What is to be done?

By Dr Sophia Price, Head of Politics and International Relations at Leeds Beckett.


Marx’s adage ‘first as tragedy then as farce’ seems a fitting place to start on this bleak winter post-election morning. In Zizek’s (2009) book of the same name he notes Marx’s correction of Hegel’s idea “that history necessarily repeats itself”. “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy , the second time as farce” (Marx 1973 quoted in Zizek 2009). For Marx, this second comedic version would  mark the “last phase of a world-historical form”.

Scanning social media this morning, there are a wide range of memes and posts that relate our present moment to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. The similarities are evident:  the rise of extreme and violent social movements in the wake of international financial crisis and destabilising and polarising global forces. The tragedy of that moment is now matched by the absurdity of millionaire Donald Trump democratically elected as the antidote to elite power and working class disaffection. Some farce.


Of course the analysis of the shift to extreme, right wing politics (be it the election of Trump or the vote for Brexit) has to be located within the context of the global spread of neo-liberal capitalism in which free trade and the roll back of social protection and labour rights has intensified the competition between workers. In response the elective power of disaffected labour has proved decisive, and hailed as a protest against the forces of globalisation. However, paradoxically this is a protest vote for increasing the power of capital through the reduction of taxes, social provision and business legislation and a raft of other pro-business reforms.

It is important though that within this analysis we do not lose sight of the intersections of race, gender and class within these processes. Inequitable social relations based on race, gender, disability and sexuality are not the side show to capitalist class conflict, they are the arenas by which it is played out and mediated.  This not only explains the recourse to racialised or gendered ‘others’ in both the US election and UK referendum campaigns, be they refugee ‘swarms’, ‘bad hombres’ or ‘nasty women’, but also the attractiveness of these narratives beyond blue collar workers facing the harsh realities of global competitiveness. Donald Trump was not elected in spite of his racism and sexism, he was elected because of it.

This is not a semantic difference. Those waking this morning wondering what is to be done, need to properly locate race and gender within the analysis of class relations and contemporary capitalism that have provoked these social changes, in order to be able to formulate a viable, progressive and inclusive alternative.


Sophia’s most recent publication is in the Roundtable Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.

The Political Economy of Good Parenting – New Blog post

Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute has published a new blog on the ‘Political Economy of Good Parenting’ jointly authored by PAGE member Prof. Alex Nunn, alongside Dr Daniela Tepe-Belfrage (Sheffield) and Prof. Shirin Rai (Warwick).

An excerpt is below:

The political economy of ‘good parenting’

‘Good parenting’ is grounded in a white middle-class ideal of what the family is and thus shifts responsibility for nurturing from society to individuals, mostly women

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Daniela Tepe-Belfrage, Faculty Research Fellow, SPERI; Alex Nunn, Professor of Politics, Leeds Beckett University; & Shirin Rai, Professor of Politics & International Studies, University of Warwick

Family breakdown and poor parenting have hit the headlines in Britain in recent years as the proclaimed reasons for a large range of societal problems, from youth rioting to youth unemployment to teenage pregnancy.  According to the Home Office:

“There are a small number of families that can be described as ‘dysfunctional’. Two or three families and their wider network of contacts can create havoc on a housing estate or inner city neighbourhood.  It is always in areas of greatest disadvantage that this corrosive effect is seen and felt most clearly.  Sometimes it occurs where there has been considerable family breakdown; multiple partners can pass through the house; children do not have a positive role model; there is little in the way of a predictable orderly routine; and the lifestyle is such that it makes the lives of neighbours a complete misery.”

This thinking – socially conservative, hetero-normative and judgemental – culminates in the idea that these factors lie the root of a ‘Broken Britain’….

… click here to read the rest.

On the 165th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto

The unfinished business of the past

CC Image courtesy of adobe in chaos on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of adobe in chaos on Flickr

An anniversary can be recognized in many ways. One can approach it as a commemoration – a respectful, funereal recognition of the past; a corpse momentarily exhumed so old bones can be raked over and given their ritualistic due. The 165th anniversary of the publication of Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto should not be taken as an opportunity for such activity. The anniversary is more appropriately an occasion to recognize time in a different way: the anniversary is a timely reminder of the continued resonance of the deep-seated sense of preventable injustice that motivated the Manifesto. Though Capital has an undeserved reputation as an arid and scholastic tome it could not hope to match the raw passion of earlier work. The Manifesto, penned in 1848, shares with Engels’ 1844/45 The Condition of The Working Class in England a blunt simplicity that Marx subsequently recognized that their mature work, with its ‘academic scholarly reservations’, could not match. Just as importantly, The Manifesto is a signpost that Marx and Engels would ultimately transcend the quasi-satirical, partly internecine, and essentially petty critical discourse with the various strands of Young Hegelianism &c captured in the contemporaneous German Ideology. Works such as Saint Bruno or the Theses on Feuerbach may have marked them out as acute critics, but had they not made good on the implications of their critique, Marx & Engels’ would simply be a footnote to academic history rather than of real historical significance.            

Nor should it be forgotten that the Manifesto opens with an invitation to embrace the label of ‘communist’ by those who would see a different and better world. The opening paragraphs state that the powerful of the time used the word as a term of abuse, a disparagement, a ‘spectre’ to be feared. Marx & Engels wanted to clarify what a communist was and so claim the term in a positive way; they wanted it to be clear why a communist should be feared and by whom. A communist should be feared because s/he has a clear and trenchant critique of capitalism and a communist should be feared only by those who would prevent the building of a better world for the many by maintaining a world that served the few. The terrible manifestations of the Soviet Union and of the Peoples’ Republic of China have tended to obscure the significance of this commitment. It has been over-written by a bloody history. Yet defenders of capitalism differentiate its ideals and potentials from its Enrons and Lehmans, and defenders of religion differentiate the Crusades from the essence of the teachings of Jesus. The need for a trenchant critique of capitalism remains as relevant as ever, and the possibility of a better world for the many that rejects maintaining a world that serves the few should not be a source of embarrassment to its advocates. It links the Paris Commune of 1871 with the Occupy movements of today.

Marx & Engels’ most profound insight is that social reality is a dialectical process that can be expressed through a historical materialist perspective. The very basis of their approach recognizes that social reality changes in its parts and in its sum. As such, it would be a surprise if all of the Manifesto or all of Capital were relevant today. Class dynamics have changed, immiseration has not proceeded in the way foreseen, the superstructure has become more sophisticated, any possible tendency for the rate of profit to continually fall has been at least offset by other recognized features of capitalism… Yet capitalism has continued to construct exploitative labour relations that separate out people on the basis of class; it has continued its tendency to act like a virus and extend itself to all available geographical localities, shaping world markets and institutions through globalization; it has persisted in distorting the creative capacities of the human – transforming potentially life-enhancing technologies into aspects of commodity production and thus into means of subjugation in pursuit of profit; it has continued to create an ideological inversion where humans exist for the imperatives of the economy rather than the economy exist to meet human concerns… It has continued to embrace its own ideological disjunctions – articulating free markets but supporting a prison of corporate privileges – whether that be Big Pharma or banks that are Too Big to Fail; and capitalism has continued to offer the prospect of individual formal freedoms that its own collective consequences ensure can never become practical freedoms for all… And, perhaps most crucially, capitalism has remained prone to systemic crises that vilify its victims and valorise its villains. Here, we should not obsessively focus on what Marx & Engels’ got wrong but be surprised at just how much they got right, and just how relevant much of that remains…. It’s most provocative claim is still a begged question:

“In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation has cut off the supply of every means of subsistence, too much industry and commerce seems destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them…”

Still, one must wonder how the Manifesto and then Capital would be phrased and focused if they were written today. What material would they draw upon? Manchester would likely be replaced by Mumbai or Shenzhen. Global supply chains and plutonomy might be prominent issues, an ‘all that is solid melts into air’ would surely be the many and varied financial instruments of a modern finance system with its CDOs CDS and couldn’t care less… And if there was one thing that Marx & Engels’ would care about it would almost certainly be the environmental context of human existence. It is often neglected that Marx & Engels’ critique of religion and critique of capitalism were not based on a technocratic sense of a rational disembodied creature. They were too enlightened to be Enlightenment thinkers. Marx & Engels’ were keen to recover the Aristotelian spiritual essence of species being from both capitalism and religion: ‘giving back to man the substance he has lost through religion; not as divine but as human substance’. There is more to this than simply labour.

A modern Marx & Engels would likely be radical eco-global political economists, unemployable in any reputable university; which is not to suggest they would be inclined to think one might knit the way to freedom. Their credo would likely expand beyond: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win…” and it would almost certainly refer to wo/men not men, but I expect they would still be of the opinion that revolution and not reform was essential.