Historical Materialism Australasia 2012
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Following the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis epitomized the prevailing attitude, summed up more brutally by Margaret Thatcher’s injunction that “There is No Alternative.” Twenty years on from Fukuyama’s assertion, liberal triumphalism has been battered by war, recession and political radicalization on the left and the right. In this context even Fukuyama has conceded that history does indeed have a future. Karl Marx famously remarked that we make our own history, adding that we do not do so “under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”. Today, history is being re-made on the streets of the Middle East and North Africa, and now also across the Global North. These struggles will shape the world’s future. Yet they take place in conditions marked by protracted economic crisis, continuing wars and imperialist “interventions”, and the rule of the market over all of life. The reoccupation of the world’s streets, squares and commons is matched by the ever-increasing subordination of parliaments to the dictates of the market, witnessed most profoundly in the imposition of technocratic rule in Greece, Italy and elsewhere. These events have seen Marx return to mainstream debate, but all too often in the form of having his insights cherry picked and reified in an attempt to rescue capitalism from itself. There is a need to go beyond such appropriation, to reestablish a living critique of political economy, to work towards the “determinate negation” of capitalism that Marx spoke of. Such a project requires raising questions about the meaning, the form and the very desirability of democracy in an era of growing technocratic rule. Similarly, as human rights provide a moral cover for wars it becomes necessary to interrogate the language of rights in contemporary political struggles. And, as revolution re-appears on the global stage, if in new forms hardly recognizable to revolutionaries of the past, it is clear that the categories of our political thought and practice must be subjected to renewed thought and debate.