All posts by Chris Wright

Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class

I realize how callous the title of this article sounds. The decline of the middle class, which in recent years has been the subject of innumerable articles, books, and movies, entails a terrible increase in human suffering. The descent of millions of families into relative poverty is beyond appalling, not something to be celebrated. However, the perverse Marxist in me feels obliged to complicate the narrative of unmitigated catastrophe that dominates all journalism and scholarship on the subject. The fact is that “progress,” like God, works in mysterious ways, paradoxical, inhuman, “dialectically contradictory” ways. And the contemporary decline of the West’s middle class may end up advancing, indirectly, the banner of humanity that the Left has carried forward since the seventeenth century.

The point isn’t a very deep one. Consider the gravest threat that life on Earth faces today: global warming. This threat cannot be adequately confronted in the framework of capitalism, which indeed is responsible for it; it demands a systemic socio-politico-economic revolution, a social transformation that systematically elevates human needs above capital’s needs. The most realistic way to address the crisis is for governments to nationalize the fossil fuel industry and shift resources toward renewable energy, which should be produced and distributed through publicly owned utilities. And this is only the beginning. There have to be international reforestation and afforestation programs, for instance, and massive deployment of carbon sequestration methods and technologies. The very dynamics of the political economy have to be altered.

How can society ever get to this point? Evidently only through upheavals so painful that it becomes clear there is no other option. Revolutionary change on such a scale happens only by means of unprecedented crisis, which is to say social discontent so extreme that half-measures are cast aside as pitifully inadequate. As long as a large middle class exists to serve as a bulwark of social stability and relatively conservative politics, the requisite crisis will not happen. Society has to polarize between a tiny minority of ultra-rich and a huge majority of unprotected, insecure, ecologically vulnerable, politically desperate people whose violent discontent propels the “revolution” forward. Systems have to be radically disrupted, on a scale greater than during even the Great Depression, which led to the welfare state. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the middle class is an effective barricade against revolution.

We might also reflect that, climatically speaking, the best thing that can happen in the short term is a global economic depression. Carbon emissions in the U.S. dropped by 11% between 2007 and 2013, mostly because of the Great Recession. A deeper economic collapse would have an even more positive effect, quite apart from the contributions it would make to the sort of systemic breakdown that would facilitate radical change.

Karl Marx recognized that class polarization and economic crisis present unique opportunities for systemic disruption, opportunities that activists must seize. That’s the imperative, after all: to disrupt the smooth functioning of powerful institutions, and to create new institutions in their place. The more polarization, the more opportunities there are for revolutionaries. There are also more dangers, as we’re seeing by the rise of the far-right across Europe and the U.S. But these dangers aren’t necessarily insurmountable, if only the Left can get its act together and organize the drifting masses.

Millions of people are out there waiting to be organized. We can only hope that by the time of the next economic crash, the Left will be ready to seize the initiative.

The Working Class Strikes Back

Reading the daily headlines, it’s easy to forget that the corollary of a civilization in precipitous decline is a world of creative ferment, a new world struggling to be born. If you could have a God’s-eye view of all the creative resistance rending the fabric of political oppression from the U.S. to Indonesia to Colombia, you would surely be persuaded that all hope is not lost. This conclusion is borne out in detail by a book published earlier this year, The Class Strikes Back: Self-Organised Workers’ Struggles in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Dario Azzellini and Michael G. Kraft. The chapters, each dedicated to a different case-study, survey inspiring democratic activism in thirteen countries across five continents. The reader is left with the impression that the global working class, while facing an uphill battle in its fight against imperialism, business and state repression, and conservative union bureaucracy, may yet triumph in the end, if only because of its remarkable perseverance generation after generation. Its overwhelming numerical strength, too, bodes well.

In their introduction, the editors concisely state the book’s purpose: “This volume aims to examine how new, anti-bureaucratic forms of syndicalist, neo-syndicalist and autonomous workers’ organisation emerge in response to changing work and production relations in the twenty-first century.” Traditional unions, which they observe have been “part of the institutional setting to maintain capitalism” (my italics), have deteriorated on a global scale. In their place have sprung up more radical and democratic forms of resistance, such as blockades, strikes, and workplace occupations and recuperations. Workers’ actions have even made decisive contributions to the toppling of governments, as in Egypt in 2011.

In this article I’ll summarize several of the most compelling case-studies. Unfortunately I’ll have to pass over many interesting chapters, including ones on the workers’ movement in Colombia, the solidarity economy and radical unionism in Indonesia, the sit-ins and ultimately the worker cooperative at a window factory in Chicago (about which I’ve written here), and the South African miners who were attacked by police and massacred in August 2012. The book is too rich to do justice to.


The crisis in Greece that followed the economic crash of 2008 and 2009 saw a savage regime of austerity imposed on the population, which resulted in a “diffuse precariousness” across the labor force. Conventional unionism and national collective bargaining have been among the victims of this neoliberal regime. And yet the general strikes that the trade union bureaucracy was compelled to declare early on, particularly between 2010 and 2012, were the most massive and combative of the past forty years. “Long battles with the police, crowds which refused to dissolve and regrouped again and again, the besieging for hours of the house of parliament, self-organisation and solidarity in order to cope with tear gas and take care of the wounded—all have become part of the normal image of demonstrations during strikes, replacing the nerveless parades of the past.”

Outside the framework of conventional unionism there have arisen exciting new forms of struggle. Since early 2013, the Vio.Me factory has operated under worker self-management, after its initial owners abandoned the site. Aside from the lack of hierarchy, the job rotations, and the directly democratic structure of the business, one innovative practice has been to run the factory in cooperation with the local community and, indeed, the whole society. After taking over the factory the workers consulted their community about what they should produce; they were asked to stop making poisonous building chemicals and instead to manufacture biological, eco-friendly cleaning products. A “wide network of militants and local assemblies” around the country has supported the effort from the start, which has enabled even the distribution of the firm’s products to be done in a completely new way, “through an informal network of social spaces, solidarity structures, markets without intermediaries and cooperative groceries.”

In general, labor struggles in Greece have become more intertwined with social movements. Early in the crisis, structures of mutual aid sprang up everywhere:

Throughout the country collectives have established community kitchens and peer-to-peer solidarity initiatives for the distribution of food, reconnected electricity that was cut down to low-income households, organised “without middlemen” the distribution of agricultural produce, established self-organised pharmacies, healthcare clinics and tutoring programmes and organised networks of direct action against house foreclosures.

Later on, grassroots initiatives became more political, in an effort to create institutions that would be long-lasting and relatively independent of capital and the government. The Greek squares movement of 2011 spread to almost every city and village in the country, leaving behind a legacy of local assemblies and social centers. It also “unleashed social forces which boosted the social and solidarity economy and the movements for the defence and the promotion of the commons.”

All this flowering of alternative institutions has not occurred without significant problems and defeats. There has been little success in establishing solid organizations of the unemployed, and grassroots labor struggles have failed to form durable structures that can challenge institutionalized unionism. Certain victories, nevertheless, have been impressive. Social movements were able to prevent the government’s privatization of public water corporations in 2014. Even more remarkably, after the government closed down the influential public broadcaster ERT in 2013, ERT employees, together with citizens and activists, took over the production of television and radio programs by occupying premises and infrastructure. For almost two years the self-managed ERT transmitted thousands of hours of broadcasting on the anti-austerity struggle, serving as an important resource for the resistance. When Syriza came to power in 2015, it reestablished the public broadcaster.

Worker and consumer cooperatives exist all over the country. Cooperative coffee shops and bookshops, for example, exist in most neighborhoods of Athens and Salonica, functioning “as the cells of the horizontal movements in urban space and the carriers of alternative values and culture.” Broadly speaking, labor identities are becoming more socialized, “because more embedded in local communities and grassroots struggles.”

The Greek experience is of particular interest in that other Western countries, including the U.S., are likely to replicate important features of it in the coming years and decades, as economic crisis intensifies. We ought to study how Greek workers and communities have adapted and resisted, to learn from their failures and successes.


The mass movement that felled Mubarak’s regime in 2011 received sympathetic coverage from the establishment media in the West, but the key role of workers’ collective action was, predictably, effaced. Strike waves after 2006 not only destabilized the regime but also gave rise to the April 6th Movement in 2008, which would go on to catalyze the 2011 rebellions. Even after the fall of Mubarak, the flood of labor actions didn’t let up.

As everywhere around the world, neoliberalism meant decades of pent-up grievances against working conditions, privatizations, low wages, and economic insecurity. Finally in December 2006, 24,000 textile workers went on strike at Misr Spinning. Within a few weeks, “similar strikes were spreading between public and private sector textile producers, and from there to civil servants, teachers, municipal refuse workers and transport workers.” In the next couple of years, many more strikes occurred, frequently taking the form of mass occupations of workplaces.

Workers even managed to form the first independent unions in more than fifty years, beginning with the Real Estate Tax Authority Union (RETAU), established in December 2008. The conservative and bureaucratic Egyptian Trade Union Federation was unable to cope with all the sit-ins, strikes, and waves of democratic organizing, and saw its influence over the labor movement wane. RETAU’s consolidation “accelerated the development of other independent unions and proto-union networks among teachers, public transport workers, postal workers and health technicians,” raising their expectations of what could be achieved through collective action.

After the steadily rising wave of worker and popular resistance crested with the resignation of Mubarak in early February 2011, labor actions didn’t cease. In fact, Mubarak’s fall was followed by “a new tidal wave of strikes and workplace occupations, with nearly 500 separate episodes of collective action by workers recorded in the month of February 2011 alone.” Strike waves ebbed and flowed over the following two years, and did much to undermine the military and Islamist governments that succeeded each other before the crisis of the summer of 2013, when, after Mohammed Morsi fell, a successful counterrevolutionary offensive was launched by the Armed Forces, the Ministry of the Interior, the judiciary, and the media.

After the fall of Mubarak, a ferment of self-organization resulted in the founding of many new independent unions, which often engaged in intense battles for tathir, or the “cleansing” from management positions of the ruling party’s cronies. This was especially the case in public institutions. Public hospitals in Cairo, for example, “were the scene of attempts to assert workers’ control over management to a much greater degree than had been possible before the revolution.” These experiments weren’t always successful, but in a number of cases they did at least force the resignation of old directors and were able to establish, temporarily, democratic councils to oversee work.

In the end, the workers’ movement was unable to impose its demands on the agenda of national politics. Its leaders “did not score victories at that level on the question of raising the national minimum wage, or forcing a lasting retreat from privatization, or even of securing full legal recognition for the independent unions themselves.” Still, the authors comment that the nationwide revival of self-organization was an astonishing feat. “Factory and office workers created thousands of workplace organisations, despite conditions of acute repression and the lack of material resources. There have been few examples on this scale of a revival of popular organisation in the Arab world for decades.” Memories of these uprisings will not be erased easily, and will inspire the next generation of activists.


Venezuela differs from the other cases in that its Bolivarian revolution has entailed a commitment to elevating the position and the power of workers. So how successful has this process been? In recent years, of course, Venezuela’s severe economic crisis has undermined the Bolivarian process, with increases in poverty and less money going to social programs. But the achievements have not all been destroyed. The account in the book goes up to early 2016, well into the crisis years.

Until 2006, the Chavez government focused on promoting cooperatives (in addition to nationalizing the oil industry and expropriating large landowners). In nationalized medium-sized companies, for example, workers became co-owners with the state. Whereas Venezuela had had only 800 registered cooperatives in 1998, by mid-2010 it had 274,000, though only about a third were determined to be “operative.” It had been hoped that these businesses would produce for the satisfaction of social needs rather than profit-maximization, but the mixed-ownership model, according to which the state and private entrepreneurs could be co-owners with workers, vitiated these hopes.

By 2006 a new model was spreading, which was more communally based. Its political context was that “communal councils” began to be recognized as a fundamental structure of local self-government: in urban areas they encompassed 150 to 400 families, while in rural areas they included a minimum of 20 families. “The councils constitute a non-representational structure of direct participation, which exists alongside the elected representative bodies of constituted power. Several communal councils can come together to form a commune. By the end of 2015, over 40,000 communal councils and more than 1,200 communes existed.” Councils and communes can receive state funding for their projects, which now began to include community-controlled companies instead of cooperatives. “In these new communal companies, the workers come from the local communities; these communities are the ones who, through the structures of self-government…decide on what kind of companies are needed, what organisational form they will have and who should work in them.”

In 2008 a new model for these companies emerged, the Communal Social Property Company (EPSC). “While different kinds of EPSCs can be found in the communities today, their principal areas of activity correspond with the most pressing needs of the barrios and rural communities: the production of food and construction materials, and the provision of transport services. Textile and agricultural production companies, bakeries and shoemakers, are also common.” Under the initiative of workers, even some state enterprises are partly under community control, at least regarding their distribution networks.

Despite Chavez’s commitment to workers’ control, it has not been easy to shift the orientation of a state and a private sector deeply hostile to workers. Workers’ councils and struggles for worker participation can be found in almost all state enterprises and many private ones—and workers have taken over hundreds of private businesses, sometimes after the state’s expropriation of the original owners—but even in the chavista state bureaucrats were apt to undermine the Bolivarian process. Whether through corruption, mismanagement, obstruction of financing to state companies with worker-presidents, or other means, ministerial bureaucracies and even corrupt unions impede workers’ control. In many state enterprises the situation is ambiguous: workers don’t control the company or even participate in management, but “they control parts of the production process, they decide on their own to whom they will give access to the plant, [and] they are in a full-scale conflict with the management.”

Despite all the advances made under Chavez, the fact is that the economy’s social relations of production have not really changed and capitalist exploitation remains the norm. Private interests are still too powerful and have too much influence over the government, promoting mismanagement and corruption. It is still a rentier economy. But a revolutionary process has begun and is being carried forward by communities and workers across the country. The transformation of a society from authoritarian to democratic does not happen overnight.


Like the rest of the post-Soviet world, Bosnia-Herzegovina has suffered terribly from the privatizations, asset-stripping, marketization, and rampant corruption that have attended its transition to capitalism since the mid-1990s. Unemployment and economic insecurity are at epidemic proportions. In 2014, workers in Tuzla, Bosnia’s third largest city, organized a massive mobilization against their deteriorating conditions, the first since the 1992–95 conflict. While the movement didn’t last, its legacy may inspire further mobilizations in the future.

The 2014 demonstrations were a response to the wretched situation of workers in a laundry detergent factory, DITA, which at one time had provided 1,400 jobs. After its privatization in 2005, things started to go downhill. The company paid them minimal wages, issued meal vouchers only in bonds rather than cash, and eventually stopped paying them pension funds and health insurance. In 2011 they began a long strike, but in December 2012 the firm closed, having ignored all their demands.

Picketing the factory and filing lawsuits didn’t secure justice for the workers, so in February 2014 they teamed up with their counterparts from four other nearby factories to stage demonstrations in front of Tuzla’s canton court. All five work forces had similar demands: investigation of the questionable privatization processes that had destroyed their livelihoods; compensation for unpaid wages, health insurance, and pensions; and the restarting of production. Their demands didn’t get a very sympathetic hearing: during one of the demonstrations, riot police secured the entrance of the canton building and fired teargas and rubber bullets. This brutality only further inflamed the workers, who kept up their resistance the following couple of days. The number of demonstrators rose to 10,000 as students and other citizens joined the protests, finally setting the government buildings on fire.

Chiara Milan’s summary of the ensuing events is worth quoting:

The action [of burning government buildings] resonated throughout the country. Within days, rallies in solidarity with Tuzla’s workers took place across Bosnia-Herzegovina. Increasing discontent among the social groups suffering under government policies led tens of thousands to join in the main cities of BiH [i.e., Bosnia-Herzegovina]. Like a domino effect, the rage spread and the revolt escalated. On 7 February the government buildings of the cities of Mostar, Sarajevo, and Zenica were set ablaze by seething protesters. While politicians tried to hide the plummeting economic conditions of the country by constantly playing the ethnic card, the workers of Tuzla triggered wider social protests, arguing that rage and hunger do not recognise ethnic differences. The protests spawned a mass movement of solidarity that overcame the ethno-national divisions inside the country, travelling across the post-Yugoslav space. Rallies in support of the workers were reported in nearby Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia…

Soon, directly democratic assemblies called plenums were set up across the country. “The citizens gathered in leaderless, consensus-based assemblies where everybody had the right to one vote and nobody could speak on behalf of other people.” Each plenum had working groups addressing such issues as media, education and culture, and social problems. “Demands that arose during the plenums were collected and delivered to [these] working groups, in charge of reformulating them in a coherent way. Once reformulated, the demands typically returned to the plenum for a final vote [after which they were submitted to the cantonal government]. All the plenums were coordinated through an organisational body called interplenum…”

A new labor union was also formed in the wake of the protests, called Solidarnost, which quickly reached 4,000 members from dozens of companies. It was intended as an alternative to the conventional unions that had so signally failed to protect the interests of their rank and file. While it didn’t succeed in winning the battle for the workers, it did keep fighting for years afterwards, as by staging weekly protests in front of the canton court.

The moment of collective outrage slowly faded away, especially after the flood that hit the country in May 2014 turned into a national emergency. The workers at the DITA factory, however, still did not give up: in March 2015 they occupied the factory and restarted the production of cleaning products, publicly appealing for international support. Shops and retail chains decided to sell the “recuperated factory’s” products, and groups of activists volunteered to help the workers optimize production.

In general, Milan comments, the uprisings left a legacy of solidarity and activist networks, which challenge “the dominant rhetoric of ethnic hatred” and may be drawn on in future struggles.


The path forward for the working class in an age of neoliberal crisis is tortuous and uncertain. Given the near-collapse of mainstream trade unionism and many left-wing political parties, it’s necessary for people the world over to forge their own institutions, their own networks, to fight back against the rampaging elite and construct a new, more equitable society. The stories collected in The Class Strikes Back are an encouraging sign that workers everywhere are already waging the war, that democratic institutions can germinate in even the most crisis-ridden of societies, and that the ruling class’s hold on power is, in fact, ultimately, rather tenuous.  The next generation of activism is sure to bring major changes to a morally corrupt civilization.

An Updated and Improved Marxism

It is the rare intellectual who can withstand the pressures of groupthink. This is a fundamental truth, or a truism, borne out not only by daily experiences in an academic or other “intellectual” context (e.g., the newsroom or editorial board of any establishment media outlet) but also by critical scholarship from the likes of Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky. Left-wing intellectuals tend to be vigilantly aware of irrational groupthink among mainstream, establishment types, or even among other leftist sects with which they don’t identify; but, like all intellectual cliques—indeed, like nearly all individual intellectuals—they’re reluctant to turn their critical gaze on themselves. They imbibe certain ideas and ideologies in their formative years and perhaps refine them as they mature, but on the whole their commitment to the ideology is apt to become rigid and uncritical.

This complacency has always most disturbed me with regard to Marxists, whose system of thought, if correctly formulated, is precisely the most critical, the most self-critical, the most democratic and revolutionary ideology ever devised. I expect intellectual laziness from mostpostmodernists,” from liberals and centrists, from all witting or unwitting servants of power. I’m disappointed, though, when I see it in Marxists and semi-Marxists. There’s a pronounced dogmatism in most Marxist circles. Personally, I’ve tried to stimulate some critical rethinking of Marxism in various publications, including my book Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States and this distillation of some of its arguments (though disregard the editor’s oversimplified summary at the top of the page), but I haven’t had much success. These writings appear to have been ignored.

Which is unfortunate, because I’m convinced it’s necessary in the twenty-first century to revise the Marxian conception of revolution. Conditions have changed from what they were a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago; Marx would likely be appalled by the lack of creative rethinking that has met these altered conditions. It’s an unfortunate situation when millions of activists across the world are struggling to build new modes of production, new modes of politics, and Marxist scholars and thinkers still confine themselves, more or less, to quoting staid formulations from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (This fact, ironically, supports Marx’s argument that old ideologies tend to hang on doggedly even as changing material conditions make them progressively irrelevant.) Writers and ‘critical ideologists’ can play an important role in the laborious construction of a new society from the ground up, but instead they’re usually content with elaborating on old slogans about seizing the state or smashing it, establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat, creating a vanguard party, and so on.

An article that Jacobin recently published provides an example of this stubborn immersion in the past, as well as an opportunity to propose a more critical and up-to-date interpretation of revolution. The article in question is actually an essay by the famous British Marxist Ralph Miliband, entitled “Lenin’s The State and Revolution,” published in 1970. In itself it’s a perfectly respectable and sophisticated meditation on Lenin’s classic work, indeed counseling a proper critical attitude towards it. But the reposting of it on the website of a “cutting-edge” left-wing journal almost fifty years later highlights just how stagnant (in some respects) Marxist thinking continues to be, especially given the editorial comment with which Jacobin introduces the piece:

Marx famously proclaimed the need to “smash” the bourgeois state. But what does that mean in practice? If our aim is a democratic, non-bureaucratic socialism, what kind of state should we be striving for?

Those looking for answers have often turned to Lenin’s State and Revolution, where the famed revolutionary confidently speaks of transforming “a state of bureaucrats” into “a state of armed workers.”

In the following essay, Ralph Miliband…offers a critical appraisal of Lenin’s pamphlet and explains why “the exercise of socialist power remains the Achilles’ heel of Marxism.” …[T]he essay is still the sharpest reading of State and Revolution available.

The accuracy of this introduction is rather sad. In 2018 we’re still looking for inspiration to a brief critical analysis written in 1970 of a short work written in 1917—in completely different conditions than prevail today—that itself was but a commentary on sketchy ideas put forward in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. (One can argue, moreover, that State and Revolution was intended as little more than cynical propaganda for the Bolshevik party, in light of its deviation from Lenin’s earlier party line and his later authoritarian practice.) Surely we can do better than this.

Miliband is still right, though, that “the exercise of socialist power remains the Achilles’ heel of Marxism.” This is true not only of practice but of theory—which is to say, as I’ve argued in my paper “The Significance and Shortcomings of Karl Marx,” that the concept of proletarian revolution is Marxism’s main weakness. In the rest of this article I’ll again summarize, very briefly, some of the points from my book, in the hope of shedding a little light on an old problem.


The conceptual revisions I proposed in the book offer two main advantages: first, they bring the strategic or prescriptive aspect of Marxism up to date, incorporating the increasingly popular idea and practice of the “solidarity economy” (while simultaneously providing a systematic theoretical framework to interpret the latter’s potential); second, they correct certain inconsistencies and logical errors that Marx’s sketchy proposals on revolution introduced into the theory of historical materialism. That is, with my “revisions,” Marxism has been made more logically defensible and consistent with itself. And the road is cleared for even orthodox Marxists to engage creatively with the burgeoning alternative economy of cooperatives, public banks, and other experimental ideas/institutions.

We can start with Marx’s formulation of revolution in the following four sentences from the famous Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

One problem with this classic statement is that its notion of “fettering” is meaningless. And nowhere else in his writings does Marx flesh it out with sufficient content. Capitalist production relations, especially in the last hundred years, are, in fact, constantly fettering the use and development of productive forces—and yet no post-capitalist revolution has happened. Recessions and depressions certainly “fetter” the productive forces; so do legal obstacles to the dissemination of knowledge, such as intellectual copyright laws; so do ideologies and practices of privatization, which hinder the public sector’s more socially rational and dynamic use of science and technology. On the other hand, even in decadent neoliberalism the productive forces continue to develop in various ways. So it seems wrong or meaningless to say that production relations fetter productive forces and then revolution breaks out.

A slight revision can remedy the problem, and at the same time changes the whole thrust of the Marxist theory of revolution. Rather than a conflict simply between production relations and the development of productive forces, there is a conflict between two types of production relationstwo modes of productionone of which uses productive forces in a more socially rational and “un-fettering” way than the other. The more progressive mode slowly develops in the womb of the old society as it decays; i.e., as the old dominant mode of production succumbs to crisis and stagnation. In being relatively dynamic and democratic, the emergent mode of production attracts adherents and resources, until it becomes ever more visible and powerful. The old regime can’t eradicate it; it spreads internationally and gradually transforms the economy, to such a point that the forms and content of politics change with it. Political entities become its partisans, and finally decisive seizures of power by representatives of the emergent mode of production become possible, because reactionary defenders of the old regime have lost their dominant command over resources. And so, over generations, a social revolution transpires.

This conceptual revision saves Marx’s intuition by giving it more meaning: the “fettering” is not absolute but is in relation to a more effective and democratic mode of production that is, so to speak, competing against the old stagnant one. The most obvious concrete instance of this notion of revolution is the long transition from feudalism to capitalism, during which the feudal mode became so hopelessly outgunned by the capitalist that—after the emergent economy had already broadly colonized society—bourgeois “seizures of the state” finally became possible.

You see that the simple conceptual revision I’ve proposed changes the Marxian theory from advocating a statist “dictatorship of the proletariat” to advocating a more grassroots, gradual, unambiguously democratic transformation of the economy that proceeds at the same time and to the degree that the old society deteriorates. This change of emphasis is itself an advantage, since the old overwhelmingly statist theory (notwithstanding Lenin’s semi-anarchistic language in State and Revolution) was idealistic, un-dialectical, and utopian. Which is to say un-Marxist.

In the orthodox account of the Communist Manifesto and later writings, the social revolution occurs after a seizure of state power by “the proletariat” (which, incidentally, isn’t a unitary entity but contains divisions). But this account of revolution contradicts the Marxian understanding of social dynamics—a point, oddly, that few or no Marxists appear ever to have appreciated. It exalts a relatively unitary conscious will as being able to plan social evolution more or less in advance, a notion that is utterly undialectical. According to “dialectics,” history happens behind the backs of historical actors, whose intentions never work out exactly as they’re supposed to. Marx was wise in his admonition that we should never trust the self-interpretations of political actors. And yet he suspends this injunction when it comes to the dictatorship of the proletariat: these people’s designs are supposed to work out perfectly and straightforwardly, despite the massive complexity and dialectical contradictions of society.

The statist idea of revolution is also wrong to privilege the political over the economic. In supposing that through sheer political will one can transform an authoritarian, exploitative economy into an emancipatory, democratic one, Marx and Lenin are, in effect, reversing the order of “dominant causality” such that politics determines the economy (whereas, in fact, the economy “determines”—loosely and broadly speaking—politics).1 Marxism itself suggests that the state can’t be socially creative in this radical way. And when it tries to be, what results, ironically, is overwhelming bureaucracy and even greater authoritarianism than before. (While the twentieth century’s experiences with so-called “Communism” or “state socialism” happened in relatively non-industrialized societies, not advanced capitalist ones as Marx anticipated, the dismal record is at least suggestive.)

Fundamental to these facts is that if the conquest of political power occurs in a still-capitalist economy, revolutionaries have to contend with the institutional legacies of capitalism: relations of coercion and domination condition everything the government does, and there is no way to break free of them. They can’t be magically transcended through political will; to think they can, or that the state can somehow “wither away” even as it’s forced to become more expansive and dominating (to suppress capitalist resistance), is to adopt a naïve idealism and utopianism.

In short, the interpretation of revolution that contemporary Marxists have inherited is backward. It is standing on its head; we have to turn it right-side up in order to comprehend our activism and our goals properly. Of course, this isn’t to deny the importance of engaging in political work, whether it takes the form of constructing a workers’ party, electing socialists under the aegis of the Democratic Party, or lobbying for particular laws. As during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it’s essential to target the state at every step of the way. We simply have to recognize that a paramount strategy is to take advantage of openings and divisions in the capitalist state to politically facilitate the long-term construction of new relations of production, on the foundation of which the new society will gradually emerge. The revolution can’t happen in any other way. Certainly not through a historical rupture in which “the working class” dramatically seizes power, suppresses (somehow) all its opponents, and organizes a new economy on the basis of utopian blueprints. In the twenty-first century, any such ruptural conception, even if moderated by realism on some point or other, is astoundingly naïve.

The truth is that revolutionaries have to dig in for the long haul: a global transition to a post-capitalist society will take a century or more. Cooperative and socialized relations of production (in forms that it’s futile to predict at this point) will spread through generations of bitter struggle. Meanwhile, the conquest of political power will occur piecemeal—at different rates in different countries—suffering setbacks and then proceeding to new victories, then suffering more defeats, etc. It will be a time of world-agony, especially as climate change will be devastating civilization; but the sheer numbers of people whose interests will lie in a transcendence of capitalism will constitute a formidable weapon on the side of progress.


As Chomsky has said on more than one occasion, the job of intellectuals, or one of their jobs, is to make simple things appear complicated. You’re supposed to think that in order to understand anything about the world, you have to be able to read and write long articles or books full of citations and arcane terminology and long discussions of other writers, delving into the intricacies of their arguments, minutely dissecting the meanings of their favored terms, spinning out paeans to verbiage like a crafty spider trying to snare the unwary. This is how intellectuals protect their territory and ward off democratic challenges to their status. But the truth is that old-fashioned commonsense reasoning can get you pretty far. It only takes a bit of reading and a bit of critical thought to find approximate answers to classic questions about the nature of society, the nature of a good society, and the revolutionary path to the latter. And, in fact, in the sociological domain, you’re never going to do much better than approximate answers. With interactions between billions of people to take into consideration, too little will always be understood.

So, to get back to the old question that Lenin and Miliband tackled: what does it mean to “smash” the bourgeois state? What kind of democratic state should we be striving for? Well, the notion of “smashing” the state is just a pithy metaphor that provides no guide to action. We should stop being bewitched by old and unhelpful imagery. In conditions very different from those that confronted Marx and Lenin, we should simply focus on the matters at hand rather than endlessly poring over what the god Lenin said. Keeping in our mind the Marxist and anarchist ideal of a stateless, non-coercive, economically democratic society, we should just do what we can to make the state we’re immediately confronted with more democratic and more just. We do what we can to expand democracy in the real world, and step by step we find ourselves approaching the distant moral ideal that guides us. It’s hopeless to try to spell out the ideal in detail. Marx understood this, which is why he was so reluctant to get bogged down in these kinds of questions, confining himself to some vague suggestions that, not surprisingly, turned out to be largely mistaken.

The task of Marxists now, aside from continuing to critically analyze society, is to rethink the old prescriptions and abandon tired formulations. In so doing, they’ll not only make themselves more relevant to the contemporary world, a world teeming with democratic and nonsectarian initiative; they’ll also, in effect, finally rid Marxism of its lingering traces of irrational dogma, internal inconsistency, and parochial nineteenth-century ideology. The system will at last have realized the old ambition of being a genuine science of society.

  1. In reality, of course, political and economic relations are fused together. But analytically one can distinguish economic activities from narrowly political, governmental activities.

On “Bullshit Jobs”

Referring to cultural Marxism, especially the Frankfurt School, Noam Chomsky once said, “I don’t find that kind of work very illuminating… The ideas that seem useful also seem pretty simple, and I don’t understand what all the verbiage is for.” While I think there’s much of value in the so-called Western Marxist tradition—for instance, I’m partial to Georg Lukács (more so than to Adorno and others in the Frankfurt School)—I have to admit I strongly sympathize with Chomsky. But his criticism generalizes, and is even truer in other areas: since well before the mid-twentieth century, a large amount of work in the humanities has been prone to unnecessary and sometimes incomprehensible verbiage. Later this tendency came to be associated with postmodernism, for it was most pronounced in the writings of such luminaries as Derrida, Lacan, Kristeva, Deleuze, and Foucault, as well as their hordes of epigones. By the end of the twentieth century, a vast field of “Theory” had reached maturity, encompassing much of philosophy, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and literary, film, and cultural studies.

As an anthropologist, David Graeber works in this broadly conceived “interpretive” tradition (I call it that because it consists essentially of endless cultural and social “interpretations” or “theories,” often playful and highly verbose conceptual exercises). He has an advantage over many of his peers in that, while not a particularly great writer, he can at least write clearly and informally enough to be widely read. Presumably this lucidity helps account for his fame—as do, more importantly, his heterodox ideas, his ability to capture a cultural mood even in the titles of his books (Debt, The Utopia of Rules, Bullshit Jobs), and his impressive productivity. Perhaps he’s too productive: while reading his latest book, I couldn’t help thinking it would have packed a greater punch if he had shortened it by a third. It meanders and meanders, repeats and repeats, and, well, I didn’t understand what all the verbiage was for.

But that’s the intellectual game, after all. Unless they’re unusually disciplined and conscious of avoiding self-indulgence, intellectuals are prone to spewing “bullshit” without end, showing off their verbosity because that’s how the game is played. Graeber is at least more disciplined and serious than most of them, especially (most of) his fellow “theorists” in the humanities.

The full title of his book is Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. I wasn’t able to find the “theory,” unless it be that bullshit jobs do in fact exist. And Graeber marshals abundant evidence to test and confirm that theory. The most entertaining, and probably the most valuable, parts of the book are the many testimonies he presents from poor souls who spend their lives in a bullshit job, which is to say a job they think shouldn’t exist because it contributes nothing to the world. The numbers of people who believe this are incredibly high. One poll in the United Kingdom found that only 50 percent of people with full-time jobs were sure their job made a meaningful contribution to the world, while 37 percent were sure theirs didn’t. A poll in Holland put the latter number at 40 percent. Even jobs that aren’t bullshit, like nurses and professors, are being increasingly bullshitized, as paperwork, meetings, and other administrative duties crowd out more meaningful tasks like taking care of patients and teaching. (Nurses reported to Graeber that as much as 80 percent of their time is now taken up with meetings, filling out forms, and the like.) Considering these facts, as well as the existence of many second-order bullshit jobs (jobs done in support of those directly engaged in bullshit), Graeber estimates that well over half of all work being done in society could be eliminated without making any real difference.

What sorts of jobs are we talking about? Not most lower-tier jobs: not street cleaners, bus drivers, repairmen, restaurant workers, store clerks, gardeners, construction workers, etc. These people make a contribution to the world. Graeber suggests a rough five-fold classification of bullshit jobs. First are flunkies: jobs that exist “only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important.” This includes doormen, many receptionists (those who have hardly anything to do and find the job oppressively dull), some HR assistants, and the like. Second are “goons,” jobs that have an aggressive element but “exist only because other people employ them.” For instance, most lobbyists, PR specialists, telemarketers, corporate lawyers (“I contribute nothing to the world and am utterly miserable all of the time,” one said), and national armed forces, which exist only because other countries have armies. “If no one had an army, armies would not be needed.” As for PR specialists, one of them probably spoke for many when he opined that every person who works in or for the entire advertising industry simply “manufactur[es] demand and then exaggerat[es] the usefulness of the products sold to fix it.” He concluded, “If we’re at the point where in order to sell products, you have to first of all trick people into thinking they need them, then I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that these jobs aren’t bullshit.”

Third is the category of “duct tapers,” people whose jobs exist only because of a glitch in the organization, “who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist.” Often this includes underlings who have to fix mistakes made by incompetent superiors. Or do nothing but deal with customers irate because something went wrong. Fourth are “box tickers,” who allow an organization to be able to claim it’s doing something it actually isn’t doing. One testimony is from a guy who was Senior Quality and Performance Officer in a local council in the United Kingdom; most of what he did involved ticking boxes, “pretending things are great to senior managers, and generally ‘feeding the beast’ with meaningless numbers that give the illusion of control. None of which helps the citizens of that council in the slightest.”

The fifth category is taskmasters, people who do nothing but assign work to others, create bullshit tasks for others to do, or supervise bullshit. Middle management frequently falls under this category, as when managers oversee workers who could perform just as well, or sometimes better, without oversight. “I just got promoted to this job,” one manager says, “and I spend a lot of my time looking around and wondering what I’m supposed to be doing.” That’s a common complaint: being forced to supervise people who don’t need supervision. (Readers of Harry Braverman’s classic Labor and Monopoly Capital won’t find this complaint surprising at all.) Frequently positions with the word ‘strategic’ in their names—Strategic Dean, Vice President of Strategic Development, Strategic Officer—are bullshit. “All I could do,” one such person said, “was come up with a new strategy that was in effect a re-spin of already agreed-upon strategies.” But these people are given their own staff, which they have to try to find work for.

Graeber’s classification system is somewhat interesting, though, as he acknowledges, it leaves out a lot. One huge area of bullshit it leaves out he doesn’t mention at all: bullshit academic research. Surely the large majority of academic research makes essentially no contribution to the world, except to pad CVs and advance careers. Endless conferences, “calls for papers” sent out for yet another conference, thousands upon thousands of scholarly articles published every year most of which are read by hardly anyone (more often simply glanced over). Much of the writing isn’t only irrelevant and uninteresting, superficial and unchallenging, but even perverse: again, one thinks of postmodernist obscurantism, relativism, and idealism. In the case of postmodernism and, more generally, the idealism (and centrism) of bourgeois scholarship and journalism, the bullshit serves an obvious purpose for the establishment: it distracts from structures of class and power, obscures understanding of how society works, and does nothing to advance left-wing dissent. (I discuss these matters in depth here, and also on my website.)

Graeber devotes a couple of chapters to what it’s like to work in a bullshit job and why people so often report themselves miserable. According to bourgeois psychological theories, after all, it might seem that some of these jobs are great. You hardly have to work, you have barely any real responsibilities, you can spend hours playing computer games or surfing the web. You can (in many cases) be almost as lazy as, supposedly, you want to be just by virtue of being human. But of course humans are not, in fact, lazy by nature, creatures who have to be driven to work, as bourgeois ideologies proclaim. They want to work, but on creative and enjoyable tasks. Their fundamental desire is not to slack off but to have a meaningful life, full of purpose, creativity, exploration, and love, a life of contributions to the world. To work in an utterly pointless job, therefore, day in and day out, month after month, can be maddening, soul-killing torture. It seems that the respect and prestige these people might be accorded can make it even worse, heightening their sense of being frauds or parasites.

Many of the testimonies Graeber has compiled are both sad and hilarious. Most are too long to quote here, but I’ll quote one, from a security guard:

I worked as a museum guard for a major global security company in a museum where one exhibition room was left unused more or less permanently. My job was to guard that empty room, ensuring no museum guests touched the…well, nothing in the room, and ensure nobody set any fires. To keep my mind sharp and attention undivided, I was forbidden any form of mental stimulation, like books, phones, etc.

Since nobody was ever there, in practice I sat still and twiddled my thumbs for seven and a half hours, waiting for the fire alarm to sound. If it did, I was to calmly stand up and walk out. That was it.

One might think of this guard’s job as a literal realization of the metaphorical meaning of thousands of positions filled by tens of millions of people. The colossal waste of human potential is beyond comprehension.

The natural question, aside from how to change this terrible collective situation, is how all these worthless jobs started proliferating in the first place. Why aren’t we all working fifteen-hour weeks? If we got rid of the pointless jobs and the pointless aspects of the real jobs, the resulting work could easily be taken care of by our working fifteen- or twenty-hour weeks. In fact, back in 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that in a hundred years the problem of scarcity would have been solved, and the major problem of the age would be to find ways to prevent ourselves from going insane with boredom. So what happened?

This is a complicated historical question that gets to the heart of how capitalism has evolved over the last century, so it isn’t to Graeber’s discredit that he doesn’t fully answer it. He first dispatches two answers conservatives give: that the world has become so complicated we need all these jobs, and they aren’t really as pointless as they seem; and that even if there are bullshit jobs, it’s only because government regulations have led to a growing number of useless bureaucrats. These answers are on the intellectual level of most conservatism, and Graeber refutes them with ease. With one piece of evidence. He points out that between 1985 and 2005 the proportion of administrators and their staff in American universities shot up even though the number of teachers per students remained largely constant. Teaching and writing certainly haven’t become so complicated they suddenly need far more administrators and staffers—so why the bullshitization of universities? It isn’t because of the big bad government either, since the number of administrators at private institutions has increased at more than twice the rate it did at public ones. So there goes the “libertarian” notion of government wastefulness. “In fact,” Graeber comments, “the only reasonable interpretation of these numbers is precisely the opposite: public universities are ultimately answerable to the public, and hence, under constant political pressure to cut costs and not engage in wasteful expenditures.”

Graeber’s own answer is that capitalism has changed its character since the days when it somewhat approximated conditions of perfect competition. When capitalism was mainly about producing things competitively, the argument that free-market enthusiasts give against the notion that corporations would ever hire unnecessary workers to do bullshit jobs made sense: maximizing profits meant paying the least number of workers the least amount possible. To hire a large number of redundant workers would be absurd. But, as Graeber argues, the logic of the economy has changed in the last forty years, with the rise of financial capitalism and the FIRE sector (including insurance and real estate). The main object now is not to produce goods competitively but to distribute large sums of money, to distribute the proceeds from enormous amounts of debt, to create money (by giving loans) and then move it around in very complex ways while extracting fees with every transaction. “The results often leave bank employees feeling that the entire enterprise is…pointless.”

So, “when a profit-seeking enterprise is in the business of distributing a very large sum of money, the most profitable thing for it to do is to be as inefficient as possible.” It can then find pretexts to take more cuts, even acting against the interests of its clients, and using its profits to hire more people and grow bigger. There seems, indeed, to be a tendency inherent in large bureaucracies, whether corporate or political, to expand, to suck up more resources as an end in itself. Graeber gives a name to the “new” dynamic that has emerged in capitalism: managerial feudalism. It’s supposed to be analogous to the creation of hierarchies of nobles and officials in medieval Europe through a process of devolution called “sub-infeudation,” in which a king would grant land to a duke, who would use the resources from that land to support a huge retinue of courtiers and vassals, many of whom would be granted their own plots of land that could support their own retinues, and so on down to local knights and lords of the manor.

“The rise of managerial feudalism has produced a similar infatuation with hierarchy for its own sake.” Managers manage other managers, each with their own staff; various levels of managers market things to one another, especially in “creative industries” like publishing, the visual arts, and film and television. It’s particularly bad in the latter industry, where there are untold numbers of producers, sub-producers, executive producers, consultants, etc., “all in constant search for something, anything, to actually do.” But even in more traditional manufacturing industries, white-collar workers are hired seemingly for the sake of having more white-collar workers. Graeber uses the example of the Elephant Tea factory outside Marseilles, France. Years ago it was bought up by Unilever, which pretty much left its old organizational structure intact. Meanwhile the workers, on their own initiative, managed to speed up production by more than 50 percent, markedly increasing profits. So what did Unilever do? Rather than hiring more workers or buying new machinery to expand operations, it hired a bunch of white-collar bureaucrats to wander around trying to think of something to do. “They’d be walking up and down the catwalks every day,” an older worker said, “staring at us, scribbling notes while we worked. Then they’d have meetings and discuss it and write reports. But they still couldn’t figure out any real excuse for their existence.” Finally they just suggested that the company shut down the whole plant and move operations to Poland—whereupon the workers took over the factory and kicked their employers out.

Even when corporate executives are presented with ways to automate tasks that white-collar employees are doing by hand, they often resist. One testimony was from a guy who was hired by a large bank to do risk management, which meant he was able to have a panoramic view of the bank’s internal processes and suggest fixes for incoherencies, vulnerabilities, and redundancies. He concluded that, conservatively, 80 percent of the bank’s 60,000 employees were unnecessary, because their jobs either could be performed by a program or were in support of “some bullshit process” to begin with. But when he presented executives with programs that would solve inefficiencies, he always faced severe hostility. Not a single one of his recommendations was ever adopted. “Because in every case,” he said, “fixing these problems would have resulted in people losing their jobs, as those jobs served no purpose other than giving the executive they reported to a sense of power.” In case after case that Graeber reports, it was clear that the higher-ups prided themselves on their bloated staffs.

The notion of managerial feudalism is evocative, and Graeber is clearly onto something with his suggestion that “there seems to be an intrinsic connection between the financialization of the economy, the blossoming of information industries, and the proliferation of bullshit jobs.” What exactly that connection is, though, is hard to tease out. The precise mechanisms are hard to tease out. His “iron law of liberalism,” formulated in Utopia of Rules, is also apropos: “any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.” Such reforms have been abundant in the neoliberal era, and they have certainly contributed to the explosion of bureaucracy, in both the private and public sectors.

But Graeber neglects to mention the more deep-rooted forces that have made bullshitization a steadily growing phenomenon since at least the time of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Ever since management began to take control of production away from workers, to centralize knowledge in its own ranks and reduce the worker to mere appendage of the machine—but an appendage that has to be closely monitored and supervised—whole layers of unnecessary bureaucracy have existed. Much of the bureaucracy has existed only to control and monitor the direct producers, to strip power from them and keep it in the hands of capitalists or their agents. In other words, its purpose has been largely political, not directly economic or “efficiency”-related.

At the same time, it became ever more necessary to control markets and the public mind, through political and advertising propaganda. Hence the rise of the public relations industry from around the time of World War I. And hence whole new layers of massive bureaucracy, which have continued to expand for a hundred years. Meanwhile, government bureaucracies expanded exponentially in order to improve society’s “legibility” to the state and administer it for the benefit of capital. Corporate capital and the state constantly strengthened their ties, effectively intertwining, collecting practically infinite amounts of data on the population for the usual purposes of surveillance, control, and profit-making; and the processing of such data inevitably was used to justify further growth of bureaucracies, even beyond what was strictly necessary. All this was happening long before the neoliberal era, though it attained new heights of wastefulness under the impact of “deregulation,” privatization, financialization, globalization, and the information economy.

It’s significant, too, that the proliferation of bullshit jobs is itself a form of population control, of keeping people subordinate in hierarchical structures, socialized into submission, atomized and alienated from one another. African-American men are kept under control by being locked up in prisons, while whites are funneled into pointless jobs where they can be supervised and indoctrinated. The system hasn’t been consciously designed for this purpose, but the reason it’s able to expand is that it serves the interests of power-structures.

So is there any way out of our bullshit society? Can it be reformed so that half the work being done is no longer pointless? Graeber doesn’t focus on this question, since his book is supposed to be about diagnosing the problem rather than proposing solutions, but he does suggest that Universal Basic Income would help. Unlike many reforms that social movements are proposing, UBI would likely reduce the size and intrusiveness of government, not increase it. If everyone automatically received, say, $25,000 or more a year, huge and intrusive sections of government could simply be shut down (even if social welfare programs continued or expanded). Millions of bureaucrats would lose their jobs, but they would also receive an annual income allowing them to pursue other projects that interested them.

“A full Basic Income would eliminate the compulsion to work, by offering a reasonable standard of living to all, and then either leaving it up to each individual to decide whether they wished to pursue further wealth, by doing a paying job or selling something, or whether they wished to do something else with their time.” Bosses might start treating their employees better, since it would be a less frightening prospect for them to quit, and conditions in crappy low-paying jobs would have to improve in order to attract workers. Many pointless jobs would cease to exist, since few people would want them. The social changes would be so radical and far-reaching it’s impossible to fully anticipate them.

Graeber doesn’t delve into the technicalities of UBI, but he’s right it’s a proposal worth seriously thinking about. It could be a step on the road to even more radical changes.

All in all, Bullshit Jobs is a good book that’s worth reading, despite its irritating prolixity and meandering structure. It usefully highlights and names a major social malady that afflicts tens of millions but that few people talk about, except in informal conversations among their fellow sufferers. We should all be talking about the meaningless-jobs crisis and proposing solutions that will end the rampant spiritual misery it has caused. UBI, if designed well, could be a huge step in the right direction. But ultimately, I don’t see any thoroughgoing cure except an end to capitalism itself, which is to say a (necessarily protracted) revolution that finally establishes the old socialist ideal of economic democracy. Democracy is the only real cure for all of humanity’s current ailments.

Socialism or Barbarism?

Being run by business, American culture suffers from an overwhelming preponderance of stupidity. When a set of institutions as reactionary as big business has a virtual monopoly over government and the media, the kinds of information, entertainment, commentary, ideologies, and educational policies on offer will not conduce to rationality or social understanding. What you’ll end up with is, for instance, an electorate 25 percent of whose members are inclined to libertarianism. And the number is even higher among young people. That is to say, huge numbers of people will be exposed to and persuaded by the propaganda of the Cato Institute, the magazine Reason, Ayn Rand’s novels, and Milton Friedman’s ideological hackery to express their rebellious and anti-authoritarian impulses by becoming “extreme advocates of total tyranny,” to quote Chomsky. They’ll believe, as he translates, that “power ought to be given into the hands of private, unaccountable tyrannies,” namely corporations. They’ll think that if you just get government out of the picture and let capitalism operate freely, unencumbered by regulations or oversight or labor unionism, all will be for the best in this best of all possible worlds. And they’ll genuinely believe they’re being subversive and anarchistic by proposing such a program.

The spectacle of millions adhering to such a breathtakingly stupid ideology would be comical if it weren’t so tragic. I’m an atheist, but Christianity strikes me as a more rational—and moral—religion than this “libertarian” (really totalitarian) one of absolute faith in universal privatization, marketization, corporatization, and commoditization. To be a so-called libertarian is to be deplorably ignorant of modern history, economics, commonsense sociology, human psychology, and morality itself. (Regarding morality: if the Golden Rule is an essential maxim, then the communist slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” which is basically a derivative of the Golden Rule, is fundamental to any humane social organization. Greed and Social Darwinism—every man for himself—are hardly morally luminous principles.) Given this reactionary philosophy’s intellectual sterility and the fact that it’s been refuted countless times, it’s tempting to simply ignore it. And most leftists do ignore it. But that’s a mistake, as the frightening figure quoted a moment ago (25 percent of the electorate) indicates. It’s necessary to challenge “free market” worship whenever and wherever it appears.

The economist Rob Larson has performed an important service, therefore, in publishing his new book Capitalism vs. Freedom: The Toll Road to Serfdom, the more so because the book’s lucidity and brevity should win for it a wide readership. In five chapters, Larson systematically demolishes the glib nostrums of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek (in the process also dispatching those other patron saints of the right wing, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard). Even the book’s title is highly effective: the message “capitalism vs. freedom” should be trumpeted from the hills, since it challenges one of the reigning dogmas of our society. Liberals and leftists themselves sometimes buy into the view that capitalism promotes freedom, arguing only that socialist equality and justice are more important than capitalist freedom. But this is a false framing of the issue. The fact is that socialism, which is to say workers’ democratic control of the economy, not only means greater equality and justice than capitalism but also greater freedom, at least for the 99 percent. It is freedom, after all, that has inspired anarchists and even Marxists, including Marx himself.

Larson begins with a brief discussion of two concepts of freedom, negative and positive (a distinction that goes back, as he notes, at least to Isaiah Berlin). Crudely speaking, negative freedom means the absence of external constraint, of a power that can force you to act in particular ways. Positive freedom is the ability or opportunity actually to realize purposes and wishes, to “control your destiny,” so to speak. It involves having the means to satisfy desires, as when you have the means to assuage hunger, be adequately clothed and sheltered, and have adequate sanitation. Positive freedom can be thought of as “freedom to,” whereas negative freedom is “freedom from.” Classical liberals like John Stuart Mill and modern conservatives like Friedman and Hayek are more concerned with negative freedom, which explains their desire for a minimal state; socialists are concerned also with positive freedom, sometimes believing that a stronger state (e.g., a social democracy) can help ensure such freedom for the majority of people.

Friedman and Hayek argued that free-market capitalism, with minimal intervention by the state, is the surest guarantee of negative liberty. Larson’s book is devoted mainly to refuting this belief, which is widely held across the political spectrum; but it also defends the less controversial claim that capitalism is incompatible with widespread positive liberty too. “Capitalism,” Larson writes, “withholds opportunities to enjoy freedom (required by the positive view of freedom) and also encourages the growth of economic power (the adversary of liberty in the negative view of freedom).” That concentrations of economic power in themselves threaten negative liberty might be challenged, but this is a weak argument, among other reasons because it’s clear that centers of (economic) power will tend to dominate and manipulate the state in their own interest. They’ll construct coercive apparatuses to subordinate others to their power, which will itself enable further accumulations of power, etc., until finally the society is ruled by an oligarchy. Thus, from “pure” capitalism you get an oligarchy with the power to coerce.

However obvious this point may seem to those possessed of common sense, it’s far from obvious to libertarians and most conservatives. According to Friedman, “the kind of economic organization that provides economic freedom directly, namely, competitive capitalism, also promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables the one to offset the other.” Here we encounter the typical naïve idealism of conservatives (and, indeed, of centrists and liberals), which I’ve discussed at length here. Rather than analyzing the real conditions of real social structures, conservatives traffic in airy abstractions about “freedom,” “the separation of political and economic power,” the lofty virtues of “competitive capitalism,” and so on. Evidently it doesn’t occur to Friedman that economic power will tend to confer political power, and therefore that, far from offsetting each other, the two will be approximately fused. The economically powerful might not directly hold political office, but because of the resources they possess, they’ll have inordinate power and influence over political leaders. This is intuitively obvious, but it’s also borne out by empirical research.

It’s worth pointing out, too, something that Larson doesn’t really focus on: within corporations, freedom, even negative freedom, is severely curtailed. In the absence of a union, the employee has hardly any rights. There’s no freedom of expression, for example, and the boss can threaten you, manipulate you however he wants, verbally abuse you, behave horrendously towards you with probably no repercussions for himself. Capitalism, in fact, is a kind of fragmented totalitarianism, as privately totalitarian corporate entities proliferate all over society and constitute its essential infrastructure, its foundation. The more oligopolistic they become, to some degree even fused with the state, the less “fragmented” and more dangerous the totalitarianism is. Eventually the “libertarian” millennium might be achieved in which all countervailing forces, such as unions, are eradicated and the population is left wholly at the mercy of corporations, reveling in its sublime freedom to be totally dominated.

Anyway, to resume the thread: Larson is right that “in portraying [the] concentration of money in society as a reasonable development”—e.g., as a reward for successfully competing against other capitalists—“the libertarian tradition completely dismisses the power of concentrated money.” Hayek, for example, claims that in a “competitive society” (a meaningless abstraction: different kinds of societies can be “competitive”) nobody possesses excessive power. “So long as property is divided among many owners, none of them acting independently has exclusive power to determine the income and position of particular people.” Okay, fine, maybe not exclusive power, but to the degree that property is divided among fewer and fewer owners, these people can achieve overwhelming power to determine the income and position of others. Such as by acquiring greater “positive freedom” to dominate the state in their interests and against the interests of others, who thus proportionately lose positive freedom and possibly (again) even negative freedom; e.g. if the wealthy can get laws passed that restrict dissidents’ right to free speech or free assembly.

More generally, it goes without saying that positive freedom is proportional to how much money you have. It apparently doesn’t bother most libertarians that if you’re poor and unable to find an employer to rent yourself to (in the gloriously “free, voluntary, and non-coercive” labor market), you won’t be able to eat or have a minimally decent life. Hopefully private charities and compassionate individuals will come forward to help you; but if not, well, it’s nothing that society as a whole should care about. Strictly speaking, there is no right to live (or to have shelter, food, health care, education, etc.); there is only a right not to be interfered with by others (except in the workplace). What a magnificent moral vision.

Libertarians admit that concentrations of wealth emerge in capitalism, but they deprecate the idea that capitalism leads to competition-defeating market concentration in such forms as oligopolies, monopolies, and monopsonies (like Wal-Mart). Usually these are created, supposedly, by government interference. But most businessmen and serious scholars disagree, pointing, for instance, to the significance of economies of scale. The famous business historian Alfred Chandler showed that many industries quickly became oligopolistic on the basis, in large part, of economies of scale. Historian Douglas Dowd observes that large-scale industrial technology has made it both necessary for firms to enlarge and possible for them to control their markets, while Australian economist Steve Keen argues that “increasing returns to scale mean that the perfectly competitive market is unstable: it will, in time break down [into oligopoly or monopoly].”

Larson might have gone further in this line of argument by emphasizing just how much capitalists hate market discipline—i.e., the “free market”—and are constantly trying to overcome it. They’re obsessed with controlling markets, whether through massive advertising campaigns, destruction or absorption of their competitors, price-fixing and other forms of collusion, or the formation of hundreds of trade associations. The historian Gabriel Kolko’s classic study The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900–1916 revealed that the hatred of market anarchy is so extreme that Progressive-Era oligopolists were actually the main force behind government regulation of industry (to benefit business, not the public), as with the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, and the Federal Trade Commission Act. Andrew Carnegie and Elbert H. Gary, head of U.S. Steel, even advocated government price-fixing! So much for the corporate propaganda about how wonderful free markets are.

If government regulation is primarily responsible for monopoly elements in industries, as Friedman and Hayek argue, then you’d think that the deregulation tsunami of the neoliberal era would have led to greater competition across the economy. Did it? Not exactly. Larson quotes a Forbes article:

Since freight railroads were deregulated in 1980, the number of large, so-called Class I railroads has shrunk from 40 to seven. In truth, there are only four that matter… These four superpowers now take in more than 90% of the industry’s revenue… An estimated one-third of shippers have access to only one railroad.

Quod erat demonstrandum. But there are many other examples. The deregulatory Telecommunications Act of 1996 was supposed to throw open the industry to competition; what it accomplished, according to the Wall Street Journal, was “a new phase in the hyper-consolidation of the cable industry… An industry that was once a hodgepodge of family-owned companies has become one of the nation’s most visible and profitable oligopolies.” These trends have occurred throughout the media, on a global scale.

The same consolidation is found in the airline industry, where deregulation “set off a flurry of mergers” (as the Journal notes), “creating a short roster of powerful giants. And consumers are, in many cases, paying the price.” In fact, it’s well known that deregulation has facilitated an enormous wave of mergers and acquisitions since the 1980s. (Similarly, the big businesses, and later the mergers, of the Gilded Age appeared in a time of little public regulation.) All this market-driven oligopolization has certainly not increased consumer freedom, or the freedom of anyone but the top fraction of one percent in wealth.

Speaking of communications and the media, another classic libertarian claim is hollow: far from encouraging a rich and competitive diversity of information and opinion, the free market tends to narrow the spectrum of opinion and information sources. When Hayek writes of totalitarian governments that “The word ‘truth’ ceases to have its old meaning. It describes no longer something to be found, with the individual conscience as the sole arbiter… it becomes laid down by authority,” referring to the “spirit of complete cynicism as regards truth…the loss of the sense of even the meaning of truth,” it is easy to think he’s describing the mass media in the heavily capitalist United States. For one thing, because of scale economies and other market dynamics, over time fewer and fewer people or groups can afford to run, say, a successful and profitable newspaper. Across the West, in the twentieth century competition eventually weeded out working-class newspapers that had fewer resources than the capitalist mass media, and the spectrum of information consumed by the public drastically narrowed. “Market forces thus accomplished more than the most repressive measures of an aristocratic state,” to quote the authors of an important study.

At the same time, the sources of information became less and less independent, due to the development of the advertising market. Advertisers “acquired a de facto licensing power because, without their support, newspapers ceased to be economically viable.” As Edward Herman says, it wasn’t the final consumer’s but the advertiser’s choices that determined media prosperity and survival, and hence the content (broadly speaking) of the news and opinion pieces. Moreover, the media increasingly consisted of giant corporations who had basically the same interests as advertisers anyway. The result corresponded less to Friedman’s slogan Free to Choose than to Edward Bernays’ slogan Free to Imagine That We Choose (because what we’re choosing from is a narrow range of corporate and government propaganda).

Capitalism vs. Freedom also has a chapter on “political freedom,” and another on the “freedom of future generations”—which is nonexistent in a strictly capitalist society because future generations have no money and therefore no power. They have to deal with whatever market externalities result from their ancestors’ monomaniacal pursuit of profit. Including the possible destruction of civilization from global warming, a rather large externality. Even in the present, the IMF has estimated that the “external” costs of using fossil fuels, counting public health effects and environmental ramifications, are already $5 trillion a year. Again, this should suggest to anyone with a few neurons still functioning that markets aren’t particularly “efficient.” Especially considering the existence of major public goods that are undersupplied by the market, such as roads, bridges, sanitation systems, public parks, libraries, scientific research, public education, and social welfare programs. What do Friedman and Hayek think of these things? Well, Hayek was writing for a Western European audience, so he had to at least pretend to be reasonable. “[T]he preservation of competition [is not] incompatible with an extensive system of social services,” he wrote, which leaves “a wide and unquestioned field for state activity.” Okay. But that’s a significant concession. Apparently his “libertarianism” wasn’t very consistent.

For Friedman, public goods should be paid for by those who use them and not by a wealthy minority that is being taxed against its wishes. “There is all the difference in the world,” he insists, “between two kinds of assistance through government that seem superficially similar: first, 90 percent of us agreeing to impose taxes on ourselves in order to help the bottom 10 percent, and second, 80 percent voting to impose taxes on the top 10 percent to help the bottom 10 percent.” Thus, the wealthy and powerful shouldn’t have to pay taxes to maintain services from which they don’t directly benefit. We shouldn’t subtract any of the positive freedom from people who have an enormous amount of it (i.e., of power, the concentration of which libertarians are supposed to oppose) in order to give more positive freedom to people who have very little of it. That would be unforgivably compassionate.

Most of Larson’s chapter on political freedom consists of salutary reminders of how politics actually works in the capitalist United States. Drawing on Thomas Ferguson’s investment theory of party competition, Larson describes the political machinations of big business, the concerted and frequently successful efforts to erode the positive and negative freedoms of the populace, the permanent class war footing, the fanatical union-busting, the absurdly cruel austerity programs of the IMF (which, again, serve but to crush popular freedom and power), and the horrifying legacy of European and U.S. imperialism around the world. Readers who want to learn more about the dark side of humanity can consult William Blum’s Killing Hope, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (which also describes Hayek and Friedman’s love-affairs with neo-Nazi Latin American generals), Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization, and most of Noam Chomsky’s books. In light of all these practices and policies that have emerged, directly or indirectly, out of the dynamics of the West’s market economy, to argue that capitalism promotes human freedom is to be a hopeless intellectual fraud and amoral minion of power.

(If that judgment sounds harsh, consider this gem from Hayek, directed against measures to ensure worker security: “It is essential that we should relearn frankly to face the fact that freedom can be had only at a price and that as individuals we must be prepared to make severe material sacrifices to preserve our liberty.” More exactly, working-class individuals have to make severe sacrifices to preserve the liberty of the capitalist class.)

In fact, to the extent that we have freedom and democracy at all, it has been achieved mainly through decades and centuries of popular struggle against capitalism, and against vicious modes of production and politics (including slavery and Latin American semi-feudalism) that have been essential to the functioning of the capitalist world-economy. Göran Therborn’s classic article “The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy” gives details, as does Howard Zinn’s famous People’s History of the United States.

Larson, unlike the charlatans whose work he reviews, actually does believe that “concentrated power is opposed to human freedom,” so he dedicates his final chapter to briefly expositing a genuinely libertarian vision, that of socialism. Here I need only refer to the work of such writers as Anton Pannekoek, Rudolf Rocker, Peter Kropotkin, Errico Malatesta, Murray Bookchin, and others in the anarchist and/or left-Marxist tradition. There’s a lot of talk of socialism these days, but few commentators (except on the left) know what they’re talking about. For instance, like Hayek and Friedman, they tend to equate socialism with state control, authoritarianism, the Soviet Union, and other boogeymen. This ignores the fact that anarchism, which reviles the state, is committed to socialism. So virtually all mainstream commentary on socialism is garbage and immediately refuted from that one consideration alone. The basic point that conservatives, centrists, and liberals refuse to mention, because it sounds too appealing, is that socialism means nothing else but worker and community control. Economic, political, and social democracy. It is, in essence, a set of moral principles that can theoretically be fleshed out in a variety of ways, for instance some preserving a place for the market and others based only on democratic planning (at the level of the neighborhood, the community, the firm, the city, the nation, etc.). The core of socialism is freedom—the absence of concentrated power—not absolute equality.

Whether a truly socialist, libertarian society will ever exist is an open question, but certain societies have approached the ideal more closely than others. The Soviet Union was, and the U.S. is, very far from socialism, while Scandinavian countries are a little closer (since the population generally has more freedom and power there than in the U.S. and the Soviet Union). The Bolivian Constitution of 2009 is vastly closer to socialism, which is to say morality and the ideal of human dignity, than the reactionary U.S. Constitution. On a smaller scale, worker cooperatives—see this book—tend to embody a microcosmic socialism.

Larson ends his book on the note sounded by Rosa Luxemburg a century ago: socialism or barbarism. Margaret Thatcher’s infamous declaration “There is no alternative” can now be given a more enlightened meaning: there is no alternative to socialism, except the destruction of civilization and maybe the human species. Morality and pragmatic necessity, the necessities of survival, now coincide. Concentrated corporate power must be dismantled and democracy substituted for it—which is a global project that will take generations but is likely to develop momentum as society experiences ever-greater crises.

In the end, perhaps Friedman, Hayek, and their ilk will be seen to have contributed to the realization of a truly libertarian program after all, albeit indirectly. For by aiding in the growth of an increasingly authoritarian system, they may have hastened the birth of a democratic opposition that will finally tear up the foundations of tyranny and lay the groundwork for an emancipated world. Or at least a world in which Friedmans and Hayeks can’t become intellectual celebrities. For now, I’d settle for that.

The History of the Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill

At a time when the American population is radicalizing, when popular movements are coalescing around “radical” demands—Medicare for All, the abolition of ICE, tuition-free college, in general the demand to make society livable for everyone—it can be useful to draw collective inspiration from the past. Irruptions of the popular will have on innumerable occasions reshaped history, remade the terrain of class struggle such that the ruling class was, at least for a moment, thrown on the defensive and forced to retreat. Especially when pundits and politicians are insisting on the virtues of centrism and the essential conservatism of Americans, it is important to remember just how false these shibboleths are, particularly in a time of economic stagnation and acute social discontent.

One of the most remarkable demonstrations of the deep-seated radicalism of “ordinary people” has been all but forgotten, even by historians: namely, the Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill (or Workers’ Bill) that was introduced in Congress in 1934, 1935, and 1936. Despite essentially no press coverage and extreme hostility from the business community and the Roosevelt administration, a mass movement developed behind this bill that had been written by the Communist Party. The tremendous popular pressure that was brought to bear on Congress secured a stunning victory in the spring of 1935, when the bill became the first unemployment insurance plan in U.S. history to be recommended by a congressional committee (the House Labor Committee). It was defeated in the House—by a vote of 204 to 52—but the widespread support for the bill was likely a factor in the easy passage later in 1935 of the relatively conservative Social Security Act, which laid the foundation for the American welfare state.

Aside from its direct legislative importance, the Workers’ Bill is of interest in that it shows just how left-wing vast swathes of the population were in the 1930s and can become when a political force emerges to articulate their grievances. This bill, which was far more radical than provisions in the Soviet Union for social insurance, was endorsed by over 3,500 local unions (and the regular conventions of several International unions and state bodies of the American Federation of Labor), practically every unemployed organization in the country, fraternal lodges, governmental bodies in over seventy cities and counties, and groups representing veterans, farmers, African-Americans, women, the youth, and churches. In the West, the South, the Midwest, and the East, millions of citizens signed petitions and postcards in support of it. And this was all despite the active hostility of every sector of society that had substantial resources.

It is puzzling, then, that historians have almost entirely overlooked the Workers’ Bill. For instance, in his book Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression, Alan Brinkley doesn’t devote a single sentence to it. Neither does Robert McElvaine in his standard history, The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. David Kennedy devotes half a sentence to it in volume one of his Oxford history of the Depression and World War II, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War. Instead, the less sophisticated and less radical Townsend Plan for old-age insurance, which was proposed around the same time and was widely publicized in the press, tends to monopolize historians’ attention (only to be ridiculed). The neglect of the Workers’ Bill lends credence to a still-dominant interpretation of the American citizenry during the Depression and throughout its history, viz. as being relatively centrist and conservative, especially as compared with the historically more “socialist” populations of Western Europe.

Brinkley sums up this strain of thinking derived from the postwar Liberal Consensus school of historiography, which still influences pundits, politicians, and academics:

The failure of more radical political movements to take root in the 1930s reflected, in part, the absence of a serious radical tradition in American political culture. The rhetoric of class conflict echoed only weakly among men and women steeped in the dominant themes of their nation’s history; and leaders relying upon that rhetoric faced grave, perhaps insuperable difficulties in attempting to create political coalitions…

This is a simplistic interpretation. For one thing, there is a serious radical tradition in American political culture, as embodied, for example, in the Populist movement of the 1890s and the Socialist Party and IWW of the early twentieth century. But even insofar as a case can be made that “the rhetoric of class conflict echoe[s]…weakly,” it’s plausible to understand this fact as simply a reflection of the violent and ruthless repression of class-based movements and parties in American history. When they have a chance to get their message out, they attract substantial support—precisely to the extent that they can get their message out. There is no need to invoke deep cultural traditions of individualism or a lack of popular understanding of class (which is a simple notion, after all: those who own and those who don’t are in conflict). One need only appeal to the skewed distribution of resources, which prevents leftists from being heard. When Earl Browder, head of the U.S. Communist Party, was given a chance by CBS to broadcast his message over the radio one night in 1936, his listeners around the country considered it “good common sense” and wanted to learn more about Communism. Maybe this is why Communists were almost never allowed on the radio.

In this article I’ll tell the story of the Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill, both to fill a gap in our historical knowledge and because it resonates in our own time of troubles and struggles.


As soon as the Communist Party had unveiled its proposed Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill in the summer of 1930, as the Depression was just beginning, it garnered extensive support among large numbers of the unemployed. The reason isn’t hard to fathom: it envisioned an incredibly generous system of insurance. In the form it would eventually assume, it provided for unemployment insurance for workers and farmers (regardless of age, sex, or race) that was to be equal to average local wages but no less than $10 per week plus $3 for each dependent; people compelled to work part-time (because of inability to find full-time jobs) were to receive the difference between their earnings and the average local full-time wages; commissions directly elected by members of workers’ and farmers’ organizations were to administer the system; social insurance would be given to the sick and elderly, and maternity benefits would be paid eight weeks before and eight weeks after birth; and the system would be financed by unappropriated funds in the Treasury and by taxes on inheritances, gifts, and individual and corporate incomes above $5,000 a year. Later iterations of the bill went into greater detail on how the system would be financed and managed.

Had the Workers’ Bill ever been enacted, it would have revolutionized the American political economy. It was a much more authentically socialist plan than existed in the Soviet Union at the time, where only 35 percent of the customary wage was paid to those not working, and that for a limited time (unlike with the Workers’ Bill). Nor was the Soviet insurance system administered democratically by workers’ representatives.

By 1934, when the plan had become widely enough known to be critically examined by economists and other intellectuals, it was frequently criticized for incentivizing malingering. Defenders of the bill—and by then it was advocated by many left-wing economists, teachers, social workers, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals—replied that this supposed flaw was, in fact, a strength. By withdrawing workers from the labor market, it would force wage rates to rise until they at least equaled unemployment benefits. “The benefits to the unemployed,” economist Paul Douglas noted, “could thus be used as a lever to compel industry to pay a living wage to those who were employed.” It was the abolition of poverty and economic insecurity that was envisioned—by a frontal attack on such fundamentals of capitalism as the private appropriation of wealth, determination of wages by the market, and maintenance of an insecure army of the unemployed.

The Unemployed Councils were at the forefront of agitation for the proposed bill, but it was also publicized through other auxiliary organizations of the Communist Party, in addition to activists in unions. As mass demonstrations for unemployment relief became more frequent—daily “hunger marches” in cities across the country, occupations of state legislative chambers, marches on city halls, “eviction riots”—the demand for unemployment insurance echoed louder and farther every month. From Alaska to Texas, requests for petitions flooded into the New York office of the National Campaign Committee for Unemployment Insurance. United front conferences of Socialist and Communist workers’ organizations took place from New York City to Gary, Indiana and beyond. In February, 1931 delegates presented the Workers’ Bill and its hundreds of thousands of signatures to Congress, which simply ignored them.

So activists continued drumming up support for the next few years. Hunger marchers in many states demanded that legislatures pass versions of the bill; two national hunger marches the Communist Party organized in December 1931 and 1932 gave the bill further publicity; delegates periodically presented more petitions to Congress, and campaigns were organized to mail postcards to legislators. Despite the fervent hostility and smear campaigns of the national AFL leadership, several thousand local unions eventually endorsed the bill, especially after it had been sponsored, in 1934, by Representative Ernest Lundeen of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party. Its newfound national prominence in that year gave the movement greater momentum, and a new organization was founded to lend the bill intellectual respectability: the Inter-Professional Association for Social Insurance (IPA). Within a year the IPA had dozens of chapters and organizing committees around the country, as distinguished academics like Mary Van Kleeck of the Russell Sage Foundation proselytized for the bill in the press and before Congress.

Meanwhile, conferences of unemployed groups grew ever larger and more ambitious. For instance, in Chicago in September 1934, hundreds of delegates from such groups as the National Unemployed Leagues, the Illinois Workers Alliance, the Eastern Federation of Unemployed and Emergency Workers Union, and the Wisconsin Federation of Unemployed Leagues—in the aggregate claiming a membership of 750,000—endorsed the Lundeen Bill (as it was now called) and made increasingly elaborate plans to pressure Congress for its passage.

Congress took essentially no action on the bill in 1934, so Lundeen reintroduced it in January 1935. This would become the year of the “Second New Deal,” when the Roosevelt administration turned left in response to massive discontent and disillusionment with its policies. Senator Huey Long had become a hero to millions by denouncing the wealthy and proposing his Share Our Wealth program, an implicit criticism of the New Deal’s conservatism. The “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin had acquired heroic stature among yet more millions by constantly “talking about a living wage, about profits for the farmer, about government-protected labor unions,” as one journalist put it. “He insists that human rights be placed above property rights. He emphasizes the ‘wickedness’ of ‘private financialism and production for profit.’” His immensely popular organization — the National Union for Social Justice — was no mere politically anodyne instrument of his own ego. It enshrined such principles as nationalization of “public necessities” like banking, power, light, and natural gas; control of all private property for the public good; a “just and living annual wage which will enable [every citizen willing and able to work] to maintain and educate his family according to the standards of American decency”; abolition of the privately owned Federal Reserve and establishment of a government-owned central bank; and in general the principle that “the chief concern of government shall be for the poor.”

The tens of millions of people who flocked to the banners of Huey Long and Father Coughlin—not to mention the Communist Workers’ Bill (or Lundeen Bill)—put the lie to any interpretation of the American people as being irremediably conservative/centrist or wedded to capitalism. During the Great Depression, arguably a majority wanted the U.S. to become, in effect, a radical social democracy, or a socialist democracy.

The hearings in 1935 that were held before the Labor subcommittee on the Lundeen Bill are a remarkable historical document, “probably the most unique document ever to appear in the Congressional record,” at least according to the executive secretary of the IPA. Eighty witnesses testified: industrial workers, farmers, veterans, professional workers, African-Americans, women, the foreign-born, and youth. “Probably never in American history,” an editor of the Nation wrote, “have the underprivileged had a better opportunity to present their case before Congress.” The aggregate of the testimonies amounted to a systematic indictment of American capitalism and the New Deal, and an impassioned defense of the radical alternative under consideration.

From the representative of the American Youth Congress, which encompassed over two million people, to the representative of the United Council of Working-Class Women, which had 10,000 members, each testimony fleshed out the eminently class-conscious point of view of the people back home who had “gather[ed] up nickels and pennies which they [could] poorly spare” in order to send someone to plead their case before Congress. At the same time, the Social Security Act—known then as the Wagner-Lewis Bill, since it hadn’t been passed yet—was criticized as a cruel sham, as “a proposal to set up little privileged groups in the sea of misery who would be content to sit on their small islands and watch the others drown” (to quote a professor at Smith College). What most Americans wanted, witnesses insisted, was the more universal plan embodied in the Lundeen Bill.

Interestingly, most congressmen on the subcommittee were sympathetic to this point of view. For instance, at one point the chairman, Matthew Dunn, interrupted a witness who was observing that all the members of Congress he had talked to had received far fewer cards and letters in support of the famous Townsend Plan—which the press was continually publicizing—than in support of the more radical Lundeen Bill. “I want to substantiate the statement you just made about the Townsend bill and about this bill,” Dunn said. “May I say that I do not believe I have received over a half dozen letters to support the Townsend bill… [But] I have received many letters and cards from all over the country asking me to give my utmost support in behalf of the Lundeen bill, H.R. 2827.”

Most of the letters congressmen received were probably in the vein of this one that was sent to Lundeen in the spring of 1935, when Congress was considering the three competing bills that have already been mentioned (the Wagner-Lewis, the Townsend, and the Lundeen):

The reason I am writing you is, that we Farmers [and] Industrial workers feel that you are the only Congressman and Representative that is working for our interest. We have analyzed the Wagner-Lewis Bill [and] also [the] Townsend Bill. But the Lundeen H.R. (2827) is the only bill that means anything for our class… The people all over the country are [waking] up to the facts that the two old Political Parties are owned soul, mind [and] body by the Capitalist Class.

Even more revealingly, that spring the New York Post conducted a poll of its readers after printing the contents of the three bills. Out of 1,391 votes cast, 1,209 readers supported the Lundeen, 157 the Townsend, 14 the Wagner-Lewis, and 7 none of them. This was no scientific poll, but its results are at least suggestive.

As stated above, while the House Labor Committee recommended the Lundeen Bill, it was—inevitably—defeated in the House. Being opposed by all the dominant interests in the country, it never had a chance of passage. But as far as its advocates were concerned, the fight was not over. Throughout the spring and summer of 1935 the flood of endorsements did not let up. The first national convention of rank-and-file social workers endorsed it in February; the Progressive Miners of America followed, along with scores of local unions and such ethnic societies as the Italian-American Democratic Organization of New York (with 235,000 members) and the Slovak-American Political Federation of Youngstown, Ohio. Virtually identical state versions of H.R. 2827 were, or already had been, introduced in the legislatures of California, Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and other states. Conferences of unions and fraternal organizations were called in a number of states to plan further campaigns for the Workers’ Bill.

In January 1936, Representative Lundeen introduced the bill yet again, this time joined by Republican Senator Lynn Frazier of North Dakota. The hearings before the Senate Labor Committee in April resembled the hearings on H.R. 2827, with academics, social workers, unionists, and farmers testifying as to the inadequacy of the recently passed Social Security Act and the necessity of the Frazier-Lundeen Bill. A representative of the National Committee on Rural Social Planning spoke for millions of agricultural workers, sharecroppers, tenants, and small owners when he opined that this bill was “the only one which is likely to check the fascist terror now riding the fields” in the South (directed largely against the Southern Tenant Farmers Union).

The fascist terror continued unchecked, however, for the bill did not even make it out of committee. After its dismal fate in 1936, it was never introduced again.

Despite its failure, the Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill was a significant episode in the 1930s that certainly hasn’t deserved to be written out of history. Both substantively and in its popularity, a case can be made that it was more significant than the Social Security Act and the Townsend Plan, its two main competitors.


Above I referred to a radio broadcast that Earl Browder gave in March 1936. This unusual but telling incident may serve as a coda to the story of the Workers’ Bill, reinforcing the lesson that most Americans were and are, beneath the surface layers of indoctrination, quite left-wing in their values and beliefs. It’s only a question of reaching them, of being heard by them, and of acquiring the resources to organize them.

In order to advertise its liberal position on freedom of speech, CBS invited Browder to speak for fifteen minutes (at 10:45 p.m.) on a national radio broadcast, with the understanding that he would be answered the following night by zealous anti-Communist Congressman Hamilton Fish. Browder seized the opportunity for a national spotlight and appealed to “the majority of the toiling people” to establish a national Farmer-Labor Party that would be affiliated with the Communist Party, though it “would not yet take up the full program of socialism, for which many are not yet prepared.” He even declared that Communists’ ultimate aim was to remake the U.S. “along the lines of the highly successful Soviet Union”: once they had the support of a majority of Americans, he said, “we will put that program into effect with the same firmness, the same determination, with which Washington and the founding fathers carried through the revolution that established our country, with the same thoroughness with which Lincoln abolished chattel slavery.”

According to both CBS and the Daily Worker, reactions to Browder’s talk were almost uniformly positive. CBS immediately received several hundred responses praising the speech, and the Daily Worker, whose New York address Browder had mentioned on the air, received thousands of letters. The following are representative:

Chattanooga, Tennessee: “If you could have listened to the people I know who listened to you, you would have learned that your speech did much to make them realize the importance of forming a Farmer-Labor Party. I am sure that the 15 minutes into which you put so much that is vitally important to the American people was time used to great advantage. Many people are thanking you, I know.”

Evanston, Illinois: “Just listened to your speech tonight and I think it was the truest talk I ever heard on the radio. Mr. Browder, would it not be a good thing if you would have an opportunity to talk to the people of the U.S.A. at least once a week, for 30 to 60 minutes? Let’s hear from you some more, Mr. Browder.”

Bricelyn, Minnesota: “Your speech came in fine and it was music to the ears of another unemployed for four years. Please send me full and complete data on your movement and send a few extra copies if you will, as I have some very interested friends—plenty of them eager to join up, as is yours truly.”

Sparkes, Nebraska: “Would you send me 50 copies of your speech over the radio last night? I would like to give them to some of my neighbors who are all farmers.”

Arena, New York: “Although I am a young Republican (but good American citizen) I enjoyed listening to your radio speech last evening. I believe you told the truth in a convincing manner and I failed to see where you said anything dangerous to the welfare of the American people.”

Julesburg, Colorado: “Heard your talk… It was great. Would like a copy of same, also other dope on your party. It is due time we take a hand in things or there will be no United States left in a few more years. Will be looking forward for this dope and also your address.”

In general, the main themes of the letters were questions like, “Where can I learn more about the Communist Party?”, “How can I join your Party?”, and “Where is your nearest headquarters?” Some people sent money in the hope that it would facilitate more broadcasts. The editors of the Daily Worker plaintively asked their readers, “Isn’t it time we overhauled our old horse-and-buggy methods of recruiting? While we are recruiting by ones and twos, aren’t we overlooking hundreds?” Again, one can only imagine how many millions of people in far-flung regions would have been quickly radicalized had Browder or other Communist leaders been permitted the national radio audience that Huey Long and Father Coughlin were.

But such is the history of workers and marginalized groups in the U.S.: elite efforts to suppress the political agenda and the voices of the downtrodden have all too often succeeded, thereby wiping out the memory of popular struggles. If we can resurrect such stories as that of the Workers’ Bill, they may prove of use in our own age of crisis, as new struggles against oppression are born.

Thoughts on Overcoming Despair

As a leftist, I’m used to despair. How many hours have I, like so many others with an ounce of humanity in them, sat alone in my room miserably reading about global warming, horror-struck at the scorching hellscape we’re leaving our descendants? How many times have I sat frozen in rage and disgust as I thought of the impunity of the “masters of war” sheltered behind piles of money, protected from the just comeuppance due them for their genocidal war-games—for it’s all a bureaucratic game for them, a very serious game involving clever political maneuvers geared to the sole objective of conquering even greater power and wealth. On the one hand are the Henry Kissingers (who of course live forever) and Barack Obamas making the cocktail-party rounds, being fêted by a fetid power-worshiping culture of amoral sycophants and groupthinking herd-people, the social climbers never disturbed by a twinge of conscience despite the most unspeakable of crimes. On the other hand are their victims: the thousands of young people, mercenary instruments of the powerful, drawing their last agonized breath in muddy blood-puddles on the battlefield; the children clinging to their mother’s mutilated corpse, looking around the street for her arms blown off her body when the bomb exploded; the father who comes home to find that his house and his family no longer exist. How can one not grieve—forever—from all this, and from the absurdity and meaninglessness of such a tragic, farcical world?

It’s so easy to see no hope whatsoever. Or to recoil misanthropically into one’s cocoon away from the stupidity and evil of late capitalism. It would seem that almost everywhere, the signs portend doom. There is no need to interpret them all, yet again. Others have done so with great eloquence, and one has but to read the daily news or contemplate mass obsessions with pop celebrities and the latest video games to come in danger of losing all vestiges of faith in humanity.

But then, after I turn away from the overwhelming bleakness, a contrary impulse enters my mind and I remember my Goethe and Nietzsche: life-affirmation, despite everything, is a more profound truth than pessimism and despair. The latter are exactly what the bureaucrats-in-chief, the rulers of the world, want you to feel, so that you’ll do nothing and let them go on getting richer. Few states of mind are less revolutionary than the collapse of the will, than apathy or absolute hopelessness. It’s more challenging, more productive, and, in a sense, more beautiful—even more moral—to affirm and not only to negate.

So I find it important to take breaks from the dreary reading and remind myself of simple joys and hope. It’s essential to periodically rejuvenate the will, an imperative I personally can fulfill only by purging my mind of everything remotely bureaucratic, institutional, and authoritarian. For instance, it’s very difficult for me to listen to, say, a festive Irish fiddle while thinking of peasants dancing outside in the spring air, shouting, cheering, and clapping, without at the same time feeling deep gratitude for being alive. Just imagining the scene, this bucolic antithesis of bureaucracy and authority, is enough to melt away the contempt and despair. Or I might listen to Beethoven, the greatest of all life-affirmers, whether in one of his exuberant moods or in a ravishingly lyrical one. Or Schubert, or Mozart. Good classical music is perhaps the most left-wing of all music, in its ennobling sublimity, its emotional accessibility, its democratic appeal to everyone from the age of 1 to 101, its rationalistic spirit, its humanism, its being the very opposite of everything commodified, artificial, machine-like, and money-produced. Nothing is less stained than Mozart.

This is the spirit that ought to, and tends to, animate the left, this freedom-loving anarchistic spirit of sheer creative individuality. Which of course goes along with the creative and democratic collective, since in a truly human society “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” We should leave everything that vitiates hope and vitality to the right-wing, since the right-wing is defined, in effect, by its commitment to the anti-human: hierarchy, capital accumulation, profits over people, privatization and atomization, ecological destruction, hatred of the Other, bigoted nationalism, imperialistic savagery, etc. Apathy and hopelessness are appropriate right-wing emotions; bureaucracy and institutional thinking are right-wing phenomena (notwithstanding the usual reactionary attacks on “government bureaucracy”). Joy and empathy are inherently left-wing, because deeply human, connecting, and empowering.

In the task of purging oneself of right-wing traits and maintaining a positive outlook, it’s essential also to cultivate open-mindedness. One would expect those on the right to be closed-minded, not only because of the closed-off nature of the “authoritarian personality” but also because the essence of reactionary ideologies is commitment (explicit or implicit) to hierarchy and authority. The left-wing valorization of reason, dialogue, democracy, and empathy, however, should entail willingness to consider opposed perspectives on their merits rather than reflexively attacking them. It’s unfortunate and ironic, then, that there’s so much closed-mindedness on the left, so much sectarianism. Whether among Marxists, anarchists, Leninists, feminists, left-liberals, or any of the countless other schools and sub-schools of thought, the hostility to potentially challenging ideas is deplorably common. That Marx and Engels themselves were highly sectarian is no argument in favor of it. One has but to reflect on how much damage sectarianism inflicted on the New Left in the 1960s, not to mention the Old Left in the first half of the twentieth century, to realize that it’s a pretty stupid way to behave. With greater openness to, and willingness to ally with, other non-reactionary perspectives comes greater political efficacy, a broader sense of solidarity and consequently “empowerment,” a less narrow, crabbed, bitter, misanthropic individual character, and a more expansive and generous view of humanity and life itself. This is quite apart from the principled nature of such a stance, the fact that it is itself a realization of leftist morality.

Another way to overcome jaundice and despair is to appreciate the degree to which left-wing ideals are already manifest in ordinary life. For human nature has a solid anarchistic and communistic component. (See Kropotkin’s classic Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.) As David Graeber has argued, if communism means “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” then it is the foundation of human sociability—“the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace.” The only reason society is able to function at all is that it’s held together by a dense anti-capitalist fabric of sharing, helping, and cooperating, i.e., giving to others in need what you’re able to give them, even simply advice, sympathy, assistance at some task, or a bit of money. In effect, to be a leftist means to want to elevate this “baseline communism” to a more determining principle of social organization, not only for its own sake but also because that would further the goals of popular freedom and power. Rousseau may have been wrong that human beings are naturally “good” (though neither are they naturally bad; they’re both), but at least we can appreciate and be grateful for the spontaneous communism and sympathetic happiness that continually well up from humans’ psychic depths.

All these considerations and pleasures help me avoid a relentlessly dreary attitude, but in the age of Trump a new factor has come into play: genuine hope that a popular backlash against neoliberalism is developing. Finally! After forty years, it’s about time. And since neoliberalism is just capitalism on steroids, capitalism itself is becoming a target for increasing numbers of people—to the horror of “moderate Democrats.” The once-vital center is disintegrating, as a semi-fascist right and a semi-socialist left rise from its ashes. Such a historical moment certainly presents dangers, but it also presents opportunities not available during quiescent or “centrist” periods. In fact, history teaches us that progress can happen most rapidly in moments of crisis, when people are open to radicalization. The Great Depression in the U.S. is an obvious example, for it bred popular movements that birthed both the welfare state and mass industrial unionism. The inevitable next economic crash will have a similarly galvanizing effect on social movements, strengthening and radicalizing the “Resistance” that is currently in its infancy.

We are, indeed, embarking on an era second to none in historic importance. As I’ve argued in Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, it is only in the twenty-first century that a post-capitalist “revolution”—in whatever protracted, global form it will take—has finally been placed on the historical agenda. Marx, not foreseeing state capitalism and the welfare state, got the timeline wrong. But the basic idea of a final colossal confrontation between capital and the majority of humanity was accurate. Only, this ‘final’ confrontation will last generations. And it is beginning now, not a hundred years ago. With the stakes so large, this epoch really amounts to the climax of human history.

We can’t know how the struggles will play out; we can only wage them, and analyze the historical tendencies that bear fruit in them. In the meantime, we have to ward off hopelessness—by remembering that bleak times are nothing new, that progress has been made even in darker times than the present, that life is full of joys and pleasures we too easily take for granted, that it’s necessary to unite with all comrades on the left even when we disagree on particulars, and that even non-leftists or not-yet-leftists can be appealed to on the basis of their communal urges and sympathies. It’s a tremendous responsibility we bear—we’re responsible for the fate of the species, and of life itself—but it’s a tremendously exciting era we’re entering.

Glimmers of Hope: The Death of the Old and Arrival of the Young

If there is a silver lining in Donald Trump’s sadistic presidency, we saw it on vivid display on June 26. The victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ben Jealous against establishment candidates confirm what many have been saying since last year, that Trump is one of the greatest recruiting tools the left has ever had. He is, as it were, a personification and distillation of all the evils of neoliberal capitalism, all the decadence, the corruption, the awe-inspiring greed and misanthropy, the savage disregard for humanity and all things living in the cause of a debased and orgiastic self-glorification whose telos is the self-immolation of civilization itself. Combined with the success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the barbarity of the Trump administration is inspiring a new generation of leftists.

Let’s just take a moment to revel in and reflect on the victories of June 26. In themselves they might not seem like much, at least in light of the enormity of the crises we’re facing, but it’s clear, at any rate, that Nancy Pelosi is wrong: it isn’t just one or a few districts we’re talking about, it’s a nationwide groundswell of activism against the kind of politics she symbolizes; namely, obedient service to the corporate sector. She and her elderly colleagues at the summit of the centrist power-hierarchy are on their way out, both politically and even existentially.

The ‘age’ factor is of interest and importance. On one side there are the old representatives of business, corrupted from decades at the center of power: Pelosi, 78; Steny Hoyer, 79; Jim Clyburn, 77; Maxine Waters, 79; Diane Feinstein, 85; Chuck Schumer, an impressively young 67; Patrick Leahy, 78; Dick Durbin, 73; Bill Nelson, 75; Richard Blumenthal, 72. You get the point. The 115th Congress is among the oldest in history, with an average age in the House of 58 years and an average age in the Senate of 62. (The Republican House leadership is over two decades younger than the Democratic House leadership. Fascism is a youthful, virile creed.) Given the senescence of the Democrats, the stillborn quality of their leadership is hardly a surprise.

On the other side, with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders, is relative youth. Ocasio-Cortez is 28; Jealous is 45; Kshama Sawant in Seattle is 44; Keith Ellison is 54; Dana Balter, who defeated the DCCC-supported Juanita Perez Williams in a race in New York, is 42; Chokwe Antar Lumumba, left-wing mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, is 35; and in general, a tidal wave of millennials is poised to engulf local and state politics. National organizations have sprung up to help young progressives run and win, and groups like Indivisible and the Democratic Socialists of America are proving effective in their advocacy of candidates. Young women are running in record numbers.

However fatuous it sounds, I can’t help remarking that leaders of past revolutions have tended to be quite young. Robespierre, Danton, Mirabeau, Desmoulins, Saint-Just, Brissot, and their colleagues were between their twenties and (in one case) early forties; so were Jefferson, Madison, the two Adamses, Hancock, Hamilton, and most of the other “Founding Fathers” during the American Revolution. Trotsky and most Bolsheviks were not yet 40 in 1917. Such has always been the pattern, from Thomas Müntzer in the German Peasants’ War to Castro and Che Guevara in the Cuban Revolution. America, of course, is nowhere near a revolution—in fact, some such seizure of power is likely hopeless in conditions of advanced capitalism—but with the mass entrance onto the political stage of a younger generation not jaded from a lifetime of disappointment or brainwashed from old propaganda about socialism or the virtues of centrism, U.S. politics may be at the beginning of a long march to the left. Or at least away from the center, to both the semi-fascist right and, on a broader scale among the sane majority, the left.

The Democratic Party’s leadership for the last generation has served its heinous historic function of overseeing, in partnership with Republicans, the shredding of the postwar social contract, the decimation of organized labor, the global triumph of the capitalist mode of production, and the inauguration of a new Gilded Age. That was the service rendered by the likes of the Clintons, Obama, Biden, Pelosi, Schumer, Harry Reid, Tom Daschle, the whole rotten lot of them. It was an almost wholly negative service, except in that—as Marx might see it—the class struggle has been brought to a screaming pitch of intensity and the door to radical change has once again been opened. At the nadir of the neoliberal era, with a buffoonish man-child capitalist-poster-boy at the helm of the ship of state, popular movements are beginning—one hopes—to point the way to a new political economy. Leaders can, it seems, be elected even without funding from the corporate sector, which makes them beholden only to their popular constituency. The worse things get under Trump and afterwards, the more people will be radicalized, and the better things may get in the long run.

Again, it’s worth pausing at this moment of the changing of the guard—a moment that will, of course, last years, as we wait for the old guard to die off or lose elections—to consider just how abject the leadership of the Democratic Party is. Insofar as it was ever even nominally committed to helping the poor, the working class, and minorities, it has failed abysmally. It gave us Bush and it gave us Trump, and it gave us the Bush-lite and the Trump-lite administrations of Bill Clinton and Obama. Obama wanted to be a transformative figure, and in a sense he succeeded: he transformed millions of hopeful idealists into disillusioned cynics.

But in substance the Democrats were never committed to anything like genuine populism, so their “failures” are in reality a reflection of their priorities. By their fruits ye shall know them. (It’s also true, though, that there is a remarkable amount of incompetence at the top of the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for instance, was stunningly incompetent.)

Whether the Party can, even on local or state levels, be transformed from an agent of reaction to one of democracy remains to be seen. The strategy of “boring from within” has, historically, yielded disappointment after disappointment, from the Populists of the 1890s to countless attempts by organized labor to push the Party left. On the other hand, one cannot simply extrapolate the future from the past. History is not a science; with changed circumstances can come changed outcomes. In all likelihood, left-wing leaders will emerge in the context both of third parties and of the Democratic Party, which in the long run will itself become more leftist—while at the same time full of internal conflict (much as the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn has been—and the Republican Party, for that matter).

But for now, I think we’re entitled to some savoring of Joe Crowley’s defeat and some cautious optimism about the future. God knows we could use a bit of hope, after decades of defeat.

Money, Power, and Class in US Politics

Consumers of left-wing media are well aware that America is an oligarchy, not a democracy. Everyone with a functioning cerebrum, in fact, should be aware of it by now: even mainstream political scientists recognize it, as shown by a famous 2014 study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page. Nevertheless, it is important to continue to publicize the oligarchical character of the United States in order to delegitimize the institutions that have destroyed democracy (insofar as it ever existed) and inspire people to take action to restore it. Ron Formisano’s book American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class (2017) is a valuable contribution to this collective project.

“American Oligarchy has been written,” Formisano says, “not to propose a path out of the New Gilded Age, but to discredit the political class by raking its muck between covers in black and white.” Formisano certainly achieves his goal: the “political class” comes out stinking of, yes, a swamp, a putrid moral bog. This “networked layer of high-income people and those striving for wealth including many politicians in and out of office, lobbyists, consultants, appointed bureaucrats, pollsters, television celebrity journalists (but not investigative reporters), and the politically connected in the nation’s capital and in the states” calls to mind in its hedonism, corruption, money-worship, and giddy myopia the decadent Senate-attached aristocracy of the late Roman Republic, greedy beyond the dreams of avarice.

The term ‘aristocracy’ is apt, for Formisano argues convincingly that the U.S. is headed beyond oligarchy to an aristocracy of inherited wealth, complete with all the ideological and cultural trappings of aristocracy. Our exalted rentiers and their service-providers have the usual attitudes of aristocratic entitlement to all good things in this world (and exclusion of the non-rich), sputtering rage at the occasional prospect of losing a particle of their preferential tax treatment, and the valorization of nepotism as first among the virtues. “The rampant nepotism of the political class fuels the galloping socioeconomic inequality of the twenty-first century.” The main differences between the American aristocracy of today and, say, the French aristocracy of the eighteenth century seem to be that the former has incomparably lower cultural (and architectural) tastes than the latter and is incomparably more destructive of society and the natural environment.

The circles in which the nation’s political leaders and their thousands of well-heeled minions travel are indeed reminiscent of some enormous eighteenth-century court. Over half the members of Congress are millionaires, with a total worth in 2013 of $4.3 billion; but even the ones whose income is of a mere six figures are able to live like millionaires. The reason is that the gears of Washington are greased by a “gift economy,” which, to quote ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, amounts to “a system of legalized bribery. All of it is bribery, every bit of it.”

In 2007 Congress passed a law prohibiting lobbyists from giving gifts to representatives, but, as Abramoff says, in effect “they just reshuffled the deck… They’re still playing the same game.” Campaign committees and “Leadership PACs” pay for the many luxurious trips legislators take around the world, as do lobbyists and donors. Golf outings, lavish “conferences,” fishing in the Florida Keys, skiing in Colorado, trips to Paris or Vienna or Hawaii, innumerable expensive parties and receptions and breakfasts with lobbyists and donors—all are paid for by either tax dollars or various committees, lobbying firms, corporate interests, etc. Aside from the obviously corrupting influence of all this legalized bribery, it matters a great deal that “politicians have no experience of poverty.” In fact, from 1998 to 2008 only 13 members of Congress came from blue-collar backgrounds, and they had long ago left behind that experience. No wonder policy almost never favors the working class.

Meanwhile, in 1970 only 3 percent of members leaving Congress moved into lobbying. Now well over half do. As do thousands of congressional aides. In addition to reinforcing the insularity and chumminess of the Beltway culture, this “accelerating exodus of staffers to K Street…has had the effect of increasing the power of lobbyists by shortening the overall tenure of staffers.” As the latter group becomes younger and less experienced, lobbyists take on an ever-greater role in crafting legislation—increasingly byzantine legislation that is difficult even for staffers to understand, which further enhances the power of lobbyists.

Formisano documents with admirable thoroughness the fact that the foremost concern of politicians and the politically connected in both the nation’s capital and the states is to look out “for me and mine.” The most obvious and common means of doing so is to monetize one’s public service, but almost as common is the practice of nepotism. “[T]he political class practices nepotism routinely, brazenly, and shamelessly, giving their ‘nephews’ plum jobs, promotions, a place at the head of the line.” Donald Trump may (unsurprisingly) be even more shameless than most, with his political use of his daughter, his son-in-law, and his sons—one of whom has remarked candidly that nepotism “is a beautiful thing.” But the second Bush administration took nepotism to a high art, given, for example, the important roles of Liz Cheney, her husband, and her son-in-law; the Mehlman brothers, the McLellans, the Powells, and Ted Cruz and his wife; the Martins, the Ackerlys, and the Ullmans, etc. The Obama administration was hardly innocent either, though it didn’t go to quite the extremes of its predecessor. Children of governors and members of Congress fare well too, whether serving in politics, in law firms, in businesses that benefit from political connections, or as lobbyists.

The media are almost as riddled with nepotism as politics. When her mother was Secretary of State, Chelsea Clinton was hired by NBC as a television journalist, making $600,000 a year ($26,724 for every minute she was televised). CNN’s Andrea Koppel, Anderson Cooper, Jeffrey Toobin, and Chris Cuomo are beneficiaries of nepotism, as are (at other channels and publications) Douglas Kennedy, Chris Wallace, Mark Halperin, Mika Brzezinski, Bill Kristol, Ronan Farrow, Luke Russert, Meghan McCain, Jenna Bush, Jackie Kucinich, and others. Formisano concludes, “Whether the field is literature, television, entertainment, or politics, the hallmark of this New Gilded Age of Inequality is ‘naked, unabashed favoritism,’ and the shameless effrontery of those who give and receive it.”

American Oligarchy also contains long discussions of the nonprofit world, specifically of its contributions to rising income inequality. The nonprofit sector employs 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, and in 2010 corporations, government, and individuals donated $300 billion to charitable enterprises. At least $40 billion every year is lost to “fraud, theft, personal enrichment of executives, and misappropriation.” In general, the culture of large nonprofits is approximately that of the permanent political class in Washington.

University presidents and hospital CEOs, for instance, can make millions of dollars a year, and that doesn’t include such perks as bonuses, deferred compensation, auto allowances, and financial planning. In the same years as student debt has soared and state funding has declined, university foundations have been used as slush funds for big payouts and personal expenses for presidents and other administrators. Even more egregiously, nonprofit hospitals have initiated hundreds of lawsuits against patients who couldn’t pay and have routinely had arrest warrants issued and jailed debtors. Conversely, lawsuits have been filed against hundreds of hospitals in seventeen states for gouging the poor.

In other cases, nonprofits have in effect become allies of the forces they’re supposed to be challenging. A particularly outrageous instance is that of The Nature Conservancy, “by far the wealthiest green group with well over $6 billion in assets.” On its governing board and advisory committees sit executives of oil and chemical companies, mining and logging businesses, auto manufacturers, and coal-burning electric utilities, who have influence over the group’s policies. Even while preserving millions of acres, The Nature Conservancy has logged forests, drilled for natural gas under the last breeding ground of an endangered bird species, invested millions in energy companies, cultivated relationships with such polluters as ExxonMobil and BP, and sold its name and logo to companies that then claim undeserved credit for being green. Similarly, the World Wildlife Federation has close relationships with both Monsanto and the rainforest-destroying palm oil company Wilmer.

At any rate, the evidence Formisano amasses proves that the moral corruption of the American aristocracy has utterly polluted the ostensibly selfless and charitable world of nonprofits. From museums, public libraries, and human rights organizations to symphony orchestras, veterans’ groups, and environmental organizations, excessive executive compensation, corporate ties, and outright corruption have perverted the public mission of nonprofits.

American Oligarchy is not an uplifting read. Its chapter on Kentucky, a case-study of political corruption in a poor state, is, despite the detached analytical tone, at times wrenching, in particular when you reflect on all the human suffering that is the corollary of the aristocracy’s venality and greed. On the one hand are profits for Purdue Pharma in the billions of dollars, and power and money for a complicit political class; on the other hand are numberless opioid deaths and lives ruined by addiction.

But books such as this are indispensable in their bleakness, since we live in bleak times that call for unstinting exposés. Perhaps as the backlash against Donald Trump grows, American Oligarchy and books like it will acquire a wide readership and so contribute to the radicalization of a generation.

The Stupefying Mediocrity of Barack Obama

As a Marxist, I’m not very interested in the psychology of the powerful. I don’t think it matters much, and it tends to be pretty uniform and predictable anyway: self-overestimation, self-justification, moral rationalizations for every horrendous decision made, brutal callousness to human suffering beneath (at best) a veneer of concern, energies directed to machinations for increased power, cowardly accommodation to the path of least political resistance, a collective insularity of the golden-boy culture gilded with sycophants, etc. On the other hand, as a despiser of the complacent powerful, I enjoy belittling their grandiose pretensions. So sometimes I do like to wade into the muck of their psychology.

A New York Times article on May 30 entitled “How Trump’s Election Shook Obama: ‘What if We Were Wrong?’” provided an opportunity to indulge in this sordid pastime. According to one of his aides, after the election Obama speculated that the cosmopolitan internationalism of enlightened intellectuals like him had been responsible for the stunning outcome. “Maybe we pushed too far,” he said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.” In other words, we were too noble and forward-thinking for the benighted masses, who want nothing more than to remain submerged in their comforting provincial identities. We were too ambitious and idealistic for our flawed compatriots.

“Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” Obama sighed. The country hadn’t been ready for the first black president and his lofty post-racial vision.

These quotations are all the evidence one needs to understand what goes on in the mind of someone like Barack Obama.

In fact, the last quotation is revealing enough in itself: it alone suggests the stupefying dimensions of Obama’s megalomania. It is hardly news that Obama is a megalomaniac, but what is moderately more interesting is the contemptible and deluded nature of his megalomania. (In some cases, after all, egomania might be justified. I could forgive Noam Chomsky for being an egomaniac—if he were one, which his self-effacing humility shows is far from the case.) Obama clearly sees himself as the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement—he who participated in no sit-ins, no Freedom Rides, no boycotts or harrowing marches in the Deep South, who suffered no police brutality or nights in jail, who attended Harvard Law and has enjoyed an easy and privileged adulthood near or in the corridors of power. This man who has apparently never taken a courageous and unpopular moral stand in his life decided long ago that it was his historic role to bring the struggles of SNCC and the SCLC, of Ella Baker and Bob Moses, of A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr. to their fruition—by sailing into the Oval Office on the wave of millions of idealistic supporters, tireless and selfless organizers. With his accession to power, and that of such moral visionaries as Lawrence Summers, Hillary Clinton, Timothy Geithner, Eric Holder, Arne Duncan, Robert Gates, and Samantha Power, MLK’s dream was at last realized.

Obama was continuing in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists when his administration deported more than three million undocumented immigrants and broke up tens of thousands of immigrant families. He was being an inspiring idealist when he permitted arms shipments to Israel in July and August 2014 in the midst of the Gaza slaughter—because, as he said with characteristic eloquence and moral insight, “Israel has a right to defend itself” (against children and families consigned to desperate poverty in an open-air prison).

He was being far ahead of his time, a hero of both civil rights and enlightened globalism, when he presided over “the greatest disintegration of black wealth in recent memory” by doing nothing to halt the foreclosure crisis or hold anyone accountable for the damage it caused. Surely it was only irrational traditions of tribalism that got Trump elected, and not, say, the fact that Obama’s administration was far more friendly to the banking sector than George H. W. Bush’s was, as shown for instance by the (blatantly corrupt) hiring of financial firms’ representatives to top positions in the Justice Department.

And it’s only because the masses are stupid and prejudiced that they couldn’t see the glorious benefits they would have received from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the few issues in which Obama seems genuinely to have been emotionally invested. What primitive tribalists they are to be worried about the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs, the increase of prices for medicines, inadequate protection for the environment, and in general massive empowerment of corporations.

Taken together, the two quotes above that constituted Obama’s initial explanation of Trump’s victory—‘we pushed too far’ and ‘I was too ahead of my time’—also confirm the not very surprising fact that the moral issue of class doesn’t exist for him, as (by definition) it doesn’t exist for any centrist politician. Obama may have paid lip-service to it in his rhetoric, but what he cared about more was a threadbare type of identity politics, cultural inclusivity, symbols and spectacles of the post-racial, post-nationalist millennium, of which he saw himself as the great exemplar. If Trump was elected it can only be because people aren’t ready for this millennium quite yet. But that doesn’t affect Obama’s own place in history: he is certain he’ll be vindicated, indeed will be viewed as even more remarkable for having come too soon.

This perception of his probably also explains his general reluctance to publicly criticize Trump. He simply doesn’t care enough to do so—he has nothing like a deep outrage against the continuous injustices of Trumpian politics—because his task has already been accomplished: he has written himself into the history books by being the U.S.’s first black president. That achievement is what matters, that and his eight years of (supposed) attempts to “heal the country’s divides.” Again, it’s too bad the country wasn’t ready for him, but that isn’t his fault.

Thus, rather than getting involved in any thoroughgoing resistance to Trump—which might exacerbate cultural divisions, horror of horrors, and wouldn’t be decorous or “presidential” (for the powerful shouldn’t criticize each other)—the Obamas are now planning to produce shows on Netflix that will be unpolitical and “inspirational.” This new project of theirs is symptomatic. Powerful people like to propagate “uplifting” stories, for anything else might prick their conscience, challenge the legitimacy of the social order from which they benefit, and inspire resistance movements. Better to focus on feel-good stories that reassure people about the essential justness of the world, or that inculcate the notion that anyone can improve their situation if they only try. This is the same reason that Bill Gates’ new favorite book is Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which argues that things are far better now than they’ve ever been, so we should all be grateful.

I happened to watch a video recently in which Norman Finkelstein psychoanalyzed Obama, and his interpretation stuck with me. Not because the pathetic person who was being analyzed is of any intrinsic interest, but because the type he represents is always with us—and will always be popular, and will always be morally and intellectually vacuous. Finkelstein had learned from reading David Garrow’s biography that, as president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama had a very conciliating style. Whenever arguments arose between the conservatives and the liberals he approached the problem in the same way: he took the interlocutors aside and said, “Don’t get so excited, it’s not such a big deal. Why are you getting so excited? There are bigger things in life.” “Because for Obama,” Finkelstein explains, “there was only one big deal in life: me. Everything else was just small change, except him.”

That’s the key. When your overriding value in life is self-glorification, what you tend to get is the moral cowardice and fecklessness of people like Obama, the Clintons, and, in truth, all centrist politicians. They’ll do whatever they have to do to rise to power, so they can realize their “destiny”—of being powerful. They’ll always try to please “both sides”—a binary notion that leaves out the genuine left, which is to say the interests of the large majority of people—because that is the safest and surest road to power.

Which brings us to Obama’s real legacy, as opposed to the one he imagines. The moment he committed himself to a life of pale centrism in a time of escalating social crisis, he determined what his place in history would be. I’m reminded of Georg Lukács’s analysis of Germany’s waffling liberal intelligentsia during the 1920s in his book The Destruction of Reason. The elite liberals of the Weimar Republic couldn’t countenance fascism but wouldn’t commit themselves to a decisive democratic program to resist it—for they feared socialism even more than fascism—so they ended up vacillating pathetically, criticizing mass democracy while on occasion semi-defending it, fecklessly counseling moderation, thereby enabling ultra-reaction.

While the U.S. is certainly not Weimar Germany, and the risks of full-blown fascism are not as great now as they were then, one can see parallels. Just as the feckless, vacillating liberalism of Jimmy Carter ushered in the reactionary age of Reagan, so the vacillating liberalism of Obama prepared the way for the semi-fascism of Trump and the reinvigoration of white supremacy. (So much for Obama’s supposed furtherance of the Civil Rights Movement. He is arguably one of the worst things to have happened to minorities since the end of Jim Crow.) You can’t be neutral on a moving train. If you try, you’re actually on the side of the reactionaries.

Congratulations, Barack. You’ve written yourself into the history books.