Tuesday, July 20, 2004


My Left-Liberal Foot

Michael Fisher pays his respects to Paul Foot, but also explains why he wasn't a big fan:
"Heart in the right place and all that, but pointing out that many Labour ministers were more left wing in their youth than they are now, and that there is corruption and injustice at the heart of many public institutions and professions - well, yes. I never quite understood why Foot embraced Marxism rather than the radical non-conformist liberalism into which he was born..."
This reminds me somewhat of the point I was trying to make re: Michael Moore and his excessive reliance on the personal relationships between the Bushes, the Saudis, the Bin Ladens etc.; but also of the criticisms* often made of Ralph Miliband's The State in Capitalist Society:
"Miliband...focus[es] on political and ideological struggles without reference to the economic imperatives and requirements of capital accumulation. This reflects [his] polemical concerns. Miliband is interested in confronting liberal theorists of democracy woith the "facts" about the social background, personal ties and shared values of economic and political elites, and about the impact of government policy on such matters as the distribution of income and wealth. He also argues that socialisation into the ideology of the ruling class is an important source of political power and social order. Because his principal concern is to reveal the distortions and mystifications of liberal pluralism, Miliband does not advance the Marxist analysis of the state. Indeed, he actually reproduces the liberal tendency to discuss politics in isolation from its complex articulation with economic forces. To the extent that he does relate them it is only through interpersonal connections; he neglects their mutual presupposition and interdependence on the institutional level. Thus, Miliband does not succeed in establishing the real nature of the state in capitalist society and its inherent limitations as well as advantages for capital."
(from Bob Jessop, "Recent theories of the capitalist state")
The point is (and some of Claus Offe's** work makes this point brilliantly) is that even if the state were "run" exclusively by people of impeccably egailitarian and social democratic principles they would still be fundamentally constrained by the structural limitations placed upon the state - and upon society - by its dependence on the system of private capital accumulation.
Similarly, even if there were no Enrons, if all corporations complied with the letter and spirit of all ethics etc. laws, the fundamental contradictions between systemic imperatives and human needs (broadly conceived) would remain.
Of course we're likely to be living with more or less dominant capitalist relations of production for some time yet, so it's no bad thing to point out the politico-economic system's more flagrant corruptions. But if such an approach is anything less than a Trojan horse for a truly radical*** analysis it will only serve to obscure the true tasks and hard truths.
*I can't judge whether such criticisms are entirely fair, not having read Miliband.
**Specifically "Advanced Capitalism and the Welfare State" and "Some Contradictions of the Welfare State", chapter 6 of Contradictions of the Welfare State. These two articles constitute almost my entire reading of Offe ("Two logics of collective action" is another interesting article, outlining the fundamentally different natures of trade unions as against employers confederations). I found both compelling, and have sought his books in shops without success. Nor have I heard much about him from other sources. Anyone have any thoughts?
***"Radical" here connotes, as it always should,  the literal (etymologically speaking) meaning -  "at the root" - and not what it all too often does: "far-left", "trendy", "chic", "posturing" etc., etc..

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