As is so often the case, the Economist asks the right questions but is clueless in its analysis. This is not, as some suppose, because it relies too much on neoclassical interpretive categories. The Economist’s cluelessness in this case arises from its faith in a relationship that until World War II was completely unknown: the supposed positive correlation of democracy and capitalism.
Prior to World War II any suggestion that this correlation was positive was dismissed in precisely the circles most committed to neoclassical economic categories: not only at LSE, but also at Cambridge, not only at Chicago, but also at Harvard and Berkeley. This was because economists prior to WWII recognized that the broadening of the political franchise without a simultaneous broadening of the social franchise was suicide to the republican values and institutions most of them had reason to value. Since few of them valued a broadening of the social franchise, they also dismissed broadening the political franchise.
It was the conceit of the Austrian School’s Friedrich von Hayek and von Mises sychophant Milton Friedman that democracy and capitalism somehow naturally suggested one another. What capitalism suggests is consumerism, voting through consumption, voting in order to consume. But consumers are the least well equipped to govern republics. Moreover, in the unregulated, privatized world dreamt by Friedman, those who occupy the lower three quarters of the income hierarchy are doomed to ever declining purchasing power, while those at the top are free to expand the range of their consumer preferences indefinitely.
Only massive public intervention, such as WWII, has proven effective expanding the social franchise. And, yet, so long as public resources are diverted to private production and consumption, they cannot help but reproduce conditions hostile to republican values and institutions.
The Economist editors fantasize a different story. Capitalism generates democracy. Greed, avarice, and corruption destroy democracy. In other words, personal morality is at fault. The message is that we need to promote good people and frustrate bad people. This may be a good message. But it has nothing to do with neoclassical economic theory. The Economist is at its worst when it attempts to find the moral of the story.
In capitalist, there is no moral to the story. William Stanley Jevons, the father of neoclassical economics, said as much way back in 1871. He was right. The Economist is not.
Without naming names (there are too many), Marxian thinkers become less than critical, they become religious, when they address religion. They revert to a pre-Marxian, quattrocento, grasp of both science and religion, which fails to grasp the intimate relationship between both in the emergence of capitalism during that same century.
In fact religion did not exist prior to capitalism. What existed was a bewildering variety of animisms. Spirits occupied every thing. And literally every thing was spiritual. The revolution we call the Reformation was a response to, not the author of, the birth of religion. For it was here, for the first time, that religious practitioners first deprived bodies of their spirits and spirits of their bodies. Finally, after so many centuries of darkness and bondage, the spirit was freed from its body. Religion in its full disembodied sense was born.
Science is not simply the flip-side of religion, the disenchanted body. Science is the logic of capitalism applied to bodies. It deprives bodies their spiritual voice. It compels bodies to speak logically, rationally, mathematically. It is then from the vantage point of this disenchanted body that Marxian thinkers often critique their co-religionists, the religious, whose spirit they fail to recognize as their own.
In a non- or post-capitalist world, bodies would recover their spirits and spirits their bodies. And polytheism would once again reign. But religion in its modern sense would entirely disappear. Or perhaps it would be remembered as that insane moment in history, from roughly 1324 to 2050, when we were compelled to hear the world in the foreign language of pure mathematics.
Social media is a symptom, not a cause. If you followed the congressional interrogation of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg yesterday, you will know what I mean.
Social media users are in pain. And I am not only referring to users at the bottom of the income hierarchy. Or consumers of social media. Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg are in pain. Social media investors are in pain. And, of course, users at the bottom of the income hierarchy are in pain. They are turning to social media — all of them — to solve a range of problems that social media cannot solve. Social media can solve one problem: it can win returns for investors. And were the absence of returns the cause for the pathology investors suffer then social media would offer an appropriate treatment. But this is not the pathology from which investors suffer.Social media reinforces what we already (think we) know. It reassures us that we are members of a much larger community whose members are plagued by the same pains, the same pathologies, we are. Social media might also inform. But information falls far down on the list of reasons we turn to social media. I still wake up every morning and read the New York Times, The Guardian, and Le Monde. I still listen to the BBC and NPR. These are my daily sources for information. I still read the Economist, Financial Times, and Wall Street Journal for information. Next to these outlets, Twitter and Facebook have nothing new to say.This is because when they are not consoling me with empty feel good aphorisms or funny pet videos, Facebook and Twitter are simply aggregating pathological communities, communities of shared pain. But unlike the synagogue’s or mosque’s or church’s grieving circles, Facebook and Twitter do not actually console. Instead, they heighten my sense of pain.That is because this pain is caused by the very social media to which I am turning for consolation; it is caused by my acting on the belief that my pain is caused by a lack of information or a lack of community, which I am now seeking on social media, which is incapable of providing either. Moreover, by validating my belief that it will solve these problems, social media deters me from exploring the social and economic and political dimensions of my pain. It tells me that what I need are more friends and better information.How do Twitter and Facebook make money? Why would investors choose to invest in them? Is it because investors want me to be better informed or cared for? Really? Were this the cause for investors’ interest in Facebook and Twitter, they would do better to lobby for strict limits on campaign spending, strict enforcement of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, forgiveness of student loan debt, universal single-payer healthcare, strong independent institutions of public learning, and strong independent public outlets for media. Instead, Twitter and Facebook have managed to make money both out of my interest in these causes and out of the interest of others in opposing them. Heads they win; tails I lose.In case you need a name for this pathology, its called capitalism; and Twitter and Facebook perfectly illustrate how it works, not to eliminate pathologies, but to reproduce them.Time for me to go post this on social media.
National Public Radio broadcast a chilling interview with Dartmouth professor of government Brendan Nyhan this morning.
It is chilling because it confirms that better than seventy per cent of Republicans polled believe that against all evidence the election was rigged against their presidential candidate. The truth is that Republican state legislators and governors have worked tirelessly over the last twelve years to deny working families and people of color representation commensurate to their population in Congress. The truth is that Republican state legislators and governors have done everything within their powers to restrict voting rights. But, as professor Nyhan notes, we live in times when the public has apparently lost interest not simply in political truth, but in institutional truth more generally.
Two points of light shine through in Lulu Garcia-Navarro’s interview with professor Nyhan. First, if only seventy percent of Republican voters believe the election was rigged in Joe Biden’s favor, thirty percent do not. Added to the 76M who voted for Joe Biden that is a pretty good number. The second point of light is professor Nyhan’s observation that this number shifts dramatically if we select for income and education. Wealthy, healthy, educated Americans overwhelmingly trust America’s scientific, educational, and government institutions. This means that we have a fairly good grasp of the mechanisms at play in the rejection by almost three quarters of the republican electorate of institutional process. But this is also where the light grows specially dim. If thirty percent of Republican voters trust the process, where were they on Election Day? Where are they now? If we know the mechanisms at play in declining confidence in institutions, then where is the public outcry on behalf of income equality, educational equality, and health care equality?
Instead, Democratic National Committee members are once again tripping over one another to be first to recommend a pull-back from “radical” democratic messaging. This widespread denial, it should be noted, is just as pathological, perhaps even more pathological, than republican denial. It arises from an incapacity — not unwillingness — to face, much less accept, the social character of the collapse of democracy and democratic institutions in the United States. It arises from an incapacity — not an unwillingness — to face, much less acknowledge, the central role the Democratic National Committee played in the transition from republican values and democratic process to post-democratic, white Christian nationalism in the US. However, if professor Nyhan is correct then wealth inequality, exploding university tuitions and student debt, privatization and deregulation — all of which were eagerly, enthusiastically, supported by the DNC — were born in the womb of a Democratic Party that wholesale abandoned working families, women, students, and people of color.
What is this pathology? The answer lies in the “incapacity” itself. The Republican Party is selling “capacity.” It is selling a message of responsibility; the capacity to respond. You may remember that this was the cornerstone of the Clinton/Gore victory in 1992. The DNC genuinely believes that the message of capacity — Yes We Can! — is key to their future. But this means that they are incapable of facing the social and institutional, structural, grounds for post-democracy in the US. For to do so would entail admitting their constitutive role in the slide into post-democracy in the US; it would fundamentally undermine their entire vision and agenda. Moreover, it would suggest that the elites, the so-called “meritocracy” that currently governs the DNC did not earn its right to govern out of merit. It earned its right to govern out of privilege. The leadership in the DNC would have to face this privilege — the “private law” that empowers its members — in order to recover its capacity to govern differently.
I would like to believe that thirty percent of those who voted republican in this election could join those who voted democratic in a grand coalition of individuals ready to support republican values and democratic process; a grand coalition ready to embrace science and public institutions.
And, yet, if the DNC leadership is itself incapable of facing its demons, it seems unlikely that the Susan Colins of the world will be capable of facing theirs. They have built an entire ideology around personal responsibility. To shift now to a message of social, political, and economic enfranchisement would be even more difficult for republicans than for the DNC. Which is why we are still sliding into a post-democratic — our grandparents called it “fascist” — consensus in the US.
Our community of faith, which is overwhelmingly European American, is exploring white blindness to racism. It is intense. Among our readings this week was David Dean’s “Roots Deeper than Whiteness” (embedded).
There is so much that is good about the essay that I might leave good enough alone. Except that Mr Dean’s answer to my racism is that I locate and follow the historical trajectory of my own community from its own freedom in what I take to be western Europe’s late Middle Ages into its own class bondage and racism in the Early Modern period. What Mr Dean wants me to discover is, first, that my ancestors were not racist, were deeply committed to the commons, to community, but, second, that they were coopted by capitalism and were offered the wages of whiteness in exchange for a living wage and racial harmony.
I have several problems with this story. First, I do not believe that my mixed Irish-English-French-Ashkenazi ancestors’ way of life was any more authentic than my life today. Both, I would argue, are equally inauthentic, constructed, shaped, and structured. I am as much related to John Doty, the indentured servant who arrived on the Mayflower to whom my mother’s family traces their arrival, as I am to the Jewish community from which she took her surname. Since my practices are qualitatively different from theirs, it is silly for me to attempt to “recover” my “authentic” pre-racist ancestral identity.
Second, the story Mr Dean tells about capitalism reinforces the authenticity of pre-capitalist social being. It reduces capitalism to bad people doing bad things to good people. As a social formation, however, this story bears no resemblance to how capitalism actually emerged, in Ghent, in 1324, in the parish of St John at the Abby of St Pierre. It emerged when the abbot of St Pierre directed the fullers to install a clock in the workhouse recently built there. It marks the first time anywhere productive human activity was measured in equal units of abstract time. From there, the new technique for measuring value spread throughout Western Europe, generating the compulsion unique among Europeans to generate more with less. To this compulsion we owe not only the insatiable appetite for El Dorado, but also the insatiable appetite to lower costs of production and increase the marginal product, appetites directly related to “liberating” serfs from their traditional lands and re-enslaving them, along with Africans, in the expanding empires of Europe.
I do not change this history by recovering my pre-capitalist ancestors in it. Doing so makes me no less racist. It makes the capitalist social formation that has thoroughly shaped me no less constitutive both of race and of racism.
Third, in this way the story Mr Dean tells reinforces racist metaphors by counting ancestry as something ontologically fundamental and given, while treating what has happened since the 15th or 16th century as constructed and superficial. Capitalism gives rise to a real, comprehensive, and therefore all the more terrifying totality, in part, because it drives me to search for my authentic (racial? cultural? linguistic?) roots.
This I have to assume is not Mr Dean’s aim. I think I have some idea of where Mr Dean wants his argument to go. As a historian, I am fundamentally committed to grasping how history has shaped us, shaped me. And it is absolutely critical that I understand, that we understand, that race and racism are constructed, and that they are constructed within capitalism. Which is one of the reasons why it is absolutely important not to ontologize something fundamental, irreducible, within us. We are constructed and grasping how we are constructed is key to acting and working and thinking and caring our way from capitalism and racism into post-capitalism and difference.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2020 election cost in excess of $14B. To put that figure in perspective, in 2020, the year of a global pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control spent a total of $1.2B for chronic disease prevention and control. The $14B price tag for politics in 2020 begs an interesting question: what did this money buy?
Pfizer is one of the private pharmaceutical companies competing to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. According to the industry news outlet Health Leadership Media, Pfizer netted $16.2B in profits in 2019. That same year Pfizer contributed $2.8M to political campaigns and $11M lobbying. For every dollar Pfizer spent on policymakers, it netted $1,173. That is a greater than 100,000 per cent return on investment. Given those margins, politics is among the most fruitful investments anywhere in the global marketplace.
To be sure, political outcomes are not Pfizer’s only investment. They also produce pharmaceuticals. Nevertheless, the fact is that with a very small investment, Pfizer has been able to purchase an extraordinarily generous regulatory environment and rates of profit unparalleled elsewhere in the industrialized world. $13.8M may seem like a lot of money. It is not. $16.2B? That’s a lot of money.
Pfizer is not exceptional. A quick spin around the Center for Responsible Politics website will show just how unexceptional Pfizer is. From the defense industry, to the incarceration industry, to the petroleum industry, to the agriculture industry, investors are spending billions and billions of dollars buying policy. This makes politics among the most attractive investments anywhere in the global market. In other words, politics is a commodity. But what is a commodity?
According to William Stanley Jevons, one of the founders of modern neoclassical economics, a commodity is any surface form of appearance whose value arises from its relationship to all other commodities (Theory of Political Economy, pp. 37-74). According to Jevons, a surface form of appearance, or utility, need not take a material form at all. This, of course, is the same definition of the commodity that Karl Marx used in his Capital. From there, however, Jevons’ and Marx’s discussions of the commodity diverge. So, for example, Jevons expressed deep concern over investors who fail to disclose the full nature of their product, who maintain trade secrets, or who hold more or less of their product than they let on.
There must be no conspiracies for absorbing and holding supplies to produce unnatural ratios of exchange. Were a conspiracy of farmers to withhold all corn from market, the consumers might be driven, by starvation, to pay prices bearing no proper relation to the existing supplies, and the ordinary conditions of the market would be thus overthrown.
Jevons considered secrets and speculation to be “against the public good” (Theory of Political Economy, p. 87). Marx, by contrast, saw in the commodity form itself, even when functioning strictly by the rules, in the open, completely unsullied by speculation, a deception on the highest order. As Jevons himself affirmed, the commodity is not what it appears to be on its surface. Nor is it what Jevons thought it to be. So, what is it?
A commodity appears a t first sight a n extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it fro m the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour. . . . Whence, then, arises the enigmatic character of the product of labour, as soon as it assumes the form of a commodity? Clearly it arises from this form itself. The equality of the kinds of human labour takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the products of labour as values; the measure of the expenditure of human labour-power by its duration takes on the form of the magnitude of the value of the products of labour.
This, for Marx, meant that “the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this” (K Marx, Capital, volume 1, pp. 165). The deception was not, as Jevons believed, in trade secrets or conspiracy. The deception was in the very form itself. “It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Ibid.).
Politics is a commodity. But what does this mean? It means, does it not, that its surface forms of appearance — laws and regulations and regulatory agencies and departments and institutions — are not what they appear to be. These surface forms mediate the accumulation, circulation, and expansion of value; value, which, if we are to believe Marx, is the abstract form taken by labor once labor itself is transformed into a commodity.
To return to our original example, Pfizer appears to be manufacturing pharmaceuticals. It appears to be purchasing political goods in order to facilitate the manufacture of pharmaceuticals. If Marx is to be believed, however, Pfizer is in fact expanding value for shareholders. Abstract value is the underlying socially generalized form both of the political goods it purchases and the pharmaceutical goods it produces. The deception is not exceptional. It is how the commodity works. We focus on the commodity’s surface form of appearance. Its true value lies beneath this surface.
What is this value? If we are correct, it is as much as 1000 times more than the value invested in it, perhaps as much as $14T; which is to say, two thirds of the entire US GDP (which is roughly $22T).
Why do elections cost so much? Why are we ready to spend so much electing “public servants” to “public” office? Why $14B? If we are right, and what we are purchasing here is an expansion of value on this unprecedented scale, is it any wonder that we spend so much on elections?
From this vantage point, it is clear that the biggest prize is the US government itself; all of its agencies and institutions, its governing and regulatory agencies, its military, and its people. For this reason, it might be supposed that campaign finance reform is the most important issue facing US citizens, more important even than climate change. Climate change mitigation cannot proceed with sufficient enough speed if those charged with regulating carbon are driven by a marginal product that is dependent on carbon. (Exxon Mobile contributed $2.4M to candidates and spent $9.7M on lobbying in 2019. It earned $255.6B.)
Campaign finance reform is important. But we should not think about campaign finance reform independently from the capitalist social formation in which it would be implemented. Eliminating the benefits investors can enjoy from purchasing politics may place downward pressure on the marginal product investors can anticipate, but it will by no means eliminate the commodity character of the political or, more importantly, the commodity character of the social. Too often campaign finance reform is addressed in isolation from the commodified character of society as a whole, as though removing the deception in this one corner will prove sufficient. Campaign finance report might instead be publicized as an especially noteworthy example of commodification more generally; commodification that includes health, education, housing, clean water and air, race, gender, sexual preference, and, indeed, labor itself. In capitalism, all of these are commodified; all are surface forms of appearance mediated by abstract value. The deception is not peculiar to politics. It is everywhere. Nevertheless, politics offers an especially egregious example of how commodification works, to our peril.
I remember in graduate school reading a book about Max Weber and Thomas Mann, Harvey Goldman’s Max Weber and Thomas Mann, that explained their approaches to vocational calling by the traumas they suffered growing up. However, it always struck me as odd that readers who presumably were not so victimized as they evidently were nevertheless found that their ideas resonated. It is possible that all of educated Europe was similarly victimized, but were that the case then Goldman should have been writing a social history not psychological biography.
Goldman’s book came to mind as I read one after another account that fault’s Donald Trump’s own psychoses for his compulsion to undermine republican values and democratic process. In these accounts, Trump is faulted for believing that its all about him. In that case, one might as well fault Trump’s 71M supporters for also believing that its all about him, because they do. But its not.
As is so often the case, this form of argument takes me back to the opening lines of Aristotle’s Politics, where Aristotle argues that only free and equal individuals have the capacity to govern effectively together because none has the capacity to dominate the others. Such is not the case in a tyranny or under despotic rule; i.e., either where an inferior possesses sole power (a tyrant), or where a superior deprives others of power (a despot). Not incidentally, δεσπότης (despotes) is the word in Greek used to describe the manager of a private enterprise (οἰκονομία), or oikonomia, a private business, which, by definition, is not free and equal. In this sense, Trump is the tyrant who benefits from conditions of dependence and inequality. Trump’s sense of being wronged, always, is also their sense of being wronged, always. In this sense, it really is about Trump; but it is also really about the 71M who voted for him. They have been wronged.
If this is an accurate assessment, then Biden and Harris cannot solve this problem. However wronged they may in fact have been, Biden and Harris feel they have overcome them. They are therefore unlikely to govern from that place; which is both the good news and the bad news. It is good news because they are likely to trust expert research in their policymaking. But that is also the bad news insofar as they may not recognize the pathologies that oppression often confers upon the oppressed. If Aristotle is correct, however, no matter how benevolent their rule, Biden and Harris will be obligated to rule despotically until that point where citizens are in fact (and not only in aspiration) truly free and equal. That said, as Aristotle himself argued, despotism is far preferable to tyranny.
When I was in graduate school back in the day we regularly ran into Tom Frank and his Baffler groupies down Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap. When Thomas Frank broke into the mainstream, none of us were terribly surprised. He has a nice sense for the ironies of US history. Listen Liberal or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? is a good example.
Nevertheless, whether in Kansas, or in Washington, or no longer in Washington, Frank leaves us wondering: why did all of this happen?
Republicans believe they know why it happened. It happened because centrally controlled economies are inefficient. It happened because centrally controlled economies let down the very people they aim to be helping, working families. And it happened because the Democrats only insight over the past century, tax and spend liberalism, failed. Once Democrats realized this they tried to convince voters that they too were free market liberals. It didn’t work.
Marxists also have an explanation for why this happened. It begins with Frank’s analysis — Democrats left labor behind — but it then faults democrats for failing to adopt a class-based analysis or a coherent critique of capital. You cannot at the same time support both capital and labor, which is precisely what the democrats seek to do. Their answer is to organize working families to oppose capital.
Yet, for much the same reason Frank’s argument fails to satisfy, neither does the mainstream Marxist argument. Both lack a working class eager to hear what they are saying. Frank’s Kansas has not budged at all since 2007. In the November 2020 election working families preferred Trump to Biden. Neither Frank nor mainstream Marxists offer us a coherent explanation for why this is so.
Mainstream Marxism is what I call the mostly class-based critique of capital. It is far from monolithic. Somewhat surprisingly, however, mainstream Marxism has at its core a practical rejection of dialectical materialism. History simply has not cooperated in the way mainstream Marxists had hoped it would. Culturally, workers are overwhelmingly conservative. More often than not they side with capital, even against their own interests. (Witness the large red stain running north to south, east to west, in the center of any electoral map since well before “bleeding Kansas.”) It is for this reason that mainstream Marxists migrated during the 1940s away from dialectical materialism towards what could be called political materialism. In political materialism, politics holds priority over history, as in this quote from Analles scholar Fernand Braudel:
A third sector should be added to the pre-industrial model — that lowest stratum of the non-economy, the soil into which capitalism thrusts its roots but which it can never really penetrate. This lowest layer remains an enormous one. Above it, comes the favoured terrain of the market economy, with its many horizontal communications between the different markets: here a degree of automatic coordination usually links supply, demand and prices. Then alongside, or rather above this layer, comes the zone of the anti-market, where the great predators roam and the law of the jungle operates. This — today as in the past, before and after the industrial revolution — is the real home of capitalism.
Not the market, but the anti-market, drives history. Countering this anti-market, however, is what mainstream Marxists count as authentic human, or “species,” being. This authentic human being has been subverted by capital. It has been forced to become something it is not. Inauthentic human being counts money, labor, and land as commodities, when, in fact, they are fictitious commodities. They are not natural. They are constructions. As a consequence, the social being structured around these fictitious commodities is no longer dialectical, but simply oppositional, a victim of what Karl Polanyi calls the double movement.
Let me first acknowledge that this is a gross misreading of Marx’s mature thought. In his mature writings Marx argued that the dialectic arises out of the two-fold form of the commodity, whose particular surface forms of appearance are valued in terms of an abstract value that governs social relations not in particular, but universally. The difference between outward forms of appearance and abstract value leaves open the possibility, but only the possibility of crises. At these moments, this difference, which almost always operates unseen, comes into the open. Nevertheless, even when it does, it does not come with its own operations manual. More often than not, therefore, crises are resolved, and the difference between particular surface forms and abstract value once again retreats into the background.
To say that these mutually independent and antithetical processes form an internal unity is to also that their internal unity moves forward through external antitheses. These two processes lack internal independence because they complement each other. Hence, if the assertion of their external independence proceeds to a certain critical point, their unity violently makes itself felt by producing — a crisis. There is an antithesis, immanent in the commodity, between use-value and value, between private labour which must simultaneously manifest itself as directly social labour, and a particular concrete kind of labour which simultaneously counts as merely abstract universal labour, between the conversion of things into persons and the conversion of persons into things; the antithetical phases of the metamorphosis of the commodity are the developed forms of motion of this immanent contradiction. These forms therefore imply the possibility of crises, though no more than the possibility. For the development of this possibility into a reality a whole series of conditions is required, which do not yet even exist from the standpoint of the simple circulation of commodities
K Marx, Capital I.I.3 §2 (a).
Such was the case from 1929 to 1968, when the abstract value credited to commodities proved to be completely out of touch with the material forms of appearance of these commodities. Eventually, it would take $4.7T public appropriations beginning in 1938 to erase the gulf between surface forms of appearance and the abstract values that mediate these social forms universally. That is what the US Congress appropriated to defeat Germany and Japan. By 1968, however, this Keynesian “multiplier” had run its course. And by then everyone had forgotten precisely why so much wealth had been in circulation for the past forty years. Nevertheless, right on schedule, surface forms of appearance began once again to pull free from the abstract value that accounted for their social relations to one another.
By then, however, mainstream Marxists had fully bought into political materialism. The long upturn, as Robert Brenner has called it, was entirely a product of the political militancy of the working class. They had demanded and received higher wages and better benefits. They had fought for and won the right to organize. It was their militancy that throughout the 1950s and 1960s won civil rights for women and minorities, and that had expanded the social and political franchise. The US Congress’ $4.7T had nothing at all to do with it.
But this means that, for mainstream Marxists, the solution to what for working families has now been a steady sixty year decline must be in politics. So much for the dialectic.
If, by contrast, we begin instead with Marx’s mature analysis, we can see that just as the long upturn from 1938 to 1968 was grounded in commodity production and exchange, so the long downturn beginning in 1968 is also grounded in the two-fold character of the commodity. Even if we were able to restore something like the New Deal, that too would also be grounded in the commodity. But how might this analysis take us any further than the analysis offered by Frank or by mainstream Marxists?
The commodity, as explained by Marx, invites commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism ascribes transcendental, quasi-universal powers to the surfaces of things, which these surfaces do not actually possess. Nevertheless, commodities do possess transcendental, quasi-universal powers insofar as they are valued in terms of the abstract value possessed by all commodities under capitalism. To put names on these fetishes, abstract value, $4.7T of it, purchased health, job security, education, political power, and social security for millions of Americans from 1938 to 1968. And, yet, because the powers these things exercised were separated, both in experience and analytically, from the abstract value by which they were underwritten, working families could believe that these things themselves had power apart from US Congressional taxation and distribution. Moreover, it was not only working families who operated under this illusion. It was mainstream Marxists themselves who came to believe that these commodities had appeared on account of their political militancy. In fact, the reverse was true. Their political militancy was itself among the commodities purchased with the $4.7T. Take away that $4.7T, which is what happened beginning in 1968, and that political militancy will also disappear. I guarantee it.
But the fetish will not disappear. This explains why working families will work themselves to the bone in order to deprive themselves of health, education, and welfare; this explains why working families will also fetishize the surface forms of people of color, immigrants, women and Muslims, all of whom are credited with far more power than these surfaces themselves warrant.
The crises to which Marx referred in volume one of capital are all around us; but not in such a manner that they wear their meanings on the surface. To the contrary, the commodity loudly calls attention to its surfaces, but not to the abstract value underlying these surfaces.
So, Listen Marxist! If we may ever expect to adequately diagnose and seek to overcome the crisis that fills our world today, it cannot be grounded in political materialism. It will only arise from a sober and careful analysis of the commodity and its fetish.
I shared a lovely socially distanced dinner last night on the patio of two friends, an art curator and a critical theorist. One of the topics we covered was how the Democratic Party lost organized labor. First, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, organized labor counts for only 6.2 per cent of the workforce. Second, the Democratic Party was only able to court organized labor because of a fluke; or, rather, because of the double-tragedy of Great Depression and World War II.
True, in the old ILW and CIO and ILGWU there were militants who knew how to drive issues such as race and gender, but within the labor movement as a whole, they were always a minority. Labor flourished when investors needed labor to flourish, between 1938 and 1970. No sooner had the US dropped its payload on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and labor could once again be counted on to support anti-immigrant, anti-civil rights, and anti-women policies; and join the police in clubbing the heads of war protestors.
This is not to suggest that the left should not support labor. It is to suggest that organized labor has always only reluctantly and only when convenient supported the left.
In a related thread this week another friend reminded me how thoroughly the Democratic Party has abandoned working families. She cited Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal. She went on to detail all of the reasons why working families might support Trump: tariffs on foreign imports, increasing the standard deduction, the lowest unemployment in history. I, of course, questioned all of these. Tariffs hurt working families, the increased standard deduction was a pittance compared to the tax cuts and subsidies for the wealthiest Americans, and the lowest unemployment in history was already trending in 2010, a clear result of the 2008 stimulus package. But my friend then went on to detail how Trump had reclaimed Jerusalem, opposed reproductive rights, defended Christianity, and male-female marriage, all of which, she noted, are popular precisely among white working families.
I might note that these are not issues my friend supports, but only issues that may help to explain why working families feel abandoned by the Democratic Party and why they might warm to Trump.
Both of these conversations made me wonder what it might mean for the Democratic Party to court working families. If it means that the Democratic Party must become more misogynist, more racist, and more jingoistic than it already is, then that does not work for me. If it means that we are doomed to await a Great Depression and world war, that doesn’t work for me either. But, if working families are culturally inclined to be misogynist, racist, and jingoistic, it also might be worth asking whether labor is something the left is ready to court on this grounds. And, yet, without labor, what is the left?
The US 2020 mis-election has brought a lot of this into focus for me. Locally, there have been some very bright spots. Nationally, not so much. The Democratic Party has lost labor. The Democratic Party has abandoned working families. And, quite frankly, when I encounter white working families, their white Christian nationalism reminds me more of members of the NASDP than members of the AFL-CIO. This feeling of uneasiness cannot have been lost on women of color who might find themselves in the orbit of white working families.
Wendy Brown has asked how we might win these white Christian nationalists back. I don’t want white Christian nationalists back. I want communities where white Christian nationalism gains no traction. Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s and faulting Democrats for being Democrats is silly. They never were socialists. They were always in favor of free markets. When in the 1990s they warmly embraced neoliberalism, they were not doing anything but being good Democrats. The question is what do we do to carve out pockets of sanity where white Christian nationalism gains no traction.
Win or lose on Tuesday, this is not new. It is not unprecedented. Although it seems so to us.
During my graduate studies, early on, I became intrigued with the writings of Carl Schmitt, in part because he was a student of Max Weber. I was writing a dissertation on Max Weber. But also because his way of thinking was so in tune with the leadership of the Republican Party in the United States. Could there possibly be a relationship?
“The Concept of the Political” — Der Begriff des Politischen — was first published in 1928. It was then republished in 1932, with the approval of the Third Reich. It’s argument was simple. The “political” is not a debating point or a negotiating point. The “political” is existential. It determines whether a party will succeed or fail. Whether it will exist. In order to exist, the political must identify and defeat an opponent that wishes to eliminate it. The opponent is also the “political.” The opponent also identifies the other as its enemy.
This way of conceptualizing politics differs qualitatively from the way that British, and then American, political thinkers conceptualized politics. British common law advances step by step with each case, sometimes pulling this way, sometimes pulling that way. We are not friends. We are not enemies. We are members of the same community. We will live together. The common law tradition differs in fundamental ways from the Roman tradition, which is grounded in what is felt to be established moral and legal principle.
Carl Schmitt was the legal scholar who defended the Third Reich’s right to deny citizens their rights in the case of “emergency.”
In the end, Schmitt’s legal reasoning justified the murder of 6 million Jews, communists, homosexuals, gypsies, and others.
Schmitt’s most gifted student was Leo Strauss, who, because he was Jewish, could not remain in Germany. Strauss emigrated to the US where he took up residence at the University of Chicago. Strauss never denied the validity of his mentor’s arguments. He never defended British common law tradition. He never found fault with Roman tradition. In fact, Strauss strenuously criticized the popular movements of the 1960s as quasi-fascist. Strauss’ students ended up in leading cabinet posts in the administrations of Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II.
So. Yes. We are back in 1932.
But — and here’s my point — we have been here since 1980. That is forty years ago. Which is why we need to take a deep breath. It is not as though, suddenly, in 2016, everything changed. We have been living with this since . . . 1980! It has felt bad, we have felt bad, since 1980. And, if we are honest, it has felt bad since 1976.
Take a deep breath. If Joe Biden wins the election, if the Democrats win the Senate and the House, we still live in a nation that hates women, blacks, gays, and minorities. We still live in a nation whose citizens have rejected democratic process and the most basic principles of republican values and institutions. We live in what our grandparents and great-grandparents would have recognized in an instant as a fascist nation. That is simply true. Even if Joe Biden wins. That is simply true.
So, take a deep breath. We have a lot of work to do. Win or lose.