Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On "Having it All": Feminism, Work and the Family

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, recently penned a piece for The Atlantic which has already broken all the records for page-views at the Atlantic's website. It has clearly touched a raw nerve. Succinctly put, Slaughter's argument is that women definitely can't "have it all" in the contemporary U.S. By reflecting on the dilemmas she personally encountered trying to build a family and a high-powered Washington D.C. career at the same time, Slaughter lashes out against "feminism" for propagating the false promise of having both. "Feminism has sold young women a fiction", she claims.

The article has already elicited a wealth of critical responses. All of them strike me as more or less correct: First of all, feminism never claimed that "women can have it all" in the first place. This is an invention of advertising executives, not feminist activists. Moreover, "having it all" is an extremely high standard, so its unfair to blame feminism when it isn't satisfied. Also, it's not fair to assume that all women want children and families. Neither is it reasonable to assume that everyone wants to fight her way into a high-powered job at the top--many people reject these conventional (capitalist) criteria of success. This is a class-specific dilemma, some have claimed, specific to the "joyless experience of life at the top", and as such it is not clear how relevant it is to the experiences of working-class women.

Although these criticisms basically strike me as correct, Slaughter still manages to say a number of things that, while not necessarily ground-breaking or original, raise interesting questions.

For example, she is correct to say that sheer determination and commitment--contra prevailing ideologies about personal responsibility and social mobility--are not enough to break out of the gendered contradictions of work and life in contemporary capitalist societies. And while I don't agree with her recommendations for reform, Slaughter is--despite herself--right on the money when she says that "I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured." This is the crux of the issue: it is infeasible (and unjust) to demand that individual women--through sheer will-power and life-style choices--fix what is, in fact, a basic problem with they way our society is structured.

There are, to be sure, prudential questions all women today face given that they have to find a way to navigate things the way they are in the here and now. But no amount of prudential advice or individual maneuvering will change the basic contradictions that generate these dilemmas for women in the first place.

Plenty has been said about what's wrong with Slaughter's argument. But what would a reasonable alternative look like? I am inclined to say that the basic structural problems here are rooted deeply enough in capitalism that only a radical transformation from the ground up could solve them fully. But, short of a social revolution, what kinds of "transitional demands" in the here and now could we put on the table to start to undermine the gender inequalities that prevent women from "having it all"? What demands are most likely to pave the way for even more ambitious gains?

The radical political philosopher Nancy Fraser has done some really interesting work on just these kinds of questions, and I'd like to bring her arguments to bear on this widely discussed issue.

The first thing to say is that the dilemma described by Slaughter is a relatively new one, historically speaking. The emergence of industrial capitalism brought with it the idea of a "family wage" which assumed that people "were supposed to be organized into heterosexual, male-headed nuclear families, which lived principally from the man's labor-market earnings. the male head of the household would be paid a family wage, sufficient to support children and a full-time wife-and-mother, who performed domestic labor without pay. Of course, countless lives never fit this pattern. Still, it provided the normative picture of a proper family."

Thanks in no small part to struggles of the women's and lesbian/gay liberation movements, this model is today more and more contested and is no longer the norm. But the undoing of the "family wage" model wasn't simply the work of progressive movements fighting for an egalitarian alternative. As capitalism became more and more "neoliberal" from the 70s onward, the idea of a family wage was also being undermined by large-scale economic processes as real wages stagnated and part-time, precarious employment became the norm. Also, "women's employment became more and more common (although far less well paid than men's), post-industrial families less conventional and more diverse... Heterosexuals are marrying less and later and divorcing more and sooner, and gays and lesbians are pioneering new kinds of domestic arrangements." This is the backdrop for the issues raised in Slaughter's article.

How do we respond to this state of affairs? Fraser examines two main ways that feminists have attempted to respond: 1) the universal breadwinner model, and 2) the caregiver parity model. On the first, the idea is to secure equity by promoting women's employment (e.g. by instituting anti-discrimination laws, by securing subsidies for child-care to free women from compulsory domestic labor, etc.). According to the second model, the goal is to promote equity by supporting informal carework (e.g. the state provides allowances/stipends to dependent caregivers, etc.). As we will see, Fraser finds both approaches wanting and argues, instead, for a "universal caregiver" model that lifts advantages from both models while adding the requirement that men "become more like women are now" by doing more primary carework.

What criteria does Fraser use to evaluate the different models? She uses seven different principles--all aimed at securing equality--which are worth examining closely in their own right as "transitional demands" that we need to advance the struggle:

  1. Anti-Poverty. As is well-known, rates of poverty are disproportionately high in solo-mother families. This requires immediate relief--in a world of plenty, people should not go without having their basic needs met. But, this principle is not enough, since there are lots of different ways that poverty could be addressed, not all of them acceptable from a socialist/feminist perspective. 
  2. Anti-Exploitation. One reason that anti-poverty measures are important is that they undermine the conditions that render women vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, dependency and violence. As Fraser points out, "needy women with no other way to feed themselves and their children are liable to exploitation--by abusive husbands, by sweatshop foremen, and by pimps." Fraser adds, however, that it isn't enough to simply allocate aid to needy women--it also matters how the aid is given. For instance, if it is highly stigmatized or discretionary, women may simply trade "the exploitable dependence on a husband or a boss for the exploitable dependence of a caseworker's whim." Rather than shuffle women back and forth between these dependencies, we need to get rid of all three. 
  3. Income-Equality. Given that women earn 70 cents for every dollar earned by men, there is reason to press for the leveling of the real per capita income gap. This requires, among other things, requiring that much of the unpaid labor performed by women be compensated. It also means doing away with arrangements where, as is true in the US today, women's income decline by half after divorce, whereas men's tend to double. It also requires, Fraser argues, that we reverse the "wholesale undervaluation of women's labor and skills." 
  4. Leisure-Time Equality. This is central to the questions raised by the Slaughter article. The problem is that women are often compelled to work a "double shift", doing both paid and unpaid carework which leads women to suffer disproportionately from "time poverty". Fraser cites a recent survey in which 52% of women--as opposed to only 21% of men--complained that they "felt tired most of the time." This criterion requires that we fight for equal leisure time between men and women. 
  5. Equality of Respect. Even if we win all of the previous demands, Fraser claims, there is still a need to fight against a culture which "routinely represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of male subjects". Thus, we have to actively fight against cultural configurations--in film, TV, music, news media, and so on--which objectify, deprecate, and trivialize the achievements of women. These tropes combine with the vulnerabilities caused by poverty to consolidate problems of sexual violence. 9 
  6. Anti-Marginalization. Still, even if we won equality of respect, Fraser still thinks it would be possible for women to be marginalized and enclaved in certain spheres. Thus, we should also fight for women's full participation on par with men in all areas of social life--in employment, in formal politics, within social movements, in associations in civil society, etc. This requires, among other things, provision for childcare and the striking down of bans on public breast-feeding. It also requires "dismantling masculinist work cultures and woman-hostile political environments." 
  7. Anti-Androcentrism. Finally, Fraser argues that we also need to fight against the idea that "men's current life patterns represent the human norm and that women ought to assimilate to them." We should not demand that women "simply become more like men in order to fit into social institutions designed for men." Instead, we should fundamentally restructure the androcentric institutions themselves. 
Now, you might worry that these principles overlap in many ways and aren't wholly distinct. I would agree and, I think, so would Fraser. They are best interpreted, I think, as a set of "transitional demands" addressed to activists today, given a certain balance of forces and set of concrete social conditions.

Having gone through these demands, however, how do the two standard models--Universal Breadwinner versus Caregiver Parity--hold up? Fraser's assessment is that both get different things right and different things wrong. Both do a reasonable job of undermining poverty and exploitation, although neither give us a good way to address the wage gap between men and women. Worse still, however, both seem to be on relatively bad footing when it comes to addressing leisure-time equality, respect, anti-marginalization, and anti-androcentrism.

What we need instead, Fraser argues, is a new model, what she calls the "universal caregiver" model. What does this model look like? Fraser is explicit that she isn't in the business of giving proposals to "policy-making elites." Rather, she sees herself as doing something that is "political in a broader sense", which aims to put forward general transitional demands--not pie-in-the-sky ideal arrangements that fail to come to grips with existing conditions--whose content can be filled in by the people struggling to achieve them.

Still, though she hesitates to give us a detailed blueprint, she does put forward a sketch of what a different model would look like. The main feature of the Universal Caregiver model is that it makes women's current life-patterns the norm for everyone. It demands, in a sense, that men become more like women. Under such a model, we should demand that all jobs be designed for caregivers just as we should also demand a shortening of the work week (without decreasing pay).

These kinds of demands, Fraser argues, could help break down the gendered division between breadwinning and caregiving, which undergirds the present gendered order. This would also mean "subverting the gendered division of labor and reducing the salience of gender as a structural principle of social organization."

As a transitional demand, then, Fraser's Universal Caregiver model speaks directly to some of the questions raised by Slaughter's piece. Fraser isn't demanding that women simply "marry well" so as to avoid the objectionable forms of dependence endured by women locked into marriage with an abusive or overtly sexist husband. She's arguing that we should--through collective struggle--fight to transform the institutional structure that places many women in the dilemmas discussed by Slaughter. It's the system that places women in these contradictory situations, so it's the system that has got to change.

I don't think these are utopia demands by any stretch. Given the increasing severity of the global economic crisis--and the increasingly brutal austerity cuts being instituted the world over--many of these demands will become only more urgent to growing anti-austerity movements. And, as we saw with the explosive international ascendancy of "Slut Walk" mass marches, just as we've seen with the wide readership (and criticism) of Slaughter's piece, there is massive discontent bubbling beneath the surface which could form the basis for a renewed and unapologetic womens' movement. Such a movement would have to see its aims as inseparably linked with (global) struggles to defeat austerity and the political/economic dominance of the 1%.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Moralism, Politics and Recycling

OK, so here are some unsystematic, polemical remarks on the ethics and politics of recycling. Almost nobody--except the cynical corporate marketeers who exploit "green" ideologies for profit--thinks that the individual-level decision to recycle or not will change the world. Whether or not we can stop environmental disaster in the last instance turns on whether or not we can get rid of capitalism. We need "system change, not climate change" as the popular anti-capitalist environmental slogan has it.

The big lie is that making the "green" individual lifestyle  choices (or, what usually amounts to the same thing in capitalist societies: comsumer-choices) are all we can do to stop ecological catastrophe. Sometimes, the big lie assumes a suffocatingly moralistic valence, wherein those who purchase the right goods are virtuous and those don't aren't. This, of course, assumes that "you are what you buy", embraces the atomized, powerless role of a consumer, takes for granted the basic structure of society such as it is, and ignores collective action strategies for social change. This is all well known.

But does it follow that it doesn't matter whether or not you recycle?

I will argue that this conclusion doesn't follow. Of course, I agree that there is no trans-historical, context-insensitive moral obligation to recycle. A lot depends on contextual factors. And, of course, it's better to simply re-use things in the first place but set that aside. My point is that if someone can very easily recycle or not, where there are no immediate costs or burdens associated with doing one thing rather than the other, it's obvious that one has a reason to recycle. That is, you have reason to think that, other things being equal, it's better if your plastic bottle gets recycled rather than deposited in a landfill. To fail to recycle in such a case is, then, simply to fail to do what you quite obviously have reason to do. And that renders you susceptible to criticism by others.

Now, this has nothing to do with politics. Nothing political or momentous hangs in the balance here--whether or not you recycle your bottle has nothing much to do with whether we can do what's necessary to save the planet, that is, defeat capitalism. This is just a rather mundane case of what you have reason to do given certain obvious commitments I think we already have, like "other things being equal, it's better to recycle and re-use things rather than deposit them in landfills." 

Whether we like it or not, we are agents. We can't not act. We have to do something or other. What we do--or don't do--depends on what we reasons there are for doing this or that. Suppose you're at work and you finish drinking a bottle of water--nevermind how you came to have it in the first place--and you decide you have reason to get rid of it. It's taking up room on your desk and you hate clutter. Now, you clearly have reason to get rid of it, but that's not enough to know what exactly you should do with it because there are lots of different ways you could get rid of it. You could, for example, stuff it in the purse of your co-worker who sits ten feet away from your desk. Or you could throw it in a lake outside your building. But you have reason not to do either of those two actions. It would be fucking rude to stuff you trash in your co-workers bag and you think that you have plenty of reasons not to sully the lake with your garbage. If you did either of these two actions you would obviously be susceptible to criticism. Something similar is true of the person who, though she can easily recycle something, fails to do it. You have reason to recycle and, unless you have overriding reason to do otherwise, you should do what you have reason to do--on pain of irrationality.

So when I criticize you, don't feed me a bunch of bullshit about how recycling won't change the world. I never said it would. In fact, as I say above, I think it's a mistake to link large-scale social change with localized, un-coordinated individual actions. But the fact that it won't change the world doesn't mean you're beyond criticism when you fail to do it in many cases.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Wishful Thinking and Obama

Many previously disaffected left-leaning people are suddenly glowing after Obama's "bold new move on immigration". I can't tell you how many facebook updates I've seen heaping huge amounts of unqualified praise on Obama. Despite his Administration's consistent pursuit of policies that benefit the 1%—at home and abroad—this act seems to prove for many left-leaning people that Obama really is on "our side."

Yet these people are seeing reality as they want it to be, not as it actually is. They are being encouraged—and don't forget that we are in the midst of campaign season—to project their hopes and desires onto a politician and a party that has no commitment to those hopes or desires whatsoever. Obama's basic campaign strategy is to encourage and exploit wishful thinking—i.e. the tendency to form beliefs on the basis of what's pleasing or agreeable rather than what the facts are.

Those people who are excited about Obama's "bold new move" have reason to be excited. The Obama Administration has broken previous records and deported more immigrants than Bush's did in his entire two terms combined. Let me say that again. The Obama Administration has deported more immigrants than Bush did in his entire two terms combined. Moreover, Obama's government has expanded the powers of local police—the "polimigra"—to take a leading role in deporting undocumented people. His government presides over a host of opaque, "secret ICE castles" where undocumented people can be detained and imprisoned indefinitely without rights. This in spite of the fact that latin@s formed a huge part of his electoral support in 2008. Any respite in this cruel onslaught against an oppressed and vulnerable population is to be welcomed.

So my point isn't that we shouldn't bill this as a victory—even if it's only a small and highly qualified one. My point is that we need to put it in context so that we don't allow ourselves to be lulled into giving a free pass to a President that has broken all of the records and deported more undocumented people than anyone in the history of the United States. We need to keep in mind that the organizations charged with breaking up families, raiding homes, harassing and detaining immigrants are not an external force that Obama has stepped in to thwart. Those forces are a part of him and the Federal Government over which he presides. Legally speaking, he's the one giving the OK to every single deportation and raid.

What's happened is a little like a bully telling you that he's only going to beat you up three-days-a-week instead of five. Now, that's something—a victory of sorts—but it doesn't obscure the fact that he's still the bully. The power relations haven't changed and neither have the interests of the parties involved. And who knows: maybe that three-day-a-week promise won't even be kept.

So, I'm with everyone who is excited that this recent shift might mean that we're moving closer toward the goal of full citizenship rights for all. But let's be clear that Obama is no ally in this fight—he's the bully responsible for record-high levels of deportations. And let's not forget that the small victory here was won on the basis of a long, determined (and ongoing) struggle by undocumented people and allies to fight for full amnesty and legalization. That's why those in the movement are making sure to keep critical distance from Obama's (as yet unfulfilled) promise.

Nothing Obama does in public is accidental. Every gesture is calculated and, with an election looming, aimed at securing the funding and votes necessary to beat Romney. If you stand for full legalization and support the slogan that "no human being is illegal", then my advice is to hold fast that commitment and see whether or not Obama and the Democrats actually fight for it. Don't graft your own hopes and desires onto a party that actually opposes them—even though the Dems will do everything in their power to encourage you to make that mistake. There is an alternative to the cul-de-sac of two-party duopoly, and we're seeing it right now in Quebec and Mexico, and we've seen it here with the Occupy movement. We need to build the independent social movements which have laid the basis of every major progressive gain in US history.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Gender, Sexuality and Capitalism

On the face of it, it is easier to make the argument that class and race are intertwined than it is to make the case for a close link between class struggle and the politics of LGBT liberation. Race—a specifically modern notion—comes into being in the context of European expansion and conquest, the expropriation of indigenous peoples in the Americas and, of course, the African slave trade. Modern racism, then, emerges as an ideology meant to stabilize and justify the accumulation-driven imperialist projects of colonial expansion and slavery. Racism has developed and changed a lot since then, but its entanglement in processes of exploitation, accumulation and class domination remains.

The case of sexuality is less clear at first glance. As radical theorist Nancy Fraser observes, "homosexuals are distributed throughout the entire class structure of capitalist society, [and therefore] occupy no distinctive position in the division of labor, and do not constitute an exploited class." This leads her to conclude that "the social division between heterosexuals and homosexuals is not grounded in political economy... but rather in the status order of society, as institutionalized patterns of cultural value construct heterosexuality as natural and normative, heterosexuality as perverse and despised." In short, the oppression of LGBT people is, for Fraser, fundamentally a problem of mis-recognition.

For those unfamiliar with the politics of recognition, the idea is that I suffer misrecognition when I am not seen as an equal by others—because, for example, I am systematically disrespected or devalued by them, or because I'm subject to cultural patterns of interpretation which are alien or hostile to me, or, perhaps because I'm simply rendered indivisible by dominant "authoritative" communicative/interpretive practices. The oppression of LGBT people is fundamentally one of mis-recognition, Fraser argues, because they suffer injustices such as "shaming and assault, exclusion from the rights and privileges of marriage and parenthood, curbs on rights of expression and association, demeaning stereotypical depictions in the media, harassment and disparagement in everyday life, and the denial of the full rights and equal protections of citizenship."

To be sure, Fraser acknowledges that there are political-economic dimensions to this oppression—e.g. she notes that LGBT people "can be summarily dismissed from civilian employment and military service, they may be denied a broad range of family-based social-welfare benefits, and face major tax and inheritance liabilities". But, sociologically speaking, her argument is that the root of LGBT oppression lies in patterns of misrecognition—not in the economic structure of society. This form of oppression derives from the "status order of society", not the economic structure. Any political-economic disadvantages flow from this subordinate status (and not the other way around).

Incidentally, Fraser would agree with me about racial oppression that it is fundamentally entangled with questions of political economy. Interestingly, she also thinks—and I fully agree with her here—that gender oppression is also fundamentally entangled in the economic structure of society. But, she suggests, sexuality is different.

Gender, Fraser argues, "serves as a basic organizing principle of the economic structure of capitalist society. On the one hand, it structures the fundamental division between paid "productive" labor and unpaid "reproductive" and domestic labor... On the other hand, gender also structures the division within paid labor and higher-paid occupations... The result is an economic structure that generates... gender-based exploitation, economic marginalization and deprivation."

This, in turn, generates problems of mis-recognition or status subordination, such as "sexual assault and domestic violence, trivializing, objectifying and demeaning stereotypical depictions in the media; harassment and disparagement in everyday life; exclusion or marginalization in public spheres and deliberative bodies" and so forth. But, unlike sexuality, Fraser doesn't see these problems of gender-based mis-recognition as the fundamental cause of the political-economic dimensions of the oppression of women. With gender, her analysis is more conventionally historical materialist.

In an interesting—if slightly unfair in certain respects—response to Fraser, Judith Butler argues against the idea that the oppression of LGBT people is "merely cultural". Of course, Fraser never said it was "merely cultural"—she acknowledges the fact that it has economic dimensions while arguing that its sociological root cause is cultural or recognition-based. That aside, Butler's critique does raise important questions about the relationship between capitalism and sexuality.  

Butler points out that Marx and Engels insisted that their notion of a "mode of production" includes forms of social association involved in reproduction. She quotes a well-known passage from Engels to make her point: "According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life. This, again, is of a twofold character: on the one side, the production of the means of existence...on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species." The key to understanding human reproduction in capitalist societies is, of course, is the nuclear family. And, as Marxist-feminists have long argued, what's needed is a "socially-contingent and socially transformable account of kinship."

As Butler points out, traditional Marxist scholarship has tended to view kinship relations in terms of how they serve the interest of capital accumulation. They tended to maintain that "a specifically social account of the family was needed to explain the sexual division of labor and the gendered reproduction of the worker." These thinkers examined the sphere of sexual reproduction as a " part of the material conditions of life... a constitutive feature of political economy."

Of course, for the family to play this role in the reproduction of the workforce, it requires the reproduction of gendered persons, of "men" and "women". But—and this is Butler's central point—to be a "man" or a "woman" in this sense is, precisely, to be a heterosexual man or a woman. Gender always was sexuality and vice versa—to be a traditional "man" is, precisely, to be heterosexual. Condensed, the argument is that the family structure is crucial to the social reproduction of the working class, and this reproductive function requires gendered persons and a sexual division of labor, but it then follows that heterosexuality must have been built into this family/gender formation from the beginning (because otherwise it would not have been able to fulfill its economic function).

The key link between gender and sexuality is the family and the social regulation of sexual reproduction. Inasmuch as we can tell a materialist story about the formation and development of the family structure, we can tell a materialist story about formation an development of sexuality. The result is that Butler's argument undermines Fraser's hypothesis that LGBT oppression has no fundamental roots in political economy. If heteronormativity is a constitutive feature of gender which, as we've seen, has roots in the economic structure of society, it follows that sexuality, too, is just as entangled in material economic conditions. If gender
"serves as a basic organizing principle of the economic structure of capitalist society", then, a fortiori, so does sexuality.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Contradictions of Capitalism

It is a basic tenet of Marxism that capitalism is a contradiction-laden system marked by various internal conflicts and tensions. This is in sharp contrast with the pseudo-scientific claims of neoliberal economics according to which capitalism is a smoothly-functioning, efficient system which always tends toward equilibrium. In times of global slump, it is plausible enough--even for non-Marxists--to say that capitalism is plagued by internal tensions and fissures. But it remains to fill out the thought and explain exactly what this means concretely.

One word about the use of the concept "contradiction" in Marxism. In logic, a contradiction refers to the conjunction of a proposition and its negation (e.g. "it is both the case that it is 1+1=2 and it is not the case that 1+1=2"). That's not what we mean when we talk about the contradictions of capitalism which, in contrast, refer to opposing social forces/processes that brush against the grain of one another. Marxist political economy, methodologically speaking, looks at capitalism as a global system--a dialectical totality--in which various elements reside unstably in an uneven and combined constellation of social processes. To see whether there are any internal contradictions in capitalism we must always situate our analysis at the international level--since what appears to be seamless in a national context can, in fact, be but one part of a contradictory global economic process.

As I say, this is plausible enough at a high level of abstraction, but to see whether or not Marxists are right to think this way we have to look, concretely, at how real capitalism actually works. István Mészáros has done us a great service by actually composing a short list of internal contradictions lodged at the heart of contemporary global capitalism. Below, I reproduce his list with a couple of thoughts about each putative contradiction.

For Mészáros, there are contradictions between:
  1. Production and its control. Capitalism is a system in which competition among firms produces an "anarchy of production". No one firm controls the process as a whole and all are locked into a competitive struggle for market share and profits with rival firms. The result is that the machinations of the market produce instability, uncertainty, heightened risk and bad outcomes that no particular capitalist wills. But, of course, in order for capitalism to be viable it requires the constant, conscious intervention of certain groups (corporate administrators, central bankers, regulators, state officials, etc.) who buck the blind compulsion of market competition to try to steer the process to do their bidding. Both elements of the contradiction are unavoidable within capitalism. It can't be market forces and competition all the way down, because within every capitalist firm there has to be some degree of planning and attempts to control the production process to meet certain conscious goals. Moreover, all capitalists states--however neoliberal--simply cannot avoid "interference" in the economy. But any attempts to bring the production process under control in capitalism--however "necessary", even from a ruling-class perspective--will find itself at odds with the problems created by the "anarchy of production", whether at the national or the global level.
  2. Production and consumption. I'm not entirely sure what Mészáros means here--he doesn't specify. But it could be that he's referring to the fact that capitalism has to continually create new markets (and manufacture new "needs") to satisfy its endless expansionary requirements while, at the same time, rubbing up against the problem that working-class purchasing power can't justify the expansion. In other words, he could be referring to the classic tendency of capitalist expansion to overheat and generate over-accumulation--a situation in which capitalists accumulate more productive capacity (e.g. more factories, materials, machines, capital, etc.) than they can profitably utilize.
  3. Production and circulation. Again, I'm not entirely sure what Mészáros is getting at here. He could mean that the interests of firms dedicated to circulation and those dedicated to production are at odds with one another and produce macro-level irrationalities. He could also mean that there are contradictions between what's produced, on the one hand, and how things need to be distributed, on the other. Any ideas? The absurdity of how food is trucked and shipped all over the globe when it can be produced more easily nearby comes to mind here, but I don't see the sense in which this evinces an internal contradiction of capitalism. 
  4. Competition and monopoly. This contradiction is closely related to #1 above. Capitalism is premised upon market competition, but competition naturally leads to concentration and monopolization as the winners get bigger and absorb the losers. Monopolization also serves other functions from a capitalist point of view: it realizes the goal of capturing maximum market share, it enables the monopolist to reduce risk and stabilize profit flows, the domination of a market generates big profits, etc. Left unchecked, "free competition" tends inevitably toward the concentration of capital in fewer hands by bigger and bigger firms. Yet, in other ways, monopolization threatens the very stability of capitalism as a whole. Also, from an inter-imperialist standpoint monopolization can lead to a reduced incentive to innovate the productive forces thereby allowing rival imperialist powers to gain an industrial/military advantage.
  5. Development and underdevelopment (i.e. the "north-south" divide, both globally and within particular countries). The combined and uneven development of countries in the north and south creates tensions and problems--economic as well as political--at the global level. I don't know enough about dependency theory to say anything interesting here.
  6. Expansion pregnant with the seeds of crisis-producing contraction. The idea is that booms pave the way for deep slumps and vice versa. David McNally discusses this process at length in his excellent Global Slump. I can't recommend this book highly enough. As I understand it, this is structurally similar to number 2 above.
  7. Production and destruction (the latter glorified as "productive" or "creative destruction"). Capitalism thrives on destruction. An excellent example is the rash of urban arsons that occurred in US cities in the 1970s. From the perspective of capitalism this made perfect sense--even though it meant destroying use-values, homes, and entire neighborhoods--even human lives in many cases. But capitalism cannot ceaselessly destroy surplus value, it needs to continually extract it from workers in order to be viable. This conjunction of endless expansion of production--coupled with a functional need for destruction--is, it seems to me, another way of getting at the contradictions already mentioned in #2 and #6 above. 
  8. Capital's structural domination of labor and its insurmountable dependence on living labor. Capitalists have a need to dominate labor--the better to keep wages low and productivity high. But, no matter what they do to discipline workers, to keep them divided and docile, capitalists are inescapably dependent on them because they produce the goods that make profits possible. So capitalists are attached at the hip to a social class with diametrically opposed interests. Capitalism produces its own gravediggers. This is perhaps the most well-known contradiction of capitalism. We could add to it the contradiction between the growing socialization of the labor process coupled with the growing privatization of its appropriation by the capitalist class.
  9. The production of free time and its crippling negation through the imperative to reproduce and exploit necessary labor. Adorno talked a good deal about this contradiction. Free time is shackled to its opposite, but both need one another in a certain way. No matter how much capitalism attempts to colonize and commercialize leisure time, it is impossible to stamp out the feeling that one's free time is fundamentally at odds with the time spent on the clock.
  10. Authoritarian decision-making in the productive enterprises and the need for their "consensual" implementation. Capitalism requires authoritarian decision-making processes within firms for the simple reason that democratic decision-making power would mean bringing to the fore contradiction number 8. But, of course, naked authoritarianism naturally produces resentment and resistance. So, the bosses have an interest in management techniques that attempt to secure the "consent" of employees so as to keep conflict latent. This takes many forms--from outright manipulation and lies, to divide-and-conquer techniques, to paternalism and kickbacks, to quasi-nationalistic narratives about "team-building" and community. Apple, through slick ideological means, performs this last technique remarkably well, although the contradiction remains.
  11. The expansion of employment and the generation of unemployment. It is a condition of employing workers in capitalism that it can be done profitably. But it can only be profitable as long as wages are kept below a certain threshold above which profits would be squeezed down to nothing. The bosses have innumerable ways of pushing wages down, but their most potent weapon remains the threat that "we can always hire someone else if you don't like it, since there are plenty of unemployed people willing to take your place". This is why Marx called unemployed workers in capitalist societies the "industrial reserve army". But although it is necessary to keep wages low enough for profit to be made, unemployment is also a source of social instability and it pushes effective demand down, especially when the ranks of the unemployed swell during recessions. Capitalism both needs unemployment but also faces problems if there is too much of it--for the simple reasons that it produces social unrest and drives down demand for the goods capitalists need to sell for a profit.
  12. The drive for economizing with material and human resources wedded to the most absurd wastefulness of these resources. This is a reason to think capitalism needs to go--but I don't see how it's an internal contradiction. To be sure, capitalism is a system in which, right now, huge masses of labor, unemployed, sit side by side huge masses of capital, amidst a world of unmet human needs. That is absurd, unjust and irrational from a socialist perspective. But is it an internal contradiction of capitalism? Capitalists need not recognize any contradiction here, since they care nothing for human needs as such. Profitability is the bottom line and from this perspective material resources are not wasted if they are destroyed or hoarded--even if human beings desperately need them.To be sure, capitalism can only legitimate itself ideologically if people think it is a system that meets human needs. So, perhaps that's the contradiction--between the useful ideological image of capitalism as "delivering the goods" and the wasteful, irrational reality of how it actually functions.
  13. Growth of output at all costs and the concomitant environmental destruction.  This is certainly a contradiction, but the temporal dimensions of it are different from others on the list. In the short-run scramble for profits this quarter, there is no contradiction. But in the long-run, to the extent that environmental catastrophe threatens the accumulation process there is a massive contradiction. Perhaps there are short-run examples--e.g. over-fishing, etc.
  14. The globalizing tendency of transnational enterprises and the necessary constraints exercised by the national states against their rivals. I wrote a little bit about this recently in a survey of theories of imperialism. I'm inclined to think that any theory of imperialism worth its salt must capture this contradiction. But it shouldn't do so--as Callinicos and Harvey propose--by attributing to imperialism two separate "logics". Rather, the contradiction should be seen as a basic feature of global capitalism itself.
  15. Control over the particular productive units and the failure to control their comprehensive setting (hence the extremely problematical character of all attempts at planning in all conceivable forms of the capital system). I interpret this to be the same as #1.
  16. The contradiction between the economically and the politically regulated extraction of surplus labor. I don't know what Mészáros means here. But it could refer to one massive contradiction that doesn't make the list explicitly--the contradiction between legitimation and accumulation. Capitalist states have to secure the conditions for accumulation, otherwise they get a bad economy with rising unemployment and declining tax revenues. No matter how progressive the goals of the State officials, a stagnant capitalist economy thwarts the realization of those goals. So no matter who's in charge of capitalist State, it is shackled to the need to "create a good business climate" and underwrite profitability. But, of course, doing what's necessary to ensure the accumulation of profits almost always brushes against the grain of the interests of the vast majority of the population. Yet, capitalist States have a need to secure legitimation for what it does by convincing the population that it pursues general interests rather than the particular interests of the ruling class (profitability). But there is a contradiction here. Securing legitimation becomes increasingly difficult when the demands of the accumulation process--which tend to trump all else, for reasons we just saw--require measures that punish the mass of the population. Austerity in Greece is a perfect example.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What's the matter with Wisconsin?

Why didn't Wisconsin recall Scott Walker? A year and half ago, hundreds of thousands of people marched and occupied the Capitol. Millions more--around the country and, indeed, around the world--were electrified by this sharp up-tick in mass struggle. But yesterday Wisconsin voters decided not to recall the Governor whose union-busting, austerity program sparked the revolt in the first place. What happened?

In liberal circles, there is a narrative emerging--reminiscent of Thomas Frank's 2004 book What's the Matter With Kansas?--that suggests that large swaths of the population in Wisconsin "voted against their own economic interests". This kind of talk has been accompanied by hand-wringing and consternation about what this might mean for the November presidential elections. Propagandists for the GOP are putting forward the very same analysis except they rejoice where liberals fret.

The trouble is that this entire way of thinking about what happened yesterday misses the mark.

In reality, the vote wasn't a referendum on Scott Walker. Voters weren't asked to simply appraise Walker's policies in the abstract. As always, they were asked to choose between Democrats and Republicans, between the political lines put forward by Walker and (2010 gubernatorial candidate) Tom Barrett. Yesterday's results must be evaluated in light of what voters took those two choices to represent.

Perceptions aside, what did each candidate actually represent? Those liberals most disturbed by the result tend to almost entirely ignore the politics of the Democrat challenger. They've attacked those who didn't vote for the Democrat as dupes who simply don't understand the nature of their own interests, but they've said almost nothing about whose interests Barrett's politics advance. To be sure, it is quite right to say that the interests of the vast majority of Wisconsin's 99% aren't advanced by the politics of union-busting and austerity pedaled by Walker and the Republicans. But neither were those interests advanced by the positions staked out by the tepid Democratic challenger.

As Socialist Worker noted recently, Barrett and the Democrats conceded to Walker on every single issue that brought people out onto the streets of Madison in the first place:
During the Senate recall races last summer, Democrats quietly dropped restoring collective bargaining and union rights from their campaign speeches
In this spring's primary to choose a candidate against Walker, other Democrats attacked Falk, a former Dane County Executive and the labor leadership's favored candidate, as being in the pocket of unions.
In an op-ed supporting Barrett, former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz jabbed at Falk: "A candidate beholden to big unions is no more appealing to independent voters than one who answers to the Koch brothers."
During a debate with Walker, Barrett made a point to mention that he was not labor's candidate. Rather than put up a defense of unions, the Democrats have treated them as supporters of "special interests" and an embarrassment.
Barrett has ceded further ground to Walker on austerity. Walker's rationale for budget cuts has been a familiar one: the state is out of money and needs to control its expenses. Yet despite the fact that Wisconsin's corporations are taxed at a rate below the national average--and that the current tax burden is primarily on Wisconsin's middle class rather than the rich--Barrett made no attempt to challenge Walker's claims.
Instead, Barrett emphasized that he won't increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy. He told a Milwaukee radio station, "It is certainly my hope that by the end of my first term, at the end of my second term, and at the end of my third term that Wisconsin will take in less tax revenues from its citizens and businesses each year."
While Barrett says he will reverse corporate tax cuts that Walker passed in January 2011, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that "he doesn't want to raise taxes beyond the levels they were at when Walker took office." This means that while Barrett could shift some priorities around, he wouldn't be able to restore most of Walker's cuts, including $1.25 billion taken from education and $500 million from Medicare.
Now, I was out on the streets of Madison when the uprising was white hot. I was joined by hundreds of thousands of other people who chanted, "How to fix the deficit? Tax, tax, tax the rich!" and "They say cut back, we say fight back!". I saw thousands of people who had no direct personal connection to public sector workers stand up and defend their sisters and brothers who were under attack.

If you'd have said that unions were a "special interest group" on par with corporations you would have been booed. If you'd have said that taxing the corporations is wrong and cuts to social services are necessary, you would have been mocked.

But, as we've seen, these were precisely the positions taken by Democrats in the recall campaign. 

Thus, the whole "Thomas Frank" line about how Wisconsin workers betrayed their own interests is absurd precisely because it assumes that the Democrats stand for advancing those interests. As was to be expected, the Democrats cozied up to Walker's line on every single issue that sparked the rebellion in the first place. And Wisconsin Democrats weren't alone in doing this--they were toeing the same line as their pro-austerity, anti-union counterparts in other so-called "blue states" such as Illinois, New York and California. This isn't a problem of this or that Democrat politician; it's a national problem that concerns the entire Democrat edifice.

Seen in this light, I have a hard time getting worked up over the fact that Walker outspent his Democrat challenger 5-to-1. I also have a hard time getting upset about the fact that the DNC didn't allocate as many resources to the election as it could have. The obsessive focus on funding obscures the substantive political questions facing ordinary working people in Wisconsin, such as how to defend collective bargaining and fight austerity.

So, if you ask me, the tragedy wasn't that the DNC didn't match Walker's massive war chest. If anything, the tragedy was that Wisconsin unions spent so much money funding a candidate that had no intention of fighting for them. That money would have been better spent mobilizing their workers and supporters to take the struggle to the next level when hundreds of thousands of people were on the streets of Madison. A labor movement with a self-confident and energized rank-and-file is worth infinitely more than any election victory for the corporate-friendly Democrats. 

In reality, the real defeat didn't happen yesterday. The real defeat was imposed on Wisconsin's 99% a year and a half ago when the Democratic Party suffocated the movement, wound down the protests in Madison, told people to stop occupying the Capitol and decreed from above that the panacea was a long, drawn-out recall campaign to elect Democrats with politics similar to Walker. Speaking from the front of the demonstration, Democrats told us to lay down our placards, go home, and operate through the "proper channels" to garner votes for them. This, we were told, would be represent the full realization of all that the movement stood for. But this effectively snuffed out all of the energy that electrified participants and supporters of the Madison uprising in the first place.

The bottom line is this. The Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. Leading Democrats are nothing but corporate-funded opportunists who take and take from dedicated, progressive people, but give them nothing in return.

What's more, it's worth pointing out that the Democrats aren't really even a lesser evil. On the contrary, they are an essential part of a two-party system that serves the interests of the 1% and preserves the status quo. They are two factions of one basically pro-Business party. They are both part of a convenient one-two punch that works wonders for the 1%. When one of them draws the ire of the population it's always possible talk about "throwing the bums out" in order to deflect anger from the system onto a particular mainstream party within it. This virtually apolitical back-and-forth between status-quo party A and status-quo party B does nothing for our side. It leaves us powerless and without voice.

In an era where social struggles the world over are heating up, nobody but the most hardened cynic could say that buying into the two-party duopoly is the best the we can do. Accepting the two-party straitjacket means accepting the fact that the Democrats are under no pressure to pass any progressive reforms since they know that left-leaning voters won't vote GOP. It means accepting that the basic political views of the majority of the population will not be represented at all in formal, representative institutions. When ordinary working people give money, verbal support, and political energy to the Democrats, in effect, they consolidate their own political marginalization and further entrench the dominance of the 1%.

What's the alternative? The very sorts of actions that sparked the Wisconsin uprising in the first place; The sorts of possibilities opened up by the Occupy movement; The months-long struggle of Longview workers to fight for their rights; The inspiring struggle of teachers in Chicago to stand up and defend the future of public education. Succinctly put, the alternative is to mobilize the still unrealized potential of ordinary working people to use their own power to stop austerity, layoffs, foreclosures and all the rest. Once that sleeping giant is awoken, previously unthinkable possibilities emerge. In the 1920s, everyone thought the labor movement was dead in the water, but by the mid 1930s the US was experiencing an unprecedented surge in militant working class activism that shattered those expectations and transformed the social/political landscape for a generation.

We forget at our peril that every single major progressive gain in this country--from free public education to the abolition of slavery, from women's suffrage to Social Security--was won through hard-fought struggle by social movements who set themselves on a collision course with both major parties. Without struggle, there is no progress. We can't expect the licit leaders of corporate-funded political franchises to take care of us. We have to rebuild a fighting, self-confident Left and organize independent social movements that can confront the ruling class head on, no matter which of their two teams is in control in Washington.