Random thoughts on the new Oriental mode of production

Newsnight's Paul Mason is, by common consent, one of the most switched-on commentators on the global wave of social unrest that has emerged in the wake of the financial crisis. His recent blogpost, Twenty reasons why its kicking off everywhere, has deservedly been getting plenty of recommendations on twitter, etc.

I though this point was particularly interesting:

The weakness of organised labour means there's a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the "progressive" intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a "stage army" to be marched on and off the scene of history.

Mason's picture of 19th century Paris holds more generally for what might be called the pre-industrial left. Geoff Eley provides a useful description of this heritage in his history of the left, Forging Democracy:

Calls for democracy were linked during the era of the French Revolution to more elaborate visions of the just society, organized around an ideal of independent small property and local self-government. In traditions of popular democracy, this linkage went back to the English Revolution in the seventeenth century and the ideals of the Levellers; in the eighteenth century it reemerged in the plebian radicalism of the American Revolution and related movements in the Low Countries and Britain. During the 1790s,such movements acquired the general name of Jacobinism. Their pursuit of local democracy was greatly inspired by the insurgency of Parisian tradesmen,shopkeepers, and impecunious professionals, reaching its apogee in the militancy of the sans-culottes during 1792–94.

The rise of concentrated industrial capitalism presented a profound challenge to this tradition, as Eley notes:

 Artisans increasingly lost control of their trades to the impersonal forces of the capitalist market. They surrendered the autonomy of the workshop to practical forms of dependence on larger-scale business organization,before eventually becoming integrated directly into superordinate social structures of capitalist production, employment, and control. Once that happened, social ideals of small-scale organization, local community, and personal independence became far harder to sustain. That is, under conditions of capitalist industrialization the implications of demanding popular sovereignty became profoundly transformed.

The result was the rise of socialism, which in both its parliamentary/Labourist and revolutionary/Leninist forms, was focused on achieving popular control over these newly-concentrated forms of economic power through the state.

Both these strategies sought take to take advantage of the trend to which they responded by mobilizing the growing working class in a mass party. This was decisive for the emergence of modern democracy.

Yet the trend of proletarianisation never created the homogenous mass of the crudest Marxist extrapolations, and that set definite limits on strategies based on that trend.

1968, has been interpreted, notably by Immanuel Wallerstein as the beginning of a revolt against the traditional strategies of the left. Writing in 2002, he offered some interesting suggestions for strategic goals:

I would suggest that one of the most useful—substantively, politically, psychologically—is the attempt to move towards selective, but ever-widening, decommodification. We are subject today to a barrage of neoliberal attempts to commodify what was previously seldom or never appropriated for private sale—the human body, water, hospitals. We must not only oppose this but move in the other direction. Industries, especially failing industries, should be decommodified. This does not mean they should be ‘nationalized’—for the most part, simply another version of commodification. It means we should create structures, operating in the market, whose objective is performance and survival rather than profit. This can be done, as we know, from the history of universities or hospitals—not all, but the best. Why is such a logic impossible for steel factories threatened with delocalization?

If the emergence of the 'post-industrial' society from the 1960s onwards initially favoured neoliberal commodification, real cause for hope has emerged in the rise of what Yochai Benkler has called commons-based peer production.

As Benkler wrote in The Wealth of Networks (2006):

    If the transformation I describe as possible occurs, it will lead to substantial redistribution of power and money from the twentieth-century industrial producers of information, culture, and communications – like Hollywood, the recording industry, and perhaps the broadcasters and some of the telecommunications services giants – to a combination of widely diffuse populations around the globe, and the market actors that will build the tools that make this population better able to produce its own information environment rather than buying it ready-made.
    Industrial ideologies: Labourism

The hold of traditional strategies nevertheless remains powerful, even among some of the most thoughtful contributors to the British anti-cuts movement, clearly an outpost of Benkler's 'networked public sphere.'

For example, this post by Owen Jones is a striking example of traditional labourism of a kind well-critiqued by Stuart White here(pdf), (although it has to be said that much of Jones' argument has stood up in the face of events).

A rather cruder Labourism was on display from some of the participants at the recent Netroots conference in London, who attempted to persuade activists to chose Labour party politics over single issue politics. There was no sense they saw the need to embed both in a wider movement politics if real change is to be achieved.

It's worth noting that both Tim Montgomerie on the right and Sunny Hundal on the left have sought to import an American language of conservative/progressive movement politics into Britain. Perhaps there are obvious reasons why hegemony, in both the Gramscian and geopolitical senses of the word, should be better understood in the US?

Industrial ideologies: Leninism

The resonance of Lenin's Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder in further left interpretations of the anti-cuts movement was equally striking. Not least because it contains this passage:

The dictatorship of the proletariat means a most determined and most ruthless war waged by the new class against a more powerful enemy, the bourgeoisie, whose resistance is increased tenfold by their overthrow (even if only in a single country), and whose power lies, not only in the strength of international capital, the strength and durability of their international connections, but also in the force of habit, in the strength of smallscale production.Unfortunately, small-scale production is still widespread in the world, and small-scale production engenders capitalism and the bourgeoisie continuously, daily, hourly, spontaneously, and on a mass scale. All these reasons make the dictatorship of the proletariat necessary, and victory over the bourgeoisie is impossible without a long, stubborn and desperate life-and-death struggle which calls for tenacity, discipline, and a single and inflexible will.

This passage embodies the reversal of left-wing attitudes between the early nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but could Lenin have written the same thing if he had been able to observe the trends of the early Twenty-First Century?

In the 1980s, it was still possible to argue that the 'post-industrial' economy was a neo-liberal illusion that ignored the continuing importance of peripheral manufacturing production.

Today, however, decommodified production is making significant inroads into the creative industries, and is threatening to have an impact even on manufacturing and energy production.

A new progressive coalition

New economic possibilities have often provided the context for succesful bids for hegemony in the past, the Fordist underpinnings of the New Deal being a classic example.

The rise of peer production presents opportunities and challenges for the left.

  • For the foreseeable future most people will still depend on market participation for most of their needs. That means the traditional role of the left in defending public services and workers rights will remain central. Indeed, it will acquire a new significance. As the big society debate has underlined, people can only contribute to decommodified labour to the extent that they are freed from commodified labour. Democratic republican arguments about economic freedom may be relevant here.
  • There is an obvious role for trade unions here, but also an obvious tension. They exist to represent workers within a commodified process, e.g. journalists rather than bloggers. Decommodification is a challenge to their raison d'etre.
  • Forms of labour organisation pioneered by the pre-industrial artisanal left may become more relevant with the growth of peer production. Mutual and co-operative movements are crucial terrain that should not be conceded to a neoliberal movement which sees them only as a trojan horse against nationalisation.
  • Another lesson from the pre-industrial left is the importance of defending the commons against enclosure and corporate power. There is an opportunity for political parties to take a pro-active role in reshaping the regulatory environment to favour peer production.






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