The North Korea of Neoliberalism


To assume that the United Kingdom would leave the European Union in order to escape from neoliberalism is as naive and misleading as assuming that North Korea has historically kept its distance from the USSR and China as a way of escaping Communism. In both cases, we are dealing with a power that maintains an antagonistic and ambiguous relationship to its natural allies as a way of intensifying and purifying the ideological and disciplinary structure that unites them.

North Korea wanted the purest Communism, the truest instance of “socialism in one country.” The Juche ideology of “self-reliance” or “self-assertion” was of course delusional — as a small, out-of-the-way country, North Korea was always heavily reliant on trade and subsidies — but it has remained improbably powerful even up to this day. The comprehensive ideological apparatus and isolationism of North Korea has thus allowed its spectacularly unproductive economic system to endure far beyond the “classical” Communism of which it presents itself as the purest form.

Especially if Brexit succeeds, I could see a similar future for the United Kingdom as the North Korea of neoliberalism: British society organized as a vast, and startlingly unproductive, work-camp, governed by empty nationalistic slogans and rote pageantry. Even if and when neoliberalism is superceded, the UK would continue down its own unique path of self-punishment, scapegoating foreign interference until the last Secretary of State for Business, Innovation, and Skills works the last handicapped cancer patient to death.

Tragedy and Revolution

This article on the Russian Revolution by Lars T. Lih makes for interesting reading. He argues that leftist and liberal critics of the Soviet Union alike have over-emphasized doctrinal or ideological disputes, which were in fact meant to provide post-hoc rationalizations for decisions that had been made on other grounds. The key decision was whether some kind of accomodation must be made with the “bourgeois” educated class or whether the working class and its party would need to “go it alone.” Mensheviks favored the former, while the Bolsheviks obviously preferred the latter.

What’s striking to me about Lih’s argument is that he claims that both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks were empirically right about the situation on the ground — that really was the key decision. They were having the right argument. Continue reading “Tragedy and Revolution”

A counter-reading of the 20th century

What if we viewed the Soviet Union as the single most important political actor of the 20th century? While reviled, it staved off some of the worst possible outcomes — above all the victory of the Nazis. One could also argue, perhaps more counterintuitively and controversially, that their development of nuclear weapons prevented all-out nuclear war by subjecting the US (which showed itself to be willing and even eager to use nuclear weapons when it was the sole nuclear power) to the logic of “mutual assured destruction.” (Of course, both achievements are reversed in popular mythology: now Western schoolchildren learn that the US defeated Hitler all but singlehandedly and that the Soviets were constantly itching to carry out a nuclear first strike.)

The rise of the Soviet Union also had the indirect effect of enabling the postwar settlement that gave workers an unprecedented (and long-mourned) seat at the table. Between this and the boom in investment, the postwar era serves as a kind of Golden Age for most Western nations — an era of broadly shared prosperity that in the US even appeared capacious enough to start accommodating the demands of women and blacks. Meanwhile in the decolonizing world, the existence of two centers of global power allowed newly-formed countries some room to maneuver, rather than allowing the US to simply take on the mantle of the former colonizers unchallenged. In neither part of the world are we looking at a paradise, but surely everyone was better off — or at least on a better trajectory — than they would be under the neoliberal settlement.

Paradoxically, however, if the existence of the Soviet Union made the Western capitalist classes more willing to accommodating workers’ demands, the unattractive example of the Soviet model — which was exaggerated for ideological reasons but still fell far short of its promises — deprived the rebellions of the 60s and 70s of their logical endpoint. Even though there were movements that had some vision for overthrowing the capitalist ruling classes once and for all and organizing economic life differently, there was never a real popular mandate for such a change. Indeed, the concessions that Western powers made in order to counter the communist threat often served to legitimate capitalism as such, even though such measures were a significant (and as we now know, sadly short-lived) aberration.

From the perspective of Nixon’s “silent majority,” then, the rebellions appeared to be narcissitic and self-indulgently romantic at best, dangerously naive and nihilistic at worst. The crackdown that began in the 70s thus enjoyed popular support even as it destroyed the basis for the widely shared prosperity that legitimized the power structures that were carrying it out. I don’t want to claim that the Soviet Union had any serious capacity to assist in fighting this crackdown — certainly their foreign policy had long been to maintain the status quo indefinitely — nor that it would have necessarily turned out better if they had. But by monopolizing the space for an international anti-capitalist movement without actually maintaining the ambitions that went with it, it effectively deprived the Western leftist movements (which its very existence had done so much to enable, albeit mostly indirectly) of any ground to stand on.

Overall, if we think, as good Marxists must, in messianic/apocalyptic terms, then the Soviet Union was not the messiah of the left, but the katechon — successfully heading off one “man of lawlessness” (Hitler) and holding another (the US) at bay for over a generation. And now that it has been removed, the man of lawlessness enjoys free rein in the form of a rapacious and unrestrained capitalism and in a Western bloc that feels empowered to go to war largely on a whim.

“The End of History”: Some questions

I was reading something today that referred to Fukayama’s thesis that the fall of the Soviet Union marked “the end of history.” As we all know, the theory is that the battle between communism and liberal democratic capitalism was the last major ideological dispute, and once that was settled, history is in principle over even if “things continue to happen.”

I’ve read about this a million times, but this time I asked myself: “What about China, though?” Do only white Communists (the Russians) count? Do we only care about an ideological dispute if it results in a political divide in the subcontinent of Europe? Do we just need a quorum of European countries to hold elections, and suddenly that’s the solution for all time, the only possible answer?

To me, this is the more powerful objection to the trope, beyond the obvious fact that things keep happening: this is some racist, Eurocentric bullshit.

‘Even Lenin’: In the Vanguard of Accelerationism

I am, as usual, late to the accelerationist party (unlike Dan Barber and Josh Ramey, to whom I am clearly indebted here). Reading the Accelerationist Manifesto properly for the first time recently, I was struck by something. ‘Even Lenin’, we are told, supported the idea that socialism depends upon the technological transformations made possible by capitalism.

‘Even Lenin’ makes it sound as if the great Bolshevik were an unlikely ally. Accelerationism is, after all, positioned as breaking with the Luddite shibboleths of the established left. And yet one of the things which stands out from the manifesto is its seeming commitment to the greatest of all far left shibboleths: vanguardism

Social movements – no doubt Occupy is in the crosshairs here – are dismissed for their fetishisation of democracy-as-process, horizontal organisation, communal immediacy and localism. Instead, we are told that ‘Secrecy, ver­tic­ality, and ex­clu­sion all have their place as well in ef­fective polit­ical ac­tion (though not, of course, an ex­clusive one)’. A left intellectual infrastructure is called for, and the means for this will be a left version of the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society, ‘tasked with cre­ating a new ideo­logy, eco­nomic and so­cial models, and a vision of the good to re­place and sur­pass the ema­ci­ated ideals that rule our world today.’

For what it is worth, I think the manifesto is right on the money in identifying the crucial factor of the hegemony of neoliberalism and the evident failure of the left to respond. It is also surely correct to argue against a fetishisation of traditional forms of protest, or an aversion to technological change. Why, though, is it apparently prepared to endorse a tactic which has been such self-perpetuating disaster for large parts of the radical left?

Let me give an example close to (my) home. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK is a Trotsykite organization of a few thousand members, but it has frequently had a higher profile and impact in left politics and movements than its size would suggest. Over the last few years it has been in turmoil, because of the way it handled allegations of rape and sexual harassment leveled at a senior party member.

This is not the place to go into detail about that case, which is well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that, for many of us, it exposed the utter failure of a certain kind of politics, in which the ‘ideology’ and ‘vision’ came from the centre, from a Central Committee elected on a slate system which was hugely difficult to budge. As a corollary, the party was woefully ill equipped to take on the lessons of feminism and social movements other than through attempts to co-opt and re-educate them through front organisations.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that the Manifesto endorses a pluralism of organisations and methods, and a spirit of experimentalism on the left. In an interview, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek have cited networks such as Plan C alongside feminist initiatives around basic income as essentially working along the right lines. So I am not trying to crudely tarnish accelerationism with the misogyny and bullying found in various far left sects.

However, I become concerned when it is implied that a central hub can be constructed to filter and connect these ideas and practices, since that is just what Central Committees imagine themselves to be doing (even if what is envisaged is much smarter and better funded than a small far left party). And I am especially disturbed by the rather easy characterisation of social movements as obsessed with ‘internal direct-​democratic process and affective self-​valorisation’ as opposed to which ‘Real democracy must be defined by its goal — collective self-​mastery’. How can we simply leave ‘democracy-as-process’ behind, if chauvinistic sectarianism and authoritarian centralism are to be avoided?  (as a footnote: during the SWP crisis, branch meetings were addressed by members of the Central Committee, and representatives of an opposition faction. The Committee member was allowed 30 minutes contribution, the opposition was allowed 5-8 minutes. The justification was that the Committee member was the one who could set the debate in its ‘proper political context’. ‘Democratic centralism’ in action – and this is only one of the most benign examples).

Process matters: if the process of revolution is one of instrumentalising democracy and our desires, then it kills the very thing it longs for. Accelerationism’s recognition of the need for experiment augurs well here, but it should lead to a further realisation: particular shared experiences of non-capitalist space and community matter. They may be local and ephemeral, but it does not follow that they are tied to ‘localism’ or that they are ‘merely’ ephemeral when set alongside ideas of reason. In fact, I’d argue these experiences are indispensable to rationality as a form of embodied discernment.

There is no politics without affect. The manifesto itself sees the need for ‘affectively invigorating’ visions of a transhumanist future. But the notion of constructing affects is fraught with danger, not least the production of future legions of self-intoxicated militants and dictatorial organisers, whose principal affect to date has been one of joyless immersion in sacrifice. Please spare us from the heroic vanguard, speeding ahead to save us from the future they have already grasped.

Is China a Communist country?

Recently, I started a White House Petition to “abolish the capitalist mode of production.” My intention was mostly sarcastic, as I did not expect the petition to reach even the threshold to get an official response, much less to be acted upon. The petition prompted a glorified open thread on an Atlantic blog (which mysteriously did not mention my name) as well as many responses on Twitter, all of which subsequently prompted a rant from me about the profound ignorance that prevails around Communism in its Actual Existing forms — including, I argued, the People’s Republic of China, which has been continually controlled by the Communist Party since the time of Mao and is currently carrying out a variation of the economic policies pursued by one of Mao’s close associates, which is itself broadly similar to the New Economic Plan proposed by Lenin but abandoned by Stalin.

The argument that China is not a Communist country seems to be based on the fact that China is pursuing market-based policies in some respects — or, more ignorantly and simplistically, the fact that inequality exists in China. Continue reading “Is China a Communist country?”

When the dictatorship of the proletariat lasts longer than expected

Kim Jeong Un did remarkably well in his recent election to a seat in North Korea’s supreme people’s assembly. The Western media is being suitably sarcastic about the 100% turnout, of whom 100% voted for the young Kim, but for me it highlights a curious thing about communist countries — even in the most extreme case of North Korea, there is some vestige of a “normal” liberal state underneath, with the Communist Party as a kind of overlay. In China, as is well known, the Communist Party isn’t even a legally recognized organization, and meanwhile in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s most decisive reforms consisted precisely in trying to empower the “normal” state at the expense of the Party.

The practice of fixing elections needs to be seen through this lens, as an enactment of the Party’s suspension of the “normal” state. We see this most clearly in the case of Yugoslavia, where Tito had genuine democratic legitimacy and would have won elections easily, but nonetheless the Communist Party rigged the elections. The point isn’t to use elections to gain spurious legitimacy, but to enact the Party’s illegitimacy in terms of the “normal” state institutions that it ultimately wants to abolish.

Agamben occasionally makes reference to this dynamic in the Homo Sacer series, seeing in the “dual state” structure the justification for the category of “totalitarianism” that includes both fascism and communism. While the critique of 20th century communism remains largely implicit, his basic point is that something like the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” understood as a suspension of “normal” state functions in order ultimately to abolish the state altogether, could never have worked. This is because the state of exception is precisely what generates the “normal” state, so that when prolonged indefinitely, the state of exception becomes its own state (as happened in all the communist countries, most notably North Korea, where communism somehow “looped back around” to hereditary monarchy).

As Gorbachev’s experience shows us, however, the answer is not to return to the “normal” state, which certainly backfired in Russia’s case, giving them rule by something like a mafia apparatus as opposed to the old Communist Party apparatus (i.e., fascism replacing communism).

It’s the *political* economy, stupid!

We live in an era where there is a deep desire to view humans as machines. Humans are not machines — they are free beings who can do surprising things for a variety of reasons or no particular reason at all — but our whole society is set up to hide that fact. Public policy is now the art of “nudging” “incentives,” setting up conditions where human-machines will respond appropriately. Important social choices are outsourced to something called “the market,” which is presented as a kind of naturally-occuring decision-generating machine despite being a product of human choices that runs on human choices.

It makes sense that people would turn to such impersonal, supposedly a-political models of our shared life. Politics has always been traumatic, particularly in the 20th century. We’ve all heard it before: “You think people can take collective control of their destiny in a deliberate and purposeful way? So did Hitler and Stalin!” But politics in the sense of purposeful human decisions about the distribution of power and resources is irreducible. Even if there were a supercomputer perfectly calibrated to distribute the best possible outcomes to everyone, the decision to entrust it with this responsibility would be a human decision — as would the ongoing decision to continue to submit to it. We like to pretend that something called “the market” effectively is that supercomputer, but it isn’t. All it does is cover over the human decisions that are being made.

The irreducibility of actual human decisions holds even at the level of the global market. Continue reading “It’s the *political* economy, stupid!”

First as tragedy, then as farce: Communism and neoliberalism

The twentieth century saw the advent of two heavily state-driven strategies for capital-intensive economic development: communism and neoliberalism. The difference is that communism focused on the development of fixed capital (above all, “heavy industry”), whereas neoliberalism focuses on fictitious capital. Both demand extraordinary amounts of effort and sacrifice on the part of the majority of the population — but where communism held out an ostensible goal of very rapidly creating the conditions for a vastly improved quality of life, in neoliberalism there is no promised end to the sacrifice. The pile-up of fictitious capital in the hands of a few cannot conceivably benefit the masses in the way that improved industrial capacity could. It serves only to increase the power of the elites over the masses, which brings me to another distinctive trait of both movements: the creation of a “zone of indistinction” between the economic and the political. Particularly under Stalinism, the “economic forces” at play were literal forces of violence, and the rise of neoliberalism has been accompanied by a dramatic reemergence of violent repression as a key form of political control — most emblematically in Pinochet’s Chile, where neoliberal reform was achieved by means of a horrifying campaign of state terror.

There are fine-grained similarities, too. Take the much-lauded idea of “disruptive innovation.” Surely if there was ever a disruptive innovation, it was the communist project of collectivizing agriculture! They took a system that, though it was certainly not operating up to the highest possible productivity, basically worked most of the time in the sense of keeping the population fed, and they very rapidly replaced it with a radically new and different system that they believed would produce better results. We can see a similar logic at work with the disruptive innovation afoot in the education system. For all its faults, the U.S. education system does provide a certain baseline education for those who complete it — the literacy rate, for example, is very nearly 100%, and the vast majority of people can do the basic math necessary for everyday life — but the thought-leaders (a term that’s always struck me as somewhat Maoist) have decided it’s inadequate and needs to be replaced with a radically different one. In both cases, the short-term results proved to be devestating. Collectivization of agriculture led to famine and starvation, while de-collectivization of public schools has led to an active degradation of the quality of education. In both cases, the short-term damage caused by the rapid change is deployed as evidence that we need to move all the more quickly.

I’ve already written on the striking similarity between Stalinism and neoliberal corporate governance, so I won’t belabor that here. Suffice it to say that the same bizarre cocktail of lock-step historical necessity and voluntarism are at work in both systems. In communism, there was an attempt to immanentize the eschaton, to force their way through the necessary steps of historical progress in order to reach the promised land as quickly as possible. All that’s different is that in neoliberalism, there is no historical telos, no equivalent to the dream of “full communism.” We must continue cutting costs and disruptively innovating and giving 110% — forever, for its own sake. It is our ineluctable fate, and our only space of freedom consists in preemptively imposing our fate on ourselves. We must cut the budget, or else circumstances will arise that force us to cut the budget — this is how we express our amor fati.

The historical failure of Soviet Communism and the ambiguous status of Chinese Communism may have made all the sacrifices endured under communism seem pointless — but neoliberalism is inherently pointless, forthrightly and avowedly nihilistic. Perhaps this is our world-historical punishment for the failure of communism. Perhaps we missed our chance to cash out of capitalism and turn its amazing productive forces toward constructive human ends. Now all we can do is watch as the machine destroys itself, and us along with it.