Razmig Keucheyan: The crisis of capitalism has not at all weakened it, any more than it has strengthened the European Left

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The only solution for those attempting to grapple with the weakness of the left–in the face of a system as strong as ever–is a temporary re-localisation of political struggles at a national level, or so Razmig Keucheyan, assistant professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and author of The Left Hemisphere contends:

This text resulted from a meeting addressed by Álvaro Garcia Línera, vice-president of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, held on 8 April 2014 at the headquarters of the French Communist Party on the initiative of Espaces Marx. Étienne Balibar, Michael Löwy and André Tosel also took part in the debate.

The European Left is today in crisis – there is little doubt about that. It is striking to note that in practice the most serious crisis of capitalism since 1929 has not strengthened the Left, either electorally or at the level of a renewal of social and trade-union movements. Like the crisis of the 1930s, the current crisis so far seems instead to have favoured the rise of reactionary forces like the Front National in France and its equivalents in other European countries and beyond.

Another characteristic trait of this crisis is that it has pushed the heirs of historical social democracy, such as France’s Parti Socialiste, toward the centre and not the Left. To such an extent that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the policies implemented by these parties from the policies of the Right. If ‘neo-Keynesian’ solutions were briefly experimented with at the beginning of the crisis, they proved ephemeral. Against all expectations the crisis did not sound the death-knell of neoliberalism, which is in better shape today than ever before.

‘Democratic capitalism’

And in this same period, the Left that wants to transform society, the ‘radical’ Left that we represent, has not managed to bear any significant weight on this conjuncture. Whether at the political, trade-union, social or intellectual level, it has faced the gravest difficulties in convincing the population of that which this latter itself proves to be the case: that capitalism sows unemployment and poverty, and generates racism and conflict.

What are the reasons why the Left finds it so difficult to make itself heard, in the context of the crisis? I would put forward two hypotheses for discussion, there are of course also many others. The first hypothesis. In State and Revolution, written in 1917, Lenin maintained that democracy is the best form, or the best ‘shell’ for capitalism. Once capitalism took root, democracy proved itself to be the most stable régime available. And, indeed, for a good part of the twentieth century democracy and capitalism went hand-in-hand. In the nineteenth century few had believed this alliance between the two, this ‘democratic capitalism’, to be possible.

But it seems to me that Lenin did not grasp one point of crucial importance. Namely, that in order for this alliance of capitalism and democracy to function, capitalism had to be sufficiently dynamic on the economic plane. Democracy allowed the population to formulate demands with regard to healthcare, education, pensions, infrastructure… But if capitalism did not produce enough wealth, if it stagnated or entered into crisis as it has today, then it ceases to be able to satisfy these expectations.

Massive debt and de-democratisation

In the case of a long-term economic crisis, democratic capitalism has two solutions open to it. The first is to go deeper and deeper into debt, in order to maintain a level of public spending that allows it to satisfy the expectations of the population at least in part. The maintenance of a semblance of state legitimacy depends, in these conditions, on its debt rising. Or, following a second possible course of action, the state can little by little cease to be democratic, becoming increasingly deaf to the demands of the population.

The current evolution of European states is precisely in line with these two solutions: massive debt and de-democratisation. It ought to be understood that these two phenomena have one same cause, namely states’ inability to stick to the level of public spending to which populations became accustomed after World War II, in the context of the stagnation or crisis of capitalism.

Massive debt, of course, places states at the mercy of the financial markets, which fix the conditions for borrowing and thus oblige them to implement austerity, that is, the destruction of the systems of social protection. De-democratisation, for its part, demands that democratic institutions lose their vitality, or even that institutions subject to little democratic control grow in importance. I am thinking in particular of the ‘independent’ central banks or institutions free of any democratic pressure such as constitutional courts or budget auditing bodies, whose power has never stopped growing across recent decades.

Conclusion: we are leaving behind the alliance of capitalism and democracy evoked by Lenin. Today, democracy is becoming more and more a problem for capitalism, since no longer being dynamic enough from the economic point of view it is unable to maintain the levels of public spending that populations enjoyed in a context of prosperity that is now a thing of the past.

Out of the institutions

What effect does all this have on the Left? The Left was both at the origin of the democratisation of capitalism and simultaneously a great beneficiary of this democratisation. It was at its origin because the conquest of democratic rights was precisely that: a conquest, or, to put it another way, the fruit of struggles waged by generations of militants. The idea that capitalism is a system that ‘naturally’ tends towards democracy is an utter joke. It was necessary to force the ruling classes to accord democratic rights. But on the other hand, the Left also benefited from democratisation because it allowed it to emerge from clandestinity and express its politics in broad daylight.

The divorce that is currently underway between capitalism and democracy implies that the public democratic space will probably shrink in the years and decades to come. We will certainly not be returning to conditions of clandestinity such as existed when Lenin was fighting for his politics. But, for my part, I would bet on an intermediate situation: neither clandestinity nor the democratic regimes such as we have known since the end of World War II.

Whatever the case may be, the extra-institutional part of politics will become increasingly important in the years to come. If we want to exert pressure on the system, then we must do so from the streets, or from spaces of freedom outside of the ever-less democratic institutions. This does not, of course, prevent us from waging struggles also within these institutions. But for the reasons mentioned above, this will perhaps be more difficult than it was previously.

Capital’s internationalism

If there is one body that is the incarnation of the increasing authoritarianism of contemporary political regimes, it is the European Union. Indeed, the second hypothesis that I would like to submit to you, as an explanation of the Left’s difficulties in making itself heard in the context of the crisis, concerns Europe. It concerns our collective embarrassment in the face of the European question.

The 1960s and 1970s were marked, as we know, by powerful movements of international solidarity. The imaginary of the present-day Left was in large part formed by these anti-imperialist and internationalist struggles, which played out in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. What the Left did not see back then – and still struggles to admit even today – is that at more or less the same time another internationalism was also growing in strength: namely, an internationalism of capital, an internationalism of the ruling classes.

As many Marxists have demonstrated, among others Marx himself, capitalism is a mobile system that is constantly in movement. When for one reason or another the circumstances become unfavourable for the accumulation of capital, it can seek more propitious conditions elsewhere, or at another spatial level. Capital can also set spaces in competition with one another, using some of them to force the others to bend to its logic.

This was precisely what happened during the crisis of the 1970s, at the moment when the ‘Thirty Glorious Years’ of growth came to an end. In seeking to escape the constraints that the workers’ movement had imposed on it over the course of the previous decades in terms of the distribution of value added, and in a context of declining profit rates, capital internationalised itself, setting the stage for what would later be called neoliberal globalisation. It has been this neoliberal globalisation, this internationalism on the part of capitalism – and not, alas, the internationalism upheld by the movements of international solidarity – that has imposed itself on the world scene since then.

Organising at the national level

The European Union is an incarnation of this internationalism on the part of capital. It is a class project, of the ruling classes, which is structured from end to end in service of their interests. It is a political project from which the popular classes are excluded almost by definition. Moreover, since the beginning of the crisis in 2008 the least democratic European institutions – first among them the European Central Bank, which is beyond the reach of any democratic control – have not ceased to grow in strength, to the detriment of those institutions that still maintain the pretence of democracy such as the European Parliament.

To believe that this system could be reformed from within, that there is some room for manoeuvre, is in my view to misunderstand the history and raison d’être of the construction of the EU. Naturally, there is no question here of opposing capital’s internationalism with an impossible ‘Left nationalism’. That would not be very Marxist and not very dialectical. But to avoid falling into any kind of abstract internationalism, and to allow the Left to make itself heard in the context of the crisis, it must identify precisely which social and political forces it will intervene with in the current conjuncture.

Like it or not, these forces are today largely organised at the national level. This is something that some may lament, but it is nonetheless the case. To be able to re-arm a genuine internationalism, a temporary detour operating at the national level thus seems inevitable. More precisely, what we need is to define a new relation, a new dialectic between the national and the international, different from the internationalism of capital. 

Translated from french by David Broder.
See the original article here.

The Left Hemisphere
 from Razmig Keucheyan is out in paperback in November.

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