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  • Published in Book Reviews

Capitalism's New Clothes attempts to analyse capitalism’s endurance, through a reassessment of the cultural dimension and its relation to the economic.

Colin Cremin, Capitalism’s New Clothes: Enterprise, Ethics and Enjoyment in Times of Crisis (Pluto 2011), viii, 196pp.

Capitalism's New Clothes by Colin Cremin is an ambitious book. It makes a bold attempt at understanding how the system can go on surviving despite the deep crisis in which it now finds itself. Cremin’s theoretical motivation is a kind of balancing act. Clearly the tradition to which he owes the most is an unorthodox Marxism centred around a radical incorporation of subjectivity. The Frankfurt school’s treatment of Freudian psychoanalysis (in particular Adorno and Marcuse) and Žižek’s combination of Marx and Lacan have a strong presence throughout. At the same time, Cremin acknowledges that theoretical gains made in the subjective realm have often come at the expense of attention paid to the objective forces of political economy. Hence the book opens with an introduction that gives an outline of the economic crisis, reaffirms the primacy of the labour theory of value, and dismisses myths of a free-floating, ‘liquid’, stateless, post-industrial capitalism.

The economism of much of the traditional Left is a real problem. So too is the skewed picture of contemporary capitalism given by autonomists like Michael Hardt, Toni Negri and John Holloway. The former, including revolutionary socialists, is notable for its absence in this book and the critique seems to start from an assumption of irrelevance. All of the latter (Negri, Holloway etc) come under attack. In connection with Holloway, Cremin makes the basic strategic point about unity in the face of a centralised power: ‘There is a danger that we fetishise the micro-struggles and in doing so neglect the macro ones. There are plenty of examples of the former and few of the latter. There is plenty of salt, but no egg to put it on’ (p.84).

There is then still a split in our understanding, or at least a recurring tendency for this split to reassert itself, between the objective and the subjective, between macro-economic-political forces and the strange knots of thoughts and feelings that entangle and unwind through capitalism’s subjects. But far from overcoming this difficulty, this book only serves to reinforce it. It manages to address both sides of the equation while leaving them mutually incompatible. The result is a whole range of misunderstandings, false problems and false solutions.

In the chapter ‘Naked Enterprise’, Cremin argues that the consciousness of workers increasingly mirrors that of the capitalist class, which takes the form of an imagined ‘big other’. The boss/big other haunts job descriptions and CVs as a figment of what we desire to satisfy and hence desire to become. We hear the voice of the boss in lists of amorphous qualifications: ‘communication skills’, ‘a good team player’, ‘attention to detail’, ‘ability to work independently’. Each one is impossible to fulfil and therefore keeps us chasing after an ideal image of ‘employability’. Moreover these qualities are supposedly found in our lives outside of work. We mine our social lives for qualifications, and in the process are distracted from the real exploitation of labour.

In the chapter ‘Naked Ethics’, the argument runs in a  parallel direction: that the consciousness of capitalists begins to mirror the desires of working people for a less exploitative, less brutal, fairer system. This is the supposed ethical capitalism of fair trade coffee, Bono, Geldof and the ‘RED’ initiative adopted by Starbucks and others. Extending Adorno and Horkheimer’s culture industry theory, Cremin coins the idea of a ‘culture of crisis industry’, a whole apparatus of NGOs, multinational companies, charities and individual participants that help to sustain capitalism ideologically. The two poles of capitalists and workers move together. At an ideological level there is increasing homogeneity, and hence increasing compliance to the system as a whole.   

As with the Frankfurt school’s idea of the culture industry, the problem is that capitalism does not simply produce increasing homogeneity. It is true that capitalism ‘cannot abide limits’. However, homogeneity is only one result of the voracious appetite of the system. At the same time that it extends its reach it also produces contradictions. Capitalism is increasingly universal but also increasingly contradictory. Georg Lukács described this situation as being like a net cast over a swirling mass of inchoate fragments (‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’ in History and Class Consciousness, 1971 edition, Merlin Press, p.155). The greater the mass, the further the net is spread, the thinner and more tattered it becomes.

This process is nothing less than reification, that is the abstraction of a real relation or process into an atomised, fixed and so unreal object. If we take the legal system under capitalism, we see contradictions between its ideals of justice and guarantees of civil and human rights, and domestic courts which act again and again in favour of the wealthy, and an international law which is powerless to penalise even the worst abuses of imperialist war. From within the bounds of their own specialism, legal systems try desperately to form a coherent discourse that can be applied to the whole. Yet faced with the monstrosity of capitalist relations of production, creating a swirling mass of reified products, the law itself can only ever appear as an arbitrary system and can only ever be arbitrarily applied. Hence it in turn is reified, just like the reified relations of production that it covers.

This contradictory nature of reification is compounded by the fact that there are other systems, other discourses, all equally inadequate, vying for universality. In the last few years capitalism’s contradictions have become blatantly obvious. In fact the one thing which does seem constant is the fact of crisis itself. The economic crisis has created crises in almost every other field. In the UK alone we have had a crisis of Parliament (MPs’ expenses scandal), a crisis of the media (News International) and now a crisis of the Church of England.

Although the economic root is key, these contradictions and manifestations of crisis are not just superficial symptoms. They have a dialectical relation to the economics of the crisis. For example the fact the US is in relative decline as an economic power, while far outstripping any other country in terms of military power, means that it has a tendency to compensate for one with the other. The economic crisis is exacerbating this situation, driving the US and its allies into further wars. Far from encouraging the US to cut war spending, the effect of the crisis may be to enlarge it, hence burdening US debt with further unproductive expense (war spending is deficit-financed and accounts for about a quarter of total US debt). Such a mediated view of the crisis is missing from Cremin’s introduction. Instead he falls back on a simplistic nod to the falling rate of profit.

The flip side of an unmediated elaboration of the workings of capitalist relations of production is a view of the working class as almost necessarily passive and compliant. There is the same problem in Adorno’s work and that of other Frankfurt school thinkers. The culture industry placates workers; it buys up the space outside of capitalism’s traditional domains of control (the workplace) leaving little or no room for resistance. According to this view we might think there is little hope for workers who sit at computers all day in their jobs, then come home to spend the rest of their waking hours similarly sat in front of screens of one kind or another. For Cremin it is ‘employability’ which engenders the almost inescapable mechanism of control. The comparison is with ironic adverts: ‘The cynic sees past the surface only to be duped into thinking he is savvy to the obvious ploy’ (p.63). The primary meaning of an advert may be to flatter the consumer as being intelligent, attractive and so on. We can see past this first meaning but what we cannot avoid is the irony itself. In the same moment that we recognise this pre-planned, manufactured irony, we are returned to the position of being objectified by the advert, caught in its gaze.

But in truth consciousness is never fully pacified in this way. Rather than being completely passive it is always uneven. Rather than a homogeneous and pacified consciousness, reflecting a homogenous and placid reality, there is an unevenness of consciousness apprehending the unevenness of capitalism itself. When Cremin talks about the prominence of social movements in the last decade and a half, as against trade unions and workplace struggles for example, he is identifying exactly this unevenness, but failing to understand it as such.

Instead of treating the anti-capitalist and antiwar movements as expressing the relative strength of ‘political’ struggles over ‘economic’ ones at a particular historical moment, Cremin adopts an attitude which is uncomfortably close to the stereotype of the left intellectual wagging his finger at the uneducated masses. Ironically his critique often amounts to a subjective injunction to rebel, mirroring capitalism’s injunction to enjoy, a feature he captures so cannily when analysing the language of adverts and job descriptions. The disparaging label that he applies to everything from fair-trade coffee to the antiwar movement is ‘left liberal’. Just to take the antiwar movement as an example, there are some incredible misunderstandings in his critique:

‘The unarmed victims of Saddam Hussein, and soon of the US and UK, could count on people around the world to march on their behalf on 15 February 2003. Such popular acts of solidarity did not extend to those who fought an armed struggle against the occupation once Saddam was defeated… the ‘Not in My Name’ slogan that protestors used [is] a reflection of the participants’ isolation and disengagement … a slogan with a left-liberal tag dangling from it… [an] apolitical strategy for avoiding making statements of judgement’ (p.83).

Hence, supposedly, the ‘diminishing numbers of people involved in protests as the occupation got bloodier’. To call the slogan ‘Not in My Name’ disengaged and apolitical is slightly perverse. What it expressed was the fact that the majority of ordinary people were unequivocally opposed to the war and that governments had no mandate for carrying it out. Today, when the democratic deficit is such an important feature of the crisis, it is all the more important to understand this prehistory in the antiwar movement. It was the antiwar movement that did most to damage New Labour’s legitimacy. ‘Not in My Name’ was also only one slogan among others, which included ‘Don’t attack Iraq’ and ‘No Blood for Oil’. On later protests there were ‘Troops out of Iraq’, ‘Not one more Death’ and ‘Welfare not Warfare’.

It would be difficult to justify calling these slogans apolitical or disengaged. Moreover, to suggest that the antiwar movement betrayed the cause of anti-imperialist solidarity is as absurd as it is sectarian. Cremin may want to check the movement’s history for meetings like the World Against War conference that featured representatives from Hezbollah, the Iraqi oil workers’ union and fighters aligned with Muqtada al-Sadr. Organisations and participants in the antiwar movement have always acknowledged that the number one factor in dealing a blow against imperialism has been the resistance of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, without denying the role of armed struggle, or speaking about it so glibly in a context where sectarian conflict has claimed so many lives and left a legacy that will take years to dislodge.

Cremin seems torn between, on the one hand, an obsession with bourgeois hypocrisy, and on the other, its literal opposite, the material fact of exploitation. The consequence is that he transfers the self-deceptions of the bourgeoisie onto the working class. This could partly explain why there is little attempt to delve into the actual class composition of recent social movements. However, at a deeper level these misunderstandings flow from a failure to understand the unevenness of class consciousness and how it is actually embodied, not just in the mind of an individual but across millions of people in organisational blocks. Just as consciousness itself, on an individual level, is uneven, so are mass movements.

Cremin assumes exactly the opposite, producing an artificially smoothed-out picture of the movements. He ignores the fact that there are always competing strands, alliances and antagonisms between different elements. The anti-capitalist and antiwar movements are no exception. In the anti-capitalist movement all kinds of elements came together: NGOs, trade unions, socialists, anarchists, autonomists. It is false to suggest that NGOs and ‘left-liberals’ unilaterally dominated proceedings. In fact the role of NGOs in social movements is very much a contested issue. In the antiwar movement, for example, most NGOs have been notoriously bad in taking a stance and as such have peeled away.

The picture is dynamic. From the anti-capitalist movement to the antiwar movement, and now with the anti-cuts movement, we can see the role that revolutionaries can play in orientating the movement to face new challenges, whether it is confronting the role of the state or how to fuse the energy of the movements with the strength of the trade unions. However, before the arguments that take place within a movement, there is first of all the task of actually building it, of bringing together the forces that will make a mass movement. We get the feeling this task does not appeal to Cremin, as anything short of calling for the overthrow of capitalism, or a purely willed/purely spontaneous ‘withdrawal of labour’ or other political ‘event’, is a suckers’ game:

‘The sign “Haiti earthquake disaster” is consumable, not “the crises tendencies of the capitalist mode of production”, which is unlikely to become a brand anytime soon. But “the debt crisis”, “the housing crisis” and “the unemployment crisis” can help bring into existence films, TV shows, services and government and corporate “initiatives” that respond to new anxieties developing around them’ (p.93).

Exactly contrary to this (leaving aside the strange elision of the imperialist-humanitarian intervention in Haiti), it is absolutely correct for the left to seek to relate to the most ‘aberrant’ expressions of capitalism’s injustice, because this is exactly how an uneven class consciousness grasps the unevenness of capitalism. Every aberration stems from the crisis-prone nature of capitalism and is a revelation of the contradictions inherent in the system. To suggest that revolutionaries should avoid talking about the ‘housing crisis’ is absurd.

Revolutionaries should be the first to talk about the housing crisis. They should be the most decisive in drawing every possible advantage from capitalism’s aberrations, and be the ones most capable of mobilising around these issues. This is not an argument for single-issue campaigns. Of course we have to connect different issues, to show that the crises, the contradictions, are not just one-off events but systemic problems. And we have to be strategic in assessing which issues are significant. But without a movement in the first place, on the issue of corporate power, on the issue of the war, on the issue of the cuts, all the left would be doing is sitting around, explaining to itself how capitalism works.

In the context of resisting austerity these issues are live and urgent. Do we dismiss the occupy movement as ‘left-liberal’ in ideology (after all Giles Fraser was greeted with cheers for his principled stand rather than suspicion for his class-compromised position), or do we see in it the seeds of a new anti-capitalist movement that, combined with the trade unions, can open up new possibilities for rebuilding the labour movement, and has the potential to turn the tide on the cuts?

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright edits Different Skies, an online magazine and collective for experimental writing. He writes about cinema and the city. Alistair is a stalwart of Stop the War and a member of Counterfire.