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Monday, December 27, 2021

The ‘Democracy’ Wars

As part of the new Cold War orchestrated consensually by leaders of the two US political parties, a battle over democracy has emerged.

Aligned on one side are a group of bogus-independent, non-profit organizations like Freedom House (90% US government funded 2017), V-Dem Institute (funded by various governments, World Bank), Polity Data Series (funded by the CIA until 2020) that purport to rank and score nations on their level or degree of democratic governance. Not surprisingly, the countries that are aligned with their sponsors score high on democracy, while those who rival or conflict with their sponsors show poorly.

Despite these glaring conflicts of interest and transparent biases, scholars and pundits throughout the Atlantic alliance uncritically cite these results, thereby readily enlisting in the new Cold War encouraged by Western political elites.

Arrayed on the other side are those countries designated as foes of democracy-- The People’s Republic of China (PRC), The Russian Federation (Russia), The Islamic Republic of Iran (Iran), The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (Venezuela), The Republic of Nicaragua (Nicaragua), (The Republic of Cuba) Cuba and others-- all of which proclaim their commitment to equal or greater democracy than their Western counterparts. 

The war over democracy escalated with the Biden administration calling for a “Summit for Democracy” on December 8-10. Foregoing any pretense of dialogue, the US State Department refused invitations to those countries on its hit list, turning the event into an orgy of self-congratulation and a rebuke of those falling short of US ideals. Other countries like Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Colombia, and India, noted for their retreat from democratic norms, were welcomed with open arms. 

At the same time, the mainstream media, including The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, are bemoaning the “backsliding,” “decline,” or “weakening” of US democracy. Establishment pundits express alarm over the Trump-turn in US politics, the increasing hostility between the two parties’ partisans, and charges and countercharges of electoral corruption.

Yet, they are oddly tolerant of the decisive role of money in “democratic” deliberation and the corrosive influence of corporate power, two anti-democratic trends that persistently worsen with the growth of economic inequality and profoundly undermine democracy. 


Quoting R. Williams, Brian S. Roper in The History of Democracy makes this salient point: “Democracy ‘is a very old word… It came into English in the sixteenth century from a translation of demokratia, Greek, from the root words demos-- people, and kratos-- rule. It is at once evident from Greek use that everything depends on the senses given to people and to rule’” (page 1).

It has taken hundreds of years for capitalist ruling classes to concede that “demos” means all of the people and not merely “white males of substance.” In the US, that awakening only became nominally universal with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enacted fifty-six years ago as a response to a determined peoples’ movement.

As for kratos, there have been many models of democratic rule since the early Dutch, US, and French Republics, models that allow for power-sharing monarchies, socialist democracy, constitutions, multiple parties, direct and indirect elections, short or long electoral terms, single or multiple houses of congress or parliament, various vote-counting and weighing schemes, and a host of other wrinkles that democratic theorists have devised.

From even a casual glance at history, it should be, therefore, clear that who constitutes the people and what constitutes governance or rule are highly contested. Nevertheless, history does demonstrate that social movements have forced further democratization upon existing ruling classes. In general, there has been a trend towards an expanding demos and a more diverse kratos.

This suggests that perhaps it is more useful to view democracy as a process, rather than a categorical state-of-affairs, a fixed political achievement. 

Countries become more democratic or less democratic in the same way as they become more just or less just. Like justice, democracy is not a success-term, but a relation, a measure of the direction of change, a constantly moving target. For an illustrative example, consider a newly liberated former colony that is certainly more democratic than its previously dominated status regardless of the kind of political institutions that it chooses. Surely, this makes more sense of democracy than the idealized model celebrated in Western patriotic grammar school textbooks.

It is the height of arrogance for Western ideologues to insist that some countries have crossed a supposed line separating enlightened democrats from “authoritarian” pagans. Democracy is a process and not a merit badge. 

For nation-states, “democratization” should be the watchword, the never-ending process that places more and more decisions in the hands of more and more people. From this perspective, popular revolutions would count as the most democratizing process of all, liberating masses from elite oppression and imposing the rule of the majority over the former rule of a minority.


The era of the great bourgeois revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries-- the Dutch, English, and French risings-- were clearly and unmistakably a time of great democratization with the liberation of masses of people from feudal constraints and/or absolutist rule (the US revolution ill-fits this pattern). The new ruling classes created new procedures and institutions to guarantee both that the gains were secured and that no new challenges to the new rule would arise. They were far from completing the democratic project.

The heralded and high-minded constitutions of the period (including the US constitution) created new institutions-- parliaments, congresses, executives, etc.-- and procedures-- lawmaking, rights construction, voting regulations, etc.-- that were believed by their creators to be constitutive of democracy.

 In other words, the various “founding founders” thought they had captured the essence of democracy in a set of rules for its continued implementation, as if democratization was completed with declarations and constitutive documents.  

What the bourgeois revolutionaries failed to understand was that procedural democracy-- a worthy product at the ascendency of the bourgeoisie-- was a great achievement, but one not adequate for all times or adequate for the continued march of democratization under changing conditions. Bourgeois democracy certainly expanded the participation of the masses (and assured the dominance of the bourgeoisie as a class!), yet it too often failed to guarantee rule for the people.

In discussions of democracy, the distinction between rule by the people and rule for the people is too often overlooked or conflated. There is no reason to presume that a system constructed to establish rule by the people will necessarily produce rule for the people. Cynics can readily manipulate well-meant institutions from benefitting the people. Fair rules do not guarantee just outcomes.

There is every reason to believe that, in a class society, the best of procedural democracies will not rule in ways that favor all or even most of the people. Nowhere in the constitutions of the bourgeois democracies will be found the recognition of the existence of social classes and the question of their relationship to democracy or democratization.

Certainly, the history of the US two-party system for all of this century, last century, and beyond has seen the government generally favor the interests of a small minority of the wealthy and powerful over the interests of the majority of working people. Others can argue whether the procedures established by the supposedly all-wise “founding fathers” is the most perfect example of how a democracy should be organized. But shouldn’t its failure to rule for the people count against its democratic content? How democratic can a “democracy” be if it fails to serve the interests of the people that it rules?

The stunning growth of economic inequality-- itself a constant in the Western “democracies” --- surely demonstrates a failure to measure up to the performance test of a purported democracy: are the people better off than with any alternative political arrangement besides bourgeois democracy? 

Opinion poll after opinion poll show that the majority of the people-- the supposed beneficiaries of democracy-- want guarantees of housing, jobs, health care, education, safety, etc., guarantees that Western 'democracies' consistently fail to deliver. 

Detaching a concept of democracy from the wellbeing or interests of the people knows no greater cynicism. Democracy without a connection to the interests of the majority is faux-democracy, a mere parlor game.

Obsession with the form of democracy-- the obsession fostered by capitalist leaders-- blinds far too many to the importance and centrality of the content of democracy, a distinction too often overlooked in the conversation over democratic governance.

Democratic form that fails to deliver for the majority of the people is a mere empty shell, as the current US “democracy” demonstrates.


In the ‘democracy’ wars, The People’s Republic of China is now clearly in the sights of many in the developed capitalist countries, especially the US. The rise of PRC economic power, its rivalry with US influence in the world, and PRC’s independent stance in global politics has increased the enmity of the US and its allies to the point of a new Cold War.

Like the old Cold War with the Soviet Union, PRC’s enemies focus on the fact that the PRC is a “one-party” state. That is, the Communist Party takes a leading role and the deliberative organs are not organized around two or more parties. Instead, the operative councils and parliament are non-partisan, composed of both Communists and non-Communists.

Ironically, most of the founders of the heralded Western 'democracies' never envisioned, nor wanted parties or factions; yet multiple parties have become a litmus test for democracy in the eyes of the Atlantic alliance watchdogs. Indeed, these same watchdogs have since raised the bar again to deny democratic governance exists among several countries that have party systems and robust elections. They are said to have 'authoritarian' tendencies, a slippery idea coined to obscure, rather than shed light on the democracy debate.

The People’s Republic of China has responded to the ‘democracy’ wars with a report entitled Pursuing Common Values of Humanity -- China's Approach to Democracy, Freedom and Human Rights, written by New China Research (NCR), affiliated with the Xinhua News Agency. The 88 page document is a comprehensive argument for the democratic content of PRC governance. While the report develops a number of provocative, fresh ideas, it has received no more than superficial note in the monopoly media, an indication of the deeply dogmatic prejudice of Western commentators.

The NCR report quotes PRC leader Xi on bourgeois democracy: “If the people are awakened only at the time of voting but go dormant soon after, if they listen to slogans at the time of the election but have no say after the election, or if they are favored at the time of canvassing but are left out in the cold after the election, such a democracy is not a true democracy.”

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) argues for a new type of democracy that it calls “whole-process democracy,” a democracy that “pursues the unification of process and results-based democracy, procedural and substantive democracy, direct democracy and indirect democracy, as well as people’s democracy and state will.” The CCP counter poses whole-process democracy to “democracy for the few,” “one-time democracy,” and “pseudo-universal democracy.”

To my mind, “Whole-process democracy” is not rendered a completely transparent concept by this report-- some formulations remain vague. Others can judge for themselves, but the document and the accompanying ideas are surely worthy of careful study.

It should be evident nonetheless that the CCP recognizes that the test of democracy is how well it delivers for the people, that robust democracy must be more than procedural, that it must be substantial (results-oriented), as well. 

To bolster the claim that the test of democracy is fidelity to the interests of the people-- substantial, material democracy-- and that People’s China meets that test, the NCR cites a Harvard Ash Center study by Cunningham, Saich, and Turiel that shows trust of the population in the Communist Party of China has exceeded 90 percent for over a decade. 

In May of 2020, I cited a similar study, the Edelman Trust Barometer, that placed the PRC at the top of the list of 26 countries surveyed in terms of popular trust (the US, Germany, France, UK, Australia, Spain, Japan, and Russia all fell into the “distrust” bottom of the survey). So much for the "rule by the people" in the heralded capitalist countries.

How do Western political theorists reconcile their consistently negative portrayal of Chinese democracy with the high level of trust held by the people of the PRC in their governance?

By simply ignoring it.

A deeper, less smug discussion of democracy might be a good antidote to Western conceit in the ‘democracy’ wars.

Greg Godels 

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Nine into Two: The Failure of the US Two-Party System

When the so-called “Founding Fathers”-- the elites who constructed the US republic-- unfolded their unique vision of republicanism and political decision-making, they went long on stability and continuity and short on broad participation and social change.

Accordingly, most of them opposed political factions or parties, but very soon after the new government came into existence, major differences arose, leading to factions and swiftly into parties.

Predictably, the break in unanimity came with the formation of two parties, in the US, a Federalist and an anti-Federalist party.

But what is truly remarkable is that subsequent political differences in the US have been contained by only two parties for over two centuries. In most countries that embrace a parliamentary system, political parties emerge with the development of social classes and distinctive social strata. 

Further, as social classes generate internal differences, they too spawn new parties. In addition, religious, regional, and economic differences have generated distinctive political parties.

This is the pattern that exists throughout the advanced capitalist countries, creating multi-party parliaments as a commonplace. But not in the US.

Where there have been emergent third or fourth parties, the two parties have either placed insurmountable obstacles in their way or absorbed their political identity.

Stunted class consciousness, illusions of social mobility, perceived opportunities afforded by an expanding frontier, and entrenched loyalties are among the many factors securing a two-party system. The distractions of wars and conflicts, demanding unity and stability, have also played a role in preserving the two-party system.

In truth, the US ruling class has won a remarkable achievement in maintaining an electoral vessel filled to overflowing with diverse, incompatible interests. When will that vessel fracture?

A Pew Research Center study enlisting over 10,000 respondents in a political typology study, the most robust of those conducted by Pew since 1987 suggests a possible answer. What they found bears directly upon the validity and viability of the-two party system. In the words of the study, “...the gulf that separates Republicans and Democrats sometimes obscures the divisions and diversity of views that exist within both partisan coalitions – and the fact that many Americans do not fit easily into either one.

Researchers found clusters of political attitudes that define independent voter perspectives that are hard to coexist comfortably in the two existing parties. They identify the following clusters and their respective percentages of the population:

It should be noted that these clusters are constructed from answers to questions that were posed to those participating in the survey. Thus, they are biased by the researchers' preconceived notions of the issues that they believe divide the US. Nonetheless,they do identify potential factions that coexist uneasily in both parties.

So we find that Pew identifies eight significant factions-- four that tend to vote Democratic and four that vote Republican (with stressed sideliners representing disinterested, disgusted, less frequent voters)-- funneling their votes into two electoral vehicles that cannot possibly represent them all adequately!

Moreover, the conventional illusion that each of the two parties represent a consistent, shared ideology obscures the many possibilities of creating useful coalitions or alliances in moving politics out of the stagnation and ineffectiveness of the US system.

Just to mention one of the insights to be drawn from the Pew study: [Members of the] "...Populist Right hold highly restrictive views about immigration policy and are very critical of government. But, in contrast to other parts of the GOP coalition, their criticism extends well beyond government to views of big business and to the economic system as a whole: 82% say that large corporations are having a negative impact on the way things are going in the country, and nearly half support higher taxes on the wealthy and on large corporations." In addition, more than any other group, they believe that they have been left behind. They also share with the left, the view that profits are too high.

While they share many left views that might be the basis for a tentative or calculated alliance with left forces, any such approach has been hysterically denounced by the liberal media, political purists, and smug elitists as consorting with evil, those who Hilary Clinton famously called "the deplorables".

If we were to burrow even deeper than the Pew topology and examine class differences-- and even more tellingly, various class ideologies-- it would become apparent that the two-party framework would fail abysmally in giving voice to the broad spectrum of political opinion characteristic of a modern, advanced capitalist state. In that regard, the two-party framework is a hindrance to democracy and neither a vehicle for nor exemplar of democratic decision-making.

Apart from its failure to capture ideological diversity, the two-party system encourages conformity on issues that are easily susceptible to patriotic or nationalistic zeolatry-- foreign policy, the military, loyalty, etc. Politicians in a two-party system dare not allow the other party to challenge them on these matters.

Consequently, we have two-party conformity on the “evils” of such diverse nations as Russia, PRC, Iran, DPRK, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, and others, who share only one common feature-- they are made a target by our two-party dominated government. 

Nor do politicians of each party dare to question the glory or budgets of the military, the FBI, the CIA, etc. for fear that they will be called out by zealots in the other party-- again, a demonstration of the surfeit of democratic debate in a two-party parliamentary system.

Pepsi or Coke, Yankees or Blue Jays, ketchup or mustard are frivolous, but harmless choices. Democrat or Republican-- in the crises before us-- too often becomes frivolous as well, but increasingly harmful.

Unfortunately, too many people have invested heavily in their respective parties, succumbing again to empty, cynical promises like Obama’s risible “hope and change” slogan in our day. No amount of disappointment can seemingly separate the act of faith that cements voters to the two-parties. The prior investment in the Democratic and Republican parties generates what economists call the “sunk cost fallacy”, the idea that too much has been expended on the respective parties to jettison them now.

But it is a fallacy and until we learn to break away from the irrationality of the two-party charade, the Democratic Party will be an obstacle to the kind of changes that we desperately need to make.

Greg Godels

Friday, November 26, 2021

When Have We Seen this Before?

Fifty years ago, global capitalism came to a crossroads. The enormous costs of the US’s long, costly Asian war produced great debt and pressure on the gold-backed US dollar. The imperialist alliance with Israel brought a disruptive, unprecedented boycott on the part of the oil-producing nations resisting Israel’s occupation of Arab territories. Intense competition between the dominant US economy and the resurgent Euro-Asian economies was shrinking profit margins. Traditional macroeconomic tools failed to meet the challenges of this new situation. The ensuing crisis came to be called the era of stagflation-- stagnant economic growth coupled with persistent, intractable inflation.

Stagflation persisted through most of the decade and ended with shock therapy-- a radical dose of deregulation, privatization, and market fetishism, a regimen of austerity now prescribed by all mainstream parties.

The crisis of the 1970s bears some similarities with today’s turmoil.

The pandemic, like the oil crisis, has shocked the global economy. The US economy and subordinate economies have been running on the fumes of fiat money and central bank stimulation, exposing remedies that are losing their effectiveness. Despite the lack of even phantom existential threats, the US has conjured costly foreign adventures and an extraordinarily wasteful and large military budget and “security” spending, crowding out social spending and amplifying national indebtedness. Commodity scarcity generates rising prices. And both slow growth and inflation are now reappearing and promise to continue.

Does this mean that we are bound to relive the crisis of the 1970s? Are we seeing a replay?

Maybe, maybe not. Time will tell. But we would be foolish not to study the 1970s to distill the lessons that might apply to today.

Despite the admonitions of the central bankers and financial gurus, inflation seldom self-corrects. It rarely runs its course. Instead, inflation tends to gather momentum because all the economic actors attempt to catch up and get ahead of it.

In the 1970s, it was popular with the capitalist media to blame workers who were demanding cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) to ward off inflation. “Greedy” unions, welfare, senior, and disability advocacy organizations were claimed as the causes of inflation’s persistence and deepening.

Cynically, all were asked to sacrifice equally, while it was monopoly corporations that were raising the prices that constituted the core of inflation. They were using “catching up” as an opportunity to “profit up.” Under the guise of responding to inflation, dominant corporations raised prices beyond their growing costs to expand their profit margins.

Unlike monopoly corporations, small businesses were limited in their ability to raise prices because of intense competition. They were caught in a profit squeeze between their need to remain competitive and the grinding increases in their costs of doing business. They are especially victimized by inflation.

At the same time, inflation cheapened the value of debt, especially corporate debt, while choking new consumer debt with high interest rates.

Today, rising prices are eating up workers’ gains just as they did in the 1970s. Let the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) explain it: “From April 2020 to March 2021, the 12-month changes in real average earnings were all increases, between 4.0 percent to 7.4 percent. Prior to that, from January 2017 until March 2020, the over-the-year change in real average weekly earnings ranged from −0.5 percent to 2.0 percent.” But: “Real average weekly earnings of employees on private nonfarm payrolls decreased 1.6 percent from October 2020 to October 2021. In every month from April 2021 to October 2021, the 12-month changes in real average weekly earnings have been decreases, ranging from −0.8 percent to −2.6 percent” [my emphasis].

In other words, real average weekly earnings exploded with the labor shortages induced by the pandemic, but they were wiped out by the five months of over 5% inflation culminating in the 6.2% rise in October, a 31-year high.

It is not workers’ wages that are driving inflation, but something else.

In a revealing article, The Wall Street Journal exposes the real cause of escalating inflation. Inflation Helps Boost Profit Margins: Companies seize rare opportunity to increase prices and outrun their own rising costs [print edition] tells that “[n]early two out of three of the biggest U.S. publicly traded companies have reported fatter profit margins so far this year than they did over the same stretch of 2019… Nearly 100 of these giants have booked profit margins-- the share of each dollar of sales a company can pocket-- that are at least 50% above 2019 levels” [my emphasis]. The authors note: “Executives are seizing a once in a generation opportunity to raise prices…”

It is apparent from this candid article that monopoly capitalism is leading this profiteering. And it is important to recognize that this profit-taking has and will continue to fuel inflation. Once again, the commanding heights of the US economy-- the monopoly corporations-- are using the excuse of catching-up to profit-up.

If history’s repeat is not to be farcical, the workers’ movement must avoid the mistakes of the 1970s. It must fight against monopoly price increases and not join the purveyors of common sacrifice, like the silly WIN (Whip Inflation Now) campaign of that period.

The workers’ movement must not follow its false partner, the Democratic Party, down the road of wage and benefit restraint. The inflation-directed restraint of the 1970s gave way to the give-backs of the 1980s and 1990s.

Workers must understand that inflation is not a self-inflicted wound, but a feature of the capitalist system, especially in its finance-dominated, monopoly stage. And it must be contained by attacking the profit-taking that spurs the inflationary spiral.

Further, the working class must bring this understanding to the frightened petty bourgeoisie who feel threatened and are threatened by the scourge of inflation, a stratum that otherwise turns in great numbers to the extreme right for answers.

Of course, this task would be made easier if we had a robust Communist movement in all of the capitalist countries.

Greg Godels

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Bad Ideas

History is a corrective of ideas, serving as a reality check on intellectual inflation. Sometimes it takes years, decades, even centuries for big, even not so big ideas to be properly deflated.

I remember fondly many heated arguments with the late Fred Gaboury, a former union logger from the Northwest, who became an organizer for Trade Unionists for Action and Democracy, editor of Labor Today, and World Federation Trade Union representative to the United Nations. Fred was a serious thinker in ways that many of his contemporaries missed.

When the Eurozone-- the European monetary union-- was about to be established, I argued that between nationalism and uneven European development, a common currency was not sustainable. Posthumously, I conceded to Fred. But, today, there is plenty more reason to doubt the Eurozone’s future sustainability. History has yet to speak definitively.

As a retired worker, Fred followed trends in production and distribution closely. Me, not so much. When business writers began to herald modularization and just-in-time inventory production, Fred saw it as the next big thing, a profit-driven structural adjustment set to change the course of global capitalism.

With my usual knee-jerk skepticism, I argued that it was just a passing gimmick, something for the TV pundits to talk about. In any case, I argued, it would prove to be unworkable and ultimately disruptive to the production process.

Decades later, it seems that I was both wrong and, possibly, right. 

Wrong, because just-in-time distribution became a dominant mode with global supply chains. Virtually all production and distribution organized by monopoly capitalist enterprises moves product through their processes with none of the traditional back-up supply. There are no full-to-capacity warehouses filled with widgets for “just-in-case” scenarios or unanticipated short falls. That thinking has been rendered obsolete.

For the most part, the system works well, saving monopoly capitalism billions in costs. It works… until it doesn't!

History is speaking.

The pandemic brought the “efficient” system to its knees, demonstrating just how fragile this big idea actually is. The disruptive factor of massive layoffs, consumption declines, volatile production, and unanticipated imbalances today make lean production and instantaneous distribution look like genuinely bad ideas.  

Just-in-time has been replaced with never-in-time, as bottlenecks, late arrivals, and displacements choke off consumption. 

Shortages abound. Capitalist markets respond to shortages with higher prices. But it is not only material commodities, but also labor “commodities” that are in short supply and commanding higher “prices.” Labor costs rose by 8.3% in the 3rd quarter of 2021 (reflecting a 2.9% increase in hourly compensation and a 5% decrease in labor productivity, due largely to longer hours from the existing workforce). 

Workers sent home over the pandemic have been reluctant to return to work, whether it is from fear of infection, withdrawal from the rat race, or a sophisticated understanding of the gains possible from the withholding of labor. The result is a competition for labor, with capital offering bonuses, benefits, and higher wages to entice a shrunken labor market.

Labor compensation is now breaking through imagined barriers that restricted hourly wages to near flat growth for nearly half a century in the US and sapped the political will to advance the minimum wage.

One can only hope that the complacent, risk-averse labor leadership will learn a valuable lesson about the advantages of workers withholding their labor, a grand idea that deserves to be revisited.

While it is true that union workers are also on strike for better compensation (though with a frequency and volume well below that of a few years ago), it is clear that labor’s top leadership is cheering union militancy from the sidelines. 

Despite the assurances of those who believe that inflation is a thing of the past, manageably through Central Bank manipulation, rising prices have returned, and returned with a vengeance. 

After a long period of rescuing deflated financial values with central bank purchases of overvalued assets, after a lengthy regimen of ultralow interest rates designed to provide nearly free money to reviving risky or marginal investments, funding mergers and acquisitions, initial public offerings, and open-ended SPACs, and generally overcoming post-crisis inertia, the central banks have seemingly overshot their targets.

They have overloaded a deflated and deflationary economy. October’s inflation rate of 6.2% reached a thirty-one-year high, topping 5% for the fifth straight month.

Put simply, the effort by central banks to energize a sluggish economy has created inflation, amplified by supply shortages and a labor force growing at a snail’s pace.

Those living below the highest quintile-- the home of the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie-- are seeing any material gains from worker’s advantages in the labor market erased by higher prices. And, of course, those on fixed incomes-- the poor and elderly-- are hurt the most.

More bad ideas coming home to roost.  

It’s safe to say that the Democratic administration, through its own courtship of monopoly capitalism, finds itself caught between the sharp blades of a scissors. On one hand, the party has pledged to provide a constantly shrinking, minimalist, but sorely needed relief package to a major section of its base. 

On the other hand, promiscuous spending on managing the empire-- military and security services, foreign meddling, corporate giveaways, reflating or isolating capitalist flotsam and jetsam, and the tax coddling of the rich-- result in the risk of any future essential spending on human needs becoming inflationary. Crowding out relief for the masses while partnering with monopoly capital is the signature of state-monopoly capitalism.

The return of inflation has quieted the idealist-left’s infatuation with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), the notion that spending on peoples’ needs could come at no cost to the bourgeoisie, its minions, and the bloated capitalist state.

Adherents saw the massive spending on resuscitating crisis-ridden capitalism with no apparent serious effect on prices and concluded that the same kind of spending could support social welfare programs with no inflationary consequences. 

They overlooked the context. Massive Federal Reserve spending took place to address a profoundly deflationary systemic crisis. 

From the MMT perspective, it is not necessary to curb insane military spending or tax the rich. Waving the magic wand of MMT will permit solving all of capitalism’s irrationalities and injustices, while meeting the people’s needs through deficit spending. Candide’s best of all possible worlds is in the MMT theorist’s grasp.

The harsh reality of inflation upends this utopian dream. Another bad idea dashed. 

If it seems like the US left is addicted to bad ideas, it’s because most of the think-tankers, academic gurus, and labor polemicists that influence the broad left deny that gains for the majority come from a zero-sum game-- the wealthy and powerful must lose for the rest of us to win. They pretend that there are roads to social justice that pass through regions of social harmony and equitable sacrifice, a long-held principle that keeps people in the Democratic Party orbit. They look for shortcuts that will avoid a direct confrontation-- class struggle-- while still challenging capitalism’s privilege to dictate human affairs. When, in fact, we must challenge its very existence.

This misguided approach guarantees that bad ideas steeped in idealism will dominate-- ideas that promise success, without pain or confrontation.

MMT will not magically solve the problem of inequality; a chain of coops will not defeat monopoly capital; and two-party theatrics will not establish real democracy.

We need bigger and better ideas for those tasks.

With a near future of a crippling price rise motivated by exploding profits, a do-little political stratum obsessed with fund-raising and securing the approval of the rich and powerful, and a murderous, gangster foreign policy motivated by service to global capitalism, we can’t afford the luxury of toying with bad ideas.  

Greg Godels

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Rabble! An Exhilarating Novel of the Paris Commune

Karl Marx wrote about the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871: “Working men's Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society.”

This year, 2021, marks the 150th anniversary of that singular event. For far too many in our moment, the Commune remains only a harbinger and not a reality. The setbacks to Marx’s vision at the end of the last century continue to cast a gloomy cloud over the prospects for the new society.

Nonetheless, the inspiration of the Paris Commune, the daring example of working people taking power, the sacrifices and martyrdom of the most committed of the Parisian workers is one of those timeless stories that will again and again awaken the minds of working people to the possible.

Now we have that account retold in the impressive new novel by Geoffrey Fox, a US fiction writer, essayist, and union activist.

Rabble! A Story of the Paris Commune
(Matador, 2021) is a twenty-first century screenplay waiting for a worthy producer and director. Fox recounts the events leading to the declaration of the Commune on March 18, 1871 through the bloody week ending the Commune two months later.

We see the events unfold through the actions of real Communards like Élisabeth Dmitrieff, Nathalie Lemel, Eugène Varlin, Jules Vallès, Louise Michel as well as through the eyes of credible fictional figures that carry the narrative forward. Fox principally employs the constructs of a young bookbinder, Étienne, in awe of Varlin, who he once saw speak, and his co-worker and partner, Rose. Various other fictional workers populate the account that Fox offers, adding dimensions and texture.

A thoughtful police commissaire, an aspiring singer, and an opportunistic journalist provide a political counterpoint to the awakening workers.

While Fox is clearly a partisan of the Commune, he neither patronizes nor romanticizes the story, highlighting both the heroics and the tragedy.

Most impressive is Fox’s command of details, creating a remarkably accurate picture of life in Paris in the 1870s: the process of bookbinding, the patois, the dress, the geography, etc.

While the Commune’s politics were varied, Fox underscores the vital role of both the Blanquistes-- the followers of the left Communist, Auguste Blanqui-- and the Internationalists-- the followers of the International Workingmen's Association (1st International). Both political tendencies advocated for a tight organizational approach and aggressive military action, though they were in the minority in the Commune’s leadership.

Rabble! captures a growing sense of the possible with the workers of Paris, without understating the uncertainty, fear, vacillation, and indifference of many. Revolution is not a choreographed romantic adventure, but an audacious leap into untrodden terrain, foretelling equally liberation or tragic failure.

In the case of the Commune, it was a tragedy, but a tragedy that continues to inspire many to cast off cynicism and defeatism, to seek even a small role today-- a perhaps, one day, forgotten role-- in la lutte finale.

Fox’s novel closes with the bloody week-- la semaine sanglante-- in which the overthrow of the Commune is capped by the ruthlessness of the victors, the retribution of France’s rich and powerful through the agency of its traitorous military.

One can dream that an imaginative, daring film producer would assign a sympathetic director-- of the integrity of Leigh, Sayles, or Loach-- to turn Rabble! into a wonderful movie. Given the cesspool that passes as the film industry today, that will likely remain only a dream.

In the meantime, a worthy option is encountering Geoffrey Fox’s intelligent novel, Rabble!

Greg Godels

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Forty-Seven Trillion Dollars: Exploitation Writ Large

“Exploitation” is a word seldom encountered today. Its common usage roughly spans the heyday of socialist thinking, especially the era of Marx’s influence over socialist theory. It was and should still be the cornerstone of Marx’s critique of capitalism.

But the idea of labor exploitation-- capitalists taking uncompensated advantage of workers’ labor-- has largely disappeared outside of the Communist Parties. It is more common to find the word attached to sexual or animal abuse, cultural appropriation, or other sins outside the bounds of class. But class exploitation, the structural exploitation once fruitfully viewed as the centerpiece of capitalist relations of production, the basis for the era of capitalism, is out of fashion with today’s Western left.

That’s not to deny a concerted outrage over inequality of income and wealth; certainly, the broad spectrum of opinion from the center to the left decries the vast gap between the obscenely wealthy and those equally obscenely impoverished. But there is little attention paid to how that enormous chasm is produced and continually reproduced. Nor is there much imagination of life without it.

Hopefully that might change.

A recent article in Time magazine-- a popularization of a scholarly paper from the staid, ultra-conservative Rand Corporation-- declares dramatically in sensational headlines: America’s 1% Has Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90%.

The Rand paper, Trends in Incomes From 1975 to 2018 argues with a great deal more nuance, but equal force, that if the thirty-year (1945-1975) trend of household income distribution had been maintained over the next forty-two years (1976-2018), the bottom 90% would have earned $47 trillion more over that period! 

Put another way, the bottom 90% would have received 67% more income than it actually did in the one year, 2018-- the final year of the study; those below the upper 10% threshold would share $2.5 trillion more than they actually received for their labor, $2.5 trillion in 2018 that went instead into the bank accounts of the highest 10% of earners.

As the authors of the Time article emphasize,
“This is not some back-of-the-napkin approximation…”, but a rigorous conclusion based upon the premise that 1945 to 1975 was a period of relative stability of inequality. That is, in the thirty-year post-war period, the gap between the rich and everyone else grew little and declined little. The French elites celebrate a similar era in Europe with the expression “les trente glorieuse”-- the thirty glorious years of relative prosperity. The majority maintained its lower status, but lost little ground to the rich.

While the Rand authors, C. Price and K. Edwards, do not explain this ‘equilibrium’ of inequality, an explanation is readily at hand. The Western powers were in an intense, winner-take-all competition with socialism and its friends after World War II. The ruling classes made an unspoken compact with respective labor movements in Europe and the US that they would encourage the idea that labor’s income would move proportionally with increases in productivity, effectively “freezing” social inequality in place.

In return, labor was expected to accommodate, even participate in Cold War foreign policy and embrace capitalism. In the political sphere, this compact guaranteed that the urge to reform or change would be contained in the Democratic Party or the European Social Democracies. Where mass Communist Parties emerged, the securities services would go to any length to aid and abet the center-left in denying them access to power.

In the US, the informal compact produced the purging of the left in the labor movement, cultural and intellectual conformity, and entrenchment of the two-party system.

As Price and Edwards demonstrate, the stability of income distribution, of class-income differences, changed dramatically after 1975. Income distribution shifted sharply to the benefit of the top 10% and even more so to the top 1%. The shift was so great in the post-1975 period that the authors calculate that 90% lost $47 trillion by 2018. But, again, they have no clear and comprehensive explanation, beyond noting that the “rise in inequality has been attributed to many different factors including technological advancement, decline in union membership, and globalization.”

While these conventionally cited factors may well have played some role in the shift in income distribution, they were hardly sufficient to explain the extremely sharp turn that Price and Edwards show.

Rather, the reversal came with the profound economic crisis of the 1970s: the oil crisis and intractable stagnation and inflation, two conditions that conventional economics (then Keynesian-influenced) could not even conceive of as occurring together. The concurrent fall in the rate of profit forced a radical reexamination of policy on the part of the ruling class (in the US as well as Europe). Welfare policies and class accommodation were jettisoned for a raw, no-holds barred assault on the income and living standards of the 90%.

With the decline and disappearance of Soviet and Eastern European power, a decade or more later, the last elements of the post-war compact with labor and its allies were also jettisoned. The US ruling class perceived no need for any further accommodation with US working people. Capital mobility and the availability of an enormous new pool of skilled, but low-cost labor capped the period and placed enormous pressure on the incomes of Price and Edward’s 90%. Labor unions received this shock treatment and, without a militant left, struggled to respond. New logistical technologies smoothed the way for a sharp increase in global trade, investments, and job migration.

While Price and Edwards struggle with an explanation for the qualitative changes that occurred after 1975, Marxist theory offers a ready answer. Capital mounted a concerted offensive in the 1970s resulting in a massive increase in the rate of exploitation in response to a profound crisis and the failure of the policies of the immediate postwar era to answer that crisis. 

With the rate of profit under siege, the US ruling class unilaterally cast aside the Cold War compromises and ruthlessly attacked the income and living standards of the working-class majority. Wages have been essentially stagnant since the 1970s, while productivity and national product have grown, filling the coffers of the corporations and the bank accounts of the rich.

Characterizing this period as the rise of “neoliberalism,” as much of the left favors, obfuscates the deeper processes that spawned the dramatic shift in the rate of exploitation, the appropriation of an additional $47 trillion from one class to another in a forty-two year span. It wasn’t an intellectual victory in the policy wars, a spark of evil intent, the domination of the political right, or a temporary or contingent aberration of capitalism, but a strategic adaptation-- accepted by nearly the entire ruling class and its political minions-- in the appropriation of surplus value-- the exploitation of labor-- that accounts for the dramatic gains of the capitalist class and its hangers-on. 

Though they were agents in the change, Carter, Reagan, and Thatcher were only the faces of another stage in capitalism’s course correction. Those who think that the super-exploitation exposed by Price and Edwards can be tempered by a return to the “glory” of the immediate postwar period fail to understand the logic of capitalism. That period has long given way to a new dynamic. 

But the Price and Edward revelations succeed in exposing an important point. If the super-exploitation of the last forty-two years-- the appropriation of the $47 trillion-- is recognized as unjust, as the Time headline suggests, then the “ordinary” exploitation of the previous period is equally unjust since both lead directly to inequalities.

There is no escaping the conclusion that the economic inequality that more and more people are rejecting is itself deeply rooted in capitalism and its profit-generating, exploitative mechanism. Surely the scope of super-exploitation that Price and Edwards spotlight should challenge the legitimacy of capitalism, not only as it is today, but also how it was before it took a vicious turn. 

Greg Godels