Benjamin’s philosophy of history

Freedom in history?

Chris Cutrone

Presented on the panel “Reconsidering Benjamin,” with panelists Alfred Frankowski (University of Oregon) and Donald Hedrick (Kansas State University), at the Rethinking Marxism 2009 conference, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, November 7, 2009. A prior, expanded version was presented at the University of Chicago History of Culture Symposium, May 30, 2008. Draft: not to be cited in present form.

I’d like to begin with a few citations as epigraphs, on the concepts of “freedom” and “history.” The first is from James Miller’s Introduction to the 1992 Hackett edition of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality:

The principle of freedom and its corollary, “perfectibility,” . . . suggest that the possibilities for being human are both multiple and, literally, endless. . . . Contemporaries like Kant well understood the novelty and radical implications of Rousseau’s new principle of freedom [and] appreciated his unusual stress on history as the site where the true nature of our species is simultaneously realized and perverted, revealed and distorted.  A new way of thinking about the human condition had appeared. . . .  As Hegel put it, “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man, who thus apprehended himself as infinite.”

Next, to address the concept of “history,” I’d like to quote from Peter Preuss’s Introduction to the 1980 Hackett edition of Nietzsche’s On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, which was highly influential for Benjamin:

The nineteenth century had discovered history and all subsequent inquiry and education bore the stamp of this discovery. This was not simply the discovery of a set of facts about the past but the discovery of the historicity of man: man, unlike the animal, is a historical being. Man is not wholly the product of an alien act, either natural or divine, but in part produces his own being. The task of existing is a task precisely because it is not a case of acting according to a permanent nature or essence but rather of producing that nature within the limitations of a situation. History is the record of this self-production; it is the activity of a historical being recovering the past into a present which anticipates the future. With a total absence of this activity man would fall short of humanity: history is necessary.

But what if this activity is perverted? What if, rather than remaining the life-promoting activity of a historical being, history is turned into the objective uncovering of mere facts by the disinterested scholar — facts to be left as they are found, to be contemplated without being assimilated into present being? . . . [T]his perversion has taken place — and history, rather than promoting life, has become deadly. This, then, is the dilemma: . . . history is necessary, but as it is practiced it is deadly.

The third and final epigraph I’d like to cite, also on “history,” is from Louis Menand’s Introduction to the 2003 republication of Edmund Wilson’s 1940 book To the Finland Station, which addressed the history of the Left from its emergence in the French Revolution all the way up to the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917:

In pre-modern societies, the ends of life are given at the beginning of life: people do things in their generation so that the same things will continue to be done in the next generation. Meaning is immanent in all the ordinary customs and practices of existence, since these are inherited from the past, and are therefore worth reproducing. The idea is to make the world go not forward, only around. In modern societies, the ends of life are not given at the beginning of life; they are thought to be created or discovered. The reproduction of the customs and practices of the group is no longer the chief purpose of existence; the idea is not to repeat, but to change, to move the world forward. Meaning is no longer immanent in the practices of ordinary life, since those practices are understood by everyone to be contingent and time-bound. This is why death, in modern societies, is the great taboo, an absurdity, the worst thing one can imagine. For at the close of life people cannot look back and know that they have accomplished the task set for them at birth. This knowledge always lies up ahead, somewhere over history’s horizon. Modern societies don’t know what will count as valuable in the conduct of life in the long run, because they have no way of knowing what conduct the long run will find itself in a position to respect. The only certain knowledge death comes with is the knowledge that the values of one’s own time, the values one has tried to live by, are expunge-able. . . .

Marxism gave a meaning to modernity. It said that, wittingly or not, the individual performs a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a trajectory, and that modernity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. Historical change is not arbitrary. It is generated by class conflict; it is faithful to an inner logic; it points toward an end, which is the establishment of the classless society. Marxism was founded on an appeal for social justice, but there were many forms that such an appeal might have taken. Its deeper attraction was the discovery of meaning, a meaning in which human beings might participate, in history itself. When Wilson explained, in his introduction to the 1972 edition of To the Finland Station, that his book had been written under the assumption that “an important step in progress has been made, that a fundamental ‘breakthrough’ had occurred,” this is the faith he was referring to. . . . Marx and Engels were the philosophes of a second Enlightenment.

The relevance of history is not given but made, in a dialectical sense. As Marx put it, humanity makes history but not under conditions of its own choosing (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852). History is made but in ways that also produce us, and so we need to be conscious of how history is made and reflect upon its significance, rather than taking it for granted. Furthermore, “history” itself is a modern discovery: history is historical. This is not least why Walter Benjamin spoke, in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” of the “writing” of history, historiography on the Left being urgent for emancipatory politics, for the possibilities for social emancipation are not only historical but point to potentials beyond the historical, to the possibility of getting beyond history, for which capital might be the beginning and the end.

Benjamin’s concept of “constellation” refers to the sense that historical moments might not have pertinence to the present in a linear-progressive way. Rather, these historical constellations appear as structuring figures in the constitution of the present, as enduring problems yet to be worked through. Hence something that happened more recently might not have more immediate relevance to problems of the present than something that happened longer ago. Something later might expire faster because it is less essential to the present than something earlier might allow us to grasp.

Such constellations in the appearance of history are involuntary: as Benjamin put it, they “flash up;” as Marx put it, they “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” So history cannot be an inventory of “lessons already learned.” According to Nietzsche, responding to the Hegelian account of history as the story of reason and freedom, there is in history a dialectic of enlightenment and mythologization. For, as Benjamin put it, “even the dead are not safe.” The significance of the past changes as a function of the present. The meaning of history is itself a symptom to be worked through. This is why Benjamin spoke of regarding history from the standpoint of its redemption. What value do past thoughts and actions have? The history of the Left furnishes a set of questions and problems that we are tasked to answer according to the way the problem of freedom presents to us. But, as Adorno put it (in Negative Dialectics, 1966), “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.”

For Benjamin, this non-linear function of the past in the present constitutes the critical purchase of the melancholic-neurotic compulsion to repeat, the capture of the present by the past, but as a symptom yet to be worked through, in the Freudian sense that a symptom potentially yields, together, both knowledge and freedom.

For Benjamin, the problem of historical meaning was inextricably bound up with the dynamic of capital that provoked consciousness of history itself. “History” was a product of modernity, and was itself a form of appearance of social modernity under capital. “History” was historical, and thus subject to a “historico-philosophical” critique of what its appearance signaled and meant.

With the phrase “philosophy of history,” two figures immediately come to the fore: Hegel and Nietzsche. Both Nietzsche and Hegel sought to interrogate and problematize the very possibility of a philosophy of history, or of grasping a coherent meaning to history, and so both are foundational for and help to situate Benjamin’s attack on the “historicism” originating in the 19th century and symptomatically characterizing “historical” consciousness since then. The question becomes what it means to think about history. Furthermore, for Benjamin, Marx’s observation that history “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” is related to Nietzsche’s observation that (modern) historical consciousness was pathological and symptomatic, and potentially, if not manifestly, invidious for (present) life. For Marx and Nietzsche, (each in their own way) following Hegel, (the meaning of) history was something, not to be deified, but rather transformed and overcome.

So, crucially, for Benjamin, neither Hegel nor Nietzsche can be considered “historicist” thinkers, despite (myriad mistaken) attempts (from Right-Hegelian German academicism to “post-modern” Foucauldian “genealogies”) to base an epistemology or method on their critical philosophical investigations into the meaning of history, their attempts to raise the appearance of history to critical self-consciousness. Marx sought to follow Hegel in such a critical specification of history, and Nietzsche can be considered a contributor to Benjamin parallel to Marx, whose work gained a renewed importance as a kind of bad conscience to the vulgarization of Marxism in the late 19th century, when Marxism began exhibiting the same hypostatized progressive view of history that liberalism had demonstrated earlier. Vulgarized Marxism thus had become an affirmative philosophy of history to which, for Benjamin, Nietzsche’s thought could be productively opposed and brought into tension.

An early (pre-Marxist) writing by Benjamin, the “Theologico-Political Fragment” circa 1920, introduces metaphysical categories important for Benjamin’s later engagements with the problem of historical meaning.

[Read Benjamin, “Theologico-Political Fragment.”]

Benjamin raises two dimensions of historical temporality, one, in the “profane” direction of the pursuit of happiness, which is understood as informed by the temporality of the “eternal passing away” of mortal nature, and, the other, in the “sacred” direction of Messianic eschatology, with the consummation of history in redemption at the end of time, the end of all temporality, with its paradoxical image of (the restitutio in integrum or) bodily resurrection.

Several schema are raised by Benjamin to help situate the stakes of the meaning of history along these axial tensions of the opposed pursuit of happiness and demand for redemption. The failure to attain happiness is what produces the demand for redemption. Happiness is sacrificed in pursuit of redemption, and redemption is abrogated, its promise forgotten in the pursuit of happiness. So history as the story of happiness’s failure is necessarily accompanied by the story of history as the demand for redemption. According to Benjamin, this means that the pursuit of mortal happiness nevertheless “assists” the coming of the “Messianic Kingdom” of redemption by “its quietist approach.” Thus Benjamin attempts to establish a dialectic of happiness and redemption, which also involves a dialectic of cyclical and linear temporality: linear by way of an “end” in redemption, and cyclical by way of the temporality of nature’s “eternal passing away.”

A famous phrase by Marx describes how, under capital, changes in the cultural and political “subjective” “superstructure” occur more slowly than those of the “objective” socioeconomic “base,” which is constantly revolutionized according to a linear-progressive dynamic of a limitless drive of value maximization. Failing to recognize the key aspect of this phrase, about changes occurring “more slowly” in the “superstructure” than in the “base,” subsequent supposed “Marxists” have generalized from the descriptive (and subordinate) imagery of “base” and “superstructure” as if this distinction was Marx’s epistemological point. And mistaking Marx’s understanding of the relation of “political economy” to the totality of social life under capital, the further vulgarization of this mis-generalization has assumed that Marx was addressing a distinction between a more fundamentally “real” “economic” basis and a more “epiphenomenal” and arbitrary political and cultural sphere. But this loses Marx’s sense that concrete forms of material production in the economy are themselves “epiphenomenal” and subject to a more “fundamental” alienated temporal dynamic of the value-form in capital. Forms of industrial production in factories etc. are not the fundamental reality of capital but rather its disposable effects as human beings have tried (and failed) to master its value dynamic.

It is this incessantly dynamic field of “revolutions” in concrete ways of life, for which according to Marx “all that is solid melts into air,” that gives rise to a new and exacting consciousness of “history,” beginning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Human beings living under the capital dynamic become tasked to try to make sense of these dramatic — and destructive as well as “productively” progressive — changes, to make sense of history and question whether and how human agency exists in and through history. The “Left,” to which this history first gave birth (in the French Revolution), is itself inextricably part of this historical dynamic, for which emancipation and enlightened consciousness are inseparably tied. The “Left” seeks to be the most adequate consciousness and effective action in service of fulfilling concrete emancipatory possibilities presented in the history of capital, while grasping the underlying dynamic as the greatest threat and so limit to the possibilities for further developing the social emancipation the capital dynamic makes possible in people’s concrete ways of life.

What Benjamin offered was not an opposition of regression to progress but a necessary corrective to a mistaken and tragic identification with the aggression of the progressive dynamic of modern life and its incessant transformations. For melancholia is not really about the past but rather the present and its problems, for which the past offers a grasp and way to cope, as well as an indication of the failed mastery it expresses. Benjamin sought to make the demands that consciousness of history presents symptomatic in the sense of what Adorno, after Benjamin, called “consciousness of suffering.”

A sense of history that remains cognizant of both the potential for freedom and the suffering that results from its constraint, of the struggle for happiness and the redemption of its cruelest disappointments, of a present that is structured by past failures, is what Benjamin sought in his “negative” philosophy of history, which was neither an enchantment nor a disenchantment of progress, but the consciousness of the regression involved in the “progress” which is none under capital, and the memory that it might have been and so yet could be otherwise. | §

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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Obama and the “Left”

Progress or regress?

Considering the future of Leftist politics under Obama

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the Platypus Affiliated Society public forum on “Progress or regress? Considering the future of Leftist politics under Obama,” with panelists Stephen Duncombe (New York University), Pat Korte (new Students for a Democratic Society), Charles Post (Solidarity), and Paul Street, New York University, December 6, 2008. An edited transcript of the forum was published in The Platypus Review #12 (May 2009).

I am Chris Cutrone, and I am speaking for Platypus, which organized this forum.

First, I would like to clarify: I don’t think that the topic should be what the Left can or should do under an Obama administration. Rather, we need to admit that there is no Left today. And we need to consider and explore the conditions of possibility for a Left coming into existence some time in the foreseeable future, perhaps under Obama.

Obama’s election is a good occasion for the clarification of several issues that block the reconstitution of a Left adequate to the present and future.

For it is Platypus’s contention that “the Left is dead!” We say this so that one day there might be a living Left, a force in the world for social emancipation that is lacking today. We regard the present absence of a Left to be a matter of consciousness, a lack of recognition of the actual progressive-emancipatory possibilities in the world as presently constituted. We consider the “Left” today to be a mere relic of past forms of consciousness that are either no longer adequate to the present or were inadequate even in their original historical moments.

So we in Platypus consider the “Left” as it exists today to be actually a pseudo-“Left,” an agglomeration of perspectives and notions — a set of more or less coherent but mostly incoherent ideologies — but not an authentic, coherent and powerful consciousness or set of recognitions and ideas, and certainly not a social force.

The confusion with which today’s pseudo-“Left” is faced around Obama has multiple registers, and several layers of historical roots, some of which I wish to lay out and discuss, now in my opening remarks, as well as later in the Q&A.

Before that, however, I wish to use myself as an example. From the moment Obama announced his candidacy, I felt strongly he would be the next President. This is because I — unlike those on the “Left” — recognized that a historical shift — a generational passing — had taken place, which had made most of the reasons one might suppose Obama to fail superceded and obsolete. — Obama, by contrast, was a shrewd enough politician to recognize in himself an instrument adequate to the historical moment, one that he has played to great effect.

Generationally, Obama is free in certain key respects from the symbolism of the 1960s that has subsumed politics for more than 40 years. In the process of the election, and as a result of the financial crisis, the hitherto predominant symbolism, for instance, Iraq for Vietnam, has passed in favor of the 1930s Great Depression and FDR. But already earlier in the campaign, Obama had represented an unwinding of the 1960s era and a return to the imagery of either Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Kennedys. History had already begun to unwind from 1968 to the 1963 March on Washington or more precisely to 1960 and JFK’s election. We have evidently gotten beyond the endless repetition of 1972 and Nixon vs. McGovern only to arrive back at Camelot! The 1960s New Left and its aftermath have become historically bracketed, and after 40 years, this was none too soon!

Such regression, the degree to which it has freed the social imagination from the trap of the late ’60s, has been, if not “progressive,” then at least salutary.

For instance, on the issue of “race” in America, Obama has been neither a traditional “black” politician nor has his victory been “post-racial.” Rather, Obama has expressed a transformation in the way “race” and racism function, a definite end to the period of post-Jim Crow, post-Civil Rights and post-Black Power forms of social consciousness and politics.

The “Left” has responded to this shift Obama has represented with as much fear as desire. There has been a great deal of anxiety generated about the nature and character of this change. For the most part, there has been anxiety and regret on the “Left” about the end of “black politics” as it has functioned since the 1960s.

Worse still, virtually everyone on the “Left” seemed to harbor either an explicit or secret skepticism or disbelief at Obama’s chances. This incredulity was rooted in the “Left’s” mistaken understanding and imagination of the ways anti-black racism actually function in America today, and how they have functioned historically leading to the present.

The U.S. is no longer racist in the ways it has been, either in the Jim Crow era nor in the ’60s period or its aftermath. Unfortunately, this does not mean a change beneficial for the majority of black people, but it does mean the need for a new social imagination and politics. Obama’s election didn’t change anything, nor will it, but it did reveal a change that had been long underway. As Bayard Rustin pointed out in the 1960s, black people don’t suffer from bad attitudes but from bad social conditions. Attitudes may have changed but social conditions have not improved — in fact, in many respects they have worsened, and the ways social conditions work against black people for instance have changed: poverty and other forms of disempowerment of the working class function differently today than in the 1950s–60s Civil Rights era, and to the detriment of politics.

But the “Left’s” incredulity about this change means only one thing: that the “Left” is more racist than the general population — without this meaning that the greater populace is more “progressive.” This is because the “Left” is more ideological and more conservative-reactionary in its outlook, trapped in a set of historical blinders that the greater society has long since overcome.

The fact that such changes have not been unambiguously — or indeed at all — “progressive,” in the sense of social emancipation and empowerment, does not mean that the changes have not taken place or that a Left perspective could afford to ignore them.

The fear with which this significance of Obama’s victory has been met by the “Left” is rooted in an attempt to avoid or ward off recognition of the obvious: that an earlier form of politics, specifically “black politics,” of the post-Civil Rights and post-Black Power period, from the 1970s through the 1980s and ’90s, was defunct — if indeed it had ever had any viability at all.

The question is how to respond to the evident depoliticization that Obama represents. — For Obama in no way stood at the head of a “movement” but only of an effective electoral strategy. Obama’s electoral organization cannot be put to other ends, or transformed into a social movement. It cannot be force for change, let alone transformation.

If this inherently conservative character of Obama’s victory is faced, what will it mean for conceiving a “Leftist” politics that can and must reckon with the changed conditions of social politics Obama’s success has revealed?

This is the question that the “Left” tries to avoid.

Instead, the Left has become enthralled by the court politics of Obama’s Cabinet appointments and other such clues into which they can try to read his intentions.

Obama himself has acknowledged how he functions as a “projection screen” for others’ desires and hopes (and also perhaps their anxieties and fears). Obama’s soft authoritarianism is significant, for it reveals that the “Left” is hardly free of this inherently conservative and depoliticizing aspect of American “politics.”

For it is Platypus’s contention that we not only live today in the absence of a “Left,” but also in the absence of effective politics. Obama is, no less than Bush and Clinton were, the effect of politics in the absence of politics.

Changing this will be a very difficult and manifold task, involving the reinvigoration of organized labor as well as the deep interrogation and transformation of consciousness of present social realities on the “Left.” It will require a radical rebirth of the Left.

But Obama’s victory might at least help sweep away some of the obstacles in social consciousness and imagination that have held back the “Left” for more than a generation. But only if we recognize the opportunity of the present moment for what it is, without either positive or negative illusions. | §


Obama and Clinton: “Third Way” politics and the “Left”

Chris Cutrone

FOR THE “LEFT” that is critical of him, the most common comparison made of Obama is to Bill Clinton.

This critique of Obama, as of Clinton, denounces his “Centrism,” the trajectory he appears to continue from the “new” Democratic Party of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) expressed by Clinton and Gore’s election in 1992. Clinton’s election was seen as part of the triumph of “Third Way” politics that contemporaneously found expression in Tony Blair’s “New Labour” Party in Britain.

The idea of such “Third Way” politics is that, compared to the prior political polarizations that developed around the Reagan and Thatcher neoliberal assault on the Keynesian-Fordist state and the resistance against this trend by traditional “social-democratic” politics, the “radical Center” expressed the possibility of a deeper and more effective political transformation. — What if the “Third Way” politicians were correct?

While the “Left” attacks Obama for being too Centrist or Right-wing, a neoliberal in blackface, the Right attacks Obama for being a closet “socialist” (or “Marxist”!). But both attacks neglect the fundamental transformation of politics that has taken place over the course of the past generation, since the “Reagan Revolution”: the Right cynically because they wish to demagogically drive their conservative-reactionary politics ever further; and the “Left” more despairingly because they have never made proper sense of the crisis of the Keynesian-Fordist state, and so have thought that the neoliberal Right’s efforts can be simply reversed with a “progressive” outcome — that Keynesian Fordism had been progressive and not regressive in terms of social emancipation.

Behind this lies a deeper confusion that informed the problematic politics of the 1960s “New” Left, and behind that, the reformism of the Left of the 1930s. The “Old” Left had jumped on the bandwagon of FDR’s New Deal reforms — and the remaking of Europe and Japan as well as the postcolonial “developing” states in a Keynesian-Fordist “social-democratic” image after WWII. The “New” Left responded to this conservatization ambivalently, however, attacking the authoritarian liberalism of JFK and LBJ in the 1960s, but then attempting to stave off its collapse in the 1970s-80s. In this the post-’60s “Left” has been as mistaken in its defense as it had been previously in its attack.

The “social democratic” politics of the mid-20th century involved tying the workers’ movement to state policies, depoliticizing labor struggles and eviscerating the remnants of the socialist movement of the early 20th century. The collapse of such Keynesian-Fordist reformist politics began in the 1970s and has carried through the ’80s and ’90s to the present. The displacement of the reformism associated with the Democratic Party (and Labour in the U.K.) by a “new” Right starting in the 1970s was facilitated by the demobilization of the working class as a social force with its roots in the 1930s, the period of the Stalinization of Marxism — the transformation of Marxism into a reformist ideology.

The alliance of such “Marxism” with liberalism and social democracy in the Popular Front against fascism in Europe and with FDR’s Democratic Party in the 1930s and during WWII, despite the Cold War against the USSR and its allies that followed, collectively remade the world in its image of politics. What was most important about the politics of the mid-20th century were not the struggles, however epic, it contained and expressed, but rather how such politics repressed possibilities for social emancipation.

The challenge “Third Way” politics has offered to the terms of both the Old and New Left, emerging from the crisis of the Keynesian-Fordist state in the latter part of the 20th century, has not been met. The changes this politics has augured are askew of the mainstream conceptions of “Left” and “Right” as they were established in the mid-20th century, after the collapse of the Left into a conservative phenomenon in and through the Popular Front of the 1930s, and the subsequent failure to renew emancipatory politics in the 1960s. Indeed, the “Left” since the 1960s has been trapped in an essentially conservative pose, trying to hold back the tide of neoliberal changes. The problems inherent in this can be summarized by the divisions the “Left” accepts between “personal” and “government” responsibility, or between libertarian and authoritarian politics — the opposition of individual to collective freedom.

To take one prominent example, Adolph Reed, in a variety of writings and statements in other media prior to the election, has excoriated Obama for his rhetoric of “personal responsibility” regarding the problems facing black Americans. For Reed (as for Jeremiah Wright, and Jesse Jackson, Sr., who in off-air comments expressed a desire to “cut his nuts off” after Obama made a Fathers’ Day commentary about black “dead-beat dads”), Obama’s rhetoric of personal responsibility falls in with the neoliberal politics of disclaiming public (governmental) responsibility for social ills and “privatizes” them instead.

Of course Reed is right to criticize such rhetoric by Obama. But the question remains whether today we ought to proceed as if the main enemy was the rhetoric of the 1965 Moynihan Report, “The Negro Family: the case for national action,” which infamously identified a supposed “culture of poverty” pathology beyond the possibility of state amelioration, and sought to disenchant the 1960s Great Society expansions of the 1930s New Deal. While Reed and others in the 1960s rightly pointed to the essential affinity between the roots of neoconservatism of Moynihan et al. and the paternalism of liberal reformism, they failed to properly clarify the relation between the reformist politics of labor organizations and the state policies and agencies into which these groups were integrated (such as the National Labor Relations Board) in the mid-20th century.

The question is whether the terms of such political battles of the 1960s era are still pertinent — whether we ought to place our hopes in reversing policy changes that have occurred from Reagan through Bill Clinton to George W. Bush — or do we need instead to interrogate the terms of this (apparently) perennial struggle so as to be able to adopt an entirely different and potentially more effective framework for emancipatory politics. For the most significant change from the 1960s to the present has been the decimation of the — reformist, non-class struggle — workers movement.

An authentic Marxian Left would not oppose the politics of the governmental responsibility — of the capitalist state — to that of individual persons. A Marxian approach would neither devolve social responsibility onto individual persons nor would it invest collective responsibility in the form of the capitalist nation-state. Nor would it disclaim personal responsibility but would pose it very differently than liberals do — whether they be liberals of the moralizing “conservative” kind or of the supposedly more radical lifestyle-choice variety.

A Marxian approach would argue that the working class has, at the levels of both individual-personal and collective responsibility, to struggle for socialism — and that Leftist intellectuals have a responsibility to help facilitate this struggle.

Rather than the illusions in Obama — either positive or negative — that associate him simply with the vicissitudes of movement along a spectrum of “Left” and “Right” informed fundamentally by Keynesian-Fordist state policies or their undermining by neoliberalism, a response to the “Third Way” politics Obama represents needs to be formulated that recognizes a historical trajectory that is not reassimilable back into the social politics of the mid-20th century. For such politics had been settled by the time of Clinton’s election in 1992, after the Reagan-Thatcher “revolution” and the destruction of the Soviet Union. There is a line of continuity between Clinton and Obama, but not one of betrayal of the Left but of historical changes for which the “Left” has been ill-prepared.

The triumph of neoliberalism, as well as of “Third Way” politics of the “radical Center” at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Centuries cannot be understood properly as a move to the Right that can be reversed by undoing it or by repolarizing politics according to an earlier mode of government policies. They must be seen as part of a deep-rooted historical trajectory that can only be defeated through a new politicization of the working class for socialism, a politics that has been neglected since the early 20th century.

We must learn the lessons of the 20th century not learned by those who came before us, and not accept the terms by which they rationalized their failures. Obama, as the latest sign of “change” in this on-going trajectory, underscores this necessity.

Like the “Third Way” we should not accept the opposition of individual and collective social responsibility in conceiving our politics. Unlike the “Third Way,” we should not affirm the forms of state and civil society in which these different dimensions of social responsibility are mediated in today’s late, “post-revolutionary” capitalism. We should rise to the challenge of the necessary double-sided critique that can meet the conservative politics of the “Third Way” in terms of its — and our — own historical moment, and not in the obsolete and, even in their time, mistaken and ineffective terms of a moribund “Left.”

Since his election, Obama has made it clear that he wishes to steer clear of outdated polarizations — as well he should, if he wants to be an effective politician. We should not treat this merely as “political” equivocation or obfuscation, but rather as clearing the way to a potential better recognition of social reality. For a long time now, the “Left” has been adept at skirting the issues and accepting, however tacitly, the terms of social politics set by others. For it is as true that “government [of the capitalist nation-state] is not the answer” as it is that neoliberal “free market” reforms have been a farcical debacle — with tremendous costs to humanity. But the historical failure of the Left is what brought us to this impasse of the 20th century, the 21st century opportunity of the “Third Way” and its politics of the “radical Center.” The vacuum of historical politics has been filled, and we need to address this present effective space for politics and not remain self-marginalized, in disdain of it.

We cannot continue the preceding “Left’s” follies in accepting the terms and attempting to re-fight the battles of the 1960 and the 1930s (and their aftermath), in an endless “rear-guard action,” without denying our social reality in its most fundamental respects. Obama has not been a transformative figure in the sense of bringing about a change. Rather, Obama’s victory expresses a change that has been already long under way — and about which the “Left” has remained confused and in denial for far too long, as a result of its abandonment of Marxism.

For a Marxian approach should seek to occupy the vital, radical center of political life, if social emancipation beyond capital is ever to be achieved. Not the intellectual cynicism of “postmodernism” or the despairing utopian politics of an “anarchist” withdrawal from mainstream political life, but an open assault on the on-going conservatizing strategies of depoliticization and the consolidation of power that takes form in ever more socially opaque and inaccessible ways.

Reversing this can only happen in the context of a reinvigorated workers’ movement that would seek to centrally reorganize social life, at a global scale. Today, this must begin with the integrated North American working class, who, occupying the beating heart of the world of capital, has a unique historic responsibility and potentially emancipatory role to play, for whose abdication all of humanity will continue to pay a terrible and escalating price. Addressing the ideological clarification necessary for overcoming this deficit of working class politics will be possible only through Marxian critical theory, carried on by intellectuals trained and dedicated to do this.

As Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), the great revolutionary Marxist politician of the early 20th century stated it, during the disintegration of the international Marxist workers’ movement in the First World War,

Socialism is the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of humankind . . . to try to take its history into its own hands; instead of remaining a will-less football, it will take the tiller of social life and become the pilot to the goal of its own history. (The Crisis of German Social Democracy, AKA the Junius pamphlet, 1915)

We need to resume this fight. | §

Obama and Clinton

Third Way” politics and the “Left”

Chris Cutrone

For the “Left” that is critical of him, the most common comparison made of Obama is to Bill Clinton.

This critique of Obama, as of Clinton, denounces his “Centrism,” the trajectory he appears to continue from the “new” Democratic Party of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) expressed by Clinton and Gore’s election in 1992. Clinton’s election was seen as part of the triumph of “Third Way” politics that contemporaneously found expression in Tony Blair’s “New” Labour Party in Britain.

The idea of such “Third Way” politics is that, compared to the prior political polarizations that developed around the Reagan and Thatcher neoliberal assault on the Keynesian-Fordist state and the resistance against this trend by traditional “social-democratic” politics, the “radical Center” expressed the possibility of a deeper and more effective political transformation. — What if the “Third Way” politicians were correct?

While the “Left” attacks Obama for being too Centrist or Right-wing, a neoliberal in blackface, the Right attacks Obama for being a closet “socialist” (or “Marxist”!). But both attacks neglect the fundamental transformation of politics that has taken place over the course of the past generation, since the “Reagan Revolution”: the Right cynically because they wish to demagogically drive their conservative-reactionary politics ever further; and the “Left” more despairingly because they have never made proper sense of the crisis of the Keynesian-Fordist state, and so have thought that the neoliberal Right’s efforts can be simply reversed with a “progressive” outcome — that Keynesian Fordism had been progressive and not regressive in terms of social emancipation.

Behind this lies a deeper confusion that informed the problematic politics of the 1960s “New” Left, and behind that, the reformism of the Left of the 1930s. The “Old” Left had jumped on the bandwagon of FDR’s New Deal reforms — and the remaking of Europe and Japan as well as the postcolonial “developing” states in a Keynesian-Fordist “social-democratic” image after WWII. The “New” Left responded to this conservatization ambivalently, however, attacking the authoritarian liberalism of JFK and LBJ in the 1960s, but then attempting to stave off its collapse in the 1970s-80s. In this the post-’60s “Left” has been as mistaken in its defense as it had been previously in its attack.

The “social democratic” politics of the mid-20th Century involved tying the workers’ movement to state policies, depoliticizing labor struggles and eviscerating the remnants of the socialist movement of the early 20th Century. The collapse of such Keynesian-Fordist reformist politics began in the 1970s and has carried through the ’80s and ’90s to the present. The displacement of the reformism associated with the Democratic Party (and Labour in the U.K.) by a “new” Right starting in the 1970s was facilitated by the demobilization of the working class as a social force with its roots in the 1930s, the period of the Stalinization of Marxism — the transformation of Marxism into a reformist ideology.

The alliance of such “Marxism” with liberalism and social democracy in the Popular Front against fascism in Europe and with FDR’s Democratic Party in the 1930s and during WWII, despite the Cold War against the USSR and its allies that followed, collectively remade the world in its image of politics. What was most important about the politics of the mid-20th Century was not the struggles, however epic, it contained and expressed, but rather how such politics repressed possibilities for social emancipation.

The challenge “Third Way” politics has offered to the terms of both the Old and New Left, emerging from the crisis of the Keynesian-Fordist state in the latter part of the 20th Century, has not been met. The changes this politics has augured are askew of the mainstream conceptions of “Left” and “Right” as they were established in the mid-20th Century, after the collapse of the Left into a conservative phenomenon in and through the Popular Front of the 1930s, and the subsequent failure to renew emancipatory politics in the 1960s. Indeed, the “Left” since the 1960s has been trapped in an essentially conservative pose, trying to hold back the tide of neoliberal changes. The problems inherent in this can be summarized by the divisions the “Left” accepts between “personal” and “government” responsibility, or between libertarian and authoritarian politics — the opposition of individual to collective freedom.

To take one prominent example, Adolph Reed, in a variety of writings and statements in other media prior to the election, has excoriated Obama for his rhetoric of “personal responsibility” regarding the problems facing black Americans. For Reed (as for Jeremiah Wright, and Jesse Jackson, Sr., who in off-air comments expressed a desire to “cut his nuts off” after Obama made a Fathers’ Day commentary about black “dead-beat dads”), Obama’s rhetoric of personal responsibility falls in with the neoliberal politics of disclaiming public (governmental) responsibility for social ills and “privatizes” them instead.

Of course Reed is right to criticize such rhetoric by Obama. But the question remains whether today we ought to proceed as if the main enemy was the rhetoric of the 1965 Moynihan Report, “The Negro Family: the case for national action,” which infamously identified a supposed “culture of poverty” pathology beyond the possibility of state amelioration, and sought to disenchant the 1960s Great Society expansions of the 1930s New Deal. While Reed and others in the 1960s rightly pointed to the essential affinity between the roots of neoconservatism of Moynihan et al. and the paternalism of liberal reformism, they failed to properly clarify the relation between the reformist politics of labor organizations and the state policies and agencies into which these groups were integrated (such as the National Labor Relations Board) in the mid-20th Century.

The question is whether the terms of such political battles of the 1960s era are still pertinent — whether we ought to place our hopes in reversing policy changes that have occurred from Reagan through Bill Clinton to George W. Bush — or do we need instead to interrogate the terms of this (apparently) perennial struggle so as to be able to adopt an entirely different and potentially more effective framework for emancipatory politics. For the most significant change from the 1960s to the present has been the decimation of the — reformist, non-class struggle — workers movement.

An authentic Marxian Left would not oppose the politics of the governmental responsibility — of the capitalist state — to that of individual persons. A Marxian approach would neither devolve social responsibility onto individual persons nor would it invest collective responsibility in the form of the capitalist nation-state. Nor would it disclaim personal responsibility but would pose it very differently than liberals do — whether they be liberals of the moralizing “conservative” kind or of the supposedly more radical lifestyle-choice variety.

A Marxian approach would argue that the working class has, at the levels of both individual-personal and collective responsibility, to struggle for socialism — and that Leftist intellectuals have a responsibility to help facilitate this struggle.

Rather than the illusions in Obama — either positive or negative — that associate him simply with the vicissitudes of movement along a spectrum of “Left” and “Right” informed fundamentally by Keynesian-Fordist state policies or their undermining by neoliberalism, a response to the “Third Way” politics Obama represents needs to be formulated that recognizes a historical trajectory that is not reassimilable back into the social politics of the mid-20th Century. For such politics had been settled by the time of Clinton’s election in 1992, after the Reagan-Thatcher “revolution” and the destruction of the Soviet Union. There is a line of continuity between Clinton and Obama, but not one of betrayal of the Left but of historical changes for which the “Left” has been ill-prepared.

The triumph of neoliberalism, as well as of “Third Way” politics of the “radical Center” at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Centuries cannot be understood properly as a move to the Right that can be reversed by undoing it or by repolarizing politics according to an earlier mode of government policies. They must be seen as part of a deep-rooted historical trajectory that can only be defeated through a new politicization of the working class for socialism, a politics that has been neglected since the early 20th Century.

We must learn the lessons of the 20th Century not learned by those who came before us, and not accept the terms by which they rationalized their failures. Obama, as the latest sign of “change” in this on-going trajectory, underscores this necessity.

Like the “Third Way” we should not accept the opposition of individual and collective social responsibility in conceiving our politics. Unlike the “Third Way,” we should not affirm the forms of state and civil society in which these different dimensions of social responsibility are mediated in today’s late, “post-revolutionary” capitalism. We should rise to the challenge of the necessary double-sided critique that can meet the conservative politics of the “Third Way” in terms of its — and our — own historical moment, and not in the obsolete and, even in their time, mistaken and ineffective terms of a moribund “Left.”

Since his election, Obama has made it clear that he wishes to steer clear of outdated polarizations — as well he should, if he wants to be an effective politician. We should not treat this merely as “political” equivocation or obfuscation, but rather as clearing the way to a potential better recognition of social reality. For a long time now, the “Left” has been adept at skirting the issues and accepting, however tacitly, the terms of social politics set by others. For it is as true that “government [of the capitalist nation-state] is not the answer” as it is that neoliberal “free market” reforms have been a farcical debacle — with tremendous costs to humanity. But the historical failure of the Left is what brought us to this impasse of the 20th Century, the 21st Century opportunity of the “Third Way” and its politics of the “radical Center.” The vacuum of historical politics has been filled, and we need to address this present effective space for politics and not remain self-marginalized, in disdain of it.

We cannot continue the preceding “Left’s” follies in accepting the terms and attempting to re-fight the battles of the 1960 and the 1930s (and their aftermath), in an endless “rear-guard action,” without denying our social reality in its most fundamental respects. Obama has not been a transformative figure in the sense of bringing about a change. Rather, Obama’s victory expresses a change that has been already long under way — and about which the “Left” has remained confused and in denial for far too long, as a result of its abandonment of Marxism.

For a Marxian approach should seek to occupy the vital, radical center of political life, if social emancipation beyond capital is ever to be achieved. Not the intellectual cynicism of “postmodernism” or the despairing utopian politics of an “anarchist” withdrawal from mainstream political life, but an open assault on the on-going conservatizing strategies of depoliticization and the consolidation of power that takes form in ever more socially opaque and inaccessible ways.

Reversing this can only happen in the context of a reinvigorated workers’ movement that would seek to centrally reorganize social life, at a global scale. Today, this must begin with the integrated North American working class, who, occupying the beating heart of the world of capital, has a unique historic responsibility and potentially emancipatory role to play, for whose abdication all of humanity will continue to pay a terrible and escalating price. Addressing the ideological clarification necessary for overcoming this deficit of working class politics will be possible only through Marxian critical theory, carried on by intellectuals trained and dedicated to do this.

As Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), the great revolutionary Marxist politician of the early 20th Century stated it, during the disintegration of the international Marxist workers’ movement in the First World War,

Socialism is the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of humankind . . . to try to take its history into its own hands; instead of remaining a will-less football, it will take the tiller of social life and become the pilot to the goal of its own history.” (The Crisis of German Social Democracy, AKA the Junius pamphlet, 1915)

We need to resume this fight.

Obama: three comparisons: MLK, JFK, FDR

The coming sharp turn to the Right

Chris Cutrone

IN PREVIOUS ARTICLES I have addressed the Presidential campaign of Barack Obama in terms of the historical precedents of MLK, Jr. (the end of “black politics”) and JFK (Iraq and the election). Now I wish to address the final and perhaps most important but problematic comparison that might be available, FDR.

MLK, Jr., JFK and FDR span the political imagination of the preceding generation, the “baby-boomers” who came of age in the 1960s, the time of the “New Left.”

Obama has been received primarily as a combined incarnation of MLK, Jr. and JFK, an unstable phenomenon against which Hillary Clinton tried to rally early in the primaries by distinguishing its two different aspects. This is what was behind her provocation that it not only takes a movement to make social change but also political leadership, that the reforms MLK, Jr. called for would have come to nothing without LBJ. — By bringing in LBJ, Hillary avoided, wisely, trying to usurp the mantle of JFK from Obama. Her attack didn’t exactly have the desired result, but it did raise the question of whether MLK, Jr. can run for President — whether Obama was a “movement” candidate or a politician of the elite.

As it turned out, Obama was happy to pose as JFK instead of MLK, Jr. And this is the most accurate comparison one can make historically to Obama. But the need for a new “foreign policy” that Obama represented, with his version of the “best and the brightest” to be brought to bear, like JFK, in the face of a tottering international situation (recognized by Paul Street in his characterization of JFK as having run against Nixon and the legacy of Eisenhower from the Right, in “John Kennedy, Barack Obama and the ‘Triple Evils That Are Interrelated’,” at blackagendareport.com July 23, 2008), has become much less important now, with the combination of the pacification of Iraq and the recent financial collapse on Wall Street. Whatever illusory hopes the 1960s generation might have had that this time McGovern would win have vacated the political stage (or have become irrelevant as props being wielded by the stage-hands on the “Left”). There is an emerging consensus that Obama is the most “liberal” candidate fielded by the Democrats since 1972.

But there is an earlier history that haunts the boomers’ imagination as they struggle to get behind the Obama effect. If Obama is the “candidate that comes along once in a generation,” as the Kennedys (Caroline and Ted) put it, he is not of their generation. The tasks of the historical moment Obama expresses are quite different from the 1960s.

With the financial meltdown a great shift has taken place. The Clintons are now posing as elder statesmen in their endorsement of Obama as a standard-bearer for the needed changes. Bill Clinton has accepted his part of the responsibility for the trajectory that has brought the U.S. (and world) to its present impasse. The election of Obama would mark the end of a significant historical period, definitively closing the post-1968 era; Obama’s election will be the most potentially significant at least since Reagan’s in 1980.

But prior to the recent, dramatic events in the economy that have cast the election in this light, an earlier moment of necessary reform was already being recalled, the 1930s. In its April 7, 2008 edition, The Nation magazine published a forum of articles on the 75th anniversary of the New Deal. In “Race and the New Deal Coalition,” Adolph Reed wrote:

[T]he fact is, most New Deal programs were anything but race-neutral — or, for that matter, gender-neutral — in their impact. Some, like the initial Social Security old-age pension program, were established on a racially invidious, albeit officially race-neutral, basis by excluding from coverage agricultural and domestic workers, the categories that included nearly 90 percent of black workers at the time. Others, like the CCC, operated on Jim Crow principles. Roosevelt’s housing policy put the weight of federal support behind creating and reproducing an overtly racially exclusive residential housing industry.

Reed’s point was that without the contemporary social movements, the New Deal government policy reforms would not have been “progressive” in the ways they have been remembered. Reed went on to write that,

We can use the New Deal as part of a discussion about what government can do and how its actions can change the playing field in progressive ways. What we need most of all, though, is to articulate a politics steeped in a vision like that of the industrial democracy that fed the social movements that pushed the New Deal to be as much as it was.

Waxing optimistically about both the historical record and what it can teach us today, Reed was not opposing the New Deal reforms to social movements but rather seeing such reforms as potentially changing the conditions under which movements take place:

[B]enefiting relatively less does not mean not benefiting. The Social Security exclusions were overturned, and black people did participate in the WPA, Federal Writers’ Project, CCC and other classic New Deal initiatives, as well as federal income relief. Moreover, the National Labor Relations Act facilitated the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ efforts, from which blacks also benefited substantially. Black Americans’ emergence as a significant constituency in the Democratic electoral coalition helped to alter the party’s center of gravity and was one of the factors — as was black presence in the union movement — contributing to the success of the postwar civil rights insurgency.

What Reed leaves out is that in the 1930s, FDR’s “New Deal” represented the politics of the Right against the mobilized Left of the era. Similarly, LBJ’s “Great Society” programs in the 1960s were regarded by the “New Left,” correctly, as representing primarily the danger of co-optation “from above” in the absence of “participatory democratic” organizing “from below.” (This is what Reed means by “industrial democracy,” above.) Reed has been concerned to overcome the simple opposition of these different aspects, and to show their inherent interrelation. Government reforms matter, for better or worse. At issue are the ways they matter, in the absence of a Left.

Recent changes globally as well as in the U.S. have seemed to unravel all the political issues preoccupying the last two generations, since the end of WWII. Not only have reforms since the 1960s such as LBJ’s Great Society programs been undone progressively since the Reagan era of the 1980s and the consolidation of this undoing by Clinton in the 1990s, but reforms going back to the 1930s New Deal under FDR have been brought back into contention, ever since Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America.” The controversies of the 1960s that seemed to capture the most salient social and political issues since then have become superseded by the memory of the 1930s. The rationales of the New Deal are up for rehabilitation. John Maynard Keynes is being talked about again.

But there are significant risks to this nostalgia for the 1930s and the post-WWII heyday of Keynesian “solutions” to the problems of capitalism. The most obvious risk is neglect of the fact that the Fordist-Keynesian welfare state of full employment and wage and price controls itself underwent a severe crisis in the 1970s, leading to the recent period of neo-liberal “free-market” capitalism. Neo-liberalism conquered the world by the 1990s, garnering near-universal approval and was fully sanctioned by the Democrats under Clinton, who not only fulfilled his promise to “end welfare as we know it,” but also implemented the deregulation of financial institutions the world is now regretting.

The crisis of Fordist Keynesianism in the 1960s, followed by the general global downturn in the 1970s-80s raised many issues for the fundamental understanding of capitalism that have never been fully investigated let alone properly grasped since then. The risk looms of a simple pendulum swing between state-centric and free-market periods of capitalism, that now we will swing “back” to a period of “government regulation” after neo-liberalism, but under worsened conditions. The early 21st Century is not the 1930s. This difference is both for the better and for the worse. For while the present world of capitalism is not (yet) in another Great Depression nor threatened by fascism, neither is it challenged by a workers movement or an international Left. Rather, it is faced with various fundamentally Right-wing alternatives. Obama is nothing but one of them. | §

Remember the future!

A rejoinder to Peter Hudis on “Capital in History”

Chris Cutrone

HISTORICAL CONSCIOUSNESS ARTICULATES the problem of what “ought” to be with what “is.” The question is how the necessities of emancipatory struggles in the present relate to those of the past. The tasks revealed by historical Marxism have not been superseded but only obscured and forgotten, at the expense of emancipatory social politics in the present.

Dunayevskaya and post-Trotskyism

The problem with Raya Dunayevskaya lies in the belief that there has been any real theoretical or practical political progress since the failure of the revolutions of 1917–19. This imagined progress is explicitly or implicitly assumed in all “Trotskyism” and post-Trotskyism.

Contrary to the prevailing views of post-Marxism, the high-water mark of progress in the movement for human freedom was in the practical politics and theoretical self-understanding of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks in Russia and Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacists in Germany. We have not progressed beyond the horizon of such political practice and its theory, but only regressed and fallen below this threshold. We urgently need to attain its spirit anew.

For the past half century, revolutionary “Left” politics, Marxist or otherwise, have remained stuck in the antinomies of “spontaneity” and “organization,” “participatory democracy” and “vanguardist” politics, etc. Meanwhile, the historical moment of 1917–19 and its protagonists in thought and action remain enigmas to us.

A repressed historical fact: neither Lenin nor Luxemburg was a “vanguardist” or a “spontaneist.” These and other phantasies —indeed, any apparent resolution to, and progress beyond, the genuine political problems of social emancipation beyond capital revealed in 1917–19— are pernicious illusions.

Dunayevskaya never properly registers the problem of regression. The most problematic assumption is that coming later means knowing better. But newly emergent forms of “resistance to capital” might be symptomatic of regression, and thereby not point beyond capitalist social relations any more — and perhaps far less — than proletarian socialism did in the early 20th Century. It is not a matter of such new forms of politics expressing advances in social-political consciousness, but rather the effects of the horizon of a Marxian anticapitalist politics slipping away.

Hudis’s conception of capital as the domination of living labor by abstract labor leads to his equating all forms of resistance to capital as forms of “living labor’s” protest against and purportedly immanent attempt to overcome capital.

Such an analysis finds “new” forms of anticapitalism in the social movements of the 1960s “New Left” (e.g. women’s and gay liberation, black power, anti-colonization). The ”New Left”, however, actually represented a turning away from the problem of capital.

Why? Because only through proletarian socialism does the problem of the “contradiction” of capital —the self-contradictory character of proletarian labor in both its “abstract” and “concrete” dimensions— come to light. For capital is not merely the abstract dimension dominating the concrete, “living” dimension. It is rather the ways the abstract and concrete dimensions are related through market or state forms. Capital is the mode of self-relation of the proletariat and its consequences as a social-historical totality. All forms of “resistance to capital” constitute its reproduction in an on-going way.

Proletarian socialism, on the other hand, is the movement that reveals the self-contradiction of capital most explicitly and intensely in its reproduction. Other symptomatic forms of coping with the capital dynamic do so only more obscurely. Only proletarian socialism, the most acute manifestation of the self-contradiction of capital, concretely points beyond it.

We need a proletarian socialist politics to manifest the problem of capital for us, so that we can begin to formulate a politics for getting beyond it.

The degree to which an approach such as Hudis’s attempts to be more open-minded about social struggles and their relation to the problem of capital, it actually conceals more than it reveals. Capital is a form of life, however “alienated,” and not just a form of domination “over” life. Hence, one cannot take the position of “life” against capital, of “living labor” against “abstract labor,” without naturalizing capital at another, deeper level.

Marx’s political vision: the “dictatorship of the proletariat”

Recognizing capital as a form of life also means recognizing the truly radical difference between a post-capitalist society and the society of capital. It is, in fact, too radical for us to really foresee, despite humanity’s struggle to realize it over the course of more than a century. To clarify the relationship between the historical present and a possible future, it is helpful to consider Marx’s political thinking on socialism.

Marx’s understanding of socialist politics is expressed most clearly in his notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” For Marx, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is not merely the overcoming of abstract labor by living labor, but rather the highest expression of their contradiction in the subjectivity of the commodity form.

Further, it expresses the contradiction of the democratic will of the producers in both their particular-“concrete” and “abstract”-general social dimensions. For example, the “participatory”-democratic ordering of the site of production will conflict with the more abstract “representative” democracy of political forms at a more general social level. In fact, the political circumstances of socialism would likely produce social conflicts, and hence politics. In a sense it would be, by comparison with the present, the first time in which authentic social-politics can be practiced.

In this sense, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” marks the end of politics as we know it, and the beginning of politics in a new and more advanced sense, with the working class and its activity helping to point beyond the social dynamic of capital. I disagree with Hudis that historical revolutionary Marxist protagonists such as Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky adopted a fundamentally different conception of the future of politics than Marx. Each of them, to the contrary, recognized the necessary leading, “vanguard” role of the working class in the attempt to democratize, or bring under conscious human control, the social process set in motion by capital.

The dynamic of capital does not evaporate through the activity of the working class. Quite the contrary, it is through this activity that capital, as Marx understood it, comes into being. Through the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” however, the working class plays the necessarily leading role globally in addressing the problem of capital and its effects. In other words, it is the political means by which the social problem of capital is revealed so that it can begin to be overcome.

The proletariat then becomes for the first time, in Lukács’s Hegelian-Marxist terms, the subject-object of (its own) history. At the same time, the proletariat as a class begins to cease being the self-contradictory “subject-object” it is today under capital. The proletariat, when these conditions are met, becomes itself for the first time while ceasing to be what it has been — constituted by and reconstitutive of capital — and thus begins to overcome and abolish itself.

The most potentially “participatory” concrete form of democracy, that of “the producers,” must be recognized as the highest expression of the subjectivity of the commodity form, the subject-object relation of the proletariat with its own social activity of labor — and not as its “negation.”

Hence, evading or otherwise abandoning Marx’s conception of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” means abandoning the struggle to overcome capital. We need to remember what this actually meant by way of studying the most developed expressions to date of such a politics. We must remember the tasks of the past still informing our present by recalling what it was that revolutionary Marxism sought to accomplish, despite its historical failure.

Remember the future!

The political thought and action bound up in the revolutionary moment of 1917-19 comprise a complex, rich heritage we neglect at our peril. This heritage, that of Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky and theorists in their wake, such as Lukács, Korsch, Benjamin and Adorno, is in the form of a set of problems to be worked through and not ready-made solutions. In order to recognize these outstanding problems of capital we must remember the future whose horizons of possibility informed the politics of the best traditions of revolutionary Marxism. Despite the limitations of Marxism as a historical movement, we nevertheless remain within the horizon of the history of capital and its social effects, whether politics today recognizes it or not. Hence, apparently paradoxically, it is by recognizing the horizons of possibility of capital as revealed in the past that we may recognize the limits humanity needs to overcome to realize its potential, emancipated future.

For example, in the earlier Marxist movement of the 2nd International (1889–1914), the women’s liberation movement took place as an integral part of the struggle for socialism, to which it was neither subordinated nor from which was it separated. Such Marxist socialists as August Bebel and Clara Zetkin, among countless other, now-forgotten, participants in this movement, achieved profound insights into the relation of traditional gender roles and sexuality to the radically changed circumstances of modern capitalism. They recognized how capitalism both drew upon and radically reconstituted, on a new and different basis, such “traditional” oppressive aspects of society. Furthermore, they recognized the obstacle to women’s emancipation capital had become and thus the fundamental connection between women’s and sexual oppression and other problems in modern society. It was only because of the subsequent degeneration and conservatization of this movement, due to a series of failures and defeats, that a separate “feminist” movement had to come into being in the course of the regression of the 20th Century. Embracing the history of feminism thus amounts to naturalizing and adapting to such defeat and lowering the horizons of social politics.

Over-attentiveness to newly emergent — though concrete — forms of “resistance” to capitalism amounts to chasing our tails in the present and tailing after the effects of capital. Such over-attentiveness does not broaden but narrows our horizons; it does not, as Luxemburg demanded, engage, seize hold of and attempt to guide, in however limited ways, the changes in and of capital, so that we might get beyond them. “Resistance” in the present represents attempts to cope with and thus catch up with the social dynamics of capital. And the terms of such resistance have only worsened over time with the waning and disappearance of proletarian socialist politics.

Far from pointing to a post-capitalist society, such forms of social struggle under capital actually represent the limits of the present and its future, but only in obscure form, and thus not the actual breadth of the horizon of a potential future of and beyond capital. They express not the potentially new future beyond capital, but only the trailing edge, the wake of the newly emerging past in the present.

The post-’60s “new social movements” such as feminism and other forms of politics of social identity have expressed reconstituted forms of participation in capital. Not “getting beyond” the working class as might have been thought, such movements have opened the way to new and reconstituted forms of proletarianization. Moreover, they have done so in ways that have obscured the problem of the social totality in which they have taken place — the central role of the working class in the reconstitution of capital. The illusion is that such new forms of politics mean getting beyond the necessity of proletarian socialism, when in fact they have meant the avoidance of this task.

Such purportedly post-proletarian forms of politics have represented new forms of capital in an already-captured future of the present. They do not help us recognize the actual necessary tasks of a politics in, through and beyond capital. Only a proletarian socialist politics could do this. We need to remember the horizon of this politics, or remain forever trapped, knowingly or not, by its unfulfilled potential and betrayed possibilities. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #8 (November 2008).

El Lissitzky, Lenin Tribune (1920)

El Lissitzky, Lenin Tribune (1920)

Hayek, Friedman and the question of freedom

(In part, a response to Naomi Klein)

Chris Cutrone

Prepared for presentation at the University of Chicago teach-in on “Who was Milton Friedman and what is his legacy?,” October 14, 2008.

A GOOD APPROACH to the topic of Milton Friedman and his legacy today can be made indirectly, by reference to Friedman’s intellectual predecessor and mentor, Friedrich Hayek.

It has been our point of departure in Platypus to regard the present as being conditioned by the undigested, and therefore problematic, legacies of at least two generations of failure on the “Left”: the 1960s–70s “New” Left, and the “Old” Left of the 1920s–30s. We have critiqued the assumptions inherited from the 1960s not least because of problematic legacies they contain undigested from the 1930s, which have not been properly thought through even today.

This is a good opportunity, then, to register our exception in Platypus to the politics of the perspective on Friedman and his legacy offered at the October 1 talk given by Naomi Klein, author of the 2007 anti-Friedmanite book The Shock Doctrine, which we co-sponsored at the University of Chicago.

Two statements made by Klein at her talk opposing the establishment of a Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago can be used to frame a discussion of Friedman’s legacy in light of Hayek and the classical liberal tradition more generally.

We in Platypus had the opportunity at her talk to ask Klein two direct questions to which she gave answers that we find to be indicative of fundamental problems on the “Left” today.

One was on the question of freedom: whether and how Klein would respond to the neo-liberalism of Friedman and his followers as attempts to promote greater freedom. Klein responded by saying that she was suspicious and didn’t think there was any “need” for any “grand projects of human freedom,” and she emphasized instead their “danger.”

Klein’s critique of Friedman was that he was a “utopian ideologue,” and that any such ideology of utopian politics can have potentially disastrous effects “in the real world,” on whose behalf she offered to speak “as a journalist.” Klein analogized neo-liberalism to “Trotskyism” as a “purist” ideology that might seem good in theory but is bad in practice. Klein dealt with Friedman’s legacy as being about the “power of ideas,” which she said must be regarded as “dangerous.”

But in addressing Friedman and his legacy this way, Klein neglected what is perhaps the most important aspect of his thought, Friedman’s critique and opposition to what he called the “tyranny of the status quo,” something any purported “Left” should not regard too cynically. One of the principal but mistaken assumptions that the “Left” makes politically is to regard the emphasis on “individual” freedom to be characteristic of the Right, whereas the “Left” is supposed to be more collective and “social” in its focus, emphasizing the principle not of “individualism” but “solidarity” and common welfare.

This is a serious error. It neglects important aspects of the history of the Left, and thus gives a distorted view of history and of the present.

Left and Right cannot be distinguished properly along the axis of individual vs. collective rights and responsibilities, but rather must be understood in terms of how these are related socially. A Marxian approach attempts to be attentive to the desiderata of both individual and collective freedom, how capital is a problem in each of these aspects of modern society.

To help illustrate this point, the example can be raised of a recent bête noire of the media coverage of the current campaign for the U.S. Presidential election, Bill Ayers, the former ’60s radical and member of the Weather Underground, who has since become known for his more significant effort as a grade school reformer, an advocate of the “small schools” program in Chicago.

Milton Friedman was also a critic of the public school system in the United States, and Ayers and his colleagues have complained that their project of school reform has been “hijacked” by the Right, in the form of “school choice,” “charter schools,” and “vouchers.” But Ayers and others advocated, for example, the establishment of publicly funded schools for the separate education of black males to which parents could choose to send their children, in the interest of overcoming the supposedly inherent “racism” of the public school system. Whereas Friedman was coming from a libertarian perspective, Ayers has come from a racial-communitarian one. But their convergence is significant, as is their compatibility with actual processes of change underway in the recent period.

While Friedman and Ayers would not recognize their shared agenda in something like school reform, it in fact exists, although rationalized differently. What needs to be pointed out is how, unwittingly, Friedman’s discontent was thus part of the historical moment of the “New Left” (for instance, it finds consonance with Foucault’s critique of Fordist social rationalization and “discipline”), and, likewise, how Ayers has been just as much a part of the New Right!

This example demonstrates that it would be one-sided and false to imagine that the present situation is the simple result of the politics of either the Left or Right, as each would like to imagine, blaming the other for the problems of the present. Rather, the present needs to be understood as the shared result of what both the “Left” and the Right have had in common since the 1960s, discontent with the Keynesian-Fordist state. The forms such discontent has taken are collectively responsible for the world in which we live today, which needs to be understood not merely as neo-liberal, but also as post-Fordist.

The two dimensions of mid-20th century society need to be distinguished so that their relation can be properly evaluated and critiqued. For the Keynesian and Fordist aspects are different, however they may have come to be related in the practical social-politics of the mid-20th century. Keynesianism was an economics of growth; Fordism was a social politics geared to assure the national basis of that growth: Keynes was not the nationalist Ford was. To say that we live today in a “post-Fordist” society is to emphasize the legacy of Fordism and not to indicate that we have somehow gotten beyond it. The Fordist state is alive and well in key respects, even if Keynesian economics has not fared so well. The Friedmanite turn to neo-liberal economics has taken place in the context of the Fordist national state, even if aspects of this state have been transformed accordingly. We hardly live in the libertarian relation of state to society that Friedman wished from his attack on Keynesianism.

The specific relation of Keynesian economics and Fordist state politics that characterized the mid-20th century has become unraveled, and this change can allow us to perceive and disentangle the relation between the classical political liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and the neo-liberal economics of Milton Friedman. This retrospective appraisal can help us get a better critical grasp of problems of the present financial-economic crisis, as neo-liberal economic policies are passing into disfavor, and the name of John Maynard Keynes and the policies of the 1930s New Deal era are coming up for reconsideration.

Hayek and Keynes should not be opposed, but rather Hayek, as a classical liberal, was opposed to and warned of the dangers of the Fordist-national dimension of the emergent Keynesian-Fordist synthesis of social-politics and economics in the mid-20th century.

To illustrate this distinction, it should be pointed out that not only was Keynes a great admirer of Hayek’s critique of nationalist socialism in his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, but Keynes had been an early critic and opponent of the nationalism informing the punitive terms of the post-WWI resolution of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Keynes, no less than Hayek, saw in the emergence of the national state a great threat to human freedom. Whatever their differences on economics, Hayek and Keynes shared an opposition to the reactionary, regressive character of contemporary “anti-capitalism” (fascism and Stalinism), and so defended capitalism, albeit differently.

Hayek’s critique of the “road to serfdom” and the potential unfreedom in early-20th century “socialism” was specifically in its nationalist character, to which he opposed the freedom of earlier liberal and cosmopolitan capitalism. Hayek’s critique of the inherent affinity of fascism and Nazism with Stalinist national socialism and their shared roots in problems of the character of pre-WWI ostensibly “Marxist” social democracy is profoundly insightful, and cannot be ignored by any purported Left that is concerned with the problem of freedom. A Marxian critique of such “Marxism,” that could satisfy these issues raised by Hayek and other classical liberals, was — and remains — necessary.

The problem of Milton Friedman’s legacy is that its liberalism is one-sided in its too readily identifying the state policies of Keynesian-economics with Fordist social politics and nationalism. The regressive character of the latter cannot be simply chalked up to the effects of the former without adopting an economistic framework that Hayek’s critique of Fordism, for instance, would not have sanctioned. This is why it is important to raise Hayek to help inform the question of Friedman and his legacy. For we should be able to address the intellectual tradition from which Friedman emerged as one concerned first and foremost with the problem of freedom, and not merely as a matter of the technocratic policy concerns of “economics,” as Naomi Klein does, comparing “theory” to “reality” at the level of efficacy. It is not a matter of whether either a Keynesian or Friedmanite economics “works,” but rather the nature and character of the problems of capitalism both seek to address. Apparently “economic” problems need to be properly situated politically in light of the question of freedom. Any critique of Friedman needs to address this dimension and not neglect it by reference to Friedman’s own opportunistic politics.

In the 1970s–80s, as the Keynesian-Fordist synthesis became undone, Friedman found that his ideas received a hearing and practical political opportunities on the Right. But it is wrong, or at the very least not very useful, to try to prosecute Friedman by reference, for instance, to Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. For it was not the case that Pinochet was Friedman’s creature but rather the opposite: Friedman allowed his critique of the Keynesian- Fordist synthesis to be abused politically by the Right, and thus served ends other than freedom. Any “Left” opposition to Friedman would position itself not against his critique of Keynesian Fordism per se (however partial and one-sided it was in its wholesale advocacy of “capitalism,” and tendency, as previously indicated, to collapse the distinction between Keynesian economics and the Fordist state) but rather against the degree to which Friedman in his political thought and action became a figure of the Right. The Fordist state was not “anti-capitalist” but was an expression of inherent problems in the history of capital that drop out of Friedman’s account.

Friedman was of the Right to the degree to which he opportunistically adapted himself to the very “status quo” against which he protested, becoming its apologist despite his avowed intentions. Friedman chose his battle, against Keynesian economics, and made his devil’s bargain compromise, with the power of the Fordist state, and we have paid the price for this politics. This is a real aspect of Friedman’s legacy, and deserves critique and opposition, and not least from the perspective of the tradition of classical liberalism from which Friedman drew his thinking but ultimately ended up betraying. As Naomi Klein correctly points out, the irony of Friedman and his legacy is that his anti-Keynesian economic policy advocacy depended upon the very power of the (Fordist, national) state against whose unfreedom he was ostensibly aiming his critique. But Klein and the “Left” she represents are also not free of such inconsistency from the standpoint of the struggle for greater freedom. They share the inability to regard properly the (post-) Fordist (national) state, for which Klein explicitly apologizes, especially when advocating its developing-world varieties, at least as much as Friedman did by default in his opportunism. But Hayek would have known better.

The second question we in Platypus posed to Klein at her talk was “What is to be done?” Initially, Klein had little to say in this regard. But later in the Q&A, she responded, in an intentionally “provocative” way, that one thing that could be done would be to “nationalize the oil industry.” Klein understands such a demand to be part of her greater advocacy of a “new New Deal,” an idea gaining traction in light of the present economic crisis and the expectations of change with the coming election.

But we need to be careful not to conflate the different dimensions of the historic Keynesian-Fordist state and its social-politics as well as its economic policies, for in doing so we would lose the distinction between its liberal and illiberal aspects, and thus lose the criterion of freedom. Hayek’s critique of the problems of the 1930s Left and its ostensibly “socialist” collusion with the emergent national-state form remains valid. For such “socialism” fell below the threshold of the freedom of capitalism as it had developed under preceding, more “liberal” historical conditions, prior to WWI, an important turning-point Hayek recognized. Hayek was harking back to earlier thinkers in the classical liberal tradition such as Benjamin Constant, who in the early 19th century saw in national-collectivist politics the betrayal of modern forms of both individual and social freedom.

For not only Friedman but his mentor Hayek would have blanched at Klein’s thought of universal oil nationalizations — from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and Ahmedinejad’s Iran to Putin’s Russia, and an Obama “new New Deal” America — and for good reason. As Friedman’s mentor Hayek perceived in the emergence of the Fordist national state after WWI, in both its relatively benign as well as grossly pathological forms, such a wave of nationalizations would lay the ground very well, and very quickly, for future wars and other forms of social destruction, at the expense of the freedom-potential a more liberal and cosmopolitan capitalism makes possible. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #8 (November 2008).

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Iraq and the election

The fog of “anti-war” politics

Chris Cutrone

BARACK OBAMA HAD, until recently, made his campaign for President of the United States a referendum on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In the Democratic Party primaries, Obama attacked Hillary Clinton for her vote in favor of the invasion. Among Republican contenders, John McCain went out of his way to appear as the candidate most supportive of the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq. Looking towards the general election, it is over Iraq that the candidates have been most clearly opposed: Obama has sought to distinguish himself most sharply from McCain on Iraq, emphasizing their differences in judgment. Prior to the recent financial melt-down on Wall Street, there was a consistency of emphasis on Iraq as a signal issue of the campaign. But with Iraq dramatically pacified in recent months, its political importance has diminished. Obama’s position on Iraq has, if anything, lost him traction as the McCain-supported Bush policy has succeeded.

Now might be a good time to step back and look at assumptions regarding the politics of the war, and assess their true nature and character, what they have meant for the mainstream as well as for the ostensible “Left.”

One major assumption that has persisted from the beginning of the anti-war movement and over the course of the two presidential terms of the Bush administration has been that the Iraq war was the result of a maverick policy, in which “neoconservative” ideologues hijacked the U.S. government in order to implement an extreme agenda. Recently, more astute observers of American politics such as Adolph Reed (in “Where Obamaism seems to be going,” Black Agenda Report, July 16, 2008, on-line at blackagendareport.com) have conceded the point that a war in Iraq could easily have been embraced even by a Democratic adminstration. Reed writes:

Lesser evilists assert as indisputable fact that Gore, or even Kerry, wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Perhaps Gore wouldn’t have, but I can’t say that’s a sure thing. (And who was his running mate, by the way? [Joe Lieberman, who recently spoke in support of McCain at the Republican National Convention—CC]) Moreover, we don’t know what other military adventurism that he — like Clinton — would have undertaken. . . . No, I’m not at all convinced that the Right wouldn’t have been able to hound either Gore into invading Iraq or Kerry into continuing the war indefinitely.

This raises the issue of what “opposition” to the Iraq war policy of the Bush administration really amounts to. The Democrats’ jockeying for position is an excellent frame through which to examine the politics of the war. For the Democrats’ criticism of the Bush policy has been transparently opportunist, to seize upon the problems of the war for political gain against the Republicans. Opposition has come only to the extent that the war seemed to be a failed policy, something of which Obama has taken advantage because he was not in the U.S. Senate when the war authorization was voted, and so he has been able to escape culpability for this decision his fellow Democrats made when it was less opportune to oppose the war. (Recall that this fact was the occasion for Bill Clinton’s infamous remark that Obama’s supposed record of uncompromised opposition to the war was a “fairy tale,” for Clinton pointed out that Obama had admitted that he didn’t know how he would have voted had he been in the Senate at the time.) Furthermore, opposition to the war on the supposed “Left” has similarly focused on the Bush administration (for example in the very name of the anti-war coalition World Can’t Wait, i.e., until the next election, and their call to “Exorcise the Bush Regime”), thus playing directly into the politics of the Democratic Party, resulting now in either passive or active support of the Obama candidacy.

On Obama’s candidacy, Reed went on to say that,

Obama is on record as being prepared to expand the war [“on terror”] into Pakistan and maybe Iran. . . .  He’s also made pretty clear that AIPAC [American-Israel Public Affairs Committee] has his ear, which does it for the Middle East, and I wouldn’t be shocked if his administration were to continue, or even step up, underwriting covert operations against Venezuela, Cuba (he’s already several times linked each of those two governments with North Korea and Iran) and maybe Ecuador or Bolivia. . . . This is where I don’t give two shits for the liberals’ criticism of Bush’s foreign policy: they don’t mind imperialism; they just want a more efficiently and rationally managed one. As Paul Street argues in Black Agenda Report, as well as in his forthcoming book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, an Obama presidency would further legitimize the imperialist orientation of US foreign policy by inscribing it as liberalism or the “new kind” of progressivism. . . . [T]he bipartisan “support the troops” rhetoric that has become a scaffold for discussing the war is a ruse for not addressing its foundation in a bellicose, imperialist foreign policy that makes the United States a scourge on the Earth. Obama, like other Dems, doesn’t want such a discussion any more than the Republicans do because they’re all committed to maintaining that foundation.

In recognizing that the “liberals’ criticism of Bush’s foreign policy [doesn’t] mind imperialism; they just want a more efficiently and rationally managed one,” Reed and others’ arguments on the “Left” beg the question of U.S. “imperialism” and its place in the world. This is an unexamined inheritance from the Vietnam anti-war movement of the 1960s-70s that has become doxa on the “Left.” Put another way, it has been long since anyone questioned the meaning of “anti-imperialism” — asked, “as opposed to what?”

If, as Reed put it about Gore, Kerry, et al., that the “Right would have been able to hound” them into Iraq or other wars, this begs the question of why those on the “Left” would not regard Obama, Kerry, Gore, or (either) Clinton, not as beholden to the Right, but rather being themselves part of the Right, not “capitulating to” U.S. imperialism but part of its actual political foundation. There is an evident wish to avoid raising the question and problem of what is the actual nature and character of “U.S. imperialism” and its policies, what actually makes the U.S., as Reed put it, “a scourge on the Earth,” and what it means to oppose this from the “Left.” For it might indeed be the case that not only the Democrats don’t want such a discussion of the “foundation” of “U.S. imperialism” (“any more than the Republicans do”), but neither do those on the “Left.”

For Adolph Reed, as for any ostensible “Left,” the difficulty lies in the potential stakes of problematizing the role of U.S. power in the world. If the U.S. has proven to be, as Reed put it, a “scourge on the Earth,” the “Left” has consistently shied away from thinking about, or remained deeply confused and self-contradictory over the reasons for this — and what can and should be done about it.

Reed placed this problem in historical context by pointing out that,

[E]very major party presidential candidate between 1956 and 1972 — except one, Barry Goldwater, who ran partly on his willingness to blow up the world and was trounced for it — ran on a pledge to end the Vietnam War. Every one of them lied, except maybe Nixon the third time he made the pledge, but that time he had a lot of help from the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

— But Nixon et al. would have gotten a lot more “help” living up to their pledges to end the U.S. war in Vietnam if the Communists had just laid down and died.

Was this the politics of the “big lie,” as Reed insists, echoing the criticisms of the Bush administration’s war policy, supposedly based on deceit, or is there a more simple and obvious explanation: that indeed, all American politicians were and remain committed to ending war, but only on their own, “U.S. imperial” terms? And why would anyone expect otherwise?

If this is the case, then, the difference between the Obama and McCain campaigns regarding U.S. “imperialism” would amount to no difference at all. Obama has pledged to remove U.S. troops from Iraq as quickly as possible, but only if the “security situation” allows this. McCain has pledged to remain in Iraq as long as it takes to “get the job done.” What’s the difference? Especially given that the Bush administration itself has begun troop reductions and has agreed in its negotiations with the government of Iraq to a “definite timetable” for withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, as the Sunni insurgency has been quelled or co-opted into the political process and Shia militias like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Brigade have not only laid down their arms but are presently disbanding entirely. No less than Bush and McCain, Obama, too, is getting what he wants in Iraq. Everyone can declare “victory.” And they are doing so. (Obama can claim vindication the degree to which the pacification of Iraq seems more due to the political process there — such as the “Anbar awakening” movement, etc. — than to U.S. military intervention.)

All the doomsday scenarios are blowing away like so many mirages in the sand, revealing that the only differences that ever existed among Republicans and Democrats amounted to posturing over matters of detail in policy implementation and not over fundamental “principles.” This despite the Obama campaign’s sophistic qualifiers on the evident victory of U.S. policy in Iraq being merely a “tactical success within a strategic blunder,” and their pointing out that the greater goals of effective “political reconciliation” among Iraqi factions remain yet to be achieved. What was once regarded in the cynically hyperbolic “anti-war” rhetoric of the Democrats as an unmitigated “disaster” in Iraq is turning out to be something that merely could have been done better. The “Left” has echoed the hollowness of such rhetoric. At base, this has been the result of a severely mistaken if not entirely delusional imagination of the war and its causes.

At base, the U.S. did not invade and occupy Iraq to steal its oil, or for any other venal or nefarious reason, but rather because the U.N.’s 12-year-old sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government, which meant the compromise and undermining of effective Iraqi sovereignty (for instance in the carving of an autonomous Kurdish zone under U.N. and NATO military protection) was unraveling in the oil-for-food scandal etc., and Saddam, after the first grave mistake of invading Kuwait, made the further fateful errors of spiting the U.N. arms inspectors and counting on being able to balance the interests of the European and other powers in the U.N. against the U.S. threat of invasion and occupation. The errors of judgment and bad-faith opportunism of Saddam, the Europeans, and others were as much the cause for the war as any policy ambitions of the neocons in the Bush administration. Iraq was becoming a “failed state,” and not least because of the actions of its indisputably horrifically oppressive rulers. If Saddam could not help but to choose among such bad alternatives for Iraq, this stands as indictment of the Baathist regime, its unviable character in a changing world. The niche carved out by the combination of Cold War geopolitics and the international exploitation of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s for the Baathist shop of horrors was finally, mercifully, closing.

The unraveling of the U.N. sanctions regime prior to the 2003 invasion and occupation, enforced not only by the U.S. and Britain but by neighboring states and others, cannot be separated from the history of the disintegration of the Iraqi state. The armchair quarterbacking of “anti-war” politics was from the outset (and remains to this day) tacitly, shame-facedly, in favor of the status quo (and worse, today, must retrospectively try to distort and apologize for the history of Baathism). In comparison with such evasion of responsibility, the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq was an eminently responsible act. They were willing to stake themselves in a way the Democrats and the Europeans and others were not — and the “Left” could not. The “success” of the Bush policy amounts to its ability to cast all alternatives into more or less impotent posturing. Attributing motives for the war to American profiteering is to mistake effect for cause. Complaining about the fact that American companies have profited from the war is to impotently protest against the world as it is, for someone was going to profit from it — would it be better if French, Japanese or Saudi firms did so?

That the U.S. government under Bush broke decorum and made the gesture of invading Iraq “unilaterally” without U.N. Security Council approval says nothing to the fact that Iraq was likely to be invaded and occupied (by “armed inspection teams” supported by tens of thousands of “international” troops, etc.) in any case. Did it really matter whether the U.S. had the U.N. fig leaf covering the ugliness of its military instrument? It was only a matter of when and how it was going to be put to use, in managing the international problem the Iraqi state had become. No one among the international powers-that-be, including the most “rogue” elements of the global order (Russia, China, Iran, et al.) had any firm interest in restoring to Saddam’s Baathists the status quo from before 1990 and, needless to say, not only the U.S. and Britain, but also Saudi Arabia and Iran, and most especially the Iraqi Kurds and Shia, were not about to let that happen. Saddam was on the way out. It was only a matter of how.

All the rhetoric about the “overreach” and “hubris” of U.S. policy in Iraq says nothing to the fact that a crossroads there was being reached — this was already true under Clinton. All the bombast about the “illegal” — or even “criminal” — character of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq neglects the simple fact that the U.S. occupation was authorized by the U.N. When Democrats impugn the “crusading” motives of the Bush administration with sophistry about the supposed folly of trying to spread “democracy” in Iraq and the greater Middle East, is this a “progressive” argument, or a conservative one?

Not only the Democrats’ but the “Left’s” opposition to the Iraq war has in fact been from the Right. This is revealed most perversely by the history of the Iraq policy recommendations of Joe Biden, who has been touted by the Obama campaign as bringing “foreign policy credentials” to their ticket as candidate for Vice President. Biden once advocated a break-up of Iraq into separate Shia, Sunni and Kurdish states, during the height of the Sunni insurgency, which would have punished the Sunni by leaving them without access to Iraq’s oil wealth (which is concentrated in the Kurdish and Shiite areas of Kirkuk and Basra). Would pursuit of such an ethno-sectarian division of Iraq have been a “progressive” outcome for furthering the “democratic self-determination” of the peoples of Iraq? — In comparison with the 20% troop “surge” that has in fact, as even Obama has put it, “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.” Or might we see in such apparently “extreme” policy alternatives as Biden’s a deeper underlying fact, that from the standpoint of not only U.S. “imperial” interests but those of the global order, it doesn’t make much difference if Iraq remains a single or is broken up into multiple states, whether it is ruled by secular or theocratic regimes, or whether its government is “democratic” or dictatorial, whether its civil society is “liberal” or not. But, presumably, this matters a great deal to the Iraqis!

None of the posed alternatives regarding Iraq — not before, during or since the invasion and occupation — can be ascribed to being inherently in service of or opposed to the on-going realities of U.S. power (“imperialism”), or the interests of global capitalism, because all of them are compatible with these. Rather, the policy alternatives are all matters of opportunistic orientation to an underlying reality that is not being substantially challenged or even recognized politically by any of the actors involved, great or small, on the “Right” or “Left,” from al-Qaeda to the neoconservatives, or “libertarians” like Ron Paul, from Bush to the President of the Iranian Islamic Republic Ahmadinejad, and Republicans and Democrats from McCain to Obama, or “independents” and the Green Party’s candidates Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader, to the far-“Left” of “anarchists” and other antinomians like writers for Counterpunch and the Chomskyans, et al. at Z magazine, or the “anti-war” protest coalitions led by “Marxist” groups such as the International Socialist Organization (United for Peace and Justice coalition, Campus Anti-war Network), Workers World Party (ANSWER coalition), or the Revolutionary Communist Party (World Can’t Wait coalition).

All of the supposed “anti-imperialists” — from Iraq policy dissident Republicans like Senator Chuck Hagel, to the most intransigent “Marxists” like the Spartacist League — have failed to be truly anti-“imperialist” in their approach to Iraq, nor could they be, for none could have possibly challenged the fundamental conditions of U.S. power in global capital. There is no politics of anti-imperialism, for no one asks politically whether and what it means to say that the U.S. could be more or less “imperialist,” whether the world order can do without the U.S. acting as global cop — asking, who, for instance, would play this nevertheless necessary role in the absence of the U.S.? For there is no one. And no purported “Left” should want “openings” for their own sake in the global order — as if any “cracks” in the “system” won’t be the holes into which the world’s most abject will be immediately swallowed, without in any way sparing the next batch of victims in the train-wreck of history.

The fundamental inability of anyone on the “Left” to take a meaningfully alternative position on Iraq, beyond hoping (vainly) for the “defeat” of or “resistance” to U.S. policy, and thus immediately joining the opportunism of the politics of the Democrats, dissident Republicans, and European and other statesmen, should serve as a warning about the dire political state of the world and its possibilities today. Accusations might fly about who may more or less tacitly “support” “U.S. imperialism,” but there is such a thing as protesting too much, especially when it must be admitted that nothing can be done right now to alter the given global political and social realities in a progressive-emancipatory manner. If, as Adolph Reed put it, the U.S. remains a “scourge on the Earth,” is the alternative only to impotently denounce this and not try to properly understand it — and understand what it would mean to prepare to begin to meaningfully challenge and overcome this?

As appalling as it might be to recognize, McCain in his Republican National Convention speech was actually more truthful and straightforward than Obama when he pointed out that he has stood consistently behind what has proved to be a successful policy in Iraq. Obama now must dissemble on the issue.

On the other hand, the essence of Obama’s candidacy can be seen in the figure of Samantha Power, who was sacked from his primary campaign after saying, correctly, that Hillary Clinton was a “monster” who would “say anything” to get elected. Power is a liberal promoter of “human rights” military interventionism, and began working as a senior advisor for Obama immediately after he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Power is a representative of Obama’s version of the historical precedent of JFK’s team of “the best and the brightest” such as Robert McNamara. In fact, Obama’s candidacy has been in its origins much more about “foreign” than “domestic” policy, and more than will be apparent now that Iraq has been neutralized as the main issue in the election. Obama, no less than McCain, is campaigning for the office not only of the “top cop” of the U.S., but of the world. Obama’s campaign is over effective policy for this role, not the role itself.

The “Left” is now up in arms in the face of Obama’s candidacy because his campaign explicitly aims to refurbish the U.S. government’s capacity to play this role, and perhaps even in expanded ways, as U.S. power would be equipped to advance the liberal cause of “human rights” internationally more idealistically and less cynically than under Bush or Clinton.

But this raises the issue of how to understand the U.S.’s role in the world. Only at its peril does the Left treat the explicit Wilsonian doctrine that has essentially underwritten U.S. policy and power after the First World War as hypocritical or cynical, for the project of the U.S. as the central, without-peer hegemonic power of global capital is one in which all states internationally participate (through the U.N., the international treaty organization of U.S. power), only to a greater or lesser extent. Maintaining the “peaceful” conditions of capital has and will continue to prove a bloody business at global scale. As much as one might wish otherwise or simply regret the onus of U.S. power, reality must be faced.

The hyperbole around Iraq in mainstream politics is best illustrated by that favored word, “quagmire.” But behind this has been hysteria, not reason. Feeling in one’s step the pull of some gum on the pavement is not the threat of sinking into quicksand! The Iraqi “insurgents” knew better than their apologists and cynical anti-Bush well-wishers among the Democrats and European and other powers — and their open cheerleaders on the “Left” — that they were not so intransigent, not so willing to die to a last man in their “opposition” to the U.S. and its policies, but only wished to drive a harder bargain at the negotiating table with the U.S. and its allies in Iraq — and now they are themselves becoming allies of the Iraqi government and the U.S.

Currently, it might still remain unclear whether the combined actions and apparent attenuation of the Iraqi insurgents/militias and the struggle among the ruling and oppositional parties of the Iraqi government and, behind them, their foreign backers in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the apparent disarray of the regime of the Iranian Islamic Republic in its nuclear standoff with the U.S. and European powers, amount to a temporary situation borne of a shared wish to ride the Obama train (or merely the potential for change inherent in the election cycle) into a better bargaining position regarding U.S. policy and so not to spoil the U.S. election and bring the supposedly more bellicose John McCain to power through the fear of the American public, or whether they’ve given up the bloody game of jockeying for influence in Iraq because they’ve already spent what chips they had in the last 5 years.

In any case, as far as the election is concerned, Obama has played a strategy in his campaign from which any purported “Left” must learn politically: that it is not a good idea to bank ahead of time on the defeat of one’s opponents. Obama’s campaign is in more trouble than it might have been because it has lost its signal issue with which to prosecute the Republicans with the Bush administration, a “losing” war in Iraq. Obama can be elected despite this, and fudge the issue of the war and “opposition” to it as policy.

But the “Left” remains in a similar but in fact much worse predicament. The “Left” never asked the burning question: What if the Bush policy “succeeds?” Then what will be the basis for opposition to U.S. “imperialism?”

Iraq is nothing like Vietnam, despite the wishes of the “Left” to have history repeat itself. If Iraq does not , as it appears it will not, fall apart or drag on in endless slaughter, but continues to stabilize, and does not give up sovereignty over its oil resources, etc., but simply allows the U.S. some minimal military presence through its embassy there, and continues to work with the U.S. against groups like al-Qaeda, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, the Kurdish PKK guerillas in Turkey, and willingly sides with the U.S., as it will inevitably, in any potential future wars against Iran or Syria, etc., will this mean that the U.S. invasion and occupation diminished Iraqi “sovereignty” and so was a phenomenon of U.S. “imperialism?” What will be the account of Iraqi motives in the arrangement achieved by U.S. intervention, as mere stooges for the U.S.?

And won’t this mean taking a much coarser and narrower- minded view of the actual concrete politics of Iraq and the Middle East than those evinced by Obama, McCain and (even) Bush, so effectively disqualifying the “Left” as being in any way competent to comment, let alone critique or offer political alternatives?

What will remain the basis for the “Left’s” opposition to U.S. policy in a world McCain or Obama would make after Bush — after Blackwater, et al. quit the Iraqi scene, as they already are doing, and not through defeat but success, and not without some selective high-profile (if become less interesting) investigations and prosecutions of “war crimes” by Americans, now that the U.S. can afford them?

How will U.S. power in the world be understood, and what critique and vision of the future will be posed in the face of its undiminished capacities? | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #7 (October 2008).

Finance capital

Why financial capitalism is no more “fictitious” than any other kind

Chris Cutrone

The following was distributed as a flyer [PDF] at the occupation protests that began in September 2011.

WITH THE PRESENT FINANCIAL MELT-DOWN in the U.S. throwing the global economy into question, many on the “Left” are wondering again about the nature of capitalism. While many will be tempted to jump on the bandwagon of the “bailout” being floated by the Bush administration and the Congressional Democrats (including Obama), others will protest the “bailing out” of Wall Street.

The rhetoric of “Wall Street vs. Main Street,” between “hardworking America” and the “financial fat cats,” however, belies a more fundamental truth: the two are indissolubly linked and are in fact two sides of the same coin of capitalism.

It would be no less reactionary — that is, conservative of capitalism — to try to oppose “productive” industrial manufacturing or service sector capitalism to “parasitic” financial capitalism.

As Georg Lukács pointed out in his seminal essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” (1923), following Marx’s critique of “alienation” (in Das Kapital, 1867) (and echoing the at-the-time yet-to-be discovered writings by Marx such as the 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and the Grundrisse, 1858), modern society structured by the dynamic domination of capital gives rise to “necessary forms of appearance” that are symptomatic of capital.

These reified “forms of appearance” include not only forms of “exchange” such as monetary and financial systems, but also, more fundamentally, forms of wage labor and concrete forms of production, which are just as much a part of capital’s reproduction as a social system as are any conventions of exchange.

This means that one cannot oppose one side of capital to another, one cannot side with “productive labor” against “parasitic capital” without being one-sided and falling into a trap of advocating and participating in the reproduction of capital at a deeper level. Lukács recognized, following Marx, that capital as not merely a form of “economics” but a social system of (re)production.

But most varieties of “Marxism” have missed this very crucial point, and so take Marx to mean rather the opposite, that industrial production embodies what is true and good about capital, while exchange and money represents what is false and bad about it. Such pseudo-”Marxism” has falsely (and conservatively) vilified the supposedly “fictitious” nature of “finance capital.”

Following Marx, Lukács, through his concept of “reification,” sought to deepen the critical recognition of the social-historical problem of capital, to recognize that modern society as structured and dominated by capital exhibits specific symptoms of this domination. Such symptoms are the attempts by human beings individually and collectively to master, control and adjudicate the effects of the social dynamism that capital sets in motion.

However, in Marx’s phrase (from the 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party), the dynamic of capital ensures that “all that is solid melts into air.” The modern society of capital is one in which all concrete ways of life, social organization and production, are subject to revolutionization through a cycle of “creative destruction.” But Marx did not simply bemoan this dynamism of capital that ends up making transient all human endeavors, mocking their futility.

Rather, Marx recognized this dynamism as an “alienated” form of social freedom. The creative destruction engendered by capital is the way capital reproduces its social logic, but it also gives rise to transformations of concrete ways of social life the world has never before seen, engendering new possibilities for humanity — the past 200 years of capitalism have seen more, and more profound changes, globally, than previous millennia saw. Unfortunately, the reproduction of capital also means undermining such new human potentialities (for instance, new forms of gender and sexual relations) as soon as they are brought onto the ever-shifting horizon of possibility.

With the current financial collapse, the temptation will be to retreat to what many on the pseudo-”Left” have long advocated, a “new New Deal” of Keynesian Fordist and welfare-state social-security reforms. The temptation on the “Left” (as well as the Right) will be to see what some have called “saving capitalism from itself” as “progress.” But such attempts to master the dynamics of capital will not only fail to achieve their aims, but will also entail unexpected further consequences and problems no less potentially destructive for humanity than so-called “free-market” practices of capitalism.

If the neo-Keynesians as well as others, such as the more radical “socialists” on the “Left” are mistaken in their hopes for reformist solutions to the problems of capital, it is not least because they don’t recognize capitalism as a (alienated) form of (increasing the scope of) freedom. Rather, their nemeses among the “neo-liberals” such as Milton Friedman (in the 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom) and Friedrich Hayek (in his 1943 book The Road to Serfdom) have given expression to this liberal dimension of capital, which they opposed to what they took to be the worse authoritarianism of (nationalist) socialism.

Opposed to this have been thinkers such as Karl Polanyi (The Great Transformation, 1944) and John Kenneth Galbraith (The Affluent Society, 1958, which warned of the effects of private-sector capital outstripping the public sector). Polanyi, for instance, complained that capitalism commodified three things that supposedly cannot be commodities, labor, land and money itself. In such a one-sided opposition to capital, Polanyi neglected to realize that what makes modern society what it is, what distinguishes modern capitalism from earlier pre-modern forms of capital, is that it precisely entails subjecting these supposedly not “commodifiable” things to the commodity form. Modern capital is precisely about the radical revolutionizing of how we relate to forms of social intercourse, labor, and nature.

So no one should be fooled into thinking that supposedly better forms of politically managing (e.g., under the Democrats) the social investment in, and thus preserving the “value” and promoting the improvement of material production, infrastructure, or forms of knowledge represents any kind of sure “progress.” — No one should mistake for even a moment that such efforts will not be a windfall and lining the pockets of the capitalists (on “Main Street”) through upward income-redistribution schemes any less than “bailing out” Wall Street will be.

The presently bemoaned deregulation of financial institutions that occurred under Bill Clinton in the 1990s was not meant (merely) to enrich the rich further, but to open the way for new forms of economic and social relations, both locally and globally. Such “neo-liberal” reforms were meant to overcome, in Milton Friedman’s phrase, the “tyranny of the status quo” — a sentiment any emancipatory Left ought not to regard with excessive cynicism. For the neo-liberals found a hearing not only among the wealthy, but also among many left out of the prior Keynesian/Fordist arrangements — see, for instance, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus’s social activist work in “microfinance” in Bangladesh.

A Marxian approach to the problem of capital, as Lukács warned with his concept of “reification,” recognizes that “labor” and its forms of “production” are no less “reified” and “ideological” in their practices under capital, no less “unreal” and subject to de-realization, with destructive social consequences, than are the forms of “exchange,” monetization and finance.

An authentically Marxian Left should take no side in the present debates over the merits and pitfalls of the “bailout” of the financial system. One can and should critique this, of course, but nonetheless remain aware that this is no simple matter of opposing it. This side of revolutionary emancipation beyond capital, a Marxian politics would demand to better finance capital no less than to support labor. Finance capital is no less legitimate if also no less symptomatic of capital than any other phenomenon of modern life. So it deserves not to be vilified or denounced but understood as a way humanity has tried authentically to cope with the creative destruction of capital in modern social life. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #7 (October 2008).

Obama: progress in regress

The end of “black politics”

Chris Cutrone

THE ELECTION OF BARACK OBAMA will be an event. But it has proven confusing for most on the “Left,” who claim to want to overcome anti-black racism and achieve social justice. Rejection of Obama on this basis has been as significant as the embrace of his candidacy. There is as much anxiety as hope stirred by Obama, especially regarding the significance of his blackness.

For instance, the usually discerning and astute black political scientist and critical intellectual commentator Adolph L. Reed, Jr. — he is perhaps the single best thinker in American politics for a generation — has published several articles critical of the Obama phenomenon. Reed’s journalistic criticisms during the Democratic Party primary election season hit some false notes, not least Reed going back on a pledge made years ago to “not vote for a Clinton for anything” when he endorsed Hillary as a “lesser evil” over Obama. Reed has been quick to point out the obvious, that the Obama phenomenon is no social movement, but only a marketing ploy of otherwise typically “centrist” (i.e., not even “reformist”) Democratic Party politics. Reed has been keen to disenchant Obama from early in his emergence in Chicago politics. Reed has pointed to the blindness of enthusiasm surrounding Obama, but Reed’s attempts to scotch illusory hopes raised by Obama went too far in his endorsement of Clinton as some kind of backstop against the Obama effect — perhaps out of Reed’s respect for the fact that Clinton did not pretend to be anything but what she is. Overall, Reed’s criticisms have articulated something that others have been perhaps less open about saying, that the Obama candidacy might be a setback for the political and social interests of black Americans.

Reed’s most recent article, “Where Obamaism seems to be going” (in the Black Agenda Report, July 16, 2008, on-line at: www.blackagendareport.com) marks a deeper and less rhetorical engagement than his prior critique, which had been hampered by hyperbolic accusations, for instance of the “cultish” quality of the Obama campaign. In his recent article, Reed writes that,

An Obama presidency (maybe even just his candidacy) will likely sever the last threads of any connection between notions of racial disparity and structurally reproduced inequality rooted in political economy.

This is a serious matter to consider. However, what must be addressed first are the effects of the Obama candidacy on the existing “Left.”

The diminished possibility of substantially linking struggles for racial justice to reforms of political economy needs to be grasped in light of ideology, specifically on the “Left,” which Reed has raised as an issue surrounding Obama more generally. If Reed is correct about what Obama represents, we need to ask why this might be so, and how the “Left” is responsible.

People on the “Left” respond to Obama in ambivalent ways, through idolization or demonization. But neither is appropriate or realistic, and both are equally hysteric in character. The problem that Obama presents for the “Left” is that they cannot decide whether they really want him, or rather fear what he might represent: the obsolescence of their politics. Even Reed evinces this effect.

Obama has not claimed to be anything but a typical Democrat. Despite burnishing credentials as a “community activist” in Chicago when running for Illinois State Senate, Obama has not presented himself as a “movement” candidate, despite what many may wish from him — to pin their mistaken hopes on this or else find him wanting. It seems that the idea of an entirely “mainstream” (i.e., conservative) black political candidate is beyond the imagination of most on the “Left.”

So we are treated to some “shocking exposés” of Obama as a supposed product of the “Chicago School” of neo-liberal economic policy (of the former University of Chicago Professor of Economics Milton Friedman) — see for example Naomi Klein on “Obama’s Chicago Boys,” June 12, 2008, in The Nation, and various articles in Counterpunch — as if any president of the U.S. today would do anything but pursue post-Fordist/neo-liberal policies!

The candidacy and election of Obama will continue to send the “Left” into a tailspin, and in this sense will be “bad” for the Left — but this is Obama’s greatest value.

Hitherto, the “Left” has expected that black politicians should either “represent” — or even “lead” — a fictive black “community.” Conversely, black Republicans have been demonized for being sell-outs or otherwise “race traitors.” It has been a fundamentally racist imagination that denies that black Americans can run the entire spectrum of policy positions and therefore social politics.

As witnessed with Obama, the racist illusion that seems to die the hardest is the notion that black people are especially insightful let alone “progressive” in their outlook on American society. It is an old canard on the “Left” — somewhere between wishful thinking and demagogic propaganda — that the most oppressed are somehow the most critically conscious of social realities. Behind this spectacular illusion the “Left” has spun, however, has been the more prosaic realities of the Democratic Party and the role of “black” politics in it.

Because American politics has been about the struggle for inclusion in the power structure by successive waves of various immigrant and other marginalized groups, it has been perhaps the most destructive illusion that the Democratic Party, which has played the inclusion game of its constituency politics better (especially in urban machine politics) than their Republican rivals, is somehow to the Left socially or politically. — As Gore Vidal once put it, American politics is really a one-party affair, the “party of property,” with “two Right wings.” The Democratic Party is simply the party that tends to include the interests of parvenu bourgeois elements from non-WASP groups, along with perhaps some of the more enlightened WASPs. “Black politics” has been part of this game, especially since the reorientation of American party politics as a result of the Civil Rights movement and the defection of the Southern “Dixiecrats” to the Republicans in the 1960s. Whereas previously the Democratic Party represented the unholy populist lash-up of Southern rednecks with Northern ethnic constituencies and organized labor, and the even earlier phenomenon of blacks voting for the Republican Party of Lincoln and Grant as a matter of course, today it is taken for granted that black Americans naturally find their political interests expressed in the Democratic Party. But this has worked to ill effect, especially as the “Left” has contributed to the charade.

The election of Barack Obama represents something very difficult for those on the ostensible “Left” to understand, that since the 1960s the Right (in both its Democratic and Republican Party forms) has been very successful in depoliticizing — effectively defusing — the issues of poverty and other forms of social degradation faced by most black Americans. The Left has played into this very well, doing their own work of replacing style for substance and, as Adolph Reed has put it, “posing” for politics. Thus, the “Left” since the 1960s has actually become a part of the new Right, a key factor in the depoliticization and hence conservatizing of American politics and society, for more than a generation now.

Of course Obama is just as much a product of this conservatization and depoliticization. This should shock no one. — Yet it does, and so this symptom is extremely important to note and understand.

The election of Barack Obama will be an event. It should be a moment for reevaluating American society and politics. It should be an opportunity for throwing overboard illusions the “Left” has sown for at least 40 years about the realities and possibilities for American society and politics. The incredulity with which the Obama election is met, either in hopeful expectation or denial based in fear, is less about his election itself than it is about the confused, mistaken and utterly reactionary consciousness on the American “Left:” it is a measure of the racism of the “Left,” how this “Left” is a key bulwark of racism in American life.

Note how the Obama candidacy has been met with hostility from all the usual suspects, the sexagenarian post-Civil Rights leadership of Jesse Jackson, Sr. (who said he wanted to cut Obama’s balls off!), to the unblushing racist politics of Democratic Party stalwarts like the Clintons (who were “just saying what the Republicans will, anyway”), and those like Rev. Jeremiah Wright who cannot countenance any challenge to the wounded narcissism they’ve made their profession. — Obama was entirely correct about Wright et al. being stuck in the 1950s. The vested interests of black politics are rightfully wary of Obama. Their game is up. The time for reckoning has come.

So what can be made of this campaign by Obama that completely eschews the business-as-usual of the business of racism in the U.S., and one that does not run politically on the basis of “opposing” the racist demagogy of the Democrats (like the black Republicans do, making of their “criticism” of black Democratic hucksterism a business of their own, in their own way: see for instance Shelby Steele on Obama), but rather seeks to bypass such politics?

One catch-phrase that has flown in the wake of the success of the Obama candidacy is “post-racial,” raising the question of the degree to which America has overcome racism. But perhaps the matter is not one of our historical moment being post-”racial” but rather post-racist. Perhaps racism has changed. For the historical racism that plagued the U.S., from the failure of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era through Jim Crow until the overcoming of legal racial segregation with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s–60s, is over. But this has not meant the meaningful improvement of conditions of life for the vast majority of black people in America, but rather has accompanied worsening conditions, as part of the broader greater stratification and brutalization of American society in the general downturn since the late 1960s – early ‘70s.

In the meantime, the political issues of racism, as they stood in 1950s–60s, have been rendered obsolete. On the one hand, American society and culture is less “racist” than it has ever been; on the other hand, real suffering is rendered, if not invisible then politically insoluble. There has been “progress” on the issue of “racism” while there has been regress in terms of addressing any problems of greater substance for black people. The hollowed-out politics of “anti-racism” meanwhile has come to serve, at best, the racket politics of black and other Democrats, and at worst a paranoiac narcissistic trap for anyone who might be willing to think radically about political and social change in the U.S.. — The more sensible people have done what the rest of America has, come to avoid the madness — or the simple cretinism — of such politics as much as possible.

The degree to which it has at all, American politics and culture has tried to address the social concerns of black people according to a peculiar and confounding mixture of the older Civil Rights and subsequent Black Power political models — think of the successful conflation of the diametrically opposed politics of MLK, Jr. and Malcolm X by Spike Lee, for instance — for an entire generation, without at all improving the lot of the greater portion of black Americans.

This presents a paradox, and the Obama election is a very good emblem for it. For it is truly the case that Obama does not stand at the head of a groundswell of a social movement but rather only a successful marketing tweak of Democratic Party electioneering. The inability to critique Obama without recourse to de-authenticating his “blackness,” which everyone feels to be a hollow move, exposes the utter contemptuousness of what stands for “politics” today. — In the end, the election really will hinge on whether Obama as an image makes people feel better than John McCain does. This is an outrage, but not especially outrageous given the state of American politics today. But at least now political symbolism has developed so that the image of a “black man” can be one of jejune “hope” (and not only for black Americans), and no longer just a jigaboo bugaboo, as the Republicans (and many Democrats) have made it their cynical trade to ply disingenuously and opportunistically for the past generation, finding it an increasingly less successful ploy to pull off today.

Perhaps young (black) people have embraced Obama precisely because they have become so “sick and tired of being sick and tired” with the politics of their parents and grandparents. Perhaps it is enough that Obama means turning the page, even if the basic story remains the same. Change is its own value — if only because it represents an opportunity. — In this case it is the opportunity presented by the failure of “black politics.”

The election of Barack Obama will not solve the problems faced by the greater lot of black Americans, but it might at least deliver the coup de grâce for a politics that was not working for social improvement anyway. And this should be welcomed — at least by anyone who is honestly concerned with the politics of substantial reform and emancipatory transformation of life in the U.S.

Those on the “Left” who thought it would take a revolution — of whatever kind — to have a black leader have had a profoundly mistaken social imagination. It turns out that racism was not the kind of problem they thought it was. The problems facing black Americans were both less and more intractable than they thought. They have mistaken the political significance of anti-black racism — and black Americans have paid the price for this depoliticization of their social grievances.

The election of Obama will be an event. It is a signal that we need not be held back any longer by the invidious illusions the prior “Left” bequeathed us — amidst the botched world they have made. We have been stifled too long under the weight of their obfuscations and rationalizations, while society has gone to hell — or has gone, if you prefer, to “Nixonland” (the title of a recent book by Rick Perlstein): The “Left” has been complicit in the degradation of politics by mirroring the “culture wars” unleashed by the Right, becoming caught up in symbolic imagery, as in the late-’60s Black Power turn, at the expense of real political progress.

As Adolph Reed has pointed out, Obama might indeed represent the “severing” of the “last threads” potentially linking anti-racist and anti-capitalist politics. But the specific ways these have been “linked” in the social imagination and politics — the ideology — of the “Left,” for more than a generation, have not helped but actually worked to the detriment of either addressing the social problems faced by most black Americans or addressing the problems of capitalism in the U.S.

Perhaps the very attempt to address these two sets of issues in identical terms, as if struggling against racism and capitalism were not only indissolubly linked but were somehow the same thing, fudging the issue of how to articulate them, was the mistake, especially as the struggle against racism and for “black empowerment” came, since the late ‘60s, to take the place of the struggle for working class empowerment and against capitalism.

Capitalist politics since the 1960s has succeeded in effectively separating, neutralizing and eliminating both agendas, empowering working class people and ameliorating social conditions for black people, and both in the name of “black politics,” which today does not require reform but abolition. “Black politics” has done nothing to empower black working-class people, but only to chain them, in a more or less roundabout way, to the Democratic Party and its capitalist politics. So we do not need “better” black politics, but rather to overcome such politics entirely. We have stood sorely in need of a specifically working class politics that can effectively speak to (black) workers comprehensively, to all aspects of their social reality and political empowerment.

This need can be found reflected in the fact that Obama leads in the current electoral polls of all lower-income people, including more than 10 points among “white” workers. — So much for the specter of the supposedly so intractable racism of the “white working class” that the post-’60s “Left” has peddled so hard and for so long! Instead of this, pursuing the chimera of some kind of purportedly “progressive” black nationalism or other distinctly “black” politics has sent the “Left” so far around the bend that it has become unable the recognize the true nature and character — and range of varieties — of black conservatism (including among working class people), of the inherently conservative nature of “black politics” itself. — Hence, Obama.

With Obama we might be able to wake from the nightmarish “dream” of “black politics:” in the “mainstream,” in both the miserable Democratic Party ethnic racket variety and the cynical and phony “sobriety” of black Republicanism; and, among “radicals,” the “revolutionary suicide” of which the Black Panther Huey P. Newton spoke, as well as what Frantz Fanon and the late Malcolm X called the “sickness and madness” of black nationalism — only to perhaps be able to face our grim social realities more squarely. If Obama represents the “end” of “black politics,” this should be welcomed, not least as a salutary — if painful — shock to the bad “Left.”

The surprising “black face” of conservatism Obama reveals ought to send reeling — and finally into the “dustbin of history” — the complex of assumptions involved in “black politics,” so that we can interrogate what it was that it was supposed to accomplish, for it clearly has not, and perhaps never could.

The Obama election will be an event — in that it will not be one. Nothing will change. But this might help the “Left” to change — certainly some for the worse, clinging to ever more demented and ineffectual “black politics,” but perhaps also some others for the better, who might finally extricate themselves from the trap such politics has presented for more than a generation. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #6 (September 2008). 

Capital in history

The need for a Marxian philosophy of history of the Left

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Kevin Anderson, Peter Hudis, Andrew Kliman and Sandra Rein at the Marxist-Humanist Committee public forum on “The Crisis in Marxist Thought,” hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, July 25, 2008.

I want to speak about the meaning of history for any purportedly Marxian Left.

We in Platypus focus on the history of the Left because we think that the narrative one tells about this history is in fact one’s theory of the present. Implicitly or explicitly, in one’s conception of the history of the Left, is an account of how the present came to be. By focusing on the history of the Left, or, by adopting a Left-centric view of history, we hypothesize that the most important determinations of the present are the result of what the Left has done or failed to do historically.

For the purposes of this talk, I will focus on the broadest possible framing for such questions and problems of capital in history, the broadest possible context within which I think one needs to understand the problems faced by the Left, specifically by a purportedly Marxian Left.

I will not, for example, be focusing so much on issues for Platypus in the history of the various phases and stages of capital itself, for instance our contention that the 1960s represented not any kind of advance, but a profound retrogression on the Left. I will not elucidate our account of how the present suffers from at least 3 generations of degeneration and regression on the Left: the first, in the 1930s, being tragic; the second in the 1960s being farcical; and the most recent, in the 1990s, being sterilizing.

But, suffice it to say, I will point out that, for Platypus, the recognition of regression and the attempt to understand its significance and causes is perhaps our most important point of departure. The topic of this talk is the most fundamental assumption informing our understanding of regression.

For purposes of brevity, I will not be citing explicitly, but I wish to indicate my indebtedness for the following treatment of a potential Marxian philosophy of history, beyond Marx and Engels themselves, and Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, to Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and, last but not least, the Marx scholar Moishe Postone. And, moreover, I will be in dialogue, through these writers, with Hegel, who distinguished philosophical history as the story of the development of freedom. — For Hegel, history is only meaningful the degree to which it is the story of freedom.

Capital is completely unprecedented in the history of humanity, hence, any struggle for emancipation beyond capital is also completely unprecedented. While there is a connection between the unprecedented nature of the emergence of capital in history and the struggle to get beyond it, this connection can also be highly misleading, leading to a false symmetry between the transition into and within different periods of the transformations of modern capital, and a potential transition beyond capital. The revolt of the Third Estate, which initiated a still on-going and never-to-be-exhausted modern history of bourgeois-democratic revolutions, is both the ground for, and, from a Marxian perspective, the now potentially historically obsolescent social form of politics from which proletarian socialist politics seeks to depart, to get beyond.

Hegel, as a philosopher of the time of the last of the great bourgeois-democratic revolutions marking the emergence of modern capital, the Great French Revolution of 1789, was for this reason a theorist of the revolt of the Third Estate. Marx, who came later, after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, faced problems Hegel did not.

It has often been stated, but not fully comprehended by Marxists that Marx recognized the historical mission of the class-conscious proletariat, to overcome capitalism and to thus do away with class society. Traditionally, this meant, however paradoxically, either the end of the pre-history or the beginning of the true history of humanity. — In a sense, this duality of the possibility of an end and a true beginning, was a response to a Right Hegelian notion of an end to history, what is assumed by apologists for capital as a best of all possible worlds.

Famously, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels stated that all history hitherto has been the history of class struggles; Engels added a clever footnote later that specified “all written history.” We might extrapolate from this that what Engels meant was the history of civilization; history as class struggle did not pertain, for instance, to human history or social life prior to the formation of classes, the time of the supposed “primitive communism.” Later, in 1942 (in “Reflections on Class Theory”), Adorno, following Benjamin (in the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940), wrote that such a conception by Marx and Engels of all of history as the history of class struggles was in fact a critique of all of history, a critique of history itself.

So in what way does the critique of history matter in the critique of capital? The problem with the commonplace view of capitalism as primarily a problem of exploitation is that it is in this dimension that capital fails to distinguish itself from other forms of civilization. What is new in capital is social domination, which must be distinguished both logically and historically, structurally and empirically, from exploitation, to which it is not reducible. Social domination means the domination of society by capital. This is what is new about capital in the history of civilization; prior forms of civilization knew overt domination of some social groups over others, but did not know as Marx recognized in capital a social dynamic to which all social groups — all aspects of society as a whole — are subject.

So we must first draw a demarcation approximately 10,000 years ago, with the origins of civilization and class society, when the great agricultural revolution of the Neolithic Age took place, and human beings went from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to becoming settled agriculturalists. The predominant mode of life for humanity went from the hunter-gatherer to the peasant, and was this for most of subsequent history.

Several hundred years ago, however, a similarly profound transformation began, in which the predominant mode of life has gone from agricultural peasant to urban worker: wage-earner, manufacturer, and industrial producer.

More proximally, with the Industrial Revolution in the late-18th to early-19th Centuries, certain aspects of this “bourgeois” epoch of civilization and society manifested themselves and threw this history of the emergence of modernity into a new light. Rather than an “end of history” as bourgeois thinkers up to that time had thought, modern social life entered into a severe crisis that fundamentally problematized the transition from peasant- to worker-based society.

With Marx in the 19th century came the realization that bourgeois society, along with all its categories of subjectivity including its valorization of labor, might itself be transitional, that the end-goal of humanity might not be found in the productive individual of bourgeois theory and practice, but that this society might point beyond itself, towards a potential qualitative transformation at least as profound as that which separated the peasant way of life from the urban “proletarian” one, indeed a transition more on the order of profundity of the Neolithic Revolution in agriculture that ended hunter-gatherer society 10,000 years ago, more profound than that which separated modern from traditional society.

At the same time that this modern, bourgeois society ratcheted into high gear by the late-18th century, it entered into crisis, and a new, unprecedented historical phenomenon was manifested in political life, the “Left.” — While earlier forms of politics certainly disputed values, this was not in terms of historical “progress,” which became the hallmark of the Left.

The Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, the introduction of machine production, was accompanied by the optimistic and exhilarating socialist utopias suggested by these new developments, pointing to fantastical possibilities expressed in the imaginations of Fourier and Saint-Simon, among others.

Marx regarded the society of “bourgeois right” and “private property” as indeed already resting on the social constitution and mediation of labor, from which private property was derived, and asked the question of whether the trajectory of this society, from the revolt of the Third Estate and the manufacturing era in the 18th century to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, indicated the possibility of a further development.

In the midst of the dramatic social transformations of the 19th century in which, as Marx put it in the Manifesto, “all that was solid melted into air,” as early as 1843, Marx prognosed and faced the future virtual proletarianization of society, and asked whether and how humanity in proletarian form might liberate itself from this condition, whether and how, and with what necessity the proletariat would “transcend” and “abolish itself.” As early as the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx recognized that socialism (of Proudhon et al.) was itself symptomatic of capital: proletarian labor was constitutive of capital, and thus its politics was symptomatic of how the society conditioned by capital might reveal itself as transitional, as pointing beyond itself. — This was Marx’s most fundamental point of departure, that proletarianization was a substantial social problem and not merely relative to the bourgeoisie, and that the proletarianization of society was not the overcoming of capital but its fullest realization, and that this — the proletarianized society of capital — pointed beyond itself.

Thus, with Marx, a philosophy of the history of the Left was born. For Marx was not a socialist or communist so much as a thinker who tasked himself with understanding the meaning of the emergence of proletarian socialism in history. Marx was not simply the best or most consistent or radical socialist, but rather the most historically, and hence critically, self-aware. By “scientific” socialism, Marx understood himself to be elaborating a form of knowledge aware of its own conditions of possibility.

For a Hegelian and Marxian clarification of the specificity of the modern problem of social freedom, however, it becomes clear that the Left must define itself not sociologically, whether in terms of socioeconomic class or a principle of collectivism over individualism, etc., but rather as a matter of consciousness, specifically historical consciousness.

For, starting with Marx, it is consciousness of history and historical potential and possibilities, however apparently utopian or obscure, that distinguishes the Left from the Right, not the struggle against oppression — which the modern Right also claims. The Right does not represent the past but rather the foreclosing of possibilities in the present.

For this reason, it is important for us to recognize the potential and fact of regression that the possibilities for the Left in theory and practice have suffered as a result of the abandonment of historical consciousness in favor of the immediacies of struggles against oppression.

Marx’s critique of symptomatic socialism, from Proudhon, Lassalle, Bakunin, et al., to his own followers in the new German Social-Democratic Party and their program at Gotha (as well as in Engels’s subsequent critique of the Erfurt Programme), was aimed at maintaining the Marxian vision corresponding to the horizon of possibility of post-capitalist and post-proletarian society.

Unfortunately, beginning in Marx’s own lifetime, the form of politics he sought to inspire began to fall well below the threshold of this critically important consciousness of history. And the vast majority of this regression has taken place precisely in the name of “Marxism.” Throughout the history of Marxism, from the disputes with the anarchists in the 1st International Workingmen’s Association, and disputes in the 2nd Socialist International, to the subsequent splits in the Marxist workers’ movement with the Bolshevik-led Third, Communist International and Trotskyist Fourth International, a sometimes heroic but, in retrospect, overwhelmingly tragic struggle to preserve or recover something of the initial Marxian point of departure for modern proletarian socialism took place.

In the latter half of the 20th century, developments regressed so far behind the original Marxian self-consciousness that Marxism itself became an affirmative ideology of industrial society, and the threshold of post-capitalist society became obscured, finding expression only obtusely, in various recrudescent utopian ideologies, and, finally, in the most recent period, with the hegemony of “anarchist” ideologies and Romantic rejections of modernity.

But, beyond this crisis and passage into oblivion of a specifically Marxian approach, the “Left” itself, which emerged prior to Hegel and Marx’s attempts to philosophize its historical significance, has virtually disappeared. The present inability to distinguish conservative-reactionary from progressive-emancipatory responses to the problems of society conditioned by capital, is inseparable from the decline and disappearance of the social movement of proletarian socialism for which Marx had sought to provide a more adequate and provocative self-consciousness at the time of its emergence in the 19th century.

Paradoxically, as Lukács, following Luxemburg and Lenin, already pointed out, almost a century ago, while the apparent possibility of overcoming capital approaches in certain respects, in another sense it seems to retreat infinitely beyond the horizon of possibility. Can we follow Luxemburg’s early recognition of the opportunism that always threatens us, not as some kind of selling-out or falling from grace, but rather the manifestation of the very real fear that attends the dawning awareness of what grave risks are entailed in trying to fundamentally move the world beyond capital?

What’s worse — and, in the present, prior to any danger of “opportunism” — with the extreme coarsening if not utter disintegration of the ability to apprehend and transform capital through working-class politics, has come the coarsening of our ability to even recognize and apprehend, let alone adequately understand our social reality. We do not suffer simply from opportunism but from a rather more basic disorientation. Today we are faced with the problem not of changing the world but more fundamentally of understanding it.

On the other hand, approaching Marxian socialism, are we dealing with a “utopia?” — And, if so, what of this? What is the significance of our “utopian” sense of human potential beyond capital and proletarian labor? Is it a mere dream?

Marx began with utopian socialism and ended with the most influential if spectacularly failing modern political ideology, “scientific socialism.” At the same time, Marx gave us an acute and incisive critical framework for grasping the reasons why the last 200 years have been, by far, the most tumultuously transformative but also destructive epoch of human civilization, why this period has promised so much and yet disappointed so bitterly. The last 200 years have seen more, and more profound changes, than prior millennia have. Marx attempted to grasp the reasons for this. Others have failed to see the difference and have tried to re-assimilate modern history back into its antecedents (for instance, in postmodernist illusions of an endless medievalism: see Bruno Latour’s 1993 book We Have Never Been Modern).

What would it mean to treat the entire Marxian project as, first and foremost, a recognition of the history of modernity tout court as one of the pathology of transition, from the class society that emerged with the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago and the civilizations based on an essentially peasant way of life, through the emergence of the commodity form of social mediation, to the present global civilization dominated by capital, towards a form of humanity that might lie beyond this?

With Marx we are faced with a self-consciousness of an obscure and mysterious historical task, which can only be further clarified theoretically through transformative practice — the practice of proletarian socialism. But this task has been abandoned in favor of what are essentially capital-reconstituting struggles, attempting to cope with the vicissitudes of the dynamics of modern history. But this re-assimilation of Marxism back into ideology characteristic of the revolt of the Third Estate means the loss of the true horizon of possibility that motivated Marx and gave his project meaning and urgency.

Can we follow Marx and the best historically revolutionary Marxists who followed him in recognizing the forms of discontent in the pathological society we inhabit as being themselves symptomatic of and bound up with the very problem against which they rage? Can we avoid the premature post-capitalism and bad, reactionary utopianism that attends the present death of the Left in theory in practice, and preserve and fulfill the tasks given to us by history? Can we recognize the breadth and depth of the problem we seek to overcome without retreating into wishful thinking and ideological gracing of the accomplished fact, and apologizing for impulses that only seem directed against it, at the expense of what might lie beyond the traps of the suffering of the present?

We urgently need an acute awareness of our historical epoch as well as of our fleeting moment now, within it. — We must ask what it is about the present moment that might make the possibility of recovering a Marxian social and political consciousness viable, and how we can advance it by way of recovering it.

For the pathology of our modern society mediated by capital, of the proletarian form of social life and its self-objectifications, the new forms of humanity it makes possible, which are completely unprecedented in history, grows only worse the longer delayed is taking the possible and necessary steps to the next levels of the struggle for freedom.

The pathology grows worse, not merely in terms of the various forms of the destruction of humanity, which are daunting, but also, perhaps more importantly — and disturbingly — in the manifest worsening social conditions and capacities for practical politics on the Left, and our worsening theoretical awareness of them. If there has been a crisis and evacuation of Marxian thought, it has been because its most fundamental context and point of departure, its awareness of its greater historical moment, the possibility of an epochal transition, has been forgotten, while we have not ceased to share this moment, but only lost sight of its necessities and possibilities. Any future emancipatory politics must regain such awareness of the transitional nature of capitalist modernity and of the reasons why we pay such a steep price for failing to recognize this. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #7 (October 2008).