The end of the Cold War and the collapse of "really existing" socialism in Eastern Europe were two critical events that have had an impact on cultural studies and political economy, among other things. What are the prospects for major structural change, or are we cursed with wandering in a moral drift? Where do you fall?
I looked at a couple of things and decided to consider that old saw: Reform or Revolution? First, there’s a series of Jacobin articles whether the Marxian models of crisis will conform to some historical expectations for revolution, and then a Marc Novicoff interview with Freddie DeBoer in Politico on the prospects for political change in the US.
Michael Roberts took us on a winding path beginning with Robert Brenner via Seth Ackerman in a number of Jacobin articles. Aaron Benanav provided a similarly wide-ranging reply of his own to Ackerman’s piece. Even Nathan Tankus weighed in.
I don’t really have a conclusion for the reform/revolution dichotomy, but as one gets older the drift seems longer, much like Marx thinking about geology and mathematics in his later years.
“Seth Ackerman uses Robert Brenner’s theory to trash Marxist economic theory in general and, in particular, Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (LTRPF) which Ackerman calls FROP (falling rate of profit).”
In defense of his thesis, Ackerman seeks to refute the theory of secular stagnation in modern capitalist economies that the Marxist economic historian Robert Brenner has proposed over the last few decades. Ackerman argues that Brenner’s theory “is logically dubious and doesn’t fit the facts.” And so “the politics that flow from Brenner’s thesis becomes the biggest problem,” because it rules out the efficacy of any reforms under capitalism in helping people and gradually transitioning to socialism and, instead offers only the drastic alternative of revolution.
Finally, we must ask: what exactly is Ackerman’s objective in his article? Ackerman recognizes that FROP provides a powerful objective case for replacing capitalism. So, he looks for an alternative to FROP as the underlying cause of capitalist crises (and also the cause of the failure of planned economies apparently), which he reckons are “coordination failures,” and thus to crises of different kinds.
According to Ackerman, under capitalism, such failures take the form of “effective demand deficits”, which cause unemployment. Under centrally planned socialism they took the form of “Hilferding-esque disproportions” between the different branches of industry, which caused endemic shortages.” Both these causes of crises (underconsumption and disproportion) have been criticized as inadequate and/or wrong in many studies, which Ackerman fails to acknowledge.
So, I take it that the purpose of Ackerman’s article is mainly to argue that in today’s world we can achieve real and significant progress for humanity without revolution—without a complete and irreversible transformation of the capitalist mode of production into a socialist one. Ackerman seems to think that capitalism can and must be made into a more egalitarian system, and that, once the specter of extended periods of crisis has been exorcised, we can then look forward to an era in which the case for socialism can be made on a purely moral/ethical basis. We return to the view of Eduard Bernstein from the late 19th century.
If that is indeed his view, then its realism should certainly be ruthlessly questioned in a world that remains characterized by desperate poverty, rising inequality of wealth and income (particularly over the last 50 years), the existential threat of global warming and environmental degradation caused by fossil fuel and mining capital, and growing rivalries between competing “great powers” that are now threatening World War Three.
Ackerman accuses those who disagree with the gradualist approach to socialism of being sectarian, namely opposed to reforms and standing outside the immediate struggles by labor to improve their lot. But no socialist or Marxist is opposed to reforms. The point is that if capitalism remains, regular crises in capitalism mean that capitalists will resist tooth and nail not only to oppose reforms but to reverse those already won by labor—as has happened in the neoliberal era since the 1980s. If profitability is threatened, reforms must go.
So, can we really expect to end all this by simply reforming a social structure still controlled by several hundred capitalist combines? Can we expect the owners of those combines and the governments under their control to allow such reforms when they must involve inroads in profitability in order to be effective? Isn’t this an essentially utopian position, born not of scientific rigor, but of a boundless faith in capitalism’s reformability?
I chose the deBoer interview because his criticism of everything approached “ruthless criticism”. All I know is that I don’t have 25 years.
As deBoer sees it in his new book How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, elites of all races mishandled that historic moment as the protesters’ demands either became immaterial (like representation in the arts) or unpopular with the working class (like defunding the police).
Raised by communists and hardened by the failures of his activism against the Iraq War, deBoer’s Marxism is pessimistic, prickly and somehow still relevant in a country and world that is post-Marxist in every real sense.
DeBoer argues that the failures of left-wing movements are not inevitable, and a class-focused politics that can win is not just possible, but imperative. As deBoer explained it to me, “Basic economic anxieties are understood by the large majority of the American people” and any good — morally and politically — left-of-center politics would start there.
“If it’s true that the left is not appealing to the working class,” he said, “then that is a failure of the left and not of the working class. We have to do a better job.”
Marc Novicoff: How do you see the role of the Democratic Party in advancing the goals of the American left-of-center? Should leftists support Biden and the Democratic Party’s moderate agenda or not?
Freddie deBoer: There’s a subsection of the book called “The Democratic Party: Neither everything nor nothing.” I think that any kind of intelligent leftist has to be motivated in a couple of different directions at once. The first is to understand that we cannot possibly just abdicate partisan politics and say, “That is a pool of corruption that I won’t sully myself in,” because then we’re just letting go of the levers of power in our society.
But you also have to understand that the Democrats will always fuck you. There will never be a time in your life as a leftist when the Democrats won’t fuck you. The Democrats fuck you because of structural elements of what the Democratic Party is, who funds it and what its purpose is. And so you have to go into every single election and say, “I am prepared to strategically vote for a Democrat in a particular election because the alternative is worse. How can I help to envision a better future where I don’t have to hold my nose and vote for the Democrats?”
The permanent misery of American politics right now is that the only route to really dramatically better outcomes is with more parties to vote for, so that there are more options, so that the parties that we have feel more pressure to compete with each other and present better alternatives. But, the problem is that in any given election year, if we start a third or fourth party, that’s going to sap support from the party that we might otherwise vote for and help our opponents. I don’t really know how to get out of that problem. I’ve semi-seriously said that what we should do is decide to add two more major American political parties, one right-leaning and one left-leaning, and say in 25 years, you’re going to have candidates that you can vote for in these parties. But, you can’t vote for them for 25 years.
I don’t know how you actually pull this off, but in the long run, hold your nose and vote for the Democrats. If you’re in a safe state, like I have been for a long time, vote for a protest candidate if that feels appropriate and one of them appeals to you, but always understand that in the long term, the Democratic Party cannot be the vehicle of a truly left-wing movement and we have to keep our eyes on the horizon for better alternatives.
In 1843 Marx wrote in a letter to a friend that it was “clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”(13)