Friday, March 03, 2017

Toward Socialism: A preliminary and therefore provisional diagnosis of symptoms—i.e., what ails us—including a brief etiology of the principal causal variable and a proposed therapeutic regimen.

A fairly large number of working class folks who voted for Trump appear to think that populist economic nationalism (granted, this may in some measure be merely a rhetorical smokescreen) and protectionist (or mercantilist) trade policies will perform an economic miracle, bringing about socio-economic security and the realization of middle-class dreams. (Ironically, or not, if one examines the early history of capitalism, protectionist policies and state intervention can—and have—work(ed) for emerging polities dedicated to economic development.) This demonstrates the remarkable effectiveness of being socialized into political and economic ideologies that refuse to historically and analytically conceptualize capitalism in its latest global incarnation. People simply don’t understand (or have succumbed to a colossal state of denial about) the “big-picture” consequences of the frenzied pursuit of profit and the ruthless competition between firms, including the endless search for cheap or cheaper labor markets. They appear to lack a sufficient grasp of the consequences of capital’s unbridled exploitation of technological innovation by way of supplanting (the costs of) labor. The intransigent nature of these ideologies has not prepared them for the increasing frequency of “boom and bust” cycles or periodic general crises that are “natural” to capitalism. The intransigent nature of these ideologies has precluded a grasp of the historic role of organized labor, social democratic parties and Leftist social movements in enhancing the welfare and well-being of the lives of working people, in prompting changes that have mitigated the harshest effects of capitalism, and in acting as the principal collective agents for the melioration of capitalism itself. It is neither an incidental nor an accidental fact that “the dramatic rise in the ratio of profits to wages provides a material foundation for the sharp rise in the overall income inequality” (Anwar Shaikh), for in the absence of a strong and broad coalition of Leftist forces, capital has its way with labor, and the ill-effects reverberate throughout the social order (cf. Göran Therborn’s The Killing Fields of Inequality, 2013).

No U.S. president, whether Democrat Republican, can play a messianic role in saving us from the mortal sins of contemporary capitalism. Yes, states—or the State—can intervene directly in the balance of power between capital and labor, but when they (or it) systematically intervene on behalf of the former over the latter (with the collusion or collaboration of non-governmental global institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and now, although this may be changing, the WTO) the poor, working people, and those in the middle class will suffer (even neoliberals rely on the power of the State to implement fiscal conservativism and monetarist policies). There is evidence aplenty that this is already occurring with the Trump regime: the inability to see or acknowledge such evidence confirms once more the power of prevailing ideologies (wherein capitalism is ‘the best’ or ‘only’ economic system, the problem being solely which kind of capitalism one prefers). Yet “even in the best welfare states, social expenditures and taxes serve more to redistribute the living standard of labor than to change its average level. As a whole, labor largely pays for its own social benefits” (Anwar Shaikh). In short, the power of states to intervene in the operations of capitalism is severely constrained in a world of deregulated capital markets: states no longer have the same degree of power they once held in the period of “national capitalism” (a term that reminds of the diminished power of Keynesian-inspired states to robustly ‘steer’ the economy and why Claus Offe wrote about the Contradictions of the Welfare State and Disorganized Capitalism). The current round of globalization is a conspicuous “combination of deregulated capital movements, advances in information/communication/transport technologies, and a shift in ideology away from social democracy [as well as the ‘Liberal’ capitalist ideologies that buttress liberal or corporatist welfare policies] and statism towards neoliberalism and libertarianism.” “One consequence of this new phase,” writes Meghnad Desai, “is that the state no longer controls the economy, but is one player (a major one of course) among many. The state has to adapt and adjust to forces which it cannot control but must respond to.”

When working people understandably but myopically lament the effects of capitalist globalization on their lives (all the while failing to appreciate the disastrous effects of such microeconomic policies as deregulation and privatization), they appear to outsiders looking in or those awaiting a seat at the table as a tad self-centered, unabashedly selfish or simply unrealistic insofar as they are forgetting, deliberately ignoring or unintentionally neglecting (a result, in part, of debilitating psychological mechanisms that go hand-in-hand with ideology construction and maintenance) the historic effects of earlier forms of globalization on far more vulnerable and poorer peoples on our planet: “colonization, force, pillage, slavery, slaughter of native [‘indigenous’] peoples, the targeted destruction of potential competitors, and a huge transfer of wealth into the rich countries.” This is not to deny the injustice of having their middle class lives (or the aspirations thereto) cut out from under them, but this means capitalist globalization is reducing “three worlds” to one, as millions around the globe are gaining at the expense of the middle classes in the affluent countries, and even if it is not, to be sure, the “one world” of principled or democratic cosmopolitans. Governments did not plan this, however much they have since capitulated to these economic forces: it is the predictable result of the global consolidation of turbo- and finance-capitalism, of the increasing power of transnational corporations. And while economic globalization has an upside in some parts of the world and has been responsible for a significant reduction in poverty (directly related to the economic downturn in the affluent countries), substantial local, regional, and international inequality persists, indeed, it’s often growing, particularly within countries. Once more with Shaikh: “One could easily well argue that the inequality and lack of democracy on a global scale is abetted by the political institutions and interests of the ‘democracies’ of patrimonial capitalism.” But the power of these institutions and those interests is diminishing, hence the ascendance of xenophobic nationalism, right-wing populism, and fascist authoritarianism, all of which represent in part a frantic and frightening attempt to regain the political powers that made for “national capitalism,” albeit sans any knowledge of the historical sources and sociological context of those powers. It is nostalgic fantasizing for a lost world, and its tenacious grip on mind of the masses (at least some of them) bodes ill for all of us.

The Golden Age of capitalism for the “club of the advanced capitalist countries” is over (and with it, the ‘national capitalism’ that flourished during this period). Looking back with Desai: “The Keynesian quarter-century had indeed been a party. Everything had stayed high—employment, hours worked, vacancies—or grown steadily—income, wealth. The public sector—central government, local government, public enterprises—had grown without causing any problems.”

We may look back, but there’s no turning back. And there is no golden-like age on the horizon, despite the contrary proclivities and desperate yearnings among those of us old enough to be intimately familiar with this history. In other words, Keynesianism, post- or otherwise, is behind us, at least in the long term and globally speaking (it was Keynes, after all, who ‘made capitalism safe for democracy’). The current conditions are, Desai provocatively suggests, “analogous to sailing a ship on high seas. The ship has some machinery for control, but in navigating it, the captain does not control the waves or the wind. These forces can be studied, but they cannot be controlled. The captain who ignores or defies these forces may well run the ship aground or sink altogether.” Put differently, “[c]ycles, with their mania, crashes, and panics” are here to stay, as they undoubtedly “are endemic to capitalism” (Desai). And yet it seems implausible if not reckless to speak of the “imminent collapse” of capitalism, given its staying power through and beyond the duration of these cycles: at present and in the near-term, there are only different types or versions of capitalism, some meaner and some more beneficent than others. One reality North Americans and Europeans are alike compelled to confront, in spite of recalcitrant ideological blinkers or blinders: the current phase of capitalist transformation and entrenchment is truly global. In the words of Desai,

“The influence of capital—either as portfolio finance or as direct investment—the hegemony of financial markets, the increasing penetration of trade, have been experienced by all the worlds: First, Second, and Third. Indeed, this numerical categorization is now otiose. The benefits and costs of capitalism fall symmetrically—though not equally—on all parts of the world. For the first time in two hundred years, the cradle of capitalism—the metropolis, the core—has as much to fear from the rapidity of change as does the periphery.” [emphasis added]

It is this fear that has been canalized by the Right (and projected outward on ‘the Other’), its ideological and political project facilitated by a considerable number of working class voters punch-drunk on a cocktail of denial, self-deception, and wishful thinking. The fears, anxieties and anger of those workers in the (global) metropolis will not be assuaged, let alone overcome with the accelerated privatization of public goods, the deregulation of the finance sector, and the evisceration of remnant unionized workers.

The Republican Party generally and the Trump Administration in particular are shameless in according pride of place to the most perverse of motivations and incentives (these are not the only motivations and incentives common to capitalism) associated with capitalist democracy (in its neoliberal iteration or otherwise) and the visceral and reactionary moods and frustrations of those—of late—economically disenfranchised (while the poor are subject to purely punitive policies). No “public benefits” will follow from such motivations and incentives. But we can predict with some confidence more pain and suffering for the poor, the disenfranchised, the vulnerable, and the working class in this country, that is, those outside the privileged pantheon of a political and economic plutocracy marked by kleptocratic pretensions.  A president afflicted with narcissistic megalomania (and a Midas complex), pubescent character traits and authoritarian propensities in conjunction with a dispositional aversion to truth (quickened by a paranoid penchant for conspiracy theories), only amplifies the already alarming degree and scope of danger that characterizes a political climate marked by irrationality and unpredictability and suffused with apocalyptic-like apprehensions.

The Left must exemplify, in theory and praxis, the triune principles and virtues of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Tenacity, courage, and imagination will likewise be critical in breaking through the authoritarian social-character armor that has been fashioned from the more regressive and aggressive socio-cultural and political materials found in this country’s history: conformism, homophobia, (white and ‘Christian’) ethno-nationalism, militarism, parochialism, racism, sexism, conspicuous consumption and acquisitiveness, unbridled ambition, celebrity worship and fame-seeking, the will to dominate others, in short, the “false consciousness” well-captured in Erich Fromm’s clever locution, “the pathology of normalcy.” We will need to avail ourselves of the best of democratic theory and praxis found in liberal, (democratic and utopian) socialist, anarchist, and communist traditions, taking inspiration from the many men and women who went before us, including those principled communists who fought against apartheid in South Africa or came to power in the Indian state of Kerala or struggled for civil rights and on behalf of organized workers in U.S. history. These traditions are chock full of lessons for fighting the demonic forces of xenophobic nationalism and fascism, the evils incarnate in white supremacy, religious fanaticism and authoritarian populism, indeed any ideology or movement that embodies the perverse logic of doctrines and dogmas that deny the fundamental premises of inherent human dignity and fundamental human rights, that thwart the untrammeled democratic representation of the will of the people consistent with same, or that evidence little or no concern with sustainable living in harmony with the ecological and natural processes on our planet. We will continue to fight the latest iterations of these backward historical forces. There may be periodic setbacks and localized defeats in the progressive realization of emancipatory ends, in the extension of democratic principles and processes beyond electoral politics proper (e.g., in the economic realm), but the purification of a “realist,” statist and right-wing politics, increasingly beholden to fascist or fascist-like sentiment must continue apace, animated by a compassionate combination of reason and passion capable of transforming conventional power politics into something consistent with or at least closer to the kind of life that might be found in the daily round outside the Platonic cave, and thus under the nourishing and warm light of the Good, a life in which gains in global distributive justice mean everyone finds a seat at the bountiful table, a life in which flourishing becomes a real possibility.

—Patrick S. O’Donnell (March 3, 2017)

  • Desai, Meghnad. Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Statist Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism. London: Verso, 2002.
  • Shaikh, Anwar. Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.


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