Wednesday, October 15, 2008
The collapse of the international banking system will have come as no surprise to anyone with a basic understanding of the workings of capitalism. It therefore came as a complete surprise to the bankers, whose knowledge of the world is limited to the figures flashing across their desks, and who judge their success by the number of other people’s promissory notes they can cram into their pockets. Every one of the IOUs and unlimited credit notes they have used to enrich themselves constitutes a claim against future value. It was fictitious capital when they were bloating themselves on it – but now it has to be paid for with real money, out of our pockets, as governments fight to prop up an economic system. They can imagine no alternative, despite the fact that the system clearly doesn’t work.
Surrealists can only welcome the prospect of revolutionary upheaval. But we also need to prepare for it by weighing our courses of action carefully. What will happen next, and how might Surrealists respond most effectively? There are, of course, precedents, notably the Great Depression of the 1930s. What can we learn from the past? What are the similarities between now and the 1930s, and what are the differences?
When 1929 crash took place, the European empires were in decline and the US was emerging as the world’s largest economy. The vicious nature of the reaction that followed during the 1930s is well known: the eruption of fascism across Europe, the growth of nationalism and, ultimately, the devastation of the Second World War. The decade also saw the rise of Popular Front movement in France and Spain, which promised left-wing “unity” but instead delivered only disappointment and outright betrayal. Rather than hastening the overthrow of capitalism, the Popular Front sought merely to soften its worst crises, diverting the revolutionary energies of the Left into “unity” not just with non-revolutionary forces but even with sections of the ruling class itself.
The situation today is both similar and different to that of 1929. This crisis is unfolding against the background of the decline in US imperialism and the emergence of China and India as new imperialist powers. Capitalism was already global in the 1930s, but today it has reached unprecedented levels of international integration. Toxic debts have been packaged up, sold, and hidden in every corner of the international financial market. Thus the current economic collapse will take the world in the same reactionary direction as the 1930s, but in doing so will pose an even greater threat to humanity. The wars of Afghanistan and Iraq – scenes of US imperialism’s desperate fight for survival – are only the beginning. Meanwhile, in the face of the threat to capitalism, Britain’s erstwhile Labour “rebels” and the US’s Democrats alike have been only too quick to fall into line in the name of unity. And just as in the 1930s, we can expect to see increasing efforts to “unite” different class and political tendencies into a popular front movement to stave off any revolutionary hastening of the collapse of capitalism. The failures of the Popular Front in the 1930s should stand as a stark warning to those on the Left who are trying to revive it today. It is truly alarming to see just how many so-called radical movements – the SWP in Britain, the LCR in France, the Links Partei in Germany, Rifondazione Communista in Italy – are already cheerleading that revival in Europe. Many of them actively support and take inspiration from Chávez and his allies in Latin America, who are already far advanced in their push to divert the popular desire for revolution into support for Latin American nationalism and capitalist reforms.
So how might we as Surrealists make sense of this situation? We have unshakeable confidence in Surrealism’s ability to attract serious revolutionary enthusiasm everywhere. For that reason it is now more important than ever for us to be clear about our political choices. In particular, we must never forget the political implications of Surrealism’s internationalism, and remain implacably opposed to all forms of nationalism, including those forms which make false promises to ameliorate recession, protect jobs, or even oppose globalisation. Our enemies are at home, and we must beware of being co-opted into their ideological offensives, whether it’s acquiescing to the bank bail-out, supporting Obama, or invoking the chimera of “Islamo-fascism”.
One thing we can know for certain: there are more shocks and crises of capitalism to come. We can anticipate those crises, and the revolutionary flashpoints and opportunities to which they will lead. If we are serious about our Surrealism, and about revolution – and we are – we will seize on the potential of every moment, will seek out and build on every opportunity to change the world, with all of the means at our disposal. Our politics must burn no less passionately, or urgently, than our poetry.