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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Confronting capitalism: An interview with Vivek Chibber

Confronting capitalism: An interview with Vivek Chibber

D. L. Jacobs

Platypus Review 152 | December 2022-January 2023

On September 19, 2022, Platypus Affiliated Society member D. L. Jacobs interviewed Vivek Chibber, editor of Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy, on his new book Confronting Capitalism: How the World Works and How to Change It (2022).[1]

D. L. Jacobs: In your book Confronting Capitalism, you mention in the introduction that this text is for the incipient Left. With respect to a recent Jacobin issue “The Left in Purgatory,”[2] how do you understand the moment for the Left, especially with regard to the 2010s and going forward?

Vivek Chibber: It’s a moment when the Left is coming out of its utter marginalization, and it is getting some mainstream legitimacy and traction, due in some measure to social movements that have gotten off the ground in the last ten years or so. But it is primarily due to the Bernie Sanders candidacy which made socialism and democratic socialism something part of the mainstream political discourse and gave it a kind of respectability. The Left is still marginal in American culture. While the discourse and the language of socialism is no longer taboo, there is little actual organizing on the ground by socialists, even though they're establishing a beachhead within the working class. Socialists are still overwhelmingly isolated from the working class. It’s an initial step towards the revitalization of socialist politics, and there’s no guarantee that it will move forward.

DLJ: In your introduction, you mention the tradition of giving introductions to capitalism. You said there used to be pamphlets like this in the 1970s. One of my favorites is Karl Kautsky’s The Class Struggle (1892). How do you find yourself contributing to that tradition of the introduction to capitalism, and what do you find missing in introductions to capitalism? There have been a few in the last decade.

VC: I would need to know which ones you have in mind to compare mine to, but, in general, this was a tradition that socialist parties and labor parties took seriously when they had a mass base, for obvious reasons. They were trying to build not just a class consciousness, but also a class analysis among the more educated sections of their mass base. When they no longer have a mass base because they are now in professional organizations,  academia, or NGOs — this is starting in the 60s — their attention is no longer fixed on educating the people they are organizing. It’s fixed more on pleasing their donors and employers. The whole tradition of popularizing socialism withers starting in the 1980s, and it gets worse as time goes on. My contribution to the tradition is based on my realization that the new generation of socialists coming up only has available to them these introductions from the 30s and the 60s. When I read the pamphlets from the 60s, I was disappointed by them because while they did try to popularize a certain politics: they were sectarian, and they wrote in a language that nobody speaks outside of sectarian groups. They were written as if they were trying to please an imaginary party official rather than making themselves understood. So the idea was to contribute to the tradition with an introduction that is more in line with the language and the tone used in journalism today.

DLJ: In your book The Class Matrix and in the articles you have written for Compact and Catalyst, you talk about rescuing class from the cultural turn. You make the case that the cultural turn may have had a good intention, but it made class opaque to some degree. I bring that up because thinkers such as C. Wright Mills said, don’t write off the working class; but we have to study that issue anew.[3] How do you see the cultural turn as having either missed the point, or made class opaque?

VC: The cultural turn had several phases.

One phase was where they were trying to understand the role that culture plays either in the organization or the domestication of the working class. This phase’s practitioners had no doubt about the existence of class. The class does have certain objective interests, and it is in a relation of exploitation with respect to capital. There’s an objective reality out there, and in that reality there are two classes. The classes have antagonistic interests, but the perception and the motivational force  of those interests are taken to be mediated by culture. Now that is a legit, fruitful, and productive line of inquiry. All radicals not only should pursue it, but in all organizing you’re doing it all the time. Organizing is a practical melding of culture to underlying interests.

In its second, more ambitious phase, the cultural turn didn’t seek to understand how culture mediates class structure, but came to the conclusion that culture constructs the class structure. And if it constructs the class structure, it also constructs objective interests, the antagonism between labor and capital. These are now seen as an artifact of culture and discourse. Once you take this step, you’ve essentially dissolved capitalism into language and discourse. This more aggressive version of the cultural turn took hold by the 1990s. If there’s going to be a revitalization of the labor movement or the socialist movement, you need a response to this kind of argument. You can’t dismiss it because it’s a powerful argument. You have to show its flaws so that you can recover the underlying objective structure of capitalism while respecting the role that culture plays, even though it’s more limited.

DLJ: Class is distinguished as a structure: people must socialize under objective constraints. Culture mediates class in that sense. But this also raises the question of stability: people are dependent, but when capitalism is in crisis they try to put it back together out of self-preservation. In those periods of crisis ideology plays a part. And so there is perhaps a way in which culture also is part of the constitution of whatever the concrete version of class is in that epoch of capitalism.

VC: Saying that it’s in the constitution of that structure is too strong. The constitution of the structure is maintained by the imperatives and constraints that people face. Ideology either enables them to live with the choices that they have been compelled to make by virtue of the structure, or it helps them gather up the resolve by which they’ll be willing to undertake the sacrifices and hard work that will be required to either transform that structure or to dismantle it all together. It might seem as if ideologies are a constitutive element of a structure, because you see it all the time: there’s no phase of our life where we are ideology free; it can appear empirically that ideology drives us. But that’s what distinguishes journalism from analysis.

DLJ: To pursue this thought in terms of the constitution versus the structural character, I think of Marx’s preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) — the classical orthodox way in which Marxists used to describe this was base and superstructure — about trying to explain consciousness as the contradiction of the relations and forces. It would still seem to be that there’s a causal side, but there could be a contradictory causal side.

VC: The word contradiction is one of the most mysterious words in the Marxist lexicon, and it’s usually used when you can’t figure something out. Ideology has to have a causal role, because as Marx says, it is in some way contributing to the reproduction of capitalism. The question is over what the force and place of that causal role is. On this Marx is unequivocal: ideology is a reflex. He uses words that denote a dependency. It’s a reflex, a reflection, a camera obscura, etc. He never takes ideology to be one of the constituent elements of the structure. If he did that, he and Engels would never have written The German Ideology (1846), the whole point of which was to restore a materialism to the socialist movement. There is confusion that 20th century Marxists have instilled into theory. But everybody from Marx to the classical Marxists was clear that workers are in an objective relation of dependence, they have objective interests with respect to capital, and those interests are objectively antagonistic. That might be wrong, but if it’s wrong, Marxism is wrong.

DLJ: This leads into the discussion about the state in politics. You have a section in Chapter 2, entitled, “Real Power Is in the Economy.” The section is a discussion on the state, and if the state is neutral. You take up the standard pluralist argument, and show why it is faulty. This section also raises the question of what makes the state. Would you say it’s capitalist? Or would you say it’s capitalist biased?

VC: It’s a hard question. To say that the state is capitalist means that there’s a specificity to its institutions which makes them identifiably and specifically capitalist, independently of the role that they play in the reproduction of capitalism. If that’s the case, they should be institutions that are incompatible with any other economic system. There must be institutionally specific state forms which are, by virtue of their internal logic, incompatible with say a socialist or a feudal state. It’s hard to think of many beyond a select few. The institutions of a bourgeois state are malleable enough to fit in many other economic systems. There is a specifically capitalist set of state institutions, but they’re limited. Protection of absolute property rights would be one. But if we go with Lenin and add the state, its bureaucracy, its reproductive rules are so specific to capitalism and incompatible with socialism that that state must be smashed — that’s hard to sustain. It’s a state in capitalism rather than a specifically capitalist state, but it has specifically capitalist features and would have to be dismantled in a post-capitalist system.

DLJ: At the end of “How Capitalism Endures,” you bring up Eric Hobsbawm’s 1987 essay[4] about how urban villages have changed and how we can’t organize in the same manner anymore. Could you discuss opportunities for us to correct mistakes of past organizing that are maybe available now?

VC: Ha, I wish I had the answer to that question because I wouldn’t be stuck doing Zoom interviews, I could actually do something useful in the world. We haven’t yet learned beyond some basic lessons of reengaging the working class in today’s setting because we, i.e., socialists, have been taking a beating for 40 years. And we’re at a place right now where tactical innovations have not yet been discovered. Most of the debate, sadly, is still over strategy. I say “sadly” because to doubt the strategic importance of class organizing means that the socialist movement has lost its anchor. There shouldn’t be any debate over the long-term, strategic importance of class organizing. All the debate should be on the tactics of doing it in today’s world. But that debate will not happen until there’s real organizing going on and concrete questions are taken up. Right now the concrete questions for the Left are about elections and electoralism because that’s where the Left is active. That’s not a bad thing either because any Left worth its salt in the near future is going to need a powerful electoral element to it. The days of trying to do an end run around the bourgeois state are over. But the tactical questions around organizing are still far away.

DLJ: How might such organizing disallow being captured by the Democrats?

VC: The dilemma that socialists confront now is that the position that they came to in the 80s and 90s no longer appears viable. That position was to stop having anything to do with the Democratic Party, because it’s a bourgeois party and you need to organize a third party. The key question here is, what is the role of that third party? If the role of the third party is to run in elections against the two dominant parties, you’re confronted with the hard reality that there have been hundreds of attempts to do this, at the local and national level, and every one of them has failed.

These attempts failed for two reasons. One is that, in any winner-take-all electoral system it’s difficult for a third party to break in, because of the worry of the wasted vote on the part of the populace for the third party. In the United States it’s especially difficult because of the battery of legal restrictions, which not only make it difficult to get on the ballot line, but also govern how parties can elect candidates and intervene in primaries. All of which is written in a way to make it impossible for them to function as viable electoral alternatives. The question becomes, if it's true that the Democratic Party is a graveyard for the Left, how do you run a third-party alternative if there is structural impossibility for having a third electoral party? The only way out has to be a party that straddles the Democratic Party but bases itself in class organizing, not in electoral politics. This is something the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) might be able to do if it were to become more directed in their political strategy.

DLJ: So, I want you to go more into the idea of basing oneself in the working-class community. David Duhalde of the DSA Fund mentioned in an article in the Platypus Review, that the “dirty little secret” is that the stronger and the more effective DSA becomes in terms of getting people elected in the Democratic Party, the more the DSA potentially weds itself to the Democratic Party.[5] What does it mean then to embed oneself in the working class?

VC: The argument that the more successful the DSA is in getting its members elected as Democrats, the more it will become wedded to the Democratic Party is, I think, 100% correct. Not only that, there will be enormous pressure to move to the center. They have to, because they are in such a small minority on municipal bodies, in state legislatures, that the only way they’ll be viable is if they craft alliances with other Democrats, who will be to the Right of them. Those are the people whose help they need to get bills passed. You will have DSA saying, “this person is not a socialist, but they’re a good progressive. Please vote for them. This person is not a progressive but they sometimes help us get bills passed; they’re a good liberal. Please vote for them.” There’s no way to avoid that. And that’s why the only way the participation in elections can be effective is if it doesn’t transform into electoralism, i.e., where your political strategy comes to rely primarily on getting people into office instead of relying on organizing working class people in their jobs and in their neighborhoods.

So you ask, what does it mean to be embedded in the working class? I think it’s blindingly simple. I think it means two things. That your activity is primarily located physically in places where you find working-class people, which is their jobs and their neighborhoods. And secondly that your recruitment is geared towards expanding that demographic inside your party rather than college students or downwardly mobile professionals. Those are all fine to have in a political party, but if they’re the class factions that are deciding the party platforms, giving it direction, it’s obvious that the party is going to orbit around the class perspectives and the class interests of those people, rather than working people.

DLJ: David Brooks, in a recent New York Times article,[6] noted that the Republican Party is looking more and more like a coalition of working class voters, multiracial people, white, black, brown, etc. Wouldn’t that strategy also imply participating in Republican elections then?

VC: In the highest, most abstract level, potentially. But you have to look at what the driving forces of Republican elections and candidacy are, and those are difficult to reconstitute in a Left-wing, working-class fashion. This notion that the Republican Party is becoming more of a working-class party is a gross exaggeration. It’s true that working-class votes for the Democrats are shrinking, but most of them are not going over to the Republicans: they’re becoming independents. The working-class base of the Republican Party remains the same. It’s also maintained that the Latino and black working class is moving towards the Republican Party, but that means you’re going from 90% support for Democrats to 82% support for Democrats. The numbers are still skewed heavily away from the Republicans. Finally, in a capitalist economy the bulk of the votes are always going to be working class because of the numbers. That workers are voting for the Republican Party doesn’t translate into a possibility that the Republicans will turn into a working class party. It’s hard enough to get the Democrats to take workers seriously. Trying to right the ship of the Republican Party in this juncture is a pipe dream.

DLJ: That also goes for the Democratic Party; they tend to have the legitimacy of being where organized labor at least orbits around. You mentioned that most of the working class is becoming independent now. It would seem like they are pointing towards breaking from Democrats and Republicans.

VC: The fact that workers don’t declare fidelity to one of the two parties is a far cry from saying that they’ll vote for a third party. The only way that becomes a viable strategy is if the third party breaks into the system with a huge splash so that it’s seen as a viable contender. Having a small third party and saying we have this huge potential base for us out there, like I said, it’s been tried hundreds of times. I used to also believe in this in the 90s, but you see what happens when an independent like Ralph Nader runs: they’re just decimated. If the Left has any rationality whatsoever, it’ll give up this dream of an electoral alternative to these two parties until that alternative has built up a gargantuan mass base before it enters the electoral arena. These tiny third parties that start up with one or two unions and a few thousand votes will remain exactly where they are.

DLJ: I agree. I’ve also lived through Green Party runs. I bring that up because the electoral cycle still has a hold over how people think about politics. This was always a question about the base, and this is why you have base-building versus electoral strategies. But certainly a party would still participate in electoral activities. When we think of the classical Marxist parties, the Second International ones that you’re very familiar with, they took seats, but as you said earlier, they weren’t electoralists, and that wasn’t their strategy; their strategy was to take power.

VC: These parties a century ago had an almost exclusive hold over working-class voters. Look at the history of labor parties, socialist parties from 1910 to 1960. The bulk of their voting population was not just working class, but a blue-collar working class. They maintained that base by virtue of the fact that they weren’t just electoral parties. They either were offshoots and creations of trade unions, or they were parties that created trade unions, which became their conduit to the class. The parties were able to mobilize the class in a way that is just not possible for the Left today. The other issue to remember is that, other than England, the majority of these European countries did not have winner-take-all electoral systems. Rather there was some version of a more open political system, either electoral system, proportional representation, or some combination of proportional representation and winner-take-all. This meant that it was easier to maintain the integrity of your political program without having to try to win over large sections of the middle class.

We are now encumbered with constraints on every side, we have the worst possible electoral system, the most draconian laws about how to run a party in that system, zero connection to the working class, and I could go on and on about the media and the state, etc. So, right now, if you just try to enter elections without anything else, you’ll be hammered. That’s why the best combination is to use elections to build the class base, rather than thinking the elections are a way of getting progressive legislation. Without real pressure coming from the labor movement, you won’t have power if you get into office.

DLJ: You write that “classical Marxists erred not in their fidelity to a structural class theory but in their failure to fully theorize its implications.”[7] How do you find stability immanent in class structure itself? Does that mean that class is dependence? In a sense, dependence is a foundation of society.

VC: The essence of the bourgeois class structure is an asymmetrical interdependence. Capitalists depend on workers and workers depend on capitalists, but any individual worker depends on his employer far more than the employer depends on the worker. That means that the worker will seek out the capitalist rather than to try to remove him. Only under certain extreme conditions do the workers find it reasonable or rational to try to displace that relation altogether. That’s basically it, the secret to capitalism is that workers think it’s better to be exploited than to not be exploited.

DLJ: The Joan Robinson quote, yes, exactly.[8] This also raises the question of unions: they intensify this problem because, on the one hand, they allow people more precarity but they do so by, to quote Rosa Luxemburg, “forming a cartel against the unemployed.” I.e., they have to prevent themselves from being replaced — “scabbed” is the more pithy language. It points towards the necessity of a party to allow for this third thing that you bring up, which is the culture of solidarity to overcome the individual’s interests in not organizing or doing collective action, right? How did these things come together? Because I always kind of took Marxism historically. You mentioned the unions earlier with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). On the one hand, there are unions before the SPD. On the other hand, the very existence of the SPD is encouraging people to join the unions because maybe the head is an SPD member. How do you see that relationship playing out because even having the unions there —

VC: I think you’re absolutely right. Unions are not a socialist institution. They are a bourgeois situation. They are the instruments with which workers defend themselves against both the power of the employer and the vagaries of the market, which means that unions will often find it eminently rational to exclude other workers to become what neoclassical economics called the monopolistic institutions, which are bent on preserving the market power of their members because the members are trying to sell their assets, i.e., their labor power, at the highest price they can.

The way out of that is exactly as you said: you need to have an ideologically provided perspective, which sees that the short-term gains for the members come at a certain price, which is a long-term persistent weakness. The more ambitious goals of socialists within the labor market are always also the more difficult ones to achieve. The cost gradient of those goals is steep. You have to persuade your members that they need to take on additional risks, additional costs of this strategy. There are lots of things that entail additional risks, which are just stupid, and that’s what we call ultra-Leftism. It is calling for suicide missions, ridiculous demands. You have to make a judgment. Is the goal reasonable and achievable? Or is it a pipe dream that comes out of my own particular fantasies about what it means to be a revolutionary,  to be a socialist?

So for the party or more class-conscious trade unionists, who were trying to go beyond what Lenin called a “trade-union consciousness,” there are two additional tasks. You have to persuade your members to undertake risks with a real commitment; it can’t be just through exhortation. They have to embrace it because with that, there will be a commitment to it. On top of that, the goal must be achievable. The worst thing that can happen is that because of the respect and authority that you command, you induce members to take up a campaign that never ought to have been taken up anyway, and when you lose, you also lose your legitimacy. It starts a cycle of demoralization and dejection on the part of the base. That’s when the organization starts to fall apart. This is where politics becomes more of an art and less of a science, because there’s no algorithm to distinguish one from the other. This is why you need to have constant ideological training with a seriousness that is the exact opposite of ultra-Leftism.

DLJ: This leads me to a question I wasn’t expecting to ask: are you aware of the anti-Left Marxism being talked about now? I bring that up because it’s something I’ve noticed among people in gen Z. They’ve reacted to the DSA, because they’ve seen the DSA as leading people into the Democratic Party, right? They would point to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as an example. This still shows the problem with tying political ideology to the Democrats or Republicans. Still, in practice, people say, maybe this person in the Democratic Party is a socialist. “MAGA Communism” is another thing, but doesn’t that still raise the need for something ideologically to break up the Democrats and Republicans? That’s why I push back against saying “two-party system”: it ends up legitimizing that as a horizon of politics. I.e., from a socialist perspective the Democrats and Republicans are not really parties; they just administer things.

VC: Yeah.

DLJ: Rosa Luxemburg’s point was you need historical knowledge of the final goal in order to actually prompt people to potentially do things that are not immediately in their interest and might be very costly — but historically, this goal has played a role in organizing millions of people, right?

VC: One slight correction to what you said: whatever you're asking people to do must also be immediately in their interest. Otherwise, they won't take it, they won't do it. E.g., when you go out on a strike, you're not saying the strike is not immediately in your interest. It is. The longer-term perspective is something else, but whenever you're trying to organize somebody to undertake a job action, you're never going to want to say to them, “look this really isn't something you should do.”

DLJ: It feels like one is trying to realize Marxism, and, therefore, telling people they should go on strikes and start salting. They're getting jobs so that they can become union activists, because they have the collected works of Lenin and think, “this is the thing to do.” I bring that up because in the classical Marxist period that you've mentioned in a few of your texts, they didn’t have to tell people to go on strike. They just did. The resistance was there. You mentioned that conditions have changed a lot and I'm not trying to get you to summarize your book, but I was wondering if you could point to some of the most pertinent changes, besides just industrialization.

VC: Let me combine your comment about the two parties and the dangers of identifying yourself politically against them, with the question of what conditions are different today. What’s different today is that we’re trying to reignite a socialist movement in a context where a democratic bourgeois state is not only available but fully stable. Whereas the earlier wave of socialist organizing began in a context when workers were not just an exploited class, but an oppressed status group with fewer rights, freedoms, privileges; where they didn’t have basic amenities, living in ghettos. It was easy for them to forge a political identity, because every component of their social existence reinforced the gap between them and their employer, their exploiters. Today, the identities are much more fragmented. The reason they’re fragmented is that workers now have previously unavailable avenues to them for redress.

The sign that today’s Left is becoming mature will be when it grapples with this, understands it, and sees that this is why a mythical revolutionary overthrow of the state is just not on the cards. It’s not just all the repressive powers that the state has. This notion that the state must be overthrown to achieve justice — it’s something that you only see in the tiniest student circles, not in the broader culture. We have to organize in this context and because of that, it is essential to know how to relate to the political parties and the electoral system. For the vast majority of the population, that is what politics is. They come out every few years to pull a lever, and that's their participation in the system. To tell them that they shouldn't even do that — that’s not real politics without having an alternative through which they can influence the world — it’s just lunacy, and that's why the Left will remain marginal as long as it keeps doing that. That's a primary difference between today and the early 20th century.

You're also absolutely right that in the U.S. today, to seek insertion into Left politics through this party system, is also a dead end. It's not going to work. The relevant distinction here is whether your strategic perspective is oriented toward these parties or whether you're willing to use those parties for yourself. The strategic perspective has to be what it was in 1920: you organize the class. But, given where the U.S. Left is, you have zero entree into that class. Zero. One way to get your views heard is through the ritual of elections every four years, because that’s when people listen. If you can do that, you can use it as a bridgehead for class organizing. Without the class organizing it’ll just be another imaginative road to a dead end. If you can use it tactically through every election cycle, you also build your class organizations, and hopefully soon enough you get to the point where the class organizations have an independence and where you can use them to start influencing the electoral cycle. That’s the only iterative process that is open. Salting is a legitimate and necessary part of this process. The difficulty is that salting is being done in dribs and drabs: one person here, one person there, and they get swallowed up by the workplace. It needs to be done so that the people who are salting have real support and resources available to them, the way the Communist Party was doing it in the 20s and 30s. Maybe we'll get there, I hope we do, but I wouldn't want to take a stance against salting.

DLJ: Certainly people should get jobs when they have the opportunities and need them. I don’t want to prevent people from doing that.

One of the issues that comes up in the electoral cycle is that the Left projects itself onto the Republicans and Democrats: the Left will declare what is a labor issue and what is an issue of capital, taking it from the wings of neoliberalism. I.e., tax cuts are supposed to be a capital issue, and the minimum wage is supposed to be a labor issue. This goes back to my question about the capitalist state. The issue I tend to have with that is that Marx calls wages “variable capital”: they are capital and all of the labor forms are capital. The Left projects wage labor into a lowered horizon of what “labor” and “capital” meant historically, excluding state power, into economic redistribution.

VC: For the sake of this conversation, we can take it for granted that no viable Left ought to be viewing the Democratic Party in that way. What we're talking about is this: if we grant that the Democratic Party is another corporate party, is there a way of getting traction out of work with them or is there not? That’s all. With regard to the minimum wage, I think to see the issue as one of abolishing the wage rather than affecting its level would be a mistake, because you're going into a fantasy land right now.

DLJ: No, I'm not. I wouldn't be putting it at the level of minimum wage versus abolition of wages. This would go back to the ultra-Leftism you mentioned earlier, but rather a question of who organizes the wage. I.e., there's a difference between a wage increase from unions versus legislation.

VC: But here's the difficulty, and this is something you have to look at soberly. What is the precedent for collective bargaining in units like small cafes, fast food restaurants, etc., across the economy? I am not aware of any time where you’ve had shop-by-shop collective bargaining at that level, because it’s impossible. We have 100 years of organizing in the Third World to draw on. This is the informal labor market. Workers in the U.S. in these sectors look a lot like workers in Brazil or India — you’ll never organize them to the point of having collective bargaining in those tiny establishments across the country. Now, you might have something like what California is trying to do, which France does in a different but related way. You have a certain threshold of organization in the coffee or the fast food sector, and then there are laws which extend those agreements to the rest of the sector even if they’re not in the unions. Or you have boards like they're trying to establish in which representatives come together from different sectors, which again requires a certain threshold of organization for it to be viable — not what California is doing, where there’s no organization. What both of those have in common is this: they recognize that unions will never organize these sectors, like they organized auto, steel, etc. So, you're going to need legal extension of wage levels, job protections, etc. — not the union itself being the sole conduit for that to happen. That might be a reality we have to live with because of how de-industrializing capitalism been changed.

            It might be that we need a strategic orientation wherein unions of key sectors of the economy provide resources for collective bargaining for their members to get their privileges and their rights, like the Ghent model. I highly doubt that we’ll have a structural possibility of economy-wide union collective bargaining, because this is no longer the smokestack economy of the 1930s and 40s in the advanced capitalist world. We're going to need other measures that provide protection and power to workers, measures other than shop-level collective bargaining.

DLJ: Right. Part of the change in the economy is also informing the greater need for legislation —

VC: It starts there. If you have a class perspective on politics, you start with, what is the structure of capitalism today? What is its occupational makeup? What is its geographical map, its economic geography? What is the modal form and scope of employment? Where is most of the value produced, and what proportion of labor is in sectors that are vulnerable to organization? You have to start, but you can’t assume that, just because it’s capitalism, it’s exactly as it was 100 years ago.

DLJ: Right. I just did an interview with Michael Hudson,[9] and the reason I bring that up is because part of what has been implicit in the organization of the American occupational structure has been the economies of other nations, such as China. The U.S. is still China’s biggest exporter, and China has been the manufacturer of the world — but perhaps that's changing now. I.e., that also reflects how the class can be refracted across different nations in a different manner.

VC: Confronting Capitalism is about capitalism, which you're analyzing at the highest level of abstraction. When you come down to politics, you have to see how that fundamental structure is highly variable in its institutional forms and constitutive elements. The U.S. is capitalist, Germany is capitalist, Sweden is capitalist, Brazil is capitalist. But the actual topography of that structure, its actual makeup, its individual forms are variable though they operate within the constraints of capitalism. For politics to become viable, you have to get down from the most abstract analysis to the institutional specificities, because that's where you organize. You’re going to have to see, are we a service-oriented capitalism or are we primarily manufacturing capitalism? If it’s manufacturing capitalism, is it primarily in this and that industry or is it in a different sector? That’s where real analysis takes off. The difficulty of the Left right now is we haven’t even gotten to that stage, because most of the Left is asking, are interests real? Is ideology the most important thing? Does capitalism rest on culture? We’re at the preschool level of social analysis rather than — forget about elementary or even high school level — we need to be at the graduate school level.

DLJ: There are still some ideological obstacles. So at least there's some value to what we're doing even — this is my point.

I did want to bring up one other thing. In your review of Erik Olin Wright’s last book,[10] that article you wrote for Jacobin,[11] you discussed the gradual development versus the rupture break. There’s really a relationship between gradual and rupture, right? That’s the experience of the Second International: one couldn’t choose to be gradual, but rather, the socialist movement posed a crisis in World War I, and this is what Lenin was taking up. I bring that up because I know earlier you said, yes, there are ultra-Left students on campus, who say, “we need a revolution tonight.” Nonetheless, if we were to start getting the most basic mass movement going, it would still be as a function and part of capitalism: it would still be developing that contradiction. It is possible that that kind of question of the necessity of a dictatorship of the proletariat could be posed in the future.

VC: Yeah, certainly it's possible. It's just in the world that we inhabit today, for that possibility to even loom at some point in the hazy future, you have to do the hard work of gradual incremental, organizing first.

DLJ: Sure.

VC: The difficulty of that incremental organizing involves things like tactical alliances with political parties in elections, working with established trade unions, which are pilloried as being bureaucratic, dealing with demands like legal defense of minimum wage, which in itself doesn’t strengthen unions per se, etc. If incremental organizing means doing all this, the perspective that says, “ this is just reformism; we need a revolution” hinders getting anything done. One can say, yes, in a mythical possible future the question of a rupture could be real. But right now, you’ve got to put that stuff aside and start building your class organizations. In the event that rupture becomes real, it will only happen in a monumental crisis of capitalism, and if your class organizations are not around, the crisis will turn to the Right, the far Right  — not to the Left — and you'll be stuck saying, “I thought there was going to be a revolution, and nobody gave it to me.” So right now, what is on our agenda is all those less sexy, less fashionable activities of organizing that are considered insufficiently revolutionary by so much of the fashionista Left.

DLJ: There’s been a lot of delegitimization of public institutions today. I feel like right now, in a lot of ways, there is a crisis of the state of things, or the state, and the state is having a lot of acrimony, fighting, and in-fighting. They’re prosecuting a former president under the Espionage Act or at least trying to.

VC: Yeah, that delegitimization of institutions doesn't play in our favor, but rather the favor of the far Right. This is an abject lesson even though liberalism is ideologically in crisis. The Left has not had much to show for it, because it's entirely parasitic on the bourgeois parties. It depends on them, and that's a ringing vindication of the view that the Left needs to stop having its Friday night séances around the revolution and start organizing. Otherwise, you’re going to be stuck with something worse than Trump for the next 20 years. |P

[1] (Brooklyn: Verso, 2022).

[2] Jacobin 44 (Winter 2022).

[3] C. Wright Mills, “Letter to the New Left,” New Left Review 5 (Sept/Oct 1960): “The social and historical conditions under which industrial workers tend to become a class-for-themselves, and a decisive political force, must be fully and precisely elaborated. There have been, there are, there will be such conditions; of course these conditions vary according to national social structure and the exact phase of their economic and political development. Of course we can’t ‘write off the working-class.’ But we must study all that, and freshly. Where labour exists as an agency, of course we must work with it, but we must not treat it as The Necessary Lever — as nice old Labour Gentlemen in your country and elsewhere used to do.”

[4] Eric Hobsbawm, “Labour in the Great City,” New Left Review 166 (Nov/Dec 1987): 39–51.

[5] David Duhalde, “The more things change, the more they stay the same: A response to Canel and Jacobs,” Platypus Review 144 (March 2022), available online at <>.

[6] David Brooks, “A 2024 Presidential Candidate Who Meets the Moment,” New York Times, July 14, 2022.

[7] Vivek Chibber, The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2022), 75.

[8] See Joan Robinson, Economic Theory (1962): “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

[9] D. L. Jacobs, “The destiny of civilization: An interview with Michael Hudson,” Platypus Review 151 (November 2022), available online at <>.

[10] Erik Olin Wright, How to be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century (Brooklyn: Verso, 2019).

[11] Vivek Chibber, “How to be a Socialist in the Twenty-First Century,” Jacobin, February 19, 2020, available online at <>.