Liberalism and Legitimacy

February 3rd, 2017  |  Published in Politics, Socialism

The ethics of punching Nazis may be exhausting its useful life as a topic for punditry. But there’s one aspect of the debate that perhaps hasn’t received sufficient attention.

In the wake of Richard Spencer’s punching, and the shutdown of Milo Yiannopoulos’s speech in Berkeley, debate flared over whether these actions were justifiable and necessary direct action against the far right, or whether they represented something counter-productive or even politically unprincipled.

First, it’s necessary to pull apart several different things that are being argued about, which tend to get confusingly mashed together.

Some want to argue the question of whether the Left should use “violence”. But most of what we’re arguing about should not be described as violence. Punching Richard Spencer in the head would certainly qualify, albeit in a fairly minor way; but much of what people are calling violence is really just property destruction, the smashing of windows or the burning of limos. We should make a clear distinction between the mere destruction of objects and actual violence against human beings. Spencer notwithstanding, the worst violence seen thus far has come from supporters of the right.

A second separation we ought to make is between the general strategy of denying fascists a platform to speak, and specific, more disruptive “black bloc” tactics, including the aforementioned smashing of windows. One can affirm the validity of the strategy while questioning the tactics. A good example of this, dating back to the aftermath of the Occupy Oakland protests of 2011, is this post from rapper and communist organizer Boots Riley. Here he is talking about acts like window smashing as impediments to organizing, not as things that are always wrong in principle.

So we have three issues: violence, black bloc tactics, and the strategy of denying a platform to fascists. I’m not concerned here with debating the first two. The first because there has been so little actual violence, and the most notable has come from the right. The second because, while I tend to agree that adventurist tactics are often counterproductive for the Left and can put other activists at risk, this is a problem of discipline that movement organizers have to figure out how to solve internally. I doubt I have much to contribute as an outside observer.

My concern is with the broader issue of denying fascists the ability to spread their message. Was it right to interrupt Richard Spencer’s interview? (Whether or not one thinks it should have been done with an elbow to the head.) And was it right to organize protests large enough to prevent Milo from speaking at the University of California, after the school had approved his event? My starting point is generally that the far right does not respect norms of liberal discourse, and advocates positions that should be outside the realm of reasonable debate. So we shouldn’t feel bound by the terms of liberalism either when dealing with them.

This is the point in the conversation where we conventionally move to debating “free speech”, and whether the unconditional right of speech is something to be defended by the Left in all circumstances. But there are some problems that arise when we try to define just what a “right to free speech” includes, or doesn’t include.

A recent Peter Beinart article is representative of the liberal line that says “you can’t shut down a talk, everyone has a right to free speech!” Beinart essentially says that every student at Berkeley should have an equal right to give a platform to whatever speech they like, and thus the Left has failed by denying the College Republicans their inalienable right to hear Milo.

One response to this is that it’s misleading to say that protesters are abridging “the right of free speech” by shutting down an event. The argument is summarized in this XKCD cartoon: free speech means that the state can’t censor your expression, not that you are guaranteed an audience and a platform wherever and whenever you want. When someone cries “free speech” and shouts “help help I’m being repressed” upon being banned from a blog comment thread, this makes for a handy response. And since almost nobody is calling on the government to ban fascist speech at the moment, we could say that “free speech” is an irrelevant argument in this context.

This is fine as far as it goes, but one could easily respond: sure, that’s the constitution’s definition of free speech, but it doesn’t have to be ours. Some would argue that it is simply contrary to core leftist principles to deny even the most odious people their opportunity to speak. Others argue from a more strategic perspective, claiming that shutting down right wing speech will inevitably backfire, because it will draw sympathy and attention to it, and because the right and their allies in the state apparatus are more willing and able to restrict expression than we are.

The strategic argument is one I find wanting. The argument against “drawing attention” to the far right only makes sense if you think they will win because their ideas have so much inherent mass appeal, rather than because such movements rely on intimidation and force. And as for the backlash argument, it’s not clear to me how leftist actions are causally related to right wing moves toward censorship. The Right will certainly deploy the trope of free speech–as many of them did to me when I tweeted my support for the actions in Berkeley. But it would be foolish to believe that they have any actual intention of respecting our speech rights should they achieve greater power, whether or not we honor theirs. In other words, the Trump administration didn’t start shutting up the EPA on climate change because somebody interrupted Richard Spencer.

The argument from first principles seems harder to refute; you either believe it or you don’t. You could argue that the principle fails because the distinction between “speech” and “action” is impossible to cleanly maintain. That, as Austin and other speech act theorists argued, words can sometimes directly do things in the world. This is certainly applicable to Milo, who has been known to promote harassment of trans people and who apparently intended to directly target immigrant students at his Berkeley event.

However, this quickly gets us back into the world of legalism and logic-chopping, and debating what is or isn’t an innocent or “protected” act of speech. Is this mere rhetoric, or is it yelling fire in a crowded theater?

I think we can move beyond this to a deeper problem with the more wide-ranging definitions of the right to speech. Because once you disconnect the concept of free speech from the specific notion of keeping the state out of regulating expression, you run into a new problem. You need some way of deciding who does or doesn’t have the power to enable speech.

Sitting here at my desk, I have the unconditional right to speech, in the sense that I can yell out whatever I please, to be heard by nobody but my dog and my partner trying to work in the office across the hall. Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer are similarly unconstrained. The problems arise when a TV network chooses to interview Spencer, or the University of California chooses to give Milo access to their facilities.

They have the right to do that, you might say, and we should respect it. But what is it, exactly, that gives them a right to decide who gets to speak, but doesn’t give a mass protest movement the right to say who shouldn’t get to speak?

I’ve seen some people argue that shutting down speech through protest is undemocratic–because, I suppose, we didn’t all get a vote on whether fascists should give speeches. But that’s precisely it–we didn’t get a vote on this, it was the media and places like UC Berkeley that made the decision. So in that sense all the decisions are equally undemocratic, and we have a contest of power, between two conflicting claims about who has the right to grant someone the ability to disseminate their message. And as Marx put it, “between equal rights, force decides.”

Here we get to what I think is the heart of the matter. This is about a principle that is fundamental to the mainstream of modern liberalism, one that tends to override all others. It is not the principle of free speech, or any other abstract right. Rather, it is an unwavering faith in the unquestionable legitimacy of the state, and of the rest of society’s powerful institutions.

This faith is distilled perfectly in this tweet from Shadi Hamid. “Can’t believe ppl on my Twitter feed are saying punching Richard Spencer is okay or encouraging it. I mean, it’s illegal to punch people.”

That’s it. That’s the whole argument. What makes this especially rich is that Hamid, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, is known for saying things like “the better, more just world that so many hope for is simply impossible without the use of American military force.” So an opponent of violence he most definitely is not. He simply demands that it be carried out by agents of the U.S. government.

This, of course, is a very old liberal faith. It is merely the insistence that, as Max Weber put it, a state, to even be a state, must claim the “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force”.

The presumption of legitimacy, for people like Beinart in the article cited above, extends beyond the use of force and beyond the core apparatus of the state itself. Public institutions created by the state, respected private institutions and private property guaranteed by its laws; all must remain inviolate. And it is these institutions alone that may decide who does or does not receive a platform to speak.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s decision to give Richard Spencer a platform is presumed to be legitimate; a protester’s decision to deny him one is presumed not to be. The University of California’s decision to host Milo cannot be questioned, while the decision of the students and local community to shut him down must be denounced. (In other situations, the principle is ambiguous. Had Shia LaBeouf constituted the legitimate authority to shout down a white supremacist who attempted to shout a Nazi slogan on a livestream he had set up?)

The liberal will respond that because we voted for our elected representatives, everything that they do, everything that legally constituted institutions do, and anything that is consistent with the laws of private property, is legitimate. All else is dangerous and subversive, and risks anarchy, fascism, or worse.

But for radicals, America is not already great, nor is it completely democratic. And so we are under no obligation to grant legitimacy to the existing order.

This is, and always has been, a crucial dividing line between liberals and radicals. It’s not that we necessarily think it’s ideal to decide questions of speech–or anything else–through ad-hoc clashes between protesters and institutionalized power. What we insist on, however, is that the legitimacy of the state and of other institutions of capitalist society can be questioned. This presumption is necessary to justify even something as basic as waging an illegal strike or marching without a permit. But it leads, for some socialist traditions, all the way to the idea that in truly revolutionary situations (which is far from where we are now), an actual dual power can be constituted, with new institutions arising to contest and eventually replace the existing ones.

Liberals instinctively resist these ideas, and fall back on their reverence for the process, the procedure, and the rule of law. But it will be interesting to see how their thinking develops in the era of Trump.

For we are now living in a moment where the executive intends to rule by decree, and where its agents cavalierly defy direct court orders. And at the same time, also one where, as Corey Robin argues, many horrors are completely achievable within the boundaries of the traditional institutions and rules. If all the rusty machinery of American constitutional democracy is so easily disregarded, or so easily turned to evil purposes, what will become of the liberal insistence that it is only the old institutions, and not the masses in motion, who represent a legitimate order?

Bedtime for Bannon

January 29th, 2017  |  Published in Politics

What the Trump administration has done, over the past few days, is horrific. And it has terrible human consequences for the migrants and other people caught up in it. I don’t want to minimize that.

If there’s a silver lining here, though, it’s that I have a feeling Steve Bannon is going to end up getting hellaciously dumpstered behind this shit.

Sure, he seems to be riding high now. Writing inauguration speeches and executive orders; even getting himself stuck on the National Security Council!

But things are already spinning out of control and falling apart, in the face of resistance from both mass street protest and the judiciary.

And Donald Trump is known to be a person whose primary loyalty is to Donald J. Trump. To stay in his inner circle, you need to have a “value proposition”, as the sleazy businessmen like to say. That is, something you have to offer, that can increase the revenue of the business.

And what, exactly, is Bannon’s value proposition?

It isn’t any special connection with the conventional Republican political elite. Paul Ryan and the like have always regarded him with something between indifference and contempt. And they’re probably starting to wonder if his agenda is crowding out more traditional conservative priorities, such as starving out grannies, enabling financial fraud, lowering taxes on billionaires, and ensuring that sick people die in the gutter if they aren’t rich.

Bannon also isn’t a gateway to the super-rich donor class. From the perspective of the billionaires, his pipsqueak Seinfeld-residuals-cashing ass barely registers.

What Steve Bannon provides–or was supposed to provide–is the mass base, the hordes of frothing Trump supporters, who would pour forth from 4chan and Breitbart.com to give aid and cover to the schemes of the Ayn Rand-worshipping ideologues and the cynical rich.

The problem is that he isn’t actually delivering this. Hence the half-empty inauguration, followed up with packed Women’s March protests. The definitive image from Trump’s coronation wasn’t hordes of his adoring fans; it was Richard Spencer getting punched in the face. This was an embarrassment so severe, Trump was reduced to harassing the Park Service for more flattering photos. And then we got the executive orders on migrants that presumably were supposed to bring out the grateful masses, but which only succeeded in bringing on a whirlwind of mobilization against Trump.

Trump’s vanity and idiocy are sufficient that it may take him some time to realize this. But once he does, it’s bedtime for Bannon, who will be defenestrated without ceremony. That leaves the rest of the ghouls in this administration and in congress, who are no less terrifying in their own way. But we’ll have gotten our first win, and hopefully far from the last.

Class War Trumps Hate

December 10th, 2016  |  Published in Politics, Socialism

Sent on a whim while I was killing some time in Troy, New York, this appears to be my most popular tweet of all time. (Not that there’s much tough competition.) Explaining a tweet seems sort of like explaining a joke, but I’m going to make a run at it anyway.

“Class war trumps hate.”

The reference, of course, is to those squishy liberal “Love Trumps Hate” bumper stickers. As though warm feelings are enough to combat the bigotry of the Right.

As for my alternative slogan, maybe part of its appeal was its ambiguity. In one reading, I’m saying that the way we respond to the haters is not by embracing them, but by fighting them in the streets. And when it comes to hipster fascists like Richard Spencer and his ilk, I couldn’t agree more. We should all admire anti-fascist street fighters like this guy, my favorite of Keith Ellison’s clients from his days as a leftist lawyer in the Twin Cities. (And that’s a story I hope I can tell at greater length sometime in the future.)

But that wasn’t actually what I was thinking about when I wrote that tweet. What I was thinking about was the picket line I had just visited with Jon Flanders, near Troy in upstate New York. Jon is a veteran socialist, a veteran unionist (former Machinist local president), and the mastermind of the wonderful James Connolly Forum, a non-sectarian lecture series that I visted for a discussion of my book.

Jon took me to see the workers who have been on strike at Momentive, a chemical manufacturer and former GE subsidiary where the workers have suffered a decade of brutalization from the company’s private equity owners. “Picket line” isn’t even the right word; the vast Momentive complex stretches on for perhaps a half mile, and each entrance is staffed by a small crew of workers, with a tent for shelter and a large pile of broken-up pallets to be burned for warmth.

At the Momentive strike

They were a range of ages, but mostly men, mostly white. Some of them, Jon told, me, would have voted for Trump: “Drain the Swamp”, he said, was a sign he had seen from some younger strikers. But out here, they were just union brothers and sisters, so I said to them what I would say to anyone fighting a similar battle: solidarity with your struggle, the verbal equivalent of the stream of supportive honks from the passing truck drivers. The little spark of joy I noticed whenever I said that was heartwarming, but also a depressing indicator of just how little solidarity these workers have received.

Which brings me to the inspiration for that tweet. Jon told me a story about a particular form of strike support that he had helped facilitate. The Capital District Coalition Coalition Against Islamophobia organized a visit to the strikers by three women from the local Islamic Center. They brought food, and introduced themselves to the workers on the picket. Jon himself was apprehensive beforehand, concerned about potential bigotry and Islamophobia coming from the strikers.

In the end though, the strikers were grateful for the support–they know they are in a fight for their lives, and they know better than to refuse an ally. And their visitors learned something about a labor struggle that had been obscure to them. “I can’t honestly say that I knew much about strikes or have ever visited a picket line, so I learned a lot today”, one of them wrote on Facebook. “I’m pretty sure most of the strikers had never met a Muslim before but they all thanked us profusely for taking the time to give them some support.”

It’s a small thing, this one little act. But small acts like that are the elements of any sustainable reconstruction of the Left, one that is “intersectional” in practice, not just in rhetoric. So that was what I was thinking when I wrote that tweet, just after getting my picture taken with the statue of Irish revolutionary legend and onetime Troy resident James Connolly: class struggle trumps hate. That is, a solidarity forged in struggle can overcome the abstract indoctrinations of race hatred. Which is not to say that the realities of imperialism or white supremacy can simply be ignored or left in the past. Merely that the overcoming of those systems begins where people are thrown together in common struggle.

Me with James Connolly statue, Troy NY

The Survivors

June 30th, 2016  |  Published in Politics

Politics is full of surprises of late, as both a resurgent left and an atavistic right win one surprising victory after another.

One peculiarity of the conjuncture is that the rising social democratic left in the English-speaking world has produced two oddly similar, and similarly odd figureheads: Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Both, of course, fit a similar style profile, as old and somewhat disheveled white men, seemingly a bit out of touch with the contemporary culture that has propelled them to unprecedented levels of political success. Hence the inherent humor of something like Corbyn’s arrival on talk show The Last Leg, or Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash. Each exploits the incongruity of these men’s nebbishy affect when contrasted with their youthful supporters.

But I don’t think it’s quite an accident that it was men like these who ended up in this position, in this particular moment.

Our political period is characterized by a rising, but still largely disorganized left, arrayed against a moribund but still institutionally powerful neoliberal order that uses its accumulated power to compensate for its complete lack of compelling answers to contemporary political questions. In order to contest state politics at the highest level–the presidency of the United States, the Prime Minister of the UK–someone had to be found, within the higher echelons of power, who could serve as a figurehead.

After decades of reaction, few such people were available. But what we found was people like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

And so the interesting question is, how do we characterize politicians like them? I’d suggest that they are best summarized as survivors. They are people who lived through a period of reaction, during which their leftist peers generally burned out, faded away, or reinvented themselves as neoliberal hacks. Whereas people like Sanders and Corbyn managed to hold on to something resembling traditional social democratic politics, while remaining in proximity to the highest reaches of power within the capitalist state. They managed to survive a period of reaction without either being driven out of politics or becoming reactionaries themselves.

Although Sanders and Corbyn were immersed in the left during its high points in the 1960s and 1970s, nobody would have considered them great figures for the history books until recently. Sanders participated in the civil rights movement as a student, and in left-wing electoral projects in Vermont, but was essentially a minor figure. Corbyn attended discussion groups with luminaries of the British left like Ralph Miliband and Tony Benn, but was mostly remembered as a quiet and unremarkable figure, peripheral to the movers and shakers on the left of that era.

So what distinguishes people like Sanders and Corbyn is that they survived. Not just in the literal sense that they’re still alive, but in the sense that they were in a position to contest the Democratic presidential nomination or the leadership of the Labour Party from the left, when nobody else was.

People like that have, I would say, three important characteristics.

First, and most obviously, some level of idealistic and ideological commitment to social democracy or left-liberalism. This is the aspect that the lazy press tends to harp on–look at these doddering hippies, with their “values” and their “ideals”! See how out of touch they are with the cynical compromises with capitalism that, as all savvy observers know, are the essence of politics.

And of course it’s true that Sanders and Corbyn had to have some kind of principled commitment in order to avoid giving up their ideals in favor of what would surely have been a better dispensation, had they conceded to Clintonism and Blairism.

But to portray them as merely hippy-dippy idealists is to leave out two other, and equally important parts of their political persona.

The first is that they are, in fact, extremely pragmatic, strategic, and at times ruthless politicians. How else, after all, could they have survived for so long, in an environment where even their own ostensible party-mates and allies rejected their positions?

At the apex of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the New York Times ran an article entitled “Bernie Sanders’s Campaign Past Reveals Willingness to Play Hardball.” It detailed some of the tactics that Sanders used to win and maintain power in Vermont, sometimes with harsh attacks on his opponents. The subtext of the coverage seemed to be that such tactics were at odds with Sanders’ program or his image. But all the article really demonstrated was that the media’s portrayal of Sanders as a genial hippie grandpa was at odds with his real nature as a political survivor, someone who was always interested in merging principle with power.

The final distinguishing characteristic of these left-wing survivor politicians, who have been thrust into leadership, is that they tend towards an individualistic, lone-wolf approach to politics. Bernie Sanders has spent decades as the only party-independent member of congress (despite caucusing with Democrats). Corbyn was content to tend his London district until he reluctantly agreed to pursue what he thought would be a doomed protest candidacy for Labour leader. And what other course would have been available, during a period when New Labour and the Democratic Leadership Council were loudly and fiercely denouncing the politics of a Corbyn or Sanders as out of date, out of style, and beyond the boundaries of respectable politics? (This is, perhaps, a neglected interpretation of Sanders’ initial difficulties when confronted by Black Lives Matter activists: it wasn’t just that he had some blind spot about racism, but that he was generally not used to being held accountable by a mass movement.)

And so it is that we enter a period of renewed left organizing with men like this as our figureheads. Their particular combination of idealism, ruthlessness, and iconoclasm made them well suited to the dark years of “lifeboat socialism” that they survived. These traits do not, however, make them particularly well-matched to the period we are now entering. And so we will need to find new leaders from the ranks of organizers who have been radicalized over the past decade.

In the meantime, however, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the social democratic politicians you have. Which means Bernie Sanders, who took his campaign farther than anyone could have reasonably expected, and Jeremy Corbyn, who will hopefully hold on against the inept and despicable attempts of his parliamentary peers to depose him. And hopefully we will all look back at their improbable moments in the spotlight, and see them as the early days of a better world.

Building the Crisis

May 24th, 2016  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Patrick Iber and Mike Konczal have an essay at Dissent in which they use the Bernie Sanders phenomenon as an opportunity to explain the theories of Karl Polanyi, and what they mean for the future of progressive politics.

Polanyi was a Hungarian emigré to Vienna and later England and the United States, a veteran of the interwar period that gave us the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. His most famous work, The Great Transformation, was written in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In it, he attempted to diagnose the failures of the free-market capitalism of his time, which in his view had given rise to the reaction and war he lived through.

His central point, and the one which has been most influential on contemporary liberals, is that there has never been any such thing as an unfettered or “natural” free market. Rather, all really-existing social formations involve complex ties between people based on a variety of norms and traditions. As Iber and Konczal put it, “the economy is ’embedded’ in society–part of social relations–not apart from them.” For this reason, the attempt to establish unfettered and unregulated markets is doomed: “a pure free market society is a utopian project, and impossible to realize, because people will resist the process of being turned into commodities.”

This is an important insight, and to this point there’s not much about it that I can disagree with. The problem arises when one tries to derive a complete political strategy from this analysis. This is where I part ways with the Polanyian analysis that Iber and Konczal offer.

They suggest that the vision of “socialism” offered by Polanyi, and also by Bernie Sanders, ultimately just involves subjecting capitalism to some humane and democratic limits. They quote a passage in which Polanyi defines socialism as “the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.” Polanyi does not seem to think that markets or capitalist property relations could be superseded (although the later parts of The Great Transformation introduce some ambiguity on this point.) Capitalism will only be humanized and controlled. Iber and Konczal attribute something like this idea to Bernie Sanders: “people use democracy to change the rules governing our national political economy.”

There is a long tradition, especially associated with Leninism, that rejects this program on the grounds of “reformism.” According to this view, the Polanyi perspective is inadequate because it embraces reforms that ameliorate capitalism. This is taken to be a distraction from the need to build a revolutionary force that can seize state power, overthrow the ruling class, and reconstruct property relations. This is a perspective that Iber and Konczal quickly dismiss: a “traditionally Marxist idea of having the state seize the means of production” which, they say, “has been abandoned even by most who identify as socialists.”

I consider myself a socialist and a Marxist, although a questionably “traditional” one. My objection to the Polanyian analysis is somewhat different, however, from the one Iber and Konczal adduce. I am very much a “reformist” in the sense that my day to day politics involves working for things like universal health care or stronger unions or a less corrupt local government. (This, it should be noted, was also true of many historical communist militants, even if they looked forward to the seizure of power as their horizon.) Where I part company with the Polanyian left–and in some ways, also the traditional Marxist left–is in where I think such struggles ultimately lead.

Some time ago, I wrote a bit about the way Polanyian ideas influence advocates and defenders of the welfare state. In response to sociologist Daniel Zamora’s attack on the theory of Michel Foucault, I noted that for many left critics of neoliberal capitalism, the project of the left is conceived in Polanyian terms, and is therefore limited to the struggle to “cushion workers from the vagaries of the market, while leaving the basic institutions of private property and wage labor in place.” Thus there can be nothing beyond “a welfare state that protects the working class from the workings of an unfettered market.”

There are two distinct objections that I would raise against this project. One is basically normative: a world of somewhat humanized wage labor isn’t the one I want to live in, even if it would be better than the one we live in now. This is rooted in the anti-work socialist tradition, which insists that the ultimate goal of socialist politics isn’t to make wage labor nicer, but to abolish it altogether. Since I’ve written extensively about that elsewhere, I won’t repeat those arguments here.

The second objection has to do with the long-term viability of Polanyian welfare capitalism as an equilibrium within capitalism. The fundamental distinction I would make, between Marxist and Polanyian social democracy, does not have to do with debates over “reform” or “revolution”. In other words, I accept the proposition that in the near term, the socialist project unfolds through incremental struggles that win material gains for workers, within the context of capitalism.

But the end point of Polanyi’s socialism is really the regime that the theorist of the welfare state, Gøsta Esping-Andersen, called welfare capitalism. That is, it is still a society in which the means of production are privately controlled by a small elite, and most people must sell their labor to survive. It differs from unfettered capitalism because of the presence of things like unions, regulations, and social safety net programs, which partially–but never totally–decommodify labor.

It is at this point that we discover the divide between the Polanyian perspective and the Marxist alternative I’m proposing. It all turns on the question of whether this regime is viable.

What is viability? A concise definition comes from the sociologist Erik Olin Wright–who comes from a Marxist background, but whose work has strong Polanyian overtones. He has worked extensively on defining “real utopias” that could be offered as alternatives to the present system. He argues that any such utopia must satisfy three criteria: desirability, achievability, and viability. The first two are what they sound like: is this where we want to go, and can we get there?

As noted above, I think the Polanyian vision is somewhat lacking in terms of desirability. But it would still be a step forward. And on the question of achievability, I have no real quibbles: I support reformist struggles for the welfare state because I view them as achievable, compared to the alternative strategies of building an insurrectionary communist party, or writing sectarian polemics and waiting for capitalism to collapse on its own.

Viability is where all the problems arise. Wright defines the viability question as follows: “If we could create this alternative, would we be able to stay there or would it have such unintended consequences and self-destructive dynamics that it would not be sustainable?”

Recall the definition of Polanyi socialism as the situation in which “people use democracy to change the rules governing our national political economy.” Is that a stable equilibrium, acceptable to both capitalists and workers? Or is it an inherently unstable situation, one which must break toward either the expropriation of the capitalist class, or the restoration of ruling class power?

Unlike the Polanyians, I think the welfare state is, in Wright’s terms, not viable. Unlike Wright, however, I do not think that this invalidates it as a goal. Rather, I think that socialist politics is inevitably a task of “building the crisis.” And the great tragedy of postwar socialism was the perverse division of political labor it gave rise to, between revolutionaries who refused to engage with reformist politics, and reformists who were unable or unwilling to deal with the crisis that their victories inevitably produced.

So, what makes social democracy non-viable as a stable system? For this, we need to turn to the Polish economist Michal Kalecki, and his famous 1943 essay “Political Aspects of Full Employment.” The core insight of that essay is that economic struggles between workers and bosses are ultimately not about the size of the wage, or the stability of employment, or the generosity of benefits. They are about power.

It is possible to construct arguments showing that putting unemployed workers back to work would be good for capitalists too, in the sense that it would lead to faster growth and more profits. But as Chris Maisano explains in his exegesis of Kalecki, “the biggest barriers to the maintenance of full employment are primarily political in nature, not economic.”

This is because in a situation of low unemployment, workers are less afraid of what Kalecki called the “power of the sack”. As they become less afraid of the boss, they begin to demand more and more of the capitalists. Unions and social democratic parties strengthen; wildcat strikes proliferate. Eventually this dynamic calls into question not just profits, but the underlying property relations of capitalism itself. Welfare capitalism thus reaches what we could call the “Kalecki point,” where its viability has been fatally undermined.

In that situation, employers become willing to take drastic action to get workers back into line, even at the expense of short term profitability. This takes many forms, including state-led attacks on unions and the refusal of capitalists to invest, a “capital strike” in which money is moved overseas or simply left in the bank, as a way of breaking the power of the working class.

David Harvey, in his Brief History of Neoliberalism, essentially portrays the right wing turn of the 1980’s as a reactionary resolution of this crisis: a move away from the Kalecki point that entailed a restoration of capitalist class power rather than a leap into socialism. Jonah Birch provides a useful case study of France’s Mitterand government during this period, which pushed the boundaries of the social democratic compromise and was finally forced back by the power of capital. The failure of the Rehn-Meidner plan, which was essentially a gradualist scheme to socialize the means of production in Sweden, provides a similar example.

So far I’ve argued that the social democratic class compromise is inherently non-viable, and tends toward conflict and crisis. But another way to look at it is that welfare capitalism can be made viable, but only in a way that subverts its socialist promise. This is because “the power of the sack” can be reconfigured into other kinds of disciplinary power, depending on the nature of the particular welfare capitalist regime we’re talking about.

Recently, I discovered (via Mariame Kaba), the work of Elizabeth Hinton. Hinton’s work focuses on Lyndon Johnson’s 1960’s “Great Society” expansion of the welfare state, and its connection to the construction of the carceral state–the rise of mass incarceration and militarized policing. She shows that while the Great Society was expanding access to things like income support and health care, a simultaneous “War on Crime” was subjecting the poor, and especially the black poor, to increased surveillance and state repression. Her analysis indicates that this was not an accidental juxtaposition, but part of a cohesive reconstruction of the relationship between the state and the working class.

This is easily comprehensible in terms of the contradictory nature of the welfare state and the problem of the Kalecki point. Without the welfare state, workers are disciplined by the power of the sack–or, in situations where workers are sufficiently organized and cohesive to resist the boss anyway, by private militias.

In the era of the welfare state, however, the partial decommodification of labor creates a great danger to capital, because it enhances the autonomy of workers, whether employed or not, to make demands on capital and the state. It was just this recognition that drove organizers like Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward to organize welfare recipients in the late 1960’s.

Police violence, drug wars, mass incarceration, onerous requirements on benefit recipients: these are all ways of disciplining the worker in the era of the welfare state, in the absence of the power of the sack. This also means that struggles against police oppression and incarceration are not parallel or ancillary to class struggle and the movement for socialism, but are fundamental to it: they attack the disciplinary regime that maintains the stability of our particular regime of capital accumulation.

For the the more Polanyi-ish, and Pollyana-ish, it’s possible for us all to get along in a world where workers have comfortable lives and the bosses still make money. That’s the vision that seems to animate Iber and Konczal’s explainer. The alternative Marxist argument is that capitalism is defined by the power struggle between workers and capital, and the Polanyian version of socialism attempts to elide that contradiction in favor of a vision of harmonious co-existence.

Where this vision fails is not in the short term but in the long run. It leaves the left ill-equipped to address the inevitable crises that a successful reformist program generates, and I would argue that the belief in the possibility of permanent class compromise contributed to the defeat of the left and the victory of neoliberalism.

So the problem isn’t that we can’t win reformist victories for workers. History has shown that we can. The problem is what comes after victory, and we need a theory of socialism and social democracy that prepares our movements for that phase.

A $15 minimum wage is too high and that’s great

April 15th, 2016  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Time, Work

How high is too high, for the minimum wage?

Dylan Matthews, in his wrap-up of the Democratic primary debate, says that his “off-the-record conversations with left-leaning Democratic economists” indicate that many of them “express grave concern about the $15-an-hour figure, about the danger that this time we might be going too far.” His Vox colleague Timothy Lee is tagged in to make the same argument in another post.

This despite the fact that Hillary Clinton has now apparently joined Bernie Sanders in endorsing the $15 minimum, going back on her previous unwillingness to go above $12.

And you know what? I think they might be right. It might be the case that a $15 an hour minimum wage is, as Matthews put in a tweet, “dangerous”. To which my response is: that’s awesome!

The reason that bourgeois economists tend to think a high minimum wage is “dangerous” is because they think it will lead to reduced employment. This is for two reasons.

First, because if it becomes economically infeasible to hire people at $15 per hour for certain jobs, the employers may just go out of business, reducing the demand for labor. There is a large body of literature suggesting that this objection is overblown, dating back to Card and Krueger in the early 1990’s. But it’s hard to dispute that there is some level at which higher minimum wages will lead to reduced employment.

The second thing that could reduce employment, even if the minimum wage doesn’t force any businesses to go under, is automation. If it costs $15 an hour to pay a burger-flipper at McDonalds, perhaps it will become more appealing to turn to a burger-flipping robot, of the sort offered by Momentum Machines. This is a retort often thrown at living wage advocates by conservative critics: joke’s on you suckers, raise your wage and we’ll just automate your job!

Together, these arguments amount to a radical case for high minimum wages, not against them. Because they both get at the underlying political principle that should motivate any argument for higher wages: people need more money. That’s completely separate from the question of whether things like low-wage fast food jobs should exist at all, which they probably shouldn’t.

In other words, if $15 an hour makes it a little easier for a McDonalds worker to survive, that’s great. But if it leads to some of those jobs disappearing entirely, then that forces us to confront an even bigger and more important question. Namely, how do we separate the idea of providing everyone with a decent standard of living from the idea of getting everyone a “job”? I’ve argued before that job-creation is a hole that we should stop digging.

The fight for 15 should be dangerous. I hope it is! I hope it leads to shorter hours, and a universal basic income. That’s what I’d call some real disruptive innovation.

Bougies to Proles: Drop Dead

March 16th, 2016  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Shameless self-promotion, Socialism

So it seems that a Trump-related mania has led some of the leading lights of the American right to take off the gloves and reveal that it isn’t just non-white working class people they hate, it’s all of you dirty proles. Kevin Williamson:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

The proximate cause may be Trump, but there are deeper forces at work. What seems to be dawning on the right wing of our ruling class is that the people who they long ago made economically superfluous may now be politically inconvenient as well. And in that case, what good are they? A few years back, I put it like this:

The great danger posed by the automation of production, in the context of a world of hierarchy and scarce resources, is that it makes the great mass of people superfluous from the standpoint of the ruling elite. This is in contrast to capitalism, where the antagonism between capital and labor was characterized by both a clash of interests and a relationship of mutual dependence: the workers depend on capitalists as long as they don’t control the means of production themselves, while the capitalists need workers to run their factories and shops. It is as the lyrics of “Solidarity Forever” had it: “They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn/But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.” With the rise of the robots, the second line ceases to hold.

For a newer rendition of that argument, in more terrifying detail, you can order my book, which I will now commence shilling with tedious regularity.

Work to Need

February 23rd, 2016  |  Published in Socialism, Work

Many of us have found ourselves in jobs where there just wasn’t much work to do. We spent days sitting at desks surfing the Internet, while using innovations like the boss key, in case we needed to show our boss some pretense of being “busy.” This is ultimately a demoralizing and demeaning existence of pseudo-leisure, time which is not our own but is not being used for any purpose.

Anyone who has had that experience no doubt smiled at the story of Spanish civil servant Joaquín Garcia, employee of a municipal water company. When he was considered for an award for 20 years of service, it was discovered that he had not in fact shown up for work in 6 years, while continuing to draw his paycheck.

Garcia insisted that there was simply no work for him to do, and that he had been put in the job in the first place as political retaliation. Other sources contested the original report, claiming that he did show up to work but merely spent his time reading philosophy—becoming an expert on Spinoza, according to Mr. Garcia—which would make him just another case of dreary workplace pseudo-leisure.

But it was the original vision, of a man simply walking away from the pointlessness of his work, that gave the story its viral appeal. It punctured the mystification of “work,” that oppressive abstraction that I’ve tried to break down many times before. Garcia rejected the “work” of dutifully showing up for a job that had no reason to exist, in favor of the self-fulfilling “work” of reading philosophy. What might we all do if we could do the same?

The “work to rule” action is a popular labor tactic, an alternative to going on strike. It involves carefully and literally following every rule in the contract, which in most workplaces has the practical effect of slowing work down to a crawl. But perhaps we need something like the opposite: “work to need.” If everyone with a pointless, wasteful, or destructive job simply refused to show up to it, we would learn a lot about how much of our time is taken up with “work” that has everything to do with our dependence on wage labor, and nothing at all to do with the things we need to run a decent society.

Robot Redux

August 18th, 2015  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Time, Work

It never fails that when I get around to writing something, I’m immediately inundated by directly related news, making me think that I should have just waited a few days. The moment I commit bits to web servers about the robot future, I see the following things.

First, the blockbuster New York Times story about Amazon and its corporate culture. The brutality of life among the company’s low-wage warehouse employees was already well covered, but the experience of the white collar Amazonian was less well known. The office staff, it seems, experiences a more psychological form of brutality. I couldn’t have asked for a better demonstration of my point that “the truly dystopian prospect is that the worker herself is treated as if she were a machine, rather than being replaced by one”. To wit:

Company veterans often say the genius of Amazon is the way it drives them to drive themselves. “If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,” said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.

On to number two! Lydia DePillis of the Washington Post reacts to efforts to raise the minimum wage in exactly the way I mentioned in my post: by raising the threat of automation. She notes various advances in technology, while also observing that in recent times “the industry as a whole has largely been resistant to cuts in labor . . . the average number of employees at fast-food restaurants declined by fewer than two people over the past decade”. But, she warns, that could all change if the minimum wage is raised to $15.

Liberal economist (and one-time adviser to the Vice President) Jared Bernstein responds here. He makes, in a slightly different way, the same point I did: “one implication of this argument is that we should make sure to keep wages low enough so employers won’t want to bother swapping out workers for machines . . . a great way to whack productivity growth.” (Not to mention, a great way to make life miserable for the workers in question.) He then goes on to argue that higher wages won’t really lead to decreased employment anyway, which sort of undercuts the point. But oh well.

Finally, we have the Economist weighing in. This little squib on “Automation angst” manages to combine all the bourgeois arguments into one, in a single paragraph:

[Economist David] Autor argues that many jobs still require a mixture of skills, flexibility and judgment; they draw upon “tacit” knowledge that is a very long way from being codified or performed by robots. Moreover, automation is likely to be circumscribed, he argues, as politicians fret about wider social consequences. Most important of all, even if they do destroy as many jobs as pessimists imagine, many other as yet unimagined ones that cannot be done by robots are likely to be created.

So, to summarize. The robots won’t take your job, because they can’t. Or, actually, the robots can take your job but they won’t, because we will make a political decision to disallow it. Or no, never mind, the robots will take your job, but it’s fine because we will create lots of other new jobs for you.

This summarizes the popular approach to this problem well, from a variety of vantage points that all miss the main point. Namely, that if it is possible to reduce the need for human labor, the question becomes: who benefits from that. The owners, of the robots, or the rest of the working masses?

Egyptian Lingerie and the Robot Future

August 6th, 2015  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Feminism, Political Economy, Politics, Work

The current issue of the New Yorker has a story about the odd phenomenon of Chinese lingerie merchants in Egypt. These immigrant entrepreneurs are apparently ubiquitous throughout the poor, conservative districts of upper Egypt, where they dispense sexy garments to the region’s pious Muslim women. The cultural and geopolitical details of the story are interesting for a number of reasons, but I was struck in particular by a resonance with some debates that have recently flared up again about labor and automation, for reasons I’ll get back to below.

“Robots will take all our jobs” is a hardy perennial of popular political economy. Typical of the latest crop is Derek Thompson of the Atlantic, who wrote an article (in which he quotes me), speculating about a “World Without Work” in the wake of mass adoption of robotization and computerization. Paul Mason gives a more leftist and political rendition of similar themes.

As I note in my recent Jacobin editorial, this kind of thing is not new, and is in fact an anxiety that recurs throughout the history of capitalism. Two decades ago, we had the likes of Jeremy Rifkin and Stanley Aronowitz musing about the “end of work” and the “jobless future”.

And these repeating waves of robo-futurism call into existence the same repeated insistence that robots are not, in fact, taking all the jobs. Doug Henwood was on this beat twenty years ago and remains on it today. Matt Yglesias, likewise, calls fear of automation a “myth”.

One of the specific things that people like Henwood and Yglesias always cite is the productivity statistics. If we were seeing a wave of unprecedented automation, then we should be seeing rapid rises in measured labor productivity—that is, the amount of output that can be produced per hour of human labor. Instead, however, what we’ve seen is historically low productivity growth, compared to what happened in the middle and late 20th Century.

All of which leads commentators like Yglesias and Tyler Cowen to fret that the robots aren’t coming fast enough. Typical of most writers on this subject, Yglesias just worries vaguely that increases in productivity won’t happen for some unspecified reason.

I’ve argued a number of times for an explanation that connects the question of automation and productivity growth directly to wages and the general condition of labor. The basic idea is very simple. From the perspective of the boss, replacing a worker with a machine will be more appealing to the degree that the machine is:

  • Cheaper than the human worker
  • More convenient and easier to control than the human worker

This implies that if workers win higher wages and more control over their working conditions, their jobs are more likely to be automated. Indeed, arguments like this frequently crop up among critics of things like the Fight for 15 campaign, which demands higher wages for fast food workers and other low wage employees. Prototypes for automatic burger-making machines are cited in order to warn workers that their jobs are at risk of being automated away.

I regard such warnings not as arguments against higher wages, but arguments for them. Workers, in the course of fighting for their interests, drive the dialectic that forces capitalists to find less labor-intensive ways of producing. The next political task, then, is to make sure that the benefits of such innovation accrue to the masses, and not to a small class of robot owners.

What I fear most is not that all of our labor will be replaced with machines. Rather, like Matt Yglesias, I worry that it won’t—but for a slightly different reason. Again, bosses prefer workers to machines when they are cheaper and easier to control. Hence the truly dystopian prospect is that the worker herself is treated as if she were a machine, rather than being replaced by one.

Which brings us back, finally, to the Chinese lingerie merchants. The article’s author, Peter Hessler, speaks to one such merchant, and asks him to comment on the biggest problem facing Egypt. To his surprise, his subject, Lin Xianfei, has a quick answer: gender inequality.

But the point turns out not to be that Lin is some sort of secret passionate feminist. Rather, his perspective turns on the exigencies of capital accumulation. For it turns out that while one kind of patriarchy is an impediment to business, another kind can be quite valuable to the shrewd businessman.

The problem, from Lin’s perspective, is that Egyptian women in his region don’t work in wage labor at all, or if they do they only do so for short periods of time, before marrying and retreating into the home. Even worse, local norms about proper female behavior preclude taking women out of their homes to live on site in massive dormitories, as might be done in China. Thus it becomes unfeasible to run factories on 24-hour production cycles.

Hiring men, meanwhile, is out of the question—another man, Xu Xin, tells Hessler that Egyptian men are too lazy and undisciplined for manufacturing work. Hessler goes on to note that “at the start of the economic boom in China, bosses hired young women because they could be paid less and controlled more easily than men”.

He proceeds to comment that female Chinese workers turned out to be “more motivated”, as though he is identifying something distinct from their weaker power position relative to men. But it is really the same thing. “More motivated”, here, refers to the motivation to work hard for the boss, for someone else’s profits and someone else’s riches. To behave, in other words, like obedient machines. The Chinese capitalist objects to the patriarchal structure of rural Egyptian society not because it is patriarchy, then, but because it is a form of patriarchy that is inconvenient to capital accumulation.

And sure enough, faced with recalcitrant humans, the textile magnates of Egypt turn to the same solution that the Chinese electronics firm Foxconn adopted in the wake of worker uprisings there. Wang Weiqiang echoes the other industrialists’ complaints about Egyptian labor: the men are lazy, the women “will work only during the daytime”. As a result, “he intends to introduce greater mechanization in hopes of maximizing the short workday”.

Greater mechanization and the maximization of a short work day might seem tragic to the capitalist, but it summarizes the short term goal of the post-work socialist left. Ornery, demanding workers work to drive technological developments that further this goal. And the socialist-feminist rendition of this project insists that we can prevent workers from being treated as machines not by shielding them with patriarchal and paternalistic morals, but rather by insisting that men and women alike can recognize their paid and unpaid labor in order to better refuse it.