Neoliberalism and its discontents
Walter Benn Michaels, Toby Chow, Margaret Power, and Donald Parkinson
Platypus Review #76 | May 2015
On April 10, 2015, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a discussion on neoliberalism and the Left featuring Walter Benn Michaels, author of The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality; Toby Chow, an organizer with Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) and The People’s Lobby; Margaret Power, author of Right-Wing Women in Chile: Feminine Power and the Struggle Against Allende, 1964–1973; and Donald Parkinson, a founding member of the Communist League of Tampa. The discussion was introduced and moderated by Pamela Nogales of the Platypus Affiliated Society. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion. An audio recording of the discussion is available online at https://archive.org/details/PlatypusPCVIIPlenaryNeoliberalism.
Walter Benn Michaels: Neoliberal hegemony’s success stems at least in part from the fact that it involves not just a widespread acceptance of many conservative positions (such as opposition to higher taxes) but also the subsumption and inclusion of positions that, without being conservative, are not in any sense anti-capitalist. By anti-capitalist I don’t necessarily mean ‘revolutionary socialist.’ All I mean is something that combats or at least seeks to mitigate the exploitation of labor by capital, the fact that the workers are paid less than the value that they produce.
An obvious example of this form of neoliberal hegemony is support for same-sex marriage and opposition to the “religious freedom” acts that conservatives are passing to make possible forms of discrimination that would otherwise be illegal. The CEOs of Wal-Mart, General Electric, Apple, Goldman Sachs, etc. who denounce these ‘religious freedom’ acts are not socialists. They understand that this socially progressive position is in no sense an anti-capitalist position. Same-sex marriage is a very radical concept. Had you proposed immediately after the 1969 Stonewall riots that the next task was to try to legalize same-sex marriage you would have been regarded as utopian in the extreme. The problem is not that same-sex marriage has been co-opted by neoliberalism but that the ways in which same-sex marriage is radical have nothing to do with the struggle between labor and capital.
This point can be brought to bear on issues that do relate to the struggle between labor and capital. We all probably agree that racial disparities in income are unjust. And although presumably no one thinks that whites make less money than Asians because of anti-white prejudice—which might lead us, in a different context, to be skeptical about the idea that racism is a universal explanation of these inequalities—presumably all of us would agree that some measure of anti-black racism has played a substantial role in producing a world in which whites make twice as much as blacks and Asians make more than twice as much. But even if this injustice (unlike the injustice involved in opposing same-sex marriage) is economic in nature, our opposition to it has nothing to do with opposition to neoliberalism. On the contrary, what Adolph Reed and Merlin Chowkwanyun have called “disparitarianism,” the commitment to understanding American injustice in terms of the proportion and success (or lack thereof) of the elements of a racialized population, has built into it the utopian goal of an equality that would demand nothing more than a closer proximity of the total income earned by members of each race to the total income earned by members of all races: a move up for blacks, a move down for Asians, but a move nowhere at all for workers. Anti-racism today, especially in the form of commitment to diversity, has become an upper-class project. I would suggest that this too has nothing to do with the co-optation of a more radical anti-racism. Anti-racism has been radical, but its radicalism in itself, unlinked to a political and economic agenda that involves something more than opposing racism, has never been more anti-capitalist than the fight for gay rights has been.
What does count as anti-capitalist? Or, what at least has the more modest goal of fighting for workers against capital? The neoliberal economist Gary Becker can point us in the right direction. Since the 1957 publication of Becker’s The Economics of Discrimination (which was reprinted in 1971, by which time it had become more influential), it has been a central tenet of neoclassical economics that discrimination is an economic liability in competitive markets. The employer unwilling to hire blacks or women restricts the labor force available to him and thus pays premium wages to satisfy his preference for white men. In a relatively uncompetitive market one can still succeed with a “taste” for white men despite paying the extra cost of that taste, but the more competitive the market, the less affordable that taste becomes. Economists like Becker oppose racism precisely because, in their view, racism empowers certain groups of workers (in this case, white males). They oppose unions—or at least labor unions—for the same reason. Of course, when it comes to marital unions, Becker has been arguing for years that marriages should be “basic contractual arrangements between couples,” in which case “homosexual unions would not be any different from heterosexual unions.” That would be the point at which neoliberal ideology is inseparable from the commitment to genuinely progressive social change.
Labor unions, unlike marital unions, are problem for capital, or at least they were. The graphs below show that downward-trending union density in the private sector over the last century mirrors the upward-trending percentage of income going to the top 10% of the population. Workers’ productivity has risen even though workers’ wages have declined or remained stagnant. Corporate profits have risen as—and partly because of the fact that—workers’ wages have declined.
Left: The concentration of income among the top decile income group in the United States, 1917–2012.1 Right: The share of private sector workers represented by unions in the United States, 1930–2012.2
Obviously there are lots of problems with unions. There has probably never been a moment in the history of unionism when it hasn’t been clear that unions occupy a complicated position in relation to the struggle against capitalism. On the one hand, unions are the way in which workers can organize themselves to fight against the competitive market in labor that neoliberalism seeks to universalize. On the other hand, unions’ mission is not to end exploitation but to ameliorate the terms according to which exploitation takes place, to bargain for a better deal. So unions are profoundly vulnerable to being co-opted, and insofar as they are not radically anti-capitalist, unions are co-opted right from the start. But this weakness is part of their attraction. It’s true that unions can fight only a limited war. But it’s also true that, limited though it is, the war they are fighting—unlike the war for same-sex marriage or even the war against racial discrimination—is really on behalf of workers. That’s why right-wing neoliberals like Scott Walker and Bruce Rauner are determined to destroy unions. That’s why left-neoliberals like Barack Obama and our mayor, Rahm Emanuel, don’t care much about defending them. Indeed, left-neoliberalism, with its unwavering support for charter schools, especially in Chicago and New York, has probably been the most effective opponent of the union movement today.
When it comes to the question of political organization, the Left—that is, the Left that is not a neoliberal left—ought to take a lesson from the right. The right wants to destroy unions for a reason. The Left should want to build them for the same reason.
Toby Chow: I’m involved in organizing at Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation and at The People’s Lobby. My views don’t necessarily represent those of these organizations. In these organizations we have adopted the goal of overcoming neoliberalism but not the goal of overcoming capitalism or creating a socialist or post-capitalist society. These two tasks are distinct, although they’re related.
Neoliberalism is in a state of crisis. Neoliberalism has been a form of global capitalist society based on intensifying market forces through deregulation and privatization, upward redistribution towards the wealthy, and global capital flows. It involves a regime of capital accumulation based on cheap growth, short-term investment, and a global race to the bottom among workers and governments. This is how neoliberalism has been, but neoliberalism is now in a state of terminal crisis and this creates opportunities for the Left. How do we seize the moment?
We need to look beyond small-scale, short-term victories. This is especially important for the pragmatic left: labor unions, community organizations, human rights organizations, and so on. We also need to avoid pursuing utopian fantasies of a completely new society. We must instead attend to the possibilities for a systemic transformation that are currently being generated by neoliberalism and its crisis. These possibilities do not currently include the overcoming of capitalism. However, we do face the possibility of contributing to the creation of a much more just global society in a way that resolves the crisis of neoliberalism.
Under neoliberalism we have seen the proliferation of multinational corporations and of transnational bodies like the IMF and the WTO which are in charge of managing the global economy. These are currently—and correctly—seen by the Left as a threat to democracy and a driving force behind inequality, but we now have the opportunity to work through these forces, to create a more just post-neoliberal global society that is more egalitarian, more inclusive, and more capable of dealing with more long-term global threats like climate change. We can create such a society by working to transnationalize the labor movement and the public sphere.
First we need to work towards improved global standards for wages and working conditions. We can achieve this by taking the source of strength of multinational corporations—namely, their vast geographical reach—and turning it back against them. We now have vast supply chains which link workers across continents from the U.S. to Bangladesh; in the process this creates a comprehensive but delicate global division of labor. Currently this global division of labor is used to foster a global race to the bottom, but it also provides the Left with the potential to transform the working class populations in different countries from competitors to comrades. We have seen glimpses of this potential in the global response to the recent factory disasters in Bangladesh, where workers and activists began to cooperate transnationally to make demands on those who manage the global economic system. This points to the possibility of making demands that can genuinely reverse the global race to the bottom, which would also address one of the aspects of the neoliberal crisis: the problem of effective demand.
People on the American left tend to lament the state of the labor movement, but the labor movement only looks very weak if we ignore China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and other countries. In the past few years we have seen very large, militant labor mobilizations in a number of emerging markets. A recent strike at a factory in Ho Chi Minh City that produces products for Adidas and Nike involved 90,000 workers. This is the labor movement that we have been waiting for, and we need to figure out a way to create real bonds of solidarity with these workers at a transnational level. At The People’s Lobby we’ve started forming relationships with organizers of Bangladeshi garment workers but we’re keenly aware that we don’t have all the answers.
We also need long-term and equitable global investment from a post-neoliberal future. The current system utilizes the power of the state and corporations to produce cheap growth through short-term investment, leading to the cannibalizing of the institutions that make life livable. By now this strategy of growth has run its course and the global elite sit on trillions of dollars of idle wealth. Enormous sums of capital flow into socially useless speculation. At the same time there is a global drought of capital in ghettos, slums, and impoverished rural areas. We have billions of people around the world living off of the scraps of the productive global economy. They are starved for investment, yet the mind of the neoliberal investor—which is obsessed with short-term payoffs and can’t think investment in any other way—sees only barren ground. The next step to create a more progressive and inclusive society must be based on productive long-term investment that would include those who are excluded from the global economy as workers and consumers. This kind of growth would, by its very logic, reduce inequality, raise the standard of living of those who suffer the greatest deprivation, and extend social recognition to those who are currently completely marginalized. This will require increased public control over investment and progress towards a transnational public sphere.
This vision cuts against the grain of a lot of common sense on the Left, which tends to view globalization as enemy number one. Corporations and transnational economic bodies certainly are our opponents as we seek to create a more just society, but we should also be careful to recognize the progressive potential that exists in the global economy. Above all, we need to turn our back on all forms of economic nationalism: the call to protect American jobs, the demand that American corporations be more patriotic, the demonizing of the Chinese and other so-called foreign competitors, etc. Economic nationalism exists on the right, but unfortunately, it’s also all too common on the Left. Movements against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal can be very ambiguous: there are moments that point towards transnationalism, but there is also a great deal of economic nationalism. What makes this economic nationalism so bad? First, it means passing up on opportunities for transnational solidarity. Workers who are divided by race and by gender become easy prey for the bosses. Likewise, workers who are divided along national lines will not be able to challenge the bosses of the global economy. Second, economic nationalism is a path to disaster. A comrade wrote the following on the blog Permanent Crisis:
The politics of economic nationalism is the worst possible political path, far worse than the indefinite persistence of neoliberalism would be. Economic nationalism is the reactionary response to the economic dysfunction of neoliberalism. It would remake a global economy now marked by transnational flows, in which competition is primarily conducted between private companies, into a zero-sum struggle among states (and militaries) aiming to secure adequate markets and resources that they alone can exploit. That’s the short version of what led to World War II.3
Rather than destroying the ground on which we stand, threatening to undo the progress we've made under neoliberalism towards a borderless world, we must transform this terrain to overcome the limits that neoliberalism imposes upon the progressive promises that exist within globalization. This would not take us out of capitalism; that’s not currently possible. However, capitalist economic development can take a distinctly progressive form. An economic regime with widely shared prosperity is the true soil of radicalism because it provides a standard of living that allows huge numbers of people to look beyond the present and to imagine something entirely different, such as a post-capitalist future.
Margaret Power: When people say “Third Worldism” they often mean the identification with and support for the struggles of oppressed people in the non-industrialized nations of the world. The implication is that the people in the first world abandoned the struggles in their own nations to jump on a romanticized bandwagon of third world revolutions; in the process they failed in their responsibility to organize revolutions in their own nations. This is not a view that I hold. In the age of imperialism, this division of the world between the first, second, and third worlds is artificial, since the world is one and the struggles of its peoples have been and will continue to be contingent upon each other, although of course they exist and respond to very different conditions. By learning of the conditions and struggles in other nations we come to better understand our own.
I lived in Chile during the military dictatorship and I was active in the resistance against the dictatorship. Women’s liberation and gender relations were non-issues within Chile. When writing Right-Wing Women in Chile, I was interested in the following questions: Why did the majority of women in Chile vote against Allende and the Popular Unity government? Why did the majority of women in Chile support the military dictatorship? Part of the answer had to do with the failure of the Left: the Left prioritized the workers, which at that point were men, and it failed to prioritize (or even examine) women's conditions, situations, needs, or desires.
It was in Chile that neoliberalism first took hold, in Chile that Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys—and there were some Chicago girls—first put into practice the ideas and policies of neoliberalism that hold sway in much of the world today. In 1970 the socialist Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile. In response, the U.S. Government and the Chilean bourgeoisie determined that they would not permit the transformation of Chile into a socialist country. Instead they overthrew the democratically-elected government and installed a military dictatorship that lasted 17 years. Although neoliberalism has come to power in other places and in other ways, Chile gave us a taste of what it would take to impose neoliberalism. They were able to do so because the military coup that overthrew the Popular Unity government violently eliminated supporters of the government and terrorized Chileans. The Chilean armed forces then ruled for the next 17 years, ruthlessly and skillfully doing all they could to destroy the opposition. In addition, a number of Chileans opposed the attempt to build socialism in Chile and joined with the military. These were Chileans of all classes. What could have been seen simply as imposition of foreign programs was thereby converted into policies embraced by a sizable number of the Chilean population. Of course, the U.S. government threw its massive weight and resources into ensuring the success not only of the dictatorship but of its neoliberal economic policies as well. The violent defeat of the Chilean left sent shockwaves around the world. It ushered in neoliberalism in Chile and paved the way for the implementation of neoliberalism in much of the rest of the world.
“Identity politics” is often used to characterize—and, to some degree, disparage—people who point out that some aspect (or many aspects) of the specific forms of oppression they suffer are ignored by a Left that prioritizes working class politics. This stems from a traditional Marxist viewpoint that defines the struggle along the narrow class lines, solely in terms of one’s relation to the means of production. Certainly, a person’s relation to the means of production is a critical factor that defines who they are, their role in society, their relation to others in politics—but it is only one element that defines us. We are all composed of multiple identities and relationships. Most of us, if not all of us, actually both oppress and are oppressed. Instead of defining some forms of oppressions and struggles as the key ones and others as mere expressions of identity politics, I suggest that all of these struggles help us to understand, and therefore oppose, the multifaceted ways in which capitalism and imperialism operate. They also help us to understand the intersectionality of struggle. Far from serving to splinter, divide, or weaken the Left, they can and should serve to unite and strengthen it.
One example of what some might term "identity politics" is Chicago’s Puerto Rican Cultural Center, with which I work very closely. It’s located in a predominantly poor, working class neighborhood. In the 1970s the dropout rate was 71 percent. Poverty, gangs, and a lack of jobs characterized much of the community, and in many ways this is still true today. However, when Puerto Ricans began to organize against these conditions, they set up an alternative high school, initially with less than 20 students, now with over 200 students, most of whom will graduate and go on to college. Every student is taught Puerto Rican history and to be proud of themselves. To those who define this as either narrow nationalism or the exaltation of the individual, it is important to point out that only when a person has a positive sense of himself or herself can they envision a better world, can they view themselves as an actor, can they reject the definition that the capitalist and imperialist system has imposed upon them (as marginal, as unimportant, as unnecessary), can they become equipped with the tools to create the new world by defeating this system. What have mistakenly been called “identity politics,” in other words, are political programs and ideologies that transform the marginalized and the oppressed into political actors capable of contributing to the broad-based, multi-issued global vision of the Left, in this country and around the world. That is the kind of Left we need to successfully oppose not only neoliberalism but all expressions of oppression.
The totality and durability of neoliberal hegemony’s success is highly questionable. Chile’s massive student movement of the last few years offers eloquent testimony of this. This movement isn't just about the needs of students. It’s a direct challenge to the whole neoliberal system, and it involves not only students, but also parents and the community, centering on education as a key component of neoliberalism. In the same way, the Occupy movement in this country and the nationwide protests against the police and against the torture of black and latino men and women also indicate that neoliberalism is actually not hegemonic, that neoliberalism will not prevail in the long run, although it may look a bit gloomy in the short term. We have learned a lot in the last 50 years. Material conditions for most people in this country and around the world are simply deplorable. We need to build organizations, to offer people positive visions of a different world, and to transform our ideals into reality.
Donald Parkinson: Two major misconceptions about neoliberalism are repeated on the Left. The first misconception is that neoliberalism is just an anomaly from capitalism as usual. The Keynesian welfare state, the postwar structure of capitalism of the 1945–1973 period, was the real anomaly of capitalism. Neoliberalism is more of a return to the phase of capitalism from around 1870 through roughly 1914. The other misconception is that neoliberalism is essentially an ideological phenomenon. Neoliberal ideology comes out of a structural change in capitalism; it is a result of the Keynesian welfare state falling apart and the crisis tendencies of capitalism reasserting themselves. The capitalist class embraces neoliberal politics because it is necessary for them to reproduce themselves as a class.
Neoliberalism is different from earlier periods of capitalism in that it sits on top of a defeated class movement. By 1945, the capitalist class had undertaken a project to integrate the working class into capitalism. This project began during the Popular Front period when the workers’ movement developed cross-class coalitions and embraced nationalism. This created a situation in which the working class was able to be integrated into the nation-state. After World War II this became extremely obvious. This isn't to say that the working class became completely liquidated—that it was completely destroyed—but as an independent political subject the working class was liquidated in the post-1945 period. Because of this, capital was able to discipline the working class through the market in a more violent way than before, and this is what we are seeing in neoliberalism. Because it does not have its own independent political institutions, because it has been integrated into the state, the working class is not capable of fighting against this.
The New Left emerged in the Keynesian welfare state period of capitalism. There were two strains of the New Left. One strain, influenced by Marcuse, tried to find a new revolutionary subject that could replace the proletariat. They looked to student movements and to third world movements, and there was a real material condition that caused people to embrace these movements: The working class was choosing loyalty to their national states far more than they were during earlier periods. Working class integration into capitalism wasn’t complete—there were wildcat strikes, there was class resistance—but there was no programmatic organization of the class. Another tendency of the New Left was an economistic, workerist tendency, visible in groups like the Workers World Party and the Progressive Labor Party. They stressed the need to go to the working class, to go to the factories, but they embraced a very rigid understanding of class. When many of the New Left students in the 1970s went into the factories to try to organize workers, for example, they cut their long hair and stopped smoking pot because they wanted to be like the workers.
The New Left existed in the shadow of the Popular Front era. There was much continuity between the Popular Front era of leftism and the New Left era: a naturalization of nationalism, an embrace of coalition-based politics, an embrace of single-issue politics, a rigid and economistic understanding of class, etc. Was the working class liquidated by this point? What about the strike events of May 1968 in France? The fact is that French workers went back to work for minor reforms on the orders of the French Communist Party. The class struggle hadn’t ceased to exist, but it didn’t become politically independent. Cross-class politics had become naturalized.
Facing severe destabilization, socialist president Salvador Allende, right, appointed General Augusto Pinochet, left, commander-in-chief of the Chilean army on August 23, 1973. Selected as a loyal constitutionalist, Pinochet participated in a military coup d’état on September 11, 1973 that overthrew Allende’s Popular Unity coalition government and established a right-wing military junta.
Thatcherism was a strong attempt to discipline the working class to the market, to cut living standards down. This affected the Left, which gave up on being against capitalism. This can be seen in the Left’s embrace of economic nationalism and in the anti-globalization movement. The people who talk about open borders these days are not so much the Left as they are the neoliberals, who have co-opted the idea of internationalism. “Anti-globalization” tries to counterpose the sovereignty of the nation-state to the globalizing force of the market, but it doesn't understand that overcoming capitalism has to be a global project. This is related to the idea that we need a return to the welfare state. Even Marxists will say that before we overthrow capitalism we need to rebuild the Keynesian welfare state. Meanwhile, localist, “anarcho-liberal” tendencies in the Left oppose a universalist project of human emancipation in favor of local projects of self-initiative, fetishizing decentralization. Also, a lot of leftists became cheerleaders for capitalism. You see this in Spiked, the Anti-Germans, accelerationism, in the idea that we need to embrace the progressive aspect of capitalism because the Soviet Union fell and nothing good can happen now so capitalism is the best game in town and we need to embrace it. The Left has absorbed the neoliberal credo of TINA, “There Is No Alternative.” These ideas became more and more popular, while the idea of a movement that unites the working class to address all forms of oppression and transform human society as a whole became less and less popular. This is how neoliberalism co-opts the Left.
Surrounded by this wreckage, the only option is to patiently rebuild class politics. This means rejecting cross-class politics. We got into this mess because the Left chose to unite with the bourgeoisie instead of actually developing working class politics independent of the bourgeoisie. This also means taking forms of gendered and racial oppression seriously, because if the Marxist left can’t address these issues then the neoliberal left will have hegemony in discourses about racial and gendered oppression. Taking these issues seriously doesn't mean that we need to embrace third world nationalism and some of the more bourgeois forms of identity politics.
WBM: Here’s an example of neoliberal hegemony: the more unequal society becomes, the more people talk about education. Margaret put a nice spin on the importance of education in the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, and I hope it’s true that graduates are coming out of this high school and combating capitalism! But, the standard account is that you want more kids to graduate from high school and go on to college so that they can compete for jobs in our economic labor market. Approximately 21 percent of the jobs in the U.S. right now require a four-year college degree. If we universalized going to college, 100 percent of people would have college educations and 21 percent of people would actually get to use them and get paid according to their value. Then, if you were a home healthcare worker, you could earn 19,450 dollars per year and you could think about the benefits of your higher education while changing bedpans. People in neoliberal societies like to talk about the importance of education because there is nothing egalitarian in the commitment to universal higher education from an economic standpoint. On the contrary, the whole point of this commitment is that it will legitimize the inequalities that it will then produce. This underscores the importance of unions, which are not committed to equality of opportunity and, above all, are not committed to inequality of result.
TC: The Marxist left needs to understand how ascriptive racial and gender identities are shaped and reproduced by forces of political economy. Identity politics treats the subordination of members of ascriptive identity groups in terms of personal prejudice, bigotry, chauvinism, etc. This is not a sufficient analysis of oppression. We need to recognize that impersonal market forces play an essential role in how these identities are constructed. I've learned a lot from Adolph Reed, Barbara Fields, and Matthew Fraser. Working class politics can address the subordination of people in ascriptive identity groups, but this is hard. On International Women's Day I was on social media discussing the Bangladeshi garment workers' movement. Something like 80% of workers in that industry are women. They’re highly exploited and abused and they work in death traps. People on social media replied that I was talking about a workers' issue, not a women's issue. This is an obstacle that we need to get beyond, but it is possible to show how working-class politics is relevant to the sorts of concerns that are now lumped under "identity politics".
Pamela Nogales: By way of combatting historical amnesia: International Women’s Day was set up by Clara Zetkin, a communist, in 1911.
MP: You have to look at the content of education. The Puerto Rican Cultural Center’s high school is based on Freirean education policies. Among its inspirations is Juan Antonio Corretjer, a leader of one of the major left organizations in Puerto Rico. To say that they’re just getting students into college so they can be part of neoliberalism betrays a misunderstanding of what is going on there. Students are taught to be critical, to think of themselves as actors in a profound transformation of their community and their society. Whenever I’m feeling that nothing is going on I take inspiration from this.
The Chilean left, which was a deeply Marxist left, considered the revolutionary subject to be the worker and the worker in Chile was male. Only 19 percent of women worked outside the home, and of that percentage, most worked as maids in middle- and upper-class houses. Socialism was envisioned primarily as benefitting the male workers, who would possibly bring women along with them—women would get the benefits that were being extended to men. That was fairly typical for much of the Left. This is less the case today, in part because women have become a much larger proportion of the working class. The unions and movements that are exerting leadership in this country are no longer composed of white men but of immigrants and women, the most exploited and dynamic sectors of the working class today. You can’t understand this using the term "identity politics". The huge immigrant marches that took place in Chicago in 2006 were led by Mexican, Polish, and other latino populations. The ability and the organization of people demanding their rights as immigrants—as human beings—led many of the same marchers to organize a workers’ takeover of Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors factory in 2008.
DP: When people criticize identity politics they're not necessarily criticizing the fact of addressing the issues of marginalized identities. They’re criticizing the idea of “standpoint epistemology,” the idea that there is no common struggle for human liberation but only the subjective, personal struggle that the marginalized individual faces, and the idea that no one else can really understand this oppression because they don't share the same standpoint. This post-structuralist concept has become more common on the Left. The New Left had identity politics, but in a concept of "the people"—the idea was that all the different identity groups could share a common solidarity together. Today’s more post-structuralist or "intersectional" identity politics denies the possibility of solidarity; you can have fragmented, subjective, individual struggles but no common struggle for human liberation. Class is the axis, the glue that makes common struggle in solidarity possible. Without class as your central axis of analysis you end up with this neoliberal fragmentation.
How do we solve the crisis of neoliberalism? I doubt World War III is going to happen although it does seem like imperialist tensions are heating up. The only way to solve the crisis of neoliberalism is going to be communism. The idea that we can return to a Keynesian welfare state or find more balanced methods of global investment is just as utopian, if not more utopian, than the hope for communism. Capital is more globalized than ever before. This makes the necessity of international proletarian solidarity more important than ever. You see this now in Greece. Grexit is not going to happen without massive capital flight, without massive economic suffering. There isn’t a solution to the Greek crisis without the development of some kind of international workers’ movement. This movement has to be patiently built out of nothing and it has to be based on independent working class politics.
Q & A
It would take a revolution to force corporations to be more responsible. Toby, why do you believe it’s more possible to achieve responsible corporate investment than to achieve socialism?
In France, the Socialist Party, now the government, is not socialist at all, and their anti-racist vision entails putting more black people in government. We have to critique this idea of representation. But the radical left in France often reduces the race question to the way that the neoliberal left treats race, as if the only point to be made about anti-racism is that it can be co-opted by neoliberalism. Is it possible for an anti-capitalist left to include concerns about racism and imprisonment of people of color into their emancipatory politics?
TC: Why is socially responsible long-term investment more feasible than communism? Communism isn’t on the radar of people in low-wage countries like Bangladesh; they want higher wages, more investment into the conditions of their workplaces, less pollution. If we’re going to create bonds of solidarity with them we need to work on goals that they understand. These goals can be achieved through greater public control of investment. We could use politics, the power of the state, to seize control of idle capital and to push it towards some form of investment that is more attentive to the common good. Corporations won’t change their investment strategies without being made to, but we’re in a moment where the whole system is in a crisis. This presents an opportunity to find pressure points where relatively small actors can have an outsized influence on the direction of the whole system.
We did this during the Great Depression, the last crisis of global market society. Business interests were discredited but the Left despaired about the weak and scattered state of the labor movement. Then the 1936–1937 Flint sit-down strike against General Motors (GM) happened. The United Automobile Workers (UAW) targeted a key point in GM’s national supply chain and used that as leverage for national demands. That resulted in huge gains for the UAW, but it also triggered wave after wave of victories for organized labor against very large and powerful companies. Companies then internalized strong wages, benefits, and stability for workers as a normal way of doing business. The way multinational corporations do their business now isn’t how it’s always going to be.
WBM: I don’t use the term “identity politics.” I’m not in sympathy with those who are for it and I’m not in sympathy with those who are against it. It’s more useful to think about the question of anti-discrimination. Anti-discrimination is absolutely valuable and it’s not about identity politics, but our commitment to it does not itself produce a left politics. Apart from the far right, there’s a neoliberal and non-neoliberal consensus on the importance of anti-discrimination. Various forms of criminalization are among the worst forms of discrimination, but discrimination includes even the glass ceiling (and whether the man is making 400 times more than the worker or the woman is making 400 times more than the worker should not be of great concern to us, but we should oppose discrimination in any case). The lesson we’ve all learned from the last 30 years is that an anti-capitalist politics does not logically follow from anti-discriminiation. Anti-discrimination is as logically compatible with a completely unequal neoliberal realm as with a completely egalitarian one. Anti-discrimination isn’t the “left” part of our politics. Anti-discrimination needs to be part of what we do, but if it’s at the center of what we do, we are embodying left-neoliberalism.
I stopped working with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) after I read a critique of the PRCC’s anti-gentrification politics that was published in the first issue of the Platypus Review4 and after I realized that the PRCC’s umbrella of non-profits is wed to the Democratic Party’s political machine. However, when I was still working with them, I once asked a young man being groomed for leadership in the PRCC how he defined himself politically. He replied, “I suppose I’m a nationalist.” Margaret, how exactly does the PRCC’s educational work point to socialism? Leftists today often justify educational and social movement work on the grounds that it prepares socialist consciousness, but the PRCC seems to produce only nationalist consciousness, which Toby sees as the worst possible response to neoliberalism. Walter, had the young man replied, “I suppose I’m a worker,” would this be preferable? Your view risks a workerism that falls short of socialism.
Milton Friedman used the rhetoric of freedom, which used to be the language of the Left. Is freedom at issue for the Left under neoliberalism?
MP: Nationalism has to be understood in context. During the Popular Front period the Communist Party in Puerto Rico aligned with the U.S. Roosevelt government and the Nationalist Party opposed it. By nationalism, many Puerto Ricans mean a rejection of U.S. colonization of their island and the creation of a different kind of society—one run by Puerto Ricans, not by the United States. Does that mean capitalism or socialism? It’s a little ambiguous at this point, but concerns about nationalism can’t be separated from the context of colonialism.
TC: We do need to take up the concept of freedom again. I anticipate freedom from the intense competitive pressure and time pressure that neoliberalism has imposed.
DP: As Lenin said: freedom for whom, to do what? Freedom is a very ambiguous concept; I'm not against using it, but we have to be very careful about how we use it. Neoliberal ideology uses concepts of decentralization and autonomy.
PN: What is freedom for the Left?
DP: That's the question. When we talk about freedom we have to be concrete about what we mean: freedom for people to not have to sell their labor power to survive, freedom to be able to pursue human flourishing to its fullest extent. The Left has given up on the concept of freedom of speech, which should be taken back from the right. There's a tendency to associate communism with the worst forms of tyranny because of the history of what was called communism in the 20th century. The Left could take back words like democracy and freedom to prove what we really stand for, but we have to be careful not to reaffirm the dominant ideology.
WBM: Long before Milton Friedman, people on the right argued for their freedom to hold slaves. Their property had to be confiscated by the federal government. Freedom has never been an unambiguously left concept in U.S. politics and it probably never will be. I have never encountered any university that didn't claim to teach critical thinking. The problem of education is not reducible to the content of the education. My point is not that education is bad, but to ask, “What makes education so central now? The “left” way of doing nationalism is intersectionality. It has nothing to do with nations but it produces the same subjective effect. Intersectionality is the opium of the neoliberal left and there is an ideological problem with that. I take the point on workerism in an abstract way, but what does standing for communism even mean in any political field that I'm involved in?
PN: That's why Platypus exists.
WBM: Yeah—and that's what I think of Platypus. But Toby’s vision of pushing international companies a little harder to dialectically turn them inside-out and make them forces for good sounds like a science fiction novel. I’m describing a pragmatic workerism. In my recent experience as an organizer, some people understand that they’re workers and some don’t, but if you can bring them all into seeing how they are workers, into seeing how the pressure under which they’re functioning is derived from the way they're workers, you can begin to form a sense of what a working class is, even with people who have different working conditions and incomes. If what you’re doing doesn't have a direct relation to improving people's conditions as workers in a political economy based on exploiting these workers then you’re not doing a left politics. That doesn't mean it’s not a good thing; it means it’s not a left politics. If you just stick with that all the way through then you end up with workerism. On the other hand, that gives you something to do other than clapping to keep Tinkerbell alive, other than making a wish to make communism come true or to make GE turn out to be a force for good after all.
Toby, you said that workers are asking for higher wages, stable jobs, and safe working conditions, so it’s unrealistic to ask for socialism—we have to “meet people where they’re at.” But precisely these demands formed the basis of the agitation for the abolition of wage labor that made socialism popular in its 19th century heyday. Donald sees your vision as conservative precisely because it falls below that imagination, that earlier threshold of possibility. Most leftists see the business-labor compromise that emerged out of the Great Depression as a conservative heading-off of the project of abolishing wage labor through socialism.
During the 20th century, key parts of the Left aimed at communism and the bourgeoisie was expropriated throughout a significant portion of the planet. Then Stalinism collapsed, and that collapse has a lot to do with hegemony of neoliberalism. The concrete existence of other types of economic organizations, however undemocratic or oppressive, clearly had an influence on the development of capitalist society and on what the bourgeoisie felt it could do politically.
I want to question the very concept of “anti-capitalism.” In the old Marxist sense, capitalism is precisely the opportunity for socialism in that the possibility of socialism is immanent to capitalism. This connects to Donald's point about independent class politics: Politically, the idea of working class politics is different from labor union organizing. During the First World War, Lenin wrote the following:
The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts, drive women and children into the factories, subject them to corruption and suffering, condemn them to extreme poverty. We do not “demand” such development, we do not “support” it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts and the employment of women in industry are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, pre-monopoly capitalism, domestic drudgery for women. Forward through the trusts, etc., and beyond them to socialism!5
DP: I agree that capitalism creates the conditions for communism. Communism wasn’t a possibility in 1500, but with the breaking-down of independent household production, the spread of the world market, and the creation of a world proletariat, human emancipation became a possibility for the first time in history. A lot of anti-capitalism today is reactionary anti-capitalism. We need to bring back the Marxist insight that capitalism is progressive. At the same time, we need not support capitalism per se but recognize that it creates emancipatory possibilities in the self-activity of the proletariat. Marxism isn’t just about the liberation of wage workers; it’s about the liberation of humanity from all forms of oppression through wage workers uniting as a class to engage in a political project for human emancipation.
TC: Why is a more humane global economy more plausible than communism? Short-term investment opportunities have dried up, which is why there are trillions of dollars sitting idle. There are many opportunities for long-term investment that could plausibly be profitable for corporations, and these involve incorporating people living in slums into the mainstream of the economy, which is good. This won't turn GE into a force for good but it will create new opportunities for the Left.
As an organizer, I don't know anyone who demands the abolition of wage labor apart from indoctrinated Marxists. I’ve been in meetings of workers, and if you don't meet people where they’re at, if you start talking about the abolition of wage labor, they’ll ask you to please leave because they have work to do to make their lives better.
The Lenin quote made me think of women working in garment factories in Bangladesh. There’s a tendency on the Left to reject any claim made by neoliberals, but the neoliberals are right to say that people in low-wage countries like Bangladesh work for these factories because they find this work preferable to the other opportunities open to them. They didn’t need to be pushed there. As a result, these women are terribly exploited. They desperately need better working conditions, higher wages, and safer factories. The organizing they’re doing is a huge source of potential for the Left. We need to figure out what to do about it.
MP: What is the connection between capitalism and socialism? Most of us are influenced by the Enlightenment idea that there is progress in history, and Marxism reflects that notion, but it’s hard to say because there has not yet been a socialist society in the world. We don't know if capitalism will lead to socialism. We do know that attempts to build socialism both in peasant-based societies as well as in industrialized working-class societies haven’t worked. Lenin’s idea that the proletarianization of women is progressive because it leads them towards the struggle against capitalism for socialism stems from the anti-peasant concept within Marxism, from the idea that peasants cannot possibly produce a socialist revolution. The problem is that nobody has produced a socialist revolution.
WBM: If you try to unionize now you aren’t going to recreate the Detroit compromise of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. You can't possibly do it. This is the whole point of internationalization under neoliberalism, whether that’s progressive or not. Stalin (wrongly) thought that socialism can work in one country, but no one ever thought that you could have neoliberalism in one country. Internationalization is real now, so an effective union movement would have to be an international movement. It would have to produce not just bonds of solidarity but structures of operation which were as international in their way as corporations are in theirs. Unionization now is not the return to unions. The internationalization that Toby described, with international corporations negotiating with international unions, would make for unions and workers’ organizations very different from anything we’ve had before, although these organizations were appropriately imagined in the International. |P
Emmanuel Saez, “Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2012 preliminary estimates),” Econometrics Laboratory, September 3, 2013. Available online at http://eml.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2012.pdf. ↩
Doug Henwood, “Union density crashes as AFL-CIO dude calls for retiring the rat,” Left Business Observer News, January 23, 2013. Available online at http://lbo-news.com/2013/01/23/union-density-crashes-as-afl-cio-dude-calls-for-retiring-the-rat/. ↩
“The left flounders as reaction grows ever stronger,” Permanent Crisis (blog), January 12, 2015, http://permanentcrisis.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-left-flounders-as-reaction-grows.html. ↩
Laura Schmidt, “Taking Issue with Identity: The Politics of Anti-Gentrification,” Platypus Review Issue 1 (November 2007). Available online at /2007/11/01/taking-issue-with-identity-the-politics-of-anti-gentrification/. ↩
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution, 1917. Available online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/miliprog/ii.htm. ↩