Reform is possible and reformism is guaranteed

Reform is possible and reformism is guaranteed

An article by Nate Hawthorne responding to 'Is reform possible?' on whether significant reform is possible in contemporary capitalism, how it could happen and why it is important to consider the question.

This fall the Canadian magazine Adbusters issued a call that Occupy Wall Street take action in support of a so-called Robin Hood Tax, which would "slow down some of that $1.3-trillion easy money that's sloshing around the global casino each day – enough cash to fund every social program and environmental initiative in the world." I'm not excited about this proposal, to put it mildly, but I raise it because I want to get at an issue that Juan Conatz recently raised: is reform possible in capitalism today? In his piece Juan lays out some of the arguments made by people on the left that reforms are impossible. People should read his article. His article prompted me to finally take the notes I've been accumulating and bang them into this piece. This is on the rough side with minimal editing, apologies for the inevitable typos.

In talking about Occupy Wall Street I've gotten into arguments with some of my friends and comrades about this repeatedly. I don't think I can prove that reforms are possible - I think only the actual creation of reforms would demonstrate their possibility in a conclusive way. Still, I'm going argue that reforms are possible, because, well, I think reforms are possible. If I'm right about that, then if we operate under the assumption that reforms are impossible, we will be unprepared if reforms actually occur. I also want to add that any argument about the impossibility of reform etc in my opinion needs to take into account that reforms aren't just redistributive in a humanitarian sense - the Bush tax cuts were reform, just a reform that deepened inequality, likewise for the austerity measures tied to the debt ceiling deal. The Pentagon recently got another $50 billion allocated to it, so it seems to me that money is available for political priorities. So reforms are already happening, just tied to different constituencies and political priorities. The argument about the structural impossibility of reform seems to me to overlook this.

Most of my closest political friends and comrades and I are young enough that we have lived most or all of our lives in periods of relative working class defeat and retreat - periods of relatively low levels and intensities of struggle. We have more experience with workplace struggles that are very small to moderate in size relative to the size of the working class as a whole. While I am no Leninist, I think Lenin has a useful formulation, he said once that "politics begin where millions of men and women are; where there are not thousands, but millions." I don't know that I would say that anything less than millions of people is pre-political, but there is an important point here that truly massive struggles are much larger than anything that many of us have experienced. In the current period, this may change, and it may be that we see politics at the level Lenin described. In that case, this scale of politics won’t necessarily be subjectively revolutionary. A lot of it will be, at least initially, reformist in character. We will see a rise in demands for reform — we’re going to see more reformism. We already are seeing this. Whether or not reform is possible will shape how we respond to reformists. If reform is impossible, then the capitalist system has less options in responding to massive working class movements.

I’ll be honest, I find the idea that reform is impossible compelling at some level. If reform is impossible then we can argue against reformists by pointing out the impossibility of their projects. Let's say there's no room for maneuver anymore. In that case, there just objectively is no more real systemic fix possible, we're in the last stage such that the options are extend it in time, delaying the breakdown, or degrade into more barbaric and authoritarian forms, or a rupture that moves toward a genuinely different and better society. If this is the case, then thought directed to possible course corrections and pro-systemic reforms is just a waste of time. If reform is impossible then we don't have to argue in favor of communism over a reformed capitalism. If reform is impossible then perhaps we're closer to a communist society. If reforms are impossible this also means that reformist forces can never really win out. If reformists gain (or keep) dominant positions in social movements and in ideas, the worst they can do is temporarily distract the working class away from revolutionary tasks but they can't actually win reforms. And we the communists will still be here when the reforms don't actually materialize. On the other hand, if there are fixes possible and we assume there aren't then we're going to be suckerpunched when they take place and the reformists will be in a better position.

The core question is whether or not we're currently touching objective systemic limits that dictate capitalist responses. In my view, the current moment is political, about priorities and decisions, and is not dictated straightforwardly by economic possibility. Over all, I think arguments like “economic conditions mean that global elites are unable to do XYZ" strikes me as wrongheaded in part because of an overemphasis on structural imperatives and an underemphasis on ideology and elites' politics. As an analogy, I once heard about a union organizing drive at a facility for the developmentally disabled in the early 2000s. This was a privatized facility that was still dependent on state subsidy rates - medicaid reimbursements, which had been cut or stagnant. In contract negotiations, according to the financial data supplied by the bosses they honestly couldn't afford to give out the  raises that the union wanted to get in negotiation, couldn't give that dollar amount to that many people. So the union lobbied like crazy to get medicaid reimbursements for group homes raised in that state. They succeeded, then fought to make sure the bosses actually handed over the raises. That was a case where the employer ran up against real limits in terms of profitability and simply couldn’t give a meaningful concession. I don’t think we’re in a moment where the capitalist system as a whole has run up against a limit like that in such a way that no meaningful reforms are possible.

Before I go on, I should say, by "reform" I mean two things that are only partly related. What really matters about reforms, from a communist perspective, is whether or not the reforms shore up capitalism in some way, by making capitalism more stable or profitable, or by blunting or preventing working class struggle. Economically, it costs to implement reforms. Other than nature and expropriation, all wealth comes from workers, but the capitalists claim that wealth. So the costs of reform have to come from somewhere and often require capitalists to give up a bit of the wealth they claim belongs to them. At the same time, reforms can prove profitable despite initial costs. And reforms don't have to be economic in a narrow sense. Reforms can also include the extension of rights or the end to repression. Amnesty International lists numerous types of human rights violations in the United States that could be eliminated including police brutality and the death penalty. Between 2003 and 2006, the most recent years I can find information on, police in the U.S. killed 1553 people. These types of killings could be eliminated or reduced by reform. (Doing so would also reduce the sparks that give rise to riots; while police brutality alone rarely causes riots it is often an important catalyst, for more information on some important riots in U.S. history see this article.) Immigration policy reform is also possible. Actually, immigration reform is currently happening in the US -- the US is cracking down on immigrants really aggressively, with an increase in deportations. These deportations don't have to happen and could be ended.

Impossibility of reform?
I don’t know if I understand the arguments behind the claim that reforms are impossible. I do think that reforms are initially unlikely. The current capitalist class and the government at least in the US seem to me more in the mood to bust heads and throw people into the street than they are in the mood to issue concessions. They have been for a while. If the working class goes on the offensive, though, this might change. And there are some voices among the capitalists and their ideologists who have called for reform. Billionaire Warren Buffet, for example, has called for more taxes on the rich, and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, no radical, has been writing in the New York Times for a while about reforms that would help capitalism. These voices seem to be drowned out by the majority of capitalists and pro-capitalist voices, but that doesn’t mean that reform is systematically impossible in the present. At one point, most capitalists - certainly most US capitalists, and most high level US government personnel - were ideologically white supremacists. This changed. Capitalists can change their minds and decide to do capitalism differently. They don’t do so in a vacuum, of course; this happens when forces within the capitalist class convince other capitalists that it’s in their interests to change. Mass struggle are a hugely important factor in shaping how capitalists see their interests and in how intra-capitalist class politics plays out. In any case, I think that under the disposition of the current capitalists reform is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean reform is structurally impossible. And we’re in a volatile moment and the disposition of the capitalists may change if we see large working class offensives.

Actually, the disposition of the capitalists is already changing - in the US at least we’re seeing an uptick in repression and innovations in the techniques and technologies of repression. I expect that this is going on worldwide. In the spring of 2011 there was least one US politician who talked about using lethal force on protesters. He lost his job for it, but this too could change - they could become more comfortable with intensifying repression up to and including an expansion of comfort with using lethal force. There will be advocates for this position, though few public ones. There will also be advocates for reform. Some people on the left have suggested the repression of Occupy Wall Street has radicalized more people and kept Occupy going longer. If that’s true, some people among the capitalists and their support personnel will figure this out and begin to suggest alternative courses of action. (It’s worth noting that the Albany police refused to clear out Occupy Albany, but they didn’t refuse saying “this order is wrong,” they refused saying “we are experts in policing and the politicians are not,” which is to say, that they thought that a hands-off response to Occupy was a better policing strategy.) Which voices among the other side win out is not going to be determined simply and solely by objective, pre-existing economic events and factors. It’s going to be the result of politicking among capitalists and their forces, and the result of the actions of the working class.

Now I want to address two arguments I've seen that say that reform is impossible. At one point a good friend of mine suggested that currently we are in a downturn in the global economy that fits with the pattern of what some economists call Kondratiev waves - meaning, I think, regular periods of economic decline or crisis - and that this means that reform is impossible. The idea is that there aren't resources available for the capitalists and governments to pay for reforms, because we're in one of these recurring low points, the low point in a Kondratiev wave. This argument doesn't make sense to me. If anything, being at a low point seems to make reforms more likely, not less likely.

The US was at one of those low points around 1890 or 1900. Those were eras of increasing social reform, including regulation of food safety, ‘protective’ legislation about women workers, and workers compensation. And the UK was at the bottom of a trough in 1841. In the 1840s the UK saw major changes in labor/employment law. Marx argues that this provided a boost to the economy, I don’t know if that’s true but he quotes bourgeois economists of his day to back it up so it seems to have become prevailing opinion among economists then. From that same link the UK was at the bottom of a trough again in 1893. In 1897 the UK introduced workmen’s compensation (and keep in mind that reforms in this era usually involve a few years of commissions studying them and so on, so the impulse toward reform dates from close to or prior to the low economic point).

There was an economic high point at 1900 and 1950. The 1930s fall somewhere in the valley in the middle of those high points. I can only speak to the United States here but the 1930s saw the creation of the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Social Security Act. So I don’t see evidence that being in a major downturn, in the valley of a Kondratiev wave, equals limited social reform possibilities. The policy planners of the 1930s certainly thought that active state engagement via social reform was a way to aid the upward swing out of the valley.

There were also big changes in American tax rates in the early 20th century. In 1913 the highest income tax rate in the US was 6%. By 1918 the highest rate was 72%. By 1926 that was back down to 25% where it stayed until 1930. By 1942 it was 88%. Changes in taxation are a type of reform. Basically all taxes involve requirements about where wealth will go - wealth that comes from the work that workers do, from exploitation. Lower taxes direct more wealth into the hands of individual capitalists. Higher taxes direct more wealth into the control of the capitalist state. If that wealth is then redistributed then the working class gets a slightly higher share of the total wealth that came out of forcing us to work. In any case, there were big reforms at the level of taxation in the US in the 1930s.

A second sort of argument I’ve seen is about the falling rate of profit. This is a harder one for me to deal with as I have to say I’m not really up on the material that talks about the falling rate of profit. I’ve tended to avoid them, honestly, for several reasons. So I’m out on a limb here, but, as I’ve occasionally heard the point made — there’s a tendency for the rate of profit to decline in capitalism because of the replacement of workers with machinery. Capitalist profits generally come from time worked by workers, where the workers produce something that the capitalist sells. The difference between the cost of production and the selling price is where profit comes from and the heart of that difference is the labor performed by workers. Marx calls it surplus value. I tried to lay this out with as little jargon as possible in a piece I wrote called “Do you really want to overthrow capitalism?”, and again in a post here at libcom called Workers, The State and Struggle. In another piece I tried to use visuals to help give an overview of the basics in terms of Marx’s writings. Anyway, surplus comes from workers. That means that when capitalists replace workers with machines, they reduce the sources of their profits. All of that strikes me as true. But that doesn’t mean reform is impossible.

The claim that there is a trend for the rate of profit to fall means that over time capitalists will get a lower percentage on their investments. That doesn’t mean they will get less wealth. It means their wealth will increase by a smaller percentage. The rate of profit would have to decline to zero in order for sort of "it will all collapse under its own weight" sort of arguments to be true. And even then it could still be possible to destroy a lot of capital in order to create new room for growth. Given the frequency of wars, political and economic elites seem to be relatively okay with that as a fix.

Imagine a small business without much machinery. The company spends $300,000 a year and generates a profit of $100,000 a year. That’s a rate of profit of 33% over the year. Now imagine a bigger company that spends $300,000,000 and generates a profit of $3,000,000. That’s a rate of profit of only 1% over the year. But it’s still a much larger real quantity of wealth — the larger business made ten times the absolute profits as the smaller company. Whatever else there is to say about all this, a tendency of the rate of profit to fall is not the same thing as a tendency for capitalists to actually run out of wealth. If there are profits being made then there is surplus value being extracted workers and some of that surplus value could be directed toward workers as a type of reform. To put it another way - repression is expensive. If they can afford repression, they can afford reform. Low estimates in Oakland are that the city has spent almost $2,500,000. At least some of that could have been spent differently.

Some possibilities for reform
A recent article at Mother Jones magazine argued that there has been a massive speedup in the US, so that “Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans.” The piece notes, unsurprisingly for LibCom readers, that this has been accompanied by rising incomes for the very wealthy and high profits for capitalists. None of this is earth shattering, but I do think it poses a challenge to the view that reform is structurally impossible. It seems to me that the money is there for reform. I'm not the only one who thinks this. Billionaire Warren Buffett has made news repeatedly by saying that he pays too little in taxes.

Matias Vernengo argues, though not in so many words, that current policies at least in the US are about where wealth goes among the capitalists. That is, the current moment is one in which social inequality and wealth polarization has increased rapidly in ways that are the result of economic policy and the disposition of the capitalists. The left wing of capital has begun to argue that this has reached destabilizing proportions. For Vernengo as for Buffett, tax policy should change, which would fund redistribution.

Some pro-capitalist commentators have argued not only that reform is possible but that it's needed to help capitalism recover. Here’s The Economist magazine:

“America is currently on course for the most stringent fiscal tightening of any big economy in 2012, as temporary tax cuts and unemployment insurance expire at the end of this year. (…) For all the tirades against the Europeans, America’s economy risks being pushed into recession by its own fiscal policy—and by the fact that both parties are more interested in positioning themselves for the 2012 elections than in reaching the compromises needed to steer away from that hazardous course.”

Dean Baker, writing in the Guardian, argued that

“corporate profits were revised sharply higher for both 2009 and 2010. The share of profits in corporate sector output hit a new record high, more than a full percentage point above its previous peak. Finance was the biggest winner within the corporate sector, accounting for 31.7% of corporate profits, also a record high. (…) the economy was plunging even more rapidly than we had previously recognised in the two quarters following the collapse of Lehman. Yet, the plunge stopped in the second quarter of 2009 – just as the stimulus came on line. This was followed by respectable growth over the next four quarters. Growth then weakened again as the impact of the stimulus began to fade at the end of 2010 and the start of this year. In other words, the growth pattern shown by the revised data sure makes it appear that the stimulus worked. The main problem would seem to be that the stimulus was not big enough and it wasn't left in place long enough to lift the economy to anywhere near potential output.”

Writing about the debt ceiling deal and rumbling about the US deficit, economist James Galbraith writes that austerity measure are redistribution of wealth - in an upward direction.

"The right steps would be to lower – not raise – the Social Security early retirement age, permitting for a few years older workers to exit the labor force permanently on better terms than are available to them today. This together with a lower age of access to Medicare would work quickly to rebalance the labor force, reducing unemployment and futile job search among older workers while increasing job openings for the young. It is the application of plain common sense. And unlike all the pressures to enact long-term cuts in these programs, it would help solve one of today’s important problems right away.”

Galbraith writes elsewhere about Social Security that

"the financial crisis has left the country with 11 million fewer jobs than Americans need now. No matter how aggressive the policy, we are not going to find 11 million new jobs soon. So common sense suggests we should make some decisions about who should have the first crack: older people, who have already worked three or four decades at hard jobs? Or younger people, many just out of school, with fresh skills and ambitions? The answer is obvious. Older people who would like to retire and would do so if they could afford it should get some help. The right step is to reduce, not increase, the full-benefits retirement age. As a rough cut, why not enact a three-year window during which the age for receiving full Social Security benefits would drop to 62 -- providing a voluntary, one-time, grab-it-now bonus for leaving work? Let them go home! With a secure pension and medical care, they will be happier. Young people who need work will be happier. And there will also be more jobs. With pension security, older people will consume services until the end of their lives.”

Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman, writing about the debt ceiling deficit deal made by the US Congress in the late summer of 2011, said that

“We currently have a deeply depressed economy. We will almost certainly continue to have a depressed economy all through next year. And we will probably have a depressed economy through 2013 as well, if not beyond. The worst thing you can do in these circumstances is slash government spending, since that will depress the economy even further. Pay no attention to those who invoke the confidence fairy, claiming that tough action on the budget will reassure businesses and consumers, leading them to spend more. It doesn’t work that way, a fact confirmed by many studies of the historical record. Indeed, slashing spending while the economy is depressed won’t even help the budget situation much, and might well make it worse. On one side, interest rates on federal borrowing are currently very low, so spending cuts now will do little to reduce future interest costs. On the other side, making the economy weaker now will also hurt its long-run prospects, which will in turn reduce future revenue. So those demanding spending cuts now are like medieval doctors who treated the sick by bleeding them, and thereby made them even sicker.”

So far arguments like these are in the minority among the capitalists and their governments, but there is a conversation about them happening. If reform is impossible, we don't need to think much about any of this. If reform is possible, then arguments like these will compete with arguments about why reform shouldn't happen. If social movements continue to rise, we'll also see arguments that the answer is repression, not reform. I think the outcome of those arguments among capitalists will be political. The answer won't be inevitable and it won't be determined by the economy in a narrow or mechanical way, which is to say, I don't think that we've yet run into objective limits to capitalism such that the capitalists have no options other than keep doing what they're doing now or get more repressive. They may well opt for either of those choices, but none of this is inevitable or a matter of simple economic requirements. Whatever happens will be in part the result of how the capitalists respond to the struggles of the working class. That capitalist response will be shaped by the changing disposition of the capitalist class - how it sees itself, how it sees the world, what it believe in, who is hegemonic within it. This is politics, not objective necessity.

Final thoughts on the possibilities of reform
We are not likely to see a big boom in anyone handing out big concessionary wins to people in the near future. But if things really start to kick off, and it seems like we’re heading in that direction given current events, there is a possibility of some kind of reformist turn by people in power, to try to recuperate. I think this matters for what we should expect in a later round. I agree that reform is not in the cards in the near future, austerity is. That’s the first round. Also in this round: large social movements, and probably growing ones. Currently, the state is responding with repression or ignoring Occupy. If reform and compromise isn't possible then the only options in future rounds are steps toward socialism or toward barbarism -- major social rupture or major repression, and really a cocktail of both -- but if reform is possible then that's the third option. What I mean is, if stuff really starts to kick off, ruling class priorities can change with regard to the allocation of surplus value. Some people seem to think that there's just not enough surplus value around that can be re-allocated in a politically feasible way. I think there is such a response possible if ruling class priorities change.

I think over all in terms of reform absolute standards of living is less important than securing loyalty, or rather, in shaping the form that resistance and social friction take. If no reform is possible, then we don’t need to spend time on this. If reform is possible, then we will need to be prepared to answer these moves. It’s clear that we're not currently dealing with capitalists and rulers who need to be conciliatory or recuperative, but that's different from ”reform is impossible." If movements grow and become more combative and radical, the capitalists will develop a need which could be met by reform. If they can’t do so, then we’re in a different situation than if they are able to do so. Several people I know have said that we will not see meaningful reforms without mass uprisings of the working class. I agree. But the big question is what happens after these mass uprisings? Reforms will be a way for the system to try to compensate, to temporarily relieve pressures from below and to stratify the class in some way to break up the class composition that drove the uprisings.

It seems to me that reforms have at least three functions. One is to oil the hinges of capitalists' actions - extending credit to companies so they can buy stuff to make stuff to sell stuff etc, in order to avoid problems that capitalists run into that aren't an immediate/short-term product of workers struggles. The other is to prevent or defuse social unrest on the part of some constituencies - not everyone, just enough people to keep too large a swath from boiling over too far. (One of the most interesting things I think came out of the race traitor type analysis was the point that white skin privilege was analogous to social democracy in this way.) We saw glimmers of this possibility in the struggles in Wisconsin earlier this year, both in the actions of the parliamentary-militance (a highly narrowed kind of “militance” to be sure) of the Democrats who broke legislative quorum and temporarily became a kind of folk heros to many, and in the degree to which the mobilizations didn't find a way to really move beyond the interests of unionized public sector workers. The legislative recall is another version of this I think, if it worked.

A third function of reform is to govern the capitalist class in the interests of systemic stability. That is, reforms are partly a way to spread capitalist class consciousness. While every capitalist is likely to have a clear boss-consciousness in relation to their subordinates within their enterprise, there's no guarantee they'll be class conscious as capitalists - in some ways various laments that have been written in the mainstream press about CEOs taking the money and running, or industries that pollute, or the way insurance companies raise costs for other companies and create systemic pressures in the US, or the problems with finance capitalists, these are all individual capitalists or subgroups of capitalists who are not primarily thinking/acting in terms of the long term interests of the capitalist class and the stability of the capitalist system.

I think this is highly unlikely in the short term but it's certainly possible that there could be strong moves toward regulation etc if the capitalist political forces change. This would depend on shifts among the politics of the capitalist class. Right now there's a strong rightward push and that’s worrying, but there are already pieces of a left pushback by reformists. It's scattered and often incompetent and it may not amount to anything, but we don't know for sure that it won't. It's not systemically impossible (not ruled out by large-scale structural forces such as rates of profit) though the current weight of history is against it (current balance of power among different groupings and ideologies that are believed in widely). If there is such a reformist pushback and it gains steam, it will involve new forms of governing capitalists. Green capitalism is one source of this, tied to technology research and forms of production. At a smaller scale, the Employee Free Choice Act effort in the US was a small form of this - revising the terms of governing employer behavior to allow workers to provide more of a counterweight to keep capitalist accumulation in greater balance.

I don't know how to prove that there are enough resources available to capitalists in the system to create new forms of securing stability. I have a hunch that there are, because there's just a lot of money around. It'd probably need to be taken away from some of its owners to do that. Capitalists and the capitalist state is not above putting down a few capitalists sometimes, when they believe its in their interests and the long term interests of the capitalist system. National insurance in the US is one example, it would expropriate big chunks of finance (insurance) capital in order to create reforms. A more militant reformism that actually took some resources would be able to go further. If that happened, it'd be heated and intense but not necessarily revolutionary. Here’s Marx in chapter 32 of Capital volume 1 --

"as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet (...) expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralization of capital. One capitalist always kills many."

Marx then goes to make a prediction that this leads to the end of capitalism, but it doesn't have to necessarily, or at the very least we don't know the pace or timing so the prediction means little. It certainly seems like capitalism has lasted longer than Marx expected. My point here is that's been recognized for a very long time that expropriation of some specific capitalists can sometimes be in the interests of other capitalists or of the capitalist system as a whole. If things get really volatile, visionary capitalists and capitalist politicians will consider massive social repression of workers and they will also consider expropriation of some capitalists in order to free up resources in service of systemic stability.

I would also like to suggest this piece by Aufheben. Toward the end it makes a point that these sorts of matters are better addressed by a high level of empirical evidence (though I would add that since these are speculative matters we're not going to find empirical *proof* so much as highly convincing and more sophisticated and useful speculation). They also express "skepticism with regards to the inevitable schematism of such a stages approach – where the concrete developments are presumed to be explained by referencing the stage of capitalism they fall under." They address what they see as a move on the part of the French group Theorie Communiste. They see Theorie Communiste as posing an analysis of history and the present which, at a theoretical level, "is meant to eliminate all accomodation of the class within capitalist reproduction and make revolution, in its real sense as communisation, the necessary climax of this cycle of struggles." That's connected to the basic point I’m trying to make here, I think we should be very hesitant about theoretical perspectives that make strong claims about the narrow range of possibilities for the capitalist class to maneuver. Ruptures and dramatic shifts in consciousness can occur on the other side of the class line too, so to speak, the working class is the more volatile class but the capitalists can get volatile and suddenly shift their political vision and organization as well.

As a final comment, I think that really getting at whether or not reform is possible means also addressing what our orientation toward reformists is. As communists, the reason we’re not reformists is not because reform is impossible, I would think. It’s because the type of life we want for ourselves and our loved ones and for humanity is impossible under capitalism. I also want to make some suggestions on stuff to read that might help enrich conversation on this. I’ve already mentioned Juan’s piece and that Aufheben piece. Juan surveys a lot of material in his post. I get into some of this in a piece I wrote called “Workers, the State, and Struggle.” I think that this short bit by Marx is useful, I mentioned it in a comment on Juan’s post. I also think that Aufheben’s three-part article on decadence is super important and useful for thinking this through. It probably would also help to look into the history of reformist movements and social reform under capitalism.

Comments

Steven.
Dec 23 2011 09:35

Yeah, I agree with much of what you say here.

I think that your argument gets a bit lost in the section about the falling rate of profit. The hypothetical example you come up with, for example is very problematic. In that scenario, where one business was making 33% profit, and another was making 1%, would not be a sustainable state of affairs - investment and loans etc would go to the more profitable business, not the bigger one making tiny profits.

But that's an aside.

One thing I wonder is if, historically revolutionaries in 1850, 1890, 1920 etc also said that reform was impossible. I bet that many of them did! I imagine it would be a historical pattern that in times of class defeat, where reforms clearly don't happen because why would they, some people start to think they are impossible. Certainly historical data shows that reform has been possible at every point prior to the last few years. So if you are saying it is now impossible, you had have to have some pretty good evidence that capitalism now is qualitatively significantly different from any point previously.

Joseph Kay
Dec 23 2011 10:12
Nate wrote:
I don't think that we've yet run into objective limits to capitalism such that the capitalists have no options other than keep doing what they're doing now or get more repressive. They may well opt for either of those choices, but none of this is inevitable or a matter of simple economic requirements. Whatever happens will be in part the result of how the capitalists respond to the struggles of the working class. That capitalist response will be shaped by the changing disposition of the capitalist class - how it sees itself, how it sees the world, what it believe in, who is hegemonic within it. This is politics, not objective necessity.

This is something i've been thinking about lately. they way i've conceptualised it is a difference between objective necessities and intersubjective necessities. there are certainly objective limits to capital. no firm can run at a loss indefinitely (a SolFed comrade who was active in the 1970s says this was one of the failings of the wave of wildcat strikes: bosses opened up the books and really were at the limit of what they could concede. Without a revolutionary perspective, struggles had to back off). But bosses always plead 'necessity'. Every time i've been laid off (twice in 14 months a few years back) it was, we were told, regrettable but necessary. The managing director looked genuinely upset the first time when he summoned the whole factory to announce it (even though he personally was being relocated within a profitable Fortune 500 company). The second time, my bosses took several hundred grand in bonuses at the same time they laid a load of people off to cut the wage bill. Again, this was 'necessary in the current economic climate'.

I've no doubt bosses would rather be employing more people and expanding output. I've no doubt some of them feel genuinely if fleetingly bad for making these 'necessary' decisions to take away peoples livelihoods. But that doesn't mean every cut is therefore objectively determined by economic forces. As you say, it's also political (as in, a factor of power struggle). I think it makes sense to understand this kind of necessity as intersubjective, since it's real, and has material effects, but also, in the face of unexpected resistance, could well change as there's still breathing space between the intersubjective necessity and the objective limit. For example, if we'd have all occupied the factory when they announced 200 layoffs (followed by the last 200 6 months later), then they may well have reconsidered, or at least 'found' more redundancy money to get rid of us and get their expensive plant back. Or in the other case, if we'd have been better organised, we may have been in a position to stem the drip-drip of redundancies, since while there was a downturn in the market, the firm was still in good health, and had built up plenty of reserves in the boom which were removed as bonuses for the bosses in order to make the accounts look weaker and create the 'necessity' for layoffs (which reminds me, I need to write this experience up).

In a more global sense, I think most of the time we talk about what 'the markets' want, we're talking about intersubjective necessity. If one state's bond yields or debt:GDP ratio rise too far relative to the rest, that's a problem. But if they all do, the threshold which constitutes a problem shifts. So take the rate of profit. I've seen data pointing both ways on this, but for the sake of argument lets accept it's tendentially falling for reasons inherent to accumulation. So say in 1900, the norm might have been say, 10%. Anything above that would be a good return, anything below an under-utilisation of capital. But today, for arguments sake, it might be 1%. That means 2% is a great investment.

These aren't fixed, objective ratios but reflect the intersubjective consensus of what returns can be expected. Now it might reach an objective limit, a point where capital goes on strike, refusing paltry returns (in theory, any profit should attract investment, in practice it needs to be a minimum magnitude to cover risk, opportunity costs and so on). We might even be at such a point at the moment. But that needs to be demonstrated, not asserted or simply assumed, since not all necessity is objective. If that all makes sense?

Alasdair
Dec 23 2011 14:28

Thanks for this Nate (and Juan) I thought both pieces were really useful and quite germane in the context of a lot of the communisation type stuff I've been reading recently. There's ideas I find quite appealing there but there is certainly a tendency to assert that reform is now impossible. Though I'm far from an expert on it, I think they would suggest that there are structural reasons why the form of capitalism is qualitatively different now compared to the post-war social democratic consensus period. The lack of working class organisation, as DSG mention (quoted in Juan's post), being one issue, though I think that itself being perhaps more a condition of the post-Fordist restructuring of production than a separate problem.

One problem I do find with much of that material, though, is that the assertions about the current period of capitalism to tend to be asserted without supporting evidence and to be couched in very abstract, academic Marxist terms. Other than the Aufheben pieces mentioned already are there any more empirical studies people could suggest, on the falling (or otherwise) rate of profit for example? or whether sufficient surplus capital does exist to make reforms theoretically possible?

Joseph Kay
Dec 23 2011 14:56

Andrew Kliman of the Marxist Humanist Initiative has written a pamphlet which 'demonstrates' the falling rate of profit in the US.* At a quick glance, there's some graphs here. This book (reviewed) also sounds like it goes into the falling rate of profit. I'm not aware of empirical stuff claiming profits are rising (possibly Aufheben have some data on China? I can't remember).

* Scare quotes as I don't know how conclusive his proof is, and there's also the problem that the US is only part of capitalism not a self-contained entity.

klas batalo
Dec 23 2011 17:26

does it make much of a difference if reform is possible but the majority of the capitalist class is not willing to cede to reformist demands? it seems to me less about decadence theory or whatever and more about what methods would be able to guarantee reform. current reformist practice seems incapable. perhaps militant reformism would be able to? i see revolutionaries as militant reformists plus. we certainly won't say no to reform or working towards reforms but we also have methods and a different vision of the end goal. so more important to me is the question who are the actors that are capable of achieving reform in the current historical situation. the reformism of the ideological reformists is what seems utopian to me. the smart ones i think will try to adapt and become more militant, they are already trying. you can see this in the union movement with the start of rumblings to push for more organizers in some of the more progressive unions and even rumblings towards organizing in the afl-cio. but that doesn't mean that they still will be able to win those reforms, perhaps they wont, and perhaps it will be pro-revolutionary methods that win out and are adopted by the class? idk let's discuss!

Nate
Dec 23 2011 22:13

hey comrades, thanks for the thought provoking comments. JK if you don't mind my saying so I think that it'd be awesome if you wrote something on those different kinds of necessity under capitalism, how sometimes it's actually consensus and not objective necessity. Or maybe we could say that its real and objective but in the political or social sense, it's a matter of currently agreed on practices and structures of incentives not a matter of there genuinely being no possibility (so, 'impossible under the current customs and rules in this kind of capitalism' rather than 'impossible under capitalism as such anymore'). I say this in part because lately I've been trying to get a handle on the idea that there are institutions built which sometimes discipline some capitalists to get or stay in line with a program on the part of the capitalists - with some consensus, to use your term. That's part of what I've been trying to think out about the state, what that earlier blog post of mine was about. So like employment law is an example, sometimes there are practices that capitalists are penalized for, when they depart far enough from a given consensus as codified in law - like child labor law, which some right wing politicians have started to talk about repealing. And there are other sorts of penalties like economic pressure and such. All of this is dynamic, though, or at least subject to revision. (I think it probably moves from periods of relative stability where a given consensus works pretty well then periods of volatility where things aren't working so well, and both the capitalists and the working class have to adjust when things get turbulent, and that adjustment has to be figured out -- part of what I'm on about with this reform stuff is that I think that if enough capitalists and government planners start to figure that reforms are a good idea then we shouldn't assume that they would be unable to pursue that for-them-desirable course of action.)

JK thinking of your scenario you talk about with layoffs, I've had that too, layoffs where bosses and managers are like "ohhh it's out of my hands, I'm so sorry" and they probably meant it. I think that they're telling the truth as long as some things are held fixed -- if managers' salaries and so on aren't on the table. (Where I work now I'm quite low on the food chain in a large unit where we all get paid little; we recently saw management put out a proposal to cut our pay between 2-4%, which is a lot of money for us but a tiny piece of the budget, with no talk about cutting the pay of management who make 5-8 times more per year than we do. We've stopped the pay cut at least for now but it'll probably be proposed again next year.) But if the working class gets really aggressive then I think that we'll see a bit of the old "all that's solid melts into air", in two senses - we'll see things that weren't up for negotiation become potentially up for negotiation (like you said, if there had been occupations then your old bosses might have found some redundancy money), and we'll see some capitalists and their ideologists and planners start to think more creatively, calling for rethinking this or that core aspect of how business is currently done. Some of the time this ends up being a big source of innovation for capitalism, Steven put it really well in the discussion on Juan's piece - "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."

Steven that's a great question, about past revolutionaries thinking reform was impossible. I'd love to know more about that. It'd be good to be able to say "look these ideas about reform being impossible are ideas that have come up before, here are a bunch of examples, so what's different now?" just like the Aufheben piece does with the theory of decadence. It'd be even cooler to be able to say "here are the sorts of things that have tended to make the 'reform is impossible!' claim appealing in the past." I'd be up for collaborating on something about that with you if you're interested.

Personally I find everything Aufheben says about the appeal of decadence theory to be convincing on this. Since those pieces are long maybe someone should write a really short summary that gives the core points and then talks about how great they are and worth reading despite the length.

Edit:
Sabotage, I think I agree w/ everything you said. I also think that we're likely to see a boom in militant reformism where individuals who are sincere good-faith pro-revolutionaries will play a really important role, and I think "we have to get serious, we need to fight these struggles to win" will be a core part of the ideology of those people playing that role in militant reformism.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 23 2011 23:42

Once again, just a great discussion and a great piece Nate.

Regarding reforms, capital was able to give reforms during the Great Depression (FDR and aggregate demand and all that). If it could do it then, it can do it now.

Jacob Richter
Dec 24 2011 07:09

Hi Nate,

That was a timely article. I've got an article on the subject myself, if you're interested:

http://www.revleft.com/vb/demands-state-power-t165524/index.html?t=165524

I think you've already noted some different types of reforms, but the final paragraph of my article notes the key difference:

One last criticism of issuing demands must be addressed: the toxic notion of managing the bourgeois-capitalist state, or of managing bourgeois capital, state capital, and so on. In more technical terms, this means that reform struggles do not really benefit the working class, but instead facilitate capital accumulation and the reproduction of labour power. What these particular critics simply do not understand is that there are times when these two outcomes intersect; there are measures strictly for facilitating capital accumulation and the reproduction of labour power, measures strictly for labour empowerment (politically and economically), and measures that can achieve both in varying degrees. While it should be acknowledged that even the economically-inclined demands based on the game theory concept of maximin – by enabling the basic principles to be “kept consciously in view” (Kautsky) and, in the cases of immediate and intermediate but not threshold demands, by “mak[ing] further progress more likely and facilitat[ing] other progressive changes” (Hahnel) – involve some degree of facilitating capital accumulation and the reproduction of labour power, maximin yields little in the way of this other side and much more in the way of labour empowerment. Meanwhile, the economically inclined demands that result strictly in labour empowerment – and necessarily require the working class to expropriate, beforehand, ruling-class political power in policymaking, legislation, execution-administration, and other areas – are simply of a directional nature.

In short, those on the class-strugglist left should ignore things like:

Formulary apportionment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formulary_apportionment), even it's the most aggressive means of closing multinational corporate tax loopholes

And focus, in both advocacy and critique, on things like:

1) "Worker Cooperatives With State Aid" as an application of Eminent Domain / Compulsory Purchase (the Paris Commune did this)
2) IP reform
3) Anti-gentrification limitations on residential writs of possession and eviction
4) Land Value Taxation replacing lower-income taxes, VAT and similar sales taxes, payroll taxes, etc. as well as property taxes
5) Achieving zero unemployment both structurally and cyclically through a direct public employer-of-last-reform program

Regarding your mention of Krugman, the theme should be something more like:

http://www.thenation.com/reimagining-capitalism

As opposed to Krugman's vulgar BS. Point #5 above is probably the only explicit reform on that Nation link that is structural, radical, and pro-labour, but the theme is worth considering.

communisateur
Dec 24 2011 20:21

Hey Nate,

I'm going to try and deal with -- that is, disagree with -- some of these points one at a time. The first thing I want to do is to invalidate a characteristic move here. The first instance of this move is here:

Quote:
I also want to add that any argument about the impossibility of reform etc in my opinion needs to take into account that reforms aren't just redistributive in a humanitarian sense - the Bush tax cuts were reform, just a reform that deepened inequality, likewise for the austerity measures tied to the debt ceiling deal. The Pentagon recently got another $50 billion allocated to it, so it seems to me that money is available for political priorities. So reforms are already happening, just tied to different constituencies and political priorities. The argument about the structural impossibility of reform seems to me to overlook this.

What you have done here is equate upward redistribution -- which as Marxists we should simply call exploitation -- and reforms that increase the wage or social wage. But these are categorically different. The possibility of one says nothing about the possibility of the other. The common-sense position which says "look, there's plenty of money, the state just bought x" might be rhetorically appealing (and I've certainly used it in various situaations) but it misses the point that this use of government revenue is actually a mystified form of profit, since the revenue is passed along to capitalist firms -- suppliers of teargas and tanks, or builders of detention camps or whatever. This has *nothing to do* with situations where revenue is fed back to workers via foodstamps or rent subsidies. Often this distribution of money is really just about reallocating surpluses among capitalists -- increasingly that's what capitalism is, a game of competing for shrinking surpluses, a zero-sum game. If I'm Obama and I tax the banks to pay for a war, that's just passing surpluses from the banking sector to the military industrial sector. And again, it has nothing to do with taxing the banks to build schools or pay for college, even if the latter measures can help capitalists by subsidising demand. . .

I remember getting into an argument here with TPTG where they were arguing that the presence of enormous governmental costs for Medicare and the like demonstrated an autonomist thesis that the workers had imposed upon the capitalist class a series of demands that they find increasingly onerous. This sounds nice until your realize that Medicare is largely about using tax revenue from the working and middle-classes to subsidize the profit margins of big pharma and insurance companies.

communisateur
Dec 24 2011 22:02

Some more points:

1) I don't put much stock in the K-wave analysis. I don't think capitalism is strictly cyclical in this way, and I think it leads to problematic conclusions about the present. But one thing I can say about your presentation here that's problematic is that you don't distinguish between downslope and upslope. You actually don't prove your point at all by reference to the 1890s/1900s because the K-wave is on the upswing there. Capitalism had just emerged from the first great depression, and a wave of industrialization and expanding industry had begun (not to mention numerous imperialist adventures). It's not at all surprising that reforms were possible then: *profit rates were increasing*.

2)Your remarks on the falling rate of profit are missing one very important element: competition. The argument about the FRP is not that capitalism can't, theoretically, continue at 1% or 2% growth, it's that capitalists engage in behavior when growth rates fall that is destructive to the reproduction of capitalist relations. There is no guarantee that one earns the rate of profit. If one wants riskless profits, one has to accept something far below the RoP -- look at T-bills right now to get an example. So, for one, in conditions of FRoP, for many industrialists, there is the possibility of earning nothing, or losing one's principal (with a very low upside). Secondly, there is the possibility of earning more through investing one's capital elsewhere -- in financial instruments or real-estate, for instance. In many regards this is what has happened over the last 4 decades, money moved out of industry and into the financial sector and never got reinvested in means of prodution and labor. There are 2 major consequences : a)destructive speculative bubbles ; b) declining employment, and falling wages, because capital is not invested in means of production and labor power. . .

Theoretically, all of this could be restored through a shakeout. But the argument that Brenner makes, and it's compelling, is that capitalist states now have enormous resources to prevent such shakeouts -- namely credit and monetary interventions. This means that the shakeout is deferred, over and over again, until it becomes so dangerous that states will do anything to avoid it, because it is politically intolerable and possibly a threat to capitalism completely. This is the situation now.

Jim Clarke
Dec 25 2011 01:01

We are not seeing declining employment on a global level. The latest ILO Global Employment Trends report shows that global employment has risen every year in the past decade. Wages aren't falling because capitalism is collapsing, they are falling because we are weak.

Nate
Dec 25 2011 01:36

Thanks Communisateur, I appreciate the engagement.

On the K-wave stuff, I don't know that literature at all except via my friend who was trying to say "because we're in a low point in a K-wave reform is impossible." I don't think the historical record supports that, that's all I was trying to say there. My main point in all this is not really to present strong evidence that reform is really possible. I don't know how to do that and I'm not trying to get all crystal ball and be like "reform WILL occur." Rather, I think that a lot of comrades talk with what sounds like great certainty - "reform WILL NOT occur because REFORM IS IMPOSSIBLE" - about things that I think are much less clear than they let on. I'm willing to be convinced here and to have my mind changed, but that hasn't happened yet. Anyway, on the k-wave thing, I take your point - I neglect the issue of entering vs leaving a valley - but it seems to me that in the past reform has been part of what happened when capitalism left k-wave valleys. So, presence of a low point is not proof that reform is impossible - perhaps the wave picks up and reform occurs. (Or perhaps reform proposals work and help an uptick occur, certainly some economists are advocating this, I don't know if they'll be right or not - I just think no one else knows either.)

communisateur wrote:
capitalists engage in behavior when growth rates fall that is destructive to the reproduction of capitalist relations. There is no guarantee that one earns the rate of profit. If one wants riskless profits, one has to accept something far below the RoP -- look at T-bills right now to get an example. So, for one, in conditions of FRoP, for many industrialists, there is the possibility of earning nothing, or losing one's principal (with a very low upside). Secondly, there is the possibility of earning more through investing one's capital elsewhere -- in financial instruments or real-estate, for instance. In many regards this is what has happened over the last 4 decades, money moved out of industry and into the financial sector and never got reinvested in means of prodution and labor. There are 2 major consequences : a)destructive speculative bubbles ; b) declining employment, and falling wages, because capital is not invested in means of production and labor power. . .

Theoretically, all of this could be restored through a shakeout. But the argument that Brenner makes, and it's compelling, is that capitalist states now have enormous resources to prevent such shakeouts -- namely credit and monetary interventions. This means that the shakeout is deferred, over and over again, until it becomes so dangerous that states will do anything to avoid it, because it is politically intolerable and possibly a threat to capitalism completely. This is the situation now.

I actually agree with all of this. I think we're in a dangerous moment. I still don't see why any of this means that reform is impossible under capitalism. This strikes me as a good argument for why reform is unlikely and repression will increase in the next round or rounds of class struggle. On optimistic days, I think there's a real chance that this could radicalize the working class and we could see a more aggressive and radical working class movement take off. In that case, I think that repression will still be go-to move of the capitalists and their states. If working class movements continue to grow and radicalize, there will be increasing calls for reform as well. I think we probably agree on a rough outline for what the near future looks like. The difference, though, is that I think that if things get really stark and polarized, the capitalists and states will have the option of making reforms if they choose to do so (and to be clear "if they choose" is shorthand for a complicated and conflict-ridden process of ideological and political conflict between capitalists, which occurs alongside class struggle).

communisateur wrote:
this use of government revenue is actually a mystified form of profit, since the revenue is passed along to capitalist firms -- suppliers of teargas and tanks, or builders of detention camps or whatever. This (...) is really just about reallocating surpluses among capitalists -- increasingly that's what capitalism is, a game of competing for shrinking surpluses

This isn't rhetorical - I agree with that, and I honestly don't understand why that means reallocation can't occur via the social wage. Redistribution of surplus among capitalists vs reform is a false dichotomy. My go-to example is usually workmen's comp because I know a fair bit about that. Workmen's comp created large new markets for insurers in the US and initially it did so in the UK as well though national insurance changed that. Redistributive reforms that increase some workers' standards of living and reduce social conflict can be quite profitable for some capitalists. You've suggest that this is true for the industries of repression, I don't see why it's not also true for the industries of managing social peace and producing labor power.

communisateur wrote:
I remember getting into an argument here with TPTG where they were arguing that the presence of enormous governmental costs for Medicare and the like demonstrated an autonomist thesis that the workers had imposed upon the capitalist class a series of demands that they find increasingly onerous. This sounds nice until your realize that Medicare is largely about using tax revenue from the working and middle-classes to subsidize the profit margins of big pharma and insurance companies.

No disrespect intended but I think that's a false dichotomy. Workers may well impose an onerous burden on some capitalists while at the same time other capitalists benefit greatly. I don't know if employer-provided healthcare is in general something imposed by workers (it is a frequent issue for negotiation in union contracts), but it's definitely a benefit which many employers in the US find onerous to provide. It's also a benefit which is profitable for insurance companies. Rising insurance rates are a matter of conflict over where surplus value goes - to insurers or to employers who provide insurance. In the present, in the United States, workers who struggle for employer provided insurance are on the one hand struggling for better lives (because the uninsured get worse care and have worse health outcomes) and struggle to keep a higher portion of their wages (because the uninsured pay higher costs for the same medical care) while on the other hand simultaneously struggling for their employers to hand over a portion of surplus value to insurance companies. (By the way I think there's a theoretical point here that's in the neighborhood of the debates around Aufheben's decadence series, about the complicated interconnections between workers and capital rather than seeing the two as clearly distinct subjects - in some circumstances working class struggle is a component of the reproduction of capitalism, and not just in the sense of being friction or an obstacle to capitalism but in a stronger and more active sense, that sometimes workers struggles help capitalists and the state make capitalism and remake it more effectively.)

Also --

communisateur wrote:
Medicare is largely about using tax revenue from the working and middle-classes to subsidize the profit margins of big pharma and insurance companies.

I agree with this. It's also simultaneously an important part of the reproduction/maintenance of a lot of people's lives. The working class and the employing class have nothing in common, from a political perspective, but in a capitalist society there are times when the reproduction of the working class under capitalism is good for the working class (in a limited sense, of surviving under capitalism, which reminds me Vaneigem's remarks about mere survival) and is good for capitalists and the long term viability of capitalism. Also, when you say this it sounds to me like it cuts against your earlier remarks about reform. If Medicare is a subsidy to pharmaceutical and insurance capitalism then extending Medicare would extend/deepen those subsidies. Providing more for programs like Medicare and introducing similar programs would subsidize some capitalists while simultaneously improving some workers lives. It seems to me that this works a lot like the industries of repression - building prisons etc subsidizes those capitalists while ratcheting up the repression in some workers lives. I don't see why there's a difference such that the one is possible (paying for more repression) and the other is not (paying for reform).

Nate
Dec 25 2011 01:35

Related thought: so far I think the discussion's mostly been about hashing out 'is reform possible or not' sorta directly. That's cool and I hope it continues. I wonder about opening up a second line of conversation, about developing a reading list (as short and readable as possible) to help get a handle on addressing the question collectively. Like what would help folk get up to speed on the matter and to have a common theoretical vocabulary, without rigging the outcome (as in "I agree that reform is/isn't possible so I really think people must read XYZ...). I can say for myself personally I feel really unprepared for thinking this stuff out which is part of why I took forever to write a piece on this - Juan and I and others had been talking about this for ages, I only finally wrote something because Juan pushed me to do so with his post.

Spikymike
Dec 25 2011 12:53

Ah yes! '..a common theoretical vocabulary,'

Until at least 'communisateur' intervened in this discussion I really felt that both introductory texts (from juan and Nate) and the following discussion were confused and confusing and had already abandoned two of my early attempted posts.

It's not that I couldn't find some useful points made by the originators of the discussion and various others here but the whole discussion seemed to be lurching around without any real coherance emerging.

So just a couple of points for now about where the confusions seem to be as far as I am concerned:

Firstly it seemed to me that there was a lack of clarity as to what we meant in the first place by a 'reform'?

Clarity would be helped perhaps if we distinguished state legislation, laws, regulations, codes of practice and so on, in which most people understand reforms to be expressed in a practical way, from the everyday class struggle over wages, social benefits and working and living conditions. The two are of course interlinked but calling material improvements such as a wage increase or an increase in unemployment benefit or better working conditions or better living conditions a 'reform' when they may or may not be associated with any state law or regulation seems to muddy the waters.

Looked at in this way it can be seen (as many have here) that reforms are in fact 'the life-blood' of capitalism and are a permanent and continuous reality of modern capitalism, but which may be advantageous or disadvantageous to various sections of the working class( though you would struggle to find any reforms which might be considered as benefitting the whole class).

Class struggle short of revolution has always been, at least indirectly, one of the motor forces of capitalist modernisation (alongside and in relation to competition between sectors of capital) but we can also see that many working class political struggles, have been and often are, more directly involved in support of quite specifically capitalist reform movements (eg: much of the debate around taxation) which are unrelated to their own class interests (what democracy largely revolves around in capitalist society).

The other possible confusion seems to be in the comparison of the discussions around revolution and reformism in the pre-war 2nd International and the trade union movement of that period with this discussion now on the question 'Is reform possible'.
This is because the conception of reform in that movement (now fully integrated into capitalism) was of reforms as 'bulding blocks for socialism within the shell of capitalism'.

Many revolutionaries in that period such as Rosa Luxembourg argued against this reformist socialism on the grounds that such type of reforms were becomming impossible. Actually they wern't impossible but turned out (whatever incidental benefits there were for workers) to be means of modernising capitalism rather than building socialism. But 'reforms' in that debate are not what we seem to be discussing here - namely any material improvement for workers which might also be associated with some legislative change.

The material condition of the working class is certainly dependent in relative terms on it's abiliity to engage in organised collective struggle but that struggle will take place in more or less favourable conditions depending on the course of the economy resulting from other short and long terms factors which are a result of capitalist competition. Class struggle and capitalist competition have together caused capitalism to evolve into a far more integrated global society so that it's internal contradictions now play out in a different and more catastrophic way. Beneficial reforms now certainly do look unlikely as a general rule since capitalism clearly needs to devalue and even destroy both fixed and variable capital on a huge scale if it is to survive and regenerate. If it doesn't descend into 'barbarism' (a risk but not a certainty) then it may regenerate and reforms may be possible again but we will be starting from scratch - there will be no permanent accumulation of beneficial reform as envisaged by the pre-war reformist movement.

These comments might be a bit self-indulgent I suppose - perhaps things are clearer to others than me - my old brain does works a bit slower these days.

Jim Clarke
Dec 25 2011 13:56
Jacob Richter
Dec 25 2011 17:28

Spikymike, your vocab is already questionable. Marx, Engels, and the original Socialist International before WWI all understood "class struggle" very differently. Every genuine class struggle is political, or "politico-political." What you described re. wages, employer benefits, working conditions, etc. are more properly termed mere labour disputes.

Occupy is a "politico-political" struggle, and so is the Christmas unrest in Russia, and it is from these struggles that genuine class struggle emerges, not from the most well-meaning of trade union militants working through the usual union disputes, but from unionized and non-unionized workers participating in the perceived "petit-bourgeois" political struggles.

As for reading lists, they should include radical reformists with policy planks, like Hyman Minsky and Rudolf Meidner.

communisateur
Dec 25 2011 17:34

Responding to Nate here. I'm surprised you can't see the distinction I'm trying to draw, between one the one hand "reforms" that increase the total value that goes to capital -- surplus value -- and reforms that increase the wage share. Do you deny that these are different? This is what we mean when we talk about distribution of wealth, no? I'll admit that certain examples -- Medicare, for instance -- are hard to parse, and there may be many examples that are mixed in their results. But many aren't. A tax break for corporations, for instance, is a *reform* in the sense that it increases the profit share. Even if there is the indirect of creating jobs (er, remember the "job creators") this is pretty irrelevant. Again, I'll repeat (perhaps unconvincingly) that a tax break for corporations is absolutely different than a law establishing a "living wage." And the ability of capital to grant one says zero about its ability to grant the other. . .Why? Because capital is not simply the division of a fixed sum of money into piles. It's value-in-motion. It needs to reproduce itself, expand, etc. And when we talk about inability, we mean its inability to reproduce itself under certain conditions (or reproduce itself well, at any rate).

In any case, perhaps the issue here is that it's unclear what we mean when we say reform is impossible. Certainly, small reforms that benefit the working classes are possible -- a law that made community colleges free, for instance. Or raised the minimum wage by a few dollars. But that's not what we're talking about. When we talk about the impossibility of reform we mean the impossibility of a "regime of reform" that substantially improves the lives of the working classes. Usually it's something along the lines of "universal health care, a living wage, and free education." When I talk about the impossibilty of reform, I mean the impossibilty of anything approaching that situation. I mean the impossibility of social democracy, or "progressive" capitalism. It's not a claim that *no* reforms could ever be instituted.

baboon
Dec 25 2011 17:41

I agree with Spikey in that we need to say more clearly what we mean by reform. Two punctual examples are given above; one, there's been some figures released showing that global employment figures are on the rise and, two, that agency workers in the UK are to get the same conditions as those directly employed. First of all global unemployment figures are also going up despite all the trickery and chicanery that the bourgeoisie of the major states undertake to mask the figures. And twenty million Chinese workers lost their jobs after the first shocks of 2007/8. Whatever jobs are being created anywhere under capitalism, they are generally under worsening conditions.
It's similar with the agency workers "reform" which offers a slight amelioration in their conditions. Good luck to them. But this is taking place in the framework of a massive, general attack on the overall conditions of the workers in the UK inside and out of employment. While these legal "rights" are brought in for this sector the wider working class is having whatever "rights" it thought it had, eroded - more than eroded. Outside of its security of employment (disappearing), the attacks on workers also come down in the form of wage cuts, pension cuts, flexibility, workloads, hours - and that's for the "lucky" ones in a job.

In relation to the general point above about the "reforms" that were granted by capitalism in the 1930s; FDR and the New Deal were mentioned. I don't suppose that anyone would categorise a world imperialist conflagration as a "reform", but World War II was intimately linked to the economic crisis of the 30s and the state capitalist measures, such as those mentioned above, that the bourgeoisie brought in in an attempt to get around it. Greater, more centralised state control was the agencies through which Public Works were generated - all for the strengthening of the state and its war economy. It's no accident that the two most intelligent bourgeoisie's, the British and Americans, went into overdrive (despite disagreements from their backward elements ) to integrate the unions into the state apparatus in a big way. There's no denying the overwhelming role of the trade unions in the run up to and during World War II dragooning and disciplining of the working class into the war effort for the national interest.
Jobs were created in the US from these Keynsian measures in the 30s, but unemployment remained massive and, if today is anything to go by, underestimated. In a similar fashion, jobs were created, wages rose, in the capitalist state of the Third Reich. Of course these "reforms" were not positive acquisitions for the working class.

You can't deny that World War II happened and that the "reforms", the strengthening of the capitalist state in the face of crisis and a defeated working class, were not only puerile in the wider schemes of things but themselves, as elements of state capitalism, were a factor in the generalised holocaust.
We know what happened; over seventy million killed (but who was counting?); devastation on a previously unimagined scale; absolute barbarism, terror and trauma. For the second time, the flower of the proletariat worse than decimated. I don't know how you put this on the scales against whatever "reforms" but on there it must certainly go.

While I think that the economic crisis today is as bad if not worse than the 30s (ideas of "an upturn" - well), I dont' think that generalised war is a perspective any time soon. But this again emphasises the perspective outlined in the Communist Manifesto (a greatly underestimated work in my opinion) of "socialism or the mutual ruin of contending classes.

Juan Conatz
Dec 25 2011 20:28

Just to be clear...I've seen it said that it's unclear what I meant by 'reform' and now I see some arguments about that word. I have very little interest in that, but what I meant isn't clear in my piece at first, because it isn't clear by those who say reform is impossible. Eventually the definition I get to is what the social movements are implicitly demanding in response to austerity:

Quote:
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.

So...a return to some elements of social democracy or an extension of social democracy is what I meant, because in my view, this is what these implicit demands mean.

Nate
Dec 25 2011 21:43

Baboon and Spikymike, I read your comments quickly but on that quick read I don't think I disagree with anything you said. (I certainly agree that my comments and here are confused - I wrote the piece basically in response to my feeling confused by the claim that reform was impossible and not being able to clearly articulate why I didn't like the claim, so the piece is above all me trying to work my way from more to less confusion, and I've found the conversations here very clarifying.)

communisateur wrote:
the distinction I'm trying to draw, between one the one hand "reforms" that increase the total value that goes to capital -- surplus value -- and reforms that increase the wage share. Do you deny that these are different? This is what we mean when we talk about distribution of wealth, no? I'll admit that certain examples -- Medicare, for instance -- are hard to parse, and there may be many examples that are mixed in their results. But many aren't. A tax break for corporations, for instance, is a *reform* in the sense that it increases the profit share. Even if there is the indirect of creating jobs (er, remember the "job creators") this is pretty irrelevant.

That's helpful, thanks for clarifying. I agree, I was using "reform" overly loosely. A more precise way to say it might be something like this: "Reforms often involve revision to institutional arrangements that direct the flow of wealth in capitalists society (wealth which originated from the exploitation of the working class). We tend to call "reforms" those institutional revisions that redistribute wealth to the working class directly - wage rises, for instance - or indirectly via "the social wage." In the past 30-40 years in the US we've seen substantial institutional revisions that redirect wealth, in an upward direction, and we've seen institutional revisions in the form of greater amounts of money spent on repression. In my view, if these institutional changes are possible - if there is additional wealth available to go to capitalists and to go to paying for repression - then other institutional revisions are possible. This wealth could be redirected differently, the wealth could go to reforms that improve the lives of the working class." Something like that. (And just to say again, this is NOT me advocating for calls for reforms.)

That aside. I agree, there's a difference between share of wealth that goes to workers and that goes to capitalists, but I don't think I see this as such a bright clear line, though. I think the medicare types of example loom larger than you seem to. Maybe the issue is in part where we live, maybe that's making me more hung up on the blurry cases than you. Are you in the US? In the US it seems to me that there's been systematic disinvestment in the working class - education and healthcare in particular have been cut. At the same time there's been substantial privatization, and these were never as statified (sorry that term's awkward) as they were in Europe and Canada. Sorry to repeat myself again it's just the example that always springs to mind for me, workmen's comp legislation made it so that injury costs were not privatized and invidualized onto the backs of workers and their families. At the very same time it provided a huge boom to insurance companies. The costs were initially borne by employers then soon passed on to workers via wage cuts (or at least, cuts in real wages via inflation plus stagnant wages). Even after those cuts, though, workmen's comp was a substantial improvement in working class lives for many because it removed a large source of insecurity. It seems to me that something similar is possible with health insurance reform in the US. And even if it was state provided insurance that would probably be good for medical capital and be good for all the non-insurance capitalists who currently provide insurance to their employees as part of the wage packet.

Another example is immigration reform. This one also is on my mind a lot for me personally because family of mine have been deported (a few years ago just a few days before christmas actually), and in the past three months someone I know had two family members and a roommate deported. Reform to immigration policy in the US from repression back to tolerance is totally possible and would be a massive improvement in the lives of a lot of working class people in the US, and it might be good for capitalism here as well. And it would probably also blunt the growth of a more radical movement.

communisateur wrote:
a tax break for corporations is absolutely different than a law establishing a "living wage." And the ability of capital to grant one says zero about its ability to grant the other. . .Why?

I really don't mean to be ruse but I don't understand why this is so. I don't understand what this difference is that seems like for you is really clear. I'm not trying be rhetorical here, I honestly just don't understand the point you're making.

communisateur wrote:
Because capital is not simply the division of a fixed sum of money into piles. It's value-in-motion. It needs to reproduce itself, expand, etc. And when we talk about inability, we mean its inability to reproduce itself under certain conditions (or reproduce itself well, at any rate).

No offense but I just don't understand what this means in terms of an argument against the possibility of reform. Can you recommend something I could read that makes the argument at length?

communisateur wrote:
When we talk about the impossibility of reform we mean the impossibility of a "regime of reform" that substantially improves the lives of the working classes. (...) I mean the impossibility of social democracy, or "progressive" capitalism. It's not a claim that *no* reforms could ever be instituted.

That's somewhat clearer in terms of trying to get what you're talking about. I still don't understand why this is impossible. Leaving that aside, to clarify, when you talk about reforms substantially improve the lives of the working classes, do you mean like across the board for basically everyone in the working class?

Final question for now - if reform is impossible, when did reform become impossible? When did the epoch of the impossibility of reform begin?

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

baboon
Jan 7 2012 14:22

Following the work of the Labour government, Cameron yesterday yesterday said that he would continue "reforming" the health and safety culture. The details on this are not clear but what is clear is that this is a further attack on the whole of the working class in the UK and a good example of the sort of "reforms" that it can increasingly expect.

Last years 4 or 5 miners in South Wales were killed and, although it probably wouldn't have helped them, it turned out that safety equipment at the pit was an "optional extra". In the same year 4 oil workers were blown to bits in a petro-chemical explosion (one of a long and murderous list) and the government is cutting back on safety inspections and inspectors.

The health and safety executive itself greatly underestimates the epidemic proportions that work-contracted cancers are reaching in the UK (see the work of Stirling University). While the social wage, paid for out of the wages of workers, is slashed.
These are the reforms of capitalism.

kingzog
Apr 28 2014 17:49

It would be cool to see a follow up to this in light of the recent gains concerning minimum wage increases in some American cities and the expansion of healthcare in many States (Medicaid); also which takes into account the economies recovery from the recession.

Nate
Apr 29 2014 01:30

hey KZ, that's an interesting question. personally I've been overwhelmed by day-to-day and my kids so I've been kinda checked out intellectually and in terms of current events so I don't feel up to the task myself at least not right now. I'm super interested in your take on that, if you have time

kingzog
May 10 2014 06:14

I think a lot of ultra-lefts said a massive "age of austerity" was coming, or had come to America. But it's been a mixed bag. Many states, most of them Southern or mid-western, cut many services. But some services were expanded in Northern states. Medicaid expansion, in the states who chose to do it, is funded by the federal government. The Southern states could easily expand it, but they don't. It's entirely a political decision based on power plays. Many northern states that cut services have now restored many of them as well. In Washington state, they just restored dental coverage for medicaid recipients, during the recession this was cut. But tax revenues have been going back up for some time now.

The recovery continues to be relatively weak, however. I'm not thinking there will be a boom anytime soon. Another recession could easily be just around the corner. So I think we've seen some mixed results so far.

kingzog
May 10 2014 06:21

But it certainly can be said that A LOT of talk of income redistribution has been going on for some time now on a local and national level-- positive talk. Many large cities are looking to raise the minimum wage significantly now after the, admittedly lackluster, Seattle plan. The 15/hr demand had a serious impact on Ksama Sawants election. I think it got her elected. The new mayor of Seattle ran on that program too. Politicians all over the place would love to replicate that.