How does capitalism survive? This was the question that greeted the 11th annual Historical Materialism conference in London. Held from November 6 to 9 at the Vernon Square Campus, it was a four-day long broad marriage of global leftist activists and academics run by the Marxist journal of the same name.
Posed as a simple question, it quickly developed into as many answers and narratives as there are positions within the left.
In Britain, whose head of state remains a hereditary monarch, the remnants of democracy have been taken out of state hands and put into the hands of financial managers. The power of the 1% is being enacted.
Gentrification has increasingly made itself visible through a housing bubble that looks set to expand before it pops, and where the proliferation of zero-hour contracts is pricing people out of the market. There is also the rise of the far right UK Independence Party, political attacks on the National Health Service and a rising culture of fear in the media.
Meanwhile, the lecture halls are filled with debate and ideas about the broader forces that have become known as the 99%. This leaves the left with much work to do.
Two main conference streams illustrated the convergence of these forces: the reality of power and the reality of social inequality, whether ecological, political or financial. To quote economist Philip Mirowski, capitalism “never lets a serious crisis go to waste”.
The left is now in a unique position in Europe where it is on the verge of electoral power in at least two countries. Left parties are leading the polls in Spain (Podemos) and Greece (Coalition of the Radical Left ― Syriza).
In Spain, Podemos has adopted a “tactical strike of populism” to engineer potential electoral victory out of the crisis. The party has built on the Indignados anti-austerity movement to organise broad swaths of local support throughout the country.
In Greece, Syriza has taken a large lead in recent polls (six points) over the right-wing New Democracy, which heads a coalition government, before elections likely to be held early next year.
Despite such a lead, the Greek context presents its own specific challenges as “distance between tactics and revolutionary politics” continues to divide opinions on the left. Each left party is claiming it is the true owner of revolutionary struggle.
What remains a pressing issue in both countries is the question of what a left-wing party within a eurozone context looks like. Or rather, if a party can be a truly left-wing party in the eurozone.
In a plenary session on Contemporary Politics in the Middle East, Palestinian human rights activist Rafeef Ziadah gave an impassioned speech highlighting the complicity by government’s around the world in Israel’s illegal war and occupation on Palestine.
There was even the humourously posed ― yet ultimately terrifying ― venturing into space, with one talk reminding us that capital is not limited to the increasingly polluted atmosphere on Earth. It extends to the satellite’s that have become so crucial to military and government surveillance operations. Growth, it seems, does not need oxygen.
This talk was made especially relevant after the explosion of the Orbital Sciences rocket launch ― a rocket made from a 1960s Soviet motors ― and the recent crash of the Virgin Galactic space-tourist rocket designed for the super-rich.
Over the course of four long days and involving more than 750 registered attendees, debate was active and engaged ― and particularly constructive. After 11 years of changes and re-compositions, this marriage of the left is in rude health.
Of course, distances did emerge between debates on political topics and debates on political actions. Esther Leslie, a member of the journal’s editorial board, called this “an illusory divide”, saying it was “more ostensibly about a politics of the present”. The left, she said, share a “common interest in liberation”.
But we all know capitalism is very good at swallowing its own critique. The present crisis has revealed the true face of a system that hands out deadly doses of fictitious finance with all too real effects.
On the conference title, Leslie reminded us of Marx himself, who “called it a vampire sucking its blood from our lives, our energy and our thinking … [Capitalism] survives parasitically, as it always has done.
“It survives until it doesn’t survive … It survives in the end, because we don’t manage to kick it down.”
[Historical Materialism is an interdisciplinary journal dedicated to exploring and developing the critical and explanatory potential of Marxist theory. It is published quarterly. Visit www.historicalmaterialism.org to find out more.]