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Comments on Albena Azmanova’s book “Capitalism on edge”

Could anyone have imagined 10 years ago that a book written by a former anti-communist dissident who openly poses the question of overcoming capitalism would be translated in Romania? For more than 30 years, the public sphere in our country has been under the spell of a single mindset that is much more effective than the one before 1989: if the state ideology of the past was obviously and assumedly ideology, the post-December orthodoxy has imposed the (deeply ideological) idea of the inevitability and perenniality of the capitalist system as a fact so natural that only a fool would question it. Mere criticism of the increasingly devastating evils of capitalism continues to attract canonical references to the Gulag and North Korea. That’s why Maria Cernat and Alexandru Ionașcu’s translation comes as a breath of fresh air in a cultural climate still suffocated by capitalist ideology.

Albena Azmanova’s book is a clear, comprehensive and convincing x-ray not only of the evils of capitalism – from the precarious living standards of the working classes to the ecological catastrophe unfolding before our eyes – but also of the reasons why this system cannot be reformed. These flaws are not excesses that can be regulated, but the very logic of a system that puts profit above all else. We cannot ask the beast to deny its own nature.

Azmanova is equally persuasive in her lucid critique of the contemporary left, especially of a social democracy that has neo-liberalised to the point of defending the interests of capital more abjectly than the right itself. The quote from Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the US Democrats, is paradigmatic in this respect: “We are capitalists and that’s the way it is.” Here we see the main reason why it is the populist right, and not the left, that – at least in Europe – captures much of the popular anti-establishment anger: not because the left has abandoned the working class in favour of minority groups, but because it has abandoned the working class in favour of the capitalist class. The mainstream, reformist left has never retreated from the class struggle; it’s now just playing for the other team.

Less convincing is the author’s attempt to conceptualize the current state of capitalism, which she calls “capitalism of precarity” and which she claims has replaced neo-liberal capitalism. But precarity is a defining mark of neoliberalism. Whereas in post-war Keynesian capitalism, the economy was based on low unemployment, stable jobs and wages that grew in tandem with productivity, neo-liberalism has meant a more flexible labour market, stagnating real wages and the loss of social rights won at enormous sacrifice by previous generations. The precariousness described in the book, including its impact on the fighting power of the working classes, is the specific character of neo-liberalism. Moreover, all the other essential features of neo-liberalism (excessive financialization of the economy, privatization of public space and goods, outsourcing of state functions to private companies, etc.) have remained unchanged, despite the interventionist parenthesis during the first year of the pandemic. So Azmanova’s analytical distinction between neo-liberal capitalism and capitalism of precarity doesn’t hold much water. 

The most problematic part of the book, however, is the final chapter, in which the author sketches out in extremely generic terms how we might overcome capitalism gradually, in a piecemeal fashion, without the need for revolution or even an alternative societal project. All that is needed is the right policies to undermine the profit-oriented production that defines capitalism. But Azmanova ignores the elephant in the room: the question of power. Why would the capitalist class – which, by the author’s own admission, controls political decision-making power – accept policies that undermine its own social order? What ruling class, in Engels’ words, has ever willingly left the stage of history? Azmanova bizarrely avoids these crucial questions and, in general, the issue of organizing the social and political forces necessary for systemic change.

In sidestepping this question of power, overall, Azmanova does not make a distinct point at all. The contemporary left is full of voices that excellently identify the reasons why we need to get rid of capitalism, and even the basic elements of a post-capitalist society, but not how to achieve this transformation. Much of the left seems to live in total denial of the unyielding hostility with which the capitalist class and its allies would greet even the most timid effort at structural social change. Where, then, does this fear of openly raising the question of revolution come from, this reluctance to recover and campaign for the socialist project? From the very internalization of the dominant, right-wing narrative of revolution as a historical cataclysm that inevitably ends in terror and failure, and which must be avoided at all costs in the future. It’s a convenient caricature that of course elides the succession of revolutions, civil wars and extremely violent colonial conquests that have mired the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Still trying to run away from revolution and utopia, the left has come to believe in the utopia of reforming or overcoming capitalism by amicable, institutional means. The left must rid itself of this ideological ballast, of a historical guilt that does not belong to it, and rediscover the very things Azmanova says we don’t need: revolution and utopia.   

This article was originally published in Romanian here.

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