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

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. 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)

“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: