One of the more problematic areas of classical leftist theory is Marx’s historical materialism. Whilst a compelling model of analysis it is inescapably deterministic – a teleology based in class struggle that perceives revolution as not only necessary but inevitable. True, whilst there has been much written since Marx that works towards resolving that problematic element it’s a reflex implicit in much left analysis, that if only things are explained correctly, if only historical circumstances would align then capitalism would have to end. Since the mid-2000s where capitalism entered one of its more vulnerable states there was a flurry of books, blogs, articles, papers, talks all centred round one particular idea. That this was the time. That history was on our side. That THIS TIME capitalism was going to have to change.
Since Occupy fizzled out in a wave of anti-climax and politicians rallied in defence of the neo-liberal profit machine the inescapable sense of confusion has been impossible to fully shake off. Where did it go wrong? Or perhaps, more accurately, what did we do wrong? Call it the ideological anti-climax.
This is perhaps understandable – a malaise that lies beneath the surface of the post Occupy, post-revolutionary Left. The value of such a feeling is that it can be the driving force for a new wave of theoretical introspection; as Zizek puts it, it’s ‘time to start thinking.’
Over on Twitter a couple of weeks ago I spent some time talking about and around New Historicism, the school of theory influenced by Foucault’s history and popularised by, amongst others, Stephen Greenblatt. Whilst predominately a mode of literary criticism New Historicism is potentially a useful way of looking at politics too and moving beyond the determinism of historical materialism. By stressing the contingency of textual and cultural production the new historicists avoid the trap of expecting a certain historical end. Where this intersects with politics is self-evident. Modern politicians with their carefully cultivated image and speech are cultural texts, capable of being read in just the same way as Shakespeare. Just as Shakespeare existed as a matter of historical contingency so to do we have a historically contingent Prime Minister. The recently announced policy of a levied charge on all plastic bags in supermarkets is a microcosm of Cameroon historical contingency, a weird melange of Thatcherite capitalism married to New Labour style concern for socially relevant issues such as the environment. Whilst the policy may be well intentioned it’s another example of a problem of capitalism being solved using capitalism itself.
If it’s impossible to conceive of Cameron as Prime Minister without Thatcher and Blair, constructed as his is from the legacies of those last two figures then where things may get more concerning for those who count themselves on the left is that mainstream opposition to the right is historical contingent upon the Tory exercise of power. Fundamentally reactive Ed Miliband and the Labour party could not exist in their current form without David Cameron. The anodyne plasticity of modern politics has rendered the mainstream “left” party into a perverted echo of the government, shaped by forces external to it, and unable to recognise what it once was.
Where do we look then if our mainstream political discourse is so constructed by the contingencies and necessities of history?
To the outside.
To the radical.
To the fringe.
In the wake of disappointment and disillusion the temptation is to retreat, to withdraw and pull back within our oppositional barricades but to construct something new requires multiplicity and risk. We don’t need one movement, but many – and perhaps one of the most encouraging things about a post Occupy left is a renewed proliferation of thinking, organising and acting. Much has been done, but if history proves anything it is that revolutionary change is far from inevitable.