by Don Hamerquist
(This piece was sent to threewayfight with a request to publish it. We oblige Hamerquist and hope the article contributes to further discussion and debate on analysis and activity for revolutionary anti-capitalists. - 3WF)
First, a few explanatory notes: This is a rough piece that I’m probably circulating prematurely even considering the narrow audience to which it is directed. Not only are some of the arguments incomplete, but a number of the references are quite sloppy. My defense is that I felt some urgency, not so much to respond to the three pieces as to express my sense that our section of the left is much too lethargic and needs to get off its intellectual and organizational ass. I’m not sure that I make a very persuasive case, but the intent will be clear enough.
I say repeatedly in the text that I may be distorting the positions I criticize – certainly by omission, if not commission - in order to make my own points. Knowing little about the three authors outside of the articles under consideration probably increases this possibility. I understand that all of these articles have been or will be on one or another of the sites where this discussion is being pursued, and people can make their own judgments on these questions. I’m open to any corrections in this area as well as to suggestions that my own position is partly or completely wrongheaded. I also welcome any comments that differ with my assessments of positions that I introduce but haven’t adequately investigated, specifically those of Walden Frank, Mike Davis, Immanuel Wallerstein, Gabriel Kolko, Negri and Hardt, Slavoj Zizak, and Michael Foucoult.
There are some particular problems with the Akuno section which is by far the largest segment of the paper. I managed to lose a later draft of the article before determining whether it made changes that related to the points that I wanted to emphasize. So I’m referring to an early draft of the document, and one that may have been somewhat screwed up by its email formatting. This may create problems given the number of specific pages references that I make. I hope people can work through any difficulties. In the Akuno portion of the discussion particularly I’ve inserted a few initialed parenthetical notes to indicate how I’m interpreting some points. Of course, I might be interpreting wrong and it might make a difference. Again, I hope that none of this hinders further discussion. - DH
THINKING AND ACTING IN REAL TIME AND THE REAL WORLD
In CNBC’s review of 2008, Jack Welch, GE’s scruffy CEO emeritus, asks, “Who would have thought that capitalism would run off the tracks?” We might also appropriately ask ourselves, who among us could and should have thought that this would happen? Sadly the left has also been caught unprepared by this derailing and far more so than was necessary. Worse, the tendencies to understate the crisis and to support the threadbare elements of last century’s nostrums as an appropriate response to it remain alive and well among us.
When Obama now calls for; “…a leaner, meaner and more prosperous…” United States, the left tends to limit itself to complaints about the linkage of “prosperous” with “lean and mean”, when we’d prefer plump and generous. Worry not, the incoming POTUS will make this interconnection clear – and others as well - sooner rather than later, and the results will confirm the major changes that have occurred behind our backs and give us a taste of the additional ones that are on the way.
Of course, there still will be leftists that propose to stay the course –holding the same flags a little higher and waving them a bit harder – all the while assuming, and not always implicitly, that the capitalist train will get back on track. However, there should be fewer of them. The rest of us are going to have to come to grips with a new situation and chart a comprehensive challenge appropriate to the changing conditions – perhaps one written in Greek.
I recommend checking out; The Midnight Notes Statement, Notes on the Wall Street ‘Meltdown; Adam Hanieh’s recent piece, The Economic Crisis and the Global South; and Navigating the Storm, by Kali Akuno. These are distinct approaches to the current crisis, unconnected with each other (I think), but all of them can contribute to a productive discussion. Despite many points of disagreement, I’m particularly impressed with the piece by Kali Akuno. It moves beyond an analysis of conditions and proposals for where we should stand, to a serious consideration of left strategy and proposals for how we should move.
I know nothing about Akuno and very little beyond the Z-Net bio about Hanieh. Janeen and I did have some minor indirect contact with Midnight Notes about 25 years ago. Essentially it was limited to trying to figure out what they were saying and what it meant. Their stuff tended to have the literary opacity of Negri, and others of the deliberately difficult Italian workerists of the period - without the excuse of being translated from a foreign language. The current piece looks clear enough, although, since it is obviously part of an on-going exchange within the group, a better understanding of that discussion might affect my views on it.
I intend to make some observations on each article, stressing criticisms and differences and leaving substantial areas of agreement unmentioned but, hopefully, recognized. Towards the end of the piece, I will move towards some questions that are more or less relevant to all of the articles: the analytic framework appropriate to the period; the estimates of current forces and trends; the conceptions of the proximity of revolution.
This isn’t an attempt to develop “correct” answers to these questions – or to any others. Nor am I completely confident of my positions where they differ with the views in these articles. The best any of us can do is to try to clarify the major alternatives and propose courses of action that can test their respective validity in struggle. But that could amount to quite a bit.
The Midnight Notes piece argues that the central element in the current financial crisis will be a massive transfer of wealth, primarily, “…from the U.S. working class to capital…” (p.1). It argues that this transfer to capital parallels and augments earlier transfers, “…from the Third World, as in the Debt Crises of the 1980’s…” (p.4). Midnight Notes view this crisis as a capitalist tactic in the class struggle, providing a “…disciplinary tool…” allowing capital, “…(to use) working class demands against themselves” (p. 5).
I wouldn’t disagree with the emphasis on the class transfer of wealth although it appears to be a more extended and complicated process than indicated in this article. And it is almost a truism that the U.S. ruling class will utilize the crisis to strengthen its position as best it can. However, Midnight Notes extends the argument to a more questionable position, stating repeatedly that this is an “engineered” crisis (see P. 2, 3, 5 along with multiple statements on P. 4. that equate the current crisis to localized structural adjustment crises that were much more clearly manipulated). Accordingly, we are actually experiencing a “crisis” that merits being put in quotes, one that is more accurately seen as a “capitalist coup” (P.4)
“A large part of capital has for a long time been lusting to bring back America to the situation before the New Deal, when employers had the upper hand. The “crisis” is giving them a chance to return to that era.” (P. 5)
Nevertheless, the article provides no evidence of any ruling class risk/benefit calculation impelling it to provoke this particular crisis to obtain this particular questionable “upper hand” at this particular historical moment.
Others have also advanced a manipulated crisis argument. I’m thinking of a comment by Mike S. a few months ago. In that case the ascribed motivation was not the ruling class desire for the good old days as Midnight Notes suggests. Instead, Mike argued a more plausible position that saw the “crisis” as a part of a transition to a global system, masking, perhaps deliberately, the development of the supranational fiscal and monetary policy and institutions that could impose a general class line on different national capitalist tendencies.
I see the Midnight Note’s argument as more like Klein’s “shock capitalism”, without the reformism and with a more useful class struggle orientation. In both cases, current secular trends and emerging systemic limits for capitalist accumulation are discounted (or ignored) in favor of an imputed revanchist ruling class policy motivated by Chicago School market-centric economic religion. Neither Klein nor Midnight Notes take adequate account of the urgency and magnitude of capitalist instability, or of the particularity given this crisis by its uniquely global nature. In my opinion both approaches involve more than theoretical errors since their misunderstanding of the political forces at play confuses and obscures the possibilities and obstacles facing strategies of resistance and refusal. This is unfortunate in the case of Midnight Notes, which begins from a clearly anti-capitalist and revolutionary perspective.
Looking at the Midnight Note’s position more closely, consider its argument (P. 3 to P. 5) contesting the notion that this crisis is a result of capitalist mistakes - “failure(s)”.
“We must rule out that the architects of the housing/mortgage crisis did not know it would end in a financial disaster…” (P. 4)
Of course we should rule out any such position – but who holds it? For more than a decade, many ruling class figures, not only Warren Buffett in his much repeated play on words, have warned of the dangers of instability in the global financial structure. In 2006, almost a full year before the onset of this crisis, an article by Gabriel Kolko, widely circulated in the left, cited a range of ruling class positions sufficiently broadly held that Kolko termed it a consensus. One was from Stephen Roach, Morgan Stanley’s chief economist. In Kolko’s words:
“He (Roach) wrote that a major financial crisis seemed imminent and that the global institutions that could forestall it, including the IMF, the World Bank and other mechanisms of the international financial architecture were utterly inadequate.” Buccaneers and Fantasists, 2006, P. 4).
Whatever the role of ruling class mistakes and excesses, of which there were plenty, the current crisis was not unexpected by the ruling class and certainly shouldn’t have surprised the left. (For the most part it probably did, but that is a different problem.)
Eliminating ruling class error and accidents as root causes of the crisis leaves other possible explanations for it that are more plausible than considering it as the intended result of ruling class policy –not really a crisis, but a “crisis” in quotes that is actually a planned maneuver to attack remnants of past working class victories in the U.S.
In my opinion, the factors leading to this crisis involved diverse attempts by blocs of capital to maximize short term profits and solidify relative competitive advantages in a transformed global economy that was struggling to integrate immense new productive forces, unleashed by the rapid and traumatic incorporation of the “second” and “third” world into our sordid, but financialized and digitized, first world. Although many of the potential problems were quite clearly foreseen, the crisis nevertheless materialized with a certain inevitability from the interplay of the contradictions and interests that were involved. Some of these contradictions and interests form part of what Midnight Notes terms a desire to “negotiate a different class deal” – although not, I think, in the spatial and temporal context set by Midnight Note’s notion of a “lust” by U.S. capital to return to the happy 20s. Most of the contradictions are well outside of such a renegotiation, at least if the “different…deal” is limited to changing the balance of class forces within the United States.
Though the problems for capital were not unexpected, they were neither desired nor intended. This is a situation where complex financial maneuvers designed to maximize profit were rational on a certain scale, but in aggregate and cumulatively they led to order of magnitude expansions of fictional capital that were irrational and destructive to the systemic equilibrium of capitalism. Less cataclysmic and less exotic examples of such contradictory aspects within capitalism can be seen every day when individual stocks rise as firms lay off workers and reduce wages, while the overall indexes are collapsing because of increasing unemployment and reductions in mass consumption.
A closer look at Midnight Note’s “capitalist coup” argument raises some additional questions:
“What we are witnessing is a capitalist coup, an example of capital’s historic readiness to destroy itself in order to regain the initiative and defeat resistance to its discipline.”
3. Where does this resistance come from? How is the collapse of the financial system a response to it? We cannot understand the Wall Street crisis unless we read it in class terms as a means to negotiate a different class deal…” (P.4)
What is the nature of the capitalist “initiative” to be implemented according to Midnight Notes, and what “resistance(s) to its discipline” must be defeated?
Three areas of initiative and resistance are indicated. The extent of the treatment of these areas may not indicate the relative importance that Midnight Notes attaches to each of them, but I note that by far the most attention is given to the alleged U.S. ruling class plan to reverse the New Deal and, in particular, to eliminate Social Security and Medicare. I don’t see it – and as a disgruntled recipient of both pittances, I have difficulty regarding them as any kind of working class advantage around which to wage a strategic struggle. Rather than an element of “resistance to its (capital’s) discipline”, they have become a mode of enforcing that discipline – mandating a life of taxable labor followed by an atomized retirement of escalating penury.
More to the point, I don’t think the decisive sections of the U.S. ruling class are fixated on rolling back these so-called “entitlements”, or that they would even view this as a way to buttress their continued dominance. On the contrary, they must recognize that any domestic ruling class initiative to end Social Security and Medicare would seriously undermine the myths of benevolent capitalism in this country, and further erode the material foundation for its hegemony. What motivation in the U.S. ruling class might rationalize taking such risks? The questionable economic benefits for the ruling class are probably available through indirect maneuvers with lower political costs, and in any case, these benefits would be temporary and might be outweighed by provoking real popular resistance, not the hollow and demoralized stubbornness that passes for it at present.
Since for the most part Midnight Notes rather persuasively presents the U.S. working class as defeated and fragmented, it is hard to see why it gives so much attention to this unpromising domestic class struggle over entitlements. This is particularly striking since the article presents two other sites for resistance to capitalist discipline that it clearly believes are more promising. The first of these involves; “…more countries…refusing the neoliberal packet, especially in Latin America.” (P. 6). The second raises the issue of global labor migration, “…now an autonomous uncontrollable phenomenon, with a logic of its own that is not reducible to the needs of the labor market.”(P.7)
(Variations of these points are also important to the Hanieh and Akuno articles - especially the former. Some, though not all, of the comments on the Midnight Notes treatment are also relevant to those articles. Later, I will make some additional arguments with respect to the Akuno piece that refer back to this emphasis on ‘external’ sites of resistance.)
Midnight Notes argues that the structural adjustment debt crises over the past few decades secured some major objectives of international capital. One of these objectives was to reverse the anti-imperialist movement for national liberation which had gained substantial momentum and significant victories in the decades following the end of WWII.
“It (international capital) destroyed the attempt of the former colonial world to escape a dependent/subordinate position…(and) built the infrastructure for the new global economy. It forged the mechanisms by which industries and offices could be relocated, companies could run around the globe, the work process could be computerized and streamlined and the working class thereby could be flexibilized and
Well said, although I’ve always questioned whether “flexibilized” is a word. However, it’s hard to reconcile this point with the article’s picture of the current resistances in the global South; both nationalist, (“Many more countries are refusing the neoliberal packet…”, and populist: (“A new “rurban” peasant movement has been growing that is fighting independently of unions, parties, “civil society” and NGOs, using direct action tactics, to re-appropriate the lands and resources of which it has been robbed…” (P.6))
I suppose it’s not impossible for national liberation to be conclusively defeated at one point, but then to re-emerge as a major challenge to post-Cold War capitalism a few years later - a reprise of the Battle of Algiers allegory. However, we need a reasonable narrative to tie Midnight Note’s sober treatment of the past to its rosy estimate of the present and future. To support the thesis that such a resurrection has or might occur, this narrative would explain what happened with the major and apparently permanent changes in the balance of forces following from the historic defeat of revolutionary anti-imperialism. I’m thinking of the substantial incorporation of the post-colonial elites into the global ruling class and the demonstrated ceiling on reformist attempts to evade subordination to the global commodity markets and financial structures. If these structural changes haven’t been surpassed, they clearly set limits on the potential for any revitalized national liberation movements.
Beyond these structural limitations on national liberation struggles, the narrative must clarify the heterogenous political tendencies in anti-global capitalist populism, not merge them into a romanticized mush. It is particularly important to determine what place is occupied in the current movements by the radical liberatory and socialist elements that gave past anti-imperialist struggles their historical momentum and, particularly, their moral leadership. When this issue is evaluated, I believe that the growth of neo-fascist elements and the prevalence of authoritarian structures and behaviors in this neo-populism must be recognized as significant, if not decisive, strategic factors. Midnight Note’s sketchy treatment of this entire question – at least in this article- is another point where it is diminished by its similarities with Klein’s positions and the similar ones that are common throughout the left.
I think that it is unlikely that either the nationalist or the populist aspects of nationalist resistance will provide a significant anti-capitalist alternative to global capital, although they will provide different, but very important problems for it. The most likely eventuality, as Midnight Notes argues in a different, but, I think, parallel context, is that capital will successfully; “…use…demands against themselves…to drive part…out of the struggle…(turning) it against or away from the other half…in such a way as to spark off forms of development that decompose…” P.5) (I apologize for taking liberties with this selection and note that in the article the working class was the subject of the passage. d.h.)
Other things I have written will have made it clear that I agree with Midnight Note’s strong emphasis on the potentials of international labor mobility for disrupting the global capitalist project. I also welcome and agree with the critique of Negri’s view of “exodus”, and his politics of hope where all historical developments and every potential outcome appear as victories for the ‘multitude’ in a positively panglossian world. However, it would be helpful if Midnight Notes provided some detail on how it sees developing activity in the area. Specifically, how would it deal with the alternative potentials for populist neo-fascism and for revolutionary internationalism in the context of this crisis which, as they emphasize, involves a massive and growing transnational mobility of labor juxtaposed with the erosion of elements of privilege and stability that have underlain capitalist hegemony over the domestic working classes in the capitalist core.
The Hanieh article lays out, “a world economy that – for the first time in history – is truly global”; but where the “…interconnectedness of production…continually runs up against a system organized for the pursuit of individual private profit.” (P. 1)
Hanieh does not advance an “engineered” crisis thesis as does Midnight Notes. Instead, more accurately in my opinion, he notes that without appropriate mass resistance, “…the system will utilize this crisis to restructure and continue business as usual.”
“Capitalist crisis doesn’t automatically lead to the end of capitalism. Without effective resistance and struggle, the crisis will eventually be resolved at the expense of working people – particularly those in the South.” (P.4)
While I don’t see any potential resolution of this crisis that might result in “…business as usual…” for the system, and question the way Hanieh poses the differential impact on working people “...in the South…”, I agree with many of his specific observations and certainly with his clear argument that, if it is not pushed, capital will not fall. Whether or not capital will survive essentially unchanged short of the aforementioned ultimate “push” is a quite different question.
My major disagreements with this article center on its concept of “geographical displacement of crisis” and the implications of such a position for the direction of political work. The concept is raised both at the article’s beginning and in the conclusion, not to mention in the title - Making the World’s Poor Pay – The Economic Crisis and the Global South.
The notion of “displacement of crisis” is frequently encountered in contemporary left and liberal approaches to imperialism. It also was an element of many ruling class apologies for imperialism - for example, in Cecil Rhode’s famous formulation crediting imperialism with avoiding a bloody revolution in England. I think it is also implicit in some of Niall Ferguson’s current work although that places greater emphasis on the alleged benefits that imperial rule provided for the periphery.
Consider the following formulations from Hanieh’s article:
“Throughout its history, capitalism has functioned through geographical displacement of crisis – attempting to offload the worst impacts onto those outside the core.”(P.1)
“Any displacement of crisis onto the South means playing different groups of people against one another. For this reason, the ideological corollary of war and military repression abroad is likely an increasingly virulent racism in the North – directed at immigrants, people of color and indigenous populations. This means that for activists in North America the question of global solidarity and resistance to racism must be placed as a central priority of any effective fightback. Any attempt to turn inwards, or dismiss international solidarity as less important in this phase will be disastrous for all working people – across the globe.” (P.4)
I certainly agree with the factual content of these passages and with the stress they place on internationalism. My questions relate to the strategic implications that appear to be drawn from this factual basis. One such implication flows from the dichotomy implied by Hanieh’s view of likely outcomes of the crisis. In the center a “more authoritarian state” and the “loss of jobs, housing, and any kind of social support” is likely. In contrast, “In the (Global) South, this (the crisis) will inevitably mean more war and military repression.” (P. 4) Other formulations in the article make it clear that, for Hanieh, the impact of an essentially capitalist resolution of this crisis will be different in kind as well as quantitatively more severe for the “Global South”. (I’m abstracting from the potential that popular resistances might modify these outcomes, although this is an important possibility for Hanieh. d.h.) This differential impact determines a differential content for the resistance in the capitalist center, where the issues of solidarity and support for the movements in the “Global South become the priority”, and in the Global South where both revolutionary potentials and revolutionary social movements will be concentrated.
Clearly Hanieh and Midnight Notes are not in complete agreement on this question. Midnight Notes focuses on the impacts of the crisis on the metropolis:
“…the “structural adjustment” that since the 1980’s has been imposed on countries across the world, is going to be extended to the US territory and the US working class. This time (after many beginnings and many deferrals) we too are being “adjusted”. (P.4)
Despite many reservations about how the argument is formulated, I agree with Midnight Notes that the defining impacts of this crisis will not be essentially displaced, they will come home. This does not mean that the quantitative impact on working classes and marginalized populations in the periphery will be less severe. If there was a reliable metric for measuring misery, they will probably get more than their share of added misery. What it does mean is that, politically and economically, the most significant qualitative impact of this crisis will be on the metropolitan capitalist center, not the ex-colonial periphery. The crucial impact will be in the “core”, rather than the “gap”, in the politically significant categories of one ruling class terminology. It is in the core where this financial crisis will force the global ruling class to confront the reality that its old system of rule doesn’t fit the modern circumstances for capital accumulation and political equilibrium – just as it was primarily in the periphery where major changes in the ruling class approach to political stability and national development were pushed to the forefront by the politico-military impact of 9/11.
Though this crisis will “come home”, I don’t believe that either the national class struggle terms of reference used by Midnight Notes or the categories of imperialism and national liberation that are the primary reference of Hanieh (and apparently Akuno, who uses both sets) are the best way to look at the process. (Midnight Notes, P. 5), are plausible. Essentially Hanieh and Midnight Notes appear as alternate sides in a polarity that has been surpassed. The global circumstances for class struggle have changed in qualitative ways, robbing both frameworks of reference and relevance. In my view, the limitations of each are apparent first, in Hanieh’s idea that capitalism might emerge from this crisis to “…continue business as usual…” (P. 4); and second, in Midnight Notes position that decisive sectors of the ruling class are “ lusting” to “…return to that era…before the New Deal, when employers had the upper hand…”
In contrast to these frameworks, I would offer the following observations from Negri and Hardt’s, Empire:
“…the spatial divisions of the three Worlds (First, Second, and Third) have been scrambled so that we continually find the First World in the Third, the Third in the First, and the Second almost nowhere at all.” (Empire, P. xiii)
“It might be more accurate to say that center and periphery, North and South no longer define an international order but rather have moved closer to one another. Empire is characterized by the close proximity of extremely unequal populations, which creates a situation of permanent social danger…” (Empire, P. 336-337)
The old principles and dichotomies of class struggle and anti-imperialist solidarity will not serve us well in what is a new arrangement in important ways. This crisis will not see a leveling of conditions between metropolis and periphery (South and North, in Hanieh’s framework), nor within either of them. But this does not equate to the displacement of hardship to the periphery. Instead there will be increasing contradictions between “extremely unequal populations” in both areas. The distinctive impact of this crisis will be the exacerbation of contradictions and political potentials through accelerating the compacting of increasing inequalities into closer and closer contact with each other – in every sense of the word – in space, in time, and, most importantly, in terms of potential and actual political relationships. This process will cause political breaks that can emerge anywhere within the global capitalist system, and because, if anywhere, the political circumstances are likely to change the most radically in the center, we should look for these areas of break the most carefully right here at home.
I do want to say, however, that the concerns of both Hanieh and Midnight Notes with central issues of transnational labor mobility and the need for substantive practical forms of internationalism point to hopeful potentials for developing a revolutionary alternative. This is particularly the case with this Hanieh position that I cited earlier: “This means that for activists in North America, the question of global solidarity and resistance to racism must be placed as a central priority of any effective fightback. Any attempt to turn inwards, or dismiss international solidarity as less important in this phase will be disastrous for all working people – across the globe.” (P.4)
I agree completely with the strategic principle in the second sentence. In fact, rather than “a central priority”, I would see development of practical ways to implement global solidarity as the central priority. It seems like Midnight Note’s emphasis on resisting the attack on various “entitlements” in this country implies a different prioritization. However, it’s possible that they don’t intend this implication and would resist the pressures to parochialism that I see in their positions. It’s also possible, as I mentioned above, that Midnight Notes sees the struggle in this country as essentially doomed from the outset, and thus the central importance they accord this aspect of it might be more symbolic than substantive.
Both Midnight Notes and Hanieh give substantial weight to what they see as the related issues of authoritarianism, state repression, and trajectories towards fascism that are emerging in this crisis.
Hanieh states: “The most likely immediate outcome (of the crisis) is a hardened, more authoritarian state that seeks to restore profitability through ratcheting up repression…In the South, this will inevitably mean more war and military repression.” (P.4)
Midnight Notes states: “First, we better find alternatives because, as things stand presently, we are so incestually connected with capitalism that its demise threatens our own existence. Second, unless we organize to resist government planning, what lies ahead for us, after a cut of more than a trillion dollars of our “entitlements” looks much more like some variant of fascism than socialism.” (P.8)
There is a good deal to agree with in both statements, although there are some crucial omissions as well. Fascism and state repression are even more important to Akuno’s argument, however, so I would like to hold off a closer examination of these issues until later in the paper.
The Akuno piece is different from the other two. It directs the discussion towards potential and actual revolutionary cadre and proposes answers to what is to be done questions. I don’t know anything about the organization, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, beyond the good implications that attach to the name, but I hope it has access to significant numbers of such cadre because this is a paper that deserves to be taken very seriously.
It’s always good to begin a proposal about revolutionary strategy with the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach. Akuno does this: “…let me reiterate what should be considered the central point of this article: What we do matters. None, and I repeat none, of these developments are inevitable. Our actions and interventions can impact the conditions and change the balance of forces…It should go without saying that it is imperative that revolutionary anti-imperialist forces make this so.” (P.3)
What I will say in this argument disagrees, rightly or wrongly, with portions of Akuno’s plan of work and with some of its underlying strategic premises. In no way do these disagreements diminish the validity and importance of the document’s emphasis on action and organization - on constructing acts to the end. Nor does it diminish the significance of the attempt to organize a collective praxis through broader and more candid discussions of difficult issues within a less sectarian left. I will not be saying much about these last points at the present time, but I hope to do so in the future.
Akuno’s attitude towards the current crisis has to be inferred from some brief statements scattered through the article which hold substantial potential for (mis? d.h.) interpretation. I’m beginning with two that I think (hope? d.h.) are fundamental to his views; the first concerns the essential nature of the crisis, the second, the limitations on any possible “business as usual” capitalist resolution of it.
“…I maintain that capitalism has begun to exceed its systemic and ecological limits and is in major crisis. This crisis will lead to the systemic transformation of the capitalist-imperialist system. This transformation may not be qualitatively more humane than the capitalist system, however. Its qualitative transformation will largely depend on the outcome of the contest for power between progressive and reactionary forces within the world system during this transformative period.” (P.3)
“Building on Mike Davis’ analysis…Obama and the Democrats will be structurally barred from ushering in a new Keynesian solution to the economic crisis, the half-baked regulatory measures they will attempt will further exacerbate the crisis, leading to massive destitution amongst the nationally oppressed…and working class.” (P.5)
My first impression is how very different this position is from Midnight Note’s view of the “engineered” crisis and Hanieh’s attempt to place this crisis within the patterns of imperial domination and resistance of the past century. Both of those positions included or implied conventional approaches to struggle with a relatively predictable range of outcomes that fit the conventional analysis.
The Akuno piece is more complex, and, in my opinion, its weaknesses emerge in the application of its analysis. The statements above describe a “transformative period” for global capitalism, a period that involves contradictions that cannot be resolved and struggles that cannot be incorporated within a, “…new Keynesian solution”. As I read the passage, the “transformative period” involves a potential contest for power with a limited window of opportunity where, “…neither time nor conditions are favorably on our side.” (P. 2)
While the potential options emerging out of this transformative period are not clearly differentiated, at least two possibilities are mentioned in the following passage: “The transnational bourgeoisie will do everything within its power to save the capitalist world system, but they will run against some major constraints from both the left and the right that will begin to seriously push the system to its limits by the end of this period (roughly 2013 according to the text. d.h.). The subjective forces of the world will fundamentally determine whether the world-system descends into complete capitalist barbarism (fascism? d.h.) or transforms and advances towards socialism.” (P.9)
I think another option should be added to this socialism or barbarism dichotomy. This option would involve a de-centered (or re-centered), but globally organized, increasingly authoritarian and repressive capitalism, with a structurally adjusted “old and new core” and growing marginalized populations everywhere - although concentrated in the shifting “gap”. Of course, Akuno’s points about the way all alternatives will be shaped by the actual struggle, by the “subjective forces”, applies equally well to this ruling class option.
This option would be politically defined by what Walden Bello, (Z-Net, 12/26), characterizes as the “the coming capitalist consensus”, global social democracy (GSD), intended to provide the global ruling class a post crisis space of relative capitalist equilibrium. Bello pictures this consensus as an alternative to both neoliberal and neoconservative capitalist transnationalism, as well as to nationalist isolationism. He identifies it with British PM, Gordon Brown, supported by an array of ruling class liberals like Jeffry Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz, Bill Gates and George Soros. My sense is that Bello finds some substantial reformist potential in the GSD scenario. That is a position which I certainly do not share, however, that is another topic.
Akuno implies a possibility for such a third option when the systemic limits of capitalism are approached, if no oppositional political force has the political/military resources to overthrow it. However, since he does not accept the three way fight conception of fascism that some of us share, he probably sees the GSD scenario as little more than a brief transition to one of the two options he describes; “…complete capitalist barbarism” or “socialism”. Later in the discussion I hope to point out how the distinctive characteristics of the GSD model illuminate important political issues concerning fascism and anti-fascism. At this time I would only say that I think that it is the most viable ruling class option and consequently a very likely outcome of the crisis. Unfortunately, it is also an outcome that “our side” is most likely to ignore to our great disadvantage. It is doubly unfortunate that Akuno implicitly rejects it by assuming that global capitalism has nothing within its tactical arsenal to deal with the crisis except, “half-baked regulatory measures.” (P. 5), that are certain to fail.
I certainly hope that I’ve read the Akuno’s paper as he intends it to be understood and that I adequately describe his general approach. I like it and agree with big chunks of it. However, as I have indicated earlier, in my opinion there are gaps between this strategic framework and the more specific political estimates and the tactical priorities that he presents in the bulk of the article. These gaps, as I see them, create enough ambiguity so that I’m not sure whether I’m finding what I’m looking for in the article, instead of what Akuno intends it to convey. Let me go into this further.
Akuno divides the immediate political future into three segments that are closely tied to the U.S. election schedule. This national/electoral parliamentary structuring of the argument is questionable given the importance of the supranational and international characteristics of the crisis – both in reality and also in important aspects of Akuno’s own analysis. Everything I said about Midnight Note’s reliance on the categories of domestic class struggle (which would include the internal national struggle in Akuno’s case, d.h.) also apply here. So do the criticisms I have made of the imperialist/national liberation categories utilized by both Hanieh and Midnight Notes, although these categories don’t play such an explicit role in Akuno’s plan of work.
Akuno provides a more substantial set of proposals for prioritizing and organizing political work than either of the two other articles. I will concentrate on these points for the remainder of the discussion of the Akuno paper, approaching the questions about his method and conceptual framework through the political content of the work that he proposes for each stage of his “strategic orientation”.
Akuno summarizes this content in three “general line” statements:
From the election to May, 2009: “Defend the Social, Political and Economic Human Rights of oppressed Nationalities and the Exploited Masses;”
From January 2009 – January 2011: “Cast Away Illusions through Patient and Systematic Mass Work;”
From January 2011 – January 2013: “Unite and Fight to Defeat Fascism;”
These are brief summary statements that capsulize a much more extended and concrete presentation of a rich assortment of issues. However, the capsulization indicates a general problem. Everything contained in the “general line” statements is essentially defensive - up to and including the culminating anti-fascist front. This suggests a general left stance that is far too timid and reactive for a moment of systemic crisis of capitalism. It further suggests a ‘teaching’ and leading role for a vanguard formation that characterizes popular consciousness as ‘false consciousness’ and underestimates the necessity, the potential, and the emerging reality of popular self organization.
In short, there is little emphasis on the development of categorical anti-capitalist alternatives to capitalism in crisis –revolutionary alternatives. Instead these tasks are implicitly postponed until later, following some eventual joint culmination of the crisis and a program of left base-building mass work. I question this on two grounds: first, it fails to take adequate account of the difficulties the global ruling class faces to either continue to rule in the old way or to develop any new way, (such as the Global Social Democracy, Keynesian variant mentioned above). Second, it doesn’t sufficiently recognize the immediacy and the magnitude of revolutionary potentials, not to mention their transitory character and thus the political imperative to pay full attention to them, when, where, and how they develop.
Consider the following two passages, one of which I cited above on an earlier point: “…Obama and the Democrats will in fact be lording over the “official” decline of US imperial hegemony. Following the Clinton strategy and the interests and needs of the financial wing of the transnational bourgeois class, that Obama and the Democratic party leadership are beholden to, their fundamental role will be to negotiate the new divvying up…” (P. 6)
“The transnational bourgeoisie will do everything within its power to save the capitalist world system, but they will run against some major constraints from both the left and the right that will begin to seriously push the system to its limits by the end of this period” (2013 d.h.). (P.9)
These are important insights and could provide a shell for a left strategy. However, it will only be a viable left strategy, if it includes a revolutionary anti-capitalist core, not only in the form of ideas as a political stance, but also in the form of prefigurative collective political and cultural action and organization. The emphasis of Akuno’s “general line” statements are in a different direction. They posit necessary stages of democratic mass struggle, emphasizing…“patient and systematic mass work” (P.7), with the implication that this work must achieve some threshold of success before a comprehensive challenge to capital can be raised on a mass popular level.
I sympathize with the criticisms of dilletantish radicals, rootless lifestyle theatrics, and vanguardist posturing that probably underlie Akuno’s position. However, his serious sounding, patient and systematic, base building is also not a new approach to movement organizing. It has been frequently proposed and sometimes implemented - with and without some revolutionary integrity. Nothing in our collective historical experience shows that it will work in the conditions accurately described in his article. Conditions where; “…we don’t have much time to get our act together.” (P.2); conditions where; “…the (quantitative and qualitative) political strength and programmatic (i.e. ideological and strategic) coherence of the forces of reaction, at present, far exceeds the combined strength of left, progressive, and liberal forces…” (P.2)
(I have to say here that I don’t go along with Akuno’s approach to the calculation of the balance of forces. My sectarian bent leads me to question whether we shouldn’t subtract, rather than add, all of the “liberal” and much of the “progressive” components to arrive at a realistic sense of our “combined strength”. Also I think that the likelihood of rapid changes in programs and perspectives of all political forces, their decisively, in transition character, makes this quasi-Maoist approach to class analysis much too static. It is particularly important to realize that such changes and transitions in political forces will not follow a one way road in our direction. They are less likely to be simple progressions along a set path, than explosive accelerations and rapid moves to one side or another – or backwards.)
“4. Towards the end of this period, we should be looking to build and consolidate national coalitions and fronts of the mass organizations that have been built or expanded via the bread and butter struggles we have collectively engaged…” (to) “…help galvanize an admittedly progressive social movement in the US to heighten the contradictions exposed by the economic crisis.” (P. 7)
I don’t want to go into detail about the problems of organizing this protracted “patient and systematic” mass work when neither the ruled nor the rulers are likely to be at all patient. I do want to point out that the article tends to resolve the transition from base-building to revolution by invoking external factors – essentially revolution elsewhere in the world – to make the process work. To the extent it does this, the strategic orientation implicitly accepts that its end goal, following the, “…heighten(ing) of the contradictions”, depends on a favorable alignment of external forces and related conditions that are more or less independent of our strategic orientation and not really dependent on the success of our efforts.
“On the world-scale, the balance of forces is likely to shift qualitatively and quantitatively towards Left and Progressive forces in many area of the world. In many parts of Latin America, Afrika, and South Asia in particular, these forces will further seize the initiative and make further advances in their struggles against neo-liberalism and imperialism.” (P. 9)
(As I’ve pointed out above, both Midnight Notes and Hanieh also take positions that rely on the essential impetus for revolutionary change coming from outside of the arenas where we will have our role to play.)
Of course, there will be major struggles everywhere and some of these will help materialize global revolutionary potentials including those in this country. We must absolutely act in solidarity with these struggles and try to generalize their impact. However, we are dealing with a global system of capitalism and a protracted war of attrition around its margins will not be sufficient to overthrow this system. Notions of a people’s war in a particular country; of the countryside encircling the city; of a so-called “socialist” bloc or a Bolivarian coalition outmaneuvering the capitalist world market; are all relics from the failures of the last century.
Those were immensely important movements, but they didn’t add up to steps toward a necessary global revolution then, and they won’t now. What they did succeed in accomplishing was to force capitalist development on to new paths that could incorporate and diffuse the immense liberatory energy that the popular struggle had released. As Midnight Notes recognizes, capitalism used this energy against its sources, “…to spark off forms of development that decompose the class (or in this case, the liberation front d.h.).” (P. 5)
As an old guy I would like to believe that the playing field will shift decisively in our direction within my life expectancy. As an experienced guy I know it is a dangerous assumption. Many revolutionaries have died and more have become something short of revolutionary waiting for such things. We can’t depend on the development of a global movement for revolution centered elsewhere in the world, hoping to hitch a ride with revolutionary processes that are not ours. Instead, we have to find our own way to move from protesting the power over us to confronting it with a comprehensive alternative.
This dictates an internationalist approach to a common struggle, not a reliance on the success of movements elsewhere breaching the system at supposed points of weakness which we have learned - or should have - can be transformed into elements of capitalist resilience. Earlier in this argument, I raised the Negri framework for understanding the unique aspects of the current period. I think that they are also relevant here. The points of tension and the potential breaks in capitalist power are distributed throughout the entire global system where increasingly unequal populations come into increasingly close contact. The ruling class initiatives to repress, diffuse, distort, and redirect revolutionary pressures will be similarly distributed.
I want to end the discussion of the Akuno paper with two extended arguments: First, I want to look further at some of his estimates of the political forces and processes at play in the current situation. Then I want to consider the issue of fascism which is important to his analysis and which, as I have said before, also comes into play in the Hanieh and Midnight Notes articles.
For the first point, I’m going to cite five passages from the Akuno text and then refer back to them to make my arguments. These particular selections are to illustrate where I disagree with his position. They are not an attempt to summarize his position, and, since they exclude a number of important points which I do not disagree with in any way, I would be very unhappy to have them interpreted as such a summary. I recognize the problems with this approach and will try to avoid them as best I can.
1. “It is the position of this author that Obama’s victory, combined with what will perhaps be the worst economic depression since the 1930’s will result in an extreme polarization of (d.h. U.S.?) society fundamentally along lines of ideology and national identity.” (P. 1)
2. “Elements of the reactionary and thoroughly racist right will exploit this polarization to advance a thoroughly repressive, “America first” closed door isolationist campaign.” (P. 8)
3. “The Republicans, fortified through the reaction of the white working class, will regain some serious electoral ground in 2010…The “national socialist” and “American first” campaigns will find their legislative expression and early fruition with this initiative…” (P.8)
4. “The main objective of Obama and the transnational bourgeois faction he represents is to contain China (and to a lesser degree India and Brazil as well)…” (P. 6)
5. “Our fundamental tasks during this period are to organize the mass forces that invested their legitimate hopes and aspirations in Obama and form a popular front with liberal and centrist forces to contain the forces of reaction…”… “Entering into these alliances on the basis of strength is going to require that revolutionary anti-imperialist forces make significant gains in our base building efforts – gains that result in the organizing and mobilizing of millions of people (the place where real politics begins as Lenin reminds us). (P. 9)
1. I agree that the crisis will sharpen a range of contradictions. However, the resulting polarizations will not necessarily lead to a simple division into two opposing camps. I question what it means to say that the polarization will be “fundamentally” along lines of ideology and national identity. This seems to posit one major segment of the coming struggle as essentially for and against national liberation, while a second segment will be a competition between unspecified ideologies.
Both of these points have to be clarified. On the first, I assume that the point of reference is the struggle within the U.S. rather than globally since the issue of national identity presents itself quite differently in various countries. That still leaves questions with respect to this country. Is the national liberation pole seen as distinct Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican etc. movements or as an alliance of oppressed peoples? Is the other side of the polarization a racist white nationalism, a global capitalist ruling class, or some composite of both? What is the relationship between this polarization around national identity; the class distinctions that exist within each oppressed national population; and the other divisions that exist within the ruling class and the oppressor national population?
I have some confidence that Akuno can provide reasonable answers to such questions, but it is likely that these answers will illustrate a more fundamental issue – namely that a comprehensive revolutionary challenge to a crisis-ridden global capitalism demands an international framework of struggle, one that must go beyond the oppressed nation/oppressor nation framework of anti-imperialist liberation and the multi class fronts that are central to his approach. In no way does this deny that such movements can be a force for democratic progress and an important component of a revolutionary anti-capitalist struggle. However, in my opinion they will not be more than this and, whether or not my pessimism is justified, all of us, including Akuno, must deal with the capitalism’s demonstrated capacity to de-fang and disorient such movements.
With respect to the polarization around ideology, what are the competing ideologies? If they are seen as libertarian/socialist vs bourgeois/authoritarian, a concrete treatment of the specific role of class and the class struggle in providing the social base for the polarization seems essential and this treatment must affect the understanding of the contradictions around national identity. If the ideological polarization is between libertarian/socialist and fascist, the ruling class “drive towards fascism” (P.6) must be proven, not assumed, and the social base underlying fascist movements must be considered. This will guard against any struggle around this ideological contradiction becoming a diversion from a challenge to the ruling ideology and an evasion of essential questions of state power.
2. With respect to the second selection, I think it is necessary to be much more concrete in delineating different ruling class tendencies. Akuno tends to identify Republicans with isolationist fortress America attitudes and with a propensity towards fascism. However, the major tendencies in that segment of the ruling class are still Trilateralist: including amalgams of neo-liberal and neo-conservative variants on capitalist internationalism. The main positions current within the Democratic Party orbit, including those segments surrounding Obama, are different only in degree and, perhaps, in the inclusion of some slight movements toward the GSD position. In fact, just as there is little political space between Hoffa Jr. and Pat Buchanan, a xenophobic anti immigrant protectionist ruling class response to the crisis is as likely to find support among certain “pro-labor” and “progressive” Democrats as among Republicans.
3. The fact is that the various economic nationalists and xenophobes within the official political structure, Republican or Democrat, will not be heading up a fascist movement. Rather than being initiators and leaders of such a movement, such folks might respond opportunistically in a reactionary populist way to sentiments rooted among segments of the working class and extending into the Black community as well. And when this sort of opportunist coalescence occurs, it will immediately exacerbate the tensions between reactionary reformists and more radical fascist trends. This is a point that is clearly understood by many explicit fascists and it should be remembered by the left.
As I will make clear later, I see a major danger of an insurgent fascist populism that will radically challenge the ruling political structure as well as all variants of the left. However, I do not see any noticeable “drive towards fascism” (P. 6) in the U.S. ruling class, Republican, Democrat or whatever. Although fascism is most certainly authoritarian and repressive, it is much more than that, while plain old vanilla capitalism does quite well in this area on its own.
Akuno must demonstrate this momentum towards fascism from above with evidence that a substantial proto-fascist segment of the ruling class is intent on developing a reactionary nationalist challenge to the global capitalist system, a challenge that is something quite different from the expansion of authoritarism and state repression to protect that system. I don’t think such a political formation can be found, either here or elsewhere in the capitalist core. And, even to the extent that some prototypes might be discovered in what is called the “new core”, possibly in Russia, or in Southwestern Asia, none have a real potential to enforce a fascism from above in their particular national territory, not to mention in the capitalist system as a whole.
4. The “transnational bourgeois faction he (Obama d.h.) represents” is not primarily oriented to contain and compete with China and the other BRIC countries as Akuno asserts. Neither was the main tendency in the recent Bush administration oriented in this direction. This issue is a matter of some ruling class contention, but the rapidly expanding majority tendency, which includes Obama, wants to develop capitalism in the BRIC areas, rather than treating them as dangerous competitors in a rerun of the inter-imperialist conflicts of the first half of the last century. There is a substantial amount of available evidence on this point that predates the current crisis, and there can be no doubt that the crisis has strengthened the pro China, pro-BRIC, ruling class positions. The crisis has certainly rebutted any possible notion of economic “decoupling”, and has exposed the symbiotic relation of Chinese and U.S capitalism for all to see. I think it is likely that Sarkozy’s attempt to organize a self-sufficient and potentially autarkic Europe will be a bigger challenge for the Obama crew than anything related to China.
5. “Our fundamental tasks…are to…form a popular front with liberal and centrist forces to contain the forces of reaction.” No they are not. I don’t agree with this formulation at all - for some of the reasons indicated above and for others that I will lay out in the rest of this argument. We have a wealth of experience with popular fronts, popular front governments, and popular front strategies. Why should we expect something more from Akuno’s popular front strategic orientation – presuming there was even a remote potential for attaining it? Laying aside the fundamental ambiguity of the notion of “liberal and centrist forces” which I have mentioned before, a popular front against reaction is more like a step towards a capitalist resolution of the system’s current crisis, than a step towards a post-capitalist future.
Further, I must confess to some distress at another recurring ambiguity in this section of the presentation. Akuno frequently (see also P.5, P. 6, P. 8, d.h.) makes statements such as the following: “Democrats will once again fracture as they did in 1968, as they find that the Clinton strategy to out-right the right is no longer viable without making a decisive commitment to Fascism. Without left intervention, elements of the party and its diminishing white working class base will undoubtedly agree with such a move.” (P. 9.)
(The reference to, “…a decisive commitment to fascism”, in this passage raises a number of issues that I will leave to the later treatment of fascism. d.h.)
If this passage is meant as a factual description of conflicting political tendencies among Democratic Party constituencies, and specifically among white workers, I think it is a valid observation. A growing radical mass movement will polarize the entire society and one manifestation of this will be that a section of the Democratic Party constituency (and also its bureaucratic structure) breaks towards the left. However, this is far from an unalloyed good thing and should be approached as a problematic byproduct, not a strategic objective, of left policy. If the contradictory aspects of this polarization are not clearly understood, left policy can become increasingly confined to providing countervailing pressures on the Democratic Party and other formations of so-called “liberal and centrist forces” (P. 9).
It must be understood that these “liberal and centrist forces”, considered as a social bloc rather than as individuals, are not a willing receptacle for revolutionary politics. They will be pushing their own alternative agendas intended in large part to contain insurgent pressures within the ‘legitimate’ cultural/political’ institutional framework of capital – and particularly within bourgeois parliamentarism. As a participant in the Democratic Party “fracture” culminating in1968 – also a good thing as far as it went, I can testify that at the same time as they move to the left, many of these “liberal and centrist forces” will be demanding a reciprocal move to the right from the movement. They will be opposing extremism, and demanding a commitment to stay within the Democratic Party and capture it, as the price for their participation in any coalition.
Akuno appreciates the need of, “Maintaining a clear and independent ‘line of march’…” (P.10), but this is easier said than done. Indeed, some of his estimates and policies will make it harder to do than is necessary. His heavy emphasis on domestic political factors and his focus on developing a cross class alliance, a “popular front with liberal and centrist forces to contain the forces of reaction” (P.9), raise further questions about what he has in mind with his references to the potential impact of the left on the balance of political forces.
By inadequately presenting the content of his proposed line of march and failing to base it in a confrontation with capitalism as a system, rather than as a protest movement focused on grievances and abuses, Akuno’s strategic orientation doesn’t prioritize defending and promoting the revolutionary potentials within the popular front that he proposes as the main objective. He fails to clarify the line between a revolutionary challenge to capitalism and the range of proposed reforms and ameliorations that flower during all popular upheavals. These problems are evaded rather than answered by describing the popular front as “transitional” (P. 9). Everything is too vague and open-ended. This is the area where vital issues of the relationship between revolution and reform, and between confrontation and accommodation, must be spelled out or the transition will not be in any direction that would make us happy.
To illustrate the problems in a different way, the global situation facing capital opens the possibility for the social democratic (GSD) ruling class policy options that I mentioned above. Akuno notes one area where a related development is already evident, the so-called, “green capitalism”. Parallel potentials exist around the issues of so-called, “fair trade” and so-called “humanitarian interventions”. Various public relations gambits and more substantial attempts at co-optation in these areas fit comfortably within the Obama phenomenon. They will emerge as implicit or explicit pro-capitalist initiatives within the popular movements where they will be actively and uncritically promoted by the aforementioned “liberal and centrist forces”.
Let me raise a completely different point. Unlike some anarchist comrades, I don’t automatically recoil from Akuno’s various references to Lenin. One of these is used to provide support for this questionable base-building united front strategy: “Entering into these alliances (with liberal and centrist forces, d.h.) on the basis of strength is going to require that revolutionary anti-imperialist forces make significant gains in our base building efforts – gains that result in the organizing and mobilizing of millions of people (the place where real politics begins as Lenin reminds us).” (P. 9)
Obviously sectarian revolutionary posturing within a dysfunctional left subculture is hardly “real politics”. But mass-based reformism and variants of populism are definitely real politics – often real bad politics that have chewed up millions of actual and potential revolutionaries. I would suggest some different lessons can be taken from Lenin by considering what he said and did during periods of crises with revolutionary potentials. If you can stomach the preening smugness, read Zizak’s book on Lenin between the February and October revolutions. (For a different take on the same period, check out left-Menshevik Sukhanov’s contemporaneous memoirs. d.h.) Both make it clear that Lenin thought it quite possible to relate to millions without an extended period of base building and that he was widely criticized as an anarchist and putschist for these positions. Lenin also recognized that the revolutionary periods of 1905 and 1917 were defined by the fact that “millions” were organizing and mobilizing themselves in new and revolutionary ways, and that they were doing this independently of, and sometimes in opposition to, self-styled revolutionaries, including at crucial moments the overwhelming majority of his own Bolshevik faction.
This entire range of issues; base building, relating reform to revolution, dealing with popular illusions, recognizing spontaneous potentials, developing a social bloc opposed to all the forms of capitalist power, requires far more discussion. More important, it requires an exponential increase in practical organizing work and the critical evaluation of that work. Not being in a position to do very much in either area, I make all criticisms tentatively and with a good amount of self doubt. Nonetheless, I’m not quite done.
I mentioned earlier that one foundation element for Akuno’s argument follows Mike Davis’ position that: “…we can’t rely on the Great Depression as analog to the current crisis, nor upon the New Deal as the template for its solution.” (P.3)
I haven’t had anything to do with Davis since our paths crossed briefly in the late sixties. However, I’ve agreed with most of his stuff that I’ve encountered since then. Not surprisingly, I completely agree with this statement and think it holds clear implications for an adequate revolutionary response to this crisis. I do have to say that I haven’t read the entire Davis piece and don’t know that he would agree to the implications about his positions that I draw from Akuno’s brief references to them. I’m also not certain of the analysis on which Davis rests his conclusions. These may include elements of Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-system viewpoint, (see Capitalism’s Demise?, ZNet, 1/10/09 d.h.). I don’t find Wallerstein’s Prigogine disruption/chaos approach particularly convincing, but then I probably don’t understand it. In any case, I come to conclusions similar to Wallerstein with less exalted methods. I will spell them out in relation to my criticisms of Akuno’s popular front strategic orientation.
Despite Akuno’s stated agreement with the Davis’ analysis, I don’t think it supports his proposed strategy. Here’s why. Akuno advances Davis’ position as ruling out the possibility of a “…new Keynesian solution to the economic crisis…” (P.5) I agree that there is little potential for any new Keynesian solution on the national level, although as I indicated in the earlier discussion, I see definite economic and political flexibility for capitalism as a world system that is directly related to the likelihood that the radical left will not oppose all of its policy options and, indeed, may support some.
It is questionable that, while rejecting the ruling class Keynesian side of the 30s template, Akuno closely models his strategic orientation on the mass movement popular front side of the same template. Recognizing that no current external factor corresponds to the impact of Soviet Communism, and taking account of the far larger role Akuno provides for internal national liberation struggles, the popular front movement of the 30’s looks like the model Akuno is proposing for the current situation.
Whatever the arguments about the validity and efficacy of the Comintern anti-fascist popular front strategy of the 30’s, there is no doubt that it was employed on a mass scale in this country and that within its own terms it had some degree of success. The central features of the U.S. popular front were the struggles against war, for democratic rights, specifically the democratic right to organize, and for a social security safety net. This social movement shaped and forced the New Deal “template”, that Davis maintains will not be relevant to our current reality. The movement cannot be adequately understood without recognizing that the demands that were raised and the concessions that were won form a unity. Neither was possible without the other and without the particular circumstances facing this country.
There are a number of reasons to agree with Davis that our current situation is quite different from the thirties. The mass movements and struggles of that period culminated in fascism and war in much of the capitalist world, but In the U.S. they also led to a new mode of capitalist accumulation in which Keynesian, “…tools of state intervention and demand management…” (Davis from Akuno d.h.) were important. This model was developed in the U.S. and subsequently, after the essential destruction of competing capitalist states in WWII and after the temporary eclipse of fascism, the model was extended into a transnational system that dominated the entire capitalist core. This model is described by the Italian workerists as Fordism.
Fordism expedited accumulation and promoted regional capitalist stability through the expansion of mass consumption in the core states implemented through a social compact that involved stable living wages and a general system of social security for the working classes. Fordism was always partially dependent on the ability to transfer wealth and productive labor from the periphery to the core and to export costs, particularly in the form of unemployment and underemployment, to the periphery. Thus it was a model that could not be generalized and reproduced throughout the entire capitalist system although that essential limitation was obscured for a time by the existence of the ‘socialist’ bloc and the resulting space, more apparent than real, for alternate non-capitalist paths of economic development.
Capitalist development in much of the world has always been distorted and amounts to the “development of underdevelopment” as Amin, Gunder Frank, and others of that school have pointed out. But underdevelopment in the gap is only the other side of the Fordism in the core. Additional capitalist areas might develop towards the Fordist model, but essentially it was a zero-sum process where new participants tended to replace or dilute the existing ones, and only shifted around the stresses in the system. For example, the collapse of the socialist bloc and the weakening of the so-called non aligned states provided some temporary areas of expansion, although distorted and incomplete and only at the cost of exacerbating the potential for instability everywhere.
My position is that the economic and (particularly) the political benefits of Fordism are diminishing, reducing the economic and political pressure on the increasingly globalized ruling class to make differential concessions to the populations in the core and redirecting its attention to issues of profitability, accumulation, and stability in the new core and the periphery.
After declaring its obsolescence as ruling class policy, Akuno embraces a reprise of the popular side of the “Keynesian template” as our strategy. However, the Fordist accumulation model from that period is increasingly unstable and one impact of this crisis will certainly be to roll it further back. In this I agree with Midnight Notes. This provides linked reasons why both aspects of the Keynesian template, viable in the thirties, are obsolescent now.
For U.S. capital the issues of the thirties no longer provide a terrain of concession needed to divert a looming potentially revolutionary challenge. Nor do they still provide a social basis on which to develop a new cycle of capitalist accumulation. Now, Fordism is a competitive disadvantage, a “legacy cost” to be reduced in order to deal with new and different challenges. It is a diversion from the free flows of capital and the flexibilized labor forces that are central to the emerging mode of accumulation – the mode that is currently in crisis.
Looking at the issue from the other side; in the thirties there was a popular social movement with the potential to conquer the right to organize at work; expand the potential for substantive participatory democracy; and establish an adequate system for health care and retirement. Now, decades after the battles of that united front are over, the remnants of that social movement are resisting further erosion of the gains that were achieved, but the resistance is hamstrung by generations worth of experience that demonstrates the essential inadequacy of those “victories”. The recognition of the limitations of those past victories is a part of daily life. Something different from and something more than a rearguard defensive struggle to maintain them will be needed to develop a significant popular mobilization.
For both reasons we won’t be traveling that road again.
(If Akuno has in mind implementing some variant of a Trotskyist “transitional program” organizing thrust, premised on the lack of capitalist flexibility and the resulting likelihood of clear defeats of basic reform demands, he has a range of other problems to deal with that are not even hinted at in his mass work strategy. In fact, it is extremely unlikely that even the massive popular illusions exemplified in the popular support for Obama would be sufficient to get such a quixotic struggle for demands unattainable within the current framework off the ground. And to the extent it did happen, the consequences could easily be a mass backlash against perceived left manipulation. d.h.)
As I’ve indicated earlier, the issue of fascism is touched on in the first two pieces but is raised much more substantively by Akuno. I’m sure there are some variations between the three authors that are not apparent in these articles, but it appears to me that they present fascism in about the same way - as the logical end point of increasingly authoritarian and repressive regimes of capitalist class rule. These are orthodox left conceptions of fascism that see it mainly as a hammer over the working class for capital, and, potentially, as an optional mode of capitalist class rule - perhaps with a dose of Bonapartism – available for moments of crisis when other methods have lost their efficacy, temporarily or permanently. While none of these articles explicitly deny the mass movement, populist, insurgent features of fascism, they appear to take them into account only as quantitative extensions of the traditional inter-related elements of bourgeois reaction; male supremacy, white privilege, authoritarianism, xenophobia, and economic nationalism.
A number of us have written about fascism and neo-fascism as a reactionary, radical, anti-bourgeois mass movement - an insurgent modern populism that can oppose global capitalism from outside of the institutional and ideological framework of capitalist legitimacy. I don’t want to spend much time elaborating and arguing for these conceptions in this discussion. It will be enough to point out that this position entails looking at fascism as an alternative to the left, as a competitor for the allegiance of masses of disaffected people increasingly alienated from the capitalist system. And it entails looking at this competition as one where the left cannot assume its ultimate victory is certain because the fascist movement will always reduce itself to an adjunct of capitalism and the capitalist ruling class.
What I do want to do is draw one implication for the future struggle that I don’t think is properly appreciated by Akuno – or either of the other authors for that matter. Rather than the crisis forcing the capitalist ruling classes in the core to, “…strengthen the drive towards fascism…” (Akuno, P.6), I think the possibility should be seriously considered that it will lead to the emergence and strengthening of a right wing ruling class “anti-fascism”. I think we have already seen the development of this “anti-fascism” in its neo-conservative political/military form in the war on terror, a “war” supported by essentially every state and ruling elite in the world, despite the incompetent and confused leadership for it from this country. I believe that the neo-liberal clothes of this anti-fascism – or more specifically its global social democracy, The Coming Capitalist Consensus: ( Bello) form – will be showing up in our neighborhoods shortly.
It is hard to see why the left is so resistant to such conceptions. The ruling classes proclaim they see a quasi-fascist danger and fear it –and well they should, I think. However, the left asserts the entire operation is fraudulent, the capitalist ruling class actually wants fascism because it actually fears the left - us – which, as things stand, they certainly shouldn’t. Ruling class anti-fascism has taken a particular anti-Islamist war of civilizations aspect up to now which makes it possible to confuse it with simple racism and bigotry. This will change. Expect to start hearing from those aforementioned “liberals and centrists” about nihilists and “anarchist brownshirts” that are disrupting the effective reformist approach to the economic crisis. Expect also to have to deal with mass movements demanding the things we once thought were progressive, but in a quasi-fascist authoritarian and nationally exclusive framework. Such developments are already more than the products of fevered imaginations and it ill serves the left to underestimate them.
If we look at how U.S. capitalism actually emerged from the depression of the 30s, we can get additional perspective on the reactionary potentials, not for ruling class fascism, but for ruling class anti fascism. When did this country outlaw strikes, ban seditious organizing and speech, intern substantial populations in concentration camps, and develop a totalitarian mobilization of economic, social, and cultural resources for military goals? Obviously it was during WWII, the period of the official capitalist mobilization against fascism, barbarism and for “civilization”.
I personally worry much more about the consequences of ruling class “anti fascism”, than of ruling class propensities to impose fascism from above. Each of these three arguments need a more serious consideration of the likelihood of a pro-capitalist official anti-fascism that provides a hegemonic framework for an increasingly authoritarian post-crisis state and society under the cover of a defense of equality, human rights and democracy. When this element is introduced into the political equation, it highlights the need for a more substantive analysis of political forces and a clearer conception of their trajectory. This seems particularly true with respect to some questions that are frequently avoided in the left: 1) the political character of ex-colonial elites and the extent of their incorporation into global capital, and 2) the possible political trajectory of mass radical populist movements absent (or maybe including) a significant working class core.
This brings this effort to a welcome finish and I want to end with a literary bit. In his great novel, Underworld, Don Delillo has a passage on a demonstration against Dow Chemical at the University of Wisconsin. At one point, the protagonist says, “It looked as if something had happened in the night to change the rules of what is thinkable.” (Don DeLillo, Underworld, p. 599)
We’re in a period where the rules of what is possible can be washed away overnight and we must organize to take advantage; prepare to take risks; plan to develop capabilities. This is the opposite of a long slog through the institutions. Perhaps that slog is a trip we should have been on over the past decades – although I think it was and is more of a delusion about our essentiality and is always more likely to morph into our incorporation than into a proper strategy. In any case, we didn’t do it then and now it is certainly not the thing to do.
For years I was afflicted with the Epton Syndrome. Bill Epton was a Black Communist who left the CPUSA for Progressive Labor in the early sixties, taking a substantial group of Black Communists from Harlem with him. Shortly afterwards, the first of the Black Uprisings of the 60s erupted in Harlem. In one incident a large group of residents, some organized by PL, were confronting a substantial line of New York porcine who had already killed a number of civilians. Epton got in the middle of the street and called on the crowd to charge the police. He charged – but nobody charged along with him. Embarassing! Who would ever risk looking so ridiculous - particularly when jail or a bullet might be the result! Perhaps leading a chant would have been the ticket – “The people united, are never defeated” – except almost every time – but then maybe they weren’t really so united after all.
Here’s my point. The left is going to have to organize itself, not the working class or the ‘people’. One of the French post structuralists noted that the question isn’t so much why the masses don’t rebel against power as it is why they internalize that power relationship and enforce their own subordination and misery on themselves. At moments of crisis such as we are entering, this internalized acceptance of subordination will break at many points and masses of people will start to think and act in ways that would have seemed irrational to them a short time before. The role of the left is to recognize these elements of epistemological break and attempt to generalize them and incorporate them into an anti-capitalist social bloc. To accomplish this, the left must learn for itself what is to be done and how to do it, before presuming to educate others on these questions. And when we makes a start on this task, it will involve a little boldness, taking a few chances, some might prove to be embarrassingly inadequate; some might fail the risk/benefit analysis; but that’s the path to being a part of a revolutionary process, though it’s not necessarily the path to a comfortable life.
And by the way, for some more relevant advice from Lenin, check out his message to the Petrograd Combat Committee during the 1905 Revolution.
For discussion of this essay on Three Way Fight, see "Comments" below as well as separately posted replies by Dave (posted February 18, 2009) and Nick Paretsky (posted February 19, 2009).
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