Politics of fear and despair

Paul B Smith calls on the left to face up to the challenge of class-consciousness. This is the first part of a three-part article

An atmosphere of fear pervades the writings of many journalists writing on financial and economic matters today. The unresolved crisis triggered by the crash of 2008 is compared to a horror movie.[1] Faced with finding solutions to the problems of the collapse of the euro zone, falling house prices, the absence of growth, indebted governments and capitalists who refuse to invest, it seems that some members of the ruling class have lost confidence not only in finding solutions, but also in the continued future of the capitalist system itself. Some journalists have even made favourable references to Marx, suggesting that his analysis of capitalism as a crisis-ridden system incapable of satisfying the needs of the majority of the world’s population is correct.[2] Rather than being excoriated for having betrayed the cause of what should be a resurgent capitalism, these authors are no longer even mildly rebuked.

This loss of confidence is not, however, reflected in the thinking of workers. On the contrary, despite extensive cuts in social spending, job losses, rising unemployment and regimes of enforced austerity, workers do not tend to target capitalism as the cause of their misery. At best workers direct their anger at particular personifications of capital such as the chief executive officers of banks, or particular politicians or political parties. Their anger finds sympathetic allies within the establishment, who worry about social inequality - especially if it leads to disorder and civil strife.

Workers’ anger also enables moralists to attribute an ethical character to a real distinction within capital as a whole. Capitalists who invest productively in industry and labour are thought of as virtuous. In contrast, those who invest unproductively in finance are vicious. Surely, if only the latter’s activities could be brought under the rule of law and taxed more heavily, then the effects of crisis - at least at the moral level - can be controlled? Is it not evident that tax revenue should be used to subsidise failing industries rather than insolvent banks? Thus philanthropists such as Warren Buffet state they would be happy to have their billions taxed more heavily. Similarly the pope and the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury call for a tax on financial transactions. The slogan, ‘Tax the rich’, appears to have become as popular within a section of the ruling establishment as it is on student demonstrations.

Even where there is organised mass resistance, as in many European countries, there are no popular democratic demands for bringing capitalism to an end or for workers to embrace the task of the emancipation of humanity through the seizure of power. There is little if any discussion amongst workers on how to establish a rationally planned global society based on the fulfilment of social need. Workers are not hammering at the doors of revolutionary Marxist political groups demanding to be let in. Whilst there is a renewed interest in studying Marx amongst a section of the intelligentsia, most of the organised groups are intellectually moribund or frozen into mindless forms of hyper-activity.

Two authors

What stops workers from realising their emancipatory potential? Are the chief determinants of contemporary political consciousness subjective? I will address here the ideas of a couple of authors who have answered the latter question in the positive. These are Naomi Klein and Hillel Ticktin. Klein in her book The shock doctrine describes how terrifying a population has become a tool of political and economic policy. This enables capitalism to survive and, until the present crisis, to appear to flourish, even though its ability to address social need is further minimised.[3]

Ticktin, on the other hand, highlights despair about the possibility of political or economic improvement. A climate of despair temporarily traps and obscures workers’ consciousness. This leads workers to seek individual solutions, such as hedonistic forms of consumerism. Despair also causes them to acquiesce to any form of politics, however authoritarian or reactionary, if it offers some temporary respite from uncertainty, insecurity and instability. This means workers can be won over to racist, nationalist, sexist and homophobic forms of politics, if they are packaged in a way that offers them some sense of hope - however fleeting and impermanent.[4]

The two authors differ in many important respects. The chief difference is that Klein looks back to what she sees as a benign form of capitalism. This began with Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, was inspired by the economic ideas of Keynes and flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. This can be restored, she thinks, in the present - if people struggle for it. Ticktin, on the other hand, argues that the capitalist class will not reflate the economy through policies of full employment, nationalisation and a reinvigorated welfare state. He suggests that the absence of a discussion on the real possibility of a socialist alternative to capitalism reflects the despair of a left demoralised by Stalinism and social democracy.

I argue here that we should look at the operation and influence of fear and despair from a class perspective. For example, the objects of fear and despair differ according to whether they are experienced by a worker or by a capitalist. I refer to Marx’s so-called law of the accumulation of misery and suggest that the state of contemporary political consciousness backs this thesis up. Finally I address some of the social forms that might contradict the causes of fear and despair. These include the study of the objective conditions for hope and the organisation of places of safety.

Klein’s book gives a readable description of the political and economic policies that dominated the period from the end of the 1960s until 2007. This was just before the crash that precipitated the present crisis. She states that - in order to introduce unpopular economic policies, such as privatisation, financial deregulation and cuts in social spending - a shock needed to be administered to the population. This could be a coup d’etat, a market meltdown or a war. It may also mean taking advantage of a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or a tsunami. The effect on the population is that it suddenly feels fearful and helpless. It is totally disoriented. It is made incapable of resisting new policies which increase social inequality and vastly enrich a few capitalists.

Klein’s account gives no explanation for the introduction of the policies she describes. According to her, they were the result of a campaign by a group of economists from Chicago University led by Milton Friedman. She does not make the necessary connections between these economists’ success and a change in capitalist strategy.

In the historical period she covers from 1970-2007 there was a turn away from industrial to finance capital as the chief means of generating profits and securing capitalist survival. The policies of the preceding post-war period were based on subsidies to the industrial and public sectors to stimulate growth in employment and productivity. This entailed the incorporation of trade unions into forms of political and economic management. As Ticktin argues, this was only possible in the context of the cold war. The containment of workers’ militancy through the influence communist parties had upon the unions, however, broke down towards the end of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s. The ruling class pulled the plug on the consensual period of concessions and adopted a change of policy that involved a change in the mode of the extraction of a surplus. There was a shift from the employment of productive, industrial capital to unproductive, financial capital. It was only when it was clear the previous strategy had failed that Friedman’s students came into their own.

Klein also forgets to mention the influence of the Soviet Union on the administration of terror and fear on a population. There was nothing in human history more shocking than Stalin’s purges. Here, the shock doctrine was used for opposing political aims other than those of finance capital. The former Soviet regime terrorised a whole population for over 50 years in order to prevent any collective opposition to it. The aim was to extract an economic surplus by force alone. Similar systematically brutal means used in China, North Korea and Burma are proof that torture and the use of a secret police force to destroy the possibility of workers’ opposition are not the sole prerogative of free marketeers. They can just as well serve policies promoting nationalisation and full employment. They were used for these aims long before the 1970s.

Ticktin’s approach is richer than Klein’s because he understands that there is a relationship between changes in subjectivity and the objective reality with which they interact. This is typical of a transitional period, when the old system is decaying, but the new order has yet to come into being. The classical example is the way the doctrine of socialism in a single country changed from a subjective idea into a social and economic system that could be studied objectively.

The doctrine had no pedigree in Marxist theory. It was born of fear and despair. The disaster and shock of prolonged civil war caused a generalised fear of capitalism. Despair kicked in with the idea that the world’s working class could not succeed in overthrowing capitalism anywhere else. This sense of hopelessness trapped the regime into utopian policies reflecting the needs of an elite of a backward and isolated country. Lack of hope was a crucial element in Soviet subjectivity. Both fear and despair drove the regime towards the establishment of a malfunctioning social formation. This was neither capitalist nor socialist.

World in transition

The notion of transition is understood differently by Marxists and non-Marxists. There are two variants of non-Marxist understanding: one of them is optimistic; the other is pessimistic. The optimistic notion of transition is that we live in a world which is moving towards greater democratic political freedoms. This was a fashionable idea in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Attempts were then made to integrate formerly Stalinist regimes within the capitalist world. It went out of fashion with the rise of Putin in Russia. It became clear that liberalisation of the Soviet Union had led to social disintegration and impoverishment of the intelligentsia. The resumption of authoritarian forms of police control and the restoration of fear as a means of control has temporarily stabilised conditions enabling the accumulation of capital to take place.

The transition to liberal democracy has had dreadful economic consequences for workers. Klein notes that Poland in 2007 had the highest rate of unemployment in the European Union. Forty percent of young workers under the age of 24 were unemployed - twice the EU average. There was a 44% increase in the numbers of Poles living in poverty from 1989 until 2003, the period of so-called transition (p192). In Russia, the transition had even worse effects. The population shrank by 6.6 million from 1992 to 2006 and a Moscow academic alleged in the same year that the transition had killed off 10% of the population (p238).

Another blow to liberal optimism was the rise of China as an economic power. This depends on Stalinist police methods of control - the suppression of workers’ ability to organise and the stifling of criticism and freedom of speech. The optimistic understanding recently had a boost with the overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. However, confusion and gloom now obscures previous hopes with warnings of destabilisation, sectarianism and religiously inspired nationalism. Moreover, the grievances of the social layer that triggered the overthrow of the old regimes have not been met. Youth unemployment remains high and graduates are still having difficulty finding suitable employment.

The pessimistic non-Marxist understanding of transition is that we live in a world which is moving towards species extinction. Popular culture, literature and films reinforce this perspective by presenting the future as a nightmarish dystopia, in which humans are wiped out by natural disasters, alien invasions, out-of-control technology or - more realistically - out-of-control corporations and governments.

The desperation informing this viewpoint has its origins in the cold war with the threat of nuclear holocaust. The idea that nuclear war is likely is still felt by many who survived this period and has a leftwing version based on a reading of Lenin. This is that the present crisis will lead to protectionism. The latter will result in inter-imperialist rivalry and world war.

Within this projection, it is unclear which countries presently would be prepared to threaten nuclear war. Would it be the USA and China? Given the two countries’ dependence on China’s investments in US government bonds, this seems unlikely. Moreover, even if China became a major imperialist rival, it would not necessarily lead to nuclear war. It is now well known that - despite the rhetoric - neither the USA nor the USSR was seriously prepared to use nuclear weapons against each other.

Other versions of this apocalyptic vision of transition include pollution creating changes in the climate that make the planet inhospitable to life or a general collapse of society, the state and social order. Both of these reflect changes that are happening in the world, as capitalism disintegrates. These involve the examples of increasing numbers of floods, retreating ice caps and countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan. These instances of change are then generalised into trends. It is argued that they will dominate and destroy the world, society and life. Both ignore the fact that a rational, planned society could solve the problems of pollution and political collapse easily. This would be done by diverting resources away from wasteful economic forms based on profit and war. They could then be used to combat climate change and the damaging effects of social disintegration.

Transition to socialism?

The Marxist understanding of transition is different. It starts from the notion that every social form has an evolution. It has an origin, maturation, a decline and a death. Capitalism is not eternal. Nor has it always existed. There was a transitional period between feudalism and capitalism. There were transitional forms. A mercantile form of capital accumulation coexisted with surpluses extracted by force from serfs. Rents in kind coexisted with rents in cash. Peasants producing commodities for internal and external consumption coexisted with serfs producing goods for subsistence.

The transitional period of capitalism is part of the story of its decline. It begins with the Russian Revolution in 1917, when a significant part of the world was taken out of the market. Since then there have been non-market transitional forms that contradict the operation of capitalism. These include nationalisation, welfare systems, pensions, social housing, free education and social security. They have contradicted capitalism by extending the sphere of production for use or social need. They have also served to keep capitalism going by dividing workers in imperialist countries from those in colonial and post-colonial countries. Imperialism is one of the objective forms capitalism has taken which has created a fearful and desperate subjectivity amongst and between workers. I shall discuss this further below.

The Marxist understanding of transition is optimistic. Capitalism is in decline. Its basic laws of operation are inhibited and restricted. It no longer has the power to control and influence social relations in the way it once did. There is a tendency operating in the present towards the eventual introduction of a socialist society. However, socialism is not inevitable. An accident might intervene such as collision with an asteroid. Marx’s assumptions about human nature or capitalism may also be incorrect. Perhaps humans are not essentially cooperative, sociable or rational. Perhaps a new form of non-market class society might emerge out of the death of the present social system. Maybe, a failed attempt at a workers’ revolution could produce a bureaucratic elite that extracts a social surplus from workers for a limited period of time. A society in decline and transition is difficult to understand and the complexity of understanding the present becomes a factor in delaying the process of transition.

There is a class dimension to understanding this complexity. According to Marx, a social group only becomes a class when it creates a recognisable collective expression of it goals. The capitalist class has a form of collectivity that arose historically in its battles with a feudal ruling class. The goal was to enlarge the scope and means of capital accumulation. This sense of collective unity was further enriched in its battles with workers.

The capitalist class conceded various measures to workers in order to continue to manage the continuing goal of accumulation. Thus imperialism provided both the means for further accumulation and public revenues sufficient to provide social housing, insurance and a welfare state. As we shall see, it also functioned to divide workers in imperial nations from workers in the colonised nations. Class collectivity also united capitalists during the cold war to fight for the reintegration of the former USSR within the capitalist economy.

Workers, on the other hand, will not form a class until their collective opposition to their exploitation goes beyond the local or national sphere. Workers are all those who sell their labour-power unless, like managers and some other professionals, they also control the labour-power of other workers. The recognition of workers’ real relationships to capital and the state is, nonetheless, insufficient for class-consciousness to arise. It can coexist, as it did in the cold war period, with forms of economic improvement that divided workers from each other.

Class-consciousness forms and is formed by a sense of global collectivity. Workers become class-conscious when they understand the universal nature of the task they have the power to achieve. This is to go beyond local and national struggles and take on the responsibility to emancipate not just themselves, but the whole of humanity. This consciousness needs an understanding of the real relationships within society freed from ideological distortion. The Marxist notion of class-consciousness is therefore very different from the sociological theory that workers’ consciousness is formed by ideology and that there is no aspect of objective reality which is free from ideology.

Conversely, the consciousness of the capitalist class is necessarily ideological because this class no longer seems to want to understand real relationships. For example, class is theorised according to income, status or education in order to inculcate a sense of common interest between workers and capitalists. Sociological notions of class, such as the ‘underclass’, also nurture a sense of superiority that some workers are more privileged than others. The recent divisive and harmful effects of this form of classism are documented powerfully in Owen Jones’ recent book, Chavs: the demonisation of the working class.

Class and subjectivity

Do fear and despair have a class dimension? The objects of the fears of the capitalist class concerning the present global depression are stated vaguely as a form of extreme risk aversion. It is not just that some capitalists, some banks or some companies are being wiped out. This would be grounds for some individuals to be frightened of losing face, influence or status (if not personal wealth). Nor is it just that some individuals’ hopes of running small businesses will be dashed and that they can no longer escapes wage-slavery. It seems to be more fundamental.

According to Klein, an economic meltdown induces a sense of fear in the population. This enables policy-makers to introduce unpopular policies of privatisation, deregulation and cuts in social spending. They are unpopular because they lead to job losses, mass unemployment, poverty and social inequality. The present austerity programmes recommended by the International Monetary Fund, the central banks, governments and political parties are indeed following this path.

If Ticktin is right, however, surplus capital cannot find paths for investment. Capital is no longer functioning as capital. It is no longer money that is making more money. Billions of dollars are being withheld from investment out of fear that they will cease to accumulate. The crash of 2008 marked the beginning of a fundamental malfunctioning of financial capital. The fear of the more insightful members of the capitalist class is that policies that helped finance capital accumulate through Klein’s shocks to the population will stifle workers’ demand for commodities and strangle the possibility of further investment in the industrial, productive sector - the source of surplus value.

In other words, there is a decreasing consensus within the capitalist class on how to proceed, or how to manage capitalism effectively. The fear seems to be that the system will run out of control, that their class collectivity and consciousness will break up and that popular resistance will overcome fears of repression and limit investment opportunities further. For the more historically and philosophically minded, there is also the fear of revolution, in which members of their class’s heads are put on the block. Fear of revolution has informed the more conservative and authoritarian sections of the capitalist class.

Very few workers are class-conscious. This makes any ruling class fear of revolution appear disproportionate and fanciful right now. On the contrary, the majority of workers are atomised and fear for their security and prosperity. The worker who turns on other workers of a different nationality, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation (or physical or intellectual ability) does not need to have met or had any close contact with the objects of their fear. It is sufficient that the worker believes either that strangers are responsible for his or her insecurity or poor quality of life or that she or he is, in some way, superior culturally, intellectually or morally. Thus the native worker fearful of losing her or his employment, standard of living or livelihood may turn against the immigrant worker. The worker fearful of losing their home through repossession may turn against the Jewish or Chinese worker (imagining her or him to be in alliance with greedy bankers). And the worker who fears losing benefits he gains from divisions of labour in the household and the workplace may try to exclude, socially ostracise or ridicule women, gays and the disabled.



1. “The US economy has started to stumble lethargically, as if bitten by a zombie. The euro zone countries, one by one, are being drained of life-blood by a swift and merciless vampire” - Alan Beattie Financial Times August 6-7 2011.

2. See, for example, S Stern,‘Marx was right about change’ The Independent August 16 2011.

3. N Klein The shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism London 2007.

4. H Ticktin, ‘Political consciousness and its conditions at the present time’ Critique Vol 34, No1, pp9-26.