Monday, December 09, 2013

The Revenge of Karl Marx

Marxism is a discredited ideology.  We get that.  It's been tried, didn't work.  But there's still much to learn from the old German philosopher.  If you leave aside his unworkable solutions and focus on his prophesies about unrestrained capitalism, you get a picture that's eerily similar to what we see enveloping us today.

The creator of the dark, HBO hit series, "The Wire," has written a chilling piece for The Guardian, entitled, "There Are Now Two Americas.  My Country is a Horror Show."

David Simon, The Wire

That may be the ultimate tragedy of capitalism in our time, that it has achieved its dominance without regard to a social compact, without being connected to any other metric for human progress.

We understand profit. In my country we measure things by profit. We listen to the Wall Street analysts. They tell us what we’re supposed to do every quarter. The quarterly report is God. Turn to face God. Turn to face Mecca, you know. Did you make your number? Did you not make your number? Do you want your bonus? Do you not want your bonus?

And that notion that capital is the metric, that profit is the metric by which we’re going to measure the health of our society is one of the fundamental mistakes of the last 30 years. I would date it in my country to about 1980 exactly, and it has triumphed.

Capitalism stomped the hell out of Marxism by the end of the 20th century and was predominant in all respects, but the great irony of it is that the only thing that actually works is not ideological, it is impure, has elements of both arguments and never actually achieves any kind of partisan or philosophical perfection.

It’s pragmatic, it includes the best aspects of socialistic thought and of free-market capitalism and it works because we don’t let it work entirely. And that’s a hard idea to think – that there isn’t one single silver bullet that gets us out of the mess we’ve dug for ourselves. But man, we’ve dug a mess.

...It took a working class that had no discretionary income at the beginning of the century, which was working on subsistence wages. It turned it into a consumer class that not only had money to buy all the stuff that they needed to live but enough to buy a bunch of shit that they wanted but didn’t need, and that was the engine that drove us.

It wasn’t just that we could supply stuff, or that we had the factories or know-how or capital, it was that we created our own demand and started exporting that demand throughout the west. And the standard of living made it possible to manufacture stuff at an incredible rate and sell it.

And how did we do that? We did that by not giving in to either side. That was the new deal. That was the great society. That was all of that argument about collective bargaining and union wages and it was an argument that meant neither side gets to win.

Labour doesn’t get to win all its arguments, capital doesn’t get to. But it’s in the tension, it’s in the actual fight between the two, that capitalism actually becomes functional, that it becomes something that every stratum in society has a stake in, that they all share.

The unions actually mattered. The unions were part of the equation. It didn’t matter that they won all the time, it didn’t matter that they lost all the time, it just mattered that they had to win some of the time and they had to put up a fight and they had to argue for the demand and the equation and for the idea that workers were not worth less, they were worth more.

Ultimately we abandoned that and believed in the idea of trickle-down and the idea of the market economy and the market knows best, to the point where now libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought. It’s astonishing to me. But it is. People are saying I don’t need anything but my own ability to earn a profit. I’m not connected to society. I don’t care how the road got built, I don’t care where the firefighter comes from, I don’t care who educates the kids other than my kids. I am me. It’s the triumph of the self. I am me, hear me roar.

...Societies are exactly what they sound like. If everybody is invested and if everyone just believes that they have “some”, it doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to get the same amount. It doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be people who are the venture capitalists who stand to make the most. It’s not each according to their needs or anything that is purely Marxist, but it is that everybody feels as if, if the society succeeds, I succeed, I don’t get left behind. And there isn’t a society in the west now, right now, that is able to sustain that for all of its population.

And so in my country you’re seeing a horror show. You’re seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you’re seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You’re seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we’ve put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

...And so capitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory all by its own hand. That’s the astonishing end of this story, unless we reverse course. Unless we take into consideration, if not the remedies of Marx then the diagnosis, because he saw what would happen if capital triumphed unequivocally, if it got everything it wanted.

And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is the diminishment of labour. They would want labour to be diminished because labour’s a cost. And if labour is diminished, let’s translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less.

From this moment forward unless we reverse course, the average human being is worth less on planet Earth. Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.

Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox if you’re trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn’t want to go forward at this point without it. But it’s not a blueprint for how to build the just society.

So how does it get better? In 1932, it got better because they dealt the cards again and there was a communal logic that said nobody’s going to get left behind. We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to get the banks open. From the depths of that depression a social compact was made between worker, between labour and capital that actually allowed people to have some hope.

We’re either going to do that in some practical way when things get bad enough or we’re going to keep going the way we’re going, at which point there’s going to be enough people standing on the outside of this mess that somebody’s going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there’s always the brick. I hope we go for the first option but I’m losing faith.

The other thing that was there in 1932 that isn’t there now is that some element of the popular will could be expressed through the electoral process in my country.

The last job of capitalism – having won all the battles against labour, having acquired the ultimate authority, almost the ultimate moral authority over what’s a good idea or what’s not, or what’s valued and what’s not – the last journey for capital in my country has been to buy the electoral process, the one venue for reform that remained to Americans.

 ...I don’t know what we do if we can’t actually control the representative government that we claim will manifest the popular will. Even if we all start having the same sentiments that I’m arguing for now, I’m not sure we can effect them any more in the same way that we could at the rise of the Great Depression, so maybe it will be the brick. But I hope not.


Purple library guy said...

Marxism is this odd term. Most of Marx's energy was spent analyzing capitalism, how it worked, why it was problematic. He seems to have had an amazing amount of that stuff right.

Some of Marx's energy was spent advocating something different which would be sort of socialistic only more so. Near as I can figure it, his prescriptive side was vague enough that it's hard to say whether it's "been tried" or what it would really mean to "try" Marxism. At a minimum, I'd have to say positive Marxism is a vague enough label that it could be represented by a very wide range of possible non-capitalist thingies. Some of those would be very bad but potentially some might be very good.

Marxism, socialism, Anarchism, vague modern progressivism all call for the people to be in charge. The core problem in the end is: But how? How do you actually arrange that, make it stick, and still get things done? The Soviets had some ideas on that; they didn't work. The Cubans have some ideas on that; I'm not wild about them but their system is still evolving and I'd have to say the jury's still out. The Bolivarians are in the early stages. We'll see. There are some very positive things happening, but some contradictions too. I wish them well, that's for sure.

Purple library guy said...

It's an interesting article, but it's oddly old fashioned somehow. I mean, this guy remembers how things used to be, but wouldn't have much to say to a modern lefty in a way. There's this whole schematic where left = unions and/or central government, and capital is completely separate, and so there can only be capitalism or central planning (where unions fit into central planning I'm not clear). These are the only things there are and therefore since central planning failed, capitalism is necessary and eternal (it should just be contested more).

Workers could never, for instance, autonomously control their workplaces, holding the capital themselves. So no room for co-operatives in his box of "how things can work". His heart's in the right place, but I'm imagining a young person saying "Dude, the wall fell 20 years ago. I was three. Progressives have moved on, you know?"

Lorne said...

In my view, Mound, the ugliest aspects of unfettered capitalism began to make a return with the fall of the Soviet Union. Once that foe was 'defeated,' capitalism no longer had any incentive to 'play nice;' you will remember, for example, that there was talk around that time of the 'peace dividend,', the chimeric concept that money that had been devoted to fighting the 'enemy' could now find its way into benefiting society. To no one's surprise, that dividend never materialized.

Similarly, once capitalism no longer had to compete with Communism, it had no real incentive to treat workers with any kind of dignity or fairness - the forging of free-trade agreements simply legitimized the deluge of jobs shipped offshore.

Simon's observations and warnings are well-considered, but is anyone really listening?

Owen Gray said...

Simon reminds us, Mound, that it was the tension between capital and labour that made for a healthy society.

When capital seeks to destroy labour, it brings down the whole edifice.

The Mound of Sound said...

No, Lorne, no one is listening and that holds true for us as much as any other country. We're going to push this until something breaks.

What we're watching unfold seems so much like Jared Diamond's description of societal collapse in the past - Easter Islanders, the Mayans. As he observes, societies collapse very abruptly and always at their peak.

It's a damned shitty thing we're doing to our kids.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ PLG - Marxism is an odd term, having been bundled and trade marked and used to describe a government style he probably would not have endorsed.

It's worthwhile studying the progressive era in the U.S. that began at the turn of the last century and extended, arguably, at least into the 1960s or 1970s. That movement was helped along by the Great Depression and by WWII which saw labour shortages in the U.S. that led to modern unionism. All three forces, according to writers like Gar Alperovitz, were essential to the rise of the American middle class in the post-war era.

This time, however, capital has 'captured' the political process to the 'bought and paid for' Congress to the decidedly corporatist Supreme Court.

BTW, at the risk of urging you to read yet another book, you might find it interesting to glance through Alperovitz' "What then must we do?" in which he outlines how worker co-operatives are catching on and succeeding in the U.S.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Owen. It makes you wonder why the Libs and NDP aren't championing collective bargaining rights. Unionism is being clubbed with a cudgel and the parties that should be populist are watching, mute, from the sidelines.

Purple library guy said...

Heheh. Yes, actually, that is one that I really should put my hands on. Cheerio!