18 December 2011

Redistribution is not enough

If the crisis of neoliberalism is a result of the collapse of the system of accumulation that prevailed for the last thirty years, where exactly is the immediate problem? We’ve already isolated productive investment (expanding value), robust demand (realizing value), and efficient technology (circulating value) as the key determinants of growth, so which of these has frozen up?

Demand is the obvious candidate.

From the mid-’80s to 2008, consumers went on a debt binge that propped up demand despite stagnating paychecks. The financial collapse not only rendered this strategy untenable, it also destroyed a huge number of jobs that had been created as a secondary effect of the housing bubble. Burned by the debt habit, and often either jobless or insecure in their jobs, consumers cut back substantially. Moreover, as Dean Baker argues in The End of Loser Liberalism (Ch 2), house-owners lost about $7 trillion in the bust. The valuation of assets has a significant “wealth effect” on consumers’ willingness to spend, so now that people see they have less wealth than they thought, they have withdrawn about $500 billion in annual spending from the economy.

While it’s important to remember that demand can come from rich people and companies just as much as from wage workers, the enormous consumer markets of the rich countries mean that the final market for most producers is employees and their dependents. Large-scale problems in mass consumption are very difficult to overcome solely through luxury production and can only be mitigated in the short term by increasing business outlays on, for example, mechanization or investment in computer technology.

The right prefers to argue that the problem is on the investment side – that regulatory overreach or excessive taxes on business are preventing the “job creators” from reviving the economy. This is not a viable argument. There is, in fact, a massive surplus of capital available for investment, so burdensome taxes are clearly not the problem. As The Wall Street Journal reports, “Corporations have a higher share of cash on their balance sheets than at any time in nearly half a century”. And rather than pursue productive investment, many corporations are spending their money on stock buy-backs. This allows executives to make their bonuses by artificially raising the price of shares through what amounts to an accounting gimmick rather than by strengthening the business.

The immediate obstacle to business expansion is uncertainty about the direction of the economy. The US Chamber of Commerce survey of small businesses (conducted in late September and early October), despite the Chamber’s crude ideological interpretation of the results, demonstrates that excessive government interference is not the problem. When asked to list the two main impediments to hiring, business owners answered “economic uncertainty” (59 percent), “uncertainty about what Washington will do next” (39 percent – concern that Republicans were determined to bring down the economy was still running high), and “lack of sales” (34 percent). Worries about the healthcare bill (33 percent) and “too much regulation” (23 percent) were distinctly secondary issues. More anecdotal reporting reinforces this conclusion.

So we have something of an impasse. The economy stagnates because consumers don’t have enough money to keep up purchasing, itself an outcome of the collapse of the housing bubble and the high rate of unemployment. But businesses are unwilling to create new jobs or raise wages because the economy is stagnant. How to cut the Gordian knot?

Why not just redistribute value from capital and rich people to labor and poor people? It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s absolutely vital if we’re to get the economy functioning again. Write down the unsustainable debts that are strangling consumers and governments, strengthen unions so they can demand a larger share of the wealth that workers produce, expand government programs that help the poor and the middle class and finance them by raising taxes on corporations and the rich. With money in their pockets again, consumers and government can both start spending. All that idle capital will have a reason to be put to productive use again.

These are essential measures for rebalancing the economy – not to mention for mitigating the brutality of American society and preventing Europe from sinking into American conditions. But there’s a big problem. Simply taking money away from capital means introducing a new dysfunction into the growth system: inadequate investment.
The conventional understanding of the economy among progressives is basically static and conflictual. The image is of a set amount of wealth available to society, which is divided up by power relations. Because “the one percent” have attained a preponderance of power, they have claimed for themselves an increasing share of this wealth. The response that follows is to mobilize “the 99 percent” and take back our fair share.

This understanding isn’t wrong, but it is fatally one-sided. It misses the essential fact that capitalist society is not a static whole that can be redivided at will, but an exceedingly dynamic system founded on an intricate network of social practices, subjectivities, and institutions. Upending one aspect of the system would reverberate through the entire complex, undoing established ways of doing and ways of being, rendering other aspects of the system unworkable.

As I’ve argued in more detail, wage repression and rising inequality were not merely a product of corporate greed, but a fix for serious problems in the accumulation process that helped cause the crisis of Fordism in the 1970s. As the rate of productivity growth declined, businesses needed to increase exploitation in order to maintain healthy profits. Government lent a hand not just because of the corrupt nexus of state and capital, but because the reinvestment of healthy profits was the only way to maintain steady growth rates.

The system that was erected around this framework is now in ruins. The fact that redistributing wealth and making the economy more egalitarian would undo the entire neoliberal system is no argument against it: neoliberalism has already undone itself and there can be no return to the status quo ante. The only question is what kind of society will replace neoliberalism. But those of us interested in shaping the outcome need more than an egalitarian ethic and a good political strategy if we’re to succeed, because the possibilities are harshly circumscribed by the need to restore capitalist accumulation. The object of our efforts is not “inequality” or “the one percent”, but the social totality and the revival of its animating dynamic on a new, more humane basis.

The contradiction revealed by the crisis is not merely between capital and labor, but between the profits that can produce growth and the consumer purchasing power needed to actually complete the sale of those products. Admittedly, the task of redistributing social wealth faces huge obstacles in the bitterly retrograde bipartisan political class and the rigidly ideological business leadership. But in some ways, given the existence of a liberal silent majority, revealed at last by Occupy, and an easily formulated reform program, this may be the easier task. How to maintain profits after the props of rising exploitation and speculation have been pulled away is a much more difficult problem to resolve. And lest we simply sneer and say, “Screw those rich guys”, we have to remember that the health of the entire economy and the welfare of each one of us depends upon steady profitability. Until, that is, we no longer live in a capitalist society.


  1. this is oh, so true, and it is amazing of how many are blind to this wisdom stated in this blog...

  2. What a bunch of nonsense! No mention of the Federal Reserve. No mention of money which is half of every transaction. Goods and services are produced and consumed but apparently money is constant? Do you think that we are still on the gold standard and the monetary base expands by 2% every year? Check this out:

    There is no need to take from the rich. You can simply print money and drop it out of helicopters. Why not do that? That is far more fair than the tax code and bank bailouts. Just abolish all taxes and print what you spend, then send a check to everyone for a flat amount. Because people wouldn't use Federal Reserve Notes? Oh yeah, there is that. Got to use that monopoly of force to keep everyone in line.

    Strengthen unions to increase demand? Increase government programs to increase demand? You can't be serious! All unions and government accomplish is enable people to get paid more than the value of what they produce. They warp the economy through the use of force (ie extortion). This is why GM needed a bailout. They needed to invest in fantasy financial instruments to make money since GM's workers didn't produce more in value than they were paid due to union mobsters.

    What if you deluded professors aren't that smart? What if there is a sophistry bubble that is going to burst? What if the hillbilly in the north Georgia mountains can really run his life better without you leading him around by his nose? What if a free market that allows people to choose if they want to participate at all really is a better regulator than a phony crony government system that relies on a monopoly of force? But then, how will you earn a paycheck without the jackboots? In your rightful place, cleaning toilets.

  3. Well, the site is apparently popular enough that you have acquired a post-fascist troll. Anyway...

    I have a problem with the idea that our job is to save capitalism from itself until the revolution comes.

    Firstly, that's not my problem. My problem is to do what I can to improve the quality of life for myself and my family and my friends, which I can only do in a very limited way individually. My need to do this will likely not contribute to the health of capitalism. I also find it disturbing to be told not to bite the hand that feeds me by a fellow commie. If we can't bite the hand that feeds us, if we can't destroy our own reproduction as labor for capital, what politics do we have?

    Secondly, unless several people here are secretly Rockefellers and/or highly placed but dissatisfied political operatives, "we" don't have any means to influence policy except the actual struggles we find ourselves in, struggles that I doubt we generally have much control over, though we might try and have something to say to the other people involved (which based on the Awk-upy essay, is more complicated that it seems at first blush.) The idea that anything said here, or that any of us contributing here, matters outside a very small circle is sheer hubris.

    Thirdly, a kinder, gentler phase of capitalism, a new period of accumulation, in no way entails a greater likelihood of abolishing capitalist society. Also, you don't get kinder and gentler without also getting more barbaric and brutal.

  4. Chris, the argument that you are taking here is surprising to me. You ask what politics we have if we can't bite the hand that feeds us. I ask you, what politics do we have if we assume from go that we cannot hope to affect the economy or public consciousness in any way? Should we resist capital through everyday practices? To me there seems to be a clear and unresolved tension between your claim that on the one hand, we should be working to end capitalism immediately, and that, on the other, we should limit our concerns to the people around us. If we do the later, then why bother with Marxian theory at all?

    I think there is a great discussion/debate to be had about what Walker is proposing with regard to reviving capitalism to ultimately overcome it. I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts on it.

  5. Post-fascist. Man alive are you people desperately trying to contain the truth with your imaginative taxonomy. Good luck. The desperation, the fatalism, the hopelessness of your post sums up the task of those "elites" whose job it is to provide legitimacy to the powers that be. You jumped through all the hoops. You won. This is the prize you get?

  6. I must emphatically second what Chris Wright has said. The idea that the choice is between a left Krugmanist and no politics at all is a false dichotomy and bad politics. We do a disservice to the project of revolution to talk down to people and wait to later, after we have mobilized them, to give them the goods. (Because in the classically Stalinist form that this is, that moment of mobilization never comes and the adequate theory is always put off. The whole goal becomes mobilization without any content.) This delay is disingenuous and condescending. Our project should be explaining why work needs to be overcome and not trying to resolve unemployment. Capital will solve the problem of value creation. We need to attend to the problem of overcoming that condition. I think that this problematic of how to restart capitalism is a serious and running problem with this blog. Case and point is that you will now need to defend the Keynesian analysis offered here against a Hayekian critique offered by Luneleger. We have no business defending either and there are much better places to go find a Keynesian self-defense-- I can think of two Nobel prize winners and a Berkeley professor. Both the Keynesian and the Hayekian account is inadequate to our problem and both are merely fetishized and partial analyses of capitalism.

  7. I want to offer a moderating voice here. I have been following Walker's analysis of the crisis of capitalism as he has unfolded it over a series of posts, and I largely agree with his assessment of the factors causing the current crisis of capitalism. That said, I also see Frank's point that capital will likely, as it has in the past, solve its own dilemma of value accumulation. Walker's program, though, is precisely to try and shape those new conditions of accumulation, which does require an active politics that seeks to mobilize rather than interiorize the critique of capital. If I recall correctly, when Walker first proposed that the pressing question was not the overcoming of capitalism, but re-establishing it on a more "humane" basis it was on two grounds: 1) it is unclear that the dissolution of capital under current objective and subjective conditions would lead to a more humane society and not our worst dystopian nightmare 2) that capitalism always tends towards crisis and that when "humane capitalism" did reach its crisis point, conditions would be more amenable for a positive overcoming. So ultimately, we all (except for our incoherent post-fascist friend) agree that the overcoming of capitalism is the ultimate goal. (And maybe even he/she agrees on this point. I can't tell.) This overcoming, in a Postonian reading, means the abolition of value and therefore much of the unnecessary/necessary labor time demanded by capital. The question seems to be what are the necessary conditions of possibility for an overcoming, and can we know them ahead of time? Certainly, the basic conditions laid out by Marx -- that is the sheer productive capacity of (post)industrial society and the decreasing need for labor amidst ever-increasing wealth -- have been met. [Though one has to acknowledge these conditions exist in only parts of the world. So we face the question of whether one condition of possibility is a truly global capitalist system.] But Walker's hesitance about the present moment, which I think could probably be better worked out, seems to stem from the present forms of politics and subjectivity. For instance, if localism is the present prevalent form of progressivism, what does this bode for the shape of a post-capitalist world, assuming the progressives get the upper hand and not the fascists? On the other hand, I am skeptical whether we can ever identify ahead of time the conditions of possibility for as fundamental a revolution as the overcoming of capitalism would entail. Perhaps the failure of imagination is not a sign of the time not being right, but a more basic condition -- that the future cannot be known before it arrives. Now, one might object that our analyses of capital is much more developed now than at any other point in the past, and that we know with some certainty the dynamics of crisis. The question then becomes, can an analysis of the dynamics of capital/crisis foretell human response to it? For example, can we identify a determining condition in the dissolution of Fordism responsible for the escalations of radical left-wing violence characteristic of the early 1970s? And if we can, are we self-reflexive enough to identify determining conditions in the present moment? I think it would be helpful to the discussion if Frank could outline why the Keynesian and Hayekian accounts of capital are inadequate, and if Walker could give an account of why, at the level of politics and subjectivity, the current moment seems ill-suited for the end of capital.

  8. Let's first clarify some terminology. The approach I'm advancing here is not "left Krugmanism" or Keynesianism. In fact, this post is a direct attack on that understanding of the crisis. The Keynesian argument generally understands the crisis as a result of problems with consumer demand that can be solved through large amounts of stimulus spending and, perhaps, some amount of redistribution. This understanding focuses on dysfunctions in the distribution of value, which I agree are important, but I'm arguing that the more fundamental problem lies in the production of value.

    Second, I think throwing around the all-purpose insult of Stalinism is counterproductive. A good argument doesn't need to rely on political demonology. And when exactly was it Stalin's method to "talk down to people and wait to later, after we have mobilized them, to give them the goods"? This might describe Lenin's method, but Stalin was much more interested in mobilizing people to be shot.

    Finally, I hardly think that my argument generates the need to respond to Luneleger's ilk any more than some other argument. The Hayekian critique had a certain plausibility during neoliberalism's heroic period, but now it is sheer ideology, corresponding to nothing in the world. It should be dismissed out of hand. Though I do think Luneleger brings up one valid point: all this work we do to legitimize the sinister liberal elites, and here we are living in poverty? Can't they give us a stipend or something?

  9. Now to the substance of the comments. Chris, you may be right that it's all futile, but I think the ongoing crisis will continue to dissolve the kind of ideological rigidity that Luneleger demonstrates so nicely, and then those forces with the best organization and most convincing arguments will be in a position to advance once impractical agendas. Our tiny coterie of intellectuals can have no direct impact, of course, but that's why I've been arguing for the need to work with those political forces that are most open to progressive change. If you really are convinced that we can have no effect, I'm not sure I understand your interest in politics.

    Frank, I'm surprised to hear how sanguine you are that capital will figure out how to restart accumulation, because you recently expressed deep skepticism on precisely that point. I am, in any case, inclined to agree that sooner or later accumulation will be revived, but I have a healthy interest in seeing that this process involves as little mass suffering and death as possible. It would be nice if we could avoid, for instance, the kind of events that led to the overcoming of the crisis of liberalism. I will, hopefully, be able to put together a post exploring those dangers sometime soon.

    AB has done me the honor of a careful reading of my still incomplete argument, and I agree that I have not yet established the plausibility of the politics I'm trying to work toward. The only thing I would emphasize is that what I would like to develop is a serious Marxian political strategy, as distinct from a simple allegiance to our theory. I think we can all agree (please correct me if I'm wrong) that popular subjectivity is generated by social conditions, and that present-day social conditions make socialism wildly implausible to the overwhelming majority of the world's population.

    On that assumption, a Marxian strategy would aim at achieving social conditions that made the overcoming of capital seem a compelling answer to the insoluble problems posed by modern society. This seems to me an essential intermediate step to the process of transcending capitalism and a more fruitful project than simply arguing the need to abolish labor before an audience whose capacity to imagine such a thing has been eliminated. I readily admit the hubris of this approach, but I think we now have powerful theoretical tools that could be used to think through the necessary tasks. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I believe it's a project worth exploring.

  10. I'm incoherent? Wow, just wow. This is the absolute height of delusion here. You guys do nothing of value for any ordinary person. You know, the people that you talk about helping? You may do something of value for oligarchs desperately in need of a complicated and exclusive ideology which provides legitimacy to oligarchs (the same "service" the Catholic church provided in the dark ages). Problem is the oligarchs have run out of money to pay for you people (hence not all of you receive stipends or tenure) and the people generally mock and deride your complicated and exclusive theory as complete nonsense. This means the oligarchs are losing legitimacy and with that more stipends will have to be cut.

    And my arguments against the idea that strengthening the government and unions will be productive are not inspired by Hayek. I've never read anything by him. They are from direct observations of unions and the Federal government for which I work. I don't need oligarch bestowed credentials like professor or Nobel Prize because I'm not relying on credentials. It isn't surprising you do not reply to my arguments and simply dismiss them out of hand. You have no other choice. To consider them is to look in the mirror and see the ugly truth. Far better to live in the cozy little make believe world where you are really valuable and important to your fellow man.

    Your proposed revolution, which really seems like satire, wouldn't get off the ground because it would require a police state and you wouldn't have anything to pay the police and none of you would last 15 seconds in a real fight. This isn't 1900 Russia. You guys just don't have the muscle. Even if this was 1900 Russia, you probably still wouldn't have enough muscle. Although, it is entertaining to read your plans and theories. But I have this feeling in the back of my mind that you people can't possibly be serious. Might as well plan an alien invasion for Paul Krugman. That is actually more plausible!

  11. This is exactly the conversation we need to be having. I agree with what AB has said but I want to add my two cents.

    I have a lot of sympathy for Frank and Chris' desire to take up a revolutionary position in response to this crisis. However, I agree with Walker's conclusion that in the US and on the global level, it's not possible. This is largely due to the on the ground political realities and less the status of popular subjectivity which I think it highly malleable and there is some evidence that it's not as reactionary as Walker makes it our to be (for example see Lauren Berlant's new book Cruel Optimism.). In order for an overcoming of capitalism we don't just need to be able to argue for it, we need to be able make it envisionable to the masses.

    The question is what we do about that. Here I agree with Frank that we should have faith that capital can revive its own accumulation without our direct help. If we want a humane form I think we should instead understand ourselves as setting limits to what a new form of accumulation will be. Through mass mobilization we can demand that fair and affordable housing must exist, that institutions be democratic, that police don't kill people, that our border is not a death trap, the the Maldives won't go underwater, that you don't starve if you can't find a job etc. These are things mass movements can demand and things that connect to oppressed communities in tangible and revolutionary ways.

    What's more I think this practice increases the revolutionary potential of the next regime of accumulation. Not because it instills a productive subjectivity in the masses, but because it establishes humane values that are understood as independent of the economy and because they build institutions of struggle that are rooted in communities. Building movements like this creates a kind of collective ambition around what is possible so that the movement for the 40 work week demands the 30 hour weeks once it wins.

    This is also different I think from what Frank and Chris are envisioning which is attempting to build explicitly revolutionary movements. Frank is right that I think it's premature to call for revolution but not because I'm a Stalinist and don't want the masses to take the lead away from me, but because I want to wait for the masses to lead me. Building around concrete struggles allows me to learn from what people want and the solutions they develop. The project is to encourage and commit to the immediate demands of oppressed communities in such a way that the overcoming of capitalism is a concrete theoretical problem taken on by the people as a whole. This means establishing priorities and concrete visions of a new society at each step while still accepting that the process advances in stages and the end goal cannot be clear from the outset.

  12. Practically this means committing to community based struggles that are either around work places (i.e. union organizing), social status (i.e. race, sexuality, or immigration status), or physical location (i.e. "community organizing"). I'd suggest folks go read Max Rameau's recent comments on Organizing Upgrade around the occupy movement.

    In addition to understanding the current crisis then the project of this blog then is to track two things. First emergent social movements and how they might fit into a revolutionary process that in on the order of the 50 years time scale. And second emergent forms of accumulation and determine an adequate left relation to it. This is to a certain extent what I've been trying to do, with varying success.

    In conclusion then I think we can't build explicitly revolutionary movements today, but that we also shouldn't build movements that advocate for a new regime of accumulation. We should build movements around humane and potentially revolutionary values that are embedded in communities and ensure that these movements build histories and institutions of struggle that can take advantage of the next epochal crisis to overcome capitalism.

    To our incoherent, Hayekian, post-Fascist Troll: I'm a union organizer and I'd be proud to distort the labor market, unfortunately the American labor movement is too weak to even do that.

  13. Erin, I think you hit the nail on the head. To bounce off that, within the push towards instilling revolutionary values in movements is a question I face on a daily basis pertaining to organizations. I am speaking mainly from my interaction with community based organizations in chicago.

    For me there is a frustrating tendency in community organizing for self-described liberals to appear as revolutionary figures and for self-described leftists to devolve into mealy-mouthed liberals. In an attempt to shed theory, assuming all theory and analysis is academic, these leftists assume practice itself produces desirable, revolutionary outcomes. The result: the utility of radical critique is abandoned and an unsophisticated organizer gets tossed around for awhile then truly transforms into a liberal or quits in dismay. They neglect the importance that an organization can be a powerful tool in making values and critiques concrete. In my experience, it's almost as if they fear the real, politically significant consequences that organization can have.

    There has been a sort of organizational amnesia in the states, as organizational structures that sprouted in the 3o-80s (through class struggle) have been dismantled and replaced by neoliberal ones, or pro-status quo ones. As evidence, look at the litany of community-based orgs that are at the whims of grant money. Or that promote privatized service-based products like low-income housing tax credits. Even less-service based and more organizing based community organizations take a nauseating alinskist stance, which promotes more of the same in political structures that reproduce our social alienation and economic woe.

    The joke here is that leftists too worried to rock the boat by creating more organizations with revolutionary values prop up the underlying liberalism of neoliberal and alinski community orgs. Part of preparing for future crises, is the trial and error of creating revolutionary organizations.

  14. This problem that Chris points to is exactly what I am getting at above. The goal put forward by the political economic theory offered in this blog seems to be rebuild capitalism, organize people for that project, then convert that project into an anti-capitalist project and bring the true critique of capital to the people who you were previously organizing to rebuild it. Chris writes, "For me there is a frustrating tendency in community organizing for self-described liberals to appear as revolutionary figures and for self-described leftists to devolve into mealy-mouthed liberals. In an attempt to shed theory, assuming all theory and analysis is academic, these leftists assume practice itself produces desirable, revolutionary outcomes. The result: the utility of radical critique is abandoned and an unsophisticated organizer gets tossed around for awhile then truly transforms into a liberal or quits in dismay. They neglect the importance that an organization can be a powerful tool in making values and critiques concrete. In my experience, it's almost as if they fear the real, politically significant consequences that organization can have."

  15. Frank, I'd be interested in your response to Earl's comments above, which I think articulate very well what a left politics would look like. And if you find this approach objectionable, I would be interested in hearing your alternative.

  16. I would be interested in hearing people's thoughts on the following: http://us2.campaign-archive1.com/?u=df3f36b607325b38808f5e844&id=fffc06e08a&e=380c174f21
    It is a call to organization by the Greenhorns, which is a small "young" farmer's group. The profile of a "Greenhorn" tends of be, of course, much different than what we might expect. They are progressive, embedded firmly with in "local" and "organic" food movements, and usually chose farming as a form of employment (rather than inheriting it). I find it, on the surface, an odd combination of identity politics that is fully comfortable with current social practices ("We need to gossip with each-other to discern trends, mimic good models, avoid risky ones . . .We need to win the hearts, the kids, and the loyal pocketbooks of consumers."),exhorts a collective identity ("We will need to work as a team."), that wants to work within the existing order ("We need to judiciously use government-subsidized credit from the FSA or Farm Credit.
    We need to negociate with the suburban and gentrified urban edge around our cities, to find peace and respectful engagement, same goes with non-farming landowners and slow-money philanthropists."), and make that order work for it (We need to inspire+ challenge! the USDA agencies ( especially NRCS) to understand and serve us.).
    At the same time, it sees itself as having transformative potential: "We can populate the landscape with idealism, learning from our elders in the sustainable agriculture movement, more that that, we can spread an infectious culture of possibility. Undaunted and positive, it is right that we should attack the system at its very foundation, build the new economy starting at the interface of human and natural systems. What a great consipiracy, lets choose agriculture, a system of production that generates jobs, income and food. Where better than small farming, a truly generative sector of our ravaged economy , and when practiced sustainably contributes mightily to the restoration of local places and local capacity."
    What would it mean to work with a group like this along the lines Earl outlines? What are humane and revolutionary values? Is it the values themselves that are transformative or the means by which we realize them?
    And to respond a bit more to Earl on the point about values: Even under the the present order, no one says that people should go hungry. But the way in which we realize the provision of food creates conditions in which many do. So is it our values, subjectively understood, that are the pivotal point? What of the social conditions under which those values are realized? In other words, shouldn't we also be talking about structures?

  17. I apologize for not replying more to this thread, I apparently missed quite a bit.

    I have met a few of you since (which was great if exceedingly brief), and I am working on some things, though I have any manner of replies to the above commentaries as well.

    In this note, let me say that I am not counseling non-participation in practical politics. Maybe there is a disconnect because I don't, and for a long time have not, thought of myself as an activist, an organizer, or a revolutionary. I know that rings oddly on some ears, but let me try and put it briefly.

    An activist is someone who thinks that they are a 'doer', a mover and shaker, someone who makes things happen. They have an agenda and a program that other people ought to act on too.

    An organizer is someone who thinks not only that other people are not organized, but that they exist waiting to be organized by the organizer or whatever body the organizer represents.

    And a revolutionary is someone who thinks being for revolution is the same thing as having acquitted oneself in a revolution. Frequently they also think that the organization goes through them or their sect.

    I am, however, a little 'c'ommunist. I see myself in rather the same vein as Marx saw communists in the opening lines of chapter 2 of the Communist Manifesto, but I have to read those lines in light of the 120 years before my birth and my experience of the 43 since. I have to do what we all have to do: find some direction in a world we haven't been in yet.

    As such, I distrust "good programs" cooked up out of what seem like obviously good ideas that would help people, in part because I've cooked up a "good program" or two in my time. The idea is that somehow a "good program" will become the "right program", the one that points the way forward and the masses rally round. It doesn't work that way. If it did, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

    And the problem isn't a lack of organizing or activism. Organizing and activism are what happen when nothing is going on. They are attempts to jump start the action or substitute oneself for its lack. You can't convince people who don't already want to fight that they should fight.

    I'm not counseling non-participation, I'm suggesting that we do not pretend that what we can do today has anything to do with organizing the revolution because revolutions aren't organized by revolutionaries who were good activists with good programs.

    I'll come back to what I am suggesting in what I am writing for the blog.

  18. Just to be clear, this is not intended as a salvo AT anyone. Rather, I want to push a little, to provide a little resistance to a certain received wisdom.

    As I told Earl, John L. Lewis was asked about the presence of communists and other radicals working as organizers for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, and he replied: "Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?"

    I used to like to think I was the hunter, but I have no more illusions about the matter. I am the dog. So if a dog I must be, I'd rather be a non-compliant dog than the one fetching birds for the hunter, as if that would make him more inclined to treat me like a man.

    Or in another vein, two legs are not always better than four.

  19. Chris Wright, thanks for your comments. I appreciate the direction that you're pushing in because I have a tendency to think a bit schematically, and you're giving me some good food for thought. I hope you will see my comments in the same light, as they are intended!

    I think my current attitude is in part a reaction against the anarchist/post-modernist milieu that I was a part of (and a product of) about a decade ago. Anyway, one ought not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  20. Earl, I appreciate what you've been saying a lot, and I like the direction you've been driving in. There is one point that you (and others) have made that I would like to further interrogate. Is it clear that capital will revive its own accumulation without our help? It seems possible that we could have a crisis unlike previous ones that does not result in a new regime of accumulation, but rather in the system spinning itself apart and effectively ending capitalist modernity.

    I have yet to encounter an argument that convincingly rules out this possibility, thought I'd of course be open to considering them. This possibility puts us in the awkward position of considering Walker's propositions (still in development) about restarting accumulation. (I'm not sure that Walker would frame things in the same way, this is just what I've been thinking lately.)

    It seems to me that the left has in the past definitely contributed to the revival of accumulation. Didn't the New Left help immensely to give shape to neo-liberalism? The question at that point becomes how we understand the history... was this the New Left's failure, or were they accomplishing something necessary? I'm not sure how to address this, but it is certainly a question that we may want to consider, and I think it would reflect on how we consider the our current agenda.

    (I would say, however, that approaches that reject out of hand the legacy of the New Left do not seem compelling to me. To criticize the New Left I think we need to consider both the historical constraints they experienced and the really progressive elements of their legacy. So the critique needs to be a sympathetic one, and based on past discussions it seems that you would probably concur on this point.)

  21. AB, the website you point to is very interesting. My first reaction was to find it kind of disturbing. No doubt this springs at least in part from my prejudices toward urban environments. But on the other hand, I think that discomfort with localism and identity politics is entirely defensible.

    Your point about structure is interesting--we should be as attentive to the real potential for transforming our agricultural system as we are to the language that groups like this use--but I don't know enough about small scale farming to really address it. Part of me wants to suggest that the transformation of the huge agribusinesses would ultimately be the only way to address problems around food production and therefore small scale farming is basically irrelevant. However, even if the first part is true it doesn't mean we should ignore groups like this. They could still tell us something important about the social imaginaries of the present.