[Marxism] Kees van der Pijl on the meltdown of the Left and malleable ethics

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Sun Jun 6 12:10:17 MDT 2004

Why has the Left as an established political force, lost its bearings, and
has it allowed itself to be drawn along into the vortex of imperial
globalisation? Clearly, a wide chasm has opened up between the nomads of the
anti-globalisation movement and the Left parties within their respective
states-the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Communists. I would argue,
within the limits of a brief and tentative conclusion, that there are two
different reasons for this.

One has to do with generations-the anti-globalisation movement (which of
course is in reality a true 'globalisation' movement) is a youth movement.
This generation of students and the young generally, has come of age in the
post-cold war context and
perceives issues globally, in a world context. That tendency in the youth
movement which wants to express itself beyond dancing, and which has a
social conscience, articulates its solidarity with the dispossessed in the
global context for the simple reason that there are no longer two worlds and
one which has not yet made up its mind. Little needs to be said to argue
this, because it strikes me as completely self-evident. The preserve of the
Third World solidarity committees of the recent past-the Nicaragua and
Angola committees, the Vietnam movement etc., etc., has been opened up by
capitalist globalisation and a Left consciousness attaches itself no longer
to the particular projects of aspiring state classes with or without Soviet
support, but straightforwardly, as an opposition in its own right, to the
cause of social justice and emancipation, survival and peace on a world

The second reason why the anti-globalisers and the established Left have
parted ways allowing the latter to be mopped up by the mobilisation of
consent for punitive war, is one of functionality. Indeed the remarkable
melt-down of the Left in the case of NATO's war against Yugoslavia, a
process already heralded by the weak response to the Western attack on Iraq
in 1991, in my view can only be understood if we analyse the rise of the
managerial cadre in advanced capitalist society, which finds its privileged
expression in Social Democracy, but even less hampered by tradition, in the
various Green formations.

The Communists have either given up altogether in the wake of the Soviet
collapse, or have survived in name only. As a cadre
entrusted with the day-to-day management of politics and administration, the
'political class' of each state is an internally cohesive force, and the
particular sources of the entitlement to occupy state management posts such
as the class struggle of the labour movement, have increasingly been left
behind by that part of the cadre which entered politics as representatives
of the working class aspirations for socialism.

One aspect of the mental state and practical disposition of the cadre is
their capacity to serve under different masters. A manager in the sphere of
intellectual activity (and managing knowledge workers or managing the
political-administrative sphere are not different here) cannot enter his or
her function with a strong commitment to a single world-view.

Flexibility and the willingness to apply ideas as if they were 'tools', is a
precondition for this strand of cadre to function, and the Left in state
politics has been trained to do precisely this for the entire post-war
period, but increasingly so in the most recent period. Post-modern thought
with its awareness of multiple realities and scepticism towards
comprehensive theorisations, has emancipatory as well as
functional-disciplining effects in this respect.

Foucault's archaeology of knowledge is particularly relevant here, because
it makes claims to truth relative, arguing that every system of knowledge
defines anew what is true and what is false. Lyotard, with his scepticism
towards 'grand narratives',
in his famous report on higher education writes that 'the transmission of
knowledge is no longer designed to train an elite capable of leading the
nation towards its emancipation, but to supply the system with players
capable of acceptably fulfilling their roles at the pragmatic posts required
by its institutions' (Lyotard, 1984: 48).

Such an attitude to knowledge, whilst containing emancipatory elements as
well, also dovetails with its commodification and commercialisation, and as
Giesen notes, it is this trend which also has penetrated the sphere of
ethics. There has occurred a shift to an applied ethics, in which ethical
questions are approached eclectically with an eye to their use - ethics are
even called 'variables', to be handled by experts in ethical questions
(Giesen, 1992: 302). 'Applied ethics' continues to enjoy considerable
success beyond the limits of traditional philosophy.

Having become "experts in ethical questions", the philosophers, happy to
be able - finally! - to render service to the collectivity, to be finally
for something, joyfully apply their analytical tools to moral cases in every
field. They teach (in the United States) in schools of medicine, law,
journalism, economics, and recently also in political science; they are
active in hospitals, corporations, and, as consultants, set up clinics
analogous to those of psychologists and psychoanalysts to aid their clients
in "thinking" their moral problem (Giesen, 1992: 305).

To perform this function, however, the experts need an ethics that is
completely malleable, they cannot be seen to be sticking to one particular
position any longer. It is here that post-modernism emerges as the general
framework to cover an applied ethics for any situation that may arise
(Giesen, 1992: 307). The professional politicians who notwithstanding their
historical affiliations with the Left, proved willing to melt into the
consensus supporting punitive war against non-compliant outsider states, in
my view are subject to the same process of developing the malleable mind
without which they would not be able to survive as political cadre in the
present global context.

The aestheticisation of quasi-imperial world politics is grafted on this
instrumentalisation of ethics. Only in this way can the glaring
contradictions of humanitarian war, embargo for democracy, etc. be
explained. This rise of a neo-liberal cadre  especially in the sphere of the
former Left, and their take-over of its political formations (New Labour
etc.) have created not only the apparatus for the application of the new
ethics and its aestheticisation by spin doctors and intellectual experts
alike, but also a mass basis-at least as long as the newly emerged
anti-globalisation movement will be kept at bay.

Source: http://www.theglobalsite.ac.uk/press/212vanderpijl.htm

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