Fashionable Incongruity: Economism, Anti-Politics, and Reductionism

Ian Hinson and Donald Parkinson take a stab at critiquing the notion of anti-political Marxism. 

Marx was not unique in being a socialist; he lived in an era where utopian communalism was actually fairly common. The social question of how best to organize society had been raised and addressed, with arguments for a classless, levelled social order having been made long before Marx. The ideas of socialist  revolution can be found in Babeuf. What made Marx and Engels different from all the utopians and “crude socialists” was that they believed the working class must take political action to organize as a class to take power. It must organize to win a better position both economically and politically within capitalism, and eventually strengthen this organization to raise the question of political, or state power, as a whole. Marx took from the Chartists just as much as the Utopian socialists; he recognized that the working class must politically organize. When French “Marxists” argued against fighting for political demands and engaging in elections, he responded by saying “if this is Marxism, I am not a Marxist”.

Despite these historical realities, some Marxists today argue for a form of “anti-political Marxism”. This is found in various ultra left currents like communization, autonomism, and the Gramscians at the blog Left-Flank. What these calls for Marxist “anti-politics” have in common is an argument centered around the notion of “the real movement,” which is based off a quote in the German Ideology. While for Marx the concept was meant to describe that the class struggle comes out of imperfect conditions set by capitalism, for the bloggers at Left Flank the real movement is some “anti-political” movement that arises from civil society against the political sphere itself. Essentially, it is wrong to try and build a socialist  movement, but rather one must wait for, and follow the “real movement” with organic ties to civil society. What this approach argues for is essentially what can be understood as economism.

Lenin’s 1901 polemic against the Russian Social Democrats laid bare the theoretical and tactical pitfalls of so called “economism”, a centering of the material elements of the workers movement over the conscious elements. In this article Lenin states:

“In order truly to give “consideration to the material elements of the movement”, one must view them critically, one must be able to point out the dangers and defects of spontaneity and to elevate it to the level of consciousness, To say, however, that ideologists (i.e., politically conscious leaders) cannot divert the movement from the path determined by the interaction of environment and elements is to ignore the simple truth that the conscious element participates in this interaction and in the determination of the path.”

Lenin’s deconstruction of this vulgarized interpretation of the relationship between the material and abstract components of a budding workers movement is useful precisely because it exposes the false dichotomy of the “spontaneous” and “premeditated.” It breaks down the bifurcation of socialist participation, and allows for a synthesis of the working class to respond to the material conditions it grapples with, while recognizing the position that consciousness plays in the direction that a revolution moves. Thus, the position of the socialist in respect to the workers movement is not to internalize a millenarian political armageddon, but to respond to the spontaneous movement of the workers, to augment the movement to one which situates itself in opposition to capital and towards the goal of a post-capitalist, socialist epoch.

Lenin grasps that the class struggle is inherently a political struggle, because it is a struggle for social power. The question of power and what class holds political domination, and in turn the balance of power of these classes and their strength through organization, is what can never be ignored. Economism instead puts the withdrawal of labor at the core of socialist activity, or at least the formation of economic resistance to capital. It sees the political development of socialist organization as reliant on the spontaneous struggle that occurs beforehand, with programme developing from the nature of struggle itself. The programme instead, is logically derived by the objective interests of classes that are always expressed politically when they’re able to have coherence.

Economism presents a narrative where organization is produced through spontaneous action, that first a labor movement must develop, and then socialists will try to merge with it to produce a party. The argument that then follows is that in lack of a labor movement, any kind of socialist political activity is simply going to be channeled into activism and sub-political spectacle. What this doesn’t take into account is that socialism, as a political movement, has historically played an integral role in the labor movement. It was first through socialist political campaigns and concentrated unionization drives that the working class developed a sense of itself as a class, and hence the kind of solidarity that would make large scale strikes possible. It is not necessarily from spontaneous mass strikes that a socialist consciousness develops, but from common association as a class in party. The core myth of economism is that the working class derives its power from the ability to withdraw labor, which is a trade unionist, rather than Marxist notion. Rather, the Marxist theory of class is that the working class develops because it is compelled to commonly politically associate beyond its divisions by its common position of dependence on the general wage fund. The working class derives its power from its need for collective, and therefore mass political solutions.

These same entanglements which cause economism to tail behind the workers movement are the same obstacles that plague so called “anti-politics.” While what is said to be “anti-politics” is rather enigmatic and elusive, the political blog “Left-Flank” breaks them down into essentially 3 points:

  1. A widespread mood among ordinary people related to Gramsci’s description of “detachment”. This can manifest in spontaneous popular outbursts or be reflected in volatile electoral results, but tends to peter out if not given some kind of direction.
  2. A political strategy by sections (or aspiring sections) of the political class, drawing on this mood for support. There are lots of variants on this, not confined to Left or Right:
  3. A consistent strategy of social revolution, which seeks to concretely intervene on the effective terrain in order to build a movement that overcomes politics by overcoming the state.

What is outlined in the above 3 points, though, is not a wave of “anti-politics,” but a reaction to the failure of the neoliberal project, which still takes place explicitly in the space of the political. What then follows is an attempt to extrapolate a wider trend towards populism as a retrogression into an aggregate depoliticization, or worse, to credit politically incoherent populist waves with a “consistent strategy of social revolution.” Not only is this malapropism a misreading of the current state of global politics, but it leads to prescriptive measures in the vein of a mass political exodus into strictly “social” forms of organization and anti-capital based action. This rejection of participation in the political spheres of influence, and the focalization of a specific demesne leaves open a vacuum which bourgeois politics are able to occupy. It’s this analysis of the ontology of the working class as not operating within the political or ideological sphere, and only the social(in relation to anti-politics) or the  material(in relation to economism) which causes these one-dimensional tactical modes to ultimately preclude any sort of influence throughout the movement, and to lag behind the workers movement as less of a participator, or a co-conspirator, but as solely a spectator.

The consistent strategy of social revolution that Left-Flank sees developing, which seeks to overcome politics and overcome the state, is a reference to the types of “movements without ideologies or demands” that spontaneously rise against the state. The Arab Spring is touted as a model for these “movements of squares” that arose in Greece, Spain, Turkey and Ukraine. There is a tendency to see the refusal of these movements to pose concrete political solutions as something liberatory in itself, and imagines a society in a state of permanent mobilization tearing down mediations that cannot be realistically continued to a conclusion. These movements of course are not “anti-political” regardless of what they claim because ultimately they feed into the machinery of the existing political forces. The hope of a movement against politics itself is an anarchist fantasy that was wiped away with the Paris Commune, which showed that the working class could only address the social question by achieving political dominance.

The truth is that this strategy reflects the ideological dominance of the petty-bourgeoisie, who are against the state but do not represent a positive class interest as an alternative. The nature of these movements, as amorphous and non-political, speaks to their class incoherence and their ability to “negate” the existing order, but not actually change it. They are simple screams in public for change from the petty-bourgeoisie, but tend to organize around a demand of anti-corruption. Anti-corruption demands are very dangerous, and can very easily play into an in-group/out-group mentality of the “good citizen” against “corrupt outsiders” that deforms class reproduction. Left-Flank deny that anti-political tendencies will lead to right wing outcomes, when there really is no reason to think this. Anti-politics has no coherence; it only stands against the state and negates its authority, but ultimately takes for granted its existence.

Another Left-Flank piece titled, “Why Better Politics Can’t Make Anti-Politics Go Away,” attempts to critique a “Spiked!” article, which criticizes anti-politics for its teleological emptiness. The author of the Left-Flank article in question responds by saying that:

“Furedi argues: “The radical supporters of anti-politics overlook that the flipside of anti-politics is TINA — an acceptance of the world as it is. For without politics people are reduced to passive objects, shaped by fate.” He gives no sense that social forces are needed to profoundly change society, and that political activity underpinned by social passivity simply reproduces the current malaise. Hence he collapses into a tired and unconvincing call for a “battle of ideas” for the values he prefers. More bizarrely he claims that the deadweight of institutions like “schools, universities, popular culture, the media” is more powerful than the countercultural populist surge. Perhaps that argument would’ve rung true 30 years ago, but if the Brexit and Trump votes showed anything it was a lack of deference to the expertise and cultural authority of “schools, universities, popular culture, the media” that was in operation — a fact Furedi acknowledges but quickly forgets.”

While a lot of this is true, that social deference to expertise has been declining, and that political activity predicated on passivity simply reproduces the problematics of the current social order, it attempts to disassociate participation in the social and political realms, as if they function in mutually exclusive domains. The functional goal of participation in politics for the revolutionary is specifically to bring to light the utter ineptitude of bourgeois politics, and in turn present an alternative towards liberation. In this sense we can defer back to US Marxist Hal Draper on the role that politics play within the movement:

“The working class (unlike the bourgeoisie) cannot inseminate its own system of economic power within the old one, thereby establishing a plateau of power from which to gain the political heights. The order necessarily is the reverse. The working class–through the organization of its political movement, like every other aspiring class–must first conquer political power and then begin the process of socio economic transformation. For the bourgeoisie, political power was finally plucked as the ripe or overripe fruit of its socio economic power, its power as a possessing class. For the working class, political power is needed as the engine with which to bring a new social order into existence.”

This delineation of the role that working class politics play in overcoming capitalism is important in that it stresses the interwoven relationship of the base and superstructure. Contrary to Gramsci’s (who Left-Flank seems to take much inspiration from) conception of a “cultural hegemony,” Draper demonstrates the bottleneck that bourgeois politics play in supplementing and monopolizing a more universal hegemony, and it is only through the working class seizure and occupation of the political, social, and economic strata that this monopolization can be reversed. Hegemony is fought through counter-hegemony, which for the working class must be collective and in its highest form proposes an alternative form of governance, and therefore grasp with the political.

The dangers of this sort of fetishization for purely “social” forms of organizing/movementism, is that the real world application of its praxis has historically resulted in a spontaneous, unorganized, and premature causatum of failure. Despite romantic nostalgias for outbursts such as May 68, these “purely social” spasms aren’t able to structure or restructure themselves into an organized movement with a coherent purpose, and are either absorbed and subsumed back into the bourgeois spectacle or crushed underneath the boot of capital.  The reason for this is not because of the interminability of capitalism, but because peripheral strategic forms are unable to capture the totalization that the bourgeoisie has over the structures of social power. Only the patient construction of social and political force, the working class and its party, can come to challenge the totalizing domination that the bourgeois holds over society, not just economically, but politically and ideologically.

The social conditions that created “anti-politics” as a widespread force amongst the working class are a product of material circumstances. However, the argument of Marxism is that our material circumstances are rooted in socially and historically defined conditions that are based on social relations which result from the processes of collective human action. By acting collectively, humans can change these material circumstances, and therefore develop a new mode of production itself, socialism. So rather than tailing anti-political sentiment that spontaneously develops from an atomized existence in neo-liberal capitalism, we must go against the spontaneous consciousness, as Lenin urges us in What Is To Be Done. We must fight collectively against the material conditions that make anti-politics dominant.

The development of revolutionary strategy grounded in the material conditions of today is a much needed task that all socialists should be willing to partake in, but the process of this conceptualization has to take into account the forces of all spheres of power and influence, as the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is not simply confined to the material, or social, but to life in its totality. This doesn’t mean that we indulge in the “tagtail” of bourgeois parties, as Engels said, but what it does mean is that we take a principled universalist approach to overcoming the universalist system of oppression and exploitation of capitalism and bourgeois society as whole.

 

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The Recuperation of Authentic Outrage

By Ian Hinson and Aydin Jang. Originally posted here

The victory of the Trump campaign, and the catapultic rise of the alt-right movement from the shadows of the internet into the mainstream political paradigm, has stimulated a mobilization of opposition, and an immediate call to action. However, the specter of performative activism and pseudo-outrage continues to blur the lines between genuine action and specious placation.

As noted in Internationale Situationniste #9, the S.I. appropriately identified the neutralization of revolutionary strategies, concepts, and images, for the purpose of emptying them of their subversive content, thus making them compatible with mainstream, bourgeois culture. They formulated this process under the concept of recuperation. Media culture absorbs and diffuses radical ideas as a way to create a homogeneous plane of discourse, in which even the most mutinous of societal critiques are brought under the dominant space of acceptable discussion. In doing so, not only are the proponents of these revolutionary concepts forced to struggle for control over their own definitions, but the revolutionaries themselves are effectively dragged into the realm of their own repurposed concepts, in an attempt to retain coherency and an ideological relation to the general public. The S.I. go on to point out a few notable examples of this process of recuperation:

From Khrushchev to the priests, socialism as a concept has been given the richest variety of contradictory meanings ever consolidated in one single word. Unions have undergone such transformations that at this point the most effective strikes are those organized by the members of the privileged classes, as evidenced by the Belgian doctors this year. Not even anarchy has been spared, as one can tell from the “anarchist opinions” of the pro-Chinese Mr Siné and, even more so, by the anarchist opinions of Le Monde libertaire

Acting in accordance with capital’s need to exert its dominion over nature, it also extends its domination over the domain of language, and over the realm of acceptable expressions of outrage. One needn’t look any further than the outpouring of protests and demonstrations which have materialized over the past few weeks for an example of this subsumption of the limits of radical outrage, with millions participating across the globe in a show of solidarity to those affronted over the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. Multiple sources have stated that the “Women’s March” in particular, was the largest demonstration in Washington DC’s history, and while the ability to organize such a massive gathering of bodies is quite impressive, one must ask how effective this demonstration actually was at conveying its message. Moreover, what exactly is the praxis of these types of demonstrations, and why were the small glimpses of authentic outrage so universally condemned by the media, and similarly by the liberal stratum who made up the majority of the protest’s population? To put it simply, liberal activism can be described as that of an empty signifier, that is to say, it acts as an imitation of the radical activism in which it seeks to replace. It creates a stage for the general public to try on the mask of the political radical, while at the same time allowing for the members of the privileged classes to direct this performance by redefining what radical action actually looks like.The political radical in the sphere of mainstream discourse is no longer the black bloc creating a cacophony of kindled police mobiles and broken windows. The political radical has been recodified as the football star who kneels during the national anthem, or the movie star who gives an apathetic, detached speech during an awards show. The political radical no longer sees action as an instrument to realize systematic change, action is reduced down to means with no end, where the demonstration is a statement and nothing more.

Herbert Marcuse discusses the disarming of political action in his essay Repressive Tolerance:

Thus, within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game. To take a most controversial case: the exercise of political rights (such as voting, letter-writing to the press, to Senators, etc., protest-demonstrations with a priori renunciation of counter-violence) in a society of total administration serves to strengthen this administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness. In such a case, freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude.²

What Marcuse sets out to illuminate in this analysis is not only the ineffectiveness of bourgeois activism to actualize systemic change, but also how this type of activism is metamorphosed into action which exculpates the oppressive class for their exploitation. Opposition via political activity reconciles itself with the status quo through its own existence. It contains itself within the limitations of the very system it seems to resist. “It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities.” It is thus apparent that the dominant forms of activism represent not a subversive expression of dissent, but as an implicit consent to be governed.

Engagement in activism constitutes an intervention within the space where politics and everyday life intersect. In this way it reflects the totalitarian nature of a democratic society, which controls the totality of life by appearing as the controlled object. In reality, of course, it is the individual whose life becomes co-opted by the machinery of the state through their own supposed participation in its process. This is the principal contradiction that the modern activist continuously and quixotically struggles to overcome. The politicization of human affairs is a component of the greater social phenomenon of alienation, as people act to strip themselves of autonomy through ritualized self-exploitation.

Politics function to a great extent on an abstract level, an intangible expression of the tangible violence of the state. It is a representational system, distorting images of the world by design. The public discourse that arises from this system is a reflection of a reflection, a second degree of non-reality. The rupture of this elaborate funhouse is seen through an act of physical violence, a refusal to engage in the maddening “dialogues” that form the basis of the mainstream consensus. With continued complacency, and an acceptance of this image of reality, that image becomes actualized. This series of relationships and social processes that constitute this spectacular construction becomes the manifestation of reality itself because it is understood that it is the totality of observable reality. The mystification of these spectacular aspects place them at the center of the social world. Guy Debord examined this phenomenon in his Society of the Spectacle:

The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.³

We can see that this mask obstructs a clear view of the reality of society. The “politeness” of modern governance works to produce a societal consensus, one which inverts the truth of objective conditions by presenting helplessness as autonomy, coercion as accord. The maintenance of this phenomenological project is one of the most pressing issues of late capitalist modernity, as the intensification of crisis creates fissures in the objectified worldview.

It is this consensus which the activist, consciously or unconsciously, seeks to reproduce and perpetuate. Activism, as a by-product of capitalist democracy, is the art of manufacturing appearances. What is more important is to display anger, to compress it into a viewable form, rather than to actually act upon it. In the age of social media, this spectacular method can be virtualized and magnified, further diluting whatever emotional message was originally embedded. Activism is both an asocial and social affair, generating crowds that perform mechanistic demonstrations of indignation, brought together by an empty non-message. The deception of such crowds is that they are not so much crowds, but collections of individuals who are more focused on transmitting expressions of false personal investment to each other. The protester does not march towards any specific goal, but to engage in the act of marching itself. Expressive activism (protest politics) is the realization of the theater-form within our social world.

Consider the broken window, universally condemned as a product of “senseless violence”. Destroying a window attacks an ideological barrier as well as a physical one. The normative discourse of our society is one of simulated inaction, concealing brutality within pacifistic rhetoric. To subvert this false language and reveal its true nature is to speak the more “primitive” tongue of physicality. The burning limo and the smashed shopfront are not de-rationalized because they accomplish nothing, in fact the very opposite is true. They symbolize a death of passivity, posing an existential threat to the political mindset. This is why the puppets of the old order must denounce them as acts of insanity.

The limits of rational activity within a sphere of society are set according to the dominant narrative at play. For this reason, riots are depicted as the wrong way to dissent, that is to say, actualized resistance is an improper form of resistance. Violence is not sophisticated, they proclaim, the-pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword and so on. Once again, this returns to the very simple contradiction of democratic governance, that of representation versus content. Such a system can only survive by embracing its own contradiction, pursuing violence with greater theatrical flair, the imposition of a terroristic peace. Activism is only an expression of helplessness in the face of this terrible force. The ideological constraints reproduced by the activist are a consequence of state power, and only reinforce it, despite appearances.. As such, political performance is an expression of the cyclical nature of society’s administration. The perpetuation of the democratic ideology allows exploitative relations to produce the conditions for such an ideology to take root.

To point out the danger explicit violence poses to this system is not to say that the fracturing of a sheet of glass is such a momentous occasion. Breaking a window does not blow away the millions of police and soldiers and all their guns. Such an act does not practically undermine the state any more than a peaceful march does. Political violence faces the same problem that political debate does. The attempt to exert pressure and to force demands onto such a powerful entity is like screaming into a deaf ear.

It is violence as a form of action, in its movement beyond structure and symbolism, that threatens the present order. It bypasses the activist’s struggle to overcome the contradiction of their own work, and lays bare the foundations of the capitalist state. Beyond the political, lies the potential for a reconstitution of the human, if only we can cease to reproduce the conditions of our own oppression. It is only when it tries to overcome the state, rather than shape it, that any sort of resistance transforms itself into revolution.

References

[1] “Words and Those Who Use Them” Situationist International Online. Web. 09 Feb. 2017.

[2] Marcuse, Herbert, and Wolff, Robert Paul. Repressive Tolerance. Berkeley, Callif.: Printed by the Berkeley Commune, 1968. Print.

[3] Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1977. Print.

Weekend at Bernie’s

However fed up they may claim to be, a certain portion of the Left in the United States remains sympathetic if not outright loyal to the Democratic Party. Many of these people are coming to support the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, and for them, the legacy of the postwar American economy looms large. When not focusing on identity politics and fear of republicans, Keynesian economic policy tends to be the ideological basis of the left wing of the Democratic Party. However, that same institution is incapable of bringing forth such reforms, not only due to the capitalist nature of the organization, but also because the leadership understands, at least unconsciously, that such reforms are impossible in the current historical moment.

pool_lounginIn the dark comedy classic Weekend at Bernie’s, two reformist insurance employees discover the corpse of their boss at his weekend beach house. In order to protect their lives and keep the party going, they spend the rest of the film working to maintain the illusion that the lifeless corpse of their boss is still alive and is having the time of his life. To their surprise, and the delight of most of the unknowing spectators, the ruse is successful, and the dead guy brings more joy to everyone who encounters him as a corpse than he probably would have were he still alive.

Bernie Sanders has frequently identified himself in interviews speeches etc. as a “socialist.” When pressed as to what this means, he usually mentions something about Sweden and/or sticks the “democratic” moniker in front of it, presumably to be less scary. Yet Sanders is deliberately appealing to something bigger and more powerful than what is normally found within the bounds of typical political rhetoric. While most of the Democratic Party stoically marches right, Sanders has veered left, raising the specter of old school populism and attempting to appeal to growing outrage over economic inequality. His seemingly unpolished style, appearing and talking like your old socialist uncle who probably still mimeographs his own newsletters, Sanders appeals to the legacy of American unionism and a nostalgia for its former strength. During this period of escalating election time hype it is important to remember that this remains within a framework of mainstream left-of-center politics. By using his position within Democratic Party primary politics, Sanders has drawn more attention to this type of rhetoric than one might have thought feasible. Since Sanders has nowhere to go but up, this has been the key to his appeal. Raise the specter of working class strength, state directed social development, and populist economic outrage, but contain it within a palatable framework and channel it into the old political currents. This is nothing new. If anything this is the new normal. This same self-congratulatory politics could be seen during the 2008 Obama campaign. In his tone and diction Obama sought to subtly evoke the legacy of Martin Luther King, and would later famously install a bust of the man in the Oval Office. Today the Eugene Debs poster in Sander’s office is a similar object of note for reporters. Obama also acted as insurgent candidate against Clinton, filling a necessary power vacuum in the Democratic Party’s shallow bench of celebrity politicians. Obama promised a new kind of politics, albeit of a vaguer sort than Sanders, and sailed in on a wave of popular outrage toward the Bush administration and panic at the sudden emergence of the economic crisis. During Obama’s rise, all of the usual useful idiots pressed the line, excited that someone is able to appeal to loftier notions in anything resembling a mainstream context. To his credit, Sanders policies and political history go slightly deeper than Obama’s, but at the same time this poses a greater hurdle for him. A good deal of the Democratic Party base identifies as moderate or conservative. If Sanders hopes to actually secure a nomination, like Obama or anyone else, he will be forced to make concessions to those components of the party. All of this is moot anyway. Whether or not Sanders gets the nomination, or even if he somehow gets elected, the Democratic Party as a whole and as an institution is both unwilling to and incapable of implementing the kind of economic policy Sanders is touting. For now, Sanders has skillfully exceeded the extremely low expectations surrounding his candidacy and made great strides in closing the gap in the polls against Hillary Clinton. There has been a great deal of euphoria on some sectors of the American Left (to the extent that a Left can be said to exist in America). There has also been a growing chorus of dissident voices pointing out that Sanders platform is much less radical than some are touting it as. I suppose that I stand in the latter camp, but rather than listing the numerous political sins he’s probably committed over the years through his special relationship with the democrats, instead I’m going to examine and critique some of the assumptions underlying his appeal and then briefly look at just how meaningless Sanders conception of socialism really is.

Reformism and Neo-Liberalism

The extent to which one can place hope in reformist efforts today, depends in part as to one’s conception of neo-liberalism. It can be tough to characterize the economic opinions of the Left, since so little of it can be said to hold any kind of economic conception of capitalism. For many people, in today’s environment Clintonite stooge Robert Reich has come to constitute some kind of substantial economic guru for many people. Still, a unifying theme, from soft Marxists like David Harvey and Richard Woolf to liberal reformists like Robert Reich is that the period encompassing neo-liberalism roughly amounts to an attack on the working and middle classes by the rich. That the gutting of US manufacturing, international trade deals, the welfare state, and dying off of trade unions was the result of a concerted effort, lead on a political front by greedy elites who were not satisfied with the previous equilibrium that had been established in the economy. This skillfully and self-servingly reduces structural economic problems to a question of political leadership, and from this standpoint, it makes sense to expect that the United States could return to “peace and prosperity” through the policy decisions of elected officials. Unfortunately this picture does not conform to the reality of the last forty years or capitalism in general.

Capitalists and state planners have adopted neo-liberal economic strategies for a reason. Liberals and soft soc-dems like to paint different accumulation strategies as “irrational” as a basis for justifying opposition and advocating for reform. What all of this ignores is how, under capitalism, the fate of the working class is tied to the needs and trajectory of capitalist accumulation. Following the great depression, and a series of escalating strike waves in manufacturing, a post-war boom in economic prosperity affected many sectors of the American working class. Relatively generous welfare and more progressive tax rates were feasible and prosperous policies in the wake of a robust profit rate. Fueled by the massive capital devaluation of the depression at home, and the literal devaluation of resources as an outcome of the war, the United States emerged as the strongest manufacturing center for a growing and rebuilding world market. Decades of militant labor agitation had strengthened the position of the American working class, allowing it to bargain for a greater portion of the surplus. Constituting a sort of golden period for the “middle class,” the mid-1940s-(1960s) far from being the norm, instead constituted a sort of detente between certain sections of the working class and capital. This came to a halt in the wake of the financial crisis of the 1970’s.

Following the war, Western European and Japanese manufacturers were able to enter the world market with newer machinery operating at higher rates of productivity. Combined with a precarious workforce and targeted market development, these economies were able to undercut American producers, many of whom were still holding fixed capital assets that had yet to yield their full returns. Typically, as in the Great Depression, such crises are followed by a period of capital devaluation. Instead, capitalists opted for a different set of strategies to avert crisis and maintain the course of capital accumulation. Amongst these strategies were privatization, financialization, debt expansion, and a host of strategies to manage increasing surplus populations (incarceration, education, underemployment). What is important to understand is that this turn was driven by the trajectory of the capitalist economy, and not simply reducible to “corporate greed.” The rising organic composition runs as an undercurrent to all of this and has never been satisfactorily addressed. Instead what we have are increasingly sophisticated forms of state economic management. This does not meant that politics are in command, just the opposite, that the state is necessarily commanded by the needs of the economy.

The politician must understand just as well as the capitalist that all functioning of the state is predicated on the maintenance of a robust profit rate. Policies which have a negative effect on the increasingly precarious capitalist growth are a nonstarter, and even those proposing them will typically recoil when forced to consider the real consequences of their decisions (see Syriza). Attempting to bring back Keynesian style redistributive policies under completely different historical economic and political circumstances would be foolish and unrealistic without a militant fighting working class which was fully prepared to tank the capitalist economy in order to build a new one. In periods of a decreasing underlying profit rate, such reforms would heighten class antagonisms and social contradictions rather than reconcile them. And that is far from the story Sanders and company are selling. When leftists go around promising that easy reform and robust economic development can go hand in hand, all they are doing is setting the stage for reaction. Fortunately, we know they are not serious. For Democrats, these ideas can only prove useful to the extent that they will never be realized. But the show must go on, and so they’ll raise the corpse of liberalism every so often, bask in the glow of the party, and return to business as usual the next day. Cause if you step back, from a distance and at a glance these appear to be serious measures. Look at all these people in the crowds, they’re so excited. This many people can’t be getting worked up for nothing, right?

Democratic Party : Unfit for the Working Class

Sanders has spoken of running his campaign “more like a movement” but the fact that he is choosing to lead his “political revolution” within the Democratic Party, and has promised to support whoever the candidate would be (read: Hillary Clinton) should tell anyone who is serious about some kind of substantial political change everything they need to know. But for the sake of clarity, let’s briefly review why it is the Democratic Party is unfit to bring about the kind of change the proletariat needs and many sections of its own base would like to see.

The relationship between the Democratic Party and the American Working class has been opportunistic from the very beginning. Representing the slaveholding interests in the South, the Party used class discontent in the north between workers and bosses as a part of its overall strategy to retain its political foothold in the federal government. Even after the Civil War, this basic class arrangement remained in place, embodied as late as the 1960’s in the white southern populism of George Wallace. Going forward, after the destruction of slavery, the Democrats acted as a force of loyal opposition to the industrial expansionism of the Republican Party. For many however, this is irrelevant. Instead they point to the New Deal of FDR, and Great Society Legislation of Lyndon Johnson in order to shore up political credibility for the Democratic Party. This relies on a form of historical amnesia in which the broader context of each administration is completely forgotten, and this kind of lineage of peace and prosperity is projected across administrations from FDR to Carter to Clinton and sometimes even Obama. In the same breath, the historical lineage tracing back to the Democratic defense of slavery and its current complicity in imperialism is completely disavowed. If we understand the Democratic Party not as the vanguard of American Leftism, or even a bulwark against rightists, but instead as a recuperation mechanism for a particular faction of the ruling class, the political continuities and discontinuities between administrations and eras comes into much clearer focus.

The first Democratic Party president that leftists will point to is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Kennedy left little of substance behind during his short tenure as president, and Johnson’s legacy, in spite of his welfare and civil rights legislation, is remains largely tainted for many by the Vietnam War. By contrast FDR stands as architect of “the good war,” savior of the economy, and redistributor of wealth. However FDR’s New Deal can only be understood within the context of American Capitalism of that era. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the American Working class was gaining serious ground in developing its own political organs and institutions. This era saw the rise of trade Unionism in the AFL and CIO, the fighting syndicalism of the IWW, the developing socialist parties as well as the Communist Party USA. However imperfect these organizations were, their existence indicated a possibility of an American working class capable of asserting itself as an independent political force. Perhaps more importantly wildcat strikes had been taking off in the United States and would continue to escalate through his administration and well through the war. Workers were thus taking on modes of direct action independent of the developing bureaucracies of the representatives of labor. All this boded poorly for the American ruling class, who had enjoyed a relative degree of political hegemony in comparison to much of what had taken place in Western Europe. FDR rode into office on top of a massive economic crisis, and governed in the shadow of dictatorships throughout Europe and growing inter-imperialist conflict globally. FDR’s reforms fell well short of the demands implicit in the actions of the American working class at the time. His penultimate solution, a war economy, served to redirect the trajectory of production and after the war served to place the U.S. as the foremost global superpower. This mode of war production, later termed the “military industrial complex” has been more or less in place ever since. The coexistence of state expansion and welfare spending and a broader imperialist spending and foreign policy could be seen in starker relief under the Johnson administration decades later. While the military spending has remained more or less invariant and essential to capitalist accumulation in the United States, the particular class, economic and historical conditions that produced the former reforms have been gradually eaten away at ever since, often with the direct complicity of the very Democrats who are allegedly supposed to prevent this. Yet still we are promised a return to this, and Sanders brand of cruise missile socialism continues it. Herein lies the focal weak point of Sanders form of left-liberalism. In spite of the frequently hysterical anti-war activism of the left (“no blood for oil man”) here sits no room in this outlook for any meaningful internationalism. When military spending is even seen as a problem, it is understood either as simply an irrational expenditure, or it is opposed on moral terms, as if the U.S. economy received no material benefits from its imperial hegemony and all spending could simply be shifted to infrastructural development with no economic downside.

For many, the strongest case to be made for Sanders insurgent candidacy to be made stems from the fear of repeating the example of Ralph Nader, who acted as a “spoiler” in the 2000 presidential election. In spite of the largely inconclusive evidence regarding Nader’s role, this event has loomed large in the liberal mindset, turning Nader from being the reformist hero of the 1970’s into a pariah responsible from everything from the War in Iraq to 9/11 depending on who you talk to. What followed in the subsequent anti-War movement was a redoubling of efforts in support of the Democratic candidacy, leading to the pathetic spectacle of John Kerry’s run. But what is strange, even on its own terms, about the “lesser of two evils” argument his how the people making it paint this grim picture of our current situation but seldom paint any kind of portrait of how to get out of it except through acquiescence to it. This might have made a modicum of sense to the politically naive during the height of the anti-bush anti-war demonstrations in 2003, but after nearly 8 years of a democratic administration, and following the failure of a Democratic majority to pass meaningful health care reform that wasn’t just a glorified coupon system, the Democrats today are in sore need of credibility. After decades of moving to the right and an eight year presidential term that has produced little reform to speak of, it is becoming I think increasingly difficult for Democrats to sidestep the glaring contradictions between what is expected of them and what they actually do, facilitated in part through the increasingly open information exchange of the internet. Sanders may represent a last ditch effort to recoup the left wing of the party and get people #readyforhillary. What both Sanders, and Nader missed was the basis of political power. Nader believed that it was necessary to build a political institution outside of the Democratic Party. However the Greens have no basis in a strong class capable of acting politically, and their platform remains a sterner variation on the basic liberal schema.

Really-Ideal Socialism

A great deal of the novelty surrounding Sanders campaign is his refusal to completely disavow the term “socialist” whenever it is applied to him. Partly this represents a form of savvy on his part, it is said that Obama’s poll numbers went up the more the term was applied to him by his detractors, and partly it serves as a useful rhetorical maneuver. At the same time, the seemingly increasing receptivity to more leftish politics suggests something about our current moment.

Sander’s vague allusions to Scandinavia and Democratic Socialism, seldom run into the concrete or even link up directly with his policy proposals. Instead it serves as more of a rhetorical function. Even as we near the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, red baiting remains useful for rightists, and an effective measure for shutting down any discussion of reform or even any criticism of the current acceptable functioning of capitalism, no matter how minor. Thanks to the sustainable functioning of the Scandinavian welfare states, left-liberals have a relatively inoffensive model they can point to. In other words, Sander’s “socialism” is really just a way for him to call the bluff of rightists his actual policies themselves are liberal reformist at best.

Historically, socialism as a political goal amounted to more than simply generous welfare spending, public works programs, or highly progressive taxation. Socialism was a project to overcome capitalism and transition to a higher, better mode of society. Even in the classical Social Democratic Party of Germany, the philistine right theorist Edward Bernstein, in all of his gradualist reformism, agreed that capitalism was only a transitional point to socialism. In fact, insofar as he was convinced that said transition was inevitable, he was far more optimistic about the prospects of proletarian triumph than most leftists or even many Marxists today. Sanders and the rest of the “socialism worked in Sweden” school, cannot even comprehend or envision mankind’s social transformation through history. It ignores the class basis of most of the political parties which implemented the said reforms, and it ignores the limitations of the nation state. The Scandinavian examples, as beneficial as they may be for the people living there, are just as symptomatic of the failure of socialism as its success. Because in both cases, and this is true for Europe to a lesser extent, the very national basis of such a system presupposes an anti-immigration politics. Because the benefits and higher wages are secured for a certain set of workers through the reproduction of the particular state and national economy, it must necessarily exclude other workers from entering the economy at a faster rate than growth allows them to integrate, as well as take a place within the broader international system of capitalism. This being the case, it should come as no surprise that Sanders has such shitty attitudes toward immigration:

“Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal…That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States… It would make everybody in America poorer…You’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that… “

If you turned the last sentence on its head, you might have a statement from an actual socialist. It is entirely inconceivable to Sanders that the abolition of nation states could be something desirable or necessary as an eventual goal. This glaring but inadvertent cluelessness is fairly typical of old-school unionist DP politics. Sanders doubles down on state protectionism. He even goes so far as to threaten to put the genie back in the bottle on NAFTA, as if all the Mexican farms run off the land by American agri-business will somehow re-sprout again and the “illegals” will just go back home to their plows. As of yet, Sanders offers no vision on how he might control capital flight, or do anything to deal with the cheaper labor and newer equipment that inevitably emerges in a world market. A globalized market only points even more starkly for international organization and solidarity of the poor and working classes worldwide. Instead Sanders hopes to recreate some kind of accord between the working class and the ruling class. He refers to this accord as “the middle class,” and he refers to it often. This sort of nationalist strategy of cross-class amelioration in the form of expanding the old buffer is, in the light of a genuine class politics, fundamentally reactionary.

The Communist Line

Finally, this brings us to the question: what does the phenomenon of the Bernie Sanders campaign mean for Communists? It is very easy to adopt an oppositional stance, and begin rattling off a laundry list of Bernie Sander’s political sins, but I think it is even more important for Communists to cut right to the heart of the matter. Bernie Sanders is not a socialist, because Bernie Sanders does not seek to move society beyond capitalism. A socialist program must be necessarily transitional to Communism, or it will necessarily transition to failure.

If Sanders represents and capitalizes upon a reviving interest in socialism, then it is our task to clarify what socialism really is and what it means. We must critique the limitations of Sanders overall strategy, and in the process underline what directions things must take in order for there to be real change. We cannot look to sell people on easy magic bullet solutions either with the intention of winning people’s interest or counting on such solutions tanking in order to prepare people for the “real alternative.” Instead we should recognize that people are beginning to recognize some of the limitations of Democratic Party politics. We should push them further. Another component of this as that a lot of mainstream American news and politics runs on fear. The truly skilled politician knows how to transcend this and appear to offer people something beyond this schema, it’s not for nothing that the central word of Obama’s campaign was “Hope.” In his promises of reform, and his seemingly different way of doing things Sanders appeals to a similar mindset. In deconstructing the politics of the Left, we must at the same time point to an alternative politics and a vision for a higher and better form of society. Still, even within this, it is hard to escape the nexus of the current political schema. What is required perhaps more than anything else is a longer and deeper view both of the past and of the future. So long as the lessons and implications of history are ignored, any capacity to imagine future change or long term development will remain necessarily stunted. We must not only oppose all bourgeois political parties, but also the conception that the outlook of our political horizons cannot extend beyond the next four years.

The Party is Over

Weekend at Bernie’s ends with the two main characters getting everything they wanted. An assassin goes mad repeatedly attempting to kill Bernie, and is convinced he is still alive even when he is being taken to jail. The two young men get to keep their jobs, one gets the girl, and the corpse slips out of the ambulance to fall on the beach and be symbolically buried by an indignant youth. So far Sanders has been able to placate the latter element, but if the savvy activists and staff of his campaign have their way, they can take this thing all the way to the general election. There might be more appeal to the Sanders pitch than it seems. Republicans could come off as hysterical (as they did with Obama) crying socialist and communist long after the DP party mainstream, or anyone else, have ceased to really believe it. Whether he wins or is forced to go back to his Senate seat, at the end of all this, careers will be made. And Sanders and his specter of sewer socialism will be wheeled back to be buried in the place that all American working class politics go to die: Washington DC.