What is the critique of capitalism?
Tom Canel, D. L. Jacobs, Daniel Lazare, Saira Rafiee, Jochen Schmon
Platypus Review 155 | April 2023
On October 8, 2022, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted this panel at the New School, NYC as part of its East Coast Conference. The panelists were Tom Canel, D. L. Jacobs (Platypus), Daniel Lazare (CPGB, Weekly Worker), Saira Rafiee (CUNY), and Jochem Schmon (New School). The video of the panel is available online at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ow9sxxlU97M>.
Saira Rafiee: Marx’s analysis of capitalism led to the discovery of the law of accumulation: capital tends to centralize and concentrate in fewer and fewer hands. Structural implications of a system at the service of valorization of capital such as ever-increasing unemployment due to technological developments that would lower the cost of labor, globalization of capital in search of surplus value, along with dispossessions that are required for the establishment of capitalist relations of production would lead to mass pauperization. Pauperized masses would have nothing to lose but their chains; they would start a revolution and overthrow capitalism.
The welfare era seemed to have brought this process to a halt; the improvement of the living standards of workers and a broad social safety net contradicted the prognosis of mass pauperization. As Piketty has substantiated though, the conditions in which the state managed to actively intervene in economics were unique; certain socioeconomic and political crises such as the Great Depression and the two World Wars enabled the state to impose high taxes on capital and provide social services to the population. The process of monopolization of capital was nevertheless ongoing. After that short detour, the world quickly returned to its shape before the start of WWI; we are allegedly living in another Gilded Age. There are of course major differences: now capital is globalized, the process of monopolization and separation of forces of production and means of production have become almost absolute, and we are living once again an immense and intensifying financial crisis. Mass pauperization is now a reality that has found expression through the idea of the 99%. As the world has probably never resembled Marx’s prognosis more than today, currently any talk of a socialist revolution in the face of the current crisis would sound lunatic.
Overthrow of capitalism requires theory. In the absence of a revolutionary outlook based on theory, transition to a post-capitalist society would be just a hallucination. Without a plan for or imagination of a different future (the potentials for which already exist), of a radical shift mediated through the present moment, the very same crisis that could be seized for revolution could lead to catastrophe; the rise of Nazis to power in the 1930s was one such catastrophe. At the time of crisis, socialism would just be one of the options, barbarity would be another.
The potential for barbarity is interwoven with structural tendencies of capitalism, the monopolization process entails the gradual elimination of the petit bourgeoisie; according to US Small Business Administration, from 1994 to 2018 only one third of small businesses survived for 10 years, and only one fourth reached 15 years. The middle position of the petit bourgeoisie, from small business owners to professionals, makes them particularly susceptible to the authoritarianism of fascist propaganda. Constant fear of loss of status turns into existential anxiety for this class. Capitalism reinforces some character traits that are rooted in parenting patterns and family dynamics. Its demands from the individual, such as adaptability and discipline, have given rise to a new anthropological type: the potentially fascist character, the authoritarian personality. Neoliberal subjectivity is partly the outcome of the intensification of some of those demands.
The susceptibility of the authoritarian personality to fascist propaganda would not be enough for the victory of fascism. As Adorno pointed out in 1967, without the support of capital fascism would not be able to get into power, and considering the adventurism and unexpectable nature of fascist movements, supporting them would always be capital’s last resort. Given the susceptibility of the potentially fascist character, the conditions would be ripe for the bourgeoisie to recognize that, to overcome the existing crises, it has no option but to back the fascist leader who happens to have gained a considerable audience. By putting blame on “illegal immigrants,” blacks, Jews, or Muslims for crisis and misery, fascist propaganda turns them into at-hand targets for projection of frustration, resentment, and anxiety and prevents consciousness about real social and class interests. It is through cathartic performance of the audience’s wish to be rich and powerful, and as a protagonist of a crucible against cultural degeneracy with whom they can identify, that Trump manages to convince the audience to back policies that are at odds with their interests and at the service of the 1%.
In the performance of the leader the audience sees the realization of a show of power, of how it would put those who have created this mess in their place. Within this framework the fantasy of a past when things were supposedly perfect and the ingroup was prosperous, respected and in control, replaces the imagination of a better future. Reviving that past, against all the efforts of internal and external enemies, becomes the sole aspiration of the movement. Imagination is blocked.
Fascism responds to crisis through psychological manipulation of the audience to support, against their own interests, policies that allow the bourgeoisie to benefit from the political intervention it requires to overcome the crisis. Critique of capitalism offers rational analysis that would make the imagination of an alternative order possible. We are living in the age of immense crises. Climate crisis has endangered the survival of the human species. The immediate need to stop the use of fossil fuel and for radical transformation of patterns of production, distribution, and consumption is entangled with ownership of means of production. Capitalist relations of production are the most important barrier against transformation of consumption and production patterns to accommodate nature. With the continuation of the capitalist system, the self-preservation of the human species would be at stake.
Critique of capitalism is necessary because transition to post-capitalist society would only be possible through determinate negation of what makes capitalism, capitalism. Rational analysis of the mechanisms that constitute capitalism explains the socioeconomic and political conditions that have given rise to the current crisis and as such makes the contemplation of an alternative order possible. The idea of socialization of means of production as a possible solution to the crisis, no matter how improbable given the existing conditions, relies on analysis and critique of capitalism. The perpetuation and hypostatization of capitalist relations of production through the culture industry and positivist science has deprived us of the capacity to imagine an alternative world. Critique of capitalism is necessary for such an imagination, for a rational solution to the current crises; it is the condition of possibility of a rational way out of the current and ever growing barbarity.
Jochen Schmon: Marx famously proclaimed in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844) that the task of philosophy can be nothing else but criticism, which can and must be used as a weapon in the struggle for universal human emancipation. Not, as Hegel praised the owl of Minerva as philosophy’s coat of arms, as a passive theoretical reconstruction of what already is. Philosophy only becomes such an emancipatory weapon by the enunciation, to quote Marx, of all forms of consciousness that force us to recognize and acknowledge the fact of being dominated, governed, and possessed. In short, critique must be oriented towards praxis. Criticism must be effective in a political struggle for universal human liberation. And even the political principle of universal human emancipation that leads Marx’s critical project is not just an arbitrarily set normative ideal, but a politically necessary demand and objective, because, as Marx says, no type of enslavement can be abolished until all enslavement is destroyed. However, critique can only become such a weapon for politics of universal human liberation when, I quote Marx, it has “seized the masses.” And those masses — the populace, the many, the multitude, the proletariat — can only be seized by a genuine anthropological radicalism. I quote Marx: “to be radical is to grab things by the root. And for human beings, the root is to be a human being.” That is, a species being that ontologically depends on the material conditions in-and-for which it can or cannot satisfy its needs. Radical politics must be centered on the interrogation, institutionalization, and preservation of the conditions that allow human beings to satisfy their material needs as species beings. And as Marx conceptualized it in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, “the life of the species, both in human beings and in animals, consists physically in the fact that human beings (like animals) live on organic nature.” Marx in a longer paragraph says, “Physically human beings live only on these products of nature, whether they appear in the form of food, clothing, clothing, or whatever it may be. The universality of human beings is in practice manifested precisely in universality, which makes all nature their inorganic body, both in as much as nature is (1) the direct means of life and (2), the material, the object, and the instrument of their life activity.” However, what Marx calls nature, from which human beings, as species beings, most fundamentally depend, becomes hostile and alien under capitalism, which describes a strictly political organization of the natural world, of which human beings are in a reducible part, that divides human beings into two antagonistic classes: the property owners and the propertyless workers, as Marx concludes. “[T]he worker sinks to the level of a commodity . . . and that wretchedness of the worker,” as Marx goes on, “is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of this production, that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, and thus the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form.”
The logic of capitalism is that the more workers work under capitalist modes of production, the more workers continue to contribute to the making of a world that is hostile to themselves, that creates the conditions of their own premature death, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore would say. Capitalist labor transforms the natural conditions of their life into conditions of death. And if Marx’s humanist universalism holds true, it is not only the death of the working class that the working class itself produces under capitalism, but it is the death of the species itself. Facing global warming, as well as the immense ecological disruptions and systemic destruction of the habitability of vast parts of the world that follow from it, this decidedly Marxist humanism seems to have become even truer than it was in Marx’s own historical time. Capitalism is a politico-economic mode of universal natural self-destruction, of planetary suicide. In what follows, I want to point to the most important recent contributions of political philosophy that pursue such a strategy of critiquing capitalism outlined by what some have called the “young Marx.” I don't really want to discuss the epistemological break — of Louis Althusser’s fame — that happened somewhere before Das Kapital (1867). But I'm interested in the recent resurrection of a decidedly Marxist form of humanism that often resolves into anthropology: the question of what makes for the human condition in the Marxist analytic.
This anthropological question must be posed as central for the critical analysis of contemporary forms of capitalist domination, which always comes with Marx's categorical imperative of critically inscribing that very analysis into ongoing struggles against capital and for a human universal liberation. In the spirit of this Marxist humanism, and also with the help of Bruno Latour's Gaia theory, Dipesh Chakrabarty points to the planetary as a new universal nodal point, towards which all our intellectual and political energies must be directed. Who is the “we” that is interpolated by this demand? All of us. Humanity, as he says, as a species. It is, as Chakrabarty is well aware of, that humanity risks erasing the fundamental differentiatedness of so-called “humanity” along deep lines of racialized, gendered, and economic classifications. It risks erasing the history and presence of empire, capitalism, and patriarchy, as well as the epistemic achievements of the critical faculties of scholarship from political economy to post-colonial and gender studies. We — which is never pre-existing or emerging outside discursive and imaginary articulations — is simply our life as a species called human beings that inhabit geobiological spheres in common with non-human beings. The well-being of the human species is fundamentally dependent on the well-being of all these spheres and all non-human species. But we human beings, as Chakrabarty would conclude, have radically disavowed and neglected this fundamental geobiospherical and inter-species dependency by the forms of life that we have historically established to inhabit the planet. Instituting capitalism, industrial technology, and political systems that have no capacity to cope with the systemic destruction which they have brought upon themselves and every other species on the planet. The planetary is conceptualized by Chakrabarty in a twofold-scale. It is the emergence of a new universal world-historical consciousness of what he calls “the planet and of its geobiological history.”
This planetary consciousness relates itself to the world in the form of a species being called Anthropos, that is constituted, depends on and shapes the ecological and geological well-being of the planet. This emphasis does neither allow us to simply blame capitalism or technology, because socialist regimes have also systematically contributed to geobiospherical destruction. But the question of how to cope with global warming must necessarily engage with both capitalism and technology. This is why understanding the extremely differentiated impacts on different people on the planet, both historically and presently, regarding the making of and suffering from the anthropocene, remains an imperative. Chakrabarty is very clear: differentiations of capital and labor, empire and colony, gender and racialized divisions have radically contributed to and profited from the making of an anthropocentric world. Chakrabarty is calling for nothing less than a planetary concept of the political. Political action in this sense is that which helps humans to be at home on earth beyond the time of their living. Aside from his critical or radical analysis that the existing modes of production and the existing political systems are incapable of actually solving the crisis, he completely steps back from the challenge of inscribing his own analysis into ongoing political struggle. And instead, to use an Adornian notion, in the unspirit of current academic jargon, he calls for imagining other forms of planetary politics. Nowhere in his political-ecological writings are movements mentioned that attempt to destroy technologies of planetary destruction. This is what Andreas Malm, in his work on “fossil fascism,” has most convincingly demonstrated. The most dominant analysis of climate change and anthropocentric politics from Latour to Chakrabarty and Ana Tsing have continuously failed to stress that each moment of sustained business as usual is the outcome of struggle. We do not simply have to acknowledge the political-economic sources of climate change and imagine new forms of sustainable life. We need to struggle for the abolition of the existing means of planetary destruction. It is a simple political principle and, even if she can be criticized in so many other political questions, the one that Greta Thunberg pronounced. If the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. Malm, as a member of German anarchist movement Endigelände, that squats coal-mining factories, gas pipelines, and forests open for fossil-fuel production is rather explicit in his manifesto How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2021). When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our land? When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands? The forms of dissidence that characterize the mass mobilization around climate change must be escalated. The predominantly nonviolent strategy of the radical ecological Left must not be replaced but extended by a militant wing that attacks fossil capitalist technologies directly with physical violence. To absolutize nonviolent forms of protest, unwillingly risks, as Malm argues, the presumption that the available ruling classes will either be forced to planetarily rational decisions by forms of fossil-fuel civil disobedience or that the existing oppositional parties will come to power and then act rationally.
D. L. Jacobs: First, the word capitalism. We know it is not capitalists-ism — or rule by the capitalists — but rather capital-ism.I imagine a good student would raise their hand and tell us that capital is not a thing, but a social relation. Ok, cool — but what does that mean?
The German distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) versus Gesellschaft (society) is helpful here. Social relations are not personal relations or group mores and customs or laws or technical relations — they refer to something rather new in history, to society. Diderot and D’Alembert’s 18th-century encyclopedia reminds us that the word “social,” which designates “those qualities that make a man a useful member of society who is suited for living with other men,” was at the time, a relatively new word. Humans have always been concerned with utility, but to be part of the same human organization because all involved are useful to each other, gives an open-ended character to this form of human organization. Consequently, social relations were formed despite potentially antagonistic purposes — there was a general will or something that was greater than the sum of its parts; that interest was society.
If we trace this back, it appears that society originates between communities, in what is narrowly referred to as “exchange.” Indeed, that word means transformation (change) through something coming from without (ex-). Society then was founded upon identity across difference. Rousseau and Adam Smith read this into the very nature of our species, in what they called pity or sympathy. Social relations then were the actualization of the potential for change. Importantly, they have an intentionality — there was a reason they emerged when they did. Thus, Marx writes that while prices and exchange are older than the biblical flood, only in modern or bourgeois society do they come to be increasingly determined by the modern or bourgeois social relation of labor. That is, their intention is to facilitate the modern, bourgeois notion of freedom, the freedom to become.
The serfs and slaves who ran away to the barren cities of the former Holy Roman empire, already “had nothing but the labor” on their backs. They didn’t have any real, tangible property of any significant sort but they did have the skills brought from their home economy. They could relate through work, through time. The new bourgeoisie were relatively uniform in skills and could trade based on specialization in different laboring functions. They related based on labor. It is not hard to imagine: if you have ever had a sibling, you probably have traded chores.
But what kind of social relation is capital? Political economy, which in one sense, had ended by Marx’s time, had already characterized capital as accumulated labor which employed other labor. Indeed, as put in the Communist Manifesto (1848), “In bourgeois society . . . the past dominates the present; in Communist society, the present dominates the past.”
Being past labor, it is property: Locke had said, after all, the first property was when we mixed our labor with the land. It can’t act on its own; capital must have “recourse to [its] guardians.” There is a reason for property — it facilitates social powers that have developed and legitimize their right; it requires many successive ideas before it is formed, or to put it another way, humanity must have already been changed out of its natural state for property to have become. Thus, it requires somebody to act in a way, to make it useful, such that it continues to be part of society. The realization of the relation is what preserves the end.
But domination is very different from use. How is it that the product comes to be the master over the producer? The producer is a human — they act with purpose, and therefore, can only be dominated by the product if the latter ropes it into its own end.
Smith had articulated the division of labor as allowing all and everyone to find their value in society; this was the adequate consciousness for the time. The philosophes of the Enlightenment made an object of society and in doing so, allowed her to be extended through critique. The formerly marginalized groups could extend the division of labor through the critique of the existing forms of cooperation.
The distinction between necessary and surplus-labor, then, was not to be reduced to the mere distinction between wages and profit. After all, value has a “historical and moral element.” The two parts represented rather distinguishing moments in the freedom to become.
For Smith, the powers of social cooperation were truly the property of the workers. The employers, in a sense, could only help to set the cooperation in motion but they could not remove it from the workers, and this remained the workers' claim against their bosses. The wage relation was antagonistic but not self-contradictory at Smith’s time. Thus, the inclusion of more and more people into the cooperation was in the interest of the workers. The exploitation of the workers could be justified in a free society; it built the edifice of human civilization that the next generation of workers would be able to inhabit. The ideal of bourgeois society is a workers’ society.
The workers’ strength was their interdependence; but the interdependence grew so great so as to hold every worker against their own social powers. The extension of the division of labor also made it an object, one that could be studied and objectified. The workers had socialized production implicitly and in their struggle with their employers, they politicized what they had detached from themselves; their employers simply made good on the potential and soon the workers faced their own powers, “capitalized,” and throwing them out of society.
Thus, after the Industrial Revolution, writes Max Horkheimer, “not work but workers [are made] superfluous.” The workers had pressed their bourgeois rights and in-and-through such, made themselves redundant. This result was not juridical but political-economic.
This ought to have led straight into socialism. Indeed, the very modern concept reflects the fact that capitalist production already expropriates the expropriators, already socializes production. But this process happened unconsciously — the workers had estranged their right to work but they could still fight for and claim their political rights. The extension of democracy, then, was a symptom of the Industrial Revolution. This is why class struggle is political struggle.
“Proletarian” is given every definition in the world: working-class, worker, poor, pauper, industrial worker, wage-laborer. Marx was fond of quoting Sismondi, who said that while the ancient proletariat lived at the expense of society, modern society lives at the expense of the proletariat. The proletariat exploits themselves. They are the same force that holds together society and tears it apart.
Because it ends with an “-ism,” we are primed to think about capitalism like it is a system. A “system of exploitation,” or a system of oppression, imperialism, colonialism, etc. But Rosa Luxemburg was not so naïve: “no general institution exists in society that would consciously construct and operate these laws” which make up what is referred to as capitalism. Capitalism is a crisis — there are not crises of capitalism— and its systematic appearance is a necessary form by which the crisis misleads us but also compels us to try to put it back together. The systematic character is the fixation on bourgeois social relations; it is ideological. The relations from the 16th century had facilitated forces from the 19th century, bursting the integument of the former and leading people to try to put things back together. Thus, the 19th century repeats the 16th century. Marx’s famous phrase that “social being determines consciousness” needs to be elaborated after its abuse: it is industrial social being that determines bourgeois social consciousness, but it determines it in its irrationality, in what Marx called the “anarchy of production.” The point was not to explain consciousness as the result of one’s economic position — this would be “rationalism” as Lenin put it — nor is the economic base “structural.” Rather, Marx’s injunction was that consciousness “must be explained . . . from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”
Bourgeois society had become self-contradictory and this was expressed in the phrase, the “capitalist mode of production.” That is, bourgeois society, a society of commodity production, had become modified (“mode”) in a capitalist character; the end of commodity production became the production of capital. In other words, our sense of injustice, of a wronged life, is bourgeois — for that is the only rational standard we have — and we react to it by trying to perfect society. From very early on, Marx recognized socialism as “not beginning a new work [for humanity], but consciously carrying into effect its old work.” It was the task of the Bourgeois Revolution after the Industrial Revolution.
This gets to the word critique. Critique meant not describing one’s moral or sensible repulsion but rather, accounting for the conditions of possibility. In the ancient community, “dialectic” meant the self-correction of a thinker, usually of a specific caste, through dialogue with an interlocutor. The purpose was to arrive at correct thinking, which recognized the nature of things, and remove the disturbing influences. Consequently, dialectic was described by Aristotle as “merely critical” and liable to be abused by those “even without knowledge of the essence to speculate about contraries.” In modern society, dialectic took on a different purpose. The standard move from Rousseau to Smith to Kant was to ask what was presupposed in the given world. These revolutionaries appropriated the given world with an emancipatory use of cunning. Hegel, as the high consciousness of the Third Estate, based the entire self-movement of history upon freedom’s self-critique. Dialectic was the reflection of society on itself. Thus, Marx could say that previous philosophers simply had to open their mouths to allow “roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it.” But the Enlightenment of our free, social being had become exhausted in Marx’s time. Thus, the demand for the “ruthless criticism of all that exists” was not a contrarianism, but a reading of a historical impasse.
The workers were “most painfully aware of the difference between being and thinking, between consciousness and life,” and they were driven forward, through forms of capitalist society, from the machines, to the capitalists, to the bankers, to the state and onwards, in the final analysis, hopefully, to themselves. That last step, by the way, is called socialism. The proletariat was the heir of German Idealism, for Friedrich Engels, not because they had a mere theoretical interest in the dialectical method, but because they are responsible for the dialectic of capitalism, a negative dialectic.
If the proletariat is part and principle of the crisis, and is the leading critic of such, then it follows that the critique of capitalism itself is really a part of capitalism. In other words, capitalism is its own self-critique. It is only with Proudhon’s critique of political economy that Marx believed an actual critique of political economy had become possible, because Proudhon represented the proletarian standpoint.
Critique has become criticism. The Left spends its time making “debunking” videos “taking down” the arguments of Right-wing media by exposing their logical fallacies. The appeal of this expresses the way in which Left ideas are channeled — but also the death of the Left. To critique the oppressed has come to be considered especially heinous; it is “punching down.” And yet the entirety of Marxism is the critique of the oppressed, the critique of the proletarian critique of capital.
You don’t need Marx to tell you that workers are exploited, that economies crash, that politicians are corrupt, that the machinations of the state drag nations into war, that big nations oppress small nations, that people oppress and colonize other people, that genocide has existed and exists, that life is wronged and human potential is unfulfilled.
If Marx’s critique still finds purchase, it is really because it finds purchase as an obscure memory of the bourgeois revolution. When one reads Smith, they hear Marx; when one reads Hegel, they hear Marx, etc. But Marxism also appropriated this critically, and this is what is frustrating today. These two parts are not related anymore — they cannot be without an organized political subject. The sting of critique today is the pain of being unable to translate the possibility into practice. When Luxemburg polemicized against Eduard Bernstein in her famous Reform or Revolution? (1900), she made it clear that she was not separating Bernstein from a mass movement. “But doubly important is this knowledge for the workers in the present case, because it is precisely they and their influence in the movement that are in the balance here,” she wrote. “It is their skin that is being brought to market.”
Is there class struggle today? I should point out that this was not a question in Marx or Lenin’s time, but self-evident. When we ask this question today, we approach it as either something sociological or economic. We look at workers and ask, do they fit the Marxist model? We simply lack a politically organized force embodying the self-contradiction of society in a way that points to its self-overcoming.
Tom Canel: Thanks so much for the invitation to speak at this panel. I am as always honored to be here. People might find it obnoxious for a non-Marxist to “mansplain” as it were what Marxists should think. But you have to understand how much fun it is, it’s like a drug.
I am going to begin by citing a more or less sacred text that derides the citations of sacred texts. In “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (1919), Georg Lukács writes,
Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disapproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious orthodox Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto — without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigation. It is not the “belief” in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a sacred book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the line laid down by its founders. It is the conviction, moreover, that all attempts to surpass or “improve” it have led and must lead to over-simplification, triviality and eclecticism.
While I deny the charges of overs-simplification and triviality, I fully cop to the eclecticism thing.
In these lines Lukács has encapsulated what the Marxist response to the questions facing this panel should be. It is interesting that Lukács does not say that orthodox Marxism will always exist so long as there is a proletariat, whose class consciousness it represents. If we rely on just these quoted lines, you could still have orthodox Marxism even if there was no revolutionary proletariat. I am not saying that Lukacs believed that, but I’m just saying . . .
It would be a gross exaggeration to say that all of Marx’s individual theses have been disproven, theses regarding the globalization and concentration of capital, for example, have been historically vindicated. But it would be fair to say that unpredictable mutations in capitalism require a radical — I choose my next word deliberately — revision of a large portion of Marx’s individual theses. This shouldn’t be surprising. St. Thomas Aquinas, I have heard, responded to the question of how, if Christianity were eternal truth, there could be innovations in Christian theology. Aquinas’s answer: because heresy always takes new forms. History has thrown out unpredicted and unpredictable mutations in the structure of capitalism. Marxism, through applying dialectical materialism, should address those mutations theoretically and draw appropriate political conclusions.
The classic Marxist critique of capitalism focuses on the alienation of labor, how workers are forced to confront their own product, capital, as a dominating oppressive force, and how the distinction in bourgeois society between the exchange value of labor power and the use value of labor (labor is used to create value) conceals and naturalizes the reality of capitalist exploitation. The worker is paid the full exchange value of the labor power they expend, which happens to be less than the value their labor has actually created. Both the understanding of capital as alienated labor, and the understanding of exploitation under capitalism, rely on some form of the labor theory of value. However, robotics, automation, and digital technology have made the labor theory of value obsolete, not just as a theory of price, which it never was, but as a key to understanding the accumulation of capital, and therefore capitalism. Value derives as much or more these days from the quality and quantity of information monopolized, than abstract homogenous labor put into production. Marx, in his discussion of the general intellect of capitalist society, presaged this development, but did not realize how this development would transform the nature of capitalism itself. Historical reality poses contemporary Marxists with the task of understanding the new economic reality in dialectical materialist terms.
Now there are attempts to understand this new reality in at least semi-Marxist terms. On the one hand, you have the debate in the New Left Review and elsewhere concerning techno-feudalism, on the other you have the arguments of Roberto Unger for the emergence of a new “knowledge economy.” How much hope is exhibited concerning the transformation of the economy is vastly different according to the two perspectives.
While Unger sees the integration of imagination into the labor process as potentially emancipatory, enabling the production process to be based on trust and non-hierarchical co-operation, the discerners of techno-feudalism see a coming, pervasive, sinister, total domination through a monopoly on information that enables the extraction of wealth through rents rather than surplus unpaid labor. (I remember my Platypus syllabus teaching me that capitalism is the negation of bourgeois freedom, emanating from the crisis of bourgeois society, I am attempting to impute to Unger the hope that knowledge-economy freedom will negate capitalist unfreedom, reintroducing a new form of bourgeois freedom, the negation based on the crisis of industrial capitalism.)
The owl of Minerva, we are told by Hegel, only takes flight at dusk. Perhaps we will only know how the digital economy will turn out once it has come to full fruition. Unger is clear that the emancipatory outcome is not inevitable, only bringing the knowledge economy into the core of our economies and productive activities, and radically democratizing and equalizing the holding of knowledge will enable a positive outcome. He may well acknowledge the possibility of techno-feudal dystopia as following from the failure to do that.
If the avoidance of dystopia is dependent upon a radical democratic response to the knowledge economy, that would seem to define the fundamental political tasks with which history is presenting us. It would behoove Marxists I believe, to apply dialectical materialist methodology to this question to see if they agree.
Platypus pedagogy, if I understand it correctly, suggests that the only way to defend bourgeois freedom under capitalism, is to go beyond capitalism, where capitalism is understood as bourgeois society in crisis. Unger’s analysis suggests that a democratized knowledge economy might be sufficient to restore bourgeois freedom but he doesn’t explicitly say whether you need to overthrow capitalism in order to have a democratized knowledge economy. That is a key question that socialists and Marxists should take up.
Daniel Lazare: Let me share a personal anecdote. Exactly 50 years ago, I got off a boat in Genoa, Italy, and wandered into the center of town. And every square inch of wall space, as far as I recall, was covered with a radical poster. Most of it was Trotskyist, some Maoist and seemingly in every corner there were young people passing this out. I returned to Genoa this summer, almost exactly 50 years later, and there was nothing. This is a puzzle because 1972 was towards the end of the post-war world, and capitalism was going through a period of efflorescence that was all transformative. Life for the working class was just made over countless times. Workers had vacations, they had cars, they had access to creature comforts — even luxury goods, none of which was even imaginable in the 1920s and 30s. Yet, during this period of capitalist efflorescence, it coincided with the period of radical ebullience, where seemingly everybody was a Marxist, seemingly every square inch of wall space was covered with a hammer and a sickle and a four imposed on top of it. And now, 50 years later, there’s nothing.
Yet we know that capitalism, that the memories of the golden age, are long past, and capitalism is now in a period of rapid decline, where workers are facing immiseration that a generation of bourgeois economists previously had said was impossible. We’re now facing not only a growing tendency towards war, but even the threat of nuclear war, in some ways even more of a real threat than it was in the 1960s during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We’re also facing a huge assault on political democracy. None of these things were present to anywhere near the same extent in 1972, during a period of radical ebullience, and now that they are present the Left has seemingly vanished. It’s like a fad that went out with the Beatles. How do we explain this? What does that indicate for the trajectory that the working class is on? Does it mean that 60s radicalism was nothing more than a product of capitalist ebullience, that it was kind of a youthful explosion, a fad, not to be taken seriously? Is the current condition, where the Left has melted away, is that the real condition? Is there no hope, no prospect at all, is there any kind of concerted working-class response to deepening capitalist breakdown?
The title of this talk is the critique of capitalism. And the question is, can we critique capitalism, if we have no prospect of overcoming capitalism? I.e., what if there’s no program, no true anti-capitalist program, which leads us beyond capitalism, to a new form of civilization? The political vacuum that we see in the Left would suggest that we have arrived at an impasse, and that therefore, no critique of capitalism is possible, because we can only criticize it at the margins. We can only criticize aspects of it: criticize its environmental policies, its military policies, etc. But there can’t be any fundamental critique of capitalism today. Needless to say, I don't agree with that. The period we are in now, the great trajectory, the great post-war wave, which saw 30 years of capitalist effervescence, has given way to 50 years of accelerating capitalist decline, which is now reaching a precipitous point. The working class will have to respond. Historically, it's quite clear there is no alternative to the working class responding, and therefore, given no alternative, the working class will respond. The sense that we all have in this room of treading water, of a lack of traction, of descending into ever more airless critiques of capitalism, and critiques that are divorced from any kind of practical struggle against capitalism — we are reaching the end of that ethic. We are about to enter a new age where a political critique of capital becomes possible because the political overthrow of capitalism will be posed.
To put this in more concrete terms, we are facing a perfect storm, especially here in the US. We are facing a profound climate crisis, which is manifesting itself in ever more dramatic ways. We are facing an economic crisis where clearly the Keynesian response to the meltdown of 2008 is now running out of steam. Capitalism has run through its bag of tricks to keep the economic machinery going. And now we’re faced with the confrontation that capitalism was able to avoid 12 or 14 years ago. Now that confrontation is coming, and we’re facing a wrenching economic crisis. We’re also facing an assault on democracy that is absolutely unprecedented. We’re facing midterm elections in four weeks in which it seems likely that a Republican Party, which is moving in an ever more explicitly anti-democratic (small “d”) direction, will take power in both houses of Congress. They will likely take control of both houses of Congress. They’ll move to impeach Joe Biden. The Supreme Court is about to consider a case called Harper v. Moore, which poses the question known as ISL (Independent State Legislature Theory), which will sideline for good the popular vote in presidential elections, thereby rendering the US ever more explicitly undemocratic, authoritarian, oligarchic, etc. These three forces are bearing down in a perfect storm and that is the prospect we are facing. That is what convinces me, and this is kind of a backwards argument, that the era of tractionless, of the immobilized, inert working class, is coming to an end. We are on the verge of a great proletarian explosion, which will take Marxism, the Marxist critique of capitalism, socialist revolution, etc. — take these very abstract forms and give them life. Thank you.
DLJ: We were talking about the ecological crisis, we were talking about the political crisis, 50 years of a declining economy. In a sense, Marxism came into existence as a critique of critique. That’s the famous subtitle to The Holy Family, “the Critique of Critical Criticism.” I raise that, because right now we have obviously a lot of terrible things all over, and potential nuclear war and inflation and all sorts of horrible violence, and yet, what does that mean about the way in which we think of Marxism today? I.e., Marx had a proletarian socialist movement — there were utopian socialists, there were mass movements — they were responding to the betrayal of the promise of bourgeois society. There were already plenty of critiques of capitalism and of course the famous “scientific” method; to have a method you need an object. There are terrible things today, but that’s not what opens up the ground for a Marxist critique. In a sense that there were already manifestations of the problem in the form of critique. And that was the condition for even thinking through Marxism. At the end of my remarks I was going to say that critique has become criticism today. Marxism tells you why the world is bad, why people are exploited, why there's genocide, but that really was never the spirit of Marxism. It was the critique of capitalism as Marxism’s object.
TC: To the extent that there is a real crisis of Marxism, a lot of it has to do with the fact that it used to be possible, because the critique of capitalism was based on a critique of the alienation of labor and exploitation of labor, and it used to be possible to see an immanent tendency within capitalism to overthrow itself, that capitalism would produce its own gravediggers. The problem, and the crisis at the basis of that — I'm sort of just following on from what D. L. Jacobs was saying about how critiques have become criticism — is that it's no longer at all clear that communism is the immanent movement of history, and the change in the role of labor in the accumulation of capital is key for that. Smart, true, scary and appropriate stuff about capitalism destroying the planet doesn't necessarily show why capitalism is going to engender the solution to its destruction of the planet. I hope that Daniel Lazare is right that imminent disaster necessarily produces a threat, but that’s a hope. I have no idea if this is true or not, but an apocryphal story was told when I was at school decades ago, that in the Soviet defense ministries during World War II, they said they did not have to worry about the Nazis developing nuclear bombs before Russia did. And the reason was that Marx had shown that the overthrow of capitalism was inevitable, and that if the Nazis developed a nuclear bomb, then the destruction of capitalism was not inevitable, and therefore Marx would be wrong. Marx couldn't be wrong, therefore Hitler would never develop a bomb. That kind of thinking obviously doesn't work. I don't consider myself a Marxist for a variety of reasons: one, because of the changes in the role of labor in production, and two, I don't actually believe in the dictatorship of the proletariat. But, the dialectical materialist method is extraordinarily useful for analyzing society, and we need to do that.
JS: A short comment on the death of the Left, which I think is not right. We have had so many mass struggles in the last years, which are in number, actually historic. Not just the abolitionist struggles in this country, but before COVID and during COVID, we had the biggest ecological mass uprisings in the world, which were also decidedly anti-capitalist. The real problem is strategy. The most dominant strategy that the radical Left is engaging in is more in an anarchist tradition, which is blockading, squatting, specific technologies of ecological destruction, blockading police in deportation work. Charles Kurzman, who I was briefly talking about, has a very interesting theory of hegemony. He thinks that there is a necessity for a radical militant flank. Historically you can see that the moments when the Left was very strong, you always had, on each political battleground, from party politics to civil disobedience and also violent forms of destruction (which were always called terrorism). All these different modes of struggle and anti-capitalist strategy were producing something like a hegemony that was helping in some countries to overcome capitalism, or to produce also a counter force that was forcing the established capitalist parties to, in some way or another, include redistribution politics. I kind of agree with that: there is a problem on the Left on strategy, maybe, but it's not the death of the Left itself, and we have to think about how we embed a Marxist criticism into these struggles that maybe open up again the battleground of party politics.
SR: Such strategy would be nonsensical unless we have some plan or idea of how to run the world, and not just for the other countries, because that is not going to work. Unless the Left comes up with some alternative idea for how to do things, fascism is just there, and it's gaining power, and the catastrophe that it will entail, added to the climate crisis, is just going to be detrimental to human species. It’s not just about the activities of a Leftist group here or there; it’s about the collective effort at thinking about another world order through planetary politics, internationalism, etc. Without such a plan, fascism is going to be our fate.
DL: Saira, I agree with you totally. It’s not enough to attack capitalism; it’s just arid unless you have a socialist program. In response to Jochen, attacking pipelines is a very bad idea. It will not be understood as working class. It's a kind of substitutionism in which activists substitute themselves for the working class and leave workers perplexed, confused, deprive them of jobs, and maybe kill them. It’s not enough simply to stop capitalism, we have got to replace capitalism. The great historical task of socialism is to accelerate industrial production, while at the same time reducing carbon outputs. We are facing an industrial challenge where we will have to move, for the first time since the birth of the Industrial Revolution, to non-carbon forms of power, and that involves hydro, solar, etc. It also involves radical conservation and reductions in energy consumption. But it cannot be done at the expense of the working class, because the working class is the only one that can make this leap. It’s got to be done through the self-manifestation, the self-expression of the working class, where the working class itself transforms the economy and transforms itself. But it doesn't impoverish itself, quite the contrary, it enriches itself. Not in a shallow, silly, bourgeois way, but it does enrich itself in a socialist way. A critique of capitalism is impossible without a struggle against capitalism, and a struggle against capitalism is kind of difficult under current historical circumstances, which is why the critique seems to be going nowhere, and it's only when the historical circumstances change and the working class begins to move that we can move. We can begin to transition to an effective, dynamic, powerful critique of capitalism.
Tom said that a dialogical method is a really valuable tool, but a dialogical method is empty without a program. A dialogical method implies a political critique of capitalism, and therefore a leaping beyond, an overcoming of capitalism into socialism. This attempt to de-politicize Marx, to somehow divorce Marxism from political program, is completely anti-Marxist.
Q & A
A lot was said in the panel about the need for an anti-capitalist struggle. What is capitalism, and what is an anti-capitalist struggle?
DL: Capitalism is private ownership of the means of production, and production in industrial capitalism is a collective enterprise by the proletariat, one whose benefits are then monopolized and extroverted by the owners of the means of production. Someone here used the phrase, “anarchy of production” — that’s how Marx describes capitalism. It’s an anarchy of production that is now leading to generalized anarchy, a complete anarchy of society. The working class has got to take control of those processes and begin reconstructing society through radical democratic socialist means. That attempt is what will lead to socialism, which is essentially gaining control of this fantastic industrial system and making it work for not only the 99% of the population, but in global terms, the 99.99% of the population. We know we have capitalism that has made miracles, as Marx pointed out, but now it’s using those miraculous developments to destroy society, and this is what socialism has got to overcome. It's got to stop this process of self-destruction. And I think it's possible.
TC: Capitalism is a society and economy grounded and driven in the need to accumulate ever more capital. What we want to replace capitalism with is a society where production and social energy is directed towards the meeting of social and human needs. We also want it to be democratic, but the specifically anti-capitalist part of our program relates to that.
DLJ: Back to what Daniel was saying earlier, we only know what capitalism is by struggling with it (which is often used as a carte blanche for activism, etc.). I.e., we know about capitalism through the self-contradiction of how we try to struggle with it. That's why I mentioned that we should have just gone right into socialism, but the question was, how does that attempt to change the world repeat itself? In other words, we know the contradiction through regression and repetition. So when we say things like “the private ownership of the means of production,” we are using a category of contradiction. The means of production is a broad term. It's not like, “do you own a hammer?” It expresses bourgeois social relations and industrial production. We only know of industrial production refracted through bourgeois social relations, and we have a kind of distorted view in that sense, and socialism reflected that. You used the line about communism as the real movement of history. But the real movement is also self-contradiction. Communism is not just straight up, in that sense. Everything, all of these phrases that have been passed down from Marx, they meant something as the self-critique of the critique of capitalism. But they're used as expressive and descriptive terms today. Their purchase continues to happen because they seem to still articulate something that's become invisible to us, which is society. So In terms of the question of the environment, I wrote to myself, “society versus Gaia or society versus the Earth,” meaning there are ways in which the destruction of society manifests itself in environmental degradation. Perhaps some of the manifestations of the limits of ecology or the limits of the environment really reflect the problem of, as Dan quoted me quoting Marx, the “anarchy of production,” i.e., dragging us along without any kind of consciousness. So I would put it at the level of the crisis of society. The things that come out of that — even the category of capitalism itself — are a product of that crisis. That’s why you would need a means to even reflect on that, whereas today we receive Marx as another Adam Smith or another Hegel.
JS: The critique of capitalism and also political struggles against it have to change today. I do not think that we can simply say that we have these great economies, these great industrial technologies, because this is almost a platitude. We know from so many studies of our mode of production that the technologies that we are using to produce the things that we do not need destroy the planet. We have to ask ourselves, what technologies need to be replaced, need to be abolished? What kind of commodities do we want to produce or not? It cannot simply be the old Marxist paradigm of unleashing the productive forces, because there's something wrong with these specific productive forces. We have a whole industry that is not just fuel, but it's also emitting vast amounts of CO2 that kill the planet. The product cannot be, “let's create a great life for everyone on the planet for 99% using the existing technologies of production,” because that is literally suicidal.
DLJ: Unleashing the forces of production would not necessarily mean greater pollution. It could also mean greater efficiency. Perhaps the unleashing would mean not the image of smokestacks and environmental degradation, but actually rolling back on that. I think that's what Daniel was saying.
DL: Unleashing the productive forces means unleashing for the first time creative forces. Creative forces, in the technological sphere, deal with the questions of what kind of fuels we use, what kind of technologies we use, and for what reason. Do we use technology for private profit or to make the world a better place for the 99.99% of its inhabitants? Put in concrete terms, global warming, we cannot keep putting out CO2 into the atmosphere, as you point out, but that doesn't mean that we regress industrially. It means we develop new forms of industry, which are capable of using new power sources, new efficiencies, new forms of conservation, new arrangements of society in order to get the most out of every watt of energy. So when you unleash productivity, you unleash creativity. That is the great transformative process that socialism hopes to create.
Moderator: One thing, Jochen, some members of the audience have asked, could you answer the question more specifically? It feels as if you didn't answer exactly, what is capitalism?
JS: I don't think that I'm disagreeing with the panel on this question at all. It’s more about what an anti-capitalist strategy is.
SR: I think there's no disagreement over the meaning of capitalism, and I agree with most of the things that are said right now. But thinking about capitalism in concrete terms, and an alternative to capitalism, we can reflect on the current situation, and other speakers have already done that. If we think about environmental crisis and see how it is being intensified, we could very easily, as a species, know that that process should stop right now. It is not being stopped, even though very watered-down plans to preserve the environment are being blocked in the Senate by Democrats themselves. So thinking about a post-capitalist society would be this collective effort of us as human species to think how we want to live and how we want to run society. That would be what socialism would entail.
I'm suspicious of the language of anti-capitalism and anti-fascism. These are taken up now as projects of the ruling class and it is deeply reactionary, that we see the language of hostility to fascism being taken up by the dominant political and military force in the world, the U.S. We have weaponized the military against Putin's fascism and authoritarianism, and we weaponized the progressive apparatus against the population in the name of anti-white supremacy. Ecological anti-capitalism particularly is being weaponized against the poor around the world as a project of austerity. We see people celebrating rising fuel prices, which translates directly into rising food prices. This is an imminent prospect of the actual return of rising poverty rates around the world, which we haven't seen for decades. More importantly, it seems to me that the language of anti-capitalism masks a hostility to bourgeois rights. Anti-capitalism takes the form of hostility to the inheritance of liberalism, of modern revolution. People think that, e.g., freedom of speech is capitalist. There’s a profoundly authoritarian face to anti-fascism and anti-capitalism today. We need to question these categories. Is it not possible that the next authoritarianism is precisely going to look like an opposition to the 20th century's authoritarianism? That the anti-fascism today is grappling with ghosts and phantoms and ignoring the obstacles to socialism today? What do we make of the fact that this is the language of the ruling class today? In a deeper way in the history of Germany, the German state has justified itself against itself for 70 years, against its own fascist inheritance. It has justified its leadership of Europe precisely as an anti-German Germany.
SR: I totally agree with you that that language has been appropriated by the ruling class, and you might want to know that Tucker Carlson on Fox News — all he's saying is that these fascists are coming to take our liberties away. Aside from that kind of appropriation, fascism is a serious and real threat. I don't think it's a ghost. I don't think we can call it a ghost when 74 million Americans in the last elections voted for someone who was against Muslims, had very obvious anti-Semitic aspects to his campaign, and was anti-immigrant. You must have a serious Leftist plan for overcoming this situation. I'm not saying anti-capitalism is just a rhetoric. I'm saying that if we don't have a plan right now, mediated through all the potentials that we have at this moment, fascism will take over around the world, even in Germany. Germany was supposed to have been immunized against fascism and Nazism. It has a strong neo-Nazi movement that has infiltrated the police and the judiciary. These are serious concerns that we need to care about and think about. I don't think that it's about ghosts and phantoms, but I think when you're talking about anti-capitalism, you're absolutely right.
To refine the question, I'll just put it provocatively. Just because Tucker Carlson says it, does that mean it's wrong? You still have an anti-fascist war being fought. You still have the language of anti-fascism, the language of national self-determination, the language of liberalism, the language of democracy being used in the service of massive increases in the military budget and NATO.
SR: For sure.
You still see the language of hostility to white supremacy being used to execute the full-scale assault on the rights of the American people.
SR: That's what I'm saying: we need to have a plan. I'm not saying that we need to critique capitalism so that the ruling class could use that rhetoric. I'm saying that it's capitalism that is creating this situation, and the whole Democratic Party, liberals, Republicans, etc, are part and parcel of this path towards fascism. We need to recognize the realities on the ground and not shy away from calling them what they are. We need to think about how we can overcome these problems and start a path towards socialism. The situation right now is not comparable to the 1930s. It's way worse, and unless we think of an alternative, that is going to be our fate. Fascism and the environmental crisis would be serious threats against human species, as a species.
DL: I don't think fascism is a ghost either, and I know that fascism is a word that's terribly overused. But we're moving to a period of increasing national strife, where the political center of gravity is now shifting from the near Right to the far Right. Giorgia Meloni is a sign of things to come. Bolsonaro's performance in the recent election is a sign of things to come. What will likely be the shift of power on Capitol Hill is a further sign. This process of shifting to the Right will accentuate and intensify national conflicts, which will then lead to an ever greater, ever more intense nationalist response, ultimately culminating in fascism, which is ultimate nationalism.
But Biden doesn't point in that direction?
DL: I fully agree with you. I fully agree. It's amazing that Donald Trump recently called for negotiated settlement in the Ukraine, in order to prevent more war, and the Democrats have emerged as the party of war. There's no doubt about it. The austerity politics that lurk behind bourgeois environmentalism is all too real. You are absolutely correct. And, yes, everything Tucker Carlson says is not a lie. He had a piece that went viral, a segment on the destruction of the Nord Stream pipeline that was an amazing piece of journalism. It was quite effective, powerful, and convincing. The far Right is taking up these arguments and they are becoming all the more seductive as a consequence. The Left is not the Left, which has, as you point out, folded into the Democratic Party. It's toeing the line of the Ukraine and essentially is giving Tucker Carlson a monopoly on this kind of political principle, which is extraordinarily dangerous. That is the problem we are facing: how to break down that trap that DSA and other liberal Lefties have gotten us into.
TC: I started out mansplaining to Marxists what they should do. Now I am going to mansplain to Platypus what Platypus should do. Platypus should do a panel with Spencer Leonard as the first speaker around the whole thesis that he’s articulated several times this weekend. Obviously I disagree with him completely, but I've learned an enormous amount from listening to what Spencer articulated, and it would be a very useful panel to have Spencer articulate and to have other people on the Left respond. Now, my good friend D. L. here would accuse me of being a shill of the Democratic Party. And when D.L. is right, he is right. There are two reasons why I am driven to that. One of which I'd like to say is a word about why I'm so scared of Trump. The first one is: I see January 6 as being an attempt by Right-wing paramilitaries to overturn the election. You can argue about whether that is fascism or not. One big difference between Trumpism and traditional fascism is the individualism within Trumpism, which is not part of fascism. That notwithstanding, there is a strong family resemblance involving having Right-wing paramilitaries as an integral part of your movement and overthrowing democratic elections to fascism. I'm also scared shitless by Donald Trump “truthing”: he's been off Twitter, so he now “truths” on Truth Social. He recently “truthed” a picture of himself wearing a QAnon button and underneath it said “the storm is coming.” That has a particular meaning. The QAnon's conception of storm is that Trump is going to order patriots around the nation to execute, if they're lucky, all the Democrats, and pedophiles, and liberals, and Leftists, and Black Lives Matter, and Marxists and everybody else, who are all the same thing. That genuinely scares me, and so I am driven into all kinds of broad popular alliances to try and ward that off. Secondly, at the moment, there is a disconnect between Marxism and actual politics. That's why Platypus is pre-political and has a particular response to that; I have a different response, which is to shill for the Democrats. You can't have critique without politics, but you also can't have politics without critique. Marxism, as it is currently constituted, is not dealing with the changes in capitalism that have occurred. Therefore, as a critique, it is not up to the political task. So until you come up with a development of Marxism to confront the changes in capitalism, I'm going to continue campaigning for Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire.
DLJ: What are your thoughts on the “MAGA communism,” then? Going back to the panel: the greatest resource that capitalism has is our discontents. This just reminded me of 2017 when there was the first specter of fascism. This one just has to do with the 2022 midterms and then probably in 2024, “is Trump going to run again?” Fascism is produced by capitalism. I raise that to ask, to what degree is our critique of fascism a part of capitalism? I.e., it ends up serving as a resource for reproducing and maintaining the status quo and even plays out the paranoiac “who’s a fascist? Do they really think what they say on Twitter? What's going on in Trump's brain? Do they have that pin? Does he know that he was re-tweeting this person? Does he not know that he's re-tweeting this person?” That ends up corralling people democratically, in a similar manner. What's missing is that we have a lot of criticisms of how things operate today, but we have no self-reflection on the critique of capitalism. I'm not faulting anybody at the level of thinking. I'm trying to get us to reflect on what's missing that could actually facilitate that self-reflection, which is not something necessarily at the level of thought. This is why I brought up Marxism's relationship to perceiving critiques of social conditions. I don't think you're a shill for anything. I think you're an honest democrat, which is why I applaud you for this.
SR: I wanted to clarify that I didn't mean that because Tucker Carlson is using it therefore it's bullshit. I just wanted to mention the level of appropriation; that the fascists themselves are using this word against their opponents. About this fascism, capitalism, and the situation right now: I think about fascism through the lens of the Frankfurt School, for whom it was about psychologized politics, which is about manipulation of the audience. On the other side, you are supposed to have rational politics that does not use psychological manipulation. Now the whole political rhetoric in this country is utterly psychologized, and there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans in this matter. For example, if you look at the 2020 DNC, there's seriously no one except for Bernie Sanders, at least on the first day, that talks about policies. Politics, voting, and elections are supposed to be about offering policies that people can reflect on and see whether they want to back those policies or not. There's no talk of any policy in mainstream media, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. That’s the way that the electoral debates are organized. It is all about psychologized politics and manipulation. But just to give a concrete example of how fascism is being used at the service of capital, one of the major issues that Trump brought up recently in his rallies is the drug crisis. He constantly brings up this imaginary conversation that he had with Xi in China, where he asked Xi what they're doing about the drug crisis. And Xi said, “are you crazy? What kind of stupid question is that? We don't have such a problem.” When Trump asks why, it's because China has quick trials. When China arrests someone with drugs, they have a trial and execute them right away. And the audience goes crazy after these things. We know that the drug crisis is the outcome of pharmaceutical companies’ policies for selling their products. You can see how this objective, concrete crisis, that we know the sources of, is being used by inciting violence or death instincts against some petty dealers that are supposed to cause this crisis. We need to take fascism seriously, but on the other side, we need to think about rational politics and try to engage in or start in rational politics or rhetoric.
If we're concerned with calling things what they are, namely fascism, we ought to root it elsewhere than just at the level of the Democratic and Republican Party and their rhetorical strategies. It is the mass of people in society, the workers themselves that are making these psychological demands, that are demanding the state to come and manage the crisis of society. From this lens, where do we identify the capacity to prevent fascism? Is that the level? How do we create a political apparatus that is capable of mediating these demands for the state such that we can have a productive view on this phenomenon?
SR: It's a common policy to think that it's workers who are backing fascism. Fascism in nature is a petit bourgeois phenomenon, and it's rooted in this structural position of the petit bourgeoisie living in capitalism. We could see that on January 6. This was faced with much surprise among journalists in the U.S., that these are not unemployed or poor workers. These are lawyers, CEOs, the people who attacked the capital. We know this for a fact that the demography was mostly not workers. On the second part of your question, it's the major problematic that you're dealing with. That kind of politics does not exist. We need to create it. If you are thinking about rational politics, as opposed to the psychological politics of fascism, with any standard of reason, rational politics at this point would be anti-capitalist politics, and would require transition to a post-capitalist society. We are talking about the very basic, simple human need to survive and that is being threatened. To change the situation, we need the means of production to be socialized so we could think about how we can arrange things, to feed the world and hurt the environment less.
DLJ: Earlier you had mentioned that we have to be organized to answer the needs of people or otherwise the fascists or the Right or the far Right might grasp them. But that seems to be a different question than putting fascism at the level of something like demographics. Workers have supported fascism — they supported it in the 30s.When I think of petty bourgeois and proletarian, I think of it more at the political level rather than something demographic. You mentioned the Frankfurt School. They have this whole thing about how fascism is like how you close the door is preparing you for fascism. I.e., all the conditions are always there. It's not one stratification, but it's always a political question of how people are going to be allowed to express their needs. In that sense, a socialist party would meet the same need that fascism meets, and hopefully, in a more productive way. Socialism would meet that same need to transform, to politically realize, to realize one's necessity for transformation. Wilhelm Reich's great study Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), which was influential for the Frankfurt School, basically said that the opportunity to achieve socialism was missed and the penalty was fascism. And yet nonetheless, there were progressive forces, there was a need to change that was kind of met by a different party, perhaps in a mystical fashion, like all those sorts of things of fascism. Going back to this general discussion — that could be met in other ways, through some hyper-Democratic Party stuff or through a combination of the Republican and Democratic parties needing to destroy themselves to create a new center in a post-neoliberal world. Could you talk about that part of fascism's relationship to socialism or radicalism?
SR: Fascism is a false response that will not solve any problem. This is like what happened in the 30s. It was the attempts and preparation for war that created high unemployment under Hitler. They have other options and you can see that these options — Steve Bannon is talking about them. The idea that by putting tariffs on products, we are going to stop this — it’s just a joke. We know that that is not going to happen because we have passed that point where we could go back to the national economy. But about the petty-bourgeoisie, according to Neumann and Adorno, it's mostly the petit bourgeoisie who are susceptible to fascist propaganda. Of course, it becomes a respectable movement where people can utter fascistic, racist ideas. You see that it's more widespread than just the petit bourgeoisie. In the U.S., it is the general idea that it's the workers who become supporters of fascism. I'm not sure if I got your question. Fascism is one way of dealing with the crisis that we are facing now, but it is not the real solution.
To put an addendum on Jacobs’s question, can you really describe socialism as rational? Socialism is mass democratic politics. When we're looking at something like Lenin or the Spartakusbund, you are mobilizing immense, unconscious forces that express themselves as hatred of the ruling class, which is not the actual obstacle to socialism. It's resentment-filled. Socialism is fueled by irrationality. Modern capitalist politics is fueled by irrationality and demagogy. When you say it's “rational politics,” it just sounds to me like the Democrats talking about technocracy, about policies. Socialism isn’t just about policies. It is a critical mediation of deep mass discontents in modern capitalist society. I think that's what Jacobs is trying to say: the revolution is laying the groundwork for fascism in the 1930s. That's why Reich and Horkheimer will make these statements like, you can't talk about fascism without talking about Marxism.
SR: And about capitalism.
Right, but Reich will say they're not talking about the failure of Marxism. There's a reason why it's a socialist politics. Are the Bolshevik slogans rational? They point beyond. They have to be irrational because they have to point beyond what is conceivable. They have to point beyond the society that we're in. I think that this question of what Jacobs is raising is the question of mass politics — socialism as actually trying to mobilize millions of people. Can you divide psychological politics and rational politics? Is that really a way of just differentiating capitalist politics from socialist politics?
SR: This problem was exactly the concern of Adorno when he was writing about fascism. In his analysis of fascism, he has these few lines that real emancipatory politics would necessarily be mass politics, because the Left or Marxist revolution or whatever would not be possible without the engagement of the masses. But it is exactly the question of whether you can do that in a rational way. I understand your point about technocracy. But, if you think about reason in other terms, what would be more rational at this point than to tell people that we need to change this system otherwise we are going to go extinct? That is rational. In The Authoritarian Personality (1950), the book ends with this sentence that if the death instincts belong to fascism, eros belongs to democracy. A Leftist idea, a socialist idea of democracy would be erotic but not based on manipulation. Adorno has this piece that is very rarely read because it is buried in this book on leadership that I think Alvin Gouldner edited in 1956 or so. It is called “Democratic Leadership and Mass Manipulation.” The question is exactly that: can you address the people and try to make them agree with your policies or engage actively in the politics that would be emancipatory but not based on manipulation? That piece by Adorno is significant and is something that you need to think about because his argument is that if you start the manipulation process, there are always people who are better than you at it — the fascists. The only solution that we have is to address the reason of people. We are at a point in history where it was never easier than now to rationally convince people that the system is going to destroy us and the planet. So let's think about some alternative way in rational matters.
DL: I agree with Saira. Historically in Germany, in the 30s, the social basis for fascism was the petit bourgeois class. The workers, the workers' parties, the communists, the democrats were anti-fascists, and people assumed that union members would be anti-fascists. That isn’t to say that the Nazis didn't make inroads into the unions, didn't penetrate the working class, but the middle class was their natural base. On January 6, Ashli Babbitt — I felt very sorry for her — was shot by a cop in the Capitol as she was trying to break through the door. She was a classic case. She and her family ran a pool cleaning business in Southern California, I believe. The business was going bust, and she was blaming the economic troubles that they were facing on a whole constellation of forces: federal bureaucrats, feminists, environmentalists, etc. — the whole QAnon panoply. And that was what drove her, in this classic case of the distress of the petit bourgeois, into this fascist assault on the Capitol.
Socialism is about policies. That’s not all it's about, yes, but any kind of political program manifests itself in policies. Socialism is about concrete things, like energy policy, carbon taxes, railroads, bike lanes, etc. These are important questions for socialism as much as more theoretical questions. There’s nothing about socialism, which is anti-practical or anti-policy. Socialism is radical, and socialism is about the working class asserting itself and trying to sit down collectively through various political mechanisms, to sort out the problem that society is now faced with and to come up with rational solutions — rational in the sense that they will benefit the great mass of the global population and will point to ways of deepening democracy, furthering socialization, improving the material standard of living, etc. What is a more rational process than that? Yes, it does mean having mass rallies, exhorting the masses, putting out slogans, and making incendiary speeches. But in contrast to fascism, that incendiaryism is not an end in itself. It's an attempt to mobilize the proletariat toward a rational end, and the appeal is rational, for radical rationalism.
The content of socialism can never be specified as policy.
DLJ: Tom, you mentioned dialectical materialism. I bring this up because the whole goal of Marxism is to overcome itself, and the whole materialist conception of history is to overcome itself. This is why in the famous preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), Marx ends by saying, “so ends prehistory.” I.e., it is a theory of prehistory; our rationality is one of prehistory. Yes, you have to set things up in a rational world, but the point is to go beyond it. Otherwise, whether or not it is intended, it does fall into a kind of technocracy. For example, Thomas Jefferson met Robert Owen; he was familiar with Owen's socialism. From a bourgeois standpoint, socialism just looks like a logical deduction. It's kind of the first sentence of Engel's Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880). What’s complicating it is the crisis of society, which is why I would put class at the level, not of a social stratification, but a political crisis — a crisis of democracy.
DLJ: Which is why I don't think the term “middle class” would really help to explain what gave rise to fascism — whether someone is a pool owner or a truck driver, as happened with the Canadian protests.
In this discussion of fascism, no one's been able to give a clear definition of what it is and why it's so uniquely bad and irrational. We need to align with liberals to fight it. Is Giorgia Meloni any less rational than Robin DiAngelo, who wrote White Fragility (2018)? It doesn't seem like a material distinction. People just see fascism as being racist capitalism or homophobic capitalism at this point. I don't see it as a coherent thing.
Since the specter of techno-feudalism has been raised, and there's also talk about the petit bourgeoisie and proletariat, what do you all mean when you talk about the working class now? Where do you see the working class being invested, especially in somewhere like the U.S., which is at the top of the chain in globalized capitalism? How are we defining class? What do we mean when we're talking about the working class and petit bourgeoisie and how that might relate to other concepts such as the commercial proletariat, people who realize surplus value, maybe working, trading stocks, and who might still be paid wage, but are necessarily doing productive labor, etc.?
Daniel, you began your remarks by talking about the optimism of the economic boom period in 1972, and how that was good for the Left, as opposed to the current long economic downturn we find ourselves in now, which is bad for the Left. There's an optimism that fuels the demand for socialism and the possibility of normalizing people for that to be on the one hand, but on the other hand, the optimistic demands to “make America great again” appears to block the socialist possibility of imagining a future. As distinct from a socialist call for some particular set of policies that might provide an alternative to capitalism, is there a relationship that socialism has with optimism? Is there a kind of optimism that is good for socialists as opposed to the kind of optimism that is a stumbling block for socialists? Is it possible to be optimistic right now?
SR: Liberals can’t fight fascism. To clarify the concept of rationality and reason: I am using the concept as Adorno and Horkheimer used it. In “Sociology and Psychology” (1967), Adorno says that the telos of reason is fulfillment. That's the difference between the instrumental rationality that defines the capitalist order, and the kind of reason that would be in harmony with socialism and would be the rationality of socialism.
DL: Fascism is made up of the irrationalist tendencies in a period of capitalist decadence that are raised to a level of frenzy. We're starting to see that with Trump, but it's only the beginning. We see it with Meloni and Bolsonaro. It’s the raising of these tendencies to the highest possible pitch, where they become a hysteria, a fever. That is what Nazism represented. Nazism may have afforded the answer to certain human needs, but within 12 years it had reduced Germany to economic, physical, and moral ruin.
Isn't the issue not fascism, but anti-fascism? The Popular Front paved the way to fascism. That's the issue. It's about using fascism as the threat to subordinate socialist politics to capitalist politics.
DL: The Popular Front was a Stalinist policy, and it went hand in hand with mounting terror in Moscow, Spain, and a thousand other venues. The Popular Front was a counter-revolutionary policy that wound up feeding fascism. Operation Barbarossa was the ultimate culmination. Today we see the U.S. and Russia going to war in Ukraine in the name of anti-fascism. Yet all the U.S. is doing is building up the Bandera forces, and Putin is plunging Russia deeper into authoritarianism.
The working class is simply the people who live through the sale of their labor on a global scale, including everyone from doctors and professors who draw a salary down to the humblest fast-food worker or hotel cleaner, etc. There's also a vast portion of the global population that is working at a sub-proletarian level, who survive by selling goods in the markets, running errands, picking up casual labor, etc. These people are in the most precarious position. But, take all these elements up and they are 99.99% of the global population.
As for optimism, yes, I describe myself as a critical optimist. I am optimistic that the working class will rise to the challenge. Does that mean I can sit back and watch while the working class goes into action? Of course not. It’s the working class who will engage in struggle, pursue the right policies, and reject Stalinism and liberalism. I am confident it will do it, but there’s nothing automatic or inevitable about the process. Humanity has made great strides, overcome great difficulties, and it can do so again.
TC: My understanding of fascism more Wittgensteinian than Marxist. I would describe fascism as a family resemblance. There are a bunch of factors that go together: Right-wing nationalism, an authoritarian opposition to liberal bourgeois democracy, the use of a paramilitary wing as an integral part of your movement, and an anti-individualism, a sense of a collective, which would be a nation rather than a class or a race. To label something as fascist, you don't have to have all of those qualities, but you should have a bunch of them. There is a movement in this country that has at least four of those qualities in the Republican Party, and that's a concern.
The question of the working class is perhaps the key question that the renovation of Marxist critique needs to address. I was taught that the working class or proletariat were people who didn't own any means of production, engaged in productive labor, and their surplus labor was appropriated by the bourgeoisie. There were a few things that went together: being productive and being economically immiserated. We're now in a situation where the most productive workers aren't the most immiserated. In terms of creating surplus value, computer engineers produce more surplus than people working low-paid service-industry jobs. The people who are oppressed, badly treated, and suffering are often not engaged in productive labor. The whole concept of class needs to change or be thought through. The next issue is that if Unger’s theory about the knowledge economy is correct, or if techno-feudalism is correct, the classes that are going to be divided are going to be different from what they were under industrial capitalism. Marxist analysis would have to work out what that new constellation is.
Typically anybody who went to be an activist in colleges during the 80s would answer this question of optimism by quoting Gramsci: you need pessimism of the intellect, and optimism of the will. I also think of Blaise Pascal who said, you might as well believe in God, because if you believe in God and you're wrong, it doesn't matter, but if you don't believe in God and you're wrong, you're going to be in eternal damnation. If we're pessimistic, to some extent, it doesn't matter. If things are inevitably going to go badly and we're pessimistic or optimistic, it's not going to matter very much. The only hope is if we are optimists. I was first attracted to Marxism as a teenager way back in the 1970s. I grew up in Britain and there was the emergence of the National Front, which was a neo-Nazi organization. A big thing that attracted me to the Left, even though I was in the Labour Party and I'm socialist — I didn't join the Party — was the sense that the Marxists, which at that point were especially the Socialists Workers' Party in Britain, were serious about fighting fascism and that the liberals weren’t. In this current period, one of the things that's driving me into the arms of the liberals is that I have a sense that Marxists aren’t serious about opposing fascism and are downgrading the danger. You don't need all workers to be fascists. If a large enough minority turns to fascism, we are up the creek. The labor institutions that I am part of know well how to counteract that, but there are all kinds of problems with democratic liberals. At least they're taking fascism seriously, which is more than I can say from much of the Left.
DLJ: Fascism here is the memory of the failure of socialism. I.e., there was an opportunity for socialism that was made good on by the Right. The fixation on it today reminds us of the failure of socialism. I would not give certain qualities to fascism, like nationalism or paramilitary groups. You could say the Bolsheviks had paramilitary groups, and that they were about the rejuvenation of Russia. They had to appeal to all of these things. On socialism and fascism, it’s the inner wound of the missed opportunity for revolution, and how this gets instrumentalized today is deciding which ambulances, around which parties, are progressive and which are reactionary. The Tea Party was called fascist, Trumpists were called fascist. Whenever it's around the Republican Party it's fascist, when it's around the Democrats it's potentially progressive movements.
The problem with saying that the working class are those who have to live by selling their labor is the thing regarding proletarianization: a lot of people cannot sell their labor. That's the whole crisis. I.e., proletarianization is the crisis of bourgeois society. The word means citizens without property, i.e., they cannot realize themselves in civil society, but they can realize themselves politically, in democracy. This is why I was saying that democracy was being driven by the Industrial Revolution. What makes a proletarian class then is not whether people sell labor for exchange, which in a sense is what commodity production was based on, but the political crisis manifested in the class struggle, which I would not put at the level of stratification in civil society, like petit bourgeois, small-business owners and proletarian working class. I used to work at a Bed Bath and Beyond — was I a productive or unproductive laborer? That's not the point. The question is about the class struggle, which is at the political-democratic level.
On optimism, you want to be optimistic. |P
 US Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, “Frequently Asked Questions” (October 2020), available online at <https://cdn.advocacy.sba.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/05122043/Small-Business-FAQ-2020.pdf>.
 Karl Marx, “Introduction,” in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm>.
 Karl Marx, “Estranged Labour,” in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1844), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm>.
 Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021).
 See Karl Marx, “Preface,” in Capital, Vol. I (1867): “To prevent possible misunderstanding, a word. I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests.” See Jawaharlal Nehru, Whither India? (1938): “It is not, fundamentally, a moral issue, as some people imagine, although there is a moral side to it. It is not a question of blaming capitalism or cursing capitalists and the like. Capitalism has been of the greatest service to the world and individual capitalists are but tiny wheels in the big machine.”
 “Social,” in The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, trans. Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2003). Originally published as “Social,” in Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 15:251 (Paris, 1765).
 Karl Marx, Grundrisse (1858): “Prices are old; exchange also; but the increasing determination of the former by costs of production, as well as the increasing dominance of the latter over all relations of production, only develop fully, and continue to develop ever more completely, in bourgeois society, the society of free competition.”
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Proletarians and Communists,” in The Communist Manifesto (1848).
 John Locke, Second Treatise on Government (1689).
 Karl Marx, Chapter 2, in Capital, Vol I.
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality (1755).
 See G. V. Plekhanov, “Second Draft Programme of the Russian Social-Democrats” (1887): “This communist revolution will give rise to the most radical changes in the whole constitution of social and international relationships. Replacing the present mastery of the product over the producer by that of the producer over the product, it will introduce consciousness where there now reigns blind economic necessity; by simplifying and giving purpose to all social relationships it will at the same time provide each citizen with the real economic possibility of participating directly in the discussion and decision of all social matters.”
 See Friedrich Engels, “Preface to the Third German Edition” (1883), in Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I.
 Karl Marx, “The Buying and Selling of Labor-Power,” in Capital, Vol. I.
 Max Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State” (1942).
 For example, see Karl Marx, “Preface to the Second Edition” (1869), in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).
 Rosa Luxemburg, “Chapter 1: The Questions at Issue,” in The Accumulation of Capital: An Anti-Critique (1921).
 Karl Marx, “Letter to Arnold Ruge” (September 1843).
 Aristotle, Book IV, in Metaphysics.
 Book XIII, in ibid.
 Marx, “Letter to Arnold Ruge.”
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Chapter IV: “‘Critical Criticism’ As the Tranquillity of Knowledge, Or ‘Critical Criticism’ As Herr Edgar,” in The Holy Family (1845).
 Friedrich Engels, Part IV: “Marx,” in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886).
 Marx and Engels, “‘Critical Criticism,’” in The Holy Family: “But Proudhon makes a critical investigation — the first resolute, ruthless, and at the same time scientific investigation — of the basis of political economy, private property. This is the great scientific advance he made, an advance which revolutionizes political economy and for the first time makes a real science of political economy possible.”
 Rosa Luxemburg, “Introduction,” in Reform or Revolution? (1900, 1908).
 Georg Lukács, “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (1919), in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1923), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/orthodox.htm>.