Why I wish Hillary had won

Distractions of anti-Trump-ism

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the Left Forum 2018 on the panel “Has ‘the Left’ Accommodated Trump (and Putin)? A Debate,” with Ravi Bali, Brendan Cooney, Anne Jaclard, Daphne Lawless and Bill Weinberg, organized by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative at John Jay College in NYC on June 2, 2018. A video recording of the event is available online at: <https://youtu.be/tUvBeXO02JY>.

AS A MARXIST academic professional and a gay man living in a Northern city, married to a nonwhite Muslim immigrant, it would have been beneficial to me for Hillary Clinton to have been elected President of the U.S. That would have served my personal interests. No doubt about it.

I am opposed to all of Trump’s policies.

I am especially opposed to Trump on his signature issue, immigration. But I was opposed to Obama on this as well, and would have been opposed to Hillary too. I am opposed to DACA and its hierarchy of supposedly “deserving” recipients. “Full citizenship rights for all workers!”

One response to Trump was a Mexican nationalist slogan, in response to Trump’s “Make America Great Again!,” “Make America Mexico again!” But, as a Marxist, I go one step further: I am for the union of Mexico and the U.S. under one government — the dictatorship of the proletariat. But Trump made Rudy Giuliani and Jeff Sessions wear hats saying “Make Mexico Great Again Also.” This was wholly sincere, at least on Trump’s part but probably also for Sessions and Giuliani. Why not? If I am opposed to making America great again, then I suppose I am also opposed to making Mexico great, too.

For the purposes of the struggle for socialism I seek to pursue, I wish Hillary had won the election. All the anti-Trump protest going on is a distraction from the necessary work, and, worse, Trump feeds discontent into the Democrats as the party of “opposition.” With Hillary in office, this would have been less the case — however, we must remember that, had she won, Hillary still would have faced a Republican Congressional majority, and so we would have still heard about how important it would be to elect Democrats this year!

I am opposed to Trump’s law-and-order conservatism. Not that I am against law and order per se, mind you, and perhaps I am not even so opposed to the order and law of society as it is now. I play by the rules and follow the law. Why wouldn’t I? — And, anyway, honestly, who here doesn’t: “rebels,” all?

But I am aware that laws are selectively enforced and that the social order is run by those who don’t always play by the rules — don’t always play by their own rules! I am aware that the social order and the law are used as excuses for things that are not so lawful and orderly, for things that are not so social. I am aware of Trump’s demagogy.

But it is funny watching the established social and political order go into fits over Trump’s insistence on law and order!

Trump’s election gave the “Left” something to do — they should be grateful! They would have been bored under Hillary. Especially after 8 years of Obama. “Fascism” is much more exciting, isn’t it?

I would have been grateful if Hillary had been elected instead — Saturday Night Live’s jokes about Hillary are much funnier than about Trump.

My family voted for Trump — mostly. My mother and my brother and his wife voted for Trump. But my father voted for Hillary. When Hillary collapsed due to fatigue from pneumonia, my father dutifully went to get his pneumonia shot. But my mother previously had voted twice for Obama; I’m not sure if my father did, too — he might have voted for McCain and Romney.

In the primaries, I intended to vote for Bernie, but it turned out the Democrats sent the wrong ballots to my precinct (which was more likely to vote for Bernie than other precincts: I thus personally witnessed in action the Democrats’ suppression of votes for Bernie in the primaries), so I went to the (empty) Republican line and voted for Trump. — In November, too: I knew that Hillary would win Illinois, but I wanted her to win by one vote less: no sense rewarding the Democrats for being greedy.

I expected Trump to win.

From the very moment that Trump descended the golden escalator and announced his candidacy, I thought he could win. As time went on, I increasingly thought that he would win.

I had mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, I dreaded the shit-show that ensued in Trump’s campaign and that I knew would only get worse if he was elected.

But on the other hand, I felt an obligation as a teacher to prepare my students for Trump’s victory. — If he had not won, nothing would have been lost: my students didn’t require any special preparation for a Clinton Presidency. But if Trump won, I knew that there would be a great deal of confusion — and scare-mongering by the Democrats. I couldn’t stand by and watch my students be lied to.

I had lived through the Reagan Revolution and watched The Day After on television along with everyone else. I heard Reagan denounced as a “fascist” by the “Left” and experienced the multiple anti-climaxes of Mondale and Dukakis. The world hadn’t ended. As an adult, I lived through the George W. Bush Presidency, 9/11 and the War on Terror, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the financial crash, and the “change we can believe in,” the election of the First Black President. In all that time, not much changed. At least not much attributable to the Presidency.

So I didn’t expect much to change with Trump either.

But I did expect a lot of hysterics in response. I knew that my students would be scared. I wanted to protect them from that.

So I sought to get out ahead of it.

My students asked me to write a statement on the election in the beginning of the new academic year before the election, something short that could be handed out as a flyer.

So I wrote, “Why not Trump?” — which is why I was invited here to speak to you now: to answer for my alleged crime. It was not an endorsement, nor an equivocation, but an honest question: Why not Trump? Perhaps it was too philosophical.

As I wrote in that article, I thought that the mendacity of the status quo defending itself against Trump was a greater threat than Trump himself. I was prompted to re-read Hannah Arendt’s article on the Pentagon Papers, “Lying in Politics:” she said that the ability to lie was inextricably connected to the ability to create new things and change the world.

I don’t know.

I did find however a difference in quality and character between Trump’s lies and the Democrats’.

The only argument I found for Hillary was that we lived in the “best of all possible worlds” — as Voltaire’s Professor Pangloss described it in Candide. I didn’t want to be Professor Pangloss. I wanted to spare my students that.

But perhaps we did live in the best of all possible worlds under Obama, and would have continued to do so under Hillary. Perhaps Trump really has ruined everything for everyone. Perhaps the world has come to an end.

I don’t know.

I wish Hillary had won — so I could have found out. | P

Chris Cutrone

Chris Cutrone is a college educator, writer, and media artist, committed to critical thinking and artistic practice and the politics of social emancipation. ( . . . )

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The future of socialism

What kind of illness is capitalism?

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 105 | April 2018

An abridged version of this article was presented at the 4th Platypus European Conference closing plenary panel discussion, “What is the Future of Socialism?,” with Boris Kagarlitsky (Institute of Globalization and Social Movements), Alex Demirovic (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation), Mark Osborne (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty; Momentum) and Hillel Ticktin (Critique journal), at Goldsmiths University in London on February 17, 2018.

The liquidation of [Marxist] theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [of theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. . . . The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth-content only by those who agree with [Friedrich] Schiller that “world history is the world tribunal.” What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth-content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations.
—Adorno, Negative Dialectics (1966)[1]

THE FUTURE OF SOCIALISM is the future of capitalism—the future of capitalism is the future of socialism.

Socialism is an illness of capitalism. Socialism is the prognosis of capitalism. In this respect, it is a certain diagnosis of capitalism. It is a symptom of capitalism. It is capitalism’s pathology. It recurs, returning and repeating. So long as there is capitalism there will be demands for socialism. But capitalism has changed throughout its history, and thus become conditioned by the demands for socialism. Their histories are inextricably connected and intertwined. This is still true today.

Society under capitalism in its concrete form will be conditioned by the need to realize capital. This means that society will be conditioned by the contradiction of capital. The future of socialism will be conditioned by that contradiction. This is an illness of self-contradiction of society in capitalism.

image from flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/edwinvanbuuringen/21195350693

Illness

What kind of illness is capitalism?

Friedrich Nietzsche described the modern affliction of nihilism in capitalism—he didn’t use the term “capitalism” but described it—as an “illness, but the way pregnancy is an illness.”

Socialism is the pathology of capitalism—in terms of Marx and Engels’s Manifesto, “communism” is the “specter” —and capitalism is the pathology of socialism, always threatening its return. The question is the prognosis of socialism—the prognosis of capitalism.

Capitalism is an illness—a pathology—of potential. We suffer from the unrealized potential of capital.

Capitalism is an imbalance of production and appropriation. It is a problem of how society produces, and how society appropriates its own production. As such it is a problem of metabolism. This is often referred to, for instance by Keynesians, as a problem of overproduction—a problem of underconsumption. But it is more self-contradictory than that. It is more than a temporary market imbalance awaiting correction, either by the state or by the market itself. Turning over the issues of production and consumption, we find that capitalism is also a problem of an overconsumption of resources—Marx called it the wearing-out of both the worker and nature—and an underconsumption of value, for instance in an overabundance of money without outlet as capital investment. It is also, however, an underproduction of resources—a wastage of nature and labor—and an overproduction of value. It is, as Marx called it, a problem of surplus-value—of its production and consumption.

The pathology of capitalism is a metabolic disorder. As capitalism is usually addressed by contemporary commentators, it is not however a disorder of scarcity or of (over-)abundance, nor of hierarchy or of equality—for instance, a problem of leveling-down. But, rather, as a problem of what Marx called the “social metabolism,” it exhibits all of these symptoms, alternately and, indeed, simultaneously.

In the way that Nietzsche regarded capitalist modernity as an illness, but an illness the way pregnancy is an illness, it is not to be cured in the sense of something to be eliminated, but successfully gone through, to bring forth new life.

Is it a chronic or an acute condition? Capitalism is not well analogized to cancer because that would imply that it is a terminal condition. No. Rather than socialism waiting for capitalism to die, however, the question is whether socialism is merely a fever-dream of capitalism: one which chronically recurs, occasionally, but ultimately passes in time. Capitalism is not a terminal condition but rather is itself a form of life. A pathological form of life, to be sure, but, as Nietzsche—and Christianity itself—observed, life itself is a form of suffering. But what if capitalism is not merely a form of life—hence a form of suffering—but also a potential form of new life beyond itself? What if the recurrent symptom of socialism—the crisis of capitalism—is a pregnancy that we have failed to bring to term and has instead miscarried or been aborted? The goal, then, would be, not to eliminate the pregnancy of socialism in capitalism, not to try to cure the periodic crises of capitalism, but for capitalism to successfully give birth to socialism.

This would mean encouraging the health of capitalism in a certain sense. Perhaps humanity has proven too ill when undergoing capitalism to successfully give birth to socialism; but the pregnancy has been mistaken for an illness to be cured, rather than what it actually was, a symptom of potential new life in the process of emerging.

Past Marxists used the metaphor of “revolution as the midwife of history,” and they used this very precisely. Socialist revolution would make socialism possible, but would not bring forth socialism ready-made. An infant—moreover one that is not yet born—is not a mature form of life.

These are the stakes of properly recognizing capitalism for what it is—the potential for socialism. If we mistake capitalism for an illness to be eliminated, then we undergo its pathology periodically, but fail to bring forth the new life that capitalism is constantly generating from within itself. The point then would be, not to avoid capitalism, not to avoid the pregnancy of socialism, but to allow capitalism to give birth to socialism. Bourgeois ideology denies that there is a new form of life beyond itself—that there is socialism beyond capitalism—and so seeks to terminate the pregnancy, to cure the ailment of capitalism, to eliminate the potential that is mistaken for a disease, whether that’s understood as infection by a foreign body, or a metabolic imbalance to be restored. But capitalism is not a malignant tumor but an embryo. The recurrent miscarriage of socialism, however, makes capitalism appear as a tumor, more or less benign, so long as it passes—or is extracted or otherwise extirpated.

As a cancer, capitalism appears as various kinds of cancer cells running rampant at the expense of the social body: whether of underclass criminals, voracious middle classes, plutocratic capitalists, or wild “populist” (or even “fascist”) masses, all of whom must be tamped down if not eliminated entirely in order to restore the balanced health of the system. But capitalism does not want to be healthy in the sense of return to homeostasis, but wants to overcome itself—wants to give birth to socialism. Will we allow it?

For this would mean supporting the pregnancy—seeing the symptoms through to their completion, and not trying to stop or cut them short.

Diagnosis

What is the prognosis of socialism?

Socialism is continuous with the “rights of human beings and citizens,” according to the principles of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” that “all men are created equal,” with “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Socialism seeks to realize the bourgeois principle of the “free association of producers,” in which each is provided “according to his need” while contributing “according to his ability.” The question is how capitalism makes this both possible and impossible, and what it would take to overcome its impossibility while realizing its possibility.

Moishe Postone, in his 2006 essay on “Theorizing the Contemporary World: Brenner, Arrighi, Harvey”—a companion-piece to his other well-known essay from 2006, “History and Helplessness”—grasped this contradiction of our time as that between islands of incipient post-proletarian life surrounded by seas of superfluous humanity—postmodernist post-humanism and religious fundamentalist defense of human dignity, in a world simultaneously of both post-proletarian cities of abundance and sub-proletarian slums of scarcity.

Peter Frase, in an early foundational article for the Democratic Socialists of America’s Jacobin magazine in 2011, wrote of the “Four Possible Futures”—this was later expanded into the 2016 book subtitled “Life after Capitalism”—on the supposed “inevitable end” of capitalism in four potential outcomes: either in the “communism of abundance and egalitarianism;” the “rentism of hierarchy and abundance;” the “socialism of egalitarianism and scarcity;” or the “exterminism of hierarchy and scarcity.” The future was supposed to lie between two axes of contradiction: egalitarianism vs. hierarchy; and scarcity vs. abundance.

Unlike Postone—who, like Slavoj Žižek around the same moment, grasped the simultaneous existence of postmodernism and fundamentalism as two sides of the same coin of late capitalism—Frase neglects the dialectical proposition that all four of his “possible futures” will come true—indeed, that all four are already the case in capitalism. They are not merely in the process of coming true, but have been the actual condition of capitalism throughout its history, ever since its inception in the Industrial Revolution. There has been the coexistence of hierarchy and egalitarianism and of scarcity and abundance, and each has been the precondition for its—dialectical—opposite.

One could say that this has been the case since the early emergence of bourgeois society itself—that capitalist contradiction was always the case—or, indeed, since the beginning of civilization itself. One could say that this has been the condition of “class society as a whole,” the condition of the existence of a “social surplus” throughout history.

This is the perspective of Alain Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” for example. Badiou has mobilized a rather literal reading of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, and a straightforward, if rather naïve, interpretation of communism or socialism from Babeuf’s “conspiracy of equals” onwards—indeed perhaps all the way back from Jesus and His Apostles onwards. “Communism”—in Peter Frase’s terms, “egalitarian abundance”—is the “land of milk and honey,” where the “last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”

Capitalism, understood undialectically, then, is, by contrast, the exterminism of rentism, the inhumanity of exploitation, in which scarcity and hierarchy rule through elite appropriation of the surplus. But this has been true since the dawn of civilization, since the beginning—in terms of Engels’s clever footnote to the Manifesto’s assertion that “history is the history of class struggle”—of “recorded history.”

So what is different with capitalism? What has changed is the form of the social surplus: “capital.” To say, as Marxists did, that, as the possibility for socialism, capitalism is the potential “end of prehistory” is to say that all of history is the history of capital: the history of civilization has been the development of the social surplus, until it has finally taken the form of capital.

Ancient civilizations were based on a specific kind of social surplus, however. The surplus of grain beyond subsistence produced by peasant agriculture allowed for activity other than farming. Peasants could tighten their belts to feed the priests rather than lose the Word of God, and so that some knights could protect them from the heathen. But for us to return to the religious basis of civilization would also mean embracing values quite foreign to the bourgeois ethos of work, such as that “the sick are blessed,” with the divine truth of the vanity of life, whereas we rightly consider sickness to be a curse—at the very least the curse of unemployability in society.

So what is the social surplus of capital? According to Marx, capital is the surplus of labor. It is also, however, the source of possibilities for employment in production: the source of social investment. Does this make it the source of hierarchy or of equality, of scarcity or of abundance, of post-humanism or of ontological—fundamental—humanity? It is the source of all these different apparently opposed values. It is their common condition. It is society itself, albeit in “alienated” form. As such, it is also the source of society’s possible change.

Socialism aims at the realization of the potential of society. But it will be achieved—or not—on the basis of capitalism, under conditions of capital. The social surplus of capital is the source of potential societal change, of new forms of production—manifold new forms of human activity, in relation to others, to Nature, and to ourselves. Changes in capital are changes in our social relations. Capital is a social relation.

Capital is the source of endless new forms of social scarcity and new forms of social abundance—of new forms of social expropriation and of social production—as well as of new forms of social hierarchy and of new forms of social equality. Capital is the source of all such changes in society over the course of the last two centuries, since the Industrial Revolution.

Hillary Clinton, in an interview during her failed campaign for President of the U.S., said that what keeps her “awake at night” is the problem of figuring out policy that will encourage the investment of capital to produce jobs. Indeed, this is precisely what motivated Trump’s—successful—campaign for President as well. Interestingly, it is unclear whether this is what properly motivated Bernie Sanders as an alternative to Clinton, or if this now motivates Jeremy Corbyn as the head of the U.K. Labour Party. In the case of Corbyn and Sanders, it seems that they have been motivated less by the problem of capital and labor than by a more nebulous concern for “social justice”—regardless of the latter’s real possibilities in capitalism. In the U.K., for example, Theresa May’s “Red Toryism”—by prioritizing the circumstance of the “British worker,” like Trump’s stated priority for the “American worker”—is actually more realistic, even if it presently has a rather limited organized political base. Corbyn, as a veteran New Leftist “social justice warrior,” is actually closer to the criteria of neoliberal politics than May, whose shifting Conservative Party is not (yet) able to support her agenda. By contrast, it is a solidly neoliberal Blairite Labour Party that Corbyn leads. But Brexit, and the crisis of the EU that it expressed, is changing the landscape. May is still, however, leading the way. As is, of course, Trump.

In this sense, the issue of socialism was closer to the actual concerns of Clinton and Trump than to Sanders. Sanders offered to his followers the Obama Presidency that never was, of a “new New Deal” that is never going to be. By contrast, both Clinton and Trump were prepared to move on from the 2008 economic crisis: How to make good of the crisis of neoliberalism, now a decade old? For every crisis is an opportunity for capitalism. This is what must be the concern of politics.

This is the ageless question of capitalism: How is society going to make use of its crisis of overproduction, its surplus in capital—its surplus of labor? How are the social possibilities of capital going to be realized? What is the actual potential for society in capitalism?

Of course, the narrow horizons of the perspectives of both Clinton and Trump and of May for realizing the potentials of capitalism are less appealing than the apparent idealism of Corbyn and Sanders. But, realistically, it must be admitted that the best possible outcome—with the least disruption and danger—for U.S. and thus global capitalism at present would have been realized by a Clinton Presidency. If Trump’s election appears to be a scary nightmare, a cruise into the unknown with a more or less lunatic at the helm, then, by contrast, a Sanders Presidency was merely a pipe-dream, a safe armchair exercise in idealism. Today, the stock market gambles that, whatever Trump’s gaffes, the Republican Party remains in charge. The captain, however wild-eyed, cannot actually make the ship perform other than its abilities. The question is whether one trusts a CEO trying to build the company by changing it, or one trusts the shareholders who don’t want to risk its profitability. Trump is not a safe bet. But he does express the irrepressible impulse to change. The only question is how.

Prognosis

So the question of the future of socialism is one of potential changes in capitalism. The question is how capitalism has already been changing—and will continue to change.

What seems clear is that capitalism, at least as it has been going on for the past generation of neoliberalism, will not continue exactly the same as it has thus far. There has been a crisis and there will be a change. Brexit and the fall of David Cameron as well as Trump’s victory and Hillary’s defeat—the successful challenge by Sanders and the rise of Corbyn alongside May’s Premiership—cannot all be chalked up to the mere accidental mistakes of history.

In the face of historical change, continuity must be reckoned with—precisely as the basis for this change. How is neoliberal capitalism changing out of its crisis?

Neoliberalism is old and so is at least in need of renewal. The blush has gone off the rose. Its heroic days are long behind us. Obama rallied it to a certain extent, but Hillary was unable to do so again. The Republicans might be stuck in vintage 1980s Reaganism, but Trump is dragging them out of it. In the face of Trump, the question has been posed: But aren’t we all good neoliberals? Not only Nancy Pelosi has said that, all respect to Bernie, we need not try to become socialists but remain capitalists. The mainstream Republican contender Marco Rubio said the same about Trump, while Ted Cruz retired to fight another day, against what he indicatively called Trump’s “socialism.” But the Tea Party is over. Now, the specter of “fascism” in the crisis of neoliberalism—which, we must remember, regards any and all possible alternatives to itself as more or less fascist—is actually the specter of socialism.

But what does the actual hope for socialism look like today? Does it inevitably appear as nationalism, only with a difference of style? Must the cosmopolitanism of capitalism take either the form of unmediated globalization (which has never in fact existed) or rather inter-nationalism, relations between nations? These apparent alternatives in themselves show the waning of neoliberal optimism—the decline of Clinton’s “global village.” We are now living—by contrast with the first Clinton era of the 1990s—in the era of neoliberal pessimism, in which all optimism seems reckless and frightening by comparison: Hillary’s retort that “America is great already!” raised against Trump’s “Make America Great Again!” Trump was critical of, and quite pessimistic about, existing conditions, but optimistic against Hillary’s political pessimism—to which Hillary and Obama could only say that things aren’t so bad as to justify (either Sanders or) Trump.

Were the Millennials by contrast too optimistic to accept Hillary’s sober pragmatism—or were they so pessimistic as to eschew all caution of Realpolitik and embrace Sanders and Corbyn? Have they clung, after the election of Trump, now, to the shreds of lip-service to their concerns, as the best that they could hope for? Does Sanders—like Corbyn in the U.K.—merely say, better than Hillary or Obama, what they want to hear? By comparison, Hillary and Trump have been a salutary dose of reality—which is bitterly resented. Obama was the “change we can believe in”—meaning: very little if any. Clinton as the continuation of Obama was the sobriety of low-growth “realism.” Now Trump is the reality of change—whether we like it or not. But it is in the name of the optimism for growth: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”

The problem of capitalism—the problem that motivates the demand for socialism—is that of managing and realizing the possibilities of a global workforce. This is in fact the reality of all politics, everywhere. All countries depend on international and, indeed, global trade, including the circulation of workers and their wages. Even the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea depends not only on goods in trade but on remittances from its workers abroad. This issue of the global workforce is the source of the problem of migration—the migration of workers. For instance, wars are waged with the problem of refugees foremost in mind. Political crisis seeks alleviation in either benign ways such as the “brain drain” of the emigrating middle-class, or malignantly in ethnic cleansing—in either case the exodus of restive surplus populations that cannot be integrated. International aid as well as military intervention is calculated in effects on migration: how to prevent a refugee crisis? The U.S. has paid countries such as Egypt and Pakistan to subsidize their unemployed through bloated militaries. What is to be done with all those seeking work? Where will they find a job? It is a global problem.

Capital is the social form of this surplus of labor—the social surplus of production. Capital is the way society tries to manage and realize the potential of that surplus. But the source of that surplus is no longer so much human activity—labor—as it is science and technology. The problem is that, politically, we have no way of marshaling this surplus other than through possibilities for labor—for instance, through managing nation-states as labor markets. The question is realizing the potential possibilities of the social surplus beyond the reproduction of an increasingly redundant laboring workforce. Will they be starved or exterminated? Or will they be freed?

The only alternatives capitalism offers is in freedom to work—not the worst form of freedom the world has ever known, but its possibilities in capitalism are increasingly narrow. The question is the freedom from work. How will this be realized? There has been mounting evidence of this problem ever since the Industrial Revolution: unemployment. Social Darwinism was not a program but a rationalization for the crisis of capitalism. It remains so today. Will humanity free itself from the confines of capital—the limits of labor?

Future

Were Jacobin’s Peter Frase’s four possible alternative futures merely alternatives in rhetoric? Nearly no one claims to favor exterminism, scarcity, or inequality. The real future of capitalism does not actually belong to such expressions of pessimism. Fortunately, it will be appreciably better than our worst fears—even if, unfortunately, it will be much worse than our best desires. Capitalism for better or worse does indeed have a future, even if it will be different from what we are now used to. It will also be different from our dreams and nightmares.

Jacobin’s Frase seems to assume that not what he calls “communism” but “socialism”—the combination of egalitarianism and scarcity—is both more possible and more desirable: for Frase, abundance carries the danger, rather, of continued capitalist “rentism” and hierarchy. For Frase, among others, the future of social conflict seems to be posed over the terms of scarcity: equality vs. “extermination;” for instance, egalitarianism vs. racism.

Both Moishe Postone’s and Peter Frase’s antinomies—of postmodernism and fundamentalism, and of scarcity and egalitarianism (the latter combination as Frase’s formula for “socialism”)—are expressions of pessimism. They form the contemporary face of diminished hopes. But capitalism will not tarry over them. It will move on: it is already moving on.

What is the future of abundance, however with hierarchy—that of continued capitalism, that is, of “capital rents”—in society, and how does this potential task any future for socialism? Where will the demand for socialism be raised? And how is it to be realized?

We should not assume that capitalist production, however contradictory, is at an end. No. We are not at an end to forms of scarcity under conditions of abundance, or at an end to hierarchies conditioned by social equality.

Citizen Trump shows us this basic fact of life under continued capitalism.

As Walter Benjamin observed in conversation with Bertolt Brecht during the blackest hour of fascism at the midnight of the last century, we must begin not with the “good old days”—which were in fact never so good—but with the “bad new ones.” We must take the bad with the good; we must take the good with the bad.

We must try to make good on the reality of capitalism. As Benjamin put it, we must try to redeem its otherwise horrific sacrifices, which indeed are continuous with those of all of civilization. History—the demand for socialism—tasks us with its redemption.

The future of capitalism is the future of socialism—the future of socialism is the future of capitalism.

Addendum

Perhaps capitalism is the illness of bourgeois society, and socialism is the potential new form of life beyond the pregnancy of capitalism. Bourgeois society does not always appear as capitalism, but does so only in crisis. We oscillate in our politics not between capitalism and socialism but between bourgeois ideology and anti-capitalism—nowadays usually of the cultural ethno-religious fundamentalist communitarian and identitarian type: forms of anti-bourgeois ideology. But socialism was never, for Marxism at least, simply anti-capitalism: it was never anti-bourgeois. It was the promise for freedom beyond that of bourgeois society. The crisis of capitalism was regarded by Marxism as the tasking of bourgeois society beyond itself by socialism. It was why Lenin called himself a Jacobin; and why Eugene Debs called the 4th of July a socialist holiday. Socialism was to be the realization of the potential of bourgeois society, which is otherwise constrained and distorted in capitalism. So long as we live in bourgeois society there will be the promise—and task—of socialism. |P

[1] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Seabury Press, 1973), 143–144.

The end of the Gilded Age: Discontents of the Second Industrial Revolution today

Reading and discussion broadcast on Radical Minds, WHPK radio, Chicago:

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 102 | December 2017 – January 2018

THE ACCOUNT OF HISTORY is the theory of the present: How did we get here; and what tasks remain from the past — that however appear to be “new” today? As Adorno put it, “the new is the old in distress.”[1] This is true of capitalism and its crisis now.

The present crisis is a crisis of the world system of capitalism that emerged in the 20th century, a crisis of the capitalist world created by the Second Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century — in fits and starts (such as the two World Wars and the Cold War) but nonetheless consistently and inexorably. That system has been led by the countries newly industrialized at the end of the 19th century, the U.S., Germany and Japan. All three have come to be in crisis in the early 21st century — the crisis of the EU can be regarded as a crisis of the management of “German” capital.

David Harvey, in his book The Condition of Postmodernity (1990), written and published in the heyday of neoliberalism, regarded the history of capitalism as a succession of “regimes of accumulation” — concrete forms for socially and politically mediating the need to accumulate capital in its valorization process. But since, according to Marxism, capitalism is itself a form of social contradiction and thus a crisis and decay of society and politics, each successive form of capitalism takes up and perpetuates the crisis of the preceding form, however in an altered way.[2] Capitalism really is a matter of “kicking the can down the road,” apparently indefinitely. But the banging can eventually returns, and we must ultimately pay the added costs of its deferral.

The characterization by critical contemporaries of the late-19th – early-20th century era as the “Gilded Age”[3] expressed its quality as what Kant warned about a century earlier, in his 1784 essay on the “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” namely, “the danger that the vitality of mankind may go to sleep:” “Everything good that is not based on a morally good disposition, however, is nothing but pretense and glittering misery.”[4] Gilded Age capitalism was such “glittering misery.” This quality of capitalism continues today, especially in the last generation of neoliberalism whose spell was broken in the recent crisis. Joseph Schumpeter tried to put a happy face on capitalism by calling it “creative destruction,” but Marxism recognized to the contrary that it is actually destructive creation.[5] And its destructiveness is not only immediate but has long-term consequences. The destruction of capitalism is cumulative: it makes claims on future generations that cannot be settled cheaply.[6]

Industrial production and Robber Barons

It was during the period of the late 19th century Gilded Age that capitalists appeared not as entrepreneurs of production but as “Robber Barons” — an aristocracy of looting. Marx had already mordantly observed that in industrial production, with its high capital requirements, it was not the case that being a captain of industry made you money, but rather that having money made you a captain of industry. In industrial capitalism, it was not, as Adam Smith had thought, production developed by reinvestment of relatively low profits in the long run, with high wages facilitating increased consumption — wealth — in a virtuous cycle, but rather, as Marginal Utility Theory, developed precisely in this late 19th century era, regarded more cynically, that use-values of commodities decrease over time, so investors in their production better get in early and take their profits out while the going is still good and before it becomes a matter of diminishing returns — the miserable reasoning of what Smith regarded as “mercantile interest,” the profiteering of “buying cheap and selling dear,” that he thought actually constrains and undermines the productivity of wealth in society, and so needed to be overcome as an impediment to growth. Marx pursued rather the self-contradiction in what became of Smith’s labor theory of value in industrial capitalism.

The accelerated technical production of the Industrial Revolution increased along with it the accumulation and concentration of capital, which Marx thought produced a crisis of value in industrial capitalism, in that such production was still socially mediated by the value of wage-labor, however anachronistically. Wage labor was inadequate for the social appropriation of industrial production. This was the self-contradiction of the capitalist mode of production in political-economic terms, according to Marx: the “bourgeois social relations” were contradicted by the “industrial forces of production;” industrial technique served to increase capital but this outstripped the actual social productivity of human labor, eliminating workers from production so that, as Max Horkheimer wryly observed, “machines have made not work but the workers superfluous.”[7] Adam Smith’s “proprietors of stock” were only a slight variation on the prior traveling merchants collecting the products of cottage industry, now gathering the previously disparate producers in factories; they were not capitalists in the Marxist sense of “owners of the means of production:” the role of the proprietors in Smith’s view of production was minimal by comparison to the laborers who were actually making things with increased efficiency. Where Smith would have expected higher productivity to result in the increased value of time in work through cooperation that would not only increase the purchasing power of labor but also decrease labor-time and increase leisure-time, what happened for labor instead, at a societal level, was the pernicious combination of over-work and unemployment, not attributable merely to temporary labor-market corrections. Human labor was progressively eliminated from production in absolute and not only relative terms: increased production was no longer based primarily on human labor-power inputs in efficient cooperation (as in Adam Smith’s example of the pin-factory), but rather on the development of science and technology, or what Marx called the “general social intellect,” objectified in machine production.

The “combined and uneven [i.e. self-contradictory] development” of capitalism is exhibited by the paradoxical phenomena of simultaneously coexisting “robots and sweatshops.” Industrial development and the accumulation of capital undermine the entire bourgeois social ethos of rewarding productivity through work, the exchange of labor as a commodity. Contrary to Smith’s expectation, Marx observed how in capitalism labor sinks from the most precious to “the most wretched of commodities.”[8] The workers are expropriated of the value of their labor at a societal level, and not merely through being super-exploited by their employers. There is a glaring problem in the development of wealth in society based on the value of labor. The ramifications of this are found in capitalism’s social effects.

This is what makes capitalists appear ambiguously as performing a social duty as investors but also as criminals ripping off society — what Smith had warned about, the constant danger of their “conspiracy against the public.” Bernard Mandeville’s 1714 book Fable of the Bees, a parable of “private vices, public benefits,” seemed mocked by what was actually happening in the Gilded Age. Were the capitalists really, as today’s parlance goes, “job creators?” Yes and no: as often as not. When President Theodore Roosevelt went after J.P. Morgan for violation of anti-trust laws, and Morgan, a Republican supporter, complained, asking what he could do to avoid prosecution by the government, Roosevelt replied with a variation of Robespierre’s injunction that if someone feels implicated by the gaze of judgment it is because he is guilty. Who wouldn’t side with Roosevelt’s sentiment against the Robber Baron? But Roosevelt was motivated not by altruism but what he regarded as necessary policy, to make capitalists responsible investors: Build the railroads, just don’t rip us off. Marx thought that socialism would allow industrial production to go beyond capital and overcome the need for and value of labor in a socially beneficial and not destructive way. This was a problem of society, not reducible to the criminality of the individual capitalists. Even Roosevelt recognized the need for a change in policy beyond the mere curbing of excesses. For Marxism, the accumulation of capital in industrial production was a crisis for bourgeois society, but also an opportunity for changing it. Indeed, realizing the social potential of capitalism was a necessity — a task: it was “inevitable.” The only question was the depth and breadth of the needed change in society.

Discontents old and new

In the 20th century, the discontents of Gilded Age capitalism of the Second Industrial Revolution led to what Harvey (after Antonio Gramsci) called “Fordism,” a new “regime of accumulation” or concrete form for the valorization process of capital. It was a new and different form of production and consumption, a new economics and new politics, a new culture: a new way of life. The 20th century and its continuing legacy today express unresolved problems inherited from Gilded Age capitalism that Fordist capital was not able to overcome. We suffer today from discontents with the results not, for instance, of the 16th–18th century African slave trade or the 15th century Reconquista and New World discovery, but rather from, for example, the failure of Reconstruction in the U.S.,[9] and the late, 2nd-wave colonialism from the era of what Marxists called “imperialism” at the end of the 19th century — hence the problem of so-called “neo-colonialism.” We live in the world created by the early 20th century’s attempts to solve those problems.

Eric Hobsbawm wrote of the “long 19th” and “short 20th” centuries.[10] He regarded 1789–1914 as one cycle, and 1914–1991 as another. But perhaps we should consider the short 19th century, the core of which runs from the 1820s–70s (from the aftermath of the French Revolution until the U.S. Civil War, the Meiji Restoration and Franco-Prussian War), and the long 20th century which began, perhaps as early as the 1870s but certainly by the 1890s, and continued until the recent crisis of the 2000s–10s.[11] The high 19th century of liberalism contrasts with the 20th century of state capitalism.

In the 1990s, it seemed as if, after the “long detour” of fascism and “Communism” (Stalinism) in the 20th century,[12] a responsibly reformed “progressive” capitalism of the Second Industrial Revolution would finally have its unobstructed day in the sun: the U.S., Germany and Japan could inherit a progressively productive world at peace. The mirage of the purported Third Industrial Revolution of the post-WWII mid–late 20th century was revealed to be merely the full flowering of the turn-of-the-20th century electromagnetic revolution that had succeeded the original Industrial Revolution’s thermodynamics: cybernetics turned out to be the latest expression of liberal democracy; however Steampunk fantasies haunted historical memory in the 1990s. But already in the 1970s, Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner showed us the “used future” of decrepit Fordist capital. Neoliberalism naturalized this.

Mount Rushmore U.S. National Monument, depicting George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was designed in 1923, begun in 1927, before the Great Depression, and finished in 1941 during the months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Mount Rushmore U.S. National Monument, depicting George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was designed in 1923, begun in 1927, before the Great Depression, and finished in 1941 during the months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Retrospective history

The retrospective view from the present allows for regarding the 20th century as the outcome of the Gilded Age — of the Second Industrial Revolution. But the 20th century was conditioned by the mounting discontents of the Gilded Age and its crisis in the early 20th century — most apocalyptically in the First World War and its aftermath. We still live in the after-effects of the crisis that conditioned the 20th century. The inability to overcome the discontents of capital from a century ago still swamps us today.

In the late 19th century U.S., the Second Industrial Revolution was governed largely by the Republican Party, which was the combined party of progressive liberalism and big capital. The Democratic Party in this period, by contrast, was the party of the middle class and conservatism. So, for instance, Populism as a 1890s Depression phenomenon fed into the Democratic Party, with William Jennings Bryan the Democrats’ (unsuccessful) candidate for President in 1896 and (again in) 1900. But Progressivism emerged as a reform effort from within the Republican Party against manifest problems of liberal capitalism in the 1890s–1900s — most dramatically under President Theodore Roosevelt.

In Europe, discontents with the Gilded Age / Second Industrial Revolution manifested in the Socialist Parties of the Second International. Liberal capitalism was opposed by a mass industrial workers politics — most significantly in the major party of the Second International, the SPD (Social-democratic Party of Germany). In the U.K., discontents with liberalism led to the formation of the Labour Party. These parties had origins in the 1870s but experienced phenomenal growth especially in the aftermath of the crisis of the 1890s. Countries drawn into the Second Industrial Revolution more broadly but on a subordinate subsidiary basis included the Russian Empire and Italy, which also experienced mass radicalization in the form of new Social-Democratic and Socialist Parties.

However these new socialist parties also experienced a crisis of their growth in the 1890s — a crisis of their political purpose: Were they, as they claimed, parties of political revolution, or rather of social reform? Eduard Bernstein was the most perspicacious of the commentators on the developments of this period in the 1890s. He regarded the growth of the U.K. workers movement that led to the formation of the Labour Party as evidence that a revolutionary socialist political party may not be necessary for the transformation of capitalism into socialism: socialism may socially evolve within capitalism rather than requiring its political overthrow. The eventual election of majority socialist or labor parties may be sufficient to crown the development of the social movement of the working class through its civil society organizations such as labor unions and other social collectives (such as women’s organizations, etc.).

The 20th century belied this socialist optimism of the late 19th century that Marxism had in common with liberalism. Just as Progressivism expressed manifest problems of liberal capitalism, so the new distinctly “revolutionary” current in socialism beginning circa 1900 represented by Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky as well as by Debs (who was converted to Marxism in the late 1890s) expressed discontent with socialist reformism. Luxemburg for instance called Bernstein simply a “liberal.” What this meant was that Bernstein regarded liberal democracy as politically adequate for the activity of the working class in its struggle for socialism. Bernstein thought that the capitalist interest could be subordinated to a political majority. What Bernstein didn’t reckon with was how the working class would become politically split in the crisis of capitalism.[13] In the First World War and the Revolutions in Russia, Germany, Italy and Hungary that broke out in its aftermath 1917–19, the former socialist parties of the Second International divided between reformist Social Democrats and revolutionary Communists. In 1919, responding to criticisms of the course of the Russian Revolution, Debs declared that, “From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am Bolshevik, and proud of it.”[14]

This is related to how Progressivism emerged contemporaneously from the crisis of liberalism. It was acrimonious as well, with incumbent President Taft condemning his challenger, his former friend and colleague Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party candidate for President in 1912, as “the most dangerous man in America.” It led, via the actual beneficiary of the split among the Republicans, Woodrow Wilson’s more socially conservative (for example, avowedly racist) Democratic Party Progressivism, to (Theodore Roosevelt’s nephew-in-law) Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.[15]

“Progressive” capitalism

The question is the alternative to capitalist progressivism offered by Marxist socialism. In the U.S. Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party of America sought to intervene with working-class socialism across the division of Republican Party big-capitalist liberalism versus Democratic Party middle-class conservatism. “Industrial democracy” was the term of this socialist opposition under Marxist leadership.

As a Marxist, Debs like Rosa Luxemburg understood that this pressed a contradiction.[16] Marxism was not an authoritarian collectivist opposition to liberalism, but sought to combine and transcend middle class conservative-reactionary discontents over the destructive effects of capitalism with the revolutionary social potential of the dynamism of big capital. Debs articulated this in his 1900 election manifesto, first delivered as a speech in Chicago, on “Competition versus cooperation:”[17]

The Republican platform is a self-congratulation of the dominant capitalist class. “Prosperity galore, give us four years more.” The Democratic platform is the wail and cry of the perishing middle class; calamity without end. The Social Democratic platform is an indictment of the capitalist system; it is the call to class consciousness and political action of the exploited working class; and it is a ringing declaration in favor of collective ownership of all the means of production and distribution, as the clarion voice of economic freedom.

Progressivism sought to similarly transcend the liberal capitalist vs. conservative populist divide emerging from industrialization, which is why liberals could observe in 1912 that Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party was seeking to usurp the mantles of both William Jennings Bryan’s Populist Democrats and Debs’s Socialists. Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s election as President was the result of the split among the Republicans between Progressives and old-style liberals. This set the stage for the triumph of New Deal progressivism under FDR — however 20 years later, after the crisis of the Great Depression.

But FDR’s New Dealism, specifically as a Democratic Party phenomenon, combined but did not transcend the split of progressive capitalism with middle-class conservatism. The working class was thus bound in the Democratic Party to both big capital and the middle class. The working-class struggle for socialism found earlier in the old Socialist Party of America was squeezed out between these two aspects of the progressive New Deal Democrats. Socialism in the U.S. never recovered from this suppression. The New Deal Coalition Democrats became the ruling party in the U.S. in the high 20th century.

The Democrats have tried ever since FDR to retain a progressive capitalist alliance of liberal capital with middle-class conservatism. But what happened in the political crisis of the New Deal Coalition in the 1960s (signaled by the Civil Rights Movement as well as the U.S.’s losing war in Vietnam), combined with the crisis of capitalism in the 1970s, was that the form of middle-class conservatism changed — and was captured by the Republicans instead. This was not only expressed in the Southern Strategy that captured the Dixiecrat middle class (racial) conservatives, but also the appeal to “law and order” that captured the Northern urban and suburban working class ethnics who had previously supported the New Deal Democrats.

Subsequently, this has taken the otherwise longstanding form of the old split within liberalism that Progressivism represented: progressive liberalism versus conservative liberalism. The conservative liberals have promised the middle class that it will benefit from big capital; whereas the progressive liberals have actively sought policies that will ensure this. But neither the promise nor the policies have been able to prevent the social destruction and hence the conservative reaction of the middle class. Both the Republicans and Democrats have exploited middle-class discontents without satisfying them.

The working class has been the passive object of this process, oscillating between big-capitalist liberalism and middle-class conservatism, however in the obscure form of oscillating between greater or lesser support for progressive liberalism — greater or lesser support for the Democrats. Politically, this means the subordination of the working class to the middle class. But which middle class?

The 20th century saw the rise of the “new middle class” of corporate capitalist managers, as opposed to the old middle class of small proprietors as well as of artisanal workers. The old middle class were the petite bourgeoisie, which were always distinct from the new industrial working class ever since the 19th century. So the question in the 20th century became the relation between the proletarianized working class of wage-earners and the capitalist managerial middle class. Could the middle class be captured by progressive liberalism? Or would the perennial crisis of capitalism lead instead to populist conservatism? How could populism, whether middle or working class, be neutralized as a disruptive threat to the negotiations of big-capitalist politics?

From the era of the late-19th century Second International, Debs serves as an example of how a populist could become a socialist — and not a progressive liberal. By contrast, Eduard Bernstein shows how a Marxist could become a progressive liberal, via the liquidation of proletarian socialism by neglect of the appeal of middle-class conservatism to which the working class could succumb in its trade unionism.

Proletarian socialism vs. middle-class revolt

The working class is susceptible to middle-class conservatism insofar as it remains attached to a prior form of capitalism — the accumulated ensemble of previous concrete forms of wage labor — that undergoes crisis and is destroyed. Progressivism depends conversely upon the amenability and “liberalism” of the middle class to go along with changes in capitalism led by big capital. Big capital benefits from all changes anyway — capitalists can shift their investments or retire into philanthropy and entire countries can adopt what Lenin called “coupon-clipping”[18] — so the real issue is the struggle to come out on top or simply not to sink entirely but keep one’s head above water in the next wave of capitalism. Conservatives are always there to try to take advantage of those swamped and potentially left behind, with demagogic appeals to the status quo that people forget was itself once something new.

The question is, who are the progressives and who are the conservatives, politically? Perhaps the progressives are the more cunning conservatives — or the conservatives are the more cunning progressives. In the last generation of neoliberalism the Republicans could plausibly claim to be the “true revolutionaries” in advancing capitalism, and thus addressed and exploited the manifest liabilities of the Democrats’ conservatism. The game is to capture middle-class discontents in “progressive” capitalist “reforms” (e.g. “welfare reform,” “trade reform” etc.). The Republicans did so through the “Reagan Revolution,” just as the Democrats had done in the 1930s FDR New Deal Coalition through which they had replaced the Republicans as the dominant majority party since the Civil War. Every “old conservative” was once a “new revolutionary” in capitalism.

Proletarian socialism — Marxism — by contrast sought to subordinate the middle class to the working class in reappropriating capital, which it proposed could only happen through the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The political party for proletarian socialism thus sought to lead the broader “masses” in “social democracy” in order to achieve socialism.

This would be especially true of the new managerial middle class which could simply take direction from the working class where they formerly did so from the capitalists — including from the capitalist state and its state capitalist managerial policies. Thus the capitalists could be retired into philanthropy. This was the vision of the Second International (1889–1914) and of mid-20th century Social Democratic politics. Especially since it was understood by Marxism, for instance by Lenin’s conception of contemporary “imperialism” or monopoly capitalism, that not only the new middle class as corporate employees but also the working class itself subsisted not on the value of their own laboring activity but rather on a cut of the profits of capital, which was granted to them for political reasons, through a myriad of government subsidies, to prevent revolution — not merely to soften the blows of the business cycle of boom and bust.

Theodore Roosevelt called this the need for a “Square Deal” — indicatively not a “fair” deal, not merely enforcing liberal capitalism, but the government actively ameliorating its defects — and understood it explicitly as required to stave off socialism. But Roosevelt had, not Marx’s vague “specter of communism,” but Debs’s actual mass Socialist Party of America staring him down to draw this political conclusion: it was a rear-guard action, but with a visionary long view. Progressivism was meant to institute political reforms required to be up-to-date with capitalist development: it was a matter not so much of advancing history as catching up with it; in this sense it still accorded with classical liberalism that the state should follow society and not try to determine it. But since Roosevelt’s time, new problems arising from reforms attempted in the 20th century have clouded the issue; however, the essential political predicament of liberal democracy in the industrial era remains.

The problem and task of “progressive capitalism” is the attempt to maintain capitalism through its manifest social and political crisis. The alignment of the working class with the middle class in common capitalist interest with big capital is always temporary and inevitably fraught. There is always a struggle for supremacy in the fractious, politically negotiated social alliance of capital, which will eventually burst forth from the inexorable obsolescence of any and all concrete forms of capitalism in society.

The question the capitalists periodically face is: Can the conservative-reactionary middle class be made to go in peace (e.g. overdose on opioids — before that, on whiskey: it is important to note that the Progressives advocated Prohibition), or will it freak out and disrupt society and politics in uncontrollable ways? Trotsky called fascism the “petite bourgeoisie run amok.”[19] But every old middle class was once a new middle class — just as every old form of wage-labor was once a new form of capitalism: the working class’s discontents are subsumed under middle-class conservatism; the potential for socialism in capitalism thus disappears. The contradiction of capital that Marxism once recognized is submerged.

The “progressive capitalist” political forms that emerged as an alternative to Marxist socialism after the crisis of the Gilded Age and were carried through the 20th century have exhausted themselves in two waves of crisis: the crisis of the 1960s–70s that led to neoliberalism; and the present crisis of neoliberalism itself in the 2000s–10s.[20] The attempted return to the Gilded Age since the 1980s–90s has clearly failed — which is why this deeper history leading to the present reasserts itself today. It is undigested.

Glenn Beck was not wrong to panic at the sight of Trump and take his ascendancy as the occasion to condemn the Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson from a century ago.[21] Beck counterposed the “America of the Founding Fathers Washington and Jefferson” to that of the “Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson,” calling the 2016 election the final defeat of the former by the latter. Neglected by Beck in his division of American history is Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War as a second founding moment of the U.S. But the evident desire for return to the apparently more innocent time of the Second Industrial Revolution and its liberal optimism neglects its real discontents and actual crisis in the Gilded Age, which once were expressed by Marxist socialism in the era of the Marxist-led parties of the Second International, including the Socialist Party of America of Eugene Debs, but were captured instead by “progressive” state capitalism in the 20th century that Beck and other conservative liberals constantly bemoan — regretting its political necessity.

Today, the question is the future of that 20th century state capitalism that, no matter how rickety, still dominates the world. Its prospects look grim — China notwithstanding.

But actually it is no more grim than the 20th century itself — or the late 19th century Gilded Age of Second Industrial Revolution capitalism that gave birth to the 20th century.

Now as before, the Republicans and Democrats compete over the political capture of middle-class conservative reaction by big capital in service of a capitalist “progress” that is none. What disappears is the possibility once recognized by Marxism of the working class, through proletarian socialism, superseding both “progressive” capital and middle-class reaction. Without it, capitalism is permanent, the middle class under threat periodically runs amok, old tenements are torn down, slums cleared, and new dormitories for the working class are hastily constructed, and in the end the best we can hope for is another Industrial Revolution — with all the destruction that it will inevitably bring. | P

[1] Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory” (1942), in Can One Live after Auschwitz: A Philosophical Reader, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. (Stanford University Press, 2003), 93–110.

[2] See my “Symptomology: Historical Transformations in Social-Political Context,” Platypus Review 12 (May 2009), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2009/05/15/symptomology/>.

[3] The term originated from Mark Twain’s 1873 novel, co-written by Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, which expressed disappointments with the post-Civil War boom era in the U.S. It was adopted in the 1920s and retrospectively applied to the entire preceding era, especially from the 1870s–1890s.

[4] Available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/kant/universal-history.htm>.

[5] Marx and Engels had observed, in their Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848, available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/>), that the crisis of capitalism would end “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

[6] See Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” (AKA “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940), available online at <https://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html>.

[7] Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State” (1942), Telos 15:2 (Spring 1973), 3.

[8] Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, “Estranged Labour,” available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm>.

[9] For instance, W.E.B. Du Bois, in his high Jim-Crow era 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America, recognized it was the capitalist crisis of the 1870s after the Panic of 1873 that had spelled the doom of Reconstruction.

[10] See Hobsbawm’s books The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848 (1962), The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975), The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987), and The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (1994).

[11] Another way of considering this history is to regard the history of Marxism relative to the phenomenon of the emergence of so-called “state capitalism.” See my “1873–1973: The Century of Marxism: The Death of Marxism and the Emergence of Neo-Liberalism and Neo-Anarchism,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>.

[12] See James Weinstein, The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left (2003), excerpts in The Nation (July 7, 2003) and In These Times (May 28, 2003) available online, respectively, at <https://www.thenation.com/article/long-detour/> and <http://inthesetimes.com/article/the_long_detour/the_long_detour>.

[13] See my “Rosa Luxemburg and the Party,” Platypus Review 86 (May 2016), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2016/05/03/rosa-luxemburg-party/>.

[14] “The Day of the People” (February 1919), written about the assassinations of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg during the Spartacist Uprising of the German Revolution, available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/debs/works/1919/daypeople.htm>.

[15] See Ken Burns’s recent documentary series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014), which traces this lineage of Progressivism from TR to FDR, including that of TR’s niece, FDR’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt.

[16] See Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution? (1900/08), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/index.htm>.

[17] Available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/debs/works/1900/0929-debs-competitionvcooperation.pdf>.

[18] See his pamphlet on Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/>.

[19] Trotsky’s writings on fascism’s nature and character were collected in Fascism: What It Is, and How to Fight It (Pioneer Publishers, U.S., 1944), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1944/1944-fas.htm>.

[20] See my “Symptomology,” op. cit.

[21] See for instance, Glenn Beck, “Why Teddy Roosevelt is America’s New Founding Father” (May 11, 2016), online at <http://www.glennbeck.com/2016/05/11/history-lesson-teddy-roosevelt-americas-new-founding-father/>, where Beck says that,

So the country is going to vote — the parameters are the Roosevelts. Those are the bookends. Theodore Roosevelt, the beginning of progressivism, to FDR, heavy statism. That’s where we’ll vote. And we’ve just voted two people in the FDR category. Hillary Clinton is FDR. Trump could be Woodrow Wilson, where he silences people and throws them into jail if you have a differing opinion. He could be Woodrow Wilson. But she’s probably FDR.

The Millennial Left is dead

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 100 | October 2017

Audio recording of reading and discussion of this essay at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on October 18, 2017 is available at: <https://archive.org/details/cutrone_millennialleftisdeadsaic101817>.

Video recording of discussion of this essay at the 4th Platypus European Conference at Goldsmiths University in London on February 17, 2018 is available at: &lt:https://youtu.be/tkR-aSK60U8>.

Those who demand guarantees in advance should in general renounce revolutionary politics. The causes for the downfall of the Social Democracy and of official Communism must be sought not in Marxist theory and not in the bad qualities of those people who applied it, but in the concrete conditions of the historical process. It is not a question of counterposing abstract principles, but rather of the struggle of living social forces, with its inevitable ups and downs, with the degeneration of organizations, with the passing of entire generations into discard, and with the necessity which therefore arises of mobilizing fresh forces on a new historical stage. No one has bothered to pave in advance the road of revolutionary upsurge for the proletariat. With inevitable halts and partial retreats it is necessary to move forward on a road crisscrossed by countless obstacles and covered with the debris of the past. Those who are frightened by this had better step aside. (“Realism versus Pessimism,” in “To Build Communist Parties and an International Anew,” 1933)[1]

They had friends, they had enemies, they fought, and exactly through this they demonstrated their right to exist. (“Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” letter of January 29, 1938)

The more daring the pioneers show in their ideas and actions, the more bitterly they oppose themselves to established authority which rests on a conservative “mass base,” the more conventional souls, skeptics, and snobs are inclined to see in the pioneers, impotent eccentrics or “anemic splinters.” But in the last analysis it is the conventional souls, skeptics and snobs who are wrong—and life passes them by. (“Splinters and Pioneers,” in “Art and Politics in our Epoch,” letter of June 18, 1938)[2]

— Leon Trotsky

Discard

THE MILLENNIAL LEFT has been subject to the triple knock-out of Obama, Sanders, and Trump. Whatever expectations it once fostered were dashed over the course of a decade of stunning reversals. In the aftermath of George W. Bush and the War on Terror; of the financial crisis and economic downturn; of Obama’s election; of the Citizens United decision and the Republican sweep of Congress; of Occupy Wall Street and Obama’s reelection; and of Black Lives Matter emerging from disappointment with a black President, the 2016 election was set to deliver the coup de grâce to the Millennials’ “Leftism.” It certainly did. Between Sanders and Trump, the Millennials found themselves in 2015–16 in mature adulthood, faced with the unexpected—unprepared. They were not prepared to have the concerns of their “Leftism” become accused by BLM—indeed, Sanders and his supporters were accused by Hillary herself—of being an expression not merely of “white privilege” but of “white supremacy.” The Millennials’ “Leftism” cannot survive all these blows. Rather, a resolution to Democratic Party common sense is reconciling the Millennials to the status quo—especially via anti-Trump-ism. Their expectations have been progressively lowered over the past decade. Now, in their last, final round, they fall exhausted, buffeted by “anti-fascism” on the ropes of 2017.

A similar phenomenon manifested in the U.K. Labour Party, whose Momentum group the Millennial Left joined en masse to support the veteran 1960s “socialist” Jeremy Corbyn. But Brexit and Theresa May’s election did not split, but consolidated the Millennials’ adherence to Labour—as first Sanders and then Trump has done with the American Millennial Left and the Democrats.

All of us must play the hand that history has dealt us. The problem is that the Millennial Left chose not to play its own hand, shying away in fear from the gamble. Instead, they fell back onto the past, trying to re-play the cards dealt to previous generations. They are inevitably suffering the same results of those past failed wagers.

Michael Harrington (1928–89), the founder of the Democratic Socialists of America

Michael Harrington (1928–89)

Decline

The Left has been in steady decline since the 1930s, not reversed by the 1960s–70s New Left. More recently, the 1980s was a decade of the institutionalization of the Left’s liquidation into academicism and social-movement activism. A new socialist political party to which the New Left could have given rise was not built. Quite the opposite. The New Left became the institutionalization of the unpolitical.

Michael Harrington’s (1928–89) Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), established in 1982, was his deliberate attempt in the early 1980s Reagan era to preserve what he called a “remnant of a remnant” of both the New Left and of the old Socialist Party of America that had split three ways in 1973. It was the default product of Harrington and others’ failed strategy of “realigning” the Democratic Party after the crisis of its New Deal Coalition in the 1960s. No longer seeking to transform the Democratic Party, the DSA was content to serve as a ginger-group on its “Left” wing.

Despite claims made today, in the past the DSA was much stronger, with many elected officials such as New York City Mayor David Dinkins and Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger. The recent apparent renaissance of the DSA does not match its historic past height. At the same time, Bernie Sanders was never a member of the DSA, considering it to be too Right-wing for his purposes.

In 2017, the DSA’s recent bubble of growth—perhaps already bursting now in internal acrimony—is a function of both reaction to Hillary’s defeat at the hands of Trump and the frustrated hopes of the Sanders campaign after eight years of disappointment under Obama. As such, the catch-all character of DSA and its refurbished marketing campaign by DSA member Bhaskar Sunkara’s Jacobin magazine—Sunkara has spoken of the “missing link” he’s trying to make up between the 1960s generation and Millennials—is the inevitable result of the failure of the Millennial Left. By uniting the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Solidarity, Socialist Alternative (SAlt), and others in and around the way-station of the DSA before simply liquidating into the Democrats, the Millennial Left has abandoned whatever pretenses it had to depart from the sad history of the Left since the 1960s: The ISO, Solidarity, and SAlt are nothing but 1980s legacies.

The attempted reconnection with the 1960s New Left by the Millennials that tried to thus transcend the dark years of reaction in the 1980s–90s “post-political” Generation-X era was always very tenuous and fraught. But the 1960s were not going to be re-fought. Now in the DSA, the Millennials are falling exactly back into the 1980s Gen-X mold. Trump has scared them into vintage Reagan-era activity—including stand-offs with the KKK and neo-Nazis. Set back in the 1980s, It and Stranger Things are happening again. The Millennials are falling victim to Gen-X nostalgia—for a time before they were even born. But this was not always so.

The founding of the new Students for a Democratic Society (new SDS) in Chicago in 2006, in response to George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraq War, was an extremely short-lived phenomenon of the failure to unseat Bush by John Kerry in 2004 and the miserable results of the Democrats in the 2006 mid-term Congressional elections. Despite the warning by the old veteran 1960s SDS members organized in the mentoring group, the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS), to not repeat their own mistakes in the New Left, the new SDS fell into similar single-issue activist blind-alleys, especially around the Iraq War, and did not outlive the George W. Bush Presidency. By the time Obama was elected in 2008, the new SDS was already liquidating, its remaining rump swallowed by the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO)—in a repetition of the takeover of the old SDS by the Maoists of the Progressive Labor Party after 1968. But something of the new SDS’s spirit survived, however attenuated.

The idea was that a new historical moment might mean that “all bets are off,” that standing by the past wagers of the Left—whether those made in the 1930s–40s, 1960s–70s, or 1980s–90s—was not only unnecessary but might indeed be harmful. This optimism about engaging new, transformed historical tasks in a spirit of making necessary changes proved difficult to maintain.

Frustrated by Obama’s first term and especially by the Tea Party that fed into the Republican Congressional majority in the 2010 mid-term elections, 2011’s Occupy Wall Street protest was a quickly fading complaint registered before Obama’s reelection in 2012. Now, in 2017, the Millennials would be happy for Obama’s return.

Internationally, the effect of the economic crisis was demonstrated in anti-austerity protests and in the election and formation of new political parties such as SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain; it was also demonstrated in the Arab Spring protests and insurrections that toppled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and initiated civil wars in Libya, Yemen, and Syria (and that were put down or fizzled in Bahrain and Lebanon). (In Iran the crisis manifested early on, around the reform Green Movement upsurge in the 2009 election, which also failed.) The disappointments of these events contributed to the diminished expectations of the Millennial Left.

In the U.S., the remnants of the Iraq anti-war movement and Occupy Wall Street protests lined up behind Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination in 2015. Although Sanders did better than he himself expected, his campaign was never anything but a slight damper on Hillary’s inevitable candidacy. Nevertheless, Sanders served to mobilize Millennials for Hillary in the 2016 election—even if many of Sanders’s primary voters ended up pushing Trump over the top in November.

Trump’s election has been all the more dismaying: How could it have happened, after more than a decade of agitation on the “Left,” in the face of massive political failures such as the War on Terror and the 2008 financial collapse and subsequent economic downturn? The Millennials thought that the only way to move on from the disappointing Obama era was up. Moreover, they regarded Obama as “progressive,” however inadequately so. This assumption of Obama’s “progressivism” is now being cemented by contrast with Trump. But that concession to Obama’s conservatism in 2008 and yet again in 2012 was already the fateful poison-pill of the Democrats that the Millennials nonetheless swallowed. Now they imagine they can transform the Democrats, aided by Trump’s defeat of Hillary, an apparent setback for the Democrats’ Right wing. But change them into what?

This dynamic since 2008—when everyone was marking the 75th anniversary of the New Deal—is important: What might have looked like the bolstering or rejuvenation of “social democracy” is actually its collapse. Neoliberalism achieves ultimate victory in being rendered redundant.

Like Nixon’s election in 1968, Trump’s victory in 2016 was precisely the result of the failures of the Democrats. The 1960s New Left was stunned that after many years protesting and organizing, seeking to pressure the Democrats from the Left, they were not the beneficiaries of the collapse of LBJ. Like Reagan’s election in 1980, Trump’s election is being met with shock and incredulity, which serves to eliminate all differences back into the Democratic Party, to “fight the Right.” Antifa exacerbates this.

From anti-neoliberals the Millennial Left is becoming neoliberalism’s last defenders against Trump—just as the New Left went from attacking the repressive administrative state under LBJ in the 1960s to defending it from neoliberal transformation by Reagan in the 1980s. History moves on, leaving the “Left” in its wake, now as before. Problems are resolved in the most conservative way possible, such as with gay marriage under Obama: Does equality in conventional bourgeois marriage meet the diverse multiplicity of needs for intimacy and kinship? What about the Millennials’ evident preferences for sex without relationships, for polyamory, or for asexuality? The Millennials act as if Politically Correct multiculturalism and queer transgenderism were invented yesterday—as if the world was tailor-made to their “sensitivity training”—but their education is already obsolete. This is the frightening reality that is dawning on them now.

Signature issues that seem to “change everything” (Naomi Klein), such as economic “shock therapy,” crusading neoconservatism, and climate change, are sideswiped—ushered off the stage and out of the limelight. New problems loom on the horizon, while the Millennials’ heads spin from the whiplash.

Ferdinand Lassalle wrote to Marx (December 12, 1851) that, “Hegel used to say in his old age that directly before the emergence of something qualitatively new, the old state of affairs gathers itself up into its original, purely general, essence, into its simple totality, transcending and absorbing back into itself all those marked differences and peculiarities which it evinced when it was still viable.” We see this now with the last gasps of the old identity politics flowing out of the 1960s New Left that facilitated neoliberalism, which are raised to the most absurd heights of fever pitch before finally breaking and dissipating. Trump following Obama as the last phenomenon of identity politics is not some restoration of “straight white patriarchy” but the final liquidation of its criterion. The lunatic fringe racists make their last showing before achieving their utter irrelevance, however belatedly. Many issues of long standing flare up as dying embers, awaiting their spectacular flashes before vanishing.

Trump has made all the political divisions of the past generation redundant—inconsequential. This is what everyone, Left, Right and Center, protests against: being left in the dust. Good riddance.

Whatever disorder the Trump Administration in its first term might evince—like Reagan and Thatcher’s first terms, there’s much heat but little light—it compares well to the disarray among the Democrats, and, perhaps more significantly, to that in the mainstream, established Republican Party. This political disorder, already the case since 2008, was the Millennials’ opportunity. But first with Sanders, and now under Trump, they are taking the opportunity to restore the Democrats; they may even prefer established Republicans to Trump. The Millennials are thus playing a conservative role.

Trump

Trump’s election—especially after Sanders’s surprise good showing in the Democratic primaries—indicates a crisis of mainstream politics that fosters the imagination of alternatives. But it also generates illusions. If the 2006 collapse of neoconservative fantasies of democratizing the Middle East through U.S. military intervention and the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession did not serve to open new political possibilities, then the current disorder will also not be so propitious. At least not for the “Left.”

The opportunity is being taken by Trump to adjust mainstream politics into a post-neoliberal order. But mostly Trump is—avowedly—a figure of muddling-through, not sweeping change. The shock experienced by the complacency of the political status quo should not be confused for a genuine crisis. Just because there’s smoke doesn’t mean there’s a fire. There are many resources for recuperating Republican Party- and Democratic Party-organized politics. As disorganized as the Parties may be now, the Millennial “Left” is completely unorganized politically. It is entirely dependent upon the existing Democrat-aligned organizations such as minority community NGOs and labor unions. Now the Millennials are left adjudicating which of these Democrats they want to follow.

Most significant in this moment are the diminished expectations that carry over from the Obama years into the Trump Presidency. Indeed, there has been a steady decline since the early 2000s. Whatever pains at adjustment to the grim “new normal” have been registered in protest, from the Tea Party revolt on the Right to Occupy Wall Street on the Left, the political aspirations now are far lower.

What is clear is that ever since the 1960s New Left there has been a consistent lowering of horizons for social and political change. The “Left” has played catch-up with changes beyond its control. Indeed, this has been the case ever since the 1930s, when the Left fell in behind FDR’s New Deal reforms, which were expanded internationally after WWII under global U.S. leadership, including via the social-democratic and labor parties of Western Europe. What needs to be borne in mind is how inexorable the political logic ever since then has been. How could it be possible to reverse this?

Harry S. Truman called his Republican challenger in 1948, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, a “fascist” for opposing the New Deal. The Communist Party agreed with this assessment. They offered Henry Wallace as the better “anti-fascist.” Subsequently, the old Communists were not (as they liked to tell themselves) defeated by McCarthyite repression, but rather by the Democrats’ reforms, which made them redundant. The New Left was not defeated by either Nixon or Reagan; rather, Nixon and Reagan showed the New Left’s irrelevance. McGovern swept up its pieces. Right-wing McGovernites—the Clintons—took over.

The Millennial Left was not defeated by Bush, Obama, Hillary, or Trump. No. They have consistently defeated themselves. They failed to ever even become themselves as something distinctly new and different, but instead continued the same old 1980s modus operandi inherited from the failure of the 1960s New Left. Trump has rendered them finally irrelevant. That they are now winding up in the 1980s-vintage DSA as the “big tent”—that is, the swamp—of activists and academics on the “Left” fringe of the Democratic Party moving Right is the logical result. They will scramble to elect Democrats in 2018 and to unseat Trump in 2020. Likely they will fail at both, as the Democrats as well as the Republicans must adapt to changing circumstances, however in opposition to Trump—but with Trump the Republicans at least have a head start on making the necessary adjustments. Nonetheless the Millennial Leftists are ending up as Democrats. They’ve given up the ghost of the Left—whose memory haunted them from the beginning.

The Millennial Left is dead. | P


Further reading

Chris Cutrone, “The Sandernistas,” Platypus Review 82 (December 2015–January 2016); “Postscript on the March 15 Primaries,” PR 85 (April 2016); and “P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party” (June 22, 2016).

Cutrone, “Why not Trump?,” PR 88 (September 2016).

Cutrone, Boris Kagarlitsky, John Milios and Emmanuel Tomaselli, “The crisis of neoliberalism” (panel discussion February 2017), PR 96 (May 2017).

Cutrone, Catherine Liu and Greg Lucero, “Marxism in the age of Trump” (panel discussion April 2017), PR 98 (July–August 2017).

Pre-Trump

Cutrone, “Vicissitudes of historical consciousness and possibilities for emancipatory social politics today: ‘The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!’,” PR 1 (November 2007).

Cutrone, “Obama: Progress in regress: The end of ‘black politics’,” PR 6 (September 2008).

Cutrone, “Iraq and the election: The fog of ‘anti-war’ politics,PR 7 (October 2008).

Cutrone, “Obama: three comparisons: MLK, JFK, FDR: The coming sharp turn to the Right,” PR 8 (November 2008).

Cutrone, “Obama and Clinton: ‘Third Way’ politics and the ‘Left’,” PR 9 (December 2008).

Cutrone, Stephen Duncombe, Pat Korte, Charles Post and Paul Street, “Progress or regress? The future of the Left under Obama” (panel discussion December 2008), PR 12 (May 2009).

Cutrone, “Symptomology: Historical transformations in social-political context,” PR 12 (May 2009).

Cutrone, “The failure of the Islamic Revolution in Iran,” PR 14 (August 2009).

Cutrone, Maziar Behrooz, Kaveh Ehsani and Danny Postel, “30 years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran” (panel discussion November 2009), PR 20 (February 2010).

Cutrone, “Egypt, or, history’s invidious comparisons: 1979, 1789, and 1848,” PR 33 (March 2011).

Cutrone, “To the shores of Tripoli: Tsunamis and world history,” PR 34 (April 2011)

Cutrone, “Whither Marxism? Why the Occupy movement recalls Seattle 1999,” PR 41 (November 2011).

Cutrone, “A cry of protest before accommodation? The dialectic of emancipation and domination,” PR 42 (December 2011–January 2012).

Cutrone, “Class consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today,” PR 51 (November 2012).


Notes

[1] Leon Trotsky, “To Build Communist Parties and an International Anew” (1933), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1933/330715.htm>.

[2] Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” Partisan Review (June 1938), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/06/artpol.htm>.

Marxism and politics: articles in the CPGB Weekly Worker 2014–16

[PDF]


Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital

What is meant by a ‘democratic republic’? Chris Cutrone critiques Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary strategy

Proletarian dictatorship and state capitalism

Chris Cutrone of Platypus examines the meaning of political party for the left

Back to Herbert Spencer

Chris Cutrone argues that the libertarian liberalism of the late 19th century still has relevance today

What was social democracy?

Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society traces the origins of current socialist terminology

Sacrifice and redemption

Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society recounts the struggle of Rosa Luxemburg for the workers’ party to base itself on the goal of socialism

Critical authoritarianism

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #91 | November 2016

Immanent critique

Whenever approaching any phenomenon, Adorno’s procedure is one of immanent dialectical critique. The phenomenon is treated as not accidental or arbitrary but as a necessary form of appearance that points beyond itself, indicating conditions of possibility for change. It is a phenomenon of the necessity for change. The conditions of possibility for change indicated by the phenomenon in question are explored immanently, from within. The possibility for change is indicated by a phenomenon’s self-contradictions, which unfold from within itself, from its own movement, and develop from within its historical moment.

Everything is taken not merely as it “is,” as it happens to exist, but rather as it “ought” to be, as it could and should be, yielding as-yet unrealized potentials and possibilities. So it is with “authoritarianism,” in Adorno’s view. For Adorno, the key is how psychological authoritarianism is self-contradictory and points beyond itself. Adorno is interested in the “actuality” of authoritarianism: as Wilhelm Reich put it, the “progressive character of fascism;”[1] as Walter Benjamin put it, the “positive concept of barbarism.”[2]

This demands a critical approach rather than a merely descriptive or analytically positive or affirmative approach. For something can be affirmed either in its justification and legitimation or in its denunciation. In either case, the phenomenon is left as it is; whereas, for Adorno, as a Marxist, “the point is to change it.”[3]

So, what possibilities for change are indicated by authoritarianism, and how are such possibilities pointed to by the categories of Freudian psychoanalysis? For Adorno, it is unfortunate that social contradiction has passed from ideology and politics in society to individual psychology (indeed, this expresses a political failure), but there it is.[4] The “F-scale” is misleading, as Adorno notes, in that it might—despite its being posed as a “scale” —be mistaken for a matter of difference in kind rather than degree. Meaning that, for Adorno, everyone is more or less susceptible to fascism—everyone is more or less authoritarian.

The competing aspects of the individual psyche between liberal individuality and authoritarian tendencies is itself the self-contradiction of authoritarianism Adorno sought to explore. In capitalism, liberalism is the flip-side of the same coin as fascism. Individualism and collectivism are an antinomy that express capitalist contradiction. For individualism violates true individuality and collectivism violates the true potential of the social collectivity. Individuality and collectivity remain unfulfilled desiderata, the aspirations and goals of bourgeois society, its emancipatory promise. For Adorno (as for Marx), both are travestied in capitalism—mere “shams.”

Donald Trump rally, Pensacola, Florida, Jan 15 2016.

Donald Trump rally, Pensacola, Florida, January 15, 2016.

Authoritarianism is an expression of that travesty of society. Fascism is the sham collectivity in which the sham individuality hides itself; just as liberalism is the sham individuality that conceals the collective condition of society. That collective condition is not a state of being but the task of the need for socialism beyond capitalism. Fascism as well as liberalism expresses that unfulfilled need and tasking demand for socialism in capitalism.

So what would it mean to critique authoritarianism in an immanently dialectical manner? What is the critical value of authoritarianism, in Adorno’s view? How can the potential possibility pointing beyond capitalism be expressed by authoritarianism and revealed rather than concealed by individual psychology? How is society critically revealed in authoritarianism, pointing to socialism?

Psychology

In “Sociology and psychology”[5] Adorno diagnoses the division of psychology from sociology as itself a symptom of contradiction in society—of the actual separation and contradiction of the individual and the collective in capitalism.

In The Authoritarian Personality,[6] Adorno et al. wrote that the fascist personality was characterized by identification with technology, the love for instruments as “equipment.” Here, Adorno found the emancipatory potential beyond capitalism precisely in such identification and imitation: it becomes a matter of the form of individuation. In “Imaginative excesses,” orphaned from Minima Moralia,[7] Adorno wrote that,

[N]o… faith can be placed in those equated with the means; the subjectless beings whom historical wrong has robbed of the strength to right it, adapted to technology and unemployment, conforming and squalid, hard to distinguish from the wind-jackets of fascism the subhuman creature who as dishonour’s progeny shall never be allowed to avert it.

The bearers of technical progress, now still mechanized mechanics, will, in evolving their special abilities, reach the point already indicated by technology where specialization grows superfluous. Once their consciousness has been converted into pure means without any qualification, it may cease to be a means and breach, with its attachment to particular objects, the last heteronomous barrier; its last entrapment in the existing state, the last fetishism of the status quo, including that of its own self, which is dissolved in its radical implementation as an instrument. Drawing breath at last, it may grow aware of the incongruence between its rational development and the irrationality of its ends, and act accordingly.

In “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” Adorno seeks to redeem authoritarianism in his conclusion when he offers that, “Even discipline can take over the expression of free solidarity if freedom becomes its content.” He goes on that, “As little as [authoritarianism] is a symptom of progress in consciousness of freedom, it could suddenly turn around if [individual psychology], in unity with the society, should ever leave the road of the always-identical”[8] — that is, in going beyond capitalism. Here, critical authoritarianism is met by a critical individualism in which “collective powers are liquidating an individuality past saving, but against them only individuals are capable of consciously representing the aims of collectivity.”[9] What are the aims of the collectivity expressed by the identification with technology? What Adorno following Benjamin called “mimesis”[10] Freud analyzed psychologically as “identification.” Adorno wrote that “the pressure to be permitted to obey… is today more general than ever.” But what Marx called the “industrial forces of production” are constrained and distorted by the “bourgeois social relations of production” in capitalism. There is a homologous contradiction within the individual personality.

In “Reflections on Class Theory”, Adorno wrote that,

Dehumanization is no external power, no propaganda, however conceived, no exclusion from culture. It is precisely the intrinsic reality of the oppressed in the system, who used formerly to stand out because of their wretchedness, whereas today their wretchedness lies in the fact that they can never escape. That they suspect that the truth is propaganda, while swallowing the propaganda culture that is fetishized and distorted into the madness of an unending reflection of themselves.

This means, however, that the dehumanization is also its opposite. In reified human beings reification finds its outer limits. They catch up with the technical forces of production in which the relations of production lie hidden: in this way these relations lose the shock of their alien nature because the alienation is so complete. But they may soon also lose their power. Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable to wresting them from the dominant power.[11]

Society

Karl Marx regarded the “necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat” as a phenomenon of “Bonapartism” — the rise to power of Louis Bonaparte as a result of the failure of the Revolution of 1848 in France. This was Marx’s difference from the anarchists: the recognition of the necessity of the state in capitalism.[12] Hence one should regard Marx on the dictatorship of the proletariat as a “critical Bonapartist.”[13] Bonapartism expressed an objective societal need rather than a subjective attitude. Bonapartist response to the objective social crisis and contradiction of capitalism pointed beyond itself and so required a dialectical critique, which Marx thought the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon failed to provide by treating Bonapartism as objectively determined, apologizing for it, as did the sentimental socialist Victor Hugo who treated Bonapartism as a monstrous historical accident like a “bolt from the blue.”[14] Fatalism and contingency were two sides of the same contradiction that obscured a necessity that could be addressed properly only in a dialectical way. These are the terms in which Adorno addressed “authoritarianism.”

Adorno’s “critical authoritarianism” addresses what the “immanent dialectical critique” of authoritarianism would mean, both in terms of Freudian psychoanalytic categories of description, and in terms of (absent) politics for socialism. Adorno’s Dream Notes records a dream of his participating in a gang-rape, as a primal scene of fascism.[15] The “delightful young mulatto . . . the kind of woman one sees in Harlem” who catches his eye admonishes him that “This is the style of the Institute.” The homosexuality and sado-masochism of authoritarianism in pre-Oedipal psychology; the desire as well as fear to “liquidate the ego” in ambivalence about individuality; critical (as opposed to methodological or affirmative) individualism; the desire and fear of collectivity in authoritarian collectivism; projection, identification and counter-identification providing for social cohesion as well as for separation and atomization —these are the themes of Adorno’s critical approach to psychology in late capitalism.

A similar thought was articulated contemporaneously by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, which characterizes negrophobic racism as “repressed homosexuality” and a “narcissistic disorder.” Fanon describes the Freudian approach to rape fantasies as a masochistic fear and desire that is an internalized projection of parental authority, a self-sadism. One fears what one wishes to happen; a wish is a way of mastering a fear by internalizing it; a fear is a way of repressing a wish. The reason rape is so traumatic is that it activates and violates such infantile experiences. There is the experience of parental seduction harking back to the anal phase of libido development, when the child experiences itself as unable to control its excretion, which is experienced as disturbingly involuntary, a blow to narcissism in the difficulty of toilet training, seeking to please the parents’ expectations. The parents’ cleaning of the infant is pleasurably stimulating, and the child internalizes the parent’s simultaneous desire and disgust, attraction and repulsion, which becomes the complex of feelings, the combination of shame and guilt with pleasure, that the child takes in its own bodily functions. Humiliation at loss of self-control is a formative experience of transforming narcissism into identification. The infant’s desire for the parents is an identification with the feared power.[16] The parents embody the ego-ideal of self-control. This is channeled later through gendered object-libido in the Oedipus complex as genital pleasure, but retains the sado-masochistic qualities of the anal phase, which precedes gender identification and so exhibits more basic, homosexual (ungendered) qualities that prevents the recognition of difference and individuality. In a narcissistic—authoritarian—society everyone becomes trapped in a static and self-reinforcing identity, where the need was actually to allow the opening to non-identity of freedom: the freedom to “overcome oneself” allowed by the healthy ego.

Opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, 2008.

“The madness of an unending reflection of themselves.” Opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, 2008.

Fanon sought to provide an account of how “racial narcissism”—the failure of the individual ego—could yet point beyond itself, specifically in its treacherously dyadic character of Self and Other, to the need that was blocked: “the world of the You.”[17]

Adorno brings into his discussion of The Authoritarian Personality a key background writing for Fanon’s BSWM, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, which assumes, as Adorno does, contemporary anti-Semitism as a norm and not an aberration. He states simply that what needs to be explained is why anyone is “not anti-Semitic.” But this pointed not to a problem of psychology but of society. As Adorno commended Sartre’s treatment of anti-Semitism:

We distinguish between anti-semitism as an objective social phenomenon, and the anti-semite as a peculiar type of individuality similar to Sartre’s exposé which, for good reasons, is called “Portrait of the Antisemite” rather than “Psychology of Anti-semitism”. This kind of personality is accessible to psychological analysis…. It would be quite impossible to reduce the objective phenomenon of present-day anti-semitism with its age-old background and all social and economic implications, to the mentality of those who, to speak with Sartre, have to make their decision in regard to this issue. Today, each and every man is faced with a tremendous bulk of objectively existing prejudices, discriminations and articulate anti-semitic attitudes. The accumulated power of this objective complex is so great and apparently so far beyond individual powers of resistance that one might indeed ask, why are people not antisemitic, [sic] instead of asking why certain kinds of people are anti-semitic. Thus, it would be naive to base a prognosis of anti-semitism, this truly “social” disease, on the diagnosis of the individual patients.

This means that the self-contradiction expressed by (non-)racism is one of society as well: the racist society points beyond itself objectively as well as subjectively, socially as well as individually. Racism as a problem contains the key to its own solution.[18] Anti-Semitic demagogues identified with Jews when imitating their stereotypical mannerisms;[19] white racists of the Jim Crow era performed minstrel shows in black-face. As Fanon put it, “Long ago the black man admitted the unarguable superiority of the white man, and all his efforts are aimed at achieving a white existence;” “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.”[20] Racism will end when black people become white. Or, as Adorno put it in “Reflections on Class Theory,” “Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable to wresting them from the dominant power.” Racism’s abolition will be its Aufhebung: it will be its Selbstaufhebung, its self-completion as well as its self-negation. So will be the overcoming of authoritarianism in capitalism more generally.

The infamous “F-scale” of The Authoritarian Personality is a scale, which means that authoritarianism or predisposition to fascism is not a difference in kind but of degree: Everyone is more or less authoritarian. The most authoritarian thing would be to deny—to fail to recognize—one’s own authoritarianism.| §


Notes

[1] “[T]he mass basis of fascism, the rebelling lower middle classes, contained not only reactionary but also powerful progressive social forces. This contradiction was overlooked [by contemporary Marxists]” in Wilhelm Reich, “Ideology as Material Power” in The Mass Psychology of Fascism [1933/46], trans. Vincent Carfagno (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), 3–4.

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty” [1933], Selected Writings vol. 2 1927 –34, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap, Harvard, 1996), 732.

[3] Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” [1845], available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/>.

[4] See Max Horkheimer, “On the Sociology of Class Relations” [1943] and my discussion of it, “Without a Socialist Party, there is no Class Struggle, only Rackets,” Nonsite.org (January 11, 2016), available on-line at: <http://nonsite.org/the-tank/max-horkheimer-and-the-sociology-of-class-relations>. In “The Authoritarian State” [1940/42], Horkheimer wrote that,

Sociological and psychological concepts are too superficial to express what has happened to revolutionaries in the last few decades: their will toward freedom has been damaged, without which neither understanding nor solidarity nor a correct relation between leader and group is conceivable. (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gephardt [New York: Continuum, 1985], 95–117.)

[5] “Sociology and Psychology” [1955], originally written by Adorno for a festschrift celebrating Max Horkheimer’s sixtieth birthday, The piece was published in English translation in two parts in the New Left Review, vol. 46, Nov-Dec 1967, 63-80 and vol. 47, Jan-Feb 1968, 79-97.

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950).

[7] Adorno, “Imaginative Excesses” an unpublished piece intended for Minima Moralia,[1944–47] published as section X of “Messages in a Bottle,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, New Left Review, vol. 200, July-August 1993, 12–14.

[8] Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” [1938], Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 314.

[9] Ibid., 315.

[10] See Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” Selected Writings vol. 2 1927–34, Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 19989). 720–722: “The child plays at being not only a shopkeeper or teacher, but a windmill and a train” (720).

[11] Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory”, in Can One Live After Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Others (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 93-110.

[12] See Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852] Ch. VII, where he finds that political atomization leads inexorably to the authoritarian state in Bonapartism:

Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection . . . and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them . . . and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The[ir] political influence . . . therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself. (Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch07.htm>.)

Marx’s discussion of the French peasants of the mid-19th century also applied to what he called the “lumpenproletariat” as a constituent of Bonapartism, and so would apply to the working class in capitalism today without a political party organized for the struggle to achieve socialism. The “sack of potatoes” or of “homologous magnitudes” is what Adorno, among others, characterized as the “masses” in the 20th century. (For instance, Benjamin wrote in the Epilogue to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [1936] that fascism gave the masses the opportunity to express themselves while depriving them their right to change society.)

Adorno paraphrases Marx here when he writes that,

The masses are incessantly molded from above, they must be mulded, if they are to be kept at bay. The overwhelming machinery of propaganda and cultural industry evidences the necessity of this apparatus for the perpetuation of a set-up the potentialities of which have outgrown the status quo. Since this potential is also the potential of effective resistance against the fascist trend, it is imperative to study the mentality of those who are at the receiver’s end of today’s social dynamics. We must study them not only because they reflect these dynamics, but above all because they are the latter’s intrinsic anti-thesis.

The manifestation — and potential resolution — of this contradiction of the masses in capitalism that otherwise resulted in Bonapartism was through the politics of socialism: Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” was to be achieved by the mass-political socialist party. Marx broke with the anarchists over the latter’s refusal to take “political action” and to thus consign the working class to merely “social action.” i.e. to avoid the necessary struggle for state power.

[13] See my “Proletarian dictatorship and state capitalism,” Weekly Worker 1064 (June 25, 2015), available on-line at: <http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1064/proletarian-dictatorship-and-state-capitalism/>.

[14] Marx, Preface to the 1869 edition of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852], available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/preface.htm>.

[15] Adorno, “New York, 8 February 1941” in Dream Notes (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007), 5-6.

[16] See Anna Freud, “Identification with the Aggressor,” Ch. IX, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence [1936].

[17] Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, [1952], trans., Charles Lam Markmann, (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 181.

[18] This is because, according to Adorno, “Those who are incapable of believing their own cause… must constantly prove to themselves the truth of their gospel through the reality and irreversibility of their deeds.” Violent action takes the place of thought and self-reflection; but this suggests the converse, that critical thinking could prevent such disastrous action. See Adorno, “Education after Auschwitz” [1966], in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. and ed. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 191–204.

[19] See Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” [1951], in The Culture Industry (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 132–157.

[20] Fanon, Black Skin, 178.

Why not Trump?

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #89 | September 2016

Distributed as a flyer [PDF] along with “The Sandernistas: P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party” (June 22, 2016) [PDF].

If one blows all the smoke away, one is left with the obvious question: Why not Trump?[1]

Trump’s claim to the Presidency is two-fold: that he’s a successful billionaire businessman; and that he’s a political outsider. His political opponents must dispute both these claims. But Trump is as much a billionaire and as much a successful businessman and as much a political outsider as anyone else.

Trump says he’s fighting against a “rigged system.” No one can deny that the system is rigged.

Trump is opposed by virtually the entire mainstream political establishment, Republican and Democrat, and by the entire mainstream news media, conservative and liberal alike. And yet he could win. That says something. It says that there is something there.

Trump has successfully run against and seeks to overthrow the established Republican 1980s-era “Reagan Revolution” coalition of neoliberals, neoconservatives, Strict Construction Constitutionalist conservatives and evangelical Christian fundamentalists — against their (always uneasy) alliance as well as against all of its component parts.

It is especially remarkable that such vociferous opposition is mounted against such a moderate political figure as Trump, who until not long ago was a Centrist moderate-conservative Democrat, and is now a Centrist moderate-conservative Republican — running against a moderate-conservative Democrat.

Trump claims that he is the “last chance” for change. This may be true.

Indeed, it is useful to treat all of Trump’s claims as true — and all of those by his adversaries as false. For when Trump lies, still, his lies tell the truth. When Trump’s opponents tell the truth they still lie.

When Trump appears ignorant of the ways of the world, he expresses a wisdom about the status quo. The apparent “wisdom” of the status quo by contrast is the most pernicious form of ignorance.

For example, Trump says that the official current unemployment rate of 5% is a lie: there are more than 20% out of work, most of whom have stopped seeking employment altogether. It is a permanent and not fluctuating condition. Trump points out that this is unacceptable. Mainstream economists say that Trump’s comments about this are not false but “unhelpful” because nothing can be done about it.

The neoliberal combination of capitalist austerity with post-1960s identity politics of “race, gender and sexuality” that is the corporate status quo means allowing greater profits — necessitated by lower capitalist growth overall since the 1970s — while including more minorities and women in the workforce and management. Trump is attacking this not out of “racism” or “misogyny” but against the lowered expectations of the “new normal.”

When Trump says that he will provide jobs for “all Americans” this is not a lie but bourgeois ideology, which is different.

The mendacity of the status quo is the deeper problem.[2]

For instance, his catch-phrase, “Make America Great Again!” has the virtue of straightforward meaning. It is the opposite of Obama’s “Change You Can Believe In” or Hillary’s “Stronger Together.”

These have the quality of the old McDonald’s slogan, “What you want is what you get” — which meant that you will like it just as they give it to you — replaced by today’s simpler “I’m loving it!” But what if we’re not loving it? What if we don’t accept what Hillary says against Trump, “America is great already”?

When Trump says “I’m with you!” this is in opposition to Hillary’s “We’re with her!” — Hillary is better for that gendered pronoun?

Trump promises to govern “for everyone” and proudly claims that he will be “boring” as President. There is no reason not to believe him.

Everything Trump calls for exists already. There is already surveillance and increased scrutiny of Muslim immigrants in the “War on Terror.” There is already a war against ISIS. There is already a wall on the border with Mexico; there are already mass deportations of “illegal” immigrants. There are already proposals that will be implemented anyway for a super-exploited guest-worker immigration program. International trade is heavily regulated with many protections favoring U.S. companies already in place. Hillary will not change any of this. Given the current crisis of global capitalism, international trade is bound to be reconfigured anyway.

One change unlikely under Hillary that Trump advocates, shifting from supporting Saudi Arabia to détente with Russia, for instance in Syria — would this be a bad thing?[3]

But everything is open to compromise: Trump says only that he thinks he can get a “better deal for America.” He campaigns to be “not a dictator” but the “negotiator-in-chief.” To do essentially what’s already being done, but “smarter” and more effectively. This is shocking the system?

When he’s called a “narcissist who cares only for himself” — for instance by “Pocahontas” Senator Elizabeth Warren — this is by those who are part of an elaborate political machine for maintaining the status quo who are evidently resentful that he doesn’t need to play by their rules.

This includes the ostensible “Left,” which has a vested interest in continuing to do things as they have been done for a very long time already. The “Left” is thus nothing of the sort. They don’t believe change is possible. Or they find any potential change undesirable: too challenging. If change is difficult and messy, that doesn’t make it evil. But what one fears tends to be regarded as evil.

Their scare-mongering is self-serving — self-interested. It is they who care only for themselves, their way of doing things, their positions. But, as true narcissists, they confuse this as caring for others. These others are only extensions of themselves.

Trump says that he “doesn’t need this” and that he’s running to “serve the country.” This is true.

Trump’s appeal is not at all extreme — but it is indeed extreme to claim that anyone who listens to him is beyond the boundaries of acceptable politics. The election results in November whatever their outcome will show just how many people are counted out by the political status quo. The silent majority will speak. The only question is how resoundingly they do so. Will they be discouraged?

Many who voted for Obama will now vote for Trump. Enough so he could win.

This leads to the inescapable conclusion: Anti-Trump-ism is the problem and obstacle, not Trump.

The status quo thinks that change is only incremental and gradual. Anything else is either impossible or undesirable. But really the only changes they are willing to accept prove to be no changes at all.

This recalls the character in Voltaire’s novel Candide, Professor Pangloss, who said that we live in “The best of all possible worlds.” No one on the avowed “Left” should think such a thing — and yet they evidently do.

Illustration of Professor Pangloss instructing Candide, by Adrien Moreau (1893).

Illustration of Professor Pangloss instructing Candide, by Adrien Moreau (1893).

There is significant ambivalence on the “far Left” about opposing Trump and supporting Hillary. A more or less secret wish for Trump that is either kept quiet or else psychologically denied to oneself functions here. There is a desire to punish the Democrats for nominating such an openly conservative candidate, for instance, voting for the Greens’ Jill Stein, which would help Trump win.

The recent Brexit vote shows that when people are given the opportunity they reject the status quo. The status-quo response has been that they should not have been given the opportunity.

Finding Trump acceptable is not outrageous. But the outrageous anti-Trump-ism — the relentless spinning and lying of the status quo defending itself — is actually not acceptable. Not if any political change whatsoever is desired.

In all the nervous hyperventilation of the complacent status quo under threat, there is the obvious question that is avoided but must be asked by anyone not too frightened to think — by anyone trying to think seriously about politics, especially possibilities for change:

Why not Trump?

For which the only answer is: To preserve the status quo.

Not against “worse” — that might be beyond any U.S. President’s control anyway — but simply for things as they already are.

We should not accept that.

So: Why not Trump? | P


Notes

[1] See my June 22, 2016 “P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis in the Republican Party,” amendment to my “The Sandernistas: Postscript on the March 15 primaries,” Platypus Review 85 (April 2016), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2016/03/30/the-sandernistas/#pps>.

[2] See Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics,” Crises of the Republic (New York, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1969): “A characteristic of human action is that it always begins something new. . . . In order to make room for one’s own action, something that was there before must be removed or destroyed. . . . Such change would be impossible if we could not mentally remove ourselves . . . and imagine that things might as well be different from what they actually are. . . . [T]he deliberate denial of factual truth — the ability to lie — and the capacity to change facts — the ability to act — are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source: imagination.”

[3] See Robert Parry, “The Danger of Excessive Trump Bashing,” in CommonDreams.org August 4, 2016, available on-line at: <http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/08/04/danger-excessive-trump-bashing>.

Deferred

Chris Cutrone

Letter in Weekly Worker 1116 (July 21, 2016). [PDF]

I would like to follow up on my articles, ‘What was social democracy?’ (July 7) and ‘Sacrifice and redemption’ (July 14), and comment on the question of social democracy and the need for a socialist political party today, especially in light of controversies around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and the challenge to the Democratic Party represented by the ostensibly social democratic – ‘democratic socialist’ – Bernie Sanders, as well as the crisis of the EU around Brexit and its social democratic parties, such as the collapse of Pasok and rise of Syriza in Greece, and the equivocal role of Portuguese, Spanish and French socialists.

What has been forgotten today is the essential lesson for Marxism in the failure of the 1848 revolutions, why petty bourgeois democracy is not only inadequate, but is actually blind to, and indeed an obstacle for, the political task of overcoming capitalism.

In its heyday, Marxism assumed that social democracy had as its active political constituent a working class struggling for socialism. Today, social democracy treats the working class not as a subject as much as an object of government policy and civic philanthropy. Through social democracy as it exists today, the working class merely begs for good politicians and good capitalists. But it does not seek to take responsibility for society into its own hands. Without the struggle for socialism, the immediate goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the working class merely becomes a partner in production at best, and an economic interest group at worst.

This is what the liquidation into petty bourgeois democracy means: naturalising the framework of capital. International social democracy once signified the means for achieving the dictatorship of the proletariat. Without this as its goal, it has come to mean something entirely different. The working class has deferred to those it once sought to lead. | §

The Sandernistas: P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party

Chris Cutrone, June 22, 2016

Further amendment to “The Sandernistas: The final triumph of the 1980s” (Platypus Review 82, December 2015 – January 2016) and “Postscript on the March 15 primaries” (Platypus Review 85, April 2016), after the end of the primary elections.

Trump is no “fascist,” nor even really a “populist,”1 but is precisely what the Republicans accuse him of being: a New York-style Democrat — like the socially and economically liberal but blowhard “law-and-order” conservative former 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Trump challenges Hillary precisely because they occupy such similar moderate Centrist positions on the U.S. political spectrum, whatever their various differences on policy. Trump more than Sanders represents something new and different in this election season: a potential post- and not pre-neoliberal form of capitalist politics, regarding changes in policies that have continued from Reagan through Obama, driven by discontents of those alienated from both Parties. Trump has successfully run against and seeks to overthrow the established Republican 1980s-era “Reagan Revolution” coalition of neoliberals, neoconservatives, Strict Construction Constitutionalist conservatives and evangelical Christian fundamentalists — against their (always uneasy) alliance as well as against all of its component parts. Established Republicans recoil at undoing the Reagan Coalition they have mobilized since the 1980s. Marco Rubio as well as Ted Cruz — both of whom were adolescents in the 1980s — denounced Trump not only for his “New York values” but also and indicatively as a “socialist.” Glenn Beck said that Trump meant that the America of “statism” of the Progressives Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had won over the America of “freedom” of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Of course that is ideological and leaves aside the problem of capitalism, which Trump seeks to reform. Sanders could have potentially bested Trump as a candidate for reform, perhaps, but only on the basis of a much greater and more substantial mobilization for a different politics than it is evidently possible to muster through the Democrats, whose nostalgia for the New Deal, Great Society and New Left does not provide the necessary resources.

Trump has succeeded precisely where Sanders has failed in marshaling the discontents with neoliberalism and demand for change. Sanders has collapsed into the Democratic Party. To succeed, Sanders would have needed to run against the Democrats the way Trump has run against the Republicans. This would have meant challenging the ruling Democratic neoliberal combination of capitalist austerity with New Left identity politics of “race, gender and sexuality” that is the corporate status quo. The results of Trump’s contesting of Reaganite and Clintonian and Obama-era neoliberalism remain to be seen. The biggest “party” remains those who don’t vote. Trump will win if he mobilizes more of them than Clinton. Clinton is the conservative in this election; Trump is the candidate for change. The Republicans have been in crisis in ways the Democrats are not, and this is the political opportunity expressed by Trump. He is seeking to lead the yahoos to the Center as well as meeting their genuine discontents in neoliberalism. Of course the change Trump represents is insufficient and perhaps unworkable, but it is nonetheless necessary. Things must change; they will change. As Marx said, “All that is solid melts into air.” The future of any potential struggle for socialism in the U.S. will be on a basis among not only those who have voted for Sanders but also those who have and will vote for Trump. | §


Note

  1. See Tad Tietze, “The Trump paradox: A rough guide for the Left,” Left Flank (January 25, 2016). Available on-line at <http://left-flank.org/2016/01/25/the-trump-paradox-a-rough-guide-for-the-left/>. []