Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Driving into the night: traffic jams and tragedies, a literary approach

A bit off topic this. A quirky look at the tragedy of traffic jams by a good friend of mine:

By Owen Davies

`The dream of freedom can quickly sour to nightmare, as the defiant boast of the modern (`I take value from myself alone!’) dwindles into a cry of anguish (`I am so lonely in this universe!’).’

Terry Eagleton1

Social and economic science has long appropriated the literary form of tragedy as a metaphor to describe the traffic jam. However, I will argue, whilst the correct metaphor has been selected it has in fact been misappropriated due to a misunderstanding of what a tragedy in literature actually is. What they are describing equates to an all together different literary form.

This misappropriation has serious consequences in the field of policy. It leads to prescriptive, conservative policies which merely tinker with the problem or make it worse. They are either supply-side (more roads) that threaten accelerated environmental destruction or demand-side (road-pricing) that threaten the overnight ruination of huge swathes of the middle classes.

Terry Eagleton’s acclaimed and contemporary theory of tragedy outlined in his book Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic 2, I will argue, can give us insight into the modern phenomenon of the traffic jam where sociological and economic theories have often left us cold.

The idea here is that literature and literary theory has developed a better understanding of the relationship between agent and structure than the social sciences which have long been embroiled in an interminable debate between the advocates of agency and the champions of structure. 3

In literature, character and plot are dialectically related, identical opposites struggling with each other for resolution. An author or dramatist is well aware that only a certain kind of character will make the chosen plot work in the required way. Get it wrong and either the plot becomes unfeasible or the character unbelievable.

Before looking at Eagleton’s theory of the tragic I would outline two examples from sociology and economics that describe the `tragedy’ of the traffic jam.

In 1966, the economist Alfred Khan developed a thoroughly structuralist theory of the traffic jam which owed a great deal to game theory. 4 In Khan’s `tyranny of small decisions’ there is absolutely no room for human agency in establishing or escaping this tyranny. Khan’s theory can be applied to economics, war, in fact a great number of things. Khan applied it to the traffic jam using the withdrawal of train services in Ithica, New York as more and more took to the once empty roads, despite the fact that the majority claimed to want to keep them, as an example of such post hoc decision making.

Two years later came G. Harding’s influential 1968 paper `The Tragedy of the Commons’ which dealt with population.5 Simply stated, it is in the interests of say a group of goat-herders with common ownership of a piece of land to maintain a certain equilibrium in use of that land. However, as individuals it is in their interest to cram as many of their own goats on to the land as possible and, as they all do this, all the goats and subsequently they themselves, starve to death. The traffic jam is thought to be a par excellence modern example of such a tragedy whereby empty roads are soon utilised way beyond their capacity. Harding’s answer to the tragedy is a` fundamental extension of morality’ though it is not clear how this is to be achieved.

Both approaches are hyper-structural leaving little room for meaningful agency and so a more appropriate literary metaphor would be the farce where plot so dominates the characters that they might as well not be there. In farce, the dazzling logic of the plot renders the nature of the characters near meaningless.

At the heart of tragic drama is the hubris of the main character. A character with inflated, even arrogant pride and an overestimated sense of his or her own power. It is important that they are seen as the authors of their own downfall. Aristotle was one of the first and certainly the most influential thinkers to attempt a theoretical grasp of poetics and, of tragedy, he authoritatively declared that it can only depict those with power and high status. With the advent of modern democracy traditionalist thinkers, at least, have declared `the death of tragedy’. Eagleton shows this to be a type of hubris in its own right. Democracy is, after all, only a legitimising of differences, an acknowledgement that we all have different and opposed interests, a breeding ground for hubris if not of kings.

For Eagleton, explained playwright Howard Brenton in his review of Sweet Violence, `tragedy did not die in the 20th century, but mutated into modernism’. 7

Brenton further elucidates on Eagleton’s thinking: `There is a tragic predicament at the very centre of contemporary western culture.

`Hegel defends the Enlightenment with a theory of struggle between reason and what he calls ``the night of the world’’, the chaotic lava of hatred and irrationality within us which can destroy us and what we build, but which is nevertheless the source of enormous energy. For Hegel, our history is about our attempts to negate the destructive negativity of ``the night of the world’’, and turn it to productive thought and social construction.

`Eagleton finds this reinforced by Freud’s vision in Civilisation and Its Discontents in which the death instinct, Thanatos, struggles forever within us with Eros, love, the instinct to build and prosper. Our modern tragedy is that Eros makes us desire individual freedom against all else. But we have made a Faustian bargain with the extremes of the late capitalist world, in which freedom hovers over the nightmare of chaotic social breakdown: ``What if reaching for one’s own fulfilment is the crippling, betrayal and scapegoating of others . . ?’’.’

Where, in this modern world, could we find a better example of the urge to build and prosper coming into conflict with the death instinct than the traffic jam? Millions of people jump into their cars in the morning full of the desire to go out and make a living for themselves and their families and then sit alone for hours on end in a metal coffin vegetating away to the inane chatter of DJs. Having put in a hard day’s work they then climb back into their cars to waste even more precious time such that when they arrive home they find the whole purpose of their labours have either gone to bed or do not recognise them.

Obviously, somebody sitting moribund in their motionless vehicle is not exactly great drama but the consequential social and economic dislocation is, and tragic they are too.

And what of the Faustian bargain that led to this nightmare. The rise of the motor car was certainly not an example of Khan’s post hoc decision making resulting from small decisions but was a conscious effort by late capitalism to prolong its existence. The transport infrastructure was essential but unprofitable and operated by an increasingly well organised working class. In return for the undermining of public transport, particularly the railways, the carrot of leafy suburbs and the open road, a car owning democracy if you will, was dangled in front of the vain middle classes. Their weight was to be used to undermine the growing threat to the domination of the 20th century monopolies.

A massive programme of road building was swiftly followed by a ruinous programme of railway closures and the car was relentlessly sold as the ultimate commodity for the fetishist. Now you could live miles away from the polluted area you worked not to mention the hideous dwellings of the workers.

Every good tragedy is accompanied usually by violence and crime and often ends with everybody dieing. Whilst the social and economic dislocation caused by the traffic jam is tragic, the damage done to the environment is criminal. In escaping smaller pockets of pollution and heading for the suburbs the middle classes have succeeded only in turning pollution into a global phenomenon from which no one can escape. In literary terms that is known as ironic.

Social and economic scientists like Khan and Harding owe the genesis of their work to an observation by Aristotle from his writings on politics: `That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.’ 9

This has long been appropriated by neo-liberals as proof that if a thing cannot be privatised it is not worth bothering with or, if it is worth bothering with it must be privatised. So far efforts to privatise the global environment have failed therefore, it would surely be better if we took Aristotle’s words as a warning and stopped the long drive into `the night of the world’.

This is a discussion paper as opposed to a policy paper and so I will leave it at that. Suffice to say that I am not advocating some kind of neo-medievalism. In fact, it is only the incredible technological advances associated with the computer and the internet which allow us to travel virtually and arrive instantly that raises the possibility of a different approach.

Ultimately, however, changing the way people move is going to require a political rather than a technical solution. At the moment the traffic jam is a tragedy, let’s not make it a farce.

1. Terry Eagleton is currently Professor of Cultural Theory and John Rylands Fellow at University of Manchester.
2. (2002) Eagleton, T: Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, Blackwell.
3. Structuralism seems to be all about history mechanically arriving at system whilst post-structuralism is a purely political explanation of system.
4. Khan, Alfred E. (1966) The tyranny of small decisions: market failures, imperfections and the limits of economics. Kylos 19: 23-47.
5. Hardin, G. (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons, Science 162, 1243-1248.
6. The Death of Tragedy
7. Brenton H. (2002) The Guardian, September 21.
8. Ibid.
9. Aristotle Politics Book II.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Centrism and the Fourth International

By Leon Trotsky (1934)

(1) The events in Austria, after the events in Germany, place definitely a tombstone over “classic” reformism. Henceforth, only the obtuse leaders of English and American Trade Unionism, their French imitator, Jouhaux, Vandervelde, the president of the Second International, and similar specimens of the political ichthyosauri will venture to speak openly of a perspective of peaceful development and democratic reforms, etc. ... The majority of reformists now deliberately employ new colours. Reformism gives place to the innumerable shades of Centrism, which now, in the majority of countries, dominate the workers’ movement. Thus an absolutely new situation presents itself, in a way unprecedented, for work in the spirit of revolutionary Marxism (Bolshevism). The new International cannot form itself in any other way than that of struggle against centrism.

Ideological intransigence and flexible united front policy are, in these conditions, two weapons for attaining one and the same end.

(2) Above all a clear picture must be gained of the features most characteristic of present day centrists. It is not easy; firstly because centrism in view of its organic indefiniteness is difficult to define precisely, being characterized much more by what it lacks than by what it holds: Secondly, never has centrism reflected so many of the colours of the rainbow as now, for never before have the ranks of the workers been in such a ferment as now. The political fermentation from the very depths of its origin signifies a re-grouping, a displacement between the poles, reformism and Marxism, that is a passage through the many stages of centrism.

(3) Difficult as a general determination of centrism, which has always, necessarily, the character of a combination due to crisis- may be, one can and one must separate, all the same, the principle traits and peculiarities of the centrist groupings which are consequent upon the collapse of the 2nd and 3rd Internationals.

• In the sphere of theory centrism is impressionistic and eclectic. It shelters itself as much as possible from obligations in the matter of theory and is inclined (in words) to give preference to “revolutionary practice” over theory; without understanding that only Marxist theory can give to practice a revolutionary direction.

• In the sphere of ideology, centrism leads a parasitic existence: against revolutionary Marxists it repeats the old Menshevik arguments (those of Martev, Axelrod, and Plekanhov) generally without re-evaluating them: On the other hand it borrows its principle arguments against the “rights” from the Marxists, that is, above all, from the Bolshevik-Leninists, suppressing, however, the point of the criticisms, subtracting the practical conclusions and so robbing criticism of all object.

• Centrism voluntarily proclaims its hostility to reformism but it is silent about centrism more than that it thinks the very idea of centrism “obscure”, “arbitrary”, etc.: In other words centrism dislikes being called centrism.

• The centrist, never sure of his position and his methods, regards with detestation the revolutionary principle: State that which is; it inclines to substituting, in the place of political principles, personal combinations and petty organizational diplomacy.

• The centrist always remains in spiritual dependence upon right groupings, is induced to court the goodwill of the most moderate, to keep silent about their opportunist faults and to re-gild their actions before the workers.

• It is not a rare thing for the centrist to hide his own hybrid nature by calling out about the dangers of “sectarianism”; but by sectarianism he understands not a passivity of abstract propaganda (as is the way with the Bordiguists) but the anxious care for principle, the clarity of position, political consistency, definiteness in organization.

• Between the opportunist and the Marxist the centrist occupies a position which is, up to a certain point, analogous to that occupied by the petty bourgeois between the capitalist and the proletariat; he courts the approbation of the first and despises the second.

• On the international field the centrist distinguishes himself, if not his blindness, at least by his short-sightedness. He does not understand that one cannot build in the present period a national revolutionary party save as part of an international party; in the choice of his international allies the centrist is even less particular than in his own country.

• The centrist sees as outstanding in the policy of the CI only the “ultra-left” deviation; the adventurism, the putchism, and is in absolute ignorance of the opportunist right zigzags. (Kuomintang, Anglo-Russian Committee, pacifist foreign policy, anti-fascist bloc, etc.).

• The centrist swears by the policy of the united front as he empties it of its revolutionary content and transforms it from a tactical method into a highest principle.

• The centrist gladly appeals to pathetic moral lessons to hide his ideological emptiness, but he does not understand that revolutionary crisis can rest only on the ground of revolutionary doctrine and revolutionary policy.

• Under the pressure of circumstances the eclectic centrist is capable of accepting even extreme conclusions but only to repudiate them later in practise. Recognizing the dictatorship of the proletariat he leaves plenty of room for opportunist interpreters: Proclaiming the need for a fourth international he works for the creation of the two-and-a-half international.

(4) The worst model of centrism is the German group “New Beginning”.
Reporting superficially the Marxist criticism of referendism, it reaches the conclusion that all the proletarian calamities arise from splits and that salvation lies in the maintenance of the unity of the Social Democratic Party. The organizational discipline of Wells and Co. is placed by those gentlemen above the historic interests of the proletariat. And since Wells and Co. submit the party to the discipline of the bourgeoisie, the group “New Beginning” disguising itself with a left criticism stolen from the Marxists, is in fact, a mischievous agent of the bourgeois order, although an agent of the second degree.

(5) An attempt to create a common testing ground of eclectic centrists is constituted by what is called the London Bureau (now of Amsterdam) under a banner which attempts to unite these centrist groups, both right and left, which have not dared to choose definitely a direction and a banner. In this case as in the others the centrist attempts to lead the movement diagonally. The diverse elements which make up the bloc tend in opposite directions: The Norwegian Labor Party (NAP) goes discreetly towards the Second International, the Independent Labor party of England goes in part towards the Third and in part towards the Fourth International, the Dutch Independent Socialist Party (OSP) and the German Workers Party (SAP) move vacillating towards the Fourth International. Exploiting and conserving the ideological uncertainty of all its participants and seeking to oppose the work for the creation of the new International, the London Bureau plays a reactionary role. The collapse of this grouping is absolutely certain.

(6) The definition of the CI’s policy as bureaucratic centrism even to this day retains all its force. Only bureaucratic centrism is capable of continuous jumps from opportunist treason to ultra-left adventurism; only the powerful soviet bureaucracy could for ten years give an assured place to this melancholy policy of zigzag. Bureaucratic centrism, differing from the centrist groupings which spring from the social-democracy, is a product of the degeneracy of Bolshevism, retaining in the form of caricature, many of its features; still followed by an important number of revolutionary workers; controlling material means and extraordinary technique and in its political influence this variety of centrism is now the most inert, the most disorganizing, and the most pernicious. It is plain to all the world that the political collapse of the CI signifies the extreme decomposition of bureaucratic centrism. Our task in this sphere is to spring the best of its elements for the cause of the proletarian revolution. Side by side with untiring principled criticism, the main instruments which will permit use by us to the benefit of workers who still stand under the banner of the CI is the pushing forward of our ideas amongst the large masses, who in their overwhelming majority still hold apart from the influence of the CI.

(7) It is just now – when reformism is constrained to disavow itself, in cleaning itself into centrism or in taking on that appearance – that some groupings of left centrism, on the contrary, halt in their development, and even go back upon it. It seems to them that the reformists have already understood almost everything, that it is only necessary not to frighten them with extraordinary demands, criticism or extreme phraseology, and thus one will be able with a single blow to create a “revolutionary” mass party.

In fact, reformism’s renunciation of itself, made a necessity by the events, with a clean program, without a revolutionary tactic, is only capable of lulling to sleep the advanced workers, by suggesting to them the idea that the revolutionary re-birth of the party is nearly realized.

(8) For the revolutionary Marxist the struggle against reformism now changes itself almost completely into struggle against centrism. The mere empty opposing of legal struggle to illegal struggle, of peaceful means to violent, of democracy to dictatorship in the majority of cases now passes; for the frightened reformists, who must now disavow themselves, are ready to accept the most “revolutionary” of formulas, if only they are not obliged today to break with the hybridity, irresolution, “passivity” which are native to them. That is why the struggle against the hidden or masked opportunists must principally transport itself into the sphere of the practical conclusions from revolutionary promises.

Before taking seriously the fine words of the centrists concerning the “dictatorship of the proletariat” it is necessary to exact from them a serious defence against Fascism, a complete break with the bourgeoisie, the systematic building up of a workers’ militia, its training in a will to fight, the creation of inter-party defence centres, of anti-fascist main centres, the expulsion from their ranks of parliamentarians, trade-union bureaucrats and other traitors, of bourgeois lackeys, careerists, etc. ... It is precisely on this plane that one must now deliver the principle blows at centrism. For carrying out this work with success it is essential to have one’s hands free, which means not only maintaining complete organic independence, but also critical intransigence concerning the most “left” of the ramifications of centrism.

(9) The Bolshevik-Leninists of all countries must render to themselves the clearest accounts of the circumstances of the new stage of the struggle for the 4th International. The events in Austria and France give a powerful impulsion to the re-grouping in the revolutionary direction of the forces of the proletariat; but precisely the general substitution of centrism for reformism offers the development of a strong powerful attraction for the centrist groupings of the left (SAP, OSP) which even yesterday made ready to unite themselves to the Bolshevik-Leninists.

This dialectical process, viewed superficially, may give birth to the impression that the Marxist wing would from its beginning isolate itself from the masses. Profound error! The oscillations of centrism to right and left proceed from its very nature. We shall yet meet on our way some dozens or some hundreds of such episodes. To fear to go forward merely because the route is strewn with obstacles or because all our fellow marchers will not go the whole way with us would be most miserable cowardice.

When the new opportunist oscillations of our centrist allies show themselves to be conjunctural or organic (in fact they will have to be one or the other) the general conditions for the formation of the Fourth International upon the basis of true Bolshevism will have grown most favourable. The chase by the centrists of the “extreme right” of those who are plainly left, by those of the left, after those of the middle, those of the middle after those of the right,—a pursuit which resembled the efforts of a man to catch his own shadow—cannot create a permanent mass organization: The sad experience of the Independent Party of Germany (USP) even yet retains all its force. Under the pressure of events, with the help of our criticism and our slogans, the advanced workers will pass over the hesitations of the most left of the centrist leaders and, if it must be, even the leaders themselves.

On the road towards the new International the proletarian advance-guard will find no replies other than those already elaborated by the Bolshevik-Leninists on the basis of the international experience of ten years of uninterrupted theoretical and practical struggle.

(10) Our politics influence in the last year is considerably strengthened. We can, with relatively little delay, extend and develop our success by observing the following conditions:

Do not try to deceive the process of history; do not play hide and seek with the truth, but state what is.

Render yourself a theoretical balance sheet of all changes in the general situation, which in the present period often take the character of sharp turns.

Lend an attentive ear to what the masses are saying, without prejudice without illusions, without deceiving oneself; for upon the basis of a correct appreciation of the relation of forces within the proletariat avoiding as much for opportunism as for adventurism, leading the masses forward but not holding them back.

Each day and each hour say clearly to yourself what must be the next practical step; untiringly prepare this step, and upon the basis of living experience explain to the workers the principle difference from Bolshevism of all the other parties and tendencies.

Do not confuse the actual tasks of the united front with the fundamental historic task: The creation of new parties and of the new International.

For a practical demand do not disdain even the weakest of allies.
Follow with a critical eye the most “left” ally as if a possible adversary.

Conduct yourself with the greatest attentiveness towards these groupings which actually tend towards us; lend a patient and attentive ear to their criticisms, to their doubts, to their hesitations; help their evolution towards Marxism; do not fear their caprices, their threats, their ultimatums (the centrists are always capricious and susceptible); do not make any concession of principle to them.

Yet, once again: Do not fear to state that which is.