Sticking up for Dick?

An intense weekend in which I inaugurate the political discussion on my blog. Of course there is the global ‘Occupy’ movement/World Revolution Day unfurling across the globe, with Brisbane is putting in its best effort with Occupy Brisbane, where about 300 people gathered today and many will camp over night (Melbourne and Sydney managed to get thousands!). I’ll discuss this soon. At the Cooper Union in New York the Zizek-Badiou crowd are continuing their explorations into ‘The Idea of Communism’. In Brisbane we also had a rally for refugee rights in memory of the Siev-X tragedy, and we have the Stop Coal Seam Gas national day of action tomorrow at 11am. Also running the whole weekend is Powershift, the national youth summit of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC).

I’ll briefly try to gather my thoughts on this latter now… (As sad as this is for me: I wanted to begin the political part of my blog with either a discussion on Bruno Bosteels’ The Actuality of Communism, or on Zizek’s critique of orthodox Marxism, or the Occupy Wall Street movement, not AYCC, whose general politics and PR campaign tend to aggravate me). I went to two sessions only because I was back and forth from Occupy. These sessions were: A panel with Dick Smith and Ian Lowe, and a workshop around consumer culture. I want to talk about the two sessions as representative, which is problematic, of course, but nonetheless, I think there is something to be gained from the exercise.

What interests me most is that, while I walked in thinking that I would have to – by force of pure Marxist critical insight – effectively ‘save’ the poor, corruptible youth from the evil rhetoric of Dick Smith, what I found was quite the contrary: I agreed a great deal more with Dick Smith than I did with the various young people who spoke during the consumerism workshop.

The point was essentially this: Dick Smith spoke in systemic terms, whereas the youth spoke in individualist terms (occasionally with emphasis on ‘community’).

To explain, Dick Smith was advocating a zero-growth economy as a solution to the climate crisis. Despite his dubious populationist agenda, most of his rhetoric was around the problems of an economic system predicated on growth. He went so far as to say: “Our economic system is the problem.” In fact, the full picture of his vision was startling for me: move to zero growth, massive Government regulation on ecological impacts, drastically shorten working week for all workers but keep wages the same, move to a more equitable distribution of wealth nationally, a more equitable distribution of wealth internationally, etc. Essentially he was calling for a nanny state to end all nanny states, and for all states worldwide to be such. Such a thing would have to be “really well managed”: Indeed!

The point that I found was interesting was that Dick had the wisdom to admit that, with the current economic system, if we just stopped growing, we would fall into major recession and many people would be thrown out of work and various social crises would ensue – if companies are making less profits, they will throw more people out of work, who will then not have the money to buy the commodities, which the companies rely on for said profits, thus causing the situation to spiral downward. There would have to be managed transition to this non-growth situation, and this is where his whole thing about reducing working hours but keeping wages up comes in: this would mean that more people could be employed to cover the same amount of total labour, but each would be given the necessary means to live, to buy commodities – hence avoiding social crises.

Of course the assumption that Dick is working under is that there can be a ‘good capitalism’ that doesn’t have all the ‘bad’ and nasty features of the capitalism of the West (or the globe, ultimately) since, say, WWII (he blames, as many seem to do today, the overemphasis of the GDP…). This, according to John Bellamy Foster, is calling ‘the third stage of denial‘. The question of course is, can capitalism function in this way? Isn’t the supper nanny that Dick wants to hire to look over his children just simply too costly? Isn’t Dick perpetrating a serious economic naivety? Of course Marx would say so…

There is something bizarre about this non-growth capitalism idea. I want to do a Zizek in this situation and say “I wish that such a thing would work, I’d be all for it. Unfortunately, I’m much more of a pessimist…”

Nonetheless, Dick’s argument was in stark contrast to the general flow of the discussion in the workshop on consumerism, which came after the lunch break. During discussion, when people were talking about what they could to consume less of the inessential things in life, I found myself bringing up Dick Smith’s point that simply a large reduction in consumption would lead to a recession (or depression), mass unemployment various social crises, etc. “We can’t consider human consumption habits in abstraction,” I said, spoken like a true Marxist, “but have to see them in relation to the economic system from which they are born.” I argued for more emphasis on the simple question of the profit-motive and to talk about (over-)production. The general response to this was a nod before returning to the moralist discourse of overconsumption…

Not to mention that with the US spending more money on advertising each year than on education, how could we possibly get people in the Global North to consume less en masse?

There were many other problems with Dick Smith’s talk of course (he claimed that he was an “unashamedly ruthless capitalist” – this seemed to be well received by the audience, it lent him legitimacy: he’s not a crazy leftie ideologue!), and I’m totally against Dick’s populationist agenda (I plan to read this instead), but my question is this, can capitalism, in its current manifestation and condition, return to a welfare state, can it move to anything even remotely close to Dick Smith’s vision, or are we past that point? In which case, isn’t fighting neoliberalism head on – at this stage of the struggle – tantamount to fighting capitalism proper? It certainly mobilises more people than the idea of the overthrow of capitalism at this stage… Shouldn’t we treat it a bit like a dominant contradiction, in the Maoist sense (forgive me if that’s a wrong interpretation of Mao, I haven’t actually read him… yet) and argue that, to advance the cause of the working class (‘the 99%’?) today, the most effective method is to attack neoliberalism rather than capitalism head on? Then, when this struggle has advanced further, it will come into direct antagonism with capitalism proper… This is, of course, a very pressing question with regard to the Occupy Wall Street movement and similar movements globally.

Of course, this is speculation. The other side of me desperately wants to read further into Marxian economics and come to some engaging way of articulating these insights to the young generation of soft-lefties. I certainly sat through the workshop on consumption feeling like each point raised in discussion could have been clarified, dismantled, developed by a proper analysis of its relationship to the capitalist system of social relations.

Funnily enough, Dick Smith openly declared something like: “I don’t know how to get to this stage of non-growth capitalism, we need a genius to figure that bit out.” I don’t know how to get from here to something like a viable socialism or communism… We’ll need the people to figure that bit out.

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