Olaf Palme, 1964, on theory’s role in political and social change

“Politics, comrades, it is to want something. Social Democratic politics, it is to want to change because change provides promises of improvement, nourishes the imagination and energy, stimulates dreams and vision.

But naturally will must have a focus and a change must have a goal. We socialists are presumptuous enough to want something because the idea is the driving force of will, and we are bold enough to want change because change may make utopias into reality.

This is fundamental. Often we encounter the claim that ideologies are dead, that their capacity to pierce reality has decayed in withered phrases that could possibly be used to distort the perception of people, but that have lost their ability to innovate, initiate and stimulate. People rail against ideological superstition with a frenzy that would have blown Don Quixote’s mind and made his windmills leak.

To a certain extent, one can go along with this. The grandiose imaginations of the 1800s, their efforts to find a unified formula for explanation and a solution for all social problems have been corrected by an inexorable reality. Yet we are all strongly influenced by those ideologies, and we have much to learn from them. We cannot escape the allure of logic and symmetry, the thought’s stature and the imagination’s power of illumination that we encounter in their bold blueprints. We find an analysis of the social and economic conditions that remains viable to this day.

But we no longer believe in any unified theory. We cannot beat the scriptures and find absolute answers, and we experience ourselves not as participants in a destiny-bound process. There is no longer any absolute truth, but at least  two or three alternative truths, depending on the values assumed and how we interpret a complex reality. School children in communist states may rattle off quotations from Marx and Lenin with the same studious frenzy that our children recite hymn verses, and American industry associations may divulge writings that with basically the same narrow vision expound private capitalism’s gospel. For us, free debate has funneled into the place of nailed theses. Our fate is constantly asking questions and surely to try again, to doubt authority and distrust authority. Our responsibility is to deepen our knowledge, refuel independently and anchor our ideas in a personal conviction. It is perhaps less grandiose. But that is our freedom and our honor.

But the attack on ideologies is driven even further. Sometimes ideology is dismissed with a sigh of relief and deliverance. Finally, they say, we can free ourselves from “the dead hand of the past” and from “the suffocating hand of the future”. Finally, we can proceed to evaluate each issue on its own merits, for the special circumstances existing in each case.

We can be practical, realistic, and grounded. “All theory, dear friend, is grey. But the golden tree of actual life springs ever green,” we recite from Goethe’s Faust. Let us toss theory in the waste basket, let us value life.

Perhaps that can be hard hitting. I may dare to wreak havoc in response: when you remove the long direction of will provided by a foundation of theory and value engagement, you remove the emotional conviction, leaving cold, raw power and politics, as democracy fades to gray. Without theory, possibly one can make things a little better, but one can never change society. Possibly one can do something else, but one can never make something different. If you go ahead with the nose to the ground, without perspective, and without looking at a future that lasts beyond the next quarter, you can never do harm in society, and you are equally unprepared for the problems that the future offers. The historical experience clearly tells us that the ascendance of the practical man drives ideas out of the political arena, promulgating a vigorous decay of democratic policy.”

(To be continued, from P. 6 of “Politik ar att vilja” 1964.)

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Building Alternatives

“To my mind, the so-called ‘socialist society’ is not anything immutable. Like all other social formations, it should be conceived in a state of constant flux and change. Its crucial difference from the present order consists naturally in production organized on the basis of common ownership by the nation… 

To begin this reorganization tomorrow, but performing it gradually, seems to me quite feasible. That our workers are capable of it is borne out by their many producer and consumer cooperatives which, whenever they’re not deliberately ruined by the police, are equally well and far more honestly run than the bourgeois stock companies”  

Engels, Letter to Otto Von Boenigk (1890).

Capital strike is a problem for working class strategy and strength, as Adam Smith, Kalecki & Sweezy keenly observed. It makes sense not just to disrupt or tear down (though certainly that, see Marx, Piven, Domhoff & Zizek), but also to build fortifications around that fundamental vulnerability, as well as to build an answer to conservatives’ play on the fear of loss. See Rudolf Meidner.

…  Jodi Dean cites Chomsky discussing the importance of working class organize-to-rule strategies, including sit down strikes, co-operative takeovers of languishing industries and economic sectors (think green technology), and a build-up of broad working class-conscicous support for such initiatives:

“In one of the suburbs of Boston, about a year ago, a multinational decided to close down a profitable, functioning facility carrying out some high-tech manufacturing. The workforce and the union offered to buy it, take it over, and run it themselves. The multinational decided to close it down instead, probably for reasons of class-consciousness. I don’t think they want things like this to happen. If there had been enough popular support, if there had been something like the Occupy movement that could have gotten involved, they might have succeeded.” 

Jacobin

There is a Time for Asking, and There is a Time for Action: A warning against the fetishization of process. Strategy has to respond to conditions.

The Jacobin Spirit,” by Slavoj Zizek:

We have gone through a long period where the order’s accusation of violence, as served upon challengers, has been unassailable and final. This pacifying hegemony has almost fully infiltrated the Left.

“In the history of radical politics, violence is usually associated with the so-called Jacobin (the partisans of unity and of the struggle against factions) legacy, and, for that reason, dismissed as something that should be abandoned if we are truly to begin again. Even many contemporary (post-)Marxists are embarrassed by the so-called Jacobin legacy of centralized state terror, from which they want to distance Marx himself, proposing an authentic ‘liberal’ Marx whose thought was later obfuscated by Lenin…” (Zizek)

And yet eventually we (Leftists and conservatives, certainly. But even liberals.) have to reconcile with the fact that the order devolves into inescapable violence.

Just as violence is taboo property to us, the (terror) state is regarded as absolutely alienated from us. The logic: the state alone has legitimacy/efficiency in deploying violence, including on us; we never legitimately/efficiently use violence, yet as the order shrinks to the 1% all our (the 99%) actions, our very existences and survival, are felt as, officially declared oppositional and violent–Hence all the conservative law and extreme executive and corporate privileges. Therefore, we are absolutely alienated from the state. Violence is the unbreachable wall between us and the state.

Perhaps Zizek thinks the point of order dissolution is now. Perhaps it is (momentarily) in some places. A vigorous power-taking (surplus appropriating) strategy is thereby structurally required, and it is simply a matter of who claims that strategy, for what ends.

“This bring us to the key political point, difficult to swallow for some liberals: we are clearly dealing here not with blind market processes and reactions, but with an elaborate and well-planned (conservative) strategy — under such conditions, is not the exercise of a kind of ‘terror’ (police raids on warehouses, detention of speculators, etc.) fully justified as a defensive counter-measure? … 

The problem today is that the state is becoming more and more chaotic, failing even in its proper function of ‘servicing the goods.’ Are we still required to remain at a distance from state power when that power is itself disintegrating, and in the process resorting to obscene exercises of violence in order to mask its own impotence? 

…(As a Left response,) Even Badiou’s formula of ‘subtraction from the state’ plus ‘only reactive violence’ seems insufficient in these new conditions” (Zizek)

There comes an historical point when people have to recognize it is anachronistic, absurd, and delegitimizing (giving up legitimate power), to run around asking permission for disrupting and overthrowing the old order and building toward a new utopia (eg. a communist horizon).

“The Revolution has already decided the matter, the very fact of the Revolution means that the king is guilty, hence to put his guilt to the vote would mean casting doubt on the Revolution itself” (Zizek).  

The assumption here accords with the social movements (McAdam, Political Process) conclusion that the fact of social movement means absolute power is no more, a realization that authorizes social movement legitimacy (the social movement is performing a necessary function) and frees social movement momentum, cascade.

Notes:

So far, OWS has not lost its power through asking permission, through process-oriented prefigurative politics.

That is because, even though the state is well into tyrannical “disintegration”, social movement is as yet nascent. Too many Americans, adrift, wait for elites to have a change of heart and relaunch the old liberal FDR class compromise, or, especially amongst the most powerful and their lieges, actively labor to re-establish the conservative Southern Jim Crow serfdom settlement. Most don’t imagine what’s politically possible beyond these historical tropes.

OWS still has a nascent role to play in the anticapitalist struggle, the stage after the Seattle breakthrough. That nascent role involves raising consciousness and elaborating the vision of an alternative, desirable order, as well as increasing people’s experience with collective action and socialist organization.

The role of contemporary Jacobins should be to theorize and sell the communist horizon, for the long haul. Revolution, if we’re lucky and not afraid of mobilization, organization, strategy, praxis, disruption, building alternative social structures, and intellectual work, tends to take a century of wins and losses. There will come a point when we are beyond asking permission, not to worry. I would never bother with arguing against the early-going rebels’ strategies. Nor would I dismiss the important intellectual work of setting the long-term agenda.

Direct Pressure on Israel

Noam Sheizaf’s “Ending the occupation: No way around direct pressure on Israel.” Sheizaf argues that progressive Israeli settler occupation of Palestinian land is the optimal strategy for Israel; and it will be unless there is an organized global movement, such as boycott, that puts pressure on Israel.

Such a boycott is global Leftists’ only currently-available strategy for helping Palestinians against apartheid and colonial genocide (in the Canadian sense). It will be interesting to see if a low-volume boycott is possible, and if it has any effect. The sanction against anyone attempting a high-volume boycott of Israel is enforced, and it is severe noncooperation–exclusion/shunning, black balling, job loss–considering the capitalist context, and due to the lack of an organized, alternative community that could serve as a refuge.

The only other foreseeable hope for Palestinian freedom and survival is on the tails of unpredictable shifts in geopolitical opportunity structure–for example as an unintended, secondary outcome of Chinese geopolitics and the implosion of the Anglosphere or the development of an alternative organized community within the West. Or perhaps it’s better to say that social movement strategies, such as boycott, become effective as the shifting opportunity structure aligns.

It’s a slight alteration of Marx’s 18th Brumaire truism:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under [the shifting labyrinth of] circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

My question is kind of the opposite of Walt & Meerscheim’s: Can any Leftist human community coalesce, present an opposing counterweight to, inter alia, Israeli imperial partisans? 
H1.1. Not if the Leftist community requires organizational leadership from within the Jewish community, which is already, continuously re-bound to Israel.
Q2. This then beggars the question of why there is no Leftist community in at least the Anglosphere that is not dependent upon Jewish organizational leadership or cooperation.
H1.2. Anti-communist immigration / settlement policy + state and workplace repression +  Little King politics + institutional maintenance of elite solidarity.
Q3. Can any other community present an opposing counterweight to Israeli imperial partisans? And if not, why not?
H1.3. We know that Britain managed (tribal? nomadic? low-social organization and low-network connectivity?) Middle East and N. Africa by distributing Saudi family members into autocratic, surplus-monopolizing leadership positions across the new states, a strategy designed precisely so that people in that territory cannot coalesce in opposition to the imperial, oil- and finance-controlling UK-US bloc.

Social movement strategy: An example of the thoroughness of pro-Israeli discipline in the US.

The coincidence of these factors in achieving organization is apparently decisive:

1) Capital (ownership of economic surplus)
2) Strategic alliances with global capitalist hegemons (ie UK, US)
3) Iron-clad socially- and economically-enforced discipline based on an identity legitimate within capitalism: ethnic-religious identity, not Left political identity. Uneven distribution of legitimate strategic repertoires: In the capitalist Anglosphere, Left discipline is attacked, internally and externally, as “communist totalitarianism”; whereas ethno-religious discipline is invisible, regarded as a sacred right. Effectiveness example: Dershowitz et al’s disciplinary force moved Finklestein from a critical to a pro-Zionist political position.
4) Internal-external boundary reinforcement; reliable, targeted incentives.

Micro Neoliberal Diffusion & Adoption

Hypothesis about neoliberal policy diffusion & adoption, receiving end:

Junior professionals a) have got wherever they are because they embody “good boys/girls” rational actor culture, & use the ideology of meritocracy for self-promotion, b) have not developed a hegemony-strategic collective-action repertoire or habitus, and c) have low horizontal social capital. This means junior professionals are not very capable when it comes to engaging in collective action in any capacity independent of the professional hierarchy. It also means that they have been and are being socialized as sharks.

At a minimum, extra organization must be undertaken to move junior professionals to action independence from the professional hierarchy in which they are embedded and receive their incentives.