Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics

June 25, 2009

Jeremy Gilbert got the job that Marx wanted but didn't get. The young Marx had mentors, colleagues and aspiring peers in German universities publishing critiques and polemics on the political culture and issues of the 1840s. True, the politics of the time was largely limited to court circles and official bureaucracies, against which self-styled radicals espoused liberal ideas of representative and responsible government. And the communicative culture of the time was more theological and philosophical to our eyes than popular, commercial or transgressive. Mass protest was not on the cards, and "revolting lecturers" were forced out of academic positions or not hired in the first place. Marx's more or less veiled anticapitalist critique was a mere spectre, as he later wrote, but as liberals bit the dust, so did he, and anticapitalism went to the private sector.

Gilbert takes us on an informative and well-signposted tour of the post-Second World War dialogue between the anticapitalist movement in popular politics and the investiture of cultural studies into interdisciplinary programmes and departments in UK universities. Broadly he is telling the story of two defeats, although without quite saying that it is tragedy followed by farce. Postwar Left intellectuals were variously identified with national labour movements and international communism, and in charting this we move through familiar territory from Raymond Williams and Eric Hobsbawm to the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies and its Gramscian guru, Stuart Hall.

Following on, we examine the New Left and Marxism Today, and make our way through the fragmentation involved in the "identity" politics that eventually triumphs over class struggle. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was the nail in that coffin. After their theoretical intervention, we face a world of economic and religious extremisms on the one hand, and diversity, difference and disorganisation on the other. As a rough guide to 60 years of leftist politics this is excellent background material for UK students and those in the wider world, and the volume fits neatly into a backpack.

The burden of the book, however, is to argue that cultural studies could and should mediate the dilemmas of the anticapitalist movement - lack of pragmatism in popular protest movements on the one hand, and indifference to culture in union-based and partisan political organisations on the other. Gilbert's vision of cultural studies is that it is a critical and informative practice with a politics that is broadly libertarian and egalitarian, pluralist and democratic, and rooted in the socialist tradition. Given its contemporary academic settings and links, it is open to new ideas, identities and struggles. His project is to link theory with practice, making connections between issues and groups, and thus specifying political and theoretical co-ordinates.

Two groups feature repeatedly in his comments: the Zapatistas in Mexico and the Reclaim the Streets movement in East London. Against these he sets the constitutive "other" of the Socialist Workers Party, who get a polemical drubbing worthy of Marx himself.

Although surveying a number of global issues, movements and protests, Gilbert makes the astonishing move of limiting himself quite explicitly to a northern and indeed Anglo-Saxon perspective, although the Zapatistas get included because of their influence on thinking in the global north. Given global interconnectedness today, this seems a very severe limitation.

The second half of the book then takes quite a theoretical turn, reworking some of the terms of an anticapitalist politics derived from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. I was not persuaded that these essays into theory advanced the task that Gilbert set himself.

I didn't hear enough about war in this book. Neoliberalism itself, although well characterised, and the postcolonial "take" on 20th-century history, although duly noted, both emerge in a curiously pacified world. Unfortunately the flip side of this is that Gilbert's enthusiasm for mass movements as effective agents for anticapitalist change lacks an important historical realm of engagement - most places that have built socialism or communism in some form, whether widely acclaimed or merely self-validated, have done so out of the chaos and ruins of national liberation, civil wars, economic collapse, armed struggle and the like.

On the other hand, Gilbert comes out well in (nearly) predicting the current credit crunch and incipient global depression.

Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics

By Jeremy Gilbert. Berg, 224pp, £55.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9781845202293 and 2309. Published 1 September 2008

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