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Crossposted at Docudharma

This is a defense of OPOL’s diary "Why I Am A Radical."  Some of the respondents thought that OPOL wasn't "really a radical," others thought that   our "solution" to present-day political problems should focus on the election of Hillary or Obama or Edwards or whomever, more others just cheered another well-decorated OPOL diary.  Here I wish to set radicalism on the bedrock of economic thinking incited by Karl Marx in the Preface to "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy," and compare the words of OPOL to those of Vijay Prashad, from his book "Fat Cats and Running Dogs."

If you haven’t already, go back to read OPOL’s diary "Why I Am A Radical," in which he suggests a break from the general notion of "constructive engagement" that has characterized most of the petty-reformist pseudo-initiatives we’ve seen over the past thirty years or so:

If you’re thinking I have nothing but scorn for our political system, you are right.  Just look what it has wrought.  It deserves nothing but scorn.

In the response section, many people doubted that OPOL was a radical.  Here was the most substantive portion of the explanation he gave in his diary:

The hope that we can re-purpose this evil machine and refocus our intelligence, talent and treasure on solving the very real problems of impending environmental disaster, sustainable agriculture, alternative fuels, providing food and potable water for the world’s population, providing rational and meaningful healthcare to all, fixing our broken system of public education, repairing and replacing our crumbling infrastructure and etcetera and etcetera makes me a radical.

Now, OPOL thinks WE can solve these problems.  He suggests, moreover, that our political system deserves nothing but scorn in this regard.  

So, for OPOL, being radical involves a basic support for popular rule, in which the people themselves are to solve their problems, regardless of how corrupt the politicians are.

This diary will involve a basic examination of the practical workability of OPOL’s idea of "being radical," looking both at problem and solutions.

First, the problem:

In "Why I Am A Radical," OPOL suggests that the main problem of our government is the domination of what he calls the "Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex":

Now, take a careful look at the graph –- all the links between the various entities are made by money.  This is, in short, economic analysis.  Thus, insofar as this actually describes the reality-at-hand, we are talking about economic power.

What I intend to suggest, in the paragraphs below, is that OPOL’s depiction of our corrupt political realities is confirmed by the economic realities of today, and that what we are faced with today is not that Bush hijo is some wild aberration from a calm and placid political reality, nor that the neoconservatives, nor the Republicans, are some singular villainy in a world otherwise permeated by the Forces of Good, but rather that what is going on today is the result of an economic system characterized by the distortions of neoliberalism.

Back to Marx

There is a philosophy, an old philosophy, which started with the reality of economic power and proceeded from there.  The philosophy I had in mind started with the preface to Marx’s 1859 work, the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

So there are economic relations, and these economic relations form a foundation for society.  Law, politics, and social consciousness "sit atop" economic reality in this way.

Now, the debates I skimmed through when I was an English major in the late ‘80s/ early ’90s borrowed directly from the passage I quoted above, so it’s pretty famous.  Those old debates, however, were about whether the economic base "controlled" culture, or could culture "control" itself or the economic superstructure.  The debate about what controls what, IMO, really ignores the way Marx has framed the above quote.  (Lots of folks claim to read Marx; some of them actually read Marx.)  So it was irrelevant.  Control isn't the issue: the issue is that, when we read a work of literature or analyze a political system, we look at that object in light of the reigning economic system at the time of its formation, whether that system be early, agricultural capitalism or late financial capitalism or feudalism or the Roman Empire or whatever.

Let’s restore focus in this way.  Marx’s point here is that each cultural situation, regardless of time and place, is framed by the economic world that goes on around it.  Most important for Marx are the "relations of production" of this economic world.  So what are the relations of production?  For Marx, these were characterized under capitalism by the exploitation of wage labor.

Marx viewed the society of his time as divided into two classes: workers and owners.  The owners are that class which owned the capital assets: the factories and other production facilities.  The workers sell their labor to the owners, who use this labor to produce a surplus.  This surplus is represented by the fruits of the workers’ labor, commodities, which are then sold to realize a profit.  The profit, then, is used by the workers to extend their control over society as a whole.  This, in a nutshell, is the theory of surplus value.

In Marx’s version, the owning class serves as a class of vampires, sucking the profit out of the world much as we might imagine a vampire sucking the blood out of his victims.  In such a way, the theory of surplus value leads to a contradiction, which Marx eagerly seized: if the consumers of the working class are too poor because they’ve been working for no wages, they won’t be able to afford the products they created in the factories owned by the owning class.  Thus the capitalist system must eventually stall as an engine of growth, unless a consumer class is created that will buy the system’s products so that the capitalists can realize their profits.

Now, Marx was born too early to recognize the multiplicity of capitalisms that we see.  The biggest distinction we might make between our era and his is that our era has seen the invention of Keynesian economics and the managed economy.  It was this, more than anything, which was responsible for the creation of the modern consumer economy.  

Keynes’ innovation was to have governments provide guarantees for those whose economic failures would hurt the economy the most.  Government guarantees were provided by, basically, the printing of more money, and the value of this money would be realized by the growth of the economy as a whole.  It is the wholesale adoption of Keynesian economic policies in the more privileged nations that is responsible for the largest spurt of growth the capitalist system has seen in all history, between (more or less) 1948 and 1971.

Now, we no longer live in a (fully) Keynesian economy (though portions of it are still in evidence), and we probably can’t go back to Keynesian economics, either.  Let me explain.  Keynesian economics required three basic preconditions:

  1. In each economy there needs to be a relatively autonomous national economic system.  In the abovementioned historical period, the autonomy of national economic systems was provided by the Bretton Woods system, which regulated the international monetary system.  Today, the global economy offers individual nations no autonomy, and the universal currency is the US dollar, under a condition known as dollar hegemony.
  1. There needs to be a solid basis for economic growth in each nation, in order to realize each nation’s expansion of the money supply.  Instead, what we have today is uncertain economic growth, at an average rate (outside of China) that is significantly less than what it was during the heyday of Keynesian economics.
  1. There needs to be a class compromise, in which the owning class and the working class both agree to avoid waging any sort of class warfare or class struggle against the other.  Today we witness a full-scale class war, directed from the top, an attempt to dispossess the working class led primarily by the Bush administration.

So none of these "relations of production," such as once characterized the Keynesian era of capitalism (1948-1971, more or less), fully apply today.  Instead of Keynesianism, what we have for today’s "relations of productions" is neoliberal capitalism, or the "Age of Finance Capital."  This era is characterized by (in Harry Shutt’s words) the "recurrent excess supply of capital in relation to the demand for it."  (3)  There are simply too many investors trying to make a profit, and so government becomes the ultimate investment because, since it controls the printing presses which crank out the money, it can be made to crank out a profit for anyone who controls it.  Thus, unlike with Keynesianism, the world of the "Age of Finance Capital" operates within a slow and steady reversion to the "relations of production" that applied during Marx’s era of capitalism, in which what was most obvious was the owning class’s exploitation of the working class.

Situating radicalism in neoliberal times: Vijay Prashad

If we were to combine OPOL’s outrage with an economic analysis of this era, we might get Vijay Prashad’s (2003) book Fat Cats and Running Dogs: The Enron Stage of Capitalism.  

Now, Vijay Prashad is one of my favorite writers.  On the covers of his books he describes himself as "associate professor and director of International Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut."  He's got a Znet page, and a bio put out by the University of Oregon suggests that he grew up in Calcutta.  He does, though, keep in touch with grassroots movements here in the US: his book "Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses" contains a discussion of the Kensington Worker's Rights Union, among other organizations.  Those folks are radicals.  (Right now I'm busy reading his most recent book, The Darker Nations.  I'll get back to you on that one.)

Fat Cats and Running Dogs, ostensibly about the scandal accompanying Enron’s bankruptcy, is really about how neoliberalism, as an economic doctrine, serves as a "manual for corporate terrestrial conquest" (68).  This, of course, is the logical extension of the excess of capital discussed in Harry Shutt’s The Trouble with Capitalism; the conversion of the world into a set of mechanisms for corporate profit.  The central metaphor of the book is that the "fat cats" are the corporate leaders, and the "running dogs" are the politicians.  Sound familiar?

So that’s the theme of Prashad’s book.  In the content of Fat Cats, Prashad shows the readers how the Enron scandal, far from being an aberration of the beginning of the 21st century, was the norm, and that "Enronism is here to stay, even as Enron is now gone" (149).  But that’s not why I’m bringing up this book.  I want to read a few select passages from its introduction, to reveal Prashad’s basic affinity with the prose of OPOL.

One of the first things Prashad does in Fat Cats is to suggest that the Enron scandal is not unique:

To indict corporations like Enron alone for the chaos that befell the world after the rise of neoliberalism is to miss the crucial function of the running dogs in the tale.  Politicians who managed the neoliberal state did not willy-nilly have to give in to rapacious corporations.  But they connived with the corporate logic to wrest sovereignty from the people and turn it over to profit.  What neoliberalism did in the last three decades for the nations of the overdeveloped world was to make democracy into a commodity and turn the people’s representatives into its employees.  (5)

Democracy a commodity, politicians sold out to corporations.  Does any of this prose seem familiar?  Prashad’s explanation for how this is so waxes poetic, in OPOL fashion:

The running dogs did not sell their votes; they are not opportunists and did not act on behalf of the fat cats only because they had been paid via campaign contributions.  Rather, they acted for the fat cats because both live off of the continent of sleaze and see the populace as a vast labor pool intended to fatten the hog upon which both feed.  (6)

Remember OPOL’s vow:

The knowledge that our system is so compromised by corruption that it will never (in its present form) serve the people makes me a radical.

And consider OPOL’s dismissal of the "better" running dogs:

The understanding that timidity, simple solutions, or half-measures such as ‘voting for better people’ will not have any appreciable affect on the entrenched and corrupt machine our government has become makes me a radical.

In the introduction to his book, Prashad proceeds to explain the Enron Stage of Capitalism in its essence:

Here is another push by capitalist forces to entrap areas of economic life that had once been outside the sway of the commodity form.  During the era of social democracy from the 1930s to the mid-1970s, capitalist relations did not overwhelm the realm of water, air, energy, health, and education.  But for over three decades, especially since the 1990s, during neoliberal times, these protected zones have come under pressure from transnational corporations and international finance institutions arguing that unproductive zones need to be opened to the efficiency of the profit-driven marketplace.  (7)

Look familiar?  Compare this with OPOL’s list of grievances, especially this summary:

The understanding that the greed-driven dynamic dominated by the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex will doom all life on earth in the foreseeable future if not changed and changed radically makes me a radical.

OK, so Prashad is a bit more specific than OPOL.  OPOL has charisma.  You do the comparisons here.

SO WHAT ARE PRASHAD’S SOLUTIONS?

They look like OPOL’s, though a bit more specific:

Build a people’s economy (202)

For some time now I’ve been trying to get OPOL to think in terms of creating an alternative economy, unplugging the life-blood of the people from the vampire-fangs of corporate control.  Most of my own personal energy has been in this vein, with work on Food Not Bombs and the Pomona College Natural Farm.

Dare to stop police brutality (206)

Certainly OPOL, who knows what police brutality is, can sympathize with this, one of the most central of Prashad’s theses.  OPOL's words about the Bush police state:

The certain knowledge that our government spies on peaceniks and ordinary Americans as though they were heinous criminals makes me a radical.

Protest the assault on reason (208)

This seems really central not only to OPOL’s diaries, but to the daily fare of DKos as a whole.

CONCLUSION: Is OPOL a radical?

Does it really matter that much?  The entire political spectrum from "right" to "left" (whatever those terms mean anymore) today promises us and our children an eventual death from abrupt climate change or "privatization" or bad medical care or whatever Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism."  What's necessary is the oversight capability, to see and criticize the system as a whole.  The "mainstream" just isn't doing it.

Originally posted to Cassiodorus on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 11:20 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Just back from Food Not Bombs (7+ / 0-)

    My flatbed's all clean and everything...

    "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half." -Jay Gould

    by Cassiodorus on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 11:13:55 AM PDT

  •  Hmmm. (4+ / 0-)

    He may very well disagree with that assessment, but what I've always liked about OPOL's work and outlook is that it's so quintessentially American. There's that frontier radicalism, the populist narrative from the last two centuries, and that uniquely American demand that the system live up to the words and spirit of the constitution and the vision of the Founders.

    Maybe I have him all wrong, that's possible. But OPOL's narrative to me seems more William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold than Karl Marx' Das Kapital.

    "[A]n ass-kissing little chickenshit. I hate people like that." - Admiral Fallon on General Petraeus

    by MBNYC on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 11:23:46 AM PDT

  •  My political philosophy (5+ / 0-)

     title=

    I'm a GrouchoMarxist:
    It makes no difference what you say,
    It doesn't matter anyway.
    Whatever it is,
    I'm against it.
    No matter who began it or commenced it,
    I'm against it!

    "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful,,,they never stop thinking of ways to harm our country and neither do we" G W Bush

    by irate on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 11:33:40 AM PDT

  •  I like the idea of a Peoples (3+ / 0-)

    movement. Of moving away from a Gov. of Control. The People can start a movement but what I wonder is just how much the Gov. will see it as a threat and act accordingly? This was an interesting read, thanks.

    "Though the Mills of the Gods grind slowly,Yet they grind exceeding small."

    by Owllwoman on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 11:48:33 AM PDT

  •  A thoughtful contribution, Cassiodorus (4+ / 0-)

    The radical critique is one thing, and I pretty much agree with it. I do think that what we're seeing, in a host of recent diaries here, is a slow movement back toward Marxism.

    The weak point for Marxists, and leftists in general, is the jump from the critique to what we ought to be doing now.

    The radical critique itself can support anything from tepid social democratic reforms to adventurist acts of violence.

    Figuring out "What Is to Be Done?" requires an analysis of the present political strength of the working class. And so far we've seen precious little of that.

  •  Veddy intedestink... (2+ / 0-)

    Glad you raised this all, Papa Cass. My quibble is, you may have jumped too soon to the economic foundation, hence your analysis is a touch tinged with Leninism (especially the stuff on Imperialism the Last Stage). So, while I think there's a great deal in common between the present situation and that one discussed by Lenin and Luxemburg and such (like, for instance, the fact that Capital, then and now, was heading for a disaster of world-wide proportions), I think one might find a lot of interest in Marx's earlier work in political economy, as opposed to the later work in economics.

    Arise, ye prisoners of DailyKos!

    Forthcoming, at the Orange Press: "Planet Marx."

    by Trotsky the Horse on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 12:53:44 PM PDT

    •  differences between now and then (0+ / 0-)

      first, your theoretical issue of economic foundations:

      to quote myself here:

      So there are economic relations, and these economic relations form a foundation for society.  Law, politics, and social consciousness "sit atop" economic reality in this way.

      and

      Control isn't the issue: the issue is that, when we read a work of literature or analyze a political system, we look at that object in light of the reigning economic system at the time of its formation, whether that system be early, agricultural capitalism or late financial capitalism or feudalism or the Roman Empire or whatever.

      So I don't think there's any Leninism here at all, as I have argued for a "strict interpretation" of the passage in Marx I quoted.  Economic relations can form a foundation for society without there being any "controlling" aspect -- it's more a matter of society being permeated by economic relations.

      And Lenin was a centralist, whereas I'm arguing for just the opposite approach.  

      What formed the crisis of capitalism in Lenin's time was the war (World War I, which all expected) between the states which formed the core of capitalist development, and the "contender" states.  Here I think it important to reference the theories of Kees van der Pijl.  (also see this link).  Lenin, as well, was born too early to know the consumer society.  There is far more at stake in the crisis of capitalism today than there was in Lenin's era, and no Keynesian macroeconomics will save capitalism now (as it did a quarter-century after Lenin's death).

      Can't say where your reference to early Marx was leading.  Could you elaborate?

      "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half." -Jay Gould

      by Cassiodorus on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 01:23:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Even though (0+ / 0-)

        you de-emphasize the "determining" aspect of economic relations your analysis is primarily economic, and thus implicitly focuses on what you take to be base structures - determining or not.

        I'm thinking of Marx's letter to Kugelmann (11 July 1868) in which he suggests that the forms taken by relations of production may still be no more than that - historically subjective. If capitalism seems so hideously protean it may well be because so many Marxists have focused too much on what they take to be "essential" categories. Thus, your fear that Marx himself may have jumped too soon to a classification of such "essential" categories that he had no way of understanding, say, "consumerism," despite the fact that essential categories don't exist in Marx's thought - and they exist, in spades, in Engels and his followers down to Lenin.

        Bottom line: there's a long-standing breach in Marxism between those who read the early stuff (most of which wasn't even available until the 'thirties), and those who go mostly by whatever happened after Marx's death, e.g. Marxist-Leninism. Call it what you want, but since you're so genuinely interested in praxis, bless your redbeating heart, I thought you were heading a bit astray with your analysis of global capital. Your ideas about producers controlling the means of production etc. seem much more useful, and really closer to the realm of political economy which Marx pursued so brilliantly in his early works.

        Solidarity,

        Forthcoming, at the Orange Press: "Planet Marx."

        by Trotsky the Horse on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 01:46:21 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  BTW... (0+ / 0-)

          My comparison with Lenin was by no means disparaging. Just that, since you yourself argued that Keynesianism depended on competing national economies in a post-Keynesian world order it would be impossible to avoid the discussion among Lenin, Luxemburg and Bukharin etc. about Imperialism and Globalism.

          Forthcoming, at the Orange Press: "Planet Marx."

          by Trotsky the Horse on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 01:55:16 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  "essential categories?" (0+ / 0-)

          Consumerism isn't an "essential category" in the analysis I'm presenting so much as it's a byproduct of actual policy -- Keynesian macroeconomic policy actually preserved a world of consumerism that was quite different from the one that existed either in the 1920s or in the Great Depression.

          "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half." -Jay Gould

          by Cassiodorus on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 02:36:19 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  You know, (0+ / 0-)

            this would take us much further than I'm ready to go. I'm simply indicating that there's a lot more to Marxist thought (and therefore, Marxist thought is far more up-to-date) than you're giving it credit for. To assume that Marx had no grasp of what Keynes' idea of consumerism might be simply because consumerism did not exist at that time under the ILLUSORY form that Marx knew - well that's just slipping back into positivism, which unfortunately Marxist theory has a tendency to do as well.

            Gotta go, I have to work tomorrow.

            Forthcoming, at the Orange Press: "Planet Marx."

            by Trotsky the Horse on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 04:16:50 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  This is where the path is lost (0+ / 0-)

              I'm simply indicating that there's a lot more to Marxist thought (and therefore, Marxist thought is far more up-to-date) than you're giving it credit for.

              marxist thought, as opposed to Marx's own thought, is indeed up-to-date; Marx himself, however, died in 1883, the same year in which Keynes was born.

              To assume that Marx had no grasp of what Keynes' idea of consumerism might be simply because consumerism did not exist at that time under the ILLUSORY form that Marx knew - well that's just slipping back into positivism,

              How is "Keynes' idea of consumerism" an important concept here?  Keynesian macroeconomics needed no concept of consumerism per se, but it nevertheless produced a consumer society which many here on DKos will defend, and which said Kosers want to have back in the face of neoliberal predation.

              Honestly, this is where I lose the path of academic marxism -- sloppy reading, sloppy writing...

              "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half." -Jay Gould

              by Cassiodorus on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 04:45:59 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  How can you lose something... (0+ / 0-)

                you've never acquired? Posturing the proletarian doesn't make you a radical, nor does ignorance make you anti-academic - in fact, quite the reverse.

                Now if you'll excuse me...

                Forthcoming, at the Orange Press: "Planet Marx."

                by Trotsky the Horse on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 05:03:02 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  unanswered questions (0+ / 0-)

                  I'm thinking of Marx's letter to Kugelmann (11 July 1868) in which he suggests that the forms taken by relations of production may still be no more than that - historically subjective.

                  Marx's letter to Kugelmann (11 July 1868) is about the law of value, which he insists always applies.  What's being asserted here?

                  Bottom line: there's a long-standing breach in Marxism between those who read the early stuff (most of which wasn't even available until the 'thirties), and those who go mostly by whatever happened after Marx's death, e.g. Marxist-Leninism.

                  Which "early stuff" is being referred to here?  

                  To assume that Marx had no grasp of what Keynes' idea of consumerism might be simply because consumerism did not exist at that time under the ILLUSORY form that Marx knew - well that's just slipping back into positivism,

                  What is this tremendous run-on sentence fragment supposed to be about?  Positivism?  "Keynes' idea of consumerism"?  How are these things supposed to be relevant to anything in my essay?

                  Don't get pissed at me if I didn't guess your meaning correctly after you provided an insufficient set of clues, while avoiding anything that might have reeked of a genuine dialogue with my responses!

                  "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half." -Jay Gould

                  by Cassiodorus on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 09:29:44 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

  •  Stop buying and go to the thrifts (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cassiodorus

    and yard sales. I mean for everything.Lately I have been bypassing the stores and going directly to the dumpster in back. I have known about dumpster diving for almost 20 years now. But this past week I have been outraged to see excellent books in new condition being trashed. The donations dumpsters are locked, the trash dumpster has refuse in it as well so I do know the difference.

    I picked up a Borland C++ level 6.0 developmental book selling at $238 on amazon and resold it for $24 a huge bargain for the buyer. I mean what do they care about over pricing that book. When a corp puts in Borland they get the book along with the huge price tag of the software. This is why those in corp cannot undertand the alternative economy. Their 9-5 business day involves inflation priced purchases and materials they use without thought.

    I always meet Hispanics at the dumpsters and free containers at the thrifts. They do it out of necessity and insight. Last night there was a sofa in there as well as books and a Hispanic came along with a van and asked about the sofa. I said take it. And he said my neighbor is looking for one so I'll be back. Now that says it all.

    My neighbor..... He is thinking about someone else who needs something and he comes across it for free so he wants to take it to his neighbor. Maybe he will charge for it, I don't know, but he will meet the need and deliver.

    Now tell me if any corp guy would do that and get his suit dirty or even be seen doing it. Then when he gets downsized and out he doesn't know how to cope.

    What we are seeing on the fringes is going to become a way of life. Why is the Salvation Army throwing away $238 books? Why are people donating to them if they do that?

    Anyone who has been tortured, remains tortured. Primo Levi The Drowned and the Saved

    by abbeysbooks on Mon Sep 24, 2007 at 01:59:42 PM PDT

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