This essay is a criticism of the perspective that the 1990s and 2000s represented a “transitional period” between a “downturn” of class struggle in the US during the 1980s and the onset of a future “upturn.” This perspective, originally developed by the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the mid-1990s, found itself displaced in the SWP by the idea that “the 1990s are the 1930s in slow motion”; however, it was revived by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the US after its break with the SWP. The seminal remotivation of the perspective from the ISO is Ahmed Shawki’s “Between Things Ended and Things Begun,” which appeared in the summer of 2001. The perspective was upheld subsequently in an internal document for the ISO’s National Convention 2007.
Today, the “transitional period” perspective (TPP) seems to have been retracted by the ISO leadership; I say it “seems” this way because it has never been formally retracted in writing, despite being formally promulgated in writing. (Here I mean “retracted” in the strict sense that the perspective is admitted as having been wrong even at the time it was proposed.) The rejection of the TPP was indicated, in the first place, on the floor of the ISO’s Convention 2013, in response to arguments put forward in an earlier version of this piece. Later, at his Socialism 2013 talk on “Perspectives for the Left,” Shawki distanced himself from “Between Things Ended and Things Begun,” saying, “Rereading it, there are so many mistakes in that article.” Unfortunately, he didn’t go into detail, noting only the “absolute underestimation” of the neoliberal transformation of society; still, since the article’s main thesis is the TPP, it is fair to assume that this perspective has been abandoned, at least rhetorically.
Since I was, I believe, the noisiest critic of the TPP within the ISO, I suppose I should be happy that it has been effectively discarded. And indeed I am–but I am not happy that this has become yet another example of a “silent switch” in the group’s political policy. Additionally, and related to the preceding, I do not think that the comrades have really broken with the underlying schema of the TPP, which predicts that the US should be currently experiencing an “upturn” in class struggle. In any event, since my work is, to my knowledge, the only systematic attack on the TPP–as opposed to a mere “declaration” of its falsehood from some Subject-Presumed-To-Know–I thought it would be useful to reproduce the arguments in a more accessible medium. (The original document was a submission to the ISO’s 2013 Pre-Convention Bulletin series. It has been substantially revised.)
The concept of the value chain
The concept of the value chain derives, per Wikipedia, from the “science” of business management; it was popularized by Harvard Business School poobah Michael Porter. That should be enough to make any thinking person suspicious; and indeed, the bourgeois theory of the value chain cannot possibly be well-founded, given that bourgeois economics has no credible theory of value. The broad notion, however, is intrinsically attractive to Marxists, who do have a scientific framework for understanding the creation, translation, and metamorphoses of value through the circuits of capital. There is a body of Marxist research on (global) value chains and “commodity studies,” with which I am sadly mostly unfamiliar. In any event, for the purposes of this piece, a very rudimentary instantiation of the concept will suffice.
Fix some commodity in your mind–a wool coat, say–and imagine all the stages in its production and circulation, from being worked up from raw materials, transported through different stages of production, warehoused, shipped, and finally sold to the consumer. The creation, augmentation, movement, and conversion of this value proceeds through a series of stages, easily visualized as the links in a chain; ie, the value chain. The chain metaphor is particularly useful since it is easy to think of distinct value chains “linking” to one another; the value chains for wool and buttons clearly link to the coat’s chain, for instance. Value chains have complex interconnections in any developed capitalist society, and when finance capital is introduced, the chains become even more entangled.
This post is the first in an occasional series on the disarticulation of the US working class during the neoliberal phase of capitalism. I have used (but certainly not invented) this term to describe a totality of social phenomena that have qualitatively altered the political landscape on which revolutionaries operate. The word “disarticulation” means “to become disjointed,” which is to my mind evocative of the state of the class; the word also suggests an inability to speak (articulate) one’s mind. At the same time, it doesn’t go far as to suggest the disappearance of the “class-in-itself” or its dissolution into a multitude, precariat, or whatever. What is disarticulated can be rearticulated; indeed, the latter is precisely the process to which this series aims to contribute in one way or another.
I am not a professional sociologist or historian, and hence unable to give full-time attention to this inquiry, so these writings will inevitably exhibit a certain amateurish quality. This is unfortunate, but I can at least hope to spur discussion among more qualified and/or informed comrades.
The series will be, by and large, critical and “negative.” This is primarily because the situation of the US working class is, objectively, very bad. It is secondarily because revolutionary Marxists in the US have, in their basically admirable quest to spread the “Good News” about socialism, rendered themselves fairly conservative–even defensive–in their theoretical and strategic thinking. (As an experiment, try telling one of us that Trotsky’s theory of the united front has basically fuck-all to do with contemporary American political conditions. You are bound to give offense, even though you would be manifestly correct.) This backward-looking defensiveness must be broken through; Marxists must again become capable of integrating the moments of truth in non- or anti-Marxist research, even if we reject the conclusions. We must reunite “pessimism of the intellect” with “optimism of the will.”
Comrades who demand of every critic or dissident to see their “positive alternative” right away have not, I think, really understood the dialectical method. Progress is achieved through negations, not via “side-by-side comparison” in some “marketplace of ideas.” So to those who would ask me, “Where would your analysis leave us?” I can only answer: “It would leave us where we already are; but at least we would know it.”
These ideas were initially presented in two documents for the 2013 National Convention of the International Socialist Organization. These were co-authored with another comrade; while I gratefully acknowledge his contributions, the opinions expressed in this series are entirely my responsibility.