originally a comment, Paretsky's thoughtful and challenging comments deserve more attention, so we post them up as their own post. - c. alexander
It’s taken me a while to assemble some comments on Don’s challenging and dense piece. (The recent posts on TWF have helped motivate me to get this finished.) I still don’t have a handle on all the issues and strategic questions he addresses in the context of his critiques of the three articles. My own lack of experience in politically “thinking and acting in the real world” is part of the problem. There’s a lot to respond to, but my comments are concentrated on just a few points in this piece: the “Negri framework” and related ideas; “authoritarian capitalism” and “Global Social Democracy.” I’m afraid a lot what I have to say smacks of that academism and dilettantism that irritates revolutionaries. It is often tangential and digressive, possibly distracting attention from what Don considers the main issues. I apologize for my poor editing, poor grammar and limited vocabulary. Among the authors Don cites (in addition to Midnight Notes, Hanieh, and Akuno), I’m most acquainted with the work of Mike Davis, and I’ll refer to him a few times (I haven’t yet seen the Davis article that Akuno cites). Negri lost me after Domination and Sabotage.
The Negri Framework
I’ve been leery of Toni Negri for a while, for different reasons, and skeptical of his and Hardt’s Empire – perhaps unfairly because I haven’t actually read their book, only the negative reviews. But I like Don’s use of their argument about the breakdown and intermixing of spatial divisions between the First, Second, and Third Worlds. The sentence from the Empire quote, “Empire is characterized by the close proximity of extremely unequal populations, which creates a situation of permanent social danger,” is pregnant. It sounds correct that “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 contact with each other” (dh). I’m not sure what is meant by the “potential and actual political relationships” (dh) that affected by this “compacting”. I agree with the implications Don draws, that the left needs to be alert to the “political breaks that can emerge anywhere within the global capitalist system,” especially in the center, where “the political circumstances are likely to change the most radically.” And I agree with the related assertions that the “defining impacts of this crisis will not be essentially displaced, they will come home.… 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’.… 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” (dh).
The relationship between the “core” and the “gap” isn’t completely clear to me. The “gap,” as I understand the term from Don’s exchange with Stan Goff over neoconservatism, refers to the “zones of chaos” where the rules of capitalism are not operating or being accepted. But in the Negri framework, it seems like “gaps” can appear within the “core,” the latter understood in the traditional spatial schema as the “First World” or metropolitan center.
Don’s a little vague about the nature of the “political breaks.” Maybe they will take different forms, have different levels of rupture with capitalism, have differing ideologies. They may involve street protests or strikes, in response to specific grievances, range from episodic protests, such as confrontations with the state triggered by such specific issues as police brutality combined with oppressive economic conditions, with the potential to develop into an enduring mass challenge to capitalist authority; to more radical, comprehensive breaks with capitalist society, involving social organization autonomous from capital and constituting some kind of dual power. And the breaks may be fascist, with mass fascist opposition to capitalist power and fascist dual power.
To me, the internal composition of these “extremely unequal populations” – and here I’m focusing on the subordinate populations – is complex, with different strata that may relate to each other in problematic ways. Don seems mostly concerned with the marginalized, whose growth is one of the “secular trends” of capitalism – the creation of a permanent surplus population as producers are expelled from capitalist or pre-capitalist social relations, with no prospect of their later being reincorporated into capitalist relations down the road. (Loren Goldner also sees increasing marginalization as feature of capitalism in what he calls its “decadent” phase.) But alongside the permanently unemployed, there are people still engaged in wage labor of various sorts, such as “informal” employment but also including low wage service sector employment, and a traditional working class engaged in manufacturing, like in the maquilidoras in Mexico, and China’s large industrial proletariat. In the center (the U.S. specifically), marginalization is occurring with an established, modern working class, so that we have the phenomenon of “structural employment,” so far seen mainly in the Black community, which historically provided much of the labor that built capitalist America; a low-wage “Wal-Martized” working class that has developed with “deindustrialization;” and a still-existing and strategically important traditional industrial working class. I think changes in the composition of the white working class in the U.S. need to be examined. Also, there are sectors of the working class that will remain in the “First World,” probably mostly white – e.g., technology and “knowledge” workers. I’m sorry if this sounds too much like sociology, but the nature and possibility of the “breaks” may be affected by differentiation within the “unequal populations.” How will the permanently unemployed and the employed wc related to one another. I’m not sure if I’m interpreting Don and Hardt-Negri correctly, and I don’t now where they place the traditional working class – maybe they think it’s part of the First World.
I agree that the “scrambling” of First, Second, and Third Worlds, is being accelerated by the current crisis. The loss of relatively decent-paying jobs now occurring in manufacturing may never be reversed, and the industrial base that emerges from the crisis will probably be more automated, with more of a “First World” character. But there seems a vast qualitative and quantitative difference between the mega-slums of Bombay, Sao Paulo, Nairobi, and Cairo, and the slums of Paris, Detroit, and other cities in the traditional center. Don says he is not talking about a leveling of conditions. On the other hand, these differences may complicate the efforts at global solidarity he sees as central.
I think Amin, or Frank, or both, or somebody else, had the notion of social formations and economies in the periphery being “disarticulated,” lacking some kind of coherence. Even before the onset of the crisis we were seeing this happen in American capitalist society. It’s been talked to death, but I’m thinking about the destruction of New Orleans – whether through deliberate or stupid neglect – and its aftermath: the internment of poor, mostly Black people in the Dome, and later the FEMA trailer parks. I heard coworkers saying things to the effect, “this isn’t supposed to be happening in America, this happens in Third World countries.” This episode was also a symptom of the “crisis of the law of value”: how people with no use value for capital are treated. (One could also see the casual sacrifice of a major American city that has represented and contributed to a rich stream of American culture as evidence for a U.S. ruling class that is globalizing and less concerned with the conditions in the territory of its historic home state.) Maybe not too much should be made of it as a symptom of secular disintegration; an Obama or even a McCain presidency would probably have dealt with the disaster differently.
What Mike Davis Has Said
A marxist who has probably done the most sociological investigation of the close proximity of “extremely unequal populations” inside the U.S. is Mike Davis, such as in his writings on Los Angeles. Writing during the 1980s in his Prisoners of the American Dream (Verso, 1986), Davis sketched the emerging class structure of “post-Fordist” American capitalism:
“What the Kerner Commission Report found to be ‘two societies, separate and unequal’, may by 1990 be three distinct societies, as segregated from one another as if apartheid were economic common law in the United States. At one pole will be the sumptuary suburbs and gentrified neighborhoods occupied by the middle classes, the rich and elements of the skilled white working class.…Outside, in the first circle of the damned, will be the ghettoes and barios, now joined by declasse and deindustrialized layers of the white working class,” a low wage working class with “‘citizen’ rights to a minimal social safety net”; and “a large outer perimeter of US society composed of workers without citizen rights or access to the political system at all: an American West Bank of terrorized illegal laborers.…a poor Latin American society thrust into the domestic economy” (pp.304-305).
Davis also briefly suggested the importance of transnational labor mobility in our neck of the global capitalist woods: “…the left in the United States will have to confront the fact that there is never likely be an ‘American revolution’.… If socialism is to arrive one day in North America, it is much more probable that it will be by virtue of a combined, hemispheric process of revolt that overlaps boundaries and interlaces movements” (ibid, p.314). Davis also calls for “more audacious projects of coordinated action and political cooperation among the popular lefts in all the countries of the Americas” (ibid). “the possibility for organizing mass solidarity must be one of the principal hopes of international socialism,” and in the US case, “between the liberation movements in Southern Africa and Latin America and movements of the Black and Hispanic communities in the USA” (ibid, p.313).
Davis (again, this is from something he wrote in the ‘80s) sees the leading edge of a renewed popular left in the US in a renewed movement among the Black and Hispanic working classes for social equality, which is no longer unfinished liberal business but a “‘revolutionary-democratic’” project that “that challenges the current political economy of capitalism”; “Substantive economic citizenship for Black and Hispanic American would require levels of change dangerously close to the threshold of socialist transformation” (ibid, pp.310-311). I don’t know how this fits with Don’s critique of the Akuno paper, his views on “revolution vs reform,” and the need for breaks with capital, not inclusion in capitalist society.
Davis’ important book on the worldwide epochal urban demographic shift and the growth of mega-slums, Planet of Slums (Verso, 2006), may offer insights into the conditions and political tendencies among the emerging marginalized in the center. (Planet of Slums seems to offer support for the idea of marginalization as a secular development in capitalism. Davis observes that “there is no official scenario for the reincorporation of this vast mass of surplus labor into the mainstream of the world economy,” and cites the view of one researcher, with regard to India, of the “reserve army” that “becomes stigmatized as a permanently redundant mass, an excessive burden that cannot be included now or in the future, in economy and society,” and which in this commentator’s view is “the real crisis of world capitalism” (ibid, p.199). However, Davis rejects the view that “urbanization without industrialization is an expression of an inexorable trend: the inherent tendency of silicon capitalism to delink the growth of production from that of employment” (ibid p.14). For Davis, the cause is “the legacy of a global political conjuncture,” the “IMF-led restructuring of Third World economies” after the debt crisis of the late ‘70s (ibid). )
Davis briefly considers the question of whether the marginalized urban poor posses “‘historical agency’” in the Marxist sense, which is to be the topic of another book by him. (Davis also briefly dismisses Negri and Hardt’s concepts, such as “the multitude,” as “portentous post-Marxist speculations” (ibid, p.201).) This has been a problem for me for some time, the potential of the marginalized to make a socialist revolution, in light of the standard marxist explanations for assigning the proletariat the unique role in leading the struggle for overthrowing capitalism and creating a classless society. Where do the marginalized stand when considering the Lordship & Bondage passage in Hegel’s Phenomonology of Mind that I think was important in STO’s and other leftist conceptions of the proletariat’s development of a consciousness as a potential ruling class.
The Epilogue to Planet of Slums, “Down Vietnam Street” deals with the Pentagon’s planning for urban counterinsurgency, termed Military Operations on Urban Terrain (MOUT), and whose premise is is that “the ‘feral, failed cities’ of the third World – especially their slum outskirts – will be the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first century. Pentagon doctrine is being reshaped accordingly to support a low-intensity world war of unlimited duration against criminalized segments of the urban poor. This is the true ‘clash of civilizations’” (ibid, p.205). Davis suggests that this is the underlying meaning of the “war on terror.” While his discussion is focused on the slums of the South, the implications that the slums and ghettos of the U.S. will be or already the subject of similar military strategizing are clear. (There’s a DoD-sponsored website with links to articles in military journals on MOUT doctrine as applied to the US, including articles on the LA riots of 1991; I don’t have the address handy right now, but many of the links were to the Army’s Center for Army Lessons Learned.)
The Strong State and Global Social Democracy
Turning to global social democracy (GSD). I think Don needs to further explain how an “increasingly authoritarian and repressive capitalism” is “politically defined” by GSD. In Don’s earlier writings on the secular crisis he argued that a social democratic response to the crisis could only be a transition to a conservative strong state – a state that would engage in planning, but planning “not based on, or aimed at creating a popular consensus” (dh, parapharase). Now Don believes that while keynesianism at the national level has run its course, there is “definite economic and political flexibility for capitalism as a world system” to make a global keynesianism viable. (I think that’s what he means.) I do see substantial ruling class support for some form of GSD (look, for instance, at the New America Foundation, http://www.newamerica.net/index.cfm?pg=home), and see how some of its components, mainly a more economically active role for the state, could make it “the most viable ruling class option” and “a very likely outcome of the crisis.” I agree that all the policy options of the ruling class should be confronted by a radical left, and that there is a danger that a large part of the left will wind up supporting some variant of GSD. I’m having trouble understanding how social democratic governments can reconcile their legitimating ideologies and promises to their mass base with authoritarianism and repression, at least for very long, given secular trends for increasing marginalization and the “permanent social danger” of cores and peripheries grinding up against each other. And Don says he doubts contemporary capitalism’s capacity for significant reforms. I’m a little ignorant of the history of actual social democratic regimes, but I’m aware of their capacity for repression and commitment to preservation of capitalist hierarchies. (In his The State in Capitalist Society, Ralph Miliband quotes the socialist minister of the interior in France’s Popular Front government of the ‘30s, regarding widespread labor militance: “…my choice is made between order and anarchy. Against whosoever it may be, I shall maintain order”, p.103.) Liberal technocrats like Robert McNamara could bomb and napalm Vietnam and later blubber about helping the very same poor they had been trying to wipe out a few years previous.
I’m trying to envision how a repressive, authoritarian GSD would work; would it be a narrow class compact, with very privileged sectors of the working class; would it be the combination of reform and repression practiced in the U.S. during the ‘60s, only globally: a Great Society to coopt or relieve the pressure from mass movements + COINTELPRO to eliminate the radical challenges. For controlling the marginalized or the “gaps,” would it be like “Hearts & Minds” in Vietnam. I can see how the repression would be connected with a ruling class anti-fascism. (To cite Miliband again: in his State in Capitalist Society, while pondering what he viewed as the long-term drift of Western capitalist states away from bourgeois democracy to authoritarianism: “It is easily possible to conceive of forms of conservative authoritarianism which would not be ‘Fascist’, in the old sense, which would be claimed to be ‘democratic’ precisely because they were not ‘Fascist’, and whose establishment would be defended as in the best interests of ‘democracy’ itself,” p.272).
Leftists and Social Democratic Programs
I agree with the need “to clarify the line between a revolutionary challenge to capitalism and the range of proposed reforms and ameliorations that flower during all popular upheavals,” that there must be “a confrontation with capitalism as a system, rather than as a protest movement focused on grievances and abuses,” and that “vital issues of the relationship between revolution and reform, and between confrontation and accommodation, must be spelled out” (dh). (And for me, the question of revolution vs reform is not clear cut. I don’t want to rule out revolutionaries participating in reform struggles. Also, it seems like there’s potential for “confrontation[s] with capitalism as a system” to develop out of protest movements.) I think its true that social democratic proposals will, are, “emerg[ing] as implicit or explicit pro-capitalist initiatives within the popular movements where they will be actively and uncritically promoted by … ‘liberal and centrist forces’” (dh).
A case is the work of the think tank, New America Foundation, (http://www.newamerica.net/index.cfm?pg=home), whose board of directors is replete with financiers and members of the corporate elite, such as the Chairman of Google and a retired aerospace corporation chairman, and policy intellectuals from the Council on Foreign Relations. (And Francis Fukuyama.) A number of board members, such as the organization’s founder, Ted Halstead, are active in the World Economic Forum (Davos). The Foundation backs a new New Deal to recreate a strong middle class and advocates a “New Social Contract” to this end, among other things. But more to the point, members of its research staff are getting published in The Nation on topics such as green capitalism (“A Green Stimulus for the People,” By Lisa Margonelli, New America Foundation, The Nation | January 11, 2009), and “Democratizing Capital” (By Sherle R. Schwenninger, New America Foundation The Nation | March 20, 2008), the latter article talking about such things as “Using Public Investment to Lay the Foundation of a Middle Class Economy.”
Then we have a lot of leftist intellectuals, like some of those associated with New Left Review, who see no alternative to neoliberalism but a reformed capitalism. Take David Harvey, whose work on political economy I’ve really liked, and who used to have revolutionary politics: In a recent article, “Why the US Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail” (posted at the Navigating the Storm site), Harvey urges “political leaders to stop preaching banalities…and get down to doing what has to be done to rescue capitalism from the capitalists and their false neoliberal ideology. And if that means socialism, nationalizations, strong state direction, binding international collaborations, and a new and far more inclusive (dare I say ‘democratic’) international financial architecture, then so be it.” Missing from these leftist reform scenarios is the working class movement, although it may be that this movement is what saves capitalism in the end, by forcing the necessary reforms, as it has in the past.
The Early Trilateral Commission Program
This leads to a digression. GSD, as outlined by Bello, sounds a lot like elements of the Trilateral Commission’s agenda during the 1970s for reshaping the international system in response to the economic crisis (expressed in the Commission’s reports, which are publicly available, and can be found at its website or any large library, and in statements by its leading spokespeople): a managerialism skeptical that market forces alone could maintain an “interdependent” international capitalist economy, featuring economic planning based on a corporatist “partnership” between government, business, and labor; government-supported and directed investment in growth industries, including alternative energy sources and energy conservation; economic transfers from North to South; regulation to ensure ecologically-sound growth. The Commission’s Crisis of Democracy report argued that growth and full employment were necessary for political stability, and endorsed a left-liberal proposal then circulating in the U.S. for national economic planning. One of the Commission’s leading intellectuals, Z. Brzezinski, advocated “programs of social redistribution,” and said that the U.S. should become “a society of increased participation – what is called an industrial democracy – which means a restructuring of the major responsibility and direction, if not ownership, of our society, to bring more participants into it. And that applies particularly to labor and management.” (I can provide citations on request.) While the Commission adjusted its stance to the “new capitalist consensus” that had developed by the end of the ‘70s, what became known as neoliberalism, it continued to maintain a more “regulationist” approach to capitalism than other ruling class policy-planning organizations. (Holly Sklar’s Trilateralism is a standard reference, but a valuable and overlooked book is Joseph Peschek’s Policy Planning Organizations (1987, Temple University), which provides a good overview of the Commission’s “managerialist” agenda.)
Trilateralism also had its authoritarian side. While Brzezinski spoke of “increased participation” and “industrial democracy,” the Crisis of Democracy report, in which Brzezinski was a participant, was all about restoring authority and “governability” to the advanced capitalist societies, that were suffering from the famous “excess of democracy.”
If we’re looking for ruling class templates for dealing with the crisis, and over the long run a new model of class rule and economic management, I think the Trilateral Comission’s proposed approach to the energy crisis of the mid-70s, offers a glimpse of things to come. A program of increased state intervention in the economy, that goes beyond keynesian demand management to intervene directly in the structure of production, combined with a strong dose of authoritarian rule, was outlined in a number of Commission reports on the energy situation. The report, Energy: The Imperative for a Trilateral Approach (Campbell, Carmoy, and Kondo, [1974a] 1977), stated that “Market forces will provide much of the motive power, but it is necessary to set the context within which private decisions on investment, for example, can be made and market forces can operate to the best advantage. The overall strategy must take the form of public policy…” (p.110). The report envisioned widespread state involvement in the restructuring of the Trilateral economies: “Within national economies, under pressure of high-cost energy, governments and peoples will have to take decisions on allocation of resources, on priorities among different forms of production and subsidies to investment, on revamping of transportation systems, and on patterns of location for industry, public services, and housing” (Ibid, p.105).
The Trilateral energy experts also the need for state control to spread throughout society: “Inflation, industrial slowdown and unemployment may bring social unrest, further loss of confidence in governments, and political disorder. …under these multifarious dislocations and pressures the lines between private decision and public control, between the freedom of individuals to live their own lives and the social requirement for rationality and equity in the use of scarce resources, will come under strain” (ibid, p.105). The populations of Trilateral societies “should be prepared to tighten their belts,” for which they needed “a wartime psychology” (ibid, p.121]. These themes were continued in the Trilateral report, Energy: A Strategy for Action (Campbell, Carmoy, and Kondo, [1974b] 1977). Discussing policy for energy conservation: “The long-term energy strategy recommended” will require “acceptance, voluntary or involuntary, of governmental regulation of an increased sector of personal life” (ibid, p.154). It was suggested that repression and a shift from bourgeois democracy would be necessary:
“It is a real question, therefore, whether the necessary sacrifices will in fact be accepted by powerful elements in the body politic, be they politicians, civil servants, trade unions, businessmen, or an undefined mass of ordinary citizens. In such cases, there is instability and turmoil whether a government tries to face the crisis or to avoid it. We foresee growing extremism, both of the right and of the left, which will feed on this instability.… Each nation, of course, will have to make its own decisions on how the necessary elements of social discipline, governmental control, and changes in customary modes of living can be reconciled with the vital need to preserve civic freedoms and democratic institutions” (ibid, pp. 154-155)
Notice that in the above quotation among the recalcitrant “elements in the body politic” that would have to be disciplined were other members of the ruling class and state personnel. I think this will be the case in the current crisis, one reason having to do with the conflict between the interests of global capital and nation-states, which Don has emphasized in a number of statements. (And although I have reservations about whether a truly global ruling class now exists, I believe there are tendencies in that direction; there are sectors of the bourgeoisie that are engaged in accumulation on a global scale, and while they continue to retain ties to their historic “home states,” they have a common interest in maintaining the stability and expansion of the global economy.) Certain sectors of capital, such as financial speculation, or industries that stand in the way of a crash program to slow global warming, or inefficient capitalists that have to be weeded out in order for profitable accumulation to resume, may have to be “creatively destroyed” through force. Thus, major contradictions within the ruling class and the state are a factor in the present crisis, which potentially provides opportunities to a revolutionary working class movement.
There are other issues I want to say something about, such as the nature of the crisis (I agree with the crisis of the law of value that Don has long theorized, insofar as I understand it, but I’m also becoming an adherent of a “breakdown” theory of capitalism based in Marx’s writings on the falling rate of profit), and the development of a global ruling class. But I have to put a stop to these comments.
I have little to contribute to a discussion of the tasks Don poses at the end of his piece or of his emphasis on developing a revolutionary anti-capitalist pole that runs throughout his analysis, except to highlight them, maybe more to help myself think and act clearly: the “development of categorical anti-capitalist alternatives to capitalism in crisis – revolutionary alternatives”, the need for “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.” I agree that the internalization of power relationships and self-enforcement of subordination is a critical problem (although you don’t have to be a post-structuralist to believe this), that breaks will occur in this “internalization of subordination,” that the “rules of what is thinkable” will change. It sounds good that the role of the left is to generalize these “elements of epistemological break,” although I don’t understand how that works in practice. I think (hope) it’s true that “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.” But because I am not an experienced revolutionary, in fact am still in need of being revolutionized, I do not really know what this means, nor can I comment on the task of the left being to “organize itself, not the working class or the ‘people’.” I don’t know anything about the references to Lenin and his “anarchist” moments. The seasoned revolutionaries will have to figure this stuff out. But I do believe Don is posing some urgent, very serious strategic questions, which warrant more discussion.
The above post is a reply to Dan Hamerquist, "Thinking and Acting in Real Time and a Real World" (posted to Three Way Fight on January 27, 2009).