Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 14, 2013

Statistical survey

Filed under: liberalism,media — louisproyect @ 3:30 pm

Number of times that the term “predator drones” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 6

Number of times that the term “gun control” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 373

Number of times that the term “chained cpi” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 43

Number of times that the term “tea party” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 404

(Based on a search of Nexis.)


March 24, 2013

The New Deal, Leon Trotsky, and the bureaucratic state

Filed under: language,liberalism,racism — louisproyect @ 9:27 pm

Louis Menand

Ira Katznelson

The March 4th 2013 issue of The New Yorker Magazine has an uncharacteristically interesting article by Louis Menand on Ira Katznelson’s new book “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time” differentiated from the usual dreary rot by Jon Lee Anderson, David Remnick, Hendrik Hertzberg, et al.

The article is behind a paywall unfortunately but I am going to quote the opening paragraphs that should be of particular interest to my regular readers:

In September, 1939, just as the Second World War was beginning, a left-wing Italian shoe salesman named Bruno Rizzi published a book, in Paris, called “The Bureaucratization of the World.” Rizzi brought the book out at his own expense; he couldn’t find a publisher. In early 1940, he was charged by French authorities with racial defamation–there was an anti-Semitic chapter in his book–and he was fined and received a suspended sentence. Remaining copies of the book were confiscated and pulped.

Rizzi hadn’t used his full name on the cover–he identified himself as Bruno R.–and he more or less disappeared from view in the chaos of the war. (He resurfaced afterward.) “The Bureaucratization of the World” might have slipped into oblivion but for one thing: Rizzi had managed to get a copy to Leon Trotsky, who was living in exile in the village of Coyoacan, outside Mexico City. Trotsky read the book and was sufficiently exercised to write an article criticizing it. The article was published, in November, 1939, in a journal called The New International, an organ of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist organization based in New York City.

Rizzi had argued that under Stalin’s leadership the Soviet Union had a political system that was neither capitalist nor socialist. It was something that Marx had not foreseen: a system that Rizzi called “bureaucratic collectivism.” The Soviet Union was being ruled by a new class of Party functionaries and industrial technicians, who exploited the workers the same way the capitalists had. It had become just like the fascist states of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

What was more, Rizzi said, the United States was headed in the same direction. With Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a ruling class of government administrators and corporate managers was taking over. Bureaucracy was emerging as the form of government everywhere. “A monstrous new world . . . is being born,” Rizzi wrote, “and born so evil that it is resurrecting slavery after two thousand years of history.” He predicted that the planet would eventually be dominated by seven or eight of these bureaucratic autocracies.

To Trotsky, this was heretical. Even after Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler and the Red Army invaded Poland, Trotsky’s position was that the Soviet Union was a genuine workers’ state. It had a planned economy and state ownership of property. In his New International article, Trotsky held Rizzi up as a comrade who had got things wrong. What Rizzi failed to understand, Trotsky explained, was that, although Stalin himself was a counter-revolutionary aberration, the Stalinist phenomenon had to be understood dialectically (Marxian for “the opposite of what it appears to be”). Stalinism was only an evil hiccup in the course of history–the course, correctly predicted by Marx and Engels, that led to the classless society.

Like all Marxist theoretical disputes, this was really a dispute over a practical question: Should people on the left continue to support the Soviet Union now that Stalin was an ally of Hitler? Trotsky insisted that they should. (For his pains, he was murdered by a Stalinist agent, in August, 1940.) But many of his American followers disagreed. The dispute split the Socialist Workers Party. One of the editors of The New International, Max Shachtman, resigned (or was expelled; accounts differ) from the Party. The other, James Burnham, also defected and soon rejected Marxism altogether, quickly becoming one of the most hawkish anti-Communist intellectuals in America. After the war was over, he recommended a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.

In 1941, Burnham published a book called “The Managerial Revolution.” He hadn’t read “The Bureaucratization of the World,” which, in 1941, was about as out of print as a book can be. But he had read Trotsky’s summary of it–he was Trotsky’s editor, after all–and his argument was basically Bruno R.’s argument. The economies of the major powers, Burnham said, had fallen into the hands of a new elite: the managers, executives, financiers, and stockholders who owned and ran corporations, and the government administrators who regulated them.

Burnham had earlier described the New Deal as “preparing the United States for the comparatively smooth transition to Fascism,” and he folded the United States easily into his picture of a world headed toward top-down managerialism. He thought that the nations farthest along the road were Russia, Germany, and Italy, which suggested that totalitarian dictatorship was managerialism’s natural political form. Rizzi had imagined a world dominated by seven or eight autocratic states; Burnham foresaw three, centered in the areas where advanced industry was already concentrated–the United States, Japan, and Germany. Wars of the future, he said, would be struggles among these superstates for world control.

Burnham, too, had trouble finding a publisher, but, when the book finally appeared, it was a huge success. Time listed “The Managerial Revolution” as one of the top six books of 1941; a critic at the Times named it one of the year’s notable books. A hundred thousand copies were sold in the United States and Britain, and it did even better in paperback. One of its keenest readers was George Orwell, and “The Managerial Revolution” was a major influence on “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” with its three totalitarian monster states.

This discussion of sectarian minutiae would probably make the average New Yorker reader’s eyes glaze over. A more typical article in the latest issue by Lena Dunham that begins “When I was a child, my greatest dream was to find a box full of puppies” had the same effect on me.

Menand, who is a literature professor with an interest in pragmatism, uses the Trotsky-Burnham debate as a background to introduce Katznelson’s latest book that makes the case that after the death of Roosevelt, “a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security.”

Katznelson takes issue with the standard hagiographies, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.,’s unfinished “The Age of Roosevelt” (1957-60), William E. Leuchtenburg’s “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal” (1963), and David M. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Freedom from Fear” (1999). For Katznelson, the notion that FDR was some kind of great democratic leader had to be revised. A dispassionate and critical view of the historical record would tend to put him much closer to the Orwellian nightmare.

Katznelson describes a sorry record at odds with Schlesinger’s worshipful treatment, as Menand’s capable summary reveals. To start with, the New Deal rested on a racist foundation as well as a barrier to trade union rights and economic reform:

But there was a worm in this fruit. During the entire period that Roosevelt was President (and well beyond it), seventeen states mandated racial segregation, and almost every senator and congressman from those states was a Democrat. Katznelson argues that the members of this Southern bloc were “the most important ‘veto players’ in American politics.” They maintained what he calls a “Southern cage” around New Deal legislation.

Southern Democrats were almost unanimously supportive of progressive economic policies, but they were, in one respect, solidly reactionary. They were vigilant to resist any threat to what they sometimes euphemistically referred to as the Southern way of life but more often called, quite proudly, white supremacy. “The colored race will not vote, because in so doing . . . they endanger the supremacy of a race to which God has committed the destiny of a continent, perhaps of the world,” Senator Claude Pepper, of Florida, said in 1937. And Pepper was a liberal. In 1950, he lost his seat to the conservative Democrat George Smathers, who campaigned against him by calling him Red Pepper.

The South was the most impoverished region of the country, and the Depression made conditions there worse. Katznelson says that the average annual income for all Americans in 1937 was $604; in the South, it was $314. The gross annual income of the average Southern farmer was $186. Almost a tenth of the population was illiterate. Southern Democrats were therefore happy to have railroads, public utilities, the financial industry–and, as Katznelson puts it, “other Northern-controlled capitalist firms”–regulated. As representatives of a region whose economy was mainly agricultural, they were also happy to support measures to help farmers. And since their principal goods, cotton and tobacco, were manufactured for export, they were eager to promote free trade. They were additionally pleased, in light of their economic circumstances but also in light of their history, to vote for programs that effectively redistributed wealth from the industrial North to the rural South.

Southern Democrats affected New Deal legislation in several ways. They carved out exceptions in bills regulating business–such as bills setting a minimum wage–for farming and domestic service, since that was work performed in the South predominately by African-Americans. They retarded the growth of the labor movement and tried to block efforts to unionize in the South, suspecting, rightly, that unions were motors of racial integration. They defeated anti-lynching legislation by arguing, first, that lynching was technically illegal already and, second, that, since people are regularly murdered elsewhere in the United States, a federal anti-lynching law would be discriminatory.

Most significant, though, they insured that the administration of New Deal policies was decentralized. They pried open the tax-levy coffers in Washington, but exercised strict control over how and to whom that money trickled down in their states. They tried to expand the regional economy without undermining apartheid. As the South has always done, they asserted the claim of states’ rights at just the point when the shoe started to pinch, and not a moment before.

The Dixie states benefited heavily from arms manufacturing in the South during WWII. At the end of the war, the military-industry state that operated in partnership with the USSR and that was administered by people like Harry Magdoff took on a new political coloration. The assembly lines continued to turn out tanks and planes but now the target would be Communism and decolonized states with the temerity to be aligned with the Kremlin.

Southern Democrats stoutly supported the Truman Administration’s military buildup, much of which was concentrated in the South. By the time Eisenhower took office, in 1953, $52.8 billion of the nation’s $76.1 billion budget was being spent on defense. Southerners also supported the granting of broad, nonspecific authority to the new Central Intelligence Agency, congressional investigations of subversives, and the creation of the Federal Employee Loyalty Program.

That program, established by executive order in 1947, assigned the F.B.I. and other agencies to undertake investigations of employees suspected of disloyalty. Over the next nine years, more than five million federal employees were screened. Twelve thousand resigned, and an estimated twenty-seven hundred were fired. (No espionage was ever discovered.) Beyond these cases–this is the subject of Landon R. Y. Storrs’s convincing account in “The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left” (Princeton)–the loyalty program had a chilling effect on government workers who regarded themselves as in the tradition of New Deal progressivism. Reform, planning, and organizing started to look un-American.

We tend to understand the rise of the national-security state as an overreaction to Cold War tensions, but the pieces were put into place during Roosevelt’s Presidency. The two War Powers Acts (December, 1941, and March, 1942) gave Roosevelt, as Katznelson puts it, “more power over American capitalism than he had achieved even during the New Deal’s radical moment.” Truman inherited a big government with enormous power already vested in the executive. When he was persuaded by advisers like Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze that the Soviet threat was real and that it demanded heightened military preparedness–ultimately, an arms race–the system was ready to accommodate him. He didn’t have to reinvent government.

While it is difficult to figure out whether Menand is speaking for himself or for Katznelson, there’s a happy ending to all this. The Democrats reinvented themselves “as the party of civil rights and individual liberties.” In 1964, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, five Southern states backed Goldwater instead of Lyndon Johnson. With Richard Nixon’s embrace of a “Southern Strategy” 4 years later, the realignment was virtually complete. The Democrats then tried to figure out a way to win a national election without the backing of Southern states. They seemed to have found it in 2008, a success repeated in 2012.

Maybe Menand hasn’t been reading a newspaper or been on the Internet lately but a case can be made that Obama is the most Orwellian president we have ever had, even more so than Nixon. If there is strong if not febrile opposition to the president in the South from White voters, this does not mean that the national-security state dictates of the post-WWII period have abated. Obama’s use of drones, his attacks on civil liberties, the stiff sentences meted out against whistle-blowers during his presidency, his secret kill lists, his nauseating flattery of the Zionist apartheid state, his failure to prosecute any of the banksters responsible the ruining of the lives of millions of working class families, etc. are exactly the sort of thing that Orwell had in mind when he wrote “1984”.

In fact, we should avoid all temptations to downgrade Orwell on the basis of guilt by association with all the scum that have carried on in the recent past about how great he was and how they are trying to carry on in his tradition, especially Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman. It is worth having a look at the sort of thing that Orwell was saying in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness? Surely Orwell was foreshadowing this sort of thing:

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

–Barack Obama, 2009 Inauguration Speech

While I would have been an unrepentant Marxist during the New Deal, there is one thing that you could say about FDR. He (or his speechwriters) would never have written such stultifying vapor. Here is a reminder of what convinced voters to pull the lever for FDR even when unemployment remained punishingly high.

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

— Address Announcing the Second New Deal, October 31, 1936

January 25, 2013

Email I just received as a Goldman-Sachs alumni

Filed under: capitalist pig,journalism,liberalism — louisproyect @ 2:49 pm

January 24, 2013

Arianna Huffington and Lloyd Blankfein Discuss Our Common Goal: Empowering Entrepreneurs and Creating Jobs

Lloyd Blankfein and Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, today co-authored an opinion piece to coincide with the 43rd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum being held in Davos. Our Common Goal: Empowering Entrepreneurs and Creating Jobs examines how entrepreneurship is driving growth around the world and the role of women entrepreneurs, in particular.

This week, politicians, writers, activists, and non-profit leaders are gathered in Davos, Switzerland for the 43rd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. While the issues to be addressed range from health care to regulation to the environment, the two of us share a common interest in one particular topic — economic growth and job creation. While many European countries are struggling with double-digit unemployment, and America’s recovery continues to limp along at best, many of us gathered in Davos will draw important lessons, not just from one another — amidst the well-intentioned talk and catchy phrases — but from the individuals around the world who are building growth and creating opportunity every day, often overcoming extraordinary obstacles.

Visit GoldmanSachs.com to read the op-ed in full…

September 11, 2012

Progressives for Obama, version 2.0

Filed under: liberalism,New Deal,Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

On March 25, 2008 Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Barbara Ehrenreich, and Danny Glover issued a statement launching “Progressives for Obama” that included a number of endorsers with impeccable Marxist credentials such as Robin D.G. Kelly, Immanuel Wallerstein and Francis Fox Piven. Meanwhile Bill Fletcher Jr. was a one-time member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a “New Communist Movement” (NCM) group that survived the 1980s implosion of Maoism described by Max Elbaum in “Revolution in the Air”. For most NCM groups, working in the Democratic Party was a tactic while for their Trotskyist adversaries it was rank class-collaborationism. Since the inspiration for the New Communist Movement was the “heroic” CPUSA of the 1930s and 40s, it was natural for them to keep an open mind about the Democrats even if the CPUSA itself was widely dismissed as “revisionist”.

Tom Hayden

The statement put forward the notion that pressure applied from below would work to move Obama to the left in much the same way that CIO activism in the 1930s acted on FDR:

However, the fact that Barack Obama openly defines himself as a centrist invites the formation of this progressive force within his coalition. Anything less could allow his eventual drift towards the right as the general election approaches. It was the industrial strikes and radical organizers in the 1930s who pushed Roosevelt to support the New Deal.

Maybe Obama himself bought into this formula since he put the burden of change on the grass roots in his 2012 speech to the Democratic Party convention:

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.

So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change…

If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible…well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves.

Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.

Immune to Obama’s charisma from the get-go, the NY Times’s Maureen Dowd had little use for the “you were the change” nonsense:

We were the change!

We were the change? Us?

How on earth could we have let so much of what we fought for slip away? How did we allow Mitch McConnell, Karl Rove, the super PACs, the Tea Party, the lobbyists and the special interests take away our voice?

“Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen,” the president chastised us. “Only you have the power to move us forward.”

We’re so lame. We were naïve, brimming with confidence that we could slow the rise of the oceans, heal the planet, fix the cracks in the Capitol dome.

After four years of White House catering to Wall Street banksters, Guantanamo, drone attacks on civilians, death lists that include American citizens, unparalleled deportations, and generally what looks like George W. Bush’s third term, selling Obama 2012 is about as daunting a prospect as opening a pork store in a Hasidic neighborhood.

As an eager albeit clumsy propagandist for the Democratic Party, Tom Hayden stepped into the breach with a challenge to Obama-haters everywhere: support the sleazy incumbent or be found guilty of “white blindness”.

Why Obama’s achievements are dismissed or denied by many on the white liberal-left is a question worth serious consideration. It may only be a matter of legitimate disappointment after the utopian expectations of 2008. It could be pure antipathy to electoral politics, or a superficial assessment of how near impossible it is to change intransigent institutions. It could be a vested organizational interest in asserting there is no difference between the two major parties, a view wildly at odds with the intense partisan conflicts on exhibit every day. Or it could even be a white blindness in perceptions of reality on the left. When African American voters favor Obama 94 percent to zero, and the attacks are coming from the white liberal-left, something needs repair in the foundations of American radicalism.

Tim Wise, who was one of the endorsees of the 2008 pro-Obama declaration, has a virtual monopoly on ferreting out “white blindness” so one hopes for poor Tom Hayden’s sake that Wise does not contact a good intellectual property lawyer.

Singled out as a “white blindness” miscreant is Harper Magazine editor Thomas Frank who had the temerity to conclude that Obama will never pursue a second New Deal because “that is precisely what Obama was here to prevent.” Frank, of course, is symptomatic of the wholesale disillusionment with Obama that Hayden is trying to dismiss. Like Hayden, Frank had a special place in his heart for FDR and devoted much energy and ink trying to advise Democrats how to get their mojo back. Once it became clear that Obama had no use for such advice (his chief aide, now Mayor of Chicago declaring war on the teacher’s union, dismissed anything coming out of “the professional left”), people like Thomas Frank decided that fighting back was the only thing that made sense. Tom Hayden, on the other hand, argued in the words of David Byrne that it was necessary to stop making sense.

Jason Schulman

Michael Hirsch

Proceeding from the ridiculous to the not quite sublime, we consider now an article written for the excellent Jacobin Magazine by two long-time DSA members, Jason Schulman and Michael Hirsch titled “Beyond November”, which starts off on a high note and then plummets downwards at lightning speed.

Marx wrote in The Civil War in France that every few years workers got to decide which members of the ruling class were to misrepresent them. How right he was. And is. That is uncontestable.

The rest of the article amounts to a contesting of exactly what Marx wrote, an exercise in advanced dialectics I guess.

Just to cover their left flank, Hirsch and Schulman write just the sort of thing designed to raise Hayden’s dander:

The prospects of selling Obama as the preferred candidate are daunting, if worth doing at all. With his proliferation of the national security state, his refusal to put juice behind the Conyers 
jobs bill, his water-carrying for the insurance companies and destruction of any near-term possibility for single-payer health care, his failures on card check and other labor law reforms, his refusal to treat Wall Street as a criminal enterprise, his embrace of reactionary education philosophies, his incursive black-ops foreign policy, and his ten o’clock scholar’s embrace of gay marriage, his is an administration not to praise but to damn.

Well, hurrah for damning. Where do I sign up?

Apparently our two intrepid leftists have a bait-and-switch scheme up their sleeves because they end up finding reasons to vote Democrat, even if it falls within the category of damning with faint praise. As an unrepentant Marxist, I won’t settle for anything less than pure damning—Dante 9th circle style.

After describing 3rd party election campaigns like the Greens as being based on a “prayer” rather than a “plan”, they make the hoary case for being practical:

The Democrats as a coalition are hegemonic because they provide a service, finite as it is, that is indispensable for institutions, whether they be unions, social service providers, or community-based organizations.

The article concludes with a call for reelecting Obama—if you read between the lines:

Allowing Obama to be reelected without any critique from the Left – even one that is purely propagandistic, as the Green and Socialist parties will offer – only ratifies his centrist approach of cottoning to and co-opting the Right while neutering the Left and any possibility for substantial social gains. We can do better.

In other words, it is okay to vote for Obama just as long as you make sure to make the record that he is something of a pig.

Maybe Michael Hirsch felt constrained to deemphasize the need to actually vote for Obama in 2012—the official position of the Democratic Socialists of America, the group he has been long associated with—because Jacobin’s editors are quite a bit to the left of the DSA, even if a few are members. If you go to the DSA website, you can find a position paper on the 2012 elections that makes the “lesser evil” case quite openly even while renouncing it. That’s the art of dialectics, after all:

In light of the threat that would be posed to basic democratic rights by Republican control of all three branches of the federal government, most trade union, feminist, LGBTQ and African- American and Latino organizations will work vigorously to re-elect the president. And in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and elsewhere, many DSA members may choose to do the same. But DSA recognizes that an Obama victory, unaccompanied by the strengthening of an independent progressive coalition able to challenge the elites of both parties, will be a purely defensive engagement in lesser-evil politics.

This is the same argument I have been hearing since 1968, a year after I joined the Trotskyist movement. Ironically, I became disillusioned with the Democratic Party three years earlier, just after graduating Bard College.

I was too young to vote in 1964 but if I had been old enough I surely would have voted for Lyndon Johnson. I was not that concerned with Vietnam since it was still a very much low intensity affair but the idea of Barry Goldwater’s finger on the H-Bomb trigger scared the bejeezus out of me.

He told audiences, “Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict. They call upon the U.S. to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do. We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves. We don’t want to get . . . tied down to a land war in Asia.”

It turned out he had plans to escalate the war all along. I spent most of 1966 staring at the evening news on television trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. How could a “peace” candidate turn out to be such a warmonger?

Within a year I got educated into class politics through new members classes in the Young Socialist Alliance and particularly “Socialism on Trial”, which amounted to the court proceedings in the trial of SWP leaders in 1941 for violation of the Smith Act. James P. Cannon testified on the party’s attitude toward Roosevelt’s New Deal:

Q: What is the position of the party on the attempt of Roosevelt to improve the social system in this country?

A: How do you mean, “improve the social system”?

Q: To set capitalism into motion again, after the depression of 1929.

A: Well, all these measures of the New Deal were made possible in this country, and not possible for the poorer countries of Europe, because of the enormous accumulation of wealth in this country. But the net result of the whole New Deal experiment was simply the expenditure of billions and billions of dollars to create a fictitious stability, which in the end evaporated.

Now the Roosevelt administration is trying to accomplish the same thing by the artificial means of a war boom; that is, of an armament boom, but again, in our view, this has no possibility of permanent stability at all.

Q: With reference to the misery and suffering of the masses, what would you say as to the existence of that factor in the United States?

A: In our view, the living standards of the masses have progressively deteriorated in this country since 1929. They haven’t yet reached that stage which I mentioned as a prerequisite of an enormous upsurge of revolutionary feeling, but millions of American workers were pauperised following 1929; and that, in our opinion, is a definite sign of the development of this prerequisite for the revolution.

There’s not much that I retain from my ill-spent youth in the Trotskyist movement but I’ll take James P. Cannon over Tom Hayden’s circumlocutions and Hirsch-Schulman’s “dialectics” any day of the week. Hopes for Obama launching a new New Deal are all the more vain in light of the fact that the original was a con job to begin with. And that’s that.

April 9, 2012

British liberals versus Karl Marx; Marx wins by a TKO

Filed under: economics,liberalism,Red Plenty,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

Francis Spufford

John Lanchester

The heavyweight champ

For someone deemed so obsolete and irrelevant, Karl Marx has a way of getting under the skin of liberal intellectuals 193 years after his birth. For example, John Lanchester—a British novelist and nonfiction writer born in 1962—spends 6016 words (!) trying to drive a stake through the heart of Marx’s ideas in an essay titled Marx at 193 that appears in the left-leaning London Review of Books:

The most obvious mistake in his version of the world is to do with class. There is something like a classic Marxian proletariat dispersed through the world. But Marx foresaw that this proletariat would be an increasingly centralised and organised force: indeed, this was one of the reasons it would prove so dangerous to capitalism. By creating the conditions in which labour would be sure to organise and assemble collectively capitalism was arranging its own downfall. But there is no organised global conflict between the classes; there is no organised global proletariat.

About a month before this article appeared, Crooked Timber—a group blog hosted by liberal academics also obsessed with burying Karl Marx—advised its readers that Francis Spufford’s new mixture of fact and fiction (faction in more senses than one) titled “Red Plenty” is “a mosaic novel that simultaneously speaks intelligently to the Soviet calculation debate, and has engaging characters.” Like Lanchester, two years his senior, Spufford writes both novels and nonfiction and is British. Since both Lanchester and Spufford were too young to be part of the sixties radicalization when socialist revolution had more of a palpable reality than it does today, one suspects that there might be a generational thing going on. Or Oedipal, if you are into Freud.

Oddly enough, the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the general decline of a revolutionary movement are not enough to assuage them. Could it be possible that if there was only a single human being committed to socialism living on the planet Earth at some point in the distant future, outlets like the London Review of Books and Crooked Timber would still be writing broadsides against this “irrelevant” movement? What the liberal intelligentsia fails to understand is that Marxism will exist as long as there is capitalism. Capitalism generates its negative critique—Marxism—through the creation of class antagonisms born out of the brutal reality this unnatural social system generates. If Karl Marx had never been born, someone else would have come along to develop an analysis of the capitalist system and a program to eliminate it. That’s the dialectic the liberals cannot understand.

I am currently about 40 percent through with “Red Plenty” and will be posting a critique but in the meantime I want to direct you to the introduction of Part Three where Francis Spufford dispenses with his fictional examination of Soviet characters involved with attempts to modernize the economy through automation and lays out “what went wrong” with the USSR. I have scanned the introduction, which can be read here: http://www.marxmail.org/Red_Plenty_Intro.htm. I want to single out a couple of sections to give you a feel for his approach:

Spufford’s take on Lenin comes out of the Cold War Sovietology playbook:

With almost no industrial workers to represent, the Bolshevik (‘majority) faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party was a tiny, freakish cult, under the thumb of a charismatic minor aristocrat, V.I. Lenin, who had developed a doctrine of the party’s, and by extension his own, infallibility. The Bolsheviks had no chance of influencing events, and certainly no chance at getting anywhere near political power, until the First World War turned Russian society upside down. In the chaos and economic collapse following the overthrow of the Tsar by disorganised liberals, they were able to use the discipline of the cult’s membership to mount a coup d’etat — and then to finesse themselves into the leadership of all those in Russia who were resisting the armed return of the old regime. Suddenly, a small collection of fanatics and opportunists found themselves [sic, should be itself, since “a small collection” is singular, not plural] running the country that least resembled Marx’s description of a place ready for socialist revolution.

Robert Service could not have put it better.

After several decades of Stalin’s forced march, the USSR began to catch up to the industrialized West, so much so that it became possible to consider a stepped-up investment in consumer goods. The term ‘Red Plenty’ alludes to the hopes of its various Soviet characters that they would have just as much as the Americans et al. Spufford writes:

Yet somehow this economy had to grow, and go on growing, without a pause. It wasn’t just a question of overtaking the Americans. There were still people in the Soviet Union, at the beginning of the 1960s, who believed in Marx’s original idyll: and one of them was the First Secretary of the Party, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Somehow, the economy had to carry the citizens of the Bolshevik corporation all the way up the steepening slope of growth to the point where the growing blended into indistinguishable plenty, where the work of capitalism and its surrogate were done at last, where history resumed its rightful course; where the hunting started, and the fishing, and the criticising after dinner, and the technology of abundance would purr in the background like a contented cat.

For Spufford, the USSR of the 1950s and 60s is kind of a funhouse mirror of the United States of the same period—in other words a country aspiring to look like the hit television show “Mad Men”. Socialism becomes more or less equated with a hankering for more, rather than for freedom. Since Spufford is a man of the left, it is not surprising that he is appalled by consumerism, whichever ideology fosters it. He told the Guardian in August 2010:

Our version isn’t costless either. The steel and concrete required to sustain it are created for us elsewhere, out of sight, leaving us free to stroll around our pastel pavilion, on the side of which glimmers the word “Tesco”. Inside are piled, just as Khrushchev hoped, riches to humble the kings of antiquity. But terms and conditions apply.

While I will be on the lookout for any clues that Spufford has entertained the possibility that 21st century socialism will proceed on utterly different foundations than what Henry Miller once called the Air-Conditioned Nightmare, the prognosis seems guarded. The general impression I get from what I have read so far, both in “Red Plenty” and his musings elsewhere, is that of a jaded intellectual who believes that it is better to deal with the devil you know—an understandable stance if you are a college professor in London instead of a Greek pensioner.

Turning now to John Lanchester’s essay, you can at least be grateful to him for providing so many examples of how not to read Marx. It is a kind of clinical study in liberal confusion, mixed with deliberate misrepresentation, starting with the nonsense about the disappearance of the working class as a “centralized” and “organized” force. Perhaps the only thing worth stating at this point is if nobody ever wrote a single word from a Marxist standpoint after Marx’s death, Lanchester’s comments would be valid. However, Marxism continued after Marx’s death—surprise, surprise. While Lanchester refers to David Harvey in his essay (see below), he does not seem to have grasped his key theoretical contribution, namely the ability of capital to decentralize the working class through geographical displacement of its internal contradictions. With respect to it being “organized”, we can only say that this is not Marx’s responsibility—it is ours.

His essay tries for the umpteenth time to refute some of the basic precepts of Capital, especially Marx’s concept of value:

There are obvious difficulties with Marx’s arguments. One of them is that so many of the contemporary world’s goods and commodities are now virtual (in the digital-oriented sense) that it’s not easy to see where the accumulated labour in them is. David Harvey’s lectures on Capital, for instance, the best beginning for anyone studying Marx’s most important book, are of immense value but they’re also available for free on the internet, so if you buy them as a book – you can take in information much more quickly by reading than by listening – the surplus value you’re adding to is mainly your own.


There is so much confusion packed into this brief paragraph that it would take a week to draw out and dissect it. To put it briefly (and this is all it deserves), the books, music and videos available for free on the Internet were either created originally through the process of surplus value creation (just ask the NY Times reporter if his work was originally “for free”) or by schnooks like me who want to win friends and influence people on a pro bono basis. If the writers, artists, and film-makers whose stuff gets circulated on Huffington Post never got paid, there never would have been anything to look at (except of course for the bloggers who got conned into writing for free.) How this invalidates Marx’s theory of value is anybody’s guess.

Lanchester also believes that when you carry your own bags at the airport for free, you are proving Marx wrong:

Online check-in is a process which should genuinely increase the efficiency of the airport experience, thereby costing you less time: time you can spend doing other things, some of them economically useful to you. But what the airlines do is employ so few people to supervise the bag drop-off that there’s no time-saving at all for the customer. When you look, you see that because airlines have to employ more people to supervise the non-online-checked-in customers – otherwise the planes wouldn’t leave on time – the non-checked-in queues move far more quickly.

The same thing is true for the CVS pharmacy across the street from me that replaced most of its sales clerks with scanning machines. I ring up my scanned goods and pack them myself. But this is not what CVS is about. Mostly it is about commodities stocked on the shelves that are the products of alienated labor. For example, the paper products Vanity Fair, Angel Soft, and Northern Quilted are all made by Georgia-Pacific, part of Koch Industries. In December 2010, the workers at Georgia-Pacific in Portland, Oregon rallied against their bosses’ greed:

On the cold afternoon of December 4th, fourth generation Georgia- Pacific (G-P) employee Travis McKinney raised his voice above the frigid wind as he stood with close to one hundred of his co-workers, union allies and community supporters in front of the office at the company’s largest distribution center for paper products in Portland, Oregon.

He described to an outraged crowd, management’s cold-blooded refusal to allow him to tend to his daughter’s health: “When I had to take my daughter to the hospital to be diagnosed, the company told me I had to stay and work overtime instead.” Travis was eventually able to get medical help for his daughter – despite G-P’s lack of support – and found that she was autistic.

Doug Stilwell, another G-P employee, spoke at the rally about management’s constant pressure to speed up forklift operations. “There is no safety… ever since they put this computer system in here [to automatically direct workers when to move loads], we’re all taking shortcuts trying to get this stuff down, pushing their paper out. It’s wrong,” said Stilwell.

This is the underlying reality of CVS or American Airlines, another labor-bashing outfit, not me scanning my toilet paper or doing online check-in’s of my suitcases.

Lanchester’s trump card is just as what one might have expected: the welfare state. The fact that we are no longer working 12 hours a day and one step away from the poorhouse makes Marx obsolete:

The contemporary welfare state – housing and educating and feeding and providing healthcare for its citizens, from birth to death – is a development which challenges the basis of Marx’s analysis of what capitalism is: I think he would have looked hard at the welfare state and wondered whether it fundamentally undermined his analysis, just because it is so different from the capitalism Marx saw operating in his day, and from which he extrapolated. Perhaps he would argue that what has happened is that British society in its entirety has become part of a global bourgeoisie, and the proletariat is now in other countries; that’s a possible argument, but not one that’s easy to sustain in the face of the inequalities which exist and are growing in our society. But Scandinavian welfare capitalism is very different from the state-controlled capitalism of China, which is in turn almost wholly different from the free-market, sauve-qui-peut capitalism of the United States, which is again different from the nationalistic and heavily socialised capitalism of France, which again is not at all like the curious hybrid we have in the UK, in which our governments are wholly devoted to the free market and yet we have areas of welfare and provision they haven’t dared address.

How odd to see someone pointing to the welfare states of Europe nowadays when all of them are on a forced march to resemble the United States, with Greece a prime example of the fate that befalls them all—Germany and the Scandinavian countries to follow suit. All of them are under pressure to compete in a global market that is putting immense pressure on the more prosperous countries to drive down the wages of their workers so as to compete with the less prosperous.

It should be understood, however, that the existence of these welfare states is predicated not on the tendency of the bourgeoisie to operate against its own class interests. Historically, they came into being only because they were seen as a way to preempt proletarian revolution. In some ways, German’s Bismarck paved the way for FDR, the Scandinavian and British welfare states and all the rest.

Under Bismarck, the following pieces of legislation were enacted:

  • Health Insurance Bill of 1883
  • Accident Insurance Bill of 1884
  • Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889

He sponsored such legislation only because the German socialists were building a counter-force to German capitalism that had the potential to eliminate it. Even when he was pushing through welfare-state legislation well ahead of his time, Bismarck made sure to enact anti-socialist laws that resulted in the closing of 45 newspapers.

FDR was not that different. Widely recognized for fighting against the capitalists in order to preserve their own system, he made sure that the only threat to the status quo—the Trotskyists—ended up in prison at the beginning of WWII.

Whatever nostalgia you confront in “Red Plenty” for a fat and happy consumerist America of the 1950s or in Lanchester’s welfare state disappearing before your eyes like a Cheshire cat, the reality we confront is much more like Marx’s 1860s than either liberal is willing to accept. That is their problem, not ours.

December 7, 2011

Bull Moose and bullshit

Filed under: liberalism,Obama — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

In keeping with his cynical bid to restyle himself as some kind of leftist, Barack Obama made a speech yesterday in Osawatomie, Kansas that invoked the legacy of Roosevelt. No, comrades and friends, it was not that Roosevelt—the New Dealer that the soft left hoped he would become—but his fifth cousin Theodore. It didn’t matter that much. That was all people like Salon.com’s Steve Kornacki needed to hear:

His embrace of defiant, populist messaging also represents a final, definitive break with the bipartisan-friendly political style that defined Obama’s rise to power and the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency.

The Nation Magazine’s Ari Berman wrote:

You’re likely to hear elements of this speech over and over as the campaign heats up, as the Obama campaign attempts to stand with the 99 percent and paint Gingrich or Romney as core defenders of the 1 percent. None other than Chuck Schumer, one of the senators who represents Wall Street, told Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent that Democrats would focus on income inequality “like a laser” in 2012.

This is the same Chuck Schumer that the NY Times described as embracing the financial industry’s “free-market, deregulatory agenda more than almost any other Democrat in Congress, even backing some measures now blamed for contributing to the financial crisis.” The December 13, 2008 article added:

He succeeded in limiting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies, for example, sponsored legislation that cut fees paid by Wall Street firms to finance government oversight, pushed to allow banks to have lower capital reserves and called for the revision of regulations to make corporations’ balance sheets more transparent.

None of this matters to liberals who tend to have a short memory. As long as you toss them a bone, stroke them on the chin, all is forgiven.

Going slightly against the grain, Duke Law Professor Jedediah Purdy (love that name, like a character from an old Bonanza show) urged a note of caution. Compared to the original, the current occupant of the White House is a cheap imitation—more of a mouse than a moose.

Roosevelt’s speech was also much more unapologetically radical than Obama’s. He quoted Abraham Lincoln to say that labor is superior to capital, and praised active “struggle” against unfair inequality: “to take from some … class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth … which has not been earned by service to … their fellows.” He told his listeners that progress arose from the contest between those who possessed more than they had earned, and others who earned more than they possessed — plainly implying that most of Osawatomie was in the second group, the 99 percent of their day. Where Obama’s speech was basically conciliatory, Roosevelt’s was filled with images of what today would be called class warfare.

I want to return to the question of Roosevelt’s deeds as opposed to his words momentarily. After all, anybody who is familiar with Obama’s campaign speeches in 2008 knows that words are cheap. That being said, if you read between the lines you will realize that we are dealing with the same-old, same-old.

Theodore Roosevelt disagreed. He was the Republican son of a wealthy family. He praised what the titans of industry had done to create jobs and grow the economy. He believed then what we know is true today, that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It’s led to a prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.

At the outset, it should be noted that anybody who uses the buzzwords “grow the economy” at this point is a shameless tool of the ruling class. This cliché smacks of boardroom pep rallies, WSJ editorial page cant, business school lectures and all the rest. I first began to hear them working for Goldman-Sachs in 1987 and wondered what the hell top managers were talking about when they used those words. You grow a geranium, not an economy or a corporation. It invokes the image of somebody in a navy-blue business suit and a power yellow tie standing over a thing called the economy with a watering can. This mystifies the whole concept of how capitalism works. It is not organic like a garden flower, but something that involves exploitation. The proper tool is not a watering can but a blackjack.

With respect to the titans of industry creating jobs, Obama seems to have forgotten what Balzac observed in the epigraph to “Le Père Goriot”: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”. Oil, steel and rail—three of the biggest capitalized sectors of the American economy during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency—were the end-result of a scorched earth attack on workers, the land, and native peoples. For Roosevelt, their excesses consisted of monopoly pricing, not Pinkerton attacks on strikers.

Obama’s speech contained a couple of paragraphs that could have been written by Robert Reich or Paul Krugman:

Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1% has gone up by more than 25% to $1.2m per year. I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1%, the average income is now $27m per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6%.

Now, this kind of inequality – a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression – hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.

When it comes down to concrete proposals, Obama offers up the same tired formulas that Democratic Party “new economy” hacks like Lester Thurow and Michael Dukakis have been offering for decades now:

In today’s innovation economy, we also need a world-class commitment to science and research, the next generation of high-tech manufacturing. Our factories and our workers shouldn’t be idle. We should be giving people the chance to get new skills and training at community colleges so they can learn how to make wind turbines and semiconductors and high-powered batteries.

Actually, the real answer is not training but a guarantee of a job. If you think of jobs as a human right rather than a cog in the competitive machinery to ensure that the USA is Number One, then the dividing line between the ruled and the rulers becomes obvious. Nobody who is attending those white-tie fund-raising dinners for Obama has the slightest interest in guaranteeing that all Americans who want a job can have a job.

Obama probably knows that getting “new skills” does not work, but that did not prevent him from raising false hopes. A July 18, 2010 NY Times article reports exactly how false they are:

In what was beginning to feel like a previous life, Israel Valle had earned $18 an hour as an executive assistant to a designer at a prominent fashion label. Now, he was jobless and struggling to find work. He decided to invest in upgrading his skills.

It was February 2009, and the city work force center in Downtown Brooklyn was jammed with hundreds of people hungry for paychecks. His caseworker urged him to take advantage of classes financed by the federal government, which had increased money for job training. Upgrade your skills, she counseled. Then she could arrange job interviews.

For six weeks, Mr. Valle, 49, absorbed instruction in spreadsheets and word processing. He tinkered with his résumé. But the interviews his caseworker eventually arranged were for low-wage jobs, and they were mobbed by desperate applicants. More than a year later, Mr. Valle remains among the record 6.8 million Americans who have been officially jobless for six months or longer. He recently applied for welfare benefits.

“Training was fruitless,” he said. “I’m not seeing the benefits. Training for what? No one’s hiring.”

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have enrolled in federally financed training programs in recent years, only to remain out of work. That has intensified skepticism about training as a cure for unemployment.

And now for some concluding remarks on Teddy Roosevelt—mostly channeling the spirit of the sorely missed Howard Zinn who debunked him in “People’s History of the United States” just as he did with FDR.

In 1906 after Big Bill Haywood and two other officers of the Western Federation of Miners were imprisoned on trumped up murder charges, Eugene V. Debs wrote an article in “Appeal to Reason” denouncing the decision. This led to Roosevelt sending a copy of the article to his Attorney General, W. II. Moody, with a note: “is it possible to proceed against Debs and the proprietor of this paper criminally?”

Overall, Zinn’s analysis of Teddy Roosevelt is not much different than the one of FDR. The first Roosevelt presidency pushed through some reforms that were intended to preserve the system. Just as FDR worried about the Bolshevik threat, so did Teddy worry about Debs’s socialist party that was far more radical in some ways than the CPUSA. Zinn writes:

The panic of 1907, as well as the growing strength of the Socialists, Wobblies, and trade unions, speeded the process of reform. According to Wiebe: “Around 1908 a qualitative shift in outlook occurred among large numbers of these men of authority.. . .” The emphasis was now on “enticements and compromises.” It continued with Wilson, and “a great many reform-minded citizens indulged the illusion of a progressive fulfillment.”

What radical critics now say of those reforms was said at the time (1901) by the Bankers’ Magazine: “As the business of the country has learned the secret of combination, it is gradually subverting the power of the politician and rendering him subservient to its purposes. . , .”

There was much to stabilize, much to protect. By 1904, 318 trusts, with capital of more than seven billion dollars, controlled 40% of the U.S. manufacturing.

In 1909, a manifesto of the new Progressivism appeared-a book called The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly, editor of the New Republic and an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt. He saw the need for discipline and regulation if the American system were to continue. Government should do more, he said, and he hoped to see the “sincere and enthusiastic imitation of heroes and saints”- by whom he may have meant Theodore Roosevelt.

Richard Hofstadter, in his biting chapter on the man the public saw as the great lover of nature and physical fitness, the war hero, the Boy Scout in the White House, says: “The advisers to whom Roosevelt listened were almost exclusively representatives of industrial and finance capital-men like Hanna, Robert Bacon, and George W. Perkins of the House of Morgan, Elihu Root, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich … and James Stillman of the Rockefeller interests.” Responding to his worried brother-in-law writing from Wall Street, Roosevelt replied: “I intend to be most conservative, but in the interests of the corporations themselves and above all in the interests of the country.”

Roosevelt supported the regulatory Hepburn Act because he feared something worse. He wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge that the railroad lobbyists who opposed the bill were wrong: “I think they are very shortsighted not to understand that to beat it means to increase the movement for government ownership of the railroads.” His action against the trusts was to induce them to accept government regulation, in order to prevent destruction. He prosecuted the Morgan railroad monopoly in the Northern Securities Case, considering it an antitrust victory, but it hardly changed anything, and, although the Sherman Act provided for criminal penalties, there was no prosecution of the men who had planned the monopoly-Morgan, Harriman, Hill.

While most of us would be happy to see Obama push through even such half-measures, either on a Bull Moose or a New Deal basis, there is no possibility that they will materialize for the simple reason that the American economy is no longer based on the smokestack industries that marked the period of the first half-century of the 1900s. Obama speaks for a ruling class that is either based on fictitious capital or that is all too happy to see manufacturing continue its sorry decline. After all, their purpose in life is not to create jobs but to create profits.

November 9, 2011

Preliminary notes on the New Deal

Filed under: liberalism,New Deal — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

One of the most common complaints from professional liberals about Obama is that he has failed to deliver on the hopes they had for a new New Deal. After reading Alan Brinkley’s slim (116 pages) but informed biography of FDR, I can assure them that there’s not really that much difference between the two Democratic Party presidents. While not quite in the same category as the chapter on the New Deal in Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the USA, it certainly borders on damning with faint praise.

Even before he was elected, FDR was displaying some rather reactionary tendencies, although it should be added completely in line with the standards of the time (no doubt the same flaw demonstrated by Obama in spades.) Appointed by Woodrow Wilson to the post of assistant secretary of the Navy, FDR initiated a crack-down on gays in the area around the large naval base at Newport, Rhode Island. Enlisted men were assigned to entrap sailors and others (including a prominent Protestant clergyman). A scandal erupted over the excesses of the action and a Senate investigation led by Republicans rebuked FDR in 1921. Ah, the good old days…

As I have already mentioned in my article on the Bonus Army, one of FDR’s first major pieces of legislation in 1932 was a deficit-hawk Economy Act that cut benefits for veterans and government employees, ignoring the advice of the left.

The next piece of legislation in the First Hundred Days favored rich farmers over the poor ones. The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was supposedly designed to aid all farmers but in the hands of the Farm Bureau Administration, it tilted in favor of the agribusinesses of the day. Farm income for them grew by 50 percent over the next three years, but the dispossession of small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers continued and even accelerated. Especially hard-hit were Black farmers in the South who were targeted by the Dixiecrats. If you think of all this in terms of David Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession, it all made perfect sense. If Ford, GM, US Steel et al needed wage slaves, where else to get them except from the Deep South—either Black or white poor farmers.

In terms of Ford, GM and company, help arrived in the form of the National Industrial Recovery Act that created the National Recovery Administration. The goal of the NRA was to create trusts of the largest corporations that would establish price floors and check deflation. While there were some progressive aspects (elimination of child labor, maximum workweek hours of 35-40, and creation of Section 7(a) that would enable industrial trade unions), the main result was economic stagnation since the NRA was based on the assumption that overproduction of manufactured goods was at the root of the Great Depression. Here’s Clarence Darrow denouncing the NRA:

Not surprisingly, as Brinkley admits, FDR “faced growing disillusionment from the vast pool of the unemployed, and even from members of his own administration, who felt he was ineffectually improvising and was in danger of failing.”

Like Obama, FDR was rather loath to raise taxes on the rich despite rhetoric to the contrary. The Revenue Act of 1935 raised taxes on income over $50,000 but the bill had little impact on increasing government revenues or on “soaking the rich”. The bill was largely symbolic and helped to craft his image as some kind of leftist. In a campaign speech in October 1936, FDR spoke about welcoming the hatred of the rich but really did little to deserve it. His faux progressivism did help him beat Alf Landon, however, by a landslide.

Although his victory gave him a progressive mandate, FDR decided to move in exactly the opposite direction. Goaded by Henry Morgenthau, his secretary of the treasury and the Tim Geithner of his age, Roosevelt decided to balance the federal budget. The consequences were disastrous. Unemployment went from a low of 14.3 percent in 1937 (!) to a 19 percent in 1938 while the GNP declined by 5 percent.

He reversed himself in 1938 but by that time the New Deal was virtually finished. Brinkley states, “It did not end the Great Depression and the massive unemployment that accompanied it; only the enormous public and private spending for WWII finally did that.” In other words, he concurred with Harry Magdoff.

Needless to say, Alan Brinkley’s book—despite its overall integrity from a liberal standpoint—is totally insufficient. I read it to get oriented to a research project that might culminate in a book if I can ever discipline myself to stick to a single topic for more than a week.

Basically there has never been a book-length Marxist critique of New Deal liberalism to the best of my knowledge. The best things out there, besides Zinn, is an essay by Ronald Radosh titled “The Myth of the New Deal” that was a chapter in a book he co-edited with libertarian Murray Rothbard titled A New History of Leviathan. There’s also an article by Barton Bernstein in a book titled “Towards a New Past”–a collection of radical articles on American history that I plan to read before long.

About the best thing out there is Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step” that is focused on the creation of the CIO and that exposes FDR’s “plague on both your houses” politics that implicitly favored big business. Preis was a leader of the SWP and a first-rate journalist and working-class scholar.

I have all this material at home, as well as some other useful items on the WPA, etc.

I believe that it is absolutely necessary for the left to take on New Deal mythology and smash it once and for all. As is the case with Kemalism in Turkey and the PRI in Mexico, FDR’s liberalism is a kind of foundational myth for our own powerful bourgeois party crafted in progressive terms.

Even if this does not turn into a book, I will be filing reports on what I find out in the months to come.

October 16, 2011

Thoughts on Zizek’s “The Idea of Communism” conference

Filed under: Academia,Lenin,liberalism,postmodernism,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

In a striking inability to gauge the mood of a good portion of its targeted audience, Verso Press distributed an announcement for this weekend’s “The Idea of Communism” conference with a couple of blurbs referencing its éminence grise and majordomo Slavoj Zizek as follows:

“Superstar messiah of the new left.” – OBSERVER

“Slavoj Zizek is a superstar of Elvis-like magnitude–a bogglingly dynamic whirlwind of brainpower.” – DAZED AND CONFUSED

Superstar… Elvis-like… Messiah…

No wonder so many people bought into the hoax that Zizek and Lady Ga Ga were intellectual soul mates.

To some extent this obsession with celebrity is understandable because the powers that be at Verso Press and New Left Review must see themselves in the same terms. Whether this has anything to do with the proletarian orientation of the movement that Marx founded is of course another story altogether. How odd that the goal of some “revolutionaries” today is a guest appearance on the Charlie Rose show or a profile in Vanity Fair.

While I was put off by the publicity, I felt I owed it to myself and my readers to take advantage of Verso’s live streaming of the event. I have become more and more aware of a kind of trend emerging around Zizek, Jodi Dean and Alan Badiou that is distinguished by its insistence on using the term communism as well as its admiration for Lenin. It is a barometer of opinion in the academy that “communism” and Lenin can be placed in the center of a professor’s escutcheon (likely after attaining the safety of tenure.)

While Zizek refers to himself frequently as a “die-hard” Leninist, there is some question whether he understands the fundamental basis of Lenin’s politics, namely class independence. In a October 29, 2009 interview with Jonathan Derbyshire in the New Statesman Zizek said:

I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it. Do whatever is possible. This is why I support Obama. I think the battle he is fighting now over healthcare is extremely important, because it concerns the very core of the ruling ideology. The core of the campaign against Obama is freedom of choice. And the lesson, if he wins, is that freedom of choice is certainly something beautiful, but that it only works against a background of regulations, ethical presuppositions, economic conditions and so on. My position isn’t that we should sit down and wait for some big revolution to come. We have to engage wherever we can. If Obama wins his battle over healthcare, if some kind of blow can be struck against the ideology of freedom of choice, it will have been a victory worth fighting for.

While many are the charlatans who spoke in the name of Karl Marx, starting with Eduard Bernstein, Zizek has the distinction of saying the most anti-Leninist things in the name of Lenin, it would appear.

Unlike Zizek, whose “Leninism” is of recent vintage, Badiou is a soixante-huit Maoist. While Badiou’s fellow Maoists (André Glucksmann, Bernard-Henri Lévy et al) became turncoats, he remains true to his youthful beliefs. That, plus the fact that the Kasama Project speaks highly of him, gives him a certain legitimacy. That being said, Badiou seems to share the prevalent philosophical idealism of his fellow conferees (illness prevented Badiou from making an appearance).

Zizek, Dean, Badiou are clearly in the tradition of what Perry Anderson diagnosed in his 1976 “Considerations of Western Marxism”. Back in 1992 or so, when I was first exposed to the academic left on the Internet, I was so perplexed by all of the philosophical mumbo-jumbo that I found myself searching for an explanation of where it came from. I had given up my pursuit of a philosophy PhD in 1967 to join the Trotskyist movement and could not fathom why so many Marxist intellectuals were touting exactly the thinkers who I had abandoned 25 years earlier: Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger et al. As Marx had put it, the point was to change it. Right?

Anderson, no matter his confusion over so many things nowadays, had a pretty good explanation:

Western Marxism as a whole thus paradoxically inverted the trajectory of Marx’s own development itself. Where the founder of historical materialism moved progressively from philosophy to politics and then economics, as the central terrain of his thought, the successors of the tradition that emerged after 1920 increasingly turned back from economics and politics to philosophy – abandoning direct engagement with what had been the great concerns of the mature Marx, nearly as completely as he had abandoned direct pursuit of the discursive issues of his youth. The wheel, in this sense, appeared to have turned full circle. In fact, of course, no simple reversion occurred, or could occur. Marx’s own philosophical enterprise had been primarily to settle accounts with Hegel and his major heirs and critics in Germany, especially Feuerbach. The theoretical object of his thought was essentially the Hegelian system. For Western Marxism by contrast – despite a prominent revival of Hegelian studies within it – the main theoretical object became Marx’s own thought itself. Discussion of this did not, of course, ever confine itself to the early philosophical writings alone. The massive presence of Marx’s economic and political works precluded this. But the whole range of Marx’s oeuvre was typically treated as the source material from which philosophical analysis would extract the epistemological principles for a systematic use of Marxism to interpret (and transform) the world – principles never explicitly or fully set out by Marx himself. No philosopher within the Western Marxist tradition ever claimed that the main or ultimate aim of historical materialism was a theory of knowledge. But the common assumption of virtually all was that the preliminary task of theoretical research within Marxism was to disengage the rules of social enquiry discovered by Marx, yet buried within the topical particularity of his work, and if necessary to complete them. The result was that a remarkable amount of the output of Western Marxism became a pro­longed and intricate Discourse on Method. The primacy accorded to this endeavour was foreign to Marx, in any phase of his development.

For Anderson, the key to understanding the “philosophical” turn was the series of defeats in the 1920s and 30s that left many intellectuals in despair. If Stalinist and imperialist hegemony militated against the revolutionary project, then the next best thing might be an academic career where a kind of watered-down Marxism might be tapped for interesting lectures on Alfred Hitchcock movies and the like for audiences at conferences in places like London or Paris, with travel and hotel paid by one’s employer. That would be much more profitable than writing analyses of the capitalist economy in order to help develop strategy and tactics for the workers movement. That might have been how Lenin became a celebrity of sorts in Czarist Russia but that route was excluded for the modern and chastened left academy. Plus, Alfred Hitchcock movies were a lot more fun than pouring over land tenure or labor demographics.

Household chores and other research projects prevented me from watching the entire conference, but I did manage to check out the Saturday morning talks by Bruno Bosteels and Susan Buck-Morss, and Sunday’s with Jodi Dean and Zizek. The brunt of my comments will be directed at Dean and Zizek, but I do want to say a few brief words about Bosteels and Buck-Morss.

Bosteels’s talk was a mild polemic directed against Zizek’s attempt to reconcile Marxism and Christianity, the subject of his 2001 “The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?” Bosteel’s talk first appeared as an article titled “Are There Any Saints Left? León Rozitchner as a Reader of Saint Augustine” in the 2008 Polygraph (19/20). It is essentially an indictment of St. Augustine as a precursor to modern day imperialism, a rather uncontroversial thesis given the fact that his “City of God” was essentially a defense of the Holy Roman Empire. As my senior thesis at Bard College was a study of this book, I confess to having no inkling of its sinister motives at the time. I was a big fan of St. Augustine’s Confessions that resonated with my own adolescent angst and assumed that “The City of God” would be more of the same.

At the time (1965), I never once considered that a book might serve reactionary aims. My only problem with Bosteels’s approach to this classic is that it can easily be interpreted as idealistic. In other words, St. Augustine’s bad ideas explain the horrors of the Crusades, etc. At the risk of sounding hopelessly old-fashioned, I would look at the Crusades as driven more by a need to challenge Muslim commercial interests and to open up trade routes, but that’s just me and my moldy fig Marxism.

The first half of Susan Buck-Morss’s talk on communism and ethics was largely incomprehensible, dwelling on ontology and other matters related more to philosophy than political economy. The second half was what Teresa Ebert once called a “postal” attack on Marxism, including the usual complaints that it prioritizes a working class that no longer exists, instructs women and Blacks to wait until capitalism is overthrown for its problems to be solved—in other words, a mindless caricature.

Buck-Morss is an Adorno expert and as such found herself in the good graces of the Platypus Society that is striving after a synthesis of the Spartacist League and the Frankfurt School. In an April 2011 interview with the group, Buck-Morss told the boys what was wrong with people like Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh:

The whole discourse of “the enemy” or “the class enemy” in the Old Left was about putting people against the wall and shooting. I do not consider it progressive anymore, if it ever was, to justify violent insurrection on the basis that the state was not going to fall on its own.

Her grasp of economics is as sure-footed as her grasp of the nature of the state. The next morning she took the mike after Jodi Dean’s talk and relayed her concerns about the OWS 1/99 percent distinction that did not address the fact that many people in the United States were “capitalistic” because of their mortgages and their 401-k’s. When I used to sell the Militant newspaper door-to-door in the Columbia University dormitories in 1969, I used to hear the same argument. Little did I expect to hear it from a relatively famous almost-Marxist professor.

Google “Jodi Dean” and “Communist Desire” and you’ll be able to read the talk she gave this morning. It is a kind of psychoanalysis of the left:

If this left is rightly described as melancholic, and I agree with Brown that it is, then its melancholia derives from the real existing compromises and betrayals inextricable from its history, its accommodations with reality, whether of nationalist war, capitalist encirclement , or so-called market demands. Lacan teaches that, like Kant’s categorical imperative, super-ego refuses to accept reality as an explanation for failure. Impossible is no excuse—desire is always impossible to satisfy.

My take on this is somewhat different than Professor Dean’s. My RX for combatting melancholia is victories, no matter how minor, against the bourgeoisie. To achieve such victories, it will require strategy and tactics that Malcolm X once described as  “designed to get meaningful immediate results”. Such actions are surely aided by a solid analysis of the relationship of class forces that can only be derived by a study of bourgeois society such as the kind found in classical Marxism and not Frankfurt-inspired philosophizing, I am afraid.

Zizek’s talk was a bad boy exercise in epater la bourgeoisie that he is famous for. He scoffed at the priority that the left had put on winning democracy and urged the need for violence, calling attention to how demonstrators in London had broken windows earlier in the year. Without breaking the windows, nobody would have noticed. Fortunately, the mass movement no longer pays attention to such provocative suggestions.

Dean unfortunately has bought into Zizek’s bad boy routine and even defended it against his critics. Google “Jodi Dean” and “Zizek Against Democracy” and you will be able to read a document that states:

Some theorists construe Zizek as an intellectual bad boy trying to out-radicalize those he dismisses as deconstructionists, multiculturalists, Spinozans, and Leftist scoundrels and dwarves.  Ernesto Laclau, in the dialogue with Zizek and Judith Butler, refers scornfully to the “naïve self-complacence” of one of Zizek’s “r-r-revolutionary” passages:  “Zizek had told us that he wanted to overthrow capitalism; now we are served notice that he also wants to do away with liberal democratic regimes.”   Although Laclau implies that Zizek’s anti-democratic stance is something new, a skepticism toward democracy has actually long been a crucial component of Zizek’s project.  It is not, therefore, simply a radical gesture.

Indeed, part of Zizek’s talk this morning dealt with exactly this question, scoffing at those leftists who care about which judge will be elected. He reminded the audience that Marx believed that it was only through seizing state power and abolishing capitalist property relations that true freedom could be achieved. That of course would be news to Marx scholars like August Nimtz, whose “Marx and Engels: their contribution to the democratic breakthrough” revealed their commitment to what Zizek writes off. The book includes this epigraph that obviously Zizek would regard as liberal mush:

The movement of the proletarians has developed itself with such astonishing rapidity, that in another year or two we shall be able to muster a glorious array of working Democrats and Communists — for in this country Democracy and Communism are, as far as the working classes are concerned, quite synonymous.

–Frederick Engels, “The Late Butchery at Leipzig.-The German Working Men’s Movement

And as far as the “ruthless” Lenin, scourge of democratic half-measures, was concerned, this was his assessment in “What is to be Done” of what the Russian socialists (he used this term much more frequently than communist) had to do to live up to the standards of the German social democracy, a party he was seeking to emulate:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

That’s the Lenin we must learn from, not Zizek’s cartoon-like figure who comes out of a 1950s Red Scare B-movie.

October 13, 2011

The Leopard and the New Deal

Filed under: financial crisis,liberalism — louisproyect @ 9:14 pm

“Everything must change so that everything can stay the same”

Prince Tancredi Falconeri’s observation in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard”

* * * *

“I think I am still a conservative, but I believe that a new set of plans is essential to preserve the conservative order of things. The trouble is that most of our business and professional friends do not understand that the old methods will not serve. New arrangements are necessary to save the economic structure. I think it is not radical, certainly not revolutionary, to change the methods of business leadership and the relations both with employees and with customers . . . the methods you and your associates are inaugurating are necessary in order to retain the existing industrial order.”

From Chicago lawyer Charles Leroy Brown’s letter to NRA (National Recovery Administration) director Donald Richberg

August 24, 2011

Mike Ely (Kasama Project) comments on Libya

Filed under: liberalism — louisproyect @ 12:30 pm

His comment appeared under my article “Notes on Libya” that he crossposted: http://kasamaproject.org/2011/08/22/33228/

Andrei writes:

“The fall of Qaddafi is not just a defeat for people’s Libya, but a defeat for Africa and the Arab people.”

My geography is a bit spotty. Where exactly is this Peoples’ Libya you speak of?

Do such things emerge without socialist revolution? Is there some other process by which “peoples governments” emerge?

The defacto invention of a socialist Libya is a pure fantasy — where materialism is precisely the issue. Libya is a capitalist oil state, ruled by a corrupt (and highly eccentric) family of bureaucrat capitalism. It is fully integrated into world capitalism, and actively invests capital in world finance (mega-bucks, big-time).

Most oil economies find ways to establish political stability by creating welfare and educational programs (Iran does it, Saudi Arabia does it, Iraq did it….) And often that stability helps very brutal (or reactionary) governments weather discontent (the Saudi monarchy just wrote a check to its own people).

But a certain kind of socialist sees education and health care as socialist — so when Libya has education and health care it is seen as (somehow) socialist. Is Saudi Arabia also socialist? Or western Europe?

The basic assumption is that “if the U.S. attacks them, they must be progressive.” This argument is only effective if our discussion is devoid of history. In fact, the U.S. attacks all kinds of reactionaries (and that attack doesn’t make the U.S. progressive, and it doesn’t make those local oppressors progressive.)

For example, the U.S. overthrow Noriega and Diem (and even invaded panama to do it).

And of course the U.S. also has war-contradictions with big oppressors too: with Nazi Germany, or Tojo’s militarized Japan, or Breschnev’s Soviet Union.

And those powers were quite capable of using “anti-imperialist” rhetoric. Japanese imperialism presented itself as the “non-European power” (protecting Asian people from the western imperialists). They called their new empire “the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.”

Bresnev’s USSR even used “socialist” rhetoric. So when Breznev invented his “Breznev doctrine” (a mirror image of the Bush doctrine) and declared that the Soviet Union had a right to invade and carry out regime change in its neighbors and allies — all this was justified in terms of “socialist internaitonalism” etc. (i.e. no sovereignty rights among the allies of this nominally “socialist” war bloc).

And (it needs to be said) in many wars, neither side is progressive. Breznev invaded Czechoslovakia and removed the Dubcek regime. It was an act of imperialism, and an unjust violation of sovereignty…. but no one thinks that Dubceck was “more socialist” than the Soviet imperialists.

Some people tried to say that the U.S. and its allies attacked Serbia because it was somehow socialist or an obstacle to capitalism. In fact, Yugoslavia was the worlds first example of a capitalist state with a nominally communist superstructure (and had never been socialist). The Serbian leadership the U.S/Nato deposed were ugly chauvinists who came to power with a hysterical campaign against the fairly vulnerable Kosovo albanian (and the Bosnian muslims) — nothing progressive there.

And of course, we opposed the US/NATO attacks on Yugoslavia/Serbia, just as we should (with energy) expose and oppose the U.S./NATO crimes in Libya (and their future moves to modify their domination).

But why do we need a fantasy politics that assumes:
a) various bureaucrat capitalist states in the third world are somehow progressive (or even socialist).
b) that anything the U.S. attacks must be (somehow) progressive (as if the world and its politics is binary, and as if the U.S. only attacks progressive things… so we can use their policies as a litmus test replacement for our own class analysis).

We should oppose U.S. imperialism. That is our responsibility. We should to it systematically and with great clarity. And we have a great deal of work to do because, even among radical people in the U.S., there is often a strong current that the U.S. could do good, and it could have a democratic, pro-people foreign policy. Such illusions are closely tied to the illusions that led to supporting Obama.

But opposing U.S. imperialism does not require prettifying reactionary states. Nor does it change the fact that revolution means that people must overthrow their governments. A revolutinary movement in Syria, or Iran, or Libya, or [fill in the blank] directly faces their governments (not just a distant disembodied imperialism) — and their governments and ruling classes are (today) deeply entwined with imperialism.

Final point:

When did imperialism become the only enemy of the people of the world?

Mao (for example) talked about three mountains on the back of the Chinese people: Feudalism, bureaucrat capitalism (i.e. the central govt of GMD) and imperialism.

Feudalism is far weaker today in the world and rarely holds major state power.

But certainly people in many places face both bureaucrat capitalism and imperialism (look at Mexico!). And there are often feudal remnants that deeply affect hte nature of the class struggle.

This is not a colonialist world. This is not 1950. The local rulers of states like China, Iran, South Korea, India, Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, are quite formidible and oppressive in their own right — and they are targets of revolution (together with foreign imperialists).

The view that imperialism alone is the people’s oppressors (and, beyond that, even that U.S. imperialism alone is the world target) is actually not a revolutionary view.

And it quickly leads to arguments that people should rally around all kinds of ugly and brutal and reactionary local oppressors. And it is a politics of endless resistance without plans for actual revolution (i.e. overthrow the fucking government). And suddenly local governments (even of quite major oppressors in their own right) supposedly become “allies” in resistance and not targets of revolution.

There is a long history of this in some (rightist!) currents of the communist movement. But it was never a good politics, and certainly isn’t today.

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