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Thursday, December 21, 2023

Socialism, Democracy, and the Division of Labor

Professor Richard Wolff is a prominent, influential intellectual, with a big following on the left. He is an erudite, clear, and passionate speaker and writer. He is well-regarded for his exposition of Marx’s ideas-- a “go to” when the media tolerates a conversation critical of capitalism, one even advocating “socialism.”

For all of that, he does not represent Marx’s thought well, nor does he offer a viable, serious alternative to capitalism.

It is not a question of Wolff’s scholarship or his commitment to justice. It is, instead, a deep-seated, unwavering hostility to the real existing socialism of the twentieth century and the century’s leading Marxist exponents, the Communists. Of course, Wolff is not alone in this prejudice-- and it is a prejudice and not a reasoned conclusion. Since the intense US Red Scare of the 1950s, since the demonization of everything even vaguely linked to Soviet power or Communist and Workers’ Parties, this prejudice has contaminated social, cultural, and political life in this country. Every radical upsurge was forced to or willingly submitted to ABC: Anything But Communism. 

In its place, US leftists embraced a kind of radical democracy: the view that bringing the furniture of formal democracy-- “one person, one vote, full participation, and majority rule,” quoting Wolff-- into every institution, every practice, every activity-- would in due time sweep away the exploitation, the inequalities, the indignities of capitalism. Radical, comprehensive democratic practices would be necessary and substantially sufficient to trigger the march to socialism.

There is evidence that Marx and Engels once also believed that universal suffrage alone (as advocated by the Chartist movement in England) would be an adequate measure on the road to overcoming capitalism. Their practical experience in the 1848 revolutions and the lessons of the Paris Commune dispelled that illusion. They concluded that a revolutionary defeat of the existing order and the replacement of that order with a democracy in the service of the working class would be necessary for moving beyond capitalism. The furniture of formal democracy was sometimes useful, but often unreliable elements in that endeavor. Marx and Engels did not presume that bourgeois democracy would advance those interests or protect them.

But with anti-Communism established as the national religion of the US, generations of US leftists, from the sixties’ SDS to Occupy and DSA, were hostile to Soviet socialism and repelled by Communist ideology. As a result, a “rethought” Marxism became the nourishment for young activists and the sustenance of veteran Cold War radicals. The expansion of certain democratic practices served and serves as the lodestar of these movements.

Professor Wolff rose to prominence in this milieu and it is reflected in his thought. 

A recent brief and commendably clear statement of Wolff’s views on the presumed shortcomings of real, existing twentieth-century socialism appears in the article, Socialism’s Self Criticism and Real Democracy. Originally appearing in City Watch, the piece has achieved wide currency: Economy for All, CounterPunch, LA Progressive, NewsClick, Countercurrents, Eurasia Review, and many others.

Because he takes it as a settled truth that the socialist countries lacked “real democracy,” Wolff poses the following challenge:

A certain irony of history made the absence of real democracy in socialist countries an ongoing target of many socialists in those countries…

Because this time it is many socialists who make the encounter, they ask why modern socialism, a social movement critical of capitalism’s lack of real democracy, would itself merit a parallel criticism. Why have socialist experiments to date produced a self-criticism focused on their inability to create and maintain authentic democratic systems??

Wolff searches for an explanation for this presumed lack of democracy in “socialist experiments.” The search takes him to a common feature of capitalism and socialism (and he sometimes seems to suggest in previous social formations): “The answer lies in the employer-employee relationship.”

The employer-employee relation is indeed often a feature of capitalist and socialist enterprises. Soviet enterprises had managers who presumably hired individuals at state-owned enterprises. No doubt, it could have reflected a hierarchical relationship; it could have reflected a relation of dominance; and, further, it could have reflected the exploitation relationship. But it need not do so simply because of the existence of an employer/employee relationship. That can easily be shown with a simple, mundane hypothetical example:

Faced with a plumbing catastrophe, Jones engages the Smith Plumbing Company. Jones hires Smith’s firm to fix the kitchen sink. Jones employs Smith and company; Smith sends a worker, an employee (but not an employee of Jones), to make the repair. Jones is the employer and Smith’s company is his/her employee. Yet there is no hierarchy, no dominance, nor any exploitation by Jones.

Further, Smith has five employees, who Smith lords over, dominates, and exploits. Here, the employer-employee relationship generates entirely different, negative socially-significant outcomes. 

We have one innocuous, one exploitative employer/employee relationship. 

Why does the employer/employee distinction fail to reveal anything relevant regarding real democracy or the struggle for socialism?

The character of employment, the nominal expression for the employer/employee relationship, is historically determined by the division of labor. Under capitalism, its character is tied to the exploitation relationship. That is, given that ownership of enterprises resides with private individuals or groups, owners establish employer/employee relations as hierarchical, dominating, and exploitative to secure surplus value. Capitalists engage this particular division of labor to secure their ends.

But, presumably, under socialism, with social ownership of enterprises, a non-antagonistic, non-exploitative employer/employee relationship could be established strictly based on the division of labor. The “employer”/manager could be determined by credentials, test-results, past experience, past performance, seniority, or a host of other relevant, merit-based terms. 

Formal democratic procedure is, thus, no unique, magic elixir. In these circumstances, Wolff’s democratic procedure-- election of “employer” -- might well clash with merit and/or efficiency.

That is surely why Marx and Engels placed exploitation and the relations between capitalists (owners of enterprises) and the proletariat (the workers) at the center of their analysis. They attend little specifically to the employer/employee relationship, except when it is shorthand for this exploitation nexus. 

Moreover, Marx and Engels (and many of their successors) believed that a revolution was the most democratic expression of the popular will-- what Wolff might want to call “real democracy.” While they would undoubtedly find setbacks to democracy in the historical trajectory of twentieth-century socialism, they would also have seen the removal of the power of the capitalist class and the end of labor exploitation as marking the most broadly democratic advance since the French revolution. 

Where Wolff sees a surfeit of democracy (“socialism’s self-criticism”), others see a harbinger of a far more democratic future. Wolff says correctly: “Democracy is incompatible with class-divided economic systems.” I would add that democracy is only possible with the elimination of class-divided economic systems. 

Fixated on democratic form, Professor Wolff is led away from the democratic content of Marxist socialism and its realization in real, existing socialism. Further, he fixates on a particular democratic form associated with the capitalist republic that may or may not be the best mechanism for exercising the will or interests of the working class. Every revolutionary generation is faced with a different set of challenges. Nation-states typically suffer or gain from uneven development, as Lenin always stressed. The advance of industrialization, the degree of poverty, the levels of education, external and internal opposition, complex social strata, national conflict, and a host of other factors make the choice of democratic form a test for the first and later generations of revolutionaries.

Western Marxists, often quick to measure all by the democratic forms established by the bourgeois revolutions of past centuries, just as often fail to grasp these complexities. They are willing to forgo pressing the socialist project for the “purity” of so-called “real democracy.”

In Wolff’s case, he chooses to secure this purity by basing his anti-capitalism around the idea of worker-owned cooperatives. To be sure, they could meet the cherished standards of “one person, one vote, full participation, and majority rule” in ways that the ultimate class conflict-- the overthrow of capitalism-- might not. It is possible that cooperatives can and do establish and survive on the margins of the capitalist system, but only a dreamer believes that these worker utopias will ever seriously challenge the behemoth of monopoly capitalism. 

Wolff is not alone in retailing a polite version of Marxism rather than the radical ideas that the working class so desperately needs.

Greg Godels

Friday, December 8, 2023

The Age of Hypocrisy: Liberalism and Its Discontents

These are difficult, perilous, and frustrating times. Many cherished beliefs are coming unraveled. Many once-shared values are no longer shared. And distrust of unshakeable institutions is widespread. 

Yet it was only a little more than three decades ago that North America and European intellectuals joined in acknowledging the triumph of the Western world’s “gift” to all: political and economic liberalism. For nearly half a century, Western liberalism had waged a “cold” war against the most serious challenge to its dominance. Apart from the fascist counter-revolution of the 1930s against political liberalism, no movement shook the Western liberal establishment and its self-confidence as did revolutionary socialism. Seemingly, that threat ended in 1991.

In that crowning moment, many saw the values of the European enlightenment as proven to be universal and timeless. It was Francis Fukuyama who boldly stated the unstated in 1992: history had found its dialectical resolution with the victory of capitalism and its political institutions. 

If it was a victory in the minds of many, it was a victory in two respects: it proved that there were states-- nested in two continents, Europe and North America-- that won because they adhered to and promoted the victorious values and also that those values were, in fact, the most advanced, most righteous values of all time.

Europe’s sordid twentieth-century history of imperialism, war, and inhumanity make for a poor example of sustaining enlightenment thought, of meeting standards of equality, democracy, and social justice.

The US, on the other hand, embracing its isolation from European misanthropy, celebrating its youth, vigor, and revolutionary tradition, and whitewashing its own destruction of indigenous peoples, posed as the paragon of political and economic liberalism. Fixated on continental expansion (displacing native peoples), the US came late to the global imperialist scramble, relying more on economic coercion than military might in international affairs. 

With some merit, the US points to its progress: its endurance through a great civil war to cast off the bonds of chattel slavery, its past openness to immigration, its uninterrupted history of electoral practice and enduring social and political stability. Of course, on closer inspection, none of these glories bear the weight that they carry within the national mythology. 

Nonetheless, for better or worse, they have stood as the best example of the West living up to standards set by the revolutionary transition from feudal despotism, from economic backwardness, and from religious oppression. The US Declaration of Independence remains one of the most advanced ideological reflections of those moments.

Ironically, soon after the dissolution of the USSR-- the ending of a great struggle for the allegiance of billions of people-- that US liberal image was quickly and greatly tarnished beyond repair. With the need to show an enlightened face to the world apparently gone, the mask came off, revealing a country ruled by an intolerant, privileged, and rapacious ruling class with little regard for the long-professed values of classical liberalism. 

A refreshed militarism constructed around a ludicrous war on “terrorism” shaped a destructive, bullying foreign policy. The blowback jihadist attack upon US civilians in 2001 served as the excuse for a government war on citizens’ privacy and civil liberties that was unprecedented in its sweep and its technological sophistication. Little attempt, beyond a feeble, transparent weapons-of-mass-destruction lie, was made to clothe the unprovoked 2003 invasion of Iraq. After only a few years of the twenty-first century, an Orwellian curtain had dropped on US public and private life. The myth that the US was never an aggressor was in tatters.

Both Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib destroyed another myth, the deception that the liberal icon would never torture its prisoners. Philosophical musings about the efficacy of torture were no longer hypothetical. 

US pundits freely embraced imperialism, speaking openly of the Old World and ancient empires as precedents for US intervention globally and for the US role as global arbiter and enforcer. The US refused to accept international courts’ findings or democratically determined United Nations resolutions as binding. The negative findings of human rights organizations-- willing, useful tools in the Cold War-- were shrugged off when they were even modestly critical of US practices.

Liberalism’s promise of universality and equality before the law was shattered by an explosion of racially skewed, draconian incarcerations in the 1990s, filling the US prison system beyond capacity and making a mockery of judicial process and fairness. 

The vast inequalities of wealth and income in the US-- rising geometrically over the last fifty years-- are like sand in the gears of the heralded liberal political mechanism: frequent, informed, and trusted elections. As more than half of the jaded citizens do not bother to register or vote, as election to most significant offices requires a campaign investment well beyond the means of most citizens, as most candidates have sold their souls to wealthy funders, as the media sensationalizes and trivializes issues, the value of “democratic” procedures diminishes sharply. 

The sharpest edge of these economic inequalities strikes those minority populations historically denied full participation in civic life-- the center-piece of liberalism. Racism, anti-immigrant nationalism, and intolerance rage through the former liberal bastions of Europe and North America.

The failings of economic liberalism have only added to the stresses on political liberalism. Global capitalism has endured several severe shocks since the dawn of the twenty-first century: financial crises, debt crises, and now inflation. 

Contrary to Francis Fukuyama and other smug celebrants of Communism’s “demise,” the wheels began to rapidly fall off of the liberal train. By 2023, confidence in the destiny of liberalism had collapsed. 

Voters have little recourse but to stay the course or to turn to a new populism with one foot in the past (“Make America Great Again!”) and one foot in the promise of a vague, shapeless future without the corruption and hypocrisy of the mainstream parties.

To be sure, hip, youth-driven new movements arose to meet the collapse of mainstream consensus, promising new, fresh wine in shiny new bottles. Movements like OCCUPY and formations like SYRIZA, PODEMOS, and FIVE STAR dazzled many with their ultra-liberal, ultra-tolerant agenda, aimed at an educated middle and upper-middle strata economically relatively secure, but pushing past older lifestyle and cultural frontiers. When these movements matured, often into politically influential parties confronting the old guard, they proved to be the same old wine, leaving their supporters with an ugly taste.

Today’s politics are at a miserable impasse, with much noise and fractiousness, but, nonetheless, still contained in the narrow vessel of classical liberalism in one flavor or another. Remarkably, the unease among the intellectual strata and the anger of the citizenry has stoked a kind of tribalism. Academics and pundits write and speak of saving “our democracy” as though anyone believes that we can have democracy when candidates, votes, and the news are bought and sold. Their right-wing-oriented counterparts celebrate the sanctity and virtues of the US Constitution, as though it were from God rather than enlightenment reason.

But left and right, in the confines of mainstream politics, are now ready to cast away the tolerance and civility of liberalism to thwart-- even proscribe-- their political opponents. Freedom of expression, of speech, of association, of advocacy carry little value in today’s sordid world with liberalism’s most self-righteous advocates violating liberalism’s most sacred values and supporting censorship and cancellation. 

The once hallowed doctrine of rights has been stretched so far beyond human rights as to be trivial and meaningless, by including corporations, all organic creatures, and even inanimate objects. All now widely accepted to be rights-bearers.

Liberty-- the cornerstone of liberal constitutions-- is today divorced from its roots in liberation and reduced to personalized and individualized self-indulgence, the decadent product of corporate consumerism.

The few remaining true-believing liberals-- people like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi-- are roasted by all sides for their defense of free speech for everyone and “neutral” journalism. In an age of gross hypocrisy, they are true naïfs.

If Karl Marx were alive, he would not be surprised by this turn. He associated classical liberalism’s emergence with the origin and maturation of capitalism. The rise of the bourgeoisie as a class spawned its own ideology, an ideology that broke the chains of hereditary noble privilege and religious obscurantism, and spread hope for the masses consigned to an unchanging future of peasant labor and grinding poverty. That hope for working people-- based on the potential of natural, universal human rights, fraternity, and universal suffrage-- served to cement the alliance of the bourgeoisie with working people against the nobility and its supporters. 

Bourgeois ideology, classical liberalism, challenged the foundations of Medieval privilege based on Divine Right and on fixed stations in life. In place of the old thinking, enlightenment thinkers proposed natural rights-- the social counterparts to the natural laws of the emerging sciences. Like the laws of nature, social laws were to be grounded in reason and not God or birthright.

For Western societies, the new ideology was a welcome gift, broadening political participation, enhancing social mobility, freeing economic and scientific development, and creating more democratic political institutions. Accompanying these advances came a conceit that the ascendant classes had revealed universal truths, that the new economic, social, and political orders were the best that could be devised.

Bourgeois academics have been obsessed with providing a rational foundation for this conceit for centuries, but without success.

The young Karl Marx would have none of it; writing dismissively of the bourgeois fetish for natural rights in Bruno Bauer, Die Judenfrage, he said: “None of the supposed rights of man, therefore, go beyond the egoistic man… that is, an individual separated from the community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accord with his private caprice…” 

He recognized that the bourgeois social apparatus-- classical liberalism-- “fit” and served, in its time, the emancipation, the liberation of the bourgeois class and to a limited degree the working class. But he also recognized that it was limited by its class perspective. With property and the sanctity of private ownership at the center of classical liberalism, the emancipation of humanity could not be completed. 

In the revolutions of 1848 that rocked Europe, all three classes-- the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and the proletariat-- participated and forged temporary, unstable alliances to secure their diverse goals, a time beautifully captured by Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. But the differences between the ascending bourgeois order and a future proletarian order were tersely conveyed by the popular slogan: “Not freedom to read, but freedom to feed!” 

Today, capitalism is moribund. Its decline was in plain sight in the last decades of the twentieth century, only to be lifted by its expansion in People’s China and the counter-revolution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, capitalism’s ability to deliver an adequate standard of living, safety, and security grows weaker with every economic crisis and war. It should come as no surprise that its political and social superstructure, inclusive of the ideologies of economic and political liberalism, would also be in crisis, showing similar signs of decline and dysfunction.

Just as political liberalism rose with the ascent of capitalism, it is falling with capitalism’s decline. The cancer of corruption and greed, the rot of political practice, and the decadence of culture and social media ensure the further demise of the institutions of classical liberalism. 

What will replace them?

It is a good time to recall and consider Rosa Luxemburg’s words: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” 

Greg Godels