Archive for March, 2011

Capitalism Without Capitalists

March 23rd, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Work

One thing that has long bothered me about many socialist and Marxist critiques of capitalism is that they presume that a system based on the accumulation of capital presupposes the existence of capitalists–that is, a specific group of people who earn their income from investment, rather than by working for wages. It is totally possible to imagine a system in which profit-making private enterprise still exists, the economy is based on profit-seeking and constant growth, and in which the entire population works as wage-laborers for most of their lives. I always figured the most likely candidate for such an arrangement was some kind of pension fund socialism. But today, Matt Yglesias gives another similar path. He’s discussing something from Felix Salmon about how the rich increasingly have access to lots of investment opportunities that are closed off to ordinary investors, and he says:

[T]he right thing to do is to just directly think about the issue of how best to ensure that everyone obtains the financial benefits of equity investments. And the answer, I think, is sovereign wealth funds. That’s how they do it in Singapore and conceptually it’s the right way to do it. An American version of Singapore’s Central Provident Fund would be much too large for any market to absorb, but the US share of world GDP should shrink over time and it’s conceivable that there would be some way to work this out on the state level to create smaller units. A fund like that would render the public listing issue irrelevant, since it would clearly have the scale to get in on the private equity game. This would, needless to say, entail injecting a hefty element of socialism into American public policy but I’m always hearing from smart conservatives how much they admire Singapore.

This points in the direction of an ideal type of society in which all businesses are owned by sovereign wealth funds of this type, which are used to pay for public services. So everyone works at a job for a wage or salary, and contributes some of their paycheck to one of these funds, just as they now contribute to pension funds. The returns from the funds are then used to pay for things like retirement, health care, education, and so on. Yglesias jokingly refers to this as “socialism”. And by certain classic definitions, it is: the capitalist class has been abolished, and the workers now own the means of production (through their sovereign wealth funds).

But in many other ways, of course, this is not how socialism was traditionally conceived. In particular, you would still have profit-seeking companies competing with each other, and they would still be subject to the same kind of discipline they are now–the shareholders, which is to say the sovereign wealth funds, would demand the highest possible return on their investment. So at best, this is a kind of market socialism. But while there are people who take on the task of the capitalist–the employees of the sovereign wealth funds–they don’t make up a capitalist class, because they aren’t investing for their own personal profit. Indeed, we’ve already moved a long way in this direction, which is why Peter Drucker was talking about pension fund socialism in 1972.

Of course, we do still have actual capitalists, and getting rid of them would be a long and difficult process. But the important point about capitalism without capitalists is that in many ways it isn’t any better than capitalism with capitalists. You still have to sell your labor power and submit to a boss in order to survive, so alienation persists. Since firms are still competing to deliver the highest returns to their shareholders, there will still be pressure to exploit employees more intensely and to prevent them from organizing for their rights. Exploitation goes on as before, and it will be all the more robust insofar as it is now a kind of collective self-exploitation. And on top of all of this, the system will still be prone to the booms and busts and problems of overaccumulation that occur in today’s capitalism. It was, after all, public and union pension funds that bought many of the toxic mortgage-backed securities during the housing bubble.

All of this is why it is analytically important to separate the conceptual framework of capital and wage labor from the concept of capitalists and workers. In the system I’ve just described, capital and wage labor still exist, and still define how the economy works. But now each person is simultaneously a capitalist and a worker, in some degree or for some part of their life. Thinking through the inadequacy of such an arrangement is, for me, a more accessible way of thinking through the arguments of people like André Gorz and Moishe Postone. They argued that the point isn’t to get rid of the capitalist class and have the workers take over: the point is to get rid of capital and wage labor.

The Internet is not a Place (any more)

March 22nd, 2011  |  Published in Everyday life, Politics

Easily the most tiresome conversation that has resulted from the Arab revolutions of 2011 is the argument about whether these uprisings are “Twitter revolutions” or “Facebook revoutions” or whatever. On the one hand, you have lots of mainstream media organizations playing up the importance of social networks as some sort of spontaneous revolution-fuel, while ignoring the long years of organization that went into, say, the Egypt uprising. And then you have people arguing that actually, Internet communication isn’t really a good basis for political organizing, or that it will become a tool of authoritarian governments, or that Twitter is trapping us all in a neo-liberal feedback loop of circulating affects.

Today I saw this silly op-ed, about how “the tweet will never replace the street”. This is an absurd straw target, of course; as NPR media strategist Andy Carvin remarks (on Twitter!), “Why is so hard to get that many revolutionaries in the mideast simply don’t separate their online lives from their offline ones?”

This really gets at what I find to be the fundamental irrelevance of these debates: they ultimately depend on a questionable metaphor. They all proceed as though “the Internet” and “the Real World” were clearly separate spaces. That underlying metaphor of the Internet as a separate social space goes back at least to William Gibson’s coining of “cyberspace”. And it does a pretty good job of portraying the way the Internet felt when I first encountered it in the 1990′s. But I think the most noteworthy thing about the period we’re in right now is that this boundary is being erased. In another ten or twenty years, the metaphor of “the Internet” as a separate space may not even make sense to us anymore.

This is a theme that Charlie Stross has written a lot about, and he lays out some of the important themes in this 2009 speech. He notes that the spread of high-spead Internet connections, along with devices like the iPhone, is effacing the line between the Internet and the Real World. Looking forward to 2030, he says:

Welcome to a world where the internet has turned inside-out; instead of being something you visit inside a box with a coloured screen, it’s draped all over the landscape around you, invisible until you put on a pair of glasses or pick up your always-on mobile phone. A phone which is to today’s iPhone as a modern laptop is to an original Apple II; a device which always knows where you are, where your possessions are, and without which you are — literally — lost and forgetful.

Now, one can be excited or terrified about this vision, or some combination of both. But what’s significant about it is that it makes absolutely no sense to ask whether the Internet is important for real world politics in this context. The Internet is the world is the Internet.

To step back into the present: obviously we don’t yet live in a world of always-on augmented reality. But things like Twitter are a step in that direction. There is something fundamentally different about Twitter–where you can post updates and communicate with people from anywhere, as something integrated into everyday life–compared to the way the Internet was when I was a kid, when “going online” meant going down into the basement and getting lost in the screen. Newsgroups and listservs and BBS systems and the like really did feel like separate “spaces”, and so the metaphor of the internet as a place made sense. That’s why that Chappelle’s show sketch “If the Internet was a Real Place” is funny.

The whole misbegotten debate about Internet-versus-real activism strikes me as a consequence of the inevitable generational lag in our intellectual life. The people who are now in a position to dominate the conversation are the ones who were the first to grow up with the Internet–but it was the old Internet-as-a-place. I suspect that as the generations following mine assert their own approach to these questions, they will look at these distinctions very differently.

New Jacobin Essay, and an addendum on Bahrain

March 15th, 2011  |  Published in Imperialism, Politics

I have a new essay for Jacobin Magazine, about what the Arab revolutions of 2011 mean for anti-imperialist politics in the United States. I’d encourage my handful of readers on this site to take your click traffic over that way–in spite of my involvement, Bhaskar Sunkara has put together a great group of writers at Jacobin.

By writing about such fast-moving events, I ensured that my contribution would be outdated as soon as it appeared. One thing I had to completely skip over in the essay was the events in Bahrain, but it’s worth talking about because it’s an important counterpoint to the cases I discussed in that piece. I focused on Egypt and Libya, and I argued that American leverage in those two cases was considerably less than most people–left and right–seemed to think. But Bahrain is the opposite sort of case, and it’s pretty clear that Obama has more influence over the situation there than anyone in the American elite wants to admit. A comparison between the way Bahrain and Libya are being discussed in the press illuminates the contradictions and hypocrisies that characterize debates about foreign policy in the United States.

To summarize: Saudi Arabia has sent troops into Bahrain to put down the escalating protests against the monarchy there. Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni Muslim, while the majority of the population is Shia–and the Saudis are clearly afraid that the uprising might give their own Shiite minority some ideas. But by sending in troops, the Saudis could make the whole situation much more volatile and deadly–already, the opposition is denouncing the move as an “occupation” and a “declaration of war”. The U.S. government, meanwhile, “does not consider” the Saudi action to be an invasion.

The United States is deeply implicated in all of this–there is a major U.S. naval base in Bahrain, while the Saudis are close American allies and loyal customers of our military-industrial complex. And as Brookings Doha Center analyst Shadi Hamid remarked on Twitter, the Saudis wouldn’t have gone into Bahrain without U.S. approval, or at least “lack of a red light”. Former British diplomat Craig Murray gets even more specific, reporting that “A senior diplomat in a western mission to the UN in New York . . . has told me for sure that Hillary Clinton agreed to the cross-border use of troops to crush democracy in the Gulf, as a quid pro quo for the Arab League calling for Western intervention in Libya.”

All of which goes to show that when people ask what the Obama administration can do to help the uprisings in the Middle East, the sensible response is that they should start by ceasing to actively prop up the dictators there. Backing away from the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies would be far easier and less bloody than, say, invading Libya. This is the fundamental reason why I don’t think we can take the pronouncements of liberal humanitarian imperialists like Jackson Diehl at face value when they insist that American military intervention is the only solution to authoritarian regimes or global humanitarian crises. Take the aptly-named Anne-Marie Slaughter, who took to the New York Times to condemn Obama for not taking unilateral military action in Libya. To advocate such a dangerous and deadly course of action while ignoring the American role in fomenting human rights abuses in the Arab world is not just ill-considered, it’s fundamentally dishonest. But as Matt Yglesias remarks, “there’s definitely a set of people in the United States who seem to want to help suffering people in the developing world if and only if that can be accomplished by killing other people in the developing world.”

As I say in the Jacobin essay, I think that the decline of American imperial power (and more proximately, the lesson of Iraq) is making people like Diehl and Slaughter less dangerous, simply because their deranged schemes are less likely to be realized. But these silly debates about no-fly zones and humanitarian invasions do still serve to distract attention from American complicity in atrocities like what’s happening in Bahrain. So long as the liberal warmongers can get a hearing in the New York Times and the Washington Post, there’s still a need for a forthrightly anti-imperialist left that can make the argument that the best thing for the liberation movements around the world would be an American government and military that does less to interfere in their affairs, rather than more.