional collective players have no control: a space for molecular political transformation. One such example is represented by the private-political practices of the feminist movement, inspired by the critique of patriarchal society and power; another is the creative, social appropriation of the new means of communication, which has developed beyond the state’s dominion and the logic of the market. This same ambivalent, extra-state political arena is the terrain upon which the no global (or alter-globalisation) movement has emerged; it has provided that movement the space within which to combat the politics of neoliberalism, to create informal, supranational, undemocratic powers, and to stake its claim as a truly independent protagonist.