When I was a student, a horribly long time ago, one of my professors, the kind of person who was always intolerant of intellectual laziness, explained to us one day why the idea of an irresistible force meeting an immovable mass was rubbish. After all, he said, if a force was irresistible, then no mass could be immovable, and vice versa. I was impressed by this, and occasionally mention it to my own students.
Nonetheless, in vernacular speech we continue to use this expression to mean that something very powerful is about to collide with something very strong, and it is not obvious which will prevail. I was thinking of this, obscurely, while I was looking at the new book by Mark Fisher, which I mentioned in a post recently. The late lamented Fisher quoted Slavoj Zizek as saying that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than it was to imagine the end of capitalism. Now Zizek is not known for his sense of understatement, but there is some truth in the idea that capitalism has come, in a matter of a generation or so, to dominate the ideological space in a way nothing else has for hundreds of years. I suppose the last time anything similar happened was in the 17th century, before science has started to make too many inroads into religion. If you look at the, sermons of John Donne, for example, you can see a highly intelligent man struggling and failing to understand that there were some people who literally did not believe in a supernatural God. Similarly, after several centuries when different orthodoxies fought it out with each other, it is true that there is today no obvious articulated alternative to capitalism. And you find support and adulation of it wherever you go. This, if you like, is the immovable mass.
But it’s not immovable. I said above that there was no “articulated” alternative, but that’s not to say that people don’t hope and wish for a better system. It’s just that there is no single, powerful system of ideas to which they can turn. But recent history shows that there is a limit to how far you can simply ignore ordinary people. For all that the post-modern list theorists have done well to alert us to be importance of discourse, and for all that George Orwell said in 1984 about making certain thoughts unthinkable, in the end we do have emotions and thoughts and we do find an expression for them. In the absence of an articulated ideology, this tends to come out in a rather rough and undeveloped form. We have seen this in the case of Brexit, we have seen this in the case of Donald Trump, and will be seeing it again and again over the next few years. The absolute incapacity of ordinary people to accept capitalism as it now is, and to demand change, is, if you like, the irresistible force.
So what happens now? I think there are two basic possibilities. One is a kind of ginormous explosion, which may actually destroy the current political and economic system as we know it. I leave you to consider whether you think that would be a good idea or not. The other possibility, floated over the last few months and potentially very interesting, is what James Petras has called “nationalist capitalism”, which would be a kind of return to the period before the madness of neoliberalism, where protectionism and economic nationalism went hand in hand with more attention to the needs of ordinary people. Obviously, this could come in many varieties, some good, some bad. But when even the rich are beginning to realise that neoliberalism will eventually eat itself, then it may be but on this occasion it’s the irresistible force that wins, and not the immovable mass.