[Editors Note: Foreign Affairs is not a usual source here, but now and then, it offers some insight into how the ruling class policy centers themselves are viewing critical events.]
Thursday, October 6, 2016
Trump and American Populism
Old Whine, New Bottles
By Michael Kazin
MICHAEL KAZIN teaches history at Georgetown University and is Editor of Dissent. He is the author of the forthcoming book War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914–1918.
Donald Trump is an unlikely populist . The Republican nominee for U.S. president inherited a fortune, boasts about his wealth and his many properties, shuttles between his exclusive resorts and luxury hotels, and has adopted an economic plan  that would, among other things, slash tax rates for rich people like himself. But a politician does not have to live among people of modest means, or even tout policies that would boost their incomes, to articulate their grievances and gain their support. Win or lose, Trump has tapped into a deep vein of distress and resentment among millions of white working- and middle-class Americans.
Trump is hardly the first  politician to bash elites and champion the interests of ordinary people. Two different, often competing populist traditions  have long thrived in the United States. Pundits often speak of “left-wing” and “right-wing” populists. But those labels don’t capture the most meaningful distinction. The first type of American populist directs his or her ire exclusively upward: at corporate elites and their enablers in government who have allegedly betrayed the interests of the men and women who do the nation’s essential work. These populists embrace a conception of “the people” based on class and avoid identifying themselves as supporters or opponents of any particular ethnic group or religion. They belong to a broadly liberal current in American political life; they advance a version of “civic nationalism,” which the historian Gary Gerstle defines as the “belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings, in every individual’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and in a democratic government that derives its legitimacy from the people’s consent.”
Adherents of the second American populist tradition—the one to which Trump belongs—also blame elites in big business and government for undermining the common folk’s economic interests and political liberties. But this tradition’s definition of “the people” is narrower and more ethnically restrictive. For most of U.S. history, it meant only citizens of European heritage—“real Americans,” whose ethnicity alone afforded them a claim to share in the country’s bounty. Typically, this breed of populist alleges that there is a nefarious alliance between evil forces on high and the unworthy, dark-skinned poor below—a cabal that imperils the interests and values of the patriotic (white) majority in the middle. The suspicion of an unwritten pact between top and bottom derives from a belief in what Gerstle calls “racial nationalism,” a conception of “America in ethnoracial terms, as a people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government.”
Both types of American populists have, from time to time, gained political influence. Their outbursts  are not random. They arise in response to real grievances : an economic system that favors the rich , fear of losing jobs to new immigrants, and politicians who care more about their own advancement than the well-being of the majority. Ultimately, the only way to blunt their appeal is to take those problems seriously.
POPULISTS PAST AND PRESENT
Populism  has long been a contested and ambiguous concept. Scholars debate whether it is a creed, a style, a political strategy, a marketing ploy, or some combination of the above. Populists are praised as defenders of the values and needs of the hard-working majority and condemned as demagogues who prey on the ignorance of the uneducated.
But the term “populist” used to have a more precise meaning. In the 1890s, journalists who knew their Latin coined the word to describe a large third party, the Populist, or People’s, Party, which powerfully articulated the progressive, civic-nationalist strain of American populism. The People’s Party sought to free the political system from the grip of “the money power.” Its activists, most of whom came from the South and the West, hailed the common interests of rural and urban labor and blasted monopolies in industry and high finance for impoverishing the masses. “We seek to restore the Government of the Republic to the hands of the ‘plain people’ with whom it originated,” thundered Ignatius Donnelly, a novelist and former Republican congressman, in his keynote speech at the party’s founding convention in Omaha in 1892. The new party sought to expand the power of the central government to serve those “plain people” and to humble their exploiters. That same year, James Weaver, the Populist nominee for president, won 22 electoral votes, and the party seemed poised to take control of several states in the South and the Great Plains. But four years later, at a divided national convention, a majority of delegates backed the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, who embraced some of the party’s main proposals, such as a flexible money supply based on silver as well as gold. When Bryan, “the Great Commoner,” lost the 1896 election, the third party declined rapidly. Its fate, like that of most third parties, was like that of a bee, as the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1955. Once it had stung the political establishment, it died.
Senator Bernie Sanders has inherited this tradition of populist rhetoric. During the 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he railed against “the billionaire class” for betraying the promise of American democracy and demanded a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Medicare for all, and other progressive economic reforms. Sanders calls himself a socialist and has hailed his supporters as the vanguard of a “political revolution.” Yet all he actually advocated was an expanded welfare state, akin to that which has long thrived in Scandinavia.
The other strain of populism—the racial-nationalist sort—emerged at about the same time as the People’s Party. Both sprang from the same sense of alarm during the Gilded Age about widening inequality between unregulated corporations and investment houses and ordinary workers and small farmers. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the champions of this strain of thought used xenophobic appeals to lobby Congress to bar all Chinese and most Japanese laborers from immigrating to the United States. Working- and middle-class white Americans, some of whom belonged to struggling labor unions, led this movement and made up the bulk of its adherents. “Our moneyed men . . . have rallied under the banner of the millionaire, the banker, and the land monopolist, the railroad king and the false politician, to effect their purpose,” proclaimed Denis Kearney, a small businessman from San Francisco with a gift for incendiary rhetoric who founded the Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC) in 1877. Kearney charged  that a “bloated aristocracy . . . rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth—the Chinese coolie—and imports him here to meet the free American in the labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white labor.” (continued)
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By Niu DongJie, Ming Haiying
Chinese Social Sciences Today
May 6, 2016
Zhang Yunfei was born in 1963 in Fengzhen City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. He attended Renmin University of China, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy. Currently, he is a professor at the university’s School of Marxism Studies and a doctoral supervisor in basic principles of Marxism.
The concept of ecological Marxism emerged in the mid-20th century as theorists sought to transcend the capitalist system while resolving mankind’s conflict with nature and realizing true human freedom. A reporter from Chinese Social Sciences Today (CSST) sat down with Zhang Yunfei to talk about ecological Marxism and how it can be applied in a contemporary context to realize sustainable social development.
CSST: What are the connections between the ecological Marxism and Marxism?
Zhang: The connections between the two are viewed from three perspectives.
Some see ecological Marxism as orthodox Marxism. Based on Marxist texts and the history of the discipline, some theorists tried to explore the resources involving ecological thought in Marxism and established a framework of ecological thinking within Marxism. Marxism thus can serve to solve ecological issues.
Others view it as revisionary Marxism. Some scholars thought that Marxism didn’t offer solutions to the issue of “alienated consumption,” which is the cause of ecological crisis. Therefore, a view on ecological issues should be supplementary to Marxism. Other scholars contended that Marxism only dealt with the first contradiction—between productive forces and productive relations—while neglecting the contradiction between them and production conditions, but the second contradiction is the source of ecological crisis.
Hence, the second contradiction became the starting point for ecological Marxism. In fact, Marx and Engels have touched upon these issues. They just didn’t give a clear and detailed explanation of them. To introduce an ecological approach is a revision of Marxism, but the theory is not necessarily “revisionism.”
The third perspective is that ecological Marxism is an innovation of Marxism. After examining the ecological dilemmas facing mankind, some scholars have proposed various theoretical schemas and practical plans to resolve ecological problems and strive for sustainable development, sticking to the stance of Marxism while combining the viewpoints and methods of Marxism with practice in environment protection. In this way, the ecological thinking in Marxism can be enriched and developed.
CSST: Can ecological problems be radically solved through ecological Marxism?
Zhang: In terms of the means of production, ecological Marxism opposes private ownership, especially capitalist private ownership. American scholar Joel Kovel criticized the neoliberalism preached by advocates of the “Tragedy of the Commons” theory. For the purposes of production, John Bellamy Foster, author of Marx’s Ecology, argued that basic needs and long-term environmental protection should be emphasized. When it comes to distribution, Foster held that only by adhering to “environmental equality” can environmental movements avoid becoming alienated from the working class, who stand firm against capitalism in terms of the means of production. James O’Connor argued that the essence of bourgeois justice is “distributive justice,” while productive justice is the aim of ecological socialism.
Ecological Marxism replaces capitalism with socialism as an economic model, which facilitates the ultimate solution of ecological problems. Only by adhering to the notion of popular sovereignty can the ecological transformation of society be achieved.
As for a cultural model, ecological Marxism sees the impact of culture reforms on harmony between humans and nature. Mechanistic thinking, a major factor that leads to ecological problems, should be converted to ecological thinking. Kovel held that to have an ecological understanding is to recognize the fact that humans are part of nature and inseparable from their environment. In terms of values, Foster pointed out that the perspective should be people oriented and focused on poor people in particular. Kovel argued that justice is essential to the mission of liberating the workforce and relieving ecological crisis.
As for social models, ecological Marxism has observed the severity of ecological crisis brought by high consumption in capitalist consumer society, and thus calls for reasonable and ecological consumption. In addition, as the basic unit of society and life, communities directly affect the efficiency of ecological management. Therefore, ecological Marxism emphasizes community and advocates community justice. However, some eco-socialists equte community with anarchism, which should be dealt with based on special cases.
Socialist environmentalist Fred Magdoff put forth a general model for “harmony culture.” “Harmony culture is equal to socialism plus the economic goal of meeting the basic needs of humanity while protecting the environment plus equality in essence plus simplicity in life.” This model is quite inspiring for the establishment of a sound ecological system in socialist society.
CSST: Does ecological Marxism face any limitations or dilemmas in theory and in practice?
Zhang: There are several problems facing the development of Marxism. First, Marxist philosophical ontology is not unified or clear. Realizing this, Kovel introduced the concept of “intrinsic value” of eco-centrism into Marxism, contending that ecological Marxism refers to achieving intrinsic value through a socialist means. However, eco-centrism belongs to the realm of green thought, which does not involve politics, whereas ecological Marxism pertains to red thought, which is dedicated to political issues. Therefore, there are theoretical and political barriers to integrating the two concepts. In addition, issues concerning ecological Marxism are mostly debated using historical materialism, while dialectics of nature are seldom referenced.
Second, emphasis should be placed on constructing a sound ecological system in China. The perception of ecological civilization, the creation of Marxism in a Chinese context, is an innovative development in Marxist ecological thought. Socialist ecological construction in China is an innovation to achieve this goal. Therefore, as Chinese scholars need Marxism as guiding principle, ecological Marxism need to be devoted to Chinese practices. “Organic Marxism” recently proposed by some American scholars highlighted the construction of socialist ecological civilization in China.
CSST: What efforts should be made to promote Marxist ecology studies in China?
Zhang: First, most research on ecological Marxism centers on the thoughts of representative figures, while not many touched on introducing general theoretical logic and contributions. Therefore, what we need now is a comprehensive comparative research perspective and an overall grasp of ecological Marxism to find out its significance relative to global Marxism as a whole.
Second, past research was mostly concerned with the theoretical contributions of ecological Marxism, but more attention should be paid to praxis. Future research worthy of investigation includes ecological Marxism and the Western environment movement, the relationship between environmental NGOs and the Green Party, and whether these NGOs have driven the ecological management in the West to effectively prevent ecological damage caused by capitalism. It is essential to introduce the fruits of ecological Marxism into Chinese practice while pondering the role ecological Marxism has played in global ecological management.
Of course, we must consider all the difficulties and disadvantages facing ecological Marxism. The construction of an ecological society should be promoted by running with rather than nitpicking the theory.
The origins of ecological Marxism can be traced to O’Connor’s (1988) article, “Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Theoretical Introduction,” which he wrote as an introduction to the new journal he founded, “Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology.” In setting up this argument, O’Connor referred to the 1944 book, The Great Transformation, by Karl Polanyi, who O’Connor notes examined the ways in which capitalism destroys nature as one of its inherent contradictions. Polanyi’s works point out that there are limits to economic growth attached to ecological factors, an idea that resurfaced in the 1970s in limits to growth arguments. Those ecological limits to growth are the factors that impede the relentless effort of capital to grow, and present a barrier to the ideological claim of capitalism regarding limitless growth potential.
As an economist, O’Connor well understood the traditional Marxist arguments about economic crisis and the forms in which those crises appear under capitalism. Previously, he had made significant contributions to that literature. In proposing an ecological Marxism, O’Connor sought to move beyond traditional crisis theories of capitalism (e.g., under consumption, over production, the realization of surplus value, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the extension of credit, wage deflation, etc.,.). While these issues remain important and useful to ecological Marxism, ecological Marxism directs its attention to the “capitalization of nature.” Part of that view relates to the ways in which the distribution of ownership in capitalist society affects access to nature and its raw materials and forces access to raw materials to become class linked. Another important aspect of this argument involves the ways in which capitalism produces adverse ecological conditions that threaten its stability along with the stability of nature.
—An excerpt from a online databse Green Criminology, by Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida
Niu DongJie and Ming Haiying are reporters at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.
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By Matthew Lyons
Posted April 15, 2016 on People’s War from the Three-Way Fight blog. Republished here in light of debates over whether Donald Trump and the Islamic State (ISIS) are fascist in character. First published as “Two Ways of Looking at Fascism” by Socialism and Democracy.
Fascism is an important political category, but a confusing one. People use the word fascism in many different ways, and often without a clear sense of what it means.
Political events since the September 11, 2001, attacks have raised the issue of fascism in new ways. People on both the right and the left have described Islamic rightist forces such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban as fascist -– but for very different reasons. Neoconservatives and Bush administration officials have denounced “Islamofascists” to help justify the so-called war on terrorism and the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. By contrast, some leftists describe some of these same groups as fascist -– not to rationalize U.S. expansion, but to highlight the fact that there are major political forces today that are deadly enemies of both the left and U.S. imperialism.
At the same time, a number of liberals and leftists have warned that the United States itself is headed in a fascist direction. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Bush administration’s authoritarian and militaristic policies are a serious threat, but they’re a world apart from fascism’s volatile mix of oppression and anti-elitism, order and insurgency. Fascism doesn’t just terrorize and repress; it uses twisted versions of radical politics in a bid to “take the game away from the left,” as Neo-Nazi leader Tom Metzger urged his followers in the 1980s. We need different strategies to fight these different forms of right-wing authoritarianism, and we need a political vocabulary that lets us tell them apart.1
Claims of impending fascism tend to reflect two underlying problems. The first is the idea that fascism is essentially a tool or strategy of big business to defend capitalist rule, and the second is vagueness about what delineates fascism from other forms of capitalist repression. We can see both of these problems in pronouncements from several different U.S. leftist organizations (such as the Communist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Revolutionary Communist Party, and Socialist Labor Party), in leftist and left-liberal media organs such as CounterPunch and Common Dreams, and in numerous websites and online discussions among U.S. activists.2
A recent sophisticated example of both problems comes from Marxist academicians Gregory Meyerson and Michael Joseph Roberto. In an October 2006 Monthly Review article, “It Could Happen Here,” they argue that “fascism is a plausible response by the U.S. bourgeoisie to the general crisis of Pax Americana” and, although the outcome of the crisis remains unclear, “evidence is mounting for what we are calling a fascist trajectory.” Meyerson and Roberto see fascism as an intrinsic structural tendency of capitalism in crisis, a form of rule that is promoted strictly from the top down. “Only the ruling class can institute fascist processes,” they argue. Although they acknowledge the existence of fascist movements, “the Marxist view,” they claim, “does not focus primarily on fascist mass movements because they are not primary engines of fascism.”3
Even if we accept this concept of fascism (and of Marxism), Meyerson and Roberto never explain concretely what they mean by fascist rule. They emphasize that fascism needs to be understood in functional terms, as a form of capitalist rule in crisis, and they criticize descriptive definitions of fascism on the grounds that these obscure its changing historical character. A U.S. fascist trajectory “will look quite different from past fascist trajectories,” and will “unfold in a bipartisan context, liberals and conservatives acting in concert -– the whole ruling class.” But since Meyerson and Roberto don’t tell us what fascism will look like, how will we know it’s happening? The substance of their argument seems to be that the growing crisis may persuade most representatives of capital that they need to establish a much more repressive and authoritarian state. This is a serious and wholly justified concern, but it’s a simple point that doesn’t require elaborate arguments about functionalism and structural tendencies. And we gain nothing, but lose much, by calling the result fascism.
The concept of fascism is indeed highly relevant for analyzing current political threats, but not in the way that Meyerson and Roberto maintain. Fascism can help us understand a range of political phenomena that the U.S. ruling class didn’t initiate and does not control. These phenomena are part of a crisis that goes far beyond the decline of U.S. global hegemony and the American welfare state, to include the following:
In this volatile mix, fascism is an important reference point -– not just as a developed political force but also as a tendency or potential within broader movements. It is both distinct from and at odds with top-down capitalist authoritarianism. In addition, while fascism takes shape in a capitalist context, it isn’t a functional consequence of capitalist development, analogous (as Meyerson and Roberto suggest) to imperialism. Rather, it is a political current, which -– like socialism, liberalism, or conservatism –- embodies its own set of ideas, policies, organizational forms, and bases of support. Like all major political currents, fascism exists in multiple variations and evolves dynamically to address new historical conditions. This means that no definition of fascism is the one true, final answer. But defining –- or at least describing –- fascism can help us to grasp fascism’s key features, delineate its relationship with other forces, and explore how it develops and how it can be fought.
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Editor’s Note: We are quite aware that the author below is no Marxist. But his views on world affairs are always interesting, and have recently been taken seriously by both Obama and Sanders, but not Clinton. So with more than a grain of salt, he’s worth a read.
The American Interest
April 17, 2016 – As its era of global dominance ends, the United States needs to take the lead in realigning the global power architecture.
Five basic verities regarding the emerging redistribution of global political power and the violent political awakening in the Middle East are signaling the coming of a new global realignment.
The first of these verities is that the United States is still the world’s politically, economically, and militarily most powerful entity but, given complex geopolitical shifts in regional balances, it is no longer the globally imperial power. But neither is any other major power.
The second verity is that Russia is experiencing the latest convulsive phase of its imperial devolution. A painful process, Russia is not fatally precluded – if it acts wisely – from becoming eventually a leading European nation-state. However, currently it is pointlessly alienating some of its former subjects in the Islamic southwest of its once extensive empire, as well as Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia, not to mention the Baltic States.
The third verity is that China is rising steadily, if more slowly as of late, as America’s eventual coequal and likely rival; but for the time being it is careful not to pose an outright challenge to America. Militarily, it seems to be seeking a breakthrough in a new generation of weapons while patiently enhancing its still very limited naval power.
The fourth verity is that Europe is not now and is not likely to become a global power. But it can play a constructive role in taking the lead in regard to transnational threats to global wellbeing and even human survival. Additionally, Europe is politically and culturally aligned with and supportive of core U.S. interests in the Middle East, and European steadfastness within NATO is essential to an eventually constructive resolution of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
The fifth verity is that the currently violent political awakening among post-colonial Muslims is, in part, a belated reaction to their occasionally brutal suppression mostly by European powers. It fuses a delayed but deeply felt sense of injustice with a religious motivation that is unifying large numbers of Muslims against the outside world; but at the same time, because of historic sectarian schisms within Islam that have nothing to do with the West, the recent welling up of historical grievances is also divisive within Islam.
Taken together as a unified framework, these five verities tell us that the United States must take the lead in realigning the global power architecture in such a way that the violence erupting within and occasionally projected beyond the Muslim world—and in the future possibly from other parts of what used to be called the Third World—can be contained without destroying the global order. We can sketch this new architecture by elaborating briefly each of the five foregoing verities.
First, America can only be effective in dealing with the current Middle Eastern violence if it forges a coalition that involves, in varying degrees, also Russia and China. To enable such a coalition to take shape, Russia must first be discouraged from its reliance on the unilateral use of force against its own neighbors—notably Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic States—and China should be disabused of the idea that selfish passivity in the face of the rising regional crisis in the Middle East will prove to be politically and economically rewarding to its ambitions in the global arena. These shortsighted policy impulses need to be channeled into a more farsighted vision.
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By Sean Posey
Hampton Institute I Urban Issues I Commentary
April 13th, 2016 – During the winter of 2016, the ever-present visage of Donald J. Trump remained burned into television sets and computer screens across America. In the well-manicured lawns of the modest working-class homes of Austintown, Ohio, situated in long-struggling Mahoning County, “Team Trump. Rebuild America” signs began popping up everywhere.
Formerly a sparsely populated farming community, Austintown grew as a working-class suburb in the decades after World War II. Steel and autoworkers could commonly afford vacations and college tuition for their children; the community, in many ways, symbolized the working-class American Dream. By 1970, Austintown, along with the neighboring township of Boardman, was part of the largest unincorporated area in the state.  The township’s population peaked in 1980 at 33,000. Today, however, it’s a very different place. Job losses in the local manufacturing sector and the graying of the population led Forbes to label Austintown as the “fifth-fastest dying town” in the country in the midst of the Great Recession. The township’s poverty rate had already reached nearly 14 percent in the year before the meltdown of Wall Street.
The 2016 Ohio Republican primary in Mahoning County witnessed the largest shift of Democratic voters to the Republican Party in decades. “Most of them crossed over to vote for Donald Trump,” remarked David Betras, Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman.
This used to be Democrat country. But like so many other places in America, the brash billionaire’s message is remaking the local political landscape. Trump narrowly lost the Ohio primary to incumbent Governor John Kasich. However, he won the majority of Republican primary voters in Mahoning County and in neighboring Trumbull County, home to the city of Warren – one of the most embattled municipalities in the state. Winning his home state should have been a given for Kasich; instead, Trump pushed the twice-elected governor to the brink.
Ohio is not the only place in the heartland the Trump tornado is sweeping through. Scores of America’s most insecure communities are joining the once prosperous Buckeye State in flirting with or joining the mogul’s camp. Yet, for as much attention as has been paid to Trump and the often controversial movement behind him, far less has been said about the cracking core of a country that is currently looking for a savior, any savior, in such enormously troubled times.
Years before America’s most famous real estate and reality television personality descended a gold escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for president, long-time journalists Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson began a cross-country journey to document America in the wake of the 911 attacks.
“On one trip,” Maharidge writes, “I drove from Chicago to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. In places like this, the abandoned shells of factories, all broken windows and rust, make this country look like it was bombed in a war. In other places it’s as if an economic neutron bomb hit-with trees and houses intact but lives decimated, gone with good jobs.”
Traditionally, this part of the heartland represented the economic engine of industrial America, filled with good-paying jobs in manufacturing. However, the great economic dislocations of the past forty-odd years have rendered much of this landscape a void, one more akin to the developing world than that of the United States. Even for the more outwardly normal communities, as Maharidge mentions, looks can be deceiving. Heroin is hitting the inner core of the country with a hammer force, destroying young lives already beset by economic insecurity and the end of upward mobility.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the declining life expectancy for a large swath of working-class whites, one of Trump’s key constituencies. For the past sixteen years, death rates have risen for Caucasians between the ages of 45 and 54 and also for those between the ages of 25 to 34.  These are notable exceptions to the overall increase in life expectancy for all groups, regardless of race or ethnicity. While working class whites in Europe continue to experience increases in life expectancy, their counterparts in America are dying from drugs, suicide, and despair.
Truthout | News Analysis
Jan 1, 2016 – We are nearing 2016, the year when the richest 1 percent of humanity will own more than the rest of the world, according to projections made by the nongovernmental organization Oxfam.
This is up from the 1 percent owning 44 percent of the world’s wealth in 2010 and 48 percent in 2014. If current trends continue, the 1 percent will own 54 percent by 2020.
The top 80 billionaires were worth $1.9 trillion in 2014, an amount equal to the bottom 50 percent. These 80 billionaires saw a 50 percent rise in their wealth in just four years, from 2010 to 2014, during which time the poorest 50 percent saw a drop in their wealth. In other words, there has been a huge transfer of wealth in a very short period of time from the poorest half of humanity to the richest 80 individuals on the planet.
What should we do in the face of these escalating worldwide inequalities? In his worldwide bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, French economist Thomas Piketty argued for a global tax on capital and redistribution through progressive tax reform. The book has gained traction globally perhaps because its prescriptions converge with the reformist agenda of a rising number of transnational elites and intelligentsia, who have become concerned that the turmoil sparked by such egregious inequalities may destabilize global capitalism and threaten their control. Like Piketty, they have been calling for mildly redistributive measures, such as increased taxes on corporations and the rich, a more progressive income tax, the reintroduction of social welfare programs and a "green capitalism."
This reformist approach to global inequality, however, is entirely inadequate because it bypasses the questions of power and of corporate control over the planet’s productive resources that are at the very heart of global capitalism and its crisis. Any resolution to this crisis requires a radical redistribution of wealth and power downward to the poor majority of humanity. Social justice requires a measure of transnational social governance over the global production and financial system as a necessary first step in this radical redistribution, which in turn must be linked to the transformation of class and property relations.
Seen in this perspective, the elites’ reformist approach has more to do with averting such a transformation than with resolving the plight of the poor majority. The power relations that are at stake become clear by exploring what accounts for social inequalities under capitalism.
Causes of Rising Inequality
What accounts for escalating worldwide inequalities that have so alarmed transnational elites? As Marx analyzed in Capital, there is something going on in the capitalist system itself beyond sets of government policies that generates inequalities. Simply put, capitalists own the means of producing wealth, and therefore appropriate as profits as much as possible of the wealth that society collectively produces. Capitalism produces social inequalities as a consequence of its own internal workings.
But such inequalities end up undermining the stability of the system, since the mass of working people cannot purchase the wealth that pours out of the capitalist economy to the extent that capitalists and the well-off retain more and more of total income relative to that which goes to labor. If capitalists cannot actually sell (or "unload") the products of their plantations, factories and offices, then they cannot make a profit.
This is what in critical political economy constitutes the underlying internal contradiction of capitalism, or the overaccumulation problem. Left unchecked, expanding social polarization results in crisis – in recessions and depressions, such as the 1930s Great Depression or the 2008 Great Recession. Worse still, it engenders great social upheavals, political conflicts, wars and even revolutions – precisely the kinds of conflicts and chaos we are witnessing in the world today.
In the view of the reformers, however, it is not the capitalist system itself, but its particular institutional organization that is to blame for inequalities. They believe it can be offset by increased taxes, social welfare programs and other reformist measures.
The Class Warfare of the Transnational Capitalist Class
The sharp escalation in inequalities coincides with capitalist globalization from the 1970s and on. The high rates of inequality registered in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and that reached a peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had diminished somewhat in the heartlands of world capitalism in the wake of two world wars and the Great Depression. Inequalities in the rich countries were diminished in part thanks to colonialism and imperialism, which resulted in the transfer of surplus wealth from the periphery to the metropolitan centers of world capitalism and made possible the rise of a "labor aristocracy" in these centers.
What became known as the "Fordist-Keynesian" social order that took shape in the 30 years following World War II involved high growth rates, a rise in living standards for substantial sectors of the working class and a decrease in inequalities in the developed core of world capitalism.
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By Lauren Langman
The progressive social movements of 2011, followed by the rise of Left parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, can be best understood as what Herbert Marcuse called the Great Refusal: rejections and contestations of domination reflecting a variety of grievances stemming from the multiple legitimation crises of contemporary capitalism. As Jürgen Habermas argued, the multiple legitimation crises of the capitalist system migrate to lifeworld, the realms of subjectivity and motivation that evoke strong emotions such as anger, anxiety, and indignation that dispose social mobilizations. What is especially evident as a goal of these movements is the quest for dignity as rooted in an emancipatory, philosophical, anthropological critique of alienation, domination, and suffering pioneered by the Frankfurt School—quite cogently argued in Marcuse’s analysis of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts. But grievances and emotions do not lead to sustained social movements; there must be recruitment, organizing and organization building, leadership, strategy, tactics, and vision. The Frankfurt School’s critique of domination can be complemented by Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony in which “organic intellectuals” understand how the system operates (with due attention to the salience of the cultural barriers to change), while also proffering counterhegemonic narratives, organizing subalterns, and initiating “wars of position.” A critical perspective on contemporary social movements provides a politically informed critique with visions of utopian possibility in which membership in democratic, egalitarian, identity-granting/recognizing communities of meaning allows for, indeed fosters, community, agency, creative self-realization, and the dignity of all.
I. Ideology, Hegemony, and Domination
Why do the vast majority of people “willingly assent” to the domination by the few, despite vast economic inequalities, growing hardships, and the thwarting of the self? This has long been one of the central questions for the Frankfurt School’s critique of ideology and character structure in which authority becomes embedded within the self, making possible uncritical acceptance and conformity. These insights provide the rich understanding of the conditions of our age, especially of those that enable (or thwart) emancipatory social movements.
The grievances that result from the contradictions and adversities of neoliberal capitalism need to be articulated by intellectually informed, radical activists. Quite independently of the Frankfurt School, a parallel line of analysis and critique was developed by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist theoretician and organizer who conceptualized “hegemony” as the ideological control of culture, which produces the “willing assent” to the domination of the “historic bloc” (the capitalists) and through which the “naturalization” of the historically arbitrary is presented as normal, natural, and in the best interests of all. For Gramsci, the critique of hegemony and the development of counterhegemonic ideologies and organizational practices are the tasks of “organic intellectuals” who understand the role of culture in sustaining domination. They understand the ways in which the dominant culture thwarts political and social change, which in turn necessitates a cultural rebellion, mediated through the “wars of position” in which counterhegemonic discourses would overcome cultural barriers and the “normality” of social existing arrangements in order to achieve social transformation. One of the major tactics for such organization is so-called “popular education,” which enables people to understand how ruling class privileges are based on the exploitation of the masses. Gramsci’s analysis complements the Frankfurt School’s critiques, while his experiences as an activist provide insights and tools to envision and, indeed, make possible an alternative kind of society.
A. Critical Theory
1. The Psychological Foundations of Politics
The Frankfurt School brought psychoanalysis into the critique of domination. From Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm, they subsequently developed a political psychology in which authoritarianism, an aspect of character acquired in childhood, made possible the embrace of conservative, indeed reactionary politics. The understanding of the superego as internalized authority, showed that people would passionately submit to “powerful,” authoritative leaders in order to gain their love and assuage feelings of anxiety, loneliness, powerlessness, and meaninglessness. Thus, authoritarians are psychologically disposed to embrace the elite’s political agendas that stress toughness, determination, and power. Authoritarianism is typically coupled with a sadomasochistic need to dominate, denigrate, and feel contempt toward the weak and the helpless, and authoritarians typically project aggression toward the out-groups (paranoia).
The early Frankfurt School studies of authoritarianism showed how these authoritarian character structures resonated with fascist propaganda and ideology. In a number of books, papers and empirical studies of working-class Germans, and a large postwar study of Americans, authoritarianism was shown to be highly correlated with the conservative to reactionary political positions that glorified authority, denigrated subordinates, and projected anger and aggression toward the out-groups, especially racial minorities and Jews. Authoritarians are thus generally patriarchal, homophobic, and racist, in addition to being highly conventional, conformist, and maintaining a rigid, black–white, either–or, cognitive stance. The enduring significance of these studies can be seen in the contemporary work of Robert Altemeyer. We might also note that, in many ways, these studies of authoritarianism anticipated some of the recent approaches in cognitive psychology and emotion research.
Nevertheless, while being a crucial aspect of political beliefs and actions, authoritarianism is only a part of the story of the internalization of various ideologies. Following what has been said, it is absolutely essential to underline the fact that people’s political beliefs are not shaped by rational considerations, logic, or evidence. Rather, the character structure and the patterning of various needs and desires shape the ways in which people perceive the world, evaluate events, and choose actions. For Gramsci, the ideological control of culture shaped the production of ideology to produce the “willing assent” to domination. But, without a theory of psychodynamics, he could not explain the motivation of people to assent to their own subordination. In 1930, Freud provides the first hint, claiming that the values, norms and laws of society that demand sexual repression and obedience to social dictates, are mediated through the identification with parents, and become sedimented within the superego. People subsequently develop identities that have been ideologically crafted, but not under the circumstances of their own choosing. The identities of prior generations, shaped by earlier authority relationships, weigh down upon the individual to colonize his/her consciousness and desires in the way that the values of the ruling classes/hegemonic blocs become internalized as essential parts of the individual’s identity and values. That this is not a rational process is also made evident by the studies of authoritarianism and anti-Semitism mentioned above.