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


Attached files


Jun 19 2013 21:18
I could be misreading you but I take you to be saying that this cohesive class was a precondition for the New Deal. If that is what you mean, it's my understanding that the degree to which there was a "cohesive white, male, industrial working class" in the US it was at least as much an effect of the New Deal as a precondition for it.

You, you could be right that a cohesive white industrial working class was an effect rather than a cause. I was more or less following the TC position and they're often overly schematic. The thing is that I don't think that changes the overall argument. This is because - a service industrial wouldn't support the creation of a cohesive working class, because the capitalist class wouldn't want a cohesively organized working class if they could get it and because the current working class is organized specifically against this.
The point is the unions and the positive working class were tools to assure the transition from an unorganized working class that hadn't internalized capitalist discipline to an organized working class which had incorporated capitalist discipline in ostensible exchange for some kind of static deal regularizing their lives (with this regularity being a partial break on the press of the capitalist order into daily life as well).
But what we have now is the "post-modern workforce". This group has incorporated capitalist discipline into their lives without getting any deal at all - it is simply all they know. "Drop out" means "try to become a petty entrepreneur". Capital has no need, no use, for returning them to the cohesive working class.

So, altogether, whether a cohesive white "middle class" working class was a cause or an effect of the New Deal, it is a specific historical era that has passed for, again, numerous related reasons.

Jun 20 2013 00:35

Really reading in detail on the history of the New Deal is something I keep putting off because what I have read about it is often really annoyingly and pro-New Deal in a simple liberal way, so I don't have a lot to go on here. It's my impression though that the U.S. capitalist class in the 1930s didn't want a cohesive working class either, until quite late. Like I was saying in our other discussion I think Marx on the English factory acts is really instructive here. As I read that bit of Capital, English capitalists didn't want the factory acts, with very few exceptions. They lost that conflict. Still, the acts ended up being really useful for English capitalism. So they could be called a tool, analogous to the unions, but one that the capitalists required something of a beating to recognize and use. (Likewise for capitalist use of unions and the national labor relations act in the U.S.) More to say but I gotta run

Chilli Sauce
Jun 20 2013 08:33

Interesting discussion. RedHughs, that was a really interesting post as well. And while I think there's a lot of truth in what you're saying, I don't think it's so clear cut--or, if I wanted to be pretentious, I think the process is a bit more dialectical than you've laid out.

I feel like it sort of comes across in your post as the grand master plan of capital, when it was as much a response of capital to rising class combativeness than it was this premeditated plan to enforce a labour discipline upon the class by creating these ostensible organs of class organisation, only to highjack them to police the labour force. I mean, obviously capital has long understood that unions can serve to manage industrial relations. But I think that revelation came after workers successfully installed unions as defensive organs in the workplace. Capital and the state then found ways to integrate unions into management structures and create state-regulated systems of 'orderly' industrial relations.

What I do think is interesting (and I experienced this more in the UK where more vestiges of a coherent class identity remain) is the way which capital is very capable of using the notion of working class identity culturally and economically to reinforce capitalism. And in the UK as well, the working class identity has been long giving way to "middle class". I've never drawn a link between that identity an internalization of labour discipline, but it's certainly something to think about. On the other hand, it also seems that the working class identity can develop or be reinforced through a sense of share interest or in the throes of struggle itself. It doesn't mean the capital won't then try to co-opt that identity, but I do think the class has some very real agency in creating identity and culture.

Joseph Kay
Jun 20 2013 09:13

On the class cohesion thing, I've been meaning to read Hester Barron's book on the 1926 miners' lock-out in Durham. I've only read the intro, but it looks like it goes into this in a lot of depth - miners and pit villages are often retrospectively assumed to be fairly homogenous, class conscious etc. But this was actually a result of struggles, and union organising. Only a third of 'miners' were actually coal face workers, the rest were "general labourers, masons, fitters, joiners, skilled mechanics at tub mending, sawyers, waggonwrights, blacksmiths, boilersmiths, horse-shoers, plumbers, saddlers, painters, electricians, lamp repairers, platelayers, smiths’ strikers, winding enginemen, locomotive engine drivers, hauliers, ostlers, carters, rolleywaymen, screen and washery engineers, stokers, patternmakers, rope splicers, rope splicers’ mechanics, rubbish tippers, ashmen, boiler cleaners, shunters, power-house men, topmen in charge of signals". Apparently there was a hierarchy of status and presteige etc, but through struggle and union work, the now famous class conscious, shared identity of 'the miners' came to be established.

Anyway, I haven't read beyond the intro, but it would seem to support the idea that cohesive shared identity was the product of struggle, which once established, capital sought to find ways to integrate (and never really succeeded until the industry was decimated by pit closures and automation). Rather than it say, arising spontaneously from technical class composition/organisation of the labour process/'mass work'/village life. Of course, that doesn't mean the those factors weren't important, only that they weren't sufficient.

Jun 20 2013 22:17
I feel like it sort of comes across in your post as the grand master plan of capital, when it was as much a response of capital to rising class combativeness than it was this premeditated plan to enforce a labour discipline upon the class by creating these ostensible organs of class organisation, only to highjack them to police the labour force.

Well that certainly isn't my intention. What I'd see instead is a series of irreversible transformations of the working class, the capitalist class and the production process. Crucial as the creation and destruction of the positive-working-class-under capital is, I'd still point out that it's only one piece. What you refer to isn't "my argument" but "one of my arguments" (though the different pieces interlock).

How much of the "New Deal World" of, say, 1950's America, was planned or chosen by capital is an interesting question but I don't think an answer one or the other is going to change the point that the present day working class stands utterly transformed. And, of course, that has been transformed into a working class for the present production processes.

Even in the "rebellion against work", the working class self-polices itself if it takes this rebellion to be an atomized action. That's not saying that there won't necessary be an inherent danger of revolt to capital in a working class that no longer sees any value in work. It is simply that this danger doesn't includes a revived mass unionization movement.