Monday, November 1, 2010

Radical Critique, Meliorist Perspective

We often fail to successfully examine whether the inferential connections between various claims to which we are committed are reflectively stable. As many on the Left have rightly pointed out- there is often a large gap between the actual practices of a society on the one hand, and the ideals or values that society uses to justify them on other. Marx certainly saw this- hence why it is necessary to continue to show liberals that their own purported highest principles, liberty and equality, simply cannot be fully instantiated within the confines of capitalism.

But this gap is not only found among those who, in the US at least, are called liberals. A similar gap is also to be found on the reformist/social-democratic left as well.

Let me preface what I'm about to say by noting that I thoroughly enjoyed most all of this thoughtful and carefully argued post. I highly recommend reading it and thinking through lots of the interesting issues it raises that I don't address here.

Though the post is interesting and, I think, correct in all kinds of important ways, I think it's worth pointing out the following. It would benefit from some reflection on the inferential relationships between various claims it makes. The critical resources and ideals it invokes to make its argument actually undo the conclusions it suggests that we draw.

Take the following series of claims, for instance.
The rhetoric of austerity is based on a lie: that we have suddenly entered a world of scarcity, in which there is less wealth for all and so we must all collectively suffer. But this is not a scarcity dictated by the material state of the world–it is not as if our factories have been destroyed by an asteroid, or our people wiped out by a plague. This scarcity is entirely a result of the dysfunction of the capitalist economy, in which idle resources confront unmet human need.
I couldn't agree more.
the politics of austerity is not driven by some inevitable economic necessity, and it has little to do with ensuring economic growth or prosperity. It is a purely political project, an attempt to shore up and renew ruling class power and neoliberalism.
Right on.
Rather than giving in to the ruling class’s politics of fear, we can be inspired by a vision of a better possible future. It is a vision that is profoundly optimistic about the potential of human societies, while questioning the ability of capitalism to deliver on that potential.
OK, great. Even better.
A world of material abundance requires a new kind of politics. We must, of course, reject the capitalist insistence on maintaining artificial scarcity in order to prop up the profit system. But we must also revise the canonical model of 20th century social democracy, predicated on full employment at high wages.
Ummm.... you think?

Let me see if I've got this straight (and, admittedly, I'm moving quickly over large parts of the post): So, capitalism is the problem here (insisting on artificial scarcity, empowering the ruling class to subordinate the needs of the vast majority to the dictates of profit, etc.). And this language of austerity and scarcity is misplaced in a society in which the productive forces are developed to such a degree that widely-shared material abundance is possible. But we're supposed to also keep in mind that the "canonical model of 20th century social democracy" might need revising?

If the above is all true, how could it not require revision, if not outright rejection? Moreover, if the above is in fact true, and I think most of it certainly is, how could it have ever been the case that the managed capitalism of "canonical 20th century social democracy" was a serious solution to the internal problems of capitalism itself?

This inconsistent perspective is something that perplexes me about the DSA, and by extension the YDS. On the one hand, much of the analysis in the post is basically right on. Capitalism, as such, really is the problem, on this I agree. Yet the DSA remains wedded to tactics and politics that fundamentally betray this insight. That is to say, their critique of capitalism (as undemocratic, unjust, etc.) seems correct, but it seems impossible to derive either their tactics (e.g. requiring that the Left work within the conservative straight-jacket of the Democratic Party, etc.) or their historical/political views (e.g. their rejection of revolutionary change and their embrace of the managed capitalism of the social democratic movement) from that very critique.

If the problem is capitalism as such (i.e. not just the severity of its effects), that must mean that the problem has something to do with capitalist social relations. That means that the exclusive ownership and control of the means of production by capitalists has got to go: we must bring the means of production under democratic control. But this project is precisely not what social democracy is about at all.

Social democratic reformism is predicated on maintaining capitalist social relations intact, while moralistically insisting on power-sharing arrangements between trade unions and capital. Moreover, social democracy requires that there be high rates of return for capitalists in order to fund the tax-and-spend setup that forms the basis of the social democratic system.

Now, it goes without saying that I'd prefer such a system to the bare-knuckles neoliberal capitalism we have today. But let's not kid ourselves that such a tradition of politics (i.e. Social Democracy, 2nd International Marxism, etc.) ever truly stood for a radical break from capitalism. On the contrary, this tradition has always been about demobilizing pressure from below and attempting to maintain capitalism with a far more human face.

History is an excellent guide if you want to understand how the social democratic project worked out. During the run-up to the First World War, 2nd International parties were swept up in chauvinism. When serious challenges to the liberal capitalist political order arose, social democrats chose to ally themselves with the ruling class rather than fight for a different kind of society.

It's worth saying something general about the infeasibility of social democracy as well. It is radically unstable as a political formation for many reasons, but the most important is this: when capital becomes unhappy with the compromise with labor, or when rates of profit are sinking and starving the state of its capacity to function, there is little to be done except to acknowledge that capital's power must finally go (and thus go in for revolutionary change to the basic structure of society... thus obviating the need for social democratic politics at all), or to say that capitalism must stay and the social democratic compromise must be suspended in favor of arrangements that capital is comfortable with. It's worth noting that the social democratic parties of Western Europe more or less all chose the latter course after the economic landslide of the early 70s.

If capitalism is really the problem, and I agree that it is, I think we should follow David Harvey's advice, and talk about how to organize into anti-capitalist organizations, not reformist ones that siphon off radical energies and redirect them into licit, reformist undertakings. Like Harvey, I agree that organizational forms need to be dynamic and appropriate to the concrete conditions in which they are to intervene. But unlike Michael Harrington and like-minded folks (the neoliberal "socialist" parties that form the SI, for example), I sharply disagree that we can ever hope to change anything by working within the Democratic Party.

We won't even win the social democratic reforms that the Harringtonians are after unless we reject their tactical-political trajectory. That they can't see this is perplexing. The gap between their critical resources and the instantiation of these resources in their political positions is astonishing.


WhiteDwarfStar said...

For an understanding of why DSA's position re: U.S. electoral politics is what it is, I recommend these pieces:

Anonymous said...

Interesting that the second piece is in a journal called "New Politics". The injunction to remain within the Democratic Party seems like the most conservative, worn-out slogan I can imagine. What's new about that?

Any new or fresh look at the political situation in this country would have to include the thought that the Democrats are not a lousy solution, but an active part of the problem in this country.

It's understandable why the DLC says "vote Democrat" ad naseum. They don't oppose capitalism. But the DSA says that capitalism as such is undemocratic and unjust. Yet they hold the same dogmatic views about social change as the DLC.

t said...

The pdf document claims that "Socialism will be the achievement of an epoch in which the power of labor vis-à-vis capital will be constantly contested. If the relative power of labor grows, this terrain will take on increasingly favorable contours."

Two things. First, I would have thought that the whole idea of socialism was about rejecting capitalist social relations, i.e. the antagonism between capital and labor born out of the private ownership and control of the means of production by a capitalist class. That is, I would have thought that the struggle FOR socialism involved a struggle BY labor against the power and dominance of capital. This quote suggests that socialism itself is just a kind of power sharing equilibrium between capital and labor. This is uptopian, first off, since history shows that this kind of arrangement isn't stable over time. Also, this isn't even socialist: the claim here is that capitalists should retain their exclusive ownership and control of the means of production, but should have such power "constantly contested". Strange indeed that anyone should think that this is socialist.

The second thing to note here is that the idea of empowering labor to fight capital has nothing whatsoever to do with supporting the Democratic Party. The Democrats, as any student of history or recent events surely grasps, are not a political instrument acting in the interests of labor. The Democrat Party is undeniably a political force for the betterment of capital. The only periods when it has acted contrary to this trajectory occurred when there was mass, independent struggle from below in opposition to BOTH major parties (e.g. see 1934, a year that DSA seems more threatened by than supportive of).

WhiteDwarfStar said...

"This quote suggests that socialism itself is just a kind of power sharing equilibrium between capital and labor."

That's not what it's saying. You're reading it wrong.

I don't know why you think DSA would be threatened by a "1934" scenario either when the document says things like:

"As the fight for reforms usually involves struggle “from below,” in liberal democratic capitalist societies there is no radical divergence between strategies for reforms or revolution. Welfare state reforms that redistribute income and radical structural reforms that increase workers’ control both necessitate stronger political and union organization."

"Socialists must take part in concrete struggles to improve peoples’ living conditions—and do so in ways that increase their self-organization, political consciousness and capacity for collective action."

t said...

How, then, do you propose we read it WhiteDwarfStar?

"Socialism will be the achievement of an epoch in which the power of labor vis-à-vis capital will be constantly contested."

I would have said that the epoch in which the power of capital is constantly contested by labor is part of the struggle to eventually have a socialist society. Socialism is not a power-sharing arrangement between capital and labor: it is the abolishment of private ownership and control of the means of production, viz. doing away with the capital/labor divide.

The quote above suggests that socialism is an achievement in which the power of labor and capital is contested. That equates the means with the ends.

I agree with what's said in those two quotes fully- but you miss the bigger point here: try to square the claims in those two quotes with the electoral strategy of forcing struggle into the two-party straightjacket.

I'm not disputing that the DSA often has fine words and an analysis that sometimes evinces a genuine commitment to struggling for justice. My claim is that there is a large gap between the organizations professed ideals (i.e. democratic control of production) and it's actual concrete political practice.

It is a walking contradiction: on the one hand the DSA suggests that we "must take part in concrete struggles to improve peoples lives" in order to "increase their self-organization, political consciousness and capacity for collective action."

On the other, the organization endorses a strategy that demobilizes people, erodes their capacity for collective action, and de-emphasizes self-organization.

Was suggesting that the Left get behind pro-war, anti-healthcare John Kerry a move designed to "increase people's self-organization, political consciousness and capacity for collective action"?

t said...

Also- the massive wave of militant struggle in 1934 wouldn't have been possible if those involved endorsed the political tactics of the DSA. The kind of organizing that helped make those inspiring actions possible was worlds apart from the conciliatory, pro-Democrat trajectory of the DSA.

In fact, the mass of workers who formed the UAW in the wake of all the militancy in the 30s voted, at the first convention, not to endorse the Democrats. They wanted to form an independent labor party (something the US has always lacked). But party brass ended up rigging it so that the UAW took the DSA's pro-Democrat line. The rest is history, of course: the co-opting of the labor movement by the Democrats meant the longterm decline of the movement.

Serious activists will tell you that the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. The DSA tell you that it's the only "realistic" way to push the struggle forward.

WhiteDwarfStar said...

I didn't agree with the position to endorse Kerry, so I'm not going to argue that one, though one should realize that the vast majority of liberals and leftists were going to hold their nose and vote for Kerry in order to get Bush out of office regardless of what DSA said or did.

As for the Democratic Party generally. You're in the ISO, yes? I think the ISO minimizes the very real differences between the U.S. electoral system and the parliamentary systems of other countires. Consider England, where Ken Livingstone wanted to run for mayor of London, and the majority of dues-paying Labour Party members voted for him, but party mechanisms allowed Tony Blair to deny him the nomination. He therefore ran as an independent, which made perfect sense in that context. But were Livingstone an American and had run for office as a Democrat, he could have won the Democratic nomination simply by winning the primary, no matter what the Democratic National Committee, or any Democratic official, wanted. While it may be true that Republican and Democratic Party clubs, wards, etc., can throw people out, the “members” they toss out can still run in Party primaries for Party positions. The state, not the parties, controls who can join (anyone who registers); the parties have no control over who registers, runs in their primaries, or holds office under their name. The result is that different Democrats represent different social classes; mainstream Dems are bourgeois, of course, but the better Progressive Caucus-type Democrats are analogous to traditional social democrats (Kucinich, Conyers, etc.). Given the lack of party discipline in the DP, and given how hard it is for 3rd parties to get anywhere in our winner-take-all, pre-parliamentary set-up, supporting Prog Caucus-type Dems generally makes sense -- particularly when they're running in DP primaries against bourgeois Blue Dog or Democratic Leadership Council-type Dems.

You may disagree with this, of course, but it should be obvious that DSA's intent is not class-collaborationist.

t said...

The Prog Caucus is, and always has been, a marginal force in the Democratic Party. I'd be curious to hear your line on why that is. I myself find it unsurprising given the way that the entire Democrat party is structured. The party brass runs the DP top-down, and spends far more time currying favor with the ruling class than it does doing anything else.

For my views on the Prog Caucus see here:

I don't think that leftists in the US who oppose the Democrats, and we are many, can be said to have missed the differences between parliamentary systems and the US's abysmal system. You might have thought that it is precisely because of our situation here that it isn't even worth doing the "vote labour, but with no illusions" thing. Having a real labor party with roots in working class organizations, even a screwed up neoliberal one like Labour, would change the political terrain of the US considerably. I don't say that that would solve the problems of capitalism, but it would make it possible to raise many questions which our present electoral mechanism doesn't enable us to raise.

E.g. :

Also- if the goal is to build the movements and increase self-organization of exploited and oppressed peoples... how is this goal well-served by encouraging people to participate in soul-crushing elections in which they're just about always told to hold their noses and punch-in for the supposed lesser evil?