Pre-Occupied:"...A World Economy Beset by a Glut of Both Labor and Capital
By William Neil
November 28, 2011 - 10:43pm ET
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November 28, 2011
PRE-OCCUPIED: “…A WORLD ECONOMY BESET BY A GLUT OF BOTH LABOR AND CAPITAL…”
“In inexorable ways…American democracy is gradually being dismantled by the dynamics of global economics now astride the world at large. To salvage democracy at home, Americans must begin to think of themselves in much larger terms. They must learn how to act like democratic citizens of the world.”
William Greider, Who Will Tell the People, 1992
“An entire generation across the globe has grown up realizing, rationally and emotionally, that we have no future in the current order of things...we watched as our resources, industries and public services were sold off and dismantled as the ‘free market’ pushed an addiction to foreign goods, to foreign food even…The current crisis in America and western Europe has begun to bring this reality home to you as well: that as things stand we will all work ourselves raw, our backs broken by personal debt and public austerity…So we stand with you not just in your attempts to bring down the old but to experiment with the new. We are not protesting. Who is there to protest to? …We are occupying. We are reclaiming those same spaces of public practice that have been commodified, privatized and locked into the hands of a faceless bureaucracy, real estate portfolios, and police ‘protection.’ Hold on to these spaces, nurture them, and let the boundaries of your occupations grow. ..”
Solidarity Statement from Cairo to OWS, 10/25/2011
“There are no humane electronics today.”
Mike Daisey, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” 2011
“…Climate change must, for progressives, occupy a central place in a coherent narrative about the perils of unrestrained greed and the need for real alternatives…Climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideas are no longer viable. These are profoundly challenging revelations for all of us raised on Enlightenment ideals of progress, unaccustomed to having our ambitions confined by natural boundaries. And this is true for the statist left as well as the neoliberal right.”
Naomi Klein, Capitalism vs. the Climate, 2011
Dear Citizens and Elected Officials:
The essay which follows was worked on continuously over the past two months, through the death of Steve Jobs and the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, and the continuing dominance of austerity economics, which is tearing Europe apart, as it did in the 1930’s, and threatening to pull down the world economy with it.
The rise of OWS, along with a revival in Marxist thought, to be found even amidst Bloomberg News articles and commentary, one of which featured a serialization which we describe, not entirely tongue-in-check, as “Marx in Love,” surely are signs of the times. It sent us back to books which have sat on our shelves since the late 1970’s, ones which we never imagined we would be consulting again. To some readers we have joked that an increasingly crass and vulgar capitalism thoroughly deserves a return of “vulgar” Marxism. But that’s something, upon further reflection, we do not recommend or wish upon the world. We remain eclectic in our sources, writing no school of thought, or Occupiers, a blank check, even ones we are sympathetic to. We certainly didn’t issue one to the world Steve Jobs helped make, following the evidence trail of monologist Mike Daisey back to the factory complex in Shenzhen, China where the bulk of Apple’s – and the world’s - electronic devices are manufactured, and we placed Daisey’s conclusion about them right up-front in our epigrams.
As the weeks went by and we learned more about the people at the center of OWS, our own views evolved, but we have not re-written our earlier October impressions or interactions; instead, we used the unfolding drama (and mystery) of OWS as a way to intensify our review of the main currents, and tensions, in 19th and 20th century left-wing thought. Then we utilized Michael Kazin’s new book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation as a jumping off point because it seemed to begin, and end, in ways very similar to our last essay, “Heading Down the Road to Disunion.”
And looking back to a forgotten Labor Day op-ed from 2010, we give Jefferson Cowie’s multiple award winning Stayin’ Alive: the 1970’s and the Last Days of the Working Class center stage because that is the decade of economic troubles (and much else) when the left faltered so badly and turned the nation’s economy over to the market fundamentalists, aka “the neo-liberals.” We found that Cowie’s book set off a little “dialectical” process in our own methodology. He quotes from Michael Harrington, and Mike Davis, who didn’t agree with Harrington, and also Christopher Lash, who didn’t agree much with either of them, all trying to make sense of how the left was “left behind” in that decade, and beyond, and where American society was headed, which was to the opposite side of the political spectrum, it turned out.
What made us pick up Mike Davis’ first and least known work (he is today one of the best writers in America, and indeed, teaches writing) was its intriguing title: Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class. Here was a book that cast a shadow upon the suffering, broken “Dream” that contemporary elements of the American left are trying to rehabilitate and “reclaim,” but that Dream still remains relentlessly rootless and upwardly mobile in nature, as likely to be an ideological weapon for Joe the Plumber and the New Jersey Builders Association as for Van Jones.
This essay is no mere nostalgic ramble on our part, however. Contained within the dynamics of these authors’ works is a devastating critique of organized labor and its relationship to a Democratic Party which is moving steadily to the Right, confounding Harrington’s far too optimistic interpretations – and dreams. Cowie has given us a memorable, blue-collar archetype (not stereotype) in the life story of Dewey Burton, in whom all the conflicting currents of the 1970’s seem to find expression. Burton is a well-paid UAW worker, but an angry and alienated one. He votes for Humphrey in 1968; Wallace in the 1972 Michigan primary, McGovern in the 1972 presidential election; Reagan in the 1976 Republican primary, then Ford in the fall; and finally, predicting labor’s fall and eviction from the Garden of Affluence, Reagan again in 1980.
To us, the amazing thing is that Burton’s life never connected with the work of Harrington in that decade, even though Harrington was writing about worker troubles, Dewey’s troubles, and speaking American, trying to make the works of a “rehabilitated,” a thoroughly democratized Marx relevant once again. Instead of deepening his political consciousness, though, Burton’s free time is spent on his part-time hobby of customizing cars and taking college courses: the real life expression of exactly what Davis meant by the term “Prisoners of the American Dream.”
In the second half of our essay, we follow the long-standing tensions on the left between de-centralizing anarchists and all manner of socialists, social democrats and liberals, who believe in continual human progress, especially technological progress, and the eventual “capture” of the state from the business interests which have nearly always dominated it, despite “the state’s” best attempts to portray itself as speaking for a “common good” that transcends the factions of civil society. It seems that in the America of 2011, neither the left nor the right believes “the government” represents their interests. And “alienation” is still with us, having been transferred from the world of work (where it still exists, and how) to the realm of “the state.”
When we speak of the return of “vulgar” capitalism and its domination of the state, Pam Martens’ brief expose on the strange public-private partnership between Wall Street and the NY City Police Department, carried out with public money, can show you exactly what we mean here at http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/10/18/wall-street-firms-spy-on-protesto...
We then use three fine essays (and much more, of course) as well as Christopher Lasch’s most sweeping work, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991) to give our readers a framework for making sense of the economy, the rise and nature of OWS, and the ongoing tensions between competing traditions on the left. The essays, in order of appearance are “The Way Forward,” from the New America Foundation and Nouriel Roubini, and others, which we hope could be the starting point (well, a shared diagnosis, at least) for a new Center-Left economic landscape; “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” by Naomi Klein, which is a brilliant and provocative polemic which places itself right astride these old fault lines on the left and some new ones as well. Thus James Livingston’s provocative 2011 book, Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment and Your Soul, seems pitted against the new “monasticism” of Christopher Hedges and Klein’s insistence, along with Lasch’s, that nature will be overwhelmed by consumer culture. And last there is Richard Kim’s November Nation article, “The Audacity of Occupy Wall Street,” a shrewd assessment of both its street smart inventiveness and its internal frictions. For readers who want to get a head start on these resources, we’re putting the links right here in the Introduction for you:
We do not leave you hanging on the fence, however. Our essay concludes with a take on the tactics and destination of OWS, compared to both the abolitionists and the civil rights’ movement, and our own “Declaration” of what its top five goals, or “demands,” ought to be, and why, starting with the universal “Right to a Job.” We’ve been on that universal Right to a Job theme for years now, and haven’t changed our mind, especially since Kim’s “Audacity” piece revealed that on the issue of “jobs for all,” OWS’s internal tensions, consistent with the history of the left, prevented a unified position from emerging - because of controversy over the role of the state.
It leads us to ask of all the great decentralizers: are the worker managed firms, “B” corporations and organic food co-ops ready to substitute themselves for the goods and necessities produced by the corporate, private economy, and to solve the immediate unemployment and foreclosure situation? If the answer is no, then we suggest that the early retirement of the central state be postponed for a few more years, and also that there are logical ways to bridge these tensions, which have sound precedents in 20th century American History.
Although we certainly don’t want to make OWS’ life any more difficult than it already is, their own declaration (NY City Assembly) from September 29 raised the issue of globalization’s impacts, and that topic, in the form of our great trade imbalances with China, is also one of the main topics in “The Way Forward.” And wouldn’t you know that just as we were about to go to press we received an Email from the Majority Leader of the Maryland House of Delegates, Kumar Barve, who is of Indian descent, and from our home district, informing us that Maryland Governor O’Malley and a delegation of legislators and business people will be embarking on a trade mission to India. It didn’t go into much detail, but the implicit assumption was that it could only be good for Maryland and India. In light of the way trade with China has worked against the United States economy, we have to be a little more skeptical than Bill Clinton was.
And we spend time in our essay talking about Thomas Geoghegan’s interesting article asking “What would Keynes Do?” in our current woes, since Keynes was very much against running large trade deficits, which would weaken “stimulus” efforts to increase domestic demand. In turn, we liked Marshall Auerback’s answer to Geoghegan a few weeks later, “Are Trade Deficits Really that Bad,” which ended up making a strong case for a “universal Job Guarantee program” as the top domestic priority, and not going after the difficult trade deficit first. We must also call attention to Thomas Palley’s fine paper, “Explaining Global Financial Imbalances: A Critique of the Savings Glut and Reserve Currency Hypotheses,” which sounds daunting but is an easy read, and pins the blame for the US trade imbalance on the policy preferences of American international corporations, pointing out that it is their majority share of Chinese manufacturing exports that drive the imbalances. Unfortunately, Palley’s article doesn’t reference Geoghegan’s and Auerback’s, which is a recurrent subtheme of our own essay: how often the economic debate in this country consists of folks talking around each other, even when they are all on the left. Livingston, Geoghegan, Auerback and Palley all deserve to be part of a more intensive economic dialogue which challenges the old Center-Right assumptions. Who knows, some day we might even have a serious economic discussion in the vicinity of the nation’s capital.
And since we have so many Maryland legislators on our mailing list, we thought we’d provide a “citizen briefing” that they could take with them on their trade mission to India. So here are the links for our “background briefing”:
We’ll close this Introduction with an insight from Norman Birnbaum about Christopher Lasch, taken from his Nation tribute, “Gratitude and Forbearance,” which we think brings his work to bear on where we are now as a “movement,” and a nation: “Lasch was a spiritual pilgrim, reminding others of the unshared past they had lost but might be able to recover. He was a reformer in a society in which the most elemental of reforms, the democratization of economic life, has not been accomplished.”
It’s high time to add that reform, which amounts to a Second Bill of Rights, economic ones, to the great democratic and emancipatory documents of human history.
Editor’s Note: Because this is a long essay, we’re going to copy just the first half into the Email text, with the entire essay included as a MS-Word document.
Confronting a World of Freebooting Capitalisms
Was it a mere coincidence that when “we” shifted to the first person singular in the last essay, Heading Down the Road to Disunion, partly to honor the memory of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and the style of his weekly newspaper, The Liberator, the date of our essay, and its accompanying intensity, nearly matched, just one day earlier, that of the launching of the Occupy Wall Street movement: September 17, 2011? And was it a mere coincidence that Michael Kazin had just come out with a new book, in late August, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, which began with the abolitionists, and ended on a note and with a vocabulary that made us smile in recognition as we worked through his last chapter, which we didn’t read until after our Disunion essay was already travelling along the unseen lines of the Ethernet.
Professor Kazin wrote, on the very last pages of his book, that “at a nadir of the historic left, perhaps utopia could use a few words in its defense. A world of freebooting capitalisms has delivered neither material abundance nor social harmony to most of the world’s people…” While we’ll have more to say about capitalism and material abundance a bit later in this posting, and in future work, we don’t think these were coincidences at all; that is the way history sometimes works behind our backs, especially when the left doesn’t have a powerful movement to steer it towards its desired directions, or the institutions that can keep a movement alive during the inevitable disappointments.
So we think it’s worth quoting a few more lines from American Dreamers, from the last three pages, to set the stage for the fall of 2011, as the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has spread across the US. We’ve put italics on the phrases which echo passages our readers may remember from our last three essays:
"Surely this is a time for awakening the better angels of our nature, for rescuing the virtues of the non-Communist radical faith from the junk pile of history. Workers who organize themselves could brake the wild-ride of the free marketeers…In the United States no less than in the Islamic world, we need a moral equivalent of the passion that drives vengeful believers…But the utopian impulse should not be smothered under a patchwork quilt of policy prescriptions… Reformers from above always needed the pressure of left-wing movements from below – from abolitionists, the Socialists, and the Popular Front to the advocates of black and Latino power, radical feminism, and environmental rescue. The challenge of uncompromising dissenters made governing liberals and progressives appear to be problem-solvers and soothers of the body politic….Socialism has never been the name most Americans would choose for their dream society; today, many doubt such a society is either feasible or desirable. However, without such an egalitarian ideal, whatever we name it, the real world will be ever harder to change."
Since reading this commentary, we’ve been to an Occupation site, (in DC) and have spent more than a few hours online with the “Forum” of the Occupy Wall Street NY branch (here at http://occupywallst.org/ ) fencing with libertarians and sending our ideas in to “The Assembly” via the general Email address. We don’t know whether they’ve gotten through, or if they’ve had any impact, or even what the “status” is of a commentator who isn’t physically present, but we’re more than willing to share them with you now.
First, we recommended sending “speakers/recruiters” to campuses where hundreds of thousands of college students are within an hour’s public transportation time of NYC. This wasn’t to ask students to drop out of school and donate their lives full time to Occupy, but rather to “sound-off” by assigned days, one day a week, to make it easy to swap with another student so that important classes and exams weren’t missed. For any liberal arts student – yes, even economics majors - this is something that shouldn’t be missed. It should form part of a broader and deeper definition of education, just as the student strikes in the spring of 1970 were to that earlier generation, which had their own “self-organizing” attributes and “steering” committees, having slightly greater hierarchical tendencies that the current movement. (“We are springing to the call, of our brothers gone before…”) The “occupiers” need to get their numbers up, and to have a greater body of “fluent” citizens to draw upon for their larger days, when major “points” will be made.
Second, as to the “demands” of the protestors, we recommended a visit to FDR’s Second Bill of Rights from his 1944 State of the Union address, which fits on one page, starting with the first Right, that to a job. Whatever else the “assemblies” may or may not come up with directed at Wall Street, it is the worldwide unemployment problem that is the dagger aimed at the heart of humanity. We were pleased to read in the October 17 edition of the New York Times, that “the demands committee held a two-hour open forum last Monday, coming up with two major categories: jobs for all and civil rights.” But it’s a long way from there, procedurally speaking, to winning passage in the general assembly. And the same article (“Protestors Debate What Demands, if any, to Make,” by Meredith Hoffman) mentions other protestors who spoke along different axes, like Gabriel Willow, who said “‘demands are disempowering since they require someone else to respond.” Another protestor in Boston is quoted as saying that “‘the process is the message,’” while another, in Baltimore said “that the point was a ‘public sphere not moderated by commodities or mainstream political discourse.’”
Other directions are emerging as well. An “OWS Working Group on the 99% Declaration” presented itself to the NYC General Assembly in mid-October, claims more than 700 members, and has come up with a list of 20 “grievances/demands” which represent a tentative core for draft “Petition for a Redress of Grievances,” pointing towards the election of two delegates (one man, one woman) from each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts as the basis for forming a “National General Assembly,” with a target convening date of - when and where else could it be? July 4, 2012 in Philadelphia, of course. Here’s the link at https://sites.google.com/site/the99percentdeclaration/. How widespread the support is for the specific demands/grievances and this type of process, which mimics an alternative “constitutional convention” without invoking “constitutionality,” remains to be seen. As of late October, it hadn’t been endorsed by the OWS-NY assembly, and the more we read the views of different members, it doesn’t sound likely that this will be the direction of the movement.
And it must be read alongside of the official “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, which was accepted by the NYC General Assembly on September 29, 2011. It expresses a “feeling of mass injustice” resulting from the wrongs “by the corporate forces of the world,” and expresses them under 23 assertions which cover a broad spectrum of progressive causes and complaints: from illegal foreclosures; blocking employee rights; privacy invasions and selling “privacy as a commodity”; poisoning of the farming system. Interestingly enough, causing high unemployment is not one of the charges, although corporations “determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.” Here’s the complete Declaration at http://www.nycga.net/resources/declaration/
And third, we advanced the idea of inviting two economic populists to address the NYC occupiers, authors who, over the past 20 years or so, have done more, arguably, than any other American writers to offer analyses close to the spirit of the OWS movement – and to have wished for something similar in terms of spontaneity and spirit: William Greider and Kevin Phillips. This makes perfect sense to us; however, we have to admit that so far we haven’t heard too much from the occupiers about the formative influences on their thinking – or is it more apt to say “on their actions”? Given the face-to- face processes and pressures which work to keep things direct and simple, we’re not likely to learn much about their sources of inspiration and ideas for some time to come.
Steven Jobs: An Electronic Tyrant Arming the Occupiers
It was the coincidence (there’s that word again) of the death of Steven Jobs on Wednesday, October 5, 2011 with the day that the NYC unions poured into the streets to support OWS that got us to thinking further: about the “leaderless” movement, its slow, almost New England town meeting deliberating style, and its heavy use of Jobs’ inspired, hand-held, hi-tech instrumentation. That’s a lot to consider, but bear with us a moment as we lay out some of the marvels, and marvelous contradictions for you.
Some of them just jump up, right off the pages of the current moment as well as out the stream of economic history of the last 20 years or so. There would have been much lamenting of the death of Mr. Jobs under any circumstances, as someone who created in the long tradition of American free-enterprise, as a later day Edison. But the timing intensified the feeling that Mr. Jobs, so unlike Wall Street, had delivered really useful products into the hands of an appreciative public: the best and worst of American capitalism, there in the same comparison. We plead that we were aware of the aura, and halo, around Mr. Jobs, although we haven’t been able to afford any of his new products; but we were not aware of his “governing” style. So we took notice of two front page business section articles in the NY Times on Friday, October 7th. One, by David Streitfeld, had this phrase in the header: “…Visionary with the barbed tongue of a tyrant,” and its first sentence didn’t ease up much: “The first time Steve Jobs ever bullied anyone was in the third grade. He and some pals ‘basically destroyed’ the teacher, he once said.” Well, maybe that was just one writer’s opinion, you say. But Ben Sisaro’s article on the flanking side of the same page quoted Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone on dealing with the Apple genius: “‘Steve’s approach to the magazine industry was, ‘My way or the highway.’” In the long Wikipedia bio of Jobs, another former colleague was quoted as saying that he would have made“‘an excellent king of France.’” We hope that our readers can more than get the idea here. Jobs may have been the personification of the casual dressing “Atari Democrat” in the age of globalization, but it doesn’t sound like he was able to escape the authoritarian proclivities of the way business operates inside the firm as well as against its competitors, nor has Apple been free of accusations of sweat shop manufacturing operations in the far reaches of China. We didn’t turn up very much, however, about Jobs discoursing on American politics, other than he didn’t, to his credit, seem to be Washington, DC-centric at all. And we certainly listened carefully as Rush Limbaugh gushed about capitalism the Jobs way, as he handed out free Apple products to callers he deemed worthy and needy.
And then we came across an article entitled “Mike Daisey goes after Apple, the late Steve Jobs,” here at http://news.yahoo.com/mike-daisey-goes-apple-steve-jobs-094033441.html . Now we didn’t know that Mike Daisey is one of our nation’s premier theatrical monologists, nor that he was also a “Geek,” so in love with Apple products that he was led to go to the Shenzhen, China industrial zone, the modern day equivalent to the early Industrial Revolution’s “Satanic Mills,” to interview the workers just outside a factory owned by “the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturer,” the Foxconn Technology Group, which also happens to be a Taiwanese firm. They employ some 420,000 workers in a city-sized complex about 40 minutes north of Hong Kong. They make 52% of the world’s electronics there, and Daisey rattles off every major brand name you’ve heard of...or used…in this interview on C-Span at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/299080-1 At the end of this interview, the Shenzhen factory story he remembers best was from a worker who cleaned the screens before the iPhones were shipped; during his interview she doesn’t seem to be able to escape her factory role and wipes his personal iPhone screen as they talk. It turns out she is 13 years old. We invite our readers to decide for themselves, after watching this 57 minute interview, whether Mike Daisey is right in putting a giant * next to Steve Jobs’ “American Dream” success story.
And so here we have Jobs the inventive, creative tyrant, the icon of 21st century globalizing capitalism, arming the OWS movement with its “cooperative” communication tools and knitting the world closer and closer together, even as each nation’s citizens drift further and further apart in terms of income/wealth distribution, civic standing and access within the world’s oldest democracies…and as different nations, with their great trade imbalances and correspondingly uncertain currency relationships, also begin to drift ominously apart under the “logic” of universalizing capitalism…which is surely in the most productive phase of its long history…with its vast and geographically dispersed supply chains and very contingent work forces, contingent sources of raw material, and even “contingent” factory locations…all operations “hedged” so that if the suppliers or manufacturers hesitate, or falter from incompetence, prices increases or other forms of resistance, the still “central management” is ever ready to flee to the lowest human denominator of conditions…needing fewer and fewer people in the developed nations to produce and distribute its products at the same time it has brought more than 2 billion new workers into the world’s increasingly unified labor market.
Our “clarification” about Steve Jobs is this, and we take nothing away from his inventive genius or his large contribution in advancing the best of modern electronic communications, helping to knit the world together into one giant market: simultaneous with his achievements comes the crisis in financial markets, the job markets, and democracy itself. It isn’t just Wall Street, the address which has the most inside of inside tracks leading to Congress, smoothed and soothed by the K Street facilitators. The worldwide crisis of capitalism which we have suggested in our title has Wall Street in the “leading villain” role, but it is the broader corporate business practices that threaten what we once thought, long ago, were citizen-driven democracies. In two senses, or is it instincts, or even impulses – OWS is drawing upon outrage over these trends: they sense that democracy has been undermined by the worldwide economic system, and they want to keep all the ministers and ministrations connected to the existing political system at more than “arm’s length,” at least for now. In that sense, surely, they’ve got it right.
The “Leaderless Left’s” Vacuum on Political Economy
We are issuing no blank checks here, however, even to proto-movements we are sympathetic to. Our job is to raise questions, anticipate troubles and look for the historical continuity we fear is missing with earlier movements on the left, not only domestically but also from the age when the left was more truly international (for better and worse). We’ve written about this situation extensively, the huge vacuum hovering over the political economy, which grew decade by decade with the rise of the Market Utopians in the 1970’s, and which still dominates both parties. You can sense the presence of this vacuum in an interesting New York Times article on the surge in worldwide protests from Sept. 28th: “As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe: Many are Driven by Contempt of Political Class,” by Nicholas Kulash, here at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/28/world/as-scorn-for-vote-grows-protests... . He writes that “the political left, which might seem the natural destination for the nascent movements now emerging around the globe, is compromised in the eyes of activists by the neoliberal centrism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. The old left remains wedded to trade unions even as they represent a smaller and smaller share of the work force.” It’s the vacuum again when he cites Spanish activist, Martas Solanas, an “unemployed online journalist,” active in the occupation of the Puerta del Sol, a public square in Madrid: “‘The biggest crisis is a crisis of legitimacy…We don’t think they are doing anything for us.’” That’s exactly the way we ended our late July, 2011 essay, “When ‘Market Man’ Consigns the Common Man to the Dustbin of History,” when we quoted the very last sentence of Richard Sennett’s book about “The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (The Corrosion of Character, 1998): “It seemed to me…that this regime might at least lose its current hold over the imagination and sentiments of those down below…what political programs follow…I simply don’t know. But I do know a regime which provides human beings no deep reasons to care about one another cannot long preserve its legitimacy.”
Once again, is it a “coincidence” that OWS is “leaderless” – even if by choice – at the same time any fair observer of the more “institutional” left asks the same question: where are the truly national leaders challenging the centrist Democrats? For some time now we have had a strong sense that no one contemporary person could satisfy the centrifugal and competing emotional trajectories, much less the policy objectives, of labor, people of color (and the tensions between Blacks and Hispanics), the peace movement’s pacifism, feminism (with its close linkages to the peace movement’s temperament) and the more recent sensibilities that go with the LGBT communities. Under the economic conditions from 1973-2007, through the good and the bad, there was no central, unifying economic narrative, other than the “official one” of the Center-Right, so the particular issues of these different constituencies rose and fell, sometimes in response to the cultural offensives of the Right. Other commentators and some from inside OWS have an answer to this, seemingly above and beyond our worries: that faced with these daunting centrifugal leadership vectors/demands, “leader-less-ness” and the “lowest common denominator” for policy “demands” (we can only wait and see what is eventually placed on the table….) is the best they can do – that anyone could do under the circumstances. But others inside OWS answer that it “is a post-political movement…something far greater than failed party politics…we don’t need politicians…” Certainly that last claim is true, at this point; but eventually, as the stakes in the street grow higher, and the risks of jail time grow, new recruits will need and deserve something more than these at times Bartleby-like sounding rejoinders (“I would prefer not to...”)
But then again, in re-reading the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” the list of 23 “indictments,” (“they have taken…they have perpetuated…they have poisoned…they determine economic policy…” They being the “corporate forces of the world…and “they” can only be overcome, for the “future of the human race,” by the “cooperation of its members”) it’s hard not to come away with a clear sense that the Occupy forces are calling, at minimum, for a new form of capitalism, or beyond, without specifying the exact blueprint. It’s a very tall order, no doubt. Just how powerful the centrifugal forces might potentially become within the largely progressive camp (with “right” libertarians being the strangest “fit,” if that’s the right word at all, for all but the anti-Wall Street focus…) can be seen here at http://www.nycga.net/groups/ the collection of specialized “groups” which make up the working committees of the NY General Assembly, some 79 of them: the Internet Group has 236 members; “WOW” (Women Occupying Wall Street) 76; the “Demands” Group 112; the “Think Tank” 371; the Labor Support and Outreach Group only 53; and the “Jobs” Group, just 31; just two more than the “Small Business and Entrepreneurs Group”…and so one down the line. A more generous reading of the layout of the 79 groups is that this is a further reflection of late capitalism’s vast extension of Adam Smith’s division of labor, starting with his famous pin factory, now carried not just into economic life, but into all aspects of civil society…
It leads to several questions: can the shared grievances of the 99% overcome the many viewpoints and prisms through which they view these economic and political developments? Early polling indicates substantial sympathy with many of the major grievances; but will that sympathy hold through the tactics of alienation – the distance that the OWS forces place themselves at from the “normal” democratic processes – which they claim no longer work or represent the 99%? With the public so overwhelmingly alienated from the Federal Government and the Congress, will this work out differently than it did in the late 1960’s? David Brooks, the “moderate” conservative New York Times columnist, is already working the “backlash” angle, reviving the Nixon “play” for blue collar America and “traditional values” against the street protests of the young and black and women of the 1960’s. In thinking about this, consider the case for such protests made in the letter of solidarity from Cairo, a portion of which appeared as our second epigram introducing this essay. Here’s more from that letter posted on October 25, 2011 at the OWS-NY site here at http://occupywallst.org/article/solidarity-statement-cairo/ :
"What you do in these spaces is neither as grandiose and abstract nor as quotidian as ‘real democracy’; the nascent forms of praxis and social engagement being made in the occupations avoid the empty ideals and stale parliamentarianism that the term democracy has come to present. And so the occupations must continue, because there is no one left to ask for reform. They must continue because we are creating what we can no longer wait for."
Now please factor in the graver, more desperate conditions, economic and “political” in Egypt before you judge that statement too harshly. And then take a look at a view of the political dynamics in the Western democracies, courtesy of Professor James Livingston, an economic historian at Rutgers University in NJ who had a provocative Op-Ed piece in the NY Times on Wednesday, October 26th, “It’s Consumer Spending, Stupid,” which sent us scrambling to Amazon to see all his books that we’ve missed over the years (some very interesting ones, we concluded) and then to his blog here at http://politicsandletters.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/occupy-wall-street-ii... where he viewed the OWS tactics in light of one of the most profound thinkers from the old left, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), who died just after release from 11 years in Mussolini’s jails. It makes explicit the question latent in the Cairo statement: in our era of radically transformed communications, where does power come from, and how is it to be exercised when formally elective democracies have been captured by private economic interests?
"Antonio Gramsci got it right: after Lenin, revolution would be ‘wars of position’ in which the stakes are cultural, intellectual, and ideological rather than ‘wars of maneuver’ in which electoral and/or armed struggle over control of the state is the pivot of social change. The Left has been winning this war of position since the 1950’s, while the Right has been fighting, and mostly winning the war of maneuver…The Occupation is a new instance of this strategy – the strategy of the ‘organic intellectual’ – using all the media available to portray the oligarchic opposition as the real, material, sometimes violent constraint on what America is about, which is how to make both liberty and equality the regulative principles of the body politic…In our time, the war of position makes more sense than the war of maneuver because we’ve witnessed a dispersal of power from states to societies, as new media have sutured different times and space, even epochs…and it’s not until our own time that such media reach so deeply into our everyday lives that power itself becomes a metaphysical question or a map quiz rather than a premise of serious thinking: what is it, and where does it come from? "
We quote this at some length not to endorse the view, but to emphasize several looming tensions, especially the detachment of OWS from the normal electoral and procedural pathways of American democracy, because as Michael Moore has also claimed here in this “aftermath of Oakland” video, they no longer work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oncRpIAPyIc and the explicit claim from Occupy NYC that they are pioneering a newer, better version grassroots democracy….by a consensus process, with vetoes; and notice which movements are cited as pioneers (the Civil Rights movement and SDS) here at http://occupywallst.org/article/enacting-the-impossible/ .
America’s High Point of Industrial Democracy: 1935-1945
But if OWS is further demonstration of a cultural “war of position,” which the left has been winning, what does that mean in a representative democracy where the two chief ideological positions on the economy are the Republican Right’s free-market fundamentalism and the Centrist Democrats’ Clintonian “Third Way,” which has offered at best a slightly larger emergency room for the victims of this joint enterprise which has led to national economic disaster? In one sense, we can agree, but we have to add quite a bit of historical perspective to make sense out of it. In terms of today’s economic troubles, and the way Michael Moore has framed it up, that the people must be put back in the economic decision making equation, then the high point in America for that process was the “Popular Front” of the 1930’s, and the attempt by the unions during the early days of defense mobilization to not just win the right to represent workers, but to also have a say in the work process on the assembly lines, and in the broader aspects of how industrial production was organized. These ideas grew out of New Deal agricultural economist Mordecai Ezekiel’s 1939 book, Jobs for All, CIO President Phillip Murray’s “Industrial-Councils,” and a dynamic and rising local auto union official’s plan – The Reuther Plan - to convert idle automobile factories to airplane production, combined with Murray’s industrial councils inside the industry. The “institutional political expression” of this high tide, sans the industrial democracy aspects ( which were swept away by 10,000 business executives taking over the war production process, pushing aside New Dealers and their aspirations) we maintain, was FDR’s Second Bill of Rights put forth in his State of the Union Address from 1944. (Please see Alan Brinkley’s fine but sad tale of The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War, 1995.)
But after the events of 1946-1947, and the treaty of Detroit of 1950, the left turned to an individual and consumer rights orientation, for two main reasons. One, after 1937-1938, the political Right (Taft Republicans and Southern Democrats) was powerful enough to block any serious attempt at passing that Second Bill of economic Rights. Second, the years 1945-1973 marked the economic high-water mark of liberal, corporate capitalism, the general success of which, along with that blocking power of the Right, deflected the left away from seeking: a capitalism with a working democracy inside firms; aggressive anti-trust policy against oligarchy outside of them; and most certainly, any type of national planning agency, something James K. Galbraith has put back on the table, and rightly so in his book The Predator State (2008), where he states boldly and simply: “A country that does not have a public planning system simply turns that function over to a network of private enterprise – domestic or foreign – which then becomes the true seat of economic power.”
So even as racial minorities, women, and later sexual dissenters won increasing legal rights and advanced at various speeds towards full civic standing – successes rightly cited in Professor Livingston’s analysis - the fact is that these were the victories of identifiable outsider groups in society, and victories of individual rights, and came with a price as they sent the unhappy opponents of these movements into the welcoming arms of the fundamentalist Right. And on through the 1970’s, the 1980’s, the 1990’s, and almost up until the present day’s troubles, a progressive left view of the broader political economy was not only harder to make against the more impassioned fundamentalist Right, it was also slipping from the consciousness of all the sub-movements that made up the Democratic Party, and their individual rights’ orientation. On the left, there was nothing to match the universal drive of free market capitalism, reaching out to capture the world with globalization, under the banners of “freedom,” “free trade,” productivity and efficiency, peaking under Clinton’s boom years, 1996-2000. As Kim Phillips-Fein so ably pointed out in her book Invisible Hands, it was in the realm of political economy that the Right enjoyed its greatest triumphs, and the left was in full retreat in that crucial area, whatever triumphs it may have had in the cultural arena, of group and individual rights, including we must add, greater environmental “rights” for people and nature. So in that very important sense we have to qualify Professor Livingston’s view that the left has been winning all aspects of the “war of position.”
The question before us all now is the extent to which OWS has returned the nature of “our” political economy to the American people for a closer examination and full debate, and what, if any, new directions they are recommending. They say they are not anti-capitalist but against the now dominant form of corporate capitalism that isn’t working for “the 99%.” Things were headed this way even before OWS. We have in front of us the June 27, 2011 print edition of The Nation magazine, and the cover recommends us to begin “Reimagining Capitalism,” with “13 bold ideas for a New Economy,” edited by none other than William Greider. But it took more dramatic signs of citizen unhappiness to bring the issue front and center within the culture. Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Cornel West, Richard Wolff, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and even Thomas Friedman have all conceded that, at minimum, “something is happening here”; others have gone much further, like Christopher Hedges.
Hedging Away From the State
We think Hedges’ writings offer a pretty good preview on one of the main tendencies both in present day American life and within OWS: a libertarian-to- anarchist urge to decentralization, which is both anti-“captured-state” on the left and can be more purely anti-federal government on the right. We refer you to two of Hedges recent postings, including one that appeared in the birthplace magazine of OWS, Adbusters on June 16, 2011, his “Endgame Strategy: Why the Revolution Must Start in America,” here at http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/96/chris-hedges-revolution-in-america.... .
For more than a year now, we’ve read Hedges’ online essays, watching him move away, as we have, step by step, from the two party process. It’s a tough and uncompromising take on our nation’s situation, the “race of doom” being “between environmental collapse and global economic collapse.” Things won’t turn around “until we turn our backs on the wider society…construct our opposition to the corporate state from the ground up.” He doesn’t sound much like a Keynesian, or share Professor Livingston’s praise for “the moral worth consumer culture.” Instead Hedges blasts away at “profligate … and hedonistic levels of consumption,” which, should, in our opinion, be tempered by the consideration of the official government and corporate policy, here and in Europe, of austerity for the masses, and presumably, the same old level of hedonism for the economic elite as before the crisis. Hedges does, though, have one surely correct perspective on our elites: “Do not expect them to take care of us when it starts to unravel.” And then the rest of us can look forward to what sounds more than a bit like the beginnings of the Middle Ages (remember Hedges has that degree from Harvard Divinity school…): “We will have to rapidly create small, monastic communities where we can sustain and feed ourselves. It will be up to us to keep alive the intellectual, moral and cultural values the corporate state has attempted to snuff out.”
In a later essay, published well after OWS was under way, Hedges continues the decentralization theme by focusing on an interview with Jonathan Friesen, a 27 year old anarchist-revolutionary who by happenstance, was there at the beginning in Zuccotti-Liberty Park. After talking about the ability and skills that folks like himself have to self-organize a community almost from scratch, and include even the homeless, who recognize a better deal when they see one, and the emergence of slow-paced small scale democracy, Friesen then does a riff off the origins of the open-source phenomena in IT: “‘We’re moving even more visibly and more tangibly into a real, tangible, human organization. We modify techniques. We use them. We share them. We decentralize them. You see the decentralization of a movement like this.’”
Hedges then embarks on his own historical riff, comparing Friesen’s approach (he’s from, of all places, Fullerton in Orange County, California) to the 19th century anarchist-revolutionary Michael Bakunin, who was at the barricades across Europe, and whom Hedges seems to favor over the library theoretician Marx, although he does end the piece with a long quote from Marx, without identifying which of the scores and scores of volumes it comes from.
A Revival of Marx?
Now what’s fascinating to us is that Hedges has invoked, by this Bakunin-Marx comparison, an old 19th century feud over not only tactics, but goals within the left, going back to the First International (1864-1876), which first met in London. The dispute between the black (anarchist) and red (socialist) camps came to a head in 1872, with the Bakuninists leaving and the First International ending 1876. Hedges hasn’t done a very good job of explaining the high stakes of the differences between them, other than giving Bakunin moral points for allegedly caring more about the outcasts of society, the lumpenproletariet, than Marx. But seeing this old juxtaposition surface once again reminds us of readers who have sent us work from contemporary Marxist scholars, like Richard Wolff, a now semi-retired professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, whose video “Capitalism Hits the Fan” has travelled widely and who has given a speech to the OWS folks in NY City; and David Harvey, whose 2010 book The Enigma of Capital we have quoted from, and which has won dust-jacket praise from the Financial Times. Readers have inquired as to our take on Marx(ism) and these contemporary academics, who have a better-than-average “common touch” in their work. Since our main approach over the past four years has been eclectic, relying on a wide range of sources and perspectives, from Bill Greider to Kevin Phillips, Robert Kuttner to James Galbraith, and perhaps most iconoclastically, Karl Polanyi, a mild socialist-Social Democrat – we thought we better do some brushing up with our old library sources, going back more than 30 years, when, like many on the left, we watched American society feint left with Jimmy Carter, and then go “hard right” under Ronald Reagan’s smile. So this was quite a trip down memory lane for us, to re-read books we first read in 1977-78. We feel we owe it now to our readers, so that they can have some tools to judge for themselves whether there is anything usable in the Marxist tradition, and its likely revival. We’ve predicted to some folks that today’s vulgar capitalism - and we do mean vulgar in many senses - but perhaps best reflected in its utter shamelessness in dominating the “state” for its own purposes - would end up retrieving Marxism from the remote academic corners to which it had been banished. We have joked that a “vulgar capitalism” deserves “a vulgar Marxism,” of the type which the late Michael Harrington (1928-1989) fought against and portrayed as a simplistic, deterministic schema where the private owners of the economic “base” dominate the governmental and cultural “superstructure” of society.
But maybe these terms have to be revised today. The two books by Harrington we revisited were Socialism (1970) and The Twilight of Capitalism (1976), which was written, as it turned out, more at the “twilight” of the New Deal and the Great Society, not of capitalism. But it was a confusing decade, and it was not clear which way society was going to break: left or right. Harrington was trying to explain, and rescue, his hoped for “democratic” Marx from a vast entanglement of ideological distortions, and to explain him to an American audience, and we think he did a pretty good job of it. At the same time, he was trying to serve as one of the leaders of the “left wing of the possible” inside the Democratic Party, with the assistance of the progressive wing of the labor “movement” – meaning the UAW and the International Association of Machinists, led by William Winpisinger. So it made sense that with this radical-reformist hybrid model, Harrington and his Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee would not portray the federal government, aka “the state,” as hopelessly lost to corporate interests, even as his books documented so many political outcomes in the 1960’s and 1970’s, including the direction of the “welfare state,” as reflecting corporate, not progressive priorities. It was not entirely pleasant reading for us. Harrington was an optimist, and underestimated the power of the backlash from the Right, while overestimating the receptivity of not only the broader American society to Social Democratic ideas, but also the receptivity of the “rank and file” culture of the American blue collar worker of the 1970s.
Editor’s Note: Since so much of the intellectual world of the left, in America and Europe, was focused on the controversies over the control and direction of the state, we have to wonder what the good Michael Harrington would have made about this astounding finding by Pam Martens, which appeared at Counter Punch on October 18, 2011, http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/10/18/wall-street-firms-spy-on-protesto... ? Here’s the essence of what Pam found in various out-of- the- way filings, like those at the SEC: employees of Wall Street firms are now sitting side-by-side with NY City Police and other governmental security personnel at a centralized video and electronic monitoring station in lower Manhattan, which has been paid for entirely by public money, from city and federal Homeland Security funds. The station is gathering the data and images from thousands of publicly and privately owned monitoring cameras (how can private monitors be allowed to watch public streets?) which blanket not only lower Manhattan and the Financial District, but also mid-town between 30th and 60th streets. You can read the article once, twice or even three times, and still cannot figure out how it is legal, how the boundaries of law enforcement by proper authorities have been erased by the roles, equipment and possible funding of the private sector, which would have a lot to gain by monitoring the comings and goings of the financial sector itself, law firms and regulators, right down to reading the license plate numbers on the limos. It’s almost enough to revive vulgar Marxism all by itself.
But it isn’t just our readers signaling a new interest in Marx. This past summer, over at Bloomberg News, of all places, they were running a five part serialization of a new book by Mary Gabriel: Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution. Not to be outdone, George Magnus, a senior economist at UBS investment bank chimed in with “Give Karl Marx a Chance to Save the World Economy” on August 28th, and a “Marxist Analysis of Crisis, Employment, Economy on August 31st, here in an eight minute video interview at http://www.bloomberg.com/video/74630777/ . And then we had Nouriel Roubini’s provocative comment that “Marx was Right,” given in a long interview at the Wall Street Journal (!) on August 12, 2011. Here’s a three minute segment of the most provocative analysis yet by a mainstream economics/business professor at http://online.wsj.com/video/nouriel-roubini-karl-marx-was-right/68EE8F89...
But we have a word a caution to add here, and it comes from our further reading of two other secondary works on Marx: George Lichtheim’s (1912-1973) Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study (1961) and Shlomo Avineri’s (1933-) The Social & Political Thought of Karl Marx (1968), which are more formal and more academic than Harrington’s work, but valuable nonetheless, and part of our recommended course of reading for those who want to see whether or not a mid-19th century thinker can help make sense out of a 21st Century crisis of capitalism. Both these works as well as Harrington’s are still available at online booksellers. And they demonstrate why we think a word of caution is necessary when what Marx said is tossed about too casually by sympathizers and critics alike. Lichtheim tells us right up front in his “Note on Sources” that one able bibliography on Marxism runs to 885 titles on Marx and 151 for Engels and the combined collection of their own primary writings runs to more than 100 volumes. Indeed, Harrington and these authors spend considerable time sorting out the mis-attributions to Marx from things Engels wrote after Marx’s death, as well as all the confusions supplied by later 19th and early 20th century dogmatists, which then get attributed to Marx himself. It’s possible, very possible, and you can see some of this in Harrington’s works, that one can spend an entire career trying to straighten out the controversies and what Marx really said and meant – a secular mirror of religious controversies about biblical texts. But we don’t intend to park ourselves in those old dispute spaces. The better question is whether we found anything in these re-readings that struck us as at all useful for understanding the economic crises we are held captive to.
The State as “Alienation”
Given the level of alienation both left and right now express towards the federal government, and Congress, we were impressed by the early chapters of Avineri’s book, which begins with Marx’s critique of Hegel’s view of the state. Right in the second chapter we found heading’s like this: “The State as Alienation,” and “Bureaucracy: The Imaginary Universality.” Here are a few of Avineri’s surprising findings about Marx’s view, surprising because it’s the common perception that when Marx wrote about alienation, he was concerned with the estrangement which occurred in the labor process, under the conditions of the minute industrial division of labor, and the work time for which labor was not paid, the whole surplus value issue, but not in the relationship between government and the civil society:
"…Marx contends that in modern society man is cut into two distinct persons – into the ‘citizen’ (citoyen) and ‘the bourgeois.’ (Editor’s note: bourgeois here means not the broad “middle class,” but the large property owning segments of it). Within the state man is expected to live up to universal criteria; within civil society, he is supposed to behave according to his egotistical needs and interests. Thus the state, which should have incorporated the universality of social life, appears as one partial organization among the other powerful interests of civil society. ..political democracy appears to Marx in this argument as the apotheosis of such double talk; and since he regards democracy as the highest possible form of political organization, he must relegate his solution to levels beyond the separate political structure…In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right Marx saw bureaucracy as the institutional incarnation of political alienation…" (Pages 44-48).
You can sense from just these few passages what makes Marx such difficult going for many American readers: a high level of abstraction, and utilization of categories from the German philosophical tradition. If you’ve ever had the privilege to take a college level religion course and to run into the Protestant theologians Karl Barth, Rudolph Bultmann and Paul Tillich, and Jewish theologians like Martin Buber, then you already know: it’s the religious equivalent to Marx’s degree of difficulty.
Yet it’s not such a stretch to realize that what Marx was working on here appears to us to be exactly the same issues that were so problematic in setting up the new American government in the late 18th century, as this passage from Gordon S. Wood’s seminal Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 shows, taken from the Chapter called “Vices of the System”:
"Like Puritanism, of which it was a more relaxed, secularized version, republicanism was essentially anti-capitalist, a final attempt to come to terms with the emergent individualistic society that threatened to destroy once and for all the communion and benevolence that civilized men had always considered to be the ideal of human behavior. Right from the beginning of the revolution there had been some Americans who had doubted the ability of any people, including the Americans, to surrender their individual interests for the good of the whole."
What Did Marx Mean by “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat?
Remarkably, Professor Avineri, who was born in Poland in 1933, and teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is still going strong, writing about Marxism, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State (1972), Israel and the Palestinians (1971), The Making of Modern Zionism (1977) and most recently, Herzl – An Intellectual Biography, in 2008 – but available in Hebrew only. If we get a chance, we’d love to read more of his work, to see how his thinking evolved, and especially since “the state” as we know it in America is failing the American people, whatever it is doing for the commercial and corporate interests. And his first book on Marx, which we have quoted from above, is a necessary corrective to Harrington’s perhaps too generous reading of Marx’s democratic leanings. Harrington spends three pages in Socialism trying to explain what Marx meant by the term “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which took on such sinister and prophetic meanings after Lenin and 1917. Harrington quotes the scholar Sidney Hook, who said that in Marx’s view “‘wherever we find a state we find a dictatorship.’” But Harrington also quotes from the noted 1850 work, Class Struggles in France, in which “‘the constitutional republic,’ Marx wrote of the peasants, ‘is the dictatorship of their united exploiters; the social democratic red republic is the dictatorship of their allies.’” Avineri says that Marx, in all his extensive writings, only used the term three times and that in the work cited here by Harrington, Class Struggles, “it did not represent Marx’s own programme.” And he cautions that “Those who – justly – point to Marx’s passages about universal suffrage should be careful not to confuse them with a commitment to democratic values.” Confusing, isn’t it? We can help clear it up with a quote from Avineri’s chapter entitled “Universal Suffrage” and also by recalling that neither England, France or Germany of the 1840-1850’s had anything close to universal suffrage: Marx writes of “the radical illusions which thought that universal suffrage could co-exist with a bourgeois society. For Marx, these two are incompatible. If they exist simultaneously in any particular society they create a perpetual tension between the political constitution and the existing social forces.” And to give added caution to Harrington’s reading of Marx, Avineri writes in the very last paragraph of his Epilogue that “Leninism would have been inconceivable without Marx” because “Marx disregarded the possibilities open to his own theory; and here lies his major intellectual blunder.”
George Lichtheim’s Critical History of Marxism
And what of the fourth book we recommended to you, George Lichtheim’s Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study, first published in 1961, but with many subsequent editions? Lichtheim is primarily an intellectual historian of the left, leaving us nine books between 1961 and 1973, including many that are in our library. He was perhaps the best and most widely read interpreter of the European left among British and American post World War II readers. Once again, today’s economic events sent us back to books we read in the late 1970’s, and we should add, ones that we never thought we might have the occasion to pick up again. Lichtheim is readable, more demanding than Harrington and just below the demands made by Avineri, with his greatest contribution being to clarify for modern day readers all the blurring ideological distortions that the Right throws upon the different if not distinct traditions of thought on the left. For example, by 2011, a conservative corporate Democratic President is alleged to be a Marxist or a Socialist, FDR and the New Deal were Socialists (even though that claim would infuriate the American socialists of the 1930’s), and the Social Democrats are the equivalent of Socialists and Communists. And even this formulation leaves out the interaction of Marxism with a pre-Marxist, earlier 19th century Socialist tradition, and a later interaction with Anarchism and Syndicalism, which is important enough for Lichtheim to devote a chapter to it about midway through his 412 page book, and which we will have more to say about later in our essay. Because of the contemporary American disenchantment with “the state,” and the growing libertarian strain on the Right, and the peaceful strain of anarchism on the left, which can be heard in the Declaration of the OWS-NY City document, and in the academic commentary upon it, we thought it would be useful to give you a sample of Lichtheim’s work, taken from his chapter entitled “Marxism, Anarchism and Syndicalism,” written about the period 1871-1891. We preface the long quote we have chosen by observing that on the previous page, Lichtheim has reminded us that Marx might have been deeply embarrassed, given his feud with the anarchist Bakunin in the First International, had his “most recklessly utopian and libertarian” writings – from his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 – come to light then, instead of 1931.
"…it can be said that if libertarianism remained an effective strain within the socialist movement in this period, it was thanks to the hold which Syndicalism had gained in Latin Europe. German Socialism – not withstanding Marx’s criticism of Lassallean state-worship – remained emphatically authoritarian and bureaucratic, though perhaps no more so than the Fabianism of the Webbs. At the opposite pole, though still within the official Socialist fold, Syndicalism represented a groping attempt to work out the theory of a decentralized form of collective ownership under which the central authority was to share responsibility with autonomous, producer-controlled bodies. This fell short of total hostility of the state, a la Bakunin, but pointed towards its gradual supersession. At the centre of these opposing currents Marx can be watched cautiously steering his way between the Blanquist Scylla and the Anarchist Charybdis; notably in his Critique of the Gotha Programme where the vision of a future stateless society – a sequel to the Paris Commune and the subsequent Anarchist assault on his own position – is qualified by the reluctant admission that his goal cannot be reached until bourgeois society has been transcended."
Editor’s Note: Lichtheim’s footnote for this passage reads: “…an admission capped by the – purely Blanquist – concept of the ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’ during the interim period,” just to place Lichtheim somewhere between Harrington and Avineri on this issue of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
What Michael Harrington Left Us
And what of Michael Harrington’s work, did it leave us with any other fresh insights into today’s problems, after Harrington’s long and difficult labors in trying to translate Marx for the nation that is famous for its great historical puzzle, another version of American “exceptionalism”: why there is no social democracy, no labor party in the United States? Marx, and Harrington in his re-readings of him, had taken note of the enormous contradiction between capitalism’s vast productive network, the global weaving together of thousands of people to extract raw materials, fashion them into commodities in great “social” workplaces, and then market and distribute them through another vast network, all the while being guided by the “cooperative” enterprise called “science and research,” and reaping the rewards of its innovations. The irony, even greater today than in the 1870’s or 1970’s, is that at the same time firms like Wal-Mart plan extensively to make it all work for them, and seek to manage if not control the manufacturing end as well, their representatives and indeed, nearly anyone speaking on behalf of corporate American will bring down emotional brimstone upon those speaking positively about public planning, union representation, or the right of any other sector of society to create jobs, even under the most disastrous of economic conditions. Here’s how Harrington put it in The Twilight of Capitalism, just to give you a sense of his language in attempting to make Marx more “digestible” for Americans:
"For Marx, capitalism is a contradictory system of private social production. It uses all the power of science and technology to bring the remotest corners of the world into contact with one another, but only in the pursuit of profit, not in the name of humanity. Therefore this system cannot express the social sources of its power openly, for that would subvert its private institutional framework. Men do not master the productive process that they themselves have created; they do not impose their priorities upon it. Rather they submit themselves to the laws of a supposedly impersonal market, and periodically the work of their own hands comes crashing down around their ears. In this irrational context of private socialization, the ’value’ of a product is established deviously and sometimes catastrophically." (Page 78, 1976 edition.)
We were also stuck, in rereading The Twilight of Capitalism, by the very contemporary relevance of Harrington’s chapter on the oil companies – “The Common Good as Private Property,” written amidst the first great American energy crisis. He tells us that in August of 1952, “the Federal Trade Commission published a 378-page report on ‘The International Petroleum Cartel’ and submitted it to a Senate Committee on Monopoly.” The Truman administration began a grand jury process that might have led to criminal charges against Exxon, Mobil, Socal, Texaco and Gulf (using the 1970’s names). However, as his administration wound down to its last days in office, President Truman saw to it that the Justice Department stopped its actions under the banner of the implications for “national security.” Then, under Eisenhower, “the companies were effectively exempted from the antitrust laws.” Harrington writes that “in American capitalism, where government is supposed to have a subordinate and ancillary role but does not intervene in production, private corporations are indeed the representatives – unelected, to be sure – of the entire society,” a sentiment that is very close to Bill Greider’s critical judgments, 16 years later, in his book Who Will Tell the People.
We found ourselves saying, time and time again as we went back to Harrington’s work, which did not “take” enough to change the rightward drift of the decade, “if only he could see where that drift has landed us in 2011.” And nowhere more so than in matters of global warming and the last gasp of the old fossil fuel energy giants as presented in a Special Section of the New York Times from October 26, 2011, headlined “The Energy Picture, Redrawn: Fuels Extracted by New Technologies Transform Calculations on Future Supply,” here at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/26/business/energy-environment/new-techno... So instead of a massive commitment to new alternative energy sources, and new suppliers, the corporate energy sector has played its hand perfectly, honing in on the environmentalists weakest point, as Kevin Phillips pointed out in 2008 – their lack of a convincing short and medium transition strategy – and once again substituted their corporate strategy for the missing national strategy. Daniel Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council put it well: “‘Not only are you extending the fossil fuels era…but you are moving into fossil fuels that are dirtier and release more carbon pollution in the process of extracting and using them.’” All he left out is that the extraction processes are also likely to be riskier, and that this “redrawn” energy picture comes on top of these companies’ successful efforts to thwart the campaign against global warming.
And so readers, if you’re inclined to inform yourself about what Marx actually said and meant, and to be able to evaluate the current claims being made for his approach, we recommend these two Harrington’s volumes, tempered by the more critical works of Avineri and Lichtheim. If what OWS has put on the table is a reconsideration of democracy and the American political economy, then we want our readers to have the best possible grasp of all the historical dilemmas that the left has faced in its attempts to reform capitalism. And the major dilemmas and tensions are all still with us, unresolved. We do need to know where our brothers and sisters gone before went wrong.
Why Harrington Didn’t Take and America Turned Right
And so it is fair also to ask why Harrington’s turn to the left didn’t work or take root in the broader American society, or for that matter, John Kenneth Galbraith’s pitch for a more “socialized” American economy, made in his Economics and the Public Purpose, published in 1973, which didn’t have any of Harrington’s excursions into Marx, and which, as a matter of fact, explicitly rejected the then “renewed interest in Marx”? And to make matters even clearer, Michael Harrington doesn’t get so much as a single mention in his Index, even though his book Socialism had been published three years earlier and was one of the indicators for that “renewed interest.”
Now there are very good reasons it seems to us, why this didn’t happen, aside from the perennial American difficulty in getting past the word “socialism,” a difficulty with which we began this essay – from Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers, which entirely ignores Harrington’s prodigious, post The Other America (1962) writings, even after calling him, correctly, a “pragmatic socialist.” First of all, the 1970’s, even as they gave Americans the worst economic times since the Great Depression, were still “feeding” off of old stored up capital (and wage levels) from the golden years of the American Century economy, 1945-1973. This allowed for the now seeming luxury, as we will soon see below, of well-paid American auto workers grappling with the psychological alienation that came along with the good wages, from the nature of the work process itself, best exemplified by the famous troubles at the Lordstown GM plant, which became known as the “Lordstown Syndrome.” This was also a decade that saw the old white-male dominated unions come under pressures from excluded black Americans, and women too (this was the decade of the attempted ERA constitutional amendment) , which created openings for the Nixon Republican game plan to appeal to the blue-collar workers on non-economic grounds. It also saw the rise of the religious Right, meaning that three centrifugal forces (race, sex, religion) were then at work moving the nation away from the old New Deal class- acknowledging political economy, and pointing towards the coming Culture War centered on the more divisive terrain of individual rights (internally divisive for the left certainly; the Right always says the left is class driven divisive for the nation).
And then there was stagflation, simultaneous rising unemployment and inflation, which became a “perverse” universal from the perspective of the left, because attacking the cost of living-indexed union contracts became a keystone for the Right to pit the blue collar union “special interest” against the “common good” of a majority in the society, who thought inflation was the number one problem. It was also the time when some surprisingly liberal economists, like Galbraith himself, did not support the unions in their attempt to win passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill – which was accused, among many other things, of being inflationary.
The 1970’s and the “Last Days of the Working Class”
And so it is today’s economic climate - talk of the relevance again of Marx - and the OWS-NY City’s “Declaration,” based on a “feeling of mass injustice” at the hands of “the corporate forces of the world,” that returns us to a new take on this crucial decade of the 1970’s: Jefferson Cowie’s fine book, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970’s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2010). We first learned of it when we saw Cowie’s 2010 Labor Day Op-Ed in the New York Times, “That ‘70s Feeling,” which was entirely eclipsed by the nation’s preoccupation with the fall elections. His editorial opened by recalling a now forgotten episode from August of 2010, of worker alienation, when flight attendant Steven Slater, cursing his JetBlue passengers over the intercom, exited his “career” by sliding down an illegally deployed emergency-evacuation chute, and ending with this ironic labor day theme: “Today the concerns of the working class have less space in our civic imagination than at any time since the Industrial Revolution.”
Since then, we’ve been struggling to bring it to your attention, but have been pulled off the task a number of times by the zigzag vector of events. Today the economic and political context seem to be an even closer fit, and the book has gone on to win numerous awards, which is very unusual for the labor history genre, the field having a reputation as being a dry corner of scholarship where the academic has to steer through massive minefields of ideological dangers (Marxism, mainly) and so ends up often putting readers to sleep. Not so Professor Cowie, who not only won the 2011 Best Book Award (from the United Association for Labor Education), but also won the 2011 Francis Parkman Prize and the 2011 Merle Curti Award from the two most prominent professional history societies. It’s a work that often quotes from Michael Harrington, including from his Twilight of Capitalism, (but not his Socialism) yet doesn’t have a single Index entry for Marx or Marxism, despite Harrington having dedicated these two books to the “Memory of Norman Thomas,” and “to the future of an almost forgotten genius: the foe of every dogma, champion of human freedom and democratic socialist – Karl Marx.”
We’ve had the chance to read it twice now, it’s that good, and subtle, branching out beyond unions and working class institutions to reach into popular culture, especially movies and music, with special attention devoted to Saturday Night Fever, the John Travolta movie from 1977, which became the “most popular movie of the decade,” and Bruce Springsteen’s musical depiction of those who live trapped in dying towns and cities, the bleak de-industrialized places also bequeathed to us by Reagan. We’d like to say this book is aimed at the average “concerned citizen,” but that’s a contradiction, isn’t it, when it comes to working class history? Yet it’s the closest many citizens are likely to come to a reader friendly work that sets out to examine the nature of the American working class, its “consciousness,” or lack of it, and its ultimate dissolution within the older, recognizable forms it inhabited under the high noon sunshine of the American Century, 1945-1973. It’s a book which begins with the now forgotten strike wave of 1970, the largest since 1946, “with over 2.4 million workers engaged in large-scale work stoppages.” It ends with a chapter entitled “Dead Man’s Town,” which includes a brief but stark reminder of just whose side President Ronald Reagan was really on: his firing, in the summer of 1981, of 11,000 members of PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, a union which had endorsed him in 1980. In great contrast to the present day treatment of major malfeasance at the highest levels of mortgage lending and Wall Street banks, the PATCO “union leaders were taken away in chains and jailed.”
One of the ways Cowie makes the complexities of the era accessible is to follow the life and voting patterns of a union “everyman,” or “archetype,” if you would prefer the more academic term: the real life Dewey Burton and his family, made quasi famous by a series of long interviews in the New York Times during its examination of the George Wallace “backlash” phenomenon, from 1972 until the 1980 Presidential election. Dewey worked on the assembly line at the Wixom Ford plant, and his wife Ilona also worked full time at a GM facility. He is open about his alienation; he likes the good pay, but not the dehumanizing discipline of the line, and he hates “‘...the people I work for…it’s kind of stupid to work so hard and achieve so little.’” Dewey was born into a family of New Deal Democrats, and voted for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. He has struggled into a lower middle class suburb just outside Detroit, qualified by details that speak loudly to the economic insecurities and uncertain social status of what were for those times, the best paid industrial workers in America, but people for whom “busing” to achieve integration was a violation of their version of the American Dream: “The leafy affluence of the term ‘suburb,’ however, hardly matched the rows of plain-stoop homes of Dewey’s Redford, a township hugging the border of Detroit where many streets, including the Burtons’, still remained unpaved. ‘I’m not going to pay big high school taxes and pay more for a home so that somebody can ship my son 30 miles away to get an inferior education…’”
As we learn more about Burton, and how he faces the choices of 1970’s politics, and how he spends his time, we are learning, at the same time, the multiple meanings of the American Dream and its effects on working class “solidarity”: he’s got his own part-time business customizing cars, and it’s clear that’s where his real passion lies; he’s attending college part-time, and also learning to play the guitar. We don’t learn why, however, the business is not taken on full time, but it doesn’t happen, and so one of the main options for escaping the very real psychological challenges of 30 years on the assembly line evaporates, leaving Burton facing, despite his ambitions, these shared working class options in 1970’s America: “escape one’s class position; find ways to forget it; or, lacking any civic outlets, bury its pain deep inside,” options which echo throughout the book’s in its analysis of popular culture of the 1970’s. And it’s clear that his union, the UAW, one of three most progressive in the nation, isn’t much help in overcoming industrial alienation. It’s done the wage and benefit side of the problem, and done it well, but it’s also part of the “liberal consensus…premised on the assumption that the set of problems that haunted capitalism for one hundred hears had been resolved in the technocratic settlement that recognized worker’s’ representatives as junior partners in the success story.” But that consensus, locked within the legalisms of the binding terms of the contracts, left workers almost entirely without a say about the organization of the work itself, especially by outlawing strikes, and left to distant specialists the task of trying to leverage pension assets into a brake on the private sector’s investment decisions – something which isn’t discussed in the book and hasn’t had a very happy ending either, has it?
For those contented upper-middle class Democrats reading this in 2011, and having a hard time summoning up sympathy for the alienation blues in an economy where today’s new auto workers have to cope with the same if not more of the old alienation - at half the 1970’spay and half the benefits that Dewey Burton enjoyed , just ask yourself this: what is that strange feeling that grips your autonomous nervous system starting about 7:30 PM Sunday evening as you contemplate the work week ahead…you’re not saying out loud “I hate my job,” but you’re nonetheless reacting to routines, stresses and all that is beyond your control at the workplace, whether it is public or private, and as more and more of the public is privatized, the differences will diminish. And you’re probably saying that even worrying about it is an academic luxury you can’t afford to give serious thought to…a silent, private form of alienation but still related to the public venting of displeasure about our two-party politics. Now follow along as we see how Mr. Burton navigated those politics in his day.
He voted Humphrey in 1968 that we know already; Dewey then supported George Wallace, based on Wallace’s stand on busing, in the 1972 Democratic Primary in Michigan, and remarkably, reversed course to vote for George McGovern in the fall, putting him at odds with most of his fellow blue-collar workers and the AFL-CIO leadership under George Meany, who hated McGovern. He then crosses over to the Republican side in the primaries of 1976 to vote for Ronald Reagan, and has to be reminded by his wife that they both settled for Gerald Ford in November of 1976. By 1980, Burton is thoroughly disillusioned with Carter’s economic policies, which have been terrible for unions, so he’s willing to give Ronald Reagan a chance.
Now if this sounds confusing and ideologically inconsistent, it’s clear that Cowie intends it to be just that, and a mirror of the 1970’s confusions. It starts with Wallace himself, someone whom we’ve studied under the fine tutorship of Wallace “scholar” Dan Carter. Cowie comments that “at the heart of the Wallace phenomenon was ambiguity about his cause.” Cowie quotes one trucker as saying “‘I’m for him or the Communists, I don’t care, just anybody who wouldn’t be afraid of the big companies.’” The American elite is worried about Wallace as well, which is one of the reason’s Burton is a regular “feature” in the NY Times. Conservatives “were originally skeptical of Wallace’s ‘country and western Marxism,’” but they go on to utilize his “populist appeal” in their own long-term strategies, culminating in “the white working class vote for Reagan.” Here’s how Cowie puts it in broader terms:
"Burton’s choice for the presidency in 1980 helped usher in a new and complex era of working-class political history. The new, more populist right proved effective in offering cultural refuge for blue-collar whites, while also being the central protagonist in the new economic transformations devastating working-class communities across the heartland. At a time when the traditional working-class ally, the Democratic Party, offered precious little material comfort to working people, Ronald Reagan’s New Right offered a restoration of the glory days by bolstering morale on the basis of patriotism, God, race, patriarchy, and nostalgia for community."
In later interviews with Cowie, however, Dewey Burton confesses that “‘Reagan blindsided us,’” a statement which, to go alongside the two comments about George Wallace quoted just above, tells us an awful lot about the state of blue collar political consciousness, progressive UAW or not. That union was close to Michael Harrington, and Harrington certainly wasn’t buying Wallace as a “country and western Marxist,” nor Ronald Reagan as any friend of the working man: how was it that the anti-union policies of GE, Reagan’s employer from 1954-1962, and Wallace’s almost total platform indifference to corporate power – as opposed to his attacks on the federal government and its “pseudointellectual” bureaucrats – escaped Dewey Burton, son of New Deal Democrats? And how can it be, with Cowie quoting Harrington so often, and Harrington writing about Marx and his still relevant work on the sources of “alienation,” that the UAW never brings Burton into contact with ideas going beyond that increasingly stale liberal consensus?
The American Dream versus Left Solidarity?
Well now, we’re getting close to that mixing bowl where the centrifugal forces of the American dream (never turn down a promotion, higher education the ticket to higher income, geographical rootlessness), and especially the issue of race, work against the solidarity of the old working class culture, and reveal just how shaky the concept always was, as Cowie makes clear. If the answer to that awful assembly line alienation did exist in part, at least, in the writings of Marx and Harrington’s interpretations of him, and their implied further transformation of American capitalism (and politics) by a deeper examination of the organization of work, labor’s share of the profits and greater democratization of the entire process (especially the investment process), then the way Burton spends his free time was a compass pointing in an entirely different direction. It was pointing towards individual upward mobility through education or entrepreneurship, or in the case of Tony Manero (John Travolta) in Saturday Night Fever, the “ticket” punched by special artistic talent. And it’s a commentary too on the nature of American popular culture, which Cowie shows us was closer to fairly portraying working class lives, and their terrible dilemmas, in the 1970’s than any time in the subsequent forty years; yet, it’s fair to say, also showing no way out of the downward 70’s spiral for blue collar workers as a group, just that individual ejection seat button. To put it bluntly: Harrington’s explanations and Burton’s troubles never connect, nor do their very different versions of the American dream. No wonder that one of the most important chapters in the book, right in the middle, is entitled with Harrington’s phrase “A Collective Sadness.”
We don’t want to oversimplify what was going on in the broader American culture in the 1970’s for you, because Cowie certainly doesn’t. We were impressed by his commentary on the work of Daniel Bell, especially his Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), which run parallel to Harrington’s two books, but from a more conservative position, yet arguably still on the left side of the spectrum, since Bell called himself a Social Democrat. (There was a formal organization of Social Democrats in that day, but they were Cold Warriors and well to the right of Harrington’s DSOC and later, DSA, and there was no love lost between them – the usual story on the left.) We consider The Cultural Contradictions one of the seminal works of that decade, and it still should be part of any discussion of where we should go from the debris strewn landscape here in the first decade of the 21st Century. It’s relevant because of today’s austerity talk, and the constant American inclination to blame “sinful” individuals as opposed to society’s changing economic and cultural institutions, when things go wrong. So readers with good memories will know that Bell’s work echoes another one of our favorites, James Morone’s Hellfire Nation, from 2004.
And in the following quote from Cowie about Bell’s work, you can hear the cultural/economic tension ongoing today between Chris Hedges and James Livingston that we cited earlier in this essay, with Livingston saying that we “doubt the moral worth of consumer culture,” which works to the benefit of the austerity pushers, and helps keep Keynesianism in its grave. Cowie translates Bell’s Cultural Contradictions this way: “he argued that the pursuit of expressive individualism had undermined the common good, leading to a culture of hedonism and pleasure that had delivered the nation to the edge. There was an absence of a ‘transcendental ethic’ of the sort that had animated Harrington in the forties, that could guide the morals, politics, and culture of dissent toward an emancipatory vision for mankind (other than what might, at best, lead to some kind of tepid multicultural capitalism or a more tolerant and expansive incarnation of competitive corporate individualism.)” Bell here sounds pretty conservative, although Marx too certainly had an “emancipatory vision for mankind,” as did Keynes. Both involved moving beyond the type of capitalism now being roundly deplored. Bell is a cultural conservative here in his attack on the worst excesses of artistic expression in the West, but he also pointed out the unintended effects upon conservative cultural values from the proud capitalist inventions know as the auto, the pill and the credit card – especially the credit card.
If Marx had pinned his hopes on the proletariat as the class which expressed the universal troubles of capitalism in the harshness of its daily routines, and therefore held the key to overcoming them - with the guidance of philosophers like himself - then surely Marx and Harrington were going to be disappointed as the 1970’s evolved. As Cowie puts it:
" the problem was not simply that other aspects of social identity – race, gender, sexuality, religious faith – were eclipsing class as points of reference in political life, but that working people, having transcended basic material deprivation of the sort they had struggled against in the 1930s, faced a form of class conflict that was more internal and psychological, pivoting on social power and self-worth rather than outward contests with powerful forces." (Our Emphasis.)
The Great Inward Turn of the 1970’s
We think this is a very important point about the 1970’s. Those on the left who wonder how we have been on the defensive for 40 years in matters of the political economy would do well to start with this inward turn in the 1970’s, represented not only in the tremendous rise in the use of various forms, group and individual, of psychotherapy, but also with the rise of fundamentalist/evangelical religious groups, and the growing prominence of eastern religions. These cultural currents marked a major watershed in 20th century American society, a remarkable turning inward to address human unhappiness and one’s status in the economic order. Cowie visits another author whom we have drawn upon in our work, Richard Sennett, who along with Jonathan Cobb wrote The Hidden Injuries of Class (1972): “‘The psychological motivation instilled by a class society is to heal a doubt about the self rather than create more power over things and other persons in the outer world.’” Thus, Cowie writes, “figures like George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan offered psychic salve to the wounds of pride, while the new path of liberalism seemed to offer little more than to deepen the threats of that outer world.”
So as things started to turn sour economically for American society in the 1970’s, the prescription for curing inflation turns not to breaking up the pricing power of the oligarchic sectors of the economy, including the oil companies complicit with OPEC in the great oil price rise, but to blaming the well paid blue collar workers. Thus author Tom Wolfe offered a scapegoat in his 1976 essay – “The Me Decade,” a scapegoat that should have a particular resonance for union workers under attack in 2010—2011 in the austerity obsessed United States and Western Europe. Wolf continued to promote the theme of the great inward turning, arguing that after the failed political revolution of the 1960’s, then “the only thing left was the ‘alchemical dream’ of revolutionizing the self.’” Cowie comments that “he banked his entire conceptualization of the Me Decade not on the agency but on the profligacy of the American worker, a theme that many economists and policy makers echoed throughout the inflationary decade.” Wolfe maintained that “‘in America, truck drivers, mechanics, factory workers, policemen, firemen and garbagemen make so much money…that the word ‘proletarian’ can no longer be used in this country with a straight face…’” Looking back from today’s maldistribution of wealth, and the fantastic multiples by which executive salaries exceed the average worker’s pay, Wolfe’s diatribes against the blue collar worker have a particular irony and poignancy, and he made them just as workers were about to experience their great collective economic descent, in union numbers as well as the paychecks.
Yet as “misguided” as his “portrayal of working-class decadence” was, it was a clear winner in the broader culture over Harrington’s hope for a revival of working class insurgency leading to a second New Deal of labor law reform, full employment and national health insurance. Wolfe’s “argument…was also a glib ‘I told you so’ to generations of leftists who believed that in the breast of the worker burned the hope of emancipation from capitalism.
Christopher Lasch’s Take on the 1970’s
Not even leftist intellectuals on the same cultural page as Daniel Bell, like Christopher Lasch (1932-1994), who managed to combine a cultural turn to the right with an economic turn to the left, and who was called in, along with many others, to advise President Carter prior to his infamous “malaise speech” of July, 1979, were able to stem the broader national political shift to the right. In the 1970’s, we were reading a lot of Lasch, along with Harrington and Lichtheim, and his work was deeply involved with the implications of America’s inward turn towards the “self,” although he added the historical depth and perspective missing from so much of the coverage of just the therapeutic aspects of the “Me Decade.” So we can quote with some assurance for you that indeed, Cowie gets Lasch just about right here, and you can hear intimations both of the writings of William Greider and OWS directions in this summary of his work:
"For Lasch, it was a crisis of the elites, not working people, one professionals foisted onto the rest of the society in a sort of inter-class cultural imperialism. Lacking a sense of history and direction – neither past nor future – the knowledge class possessed little more than a capacity to dwell on the self. For Lasch, the one element of hope rested not with the politicians, the new radicals, the corporate elite, but in the hands of everyday people. He admitted, however, that when ‘the common man thinks about his prospects, we find plenty of evidence to confirm the impression that the modern world faced the future without hope.’ As he summarized the emerging paradigm, ‘Class consciousness declines; people perceive their social position as a reflection of their own abilities and blame themselves for the injustices inflicted upon them. Politics degenerates into a struggle not for social change but for self-realization.’”
In reading Cowie we were sent back to our own library collection of Lasch’s work, especially his last two books, which we think recommend themselves to those trying to understand the stirrings on the left today, in the fall of 2011. The first, which is Lasch’s most sweeping attempt at a summary of his lifetime’s work and its bearing on the nation’s troubles, came out in 1991, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. It represents Lasch’s own near heroic intellectual efforts to grapple with what he felt was the bankruptcy of the left and the right of that day, and he is perhaps equally tough on progressives as he is on “Right-Wing Populism and the Revolt against Liberalism,” which is the title from his concluding chapter. What makes Lasch so interesting and difficult is that he leaves the American reader who is not used to this level of depth, and breadth, the feeling that they are travelling down a great old river of ideas, with many oxbows which loop around before coming back to the main stream – with the central dilemmas of history unsolved.
For example, what “was “the great question of twentieth-century politics,” in Lasch’s opinion? It was the question of “‘what was to replace proprietorship as the material foundation of civic virtue?’” Now that question runs all the way back to Italian Renaissance concepts of republicanism, and was also presiding at the founding of the American nation, and obviously is embedded in the struggles of the Populist’s revolt against the great trusts in the 1890’s. It was there also inside the struggles of the British left during the same decade and on into the 20th century, especially in the work of G.D.H. Cole and his notion of Guild Socialism. So let the following comments from Lasch be an added caution to what we have written on the utility of a revival of Marxism, to add to Professor Avineri’s work, and the cautions of philosopher John Gray, whom we have cited in a number of earlier essays, especially his claim that Marxism and Market Fundamentalism shared a similar Enlightenment inclination to both universalism and utopianism, for better and for worse. So here is Lasch at the very end of his seventh chapter, the one on “The Syndicalist Moment: Class Struggle and Workers Control as the Moral Equivalent of Proprietorship and War”:
"Cole himself turned to historical studies at this time. His History of Socialist Thought (1953-1960) singled out for special praise the very figures despised or dismissed both by Marxists and by Fabians: Fourier, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Ruskin, and Morris. Cole’s work in the last phase of his career thus contributed to a vigorous new school of historical scholarship and more generally to the emergence of the new left, which would once again attempt to combine socialism with localism and ‘community’ – with no more success, in the end, than the guild socialists had enjoyed in their own day. Repeated failures of this sort indicated that it is the basic premise of progressive thought – the assumption that economic abundance comes before everything else, which leads unavoidably to an acceptance of centralized production and administration as the only way to achieve it – that needs to be rejected. Until it is, ‘community’ will remain an empty slogan. "
The Difference between American Optimism and “Hope and Limits”
Towards the end of his career, Lasch had succeeded in alienating just about all portions of the American political spectrum, in the realm of both culture and political economy. And his temperament was out of step with American “optimism,” particularly the Reagan kind: “Limits and hope: these words sum up the two lines of argument I have tried to weave together.” But his hope was one “which trusts life without denying its tragic character or attempting to explain away tragedy as ‘cultural lag.’ We can fully appreciate this kind of hope only now that the other kind, better described as optimism, has fully revealed itself as a higher form of wishful thinking. Progressive optimism rests, at bottom, on a denial of the natural limits on human power and freedom, and it cannot survive for very long in a world in which an awareness of those limits has become inescapable.”
And that leads us to a question for William Greider, given the ground he explores in his deepest book about these very issues, The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy (2003), which doesn’t even mention this book by Lasch: how could you ignore him? Not enough of an optimist, we guess would be the answer. (Interestingly enough, though, neither Lasch nor Greider give any space to Michael Harrington’s work; for Lasch, Harrington was probably too much an “optimistic” rehabilitator of Marx; for Greider, although he is clearly familiar with Marx’s general directions, and refers to him several times, especially in One World, Ready or Not, there is an American taboo for even dissident economic writers in getting too close…) So we’ll give you a good dose of Lasch from the very last page of The True and Only Heaven, and ask you to hold on to his sense of the American dilemmas and unhappiness, from 1991, and then carry it over to our conclusion about where we are in the fall of 2011. So here goes, from the last two paragraphs on the very last page:
"The exhaustion of the progressive tradition – and this tradition, broadly defined, includes not only the left but the Reaganite right as well, which is no less beguiled by the vision of endless economic expansion – betrays itself in its inability to confront these fundamental questions of modern politics or the equally urgent question of how the living standards of the rich can be extended to the poor, on a global scale, without putting an unbearable burden on the earth’s natural resources. The need for a more equitable distribution of wealth ought to be obvious, both on moral and on economic grounds, and it ought to be equally obvious that economic equality cannot be achieved under an advanced system of capitalist production. ..In the twenty-first century, equality implies a recognition of limits, both moral and material, that finds little support in the progressive tradition…
The populist tradition offers no panacea for all the ills that afflict the modern world. It asks the right questions, but it does not provide a ready-made set of answers. It has generated very little in the way of an economic or political theory – its most conspicuous weakness. Its advocates call for small-scale production and political decentralization, but they do not explain how those objectives can be achieved in a modern economy. Lacking a clearly developed theory of production, populists have always fallen easy prey to paper money fads and other nostrums, just as they fall prey to the kind of social resentments exploited so effectively by the new right. A populism for the twenty-first century would bear little resemblance to the new right or to populist movements in the past…But it would find much of its moral inspiration in the popular radicalism of the past…"
Then there was his book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, published a year after his death, a work which reminds us of the thrust, and the tone too, of both Bill Greider and Kevin Phillips, (especially Who Will Tell the People, and Arrogant Capital) but which also bears the weight, and strains, of so many years inside academe, just as The True and Only Heaven did. We thought this passage from the Introduction will give you some of the additional flavor of late Lasch, and an added cautionary and critical edge with which to approach discussions of the American Dream, a dream so caught up in the idea of mobility:
"Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregate on the coasts, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture. It is a question whether they think of themselves as Americans at all. Patriotism, certainly, does not rank very high in their hierarchy of virtues. ‘Multiculturalism,’ on the other hand, suits them to perfection, conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic cuisines, exotic styles of dress, exotic music, exotic tribal customs can be savored indiscriminately, with no questions asked and no commitments required. The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world – not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy."
Once again, you can easily sense in this passage what made Lasch both so interesting and so controversial, since this is aimed at global capitalism’s confluence, where the free-trade Right meets with the Clintons and the Blairs of the “Third Way”; all that’s missing is a list of the offshore tax-shelter resorts, and it’s implied by the direction. (For readers who want to learn a bit more about the late Christopher Lasch and his work, we can recommend this fine retrospective from The Nation, by Norman Birnbaum here at http://www.thenation.com/article/163358/gratitude-and-forbearance-christ... .)
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