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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Ellen Meiksins Wood: Against the Tide

Ellen Meiksins Wood died on January 14.
Ms. Wood was a prolific academic, writing many books and articles from a Marxist perspective. Among her peers, her work on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the advocacy of so-called “political Marxism,” and her views on Ancient modes of production are remembered.
With a broader audience, she will be remembered for her staunch defense of classical Marxism at a time of full retreat.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, most of Western Marxism—both Party-based and otherwise—lost its way. Disillusionment and despair held sway. In academic circles, a period of “rethinking” Marxism grew like a virus. The fundamentals of classical Marxism were challenged by the supposed rigor of rational choice theory on one hand and the wildly wielded scalpel of post-modernism on the other.
Rational choice theory announced ominously that the Marxist foundation was not and could not be built on the basis of homo economicus, a result that was both obvious and welcome to any serious student of Marx. Nonetheless, so-called “Analytical Marxism” took a toll.
A wave of epistemological relativism penetrated Western political thought from its pretentious and esoteric perch in European-- especially French-- universities. The idea that we could not defend any foundation for our world views apart from our own subjective and uniquely shaped perspective took hold. The fact that thinkers formerly associated with Marxism promulgated these views carried considerable weight in the English-speaking world. The unity that Marxism had striven to achieve between workers and other oppressed groups was shattered into a multitude of self-reflecting identities by the post-modern turn. Students and budding intellectuals hurled the epithet of “reductionism” at every effort to reveal underlying structures or processes.
The expansion of world markets to previously market-adverse economies dramatically boosted trade and investment to new levels. Theorists dubbed this quantitative burst “globalization” and hastily heralded it as a new stage of capitalism. Some went further, counting it as a harbinger of a world with transnational corporations overruling the governance of historically constructed states.
Indeed, it was an ugly time. Nonsense abounded.
The intellectual climate fed a similar floundering of the activist left in the nineties. Socialism, as a societal vision, was diluted into a regimen of “social markets” or receded behind the allure of anarchism and spontaneity. The fuzzy, unfocussed anti-globalization movement replaced anti-imperialism as the organizing principle of the left. A nostalgic yearning for the supposed golden era of post-World War Two prosperity and a thread-bare safety net substituted for the quest for full social justice—“revolution” was retired.
It was in this context that Ellen Meiksins Wood declared war on the navel-gazers, the timid, and the opportunists abandoning Marxism. Even before the fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing Western ideological Great Plague, she exposed the “new,” eviscerated Marxism in her Retreat from Class (1986). Reflecting upon it years later in a new introduction, she wrote:
People have, in their various ways, moved on, in ways that have very little to do with Marxism, or even socialism, except to repudiate it. It seems clear that Post-Marxism was just a short pit-stop on the way to anti-Marxism. The Retreat from Class (1998)
She carried out much of her struggle against traitors, slackers, and opportunists in the pages of Monthly Review while serving as co-editor with Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff from 1997 to 2000.
Her stinging attacks on the globalization thesis (‘Globalization’ or ‘globaloney’?), along with the equally biting polemics by Doug Henwood, were aimed at anyone who would dare to defend it: “…globalization…is the heaviest ideological albatross around the neck of the left today.” (MR, February 1997)
Wood saw the global dominance of markets not as a defeat, but as an opportunity for the left:
Now capitalism has no more escape routes, no more safety valves or corrective mechanisms outside its own internal logic… So maybe it’s time for the left to see the universalization of capitalism not just as a defeat for us but also as an opportunity—and that, of course above all means a new opportunity for that unfashionable thing called class struggle. (Back to Marx, MR, June, 1997)
The recurring theme in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s writings was the centrality of class struggle. Against the tide of New Leftism, neo-Marxism, post-Marxism, post-modernism, and other wooly, confused departures from Marxism, she saw the working class as the essential agent for change.
When Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward engaged her on the pages of Monthly Review (January, 1998), challenging her “nostalgia for the working-class formations of the industrial era” and asserting that “We are all social democrats now,” she responded sharply:
There are no social-democrats now.’ People are waking up to the fact that social democracy is not a viable option. For those who have tended to identify social democracy with socialism, there seems to be no other alternative to capitalism—in fact no alternative to the more inhumane, neoliberal forms of capitalism. So the loss of social democracy is for them indeed an awesome one. It is for them a more cataclysmic and perhaps even final loss than for those who, while certainly supporting the welfare state or any amelioration of capitalism’s destructive consequences, have always doubted the long term sustainability of capitalism “with a human face.” Those who used to place all their hopes in social democracy are inclined to explain their awesome loss not by conceding that a humane capitalism was never sustainable in the long term but by invoking some massive epochal shift which had destroyed what used to be, but no longer is, a real possibility.
In answer to the then fashionable skepticism toward the socialist project, Ms. Wood asserted that the naysayers could offer nothing beyond “a better and maybe more humane management of ‘flexible’ capitalism,” an insight that presages by nearly two decades the principled refusal of Greek Communists today to join SYRIZA in the management of capitalism.
Lest anyone believe that Wood harbored any illusions about reformism apart from the goal of socialism, she offered the following thoughts to a 1999 forum in South Africa which included participants from the ANC, COSATU, and the South African Communist Party:
My main point is that there can be struggles and objectives short of a socialist transformation, but there can’t be such a thing as a Third Way. There really is no middle ground between capitalism and socialism.
That’s not a paradox. It simply means that all oppositional struggles… should be informed by one basic perception: the class struggle can’t, either by its presence or by its absence, eliminate the contradictions in the capitalist system, even though it can ultimately eliminate the system itself… without falling into the hopeless trap of believing that the left can do a better job of managing capitalism. Managing capitalism is not the job of socialists, but, more particularly, it’s not the job that can be done at all. (MR, September, 1999)
No doubt events have played the largest role in washing away much of the ideological fashions that enjoyed such popularity with the Western left in the 1990s. Endless wars, exploding inequality, and an epochal economic crisis make what appeared to be learned assessments and ominous projections appear little more than naïve.
We should not forget, however, how important it was to have a few courageous voices defend principle against the current, to stand firm while others were in full retreat.
Ellen Meiksins Wood was one.

Zoltan Zigedy

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Moment Charged with Possibility

Writing in the Los Angeles Times (If Bernie Sanders loses, his backers may not be there for Hillary Clinton in November, February 5), Evan Halper and Michael A Memola report:

Gio Zanecchia is so enamored of Bernie Sanders that he made a five-hour drive with his wife and infant son from South Jersey on Saturday morning to catch a glimpse of the progressive firebrand.
But what if Sanders loses the Democratic nomination? Asked whether he will be there to vote for the Democrat in November should Sanders falter, the 34-year-old union mechanic reacts as if the question is insane. There is not a chance, he insists, that he would ever support Hillary Clinton.

She’s establishment,” Zanecchia said. “Most of the guys I work with think she’s a criminal.”…
This is not a group that is particularly loyal to the Democratic Party. While liberal Democrats make up a big chunk of Sanders’ support, many other backers are independents. Some mistrust the party so much that Sanders supporters booed the party chair when she took the stage Friday night at a dinner at which the candidates spoke.
Zanecchia’s second choice for president is Donald Trump.

Attempting to interpret the electorate for the Wall Street Journal (The Life of the Party, January 30-31), John O’Sullivan, a prominent writer, highly regarded in conservative circles, agrees that Democratic Party loyalty plays a diminished role in this electoral cycle. He sees changes in the Democratic Party as creating a gulf: “These changes have orphaned a very large class of voters. Working-class Americans no longer feel well represented by the Democrats…”

But he sees a similar gulf lurking in a significant section of the Republican Party, producing: “ the people now saying that they will vote Trump for president. Early media analyses tended to assume that these voters were Tea Partiers under a new flag. But… Philip Bump… found that Trump supporters were younger, poorer, less educated, less conservative, more moderate, more likely to call themselves Republican, less likely to call themselves independent…, more likely to be white and less likely to be evangelical than were Tea Party supporters on all these points.”

Mr. O’Sullivan is troubled because these Republican-in-name voters are less willing to carry the water for the corporate Republicans. They eschew the anti-government dogma that welds corporate Republicanism together with the Tea-Party: “Tea Partiers stress constitutional limits on what government can and should do; Trump supporters are enthusiastic for getting things done and aren’t too particular about how that happens.”

The Trumpets and Trumpettes lack enthusiasm for free-market ideology: “[L]ibertarianism and its prophet, Sen. Rand Paul, have been pushed aside by the rush of popular support to Mr. Trump, who represents, if anything, a movement from libertarianism to activist government.”

And most alarming to Mr. O’Sullivan and the corporate Republicans, “…Mr. Trump has sweepingly promised to preserve entitlements against… reforms, discouraging other Republicans from making this tough case.”

Thus, the Trump segment of Republican voters departs sharply from the corporate Republican playbook and represents somewhat of a challenge to the core corporate ideology of Republican Party bosses.

Of course the Trump constituency openly embraces the anti-immigrant racism stirring in all the elements of the Republican base. O’Sullivan sees this more of a tactical issue than a principled difference.

Something is stirring in the US electorate

Dissatisfaction within the two parties is not new. The desire for a break from the past, for change, drove the Obama election. And the rise of the Tea Party signaled turmoil within the Republican Party. While Obama and the Tea Party were both responses to a continued deterioration of confidence in US institutions and politicians, the challenges never threatened the two parties’ pro-corporate programs-- the Obama phenomena never eroded the dominance of big business or the banks, nor did it pretend to do so; the Tea Party never distracted the Republican Party from its mission to promote capital, big and small. Both parties were confident that they could stage manage dissatisfaction and tame dissent in the final act.

The Sanders and Trump successes suggest that voters are not appeased by the thin gruel offered by the party elites this go-round. But something more profound is occurring—a refusal to settle for the usual charade. Moreover, party loyalty is unusually thin this time, challenging party leaders’ ability to count on a transfer from one candidate to another. What the pundits call “unpredictability” is actually the exercise of a new level of political maturity and independence.

A recent Pew Research Center poll (December 8-13, 2015) bears out the mood of voter alienation: 62% of all respondents maintain that “the federal government does not do enough for middle-class people.” Thus, the notion that anti-government sentiment runs deep in the populace is a media-inspired illusion. Instead, people want better government.

Furthermore, the respondents harbor no illusions about the political parties. Sixty-two percent (62%) believe that the Republican Party favors the rich. And only 32% of the public believe that the Democratic Party favors the “middle class.”

One should not be fooled by the dodgy term “middle class,” so popular with class-conflict deniers. Respondents understand the term as roughly synonymous with “working class”: “When it comes to what it takes to be middle class, there is near unanimity in the public that a secure job and the ability to save money are essential for middle-class status.” (Pew)

Thus dissatisfaction is understandable when “middle class” is coupled with the finding that “Majorities of self-identified middle-class (58%) and lower-class adults (73%) say that good jobs are difficult to find.”

An even more recent Pew poll (released 2-10-16) shows a remarkably strong unhappiness with the US economic system (presumably capitalism!): “A substantial majority of Americans – 65% – say the economic system in this country ‘unfairly favors powerful interests.’” Fewer than half as many (31%) say the system “is generally fair to most Americans.”

While rejection of “the establishment” and “business-as-usual” marks a new level of political maturity, it is not accompanied by a comparable ideological clarity; the public shares only a murky vision of alternatives. The expression of dissent through such diverse electoral vehicles as Sanders and Trump demonstrates this point.

Nonetheless, the successes of the Sanders campaign, despite many weaknesses, open up an opportunity for the left in the US. Sanders has successfully and unapologetically embraced words like “socialism” and “revolution” in his campaign narrative. Never mind that he may use the words in a modest, unthreatening way; they have been effectively banned from main stream US political discourse for most of our lives. To the shock of many, a Boston Globe survey of New Hampshire Democratic Party primary voters prior to the February 9 vote found that 31% described themselves as “socialist,” over half of those between the ages of 17 and 34 did so as well.

Certainly many only have a hazy idea of socialism, but any one afraid to discuss socialism with others in this climate should surrender her or his leftist badge.

The failure of intense red-baiting to gain traction at this moment is equally remarkable. Consequently, the occasion to interact with an angry electorate looking for fresh answers should not be lost to the socialist left.

While Democratic Party values have inexorably moved rightward over the last 25 years or more, its loyal followers have just as deliberately moved leftward. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that Democrats describing themselves as “Very Liberal” rose from a mere 9% in the Bill Clinton era (1992) to 22% in 2016. Whatever “Very Liberal” means, it should be fallow ground for those of us offering a fresh alternative. It is surely apparent that the barrier to moving politics leftward is the Democratic Party establishment and the two-party stranglehold on change.

Lest anyone harbor illusions, the insurgencies are very far from victory. The two party establishments are not going to surrender—they will fight ferociously to the end. After all, the two parties belong to the elites and their corporate partners.

On the Republican side, should a corporate Republican fail to rise to successfully challenge Trump, Michael Bloomberg stands in the wings with a threatened independent run. The party’s corporate masters would rather he scuttle the ship temporarily than see Trump set back Republican chances for the next decade, especially with the emerging minority majority.

Should Clinton falter on the Democratic side, Biden is waiting in the wings, ready to accept a hand off. Rigged primaries, media assaults, and other traps lie ahead for Sanders before a stacked convention. We must remember that the Democratic Party doesn’t belong to the people.

The left must offer ideas of substance and clarity, along with bold alternatives, to the young idealists supporting Sanders’ quixotic campaign or they may retreat to indifference and inaction. A lot is possible.

Zoltan Zigedy