A Time for Magic

December 7, 2011

For a million years the race has gone on monotonously propagating itself and monotonously reperforming this dull nonsense – to what end? No wisdom can guess! Who gets a profit out of it? Nobody but a parcel of usurping little monarchs and nobilities who despise you; would feel defiled if you touched them; would shut the door in your face if you proposed to call; whom you slave for, fight for, die for, and are not ashamed of it, but proud; whose existence is a perpetual insult to you and you are afraid to resent it; who are mendicants supported by your alms, yet assume  toward you the airs of benefactor toward beggar; who address you in the language of master to slave, and are answered in the language of slave to master; who are worshipped by you with your mouth, while in your heart – if you have one – you despise yourselves for it. The first man was a hypocrite and a coward, qualities which have not yet failed in his line; it is the foundation upon which all civilizations have been built. Drink to their perpetuation!” (Mark Twain, ‘The Mysterious Stranger, 1962, p.235)

So speaks Satan in Mark Twain’s marvellous short story ‘the Mysterious Stranger’, which allows the masterful humourist to lampoon everything from religious fervour to warfare and capitalism, all in the setting of 1590s Austria. And not much has changed, as Satan would have expected.

The only qualification is that there is not much point in drinking to the perpetuation of British culture, such as it is. As Larry Elliott reports in today’s Guardian, manufacturing is falling apart and North Sea oil – once the resplendent cash cow of dynamic entrepreneurial Britain – is pouring off a cliff, being down 30 percent since 2008.

Capitalism was born in these islands and is about to consume their inhabitants, after a good couple of hundred years. The basis of Britain’s pre-eminence was manufacturing – the ability to produce mass consumption goods more efficiently and cheaply than artisan manufacturers (or other experiments with factory production around the globe. Hence the demise of Indian silk weaving.

Yet as all good communists have always suspected, these revolutionary developments in production carried with them the germ of the destruction of the society which bore them. Only in the last thirty or forty years have we seen the creation of what Marx and Engels called “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” across the world and across national boundaries.

Jobs now flow to zones of exploitation across the entire globe. Almost any commodity can be produced at little cost somewhere other than the capitalist “core” economies, who must resort to protectionism or other supports to maintain a manufacturing sector. And when he jobs go, so goes a great deal of the income and demand which sucks in the products of industrial production.

We have seen the benefits of globalization – cheaper commodities, easy credit and financial hegemony – and now we will see some of the drawbacks, which people across the global south have long been subjected to. Unemployment, social chaos, displacement, massive inequality and the militarization of the cities to protect such concentrated wealth.

Hence the desperate desire of David Cameron to protect the City of London in European talks, along with Ken Clarke’s equally desperate desire to maintain Britain’s membership of the European financial community. But, as it was the City which facilitated the capital flows leading to globalization and the credit crisis, buttressing its position will do nothing for industry in this country.

Twain would have recognised this as a pretty routine effort to reinvigorate the divine right of elites to rule over those who support them. The phrase “mendicants supported by your alms, yet assume toward you the airs of benefactor toward beggar” could not capture more accurately the financial class which produced the credit crisis and continues to stage a credit strike to British people, industry included.

Such is life. But as Marx and Engels saw (prophetically), “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers….The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”

The bourgeoisie itself is being demystified through its incompetence and corruption, but it’s a tortuous process. Meanwhile, bourgeois in the global south take their place in the committee of production, overseeing new rounds of exploitation. As the fantasies that lovers hold about each other are often laid bare as fraudulent when relationships fall apart, it won’t be much comfort to see unmasked the swine who took us all underwater.

The problem is one of agency as much as anything. Marx and Engels obviously saw something in the industrial “proletariat” as a revolutionary force. We have to be more imaginative. We have our occupiers, our millions of strikers, our greens, squatters, dreamers, and our links with groups across the world fighting against concentrated economic and political power. Andy Merrifield’s excellent “Magical Marxism” offers a creative reading of the situation, urging us to adopt an autonomist, spontaneous posture – building movements and spaces which encourage artistic and political activism to converge.

But it’s all so unclear. The pessimists are having a field day. But this is not their time. This is a time to create spaces in which pessimism can be transmuted into hope and commitment. The occupation movement offers a way forward. Climate Camp was quite similar. But we are a long way from turning those examples into a mass movement demanding democratic control of the economy – credit, manufacturing, natural resources and all, still less of greening production and consumption. Or are we? If the bourgeoisie can ensure that “all that is solid melts into air” what can solidarity and imagination achieve?

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