Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Response to Paretsky (2/19/09

I want to comment on a few of the issues raised in Nick Paretsky’s February post reacting to the piece I wrote earlier this year. I apologize for the delay in my response.


I intend to loosely follow three of Nick’s categories: the “Negri framework”, “authoritarian capitalism”, and “Global Social Democracy”. I don’t see many differences and think that most of what I say will parallel Nick’s positions, but his questions involve serious issues for the continuing discussion.


Negri framework


Before considering some implications of Negri’s positions, I’d like to make a few general observations on his two recent books, “Empire” and “Multitude”. I should note that my tendency –which could be completely wrong - is to view these books as essentially Negri, limiting Hardt’s credits to the overtly liberal elements that are particularly important in “Multitude”.


Nick says, “Negri lost me after Domination and Sabotage”. He also lost us at the same time. While “Domination and Sabotage” was not without its internal problems, more important for our attitude towards Negri was the collapse of the Italian workerist new left and the loosely related armed groups at the end of the seventies. The self serving mea culpas of the recanting penitenti left us with a very bad taste from things Italian. I know that Negri took a more principled stand during these events and was still serving time when Empire was written. However, in his period in France, he wrote some overheated stuff on the French student movement that looked a lot like indirect self promotion – ‘where I am, so is the revolution’. Maybe this impression also was wrong, but it was our reaction at the time. In any case, when Empire appeared at the end of the Clinton years, we were not highly motivated to read the latest from Negri.


I assumed from the title that “Empire” was just another variation on the theme of ‘people of the world against U.S. imperialist hegemony’, a position promoted by an array of people with generally rotten politics and, in my opinion, a big step backwards from the politics of the Italian workerists. I remember being specifically turned off by two points that were presented to me as Negri’s essential arguments. The first presented the existence of an “unmediated antagonism” between the people of the world, (“multitude”), and “empire” - an antagonism that incorporated and superceded the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class. (See Empire, p. 237 for Negri’s actual, somewhat different, position). The second point postulated an underlying structural dynamic in capitalism that allowed the “multitude” to determine the direction of history, more or less irrespective of its consciousness and organization.


A couple of years ago, Ferd Egan, a good friend with good politics, told us that Negri’s current positions should be considered seriously and that my impressions of them were at best, incomplete, and more likely, wrong. He gave us copies of both Empire and Multitude. Since then I’ve read both books quite carefully and have come to the conclusion that Ferd was basically right. Most embarrassing, I discovered that I had the main thesis proposed by Empire exactly backward. Rather than an updating and liberalizing of the classic theory of imperialism, it is a persuasive critique of its current applicability:

“In contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers.” (Empire, p. xii)

Further: “The United States does not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperialist project. Imperialism is over.” (Empire p. xiv)

Finally: “Empire is not a weak echo of modern imperialisms but a fundamentally new form of rule.” (Empire, p. 146)

A significant related observation from Negri, particularly relevant to some participants in this discussion:

“The state is the poisoned gift of national liberation.” (Empire, p. 134, Negri’s emphasis)


These important and, I think, essentially valid propositions tend to be overwhelmed by the unnecessary and pretentious intellectualism of the opening sections of the book, marked by many pompous passages that bring to mind the kneecapping endorsed so casually by some compatriots in Negri’s earlier life. I can’t resist including one of my favorites although it has nothing much to do with anything under consideration:

“The logic that characterizes this neo-Weberian perspective would be functional rather than mathematical, and rhizomatic and undulatory rather than inductive or deductive. It would deal with management of linguistic sequences as sets of machinic sequences of denotation and at the same time of creative, colloquial and irreducible innovation.” (Empire, p. 41)


Think about that.


Eventually I took Negri’s own suggestion in the Preface to Empire and read the book in chunks. Looking back I can see where I fell into a workable pattern: first the preface; then chapter 1.3; then chapters 2.6 – 4.0, particularly 3.1. This done, going back through the rest of the material was of some value despite many seemingly redundant displays of erudition and the irritating (to me) preoccupation with post modernism.


What I find very good in Empire is its presentation of a basic transformation in the structure of contemporary capitalism and in the concepts in which this transformation can be thought and through which it can be acted on. It appears to me that Negri’s argument emerges as an extension of Luxemburg’s theory of accumulation.


“Rosa Luxemburg was essentially right: imperialism would have been the death of capital had it not been overcome. The full realization of the world market is necessarily the end of imperialism.


“The decline of the power of nation-states and the dissolution of the international order bring with them the definitive end of the effectiveness of the term “Third World”. (Empire, p. 333).


The “Negri Framework” approaches the qualitative change in late capitalism by applying Luxemburg’s analysis to conditions where capitalism has become a genuinely world system with no significant ‘outside’ - where capitalist appropriation through “formal subsumption” has been almost entirely replaced by capitalist appropriation through “real subsumption”. This transition, according to Negri, changes the relationship of periphery to center from one of differences in kind to one of differences in degree. Among other things, this approach is refreshingly distinct from various post-Maoist stage theory approaches to the current conjuncture.


What I don’t like about Empire, or more accurately, what I find exceptionally unconvincing, are the implications Negri draws for revolutionary strategy and specifically the way he approaches the issues of consciousness and organization. These problems predominate in the second book, “Multitude”, a much inferior offering in my opinion. This gets to one point where my second ignorance-based reason for dismissing Negri without reading his books had some purely accidental merit. Negri does seem to assume an underlying objective movement towards revolution that is inherent in the productive process of capitalism, a ‘law of motion’ that continues within this new form of capitalist rule, ‘Empire’. This underlying dynamic provides an evolving structural basis for the decisive role he accords to the multitude – insuring both its current and its ultimate historical efficacy, independently – more or less – of the current political and economic reality.


Negri’s position is shared with some Marxists such as the Johnson-Forest position which I paraphrased from M. Glaberman above, and still is a major element in the Italian workerist tendencies from which Negri emerged in the sixties (See Sergio Bologna). Also I think it is an element in Staughton Lynd’s “Wobblies & Zapatistas”, despite that book’s obvious antipathy towards Negri.


Negri’s positions were, and still are at odds with the French left structuralists, with classical Leninism, and with most conceptions that emphasize superstructural autonomy. There are a couple of interesting current criticisms of his approach. Alain Badiou, the important French communist theorist, appears to challenge its determinist and evolutionary implications for revolutionary strategy with his conception of the ‘event’ (see Seattle interview on Kasamasite). Alonzo Alcanzar (“On Radical-Leftist Strategy”, Linksnet) disagrees from an activist communist perspective that is more appealing to me. However, Negri has some ties to all of these camps, adding still more contradictions and ambiguities to his treatment of the revolutionary process.


For myself, the fatal flaw with Negri’s approach is a practical one. It fails to properly relate fascism to capitalist crisis or to comprehend the neofascist potentials contained in contradictory aspects of the ‘multitude’.

I hope this makes the relationship of my conception of the “Negri framework” to the points I made in the recent piece a little clearer. Let me draw out the issues somewhat with respect to a question that you raise:

“I’m not sure what is meant by the ‘potential and actual political relationships’ (dh) affected by this ‘compacting’. (Paretsky, p. 1)


I had in mind the new possibilities for developing an internationalist movement as a consequence of the emergence of Empire. The combination of the internationalization of capitalist labor discipline and the increasing international mobility of labor creates situations where the potential for internationalist solidarity extends beyond (largely) external support. The increasingly obvious shared enemy will clarify more substantive approaches to points of conflict, because people one lives and works with here are organically connected to those fighting elsewhere. I could give an extended example of how a range of attitudes in a conservative (reactionary might be more accurate) logging community have polarized and changed because people are living and working with a rapidly growing population of Guatemalans and Mexicans.


Notwithstanding the significance of Negri’s appreciation of these changing realities, I remain very skeptical of the spontaneity involved in his treatment of their potentials. In the first place, this refers to Negri’s notion of the multitude as an aggregation of “irreducable singularities”. When Alonzo Alcanzar says; “...we who in our suspicion of representation virtually forbid ourselves to use this word “we”.” (“Radical-Leftist Strategy, point 2.), his reference is to Negri, although the thought also applies to some more explicitly anarchist trends. Of course, Negri, can rely on the inexorable unorganized forward pressure of the ‘multitude’ to enforce its own priorities, but those of us who don’t see spontaneous revolutionary potential working in such a helpful linear way cannot. For us, the conception of “irreducable singularities” contradicts the importance, the necessity I think, of prioritizing certain constituencies, certain demands and certain struggles over others and places crippling limits on the flexibility of a revolutionary strategy that operates out of limited resources.


This is closely related to the differences in perspective that allow Negri to ignore the extent of the contradictions within the patterns of mass resistance and refusal of capitalist discipline, and thus the extent to which the dominant resistances he looks toward, i.e.; ‘exodus’ and ‘flight’ - are imposed rather than chosen. When these factors are considered, I think that the problems with basing a revolutionary strategy on this side of Negri’s analysis are pretty obvious.

Core/gap (and the ‘scrambling’ of same)

I should probably exercise more care to explain these terms and why I invoke them from time to time. The “core-gap/rule set/system perturbation” terminology comes from a particular ruling class perspective developed by Thomas PM Barnett, author of the “Pentagon’s New Map” and a number of related writings. I haven’t read through all of Barnett’s material, but the general content is clear enough from his extensive website. I think there is little real difference in stance between Barnett and Thomas Friedman although they appear to actively dislike each other. Both have been liberal globalization supporters. They share a strong commitment to an activist confrontation of obstacles to capitalist development through a combination of economic leverage and military force that is “smarter” (their common self-estimates of their respective positions) than the official policies of the recent past. Both can be expected to promote variants of strong state/global social democracy perspectives – more relative to this later.


The categories in Barnett’s terminology derive from his notion of global capitalism as a system. He presents a bourgeois ‘theory of the productive forces’, a mystified market-centric conception that drank from the kool-ade of capitalist triumphalism and the ‘end of history’. In a sense, Barnett presents the active entrepreneurial role of global capitalism as the mirror image of Negri’s notion of the historical efficacy of the multitude, although as a ruling class ‘consultant’ looking to make money from selling advice, he clearly is atune to those elements of capitalist organization and conscious policy that Negri glosses over with respect to the multitude.


Barnett opposes the recently dominant U.S. ruling class - ‘unipolar’ - strategic plan that aimed to disrupt the potential for any nationally-based challenge to U.S. hegemony within the global capitalist system - a plan that focused on the increasing political, economic, and military power of China. Barnett regularly counsels segments of the U.S. ruling class to adapt to the notion that they are not threatened if China and/or India gain increasing importance in the global political economy. He bases this apparently on a perception of the limitations of the nation state as an adequate political/cultural and economic framework for capitalist hegemony and power.


There is some superficial similarity here with the aspect of Negri’s notion of Empire that accords all national forms a secondary importance, but the differences are more important than the similarities. As contrasted with Negri, Barnett would not see the ‘gap’ as presenting a developing challenge to capital growing from crisis phenomenon of late capitalism and potentially infecting the core. Instead, for him the gap is a shrinking atavistic domain of pre-capitalist conditions that the expansion of the capitalist market and its accompanying “rule sets” will eventually surmount, if differing tendencies in the core don’t disintegrate into a self destructive ultra-nationalist competition. This has more in common with some Maoist analyses that look at the gap in terms of non-capitalist social formations – although those analyses are looking for revolutionary potentials that are of no interest to Barnett – than it does with Negri.

In any case, though it is important to understand these terminologies and, particularly, the assumptions and perspectives that underlay them, there is no way that they present a conceptual framework that we can use. Nor does Negri adopt any aspect of Barnett’s position despite their shared skepticism about old priorities on national political and economic power. For example, if Negri were to utilize the Barnett category of the ‘gap’, his conception of the “Poors” (see Multitude, p. 129-137) as a leading element of the multitude should provide its social content. However, Negri presents the Poors, not as a dumb and irrational backward-looking resistance to capital, but as a major element of refusal of its modern disciplinary regime that foreshadow possibilities of a post capitalist future throughout the system.


So the point you make about the interpenetration of the core by the gap and the modern contradictory tendencies that this entails would not make political sense for Barnett, but are understandable and important in my view – and, I would think, in Negri’s. However, with Negri there still is a major problem since his spontaneism stands in the way of the development of strategic priorities based on concrete evaluations of these contradictions. And, as I have said often, the specific contradictions that create the potential for mass fascist movements are not even a part of Negri’s vision of the multitude.


(I initially hoped to find some opening in this direction from Negri in the strange passage titled, “Demonic Multitudes”. (Multitude, p. 138-140). However, after a promising first sentence - “The multitude has a dark side.”- it quickly became evident that this “dark” side was only an incremental addition to a general threat to the “political order” of empire, not a unique and different threat as per the Three Way Fight conception of fascism.)

Marginalization & Disarticulation

I have always liked the conceptions of the ‘development of underdevelopment’ and of the ‘disarticulation’ of economic development in the global South that I associate with Samir Amin. (I haven’t read Gunder Frank.) This is the case despite the frequent combination of such ideas with illusions about the viability of non-capitalist models of development; illusions which frequently are/were encrusted with sanguine views of the ‘socialist camp’.


I agree with you that this ‘disarticulation’ is becoming a much bigger factor in the current crisis situation and that it is intertwined with the spatial scrambling of the ‘First’, ‘Second’, and ‘Third’ ‘Worlds noted in the Negri passages that I’ve cited. (Empire, p. xii, and p. 253-254).


You point out that one current feature of working class recomposition that demonstrates the secular character of the crisis is the accelerated marginalization of labor increasing the pool of workers with “...no prospect of their being reincorporated into capitalist relations down the road.” (Paretsky, p. 3). On a global level, many such workers have barely been ‘freed’ from the land by the first steps of primitive accumulation before finding themselves ‘freed’ again by the diminishing opportunities for wage slavery in the official economy of capitalism.


I think you are also right to emphasize that an increasingly important aspect of the current process is that its impact is to declass growing segments of “...an established modern working class...” – and, I might add, not only the segments that have been on the bottom socio-economic tiers of this working class. It is in this second area where the shrinking potentials for “reincorporation” and the changes in status and prospects that are entailed by it are likely to have the most radically disruptive impacts, because here capitalist discipline can no longer be stabilized through cultural hegemony and its related mythologies of cross-class community of interests. This, not the question of who would ‘suffer’ the most, is what I was trying to get at with Hanieh and Midnight Notes on the issue of whether the most important features of the crisis would be those that were ‘exported’ or those that would ‘come home’.


You raise New Orleans as an almost cliched example of internal ‘disarticulation’. I agree both to the example and to its emerging cliche status. However, although some argue that New Orleans was a unique situation, an externally determined accident, there are other examples that cannot be explained and minimized in such a fashion. Consider Detroit: Look at the rips in the fabric of capitalist legitimacy from the rapidly changing circumstances of the union-organized industrial workers in what has been their Sierra Madre for the past three quarters of a century. Say goodbye to the Fordist mass consumption model in its heartland – and maybe to Chrysler and GM in the process. Consider the ramifications for the conditions of immigrant labor, for the merging of the criminal economy with the ‘legal’ economy, for the viability of local government and the continued internalization of a capitalist ‘rule set’. This is ‘disarticulation’ that might have past parallels in a Gary or a Newark, but in Detroit, Cleveland, Akron/Canton/Youngstown, St. Louis it achieves a critical magnitude that makes it much less digestible for capital – and, by the way, I’m not so sure that I accept the logic of your denial of any possible emerging parallel to “....the mega slums of Bombay (etc)...” (Paretsky, p.2)


Then look at China, a society moving from the ‘gap’ to the ‘new core’ and wrecking the elements of stability of the rural society in the process. Although this process has happened before, it has not previously been a second ‘primitive accumulation’, accompanied by the deliberate demolition of a social safety net developed to mitigate the social costs of the earlier ‘socialist’ primitive accumulation. This stark and brutal combined process provides a major acceleration of ‘disarticulation’... and not only in China. The ramifications extend throughout the system and will be particularly jarring in the old core...here...when the current symbiotic structures that underlie international capital and commodity exchanges implode.

“Substantive economic citizenship”

I was struck by the term you cited from the old piece by Mike Davis; “...substantive economic citizenship for Black and Hispanic Americans...”. The phrase could benefit from a critical appraisal. At one time a movement for substantive economic demands, rooted in actual conditions and real needs of Black and Hispanic people, might have been a real possibility. Such a movement would necessarily involve spelling out the content of ‘substantive economic citizenship’ to facilitate a reasonable discussion of the terms and conditions for its attainment. The best outcome of such an exercise would have been the development of an organizing effort around a ‘transitional program’ – a focused mass movement for popularly ‘legitimate’ basic reforms unattainable within the capitalist conjuncture of the moment that could open a pathway to: “...the threshold of socialist transformation”. (Davis). As late as the eighties in this country, a formation like the Rainbow Coalition might have played this role and this is likely what Davis had in mind. This, of course, did not happen, but if it had, it would have been a case of bringing the national liberation movement home to the metropolis and any successes attained would provide strong arguments against Negri’s current analysis.


The transitional program is a common Trotskyist approach to revolutionary strategy, one that was also evident in the Akuno paper, and it has been thoroughly criticized in various other manifestations by myself and many others. Rather than repeat those arguments, I would only say that the moment the transitional program moves beyond tactical considerations it begins to pay a price for failing to confront the qualitative issues of revolutionary consciousness and failing to take adequate account of the capacity for capitalist rule to keep oppositional movements internally divided through a process of selective concession and repression within the framework of its cultural/ideological domination.


Under current conditions there are additional obstacles to this perspective. The extent of ‘disarticulation’ affecting the privileged and previoously incorporated (white) sectors of the working class makes it virtually impossible to define the elements of national ‘economic citizenship’ as a coherent set of liberatory political objectives. Most likely, the very use of the term ‘citizenship’ would direct whatever unity is obtained towards nationalist exceptionalism and a reactionary focus on American Jobs for American Workers, i.e.- the poison in the “poisoned fruit” of national liberation. Under such conditions, transitional programs are not likely to see the light of day and their strategic weaknesses will never run the risk of exposure in political practice.

‘Agency’

You raise the implications of marginalization for the development of a revolutionary agency in the context of Davis’s dismissal of Negri’s notion of ‘multitude’. As I have said and as I’m sure that Davis recognizes, since Negri can always invoke the underlying dynamic of social production as a functional substitute for the organization of a conscious revolutionary social bloc, his approach is less dependent on specifying a revolutionary agency. That won’t work for those of us who are not enamored of swarms and rhizomes, and it is certainly to the good if this grouping includes Davis.


I did want to make a few comments on your general point about the eroding social basis for the traditional Marxist view of the unique revolutionary role and potential of the working class. We refer to the contradiction between ‘social production’ and ‘private appropriation’ as a pivotal point for anti-capitalist struggle. The significance of social production is that this is where working people can gain an appreciation of their collective capacities as ‘producers without whom there is no production’. This is typically related to the issue of revolutionary agency by the argument that elements of the experience of ‘social production’ are essential to developing a revolutionary class bloc that can appreciate the necessity and possibility of anti-capitalist revolution. (STO also used to regard the collective experience of social production as the material basis for successfully challenging white privileges.)


This argument emphasizes two points: the characteristics of large scale cooperation, both in producing and in resisting the pressure to produce, provides the collective experience equivalent to the ‘shaping of the thing’ in the Phenomenology. The experience of solidarity, of collective resistance against a common class enemy in which different individual subjects risk more than they can afford to lose for gains that don’t always translate into individual benefits, provides the equivalent factor to ‘risking one’s life’ in the Phenomenology.


Insofar as these lessons are uniquely provided by participation in the capitalist productive process, the growing marginalized sectors of the class will not share in them and will not learn any lessons about the necessity and possibility of social revolution that might be gained from them, This makes it increasingly important that we look critically at the changes in working class composition which make social production more atomized and less social and make this source of the consciousness of being the ‘collective producers’ a lived experience that is shared by smaller and smaller segments of the class. This is an important issue and one that has bothered me for a while in terms of past debates about the potential to develop ‘socialisms’ out of mass revolutionary movements lacking significant working class participation and leadership.


What is it about social production, if anything, that uniquely creates these mass counter hegemonic potentials? (I read Staughton Lynd’s recent book and thought it explicitly argued that the entire conception is mistaken, although, in looking back, I can’t find the relevant passage.) In retrospect I think that our attempts to do production organizing tended to idealize and exaggerate the positive educative role of participation in social production, and didn’t take full account of the alienating and dehumanizing aspects of the same experience – the various “appendage of a machine”, “fragment of a man” issues. But the fact remains that there was some reality to the notion. Even if it was a reality that only emerged episodically, that was more evident at moments of sharp change – like these moments perhaps.


We need to explore the possibilities of functional equivalents for these disappearing elements of class experience. It seems to me that this entails two things. First, the ‘productivist’ illusions associated with the notion must be abandoned. Capitalist industrial management theories have gone a long ways towards reducing and redirecting the radical potentials in large scale production in the interests of maintaining labor peace and advancing productivity. There are far better ways to develop the experience of social cooperation than in the typical large scale capitalist enterprise which is rife with mind-numbing stupidities interlaced with the worst careerist individualism, and where the estrangement from the product and the productive process is almost complete.


Where initial experiences of ‘break’ with this routine occur, e.g. aspects of the Republic Windows occupation, they have to be generalized so that the important elements of preparation for other such events can be put into place and the ability to precipitate a rapidly spreading social infection maximized. Second, there has to be a much more conscious organizing approach to general cultural issues, focusing on the development of a counter-hegemonic bloc that can provide an alternative arena for generalizing the lessons of mass solidarity and popular creative potentials, at times even making some sacrifices in terms of efficiency, tactical flexibility, and militance. I know this runs counter to some points I’ve made in other arguments, so I’ll move on before exposing myself as a complete fraud.

Strong state: trilateralism: global social democracy: fascism:

My approach presumes that the movement towards globalization will overcome nationally based political resistances – unless these assume a mass revolutionary anti-capitalist dimension. This provides an integral relationship between the first three of the factors listed in the section heading, recognizing that many others may see them as distinct or even mutually exclusive. I advance this position as a quite tentative hypothesis that remains to be demonstrated and certainly welcome discussion and debate about it. In this general context, the fourth term above, the postulated emergence of a modern neofascism, is the precipitating factor that I see as both providing coherence and plausibility for the hypothesis and as increasing the momentum of the process.


There are a lot of different issues located here and there are a variety of different ways to discuss them. I see the three terms as related elements in an emerging model of capitalist class dictatorship that is transitioning from nation-state based structures to forms better suited to the long term interests of an increasingly globalised capitalist ruling class and productive process. These changes, all of which involve a strengthened state, are part of the movement from imperialism to empire, but they are also important elements of the nation state arenas where the resistances to this movement are manifested. This contradiction results in frequent tensions between the economic and the political sides of the process.


Since the major features of this expansion and redirection of capitalist discipline are evident in changes in U.S. state capitalism, I will limit my discussion pretty much to developments in this country. Despite the mystificatory cult of the autonomous capitalist market, U.S. capitalism has not been innoculated against the secular tendencies towards increased bureaucratization and statification that are normal features of the concentration and centralization of capital. Layered on top of this in this country, the areas of individual choice and autonomy are further narrowed by the increasing atomization and commodification of civil society and the privatization of much of what had been considered to be common. As the state merged with the economy, the entire society was militarized and the working class was atomized, destroying its political and social cohesion. All of this facilitated-and was facilitated by - an internal Fordist social peace that supported and promoted hot and cold wars.

These processes have substantially eroded the content of freedom and democracy, including many of its specifically bourgeois aspects. They combined with capitalism’s more or less organized responses to the traumas of depression, fascism, and war - with social revolution always within the realm of possibility – to project increasingly authoritarian ruling class policies, partly as a response to real dangers, or at least ones that were widely perceived as real; and partly as a manipulation of manufactured external threats designed to discourage the emergence of more substantive internal ones. This entire process has overwhelmed some episodic counter trends, notably the brief period in the late sixties and early seventies which might be seen as a more comprehensive, though ultimately failed, reversal. The rest of my argument will involve some questions which have roots in the secular tendencies mentioned above, but, for the most part, I’m focusing on ruling class policies and their intended or accidental results.


At least since the Soviet revolution, ruling class ideology has contained two poles. One presents capitalism as the only possible modern form of social organization and defines any radical challenge to it as intrinsically reactionary, if not irrational. The other presents capitalism as the most desirable of possible forms of society, but emphasizes its vulnerability to a range of centrifugal pressures and ideological opponents and views its survival as dependent on developing the proper responses to these threats. At different moments these opposed tendencies exist in various uneasy combinations but over the six plus decades since the military defeat of state fascism they have jointly explained and justified a cumulative expansion of repressive and authoritarian forms and methods of capitalist discipline, in this country if not uniformly throughout the entire capitalist system – sometimes by providing its rationale and sometimes by promoting the actual systemic changes.


There has always been a tendency for the left to look at all of this as leading inexorably towards a 1984 state, a fascism from above without any necessity for the confusions provided by messy mass fascist movements. I have argued against such positions elsewhere, noting that they frequently legitimate a ‘good’ capitalism by focusing on contingent ruling class policies and trends which can and are easily modified without changing anything serious. However, there is a more substantial difficulty with this perspective than its tendency towards parliamentary reformism. It obscures the fact that, notwithstanding increasing authoritarianism, the ultimate stability of capitalism still depends on its ability to develop and maintain support or at least acquiescence from populations whose needs and interests are not served by it.


Until the Bandung Conference period, the prevailing ruling class conception was that the external anti-imperialist and socialist camp challenges to capitalism could be contained with military force until they collapsed and were incorporated, while the derivative internal risks could be treated as matters for the police and the ‘law’. However, at some point after the mid-fifties, faced with the Chinese revolution and an eruption of left-led national liberation struggles, sectors of the global ruling class were afflicted by a renewed pessimism about the essential viability of imperialism/capitalism and began a significant modification of their approach to social control.


The new premises were clearly outlined in the Trilateralist Commission documents, particularly ‘Crisis of Democracy’ essay and, less overtly, in the emerging conceptions of low intensity conflict and counterinsurgency strategy and in the policies associated with neo-colonialism. Nick rightly draws attention to these factors and to their approach to disorganizing and deflecting popular insurgent potentials and disrupting dangerous radical groups.


More than a decade after the “Crisis of Democracy”, the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ provided a few years of renewed capitalist triumphalism and resurrected the “End of History” argument that capitalism was the essential form of ‘modern society’ and that attempts to overthrow or transcend it were basically irrational. These illusions were quickly and conclusively shaken, first by 9/11, and more seriously over the past few months by, as Warren Buffett said, “...capitalism falling off a cliff...”. In any case, even this relatively brief period of ‘irrational exuberance’ didn’t significantly impede the overall capitalist trend of increasing social control and the further limitations on freedom and ‘rights’. With the decisive end of that period and the official assertion that we have entered the new era of ‘long’, perhaps ‘permanent war’, the movement towards authoritarianism has more than resumed its previous rapid pace.


In the mid seventies STO began to argue that capitalist rule was increasingly reliant on modern and self conscious policies of repression that we titled the “new” state repression. These policies were ‘new’ at the time in the sense that they explicitly discounted the traditional notion that that capital was eternal, a necessary order, and that rebellion amounted to a social pathology. Instead the presumption was that capitalism would be permanently under threat, generating and regenerating potentially insurgent oppositions that were not inevitably doomed to failure. The practical conclusion that was drawn was that an organized and strategic quasi-military ruling class response was needed.


This response was developed as the doctrine of low intensity conflict. It took both popular insurgency and political dissent out of the realm of human rights and civil law and put them in the realm of covert war. The development of this doctrine was paralleled by complementary trends and policies which increasingly removed all transparency and accountability – actually any pretense of commitment to majority rule - from the already compromised processes of parliamentary democracy. This is evident in the Trilateral Commission’s fears of ‘excess of democracy’ – where indeed, the real fear is of democracy itself and not any ‘excesses’. The career of Samuel Huntington, major author of the Trilateral ‘Crisis of Democracy’; from the Vietnam war ‘strategic hamlets’ right through his authorship of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’, is an example of the continuity between that period and the present. However the political and economic changes since the mid seventies are far more important than the similarities and I will get into them in a moment.


Even now these changing methods of class rule are not adequately comprehended by the left although their implications are widespread. There is an extreme reluctance to recognize that the dominant form of repression in the core is aimed at disrupting and redirecting movements of protest, not at suppressing them – at shaping dissent, not at ‘illegalizing’ it. Thus we are regularly caught asleep by domestic ‘pseudo-gang’ developments even though these have been explicit parts of repressive strategies for more than half a century. It is even more difficult to understand why so few questions were raised about more blatant foreign operations of this kind, e.g.; al Qaida in Iraq, which was a replica of Kitson’s Kenyan prototypes that has been a matter of public information for longer than my political life – which is saying something.


Additionally, until very recently there has been little appreciation of the widespread privatizing of police and military functions resulting in the internationalization of Pinkertonized repression – a reprise on steroids of what this country experienced more than a century ago that has been only thinly disguised and justified by various failed state features in the gap. This has been quite evident since the Contra funding scandals of the Reagan Administration.

However, when we consider what has happened since the mid-seventies, it’s clear that there have been some very important changes. Trilateralism was a multilateral, nation state-based capitalist approach to the Soviet Bloc and to radical national liberation. Neither of these targets are currently with us despite some illusions about S. America. Trilateralism does not fit the current post Cold War conditions. In the first place these are conditions in which, as previously noted, “...spatial divisions of the three Worlds have been scrambled...so that we find the First Worlds in the Third, the Third in the First, and (most relevant to this point d.h.), the Second almost nowhere at all.” (Empire, p. xiii). The Soviet Union and Communist China were definitely ‘somewhere’ for Trilateralism.


On the most basic level, the current capitalist world cannot achieve stability based on the tripolar constellation of nations and alliances that were intended to control anti-imperialism and cordon the Soviet Bloc. Now we have a globalized capitalist world and among its most important segments are areas that were the targets of Trilateralism, for example, the so-called BRIC bloc. The political and economic requirements for economic growth, profit maximization, and political stability in the global system are no longer necessarily congruent with those same requirements for the governing components of the Trilateralist system.


The disappearance of a spatially defined and militarily threatening ‘outside’ with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the incorporation/marginalization of the national liberation movement has helped to develop a situation where economic relations have decisively outgrown the national state structure. I would argue that the current processes of production and appropriation cannot be properly understood as essentially based within nations at all...and that all the tendencies are to move further away from such a base.


So there is pressure towards a strong state in the current situation but the strong state is quite different from the what the modern Metternichian underpinnings of Trilateralism would have produced. Capitalism needs to develop transnational institutions that can exercise directive power without being limited by the national state forms which have been central to its history and which continue to possess fiscal and monetary authority, not to mention the bulk of the military resources. This growing need for state forms that can operate as the ‘collective capitalist’, disciplining global labor and segments of capital outside of the framework of any given nation state, cannot be solved within Trilateralism. Nevertheless, it remains a need that is not being adequately fulfilled and this results in major disruptions throughout the global system.


The neo-liberal premise until the recent crisis was that, if the dominant national economies were prosperous and thus stable, the economic side of the global capitalist system would be basically self-regulating and this would keep political tensions in check and eventually resolve them. Any problems with unruly elements in the gap and new core that could not be resolved through exercising market leverage and other applications of economic power would be remnant political and military issues that could be handled with a measured and limited dosage of military power. This is the view that underlies Tom Friedman’s famous MacDonald’s/McDonald Douglas formula, blurted out in a simpler time a decade ago before Seattle. That Friedman approach clearly isn’t adequate in circumstances where crisis phenomena are universal.


The development of transnational strong state institutions is required by capital’s dilemmas, and this in turn requires a certain unity and coherence of capitalist power that is difficult to develop when the economic relations have substantially outstripped the national framework and when different national frameworks may have distinctly different national interests and priorities. I’ve raised this issue in other writing, but it’s more evident now in the problems with developing a coherent capitalist discipline over the process of financialization. I notice that Panitch (see 4/10 ZNet article) indicates that such a class discipline was not considered desirable. Perhaps that was true in the flush of massive profits at an earlier moment, but it is not true now. The emerging debate between the Franco-German and the Anglo approach to financial regulation will sooner or later require the adoption of a transnational disciplinary structure – particularly since even Greenspan’s confidence in the rationality and morality of the bankers and hedge fund operators has been so deliciously shaken.


This is where Global Social Democracy enters the scene. The general capitalist class interest in stability and order is undermined by competing requirements for achieving it in certain national economies. This cannot be resolved by some laissez faire process any more than any other of the current issues of political economy can. It requires a state intervention, but one that will incorporate concession as well as repression. Who will decide which squeaky wheels are to get the grease? Will it be the Greek students threatening to ignite the spirit of ’68, or the bedraggled autoworkers of Michigan? An EU response will go in one direction, an U.S response will go in another direction, but ultimately there is far too little flexibility to grease everything.


This is going to be approached by some kind of global social democracy designed to materially buttress capitalist hegemony at points of stress. The material side is quite straightforward, even if it is currently difficult to see what instrumentalities will make it work. There is a less obvious ideological side that I can see working, not by distributing benefits, but by presenting a posture of willingness to do so that is being obstructed by social forces operating out of narrow self interest. This, then, will constitute the mythical ‘good’ capitalism which the metropolitan left has traditionally supported in its benighted way as an alternative to presenting its own plan of revolutionary reconstruction.


Nick points to a major problem:

“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...” (Paretsky, p. 4)


Quite right this will be difficult, but there is a way to mollify the mass base, particularly before these GSD tendencies reach governmental power. The fear of fascism will become the functional substitute for improved terms in the sale of labor power. And the liklihood is, I think, that there will be a fascism to fear. So long as the fascist threat is real, a relatively stable social democratic class peace compact is possible. And under that cover, the economic and political adaptations necessary to revitalize capitalist production will also be possible - although perhaps in a form much closer to ‘barbarism’ and the ‘common ruin of the contending classes’. We could be left to contemplate again Mao’s dictum about the broom.


This is why, to reemphasize a point I made in the earlier piece, we can’t wait for things to happen, but must do whatever is possible to precipitate and deepen the elements of crisis, expecting to develop opportunities that will be real, but not real long lasting.

dh

1 comment:

Nick Paretsky said...

I’ve been mulling over Don’s arguments and analysis, including one of his strategic prescriptions – “we can’t wait for things to happen, but must do whatever is possible to precipitate and deepen the elements of crisis…” (from his most recent piece); “following the Chairman (Mao), unless it is pushed, capital will not fall – where the broom does not reach the dust will remain. So let’s push a bit – and stay alert for other broom wielders” (from “Capitalism in Crisis?,” Sept 25, 2008) – and wondering what that this means more concretely.

In the meantime, I’ve come across an article at CounterPunch.org which has given me some more empirical food for thought with respect to Don’s projected tendency towards development of a more authoritarian and repressive model of capitalism, and the secular trend he sees for the merging of state and economy and militarization of society in the US. The article deals with the growing criminalization of youth in the school system in the wake of Columbine (Henry Giroux, “Ten Years After Columbine,” April 20, 2009).

Some quotes from the article:

“Columbine helped to put into place the development of a youth control complex in which crime has become the fundamental axis through which kids lives are both defined and monitored while the militarization of schools became the order of the day.… Students have been redefined through the optic of crime as populations to be managed and controlled primarily by security forces.”

Giroux gives over-the-top examples of brutalization of students (a 7-year old being shackled and made to lie face down by a school security officer, and so on) and some stats: 8000 students arrested in Chicago in 2003 for offenses like “pushing, tardiness, and using spitballs.” Giroux states the youth and schools have become part of the domestic “war on terror,” the brunt of assault falling on young people of color, with schools becoming more like “maximum security prisons: unannounced locker searches, armed police patrolling the corridors, mandatory drug testing, and the ever present phalanx of lock-down security devices such as metal detectors, X-ray machines, surveillance camers and other technologies of fear and control.”

I think I’ve been experiencing a little of this criminalization paradigm where I work, with employees being automatically treated as criminal suspects, to be watched constantly.

Something I’ve considered is that, as state repression moves deeper into and spreads throughout society, becomes progressively entangled with various spheres of social reproduction (education) as well as production (work), mass insurgencies will be increasingly a response to repression, and will involve confrontations with the state from the get-go.

Nick Paretsky