Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"The Exhaustion of Utopian Energies"

This phrase--repeated rather often in certain left-academic circles--was coined by Jurgen Habermas in 1990. It is often cited as a definitive statement that the "old Left" ideas of class struggle, emancipation, socialism, and so on are no longer viable. Those ideas--inspiring though they may be in the abstract--have lost their pull and can no longer be an effective political force in contemporary capitalist societies (or, as they are more often called by theorists who run in these circles: "post-Fordist societies", "post-industrial societies", etc.).

I'd just like to offer a few reasons why I think this phrase is bullshit.

First, it makes it sound as though the "utopian energies" of the radical Left simply gave up the fight and ran out of steam on their own. It makes it seem as if radical social transformation was just an idea some of us had that became exhausted because of some fault internal to the idea. It makes it sound like the Left just threw in the towel sometime in the 1980s and 90s because it's ideas "lacked energy".

Now, of course, it's not false to say that the 1980s and 90s were generally speaking rather dark decades for the Left. But it's absurd to say that they were dark simply because certain ideas--of revolution, of class struggle, etc.--simply lost their luster and became "exhausted". That lets the capitalist system and the ruling class off the hook. Materialist histories of neoliberalism--David Harvey's is generally quite good, but there are plenty of others--explain rather clearly why this narrative doesn't hold water.

Also, Habermas might as well have called much of the post-War era one in which "utopian energies" were exhausted, inasmuch as capitalism was booming and the radical Left was far weaker on the whole than it had been in the inter-war period. And, of course, during this time the real Left was marginalized by the hegemony of Stalinism internationally. And, as we know, plenty of people did at this time proclaim the "end of ideology", the emergence of a "post-industrial society", and all the rest. There was a sense that capitalism was "fixed" by technocratic Keynesian counter-cyclical maneuvers, and many proclaimed the radical Left moribund. Then they were caught off guard in the 1960s when class struggle exploded on a mass scale. The same mistake was made by those who bought into the big lie that "there is no alternative" in 1989.

This brings me to the second reason why this phrase should be tossed in the dustbin of history. As anyone who has a pulse has surely noticed, the last two years have been packed full of episodes of escalating global struggle. From Tahrir to Athens, from Spain to Mexico, from Quebec to the Occupy movement, and so on and so forth, there has been an explosion of social struggle all over the world on a scale unwitnessed in the last 30 years. It doesn't mean a victory for the Left is inevitable. Nor does it mean a defeat for neoliberalism is sure to follow. But it does mean--beyond the shadow a doubt--that the Left has an audience and that the opportunities for renewal and growth are bigger now than they have been for a generation.

In this context, only the most out-of-touch, ahitorical cynic could still rationally cling to the analysis that the "exhaustion of utopian energies" limits the horizon of what's possible for the Left.

Third, I don't share Habermas's despair at the events of 1989--they were a deliverance from a repressive system that held back workers struggles and strangled the Left. On this question, Alex Callinicos's The Revenge of History is a must-read. The uprisings of 1989 briefly offered the possibility for new forms of struggle, but they were quickly crushed under the boot of neoliberalism from above administered by Washington. The badness of neoliberalism, however, does not imply anything good about the repressive, state-capitalist formations that fell in 1989. There was nothing "utopian" about them--they were top-down, bureaucratic formations that were locked into international competition with advanced capitalist nations. For most of the Left, they had long since ceased to be a source of renewal and inspiration. 1989, then, wasn't a surprise blow to a glowing beacon of Leftist hope, but rather the predictable collapse of an exploitative system under its own weight.

Yet Habermas claims that this event signals a defeat for Marxism as such. This is nothing but Cold War propaganda. It implies that Stalinism and Marxism are synonymous and papers over the long, well-established Left tradition that opposed those societies from the late 1920s onward. Strangely, Habermas and the Frankfurt School were part of that tradition who proclaimed "neither Moscow nor Washington!", so I find it baffling that Habermas could act so forlorn when Stalinism collapsed when it did. In retrospect, he would have to agree that he was being pulled along by the general ideological distortion of the age--namely the narrative for which Fukuyama became famous which posited an "end of history" and a perpetual present of neoliberal capitalism.

Finally, as Habermas himself argued in earlier work, it isn't quite right to call the radical Left "utopian". He himself opposed "Utopian socialism" for all the right reasons in the 60s and 70s: because it's elitist, because it rejects workers self-emancipation and struggle, because it is unconnected to a critical sociology of the present, etc.

But seen from the present, the only genuinely utopian aspect of Habermas's 1990 proclamation is the idea that neoliberal capitalism can persist forever. That idea--not the idea that we can radically change society--is what's incredibly unrealistic. I hesitate to say that "TINA" is exhausted, but it's clearly panting heavily under a great deal of stress. Most of the Left is eager to deliver a knock-out blow to that dogma in a context where youth the world over seem to be unshackled by it. In this context, repeating this mantra of the "exhaustion of Utopian energies" does nothing except out oneself as out of sync with contemporary events.


foreignersview said...

Looks like Habermas and the rest have an attention span of less than 30 years.

Juan Garcia said...

Great critique of Habermas! Though I don't agree with the state capitalist analysis of the Soviet Union, though part of that is with me not being able to follow that methodology of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. I wonder how the state capitalism analysis and framework can be seen today? I'm also wondering what your thoughts on the theory are as the more I read Trotsky's views on the degeneration of the Soviet Union, the more I think his methodology and analysis were confirmed by the fall of it. I'm wondering if you could expand on this in the future in some post? I think this is especially true with Cuba and could be a way to engage with some of the revolutionary left who think Cuba is still a worker's state. I myself think Capitalism was restored there in the 90s. I'd be down to contribute my thoughts on the theory of the degeneration of these revolutions that were frozen and reverted back to capitalism in the future as well haha ;0

Juan Garcia said...

Great blog by the way compa, I'm a big fan! ;0

t said...

@foreignersview: yes, I agree... at some point they stop paying attention, but they ought to know better given the purported historical sensitivity of their own work.

@Juan Garcia: thanks for your comments. As far as the State Cap anaylsis is concerned, I am not wedded to it, it just strikes me as the most plausible for the time being, given that I haven't spent enough time surveying all of the close alternatives. So I'm actually pretty open minded here in terms of what theory we need to best characterize how the revolution was lost.

But from what I know about Trotsky's line (e.g. in the Revolution Betrayed), he continues to look at the USSR as a workers' state--albeit a distorted, degenerated one--because the means of production weren't private property but rather state-owned. I disagree with this perspective, however, because I think a workers state must be under the direct control of workers in order to be one. State ownership can't be the criterion we want to distinguish workers states because if the workers have no control over the state, it's not a workers state. I will admit, though, that I don't know Trotsky's precise line here, and I have in general a lot of respect for his work. I'd be curious to know what you think about his methodology here.

As far as the degeneration of the rev is concerned, I'm tempted to side with views that stress the international dynamics at work--as well as the material conditions in Russia. So, one thing I like about the State Cap analysis is that it stresses the importance of understanding the effects of international competition--economic, political and military--on the internal development of the USSR. Once the revolution is isolated, and socialism in one country is adopted by the bureaucracy around Stalin, its main goal becomes rather explicitly to out-perform big western capitalist states by playing their game--building up big military machines and ruthlessly exploiting labor to boost "growth".

To be sure, I think the label "state capitalist" is klunky and I can see problems with the theory. And I do think there was a substantive change in 1989, but I don't think it was a shift from socialism to capitalism. I take the USSR to have been a class society in which workers were dispossessed from the means of production and exploited by those in a position to effectively control it.

Cuba is a topic for another discussion... ;)

Richard said...

the Habermas perspective is rather odd when you realize that we have been, and continue to be subjected to, one of the most perverse utopian value systems in history, the one that subjects all human needs and desires to the artificial quantification of the market

Rocky Rococo said...

While its certainly true that the collapse of the multiple variants of socialism wasn't some homeostatic process, that doesn't mean that the effect, what we are left with, is any different than if it were. The working classes in all the metropolitan centers of the Empire of Global Capital have thoroughly bought into reactionary neoliberalism and bourgeois hegemony. Socialism as it once existed, both in its revolutionary and reformist manifestations, has no mass base of support anywhere outside the most marginalized and backwards economies, precisely the reverse of the material basis for socialism that was the premise for Marxist materialism in its entirety.

Now it is certainly true that in response to the financial crisis, and the global bourgeoisie's opportunistic use of its own failures to fasten an ever-harsher austerity around the necks of the rest o us has led to some widespread, occasionally even powerful, if unfocused and often inchoate uprisings. With the old left ideologies left in dilapidated ruins under the ideological, political and economic onslaught of Reaganite-Thatcherite capitalist hegemony, societythoroughly atomized (often enthusiastically embracing the abandonment of solidarity and class consciousness for "rugged individualism"), these movements when they have achieved some measure of success have shown a propensity to swing right--hard right. If we want anything but that we have a mighty long road to walk, building a clear set of political ideas, ideals and strategies that resonate as relevant, accessible, and capable of withstanding the ideological metal storm that globally hegemonic capital is able to inflict. When necessary, authoritarian violence in the streets can be used to crush nascent rebellion--see "Occupy". More permanently, the rulers have techniques of distraction, diversion and division that in almost all cases will make such use of the iron fist unnecessary, as the ability to assemble a critical mass of opposition is neutralized.

Now "The Coming Insurrection" wrns, correctly, against the likes of me, who have spent a lifetime losing rear-guard battles against the rising hegemony, and absolutely the likes of me should step aside and leave the fighting to the newer generations not so worn down. But that doesn't mean the things I point out aren't so, simply that our onlyy hope is that younger generations can find better ideas that people like me know all too well by the scars they have left on us.