This is an edited version of a message that I wrote in reply to a question posed by Michael Lebowitz on Michael Perelman’s listserve (on 1/15/2006) with regards to the Cambridge UK “capital critique.” While I was at the New School (1994-1996), I took the course with Anwar Shaikh titled “Ricardo, Sraffa, and Marx.” As a result, with a little help from Shaikh’s excellent lectures, I forced myself to read Piero Sraffa’s esoteric Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (as well as his less well known 1926′s paper, ”Laws of Returns under Competitive Conditions”) and Luigi Passinetti’s superb Lectures on the Theory of Production–and to almost read Piero Garegnani’s “Quantity of Capital” entry in The New Palgrave.
One strain of argument in the great debate about the future of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Movement is one that I will call the “Beware of Insidious Threats” position (hereafter: BIT). This view is neatly expressed in a recent essay by Ismael Hossein-zadeh (“An Insidious Threat to the Occupy Movement”), which appeared in various places online, and in the URPE Newsletter (Vol. 43, No., 1, Fall, 2011).
Hossein-zadeh writes of the “threat of preemption, or cooptation, posed by the Democratic Party and union officials.” He is wary of all approaches from liberals and labor that propose alliances with the occupiers: “. . . the Democrats are trying to utilize the Occupy movement the way the Republicans do the Tea Party.” Liberals are “trying to build bridges between the Democratic Party and the Occupy movement in an effort to channel the protesters’ energy to the party’s electoral machine.” Citing the Democratic Party’s “record of cooptation and betrayal,” he urges OWS to “chart a political movement of the working people and other grass-roots independent of both parties of big business.”
This is an old argument. It was around (even dominant) in New Left circles in the 1960s. Of course, just because an argument is old doesn’t mean it’s false; my counterargument was also around back then.
In the BIT scenario, the “energy” of the protest movement is a fixed quantity, which can be captured by some force outside the movement by means of trickery and sly manipulation of ideas and feelings. But this separates OWS’ energy from the actual crisis and its impact. If the crisis is profound, and if it points toward radical social transformation for its resolution, it will reach ever-new layers of the working population and draw new energy from deepening responses to it.
That is a lot for Democrats (and “union officials”) to “coopt”; they will be able to use their deadly wiles to harness that energy only if their view of the crisis, and the society that spawned it, is valid. That view is the reformist one: the crisis is an aberration of the financial system and can be overcome by wise policy, entirely within the existing structure of power and privilege ‒‒ in other words, without confronting, let alone replacing, capitalist social relations.
To the extent large numbers of working people share this reformist view ‒‒ or at least do not (yet?) have the foundation to oppose it consistently ‒‒ they are indeed susceptible to cooptation. Now suppose the coopted Occupiers help Obama win a second term in November, and the Dems get secure control of both houses of Congress. If, and only if, the reformist view is indeed correct, government will then pass new financial regulations, progressive taxes, full-employment legislation, comprehensive health care, fully funded education, housing guarantees, etc. The crisis will be over. The era of shared capitalist prosperity will begin. The Occupiers will go home, vacate Zuccotti Park and all other occupied locations, because their goals will have been met. Capitalism will have solved its crises within itself, and socialism will be left out in the cold.
In the BIT view, therefore, socialism only has a chance if we somehow prevent capitalism from reforming itself. The chain of reasoning is inescapable: capitalism can solve its problems. The BIT position thus coincides, fatefully, with the official (liberal) Democratic Party view of the world. The Dems try to fix capitalism; our job is to oppose these fixes, even if this means that we place ourselves in opposition to struggles and demands for things that the 99% really need. Socialism is then an Idea, one that can only come from outside of the massive reality of life within capitalist society.
Of course, if the OWS Movement were to help Obama & Co., and get coopted in the process, it could also be betrayed. The Dems could say: “Hey, our fingers were crossed!” No progressive legislation, no financial regulation, no end to the crisis. Then the BITers will say: “See, we told you so. They can’t be trusted.” Who, then, can the Occupy Movement trust? Why us, of course! It is like a Biblical commitment of faith: place your trust in true prophets (the prophets of socialism), not false ones. Of course, when facing two opposing claims to true prophesy, one is well advised to heed the old Biblical advice: “By their deeds ye shall know them.” And, let’s face it, if the BITers have their way, our deeds will not come off so well. Working people are suffering, and we say: “Don’t listen to those who claim to be able to fix things. Wait. The Idea of socialism will eventually triumph.” You can hear the likely response to this: “The Idea of socialism and $2.20 will get me into the subway. Ideas don’t pay the rent.” It is hardly surprising that many working people listen to the left and to the political mainstream, and say “A plague on both your houses.”
The BITers are worried about illusions concerning the Democratic Party. Hossein-zadeh: “The Democrats are as much responsible for the economic problems that have triggered the protests as their Republican counterparts.” This formulation speaks volumes. Neither Democrats nor Republicans “are responsible for” the crisis. Capitalism is. Again, we see the deeply rooted assumption: if only morally and intellectually worthy political forces were at work, there would have been no “problems.” The crisis could be solved within capitalism, if only the will were there.
But what if the assumption shared by both the Dems and (implicitly) the BITers ‒‒ that stable and final solutions can be found within capitalism ‒‒ is false? This is where political economy must play a role in the OWS Movement, going forward. What if, as someone once said, the contradictions are immanent, inherent, irreconcilable? What if shifts in the balance of power between the 1% and the 99% (in favor of the latter) generate new pressures and tensions, creating the need for more advanced demands and proposals, ones that encroach further upon the prerogatives of wealth and privilege? What if the massive effort to organize to win new people-supporting and -empowering institutions ‒‒ think of the New Deal ‒‒ and to staff those institutions, once created, and implement their purposes, generates more of both the experience underlying a stable shift of consciousness toward socialist values, and the capacity to actually carry out the transfer of power to the 99%? Then, over time, socialism becomes not just an Idea, but the result of living history. The revolutionary will that we seek develops within the existing society. This is, at bottom, just another way of saying that capitalism is inherently and structurally flawed, and that its core nature is the best source of the agency for its eventual transformation. One wonders how many people on the left who give advice to OWS believe that.
The energy of OWS, then, is not a fixed quantity. It can’t, ultimately, be coopted, for the simple reason that the crisis that created it, and continually re-creates it, will remain unsolved. This is so even if partial victories are won, and steps in the direction of a humane society achieved. Socialists should embrace all of those legislative victories mentioned above, which the BITers fear, not because they will result in a glorious and permanent new stage of soulful capitalism, but because they will not do that; because they will place new, more comprehensive, restraints against capitalist prerogatives on the political agenda.
All of this clearly depends on our view of capitalist society, and that is why critical political economy ‒‒ which has been, and remains, essentially Marxist, even while it draws on many other sources ‒‒ is essential. If capitalism is basically sound, requiring only some reformist tinkering, then nothing we do will stop OWS from eventually climbing into bed with the Democrats. If capitalism is a monolithic system in which subaltern social forces are entirely powerless, change can come only from outside, that is to say, from an Idea. In that case, by all means warn the occupiers of the danger of cooptation; urge them to be wary of getting involved with movements and programs that do not fly exclusively anti-capitalist banners. If, by contrast to both of these accounts, capitalism is a system in which ruling and subordinate social classes are locked in an ever-present conflictual embrace; and if capitalism necessarily and always creates the tensions that are the source of its transformation from within, then build the widest possible alliances of people who are mobilized against its abuses, because this mobilization itself is the ultimate source of the consciousness of the capitalist social system as such, and of the agency to transcend that system, which we seek.
Now of course the Dems will try to coopt and channel OWS. That is their role, and it is to be expected. It is based on their belief that stable and final solutions within the system are possible. We, on the other hand, can enthusiastically both cooperate with reformist political forces and independently build OWS (and a revitalized trade union movement, and much else), always fortifying the mass activism, grass-roots mobilization and open-ended militancy that must be the signature of a genuine movement from below. Our arguments for radical imagination and for eventual revolutionary transcendence, however, will not be decisive, no matter how clever we are. What will finally convince our base, and the millions of working people who must join that base, is their own experience in the struggle to win small victories in the battle for a dignified life, and to contain the predations of capitalist power in the present. And this experience accumulates over long stretches of time during which the concepts “capitalism” and “socialism” will not yet be available to many of them, and in places, such as the base organizations (not the leaderships) of the two major parties, where progressive activists will almost certainly be found. (Yes, I am thinking that we can even go after parts of the Republican base, especially the Tea Party.) It is the actual confrontation itself, the practical engagement with capitalist society on every terrain, that matters most for transformation of understanding.
So if this is on target, we need not fear cooptation, and betrayal. If we are betrayed (and we will be, from time to time), that will help lay foundations for greater political independence. If we are coopted (and certain individuals and organizations that are part of our coalition will undoubtedly fall into reformist and naively electoral traps), the crisis and the need to mobilize against it will not go away as a result. Much then depends on how we pursue the multi-front struggles for reforms, which are at bottom nothing other than small shifts in the balance of social power, in the right direction. These can divert the energy of OWS, leading to discouragement, cynicism, fragmentation, etc. and postponing socialism. But, with imaginative and militant leadership, they can also create new energy and possibilities, especially since ‒‒ as we know ‒‒ capitalism cannot deliver complete and stable solutions to its “problems,” which are in fact central to its functioning. Ultimately, it is the nature of the society that we must take charge of and transform that will determine our growth path. And eventually we will be the ones doing the coopting.
David Laibman (email@example.com) is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the City University of New York (Graduate Center and Brooklyn College), editor of Science & Society, and a world-renown guitarist.
This weekend, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), an organization exclusive of Canada and the United States, concluded its foundational summit meeting in Caracas, with interesting speeches by a host of chiefs of state.
Latin America has grown to one tenth of the global economy and population and sits on a substantial share of the world’s primary natural resources. As a result of the price cycle of raw materials, the expansion in Asia (and Africa), the crisis in the North, and (partly) their policies, the economies in the region have been growing at a decent pace. This meeting is a preliminary yet significant step in their process of economic and political integration. The initiative comes — without a doubt — from the left in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly from the governments of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. It also seems clear that Argentina, Brazil and above all Mexico, Chile, and Colombia — a list that includes the three largest economies in Latin America — are being dragged along. (To be fair, the governments of Argentina and Brazil are involved, but it is doubtful that the economic powers in these two countries are well aligned behind them.) This process is viewed by Latin Americans and Caribbeans as a continuation of their struggles for independence (historically ushered by the victorious slave revolution in Haiti in 1791), against European colonialism, and more recently against U.S. imperialism.
I should digress at this point to say that the term imperialism is not typically used in Western economics and other social sciences nowadays, except in mocking ways. However, in its widest sense, the term is particularly adroit to refer to the international status quo. It is properly descriptive of the ongoing economic, political, and military abuse that small and economically vulnerable countries suffer at the hands of the economically-rich and militarily-powerful nations, most prominently the U.S., the UK, France, and Germany. The fact of this abuse — with deep roots in world history — can be easily documented in its manifold forms, even if its specific nature is subject to ongoing controversy among social thinkers.
Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) is in a rout that makes its dissolution a concrete possibility, as its leading nations (Germany and France) demonstrate an utter incapacity to assist their partners in distress — a distress which is, by the way, caused by the very (skewed) economic architecture of the European economy (hint: it is capitalist). The countries of the EU have 6 percent of the global population, produce about twenty six percent of the world’s product, own a substantial stock of accumulated global wealth (physical and human) — in no meager part the fruit of their colonial and imperialist exploits. Geography, the principle of economies of scale, the formation of competing regional blocks, and — to some extent — history would make it appear as if the project of European economic and political integration were a slam dunk. But, as it has been traditionally conducted — under the aegis of the large capitals of Germany and France — this process of integration has been half-baked, politically superficial, and laden with contradictions. The economic and political myopia that the European leaders have exhibited and continue to exhibit is staggering. The European right, led by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, either by action or omission, seem bent in leading the disintegration of the EU.
It is up to the European people to decide whether, as a result of the vices inherent to its formation, the EU deserves to die. But, at some point, the European left will have to spearhead an effort to rebuild a truly united Europe — except that, this time around, from the grassroots, articulated around the interest of the European working people. (Here’s a step in the right direction: http://bit.ly/uHe1lI). Similar tasks are ahead of us in the United States and Canada. The Occupy movement is offering us an opportunity to jump start the construction of new and functional economies and polities that put people first, all in the face of the evident failure of the existing social structures.
This requires further elaboration, but — for now and for the record — I wanted to hastily call attention to the effort in Latin America and the Caribbean to upgrade their level of economic and political cooperation, at a time when the North is grappling with crisis and confusion, but also (let us not forget) the hopeful harbinger of the struggles to come: the Occupy movement.
UPDATE: I just read this in the New York Times, and makes my point like nothing else. Note the symbolism — the chiefs of state of the two “leading” (yeah, right!) EU nations caucused unilaterally (okay, bilaterally) on reforming the EU treaty, and are then calling the affected ones to come around: “Here it is, take it or leave it!” The gist is — “You profligate ones, tighten your belts: Austerity, austerity, austerity.” I just cannot imagine Merkel or Sarkozy (or Obama, for that matter) sitting and listening to the speeches by each and every chief of state member of the EU on how they view their situation; say, as the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico did with their peers in Caracas. Merkel and Sarkozy didn’t even bother bring Monti and Zapatero (and Rajoy, the incoming prime minister in Spain) for the photo op. Why bother when capital rules?
I have been busy at work as we approach the final-exam season. But I enjoyed a little respite today and took part in a recent discussion on public debt held on the PEN-L listserv moderated by Michael Perelman.
Here are, in chronological order, my full posts (slightly edited to correct bad grammar and clarify a couple of thoughts stated too telegraphically in the original posts). Click on the link above to visit the list archives and follow the entire discussion. (I’ll continue blogging on planning as soon as I can stick my head out the water.)
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Doug [Henwood] wrote:
Why is this so hard to understand? Social Security is an obligation of the U.S. Treasury. They write the checks, after all. In an attempt to meet a projected excess of outflow over inflow at some point in the future, the system has accumulated surpluses that it invested in non-tradeable T-bonds. Someday, the SS system is going to have to redeem those bonds to pay beneficiaries. How does the Treasury come up with the cash? It will either have to raise taxes, cut spending elsewhere, or borrow anew. It’s not like the Treasury is some external party to the deal. What savings are there? They’re purely internal bookkeeping entries.
It’s as if the status quo has caged an eagle. The ideologues of the status quo say, “You see, caged eagles cannot fly!” Max [Sawicky] seems to be saying, “Let that eagle out of the cage and you’ll see that it can fly up to the top of that mountain.” Doug [Henwood] seems to be saying, “If we make our argument as if eagles need no oxygen or as if they don’t have to abide by the law of gravity, we are going to look stupid and will never be taken seriously.”
It is true that an economy — even if it could continuously glide along its “full employment” path — has at each particular point in time a finite amount of wealth to distribute, and that applies to the resources society devotes to discharging its public functions. But the issue that Max (and others) seems to be getting at is that when the economy is far from full employment the funding of public expenditure programs (e.g. Social Security) does not have to be a zero-sum game. Certain fiscal policies (e.g. “deficit spending” and, therefore, borrowing) can help the economy expand the whole pie and, basically, fund at least a portion of the public sector’s obligations from what comes as a “free lunch.”
Frankly, as things stand right now, I don’t see much of a political downside to — as Doug puts it — just kicking the can down the road (i.e. using “creative” public-financial schemes to roll over the debt and fund the gap between Social Security outflows and inflows), as opposed to what appear as more definitive “resolutions,” e.g. giving workers back exactly what they contribute (minus administrative expenses?) as it may capitalize over time, or by maintaining “pay as you go” but reducing benefits, postponing retirement, or increasing taxes.
“Kicking the can” may be a tactical necessity, since there are such taboos fogging the minds of people. I guess if people had the things clear in their heads and we had sufficient political strength, we could just say, “Look, from this point on, working people are in command. So, if you hold public debt in your portfolio and have a net worth exceeding $X, then consider that debt officially repudiated. Society owes you nothing. From this point on, we will only honor explicit and tacit, grandfathered-in public obligations contracted with working people (and, among those, those that, after careful review, we may collectively regard as legit), plus all other obligations we may democratically contract subsequently. All obligations held by — or for the benefit of — the propertied class are not legit and are hereby officially disavowed, abolished, gone.”
We want the needs of people to be met. How specifically that is to be done in a system in which private ownership is considered such a sacred cow should be left to the financial imagination of our public economists and the political imagination of our politicians, since ideological and political compromises may be required here and there. What we cannot afford is not to meet those popular needs. After all, what’s the point of an economy if not the welfare of its people?
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You’re basically conceding that the idea of a SS surplus is a fiction, and making good on promised benefits will require new borrowing. There’s no reserve to be drawn down. Benefits will have to be funded by future incomes – the whole thing is pay as you go.
I would not call this a “concession.”
I view financial obligations as flowing from legal contracts and political configurations — e.g. the political and legal conditions that led to passing the 1935 Social Security Act and then reforming it as it stands today. So financial obligations that flow from legal contracts and political configurations are necessarily contingent, because legal and political conditions are in flux (with temporary stasis and all that, but overall in flux). In plain terms, these obligations (and all other obligations) are contingent upon the ability of the parties and ultimately of the state to make them bind, to enforce them.
Karl Marx used the term “legal fiction” to refer to private ownership contracts (i.e. to what we call financial assets) in contrast with the effective economic power of private individuals in a given social context to exclude others from snatching their wealth without their consent. But Marx wasn’t referring here to a mere illusion that can be dispelled by people merely changing the notions in their heads. Marx was referring to an alienated social fact with a certain degree of hardness or objectivity (with or without the quotation marks). Social objectivity is illusory and then it is not.
A point that Max Sawicky has made here before (or at least, that’s how I have construed his point) is that it is incumbent upon the left to promote the idea that financial obligations (tacit or explicitly legal) contracted by the federal government with regular people (the safety net) are as sacred and hardwired as the financial obligations between, say, the Treasury and the holders of regular Treasuries or between GE and its bondholders. Max has suggested that leftists tend to act as if these obligations between society (as represented by the federal government) and working people are second rate: for some reason much more contingent than the other ones out there. If that is the case (and it seems that it is), we are helping a self-fulfilling prophecy to be realized against our own interest. So, I agree with Max: Absolutely! In fact, if it is really up to us, then we should promote the notion that financial obligations between society and working people are the only ones that deserve to be honored. All other ones, well, we’ll see about that….
Now, I agree with you: the outcome will depend on the class struggle. But, for some reason, you seem to suggest that if the government had a portfolio containing, instead of some rather peculiar type of Treasuries, private assets (e.g. “real” securities like real estate or commodities, or at least bonds and other obligations issued by private individuals, corporations, or foreign governments; oh, and currency, local or foreign exchange!) and dutifully labelled it “SS reserve portfolio,” then SS would be solvent. Since that is not the case, then SS is very iffy. Well, indeed. But those private financial assets are also contingent and, hence, they are also iffy, “fictional.” (And so is currency, which is just another obligation of the Treasury or central bank, even if it doesn’t look like one; but I should leave that for another post.) The outcome of those financial obligations will also depend on the class struggle! If society as it is doesn’t gather the productive force required to make these (or other) obligations effective, if they are left unenforced for whatever reason (reasons that are all contingent on political conditions), then they will all prove to be entirely fictional, and that’s that.
Why is my house ownership deed more binding than, say, the legal responsibility of the Fed to ensure the “full employment” of the labor force? Well, ultimately, because we all politically make it so. If we are going to go against the fetishism of U.S. capitalism, then let’s do it across the board. ¿No?
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[In the following post, I make the point that every public spending program is necessarily, from a material point of view, "pay as you go" (PAYGO). Financially, they may or may not be. But economically or materially, they always are. So called "fully-funded" public spending programs are necessarily -- from a material viewpoint -- PAYGO. Believing otherwise is falling into the fetishistic myth of capitalist finance as detached from the production of actual wealth.]
In other words, the allocation of funds in the present. A society as a whole can’t save for the future the way individuals can. Yes, we’ve largely pissed away the proceeds of the borrowing, and probably reduced future incomes as a result. But that doesn’t change the fact that the benefits will have to be paid out of future incomes, not today’s savings.
Jim [Devine] wrote:
We need to see beneath the veil of money.
What people, as individuals, “save” today is not future wealth, but legal rights or (viewed from the other side) legal obligations contracted among one another over the disposition of future wealth. Future wealth does not exist today. Future wealth is whatever wealth happens to be available in the future, and for the most part wealth has to be (re)produced: workers have to be reproduced, maintained healthy and educated; the environment has to be preserved and enhanced; buildings, roads, machines, and inventories of all sorts of goods have to be repaired, maintained, renovated, or replaced with new ones.
Needs at time t can only be satisfied by wealth (goods) extant at time t, regardless of how the legal claims over that wealth may be allocated before, then, or after. Revolutions are precisely the reset button with which societies alter the allocation of those rights or obligations. The real issue then is who — which class or group of people — is going to appropriate the wealth existing at t, i.e. whether none/some/all needs of working people will be met at t – where t may be today (t=0) or some near or distant point in the future (t=k>0).
So, there are two issues here. Issue one: At t=0, we should not let the true sources of wealth (the natural environment and us, human beings) be destroyed or left to decay. We have to preserve the ultimate and true sources of wealth, and that can only be done to the extent the needs of working people are met today.
Issue two: Since t=k>0 will arrive, provided we humans are still around for that to matter, then we need to do today whatever possible to arrange things in such a way that when t=k>0 arrives, we are in a better position to make human life worth living, i.e. to have the true sources of wealth not only preserved but duly expanded and enriched.
We need to reject this notion that under capitalism, what individuals ”save” privately, has some existence independent of the aggregate reality of our material reproduction as a society.
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What contract? I don’t recall signing anything guaranteeing me certain SS benefits. They’ll take my money and maybe put me in jail if I don’t pay the tax, but the level of benefits is entirely up to Congress.
Well, you hadn’t been born. And not all contracts have to be spelled out. There are what economists call “implicit contracts.” By being a U.S. citizen, you are bound by the law of the land. Contracts are always socially constructed and socially enforced. By being a U.S. citizen, you are tacitly accepting the legal framework. If you don’t like the current legal framework, then you can renounce citizenship, do politics within the framework to alter it, or — that failing, as Antonin Scalia has reminded us — lead a revolution to change it. The laws that regulate contracts among private parties are also enacted, reformed, or repealed by Congress (and, ultimately, by the social and political forces that shape up the composition of Congress).
I asked why my deed of ownership is more binding that the Fed’s mandate to ensure “full employment” (or whatever formulation may be coined to that end). Doug answered:
Well for one there’s no definition of full employment in law or practice, while the rights and responsibilities of house ownership are well-defined.
That only begs the question of why some rights/obligations are better defined than others. Ultimately, this is a result of the underlying balance of political forces, embedded in turn in more fundamental economic and social conditions.
Complete contracts are impossible. We are talking relations among human beings, which lead to a peculiar kind of “uncertainty.” In general, defining rights/obligations — including those of house owners — is never costless. There is always a loophole, room for interpretation, both of the law (its letter and/or intent) and of the facts. Calls have to be made with lesser or greater arbitrariness. And all that is costly. That is why judicial systems exist.
I don’t know which share of the resources allocated to the judicial system over a given period of time is spent adjudicating disputes among private parties, in contrast to the share adjudicating conflicts between the state and private citizens, but I’d bet that the former is not negligible.
The issue is political power. And, IMO, in the context of the political struggle, it doesn’t help us much to view the obligations that private parties contract with one another as being 24-carat type of obligations while those between the state and working people as being debased. We shouldn’t fetishize either.
And regarding “full employment,” I say, sure, let it be 5.6% for the time being. Why isn’t the Fed taking more dramatic action to get the economy back to, at least, this sort of “full employment”? Again, it is the underlying balance of political forces. So, in the context of this fight, should we emphasize that the eagle is bound by gravity or that the eagle can fly high enough if only allowed out of the cage?
To Matt Cramer’s question:
doesn’t the formulation of SSA and how we talk about it help the political and legal configurations that ensure benefits are paid?
Absolutely. How we frame, phrase, word, even think of these matters makes what appears to be a very subtle difference at an individual level, but that tiny difference adds up collectively. I always go back to Marx on these matters: Pre-Marxist materialism viewed subjective activity as mere contemplation while the Idealists emphasized the active side of the subject. In fact, the essential activity of the human subject is its practice, its engagement with the material world — the creation and recreation of that thing we call “society.”
Of course, to enforce SS obligations, it is not enough that we convince ourselves that they are sacred. We have to take sufficient political action to translate that belief into a material force. But, for sure, if we collectively believe that the SS Act is all fiction, that the public obligations that flow from it can be dissolved without much happening, then its repeal (or its watering down) becomes much easier for the powers that be.
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Julio, I’m really confused. I’m describing the world we all live in; you’re describing some very desirable fantasy world.
I believe I’m also talking about the world we live in. I am sure you’ve read the phrase “The Illusion of the Epoch.” (See Marx, German Ideology, 1845.) Illusions about what is permanent in society — and what is not — are, indeed, part of the social order. They are part of the reason why the social order sticks.
As Marx wrote to Kugelmann (July 11, 1868), and I’m quoting him by heart:
When the inner connections have been identified, all theoretical belief in the perpetual necessity of the existing conditions collapses, even before the conditions collapse in practice. It is in the interest of the ruling classes to perpetuate the confusion. The role of the vulgar economist is to make us believe that we don’t need to think beyond the appearance of things.
[The correct quotation is here.]
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I will end this post by conceding to Doug that, his belief that — for whatever reason (because they are “well defined” or whatever) — private contracts are more binding than public programs enacted and “funded” by Congress to provide a social safety net is a belief that seems to be shared by a lot of people (aside from the fact that legal casuistry matters, for as long as people abide or forced to abide by the law).
To that extent, Doug is indeed talking of the world we live in, because the fact that people massively believe the story turns it ipso facto into a harder-wired social reality, whereas the notion that all financial assets are contingent and represent merely ways in which societies reshuffle the wealth that they reproduce may be a theoretical notion incomprehensible to most Americans right now and, hence, not real.
But if now — when a triple-whammy combo is shaking U.S. capitalism (the crises of the economy, the environment, and U.S. global hegemony) — is not the time for the critics of capitalism to emphasize the fluidity of social forms –the real possibility of building a different and better society — then when is?
Aunque se observan signos alentadores de resistencia popular, los gobiernos en los países del mundo occidental rico siguen avanzando en su brutal designio de pasar la factura de la crisis económica a sus trabajadores y a la población de los países pobres. La crisis capitalista agrava la crisis ecológica global y agudiza ominosamente las tensiones internacionales, en tiempos en que el acervo militar del mundo imperialista alcanza picos históricos, su base económica doméstica se debilita y el centro de gravedad de la economía mundial sigue desplazándose hacia el Sur.
La debilidad política del socialismo en el mundo (si exceptuamos los alentadores avances en América del Sur) es indicio de que, no se diga la imperiosa necesidad, sino siquiera la mera posibilidad de disolver el capitalismo y construir el socialismo está lejos de haberse establecido firmemente en la conciencia y voluntad colectivas de los trabajadores del mundo. La propaganda capitalista ha conseguido imponer su interpretación del record histórico del socialismo del siglo 20, presentándolo unilateralmente como un fracaso irredento. Otro aspecto de esta desolación ideológica es, por supuesto, la incapacidad de los socialistas por apropriarse, crítica pero también solidariamente, de esa experiencia histórica, separando cuidadosamente necesidad y azar, causa y efecto, forma y sustancia, y — sobre esa base — articular una visión más potente del porvenir que queremos.
El socialismo — una sociedad de, por y para los productores directos, una sociedad en la que los productores directos controlen, como individuos socializados, premisas, procesos y resultados de su actividad productiva — no puede ser un fruto histórico espontáneo. Por el contrario, sólo puede ser un producto construído adrede, intencionalmente. Eso implica que un diseño viable, cada vez más completo y detallado de la sociedad socialista, debe formarse en la mente colectiva de los productores antes que pueda convertirse en realidad. Este proceso intelectual colectivo debe alimentarse, no sólo del aprendizaje derivado de la luchas de los trabajadores del mundo en curso hoy día, sino también de la asimilación de la experiencia histórica pretérita.
Los trabajadores concretos de carne y hueso, partiendo de lo que somos, de nuestro tiempo y circunstancia, pero tendiendo hacia una creciente unidad, organización, autoeducación y militancia, necesitamos imaginar el socialismo, antes de emprender y reemprender la tarea de construirlo. Esto es cierto aun si — sobre la marcha, en el proceso de lucha y construcción — nos llegamos a ver obligados a comenzarlo todo de nuevo, una y otra vez. Si tenemos que rediseñar el socialismo ab initio, cuantas veces sea menester, hasta que nuestros resultados y necesidades radicales se correspondan, que la decisión de empezar de cero no sea premisa, sino conclusión de la evaluación cuidadosa y justa de la experiencia histórica.
El hecho es que, mientras los trabajadores no construyamos en nuestras mentes una visión plausible, suficientemente coherente y detallada de la sociedad del futuro, mientras reprimamos nuestra imaginación política en obsequio al status quo, nuestra práctica política se va a mantener atrapada en los miserables confines del oportunismo y el reformismo. Como David Laibman (Science & Society) ha planteado, a la TINA (“There Is No Alternative” o “No hay alternativa”) de Margaret Thatcher, los socialistas debemos oponer nuestra TIARA (“There Is A Revolutionary Alternative” o “Hay una alternativa revolucionaria”). Nuestra alternativa revolucionaria necesita madurar, adquirir forma, textura y colorido, en nuestra conciencia colectiva, antes que estemos en condiciones de ponerla en práctica y durante dicha puesta en práctica.
En el siglo 21, los socialistas en los países ricos, no podemos desentendernos de la experiencia histórica práctica del socialismo. El temor a que el legado trágico (pero también heróico) de esa experiencia nos contamine y desacredite, la inclinación a distanciarnos emocional, intelectual y políticamente de esa experiencia, no está desligada de la arrogancia ideológica racista e imperialista que menosprecia las experiencias surgidas en la periferia — y a contrapelo — del mundo occidental. No podemos contentarnos con el argumento, tal vez válido en el siglo 19, del socialismo como ideal inmaculado existente sólo en potencia, su germen alojado en esa actividad universal deliberada de los seres humanos que llamamos trabajo. En el siglo 21, el socialismo tiene una experiencia histórica práctica y tangible que mostrar, con resultados mixtos.
El elemento trágico de la experiencia, en su enorme escala humana, es innegable. Pero también hay un elemento constructivo e inspirador de las luchas por venir que debemos abrazar decididamente. La experiencia histórica práctica del socialismo arranca con la Comuna de París (1871) pero alcanza dimensiones históricas universales en el siglo 20, con la Revolución de Octubre (1917), el triunfo soviético en la Gran Guerra Patria (1941-1945), la liberación de Europa Oriental del yugo nazi (1945), la Revolución China (1949) y, por supuesto, con la Revolución Cubana (1959) y la derrota del imperialismo estadounidense en Vietnam (1975). En forma amarga, los trabajadores del mundo occidental rico están ahora en condiciones de apreciar la enorme fuerza gravitacional positiva, con efectos tangibles en sus condiciones de vida y de trabajo, ejercida por el ejemplo vivo del socialismo real. Los socialistas del Norte no podemos, ni debemos, despachar tabula rasa esta gloriosa epopeya histórica. Necesitamos reclamarla, apropiarnos de ella, en el espíritu de crítica despiadada contra lo existente que Marx nos legó, pero también con el sentido solidario que las luchas de los explotados y oprimidos, en condiciones siempre adversas y hostiles, nos merecen. Las lecciones se deben aprender, nunca para justificar la claudicación o la traición, sino para redoblar la lucha por el socialismo, y vencer.
En entregas sucesivas en este blog, voy a tratar de examinar un aspecto de la experiencia histórica del socialismo del siglo 20 que considero crucial: la organización y planificación de las economías en transición al socialismo. Admito de entrada que, a estas alturas, mi trabajo carece de la sistematicidad necesaria. Es una obra modesta en construcción. Parto del supuesto de que los problemas que los adversarios del socialismo han enfatizado, y siguen enfatizando, en su afán por negar la viabilidad práctica del socialismo no son imaginarios, sino reales y dolorosos, y que no han sido resueltos o superados todavía, ni en la teoría ni en la práctica. En última instancia, estos problemas no podrán ser resueltos en definitiva por vía puramente teórica. El papel del trabajo teórico se limita a generalizar y socializar las experiencias existentes con el fin de minimizar el inescapable costo de la lucha práctica, pero es sólo en y mediante la lucha práctica que tendremos que demostrar de una vez por todas la viabilidad económica e histórica del socialismo en el siglo 21.
Paul Krugman has two recent blog posts (one, two) on the issue of “equality of opportunities” vs. “equality of outcomes.” It seems that these posts, and his “Climate of Hate” op ed, have gotten him a lot of hate mail. I composed a quick comment on his latest blog post. Here:
I’d push the reductio ad absurdum of the “conservative” argument all the way to its limit.
Since one’s opportunities depend ultimately on his holdings of wealth (“physical” and “human,” not only individual but also “social,” since one’s performance depends crucially on his setting), then the only way to enforce equality of opportunities would be to periodically redistribute wealth along egalitarian lines. In fact, if one’s to be strict (people are being born, and then born again, at every instant), it would have to be a continuous reshuffling process, which means that equality of opportunities would converge to equality of outcomes! Private ownership (and markets) would be emptied out of any real substance, because what would the point be of “owning” something formally if the benefits from using it or (“exchanging” it) don’t go to you, the “owner”?
If they were serious about equality of opportunities, conservatives would be joining the communist party!
Michael Corleone fantasized that by legalizing the illicit, or switching his wealth to legal venues (and donating millions to charity), he would make his ill-gotten fortune legit (and blessed), thus being able to enjoy it as any other decent, law-abiding (and God-fearing) citizen. The sponsors of the Tea Party do not seem particularly inclined towards charity, so they fund university programs and libertarian think tanks (and… well… the Tea Party) to make us believe that the existing distribution of private endowments is sacred, taxation is theft, the public interest does not exist, etc. Just when they think they are out, they will be pulled back in.
History is not ending any time soon.
Today, the New York Times features an article (http://nyti.ms/hO9c7w) clearly intended to help the ruling class to sharpen the knife with which to further stab the workers in times to come. All the fuzz about the crisis in public finances is a prep for the upcoming “austerity.” Of course, “austerity” at the expense of — who else? — working people! Workers of the world, do not unite! Instead, be envious of public employees in New Jersey who still enjoy a modicum of employment security that the rest of you don’t have. Divide et impera! Not a word about the largest military budget in human history (http://bit.ly/fASgs6).
These charts taken from Calculated Risk depict very dramatically the human devastation that this economic crisis is unleashing. Make no mistake: This is a crisis of the capitalist social order. Yet, to date, the capitalists in the United States and Europe have managed to re-frame it as a crisis of the public sector — a deficit or debt crisis. Behold the hypnotic powers of the system’s ideology that it boomerangs the anxiety and anger of large segments of the working people against the working people themselves, stirring up xenophobia and anti-communism in the ranks, dividing them to crush them.
This is a very informative piece on the course of the EU crisis. Hat tip to Jurriaan Bendien for emailing it to me.
My big quip to the piece is that it suggests that the key to the re-balancing and recovery of the European economy (with growth that benefits working people) hinges on Southern and Eastern Europe increasing their exports to Germany, France, the UK, and the rest of the world.
No. That is a recipe for a depression.
The key to a prompt recovery is outright wealth redistribution in favor of working people (via a mix of mechanisms, from aggressive “stimulus” spending to IMF-suggested inflationary monetary policy to the public insurance of the private debt of working people to confiscatory punishment against financial fraud), something that won’t happen unless Europeans raise hell on the streets, and the EU institutional framework is reshaped.
To put it in ways my macro students will understand:
Y = C + I + G + (X-M),
Over the very long run, you cannot expand the economy of Southern and Eastern Europe by increasing (X-M), because the sum of (X-M) across all countries is zero. It’s beggar thy neighbor! Even in the not-so long run, this won’t work. As global exporting powerhouses, Southern and Eastern European countries are no match to China and Southern Asia in general, with their still huge reserves of labor, scale economies, etc.
Progressive wealth redistribution (beggar thy plutocrats!), on the other hand, allows for more sustainable growth over the very long run (without further economic degradation), if for no other reason because working people have a larger marginal (let alone average) propensity to consume.
The sooner people on the streets realize how wide the actual scope of political possibilities is, the better.
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A propos http://nyti.ms/a6cHkI: “Are you worried that we are passing our debt on to future generations?”
No, I’m not! We are also bequeathing them our wealth! (If we don’t destroy it or let it decay with Hooverian economic policies.)
“The question we need to ask is this: If we don’t change direction, how long can we travel down this path without having a crisis?”
Well, if by “crisis” Mr. Einhorn means (as he probably does) a severe economic contraction, my answer is another question: What does the public (or private) debt have to do with whether the economy functions at its full potential? Public (or private, for that matter) debt has to do with how existing wealth is distributed, i.e. how claims over future flows of goods are alloted. That has nothing to do with our production possibilities.