Has politics become fractal?

Submitted by martin on 2 September, 2003 - 1:56

Discussion notes on the working class in "globalised" capitalism

Lash/Urry discussion notes 6: Has politics become fractal?

Chapter 7 of "The End of Organised Capitalism", by Scott Lash and John Urry, contains some fairly commonplace comments on recent trends in industry and finance, and then some comments on politics which, for me, provoke more thought.
Lash/Urry's basic argument in this chapter is simple, and not very developed. Voting patterns have become more fragmented and volatile. This, for them, indicates that the capacity of the working class to sustain cohesive, continuously-organised political parties, and to back them up with a solid body of activists and voters, has declined - which, in turn, means that though the working class continues to exist and struggle on a large scale, its capacity to define and push through big social change has diminished.

Today, 17 years on from when Lash/Urry published their book, there can be little doubt about the straight fact of voting patterns becoming more fragmented and volatile. While working-class voters have become more sceptical of, more distanced from, and less deferential to, the traditional supposedly-working-class parties, Stalinist and Social-Democratic, that has generally produced neither an upsurge of radical-left voting and party strength, nor a big drift to the traditional right. Gains for the left, and drifts to the right, have occurred at some times in some countries, but neither massively predominates: the general picture is simply increased political fragmentation and volatility.

The question is whether this indisputable fact shows a structural weakening of the objectively-defined capacities of the working class. Or is it a phenomenon of interregnum? Is it that the old political cultures of the working class have decayed, that a new one is not readily improvised, and that in the meantime fragmentation is what we must expect?

Despite Lash/Urry's arguments, I think the second explanation holds better. In fact chapter 7 of their book is more loosely argued, more reliant on allusion and suggestion to make its case, than others. They construct no tight argument for a link between the political fragmentation and volatility they describe and the social/economic trend to "disorganised" capitalism (more smaller factories; factories moved to suburbs and small towns; the dispersal of previously concentrated regional clusters of particular industries; the residential dispersal of the working class).

However, it's worth exploring the issue a lot more, because more recent politics (it seems to me) at first sight offers stronger evidence for Lash/Urry's argument than any they could find in the mid 1980s.

Now, as in the 1980s, there is much talk about "new social movements". Mostly the debate about these has been of limited interest. Some people boost the "new social movements" as the great new force of a great new radical politics, and claim that the future belongs to them rather than to the dull old workers' movement. Marxists reply that, while we must certainly cooperate, work with, and talk with, various "new social movements", none of them remotely compares in persistence, numbers continuously involved, breadth, and social clout, with the workers' movement. To get anywhere the "new social movements" and their activists have to be linked with, and grouped round, a revitalised workers' movement.

The Marxist argument wins out easily, in my view. What's interesting about Lash/Urry is that they pose the debate in different terms.

They do not overplay the "new social movements". They freely concede that these movements are fragmented and limited. They make the point that, with the partial exception of the women's movements, they are reactive, defensive, without clear and far-reaching positive aims. Their argument, however, is that the social and economic changes in capitalism are, sadly but inexorably, pushing the workers' movement back towards the (low) level of capacity enjoyed by the "new social movements".

It is an uncomfortable and uncongenial argument for Marxists, and one I will argue to reject - but one that requires more thought than the old, simplistic line about "new social movements" being the modern replacement for the workers' movement of yesteryear.

Three recent episodes which at first sight give strength to Lash/Urry's argument.

One. Industrial struggles in France: the mass strike movements of 2003 and 1995 in France have been larger, in terms of numbers of workers actively involved over a period in organising and extending the struggle, than May-June 1968. Larger, also, in terms of numbers of workers mobilised on street demonstrations.

Yet those struggles remained defensive ones - and, both of them, essentially defeated ones at that. Trade-union membership continues to decline. The Trotskyist left has won some good election results (10% of the total vote for the three Trotskyist candidates totalled up, in 2002, and a much higher proportion of the 18-24 year old vote and of the manual worker vote); at least one of the Trotskyist groups, the LCR, has almost doubled its membership (to between 2000 and 3000). Yet the number of new activists gained by the radical left remains well below any reasonable proportion to the size of the struggles, and, for sure, vastly smaller than that of the "1968 generation".

We see a working class still existing, still capable of waging very large struggles - but diminished in its capacity to define and to organise continuously and massively for positive social changes.

Two. The "new anti-capitalist movement". (Or "anti-globalisation movement", or "global justice movement", or "movement of movements". None of the names are very good, and I don't want to commit myself to the particular political slant usually connected with calling it "new anti-capitalist movement". But I mean the movement manifested in such things as the Seattle anti-WTO demonstration, Prague, Genoa, Melbourne September 2001, the World Social Forum, and so on).

That this movement is unformed, loose, multicoloured and so on, with all sorts of strange things at its edges, is not remarkable. Large new movements always are, always have been.

The fact of widespread "anti-party" prejudice in this movement, and the way that prejudice is used by various parties (Brazilian PT, Rifondazione, French SP) as a backhand way of boosting their positions within it, is something quite familiar from the history of the trade union movement.

Also, there is nothing remarkable or unprecedented about the degree of fragmentation of the movement. If anything, the contrary. The fact that it has large international gatherings (World Social Forum and so on), large internationally-supported demonstrations, and extensive international communication by the Internet makes it in many ways less fragmented than the left of the 1960s and 1970s (or, arguably, of any period except 1889-1914 and the early 1920s).

What is new and peculiar is that the movement has a character for which the best word I can find is fractal.

Its appearance as a kaleidoscopic whirl is not something external, not a matter of first impressions which can be corrected by a closer look at who and what is really "behind it", but something which runs through the whole movement right down to the level of small groups involved in it, or even, arguably, the minds of individual activists.

The analogy is with a species of mathematical objects which have the property of "self-sameness" - that is, that the structures of the whole object are repeated again and again at ever-smaller levels.

The simplest mathematical example is the Koch snowflake. See, for example, this introduction to it.

Take a triangle which has all sides equal and every angle 60 degrees. Divide each side into three equal parts. Replace each middle part with two lines of equal length. Then do the same again with the new shape: replace the middle third of each side with two lines of equal length. Continue forever.

The snowflake is not indeterminate in any "post-modern" sense. It is a definite shape and a definite area. Given any point, we can find out whether it is inside or outside.

But it has some strange properties. It is self-similar. Take any part of it, however small, and it contains an exact copy of the structure of the whole. And, while its area is finite, its perimeter is infinite.

There are plenty of recognisable points around the snowflake. All three corners of the original triangle (or all 12 corners in stage 2, or all 48 in stage 3) are in the snowflake, unaffected by the replacing-the-middle-third-by-two-new-lines process. Yet there is no sharp point anywhere round it. Even small sections are as crinkly as the whole. And it is an infinitely long journey to get from any one point on the snowflake to another.

Likewise, the "new anti-capitalist movement" has a definite shape, definite issues, and definite numbers involved in its various mobilisations. It is harder to say what is in it and what is not than it is with the mathematical shape, but no harder than it is with any broad political movement

There are plenty of recognisable political points within it - social-democrats, Third-Worldists, greenies, anarchists, autonomists, would-be Trotskyists of various sorts. Yet any selection large enough to be pivotal, central, essential or typical shows no less complexity than the whole. The chain of connections between one recognisable political point and another is long, sinuous and complicated.

In many countries it is impossible to point to any clear organisational embodiment of the movement. In others, we can name prominent groups - United Students Against Sweatshops in the USA, ATTAC in France - but then Reclaim The Streets in Britain, which might be called the pioneer group of the whole world-wide movement, has become very inconspicuous without obvious consequence. (Their website blithely comments: "The Reclaim the Streets idea has grown up and left home. Street parties and suchlike often happen without anyone in RTS London hearing about them until afterwards..")

When we try to look through the surface froth of the movement to find its its core or what or who is "behind" it, then... we find just the same frothiness repeated at every level. We cannot find sharp arrow-head points that constitute its few essential demands. Although the movement has existed, with some self-awareness of its existence, for five years now, with an immense amount of argument and discussion through books, assemblies, and websites in that period, it remains just as multifarious. It has become no more settled-down or consolidated.

In the past we have commented that this is not really a "movement" in any previously-recognisable way. More a mood. Or perhaps the best word is a French one with no clear English equivalent - "mouvance". Except that the idea of a "mouvance", or even a mood, normally suggests a core movement or campaign around which that "mouvance" or mood is constituted; and here, although, to repeat, the "mouvance" includes many entirely-recognisable groups and organisations, there is no such core.

That takes us to a third example: the world-wide movement against the 2003 Iraq war. Notice first that, despite all the comment about how the big anti-war demonstrations represented the "new anti-capitalist" mouvance taking on the new issues of war and imperialism in addition to previous ones of Third World debt, exploitation by multinationals, labour rights, environment, and so on, in fact no distinctively "new anti-capitalist" groups played any big role in organising the demonstrations. The central organising groups were often very "old-fashioned" left factions (Workers' World in the USA, SWP in Britain, Rifondazione in Italy, etc.).

And surprisingly little has condensed out of it, in the way of ongoing political activity. According to one estimate, in Britain for example, the biggest demonstration against the Iraq war was five times the size of all the big Vietnam war demonstrations added together. Yet the ongoing politics condensed out of the Iraq war demonstrations is much smaller. The peace mouvance remains as crinkly as the "new anti-capitalist" mouvance.

One factor in the crinkliness of this movements may be the rise of NGOs. Largely, I suppose, as a byproduct of the world trend to privatisation, NGOs have become much more numerous worldwide in the last 20 years. Every facet of an issue can acquire a little team specialising in it, with an office, a phone, a computer, a website, a paid worker and a few volunteers.

For radical groups in poorer countries, getting friendly relations with an NGO, or a member of the group into a job at an NGO office, offers resources otherwise obtainable only through long and laborious effort. Relations with NGOs are therefore sometimes a contentious issue in the left of such countries.

However, it is not clear that this pattern is so very different from the older one where radical groupings below a certain size generally had to depend on having a wealthy maverick funder into order to have any resources for public promotion (the Owenites and Robert Owen; the Saint-Simonians and Saint-Simon; Marxism and Engels; the SDF and Hyndman; the Socialist League and Morris; the early US Trotskyists and Max Eastman...) That dependence is generally less today, at least in the richer countries.

When Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto that communism was "a spectre haunting Europe", wasn't the spectrality of it a bit like the quasi-fractality of radical politics today? With hindsight, the Communist League, with its Marxian ideas, appears to us as the core and pivot of the communist mouvance of the late 1840s. But only with hindsight. That appearance-from-hindsight would not have been available until about forty years later.

Our perception of the quasi-fractality, the elusive crinkliness, of today's radical movements and workers' struggles, is shaped and skewed by the norms set in a period - from the 1930s, say, to the late 1970s - which at the time we took to be "late capitalism" but which turned out to be not so late after all.

In that period radical movements and workers' struggles proceeded under the overarching influence of two large organised forces, the Stalinist and Social-Democratic parties. They had won their influence in periods of high intensity - the first formation of an industrial working class, and world wars - and had great powers of inertia.

They drew a large part of their political strength from tendencies of the time which seemed to point the way beyond capitalism but which now we can see as only particular curves within the large pattern of world-historic capitalist development - the consolidation, expansion, and industrial growth of Stalinism; the rise and consolidation of "organised capitalism" in the West.

The Stalinist parties were tightly-controlled; the Social-Democratic parties were less so, but the stronger ones (German, Swedish, British Labour Party, ALP) still had a relatively large degree of cohesion and vigour. Both Stalinists and Social-Democrats would organise campaigns or activities of some sort on most big issues facing the working class. Often the campaigns or activities were wretched; but for anything large and better to be organised, beyond their control - as it sometimes was - required concentrated effort and drive from some definite political force beyond their ambit. Every movement, mouvance or mood would thus have fairly definite concentrated political forces "behind" it and, generally, also "in front of" it (i.e. so placed as to organise, recruit and advance out of it).

The curves have exhausted their sweep. The old Stalinist parties have collapsed or withered. The Social-Democratic parties continue, but in a much more bourgeoisified, bureaucratised form. Those old parties have been "exposed", as between the 1930s and 1970s we so hoped they would be. But the "exposure" has not worked not in favour of their mass activist bases switching over tidily to Marxist politics. It happened in the course of the working-class defeats and disillusionments of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The "exposure" has led to a clearing of the ground for the rise of authentic communist politics, but by way of the erosion and dissipation of the old generation.

Moreover, today, maybe for the first time ever, working-class socialism has to be a strictly capitalist anti-capitalism, so to speak: one exclusively based on contradictions, tendencies, "new passions and forces" generated within capitalism itself. In the era of "organised capitalism", its statist tendencies appeared to demonstrate "the invading socialist society", but the evidence now is that they were shaped in more part by contingencies substantially inherited from the epoch of commercial capitalism.

Today, working-class socialism has no trend within the status quo to base itself on, other than the one organic to capital: active working-class solidarity. Hic Rhodus, hic salta.

Capitalism is not fractal, and nor, in fact, is radical politics today. The mathematical analogy is limited. Yet there is a sort of quasi-fractality about the contradictions of capitalism: they operate, with some similarities of structure, both at the global level exemplified by the activities of the IMF and the multinationals, and at the "germ-cell" level of the commodity.

And that imposes a quasi-fractality on any radical opposition which has not yet acquired a shaped, organised, party form. The individual in rebellion against capital at all levels, from the IMF down to the fast-food french-fries portion, faces a kaleidoscopic reality, and the response is kaleidoscopic too.

If this is right, the main conclusion for radical activists would be the centrality of regenerating working-class socialist culture and politics. We think - or used to think, anyway - that just round the corner is a new burst of strike or demonstration activity which will, at least, bring the condition of the left and the labour movement back to what it was in the 1970s, so that we can continue the efforts of those days interrupted by the defeats of the 1980s. But that is an illusion. Regeneration will come. But not by remaking the epoch gone by.