European Trends

Albert: From what I can tell Europeans are pretty ignorant of events in the U.S. left, but, even more so, the U.S. left, including myself, is horrendously ignorant of events in Europe. Maybe you can help us do something about the latter problem. I would like to try to find out some of the trends you see developing in movements in Europe, and your view of their virtues and flaws.

Grubacic: You know, I was just reading one essay, a rather old one, from Barbara and John Erenreich, the pivotal essay for a most excellent book titled “Between Labor and Capital.” In this essay, the authors describe the relation of what they call the “professional managerial class” to the movement of the 1960′s. It strikes me as remarkable how simillar this is to the main relevant trends of the ‘new movement’ we have in Europe.

As you know, I subscribe to the pareconist view that in contemporary capitalist societies we have three centrally important classes, not just two – workers, capitalists, and also coordinators, which corresponds to Ehrenreich’s professional managerial class, and I think is also first put forward, inspired by the Ehrenreich essay, in that same book. Coordinators are the people in the society who largely monopolize empowering work and gain associated power and  status, all of it justified by educational credentials and monopolized skills and knowledge (lawers, engeneers, doctors, high level professors, managers, etc.). A key thing to note about the coordinator class is  that it is capable of being a ruling class. This is in fact the true historical meaning of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet Union, and all the other so called Communist countries. They were systems with an economy that empowered the coordinator class, and whose state, of course, was dictatorial.

Albert: And you see this kind of understanding applying as well to trends now in Europe?

Grubacic: According to my strong conviction, we should seek to create movements that working class people will define and that will have working class culture and values, not only attracting but empowering working people. We should not only reject capitalist domination of efforts at social change, but we should also reject coordinator domination of those efforts.
But that means creating organizations that eliminate the coordinator worker class hierarchy – and that incorporate what is called in participatory economics ‘balanced job complexes’ in the movement itself. So I am addressing here the unpleasent emergence of an economic and political bureaucracy inside of the movement in Europe, inspired by the practice of what may well be a new kind of leninist organization of intellectuals — and that reflects this coordinator agenda.

So, one trend that I could easily identify in Europe today is this “return of vanguardism”. By vanguardism I mean an attempt to form an elite that can arrive at the correct strategic analyses and then lead the movement to follow, with the movement obeying but not deciding for itself.

Unlike a good friend of mine, David Graeber, who recently wrote an article on the “Twilight of Vanguardism”, I am less optimistic. This phenomenon of a Leninist rebirth takes a familiar form in Britain, where the Socialist Workers Party dominates a classical ‘front organisation’ called Globalise Resistance. The Leninst ‘network’ practice of ‘monopolizing the resistance’ has been customarily justified by notions of a privileged capacity to understand and the struggle against capitalism. But this ‘new Leninism’ is also noticable in the practice of the networks and people who I personaly admire, and whom I regard as part of the same movements I work in, the new radicalism. And this phenomenon is, I think, harmful.

We could, roughly distinguish two principles on which a movement could be built. One is the ‘vanguardist’ one, or the coordinator one. The other would be the “anarchist principle”. Anarchism has by now largely taken the predominant place that Marxism has had in recent decades in social struggle. Being primarily an ethics of practice, it is the source of many ideas and inspiration for the new movement. The anarchist principle implies that one’s means most be consonant with one’s ends; that one cannot create freedom through authoritarian means; that as much as possible, one must embody the society one wishes to create. One network which is built on this principle is the European part of the Peoples Global Action (see, for more details: www.agp.org). PGA- Europe is going to hold it’s next conference in Yugoslavia, and this turn towards Eastern Europe is, in my opinion, one of the more encouraging trends in European activism.

You ask me how to interpret or explain trends in the European Left, such as new border activism and the fight for the rights of immigrants (www.noborder.org), the European Social Forum (www.fse-esf.org) the Peoples Global Action, the Social Consultas (www.consultaeuropa.org), the various European media-activist initiatives, the days of action like Evian (see a web page on Evian on www.agp.org).

First, you see, in Europe, unlike in the U.S., we dont divide the anti war movement from what is being called, wrongly, the anti globalization movement. We think that it is – to borrow the famous notion of Imanuel Wallerstein- one single “anti-systemic movement”.

In addition, however, it is my opinion that, when talking about this so-called anti-globalisation movement, it is possible to identify two parallel processes. One, which I call the new radicalism, began with the Zapatista insurrection, and brought about the creation of the Peoples’ Global Action (PGA) network. The second one, which I call traditional, has developed separately, culminating in the creation of the WSF and regional forums.

The history of these tendencies, which have largely developed simultaneously, is relatively well known. Demonstrations, the Global Days of Action, and Forums – as well as the Indymedia (IMC) project that has inaugurated a quite specific mode of activist communication – have become the most significant manifestations of the new radicalism. The new radicalism implies an attempt to distance oneself from the practices of the old left; to move away from the area of conventional politics and to devise a new political space, a “politics from below,” a pre-figurative politics (i.e. the modes of organization consciously resemble the world you want to create), direct action and social disobedience, and anti-capitalism and anti-statism.

The traditional approach includes social democratic reformists, and diverse representatives of NGOs, as well as members of the old left anti-capitalist parties. Although certain changes can be felt in their rhetoric (especially when the notorious “friendly civil society” is at issue), their practice has remained familiar: trying to reform and humanize capitalism, lobbying around and through political parties, recruiting new party members to fight for a transformation that will not be another “revolution betrayed”. The traditional paradigm implies loyalty towards the old practices of political action, as opposed to the new radicalism’s intentional breaking of the old paradigms.

The traditionalists have understood (and they are to be congratulated for this), that there is something really new in the new movement. The evidence is the very idea of organizing ” Social Forums” – their institution that is “new”
although organized in the “old” way – as well as the striving of political parties to transform themselves into networks such as the French ATTAC.

Albert: What about the work of Hardt and Negri, Empire, that seems to be garnering a lot of interest and support throughout Europe. Where does it and the trends emerging from it fit in, in your view? Is it Leninist/coordinatorist, or is it more in accord with an anarchist principle, as you pose it?

Grubacic: In this context, reading the book that you have mentioned, The Empire, by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt, becomes very exciting. This book is a result of a meeting of two traditions: one of the French post-structuralism (in the first place the ideas of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, and their concept of biopower which “is a form of power that regulates social life from within” our own lives) and the Italian critical Marxism of ‘autonomist’ and ‘post-operaismo’ variety (including the ideas of “autonomy” and “workers standpoint”.)

Empire is an interesting book. It has become one of the manifestos of the new movement. It no doubt has many insights, suggestions and concepts. But it presents many problems as well.

To begin with, Empire is a book that is very hard to read. It is written in an academic style that feels as though it was designed to be understood only by the cogniscenti. I find troubling this contrast between the call for a radically egalitarian politics and a writing style that is so arcane that no one outside a small group of intellectuals familiar with this vocabulary and having huge amounts of time to wade through the words could be expected to understand. Style, according to radical post-structuralism, is political. Post-structuralist writers, Hardt and Negri included, tend to cultivate a style that excludes the vast majority of potential readers, reduces most of even the highly educated to a passive audience, and invites at best a small circle of initiates to the discussion. The style is, I am afraid, absorbed with the ideology, and has become an integral part of the presentation, which often has more to do with performance than with dialogue.

Albert: By performance I take it that you mean like a play or a show that is predetermined and passively accepted, and by dialogue that you mean a real exchange among equals where the results emerge from everyone’s efforts. Yes, and I should probably admit that I have tried to read Empire three times, each time coming to a grinding halt in utter disbelief and incomprehension. I honestly find it hard to believe that people get through it, understand it, and that what each understands is consonant with what the rest of its readers understand. Now I freely admit this could be my lack of background or capacity and I also have to admit, it is partly why I am asking the question. I am hoping you can give me a short course, as well as offer up your criticisms, etc.

Grubacic: Well, I have to say, I suspect that Hardt and Negri might question my understanding of what they have written. But, if we move to the arguments that they offer, the central argument of the book seems to be that over the past two decades the powers of the state have been drained away by the flow of global networks of production and exchange across its borders, while sovereignty has been reconstituted at the higher level of a — still somewhat misty — ‘Empire’.

Albert: It is an odd and ironic formulation, since it comes at a time when the U.S. state is working hard to turn back the clock to nation driven colonialism and arguably even further. They are not seeking an amorphous Empire with center spread in an international network of relations, but rather an American Empire with its center in Wall Street, Washington, and our military command.

Grubacic: This is a great ambivalence at the heart of Empire. What is the role-the ‘privileged position’-of the US within the coming global sovereign power that Hardt and Negri depict? The actually existing United States constantly threatens to challenge the pages of Empire as, of course, not some kind of transcendant, deterritorialized sovereign force but as a super-state within an international state system — as is all too clear to those who have felt its force.

Albert: But isn’t the real heart of the book and the tends around it more about who makes social change?

Grubacic: Yes, doubts about its understanding of international relations aside, another key concept in Hardt and Negri is the one of the ‘social factory’ where the working class is not simply composed of the industrial workers who are loosing their ‘hegemonical position,’ but also includes all those whose labour or potential labour creates and sustains the ‘social factory’. This includes housewives, students and the unemployed. The proletariat is still here but the arguments shift to using the category of ‘multitude’. Although, as far as I am aware , Hardt and Negri never clearly fully define what the multitude really is.

Albert: That the definition is vague is reassuring since I have not been able to figure out what is the difference between multitude and, say, the opposition, or the left, assuming it becomes very large, that is. The word multitude means to include other constituencies than workers, but few deny that other constituencies are critically important, that I am aware, and their importance is certanly not a new idea. It also means to reduce the focus on the working class as alone key or as baove all other elements in centrality, but then again, that isn’t new either. Feminists, anti-racists, and anti-authoritiarians have taught the need for a multiply attentive approach to roles in society for some time. The trouble I feel is that the word multitude seems to be somehow trying to replace the other terms, leaving us with one term covering all, and therefore with very little comprehension of and attention to differences that are in fact critical to recognize and relate to.

Grubacic: I also don’t see the reason to redefine the working class as ‘multitude’ much less to use the word so centrally as to avoid also highlighting differences that are important. Radical traditions outside of Marxism always argued for a viewpoint that paid attention to various elements Marxism made secondary or ignored. If we go back to Michail Bakunin, or other anti-authoritarian socialists of the day, they addressed both the peasantry and craftsman as part of the working class,a nd they also paid serious attention to intellectuals as having different position and interests, as well. Not to mention the New Left atempts in this direction. I just fail to see what is so new in using this much celebrated concept multitude.

On the other hand, what seems to me to be much more important about using the term, and what is my problem with it, is that having abandoned attention to the coordinator/working class relationship and anatgonism, the way is opened to replicating this relationship within the movement. The vanguard (of the multitude)/mass relationship comes to duplicate  the old coordinator/working class division inside of capitalism, with the vanguard providing expertise and managerial skills. Educational requirements (the study of Foucault, Althusser, Negri, etc.) and the mysteries of meeting decorum and language tend to bar actual working class people from the movement’s leadership. Leadership becomes restricted to professional revolutionaries, and to ‘movement cadre’ drawn from the coordinator class.  I hardly need to emphasize the dangerous  nature of this situation which could, like in times past, leave activists isolated and fragmented, still based largerly in the coordinator class, more as a subculture than as a movement.

Albert: The Leninists used to have one term, working class, to cover for working class and coordinator class. In this way their language obscured the existence of the coordinators, and their program came to advocate a coordinator agenda labeled pro worker. Over the years, the left got beyond thinking only economics matters. Activists realized that women and minorities and other groups matter too, in those capacities and positions and not just as workers, and that they can be agents too, as a result of reactions to gender and race and power relations, not just exploitation. But now along comes Hardt and Negri and again we have one term, “multitude,” covering everyone. So again there could be a program and method and style that was actually serving only one part of that whole — the coordinator class part, for example. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it could be that way. And when we consider as you point out, the way they write, the entrance conditions to be part of the process, the elevation of “intellect” meaning in practice highly obscure ways of communicating, and all the rest, it feels like slide in the wrong direction.

Grubacic: As for their program, Empire comes up with three key demands for the construction of “another world”. These are the right to global citizenship, “a social wage and guaranteed income for all,” and re-approbation which first of all applies to the means of production but also to free access to and control over knowledge, information, and communication.

But it doesnt say much more, for example, nothing about actual structures for accomplishing the demands. It is true that Marxists always had the unfortunate tendency to avoid ‘utopian speculations’, but I find lack of reflection about alternatives to be a serious problem today. It leaves open the possibility for new hierarchies, or even just arriving at the old ones, by not proposing structures that really would counter them.

So, for me one of the greatest problems of the book Empire and the trends emerging from it is its resurrecting some of the key aspects of the political tradition of Leninism from which Empire emerges and which the authors seem to wish to hold onto.

Of course, the book is also, in many ways, quite useful. The authors, to their credit, resolutely refuse any strategic admiration for nation states. Strategies of local resistance can ‘misidentify and thus mask the enemy’, just as they obscure the potential for liberation within it. The national-sovereignty defence against the forces of international capital can present ‘an obstacle’ to global democracy. Likewise, Hardt and Negri refuse, in particular, any idea of anti-globalisation or “de globalisation” that favors old style national capitalism. And they seem to offer a view of political organization which favors networks instead of political parties and other more traditional models of political struggle, but how a normal person with normal responsibilities could play a leading role in such a network, or even participate in its debates, if you have to be able to read Empire first, I don’t know.

But, again, I cannot help but suspect that this book, however useful it may be in some respects for the Marxist part of the movement, contributes to the “coordinator quality” of the movement and it’s ‘return to vanguardism’. We are confronted with yet another European ‘trend’, which I call the “Great Man Problem”, and which implies some sort of mystical worshiping of the figure of the intellectual (especialy if they come from France!). I have to say that I dont see anything that remarkable in the role of the intellectual.

I think that we should celebrate, if anything, the idea of the  activist “intellectual”, a non vanguardist intellectual, in accordance with what I have called the “anarchist principle”. A non vanguardist intellectual should be someone who listens, explores and discovers. His or her role is to expose the interests of the dominant elite that are carefully hidden behind supposedly objective rhetoric. Using what could be called “participatory action”, the role of the activist intellectual could become teasing out the tacit logic underlying forms of radical practice, and then, not only offering the analysis back to the movement, but using it, with others, to formulate new and very accessible visions. Really, it is something everyone can and should do, not some specialist function.

Albert: I agree, Of course everyone is an intellectual. We all use our minds. Some get to do it more due to social relations giving them great freedom while others are saddled with debilitating tasks. Some go overboard, not only arriving at a paralysis of analysis and exess of obscurantism, but demanding praise and status for these ill doings. But I wonder if you could do two things in our little remaining time. For the activists who are influenced by Negri and Hardt’s critical Marxism, how does it affect their actual day to day priorities and behaviors? Then, you have also mentioned another strain, following an anarchist principle of trying to embody their future aims in their current work. What about them? What is good and different — truly non Leninist about their day to day priorities and behavior? And what problems do they have?

Grubacic: I think that some of the activists who are influenced by “critical Marxism” are doing very important work. But what I would like to see is them taking part in coalitions such as Peoples Global Action,, which are built around what I have labeled the “anarchist principle”, because PGA is a political space open to all libertarian political practices; I fail to see why they are so reluctant to do so. And I guess I would like them to react to the kinds of views expressed above and clarify why they don’t feel my criticisms are applicable. On the down side, you can feel, with many of these folks, despite their desires for justice and to rid the world of oppression, an ambivalence about working people and a dismissal of styles and habits that stem from working class life. At the same time, there is also a kind of exagerrated view of the life of the mind. This is subtle and hard to express or even pinpoint, but I think that that article I mentioned at the outset, by the Ehrenreich’s, does a fine job of describing the viewpoints and behaviors and even attitudes involved, though of course it varies somewhat from country to country — though, actually, apparently a lot less than I might have thought.

As for the people who are following the “anarchist principle” in their activist work, well, we too have a lot of problems. One of them is a problem with the misunderstanding of the consensus decision making procedure which is, in Europe, often interpreted in a form of “consensus-imperialism”. Another problem which arises every now and then is an uncritical transcription of some organizational models imported from the Global South that just don’t apply as well, or sometimes even at all, in our contexts. There is also a serious problem of neglecting Eastern Europe which, somehow, escapes the attention of many activists. We also have to understand that the  goal of anti-authoritarianism is not to be small and isolated, and to disengage ourselves from others by dismissing their life choices. Sometimes, in this side of the movement too, this behavior comes from not understanding and relating positively to working class and poor people’s situations. Our goal should be movement building, not “summit-hopping”: we should try to connect our local work and our networking, instead of getting lost in “networks of networks” and “the process of procesess”. We should, also try to be more careful with overcoming our extremes of anti-intellectualism and life-stylism. So there is much room for improvement, of course — which is a good thing because as we solve these problems, after all, we will be more successful — whereas if we had no problems to solve, how would we improve?


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