Chris Cutrone’s Pessimism and the Prospects of Social Emancipation

by Jehu

Chris Cutrone thinks the idea of socialism has been “disenchanted” and this disenchantment is linked to a jarring lack of class consciousness among the working class and the class struggle between capitalist and workers:

“The difference between Marx’s time and ours is not in the essential problem of society, its self-contradictory form of value between wages and capital, but rather in the social and political conflicts, which no longer take the form primarily, as in Marx’s time, of the “class struggle” between workers and capitalists. “Class” has become a passive, objective category, rather than an active, subjective one, as it had been in Marx’s day and in the time of historical Marxism. What Marxists once meant by “class consciousness” is no more.”

rosa-luxemburg-older-rlsIn place of the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists, conflicts of culture, ethnicity and religion replace the struggle over capitalism. Socialism has been replaced with competing notions of social justice that borrow from ancient values; and cultural affinities seem to matter more than socioeconomic interests. Capitalism still determines social relations, but it is no longer recognized. What matter is not one’s class position in society, but “whether one lives in a ‘red or blue state,’ or what one’s ‘race, gender, and sexuality’ are”.

Cutrone’s essay is extremely pessimistic, but is it wrong?

I think not, but I do think it is important to separate Cutrone’s pessimism from the question of whether he is faithfully reflecting the reality of present society. Cutrone’s observation are unexceptional — even the enemies of the working class have been at a loss to understand why the working class has not shown more resistance to the savage regime of austerity that has swept Europe and elsewhere. In the end, European austerity has been stymied not so much by working class resistance as by the fact it has proven, counterintuitively, to violate the premises of the mode of production itself: reducing wages via “internal devaluation”, rather than increasing profits, simply cripples the consumption power of society.

Cutrone makes observations that simply cannot be disputed: first, class has been displaced in social and political conflict; second, it becomes impossible to derive a politics from class position; third, in the midst of the greatest crisis since the Great Depression, we do not see a political crisis of the same order of magnitude as occurred then. Cutrone asks, a simple question:

“Why have people stopped struggling for socialism?”

I think this is a good question that should be directed to labor theorists, because it points to a shocking lack of attention by theorists to the need to bring politics under the general laws of capitalist motion. For the last “god-knows-how-long” Marxists have claimed the crisis of capitalism would produce a social conflict between capital and labor leading to the overthrow of capitalism.

But, in the Great Depression, the unprecedented crisis of the period and the social conflict it produced led to fascism, not to socialism as many confidently predicted. Moreover, in this crisis, which is easily as deep and sharp as the Great Depression, there is no significant conflict between the two classes over which will control the state power. Is it just possible that the predictions of a social revolution generated by crisis were always wrong? It may not be true that the prediction was completely wrong, but it still might have been a low probability outcome.

What do I mean by this?

Many communists today still feel society faces the choice raised by Rosa Luxemburg near the beginning of the 20th century, socialism or barbarism, however varied the definition of either of those choices. But assume, for a moment, that in Luxemburg’s choice, socialism was not just an alternative to barbarism, but was also the low probability outcome in that choice. This would mean the most likely outcome of a crisis like the Great Depression or our present crisis was barbarism.

Now let’s add another wrinkle to that: suppose Luxemurg’s barbarism was also the outcome Engels predicted in Socialism, when he argued that the social character of the mode of production would have to be recognized by society. According to Engels this recognition could not be avoided — even if society did not take production under its control, the “present state” would be forced to do just this, i.e., the capitalist state would be forced to become the capitalist.

Assuming for a moment, that Luxemburg’s “barbarism” equals Engels’ “present state” becoming the capitalist, what does this imply? What impact would this event have for the political struggle between classes that the state itself was the capitalist in society? We are no longer talking about a state that acts on behalf of the capitalists, or embodies the interests of the capitalist; we are talking about a state that is itself the capitalist — the direct exploiter of the proletariat. This means, no matter how democratic the political system, the working class was only voting for who would manage their exploitation. The state would not be acting on behalf of the other class, it would itself be the capitalist in this scenario. Moreover, by undertaking management of national capital, the state would rendered the capitalist class superfluous to the mode of production. This means that when the state acts, it is acting on its own behalf as the capitalist, not as a mere manager. While the management team may rotate every four or eight years, this would have no bearing on character of the state. The voters would simply be deciding which management team would be designated to manage the national capital.

How might this accounts for Cutrone’s observation that class has been displaced in social and political conflicts? How might is account for his observation that it becomes impossible to derive a politics from class position. How might it account for the absence of a political crisis on the same order of magnitude as the Great Depression?

In the first instance, it seems obvious class is displaced because the state is now no longer a separate power over which the two classes contend, but is itself one pole of the antagonism between capital and labor. In the second instance it seems likely that every political choice by the working class essentially becomes a choice for which personality among the available contenders for office would serve as elected personification of capital. In the third instance, it seems there is no replay of the political crisis of the sort that occurred during the Great Depression because the political crisis then was precisely over how the recognition by society of the social character of its production relations would be effected.

Basically, the “social recognition”  of the social character of labor through a political conflict was a one-off event.

The answer to the question posed by Cutrone,  “Why have people stopped struggling for socialism?”, might very well be that that struggle was lost. Since the struggle was always a political struggle, over which class would wield the social power of the state, when barbarism won out over socialism, politics became incoherent. Short of the demand to abolish the state, the political struggle for socialism may very well have become incoherent with it.

Two questions are opened by Cutrone’s essay:

  1. Is a political revolution impossible possible now?
  2. Is social emancipation still possible?

If, as I suspect, the answer to the first is “No” and the answer to the second is “Yes”, we today face another and more important issue:

What does a non-political route to social emancipation look like?