Higher Ground, by William Bowles

By William Bowles
featured writer
Dandelion Salad
30 January 2009

I am a third generation lefty, my parents and grandparents on both sides were lefties of one flavour or another, but I think I am the first one to actually write pretty much full time about events from left field.

Throughout my three-score and some on this planet it’s gone from bad to better to worse to downright disastrous, the process propelled by the insane ‘logic’ of capital.

Trying to chart the ebb and flow of it all is not easy, it’s complex and contradictory, just as we human beings are and sometimes I just get sick and tired of the whole damn thing and wonder why I even bother. There’s no money [in] it, exposure to an awful lot of grief, misery and injustice that I have absolutely no control over, so why do it?

The glib answer would be that somebody has to, but in fact nobody forced me to, the imperative comes from somewhere far deeper, triggered I suspect in my childhood and not just because I grew up surrounded by Reds.

I venture to guess that at the risk of going all Freudian, Jungian, Bethelheimian or whatever, the catalyst was the simple fact that I was different, that in turn forced me onto the ‘outside’ as it were, looking in.

Thus I was turned on by Jazz at very early age (okay my mum loved Jazz and my father was a musician, but not a Jazz musician) and fascinated by the ‘strange’, the ‘foreign’ that put me on the outside even from my peers, the kids I grew up with in South London.

Does this mean that my desire for justice for example, is some kind of ‘compensation’ for a twisted childhood? By no means, the very fact of being on the ‘outside’ puts me in good company along with millions who are also on the ‘outside’, for different reasons maybe, but so what?[1]

The left are traditionally suspicious of the ‘subjective’ preferring nuts and bolts to ‘feelings’ and emotions, indeed suspicious of anything that can’t be nailed down to the floor. And more’s the pity for although we in the ‘developed world’ may be materially better off (or at least we were), we are spiritually and emotionally bankrupt.

Marx called our state alienation and with good reason. Our tools and skills stolen from us and locked up in machines, we became mere wage labour, hardly different from the assembly lines we were chained to.

Ironically, most of the leading thinkers on the left have never worked in a factory, most are of middle class origins, well educated and for the most part financially secure.

The disjuncture between the traditional working class and its intellectual ‘leaders’ may well be over however and for a number of reasons:

1) The traditional, industrial working class is now little more than a memory;

2) This has led to a reappraisal of what constitutes our working class, if not by the intellectuals of the left but most definitely by the intellectuals of the ruling class who are well aware of the fact that the ‘new working class’ is in fact potentially even more dangerous than the old and for a number of reasons:

1) Control of modern corporate capitalism is highly dependent on technology and the knowledge needed to manage the corporate state;

2) The numbers involved are relatively small and are concentrated in the public service section of the economy (civil servants and their technocratic partners in the IT and associated industries) who now constitute the single biggest section of the employed outside of the ‘service economy’.

The upshot of this is a capitalism that is highly vulnerable to even numerically small withdrawals of labour. And as the latest (and hopefully the last) crisis of capital bites home, it will be this critical section of the ‘new’ working class who will suffer the most. In debt up to their ears, they will not take poverty sitting down if for no other reason than the fact that it’s a state they have never experienced before.

The proof of this evolving situation is plain to see in how the ruling political class has reacted to the crisis, for unlike earlier crises of capital which saw the ruling class suppress (and ignore) resistance to layoffs and cuts in standards of living, this time they are attempting (and not at all successfully) to ameliorate the effects of the economic crisis, especially on the above-mentioned ‘new’ working class.

The last thing they want is a revolt of the workers who actually run capitalism as opposed to those who used to manufacture the products that capitalism sells.

I contend therefore that this is first and foremost a political as opposed to economic crisis at least as far as the ruling political class are concerned. Downturns in the economy, even disastrous ones like the current one, are a longstanding feature of capitalism. The rich, as ever can ride it out by relying on their capital and savings, but what they can’t do is replace a highly skilled sector of the working class, the technocrats and the civil servants without whom capitalism simply cannot function.

It may well appear that my musings on why I write is somewhat at odds with the above, what on earth can writing about why I write from a left perspective have to do with the latest crisis of capital? The answer I contend is embedded in a lifetime of not only experiencing the ups and downs of capitalism but of attempting to unpack the nature of capitalism and the realization, over time, that our traditional analyses of capitalism have failed to produce a coherent explanation or a viable alternative.

Past analyses of capitalist crises have tended to ignore the ability of capitalism to ‘transform’ itself through revolutions in production, the latest being how a revolution in information technology allowed the production/distribution process to be truly globalized.

The irony of this however is that it has in fact accelerated the fundamental contradictions of capitalist production, crises now come with shorter and shorter intervals between them and each one more severe than the last (1973, 1987, 1990-1991, 1999-2000, 2007-2009, onwards and downwards).

And, as the latest ‘manifestation’ in France illustrates, where workers remain organized, the power of labour is revealed as being a force to be reckoned with once more, and I am sure that this is only the first of many. Will this be a replay of 1848 or even (gasp) 1871?

“I just want to remind you that, just a year ago, American delegates speaking from this rostrum emphasised the US economy’s fundamental stability and its cloudless prospects. Today, investment banks, the pride of Wall Street, have virtually ceased to exist. In just 12 months, they have posted losses exceeding the profits they made in the last 25 years. This example alone reflects the real situation better than any criticism.


“The existing financial system has failed. Substandard regulation has contributed to the crisis, failing to duly heed tremendous risks. Add to this colossal disproportions that have accumulated over the last few years. This primarily concerns disproportions between the scale of financial operations and the fundamental value of assets, as well as those between the increased burden on international loans and the sources of their collateral.

“The entire economic growth system, where one regional centre prints money without respite and consumes material wealth, while another regional centre manufactures inexpensive goods and saves money printed by other governments, has suffered a major setback.

“I would like to add that this system has left entire regions, including Europe, on the outskirts of global economic processes and has prevented them from adopting key economic and financial decisions. Moreover, generated prosperity was distributed extremely unevenly among various population strata. This applies to differences between social strata in certain countries, including highly developed ones.” — Vladimir Putin, Davos Conference, 28 January, 2009

One thing is clear, as the whirlwind gathers force we can expect the events in France to spread across Europe (there have already been serious confrontations in Lithuania with the riot police out in force).

[photo from NYT article]

Revolutions tend to occur when and where we least expect them to, the result of pent up forces that emerge at very specific moments. Are we approaching one of these moments or is this just wishful thinking? One thing is for sure, the current situation cannot continue for much longer. Is France the harbinger of things to come and are we prepared for it?


1. I am grateful to my dear friend and comrade Patricia Murphy-Robinson for this observation, whose perceptive insights into the human condition helped guide me through at least one major crisis in my life and who continues to do so.


The Economy Sucks and or Collapse 2