The discreet charm of the petit bourgeoisie

Covers of ully Automated Luxury Communism: a manifesto by Aaron Bastani and This is not a drill: an Extinction Rebellion handbook by Extinction Rebellion

Below we publish two book reviews, This is not a drill: an Extinction Rebellion handbook by Extinction Rebellion and Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a manifesto by Aaron Bastani. The reviews expose the reactionary petit-bourgeois perspective of both the publications and the opportunists that produced them.

A handbook of petit bourgeois vacuity

This is not a drill: an Extinction Rebellion handbook

Penguin 2019, pbk 186pp, £7.99

In History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukacs addresses the position of the petit bourgeoisie under capitalism. Stating that ‘it cannot possibly remain wholly unaffected by the fact of class conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat’, he adds, citing Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte:

‘But as a “transitional class in which the interests of two other classes become simultaneously blunted ...” it will imagine itself “to be above all class antagonisms”. Accordingly it will search for ways whereby it will “not indeed eliminate the two extremes of capital and wage labour, but will weaken their antagonism and transform it into harmony”. In all decisions crucial for society its actions will be irrelevant and it will be forced to fight for both sides in turn but always without consciousness.’

Constantly under threat of being thrown into the ranks of the working class, the petit bourgeoisie rails against the excesses of capitalism, its short-sightedness, its irrational greed, its propensity for conflict and war. On the other hand, the petit bourgeoisie also despises the working class: its spontaneity, its instinct to act collectively, its tendency towards resistance, especially when it takes a violent form. The petit bourgeoisie regards these characteristics as symptomatic of a brutish ignorance, a susceptibility to the influence of demagogues, the worst of them communists, and contrasts this to the self-proclaimed rational standpoint of the intelligentsia. Ultimately this supposed rationality amounts to no more than arrogant self-delusion: the petit bourgeois can no more suspend class antagonisms than Canute could halt the tide. The difference of course is that Canute had sufficient wisdom to know the limits of his power – unlike his courtiers.

In the earlier stages of capitalist development, the urban petit bour­geoisie mainly consisted of shopkeepers and small-scale producers whose capital was insufficient for them to avoid having also to work alongside their employees – sweatshops of the worst kind. As capitalism developed, so the ranks of the petit bourgeoisie were augmented by burgeoning layers of professionals such as lawyers, accountants, administrators, civil servants, clerks and journalists. The nature of their lives was determined not by social struggle or collective action, but by their education, talent and personal ambition; they had no direct relation to the productive process. The emergence of monopoly capitalism and the rise of finance capital signalled the transition to imperialism, capitalism in decay. This development necessitated an expansion of this petit bourgeois stratum, not only to serve as managers and administrators in the new imperialist institutions, but also to serve as a bulwark against the mass of the working class. The crumbs that the ruling class passed down from its looting and plunder of the colonies allowed this layer to maintain its affluent position alongside a labour aristocracy, skilled workers who constituted a privileged upper stratum of the working class and whose collective organisations excluded the mass of unskilled workers.

This process continued during the post-war boom as the growth of state employment provided conditions for the emergence of a new form of the labour aristocracy, one whose privileges were mediated through state-provided services rather than through the market, and which benefitted from improved employment conditions determined in major part by trade union collective bargaining. As boom gave way to crisis, however, its conditions began to change: trade unions became enfeebled by anti-trade union laws, and position and ability became more the determinant for sustaining individual privilege, stimulating the development of a petit bourgeois individualist mentality. These new crisis conditions also promoted the development of a hugely inflated financial and banking sector to underpin the looting and plunder of the under-developed countries, providing employment for hundreds of thousands of highly-paid accountants and other financial professionals. Training this new petit bourgeoisie provided lucrative career opportunities for the intelligentsia in a much expanded higher education sector.

The petit bourgeoisie cannot play an independent role in the class struggle. But as Marx observed, its conceit is that it stands above the class struggle, able from this position to advise the ruling class to temper its greed and short-sightedness to prevent social conflict, while warning the working class that it should confine its resistance to a respectable bourgeois legality. Such petit bourgeois arrogance finds its perfect expression in This is not a drill’s ringing declaration that ‘Extinction Rebellion thinks beyond politics’ (p145 and then repeated p161 following contributions from Green MP Caroline Lucas and Labour MP Clive Lewis). In other words, XR is beyond class struggle, on an entirely different plane of existence and consciousness where the working class does not even exist. Thus, in an article remarkable for its profusion of banalities (eg, ‘violence destroys democracy’, p100), its principal ideologue Roger Hallam claims the organisation ‘is now a movement of scientists, academics, lawyers, diplomats, councillors, campaigners, teachers, doctors, nurses, artists, writers, actors, graphic designers, psychologists’ (p102). Set aside nurses and teachers and we have a fairly extensive roll call of the petit bourgeoisie. And although the list does not include the 2.5 million British private landlords, this oversight has been corrected by the creation of an XR Facebook community group. Naturally, there is not a corresponding community group for the working class tenants they rob.

XR’s Media and Managing Coordinator Ronan McNern claims that ‘to achieve social change the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population is needed. It is that 3.5% we want to engage’ (p126). Where does XR get this 3.5% figure from? Step forward two apologists for US imperialist interests, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (cited by two essays on p126 and p136) who claim to show that non-violent movements have a greater chance of success than violent ones, and that a movement comprising 3.5% of the population is a tipping point where members of the security forces abandon the given regime and join the popular struggle. Their work requires a crude reductionism to create a supposed order out of the more than 300 social movements they claim to analyse. They shoehorn this mass of collective human activity, undertaken in a myriad of different economic, political and social circumstances, into fewer than a dozen parameters, in order to inform US imperialism’s foreign policy. On this frankly astonishing basis XR erects its whole non-violent direct action approach.

In reality, the choice between violent and non-violent struggle is never an abstract one; it is always determined by the political needs of the moment and the relationship of class forces, and is never a binary question, either one or the other.

It is important to look at the political stance of Chenoweth and Stephan to highlight how politically loaded their work is. For instance, the Cuban revolution is categorised as a failure of violent struggle, as according to Chenoweth in particular, it merely replaced one dictatorship with another. Stephan openly backed the Guaido-led movement against Venezuela’s President Maduro as it was a laboratory test for Chenoweth’s and her theories. Backed completely by the US, Guaido’s campaign in January was to present a non-violent face to the world and encourage military leaders to abandon the PSUV government. The operation involved international media censorship both of Guaido’s reactionary programme and violent past, and of working class support for the Bolivarian revolution. Undoubtedly Guaido had the support of 3.5% of the Venezuelan people. But the middle class layers that Guaido mobilised were no match for the massive working class resistance to his coup attempts, and the result has been a fiasco for the US-promoted counter-revolution.

In reality, the choice between violent and non-violent struggle is never an abstract one; it is always determined by the political needs of the moment and the relationship of class forces, and is never a binary question, either one or the other. The Cuban revolution involved mass open non-violent struggle alongside the guerrilla movement. The same was true of the Irish liberation struggle: mass protests led by the Relatives Action Committees in the late 1970s complemented the armed struggle of the IRA. They were not counter-posed in the minds of the participants in either case; nor was there ever a matter of principle involved. It is obvious what interest US policy makers have in Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s work: they want to seek out and sponsor movements mobilising against regimes which are inimical to US interests, or which have become political liabilities, knowing that if such movements are led by better-off professionals and the petit bourgeoisie, they will be susceptible to US funding and promotion.

fidel raul guerrilas

Fidel and Raul Castro with guerilla fighters participating in the armed revolutionary struggle in Cuba, 1959

Having established XR’s strategy on a thoroughly reactionary foundation, the resulting super­structure – and it is a very complex and bureaucratic edifice – has as its sole purpose the maintenance of tight control over XR activities, and the exclusion of any concept of class struggle. The alpha and omega are non-violence: as Hallam says, ‘non-violent discipline is rule number one for all participants’ (p101). Logically, this negates several of XR’s other ten Principles: for instance, Principle five, ‘we value reflecting and learning’ has to exclude consideration of anything that contradicts Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s work, and Principle six, ‘we value everyone and every part of everyone’ – but not communists. However, it does complement Principle eight: ‘we avoid naming and shaming’, which doubtless comforts private landlords as they squeeze the last drop of blood out of working class tenants. The petit bourgeoisie is looking after its own in this climate crisis – as is the ruling class and its representatives whom XR refuses to call to account.

If this review has concentrated on a small number of issues raised by the book, it is because of its negligible intellectual content. It might be suggested that one or two of the articles in the first half of the book have a slightly greater substance. Farhana Yamin, for instance, states that ‘The new movement must be based on the reality that the legacy of colonialism, combined with current forms of capitalism based on never-ending extractive growth, is literally killing us. The reality is that four environmental defenders a week are being killed in the Global South’ (p23). But her conclusion, that ‘we must succeed in catalysing a peaceful revolution to end the era of fossil fuels, nature extraction and capitalism’ (p27) begs the question: which is more important, being peaceful, or saving the planet? And the phrase ‘Global South’ serves to obscure the predatory relationship that exists between the imperialist powers – the Global North – and the mass of under-developed and oppressed countries. Anti-imperialist politics can then be brushed aside as unwanted ‘naming and shaming’.

Among the direst of contributions is an essay by Kate Raworth who is somebody in a school of thought called ‘doughnut economics’; she believes that ‘our economies are politically addicted to growth because pension funds and the job market have become structurally dependent upon it’ (p150), and in addition, ‘no government wants to lose their place in the G20 photo’ because their economy stops growing. Poor Marx: if only he had lived long enough he would have had to realise that Capital was now just missing the point – accumulation is merely a problem of the triple-lock pension and governmental ambition. Replete with diagrams suitable for primary school, Raworth’s pages epitomise the poverty of petit bourgeois thought that threads its way through this book.

This is not a drill could have provided a political education for those who have been drawn into the movement against climate change. But that is not the intention of XR. It is determined that the most backward and conservative politics – and it is politics despite the claims of its leadership – serve as the hallmark of XR. Never mind the references to ‘transformation’ which litter the book, the nature of such transformation cannot be spelled out because it becomes political. Ignore the breathless and self-absorbed references to ‘rebels’ and ‘rebellion’, for, despite those XR actions deliberately designed to break the law, no real challenge to climate change is possible on the basis of petit bourgeois fantasy. The only way forward is on the basis of class politics which challenge imperialism’s plunder and looting of the rest of the world.

Robert Clough


A trip to planet Bastani

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a manifesto

Aaron Bastani, Verso 2019, hbk 288pp, £16.99

Commenting in 1880 on a French grouping within the International Workingmen’s Association who called themselves ‘Marxists’, Marx is supposed to have remarked that ‘all I know is that I am not a Marxist’. Marx’s quip would equally apply to Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, an anti-communist manifesto for the petit-bourgeois radical whose grip on reality has slipped so far that he wants to sidestep the laws not only of capitalism but of physics too, rather than try to seriously understand, or change, the world. It is a call to inaction, in defence of petit-bourgeois privilege.

A Brave New World

According to Bastani, a workless future where all humanity will ‘lead lives equivalent – if we so wish – to those of today’s billionaires’ (p189), staffed by robots and fuelled by endless renewable energy, is nearly upon us, developing entirely on its own steam; or with some credit going to Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Capitalism, helped along by social democratic governments, will meet the serious challenges facing human civilisation, and in meeting them will organically become ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’, without any need for class struggle.

Laboratory-grown meat will feed the planet’s growing population. It is only a matter of time until we learn how to edit DNA, enabling us ‘to overcome nearly all forms of disease’ (p39). ‘Automation’ will mean ‘extreme supply’ in food, healthcare, and in what Bastani calls labour – robots can perform all the work. This will all be powered by energy, also in ‘extreme supply’. Bastani recognises that while solar energy may be ‘limitless’, resources like coltan, silver and tellurium necessary for capturing and storing it are not, and global reserves are rapidly depleting. This places no barrier in the way of ‘extreme supply’ of energy, however, because we will soon ‘mine the sky’, sending rockets to nearby planets and asteroids. Planet Bastani is a utopia indeed.

Back on Planet Earth, however, there are fundamental laws governing capitalist societies; laws which will continue to function as long as one class owns the means of production and another class must sell its labour-power to survive.

A tale of two planets

On Planet Earth, capitalism is rooted in the accumulation of capital: ‘natural resources are only utilised, the social productivity of labour only developed, labour is only employed if it serves the self-expansion of capital, ie the reproduction of the existing capital values and the creation of additional value, surplus-value.’1 This surplus-value is created by the exploitation of the working class in the production process. Thus is created an antagonism between the working class, which pro­duces, and the capitalist class, which appropriates, wealth. This antagonism can only be resolved by the working class taking power and seizing the means of production from the bourgeoisie, redirecting the economic foundations created under capitalism to the meeting of human needs. In the words of Marx and Engels, ‘what the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers’. On Earth, this accumulation process has driven capitalism into a new phase, imperialism, which is defined by the centrality of monopoly finance capital in economic life; the division of the world between the major imperialist powers; and relations of oppression and exploitation between the imperialist and the underdeveloped nations.

On Planet Bastani, capital has no accumulation process. There, profit is drawn from ‘information’ (pp49, 61) and not from the labour of the working class, and so it is possible to imagine a world where capital ‘becomes labour’ and where the replacement of workers by machinery does not lead, as on Earth, to unemployment and poverty but to a life of idle luxury. This is an old argument, made in a 1929 document that Bastani actually quotes: Keynes’s Letter on the Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren. Keynes argued that under capitalism automation would reduce the working week to fifteen hours within a century. The reason this did not even begin to happen in Keynes’s day is the same that it will not in Bastani’s: wage slavery is not caused by insufficiently developed technology but by the private ownership of the means of production. As the working class is irrelevant to the process of capitalist production on Planet Bastani, it has no special role in bringing an end to capitalism there. Capitalism’s gravediggers are solar power, gene-editing technology and rocket ships: ‘to paraphrase Marx, technology makes history – but not under conditions of its choosing’ (p237).

Capitalism on Planet Bastani has not become imperialism. While arguing for the ‘acceleration’ of the extraction of mineral resources needed for ‘green technologies’, Bastani does not mention the environmental destruction this wreaks when carried out as the imperialist plunder of the oppressed and underdeveloped nations (see FRFI 270). Perversely, Bastani argues that the new conditions of ‘extreme supply’ will mean that ‘historically underdeveloped countries’ will have a ‘comparative advantage’ because they have more sunlight to capture energy (p220), and that they will be able to ‘leapfrog over’ the developed nations (pp107, 148) much like how mobile phone technology has apparently helped African nations to ‘leapfrog’ over developed ones (pp108-9). Dismissing the peoples of the underdeveloped world out of hand, Bastani writes that it ‘turns out Marx’s early suspicion that the countries set to lead the revolution would be those at the cutting edge of capitalist modernity was right’ (p193). It is quite a worldview in which Trump’s US and a Britain mired in its Brexit crisis are ‘set to lead the revolution’, but it is the inevitable outcome of Bastani’s total denial of the existence of a world dominated by imperialism.

On Earth, Marx has shown that capital is ‘an alien social power’ standing above the working class: ‘Individuals are subsumed under social production; social production exists outside them as their fate; but social production is not subsumed under individuals, manageable by them as their common wealth.’ The capital relation deprives the working-class majority of social power: the power to direct production, the state, and the course of society. The workers of Earth must fight to abolish the capital relation and take power into their own hands. But on Planet Bastani capital is a technical factor: inputs and machinery. The bourgeoisie will simply wither away. Centuries of class struggle prove Bastani wrong: the bourgeoisie will never willingly relinquish the social power afforded them by capital.

‘In either case they serve the reaction’

Novara Media emerged out of the 2010 student movement, founded in 2011 by James Butler and Bastani. According to Michael Walker and Craig Gent, key Novara figures, those involved had differing views, but ‘our perspectives have historically been broadly libertarian socialist in character’.2 The epithet ‘libertarian’ means that the writers wish to make it clear to existing bourgeois power that they have no intention of confronting it: it is a petit-bourgeois standpoint which believes that the question of class power (‘authoritarianism’) can be sidestepped. As Engels wrote, ‘either the anti-authoritarians don’t know what they’re talking about, in which case they are creating nothing but confusion; or they do know, and in that case they are betraying the movement of the proletariat. In either case they serve the reaction.’3 Sidestepping the question of class power, Novara adopted a radical and media-savvy posture in order to attract a young audience of university students and graduates whose hopes for a secure middle-class future were being frustrated.

Bastani’s book has a certain popularity for precisely this reason: it provides a fantasy for petit-bourgeois radicals who want to ensure that a renewed interest among young people in socialism and communism is channeled into avenues that serve the interests of privileged layers within capitalism.

Originally, Novara’s attitude towards the Labour Party was, according to Gent and Walker, ‘not hopeful’. This changed in 2015 with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, who promised classless solutions to class-rooted problems, For The Many Not The Few. In fact, Novara could play a special role for Corbynism, posing as critics from the left. As Gent and Walker put it, ‘Where the BBC saw him as a hippy radical, we still wanted to be convinced this career politician (from the Labour  Party) was worth our political support’ [their emphasis]. What Novara ‘wanted to be convinced’ of was Corbyn’s commitment to the interests of privileged layers of the working class and petit bourgeoisie. Their critique-from-the-left has not challenged Corbyn’s commitment to holding together the Labour Party at all costs; it has not criticised his instructions to Labour-run councils to implement austerity; and it has not challenged his constant capitulations on everything from Trident to Palestine.

In fact, Novara’s critique-from-the-left is indistinguishable from the one from the right. In February, Bastani and his fellow senior editor, Ash Sarkar, joined in the reactionary attacks against Corbyn over supposed anti-Semitism. Bastani tweeted that he ‘wouldn’t feel welcome in the party as a Jewish person’, and Sarkar called for further retribution against those perceived as supportive of the Palestinians: ‘Chris Williamson has [...] had the Labour whip suspended pending investigation, which I think is the right decision. But much more work must be done to proactively confront and dismantle conspiratorial and antisemitic thinking on the left, and it goes much further than expulsions.’

New face, old opportunism

In December Bastani tweeted that he is ‘a big fan of capitalism from 1800-1980’. His opposition is to ‘neoliberalism’, an obfuscating way of describing a period of onslaught against the working class in response to the resurgence of crisis conditions following the post-war boom. Bastani’s practical proposals for a future Labour government (‘breaking with neoliberalism’) amount to government-controlled investment banks, increased funding for local government and the introduction of a more comprehensive system of state welfare (p208). This might be sufficient to sustain privileged layers under capitalism, but communism it is not. Bastani’s book has a certain popularity for precisely this reason: it provides a fantasy for petit-bourgeois radicals who want to ensure that a renewed interest among young people in socialism and communism is channeled into avenues that serve the interests of privileged layers within capitalism. In this, it is no different from countless other forms of opportunism.

Novara Media logo

Novara Media, the 'soft critic' of Corbynism founded by Bastani and James Butler

Bastani views the working-class majority with arrogant disdain: ‘communism’ will come about through electoral politics because ‘the majority of people are only able to be politically active for brief periods of time’ (p195). Or rather, Bastani wants to prevent ‘the majority’ being active as the independent action of the working class might spin out of the control of the petit-bourgeois layer he represents.

Not appealing to the working-class majority but trying to assure the ruling class that ‘communism’ poses no threat to their wealth or power, Bastani writes that ‘This Is Not 1917’ (p192). Sidestepping Marx’s support for the Paris Commune, we are told that Marx never believed the ‘transition beyond capitalism’ would simply require ‘replacing one group of rulers with another’ (p55). Having denigrated the USSR, the first successful attempt to construct a future beyond capitalism, as an ‘anti-liberal coup’ (p193), little more need be said of socialism and the millions who have dedicated their lives to striving for a communist future. Cuba, whose constitution explicitly states that it is striving towards communism, and which is leading the way in solving many of the problems that Bastani’s book discusses, is mentioned once in passing. Bastani is dismissive of socialism for not having provided ‘luxury’ where it has been constructed. Socialism was a fool’s errand: until now, ‘post-scarcity’ was impossible, and so socialism was ‘still defined by scarcity and jobs’ (p192). Communism, we are told, ‘is luxurious, or it isn’t communism’ (p56). Bastani’s anti-communism is a luxury that only a petit bourgeoisie attempting to blunt the class struggle in order to salvage capitalism, and with it its privileges, can afford. Capitalism’s gravediggers must reckon with capitalism as it really exists, and fight for class power. Bastani and his ilk will stand in the way.

Séamus Padraic

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 271, June/July 2019


 

  1. D Yaffe, The Marxian Theory of Crisis, Capital, and the State, https://tinyurl.com/yym9k4t4
  2. https://tinyurl.com/y3twzrok
  3. Engels, On Authority, https://tinyurl.com/nbhd5g5

 

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