Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 19, 2014

Pat Buchanan: Is Putin one of us?

Filed under: conservatism,Russia — louisproyect @ 7:27 pm

Is Putin One of Us?

Tuesday – December 17, 2013 at 1:37 am

By Patrick J. Buchanan

Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative?

In the culture war for mankind’s future, is he one of us?

While such a question may be blasphemous in Western circles, consider the content of the Russian president’s state of the nation address.

With America clearly in mind, Putin declared, “In many countries today, moral and ethical norms are being reconsidered.”

“They’re now requiring not only the proper acknowledgment of freedom of conscience, political views and private life, but also the mandatory acknowledgment of the equality of good and evil.”

Translation: While privacy and freedom of thought, religion and speech are cherished rights, to equate traditional marriage and same-sex marriage is to equate good with evil.

No moral confusion here, this is moral clarity, agree or disagree.

President Reagan once called the old Soviet Empire “the focus of evil in the modern world.” President Putin is implying that Barack Obama’s America may deserve the title in the 21st century.

Nor is he without an argument when we reflect on America’s embrace of abortion on demand, homosexual marriage, pornography, promiscuity, and the whole panoply of Hollywood values.

Our grandparents would not recognize the America in which we live.

Moreover, Putin asserts, the new immorality has been imposed undemocratically.

The “destruction of traditional values” in these countries, he said, comes “from the top” and is “inherently undemocratic because it is based on abstract ideas and runs counter to the will of the majority of people.”

Does he not have a point?

full article: http://buchanan.org/blog/putin-one-us-6071

October 10, 2013

When the puppet talks back to the puppeteer

Filed under: conservatism,economics,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm

The puppet becomes the master in a classic Twilight Zone episode

Today’s NY Times raises some interesting questions about the connections or lack thereof between the big bourgeoisie (pardon me for a little Marxist jargon) and the Tea Party faction of the House of Representatives that has thrown the government into a crisis. Despite the reputation of the Tea Party for being free market fundamentalists, the masters of the marketplace find them rather inconvenient:

As the government shutdown grinds toward a potential debt default, some of the country’s most influential business executives have come to a conclusion all but unthinkable a few years ago: Their voices are carrying little weight with the House majority that their millions of dollars in campaign contributions helped build and sustain.

Their frustration has grown so intense in recent days that several trade association officials warned in interviews on Wednesday that they were considering helping wage primary campaigns against Republican lawmakers who had worked to engineer the political standoff in Washington.

Such an effort would thrust Washington’s traditionally cautious and pragmatic business lobby into open warfare with the Tea Party faction, which has grown in influence since the 2010 election and won a series of skirmishes with the Republican establishment in the last two years.

“We are looking at ways to counter the rise of an ideological brand of conservatism that, for lack of a better word, is more anti-establishment than it has been in the past,” said David French, the top lobbyist at the National Retail Federation. “We have come to the conclusion that sitting on the sidelines is not good enough.”

I probably listen to a lot more AM rightwing talk radio shows than the average socialist. Recently I discovered that there’s now a Fox radio station in NY at 970 on the dial that competes with WABC, the home of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. At 10pm there’s a Christian fundamentalist named Steve Deace who broadcasts for Fox radio out of Des Moines, Iowa. His motto is “Fear God. Tell the Truth. Make Money.” I can barely listen to him (or any of these characters) for more than 10 minutes but it helps me take the pulse of the ultraright.

Deace is fond of using the word “ruling class”, a term that he obviously knows was coined by the revolutionary movement. He uses it primarily to refer to the Republican Party establishment such as in this Politico article:

Not since Reagan has a nonestablishment presidential candidate had the comprehensive worldview and charisma capable of coalescing enough of the conservative/libertarian base to defeat the Republican ruling class in a national primary.

For Deace, the views of Hannity and Limbaugh are within “ruling class” parameters. On Town Hall, he blasted Bill O’Reilly as well:

From reporting inaccuracies on gun control, to no longer defending marriage, O’Reilly is now scoring goals for the other team. Similar sellouts and flip-flops aren’t news when they come from politicians. But given how O’Reilly has branded himself as the man with the moral high ground inside the “no spin zone,” it definitely has the potential to damage him much more. Nobody, right or left, likes a hypocrite. O’Reilly is now “evolving” so fast it would even give presidential candidates from Massachusetts ideological whiplash.

Clearly, the Tea Party right is on some kind of collision path with the establishment Right even though they share a common agenda against the left, working people, gays, and anybody who does not believe that Adam and Eve commingled with the Brontosaurus.

Before presenting my own views on what is going on here, I’d like to refer you to some noteworthy attempts by the left to explain the roots and dynamics of the Tea Party.

Doug Henwood was interviewed by Salon.com’s Josh Eidelson who asked: “You’ll hear some conservatives argue that the Tea Party represents a different politics, less “pro-business” than the GOP we knew – instead, consistently committed to “limited government” in ways that can be counter to business interests. To what extent is that just spin, or a real divide?” Doug replied:

It’s a kind of regional and inter-class battle. I think, to use the Marxist language, [the Tea Partyers] represent an enraged provincial petit bourgeois that feel that they are seeing society change in ways that they don’t like. They look at things like Obamacare and see that as a way of subsidizing a minority electoral bloc that will push the government in ways that they don’t like. These are the small-town worthies, like the local car dealers — people who are millionaires, but not billionaires. They are big wheels in their local communities, but not on a national level. And then you have ideological right-wingers like the Koch brothers who use these folks very effectively.

I would also refer you to Tim Horras, a founder of the Philly Socialists, who wrote a piece titled “Slouching Towards Shutdown: Left Reflections on the Tea Party, Then & Now” for the North Star website. Like Doug, Tim views the Tea Party as autonomous from what Deace calls “the ruling class”:

[T]he Tea Party was not an astroturf operation, but rather a legitimate social movement with a large mass base of support, 2) the mainstream Republican Party agenda was actually very different from the Tea Party agenda, 3) the capitalist class wouldn’t necessarily be in control of the Tea Party, like the sorcerer conjuring up forces they are incapable of controlling, 4) economic recovery was not going to happen, therefore extremism would continue to rise, and, (not mentioned in the passage quoted above), 5) key political conflicts would be centered around debt and default.

While some analysts like Michael Lind regard the Tea Party movement as an expression of Southern White racism, there are signs that it has powerful roots in the North as well. For example, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker went on the offensive against organized labor with backing from the Koch brothers and Ohio is the site of some of the most stringent anti-abortion laws in the country. Thirty years ago both Wisconsin and Ohio were considered strongholds of liberal Democratic power. What has happened?

I strongly agree with Doug’s assessment of it being the expression of an enraged petty-bourgeoisie but would differ on whether it is “provincial” (Doug cites Michael Lind favorably in the interview.) The big question, however, is what would make them so enraged? Does a millionaire car dealer in Mississippi really feel that Obamacare is an existential threat? I am not raising this question in a polemical fashion but only to demonstrate that I am not really sure.

The one thing I am relatively sure about is that the Tea Party flourishes in an environment where the Democratic Party lacks any kind of populist zeal. Obama is the perfect symbol of the kind of Eastern elitism that becomes a red flag in the face of the typical Tea Party activist. His connections to Wall Street, his Ivy League law degree, and primarily his condescending attitude to dwellers in “small towns in Pennsylvania and… small towns in the Midwest” who bitterly cling to guns or religion because of job loss, make him an easy target. Basically, Obama has generated the kind of blind hatred found in George Wallace’s 1968 campaign. Wallace ran as the candidate of the American Independent Party, a forerunner of the Tea Party in many ways. Wallace went around saying, “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrat and Republican parties,” a virtual echo of Steve Deace’s complaint.

Middle class fury erupts on a fairly regular basis like Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park but most of all in periods of economic crisis. Perhaps the first examination of this phenomenon was Karl Marx’s “18th Brumaire” that tried to explain how Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew, could rule on behalf of the big bourgeoisie while assaulting it both verbally and through actions inimical to its interests. Marx wrote:

As the executive authority which has made itself independent, Bonaparte feels it to be his task to safeguard “bourgeois order.” But the strength of this bourgeois order lies in the middle class. He poses, therefore, as the representative of the middle class and issues decrees in this sense. Nevertheless, he is somebody solely because he has broken the power of that middle class, and keeps on breaking it daily.

You will, of course, note how Marx is focused on the contradictions of Bonaparte’s rule. A government committed to the “bourgeois order” carries out policies that violate the wishes of the very class on whose behalf it rules, drawing upon the power of a middle-class that has become alienated by the very order that makes it insecure. This is the same pattern that existed in fascist Italy, Germany and Spain but to a degree never seen before.

Throughout its existence as a class, the bourgeoisie has often relied on the middle class to impose its will even if there are appearances that a “new order” has prevailed. Marx’s article was the origin of the term Bonapartism, a useful way of looking at political figures who appear to rule above and beyond the major social classes while cultivating the impression that it rests on the will of the “people”. Juan Peron was an example of left-Bonapartism while DeGaulle was an example of right-Bonapartism.

While France never became fascist in the 1930s, the threat certainly existed. Trotsky was determined to warn the left about such a possibility in “Whither France”, a work that I hold in the highest regard. I might not be a Trotskyist in terms of the party-building methodology but his analysis of the class struggle will remain valuable as long as there are classes. Trotsky described the ruling Radical Party in 1934 as temporizing in the face of capitalist crisis. Despite the party’s name, it had more in common with the Democratic Party in the USA. Its refusal to act decisively led the middle-class to lean toward the fascists who at least gave the impression that they meant business. Trotsky wrote:

The petty bourgeoisie, the ruined masses of city and country, begins to lose patience. It assumes an attitude more and more hostile towards its own upper stratum. It becomes convinced of the bankruptcy and the perfidy of its political leadership. The poor peasant, the artisan, the petty merchant become convinced that an abyss separates them from all these mayors, all these lawyers and political businessmen of the type of Herriot, Daladier, Chautemps and Co., [Radical Party leaders] who by their mode of life and their conceptions are big bourgeois. It is precisely this disillusionment of the petty bourgeoisie, its impatience, its despair, that Fascism exploits. Its agitators stigmatize and execrate the parliamentary democracy which supports careerists and grafters but gives nothing to the toilers. These demagogues shake their fists at the bankers, the big merchants and the capitalists.

I should make it clear, however, that the Tea Party is not a fascist threat. Fortunately (or unfortunately in another sense) there is no threat because there is no working class radicalism to speak of. Unlike the 1930s, the “Great Recession” has produced no mass leftwing movement in the USA. There are a number of reasons for this but suffice it to say that the existence of various safety nets make survival easier, even though those protections might be hollowed out or abolished in a period of even deeper crisis.

Tim Horras got it right. In his article he urged the need for militant mass action:

If the Left can successfully organize a genuine pole of attraction in the coming years, I remain convinced that poor and working class Americans will have the wherewithal to beat back the “rough beast” of reaction, press on towards social democracy, and finally arrive at a more fair and just society: the cooperative commonwealth.

We should never forget that during the Occupy Wall Street movement, there was hardly a peep about the Tea Party. When the left is on the offensive, the right tends to back down. For that matter, there is not much in the way of rallies by the Tea Party today. As a movement, it is manifested more by press conferences by politicians like Ted Cruz than those menacing gatherings that saw men toting semiautomatic weapons.

The conditions that created Occupy will be with us for the foreseeable future. There’s a tendency for some to view the current phase as one of post-crisis since reports about an uptick in employment and home sales occur daily in the newspapers, radio and television. At least one bourgeois economist warns about expecting prosperity around the corner, however. In an op-ed piece in the NY Times titled “When Wealth Disappears”, Stephen King warns about the horrors that await us. Unlike the novelist, this King’s fears are centered on economic stagnation rather than vampires or werewolves.

NY Times Op-Ed October 6, 2013
When Wealth Disappears
By STEPHEN D. KING

LONDON — AS bad as things in Washington are — the federal government shutdown since Tuesday, the slim but real potential for a debt default, a political system that seems increasingly ungovernable — they are going to get much worse, for the United States and other advanced economies, in the years ahead.

From the end of World War II to the brief interlude of prosperity after the cold war, politicians could console themselves with the thought that rapid economic growth would eventually rescue them from short-term fiscal transgressions. The miracle of rising living standards encouraged rich countries increasingly to live beyond their means, happy in the belief that healthy returns on their real estate and investment portfolios would let them pay off debts, educate their children and pay for their medical care and retirement. This was, it seemed, the postwar generations’ collective destiny.

But the numbers no longer add up. Even before the Great Recession, rich countries were seeing their tax revenues weaken, social expenditures rise, government debts accumulate and creditors fret thanks to lower economic growth rates.

We are reaching end times for Western affluence. Between 2000 and 2007, ahead of the Great Recession, the United States economy grew at a meager average of about 2.4 percent a year — a full percentage point below the 3.4 percent average of the 1980s and 1990s. From 2007 to 2012, annual growth amounted to just 0.8 percent. In Europe, as is well known, the situation is even worse. Both sides of the North Atlantic have already succumbed to a Japan-style “lost decade.”

Surely this is only an extended cyclical dip, some policy makers say. Champions of stimulus assert that another huge round of public spending or monetary easing — maybe even a commitment to higher inflation and government borrowing — will jump-start the engine. Proponents of austerity argue that only indiscriminate deficit reduction, accompanied by reforming entitlement programs and slashing regulations, will unleash the “animal spirits” necessary for a private-sector renaissance.

Both sides are wrong. It’s now abundantly clear that forecasters have been too optimistic, boldly projecting rates of growth that have failed to transpire.

The White House and Congress, unable to reach agreement in the face of a fiscal black hole, have turned over the economic repair job to the Federal Reserve, which has bought trillions of dollars in securities to keep interest rates low. That has propped up the stock market but left many working Americans no better off. Growth remains lackluster.

The end of the golden age cannot be explained by some technological reversal. From iPad apps to shale gas, technology continues to advance. The underlying reason for the stagnation is that a half-century of remarkable one-off developments in the industrialized world will not be repeated.

First was the unleashing of global trade, after a period of protectionism and isolationism between the world wars, enabling manufacturing to take off across Western Europe, North America and East Asia. A boom that great is unlikely to be repeated in advanced economies.

Second, financial innovations that first appeared in the 1920s, notably consumer credit, spread in the postwar decades. Post-crisis, the pace of such borrowing is muted, and likely to stay that way.

Third, social safety nets became widespread, reducing the need for households to save for unforeseen emergencies. Those nets are fraying now, meaning that consumers will have to save more for ever longer periods of retirement.

Fourth, reduced discrimination flooded the labor market with the pent-up human capital of women. Women now make up a majority of the American labor force; that proportion can rise only a little bit more, if at all.

Finally, the quality of education improved: in 1950, only 15 percent of American men and 4 percent of American women between ages 20 and 24 were enrolled in college. The proportions for both sexes are now over 30 percent, but with graduates no longer guaranteed substantial wage increases, the costs of education may come to outweigh the benefits.

These five factors induced, if not complacency, an assumption that economies could expand forever.

Adam Smith discerned this back in 1776 in his “Wealth of Nations”: “It is in the progressive state, while the society is advancing to the further acquisition, rather than when it has acquired its full complement of riches, that the condition of the labouring poor, of the great body of the people, seems to be the happiest and the most comfortable. It is hard in the stationary, and miserable in the declining state.”

The decades before the French Revolution saw an extraordinary increase in living standards (alongside a huge increase in government debt). But in the late 1780s, bad weather led to failed harvests and much higher food prices. Rising expectations could no longer be met. We all know what happened next.

When the money runs out, a rising state, which Smith described as “cheerful,” gives way to a declining, “melancholy” one: promises can no longer be met, mistrust spreads and markets malfunction. Today, that’s particularly true for societies where income inequality is high and where the current generation has, in effect, borrowed from future ones.

In the face of stagnation, reform is essential. The euro zone is unlikely to survive without the creation of a legitimate fiscal and banking union to match the growing political union. But even if that happens, Southern Europe’s sky-high debts will be largely indigestible. Will Angela Merkel’s Germany accept a one-off debt restructuring that would impose losses on Northern European creditors and taxpayers but preserve the euro zone? The alternatives — disorderly defaults, higher inflation, a breakup of the common currency, the dismantling of the postwar political project — seem worse.

In the United States, which ostensibly has the right institutions (if not the political will) to deal with its economic problems, a potentially explosive fiscal situation could be resolved through scurrilous means, but only by threatening global financial and economic instability. Interest rates can be held lower than the inflation rate, as the Fed has done. Or the government could devalue the dollar, thereby hitting Asian and Arab creditors. Such “default by stealth,” however, might threaten a crisis of confidence in the dollar, wiping away the purchasing-power benefits Americans get from the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.

Not knowing who, ultimately, will lose as a consequence of our past excesses helps explain America’s current strife. This is not an argument for immediate and painful austerity, which isn’t working in Europe. It is, instead, a plea for economic honesty, to recognize that promises made during good times can no longer be easily kept.

That means a higher retirement age, more immigration to increase the working-age population, less borrowing from abroad, less reliance on monetary policy that creates unsustainable financial bubbles, a new social compact that doesn’t cannibalize the young to feed the boomers, a tougher stance toward banks, a further opening of world trade and, over the medium term, a commitment to sustained deficit reduction.

In his “Future of an Illusion,” Sigmund Freud argued that the faithful clung to God’s existence in the absence of evidence because the alternative — an empty void — was so much worse. Modern beliefs about economic prospects are not so different. Policy makers simply pray for a strong recovery. They opt for the illusion because the reality is too bleak to bear. But as the current fiscal crisis demonstrates, facing the pain will not be easy. And the waking up from our collective illusions has barely begun.

Stephen D. King, chief economist at HSBC, is the author of “When the Money Runs Out: The End of Western Affluence.”

October 3, 2012

The Strange Career of Eugene Genovese

Filed under: American civil war,conservatism,racism,transition debate — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

Eugene Genovese, who died last week, was one of only two major Marxist academics prominent in the 1960s to become a reactionary ideologue. The other was Ronald Radosh, who has opined in recent years that it was all for the best that fascism triumphed in Spain. For his part, Genovese became infamous for becoming a reactionary in the mold of the “Southern Agrarians” of the 1930s, a group of poets and novelists that included Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom.

Scott McLemee, a long-time observer of the peregrinations of the academic left, wrote a review of Radosh’s memoir “Commies” that got under his skin. An excerpt should explain why:

In the 1970s, Radosh had made an uneasy alliance with socialist intellectuals such as Irving Howe and Michael Harrington — former protégés of Max Shachtman, men quite capable of holding their own in a political argument. (The Marxist god of History had given them that, mainly, to do.) They saw the radical project in America as a matter of pushing liberal democracy as hard as possible rather than replacing it with some streamlined authoritarian regime. This circle had no illusions about the innocence of the Rosenbergs. But from Commies it is clear that they always harbored serious misgivings about Radosh himself. No doubt they suspected that habits of thought cultivated while rationalizing brutal regimes of one sort are really very helpful when one shifts allegiance to thugs of a different political complexion.

If so, their misgivings were borne out. Radosh soon became a champion of the terrorist Contras in Nicaragua, cheering them as a genuine army of the people. More recently, in the course of research on the Spanish Civil War, he has discovered the virtues of General Franco — a fascist dictator, yes, but at least no communist.

At this point, it would be routine to cite the Cold War anthology The God That Failed (1950) — perhaps with a sneer, which is the preferred attitude toward the book adopted by soi-disant leftists who have never actually read it. But there is really very little resemblance between Commies and the essays of ex-communists such as Arthur Koestler or Richard Wright. Something is missing: the element of soul-searching.

Nothing in Radosh’s memoir conveys the painful ordeal of disillusionment, in the strong sense: an ordeal, a crisis in which one faces not only the morally repulsive consequences of beliefs and actions but also the qualities of willful self-deception and ideologically compulsory blindness that have sustained one’s previous commitments.

Instead, we get a chronicle of complaints and alibis. It is a commonplace that leftist dogma can be a way to avoid unpleasant realities about oneself. Commies makes a pioneering and rather daring use of right-wing rhetoric for the same end. When Radosh’s first (and by his own account quite miserable) marriage finally disintegrates, this is because his wife was influenced by the women’s movement. A few pages later, he finds himself having sex with an alcoholic girlfriend on top of Mount Rushmore. “I now don’t understand why or even how I did such things,” he writes. “Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of too much marijuana.” So much for personal responsibility. It was all the Zeitgeist’s fault.

Given his combination of erudition and mocking condescension, one might only hope that McLemee might be inspired to say something about Genovese’s passing. Yes, sports fans, it is all there in the latest edition of Inside Higher Education, where our intrepid public intellectual has at it:

As for the term “renegade,” well… The author of the most influential body of Marxist historiography in the United States from the past half-century turned into one more curmudgeon denouncing “the race, class, gender swindle.” And at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee, no less. The scholar who did path-breaking work on the political culture of the antebellum South — developing a Gramscian analysis of how slaves and masters understood one another, at a time when Gramsci himself was little more than an intriguing rumor within the American left – ended up referring to the events of 1861-65 as “the War of Southern Independence.”

Harsher words might apply, but “renegade” will do.

A couple of professor emerituses (emeriti?) on the Marxism list who remain renegades from capitalism and who were familiar with Genovese from the good old days weighed in shortly after his death was announced. Michael A. Lebowitz, who was editor of “Studies on the Left” from 1961 to 1965, said:

I thought he died a long time ago. He started out quite differently politically than he ended up. He was an editor of Science & Society, Studies on the Left, and the editor [I don't recall his nom de guerre] of the Marxist-Leninist Quarterly, the short-lived theoretical journal of Progressive Labor. He was a Marxist at that time [although one with a curious respect for the aristocracy], thought the university was the vehicle for the revolution and thus was horrified at the actions of students at Sir George Williams [now part of Concordia University in Montreal] against racism, denounced them and never looked back on his march to the right.

This led Jesse Lemisch, another veteran of left academia, to contribute this addendum: “Gene’s remark on the West Indian students at Sir George: ‘every once in a while some grit gets into the machine of the left, and must be wiped out.’”

I had more than a casual interest in Eugene Genovese since he was seen as one of the primary exponents of the view that slavery was not a capitalist institution, an analysis that Charles Post took great pains to distinguish himself from when he began applying the Brenner thesis to the civil war. For those of you who have not been following the academic left, the Brenner thesis falls within the purview of what has been called “the transition debate”, something that had its origins in a series of exchanges between Maurice Dobb and Paul Sweezy in the 1950s. It revolves around the question of how feudalism gave way to capitalism, with those in the Sweezy tradition arguing that slavery belongs to the capitalist stage because of its role in commodity production.

Genovese had some debates around the nature of slavery but not with Brennerites, to my knowledge. Mostly he was anxious to refute the findings of Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel, the authors of “Time on the Cross”, a book that made the case that slavery was capitalist but not from a Marxist standpoint. Mostly Engerman and Fogel looked at the plantation in terms of how it matched up against the factory system of the north using conventional microeconomics. Oddly enough, they concluded that the slaves had it better off than the factory workers, dovetailing with Genovese’s paternalistic take on master-slave relations despite their theoretical differences.

In a multi-part critique of Charles Post’s writings on the civil war that I wrote 9 years ago, I started with a discussion of the Genovese/Engerman-Fogel debate that in large part is reproduced below:

Post’s article also implicitly poses the question whether the Civil War was a “bourgeois revolution”. Although a staple of Marxist theory, this notion has been challenged in recent years by “revisionist” historians, including Francois Furet, who found evidence of powerful affinities between the gentry and the bourgeoisie in the French revolution. George Comninel, a Socialist Register editor, was convinced sufficiently by their findings to synthesize them with a Marxist interpretation in “Rethinking the French Revolution”. Although he worries that these new findings might undermine fundamental Marxist precepts about the bourgeois-democratic revolution, I am convinced that Marx himself was drawing away from them as early as 1852 when he observed the failure of the German bourgeoisie to take a resolute stand against the Junkers planter-aristocracy. I will foreshadow the conclusion of these series of posts by stating now that the same exact analysis can be applied to the American Civil War and its aftermath.

Turning now to Post’s article, we learn that it is focused on “economic development” and more particularly whether slavery hindered or fostered such a thing. I view this as a undialectical approach, especially if it is seen as dealing with an essentially “Southern” problem. One of the major weaknesses of the Brenner thesis is its refusal to see capitalism as a system that crosses national or even sectional boundaries. If it is seen as a “mode of production” applied exclusively to a regional or national economy, then it will always produce the expected self-vindicating results. In other words, there was capitalism in New England but none in Mississippi; or, in Great Britain but not in Jamaica. However, if one sees these various forms of exploitation as distinct but interrelated links in a great chain, then the contradiction is resolved.

Post considers two of the most prominent approaches to the slavery question within this framework and finds them lacking in comparison to the Brenner thesis, which prioritizes “class relations”. The first approach views the Southern plantation as an essentially capitalist phenomenon. The work most identified in the scholarly world with this approach is Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s “Time on the Cross”, a ‘cliometric’ attempt to demonstrate the dynamism and profitability of the slave system. The second approach is embodied in the writings of Eugene Genovese who defended the thesis that the Southern planters were a precapitalist class that had much in common with their wasteful and extravagant feudal counterparts in Europe centuries earlier.

For Post, the major flaw of Engerman-Fogel is that it fails to conform to Marxist theories on surplus value extraction–no surprise given the bourgeois microeconomic orientation of the authors. (Fogel, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, shared a CPUSA past with Genovese. He was editor of a party journal titled “New Foundations” that was published in the 1950s. Eventually both would break with Marxism, Fogel adopting neoclassical economics of the sort that was prevalent at the University of Chicago, where he taught. Genovese today is an outspoken reactionary. It appears that in the course of writing about the Southern bourbons, he became enamored of their traditional values. Of course, between the anti-capitalism of a Southern planter and that of the Communist Party there is a vast gulf.)

Post writes:

A careful examination of Fogel and Engerman and other proponents of the ‘planter capitalist’ model’s description of the plantation labour process actually contradicts their claim that the planters responded to competitive market imperatives in the same way as capitalists. The labour process under slavery was organized to maximize the use of human labour in large, coordinated groups under the continual supervision of masters, overseers and drivers. As we shall see, the tools slaves used were simple and virtually unchanged. Even with a detailed division of tasks in planting and cultivation, such a labour process left the masters few options to increase output per slave. Planters could either increase the pace of work through punishments or rewards, increase the amount of acreage each slave or slave-gang cultivated, increase the number of slaves working by tapping the capacities to work of female and juvenile slaves, or move the plantation to more fertile soil.

In the section on Genovese, we discover that his model of slavery “derived from Weber” and that it prevented him from “developing a consistent explanation of how slavery’s social property relations block relatively continuous labour-saving technical change.” I, for one, was rather surprised to see Genovese described in such terms because he described himself as strongly influenced by Maurice Dobb in “The World the Slaveholders Made”. There Genovese makes the case for “seigneuralism”, a term that was meant to capture the archaic character of the Southern plantation system but that relieved him from proving that this super-exploitative, commodity-producing system was “feudal”, a static system based on the creation of use-values. He writes:

Capitalism is here defined as the mode of production characterized by wage labor and the separation of the labor force from the means of production–that is, as the mode of production in which labor power itself has become a commodity… Dobb, in Studies in the Development of Capitalism, has brilliantly demonstrated the value of these definitions, and we need not pursue the matter here beyond one point of special relevance to the question of slavery. The great value of this viewpoint lies in its focus on human relationships inherent in labor systems. As such, it should be understood to transcend mere economic categories and to define each mode of production as a social rather than as a narrowly economic system.

For all of the seeming polarities between Engerman-Fogel and Genovese, there were underlying affinities that Post ignores. I would suggest that these affinities are symptomatic of an underlying malaise in a scholarship that focuses on the ruling class, whether it is ‘seigneurial’ or capitalist.

The first evidence of such an affinity is a 1975 collection titled “Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere” that was co-edited by Engerman and Genovese and that contained presentations given at the U. of Rochester in 1972 co-organized by the two professors. This is not just a question of genial scholarly cooperation in a joint project involving disparate interpretations. In Genovese’s concluding remarks to the conference, he leaves open the possibility that his own interpretation could “absorb” the work of Engerman-Fogel despite some reservations about their data on profitability.

Indeed, by 1983 Stanley Engerman and Eugene Genovese found themselves co-authoring a commentary on an article dealing with Brazilian slavery in “The Hispanic American Historical Review”. Apparently, the absorption process alluded to in 1972 had been consummated.

Their piece has all the familiar earmarks of their prior work. In examining the slave economy of Minas Gerais in late 18th century Brazil, they pose coldly clinical questions such as “What was the size of the units on which slaves worked”; “What would the price schedule of slaves looked like if Brazilian slavery had had the characteristics of Minas Gerais”, etc. In answering these questions, Engerman and Genovese allege that economic “subsystems” such as slavery can crop up in isolation from the market sector. If there were differences between the two by the early 1980s, none can be discerned in this article.

I now want to turn my attention to an aspect of Engerman-Fogel and Genovese that is ignored in Post’s article: the implicit racism of their analysis. While it is understandable that he needed to focus on the question of “economic development” for the purpose of his argument, it is in the interest of Marxist scholarship to give a full reckoning of their work, which transcends questions of the viability of slavery as a mode of production. Furthermore, my purpose in writing these articles is to address the broader intersections of race and class in American society.

(In the course of doing some background research, I was struck by the almost universal interest among Marxists on the topics of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction no matter their time and place. It is almost incumbent on any serious Marxist thinker to come to terms with both the left-academic scholarship and the writings of party activists such as Lenin, Peter Camejo, George Novack, Max Shachtman and others.)

Both Engerman-Fogel and Genovese tend to see a kind of paternalism at work in the slave-owning class. For Genovese, the paternalism is a function of ‘seigneurial’ values based on noblesse oblige. For Engerman-Fogel, the paternalism is based on the kind of enlightened “personnel relations” found in modern corporations like “Ma Bell” in the 1930s, when protection against layoffs and provisions for cheap lunches were the norm. In other words, take care of your workers and they’ll take care of you. As Genovese put it in his concluding remarks to the Rochester conference, “Professor Fogel and Engerman describe it [slavery] as a capitalist society modified by paternalism.” One then might characterize Genovese’s view of the system as seigneurial paternalism modified by capitalism.

When Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s “Time on the Cross” appeared, it was accompanied by the kind of publicity blitz enjoyed by Hardt-Negri’s “Empire”. With its full panoply of computer-generated tables and graphs, it preened itself as a scholarly work taking full advantage of the technological revolution then unfolding. (The source for this and the material that follows can be found in Charles Crowe’s “Time on the Cross: The Historical Monograph as a Pop Event”, which appeared in “The History Teacher” in August 1976.)

Peter Passell, a Columbia University professor and NY Times economics reporter, hailed the book as a “jarring attack on the methods and condition of traditional scholarship”. A Newsweek essay was even more effusive. Journalist Walter Clemons regarded the new conclusions based on “electronically sifted data” as “dynamite”. What were the new findings that so excited Clemons? They amounted to rejections of “old historical notions” and “myths” such as the “ubiquitous white overseer”. Tales of disruptions in the black family when a husband or wife was sold to another plantation were merely “abolitionist horror stories”. Indeed, Engerman and Fogel regarded many of these abolitionists as “racists”.

Time Magazine topped all others in its enthusiasm for “Time On the Cross” and its ethical implications for contemporary American society. Using the sort of linguistic glibness and insensitivity characteristic of this uniquely imperialist publication, it ran a caption “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Computer” alongside their feature article. It also tossed in another bit of song parody: “The young folks roll on the little cabin floor/Tis summer, the darkies are gay.”

Time writer Timothy Foote wrote that “the marriage and molasses nostalgia of a Stephen Foster may somewhat more accurately describe the relationship between slave and master than any serious historian has been willing to admit for years”. The plantations in “Time on the Cross” suggested “both a Victorian family and a paternalistic corporation eager to encourage worker morale”. Despite Sally Hemming and the palpable evidence of Malcolm X’s complexion, the “owners rarely exploited black females sexually” because “it was bad for morale”.

Unlike Eugene Genovese, who was considering ways in which his own work could “absorb” this sort of racist tripe, other Marxists were revolted by “Time on the Cross”. Herbert Aptheker, who might have been the last person in the world invited to present a paper at the Rochester conference co-organized by Engerman and Genovese, wrote a lengthy rebuttal in the pages of Political Affairs, the CPUSA journal. Titled “Heavenly Days in Dixie: Or, the Time of their Lives”, it linked Engerman and Fogel to William Schockley and Arthur Jensen, who wrote a book “proving” that blacks were genetically inferior to whites.

Aptheker’s main axis of attack was around Engerman and Fogel’s reliance on US census figures, which supposedly supported their conclusion that blacks were well off under slavery. Aptheker points out that census takers were white and subject to the racial prejudices of the time. If blacks were undercounted, as they certainly were, then attempts to come up with daily caloric intake on a per capita basis will overstate food input.

In his exasperated conclusion, Aptheker cries out, “Sometimes one is led to the point of near-despair when he reads books like ‘Time on the Cross’, by relatively young professors, and see how they are hailed and their book pushed and advertised and reviewed; a book that is as false, as contrived, as vicious as is this one. But, of course, one knows that it is only a dying social order that needs and produces such books–just as that of Calhoun and Jefferson Davis needed the work of Fitzhugh.”

Eventually more mainstream scholars began to discover that the emperor was not wearing clothes, including some of the scholars at the 1972 Rochester conference who made their devastating critiques in collegially deferential language. Martin Duberman was one of the first to open up an attack in the mass media. In the Village Voice he pointed to the book’s failure to distinguish between factual and evaluative statements and its skewed data about slave life. African-American historian Winthrop D. Jordan attacked Engerman and Fogel as “perversely self-righteous snake root salesmen”. Perhaps the most telling indictment of “Time on the Cross” came from Robert Fogel himself, who wrote “Without Consent or Contract” in 1989 as a way of atoning for the earlier work. Not only did he take a moral stand against slavery in this book, he admitted that he originally “did not emphasize the horrors and human cost of slavery”. (NY Times, Dec. 16, 1989) What he would not admit, however, was that the cliometric approach itself, with its number-crunching and single-minded focus on economic performance, could never do justice to the “peculiar institution” in all its complexity.

While Genovese never generated the kind of controversy that Engerman and Fogel did, there were some Marxist scholars who were just as adamantly opposed to his message. One of them was Herbert Gutman, the eminent labor historian who had also written a trenchant criticism of “Time on the Cross”.

In “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925″, which some regard as a rebuttal in its entirety to Genovese’s scholarship, Gutman takes up the claim that slaves lived in an “elaborate web of paternalistic relations” as Genovese put it. Although Gutman acknowledges that slave masters viewed themselves in this light, he questions whether this was the way that their subjects perceived it. For example, in response to Genovese’s claim that a high rate of slave reproduction proved “the paternalistic quality of the masters”, he states that a high reproduction rate does not depend on “good treatment”.

Some years later Gutman gave an interview to Mike Merrill, the codirector of the Institute for Labor Education and Research in New York City. His comments on Genovese are worth quoting in their entirety:

This is the context, I think, in which we can best understand Eugene Genovese’s work. He posed some important questions. My difficulty is with how he went about answering them. A central question raised in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made is the effect slaves had on their owners. A splendid question. To answer it one needs to know who the slaves were early in time and how the master-slave relationship was formed and developed.

Think of it this way. Suppose one was writing a book on ironworkers and steelworkers in Pittsburgh called Roll, Monongahela, Roll: The World the Steelworkers Made. How would that book begin? It is not a book about the steel industry. It is not a book about class relations in the steel industry. It is subtitled The World the Steelworkers Made. Would it begin with a 150-page essay quoting from and explicating Andrew Carnegie’s Autobiography and his letters? If one writes about the world the steelworkers made, the book should begin with the men before they were steelworkers and study how they became steelworkers. It would begin with them before they experienced Andrew Carnegie and then watch a world being made as they become steelworkers and interact with Andrew and his factories. Obviously this is precisely the innovative and bold structure of The Making of the English Working Class. We don’t begin with industrial capitalism already imposed and study strands of upper-class ideology. We begin with the world of the artisan. We begin with the world of the handicraft weaver. We begin with the world before modern capitalism. Then the interaction is intense, painful, sometimes violent, and even creative.

The way in which you examine a world people make is to show that world in formation. A major conceptual problem in Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it ignores class formation. A static class relationship is probed for several hundred pages, sometimes imaginatively and brilliantly. We are presented with a fully developed slave system. Class relations and ideologies are described only in the late slave period, the decades immediately prior to emancipation.

The problem with such an approach is that when you freeze a moment in time to examine a structural relationship, you cannot neglect the process by which that relationship was formed, how it developed. If you either ignore or misunderstand that process, then you can give almost any meaning you want to the relationship and to its constituent parts. What struck me on rereading Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it is so very functionalist. It is as if we are being told, “This is the way that society worked, why there was so little rebellion, and slaves and their owners made it through the day and night.”

June 27, 2012

Crooked Timber’s neo-Austrians

Filed under: conservatism,economics,Red Plenty — louisproyect @ 6:18 pm

Ludwig von Mises

I had a very strong sense of déjà vu reading the posts and the comments during the Red Plenty seminar at Crooked Timber, a liberal group blog resting comfortably on Keynesian/Fabian principles as if they were overstuffed cushions. They brought me back to objections I heard to a planned economy on the original Marxism list and on PEN-L in the early to mid-90s, when market socialism and its kissing cousin analytical Marxism were all the rage.

Striking a repentant pose, Ken MacLeod, science fiction novelist and erstwhile fan of Frank Furedi’s brand of socialism, commented:

In the 1970s I thought that central planning combined with democratic control along the lines argued for by (e.g.) Ernest Mandel was possible and desirable. Towards the end of the decade I stumbled upon the economic calculation argument, as briefly stated by David Ramsay Steele in a readable pamphlet. I didn’t understand it fully but I kept worrying at the problem it posed. In the 1980s I read Geoffrey Hodgson’s The Democratic Economy, and Nove’s The Economics of Feasible Socialism, which made some socialist sense of the same argument. More recently I’ve been interested in the more radical market socialism proposed by David Schweickart.

While it is hard to figure out where he is coming from politically, seminar participant Cosma Shalizi, a statistics professor at Carnegie-Mellon, says more or less the same thing:

We are pushed back, inevitably, to the planners having to make choices which express preferences or (in a different sense of the word) values. Or, said another way, there are values or preferences — what Nove called “planners’ preferences” — implicit in any choice of objective function. This raises both a cognitive or computational problem, and at least two different political problems.

The cognitive or computational problem is that of simply coming up with relative preferences or weights over all the goods in the economy, indexed by space and time. (Remember we need such indexing to handle transport and sequencing.) Any one human planner would simply have to make up most of these, or generate them according to some arbitrary rule. To do otherwise is simply beyond the bounds of humanity. A group of planners might do better, but it would still be an immense amount of work, with knotty problems of how to divide the labor of assigning values, and a large measure of arbitrariness.

Despite the sympathies that the seminar participants have for a nice polite liberalism, the intellectual roots of what Shalizi calls a “cognitive or computational problem” can be found in the writings of Ludwig von Mises, a luminary of the Austrian school of economics that begat Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan and a host of others considered anathema in these circles and whose ideas about deregulation and free markets have led to immense suffering in Greece, Spain, and most of the third world.

In the pamphlet by David Ramsay Steele referred to by Ken MacLeod, von Mises is singled out as having figured something out that eluded socialists:

Of the trio which unleashed the economic calculation argument, Weber, Brutzkus and Mises, the outstanding figure was undoubtedly Mises. His statement was published first, it was soon incorporated into a comprehensive critique of socialism in all its aspects, Die Gemeinwirtschaft (Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis), it quickly reached a wide audience of socialists and was so stinging and provocative that it could not be ignored.

Steele recapitulates the arguments found in the 1920 “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth” that can be downloaded from the Ludwig von Mises institute website. This is a classic work for rightwing economics professors everywhere, the people that Michael Perelman labeled a “mafia” in a Nation Magazine article by Christopher Hayes on the degraded economics profession.

Antoaneta Dimitrova, another liberal professor who took part in the Red Plenty seminar, had this advice for the Greek victims of neoliberal-inspired economic collapse:

It may be anathema to Greece to let go of some national sovereignty as Eastern Europeans did when negotiating with the EU and submitting themselves to the guidance of the European Commission and sometimes also the IMF in their reform efforts. But, undemocratic and asymmetric as this external guidance has been, procedurally speaking, it has, on balance, proved good for democracy and governance in Eastern Europe.

Well, what does it matter if IMF reforms are undemocratic so long as if everything works out at the end of the day–to use a cable TV news show cliché? After all, the ends justify the means, don’t they? You gotta break some eggs to make an omelet, after all.

That’s something that old von Mises himself understood when he became an economic adviser to Engelbert Dollfuss, the fascist dictator in Austria. Here’s the self-described liberal economist in his 1927 “Liberalism: A Socio-Economic Exposition:

It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history.

The deeds of the Fascists and of other parties corresponding to them were emotional reflex actions evoked by indignation at the deeds of the Bolsheviks and Communists. As soon as the first flush of anger had passed, their policy took a more moderate course and will probably become even more so with the passage of time.

That sort of rings a bell, doesn’t it? When the Chicago boys, the ideological heirs of Ludwig von Mises, went down to Chile, they might have felt a momentary twinge of embarrassment about all the people being tortured, but in the long run it was for the good for the Chilean people to be saved from central planning. As Henry Kissinger once put it, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

Many years ago I—like my friend Doug Henwood—was a libertarian and took all the bullshit I read in National Review seriously. Well, half-seriously anyhow. Back in 1960, when JFK was a candidate, I decided to join the Young Americans for Freedom with my rich cousin Louis (who had material incentives to believe in this nonsense) in order to spite my high school classmates. As someone who was very “unpopular” back then, I decided to find other reasons for people to hate me besides being un-athletic and short. I embraced conservatism for the same reason that Charles Bukowski told his classmates in a Los Angeles high school before WWII that he liked Hitler—just to rile them up.

To refresh my memory of what the Austrian school was about, I read (very possibly reread) “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth” by von Mises. Most of it consists of warnings about attempting to organize an economy other than on the basis of “economic calculation”, in other words money.

One may anticipate the nature of the future socialist society. There will be hundreds and thousands of factories in operation. Very few of these will be producing wares ready for use; in the majority of cases what will be manufactured will be unfinished goods and production goods. All these concerns will be interrelated. Every good will go through a whole series of stages before it is ready for use. In the ceaseless toil and moil of this process, however, the administration will be without any means of testing their bearings. It will never be able to determine whether a given good has not been kept for a superfluous length of time in the necessary processes of production, or whether work and material have not been wasted in its completion.

Von Mises was a member in good standing of the Austrian school of economics whose founder Carl Menger came up with the idea of marginal utility. The basic idea goes something like this. A consumer good like a hot dog might bring maximum enjoyment on the first eating, but subsequent dishes might provide a diminishing return—unless of course you compete professionally like Takeru Kobayashi who ate 69 Nathan’s hot dogs in ten minutes on July 4, 2011, setting a new Guinness world’s record. When I read about marginal utility, I can’t help but think of the stump speech that Peter Camejo used to give in the early 70s. Under socialism, there would be so much abundance that food would be virtually free. So if somebody walked out of a grocery store with a bunch of apple pies, the reaction would be to call mental health professionals rather than the cops.

Philip Wicksteed, a British preacher and disciple of the Austrians, tried to explain the theory this way:

We may now go on to the next great step in advance in our analysis of the scale of preferences or relative estimates. We have noted incidentally more than once that the question may arise not only, for example, whether to buy any new potatoes at all, but also how many to buy. Suppose the usual consumption of potatoes in a family is about 4 lbs. a day (2 stone a week), and sound old potatoes are about ½d. the lb. If new potatoes are 2d. the housewife may determine to buy 2 lbs. that week, for a treat, reckoning that they will go once round on Sunday, the second dish to be of old potatoes as usual, or if that takes too much trouble the second dish to be dispensed with. If they are 1½d. a lb. she may buy 4 lbs. and have all new potatoes on Sunday, or one dish on Sunday and one on some other day in the week; or she may buy enough for the birthday dinner of one of the children. But when new potatoes come down to a penny she will buy no more old potatoes at all.

What all this has to do with the rejection of socialism might not be obvious at first blush. Somebody trying to decide whether to buy potatoes or not would not, for example, explain the famine in the Ukraine of the early 30s, would it?

Von Mises took the marginal utility theory and applied it to money. Thorsten Polleit, an economist working for a precious metals firm, has a piece on the von Mises website titled What Can the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility Teach Us?  that concludes with this profound lesson:

Violations of individual property rights (for instance through government taxation, regulations, etc.) will make property owners value present goods increasingly more highly than future goods — a conclusion which follows from the law of diminishing marginal utility.

Violations of individual property rights thus raise peoples’ time preference, increasing consumption at the expense of savings and investment, thereby reducing (or even reverting) the pace of capital accumulation. An interventionist-socialist societal order will therefore necessarily lead to impoverishment relative to a free market societal order, in which there are no systematic violations of individuals’ property rights.

The one thing you will note throughout the Austrian school literature, as well as its offspring from Chicago to business schools everywhere, is its emphasis on the individual. As Margaret Thatcher, one of their most fervent supporters put it in a 1987 interview: “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

If you want to shift the focus away from social classes, this comes in very handy. Instead of trying to explain why millions of people don’t have the money to buy food and need to rely on food stamps, you create artificial scenarios where an abstract human being is contending with abstract baskets of goods. This is fundamentally how bourgeois economics is taught. In good times, it might pass muster but during a depression it prompts a Charles Ferguson to make an Academy award winning documentary that exposes people like Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard for the con artist that he is.

In doing some research on this article, I was happy to see that Nikolai Bukharin, my favorite Bolshevik next to Leon Trotsky, wrote a book that took the Austrians on. Titled “Economic Theory of the Leisure Class”  and written in the same year as von Mises’s dreadful “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth”, it puts the focus on social classes rather than the individual.

Bukharin described the Austrian school in sociological terms as expressing the class outlook of the rentier, a representative of the dominant financial bourgeoisie that “is not capable of looking forward.” Bukharin describes their philosophy as “Enjoy the moment,” a characterization that would still apply to the hedge fund operators of today with their $30 million dollar penthouses and fleets of Ferraris.

The industrial bourgeoisie was consumed with the need to produce but this parasitical class was much more focused on consumption, hence the preoccupation of the marginal utility theorists with their potatoes, etc. Bukharin elaborates:

This crass individualism is likewise neatly paralleled in the “subjectivist-psychological” method of the new tendency. To be sure, the theorists of the bourgeoisie had assumed an individualistic attitude even in earlier periods; they always enjoy making references to Robinson Crusoe. Even the representatives of the “labour value theories” based their position on individualistic references: their labour value was not, as one might perhaps expect, the social objective law of prices, but the subjective evaluation of the “economic subject” (the economic man) who evaluates the commodity variously, depending on whether the expenditure of labour has been connected with greater or less inconveniences (for example, Adam Smith).

The brunt of Bukharin’s critique is directed against Eugen Böhm-Bawerk, whose rejection of Marx’s value theory was also based on marginal utility theory. Just as Crooked Timber became a hotbed of von Mises’s calculation thesis around the novel “Red Plenty”, so it became the sounding board of attacks on value theory based implicitly on Böhm-Bawerk. In a series of articles laying siege to Karl Marx, communism, and revolution, one of the blog owners—an Australian economist named John Quiggin who has more awards than Heineken beer–came close to being sued for plagiarism by the Böhm-Bawerk estate:

For those engaged in attempts to achieve a better, more equal and more sustainable society, Marx’s theory of value has little to offer. What can it tell us, for example, about the relative merits of trying to promote equality through higher minimum wages, through more progressive taxation or through expansion of public ownership? But, in the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere Marx had a lot to say about capital and capitalism that was, and remains, both interesting and insightful.

Considering the fact that Quiggin’s article was titled “Marxism without revolution: Capital“, it is hard to figure out why he felt the need to characterize Marx as “interesting and insightful”. As Karl Marx might have put it when his Jewish roots were acting up, “Favors like this who needs?”

Invoking the good Nikolai Bukharin, one might feel the need to look at Crooked Timber sociologically. How is that 100 years after the Austrian school was in its heyday, the professors on this high-profile blog are attempting to use the same arguments and for the same purpose: to put the final nail in Marx’s coffin.

There was an Austrian social scientist (a Hungarian citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire actually) who was von Mises and Böhm-Bawerk’s contemporary but drew much different conclusions about the capitalist system. His name was Karl Polanyi and his best-known work was “The Great Transformation”, a broadside against markets and those who serve as its apologists.

In June 1989, Monthly Review magazine published an article by Kari Polanyi Levitt, his daughter and only child, and Marguerite Mendell titled “The Origins of Market Fetishism”. It is worth quoting at some length:

In the setting of intellectual Vienna of the 1920s, Mises and Hayek and their associates were the misfits–the remnants of old Vienna’s privileged urban elites whose security had been shattered, whose savings had been decimated by wartime and postwar inflation, and whose taxes were financing the pioneering housing programs of Vienna’s socialist municipal administration. In their parlors and favorite coffee houses the patrician middle classes, now deprived of their prewar privileges, fed their fears of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” They were particularly terrified by the 1926 Linz Program of the Social Democratic Party which resolved to defend Austria’s democratic constitution–by armed struggle if necessary–against threats by the Christian Socials to crush the working class and its organizations. They made common cause with the rising forces of clerical reaction which eventually led to the suspension of Parliament in 1933 and the violent destruction of the working-class movement in February 1934, leaving the country defenseless against Hitler’s occupation in 1938. The heirs of the Liberal tradition of the 1860s joined forces with clerical fascism in their paranoiac fear of the working classes.

A special target of Hayek’s polemics in the 1920s was the regime of rent control and public housing, which effectively eliminated private high-rental residential construction. (Hayek: 1929) Working-class families were now privileged in access to low-rental, bright, spacious, modern apartments with parks, kindergartens, and other communal facilities. These programs, together with a sweeping educational reform based on Alfred Adler’s theories of psychology, plus the large-scale participation of the working people of Vienna in a remarkable variety of cultural, recreational, and educational activities organized by the Socialists made “Red Vienna” a world-class showpiece of avant-garde urban lifestyle.

The elite of the intellectuals of Vienna were socialist sympathizers. In Vienna alone 350,000 people belonged to Social Democratic organizations, while socialist trade unions comprised 700,000 workers. “Never before or since,” wrote Ernst Fischer, “has a Social Democratic Party been so powerful, so intelligent, or so attractive as was the Austrian party of the mid 1920s.” (Fisher: 143) According to another contemporary, the “piecemeal reforms were to be the first building blocks of a future socialist society.” (Zeisel: 123)

“The ultimate justification of socialism derived from our expectation that it would usher in a new man, a new morality…. The essence of being a socialist is the holding of certain ethical positions about justice and about duties to our fellow man.” (Zeisel 123, 131) As we shall see, it is precisely the fundamental conflict of values which underlies the contending visions of democratic socialism and individualistic libertarianism.

For those who have been keeping track of current events, this does not sound that much different from the planet earth in the last 3 years or so, with its Arab Spring, its Greek protests against austerity both in the streets and in the ballot boxes, as well as the Occupy Movement in the USA which lives on despite its eviction from public spaces.

Our goal, of course, is to build once again a massive socialist movement that will not only give these neo-Austrians the fright of their lives but wipe a decadent system off the face of the earth.

 

June 5, 2012

Thoughts on the passing of Earl Shorris

Filed under: conservatism,Jewish question,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:23 am

Earl Shorris

The NY Times obituary on Earl Shorris is an admiring tribute to an exceptional human being:

Earl Shorris, a social critic and author whose interviews with prison inmates for a book inspired him to start a now nationally recognized educational program that introduces the poor and the unschooled to Plato, Kant and Tolstoy, died on May 27 in New York. He was 75.

The cause was complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his son Anthony said.

Mr. Shorris, who wrote a dozen books during the first 35 years of his career, many sharply critical of Western culture as sliding toward plutocracy and materialism, became best known in his final years for founding the Clemente Course in the Humanities. Established in 1995 with 25 students at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in the East Village of Manhattan, the program offers the disadvantaged a 10-month curriculum of philosophy, history, art, literature and logic. It earned Mr. Shorris the National Humanities Medal, presented to him in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.

Read full obit

I held Shorris in the highest esteem as both a principled left-liberal and a master essayist. As a literary genre, the personal essay’s first and greatest exponent was Michel Montaigne who always proceeded from the personal to the universal. Another master of the form is Philip Lopate whose essay on taking his incontinent aging father to a Chinese restaurant evolves into a transcendent meditation on fatherhood and death.

Earl Shorris’s last essay before his death appeared in Harper’s, a magazine that he has had a long association with. It is the quintessential personal essay titled “American vespers: The ebbing of the body politic” that begins with his latest hospitalization for the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that would shortly kill him and ending with commentary on another cancer, the military-industrial complex that is killing America.

In the middle of the night, when the hospital is in its deepest dusk, a confusing loneliness sets in. If there is no motion in the room, no sound, no sense of life in the pallid darkness, the little tremblings stop: in the perfect stillness, hope subsides; death presents itself in the guise of an analgesic. As if she knew this about the night, Sasha Stanton appeared carrying a small cup of lemon ice. It was the first food I had eaten in some days, and I took it not for hunger but for company.

Death was growing inside me. It defies the mind, like magic, for it was only death because of what had been described as the immortality metastasizing within. I was overcome by a kind of attraction to it. Nothing else had ever beckoned so! Not even the love of my wife or the faces of my sons.

Like a sonata in one movement, the piece shifts gradually toward a look at the “body politic”, with cancer a perfect metaphor for the state of things in 2012. I first heard such a metaphor from Joel Kovel, who in a talk on ecology at the Brecht Forum about 20 years ago described unregulated capitalist growth as a metastasizing tumor. Shorris writes:

Without ethics, politics has no limits. America broke the rules of living systems, and lost its balance. All the oxygen flowed to a smaller and smaller section of the body politic. The history is brief and unquestionable: close to toppling, the society momentarily pulled itself upright, and then became even less ethical, less balanced, more endangered than ever as a lawless financial system came back from death, and like a foolish patient after a heart bypass operation, continued in its old ways. With no ethical component to national politics, President Obama could deliver his 2011 State of the Union speech without ever mentioning the word “poverty,” although one in every five American children lived in poverty. Without a commitment to Hutcheson’s idea of the greatest good, which is at the core of the original American philosophy in Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration of Independence, this may no longer be the brilliant experiment. If happiness is for the few and it produces unemployment approaching that of the Great Depression, then the shadow of evening is here.

Death is the moment when evening passes into night. I know. There is no surprise, and it often comes after a long sickness that is worse than death. When I died, I died of many things: the failing systems; the weakening of age; the exhaustion of the long war against dying. Finally, I succumbed to the lack of ethics in a California hospital, killed by filth and neglect.

I have wished for many years to be a physician to my beloved country. The means to care for it is clear. I was revived by love and ethics. And I am not unique: no man, no woman is a metaphor; that is the place of gods. I do not know who will take America in their arms to revive her.

No nation is forever.

The NY Times obit neglected to mention perhaps Shorris’s best-known and most controversial books, “Jews Without Mercy”. Written in 1971, it was the first open challenge to Jewish neoconservatives written by somebody not connected to the hard left.

Today I took the book out of the Columbia University library and scanned in the first chapter titled “Apology to Mr. Singer, Slayer of Chickens, May He Rest in Peace.” Like all of his other essays, it starts with the personal:

You were decorated with blood and feathers, praying and killing in the back room of a store on an empty block in a failed section of the town. The butcher pointed to you as if you were an advertisement. He asked if the boy wanted to watch Mr. Singer do his work. I declined to step behind the counter and through the unpainted wooden gate that led to your slaughterhouse. My grandmother laughed. She knew chickens, she knew children.

She prepared chickens in the tiny kitchen of her apartment, reaching into the hollow cavity to remove the liver, heart, and kidneys; tearing the fat from the flesh; and depositing the yellow clumps in a saucepan. She burned the feet in the fire of the stove, blackening the ends of the truncated toes. While the chicken soaked in salt water she spoke of you: You dassn’t be afraid of Mr. Singer. He’s a very learned man. When the Rabbi has a question, you know where he goes? To Mr. Singer!

This has a special meaning for me since I used to watch a Mr. Singer at work when I was a young boy. There was a ritual kosher chicken slaughterhouse in the back yard below my apartment in upstate NY and I used to watch the shochit in awe and wonder—this was before my parents bought their first TV. From my memoir scheduled to be released in August 2065:

Before long Shorris transforms himself into a kind of shochet, slicing the throats of the neocons:

Many of the converts have told of the journey across the political spectrum, although not with the detail or the honesty of Norman Podhoretz. Most of the others have begun with rationalization rather than confession, attempting to hide their newfound preference for vulgarity. Almost all of them have said that it is because they are Jewish that they have become neoconservatives. They speak for each other; they help each other with grants, consulting fees, and introductions to money and power. It is a close camaraderie for all but Daniel Bell, who resigned as coeditor of The Public Interest after he and Irving Kristol founded the magazine, and who was given into the hands of Michael Novak in the July 1981 issue of Commentary to be drummed out of the corps as one whose “imagination still operates within a Marxian horizon.” Novak, a Polish Catholic and the publicist of “ethnic interests,” the new euphemism for racism, delivered the coup de grace earlier in the same paragraph: “Bell is said to have quipped that he is a liberal in politics, a socialist in economics, and a conservative in culture. The single most systematic strength in his thinking—and simultaneously, the single most glaring weakness—is that the socialist in him frequently overwhelms both the liberal and the conservative.” The club is warm and supportive, but it is restricted. Daniel Bell, the best mind among the neoconservatives, cannot be considered a neoconservative: He simply could not bring himself to trade ethics for vulgarity.

Returning to the NY Times obit, I was appreciative of Earl Shorris’s efforts on behalf of the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities while feeling queasy about its funding from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, like so many of Bard’s philanthropic efforts. The Clemente center benefits poor Latinos, a program with the same good intentions as Bard’s Prison Initiative that allows prisoners to earn a BA while incarcerated.

If I ever had gotten to know Shorris, I would have like to ask him about Soros’s impact on the poor people of Hungary whose homes were foreclosed in the tens of thousands after the Central Bank suffered huge losses because of Soros’s insider trading. After watching the documentary “Pink Ribbons Inc.”, I am more skeptical of deep-pocketed foundations than ever, I’m afraid.

There’s something about these programs that reminds me of George Bush ‘41’s “thousand points of light”. With American higher education going down the tubes, what real value is there in setting up Potemkin Villages that show off George Soros’s good will?

Ultimately, the worldview of the left-liberal, including the best of them like Gore Vidal or Earl Shorris, is moralistic and does not consider the possibility that “mercy” is not the solution to the nation’s problems but a radical restructuring of the economy so that everybody comes into the world on an equal footing.

September 13, 2011

Texas is a unique place

Filed under: capitalist pig,conservatism — louisproyect @ 3:07 pm

NY Review September 29, 2011
Republican Days of Wrath
by Michael Tomasky

The national press has largely pigeonholed Perry into the “Tea Party” category, a designation that is certainly not without merit. It was, for example, outside a Tea Party rally in April 2009 that Perry made his remark about the possibility of Texas seceding:

Texas is a unique place. When we came into the union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that. You know, my hope is that America and Washington in particular pays attention. We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what may come out of that?

Yet calling Perry only a Tea Party candidate is misleading. He is also a candidate of the Republican establishment—the senior party members who raise millions of dollars and influence the party’s priorities—because that establishment today is itself quite right-wing. It is based chiefly not on Wall Street anymore but in Texas (and in Wichita, Kansas, where Koch Industries is located). The “tiny splinter group” of “a few Texas oil millionaires” whom Dwight Eisenhower famously disparaged in 1954 now is arguably the most powerful tendency within the party. The state’s rich Republicans have been the chief backers of everything from George W. Bush’s campaigns to attacks on Democrats like the Swift Boat ads used against John Kerry in 2004.

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NY Times July 20, 2011
Child’s Play, Grown-Up Cash
By KATE MURPHY

APART from the open bar by the swimming pool, the main attraction at parties held at the Houston home of John Schiller, an oil company executive, and his wife, Kristi, a Playboy model turned blogger, is the $50,000 playhouse the couple had custom-built two years ago for their daughter, Sinclair, now 4.

Cocktails in hand, guests duck to enter through the 4 ½-foot door. Once inside, they could be forgiven for feeling as if they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

Built in the same Cape Cod style as the Schillers’ expansive main house, the two-story 170-square-foot playhouse has vaulted ceilings that rise from five to eight feet tall, furnishings scaled down to two-thirds of normal size, hardwood floors and a faux fireplace with a fanciful mosaic mantel.

The little stainless-steel sink in the kitchen has running water, and the matching stainless-steel mini fridge and freezer are stocked with juice boxes and Popsicles. Upstairs is a sitting area with a child-size sofa and chairs for watching DVDs on the 32-inch flat-screen TV. The windows, which all open, have screens to keep out mosquitoes, and there are begonias in the window boxes. And, of course, the playhouse is air-conditioned. This is Texas, after all.

“I think of it as bling for the yard,” said Ms. Schiller, 40.

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July 27, 2011

What do Alexander Cockburn and the Norwegian mass murderer have in common?

Filed under: conservatism,Fascism,media — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

The short answer to that is an affinity for the writings of paleoconservative William S. Lind. If you do a search on “by William S. Lind” on the Counterpunch website, you will come up with 16,500 hits. It should be understood that many of these hits refer to the same article, but clearly we are dealing with someone who was at one point as much of a presence there as fellow paleoconservative Counterpuncher Paul Craig Roberts is today.

Last October Alexander Cockburn defended this orientation to the right in an article that referred to me as an “old Trotskyist lag” in light of my unaccountable inability to appreciate the Tea Party:

Contrary to a thousand contemptuous diatribes by the left, the Tea Party is a genuine political movement, channeling the fury and frustration of a huge slab of white Americans running small businesses – what used to be called the petit-bourgeoisie…

Who says these days that in the last analysis, the only way to change the status quo and challenge the Money Power of Wall St is to overthrow the government by force? That isn’t some old Trotskyist lag like Louis Proyect, dozing on the dungheap of history like Odysseus’ lice-ridden old hound Argos, woofing with alarm as the shadow of a new idea darkens the threshold.

Who really, genuinely wants to abolish the Fed, to whose destruction the left pledges ever more tepid support. Sixty per cent of Tea Party members would like to send Ben Bernanke off to the penitentiary, the same way I used to hear the late great Wright Patman vow to do to Fed chairman Arthur Burns, back in the mid-70s. Who recently called the General Electric Company “an opportunistic parasite feeding on the expansion of government?” Who said recently, “There are strains in the Tea Party that are troubled by what they saw as a series of instances in which the middle-class and working-class people have been abused or hurt by special interests and Washington.” That was Barack Obama, though being Obama he added, “but their anger is misdirected.”

As has been revealed not long after it made its appearance on the worldwide web, Anders Behring Breivik’s 1500 page manifesto is pretty much a copy and paste job from other authors, including the Unabomber whose references to the hated “leftists” was replaced with “cultural Marxists”.

Breivik also borrowed liberally from William S. Lind. I first learned about Breivik plagiarizing from Lind in an email to the PEN-L mailing list by Tom Walker who blogs at Ecological Headstand where he wrote:

UPDATE: Plagiarism alert Breivik’s text on “Political Correctness” appears to be lifted almost entirely from a screed called “Political Correctness: a Short History of an Ideology,” by William Lind, “Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation.”

I was so struck by Breivik’s rant on “political correctness” that I posted it on my blog the day before yesterday. When I subsequently learned that the words were Lind’s and that he was a frequent contributor to Counterpunch, I decided to do some poking around there.

To Counterpunch’s credit, nearly all the articles by Lind are strictly anti-war affairs of the sort that might have been written by Justin Raimando. It is not as if there were anything particularly wrong with them, only that they were unexceptional and mostly of interest perhaps because they were written by a paleoconservative.

But there’s one that’s more than a bit troubling. It appeared on July 12, 2007 and is titled “Old Bottles for New Wine: Not Fourth Generation Warfare“. Lind, who is an expert on Fourth Generation Warfare, warned Counterpunch readers:

On Friday, July 13, a Boyd Conference at the Quantico Marine Corps Base will devote a day to the subject of Fourth Generation war. As a panelist for one session of the conference, I have been asked to answer the question, “As one of the original authors and principal proponent of the 4GW concept, how well is it understood and acted upon by the West? By our adversaries?”

I will leave the second part of this question until Friday. As to how well the West grasps the concept of 4GW, the news, sadly, is bad on every level.

At the level of national governments, Western states not only do not grasp 4GW, they avert their eyes from it in horror, pretending it is not happening. In part they do so because they are the state, and the state does not want to admit that its own legitimacy has come into question. As Martin van Creveld said to me a decade or more ago, “Everyone can see it except the people in the capital cities.”

In larger part, they ignore the reality of 4GW because it contradicts their ideology, commonly known as “multi-culturalism” but actually the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School. That ideology says that all the world’s cultures are wonderful, happy, peaceful cultures except Western culture, which is oppressive and evil and must be destroyed. In fact, Western culture is one of only two cultures in human history that has succeeded over millennia (the other is Chinese). 4GW theory warns that we now face a world of cultures in conflict, that we must defend Western culture and that many, perhaps most, other cultures are threats, especially when they flood Western countries with immigrants. Cultural Marxism welcomes immigrants who will not acculturate precisely because they are threats to Western culture.

To start with, why is it the worry of Counterpunch’s editors or its readers whether 4GW is “understood or acted upon by the West”? As it turns out, Lind co-authored a book with two-time presidential candidate Gary Hart titled “America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform.” Look, I don’t quite know how to put this, but I don’t want America to win. There, I said it.

The wiki on 4GW states:

The simplest definition includes any war in which one of the major participants is not a state but rather a violent non-state actor. Classical examples, such as the slave uprising under Spartacus or the assassination of Julius Caesar by members of the Roman senate, predate the modern concept of warfare and are examples of this type of conflict.

Not being up to speed on Julius Caesar, I am not sure what the Marxist position would be on this but I am damned sure that I would have been for the Spartacus-led slave revolts. And the last thing I would have been interested in is advising the military on how to defeat 21st century versions of such revolts.

But the thing that really sticks out is this:

4GW theory warns that we now face a world of cultures in conflict, that we must defend Western culture and that many, perhaps most, other cultures are threats, especially when they flood Western countries with immigrants. Cultural Marxism welcomes immigrants who will not acculturate precisely because they are threats to Western culture.

Was Alexander drunk when he read this article by Lind and gave it the green light? How in god’s name does one of America’s most well-known radical journalists fall asleep at the wheel and let such racist crap pollute a website that he has many reasons to be proud of.

Perhaps he published it as an example of the kind of sickness that pervades a certain sector of the American right. If that was the case, I would only ask that he include a brief introductory note the next time he favors us with such an item—something along the lines of this:

Dear Counterpunch readers

This article from regular contributor William S. Lind is not the sort that we usually include from him. It is not worthy of the kind of praise that his antiwar articles merit. We include it because it gives you an idea of the kind of nativism that affects a wing of the American conservative movement that could ultimately lead some of its furthest reaches—either here or abroad—to take violent action against its perceived enemies.

Alexander Cockburn

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