The Left must dare to think the unthinkable, says Jeremy Seabrook.
The Right has swept all before it. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been in the ascendant everywhere in the world. Growing social injustice, the aggravation of inequality, the preservation of wealth and power where these are already concentrated – this is the stirring programme of the Right. To ‘think the unthinkable’ today means solemnly to enunciate the most barbaric, discredited and inhumane political ideas.
As we have seen over the past two decades, today’s unthinkable becomes tomorrow’s orthodoxy. Privatizing health- care, cutting government support to nutrition programmes, dismantling the structures of welfare, undermining education, leaving the poorest and most vulnerable to make their own accommodation with the global system – this has been their unthinkable. It is distinguished by having been much thought about, not only in the recent past. It was elaborated, implemented and vigorously defended during the heyday of laissez-faire in the early industrial era. What we are now seeing is its spectacular second coming: the greatest comeback in the history of the showbusiness that is politics.
No-one on the Left speaks of thinking the unthinkable. Why is this? Is it because everything on the Left is, unlike the revelations of the Right, truly unthinkable? Or is it because the Left has been so thoroughly routed that the best it can hope for is to think yesterday’s orthodoxies? A kind of conservatism by default; an institutionalized nostalgia for the time when History was on our side. Is this why the Left worldwide has, in the declared absence of any alternative overarching ideologies, rushed to nestle beneath the overarching ideology of profit? Or why the Left, timid and imitative, now offers only the most pallid reflections of the prevailing orthodoxies of the Right?
The Right’s rethinking is a resurrection of mouldering graveyard ideologies which we once imagined laid to rest for all time. What strikes people as ‘new thinking’, ‘audacious new policies for the twenty-first century’, the breaking of taboos, is all deeply familiar. The only novelty is that it is now being disseminated globally. It is a kind of economic fundamentalism promoted with missionary zeal and fanatic ardour, much as religious missionaries once went forth to baptize the heathen in Africa, Asia and the Americas.
How to renew hope
The error of the Left has been to assume that this return to fundamentals by its enemies must and can be matched by an equivalent return to its own roots. This is untrue; the roots have atrophied with the old industrial culture. The moment in which the project of the Left was formulated is past; only the formulae remain. This is why the Left appears to have been stranded, like sectarians selling their tracts on windy street corners to unbelievers and sceptics who scarcely give them a second glance.
The people have indeed changed. They have become locked into capitalism’s version of answering need, dependents of a market economy (the real dependency culture) which knows no other way than mediating all need through money – which prioritizes the whims of the rich over the necessities for survival of the poor.
The unthinkable for the Left does not mean a return to relying on a benign State to establish distributive and social justice. Governments in any case can exert only the most marginal moderating influence on the vast privatizations we have seen in the world, as all the global commons have been enclosed, the resources expropriated, people evicted from lands that are required for mineral concessions or agribusiness controlled by the transnationals.
For the Left, the unthinkable can no longer even mean cradle-to-grave welfare, for this was always dependent upon the wealth-creating processes of the capitalist version of industrialism. And it is the industrial system itself which, at the moment of its greatest apparent triumph, is now in crisis. The gift to capital of the collapse of communism was that this masked the deeper sickness which lies at the heart of an industrialism without end, to which no alternative is now permissible.
No, the Left must now rethink the very nature of industrial society. It should contemplate ways of disengaging from a wasting, squandering, abusive industrialism. That doesn’t mean going back to the past (any more than it meant going back to Russia, as the Right until recently dismissively taunted). What it does mean is squarely facing up to the damage to the resource-base of the earth upon which all economic systems depend. And at the same time we must hold fast to a commitment to social justice for all. This is the alternative; and one which will become ever clearer with the passage of time.
It is a far more difficult and profound task than anything previously undertaken by a Left which always imagined that the fruits of industrialism had only to be more equitably distributed to bring about socialism. The renewal of hope demands a global, international perspective, not a ritual exchange of fraternal greetings at conferences. It exacts new economic thinking in which wealth is not measured only in money. It demands a struggle for liberation from the very phenomenon which has hitherto been seen as the supreme creator of wealth – the industrialized answering of human need.
That other measures than gross national product (GNP) should be employed to assess well-being is already commonplace in the New Economics, in people’s movements and alternative forums all over the world. Further, the invasion by the market economy of areas of activity from which it should be excluded – the traffic in women and children, for instance, the trade in illegal arms, the genetic manipulation of life-forms – demonstrates the necessity, not for ‘liberalization’, but for a more stringent, rigorous and popular control. Market-free zones must be declared wherever people need protection, wherever the idolatry of profit rides roughshod over their lives.
The Left was always mesmerized by Marx’s admiration for the wonders of industrial society. Our continuing meek submission to a phenomenon which he would surely by now have long repudiated means that we shall be constantly outdistanced and manipulated by the Right.
Any significant critique cannot any longer sustain itself from within the industrial system which is consuming both the earth and its people. There is no possibility of existing patterns of industrialism offering sustenance or even survival to the poor. It cannot even furnish the rich and privileged with security, with freedom from fear, with a calm enjoyment of plenty, with a decent sufficiency – so how will the poor achieve these things?
While the Left shrinks from the implications of such disagreeable issues, the Right exercises no such self-restraint. In the high places where the Right now does its unthinkable thinking, the consequences of such thoughts have already been charted. The conserving of wealth where it already exists in abundance means the expendability of the poor, the forcible appropriation of the resources of others, which in turn will require an ever-more-coercive policing. What this means for those surviving on the edge of existence is known. There are no proscriptions on the unthinkable excogitations of the Right, however bloody and macabre they might be.
There is still a world to be won; the world of familiar, known, loved landscapes and the habitats and home-places of its people. In this world its treasures, wonders and myriad life-forms are not simply transformed into cash.
To start thinking the impossible means discovering afresh new forms of collective endeavour, new solidarities, different ways in which we can answer our own and others’ needs. It involves reclaiming what we can do and make for ourselves and each other – outside the parasitic and reductive market system, with whose accelerating and destructive tempo our poor human rhythms can never keep pace.
The process has already begun, as popular revolt bursts out all over the world against injustice and oppression. The farmers of Karnataka, India, deceived by promises of high yields from the seeds of the transnational Cargill, did not wait for Leftists to sanction their destruction of the corporation’s Bangalore offices in 1993. The people of Goa, resisting the siting of a Dupont plant in the heart of their unique landscape, did not consult any politburo before acting. Independent trade unionists in Indonesia staged their demonstrations in Medan in 1994 and in the heart of Jakarta itself in July 1996, without asking themselves whether the time was ripe for global revolution. Similarly, in Germany, the boycott of the Shell company over the dumping of the Brent Spar oil-rig in 1995 was a spontaneous response of the people. The fights of the indigenous peoples against developmental violence in Brazil, the Philippines and Malaysia, do not take their cue from existing Left politics which have proved too narrow to accommodate the vast range of struggles now illuminating the world with fresh hope.
The existing Left – that is to say, the bogus Left, the Left of convenience, the trimming, craven Left – has yielded. It has surrendered, having done nothing to address the inequalities of any one country, let alone the world. This is the Left of Gonzalez and Mitterand who, beneath their socialist banners, implemented policies identical to those of Thatcher. This has been the Left of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, embracing right-thinking economic orthodoxies that have banished even the possibility of a modest revival of Keynesianism. In the US, meanwhile, to be taunted with the fearful ‘L-word’ – a fate which all political aspirants wish to avoid – is to be ‘accused’, not of being Leftist, but of being merely liberal.
Green and Red renewal
The question to ask Tony Blair, leader of the British Labour Party, or even Indian Prime Minister Deve Gowda, is how they propose to avoid a similar fate. What do they intend to do to prevent the poor from paying a disproportionate price as their countries are ‘integrated’ into the global economy? How would the promised efficiency of the economy – even if it could be achieved in Britain or in India – do anything other than hasten resource-depletion and exacerbate worsening global injustice? What kind of wasteland will the children of tomorrow inherit when today’s consumption has used up their future? How shall we avoid the inevitable resource-wars of a planet plundered in a competitive industrializing fury? Most significant of all, whose side are we on in the Third World War: the present war against the Third World, the war against the poor, the silent scandalous sacrifice of the children who perish in sight of images of luxury and excess transmitted by the one-way channels of media communications conglomerates?
The obsession of the Blairs and Gowdas with electoral power when the powers of nation-states are fading away is both archaic and doomed. There is an alternative. It is a vast and vital work of renewal. We can recover control and power over our own lives. We must determine our own needs and how best to answer them. We don’t have to resign ourselves to entering a competitive struggle for the privilege of managing the organized impotence which is now the purpose of politics.
It is time we started thinking our own version of the unthinkable. For that would be truly new ground, unlike the exhausted territory which the thinkers of Rightist unthinkabilities, in all their unimaginative cruelty and indecency, are trying to wish upon a poor, wasting, suffering world.
Jeremy Seabrook is a prolific author, one of the few political commentators equally at home writing about the life and politics of both North and South. He is writing a whole issue of the NI about a poor community in Bombay he knows well.
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