Tuesday, July 10, 2012
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.
Posted by t at 9:48 AM