Age of Extremes ends in 1991 with a panorama of global landslide—the collapse of Golden Age hopes for world social improvement. What do you see as the major developments in world history since then?
I see five main changes. First, the shift of the economic centre of the world from the North Atlantic to South and East Asia. This was beginning in Japan in the seventies and eighties, but the rise of China from the nineties has made a real difference. Secondly, of course, the worldwide crisis of capitalism, which we had been predicting, but which nevertheless took a long time to occur. Third, the clamorous failure of the us attempt at a solo world hegemony after 2001—and it has very visibly failed. Fourth, the emergence of the new bloc of developing countries as a political entity—the brics—had not taken place when I wrote Age of Extremes. And fifth, the erosion and systematic weakening of the authority of states: of national states within their territories, and in large parts of the world, of any kind of effective state authority. It might have been predictable, but it has accelerated to an extent that I would not have expected.
I never cease to be surprised at the sheer lunacy of the neocon project, which not merely pretended that America was the future, but even thought it had formulated a strategy and tactics for achieving this end. As far as I can see, in rational terms, they didn’t have a coherent strategy. Second—much smaller, but significant—the revival of piracy, which we had largely forgotten about; that is new. And the third, which is even more local: the collapse of the cp1(m) in West Bengal, which I really wouldn’t have expected. Prakash Karat, the cpi(m) general secretary, recently told me that in West Bengal, they felt themselves beleaguered and besieged. They look forward to doing very badly against this new Congress in the local elections. This after governing as a national party, as it were, for thirty years. The industrialization policy, taking land away from the peasants, had a very bad effect, and was clearly a mistake. I can see that, like all such surviving left-wing governments, they had to accommodate economic development, including private development, and so it seemed natural for them to develop a strong industrial base. But it does seem slightly surprising that it should have led to such a dramatic turn-around.
Can you envisage any political recomposition of what was once the working class?
Not in traditional form. Marx was undoubtedly right in predicting the formation of major class parties at a certain stage of industrialization. But these parties, if they were successful, were operating not purely as working-class parties: if they wanted to extend beyond a narrow class, they did so as people’s parties, structured around an organization invented by and for the purposes of the working class. Even so, there were limits to class consciousness. In Britain, the Labour Party never got beyond 50 per cent of the vote. The same is true in Italy, where the pci was much more of a people’s party. In France, the left was based on a relatively weak working class, but one which happened to be politically reinforced by the great revolutionary tradition, of which it managed to make itself the essential successor—and that gave it and the left far more leverage.
The decline of the manual working class in industry does seem terminal. There are, or will be, plenty of people left doing manual work, and defence of their conditions remains a major task for all left governments. But it can no longer be the principal foundation of their hopes: they no longer have, even in theory, political potential, because they lack the potential for organization of the old working class. There have been three other major negative developments. One is, of course, xenophobia—which, for most of the working class is, as Bebel once put it, ‘the socialism of fools’: safeguard my job against people who are competing with me. The weaker the labour movement is, the more xenophobia appeals. Second, a lot of manual labour and work in what the British Civil Service used to call ‘minor and manipulative grades’ is not permanent, it’s temporary: students or migrants, working in catering, for instance. And therefore it’s not easy to see it as potentially organizable. The only readily organizable form of that kind of labour is that employed by public authorities, and this is because those authorities are politically vulnerable.
The third and most important development, in my view, is the growing divide produced by a new class criterion—namely, passing examinations in schools and universities as an entry ticket into jobs. This is, if you like, meritocracy; but it is measured, institutionalized and mediated by educational systems. What this has done is to divert class consciousness from opposition to employers to opposition to toffs of one kind or another—intellectuals, liberal elites, people who are putting it over on us. America is a standard example of this, but it’s not absent in the uk, if you look at the British press. The fact that, increasingly, getting a PhD or at least being a postgraduate also gives you a better chance of getting millions complicates the situation a bit.