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.

05 August 2013

Neoliberalism and the “carbon bubble”

In an earlier post I argued that overcoming neoliberalism is the key to saving humanity from climate apocalypse, based on the thought that the necessary political actions (examples: “heavy-handed interventions by the state into the economy, including a massive expansion of the public sector, and coercive intervention into the financial industry, agricultural industry, and manufacturing industry”) are incompatible with neoliberalism. In this post I want to address another consideration that leads to the same conclusion: the carbon bubble.

The math behind the notion of the carbon bubble is probably most familiar to climate activists from an article published a year ago by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone entitled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”. This article is a call to arms in which he declares that the the fossil fuel industry “is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization”, which means that the task of the climate movement must be to destroy the industry’s political power. The piece went viral, and subsequently led to his Do the Math tour and 350.org’s “Fossil Free” divestment campaign.

29 July 2013

Only A Pawn in Their Game

White alienation is on the rise. “Going back to the 1980s, never have whites been so pessimistic about their futures,” according to a recent article about increasing economic insecurity published by the Associated Press. “Just 45 percent say their family will have a good chance of improving their economic position based on the way things are in America.”

Such pessimism corresponds, of course, to the objective economic situation facing the majority of white Americans. As the AP explains, “While racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty, race disparities in the poverty rate have narrowed substantially since the 1970s, census data show. Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in government data, engulfing more than 76 percent of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge being published next year by the Oxford University Press.”

While decreasing racial disparities in the poverty rate hold out the possibility that whites and non-whites will come together in the face of shared economic immiseration to challenge the neoliberal policy regime responsible for their increasing insecurity, it is overly sanguine to believe that the collective experience of acute economic anxiety will lead inexorably to proletarian racial harmony. Indeed, the perverse racial equality promoted by neoliberalism’s program of universal dispossession is haunted by the specter of a racialized politics in which the objective social antagonisms of capitalism’s bio-polar class structure become increasingly displaced into threatening forms of populist chauvinism that could radically transform the American political landscape. As Walker has discussed at length in two recent posts, the unleashing of such reactionary forces could eventuate in a Rand Paul presidency, a scenario that harbors the possibility of accelerating national and international disintegration and hostility.

Our chances of averting such a catastrophe depend on our ability to articulate a narrative that will place the subjective experience of economic distress in an objective perspective that discloses the class-bound economic mechanisms driving contemporary inequality. As William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist, tells the AP, “It’s time that America comes to understand that many of the nation’s biggest disparities, from education and life expectancy to poverty, are increasingly due to economic class position.” He goes on to caution, “There is the real possibility that white alienation will increase if steps are not taken to highlight and address inequality on a broad front.”

Unless progressives, socialists, and leftists can forge such a narrative and present it alongside a political program based on the regulation of financial corporations in the public interest and the creation of jobs through large-scale investment in infrastructure, transportation, and education, rising white alienation will continue to portend reaction.

19 July 2013

(Un)Education in America

Tomorrow's schools, today
In June I wrote a post about the internship and its role in the redefinition of labor and training. Widespread divestment from training, in which the cost of training is transferred from the employer onto workers, is manifesting itself as a demand for prior experience. Workers are to have been trained elsewhere, and are expected to hit the ground running. Paired with a general job shortage, these demands for experience can only be met at the workers’ expense, by paying for training programs or by working for free. The internship is a perfect example of this trend.

But there is another, arguably more important aspect of divestment from training—the turn toward cutting and streamlining public education. Primary and secondary schooling is intended to foster good citizenship, to provide care for children while their parents work, and to train productive future employees, among other things. Today, we are seeing a redefinition of the government’s role as educator and trainer that could prove vital to any future economy.

14 July 2013

Culture as a Historical Problem, Part II: Rock and Roll as Mass Social Critique

“I got my own world to live through, and I ain’t gonna copy you... I’m the one who’s gonna have to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.”
—Jimi Hendrix

The sixties and the rise of rock provide another interesting case in the study of culture as a historical problem. As the student-led new left, civil rights, anti-imperialist, environmentalist, and feminist movements all gathered momentum in the great counter-cultural wave that swept across the U.S. during the 1960s, commercially produced “popular” music worked as a common affective and thematic canvas for the different people involved in them. Rock was the quintessential musical genre of the decade; its coalescence and mass dissemination through analog media was financed by the culture industry, but it cannot be denied that it played a major role in channeling and expressing the basic rejection of “the establishment,” which was something shared by all the major movements of the era. What about rock music as a cultural form allowed it to have this kind of effect within the historical conjuncture in which it emerged? What allowed it to function as a vehicle for mediating a massively widespread rejection of the status quo?

03 July 2013

Rand Paul could redefine American politics, straight into disaster

A path to the triumph of American reaction
Part 2 of 2 | Part 1

When a capitalist regime of accumulation breaks down, the only impractical path forward is to maintain the status quo. Fundamental change becomes necessary, but the direction of that change is not foreordained. Progressive change is that which opens a path to overcoming the crisis. Reactionary change, on the other hand, can only intensify the disorder and leads ultimately to disaster.

If the scenario sketched out in the last post came to pass and Rand Paul rode to election in 2016 on the back of a populist coalition of fundamentalists, libertarians, and anti-authoritarian progressives, he would have to choose one of several different paths upon inauguration. He could pander to the social conservatives while the entrenched House Republican majority (probably joined by a new Senate majority) continued to push an anti-gay, anti-immigrant, and anti-abortion agenda; in that case, the Republicans would quickly lose the new constituencies the election had brought into play. Alternatively or alongside the fundamentalist path, Paul could give in to the power of his corporate backers, basically continuing the economic policies of the Obama administration with a harsher edge, and soon find himself on the defensive against a progressive challenge from the Democrats.

These options are straight out of the long-established Republican playbook, and they had real efficacy as long as neoliberalism remained healthy. Now that neoliberalism is disintegrating, however, they no longer represent a viable politics, and would gradually deepen the crisis while extinguishing the Paul administration’s legitimacy. The outcome would be an increasingly progressive and post-neoliberal Democratic Party in line with the popular progressive majority. It’s the best we could hope for in the event of a Paul victory.

The really frightening prospect is that Rand Paul actually means what he says and seeks to make good on the hopes of his anti-authoritarian supporters on both the left and the right. Because in that case, he might be able to remake the Republican Party as a populist force capable of confronting and destroying the corporate-state elite. In the process, the only hope for overcoming the crisis of neoliberalism in a progressive direction would be extinguished, and the world would move ever-closer to real disaster.

24 June 2013

Keynesian Fordism: global political economy of a passive revolution

Antonio Gramsci

This is the second in a series of three texts retracing the historical roots of present-day economic institutions and class relations. The previous post examined the institutional crisis of American society in the Thirties. It characterized the New Deal as an arrested transformation of monopoly capitalism, in which attempts at egalitarian reform were blocked by interest groups operating through both major parties.

This text explores the rise of state capitalism during WWII. It shows how the redoubled technological and organizational capacity of the corporate state was able to generate a global political economy maintained by force of both money and arms, but also based on the new social compact that emerged from the depression and the war. To analyze this global political economy I’m going to use the concept of hegemony, as developed by Antonio Gramsci. I’ll extend that concept to international relations, following the lead of Robert Cox in his book Production, Power and World Order.

19 June 2013

Rand Paul’s route to victory and the transformation of the Republican Party

A path to the triumph of American reaction
Part 1 of 2 | Part 2

This is disturbing:
President Rand Paul: Watch out, he’s becoming a better politician every day

If Rand Paul were able to assemble an unlikely coalition of reactionaries and discontented youth, he would be in a position to win the presidency in 2016, fundamentally transform electoral politics in the United States, and bring down the corporate-state elite. There’s a lot of assumptions in that scenario, but it’s hard to imagine a bigger disaster for the country or the world if those assumptions prove well-founded.

09 June 2013

Culture as a Historical Problem, Part I: The Folk Tradition of the Classical Workers’ Movement

Solidarity forever, the union makes us strong!”
Ralph Chaplin/Traditional

We all shall die.”

I once heard a prominent leftist academic suggest that “the problem with the left today is that it has no soundtrack.” For whatever reason, that has stuck with me over the years, and this post is an initial attempt to understand why that might be so.

Skepticism is warranted. Of course it would be absurd to reduce the whole complex problem of the left’s dysfunctionality to the question of a shared culture. That’s certainly not the idea here. Instead, I’d like to pose a few questions that have to do with culture and radical politics, and hopefully set the stage for further reflection on the relationship between them in a way that throws light on our current predicament.

04 June 2013

What is an Institutional Crisis of Capitalism?

Lessons from the Thirties

How do corporations fit into society? And what happens when they don’t?

The answer to the second question is “an institutional crisis of capitalism” – like the one we’re currently experiencing.

An institutional crisis can be defined as a break in the continuity of social reproduction, which is never fulfilled by commercial relations alone, but always requires public intervention into the daily lives of citizens, through schooling, health care, policing, urban amenities and retirement provisions as well as multiple forms of regulation conditioning the activities of businesses. Every major crisis (of the kind that come around once every forty to fifty years) is marked by institutional breakdowns at various scales, whether local, national or international. Their severity interrupts capital accumulation itself: thus the crisis, including today's. Yet to understand the causes and outcomes of these breakdowns we also need to answer the first question, about the institutional “fit” that prevailed – for better or worse – in the decades preceding the turmoil. And that, in turn, entails gaining some understanding of the forces and social relations of production as they have evolved to maturity in each successive era of capitalist development.

02 June 2013

Training Rebranded: Internships and the Value of Work

Unless you are under 14 or have been living on a desert island for a few decades, you know what an internship is. But just in case, internships offer young people the opportunity to work for businesses and institutions for little or no monetary compensation to gain references and experience in the process. The modern internship system began in the ’60s and ’70s as a fast track into certain elite financial industries, but starting in the mid ’80s they appeared in other industries. Thirty years later they have become not just a prerequisite for future employment but a hoped-for opportunity for millions of enterprising youth searching for a way into a future desk job.

Decades ago they might have been a relatively benign educational opportunity nestled in the comfort of the Fordist economic system. Today internships represent economic trends that raise disturbing questions about the present and future of capitalism, especially with respect to training, experience, and the devaluation of labor.

28 May 2013

The Weakest Link

Spain in the Circuit of European Capital

PAH protester: "I don't fit into your law."

 An elder woman with a yard-long wooden spoon stirs a huge pan of paella bubbling over a ring of blue flame. Wine bottles pop, music pulses from the loudspeakers and the neighborhood gathers around long tables set up in the street. Today – May 18, 2013 – eleven families are celebrating their departure from the squatted building where they’ve spent the last eighteen months. The bank that owns it, Caixa Catalunya, has been forced into granting them five-year leases in other homes left empty by the crisis. This is a major victory for the Platform of People Affected by Foreclosures, known as the PAH (Plataforma de afectados por hipotecas). For the first time, they are rehousing people at a “social rent” of 150 euros per month. It’s a benchmark. The idea is to create new rights from the ground up, in defiance of rapacious economic practice and repressive legislation.

In a country with 27% unemployment, two million vacant housing units and a foreclosure rate of some five hundred per day, the PAH is a rising political force. According to recent national polls, an overwhelming majority finds it more competent to resolve the housing crisis than either of the two main parties, the conservative PP and the pseudo-socialist PSOE, whose ratings have fallen to historic lows. Here as in the rest of Southern Europe, the popping of the real-estate bubble led to a banking collapse, government bailouts, the specter of national insolvency, European rescues, a flood-tide of austerity measures and finally, a deep crisis of legitimacy affecting the entire political mainstream. How that all happened is a revealing bit of history. What happens next could change the course of the global capitalist system.

23 May 2013

Value and Politics

What is "value?" People are aware and argue about "values," in the plural, all the time. Not as many are aware of the fact that value, as such, exists, and that it is actually the deep motivating dynamic of the form of society we call capitalism.

For those interested in the question of value and how it relates to concrete politics, we post the link below. It is a transcript of a panel discussion on that topic that was recently held at the 2013 Platypus International Convention in Chicago, and in which one of the writers from Permanent Crisis participated. It provides a schematic take on some of the underlying theoretical premises of this blog, and of the politics that it is trying, however fitfully, to articulate. If that sounds edifying to you, read on!


03 May 2013

Dynamic stagnation: The most dangerous game

The crisis of neoliberalism has seemingly reached an impasse. On the one hand, predictions of another global economic collapse have repeatedly been proved wrong. Every month or two, a new danger threatens to bring everything crashing down—the US government debt-limit debacle, Italian borrowing rates, the Greek elections, Spanish borrowing rates, the slumping Chinese real estate bubble, a seemingly endless series of huge banking scandals, the botched Cyprus bailout, Italian elections. Every time, the danger passes.

Yet every month also brings predictions that the next round of indicators will finally register a real turnaround in the course of the global economy, or that the next central bank intervention will get the economy going again. The real estate market has recovered! The stock market is surging! Spanish bond rates are down! China is growing! Abenomics is a success!

18 April 2013

If the left won't go global, it can’t win

I want first to rescue Callicles’s very valuable observation from the obscurity of the comments section:
[T]he experience of previous generations has shown that labor organizing repeatedly suffers from failures to update targets and strategy as the nature of the economy changes. So worker organizing becomes anachronistic and (as a result) stagnant. The flip side is that there can be transformational bursts of activity when the right target comes into view. When the UAW made the jump from plant-by-plant organizing to taking on the giant of GM in its entirety, at the national level, this was such a moment. Capital was coming to operate as a nationwide system, and needed to be confronted at that level. 
My thought is that, today, we can't make a dent in class forces in our country because class forces can no longer be confronted on the national level; taking on something like the Walmart global supply chain would then be analogous to taking on GM as a whole.
To this I would only add that the legislative and regulatory framework that provides the terrain for labor politics should be included as well. In other words, an effective progressive agenda would have to move to the global level both to directly confront corporations and to change the global rules that corporations play by.

As Callicles implies, there are some very strong and instructive parallels between the situation in which the left now finds itself and that which prevailed in the early days of the Great Depression in the United States. During the prosperous years of the Roaring Twenties, progressives had been left disoriented and demoralized by the failure of “the masses” to mobilize against the elite. The stock market crash of 1929 and deepening economic crisis after a brief false recovery opened up new possibilities both within the political elite—parts of which slowly began to question the old laissez faire doctrines—and within the population as whole, whose hopes of a prosperous future were brutally revealed to be as bankrupt as the financial system.

07 April 2013

Vision and Strategy in Globalized Supply Chains: The Case of Walmart

Following Deckard’s response to Occupy.com, this is the second in a series of posts to be featured on Permanent Crisis offering an in-depth examination of the possibilities for a new, internationally-oriented left politics. It is prompted by the conviction that some kind of internationalist stance must again become available on the left if the idea of a post-capitalist society is to cease to seem a mere chimera, and instead to once again appear as a live option to the multitudes currently being crushed beneath the weight of a global regime of austerity. It is also prompted by the sense that any purportedly radical politics, if it is to live up to its name, must realize that its defeat is already sealed so long as it ultimately remains limited, in its theory and practice, to the horizon of the nation-state. The unprecedented global reach and international mobility of capital in the post-Fordist era demands the formulation of a similarly global vision on the left that is rooted in the historical reality of the current moment, most notably in the protracted social devastation unfolding in the form of the general crisis of neoliberal capitalism.

02 April 2013

Neoliberalism is a road to climate apocalypse

The threat of climate change looms in the background of any sensible discussion of humanity's future (see some handy summaries of the outlook here and here). The grim message is this: if progressive political forces fail to deal with this problem, then nothing else we achieve will matter very much for very long.

By 2100, this is what an exceptionally good growing season could look like in the Midwest

It is absolutely imperative that we deal with climate change. It is therefore also imperative that we overcome neoliberalism. This is because the actions we need to take in order to put the brakes on climate change are incompatible with neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is therefore a road to climate apocalypse.

25 March 2013

What form should our movement take?

My friend and comrade Ed Sutton poses an interesting perspective from which to think about a global progressive movement in his article for Occupy.com. The movement isn’t coming, it’s right in front of us, he argues. If only we’d open our eyes we could see it. Although I differ in my analysis of the reasons behind the Occupy movement’s ostensible fall from prominence in the media, I think that the perspective he suggests is well worth further exploration and debate. As I take it, the central question animating Ed’s reflections on the squatting movement in Europe is, succinctly put, what form should our movement take? Through what social practices can we realize the potential for overcoming the social tensions—between plenty and want, between love for one’s neighbors and hate for strangers—exploding into popular consciousness in this moment of upheaval?

11 March 2013

Bob Dylan's factory

Bob Dylan Lays Off 2,000 Workers From Songwriting Factory

Of course, it's hilarious to think of Bob Dylan as a factory owner and manager of a songwriting brand. But I think that here humor plays its highest role of teasing out the doubts that quietly rot beneath cherished articles of faith, and by exposing and examining these doubts we can enjoy a nice insight into popular music as a commodity. The music industry is now facing a crisis that is here ironically related to deindustrialization, but the humor points to very real anxieties about contradictions within the economycontradictions that have relevance far beyond the music industry. But to begin, I will just address the first layer of irony, of Bob Dylan as a sober manager and his music as the product of an assembly line.

Music has the potential to be an exemplary commodity for the very reason that the form in which it appears in society, that is in the market, obscures the actual terms of its production. The word commodity carries with it a sense of sterility or at least banality, and through common usage connotes items like gold and oil that are extracted from the earth or crops like corn that grow from it. Commodities are impersonal and mass produced, quite the opposite of the deeply meaningful songs produced by an artist like Bob Dylan. Yet there is no Bob Dylan without the record company that promotes, assembles, distributes, and markets his songs.

02 March 2013

Towers of speculation

The construction of the world’s first one-kilometer building took a step forward last week with the announcement of a project manager. If completed, the Burj al Mamlakah (Kingdom Tower) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, would stand 170 meters taller than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the tallest building in the world by a wide margin. If you stood New York’s Chrysler Building on top of Chicago’s Sears Tower (aka Wesley Willis Tower), you would still have to add the tallest building in Boston, the Hancock Tower, to reach the planned height of the Burj al Mamlakah. If you put Shanghai’s second-tallest building, Jinmao Tower 金茂大厦, on top of the city’s tallest building, the World Financial Center 球金融中心, it would still fall about 90 meters short of the Mamlakah.

The explosion in supertall buildings seems to have barely taken a breather after the global financial crisis. While there were casualties in Dubai, Moscow, and Chicago, others have quickly stepped into the void. What will be the world’s second-tallest building (640 meters), Digital Media City Landmark Building 디지털 미디어 시티 랜드마크 빌딩, is being built in Seoul with an expected completion date in 2015. But the Ping’an International Finance Center 平安国金融中心, under construction in Shenzhen, will almost immediately eclipse it at 660 meters. The following year Seoul will reclaim the number two position with the Dream Tower 드림 타워 (665 meters). Meanwhile, proposed buildings in Baku and Kuwait would both be taller than even the Burj al Mamlakah. World One Mumbai (442 meters) will be almost 200 meters taller than India’s current tallest building; the Shard in London (310 meters) last year became the tallest building in the European Union; and Moscow’s Mercury City Tower/Меркурий Сити Тауэр (339 meters) will this year become the tallest completed building in Russia.

As if we needed any more evidence, the meteoric revival of the skyscraper boom signals that the agents of neoliberalism have changed nothing after their first brush with death. Skyscrapers are one of the most concrete expressions of the abstract movements animating a speculative society. They map the motion of capital spiraling upward into thin air, seemingly unmoored from all physical constraints. They represent the extreme inequalities of a society animated by speculation, as the ultra-rich escape from the debased masses milling about in the sprawl or the slums, into the rarefied precincts of their towers: the corporate office suites, the requisite luxury hotels, the extravagant restaurants and bars “in the sky”. The soaring verticality of the buildings mirrors the assent of the winners in this society over the losers, or the skyrocketing fortunes of the speculators.

24 February 2013

Market Socialism Continued

A few weeks ago I posted Seth Ackerman's article about market socialism. There were a few responses to Ackerman's article posted to the Jacobin blog, but none that I felt addressed the problems in his original proposal for a market socialism that retained the market as a way to correctly determine prices (particularly for capital) yet completely socialized profits. As my comrade Paul insightfully noted, Ackerman's proposal is grounded in the native tendency of the capitalist system toward "the decoupling of economic ownership and management."

But while Ackerman's market socialism may take its basic plausibility from the immanent contradictions of capitalist society, as Walker argued, the real grounds upon which the realization of this market socialism might be realized politically were never specified, leaving it as little more than an academic exercise. Perhaps more fundamentally, the question remains as to whether Ackerman's proposal earns the name of 'socialism' by fundamentally overturning the basic features of capitalism, or whether it perpetuates these features, the most important of which is wage labor. In other words, this potential form of market socialism envisions a way to reinvest society's surplus more equitably, but leaves intact the basic form of the production of that surplus.

16 February 2013

Facing the Killer: On Murderous, Suicidal Rampages in the U.S.

Sandy Hook. Columbine. Aurora. Tucson. Blacksburg. Fort Hood. The names of these places ring out in popular memory as the sites of seemingly random, heinous atrocities that seem to occur with increasing frequency these days. Gun-related violence and death is a hot-button issue at the moment, and for good reason, as the U.S. leads the advanced capitalist world in a trait that is singular in its stupidity: allowing “the market” to work its magic by disseminating, unchecked, huge numbers of guns to an extremely unequal, class-riven and deeply racist society that also worships violence, murder, and mayhem in its popular culture. In this context advocating gun control is the only sane thing to do. However, it would be a mistake to say that the U.S. just has a “gun problem,” because the U.S. has a murderous, rampaging killing-spree problem.

Let me be clear. Every day dozens of people are killed in this country, mostly minority youth and mostly in the poorest and most economically devastated neighborhoods of the major cities. This chronic social crisis only appears in the establishment press as statistics, or else as an ongoing, existential situation that can only be managed but not really addressed. Its root causes and conditions are clear and have been extensively documented. But this ongoing disaster is not the topic of this post, which is another horrendous phenomenon in which the U.S. also leads liberal societies: the individual, suicidal, heavily-armed murder frenzy that seems to be happening about once a month now, on average.

06 February 2013

The cosmopolitan imagination of neoliberalism

Regression to the nation form
Part 1 of 2
I’m glad that Paul raised the dangerous new nationalist energies starting to build in East Asia. Last year I started to lay out a historical account of the progressive potential that neoliberalism opened up to overcome the nation form, and the alarming threat to that potential posed by populist attacks on neoliberalism. I still need to come back to that general account; here I will begin to explore the growing tensions within countries that have produced the rise of nationalist politics.

25 January 2013

Eyes on East Asia

In A.D. 2013 war was beginning. Well, not exactly, or at least not yet. But things may be creeping in that direction. Amidst all the brainless yammering about the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the hoopla of the Presidential inauguration, the emergence and bloody resolution of the Algerian hostage crisis, and French neo-colonial adventures in North Africa, the escalating geopolitical tension in Southeast Asia has receded into the background of the news cycle. That will probably change in due time, though. With old, nationalist hatreds flaring up and a global economic outlook that is anything but rosy, there is reason to believe that the situation may soon reach a boiling point. In the succinct words of China's own, inimitable Global Times, “Peace Will Be a Miracle if Provocation Lasts.

21 January 2013

Why Obama is so disappointing

Krugman’s column today patiently explains to the skeptics on the left that Obama’s first term was actually (invoking Joe Biden) “a big fucking deal”. But Krugman only betrays the fundamentally static conception of the world that lurks behind his analysis. (This is also the problem with his critique of Stiglitz’s argument for the role of inequality in continuing economic stagnation, and the source of his failure to connect the dots between capital’s growing share of income at labor’s expense and the dysfunctions in the economy, as well as for his far too sanguine view on the prospects of a near-term return to economic health.)

For Krugman, the baseline “normal” for our society is a growing neoliberal economy. When things go wrong, it’s because of policy mistakes: the failure of the Fed to reign in the real estate bubble in the mid-oughts, inadequate regulation of finance, not enough stimulus to put things back on the right track after the crash of 2008. There’s a sort of natural equilibrium of the economy that’s just waiting to be brought into being by the right kind of macroeconomic management. Other realms of society, like cultural trends and popular ideologies, are unrelated to the neoliberal economy, whether functioning normally or not — like any mainstream economist, subjectivity lies beyond the scope of Krugman’s models.

From this assumption, Obama’s first term has been a pretty big deal. Health reform, which had been impossible for decades, was passed. Tax changes will reduce the incomes of the top one percent of earners by 6 percent, and 9 percent for the top one-tenth of the top one percent. A reregulation of the financial industry inconceivable less than a decade ago is now being implemented. To Krugman’s list we could add the consolidation of acceptance for gay rights, the end of the war in Iraq, the successful avoidance of a complete collapse in 2008-2009.

17 January 2013

Scuffle in the market

There is a debate about market socialism happening on the Jacobin site. It began with Seth Ackerman’s article that briefly lays out the evolution of market socialism in the Eastern Bloc countries, considers the success of central planning in setting prices, and ends by endorsing a socialized capital market. John Quiggin replied to Ackerman by addressing some of the limitations of Ackerman’s proposal, particularly in regard to the feasibility of such ideas in the current political climate. This isn’t meant to be an adequate summary of the ideas, so please read them for yourself!

It’s very heartening that a discussion like this is happening at all. The neoliberal era has been plagued by an intellectual atmosphere that was ably characterized by Margaret Thatcher in her slogan “there is no alternative.” But I think that there are also important problems in how both Ackerman and Quiggin have approached the question of a socialist economy. Rather than provide an in depth review of these articles, I’d like to present this as an opportunity for discussion. To get things going, I’ll start with a few observations:

  • Ackerman places little weight on defining capitalism, simply starting “from the common socialist assumption that capitalism’s central defects arise from the conflict between the pursuit of private profit and the satisfaction of human needs.” But it would be just as relevant, arguably far more so, to start from the assumption that the central contradiction of capitalism is between ever increasing productivity on one hand and the continuing necessity of human labor, on the other. What are the implications of Ackerman’s assumption?
  • Quiggin’s reply is helpful in that he raises the current political context as a necessary factor in evaluating what kind of society we can and should be fighting to create. But despite his sensitivity to political issues, Quiggin argues for reforms that hardly seem radical, and may actually be reactionary. Breaking up the big banks, for example, would merely substitute of the tyranny of the market for that of Big Finance, making the industry harder to regulate and forestalling the use of finance for badly needed investment to mitigate environmental destruction and encourage development in poor countries. However, it is worth mentioning that Quiggin has also presented much more interesting ideas elsewhere.
  • To what extent is the debate that we need to be having economic, and to what extent should it be critical of the categories in which economics as a discipline grasp the world? It seems to me that Ackerman and Quiggan for the most part take the meanings of these terms, such as profit, to be self evident, even if they find the operation of profit to have some negative outcomes. And how can we bring such a critical perspective to bear on a practical left politics?
  • It’s interesting that both authors feel the need to raise participatory economics and then to quickly dismiss it as a desirable economic system with little elaboration. Whether or not they are correct, it might be enlightening to have a fuller account of its merits and flaws.
With those points raised, please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts.

08 January 2013

Labor Roundup: The Strike in an Age of Austerity, part I

Permanent Crisis has featured some excellent discussion on the relations between concrete social mobilizations and the potential for the development of radical or critical forms of consciousness (e.g., here and here). This post is an initial contribution to that line of analysis, and takes as its object the evolving nature of the strike both as a social phenomenon and as a specific tactic. I focus here mainly on the recent return of old-school strike tactics and union militancy; future posts will first address the role of the strike in the radicalization of existing unions (e.g., CORE and the Chicago Teachers Union), and then the strange things that happened under the aegis of the “general strike” during the Occupy mobilizations (see here).

As has been extensively documented on this blog and elsewhere, the massive financial collapse that hit the core of the capitalist global economy in the autumn of 2008 kicked off what could turn out to be the terminal crisis of neoliberalism. The intervening four years between then and now has seen the gradual onset of a deep recession of global scope, forcing people all over the world to endure prolonged unemployment, slashed wages, the scaling back or elimination of vital public services, and, in the United States, the renewal of a deeply reactionary, nationally coordinated program to destroy the last ramparts of organized labor through an attack on public employees. Thus far, all the major political parties of the European Union, as well as the Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S., have marched in lockstep in their support for and imposition of these draconian economic measures, which they see as necessary for propping up an economic system that is clearly failing. The broad bipartisan support for these programs across the board, along with a still relatively scarce supply of credit – the main vehicle of economic growth under neoliberalism – suggests that the “austerity state” is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

05 January 2013

Casting off the supply chains

On November 24 more than one hundred people were burned alive in the Tazreen garment factory fire in Bangladesh. This was not a tragedy but a crime. The factory did not meet safety standards, and there are reports that managers ordered workers to return to work when alarms were first heard so as not to lose money. It is known that the factory was producing clothing for Walmart and that Walmart had shortly before blocked a move to improve safety in Bangladeshi factories on the grounds of cost. Meanwhile the factory owners have offered compensation to the families of the killed workers at $1,230. Bangladeshi workers have responded with rallies and demands for improvements in safety and compensation in the industry.

Those responsible will of course deny that this is a crime. The factory owners have invoked the strictures of global competition and a lack of state support to justify their inability to maintain a safe workplace. Walmart has distanced itself from the factory, which was merely an outlier with poor management. They claim that a supplier was sending work there against the company’s directions, despite the fact that Walmart’s extensive knowledge, coordination, and influence over its global supply system is well known.

These positions are united in claiming that the fire was a tragedy after all, the result of personal irresponsibility or ‘bad apple’ factory owners who don’t live up to otherwise high standards for production. In doing so, they deny or obscure the fact that the global production system is just that, a unified system that has already embraced all workers and consumers into a semi-rational whole designed to create growth. It seems obvious that this is so, that for hundreds of years the fortunes of workers have been tied to the fluctuations of global markets whose effects national governments could only moderate but could never control. But it is also true that this global system embraces not just the factories operating within legal requirements but all of the various ways in which labor is sweated and money is turned into profit rather than investments in safety. It is a system that in the course of its normal functioning courts the mass death of workers and assigns a dollar figure to their lives.

So how has the movement against Walmart in the US reacted to the factory fire in Bangladesh? This question has a profound importance not only for the direction of labor struggles across the globe, but also our collective capacity to establish standards of acceptable ways for humans to live and work. The situation is ambiguous, with both progressive and regressive possibilities.