Wednesday, December 23, 2009
This book by Franco “Bifo” Berardi, a major figure in Italian Autonomia, is thankfully not a work of operaist theology. Berardi uses the term “soul” in a Spinozist, materialist sense, as the affective, linguistic, and intellectual energies that animate the biological body. Whereas in the disciplinary regime of the Fordist factory the soul was ignored, in contemporary post-Fordist digital capitalism the soul is put directly to work. In the 1960s, workers dramatically refused work and sought autonomy and the opportunity for collective development outside the workplace. But today, workers - or at least the elite Berardi terms the cognitariat - orient all their energies toward work, which is now seen as the primary means of self-realization. Berardi’s book aims to explain how this complete reversal came about and to examine the corresponding transformation of the psychopathologies that afflict our society. He tries to show how, “at a certain point, sadness prevailed, and the fragile collective architecture of happiness collapsed.” Guided by Marx’s enigmatic statement in the Grundrisse about the “general intellect” (a core concept for Autonomia), Berardi traces the transformation of the place and function of the intellectual. Prior to the end of the 1960s, the intellectual was traditionally conceived as removed from any direct productive function. For example, Kant situated the intellectual as the guarantor of universal rationality, Lenin placed the intellectual at the head of the vanguard party, and Sartre asserted the intellectual’s right to choose to engage in universal causes that were not her specialty. But today, “As a consequence of mass access to education and the technical and scientific transformation of production, the role of intellectuals has been redefined: they are no longer a class independent from production, nor free individuals assuming the task of a purely ethical and freely cognitive choice, but a mass social subject, tending to become an integral part of the general process of production.” That is, “Intellectual labor is no longer a social function separated from general labor, but it becomes a transversal function within the entire social process, it becomes the creation of technical and linguistic interfaces ensuring the fluidity both of the productive process and of social communication.” Berardi claims that the student movement of the 1960s demonstrated the existence of this new intellectual mass, and that the general intellect became the central productive force in the post-Fordist economy. Spurred by the belated publication of Marx’s Manuscripts of 1844, the concept of “alienation” was wildly popular among the leftist students and intellectuals of the 1960s. Marx’s early work was written under the influence of Hegelian idealism (Berardi later discusses Althusser on Marx’s epistemological break), and often those who referred to alienation implied the loss of an original essence that might somehow be regained. Indeed, many Marxists claimed that industrial production had led man to be dominated by the objects he produced, and that the communist revolution would restore to man his humanity. Berardi argues that the operaists avoided the idealist trap of alienation by instead focusing on “estrangement.” For the operaists, workers’ estrangement from the interests of capital makes “liberatory dynamics possible.” “Alienation is then considered not as a loss of human authenticity, but as estrangement from capitalistic interest, and therefore as a necessary conditions for the construction . . . of an ultimately human relationship.” In other words, alienation as estrangement is a prerequisite for autonomy. But changes in the digital constitution of capitalism since the 1960s have managed to bring about in workers a reversal “from disaffection to acceptance.” Whereas industrial workers of the earlier period started to refuse work, high tech workers today focus their energies on work. “No desire, no vitality seems to exist anymore outside the economic enterprise, outside productive labor and business.” Taking the most advanced and elite range of knowledge work as indicative of emerging trends, Berardi claims that “labor has become much more uniform”: typing at the keyboard has become the universal gesture of cognitive labor. “Human terminals perform the same physical gestures in front of computers and they all connect to the universal machine of elaboration and communication: yet the more their jobs are physically simplified, the less interchangeable their knowledge, abilities and performance. Digital labor manipulates absolute abstract signs, but its recombining function is more specific the more personalized it gets, therefore even less interchangeable.” Because cognitive laborers put “the best part of their intellectual capacities” into their work, “enterprise . . . tends to become the center towards which desire is focused, the object of an investment that is not only economical but also psychological.” This orientation of the field of desire towards business has been made possible by capturing work inside a network and then disseminating the “labor process into a multitude of productive islands formally autonomous, but actually coordinated and ultimately dependent.” The result is that “Every info-worker has the capacity to elaborate a specific semiotic segment that must meet and match innumerable other semiotic fragments in order to compose the frame of a combinatory entity that is info-commodity, Semiocapital.” Cell phones, perhaps the most important new commodity of the last twenty years, illustrate this new network logic of production. They make the worker’s entire day available to be called forth to perform a small fragment of the production process when needed. “Capital can buy fractals of human time, recombining them through the digital network. Digitalized info-labor can be recombined in a different location, far from the one that produces it. From the standpoint of capital’s valorization, the flow is continuous, finding its unity in the produced object. Yet from the cognitive workers’ perspective the work done has a fragmentary character: it consists in fractions of cellular time available for productive recombination.” The “intellectualization of labor” is held out as the “possibility of self-realization” (Berardi sees a utopian impulse in the dot.com boom of the 1990s), but its subjection to competition, flexibility, and speed (corporations quickly reestablished control over the Internet) leads to psychic and social devastation. The intensity of competition, the precariousness of labor, and the swift flow of information lead to panic, followed by withdrawal into depression. Berardi writes, “Depression is the deactivation of desire after a panicked acceleration. When you are no longer able to understand the flow of information stimulating your brain, you tend to desert the field of communication, disabling any intellectual and psychological response.” The rest of what follows in Berardi’s book is a rather fine, yet unremarkable, explanation of Felix Guattari’s work on schizoanalysis, calling for the development of a political and therapeutic “aesthetic” for our conjuncture.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
In this first-class work of economic history, Martin Sklar traces the “corporate reconstruction of American capitalism” between 1890-1916. The “passage of American capitalism from the competitive to the corporate stage of its development” was the central issue of the Progressive Era, and arguably the most important event of 20th-century U.S. history. Sklar claims that this period is historically important not just because it saw the dramatic rise of the large, hierarchical corporation, but also because it established the foundations of the modern political economy: “In one and the same period were laid down and intermeshed the foundations of the corporate-capitalist economy, of the regulatory state, of internationalist foreign policy, and of modern political liberalism, as they would develop in mutually reinforcing and conflicting ways over the next several decades in the United States.” Throughout the book, Sklar criticizes a vulgar version of base-superstructure Marxism. This dismissal of Marxism is unfortunate, since Sklar’s argument resonates with the work of Michel Aglietta and the French Regulation School. One of the central points of Sklar’s book is that, as Aglietta has written, “Economic relations cannot exist outside a social framework.” Sklar’s book vividly shows how corporate capitalism did not simply impose new ideologies and institutions on society, but rather slowly took shape through the complex and contingent restructuring of the “market, the law, and politics.” He writes, “Corporate capitalism, that is, had to be constructed. It did not come on the American scene as a finished ‘economic’ product, or as a pure-ideal type; nor did it ‘take over’ society and simply vanquish or blot out everything else.” Sklar claims the image of populist hatred of the large corporation isn’t quite accurate. Trust busting was constrained by a widespread belief that the corporation was a significant improvement over older forms of economic organization. “Leaders in policy-forming politics of the time . . . argued that the nation’s laws, institutions, thinking, and habits must be reformed to facilitate and regulate the emerging corporate-capitalist order; that is, to adapt to natural economic evolution and thereby to assure the nation’s development as a progressive society.” By the 1890s, competitive capitalism had acquired the reputation of being unstable and tending toward forms of over-accumulation that generated crises. In fact, corporate reorganization was seen as a solution to persistent market disequilibrium. Sklar argues that in the 1890s, pro-corporate theorists had already learned how corporate reorganization allowed excess surplus value to be concentrated and then invested overseas. According to Sklar, Lenin’s theory of imperialism was merely a belated restatement of what Americans had been claiming for decades: “The theory of modern capitalist imperialism as a function of surplus value generated by mature industrial capitalist society was an American theory before it was a twentieth-century British or European theory; it was a pro-imperialist and pro-capitalist theory before it was an anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist theory. In short, it was a 'bourgeois theory’ before it was a ‘Marxist theory.’” Perception of corporate capitalism was also positively influenced by what might be termed the corporation’s “hegemonic” potential, its ability to make “room for the interests and development of small producers, proprietary capitalists, the professions, a growing working class, and new middle-class strata.” Such inclusiveness was a key reason why “Its partisans . . . called corporate capitalism progressive.” This is not to say that corporate capitalism wasn’t exploitative or corrupt, only that it could make “persuasive cross-class appeals” that most small-proprietor businesses couldn’t. At the heart of the book’s historical narrative is the tension that resulted from “time lag between the promulgation of pro-corporate reform objectives and their realization in law and institutions.” The “mutual adaptation of corporate capitalism and the American liberal tradition” took decades to reach what Sklar terms a stabilized form of “corporate liberalism.” Because of political disagreement and ineffectiveness, the courts were one of the major locations where the battle over the corporate reconstruction of American capitalism first took place. The 1886 Santa Clara decision made the corporation into a “natural entity” and gave it the “legal status of a person.” Other court decisions during this period served corporate interests by expanding the definition of property to include intangible things. These decisions created the “legal security” that was fundamental for the swift development of corporate capitalism during the era. The Sherman Antitrust Act was enacted in 1890, and debates over corporate reorganization were fought out for the next 25 years through different interpretations of the Act. Though it is often remembered as being a piece of anti-monopoly legislation, the Sherman Act was intended, “Sherman explained, to regulate, not to abolish, large corporations or prevent their further development.” From 1890-97, the Act was interpreted according to the common-law tradition and understood to be aimed not at corporate “bigness” but at “unreasonable” restrictions on competition. But a court ruling in 1897 more strictly interpreted the Act as stating that “no direct restrictions on competition were legal.” In 1911, this interpretation was reversed and the common-law construction was (permanently) restored. Sklar demonstrates that the court’s apparently minor and technical decisions were intermeshed with drastically different ways of conceiving the relation between economics and politics, between the corporation and the State. Under the common-law construction of the Sherman Act, “the law, while regulating corporate administration of the market to keep it within the bounds of reasonableness and the claims of the public interest, sanctioned and legitimized it.” The common-law construction also allocated “to private parties the primary role, the initiative, in regulating the market, and to government, through executive oversight and judicial process, a secondary, reactive role.” But the brief non-common-law construction of the Sherman Act from 1897-1911 held that “only the federal government, through public law, that is, through legislation and executive administration, could regulate the market.” In fact, this construction led politicians during the period to contemplate “statist command” of the market, and Theodore Roosevelt made proposals for shockingly strong government control over the economy, though he failed to get his ideas legally enacted. Under this non-common-law construction of the Act, “Regulation was to remain lodged with the federal government and forbidden to private parties; it was to remain ‘politicized,’ that is, subject to electoral politics and public law.” Not surprisingly, the wavering interpretation of the Sherman Act between 1890 and 1911 created uncertainty for the business community and pressure for more clear and consistent legislation. Sklar claims that the “restoration” of the common-law construction of the Sherman Act in 1911 finally settled the “trust question,” establishing a “corporate-liberal solution” that “’depoliticized’ the market in the sense of removing the regulation of the market from determination by electoral politics or by the exclusive or paramount power of the state.” Assisted by legislation during Wilson's first term as president, this “adaptation of the legal order to corporate capitalism” was “a signal achievement of the Progressive Era.” “It was, finally, an outcome of a great social movement for corporate capitalism that rejected a statist for a liberal form.”
In this short book, Mark Fisher argues that “capitalist realism” is “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” Or as stated in the slogan attributed to Fredric Jameson, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” Fisher admits that his idea of “capitalist realism can be subsumed under the rubric of postmodernism as theorized by Jameson,” and he regularly turns to and discusses Jameson’s oeuvre. Going beyond Jameson is perhaps as difficult/impossible as transcending postmodernity itself, but Fisher manages to offer a vitally contemporary and rhetorically incisive variation on Jameson’s account of the culture of late capitalism. Fisher notes that there have been three major developments since Jameson first published his work on postmodernism. First, Really Existing Socialism collapsed in 1989, seemingly realizing Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that “there is no alternative” to capitalism. Second, postmodernism’s “confrontation” with modernism is finished, so that modernism is now just one more hollowed-out style ready for superficial and fashionable deployment by tastemakers. Third, the diminishment of the memory or imagination of something other than capitalism has dissipated a whole range of critical debates: “For most people under twenty in Europe and North America, the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue. Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.” Recent anti-capitalism protests might seem to contradict Fisher’s argument, but he claims that most of these protests don’t truly believe that capitalism might be ended and they instead aim just to “mitigate [capitalism’s] worst excesses,” not eliminate it. The term capitalist realism was first used by German Pop artists and Michael Schudson in his Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion. Fisher claims his use of the term is far broader than any reference to advertising or artistic propaganda: “It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.” The “seamless” ubiquity of capitalist realism is reinforced by ideological naturalization: “Over the past thirty years, capitalism realism has successful installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.” Drawing from Lacan/Zizek, Fisher claims that one way to contest capitalist realism is to contrast its reality with the Real, the “traumatic void” that “any ‘reality’ must suppress.” Fisher claims “Environmental catastrophe is one such Real,” but he chooses to focus instead on education and bureaucracy since they have not been as successfully politicized. Fisher describes his experiences teaching at a working class Further Education college, and those who have worked at community colleges will be sympathetic to this section. He claims that such colleges are less disciplinary institutions than nodes in the Control society that offer what is euphemistically known as “lifelong learning.” Facing students who are addicted to their electronic devices and who find all scenes of learning/reading “boring,” “Teachers are now put under intolerable pressure to mediate between the post-literate subjectivity of the late capitalist consumer and the demands of the disciplinary regime (to pass examinations etc). . . . Teachers are caught between being facilitator-entertainers and disciplinarian-authoritarians.” Drawing from Richard Sennett, Christian Marazzi, and Oliver James (Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello might have been added), Fisher describes how post-Fordism fetishizes flexibility and decentralization and ignores the devastating physical and emotional toll such “ideals” take on individuals. In particular, he attacks the evaluation system for Further Education colleges as an example of “market Stalinism.” Despite the association of neoliberalism with a critique of bureaucracy, such procedures in fact install a more insidious Control society version of bureaucracy, in which educators are forced to continuously generate representations of their work instead of actually improving it. It would be wrong to assume that there is one, consistent version of capitalist reality that one must submit to. Fisher claims, “Capitalist realism . . . entails subordinating oneself to a reality that is infinitely plastic, capable of reconfiguring itself at any moment.” The continuous deterritorialization and reterritorialization of capitalism produces illogical, “bizarre syntheses” that have the loose consistency of a dream. Because capitalist realism is not reducible to any one articulation (and is not subject to the criterion of logical consistency), economic crises and failures don’t actually undermine capitalist realism itself; other versions of capitalist realism are still available, and there remains the problem of a lack of genuine alternatives. Neoliberalism may have been “discredited” - but definitely not destroyed - by the recent bank bail-outs. But “we can now see that, while neoliberalism was necessarily capitalist realist, capitalist realism need not be neoliberal. In order to save itself, capitalism could revert to a model of social democracy or to a Children of Men-like authoritarianism. Without a credible and coherent alternative to capitalism, capitalist realism will continue to rule the political-economic unconscious.” Fisher concludes by drawing on Badiou, claiming, “Anti-capitalism must oppose Capital’s globalism with its own, authentic, universality.” Pointing to the continued existence of bureaucracy and the “affective disorders” generated by late capitalism, he suggests that “a new left could begin by building on the desires which neoliberalism has generated but which it has been unable to satisfy.”
Thursday, December 17, 2009
In Fear of Falling, Barbara Ehrenreich tracks the development of the American middle class from the 1950s to the end of the 1980s. She focuses primarily on the “professional middle class,” which can be defined “as all those people whose economic and social status is based on education, rather than on the ownership of capital or property.” From professors to office managers to scientists, the professionals and managers that compose this class depend on education and expertise to ensure their class position. Unlike real capital, this cultural capital cannot be easily “hoarded against hard times, preserved beyond the lifetime of an individual, or, of course, bequeathed. The ‘capital’ belonging to the middle class is far more evanescent than wealth, and must be renewed in each individual through fresh effort and commitment.” The middle class is therefore “an insecure and deeply anxious” class; whether worried about sliding down into the working class or about losing its self-discipline because of affluence, the middle class demonstrates a “fear, always, of falling.” According to Ehrenreich, the middle class in the late 1950s, comfortably situated in suburbia, tended to be solipsistic. Its biggest fear was affluence, which threatened to emasculate middle-class men and soften the bodies and wills of members of the class. At the beginning of the 1960s, the middle class suddenly “discovered” poverty when JFK toured Appalachia and Michael Harrington published The Other America. Though few members of the middle class were willing to take any real steps toward achieving social and economic equality, the discovery of poverty gave the class a new moral project to commit itself to. Not actually over its solipsism, the middle class created a distorted image of the poor. Ehrenreich claims, “The invented poor were a reflection of middle-class needs and a projection of middle-class anxieties.” Though people arrive at poverty from many different backgrounds and because of many different causes, the middle class blamed poverty on a widespread “culture of poverty.” Rather than examining how the stress and indignity of poverty was the root cause of much of the less ideal behavior of the poor, the middle class characterized the poor as children who were unable to properly defer gratification. In fact, this was merely a projection of the middle class’s own anxieties about affluence and consumerism. By the late 1960s, many members of the middle class found themselves on the defensive when the student movement became radicalized. In particular, middle-class intellectuals – the professors – found their class position and cultural capital threatened by the students. Ehrenreich mentions how Lionel Trilling was terrified by the occupation of Columbia University. Ehrenreich argues, “Middle-class intellectuals, many of them liberal on matters of race and poverty, began to think of themselves as part of a social group that might indeed have something to lose if others were to gain. Looking at the student movement, they foresaw cherished institutions in flames, and beyond that the threat of a radically egalitarian future in which education and intellect would be valued no more than, say, the skills of a mechanic or the insights of the downtrodden.” As the backlash against the student movement grew, one of the most common explanations for student rebelliousness was “permissive” childraising. For many middle-class commentators, “Students had lost that indispensable middle-class virtue, the capacity for deferred gratification. Pampered as babies, they now had no ‘inner controls’ and readily resorted to ‘violence’ to get their way.” Of course this explanation completely ignored the fact that such student radicalism was a global phenomena, and therefore not attributable to permissive American parents. This explanation also neglected the close coupling of the middle class and higher education, the latter essential to the reproduction of the former. Ehrenreich claims that since the beginning of the 20th century, the middle class has sought to buttress its class position through “professionalization,” which makes expertise the exclusive capital of the educated. This strategy has worked, but the “barriers that the middle class erected to protect itself make it painfully difficult to reproduce itself.” Hence the middle-class obsession with raising children, and particularly with getting them into a good college. When students began occupying universities, they not only attacked the professional status of the professors, but also rejected the “’positions of power and prestige’ that they had been so carefully prepared for.” Just as it had “discovered” poverty at the beginning of the 1960s, the middle class “discovered” the working class at the end of the 1960s. But as exemplified by Archie Bunker, this working class was rude, crude, and often racist. Ehrenreich claims, “Like the poor before it, the working class as discovered was the imaginative product of middle-class anxiety and prejudice.” She explains, “The working class became, for many middle-class liberals, a psychic dumping ground for such unstylish sentiments as racism, male chauvinism, and crude materialism.” In the more conservative view, the working class was the last bastion of “traditional values,” masculinity, and hard work. Ehrenreich points out that the working class at the beginning of the 1970s was far more progressive both culturally and politically than the middle class portrayed it to be. Working class resentment of the middle class was baffling to many. Few observers realized that ever since Taylor’s scientific management split the conception and execution of work, the middle class has served the function of commanding the working class. Perhaps the most important consequence of the “discovery” of the working class was the end of middle-class solipsism: “It could no longer pretend to represent the universal welfare, the universal perspective. . . . In discovering the working class, the middle class discovered a negative, and hideously unflattering, image of itself: an isolated elite, pretentiously liberal, and despised by authentic, hardworking Americans.” This new awareness of the middle class as a kind of minority was exploited by the New Right through the theory of the New Class. Neoconservatives on the right offered a kind of vulgar Marxist explanation in which liberal politics was portrayed as advancing the narrow interests of the liberal, professional middle class (the New Class) against the interests of the majority of Americans. In the 1980s, the New Right combined this New Class argument with the manipulation of social issues (such as sex education and abortion) to carry out a neoliberal (in the economic sense) assault on welfare. The New Right took up the old middle class anxiety about permissiveness, now claiming that permissive government policies had led to widespread American decadence. In particular, welfare was accused of treating the poor permissively and ultimately causing poverty. Ehrenreich adds, “the right’s campaign against liberal social policies would hardly have been effective if it had not resonated with the self-doubts of those who were still liberal, middle-class intellectuals. If no one refuted the right’s theory of the New Class and its motives in the War on Poverty, it was in part because many liberals now believed, guiltily, that they were part of an isolated elite, and disqualified by past mistakes.” The 1980s also saw the rise of the yuppies, whose strategy of joining the rich quickly caused a general backlash, though not the end of such spectacular consumption. Ehrenreich notes how yuppie consumption was closely tied to the fitness craze, the latter directly functioning to counteract the literally “softening” consequences of the affluence of the former. Ehrenreich concludes by explaining that while the middle class discovered the poor and the working class, it hasn’t adequately discovered the rich, who should be the true target for reform if not eradication. Ehrenreich claims that “the point of discussing class is ultimately to abolish it,” and offers the professional middle class this program: “to expand the class, welcoming everyone, until there remains no other class.”
This short book on May ’68 offers an insider’s perspective on the activities of the student-worker action committees. The first part of the book consists of short articles written by Gregoire and Perlman between May and August of 1968; these pieces attempt to explain to a larger audience the aims and practices of the student-worker committees that were formed shortly after the student occupation movement began. These committees were created to communicate to the striking workers the experiments in direct democracy that were occurring through the General Assemblies at the occupied universities and to support the workers in their appropriation of the spaces of production. Within the occupied schools, other kinds of action committees were formed to carry out any activity that was deemed necessary, from providing medical care to cooking food. Yet the authors single out the student-worker action committees as the most important organizational innovation of the revolutionary movement because the vulnerability of occupiers to police repression can only be overcome by the expansion of occupation to the realm of production and the rest of society. The authors focus primarily on the Citroen Action Committee, which was formed on May 21, 1968. At first the committee did not have “either a fixed program or a fixed organizational structure.” Writing 10 days after its creation, Perlman claims, “The committee is autonomous in the sense that it does not recognize the legitimacy of any ‘higher’ body or any external ‘authority.’” On the day the Citroen strike began, the committee’s first action was to distribute leaflets calling for student-worker unity. When the committee members arrived at the factories in the morning, they encountered union officials who were directing the strike through loudspeakers and who told the militants to go home. The reformist “functionaries of the communist union were calling for higher wages and improved working conditions,” and they therefore did not want the far more radical demands of the action committee to be distributed. But the union officials were separated from the large number of foreign workers by both language and hierarchy, so they briefly used the action committee to help get the foreign workers to participate in the occupation before again barring the militants from the factories. The committee therefore composed a new leaflet calling for the workers to strive for autonomy from the union bureaucracy and to “unite in a Permanent General Assembly,” but of course union guards made it difficult to distribute the text. Unable to achieve much success within the factories, the committee shifted focus to the housing projects where the foreign workers lived, and the militants organized to offer food, transportation, and language classes for these geographically and culturally marginalized workers. A text from July of 1968 explains the growth of the revolutionary movement: “[T]he spark which set off the explosion, was a ‘handful of madmen’ who did not consider themselves either a revolutionary party or a vanguard. . . . The actions of this student movement were ‘exemplary actions’; they set off a process of continuous escalation, each step involving a larger sector of the population.” They explain, “Each action is designed to go beyond itself. The aim of the occupation of Censier is not to create a self-governing commune in that building, but to set off the occupation of factories. The occupation of Censier is a break with continuity; the occupants’ aim is to create other breaks.” In other words, “The task of these revolutionaries is not to define the conditions which make revolution impossible, but to create the conditions which make revolution possible. . . . The French movement begins by pushing beyond the ‘objective limits.’” The second part of the book, written in 1969, offers a critique of the actions and ideas of the student-worker committees formed in May ‘68. Gregoire and Perlman claim, “’students’ did not ‘take over’ the universities. At the Sorbonne, at Censier, at Nanterre and elsewhere, the university was proclaimed social property; the occupied buildings became ex-universities.” The occupations were not instances of students claiming the university as their own, but rather attempts to truly socialize – in the widest possible sense – the specialized spaces of academia, to open the halls of the university to all of society. Unfortunately, this rejection of specialization was not continued when the students went to the workers in the factories. Instead of conceiving of the factory as a social space to which everyone has an equal right, the students accepted the idea that the workers own the factory. “The idea that ‘the means of production belong to the working people’ was translated to mean that the workers own the particular factory they work in.” The students were therefore transformed into spectators at the gates of the factory, and they failed to prevent the union bureaucracy from controlling the workers. Although the students called for a general assembly of the workers, because they positioned themselves as external to the workers they passively waited for the “mass” of workers to take command. “There was an expectation (or a hope) that someone else, somewhere else, would bring these things about. If ‘someone’ would do that, then there would be self-defense, escalation, and so on.” The militants “did not react as if they themselves were active agents who could transform a social situation in a real factory by going there in person.” Gregoire and Perlman are also critical of the general assemblies, arguing, “The general assemblies functioned . . . only when the occupants of the building met to plan a new action, only when they met to organize their own practical activities. If a concrete action was not proposed, the general assembly tended to deteriorate.” At such points, “the general assemblies lost their character of self-organized activity, and frequently degenerated into audiences of spectators bored by the machinations of the bureaucrats up front.” The situation declined even further as the action committees relieved the general assembly of any need to act; the action committees also tended to become too independent and “institutionalized,” and “no longer situated their activity in the context of the general assembly which gave rise to them.” Even worse, the student-worker action committees quickly ran out of important tasks to carry out; these so-called action committees were unable to act since, accepting the idea of worker specialization, they could not go beyond calling for action and actually instigate it in the factory. The authors harshly conclude it is therefore wrong to place all of the blame for the failure to escalate on the union bureaucracies: “The militants, together with the workers, created the power of the union bureaucracy. The militants did not go to the factory to liberate themselves; they waited for an inexistent power to liberate them.”
Sunday, December 6, 2009
Schlesinger’s The Vital Center is a defense of liberalism that aims to protect this “vital center” from the “totalitarian” temptations of both far right fascism and far left Communism. For Schlesinger, any shift from the liberal center – and not just toward conservatism – is politically disastrous. In his new introduction, Schlesinger states: “’Vital center’ refers to the contest between democracy and totalitarianism, not to contests within democracy between liberalism and conservatism, not at all to the so-called ‘middle of the road’ preferred by cautious politicians of our own time. The middle of the road is definitely not the vital center: it is the dead center.” Along with Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, Schlesinger’s book is one of the key works of postwar anti-Communist liberalism. Trilling was much harder on liberalism than Schlesinger, arguing that in the absence of a strong conservative intellectual opponent, the left needed to undertake a self-critique in order to counteract its tendency to simplify the complexity of reality. Yet sensing the burgeoning Cold War conservative hysteria, both authors attempted to secure a viable position for left politics. In contrast to McCarthyism’s paranoid demonizing of Communism, Schlesinger and Trilling offered relatively rational critiques of Stalinism and the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA). In The Vital Center, Schlesinger draws a clear line between liberalism and Communism, demonstrating how the two are practically and ideologically incompatible (his immediate goal is to show the hypocrisy of “fellow travelers” of the Communist Party). In fact, Schlesinger - who was well-versed in Marxist theory and the history of Marxism - cites and summarizes Lenin’s critique of reformism, and then takes the side of reformism against Leninism. Schlesinger devotes much more of the book to attacking the temptation of left Communism than to warding off right fascism. Reflecting on the historical situation that led him to write the book, Schlesinger in his new introduction describes a political tendency that reappeared in the militancy of the late 1960s and that has been spreading once again in recent years: “Contempt for democracy was widespread among elites and masses alike: contempt for parliamentary methods, for ‘talking-shops,’ for liberties of expression and opposition, for bourgeois individualism, for pragmatic muddling through.” To account for the growing attractiveness of Communism, Schlesinger indulges in some dubious psycho-sociology. Like the early 20th-century sociologists, he argues that modern civilization – more specifically, the industrial revolution – dissolved the social bonds and traditions that guided society and individuals. Yet modern civilization also failed to produce any “new social structure,” leaving modern man in a state of “anxiety and fear.” Schlesinger briefly refers to Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Fromm on existential freedom, and then claims that individuals embrace totalitarianism in order to “escape from freedom.” The flight into Communism is aided by the fact that “Marxism has endowed Communism with a respectable intellectual lineage saturated in nineteenth-century values of optimism, rationalism, and detailed historical inquiry.” Schlesinger tries to contradict this image of Communism by devoting the middle section of The Vital Center to demonstrating the oppressive nature of Stalinism and the blunders of the CPUSA. Yet Schlesinger argues that attacking Communism is not enough. Only a reconstructed and strengthened liberalism – centered around “a belief in the integrity of the individual, in the limited state, in due process of law, in empiricism and gradualism” – can successfully compete against totalitarian ideologies.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
In The Boom and The Bubble, Robert Brenner examines the so-called “New Economy” of the late 1990s from a historical perspective. In contrast to the official optimism that surrounded the stock market bubble and the spectacular initial public offerings (IPOs) of Internet companies such as Netscape, Brenner claims that the New Economy never managed to escape from the “long downturn” that began in the 1970s. The structural problem of manufacturing over-capacity and over-production, exacerbated by international competition, continued to put negative pressure on rates of profit throughout the period. The recovery of the economy was therefore illusory and a return to the previous era’s economic stagnation and turbulence was inevitable. Brenner begins with the transition in “the world economy from long boom to long downturn between 1965 and 1973.” Brenner argues that the fall in profitability during this period cannot be attributed to either “an increase in workers’ power” or “an exhaustion of technological potentials.” As he demonstrated in The Economics of Global Turbulence, the decline in the rate of profit was caused by horizontal international competition combined with the absence of a shakeout of redundant manufacturing capabilities. The U.S. used Keynesian deficit spending to overcome the 1974-75 oil crisis and to sustain economic expansion during the last half of the 1970s. In the 1980s, Reaganism/Thatcherism deployed tight monetarist policies to regain profitability, but while some redundant firms were eliminated and others rationalized and streamlined, tight credit quickly pushed the economy toward a recession and was only counteracted by Reagan’s return to Keynesianism through record-level military spending. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the creation of (artificial) demand through Keynesianism never corrected the root cause of the fall in profitability, and such policies generated federal and account deficits that could not be sustained indefinitely. During the same period, widespread deregulation of financial activities scrapped the post-war era’s “systems of regulation that strait-jacketed financial institutions in terms of function and geographical area and restricted capital mobility. . . . But with the unshackling of finance, the world economy was once again gripped by one credit-based speculative boom after another, issuing inevitably in devastating crashes.” This deregulation made possible the “huge financial bubbles” and devastating stock market catastrophes of the 80s, 90s, and 00s. In response to the growing crisis in U.S. manufacturing, the U.S. pressured the G-5 powers in 1985 to sign the Plaza Accord, which lowered the exchange rate of the dollar, allowing U.S. manufacturing to become more competitive internationally (the lower dollar made U.S. exports cheaper). The Plaza Accord succeeded in restoring competitiveness to U.S. firms, but it simultaneously threw other nations into crisis. Both Germany and Japan saw the value of their currencies rise in relation to the dollar, thereby reducing their international competitiveness (their goods became more expensive on the global market). The weakness of U.S. manufacturing prior to the Plaza Accord combined with financial deregulation led in the early 1980s to “a major reallocation of capital in the direction of financial activity.” Because the “real” economy offered so few opportunities for profitable investment, lenders and speculators turned to risky outlets such as savings and loan institutions (which eventually collapsed) or to mergers and acquisitions. Brenner claims, “financiers’ problems of the 1980s were dissolved with astonishing rapidity in the early 1990s. It was the era of Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin, and Alan Greenspan, much more than that of Ronald Reagan and Donald Regan, that witnessed the true ascendancy of finance.” In 1993, the Clinton administration, gambling on the improvements that “rationalization and redistribution” had brought about in manufacturing over the previous few years, made a decisive shift toward balancing the budget and therefore eliminated the Keynesianism that had propped up the economy during previous decades. After a slow start, the economy did manage to pick up by the end of 1995. Yet the Plaza Accord, which made the value of the yen soar, by this time threatened to cause the Japanese economy to collapse, which in turn could cause a recession in the U.S. As a result, the U.S., Japan, and Germany agreed in 1995 to the “reverse Plaza Accord,” which pushed the value of the dollar upwards and helped restore Japanese competitiveness. The reverse Plaza Accord put strong downward pressure on U.S. manufacturing profitability and threatened to undo the recent economic recovery. But at this same time, “the US stock market took off on the greatest ascent in its history, leaving underlying profits in the dust.” The Federal Reserve’s low short-term interest rates, the balanced budget’s containment of inflation, and the rise in the value of the dollar led capital to be poured into the U.S. stock market. Brenner notes “that the dramatic increase of the stock market up to [the end of 1995] basically reflected the dramatic recovery of profitability in the US economy from its depressed state in the recession at the start of the 1980s.” But during the last half of the 1990s, the stock market, whose equity values skyrocketed, became increasingly disconnected from the realities of corporate profitability. In 1996, even Alan Greenspan warned of the stock market’s “irrational exuberance.” Yet Greenspan did little to stop this trend, and by 1998 he publicly supported the idea that the New Economy would show “extraordinary growth.” Brenner comments that Greenspan was apparently not concerned about the fact that “the equity price ascent was matched by the rise in expectations of profits, but emphatically not in actually realized profits.” The stock market bubble produced a “wealth effect” that made the economy seem stronger than it actually was. The “inflation of asset values resulting from the rise in stock prices appeared to endow households with such magnified wealth as to justify an historic erosion of household savings, as well as a big boost in household borrowing, both of which further prompted consumer spending.” Brenner adds that “the wealthiest Americans were . . . responsible for virtually all of the increase in households’ aggregate propensity to consume during these years. As one pundit wryly put it, the boom of the later 1990s was the first in US history to be driven by yuppie expenditures.” “Meanwhile, corporations in need of capital could also secure it uncommonly cheaply simply by issuing shares at super-inflated prices to ever-more-enthusiastic investors. The resulting explosions of both investment and consumption shot the US, and the international, economy forward as if blown from a cannon.” Because the recovery of manufacturing profitability was not behind the bubble, when the economy again faced a crisis in 1998 (due to intensifying international competition and the East Asia crisis), “there was simply no alternative to the wealth effect of rising share prices to take over as the economy’s driving engine.” Brenner claims that “the Fed thus had little choice but to depend upon the continued ascent of the stock market to maintain the accelerated growth of domestic US consumption and investment.” Whereas Keynesianism in the 1970s and 1980s had used public debt to artificially stimulate demand, in the late 1990s the Federal Reserve relied on private household and corporate debt. Instead of the government spending beyond its means, investors were prompted to spend beyond their incomes. Even as non-financial profitability fell in 1998-99, the stock market continued to soar. Popular rhetoric about the potential of the New Economy’s “putatively more entrepreneurial institutional framework” and the novelty of the information technology sector merely ignored the unexceptional level of U.S. economic performance. Needless to say, in 2000-2001 trillions of dollars in assets simply vanished and e-businesses collapsed in mass numbers when “expected profits” never materialized.