Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wait for it

Neither of the two pro-business parties, Republican or Democrat, will allow the US to default. They are playing a game of chicken. But, from the sounds of it, they are close to arriving at some sort of "deal". The present "deal" includes a punishing, cruel $3 trillion cut (of historic proportions) to the living standard of the majority of Americans. That means cuts to education, cuts to scholarships, cuts to health care, cuts to pensions, massive cuts to public transportation, cuts to unemployment insurance, cuts to the arts, cuts to cutting edge scientific research. It will mean worse infrastructure, canceling desperately needed maintenance on our country's bridges and roads, massive layoffs and severe pay-cuts for public sector workers, worse sanitation services, worse libraries, worse public parks. It means that Obama and the Democrats will sign off on all of this as their own. (The beauty of it for Obama and friends, of course, is that they can push through austerity while externalizing culpability by claiming that "Republicans made us do it", thus pacifying liberal discontent with the slashing and burning of the very policies and programs for which the Democrats have any "progressive" credentials at all).

But I'm telling you: just wait for it. When the "deal" is struck, we will be barraged by a celebratory chorus about how the Republicans and Democrats "put partisanship aside" and "did what was best for the whole country". We will hear endless praise for the "reaching across the aisle" to "compromise", to "come together as one", etc. etc.

We won't hear a word, however, about what the two parties came together to do. We won't hear a word about how this will represent the largest cut to public services in the history of the world. We won't hear a word about the fallout of this harsh plan of austerity for the majority of ordinary Americans. We won't hear a word about all of the consequences of the two parties' long-standing, unchallenged, stable agreement on the "need" for austerity, on the "need" to continue funding wars and occupations, on the "need" to extend to the Bush tax breaks for the richest of the rich.

But, you know, hip hip hooray that they "came together" and "put partisan bickering" aside or whatever. That warms my fucking heart.


Friday, July 29, 2011

"An Elaborate Charade"

I love it. Read this Al-Jazeera article re: the innane, puke-worthy debt-ceiling pissing match being waged between ruling class politicians over marginalia. The headline is great: "The nonsense battle over the debt ceiling". And the sub-headline hits the nail on the head: this "debate" presupposes a deep bi-partisan commitment to austerity. To be honest, I haven't been reading any of the articles about this whole mess. I glance at headlines, but that's it. I can't be bothered to wade that deeply into shit that isn't about me. Austerity, which both Obama and Boehner strongly support, does affect me. But this quibbling over marginalia, against a backdrop of massive consensus, has nothing to do with me. It is not a substantive disagreement, nor is it a serious clash between left and right. It is a game of chicken played between the rich and powerful; I, and the vast majority of Americans, stand to gain nothing no matter how the chips fall. It is a ruling class tiff over issues internal to right-wing politics (e.g. how much should we cut the living standards of average Americans? how badly should we destroy education and public transit infrastructure?). Neither of them will allow the US to default- that is the train approaching that will crush them both. The "debate" is over who will jump out of the way first. Frankly, I would rather boycott the whole rotten business than join in the media-manufactured chorus about how "we" all should just try to "get along" and "do the right thing for America." I'm more interested in grass-roots struggle than the life and times of the rich and powerful.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Who Benefits From Oppression?

On the face of it, this is an easy question to answer: the oppressors. But unpacking this simple answer requires that we raise several questions that are not as easily answered: Who are the oppressors? Where are they located in the social system? Whom do they oppress, and why? How do they oppress? In what precise relation do they stand vis-a-vis the oppressed?

I don't intend to attempt to offer full answers to any of these questions. I have a more modest goal: to think through a particular strategy for answering them familiar to some on the socialist Left. I have in mind the sort of argument (see here) put forward by Lindsey German (formerly of the Socialist Workers Party (UK)). For a similar argument, see this article at

Here's German's statement of the argument I'm going to examine:

I want to reject the concept of patriarchy as at best a muddled term simply meaning women’s oppression (in which case it cannot explain this oppression), and at worst a completely idealist notion which has no basis in material reality. I want to show that it is not men who “benefit” from the oppression of women but capital. I want to look at the way in which the family has changed, and how as it has changed women’s conception of themselves has also changed. Hopefully that will demonstrate that women’s continued oppression is not the result of male conspiracy (or an alliance between male workers and the capitalist class), but of the continuation of class society in every part of the world. It follows that I shall argue the “socialist” countries have no more in common with socialism than they have with women’s liberation.
So the answer that we should expect German to give to our question "who benefits?" is: the ruling class. But is that accurate?

It depends first on what we mean by "benefit". Suppose that we take "benefit" to simply mean money. What German wants to say is that working class men do not procure monetary benefits from living in a society that oppresses women, but the ruling class does. She offers two arguments in defense of that claim. First, a labor market in which men and women are divided, with women forced to accept lower wages and worse jobs, does not benefit working men as members of the working class. That is, this sort of labor market drives down wages across the board, making all workers worse off. Second, the ruling class directly benefits from dividing and conquering the labor market along gender lines, since the strength of a united class would be far more effective in bargaining for a larger share of ruling class profits. Notice that this is a counter-factual claim. That is, it asks us to imagine a contrary-to-fact scenario (i.e. one in which the working class isn't divided, but united) in order to make its point. Since a united working class, one without internal hierarchies and relations of domination, would be much better for all workers, it follows that internal inequalities within the working class are not in it's long-run interest as a class.

Now, for my part, I think both of these arguments are sound. First of all, a divided labor market is worse for workers and better for employers, hence why employers love "two tiered" pension plans, etc. etc. When workers compete amongst themselves for jobs, be it through "legitimate" means (i.e. by "meritocratic" means) or "illegitimate" means (i.e. by means of coercion, power, etc.), capitalists benefit because this increases their bargaining power vis-a-vis labor. When the strength of capital relative to labor increases, wages tend to fall. The converse is true: when the strength of labor relative to capital increases, labor is able to secure a larger fraction of profits. Also, the counter-factual scenario described above does make clear that a genuinely egalitarian and united working class would be the best scenario for the class as a whole.

But does this establish German's answer to the "who benefits?" question? I do not think that it does. Let's stick with the "monetary" interpretation of "benefit" (I'll consider other forms of "benefit" later). Is it in fact true that working class men don't draw any such benefits from the oppression of women? The answer, I think, is no: working class men do benefit from the oppression of women. Let's consider some examples. Take divorce. Studies show that the living standards of women tend, on average, to substantially drop after divorce, whereas men's living standards go up. That trend, German would surely agree, exists because we live in a society in which women are oppressed, thus the difference in monetary benefit from divorce derives from oppression. Yet men consistently come out on top, and thus benefit from it. Were arrangements to change such that men's living standards didn't go up on average after divorce, they would thereby lose a material benefit.

Now, German can reply here as follows: "but this is small potatoes compared to the benefits the ruling class garners from a sexist labor market and a sexual division of labor in the home". And she's right, as far as the claim goes. But replying in this way concedes my point: working class men do benefit, albeit in particular ways that don't mesh with their overall class interests, from the oppression of women. That's in part how sexism reproduces itself over time: some men are reluctant to give up benefits and privileges (however small, in the grand scheme of things) granted to them by sexist social relations. And this is also in part why the divide-and-conquer tactics of the ruling class are effective in some cases. After all, if the divide-and-conquer tactics didn't include some promise of a small benefit (small in comparison to the large overall gains that could be won without divisions), they wouldn't work. To say that men don't benefit at all is to lack an explanation of how the ruling class is sometimes able to successfully divide and conquer on the basis of gender oppression.

Think of it this way. Suppose that a sexist male worker has a balance sheet that adds up all of the relevant benefits and costs that pertain to his status. I agree, along with German, that there should be a large red entry in the "costs" column that makes clear what the worker is losing as a result of living in a capitalist society in which the working class is divided, and thus more easily conquered, by capital. But that doesn't mean that there aren't going to be any small green entries in the "benefit" column. Though they will be canceled out by the large red entry in "costs" column, there are still going to be entries in the "benefit" column.

Or take this example of benefiting from sexism. Imagine a household in which a married man and woman, both employed and both working class, abide by a traditional sexist division of labor at home. The woman works what we might call a "double day", that is, she puts in her paid 40 hrs a week at work, but returns home do her second shift of hard domestic labor for no pay. Suppose she is hard at work washing dishes while her husband relaxes on the couch and reads a stimulating novel. Would we really say that the man isn't benefiting from this sexist division of labor? To be sure, we can imagine a world that was better for both the man and the woman in which domestic labor wasn't privatized and unpaid, but socialized and equitably distributed. This arrangement would grant both parties greater benefits than they (respectively) receive in the status quo. But though this arrangement is a surely goal worth fighting for, it's a counter-factual scenario. The "who benefits?" question, however, pertains to the actual world. And in the sexist world we actually live in, the man on the couch is befitting in the short term, since he enjoys the fruits of his wife's labor while he reclines and reads.

And there are still other examples of benefits. For instance, in a sexist labor market, individual male workers benefit from having more job options available to them. Moreover, they benefit, as individual male workers, from their ability to more easily get promoted, get raises, etc. in the workplace. These benefits are real, material facts about our society. To be sure, qua worker, it is not in the overall class interest of male workers to exclude and subordinate any other members of their class. Each member of the working class is stronger when the class as a whole is stronger. From the narrow perspective of earnings, sexist working class men stand to benefit much more from united working class action than they do from the status quo. But that doesn't mean that men don't, in the mean time, gather various monetary benefits from living in a sexist society. Even though capital benefits long-term from sexism in a way that workers don't, it doesn't follow that no working class men benefit from it. Beyond being false, this claim creates confusion and has the potential to alienate left-wing allies who are drawn to socialist (and, in particular, Marxist) politics in a time of economic crisis.

So, I think the socialist Left can do without the "working men don't benefit from sexism" claim. First off, even from the perspective of monetary benefits, we've seen that the claim is false. Second, when we broaden the meaning of "benefit" the claim is even less plausible. There are innumerable examples here, but think, for instance, of the way that many young girls are socialized to be less confident in answering questions in a math class, whereas boys are socialized to think they should always "speak up" and answer such questions confidently. That isn't straight-forwardly monetary, but it is a benefit that boys enjoy (whether they want to or not) because of sexist gender norms in the socialization process. Saying that men don't benefit at all obscures these facts.

Still, socialists have extremely valuable, indeed essential, points to make in these discussions. It is true that the question "who benefits?" requires an answer that is class-specific. Saying "men as a whole benefit" is imprecise- since men of different classes may benefit in different ways (or, in some cases, some men may not benefit at all). Moreover, it also needs to be said that not every form of womens' oppression generates a direct benefit to men. Take "beauty" norms. Women are pressured to comply with oppressive norms that specify how they are to dress, what they are to look like, etc. Moreover, these norms pressure women into buying all sorts of expensive products, chemicals, etc. in order to live up to the standards placed before them. But, although men don't have to deal with this particular load of shit, they aren't really benefiting from the fact that women do have to deal with it. They are off the hook, sure. But that's more of a "negative" benefit than a positive one. It's not as though mens lives are better because women are forced to comply with all of these oppressive norms. To be sure, mens lives would be worse if they were similarly forced to comply. But just because something would be worse, it doesn't follow that I benefit from not enduring it. I wouldn't say that I benefit from the fact that I'm not being electrocuted right now. It is, to be sure, a privilege not to be oppressed in some particular way. But having the privilege of not being oppressed is not the same as directly benefiting from the continued existence of a form of oppression. This distinction is important. Sometimes this sort of privilege overlaps with certain benefits, but I would wager that it doesn't always overlap.

What, I think, motivates arguments like that put forward by German is the worry that if one admits that working class men benefit from sexism, one must admit that the working class is too fractured and divided to be capable of uniting to fight the ruling class. But that's not so. The idea that it is impossible for the working class to unite emerges from other sources (e.g. for an influential statement of the impossibility claim see Laclau and Mouffe's arguments in favor of this thesis in their Hegemony and Socialist Strategy). Drawing attention to the ways in which some sections of the working class derive benefits from oppressing other workers does not undermine the possibility of working class unity. Nor does it commit us to controversial concepts like the "labor aristocracy" or the like. On the contrary, such a critique of schisms among working class people is a necessary precondition to working class solidarity. Solidarity is an egalitarian idea that presupposes relations of equality and respect; there cannot be solidarity between two groups when one is actively involved in the oppression of another. Socialists have long realized this, and the history of the socialist Left is filled with interventions by Marxists arguing against racism, sexism and other forms of oppression from within the ranks of the labor movement.

Finally, the socialist counter-factual claim discussed above is powerful and can't be re-stated enough: if things were to radically change and the working class did overcome its internal divisions and inequalities... there would be no difficulty in bringing the basic structure of our society under democratic, community control in order to service human needs rather than profit. It is only the basis of having built such a working-class movement that we can really talk about building a socialist society, that is, an egalitarian society based on freedom, equality and solidarity. Any politics that promises full liberation without overcoming the domination of the ruling class is complicit in the continued domination of human beings by the iron laws of profit.

[Postscript: There is also a further complication here that concerns the notion of "benefit". In one sense, "benefit" is analogous to "good for someone". "Good for", of course, could be read (in an Aristotelian spirit) as "conducive to one's flourishing or well-being". Now, upon reflection, few of us would want to say that it is good for someone to oppress another. While they might acquire certain material privileges by means of oppression, they would nonetheless fall short of flourishing. Being oppressive is not a character trait we would associate with flourishing or living well; on the contrary, we understand such behavior to be a vice, something that evinces internal obstacles to flourishing. So, in this sense, we could say that men don't benefit from sexism since it is not good for them to be oppressors. It would be better, even from the perspective of their own well-being, if they weren't oppressive but rather more disposed to want to stand in relations of equality vis-a-vis women. This, of course, probably isn't the interpretation of "benefit" most people have in mind when they discuss the "who benefits?" question.]


Monday, July 25, 2011

New Book on the "Intern-Industrial Complex"

From Verso:

Every year, between one and two million Americans work as interns. They famously shuttle coffee in a thousand newsrooms, congressional offices, and Hollywood studios, but they also deliver aid in Afghanistan, build the human genome, and pick up garbage. They are increasingly of all ages, and their numbers are growing fast—from 17 percent of college graduates in 1992 to 50 percent in 2008. A huge and increasing number of internships are illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and this mass exploitation saves firms more than $600 million each year. Interns enjoy no workplace protections and no standing in courts of law—let alone benefits like health care.

Ross Perlin has written the first exposé of this world of drudgery and aspiration. In this witty, astonishing, and serious investigative work, Perlin takes the reader inside both boutique nonprofits and megacorporations such as Disney (which employs 8,000 interns at Disney World alone). He profiles fellow interns, talks to academics and professionals about what unleashed this phenomenon, and explains why the intern boom is perverting workplace practices in locations all around the world.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Harry Magdoff on "Keynesianism"

From a 1998 edition of Monthly Review:

The term “Keynesian state” has become a catchword that covers a variety of concepts and is usually misleading. It may have some meaning for the Scandinavian countries and elsewhere. But the United States? Although the concept is often applied to the New Deal, the deficit spending of the New Deal had nothing to do with Keynes (nor did Hitler’s recovery via military expenditures). It’s true Washington economists were delighted with the appearance of Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money because it gave them theoretical handles for analysis and policy thinking (e.g.,the offset to savings concept and a framework for gross national product accounts). Nevertheless, despite a promise of heavy government spending, and Keynes’s theoretical support, the New Dealers were stumped by the 1937-38 recession, which interrupted what looked like a strong recovery. There was then as there is now an underlying faith that capitalism is a self-generating mechanism. If it slowed down or got into trouble, all that was needed was a jolt to get back on track. In those days, when farm life supplied useful metaphors, the needed boost was referred to as priming the pump. The onset of a marked recession after years of pump-priming startled Washington. Questions began to be raised about the possibility of stagnation in a mature capitalism, the retarding effect of monopolistic corporations, and other possible drags on business. These concerns faded as war orders flowed in from Europe, and eventually they disappeared when the United States went to war. The notion of the “Keynesian Welfare State” has tended to disguise the fact that what really turned the tide was not social welfare, Keynesian or otherwise, but war. In that sense, the whole concept of Keynesianism can be mystification.
Make sure to read the rest here (hat tip to Louis Proyect).


Rick Wolff: Ongoing Crisis and Liberal Blindness

The double dip of this crisis is upon us. The latest data agree: the housing market has been in full double-dip mode for five months as home prices keep declining. The foreclosure disaster keeps increasing the combination of homeless families and empty homes. Think capitalist efficiency. Unemployment rose back above 9% again. The average length of unemployment is now 39.7 weeks, the longest since these records began in 1948. Investments by businesses are decelerating and governments keep dropping workers...

...The so-called "recovery" benefited US banks, larger corporations, and the stock market. It bypassed everyone else and is now over. Still wondering what hit them, victims of the crisis -- the mass of working people -- now face paying for that recovery. "Their" government borrowed massively to bail out the corporations. That boosted the national debt. And that now "requires" cutting government spending by "absolutely necessary" reductions in government jobs, services, social security, Medicaid and Medicare. What money the government saves by cutting public services it can then turn over to the corporations, the rich, and the foreign governments (led by China) who lent it the funds to produce that short-lived recovery (for them).
Read the rest here.


Externalizing Evil

Richard Seymour has an excellent post at Lenin's Tomb dealing with the media reception of the recent atrocities committed in Norway by a hard-Right, Christian fanatic (who boasted of ties to the British far-Right). Seymour's running commentary (see here and here) on the "West" vs. "Jihadi" narrative has been spot on. The following is exemplary:

However, if you want to understand the attitude of the punditocracy to fascist terrorism, consider the query put by BBC News to the former Norwegian Prime Minister yesterday: "Do you think not enough attention was paid to those unhappy re immigration?" Or, consider this New York Times article blaming the failure of multiculturalism. Or, look at this Atlantic article, which describes such racist terrorism as a "mutation of jihad" - that is "the spread of the 'jihad' mentality to anti-immigrant and racist groups". You begin to get the picture. The idea is to find some way in which all of this is still the fault of Muslim immigrants. The logic will be: the fascists express legitimate grievances, but go too far. Or worse, in their natural outrage, they have allowed themselves to become like them.
Let me say what I think is going on here. The move is to externalize evil, that is, to say that this atrocity could not have come from "within" but had to have been inspired from "without". Hence the suggestion that the gunman has either lapsed into "being like them" or has been "infected by the spread of jihad" and so forth. The language of "spread" and "infection" is interesting- it evokes a sense of "Western" purity that is contaminated by the evils of the "Orient". Then there's obstinate insistence, despite what's happened, that the racist thesis that "multiculturalism has failed" is still valid (see here and here). It's as if to say: "yes, this is ugly, but it doesn't refute the basics premises of xenophobic racism". What's most interesting of all, however, is that the media continues to propagate such racist ideologies at the same time that they continue to be baffled as to where the sort of reactionary fascist hate on display in Norway came from. Something similar was true of the coverage terrifying shooting that took place in Arizona months ago.

I've also been struck recently by the air of disbelief expressed in the press: "why would a far-Right, gun-toting fanatic want to kill socialists?", "how could a European have done something like this?". The AP found it to be a "complete mystery". But this naiveté is not just innocent ignorance. It is political distortion that derives from a distorted view of the world. Countless examples (Oklahoma City, Tuscon shooting, Greensboro Massacre, Chattanooga shooting, etc.) of "homegrown" right-wing terrorism cast doubt on the validity of this manufactured disbelief.

Marcuse's idea of "repressive tolerance" is also worth invoking here. When the media isn't busy stirring up islamophobia, survivalism and orientalist hysteria, it's putting forward the claim that the far-Right deserves to be "tolerated" and heard just like everyone else. This is non-sense. Fascists aren't just "polarizing" figures who have a "different" flavor of opinions in the "food-court/marketplace of ideas"... they are a violent, racist force that corrodes the very possibility of having a just society, of living with each other terms of equality and respect. To tolerate such hate is to be complicit in its capacity to oppress marginalized groups.


Saturday, July 23, 2011

What's Next for the Honduran Resistance?

Read Jeffrey Webber and Todd Gordon's excellent analysis of the current political situation in Honduras here. Also, consider taking a look at this collection of articles at Links that deals with a new political formation called Frente Amplio de Resistencia Popular (FARP) as well as the Cartegena Accord.


Imprints: Egalitarian Theory and Practice

I've just discovered the Left philosophy journal Imprints. It's well worth checking out, though it has certain limitations. Its mission statement is as follows:

Imprints aims to promote a critical discussion of egalitarian and socialist ideas, freed from theoretical dogma but committed to the viability of an egalitarian and democratic politics, and open to the possibility of such politics at the international level. We take it for granted that most societies in the world are characterised by class oppression, but that class division does not exhaust the unjust inequalities to which their peoples are subject.
What drew me in were the interviews. You can read interviews with G.A. Cohen, John Roemer, Norman Geras, Erik Olin Wright, Philippe Van Parijis, Thomas McCarthy, and others associated with the Left in contemporary English-language political philosophy. G.A. Cohen's interview is extremely interesting, particularly because the interviewer presses him on all the right questions. Cohen is often on the defensive, which is unusual for him. His reflections on political practice are frustrating and characteristically aloof. Still, Cohen was an extremely interesting figure and, for me in particular, influential.


Friday, July 22, 2011


Read Richard Seymour's take here.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

How to Argue Against Austerity

Austerity refers to policies that lower the living standards of working people by cutting public services. In the US, as with elsewhere, this involves busting public sector unions, closing schools and libraries, laying off public employees, cutting public health care programs, reducing public transit, allowing infrastructure to crumble, cutting unemployment benefits, and so on. The two most common arguments for austerity are what we might call the "inevitability argument" and the "moral argument".

I've criticized the inevitability argument elsewhere, under the heading of "budget cut fatalism". The "moral" argument, incisively skewered many times over by Richard Seymour, typically depends on an analogy between government finances and household finances, concluding that because "we" have over-indulged and "lived beyond our means", "we" must now accept "our" just punishment in the form of austerity. Seymour correctly observes that this ideology is tantamount to "the petit-bourgeois manner of thinking, universalised – the nation imagined as a corner shop that has to balance its books and keep an eye out for thieves."

The point of this post is to offer some suggestions about how the Left might quickly and effectively defuse these damaging ideologies. Of course, argumentative strategy is not all the Left needs: there is no substitute for patient, diligent organizing, agitating and so forth. But here goes.

  1. Any suggestion that austerity is the deserved punishment for "bad government" or "profligate spending" should be met by a swift, matter-of-fact explanation of why public budgets are in the tank: (a) because the global economic recession, itself caused by the internal contradictions of capitalism and reckless investing, has caused tax revenues to drop sharply; (b) because bailouts, in effect, converted enormous amounts of private debt into public debt. Toxic assets were transferred from private to public rolls. The losses were socialized, the profits were privatized. Succinctly put: bankers caused the crisis, and the crisis has devastated public finances. Of course, it doesn't help that Washington continues to spend vast sums on two, as yet unpaid-for, imperial ventures. But the crisis is the most immediate source of public financial difficulties.
  2. Here's a reductio ad absurdum of the "profligate spending" narrative. The narrative says that "excessive public spending" is the sufficient cause of the budget crises faced by federal, state and municipal governments. That means that the only thing that can explain the sudden emergence of public budget crises is the amount of public spending that a government is involved in. But if that were true, then we should be able to look back and detect some drastic uptick in the amount of public spending around the time public budgets tanked around 2007-2008. Moreover, since the public budget crisis has manifested itself at the municipal and state levels, there would have had to have been a coordinated, nation-wide movement (involving hundreds of municipal, county and state governments far and wide) that suddenly increased spending all at the same time. Of course, I don't need to tell you that none of this happened. Public budgets were more or less fine (setting aside other internal problems owing to regressive taxation and so on) until the global economic crisis sent them into a downward spiral. The bottom line is this: The main reason that public budgets (from city to federal levels) are in very bad shape is because tax revenues have fallen off a cliff due to the economic crisis (in fact, they've reached 60-year lows). It is flatly absurd to claim that "profligate spending" is the sufficient cause.
  3. Now, even though we've dispensed with the moralized, masochistic pro-austerity ideologies, there is still the claim that austerity, though regrettable, is inevitable. If "we're broke", the story goes, "tough choices will have to be made." Two points must be made here. First, "we" aren't broke. The US is the richest society in the world, and the ruling class managed to make record-breaking profits last quarter. That means the richest upper echelons of the ruling class made more money in one quarter than ever in US history. "We're broke" my ass. The working majority may be broke, but the ruling class sure isn't. They're pulling in record-breaking profits at a time when the gap between rich and poor is reaching record levels as well. The money is there- we have only to modestly increase our obscenely low marginal income tax rates, reinstate the estate tax and close corporate loopholes in order to bring all public budgets out of the red. Hell, with the amount of surplus wealth lying about in ruling class bank accounts we could even expand such programs drastically (e.g. imagine re-vamped and greatly expanded public transit, a genuine single-payer health plan, lower tuition for public universities, a nation-wide rail network, etc. etc.) Such measures would obviously be unpopular with the ruling class, but that is to be expected. Second, the amount of money spent on foreign military interventions proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the funds exist to cover budget shortfalls at home. It's obvious that the money spent blowing things up in the Middle East could just as well be spent building things (like bridges, roads, hospitals, schools, libraries, etc.) right here in the US. Moreover, the amount of subsidies and spending allocated to the ruling class in the form of "corporate welfare" also prove that the funds already exist, even under the current regime of taxation, to cover the things that matter. Succinctly put: we live in a society with vast sums of wealth concentrated at the top, which could easily be tapped to ameliorate the suffering brought about by unemployment and budget cuts. And, re: the imperialist military machine, if our government can find money to kill people, why can't that money be spent helping people instead?
  4. Now, some will still claim that austerity is "unavoidable" since the following suggestions, attractive though they may be, are "unrealistic" or "politically infeasible". To be sure, looked at through the narrow lens of our electoral mechanism, it is true that the above suggestions are "politically unrealistic". The Democrats have made absolutely clear that they stand firmly behind austerity, as do the Republicans. So it's true that it is completely unrealistic to expect that the Democratic Party will consider taxing the rich and ending the wars to fund the things that matter. But is that our only option? Of course not. The cul de sac of electoralist lesser-evilism only means that resistance, in order to be "realistic", must take shape outside the proper channels. It must take the form of grassroots, independent social movements which are prepared to take a confrontational, oppositional political stance vis-a-vis the traditional corporate parties and their candidates. That doesn't mean talking tough while, at the end of the day, committing to throwing in with whomever the Democrats put up for election. It means actually organizing with broader goals in mind, e.g. defending social security and medicare from attack, fighting for expanded (rather than reduced) public transportation, fighting local budget cuts of all kinds, defending teachers from savage scapegoating attacks, fighting against the privatization of public assets, etc. Moreover, these fights should be waged with the assumption that Democratic representatives will tend to contain and minimize, rather than ignite and encourage such independent struggles. This isn't some new idea: the fact that we have collective bargaining rights and the Civil Rights Act are testaments not to the progressive character of the Democrats, but to the power of independent Left social movements that had more ambitious goals than electing a Democrat to office. People power, from Greece to Spain to Egypt to Tunisia, is anything but a utopian phrase. It is the watch word of those on the frontlines of the struggle against austerity. The explosion of mass protest in Wisconsin was only the beginning. The Left needs to invest all of its energy in building ground-up struggles like Madison all over the country. Without such struggles, there will be no progress.
  5. It's also crucial that we emphasize the following. Austerity is not new. It used to be called "Structural Adjustment" when it was imposed from above by the IMF on populations in the global South who fiercely resisted it. It's the same thing today, except that its the "advanced" capitalist countries in the US and Europe that are undergoing "Structural Adjustment" this time around.
  6. Austerity is, at rock bottom, a matter of the ruling class forcing the working majority to pay the bill for a crisis it didn't cause. It is an externalization of culpability, a socialization of massive private losses. The state in capitalist societies, no matter what representative government is at the helm, fulfills the basic function of securing the conditions for the accumulation of profits. This falls under the heading of securing "economic growth" or "a good business climate". Any government, within the framework of capitalism, which fails to do this risks economic stagnation, a capital strike, or, in some cases, violent reaction. To say this is just to say that in capitalist societies the state is structurally dependent on capital. Right now, austerity is the policy adopted by ruling classes the world over to try to restore profitability to the system. It is both a hail-mary pass by the ruling class to insulate its assets in the short term, and a long-term strategy pedaled by neoliberal ideologues who are still convinced, despite all contrary evidence, that economic health is brought about through slashing regulations, public spending and cutting taxes. As such, it is a policy meant to serve narrow class interests. But, as always, the ruling class is obliged to legitimate such policies by speaking the language of universality and shared interests. In public spaces it will seek support for the policy by claiming that it is the best policy for the vast majority. We shouldn't be surprised that this gap between rhetoric and reality is so wide.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Jacobin: On "Dancing on Liberalism’s Grave"

I just noticed that the new issue of Jacobin is out. It's well worth reading. There is an excellent article by Richard Seymour (previously posted on his blog Lenin's Tomb) entitled "How can the Left Can Win?". Lars T. Lih has a piece as does Paul Le Blanc. There's also a piece by Zizek and a response. I also just finished reading an extremely interesting piece about radical political economy, Marxism and neoclassical economics. Check it out.

I should like to say something about this issue's editorial "Dancing on Liberalism's Grave". It ends with a cautionary note to the Left:

Radicals must avoid submerging our identities into an insipid and ahistorical “progressivism”; we must remain firmly anchored to the socialist tradition and never shy away from the ruthless critique of liberalism. But socialists should also be wary of slipping into a rhetorical posture of unrestrained invective that only cements the Left’s marginal status in American political life. Don’t dance on liberalism’s grave. There’s nothing to celebrate.
I couldn't agree more with this particular set of claims. I, too, agree that we should reject ahistorical "progressivism" and remain firmly rooted in the socialist tradition. Neither should the Left shy away from the ruthless critique of liberalism. And, it is also true that the Left should avoid sectarian Schadenfreude in the context of the demise of reformist liberalism.

But, having conceded this much, I would like to take issue with the way that the Left is carved up by the authors of the editorial. In their estimation, the Left has "traditionally" responded in two ways to the decline of liberal reformism: by adopting a politically tepid, fiercely dogmatic lesser-evilism meant to roll back the rise of the Right, on the one hand, or by taking a cynical, sectarian delight in the implosion of liberalism on the other. "Traditionally" seems a bit misplaced here, since the authors seem only to have in mind the demise of postwar liberal reformism in the US in the 1960s and 70s. It's not clear that their analysis helps us make sense of previous epochs of reaction and revolt (e.g. the 1920s, on the one hand, and the explosion of left radicalism in the 1930s, on the other). But this is a side note: let's stick with the period that interests them, i.e. the upheavals of the late 60s and early 70s during which postwar liberalism died a painful death as a hard-nosed neoliberalism was born.

The suggestion in the brief editorial is that we should follow Harrington's lead and avoid sectarian Left celebration when liberal reformism slides into crisis. I agree with that much. But Harrington is suggesting more than that. He's putting forward a particular view about the relationship between the socialist left and liberal reformism (specifically electoralism, of a Democratic Party-centered variety). So far as I can gather from the editorial, Harrington's view was something like the following. The revival of the (socialist) Left requires, as a pre-requisite, a healthy and revived liberal reform movement. This, in turn, implies the following: in order for this pre-requisite to be fulfilled, the socialist Left should play a role in reviving liberal reformist organization (especially those committed to electoral campaigns).

I should like to offer two points of criticism here. First, I think the "pre-requisite" view is mistaken. Often, healthy liberal reform movements grow out of (and co-opt) left radicalism and struggle. The New Deal is unthinkable without the explosion of labor militancy in the 1930s. And the period of Keynesian reformism that followed WWII was, in part, a way of stabilizing US capitalism politically and economically in response to the upheavals of the 1930s. Moreover, the explosive radicalism of the 1930s (which, in my view, should be more of a touchstone for the Left than the 1960s) was not lifted up by a buoyant reformist liberalism. It was built through patient grass-roots organizing during periods (e.g. the 1920s in the US) in which the Left evinced many of the outward signs of being dead (compared to the recent past). To require that the socialist Left tether its project to the ephemeral swells of electoralism is a sure recipe for political confusion, co-optation, irrelevance and defeat. (Footnote: I think Robert Brenner's piece in New Left Review a few years back titled "Structure of Conjuncture?" does an excellent job of giving a solid historical account of what the electoral road is a dead end).

Which brings me to my second criticism. The Harrington approach, as is well known, places heavy emphasis on working within the electoral system and, worse still, working within the established two party duopoly. That this approach is deeply misguided is made obvious by the analysis offered in the early paragraphs of the editorial:
To say that the American “reform tradition” is in crisis is to underestimate the extent of the debacle, since unlike a crisis, no visible reason exists why the present trend – the gradual abandonment of hope that liberal achievements of the past can be extended or even preserved – cannot continue forever. The great counterexample, Obama’s health reform, proves the rule: passed only thanks to a once-in-a-generation Democratic supermajority and the approval of every major industry lobby it affected, it emerged as a painfully inadequate, jerry-rigged palliative, already languishing under the scalpel of austerity.
To be fair, the authors do chide those with otherwise "impeccable leftist credentials" who jumped aboard the "Obama phenomenon" in 2008. I'm with them in thinking that was a serious mistake. But their invocation of Harrington and their argument re: reformist liberalism seems at odds with this observation. Perhaps I am misreading the author's argument. But that I should be able to do so is already a partial failing on their part, since the Left (now, more than ever) needs to be as clear as the Spanish "indignados" have been in uncompromisingly rejecting electoralism. Before long, the 2012 election cycle will be in full swing and the Left will be pressured to join one of the two camps described by in the editorial: (1) the lesser-evilist defeatists who will tell us to forget everything that Obama has done, and (2) the (typically academic) cynics who throw their hands up and somehow manage to relish the rottenness of the whole enterprise. I propose that we pre-empt this by firmly rejecting the false choice between (1) and (2). The pressure will be much stronger to adopt (1), so the Left needs a clear critique of this option. It shouldn't be abstract, ultra-Left or sectarian. But it should be uncompromising in emphasizing that large scale left-wing social change is won when powerful, organized and independent social movements are forged that can force the Democrats (or the Republicans, as the case may be) leftward. Our models should be the labor movement of the 1930s and the Black Freedom struggle of the 1950s and 60s, not the dead ends of electoralism which, it should be emphasized, have never yielded any serious fruit in the form of reforms.

So, I agree with the authors that the demise of liberalism is, in itself, no cause for celebration. As a Marxist, I don't think that single-payer health care in a capitalist system is a water-tight solution to our health care crisis. But I would have fought tooth and nail for it had it been on the table- because, ethically, it would have drastically improved the well-being of millions and, politically, it would have certainly paved the way for more ambitious reforms and further growth of the Left. That the entire proposal was completely shut out by the Democrats and their ruling class backers is a tragedy, not a cause for celebration. But this tragedy is being felt well beyond the socialist left. The number of previously hopeful and presently disillusioned liberals is higher now than at any time in my lifetime- and it should be the job of the socialist Left in such times to offer a clear alternative. We shouldn't further muddy the waters by shackling ourselves to ultimately ineffective electoral efforts that reinforce the dialectic of disillusioned cynicism and dogmatic lesser-evilism.

The editorial makes no mention of Egypt, Tunisia, Greece or Spain. But those should be the watchwords of left-wing struggle in the present conjuncture. I'm with the "indignados" in Spain in thinking that the Left needs to offer a clear critique of the electoral mechanism itself. Harrington's Democratic Party tailism, while correct in dismissing ultra-left Schadenfreude, is not a viable way forward for the contemporary socialist Left.

One final remark: I'm also not sure that I agree with the suggestion in the editorial that:
The only true exception to liberalism’s demise concerns equal rights for ethnic, sexual, and other minorities – a principle won long ago at a cultural level but whose institutional consolidation is still incomplete and whose most recent advance was New York State’s legalization of gay marriage. On all other questions, the watchword is despair.
It's not yet clear what the authors take to have been "won long ago at the cultural level", but it certainly can't have been a decisive victory against racism, sexism, or lgbt oppression, since our culture (as well as our society writ large) is littered with all of these oppressive ideologies. To be sure, they are surely correct that the legalization of gay marriage in NY is a positive note on an otherwise bleak political horizon. And the emergence of phenomena like Slutwalk do suggest that sites of intensifying struggle are emerging on on the terrain of women's oppression. But if anything, the problems of structural racism and sexism are being exacerbated by the present crisis, as austerity and recession worsen the conditions for people of color, immigrants, and women. Anti-racist struggle, it seems to me, is perhaps at a lower point than that of class struggle simplicter.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On "Humanist" Marxism

I propose that this term be permanently retired. It is more obfuscatory than clarificatory. It muddies the waters more than it points to any meaningful tendency or political trajectory. Let's leave this one in the dustbin of history.

For those who aren't familiar with the notion of "humanist Marxism" (or Marxist-humanism or whatever), here's a bit of background. The term is often associated with those who allegedly emphasize the "early Marx" (e.g. the 1844 Manuscripts, On the Jewish Question, The Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State, etc.) at the expense of the "later Marx" of Capital. For some, the mere invocation of concepts from Marx's earlier writings, e.g. alienation or the quasi-Aristotelian idea of a "species being", is enough to mark one out as a "humanist". On the other hand, sometimes "humanist" Marxists are associated with an interpretation of Marx according to which Engels is a distorting influence to be cast out of the genuine Marxist tradition. Still further, there is a Polish Marxist movement that called itself "humanist" for slightly different reasons. Then there's a small sect of Marxists in the US who tack closely to the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya who call themselves "Marxist-Humanists". The imprecision with which the label is thrown around is reason enough to reject it.

The origins of the so-called "humanist" controversy really go back to the 1930s when many of Marx's early works (especially the 1844 Manuscripts) were discovered and published for the first time. Since these texts were quite obviously at odds with Stalinist orthodoxy, they were, from the very beginning, dismissed and criticized by Stalinist ideologues. As Lucio Colletti puts it in his excellent introduction to the penguin edition of the Early Writings, "the sheer rigidity of official doctrine, the rigor mortis which already gripped Marxism under Stalin, contributed in no small way to the cool reception with which the writings met with when they appeared, to the manner in which they were immediately classified and pigeon-holed."

In the 1960s and 1970s, French Marxist (and member of the Stalinist PCF) Louis Althusser ignited further controversy by penning a series of attacks on this so-called "humanism". Althusser himself defended a strange reinterpretation of Marxism grounded more in structuralist anthropology than the left-Hegelian of German philosophy. He therefore set himself against the tradition, captured and coined as such by Perry Anderson in the 1970s, of "Western Marxism" including such innovative Marxist thinkers as Gramsci, Lukacs and Korsch. One of Althusser's most contentious arguments against "humanists" involved an interpretive claim about the so-called "early" and "late" Marx. According to Althusser, there was a sharp "epistemological break" between the "early" and "late" Marx. Crudely put, the "early" Marx was still mired in the "humanist" muck of Hegelian thought, whereas the "later" Marx broke free by rejecting this "lingering bourgeois hangover" once and for all.

The meat of Althusser's argument was the following. In social theory and historiography, there is a tension between structural explanations and agential explanations. That is, it is often acknolwedged that there is a disanalogy between analyses that focus on system-level structural processes on the one hand, and, on the other, analyses that focus on the perspective of the participant in social practices, i.e. what it's like to be an agent from the inside. (In American sociology, the distinction is typically described as one between structure and agency. In the German tradition this is described in terms of the subject/object distinction, or, if you like, the distinction between the lifeworld and system). This distinction is one which Marxism (just like any other social theory) must navigate. Althusser's reductionist solution was to eliminate agency entirely. For Althusser, the "early" Marx made the mistake of leaving room for the perspective of the agent (i.e. the "subject" in Althusser's language) in his social theory. For Althusser, the perspective of social science is purely third-personal: the agent, as such, is produced by system-level processes that cannot be grasped from within the participant perspective. Thus, the innovation of the "late" Marx, according to Althusser, was that he completely rejected first-personal perspective of the participant in favor of an entirely impersonal (and, for the first time, genuinely scientific) structural perspective. Thus began the "humanist" controversy: Althusser and his followers declared themselves "anti-humanists" and railed against the "humanists" for talking seriously about actions, agency, and so forth, whereas the "humanists" criticized Althusserians for having an implausible social theory that left no space for genuine human agency whatsoever. That, in rough sketch, is the so-called humanist vs. anti-humanist distinction in the Marxist tradition.

As I said above, I think the whole distinction needs to go. It doesn't pick out anything meaningful- it only tracks a series of stipulative moves made by Althusser (and other Stalinists) in the 1960s. But Althusser's project was idiosyncratic and (in many respects) very un-Marxist, so I don't think it really makes sense to continue to use the term at all. What follows are three arguments in defense of this claim.

First, the idea of a "humanist" Marxism rests on a faulty binary between the "early" and "late" (i.e. the "immature" and "mature") Marx. I think this is basically a distinction that rests on a non-existent difference. The notion of an "epistemological break" in Marx's writings fits neatly with Althusser's overall project (as it does with the need to legitimate the mechanical, rigid Stalinist "version" of Marxism), but it has little grounding in Marx's writings. It is more a super-imposed import than a real feature of Marx's corpus. It's also worth noting that the two interpreters of Marx most influenced by this distinction (i.e. Althusser and G.A. Cohen) are famous for defending the most mechanistic versions of Marxism. (G.A. Cohen's Marxism, which places primacy on the forces of production as the source historical change, is rightly impugned as little more than "technological determinism").

Furthermore, Marx's "later" writings, just as much as his earlier works, draw heavily on Hegel. To say that Marx suddenly abandoned his Hegelian roots is preposterous. Lenin's claim that Hegel's Logic is necessary pre-reading for Capital is a bit of an exaggeration, but the basic idea is right: Marx must be read as a determinate negation of Hegel's thought. Moreover, the shifts in emphasis in Marx's writings (from more philosophical works, to historical analyses, to more political economy, etc.) track not sharp political turns in his work, but shifts in subject matter. You can't cover it all, all the time. It doesn't follow, for instance, from the fact that Marx never wrote a sustained theoretical treatise on, say, epistemology that it is irrelevant to Marxism. (The same is true of ethics and moral philosophy). The "early" vs. "late" distinction derives from the need to shield a mechanical distortion of Marxism (particularly Stalinism) from critique. The sooner it is abandoned the better.

Second, the idea of a "humanist" Marxism only makes sense on the assumption that there is a contrary, "anti-humanist" Marxism. But who is it that goes around calling themselves "anti-humanist" these days? Althusserians are (thankfully) an endangered species. To be sure, there are plenty of folks influenced by post-structuralism in the academy that would gladly claim the "anti-humanist" mantle for themselves, but they are beyond the pale of Marxism. So, if the contrary of "humanist" Marxism is so patently absurd (and irrelevant), what is the term picking out that is of use to contemporary Marxists? It seems to me that the genuine Marxist tradition has always set itself against the mechanical, deterministic distortions of Stalinism and aspects of the Althusserian project. So why not just speak of Marxism tout court, and reject the "humanist" modifier as a relic?

Third, and finally, it seems to me that the "humanist" label carries too much unnecessary baggage. It would be better to have particular views about the Marx/Engels relationship than to simply affix the label "humanist" to those who regard Engels as an ossifier rather than an innovator. It's also worth saying that simply rejecting the complete identification of Engels and Marx's thought doesn't commit one to the view that they should be completely disentangled. The debates are the complex relationship between Marx and Engels are important, and they aren't helped along by throwing around the "humanist" label. Moreover, the complex Hegel/Marx relationship is similarly maligned by the term. It can't turn out that anyone who talks about alienation, species functioning, dialectics, and so forth is therefore a "humanist". The structure/agency (or, if you like, the spontaneity/organization, or objective/subjective) problem in Marxism is a difficult one that requires a careful, dialectical treatment that does not admit of facile reductive moves. In my view, "humanism" is nothing more than a bogey put forward by those (e.g. Althusserians) who wish to reduce Marxism to an undialectical, purely third-personal functionalist theory in which human agency does not figure into the model. Let's abandon the term and get on to what matters.

Further reading: I highly recommend Alasdair MacIntyre's essay "Notes from the Moral Wilderness" on this topic. Read it here. Also, Perry Anderson's book In the Tracks of Historical Materialism does an excellent job of tracing how the "permanent oscillation" between structure and agency worked itself out in 20th Century Marxism. His view is that the lack of Marxist response to Althusser within the Francophone world primed the pumps for the rise of post-structuralism (which, like Althusser, tended to reject the notion of agency as such as a mere epiphenomenon).


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Marxism is Incompatible with a Two Camp Perspective

A couple of quick, unsystematic jottings:

  1. I'm thinking of sort of "two campist" politics that sees the entire field of global struggle in black and white. That is, the sort of crude political perspective that accepts as exhaustive a distinction between (a) the imperialist governments of the major capitalist powers, and (b) any state formation whatsoever that is antagonistic to them. The task of leftists, then, is an easy one: unconditionally side with (b) against the aggression of (a). I think one could plausibly argue that this basic perspective shapes the politics of groupings like the Party for Socialism and Liberation. This is how they wind up unconditionally defending the likes of Gaddaffi, Hussein, Milosevic, Mugabe, Kim Jong Il, and so forth. This is nothing more than a crude inversion of liberal Cold War politics.
  2. "Two campists" get one thing absolutely right: imperialism on the part of major capitalist powers is never a force for good and must always be staunchly opposed.
  3. A basic argument for "two campism" goes something like this. The Left must fight against capitalism because it is an exploitative and oppressive system. Thus the Left must uncompromisingly oppose imperialism, that is, the subjugation of the people of poorer nations by the ruling classes of richer nations. (I'm still on the bus at this point). Opposing imperialism means unconditionally standing behind any state formation that brushes against the grain of imperialism. (This is where I get off). Thus, the Left must unflinchingly defend all states that part ways with the imperialist powers. (To be fair, there are many other arguments for a two-camp position not covered by the above.... e.g. that there is (or was) such a thing as "really existing socialism" that justifies two campism... or that any Left alternative to two-campism is merely utopian dreaming in need of hard-headed realpolitik).
  4. Though the argument above has an anti-capitalist edge to it, it is not Marxist. Whatever else is true, Marxism is not a state-centric social theory. It does not tell us to understand the world by fetishizing the state as an explanatory device. It enjoins us to focus on production, on class struggle. When looking at any social formation whatever, Marxism asks us to see it as a dialectical totality, i.e. as a constellation of different elements (different social institutions, organizations, interests, classes and so forth) which mutually constitute one another and co-evolve in complex ways. Of course, in stressing the concept of totality, Marxism isn't an "anything goes" social theory in which we're told nothing more than "everything relevant affects everything relevant". As I said above, Marxism understands production to be in some sense fundamental to social explanations. But two-campism rejects this basic insight of Marxism. In the case of the major capitalist powers, two-campists employ a more or less Marxist analysis. But when it comes to allegedly "anti-imperialist" regimes like Mugabe or Gaddafi, the Marxism falls by the wayside. Whereas any Marxist worth her salt would want to understand, say, the Gaddafi regime the same way she understood any other state, two-campists refuse to undertake such an analysis. It is for this reason that two campers couldn't offer a genuinely Marxist analysis of the rise of Stalinism and the unraveling of the gains of October.
  5. Marxism is about working-class self-emancipation. It's therefore not a politics suited to supporting state formations that oppose the interests of their own working classes. Yet that is precisely where two-campism leads. When the Left should be defending the interests of workers full stop, two-campists defend despotic regimes that oppose the interests of workers. They are pushed into this position for a number of reasons, e.g. because the despotic regimes allegedly represent the interests of workers, or because the regime's opposition to imperialism abroad somehow mitigates its repression at home. Neither of these reasons are adequate.
  6. I'm not against black and white assessments tout court. Marxism, after all, is a politics that, in opposing capitalism, opposes ruling classes as such. It therefore rejects reconciliation with the capitalist class. Class struggle is thus a black and white struggle between oppressors and oppressed. But class struggle is one thing, and the head-butting of state formations on the global stage is another. Two-campists confuse the two. I'm fine with seeing the global political arena in black and white if that means, more or less, seeing nothing but oppressed peoples and oppressors. So let's not forget, as two-campers do, about the oppressed peoples of marginalized nations who are dominated by regimes that happen to oppose the interests of the US in the global arena. They, not their governments, are the ones in need of unconditional support from the Left.


Does GM have a "Union Problem"?

If only. The UAW is a toothless, invertebrate shell of what it once was. Its leadership is a paradigm example of everything that's wrong with the labor movement: lifeless top-down bureaucratization, collaborationist "business unionism", lack of rank and file organization, etc.

Of course, that's not the way the bourgeois press sees it. No matter how weak, ineffective and powerless the union may have become, it is always the favored bogey man when the auto industry is discussed. This recent NY Times piece is no exception. The basic line argued in the article is that GM is "turning auto making on its head" by producing a sub-compact car, employing fewer workers and paying them half of the union wage. These measures are all billed as progressive and innovative, of course. And, according to the article, they even have the added "benefit" of having won the assent of the UAW who, we're told, is finally willing to "cooperate". Freed from the chains of workplace democracy, GM has finally found a way to spread its wings and do things its own way.

This "progressive" narrative draws on a number of false premises. I'll discuss only two.

The first is that higher wages for auto workers means worse cars (hence why lowering the wages of the workers in the production of the sub-compact car makes for a "better" product). The second is connected to the first: it is implied that the union impedes innovation and hinders the production of world-class cars (hence GM's foray into the hitherto unexplored US sub-compact market was only possible given the newly "cooperative" attitude of the typically stubborn UAW).

The "evidence" typically marshaled in defense of the first premise is that companies other than the Big Three make "better" cars because they aren't handicapped by a union that wins benefits, pensions, and decent wages for its members. This is, of course, false. European car manufacturing is a heavily unionized industry. In Germany, workers are paid more than their counterparts in the US and get 8 weeks paid vacation each year. And French auto workers unions have been known to show a bit of militancy now and again. Likewise, the Japanese auto industry is heavily unionized as well, winning health benefits and decent wages for its members while the owners of Japanese auto firms continue to do quite well. Korean auto workers are also unionized, as you may recall from this struggle a few years back. Note that none of the hacks in the US press who rail against the UAW ever make the argument that European and Japanese automakers are handicapped by their unionized workforces. That's because they aren't. (I note in passing that a similar phenomenon occurs in arguments about education policy, where pro-corporate anti-teacher zealots blame US teachers unions for everything wrong with public education while pointing (often unknowingly) to successful European schools that are, in fact, unionized). That these facts about auto unions elsewhere in the world aren't ever discussed speaks to the distorted picture propagated by our corporate-friendly media.

The second false premise is even more far-fetched than the first. It is more insinuation than cogent argument, since there is no plausible mechanism that could possibly explain how the members of the UAW are directly responsible for investment, design and marketing decisions made by higher ups. As everyone knows, workers don't make those decisions: they do what they're told. As with any other capitalist firm, GM and others are anything but internally democratic. They are hierarchically organized firms, with investors and their surrogates perched at the top, and workers at the bottom. All of the major decisions about investment and production (e.g. whether to close operations, whether to cut back, what to produce and how to market it, etc.) are made by the representatives of the ownership of the corporations in question. Just think about it: when Ralph Nader criticized GM for making unsafe cars in the 60s, it wasn't as if he was indicting the auto workers on the shop floor. He was clearly criticizing those who made the decision to place profit above the needs of human beings, i.e. the owners of the auto corporations. Were the UAW to ask for serious decision-making power in these matters, it would be sharply rebuffed. Yet, despite being denied the power to influence the design of automobile production, auto workers singled out and blamed for the bad design and business decisions made by their employer.

That is, they are blamed for doing things they are denied the power to do. It's a "heads I win, tails you lose" kinda deal. It's nothing more than a lazy externalization of culpability by the capitalists who own the auto industry.

So once you set aside these two false premises underpinning the ruling class narrative about union sabotage, what's left?

Well, for one, we're left with no good argument against the UAW. All we're left with is naked class interests. On the ruling class side, it's obvious why the UAW is "bad". It cuts into profits, it is still strong enough to at least attenuate the rate of exploitation of its workers, and so forth. It would be much better from the perspective of auto Capital if the workers were divided, atomized, and unable to collectively bargain at all, since this would make for much lower wages, no benefits, no pensions, etc. And, of course, every cut to workers pay is an earning for the ownership. Keep in mind we're not talking about folks that are barely making ends meet. We're talking about multi-millionaires fighting tooth and nail to make a couple extra million by screwing workers.

On the working class side, however, the situation is much different. In it's heyday, the UAW was able to set the bar for the entire US working class in terms of wages, benefits, pensions, and job security. Auto workers were able to achieve a modest level of economic security, retire at a reasonable age, and enjoy reasonably good health benefits (though, to be sure, US-style for-profit health insurance is perilous even if you have "good" benefits). Moreover, shop floor safety was dramatically increased while the employer's tyrannical control of time was challenged by workers. From the perspective of any working person, these are all extremely good things to have. Of course, all of these benefits depended upon the strength of the union to exact these compromises from the ownership. None of these gains for workers were won with sweet-talk, moral suasion, or "cooperation". They were won by way of struggle. Thus, when the strength and militancy of the union recedes, so does it's ability to defend the decent wages, benefits, and so on that it won in the past. Thus, we see that the so-called "American Dream" of earning some measure of relative economic security as a worker rests precariously on an unstable compromise between capital and labor.

The same is true of the welfare state writ large: the reformist, Keynesian phase of capitalism that persisted from 1945-1973 was the result of strong labor movements combined with high levels of capital accumulation. When the global economic system went into crisis in the early 1970s, the ruling class pulled out of the compromise and began an all-out broadside against labor in an effort to drive wages down to restore profit rates to pre-crisis levels. Smashing labor was only one prong of this ruling class strategy that would come to be known as "neoliberalism". Other prongs included slashing business regulation, privatization, liberalizing trade, cutting taxes for the rich, smashing the welfare state, and cutting social expenditure.

The bottom line here is this. Capitalist production is production for profit. Not profit for all, but profit for capitalists. Thus, when inevitable contradiction surface (e.g. between the need for stable working-class employment and the ruling class need for high profitability), we shouldn't be surprised. Nor should we assume there are simple solutions that can resolve such contradictions within the basic framework of capitalist production. In such cases we need to think outside the box: What should the basic function of the auto industry be? What should it's basic goals be? Who should get to decide? Any honest appraisal of these questions leads us quickly out of the ideological straitjacket imposed by capitalism. For example, if society has an interest in the production of hybrid buses and wind turbines that can be manufactured by auto workers... and auto workers have an interest in secure employment with decent wages and fair conditions.... why should there be any need for capitalists at all? Why can't society and auto workers decide, together, and without the interference of the vested interests of capitalists, how to move forward in a way that works for all concerned parties? Put in this way, it becomes obvious that the owners are nothing more than tyrannical
parasites who perform no useful social function. After all, why couldn't workers elect managers and self-govern production themselves while determining pay-scales collectively through some democratic procedure? Answer: because this means dethroning the capitalists who own the auto industry. And no ruler wants to be removed from their perch- they won't go without a fight, no matter how much everyone else wants them gone.

The moral of the story here can be reduced to a left-wing slogan popularized during May 68 in Paris: "The boss needs you, but you don't need the boss" (see above for the picture).