Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dialectic is Ruthless

“Occupy the Economy – Challenging Capitalism. In conversation with Richard Barsamian.” by Richard Wolff, 2012. 

The dirty secret of American politics is that no one is supposed to ever think about the ‘big picture.’  We are supposed to plod away, either observing passively or cheering our ostensible political party while the corporate press discusses the acceptable or ginned-up issues.  How much austerity should we have?  How great small businessmen are!  How culture-war politics are the only politics.  How stupid those who don’t agree with us are.  How afraid we should be of terrorism.  How the ruling taste-makers are always right, considerate and noble.

Richard Wolff, one of the few Marxist economics professors in the U.S., produced this small book at the height of the Occupy movement.  Occupy, unlike the culture-war politics of the Democrats or Republicans, made class and economic power key to its analysis, and in the process galvanized a more objective approach to the world.  Wolff is right to understand it as the beginning of a new American class understanding – something long abandoned in bourgeois politics.  Recent studies have shown that this has penetrated beyond tattooed youth camping in town squares.  Most American’s now self-identify themselves as working-class, not middle-class.  This is a sea-change.  Surveys also reveal that ‘socialist’ is no longer the terminal slur it once was, with significant minorities supporting some form of the term.

Like the vicious religious fundamentalists of all stripes, who have done more to promote atheism than anyone else, the market fundamentalists of the world, in word and deed, are now promoting socialism.  The dialectic is ruthless. 

The book is presented in a series of conversations with Richard Barsamian in late 2011. Key points made by Wolff in these conversations:

  1. For the first time in 150 years, wages for the U.S. working class are now stagnant.  30 years of credit replaced wage growth, and now that, too, is over.  Wolff considers the present conjuncture not to be a normal capitalist ‘downturn.’
  2. Wolff estimates in the past 30 years in the U.S. that only the top 5-10% of the population has benefitted.  (See commentary "Look Who We're Calling Comrade" on the narrowness of the‘1%’ designation, below.)
  3. Corporations can still prosper by serving international markets, not local/US markets.  Hence the Keynesian idea that no money in the pockets of the American people means less sales and profits for U.S. corporations is actually false.  Krugman does not take the international economy into consideration - he's in essence an economic nationalist. 
  4. The political liquidation of communists, socialists, left populists and now unions in the U.S. has been the trump card the rulers use to ensure that no significant or even small economic changes can ever be made.  There is no ‘big stick’ on the left anymore. 
  5. Wolff recommends government-run national jobs programs.  Incentives to private enterprise do not work, and have not worked.
  6. Wolff believes the democratization of enterprises is key, instead of the rule of some untrained white-collar manager, let alone a group of high-flying plutocrats.  Of course, how this is done without unions or political groups having strength in the workplace or in the political system is beyond me.
  7. Marxism is the only living method that really understands capitalism.  All critics of capital eventually have to adopt some or all of its premises. 
  8. The government is not a family, nor does it have to balance its budget like a family.
  9. Recent events have shown that “capitalism does not deliver the goods… it now delivers the ‘bads.’”
  10. The most recent figures show 1/3rd of the U.S. population – 100 million people – now live below or close to the real poverty line.
  11. Occupy’s work with the unions – during the Verizon strike and the longshore strike at Longview, Washington  – are key.
  12. Wolff feels that U.S. weapons’ production does not generate many jobs.  Actually, Robert Reich pointed out in 2010 that the biggest ‘jobs program’ in the U.S. was the U.S. military and weapon’s producers – which involved 3.83 million jobs at that time, not including foreign contractors.  Reich estimated that this lowered the U.S. unemployment rate by 2%. Military spending in the U.S. has been the true Keynesian program (and surplus destruction program) since after World War II – not to mention an absolute necessity for imperialism.  Wolff does point out that money spent on weapons production is actually less productive, dollar for dollar, than money spent on domestic programs.
  13. The Social-Democratic Parties of Europe – in Greece, in Spain, in Germany, in England – have become obvious pillars of capital, and have betrayed their own working-class bases. 
  14. A real political democracy and the present economic dictatorship are incompatible.
  15. The real U.S. unemployment rate – the U6 figure - is around 16%.  This is a picture of a large precariat. However, the U6 figures does not include prisoners, which would make the rate even higher.  (See review of "The Precariat:  The New Dangerous Class," below.)
  16. Stocks and bonds should be taxed, just as property is taxed.  Religious institutions are not taxed, but should be.  The so-called separation of church and state stops at the money door.  Universities like Harvard and Yale pay no taxes, but should.  Lotteries and legal gambling are disguised – and regressive - taxes. 
  17. Markets are very recent, are not egalitarian and are not efficient. 
  18. Mexicans are an imported labor commodity that became less needed during the Great Recession. 
  19. The capitalist banking system was saved by the working-class taxpayer – and the capitalist state – in 2008. The sector was nationalized, for all purposes, then returned to profitability by that same state.  Recent revelations by Neil Barofsky, the TARP overseer, depict Geithner and Treasury being interested in saving the banks and no one else.  Wolff, like many others, maintains there is no justification for a private banking system anymore. 

Wolff ends with a “Manifesto for Economic Democracy and Ecological Sanity.”  His real solution is hinted at in the phrase, “occupy the corporations.”  He thinks that worker-run businesses, federations of such businesses like Mondragon in Basque Spain, ESOPS, co-ops and businesses with more control by the people who work there, will ‘transform the economy.’ 

However, as an example, the food co-ops of Minneapolis, which were started by radicals and hippies in the 60s and 70s, still exist.  They are wonderful enterprises – but they have not transformed capitalist agriculture for the majority.  The U.S. Farm Bill is still written by agri-business and the politicians in league with it.  The food (and bike, etc.) co-ops provide a bit of economic and cultural/lifestyle space – but, in a sense, then allowing the major corporate institutions to stand.  Co-ops from the 30s also still exist, but are barely distinguishable from normal capitalist businesses now.  Greg Sharzer’s book, “No Local – Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World” is a great answer to Wolff’s point, and will be reviewed soon.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog, July 21, 2012

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