Socialism, Reform, and Revolution

In the United States, the trajectory of mainstream politics has gone in strange directions. At the dawn of the “post-Obama” age, everything seems like it’s up for grabs. On the Right side of the spectrum, we’ve watched a disjointed spectacle: as expected, another of the Bush dynasty dips their feet into presidential politics, the kooky son of the libertarian heartthrob has gone from being the darling of Silicon Valley campaign donations to a laughingstock, and the person who should be a laughingstock – Donald Trump – has somehow managed ride a wave of xenophobia towards a disturbing popularity. On the left, the fight boils down to one between Hillary Clinton, the (borderline neocon) epitome of the liberal wing of the neoliberal establishment, and Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist whose platform is a curious blend of FDR-style imagery and small business capitalism.

The rather vocal grassroots movement that has grown around the Sanders’ campaign has been the talk of the fractured and dispersed socialist left here in the states. Many groups – particularly those who could be counted as the ‘mainstream’ of American socialism – have come out with endorsements of Sanders; others, meanwhile, have castigated Sanders for hijacking the notion of the concept of ‘socialism’ in hopes of funneling would-be members of the far left into a quasi-neoliberal position. This has been a well-worn strategy of the liberal establishment, as I’ve analyzed elsewhere.[1] And indeed, the left-populism of Sanders, which he dubs “democratic socialism”, resembles very little a socialism that most familiar with the term would recognize. Instead of Marx or Engels, the frame of reference is FDR and Lyndon Johnson – the systems, then, that were organized by the Fordist “liberal corporatism” that spanned the New Deal and the Great Society. Instead of the bourgeoisie and their ownership of the modes of productions, the enemy is an update of Occupy’s 1%: the ‘Billionaire Class’, which the levers leading to the extreme income poverty that continues to march forward. Instead of the ownership of production by the working class, the so-called “Nordic model” is used to illustrate what democratic socialism looks like.

The Nordic model, in reality, is best classified as social democracy, a blend of a strong welfare state with capitalist production. High corporate tax rates, which Sanders hope to use to reign in the wild excesses of the financial markets, do not figure into this system as much as people may think; the idea of supply and demand driving job growth is fully adhered to, with the supply-side economics that define neoliberalism being supplemented with the state’s own demand-side mechanisms. While contrasting social democracy, democratic socialism (which traditionally refers to use of representative democracy to usher in ‘real’ socialism), and Marxist socialism (requiring a worker’s revolution to overthrow the bourgeois state) might sound like a game of semantics, the anti-Sanders left raises important issues to be considered. At the core of this issue is a long-running debate in regards to the relationship between socialists and the state: support reform, or push forward in building a revolutionary grassroots movement.

At the same time, taking a campaign like Sanders’ and bundling it up into the neoliberal system reduces nuances that require much attention. Over the past several days, the SEIU labor union has come out in support of Hillary Clinton – despite her consistent alignment with policies that have been destructive to the labor movement as a whole. Regardless of whether or not Sanders is ‘authentically socialist’, there is little doubt to be had that his own positions hew far closer to organized labor’s ideals – something evidenced by the highly visible role that rank and file workers across the nation have played in his support base. The inability of the union bureaucracy to properly orient itself with the needs and demands of the workers they claim to support is evidence of the wider structural mechanisms that stack themselves against the underclasses. The top tiers of labor combines have historically operated in close proximity to leaders of both government and business, and the SEIU has been no exception to this tendency.[2] At the same time, it reveals the difficulty in affecting even moderate change in the current system: in the event that Clinton wins (an admittedly more likely scenario than a Sanders victory), organized labor’s withholding of an endorsement would be political suicide.

This is not a side-effect of neoliberal capitalism, but its very rationale. The current system emerged through nothing less than an immense deconstruction of the conditions behind the Fordist heyday of liberal corporatism, seizing the opportunity provided by crises internal to the system’s organization in order to re-tool the base functioning of the state. Unprecedented in its scope and scale, this worldwide revolution has produced the state of affairs where a Sanders or a Nordic model could be confused with something like socialism. Turning the state into a support platform for laissez-faire globalism allowed the political right to shift to the right even further, urged on by money provided by reactionary philanthropists and networks of think-tank intellectuals. Robbed of their relevancy, the mainstream left, governed by President Bill Clinton and supported by the conclusions of their own intellectual networks (backed in this case by liberal philanthropies like the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trust)[3] shifted towards the position previously held by the right, bestowing platitudes on market enterprise, entrepreneurship (particularly in the tech sectors) and ‘workfare’. In Great Britain, this program was carried out with aplomb by the Labour Party, formally separating itself from its Fabian socialist heritage under the leadership of Tony Blair.

This transformation triggered a shift on the ground-level left, particularly those who, while generally non-socialist, were engaged in radical forms of community and social justice work. Many organizations and individuals in this arena depended on the financial support and networking opportunities provided by liberal philanthropies, so as expected the neoliberal consensus came to frame their work as well. By the mid-1980s officers at the Ford Foundation were already talking about “neo-populism”, a twenty-first century “alternative to nineteenth-century visions of socialism” that “Americanizes radicalism by connecting radical efforts to the American past, American values.”[4] This neo-populism is best exemplified by the “community development corporation”, which supplants the organizing of politicized neighborhood associations with the courting of corporate investment for the construction of strip-malls, fast food restaurants, and small businesses. This privatization of welfare has led directly to the continued spread of hyper-precarious, low-wage jobs that do more to trap people in poverty than lift them out. One notable would be the Mexican-American Unity Council (MAUC), which had grown out from militant Mexican American Youth Association (which in turn had its roots in the movements around Cesar Chavez) with the aid of Ford Foundation funding. Unlike its predecessors, which focused primarily on strike tactics, MAUC was soon launching janitorial services and opening McDonalds franchises.[5]

For what it’s worth, half a century ago the money and tools provided by liberal philanthropies didn’t always lead to these sorts of developments. A notable case would be the assistance given to Michael Harrington – an affiliate of the Socialist Party USA and the League for Industrial Democracy, whose work The Other America would lay the foundations of the Great Society programs that are being invoked so often today. While the agenda to fund Harrington, as well as that as the Great Society, was to build an ‘enlightened and rational’ mode of capitalist governance, it is essential to note that his work must be framed in the context of the groups he was operating in. Across the early 1960s, an alliance of socialists, the left-wing of the labor movement, and many elements in the Civil Rights movement advocated a federally-funded anti-poverty program based on full employment and a basic income. The transition from this to the Great Society could easily be read as bid for de-radicalization (a notion supported by the path many of these individuals took in the years after the 1960s)[6], but it also speaks to the vast structural difference between governance then and now.

One cannot, of course, simply blame philanthropies for these transformations, for as much as they influence neoliberalism, they have in turn been changed by it to. This all-too-brief foray (a proper study of which could easily fill libraries) is simply to illustrate how far the coordinates have all shifted from the frames of political reference that we are generally familiar with. This signals something essential for the socialist left to recognize: reform is now revolutionary. This entails the recognition that positions that were once the much-maligned avenue of the center-left[7] occupy a space that, in our current set of coordinates, is now far left. It extends accordingly that to be far left means to think critically of what it means to now be extended between two positions that have, historically, been contrarian in theory as well as in practice.

For evidence of this one needs to look no further than the ascendency of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party, arguably the most ‘socialist’ looking politician in the developed world – though one whose proposed system exist still in the borderland between social democracy and democratic socialism. What is being called “Corbynomics” is an essentially Keynesian economic scheme; his innovative “People’s Quantitative Easing” proposition is the exciting heir to the anti-poverty programs demanded by the American socialists of the late 1950s and early 1960s. While arguing for nationalization, the bulk of Corbyn’s platform is relatively capital-friendly, though it seeks (like the liberal corporatism of the Fordist era) to curtail its more extreme and violent manifestations. And yet the proponents of neoliberalism – including those in his own party – marshal their power against him. A Corbyn victory (and the implementation of Corbynomics) would require an extremely active and divergent civil society – a fact that British socialists seem to recognize far more than their American counterparts where Sanders is concerned. That Corbyn exists further to the left than Sanders should make little difference when we situate the discourses in the context of our shared enemy: neoliberalism.

John Maynard Keynes was notoriously against socialism, and condemned the “turgid rubbish” of Marxism. That it “exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia”[8] was chief amongst its crimes, conjoined with its disrupting of the ethos of ‘liberty and freedom’ that so drove his ‘opponents’ Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek. Insofar that there was ever a dispute between Keynes and the so-called Austrians, it was merely a feud between brothers. As the stabilization measures during the Great Recession clearly showed, the policy-making offspring of one can call upon the resources of the other when need be. Without reducing the transnational order to its intellectual progenitors (as a discourse focusing strictly on the conflict of economic ideology forsakes the technical and infrastructural aspects of the transnational system), it seems readily apparent that what is being called “neo-Keynesianism” sits comfortably alongside Austrian-derived theories in the hull of neoliberalism. A government capable of intervening, injecting cash, applying regulation when necessary, is a much-needed force in ensuring that the system operates exactly the way that it supposed to: increased flexibility in production and the upward-mobility of capital.[9]

It is on this last point that the importance of Keynesianism as a tactical instrument instead of an orthodoxy becomes salient. Under neoliberalism, fiscal policy defined in Keynesian terms is a tactical instrument that allows the ‘bourgeoisie’ to prop themselves up when the contradictions within their system come to fruition (and as such, the bail-out measures and the like should be thought of as a kind of financial Keynesianism). There is no contradiction between it and the austerity measures that gut the state, but it is on this level that a different kind of applied Keynesianism, a salvaged Keynesianism, reveals itself as the alternative to neoliberalism.[10] The aborted ambition of Syriza is Greece is exemplar in this regarded: a socialist government, a Marxist finance minister, and an extraordinarily active and  militant grassroots network converged together to present Keynesian-style economic policies as something would strike a blow against the destructive neoliberal blueprint that the EU demanded.[11] That the EU shattered the pretenses of democracy to such an extent that even the IMF recoiled paints a clear picture for us.

Socialists may point out that thinking in this mode, as well as the actions taken by Greece prior to its capitulation, are signs of an exhaustion on the left. We’ve finally run out of steam, and are bankrupt both literally and metaphorically. For many this might signal the foreclosure of ambitions in regards to building a broad anti-capitalist movement. In many regards they are correct, but this image remains one that is woefully incomplete. We’re nearly forty years into a counter-offensive against the power of labor, the long-held ambition of which is the eradication of the very possibility of an anti-capitalist politics. Simply put, we’re at a stage where it is impossible to build such a movement. Our time is too occupied, our energy stretched too thin, our composition too fragmented. We have no foundations on which to build; in the United States, one slip in the daily servitude to the capitalist class and its state could very well lead one tumbling into a pit from which there is no easy climb out. The same is very true elsewhere.

In the face of such defeat, we have to concede that the primary political goal of our time is to reverse this particular historical situation, and to tackle these global arrangements of power by taking a step backwards. This, of course, is not an endorsement of Sanders, or a call for the socialist left to embrace him with open arms. It’s a call to reflect long and hard on the actually-existing possibilities of alleviating the violence enacted upon us daily, through the means that reflect the circumstances of our situation. Has this not been the goal all along?

[1] See example, my “Harnessing People Power: Co-Option at Work in America Today” Swans Commentary, April 23rd, 2012 http://www.swans.com/library/art18/berger01.html ; “Grassroots Globalization: Underneath the Rhetoric of Democracy Promotion” in Rebecca Fisher (ed.) Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent: Capitalism, Democracy, and the Organisation of Consent Corporate Watch 2013 https://corporatewatch.org/sites/default/files/MDMD%20ch18%20GrassrootsGlobalization.pdf

[2] A glimpse into the power networks that the SEIU leadership is embedded in can be found by perusing the union’s entry on Sourcewatch: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Service_Employees_International_Union. In particular, the relationship between the SEIU and the Campaign to Defend America (a spin-off from the pro-Democratic Party wing of the anti-war movement), the Campaign for America’s Future (an anti-corporate, pro-capitalism organization close to the AFL-CIo labor union) and the Democracy Alliance (a funding-providing body organized by wealthy progressives to serve as the liberal compliment to the right’s own think-tank network) should be subjected to scrutiny.

[3] An example of this is the “Alliance for Redesigning Government”, which studied ‘market-friendly’ forms of government with the aid of the aforementioned philanthropies. The recommendations were embraced whole-heartedly by the Clinton administration. See Joan Roelofs Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism, State University of New York Press, 2003, pgs. 77-80.

[4] Ibid, pg. 57

[5] John Chavez Eastside Landmark: A History of the East Los Angeles Community Union, 1968-1993, Stanford University Press, 1998, pgs. 148-149. On MAUC, the Mexican American Youth Association and the Ford Foundation, see Michael Barker “The Ford Foundation and the Co-Option of Dissent” Swans Commentary January 25th, 2010 http://www.swans.com/library/art16/barker41.html. It’s worth noting that the community development corporation model first emerged in the 1960s, long before the neoliberal revolution. At the same time, it was originally deployed in a context more in line with the liberal welfare statism of its era (it was utilized as part of the Great Society through the “model cities program”); it didn’t become a sort of governing apparatus over neighborhood organizing and development until well into the neoliberal reo-organization.

[6] See my two-part “From Socialism to Neoliberalism: A Story of Capture” Parts 1 and 2

[7] Raoul Vaneigem summed this perspective up quite simply: “Welfare state? The people of Watts have given their answer.” The Revolution of Everyday Life PM Press (reprint edition), 2012 pg. 52.

[8] Quoted in Lawrence H. White The Clash of Economic Ideas: The Great Policy Debates and Experiments of the Last Hundred Years George Mason University, pg. 17

[8] See my two-part “From Socialism to Neoliberalism: A Story of Capture” Parts 1 and 2

[9] For a historical precedent for very different circumstances, see Gabriel Kolko The Triumph of Conservatism. Kolko might overstate the case by focusing solely on the interactions between the Progressive Era industrial and financial elites and stateform; there seems to be little room in his analysis for class struggle, a void that can easily translate his analysis into grist for the libertarian (and even anarcho-capitalist) mills. Socialists and non-socialist (yet radical) reformers become little more than ‘useful idiots’. A more balanced case study could be had through an examination of the President Woodrow Wilson’s Commission of Industrial Relations, the constituency of which drew from reactionary and anti-labor National Civic Foundation (NCF). The only non-NCF member of the commission was its chair, the populist attorney Frank Walsh; taking a hardline pro-labor, anti-elite perspective, the commission was directed into positions exceedingly unpopular to the business establishment. Walsh himself was branded a socialist and endured threats on his life, and the commission went a long way in establishing the centrality of collective bargaining as a tactic in labor struggles On the National Civic Foundation, see G. William Domhoff The Power Elite and the State: How Policy is Made in America Aldine de Gruyter, 1990, pgs. 71-79. On the battles of the Walsh Commission, see Graham Adams Jr. Age of Industrial Violence, 1910-15: The Activities and Findings of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations Columbia University Press, 1971.

[10] It has to be stated that the term “Keynesian” is being used in this essay very loosely. What is being referred to as ‘financial Keynesianism’ is described by one commentator as a “crumbling… bastardized Keynesianism with its graphical apparatus and algebraic expression of government-spending multipliers and tax multipliers and all that.” (Roger W. Garrison “Keynes was a Keynesian” The Review of Austrian Economics Vol. 9, No. 1 1996). Meanwhile, many of the systems commonly associated with Keynes – the New Deal or the post-war Bretton Woods system, for two examples – bore little influence from the economist. One cannot write a history of the New Deal without considering several variables: the evolution of liberal corporatism as detailed in Kolko’s book (see note 9), the role of socialist militancy in radicalizing the labor movement, the influence of Thorstein Veblen and the technocrats, and finally, the generalized crisis generated by Early Fordism’s spread of uneven development. Murray Rothbard links the pseudo-Keynesianism of the New Deal to World War I’s Wartime Industries Board – and observes that Keynes called for a “National Investment Board” that would coordinate and control investments through processes of “socialization”. (in Murray Rothbard, ‘War Collectivism of World War I,” in Ronald Radosh and Murray Rothbard (eds.) A New History of Leviathan: Essays on the Rise of the American Corporate State E. P. Dutton, 1972) A better reading of the New Deal, however, can be found by turning to the architect of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), Rexford Tugwell. By his own admission, Tugwell was less influenced by Keynes and more influenced by J.A. Hobson. Hobson, in turn, provided the framing for Veblen’s own ‘institutionalist economics’, so it’s worthwhile to note that NRA advisor Leon Henderson was aligned with the technocracy movement that Veblen so inspired. Another follower of Veblen, John Kenneth Galbraith, was the New Deal’s “price control czar” and later oversaw the exportation of Fordism and liberal corporatism to Germany during the postwar reconstruction. (White The Clash of Economic Ideas pgs. 124-125). So perhaps, instead of Keynesianism, what we’re actually addressing here is a critical and strategic salvaging of institutionalist economics – but by the same token, it might be instructive to consider to what degree Keynes’ own underdeveloped thoughts on long-term reform pointed the way towards the positions staked out by Veblen and his followers.

[11] Greek parliament member (and economist) Costas Lapavitsas argues that “Keynes and Keynesianism, unfortunately, remain the most powerful tools we’ve got, even as Marxists, for dealing with issues of policy in the here and now. The Marxist tradition is very powerful in dealing with the medium-term and longer-term questions and understanding the class dimensions and social dimensions of economics and society in general, of course. There’s no comparison in these realms.But, for dealing with policy in the here and now, unfortunately, Keynes and Keynesianism remain a very important set of ideas, concepts, and tools even for Marxists. That’s the reality. Whether some people like to use the ideas and not acknowledge them as Keynesian is something I don’t want to comment upon, but it happens.” Sebastian Budgen & Costas Lapavitsas “Greece: Phase 2” Jacobin March 12th, 2015 https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/03/lapavitsas-varoufakis-grexit-syriza/

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3 Responses to Socialism, Reform, and Revolution

  1. Pingback: Revolts of Futures Past: Cycles of Struggle, Technology and Neoliberalism | Deterritorial Investigations Unit

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