By Greg Godels
October 11, 2022
We are bombarded by academics, commentators, consultants — experts of every type– who build their brands on telling us what our rulers want us to hear. Through calculated ruses, they penetrate our entertainment, even our escapism, with embedded messages that strengthen conformity and consensus.
The purveyors of this conformity– the messengers– are given the stolid image of trustworthy tradition or the superficial appearance of daring nonconformity or diversity, depending on the sensibility of the audience, though the message is the same in all cases.
Some on the left like to dress this domination of the field of ideas– a relentless, ongoing process– with the sexy Gramscian notion of ruling class “hegemony,” but it has long been a part of the leftist legacy of Marx– “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class” — and recognized, but undoubtedly unspoken even before Marx.
But today’s bourgeois society has utilized previously unimaginable advances in communication and technology to achieve even more unimaginable control over the thinking of the people. This is what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky so insightfully called “manufacturing consent.”
There is, and will always be, resistance to this conformity– the attempt at mass hypnosis. From Marx’s time, it has mostly been aimed at the ruling class– then understood almost universally as the capitalist class and its courtiers.
But two related events have changed the character of this resistance. First, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of its role as an alternative model to capitalism. Since 1991, the idea of a radical departure– a complete rupture– with capitalism has been shattered, replaced by tactical attacks on aspects or types of capitalism: disaster-capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, racial-capitalism, carbon-fueled capitalism, and a host of other hyphenated capitalisms. The hyphens tell us that it is not capitalism, per se, that must be rejected, but variants of an otherwise benign economic system. Countless activists and organizations propound anti-capitalism, but never tell us what they think should replace capitalism. The word “socialism” never appears in their narrative.
And second, the retreat of social democracy, which was once understood as a socially more egalitarian alternative to raw capitalism, and yet an alternative that paradoxically retained the capitalist class at the summit of economic and political activity. The once popular social democracy abandoned the program of leveling the effects of capitalism for a promissory note of expanded opportunity and the inherent justice of markets. In place of wealth and income redistribution and welfarism, the new social democracy subscribes to the clever maxim that a rising tide lifts all boats, so let’s unleash the tide and let the boats fend for themselves!
Nothing more clearly demonstrates that classic redistributive social democracy is not merely ill, but in its death throes than the swift, unprincipled, and complete destruction of the Jeremy Corbyn program in the UK Labour Party or the stealth undermining of the progressive wing of the US Democratic Party by party conservatives and the wing’s own ready capitulation.
The left suffers from a foreign policy disconnect as well. Where Marxism and real-existing socialism insisted that capitalism and imperialism were intrinsically tied, the vast majority of the left today drink from the capitalist goblet, associating global social justice with the moral crusades of the advanced capitalist powers. A carefully groomed notion of human rights– rights anchored in petty bourgeois interests– and a long-soiled, class-biased, strictly formal concept of democracy seduce the weak-tea left.
Unfortunately, those seduced by these views side with the US and its allies or occupy the sidelines in aggressions aimed at Cuba, Venezuela, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and today’s war in Ukraine, among others.
Fortunately, there is a small, but dedicated segment of the left that staunchly and consistently opposes Great Power imperialism, though many of them myopically see it as solely the adventures of the US and its NATO allies. They fail to recognize the Leninist thesis that imperialism is the inevitable product of mature capitalism. And all capitalist powers– big and small– engage with imperialism; they have no choice in the matter. Whether they have a dominant capitalist sector or a robust public sector, capital will pursue its expansion within the imperialist system and compete with other capitals within that system. Invariably, capital influences states on a local, regional, national or international level, everywhere that capital seeks profit. In the era of imperialism, capital does not influence the state, it typically is the state. With the demise of the Soviet-centered socialist community, there is no place uninfected by capital.
The long dominance of US-based capitalism– just as the long dominance of British capitalism before it– has led some to believe that the logic of capitalism is not relevant to countries with weaker or fewer monopolies or less integrated finance capital. In a sense, they believe that because the less powerful national capitals fail to compete successfully, because they are restricted in markets, denied financial resources, barred from resources, sanctioned, threatened, or otherwise pressed into a dependent or subordinate role by US capital and its enormous, powerful coercive structures, both the people and their rulers alike– and their battered capitalist enterprises– are, therefore, equally victims of US capital.
Indeed, the people are victims, but they are victims of capitalism, not solely US capitalism.
In today’s imperialist game of capitalist competition, US monopoly capital is the big winner, but if they weren’t, someone else would be. And if some other state monopoly capitalist great power replaces the US, everyone else would, in some way or another, be losers. That is the essential feature of capitalist competition since its origin; it is the heart beat of capitalism.
Of course, US capitalism and its predatory ways must be exposed and resisted. The people of Europe must understand that the sacrifices that they are being told to make to maintain a war in Ukraine are extorted by US capitalism’s plan to wrest the European energy market from Russia.
But the pain that they will experience from tenacious inflation and government-induced recession must be laid at the capitalist system’s doorstep and not only that of the US empire.
The tragedy unfolding in Europe is a consequence of imperialist competition, imperialist alliances, and the instability of capitalism, none of which can be completely overcome without a full-scale attack on capitalism and its replacement with a cooperative, profit-free social system.
Capitalism, exploitation, and its associated oppression constitute the ultimate source of the misery and suffering that afflict a world that produces unprecedented wealth– wealth sufficient to eliminate most of that suffering endured by humanity.
When the left forgets that intimate connection between capitalism, imperialism, and war, it tragically takes sides in the war in Ukraine. Lenin, who best articulated the connection, called for ending all imperialist war or –should it break out– turning war into civil war to overthrow capitalism; he saw no other choice that served the working class and its interests.
Consider Iran. Today, we may see the recent rising in Iran depicted as a feminist revolution liberating Iranian women from the tyranny of a moral police; we may see the opposition as a sign of the stirrings of oppressed people, both religiously and nationally oppressed; we may rightly warn of the always present stealth hand of hostile outside forces working to create a more pliable regime, specifically the US security services.
Yet there is no complete picture without noting the class question– the matter of social inequality under capitalism. Today’s Iran has social inequality rivaling the US (World Bank). Iranian figures show the bottom 10% getting 2% of gross national income while the top 10% get 31%. The afflictions of global capitalism such as rampant inflation strike Iran hard.
While economic aggression by the US and the EU affects the Iranian economy and must be opposed, the economic system and its supporters are the ultimate enemy of the people. The left must recognize this reality and applaud and encourage the Iranian people’s resistance to capitalism and all of its symptoms. Solidarity with the working class is not negotiable. For many decades, the left has experienced a “retreat from class,” to borrow Ellen Meiksins Wood’s deeply insightful words. The left must not misjudge this moment; it must halt the retreat and recognize the enemy: capitalism.