Critical times in a back to front world

BARRY WINTER went to the Critical Politics conference in November, and found a Left still confused about how to respond to new times.

Organised by the Signs of the Times collective, the intellectual heirs of Marxism Today, this conference was really back to front. It concluded where it might, more usefully, have begun, with an analysis of capitalism by the Marxist economist, Robert Brenner.

Drawing from his recent article in New Left Review, ‘The Economics of Global Turbulence’, Brenner examined the declining fortunes of global capitalism over the last 30 years. He argued that, since the 1960s, each decade has seen worse conditions than the preceding one. As capitalism has become less fettered and more closely approximating its ‘pristine’ form, so it has performed less well.

While acknowledging that the past three or four years have seen some improvements, Brenner insists that the situation overall is much worse, both in terms of growth and wages. Growth in the 1990s, for example, is half of what it was in the previous decade. In 1999 wages were at the same level as they were in 1968. Between 1890 and 1970 wages grew annually at a minimum of two per cent but, since then, they have shown a decline. Working people in the United States now work longer hours than in any other country in the west or even Japan – some 10-20 per cent longer.

Poverty levels in the United States today are higher than in 1979 and inequality is widening. In 1980 the top one per cent of the US population owned 20.5 per cent of the country’s wealth. By 1997 their share had risen to 40 per cent. Poverty in the United States affects 20 per cent of people of pensionable age, and in the UK the figure is 24 per cent.

Economic downturns, Brenner noted, are a normal feature of capitalism. To get through them, capital adopts certain common strategies with clear political implications. It seeks to restore profitability, which is a long-term process, and this leads to intensified competition and overproduction – a crisis of overcapacity. This encourages a further fall in profitability which, in turn, aggravates competition and leads to greater falls in profits.


Those holding political office in such periods have to respond to the falling rates of profit – unless they have a strategy for challenging the system. No matter what party is in office, if their priority is the recovery of profitability, they have to seek higher capitalist investment. If a government of the Left claims that it can manage capitalism better than those on the Right, then it can hardly refuse to conform to its needs in an economic downturn. It has to take measures to stop profits from being undermined by the workforce. This is what we have seen throughout the capitalist world, similar processes to restore profits but with differing degrees of success. It matters little which party is in power.

In the 1970s various governments at first adopted Keynesian reflationary measures because they offered the least painful solutions, providing they worked, that is. Employers were allowed to increase their prices generating inflation and rising unemployment. This led various governments to break with Keynesianism. Any policies that were seen as anti-capitalist were dropped in order restore private investment. The attack on living standards that these measures involved began first under Carter, not Reagan, in the United States, and under Labour, not the Tories, in the UK.

The need to restore capitalist accumulation led to the rise of finance capital. In their own terms, the measures adopted were relatively successful. The trade unions were weakened due to rising unemployment. Productivity rose and speculative capitalism became more dominant. We saw the rise of a low-wage – and often temporary – sector of workers. Some of the labour force benefited from tax cuts and they were encouraged into anti-statist politics, opposing higher public expenditure and welfare spending, and displaying greater hostility towards crime.

Neo-liberalism extended further in the United States and UK than in parts of Europe, such as Germany and Sweden, where working class resistance was stronger. In particular, public sector workers were sometimes able to adopt a stronger anti-capitalist stance.

Third phase

In the 1990s we entered a third phase, ‘Clintonism’. This is an attempt to deal with continuing stagnation and involves balanced budgets, support for finance capital to get the economy going, and a rise in US imperialism. Brenner concluded by saying that there was no way of knowing in advance when and where working class resistance might break out but he expected that it would occur at some point.

Although his account ended with a traditional and rather weak view of the political prospects, his general analysis would have been useful had it come earlier in the conference. It could have provided a material basis for the rest of the discussions, something lacking in many of the sessions. For example, it would have allowed for more contextualised evaluations of the Labour government than was usually the case.

Instead, the conference began on a different note. In what was expected to be a keynote address, a somewhat dejected Stuart Hall admitted that for the first time in his life he was not engaging in politics and that he was depressed. He doubted whether he should be speaking on this occasion and, sadly, suggested that he might not do so in the future.

Rousing himself from his torpor, Hall reminded people of the politics of Marxism Today (in which he played such a major part) which saw modernisation as a chance to open up space on the Left (as well as on the Right). The aim was to ask how to bring the forces of opposition together, and how to address and bend the transforming forces of the world in a radical direction. His criticism of new Labour’s ‘third way’ is that it argues that once we understand the forces of change, the best that we can do is to go with the flow, that the Left has to be on the side of modernisation. In other words, it says that if we have to have markets, then we have to adapt our citizens to the needs of those markets.

Hall argued that, in effect, this means for new Labour there is no gap between a description of modernity and its political programme. He notes that the sociologist Anthony Giddens, for example, suggests that we live in a “runaway world”, but his answer is to have a runaway politics. Politics becomes a reflection of what is already happening because, to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s phrase, “there is no alternative”. In other words, new Labour is a complicated politics of adapting to modernity.


The role of socialist theory by contrast, Hall argued, it to open the gap between the different tendencies of the world and to find different modernities. It means a politics that is both for and against what is happening. Our political language requires us to say two things at the same time.

For example, in recent years we have seen the growth of individualisation as old collectivities have been swept aside. We can’t have a politics that’s against individualism, but we should ask how it can be transformed. The claim to live one’s own life from within – to reject the ascribed status given by patriarchy, the church or the state – is as much an ambition for the peasant of the south as it is for a person in the north. We may reject market individualism but we should not be against the huge social revolution that is taking place. That’s the stake that we have in liberalism.

It requires a very different form of socialist politics to the barricades mentality where confrontation is the key – the idea that we are here on one side and they are there on the other. Confrontation should not be a strategy but be seen as part of a wider repertoire. It means that today it is easier to establish links through networks than for parties that require people to sign on the dotted line. It means that we have to occupy politics in a new way.

Responding, Judith Squires, author of a forthcoming book on how to break down the barriers between theoretical work and practical politics, argued that theorists today had a different role. In a culturally differentiated and pluralist world, systematic visions may be trampled. Theorists are not legislators any more but should provide a framework for how people can operate politically.

During the discussion, in answer to a question about the importance of parliamentary politics, Hall said that many people can’t sign up to it because it is a “thin” system, managed and manipulated, and the gap is being filled by a range of activities. Representative democracy does matter but not in the way it once did. We need different strategies for different contexts.


Introducing a session on libertarianism, Mark Perryman, a leading member of Signs of the Times, was in a sober if not sombre mood. Gone was the usual self-congratulatory style, replaced by an awareness of the diminishing appeal of left-wing ideas. He outlined the importance of valuing the libertarian socialist tradition which, he said, has often been either patronised or abused. He reminded people of an earlier third way socialism that linked parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics.

Jonathan Freedland, columnist for the Guardian, spoke about the politics of the next generation based on interviews with 18-24 year-olds. Finding them very conservative on taxation but ultra-liberal on social issues, including sexuality, he noted that they are concerned with freedom. In general, they oppose the idea of banning people’s behaviour, be it taking drugs or fox hunting. Their “anarchism of a kind” was suspicious of the state but sympathetic to more intensely local democracy. This puts them at odds with the Labour government’s authoritarian streak.

Freedland argued that it is “our job to push Labour down the progressive road” and to achieve this we had to recover the non-statist socialist traditions that were committed to democracy from below, freedom and liberty.

Responding, Ashwani Sharma, co-author of Disorienting Rhythms: the politics of the new Asian dance music, argued that ‘youth’ is a fragmented category. For him, the problem with the kind of liberty being espoused is that it is local and self-interested. The key issue is not liberty but justice – at local and national levels. Sociologist Angela McRobbie argued for the continuing importance of arguing with and engaging with those in the parliamentary process.


Perhaps the most disappointing session that I attended was the seminar on democracy. This consisted of a interesting but rather academic lecture on democratic complexity by Gregor McLennan, Charter 88’s views on constitutional reform and the Labour government by Anthony Barnett, and, for me, a disappointing and disjointed outpouring from the columnist, Suzanne Moore.

Moore was extremely critical of the Labour government but not in a way that was particularly helpful. At times, she appeared to pathologise and certainly to psychologise their politics, especially their control freakery. It was critique which began in mid-air and stayed there, serving little purpose other than to let us know how strongly she feels.

Attended by several hundred people from a variety of different political persuasions, the conference was notable for the number of middle-aged and older participants rather than its appeal to youth. This was not for lack of effort by the organisers who arranged speakers and sessions on direct action, sexuality, self-government and gender. It is also in contrast to earlier events organised by Signs of the Times which have successfully appealed to a much wider age range.

It also shows that, in spite of the creative work undertaken by the organisation, it does have a problem. It reflects the political culture of the Left, it does not try to develop and sustain that culture. In its chosen task it does very well but it still leaves the much harder one to be done.

The Critical Politics Conference was held on 30 October 1999 at the London School of Economics.

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  1. Spring 2000 - ILP
    22 October 2010

    […] Critical times in a back to front world Barry Winter reports from the Critical Politics conference in […]

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