Prospects for 2013: Stefan Collini

By Tom

15 January 2013

Stefan Collini sees little hope for effective and sustained opposition to the power of the financial and corporate elite in 2013. Part of our series of short contributions from writers and activists looking to the year ahead. ___ The grim prospect for the UK in 2013 is for further areas of life to be subject to the ideological sway of so-called 'market forces'. These, as we know, are not actual economic mechanisms: they are strictly ideological constructs in the sense that, in the guise of being universal truths about 'the real world', they are offered as a justification for doing things that are calculated to further the project of increasing the return upon capital. This is a political project, enforced by political means. For this purpose, the standing of 'pre-capitalist' and non-capitalist values has to be further diminished, and forms of association or human relationships which do not correspond to the imagined profit-maximising model need to be made to do so. In these terms, the prospects are bleak for our cultural and educational institutions, which have been such notable redoubts of non-capitalist values, and no less dire for the institutions of the welfare state - notably, but not only, the NHS - which have incorporated other ideals of human solidarity. There may be genuine and heartfelt protests against the policies that seek to reduce or change the character of these institutions and practices, but there seems little prospect of well-organised, deep-rooted, effective and sustained political opposition. Inequality will worsen and the financial elite will extend its domination. The absurd claim that everyone's well-being depends upon the continued and increased prosperity of the 'wealth-producers' will be repeated ad nauseam, while the reality is that the financial interests of the City and and of the corporate elite are less and less tied up with the actual economy of the UK and more and more based on directing capital flows to more lucrative markets elsewhere in the world. I hope others will be able to provide more optimistic antidotes to this bleak forecast - but at the moment it is hard to see where they might come from.

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9 Comments on "Prospects for 2013: Stefan Collini"

By Chris Read, on 15 January 2013 - 16:28 |

Thanks for the realism in your piece, which I think is actually useful. I do agree that those on the left must address and accept that to overturn neo-liberalism and build a suitable form of 21st century democratic socialism is an immense task -  and there is little evidence it will start any time soon. There isn’t the numbers invovled to make such a transition or revolution a likely prospect. It’s hard to see where the demographic or constituency for such a change would come from. Partly this is due to the relative success of neo-liberalism, both in propangandistic terms, and in that living standards in the developed world have not plummeted for the middle swathes of society to the extent necessary for state breakdown. Even were that to happen - and Greece partly comes to mind here - there is also the threat of fascist counter revolution. However, we should accept that moving beyond neo-liberalism would be an epochal and extraordinary moment and it’s unlikely to be an easy project! I do have some questions or observations that may provide grounds for optimism or at least stoicism! Do you think that it is simply a question of neo-liberalism not (yet?) emiserating the population sufficiently into radical change? Do you think that a Labour victory in 2015 would make a difference or is this simply a cosmetic change of faces? Ca labour be saved or this a ridiculous idea? Where does climate change fit into this - it may well make a dramatic change to our lives. And lastly, can the left draw any satisfaction from the relative victories of identity groups since the neo-liberal period - or are these successes paltry and even counter-revolutionary, like ‘sex and the city’ post-feminism?

By George, on 15 January 2013 - 17:43 |

I’m afraid that this bleak outlook is the one that corresponds most closely to my own. That these ferociously acquisitive forces currently wreaking havoc should simply continue is certain. That the opposition is divided is sadly true. The only undecided factor is the way the media will respond. They will, of course, back capital but it will be curious to see what ludicrous gyrations they will go through to justify or distract from the increasing devastation around us.

By the way, I have admired Mr Collini ever since his wonderful dissection of Roger Scruton in his essay “Hegel In Green Wellies”. Perhaps Scruton will save us by reinstalling that Wodehouse world he permanently resides in? 

By Johnny K, on 15 January 2013 - 21:17 |

Stefan, your analysis regarding Britain seems quite sound. But people need to bear in mind that we are part of a global system, and that system is experiencing its most severe crisis ever. This makes us global agents, who can intervene anywhere we have influence or contacts.

There are also numerous spheres where the profit imperative is being taken out of the equation: at present most notably in music and films, but his could and should be extended to include many more areas of production, as has happened and continues in parts of Latin America.

Global capitalism has never been so ideologically weak, I see the main task of its present day opponents to develop a vision and a strategy for a new world that the majority of the world would want to live in, and to fight for it.

By George Stothard, on 16 January 2013 - 08:50 |

I think the most obvious thing to point out here is that capitalism will always prevail because it plays to the most important human attributes within us all: self-determination and the survival of the fittest.  The drive to bring home more food for ones own family will always supersede the idealogical fervour for a collective consciousness, personal greed will (sadly) always supersede the idea of society.  That’s why capitalism has so far been the lesser of several evils.  It frees humanity to at least try.  It is patently flawed and abused by the political classes and the elite but it does - at least - give each individual the ability to fight for survival.  And that is what we are all, innately, pre-programmed to do.  And that is exactly why, ultimately, communism did not work.  

By James, on 16 January 2013 - 09:32 |

George S: I agree that “self-determination” and “survival of the fittest” are widely seen as the most important human attributes in capitalist societies. However, have you considered that this is actually the case because these are the principles on which bourgeois political economy is founded? As anthropologists such as Signe Howell and Roy Willis have pointed out:

“It is undeniably the case that in Western society aggression is regarded as part of human nature. But perhaps this tells us more about Western society than about human nature. We wish to suggest that we cannot assume an a priori aggressive drive in humans. The presence of innate sociality, on the other hand, has much evidence in its favour. Humans are a priori sociable beings; it is their cooperativeness that has enabled them to survive, not their aggressive impulses.”

By George Stothard, on 16 January 2013 - 09:46 |

James: I’d be interested to know more about this theory.  My instinct is however, to believe that if such a theory were innate and prevalent in us all, that society would have evolved in that way.  Surely the fact that selfishness has prevailed all over the world (not just the west) proves that this is our instinctive primary driver.  Yes, we are social beings with a conscience, but when it boils down to it, we are still animals that need to put food on the plate and get a roof over our heads.  Evolution has, after all, brought us to this very point where it is the selfish who survive, who do best and who have the most.  The weak, the selfless, don’t so so well in any part of the animal kingdom.  Us included.  

And if we look to societies whose leaders have imposed another form of societal order on their citizens (North Korea, Cuba, China), we see much greater problems of poverty, lack of ambition, low rates of productivity - and in some places such as North Korea or Cuba, human beings are not even allowed to leave the country to explore the world.  Why did (the very handsome) Fidel Castro impose such massive restrictions on his citizens when his communist revolution took over in 1959?  Because he knew damn well that there would be a mass exodus.  There is a documentary about Cuba this week on Al Jazeera (or maybe the BBC World News) about Cuba’s recent modest changes - it is slowly allowing people to set up their own businesses and this is freeing people from state control - the documentary follows the success stories of people setting up modest cafes and frankly its joyous to see their happiness, to be allowed to use their creativity and enterprise to make better lives for themselves.  And of course, they now employ people who in turn are earning more money than the State gave them.  I’m not an advocate of Reagan’s trickle-down theory because I don’t believe big corporations have society’s best interests at heart.  But I do believe in the spirit of enterprise in human beings that works best in a capitalist system.  I often dream of a utopian alternative to capitalism - but I just cannot see it.  Or imagine it.  

By George, on 16 January 2013 - 16:42 |

George S. – James’s quote already answers your question about how “society would have evolved that way” i.e. society has already evolved “that way” with a caring system of checks and protections around us. These did not come from “caring capitalists” whose drive to outdo others regarding profit margins would never allow them to permit any concessions to the workforce but quite the contrary. All concessions had to be fought for from below.

The survival of the fittest / claw and tooth image has always prevailed everywhere in Western media. But is that really the world you live in? Would civilization be possible at all if that was what the world was like? And even your heroic self-improving business people cannot make a success of themselves unless they live in community where they have customers i.e. people with enough money to buy their products. 

The fact is that capitalism has to be severely restrained in order to work – and even then it is an unstable system that tends towards crises. The ones who profit most will work to undo all restraints and thus doom the entire project to collapse.

By James, on 16 January 2013 - 17:03 |

George S: Again, I’m not sure your assertion that evolution has brought us to a point where it is only the selfish who survive is true. Among primates, humans are by far the most cooperative species (in just about any way this appellation is used). Indeed, humans live in social groups constituted by all kinds of cooperative institutions and social practices with shared goals and differentiated roles. Indeed, it seems evident to me that the invention of complex things like technology, cultural institutions and systems of symbols, for example, could only have been driven by (or was perhaps even constituted by) social cooperation.

With regard to imagining alternatives to capitalism, you might be interested in the following interview that my fellow editor, Ed Lewis, did with Erik Olin Wright:

By Neil, on 17 January 2013 - 08:39 |

George S: Instead of assuming that selfishness, greed, aggression are our primary drivers and thus capitalist society the realisation of our innate nature - which the others on this thread are right to challenge with evidence and arguments from social anthropology and ethology - I suggest it might be fruitful to consider the origins and development of the traits you claim are primary and innate. It is a valid question to ask why the dominant form of social organisation and culture has evolved this way but this does not imply that it is a ‘natural’ and inevitable result.  I would argue that we need to frame this question just as much if not more than we need to keep on asserting that human beings are a co-operative and sociable species. The roots of capitalism and modernity do trace back to elements of our intellectual-cultural development long, long ago and in order to shift the direction of our social evolution is going to require become more conscious of the origins and sources of that drive to dominate.  One of the things that surprises me about the radical reaction to our present emerging crisis is that they seem to have forgotten the work of previous generations of intellectuals who explored these kinds of issues.  A great loss in my opinion.

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