Posts Tagged ‘neoliberalism’

Through which period are we passing?

October 31, 2013 2 comments

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Today, the “transitional period” perspective (TPP) seems to have been retracted by the ISO leadership; I say it “seems” this way because it has never been formally retracted in writing, despite being formally promulgated in writing.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.)

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The disarticulation of the US working class: The value chain

August 15, 2013 8 comments

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.

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The spirit that negates

August 8, 2013 1 comment

What is constructive criticism? If you came up sometime in the last 40-odd years, you probably think it means something like: criticism that doesn’t make you an asshole. In other words, all legitimate criticism is necessarily constructive criticism. But if that’s the case, why not just call it criticism–why add the clunky prefix? It’s as if someone were trying to convince you that vegan nachos are the only form of nachos. And, like with vegan nachos, you might wonder if the unmodified version were not more satisfying altogether.

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The disarticulation of the US working class: Introduction; Unions and strikes

August 2, 2013 Leave a comment


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.

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Two failed strategies in the US antiwar movement

July 19, 2013 Leave a comment

[An earlier version of this essay was presented at Historical Materialism Toronto, May 2012.]

The end of the US military occupation of Iraq on December 31, 2011, although by no means an end to US imperial intervention in the country, augurs a radically new context for the political development of Iraq. This essay will argue that it also shows the need for a fundamental critique of strategies in the US antiwar movement, as the real process by which the occupation ended falsified the conceptions of both the liberal and left wings of the movement.

The liberals’ expectation that some combination of executive and legislative action by the Democratic Party would end or at least ameliorate the war was false; it will be shown, in fact, that the Democrats’ commitment to antiwar policies collapsed as soon as they gained control of Congress and the White House. However, the left wing’s contention that the occupation would be expelled by the triple action of a US civilian movement, US military movement, and Iraqi national resistance was also incorrect.

It will be seen that both wings of the movement derived their strategies from distinct readings of the same historical phenomenon: the movement against the US war on Vietnam. The conclusion suggests that opponents of imperialism in the US need to take a wider view of the nation’s political history, looking particularly to its legacy of explicitly anti-imperialist movements in order to discover new models of activism relevant to the current conjuncture.

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On the problem of leaders as stupid as oneself

August 13, 2011 1 comment

Back in 2008, my mom asked her right-wing best friend why she supported Sarah Palin. “I feel like she understands me, that she’s just like me,” my mom’s friend said. To which my mom replied: “What? But you’re an idiot! Why do you want to be ruled by someone just as stupid as you?”

Mom voted for Obama, who turned out to be far less clever than she imagined, but nevertheless she was making an interesting point. Now to conduct the discussion intelligently, we have to move it away from the sphere of psephology and into the science of class analysis; for if the average American were truly as dumb as the average American politician, I would rather espouse cannibalism than socialism (to paraphrase an old joke from Tony Cliff). The President of the United States is in fact the President of the Ruling Class of the United States, and likewise for the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and so on. That’s true in any state. What’s curious about the state today–ie, the neoliberal state–is that its politicians and functionaries are an unusually faithful reproduction of the class it serves. This is worth thinking about.

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