Down with utopia!

The bankruptcy of the neoliberal model has created a vacuum for alternatives, writes Boris Kagarlitsky. If we do not fill it from the left, it will be filled from the right

The life of the ideology of capitalism fluctuates with the business cycle. How could it be otherwise? When the stakes are up, bourgeois ideology says that the market will reward the energetic, businesslike and competent, and that it will punish the lazy, inefficient and conservative.

Yet the business cycle itself is much more than the individual qualities of businesspeople and employees. While the economy is growing, everyone seems to be doing well. Dynamic companies increase their turnover, but so do conservative, sleepy, flabby businesses. Everyone makes a profit. Everyone enjoys the fruits of prosperity. But then the market falls into a slump. And it punishes everyone: the most advanced and those behind; the lazy and the dynamic.

At this point, a sharp sense of injustice befalls society, as extremely successful companies crumble. Weren’t the achievements of the immediate past hard-won, with so many people proving their merit? And now they are in same boat as all the other losers. Why? For some reason, gains are always hard-won and well-deserved, while losses feel like an undeserved punishment.

Yet another crisis of capitalism is on the horizon, and we already feel its symptoms coming on strong in 2008. Once again, it will call the dominant ideology into question. Trust in this ideology is already faltering, not only among the masses, but also in the elites. Something is wrong, the opinion makers are quick to note. Something is not adding up.

After three decades of nearly unchallenged global dominance, the ideology of neoliberalism now seems perplexing at best: how could people let their imaginations run wild with such silly ideas, and how could they make the mistake of interpreting them as a guide to action? The few ideologues who still remain true to neoliberalism’s basic principles are now under siege.

Suddenly, the demand for criticism is sharply on the rise. The elite is not just willing to tolerate people who think differently, but it is now even ready to heed their advice. Left ideas come into style; ideologies which were rejected as false and harmful not so long ago are now suddenly in demand.

Yet what is the situation on the left? Are its representatives ready to play the roles of leaders, prophets and preachers? Are they at least able to act as experts who will give society the long-awaited solutions to the burning questions it faces?

Sadly, the crisis of left movements and their ideologies is far deeper than even the crisis of neoliberal capitalism. During the last decade of the 20th century, we saw so many historical projects connected to the left alternative collapse one after another. Social democracy renounced the very idea of social reforms, taking on a liberal ideology of the most primitive and vulgar ilk. In the first years of the 21st century, most social democrats in the countries of Europe had not only already turned away from their own ideas and traditions - in fact, on all fundamental questions, they came out further on the right than the bourgeois parties themselves. Tony Blair and his New Labour are no more than the most extreme case for a process that was reshaping most of the former workers’ parties. Ex-socialist politicians are no different from bourgeois politicians. These people share the same good logic: if you can’t defeat them, you have to join them.

The communist movement crumbled with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is symptomatic that this collapse not only affected communist parties which had sought their ideal in the Soviet experiment, but, more importantly, those on the left critical of the Soviet Union. Regimes in former colonial countries that came to power as national liberation movements were suddenly left on their own. Without help from the Soviet big brother they did not hesitate to give up all their positions in one fell swoop. They implemented neo-colonial policies with a verve that makes the colonial governments of the 1950s look like defenders of the oppressed.

This dismal scene, typical of the 1990s, regained some colour when various anti-globalisation movements and radical groupings emerged, challenging both neoliberalism and the parties of the former left. Mass protests, inspired speeches and subtle, critical articles by leading thinkers were seen as evidence that the anti-capitalist movement was being reborn. The World Social Forum’s slogan, ‘Another world is possible’, may have seemed a little naive, but at least it was charmingly buoyant. In short, one had the feeling that things were not so bad on the left.

Alas, the new movement is now also in a state of crisis. Participation at the European social forums is less impressive than in their early days. After gaining popular support, the new parties of the left have been entering coalitions with the same social democrats they were just accusing of treason, becoming the co-signatories of their treacherous policies. On the more radical left, many organisations are splitting, while the intellectuals are bogged down in abstract debates on discursive subtleties. And the revolution in Venezuela, which the anti-capitalist intelligentsia initially welcomed as an example for democratic socialism for the 21st century, now seems to be showing signs of degenerating into bureaucracy.

Suddenly it seems that the new movement that grew so quickly in the early 2000s is extremely poor on ideas. People have joined together in protest and suspicion toward the dominant ideology. But this is not enough.

To be more precise, there actually are all kinds of different ideas on the left, but there is also a universal lack of strategic vision. No ideological direction ever really emerges from the multitude of disposable ideas. Everyone loves to talk about the diversity of alternatives without ever realising that precisely this endless diversity basically guarantees that not one single alternative will ever be realised. The practical realisation of any project in the real world demands the concentration of energy and resources, including those of the intellectuals. But the question is not which projects are actually better, more attractive, or beautiful in and of themselves, but which of them could unify and concentrate social forces. To realise these projects, we must cast all the utopias aside, even if the intellectuals derive so much pleasure from their imaginative beauty.

A few more words on utopia, while we are at it. Ever since the movement stopped being a real practical force, its remaining ideologies have cultivated a utopian style of thinking. For early 20th century Marxists the word ‘utopia’ was almost an insult. But at the end of the 20th century, it was clearly bad form on the left not to have at least some ‘utopian ideals’. Obvious impotence in the real world of politics found its compensation in an unrestrained play of the imaginary. In utopia, everything is beautiful; there are no prosaic questions, no material and structural limits, no banalities from the vulgar prose of life. It is a world of universal participation in democracy, without struggle or contradiction, a transformation without bloodshed and coercion, an economy of endless resources; the community has become truly human and clearly incapable of imagining any form of violence. All of this is very nice, and we should all hope to live up to such ideal at some point. But for this to happen, we need to move in its direction by taking a number of practical steps with real and concrete goals.

Alas, we cannot just discuss utopia, but need to talk about the prose of life. Even the most steadfast defenders of utopian thinking will readily agree. But utopia’s problem is not that it refuses to solve everyday questions, but that there is no connection between the practical steps it takes today and the long-term goals it purses, since these goals are never actually formulated in any concrete political (ie, non-utopian) form.

It is for this reason that the left is dismayed to find that they cannot move forward even when they win one battle after another. An especially striking example can be found in France. Society rejects the European constitution in a referendum. Victory for the left! Next, the state is forced to recall the discriminatory ‘first employment contract’ law. Another victory! The students are restless, everybody is condemning neoliberalism, and it seems that the country is on the brink of a serious change. And suddenly the French vote for Nicholas Sarkozy, and even the most successful of all radical candidates wins no more than 4% in the elections, which is a catastrophic result even against the backdrop of the previous ‘years of calm’.

Here the problem is not so much that the left is so divided - though, of course, every fraction has its own alternative and its own utopia - but that the left does not in fact appear or act like a political force, even when it pretends to take part in the political process. It never really formulates a political project and never develops a convincing transitional programme. It never shows any interest in the ‘art of the real’. Most people of the left are not very interested in how to manage enterprises; they avoid the tricky subject of nationalisation, and do not want to talk about how to make the existing public sector more productive. They never weigh the existing resources against the social goals at hand, and are not interested in the question of whether social policies could be more effective if the rules of the game were changed. They rightly refuse the bourgeois logic of limiting oneself to practical necessity, but offer nothing in return.

The left also love to talk about culture, and especially about ‘multiculturalism’. This subject is also attractive, because, among other things, it draws patronising approval from the liberal bourgeoisie. Here, suddenly, there is mutual understanding. After all, the progressive liberal public also condemns xenophobia, supports minority rights and cultural diversity. The principles of political correctness unite all good people, all class difference aside. It turns out that political correctness is a space beyond social struggle and has priority over other differences of ideology and class.

Unfortunately, the conservatives and nationalists on the right think otherwise. They launch a powerful critique of political correctness and, counter to all the conscionable intellectual’s expectations, manage to find broad support for their ideas. This makes the intellectuals very angry. They quickly chalk it up to all the stupid crypto-fascist consumers, and decide to solve the problem with a high dosage treatment of propagandistic political correctness - with an anti-racist film festival, for example.

Meanwhile, liberal political correctness is in a crisis of its own, because it is organically connected to all other parts of the neoliberal social order and is basically nothing but the flip-side of institutionalised racism and exploitation. Its slogans declare the equality of all cultures, religions and ethnic groups, but these slogans demonstratively ignore real social inequality. What is more, they rarely target the system’s instrumentalisation of difference in maintaining inequality. It is impossible to speak of regulating immigration, because rightwing demagogy has captured this theme and, as result, it is impossible to analyse how entrepreneurs use migration to push down the price of labour, leading to discord between one group of migrants and another. What the migrants think is unimportant. Their problems, I see, are usually solved by panels of white intellectuals. The fact that migrants themselves would prefer to limit the influx of new labour forces to the country that they now reside in is not remarked upon, although it is a sociological fact. The fact that the freedom of movement of workers under capitalism is tightly intertwined with, indeed made dependent on, a loss of social rights for both immigrants and locals, is beyond mention.

Of course, the point is not to agree with the demagogic propaganda of the right but to oppose it with realistic answers. These answers should not be based on the white intellectual’s humanist concern for the hapless and oppressed foreigners. Instead, they should address strengthening the self-organisation of migrants, and develop a politics which represents their interests by changing their social role in society.

Just like the liberals, lefts are supposed to show their enthusiasm for cultural pluralism while fighting for minority rights, without noticing that the one often contradicts the other. Not all cultures and religions give women full rights or tolerate homosexuality, for example. By standing up against rightwing policies that threaten to force assimilation upon minorities, lefts often pretend that they do not know that many people from minorities would very much like to assimilate - though not through forced assimilation as the conservatives would have it, but voluntarily, from below, changing the role they play in society.

In reality, contrary to the ideology of multiculturalism, most immigrants want to integrate (but retaining their specific traditions and identities within the majority culture). This means that both locals and newcomers need not ‘many’ cultures, not a multitude of disconnected cultural practices, but one culture, only a different one. Instead of defending the right of the minority to stay culturally unchanged, we need to change in a radical way the majority culture.

Political correctness is in a state of crisis, along with all other instruments of liberal hegemony, and instead of defending compromised liberal positions, the left should be suggesting its own alternatives. But it is precisely here that people who talk about thousands of possible worlds and millions of thinkable alternatives are painfully short on suggestions.

At the same time, the left has its own experience of this problem, and one that is not just theoretical, but practical as well. By this, I mean the ‘national policies’ of the Soviet Union of the 1920s which led to a real positive change for millions of people who had been ‘aliens’ in the Russian empire. It had nothing to do with ‘political correctness’, since it was not based on a liberal-bourgeois ideology, but on a Marxist conception of class contradiction.

Its essence lay in an understanding of the seamless connection between cultural and social policies. Cultural rights have no positive meaning without material support. Second, the improved status of former ‘aliens’ goes hand in hand with a change of the social structure at large. Third, integration and assimilation are not opposed to the national culture’s right for development. But by integrating into the social majority, the minority does not just ‘accept’ the dominant cultural norm, but actually changes it. This cultural synthesis is not based on coercion or exclusion, but on everyday interactions of tolerance, based on common social interests and the constant solution of common problems, in school, at work and at home.

One might remember Lenin’s idea that every national culture is contradictory, and contains ‘two cultures’, as it were. In other words, cultures should not be taken ‘as a whole’, as they are; instead, one should support their progressive aspects while clearly acting against all reactionary and authoritarian tendencies. We should not, for example, condemn muslim culture as a whole for its lack of respect for women, or, on the contrary, accept it uncritically, along with all its homophobia and its misogyny. We should see islam, just like christianity, as a struggle of different principles, the emancipatory and the authoritarian, the reactionary and the progressive. Culture itself becomes a field of class struggle, in the sense used by Antonio Gramsci. This is a field where different social forces try to establish their hegemony through values, norms and ideals.

All these classical Marxist truths seem unpleasant and outdated at a time in which utopia has priority over concrete planning, and ideological discourses are more interesting than political discussions.

But if the left does not want to be in constant decline, it will have to stop dreaming its utopian pipedreams, and start answering concrete questions. The crisis of capitalism will leave it no choice. Society demands practical solutions. The bankruptcy of the neoliberal model has created a vacuum for alternatives. If we do not fill this vacuum from the left, it will be filled from the right.

Should this happen, it would not be the everyman-consumer’s fault, once again duped by the demagogy of reactionary populists, but that of the leftist intellectual, preferring to live in his own comfortable, artificial world, and unwilling to take a step toward politics.