Marxism

21
Oct















Grey Eminence, or Theory at the Top

By N. S. Lyons
Palladium
October 2021

One day in August 2021, Zhao Wei disappeared. For one of China’s best-known actresses to physically vanish from public view would have been enough to cause a stir on its own. But Zhao’s disappearing act was far more thorough: overnight, she was erased from the internet. Her Weibo social media page, with its 86 million followers, went offline, as did fan sites dedicated to her. Searches for her many films and television shows returned no results on streaming sites. Zhao’s name was scrubbed from the credits of projects she had appeared in or directed, replaced with a blank space. Online discussions uttering her name were censored. Suddenly, little trace remained that the 45-year-old celebrity had ever existed.

She wasn’t alone. Other Chinese entertainers also began to vanish as Chinese government regulators announced a “heightened crackdown” intended to dispense with “vulgar internet celebrities” promoting lascivious lifestyles and to “resolve the problem of chaos” created by online fandom culture. Those imitating the effeminate or androgynous aesthetics of Korean boyband stars—colorfully referred to as “xiao xian rou,” or “little fresh meat”—were next to go, with the government vowing to “resolutely put an end to sissy men” appearing on the screens of China’s impressionable youth.

Zhao and her unfortunate compatriots in the entertainment industry were caught up in something far larger than themselves: a sudden wave of new government policies that are currently upending Chinese life in what state media has characterized as a “profound transformation” of the country. Officially referred to as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Common Prosperity” campaign, this transformation is proceeding along two parallel lines: a vast regulatory crackdown roiling the private sector economy and a broader moralistic effort to reengineer Chinese culture from the top down.

But why is this “profound transformation” happening? And why now? Most analysis has focused on one man: Xi and his seemingly endless personal obsession with political control. The overlooked answer, however, is that this is indeed the culmination of decades of thinking and planning by a very powerful man—but that man is not Xi Jinping.

The Grey Eminence

Wang Huning much prefers the shadows to the limelight. An insomniac and workaholic, former friends and colleagues describe the bespectacled, soft-spoken political theorist as introverted and obsessively discreet. It took former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s repeated entreaties to convince the brilliant then-young academic—who spoke wistfully of following the traditional path of a Confucian scholar, aloof from politics—to give up academia in the early 1990s and join the Chinese Communist Party regime instead. When he finally did so, Wang cut off nearly all contact with his former connections, stopped publishing and speaking publicly, and implemented a strict policy of never speaking to foreigners at all. Behind this veil of carefully cultivated opacity, it’s unsurprising that so few people in the West know of Wang, let alone know him personally.

Yet Wang Huning is arguably the single most influential “public intellectual” alive today.

A member of the CCP’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, he is China’s top ideological theorist, quietly credited as being the “ideas man” behind each of Xi’s signature political concepts, including the “China Dream,” the anti-corruption campaign, the Belt and Road Initiative, a more assertive foreign policy, and even “Xi Jinping Thought.” Scrutinize any photograph of Xi on an important trip or at a key meeting and one is likely to spot Wang there in the background, never far from the leader’s side.

Wang has thus earned comparisons to famous figures of Chinese history like Zhuge Liang and Han Fei (historians dub the latter “China’s Machiavelli”) who similarly served behind the throne as powerful strategic advisers and consiglieres—a position referred to in Chinese literature as dishi: “Emperor’s Teacher.” Such a figure is just as readily recognizable in the West as an éminence grise (“grey eminence”), in the tradition of Tremblay, Talleyrand, Metternich, Kissinger, or Vladimir Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov.

But what is singularly remarkable about Wang is that he’s managed to serve in this role of court philosopher to not just one, but all three of China’s previous top leaders, including as the pen behind Jiang Zemin’s signature “Three Represents” policy and Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious Society.”

In the brutally cutthroat world of CCP factional politics, this is an unprecedented feat. Wang was recruited into the party by Jiang’s “Shanghai Gang,” a rival faction that Xi worked to ruthlessly purge after coming to power in 2012; many prominent members, like former security chief Zhou Yongkang and former vice security minister Sun Lijun, have ended up in prison. Meanwhile, Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League Faction has also been heavily marginalized as Xi’s faction has consolidated control. Yet Wang Huning remains. More than any other, it is this fact that reveals the depth of his impeccable political cunning.

And the fingerprints of China’s Grey Eminence on the Common Prosperity campaign are unmistakable. While it’s hard to be certain what Wang really believes today inside his black box, he was once an immensely prolific author, publishing nearly 20 books along with numerous essays. And the obvious continuity between the thought in those works and what’s happening in China today says something fascinating about how Beijing has come to perceive the world through the eyes of Wang Huning.

Cultural Competence

While other Chinese teenagers spent the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) “sent down to the countryside” to dig ditches and work on farms, Wang Huning studied French at an elite foreign-language training school near his hometown of Shanghai, spending his days reading banned foreign literary classics secured for him by his teachers. Born in 1955 to a revolutionary family from Shandong, he was a sickly, bookish youth; this, along with his family’s connections, seems to have secured him a pass from hard labor.

When China’s shuttered universities reopened in 1978, following the commencement of “reform and opening” by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, Wang was among the first to take the restored national university entrance exam, competing with millions for a chance to return to higher learning. He passed so spectacularly that Shanghai’s Fudan University, one of China’s top institutions, admitted him into its prestigious international politics master’s program despite having never completed a bachelor’s degree.

The thesis work he completed at Fudan, which would become his first book, traced the development of the Western concept of national sovereignty from antiquity to the present day—including from Gilgamesh through Socrates, Aristotle, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hegel, and Marx—and contrasted it with Chinese conceptions of the idea. The work would become the foundation for many of his future theories of the nation-state and international relations.

But Wang was also beginning to pick up the strands of what would become another core thread of his life’s work: the necessary centrality of culture, tradition, and value structures to political stability.

Wang elaborated on these ideas in a 1988 essay, “The Structure of China’s Changing Political Culture,” which would become one of his most cited works. In it, he argued that the CCP must urgently consider how society’s “software” (culture, values, attitudes) shapes political destiny as much as its “hardware” (economics, systems, institutions). While seemingly a straightforward idea, this was notably a daring break from the materialism of orthodox Marxism.

Examining China in the midst of Deng’s rapid opening to the world, Wang perceived a country “in a state of transformation” from “an economy of production to an economy of consumption,” while evolving “from a spiritually oriented culture to a materially oriented culture,” and “from a collectivist culture to an individualistic culture.”

Meanwhile, he believed that the modernization of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was effectively leaving China without any real cultural direction at all. “There are no core values in China’s most recent structure,” he warned. This could serve only to dissolve societal and political cohesion.

That, he said, was untenable. Warning that “the components of the political culture shaped by the Cultural Revolution came to be divorced from the source that gave birth to this culture, as well as from social demands, social values, and social relations”—and thus “the results of the adoption of Marxism were not always positive”—he argued that, “Since 1949, we have criticized the core values of the classical and modern structures, but have not paid enough attention to shaping our own core values.” Therefore: “we must create core values.” Ideally, he concluded, “We must combine the flexibility of [China’s] traditional values with the modern spirit [both Western and Marxist].”

But at this point, like many during those heady years of reform and opening, he remained hopeful that liberalism could play a positive role in China, writing that his recommendations could allow “the components of the modern structure that embody the spirit of modern democracy and humanism [to] find the support they need to take root and grow.”

That would soon change.

A Dark Vision

Also in 1988, Wang—having risen with unprecedented speed to become Fudan’s youngest full professor at age 30—won a coveted scholarship (facilitated by the American Political Science Association) to spend six months in the United States as a visiting scholar. Profoundly curious about America, Wang took full advantage, wandering about the country like a sort of latter-day Chinese Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities.

What he found deeply disturbed him, permanently shifting his view of the West and the consequences of its ideas.

Wang recorded his observations in a memoir that would become his most famous work: the 1991 book America Against America. In it, he marvels at homeless encampments in the streets of Washington DC, out-of-control drug crime in poor black neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco, and corporations that seemed to have fused themselves to and taken over responsibilities of government. Eventually, he concludes that America faces an “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” produced by its societal contradictions, including between rich and poor, white and black, democratic and oligarchic power, egalitarianism and class privilege, individual rights and collective responsibilities, cultural traditions and the solvent of liquid modernity.

But while Americans can, he says, perceive that they are faced with “intricate social and cultural problems,” they “tend to think of them as scientific and technological problems” to be solved separately. This gets them nowhere, he argues, because their problems are in fact all inextricably interlinked and have the same root cause: a radical, nihilistic individualism at the heart of modern American liberalism.

“The real cell of society in the United States is the individual,” he finds. This is so because the cell most foundational (per Aristotle) to society, “the family, has disintegrated.” Meanwhile, in the American system, “everything has a dual nature, and the glamour of high commodification abounds. Human flesh, sex, knowledge, politics, power, and law can all become the target of commodification.” This “commodification, in many ways, corrupts society and leads to a number of serious social problems.” In the end, “the American economic system has created human loneliness” as its foremost product, along with spectacular inequality. As a result, “nihilism has become the American way, which is a fatal shock to cultural development and the American spirit.”

Moreover, he says that the “American spirit is facing serious challenges” from new ideational competitors. Reflecting on the universities he visited and quoting approvingly from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, he notes a growing tension between Enlightenment liberal rationalism and a “younger generation [that] is ignorant of traditional Western values” and actively rejects its cultural inheritance. “If the value system collapses,” he wonders, “how can the social system be sustained?”

Ultimately, he argues, when faced with critical social issues like drug addiction, America’s atomized, deracinated, and dispirited society has found itself with “an insurmountable problem” because it no longer has any coherent conceptual grounds from which to mount any resistance.

Once idealistic about America, at the start of 1989 the young Wang returned to China and, promoted to Dean of Fudan’s International Politics Department, became a leading opponent of liberalization.

He began to argue that China had to resist global liberal influence and become a culturally unified and self-confident nation governed by a strong, centralized party-state. He would develop these ideas into what has become known as China’s “Neo-Authoritarian” movement—though Wang never used the term, identifying himself with China’s “Neo-Conservatives.” This reflected his desire to blend Marxist socialism with traditional Chinese Confucian values and Legalist political thought, maximalist Western ideas of state sovereignty and power, and nationalism in order to synthesize a new basis for long-term stability and growth immune to Western liberalism.

“He was most concerned with the question of how to manage China,” one former Fudan student recalls. “He was suggesting that a strong, centralized state is necessary to hold this society together. He spent every night in his office and didn’t do anything else.”

Wang’s timing couldn’t have been more auspicious. Only months after his return, China’s own emerging contradictions exploded into view in the form of student protests in Tiananmen Square. After PLA tanks crushed the dreams of liberal democracy sprouting in China, CCP leadership began searching desperately for a new political model on which to secure the regime. They soon turned to Wang Huning.

When Wang won national acclaim by leading a university debate team to victory in an international competition in Singapore in 1993, he caught the attention of Jiang Zemin, who had become party leader after Tiananmen. Wang, having defeated National Taiwan University by arguing that human nature is inherently evil, foreshadowed that, “While Western modern civilization can bring material prosperity, it doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement in character.” Jiang plucked him from the university and, at the age of 40, he was granted a leadership position in the CCP’s secretive Central Policy Research Office, putting him on an inside track into the highest echelons of power.

Wang Huning’s Nightmare

From the smug point of view of millions who now inhabit the Chinese internet, Wang’s dark vision of American dissolution was nothing less than prophetic. When they look to the U.S., they no longer see a beacon of liberal democracy standing as an admired symbol of a better future. That was the impression of those who created the famous “Goddess of Democracy,” with her paper-mâché torch held aloft before the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Instead, they see Wang’s America: deindustrialization, rural decay, over-financialization, out of control asset prices, and the emergence of a self-perpetuating rentier elite; powerful tech monopolies able to crush any upstart competitors operating effectively beyond the scope of government; immense economic inequality, chronic unemployment, addiction, homelessness, and crime; cultural chaos, historical nihilism, family breakdown, and plunging fertility rates; societal despair, spiritual malaise, social isolation, and skyrocketing rates of mental health issues; a loss of national unity and purpose in the face of decadence and barely concealed self-loathing; vast internal divisions, racial tensions, riots, political violence, and a country that increasingly seems close to coming apart.

As a tumultuous 2020 roiled American politics, Chinese people began turning to Wang’s America Against America for answers. And when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, the book flew off the shelves. Out-of-print copies began selling for as much as $2,500 on Chinese e-commerce sites.

But Wang is unlikely to be savoring the acclaim, because his worst fear has become reality: the “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” he identified in America seems to have successfully jumped the Pacific. Despite all his and Xi’s success in draconian suppression of political liberalism, many of the same problems Wang observed in America have nonetheless emerged to ravage China over the last decade as the country progressively embraced a more neoliberal capitalist economic model.

“Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” has rapidly transformed China into one of the most economically unequal societies on earth. It now boasts a Gini Coefficient of, officially, around 0.47, worse than the U.S.’s 0.41. The wealthiest 1% of the population now holds around 31% of the country’s wealth (not far behind the 35% in the U.S.). But most people in China remain relatively poor: some 600 million still subsist on a monthly income of less than 1,000 yuan ($155) a month.

Meanwhile, Chinese tech giants have established monopoly positions even more robust than their U.S. counterparts, often with market shares nearing 90%. Corporate employment frequently features an exhausting “996” (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) schedule. Others labor among struggling legions trapped by up-front debts in the vast system of modern-day indentured servitude that is the Chinese “gig economy.” Up to 400 million Chinese are forecast to enjoy the liberation of such “self-employment” by 2036, according to Alibaba.

The job market for China’s ever-expanding pool of university graduates is so competitive that “graduation equals unemployment” is a societal meme (the two words share a common Chinese character). And as young people have flocked to urban metropoles to search for employment, rural regions have been drained and left to decay, while centuries of communal extended family life have been upended in a generation, leaving the elderly to rely on the state for marginal care. In the cities, young people have been priced out of the property market by a red-hot asset bubble.

Meanwhile, contrary to trite Western assumptions of an inherently communal Chinese culture, the sense of atomization and low social trust in China has become so acute that it’s led to periodic bouts of anguished societal soul-searching after oddly regular instances in which injured individuals have been left to die on the street by passers-by habitually distrustful of being scammed.

Feeling alone and unable to get ahead in a ruthlessly consumerist society, Chinese youth increasingly describe existing in a state of nihilistic despair encapsulated by the online slang term neijuan (“involution”), which describes a “turning inward” by individuals and society due to a prevalent sense of being stuck in a draining rat race where everyone inevitably loses. This despair has manifested itself in a movement known as tangping, or “lying flat,” in which people attempt to escape that rat race by doing the absolute bare minimum amount of work required to live, becoming modern ascetics.

In this environment, China’s fertility rate has collapsed to 1.3 children per woman as of 2020—below Japan and above only South Korea as the lowest in the world—plunging its economic future into crisis. Ending family size limits and government attempts to persuade families to have more children have been met with incredulity and ridicule by Chinese young people as being “totally out of touch” with economic and social reality. “Do they not yet know that most young people are exhausted just supporting themselves?” asked one typically viral post on social media. It’s true that, given China’s cut-throat education system, raising even one child costs a huge sum: estimates range between $30,000 (about seven times the annual salary of the average citizen) and $115,000, depending on location.

But even those Chinese youth who could afford to have kids have found they enjoy a new lifestyle: the coveted DINK (“Double Income, No Kids”) life, in which well-educated young couples (married or not) spend all that extra cash on themselves. As one thoroughly liberated 27-year-old man with a vasectomy once explained to The New York Times: “For our generation, children aren’t a necessity…Now we can live without any burdens. So why not invest our spiritual and economic resources on our own lives?”

So while Americans have today given up the old dream of liberalizing China, they should maybe look a little closer. It’s true that China never remotely liberalized—if you consider liberalism to be all about democratic elections, a free press, and respect for human rights. But many political thinkers would argue there is more to a comprehensive definition of modern liberalism than that. Instead, they would identify liberalism’s essential telos as being the liberation of the individual from all limiting ties of place, tradition, religion, associations, and relationships, along with all the material limits of nature, in pursuit of the radical autonomy of the modern “consumer.”

From this perspective, China has been thoroughly liberalized, and the picture of what’s happening to Chinese society begins to look far more like Wang’s nightmare of a liberal culture consumed by nihilistic individualism and commodification.

The Grand Experiment

It is in this context that Wang Huning appears to have won a long-running debate within the Chinese system about what’s now required for the People’s Republic of China to endure. The era of tolerance for unfettered economic and cultural liberalism in China is over.

According to a leaked account by one of his old friends, Xi has found himself, like Wang, “repulsed by the all-encompassing commercialization of Chinese society, with its attendant nouveaux riches, official corruption, loss of values, dignity, and self-respect, and such ‘moral evils’ as drugs and prostitution.” Wang has now seemingly convinced Xi that they have no choice but to take drastic action to head off existential threats to social order being generated by Western-style economic and cultural liberal-capitalism—threats nearly identical to those that scourge the U.S.

This intervention has taken the form of the Common Prosperity campaign, with Xi declaring in January that “We absolutely must not allow the gap between rich and poor to get wider,” and warning that “achieving common prosperity is not only an economic issue, but also a major political issue related to the party’s governing foundations.”

This is why anti-monopoly investigations have hit China’s top technology firms with billions of dollars in fines and forced restructurings and strict new data rules have curtailed China’s internet and social media companies. It’s why record-breaking IPOs have been put on hold and corporations ordered to improve labor conditions, with “996” overtime requirements made illegal and pay raised for gig workers. It’s why the government killed off the private tutoring sector overnight and capped property rental price increases. It’s why the government has announced “excessively high incomes” are to be “adjusted.”

And it’s why celebrities like Zhao Wei have been disappearing, why Chinese minors have been banned from playing the “spiritual opium” of video games for more than three hours per week, why LGBT groups have been scrubbed from the internet, and why abortion restrictions have been significantly tightened. As one nationalist article promoted across state media explained, if the liberal West’s “tittytainment strategy” is allowed to succeed in causing China’s “young generation lose their toughness and virility then we will fall…just like the Soviet Union did.” The purpose of Xi’s “profound transformation” is to ensure that “the cultural market will no longer be a paradise for sissy stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be in a position of worshipping Western culture.”

In the end, the campaign represents Wang Huning’s triumph and his terror. It’s thirty years of his thought on culture made manifest in policy.

On one hand, it is worth viewing honestly the level of economic, technological, cultural, and political upheaval the West is currently experiencing and considering whether he may have accurately diagnosed a common undercurrent spreading through our globalized world. On the other, the odds that his gambit to engineer new societal values can succeed seems doubtful, considering the many failures of history’s other would-be “engineers of the soul.”

The best simple proxy to measure this effort in coming years is likely to be demographics. For reasons not entirely clear, many countries around the world now face the same challenge: fertility rates that have fallen below the replacement rate as they’ve developed into advanced economies. This has occurred across a diverse array of political systems, and shows little sign of moderating. Besides immigration, a wide range of policies have now been tried in attempts to raise birth rates, from increased public funding of childcare services to “pro-natal” tax credits for families with children. None have been consistently successful, sparking anguished debate in some quarters on whether losing the will to survive and reproduce is simply a fundamental factor of modernity. But if any country can succeed in reversing this trend, no matter the brute-force effort required, it is likely to be China.

Either way, our world is witnessing a grand experiment that’s now underway: China and the West, facing very similar societal problems, have now, thanks to Wang Huning, embarked on radically different approaches to addressing them. And with China increasingly challenging the United States for a position of global geopolitical and ideological leadership, the conclusion of this experiment could very well shape the global future of governance for the century ahead.

N.S. Lyons is an analyst and writer living and working in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Upheaval.

Category : China | Cold War | Marxism | Blog
5
Sep

By TIM LACY

US Intellectual History Blog

FEB 20, 2014

Thinking Like a Gramscian Historian: An Introduction, a Provocation, and Guide to the Basics

What follows is a guide and provocation—not a formula—for writing as a mature, unorthodox Marxist historian. By the latter I mean as a “Gramscian Historian,” or perhaps something like a Critical Theorist historian. As the points below accumulate, moreover, you might see this as a guide to thinking like a Gramscian Intellectual Historian. We’ll see. [Note: This could be read as a companion to Kurt Newman’s November 19, 2013 post on Gramsci.]

The deeper I delve into the darkest corners of my theoretical self (an ongoing preoccupation over the past year, by choice and accident), I’m seeing myself as a someone who could get comfortable writing in a Critical Theorist-Gramscian historical mode of analysis. By this I do not mean using that mode to direct my selection of evidence, guide all of my interpretive decisions, or to depart from a factually rich style of writing (hopefully that sense of self will be confirmed as reviews of my book begin to appear). Rather, in a fashion true to the historicism of Max Horkheimer and the concreteness of Antonio Gramsci, I mean using that mode to help one make sense of the abstractions, generalizations, and inductions that arise from a deep immersion in evidence. A Gramscian-Critical Theorist mode of analysis is another important tool in my box of interpretive tools.

The immediate inspiration for this post is the death of Stuart Hall, but through a recommendation by James Livingston. When Jim posted a reflection about Hall on his Facebook page, he included a reference to Stuart Hall’s 1986 article “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity” (Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 10, no. 5, pp. 5-27). I would’ve never noticed this without Jim’s shout-out, which included this marketing tag: “The best single piece on Gramsci I have ever read is not by Cammett or Genovese, or Nairn or Anderson, or, for that matter, Laclau and Mouffe, but by Hall, in the Journal of Communications Inquiry.” That is no small praise. I bought Livingston’s pitch, and this post is the result.

Almost everything in the outline, or program, below derives from the Hall article. That piece, in turn (which sadly contains no bibliography), relies primarily on Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. But Hall also references a number of other pieces that may (I’m not sure) exist outside the Notebooks. Finally, in a bibliography afterwards I cite some other potentially useful secondary sources.

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How to Think Like a Gramscian Historian, as Inspired By Stuart Hall

Note: All page references are to the Hall article. Other sources are sprinkled throughout.

1. Like any good orthodox Marxist—as distinct from a unorthodox Marxist thinker like Gramsci—you must still know and understand the economic terrain/base. This means thinking about the period, particulars, and specifics of capital and labor. Be sensitive to communities and various regional differences. This is what helps make your historical thinking historicist. This means knowing both qualitative and quantitative data, as much as is possible. (pp. 14, 18)

2. Having learned the economic terrain, let it simmer in the background. Think about the contours of the story you have just ascertained—it’s elements of commodification and reification (the ‘thingification’ of social relations, as a relation of tradeable objects).

3. Ask how these contours, in turn, affected “superstructures” as manifest in culture, thought worlds, ideology, politics, psychology, and personality. Again, sensitivity to particular communities and regions, as well as periodization, is a necessity. (p. 14)

4. Think about the relations of conceptual superstructures to social forces and individuals. What are the various levels of articulation between these classes and forces, and how do they compete with each other? Be aware of sites of struggle and crisis. Think about whether the social force, movements, and individuals (all the players) are ‘organic’ (meaning historical and deep) or incidental (“occasional, immediate”). An ‘organic’ crisis can last for decades and is not static. (p. 13)

5. Has the interaction or coordination between these forces created a ‘hegemony’ or effected a historical bloc that sustains hegemonic environment? This definition of hegemony seems useful (from here): “the success of the dominant classes in presenting their definition of reality, their view of the world, in such a way that it is accepted by other classes as ‘common sense’.” Hegemonies are seen through their effects of power and control. Hall also seems to imply, to me anyway, that for Gramsci not all hegemonies are necessarily bad; they can dominate in positive and negative ways. Hegemony is, then, more of a descriptor than a shadowy monster. Hall notes that “‘hegemony’ is a very particular, historically specific, and temporary ‘moment’ in the life of a society.” It is multi-dimensional and has a multi-arena character that involves many fronts in society’s superstructure. Finally, it is a ‘historic bloc’ rather than a ‘ruling class’ that includes the “strata of the subaltern and dominated classes, who have been won over by specific concessions and compromises and who form part of the social constellation but in a subordinate role.” (pp. 14-15)

6. Is the hegemonic class dominating or leading? Domination can maintain the ascendancy of a class, but only with limited reach. A leading hegemonic bloc wins consent by taking into account “subordinate interests” and attempts to maintain popularity. Coercion and consent run together for Gramsci, and run the gamut of cultural, moral, ethical, and intellectual concerns. (p. 16-17)

7. Consider the power—“the sturdy structure”—of “civil society” when analyzing struggles. Most all struggles, in liberal democracies, are won by protracted and complex ‘wars of position’ rather than momentary ‘wars of maneuver” that are reminiscent of WWI trench battles. Those wars of position occur in the context of civil society. The ‘art of politics’, then, is what happens in the context of “voluntary associations, …schooling, the family, churches and religious life, cultural organizations, so-called private relations, gender, sexual and ethnic identities, etc.” The state, in this scenario, is both “educative and formative”—a “point of condensation” for those diverse kinds of institutions and their relations. The state is a function of the “civil hegemony” that derives from that civil society. The complexity of these historical circumstances cannot be emphasized enough. In Hall’s words (as inspired by Gramsci): “This points irrevocably to the increasing complexity of the inter-relationships in modern societies between state and civil society.” Hall adds: “The effect is to multiply and proliferate the various fronts of politics, and to differentiate the various kinds of social antagonisms.” (pp. 17-20)

8. Enter ideology, and how it affects civil society and hegemony. Gramsci defines ideology as “a conception of the world, any philosophy, which becomes a cultural movement, a ‘religion’, a ‘faith’, that has produced a form of practical activity or will in which a philosophy is contained as an implicit theoretical ‘premiss’. …In its best sense [it is]…a conception of the world that is implicitly manifest in art, in law, in economic activity and in all manifestations of individual and collective life.” Given this definition, Gramsci declares that the essential problem of ideology is how it “preserve[s] the ideological unity of the entire social bloc which that ideology serves to cement and unify.” Ideology consists of a philosophical core or nucleus that is linked and elaborated, in Hall’s words, “into practical and popular forms of consciousness” as they affect (and effect) “the broad masses of society, in the shape of a cultural movement, political tendency, faith or religion.” Gramsci is less concerned with the philosophical nucleus than ideology as an organic form which touches thinking people and “practical, everyday, common sense.’ The key here is that philosophy values coherence while common-sense thinking is eclectic—concerned with effectiveness and practice. Common-sense thinking, to Gramsci, is “not rigid and immobile but is continually transforming itself.” It also more likely to be a deep product of historical process. Finally, Gramsi circles back to everyday politics: “The relation between common sense and the upper-level of philosophy is assured by ‘politics’.” (p. 20-21)

9. At this point you, as an historian, might be asking about ‘the self’ and real people. What of the individual thinker, however complex or simple? Gramsci hasn’t forgotten you and them. Gramsci recognizes the individual via plurality. According to Hall, Gramsci “refuses any idea of a pre-given unified ideological subject.” There is a “‘plurality’ of selves or identities of which the so-called subject of thought and ideas is composed.” As such, “the personality is strangely composite.” And on that individual’s consciousness (always a tricky subject in Marxist thought), Hall sees Gramsci as drawing “attention to the contradiction in consciousness between the conception of the world which manifests itself…in action, and those conceptions which are affirmed verbally or in thought.” The result is a “complex, fragmentary and contradictory conception of consciousness” that surpasses considerably the “false consciousness” of traditional/orthodox Marxist thought. In sum, there is no “‘given’ and unified ideological class subject” (p. 22-23). We must try to understand those who participate in hegemonies in the smallest units possible to as to reflect individual and group agency (the final term being my import).

10. Finally, Gramsci even addresses paradigm change—the transformation of hegemonies. Hall found an extraordinary passage in the Prison Notebooks that hits Kuhnian tune. Here’s Hall’s narration:

“The multi-accentual, inter-discursive character of the field of ideology is explicitly acknowledged by Gramsci when…he describes how an old conception of the world is gradually displaced by another mode of thought and is internally reworked and transformed: ‘what matters is the criticism to which such an ideological complex is subjected…This makes possible a process of differentiation and change in the relative wight that the elements of the old ideologies used to possess…what was previously secondary and subordinate…becomes the nucleus of a new ideological and theoretical complex” (p. 23).

A Gramscian vision of benign or pernicious ideological, or hegemonic, change is one where the new paradigm always contains residues of the old. New ideas are articulated, and old one disarticulated. In either case history and historical circumstance are respected.

I noted this on the USIH Facebook page, but consider the “how to” outline above my own kind of tribute to both Stuart Hall—and James Livingston?. The latter probably gets more credit as an antagonist and provocateur than as an authentic person and inspiration to good historical thinking. This one is for you, Jim, even if you think it comes off as sucky, programmatic b.s. – TL

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Secondary Bibliography

Notes: (a) These are in addition the abovementioned Hall article and his embedded citations of Gramsci’s works. (b) I do not endorse these in their particulars, but rather as broad guides to thinking about Gramsci’s thought

“A Gramsci Glossary.” Workers’ Liberty. March 27, 2013.

Raney, Vanessa. “Gramsci Outside of Marx?: Defining Culture in Gramscian Terms.” Web essay, Claremont Graduate University (Fall 2003).

Rosengarten, Frank. “An Introduction to Gramsci’s Life and Thought.” Marxist Internet Archive Library, Antonio Gramsci Archive.

Category : Hegemony | Marxism | Theory | Blog
31
Jul

Decolonization and Communism

 

 

By Nodrada

“We have to give life to Indo-American socialism with our own reality, in our own language.
Here is a mission worthy of a new generation.”
-José Carlos Mariátegui, “Anniversary and Balance,” José Carlos Mariátegui: AnAnthology

 

June 26, 2021 Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Orinoco TribuneWhile the turn towards analyzing ongoing settler-colonialism has finally reached the mainstream of North American political discussions, there is still a lack of popular understanding of the issues involved. Settler-colonialism is, ironically, understood within the framework of the ways of thinking brought by the European ruling classes to the Americas. By extension, the conceptions of decolonization are similarly limited. Although the transition from analyzing psychological or “discursive” decolonization to analyzing literal, concrete colonization has been extremely important, it requires some clarifications.

Settler–colonialism is a form of colonialism distinct from franchise colonialism. The colonizers seek primarily to eliminate the indigenous population rather than exploit them, as in the latter form of colonialism. Decolonization is the struggle to abolish colonial conditions, though approaches to it may vary. Societies formed on a settler-colonial basis include the United States, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and Australia. For our purposes, we will focus on the United States in analyzing local ideas of settler-colonialism and decolonization.

Among North American radicals, there are two frequent errors in approaching decolonization.

On the one hand, there are the opponents of decolonization who argue that settler-colonialism no longer exists. In their view, to identify specific concerns for Indigenous peoples and to identify the ongoing presence of settler-colonial social positions is divisive and stuck in the past. They believe that settlers no longer exist, and Euro-Americans have fully become indigenous to North America through a few centuries of residency.

On the other hand, there are proponents of decolonization who believe that Euro-Americans are eternally damned as settlers, and cannot be involved in any radical change whatsoever. The most extreme of these argue for the exclusion of Euro-Americans from radical politics entirely.

Settler-colonialism is not over, contrary to the first view. Rather, Indigenous peoples still struggle for their rights to sovereignty within and outside reservations, especially ecological-spiritual rights. Their ostensibly legally recognized rights are not respected, either. The examples of the struggles of the Wet’suwet’en, Standing Rock Lakota, Mi’kmaq, and other peoples in recent memory are testimony to this. Indigenous peoples are still here, and they are still fighting to thrive as Indigenous peoples. Capitalists drive to exploit the earth, destroying ecology and throwing society into what John Bellamy Foster calls a metabolic rift. This means that the demands of capital for expansion are incompatible with the ‘rhythm’ of ecology, destroying concrete life for abstract aims as a result.

An atomistic, individualist worldview is what undergirds the view of settler-colonialism as over and of contemporary Euro-Americans as being just as indigenous as Indigenous peoples. When settler-colonialism is seen as an individual responsibility or guilt, we are left with a very crude concept of it.

The denialists of settler-colonialism assume that it must be over, because the colonization of the Americas is apparently over. Thus, they think that modern Euro-Americans cannot be blamed for the sins of their forefathers, since individuals shouldn’t be held responsible for things which happened outside of their lifetimes. Guilt in this conception is an assessment of whether an atomistic individual is responsible for extremely specific crimes, such as participating in something like the Paxton Boys’ ethnic cleansing campaign in 1763 Pennsylvania.

The same ideological approach characterizes the other side, which obsesses over the individual status of “settler” and micro-categorizing the contemporary residents of North America within an abstract concept of settler-colonialism. They argue that having the individual status of “settler” means one is eternally damned, one is marked as a specific person by the crimes of a social system always and forever. This hefty sentence has high stakes, thus the obsession with categorizing every unique case within a specific box. continue

Category : Marxism | Racism | Socialism | Theory | US History | Blog
31
Dec

By Marc Becker
Against the Current
No. 209, November/December 2020

WRITING IN THE 1920s, the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui introduced a uniquely Latin American perspective on revolutionary socialist movements and theories. He famously noted, “we certainly do not want socialism in America to be a copy. It has to be a heroic creation.”(1) This political dynamism is what made him into an intellectual force with lasting relevance.

Mariátegui’s voluminous and perceptive writings as well as extensive political activism left an unmistakable and lasting impression on the political, social, and intellectual landscape of his country. Nevertheless, even as he has retained central importance for revolutionary socialism in Latin America, in the United States few people are aware of his contributions.

When Mariátegui died in 1930, his funeral turned into one of the largest processions of workers ever seen in the streets of the capital city of Lima, but in the United States his death was hardly noticed.

Waldo Frank, a prominent left-wing U.S writer, the first chair of the League of American Writers and a close friend of Mariátegui, declared that Mariátegui’s death plunged “the intelligentsia of all of Hispano-America into sorrow; and nothing could be more eloquent of the cultural separation between the two halves of the new world than the fact that to most of us these words convey no meaning.”(2)

Despite this lack of attention in the United States and writing a century ago and on a different continent, Mariátegui’s thought remains relevant for the struggles we face today.

Early Life

José Carlos Mariátegui was born June 14, 1894 in the southern Peruvian coastal town of Moquegua and grew up on outskirts of Lima. He was raised by a poor and deeply religious mestiza (mixed race) single mother, Maráia Amalia LaChira. She had separated from her husband, Francisco Javier Mariátegui, because, when she discovered that he was the grandson of a liberal independence hero, she wanted to protect her children from that liberal influence.

This did not prevent her son from becoming the leading Marxist thinker in Latin America, but it did seem to temper his attitudes toward religion.

Mariátegui was a poor and sickly child. He suffered from tuberculous, and when he was eight years old he hurt his left leg, disabling him for life. Because of a lack of financial resources, he only managed to achieve an eighth-grade education. As a result, he was largely self-taught, which later led him to quip that he was an intellectual at odds with the intellectual world.

Rather than continue his education, Mariátegui was forced to find a job to help support his family. At the age of 15, he began to work as a copyboy for the newspaper La Prensa. He soon rose through the ranks in the newsroom as he began writing and editing as well.

These experiences introduced him to the field of journalism, which he subsequently used both for his financial livelihood and as a vehicle to express his political views. Almost all of his voluminous writings originated as relatively short pieces that he penned for popular magazines.

Drawing on this journalistic experience, Mariátegui launched two short-lived newspapers, Nuestra Epoca and La Razón, that assumed an explicitly pro-labor perspective. His vocal support for the revolutionary demands of the workers soon ran him afoul of the Peruvian dictator Augusto B. Leguía, who in October 1919 exiled him to Europe.

Mariátegui later calls this early period of his life his “stone age” and ignored the literary output that resulted from it. As a result, his early writings have received little attention.

Marxism and Amauta
It was during his three-and-a-half-year sojourn in Europe that Mariátegui developed into a Marxist intellectual. Through a series of experiences in France and Italy he saw the revolutionary potential of Marxism. This trajectory and orientation later led his critics to condemn him as a “Europeanizer,” a rather ironic criticism for someone who has come to be generally applauded for adopting Marxist theories to a Latin American reality.

Mariátegui later commented that in Europe he picked up some ideas and a woman, the Italian Anna Chiappe with whom he subsequently had four children — all boys.

In 1923, Mariátegui returned to Peru “a convinced and declared Marxist.” He presented a series of lectures on the “history of world crisis” at the González Prada Popular University in Lima that drew on his experiences and observations in Europe.

He was a popular lecturer, but because of his lack of an academic degree he could not get a regular teaching appointment at the main San Marcos University. Indeed, he was an intellectual at odds with the intellectual world.

In 1924, the police arrested Mariátegui because of his alleged subversive activity at the González Prada Popular University. A strong international reaction led to his release, perhaps reinforcing in his mind the importance of the international dimensions to a socialist struggle.

In 1924, Mariátegui lost his (good) right leg, and as a result spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Even as his health failed (or perhaps because of that), both his intellectual output and efforts to organize a social revolution intensified.

Among Mariátegui’s literary activity, the most significant was the founding in 1926 of the journal Amauta (which means “wise teacher” in Quechua) as a vanguard voice for an intellectual and spiritual revolution. The journal moved beyond politics to include philosophy, art, literature, and science.

Amauta was a relatively high-brow publication that gained international renown. Two years later, Mariátegui launched a short-lived biweekly newspaper appropriately titled Labor as an extension of Amauta to reach out to the working class.

In 1928, Mariátegui published his most famous book 7 ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality). The essays provide a broad sociological overview of key issues facing Latin America: economics, racial problems, land tenure, education, religion, regionalism and centralism, and literature (the last and by far the longest essay in the collection). This book quickly became a fundamental work on Latin American Marxism and established him as a founding light of Latin American Marxist theory.

In terms of his political activity, in 1928 Mariátegui founded the Peruvian Socialist Party (PSP), served as its secretary-general and brought it into alignment with the Communist International as a vanguardist party designed to lead the proletariat to revolution. With that goal in mind, the party organized communist cells all over country. In 1929, the PSP launched the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP) as a Marxist-oriented trade union federation.

During this entire time, Mariátegui continued to run into political problems with the Leguía regime. Mariátegui attacked working conditions at the U.S.-owned Cerro de Pasco copper mine and Leguía feared that he was inciting workers.

In 1927, the police arrested and detained him for six days at a military hospital on charges of involvement in a communist plot. The police subsequently raided his house and shut down Labor.

Even as the labor and political organizations that Mariátegui helped found flourished, his health floundered. The person who came to be known as the Amauta died on April 16, 1930.

Mariátegui’s Ideology
Mariátegui was an integrative thinker who incorporated a broad range of factors into his political analyses and materialist conception of the world. Broadly, his intellectual contributions can be broken down along five lines: national Marxism, anti-imperialism, agrarian issues, racial matters, and religion.

Mariátegui is often seen as the first truly creative and original Latin American Marxist thinker who analyzed concrete historical realities in order to develop solutions to problems of non-European societies. Rather than a rigid and determi­nistic Marxism, he embraced an open and voluntarist revolutionary praxis that excelled in applying European doctrines to Latin American realities in new and creative ways. continue

Category : Latin America | Marxism | Theory | Blog
20
Apr

Fromm was famous for this critique of consumer capitalism as well as for his penetrating studies of authoritarianism. He was a significantly influential figure on U.S. radical thought during the second half of the 20th Century.

 

By Kieran Durkin
Marxist Sociology Blog

April 15, 2020 – Erich Fromm (1900-1980), who passed forty years ago March of this year, was a leading Marxian sociologist who made considerable contributions to U.S. sociology and to U.S. Marxism. Best known for books such as Escape from Freedom, The Sane Society, and The Art of Loving, Fromm’s account of authoritarianism and critique of mid-twentieth century “consumer capitalism” influenced millions both inside and outside of academia.

Prior to arriving in the U.S. in the early 1930s, amidst the rise of Nazism in Germany, Fromm, who was raised in an orthodox Jewish family, was a central member of the early Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. There he worked alongside Max Horkheimer on an interdisciplinary project that sought to mix social philosophy with the empirical social sciences. Having studied sociology under Alfred Weber (Max Weber’s less famous brother) at Ruprecht-Karls-University in Heidelberg, followed by training at the famous Berlin Psychoanalytical Institute, Fromm was given central responsibility for the Frankfurt institute’s attempts at synthesizing sociology and psychoanalysis.

One of the first manifestations of this synthesis was an innovative study of manual and white-collar German workers, which was led by Fromm along with Hilde Weiss. Through use of an interpretative questionnaire, Fromm and Weiss were able to reveal that while the majority of respondents identified with the left-wing slogans of their party their radicalism was considerably reduced in more subtle and seemingly unpolitical questions – pointing to what Fromm argued was evidence of an “authoritarian” character.

Although the study itself wasn’t published until the 1980s, under the title The Working Class in Weimar Germany – this was at least partly due to the breakdown in Fromm’s relationship with Horkheimer – it is clear that it shed considerable light on what transpired in Nazi Germany, as well as telling us something about the nature of the left-wing authoritarianism.

Escape from Freedom, Fromm’s most famous work, was published in 1941, after he had left the Institute (Fromm was effectively pushed out to make way for Theodor Adorno in 1939). The central theme of Escape from Freedom was that Europe, which had hitherto been marching towards greater and greater forms of political freedom, and even towards socialism, over the course of the preceding centuries, had capitulated to fascism. Fromm wanted to try to understand this process in order to explain how and why it was that Nazism had taken hold in Germany, and why so many individuals came to support Hitler.

Like most Marxist analyses at the time, Fromm focused on the role of the lower-middle classes. He argued that the decline of their socio-economic status in the face of monopoly capitalism and hyperinflation alongside the defeat Germany suffered in the First World War and ensuing Treaty of Versailles had a deep psychological effect, removing traditional psychological supports and mechanisms of self-esteem.

In an expanded Marxian account, in which ideas and emotions played an important mediating role, Fromm identified deep feelings of anxiety and powerlessness in this class, which Hitler was able to capitalize on, with his sadomasochistic messages of love for the strong and hate for the weak (not to mention a racial program that raises “true-born” Germans to the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder), which provided the means of escape from intolerable psychological burdens experienced on a mass basis.

Fromm’s next engagement with Marxism came in the form of his The Sane Society (1955). The book is notable for its criticism of Marx, particularly of his account of revolution. Fromm argued that the famous statement that concludes The Communist Manifesto, that the workers “have nothing to lose but their chains,” contains a profound psychological error. With their chains they have also to lose all those irrational needs and satisfactions which developed because these chains were worn. Because of this, Fromm argued that we need a concept of “revolutionary humanism,” of revolution not only in terms of external barriers, but internal ones too, one that deals with the roots of sadomasochistic passions, sexism, racism, and other forms of character that aren’t necessarily going disappear immediately in a new society.

The Sane Society also contained an extended critique of mid-twentieth century U.S. capitalism, which for Fromm was an essentially bureaucratic form of mass-consumer capitalism. As part of this critique, Fromm put forward the notion of the “marketing orientation” to describe what he saw as the newly dominant form of personality that was associated with this stage of capitalism. A social psychological refraction of the Marxian notion of alienation, the marketing orientation for Fromm was one in which people experience themselves and others as commodities, literally as something to be marketed.

Fromm’s critique of contemporary capitalism continued a year later in The Art of Loving, perhaps his best-known work. Not the most obviously socialist or Marxist book (in fact, Herbert Marcuse criticized Fromm for supposedly betraying radical thought, and becoming a “sermonistic social worker”) Fromm was nevertheless adamant that “[t]he principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love are incompatible,” and thus that the criticism of love (which, as he understood it, referred to the antithesis of narcissistic, racist, sexist and other forms of interpersonal relations) was also a criticism of capitalism and the ways in which it mitigated against genuine forms of love that would manifest in a more human society. Fromm believed that we must analyze the conditions for the possibility of realizing love and integrity in the present society and seek to strengthen them.

It is also during the 1950s that Fromm joins American Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation and seeks to rewrite its program. The resulting document, although rejected for this purpose, was published as Let Man Prevail (1958). It marks out Fromm’s distinctive form of Marxism, which he here calls “radical humanism” and characterizes as a democratic, humanist form of socialism. This analysis is deepened in 1960, in May Man Prevail?, an analysis of Soviet Communism that was intended to influence the move to unilateral disarmament during the Cold War.

Fromm’s most significant contribution to U.S. Marxism, however, was Marx’s Concept of Man (1961). Containing the first full English translation of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, prefaced by a few short essays by Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man helped to popularize Marx in the U.S., as well as counteract some of the more common misinterpretations of Marx.

Fromm’s contribution to Marxism continued during the 1960s, with the publication of Beyond the Chains of Illusion (1962), in which Fromm developed his Freudo-Marxism social psychological theory of social character. Fromm was also responsible for the publication of Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium (1965), an impressive global collection of humanist Marxists and socialists, largely from Eastern Europe (including many from the Yugoslav Praxis school) but also from Africa and India.

In the years that followed, Fromm was a prominent figure in the anti-War left, influencing Martin Luther King Jr. and writing The Revolution of Hope, an attempt to influence the 1968 Presidential election. Aware of criticisms of such apparent social democratic reformism, Fromm protested that “if one is not concerned with the steps between the present and the future, one does not deal with politics, radical or otherwise.” He also wrote, Social Character in a Mexican Village (1970), The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), and To Have or To Be? (1976), all of which further developed his distinctive Freudo-Marxian inspired humanist sociology.

Looking back on Fromm’s legacy today, at a point where sociologists and Marxists are increasingly returning to his work, it is clear that what Fromm left us is a nuanced form of Marxian sociology that can help account for the relations between economic life, political movements, and inner emotional dynamism that underpin many of the changes that we are witness to in the current world situation. In a situation that is rapidly moving into dangerous territory, in what promises to be a recession as deep as 1929, we could do worse today than to look to Fromm for assistance.

Kieran Durkin is Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellow at University of York, and Visiting Scholar at University of California Santa Barbara, where he is conducting the first dedicated study of the Humanist Marxist tradition. He is author of The Radical Humanism of Erich Fromm, and editor with Joan Braune of Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future.

Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Philosophy | Theory | Blog
24
Mar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Members of the Wayuu ethnic group watch as a U.S. army helicopter arrives for a joint exercise in the “Tres Bocas” area in northern Colombia on March 13, 2020. JUAN BARRETO / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

By William I. Robinson
Truthout

March 23, 2020 – What does a virus have to do with war and repression? The coronavirus has disrupted global supply networks and spread panic throughout the world’s stock markets. The pandemic will pass, not without a heavy toll. But in the larger picture, the fallout from the virus exposes the fragility of a global economy that never fully recovered from the 2008 financial collapse and has been teetering on the brink of renewed crisis for years.

The crisis of global capitalism is as much structural as it is political. Politically, the system faces a crisis of capitalist hegemony and state legitimacy. As is now well-known, the level of global social polarization and inequality is unprecedented. In 2018, the richest 1 percent of humanity controlled more than half of the world’s wealth while the bottom 80 percent had to make do with just 4.5 percent of this wealth. Such stark global inequalities are politically explosive, and to the extent that the system is simply unable to reverse them, it turns to ever more violent forms of containment to manage immiserated populations.

Structurally, the system faces a crisis of what is known as overaccumulation. As inequalities escalate, the system churns out more and more wealth that the mass of working people cannot actually consume. As a result, the global market cannot absorb the output of the global economy. Overaccumulation refers to a situation in which enormous amounts of capital (profits) are accumulated, yet this capital cannot be reinvested profitably and becomes stagnant.

Indeed, corporations enjoyed record profits during the 2010s at the same time that corporate investment declined. Worldwide corporate cash reserves topped $12 trillion in 2017, more than the foreign exchange reserves of the world’s central governments, yet transnational corporations cannot find enough opportunities to profitably reinvest their profits. As this uninvested capital accumulates, enormous pressures build up to find outlets for unloading the surplus. By the 21st century, the transnational capitalist class turned to several mechanisms in order to sustain global accumulation in the face of overaccumulation, above all, financial speculation in the global casino, along with the plunder of public finances, debt-driven growth and state-organized militarized accumulation.

Militarized Accumulation

It is the last of these mechanisms, what I have termed militarized accumulation, that I want to focus on here. The crisis is pushing us toward a veritable global police state. The global economy is becoming ever more dependent on the development and deployment of systems of warfare, social control and repression, apart from political considerations, simply as a means of making profit and continuing to accumulate capital in the face of stagnation. The so-called wars on drugs and terrorism; the undeclared wars on immigrants, refugees, gangs, and poor, dark-skinned and working-class youth more generally; the construction of border walls, immigrant jails, prison-industrial complexes, systems of mass surveillance, and the spread of private security guard and mercenary companies, have all become major sources of profit-making.

The events of September 11, 2001, marked the start of an era of a permanent global war in which logistics, warfare, intelligence, repression, surveillance, and even military personnel are more and more the privatized domain of transnational capital. Criminalization of surplus humanity activates state-sanctioned repression that opens up new profit-making opportunities for the transnational capitalist class. Permanent war involves endless cycles of destruction and reconstruction, each phase in the cycle fueling new rounds and accumulation, and also results in the ongoing enclosure of resources that become available to the capitalist class.

Criminalization of surplus humanity activates state-sanctioned repression that opens up new profit-making opportunities for the transnational capitalist class.

 
The Pentagon budget increased 91 percent in real terms between 1998 and 2011, while worldwide, total defense outlays grew by 50 percent from 2006 to 2015, from $1.4 trillion to $2.03 trillion, although this figure does not take into account secret budgets, contingency operations and “homeland security” spending. The global market in homeland security reached $431 billion in 2018 and was expected to climb to $606 billion by 2024. In the decade from 2001 to 2011, military industry profits nearly quadrupled. In total, the United States spent a mind-boggling nearly $6 trillion from 2001 to 2018 on its Middle East wars alone.

Led by the United States as the predominant world power, military expansion in different countries has taken place through parallel (and often conflictive) processes, yet all show the same relationship between state militarization and global capital accumulation. In 2015, for instance, the Chinese government announced that it was setting out to develop its own military-industrial complex modeled after the United States, in which private capital would assume the leading role. Worldwide, official state military outlays in 2015 represented about 3 percent of the gross world product of $75 trillion (this does not include state military spending not made public).

But militarized accumulation involves vastly more than activities generated by state military budgets. There are immense sums involved in state spending and private corporate accumulation through militarization and other forms of generating profit through repressive social control that do not involve militarization per se, such as structural controls over the poor through debt collection enforcement mechanisms or accumulation opportunities opened up by criminalization.

The Privatization of War and Repression
The various wars, conflicts, and campaigns of social control and repression around the world involve the fusion of private accumulation with state militarization. In this relationship, the state facilitates the expansion of opportunities for private capital to accumulate through militarization. The most obvious way that the state opens up these opportunities is to facilitate global weapons sales by military-industrial-security firms, the amounts of which have reached unprecedented levels. Between 2003 and 2010 alone, the Global South bought nearly half a trillion dollars in weapons from global arms dealers. Global weapons sales by the top 100 weapons manufacturers and military service companies increased by 38 percent between 2002 and 2016.

Global weapons sales by the top 100 weapons manufacturers and military service companies increased by 38 percent between 2002 and 2016.

 
The U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan precipitated the explosion in private military and security contractors around the world deployed to protect the transnational capitalist class. Private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of those wars exceeded the number of U.S. combat troops in both countries, and outnumbered U.S. troops in Afghanistan by a three-to-one margin. Beyond the United States, private military and security firms have proliferated worldwide and their deployment is not limited to the major conflict zones in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. In his study, Corporate Warriors, P.W. Singer documents how privatized military forces (PMFs) have come to play an ever more central role in military conflicts and wars. “A new global industry has emerged,” he noted. “It is outsourcing and privatization of a twenty-first century variety, and it changes many of the old rules of international politics and warfare. It has become global in both its scope and activity.” Beyond the many based in the United States, PMFs come from numerous countries around the world, including Russia, South Africa, Colombia, Mexico, India, the EU countries and Israel, among others.

Beyond wars, PMFs open up access to economic resources and corporate investment opportunities — deployed, for instance, to mining areas and oil fields — leading Singer to term PMFs “investment enablers.” PMF clients include states, corporations, landowners, nongovernmental organizations, even the Colombian and Mexican drug cartels. From 2005 to 2010, the Pentagon contracted some 150 firms from around the world for support and security operations in Iraq alone. By 2018, private military companies employed some 15 million people around the world, deploying forces to guard corporate property; provide personal security for corporate executives and their families; collect data; conduct police, paramilitary, counterinsurgency and surveillance operations; carry out mass crowd control and repression of protesters; manage prisons; run private detention and interrogation facilities; and participate in outright warfare.

Meanwhile, the private security (policing) business is one of the fastest growing economic sectors in many countries and has come to overshadow public security around the world. According to Singer, the amount spent on private security in 2003, the year of the invasion of Iraq, was 73 percent higher than that spent in the public sphere, and three times as many persons were employed in private forces as in official law enforcement agencies. In parts of Asia, the private security industry grew at 20 percent to 30 percent per year. Perhaps the biggest explosion of private security was the near complete breakdown of public agencies in post-Soviet Russia, with over 10,000 new security firms opening since 1989. There were an outstanding 20 million private security workers worldwide in 2017, and the industry was expected to be worth over $240 billion by 2020. In half of the world’s countries, private security agents outnumber police officers.

As all of global society becomes a highly surveilled and controlled and wildly profitable battlespace, we must not forget that the technologies of the global police state are driven as much, or more, by the campaign to open up new outlets for accumulation as they are by strategic or political considerations. The rise of the digital economy and the blurring of the boundaries between military and civilian sectors fuse several fractions of capital — especially finance, military-industrial and tech companies — around a combined process of financial speculation and militarized accumulation. The market for new social control systems made possible by digital technology runs into the hundreds of billions. The global biometrics market, for instance, was expected to jump from its $15 billion value in 2015 to $35 billion by 2020.

Criminalization of the poor, racially oppressed, immigrants, refugees and other vulnerable communities is the most clear-cut method of accumulation by repression.

 
As the tech industry emerged in the 1990s, it was from its inception tied to the military-industrial-security complex and the global police state. Over the years, for instance, Google has supplied mapping technology used by the U.S. Army in Iraq, hosted data for the Central Intelligence Agency, indexed the National Security Agency’s vast intelligence databases, built military robots, co-launched a spy satellite with the Pentagon, and leased its cloud computing platform to help police departments predict crime. Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and the other tech giants are thoroughly intertwined with the military-industrial and security complex.

Criminalization and the War on Immigrants and Refugees

Criminalization of the poor, racially oppressed, immigrants, refugees and other vulnerable communities is the most clear-cut method of accumulation by repression. This type of criminalization activates “legitimate” state repression to enforce the accumulation of capital, whereby the state turns to private capital to carry out repression against those criminalized.

There has been a rapid increase in imprisonment in countries around the world, led by the United States, which has been exporting its own system of mass incarceration. In 2019, it was involved in the prison systems of at least 33 different countries, while the global prison population grew by 24 percent from 2000 to 2018. This carceral state opens up enormous opportunities at multiple levels for militarized accumulation. Worldwide, there were in the early 21st century some 200 privately operated prisons on all continents and many more “public-private partnerships” that involved privatized prison services and other forms of for-profit custodial services such as privatized electronic monitoring programs. The countries that were developing private prisons ranged from most member states of the European Union, to Israel, Russia, Thailand, Hong Kong, South Africa, New Zealand, Ecuador, Australia, Costa Rica, Chile, Peru, Brazil and Canada.

Those criminalized include millions of migrants and refugees around the world. Repressive state controls over the migrant and refugee population and criminalization of non-citizen workers makes this sector of the global working class vulnerable to super-exploitation and hyper-surveillance. In turn, this self-same repression in and of itself becomes an ever more important source of accumulation for transnational capital. Every phase in the war on migrants and refugees has become a wellspring of profit making, from private, for-profit migrant jails and the provision of services inside them such as health care, food, phone systems, to other ancillary activities of the deportation regime, such as government contracting of private charter flights to ferry deportees back home, and the equipping of armies of border agents.

Undocumented immigrants constitute the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. prison population and are detained in private migrant jails and deported by private companies contracted out by the U.S. state. As of 2010, there were 270 immigration jails in the U.S. that caged on any given day over 30,000 immigrants and annually locked up some 400,000 individuals, compared to just a few dozen people in immigrant detention each day prior to the 1980s. From 2010 to 2018, federal spending on these detentions jumped from $1.8 billion to $3.1 billion. Given that such for-profit prison companies as CoreCivic and GEO Group are traded on the Wall Street stock exchange, investors from anywhere around the world may buy and sell their stock, and in this way, develop a stake in immigrant repression quite removed from, if not entirely independent, of the more pointed political and ideological objectives of this repression.

Every phase in the war on migrants and refugees has become a wellspring of profit making.

 
In the United States, the border security industry was set to double in value from $305 billion in 2011 to some $740 billion in 2023. Mexican researcher Juan Manuel Sandoval traces how the U.S.-Mexico border region has been reconfigured into a “global space for the expansion of transnational capital.” This “global space” is centered on the U.S. side around high-tech military and aerospace related industries, military bases, and the deploying of other civilian and military forces for combating “immigration, drug trafficking, and terrorism through a strategy of low-intensity warfare.” On the Mexican side, it involves the expansion of maquiladoras (sweatshops), mining and industry in the framework of capitalist globalization and North American integration.

The tech sector in the United States has become heavily involved in the war on immigrants as Silicon Valley plays an increasingly central role in the expansion and acceleration of arrests, detentions and deportations. As their profits rise from participation in this war, leading tech companies have in turn pushed for an expansion of incarceration and deportation of immigrants, and lobbied the state to use their innovative social control and surveillance technologies in anti-immigrant campaigns.

In Europe, the refugee crisis and EU’s program to “secure borders” has provided a bonanza to military and security companies providing equipment to border military forces, surveillance systems and information technology infrastructure. The budget for the EU public-private border security agency, Frontex, increased a whopping 3,688 percent between 2005 and 2016, while the European border security market was expected to nearly double, from some $18 billion in 2015 to approximately $34 billion in 2022.

The Coronavirus Is Not to Blame

When the pandemic comes to an end, we will be left with a global economy even more dependent on militarized accumulation than before the virus hit.
As stock markets around the world began to plummet starting in late February, mainstream commentators blamed the coronavirus for the mounting crisis. But the virus was only the spark that ignited the financial implosion. The plunge in stock markets suggests that for some time to come, financial speculation will be less able to serve as an outlet for over-accumulated capital. When the pandemic comes to an end, we will be left with a global economy even more dependent on militarized accumulation than before the virus hit.

We must remember that accumulation by war, social control and repression is driven by a dual logic of providing outlets for over-accumulated capital in the face of stagnation, and of social control and repression as capitalist hegemony breaks down. The more the global economy comes to depend on militarization and conflict, the greater the drive to war and the higher the stakes for humanity. There is a built-in war drive to the current course of capitalist globalization. Historically, wars have pulled the capitalist system out of crisis while they have also served to deflect attention from political tensions and problems of legitimacy. Whether or not a global police state driven by the twin imperatives of social control and militarized accumulation becomes entrenched is contingent on the outcome of the struggles raging around the world among social and class forces and their competing political projects.

William I. Robinson is professor of sociology, global studies and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His most recent book is Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity. This article draws on the author’s forthcoming book, The Global Police State, which will be released by Pluto Press in July 2020.

Category : Capitalism | Ecology | Fascism | Globalization | Marxism | Neoliberalism | Blog
29
Dec

‘State Capitalism’? Or Socialist Market Economy? Which Shoe Fits Whom?

Qiushi Magazine
CCP Central Committee Fall 2018

The United States equates China’s economy with “state capitalism”, saying socialist market economy is not real market economy but state-led protectionist and mercantilist economy, which, it claims justifies the imposition of high tariffs on Chinese goods.

This is not the first time a Western country has labeled China’s economic model as “state capitalism”. Some people are re-circulating the term in the West now to hide the real reason why the US has resorted to trade protectionism and imposed high tariffs on Chinese imports, namely, their concern over China’s development road and economic system.

The US is a self-proclaimed representative of free market economy and free market capitalism, but the government’s role has been particularly important in its economic development. Let us not forget, the US has resorted to protectionism from its founding to the end of World War II.

Using free market as a ploy to make profits

In the postwar period, too, the US administration has intervened in the economy to fulfill its self-interests even while promoting trade liberalization, as Keynesianism came to play the dominant role in US economic policymaking. For example, the US’ total government spending increased from 26.8 percent of GDP in 1960 to 41.3 percent in 2010, and the number of its government employees increased from more than 4 million in 1940 to more than 22 million in 2010.

Some experts on innovation say, despite advocating “small government” and “free market”, the US has been running massive public investment programs in technology and innovation for decades, which have brought the US great economic benefits. In fact, the US government has always been a central driver of innovation-led growth, from internet to biotechnology and even shale gas development. After the outbreak of the 2008 global financial crisis, the US once again resorted to state interventionism, and introduced huge financial rescue and fiscal stimulus packages to stabilize its economy. continue

Category : Capitalism | China | Keynes | Marxism | Socialism | Theory | Blog
16
Sep

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By John Ross
Learning from China

June 2017 – The Hamburg G20 summit was a further stage in a process that has been developing strongly during the  2017: a recognition that a new stage in China’s international ‘thought leadership’ has developed.  For decades China had the world’s most rapidly growing economy, the world’s fastest increase in living standards, and was responsible for over 80% of the reduction of the number of people in the world living in poverty.

But now, as Edward Luce, the chief Washington correspondent for the Financial Times, noted: ‘ It was during Obama’s second term that China overtook the US as the world’s largest economy on a purchasing power parity basis. It is likely to overtake the US in dollar terms within the next presidential term, regardless of who is in office.‘ This gigantic economic development inevitably produced a growing global impact. But  the new stage, as confirmed below, is even Western analysts note that China, or to be more precise the Communist Party of China (CPC) and President Xi Jinping, are winning in the global ‘battle of ideas’. It is therefore important to analyse the reasons for this.

Such examination illustrates not only individual issues but demonstrates clearly the superiority of Xi Jinping’s Marxist analysis over Western thinking. This can be particularly clearly demonstrated by examining the wide international discussion which has contrasted China’s key recent global initiatives, such as Xi Jinping’s speech at the Davos World Economic Forum and the One Belt One Road summit in Beijing, with US attempts to articulate a general alternative foreign policy framework to China’s. Such analysis has the advantage it clearly demonstrates the way these concepts put forward by Xi Jinping both flow from Marxist ideas and simultaneously develop them in a new international situation – and why they can be clearly understood by a non-Marxist audience. In summary, as will be shown, the wide ranging international discussions in 2017 have clearly demonstrated the superiority of the CPC’s Marxist thinking over Western ideas.

China rising

Immediately following Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President his Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, admitted in practice what were the two most influential global views today: ‘I think it’d be good if people compare Xi’s speech at Davos and President Trump’s speech in his inaugural…. You’ll see two different world views.’

Indeed, it is widely understood in the Western media that the last period has seen a major shift internationally in both practical policy initiatives and ‘thought leadership’ towards China. Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, and one of the West’s most influential journalists, stated bluntly at the end of May that the question now being discussed in all countries was: ‘Would it not be wiser, they wonder, to move closer to China?’ Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group, the most influential Western ‘risk analysis’ company, noted regarding one of the key indicators of China’s success in projecting not only practical power but also ideas: ‘Davos reaction to Xi speech: Success on all counts.’

Merely to take in chronological order some of the landmarks of China’s sharply rising influence:

China’s initiative to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was highly successful – with even close United States allies, such as the UK and Germany, participating and refusing to support US calls to boycott it.
Xi Jinping’s speech at Davos World Economic Forum was almost universally analysed in the West as encapsulating a major strategic success. In addition to Bremmer’s conclusion already cited, Hans-Paul Buerkner, chairman of the Boston Consulting Group, noted: ‘President Xi emphasized the importance of continued globalization, growth and equity, which impressed me the most.’ Khalid Al Rumaihi, chief executive of the Bahrain Economic Development Board concluded: ‘President Xi’s insistence to deepen globalization, to strengthen economic growth, and his warning against isolationism are extremely comforting and a strong endorsement.’

The recent Beijing One Belt One Road (B&R) summit’s significance was well understood in the West. The Financial Times, under a self-explanatory headline ‘Europe must respond to China’s Belt and Road initiative’, analysed: ‘Beijing is using the laws of economic gravity and physics to shape the global economy… The gravity metaphor is well established in the so-called “gravity models” of international trade, which relate the size of trade flows to the “mass” (economic size) and distance between trading partners. The indisputable finding is that physical distance remains monumentally important in international economics… as international supply chains have grown over recent decades, the most complex ones are regional more than global… As for physics metaphors, the relevant concept is friction. Gravity affects all bodies equally in a vacuum; friction, however, can change the speed at which they fall. So, too, in economics, where the frictions are the costs of trade. These can be physical — in the case of landlocked countries with poor infrastructure, say — and man-made. The most significant man-made trade costs are no longer border tariffs but regulatory, administrative and cultural barriers to doing business across national borders. They remain high…China… understands both concepts very well. The Belt and Road aims to overcome the bounds of gravity by reducing frictions, and to use the forces of attraction this unleashes to centre a growing part of global economic activity on China.’

China has long been influential among developing countries but the Financial Times has now noted that China’s overall influence is extending even into traditional US allies. EU officials noted for example: ‘the establishment of a 16-nation bloc of central and eastern European countries — many of them EU members. The bloc is sometimes used to frustrate EU decisions that could disadvantage China, said the officials.’ Regarding Singapore, another traditional US ally, the FT analysed reporting the recent Shangri-La dialogue,: ‘Ng Eng Hen, Singapore’s defence minister, was keen to build bridges with Beijing when he spoke to the assembled generals, diplomats and policy wonks at the Shangri-La hotel at the weekend. He made no mention of… the South China Sea and fawned over the Belt and Road project… “China has stepped on the pedal to push ahead with its plans to be a leader for trade in the Asia Pacific region, if not the world.”‘ Regarding Australia, another traditional US ally, Edward Luce noted: ‘Long before Trump’s victory, Australians were also debating whether their country should distance itself from the US to accommodate a rising China — a more important economic partner than the US. Now such arguments have gone mainstream. Former prime ministers, such as Paul Keating, make the case that Australia should hedge its bets.“’

China’s sharply rising international influence was certainly further aided by self-inflicted US wounds such as Trump’s virtually universally internationally condemned decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Even within the US this latter decision was attacked as weakening the United States – a pillar of the US establishment such as Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein taking to Twitter for the first ever time to declare: ‘Today’s decision is a setback for the environment and for the U.S.’s leadership position in the world.’ But, as is clear from the facts already noted above, the further weakening of the US’s international position by Trump’s position on the Paris Climate Accord simply followed from a period when China’s global position was already strongly strengthening. As Edward Luce summarised:

‘The world was already making adjustments before Trump… Almost two years before the UK’s Brexit referendum, David Cameron, Britain’s then prime minister, rolled out the red carpet for Xi Jinping on a state visit to the UK. Britain also enraged Obama’s White House by rushing to join China’s Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank… Others, such as Australia and Germany, hesitated but then followed suit. Almost every western power sent delegations, among them 29 heads of state, to China’s recent “One Belt, One Road” summit in Beijing. When China speaks, foreign governments listen.’

The shifting of the centre of global initiatives and thinking to China, analysed from the point of view of internal Chinese development in Wang Wen’s analysis is therefore fully confirmed by the analysis in the Western media itself.

A ‘Trump doctrine’?

Almost certainly in reaction both to the rise in China’s impact noted above, and to increased scepticism regarding US foreign policy views, immediately after President Trump’s first foreign trip, his National Security Adviser McMaster and his Director of the US National Economic Council Cohn jointly authored a Wall Street Journal article systematically setting out the principles of US foreign policy. The significance of this joint article, which could not have appeared from such high placed figures without approval of the President, was immediately recognised – CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, one of the US’s most important foreign policy commentators, noted: ‘We now have a Trump Doctrine.’ continue

Category : China | Globalization | Marxism | Blog
24
May

More study of the difference between exproriation, exploitaton, and their interplay at the ‘rosy dawn’ of capitalist and everything that followed.

By Nancy Fraser
Policss/Letters On May 20, 2019

Presidential Address delivered at the one hundred fourteenth Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Savannah, GA, on January 5, 2018.

Capitalism has always been deeply entangled with racial oppression. That proposition clearly holds for the slave-based plantation capitalism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But it is equally true of the Jim Crow industrialized capitalism of the twentieth century. Nor can anyone reasonably doubt that racial oppression persists in the deindustrializing, sub-prime, mass-incarceration capitalism of the present era. Despite the clear differences between them, none of these forms of “really existing” capitalism was nonracial. In all of its forms to date, capitalist society has been entangled with racial oppression.

What is the nature of this entanglement? Is it contingent or structural? Did the capitalism/racism nexus arise by chance, and could matters have in principle been otherwise? Or was capitalism primed from the get-go to divide populations by “race”? And what about today? Is racism hardwired in the deep structure of contemporary capitalism? Or is a nonracial capitalism finally possible now, in the twenty-first century?

These questions are by no means new. They form the heart of a profound but under-appreciated stream of critical theorizing, known as Black Marxism. This tradition, which flourished from the 1930s through the 1980s, includes such towering figures as C. L. R. James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Stuart Hall, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, Manning Marable, Barbara Fields, Robin D. G. Kelley, Cedric Robinson, and Cornel West.1 Although their approaches diverged in specifics, each of these thinkers grappled deeply with the capitalism/ racism nexus. At least through the 1980s, their reflections were at the forefront of what we now call “critical race theory.”

Subsequently, however, the question of capitalism’s entanglement with race dropped off the critical-theoretical agenda. With the waning of New Left radicalism and the collapse of really existing Communism, capitalism ceased to be viewed as a topic of serious interrogation in many quarters, while Marxism was increasingly rejected as dépassé. As a result, questions of race and racism were effectively ceded to thinkers working in the liberal and poststructuralist paradigms. Although those thinkers made some impressive contributions to mainstream and critical race theory, they did not attempt to clarify the relation between capitalism and racial oppression.

Today, however, a new generation of critical racist theorists is reinvigorating that problematic. Comprising thinkers like Michael Dawson, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Cedric Johnson, Barbara Ransby, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, this generation is reconsidering the capitalism/ racism nexus anew, in light of twenty-first-century developments.2 The reasons are not hard to discern. The conjoint rise of a new generation of militant antiracist activists, on the one hand, and of an aggressively ethnonationalist and alt-right, white-supremacist populism, on the other hand, has dramatically raised the stakes of critical race theory. Many now appreciate, too, that the broader context for both those developments is a deepening crisis of contemporary capitalist society, a crisis that is simultaneously exacerbating, and rendering more visible, its characteristic forms of racial oppression. Finally, capitalism is no longer a taboo term, and Marxism is enjoying a revival. In this situation, the central questions of Black Marxism have again become pressing: Is capitalism necessarily racist? Can racial oppression be overcome within capitalist society?

Aiming to advance this problematic, I opted to use the occasion of my presidential address to revisit those venerable questions. The approach I propose scrambles the usual, sharp oppositions between structure and history, necessity and chance, which obscure the complexities of the capitalism/racism nexus. Contra the proponents of contingency, I shall maintain that there does exist a structural basis for capitalism’s persistent entanglement with racial oppression. That basis resides, as I shall explain, in the system’s reliance on two analytically distinct but inter-imbricated processes of capital accumulation, exploitation and expropriation. It is the separation of these two “exes,” and their assignment to two different populations, that underpins racial oppression in capitalist society. Contra proponents of necessity, however, I shall argue that capitalism’s exploitation/expropriation nexus is not set in stone. Rather, it mutates historically in the course of capitalist development, which can be viewed as a sequence of qualitatively different regimes of racialized accumulation. In each phase, a historically specific configuration of the two exes underpins a distinctive landscape of racialization. When we follow the sequence down to the present, we encounter something new: a form of capitalism that blurs the historic separation of exploitation from expropriation. No longer assigning them to two sharply demarcated populations, this form appears to be dissolving the structural basis for racial oppression that inhered in capitalist society for four hundred years. Yet racial oppression persists, I shall claim, in forms that are neither strictly necessary nor merely contingent. The result is new set of puzzles for Black Marxist theory and anti-racist activism in the twentyfirst century.

In what follows, I develop this argument in three steps. First, I defend the thesis that capitalism harbors a structural basis for racial oppression given that it relies on expropriation as a necessary condition for exploitation. Then, in a second step, I historicize that structure by sketching the shifting configurations of those two exes in the principal phases of capitalism’s history. In my third step, finally, I consider the prospects for overcoming racial oppression in a new form of capitalist society that still rests on exploitation and expropriation but does not assign them to two sharply demarcated populations.

1.1. THREE PERSPECTIVES ON CAPITALISM: EXCHANGE, EXPLOITATION, EXPROPRIATION

Is capitalism necessarily racist? Everything depends on what exactly is meant by capitalism—and on the perspective from which we conceive it. Three such perspectives are worth exploring. A first approach, taught in economics courses, assumed in business, and enshrined in common sense, views capitalism through the lens of market exchange. A second, familiar to socialists, trade unionists, and other protagonists of labor struggles, locates the crux of capitalism at a deeper level, in the exploitation of wage labor in commodity production. A third perspective, developed by critics of imperialism, puts the spotlight instead on capital’s expropriation of conquered peoples. Here, I suggest that by combining the second and third perspectives we gain access to what is missed by each of the three approaches considered alone: a structural basis in capitalist society for racial oppression.

Consider, first, the perspective of exchange. From this perspective, capitalism appears as an economic system simpliciter. Organized to maximize growth and efficiency, it is centered on the institution of the market, where self-interested, arms-length transactors exchange equivalents. Seen this way, capitalism can only be indifferent to color. Absent interference and left to follow its own economizing logic, the system would dissolve any pre-existing racial hierarchies and avoid generating any new ones. From the standpoint of exchange, the link between racism and capitalism is wholly contingent.

Much could be said about this view, but what is important for my present purposes is this: it delinks capitalism from racism by definitional fiat. By defining capitalism narrowly, as an inherently colorblind, utility-maximizing logic, the exchange-centered view relegates any racializing impulses to forces external to the market, which distort the latter’s operation. The culprit is, therefore, not (what it understands as) capitalism, but the larger society that surrounds it. Racism comes from history, politics, and culture, all of which are viewed as external to capitalism and as only contingently connected to it. The effect is to formalize capitalism, reducing it to a means/end economizing logic and stripping away its historical and political contents. In this way, the market-centered view obscures a crucial point that will be central to my argument here: for structural reasons, capitalist economies require “non-economic” preconditions and inputs, including some that generate racial oppression. Failing to reckon with that dependence, this view obfuscates the system’s distinctive mechanisms of accumulation and domination.

Some of those mechanisms are disclosed, by contrast, by our second perspective. Broader, less formal, and far less rosy, this view was originated by Karl Marx, who reconceived capitalism as a system of exploitation. Famously, he penetrated beneath the standard perspective of market exchange to the more fundamental level of commodity production. There he claimed to discover the secret of accumulation in capital’s exploitation of wage laborers. For Marx, importantly, capitalism’s workers are neither serfs nor slaves, but unencumbered individuals, free to enter the labor market and sell their “labor power.” In reality, of course, they have little actual choice in the matter; deprived of any direct access to the means of production, they can only secure the means of subsistence by contracting to work for a capitalist in exchange for wages. Nor does the transaction redound principally to their benefit. What from the first perspective is an exchange of equivalents is, in Marx’s, view a sleight of hand. Recompensed only for the average socially necessary cost of their own reproduction, capitalism’s workers have no claim on the surplus value their labor generates, which accrues instead to the capitalist. And that is precisely the point. The crux of the system, for Marx, is exploitation, viewed as a relation between two classes: on the one hand, the capitalists who own the society’s means of production and appropriate its surplus; on the other, the free but propertyless producers who must sell their labor power piecemeal in order to live. Capitalism, on Marx’s view, is no mere economy, but a social system of class domination, centered on the exploitation of free labor by capital in commodity production.

Marx’s perspective has many virtues, at least one of which is incontestable. By viewing capitalism through the lens of exploitation, it makes visible what the exchange perspective obscured: the structural basis in capitalist society for working-class domination. Yet this focus fails to disclose any comparable structural basis for racial oppression. On this point, at least, the exploitation perspective sits uncomfortably close to that of exchange. While demonstrating that capital is accumulated off the back of free waged labor, it sheds little if any light on how race figures in the system and why it plays such an outsized role in capitalism’s history. Failing to address that issue, it can only convey the impression that the system’s entanglement with racial oppression is contingent.

That conclusion is too hasty, however. The trouble is that in focusing so tightly on the process by which capital exploits wage labor, Marx failed to give systematic consideration to some equally fundamental processes that are bound up with that one. I have in mind two such processes that could, when probed, reveal deep-seated links to racial oppression. The first is the crucial role played in capital accumulation by unfree, dependent, and unwaged labor—by which I mean labor that is expropriated, as opposed to exploited, subject to domination unmediated by a wage contract. The second concerns the role of political orders in conferring the status of free individuals and citizens on “workers,” while constituting others as lesser beings—for example, as chattel slaves, indentured servants, colonized subjects, “native” members of “domestic dependent nations,” debt peons, and felons.3 continue

Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Racism | Slavery | US History | Blog
5
May

In his final years, Poulantzas seemed to be straining against the seams of his thinking— and perhaps even against the Marxist tradition itself.

Poulantzas tried to envision how the left could simultaneously champion rank-and-file democracy at a distance from the state and push for radical transformation from within it.

As Marxism’s old messianic character faded in the late twentieth century, too many forgot that wandering in the wilderness is often the precondition of a prophet’s appearance. With the collapse of “really existing” socialism came what seemed like a permanent triumph of capitalism and the slow, grinding destruction of whatever resisted the market’s advance. But the far-too-unexpected renaissance of socialism in the twenty-first century reveals not only how much ground has been lost, but how much baggage has been shed. The presence of an authoritarian communist superpower was not only an ideological ball and chain for left politics outside the Eastern bloc, but also a real geopolitical straitjacket: at the electoral peak of European communist parties in the 1970s, the Soviet Union never kept secret that it preferred reactionaries in power in the West.

Now that this old shadow has passed and socialists are making a slow exit from the desert, they have a chance to redefine themselves for a new century. That involves taking bigger and more difficult steps, and it is not surprising that the effort has sent contemporary democratic socialists back to the 1970s, the last historical moment when socialist thinkers enjoyed even the illusion of political possibilities. In the brief window before the neoliberal era, socialists were just beginning to ask what a left politics that could win elections in a democratic system would look like. Who would its base be—what sort of alliance between classes and identity groups would it appeal to? How would it act toward a “bourgeois” political system that communists had always seen as an unredeemable instrument of class domination? Is it even possible to be a democratic revolutionary?

These questions came together in the work of Nicos Poulantzas, a Greek thinker who spent much of the 1960s and 1970s in Paris. There, Poulantzas argued that a sophisticated understanding of the capitalist state was central to a strategy for democratic socialism. Pushing as far as possible toward a Marxist theory of politics while still holding onto the central role of class struggle, Poulantzas tried to combine the insights of revolutionary strategy with a defense of parliamentary democracy against what he called “authoritarian statism.”

Recent signs of a Poulantzas renaissance, including the republication of several of his books in French and English, have a lot to do with the fact that his dual strategy for democratic socialism resonates with the task of today’s socialists: to understand how to use the capitalist state as a strategic weapon without succumbing to a long history of failed electoral projects and realignment strategies. The tensions in Poulantzas’s thinking resemble the current tensions within the left: is winning back power a matter of casting the oligarchs out of government and restoring a lost fairness, or is a more radical transformation of the state required?

It is an open question whether Poulantzas himself was able to articulate a satisfying vision for democratic socialism. His work, nevertheless, goes straight to the heart of the problems that twenty-first-century socialism must face.

Toward a Structural Theory of the Capitalist State

Nicos Poulantzas was born in Athens in 1936. In his twenties, he began a law degree at the University of Athens as a back door into philosophy. Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings became a conduit for Marxism among young Greek intellectuals since, as Poulantzas later explained, it was difficult to get the original canonical Marxist texts in a country that had suffered Nazi occupation, then civil war, then a repressive anticommunist government. After a brief stint in legal studies in Germany, Poulantzas made his way to Paris, where he was soon teaching law at the Sorbonne and mingling with the editors of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s journal Les Temps modernes. Poulantzas was drafted among a crop of new, younger writers for the journal, which published his earliest writings on law and the state and his engagements with British and Italian Marxists, including the Italian Communist Party’s in-house theorist, Antonio Gramsci. His 1964 doctoral thesis on the philosophy of law was broadly influenced by Sartre’s existentialism and the thought of Georg Lukács and Lucien Goldmann, who harmonized with the Hegelian Marxism dominant in France.

Louis Althusser, then a more marginal French philosopher but soon to be famous across Europe, dissented from this Hegelian turn. Althusser’s 1965 seminar, “Reading Capital,” was a curious event in the history of Marxism that marked the intellectual itineraries of well-known theorists like Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière. The framework it launched into Marxist theory, usually described as “structuralism,” was inextricable from Althusser’s dual opposition to Stalinist economism and the humanism of thinkers like Sartre. In the classic Marxist schema, the economic “base” gives rise to political and ideological “superstructures”—in other words, most everything about capitalist society, from its political institutions to its culture, are ultimately fated by the laws of economics. The Althusserians argued that, on the contrary, all of the domains of capitalist society operate quasi-independently of one another in order to more flexibly reproduce capitalist domination. Of course, they are tightly interrelated, and the economic decides “in the last instance” whether economics or something else will take priority, but, according to Althusser himself, “the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes.” continue

Category : Capitalism | Fascism | Hegemony | Marxism | Strategy and Tactics | Blog