Category Archives: Economics
Recently, SkePoet posted a critique of Bhaskar Sunkara's "Beyond Warm and Fuzzy Socialism." He quotes from Marx's "Critique of the Gotha Program," a text that is often quoted these days as objecting to equality as a socialist value. SkePoet specifically takes aim at Sunkara's invocation of the French Revolutionary slogan, "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity." He chides Sunkara for using the term "equal respect," which he charges is "fundamentally liberal" not socialist.
The Trouble With Marxism
Though I am profoundly influenced by Marx & Marxists, I also have serious reservations about calling myself a Marxist. I also wish to address a wider public which often finds Marxism itself too horrible to ever consider embracing. Therefore, I have to address that horror first of all.
Like nearly every Marxist I have had the pleasure to know, I reject Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union as an almost wholesale catastrophe. I do have a few friends who have a more positive view of the Stalin period. There are probably important things to learn from Stalinism, and of course Western capitalism has been a disaster for the vast majority of humanity. To state it simply, let me just say that I would never support a one-party state or state censorship, ever. Democracy demands no less.
Then there is Lenin, of course. Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution may have had some admirable features, but without giving too much cumbersome detail, I’ve come to view whatever advances Lenin’s government introduced in Russia as very quickly eclipsed by a dangerous anti-democratic politics. Even allowing for the unique conditions of 1917 Russia, there is very little in the Bolshevik Revolution that can be applied directly to our political situation in the US today.
So, what about Marx himself? Marx actually found the idea of “Marxism” troubling and stated at one point, “I am no Marxist!” Similarly, one can say that Jesus was not a Christian. Perhaps more relevant, scientists who study evolution regard it is axiomatic that they not be bound by some “Darwinian ” theory.
If we are committed to the goal of overcoming capitalism to bring about socialism, an egalitarian democratic order of economic and political justice, then we cannot be bound by one man’s philosophy. Marx considered his socialist theory to be scientific, and that means it must be open to evidence and new knowledge. While I agree that much of Marx’s work is critically important, even necessarily part of a socialist politics, I still doubt that this use of Marx’s work is best called “Marxism.”
One might consider the example of scientific physics. The first complete physical theory was created by Isaac Newton and is still called “Newtonian.” However, Albert Einstein demonstrated that Newton’s theory failed to adequately model and explain important physical phenomena. His proposed reconstruction of scientific physics has been called “Einsteinian” by some, but more commonly General Relativity. Today’s theories have even more abstract names like “loop quantum gravity” or “M-theory.” If hard sciences have largely abandoned the practice of naming their theories after individuals, how much more so should a contemporary socialist politics do without such a limiting practice?
That said, I do not want to deny any of my good friends the freedom to call themselves Marxists. I may even do so on occasions when it will not cause confusion. However, a contemporary socialist politics has to move beyond the failures of Marxist movements since the 1800s when socialism was founded. One symbolic step to take is to reconsider what message we are giving the wider public by using a term like “Marxism.”
The Necessity of Marxist Analysis
Beyond the symbolic distancing from Marxism, I next want to praise the contributions of Karl Marx to socialism. No socialist politics today is complete if it does not draw on his work. Just as Darwin blazed the evolutionary trails followed by so many of his scientific descendants, so Marx forged radically new and revolutionary understandings of our modern world, its economics, and politics.
Parenthetically, if one were to give Marx’s own body of work a single label, I suspect Marx himself would call it “communist.” Why name his first mature statement “The Communist Manifesto” in 1848? In 1875, almost 3 decades later, Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme” repeatedly uses the term “communist” to describe the post-capitalist social order.
In this fairly limited essay, I can’t possibly pull out and describe every important aspect of Marx’s work. However to illustrate in a broad way what I see as Marx’s overall contribution, I will quote from his long-time collaborator and popularizer, Friedrich Engels:The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch. The growing perception that existing social institutions are unreasonable and unjust, that reason has become unreason, and right wrong, is only proof that in the modes of production and exchange changes have silently taken place with which the social order, adapted to earlier economic conditions, is no longer in keeping. From this it also follows that the means of getting rid of the incongruities that have been brought to light must also be present, in a more or less developed condition, within the changed modes of production themselves. These means are not to be invented by deduction from fundamental principles, but are to be discovered in the stubborn facts of the existing system of production. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
This quote details with masterful concision many of the elements that were summarized in the Communist Manifesto‘s classic phrase, “All hitherto existing history is the history of class struggle.” While Marx was more than generous in giving credit for Socialist and Communist ideas to many of his forerunners, his singular passion in much of his early work was elaborating the utter dependence of any true socialist success on a widespread class struggle. A social movement can imagine all sorts of variations on an ideal economy, but such ideas have no real power if they are not embraced and carried into reality by a potent, mass-based revolution.
However, Marx’s mature theory was not merely a theory of class struggle, but of fetishized commodity production. Class struggle does occur, but to understand that struggle as in itself constituting the struggle for socialism is mistaken. Class struggle in itself is not the means for overcoming capitalism, as the working class actually has regressive tendencies within itself, and, perhaps most un-Marxist to state, the capitalist class actually has some progressive tendencies. Marx did recognize this latter fact in the Manifesto, “when the class struggle nears the decisive hour…a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat.”
However, I would go beyond this assertion of Marx and argue that significant sectors of the bourgeoisie have common interests with workers. In fact, class structure appears to me far more complex than many Marxists have recognized. Rather than the Manifesto’s simplification of social classes into two opposing united forces, the ruling classes have exercised their power in such a way as to perpetually fragment and subdivide the workers through differential wages, educational opportunities, more or less leisure, and many other practices.
As capitalism has evolved, some privileged sectors become disenfranchised, others are elevated into new status, all in the name of enhancing the profitability and efficiency of capitalism. This has meant historic sequences of reversals and renewals in class-struggle alliances.
In short, I do not view class-struggle as a fixed, di-polar affair with a simple bourgeois vs. proletariat antagonism. The situation is dynamic, ever-changing. The key commitment of a socialist politics is not to an uncritical subordination to the immediate politics of the working class. Rather, socialists are committed to an egalitarian transformation of society against the power of the ruling class and the systems of racism, capitalism, sexism, and domination.
Beyond Marxism to A Revolutionary EcologyLabor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program ———
Readers of my blog at radicalprogress.info will have seen my thematic title, “towards an integrative revolutionary social ecology.” My approach to the question of social and economic revolution is to situate the social dynamics within the science of ecology. A major motivating factor in this decision are the looming global environmental crises, which decisively delimit economic systems.
Just as in Marx’s day it was the science of economics that formed the pivotal frame for grasping massive social forces, in our day, ecology on a global scale reveals that economics (and all social and human sciences) subsist within a planetary system of natural forces. An integrative ecology is committed to the conviction that we live in an interconnected world and that understanding it requires integrating vastly divergent domains of knowledge.
“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Karl Marx The Communist Manifesto
Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between “positive liberty” and “negative liberty” is often taken to refer to the difference between John Stuart Mill’s advocacy of freedom from interference with self-regarding actions and Marx’s call for freedom to control the conditions and products of one’s labor. In our society it would seem that Mill’s concept reigns supreme. Each of us is free to speak our opinion without fear of imprisonment. Each of us can decide how to spend our earnings. Once we are independent adults, we do not have to answer legally to the demands of anyone in terms of career pursuits, intimate relationships, or musical taste.
However, Marx’s famous specter of communism’s class struggle shadows our actions in this post-Cold War world. We know we don’t want to return to the iron hand of centralized planning, however, his description of alienated labor and powerlessness still seem remarkably accurate and persistently undesirable. Yes, we can choose from thousands of beers or car models. If we are fortunate enough to have a well-paying job, we yet have little control over how our work is carried out. Henry Ford’s principle that capitalism must pay people well enough to sustain a market for automobiles (and other products) has grown antiquated in the neoliberal era of the falling rate of profit.
Today’s situation may not have been visible to Marx’s view, but the massive productive capacity of capitalism has not provoked the proletariat towards revolutionary socializing of the rewards of capitalism. Rather, it has provided rapidly diminishing returns on investments that reward an ever-smaller percentage of humanity with fabulous windfalls. Industrial production has in fact made poverty superfluous, but it has not made poverty’s abolition directly attainable. The world has enough farms, schools, hospitals, and factories to feed, educate, heal, and create a humane standard of living for every person now alive. Yet, profit constrains this bounty, forces lay-offs instead of full employment, and favors short-term marketability over long-term sustainability and generous distribution. The world which the workers struggle to win is profusely cluttered with the detritus of glittering trinkets, while great masses of humanity starve.
The widespread rejection of Marxism rests upon its historic betrayal of liberty. The collectivization practiced in nations under Communist rule is rightly charged with severe crimes of political repression. One-party rule brought terror, show-trials, and generally inefficient production. The Communist governments that came toppling down in the early 90s had only managed the class divisions in their societies, not abolished them. Negative freedom was suppressed ostensibly in order to seek positive freedom, but neither was achieved.
Mill writes that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” When applied to behaviors such as smoking or tastes in clothing, certainly our choices do not harm others, however much they may harm a person who indulges them. The battle to lift onerous social standards has been fought repeatedly in our time. In the 1960s, long hair on men or short skirts on women were considered indecent. Today, they are tolerated and rightly so. However, the challenge which Marx poses to Mill’s “liberty” is whether capitalism’s normal operation is inherently harmful.
Perhaps Mill would argue that capitalism is necessary for freedom since it maximizes the ability to start one’s own business. It seems difficult to conceive an alternative to free enterprise that is not premised on central planning. However, as Marx might point out, the entrepreneur does not create a shop in complete isolation. A productive capacity of any scale requires many workers and so immediately the question of how the business rewards its workers arises immediately. A new business assumes and depends upon the availability of workers and other inputs to make production possible and profitable.
For Marx, the harms of capitalism are built into the fabric of the wage system. A worker’s body is deployed along with Mill’s faculty of “ape-like” imitation in order to churn out massive supplies of complex objects. Overproduction is balanced on the backs of dismissed workers, who may never regain their jobs. Automation accelerates this process exponentially, and the wage-system never changes to calibrate to the new decreased demand for human labor.
With hindsight, we know that attempting to control production from on high by cadres of bureaucrats won’t keep production at appropriate levels to sustain both the availability of necessary goods and the appropriate remuneration for labor contributed. Everyone everyday needs adequate nourishment, shelter, clothing, and transportation to simply carry on. A key flaw of capitalism is that in its search for profit, it preferentially creates products for those with disposable incomes to the detriment of adequate levels of necessary goods. Freedom to make a profit means the freedom to not produce necessities.
One alternative decentralized proposal to calibrate production to social necessities is Robin Hahnel & Michael Albert’s “consumer councils.” Each individual or household creates regular (annual or more frequent) reports of the goods it needs to function adequately, which are submitted to a delegated council. These reports are tallied, evaluated, refined, and finally forwarded on to workplace cooperatives in the form of contracts between a municipality’s residents and the appropriate businesses. New businesses may be called into being to cover any necessary production that does not yet exist. Existing companies may be redirected towards new productive priorities. In place of a “free market” that favors immediate profits, the consumer council model elicits cooperative productive priorities that represent a community’s authentic needs.
In this model, freedom exists in the report creation phase. Each person has an input into the overall process and the consideration of whether a person can pay for their necessary consumption is not directly considered. A consumer council may decide to send back consumption expectations that are deemed unrealistic, but if the community continues to demand the unrealistic, then the unrealistic may become possible. Far from a fetter on freedom, this back and forth communication process would hopefully have a constructive effect of greater rationality of production outcomes.
As simple an idea as cooperative planning may seem, it still seems somewhat unattainable in our world. Capitalism and the wage-system are so familiar that any change seems threatening, even to those who suffer under its impoverishing logic. Marx’s proposal was to fashion a “communist party” to concentrate the advanced intelligence of the working-classes into a politically potent force. In practice, these parties distanced themselves from the working-classes and pursued the necessities of the party at the expense of the class struggle for positive freedom.
Freedom, positive or negative, cannot be exercised for someone else. The workers cannot be freed by the actions of an external agency, but rather only by the collaborative development of their shared agency. In this respect, even a system of universally unionized workers could never produce an emancipatory momentum, so long as the profit motive decisively determines society’s economic priorities.
Marx’s demand for positive freedom to control the means of production still rings true in our world of late capitalism. The massive market crashes in this decade are ample evidence of the irrationality of capitalism’s existing priorities. What good is freedom of speech if it is reduced to merely the right to complain? The protest against real distress requires effective means of changing the world, not merely describing it.
None of this denies negative freedom’s enduring necessity. In fact, it demands it. If the way forward requires the cooperative unification of the workers in pursuit of their own authentic priorities, such unification can only be the product of the free convergence of their individual freedom. While we may hold Marx liable for locating the agency of emancipation from capitalism outside the working classes themselves, we can still appreciate his trenchant account of capitalism’s actual operation in our world.
In our society, the viability of a cooperative participatory road beyond capitalism is most suggestively revealed in the general assembly structure that is the hallmark of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. In dozens, perhaps hundreds, of US cities and towns, local activists can gather each evening to create a shared agenda for social action. By adopting a rough class analysis of the 99% vs. the 1%, OWS highlights the truth that positive freedom from economic misery isn’t a relevant matter to only some group of poor people, but rather the visceral imperative of the vast majority. Whether OWS and its satellites can realize its potential remains an open question.
The primary aim of a just economic system should be to produce the necessities of life in enough quantity that none are deprived. The rightful recipients of these necessities include every living being, every kind of organism, from simple plants to complex animals. Generally, each living being should receive an adequate, or if possible, a generous supply of nutritious food & drink, healthcare, transportation, living quarters, and for humans at least, clothing.
The secondary aim of a just economy is to empower its participants to sustain an adequate or, preferably, a generous standard of living, without harmful over-consumption. Education is the primary method of such empowerment for humankind. This education should not be directed to the fulfillment of the profit motive, but towards a general equality of living standards.
The tertiary aim of a just economy is the advancement of the living standard of the entire ecosystem, human and non-human. While minimal living standards are the initial goal, a mere subsistence is not a life of freedom. The improvement of living and working conditions in harmony with the natural world towards a generous future is the authentic and just motivation for economic innovation.
The achievement of equality and liberty with maximal natural and social harmony is a revolutionary goal, even though it hardly seems extreme. It only appears radical in contrast to the massive poverty, oppression, and degradation of humankind and nature that are rampant upon our planet. However, the right-wing conviction that oppression, poverty, and environmental disruption are natural and even desirable is bluntly barbaric.
Our modern economic system demands from each ordinary participant at least 40 hours of labor devoted to profit-making chiefly for others. The average amount of sleep a person needs in a week is 56 hours. The necessary act of eating takes up an average of 21 hours per week. For most of our world’s living adult population, at least 5 or more hours per week are devoted to “overtime” for the profit of others. This leaves each worker at most 46 hours per week to pursue their freely chosen ends.
The labor we devote to the profit of others is not freely chosen by most of humankind. The threat of poverty or starvation coerce most of us into underpaid, unpleasant jobs. If each of us could have at least 8 more hours a week to pursue a freely chosen passion or leisure without fear of deprivation, our contentment and pleasure with life would increase noticeably. If we could achieve even greater levels of freedom from involuntary work for more hours per week, the personal and social benefits would be enormous.
Achieving a shorter work-week is the key to revolutionary economic goals. Our modern system aims at profit and so it pressures most of us to work for many more hours than would be required to produce our needs apart from profit and excess luxury. Production of things is valued in terms of their marketability and profit-margin, not whether they genuinely contribute to social and natural well-being.
The productive advances discovered by science, invention, and education are not turned towards the satisfaction of all needs equally, but first of all to the profit of the wealthy. It seems so plainly reasonable that humankind should turn its powers towards cooperative production, if only the means of production were in the hands of the many equally, not the few who pursue mere individual wealth.
Recently I decided to revisit some of the readings in Socialist-Feminism that I did in the late eighties. Especially pertinent was the “dual-systems theory” discussions of the late seventies and early eighties. For this post I will refer to Iris Marion Young’s 1980 Socialist Review article “Socialist Feminism and the Limits of Dual Systems Theory.”
According to Young, DST argued that “women’s oppression arises from two distinct and relatively autonomous systems. The system of male domination, most often called “patriarchy,” produces the specific gender oppression of women; the system of the mode of production and class relations produces the class oppression and work alienation of most women.” Young states that DST seems inadequate and spells out the questions arising for her.
She writes, “socialist feminists agreed with the radical feminist claim that traditional Marxian theory cannot articulate the origins and structure of sex oppression in a way that accounts for the presence of this oppression as a pervasive and fundamental element of most societies. But they did not thereby wish to reject entirely the Marxist theory of history or critique of capitalism.”
Young quotes Linda Phelps’s 1975 essay “Patriarchy and Capitalism” as an early formulation of DST: “If sexism is a social relationship in which males have authority over females, patriarchy is a term which describes the whole system of interaction which arises from this basic relationship, just as capitalism is a system built on the relationship between capitalist and worker. Patriarchal and capitalist social relations are two markedly different ways that human beings have interacted with each other and built social, political, and economic institutions.”
Young enthusiastically affirms, “Development of the dual systems approach has fostered major theoretical, analytical, and practical advances over traditional Marxist treatments of “the women question” and has contributed to a revitalization of Marxist method.”
However, “Our nascent historical research coupled with our feminist intuition tells us that the labor of women occupies a central place in any system of production, that gender division is a basic axis of social structuration in all hitherto existing social formations, and the gender hierarchy serves as a pivotal element in most systems of domination. If traditional Marxism has no theoretical place for such hypotheses, it is not merely an inadequate theory of women’s oppression, but also an inadequate theory of social relations, relations of production, and domination. We need not merely a synthesis of feminism with traditional Marxism, but also a thoroughly feminist historical materialism, which regards the social relations of a particular historical formation as one system in which gender differentiation is a core atribtute.”
Young focuses her proposal with her own duality, “all socialist political work should be feminist in its thrust and … socialists should recognize feminist concerns as internal to their own. Likewise socialist-feminists take as a basic principle that feminist work should be anticapitalist in its thrust and should link women’s situation with the phenomena of racism and imperialism. Once again, this poltiical principle would best be served by a social theory that regards these phenomena as aspects of a single system of social relations.”
One key conclusion in this paper, in my view, is the following:
“a feminist historical materialism must explore the hypothesis that class domination arises from and/or is intimately tied to patriarchal domination. We cannot simply assume that sex domination causes class society, as most radical feminists have done. But we must take seriously the question of whether there is a causal relation here, to what extent there is, and precisely how the causal relations operate if and when they exist.”
This essay was written in 1980 and in the three decades since, the struggle against sexism and capitalism continue to be ambiguously disconnected in the thought and practice of most feminists and socialists. Even when a feminist is anticapitalist, it is still rare for such feminists to integrate feminism into their critique of political economy. Capitalism has in fact absorbed more and more of the “separate sphere” of “women’s” domestic labor, leading to a new process of gendered proletarianization.
Childcare, housekeeping, and other productive activities are still largely done by women, but now they are often done for a wage. More women work outside the home than ever before, but a great deal of classic “women’s work” is now done as wage labor, still done by women. Most of this new market of domestic labor is un-unionized, in keeping with the ongoing regression of labor organization in contemporary capitalism.
Also critical for a socialist-feminist struggle are the challenges it raises as to the character of the revolutionary constituency and organization. Socialist politics from Marx to Lenin to Castro are all embedded within a paradigm of male domination. Once feminism appeared on the scene in the 60s, this situation should have ended, yet it persists. Most socialist organizations to this day are still male preserves, with a few exceptions. Feminist organizations are still middle-class, with few exceptions. It also has to be noted that most socialist organizations are also fundamentally NOT working-class.
The dual impotence of feminism and socialism is possibly the most fundamental problem of the left today. Marxists and feminists are nearly always drawn from college students from middle-class backgrounds. There is no dialogue between socialism and feminism to carry on the “advances” that Young admires and critiques.
And yet, the marriage of socialism and feminism has so much promise. If one has a class awareness, it is absolutely true that most women are in fact working-class. The dead hand of male domination assures this.
Women accordingly have a distinct psycho-cultural experience that fosters a challenge to classical political organization. This isn’t some “essential womanness” but arises from the pervasive relations and institutions of male domination that indelibly mark women’s political consciousness. Organizations that have tried to build on women’s leadership tend to take markedly different trajectories than classical male-dominant left organizations.
Whereas the classical era of socialist politics looked to the masses of working men as their natural constituency, today’s socialist aspirations have to be built from a more inclusive framework. Women’s work can no longer be ignored or marginalized, nor can their rightful roles as leaders of the class struggle. Women’s struggles are pivotal for a renewed socialist politics.
I am very interested in a fusion of feminism, Socialism/Marxism, and psychoanalysis/sexual psychology. My concerns are similar to those that animated the Frankfurt School and today Žižek, why do the masses seem to gravitate towards the Right? What can progressives do to intervene for emancipatory ends in the social sphere?
Freud’s theory of eros, death drive, and unconscious broke ground that has since been surpassed, but still stands as important early contributions to the unfinished project of human psychology. Today, the theorists who most interest me are feminists like Jessica Benjamin, Isaac Balbus, and Nancy Chodorow. Where I feel that psychoanalytic feminism as represented by the above thinkers is limited, is in constructing a political economy out of their more individualistic foundation.
Balbus, with whom I’ve taken courses, does try to construct some rudiments of economic theory in his latest book, _Governing Subjects_. At this point, my working hypothesis is that the dynamics that feminist psychoanalysis identifies in forming authoritarian/sexist personalities, are embedded in class dynamics that affect how the personality/person rises within the social system.
The question that has rarely been asked outside of the Frankfurt School and psychoanalytic feminism is why did class systems arise at all in human history? The answer of FS is parental domination and harsh parenting. Psychoanalytic feminism’s answer is that before even harsh parenting, there is a pre-oedipal bond with the mother that gives rise to both an idealized memory of perfect bliss and the repressed memory of the frustration of that bliss.
The repressed frustration of infantile bliss gives rise to a desire for control of the mother/feminine in conventional families. It leads to an idealization of male power embodied in the father. This dynamic sets boys up to become male authoritarians and girls to adopt submissive personalities.
Class society emerges from the conjunction of personality formation and social conditions which sort out occupations by wealth, education, gender, family ties, and intangibles like “ambition.” The feminist intervention is for women to be emancipated from full-time motherhood and for men to become half-time fathers/childcare providers. This alteration in gender roles sets up a process of weakening the identification of authority with all-powerful maleness.
According to Balbus, the youth rebellion of the 60s was due in part to a large number of children raised under the permissive parenting theory of Dr. Benjamin Spock. This wasn’t an entirely feminist theory, but it did alter the cultural dynamic enough that rebellion on a mass scale was possible and even predictable. My sense of our present moment is that permissive parenting is still very much widespread, but that the Religious Right has done a great deal to destroy and attack permissive parenting. It must be stressed that Spockean permissive parenting is not an adequately feminist model.
My views on economics go back to when I first learned about communes in the early 70s. As a Christian, I was totally enchanted with this model of living which seemed so true to what Jesus practiced. From 1986 to 1995, I lived as an “intentional neighbor” of a Christian Commune and learned from the inside what it’s like to redistribute wealth according to need.
This community had several admirers of Liberation Theology, a dissenting Catholic movement that emphasized the “preferential option for the poor” and often explicitly borrowed from Marxism. With this influence, I began to think about economics in a more global way. The Catholic Workers seemed to me to have the potential to create a global counter-economy through a network of parish-based communities. However, I also came to appreciate the importance of secular political alternatives to capitalism. This led me to take seriously proposals like parecon and socialism. I still see great potential in communal experiments.
My basic economic strategy begins with four strategic reforms. One, global secondary education - An educated worker is an empowered worker. Two, global unionization - A unionized shop is a secure workplace. Three, basic income guarantee - If a worker can simply leave a lousy job with no threat to basic needs, then the jobs will have to cease to be lousy. Four, universal healthcare - This last is not so controversial, even in the USA these days. I could add a few others, such as a functioning Labor Party or universal computer access, but these four seem to me to be truly crucial.
If I think about the strategic question of how to win these basic reforms, I think the progress the left has made on universal healthcare is instructive. In 1993, Hilary Clinton created a universal healthcare plan that was shot down by the Right and distrusted by the Left. for the next decade, universal healthcare languished as a dead letter. The passage of the ”Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” this year in the U.S. hopefully marks the turning point for a revitalized economic progress movement.
I think universal secondary education is probably the second plank to begin organizing around, while continuing the advance on universal healthcare. Of course, we should also continue to support progressive and universal union organizing. I think that the final reform to see the light of day will be the basic income guarantee. Once that reform becomes worldwide, the real battle to abolish capitalism can get underway.
(Originally published Feb. 19, 2010)
In the first post of this series, I proposed that eight social movements are candidates for a new reformulation of radical left politics, in the aftermath of the 60s and the New Left. Of course, this isn’t an entirely new idea.
I first came up with a version of this idea around 1989. At that time, I had begun to incorporate the core agendas of pacifism, feminism, environmentalism, progressive religion, and socialism. There were hybrid social movement theories in play as well, such as socialist-feminism. I discovered somewhat later one of the more stable attempts at the synthesis I desired in the book Liberating Theory, (hereafter referenced as ‘LT’) published by South End Press (from which would come Z Magazine, a leading publication of the the left, in the lineage of Noam Chomsky’s libertarian socialism, yet another hybrid, but from the Old Left).
This book formulated a fairly rudimentary proposal of combining feminism (which it broadened to call kinship), anarchism (broadened to politics), Marxism (broadened to economy), and Black nationalism (broadened to community) into a single new theory, thus taking Libertarian Socialism (or Anarcho-Syndicalism, a synonym), in a new direction.
My own modification of this model was to “split off” four additional social movements from the four proposed by LT. From Marxism’s economic theory, I distinguished two domains of economy, the ecological and industrial; Two domains of kinship, gender and sexuality; two domains of community, race/ethnicity and religion/irreligion; and two domains of politics, legal/governance and martial.
This elaboration raised the question of whether LT’s four “spheres” were adequate. I had concluded that ecology could not be subsumed under economy, and came to see that Murray Bookchin’s proposal that radical theory be renamed “social ecology” was in many ways an advance over all previous theories. However, I couldn’t simply dilute economic struggle into a subset of ecological realities.
From Marxism I had gleaned the principle that social struggles are always concrete, not abstract and require a collective mass base. In other words, a movement capable of changing the world needed to have the interests of a substantial percentage of that world at its core. While ecology ideally was “everybody’s” interest, it seemed to me that subordinating economic struggles – as well as all the other domains I’d distinguished – to an overarching ecological paradigm left something to be desired. That ‘something’ was a unifying radicalizing potential within the mass of humanity. My eight-fold revolution – and even LT’s four-fold agenda – seemed to lack a coherent social base.
It was the coherent social base of Marxism in the early 1900s that propelled it into national and international power. Focusing its principled militancy on the working masses of the industrialized world, Marxism began to advance beyond the more modest gains of its chief rivals on the left, namely, liberalism and anarchism. Liberalism was committed to the interests of the educated middle-classes, while anarchism was committed to interests of a variety of sectors of society, especially workers, peasants, and artisans.
Marxism was committed to creating a revolutionary force exclusively devoted to industrial workers. Since industry of this sort controlled a major portion of the wealth of society, Marxism succeeded where Anarchism failed because it understood how capitalism really worked. Of course, Marxists then proceeded to create societies that were more authoritarian and class-exploiting than liberal Democracies. It is not an accident that the Cold War was won by liberal Democracy against Stalinism and Marxism.
Can a class-based mass struggle perspective as championed by Marxism be combined with Anarchism? This has been tried repeatedly in history with mixed results. The Industrial Workers of the World are explicitly committed to Anarcho-Syndicalism to this day after almost 100 years. However, it seems to me that just as the mass of humanity hates economic exploitation and authoritarian government, they nevertheless embrace the ideals of a democratic state and an economy that upholds individual freedom, as well as cooperation and justice.
While I am a passionate champion of workers, I find that the Marxist idea of abolishing capitalism using the State and the Anarchist idea of abolishing the State in order to abolish capitalism both fail. The State isn’t going away and, for a long time to come, neither will capitalism. Radical politics today has to build itself on the real potential of the broad mass of humanity.
The path of abolishing capitalism and authoritarianism that seems most hopeful to me involves primarily a renewed struggle at the level of the State for a new program of economic and political reforms and programs. I do not know if these will succeed, and if they fail in my lifetime, a later generation will have to rethink this strategy from the ground up.
My basic economic and political agenda owe a great deal to classical social democracy. I support massive public funding for healthcare, education, childcare, and workers’ organizations. Unions are at a crisis point and have been for decades. Whether we can rebuild the existing unions to previous levels of influence, and moreover to surpass previous achievements is an open question, but I can see no alternative to attempting such a rebuilding of organized labor.
In terms of the State, we must also continue to press for electoral and political reform. The unbridled control of political offices and legislative priorities by the wealthy classes must be confronted by principled and militant opposition. In fact, from Anarchism and the advance in our society of greater independence of thought, we can propose that the time has come for profound changes in the nature of our political institutions. Public funding of all elections and multi-party proportional representation seem absolutely critical to advancing beyond the stale two-party system.
As I look back over the previous half-century of struggles since 1955, I am struck by two overwhelming developments, 1) the continued rise of a militant, rapacious capitalism and 2) the parallel rise of a new authoritarianism that closes off public space for political reform and advance in authentic democracy while waging wars abroad, preaching dogmatism domestically, and without any genuine love for either freedom or human community. In the face of dogmatism, militarism, authoritarianism, and capitalism, a new radical politics must call for freedom, economic justice, constructive international relations, and a libertarian socialism.