Is reform possible?

Is reform possible?

A piece exploring whether the increasingly common claim by various anarchists and communists that reform is impossible is actually true. Inspired by informal conversations with Nate Hawthorne, who replies here.

Recently, I’ve been halfway baiting Nate Hawthorne into a debate/argument about the issue of whether reform is possible in contemporary capitalism during a financial crisis. The conventional wisdom among various anarchist currents and libertarian communists, seemingly rarely challenged, is that it is not. But is this really true? If this is not true, how does it determine how we see the movements against the effects of the economic crisis?

This outlook first came to my attention during the wave of university protests and occupations during 2008-2010 in New York and LA in reaction to the first rounds of budget cuts and tuition hikes since the crisis started.

From We Are the Crisis: A Report on the California Occupation Movement

Even if achieved, present reforms of the UC will merely slow its eventual privatization, and the crisis of the university remains connected to a much larger crisis of employment and, in turn, a crisis of capitalism that permits of no viable solution [...]

Besides this short quote, the explicit position of ‘reform is not possible’, to my knowledge, wasn’t emphasized or expressed very much. Sometimes, this position was merely under the surface such as the title of the influencial Communique from an Absent Future suggests. Looking through many of the writings of the more radical elements of this movement, one sees instead the more common position of 'reform is not enough'. In the equally influencial text called 'We Demand Nothing' from the insurrectionary anarchist journal, Fire to the Prisons:

When one focuses on the presence or absence of demands as the criteria for discerning revolutionary from reformist struggle, one ignores the relations and meanings internal to the activities of the struggles themselves. Demands are getting accommodated quicker, but revolution is in no way closer now than ever before.

This is actually taking the opposite view, not only is reform happening, but it is happening quicker when we voice what exactly we want reformed. So, still possible (or in this case, likely), but not anything that will satisfy us, because 'We Want Everything'. Some might say that other groups or people laid out more explict positions that were tied in with the anti-capitalist view on the possibility of capitalism’s ability to slow down or avoid ecological catastrophe, but this is an entirely different matter, so I'll sidestep that argument.

During the 1½ year gap between the more or less decline of the California student movement and the beginning of the Occupy movement, a shift happened within the same circles mentioned above. I have a creeping suspicion that it has to do with the influence of the now-hip 'communization' current. Reform became something that capitalism couldn't provide. In Plaza - Riot - Commune (written by the same group1 as Communique for an Absent Future), the impossibility of reform is stated as fact. Something so obvious, it is uncontroversial.

With the exception of a few benighted activists and media ideologues, everyone understands quite well that the Keynesian card was played long ago, blown on wars and bailouts, the victim of its own monstrous success. There will be no rebirth of the welfare state, no “reindustrialization” of society.

They go on:

The hopelessness of deflecting the state from its current course; the realization that even a slight reform of the system would require collective violence of a near revolutionary intensity; the attendant awareness that we would be idiots to go that distance and yet stop short of revolution –all of this gives many anti-austerity struggles a strange desperation and intensity.

When I first read this, it was very appealing and I do feel sympathetic to this quote in particular. The kinds of things the Occupy movement is more or less concerned about: a deregulated financial sector, student debt, foreclosures, lack of viable health care options, unemployment - these things seem indistinguishable from capitalism itself, particularly for people like me who were born in the '80s, as the backlash and assault on social democracy/the welfare state was in full force. While the Occupy movement has (wisely) avoided agreed upon demands, it's probably safe to say a minimum agreement would be: restructured and tightened regulation of the financial sector, debt foregiveness, an end to foreclosures and evictions, socialized health care and extended programs for the unemployed. These demands being met would represent a very large break from what capitalism, and especially American capitalism, is now and would probably require the disruption of the economy and a working class offensive that we haven't seen in many decades.2

Moving onto to 'Civilization Was Once a Popular Subject' by Malcolm Harris, one of the first and higher profile libertarian communists to comment on the Occupy movement:

The social democrats’ best reform efforts haven’t been able to slow even the rate of increase in the working class’s immiseration. A state-supported minimum income, socialized healthcare, and paid vacation all sound great, but they’re about as likely as full employment. That is, structurally impossible. And so-called transitional demands like these aren’t much help when they provoke speculative analysis rather than revolutionary consciousness. The point isn’t to figure out the right alignment of stars necessary for the capitalist state to provide free higher education for all, it’s to reveal that it cannot and will not do so.

How are these things 'structurally impossible' though? Are they structurally impossible in the sense that the current set-up of capitalism does not allow them? Or that the current set-up of capitalism is the only option available and we require either full-out revolution or the understanding that we will get more of the same, if not worse? The last sentence seems to indicate he believes in the latter, yet this is more a statement than an explanation. Why are these reforms impossible? What makes them so?

An attempt to eloborate the 'reform is impossible' stance happens in 'Blockade, Strike, Communize?', which is also significant because this text was apparently a flyer, which means this stance has now gone from theoretical text and commentary to public propaganda.

[...]a return to more regulation, more taxing of the rich to fund social services, etc., is something capital cannot afford without first restoring the rate of profit, which would require more of the same: rising unemployment, falling wages, cuts to public goods and services, and the acceleration of energy wars and environmental devastation, bringing us ever closer to catastrophe. So reformism is “utopian”; the only “realistic” way out of this mess is the path we have yet to forge.

Here we finally get something of an explanation on why reform is impossible3. The requirement of the restoration of 'the rate of profit'. I have no idea on the validity of this explanation, so I'll leave that to others to take up/explain. To me, it brings up more questions than answers and, although better than simply stating that reform is impossible, doesn't explain to me why the rate of profit fell or if it actually did or does (which seems to be a contested issue).

Recently, the UK based, Deterritorial Support Group, wrote 'Ten Growth Markets for Crisis', some of which also touches on this issue.

[...]a return to social-democratic social models is simply unfeasible – not for economic reasons (although such an argument holds considerable weight) but for socio-political reasons. What built and sustained the welfare state was a model of social-democratic political organisation which simply does not exist anymore. A large part of its dismemberment was undertaken by the neoliberal market reforms after 1979, but we have yet to accept that it was also being eroded by demands coming from within the working-class – demands of social liberalisation, increased personal autonomy and a rejection of the fetishisation of work, or indeed work itself – which traditional structures of class organisation could not deliver without breaking up their own bureaucratic structures.

In contrast to matter of fact statements or crediting the impossibility of reform solely to the limitations of capitalism itself, DSG seem to be of the opinion that social democracy happened because there was a social democratic movement of political parties and unions which came into power and partnered with a willing capitalist class. As these parties have swung right, accepted neoliberalism and as union membership has plummeted - not to mention capital eventually decided to no longer accept the partnership, this movement just does not exist in any meaningful way. There is nobody who can get into power to enact these reforms, there is no mass workers movement frightening the ruling class, and capital is not willing to engage in the partnership it once did during the post-war era.

To make matters worse, attitudes towards work have changed so drastically, that any future social partnership would be unlikely, based on the fact that the attitudes towards work necessary for a social democratic movement for reforms no longer exist.

I think this is headed in the right direction, although I'm still skeptical. While the wave of wildcats and strikes (not to mention riots and clandestine groups in some places) during the late 60s and 70s certainly reflected a changing attitude towards work, I'm not sure how much of that has stayed with us today. More likely, the defeats of those years have been burned into the collective memory of the class to the extent where the resistance of refusal is more likely than the resistance of work.

Coming back to Nate, here is a comment of his in the discussion of 'Workers, the state, and struggle':

[...]in the US tax rates have been cut in recent history as has welfare/social wage. These policies have resulted in increasing economic inequality and social movements in response to that inequality. As far as I know, though, wealth has continued to flow to the wealthiest - capitalists have continued to accumulate. All social wealth comes from labor (well, some comes from nature and from dispossession/primitive accumulation, but whatever...), things like tax cuts and so on are state policies that help direct a larger share of the wealth that labor produces, direct that larger share upward. Which is to say, there have been reforms in recent memory that redistribute wealth, it's just an upward redistribution of wealth. That's one reason that I think redistributive reforms are possible. I also think that other reforms are certainly possible - healthcare/health insurance reform [...], immigration policy reform, easing of foreclosure, and student loan debt forgiveness all strike me as things that could actually be accomplished.

While he doesn't say it here in these words, in past discussions with him, he places the blame on why these reforms haven't happened as political will. That social democratic reforms, even drastic ones, are entirely possible within capitalism, but that there just isn't the political will to do them.

But what is 'political will'? I suppose it could be defined, in this context, as an attitude that political leaders have on actually pushing through things they are sympathetic to or in favor of. But I feel that is somewhat limiting as a reason of why certain things happen or don't happen. While it is certainly true that political leaders often do not push through certain agendas they may be sympathetic to, I don't think that it's strictly a case of lack of courage. To place so much emphasis on a small number of people, despite their obvious power, falls too much into the 'Great Men of History' outlook, where powerful people forged ahead based on their confidence and ability. Most anarchists and communists would probably regard this as untrue and point out that reforms on slavery, civil rights, labor law, women's rights, etc. all had mass movements behind them with various degrees of economic and political disruption to the status quo. So in reality, 'political will' could really be determined by the mass of people with certain demands on the system that force sympathetic people in power to enact them.

Drawing out what political will actually is, this could either strengthen or weaken Nate's argument, depending on if we accept DSG's as mostly valid (which I lean towards). On the one hand, the Occupy movement, through their mere existence and above mentioned minimum summarized demands, represent this mass of people. There is also existing politicians, such as the Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party who are sympathetic to the concerns and minimum demands of Occupy. However, this could hardly be compared to the social democratic combination of parties and unions that existed in the post-war era, and it is hard to imagine that it could coalesce into that.

Why does all this matter though? Well, if reform is possible, then it's something to take seriously. As significant as the storm troopers of National Socialism, Franco's nationalists or Stalin's dystopian police state, the post-war social democratic/welfare state arrangement determined what struggle looked like or if it even happened. The acceptance of anti-'communist' paranoia and the streamlining of working class struggle into a mediated state bureaucracy probably would have been less likely if workers returning from the bombed out hells of Europe and Asia came back to a condition and situation mirroring the 1930s.

To muddy the waters a bit more, here's something from Troploin's 'In for a storm: a crisis on the way', basically telling us there's no way we can know what comes next:

No big capitalist reform is pre-determined. Keynes' outward-looking and democratic answer to the Depression outplayed rival options in countries where social forces (for example, the CIO in the US) were able to make it the most suitable policy. In other countries, 1929 resulted in authoritarian, closed-in and repressive solutions, some of which lasted a long while. In 1930, few observers foresaw that the Keynesian outcome would prevail in (half of) the industrial countries twenty years later.

In conclusion, there isn't a conclusion. Whether or not significant reforms within capitalism during an economic crisis and with a growing working class response is possible requires additional discussion and I hope this piece contributes in some way towards the initiation of such a thing.

  • 1. Research and Destroy is the group, and their site hasn't been updated since before the Occupy movement, which is something they've been involved with and have written about.
  • 2. This could also be colored by some of us being of the 'War on Terror' generation, where we remember and/or were involved in antiwar protests that were the largest in history, and yet did nothing to either prevent the Iraq war, nor end it.
  • 3. I'm not saying that these explanations do not exist, I'm just either not aware of them or haven't fully understood them.

Posted By

Juan Conatz
Dec 22 2011 12:45

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Steven.
Dec 22 2011 13:22

Good post.

I think this is an important discussion, but I think you have missed out what I think is the most important point we need to make.

That is, in my view, if reform is actually possible and does occur in response to mass class struggle, and we have kept saying it is not, and the only way of improving our conditions is revolution, then we are left totally wrongfooted.

I think what we need to say is that regardless of whether reform is possible or not we need to fight to defend our conditions as much as possible now, and by extension fight the economy as a whole and do what we can to build towards libertarian communism.

Onto whether reform is possible or not, saying it is not possible seems tantamount to accepting decadence theory (that capitalism was an ascendant system previously, but at some point it reached its zenith [1918 is often mentioned here] and is now in a period of decadence, where the characteristics of capitalism are qualitatively different).

Aufheben have a pretty devastating critique of decadence here: http://libcom.org/aufheben/decadence which I happen to agree with.

Reforms have been possible in the past, even until very recently in many places (minimum wage in the UK, 35 hour week in France, agency worker rights and minimum 20 day holiday in the EU etc).

Widespread reforms will not happen without mass struggle. Without that mass struggle, capable of winning improvements to workers' pay and conditions, of course there will not be reforms. But if that struggle is there then the reforms I think will probably be there.

Look at China, for example. Mass strikes spiralling out of control have won big pay increases in many areas, with the tacit acceptance of the Communist Party. Many people believe that this is due to the fact they want to create a domestic market for their own country's products so as not to be so reliant on exports. And of course if workers wages are higher than they can afford to buy some of their own products.

Nate wrote an interesting blog about this very topic, looking at the US just the other day:
http://libcom.org/blog/workers-state-struggle-13122011

Nate
Dec 22 2011 19:03

Juan thanks very much for this, it helps me clarify my ideas, gives me a push to work on this more, and I'm flattered at the engagement. For now... I think I agree with everything Steven says, and that Aufheben series on decadence theory is fantastic and really relevant to this stuff. I think our politics should be able to respond to reform and to repression (the "reform is impossible!" line basically amounts to "capitalism's only possible response is repression")

I don't know what makes reform possible or not so I don't know if reform is possible or not. I think it is, I have a hunch, and I want to write something that tries to make the case that it is, but I'm really not sure. I'll get on that as soon as I can. More than that, above all I find the claims people make "reform is impossible!" to be unconvincing, I think the "reform can't be done!" folk have not really made their case very well. I think they sound awfully sure of themselves given how slim the arguments are.

You write that "These demands being met would represent a very large break from what capitalism, and especially American capitalism, is now and would probably require the disruption of the economy and a working class offensive that we haven't seen in many decades." I totally agree with that. But let's say we see a massive working class offensive of the kind that hasn't existed in many decades - of a kind that hasn't existed in your and my lifetime, certainly not our adult lifetime. What will happen? Are there only two options - revolution or successful capitalist use of repression? If we throw out some earlier periods of working class offensives, what has come after them? Sometimes successful repression. Never successful communist revolution. And sometimes reform.

Here's a short section of volume 1 of Capital where Marx talks about the reduction of work hours in England.
http://marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch10.htm#S6

He writes that
"As soon as the working-class, stunned at first by the noise and turmoil of the new system of production, recovered, in some measure, its senses, its resistance began (…) For 30 years, however, the concessions conquered by the workpeople were purely nominal." Eventually though the concessions became real ones. These concessions, "Their formulation, official recognition, and proclamation by the State, were the result of a long struggle of classes." It came to be that "a compromise between masters and men was effected that received the seal of Parliament (…) after the factory magnates had resigned themselves and become reconciled to the inevitable, the power of resistance of capital gradually weakened, whilst at the same time the power of attack of the working-class grew with the number of its allies in the classes of society not immediately interested in the question. Hence the comparatively rapid advance since 1860."

There's an example of working class offensive which led to reform, and a reform that stabilized capitalism at the time and benefitted some capitalists over others.

If there's a massive working class offensive, the capitalists and their state will have two options - the carrot or the stick. If the stick doesn't work, some of them will suggest that they try the carrot. I don't know if those suggestions will be attempted or not. I like that Troploin quote about how no reform is inevitable. Likewise no repression is inevitable. Whether or not views like that win out is a matter of politics, it's not pre-determined economically - history presents limited sets of options to people and people make decisions among those options. What decisions the capitalist class and their states make are not inevitable, they're political. I don't know if I would call it "political will" or not but I do think that the capitalist class and their state have culture and ideology too, just like we do, and that these things shape the forms their actions take. The other side has differences of opinion and outlook like our side does. The capitalists have a right wing and a left wing, and their left wing will eventually start to argue for reform as the working class fights back. Actually, there are *already* left capitalists (or at least people who are ideologically left-capitalist) who are making these arguments. Paul Krugman's columns in the New York Times are a good example, he's a Nobel Prize winning economist and definitely not a radical.

Part of this gets at the rate of profit. The rate of profit is not a fixed or absolute quantity, it's a relative quantity. It's a *rate*. Rates of profit can decline but absolute wealth still increases. And what rate capitalists will settle for is not inevitable, stable or pre-determined. It's political or cultural. The reformist position like Krugman (and like the position that eventually won out in the time that Marx talked about) boils down to "you will have a short term lower rate of profit but the system will be more stable and you will in the long run profit more." This too is political, not inevitable, it's about the decisions that capitalists make in response to circumstances - just like it is for us, what decisions we make in response to circumstances.

Edit: One other thought. Steven made a comment about defending our standards of living (I think, I didn't re-read, sorry if I get you wrong Steven). It's clear right now that there's big pushes to downgrade people's standards of living, that's what austerity is. In these kinds of conditions, I think successful defense is also a small-scale kind of reform, or at least is in the neighborhood of a reform politically speaking -- it's something that the capitalists currently don't want to grant, something that if successfully fought for will improve (or prevent the worsening of) people's lives, and something short of revolution which has an unclear relationship with advancing communism.

Jim Clarke
Dec 22 2011 19:50

I've only skimmed through what's been written so far, I agree with Steven and much of what Nate's said. Things like this quote from Harris aren't even accurate:

Quote:
A state-supported minimum income, socialized healthcare, and paid vacation all sound great, but they’re about as likely as full employment. That is, structurally impossible.

Where? We've pretty much got this in the UK although it is all being eroded. Reforms are still possible (and happen every day) at nearly every level of global society. It is probably more useful for us to look at where reforms are possible and why they happen, as it isn't always mass class struggle that is the driver for reforms. I'll try to write something more over xmas!

Nate
Dec 22 2011 20:08

Just want to add to what Jim said - even if is mass struggle *is* the driver for reforms that doesn't mean it's bad for capitalism. Capitalists sometimes need a kick before they'll adopt something that's good for their whole class or for the long term life of the capitalism system, and mass movements can sometimes provide that kick.

Jim Clarke
Dec 22 2011 20:29

To back up your point about Krugman, there has been a growing number of people in economics arguing that Marx was right about a lot of things and what we need now to boost the economy is some sort of return to social democracy in the developed world, I don't think this is likely to happen and there are a number of things preventing it.

It is really important when having this discussion to remember that capitalism is a global system. There are processes happening within the system in the economic and political spheres from the local level to the global one. When using that sort of framework it can be easy to see where reforms are happening and what it is that causes them.

For example it looks like the EU is set to make blacklisting illegal, that is a positive reform for us yet it won't have been won as a result of class struggle. There has been a long running campaign to stop it in construction in the UK that has targeted firms, the whole industry and the UK state to no avail (great video about it doing the rounds at the moment). So on a lot of the lower economic levels it wasn't possible and on the national political and economic levels it wasn't either. On the regional political level it could be about to happen...

Obviously reforms like that are largely worthless without the militancy to enforce them but it helps to illustrate the point I was trying to make.

Juan Conatz
Dec 22 2011 22:53
Steven. wrote:
Good post.

I think this is an important discussion, but I think you have missed out what I think is the most important point we need to make.

That is, in my view, if reform is actually possible and does occur in response to mass class struggle, and we have kept saying it is not, and the only way of improving our conditions is revolution, then we are left totally wrongfooted.

Not sure I follow. Do you mean strategically we'll be unprepared or that we'll look bad for saying something that ended up being wrong?

Quote:
Onto whether reform is possible or not, saying it is not possible seems tantamount to accepting decadence theory (that capitalism was an ascendant system previously, but at some point it reached its zenith [1918 is often mentioned here] and is now in a period of decadence, where the characteristics of capitalism are qualitatively different).

Aufheben have a pretty devastating critique of decadence here: http://libcom.org/aufheben/decadence which I happen to agree with.

Quote:
Nate wrote an interesting blog about this very topic, looking at the US just the other day:http://libcom.org/blog/workers-state-struggle-13122011

Yes, part of the reason I wrote this was the comments following the article!

Caiman del Barrio
Dec 22 2011 23:28
Juan Conatz wrote:
Recently, the UK based, Deterritorial Support Group, wrote 'Ten Growth Markets for Crisis', some of which also touches on this issue.

<blockquote>[...]a return to social-democratic social models is simply unfeasible – not for economic reasons (although such an argument holds considerable weight) but for socio-political reasons. What built and sustained the welfare state was a model of social-democratic political organisation which simply does not exist anymore. A large part of its dismemberment was undertaken by the neoliberal market reforms after 1979, but we have yet to accept that it was also being eroded by demands coming from within the working-class – demands of social liberalisation, increased personal autonomy and a rejection of the fetishisation of work, or indeed work itself – which traditional structures of class organisation could not deliver without breaking up their own bureaucratic structures.</blockquote>

What they also say in that article is that reform - or at least the sort of retrospective re-industrialising return to the 70s that the left/anti-cuts movement implicitly advocates here in the UK - is impossible cos of the change of British attitudes towards work, home, society, etc.

For me, the question should be whether even if reforms such as the ones called for by Labour, SP and ultimately even the SWP would succeed in stemming the tide of the multiple socio-political and economic crises...

Ex profundis
Dec 23 2011 05:00

Why would it be impossible? The US has been issuing pro-worker reforms, just in very sneaky, indirect ways, so as not to awaken them to their power, so as not to -seem- like blatant social-democratic reform. Often it springs up through "private" means: there's a free health network in my city, not gov't-funded, in a supposedly especially right-wing city in a very right-wing state.

Anything, of course, but letting us -demand- it. Civil unrest fucks up the myth of the imperial society, especially when US-Americans are supposed to feel like Roman citizens (without having much relative substance to their sense of power and privilege, compared to the now-infamous "1%"). This is why there is no class sensibility or struggle, of course, a strong nationalism, which would have made sense in Rome, where nobles were treated like nobles, but not here. And Europe is supposed to feel like peers, who have patiently allowed the US to do its dirty work in the world making it parasite-friendly for the capitalists born to European parents. They have to keep their appearance of being the good, but stern patriarch of the world, hidden behind the UN facade when it's convenient. Failing that they keep enough people from outright calling them monstrous.

The reason? The US hasn't conquered Iran yet. Then the West is headed into another great war, this time with Russia and China. The US and Europe have to prevent another wave of revolutions before that time. If they can clear the hurdle (you know, us, the workers), then we will all predictably squeal and run to Daddy to protect us from the nasty Rooskies and [well, you know what people will suddenly start calling our Chinese fellows]. If they fail for some unforeseen reason, then they will simply slaughter their own [subjects] by the thousands until people stop mentioning they don't want to be serial killers for the State.

Sound familiar? It's the story coming up to World War Two, only with the US being the loud and nasty empire instead of Germany. I will no longer scoff at those who constantly make references to Hitler in the US because the nation learned a good deal of its lessons from what the Nazis did wrong and did right. They used mind-bending fucks like Glenn Beck to doublespeak us into saying everyone but fascists are fascists, and fascists are libertarians.

Among the plebs, the Occupy group is saying they hate those who happen to be the empire, without saying it outright - and let's be honest, it's because they're scared no one will listen. The "libertarians" are saying "good god, just leave us the fuck alone, we'll find some way of taking care of ourselves". Either way, the message is: we're terrified of our government, and are afraid of what we sense is coming.

So being a real libertarian unlike those right-wingers I say, this time around, fuck reform. We've learned from the radicals who came before us and were fooled into war-time nationalism twice. Every minute of your life spent on reform is sucked into the energy of the machine that wants us, at least those of us close to Washington, in labor camps. Keeping our communities alive is currently on our shoulders, not the government's, since we've seen the coming storm for what it is.

EDIT: No, that's not a vanguardist's call, just one to take initiative and start building support networks enabling community relief, for whatever war-time demands they'll make on our neighbors. It's more important that they have a source of relief that doesn't come from the same abusive, belligerent father's hand.

Steven.
Dec 23 2011 09:19

Firstly, I disagree with pretty much everything the poster above says. But much of it is not in the line of the current discussion so I'm going to leave it and respond to these instead.

Juan Conatz wrote:
Steven. wrote:

I think this is an important discussion, but I think you have missed out what I think is the most important point we need to make.

That is, in my view, if reform is actually possible and does occur in response to mass class struggle, and we have kept saying it is not, and the only way of improving our conditions is revolution, then we are left totally wrongfooted.

Not sure I follow. Do you mean strategically we'll be unprepared or that we'll look bad for saying something that ended up being wrong?

Both. I mean, let's be optimistic that our ideas are listened to and adopted by large parts of the working class. If we believe that reform is impossible, and therefore that the only way of defending or improving our living conditions is revolution, then we build a mass revolutionary movement (easy, right?). In the face of mass struggle, world governments grant a load of far reaching reforms to redistribute wealth to the working class, and increase workers' standard of living.

Then many workers will think "oh, so reform was possible, now we don't need to make a revolution". Do you see what I mean? Social democracy has derailed the workers' movement many times, and will do again unless we as a class refuse to be bought off by its reforms, and always keep in mind that boom or bust, crisis or no crisis, our living conditions are shit compared to what they could be.

Nate wrote:
Just want to add to what Jim said - even if is mass struggle *is* the driver for reforms that doesn't mean it's bad for capitalism. Capitalists sometimes need a kick before they'll adopt something that's good for their whole class or for the long term life of the capitalism system, and mass movements can sometimes provide that kick.

yes, exactly. By the nature of capitalism's immediate "grow or die" nature, individual companies and nations are shortsighted. It needs mass struggle to disrupt short-term profit making to force governments internationally to take some form of action beneficial to capital as a whole in the long-term.

Joseph Kay
Dec 23 2011 10:26

edit: snip. on second thoughts this is a tangent.

Ex profundis
Dec 23 2011 14:01

Steven, it has everything to do with whether reform is possible. The culture has to be rewritten from its roots, before its formal government would even be a place for a communistic or class-centered mentality to rise into and be compromised by.

And that won't happen on a large scale in the United States until it loses a lot of territory and leverage, and has to start producing stuff to export, and crops for its subjects to eat. For all its wealth, an empire cannot be a social-democracy. The poor have to be kept mentally against themselves, identifying instead with their tormentors, or they will refuse to torment the poor of the world, or support a machine that works by high torment of the poor. They also must be kept useless, depressed and isolated, so their only friend is the state, or God, lost in the lives of the few who are allowed to be happy, or they will cause too much of a crisis to the military caste. The military (including the military industry), the financiers and what's left of the manufacturing sector do get decent health-care, retirement, benefits etc. But if a large percentage of the populace were to become healthy and mentally stable, and not living vicariously through the military and finance classes, or rather the entertainers and entertaining masks they hide behind - that would be a menace and a distraction. The US figured that out in its period of relative prosperity and stability - the disadvantaged race groups revolted, the white subcultures pushed for an end to the war - to war itself, even - and Martin Luther King, Jr. was even talking about a revolution "to end poverty". So relative -prosperity- ended starting in the '70s and the current culture was built over the last four decades. The American populace is kept ridiculously busy, and a large section of them are in the "service economy", mostly superfluous work, kept running around in a hurry all day - buying things mostly devoid of content, or voided of content in the way they are experienced - and they still aren't allowed ("earned") a healthy life. I looked at the working culture of the '30s and before in the US and I nearly cried because it had its own identity: its own songs, its own - mass, and presence. No such thing is allowed the non-working populace today, and explains why the US is hesitant even to create jobs. I repeat, they are waiting for another war to pour us into creating for them, out of desperation and need for -something to do-, something we could be congratulated for again.

In contrast, a people engaged in production, especially urban production, can be allowed a level of social-democracy; they are seen as machines to be kept functioning well. From what I can see, in some cases like Europe they are also allowed a level of culture you can't find in the US. The arts and the cultural intellect flourish with less mainstream-cultural resistance in Europe than here. But of course not enough to challenge the state; that must be done in defiance.

Here, as I hinted, almost everything must be done in defiance, which gives anyone who engages in that consistently an identity much like "the boy who cried wolf" - a tiring, hostile nuisance. The only times you see cultural innovation are in times and places of rebellion and counter-culture, which are denounced and shunned by the not-so-silent majority in defense of the culture created by a handful of entertainment monopolies - which are obsessed with empire state-friendly morality.

So, in short, again, here you'd have to create a class that the state forces would see a benefit to caring for, and which was born out of almost completely de facto illegal (anti-state) activity, under the strength of a state that has been quietly preparing to suppress a revolution for a decade, just to have a social-democratic direction for that class struggle to go.

And that you don't see the direction of US foreign policy blows my mind.

EDIT: I don't see this as pessimistic, by the way. Reinventing US industry, even if on a tiny scale, seems pretty exciting, although daunting.

Steven.
Dec 23 2011 14:08

Sorry, but that post again is off topic. If you would like to start separate discussion in a new thread please feel free, but please do not derail this discussion.

Ex profundis
Dec 23 2011 14:10

Explain how it's off topic? Clearly we don't agree and so I need you to explain for me to know what you're talking about.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 23 2011 15:28

Great discussion. Looking forward to reading Nate's response.

Pro, you're not engaging with the substance of the OP or the comments. You're expanding things out into a very strange macro critique of empire and drawing all sorts of off topic political analogies. Not uninteresting stuff, but it really should be reserved for it's own thread.

Ex profundis
Dec 23 2011 16:14

I've been only half-coherent/awake lately.

I think what happened was that I subconsciously rejected several of JC's foundational concepts (i.e., the conception of a unified working class being possible in the US economy, the centrality of the "economic crisis", any meaningful existence of a "crisis" at all). Also it seemed like JC was saying none of those sources helped with figuring out our situation, so I skipped that stuff too. And so without properly announcing what I was doing, I proceeded with why I thought social-democratic reform was impossible, especially in the US. So yeah, that's why Steven and you didn't follow me.

Also, maybe what you're telling me with the "strange" comment is that there are no premade pathways in typical anti-capitalist discourse that automatically connect to what I stated, so I'll have to work it out more thoroughly later and, yes, put it in a different post.

Nate
Dec 23 2011 18:07
Steven. wrote:
By the nature of capitalism's immediate "grow or die" nature, individual companies and nations are shortsighted. It needs mass struggle to disrupt short-term profit making to force governments internationally to take some form of action beneficial to capital as a whole in the long-term.

Hey Steven this is a really concise way to say something I've been struggling to articulate, this is most of what that "workers, struggle, state" piece of mine was about. thanks much for that.

communisateur
Dec 24 2011 17:25

I'm not sure anyone here has fully grasped the argument about why reform is impossible, or the shape that this argument must The argument runs like this: the reforms of the midcentury were not, as some would think, simply the result of class struggle, they don't simply evolve from political will, or the hegemony of a certain social democratic idea. The fact is this: midcentury capitalsim (Keynesian, Fordist) benefited from these reforms. The "social wage" and the improved working conditions that resulted from the struggles of the early 20th century were actually a help to the accumulation of capital, rather than a hindrance to it. Therefore, profit rates rose from the 1950s to the 1970s at the same time as wages. But, as any number of studies have shown, over the last four decades very serious problems with accumulation have emerged, largely confirming Marx's notions about organic composition and the profit rate. Under such conditions, capitalists and capital as such will not benefit for bestowing these reforms on workers. On the contrary, they will become an impediment to the accumulation of capital, meaning that open conflict rather than social peace will result. So, while it might be possible to win some reforms through class struggle, they will not last long and will not be system-stabilizing. The capitalist class largely realizes this and acts accordingly. The Aufheben idea that the only thing that matters is subjective will is silly and ignores the actual outlines of accumulation. Pointing this out does not ignore the subjective dimension but actually draws it out and points to where it comes from, and one need not subscribe to some idea of "the revolution happens on its own" simply because one is willing to point out the tendential dynamics of capitalism, or the obvious fact that it's different today than it was 40 years ago.

Joseph Kay
Dec 24 2011 17:32
communisateur wrote:
The Aufheben idea that the only thing that matters is subjective will

eh?

Edit: genuine bemusement, i've not seen this in any of their stuff i've read, though it's a while since i read the exchange with TC. happy to stand corrected if you've got a reference (they're all online here).

Nate
Dec 24 2011 19:59
communisateur wrote:
midcentury capitalsim (Keynesian, Fordist) benefited from these reforms. The "social wage" and the improved working conditions that resulted from the struggles of the early 20th century were actually a help to the accumulation of capital, rather than a hindrance to it.

You may not have read it or I may not have been clearly, this is exactly the sort of thing I was trying to say in another piece. I agree completely.

communisateur wrote:
Under [present and likely future] conditions, capitalists and capital as such will not benefit for bestowing these reforms on workers. On the contrary, they will become an impediment to the accumulation of capital, meaning that open conflict rather than social peace will result. So, while it might be possible to win some reforms through class struggle, they will not last long and will not be system-stabilizing. The capitalist class largely realizes this and acts accordingly.

This strikes me as an argument in favor of reform, then. Demand reform, perhaps win reform, and this further destabilize capitalism.

communisateur wrote:
over the last four decades very serious problems with accumulation have emerged, largely confirming Marx's notions about organic composition and the profit rate.

I need some more in-depth argument in order to find this convincing, some references of stuff that makes this case substantially.

Edit:

communisateur wrote:
the reforms of the midcentury were not (...) simply the result of class struggle, they don't simply evolve from political will, or the hegemony of a certain social democratic idea (...) midcentury capitalsim (Keynesian, Fordist) benefited from these reforms.

Wanted to add - this isn't an either/or. Mid 20th century reforms benefitted capitalism, and also involved political will, hegemonic ideas, and struggle. Capitalists, just like workers, don't automatically know their class interest or seek to act in line with it, and collective efforts to act on class interest are fallible in a variety of ways (including lack of knowledge/incorrect assessments and lack of discipline). Paraphrasing what Steven said, there are aspects of capitalism that encourage capitalists to be short-sighted. Class conflict can help some capitalists and their ideologists and planners recognize this then help them try to win others over to more long-term plans.

A further source of this systemically-encouraged capitalist shortsightedness is that in some cases reforms involve a few capitalists being thrown under the bus, because not all capitalists benefit equally from pro-systemic reforms. For example, when workmen's compensation law was instituted it was a much larger benefit to large-scale manufacturers than to anyone else and it probably harmed smaller capitalists (serious injury rates ranged from 1 in 300 to 1 in 1000 per year -- a company employing a few thousand people could basically be certain it would have employee injuries, compensation laws regularized payment making it cheaper and easier to budget for/less disruptive as well as reducing labor-management conflict over it; companies employing 30-60 people found all of this much less worrisome). That's why some of the most important advocates of workmen's comp laws were large manufacturers and their associations. Then after it was implimented there was a political battle over what the role of finance capitalists would be after that reform (whether or not workmen's compensation insurance would be privately provided or publicly - private provision would mean huge new markets for insurers, public provision would mean loss of existing work accident insurance markets). These costs to some capitalists help work against reform, they're part of what reformists have to overcome in order to get reforms created, and workers' struggles can be an important part of helping reformists make their case -- they can help create the political will among the capitalists and the capitalist state to do what they think the system needs despite the costs.

communisateur
Dec 24 2011 19:37

that's more or less the takeaway in their decadence piece, and the reason they come in for criticism from TC

Joseph Kay
Dec 24 2011 20:41
communisateur wrote:
that's more or less the takeaway in their decadence piece, and the reason they come in for criticism from TC

I'm fairy sure they insist on a 'dialectical' account of both subjective and objective factors, e.g. at a quick glance part 3 of the decadence series says: "The attraction of Radical Chains' theory is that the concrete developments of the twentieth century are explained by a combination of subjective and objective factors." And TC explain they translated the series because "it is rare that theoretical works attend to this essential problem of objectivism without descending into the worst deranged subjectivist imaginings". And in their reflection on 15 years of the magazine they argue "subjective and objective are inseparable." So, I don't think that's the case.

Does it matter? I don't want to derail this into what Aufheben do or don't think, but I do think this is relevant. The blog argues that the 'impossibility of reform' often seems asserted as if self-evident. Similarly, it's easy to appear to be saying something radically new when you just assert your opponents are saying something they're not. So having a pop at 'rival' theorists hasn't brought us any closer to substantiating the claim that reform is impossible. Although I tend towards the view that there's scope for reform if the balance of class forces shifts, I'm open to persuasion. But I've several questions about the 'changes in capitalism since the post-war settlement make (durable) reforms impossible' thesis:

- When you say "it might be possible to win some reforms through class struggle, they will not last long and will not be system-stabilizing", do you have in mind something like one-off redistributions of accumulated wealth, which would be unsustainable year-on-year out of the available surplus?
- Isn't the analysis a bit Eurocentric? E.g. unrest in China has been winning sustained concessions for decades (albeit from a low base) as the Chinese state has adopted a carrot and stick policy (buying off isolated struggles, using force to prevent them joining up into anything more threatening).
- I think there might be a danger of being the radical reflection of capitalist realism? That is to say, capitalist realism holds there's no alternative to neoliberal governance, 'reform is impossible' accepts this equation of one form of capitalist management with capital itself, and thus declares it can't be reformed? Of course, modes of managing capitalism aren't arbitrary or freely chosen (one of TC's points, I think), so it may be argued that neoliberalism is the only available form of capitalism. Again, i can be persuaded, but if this is an assumption it would help to see it argued.

communisateur
Dec 24 2011 22:43

I'm responding to Nate over on his post on these matters. I think I answer some of your questions there. . .

As for China, I'd say that mostly, no, given that China's ability to raise wages in order to shore up its internal market is still entirely dependent on the (failing) health of the US economy. Watch as their economy collapses over the next couple of years. They are in deep shit, actually. The fact that Chinese workers were given some raises doesn't change the fact that their wages haven't actually kept up (not even remotely) with the rate of growth in their economy, or increases in productivity. What you see in China is increasing polarization, not decreasing polarization. I don't think it's a very good counter-example.

Let me review the Aufheben article once again and get back to you. I do very much admire it as a pieces of research and synthesis, however much I disagree with its conclusions. I don't exactly agree with TC on these matters either. I just think they are right to point out that the crypto-autonomism of the Aufheben piece has is consequences. . .I'll say more.

Joseph Kay
Dec 24 2011 23:04
communistateur wrote:
As for China, I'd say that mostly, no, given that China's ability to raise wages in order to shore up its internal market is still entirely dependent on the (failing) health of the US economy. Watch as their economy collapses over the next couple of years

I completely agree Chinese growth has thus far being coupled to the US as its principal export market. However, there have been consistent concessions over several decades. Which I guess raises the question, what counts as a 'lasting reform'? I mean the NHS was under attack in the 1970s, only 30 years after its inception. But those attacks were rebuffed at the time. So it may well be China's ability to concede reforms flatlines with the US economy, but does that mean all the concessions of the past 20 or 30 years (which are unlikely to be reversed) no longer count?

communistateur wrote:
Let me review the Aufheben article once again and get back to you. I do very much admire it as a pieces of research and synthesis, however much I disagree with its conclusions. I don't exactly agree with TC on these matters either. I just think they are right to point out that the crypto-autonomism of the Aufheben piece has is consequences. . .I'll say more.

Yeah sure. I don't know what I think about whether reforms are possible (beyond gut feelings), so I think it's a useful discussion to work through.

communisateur
Dec 25 2011 18:15

Looking over the Aufheben series again, I'm reminded of how excellent it is. Their emphasis on the deleterious effect of the forces/relation (object/subject) distinction, with its corresponding conception of capitalist relations as a "fetters," in both ultraleft and Bolshevik theorization, is particularly important. . . I should say that I think of myself as somewhat of an objectivist -- I don't agree with Theorie Communiste that the entire history of capitalism can be reduced to a history of class struggle. What this misses is an account of the material character of capitalism -- its machinery, the built environment, infrastructure, etc. Even if these things are sedimented forms of social relations, they come to take on a life of their own, become automatic, self-reproducing, in ways that can't easily be reduced to struggles. TC reduce everything to relations, struggles, to form, ultimately. But TC's critique of objectivism is preferable to Aufheben, for whom we need to find capitalism's doom in "the collective forms of organization and struggle of the proletariat" and not "in the forms of capitalist socialization." In TC, one sees that the "collective forms of organization" are not so easily distinguished from "capitalist socialization" not because the former precede and develop the innovative content of the latter (as the autonomists would have it) but because they are two aspects of the same movement. . . Thus one can't simply oppose proletarian subject to capitalist objectivity. One has to think about the *kinds* of class struggle, the content of the struggle. Ultimately, I can only see communism coming about it a moment of breakdown -- a breakdown that is not the crisis which the working-class has imposed on capital, but the crisis of the mutual interdepedence of capital and labor. This does not by any means "waiting" or putting faith in capital to dig its own grave. It's just an acknowledgment of the entanglement of proletariat with its own conditions of survival.

Nate
Dec 25 2011 21:36

hey Comunisateur, thanks for that comment. I really quickly skimmed that Aufheben series recently but haven't really read it years, and I've still not go round to reading all of the back and forth between them and TC, so I can't speak to any of that. But beyond the specifics of that debate, on the larger issues I think I agree with a lot of what you said. I want to think more about this and will eventually reread the Aufheben and finish the TC stuff... I was really into the autonomist stuff at one point and am not anymore, moving back to seeing the importance of intercapitalist conflict and competition has been a big deal for me. I particularly like your point about how proletarian subject vs capitalist object is more complicated than that. I used to think that any time some workers were struggling then that was the working class for itself (and against capital, and against itself as a class). That view now seems very naive to me - some of the time workers struggle with capitalists, sincerely in laudable ways with commitment to important values, in conflicts with real stakes, and at the very same time those workers are struggling *for* capitalism or at least the results of their struggles and the things they demand are things that work in favor of capitalism. Some of the time individual capitalists or groups of capitalists have to be hit upside the head in order to act in the interests of their class or of the capitalist system as a whole and some of the time it's workers in struggle who provide that clarifying hit. This is part of what I think is at stake in the "is reform possible" conversation - is there a chance that militant mobilizations like we may be seeing more of in the near future, could those mobilizations end up providing impetus to system-stabilizing reforms? I think it's already happened that these mobilizations have encouraged (or at least provided rhetorical ammunition for) some individual capitalists and capitalist ideologues (like Warrent Buffett and Paul Krugman) to call for these and try to convince other capitalists of the need for reform. So the conversation about the possibility of reform is I think at least in part a conversation about possible forms of co-optation or recuperation.

medwards
Dec 27 2011 19:55

So... has nobody read Reform or Revolution? I think its a pretty good layout of how this is a false dichotomy.... Not a lot of evidence-gathering admittedly, but it also makes it irrelevant, both are possible and you can work to one thru the other.

Juan Conatz
Dec 28 2011 05:28
medwards wrote:
So... has nobody read Reform or Revolution? I think its a pretty good layout of how this is a false dichotomy.... Not a lot of evidence-gathering admittedly, but it also makes it irrelevant, both are possible and you can work to one thru the other.

Not sure what that has to do with the question on whether a return to or extension of social democracy is possible during an economic crisis in 2011, to be honest. I haven't read that, though, is there something specific in there worth noting?

Nate
Jan 3 2012 17:26

In case folk haven't seen it, this blog post by Joseph Kay is relevant and worth a look on it own terms as well - http://libcom.org/blog/climate-change-capitalist-growth-26122011

Nate
Oct 22 2012 20:41

.