alex callinicos

IMPOSSIBLE ANTI-CAPITALISM?

I

t is unclear whether Jeffrey Isaac regards the kind of discussion I sought to develop around the recent political interventions
of Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens as having any legitimacy at all. He seems, first of all, somewhat confounded to
discover that Marxists still exist. ‘The demise of the Marxist vision’ being
‘an accomplished fact’, he invites us to take our cue from the likes of
François Furet and meekly depart the historical stage, leaving progressive politics to those who will, in a spirit of ‘democratic pragmatism’,
devote themselves to ‘problem solving’. One might have thought that the
very frequency with which the death of Marxism has been announced in
the past would have encouraged a certain note of caution here.
Isaac concedes that I provide a ‘very compelling critique’ of both Giddens
and Bourdieu—‘from a Marxist perspective’—in arguing that neither
‘has either a systematic theory of the structures of capitalism or a strategy
capable of obviating the powerful imperatives of capital accumulation.’
The qualification is important here: according to Isaac, the perspective
from which it is written invalidates my critique. A strange conception of
criticism, surely: is not the validity of an argument, or the cogency of an
analysis, at least partially independent of the perspective from which it
comes?

To begin with Giddens: even those sympathetic to his broad political
outlook may still often privately concede that The Third Way is a truly
awful book (and some have said as much to me).1 There is no reason
why the project of a ‘centre-left’ alternative to both traditional social
democracy and neo-liberalism should not be supported by powerful arguments. David Marquand’s The Unprincipled Society, for example, or Will
Hutton’s The State We’re In represent serious attempts to map out such
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not foreclose it. 2 For a critical assessment of Third Way egalitarianism. Nor do I think it appropriate to dismiss.an alternative: the conception common to both is a vision of ‘stakeholder capitalism’. as Isaac does. he has proved especially sensitive to the scale of socially unnecessary suffering—what he has called la 1 See also Alan Carling’s searching critique. where neo-liberalism has reduced egalitarian commitments to mere rhetoric. which takes as its starting point the values common to both New Labour and the socialist tradition: ‘New Labour’s Polity: Tony Giddens and the “Third Way”’. see Alex Callinicos. 1999. Less bracing counsellors have taken their place: Charlie Leadbeater’s Living On Thin Air (which makes The Third Way look like Das Kapital) was apparently the toast of Downing Street last year. cloying phrases. Equality. One of the main themes of my article was to demonstrate how Bourdieu’s political interventions over the past decade have helped to open up a new space for the Left in France. usually so quick to list Marxism’s faults. the other recently appointed head of the Industrial Society) are scarcely Bolsheviks. but their attempt to formulate a real programme. 118 nlr 2 . which was to contribute to such discussion. chapters 3 and 4. The very shabbiness of official ‘centre-left’ thinking is one reason why serious strategic discussion on the left remains so important. Many Marxists have learned in recent years the importance of articulating and defending their tacit normative commitments. Marquand and Hutton (one Roy Jenkins’s ex-chef de cabinet. Isaac wholly misreads the intention of my article. 3. Here Bourdieu can be of help. Imprints. Cambridge 2000. on how social differences inhabit the very grain of everyday life. and where the Clinton–Gore Third Way relies heavily on right-wing Republican Alan Greenspan’s management of money markets to keep the Wall Street bubble expanding. his critique of neo-liberalism as ‘moralizing’. Perhaps because his earlier work focused on how class is lived. The intellectual vacuity of such work corresponds to the emptiness at the heart of ‘the project’ itself.3.2 Nor are things any better across the Atlantic. rather than a stock of bland. superior in efficiency and equity to the unregulated AngloAmerican model. He says I have ‘no desire to learn’ from Giddens and Bourdieu. It is curious that Isaac. Only a fool could think he or she had nothing to learn from the author of The Rules of Art and Distinction. where Robert Reich has shared the fate of Marquand and Hutton. proved too radical for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. should here endorse its traditional disdain for moral critique.

He goes on to compare capitalism to water purification. a long-standing feature of conservative rhetoric (my favourite example would be Conrad’s remark that ‘women. ‘coming to terms with capitalism’ as Giddens has done is ‘simply the mature and serious thing to do’. yes. just a matter of fact that ‘there exists no credible. we could all benefit and learn from the debate. Inequality Reexamined. and about what alternative forms of socio-economic coordination might be needed to remedy capitalist dysfunctions and injustice.misère du monde—produced by market capitalism. Here we return to his fundamental reason for dismissing all criticism made from a Marxist perspective. potentially connects up with Amartya Sen’s development of egalitarian thinking. 3 See. Coming to terms with capitalism Isaac. with much less hope of an interesting response) was this: their recent political writings raise certain classical questions about both the limits that capitalist structures place on attempts to regulate them. and the collective research that he and his collaborators have undertaken into the ways in which the media systematically function to suppress serious debate are important contributions to contemporary social theory. Were he to do so. whose goal is to equalize individuals’ capabilities to engage in valued states and activities. all I argued was that for Bourdieu’s critique of neo-liberalism to fulfil the hopes it has raised. His evocation of an ‘economics of well-being’. would preclude such discussion. It is. although. at a more analytical level. for him. callinicos: Anti-Capitalism? 119 . Bourdieu’s discussions in Contre-feux of insecurity (précarité) as a mode of capitalist domination. alas. The assumption of maturity is. however unspecified its institutional implications. for example.3 Meanwhile. wholesale alternative to capitalism. of course. however. Oxford 1992.’ However feeble Giddens’s arguments may be. it will. Amartya Sen. but Isaac doesn’t confine himself to telling people like me to grow up and learn to live with capitalist society. children and revolutionaries have no taste for irony’). whether or not all disagreements were resolved. I did not say that they were required to endorse the answers of the classical Marxist tradition on these points. The point I sought nevertheless to make against Bourdieu (and also against Giddens. have to engage seriously both with these questions and with that tradition.

and come out definitively on capitalism’s side. But it is the very belief that there is no alternative to capitalism that is the main source of social despair in the contemporary world. and of the presidencies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil and Kim Dae-jung in South Korea. Fukuyama’s proposition that liberal capitalism has seen off any systemic ideological rivals becomes true: to paraphrase Sartre. To that extent. The experience of Stalinist collapse and social-democratic failure has led to the almost universal belief that capitalism cannot be transcended. (Nor is this merely a First World experience: it is also the story of the African National Congress since it took office in 1994. Isaac is certainly expressing the spirit of the age here. liberalism forms the horizon of intellectual and political debate today. by the turn of the century. But has world history really thrown in its hand? Already. represented respectively by civic republicanism or by the theories of justice of Dworkin and Rawls. electronic communication. even Isaac would concede that this is not true of capitalism. The category mistake this melange of technologies and social relations involves is obvious: while medicine. It binds those aspiring to some real remedy for suffering and injustice to Third Way administrations that continue the neo-liberal policies currently responsible for this misery in the first place. Isaac positively welcomes this condition as the attainment of ‘maturity’. to which Blair and Clinton’s only response is to build more prisons. In the West at least. competing political standpoints all tend to appeal to some version of liberal ideology—if not the neo-liberalism of the 1980s and 1990s.) The sense that ‘There is no alternative’ helps to motivate all kinds of destructive—often self-destructive—behaviour. civil liberties and representative government. a perceptible shift in the political mood of a substantial 120 nlr 2 . It is almost too easy to point out that this list confuses scientific and technological innovations and social and political institutions. then to its communitarian or egalitarian variants. Isaac can rely on such slack reasoning because he believes world history has solved the argument for him. the triumph of ‘democratic pragmatism’. electronics and sewage systems might all be continually improved without changing their nature. industrial technology. ‘all things that it is not credible to imagine transcending’. between which Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism sought precisely to force us to distinguish.modern medicine.

‘Land.5 France Nevertheless. Imprints. George Monbiot—come from a Green rather than a socialist background. for example. 5 For example. The great public-sector strikes in 4 See. The experience of triumphant neo-liberalism in power has produced a growing array of movements and currents of opinion which demand a more humane and democratic alternative to the dominant economic model. vividly evoked in NLR 238 by Jeffrey St Clair.2. ‘Comment le OMC fut mise en échec’. It seems highly probable that this desire will stimulate the development of more systematic critical thinking about both capitalism and other ways of organizing modern societies. the important point is that movements are beginning to emerge that express the desire for alternatives—to the neo-liberal model. taking place at the height of a US boom widely held to represent American capitalism’s freedom from past constraints. have been the most significant development so far. callinicos: Anti-Capitalism? 121 .4 None of this is surprising. against the WTO’s attempt to institutionalize a neo-liberal agenda favourable to the multinationals. and considerable ambiguity over whether to seek the reform or abolition of the WTO itself (implicit in such arguments is. S. of course. many of the most effective contemporary anticapitalist voices—in Britain. 1998–9. Partly in consequence of the resulting vacuum. important differences of opinion. for example. 3. The demonstrations at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle. given the extent to which the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ has laid waste thinking of this sort.minority in the advanced capitalist countries has begun to occur. Genes and Justice: An Interview with George Monbiot’. of course. Indeed. Le Monde diplomatique. the larger question of whether the alternative should be a better version of capitalism. This was a front that united organized labour with environmental movements and anti-poverty campaigns. and perhaps of interest. January 2000. George. in the very city symbolizing its new dynamism. but also to some degree to capitalism tout court. or a society of an altogether different kind). it is arguable that precisely this kind of process is already under way in France. There were. among the forces that came together in Seattle: there is also little clarity or agreement about the nature of the desired alternative to neoliberalism.

Débat. and the emergence of new activist coalitions such as ATTAC.gouv. but has also given radical anti-capitalist thinking a serious audience for the first time since the nouveaux philosophes sought to extirpate French Marxism in the mid-1970s. in which he invokes Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes (whose French translation was blocked till very recently thanks to the prevailing hostility to Marxism). Bensaïd. Wolfreys.fr/PM/DO81199. from a very different perspective. But they show that neo-liberalism is beginning to generate its opposite.’ http://www. compelling him to use a socialist rhetoric pointedly different from the language of the ‘third way’. 2. and the wave of struggles that followed them. 8 November 1999. Champions of the previously hegemonic neo-liberal pensée unique are beginning to sound the alarm about the emergence of a new ‘far left in philosophy’. Etienne Balibar and Alain Badiou. and to persist in election promises—notably. see also. 1999. D. insists on what is still ‘useful’ in the Marxist method. and reform it.premier-ministre. in the shape of an anti-capitalist mood among disaffected minorities in Western soci6 On the new period in French politics ushered in by the 1995 strikes.the winter of 1995.8 Anti-capitalist opposition One cannot. represented not merely by Bourdieu but by Daniel Bensaïd. underpinned by a workers’ movement whose confidence has revived markedly since 1995. the readership and organized support that Le Monde diplomatique has acquired in the past few years. put more political weight than they can carry on either the Seattle protests or the developments in France. have created a socio-political climate that not only propelled the ‘plural left’ under Lionel Jospin into office in the 1997 legislative elections. represents an important constraint on Jospin.6 Bourdieu’s new public role is one dimension of this changed situation. ‘Les Nouvelles radicalités de l’extrême gauche en philosophie’.htm 122 nlr 2 . May–August 1999. Rouge. International Socialism. ‘L’Exigence de critique’. and argues: ‘We must continue to think capitalism. ‘Class Struggles in France’. Jospin’s speech to the Congress of the Socialist International. but there are others—for example. 8 See. 90–116. pp. master it. Raynaud.7 This intellectual and political climate. campaigning for the imposition of the so-called Tobin tax on international financial speculation.84. 7 P. see J. of course. for example. in order to contest it. 29 July 1999. the 35-hour week—that risk embroiling him in conflict with an increasingly aggressive employers’ federation.

there is no ‘credible idea of what might replace it’. does this concession go? Does Isaac recognize that capitalism involves not simply social injustice. however generously defined. or that its theoretical articulation will necessarily be powerful or persuasive (given the diversity of currents involved. But the fact remains that the liberal ideological hegemony is beginning to break up. barely a decade after Fukuyama announced its epochal dominance. The structural injustices and economic instabilities inherent in capitalism are such that they are bound to produce large-scale movements of opposition. which is starting to find intellectual expression. it is hard to see in what sense he can claim to be expressing views that come from the Left. particularly in the country where the revival of resistance has so far been strongest. sooner or later. indeed almost Kierkegaardian critique of capitalism’ that he attributes to me? In the former case. but an inherent tendency towards crises? Or does he dismiss belief in such a tendency as one symptom of the ‘religious. Bourdieu’s position seems to me both ethically and intellectually immensely superior. as Isaac declares. It would be amazing were this not to happen. How far. in effect. motivated as it is by the desire to alleviate the suffering that is all too evident in what Isaac chooses to call ‘this awful. wonderful and tragic world’. Even if we concede that. It does not follow. one wonders. it does not follow that this will remain the case. of course. and joins the complacent consensus (currently encouraged by the Internet stock-market bubble) that affirms that capitalism has finally overcome the business cycle. that this mood will automatically expand to embrace a majority in an effective movement for social transformation.eties. To assume the contrary is. Even Isaac acknowledges that the capitalism he would have us embrace is ‘a system of systematic and global inequality’. it certainly won’t be uniform). to assert that the models actually constructed by Stalinism and social democracy in power exhaust callinicos: Anti-Capitalism? 123 . He further concedes that ‘certain Marxian categories of analysis’ continue to offer insights into ‘features of capital accumulation’. it is incumbent on him to address the questions I posed to Giddens and Bourdieu: what would a serious programme of reforms designed both to reduce inequality and to control capitalist instability look like? On what social agencies could it rely and how would they overcome the resistance from ‘the forces of inequality and indignity’ that have broken previous reformist projects? But if Isaac disdains such questions.

We are only at a very early stage in the disintegration of the liberal hegemony. 9 For such a perspective. see Chris Harman. A People’s History of the World. let alone what success they might have. London 1999. had already used up all the possibilities available to the future.the whole range of socialist thinking over the past two centuries. But this is absurd—as if a social system that has existed for what is. and all the feasible alternatives to capitalism.9 a mere moment in human history. The vicissitudes of world history in the twentieth century brought surprises enough: who can doubt that this one will bring more? This sense of being at the start of a new and as yet unfathomable historical period makes open-minded and constructive debate essential on these questions. 124 nlr 2 . from the perspective of la longue durée. and we cannot predict the practical or theoretical forms that left alternatives to it may take.