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Marxism for Whores

By Magpie Corvid

My story is the same as many thousands of people who have found themselves unable to find steady, decently paid work. Our story is about austerity; we are everywhere, subsisting on meagre benefits, part-time work and a few occasional jobs. Some of us go into business for ourselves; some of us make websites; some of us fix cars, and some of us do sex work.

I entered sex work, along with so many other people, as a straightforward solution to the awful risks of poverty. I am not a sex worker because of a poignant story. I am not a sex worker because I am mentally ill, or have a history of abuse, or have daddy issues, or because I want attention. It is sometimes wonderful and sometimes difficult, and it’s not a job for everyone, but sex work is my job. It is a job that I can do, that I am good at; it provides for me. When I sell my sexuality as a product, the only difference between me and another service worker, or another performer, is in the sexual nature of the work. Of course, sexual labour can be intense, and dangerous, and of course making it illegal does nothing to alleviate these factors. Activist Jenny Pearl, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, said;

I go out to work now because of economic pressures. Benefits don’t cover the cost of gas, electric, water rates, replacing household equipment. I can’t live on benefits long term. When I have to buy coats or shoes I can’t afford them. Most of the other girls or women that I meet on the street are there for very similar reasons, purely to keep their families together, their children out of care. It gives them a little bit of control about when to have the heating on or not, instead of having to stay in bed with the covers on to stay warm. They go out for an hour and make enough money to pay a bill. Sometimes that is the only control, the only choice we have in our lives. We can stay in bed, live in squalor, survive on bread and jam, but personally I feel I deserve more and so does my daughter. So I choose to go on the street and earn some money because I want a better life. What I do is not dishonest. It is hard work. I wouldn’t do it if I had a choice. But now that I have a criminal record for soliciting, it is the only job I can do that enables me to earn some money without neglecting my daughter. Because of my daughter’s disability, when I go out I have to earn £60 just to cover sitting costs even though she is twenty-five, before I get the money to pay the bills.

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Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction

By Neil Davidson

1

The neoliberal era can be retrospectively identified as beginning with the economic crisis of 1973, or, more precisely, with the strategic response of state managers and employers to that crisis. Previous eras in the history of capitalism have tended to close with the onset of further period of systemic crisis; 1973, for example, saw the end of the era of state capitalism which began in 1929. The neoliberal era, however, has not only survived the crisis which began in 2007, but its characteristic features are, if anything, being further extended and embedded, rather than reversed.

Yet, although neoliberalism has massively increased the wealth of the global capitalist class, has it also restored the health of the system itself? The crisis which gave rise to neoliberalism was, after all, caused by the end of the unprecedented period of growth which characterised the post-war boom, and the consequent accelerating decline in the rate of profit, unimpeded by the countervailing tendencies – above all arms spending – which had held it in check since the Second World War. These levels of growth were never resumed, but it would be wrong to claim that capitalism experienced no recovery after 1973. The boom from 1982 to 2007 was certainly uneven and punctuated by particularly sharp financial crises and recessions in 1987, 1991, 1997 and 2000; but these were normal expressions of the business cycle and only a misplaced fixation with using the unique and unrepeatable period between 1948 and 1973 as a comparator could justify treating these as symptoms of crisis. When crisis did return in 2007–8, it simply proved that neoliberalism was no more capable of permanently preventing this than any other mode of capitalist regulation.

Neoliberalism does, however, represent a paradox for capitalism. Its relative success as a ruling-class strategy, particularly in weakening the trade union movement and reducing the share of profits going to labour, has helped to disguise that some aspects of this mode of regulation are proving unintentionally detrimental to the system. Serving the interests of the rich is not the same – or at least, not always the same – as serving the interests of capital and may, in certain circumstances, be in contradiction to it. Simply doing what the rich want is unlikely to produce beneficial results for the system as a whole, although it may help increase the wealth of individual capitalists. For not only are capitalists generally uninterested in the broader social interest, which we might expect, but they are also generally incapable of correctly assessing their own overall collective class interests, which might seem more surprising – although as we shall see, it is a long-standing phenomenon, observed by many of the great social theorists from late eighteenth century onwards. As a result, capitalist states – or more precisely, their managers – have traditionally acted to make such an assessment; but in the developed West at least, neoliberal regimes are increasingly displaying an uncritical adherence to the short-term wishes of particular business interests. This is not the only emergent problem: the increasingly narrow parameters of neoliberal politics, where choice is restricted to ‘social’ rather than ‘economic’ issues, has encouraged the emergence of far-right parties, usually fixated on questions of migration, which have proved enormously divisive in working-class communities, but whose policies are in other respects by no means in the interests of capital.

The self-destructive nature of neoliberal capitalism has nothing necessarily to do with the removal of restrictions on markets. The rise of neoliberalism made it fashionable to refer to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, the assumption being that neoliberalism is in the process of realising Polanyi’s nightmare: reversing the second part of his ‘double movement’ – the social reaction against markets – and unleashing the mechanisms that he saw as being so destructive of society and nature.

Leaving aside the fact that capitalism was always capable of producing social atomisation, collective violence and environmental destruction, even in periods when the state was far more directly involved in the mechanisms of production and exchange then it is now, there are two problems with this position. First, rhetoric apart, capitalists no more favour untrammelled competition today than they did when monopolies and cartels first appeared as aspects of the emerging system in the sixteenth century. Second, one would have to be extraordinarily naïve to believe that the neoliberal project has been about establishing ‘free’ markets in the first place, although this myth has been assiduously perpetrated by social democratic parties who, eager to disguise their own capitulation to neoliberalism, emphasise their opposition to the marketisation of all social relationships, even though no-one – except perhaps the followers of Ayn Rand – seriously imagines this is either possible or desirable. In what follows I will mainly draw on the experiences of the UK and the US, since these were the first nation-states in which neoliberalism was imposed under democratic conditions – unlike Chile or China, for example – and where it has in many respects gone furthest. To understand the real nature of the difficulties inadvertently caused for capital by neoliberalism we have to begin with the role of capitalist states ‘in general’.


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The Limits of Utopia

By China Miéville

So we start with the non-totality of the ‘we’. From there not only can we see the task but we can return to our utopias, to better honor the best of them. 

Those rivers of milk and wine can stop being surplus. There’s nothing foolish about such yearnings: they are glimmerings in eyes set on human freedom, a leap from necessity. Far from being merely outlandish, these are abruptly aspects of a grounded utopia incorporating political economy, a yearning on behalf of those who strive without power. In the medieval peasant utopia Cockaigne it rains cheese. Charles Fourier imagined the seas turned to lemonade. The Big Rock Candy Mountain. These are dreams of sustenance out of reach of the dreamers, of the reduction of labour, of a world that will let exhausted humanity rest. 

We can dispense with the most banal critiques of utopia. That it is unconvincing as a blueprint, as if that is what it should ever be. That it is drab, boring, faceless and colourless and always the same. The smear that the visionary aspiration for better things always makes things worse. These canards serve stasis.

There are sharper criticisms to be made, for the sake of our utopias themselves and of the day-to-day interventions without which they risk being – and this, itself, is one of those criticisms – valves to release pressure. 

Utopia, for one thing, has never been the preserve of those who cleave to liberation. Settlers and expropriators have for centuries asserted their good environmental sense against the laziness of feckless natives, in realizing the potential of land spuriously designated empty, of making so-called deserts so-called bloom. Ecotopia has justified settlement and empire since long before the UN’s REDD schemes. It has justified murder.

There is a vision of the world as a garden, under threat. Choked with toxic growth. Gardening as war. And the task being one of ‘ruthlessly eliminating the weeds that would deprive the better plants of nutrition, the air, light, sun.’

Here the better plants are Aryans. The weeds are Jews.

SS-Obergruppenfuhrer and Reichsminister of Agriculture in the Third Reich, Walther Darré coagulated soil science, nostalgia, pagan kitsch, imperialism, agrarian mystique and race hate in a vision of green renewal and earth stewardship predicated on genocide. He was the most powerful theorist of Blut und Boden, ‘Blood and Soil’, a Nazi ecotopia of organic farmlands and restocked Nordic forests, protected by the pure-blooded peasant-soldier. 

The tree may not have grown as Darré hoped, but its roots didn’t die. A whole variety of fascist groups across the world still proclaim their fidelity to ecological renewal, green world, and agitate ostentatiously against climate change, pollution and despoliation, declaring against those poisons in the service of another, the logic of race. 

Of course reactionary apologists for Big Pollute routinely slander ecological activists as fascists. That doesn’t mean those committed to such activism should not be ruthless in ferreting out any real overlaps: very much the opposite. 

Aspects of eliminationist bad utopia can be found much more widely than in the self-conscious Far Right. Swathes of ecological thinking are caught up with a nebulous, sentimentalised spiritualist utopia, what the ecofeminist Chaia Heller calls ‘Eco-la-la’. Crossbred with crude Malthusianism, in the combative variant called Deep Ecology, the tweeness of that vision can morph into brutality, according to which the problem is overpopulation, humanity itself. At its most cheerfully eccentric lies the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, advocating an end to breeding: at the most vicious are the pronouncements of David Foreman of Earth First!, faced with the Ethiopian famine of 1984: ‘[T]he worst thing we could do in Ethiopia is to give aid – the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve’. 

This is an ecological utopia of mass death. That we could also call an apocalypse. 

Apocalypse and utopia: the end of everything, and the horizon of hope. Far from antipodes, these two have always been inextricable. Sometimes, as in Lactantius, the imagined relationship is chronological, even of cause and effect. The one, the apocalypse, the end-times rending of the veil, paves the way for the other, the time beyond, the new beginning. 

Something has happened: now they are more intimately imbricated than ever. ‘Today,’ the bleak and sinister philosopher Emile Cioran announces, ‘reconciled with the terrible, we are seeing a contamination of utopia by apocalypse ... The two genres ... which once seemed so dissimilar to us, interpenetrate, rub off on each other, to form a third’. Such reconciliation with the terrible, such interpenetration, is vivid in these Deep Ecological hankerings for a world slashed and burned of humans. The scourging has become the dream. 

This is not quite a dystopia: it’s a third form – apocatopia, utopalypse – and it’s all around us. We’re surrounded by a culture of ruination, dreams of falling cities, a peopleless world where animals explore. We know the clichés. Vines reclaim Wall Street as if it belongs to them, rather than the other way round; trash vastness, dunes of garbage; the remains of some great just-recognizable bridge now broken to jut, a portentous diving board, into the void. Etcetera.

It’s as if we still hanker to see something better and beyond the rubble, but lack the strength. Or as if there’s a concerted effort to assert the ‘We’ again, though negatively – ‘We’ are the problem, and thus this We-lessness a sublime solution. The melancholy is disingenuous. There’s enthusiasm, a disavowed investment in these supposed warnings, these catastrophes. The apocalypse-mongers fool no one. Since long before Shelley imagined the day when ‘Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins, in the midst of an unpeopled marsh’, these have been scenes of beauty. 

We’ve all scrolled slack-mouthed through images of the Chernobyl zone, of Japan’s deserted Gunkanjima island, of the ruins of Detroit, through clickbait lists of Top Ten Most Awesomely Creepy Abandoned Places. This shouldn’t occasion guilt. Our horror at the tragedies and crimes behind some such images is real: it coexists with, rather than effaces, our gasp of awe. We don’t choose what catches our breath. Nor do the images that enthrall us read off reductively to particular politics. But certainly the amoral beauty of our apocatopias can dovetail with something brutal and malefic, an eliminationist disgust.

We can’t not read such camply symptomatic cultural matter diagnostically. What else can we do with the deluge of films of deluge, the piling up, like debris under Benjamin’s angel of history, of texts about the piling up of debris? 

Symptoms morph with the world. One swallow, of however high a budget, does not a summer make, but one doesn’t have to be a Žižek to diagnose a cultural shift when, in Guillermo Del Toro’s recent Pacific Rim, Idris Elba bellows, ‘Today we are cancelling the apocalypse.’ Perhaps we’ve had our fill of the end, and with this line we usher in a different kind of aftermath – the apocalypse that fails. We’re back, with muscular new hope. 

A similar shift is visible in the rise of geoengineering, ideas once pulp fiction and the ruminations of eccentrics. Now, planet-scale plans to spray acid into the stratosphere to become mirrored molecules to reflect radiation, to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere, to bring up benthic waters to cool the oceans, are written up by Nobel laureates, discussed in the New Yorker and the MIT Technology Review. A new hope, a new can-do, the return of human agency, sleeves rolled up, fixing the problem. With Science

This planet-hacking, however, is utterly speculative, controversial, and – according to recent work at Germany’s Helmholtz Centre – by the most generous possible projections thoroughly inadequate to halt climate chaos. It is, by any reasonable standards, absurd that such plans seem more rational than enacting the social measures to slash emissions that are entirely possible right now, but which would necessitate a transformation of our political system. 

It’s a left cliché to prounounce that these days it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: Andreas Malm points out that with the trope of geoengineering, it’s easier to imagine the deliberate transformation of the entire planet than of our political economy. What looks at first like a new Prometheanism is rather capitulation, surrender to the status quo. Utopia is here exoneration of entrenched power, the red lines of which are not to be crossed.  

What price hope indeed? 

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Re-asking the Housing Question

By Mary Robertson

Chronic under-supply, crippling unaffordability, and – for the first time in a century – deteriorating physical conditions, are pushing housing to the forefront of political and economic debate in Britain. It is an indication of its breadth and severity that we are spoiled for choice in seeking a headline figure that encapsulates Britain’s housing crisis. A twenty-six percent increase in homelessness since 2010; average house prices more than five times larger than average incomes; ballooning social housing waiting lists; or three quarters of the British public agreeing that there is a housing crisis in Britain – all these things and more point to Britain’s growing inability to house its population.

But its escalating problems are also making housing a site of intensified struggle. A scattering of local defensive actions across London have turned into some of the most vibrant and inspiring campaigns seen in Britain in a long time. For the most part, these are campaigns led not by the usual suspects or dedicated activists, but by people directly affected by housing issues and new to political action. Significantly, for a generation of leftists accustomed to political defeat, housing has also proved the site of some rare, if small, political victories, such as the New Era campaigners ousting their American buyer or Focus E15 forcing part of the Heygate estate into use. The momentum building around housing struggles raises the question of whether housing can be a site of transformative social struggle.

It has been a long time since housing garnered such attention. Significant improvements in housing in the inter- and post-war periods relegated housing to the relative political wilderness. Viewed from a longer perspective, however, housing problems are not new. The nature and inevitability of housing problems, and their potential for transformative change, were discussed by Engels in his pamphlet ‘The Housing Question’ in 1872. Engels argued that capitalist society would fail to provide workers with sufficient or adequate housing, and that the contradictions and uneven development of capitalist society would generate recurrent housing problems. With the housing question resurfacing so forcefully after decades of progress in the middle of the last century, this insight seems highly prescient. However, while there is much in Engels that remains relevant today, the nature of the housing problem has inevitably been transformed by a century and a half of capitalist restructuring. Most notably, the growth of primary and secondary mortgage markets has embroiled housing in financial markets and made housing a site of speculation. To comprehend the present crisis, Engels’s analysis needs updating so that it is able to grasp the novel features acquired by the housing question in the era of financialised capitalism.

Engels’s prognosis for housing was paired with a thesis about the nature of housing struggle. While he granted that housing problems might be temporarily mitigated through the actions of states, capitalists, or workers themselves, Engels ultimately saw housing problems as a reflection of, and subordinate to, the exploitation of labour under capitalist production. Consequently, he argued that the housing problem could only be definitively solved through the overthrow of capitalism and not through isolated struggles around housing:

As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of life and labour by the working class itself.

Accordingly, he insisted that workers, not tenants, are the agents of revolutionary change, derisively dismissing Proudhon’s suggestion that ‘[a]s the wage worker in relation to the capitalist, so is the tenant in relation to the house owner’ as ‘patently untrue’. As housing struggles emerge at the forefront of contemporary resistance, this thesis demands to be revisited. In particular, is there anything about the financialised reincarnation of the housing question that alters or elevates the transformative potential of housing struggles today?


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Marxism for Whores

Magpie Corvid

My story is the same as many thousands of people who have found themselves unable to find steady, decently paid work. Our story is about austerity ...

Read more »

Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction

Neil Davidson

The neoliberal era can be retrospectively identified as beginning with ...

Read more »

Labour, Pasokified

Richard Seymour

We were exhorted by Labour’s supporters to ‘vote with hope’ in this election. What now that hope has been so cruelly dashed?

Read more »

Re-asking the Housing Question

Mary Robertson

Chronic under-supply, crippling unaffordability, and – for the first time in a century – deteriorating physical conditions ...

Read more »