Archive for marxism

Turning Forty; Looking Back

Posted in Comment with tags , , , on February 29, 2012 by Rustbelt Radical

If age confers a special knowledge, I haven’t found it. If growing older mellows young revolutionaries and leaves their radicalism behind in a mire of pragmatism, then I am not growing any older. Although forty is hardly a venerable summit from which to survey the world from, it is the highest peak I have climbed and one that I never planned to reach. I ask readers indulgence for the personal nature as I take a little stock looking back at some formative years; forty seems as good a time as any to do so and you never know if you’ll see your next birthday. This will be a little disjointed and not meant to be anything more than a partial look at some past moments.

I came of age politically as part of the anti-racist punk scene in Cincinnati in the mid-80s. As I have written before, Cincinnati was and is an intensely segregated city. Racial codes and politics were learned young, often painfully and sometimes violently. The formations of our identities were first and foremost determined by racial identity; it was impossible to ‘not see color’ as the blind liberal wish was asserted even then. I haven’t been able to shake those racial lessons of my youth. They have informed everything else in my political life. I remember when the city’s schools desegregated in the early 80s. Not only did it change the complexion of my school, it changed the class character. The intersection of race and class: it’s the American praxis.

A single benign example (and I could give a thousand others less benign): around twelve years old a group of us youngsters, maybe a half-dozen, were hanging out near the neighborhood square (a white neighborhood) drinking Jolt cola, skateboarding and smoking cigarettes. In Cincinnati, neighborhoods are clearly defined (by race, class and inertia - if you were born there, you stay there) and you stayed in your own or ventured out only into what was acknowledged neutral space (often areas around bus stops that everyone had to use).  A black kid just about our age walked past us a little anxious when one of our group, a little shit with perpetual Kool-Aid stains around his mouth, said something like “you’re in the wrong place”. The black kid was scared to begin with being in the wrong neighborhood and all, but the terror, and it was real terror, that came over his face makes me shiver to this day. The consequences for breaking the racial code in Cincinnati could be swift and violent and remorseless.

One of the many things I stew about, one of the million things I wish I could change is that. If I could go back to that moment I would lay that little shit out. That would come. If not that particular kid, then others. Always better at starting fights than winning them, I took more back. I still have the scars to prove it.

On every block in every town in this country, from the largest to the smallest, even in a reactionary backwater like Cincinnati, is at least one potential revolutionary. It’s being exposed to the possibility through others that matters. Around fourteen or fifteen an older kid in the neighborhood turned me on to hardcore with a Squirrel Bait tape. Hardcore may be the most limited style in all of music, but it opened up doors for me as it did for so many others in those Reagan years where the Cold War was at its height (I think that this is often overlooked when thinking about the 80s now; the neo-liberal Thatcher/Reagan assault was in the context of a Cold War increasingly hot as in Central America).

The left was dead, or at least invisible to me, and though I was already intensely interested in politics they were limited by what I was exposed to. Punk led me to things happening in Britain, like the Anti-Nazi League, which was, in some ways, where I first came became aware of the existence of a revolutionary politics that spoke to me. The punk scene I came up in was genuinely counter-cultural. As a way to emphasize this: no punk band that I followed or that were started by friends was ever started with the intention of ‘making it’ commercially or even of selling records.

On the contrary, it was fidelity to your community and their embrace that were the mark of success. The ethos of a band like Fugazi is only emblematic of that culture, it was widespread and real.  As limited in its way as it was, the hardcore scene (and the punk scene more generally) attracted all kinds of people to it; art school kids, runaways, the rebellious and the angry, more than a few psychopaths, but mainly just alienated working class young people.

I was at least three of those things.

It was overwhelmingly, but not entirely, white which meant necessarily that it also involved racial politics. By the mid-80s scenes around the country, but especially in the Midwest, were at war around those racial politics as neo-Nazis, white supremacists and racists made conscious efforts to intervene in all that anger and alienation. In places the organized left did too, most notably for me the ISO. But, by and large, the left was absent and the right energized even as the movements of the 60s and 70s still made it feel threatened.

At 15, in 1987, I went to my first anti-fascist demonstration. It was in Corryville, a black and student neighborhood near the University of Cincinnati. A group of neo-Nazi skinheads was rallying (I can’t for the life of me remember what they called themselves) and included some kids from my high school. Other kids from my high school came to the counter demo. We would see each other again at school on Monday where whatever happened would be sure to play out in the halls. Going into that demo I was a confused, but committed pacifist. That would change. I dropped acid on the way to the demo and by the time I got there was tripping pretty hard. In retrospect, fifteen may be little too young for rioting on acid. Fights started breaking out and the cops lost a handle on it. The fighting, shouting and shoving moved up Vine Street and the sign in my hand became a stick. We beat them out of that neighborhood that day. Over the next ten years I would go to many hundreds more anti-fascist demonstrations throughout the Midwest and many more street fights too.

A proper history needs to be compiled of what would become Anti-Racist Action (ARA). It had a couple of roots, but the one that sprung on my soil was the Syndicate. Mainly anti-racist skinheads, the Syndicate brought together a bunch of crews from Minneapolis to Cincinnati to New York City to counter racists in the scene. This wasn’t black bloc stuff, this was street fighting. Your clubs, venues and street corners, your school and your neighborhood- all these were contested territory between increasingly organized racists and anti-racists. A fight could not be avoided.

I had to make myself fight. I always disliked it and was horrified by those around me I saw get pleasure from it. But I did fight. I had to go to the emergency room a few times, like a lot of us did. I got arrested a few times, like a lot of us did. I hurt people too, like a lot of us did. I was way more scared than I ever let on, but I was in it and I was not going to back down.

Some crews were based around bands, others around schools and geography; some were based on something like ideology. Mine was. I had called myself a socialist since about sixteen, for whatever it was worth. I grew up in a family with strong union traditions, my grandfather’s family being seven generations of coal miners. I spent formative summers climbing around the hollers of southeast Ohio coal country and grew up with stories from the depression and of immigration. My parents were public service workers; as baby boomers the first of their families to go to college. Class was apparent to me always. 

The scene I was in was rebellious, but not particularly left-wing. As we began to organize against the racists and the right some of us started making connections, looking further and got serious. As the sun was setting on the Soviet Union and the age of ‘No Alternative’ was commencing we were looking to the working class and to socialism.

In the spring of 1990 the Klan marched on Oxford, Ohio (where Miami University is). It was a helluva day. This was before the cops had learned to deal with us by creating static situations. Back then anything could happen. The Klan marched that day, after that they would only stage rallies. We were able to maneuver around there march as hundreds more, students, people from the neighborhood, joined in. As the march passed over railroad tracks the stones started flying from every direction. You could actually pick your target and we dropped the Grand Dragon types first. We fucked them up. Some of us got hit by rocks as well; a case of friendly fire. Jacked up by our success, we were able to besiege the city jail and retrieve our comrades from arrest. A glorious day.

In the organizing that proceeded we met a bunch of folks that would become ARA; the folks from Columbus around Jim McNamara being the most important. I and others in my crew got attracted to the Revolutionary Workers League out of Detroit. That summer I would join my first Marxist (sort of) organization. I would leave the next year after the increasingly cultish RWL unveiled their ‘Avenge Iraq’ slogan in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The RWL was already when I joined a sectarian, cultish caricature of revolutionary organization where Freud played a bigger role in its politics than Marx. I’m glad it didn’t ruin me politiclly. I could tell some stories.

It wasn’t the best way to be introduced into a life in the left perhaps, but we all come from somewhere and travel paths we don’t have any maps for.

About a dozen of us, all under 22 or 23, made up the branch of a small Trotskyist organization that formed in the aftermath of leaving the RWL. We were passionate and committed and we burned out in a few years. We had a party the entire time too. I remember one night of the rolling party where we had to be at a Planned Parenthood clinic defense at 6am the next morning. The idea of six in the morning seemed so shocking to us that we decided to just party straight through the night and show up to the gates however we were. We did just that and didn’t miss a beat picking it up the very next evening. Ahhh, youth. 

That group of people are those I still identify most closely with. There were complicated relationships, of course (a dozen young people making revolution in close proximity is bound to have layers of ‘complication’), but we swam against a tide of reaction and we were all made better people for it. Some of us drifted from organized politics, some of us have remained doggedly engaged, and others are no longer with us. Comrades: there is no more powerful relationship. Comradeship when you are young and full of yearning for a future not yet arrived; well, it is as special a thing as I can think of.

I have changed a lot, including my politics, over the years and the person I am now would probably not like the person I was then very much. But I would be prepared to say that my main beliefs remain unchanged since I first developed them from the things around me. My revolutionism, my sense of alienation, the detest I feel for capitalism and its ‘culture’, my belief in the centrality of class and the pivot of race, all these things have only been strengthened by a life lived in the world of Marxism and of political action.

What does any of this have with turning 40 today? Nothing in particular, I suppose. Sitting here drinking coffee on this rainy Ypsilanti (a place I didn’t even know of twenty years ago) morning I turn forty; it is a moment where I have to wonder how the hell I got here. Like any other day where we are reminded of our own past, just a moment to look back and try to trace a route made by a million variables.

‎’The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations…a unity of the diverse.’ Marx, Grundrisse.

The Rustbelt has been on semi-hiatus these last few months as a new job competes with continuing school in taking my time and leaving me knackered at the end of the day. I apologize. I am growing increasingly resentful that I can’t read what I want and that my writing is confined to things I am uninterested in, but compelled to do. It is preventing me from taking full breaths and looking at the world around me. As I get used to my schedule I hope to be back at it semi-regularly.

Marxism Casts Its Eye On Empire

Posted in Comment with tags , on April 1, 2011 by Rustbelt Radical

What sets imperialism of the capitalist sort apart from other conceptions of empire is that it is the capitalist logic that typically dominates, though … there are times in which the territorial logic comes to the fore. But this then poses a crucial question: how can the territorial logics of power, which tend to be awkwardly fixed in space, respond to the open spatial dynamics of endless capital accumulation? And what does endless capital accumulation imply for the territorial logics of power?

David Harvey, The New Imperialism

Imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, neo-colonialism, neo-liberalism, primitive accumulation, war, democracy, nation and revolution; all of these and more are major theoretical and practical considerations for Marxists. Unfinished, and in some ways, unfinishable in their contemplation, they continue to define the world we live in. We need to understand what we seek to overcome and to constantly reevaluate and deepen that understanding.

I still hold to Lenin’s conception fundamentally, that imperialism is:

…capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and fiance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.

But that is not the whole story. The political, social, geographic and economic dynamics of the international system of capitalist accumulation have gone through inevitable change in the century passed since Lenin wrote his work. However, it is impossible to address what has changed, to frame our current reality, without an understanding of the system’s origins, development and consequences over the last hundred years and more.

The list below necessarily addresses that past though many of these writings retain their pertinence and their vibrancy, some with great eloquence and even elegance. As much as I like the easy convenience of lists, things are never as simple as 1-2-3. These are in no particular order, nor is it a reading list for a study, though I certainly suggest the reading of these articles, essays, speeches, manifestos and books. Some of them are history, some are theory, some are debate. All of them played a role in the development of the ideas of imperialism and the struggle against it.

Hardly exhaustive, I encourage readers to suggest other works both past and contemporary on the subject. Here then is a brief survey of some of what Marxism sees when it casts its eye on empire:

Self-Determination of Nations and Self-Defense (1915) and The Main Enemy Is At Home (1915) Karl Liebknecht

Analysing Imperialism (2003) Chris Harman

Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of imperialism (1965) Kwame Nkrumah

Economics Cannot be Separated from Politics [On Growth and Imperialism] (1961) Che Guevara

The Canton, Ohio Anti-War Speech (1918) Eugene Debs

The Empire and the Revolution (1922) MN Roy

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa PDF (1973) Walter Rodney

The Junius Pamphlet [The Crisis of Social Democracy] (1915) Rosa Luxemburg

Erin’s Hope The End & The Means (1909) James Connolly

Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

War and the Fourth International (1934) Leon Trotsky

The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1916) Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

On Neoliberalism: An Interview with David Harvey (2006) David Harvey

Preface to Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth” (1961) Jean-Paul Sartre

Toward a Theory of the Imperialist State (1915) Nikolai Bukharin

The Marxist Theory of Imperialism and its Critics (1955) Ernest Mandel

The Structure of US Imperialism: America Nears the Crisis (1952) Harry Braverman

Democracy, Pacifism and Imperialism (1917) Leon Trotsky

And finally I end with Mark Twain’s rewriting of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Composed in 1901 as the United States was entering the international struggle for markets for the first time. Twain was an anti-imperialist from the get-go and here he pours his derision on the republican Empire whose conquest of the Philippines was done in the name of ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘humanitarianism’. A sick joke of a precedent never to be gotten tired of, it seems.

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.

I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the Eastern dews and damps;
I have read his doomful mission by the dim and flaring lamps—
His night is marching on.

I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my pretensions, so with you my wrath shall deal;
Let the faithless son of Freedom crush the patriot with his heel;
Lo, Greed is marching on!”

We have legalized the strumpet and are guarding her retreat;*
Greed is seeking out commercial souls before his judgement seat;
O, be swift, ye clods, to answer him! be jubilant my feet!
Our god is marching on!

In a sordid slime harmonious Greed was born in yonder ditch,
With a longing in his bosom—and for others’ goods an itch.
As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich—
Our god is marching on.

István Mészáros Sees Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Posted in Comment, Guest Commentary with tags , , on July 11, 2010 by Rustbelt Radical

István Mészáros speaking earlier this year on the unfinished economic crisis at a London Counterfire forum emphasizing his position that this crisis will result in the further concentration of capital and a massive attack of austerity…nail. on. head.  He also emphasizes that what we are seeing is not a conjunctural crisis of capitalism, but a systematic crisis.  I’m not sure if I find his overall thesis convincing.  In the end, given the cyclical nature of capitalist reproduction what’s the difference between a conjunctural and a systemic crisis?  Scale perhaps, or results maybe, but neither of these have, in my opinion, fully revealed themselves as of yet, so I can’t arrive at some of Mészáros’ conclusions.  That said, he has been a close observer and keen chronicler of capitalism’s workings and saw clearer this spring that, while others were rejoicing and promoting (marketing) the end of the crisis, the crisis was far from over.  We use the tools of analysis to see trends and in some cases events, but they are different sorts of prognoses though deeply related.  Mészáros offers both and in doing so raises many valuable questions, at the very least.

If ever there was a time to make some good old-fashioned structural analysis popular, now is it.  Done correctly the dynamism an honest debate and a living movement produce might add a dynamic corrective to any determinist heresy that might arise; the analysis framing the issues and offering the reaching, out-stretched finger to new possibilities.  Given the four months or so that have passed since this was recorded I would say that Mészáros grasp of the situation was and is far superior to Timothy Geithner or Barney Frank or the liberal’s darling Robert Reich and the progressive’s darling Paul Krugman.  More proof that, in the midst of these stormy economic seas, Marx remains the best ‘navigator’ we have.  I just hope the train doesn’t hit me, I’m still bruised and working myself to my feet from the last one to barrel through.

Banning the Veil?

Posted in Guest Commentary with tags , , , , on May 26, 2010 by Rustbelt Radical

Statement from the (highly recommended) revolutionary Marxist Indian website Radical Socialist:

In country after country in Europe, political forces ranging from liberals (Belgium) to the openly right wing (Sarkozy in France, the Northern League in Italy) have been initiating actions to ban Muslim women from wearing the veil, or seeking punishment for those wearing it.  The Netherlands and Italy already have regional or local restrictions, as do twenty municipalities in Belgium.  Now the Belgium Lower House has voted to ban the burkha in the name of protecting Muslim women as well as security.  This has had immediate impact in a string of countries with Christian and white majorities – from France, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands inside the European Union to Australia, with various prominent politicians calling for similar measures. Two basic arguments have been put forward in defence of such actions.  The first is that the veil, in any form, is degrading to women, and Islam is contemptuous to women.  The second is that the veil hides the face and obscures the public interpersonal exchange — which is supposed to be a gain specifically of western civilization, as well as the fact that by so hiding the face it creates a security problem.

Our response to this is very clear.  We are absolutely certain that Islamic fundamentalism/ communalism is repressive towards Muslim women, and not merely by seeking to impose various forms of control, by imposing social inequality, and so on.  We have seen some of its horrible forms in the well publicized case of the Taliban and its rule in Afghanistan.  But several very important considerations compel us to warn that the picture, if we stop at this point, is utterly false and misleading.  In the first place, there are diverse views within Islam Second, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, imperialist ruling classes of North America and Europe have been busy creating a new “other”, this being Islam, which is supposed to stand against all the values of the Enlightenment, modernity, and so on, and is seeking to erase progress.  It is quite true that Islamic fundamentalism is a reactionary force.  But what is forgotten or suppressed is the role of the imperialist west in fostering this Islamic fundamentalism –Saudi Wahabism as a bulwark of the imperialists and a sure supplier of oil, a precious commodity ever since the early 20th century, controlled by Britain and France in West Asia till the USA managed to support Saudi Arabia and got in. Islamic fundamentalism was also supported against Arab progressive bourgeois nationalism – e.g., the Islamic Brotherhood against Nasser.  Islamic fundamentalism was the chosen instrument of the USA in its proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, when opposition to the ill-judged and politically illegitimate Soviet invasion was used by the imperialists to shore up fundamentalist forces, out of which grew the Taliban.  Finally, it should be remembered that even in Afghanistan after its spurious liberation the anti-women laws are much in force.

This leads us to the next issue.  Attacking colonial subjects for their attitude to women is not a new strategy for imperialism.  British colonialism and its allies pursued this strategy throughout British rule in India, from James Mill depicting Hindus as degenerates because they ill-treated women and by implication suggesting that colonial rule was therefore necessary, in the interests of women. Attacking Muslims because of the veil is a similar strategy.  It is worth noting that in Belgium, only a minority of Muslim women wear the burkha.  In 2009, only 29 women were apprehended by the police in the municipalities that have already banned the burkha, while the total number of Muslims in Belgium is about 400,000.

Among those who wear the veil, there are those who do so out of choice, as well as those who are compelled by family and community pressure.  Those who wear the veil out of choice do so either because they have internalized all the patriarchal, anti-women assumptions behind it, or because, as minorities, they are choosing to express their identities in that particular fashion.  We disagree with their choice.  We believe that ultimately, the dress code, targeting women, reflects reactionary views.  In a very difficult situation, the New Anti-Capitalist Party of France, when one of its candidates, Ilham Moussaid, was targeted for wearing the headscarf, argued in a statement:

• Ilham herself saw no contradiction between wearing a headscarf and abiding by the secular and feminist principles of the NPA

• The NPA leadership felt that notwithstanding Ilham’s own feelings, they considered the headscarf to be an instrument of subjection of women

• They made a distinction between the debates within the social movements over Ilham’s headscarf, and the hysteria promoted by the rightwing parties. They would engage in serious debates within the social movement.  But the Right was hypocritical, considering that Sarkozy was willing to embrace the Pope, and that bourgeois parties spent millions on financing private high schools, in particular Catholic ones.

• They also criticized the Communist Party for its opportunism, since on other occasions it too had counted women like Ilham in its list of candidates.

Like the NPA, we consider that the demand that women must cover their heads is a part of instrument of subjection of women.  But, like the NPA again, we agree that if women have adopted this through choice, we need to politically discuss the issue and struggle to change the situation.  In India, as in the West, the Muslim minority can be and are often targeted.  We don’t hear anything when Hindu religious symbolisms are used, or when Hindu women are subjected to all manners of religious commands that make them inferiors.  What seems “normal”, “civilised” for the majority community, appears different for the minorities.

In other words, we argue that every religion is historically an ideology of, among other things, gender oppression.  It does not follow that calling for bans on all religions or religious customs is the correct way to fight such oppression.  Classical Marxism did not require the inscription of atheism in the programme of social movements.  On the contrary, in his 1874 critique of the Blanquist émigrés from the Paris Commune, Engels rejected their call to abolish religion by decree.  His view has been completely confirmed by 20th Century experiences, as when he wrote that: “persecutions are the best means of promoting disliked convictions”.  The more minorities are persecuted for belonging to minority religions, the more they turn to so-called community heads for material and spiritual help.  As a result, ghettoisation leads to the growth of minority communalism.  However, classical Marxism, with essentially European and a little North American experience, had not dealt with the further complexities introduced by colonialism.  Colonialism and its attendant racism means we must additionally reject persecutions of minority religions because they constitute a dimension of ethnic or racial oppression, no less than political or economic persecution and discrimination.

In most countries where Islam is the religion of the majority, religion is still the dominant form of ideology.  Retrograde, more or less literal, interpretations of Islam are used to retain entire populations in submission and cultural backwardness.  The first victims are the women.  In such countries, struggles for socialism must involve, from the start, an ideological struggle against religion as an instrument of oppression.  But while women’s liberation must in all such cases involve liberation from the headscarf or its grosser forms, to impose “freedom” by law on women would be a travesty of emancipation.  Neither women wearing the hijab or the burkha, nor men wearing the beard, should have the police set upon them for that reason.

Like the Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other fundamentalisms aiming to imposed a puritan interpretation of religion as a code of life, if not as a mode of government, Islamic fundamentalism is a real danger to social progress and emancipatory struggles.  By taking care to establish a clear distinction between religion as such and its fundamentalist interpretation, the most reactionary of all, it is necessary to fight Islamic fundamentalism ideologically and politically, as much in the Islamic countries as in the midst of the Muslim minorities in the West or elsewhere.  But that cannot however constitute an argument in favour of a public prohibition of the Islamic scarf.  This amounts to singling out Islamic fundamentalism while remaining silent about other religious fundamentalists.  Has there been a call to ban campaigns against abortion by Christian extremists?

Turning to the argument about security, we reject this outright.  This is nothing but the profiling of particular groups of people as dangerous.  There is no evidence that wearing the veil in public threatens public safety, public order, health, morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.  And rather than help women who are coerced into wearing the veil, a ban would limit, if not eliminate, their ability to seek advice and support.  Indeed, the primary impact of legislation of this kind would be to confine these women to their homes, rather than to liberate them.  Nor will the act of treating Muslim women who believe that it is pious to wear the veil as criminals help in integrating Muslims in those countries.

Our stand can therefore be summed up by saying:

• Oppose the ban on religion or custom specific dress as a form of racism and anti-minorityism.

• No legal sanctions for following particular religions.

• Politically combat the oppression of women using religion as an ideology.

Some Thoughts on Class Independence

Posted in Comment with tags , , on December 15, 2009 by Rustbelt Radical

There is obviously much more to say on these questions and this small post can’t possibly do them the service they deserve, but this is a question I have been thinking about quite a bit lately and since I have a blog I have the ability to think out loud.  Please take this in that spirit-

For a Marxist all political work hinges on the proposition that the self-emancipation of the working class is a process whereby the class “of itself” transforms into a class “for itself.”  It is for this reason revolutionaries push for the independence of the working class both politically and organizationally.  Nearly all of the most important struggles within the international workers movement historically have revolved around the question of “class independence” and that is no accident.  The process can go the other way and militants “for” the class can become militants “of” the class, politically there is a world of difference.

The struggle between classes is, in some ways, unfair.  After all, a liberated working class, the producing class, has no need for the capitalist class while the capitalist is chained to his worker as the source of his wealth.  It is the working class that can solve the class conflict; the capitalist exists only with it.  As is so often the case that fundamental reality of capitalist society is masked by its culture which presents the capitalist, recently in the guise of a banker, as the indispensable class.  A society whose cultural understandings are so at odd with the underlying reality produces any number of warning signs.  The Cult of the Celebrity is certainly one such sign.

However, this enculturation is based on the reality that in capitalist society the working class is dependent on the capitalists as workers.  Capitalism has long stripped individuals of the means of producing their own subsistence.   They have to sell their labor to a capitalist to exist.  The working class “of itself” cannot liberate itself, because it exists only in the context of that relationship.  It is not only the relationship with the capitalist that needs to change if we are to overcome this contradiction.

Workers are led to believe that choice in life is exercised at the mall and between different brands of the same product.  Real choices about our life, how we enrich ourselves and what we contribute to our society, are left to the market and the value of our labor in it.  Again, culture reinforces the problem for the working class where, with all of the dynamism available to it, the capitalist marketing of commodities has convinced workers that their primary role, indeed their contribution, to society is that of consumer with our job also being a sort of consumer choice with all of the associated status markers of other “choices.”  And just as with products, only the brand is different.

Who produced that commodity?  Money didn’t magically transform itself into a television; hands were bloodied somewhere in that process.  Commodities are produced, actually made, by a whole class of people beyond boundaries.  By now we have all been to a meeting where we are told to look at the tag of our shirt to see where it was made.  It not only takes the grower, the sewer, the truck driver, the store clerk or office worker to make a shirt, moving its components across continents; it also takes the whole of society that sustains that grower, that driver, etc.

While technology may have removed many who sell their labor from the direct manufacture of goods into information and service industries, further masking their role as producers, the fact remains that they labor in the service of that process, it is that process which allows them to labor.  The worker may get her wages from the boss, but she gets her belly filled by other workers, a world of workers.  How convenient for the bosses that the answer to this reality on the part of most US trade union “leaders” is the call: “American Jobs for American Workers!”  The divisions of race, sex, nation, etc. that exist across class lines divide the working class internally too and everywhere is “the other” when it reality it is “each other.”

In the productive process it is the working class that adds value; money only represents it.  But in capitalism it is also true that “it takes money to make money.”  In general, workers, by their labor alone, do not make value.  It also requires means, tools, to produce values.  Marx would call that “fixed capital” and it is the reason it takes capital to transform labor into values.  The worker brings his “capital” to the process in the form of his labor, or rather his ability to labor, which is determined by that world of workers out there.  It is here that lays the central contradiction of capitalist production and the fulcrum on which class transformation rests.  The labor to produce goods, values, is a social labor, collective in form and in essence, while the means, the tools, to produce goods, are owned individually, even if by a group of individuals who then decide on how all of the surplus values are distributed.

In a society where the capitalist is the ruling class the products of the labor process go to the one who owns the tools and not to the one who uses the tools, naturally.  The “right to property” has deprived workers of the products of their own labor, the only “property” they own (we do not include all of the many homes workers “owned” now returning to the banks).  The worker is doubly robbed because the worker also made the “fixed capital” that is the source of capitalists claim to ownership of the product made.   It is to those means of production that the workers’ relationship must change.  As long as the working class accepts the capitalist claim on the means of production any effective struggle with the capitalists is made impossible.  They have you before you start since the rules of the game, and the imagination of the participants, are set.  The capitalist, incidentally, wrote the rules.

A working class that acts “for itself” has to wade through a wide river of muck; that consciousness which is “false” because it is only partial (there is no such thing as unconscious consciousness).  As Marx said “all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.”  As long as workers see themselves simply as consumers then they won’t be able to imagine how to apply themselves as producers.  As long as the working class imagines that it can’t live with out the capitalist they will surely die for the capitalist.  As long as the working class sees its interests tied up with the capitalists system it will never seek to go beyond those interests.

At the heart of that re-expropriation is the class realizing itself as producers and ending itself as workers.  As surely as it must destroy the capitalist class as a class it must also end itself as the dependent class it now is.  This is no easy process, however it is a process that is continually happening.   Even by asserting the interests “of the class” the questions of what is the interest “for the class” arises.  It is what Lenin called “the actuality of the revolution”, it is where form is seen through to essence. The generalization of such everyday lessons is where class consciousness is developed beyond the immediate.  It is where, as a class, workers begin to imagine another world because they begin, through the muck of the ages, to see the world now as it really is.

It is the task of revolutionaries to hold up “the essence of things” and to foster such imaginations, that is why we stick to the principle of class independence.  However, we also understand that the class coming to such independence is a process.  It is only by organizing as workers and putting forward demands as workers that the class can begin to define its own interests for itself.  We participate fully in the struggles “of the class” for better conditions that workers might make conditions for themselves.  In the day to day struggle over living conditions the more independent the demands of the working class are, the greater the threat backing them up is.  It is only with such threats that anything is won in the class struggle.

The struggle for better conditions within the framework of capitalism, necessary as it is, places enormous pressure on revolutionary organizations.  It is all too easy to give up revolutionary imagination, but the requirement for doing so is to reject the essence and embrace the form, to lose sight of the world as it really is.  Mighty Internationals have fallen over the years because of such pressures.  By “independence” we do not just mean political and organizational independence from the interests of capital.  No, it is only by acting “for itself”, independent and in conflict with the needs “of itself,” that the working class can take what, by law and by culture, does not belong to them; the products of their own labor.  By doing so they remake the world, their tools in their hands.

Darwinism and Its Discontents

Posted in Guest Commentary with tags , , , on November 24, 2009 by Rustbelt Radical

John McAnulty of Ireland’s Socialist Democracy reflects on Darwin’s anniversary year in a prequel to a longer study

The anniversary year of the ‘On the Origin of Species’ has seen a renewed interest in Darwin and in the theory of evolution and many celebratory articles have been carried in socialist journals.  Few go beyond celebration to look at the often strained relationship between Darwinism and Marxism or try to explain why, 200 years after the birth of Darwin and 150 years after the publication of the book establishing the theory of evolution, the majority of humans would still reject a rational explanation for their place in the world that has survived a century and a half of scientific study to emerge as the foundation of our understanding of biology.

Darwin’s theory of the origin of species is one of the fundamental and pivotal theories of modern science.  It presents a convincing mechanism for all the wide variety of living things, for their evolution over time, and for the interaction of living things and their environment that makes up modern ecology. Alongside its daughter science, genetics, it stands posed to massively increase our control over our own bodies, over disease and over the natural world in the coming century.

Yet it is in the 21st century that Darwinism has come under the greatest attack from the forces of religious fundamentalism and obscurantism.

The reason for this is quite simple.  Darwinism goes well beyond its status as a scientific theory.  By explaining the origin of species through a process of natural selection, Darwin removed the need for a god to fulfill the same function.  In the film “Creation” the point is dramatically underscored when Darwin explains the theory to a friend who exclaims in delight (and to Darwin’s horror) “wonderful – you’ve killed God!” The award-winning film has not been distributed in America.

Although it is not widely understood to be the case, support for Darwinism contradicts Theism – the idea of a God personally involved in creation and the day-to-day running of the world, and restricts the faithful to Deism – the possibility of a God as a vague ‘initial cause’  Not only that, the theory of evolution situated humans inside the animal kingdom, subject to the same evolutionary pressures as other living things. Understanding ourselves became a task for reason and rationality, rather than an appeal to religious obscurantism.

For much of the 20th century Darwinism was seen in opposition to Marx, as a defender of order against the opponents of capitalism.  Yet initially it was seen as a deadly threat to that order. These contradictory roles arose from the contradictory nature of capitalism itself.

Much of capitalist society rests on the application of rationality and science to production, to research and to the structure of society and the everyday working life of individuals.  At the same time capitalist society is dedicated to the irrational aims of defending class rule and subordinating human needs to the profit motive.

These contradictions lead to a contradictory approach to the question of religion.  On the one hand, application of rationality in the service of capital sweeps away all the pretences of social solidarity and of any obligation on the capitalist to treat the poor and oppressed as their brethren.  On the other hand, religions teach the poor to respect a class structure endorsed by god and to look for happiness and the satisfaction of their needs in the afterlife rather than the here and now.  The result is that capitalism tears down religion, and the background ethical issues that they distortedly express, only to support it as an abstract ideology. Religions themselves changed.  Protestantism arose partly from the need to break out of the constants of feudal society, especially the ban on charging interest on loans, and partly to free the merchants from being forced to donate to charitable works.

Today US Christian fundamentalism preaches that riches are a result of god’s favor, a message entirely opposite to the original biblical Christianity.  The role of religious obscurantism is seen clearly in the North of Ireland, where imperialism depends on the darkest forms of religious fundamentalism to form the leadership of the local executive and panders to their religious bigotry and kow-tows to their rejection of science in relation to both evolution and climate change.

Initially the origin of species was seen as too dangerous a threat to religion to be allowed to stand.  A sharp battle broke out between different factions of capitalism, with the most reactionary elements fighting to throw back science and impose biblical superstition.

The reactionaries were defeated and the victors immediately set about making Darwinism itself a reactionary ideology.  The new social Darwinism drew on the authority of Darwin to argue that unrestrained capitalist exploitation and savage repression of the working class were the result of our biological make-up – that society, like nature, is ‘red in tooth and claw’.

The rise of mass working class organizations made it much more difficult to advance these ideas, but they remain the staple diet of right-wing movements today and have been reborn in new currents that preach genetic determinism – the idea that social problems such as crime are the result of faulty genes.

The latest edition from this perspective is the theory of sociobiology – the idea that the prehistoric environment in some way uniquely fixed human character for all time.

Marxists reject these views.  We believe that all human activity has a material foundation, but we reject utterly the view of mechanical materialism – that activity at one level of reality determines our behavior at another level.

The bestiality and massacre throughout our history are part of our biological capacity, just as the acts of solidarity and self-sacrifice are. Any explanation that claims that we are forced by our genes to murder and oppress others is nonsense.   The oppression must be explained in its own terms, by the political ideology that drives it, the class aims expressed by the ideology and the underlying economic forces.

Marxists support a dialectical view of the world.  Nothing is uniquely determined.  If economic forces give rise to our political consciousness, it is then possible for our political consciousness to change economic reality.

The Marxist response to ‘social Darwinism’ is to argue that the laws used to explain one level of reality cannot be extended to another.  The laws of Physics apply to living things, but they are of little use in explaining the development and behavior of living systems . In the same way the laws of Biology apply to society, but explaining social behavior in humans requires the sort of social and economic explanation offered by Marxism.

This sort of understanding enabled Marx to be amongst the first to welcome and support Darwinism and Marxism to be in the forefront in opposing social Darwinism.  It was a political sophistication beyond the Stalinist gravediggers of the revolution.

They opposed social Darwinism by opposing the biological theory.  Stalin’s henchman, Lysenko, faked experiments ‘proving’ that animals evolved due to direct environmental pressure rather than genetic change. The result was that under Stalinism science degenerated into a dogma that persecuted individual scientists and distorted science to support a corrupt bureaucracy.   This had disastrous outcomes for workers – dogma applied to agriculture meant inevitable crop failures.

The greater strength and self-confidence of capitalist society allowed for a wider level of individual freedom amongst scientists.  That individual freedom did not mean that science was free.  At one extreme there was the witch hunts and repression of the McCarthy era in America, designed to make sure that the scientists produced weapons of mass slaughter without expressing any concern about their use. At the other extreme was the social structure of science and academic life, holding scientists to narrow specialisms, advising caution about drawing political conclusions – all the forces that allowed capitalism to avoid the clear conclusions of climate research and environmental degradation.

Marxism claims to go beyond science.   Because science is a social construct in the service of capitalism it will always be constrained by ideology that reflects the interests and worldview of capitalism.  This is clearly the case in the ideas of social Darwinism and is even the case in discussions within science – ‘the selfish gene’ is an idea loaded down with social metaphor.

From a Marxist perspective the mechanism of adaptation is an extraordinary powerful one.  Its power does not end with biological evolution.  Adaptation may be the main mechanism organizing the basic neural elements of thought and identity and is clearly an important element in many aspects of our behavior as we unconsciously fit into different social milieus.

What an adaptive process cannot deal with is human intention.   If humans were simply biological units personal consciousness would be superfluous and we would act as directed by selfish genes or on the basis of habit patterns grounded in our history as hunter-gatherers.

Adaptative mechanisms also lack direction. People often speak of evolutionary progress but a more realistic picture is of the ‘tree of life’.  Life constantly adapts and changes.  All living organisms are the outcome of that process.  All are equally adapted – the buttercup just as much as the human. Evolution does not ascend to humans or plan to produce humans. Biological evolution simply makes human society one possibility among many . Intentions, purposes, goals – they all come from humans themselves.

Marxists believe they can deal with these weaknesses by advancing the concept of dialectical materialism.  Human consciousness and society rest upon a material base.  These material conditions determine the way in which we think and out picture of the world but, because the relationship is dialectical, humans are not simply passive objects formed by the forces of production but active agents who can struggle to change the world and society they live in and, in the process of struggle, can burst the bounds of existing society to create a new one.

If consciousness determined being then a clear explanation of the theory of education and a greater level of education would be sufficient to see it established.  If being determines consciousness without any restrictions then the slow decay of the capitalist mode of production would also mean a slow decline of scientific understanding and a descent into religious fundamentalism and barbarism.

Marx argued that once being determines consciousness it is possible for consciousness to determine being – that through struggle the working class could save humanity and establish a socialist society where the savagery of class struggle would be suppressed and rationality would rule over superstition.  Then at last people could see clearly their relationship with the world of life in the long history of planet earth and the book “Origin of species” would finally come into its own.

Baseball, Marxism and George Carlin

Posted in Comment with tags , , on July 2, 2009 by Rustbelt Radical

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It is mid-season for baseball and the Tigers are doing well, though a couple of deficiencies (relief pitching!) could cause problems in getting to the post season.  The Tigers’ bats seem to only want to open up at their home park as well.  The Phils seem to have the opposite problem and only light up on the road.  Somehow they keep fighting for the lead in their division.  Where there’s life there’s hope.  I have every hope of watching a Tigers game come October.

The game on the radio is the highlight of my day.  It is a relief from troubles and replaces prosaic poverty with quotidian contentments.   The noise of the crowd and the occasional smack of the ball are the warmest of sounds.  Full of comfort and familiarity.  For a long time I’ve wondered about the draw baseball seemingly has on Marxists (though not all Marxists to be sure) and raised it before on the blog.

Capitalism damages the game, no doubt.  The Big Leagues are full of marketing intrigues and bottom line bullshit.  It was not steroids that made all of those home runs a few years back; it was the owners making small parks to bank on the long ball.  Players have been getting juiced before games since there were games.  In all probability there hasn’t been a single baseball game since 1860 without at least one player being a little addled.  Apparently one can even drop acid and play exquisitely.  Yet capitalism can’t kill what is central to the game without destroying the game itself in the process.  Which it may well end up doing.  Then I really will move to Cuba.

Baseball is awash in the dialectic and relies on the combination of individuals into a collective.  It eschews the awful showupmanship of so many other sports.  It commands attention to detail and statistic, yet relies on the unquantifiable art of reading the field and performing the right play at the right time.  I’ve often considered the game to be one of the last bulwarks of civilization in this country.  Here’s George Carlin, ever looking at our uses of language, with his own explanations on why that might be.

Socialists and the US Financial Crisis

Posted in Guest Commentary with tags , , on October 26, 2008 by Rustbelt Radical

Peter Solenberger
25 October 2008

The US financial crisis, in the context of the underlying world economic crisis, gives revolutionaries in the US an opportunity to discuss our socialist politics with many more workers and youth than we’ve been able to reach for many years. For years we’ve mainly participated in stumbling reform movements that failed to win reforms and discussed socialist politics with the few activists who cared to listen.

Now with the capitalists throwing off their neoliberal pretensions and demanding that the government bail them out, we’re able to say, “Yes, government intervention, but for the workers, not for the capitalists, and under the democratic control of the workers, not the dictatorship of capital.”

Workers are angry. For thirty years they’ve been told that there’s no money for jobs, no money for wages, no money for pensions and health insurance, no money for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, no money for education, and no money for infrastructure. They’ve mostly accepted the government’s spending a trillion dollars a year on past, present and future wars, since that’s for “national security.”

But now they’re being asked to accept the government’s spending trillions of dollars ($2.25 trillion paid or pledged so far) to bail out the banks, insurance companies, and other financial institutions whose speculation has gotten them into trouble. They feel lied to and cheated. Much of the middle class feels the same way. A sign held up to the Wall Street skyscrapers in a September protest of the bailout captured this sentiment with the words, “Jump, you fuckers!”

Ratcheting up the rate of exploitation

Thirty years of ratcheting up the rate of exploitation underlie this anger. Average weekly earnings for US workers peaked in 1972. Working-class and lower-middle-class families have struggled to maintain their living standards since then by having more family members work more hours for more years. Women, including the mothers of young children, men and women of retirement age, and teenagers generally have jobs, if they can get them.

The real after-tax income of working-class households has risen modestly for all but the poorest, but nearly all of the increase has been needed to compensate for the unpaid labor that family members can no longer provide. Labor productivity has continued to rise, but workers have gained little from this, as the capitalists have shifted income and wealth to themselves and their entourage.

Workers are particularly incensed because they know that the US economy is entering a recession and there will be no bailout for them. The recovery from the 2000-2001 recession was weak. Many workers laid off then, especially older and less skilled workers, couldn’t find new jobs or could find only jobs at much lower pay, often part-time or temporary.

Since then, although overall employment has risen, layoffs have continued and workers laid off or entering or reentering the workforce have often had to take low-paid, part-time or temporary jobs. Many who have kept their jobs have had to take cuts in pay and benefits. Inflation has reduced the real wages of nearly all workers. The real average hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers, 80 percent of the workforce, have fallen 2 percent in the past year alone.

While the US gross domestic product continued to grow through the first half of 2008, by most other measures the US economy has already entered a recession. By the official government statistics the number of unemployed workers has increased by more than two million from a year ago. The real number is much higher, counting those who are working fewer hours than they want to work and those who have given up looking for work. Conditions will worsen as the recession deepens.

The impact of the financial turmoil

Workers have been hurt by the housing bubble and the ensuing financial turmoil. During the bubble speculators bought apartment buildings and houses and raised rents. Now many renters are being evicted as the speculators dump their properties or declare bankruptcy. During the bubble many workers paid more for houses than they could afford, thinking that their value would continue to rise. Many took adjustable rate mortgages with low down payments and low initial interest rates, thinking that their economic situation would improve enough to pay the higher rates later. Now millions of these buyers are losing their houses to foreclosures, because they can’t pay their mortgages and can’t sell their houses.

Most workers are heavily in debt with mortgages, car notes, student loans, and credit cards. While credit was easy, they could juggle loans to ensure that all got paid, although sometimes with penalties for late payment. Now they can’t get the credit they need to juggle the loans and are having to forgo not just luxuries but necessities. They no longer have the refuge of bankruptcy, since a 2005 law makes declaring bankruptcy more difficult and less protective.

Retirees with money in stocks or mutual funds have been hard hit, since the value of their assets has fallen by a third or more and they have no way to replenish them. Workers trying to save money for their children’s college education and their own retirement have been hit too.

As always, the situation of Blacks and Latinos is worse than that of whites. Blacks and Latinos have higher rates of unemployment, lower wages and income, fewer assets, and more poverty than whites. With manufacturing and government retrenching, Black and Latino workers have less access to the relatively well-paid, unionized jobs that once provided a way out of poverty. Last hired and first fired, they have less to fall back on, since the neoliberal regime of the past thirty years has shredded the social safety net. Immigrant workers are even more vulnerable, since they can’t invoke the little protection the law gives citizens and they may be forced to leave the country if they lose their jobs.

Women have been especially hurt by the deteriorating economy, since in this patriarchal society they are usually the primary caregivers, as well as wage laborers. Even in the best of times trying to hold a job or develop a career and simultaneously take care of children, partners and often parents is daunting. With the loss of jobs, wages, benefits, social welfare, and homes the demands on women can become overwhelming, especially if they have to face them alone.

The underlying crisis of the real economy

Capitalism in its imperialist stage is the root cause of the economic crisis. In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism Vladimir Lenin described imperialism in words as appropriate today as they were nearly 100 years ago when he wrote them.

But very brief definitions, although convenient, for they sum up the main points, are nevertheless inadequate, since we have to deduce from them some especially important features of the phenomenon that has to be defined. And so, without forgetting the conditional and relative value of all definitions in general, which can never embrace all the concatenations of a phenomenon in its full development, we must give a definition of imperialism that will include the following five of its basic features:

(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.

The curve of world capitalist development combines three underlying curves: a secular rise in labor productivity and production, a fifty or more year alternation of periods of relatively rapid expansion followed by periods of relative stagnation, and an eight to ten year business cycle.

In the early 1920s the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev first noted the fifty or more year alternation of periods of relative expansion and stagnation and wrongly described them as “long waves,” thinking they could be explained by purely economic factors analogous to those explaining the business cycle but acting over a longer period of time. Leon Trotsky rejected this purely economic understanding of the phenomenon and explained it in terms of capitalist equilibrium and disequilibrium involving not just the dynamics of capital accumulation but also the social, political and military relations among classes and among nations. Ernest Mandel and others revived Trotsky’s concept in the 1970s.

World War I through the aftermath of World War II was a period of capitalist disequilibrium marked by economic convulsion, wars and revolutions. The 1950s and 1960s were a period of capitalist equilibrium. The period saw several recessions and many struggles, including union struggles, national liberation struggles, struggles by racially and nationally oppressed groups, and struggles by women, lesbians and gay men, and youth. But these were in the context of a world economy that was expanding relatively rapidly and class and international relations defined by bourgeois democracy and the welfare state in the imperialist countries, the Cold War coexistence of Stalinism and imperialism, and the shift from colonialism to neocolonialism.

The 1970s opened a period of capitalist disequilibrium which continues today with no end in sight. Economically, capitalism had accumulated such immense productive forces that further investment on the scale of the previous twenty years wasn’t profitable enough for the capitalists to undertake it. In the 1950s and 1960s the world economy had expanded rapidly enough so that the capitalists could make massive concessions to the workers and the oppressed to buy social peace. As economic growth slowed, the capitalists shifted their strategy from investing to expand productive capacity to jacking up the rate of exploitation. Socially and politically, the demands of the workers and the oppressed collided with the capitalists’ diminished ability to make concessions and profits at the same time. The capitalists retreated through the first half of the 1970s and then, as the movements of the workers and the oppressed lost momentum, launched a counteroffensive.

The Soviet Union, although not capitalist, went through an analogous process in which its economy slowed to a point where it could no longer deliver the rising living standards that, combined with diminishing repression, had held the country together. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the Stalinist bureaucrats transformed themselves into capitalists or administrators of newly capitalist states. The Eastern European bureaucrats generally failed to transform themselves into capitalists but instead became social-democratic or nationalist politicians in capitalist states quickly drawn into the orbit of European and US imperialism. The Chinese bureaucrats, learning from these experiences, have carried out a transition to capitalism under tight party and state control. The workers in the new capitalist states, like those in the old, are exploited at a level that would have seemed impossible thirty years ago.

Capitalist restructuring and working-class retreat

Workers have lost ground partly as a result of technological changes that have allowed corporations to restructure themselves at workers’ expense. Improvements in computers and telecommunications have allowed employers to replace workers with machines and to decentralize production. They no longer need the huge concentrations of workers they once needed. They can more easily shift production to other parts of the country or abroad, where unions are weaker, wages are lower, and governmental regulation is more lax. They can sell or spin off operations, subcontract, and outsource.

The technological changes and restructuring have increased labor productivity, but their main goal and effect has been to weaken the ability of workers to organize and resist, as the capitalists promote competition by playing off one group of workers against another.

Workers could have countered these developments by higher consciousness, better organization, and more militancy, as they have in the past. But they’ve been blocked by the bureaucratic leaders of the unions, the social movements, and the reformist political parties. These leaders do not want to risk their careers and social positions by leading militant struggles. They try to steer their organizations toward collaboration with the capitalists, rather than struggle, despite overwhelming evidence that collaboration leads to surrender or defeat.

In the US the Democratic Party occupies the space that a reformist workers’ party would occupy in a more politically developed country. The union and movement bureaucrats claim that backing the Democrats is the way to get the government “on the side of the people” and a prerequisite for improving the situation. The Democratic Party politicians welcome this endorsement, since without it they would have no leverage, but they take their orders from the capitalists who fund them and whose media can make or break them. Al Gore won the 2000 presidential election, initially protested George Bush’s theft of the election, and then stood down when the ruling class told him to do so “for the good of the nation.” Barack Obama was once a community organizer and a believer in Black liberation theology, but he renounced his former beliefs to get the $700 million in campaign contributions and the media blessing he needed to win the presidency.

The recession and the financial crisis

The world capitalist economy is entering a recession. The business cycle has peaked and is turning downward. The capitalists are cutting back investment, because they have excess capacity in most industries and are able to produce far more than they can sell. They can still make killings in the bottleneck sectors of oil and other commodities, but the high prices there are mostly a drag on the rest of the economy and are coming down as the recession develops.

The workers and the lower strata of the middle class are cutting back consumption, because they have lost jobs to layoffs and income to wage cuts and inflation and have too much debt. Foreign demand for US goods and services has picked up some with increased US productivity and the falling value of the dollar, but the US still imports far more than it exports, reducing demand for US production. Government spending, mainly on war, is the economy’s last prop, but short of a world war that alone can’t hold off a recession for long.

The financial crisis dramatically underlines the problem of speculation in the current capitalist economy. Unable to make as much as they want through jacking up the rate of exploitation of workers in the real economy, the capitalists resort to financial manipulation to increase their take. Some of this is simply swindling workers or each other by fraud or enticing their victims into lending or borrowing that they would not have agreed to if they’d known the true risk. But much of it is the collective irrationality of speculation.

Looking for extraordinary short-term gains, the speculators bid up the prices of stocks, futures, derivatives and other financial instruments that are or purport to be claims on future profits. They bid the prices well above what could be justified by the profits that the real economy of production and distribution of goods and services can yield.

For a while the speculators get fabulously and fictitiously rich, because every bad investment they make they can find some other sucker to take off their hands for even more. They play musical chairs moving from one bad deal to another until the music stops. Those who are left standing go bankrupt, and the others move on to the next game. In the past ten years we’ve seen the stock market bubble that burst in 2000, the real estate bubble that burst in 2007, and the commodities bubble that is bursting now.

A sharp recession is inevitable because of massive overproduction and overaccumulation in the real economy. An obvious question is whether the financial crisis will transform the recession into a depression. We can’t know for sure, but at this point that seems unlikely.

Having learned from the disastrous stock market crash of 1929 and the contained crashes of 1987 and 2000, the capitalist governments are moving quickly to shore up the banking and insurance system by guaranteeing loans, deposits and exchanges, arranging mergers, buying risky mortgages and other bad assets, infusing capital by buying non-voting preferred stocks that give them no managerial control, and in some cases temporarily nationalizing the institution. The US government has paid or pledged $2.25 trillion so far, and the Japanese, European, Canadian and Russian governments have paid or pledged correspondingly large amounts.

At this point it seems that the outcome of the financial crisis will be a massive consolidation of the US and world financial system. In the US half a dozen banks with one to two trillion dollars in assets each will survive, linked to a network of smaller regional and local banks. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,the two big mortgage holders now in government conservatorship, will be returned to their stockholders, possibly broken up into more manageable pieces. The financial system will be more regulated but basically back in business.

Even if the US and world economies escape a depression, we can expect a continued ratcheting up of the rate of exploitation through the sharp recession developing now and the weak recovery that will follow. The conditions of the workers and of the lower middle class will continue to deteriorate, as the capitalists continue to shift income and wealth to themselves and the upper middle class.

The deteriorating conditions of life, the increasing social inequality, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and whatever country US imperialism targets next, political shocks like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the Sensenbrenner anti-immigrant bill, and the daily corruption, violence and injustice of capitalist society will eventual provoke a fightback. At that point all the parameters will change. Revolutionaries will participate in and lead mass struggles that could actually realize the socialist vision we propose.

A socialist response to the crisis

Meanwhile, revolutionaries should take advantage of the moment, which may be a moment of political epiphany for the working class. Workers are angry. They feel lied to and cheated. They are also scared. In their thinking, if not yet in their action, they are more open to collective and radical solutions than they have been in many years, since the situation seems desperate and the capitalists have resorted to collective and radical solutions for themselves.

Socialists should propose solutions to the crisis on the theme, “Bail out the workers, not the bankers,” following the transitional approach of the Communist Manifesto:

This cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.

The solutions should include:

  1. No evictions, foreclosures or utility shutoffs.
  2. No bailout of the Wall Street speculators. Reclaim their stolen wealth and prosecute them for theft.
  3. Nationalize the banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions. Allocate investment and credit for human needs, not speculative profits.
  4. Nationalize the transportation and energy industries. Develop mass transportation and clean, safe, sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.
  5. End the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bring the troops home now. Not a penny, not a person for imperialist war.
  6. Fund jobs, wages, pensions, healthcare, education, housing, mass transportation, and alternative energy.
  7. Elect committees of workers and consumers at all levels from workplaces and neighborhoods to a national planning commission to oversee the nationalized industries and the public sector generally, to ensure that they serve the people, not business, and to prevent abuses in what remains of the private sector.

The thousands of organized socialists and tens of thousands of unorganized socialists in the US can’t realize such a program of action or even much more modest reforms. Only the workers and the oppressed can emancipate themselves. But we can participate in struggles as they emerge and in the political discussions they provoke. By this we can contribute to building the mass revolutionary parties and other organizations the working class needs to emancipate itself.

*Peter is a member of Solidarity in Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti and veteran revolutionary activist in the Detroit area.

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