Posts Tagged ‘neoliberalism’

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From Chile to Lebanon, young people are demonstrating—in street protests and voting booths—that they’ve had enough of being disciplined and punished by the current development model.

Last Friday, more than one million people took to the streets in the Chilean capital of Santiago, initially sparked by a sharp rise in Santiago’s metro fares and now uniting in a call for much larger economic and political change in the country.

Near-daily protests in Port-au-Prince, other cities, and the countryside have taken place for weeks now. A deepening fuel shortage in mid-September, on top of spiraling inflation, a lack of safe drinking water, environmental degradation, food scarcity, and mounting corruption have caused Haitians to block roads and highways, demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse and the elite that continues to block fundamental change.

Two weeks ago, Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, was forced to strike a deal with indigenous leaders to cancel a much-disputed austerity package and end nearly two weeks of demonstrations that have paralyzed the economy.

In Beirut, protesters say they are finished with their leaders, many of them former civil war-era warlords who rule the country like a series of personal fiefdoms to be plundered, dispensing the spoils to loyal followers. “We need a whole new system, from scratch,” said one protestor.

Meanwhile, voters in Argentina chose the Peronista ticket of Alberto Fernández and former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner over incumbent President Mauricio Macri in the first round of Argentina’s presidential election on Sunday, a rejection of austerity of the sort that has sparked violent protests elsewhere in Latin America.

And, as we’ve seen, young people have been marching across the globe—to protest against the introduction of the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill by the Hong Kong government, the imprisonment of separatist leaders in Catalonia, and the climate crisis in London and around the world.

While it may be tempting to search for a single banner or theme for all these protests and movements—for example, a rejection of neoliberalism or a slowing of economic growth—we do need to pay attention to and keep in mind the specific causes, demands, and forces behind the mobilizations. As Jack Shenker reminds us,

Each of these upheavals has its own spark—a hike in transport fares in Santiago, or a proposed tax on users of messaging apps like WhatsApp in Beirut—and each involves different patterns of governance and resistance. The class composition of the indigenous demonstrators in Ecuador can’t be compared with most of those marching against the imprisonment of separatist leaders in Catalonia; nor is the state’s prohibition of protest in London on a par with the repression in Hong Kong, where officers shot live ammunition into a teenager’s chest.

(Although, truth be told, it doesn’t stop Shenker from falling into the trap of attempting to identify what he considers to be the “common threads” that “bind today’s rebellions together.”)

As it turns out, the symposium on my book, Development and Globalization: A Marxian Class Analysis, has just been published by the journal Rethinking Marxism (unfortunately behind a paywall). As I make clear in my rejoinder, I was particularly pleased that all four respondents—Eray Düzenli, Suzanne Bergeron, Jack Amariglio, and Adam Morton (who has just published a blog post on his response)—remarked on how my volume of essays on planning, development, and globalization, written over the course of three decades and published in 2011, remains relevant to the critique of political economy today.

Here, then, is the text of the pre-publication version of my rejoinder:

Changing the Subject: Response to Düzenli, Bergeron, Amariglio, and Morton

Mainstream economics cannot be salvaged. But that hasn’t stopped its practitioners from trying—in recent years, just as they have throughout the course of its history.

Sometimes, in an attempt to refurbish their approach, mainstream economists have changed the underlying theory, such as when in the late-nineteenth century they unceremoniously jettisoned the labor theory of value in favor of utility. Or when, in the 1950s, they attempted to produce a synthesis of Keynesian macroeconomics and neoclassical microeconomics. At other times, they thought the problems that bedeviled their project could be fixed by adopting and incorporating a new technique; thus, we’ve witnessed the changing enchantment with and celebration of a long line of novel (at least for mainstream economics) mathematical and statistical methods, from calculus and econometrics to linear programming and game theory. Each was supposed to stop the bleeding and, each time, it didn’t work—or, alternatively, it solved one problem and, in the process, created new ones. All the while avoiding the larger issues that have plagued mainstream economics from the very beginning.

The latest attempt to save mainstream economics and make it more “scientific” comes in the form of the much-vaunted “empirical turn”—the idea that abstract theory can and should be downplayed or set aside in favor of applied or empirically grounded analysis.[1] The celebration of this shift in mainstream research has also led to the designing of new ways of teaching economics, such as Raj Chetty’s introductory course at Harvard, “Using Big Data to Solve Economic and Social Problems” (Matthews 2019). Chetty (2013) himself has claimed, “as the availability of data increases, economics will continue to become a more empirical, scientific field.”

One of the final topics in Chetty’s course is economic development, which has been subject to salvage operations not dissimilar to the rest of mainstream economics. Since they invented it as a separate branch of economics in the postwar period (Meier 1984), mainstream development economists have sought to rescue their project by introducing new theories (from stages of growth through structuralist rigidities and lags to the existence of institutions to safeguard property rights, contracts, and markets) as well as new techniques (including planning models, input-output analysis, and cross-section growth regressions).

Development economics, like the rest of mainstream economics, has recently been transformed by the supposed turn away from theory to more applied or empirical techniques. As Abhijit V. Banerjee (2005: 4343) put it,

What is unusual about the state of development economics today is not there is too little theory, but that theory has lost its position at the vanguard: New questions are being asked by empirical researchers, but, for the most part, they are not coming from a prior body of worked-out theory.

In fact, Banerjee and his Massachusetts Institute of Technology colleague Esther Duflo (in 2011 and, soon, in 2019) have been at the forefront of this “new development economics.” Their idea is that asking “big questions” (e.g., about whether or not foreign aid works) is less important than the narrower ones concerning which particular development projects should be funded and how such projects should be organized. For this, they propose field experiments and randomized control trials—to design development projects such that people can be “nudged,” with the appropriate incentives, to move to the kinds of behaviors and outcomes presupposed within mainstream economic theory.

It is precisely this approach that has led Duflo (2017: 3) to propose that mainstream economists, especially mainstream development economists, should become more like plumbers:

The economist-plumber stands on the shoulder of scientists and engineers, but does not have the safety net of a bounded set of assumptions. She is more concerned about “how” to do things than about “what” to do. In the pursuit of good implementation of public policy, she is willing to tinker. Field experimentation is her tool of choice.

Here we are, then, in the aftermath of the Second Great Depression—in the uneven recovery from capitalism’s most severe set of crises since the great depression of the 1930s and, at the same time, a blossoming of interest in and discussion of socialism—and the best mainstream economists have to offer is a combination of big data, field experiments, random trials, and a plumber mindset. How is that an adequate response to grotesque and still-rising levels of economic inequality (World Inequality Lab 2017), precarious employment for hundreds of millions of new and older workers (International Labour Organization 2015), half a billion people projected to still be struggling to survive below the extreme-poverty line by 2030 (World Bank 2018), and the wage share falling in many countries (International Monetary Fund 2017) as most of the world’s population are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a relatively small group of employers for stagnant or falling wages? Or, for that matter, to the reawakening of the rich socialist tradition, both as a critique of capitalism and as a way of imagining and enacting alternative economic and social institutions.

If I had the opportunity to revise my book and include an additional chapter on the so-called new development economics, I would make the following points: First, the presumption that analytical techniques are neutral and the facts alone can adjudicate the debate between which development projects are successful and which are not is informed by an epistemological essentialism—in particular, a naïve empiricism—that many of us thought to have been effectively challenged and ultimately superseded within contemporary economic and social theory. Clearly, mainstream development economists ignore or reject the idea that different theories have, as both condition and consequence, different techniques of analysis and different sets of facts.

The second point I’d make is that class is missing from any of the analytical and policy-related work that is being conducted by mainstream development economists today. At least as a concept that is explicitly discussed and utilized in their research. One might argue that class is lurking in the background—a specter that haunts every attempt to “understand how poor people make decisions,” to design effective anti-poverty programs, to help workers acquire better skills so that they can be rewarded with higher wages, and so on. They are the classes that have been disciplined and punished by the existing set of economic and social institutions, and the worry of course is those institutions have lost their legitimacy precisely because of their uneven class implications. Class tensions may thus be simmering under the surface but that’s different from being overtly discussed and deployed—both theoretically and empirically—to make sense of the ravages of contemporary capitalism. That step remains beyond mainstream development economics.

The third problem is that the new development economists, like their colleagues in other areas of mainstream economics, take as given and homogeneous the subjectivity of both economists and economic agents. Economists (whether their mindset is that of the theoretician, engineer, or plumber) are seen as disinterested experts who consider the “economic problem” (of the “immense accumulation of commodities” by individuals and nations) as a transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon, and whose role is to tell policymakers and poor and working people what projects will and not reach the stated goal. Economic agents, the objects of economic theory and policy, are considered to be rational decisionmakers who are attempting (via their saving and spending decisions, their participation in labor markets, and much else) to obtain as many goods and services as possible. Importantly, neither economists nor agents are understood to be constituted—in multiple and changing ways—by the various and contending theories that together comprise the arena of economic discourse.

Changing the Subject

If those points sound familiar, it’s because they’re issues I’ve been grappling with for a long time. And I couldn’t be more pleased that, in their different ways, all four of the other participants in this symposium—Eray Düzenli, Suzanne Bergeron, Jack Amariglio, and Adam Morton—have identified, expressed their admiration for, and then rearticulated those concerns in their generous and insightful reading of the chapters on planning, development, and globalization that make up my book.[2]

Indeed, I am honored that these friends, colleagues, comrades, and former students have taken the time to work their way through my writings on those topics. I’m also flattered they found at least a few of my ideas and formulations to have merit for the ongoing and still-unsettled debates concerning capitalist development and socialist alternatives. I’m especially pleased they’ve found some of the chapters useful in the classes they teach. But, to be honest, I’m not at all surprised. In addition to their being creative and munificent thinkers in their own right, all of us have been participants in the Rethinking Marxism project. For decades now, I have had the opportunity to work with them and to learn from them in the midst of a wide variety of activities, from mundane organizational tasks to spirited intellectual discussions.[3]

Even more, I simply wouldn’t have been able to investigate and criticize the terms of debate in the areas of planning, development, and globalization without Rethinking Marxism. Partly, that’s because, while my interest in the critique of political economy (especially with respect to Latin America) long predates the existence of Rethinking Marxism, the concepts and methods utilized throughout this particular book emerged from (and, I can only hope, contributed to) the wide-ranging epistemological and methodological debates that have taken place in and around this journal. I feel fortunate to have had as my mentors Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff and to have been inspired by the hundreds of other scholars, students, and activists who have been directly and indirectly associated with this journal.[4] It’s also because participating in the collective project of editing and producing Rethinking Marxism over the course of thirty or so years was, for me, a necessary complement to the research and writing that went into the chapters that comprise this book (not to mention the other writing projects I engaged in over the years). I know I wouldn’t have survived in the academy—especially in the all-too-often arrogant, brutish, and mind-numbing discipline of economics—without the personal relations, theoretical challenges, and collaborative labors associated with this journal.

I can’t pretend, in this limited space, to address all the interesting and important issues raised by Düzenli, Bergeron, Amariglio, and Morton in their responses. Instead, I want to focus on four themes they’ve identified and that, in my view, remain central to the project of rethinking Marxism.

Contingency of theory

Readers will have noted that all of the respondents raise the “problem of theory.” Amariglio refers to my “interest in shaping debates and altering prevailing discourses,” as defined by both mainstream economics and its heterodox (including Marxist) critics. Düzenli, for his part, notes approvingly the proposition that “the theoretical is always also political, a Marxian position.” Bergeron views the book as in the best sense a “failure,” to the extent that it does not hew “to the narrow disciplinary conventions in economics.” Finally, Morton directs attention to the importance of economic representations and the ways economic sites are “discursively produced.”

I’ll admit that I find it impossible to begin any project—whether writing or teaching—without addressing the problem of theory. That’s the case for exactly the reasons Amariglio, Düzenli, Bergeron, and Morton have mentioned: because it is important to challenge and move beyond the discursive limitations imposed by existing theories; because the different theories that structure those debates have conflicting political conditions and consequences; because the disciplinary conventions imposed by mainstream economics regulate and constrain not only the topics of discussion and debate, but also the ways those topics can be investigated; and finally because the economic landscape is socially, and especially discursively, constituted in diverse ways. Lest we forget, the lines of causality also run in the opposite direction, from the economic and social worlds to the discourses economists and others use to make sense of them, thus reinforcing the contingency of theory.

In my view, those are precisely the kinds of theoretical or epistemological concerns that are central to the Marxist critique of political economy. And they acquire particular resonance for those of us who work in and around the discipline of economics. More so than any other academic discipline, economics is structured by a hegemonic set of theories (the various and changing forms of neoclassical and Keynesian economics) that delimit what economists can and cannot say and do. Mainstream economists themselves are severely constrained by those protocols. All too often so are their heterodox critics, at least to the extent that they accept those constraints and recast their work in a manner that is different from but still runs parallel to that of their mainstream counterparts.

My own way of contributing to the project of rethinking Marxism in the areas of planning, development, and globalization has been to attend to the specificity of individual debates—at particular times, in certain countries—in order to identify their effects, challenge their limitations, and begin to elaborate an alternative way of proceeding. The reason I assembled the various essays that comprise the book was not to announce a set of lessons that pertain to all times and place, but to document a method—of concrete analysis, of ruthless criticism—that might serve as a guide for intervening in discussions and debates in other times and places.

Focusing on the contingency of theory, then, is a way of opening up spaces within particular discursive contexts so that a Marxist alternative—with its radically different theoretical and political conditions and consequences—might be articulated and new paths opened up.

Reading for class

Obviously, class is central to the book. It’s highlighted in the title, it occupies a central place in most of the chapters, and I take it to be a defining characteristic of the Marxian critique of political economy.

Readers of this journal will immediately recognize the way class is utilized in the book, especially the manner in which it is identified, discussed, and further elaborated by Düzenli, Bergeron, Amariglio, and Morton. I certainly give class a priority both in the critique of other discourses and in the various attempts to elaborate an alternative analysis. Other theories—whether in debates about markets and planning, the role of the state in both capitalist and noncapitalist forms of development, and capitalist globalization—tend to downplay or overlook the role class plays. Marxism, at least in the way I understand it, focuses precisely on the class conditions and effects that other discourses generally leave out. Moreover, class is defined in a particular manner; in the way I use it, class refers to the various circumstances whereby surplus labor is performed, appropriated, and distributed. It’s a way of building on the way Marx theorizes class across the three volumes of Capital, beginning with the theoretical “discovery” of capitalist class exploitation in the form of surplus-value—beyond the sphere in which “Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham” rule—and proceeding to analyze how that surplus is distributed and redistributed across a formation based on the capitalist mode of production.

But, to be clear, it’s a way of “reading for class” (to use Morton’s felicitous phrase) that accords discursive but not causal priority to class. Since there is still a great deal of confusion about this formulation, let me briefly explain. When I raise the issue of class (as against other theories that either “forget about” class or define it in a very different manner), I am not suggesting that class is either the only or most important factor in determining a particular economic or social situation. That would be to attribute to class a causal priority, in a framework that looks for and necessarily then finds a ranking of determinations. I have no interest in either presuming or discovering such a causal ranking. Instead, attributing a discursive priority to class is a way of asking specifically class questions—of other theories and of the economic and social realities for which they are used to analyze.

In that sense, I was interested in finding out what the class implications were of using a particular mathematical planning model that did not “see” or use class as one of its variables. Or the class consequences of making the state the center of accumulation in revolutionary Nicaragua or concluding that one or another macroeconomic stabilization policy had failed in Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. In each case, the Marxian critique of political economy allows one to see—and, of course, then to intervene to mitigate or transform—the class effects of theories and policies that present themselves as supposedly not being about class, in either the first or last instance.

Attributing discursive priority to class is a way, then, of intervening into specific discussions and debates—and of pushing back, especially when it is declared that class (even if it once existed and perhaps was significant) has declined in importance or disappeared altogether from the economic and social landscape. No, the Marxian critique of political economy avers, here’s where class plays a role, here’s where it raises its ugly head, here’s where surplus labor is being extracted from the direct producers by an exploiting class and how it’s being distributed to still others who did not perform it. And, of course, here’s how other class arrangements can be set up whereby class exploitation is eliminated and the direct producers have a say in how and how much surplus labor takes place.

I tend to think of the discursive centrality of class as a way of adding to, rather than supplanting or subordinating, other determinations. Thus, one can ask mainstream economists, “You think introducing markets or planning to a particular situation is just a way of increasing production or consumption, well, what effects does it have on class, that is, with respect to the complex ensemble of class processes in that situation?” Or, for that matter, solving the debt crisis, carrying out a war against the U.S.-backed contras, ending apartheid, or eliminating trade barriers? Or, extending it further, what are the class implications of the theories and policies that are used to make sense of and to deal with the effects of the Second Great Depression, global warming, or for that matter a project to deliver water to poor households in Tangier?[5]

The goal is to add class to the mix, especially when other theories and policies represent determined efforts to keep the discussion as far away from class as possible.

Subjectivity

If the centrality of class is apparent on the surface of the book, then subjectivity is a strong undercurrent. And I couldn’t be more pleased that the respondents, particularly Amariglio and Bergeron, chose to focus their discussion on that theme.

Mainstream economics has, from the very beginning, presumed a given, homogenous conception of subjectivity—of both economists and the agents that populate mainstream economic theories and models. Economists are taken to be scientists (or, alternatively, engineers or plumbers) who use a singular method to arrive at disinterested theoretical and empirical conclusions and policy recommendations. That is supposed to be their singular identity. Similarly, economic agents are assumed to be characterized by and to follow the behaviors contained within and implied by an essential human nature. For example, Adam Smith (22) claimed humans have an innate desire to “truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” (from which he derived the social and technical divisions of labor and much else); today, mainstream economists maintain that view (evident in the presumption, without any further explanation, of supply and demand schedules in markets), to which they have added self-interested utility-maximization (such that all individuals always desire more commodities, more goods and services, for themselves).

In my view, an underappreciated dimension of the Marxian critique of political economy is its radical rejection of the notion of subjectivity held by mainstream economists. There is no essential human nature; instead, subjectivity is conceived to be historically and socially produced. And there is no singular identity but, rather, multiple and changing identities over time and in any particular situation.

The critique of the mainstream view of subjectivity begins, as I have explained elsewhere (Ruccio 2014), with Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism:

The existence of commodity exchange is not based on the essential and universal human rationality assumed within mainstream economics from Adam Smith to the present. Nor can the cultures and identities of commodity-exchanging individuals be derived solely from economic activities and institutions. Rather, commodity exchange both presumes and constitutes particular subjectivities–forms of rationality and calculation–on the part of economic agents.[6]

And, we need to add, in a society characterized by commodity exchange, other identities, including communal subjectivities, are also produced (as I argued in 1992).

My aim in the book was to build on this approach and to interrogate the givenness and homogeneity of the subjectivities presumed within mainstream economists. Thus, I sought to challenge the idea of expertise (particularly that of socialist planners), the existence of a “state subject” (e.g., in socialist planning theory and in revolutionary Nicaragua), of the essential notions of “workers” and “peasants” (especially in Nicaragua when, in the midst of war, austerity was imposed), the disinterested role of intellectuals (most notably in the case of the anti-apartheid thinker/activist Harold Wolpe), and the homogenizing effects of globalization (in favor of the hybridity of local, national, and global subjectivities).

I admit, those specific interventions represent only the first steps in challenging mainstream economists’ conception of subjectivity and opening up a space to think through the production and reproduction of multiple and changing identities—within capitalism and in terms of creating the conditions of existence of socialism. Still, they serve as a reminder that, within the Marxian tradition, subjectivities cannot be reduced to class (or, for that matter, that even class identities cannot be read off the presumed logics of class positions). And they force us to confront the subjectivities of economists (and other so-called experts), which are often obscured by reference to science or common sense. From a Marxian perspective, their identities are constituted by the discourses that interpellate them, forcing them to speak and write like mainstream economists and to attack or ignore heterodox (including Marxian) pronouncements and policies. At the same time, their theories and policies play a performative role in the economy and wider society—perhaps especially when they presume that economic knowledge is out of the reach of ordinary people and needs to be left to them, the so-called experts.

Conjuncture

The Second Great Depression occasioned a resurgence of interest in Marxian theory—because of the spectacular failures of capitalism and of the economic theories that celebrate capitalism, and consequently as a result of the search for alternative ways of organizing the economy and wider society and for theories that might help pave the way for those alternatives. That has given many of us, whom mainstream thinkers inside and outside economics have attempted to discipline and punish for decades, new platforms for teaching, speaking, and writing. However, too many of the versions of Marxian theory that have been invoked, by both mainstream economists and pundits and Marxists themselves, have been characterized by deterministic logics and modernist protocols of analysis that mimic those of mainstream economics.

The method of those versions relies on identifying and spelling out the implications of inexorable logics and underlying laws of motion of capitalism. A good example is the accumulation of capital, a central concern of Marx’s critique of political economy in chapter 24 of volume one of Capital. Except, as I have explained elsewhere (Ruccio 2018b), the famous passage that begins with “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!” is actually not Marx’s theory of capitalism, but a central tenet of classical political economy, which “takes the historical function of the capitalist in bitter earnest.”[7] In fact, Marx shows, the accumulation of capital—the use of surplus-value for purchasing new means of production, raw materials, and additional labor power—is but one of many possible distributions of surplus-value. So, there’s no necessity for the accumulation of capital—it is up to the whim and whimsy of individual capitalists, if and when they will accumulate capital—and there are many other uses for that surplus, such as distributing a portion of those profits to all the others who share in the “booty” (such as corporate chief executive officers whose incomes are over 300 times the average U.S. worker’s wage and the bankers on Wall Street whose risky decisions instigated the crash of 2007-08).

In my view, then, there’s no necessity for the accumulation of capital and, in general, no necessary laws of motion of capitalism. If we set aside and move beyond that approach to Marxian analysis, what we’re left with is a method (or what I prefer to call, influenced by Paul Feyerabend [2010], an anti-method) of “ruthless criticism” and conjunctural analysis. In that vein, I was pleased to read Amariglio’s observation that “it is the radical, Althusserian notion of ‘conjuncture’ that threads together the entire book.”

Ruccio’s conjuncture-bound essays, perhaps paradoxically, tend to stick with us. These are the kind of Marx-inspired conjunctural writings that are the most useful and meaningful to the majority of readers, writers, and activists (they are “practical,” in that sense). Ruccio’s essays stick with us because they do not pretend to be written from an eternalist or even universalist, transcendental perspective; the lessons Ruccio wishes to convey are not about forever “laws of motion” or a ubiquitous “dynamic” of an ironclad (one might say, iron-caged) capitalist economy. To the contrary, Ruccio’s essays are steeped in “current analysis” and never lazily settle on “capitalism” as forever and anon lapping the exact same oceanic ebbs and tides. That endlessly-recursive, mesmeric rendition of capitalism-as-same—whether in old-style Marxian orthodoxy or newer-style ‘late capitalist’ totalizations—here sleeps with the fishes.

But, I was not surprised to learn, that endorsement also comes with a challenge: what should we make of the current rise of far-right-wing nationalism across the globe, in countries as distinct as Turkey, Hungary, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Brazil. I couldn’t agree more with Amariglio that the attempt to subsume all these diverse occurrences as examples of “neoliberal fascism” or some such “essentially suspends conjunctural analysis by reassuring us that, really, we’ve all been here before.”

This is not the place to offer a Marxian conjunctural analysis of the backward-looking, authoritarian, racist pronouncements and policies of the leaders and members of these diverse movements. In recent years, I’ve attempted to produce some of the elements of that analysis on my blog, including a critique of contemporary mainstream economics for having paved the way for the rise of the new right-wing populisms (Ruccio 2017). But, needless to say, much more needs to be done to make sense of these developments, in their historical specificity—especially, from a Marxian perspective, of their particular class conditions and effects in the current conjuncture.

If my book serves as a guide for such an analysis, even as it determinately fails to offer a general method, it may provide at least some concrete examples of what can be accomplished based on the contingency of theory, reading for class, subjectivity, and conjunctural analysis—in other words, with ideas associated with the rethinking of Marxism. The goal, of course, is to change the subject, and thus to contribute to the project of imagining and creating alternative class possibilities and of building twenty-first century socialism.

Acknowledgments

I owe a very large debt to Eray Düzenli for organizing the session on my book at the 2013 Rethinking Marxism conference (Surplus, Solidarity, Sufficiency, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst) that has turned into this symposium. I also want to thank Chizu Sato for all her work in procuring the papers from the commentators to be part of the symposium. And finally, I am indebted to Rethinking Marxism’s new coeditors, Yahya Madra and Vincent Lyon-Callo, for their patience and understanding in extending the deadline for my rejoinder.

Notes 

[1] Daniel Hamermesh (2013) is one among many who has argued that today top journals in economics—in other words, the leading journals in mainstream economics—“are publishing many fewer papers that represent pure theory, regardless of subfield, somewhat less empirical work based on publicly available data sets, and many more empirical studies based on data collected by the author(s) or on laboratory or field experiments.” Like Beatrice Cherrier (2016), I find the current celebration of the “empirical turn” to be both oversimplified and mischaracterized, since it misses previous episodes of empirical work within mainstream economics (going back to Wesley Clair Mitchell on business cycles in the 1920s). In my view, it also overlooks the role mainstream economic theory continues to play in setting and defining the agenda of empirical research.

[2] The title of the book was supposed to be “Planning, Development, and Globalization: Essays in Marxian Class Analysis,” but Routledge had already used the shorter placeholder title to list the book and at that point it couldn’t be changed.

[3] The same is true of the coauthors of some of the chapters in the book, including Stephen Resnick, Richard Wolff, the late Julie Graham, Kath Gibson, and Serap Kayatekin.

[4] I have attempted to express at least a portion of the immense debt I owe to Resnick and Wolff in two essays previously published in this journal: “Contending Economic Theories: Which Side Are You On?” (2015) and “Chance Encounters” (2018a). I also want to take the occasion to express my gratitude to my late friend and colleague Joseph Buttigieg, from whom I learned many things, including Antonio Gramsci’s philological method—which “requires minute attention to detail” and “seeks to ascertain the specificity of the particular” and, while it establishes complex networks of relations among the details, eschews any attempt to permanently fix those relations, thus avoiding the “danger of becoming crystallized into dogmas” (Buttigieg 1992, 63).

[5] Permit me, if you will, two other examples. Some years ago, I was asked to teach a course on the political economy of war and peace by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. At the time, the discussion was dominated by Paul Collier’s research on greed grievance with respect to resources. With very few exceptions (e.g., Cramer 2003), there was nothing in the literature about class, which of course made it difficult to discuss either the class causes of war or the class conditions of peace. Much the same holds with respect to health care. There is growing concern in the United States that inequality in health outcomes is rising along with the grotesque and still-growing disparities in income and wealth (Zimmerman and Anderson [2019]). However, in contrast to other countries, such as the United Kingdom (which has issued a series of reports over the years on the relationship between health and class, including the Acheson Report, fully titled the Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health Report, in 1998), the United States does not collect health data by class. That, of course, makes it impossible to analyze the relationship between class and health, in terms of either the current situation or improved health outcomes.

[6] This interpretation of commodity fetishism relies on the pathbreaking work of Jack Amariglio and Antonio Callari (1993).

[7] This reinterpretation of the role of the accumulation of capital in the Marxian critique of political economy is due to the pioneering work of Bruce Norton (1988), which was published early on in this journal.

References

Acheson, D. 1998. Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health Report. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/265503/ih.pdf.

Amariglio, J. and A. Callari. 1993. “Marxian Value Theory and the Problem of the Subject: The Role of Commodity Fetishism.” In Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, ed. E. Apter and W. Pietz, 186-216. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Banerjee, A. V. 2005. “‘New Development Economics’ and the Challenge to Theory.” Economic and Political Weekly 40 (40): 4340-44.

Banerjee, A. and E. Duflo. 2011. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. New York: PublicAffairs.

———. 2019. Good Economics for Hard Times. New York: PublicAffairs.

Buttigieg, J. A. 1975. “Introduction.” In Prison Notebooks, volume 1. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cherrier, B. 2016. Is There Really an Empirical Turn in Economics? Institute for New Economic Thinking, 29 September. https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/is-there-really-an-empirical-turn-in-economics.

Chetty, R. 2013. “Yes, Economics Is a Science.” New York Times, 20 October. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/21/opinion/yes-economics-is-a-science.html

Christopher C. 2003. “Does Inequality Cause Conflict?” Journal of International Development 15 (May): 397-412.

Duflo, E. 2017. “The Economist as Plumber.” American Economic Review 107 (5): 1-26.

Feyerabend, P. 2010. Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. 4th ed. New York: Verso Books.

Hamermesh, D. S. 2013. “Six Decades of Top Economics Publishing: Who and How?” Journal of Economic Literature 51 (1): 162-72.

International Labour Organization. 2015. World Employment and Social Outlook: The Changing Nature of Jobs. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

International Monetary Fund. 2017. “Understanding the Downward Trend in Labor Income Shares.” In World Economic Outlook: Gaining Momentum? Washington, D.C.: International Monetary Fund.

Matthews, D. 2019. “The Radical Plan to Change How Harvard Teaches Economics.” Vox, 22 May. https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/14/18520783/harvard-economics-chetty.

Meier, G. M. 1984. “The Formative Period.” In Pioneers in Development, ed. G. M. Meier and D. Seers, 3-22. New York: Oxford University Press.

Norton, B. 1988. “The Power Axis: Bowles, Gordon, and Weisskopf’s Theory of Postwar U.S. Accumulation.” Rethinking Marxism 1 (3): 6-43.

Ruccio, D. F. 1992. “Failure of Socialism, Future of Socialists?” Rethinking Marxism 5 (Summer): 7-22

———. 2014. “Capitalism.” Keywords for American Cultural Studies, ed. B. Burgett and G. Hendler, 37-40. New York: New York University Press.

———. 2015. “Contending Economic Theories: Which Side Are You On?” Rethinking Marxism 27 (2): 273-81.

———. 2017. “Populism and Mainstream Economics.” Occasional Links & Commentary on Economics, Culture, and Society, 2 March. https://anticap.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/populism-and-mainstream-economics/.

———. 2018a. “Chance Encounters.” Rethinking Marxism 30 (1): 84-95.

———. 2018b. “Strangers in a Strange Land: A Marxian Critique of Economics.” In Marxism without Guarantees: Economics, Knowledge, and Class, ed. R. Garnett, T. Burczak, and R. McIntyre, 43-58. New York: Routledge.

Smith, A. 2003 (1776). The Wealth of Nations. Intro. A. B. Krueger. New York: Bantam Dell.

World Bank. 2018. Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2018: Piecing Together the Poverty Puzzle. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

World Inequality Lab. 2017. World Inequality Report 2018. https://wir2018.wid.world/files/download/wir2018-full-report-english.pdf

Zimmerman, F. J. and N. W. Anderson. 2019. “Trends in Health Equity in the United States by Race/Ethnicity, Sex, and Income, 1993-2017.” JAMA Network Open 2 (6): 1-10.

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We’re ten years on from the events the triggered the worst crisis of capitalism since the first Great Depression (although read my caveat here) and centrists—on both sides of the Atlantic—continue to peddle an ahistorical nostalgia.

Fortunately, people aren’t buying it.

As Jack Shenker has explained in the case of Britain,

one of the most darkly humorous features of contemporary British politics (a competitive field) is the ubiquity of parliamentarians, pundits and business titans who wail and gnash at our ceaseless political tumult but appear utterly incurious about the conditions that produced it. . .

Such stalwart defenders of a certain brand of “common sense” capitalism have watched in horror as ill-mannered upstarts — on both the right and the left — build power at the fringes. But these freshly emboldened centrists pretend that the rupture has no connection to their own dogma and seem to envision the whole sorry mess as some sort of administrative error that will be swiftly tidied away once the right person, with the right branding, is restored to authority.

Much the same is true in the United States, where centrists in the Democratic Party watch in horror as the Republican Party falls in lockstep with Donald Trump and the only energy within their own party comes from the Left. All the while, they ignore their own role in creating the conditions for the crash and the fact that their technocratic promises to American young people—university or community-college education leading to a stable and prosperous worklife, the dream of a thriving middle-class democracy, the claim for capitalism’s economic and ethical superiority—lie in tatters.

As it turns out, Jürgen Habermas sounded the warning of just this eventuality back in the mid-1980s.* His argument, in a nutshell, is that western cultures had used up their utopian energies—and for good reason, because

the very forces for increasing power, from which modernity once derived its self-confidence and its utopian expectation, in actuality turn autonomy into dependence, emancipation into oppression, and reality into the irrational.

In particular, the social welfare state—based on Keynesian economic policies and democratic politics (with a social basis in independent labor unions and labor-oriented parties)—had lost “its capacity to project future possibilities for a collectively better and less endangered way of life.”

The reactions to this crisis are well known: on the Right, the rise of neoliberalism associated with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; on the Left, the celebration of non-party social movements. And, in the center? “Those who defend the legitimacy of industrial society and the social welfare state”—such as the more conservative wing of the Social Democrats (he mentions the Mondale wing of the Democrats in the United States and the second government of François Mitterand in France)—who “have been put on the defensive.”

I would make it even sharper: the center refashioned itself in the mould of the right-wing neoliberals, at least in part to isolate and contain the criticisms from the Left, by emphasizing individual (not collective) initiative and market-based (not social or solidarity) solutions to economic and social problems. As a result, the center lost its utopian impulse and settled for a meek defense of what remained of the social welfare state.

Habermas’s view is that society has been reoriented away from the concept of labor toward that of communication, which requires a different way of “linking up with the utopian tradition.” The alternative approach would be to rethink the concept of labor in terms of class and analyze the ways in which the forces of capital that were supposed to be regulated and contained by the social welfare state were left with both the interest and means to undo those regulations. And it’s the center that put itself in the position of responding to and representing the progressive dismantling of the economic side of the social welfare state—in deregulating finance, pursuing globalization, and helping to unleash new digital technologies. The result was, not surprisingly, the growth of obscene levels of inequality, increasing precariousness for large parts of the working-class, and finally the crisis that broke out in 2008, which has led not only to economic but also political breakdown.

However, as Shenker correctly observes, “the breakdown of any political order can be both emancipatory and revanchist.” And it now falls to the Left to reharness and reinvigorate the utopian impulses and energies that the center has squandered in order to chart a path forward.

*The English-language translation of Habermas’s article, “The New Obscurity: The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies,” was first published in Philosophy & Social Criticism. The article, with a slightly different title (“The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies”) and translation, was reprinted in On Society and Politics: A Reader. According to a friend and colleague who is a Habermas expert [ht: db], the essay is typical of his thinking that issued from what most people still consider Habermas’s most important work, The Theory of Communicative Action. “I would characterize Communicative Action as his middle period, which follows his earlier, more Frankfurt-styled emphasis on ideology critique (especially positivism) in books like Knowledge and Human Interests and Theory and Practice. In this middle period, he moved way from negative dialectics à la Adorno and Horkheimer toward developing a positive social theory of his own, one he would say was a “reconstruction” of Marxism but I would call a “replacement,” in which he develops a theory of communicative action to avoid what he sees as productivism and economism in the Marxist tradition.” And he adds:  “I find his means of doing so, evolutionary theory, unacceptable.”

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Special mention

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Dwight Billings—Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Kentucky, preeminent scholar of Appalachia, and occasional contributor to this blog—just completed a chapter for a collection of critical responses to J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, edited by Anthony Harkins, which will be published by West Virginia University Press. He has kindly agreed to allow me to publish extracts from his chapter in this guest post. 

Once upon a time, there was “a strange land and peculiar people.”* It was a mythical place known as “Trumpalachia.” J. D. Vance, author of the best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, has been widely acclaimed as its foremost explorer, mapmaker, interpreter, and critic. Countless readers have turned to his book to understand the appeal of Donald Trump to white working-class voters. But Hillbilly Elegy is not a “Trump for Dummies,” nor is it an elegy for Appalachia. It’s an advertisement for capitalist neoliberalism and personal choice.

***

Vance’s main argument in Hillbilly Elegy is that Appalachians and their descendants in the Rust-Belt have been “reacting to [economic decline] in the worst possible way.” He notes that “Nobel-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites” but more important, he contends, is “what goes on in the lives of real people when the economy goes south.” There is nothing wrong with that question of course, but Vance’s answer points in the wrong direction. In his opinion, the problem boils down simply to the bad personal choices individuals make in the face of economic decline—not to the corporate capitalist economy that creates immense profits by casting off much of its workforce or the failure of governments to respond to this ongoing crisis. The real problem, he says, is “about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

Vance’s bottom line is: “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . . These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” Vance’s fix, the usual neoliberal fix, is fix thyself. There is of course nothing new here in Vance’s recycling of worn out culture of poverty theory. Hillbilly Elegy is the pejorative 1960s Moynihan report on the pathology of the black family in white face and a rehash of Charles Murray’s more recent Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

When the Wall Street Journal endorsed Hillbilly Elegy, it commended the book for its stress on the values of “religion, discipline, and family,” but chiefly lauded that fact that “most of all [Vance] wants people to hold themselves responsible for their own conduct and choices.” The stress on personal choice and accountability is a central theme in the ideology of neoliberalism. Hillbilly Elegy’s alignment with it is surely another reason for the book’s sales success.

Capitalist neoliberalism encompasses a broad range of ideas, practices, and policies. Its diverse economic, political, and cultural projects promote, among other things, deregulation, privatization, the outsourcing of public services, fiscal austerity, global trade liberalization, supply-side monetarism rather than demand-side stimulation, financialization, marketization, anti-unionism, and massive taxes cuts for the superrich and corporations. At the individual level, it stresses personal responsibility for one’s own wellbeing

But wait. Things get a little more complicated. Vance isn’t saying that his hillbillies are perfect neoliberal subjects—just that they should become so. To get ahead, they must fix themselves but what holds them back is a dysfunctional ethno-regional, Scots-Irish culture. Here is where the two tracks of Hillbilly Elegy come together, or perhaps tensely collide, Vance’s personal memoir and his cultural one. One the personal level, Hillbilly Elegy is about the good choices Vance made that he believes allowed him to escape poverty. On the cultural level it is about good choices that “others in [his] neighborhood hadn’t” made because of their ethnic heritage. Never mind that the book’s premise about what Scots-Irish culture in Appalachia or elsewhere is based on stereotypes that have long been refuted, or that its demographic claim that the Scots-Irish ever constituted a majority of the Appalachian population is simply not true. Hillbilly Elegy is at once an advertisement for the neoliberal promised land of zombie-like entrepreneurial souls and an elegy for a dying but not yet dead-enough Scots-Irish regional culture that doesn’t really exist.

***

Undoubtedly, efforts to understand voters’ choice for Donald Trump led many readers and much of the mass media to Hillbilly Elegy, probably the single factor that most directly contributed to the book’s phenomenal sales. (The New York Times hailed it as one of the most important books to read for understanding the election.) Despite its ultra conservative slant—Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell recommended it as his favorite book of 2016—many of its readers were political liberals according to an analysis in The Economist based on Amazon book sales. Readers of Hillbilly Elegy were far more likely to buy books like Mark Lilla’s Once and Future Liberal, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land rather than rightwing books such as Ann Coutler’s In Trump We Trust, Eric Bolling’s The Swamp, or Mark Levin’s Rediscovering Americanism. One hundred and fifty years of stereotypes about Appalachia and elitist stereotypes about poor people as “white trash” (shown by Isenberg to date back to the early colonial era) help to explain the why liberal readers might find J. D. Vance to be a plausible guide to the current political scene as well as a analgesic for any qualms over inequality and injustice in the United States.

Appalachia became what I call “Trumpalachia,” a media-constructed mythological realm, backward and homogenous. Appalachians were still “yesterday’s people” as they were described in the 1960s, but now it seems they had grown bitter, resentful, rightwing, and racist. Its supposed “cultural issues with racism, sexism, and homophobia” took center stage in liberals’ diagnosis of its pathology. “A perfect storm of economics, creeping conservatism and outright racism” was said to have spawned its turn to the right after decades in the Democratic column. Hillbillies were said to be in despair over their “perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.” The Guardian described them as part of “a backlash from white, working-class voters frustrated by their relative decline in status in America—symbolized, in part, of course, by its first black president.” “America is no longer white enough” for these voters wrote a New York Times columnist. “To these people, Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ is not the empty rhetoric of a media-savvy con artist from Queens but a last-ditch rallying cry for the soul of a changing land where minorities will be the majority by the middle of the century.” Another stated: “Let’s put this clearly, the stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.” Above all, white Appalachia came to be represented as “a tinderbox of resentment that ignited national politics.”

Appalachian voters did of course resoundingly support Donald Trump in 2016, and like non-metropolitan voters elsewhere, for a variety of reasons. For many, Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate remark that she would put “a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of work” was decisive. But there is more to the story than this. When asked to explain why Trump was so popular in Appalachia, J. D. Vance explained: “The simple answer is that these people—my people—are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries.”

But that’s not true. Bernie Sanders did, and he beat Hillary Clinton in every county in West Virginia and almost all the counties in Appalachian Kentucky including all its coal counties in the presidential primaries, yet the national media gave this almost no attention at all. McDowell County, West Virginia probably got more media attention than any other place because while Obama had won a majority of votes there in 2008, Trump won by 74 percent in 2016. Significantly, however, Sanders won twice as many votes as Trump in the primary election there. When he was not on the ballot, however, 73 percent of McDowell’s registered voters simply stayed home and did not vote at all. Sanders strong support suggests to me that a significant number of voters in the coalfields and the wider region were prepared to vote for a more progressive candidate in the general election had one been available, not one indebted to Wall-Street.

***

In the meantime, J. D. Vance has gone on to shore up his rightwing credentials. He has been discussed as a candidate for high political office and has established a non-profit organization in Ohio to fight “opiate abuse, save families, and create a pathway to the middle class.” Recently, he wrote the preface to the Heritage Foundation’s “2017 Index of Culture and Opportunity,” a Koch-funded reiteration of the culture of poverty thesis. In line with the Koch brothers who put their vast money behind down-ticket Republican candidates rather than Donald Trump, Vance reports that he loved but was terrified by Trump and voted for a conservative write-in candidate instead. Nevertheless, he was promoted by alt-right extremist Steve Bannon as a candidate for head of the Heritage Foundation. Vance is misguided, but he is no Steve Bannon. Given his depiction of hillbillies as a distinct race of disadvantaged white ethnics, however, it’s perhaps not surprising that Bannon, who called Hillbilly Elegy “a magnificent book,” would try to recruit him as a potential “ally.”

The top echelon of the super rich in America has never been wealthier, while the income of deeply indebted American wage earners has been stagnant for decades. Millions of people in the United States are forced to live in poverty, and millions more suffer from economic insecurity and severe hardship. Now is no time for identity politics and shibboleths about self-sufficiency and personal choice.

In “The Afterlife of a Memoir,” Aminatta Forno advises: “Write a memoir but only if you are sure you want to live with the consequences everyday for the rest of your life.” The great danger and ultimate tragedy of Hillbilly Elegy is not simply that it perpetuates Appalachian stereotypes. It is that it promotes toxic politics that will only further oppress the hillbillies that J. D. Vance professes to love and speak for.

 

*Appalachian readers will be familiar with the phrase “strange land and peculiar people” as an early instance of the “othering” of Appalachia. See Henry D. Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978).

socialism

Every public opinion survey I’ve seen in recent years shows a growing interest in socialism, especially among young people.*

Socialism is an obvious solution to the most pressing economic and social problems threatening the world today, from growing inequality to climate change. But, as I’ve written before, socialism has many different meanings—both what it is or might be, and what it is not.

John Quiggin [ht: ja] suggests that what we need today is not “soft neoliberalism” (what I have referred to as “left neoliberalism,” of the sort that came to be articulated in the trajectory of the U.S. Democratic Party defined by Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton and the Labor Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), much less the tribalist politics of Donald Trump’s Republicans and Teresa May’s Tories, but a radically new vision—what Quiggin refers to as “socialism with a spine.”

I couldn’t agree more. Moreover, Quiggin is right to point out that,

As it is used today, the term socialism does not reflect a well-worked ideology. Rather it conveys an attitude that could be described as “unapologetic social democracy” or, in the US context, “liberalism with a spine”. It’s expressed in support for proposals that break with the cautious incrementalism of the past, and are in some cases frankly utopian: universal basic income, free post-school education, large increases in minimum wages, and so on.

That’s important, but a real alternative needs more than attitude and a grab-bag of policy ideas. After decades in which the focus has been on critiquing neoliberalism, the task of thinking about positive alternatives is urgent, but efforts in this direction are only just beginning.

But I’m not convinced by much of the rest of Quiggin’s argument, which is focused on looking backward to what he considers to be the “social democratic moment of the 50s and 60s” and forwards in terms of “a genuine sharing economy based on the internet and other technological advances.”

The backwards move uncritically celebrates the supposed successes of Keynesian macroeconomic management and, looking forward, narrowly focuses on the possibilities opened up by digital technologies.

While I’m all in favor of articulating a vision of a “genuine sharing economy”—because, if socialism is nothing else, it certainly means, as Jeremy Corbyn put it, “You care for each other, you care for everybody, and everybody cares for everybody else”—I think we can do better than limiting ourselves to Keynesian full employment and the production of information.

We have to remember that the middle of the twentieth century, which turns out to have been a unique period of sustained economic growth and full employment in developed market economies, also meant long hours of drudgery in factories and offices to the benefit of employers, who retained both the interest and means to evade and ultimately overturn the regulations that had been implemented during the first Great Depression. Which of course they did, culminating in the crash of 2007-08. Why would we want to repeat the mistakes of that period?

And, looking forward, the emergence of new digital technologies, by themselves, doesn’t make socialism any more possible than the waves of innovation we’ve witnessed in the past. And focusing on the new technologies just puts the idea of socialism beyond anyone who is not already enamored of digital connectivity and social media—and therefore all but the youngest members of the working-class.

The task, it seems to me, is to articulate a vision of socialism that is predicated not on a nostalgia for the past or the role of a particular set of technologies, but on the persistent and growing gap that exists between the conditions of contemporary life and the possibilities created by existing forms of economic and social organization.

Thus, for example, instead of railing against Wall Street and increasingly concentrated industries, why not imagine the possibilities that capitalism itself has created both to eliminate the need for capitalists and to easily administer large parts of the economy to the benefit of everyone?

By the same token, why not build on the idea that, today, it is increasingly recognized that decent jobs, healthcare, education, and retirement are rights, not privileges, but that those in charge prevent those rights from being fulfilled?

Socialism is born out of that yawning crevasse between reality and promise—by articulating a set of changes in the existing reality that move us closer to that real promise.**

And here I think Quiggin and I may actually be in agreement:

Socialists have always seen short-term political struggles as part of a long-term project of transforming society for the better.

 

*For example, according to the 2016 Gallup Survey, 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of socialism (itself a remarkably high figure, given the Cold War legacy in the United States), which rises to 55 percent for Americans age 18 to 29. And while only 13 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners have a positive view of socialism, 58 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners view socialism in a favorable light.

**To be clear, it’s not just a question of defining socialism; we also need to discuss the strategic issue, of where and how a reborn socialist movement can build a political and social base. As Bill Fletcher explains, with respect to “the growth in interest in socialism, broadly defined, among a large number of people, particularly younger people.”

That is fantastic!  But it is far from clear that they are wedded to a class project, except in a very abstract sense. And that difference is fundamental. It’s not just an ideological question; it is also a strategic question.

utopia_now_graffiti_p_maton_12-10-14

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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Mark Tansey, “Discarding the Frame” (1993″

Obviously, 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. Some have therefore begun to make the case that an era has come to an end.

The problem, of course, is while the old may be dying, it’s not all clear the new can be born. And, as Antonio Gramsci warned during the previous world-shaking crisis, “in this interregnum morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass.”

For Pankaj Mishra, it is the era of neoliberalism that has come to an end.

In this new reality, the rhetoric of the conservative right echoes that of the socialistic left as it tries to acknowledge the politically explosive problem of inequality. The leaders of Britain and the United States, two countries that practically invented global capitalism, flirt with rejecting the free-trade zones (the European Union, Nafta) they helped build.

Mishra is correct in tracing British neoliberalism—at least, I hasten to add, its most recent phase—through both the Conservative and Labour Parties, from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair and David Cameron.* All of them, albeit in different ways, celebrated and defended individual initiative, self-regulating markets, cheap credit, privatized social services, and greater international trade—bolstered by military adventurism abroad. Similarly, in the United States, Reaganism extended through both Bush administrations as well as the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barak Obama—and would have been continued by Hillary Clinton—with analogous promises of prosperity based on unleashing competitive market forces, together with military interventions in other countries.

Without a doubt, the combination of capitalist instability—the worst crisis of capitalism since the first Great Depression—and obscene levels of inequality—parallel to the years leading up to the crash of 1929—not to mention the interminable military conflicts that have deflected funding at home and created waves of refugees from war-torn zones, has called into question the legacy and presumptions of Thatcherism and Reaganism.

Where I think Mishra goes wrong is in arguing that “A new economic consensus is quickly replacing the neoliberal one to which Blair and Clinton, as well as Thatcher and Reagan, subscribed.” Yes, in both the United Kingdom and the United States—in the campaign rhetoric of Theresa May and Trump, and in the actual policy proposals of Corbyn and Sanders—neoliberalism has been challenged. But precisely because the existing framing of the questions has not changed, a new economic consensus—an alternative common sense—cannot be born.

To put it differently, the neoliberal frame has been discarded but the ongoing debate remains framed by the terms that gave rise to neoliberalism in the first place. What I mean by that is, while recent criticisms of neoliberalism have emphasized the myriad problems created by individualism and free markets, the current discussion forgets about or overlooks the even-deeper problems based on and associated with capitalism itself. So, once again, we’re caught in the pendulum swing between a more private, market-oriented form of capitalism and a more public, government-regulated form of capitalism. The former has failed—that era does seem to be crumbling—and so now we begin to turn (as we did during the last system-wide economic crisis) to the latter.**

However, the issue that keeps getting swept under the political rug is, how do we deal with the surplus? If the surplus is left largely in private hands, and the vast majority who produce it have no say in how it’s appropriated and distributed, it should come as no surprise that we continue to see a whole host of “morbid phenomena”—from toxic urban water and a burning tower block to a new wave of corporate concentration  and still-escalating inequality.

Questioning some dimensions of neoliberalism does not, in and of itself, constitute a new economic consensus. I’m willing to admit it is a start. But, as long as remain within the present framing of the issues, as long as we cannot show how unreasonable the existing reason is, we cannot say the existing era has actually come to an end and a new era is upon us.

For that we need a new common sense, one that identifies capitalism itself as the problem and imagines and enacts a different relationship to the surplus.

 

*I add that caveat because, as I argued a year ago,

Neoliberal ideas about self-governing individuals and a self-organizing economic system have been articulated since the beginning of capitalism. . .capitalism has been governed by many different (incomplete and contested) projects over the past three centuries or so. Sometimes, it has been more private and oriented around free markets (as it has been with neoliberalism); at other times, more public or state oriented and focused on regulated markets (as it was under the Depression-era New Deals and during the immediate postwar period).

**And even then it’s only a beginning—since, we need to remember, both Sanders and Corbyn did lose in their respective electoral contests. And, at least in the United States, the terms of neoliberalism are still being invoked—for example, by Ron Johnson, Republican senator from Wisconsin—in the current healthcare debate