Thoughts on history, capitalism, and Marxism

Submitted by Marx-lover on October 16, 2018

Anger.— I read an article about a middle-aged Lebanese man who had lost his wife, daughter and granddaughter in an Israeli airstrike [in 2006]. “Mr. Samra had been sitting with friends elsewhere. He raced to the building and frantically began to dig. He found his 5-year-old daughter, Sally, torn apart. Her torso and an arm lay separate from her legs. Another daughter, Noor, 8, was moving under the rubble. His granddaughter Lynn, not yet 2, had part of her face smashed. His wife, Alia Waabi, had died immediately.” After reading an article like that you have three options on how to live the rest of your life. You can accept that these things happen but detach yourself from them; you can spend every day until you die in rage and despair, from a too-deep knowledge that John Donne’s 17th Meditation expresses timeless truth; or you can emotionally detach yourself from the knowledge but devote yourself to fighting against war. When you remember that the article pointed out that the demolished building was the main office for the city’s emergency workers, and that it was targeted because a single Hezbollah official was suspected of living there, you’ll probably be tempted to choose the second option—with the emphasis on rage, though. Still, the only option you can choose with a good conscience is the third.

Ehud Olmert is a monster. The problem with him and most people in power is that they are bureaucrats. Bureaucrats and technocrats. Living in their bureaucratic bubble, they forget their responsibilities and let their egos seduce them into ignoring the “unpeople” and overseeing crimes against humanity. Like European monarchs in the 18th century, they see politics and war as games—extremely serious games, involving clever maneuvers for the sake of power and respect. One could draw parallels with chess. The world of these people really is nothing but a stage, and they are among the most dehumanized individuals on the planet.


“The greatest country in history.”— Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II (2008) is one of the most horrifying books I’ve ever read. But beautifully written, and a tour de force of investigative journalism. It enlightens you as to the human misery potentially embedded in the ground you walk on, the bricks in city buildings, stretches of de-forested land, seemingly placid rural hamlets. America truly was built on the backs of slaves, chattel-slaves and wage-slaves, convict-slaves, immigrant-slaves—centuries of persecution, torture, forced labor, debt-slavery, human trafficking, genocide, imperial conquests, every horror imaginable.

In fact, it occurs to me that the U.S.’s history ranks among the most violent of all countries or empires. First of all, it’s one of the few countries founded on genocide—possibly the most effective genocide ever. It has fought dozens of wars in only two centuries. Its military is the most lethal killing-machine ever devised. Apparently during Lyndon Johnson and Nixon’s bombing campaign against Cambodia, more firepower was involved than was dropped by the Allies in World War II. The U.S. is the only country ever to have deployed nuclear weapons. In general, the government pursues an unusually militaristic foreign policy. It is complicit, moreover, in the crimes of the regimes it has supported, hundreds of authoritarian governments all over the world from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Domestically, the history of labor has been uniquely repressive and violent (on the part of the ruling class). Don’t forget slavery and the subsequent 150 years of black repression. Indeed, the rule of business is founded on a constant, daily reign of unreported violence, the suppression of rights in the workplace, the persecution of anyone who steps a little out of line, the segregation of tens of millions in ghettos, slums, etc. The U.S. violent crime rate is unusually high, and people have remarkable freedom to own guns. Images of violence pervade pop culture. Immigration and detention policies are appallingly arbitrary, despotic, and bureaucratic. The prison system, partly privatized, is a monument to inefficiency, bloatedness, and racism. The “war on drugs” is absurdly unjust and violent (though ineffective), little more than a continuation of repression and imperialism by other means. Since the late nineteenth century, undercurrents of semi-fascist discontent and violence have seethed. Nativism and xenophobia have always been unusually strong. The list goes on.


The virtue of the vicious.— To feel kinship with people because I grew up under the same government as they? Because I must abide by the same laws as they? Because we’ve been taught that we have a “common history,” whatever that means? Because a line has been drawn between the expanse of land we live in and the expanse of land “other people” live in? Am I really expected to place my hand over my heart and give a solemn oath to renounce reason?


The no-civil-liberties state.— After attending a talk by Glenn Greenwald, I’m struck that Hannah Arendt’s classic definition of totalitarianism is starting to apply, at least in a very approximate way, to the U.S. That’s starting to be the ideal, the ideal of power-structures. It’s the logic of their policies, though fortunately it will never be fully realized. The surveillance and “national security” state—the police state—is doing all it can to make impossible human interactions that aren’t mediated or at least observed by power. Several billion hours of surveillance tape are produced every day around the country, and that amount is increasing. The National Security Administration apparently has intercepted and stored about twenty trillion electronic transactions. Drones are being deployed to spy on the domestic population. (Historically, militaristic experiments abroad are often used on the domestic society after they have been perfected. Impoverished foreign countries are the laboratory.) Cyber-warfare is becoming more sophisticated, eventually to be used on leftist groups among the citizenry. The tactic of instilling fear in people, intimidating them through police brutality and so on, is being pursued all across the political spectrum, not only by the right. These are long-term trends that will intensify as the ruling classes sense that they’re losing control over the world.


The proper way to think about Republicans and Democrats is as follows. The Republican party is just a slave to conservative sectors of big business. As Chomsky says, it isn’t any longer even a true party, a coalition of diverse interests; it is just a tool of the very wealthy (who are often religious conservatives—which is the “other” set of interests the party is commonly thought of as representing). The Democratic party is not quite a slave to big business; it is more like a serf, who on the day or two when he doesn’t have to slave for the lord can do some work on behalf of the other interests he is supposed to represent, such as women, the poor, minorities, immigrants, workers, consumers, the youth, future generations (hence environmentalism and nuclear disarmament), the rule of law, and the cause of internationalism. Most of the time these other interests get short shrift, but every so often the serf will throw them a bone, like he would to a dog.


Contemporary conservatism.— Republicans have, it is true, some things superficially in common with earlier conservatives, who espoused the positions, more or less, of classical liberals (while having forgotten the nuances, and to an extent the spirit, of liberalism). That is, Republicans want small government, like earlier conservatives—but only in relation to taking care of the population, unlike earlier conservatives. They want the death of the people’s welfare state but the growth of the corporate welfare state. No state for the people, statism for corporations. And that flatly contradicts turn-of-the-century conservatism. Or, to be even more precise, Republicans are not satisfied with a state in the service of corporations; they want corporations to become the state. They want most government functions to be privatized, so that inclusive democracy and public administration no longer exist. In a sense, this is the logical conclusion of twentieth-century corporate-statist trends. But it would horrify earlier conservatives, who detested the very existence of the corporation and especially the constitutional rights it had been granted by judicial activists.


The state of our society and its trajectory since the 1930s are revealed in a simple juxtaposition: in the 1930s the government’s message was “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”; nowadays the message is “We have nothing to fear but a lack of fear itself.”


The farce of “progress.”— Aside from during World War II, there has probably never been more suffering among the human species than there is now. And this statement will continue to be true for decades hence, each year seeing the aggregate level of suffering rise.


Slavery and capitalism.— We look back now at slave societies in astonishment, wondering how it was possible that it was seen not only as necessary but as good that some people were forced to sell themselves to other people just to survive. It doesn’t occur to us that what we have now operates on the same principle: people are forced to rent themselves to others in order to survive. If it is morally wrong to (be forced to) sell oneself, it is morally wrong to (be forced to) rent oneself. The Lowell mill girls in the 1830s were wiser than our elite liberal intellectuals now; they understood that wage-labor is essentially wage-slavery. Whether a black slave was treated well or badly by his master did not affect the principle of the thing; similarly, whether an employee makes a decent living or not doesn’t obviate the moral horror of having to rent oneself in order to survive.


Parasitism in pre-capitalist and capitalist forms.— I don’t see much difference, in principle, between ownership of capital and ownership of land: in both cases one derives unearned income from the bare fact of owning property. Others do the work that makes the property productive; the owner does nothing but supply some of the means by which the work is done (because he happens to have gained possession of these means, i.e., excluded others from possessing them; not because he has produced them). In principle he can lie on some beach and sip mint juleps as he collects the profits of others’ labor. And that is appalling. Unearned income, unless it is distributed among the people, is appalling.


Contrary to nature.— Throughout history it has been the parasites who have had the most power and wealth.


Pigs.— The role of police officers is not so much to protect people as to protect order, i.e., power-structures. First and foremost, they are agents of the ruling class—a truism that is borne out even by considering the origins of modern police forces in the U.S. and Britain (between the 1820s and 1850s). To ensure people’s well-being is at most indirectly and derivatively related to the cop’s vocation, as shown by the regularity of police brutality, their implicitly or explicitly violent behavior not only in any kind of unusual situation but even on the daily beat (aptly named). In general, the police defend specific social relations between people more than people themselves.

Said differently, the police officer is the “bouncer” for society, whose role is to keep out undesirables, those who do not conform.


Irony #973.— It’s perverse that selling yourself as a killing-machine to semi-capitalist institutions that send you across the world to slaughter people you don’t know for the sake of the profits and power of people you don’t know—whose minions indoctrinate you into complete ignorance of what exactly it is you’re doing—is considered praiseworthy, in fact heroic.


Upside-down.— People love the servants of power, the policemen and soldiers, for supposedly giving us our freedoms and protecting them, while they hate the radicals, the socialists, the workers, the feminists, who, because of their past struggles, are the real reason we have any freedom at all. What confusion! Worshiping authority for ensuring freedom, the one thing it violently opposes! The confusion is predictable, though: indoctrination works wonders, reason-defying miracles.


On WikiLeaks.— In general, if something is bad for power, it is probably good for people.


Anarchism.— “Anarchism” is a fancy name for a simple thing, a commonsensical thing that has been around for thousands of years among billions of people. Chomsky is right that it is not so much a worked-out political theory as a deep impulse in human thought and behavior. People don’t want to be subordinated to power-structures; they want to be free. Whenever they rebel against authorities, that’s anarchism in action. Whenever they come together to organize a grassroots democratic life, that’s anarchism in action. A pure anarchist society probably isn’t possible because every society, no matter how egalitarian, must contain power-relations, but I suspect we can approach such a society relatively closely.


The last will be first.— One of the ironies of history is that it’s the poor and oppressed, the workers, the slaves, the marginalized, and not the middle class or the privileged, who carry on in their struggles the exalted tradition of the Enlightenment, with its ideals of freedom, universal rights, humanity, and progress.


Forgotten truisms.— The awesome power of business propaganda is revealed in the fact that most Americans scorn the idea of socialism, which is really just common sense. Essentially all it denotes is the ideal that working people should have control over their work, they shouldn’t have to rent themselves to multimillionaire bosses for eight or twelve hours a day in order to make more money for the boss. It is nothing but economic democracy, opposition to human exploitation; in this sense, even the mainstream American philosopher John Dewey was a socialist. As was Martin Luther King Jr., especially in his late years when he turned his attention to the economic oppression of both whites and blacks. The central intuition of socialism can be fleshed out in many ways, from anarchism of various kinds to democratic state ownership and operation of the means of production, but as long as the overriding principle is workers’ control of their economic life, it can be called socialism. Worker cooperatives, for instance, exemplify socialism on a small scale.

Communism is, if anything, an even more obvious moral principle than socialism, for it denotes the structuring of human relations according to the maxim “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This is but a corollary of the Golden Rule, that you should treat people as you’d like to be treated. Our common humanity demands that when someone is in need, we help him or her. David Graeber observes in Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) that “all of us act like communists a good deal of the time.” We use our abilities to help others; i.e., we share and we cooperate, among friends, family, coworkers, and strangers. The fabric of every society is woven by this “baseline communism,” as Graeber calls it. A communist society, though, would be one in which the dominant mode of production and distribution is communistic; and this, on a very large scale, may well not be feasible. Or maybe it will be sometime in the distant future. History is unpredictable: no one in the eighteenth century could have predicted modern capitalism, just as no one in the present can plan out in all its details a future communist, i.e. moral, society. A prerequisite for such a civilization is the withering away of money in its present form and of the capitalist profit motive (both of which are relatively recent historical arrivals and have been unknown to the vast majority of societies throughout history). Be that as it may, the question of whether large-scale socialism or communism is feasible is one thing; the question of whether they are the ideals toward which we must strive is quite another. It is reasonable to deny the first proposition (although usually the grounds on which it is denied are absurd, referencing as they do “human nature” and demonstrating complete ignorance of anthropology), but it is decidedly unreasonable, or morally repugnant, to deny the second.

Since we live in a silly society, it is also necessary for me to make a few observations about the Soviet Union and other so-called “communist” or “socialist” countries. I remember that when I first started reading about Marxism, at 18, it seemed excruciatingly obvious to me that the USSR was neither Marxist nor socialist nor communist. And I was stunned that people could believe otherwise. Sure, it called itself socialist and communist, but it also called itself a democracy. Do we think, therefore, that it was a democracy, just because it called itself one? Of course not. So why do we think it was socialist just because it said it was? If anything, it was less socialist than the U.S., because at least in the latter labor unions were legal and workers were not all glorified slaves. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was, in a sense, Karl Marx’s triumph, his vindication over Stalin, who had perverted his doctrines and besmirched his name. What Stalinism really amounted to was a kind of state capitalist command economy.

I’ll have more to say about the Soviet Union later. For now, the reader can judge how closely it resembled communism as defined by Marx in this excerpt from The Critique of the Gotha Program (1875): “In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois ‘right’ be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” Surely this is sufficient to show that the Soviet Union was the very antithesis of communism.


An excerpt from my Master’s thesis.— The capitalist mode of production, with its natural extension the “self-regulating” market economy—self-regulating in that the price mechanism tends to equilibrate supply and demand, so that public control and regulation of the economy are secondary to private competition—does not permit a socially efficient allocation of resources. Resource-allocation is determined by the twin structural imperatives of having purchasing power (on the demand side) and of chasing profit (on the supply side). If one has a need but lacks the money to back up that need, as for example survivors of Haiti’s earthquake of 2010 did, one’s need will not be met by the market. Conversely, investors will pursue only those projects that have the potential to make a profit. For instance, many areas of rural America were still without electricity in the early 1930s because investors had judged that the meager profits to be made did not justify the costs of supplying electricity to these regions; hence the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration and the cooperatives that sprang up to supply electricity.

Broadly speaking, the dynamic between capital and wage-labor, as well as that between millions of atomized units of capital each seeking profit at the expense of every other, makes for a very unstable and crisis-prone economy. Capital’s interests lie in paying the worker as little as possible and in preventing him from exercising control over the process of production, while the worker wants to be paid as much as possible and to exercise greater control over production. This simple structural antagonism is the basis for the whole history of the labor movement, the unions and union-busting, the private armies deployed to break up strikes, the government suppression of labor parties, the revolutionary social movements, the constant and pervasive stream of business propaganda, and the periodic bursts of cooperative economic activity among the ranks of labor. At the same time, the vicissitudes of the market economy leave many people unemployed at any given time, unable to find work because their skills and needs are not valued or because of insufficient investment in their geographical or professional area, or because of outsourcing to countries where labor is cheaper, or for other reasons. In recent decades, the liberalization and financialization of the international economy have led many corporations to seek profits not through investment in industry and infrastructure-development but through the purchase and manipulation of exotic financial assets. This sort of investment, undertaken on the principle of “Après moi le déluge,” is not only risky but essentially adds no jobs and no real wealth to the economy, which tends to stagnate—or to contract, after it finally becomes evident that all these financial transactions have been grounded in “the baseless fabric of a vision” (to quote Shakespeare). So, millions more people are thrown out of work as capital withdraws itself from further investments, and government initiatives are required to set the economy on track again—for more risky financial investments and more stagnation, as opposed to contraction.

However, even prior to the orgies of neoliberalism it was obvious that capitalism, or the market economy, is not socially efficient. Market failures are everywhere, from environmental calamities to the necessity of the state’s funding much socially useful science to the existence of public education and public transportation (not supplied through the market) to the outrageous incidence of poverty and famine in countries that have had capitalism foisted on them. All this testifies to a “market failure,” or rather a failure of the capitalist, competitive, profit-driven mode of production, which, far from satisfying social needs, multiplies and aggravates them. This should not be surprising. An economic system premised on two irreconcilable antagonisms—that between worker and supplier-of-capital and that between every supplier-of-capital and every other —and which is propelled by the structural necessity of exploiting and undermining both one’s employees and one’s competitors in order that ever-greater profits may be squeezed out of the population, is not going to lead to socially harmonious outcomes. Only in the unreal world of standard neoclassical economics, which makes such assumptions as perfect knowledge, perfect capital and labor flexibility, the absence of firms with “market power,” the absence of government, and in general the myth of homo economicus—the person susceptible of no other considerations than those of pure “economic rationality”—is societal harmony going to result....


Irony #1048.— Cooperativism and quasi-“state socialism,” which help rectify the myriad market failures of capitalism, are what sustain the capitalist world-system, by keeping it relatively stable. For example, according to the International Cooperative Alliance, over 800 million people worldwide are members of cooperatives and three billion depend on them for their livelihood.


On neoclassical economics.— Milton Friedman wrote a famous article in 1953 called “The Methodology of Positive Economics,” in which he argued that in science, the less realistic or more idealizing the model, the better. A typically simplistic argument. But for a neoclassicist it served the function of making a virtue of necessity, thus allowing him to continue to believe his theories: since neoclassical economics is the most unrealistic, most idealized, most counterintuitive economic model of all, it’s the best! This Friedmaniacal methodology therefore lets economists retort to criticisms regarding the inability of their models to explain what happens in the real world, “That’s just because of the messiness and imperfections of reality! It doesn’t prove that our models are wrong. You policy-makers simply have to make reality conform more closely to our logically beautiful models.” Sure. Make reality conform to models, rather than making models conform to reality. To quote Herman Daly, former Senior Economist at the World Bank: “My major concern about my profession today is that our disciplinary preference for logically beautiful results over factually grounded policies has reached such fanatical proportions that we economists have become dangerous to the earth and its inhabitants.”

When translated into policy, the fetish of a pure idea always leads to mass suffering. Nazism, Fascism, “Communism,” radical Islamism, and the Free Market ideology. Nothing is more inhuman than the urge to remake people and society in the image of an ideal model.


On Milton Friedman.— On the one hand you have Gandhi: “The movement against war is sound. I pray for its success. But I cannot help the gnawing fear that the movement will fail if it does not touch the root of all evil—human greed.” Ideas we instinctively recognize as good and noble. On the other hand you have Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, and all the other ideological hacks doing the bidding of big business by defending greed, saying it’s inevitable and good, selfishness makes the world go round, everyone is necessarily greedy and should be. Reducing human life to a cost-benefit analysis, as vulgar and inhuman, anti-humanist, as the behaviorist ideology of stimulus-and-response. It would be a horrible thing if these deniers of humanity and compassion, creativity, love, solidarity and cooperation, were right. Fortunately they’re wrong. The world is not what their ideology implies it is, a dystopia of frenzied individualism. That sort of anti-paradise has been approximated only in Nazi concentration camps and such environments of sub-animal existence. Greed and selfishness—unless the concepts are broadened so much as to be meaningless—are in fact of marginal importance to human life. Ordinarily they’re recognized as pathological. They have no place in family life or between friends or lovers. Generosity is infinitely more common on the level of personal relationships than greed and selfishness are. Cooperation and concern for others are universal, except in the perversely structured realms of the economy and politics in “civilized” societies (as opposed to tribal societies). The existence of greed has far more to do with warped social structures than human nature.

But at least Friedman, Hayek and their like were consistent: rather than recoil from repulsive personifications of their ideology like Pinochet and military juntas, they embraced them and facilitated their brutality, advising them, giving them the cover of intellectual respectability. Hayek was very impressed by Pinochet, and Margaret Thatcher became his firm friend. And when the ideology led to worldwide misery, Friedman maintained “the courage of his convictions,” like George W. Bush, and never recanted or modified his position. Doggedly loyal to his vision of greed and selfishness.


One of the ironies about Ayn Rand is that her philosophy of extreme selfishness and individualism would, if taken to its logical conclusion and realized in the world, result in a society that bore resemblances to the totalitarianism she fled when fleeing Russia. Let’s leave aside her stupid love of laissez-faire capitalism, an impossible economic order that, to the extent it could be approximated, was responsible for the Great Depression and thereby the rise of Nazi collectivism. ....Or, on second thought, no, let’s look at this laissez-faire capitalism, since it is one manifestation of her vision. If a pure version of it were possible, it would be something like Murray Rothbard’s “anarcho-capitalism,” which, to quote Chomsky, is “a world so full of hate that no human being would want to live in it.” As someone once said, the closest we’ve ever come to a society of pure selfishness and individualism was Auschwitz, which was the culmination of a kind of totalitarian collectivism. The ironic parallels between Nazi (and Soviet) collectivism and Randian or Rothbardian individualism are significant: they’re due to the profound atomization that each entails. In the latter, the individual is to treat everyone as a means to his end; in the former, the individual is to treat everyone as a means to the state’s (or the movement’s) ends. In both cases, no human connections are allowed, no treating the other as a being with his own value and his own claims on one’s respect. Hate, mistrust, and misery are the inevitable consequences of both these dystopian visions.

Needless to say, people like Rand and Rothbard are not to be taken seriously, except as symptoms. But it’s fun to glance at them sometimes because of all the little ironies you’ll notice.


Chomsky speaks.— “In a market system, your dollar is your vote. You have as many votes as you have dollars. If you have zero dollars, you have zero votes. Unborn generations have zero dollars, so what happens to them is of zero significance in a market system. What’s done today, they have to live with. If we destroy resources, they have to live with it. So to the extent—the limited extent—that market systems are allowed to function, they’re just guaranteed to self-destruct. That’s why if you take a look at modern history, in countries that were more or less organized and functioning they never allowed market systems to function. In Britain there was an experiment with laissez-faire around the 1860s and 1870s, but it was called off very quickly by the business world because they saw it was going to wipe out communities and the environment. What they instituted in its place was a kind of social democratic system.” See Karl Polanyi’s classic The Great Transformation.


Thoughts inspired by Naomi Klein.— An obvious truth that you’ll never encounter in the mainstream media: “Chicago School economics [is] particularly conducive to corruption. Once you accept that profit and greed as practiced on a mass scale create the greatest possible benefits for any society, pretty much any act of personal enrichment can be justified as a contribution to the great creative cauldron of capitalism, generating wealth and spurring economic growth—even if it’s only for yourself and your colleagues.” Why else do you think neoliberalism is orthodoxy? Because of its truth or intellectual integrity? Ha. Even if it were true or had such integrity, that would have nothing to do with whether it would become “the Washington Consensus.” It is simply the best system of ideas ever devised to justify an elite’s orgiastic indulgence in greed and profit-mongering. ‘The best thing for society is to let big capitalists do whatever they want.’ It’s so shameless and so contrary to common sense that you need the elaborate mathematical fantasies of neoclassical economics to make it remotely plausible, and you need to drum these fantasies into the heads of students in every major university in the world. The students really talented in the art of self-deception and theoretical perversity fused with verbal dexterity and confidence will go on to get jobs at the IMF, the World Bank, the U.S. Treasury, or top universities, so as to fulfill their function of providing a veneer of intellectual respectability for business’s smashing of civil society and democracy all over the world.

When you read accounts in the mainstream media about how this or that measure favored by business will “create jobs,” remember that what’s really being said is it will generate profits. “Jobs” = “profits” in business-speak. Business has little interest in creating jobs—often its interests lie in cutting them—and usually the number of jobs created by its activities is paltry compared to the number that could be created through public spending, which would also direct funds to where they’re needed most. Think of the successes of Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority and Works Progress Administration.

Chomsky has a nice way of taking us outside our subjective outlooks and considering matters from something like an objective viewpoint: he invokes hypothetical Martians surveying our planet from afar. For example, consider Martians encountering Earth for the first time. Think about what they’d see, the super-Gilded-Age inequality within countries and between countries. Millionaires and billionaires riding private jets over Somalian-type poverty and misery; “oligarchs racing around in black Mercedes convoys, guarded by top-of-the-line mercenary soldiers,” as the homeless are curled up in blankets on the street; people in suits hurrying past hungry children in the street; politicians, lawyers, doctors, businessmen living in opulent suburbs as a billion people live in slums. Would these Martians not have the impression that our world is, at least to a first approximation, divided up between a class of cartoonishly evil power-brokers and a much larger class of the cartoonishly unfortunate poor?


Fighting against global warming

As I talk to this person
full of sincerity and urgency
(human connectedness is urgent)
her eyes leak deserts
onto my wet words
and in them
I see
a deserted future…
Human kindness has been milked dry.


Why has America always been such a fearful country? So afraid of the Other! Far more so than most countries. Whether it’s been the Indians, the British, the blacks, the Chinese, the Germans, the Communists, the Japanese, the atheists, the Mexicans, the terrorists, or whoever, Americans have always been terribly afraid of some group. It must have something to do with the unstructuredness of the social fabric, the atomism that has characterized American society from the very beginning (after the Revolution), which was so different from Europe. Paranoia is fostered in such conditions. Think of the paranoia of the 9/11 Truthers, and the conspiracy theories that have always been popular in this country. Distrust has always pervaded the society, especially distrust of authority (hence conspiracy theories) and of any “new” group that is seen as unusually cohesive and thus threatening. Paranoia, mass distrust and fear, insecurity, xenophobia, are natural attitudes in an atomized society of few “civil-society” institutions or modes of association and a relatively fluid class structure, not to mention weak safeguards against unemployment and poverty (and a high crime-rate). “They’ll steal our jobs!”

Obviously an equally important factor is the intentional propagation of such attitudes by the media and other power-structures. Sometimes the xenophobia is consciously whipped up, as during wars. But the fact is that this sort of indoctrination, whether conscious or not, is very useful to the ruling class for more than one reason.

What is the explanation for the unique American hatred of taxes? Whatever it is, it’s essentially related to the distinctive American preoccupation with freedom (from government, from class; freedom to make money, to be an entrepreneur or adventurer, etc.). And both are a product of the social structure, privatized and atomized. Think of the old Western frontier: people resented government intrusion into their lives, preferring to work their farms privately and do as they liked. The social meaning of the fragmentation varies between regions and times, from the frontier to the Eastern city and so forth, but the basic fact of fragmentation or “individualism” or “freedom” remains. It’s a society without close ties, without a tangible class-structure along old European lines, with few social institutions except churches; the predictable result is that people want to be left to themselves (making a virtue of necessity, so to speak, or of the traditions in which they’ve been raised) and don’t want to have to pay for others’ health care or education or Social Security. An atomized society fosters the desire to be atomized (“free”); a tradition of solidarity fosters a love of solidarity. Traditions in general tend to propagate themselves through the generations, because people, having been raised in them, naturally continue to behave in accordance with them and in fact valorize them, as they valorize their sense of self.

But of course the hatred of taxes also has a lot to do with the power of business in America, with indoctrination, with propaganda. A broadly anti-union culture, created largely through relentless violent suppression of unions and workers’ rights, specific policies pursued by business and government. A very disciplined propaganda-system exalting the free market, individual initiative, distrust of the government and anything hinting of semi-collectivism.

“Why should I help that old widow across the street? Why should I help pay for her meals? Why should I help fund public education if I have no children in school?” You can see from these questions—which exemplify the anti-tax attitude—that it all comes down to the fragmentation of the social structure. “These people are strangers to me! Why should I care about them?” In a more solidaristic social structure, questions about why you should help widows and children would seem totally absurd, symptomatic of a dysfunctional mind. Selfishness might even be considered not immoral but senseless.


Summer activism

apathy-baked blisters
popping open
in the leaden heat of tradition-drenched climates
across the swamp of American suburbia,
neighborhood-wide blisters
that ooze “no”s and “I don’t care”s and
such polluted cynicism.
knocking on doors and opening pores
that seep fetid
in the curled snarls
on the fat and aging faces, gargoyles
twisted into the woodwork.
splintered faces—blistering.


The throes of transition.— A society in which a Glenn Beck can become a sensation is dying, and deserves to die.


On Andrew Jackson.— With him, for the first time, you see the baleful essence of the political appeal to the “common man,” i.e., the common conservative white man (who might also happen to be a white woman). Later on the same phenomenon would underlie modern conservatism, as in Reagan and Bush 2—except that this time the rhetoric about simplicity and old-fashioned values would disguise a servility to big business, which is very anti-Jacksonian. In fact, the real meaning of the appeal to the common man would change: with Jackson it was relatively sincere, and there was a genuine aversion to big, undemocratic power-structures as symbolized by the Bank of the United States. Jackson and his Democrats were also ambivalent about capitalism; they were not disguised servants of capital. They were like Jeffersonian Republicans, not Hamiltonians. (In that respect, as in others, their ideology was reactionary and doomed. The future was in wage-labor.) Modern conservatism, however, is more ambiguous than Jacksonian democracy. Among the people, it taps into a real, albeit unconscious and confused, ambivalence about modern capitalism and a nostalgia for traditional security and hierarchy; among the powerful, it is a tool of big business and profit. But elements of Jacksonianism are nevertheless used in business propaganda (i.e. conservatism) because of the implicitly authoritarian, pseudo-democratic, demagogic, racist, obfuscatory, divisive, scapegoating, anti-government nature of the Jacksonian creed. Almost any ideology that favors the white man above all is useful to business.


What is fascism?— Populist conservatism.


A celebrated bureaucrat.— In the library today I happened to pass Harry Truman’s memoirs. Picked the book up and flipped to the pages on the atomic bomb. “…General Bloodlust [or whatever his name was] wanted to drop the bomb on Kyoto, but Secretary Stimson argued that Kyoto was an important cultural and religious shrine.” Stimson had spent his honeymoon there and had fond memories of it; hence, it was saved. Because of a honeymoon. A treasure-trove of history and culture saved because one guy said “No” because of his honeymoon. And then you tell me there’s a God!

Upon receiving the telegram reporting that the bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Truman “was deeply moved. I turned to the sailors I was having lunch with [on some battleship somewhere] and said, ‘This is the greatest thing in history. We’re going home.’” Yes, he said it was the greatest thing in history. And–the next page is on a different subject. No reflections on the meaning of Hiroshima or the decision to use the bomb; just…it was the greatest thing ever, and then on to his negotiations with Stalin. The man was amoral. An arch-bureaucrat, an amoral machine, like Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and most heads of state in history.

How that level of unreflectiveness is possible, I don’t know. Years afterwards, as he’s writing his memoirs, he doesn’t stop to reflect on his decision to kill more than 200,000 (with the after-effects) civilians. He takes it for granted that American lives are more valuable than Japanese lives, and that it’s better to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians (women, children) than to let fewer American soldiers die. Had the Japanese not surrendered, he and his generals would have gone on dropping as many bombs as necessary. They would have been happy to obliterate every city. A million deaths, two million deaths, priceless cultural artifacts destroyed…it would have been okay, because it would have ensured that they won the war.

Being a “man of action” is not a positive thing. It means that you’re not a man of reflection. It signifies only the absence of reflection.


Institutional evil.— Skimming Gar Alperovitz’s book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, and the Architecture of an American Myth (1996). Truman calling the bomb “merely another powerful weapon in the arsenal of righteousness.” Absolutely jubilant upon hearing news of Hiroshima. As for Nagasaki, even Alperovitz’s scholarly excavations unearth no rational reason for its bombing so soon after Hiroshima, before giving the Japanese significant time to respond. It seems to have been only a result of the determination to end the war before the Russians, who had just declared war on Japan, had a chance to enter Manchuria. (Obviously the Americans wanted to keep them out of the east.) The decision to use the bomb at all was militarily unnecessary, as high-level generals and advisers stated years later and argued in private at the time. In fact, the war could have ended weeks earlier if the Americans had simply assured the Japanese, who were desperate for peace, that the emperor could remain on the throne (a request that was later granted, after the bombs). But Truman and Byrnes, the secretary of state, wouldn’t make this concession. Why? Probably because their knowledge of the bomb gave them an “ace in the hole” at the 1945 Potsdam conference, and they wanted a chance to demonstrate the bomb to the Russians. So, from this perspective, far from shortening the war, the bomb may have lengthened it by a few weeks, by motivating Truman to reject Japan’s overtures for peace. (Yes, he rejected them, in July!) But of course once the Russians declared war on Japan, the Americans wanted peace immediately. At any rate, the evidence is conclusive that the bomb didn’t save American lives, since alternatives to invasion of Japan existed. It was a maneuver undertaken for the sake of the Great Game with Russia that America had inherited from England. And Truman, along with Byrnes, Groves, LeMay and the rest, is among the great villains of history. (Actually, much like G. W. Bush, he lacks the grandeur to be a “villain.” But objectively he is.)

By the way, neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki was a military target, despite Truman’s self-justifying lies to the contrary.

A journalist close to military thinking expressed it well:

We were twice guilty. We dropped the bomb at a time when Japan already was negotiating for an end of the war but before those negotiations could come to fruition. We demanded unconditional surrender, then dropped the bomb and accepted conditional surrender [by allowing the emperor to remain on the throne], a sequence which indicates pretty clearly that the Japanese would have surrendered, even if the bomb had not been dropped, had the Potsdam Declaration [in July] included our promise to permit the Emperor to remain on his imperial throne.

What if Stalin had been the one to drop the bomb and had justified it by saying it probably saved Russian lives? Would we be defending the decision? No. We’d be saying, rightly, that the use of the bomb was horrifying, that in itself it enshrined Stalin as one of the arch-villains of history.


On mainstream American liberalism.— Richard Goodwin, one of the Best and the Brightest, speechwriter and adviser to John F. Kennedy. His respected book Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties (1988), a flabby liberal whitewashing of history. Hero-worship of a young pretty personification of charismatic egomania whose 1963 assassination was in fact not all that tragic—far less so than King’s and X’s. (Tragedy requires a contrast between promise and reality.) The intelligence of the “good and bright” overwhelmed by an utter lack of wisdom. A McNamaran absence of moral imagination. The Vietnam War was an “error,” the Bay of Pigs invasion a “miscalculation,” the Reagan terrorism in Central America a “terrible error,” and so forth; none of this was fundamentally wrong, because by definition everything we do is done with good intentions. And through it all, this litany of apologetics and qualified self-criticisms, is an abdication of responsibility (even when momentarily admitting that “we liberals” were, despite ourselves, responsible for an error or two): the ultimate truth is that our good intentions were ineffectual in the face of reality, fate, bureaucracy, inertia, whatever abstraction comes to Goodwin’s mind. It’s a rotten book, disgusting.

And the platitudes, my God the pieties! Kennedy the symbol of the American idea, the Great Man who could have led the country to moral greatness, the “exemplar who led others to discover their own strength and resurgent energy,” the man who “fueled the smoldering embers” of the 1960s (terrible writing), who could do no wrong even when he did wrong because at heart he was a hero for the ages, and of course don’t forget the gloriousness of America as a symbol, an eternal beacon of light, the ideal of a restless, searching people who expanded to occupy a continent (let’s not talk about those other people who had already occupied it for millennia).... But now, alas, we’ve become a nation of cynics! Ah, if only we had continued to follow the light of reason, the inner American in us all! Woe are we who have lost our faith! —This nostalgic liberal apotheosis of Kennedy and America and democracy and freedom evinces a mind-boggling moral and intellectual immaturity, a stunning childishness in thought and deed. It signifies little more than the liberal intellectual’s celebration of himself, his defense of himself: ‘Yes, some of the things we did were wrong: we were too idealistic! We didn’t understand the evils of the world. We thought we could use reason to remake the world, but alas, the world is an unreasonable place.’ Astonishing, despicable shallowness, being so self-blind as not to see that one’s effusive praise of the so-called American idea is nothing but effusive praise of oneself. It’s also totally stupid in its own right. Christianity is a far more rational religion than this liberal American one.

The book is enlightening, however, as a window into the mind of the Harvard liberal, revelatory of the sort of thoughts this kind of person has, his worldview. Liberalism from the inside. A prettified ideology, bland but appealing, with the reference to spiritual truths, reason, ideals of harmony and peace, a rising tide lifting all boats, the fundamental compatibility of all interests in society (except for those we don’t like, of course), the nonexistence of class struggle, government’s ability to solve all social ills, history as a progressive battle between knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness, reason and unreason, open-mindedness and bigotry, and any other set of binary abstractions you can think of. The whole ideology hovers above reality in the heavenly mists of Hope and Progress. It’s all very pretty, hence its momentary resurgence—which succumbed to disillusionment—with Barack Obama. And hence its ability to get through the filters of the class structure, to become an element in the hegemonic American discourse, floating above institutional realities like some imaginary golden idol one worships in lieu of common sense. It serves a very useful purpose for business, averting people’s eyes from the essential incompatibility of class interests toward the idea of Gradual Progress by means of tinkering at the margins, making nice policies.

One is almost surprised at the contradiction in people like Richard Goodwin and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., on up to Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, between native intelligence and blind liberal stupidity. But institutions mold people to fit into them—or rather, they mold those people who are willing to be molded, i.e., who are ambitious and obedient. However intelligent you are, if you’re ambitious you’re going to have to let yourself be taught to believe what you have to believe in order to fit into your chosen institution. Thus arises the phenomenon of apparently brilliant people who you suddenly notice have this gigantic blind-spot in their mind that underpins their brilliant maneuverings.


Thoughts on Marxian common sense.— An example of intellectuals’ need to make everything more complicated and difficult than it has to be is the unending debate over the meaning and validity of the Marxian claim that the economy is the relative foundation of society, that production relations (which presuppose given levels of “productive forces,” i.e., technology, scientific knowledge, etc.) are ultimately the most important kind of social relations. One would have thought this claim to be commonsensical, but apparently it isn’t. Its basic meaning and truth are revealed in the single consideration that the institutions and institutional actors with the greatest access to resources are going to have the greatest influence over society. Fewer resources, less influence. Institutions directly involved in the production and accumulation of resources—of money, capital, technology—are naturally going to have the most direct access to these resources, i.e., the greatest control over them. The people who control these institutions, then, are going to have more power than other people, and they will seek to make other institutions throughout society “compatible” with their power or subservient to it. Which means making them compatible with the form of organizing relations of production in that society that has the most control over the most resources. In other words, the “dominant mode of production.” In non-prehistoric societies, the class structure and implicit class struggle, which are defined by the relations between antagonistic positions in the mode of production, will therefore be central to social dynamics. The more exploitation of the producing class(es), the more power there will be in the hands of the exploiting class(es), i.e., those who occupy the dominant positions in the dominant mode of production. (Their dominant position is a function of their control over the resources necessary to force others to produce for them.) The exploiters will try to increase exploitation as the exploited try to diminish it. The vicissitudes of this struggle will go far towards explaining other political and cultural phenomena, because the struggle—which is integrally connected to the evolution of the relations of production, of the class structure, of economic institutions, as well as the closely related evolution of the forces of production—largely determines who has how many and what kinds of resources when, what sorts of institutions and values the people with resources will promote, etc.

It's true that in other senses, the biological division between the sexes can be called the “foundation” of society. But not if you’re talking about the specific forms that particular societies take. Biological facts do not explain that (do not explain differences between societies); economic institutions—in addition to environmental circumstances and the nature of existing productive forces—do, at least to a very rough approximation. (One also has to keep in mind Raymond Williams’s concept of the “residual,” the cultural, political, and economic residues of previous systems, as well as the sheer infinite complexity of a society’s economic institutions, including the coexistence and even interpenetration of different modes of production.)

To take a non-capitalist example, in the Middle Ages the Church owned vast tracts of land and had immense wealth. As a consequence, it had enormous influence over the whole society. What could be more commonsensical? The Church’s and the feudal aristocracy’s ability to force others to work for them and/or to appropriate their surplus product allowed them to impose their institutions, norms, and values on the rest of society. Their control over the means of violence was necessary, of course, to their economic power—and was in turn the result of prior economic facts, prior accumulation of resources by certain people and institutions, etc.


It’s funny that people often deprecate Marxian materialism as an explanation of society and human behavior, given that virtually no one cares much about ideas. People think they do, but basically they’re wrong. They insist that ideas, ideological motivations, and spiritual matters are very important to people....but then proceed to ignore them in their lives. Just listen to humans talk and you’ll see they’re essentially unfamiliar with ideas and don’t think about them very often. Their understanding of the world is utterly superficial; their ideological commitments exist mainly on the level of words; quotidian personal interests are what preoccupy them. Food, money, success, power, relationships, entertainment, etc. Every so often religion or politics will come up in conversation and people will get strangely animated for a few minutes, but that isn’t very significant. Anyway, most of the time a person’s commitments to certain ideas, such as they are, derive from their reflection of his or her interests, or their being a sublimation of his or her interests. Some selflessness might be involved—and with many people that’s a very important element—but even then, of course, the ideas are merely abstract reifications of concrete interests or feelings or modes of interaction with others. “Material” realities, that is. But I’ve strayed from my original point.

I’d also note, incidentally, that often when people object to “ideas” they’re really objecting to changing their way of doing things. Religious conservatives oppose liberal reformers in large part because they’re used to doing things (rituals) a certain way, and the thought of changing that makes them profoundly uncomfortable. The human mind/brain, after all, like that of other animals, is a pretty “conservative” thing: it finds comfort, so to speak, in patterns, habits, routines, rituals repeated again and again, such that encountering or doing new things can be very disturbing. Not always, especially not in the case of children (although observe how they react upon meeting strangers or when their parents force them, for whatever reason, to change some habit or discard some toy they’re used to). Curiosity and learning can be a source of great pleasure. But changing one’s behavior or attitudes is hard, sometimes impossible. Sartre notwithstanding, the self is not “free” in this way. Therefore many people object to the “idea” of gay marriage, because it hasn’t been a part of their routine. It isn’t how they have lived their lives—they find it challenging to their ways of acting and thinking—so they oppose it.


People usually think of religion as an example of the importance of ideas, and to an extent that’s true. But not to the extent that is commonly thought. Religion is not only ideas, after all, but also institutions. Social roles. Modes of interaction. And simply an excuse to get together with people once or several times a week, to socialize and act out rituals that reaffirm community. These kinds of behavior, as opposed to mere thinking about various transcendental ideas, are the most important aspect of religion for most people. And one reason why religion is so tenacious in the modern world is that institutions are tenacious, especially institutions with a lot of power and resources backing them up. It isn’t only “ideas”; it is generation after generation being socialized into institutions, to respect power-structures centered around priests and bishops and reverends and pastors and so on—an especially easy thing to do because such respect gets people communal affection and allows them to participate in a significant part of social life. In the light of so many satisfying and self-affirming communal rituals molding one from one’s childhood, it is easy to understand why millions would believe in God and try to act as he wants (because that means acting as the community wants). “Ideas” are in this case, as in most others, little more than reflections or residues of social behavior. By being influenced by the idea of God, one is being influenced by social structures that one has internalized.


A riposte to an idealist.— I can imagine that a contemporary “idealist” might defend the importance of ideas and ideologies by invoking the Tea Party and its Republican representatives, most of whom are definitely ideologically driven. I would respond that, yes, an ideology can be important in this way, but only because it serves the interests of some set of institutions. Sectors of business are funding and helping to organize these ideological movements because it is in their interest to do so. They are blasting society with billions of dollars’ worth of propaganda and political-campaign money. The very idiocy of the Reaganite, Tea-Party ideology, together with its popularity, is evidence of the power of moneyed interests—because unless people had been subjected for decades to well-funded public-relations campaigns, they would not have succumbed to such a stupid ideology. Business propaganda is so ubiquitous it has destroyed people’s common sense. Thus arises an ideological movement like the Tea Party, which offers solutions to people’s material grievances that promise to aggravate their grievances. (For instance, Tea Partiers hate Wall Street, but they want to rein in the power of the federal government, which is the only thing that can regulate Wall Street.)

So, in short, the Tea Party, far from being proof of the power of ideas, is proof of the power of wealthy institutions.


You, nationalist, are an idiot.— You can say whatever you want about the importance of nationalism and its challenge to Marxism; in the end, the fact remains that class, or economic and environmental situation, is more immediately important to people than “nation,” which is an imaginary construction and took centuries of warfare and indoctrination just to be recognized by ordinary people. Peasants have always been more concerned with survival and their immediate situation than “nationality”—even since the 19th century, when they were finally made aware of the principle of nationality. Serfs were always more invested in their struggles against the nobility than in some educated elite’s preoccupation with “national identity” or whatnot. As for the thousands of years of tribal wars and barbarian invasions and imperial clashes and all that shitheap of history, that was mostly a function of the quest for economic power, material resources, material domination. In recent centuries, yes, a few other things have been added into the mix, which interact with political and economic power in complicated ways. But these newer principles, such as ethnicity, are ultimately secondary to class domination and subordination, because without resources (and their specific distribution, determined by class relations) nothing is possible. Whatever social, cultural, and political institutions there are, and whatever purposes they’re directed towards, they need resources first, and those depend on modes of production and distribution, which entail specific power-structures with specific interests. “Nation”? Get real.


Class, race, and gender.— The significance of each of these is multidimensional. Class, however, seems to have a unique sociological importance insofar as class structures, or economic structures, constitute society’s essential “infrastructure,” the skeleton that is fleshed out in culture, politics, ideological trends, etc. Race and gender, by contrast, are primarily subjective identities, not objective structures rigorously defined and enforced in the ways that capitalist class-relations are. [To be more accurate, race and gender are “objective structures” to the extent that they more or less coincide with economic relations. Forms of racial oppression fit into forms of class oppression.] In imagination, one can picture rearrangements of the occupants of positions in class structures; black people could occupy capitalist positions and whites occupy wage-earning positions, or the current relative places of most women and men could be reversed in the same way. And society would continue to have basically the same institutional configuration it does now, with lower wage-earners viciously exploited—only these would be white men. In fact, blacks and women have made advances along these lines, even as the real sources of mass oppression have barely been touched due to the lack of institutional change. To change the institutional structures and so really change society, capitalist class-relations have to be abolished.


Concentration of power and resources has, from the very beginning, been the overwhelming source of the world’s ills. (Not religion, as Richard Dawkins et al. would have you believe.) Abolishing it is the sine qua non for establishing a humane society. –Yes, it is that simple. All the sophisticated analyses of historians and economists and philosophers boil down to the fact that it’s imperative to abolish the concentration of wealth, and therewith the concentration of power.


The Barbarous Legacy of Capitalism in Latin America. (A short academic paper.)

Since its colonization about five hundred years ago, Latin America has been ever more dominated by relations of commodity production for external markets, and secondarily for internal ones. With crucial collaboration by Latin America’s merchant and landowning classes, Europe and, later, North America have ensured that the production (or extraction) and export of such commodities as silver, sugar, tobacco, coffee, rubber, fertilizers, bananas, indigo, oil, and cocaine have for centuries been foundations of societies south of the U.S. This fact has had deleterious implications for both the people and the environment of Latin America. Dependency theorists argue that it has entailed the continent’s underdevelopment by means of the metropole’s extraction of economic surplus—which has meant a corresponding depletion of wealth available for the continent’s development—but in this paper I will focus on the brute facts of class conflict and environmental destruction. These have occurred all over the world as capital has deepened and broadened its dominion since the 1400s, but Latin America, like much of the global South, has suffered in ways somewhat different from the North, due both to the continued presence of indigenous peoples and to the subordination of internal development to the needs of foreign capital (and its effective “representatives” in the domestic economy). In the following, accordingly, I will consider several examples of how export-oriented commodity production has shaped Latin America’s social landscape in conflict-ridden ways.

Steve Stern states the matter concisely in the first sentence of Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640 (1982): “This book tells how conquest transformed vigorous native peoples of the Andean sierra into an inferior caste of ‘Indians’ subordinated to Spanish colonizers and Europe’s creation of a world market.” For the sake of extracting economic surplus, from the mid-sixteenth century the colonizers began to impose on the native peoples of Peru such oppressive institutions as the encomienda, the mita, and, later, yanaconaje. The forced labor of the mita, for example, was for decades the principal means of exploiting mercury and silver mines, in addition to organizing work in such enterprises as textile workshops and sugar mills. Aside from the horrors of work and the low pay in a regime defined by mita labor, indigenous communities were gradually coerced into losing their ancient integrity, their self-sufficiency and internal vitality. Indian resistance was fierce, however, although it usually manifested itself in subtler and shrewder ways than collective uprisings, especially after the colonial state had been consolidated by Toledo’s reforms in the 1570s. More commonly, Indians used Spanish juridical frameworks to defend their land and independence, often successfully. By the seventeenth century, their constant litigation “disrupted enterprise and incomes, shut down workshops, and pinched production with labor bottlenecks. Cheap mita labor grew scarce and unreliable.” The state form of extraction that consisted of mitas and tribute payments therefore deteriorated under the impact of pervasive and institutionalized Indian resistance.

In the long run, however, things did not improve for most natives; rather, new modes of controlling labor appeared that continued to undermine indigenous society and independence. Private forms of exploitation such as yanaconaje (long-term personal bondage to a master) and primitive wage labor became more integral to the social system than they had been earlier. As the market economy penetrated deeper into former enclaves of indigenous self-sufficiency, monetizing economic transactions and exacerbating divisions between rich and poor, and as entrepreneurs expropriated valuable resources such as irrigable lands and coca plantations, poorer Indians were compelled to rent themselves out in order to pay off debts or simply to survive. “Over time, then, colonial relationships gave rise to economic dependencies driving natives into the arms of colonials.” People abandoned village life in order to accumulate funds or start their lives anew, perhaps hoping to follow in the path of the minority of successful Indian entrepreneurs. The social structure continued to evolve in contradictory ways, but the ultimate result is clear: as Stern says, “The most dramatic creation—and legacy—of the first century of colonization was Indian poverty.”

Indian dispossession and poverty have continued up to the present; Emilio Kouri discusses an intervening period, the late nineteenth century, in A Pueblo Divided: Business, Property, and Community in Papantla, Mexico (2004). Unlike Stern, he focuses on a specific commodity, vanilla, showing how its growth in popularity overseas contributed to the demise of communal landholding in a particular region of Mexico between the 1870s and 1890s. Broadly speaking, Kouri recognizes three causes of the privatization of land in Veracruz: first, government officials had a fanatical commitment to the ideology of liberalism and private property; second, putting communal lands in private hands would augment property tax revenues and so assuage Veracruz’s dire fiscal condition; third, the boom in the vanilla trade (among others), which resulted largely from improvements in communications and transport, heightened the value of land and made it worth controlling. The actual division of communal lands was a complicated, decades-long process full of interruptions, temporary compromises, legal machinations, government corruption, outbreaks of violence, two large rebellions, and state repression. By 1900 the transformation was complete: almost a third of Papantla’s old communal territory belonged to townspeople, mostly big merchants, and a small Indian elite; the rest of the lands remained the property of native family farmers who had become landowners. More than a half of Indian households, however, were left propertyless by the triumph of privatization and parcelization, and inequalities in wealth and power were now guaranteed by differential access to land. “Town merchants and Totonac [indigenous] bosses now reigned supreme,” Kouri summarizes, “many Indian agriculturalists were now anything but independent, and the old bonds of community—whatever they once were—had long since frayed. This was the world that vanilla had made.”

Strictly speaking, of course, it is not a particular commodity that makes such a world but capital itself, the flow of ever-accumulating capital, which uses commodities as means to augment itself, a process that often entails privatization, dispossession, mass oppression, and environmental despoliation. A particularly effective way for capital to valorize itself is by extracting and refining oil; not surprisingly, such activities, being especially useful to capital, are also especially destructive to natural and social environments. This is clear from the two books Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador (2004) and The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938 (2006), by Suzana Sawyer and Myrna Santiago respectively. Although the books pertain to very different times, places, and categories of people, there are striking parallels between the stories they tell. In both cases, multinational oil companies invade a region and tear apart communities and natural habitats; the state is either unwilling or unable to assert itself against them sufficiently to protect the populations affected; the latter, whether Ecuadorian natives in the 1990s or Mexican workers in the 1920s, unite to defend themselves against corporate tyranny. A key difference between the cases is that the Mexican workers were citizens of a state that, during and after the Mexican Revolution, was ideologically and to some extent substantively on the side of “the people,” which opened up opportunities for organized labor. As Santiago relates, the militancy of Mexican oil workers, while frustrated for many years by the power of multinationals and the weakness of the revolutionary state, finally, in 1938, provoked one of the decisive events of modern Mexican history: President Cárdenas’s nationalization of the foreign oil industry. The details of this event need not concern us; suffice it to say that it grew out of a collective-bargaining dispute between labor and capital dramatized by the latter’s flagrant violation of Mexican laws and the former’s strike activity, which forced Cárdenas to act—on behalf of law and labor. This example serves as a welcome reminder that, while Latin America’s history is a tragic one, not all the major victories have been won by the plunderers.

Ecuador in the 1990s conforms to the usual depressing pattern, however. Facing an alliance between the neoliberal state and multinational corporations, Indians fighting to protect their communities, their independence, and their habitat did not have much of a chance. Through popular mobilization they achieved some partial victories, and they succeeded in creating headaches for the state and its wealthy allies, but on a broad scale the neoliberal agenda was unstoppable. In 1994, for example, the government not only passed an important law that threatened communal lands but also revised the Hydrocarbon Law so that state intervention in the oil industry was diminished, the price of gasoline was deregulated, new oil fields were granted to private companies, and environmental protections were undermined. The fatal potential of these developments is clear when one reflects that crude oil’s most toxic components have been shown to lead to skin disease, nerve damage, reproductive abnormalities, and cancer in humans, and that the industrial processes associated with oil extraction themselves produce pollutants. Since industrial accidents were rampant in the 1980s and 1990s, the indigenous peoples of Ecuador had cause for alarm. What happened in Mexico in the early twentieth century, however, was even worse, as the rainforest in the Huasteca was destroyed, oil conflagrations that lasted months killed workers and indigenes, “worker housing was showered with toxic chemicals routinely,” and mundane accidents caused death-by-asphyxiation or oil-drowning. All these tragedies make oil, as a commodity, the quintessential symbol of capital’s violent nature.

Some commodities, by virtue of their production process, give workers more opportunities to exercise agency than others. According to Gillian McGillivray, sugar in Cuba was such a commodity, at least in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries. In Blazing Cane: Sugar Communities, Class, and State Formation in Cuba, 1868-1959 (2009), she recounts how sugarcane farmers and the workers they hired frequently burned cane fields as a way to assert their interests against sugarmill owners or in times of political upheaval. “It created jobs,” McGillivray notes, “to burn cane that would otherwise be left standing until sugar brought a better price. The burned cane had to be cut and hauled to the mill, and the fields needed to be cleared and replanted during the dead season leading up to the next harvest.” (Burned cane had to be cut and milled within twenty-four hours lest it lose its sucrose.) Burning cane also made it easier to cut, and it improved working conditions in the fields. In certain contexts, such as times of political repression, burning fields could also be a revolutionary act, a means of protesting colonialism and elite rule. Undertaken on a sufficiently large scale, cane fires were an effective form of economic sabotage and a way to spread revolution. Their political importance was summed up by one of Fidel Castro’s comrades: “Revolution in Cuba means burning sugarcane—it did in 1868, 1895, and 1930-33, and it did for us.” Through this sort of resistance at the point of production, i.e. at the fulcrum of society, workers turned their daily subordination and dependency on its head: they showed that in fact capital and its social order were dependent on them, that they had the power to shut society down. They could even install political leaders who promised to overthrow the rule of capital, as in the case of Castro.

Again, though, the balance of power under capitalism is such that it is usually capital, not labor, that wields violence and remakes the world in its image. The history of Latin America is one long confirmation of this. Consider the 1980s, for example. The violence of that decade in Central America was largely due to capital’s attempts to suppress leftist insurrections by means of death squads and U.S.-backed paramilitary forces. Jeffery Paige makes it clear in Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America (1997) that a major impetus behind the reactionary savagery in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala was the coffee-growing landed elite, which had a greater interest than the “agro-industrial” class in controlling labor. “The revolutionary crises of the 1980s,” he argues, “were crises of the coffee elites and the societies they made at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.” As usual, therefore, the supremacy of a specific export commodity, or rather of capital as invested in the production of this commodity, brought hardship and even death for peasants and workers in Latin American countries. A similar thing happened in the 1930s, when uprisings against elites in El Salvador and Nicaragua were bloodily crushed by military force. The hubris and inhumanity of capital are on full display when tens of thousands of campesinos and laborers are slaughtered for the sake of maintaining complete capitalist control over society.

A bourgeois apologist might argue that capitalism as manifested in Latin America has had more positive than negative consequences for the environment and the majority of people, but that would be a hard argument to make. Examples can be multiplied almost without end of environmental and human agony as capital has steamrolled the continent. Since commodity production is the foundation of the social structure, Indians and workers have had most success at softening their oppression when interfering with production itself. For instance, when Pastaza Indians in 1989 threatened seismic crews working for an oil company and confiscated their equipment, a presidential advisor flew in with company representatives to discuss indigenous grievances. Interference with production could not simply be ignored. Nevertheless, even such minor victories as this have been rare compared to the number of defeats—the constant stream of defeats, from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first, from Mexico to Argentina. How long this sad history will continue is an open question, but one can expect it not to end until capitalism itself does.


Irony #2853.— The U.S.’s drug war, which really began in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century, used to be directed against drugs. The suppression of the drug trade was the goal. Its dramatic intensification in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with its catastrophic failure, which coincided with its unqualified success as determined by a new set of standards. Aside from being an excellent way for the powerful, especially conservatives, to frighten the public, increase their authoritarian control over society, and get more votes—which it had always been, to some extent—the drug war became a wonderful excuse to do two things: throw economically redundant people (mostly black men), potential troublemakers, into prison, which then allowed corporations to profit off their cheapened labor; and intervene in the affairs of Latin American countries so as to suppress rebellious political movements under the guise of fighting the drug trade. This latter function also had the benefit of giving the U.S. government revenue, through arms sales.


Mumia Abu Jamal is right to refer to America’s “prison-industrial complex.” Prisons may be America’s most dynamic growth industry, at least until very recently. Communities want prisons to be built in them because they provide jobs. Prisoners are the raw material, so to speak, on which employees work; and corporations make fantastic profits off the construction of prisons and the exploitation of cheap prison labor. At the same time, sending millions of black and Hispanic males to prison for minor offenses rids society of an economically superfluous population that, as it grows, threatens the stability of corporate capitalism. So capitalism has accomplished the impressive feat of making a business of getting rid of people whom the system has made economically redundant and politically dangerous. Finding a way to make profits off the redundant and unprofitable, precisely by protecting capitalism from them—that’s genius. Satanic genius. That it happens to destroy millions of lives is an unfortunate externality.


Deindustrialization.— The causes of America’s deindustrialization are complex, involving heightened international competition and declines in the growth-rates of manufacturing profitability and investment. The basic story can be stated in one sentence, though: greater international competition (since the late 1960s) and diminished growth of profitability have necessitated feverish cost-cutting, which has meant more automation, employee layoffs, wage-cuts, and offshoring of production—which in turn, by reducing purchasing power in the domestic economy, have in the long run reinforced trends toward lower sales and profits, which have themselves reinforced the need to cut costs, thus creating a vicious circle of American “de-development.” This seems to be the story as many critical economists see it (such as Robert Brenner), although of course it has to be embellished.


Why is deindustrialization bad for the economy? Is it bad for the economy? A lot of mainstream economists actually argue that there’s nothing wrong with a decline in manufacturing employment, that it’s a sign of progress, in particular of the higher productivity in manufacturing than in the service sector. Manufacturing productivity in America has become so high that we need very few workers to produce an equivalent level of output to the 1960s. The employment lost in manufacturing can be compensated by higher employment in the services. Etc. There is some superficial plausibility to this view, but a bit of sensible thinking shows it to be false. One major problem with losing manufacturing employment, I suspect, is that it entails a loss of powerful unions, thus a loss of high wages in the core economy (the “standard-setting” economy), therefore a stagnation or decline in the standard of living and a shrinking of effective demand. With lower demand, the service sector can’t grow sufficiently to stably employ the tens of millions who would have had manufacturing jobs if the industrial sector had continued to grow instead of shrink. Said differently, the basic problem seems to be that it’s harder to unionize in services than in industry, because of the greater incidence of part-time and informal employment, the fragmentation and “personalization” of the sector, the lack of standardization in work processes, the transitory nature of employment, etc. Furthermore, since it is inherently more difficult to raise productivity in the services than in manufacturing, it’s more difficult for wages to rise indefinitely—at least in “mass” jobs like retail and clerical work. There isn’t a constant stream of inventions permitting greater output that raises the possibility of higher wages. Also, according to some economists, manufacturing jobs generate more secondary (derivative) jobs than those in the service sector do. On top of all this, there is the obvious fact that problems of “transition to a new economy,” the “temporary” problems of inadequate training for new well-paying jobs, are by no means insignificant, especially in a country that devotes few resources to properly training laid-off workers for new careers. Conceivably, deindustrialization in the U.S. did not have to be the agonizing process it has been, if tens of billions of dollars had been directed to programs of “retraining,” i.e. education. But that couldn’t have happened in a country with the class structure of the U.S. It wasn’t to the advantage of the financial sector—or real estate, insurance, retail, entertainment, or energy corporations.

Another thing to keep in mind is that deindustrialization has coincided with a major increase of capital mobility, which has changed the power dynamics between capital and the population. Even apart from its contribution to deindustrialization, this greater mobility bears a lot of the blame for the dramatic rise of economic insecurity since the 1960s. It surely helps keep service-sector wages low, for one thing; and even if there were still a lot of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., high capital mobility would probably ensure that unions had little power and manufacturing wages were low. But of course deindustrialization itself can be attributed in part to high capital mobility (in a context of competitive pressures on a national and international scale).


One of the many sources of instability in the world today is the immense surplus of labor. Hundreds of millions of people who don’t have an integral economic role. Just subsisting at the margins. There are two primary ways of dealing with this reserve army: either absorb it by giving it things to do, or repress it. Since the 1990s, China’s main strategy has been to absorb it (through infrastructural projects and so forth); the U.S.’s has been to repress it (and to give it meager welfare benefits). Neither of these strategies will prove sustainable for a long time, though. Keynesianism cannot last for many decades anymore, and repression will eventually face insurmountable resistance. Both strategies will start to meet their limits in the next ten years or so, though the repressive option will continue to be used for a very long time. Things are about to get interesting....


The fulfillment of the prophecy.— As capital has become more mobile internationally since the 1970s (the era of globalization), undermining national boundaries and cultures, and has accumulated in ever-larger concentrations, undermining the “relative independence” of the state and producing a global proletariat (or “precariat”), the world has approximated ever more closely the pure model of capitalism that Marx described in Capital. The West slowly sinks to the level of the Rest, and the Rest slowly approaches the industrial-capitalist condition of the West. The latter deindustrializes and eventually sees its infrastructure deteriorate, the former industrializes and sees its infrastructure build up a bit, though not sufficiently. Class polarization in the West approaches levels in the Rest. Conditions everywhere tend to equalize, with a hyper-elite set against an enormous reserve army of labor. A revolutionary situation ripens as the world becomes more uniform and the middle class, that historical bastion of conservatism, disintegrates.


Here’s a simple way to think about the downfall of capitalism: for over a century, oppressed people all over the world have risen up again and again, year after year, decade after decade, to overthrow institutions either integral to or, if residual from the feudal past, temporarily strengthened or made harsher by capitalism. And people will continue to do so, each generation continuing the fight. Their prospects for revolutionary success, however, have been limited as long as the core of capitalism in the West has had a fairly stable social structure and intact civil society. As long as the richest states have not faced insurrections themselves but have been able to intervene (usually successfully) whenever such insurrections threatened elsewhere, global capitalism has been more or less safe. Only when, finally, insurrections elsewhere coincide with massive revolutionary movements in the core—resulting in part from the decline of an integral civil society—can capitalism fall. This condition wasn’t really fulfilled even in the 1930s. Only now is it beginning to come to fruition.

Moreover, the necessity that civil society decay means that capitalism’s fall has to coincide with that of the nation-state, which, historically speaking, matured symbiotically with civil society. The latter’s decline entails the former’s.


The Tortured Demise of the Nation-State

In the age of advanced globalization, it is common for intellectuals to argue that the nation-state is in decline. David Held, for example, who distinguishes between a state’s autonomy and its sovereignty, contends that international organizations such as the European Union, NATO, and the World Bank both limit states’ autonomy and infringe upon their sovereignty. Edward Said, on the other hand, observes that a “generalized condition of homelessness” characterizes contemporary life. One could embellish this insight by pointing to the social atomization that seems to be ever more pronounced in much of the world, and that vitiates the rootedness of truly belonging to a national community. It appears, therefore, that the nation-state is under assault on more than one front. In this paper I will argue that that is indeed the case; I will also clarify some of the processes at work.

It is necessary, first of all, to define the nation-state. Anthony Smith gives a reasonable definition of the fully formed nation in saying that it is “a named community of history and culture, possessing a unified territory, economy, mass education system and common legal rights.” The term “nation-state,” then, makes explicit the fusion of such a community with its own government that administers and regulates the social order. On this understanding, nation-states are a modern creation: history is full of empires, city-states, tribes, and nomadic groups, but before the late nineteenth century there were no full-fledged nations or nation-states. To say they are purely a modern “invention,” however, or an elite construct with no basis in historical reality—as some scholars imply—is to go too far. Smith is right that the nation has historical antecedents. Both the ancient and medieval eras boasted “durable cultural communities,” ethnic communities with common historical memories, homelands, languages, religions, and a sense of solidarity. Some of these not-always-well-defined communities eventually formed the basis of particular nationalities.

Benedict Anderson is right to emphasize print-capitalism as having made national consciousness possible by creating “unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars.” In the centuries after Gutenberg’s invention, print-capitalism spread across the continent, “assembling” related vernaculars by creating “mechanically reproduced print-languages capable of dissemination through the market.” Speakers of the many varieties of French, for example, could now understand one another through print. Literacy increased as writing became more accessible. Print-capitalism also gave a new “fixity” to language by encouraging the standardization of spelling and syntax. Third, Anderson notes that print-languages inevitably exalted certain dialects at the expense of others: High German and the King’s English, for instance, eventually became languages of power, causing other dialects to atrophy and sometimes to die out. These processes fostered linguistic uniformity, which contributed to the rise of national consciousness.

In fact, without print-capitalism it is hard to imagine most of the things that are thought to have facilitated the emergence of the nation-state. The Reformation was made possible by print, as was the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the spread of such ideologies as liberalism and republicanism, thereby the French Revolution, industrialism, the immense bureaucracy of the modern state, mass education, etc. Similarly, the large-scale state projects undertaken in the heyday of the nation-state would have been impossible without print. One might consider the history of the state to have climaxed in these projects that exemplify what James C. Scott calls the “high modernist” ambition for the “administrative ordering of nature and society,” with which such figures as Le Corbusier, Stalin, Robert Moses, and Robert McNamara are associated. Soviet collectivization is an example, as is the construction of Brasília between 1956 and 1960. Similar projects are still going on today—though not, it seems, in North America or Europe—as for example China’s relocating of hundreds of millions of peasants into newly constructed cities such as Chongqing.

Considering the importance of print-capitalism as a foundation for the rise of the nation-state, it is ironic that what one might call electronic capitalism is contributing to the decline of the nation. Here, however, we must distinguish between the nation as an “imagined community” and the state, the government apparatus. The former is declining faster than the latter. Already with the spread of television in the 1950s and 1960s, the atomizing potential of electronic media was becoming apparent. In a sense, television gave and continues to give people common cultural touchstones, shows they can watch and discuss, advertisements they can all relate to, news items, ubiquitous soundbites, etc. More fundamentally, however, television has fragmented communities and families, atomized the national culture, instilled mental and behavioral patterns of passiveness, and in the long run degraded civil society. Lauren Berlant is right that “television promotes the annihilation of memory and, in particular, of historical knowledge and political self-understanding.” Print media have a tendency to encourage dialogue and reify culture, to bring people together to participate in a broader community, ultimately a national one; electronic media—in the context of capitalism, at least—tend to substitute isolation and self-involvement for direct interaction with others, as well as to degrade communication into instantaneous visual and auditory stimuli whose effect is to undermine identities (be they personal, national, or whatever).

These trends are even more evident when one considers the impact of video games, cell-phones, computers, the internet, and such “social media” outlets as Twitter and Facebook. A society in which most people spend an inordinate amount of their time sitting in front of TVs, playing video games, shopping online, searching for soulmates through internet dating, imbibing bits of information in short bursts from an endless variety of global news and entertainment sources, and electronically “chatting” with acquaintances or strangers located anywhere from the next room to the other side of the world—such a society does not have much of a tangible national culture, and its “imagined community” is indeed imaginary, a mere abstraction with little basis in concrete reality. In short, the individualistic, passive, and consumerist nature of a capitalist society saturated by electronic media is interpersonally alienating and destructive of civil society, hence destructive of a shared national consciousness.

At the same time, because electronic technology makes possible nearly instantaneous communication across the world, the kind of community it fosters is global rather than national. One may start to feel more affinity for people ten thousand miles away than for one’s compatriots. Global social movements become easier to coordinate; things like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street can emerge to break down national barriers and birth a global consciousness.

Electronic capitalism has also helped make possible the hegemony of transnational corporations, which have their own role to play in the destruction of the nation. First and foremost, their actions tend to bring about the equalization of conditions between countries. As corporations seek cheap labor abroad, impose ever-poorer working conditions on domestic employees, deindustrialize Western countries in part by obsessively pursuing productivity advances that make possible shrinking workforces, and fight to dismantle economic regulations and the welfare state, they cause a creeping Third-Worldization of the core capitalist countries—while facilitating a creeping industrialization of the former Third World. The point is not that the Global South will ever achieve anything like the once-prosperous level of the North; rather, it is that the world is heading towards a relative convergence of social conditions everywhere, in the form of extreme economic inequality, political disenfranchisement of the majority, environmental degradation, “privatization” of resources, and so forth. In the West especially, class polarization is increasing and infrastructure deteriorating. National differences thereby become of less substance; the urgent task appears of globally confronting power-structures, since it is only on the global stage that transnational corporations can potentially be defeated. (After all, they can play off country against country in their quest for advantageous regulatory regimes.) The slogan “Workers [i.e. non-capitalists] of the World, Unite!” becomes more timely than ever before, since nation-states really are, this time, deteriorating from within and from without.

Like the national community, though less obviously, the state—particularly in the core capitalist countries—is under assault. As David Held says, it is slowly losing its autonomy and sovereignty to international organizations, and increasingly it has to coordinate its policies with other states. As it grows ever more debt-encumbered and beholden to corporate entities, it begins to lose its ability to administer the social order, which itself is becoming less governable and more unstable as the population increases, class polarization intensifies, and infrastructure decays. The predictable consequence is that a quasi-police state will take the place of the welfare state—as is indeed happening, with heightened government investment in the “national security” state, in powers of surveillance, the expansion and privatization of prisons, the militarizing of police forces, the ever-more-frequent suspension of civil liberties, etc. From one perspective, such developments heighten the power of the state; seen in their true light, however, they are symptoms of a social and political crisis. Far from indicating the health of the state, they show its sickness. In the long run they may prove to be its death-throes.

Said differently, the Western state is ceasing to be the public state it once was; it is becoming a government explicitly for the rich, a “private” state, a “security” state. More and more of its functions are privatized, including education, national security, law enforcement, and administration of prisons. The repressive functions of government—some of them taken over by outside contractors—become more important as the citizen-empowering, civil-society-enhancing functions start to wither away. Again, this is all in the interest of “The Corporation,” which can accumulate more capital and power as citizens lose their capacity to resist.

No doubt reactionary nationalist movements will appear, in fact are appearing, as these crises deepen. Their significance, however, is precisely the [slow] death of the nation-state, not its resurgence. David Held is right that the world is simply too interconnected now, and transnational corporations have too much power, for a return to the era of sovereign and autonomous nations to occur. Xenophobia and nationalism are vomited up with the drawn-out death-rattles of the Western state, as conservative sections of the public take up arms against the implications of corporate globalization.

The impact of all this on capitalism itself is another interesting question. Suffice it to say that, just as capitalism and the nation-state matured symbiotically together, so they will probably meet their demise in a fatal embrace. As capitalism evolved from its primitive commercial character in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to a more mature mercantilism and proto-industrialism, thence to full industrialization in the nineteenth century, finally from this phase of so-called “competitive capitalism” to “monopoly” or “corporate” capitalism in the twentieth century, the nation-state evolved from its primitive beginnings in the late feudal era to its apotheosis between the 1930s and 1960s in the “high modernist” schemes that James Scott discusses. Capitalism’s evolution made possible that of the nation-state, and the latter’s evolution made possible the former’s. Capitalism’s continued maturation, however, in the form of advanced globalization, has, as we have seen, begun to undermine the nation-state, a process that in the long run cannot but undermine capitalism itself. For the latter has, at least since the 1500s, required a state to maintain order and facilitate the accumulation of capital. As the state loses its capacity to keep order, and as people across the world unite to resist the depredations of The Corporation, capital accumulation will face ever more obstacles. In the end, one can expect the current world order to implode; some sort of post-capitalist, post-statist order will rise from its ashes. What it will look like, no one can foresee.


2011 vs. 1968.— Despite what people are inclined to think, 2011 was in many ways more globally revolutionary than 1968. Everything that happened—the Arab Spring, the Wisconsin protests, Occupy Wall Street, protests all over Europe, demonstrations in Russia—it was all just the beginning of something very big; 1968 was basically the end, or at least the climax. 2011 was a manifestation primarily of elemental economic grievances, even in the Arab world; 1968 was a manifestation largely of the youth’s cultural discontent, European universities’ dysfunctionality, anti-war sentiment, and, yes, young workers’ dissatisfaction with conditions of production. 2011 targeted society’s central power-structures, namely big business, especially financial institutions (and, outside the West, political dictators); 1968 was directed against....authority in general. Its diffuseness indicated its political immaturity. The point is that 2011 was a symptom of a world order’s descent into long-term crisis, whereas 1968 was produced by a variety of less systemically portentous developments. 2011 was the beginning of the real revolutionary period (over a hundred years long?) of capitalism’s decline.


Thoughts on socialist revolution.— In retrospect it’s obvious that something like socialism couldn’t have happened until the nation-state system had disintegrated (which it’s starting to do now), because the nationality principle conflicts with the class principle. Marx thought the latter was more powerful and important than the former, and in many ways he was right. But not in the way he wanted: business tended to be more loyal to class than to the nation, and it used the idea of nationality to divide the working class. Only when capitalism and the nation-state began to decline together according to their internal dynamics and not due to some voluntaristic, opportunistic Leninist coup from the outside would the wage-earning classes have the chance to supersede capitalism and its instrument the nation-state.

To say it more simply, Marx’s main mistake was not to foresee the twentieth-century apotheosis of the nation-state period of history. He didn’t foresee the welfare state. He overestimated the power—at least in the short run—of capitalism’s class-polarizing tendencies; he didn’t understand that other tendencies would for at least a hundred years be able to mitigate class inequality, tendencies such as that toward the assimilation of the working class into the dominant order, toward “pure and simple trade-unionism” (mere reformism), toward the state’s stabilizing management of the economy, as well as the pressures for workers to identify not only with the abstract notion of a social class that spans continents but also with the more concrete facts of ethnicity, race, occupation, immediate community, and nation. All these pressures interfered with the revolutionary dynamics Marx analyzed.

With respect to the very long run, though, he was always right that capitalism is not sustainable. There are many reasons for this, including the contradiction between a system that requires infinite growth and a natural environment that is finite, but the reason most relevant to Marxism is that ultimately capital can never stop accumulating power at the expense of every other force in society. It is insatiable; its lust for ever more profit and power condemns it to a life of Faustian discontent. It can never rest. Any accommodations, therefore, between the wage-earning class and capital—such accommodations as the welfare state and the legitimization of collective bargaining—are bound to be temporary. Sooner or later capital’s aggressiveness will overpower contrary trends and consume everything, like a societal black hole (to change the metaphor). Everything is sucked into the vortex, including social welfare, the nation-state, even nature itself. The logic is that nothing will remain but The Corporation, and government protections of the people will be dismantled because such protections are not in the interest of capital. This absurd, totalitarian logic can never reach its culmination, but it will, it must, proceed far enough, eventually, that an apocalyptic struggle between the masses and capital ensues. A relatively mild version of this happened once before, in the 1930s and ’40s, and a compromise—the mature welfare state—was the result. But then, as I said, capital repudiated the compromise (or is doing so as I write these words), and the old trends Marx diagnosed returned with a vengeance, and so humanity could look forward, this time, to a final reckoning. A final settling of accounts will occur in the coming century or two.


A history of the U.S. economy.— In order to understand the present, you have to know the past. A particularly important part of the story is economic history, which everyone should study. Barry Eichengreen’s Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System (2008) is a superb book; Robert Brenner’s The Economics of Global Turbulence (2006) is a true masterpiece. A more readable work is David Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital (2011); a less readable but nonetheless excellent one is Greta Krippner’s Capitalizing on Crisis: The Political Origins of the Rise of Finance (2011). Paul Bairoch’s Economics and World History: Myths and Paradoxes (1995) is a very good introduction to the subject. Here I’ll include notes I wrote on an older work that adopts a broader historical perspective, all the way back to the 1790s.

Richard Du Boff’s Accumulation and Power: An Economic History of the United States (1989) is excellent, since it takes a Marxian/Keynesian approach. Here’s the first paragraph: “Just after the Second World War, economists of the Keynesian, Marxian, and institutionalist schools shared one vision—that nothing in the workings of a capitalist economy assured compatibility between the demand side and the supply side requirements for steady growth with full employment. For several reasons this approach to economic history soon fell by the wayside (if in fact there were ever any attempts to make use of it). This book represents an effort to revive it.”

The first chapter consists of a polemic against neoclassical economics and its version of economic history. Boff’s analysis “focuses not on consumption and production choices in an allocative efficiency setting [as neoclassical analyses do] but on capitalist decision-making and its social consequences. That decision-making process is not seen as a series of adaptations to external market forces but rather as the major determinant of the pattern of economic growth and as the main element forcing change in the economy at large. In this view, the twin goals of capitalist enterprise are accumulation and monopolization.” Neoclassical theory likes to treat monopolies as a kind of pathology, an extreme departure from “perfect competition” or “equilibrium” or some other invented concept, but anyone with common sense understands that monopolies are “the natural end product of successful competition, arising out of accumulation and the drive for control over an economy never in ‘equilibrium.’”

Okay, now for the history. “The earliest impetus to economic growth came from foreign trade, which boomed from 1793 to 1807. Revolutionary turmoil and the Napoleonic wars in Europe allowed American shippers to capture a major part of the international carrying trade and led to unprecedented volumes of exports and profits.... Exports probably constituted 15 percent of the national product....” America’s export-led economic growth ended in 1807 with the Embargo Act, which was a catastrophe for shipping interests. But it had the beneficial effect of encouraging goods-production at home, since goods were not available from Europe. “The growing demand for cloth prompted the mechanization of weaving and the integration of spinning and weaving inside a single ‘mill.’” Unfortunately, the end of Europe’s war in 1814 reopened the U.S. to British imports, which drove many American competitors out of business and wiped out much of the newly expanded manufacturing base, “bringing a decade of near-stagnation.” (If the IMF weren’t the slave of Western investors, it might draw certain conclusions from such facts as these. Opening Third-World markets to floods of Western goods is precisely the worst thing to do, from the perspective of the Third World.)

Nevertheless, in some sectors manufacturing continued to expand, slowly. In textiles, for example, where a few large firms survived the British onslaught. Also, residential construction grew, stimulating the production of nails, bricks, shingles, etc., as well as the machines to make them. At the same time, the Northeast’s “commercial revolution” was happening. Commercial banks, law firms, insurance companies, etc. Public works in transportation and communication were important too. The growing volume of trade bred a new generation of middlemen, who themselves contributed to economic development. And state governments provided crucial help by chartering corporations, giving companies monopoly-type privileges and attracting wealth from small investors whose calculations of risk were influenced by their “limited liability.” On top of all this, agricultural productivity was rising in the West.

Real per capita incomes rose 30 percent between 1805 and 1840. The urbanized population was 11 percent of the country by 1840. On the other hand, “by the 1830s the sense of social distance between rich and poor was growing,” as a new class of wage-earners slowly developed. Slowly. By the 1840s, less than 10 percent of all workers were engaged in manufacturing. The structure of the economy remained pre-industrial.

“The modern accumulation process began in the 1840-1860 period, with the coming of the railroads.” I won’t go through all the ways that railroads stimulated economic development. The telegraph, too, proved to be of incalculable importance. Both accelerated the emergence of a national market, and of regional specialization.

“Agriculture’s share of the labor force declined from 64 percent in 1840 to 53 percent in 1860; in the North the decrease was even greater, from 63 to 34 percent.” At the same time, disparities in income and wealth (i.e. property) were increasing (although real wages for working people did rise). “By 1860 income disparities had risen to a ‘high plateau of inequality’ that persisted for the better part of a century.” (And then, you know, a few decades of the welfare state, and then a resumption of extreme polarization, since the 1970s.) Inequality in wealth was even worse.

One sign of strong capital accumulation in the 1840s and 1850s was “the revulsion against internal improvements,” i.e. public works, which had been quite significant earlier.

The defeat of national planning for internal improvements was no doubt related to the growing sectional conflicts, especially between the North and the South, and agitation for “states’ rights.” But the private business sector was also starting to oppose “government interference” in the economy. The ideological reaction apparently began with the great expansion of 1843-1857, when a generation of capitalists began to sense the burgeoning opportunities that lay in free-wheeling exploitation of new technologies and new markets. The telegraph provides evidence.... With the swift commercial success of telegraphy, a campaign for public ownership was undertaken by a number of congressmen and private citizens. Opposition was strong and effective from the outset. “Who should own the Magnetic Telegraph?” asked the New York Mercantile Advertiser in 1846. Surely not the Post Office was the reply, because of “its utter inefficiency, and its absolute inability to meet the wants of the public.... In comparison with individual enterprise it is perfectly contemptible....a bungling concern.”

Actually, historians have shown that the postal system was an astonishingly effective institution for its day. But the “private enterprise” and “government inefficiency” propaganda had already begun by the 1850s.

After the interruption of the Civil War, things heated up. Investment shot up simultaneously with the growth of consumer demand. Per capita incomes rose at a brisk pace. “Real income per person increased at an annual average rate of about 1.1 percent from 1800 through the 1850s; after the Civil War the rate jumped to 1.6 to 1.7 percent per year through 1900.” In the long run, growing demand has to come from improvements in productivity, “otherwise higher demand levels are not sustainable. Only increases in the productivity of labor and capital can give the economy the added capacity to generate or accommodate more ‘demand.’” These necessary increases in productivity were happening at a great rate in the second half of the century, during the “second industrial revolution.” These are the years when mass production began, and giant business firms sprang up.

And yet, as always, economic growth was wildly disrupted by depressions and downturns. Between 1867 and 1900, “the economy expanded during 199 months and contracted during 197—a disappointing if not ominous performance in view of the glowing images the new capitalists were fashioning of themselves and their economic system.” Why such crisis-ridden growth? I think you know the answer. It is “capitalism’s endemic problem of maintaining levels of aggregate spending high enough to prevent productive capacity from outstripping demand.... [S]cience-based gains in efficiency....permitted huge expansions in productive capacity that tended to overshoot actual levels of private demand. The main problem lay in a system that encouraged efficiency gains but discouraged a distribution of income that could assure commensurate gains in worker purchasing power.” In general, labor-saving and capital-saving innovation, cost-cutting, “tends to generate excess capacity, as a given amount of investment becomes more productive and capital-output ratios undergo a long-term decline.”

I won’t summarize Boff’s long discussion of the second industrial revolution and the great merger wave around the turn of the century. Let’s continue with the theory. The point about the structural contradictions of capitalism is that in a regime of imperfect competition, “actions designed to promote profitable investment undermine economic stability—and the investment that depends on it.” For example, if events cause a corporation to cut back production and investment but not reduce prices, weakness in the economy will develop. Demand will grow more slowly, and the oligopolistic firm will cut its output levels. Excess capacity will then appear. “In a competitive regime, underutilization of plant and equipment brings on price cutting and the demise of marginal firms. But under oligopoly the excess capacity cannot be competed away like this; in recessions total profits may shrink but excess capacity remains in place.” Investment will therefore continue to drop; consumers, being paid less and being employed less, will have less money to buy things and to service their debts, which could lead to defaults, which could interrupt cash flows and profits to banks and other lending institutions, which could precipitate a crisis in the financial system.

Labor-saving measures reduce production costs for a firm, but they also constrain consumption spending. Aggregate demand might therefore become insufficient to warrant further investment, which sets in motion the vicious circle. Also, because of all the cost-cutting, profits tend to grow faster than good investment prospects. Which tends to lead to economic stagnation.

I wonder how this emphasis on the malign effects of “excess” profits squares with Robert Brenner’s emphasis, in The Economics of Global Turbulence, on the malign effects of a low rate of profit. It’s funny that both high and low profits can be macroeconomically injurious. (Well, it isn’t the high profits themselves that are the problem; it’s the low demand that might be their obverse side, because it augurs badly for economic growth and profits in the long run.)

There are various ways around these problems, such as strong labor unions that insist on high wages (although if production costs increase too much, profits can be squeezed, which will tend to lower investment), but “they do not automatically prevent a mismatch between the nation’s productive capacity and the purchasing power to keep it utilized. There is, for example, no reason why the growth of demand that results from a given rate of investment should be exactly equal to the growth of capacity that results from that investment.”

It’s true that “over the past century or more, expansionary forces have prevailed.” There have been three great waves of economic expansion. But this wasn’t so much the result of the free market as of powerful external stimuli. “Epoch-making innovations” such as the railroad and the automobile opened up vast new frontiers of investment—as Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran argue in Monopoly Capital (1966).

But the basic problem never disappears [Boff writes]. Sometimes capacity increases at very rapid rates, especially when the productivity of new capital goods is rising, at other times mass-purchasing power and final sales lag, and at still other times both phenomena occur. As a result, breakdowns of the investment-dependent system have been so severe that government has increasingly been called upon to guarantee stability not only through “regulation” but also by massive expenditures to prevent aggregate demand from collapsing as it did in the 1890s and the 1930s. The tension between forces making for expansion and contraction has not abated. Since 1929 it is easily discernible in the debate over the role of government in the economy, as well as in the business cycles that somehow keep happening.

Even after the depression of the 1890s had ended, when prosperity had returned, industrial spokesmen complained about excess capacity in the midst of prosperity. As one said, “We need to open our foreign markets in order to keep our machinery employed.... It can produce in six months all we can consume in a year.” And that was at a time of vigorous economic growth, in 1900. From 1907 through 1915, “real GNP grew very slowly, at an annual average rate well below 2 percent per year.” One important author later concluded (in his study of the pre-war downturn) that “increased industrial productivity [during those years] did not result in any substantial addition to the real income of employed workers in general.” As Boff says, “This suggests a tendency to divert productive gains toward profits rather than wages, with an eventual dampening effect on economic activity.”

You know about all the oligopolistic stuff that was happening in the early 1900s, so I won’t go through that. All through the 1920s, trade associations and mergers and a permissive federal government ensured that competition was, “to a very considerable extent,” controlled. That’s the way things tend to be under corporate capitalism. Capital did very well in the 1920s—but “the increasingly promotional and financial basis of [the] merger movement indicates a surplus of funds seeking speculative profits, as opportunities for productive investment profitable enough for the corporate sector were waning.” Remind you of anything? For example, our economy’s financialization over the last thirty-five years, as “opportunities for productive investment profitable enough for the corporate sector” have waned? Yes, we’re on the verge of another great depression. Or at least a very protracted slump.

Also, just like in recent decades, retail chains (characterized by low wages) did unprecedentedly well in the 1920s.

“What were the forces making for a sustained economic expansion [in the 1920s] that finally pulled the nation out of the doldrums of 1907-1915?” Boff’s answer is simple: “The energy behind a vigorously growing market economy comes chiefly from a core of dynamic young industries. Between 1917 and 1929 electrification and automobiles provided the key investment outlets that came to fruition after World War I. They overrode the depressive tendencies of the oligopolistic investment mode, at least long enough to allow the economy to expand for several years without significant interruption.” The statistics he gives for electrification prove the stunning importance of this new industry to economic activity in that era. The statistics for, and in general the importance of, automobile manufacturing, however, are simply mind-boggling. As before with steam power and railroads, “the accumulation possibilities opened up by automobiles invigorated the whole economic machine.” Think of all the “forward and backward linkages,” the many industries stimulated and created, the proliferation and expansion of roads and billboards and filling stations and garages and truck driving and suburban communities and highway construction largely financed by state and federal governments that came to the aid of flagging private investment. Even in the 1930s it was already impossible to imagine the world without automobiles.

So why did this economic boom come to an end in 1929?

As the 1920s stretched on, the prolonged investment boom was sowing the seeds of its own demise, through its contributions to increasing productivity and inadequate consumer purchasing power. The years following the First World War were ones of record-breaking increases in efficiency, in output per worker and per unit of capital stock. The reasons are clear—electrification, automotive transport, and widespread mass-production innovations, with expanding markets and longer production runs bringing still greater economies of scale. The end of mass immigration in 1921 threatened to restrict the supply of labor and push up wage bills, leading employers to substitute machinery for labor at an even faster rate and to squeeze more production out of existing work forces through “human engineering” techniques.

So, while productive capacity was expanding quickly, “consumer demand could not seem to keep pace.” This problem was quite troubling to industrialists and business economists; they did everything they could to raise demand for their products. (Through advertising, etc.) But capacity utilization declined in the second half of the decade. The main problem was that, even though the real earnings of non-farm employees rose substantially in the 1920s, most of the increase went to people in upper-income brackets, who never spend as much of their earnings as less wealthy people do. (A similar problem today.)

Also, oligopolistic industries, as stated above, were (and always are) resistant to significantly lowering prices (as a way to pass on productivity increases to consumers). Instead, they tended to cut back production and employment, which hurt demand. “From 1929 through 1932, prices in competitive industries fell 60 percent compared to only 15 percent in ‘the more concentrated industries.’”

As Boff says, however, all this might well have led not to a devastating depression but only to a characteristic recession. An important aggravating factor was, of course, the stock market plunge in late 1929. Earlier that year a downturn in business activity had already begun, but “the stock market debacle shattered business confidence, ruined countless thousands of private investors, and wiped out holding company and investment trust structures by the score. It effectively compounded factors making for output and employment drops that would not by themselves have produced a prolonged and desperate economic crisis.”

Basically, the situation was that heavily indebted holding companies controlling much economic activity paid interest on their bonds out of the profits of the individual operating companies they owned. The decline in profits that began earlier in the year “led to defaults on a number of bonds and a series of spectacular bankruptcies. Meanwhile, the Wall Street collapse was drastically raising the cost of issuing new corporate equity and closing off this source of cheap finance as a way out.... Investment and consumption soon began to sink. As sales and prices fell, large corporations responded by reducing their outlays for inventory and capital goods and increasing their holdings of cash balances, withdrawing funds from the economy’s spending stream....” The vicious circle had begun. Farmers and others faced shrinking markets for their goods, bank failures spread as loans could not be repaid, millions of Americans withdrew their bank deposits, etc. On top of all this, Hoover’s misguided fiscal policies and the Fed’s misguided monetary policies (it raised interest rates in late 1931 to protect the nation’s gold reserve) made things worse.

“In Europe a similar crisis was swiftly developing, and as Europeans demanded gold, banks all over the world had to call in loans and shrink deposits. A new wave of liquidations, international in scope, followed. In the summer of 1931, the jerry-built house of international credit, debt, and war reparations finally gave way, crushing the last hopes for a ‘normal’ recovery.”

“The anemic nature of the recovery during the 1930s was a direct result of inadequate increases in government support for the economy.”

Boff’s conclusion: “What had really happened between 1929 and 1933 is that the institutions of nineteenth-century free market growth broke down, beyond repair. Had the chain of circumstances been ‘right,’ it could have occurred in 1920-21 or possibly 1907. The tumultuous passage from the depression of the 1930s to the total economic mobilization of the 1940s was the watershed in twentieth-century U.S. capitalism....” State intervention blunted capitalism’s crisis-prone tendencies even as it created “unanticipated additions to the full range of capitalist instability.”

Okay, so during and after World War II things got better, etc. Except for a series of short recessions, like the one that started in late 1948, when excess capacity appeared and private investment started falling. Luckily the Korean War happened in 1950, temporarily saving American capitalism from itself. And the pattern continued for a long time thereafter. “There is little doubt that the major growth stimulus for the American economy from 1950 through the early 1970s came from the public sector, not private investment.” In fact, Arthur Okun, who was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Lyndon Johnson, said that this expansion of government should be judged “not in dollars of real GNP, but in the very survival of United States capitalism.” It was government spending that prevented another Great Depression from happening. In the 1950s and 1960s, military spending accounted for more than four-fifths of all federal purchases. But “military spending” is not just for the military (as Chomsky often notes); it is really a sort of “backhanded planning” for various sectors of the economy. “The record-breaking, 105-month-long economic expansion from February 1961 to November 1969 was largely a result of arms spending.”

It’s also worth noting that in the postwar era, government’s taxation of profits and other non-wage earnings (for the sake of public spending, which increased aggregate demand) helped prevent excess productive capacity from developing to the extent that it might have. And excess capacity, to repeat, can trigger a recession by causing a decline in investment.

Let’s not forget automobiles. While the industry was important before the war, it was probably even more important afterwards. As usual, government had to do much of the investing and assumption of risk, but automobiles and their economic offshoots were a monster stimulus to private investment too. (Think of suburbanization.) The “Los Angelizing” of the American economy occurred after World War II. But, as I learned from Chomsky, that name is misleading, since Los Angeles was not always the car-cluttered hellscape it is now. It used to deserve its moniker “City of Angels,” being a paradise on earth. Beautiful scenery, very little pollution, quiet electric public transportation, no crisscrossing highways everywhere.... Unfortunately, “between 1936 and 1950, National City Lines, a holding company sponsored and funded by GM, Firestone, and Standard Oil of California, bought out more than 100 electric surface-traction systems in 45 cities (including New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, and Los Angeles) to be dismantled and replaced with GM buses. It was understood that the sale of automobiles, gasoline, and tires would benefit too. The project was generally successful. In 1949 GM and its partners were convicted in U.S. district court in Chicago of criminal conspiracy in this matter and fined $5000.”

Don’t forget, too, that the federal government was mostly responsible for the development of electronics in the 1950s and afterwards. Also synthetics (plastics and fibers). And the internet, satellites, containerization, etc. “Free market” dogmas are absurd, in other words.

Okay, let’s skip ahead to the long downturn after 1972. From 1973 to 1987, unemployment averaged 7.2 percent. The growth of private investment slowed considerably, manufacturing declined as the commercial sector (retail, communications, real estate, insurance, services) rose, debt increased all around, etc. See Robert Brenner’s above-mentioned book for details. To keep aggregate demand from collapsing as it did after 1929, the government has relied on military spending. This form of public spending, as opposed to infrastructure programs, “has highly functional characteristics for American capitalism.” “Military output does not interfere with or saturate private demand. Pentagon dollars jeopardize no business interests because they go to private firms, providing support rather than competition. The same cannot be said for low-cost housing, Amtrak and mass transit, public recreational and wilderness projects, and many social services like legal aid for poor households. A sizable expansion in areas like these would have disrupting effects on private production and on free labor markets. It would also demonstrate that the public sector can provide certain goods and services more effectively than private profit-seeking companies—a ‘bad example’ to be blocked at all cost.”

Moreover, military spending has the advantage of reproducing the oligopolistic structure of the corporate economy, “as it consolidates the power of some of the largest firms in concentrated sectors of the economy.”

In addition to military spending, transfer payments like Social Security, Medicare, and food stamps help stabilize the economy by helping to stabilize demand. But as you know, “welfare” spending has been slashed in the last 35 years. In fact, despite increases in military spending under Reagan and afterwards, since 1972 state, local, and federal government support for the economy has plunged. “The relentless attacks on ‘big government’ by a resurgent right wing, anchored in the Republican party but well represented among Democrats, have borne their bitter fruit—a reduction of the amounts of public spending necessary to generate sufficient aggregate demand to keep the economy operating at a high level of employment and output. The laboratory test is the great postwar boom: in the absence of the rapid growth of government spending from 1947-48 to 1972-73, the economy would probably have exhibited the same stagnationist tendencies evident since 1973. With reduced growth of both investment and government spending, it is not surprising that the overall economy—GNP—has turned in such a poor performance since the early 1970s.”

So what caused the downturn after 1972? Boff blames it on numerous things, including exogenous shocks like the OPEC happenings, worldwide shortages of commodities as a result of crop failures, and two devaluations of the dollar in 1971 and 1973....but he also mentions causes internal, or relatively internal, to the system. Like Brenner, he invokes heightened international competition, which depressed profitability and thus investment, the growth of productivity, etc. Lower productivity growth also resulted from the higher global prices of energy and other raw materials, which discouraged investment in energy-intensive plant and equipment. And rising labor compensation—not in wages but from increases in the “social wage” (such as employers’ contributions to Social Security, health and disability, and pensions)—combined with lower productivity growth to squeeze profits. Apparently from 1965 through 1979, employers’ “supplements to wages and salaries” increased much faster than money wages and profits. They went from 6 percent to 12 percent of national income.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering what the relation is between Robert Brenner’s emphasis on a slower growth of profit rates (due to international competition) and Boff’s emphasis on lower aggregate demand as explanations for the long downturn, I’d suggest that the lower aggregate demand was partly a result of the low profits. Business had to cut costs to compete with intra- and inter-national competitors, which meant lower wages and less employment, which meant less effective demand. Which meant more excess capacity, which reinforced tendencies toward reduced growth of investment, which meant lower productivity growth, etc. A vicious circle. Heightened international competition wasn’t the only trigger, but it was an important one. Boff might say that it ended up reinforcing—ironically—the stagnationist tendencies of America’s oligopolistic economy (by encouraging greater cost-cutting....which didn’t result in the “shakeout” of less-productive firms, as would have been the case in a more “purely competitive” economy, because of all the ways that oligopolistic firms in modern America have of staying in the game, including by relying on debt, on the government’s military Keynesianism, on corporate tax cuts, on financial speculation, on investments in real estate, etc.).

So recessions got more severe. Boff notes, however, that recessions are functional for capitalism, and since the mid-1950s have always to some degree been policy-engineered. From the perspective of capital, they do “curative work” for the economy. They reduce inflation, assure adequate supplies of compliant labor, and “check speculative financings” that can imperil coordinated expansion of a market economy. Recessions can restore conditions for profitability. Government’s role is to “allow a recession but to stop it short of catastrophe.”

Boff has a deprecatory attitude toward Reagan’s supply-side economics. He doesn’t even think it was particularly new. “Regressive tax legislation and assaults on labor were nothing new in U.S. history, but now they were reinforced by ‘deregulation’—the decontrol of regulated industries and the gutting of regulatory agencies that protect workers and consumers.” Another new development of those years was that “as deficit spending encouraged consumption to race ahead of domestic output, imports filled the gap and foreign savings financed both the budget and trade deficits. That was the ‘new’ feature of supply-side economics—foreigners supplied the goods and the funds.”

Needless to say, one of the effects of all the deregulation of recent decades has been an acceleration of “the long march toward oligopoly,” as an analyst for the Wall Street Journal wrote in 1985. The fourth merger movement began (the first being the one between 1890 and 1902).

Boff’s final word on the long downturn is that “events since 1972 have done nothing to dispel the view that the chronic problem of capitalism is insufficient private-sector aggregate demand to keep production and employment growing.” He quotes an author: “Throughout the entire industrial phase of U.S. economic history the system has operated below its potential, with full employment obtaining only in brief spans surrounding cyclical peaks.... The decade of the 1970s thus reveals the face of long-run stagnation, unleashed by the demise of the state and local stimulus together with the failure of the federal government to compensate for this demise.” Brenner might not agree with that diagnosis, but there’s some truth to it. Boff immediately qualifies it, however, by repeating that one of the most significant factors was the change in the structure of the world economy beginning in the late 1960s.

“Supply shocks” raised production costs and impaired existing industrial capacity in the United States (and elsewhere), so that Keynesian demand stimulation would have produced only a marginal output and employment increase, but probably a significant rise in inflation. [This, of course, is what happened.] But this constituted no reason to reject Keynesian economics, as conservatives (and many neoliberals) so quickly proclaimed it did. All economists agree that any decrease in productive capacity tends to cause a rise in prices and a fall in the quantity of output. The response to the supply shocks of the 1970s actually validated Keynesian theory, as tight fiscal and monetary policies depressed economic activity, generated persistent unemployment, and further discouraged the investments needed to get out of the trap. This period, moreover, was also marked by growing competition among capitalist nations, creating an oversupply of capital stock on a world scale in textiles, steel, motor vehicles, shipbuilding, and other industries. Even during the 1970s, the old excess capacity dilemma was at work—and expanding to global dimensions, with companies in North America, Europe, and Asia fighting for the same markets.

It’s possible that Boff puts too much emphasis on exogenous “supply shocks” and not enough on intensified international competition.

In the light of all these Keynesian ideas, it’s even more clear to me than before that the government in 2011 is virtually digging the grave of American corporate capitalism by dramatically cutting spending. [A naive opinion, in retrospect.] The economy is, on the whole, going to get worse and worse for years. A full-fledged depression might well break out. Will it be possible to reconstruct corporate capitalism in its aftermath? Doubtful.

I won’t summarize the last two chapters of the book, but I’ll mention a couple of arguments Boff makes about the nature of corporations—arguments I’d heard before, and which have always seemed obviously true to me. First, enormous size doesn’t entail enormous efficiency. Corporate consolidation often happens at the expense of efficiency. (Market power, which doesn’t seem to correlate with technical efficiency, is profitable.) Second, “giant companies are not the fountainhead of technological progress. The largest firms do not support R&D more intensively relative to their size. Small, independent inventors, unaffiliated with any industrial research facilities, supply a disproportionate number of inventions like air conditioning, the jet engine, [and] insulin. ‘Radical new ideas,’ Business Week concluded in a 1976 survey, ‘tend to bog down in big-company bureaucracy. This is why major innovations—from the diesel locomotive to Xerography and the Polaroid camera—often come from outside an established industry.’”

Such facts suggest that Schumpeter’s optimistic “creative destruction” theory “might be turned on its head. The revised sequence would be that, for big business, profitable growth strategies are linked to the attainment of market power, which often engenders bureaucratic management and conservative policies. Excess profits can accrue long enough to lull corporate giants into a false sense of security. Among the predictable results would be technological lag, periodic attempts to shore up profits and power through mergers, and administrative hypertrophy.”


Reading A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), by David Harvey. The inflation of the 1970s, as you may know, resulted largely from government attempts to keep the Keynesian, labor-accommodating state going in a poorer economic climate, an environment of slower economic growth than the two postwar decades. The high inflation manifested the crisis of the Keynesian state. Double-digit inflation couldn’t go on forever; it had to end, surely, in more or less the way it did, with the turn to restrictive monetary policies that facilitated the destruction of unions and other conservative attacks on the population.

Harvey’s observations on finance are interesting. The OPEC oil price hike of the 1970s placed vast amounts of money at the disposal of oil-producing states; the Saudis, under U.S. pressure, agreed to funnel all their petrodollars through New York investment banks. “The latter suddenly found themselves in command of massive funds for which they needed to find profitable outlets. The options within the U.S., given the depressed economic conditions and low rates of return in the mid-1970s, were not good.” So the banks looked abroad, toward governments, which were the safest bet. In order to lend to them, though, international credit and financial markets had to be liberalized, a strategy that the U.S. actively pursued throughout the 1970s. Developing countries were hungry for credit, so they borrowed even at disadvantageous rates. What followed a few years later was the debt crisis of the 1980s. Here Harvey inserts a telling comment: “[Mexico’s debt crisis demonstrated] a key difference between liberal and neoliberal practice: under the former, lenders take the losses that arise from bad investment decisions, while under the latter the borrowers are forced by state and international powers to take on board the cost of debt repayment no matter what the consequences for the livelihood and well-being of the local population.” Good old-fashioned neoliberal hypocrisy. Market discipline for you, but not for us.


[One general trend in neoliberalism] is for the privileges of ownership and management of capitalist enterprises—traditionally separated—to fuse by paying CEOs (managers) in stock options (ownership titles). Stock values rather than production then become the guiding light of economic activity and, as later became apparent with the collapse of companies such as Enron, the speculative temptations that resulted from this could become overwhelming. The second trend has been to dramatically reduce the historical gap between money capital earning dividends and interest, on the one hand, and production, manufacturing, or merchant capital looking to gain profits on the other. This separation had at various times in the past produced conflicts between financiers, producers, and merchants.... During the 1970s much of this conflict either disappeared or took new forms. The large corporations became more and more financial in their orientation, even when, as in the automobile sector, they were engaging in production. Since 1980 or so it has not been uncommon for corporations to report losses in production offset by gains from financial operations (everything from credit and insurance operations to speculating in volatile currency and futures markets).

So how did elites manufacture popular consent in their efforts to restore their own class power after the 1960s and respond to the crisis of capital accumulation in the 1970s? Through propaganda, of course. The Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the newly organized Business Roundtable, and other groups set about conquering the political and the popular mind. Think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Hoover Institute were formed. And neoliberal economics captured the research universities and business schools that churned out the technocrats who worked at the IMF, the World Bank, and other such institutions.

Harvey has a good discussion of New York City’s fiscal crisis in 1975. “Capitalist restructuring and deindustrialization had for several years been eroding the economic base of the city, and rapid suburbanization had left much of the central city impoverished. The result was explosive social unrest on the part of marginalized populations during the 1960s, defining what came to be known as ‘the urban crisis’.... The expansion of public employment and public provision—facilitated in part by generous federal funding—was seen as the solution. But, faced with fiscal difficulties, President Nixon simply declared the urban crisis over in the early 1970s.” That was ridiculous, but it served as an excuse to diminish federal aid. As the recession of the mid-1970s got worse, New York’s budget situation grew dire. Finally in 1975 a cabal of investment bankers refused to roll over the debt and pushed the city into bankruptcy. “The bailout that followed entailed the construction of new institutions that took over the management of the city budget.” Draconian policies later associated with the IMF were imposed on the city, partly so that bondholders would get their money back and partly so that financial institutions could restructure the city in their interest. “Wealth was redistributed to the upper classes in the midst of a fiscal crisis,” as would be the case in country after country for the next forty years. “The New York city crisis was ‘symptomatic of an emerging strategy of disinflation coupled with a regressive redistribution of income, wealth, and power.’” After a few years of the austerity measures, “‘many of the historic achievements of working-class New York were undone.’ Much of the social infrastructure of the city was diminished and the physical infrastructure (for example the subway system) deteriorated markedly for lack of investment or even maintenance.” Etc. In the meantime, investment bankers were remaking the city for the benefit of business (especially in finance, legal services, the media, and consumer-oriented areas), using public resources to build the appropriate infrastructure. “Working-class and ethnic-immigrant New York was thrust back into the shadows, to be ravaged by racism and a crack cocaine epidemic of epic proportions in the 1980s.”

To sum up: “The management of the New York fiscal crisis pioneered the way for neoliberal practices both domestically under Reagan and internationally through the IMF in the 1980s. It established the principle that in the event of a conflict between the integrity of financial institutions and bondholders’ returns, on the one hand, and the well-being of the citizens on the other, the former was to be privileged. It emphasized that the role of the government was to create a good business climate rather than look to the need and well-being of the population at large. The politics of the Reagan administration....became ‘merely the New York scenario’ of the 1970s ‘writ large.’”

Meanwhile, businesses sought to capture the Republican Party as their own instrument, which was facilitated by recent campaign finance laws and pro-business decisions of the Supreme Court. To establish a solid electoral base, Republicans formed alliances with the Christian right.

Harvey is right that neoliberalism is riddled with contradictions, many of which fall under the category of hypocrisies. Both in theory and in practice there are contradictions. The result is that the neoliberal state is inherently unstable. Neoconservatism can be construed as a response to this instability, a way of keeping it manageable. In some ways, neoconservative nationalists and neoliberals work well together: they both favor corporate power, elite governance, private enterprise, the restoration of capitalist class power, and they’re suspicious of democracy. But neoconservatives place a greater emphasis on “order” as an answer to the “chaos of individual interests” (neoliberal atomization), and they’re attracted to the ideas of nationalism, cultural traditions, and so-called conservative morality as “the necessary social glue to keep the body politic secure in the face of external and internal dangers.” In theory, neoliberalism isn’t concerned with the nation but rather with the state (and the market); neoconservatism is interested in both. Taken to their logical conclusions, its prescriptions imply a world of competing nationalisms, competing cultures and moralities, competing authoritarianisms. It is, in other words, a modern incarnation of fascism. Quite different from neoliberalism, though in practice there are clear “elective affinities.”

So how did neoliberalism spread from the U.S. and U.K. to the rest of the world? You know about the IMF’s structural adjustment programs, Latin American dictatorships, and so on. (Neoliberalism couldn’t spread through democracy; it had to be imposed by authoritarian means. See Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.) Underlying all that was the increasing mobility of capital and the turn toward more open financialization, facilitated by the spread of the new economic orthodoxy to agenda-setting institutions. In addition, “the U.S. used the carrot of preferential access to its huge consumer market to persuade many countries to reform their economies along neoliberal lines.” On the reasons for U.S. dynamism in the 1990s, Harvey remarks that “flexibility in labour markets and reductions in welfare provision....began to pay off for the U.S. and put competitive pressures on the more rigid labour markets that prevailed in most of Europe and Japan. The real secret of U.S. success, however, was that it was now able to pump high rates of return into the country from its financial and corporate operations (both direct and portfolio investments) in the rest of the world. It was this flow of tribute from the rest of the world that founded much of the affluence achieved in the U.S. in the 1990s.”

Neoliberalism has had a dismal record at fostering global growth; its main substantive achievement “has been to redistribute [upwards], rather than to generate, wealth and income.” The primary means by which it has done this, according to Harvey, is “accumulation by dispossession,” or something similar to what Marx called primitive accumulation. That didn’t end centuries ago with the spread of industrial capitalism; it has continued up to the present and even accelerated. Under neoliberalism there are innumerable techniques for robbing people of resources. Even—or especially—public goods previously won through generations of class struggle, such as social welfare provision, public education, and regulatory frameworks, have been pillaged and destroyed.

—That reminds me of the destruction of the commons and of medieval regulations in Europe during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. It’s always dangerous to construct abstract typologies, but there appear to have been two, or rather one-and-a-half, “cycles” in capitalist history. Abstractly you can think of it in this way: first, a lot of ancient communal practices and public goods were dismantled before, during, and after the Industrial Revolution. You could call this the first wave of privatization. (It has continued unceasingly all over the world, but let’s just call it the first wave.) As it was going on, the victims of capitalism sought to maintain their old rights and/or acquire new, governmentally protected ones. At length they succeeded to some extent, and new public goods were consolidated under the 20th-century Keynesian welfare state. This was probably a nearly inevitable development, because, as Karl Polanyi said in The Great Transformation, marketization and privatization will, if unchecked, eventually cause the total destruction of society. So popular resistance, aided by sane elements of the upper classes, succeeded in regulating further depredations and temporarily saving society after the Great Depression. But technology kept progressing, capital mobility increased, global integration continued, populations kept growing, and the “public” and politicized nature of the Keynesian state started encroaching too much on capitalist class power. Finally the masses got out of hand, got too politicized, too powerful—all those crazy ideas of democracy in the 1960s!—and there was a capitalist backlash, made possible by (and making possible) ever-more-globally-integrated markets, elite institutional networks, and extreme capital mobility worldwide. The inflationary consequences of popular empowerment in a context of economic stagnation (the 1970s) were tamed, namely by destroying popular empowerment. That is, the second wave of privatization occurred, after the 1970s: public goods were again dismantled and “accumulation by dispossession” began anew (though, in truth, it had never really stopped). This time, the old nationalist Keynesian solution to the horrors of privatization wasn’t available, since the world had become too integrated and nations themselves were deteriorating, due to the post-1970s capitalist onslaught. So transnational social movements were necessary. But would they prove strong enough to save society?? Stay tuned!

Anyway, you see there’s a logic to it all, a “dialectical” logic.


Saving Marxism from Lenin.— Peter Kropotkin’s essay “The State: Its Historic Role.” L’état, c’est la guerre. One of the state’s historic roles, of course, has been to transplant the peasantry from the countryside to the cities so as to facilitate industrialization (i.e., to create Marx’s “reserve army of labor”) and make possible the exploitation of land for profit. This is one of the ways in which the nation-state and capitalist industrialization go hand-in-hand. China is doing it now, moving hundreds of millions of peasants to cities—the greatest urban-planning project in history. European states did it from the 1500s to the 1900s, in England with the enclosure acts, in France with the laborious destruction of the village communes, in Russia with Stolypin’s legislation and then Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, etc. There are other ways too. Chomsky discusses in one of his early essays the historic function of the Vietnam War in destroying on a colossal scale the peasant villages and sending former inhabitants to the cities, where they would become cheap labor for capital to exploit. This massive removal of the peasantry from the countryside is a prerequisite for capitalist development, indeed for industrialization of whatever kind. And it isn’t “automatic,” proceeding from purely market-driven causes, as bourgeois ideologists proclaim. It’s intentional, political, brutal, the forced uprooting of hundreds of millions.

Kropotkin was always right that the regeneration of society, the anti-capitalist social revolution, couldn’t be carried out primarily by the national state but rather by grassroots and quasi-grassroots movements (which of course can have leadership structures and some degree of power-centralization). The state is mainly an institution for domination, destruction, and “law and order”; it is not very socially creative, at least not on the required scale. Anarcho-syndicalism, likewise, was right that present economic structures will inevitably leave their mark on institutions built after the workers’ political revolution—and therefore that the social (economic) revolution must, to a large extent, take place before the final conquest of political power, not after it. In the latter case it will fail, since capitalist holdovers of domination and exploitation will influence the “new society.” (Cf. the history of the Soviet Union, even its earliest phases.) But this truth is also implicit in Marx’s dictum that politics follows in the wake of economics. A post-capitalist social revolution can’t be politically imposed, because in that case economic relations are not ripe for it. The new relations have to have already “matured,” at least somewhat, under the old political regime, as happened during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Rightly understood, then, Marx was a kind of modified anarcho-syndicalist—or rather he should have been, logically speaking.* From his premises, the proletarian dictatorship’s task could only be to finish the job, not to start it, as Lenin (and Stalin) tried. Workers’ groups would have to do much of the societal restructuring beforehand; their subsequent political decrees would formalize and consolidate the institutions that the workers had already begun to create. Otherwise, given the foundation of the political in the economic, the new government’s acts would inevitably have the taint of capitalist, bureaucratic structures that still survived. More than the “taint,” in fact.

In short, despite himself, Marx knew that the attempt to politically will new liberatory institutions into existence wouldn’t succeed (as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao tried). They have to emerge slowly, through popular struggle; otherwise they’re artificial, “inorganic,” bureaucratic, and coercive, since economic conditions aren’t ripe for them.


A book review, sort of. (Repetitive of the above.)The Food Wars (2009), by Walden Bello, presents both a damning indictment of the neoliberal world food system and a vision of an alternative system based on small-scale agriculture, which Bello argues can be more efficient, socially responsible, and environmentally sustainable than capitalist industrial farming. Indeed, according to Via Campesina, such alternative agriculture (and hunting and gathering) is responsible for most of the world’s food. Not only is it an ideal, therefore; it is an incredibly important reality. However, Bello does not really theorize the hoped-for supplanting of corporate monoculture by what he calls “peasant” agriculture; he simply says, or implies, that Marxists have been wrong to predict the end of the peasantry, that instead this category of producers can represent the post-capitalist future. In this paper I will provide some of the theory that is lacking in The Food Wars.

In my Master’s thesis, entitled Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, I tried to update Marxism, specifically its theory of revolution, so as to explain how a transition to a post-capitalist civilization could occur. The essence of the revision is the replacement of Marx’s statist vision—his prediction of a dictatorship of the proletariat that plans and directs social and economic reconstruction from above—by a more grassroots-oriented, quasi-anarcho-syndicalist vision, according to which decentralized (or relatively decentralized) networks of workers, farmers, consumers, and communities gradually build up the new society within the shell of the old. Ironically, this anarchist vision is, I think, more compatible with the fundamental tenets of Marxism than Marx’s own statism is, for several reasons, of which I will mention two. First, the idea of a state organizing a new, egalitarian mode of production in a society that, after a merely political revolution, is still dominated by authoritarian capitalist relations of production, is inexplicable in Marxian terms. According to Marxism, after all, political relations are conditioned by economic relations; the state cannot simply organize a wholly new economy out of thin air, purely by an act of bureaucratic will. That would reverse the order of dominant causality. Given an already existing authoritarian economy (namely capitalism), the “new” economy organized by the post-revolutionary state will necessarily be authoritarian as well, in fact will reproduce many of the essential relations of the old economy. This is what happened in the Soviet Union, when the Stalinist bureaucracy organized an economy based on the exploitation of workers, the accumulation of capital, and other essential features of capitalism. Socialism means workers’ control of their own economic activity, which is the exact opposite of both capitalism and the Soviet economy. What has to happen, in other words, according to a properly understood Marxism, is that the economy be substantially transformed—in a gradual process—before any political revolutions, as was the case during Europe’s transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production. (The French Revolution, for example, happened after capitalism had already made significant progress in France.) The same will have to be the case with regard to a transition from capitalism to a properly understood socialism.

Second, Marx theorizes social revolution in terms of the “fettering” of productive forces by an obsolete mode of production. As he says in the famous Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859),

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure [of politics, culture, etc.].

This hypothesis is basically true, but it is expressed in a sloppy way that tends to support Marx’s invalid statism. It is virtually meaningless to say, as he does, that a specific set of production relations starts to fetter the productive forces at some point in its history, thus finally triggering a revolution that sweeps away the old society—by means of a dictatorship of the proletariat, as Marx says elsewhere. For most or all of its history, the capitalist mode of production has both promoted and obstructed the development and socially efficient use of productive forces, by encouraging technological innovation but wasting resources in periodic economic crises, wars, socially useless advertising and marketing campaigns, an inequitable and irrational distribution of wealth, and so on. “Fettering” and “development” can therefore happen simultaneously, in different respects. In order to make any real sense of the notion of fettering, it has to be considered as relative to an alternative mode of production emerging within the bowels of the old society, a new set of production relations that is more productive and socially rational than the older set. Feudalism fettered, in a sense, the development of productive forces for eons, but it collapsed only when this fettering was in relation to a new, more dynamic mode of production, namely capitalism. Similarly, capitalism has in some ways obstructed the development of productive forces for a long time; it will collapse, however, only when it can no longer effectively compete with a more advanced, cooperative mode of production. Then, and only then, can a post-capitalist political revolution occur—i.e., after the (gradual) social revolution has already reached a fairly mature level.

In short, the approach of Via Campesina, the World Social Forum, and other such organizations to fighting capitalism—their decentralized, federated, grassroots, un-Leninist and un-Maoist approach—is wise (though it can and should be supplemented with a more “political” strategy too, as long as it doesn’t go to Leninist or Maoist extremes). Moreover, it is a truly Marxist approach, if Marxism is cleansed of its authoritarian and un-Marxian elements. The notion of peasant activism as having a role to play in a transition from capitalism to socialism is not particularly un-Marxian, as long as it is understood that such activism has to work in tandem with urban, industrial activism in order really to lead to a new society. It is simplistic, however, to equate peasant agriculture with all small-scale farming, as Walden Bello seems to. A Marxist does not have to be committed to the idea that small-scale farming is doomed or has no role to play in an advanced capitalist or socialist society. All he is committed to is that the explosive growth of capitalism tends, in the very long run, to undermine or destroy feudal class structures and subsistence agriculture. These may persist for long periods of time, and subsistence farming in particular may last in some regions for all of history. It does tend to become less widespread, though, as industrial capitalism conquers the globe—a fact that Bello does not deny. Whether various forms of small-scale agriculture might be essential to the functioning of even late capitalism or socialism is a separate question, to which a Marxist can coherently answer “Yes.”

Questions about Marxism aside, Bello is right that the way to a new society is represented by the economic and political activism of the downtrodden classes in all sectors of the economy, be they agriculture, industry, public education (under attack across the West), the service sector, or whatever. The Marxian injunction that “workers” all over the world unite should be understood as referring not only to the industrial proletariat but to the exploited and marginalized of all stripes, non-capitalists in whatever form. Whatever Marx’s original intention was, this is the proper understanding of the revolutionary path. If peasants, low-paid workers, students, small farmers, the unemployed, environmental activists, victims of discrimination, and dispossessed indigenous peoples all join hands to carve a new economy and politics out of the collapsing ruins of the old, it is possible that humanity will live to see another era.


Another summary of scholarship.— The history of the American city is worth knowing. It is analyzed thoughtfully in Marxism and the Metropolis: New Perspectives in Urban Political Economy (1984), edited by William Tabb and Larry Sawers. David Gordon has a particularly good chapter. Marxists usually divide the city’s history into three stages: the commercial city, the industrial city, and the corporate city, corresponding to the successive phases of commercial capital, competitive industrial capital, and corporate or monopoly capital. The commercial city, which lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century, was a center for trade, craft manufacturing, and mercantilist government. Its residential structure was relatively heterogeneous and not as segregated as it would become later: “People of many different backgrounds and occupations were interspersed throughout the central city districts, with little obvious socioeconomic residential segregation. In the central port districts, the randomness and intensity of urban life produced jagged, unexpected, random physical patterns. Streets zigged and zagged every which way. Buildings were scattered at odd angles in unexpected combinations.” The only group that didn’t share in this central port-district life was the poor—beggars, casual seamen, propertyless laborers—who lived outside the cities in shantytowns and rooming houses, moving from town to town. As the commercial city grew, the only major change that took place in its organization was the rationalizing of land speculation, the birth of the “urban grid” characterized by straight lines, ninety-degree angles, etc.

Early factories were located in small towns, but after a few decades they had moved to large cities. Why? First of all, they provided easy access to markets, workers, transportation, and intermediate goods. In other words, cities provided “agglomeration economies,” as mainstream economists call it. David Gordon also suggests that, at least until the 1880s, it was easier for employers to control their workers and suppress resistance in large cities than in small ones. The reasons, he says, are that, “first, the greater physical segregation and impersonality of the larger cities seem to have isolated the working class and exposed it to community indifference or ostracism [which was very different than in small cities, where the middle classes often supported workers’ strikes]. Second, non-industrial classes in smaller cities seem to have exhibited more militantly preindustrial values [such as human decency and fair pay] than their larger-city cousins.” In short, “the basis for industrial profits was best secured if and when a homogeneous industrial proletariat could be most effectively segregated from the rest of society,” which was more feasible in large than in small cities.

Huge factories were concentrated in downtown industrial districts, near rail and water outlets; segregated working-class housing districts emerged, located near factories; the middle and upper classes began to escape from the unpleasant center city, eventually being “arrayed in concentric rings” around the center; shopping districts arose in the heart of the city to cater to the more prosperous classes. The differences from the earlier commercial city are clear. “The central city was [now] occupied by dependent wage-earners rather than independent property-owners. Producers no longer lived and worked in the same place; there was now a separation between job and residential location. There was no longer residential heterogeneity; instead, the cities had quickly acquired a sharp residential segregation by economic class. In the Commercial City, the poor had lived outside the center while everyone else lived inside; now, suddenly, the poor and working classes lived inside while everyone else raced away from the center.”

Problems—for capitalists—began to appear in the 1880s and later. The most important one was that as workers became more and more concentrated in large cities, labor unrest grew harder to suppress. Strikes bred demonstrations throughout the downtown districts. At the turn of the century, as the merger wave took off and monopoly capital entered the historical arena, manufacturing started moving out of the central city in search of more stable and secure environments (and lower taxes). Factory districts beyond the city limits cropped up, such as Gary, Indiana and East Chicago. Thus “the great twentieth-century reversal of factory location” began, because—at least in part—“corporations could no longer control their labor forces in the central city.”

Around the same time, especially from the 1920s on, central business districts were created and expanded. “Downtown office space in the ten largest cities increased between 1920 and 1930 by 3000 percent. Tall skyscrapers suddenly sprouted....” Why did it take until the 1920s for central business districts to flower? Apparently because “large corporations were not yet ready for them before then. Huge corporations had not consolidated their monopoly control over their industries until after World War I. Once they gained stable market control, they could begin to organize that control. They were now large enough to separate administrative functions from the production process itself, leaving plant managers to oversee the factories while corporate managers supervised the far-flung empire.” They chose downtown locations because of agglomeration economies (the advantages of being near other headquarters, banks and law offices, advertising agents). Incidentally, Daniel Burnham’s famous 1909 Plan of Chicago proves that even at that early date, the commercial business community was preparing for a “post-industrial” future. It’s a strikingly modern plan, prioritizing urban beautification, the development of highways, new parks, railroad terminal improvements, civic and cultural centers, a more systematic arrangement of streets, and the gradual eviction of industry from the central city by means of zoning regulations and an increase of property values. The plan was partially implemented in the following decades.

Another major change that began with the transition to corporate capitalism was the political fragmentation of urban areas, i.e., the rise of “political suburbanization.” A sort of primitive suburbanization had already been going on for quite a long time, but until the end of the nineteenth century, central cities had continually annexed outlying residential districts. Suburban residents usually opposed this, preferring autonomy, but they couldn’t do much about it. Until the turn of the century. The last urban annexations (in old cities at least, not newer ones like Los Angeles) happened between 1890 and 1910. The reason for this cessation of annexation activity, it seems, was that the power dynamics changed: as manufacturers themselves began to move out of central cities, legislatures and local governments were prevailed upon not to allow the annexation of suburban areas by cities. (What the manufacturers wanted was to avoid paying high central-city taxes and to stay outside the purview of progressive city legislation.)

Gordon concludes his analysis:

character changed rapidly during the corporate period although its physical structure remained embedded in concrete. Its downtown shopping districts were transformed into downtown central business districts, dominated by skyscrapers.... Surrounding the central business district were [eventually] emptying manufacturing areas, depressed from the desertion of large plants, barely surviving on the light and competitive industries left behind. Next to those districts were the old working-class districts, often transformed into “ghettos,” locked into the cycle of central-city manufacturing decline. Outside the central city there were suburban belts of industrial development, linked together by circumferential highways. Scattered around those industrial developments were fragmented working-class and middle-class suburban communities. The wealthy lived farther out. Political fragmentation prevailed beyond the central-city boundaries.

Many other, newer cities—particularly those in the South, Southwest, and West—reached maturity during the stage of corporate accumulation. These became the exemplary Corporate Cities. They shared one thundering advantage over the older Industrial Cities: they had never acquired the fixed physical capital of an earlier era. They could be constructed from scratch to fit the needs of a new period of accumulation in which factory plant and equipment were themselves frequently predicated upon a decentralized model. (Orthodox historians explain the decentralization of manufacturing as a result of this new plant and equipment [which includes trucks, cars, and highways, presumably]; I have argued that an eruption of class struggle initially prompted the decentralization and, by implication, that the new plant and equipment developed as a result of that dispersal in order to permit corporations’ taking advantage of the new locational facts.) There was consequently no identifiable downtown factory district; manufacturing was scattered throughout the city plane. There were no centralized working-class housing districts (for that was indeed what capitalists had learned to avoid); working-class housing was scattered all over the city around the factories. Automobiles and trucks provided the connecting links, threading together the separate pieces. The Corporate City became, in Robert Fogelson’s term, the Fragmented Metropolis. No centers anywhere. [Los Angeles is the classic example.] Diffuse economic activity everywhere.

By the way, mass suburbanization and deindustrialization would have happened earlier if the Great Depression and World War II hadn’t intervened. —What an irony that the historic victories of the CIO in the 1930s happened only twenty or thirty years before deindustrialization truly got underway and started to destroy the power of unions! (Whereas earlier in the century, decentralization of production was impelled by the desire to escape labor unrest, in the postwar period it was impelled largely by the desire to escape the power of unions. In both cases, class struggle explains the shift.)

The urban fiscal crisis between the 1960s and 1980s was mainly a crisis of the “old cities,” the old industrial centers like Chicago and New York, not the new cities in the South and West. The Great Depression and World War II saved the old cities for a time, but eventually they had to succumb to declining tax revenues (from white flight and deindustrialization) and increasing expenditures due to social problems. So, some of them nearly went bankrupt, and all of them were economically restructured from the 1970s to the present. They were made more “corporate,” more services-oriented, and recently more touristy, like cities all over the West—indeed, the whole world. Even the “new” cities that initially avoided the urban crisis have recently been losing jobs, this time overseas (as capital mobility has increased). So they too have had recourse to things like tourism, entertainment, urban beautification to raise property values, and the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, real estate). The so-called “neoliberal city” is really just the post-industrial city in a context of hyper-globalization. It is the latest form of the “corporate” city, which is going to continue evolving towards greater privatization and militarization.

It’s also interesting that with the acceleration of gentrification, which is a very conscious policy, more middle- and upper-class people are returning to the city and lower-income people leaving it for the suburbs. Property values are rising, forcing many immigrants and minorities to move out to the suburbs where they can afford to live. City governments encourage this because higher property values mean higher taxes, in addition to a better “reputation” in the global competition to attract business. Needless to say, plenty of city neighborhoods remain in dilapidated, gang-ridden condition; their number is declining, though. Chicago’s Logan Square, where I live, wasn’t the safest of areas eight years ago, but it’s gentrifying at a rapid pace. Soon some of the Hispanics who live on my block might have to move elsewhere.

Nancy Kleniewski has a good paper on postwar urban renewal in Philadelphia. But much of what she says applies to cities all around the country. For example, in Chicago too (under Richard J. Daley and later), “urban renewal stimulated investment in the central city, it bolstered the values of central city property, it spurred the transformation of central [Chicago] from an industrial city to a corporate city, and it initiated a change in the composition of the population living in and near the central city....from predominantly industrial working-class, unemployed poor, and racial minorities, to predominantly white, middle- to upper-middle-class and professional.” The poor whose homes had been demolished were shunted off to public housing or to increasingly crime-plagued neighborhoods farther away from the central business district. And so things continue, in the new neoliberal forms of urban renewal and class segregation.


A lot of mainstream people would criticize me for immersing myself in leftist scholarship and journalism, which they would say is a closed-minded or partisan thing to do. They would say I should expose myself to all kinds of writing, not only the leftist variety. Actually, such a criticism is silly because I do read writings from a variety of viewpoints. In my classes, for example, I have to read mainstream scholarship, and every day when I browse the internet or read my roommate’s copy of The Economist I’m exposed to mainstream and conservative journalism. Aside from this, however, the fact is that among leftist writing there is a greater proportion of good stuff, honest and critical stuff, than among mainstream and conservative writing. That judgment has nothing to do with my “ideology”; it is simply a fact. Nor is the explanation hard to think of. For one thing, journalists and commentators in the mainstream usually do not have to carefully give a lot of evidence to establish their claims, because it is relatively rare that anyone will challenge them (or their narrative framework, at least). If what you say is consistent with the dominant narratives propagated all over society by power centers, most of your audience will simply take what you say for granted. If, on the other hand, you are challenging conventional narratives, people will demand evidence. Thus, taking an oppositional stance to the mainstream, or to power centers, itself tends to foster a mindset of intellectual integrity—because people’s constant attacks on you force you to arm yourself with good arguments, so you can defend yourself.

Related to this is the fact that, because most people and institutions everywhere are constantly trafficking in mainstream ideologies and perspectives, it is relatively easy to do the same yourself. A scholar or journalist in the center or on the right usually does not have to dig very deep, uncover hidden truths or think critically about his intellectual framework. An author on the left, however, does. His whole project is to put forward views and uncover stories that are being ignored or no one knows about. All the better that these tend to be the human stories, the concrete, factual stories, stories about workers striking against corporations, people protesting wars, billions living in sprawling slums, public services breaking down everywhere, women being sold into sex slavery, governments colluding with corporations, arms being shipped from the U.S. to governments that use them to suppress labor movements, governments ignoring the popular will (demonstrable from polls), economic polarization reaching new heights every year, or the fact that democracy and the middle class have historically been born from the efforts largely of the working class and the labor movement, etc. All this and more is true; the writings of a Milton or Thomas Friedman, or an Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (in his Kennedy years), or a William Buckley, are transparently superficial and partisan, even dishonest.

Ironic that it’s the leftists who have always been accused of being ideological and biased! They’re doing little but reporting facts and putting self-evident interpretations on them; it’s the centrists and conservatives who tend to be ideological and flagrantly biased (towards authority).


False consciousness.— Leftists are sometimes criticized for being condescending toward the masses, for arguing that they are prone to displaying false consciousness in their political values and beliefs. But what is false consciousness? If you examine the notion rigorously, you’ll see that, on at least some understandings, it can make perfect sense and is often applicable. All you have to do is assume that people have certain basic values and interests, such as being economically well-off, living in integrated communities, having political power, and having control over their work. Given such values, it is perfectly legitimate to criticize “secondary” values and strategies like opposing labor unions, civil rights, health-care reform, and government regulation of business. A different kind of false consciousness is exhibited in mistaken factual judgments, such as disbelief in anthropogenic global warming and belief in God. In general, insofar as someone is immune to rational considerations, he or she is exhibiting what can be called “false consciousness.” (Truth, after all, is reached and tested through reason.)

People are free to have whatever values they want. If religion makes them happy, then fine. In that respect it is reasonable for them to be religious (for it makes them happy). But in other respects religious values and beliefs can be unreasonable, namely insofar as they contradict other values and beliefs the person holds. And they often, or always, do, implicitly if not explicitly.

Anyway, it is just an obvious fact that economic and political power-structures are very good at duping people, manipulating them into voting or acting against their own interests. There is such a thing as propaganda, after all. Is it “condescending” to want to counteract propaganda by educating and organizing people (and being educated by them in the process)? Is it “elitist” to value reason? Is it wrong to deplore the disempowerment of “the 99 percent”?


Thoughts on the first half of the twentieth century.— The catastrophe of the second “Thirty Years’ War,” from 1914 to 1945, had many causes, but right now let’s consider the ideological ones. Nationalism, racism (as a systematic philosophy), and antisemitism were both reactions against and sublimations of the atomized, competitive, depersonalized capitalist society of Europe at the time, with its implicitly Social Darwinist structure. But even earlier in the nineteenth century, ideological reactions—relatively benign ones—existed. Romanticism and Transcendentalism, for example: escaping from the ugly, selfish, competitive world of early industrialism into quasi-mysticism, idealism, art, exalted morality....but also a transformed individualism (hence the “sublimation” aspect). At the same time, for the masses there was religious revivalism—which, in its manifestations, sort of fused communalism and individualism, as most mass ideologies of the last two centuries have. So there were these early “reactions and sublimations,” which didn’t last. (There were also, of course, early workers’ movements, but right now I’m considering “existential” movements and ideologies, not rational-interest things like fighting for higher pay and better working conditions. On the other hand, such movements can serve an existential purpose too, by allowing people to immerse themselves in a collective cause.) After the middle of the century, it seems that existential movements faded away for a while (except among pockets of intellectuals and students, and maybe in parts of Eastern Europe)—only to reemerge with a vengeance in the 1880s and afterwards. This time the ideologies were more political, and some of them related not only to emotional and intellectual needs but also to “rational” social interests. So, socialism and Marxism spread, and Populism in Russia, and varieties of nationalism, some of them genuinely concerned with social justice (as well as, in Eastern Europe, political independence and democracy). But among nationalists it became difficult to serve two gods at once, the nation and social justice, so the camps split apart around the 1890s (in Poland, for example), one committed primarily to socialism—although also to the nation inasmuch as it identified the “real” nation with the proletariat and/or other oppressed classes—and the other to national unity and greatness This latter camp became increasingly attracted to an “aesthetic” morality rather than a “justice” morality, taking inspiration from Social Darwinism and vulgarizations of Nietzsche.

Anyway, I already made the point I wanted to make in the second sentence of this section. Fin-de-siècle nationalism and antisemitism were uniquely powerful ideologies, accepting as they did the realities of power and struggle in the modern world, exalting authority, hierarchy, Social Darwinistic struggle, even hatred (of the national enemy)—thus proving useful to power-structures, effectively legitimizing them and their ever-greater accumulation of power—but also promising the individual an escape from the horrors and petty daily miseries of all this struggle, these hate-producing hierarchies and social inequalities and structures of atomized competition, by holding out the nation as an arena of harmony and order and a kind of collective freedom, an arena in which one’s material interests and emotional needs would be satisfied by one’s immersion in the ordered mass. Nationalism in a sense accepted and legitimized all the dissonant and inequality-perpetuating aspects of modern life, by displacing them from an interpersonal to an international and interracial realm. So people could continue to feel as much resentment and hatred as they wanted without thereby feeling weak, unsuccessful, and confused, because now they knew how to make sense of their hatred, indeed that they were supposed to feel hate, that it made them good patriots. They could wallow in their diffuse resentment with a good conscience—because at the same time they were rising above it and gaining power over it, channeling it into something meaningful and communal. And since nationalism was at bottom an emotional thing, not serving people’s material interests, it was invaluable, as I said, to economic and political power-structures, which therefore fomented it, stoked it into a continent-wide conflagration. Two conflagrations.

After World War II, finally, the powerful realized that vicious nationalism wasn’t so useful to them after all, so they stopped subsidizing its propagation. Instead, the welfare state and social regulation emerged to soften capitalism and keep the masses obedient. Now that postwar statism is dying, social polarization is returning to its old extremes and discontent is flaring up everywhere. Luckily this time nationalism won’t be able to muck things up as much as it did a hundred years ago. It’s the age of internationalism, or even “transnationalism.”


Finally reading E. P. Thompson’s classic The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Query: why was England so impervious to social and political reform in the early 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution? Answer: in part because in the 1790s “the French Revolution consolidated Old Corruption by uniting landowners and manufacturers in a common panic [over the Revolution]; and the popular societies were too weak and too inexperienced to effect either revolution or reform on their own.” It’s like 1919 in the United States, when the Russian revolution, by terrifying mainstream America, helped consolidate the power of business as against workers. —For several reasons, in the long run the existence of the Soviet Union was the best thing that could have happened to Western capitalism.

Reading further into the book, I just had a minor epiphany. (Sometimes something you’ve sort of known for a long time suddenly sinks in or you appreciate its implications with utmost clarity.) One of the most commonplace sociological facts about pre-industrial or transitioning-to-industrial or newly-industrial societies is that the labor force or even independent artisans do not have a “Protestant work-ethic,” a disciplined work-ethic appropriate to industrial capitalism. Employers and the like complain about the laziness, indolence, indiscipline, etc. of the lower classes and obsess over how to get them to follow mechanically the rhythm of the clock and the overseer. So you get the sheer physical brutality of the Industrial Revolution, the constant cumulative struggle on the part of employers to increase their minute control of the work-process and deprive workers of every shred of autonomy, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management, Henry Ford’s and others’ attempts to “socialize” workers into being good moral religious un-alcoholic dutiful citizens, and so forth. Wherever industrial capitalism is in its early stages, you see this Herculean effort—this war—to impose mechanical industrial rhythms on the workforce, through external coercion and more subtle “internal” means. I say it’s “Herculean” because, as Thompson points out, it’s like an attempt to refashion human nature. You have to stifle the desire for leisure, for social pursuits, for play and creativity—in a being that is virtually defined by its love of play. No wonder there’s so much resistance to it! Centuries-long resistance! And of course, luckily, the enterprise is never wholly successful. Human nature, contrary to Lenin’s and Taylor’s hopes, cannot be erased and redrawn. Even the nascent capitalist class, the one getting all the material benefits, needed psychological assistance to complete the transformation from semi-leisured medieval life to modern disciplined life; hence in early modern Europe you had the spread of Calvinism and its notion of the professional “calling”—and individualism, self-discipline, acquisitive values, etc. (See Max Weber and R. H. Tawney.) That is, the capitalist managed to convince himself he was accumulating wealth for the glory of God. But the working class too, a couple centuries later, needed some similar psychic mechanism to adjust itself to the new order, and so you had in England (and America?) during the Industrial Revolution the acceptance among workers of Methodism and other sects that preached the blessedness of poverty and hard labor, submission to authority, compensation in the hereafter, and the like.

After quoting some emotionally overwrought Methodist literature (ecstatic religious conversions, joyously self-abandoning abasement in God), Thompson says that

we may see here in its lurid figurative expression the psychic ordeal in which the character-structure of the rebellious pre-industrial laborer or artisan was violently recast into that of the submissive industrial worker. Here, indeed, is [Andrew] Ure’s ‘transforming power.’ It is a phenomenon, almost diabolic in its penetration into the very sources of human personality, directed towards the repression of emotional and spiritual energies. But ‘repression’ is a misleading word: these energies were not so much inhibited as displaced from expression in personal and in social life, and confiscated for the service of the Church. The box-like, blackening chapels stood in the industrial districts like great traps for the human psyche.... These Sabbath orgasms of feeling made more possible the single-minded weekday direction of these energies to the consummation of productive labor....

Thompson’s whole discussion is brilliant. You really see how Victorian England and Europe became the repressive, neurotic, hysterical place Freud encountered. It was all this religion, all this “methodical” morality to discipline the instincts and personality for the sake (indirectly, unconsciously) of accumulating profit. Religions of repression spread through the whole population. “Since joy was associated with sin and guilt, and pain (Christ’s wounds) with goodness and love, so every impulse became twisted into the reverse, and it became natural to suppose that man or child only found grace in God’s eyes when performing painful, laborious or self-denying tasks. To labor and to sorrow was to find pleasure, and masochism was ‘Love.’” In some of its early manifestations Methodism came close to worshiping death. But apparently it had softened and humanized itself a bit by the mid-19th century.

Why did the working classes submit to all this repressive religion? Partly because of continual, intensive indoctrination. From an early age—in the Sunday schools, etc. Also, there was the immersion in community that it offered. And in its social reality Methodism was by no means always as harsh as its intellectual expressions could be. Fourth, Thompson suggests that Methodist recruitment and revivals between 1790 and 1830 were the “psychic (and social) consequences of the counterrevolution” (by which he’s referring to the suppression of labor movements, the inability of the exploited poor to raise themselves out of misery). Methodism among the poor at this time was, perhaps, the “Chiliasm of despair.”

I need hardly point out that once Europe and America went from being industrializing to being mass-consuming, mature corporate-capitalist societies (with the “establishment-bureaucratization” of labor unions and their “self-policing” of workers, etc.), the character of mass indoctrination changed from emphasizing thrift, industry, morality, submission to authority, assimilation, and Americanization, to emphasizing relative leisure, consumerism, sexuality, and instant gratification. Then new psychic disorders arose. (Narcissism, schizoid patterns, the ache of “meaninglessness.”)


On late-nineteenth-century decadence and its sequel.— What is the significance of the fact that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries certain sections of the middle and upper classes in Western society started obsessing over heroism, manliness, strength, military virtues, and, conversely, society’s increasing effeminacy, “neurasthenia,” desiccation, decadence, etc.? It was indeed a near-obsession, and it helped make possible fascism. What brought it about? Obviously imperialism helped foster the glorification of manly struggle, racial vitality and so on, but people genuinely perceived a decline in the vigor and health of their culture. Why? Again, imperialism breeding racism intensifying nationalism led to a fixation on the supposed dilution of the nation’s purity through immigration and the presence of Jews, a concern ostensibly borne out by increasing crime rates, urban chaos and filth, social dislocation, etc. But I think that to a great extent all the worries and fixations were also a product of the traumatic contradiction between collective memories (still embedded in culture) of relatively unrepressed, unregulated, un-atomized, semi-peasantly “spontaneous,” “carnival-esque,” semi-uproarious (see E. P. Thompson’s book), only semi-business-structured societies and, on the other hand, the new evolving repressive, atomized etc. social order. Western civilization was in the later throes of its transition from a post-medieval culture of full and only moderately regulated vitality (frequent festivals, carnivals, holidays, communal life, the majority of the population living according to the seasons) to a society of statist and business regulation and manifold means of instinctual repression (religion, welfare-capitalist programs of “Americanization” and such, patriotic mobilizations, regulation of holidays and pastimes of all sorts, increased policing of the streets, the beginnings of psychological therapy, mass advertising, mass education, Progressive reform movements such as temperance, etc.). Ex-rural immigrants and cities’ lower orders still had some boisterous tendencies, but they were slowly being extirpated. The essentially passive cult of consumption was conquering society. Consumption and ease, not self-affirming self-activity. Life, in short, was becoming more passive, more institutionalized, more indoctrinated, more atomized, with more idle free time, and more “excessive” comfort, for more people. Hence you had fin-de-siècle ennui and its desiccate cultural expressions. (Impressionism and so forth.) But at the same time, inevitably, you had the reactions, most of them reactionary. Cults of heroism, war, action, “superabundant vitality,” racial glory and conquest, etc. (which, again, were not only reactions but also served the purposes of powerful institutions and reinforced imperialist agendas). They had great appeal, promising remedies to modern boredom, resentment, and the frustration of people’s urges for community (i.e. recognition) and self-activity. Thus, in the end, fascism arose, intended at once to be a return to a more liberated society and a culmination of modern regimentation. (In this paradoxical fusion you see how it could appeal to both the masses and the institutions that wanted to control the masses.) Not surprisingly, the latter aspect prevailed over the former. Since it was regimentation/mobilization in the service of heroism, war, and national rebirth, it had to end in a holocaust (which turned out to be World War II). After the holocaust, however, the old trends continued, this time less dangerously or problematically because the old collective memories of cultural vitality had worn thin and people had finally become accustomed to modern atomized life, and anyway national power-structures had learned to integrate and coordinate with each other more effectively so as to prevent another conflagration. So the old progress of “privatization” and repression continued, until in the 1960s and 1970s another Western middle-class revolt against atomism and dehumanization occurred (coinciding with more elemental revolts all over the world, including in America’s South). It was crushed, but its “instinct”-liberating grievances and tendencies were taken up by business for the sake of profits, with the indirect result that no such “emancipatory” cultural uprisings would occur again because they had become less necessary. The economic system had managed to make room within itself for some degree of (degraded) instinctual liberation, even as social atomization and regulation continued apace. So here we are now, with business more powerful than ever, society more atomized than ever, culture more desiccated than ever (although it has given people instinctual outlets, thus fostering social stability), and popular resistance to the ongoing destruction of civil society in almost as bad a shape as ever. What is to be done?


Bureaucratic fanaticism.— It might seem wrong to maintain, as I have repeatedly, that the modern predominance of bureaucratic social structures and their ethos—for which industrial capitalism (broadly defined, including the Soviet Union and even “Communist” China) has been largely responsible, in that it is an anti-personal social order in which people tend to be treated as instantiations of such categories as “wage-laborer” and “capital-owner,” everyone being a means to an impersonal end, one’s humanity necessarily being subordinated to the systemic imperative of accumulating capital, which, moreover, necessitates the proliferation of bureaucracies for the sake of keeping order, regulating workers and society, policing dissent, redistributing resources toward business interests and, occasionally, toward disadvantaged elements of the citizenry that might cause trouble if they aren’t mollified, etc.—bears, ultimately, the principal responsibility for the horrors of totalitarianism (or is at least among the most important conditions of it). It might seem that ideological fanaticism, as exemplified by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, has little in common with bureaucratic atomism and inhumanity. But in fact they are related. This kind of ideological commitment—which is also displayed by the contemporary Tea Party and many mainstream economists and politicians, who have been perfectly happy to sacrifice millions of lives around the world in the service of their Free Market ideology—is facilitated by atomistic and bureaucratic social structures, which foster the tendency to think and act in terms of “reifications,” abstract categories, labels. In a society that functions by categorizing people and subordinating them to overwhelming institutional dynamics, the leap to mass ideological commitment (subordinating humanity to ideological considerations) is not terribly difficult. It is natural, being effectively a sort of extreme subjectivization of what is already the case in institutional functioning. The Free Market ideology is a good example, as is the antisemitism of the 1930s (which grew out of decades of institutionalized discrimination and institutional/social inequalities for which Jews were the scapegoat). Atomization and bureaucratization are among the conditions for mass ideological mobilization, which is a condition for totalitarianism. —But, in fact, it turns out that the masses’ fanatical antisemitism wasn’t as important to the success of Nazism as is commonly thought, precisely because this fanaticism didn’t exist to the extent you’d think. After the war, Germans were able to move beyond the past more easily than might have been expected, going about their ordinary lives and appearing not to be dedicated antisemites. Much or most of their earlier behavioral antisemitism (killing Jews, etc.) had been due simply to their following orders, fitting into the institutional and social environment, being good bureaucrats. So, you see, that’s the horror, that’s the origin, that institutionalized atomistic alienation, a much more fundamental thing than “ideological” alienation, fanaticism.


A strange change.— The approaches of the Western working class and the middle class to raising children seem to have undergone near-reversals over the last hundred years. It used to be that middle-class parents were overly strict and repressive with their children, especially in the Victorian era, while working-class parents were more laid-back and permissive. Now, the latter tend, apparently, to be cruel and strict with their children (think of lower-income mothers loudly scolding and slapping their children on the bus), while the former often spoil theirs. When and how did this change take place? To be fair, I should acknowledge that contemporary working-class parents seem to fluctuate between negligence—perhaps somewhat like their forebears—and authoritarianism. Was the middle class still relatively authoritarian in the 1930s? Probably the 1960s and 1970s caused the decisive change in that regard, from mild authoritarianism to permissiveness, “liberation,” etc. But things had already changed drastically between the 1910s and the 1940s. Mass public education and the welfare state must have played a role in undermining paternal and parental authority. World War I probably also undermined strict Victorian norms and puritanism, middle-class propriety, repression of the instincts—and then the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, the advent of mass advertising, movies, the democratization of culture partially liberated middle-class children from the parochial authoritarianism of the Victorian household. The 1950s, with their Cold War emphasis on authority and tradition, saw a partial regression, but authority was exploded in the 1960s. With astonishing swiftness, the demise of authority was institutionalized in the economy, for example in the forms of rampant sexuality (exploiting sex for every conceivable capitalist purpose) and the fetishizing of youth and beauty.

What about the working class? When did its ethos change from exuberance, boisterousness, spontaneity, communal conviviality, to something like resentment and mean-spiritedness? To an extent, these opposites are caricatures of reality. But there is some truth to them. Insofar as they’re true, I would say that the change started to occur in the 1950s and progressed with deindustrialization in the succeeding decades. Ironically, it seems that it was with workers’ economic victories through the institutionalization of collective bargaining, the welfare state, and the bureaucratization of work and benefits that their culture grew impoverished. It lost the joie-de-vivre character it had had even in the 1930s. More exactly, the change is probably a consequence of the destruction of a genuine, grassroots labor movement in the late 1940s and 1950s, the destruction of semi-autonomous enclaves of working-class culture due in part to the advent of television and the corporatization/privatization of society—as embodied, e.g., in auto companies’ and governments’ destruction of public transportation (for instance in Los Angeles, starting in the 1940s) in favor of highways and automobiles. With “privatization” inevitably comes alienation, boredom, frustration, political apathy, a feeling of impotence, perhaps hopelessness, the sense that one has to rely on oneself and others are untrustworthy, the sense that one has to “look out for Number 1” and not care about others, etc. All this breeds a poisonous culture and a destruction of communal spontaneity. When combined with the ongoing scourge of deindustrialization, increasing poverty, an inability to improve one’s prospects in life, business propaganda that tells you everything is the fault of government and “liberal do-gooders,” a popular culture that is violent, hedonistic, and degrading to women, the proliferation of drugs and gang violence, police brutality, etc., it isn’t surprising that improper parenting is the result.


Thoughts on the French Revolution.— It’s interesting that the French Revolution’s liberalism in some ways helped make possible its illiberalism, its nationalism and authoritarianism. For, by enforcing the vision of a society of atomized individuals and “destroying corporate society” (outlawing “orders” and corporate bodies), the Revolution made it easier for people to identify with the single overarching community of the nation, and harder for them to resist dictatorship and Terror.

It’s also interesting that some kinds of atomization are, therefore, evidently compatible with nationalism, while others are not. Contemporary business-imposed atomism undermines nationalism (a national culture), while the French Revolution’s atomism intensified it. One of the reasons may be that the contemporary American version is far more extreme than the “atomism” of 1789, since lately people have become strangers to each other, private worlds of solipsism, which wasn’t true in 1789. People could still identify with things back then; that has become harder in the age of neoliberalism. Also, an essential difference is that modern atomism is not inimical to “corporate bodies,” being indeed founded on the existence of such bodies in the business world. Corporate bodies in business have grown at the expense of substantive identification with the nation or the national community (as opposed to the rhetoric of nationalism, which is still prominent—precisely due to its usefulness to power-structures and business interests!). But of course there are “corporate bodies” all over American society, many of them existing at the expense of national identification. So maybe you could say that revolutionary France’s atomism was, in a sense, the reverse of modern America’s: while corporate bodies were supposed not to exist, the structure of society was not such that people were semi-aliens to each other. Now we have “interpersonal” atomism but a relative proliferation of so-called corporate bodies (intermediaries between the individual and the state).


To say it again, one of the fascinating things about the Great Revolution is the essentially simultaneous ascendancy of two very different ideologies, liberalism and nationalism (between which, you might say, lies the concept of democracy). Individualism, atomism, “liberty,” as opposed to the unitary general will, national community, popular sovereignty, the “direct” democracy of “the people.” To speak simplistically, it’s the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man versus the 1793 Terror, the “democratic,” nationalistic Terror. Or, again, it’s the Legislative Assembly versus the insurrectionist Paris Commune of 1792. —As I just suggested, though, between these two extremes, connecting them, is the notion of democracy. For, while the ideology of popular sovereignty or the general will can be perverted into totalitarianism, it is also not wholly opposed to liberalism, since the safeguarding of individuals’ rights is surely one manifestation of “Power to the people!”

The best concept of all these is socialism, since, in its classical form, it is an unambiguous fusion of liberalism with popular democracy. Economic democracy, workers’ power over their work and lives, leaves no room for anything reeking of totalitarianism; nor is it merely a half-empty equality under the law, as liberalism can be thought of.

By the way, the explanation for the rise of both liberalism and populist nationalism isn’t hard to think of: the former, which triumphed in the long run, was bourgeois, while the latter belonged more to “the people.” In all classical revolutions, from the English civil war of the 1640s to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, this duality has manifested itself. The bourgeoisie and “the masses” have risen up together against the ancien régime, but the alliance has always been temporary because different classes have different interests. Economic and political liberalism were what the bourgeoisie wanted (and ultimately got), but the masses wanted more: true democracy, social equality, food, jobs, popular power. They’re still waiting for these things.


Marxism and the French Revolution.— Let’s grant that the French Revolution was precipitated more by the nobility’s grievances than the bourgeoisie’s. And let’s grant that it had definitely un-bourgeois phases, such as Robespierre’s Terror and his obsession with “civic virtue,” republicanism, the general will, a phase that briefly approached totalitarianism. Let’s also grant that people from the bourgeoisie were not the main actors in the Revolution. None of this implies that the Revolution was not ultimately in some sense, or several senses, a largely “bourgeois” event, or that the Marxist emphasis on class is inapplicable to it. First of all, class dynamics can be fundamental to an event even if its actors don’t interpret their actions in class terms or don’t seem to be motivated by material interests. The sansculottes may have been consciously inspired by ideas of republicanism or resentment of the rich or status-envy, but mild self-deception isn’t exactly an unknown thing. It’s quite possible that an important motive—even if they didn’t like to admit it to themselves—was their desire for greater material comfort, greater economic power, less living-on-the-social-and-economic-margins. What “republicanism” meant for them, in fact, was more power, more power over their political, economic, and social lives. Questions of motivation don’t matter much, though. The point is that economic relations, economic conditions, are significant determinants of people’s acts, especially groups’ acts. What your position is in production relations conditions what kind of information you receive, the kind of people you spend time with, the sorts of places you live in or frequent, etc. Political and cultural solidarity, therefore, are structured largely around the occupation of similar locations in economic relations, due to the similar sorts of experiences that tend to correlate with that.

Besides, resentment or status-envy of the aristocracy, despite not seeming to be a “materialistic” motive, is basically a classist thing. And economically determined (beneath appearances).

As for the Revolution’s significantly—though not completely—bourgeois character, at least two things establish that. First, among its long-term consequences were the facilitating of capitalist economic activity and the spreading of bourgeois cultural norms. The Code Napoléon was quite bourgeois, as was the political liberalism that prevailed off-and-on and then made several comebacks in the mid-1800s and then finally was permanently established (in France) in the 1870s. Economic liberalism, too, which capitalists favored, was in the air in the 1780s and 1790s—and later—even if under wartime exigencies and the influence of the sansculottes it was periodically held in abeyance. The dismantling of feudal restrictions encouraged capitalist activity, as did the Le Chapelier law of 1791 effectively banning trade unions (as guilds), strikes, etc. Aside from consequences, you can also consider origins. The Enlightenment ideas that inspired the revolutionaries had largely originated in England, the most bourgeois country at the time, and were propagated by Protestants and deists, who mingled in bourgeois, liberal circles. It was through such things as trade, the opening up of markets, the international exchange of ideas, the development of manufacture and science, and the increasing popularity of travel—all bourgeois things, at least in part—that the ideological, political, and cultural currents that helped undermine the ancien régime and lead to the Revolution spread. Liberalism in all its forms is quintessentially bourgeois, and most of the Enlightenment ideas on which idealist historians like Furet prefer to focus were nothing if not liberal. Even the idea of popular sovereignty is liberal in its milder manifestations. In the 1790s it was used to justify un-bourgeois things—which were a product mainly of the sansculottes’ activism, counterrevolutionary upsurges in France, and the foreign wars—but, yes, in revolutions the people and their representatives tend to get out of hand (from the perspective of the bourgeoisie and its hangers-on). The situation gets out of control, but in the end it subsides to normality. I.e., bourgeois stability.


More reflections on the Revolution.— An endlessly thought-provoking event. Parallels with both fascism and Soviet Communism. On fascism: think of the resentment, the desire for revenge, against aristocrats felt by the lower middle class of Paris, similar to the desire for revenge against Jews felt in Germany later. An old society dying, throwing up enragés, the “mob,” with their “passion for punishment and terror, nourished by a deep desire for revenge and the overturning of society” (p. 131 of Furet’s book but reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism), a desire that led to the massacring of aristocratic Others, enemies to the Nation, outsiders corrupting the body politic—“strangers in our very midst” (quoting Abbé Sieyès)—instantiations of nearly the same category that Jews instantiated in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. French nobles in the 1790s, German Jews in the 1930s—classes of people who had already lost most of their power and so were socially/economically/politically expendable (as Arendt says), hence the perfect scapegoats for social misery. Symbols of the old regime that had smothered the “mob’s” pride, spat at it, but now powerless and so contemptible. The chaos of an old semi-urban civilization in transition, everything in flux, wage-laborers joining with artisans joining with shopkeepers in burning resentment. And the necessity for Bonapartism (Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler) because of the government’s inability to transcend and subdue political divisions. And then the nationalistic expansionism. And then the internationally orchestrated passage to a more stable order, as happened after the fall of both Napoleon and Hitler.

But on the other side, there’s the element of so-called Communism. Thus, in France, the lower classes were already becoming hostile in the mid- and late 1790s to the bourgeoisie. “Before it had definitively vanquished the ancien régime and the aristocracy,” says Furet, “the bourgeoisie was already standing alongside the accused [i.e., the nobility] in the court of revolutionary equality.” That could be said of the Russian bourgeoisie in the years before and after 1917. And Robespierre’s Terror against “counterrevolutionaries” surely had a clearer class element than Hitler’s persecution of the Jews; in any case, it reminds one of Lenin’s and Stalin’s terror against supposed counterrevolutionaries. In general, the French Revolution signified a vastly greater social revolution than fascism—for it was genuinely egalitarian!—and it happened in a country maybe comparably primitive to Russia in 1917. But it ended up going in a bourgeois direction, not an anti-bourgeois direction, unlike the Russian revolution. The historian Robert Brady remarks, in Business as a System of Power, that Italy could have gone either fascist or Communist after World War I. These primitive riven-by-social-conflict countries in transition....they can go either way. Either to the right or to the left. But France simply couldn’t go pro-oppressed in the 1790s (aside from brief phases) because of its lack of industrialism and urbanism, the lack of identical social interests between sufficient numbers of the urban oppressed—no massive factories, for example, which workers could take over. It had to go bourgeois eventually, just because the bourgeoisie, or capitalist economic structures, had far more power and more resources than its (or their) enemies. Unlike in Russia in 1917.

I’ve said it before, but here it is again: all these national convulsions were primarily, from a long-term perspective, capitalist revolutions. Not socialist, not post-capitalist. They were stages in the transition to a society structured around capital. That was always the inevitable outcome, because of long-term global economic dynamics. In Russia, or the Soviet Union, and China there was the detour through ultra-state-planned economic authoritarianism (and remember that capitalism itself is nothing but relatively fragmented economic authoritarianism), but in a world globalizing around the dynamic of capital, such an anti-market economy was slowly going to be hemmed in on all sides, challenged, eroded (by black markets, etc.), until it either fell apart (as with the Soviet Union after perestroika) or adapted itself (as with contemporary China). Marx himself would have predicted these outcomes, and effectively did predict them. “Socialism in one country” is impossible.


“A people’s tragedy.”— It is a curious thing that an event as consequential as the Russian Revolution, which ultimately determined the destinies of hundreds of millions, can depend in large part on a few personalities and a lot of luck. This is the inescapable conclusion of A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (1996), by Orlando Figes. There was no “iron necessity of history” or unstoppable Marxian dialectic leading to Lenin’s revolution of October 1917; there was contingency, free will, incompetence from some and reckless daring from others. It was anything but a true Marxist social revolution (of which there are no examples in history). Had Nicholas II not been so desperately stupid for twenty years, or Generals Evert and Kuropatkin not so incompetent in June 1916, or Kerensky not so reluctant to take action against the Bolsheviks in the months before their coup d’état, or Lenin not so determined to seize power exactly when he did, or had V. N. Lvov’s machinations not led to the misunderstandings that eventually got General Kornilov arrested in August, and had a thousand other such accidents not happened, it is quite possible that the course of the twentieth century would have been very different. That is probably the main lesson of Figes’ book. But the book is so comprehensive, evenhanded, and engaging, being a narrative history that fuses social and political analysis with an abundance of vignettes and personal sketches, that much else can be gleaned from it than merely the historical importance of contingency.

For example, irony leaps from its pages: the reader is reminded that ubiquitous irony is perhaps the only “iron law” of history. For it is ironic that the Bolsheviks’ total misinterpretations of the significance of their acts—thinking they were establishing socialism or enacting a Marxist revolution when in fact what they were doing and creating was virtually the opposite of Marxism and socialism—in a sense confirmed a basic tenet of Marxism, that “consciousness” is of secondary importance compared to “social being.” The intellectuals and politicians who rise to the top are those useful to the power-strivings of some group or groups in society, be they economic power-structures (business, the landed aristocracy) or some broad section of “the people.” Whatever the subtle meanings of these intellectuals’ elaborate doctrines or however they interpret their own actions, as long as they shout, for example, slogans like “All power to the Soviets!” or “Peace, land, bread!”, and the circumstances are right, they will rise to the top. Naturally they’ll interpret their success as proof of their theories, but really it could be, and probably is, nothing of the kind. As Marx said, never trust the self-interpretations of historical actors! Ironically, Marx himself was a victim of this sort of self-delusion, in that the increasing popularity of his ideas late in life did not mean at all what he thought it did, that capitalism was or even could be approaching collapse. In retrospect we know that. The ideas of his that became popular were merely fine expressions of the grievances of workers and gave them useful theoretical legitimation. That’s all. If capitalism does eventually collapse, it certainly won’t be in the exact way he predicted.

Figes is right that Lenin was a product at least as much of the distinctive Russian revolutionary tradition (Chernyshevsky, etc.) as of Marxism—and that he therefore departed from Marxism whenever he found it useful. The following passage is insightful:

All the main components of Lenin’s doctrine—the stress on the need for a disciplined revolutionary vanguard; the belief that action (the “subjective factor”) could alter the objective course of history (and in particular that seizure of the state apparatus could bring about a social revolution); his defense of Jacobin methods of dictatorship; his contempt for liberals and democrats (and indeed for socialists who compromised with them)—all these stemmed not so much from Marx as from the Russian revolutionary tradition. Lenin used the ideas of Chernyshevsky, Nechaev, [etc.] inject a distinctly Russian dose of conspiratorial politics into a Marxist dialectic that would otherwise have remained passive—content to wait for the revolution to mature through the development of objective conditions rather than eager to bring it about through political action. It was not Marxism that made Lenin a revolutionary but Lenin who made Marxism revolutionary (pp. 145, 146).

As I argue in the work cited above, an authentic, “dialectical” Marxism would be more like an “evolutionary” creed than a Leninist “revolutionary” creed. It would also repudiate the idea that “a revolution could ‘jump over’ the contingencies of history” (p. 812). As Figes says, Bolshevism’s embrace of this idea “placed it firmly in the Russian messianic tradition,” not the Marxist tradition. In this respect, the Mensheviks were more Marxist than the Bolsheviks.

What Russia’s revolutionary period at the beginning of the twentieth century really was was a bourgeois revolution that went off the rails. Its doing so wasn’t exactly “accidental,” although the way it did so was (more or less). In a gigantic country composed almost entirely of peasants filled with hatred for landowners and the government, a relatively smooth transition to industrial capitalism—i.e., a transition not disturbed for decades, say, by peasant uprisings and revolutionary demagoguery, or even by a so-called “socialist” takeover of the state—would have been extremely difficult under the best of circumstances. Given the unstable state of Europe at the time, with its imperialism, nationalism, racism, international arms race, and class conflict, it was almost impossible. Even had Russia’s generals during World War I been competent enough to win the war, it is likely that in the following decade or two, perhaps during the Great Depression, massive peasant uprisings would have occurred, probably coinciding with strikes and demonstrations in the cities. The government might have been able to suppress them, or it might have succumbed to its own incompetence and let power slip to some future Lenin. One cannot say for sure. Maybe a future Stolypin would have managed the transition to capitalism with an iron hand. The point is that in primitive, predominantly rural countries like Russia, China, Italy and Spain in the early twentieth century, and in Latin America for a long time, it is virtually a toss-up whether the transition to industrial capitalism will bring to power a “leftist” government (Russia in 1917, China in 1949, Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh), a rightist government (Italy in 1922, Spain in 1939, China before Mao), or—more rarely—a centrist one (Italy and Spain before Mussolini and Franco). That is the meaning of the Russian revolution—namely its lack of meaning.

In fact, for a true socialist revolution to have happened anywhere in the twentieth century was simply not in the cards. Marx got his timeline wrong.


Excerpt from a paper.— Marx misinterpreted early radicalism, not only the radicalism of the heterogeneous Parisian masses who manned the barricades in 1848 but even the radicalism that flared up in the 1871 Paris Commune or in America in the 1870s and 1880s. These battles, too, were fought by a heterogeneous people, some of them, like the artisans and craftsmen who felt themselves besieged by this terrifying new thing called industrial capitalism, “reactionary radicals,” and others proletarians in the classic Marxist sense, but whose miseries could have been more effectively meliorated by reform than revolution. It was not a proletarian army “disciplined, united, and organized by the process of capitalist production” but a disparate mass of the lower classes with disparate interests—some progressive, some reactionary—temporarily thrown together by the sheer chaos of early industrialism. It has been said before that Marx confused the birth-pangs of industrial capitalism with its death-throes; and while this epigram is glib, there is much truth to it. As capitalism matured in the twentieth century, the working class was “disciplined and united” into explicit reformism, and it became obvious that revolution was not going to happen in precisely the way Marx had predicted.

Incidentally, one can’t help remarking on the poignancy of the old struggles for socialism or anarchism, international revolution, in the light of our retrospective knowledge that revolution was almost inevitably not going to be successful (in the long run) however it was undertaken, simply because economic conditions were not yet ripe. It really is an absurd tragedy, a symbol of the senselessness of human existence—millions of people in the Americas, in Russia, in Germany, in France, in Spain and Italy fighting and dying for a dream that would never have come to fruition anyway because, supposing they had achieved something like it in a particular region, such as Catalonia in the late 1930s or parts of Germany after World War I, and, miraculously, it had not been crushed by the forces of reaction, it would have slowly degenerated under market pressures from the broader capitalist society, pressures on wages—downward for the lower workers, upward for the higher—pressures to mechanize, and the business cycles that inevitably would have seeped in to these havens of relative cooperation and disturbed the order of things, and of course after the revolutionary fervor had subsided the usual daily problems of running factories would have cropped up, “alienation” would have returned because industrial work is inherently unpleasant, battles between management and the average worker would have spoiled the revolution. In Spain, Mondragon’s recent evolution confirms this diagnosis. So, the irony is shockingly cruel: it is when capitalist industrialization was starting, precisely when socialism was least possible, that workers, artisans, peasants, and intellectuals fought with greatest heroism and determination for socialism. Industrialization was so brutal and so conducive to the lower classes’ radicalization that visions of, and struggles for, a cooperative society were inevitable everywhere. On the other hand, the recent fading of revolutionary dreams itself facilitates the slow emergence of some kind of post-capitalist order because, among other things, it means that there will be no more Leninist, Maoist misadventures, no more attempts to establish socialism by decree, which was never going to work. The old Marxist dreams of a single revolutionary rupture have become untenable, to the benefit of the revolution.

This statement of a participant in Latin America’s solidarity economy is apt: “The old cooperativism [of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries] was a utopia in search of its practice, and the new cooperativism is a practice in search of its utopia.” Again, from a Marxist perspective, the tragedy of the old cooperativism was that consciousness outran material conditions, material possibilities, and so it was doomed to failure; the new cooperativism of the twenty-first century has placed consciousness at the service of people’s immediate economic interests, so that a new mode of production is evolving step by step. Utopian dreams are subordinated to economic realities—thus making possible, perhaps, the realization of “utopian dreams” in the distant future.


On the emergence of the modern world.— The evolution of early-modern European royal absolutism, not surprisingly, was ironic. Initially it was useful to the rising bourgeoisie, as the latter was useful to it, in both the bourgeoisie’s and the monarchy’s struggle against the feudal aristocracy. The monarch could act in the interest of merchants and other capitalists in order to increase his tax base and wealth (through trade and budding industry), as well as to diminish the power of feudal interests relative to his own and to that of bourgeois classes opposed to feudalism. In fact, you could probably say that absolutism depended on large-scale mercantile activities and the latter (on a large scale) depended on absolutism, or at least on a powerful sovereign. But then capitalists—of various kinds, including commercial, financial, and industrial—accumulated more and more wealth and became more central to the social order, and they wanted more political power, and their demands started to threaten absolutism. The population meanwhile was getting restless for reasons related to the rise of capitalism and the state’s sponsorship of it. In the end, the absolutist state turned back towards the aristocracy as an ally in its struggles against the people and the bourgeoisie (and its “representatives,” such as most intellectuals), but it was too late. Absolutism was doomed, and it collapsed. The bourgeoisie was ultimately the progressive force; absolutism was progressive only in relation to the feudal aristocracy, not to the bourgeoisie.

These dialectical ironies and self-underminings are how history evolves. The ruling class even now is undermining its power in the long run by augmenting it in the short run, through privatization and marketization—which is inevitably causing social discontent that will someday bring about the collapse of the whole edifice.


Random thoughts on the American Revolution.— From the famous historian Bernard Bailyn:

The outbreak of the Revolution was not the result of social discontent, or of economic disturbances, or of rising misery, or of those mysterious social strains that seem to beguile the imaginations of historians straining to find peculiar predispositions to upheaval. Nor was there a transformation of mob behavior or of the lives of the “inarticulate” in the pre-Revolutionary years that accounts for the disruption of Anglo-American politics. The rebellion took place in a basically prosperous if temporarily disordered economy and in communities whose effective social distances....remained narrow enough and whose mobility, however marginally it may have slowed from earlier days, was still high enough to absorb most group discontents. Nor was it the consequence simply of the maturing of the economy and the desires of American businessmen for greater economic autonomy, or of the inevitable growth of infant institutions and communities to the point where challenges to the parental authority became inescapable: neither economies nor institutions nor communities are doomed to grow through phases of oedipal conflict. There was good sense in the expectation occasionally heard in the eighteenth century that American institutions in a century’s time would gradually grow apart from England’s as they matured, peacefully attenuating until the connection became mere friendly cooperation. American resistance in the 1760s and 1770s was a response to acts of power deemed arbitrary, degrading, and uncontrollable—a response, in itself objectively reasonable, that was inflamed to the point of explosion by ideological currents generating fears everywhere in America that irresponsible and self-seeking adventurers—what the twentieth century would call political gangsters—had gained the power of the English government and were turning first, for reasons that were variously explained, to that Rhineland of their aggression, the colonies.

It seems to me that too much ink has been spilled on the “meaning” of the American Revolution as opposed to the French. Its radicalism or conservatism, etc. Sure, it was less radical, in a way, than the French, just because the French revolutionaries had centuries of feudal traditions and institutions to sweep away, and millions of starving poor, and hordes of resisting aristocrats, and were surrounded by hostile European nations. A complete social upheaval was necessary for there to be a republican, “democratic” revolution in such a country. Americans already had relatively free institutions and lived in a fairly modern, (pre-)bourgeois society (compared to France), so their reaction against arbitrary authority did not have to take an uncompromising, world-overturning form. It wasn’t feudalism they were fighting against but a much milder form of oppressive power-structures. Nevertheless, the two revolutions were inspired by similar Enlightenment ideologies of liberty and republicanism, similar impulses against oppression and inequality, and they both signified early, “bourgeois” stages of the masses’ eruption into modern European history. The English Civil War and Glorious Revolution had largely the same significance. Circumstances vary between countries and so social transformations take different paths, but on the broadest scale the meaning of all the classical revolutions even into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the uprisings in Russia and China, was the struggle against feudal or, more generally, undemocratic power-structures, the middle and lower classes’ reaction against economic and political oppression, and the spread of “popular” ideologies (be they liberalism, republicanism, democracy, or socialism) and people’s power. Fascism, by the way, and all its variants are different and paradoxical: popular movements against various kinds of people’s power. Popular reactions to economic and political dislocation that look toward the past, toward order and hierarchy, rather than toward the future and increased freedom for all people. This is what makes them relatively acceptable to the ruling classes—and that is why they have been so influential since the early twentieth century or before. Business would prefer not to have the masses politically involved at all, but since they have to be somehow or other (as they didn’t for most of history), business propagates reactionary instead of progressive popular ideologies. It’s a risk—the masses can get out of hand—but it’s far preferable to the alternative of economic democracy.

If we follow Gordon Wood in understanding the “American Revolution” to be the long process of social change from about the 1760s to the early decades of the 1800s—in which case one could even argue that America’s Civil War, a war against a pre-capitalist and “undemocratic” society (or mode of production), was its final stage—then we can place it even more clearly in the tradition of the English and French revolutions. It’s true that the American struggle for independence in itself didn’t have the same relation to society as the other revolutions, since it didn’t signify an effort to remake an essentially feudal politics and society but was instead a mere revolt against a mildly oppressive imperialist power, and thus was more “accidental” than the chain of revolutionary events in Europe—especially because, as Bailyn says, wise political leaders in England could probably have defused the crisis and prevented the war—but Gordon Wood is right that it was symptomatic of underlying, long-term changes in economic and social relations, which in some form were happening in Europe too, albeit in more convulsive ways. And don’t forget that there were, after all, traces of feudalism even in America, and these were going to be erased under various pressures. Economic and social relations were inevitably going to be progressively liberalized under the pressures of trade, manufacturing, population growth and migration, incipient industrialization, etc. At the same time, under the influence of early industrialists, protectionist laws and tariffs were almost inevitably going to be erected sooner or later in America, even if the Revolutionary War hadn’t happened. The ties with England were inevitably going to be attenuated in either gradual or convulsive ways during the transition to early industrialism and greater commercialism. All this grew out of basically the same underlying processes of economic change occurring all over the West.

Again, it’s true that the power-structures that Americans revolted against were very different from the structures that the French revolted against a decade later. Starting in the 1760s, Americans became painfully aware—through economic depression, England’s imposition of “intolerable” regulations and taxes, etc.—of their humiliating status as colonial dependents. In some respects Americans were becoming increasingly prosperous, free, and sophisticated (theirs was a very literate culture, for example); commercialism and mass consumption were among the forces undermining old norms of subservience between the classes and between the mother country and the colonies. Ordinary people were becoming more conscious of their dignity as producers and consumers, the freedoms and rights they were entitled to; their degrading treatment by Parliament, their status as mere outposts on an empire whose metropolitan center didn’t even recognize their right to political representation, contrasted outrageously with the vibrancy of their civilization, its economic importance to the empire, and the democratic, rights-conscious practices present throughout every colony. They were a people bursting with energy, but England treated them contemptuously. And its behavior only got worse, not better. So an explosion occurred, a “democratic,” popular rebellion.

Conditions in France were so much worse that, in a sense, its revolution proceeded from nearly opposite causes: the peasantry and urban underclasses were miserable, not growing in self-confidence or increasingly aware of their substantive freedoms and rights as contrasted with their political disfranchisement. Nevertheless, with both revolutions it was a matter of the multitudes’ and middle classes’ clamoring against harsh treatment by power-structures. In both cases there were ancien-régime-ish straitjackets on the economic and political enfranchisement of the population even as inexorable economic pressures were tending to burst open these straitjackets and empower the disempowered. (And even in France, as in the American colonies, it was becoming clear to commoners and peasants that the aristocracy was losing its political legitimacy, its right to rule. Its “hegemony” had long eroded. In France the nobility no longer had many important economic, political or juridical functions; it was becoming a class of useless parasites, and the peasantry knew this. Compounded with their economic misery, this led them to revolt.)


A radical critique of academia.— Reading Jesse Lemisch’s little book On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession, presented as an essay at the lively 1969 convention of the American Historical Association but published later (by an obscure left press because it wasn’t mainstream enough to make it into establishment journals). In his introduction, Thomas Schofield explains that in 1969 Lemisch was “a historian who had been dismissed from the University of Chicago because ‘his political concerns interfered with his scholarship.’ In what may [have been] the most telling and fundamental critique presented before the AHA he proposed that the supposedly unpolitical stars of the profession (Allan Nevins, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Samuel Eliot Morison, Oscar Handlin, Daniel Boorstin and others) were implicit cold warriors who sought to use history as a vehicle in the fight against communism. Lemisch’s paper....argued persuasively that what so many object to is not that a scholar should take a political position but that he should hold views contrary to establishment shibboleths.” Duh. To argue that mainstream scholarship is “free from bias” is and was so wildly naïve as to be laughable. The guardians of every mainstream institution in history have been certain they’re right and “unbiased”; it’s one of the most predictable things in human existence, and one of the most ridiculous. Everything—or nearly everything—is political and “biased”; there are political and social relations, and political and social value-judgments, implicit in every (or nearly every) act. When you ignore a homeless person on the street, that’s implicitly a political act. When you write scholarship that is sympathetic toward the powerful and ignores the powerless, that’s political. When you spend your evening drinking with your friends rather than volunteering at a shelter for battered women, that’s political. The way a man treats his wife is political, as is the way she treats him. Society is saturated with power relations; there is no escaping them. And such relations are always at least indirectly political.

So it is impossible to be unbiased or unpolitical. It’s possible, though, to be less “biased,” more objective, namely by being more “radical.” As long as you accept such broad values as individual self-determination, democracy, the non-killing of innocents, and so forth, a consideration of facts in the light of these values will lead you to what are called “radical left” positions.

Lemisch’s writing is, at times, delightfully inflammatory. No compromising with complacent liberalism.

Discussing the anti-radical ideology of respectable “politically neutral” liberal historians and social scientists such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Daniel Bell, Lemisch easily refutes Bell’s 1960 “end of ideology” thesis by pointing out that, umm, the 1960s weren’t very “un-ideological.” In fact, Bell’s little hypothesis, like Francis Fukuyama’s little “end of history” hypothesis thirty years later, was nothing but the ideology of a few self-satisfied technocratic circles in the American elite at a specific point in time.

More interestingly, Lemisch puts short work to the 1950s’ “Liberal Consensus” idea that McCarthyism was the product of an earlier populist tradition (the implication of which claim is that populism, hence the “vulgar mass,” is irrational, paranoid, undemocratic, because McCarthyism was). In fact, so-called “McCarthyism” obviously began several years before the rise of McCarthy, in the late 1940s, with all the Truman-imposed loyalty oaths and the purging of the labor movement and all that rabid anti-radical bullshit. In other words, it was the elite that was paranoid, undemocratic, and irrational, not the people. But even regarding McCarthy himself, the smug liberal hypothesis is false:

[In The Intellectuals and McCarthy, Paul Rogin] has tested the pluralists’ contention that there was continuity between McCarthy and earlier agrarian radicalism [e.g., that of the 1890s] and found it invalid. Testing the contention in the Senator’s home state, Wisconsin, Rogin finds entirely different social bases for McCarthy and [Progressive Senator Robert] LaFollette. McCarthy rose on a conservative constituency, the traditional source of Republican strength. Progressivism in Wisconsin “mobilized poor Scandinavian farmers against the richer areas of the state”; McCarthy “rose to power with the votes of the richer German inhabitants of the farms and small cities in southern and eastern Wisconsin....” Those counties which had been Progressive “tended to oppose McCarthy more than other counties in the state.” ....McCarthy did not represent any “new” American right—just the “old one with new enthusiasm and new power.”

In Rogin’s analysis, McCarthy emerged from conservative rural politics—which is far from mass politics, but rather the politics of local elites. Thus, for instance, Leslie Fiedler’s contention that McCarthy’s support by small-town newspapers was an indication that McCarthyism was another movement toward “direct democracy,” continuous with Populism, is practically reversed when examined more carefully. Small-town newspapers in fact had an enduring record of opposition to agrarian radicalism; such newspapers are generally the voice of conservative local business interests, and it was these small-town business people who formed a part of McCarthy’s base. Thus, Rogin notes, McCarthyism was a movement by a “conservative elite—from precinct workers to national politicians....” It “flourished within the normal workings of American politics, not radically outside of them” and was “sustained not by a revolt of the masses so much as by the actions and inactions of various elites.”

In short, McCarthyism was not so much populist as “faux populist”—if even that. “McCarthy,” says Lemisch, “is evidence for the evils of too little democracy, not too much.” It’s the same with the Tea Party movement nowadays. And even with the old racist George Wallace, to an extent. “Rogin has found the early support for George Wallace stronger among the middle and upper class than among the working class. ‘Is “middle-class authoritarianism” a more fruitful concept than working-class authoritarianism?’ he asks.” Public attitudes on the Vietnam War were another example of how the masses are often less conservative than the elite.

In fact, Lemisch argues convincingly that postwar liberal pluralism (“legitimate” groups competing against each other in the political arena, “countervailing powers” balancing each other) was a kind of Burkean conservatism transplanted to modern conditions. Many Consensus historians and social scientists admired Edmund Burke and disdained Thomas Paine and the French Revolution, indeed all radicals and even the abolitionists, as having fallen victim to the naïve and dangerous faith that men could make their own history, could remake society in the light of reason and reject old traditions. Like Burke, these postwar liberals found “wisdom” in traditions and institutions, and insisted that the essential flaws of “human nature” would always vitiate radicalism. Their polemic, of course, which shaped their understanding of history, was against Communism, but they broadened it to apply to all radicals of the past and present, to everyone who was discontented with mere technocratic management of society. Schlesinger Jr. and his ilk were basically anti-democrats who, like Burke—as well as nearly all of America’s founding fathers, and nearly all intellectuals and elites in history—radically distrusted the people. But because they lived in a society that exalted democracy, they had to pay lip-service to it while rejecting its substance. What they really valued were “stability and equilibrium.” For these people, says Lemisch, “stability and equilibrium were the goals of society, and since the society called itself democratic, then stability and equilibrium must be democracy.”

Lemisch savages all these smug, lazy liberals, exposing their ideas as establishmentarian tripe. It’s fun reading.

In spite of themselves, they indirectly grasped a truth: national politics in the U.S. has, with rare exceptions, always been more or less a matter of “consensus.” The U.S. has been basically a one-party state for a long time. Arguably since the beginning. As Chomsky says, variation and disagreement are permitted within fairly rigidly defined boundaries, which have always excluded the radical left. These facts result from many circumstances, including the electoral system and the elitist framework of the Constitution.

Later in the essay he turns his attention from ideas to actions, specifically actions taken by all the liberal historians and social scientists in the heady days of 1968 and 1969. The revelations aren’t surprising, but they expose these intellectuals as contemptible hypocrites. Celebrating democracy and freedom while justifying and participating in violent repression against students and radical professors, who were “threatening the foundations of democratic order.” Hofstadter, Handlin, Boorstin, Bernard Bailyn, Schlesinger Jr., Seymour Martin Lipset, Bell, Leuchtenburg, Eric Hoffer, Nathan Glazer, Lewis Feuer, Bruno Bettelheim, and many other big names: conservative establishmentarians obsessed with relatively small disruptions of their ordered little worlds at the same time that bombs and napalm were killing and mutilating millions in Indochina. That was not wrong (at worst “imprudent”); student dissent, on the other hand, was morally horrifying, the very death-knell of civilization, a resurgence of something like Nazism.

One of the less egregious examples is Schlesinger writing in 1969 on police violence against Harvard students. While “invoking the police may on occasion be necessary to preserve academic freedom,” at Harvard it was wrong. Or, to quote Lemisch’s paraphrasing of Schlesinger, it was “not precisely wrong, but rather, imprudent; it was not the fact of ‘cops clubbing Harvard and Radcliffe students’ that offended him [Schlesinger] but the ‘spectacle’ of it, which ‘obliged the S.D.S. and illustrated its favorite thesis of the hidden violence of American society.’” And we all know how absurd that thesis is. It would be ridiculous to deny that America is a fundamentally peaceful place. (Peaceful for Harvard professors, at least.)

—Excellent, impassioned essay. Well done, Jesse. Écrasez l’infâme!


A Critique of Current Historical Scholarship

If the history profession in the United States were to take stock of itself in 2011, it would have the right to be proud in many respects. It has come far in the last fifty years, become far more sophisticated. Social history has enormously enriched our understanding of the past, in particular the past of subaltern groups of people who tended to be ignored by academic historians up to the 1960s. Labor history is no longer mainly about trade unions and institutional politics; it also encompasses the lives of workers, as well as of their families and communities. The history of minorities is no longer excluded from the mainstream, and women are finally integrated into the historical profession—both as scholars and as subjects of study. The history of gender and sexuality has explicated the formation of subjective identities and shed light on varieties of oppression that were hardly even recognized in the past. Historians have become methodologically more self-conscious and self-critical, and their scholarship has become incredibly meticulous. Like culture itself, history-writing is incomparably more inclusive than it was fifty years ago—inclusive of more people, more ideas, more methods, more agendas, more countries and societies (hence “transnationalism”). It is diverse, and it is huge. Nevertheless, the discipline has by no means perfected itself, nor should it be complacent about what it has achieved. In some ways it has not taken its recent democratic achievements far enough, while in others it has taken them too far, thereby losing sight of important issues and old insights. The discipline is also too fragmented and specialized, like most of the humanities and social sciences. One can accuse it, moreover, of being too “academic.” Being humanistic, it should not isolate itself from society but should critically engage with it, bring history to bear on the burning political questions of our time.

There is a myth among academics that “objectivity” entails “neutrality,” that to take a partisan position in some controversy is by definition to be non-objective and unscholarly. This belief goes back decades, and helps justify the political disengagement of scholars that is a function in part of the insularity of their institutions. According to conventional wisdom, the university system is not supposed to be the plaything of political agendas; it is supposed to be dedicated to politically innocuous research and the unpartisan education of students. Otherwise universities might not be able to get funding from a variety of sources, and they would not be able to maintain their supposed autonomy from the rough-and-tumble world of politics. Corresponding to these institutional facts is the academic conviction, which serves to justify an apolitical stance, that to take a politically controversial position in scholarship or popular writing is to depart from the “disinterested” pursuit of truth.

This is a fantasy, as is the idea that the university system is even moderately removed from political influence and agendas. By virtue of their particular locations in social structures, academics are already integrated into the political economy in ways they might not even know about or like. They are already serving certain economic and political interests in their research and teaching, both of which are inherently political. Whatever position one takes in teaching or writing, one cannot escape the implicit commitment to some set of political interests and institutions. By not challenging conventional interpretations, for example, one is upholding the hegemony of power-structures and the status quo, implicitly taking the “partisan” position that mainstream narratives, which like all interpretations exclude certain voices and include others, are substantially correct and that the powerful therefore are not only basically right but should remain powerful. By consciously avoiding political controversy in one’s work, one is making a statement that to some other group of interests, an unrepresented group, is controversial.

There is no such thing as “disinterested” scholarship. In Nietzschean terms, one necessarily proceeds from a particular perspective. Jean-Paul Sartre said something similar in arguing that one is inescapably committed, whether one knows it or not. On the other hand, it is possible to be “committed” in a relatively “objective” and “rational” way, namely by encompassing more voices, more facts, and more arguments in one’s position, and by being willing to assess it according to canons of logic rather than emotion or some other standard. An intellectual’s work can serve the interests of freedom and democracy in more objective and rigorous or less objective and rigorous ways, just as it can serve the interests of the powerful in rigorous or unrigorous ways—or, alternatively, in open and honest ways or implicit and unconscious ways (as it usually does). Every social scientist and humanist should decide which interests and values he intends to support in his work, and then do so as objectively as possible.

Historians, one might retort, often do serve democratic values and agendas in their work, as evidenced by the rise of social history in all its forms. This is true. However, there is still too much of a pretense of neutrality on issues of political moment, a neutrality that effectively supports the status quo. In many cases this neutrality takes the form of a specific method, viz. an “idealistic” method. In The Global Cold War (2005), for example, Odd Arne Westad argues that “the United States and the Soviet Union were driven to intervene in the Third World by the ideologies inherent in their politics.” He pays little attention to economic dynamics and institutional imperatives as explanations of the superpowers’ foreign policy, instead relying to a great degree on policymakers’ self-understandings and rhetoric. His idealistic method lends legitimacy to powerful actors, their institutions, and their policies, thus implicitly legitimizing the political status quo and undermining the popular democratic hopes and strivings that he ostensibly supports.

Social historians, on the other hand, sometimes adopt a kind of status quo-supporting idealism precisely by virtue of their “democratic” method of telling people’s stories more or less as they lived them. Books like Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (2009) and Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (2002) embody the commendable project of taking ordinary people’s experiences seriously and revealing such people as “active, articulate participants in a historical process.” However, these works can have an extreme emphasis on ideology and culture insofar as people interpret their own experiences that way. Political correctness frequently suffuses this sort of scholarship; everyone is given “agency,” assumed to have control over his or her life because to deny that would be insulting or condescending. Institutional contexts and influences are frequently played down as the individual’s motives and self-interpretations are elevated. The consequence is to divert the reader’s attention from class structures and the overall distribution of power relations, which in turn often prevents this work from being politically very challenging or subversive.

Ironically, one can object to idealism not only morally but also by invoking the “disinterested” rational standards that scholars are so concerned with. For a materialism and “institutionalism” along Marxian lines is singularly plausible too, as contrasted with the various types of idealism manifested in much political history (e.g., The Global Cold War), postmodernist cultural history (e.g., Joan Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History (1999)), and a fair amount of social history, the “humanism” of which tends to have factually incorrect implications. To quote the political scientist Thomas Ferguson: “That ordinary people are historical subjects [as social historians assume] is a vital truth; that they are the primary shapers of the American past seems to me either a triviality or a highly dubious theory about the control of both political and economic investment in American history.” The point is that one can overemphasize the historical importance of ordinary people’s experiences and self-interpretations, and that many historians do this. The simple fact is that in the history of capitalist society, large business interests or corporations have vastly more sway over society than ordinary people do. They have incomparably more historical agency by virtue of their access to material resources—surely a commonsense truth. Thus, if historians want to explain the dynamics and trajectories of societies, they would do well to emphasize economics, moneyed interests, and class structures far more than they do. Furthermore, as stated above, this would have the morally desirable effect of highlighting the injustice of current institutional arrangements, thereby bolstering popular struggles.

The intellectual’s moral and scientific responsibilities, which arguably are not being fulfilled by much contemporary historical scholarship, can be reduced to the responsibility to challenge conventional wisdom. Intellectuals are in a unique position to do this, having the necessary skills, leisure, and access to enormous amounts of information. Instead, they are usually the guardians of conventional wisdom, not its challengers. Most of their work reinforces the notion that class relations, which determine differences in groups’ control over productive resources, are, far from being the most important determinant of social dynamics, not of especial significance, that, if anything, culture, ideology, gender, group psychology, and so forth are historically more important than the brute institutional realities of control over economic and material resources. The age of postmodernism has ushered in a scientifically dubious and morally objectionable (in its political implications) subjectivism, culturalism, and obsession with “discourse,” as if cultural discourses were not shaped precisely by institutional, ultimately economic, conditions and the play of competing interests. (It requires access to resources, after all, to propagate discourses, and access to resources is primarily an economic fact, i.e. determined largely by the dynamics of class relations, conflicts between groups of people with different economic interests by virtue of their occupying different locations in social structures.) Analyses of discourses, ideologies, and gendered, sexual, and racial identities have their place in scholarship, but authors should keep in mind that to emphasize ideas and identities at the expense of structures of, and struggles over, economic production and distribution is already a political act, in that it tends to focus attention on politically peripheral issues and does little to develop a critique of the central power relations in society. This fact, of course, helps explain why it is so predominant in academia: institutional mechanisms tend to filter out materialistic critiques of economic and political relations, since such “leftist,” “radical” arguments challenge society’s most entrenched power-structures, the structures that fund universities and influence political policies toward them. From the perspective of these moneyed interests, it is far safer to write about the formation of sexual identities or ordinary people’s “agency,” their supposed power over their lives and influence over politics. To emphasize ideologies, too, is politically safe, since it suggests that ideas matter more than institutions and that it is more important to change the former than the latter.

History writing should stop being as “academic” as it is; scholarship should more often be motivated by current political struggles. Historians could do popular movements, not to mention truth, a service by placing in its historical context, for example, business’s ongoing assaults on public-sector unionism, or by tracing corporations’ influence on federal and state politics or their systematic, decades-long dismantling of civil society (unions, communities, public transportation, etc.), or the ways in which public-relations firms craft media campaigns and thereby propagate “discourses” favorable to business. There is no shortage of politically controversial subjects—the controversial nature of which, incidentally, suggests their importance, their subversion of shallow conventional wisdom. That such scholarly projects and arguments are “partisan” is no argument against their essential truth, for there is no reason to think that truth should be benign toward or supportive of entrenched interests. Quite the contrary. It would be startling if social truths were unpartisan, i.e. acceptable to powerful interests, whose concern is not to propagate truth but to advance their own agendas.

Consistent with the foregoing critique is the criticism that historical scholarship is altogether too specialized, not “synthetic” enough. There is little cross-fertilization between economic history, political history, social history, cultural history, labor history, business history, and so on. To place everything in its proper social context, integration among fields is necessary. Historical materialist methods should in general be the foundation of most kinds of history, since they are common sense (notwithstanding their having been knocked out of people’s heads due to their politically subversive implications). Economic theory, too—at least the “realistic” kind of theory, e.g. Marxian economics, not neoclassical fantasies about efficient markets, perfect competition, etc.—is relevant to history in that it helps explain social dynamics, and historians should study it. The consequence of not studying other fields or disciplines is the postmodern parochialism that pervades academia, the overemphasis on gender, sexuality, discourse, ideologies, subjective identities, in addition to the more general counterproductive fragmentation that itself does much to vitiate the political potential of scholarship.

One can argue, in fact, that “intellectuals” have a moral obligation to serve progressive political struggles, being the beneficiaries of other people’s “surplus labor,” of an exploitive economic system that perpetuates poverty and disfranchisement among the large majority of the world population. Intellectuals have extraordinary privileges, which, because they are made possible by other people’s lack of privileges, they are morally obligated to use for these other people’s benefit. Such arguments, however, start to take us outside the realm of scholarship, so I'll leave them here as suggestions.

The point is that political activism and scholarship need not be mutually exclusive, that politically partisan scholarship (or scholarship with partisan implications) can embody the highest standards of academic rigor, and that, far from being unrespectable, it is scientifically and morally imperative that humanist intellectuals use their work to undermine conventional narratives. To do so, as I have said, historians ought to broaden their scholarship, integrate social history with economic history with political history and so forth. We have a lot of monographs on every conceivable subject; it is time we did more to integrate the best scholarship in numerous fields and so make it more compelling to the general public. The public hungers for knowledge untainted by political dishonesty—as evidenced by the popularity of such figures as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Mike Davis, Glenn Greenwald, and others who bring knowledge to the masses. This is the next frontier in the history of the intellectual; historians should recognize that and celebrate it.

* Anarcho-syndicalists believed that workers had to create in the womb of the old society the institutions of the new. Socialism, they thought, would be structured around workers’ councils and unions that had developed in the later stages of capitalism. They also rejected the idea of a “workers’ state,” proclaiming it to be impossible, and believed that the general strike was the most effective tool of revolution—two respects in which Marx would have disagreed with them. But arguably he shouldn’t have. From his perspective there is no good reason to disavow the use of the general strike. Even his support for the idea of a workers’ political party, which anarcho-syndicalists rejected (because they rejected all politics), is not particularly “Marxist,” since political parties are usually forced to work within the confines of the parliamentary system and thus make compromises that blur the antagonism between labor and capital, in the end leading to the co-optation of the labor movement as a prop for the stability of the system. This was a danger that Marx and Engels were aware of, but they didn’t take it seriously enough. Marx also should have made more explicit his support of direct action, which anarcho-syndicalists of course advocated. Nothing is more “Marxist” than direct action (which, like Marxist theory, tends to privilege material social relations over high-level politics). —On the other hand, I have to admit that Marx’s advocacy of political activity was in some ways more realistic and less “utopian” than the anarcho-syndicalist position. But it was either Scylla or Charybdis for him, and for the working class: either the syndicalist route, which didn’t work well in any country for a variety of reasons, or a workers’ party that would attempt to seize control of the state but in the process would inevitably make compromises and finally succumb to a moderate reformism and bureaucratism, as happened all over Europe. (Alternatively, if it didn’t become reformist, it would become ruthlessly authoritarian and bureaucratic, as most Communist parties did.)