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Against political determinism

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“Neoliberalism” is a tricky and often misleading term. There have been myriad attempts to theorize it from a Marxist perspective, more or less adequate, usually less. But at the level of campaign slogans and mainstream political discourse there is a marked tendency to treat the whole phase of capitalist development from 1973 to 2008 as the result of a series of blunders, mishaps, or shady backroom dealings. Michael Rectenwald’s article on Sanders, Trumpism, and Brexit explores this crude political reductionism through the lens of what Andrew Kliman has called “political determinism,” the obverse of the economic determinism denounced by Lenin a century ago.

Rectenwald is not thus falling back on some caricatured version of the old Economist thesis that politics in no way mediates economics. He’s not arguing that policies are irrelevant, nor that they are simply a reflex of underlying economic shifts. What Kliman and Rectenwald are each looking to counter is a kind of idealistic voluntarism whereby electoral events, plebiscites or referenda, assume disproportionate importance or are even made into independent causes of subsequent growth. Perhaps they might be seen to herald a sea shift, but as Rectenwald points out, there can be no return to postwar productivity and prosperity — a “new New Deal” or post-neoliberal Fordism redux.

Many predicted that the 2008 financial crisis would finally draw the neoliberal phase of capitalism to a close. The election of Barack Obama was accompanied by a vague “hope” that things might “change”: one-word condensations of the new Zeitgeist, which featured prominently on posters across the nation. Eight years on, it’s difficult to remember the sense of enthusiasm and intoxication occasioned by Obama’s presidency. Occupy’s only significance — beyond the rhetoric of “the 99% vs. the 1%,” which seems to have stuck — was that it expressed the frustration and disappointment of voters who had swept Obama into office. Syriza, Podemos, and the Arab Spring arose to fill the void.

Commentators have by now for the most part acknowledged that earlier predictions of neoliberalism’s imminent collapse, the death-knell of the Reagan-Thatcher (but also Clinton-Blair) consensus, were premature. In the intervening years, the Tea Party had become known more for its libertarian attitude than its xenophobic paranoia. Austerity measures were imposed on Greece, but only after being ratified by the Syriza coalition in power. Now the British decision to leave the European Union is seen as the long-awaited, delayed-reaction repudiation of failed neoliberal politics.

To the horror of most, however, the ideological impetus behind this decision came mostly from the Right, fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment and delusions of autarky. Protectionist proposals, tariffs and the like, can come just as easily from the Right as from the Left. Farage and Trump, or rather the politics they seem to personify, testify to this fact. Rectenwald is correct to reexamine the faulty analysis that takes politicians to be the prime movers of socioeconomic change, since the same misconceptions inform movements that seek their salvation in candidates. One can’t “just say no” to neoliberalism, something which Rectenwald has already pointed out.

2/11/1985 President Reagan shaking hands with Donald Trump and Ivana trump during the State Visit of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia at the state dinner in the Blue Room

Sanders, Trumpism, and Brexit:
The decrepit state of capitalism

Michael Rectenwald
The Marxist-Humanist
Initiative (July 2016)
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There’s a basic article of faith in leftist thought, held especially dearly by most among the US left. It is so entrenched and so seldom challenged that it has attained the status of myth, an unquestioned origin story on par with the Book of Genesis, as the latter must have been regarded within Christendom during the Middle Ages.

The myth goes like this: During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — two arch-conservative, right-wing, and highly potent politicians — rose to power in their respective nations, the US and the UK. They thereafter began to institute what was for the vast majority a vile and destructive political and economic scheme: “neoliberalism.” Previous to the installment of this neoliberal scheme, the working class had experienced relative economic improvement, and capitalists seemed happy too (as if we care). But suddenly, and seemingly without cause (although the failure of Keynesianism was apparent in the unprecedented stagflation of the 1970s), these evil political twins, prompted by wizards who formalized the approach, introduced the nefarious ideology of neoliberalism to the world. As cruel and heartless representatives of the capitalist class (which, indeed, they were), they and their supporters caused the Fall from the supposed Paradise of Keynesian reformism that had preceded them. In this mythological version of reality, neoliberalism is understood merely as a set of essentially unwarranted and unusually brutal policies, an ideological and political formation that was hatched in the brains of evil masterminds conspiring in right-wing think tanks, concocted to dupe and punish the vast majority for the benefit of the rich and powerful. Continue reading

Housing development Ciudad Jardin Soto Real. 312 empty houses, 1169 houses not even built. 1

Radical interpretations of the present crisis

New York University
November 26, 2012
Platypus Review
56
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..Loren Goldner | David Harvey
Andrew Kliman | Paul Mattick

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Last autumn, chapters of the Platypus Affiliated Society in New York, London, and Chicago hosted similar events on the theme of “Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis.” The speakers participating in New York included Loren Goldner, David Harvey, Andrew Kliman, and Paul Mattick. The transcript of the event in London appeared in
 Platypus Review 55 (April 2013). What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that PAS-NYC hosted on November 14, 2012 at the New School.

Preliminary remarks

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Loren Goldner:
The title of my talk tonight is “Fictitious Capital and Contracted Social Reproduction.” It is important to note that as we convene tonight, there are general strikes across the southern flank of Europe, the miners’ strikes in South Africa, and at least 50 strikes a day in China. While we convene to talk about the crisis, there are people in motion trying to do something about it.

Marx writes in his Grundrisse, “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labor time to a minimum, while it posits labor time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.”[1] Unpacking that one sentence can get us very far in understanding the crisis and the history of at least the last hundred years.

Capital can be broken down into Marx’s categories: surplus value (s), variable capital (v), and constant capital (c). Within constant capital there is a breakdown into (i) fixed capital, which refers generally to machinery and tools, and (ii) circulating capital, which refers to things such as raw materials.

With these categories I would like to address the question of fictitious capital, which I define as claims on the social wealth and social surplus that correspond to no existing social surplus. The origins of fictitious capital are the advancing productivity of labor in capitalism, which is an anarchic system, one that is constantly devaluing the constant capital invested by the capitalist class. Capital volumes 1 and 2 describe a pure capitalist system, in which there are only two social classes: the wage-labor proletariat and the capitalist class or the bourgeoisie. Other classes enter the picture, for instance peasants, in the long historical chapter on accumulation. But Marx is trying to set up a pure model and then move on to the more everyday appearances of the system.

Value is defined in Marx as the socially necessary labor time of reproduction; I want to emphasize the “re-” in reproduction. For, in the opening chapter of Capital, Marx talks a lot about the value of a commodity as the socially necessary labor time embodied in it, but later moves to social reproduction. There he is talking about an expanding system in which the early definitions are superseded.

Capitalists themselves tend to have only a vague idea of use-value. As they are running a society into the ground, say in the contemporary debates on infrastructure, capitalists come to a recognition that use-value plays some kind of a role. But, by and large, individual capitalists are interested in profit of which use-value is a mere by-product. One aspect of recent capitalist history that is important to emphasize is that the tremendous incomes that a part of the capitalist class gets from the sale and rental of buildings of all kinds has long superseded the total amount of profit directly derived from industry. This is important to understand for the contemporary situation.

There is another category that doesn’t attract the attention that it should: what I call “capitalist consumption.” Capitalist consumption does not refer to the consumption of the capitalists themselves, not the yachts in the Hamptons and the Malibu lifestyle, but the consumption of all the hangers-on of the capitalist class. Marx has a colorful formulation, in which he refers to king, minister, professor, and whore, as different embodiments of the hangers-on. But I would expand this category quite a bit to include state bureaucrats — let’s not forget that 35–40% of U.S. GDP goes to state expenditure at the local, state, and federal level. In 1950 there were ten workers for every manager; today there are three. The military police, prison system, and the biggest single group the so-called FIRE (Finance-Insurance-Real Estate) sector, which represent the interest and ground siphon of surplus value, all of these elements enforce capitalist social relations. We also have the total wage bill, which is comprised of more than the pay packets or checks, but also everything that goes into education and training. The military has increasingly assumed this role over the last thirty to forty years in the U.S. with the collapse of a lot of vocational schools.

Though an incomplete picture, all the above points to different ways in which capital in crisis transfers variable and constant capital to a surplus, as a way of saving itself. In the United States and most countries in crisis over the last 40 years, we see the non-reproduction of labor power — just think of the fact that almost 40% of all high school students in NYC don’t ever finish high school.

Also important, perhaps more important, is primitive accumulation. This Marx defines as the separation of petty producers from the means of production. There is a lot of debate about whether Marx simply meant the expropriation of the English peasantry in the late-17th early 18th century. But I think primitive accumulation is a permanent feature of the capitalist system. In this respect, I follow aspects of Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital, which included chapters with examples of this process from the nineteenth century. I don’t think one has to go along with all of Luxemburg’s reasoning to recognize the mobilization by modern capital of labor power outside of the subsectors of the world economy, more specifically the peasantry of India, China, Latin America, and Africa. All kinds of people who are not wage workers are recruited to the wage labor system, after another subsector has paid their reproduction costs.

In short, what keeps this proliferation of fictitious capital afloat in all the forms that I have just described, is a general process of non-reproduction: both of labor power and of aspects of constant capital, such as infrastructure — concerning which, for instance, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it would cost 2.3 trillion dollars just to bring things to a standard level.

David Harvey: I had an interesting experience in May when I was in Istanbul, where I was giving lectures and hanging out with social movement people. Istanbul is a boomtown and it is quite incredible what is going on there. Turkey is growing around 7% a year. There is talk of a new bridge across the Bosporus, and the population of Istanbul will grow from 18 million to 40 million in 10-15 years. Meanwhile, Athens, two hours away by flight, is a catastrophe. Argentina was a disaster in 2001–03, but by 2004 it had reneged on its debt and has been booming ever since. China in early 2009 had lost close to 30 million jobs due to cuts to export industries. Yet by the end of the year it recorded a net loss of 3 million jobs, which means that they created 27 million jobs in nine months, through expansive urbanization — basically, a huge infrastructure project. The bankers in China obeyed the orders of the Central Committee to lend. The huge labor absorption in China stands in contrast to the 7 million net jobs lost in the same year in this country. Why? For one thing, you have this stupid form of austerity here, whereas, in effect, there was a Keynesian expansion program in China. Argentina did very well, too, because it started selling all its agricultural commodities to China. It is now one big soy plantation for the China trade. How are we to create a theoretical apparatus that can encompass these incredible differences, as well as the dynamics that created them?

I tried to do a little of that in the Enigma of Capital, analyzing the ways capital flows. As Marx puts it, every limit and barrier has to be overcome. But as you surpass one crisis, it just manifests somewhere else. It has moved from the U.S. and the property markets, impacting consumers in China, and then spun over to the financial sector, creating sovereign debt problems, as in Spain. It is in Iceland, then Dubai, and then Greece. If you don’t have a theoretical framework that can understand the rapidity of these moves then you cannot really encompass what is going on. The crisis tendencies of capitalism are never resolved, but simply moved around from one space to another and from one sector to another. Continue reading

Video from Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis [11.14.2012]

A panel event held at the New School in New York City on November 14th, 2012.

Loren Goldner ┇ David Harvey ┇ Andrew Kliman ┇ Paul Mattick

What does it meant to interpret the world without being able to change it?

Featuring:

• LOREN GOLDNER

// Chief Editor of Insurgent Notes; ┇ Author: — Ubu Saved From Drowning: Class Struggle and Statist Containment in Portugal and Spain, 1974-1977 (2000), — “The Sky Is Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn: Class Struggle in the U.S. From the 2008 Crash to the Eve of Occupy” (2011)

• DAVID HARVEY

// Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the CUNY Grad Center; ┇ Author: — The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), — A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), — “Why the US Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail” (2008) — The Enigma of Capitalism (2010)

• ANDREW KLIMAN

// Professor of Economics at Pace University; ┇ Contributing author to the Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s (MHI’s) With Sober Senses since 2009; ┇ Author: — Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital”: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (2007), — The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the “Great Recession” (2012)

• PAUL MATTICK

// Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Adelphi University; ┇ Contributor to The Brooklyn Rail ┇ Author: — Social Knowledge: An Essay on the Nature and Limits of Social Science (1986), — Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (2011)

Flier for Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis event at the New School, designed by Chris Mansour

“Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis”: A panel discussion with Loren Goldner, David Harvey, Andrew Kliman, and Paul Mattick

Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis

LOREN GOLDNER ┇ DAVID HARVEY ┇ ANDREW KLIMAN ┇ PAUL MATTICK

// November 14th, 2012
7-10PM

// Wollman Hall
Eugene Lang building, 6th floor
65 W 11th St
New York, NY 10011

Join the Facebook event page.
Download an image file of the event flier.
Download the PDF version of the event flier.

The present moment is arguably one of unprecedented confusion on the Left.  The emergence of many new theoretical perspectives on Marxism, anarchism, and the left generally seem rather than signs of a newfound vitality, the intellectual reflux of its final disintegration in history.  As for the politics that still bothers to describe itself as leftist today, it seems no great merit that it is largely disconnected from the academic left’s disputations over everything from imperialism to ecology.  Perhaps nowhere are these symptoms more pronounced than around the subject of the economy.  As Marxist economics has witnessed of late a flurry of recent works, many quite involved in their depth and complexity, recent activism around austerity, joblessness, and non-transparency while quite creative in some respects seems hesitant to oppose with anything but nostalgia for the past the status quo mantra, “There is no Alternative.”  At a time when the United States has entered the most prolonged slump since the Great Depression, the European project founders on the shoals of debt and nationalism.  If the once triumphant neoliberal project of free markets for free people seems utterly exhausted, the “strange non-death of neo-liberalism,” as a recent book title has it, seems poised to carry on indefinitely.  The need for a Marxist politics adequate to the crisis is as great as such a politics is lacking.

And 2011 now seems to be fading into the past.  In Greece today as elsewhere in Europe existing Left parties remain largely passive in the face of the crisis, eschewing radical solutions (if they even imagine such solutions to exist).  In the United States, #Occupy has vanished from the parks and streets, leaving only bitter grumbling where there once seemed to be creativity and open-ended potential.  In Britain, the 2011 London Riots, rather than political protest, was trumpeted as the shafted generation’s response to the crisis, overshadowing the police brutality that actually occasioned it.  Finally, in the Arab world where, we are told the 2011 revolution is still afoot, it seems inconceivable that the revolution, even as it bears within it the hopes of millions, could alter the economic fate of any but a handful.  While joblessness haunts billions worldwide, politicization of the issue seems chiefly the prerogative of the right.  Meanwhile, the poor worldwide face relentless price rises in fuel and essential foodstuffs.  The prospects for world revolution seem remote at best, even as bankers and fund managers seem to lament democracy’s failure in confronting the crisis. In this sense, it seems plausible to argue that there is no crisis at all, but simply the latest stage in an ongoing social regression. What does it mean to say that we face a crisis, after all, when there is no real prospect that anything particularly is likely to change, at least not for the better?

In this opaque historical moment, Platypus wants to raise some basic questions: Do we live in a crisis of capitalism today and, if so, of what sort — political? economic? social? Why do seemingly sophisticated leftist understandings of the world appear unable to assist in the task of changing it? Conversely, can the world be thought intelligible without our capacity to self-consciously transform it through practice? Can Marxism survive as an economics or social theory without politics? Is there capitalism after socialism?

Featuring:

• LOREN GOLDNER

// Chief Editor of Insurgent Notes; ┇ Author: — Ubu Saved From Drowning: Class Struggle and Statist Containment in Portugal and Spain, 1974-1977 (2000), — “The Sky Is Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn: Class Struggle in the U.S. From the 2008 Crash to the Eve of Occupy” (2011)

• DAVID HARVEY

// Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the CUNY Grad Center; ┇ Author: — The Limits to Capital (1982), — The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), — A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), — “Why the US Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail” (2008)

• ANDREW KLIMAN

// Professor of Economics at Pace University; ┇ Founding member of the Marxist-Humanist Initiative (MHI) in 2009; ┇ Author: — Reclaiming Marx’s Capital: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (2006), — The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the “Great Recession” (2011)

• PAUL MATTICK

// Professor of Economics, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Adelphi University; ┇ Editor of The Brooklyn Rail ┇ Author: — Social Knowledge: An Essay on the Nature and Limits of Social Science (1986), — Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (2011)

Event space: