28 June 2015

The New Prophets of Capital

Steve Jobs painted portrait _DDC7953

People who work for a living face a stark outlook. Due to the acceleration of employment practices such as subcontracting and temporary employment, as well as persistently high unemployment, it has become incredibly difficult for workers to organize and improve their conditions. Simply finding decent work can be incredibly difficult as restructuring of the global economy has created dynamics limiting growth in manufacturing in favor of service jobs. When job growth does occur, it often produces the worst kinds of jobs.

Despite it all, entrepreneurial figures tout disruption—often simply meaning techniques for further eroding the stability and remuneration of employment—and find a rapt audience. Self-help promoters encourage the distraught to take full responsibility for their problems. Advocates of “ethical” consumption tout the environmental and social benefits of buying the right products. How is it that so many buy into narratives that gloss over or even celebrate the worsening of conditions for the great majority? To put it bluntly, why aren’t there riots?

The New Prophets of Capital by Nicole Aschoff offers one way to approach this question by examining the popularity and influence of four “prophets” of the neoliberal capitalist system. Drawing on Weber, Aschoff describes all these prophets as offering a way to live a better life. Their persuasiveness is based in their own ability to accumulate fortunes, but they don’t merely provide a set of rules to live by, they tell a story, a way of making sense of a confusing and hazardous world. Setting apart their stories from those told in days of yore is their ability to find solutions to the problems of the day, such as economic precariousness, intense competition, and brutal inequality, within the capitalist, free market system itself. Could capitalism be the source of and the solution to all of life’s problems?

The motif of storytelling offers the reader a way to make sense of the ideological battle to shape the future. Will the future be based on derivative perspectives that “do not challenge capitalism or its destructive effects[,]” but actually “bolster capitalism”? (p. 12-13) Or can progressive forces challenge the oppressive regime of capitalism? While critically examining this clash of ideologies is vital to confronting “economic and political fatalism[,]” the challenge that Aschoff faces is to do so in a materialist way. (p. 13) In other words, one must present ideas as the creations of real, living humans, as ways in which people make sense of and attempt to change their world to bring it in line with their sense of how things ought to be. Ideas cannot exist independent of human actions or real socially-situated perspectives.

Each of the four individuals examined in this book allows Aschoff to illuminate a different corner of contemporary discourse around social problems and the agency seemingly—in Aschoff’s take, illusorily—offered through capitalism to combat them. In moving from Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook but more importantly figurehead of a corporate feminist movement based on her book, Lean In, to Whole Foods CEO and “conscious capitalism” proponent John Mackey, to omnipresent media mogul Oprah, and concluding with Bill Gates, software billionaire and director of a massive charitable foundation, the book is able to take in a broader sweep than might have been expected.


All prophets are not made equal. Oprah’s popularity is dependent on an audience that is receptive to her particular message, and the chapter devoted to her takes a productive detour through the tension-ridden professional lives of freelance workers. Sandberg and Mackey offer opportunities to consider feminism and environmentally “sustainable” business, respectively, and the fortunes—and distortions—of these movements in the corporate world. Gates, on the other hand, is something more than a prophet, controlling a vast fortune and staggering donations from some of the world’s richest people. Not only does Gates lead through offering technocratic solutions to social ills, but also through the raw power afforded by the astronomical sums of money at his command.

This book’s audience will hardly be surprised by the conclusions Aschoff draws. The market-oriented solutions that these celebrity capitalists offer cannot overcome the dysfunctions, such as inequality and environmental degradation, that stem fundamentally from a system basically indifferent to all outcomes but the securing of ever greater profits. As she writes of Whole Foods’ ethical consumption ethos, “[b]uying better things is not a substitute for the hard political choices that societies need to make about limiting consumption and resource use, and finding a replacement for the psychological crutch of consumerism.” (p. 75) Aschoff’s assumption that sustainability can never go along with profit is, however, unsupported. One imagines that there could be a lot of money to be made under the right circumstances from green energy and infrastructure, though this would surely require intense intervention by the state.

That doesn’t mean that The New Prophets… is merely preaching to the choir, however. The chapters on Oprah and Gates are particularly interesting, as each takes a close look at the ideologies of self improvement and philanthropy, respectively, in their particular contemporary articulations. The chapter on Oprah explores how those subject to precarious and highly competitive forms of work may come to embrace self improvement as a solution to the problems they experience in their jobs.
The way we are told to get through it all and realize our dreams is always to adapt ourselves to the changing world, not to change the world we live in. We demand little or nothing from the system, from the collective apparatus of powerful people and institutions. We only make demands of ourselves. We are the perfect, depoliticized, complacent neoliberal subjects. (p. 106)

Here we get the best sense of how the stories peddled by the book’s subjects are received by their audience. Humans aren’t just passive receptors. They use self-help messages as a way to cope with difficult circumstances in their own lives, although this may amount to little more than treating the symptom. “It’s all about adapting ourselves and acquiring the necessary skills and connections to make it in the world. This is the new American Dream. Sure, there are problems in society, but we don’t need to change the world. We just need to change ourselves and the problems disappear.” (p. 99)

Bill Gates administers polio drops to a child in Chad

On occasion, the reader also gets the sense that these prophets are something more than shills for a system that protects their own base interests. Interestingly, the chapter on Gates reveals that he is keenly aware of the problems caused by market irrationalities, and is able to speak to these problems with more insight and sincerity than most US politicians can muster. As Gates sees it, “[i]n a system of capitalism, as people’s wealth rises, the financial incentive to serve them rises. As their wealth falls, the financial incentive to serve them falls, until it becomes zero. Why do people benefit in inverse proportion to their need? Well, market incentives make that happen.” (Bill Gates, Davos speech, 2008, quoted on p. 116 of The New Prophets…)

Needless to say, Gates is no socialist. He believes that market-based solutions are in the final analysis adequate to these problems, provided that someone with the right knowledge and resources is able to overcome irrationalities with the right fixes. But Aschoff points out how market-based solutions inevitably commoditize goods in ways that can undermine their intended benefits—such as centering education around test taking rather than cultivation of human potentialities—and subject them to the technocratic control of specialists.

But there is also an unexamined weakness in Aschoff’s overarching metaphor that prevents us from understanding clearly why so many continue to embrace stories that offer stale—if not obviously unworkable—solutions to very real and widespread problems. To frame these figures as storytellers seems to suggest that there is something seductive about their stories in and of themselves, that a well told story is able to mesmerize the listener and make them forget their true interests. This suggests that the bloody business of capitalist exploitation chugs implacably away beneath a layer of misleading ideology. "Indeed, capital's ability to periodically present a new set of legitimating principles that facilitate the willing participation of society accounts for its remarkable longevity despite periodic bouts of deep crisis." (p. 3)

Despite gestures toward a more sophisticated understanding of ideology, Aschoff’s analysis doesn’t escape from a base/superstructure model of society in which the realm of ideas floats mask-like above the real business of capitalism proper. This framework pays scant attention to the connection between the functioning of the capitalist system in its political economic dimensions on the one hand and the ideas through which people of all kinds make sense of their experiences in society on the other.

Ultimately, since society cannot exist except through the actions of human beings, no hard distinction between the two is viable. Ideas and ideologies do not just appear out of the blue and they do not autonomously control people’s actions. They are put together in response to the real, material conditions that humans encounter in the course of living their lives. Aschoff’s mechanistic model preempts a richer understanding of the relation between ideological claims about the nature of capitalist society, the way that seemingly objective economic conditions confront workers and bosses, and the way that social change actually comes about.

In highlighting the importance of storytelling to understanding political economic realities, The New Prophets… follows in the footsteps of influential works focused on the conservative backlash against the cultural and political upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s in the US. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? examines the culture war in the once progressive state of Kansas as a smokescreen, erected by unscrupulous politicians, for capitalists’ intensified exploitation of an increasingly disarmed working class. While Frank provides a rich account of the devastation wrought on Kansas by the emergence of neoliberalism as a new way of organizing economic relations, he ultimately ends up with a rather curious conception of politics in which non-economic issues are merely a ruse by which politicians serving corporate interests fool hapless Joe Sixpacks into abetting the destruction of their own families’ economic security.

Of course, What’s the Matter with Kansas? is more literary journalism than social theory. While Frank makes many interesting observations about the ways that conservatives have confronted social anomie in purely cultural terms, he does little to illuminate the connections between these social issues and the political economy of corporate dominance. To take one example, Frank seeks to explain the relatively recent conservative animus towards abortion as a manifestation of hatred for liberal experts. When experts like doctors widely opposed abortion, populist Kansans embraced it. Later, the elite consensus swung the other way, and conservative backlashers changed their position as well. “[W]hatever else the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision might have been, it was also a monument to the power of the professions.” (p. 198)

Clearly, this is a mechanistic way of approaching a complex issue like abortion, and drains the issue of any of its specific content as a means of women asserting control over their bodies and their role in reproducing the family. By assuming that cultural issues function primarily as an expression of class resentment that is ultimately a distraction from economic issues, Frank cannot provide a richer understanding of the political significance of cultural issues. While What’s the Matter with Kansas? raises an interesting question, namely why the working class would support political candidates whose policies speed their own impoverishment, his treatment remains only suggestive due to the rather simplistic framework he brings to the investigation.

Nixon and Brezhnev

Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland applied a similar approach to United States history, recounting the run up to the first election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and the crumbling of the liberal consensus that had previously dominated American politics. Perlstein’s narrative is lively and documented with a wide variety of archival sources, but his explanatory approach ultimately mirrors Frank’s in many respects. In his view, Nixon was able to tap into the resentment of the “silent majority” because of his own modest origins and the resentment he had nursed from youth for the socially-well placed. It was Nixon’s genius in manipulating widespread displeasure with spendthrift entitlement policies that allowed him to bring into being a new political configuration that, as Perlstein writes in the book’s last line, “has not ended yet.” (p. 748)

Nixonland is a meticulously researched and closely narrated history that simultaneously manages to be an engrossing read. Yet, like What’s the Matter with Kansas?, it works best on a descriptive, rather than an explanatory level. Clearly, a decisive section of voters—"[m]artyrs who were not really martyrs”—abandoned the liberal consensus and opted for more divisive and conservative politics. (p. 23) But Nixon’s personality or political acumen, on their own, hardly stand as a real explanation for epochal changes in US politics. If Nixon convinced voters to turn away from liberalism, his skill as a salesman, while hardly immaterial, doesn’t explain what it was that those voters understood their shift in allegiance to mean and Perlstein ultimately cannot critically interrogate the historical significance of this shift. The effect of Nixonland’s analysis is to turn the disintegration of the post-war order into a matter of electoral politics, ignoring the role of economic contradictions, such as the appearance of limits on industrial growth and the subsequent ruination of labor's political influence, in making the status quo untenable.

Aschoff takes a much more self-consciously radical stance than Frank and Perlstein. Her vision is forward-looking, while Frank and Perlstein’s political visions seem more focused on the need to win back ground long lost to conservatives. But in many ways the argument of The New Prophets… shares the difficulty of these books in providing a robust historical and theoretical analysis of their subject matter. This proves to be a particular problem here, however, because Aschoff’s work is animated by a conviction of the need for radical social change.

Although Aschoff takes a socialistic position that sees capitalism as a form of social organization to be overcome altogether, and not merely ameliorated in its excesses, she doesn’t provide much in the way of political economy. As mentioned above, her chapter on Oprah is an interesting detour focusing less on storytelling and more on the way that the lived experiences of freelancers make them particularly receptive to her message. Here we glimpse what could be an important part of a more incisive analysis, namely, that there are particular reasons that certain stories are able to persuade their audience. Unfortunately, the insights offered in this chapter are not connected to a larger explanatory framework.

Taking it for granted that Oprah is very good at what she does, she nonetheless did not manufacture the appeal of self-improvement out of thin air. She has embraced this theme because it produces results, in other words, because her audience is willing to buy it—literally in the sense of purchasing Oprah’s publications and the books and other products that she recommends. The same is true of Sandberg, Mackey, and—in a different way—Gates as well. None of these figures has the power to mesmerize or force the public to forget or contradict their own interests.

Aschoff does not analyze the appeal of Sandberg’s brand of corporate feminism beyond noting that the discrimination women face at work creates receptivity towards her message. This is surely correct but doesn’t explain the embrace of a form of feminism so at ease with capitalist exploitation. But like Oprah’s message, Sandberg’s is dependent on an audience that finds it sufficiently compelling. Aschoff provides a very satisfying demolition of the false inclusiveness of Lean In, but this doesn’t help us understand its appeal. One imagines that conditions of intense competition for jobs in the corporate world has led many to embrace the idea that talented women in challenging professions deserve their due. One need not assume that those interested in the message of Lean In aren’t interested in practicing solidarity with people poorer than them. Given the current state of organized labor and extremely adverse economic conditions, however, such a progressive message may not be easy to practice or to turn into a bestseller.

Blue Marx

All of Aschoff’s subjects are business people and no doubt keenly attuned to the immense, impersonal forces of the marketplace. It seems safe to say that their own success in amassing fortunes has instilled in them certain beliefs about the nature of “the market” and what it take to succeed in it. As Marx puts it, “[u]nder free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him.”1 While their views may be self-serving, they are something different, if no better, than fully instrumental propaganda.

The point is not to say it’s natural for workers to take on viewpoints that mimic those of their bosses. But it would strain credibility to deny that these viewpoints do capture unavoidable elements of social reality. To form a socialist political agenda, one requires an unflinching understanding of what people believe and why, or else there is little chance of understanding the challenges of building a popular movement around robust, shared political goals.

Without taking seriously the reasons that people, rich and not-so-rich alike, might buy into these ideas, one has little basis for understanding the plausibility of an alternative political agenda to sufficiently large groups of people. Rather, one is left to oppose the righteousness of one’s cause to the manifest injustice of the status quo—assuming, in other words, that people have a critical understanding of the social system that the popularity of these prophets tends to suggest is actually lacking.

The alternative is to explain the conditions—such as unstable employment and atomization of the work force—that can lead workers to either embrace politics affirming the status quo or alternately, to challenge them. This would entail a non-deterministic presentation of political economic conditions that indicates the potentialities of political movements to intervene in and transform the status quo. Such a presentation in turn makes possible the formation of a strategic agenda for positive social change.

But Aschoff shrinks from this task just as she comes around to it, and her inability to provide a robust political agenda is linked to the failings in her analysis. In the book’s final section, she asks, “[w]hat would a radical, anticapitalist model look like? To begin with, the model won’t be a single, unified narrative of change. It will be comprised of thousands of stories, all with their own unique visions for a better world.” (p. 145) Without registering it, Aschoff has just reproduced the imaginative horizon of neoliberal society, namely that every scheme for social organization is equally imaginable, that all values are equally valid and that justice means the recognition of all of them. This is already the environment in which capitalists’ prophetic stories have been thriving. The ascendant power of storytelling in Aschoff's framework shows how deeply embedded it is within the neoliberal imaginary, where the connection between stories or cultural issues and political economy are always ambiguous and underspecified.

Accordingly, the final chapter containing three unifying points for such an agenda comes off as cursory and loosely related to the foregoing analysis. While the ideas presented—democratization of social institutions, decommodification of social goods, and redistribution—have merit, due to the form of presentation they remain items on a wish list rather than possibilities immanent within the world we inhabit. A greater understanding of progressive possibilities immanent to contemporary society is exactly what could have been provided given more focus on the political economic conditions forming the context for capitalist ideologies.

Democracy, decommodification, and redistribution can all exist to some extent alongside capitalism. Under the right conditions they may even aid its functioning. The question that should be posed is how they will help the left overcome the capitalist system and replace it with something better. Denying the need to provide a large-scale strategy for this overcoming prevents one from seriously approaching the question. A movement that declines to tell a story of how it will be successful in winning substantial improvements for the day-to-day lives of ordinary people is one that can have no reasonable expectation of victory.


1. Karl Marx. Capital Vol. I, 1976, p. 381

Photo Credits:

“Steve Jobs painted portrait” Photo by thierry ehrman. Some rights reserved.

“OPRAH, ANUS. ANUS, OPRAH.” Photo by nayrb7. Some rights reserved.

“Bill Gates administers polio drops to a child in Chad” Photo by Gates Foundation. Some rights reserved.

“Nixon and Brezhnev” Photo by That Hartford Guy. Some rights reserved.

“Blue Marx” Photo by Chris JL. Some rights reserved.

27 May 2015

Universal Basic Income

"Basic Income Triptych" Photo by Russell Shaw Higgs Some Rights Reserved

As the struggle to break through political malaise and to find an adequate response to the 2008 economic crisis continues, the left seems to have regained a certain amount of vigor. Populism seems to offer a way forward by tapping the pervasive anger towards wide and growing inequality that most mainstream politicians still seem frightened to fully embrace. Policies aimed at national redistribution and strengthening infrastructure would be welcome, of course. But there is as yet no well articulated vision for the future beyond the near-term, leaving open questions of whether a potential populist political movement will remain compatible with the goals of the left. It is important to ask, then, whether the left possesses proposals that might give shape to a wider political vision for the future.

Among the proposals on offer, universal basic income (UBI) is enjoying renewed interest, though it remains well outside of the political mainstream. UBI is generally defined as a cash payment of a certain amount made to every citizen of a nation without regard to income. One of UBI’s strengths is that it seems able to please everyone. Proponents say that it can end poverty by guaranteeing everyone a subsistence. In the USA, such guarantees—if far from perfect—already exist in the form of various entitlement programs from social security to food stamps. UBI, however, removes the burden and inefficiencies of proving need and submitting one’s family to the surveillance of the state. At the same time, UBI would benefit all (like social security without an age restriction) and therefore naturally enjoy a huge base of support.

There is also a more radical perspective that sees UBI as a way of empowering workers by decommodifying labor. In other words, by pushing back at the necessity of waged work just to get the necessities of life, a guaranteed income would allow people to be choosier about the jobs that they would accept. Why do dangerous or excessively hard work when you can use your guaranteed income to hold out for something better? Arguably, the ability to withhold one’s labor would increase the pay for undesirable jobs there is increasingly little reason to accept and increase the control of workers over their own lives. But whether or not the full radical implications of this argument would obtain, there is a solid case to be made that the UBI would increase the economic and political power of workers.

But against these progressive arguments for UBI one should weigh the libertarian and technocratic attractions to it. For some, UBI is meant to perpetuate the status quo in the worst ways. A recent article by Nathan Schneider documents how UBI is seen by some as a technocratic fix for extreme inequality—though certainly not inequality per se—that has the virtue of reducing supposedly wasteful government services. In other words, UBI can be a substitute for other services or benefits the government provides, and might be funded by cuts to them. Noah Gordon’s consideration of the cost of the UBI assumes, “[c]utting all federal and state benefits for low-income Americans.” This perspective explains the wide-ranging support that UBI has received not just from libertarians, but also from neoliberal heroes like Milton Friedman, an era-damaging former President, and outright cranks like Charles Murray1.

12 January 2015

The left flounders as reaction grows ever stronger

2014 in review
As the crisis of neoliberal society grinds on, the question is not whether the dominant social forms of the last 35 years will be overthrown, but whether it will be the left or the right that overthrows them. Beginning in 2011, there was a brief upsurge of progressive protest around the world that, despite its marked limitations, offered some hope of confronting the crisis. That moment seems to be past. Protest continues, of course, but it has moved further and further away from a solid grasp on the sources of its discontent. Increasingly, even those who understand themselves as progressives are supporting reactionary directions for resistance.

The tone for 2014 was set in the first week of January with two unapologetically reactionary assaults on the global neoliberal order: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seized Fallujah, its first major conquest, and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law a measure prohibiting all gay relationships and all gay organizations. Shortly thereafter, in mid-January, the Egyptian “Revolution” suffered its final humiliation, as the referendum on the military’s new constitution passed with a vote of 98.1 percent in favor.

These were symbolically potent events — direct attacks on cherished neoliberal ideals of open borders, cultural tolerance, and procedural democracy — whose practical impact was limited by their peripheral location in global society. Yet reactionary nationalism grew steadily more powerful in centrally important countries as well during 2014. China’s Xi Jinping is assembling a counterintuitive but potentially powerful amalgam of Confucian “tradition” and Maoist slogans. In India, Narendra Modi won a clear victory in the May general election and is already exploring a fundamental redirection of national identity toward Hindu fundamentalism. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after comfortably winning Turkey’s first popular presidential election in August, has spoken repeatedly against the secular foundations of the state. In Japan, Abe Shinzō presses forward with his institutional remaking of the state and rehabilitation of Japanese militarism, laying the foundations for the revival of aggressive nationalism. The European Parliament elections in May showed strong gains for anti-establishment far-right parties; the UK Independence Party shockingly won the popular vote for the UK delegation, the first time since 1906 that a party other than Labour or the Tories had won in a national poll. In France, where the far right has infiltrated most deeply into domestic politics, the nativist Front National could soon become the second strongest party in the country, and both of the establishment parties are moving steadily toward it in an attempt to stave off its rise.

Most disturbing of all is Russia’s rapid development toward a genuine neofascism. The Ukraine crisis in March and the collapse of the price of oil in December will be remembered — if we are unlucky — primarily for the way in which they accelerated Russia’s movement down this path. In contrast to China, India, Turkey, and Japan, whose leaders maintain an unstable hybrid of neoliberal and neofascist elements in their politics, economic and geopolitical forces have pushed Russia in only one direction. The most credible opposition figure is Alexei Naval’nyi, who is an even stronger and more authentic ethnic chauvinist than Putin.

19 February 2014

Neoliberalism is destroying its last chance to save itself

In the opening weeks of 2014, a huge wave of capital fled the assets of the major emerging markets. In January, a total of $12.2 billion poured out of equities and $4.6 billion out of bonds. An additional $6.4 billion in equities and $1.95 billion in bonds decamped in the first week of February. Currency crises threatened Turkey, Argentina, and Ukraine; other key countries that rely on foreign financing — India, Brasil, Indonesia, South Africa — also seemed in danger.

Yet a few soothing words from the new Fed chair Janet Yellen staunched the panic among investors. A few days later, emerging market stocks further recovered with word that China’s banks are shrugging off the government’s efforts to rein in their creation of ever-higher levels of credit. Global investors now expect robust Chinese demand for raw materials to buoy the poor countries, drawing in their exports with the further inflation of the Chinese property bubble.

This was the second near-crisis sell-off in the emerging markets in less than half a year, but this time the outflows eclipsed the sales for all of 2013 in the space of a few weeks. Like last summer, the looming collapse was reversed on the strength of few well-timed remarks by central bankers, with no sign of repentance of the economic sins that supposedly called down investor anger.

Once again, last year’s claim is born out: “growing volatility is not a result of external forces acting upon the economy but what has become the defining output of the global economy itself.” The flows of capital being pushed through the global economy by the world’s major central banks are artificially oxygenating the decomposing body of neoliberal society. As the connection between the investors bearing this capital and the productive economy grows more and more tenuous, economic indicators and investor behavior become increasingly erratic. Even mainstream commentators recognize that the emerging markets crisis is merely in abeyance, though their interpretation of why that is so remains trapped in ideology.

One financial analyst counsels stoicism: economic crisis is the natural state of the emerging markets, so no need for undue concern. This is too glib — if an emerging market sell-off ran out of control, it could undo the illusions that keep the entire global system running. Because neoliberalism is living on borrowed time, maintaining investor “confidence” assumes an inordinately large role in forestalling global crisis.

For the moment, however, turmoil in these economies is unlikely to cause a general crisis. The poor countries just aren’t very important economically — despite holding two-thirds of the world’s people, they produce only one-fourth of the world’s value. US exports to the “fragile eight” countries represent just 0.7 percent of its gdp. Moreover, investors apparently still see the poor countries and rich countries (except Japan) as two separate destinations for investment rather than an interrelated unity, so money fleeing the emerging markets might simply inflate new bubbles in the developed economies. Reification to the rescue!

The risk posed by serial crises in the emerging markets is not so much the prospect of imminent collapse. The real danger is more long-term in nature: endemic uncertainty threatens our last best hope to put the global economy back on a sustainable foundation without facing some sort of catastrophe first.

30 December 2013

Notes on Party Politics

The shutdown of the federal government by right-wing fanatics last October triggered a rare bout of fresh thinking among progressives. Whatever else it was, it was also an object lesson in the capability of a relatively small but tightly organized, militant political faction to effectively—if temporarily—seize control of one of the major mass parties in the United States. Throughout the first half of October establishment Republicans and bewildered liberals helplessly looked on as the entrenched leadership of the Republican Party was utterly dominated by a well-funded and—more importantly—well articulated form of reactionary populism. The main liberal complaint against the shutdown—“but the Affordable Care Act is already the law!”—was of course entirely trivial, because it assumed that the whole affair could be reduced to a mere question of a positive legal fact.

The ideological extremism of the Tea Party goes beyond the dissatisfaction felt by rich people about the prospect of paying higher taxes. It taps into a deep well of existential dread about the fate of the country that is as fiercely ingenuous as it is dangerously delusional, and it channels this energy into a seething anti-government mass politics.

Although it may seem as if the radical elements of the Republican Party lost their great battle over the “Affordable Care Act,” it has been clear for some time that they have been winning the larger war. With each Tea-Party-orchestrated freakout in Washington, the political center of gravity shifts further to the right, and the lesson that ideological radicalization brings home the goods is further hammered home into the torpid brains of establishment Republicans.

This dynamic is not lost on keen observers from the left. If the American far-right can be motivated with the numbers and the organization to take the government hostage and impose their narrative upon public discourse for the better part of a month, then it seems plausible to suggest that a similar tactic might be deployed from the political left for progressive ends.

In the wake of the Tea Party’s government shutdown there has been no shortage of debate over whether or not emulating their tactics would be effective or even desirable for progressive objectives. Within this debate, the question of just what role the Democratic Party should play, if any, has loomed large, as have questions about the viability of third party electoral alternatives. Others argue that engagement with the U.S. electoral system amounts to political suicide, since it is basically like joining a game of cards in which the rules are rigged for the house to always win. Yet just last month we witnessed the election, for the first time in almost a century, of a dyed-in-the-wool socialist to the municipal government of a major U.S. city, along with a nearly-successful socialist victory in another major city. What might this portend?

21 December 2013

Our sweetly naïve financial analysts

After some reflection, I have concluded that this is not satire:
“The US economy has flattered to deceive several times in recent years, looking like it was set for a period of faster growth only to fall flat,” said Joseph Lake, US analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit. 
But Mr Lake says he thinks this time is different. “We expect the US to embark on a sustained economic upswing in the coming quarters.”
What evidence is there that it’s not satire? Nothing more than the fact it was published in the Financial Times. One of the most notable characteristics of the age is that the only way to differentiate between The Onion and real news is by looking at the URL.

04 December 2013

Pensions must be savaged or the world doesn’t make sense

The last four years in the United States and Europe have been a long, multi-faceted struggle over a single question: who will bear the suffering of a society in disintegration? Neoliberalism can no longer sustain itself, and no effort is being made to create a new logic of economic growth. The only way to sustain the illusion that neoliberal society remains a going concern, then, is to plunder stored up value in different parts of the system in order to keep the engine running. It’s like eating the seed corn in the midst of a famine. And as everyone knows, it’s not the rich people who die in a famine.

26 October 2013

Should the left seek strategic alliances with progressive Democrats? Does it have a choice?

In this post I will offer some reasons why I think it's necessary for progressives, socialists, and anti-capitalists to engage with the Democratic Party in the electoral and legislative arenas if we are to have any hope of putting alternatives to capitalist economy in the forefront of public consciousness.

They drink the neoliberal Kool-Aid, but maybe we could crash their party?

My use of the word "engage" is deliberately indeterminate because the manner of this engagement is something I think ought to be debated. For now, let me stress that to engage with is not the same thing as to collaborate with. I am by no means recommending the left tow the Democratic Party leadership's line or do their bidding on the ground.

I am, however, asserting that the left should find a way to use the Democratic Party to force a public debate over crucial economic issues, such as collapsing private investment, lack of public services, regressive taxation and corporate welfare, mass unemployment and underemployment, and epoch-making wealth and income inequality. Presently, the right's anti-tax rhetoric reigns supreme. Where is the mainstream left's rhetoric of jobs? Where is its full-throated defense of popular social programs such as Social Security and Medicare?

These issues have been distorted, obscured, or ignored in mainstream political debate because of modern conservatism's tremendous success over roughly the last 30-45 years at pushing the public conversation and policy agenda steadily to the right.

The extent of the rightward shift was painstakingly clear earlier this month when the Tea Party forced the Republicans to shut down the government and risk default over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

17 October 2013

Who really won the shutdown battle?

In light of Congress' eleventh hour passage of a bill Wednesday night to avert a government default and end the shutdown that paralyzed the federal government for 16 days, the New York Times is declaring victory for the Democrats.

But is it really so? Although Republicans failed to achieve their stated goal of de-funding the Affordable Care Act (Romneycare) and were unable to wring further spending cuts from the Democrats, this is still a big win for austerity and further confirmation that the Tea Party strategy works. The deal approved by Congress leaves in place spending cuts that Republicans won during the last major fight over the debt ceiling in 2011, and current levels of funding remain far below those preferred by Democrats, hovering a mere 2% from the funding levels proposed in Paul Ryan's 2014 budget. Moreover, the deal will only fund the government through January 15 and raise the debt ceiling through February 7, portending yet another fiscal impasse and the possibility of more spending cuts. This is austerity, American style.

Despite the outsized influence of the Tea Party and clear evidence that its extremist strategy to whittle away the federal government is working, much of the left has persisted in demonizing the radical right. While it may feel good to do so, progressives should instead learn from the Tea Party's relentless attack on the Republican Party and pursue the same strategy against establishment Democrats, thereby pulling the Democratic Party as a whole to the left and moving the political system a step closer to sanity.

09 October 2013

Win First, Then Go to War: Thoughts on Tea Party Strategy

Reactions to the government shutdown range from fear to exasperation. The market seems genuinely disturbed, while the Finance Ministers, Presidents, and Prime Ministers of dozens of countries gently remind the US that the economy is international and that our crisis is theirs. It’s also telling that though both incidents proved to be (more or less) unrelated to the shutdown, neither journalists nor the public were surprised at the two deaths in DC last week and both were ready to fit them into a narrative of a country and a world on the brink.

But there is at least one group of Americans that is more resilient than worried, that sees this impasse as a crucible instead of a noose: the 20 percent of voters who identify with the Tea Party.

04 October 2013

Stop demonizing the Tea Party

 To all those who are rightly dismayed at the government shutdown and those responsible for it: please stop demonizing the Tea Party. I say this not in their defense! To the contrary, I think the danger posed by the Tea Party is boundless. Their increasing influence threatens to trigger a violent, catastrophic collapse in the global economy, which would then lead to suffering and death across the planet on a scale I don’t much care to contemplate in any detail. (Something to keep you up at night: the last time a highly integrated global economy collapsed, we got WWII.) So we absolutely must stop the Tea Party.

while arguably accurate, this is not helpful

But as paradoxical as it might seem, direct attacks on the Tea Party will do nothing to defuse the enormous threat they pose to us. Rather, the solution is to have some sympathy for these devils. Let us do to establishment Democrats what the Tea Party has done to establishment Republicans. But where the Tea Party movement is animated by a slash-and-burn small government vision, let our movement be animated by a contrary, progressive vision. In order to stop the Tea Party, we need to build an anti-austerity, anti-establishment political movement within the Democratic Party. But to see why this is the solution, we need a deeper analysis of the underlying forces that have led to the rise of the Tea Party. We have provided much of this analysis in various posts on this blog, and I have tried to compile them into a relatively brief overview in this post.

10 September 2013

Pursuing peace in an age of crisis

If we value peace and hate war, then it is not enough to call for peace and oppose warmongers. We must go on to take action against the root causes of war. What are they?
In Syria, the major triggers of the civil war seem to include economic distress, exacerbated by extended droughts caused by climate change. That story is not limited to Syria. To the contrary, if the stagnation / breakdown of the global economy continues, and as climate change effects continue to kick in, the conflict in Syria could soon pale in comparison to larger conflicts in more populous countries, not to mention wars that could break out between more significant world powers. We have earlier taken a look at the rumors of war in East Asia, and recently anti-American views have also been breaking out in China as the effects of the crisis intensify there (I hope we’ll return to this issue later; it deserves posts of its own).

Returning to the particular case of Syria: personally, I think that it would just make things worse if the US sent bombs into Syria, and so I am opposed. At the same time, keeping America’s bombs out of the country is hardly a great victory for humanity, since people are already dying in droves without help from the US military. But be that as it may, there is a bigger picture here, and if we really care about peace and avoiding the horrific violence of war, then we need to keep that bigger picture in view and formulate a strategy to match. We need to revive the global economy, rapidly end carbon emissions globally, and institute a global system of climate change mitigation. This is the only way to end the intensification of pressures which have led to Syria’s civil war (and the use of chemical weapons which may provoke a response from the US), and threaten to increasingly lead to violent conflicts.

So, to return to a familiar refrain on this blog, we need a strategy to overcome neoliberalism, because the neoliberal economy has fallen into permanent crisis and neoliberal ideology is incompatible with a serious climate change strategy. And our strategy to overcome neoliberalism must be global in scope; among other things, this involves rejecting the reactionary isolationism that drives so much of the opposition to the plans to bomb Syria (this is of course true on the right, but it is all too common on the left as well).

Of course this will be difficult. But if we refuse to tackle this larger strategic picture, then our calls for peace are at best naive.

30 August 2013

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Yesterday I went to the Fight for Fifteen rally in Federal Plaza, Chicago. The usual suspects were in attendance, from  labor activists from Action Now and Jobs with Justice to a few rogue Wobblies and the inevitable Revolutionary Communist Party literature table. Participants were color coded by shirt. Workers gave uplifting testimony, Democratic legislators talked about how much they had learned from the workers, and the ceremony ended shortly after musical performances by an electro-traditional Mexican folk group and four break dancers. Media trucks with massive antennas broadcast their coverage, captured from cameras in the back. Police presence was constant but subdued until thirty minutes before the rally’s end time, when fifteen CPD on bikes approached on the sidewalk, stopped, turned, and waited for the event to end.

If you, like me, have been to rallies and protests and marches before, none of the above will surprise you—but then, and as others have already noted, the rally’s purpose was not to surprise or mobilize but to publicize. The control exercised on the demonstrators by the SEIU-based campaign made this abundantly clear. Yet though it was obviously a publicity event, when I tried to describe the rally to friends outside the left I found myself struggling to answer as basic a question as “Who’s the target?”

19 August 2013

We must go global: the case of South Korea

If we don’t go global, we can’t win.

Consider, for example, recent developments in South Korea around temporary employment (covered here at the Financial Times, behind a paywall). The rise of temp work in the US and other developed countries is symptomatic of neoliberalism. And as with other neoliberal trends, it is intensifying as the neoliberal economy breaks down. We might be familiar with hand-wringing on the subject in popular press in the US, but it is a global phenomenon (see also France, Germany, Japan, etc.).

South Korea has been hit especially hard by this trend, and has one of the highest rates of temp employment in the OECD, but it is now reversing the trend, thanks to some of the most militant labor unions in the world. Led by temporary workers, unions have taken up the cause of ending temp employment. Sustained labor unrest has resulted in billions of dollars in losses for major corporations, and tens of thousands of temp workers at Hyundai and other major corporations have been granted permanent status (or other benefits and contract improvements in lieu of permanent status).

12 August 2013

The Moral Imagination of Neoliberal Society

In an interesting essay on the Jacobin website, David V. Johnson describes the perils of moral sentimentalism, "an excessive, even obsessional tendency to view the world through the narrow lens of the moral." As described by Johnson, moral sentimentalism is a debasement of complex social and political issues into a simple matter of proper conduct, implying that any such problem can be boiled down to personal failings. This distracts attention from the systemic nature of serious social problems and acts as a powerful block to effectively addressing them through political projects that might hold a real potential to change the world.

Johnson tries to describe moral sentimentalism as something more than a ploy on the part of the rich to confuse the poor about their true interests. He stresses that moral sentimentalism "offers the fantasy of feeling empowered, of taking pride in their own individual conduct as all that really matters." Despite his gesture towards the very broad appeal of this world view, I don't think that Johnson convincingly shows that moral sentimentalism is anything other than a key stratagem in a class struggle rendered in mechanistic terms of economic interest. In other words, Johnson describes moral sentimentalism as part of the upper class's attempt to trick the poor into perpetuating their own class domination, but this does nothing to explain the way that these classes come into being in the first place.

Johnson is also attempting to draw a distinction between moral sentimentalism and genuine moral claims, and cautions against moral sentimentalism "because it ultimately serves immoral ends." But I'm skeptical that this distinction can be sustained. It's hard to argue against Johnson here because apart from noting that he "take[s] moral claims seriously," he doesn't define what real morality actually is. I would like to suggest that what Johnson is describing as moral sentimentalism might best be understood as the variety of morality that is most at home in our neoliberal society. The examples of moral sentimentalism that he gives are particularly debased, but I think that even very serious contemporary moral thinking partakes of a similar logic that I will try to begin teasing out in this post.