Saturday, October 12, 2013

Some impromptu thoughts on left unity in the US

I'm thinking out loud here. Feel free to tell me where I'm off my rocker. I'm interested in working some things out and I welcome debate and disagreement about what I say below.

The organized socialist left in the United States is quite small. Despite the profound, far-reaching social and economic turbulence caused by the financial meltdown, the US left did not experienced a massive swell in its ranks over the past 5 years. To be sure, the left has grown both qualitatively and quantitatively. Important struggles such as occupy, the Wisconsin capitol occupation, the Chicago Teachers strike, the ongoing Fight for 15 and Our Walmart struggle have all brought new layers of people into the orbit of the socialist left, on the one hand, and have provided socialist activists with valuable movement experience.

But although some growth certainly occurred, it was not nearly as substantial as I and many other leftists imagined it would be. Relative to the tasks we face, the socialist left is nowhere near the size it needs to be.

Despite the fact that polls consistently show that majorities of young people (ages 18-30) look more favorably on socialism than capitalism, socialist organizations in the US are largely invisible. I would wager that 19 out of 20 US workers have never even heard of any of the organized socialist groups in the US. It's not that they're inveterate right-wingers. The problem is worse than that: most workers don't even know we exist. We presently lack the public visibility and membership numbers that would enable us to break into public conversations on a mass scale. In an important sense, our ideas have yet to even get a hearing among the vast majority of workers.

Worse still, the socialist left is arguably more isolated from the working class than it has been in recent memorythe only historical analogy I can think of is the 1950s following McCarthyism. There are encouraging counter-examples to this overall trend, but the big picture here is not a pretty one: most workers---even most union workersdo not regularly encounter organized socialists or their ideas.

Now, I don't need to tell you that it's not all our fault that this is the case. Objective obstacles to the growth of the left abound. It's important to be clear about what those obstacles are and analyze them carefully. But all I want to do here is focus on the subjective sidein particular on one way that we, socialists, can try to change this frustrating state of affairs. I don't purport to have lighted upon a magic bullet that will end our relative isolation from workers. But in what follows I hope my reflections might prove useful in stimulating broader discussion.

It's not for nothing that ideas of "re-groupment" and "left unity" have begun to surface among a number of disparate left groups in the last year (e.g. here, here, here, here.) This trend, I take it, is directly tied to the problem we identified above: the scale of attacks on our class continues to escalate and large sections of the population say they're open to left ideas, but yet socialist organizations remain marginalized and largely invisible to the majority of the working class population. The basic argument for any form of re-groupment or left unity is simple: in an effort to overcome its marginalization the socialist left should cooperate and combine efforts.

At this level of generality, I find it hard to see how anyone could possibly reject this argument. The devil, however, is in the details: what would left cooperation or unity mean in practice? And exactly what should left groups collaborate to do, practically speaking? These are important questions that don't get solved by regroupment or unity—they must be worked out before any kind of regroupment or unity would make sense. Although it's a touch artificial, let us divide practical action into two categories: political and economic.

On the question of political/electoral action, there are profoundly different ideas among existing groups. Groups like CPUSA, Committees of Correspondence, DSA, "soft" FRSO and others (at present) seem to think that the goal should be to try to push the Democratic Party leftward through entryism or primary challenges. All of these groups are, to varying degrees, committed to building social movements, but when the question of the Democratic Party arises they have all traditionally showed a strong tendency to opt for the "lesser evil" when it comes down to it.

On the other hand, there's a large number of groups with very different politics (ranging from Stalinist and Maoist to varieties of Trotskyism) that all oppose the Democratic Party and argue that some sort of independent left political action is needed to carry the struggle forward. The largest and most well-known among these groups in the US is without doubt the ISO. These organizations also support building movements (although they differ about how to do that), but what sets them apart from the CPUSA cluster is that they are unwilling to accept the logic of "lesser evilism". In one way or another, they think that a break with the Democrats is a starting point for building the left.

On the "economic" question of building the labor movement, there is also disagreement. There are radically different ideas among socialists about how to rebuild a fighting labor movement. The ISO and Solidarity stand for the "rank-and-file strategy" of building democratic, militant caucuses of workers in the unions who can organize against the boss on the job and, when necessary, catch the existing union leadership in the cross fire of the class struggle and force them to fight or out themselves as sell-outs. Other groups stand for a more "permeationist" strategy of simply finding a way to get more socialists in staff positions, the better to steer unions in a progressive direction from above. Others take the "lesser-evilist" logic into the economic sphere and defend existing union leadership come what may, on the grounds that they are better than the bosses and that the labor movement is too embattled for internal criticism to be productive. Still others abstractly reject all of the existing trade unions and argue for exclusively building separate, radical unions. One also finds uneven and mixed combinations of all the above.

Now, that's a lot of practical, strategic heterogeneity and it's unclear how it could provide the basis for unified action among leftists. I don't mean to suggest that this renders the goal of left unity worthless. But it does show that every socialist group in the US could combine into one party tomorrow and we would be no closer to answering the question of what to do next. There are no shortcuts here.

What this suggests to me is that talk of left unity must be as concrete as possible if it is to be useful. Instead of jumping right to the question of combining organizations, we need to first of all discuss concrete practical collaboration among organizations on a case-by-case basis. This isn't easy to pull off, and there are certainly no short cuts.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that there's some low-hanging fruit to be snagged here. There's space in movement work for more collaboration, coordination and pooling of experience and resources. If different left groups always aim to carve out separate spheres of influence by staking out "turf" in different movements, that might benefit them in terms of competing with other left groups but it makes it far less likely that we'll start winning any of these struggles.

There is also, it seems to me, no defensible reason why politically similar Trotskyist organizations should be running candidates against one another in local elections. Instead of using elections as a straight-forward sectarian party-building maneuver, these organizations should work together to field left candidates that might actually get a hearing and project socialist demands to a wider audience. We can't just will into existence an American SYRIZA, but we can take steps toward building something like it if we reject the kind of sectarianism that leads groups to compete and attack one another for non-political reasons that ultimately benefit no one.

Unity, it seems to me, should be sought on the electoral front on the basis of shared commitments to practical platforms, not consensus on the class nature of the USSR or one's analysis of the Cuban Revolution. Elections are expensive and require a lot of time and energy. By and large, it doesn't make sense for any socialist organization to go it alone here, unless they are comfortable with being irrelevant for all time.

There are bigger questions lurking here about how wide a net independent left candidates should cast, how broad their demands should be, etc. But I see no principled reason why we couldn't figure out those questions together on the basis of a political commitment to the idea that it is mutually advantageous for socialists to cooperate on campaigns to overcome their marginalization. Again, we won't ever achieve this until it is identified publicly as a valuable goal.

A key to unity is that there must be trust built up among organizations who, for too long, have related to on another in a purely competitive, mutually suspicious way. We would also be naive to think that these fraught relationships are purely politicalthere are likely many personal reasons why certain people and the organizations they represent dislike and distrust one another. Careful, patient work will need to be done to change the dynamic here, and unfortunately it won't be entirely politicalsome of it will require building trust by creating less shrill, more friendly habits of communication among different groups.

A challenge here is that often the relation between different socialist groups is mediated by the leaderships of those groups. There are, in some ways, good reasons for this, and in a genuinely democratic group there isn't, in principle, any reason why inter-organization collaboration shouldn't be mainly facilitated by communication among leaders. Still, be that as it may, the sorry state of the US left and the scale of the challenges we face require dynamic and creative new approaches here. Members of socialist groups can't sit around and wait for unity to be brokered from above by the elected leaders of their organization. In many cases, leaders have more reason (because of their extensive experience interacting with other groups in ways that involved conflict, etc.) to hold grudges and resist cooperation than do most rank-and-file members. And it is no doubt true that some small sects probably have self-important leaders whose position as big fish in a small pond would be threatened by unity with other organizations.

There seems to me an important role that rank-and-file members can play in helping to build more left unity and cooperation on a political basis. First of all, members of different organizations can try to interact with one another in movements directly and help to change the culture of distrust and sectarianism. Second, I think it could be positive to simply have members of different groups (who, nonetheless, have similar politics and a shared strategic orientation around certain struggles) speaking to one another and talking politics more often. I myself have considered trying to reach out to members of other organizations with similar politics just to pick their brains about why there isn't more collaboration. In a sense, I feel that this sort of thing is implicitly, unintentionally discouraged, but it shouldn't be.

The importance of this kind of interaction shouldn't be overstated, but neither should it be dismissed as irrelevant. Building trust and rapport is a key part of overcoming unprincipled sectarianism rooted in personalistic conflicts and histories of competition.

Another thing that we can do to build more practically-minded unity among socialists would be to try harder to adhere to the following principle: the sectarianism of others is not an excuse for being sectarian oneself. It's tempting to take any sectarian swipe at one's organization as a license to respond in kind, but this is not always sound politics. The tit-for-tat just reproduces a dynamic the left has internalized from decades of decline. It's not that there shouldn't be sharp debates among us—but more often than not these debates are needlessly polemical and uncomradely.

Sectarianism isn't simply a subjective problem, of course. The current state of the left is such that sectarianism can appear both rational and strategically prudent for many small groups. The situation is such that many small groups don't want to be the one to opt out of sectarianism completely because they can't be assured that others will do the same.

But this can't go on forever. It bears repeating: the left is marginal and this sort of unprincipled, unnecessary competition perpetuates this state of affairs. In this context, larger, more influential groups have an obligation to rise above some of the squabbling initiated by small sects who seem to stake their entire existence on trolling other socialists. They have the power and influence to set a better example that could lay the groundwork for increased collaboration.

In this same vein, socialist groupsespecially the biggest, most influential among them, such as the ISOcould help this process along by talking about the political value of left collaboration and unity more often. As it stands, it is not obvious enough that this is a goal that most groups share. But we can't expect much progress on something if it isn't explicitly identified as an objective.

There have been some encouraging developments worth noting that we should build on and try to generalize more intentionally. For example, the ISO worked with others to form a socialist contingent at the 2009 AFL-CIO march in Washington. The Eco-Socialist events on the East and West Coasts have drawn the support and participation of a number of groups. There seems to be growing willingness among left organizations to coalesce around the inspiring local campaigns being led by Socialist Alternative in Minneapolis, Boston and Seattlee.g. it seems that Socialist Action, a small Trotskyist formation, has agreed to formally endorse all of the SA candidates. There needs to be more of this in the short run. And in the long run, even more collaborative efforts should be pursued that involve cooperation beforehand about what campaigns to run, etc.

If there's to be any left unity or regroupment, it seems to me that it should occur on two different levels. First, there is space for groups with similar politics, practices, and traditions to combine efforts into single organizations. On the face of it, for instance, there is far more shared ground between ex-IS groups like the ISO and Solidarity than there is disagreement. Of course, unity can't be forged abstractly---it will have to be built up gradually through positive experiences of collaborating on practical projects. Nonetheless, it seems crucial that a discussion about the desire for unity be opened up so that the groups can, at least, be clear about where they'd like to be and why. This is but one example and I'm sure there are others.

Aside from more specific regroupments, as above, there is also room for increased collaboration and unity among groups with very different politics in movements, electoral efforts and, perhaps, for certain sorts of propagandizing as well (I know this violates the strictures of the "united front" strategy, but I don't think it should be off the table when we're talking about the organized socialist left, provided that propaganda is broad and demands-based, e.g. "tax the rich", "no to austerity", etc.). Why not, for example, a slate of left candidates who run at the state or local level on a platform that could secure the assent of wide layers of the socialist left? This won't ever become a possibility until we start talking about it and why it might be desirable in principle. To dismiss it out of hand as a pipe dream is not hard-headed materialist analysis but idealism, for it denies that our present sense of what's possible is, in fact, one of the material/practical obstacles to such an endeavor.

Some have argued that left unity and/or regroupment could help the left break into public debates more because it would pool financial resources. Now, what I've said above should make clear that things are not quite as simple as how to find the most efficient technical means of building the left. There are disagreements about what the left should do and how it should act in the world on a number of fronts. We can't very well pool resources if it's unclear what those resources would be used to do.

Nonetheless, this argument shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. We have to keep in mind that in capitalist society, money matters and opens many doors. With more money, left organizations could hire more paid organizers, promote their online presence, revamp their websites, print publications and pamphlets, produce video content, finance electoral campaigns, purchase advertisement space, get TV and radio airtime, etc. etc.

This isn't a silver-bullet for political success, but these things could make a huge difference in terms of getting the ideas out there. It's therefore worth keeping in mind that left unity carries a potentially important reward. This doesn't make the practical task of building cooperation easier, but it does sweeten the deal for all parties involved and could, if more openly praised as a potential benefit, be a good motivator get to groups to talk to one another in good faith. When someone says that left unity is too much trouble to be worth it, the costs need to be weighed against the potential benefits which include much larger financial power.

Nothing would be gained by rolling groups as different as CPUSA and the ISO into one organization. The results would likely be disastrous and utterly incoherent practically. But we socialists can't be comfortable with how things are. The status quo sucks and we can't sit around and wait with the expectation that it will gradually improve and our small organization will end up winning the "race" and becoming the next Bolshevik party.

We need to have principled networks of activists who participate in sharp debates about socialist theory and practicethat needn't be discarded in favor of some left unity melting pot. But socialist organizations of every stripe must become more serious, more vocal, and more committed to the non-sectarian goal of re-building the left in general in the US. Because right now we're all suffering from the fact that the left is largely invisible.

I think we also need to acknowledge that what kept the left alive in dark timesI'm thinking especially of the Reagan yearsis definitely not going to be what carries it forward to new heights. Necessary though those routines and habits may have been at that time, they aren't going to be what catapults us into garnering a mass following. We'll need to be creative, dynamic, and willing to take risks if we're going to grow and overcome marginalization.

The patient, methodical work of building movements and recruiting key militants to the long-term goal of revolutionary change should remain a key part of the work that socialist organizations undertake. But, at the same time, we need to be able to step back and ask the big questions with courage. I'm sick and tired of how marginal the left is in the United States. Part of that is beyond our control. But surely there is no fundamental reason why big groups like the ISO as well as smaller organizations like, say, Solidarity, Socialist Action and Socialist Alternative should be isolated from one another, divided, and competing. I'm interested in thinking about what it would mean to build a serious, tightly organized socialist organization that could include all of these comrades, sustain certain differences of opinion, and nonetheless still act in the world in a unified way.

I'm also interested in thinking about how socialist organizations with little in common politically could collaborate more in movements and in electoral efforts. There is surely some kind of platforme.g. tax the rich, end the warswhich could win the assent of virtually all socialist organizations. What about some sort of public campaign to project those demands into the public realm and mark them as socialist to stimulate interest and debate around left-wing ideas and organizations? I'm no idealistI don't think that joint propaganda is fundamentally what causes societies (or consciousness, for that matter) to change. But it matters. One of the biggest challenges is that socialist ideas don't even get a hearing.

To be sure, for left ideas to really grip people, it must seem to them that it is possible to put them into practice successfullyhence the need to build the movements as a way of creating a larger sea in which the left can swim and grow. Consciousness primarily changes through struggle. But I don't think we want to endorse some kind of wooden, un-dialectical stagism about how things must proceed. There is clearly a role that wider dissemination of socialist ideas and demands can play in radicalizing people and building the movements and the left in general.

To sum up: abstract unity is clearly neither possible nor useful. But there is way more space for collaboration and unity than there is actual collaboration and unity on the US left. If I had to reduce my argument to a slogan, it would be: collaboration and unity wherever and whenever it makes sense. It can and must happen on a variety of fronts: in movements, on electoral campaigns, organizational reroupment, propaganda, etc. There is no shortcut, but we can't move things forward until it is explicitly identified as a goal by the most important, influential socialist groups in the US.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Few Notes on Austerity

There's no doubt that the global economic crisis has precipitated a wave of austerity measures across Europe and North America. As banking crises mutated into sovereign debt crises, austerity has been forced upon working people from California to Catalonia. In "peripheral" European economies, the continued existence of the welfare state---a virtually unchallenged feature of the political landscape for at least a generation---is by no means assured. That wasn't the case before the crisis.

In the United States, we have not faced austerity drives as severe as those faced by the Greek working class, but we are still witnessing historic, unprecedented attacks on basic social programs at the federal level, combined with deep cuts and anti-labor restructuring at the city and state levels.

This would make it easy to think that austerity is a relatively new development---an outgrowth of the crisis that began with the collapse of big banks in late 2007. That, however, would be a mistake, and it's worth reviewing why.

The politics of austerity dates all the way back to the origins of neoliberalism in the early 1970s.  David Harvey's account of this is process is as good as any. He argues that the post-war Keynesian consensus breaks down after stagflation and global recession set in by the early 70s. The fiscal and monetary policies that had prevailed a generation were no longer capable of restoring profitability to a world economy that was in protracted crisis. After a number of fits and starts, a strategy for restoring profits began to emerge.

This new strategy involved, first of all, breaking the power of organized labor in order to push labor costs down, reduce the number of strikes, and drastically speed up production on the shop floor. It also involved eliminating all barriers to the flow of capital across the globe---a move which opened up huge pools of the global industrial reserve army to corporations in core capitalist economies. The rest of the neoliberal package is well-known: deregulation, big tax cuts for business, drastic reductions in social spending, privatization, an emphasis on reducing inflation rather than aiming at full employment, and so forth. These policies weren't confined to specific countries, but were implemented on a global scale---from Deng's China to Thatcher's Britain to Pinochet's Chile. We could continue, but you get the point.

What this makes clear is that austerity has been a permanent feature of the neoliberal era. It has been ratcheted up ten-fold as a result of the crisis, but it is not a new development. The idea that austerity produces growth is a cornerstone of neoliberalism which, although new cracks in the edifice emerge every day, remains the default theory and practice of capitalist states across the globe.

The fact is that the working class all over the globe has, by and large, been enduring austerity for more than 40 years. It has by no means been a one-note symphony---it has varied in form and intensity in different times and places. But austerity is definitely the word we should use to describe the punishing "shock therapy" applied to Russia after the collapse of the USSR as well as to the brutal regimes of "structural adjustment" forced upon Africa, Latin America and elsewhere during the 80s and 90s. (I note, in passing, that Egypt, now the site of intense social struggles with global ramifications, was the first country in the world to undergo IMF-imposed structural adjustment). The same goes for developments in Europe and the US---think, for instance, of Clinton's decision to "end welfare as we know it".

This has important ramifications for understanding social struggles in the context of the current crisis. There have been a number of fights against austerity all over the world since the crisis began. But they have not yet been able to turn the tide. This is, to be sure, a frustrating fact that the left has to soberly assess, but it is less depressing when we keep in mind that we aren't simply organizing against a policy---austerity---that began with the financial meltdown in 2007/08. We are pushing up against a ruling class offensive that has dominated world economic and political affairs for more than four decades. During that time---especially during the "irrationally exuberant", triumphalist years of the 1990s---neoliberalism was, as Perry Anderson put it, on pace to become the most successful ideological/political movement in the history of the planet---more so than any of the major world religions. To expect, as many leftists did, that all of that momentum could be shattered by a few flare-ups of militant class struggle was unreasonable, to say the least.  

This should not be cause for pessimism. Sure, it's true that the left is not on the offensive and it's undeniable that the working class is taking it on the chin all over the globe. But that has been an enduring feature of the whole neoliberal period. What's different about where are today is that the neoliberal configuration is experiencing a deep, protracted internal crisis. This crisis is both structural as well as ideological. Structurally, there is not yet a clear path out of the stagnation and anemic growth brought on by the Great Recession. Overproduction on a world scale and sovereign debt crises in Europe remain unresolved, although temporary solutions have been found. Ideologically, neoliberalism is no longer the ascendant, up-up-and-away set of ideas it was in the mid 1990s. By now, an entire generation has lost confidence in the absurd technophilic triumphalism that underpinned the internet boom of the late 90s. Growing numbers of people see that the notion of the "free market" has always been a facade for the socialization of costs and the privatization of profits. Young people today in the United States say that they look more favorably on "socialism" (49%, according to a recent Pew Poll) than "capitalism" (46%). In 2012, the number one, most highly-searched word on Miriam Webster's website was "socialism". It is by no means unambiguous what these figures mean---or what the participants understand the word "socialism" to mean---but they do show, at the very least, that growing numbers of people are interested in systemic alternatives to what they see around them. We can imagine their reasoning going something like this: if capitalism means war, ecological disaster, insecurity and economic crisis, then it's opposite---socialism---can't be all bad. It stands to reason that the politics of socialism-from-below will continue to be best placed to appeal to young, newly radicalizing people who are unlikely to be inspired by the grey bureaucratic domination of Stalinism and its progeny.

In the United States, we've seen no shortage of resistance---think of Wisconsin, Occupy, the wave of protests against the murder of Trayvon Martin, the successful teachers' strike in Chicago, and so forth. The last four decades have left the labor movement and the left in shambles. Many have no direct memory of what mass movements look like. It is inevitable, therefore, that the first flashpoints in the growing resistance to neoliberalism will be works in progress. A collective learning process will have to occur within the working class whereby it re-gains, by means of these struggles, some of the confidence and militancy that has been shattered by a 40 year class war from above.

This won't happen overnight. But there is more space to build this fight now than there has been in a generation. What looked unassailable 10 years ago is now vulnerable and open to a challenge from below. The future is uncertain, but the potential to re-bulid the left is greater today than it has been since the demise of the movements of the 60s. We should be sober about what has happened since the crisis broke in late '07. But we should not lose sight of the fact that there is an opening today that did not exist for decades. We have to keep that in mind when soberly assessing recent defeats and setbacks in the class struggle.


Monday, February 11, 2013

What do Union Density Figures Actually Mean?

What do union density statistics actually mean? To what extent can we draw sweeping conclusions about our present political period from them?

Union density measures the percentage of the work force that is unionized. Recently, new figures came out which indicate that union density in the United States recently reached a 95-year low point. It would be easy to hastily conclude from this (admittedly depressing) statistic that things are getting progressively worse for the workers movement in the US.

As Chris Maisano at Jacobin has convincingly argued, however, that would be a grave mistake. Increasing union density does not necessarily translate into increasing workers power, and declining union membership does not entail a one-to-one decline in workers power. After all, much depends upon the extent to which rank-and-file workers are organized and activated within the union, among other factors (both subjective and objective).

Consider the example of the Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU has had tens of thousands of members for decades. But only recently has the union been transformed by its members into a rank-and-file-led vehicle that can wield the strike weapon to defend public education. In fact, during the last 10 years, the city of Chicago has closed a number of schools and I would wager that the CTU’s membership declined as a result. But in this case, figures about declining membership hardly mean that the CTU was on the road to decline, veering ever closer to disaster. The result is this: despite the fact that union density in Chicago public education fallen over the last 10 years, the prospect today for a upsurge in rank-and-file-led, social movement unionism among teachers is favorable.

Or, consider an example that Maisano discusses in his piece, namely the fact that union density in France is only 8%---much lower than in the United States. Despite this fact, the French workers movement is in many ways ahead of its American counterpart. The French left has greater implantation in the trade union movement and workers there are often more likely to employ militant tactics, disruptive forms of protest, and so on. But you wouldn’t necessarily know this from keeping tabs on union density figures.

Consider another of Maisano's examples: New York State, which has extremely high union density figures---23% overall and more than 70% in the public sector. Despite these impressive figures, public sector workers have been forced by Gov. Cuomo (D) to accept concession after concession. This should lead us to ask: what will it take to transform these unions into organs of struggle for their workers and what role can we play in making that a reality? I fail to see how a schematic narrative about terminal decline---grounded on a faulty interpretation of the significance of union density figures---gives us any traction here. A far more fruitful approach would be to look at what militant teachers in the CTU did and try to generalize lessons for the left and for the labor movement writ large.

One more example. As Steve Early discusses in his excellent book Civil Wars in US Labor (Haymarket Books: 2011), SEIU added thousands upon thousands of members in the 1990s and early 2000’s. Now you might think that this entailed a general upswing in workers power and class consciousness. You’d be wrong. As Early shows in the book, much of that growth in union density was built on an edifice top-down business-unionism and aggressive pro-Democrat electioneering.

Yet, in spite of declining union density because of public sector layoffs, the prospects today for a working-class fightback are far greater than they were during the early 2000’s. Again, we see that the meaning of union density statistics is hardly as obvious as some leftists would have us believe. The real problems are more complex and abstract hand-wringing about declining union membership does little more than paper over them and encourage an unjustifiable pessimism about what's possible today.

Without struggle the labor movement withers on the vine. There are no irreversible gains in the class struggle. When militant action from below declines, so does the energy that enables the labor movement to tread water (let alone advance forward). Conditions today are making workers more and more open to militant, disruptive tactics (such as illegal strikes and sit-downs and all the rest) as well as radical politics. That won't erase overnight the lacerations of 40 years of class war from above. But it's reason to think that there is more possibility today for working class struggle than there has been in decades. 


Monday, December 10, 2012

Marxism, Exploitation and Racial Oppression

OK, so here are a couple of half-baked thoughts regarding how best to think about racial oppression within a Marxist theoretical framework. I want to focus in particular on the strengths---and the limits---of the concept of exploitation in explaining the oppression of Black people in the contemporary US. What follows is a bit stream-of-consciousness and for that I apologize. Comments, criticisms, questions, and objections are welcome.

We can begin by noting that all workers under capitalism are exploited. Marxism gives us a technical way of understanding exploitation in terms of surplus value extracted from workers by capitalists. We needn't go through the technical details, however, to the get basic gist of the argument. All we basically need to say is that if you're a worker, what your employer pays you in wages is less than the amount of value you're expected to produce on the job---otherwise your employer wouldn't bother employing you in the first place. As Iris Marion Young puts it (summarizing C.B. MacPherson's account), workers are exploited in the sense that, under capitalism, they "exercise their capacities under the control, according to the purposes, and for the benefit of other people", namely the owners of capital.

On this model both black and white workers in a racist society---such as the US---are exploited. But black people are subjected to racial oppression whereas white workers are not. Does the Marxist concept of exploitation explain the difference?

Only partially. It is clear that colonialism and slavery---both central to understanding the origins of modern racism---were exploitative processes undertaken to enrich colonizers and slaveowners. The contemporary prison-industrial complex exhibits many of the same exploitative arrangements. We might also add that mortgage and banking practices have, for decades, through a number of different processes, ruthlessly exploited Black people by preying on their vulnerable position as a racially oppressed group.

And it is also no doubt true that, in general and as a group, Black workers in the contemporary US are subject to more intense exploitation than their white working-class counterparts---this is what is usually called "super-exploitation." The basic idea is that Black workers are subjected to the "standard" levels of exploitation as are all workers in the US, but because they are Black their employers are able to leverage racism to pay them even less and work them even harder than their white counterparts.

Still, despite the centrality of the concept of exploitation to any adequate understanding of racial oppression, it is not clear that the concept explains oppression without remainder. Although it is necessary to explain the oppression of Black people in a racist society, it is also insufficient. Oppression is a complex phenomenon that includes social processes, structures and ideological formations not captured by the mere concept of exploitation alone.

This fact---the fact that the concept of exploitation alone is insufficient to fully explain racial oppression---has led some to conclude that Marxism is simply incapable of giving a satisfying, robust, comprehensive account of racism. It is this conclusion that I would like to challenge here.

I'll begin by expressing skepticism that Marxists concerned to explain racial oppression have any reason to confine themselves to the use of the concept of exploitation alone. To be sure, exploitation has played a prominent role in the Marxist analysis---as well it should, given the important examples we examined above. But, apart from the concept of exploitation and its role in explaining the accumulation of profit---as well as the "super profits" obtained via extra-economic coercion as in slavery and colonialism---Marxists have also made regular use of concepts like oppression, domination as well as the notion of a "ruling class", all of which carry within them complaints against class societies that exceed the complaint that they are exploitative.

After all, a "ruling class" is a class that not only exploits, but one that stands above and dominates those over whom it rules. To be sure, there is a clear causal connection between the facts that a ruling class both rules and exploits---but it remains true that ruling and exploiting are, materially speaking, distinct activities. Apart from being exploited, workers are also dominated in at least two senses: they are both subject to the arbitrary will of a particular capitalist in the workplace and subject to the coercive institutions of the capitalist state. That is to say, apart from being subject to surplus-value extraction, workers are also subject to an institutional power structure---which includes state as well as non-state institutions---that is neither under their collective control nor designed to further their interests.

What the above shows is Marxists also see class relations as power relations whereby one class dominates the others and forces them to submit to social structures that are alien to their interests and beyond their control. This makes clear that Marxists have, in addition to their interest in exploitation, always had interrelated interests in questions of power, domination and political rule as well. So, the dynamics of racial oppression that have to do with the dialectics of power and powerlessness are hardly unintelligible from the Marxist point of view. They can be fruitfully analyzed in terms of social domination, understood as a materially structured relation of power in which one group subjects another to its will. Exploitation, though important, has never been the only tune in the Marxist repertoire.

Let us return more explicitly to racial oppression. Although oppression clearly involves exploitation as well as social domination, we might think that these two concepts still leave us with some unexplained remainders. Take the problem of marginalization, which is in a way the opposite of exploitation. Marginalization is, after all, precisely the condition of being excluded from---among other things---the dynamics of capitalist exploitation. As Iris Young describes it, "increasingly in the US racial oppression occurs in the form of marginalization rather than exploitation. Marginals are people the system of labor cannot or will not use... there is a growing class of people permanently confined to lives of social marginality, most of whom are racially marked." As she describes it, "marginalization... involves a whole category of people who are expelled from useful participation in social life and thus potentially subjected to severe material deprivation and even extermination." Marginalization is in many ways the central theme of Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow---and it is also the best concept available to explain the geographical dimensions of oppression that confine many Black people to urban ghettos and shut them out of the formal economy and mainsream social institutions.

Now, Young doesn't dispute the claim that workers are exploited or that many Black workers are super-exploited. The point, rather, is that, almost by definition, to be marginalized is to suffer a form of oppression that cannot be explained by the bare concept of exploitation.

Fortunately, as we've already seen, Marxists have never tried to understand societies in terms of the bare concept of exploitation alone. Though it is central to their analysis, they have always---at least when they're at their best---thought of capitalist social formations as totalities, marked by internal contradictions, structured around the dynamics of capital accumulation, ideological formations and social struggle. Exploitation is one central part of that analysis, but the capitalist system itself is much more complicated than the antagonism between capital and wage labor at the site of production. The Marxist analysis draws the whole web of relations and social processes within its scope and systematically looks at how they function within the material structure of the system. So, there is no reason to assume that Marxism can't make sense of marginalization.

In fact, I highly doubt that we can genuinely understand the political-economic and geographical processes that produce marginalization---of a particularly racist kind---without the tools of contemporary Marxism, which give us an angle on the dynamics of profit, the balance of social forces, the function of the state, and so on. I would think that the sort of political-economic analysis of housing, suburbanization and urban deindustrialization of the sort put forward by David Harvey would need to be part of any fruitful analysis of racial marginalization in the contemporary US. This analysis gives us a critical angle on the scaffolding or, if you like, the racist infrastructure within which abandonment, social/economic exclusion, disenfranchisement, criminalization and so on flourish. I would also think that Marx's analysis of the "industrial reserve army" would be a part of the story as well, although I for one think contemporary Marxists should simply discard his notion of the "lumpenproletariat".

Still, we might think that exploitation, domination and marginalization still don't fully explain racial oppression as it exists today. We might think that there is yet more to be explained---for example, we might think that the problems of cultural imperialism, on the one hand, and violence, on the other, are features of oppression that are not themselves exhausted by an examination of exploitation, domination or marginalization. Cultural imperialism and violence are surely related to those other processes, but they aren't therefore identical with them, so there's still something left to be explained. Is it true that Marxists cannot make sense of these two dynamics without giving up their overall theoretical and practical framework?

I don't think so. Before I say why I think Marxism gives us (arguably) the best critical angle on these dimensions of oppression, let me say a little bit about what they are first. Cultural imperialism has to do with oppressed groups who are, in a one-sided way, subjected to representations, ideas and so on which are alien---and usually hostile to---that group's own self-image, culture, and so on. In Europe, this might take the form of designating as "civilized" and "universal" certain traditional European practices and branding everything else---especially non-European practices---as "other", beyond the pale, "deviant", dangerous, savage, pre-modern, barbaric, particularistic, and so on. A contemporary US example of cultural imperialism that involves anti-Black racism might include any of the various ways in which "Blackness" is devalued and coded as "deviant", inferior, dangerous, criminal, delinquent, ugly, animalistic, "other", low, and so on. "Black is beautiful" was (and in many ways still is) a radical slogan precisely because of the forms of oppression in involved in cultural imperialism. One result is that groups deemed "deviant", inferior, and so on---such as Black people in the contemporary US---are under, among other things, strong pressure to assimilate and renounce their own background as a condition of "success". Groups that are systematically subjected to these interpretations, representations, and meanings are clearly oppressed.

If cultural imperialism is a somewhat complex phenomenon, however, then violence as a form of oppression is relatively straightforward. Black people in the US are systematically liable to be violently harassed, attacked, imprisoned or killed---just because they're Black. The systemic problem of police brutality is only the tip of the iceberg. This is as clear a case of oppression as there is. But does Marxism overlook this dimension of racial oppression? And can Marxism give us a convincing analysis of cultural imperialism?

Let us begin with the problem of racist violence. Marxism seems to me to give us a powerful structural analysis of racial violence inasmuch as it offers us an internationalist approach---which makes clear the role that imperialism plays---as well as a compelling theory of the State. The racist violence and physical abuse meted out by the state---whether by police, prison guards or other officials---is best explained, it seems to me, by the Marxist theory of the state. And I would argue that the international violence against non-white peoples abroad is best understood in terms of the dynamics of imperialism and global political economy. What about vigilante violence? Although technically non-State, I think it should still understood in relation to the forms of State violence we just mentioned. The State has always played a role---whether de jure or de facto, direct or indirect---in lynchings and other forms of violent racist terrorism. Racist violence is never simply a matter of individual hatred or evil persons---it is a social pathology that, like rape, must be understood politically in relation to the material structure of society.

But what about cultural imperialism? On the face of it, this is the aspect of racial oppression least amenable to a Marxist critique. But this conclusion would be hasty. There is, after all, a rich tradition of cultural criticism associated with the Marxist tradition---including figures such as Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, Terry Eagleton, Lukacs, Gramsci, among many others---which begins from the fact that culture is always embedded in material structures that are, at once, political, economic and social. To make sense of cultural imperialism in particular, however, I would use the Marxist concept of ideology, much in the way radical philosopher Tommie Shelby has done. Shelby sees racist images, symbols, ideas and so on as ideologies which stabilize and legitimate racial oppression. This is a big topic, but one thing to say here is that the major means of interpretation, communication and cultural production are under the control of dominant groups, so it's unsurprising, then, that the dominant ideas, cultural products, images, and so on tend to reflect the interests of those groups, rather than the interests of the oppressed. Moreover, oppressed groups---inasmuch as they're oppressed---usually have a hard time changing dominant ideas and images, which can make oppression self-reinforcing in certain respects. That doesn't mean that oppressed groups don't resist these ideas and images---on the contrary, the Black cultural tradition in the US is thoroughly political and, almost without exception, involves a wealth of different modes of resistance against the injuries of racism. But it does mean that dominant representations tend to be imposed on them from above rather than organically produced from below.

Also, I want to point out that---and this is surely a strength of the dialectical structure of Marxism as a theory---all of the features of oppression we've been discussing---violence, cultural imperialism, powerlessness, exploitation and marginalization---are hardly autonomous, separate and fully independent of one another. These "five faces" of oppression, as Iris Young describes them, are all, materially speaking, interwoven and interrelated in real social life. So, any assessment of the strength of Marxism as a means of making sense of cultural imperialism has to take into account that, in addition to drawing on the tradition of Ideologiekritik, it will also draw on the salience of other processes---exploitation, domination, marginalization, etc.---that play a role in the production and reproduction of cultural imperialism.

This is probably as good a place as any to stop for now. I hope I've shown that the Marxist analysis is far more sophisticated and richer than is usually supposed. As I say, this is all very provisional and I'm open to comments, criticism, objections and so on.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Not voting Obama--And it has nothing to do with privilege

One of the most upsetting arguments I've heard this election season (well, the most upsetting not to come from the right), is that those who don't vote Democrat this election are exercising some sort of identity-related privilege in not doing so. Most disturbing, is that this argument has not just come from the usual tepid liberals, but from those who might call themselves leftists, from those who, in their usual, non-election season, non-swing state personas would probably be the first to call Obama a one percenter, or maybe even a war criminal.

So, if my Asian immigrant, male comrade, with no job and tens of thousands of dollars in student debt makes the case for not voting for the lesser of two evils, it's not out of a principled political position, but because he has the male privilege not to have to care about what happens to his reproductive rights.

And if I, a white woman with a low-income job, whose reproductive rights are under immediate threat, discuss my decision to vote for a third party candidate, then this is because I have the straight privilege to not have to worry about marriage rights. Or, perhaps it's because I have health insurance and don't have to worry about what Romney would do to the health insurance industry.

"Surely," this argument seems to imply, "if you had it bad like me, or bad like them, you'd share my politics."

This tortured reasoning came out in Mother Jones about a week ago, as the writer directs an absolute stomach-churning screed against radicals:

In some cases not choosing the trod foot may bring us all closer to that unbearable amputation. Or maybe it's that the people in question won't be the ones to suffer, because their finances, health care, educational access, and so forth are not at stake.
An undocumented immigrant writes me, "The Democratic Party is not our friend: it is the only party we can negotiate with." Or as a Nevada activist friend put it, "Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don't vote or whatever, but those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it matters."
I want to try to get past the incredibly asshole-ish tone of the piece (you'll see what I mean, if you read more than just that tid bit; she actually calls this left-wing voter suppression) and finally unpack this argument, because it's now the fourth time I've had it directed at me or a friend in the past months.

Here are a few of the wrong assumptions this argument rests on. I'm going to start with the least serious and work my way to the most serious:

Assumption #1: That the reason any progressive would disagree with the progressive-in-question's political assessment must always be his/her identity.

The absurdity of this assumption, of course, is demonstrated by the scenarios I laid out to start about how the argument shifts and transforms based on who the person is who doesn't want to vote Obama. If, by definition, not voting for the democrats is looked at as a privileged position, then you'll always be able to find out what privilege it is that any person who doesn't vote Dem has and chalk up the decision to that.

There's no real way to disprove privilege in this case either, since, within privilege theory, it's the ability to engage in privileged behaviors that classifies you as privileged. So, no matter how disadvantaged I am, and no matter how much that informs my political consciousness, I can never convince a person I am leading with my sense of disadvantage, rather than privilege. Once you've made the conversation about identity, there is no way for ANY person to win the debate and defend themselves against this charge, which should lead us to suspect that maybe this has nothing to do with identity at all!

People with a very diverse set of privileges and disadvantages have a diverse number of political positions on this election. So, let's go ahead and say things are more complicated than that and actually engage the political questions, shall we?

Assumption #2: That privilege theory itself would condemn the person not voting Obama rather than the person voting for Obama.

I don't usually go in for this reasoning, because of point 1. This is a good way of proving nothing, dodging political questions, and, in a way, moralizing people into your viewpoint, rather than genuinely winning them to it. But, it should be noted that I could easily turn the logic of privilege back on the Obama voter by bringing in the greatest possible degradations created by Obama policies, and fault them for having too much privilege to care about this degradation. For instance, I might suggest that someone only supports a president who drone bombs innocent children in Pakistan, because they have the privilege of not being one of those children. Once we've reached this point, how can they possibly defend themselves against the charge that they are indeed more privileged than these children? They can't.

"Okay, drone bombing is bad, and that's something we need Obama to stop, but--but--" No. No buts about it. By their own logic, which said, no matter what valid complaints we might share about Obama's policies, nothing excuses the privileged move of letting less privileged people suffer (an assumption we'll get to in a second), because of my privileged political complaints.

It's not such fun territory to be in, is it? Like I said, I wouldn't go down this path for real because it's an irrefutable, accusatory, and moralistic path to go down. But, sometimes bringing this possible route up to your accuser might at least help to shake them of this certainty that everyone who disagrees with them has simply failed to consider the stakes involved.

Assumption #3: That voting for Democrats is a practical way of helping the disadvantaged.

Phew. I'm glad we finally progressed to the point where we can address the actual political reasoning behind not voting for Obama. This is the big, incredibly important assumption that these privilege arguments seem to rest on. Now, I know our Mother Jones writer assures us she knows everything it is we "privileged" leftists have to say about Obama. Yeah, yeah, she insists, she and the other Obama apologists know this stuff too! You don't have to keep "leftsplaining" about drone bombs and attacks on civil liberties and such.

Well, apparently we do. Because this is one you don't hear us on. Let me be clear.

Not voting for Obama is not just a symbolic move, or a decision I make to reinforce my sense of moral superiority. It is a protest against a party that causes great harm, that crushes and paralyzes mass social movements, thus keeping in place a system that has devastated nations, the earth, and countless individuals on a daily basis, that prevents the turning of the political tide to a different world. It is a protest against a two-party system that will continue killing and destroying lives unless we, a mass of people, stand against this sham masquerading as democracy.

The Democratic party does not protect my reproductive rights. Its failure to protect those rights is a direct cause of the ease with which the right could go on a full-force offensive against them over the last two years, and of my inability to actually access or afford many reproductive services even now (because of restrictions and economic inequality they don't even pretend to want to address).

The Democratic party will not give us federal gay marriage. The Democratic party will not protect social security or medicare or any other of these important programs the working-class in this country has won. We may get those things, and it may be while Democrats are in office, or it may be while Republicans are in office. But they will have come from mass movements that force the parties into these concessions, not from the parties themselves. Parties don't give us things out of kindness; they give them when they are demanded. And what pressure do the Democrats have on them to give us anything when they know that no matter who they drone bomb and how often, or how much money they redistribute to the 1%, progressives will vote for them loyally, as long as the Republicans exist?

So, these progressives can go ahead and vote Democrat. I'm not going to assume they do so out of privilege, but because we have a legitimate debate about how change will occur and about the fundamental nature of the Democratic party.

In truth, I live in a swing state, and I'm tired of talking about it. I don't think it's the most pressing question of our time (or even near the top). Building the mass movements that move the world is at the top of my agenda. And so, whatever will bring you back to those movements as soon as possible, is what I advocate that you do.  So, let me simply end with this note a friend of mine posted online after social networks exploded with ranting and raving about last night's debate:
Will you join my N7 movement?

It's actually not a new one, but an age-old one rebranded for right here, right now. The November 7 movement, that is. The people who recognize that on the day after the US election, no matter who wins, the social, political, and economic inequalities we are fighting against will continue to exist...and the solution will continue to be grassroots organizing against these representatives of the 1%. 

60-100 or so schools will still be on the chopping block in Chicago. Palestine will still be under occupation. Unions will still be in decline and under attack, even though union jobs are better-paying and more secure jobs. Brown and Black people, LGTBQ people, anyone who is marginalized and oppressed, will still be seen as less than normal, less than equal, and will face direct and indirect targeting. Women will still have legal abortion rights but limited access--and all of those issues which are inseparable from women's rights (jobs, health care, education, wars, poverty, etc.) will continue to be devastating the lives of women. And on and on.

You want to put aside your reservations and vote Obama because Romney is so #@!#$ right-wing? Well ok, I get it. But join the N7 movement, too. Because we can't be blackmailed like this again, and again, and again, and again...


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Some Posts on Election 2012

Here are a couple of posts on election 2012 that may be of interest, given that the corporate media's obsession with "the most important election of our time" is in high gear.

First, here is a post that diagnoses a general attitude of "wishful thinking" that the Democrats cynically encourage (the better to exploit at election time) among people who want to see progressive changes. The occasion for the post was Obama's executive order re: immigration, but this is hardly the only example of this problem.

Next, here is a post asking the question "do the 2012 elections matter?". My answer is, basically, no they don't. Of course they "matter" in some minimal sense---but measured against where we are and where we could easily be with the aid of mass direct action and struggle, the elections are of little importance. Should Obama be re-elected, we will immediately be confronted with all the same questions we're confronted with now: how can we organize to stop austerity, how can we stop imperialism abroad, how can we fight to beat the New Jim Crow, how can we re-build a fighting labor movement, how can we win genuine health reform that works for the 99% rather than the 1% insurers, how can we stop environmental destruction and end off-shore drilling, etc. etc.

Then, there's two posts (one, two) which attacks the elections as "non-political". It's not just that I reject the narrow "political" options on offer. I make the stronger claim that the election itself---dominated as it is by a two-party duopoly whose wide area of agreement pales in comparison to their disagreements---is one of the least political things happening right now in our country. So, contra anarchists who oppose certain forms of "politics" on principle, I argue, instead that the working class absolutely should have a political and not simply an economic/industrial strategy. But for a political strategy to be "political" in any meaningful sense, it has to actually stand the chance of seriously changing the status quo and opening up the possibility of winning reforms. The presidential election does no such thing---hence I polemically attack it as "non political". What's political is what's happening with warehouse workers, with what happened with the teachers strike, with occupy, with anti police brutality struggles and all the rest. The success or failure of those movements is infinitely more important---and more political---than the narrow electioneering PR fight between two parties struggling to better represent the 1%.

Finally, I'll throw out a post on what I call "PR politics". This is the conception of politics that we see in much of the consensus for-profit media. It equates politics as such with "rooting" for one or other of the two sanctioned teams, standing on the sidelines, and internalizing the campaign's narrow PR strategies. It equates politics with horse-races and participation with cheering and strategizing from the sidelines. This demobilizes people and encourages them to adapt to their surroundings rather than change them. No reforms were ever won in this way---all of them, without exception, were won because mass independent movements acted outside the electoral arena to pressure those in power to act.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

That's right. You'd better be scared—and you'd better be prepared to give up everything to get Obama re-elected. Ryan is an Ayn Rand fanatic and he has an evil vision for America that threatens to roll back every single progressive gain in our history. The only way to avert complete disaster is to silence every conceivable criticism of Obama and the Democrats, ignore everything they've done for the past four years, forget about everything going on around us, and go all-out to campaign to stop Romney/Ryan from winning in November.

Well, that's what Obama and the Democrats want you to think, anyway. But how much of it should we actually take seriously?

Now, don't get me wrong. I do think that Paul Ryan is awful. I have nothing but scorn for everything he stands for—more on that in a minute. But why does that admission mean that I should give the Democrats a free-pass, drink the Kool-Aid and engage in a long list of delusions—that Obama and the Democrats will fight the Right, that they'll pass progressive reforms, etc.?

If liberals are right to strongly oppose what Ryan stands for, they'd do well to oppose those same stands when—which is often—Obama and the Democrats take them. Let's do a little compare and contrast.

Here's a paraphrase of what has to say about Ryan in a Facebook meme that you may have seen:
  • His economic plan would cost Americans 1 million jobs in the first year alone. 
  • He'd slash and burn Medicare and Social Security.
  • He'd cut taxes for the 1% and raise them for working-class and poor people. And meanwhile he'd give subsidies to big corporations.
  • He's an anti-choice extremist. 
  • He takes lots of money from the 1%. 
  • He opposes LGBT equality. 
Now, of course, all of these measures serve the interests of the 1% at the expense of the rest of us. Broadly speaking they are strong stands in favor of austerity and maintaining existing forms of oppression.

But the bait-and-switch here is to insinuate—as surely intends to do—that Obama and the Democrats stand for the opposite of every one of these measures. If only it were true.

First of all, the Democrats and the Obama Whitehouse are highly tolerant of soaring unemployment for the 99%. The fact is that the Democrats are hypocrites on outsourcing and unemployment. Since 2008, Obama and the Democrats have presided over an economy enduring extremely high unemployment—especially high in communities of color—and they took no bold measures to do anything about it except a weak-sauce stimulus package which, besides being weighted heavily in the direction of corporate tax breaks, had already run out of steam by mid 2010. It was like getting a band-aid for a broken limb.

Or take Social Security and Medicare. According to Obama himself, "Democrats do not receive enough credit for their willingness to accept cuts in Medicare and Social Security". Or consider that Obama's failed "grand bargain" in 2009 included a willingness to simply take Medicare away from 65 and 66 year old Americans. Or consider that Obamacare includes a series of cuts to Medicare totalling nearly $500 billion over the course of several years. Or consider that Obama himself—and other high-ranking Democrats—have on more than one occasion broached the idea of privatizing Social Security. A staunch defender of Medicare and Social Security Obama is not. Both Obama and Ryan are of one mind about austerity—their only disagreement is about how deep to cut the social safety net. 

Or take the issue of tax breaks for the rich. As everyone knows, Obama campaigned in 2008 promising to let the Bush tax cuts expire for the rich. But as President he and the congressional Democrats warmly embraced those tax breaks and extended them--making them the Obama Tax Cuts for the rich. Of course, liberals haven't bothered to rename them. It is well-known that raising the marginal tax rate on the 1% would be both highly popular and an easy way of saving public sector jobs and staving off the push for austerity. But the Democrats and Obama have no intention of doing any such thing.

Why not? One reason is that the Democrats—like Ryan and Romney—take loads of money from the 1%, if they're not outright members of the 1% themselves. Recall that in 2008, the Democrats pulled in the lion's share of corporate campaign donations—they were, as the LA Times put it, "Wall Street's Darlings". As is well-known, the 1% hedges its bets and always gives enormous sums to both parties. There's a lot of alarmist nonsense floating around in liberal circles these days about how Super-PAC's are funnelling lots of money to Republicans—as if the Democrats are some kind of grassroots underdog that operates on online donations or something. The fact is that the ruling class spends enormous sums on the campaigns of both parties, and the politics of both parties reflects that fact. It takes considerable chutzpah to uncritically support the Democratic Party, on the one hand, and complain hysterically about the corporate money accepted by Republicans on the other.

Now, it is true that Obama and some Democrats are not the out-in-the-open anti-choice, homophobic extremists that the Republicans are. But that doesn't mean that they are allies in the fight for women's rights and LGBT equality. At best, they slowly erode gains on those fronts and compromise with the Right. At worst, they propose many of the same policies as the Right—think of the Stupak amendment, for example. But we can't afford to passively support an entity which barely holds the line, at best, and pushes things backwards at worst. The only time that the Democrats move at all on women's rights or LGBT equality is when movements pressure them to act. We should devote all of our time, money, resources and political energies to those movements—not the Democrats—if we want to carry those struggles forward.

And think of all the things that meme didn't mention. They might have said that Ryan also supports war and imperialism abroad. But, of course, so does Obama. They might have also said that he supports the destruction of the environment, offshore drilling, and the appointment of high-ranking corporate polluters to regulatory positions in government. But, then, so does Obama. To this we could add other abominations such as the "War on Drugs", the New Jim Crow, the mass deportation of Latin@s, corporatized education policy, keeping Gitmo open for business, and all the rest. And, of course, Obama supports all those things as well. It doesn't do any good to pretend that this isn't so.

So, where does this leave us? We need to build the social movements, participate in the struggles of the 99% and be part of constructing a new Left that can actually fight for our interests. This isn't a new idea. It's how every single major progressive gain was won. Again and again we've seen that the Democrats are a political black hole. They suffocate struggles rather than carry them forward. They take and take and give nothing back in return. The time to cut them loose is now.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Recycled Posts

Here are a couple of recycled posts from the archives that might be of interest:

A critical analysis of nostalgia film. 
What's the point of education supposed to be, anyway? 
On the politics of black vernacular speech. 
A withering critique of "sociobiology". 
A compare and contrast of Hegel and Marx's ways of thinking about freedom.
Trotsky and Luxemburg on political organization and tactics
Marx's critique of what he called "crude communism". 
On the importance of movement democracy
The politics of Paul Simon's "Graceland" on its 25th anniversary. 
 Is there a right to private property? No, as it turns out.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"The Exhaustion of Utopian Energies"

This phrase--repeated rather often in certain left-academic circles--was coined by Jurgen Habermas in 1990. It is often cited as a definitive statement that the "old Left" ideas of class struggle, emancipation, socialism, and so on are no longer viable. Those ideas--inspiring though they may be in the abstract--have lost their pull and can no longer be an effective political force in contemporary capitalist societies (or, as they are more often called by theorists who run in these circles: "post-Fordist societies", "post-industrial societies", etc.).

I'd just like to offer a few reasons why I think this phrase is bullshit.

First, it makes it sound as though the "utopian energies" of the radical Left simply gave up the fight and ran out of steam on their own. It makes it seem as if radical social transformation was just an idea some of us had that became exhausted because of some fault internal to the idea. It makes it sound like the Left just threw in the towel sometime in the 1980s and 90s because it's ideas "lacked energy".

Now, of course, it's not false to say that the 1980s and 90s were generally speaking rather dark decades for the Left. But it's absurd to say that they were dark simply because certain ideas--of revolution, of class struggle, etc.--simply lost their luster and became "exhausted". That lets the capitalist system and the ruling class off the hook. Materialist histories of neoliberalism--David Harvey's is generally quite good, but there are plenty of others--explain rather clearly why this narrative doesn't hold water.

Also, Habermas might as well have called much of the post-War era one in which "utopian energies" were exhausted, inasmuch as capitalism was booming and the radical Left was far weaker on the whole than it had been in the inter-war period. And, of course, during this time the real Left was marginalized by the hegemony of Stalinism internationally. And, as we know, plenty of people did at this time proclaim the "end of ideology", the emergence of a "post-industrial society", and all the rest. There was a sense that capitalism was "fixed" by technocratic Keynesian counter-cyclical maneuvers, and many proclaimed the radical Left moribund. Then they were caught off guard in the 1960s when class struggle exploded on a mass scale. The same mistake was made by those who bought into the big lie that "there is no alternative" in 1989.

This brings me to the second reason why this phrase should be tossed in the dustbin of history. As anyone who has a pulse has surely noticed, the last two years have been packed full of episodes of escalating global struggle. From Tahrir to Athens, from Spain to Mexico, from Quebec to the Occupy movement, and so on and so forth, there has been an explosion of social struggle all over the world on a scale unwitnessed in the last 30 years. It doesn't mean a victory for the Left is inevitable. Nor does it mean a defeat for neoliberalism is sure to follow. But it does mean--beyond the shadow a doubt--that the Left has an audience and that the opportunities for renewal and growth are bigger now than they have been for a generation.

In this context, only the most out-of-touch, ahitorical cynic could still rationally cling to the analysis that the "exhaustion of utopian energies" limits the horizon of what's possible for the Left.

Third, I don't share Habermas's despair at the events of 1989--they were a deliverance from a repressive system that held back workers struggles and strangled the Left. On this question, Alex Callinicos's The Revenge of History is a must-read. The uprisings of 1989 briefly offered the possibility for new forms of struggle, but they were quickly crushed under the boot of neoliberalism from above administered by Washington. The badness of neoliberalism, however, does not imply anything good about the repressive, state-capitalist formations that fell in 1989. There was nothing "utopian" about them--they were top-down, bureaucratic formations that were locked into international competition with advanced capitalist nations. For most of the Left, they had long since ceased to be a source of renewal and inspiration. 1989, then, wasn't a surprise blow to a glowing beacon of Leftist hope, but rather the predictable collapse of an exploitative system under its own weight.

Yet Habermas claims that this event signals a defeat for Marxism as such. This is nothing but Cold War propaganda. It implies that Stalinism and Marxism are synonymous and papers over the long, well-established Left tradition that opposed those societies from the late 1920s onward. Strangely, Habermas and the Frankfurt School were part of that tradition who proclaimed "neither Moscow nor Washington!", so I find it baffling that Habermas could act so forlorn when Stalinism collapsed when it did. In retrospect, he would have to agree that he was being pulled along by the general ideological distortion of the age--namely the narrative for which Fukuyama became famous which posited an "end of history" and a perpetual present of neoliberal capitalism.

Finally, as Habermas himself argued in earlier work, it isn't quite right to call the radical Left "utopian". He himself opposed "Utopian socialism" for all the right reasons in the 60s and 70s: because it's elitist, because it rejects workers self-emancipation and struggle, because it is unconnected to a critical sociology of the present, etc.

But seen from the present, the only genuinely utopian aspect of Habermas's 1990 proclamation is the idea that neoliberal capitalism can persist forever. That idea--not the idea that we can radically change society--is what's incredibly unrealistic. I hesitate to say that "TINA" is exhausted, but it's clearly panting heavily under a great deal of stress. Most of the Left is eager to deliver a knock-out blow to that dogma in a context where youth the world over seem to be unshackled by it. In this context, repeating this mantra of the "exhaustion of Utopian energies" does nothing except out oneself as out of sync with contemporary events.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Ecology, Technological Innovation, and Capitalism

There is a common neoliberal dogma about technological innovation which teaches us that the "dynamism" of "competitive markets" is inherently creative and innovative, whereas any alternative necessarily stymies "progress". Given the ubiquity of this dogma--propagated by Democrats as often as Republicans--it's unsurprising that it is also billed as the definitive solution to the our planet's profound ecological crisis. But what is it that's actually being said when people associate "innovation" with "competitive markets" or "free enterprise"? And how might this relate to the ecological problems we face?

First of all, "competitive markets" is a euphemism, not a social-scientific term that picks out a real-world economic system. What defenders of "competitive markets", or "free enterprise", or whatever actually mean to defend is capitalism. They mean to defend a profit-driven social system in which the means of production are the private property of a small class. This isn't a merely semantic point. "Free enterprise" is so obviously ideological that even apologists for capitalism are smart enough to avoid it these days--after all, whose "freedom" are we talking about here, and what's "enterprising" about a fat cat who extracts profit from thousands of workers who do all of the actual work? But "competitive markets" has an intuitive pull for many, so it's worth examining more closely.


The intuitive pull derives from the fact that some alternatives to "competition" require that we embrace unfairness, punish the diligent, and reward the undeserving. There is something to this idea inasmuch as there clearly are--and even socialists concede this much--specific contexts in which competition is a good thing, where it would be unfair not to reward the "winner", and so on. For example, there are many sports-related contexts--here the "context" is defined by the particular rules of the game or practice--where we would reject any alternative to fair competition. So competition isn't inherently bad and we may even prefer it in certain specific contexts--games, contests, awards and honors, music and film auditions, etc.

So, the ideological move here isn't to invoke competition per se, but to vastly over-extend it to all spheres of social life, i.e. to assume that competitive interactions are the model for all human interactions. You'll notice, of course, that even many liberals accept this move and couch their claims for redistribution in the language of "leveling the playing field." This accepts the competitive-game metaphor but rejects the idea that the players are equally prepared to play. But, pace liberals, it is anything but obvious that competition is desirable outside of the rather specific contexts I named above. It strikes me as rather perverse to think of decisions that have profound effects on people's lives--and on the future of the planet!--on the model of a fair game. "Who should be granted access to medical care?"... "I don't know, why don't we have a big ping-pong tournament and whoever makes it to the finals gets health insurance... The rules of the game are fair, aren't they? And winners deserve to be rewarded, don't they?".


Still, because of the "intuitiveness" of neoliberal norms of "fair competitive play", defenders of capitalism find it useful to argue that the system tends to actually embody those norms. But what exactly is the relationship between capitalism and "fair competition"? I'd like to suggest that, upon close examination, there  isn't much of a relationship at all.

Competition happens at many levels throughout capitalist societies, but always in highly concrete and class specific ways. For examples, workers don't compete with capitalists--they may struggle against one another, but there is no meaningful sense in which they compete against one another since they each have divergent interests and goals. They're playing different "games", so to speak. Of course, within each class they both compete amongst themselves. But, as we'll see, there is no sense in which the abstract concept of "fairness" applies to their respective competitions.

When workers are pitted against one another in an individualistic struggle for scarce employment--which is often, but not always--it is anything but fair since racism, gender oppression, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression are operative. Moreover, this competition among individual workers tends to increase the bargaining power of the employer and drive down wages--again, clearly not a "fair" consequence for the working class writ large. And, of course, when capitalists are pitted against one another in a struggle to maximize profits--which leads them to try to cut costs and soak up as much market share as possible, lest they are eclipsed by competing firms--there is no sense in which this is fair either. This becomes especially obvious when we look at the global economy where military and non-economic forms of power are wielded by blocs of capitalists against others. To be sure, under capitalism there are other forms of competition--among municipal, state and national governments for business investment, for instance, which often fosters a "race to the bottom"--that we could talk about. But the fact remains that to praise the abstract notion of "competitive markets" is to talk in vague terms the obscure the actual class contexts of real competition.

But what about our main topic--namely, the link between "competitive markets" and innovation? As I say, the notion of a "competitive market" is vague and abstract. Which competition are we talking about here? My sense is that when people say "competitive markets create innovation" they clearly aren't referring to competition among, say, municipalities or among workers for scarce jobs. On the contrary, they're speaking from the perspective of capitalists, so what they mean to say is that competition among capitalists forces them to innovate. Once this is established, they prey upon the formal, abstract nature of the idea of "innovation" to argue that capitalism has an inbuilt tendency to produce new technologies that improve the lives of all--and make the world "greener" and more efficient.


Now it is true that competition among capitalist firms forces them--whether the agents who run them like it or not--to try to maximize profit. It's also true that this competition forces capitalists to take a large portion of that profit and re-invest in expanded production, since a firm that fails to do this--other things equal--will tend to lose out to firms that do. This often leads capitalist firms to try to look for technological innovations which will lower costs and increase output--all the better to accumulate more profit than competitors.

But that is where the link between capitalist production and innovation ends. There is no general sense in which capitalism can be said, abstractly, to be "innovative". It puts pressures on certain specific classes to try to secure very specific kinds of innovations--just as it creates pressure to avoid (or even to destroy) other kinds of innovations. The innovations capitalism creates incentives for are those that maximize profit--e.g. those which reduce labor costs, increase output, and so on. There is no necessary link between this kind of innovation and the kind of innovation that improves human well-being and creates a more sustainable world. In fact, capitalism creates massive barriers to innovations that could have the potential to vastly improve our lives and save the environment--all because they are not profitable at all, or not profitable in the short term, or because they actually threaten existing profits.

The ideological here confusion arises when "innovation" is emptied of content and praised in an abstract way. But nobody values innovation as such. I don't think we need more innovative ways of killing human beings, for instance. And neither do I think we need more innovative means of cutting down trees or mining the earth for fossil fuels. Moreover, I could care less about innovative new ways to count the number of grains of sand on the planet or the number of blades of grass in Harvard quads. Innovation as such is pretty worthless. We only give a shit about innovation if it pertains to something we already value.

So, we have to ask two questions: first, what is it that capitalists are competing and innovating for, and, second, is that thing itself good? The answers are simple: to the first: profit, and to the second: no, it's not so good if you care about the planet and the human beings that live on it.

After all, it is highly profitable to destroy the environment in the short-run. And any serious attempt to stop environmental destruction would threaten the investments--topping out in trillions upon trillions of dollars--of entire industries and, indeed, of entire blocs of industries associated with nation-states involved in imperialist struggles against others. It is, as Lenin once wrote of the attempt to moralistically demand peace among warring imperialist states, a mere "pious wish" to think that we can stop ecological destruction within the confines of capitalist competition.


One final thought: Surely a defender of "competitive" capitalism could retort: but if socialism--i.e. the democratic control of production--is to succeed, won't there have to be competitions for which ideas are best? Won't democratic assemblies have to consider and weigh alternative proposals and won't this process need to be competitive if its to succeed in selecting the best course of action? And isn't this rather like capitalist markets?

The analogy between democracy and markets is a bad one. Democracy, properly understood, is not a competition among isolated individuals with divergent private interests. It is, rather, a collective, deliberative process among equals--aimed at realizing common goals--where the force of the better argument carries the day. The "medium" of democratic social interaction is public reasoning--i.e. a public process of putting forward considerations for or against pursuing some collective course of action. If democratic interaction is communicative, capitalist market competition is blind and anonymous. It has nothing to do with rational, collective deliberation about a shared course of action for the common good--it's hallmark is atomized, isolated individuals pursuing merely private ends which may or may not be reflective. Bargaining and haggling are what people do in marketplaces, whereas collective assessment and rational debate characterize democratic assemblies.

Moreover, capitalist competition takes place in such a way that no one party to the competition gets to set the basic priorities or ends for which all compete. In capitalism, the basic priority of maximizing profit is fixed in advance--it is not itself one priority among many about which people are allowed to debate. By contrast, in a socialist society, people would consider alternative proposals  in a direct, rational way by debating together--as equals--which is most likely to produce the best outcomes for all. Moreover, a socialist society is, by definition, one in which people have the power to collectively self-determine which priorities society shall pursue and what kind of shared life together they want to live. There's nothing competitive about that at all--there is no individual struggle to see who is the "winner". It's rather more like the process of scientific inquiry, where various hypotheses are put forward by individual scientists who, as a community of rational inquirers, test and evaluate those hypotheses to see which of them is most likely to be correct. Of course, if socialist democracy shares formal characteristics in common with scientific inquiry it is substantively different in that it explicitly emphasizes the fact we must choose and reflectively endorse the basic priorities and goals of social cooperation. But the science-democracy analogy is still, I think, a highly illuminating one.