My critics make the following claims (Letters, 13 December 2007): 1. that my message to the left is that there is no chance of overcoming capitalism; all we can do is to ‘sit at home and watch the barbarity on television’; 2. that I advocate modest realistic demands rather than the pursuit of big impossible goals; 3. that in dismissing the Western democratic left, I support power-mad dictators like Chávez. That such mutually exclusive positions have been read into the same short text shows that I touched a nerve.
It is truly weird that David Graeber thinks my ‘real message’ is that ‘intellectuals have always been, and always must be, whores to power.’ On the contrary, isn’t it the advocates of resistance from the interstices of power, such as Simon Critchley, who claim that direct engagement with power turns intellectuals into whores? In my view, the withdrawal to such a safe moralising position is the highest form of corruption.
My opinion is that the left is not able to offer a true alternative to global capitalism. Yes, it is true that ‘capitalism will not be around for ever’ (it is the advocates of the new politics of resistance who think that capitalism and the democratic state are here to stay); it will not be able to cope with the antagonisms it produces. But there is a gap between this negative insight and a basic positive vision. I do not think that today’s candidates – the anti-globalisation movement etc – do the job.
So what are we to do? Everything possible (and impossible), just with a proper dose of modesty, avoiding moralising self-satisfaction. I am aware that when the left builds a protest movement, one should not measure its success by the degree to which its specific demands are met: more important than achieving the immediate target is the raising of critical awareness and finding new ways to organise. However, I don’t think this holds for protests against the war in Iraq, which fitted all too smoothly the space allotted to ‘democratic protests’ by the hegemonic state and ideological order. Which is why they did not, even minimally, scare those in power. Afterwards, both government and protesters felt smug, as if each side had succeeded in making its point.
Birkbeck, University of London