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#15: Reactionary Times

Boris Kagarlitsky /// Reactionary Times

The end of the 20th century brought on the complete negation of everything that gave it content and meaning. It was no coincidence that the fashionable philosopher Francis Fukuyama took to writing on the end of history. There was massive rejection of the many ideals that people fought and died for. The slogans of the bygone epoch were subjected to ridicule and declared meaningless. It seemed that some strange magic had turned back the hands on the clock by one hundred years, not only stopping the clockwork, but also breaking the clock entirely to prevent it from ever ticking again.

The end of the 20th century brought on the complete negation of everything that gave it content and meaning. It was no coincidence that the fashionable philosopher Francis Fukuyama took to writing on the end of history. There was massive rejection of the many ideals that people fought and died for. The slogans of the bygone epoch were subjected to ridicule and declared meaningless. It seemed that some strange magic had turned back the hands on the clock by one hundred years, not only stopping the clockwork, but also breaking the clock entirely to prevent it from ever ticking again.

Of course, the 20th century’s technologies were not lost. But its cumulative social experience sank to oblivion.

The 20th century was a century of struggle for socialism, a struggle that proved tragic, and bloody, largely leading to failure. In the final analysis, it produced a “universal certainty” that capitalism was the only possible, natural, and eternal form of human coexistence. The 20th century began with the Russian revolution and ended with capitalism’s restoration. The Byzantine double-headed eagle once again took wing. Adam Smith, though already outdated in the late 19th century, was elevated to the throne of absolute truth in the realm of economic theory. But most importantly, politicians, ideologues, and intellectuals who had made careers of propagating socialism now became its chief denouncers.

Clearly, this was no coincidence. It is hardly surprising that an “epoch of wars and revolutions” resulted in restoration and reaction. Overextension of society’s organisms can easily lead to such regressions. For almost an entire century, despite huge sacrifices and efforts, we failed to reach the great historical struggle’s goal. So it is hardly surprising that our faith was shaken, and our forces spent.

The great goal of collective struggle was replaced by consumerism and the pursuit of individual success as the only convincing principles comprehensible and self-evident to a disappointed society.
Having rejected the communist regimes, the peoples of Eastern Europe joyously threw themselves into the long swim to the shores of bourgeois prosperity. Strangely enough, their Western neighbors, whom the naïve inhabitants of the former “socialist camp” wanted to join, were setting out on a journey of their own. With capitalism’s triumph over communism, the old social compact that the bourgeoisie had drawn up with the lower classes became obsolete. This compromise was no more than a byproduct of a great revolutionary struggle. The revolution’s defeat heralded the demise of reformism. The ruling classes finally had a chance to realize their own agenda, restoring a as much of the “old order” as possible, even if its foundations had been shaken by the cataclysms of the 20th century.

Of course, the onset of reaction does not equal a mechanical return to the past, nor does it entail the rejection of the previous epoch’s technical advances. Quite on the contrary, technical innovations were meant to strengthen or revive social and economic relations that had already seemed obsolete. Just as railways and steamboats were meant to entrench the conservative order of the Holy Alliance in Europe during the 1820s after it had been shaken by the storm of the French Revolution, computers, telecommunications, and the other joys of new technology were now used to reinforce capitalism in its most primitive form.

The bourgeois agenda assumes an endless and merciless race for profit. All propriety is thrown to the wind; all restraining factors are swept aside. Not only the obsolete social contract, but also traditional (bourgeois) culture and morality are consigned to the scrapheap of history. While people in Eastern Europe were busy complaining about “wild capitalism” and dreaming of coming closer to the “civilized” West, Western capitalism itself was only getting wilder.

However, there was a decisive difference between the societies of Eastern Europe and their Western counterparts. The collapse of the communist regimes inevitably drew the chaos of a “transitional period” in its wake. Yet strangely, the shock of impending chaos helped people survive. Everyone was sure that the transitional period would eventually end, bringing “normal” capitalism with inevitable prosperity.

Now, a new quotidian has set in, reinforcing and streamlining what seemed most revolting and unacceptable during the period of “transition,” namely, the new logic of human relationships. For the majority, temporary problems have become permanent. Some people have prospered. But does cash really solve all problems? Everyone complains, even those who have attained success. It turns out that consumer comforts do not only upon social inequality, but they also involve personal alienation. The liberation of market forces has not brought on personal or political freedoms. In a society whose citizens feel unsure of themselves and fear life’s uncertainties, the state has every reason to fear its unpredictable citizens. More poverty means more dissatisfaction. And more dissatisfaction means more state spending on the secret police.

Who said that citizens are afraid of the state? The state’s fear of its citizens is much stronger. This fear predetermines policy and dictates all decisions, becoming the basis for all political institutions. One could call it state fear (and not fear of the state), elevated to the guiding principle of the relationship between power and society at large. Or, to abbreviate into Soviet newspeak, Gosstrakh, which is still the contracted name of Russia’s federal state insurance company.

Today it would seem that the shocks experienced by Eastern Europe during the 1990s are finally over. Capitalism is normalizing. Yet somehow, the horrors of the transitional period proved far less frightening than the nightmare of the bourgeois quotidian.

Money has become the only measure of success, the only criterion, and the only goal, and many people have learned how to earn it. Old knowledge, qualification, and experiences might have lost their value. Market gurus offer us new recipes for success. There is a demand for new knowledge, and for people with qualities that weren’t too important in the past. Then again, one could ask whether the ability to accommodate one’s superiors and to agree with the dominant opinions of the day – prerequisites for success in the old party bureaucracy – are really so redundant in the new corporate bureaucracies or the administrative apparatuses of contemporary politics? All these respectable qualities are handed down from generation to generation, providing for the real continuity that no society can do without.

Adaptation is the slogan of any conservative order, both public and private. This does not mean that everyone has the gift of getting everything. Conservative societies are doomed to a drastic decline of social mobility. Everything remains in place. To each his own. Workers will be workers; entrepreneurs will be entrepreneurs; bureaucrats will be bureaucrats.

Capitalism promised dynamism and change, and the era of new technologies beckoned with unlimited possibilities for self-realization. However, these promises turned out to be illusory against a backdrop lacking social change. We have become a little like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who had to run very fast to stay in the same place. The race to reach first place has become a struggle for survival.

Big business eats small business; corporations push independent entrepreneurs from the market. It is much more difficult to rise to the top than to fall to the bottom. The more stable a society, the more stringent the application of its rules.

As the hope for individual success fades, the demand for collective solutions grows stronger. Such collective solutions, however, do not always involve the triumph of collectivism over individuals or the prevalence of solidarity over competition. A group of people that comes together to improve its conditions could be a trade union, a civic organization, a partisan troop, or an artist’s studio, but it could also be an ordinary gang.

When Erich Fromm observed the triumph of fascism in Germany in the 1930s, he noted that the petit bourgeoisie had been confronted with the harsh realities of the “free market” and had lost its belief in freedom. If freedom entails the loss of security, one has to take cover and run. The beginning of the 21st century is demonstrating a similar tendency. Millions of people have been Lumpenized. Ultra-right-wing ideologists offer them a simple, immediate exit, which lies in getting rid of the “foreigners,” the “others,” the “newcomers.” Once the market has been cleaned up, your chances will improve.

The neo-fascist, racist, and xenophobic movements spreading throughout early 21st century Europe are no more than extreme expressions of a general reactionary mailaise. They can be understood as the everyman’s last-ditch attempt at adapting to a system that uses him as “human material” and no more.
Fear of the system is irrational for those who are not armed with rational thinking. The less rational fear becomes, the less understandable its real sources, and the easier it is to readdress. One can hurl invectives at society without ever joining any struggle again the social order; one can feel like fighter and a radical without even risking a single radical, consequential thought. This is precisely why any rebellion that is not based on a rational understanding of society’s contradictions is not just doomed to failure, but also becomes a reactionary factor of its own. Reactionary oppositions deepen a general sense of hopelessness. So far, the ruling class has rejected this opposition in the name of political correctness. After all, the alternative to political correctness in today’s society is obviously not a return to patriarchal traditions but chaos and war of all against all. This is obviously not part of the plan for the ruling class, as it tries to achieve stability. On the other hand, the elite still prefers reactionary Lumpen rebellions to class struggle. This is why both conservative and liberal elites hypocritically express their outrage at increasing displays of Nazism and racism while simultaneously supporting popular interest in these ideas, allowing racial hate to smolder quietly without allowing it to burst into flame.

Actually, historical experience shows that it is not always possible to keep such processes under control. Situations can change, as can strategies. Under favorable conditions, today’s extremists, and clowns can become pillars of the system (which is actually what they really want).
Nonetheless, it is not so easy to kill reason. We will not always allow our minds to be addled by talk of the approaching new epoch that invites us to discard all the experience of critical thinking accumulated throughout history.

Countless theories of postmodernity based themselves on a diagnosis of increased mobility and flexibility, claiming that reality was changing drastically under the influence of new technologies. Such thinking lay at the root of many a theoretical model, ranging from those that were openly conservative to those that were almost revolutionary in the spirit of Negri and Hardt’s “Empire.” However, our “new reality” reveals the same old contradictions, albeit in a new guise.

In the 19th century, the railways and steamboats introduced by the leaders of the Holy Alliance could not prevent new revolutions from taking place. Technically strengthening the “old world” in the short-term, these new technologies served to develop and heighten conflicts that, ultimately, tore society asunder.

We can expect something very similar in the 21st century. Our reactionary time will inevitably bring a new wave of revolutions in its wake. We can already see the first indications today, in the mass protest demonstrations all over Western Europe, in the Social Forum movement, in the socialist banner that has now been hoisted over Venezuela, and in the peasant’s movements of Brazil and Bolivia.
Still, we cannot simply wait for the new wave to rise. We need to act today. To paraphrase Marx, the most powerful and effective weapon is the arm of criticism, until it is replaced through criticism by arms.

To transform society successfully, we need to understand it, discarding the dross of propaganda. We need to ask concrete questions and find convincing, unambiguous answers. We need to stop believing in the mysticism of ideology and learn the language of political economy. We need to learn how to “not to look, but to see,” as Brecht put it.

In the 20th century, the worker’s movements and their socialist ideologies lost the first round of their battle. But this was only the first round. We have the duty to continue the fight that began on the barricades of the Paris Commune or Moscow’s Presnya district. We belong to the same history; a history that has never ended or slowed its course, though it may not have moved forward in a line.
The 20th century’s historical experience is a basis upon which we can build practices of our own. Innovative and creative as they may be, they would be unthinkable without an understanding, reclaiming, and interpretation of the past and its traditions. There are plenty of things to be ashamed of, but none of them can be disavowed.

In reactionary times, mass consciousness loses faith in social progress, a faith that required no proof for the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries, a faith that underwrote many a great mass movements and many a heroic personal deed. Again, this loss of faith in progress is nothing new: the defeat of the French Revolution disappointed people no less than the collapse of the Soviet experiment. While people might have lost faith in progress, they have not lost hope. This is why the struggle of the masses continues spontaneously and unconsciously even when the dominant ideology seems unshakeable.

The French Revolution toppled the ancien regime in Europe and laid the groundwork of bourgeois modernity. One and a half centuries later, this civilization was overturned by the red revolutions. In the late 20th century, the revolutionary regimes themselves fell victim to liberal restoration. So why should this be the end of the story?

The 21st century will be an epoch of huge social transformations. Otherwise, it may really be the end of history, in the sense that there will be no one left to read the histories we write. We have entered a new danger zone. The search for petit bourgeois prosperity (which, by the way, is quite understandable and organic on the level of individual consciousness) has brought us into a dead end of uncertainty. Security is a thing of the past. No one even dreams of peace and quiet.

Be this as it may. Change it is, and change it shall be! Let danger be danger! We need to take up history’s challenge. This does not mean that we need to grit our teeth and plunge ourselves into an uncertain future. Instead, it is the future we need to create. As that excellent 19th century song tells us: “our own right hand the chains must sever.”

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