Archive for June, 2017

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Mark Tansey, “Duet” (2004)

There are plenty of reasons why contemporary libertarians might want to read Karl Marx—and at least one reason why they wouldn’t.

Chris Dillow suggests libertarians “would be surprised by a lot of Marx” and offers three reasons why they should read him.

One is that Marx saw economics as a historical process.

One implication of this for libertarians is that they must ask: what material economic basis would make our ideas more popular? I’d argue that one such basis is greater equality, as this would diminish demands for statist regulation.

A second is Marx’s view of the relationship between property rights and technical progress.

This might speak to our current secular stagnation. Why are productivity growth and capital spending so weak? Might one reason be that the fear of future losses from competition is deterring investment? Or that excessively tight intellectual property laws are restricting innovation? Marx poses the question: how should property rights alter to foster growth? This surely should interest libertarians.

The third reason lies in Marx’s attitudes about the expansion of the realm of freedom.

Marx’s main gripe with capitalism wasn’t so much that it was unfair but that it thwarted our freedom to develop our human potential. Work, instead of being a source of self-expression, is oppressive and alienating under capitalism.

According to Dillow, libertarians should read Marx because, in all three cases, he poses some questions to them that should sharpen their thinking.

I agree.* But, as I explained back in 2012, there’s at least one reason why Marx would infuriate libertarian readers—because of their sense of the right of private individuals to do what they like on and with their property.

Marx, in chapter 6 of volume 1 of Capital, presents an analysis of private power to which libertarians are—and, I suspect, always will be—blind:

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

 

*Although I can’t agree with Dillow’s suggestion that readers should start volume 1 of Capital at chapter 10, and turn to the first nine chapters last. In my view, readers should begin with the first three chapters, on the commodity, where Marx presents the initial steps in his critique of political economy. In fact, every time I teach Capital, I run the risk of rushing through the remaining material precisely because I find so much to present to contemporary students about commodities and markets in that first section.

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As I argued a couple of days ago, recent events—such as Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn—have surprised many experts and shaken up the existing common sense. In short, they’ve rocked the neoliberal boat.

The question is, where does this leave us?

Thomas Edsall thinks it means we’ve reached the end of class-based politics. I’m not convinced.

Yes, the response to the problems with neoliberal globalization has challenged and cut across traditional party families and their positions on domestic matters, in the United States as in Western Europe. But that doesn’t mean the differences between the Left and the Right have disintegrated or that class politics have become irrelevant.

To take but one of Edsall’s examples, just because there’s no one-to-one correspondence between people who have lost and gained from existing forms of globalization and those who voted for or against Donald Trump doesn’t mean class has declined in political importance, much less that it’s been displaced by a simple “globalism versus nationalism” opposition. Plenty of voters in economic distress voted for Trump and for Clinton—in part because of their different ways of framing class issues, but also because class politics have always been overlain with other, salient identities, resentments, and desires. The 2016 presidential election was no exception.

What this means is battles take place not only between political parties, including newly resurgent ones, but also within those parties. Thus, for example, the mainstream of the Democratic Party was and remains wholly committed to a liberal version of neoliberalism, and its inability to respond to the “economic distress”—the class grievances—of large sections of the American working-class led to its loss last November (which means, of course, the battle inside the Democratic Party has become even more intense). Similarly, Trump’s campaign rhetoric—although certainly not his actual economic and social program—galvanized many who were dissatisfied with “business as usual” in Washington. And, of course, the response to those different positions was affected by the framing of the issue of globalization (for example, Trump’s focus on job losses versus Clinton’s call for more education and reskilling), race (Trump’s dog-whistle invoking of the “inner city” and the need to build a wall in contrast to Clinton’s calls for diversity and inclusion), and much else.

But, in contrast to what Edsall sees, the future of the American left does not lie in mimicking Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of France’s National Front. While Macron’s campaign did represent a rejection of the “racialized and xenophobic politics” that served as one of the pillars of Trump’s victory, there is nothing in Macron’s proposed domestic policy reforms that represent anything other than a French version of “left neoliberalism,” and therefore a real threat to the French working-class.

No, we’re going to have to look elsewhere for an alternative common sense.

Espen Hammer suggests we return to the “rocking of the boat” that has been the underlying aim of the great utopias that have shaped Western culture.

It has animated and informed progressive thinking, providing direction and a sense of purpose to struggles for social change and emancipation.

It is a tradition, beginning with Thomas More, that involves not only thought experiments, of what might be, but also—and perhaps even more important—a critique of the existing order, and therefore what needs to be changed.

Finally, Bhaskar Sunkara suggests that the history of socialism suggests the way forward.

Stripped down to its essence, and returned to its roots, socialism is an ideology of radical democracy. In an era when liberties are under attack, it seeks to empower civil society to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives. A huge state bureaucracy, of course, can be just as alienating and undemocratic as corporate boardrooms, so we need to think hard about the new forms that social ownership could take.

Some broad outlines should already be clear: Worker-owned cooperatives, still competing in a regulated market; government services coordinated with the aid of citizen planning; and the provision of the basics necessary to live a good life (education, housing and health care) guaranteed as social rights. In other words, a world where people have the freedom to reach their potentials, whatever the circumstances of their birth.

As I see it, that conception of socialism—an expansion of democracy that capitalism promises but simply can’t permit—is capable of satisfying both Edsall’s aversion to a “racialized and xenophobic politics” and Hammer’s utopian “rocking of the boat.”

It’s the start of something new precisely because, in Sunkara’s words, it “allows so many now crushed by inequity to participate in the creation of a new world.”

Update

It should perhaps come as no surprise that Sunkara’s view of the contemporary relevance of socialism, appearing as it did in the New York Times, should invite a backlash reminiscent of the kind of red-baiting and ahistorical analysis that socialists and Marxists were often subjected to during the Cold War. In this case, Jonathan Chait [ht: sm] uses Venezuela as his whipping-boy, decrying the authoritarian elements of the left-wing governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, without any mention of the upper-class roots of the contemporary opposition or of the crisis in Venezuelan society (exemplified in El Caracazo, in 1989) and the subsequent election of Chávez a decade later. No, Chait can’t let actual political and historical analysis get in the way of his broad-brush indictment of what he, echoing generations of liberal anticommunists, considers to be “the inherent authoritarianism that is embedded in an illiberal thought system.”

 

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According to Donald Trump, “Nobody Knew Health Care Could Be So Complicated.” But the latest version of the plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, negotiated behind closed doors and finally publicly presented by Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans, isn’t very complicated. In fact, it’s quite simple: the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 trades the health of tens of millions of Americans for tax cuts that would be captured by a tiny group at the top.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Senate bill would increase the number of people who are uninsured by 22 million in 2026 relative to the number under current law, only slightly fewer than the increase in the number of uninsured estimated for the House-passed legislation. By 2026, an estimated 49 million people would be uninsured, compared with 28 million who would lack insurance that year under current law.

Moreover, the increase in the number of uninsured people would be disproportionately larger among older people with lower income—particularly people between 50 and 64 years old with income less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s largely because of the cuts to Medicaid, which would result in 15 million fewer Medicaid enrollees by 2026 than projected under current law. The Office also estimates that, by 2026, 7 million fewer people would obtain coverage through the nongroup market—because the penalty for not having insurance would be eliminated and, starting in 2020, because the average subsidy for coverage in that market would be substantially lower for most people currently eligible for subsidies (and for some people that subsidy would be eliminated entirely).

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Tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of additional deaths will occur as a result of the enormous increase in people without health insurance.

As Clio Chang succinctly states:

If we send people to war, people will die. If we consign people to live in poverty, people will die. If we take away health insurance, people will die.

And what will Americans get in exchange for those cuts in healthcare coverage and additional deaths?

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According to the Tax Policy Center, nearly 45 percent of the benefit of the tax cuts proposed in the Senate bill (much as in the bill the House passed) would go to the top 1 percent of households, those making $875,000 or more.

The lowest income 20 percent of households (that will make about $28,000 or less in 2026) would receive an average tax cut of about $180, or 1 percent of their after-tax income. Middle-income households (that will make $55,000-$93,000) would receive an average tax cut of $280, raising their after-tax incomes by about 0.4 percent.

By contrast, the top one percent of households (who will be making $875,000 or more) are in line for an average tax cut of more than $45,000, raising their after-tax incomes by 2 percent. And those in the top 0.1 percent (who will be making $5 million or more) would receive an average tax cut of nearly $250,000, boosting their after-tax incomes by 2.5 percent.

In the coming weeks, Senate Republicans will be debating details of the proposed healthcare plan and cutting deals to get some of their number to drop their opposition and vote with the leadership. That may get complicated (and already has, causing McConnell to delay a vote until after the 4th of July recess).

However, when it comes to death and taxes, there is no such complication: the Senate plan would take away health coverage from 22 million people, and likely kill tens of thousands of low-income Americans, in order to create an enormous tax cut that would largely benefit the nation’s highest income households.

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Academic freedom is under assault within the new corporate university.

No, the problem is not the much-publicized kerfuffle surrounding recent talks by Charles Murray and other right-wing speakers on U.S. college campuses. That’s what students do: they try to be provocative. Small conservative student groups, emboldened by Donald Trump’s victory and with financing from off-campus groups, invite incendiary speakers to their campuses—and then other students protest those visits. It’s much ado about nothing, except of course when official academic units and administrators lend their names to the invitations and events.

The most disturbing challenge to academic freedom right now is something else: the unilateral decisions by academic administrators to curtail the speech of faculty members.

Just yesterday morning, the Washington Post reported that two professors were fired for expressing controversial views. One, at the University of Delaware, was an adjunct professor who suggested that Otto Warmbier, the American student whose death last week after being imprisoned in North Korea drew worldwide attention, was a “clueless white male” who “got exactly what he deserved.” Another adjunct professor, at Essex County College in Newark, was first suspended and then fired for defending a Black Lives Matter chapter’s decision to host a Memorial Day event exclusively for black people.

In both instances, adjunct professors—who, with other other members of the academic precariat, now make up close to two-thirds of the faculty employed in U.S. colleges and universities—were fired for making public comments academic administrators deemed unsuitable.

And then there’s the case of a tenured professor in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s [ht: mfa] History Department who found out that his dean made his chair cancel a class he had been scheduled to teach.

It so happens that [Jay] Smith’s class dealt with a topic that unsettled powerful forces on campus: the place of “big-time athletics” in higher education. This issue is a sore spot for UNC-Chapel Hill, which is still recovering from a major “athletics-academics” scandal first revealed several years ago—about which, it so happens, Smith had been particularly outspoken.

In the new academy, faculty governance has been replaced by top-down decision-making and academic administrators treat everything—from employment contracts to course offerings—just like the executives of any other corporation. If they add to the bottom-line, faculty members are rewarded; if they don’t, contracts are terminated and courses are cancelled.

That’s how the new corporate university operates in the United States. It’s not student protests but academic administrators that are creating a chilling effect, by circumscribing faculty speech and ultimately undermining academic freedom.