20 August 2011

The task at hand

In the previous post, AB gave a clear statement of what our goal is: the search for a politics that “might give us a world without the ‘permanent crisis’ of capitalism”. But she then noted that “we seem at times to be strategizing for the next battle against capital rather than overcoming it.”

I think we need to acknowledge that we’re facing two distinct problems here. First, how to resolve the crisis of neoliberalism. Second, how to transcend capitalism. Unfortunately, for precisely the reasons we’ve been discussing, contemporary subjectivity is manifestly inadequate to the project of overcoming capitalism. What’s more, the struggle to overcome capitalism will necessarily be played out on the terrain shaped by the resolution of the crisis of neoliberalism. That terrain might open a path to overcoming capitalism, or it might throw up new, insuperable obstacles.

Can we safely dismiss the idea that spiraling levels of economic dysfunction and intensifying competition over how to divide a steadily decreasing pool of total global wealth will lead us to the transcendence of capitalism? If so, then the urgent task of the present is to formulate a way out of the crisis — that is, a new regime of capitalist accumulation.

Figuring out how to revive accumulation is certainly distasteful, and given the global failure to solve the increasingly acute environmental effects of accumulation, it’s also quite dangerous. But it does give us the opportunity to try to shape the outcome in a way that could generate the preconditions, of both structure and consciousness, for a politics whose explicit goal is the overcoming of capitalism.

This may be controversial, and I’m open to a different approach, if one could be formulated.


  1. So if I understand you correctly here, you are saying that the specifities of the historical moment seem to indicate that we must first solve the crisis of neoliberalism, that is, put capital back on a solid footing under a new regime of accumulation. Then, from this new basis, we can work towards the overcoming of capital. Question, and I realize it is an unfairly large one, and I intend it primarily as a way to start to unpack this argument: how do we know that this moment of crisis is not also a moment in which overcoming is possible?

  2. I suppose we don't know for sure that the crisis of neoliberalism won't lead directly to the transcendence of capitalism - the ruse of history and all that. But in this case the burden of proof is on the positive. Because I think most of us believe that true socialism would require certain preconditions both material and "spiritual". What these might look like is worth discussing at much greater length, but it seems to me that at a minimum the material conditions would include institutions that could mediate conscious control over the economy, which to me implies a far more restricted scope for market forces. As for the "spiritual", we would need a form of popular consciousness that rejects the notion that the economy is a force of nature beyond our control and that forms of domination are a necessary condition of human life.

    Since these preconditions are nowhere in evidence, even four years after the beginning of the crisis, I'm not optimistic that we'll jump straight to socialism. If someone could spell out a strategy to do that, I'd be happy to sign on. But I'm not holding my breath.

    It's revealing that one hundred years ago, predictions of the final breakdown of capitalism were everywhere, and the expectation was that this would pave the way to socialism. Now, in analyses like this one, the only vision of what follows the final breakdown of capitalism is unending misery.

    If even the miniscule Marxian left can't bring itself to imagine socialism, it's time to try something different. I think we should try to find a way out of the crisis that reshapes society in such a way as to generate the objective and subjective preconditions for a real movement to overcome capital. I'll try to fill out this idea much more in coming weeks, but how would you all respond to the basic approach?

  3. It's definitely worth approaching this propisition with healthy skepticism, because the goal of the left is, or should be going beyond capitalism, not finding a friendlier version of it. But I agree with Walker's framing of the issue: there is little evidence that the left currently has the imagination to supply a vision of post-capitalism at this point. This isn't to say that there is no left, but it is to recognize a key shortcoming. (However, I think that we could still do more to investigate what is going on in areas where there is a relatively strong left movement [or at least movements that consider themselves to be "left"] and to evaluate whether we think there is something worth pursuing in their vision. I'm thinking particularly of Latin America here.)

    I also believe that a vision of post-capitalism cannot just be a well-reasoned argument existing only on paper. A vision for the future will have to emerge out of real struggles, out of the ways that our lives are organized and reorganized by the necessities of labor and resistance to these necessities. Merely handing out copies of a book to people who "should" be able to see the value of an alternative to capitalism is not a realistic approach to attaining the same.

    As the article that Walker cites implies, there is a difference between the running down and collapse of capitalism and the overcoming of capitalism. If we believe that capitalism is a totalizing system, then it generates resistance to itself as surely as it generates the forces trying to overcome this resistance. Conceptions of human equality have come into being as the possibility for realizing material human equality has appeared--as a _result_ of capital. But this possibility is far from being realized. Not only are we seeing heightening inequity in rich countries, but there are still vast collections of humanity whose access to basic material needs are poor at best.

    If we were moving toward better fulfilling the needs of those who have been all but ignored by the global economy, then I would feel more optimistic about prospects for overcoming capitalism. But as it stands, we may be moving in the opposite direction, and climate change threatens to make the situation far worse. My sense is that these are problems that we will need to face before we could realize socialism.

  4. I agree with Deckard that the key evidence that the end of capitalism is not going to come out of this crisis is from looking around at the current state of the Left. Sure we're in a particularly dark place in the US, but besides Latin America and some labor struggles in Asia there's not much elsewhere either.

    But I think we have to be careful with saying the left should "advocate" one mode of accumulation over another as it's primary goal. Luxemburg's writing in Reform or Revolution is useful here. She says that the reform platforms of Social Democratic movement are not ends but, "means of guiding and educating the proletariat in preparation for the task of taking over power." If we remove the proletariat talk from that she says that the immediate program must aim at creating the material conditions for the overcoming of capitalism (which for her was the dictatorship of the proletariat). So I don't think we need to be coy about our intentions and say "let's put the revolution on hold, let's just get out of the crisis." I think we need to say that we need to get out of the crisis in such a way that makes revolutionary practice easier. This isn't just semantic, it means that we support projects that imagine a favorable regime of accumulation, all the while at the same time figuring out and building a revolutionary movement that is adequate to that regime of accumulation. This would mean being creative in our organizational forms and also fighting to make the rules of the regime more conducive to organizing (I like to believe many of these would be those that are also better for people in the short run, I'm not a worsist). My vision is something like what Unite Students Against Sweatshops did in the late 90s by creating the Workers Rights Consortium (which has had serious impacts on the garment industry, and set them up for many future victories), on a societal scale.

  5. I can understand the argument that mass reemployment needs to occur before the subjectivity of the masses moves to the employed period of the cycle of searching for labor, "itself... an object which [the worker] can obtain only with the greatest effort and with the most irregular interruptions,"http://tinyurl.com/y3p9g2 because presently the overwhelming socio-political desire for most people is steady access to an opportunity to have their labor alienated for the sake of their own survival. This makes convincing people that labor is unnecessary quite difficult-- though there is never more apt evidence of it than in times like these.

    This said, there is nothing objectively that renewed accumulation of dead labor time would bring that does not already exist. Additionally, it is worth posing the question of to what extent renewed accumulation is possible.

  6. It may be that in principle we already have the technology that could sustain a socialist society, but it seems to me that there are still a number of objective obstacles to getting to that society that could potentially be addressed under a new regime of accumulation. Deckard has already mentioned most of these, including the extremely difficult problems of maybe two-thirds of the global population still excluded from a minimally acceptable material standard of living, and the ecological limits that current production levels are running up against even before that two-thirds of the population has had their needs met.

    I personally believe that a socialist society could solve these problems much more effectively with much less suffering than some new regime of capitalist accumulation, but the fact is that the existence of these problems makes a socialist society appear implausible to most people. If a new regime of accumulation could mitigate these problems, it wouldn't just be an extraordinary advance in human welfare, it could also be an advance toward overcoming capital.

    The question of whether renewed accumulation is even possible is very important and will require much more discussion. My tentative position is that the huge populations currently excluded from the circuits of capital could potentially provide a (very difficult) path toward robust renewed accumulation, but I'll need some time to substantiate that.

  7. I think the growing trading block among BRIC countries looked promising at the beginning of the crisis as a way to expand consumer markets. They have begun decoupling their monetary policy from the Euro and USD. However the recent downturn seems to have demonstrated that they're not independent enough. Growth was down in all the emerging markets seemingly for the same reasons as the US and Eurozone. The other alternative I see is similar to what happened to domestic markets under neoliberalism where the move away from homogenized consumption to niche consumption helped create lots of little markets where there was once just one. I think this kind of articulation of markets would be a major part of something like "Shared Value".

    For me the biggest faith in the future of accumulation just comes from the fact that Capitalism has proved itself much more malleable and resilient to "collapse" than anyone has thought throughout history.