Anti-capitalism can be conservative

In: Uncategorized

10 Nov 2011

Both supporters and opponents of the Occupy movement are labouring under the misconception that the recent wave of anti-capitalist protests is somehow leftist or radical. If they looked more closely they would see that such anti-capitalists are more conservative than the most ardent shire Tories.

It is true that perhaps the most photographed banner outside St Paul’s cathedral reads “Capitalism IS crisis”. But even if such sentiments are taken at face value it does not necessarily follow that they are radical. Not all forms of anti-capitalism are socialist. On the contrary, some are deeply conservative.

In broad terms it is possible to distinguish between two types of anti-capitalism. Socialist anti-capitalism seeks to replace the market economy with an alternative form of social organisation. Socialists range from those who favour gradual change to revolutionaries but their common goal is to move forward to what they regard as a better society.

In contrast, romantic anti-capitalists favour either a return to the past or at least the imposition of strong restraints on existing capitalism. Romantic anti-capitalism is essentially a reaction against modernity. It represents a green revulsion against popular prosperity combined with estrangement from modern industry and agriculture.

The current Occupy movement clearly fits into the green-romantic category. Adbusters, a Canadian anti-consumerist group, was behind the first Occupy protest on Wall Street. Indeed the slogan “capitalism is crisis” appeared in Adbusters magazine long before it was used outside St Paul’s. The prevalence of green slogans at Occupy protests and the emphasis on recycling within their camp also suggests the protestors are romantics rather than reds.

Nor should the slogan “We are the 99%” be taken as a sign of radical intent. The emphasis on the 1% super-rich comes from Joseph Stiglitz; a former chief economic adviser to Bill Clinton, chief economist at the World Bank and Nobel prizewinner.

As I have previously argued the message in the current discussion of inequality is of the need for sacrifice. The underlying assumption is that we, the 99%, are making sacrifices so the super-rich should too. It is not an argument against austerity but a demand for equality of sacrifice.

Green anti-capitalism stands in sharp contrast to the traditional socialist view that stood for popular prosperity. Take the definition of Sylvia Pankhurst, a revolutionary suffragette, in the Workers’ Dreadnought of 28 July 1923:

“Socialism means plenty for all. We do not preach a gospel of want and scarcity, but of abundance.”

Of course the contemporary elite is not above using radical-sounding language. Back in 2008 Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had an article in the Spectator entitled “Marx was partly right about capitalism” in which he argued:

“Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves; he was right about that, if about little else.”

But this is a complete misreading of Marx. He was not arguing against unbridled capitalism, and therefore by implication for a restrained market economy, but against capitalism itself.

Perhaps it is best to leave the last word on anti-capitalism to Karl Marx himself. In the Communist Manifesto of 1848 he argued that:

“Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached in the place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.”

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