The myths and (ugly) realities of proletarian politics
PROPOSITION: The statement, “Political change is possible”, is just another way of blaming the proletariat for making bad choices.
The GOP and the Right blame the poor for making bad economic choices, while the Democraps and the Left blame the poor for making bad political choices. Both parties assume that there is a different possible outcome from present material social relations than increasing poverty. Even if it is admitted by one side or the other this is not true for society in general, both sides hold it is true in the individual case, or for the individual class.
And this message is repeated in various forms: one of the media outlets last week told the story of some speculator who parlayed $600 into $100,000. The moral of the story was obvious: the poor are making the wrong choices. Even if everyone can’t escape poverty, escape is possible through individual ingenuity, hard work and diligence. If you are still in poverty, you must lack one or more of these attributes. However, the narrative is not limited to the Right: the same tale is told by those who promote the Soviet revolution or Swedish social democracy: we can make different political choices with different outcomes.
Thus politically or individually, our circumstances are relatively, at least, independent of the material social relations within which these choices are embedded. Now this has to be true on some level otherwise we can’t explain the Soviet revolution or that lucky speculator, but given the historical evidence is the relative independence of individual and political choices from our material social relations the rule or the exception? If it is the rule, the end of poverty could be had for as little as $600 per person — not a high price to pay.
I would suggest the idea that individual choices are relatively independent of material social relation is one of the grossest fallacies to emerge from the 20th century and from the bourgeois mode of production generally. It emerged because, for probably the first time in human history, our social roles are no longer assigned to us from birth. There is a very high degree of chance and fortune embedded in the mode of production, an accidental quality to our lives. This is huge change from previous modes of production when roles were largely fixed by tradition and this accidental quality of our personal circumstances appears to us as freedom.
Nowhere does this accidental quality of our circumstances — this freedom from fixed and definite social roles — achieve greater expression than among the working class. Having been stripped of everything, the working class, more than any other class, appears utterly free from all fixed and definite social relations. It thus appears free to enter into any role it chooses. The story of the high school dropout who went on to become the founder of Ford is typical of this sort of bourgeois myth-story repeated over and over.
The appearance here, however, is both valid and entirely illusory: It is valid in that we have indeed been stripped of every fixed and definite social relation — cast adrift from society, but, at the same time, we have been cast adrift from the material preconditions for making use of this freedom from fixed and definite roles. We have been freed from the traditional roles inherited from birth, but also from the material conditions on which these traditional roles were founded to create new roles for ourselves. This puts us in the worst of both worlds and neither individual nor political means can overcome this problem. What we lack are the material preconditions required to make use of our freedom from traditional roles and this cannot be fudged.
The critique of both the Left and the Right is that they want us to make choices without having the material means to effect those choices. They think it is sufficient to have individual choice (liberty) or political choice (democracy) and deny the dependence of all choices on the means of life. But if you don’t have access to the means of life, all of your individual and political choices come down to how to get access.
Thus, Left politics can never be more than a crude, vulgar clash between proletarians over access to the means of life. Any attempt to elevate this nasty competitive conflict for survival to the aim of proletarians is as crude and vulgar as the competition itself. In the end, proletarian politics is all about a crude struggle for survival and efforts to erect barriers against the competitive pressures other proletarians.
There is no more future in proletarian politics than there is a future for proletarians themselves. The proletarians are, in the first instance, nothing more than the detritus thrown off from class society, its refuse, its waste product. In the second instance, they are daily being rendered superfluous even as a condition of bourgeois society. Proletarians have no future, no place in society, no function but to serve as pool of cheap labor or cannon fodder for imperialist outrages. This is not their world and the next world is not for them either. As a class they are nothing more than the end of the line for class society, its ultimate destination. We can only pass to the next society as individuals, the class itself must perish, its politics must perish. Politics is nothing more than a means of delaying the inevitable.
We need to stop promoting the idea that proletarian political revolution is possible; as a political force the proletarians have been exhausted for more than 100 years. We have never known the proletarians as a class capable of seizing power and managing society. That is a 19th century portrait of the proletarians that has been invalid since they slaughtered each other for their own bourgeoisie. That proletariat, the proletariat of the first international, is never coming back and we need to deal with that reality. We have to learn to accept it and move on.
If the problem we face is not politics itself, then you are forced to blame the way people are doing politics. Like the Right and the Left, communists are blaming the poor individual or political choices people are making. Basically, they are saying that if people made better individual or political choices, we wouldn’t have an Obama or a Trump.
Do communists really want to be in the position of parroting (in a slightly altered form) the talking points of the Democraps and GOP?
- “Proletarians keep getting screwed because they don’t vote for communists.”
- “Proletarians keep getting screwed because they voted for opportunists like Syriza.”
- “Proletarians keep getting screwed because they got fooled by Obama.”
- “Proletarians keep getting screwed because Clinton sold them out.”
- “Proletarians keep getting screwed because Bush stole the election.”
- “Proletarians keep getting screwed because they are racist.”
Every defeat of the proletariat is rationalized in such a way that the issue of politics itself is never called into question; every defeat is attributed to one incidental defect of democracy or another.
Here is the thing: A rejection of politics should leave us with nothing: no strategy, no tactics, no demands, no aims. This is only right, since our strategy, tactics, demands and aims have all been focused on politics and winning political power. Since the time of the Manifesto, the standard boilerplate is that the proletariat would seize state power and undertake its own emancipation Rejection of politics is the rejection of this standard boilerplate.
This assertion will raise a lot of eyebrows, even if it flows directly from my argument, but remember: according to the Manifesto, the taking of state power was always assumed to be “economically insufficient and untenable”. The folks who proposed to seize political power never for even one instant believed the seizure of political power was itself sufficient. I am only adding here that it is also not necessary. If, as I have argued, politics is a dead end now, nothing in communist literature suggests we need a political starting point.
Let me give you an idea what that means. In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels write: “The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.” However, what happens if the “settling of matters” is decided in favor of the bourgeoisie? What happens then? Is the revolution finished? I ask this because the period between 1914 and 1945 looks a lot like things were “settled” in favor of the bourgeoisie. By and large, we haven’t heard a peep out of the proletariat since then.
Yes, people may point to 1968, but that is mostly complete bullshit blown up in the imaginations of radicals — 1968 never really challenged the rule of capital. Similarly, the civil rights movement was suppressed and its leaders murdered or bought off. The labor movement collapsed in short order. Nothing is left of any of the struggles of the sixties. So, you radicals can stop patting yourselves on the back. The reality is that the conflict was settled between 1914 and 1945 and our side got its ass handed to it, bigly. The proletarian political revolution was exterminated in Auschwitz with the Jews, Gypsies and the disabled. Some may still anticipate a rebirth of the proletarian political revolution; I am not one of those people. I think it is finished.
But the communist movement of society is not finished; that movement necessarily ends with communism. The caveat is that this movement is not itself political; although it was expressed in the political conflict between classes. It is a material movement; the development of the productive forces of society, which carries in its wake a social transformation. The productive forces of society are no more than the material precondition for this transformation.
The defeat of the proletarians didn’t halt this movement; in fact the defeat like all of those suffered by the proletarians only accelerated the development of the forces of production. It added new impetus to the expansion of the world market, increased the population of the propertyless, and drew nations into closest possible intercourse. It has concentrated political, military and economic might into the hands of Washington, and stripped nation states of their sovereignty. It has, in other words, made it possible to conceive of a global communism founded on the highest level of development of the productive forces. A local communism based on undeveloped forces of production and limited intercourse and bound by superstition — a communism of poverty — is no longer possible in our time.
But these achievements come at a price: in an era where each nation is utterly dependent on its economic relations with other nations, and competition has developed to a point where workers separated by thousands of miles are now in direct competition with one another, the possibility of a single working class effecting meaningful national political change no longer exists. People who keep fucking around with national politics have no hope for success. Moreover, the domination of national governments by capital is so firmly entrenched there is no possibility the two can be separated. There are no national economies anymore and no basis for a national economy to be recreated.
How can there be a national politics without a national economy? It’s a pipe-dream.
My argument then is that people keep making “the wrong individual and political choices” because all individual and political choices are wrong. People are, of course, free to continue making whatever choices they want, but nothing about our society suggests any of these choices are relevant. Most people on the Left accept that individual choices cannot significantly change outcomes, but they refuse to accept that this might be true for political choices as well.
In fact, the problem is not which party, politician or program you choose, but democracy itself. Our democracy is now as empty of real material content as the American dollar is empty of value.