All posts by Chris Wright

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.

The Significance of Karl Marx

I often have occasion to think that, as an “intellectual,” I’m very lucky to be alive at this time in history, at the end of the long evolution from Herodotus and the pre-Socratic philosophers to Chomsky and modern science. One reason for my gratitude is simply that, as I wrote long ago in a moment of youthful idealism, “the past is a kaleidoscope of cultural achievements, or rather a cornucopian buffet whose fruits I can sample—a kiwi here, a mango there—a few papayas—and then choose which are my favorite delicacies—which are healthiest, which savory and sweet—and invent my own diet tailored to my needs. History can be appropriated by each person as he chooses,” I gushed, “selectively employed in the service of his self-creation. The individual can be more complete than ever in the past!” But while this Goethean ideal of enlightened self-cultivation is important, perhaps an even greater advantage of living so late in history is that, if one has an open and critical mind, it is possible to have a far more sophisticated and correct understanding of the world than before. Intellectual history is littered with egregious errors, myths and lies that have beguiled billions of minds. Two centuries after the Enlightenment, however, the spirit of rationalism and science has achieved so many victories that countless millions have been freed from the ignorance and superstition of the past.

Few thinkers deserve more credit for the liberation of the human mind than Karl Marx. Aside from the heroes of the Scientific Revolution—Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, a few others—and their philosophical ‘translators’—Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Diderot, David Hume—hardly any come close. But not only did Marx contribute to our intellectual liberation; he also, of course, made immense contributions to the struggle for liberation from oppressive power-structures (a struggle that, indeed, is a key component of the effort to free our minds). These two major achievements amply justify the outpouring of articles on the bicentennial of his birth, and in fact, I think, call for yet another one, to consider in more depth both his significance and his shortcomings.

My focus in this article is going to be on his ideas, not on his life or his activism. He was certainly an inspiration in the latter respect, but it is his writings that are timeless. The fanatical and violent hatred they’ve always elicited from the enemies of human progress, the spokesmen of a power-loving, money-worshipping misanthropy, is the most eloquent proof of their value.

*****

The central reason for Marx’s importance and fame is, of course, that he gave us the most sophisticated elaboration of the most fundamental concept in social analysis: class.

He was far from the only thinker to emphasize class. One might even say that the primary of class verges on common sense (despite what postmodernists think—on whom, see below). In his Politics, Aristotle already interpreted society according to the divergent interests of the poor and the rich. The semi-conservative James Madison, like other Enlightenment figures, agreed, as is clear from his famous Federalist No. 10:

[T]he most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes actuated by different sentiments and views.

Could anything be more obvious than this proto-historical materialism?

But Marx was unique in systematically expounding this materialism and grounding it in rigorous analysis of production relations—the concept of which he practically invented, or at least self-consciously elevated to a determining status and analyzed with exhaustive thoroughness. As everyone passingly familiar with Marxism knows, such notions as exploitation, surplus, surplus-value, and class struggle acquired a quasi-scientific—which is to say exact and precisely explanatory—character in the context of Marx’s investigation of production relations, in particular those of capitalism.

Given that historical materialism is often ridiculed and rejected, it isn’t out of place here to give a simplified account of its basic premises, an account that shows how uncontroversial these premises ought to be. This is especially desirable in a time when even self-styled Marxists feel compelled, due to the cultural sway held by feminism and identity politics, to deny that class has priority over other variables such as gender, sexuality, and race.

The explanatory (and therefore strategic, for revolutionaries) primacy of class can be established on simple a priori grounds, quite apart from empirical sociological or historical analysis. One has only to reflect that access to resources—money, capital, technology—is of unique importance to life, being key to survival, to a high quality of life, to political power, to social and cultural influence; and access to (or control over) resources is determined ultimately by class position, one’s position in the social relations of production. The owner of the means of production, i.e., the capitalist, has control over more resources than the person who owns only his labor-power, which means he is better able to influence the political process (for example by bribing politicians) and to propagate ideas and values that legitimate his dominant position and justify the subordination of others. These two broad categories of owners and workers have opposing interests, most obviously in the inverse relation between wages and profits. This antagonism of interests is the “class struggle,” a struggle that need not always be explicit or conscious but is constantly present on an implicit level, indeed is constitutive of the relationship between capitalist and worker. The class struggle—that is, the structure and functioning of economic institutions—can be called the foundation of society, the dynamic around which society tends to revolve, because, again, it is through class that institutions and actors acquire the means to influence social life.

These simple, commonsense reflections suffice to establish the meaning and validity of Marx’s infamous, “simplistic,” “reductionist” contrast between the economic “base” and the political, cultural, and ideological “superstructure.” Maybe his language here was misleading and metaphorical. He was only sketching his historical materialism in a short preface, the Preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and could hardly have foreseen that generations of academic sophists would later pore over his words, pick at them, cavil at them, fling casuistries at each other until a vast scholarly literature had been produced debating Marxian “economic determinism.” As if the relative primacy of economic institutions—which is to say relations of production, class structures—that are, by definition, directly involved in the accumulation and distribution of material resources and thus power, isn’t anything but a truism, and can be seen as such on the basis of such elementary reasoning as in the preceding paragraph.

The Communist Manifesto’s epoch-making claim, therefore, that the history of all complex societies has been the history of class struggle is not ridiculous or oversimplifying, contrary to what has been claimed a thousand times in scholarship and the popular press; it is, broadly speaking, accurate, if “class struggle” is understood to mean not only explicit conflict between classes (and class-subgroups; see the above quotation from Madison) but also the implicit antagonism of interests between classes, which constitutes the structure of economic institutions. Particular class structures/dynamics, together with the level of development of productive forces they determine and are expressed through, provide the basic institutional context around which a given politics and culture are fleshed out.1

Thus, to argue, as feminists, queer theorists, and confused Marxists like Peter Frase are wont to, that class is of no special significance compared to group identities like gender and race is quite mistaken. Neither feminism nor anti-racist activism targets such institutional structures as the relation between capitalist and worker; or, to the extent that these movements do, they become class-oriented and lose their character as strictly feminist or anti-racist. If you want a society of economic democracy, in which economic exploitation, “income inequality,” mass poverty, imperialism, militarism, ecological destruction, and privatization of resources are done away with, the goal of your activism has to be to abolish capitalist institutions—the omnipotence of the profit motive, the dictatorial control of capitalist over worker—and not simply misogyny or vicious treatment of minorities. These issues are important, but only anti-capitalism is properly revolutionary, involving a total transformation of society (because a transformation of the very structures of institutions, not merely who is allowed into the privileged positions).

Moreover, as plenty of feminists and Black Lives Matter activists well know, you can’t possibly achieve the maximal goals that identity politics pursues while remaining in a capitalist society. Most or all of the oppression that minorities experience is precisely a result of capitalism’s perverse incentives, and of the concentration of power in a tiny greedy elite. This ties into the fact that, since the time of Marx and Engels, a colossal amount of empirical scholarship has shown the power of the Marxian analytical framework. (I summarize some of the scholarship here.) Even ideologies of race, nation, and gender are largely a product of class—of slavery and its aftermath in the U.S., of European imperialism, of attempts by the Victorian upper class to control working-class women’s lives and sexuality.

In the case of religious fundamentalism in the U.S., for example, historians have shown that since early in the twentieth century, and especially since the 1970s, conservative sectors of the business community have subsidized right-wing evangelical Christianity in order to beat back unionism and liberalism, which have been tarred and feathered as communist, socialist, godless, etc. More generally, for centuries the ruling class has propagated divisive ideas of race, religion, nationality, and gender in order, partly, to fragment the working class and so control it more easily and effectively. By now, leftists see such arguments, rightly, as truisms.

On the other hand, most intellectuals, including many academically trained leftists, also see Marxian “economistic” arguments as overly simplifying and reductivist. Mainstream intellectuals in particular consider it a sign of unsophistication that Marxism tends to abstract from complicating factors and isolate the class variable. “Reality is complicated!” they shout in unison. “You also have to take into account the play of cultural discourses, the diversity of subjective identities, etc. Class isn’t everything!” Somehow it is considered an intellectual vice, and not a virtue, to simplify for the sake of understanding. It’s true, after all, that the world is complex; and so in order to understand it one has to simplify it a bit, explain it in terms of general principles. As in the natural sciences, a single principle can never explain everything; but, if it is the right one, it can explain a great deal.

Noam Chomsky, with characteristic eloquence, defended this point in an interview in 1990. I might as well quote him at length. Since he is in essence just an idiosyncratic and anarchistic Marxist—in fact one of the most consistent Marxists of all, despite his rejection of the label—his arguments are exactly those to which every thoughtful materialist is committed.

Question: But you’re often accused of being too black-and-white in your analysis, of dividing the world into evil élites and subjugated or mystified masses. Does your approach ever get in the way of basic accuracy?

Answer: I do approach these questions a bit differently than historical scholarship generally does. But that’s because humanistic scholarship tends to be irrational. I approach these questions pretty much as I would approach my scientific work. In that work—in any kind of rational inquiry—what you try to do is identify major factors, understand them, and see what you can explain in terms of them. Then you always find a periphery of unexplained phenomena, and you introduce minor factors and try to account for those phenomena. What you’re always searching for is the guiding principles: the major effects, the dominant structures. In order to do that, you set aside a lot of tenth-order effects. Now, that’s not the method of humanistic scholarship, which tends in a different direction. Humanistic scholarship—I’m caricaturing a bit for simplicity—says every fact is precious; you put it alongside every other fact. That’s a sure way to guarantee you’ll never understand anything. If you tried to do that in the sciences, you wouldn’t even reach the level of Babylonian astronomy.

I don’t think the [social] field of inquiry is fundamentally different in this respect. Take what we were talking about before: institutional facts. Those are major factors. There are also minor factors, like individual differences, microbureaucratic interactions, or what the President’s wife told him at breakfast. These are all tenth-order effects. I don’t pay much attention to them, because I think they all operate within a fairly narrow range which is predictable by the major factors. I think you can isolate those major factors. You can document them quite well; you can illustrate them in historical practice; you can verify them. If you read the documentary record critically, you can find them very prominently displayed, and you can find that other things follow from them. There’s also a range of nuances and minor effects, and I think these two categories should be very sharply separated.

When you proceed in this fashion, it might give someone who’s not used to such an approach the sense of black-and-white, of drawing lines too clearly. It purposely does that. That’s what is involved when you try to identify major, dominant effects and put them in their proper place.

But instead of trying to systematically explain society by starting from a general principle and evaluating its utility, then proceeding to secondary factors like race or sex and using them to elucidate phenomena not explained by the dominant principle, the approach that tends to prevail in the humanities and social sciences is a sort of methodological relativism. In historical scholarship, for example, especially social history, you’re generally expected just to describe things from different perspectives. You should discuss gender, and race, and class, and various relevant “discourses,” and how people identified themselves, how they reacted to given developments, and perhaps issues of sexuality and the body, etc. Some knowledge may be gained, but often this work amounts to unanchored description seemingly for its own sake—description from an idealist perspective, not a materialist one. The anti-Marxian idealism is an essential quality of this mainstream writing, and is quite dominant in the humanities and social sciences.

*****

On the bicentennial of Marx’s birth, it’s intellectually shameful (though predictable) that idealism is still the primary tendency in scholarship and journalism. I’ve criticized bourgeois idealism elsewhere, for example here, here, and here, but it is worth discussing again because of how dominant it is, and how damaging.

What idealism means, of course, is an emphasis on ideas or consciousness over material factors, whether “social being”—economic conditions, institutional imperatives (the need to follow the rules of given social structures), interests as opposed to ideals or ideologies, and the necessities of biological survival—or, in the context of philosophical idealism such as that of Berkeley, Schopenhauer, and the logical positivists, the existence of mind-independent matter. Philosophical idealism, while no longer as respectable as it once was, persists in forms less honest and direct than that of Berkeley, especially in postmodernist circles and schools of thought influenced by the Continental tradition (e.g., phenomenology) and even American pragmatism. More important, though, is the type of idealism that disparages class and social being.

This idealism comes in different varieties. Its most common manifestation is the uncritical tendency to take seriously the rhetoric and self-interpretations of the powerful. As Marx understood and Chomsky likes to point out, humans are expert at deceiving themselves, at attributing noble motives to themselves when baser desires of power, money, recognition, institutional pressures, etc. are what really motivate them. The powerful in particular love to clothe themselves in the garb of moral grandeur. They insist that they’re invading a country in order to protect human rights or spread democracy and freedom; that they’re expanding prisons to keep communities safer, and deporting immigrants to keep the country safe; that by cutting social welfare programs they’re trying honestly to reduce the budget deficit, and by cutting taxes on the rich they only want to stimulate the economy. When journalists and intellectuals take seriously such threadbare, predictable rhetoric, they’re disregarding the lesson of Marxism that individuals aren’t even the main actors here in the first place; institutions are. The individuals can tell themselves whatever stories they want about their own behavior, but the primary causes of the design and implementation of political policies are institutional dynamics, power dynamics. Political and economic actors represent certain interests, and they act in accordance with those interests. That’s all.

The example I like to give of academics’ idealism is Odd Arne Westad’s celebrated book The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, which won the Bancroft Prize in 2006. Its thesis is that “the United States and the Soviet Union were driven to intervene in the Third World by the ideologies inherent in their politics. Locked in conflict over the very concept of European modernity…Washington and Moscow needed to change the world in order to prove the universal applicability of their ideologies…” It’s a remarkably unsophisticated argument, which is backed up by remarkably unsophisticated invocations of policymakers’ rhetoric. It rises to the level of farce. At one point, after quoting a State Department spokesman on George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq—“I believe in freedom as a right, a responsibility, a destiny… The United States stands for freedom, defends freedom, advances freedom, and enlarges the community of freedom because we think it is the right thing to do”—Westad states ingenuously that the Iraq invasion was a perfect example of how “freedom and security have been, and remain today, the driving forces of U.S. foreign policy.” As if gigantic government bureaucracies are moved to act out of pure altruism!

Related to this idealism is the self-justifying faith of liberal intellectuals that ideals truly matter in the rough-and-tumble of political and economic life. John Maynard Keynes gave a classic exposition of this faith in the last paragraph of his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, which has stroked academic egos for generations:

…[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. [?!] Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas… [S]oon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

These are backward fantasies, which grow out of a poor sociological imagination. The point is that the ideas that come to be accepted as gospel are those useful to vested interests, which are the entities that have the resources to propagate them. (In the typically bourgeois language of impersonal ‘automaticity,’ Keynes refers to “the gradual encroachment of ideas.” But ideas don’t spread of themselves; they are propagated and subsidized by people and institutions whose interests they express. This is why “the ruling ideas of a society are the ideas of its ruling class,” which has the resources to spread them.)

Keynes’ famous book itself contributed not at all to the so-called Keynesian policies of FDR and Hitler and others; in fact, such policies were already being pursued by Baron Haussmann in France in the 1850s, because they were useful in giving employment to thousands of workers and raising aggregate demand and thereby economic growth. Is it likely that had Keynes not published his book in 1936, the U.S. government during and after World War II would have pursued radically different, un-Keynesian economic policies? Hardly. Because they were useful to vested interests, those policies were bound to be adopted—and economists, tools of the ruling class, were bound to systematize their theoretical rationalizations sooner or later.

But liberals continue to believe that if only they can convince politicians of their intellectual or moral errors, they can persuade them to change their policies. Paul Krugman’s columns in the New York Times provide amusing examples of this sort of pleading. It’s telling that he always ends his analysis right before getting to a realistic proposal: he scrupulously avoids saying that for his ideas to be enacted it’s necessary to revive unions on a systemic scale, or to organize radical and disruptive social movements to alter the skewed class structure. Such an analytic move would require that he step into the realm of Marxism, abandoning his liberal idealism, and would thus bar him from being published in the New York Times.

If I may be permitted to give another example of liberal idealism: I recall reading a few years ago Richard Goodwin’s popular book Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties (1988), a memoir of his time as speechwriter and adviser to John F. Kennedy. It’s a flabby centrist whitewashing of history, a nostalgic apotheosis of Kennedy and America and democracy, etc., not worth reading on its merits. However—to quote myself

The book is enlightening as a window into the mind of the Harvard liberal, revelatory of the sort of thoughts this person has, his worldview. Liberalism from the inside. A prettified ideology, bland but appealing, with the reference to spiritual truths, reason, ideals of harmony and peace, a rising tide lifting all boats, the fundamental compatibility of all interests in society (except for those we don’t like, of course), the nonexistence of class struggle, government’s ability to solve all social ills, history as a progressive battle between knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness, reason and unreason, open-mindedness and bigotry, and any other set of binary abstractions you can think of. The whole ideology hovers above reality in the heavenly mists of Hope and Progress. It’s all very pretty, hence its momentary resurgence—which quickly succumbed to disillusionment—with Barack Obama. And hence its ability to get through the filters of the class structure, to become an element in the hegemonic American discourse, floating above institutional realities like some imaginary golden idol one worships in lieu of common sense. It serves a very useful purpose for business, averting people’s eyes from the essential incompatibility of class interests toward the idea of Gradual Progress by means of tinkering at the margins, making nice policies.

Such is the function of liberal idealism for the ruling class.

One other type of idealism that must be mentioned is the postmodernist variety (or rather varieties). It’s ironic that postmodernist intellectuals, with their rejection of “meta-narratives” and the idea of objective truth, consider themselves hyper-sophisticated, because in fact they’re less sophisticated than even unreflective doctrinaire Marxists. They’re not so much post-Marxist as pre-Marxist, in that they haven’t assimilated the important intellectual lessons of the Marxist tradition.

In both its subjectivism and its focus on “discourses,” “texts,” “meanings,” “vocabularies,” “cultures,” and the like, postmodernism is idealistic—and relativistic. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, for example, tends to ignore class and particular economic and political contexts, instead concentrating on the opinions of reformers, philosophers, politicians, and scientists. (Far better—more illuminating—is Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer’s Marxist classic Punishment and Social Structure, published in 1939.) Later on things got even worse, as with Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler’s much-heralded collection Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (1997). I can’t go into depth here, so suffice it to say that this book, like so much of postmodernism, consists essentially of playing around with ideas of cultural “contestations” and the tensions involved in people’s “negotiations” of disparate identities. The analyses are so particularistic and so purely descriptive, focusing, say, on (the cultural dimensions of) some little village in Senegal or some protest movement in Ecuador, that no interesting conclusions can be drawn. Instead there is a fluctuation between hyper-particularity and hyper-abstractness, as in the typical—and utterly truistic—“arguments” that the colonized had agency, that colonized cultures weren’t totally passive, that “colonial regimes were neither monolithic nor omnipotent” (who has ever said they were?), that “meanings” of institutions “were continually being reshaped,” and so on. After all the “analysis,” one is left asking, “Okay, so what?” It’s all just masturbatory play undertaken for the sake of itself. No wonder this sort of writing has been allowed to become culturally dominant.

The postmodern focus on the body, too, is, ironically, idealistic. Subjectivistic. Which is to say it’s more politically safe than Marxism, since it doesn’t challenge objective structures of class (except insofar as such subjectivism, or identity politics, allies itself with a class focus). Any intellectual who finds himself being accepted by mainstream institutions, as hordes of Foucault-loving postmodernists and feminists have—contrary to the treatment of materialists like Gabriel Kolko, Thomas Ferguson, Jesse Lemisch, David Noble, Staughton Lynd, Rajani Kanth, Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald, and many others—should immediately start to question whether his ideas get to the heart of the matter or do not, instead, distract from the workings of power.

Said differently, the problem with identity politics is that it doesn’t completely reject Margaret Thatcher’s infamous saying, “There is no such thing as society.” It takes a semi-individualistic approach to analysis and activism. A revolutionary answers Thatcher with the statement, “There is no such thing as the individual”—in the sense that the focus must be on institutional structures, which mold us and dominate us. To the degree that the focus turns toward the individual, or his identity, his body, his subjectivity, the radicalism becomes more anodyne (while not necessarily ceasing to be oppositional or important).

There is a great deal more to be said about postmodernism. For instance, I could make the obvious point that its particularism and relativism, its elevation of fragmentary “narratives” and its Kuhnian emphasis on the supposed incommensurability of different “paradigms,” is just as useful to the ruling class as its idealism, since it denies general truths about class struggle and capitalist dynamics. (See Georg Lukács’ masterpiece The Destruction of Reason for a history of how such relativism and idealism contributed to the cultural climate that made Hitler possible.) Or I could argue that the rationalism and universalism of the Radical Enlightenment, which found its fulfillment in Marxism, is, far from being dangerous or containing the seeds of its own destruction—as postmodernists and confused eclectic Marxists like Theodor Adorno have argued—the only hope for humanity.

Instead I’ll only observe, in summary, that idealism is not new: it is as old as the hills, and Marx made an immortal contribution in repudiating it. Idealism has always afflicted mainstream intellectual culture, all the way back to antiquity, when Plato viewed the world as consisting of shadows of ideal Forms, Hindus and Buddhists interpreted it in spiritual terms and as being somehow illusory, and Stoics were telling “the slave in the mines that if he would only think aright he would be happy” (to quote the classicist W. W. Tarn). Idealism persisted through the Christian Middle Ages, Confucian China, and Hindu India. It dominated the Enlightenment, when philosophes were arguing that ignorance and superstition were responsible for mass suffering and a primordial conspiracy of priests had plunged society into darkness. Hegel, of course, was an arch-idealist. Finally a thinker came along who renounced this whole tradition and systematized the common sense of the hitherto despised “rabble,” the workers, the peasants, the women struggling to provide for their children—namely that ideas are of little significance compared to class and material conditions. The real heroes, the real actors in history are not the parasitic intellectuals or the marauding rulers but the people working day in and day out to maintain society, to preserve and improve the conditions of civilization for their descendants.

Had there been no Marx or Engels, revolutionaries and activists would still have targeted class structures, as they were doing before Marxism had achieved widespread influence. Unions would have organized workers, radicals would have established far-left organizations, insurrections would have occurred in countries around the world. Marx’s role has been to provide clarity and guidance, to serve as a symbol of certain tendencies of thought and action. His uniquely forceful and acute analyses of history and capitalism have been a font of inspiration for both thinkers and activists, a spur, a stimulus to keep their eyes on the prize, so to speak. His prediction of the collapse of capitalism from its internal contradictions has given hope and confidence to millions—perhaps too much confidence, in light of the traditional over-optimism of Marxists. But having such a brilliant authority on their side, such a teacher, has surely been of inestimable benefit to the oppressed.

As for the narrow task of “interpreting the world,” the enormous body of work by Marxists from the founder to the present totally eclipses the contributions of every other school of thought. From economics to literary criticism, nothing else comes remotely close.

*****

Marx did, however, make mistakes. No one is infallible. It’s worth considering some of those mistakes, in case we can learn from them.

The ones I’ll discuss here, which are by far the most significant, have to do with his conception of socialist revolution. Both the timeline he predicted and his sketchy remarks on how the revolution would come to pass were wrong. I’ve addressed these matters here, and at greater length in my book Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, but they deserve a more condensed treatment too.

Regarding the timeline: it has long been a commonplace that Marx failed to foresee Keynesianism and the welfare state. His biggest blind-spot was nationalism, or in general the power of the capitalist nation-state as an organizing principle of social life. Ironically, only a Marxian approach can explain why national structures have achieved the power they have, i.e., why the modern centralized nation-state rose to dominance in the first place. (It has to do with the interconnected rise of capitalism and the state over the last 700 years, in which each “principle”—the economic and the political, the market and the state—was indispensable to the other. See, e.g., Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times.)

In essence, while Marx was right to locate a capitalist tendency toward relative or even absolute immiseration of the working class, he was wrong that this tendency could not be effectively counteracted, at least for a long time, by opposing pressures. That is, he underestimated the power of tendencies toward integration of the working class into the dominant order, toward “pure and simple trade-unionism,” toward the state’s stabilizing management of the economy, and toward workers’ identification not only with the abstract notion of a social class that spans continents but also with the more concrete facts of ethnicity, race, trade, immediate community, and nation. These forces have historically militated against the revolutionary tendencies of class polarization and international working-class solidarity. They have both fragmented the working class and made possible the successes of reformism—the welfare state, social democracy, and the legitimization of mass collective bargaining in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II. Like other Enlightenment thinkers, Marx was too optimistic.

On the other hand, he was right that capitalism isn’t sustainable—because of its “contradictions,” its dysfunctional social consequences, and also its effects on the natural environment. No compromises between capital and wage-labor, such as the postwar Keynesian compromise, can last. The market is just too anarchic, and capital too voracious. Stability is not possible. Sooner or later, with the continued development of the productive forces, capital mobility will increase, markets—including the labor market—will become more integrated worldwide, elite institutional networks will thicken worldwide, and organized labor will lose whatever power it had in the days of limited capital mobility. In retrospect, and with a bit of analysis, one can see that these tendencies were irresistible. Genuine socialism (workers’ democratic control) on an international or global scale never could have happened in the twentieth century, which was still the age of oligopolistic, imperialistic capitalism, even state capitalism. In fact, it wasn’t until the twenty-first century that the capitalist mode of production was consolidated across the entire globe, a development Marx assumed was necessary as a prerequisite for socialism (or communism).

The irony, therefore—and history is chock-full of dialectical irony—is that authentic revolutionary possibilities of post-capitalism couldn’t open up until the victories of the left in the twentieth century had been eroded and defeated by hyper-mobile capital. The corporatist formations of social democracy and industrial unionism, fully integrated into the capitalist nation-state, had to decline in order for class polarization in the core capitalist states to peak again, deep economic crisis to return, and radical anti-capitalist movements to reappear on a massive level (as we may expect they’ll do in the coming decades). Many Marxists don’t like this type of thinking, according to which things have to get worse before they get better, but Marx himself looked forward to economic crisis because he understood it was only such conditions that could impel workers to join together en masse and fight for something as radical as a new social order.

The best evidence for the “things have to get worse before they get better” thesis is that the relatively non-barbarous society of the postwar years in the West was made possible only by the upheavals of the Great Depression and World War II, which mobilized the left on such an epic scale and so discredited fascism that the ruling class finally consented to a dramatic improvement of conditions for workers. Similarly, it’s quite possible that decades from now people will think of neoliberalism, with its civilization-endangering horrors, as having been a tool of (in Hegel’s words) the “cunning” of historical reason by precipitating the demise of the very society whose consummation it was and making possible the rise of something new.

But how will such a revolution occur? This is another point on which Marx tripped up. Despite his eulogy of the non-statist Paris Commune, Marx was no anarchist: he expected that the proletariat would have to seize control of the national state and then carry out the social revolution from the commanding heights of government. This is clear from the ten-point program laid out in the Communist Manifesto—the specifics of which he repudiated in later years, but apparently not the general conception of statist reconstruction of the economy. It’s doubtful, for example, that he would have rejected his earlier statement that “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class.” Moreover, he seems to have endorsed Engels’ statement in Anti-Dühring that “The proletariat seizes state power, and then transforms the means of production into state property.” It appears, then, that both he and Engels were extreme statists, even though, like anarchists, they hoped and expected that the state would (somehow, inexplicably) disappear eventually.

In these beliefs they were mistaken. The social revolution can’t occur after a total seizure of state power by “the proletariat” (which isn’t a unitary entity but contains divisions)—for several reasons. First, this conception of revolution contradicts the Marxian understanding of social dynamics, a point that few or no Marxists appear ever to have appreciated. It exalts a centralized conscious will as being able to plan social evolution 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 a liberatory, democratic one, Marx is, 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).2 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 “wither away” even as it becomes more expansive and dominating, is to adopt a naïve idealism.

Corresponding to all these errors are the flaws in Marx’s abstract conceptualization of revolution, according to which revolution happens when the production relations turn into fetters on the use and development of productive forces. One problem with this formulation is that it’s meaningless: at what point exactly do production relations begin to fetter productive forces? How long does this fettering have to go on before the revolution begins in earnest? How does one determine the degree of fettering? It would seem that capitalism has fettered productive forces for a very long time, for example in its proneness to recessions and stagnation, in artificial obstacles to the diffusion of knowledge such as intellectual copyright laws, in underinvestment in public goods such as education and transportation, and so forth. On the other hand, science and technology continue to develop, as shown by recent momentous advances in information technology. So what is the utility of this idea of “fettering”?

In fact, it can be made useful if we slightly reconceptualize the 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 ‘socially effective,’ 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 mode of production that is, so to speak, competing with the old stagnant one. The most obvious concrete instance of this conception of revolution is the long transition from feudalism to capitalism, during which the feudal mode became so hopelessly outgunned by the capitalist that, in retrospect, the long-term outcome of the “bourgeois revolutions” from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries was never in doubt. Capitalism was bound to triumph after it had reached a certain level of development.

But the important point is that capitalist interests could never have decisively “seized the state” until the capitalist economy had already made tremendous inroads against feudalism. Likewise, socialist or post-capitalist interests can surely not take over national states until they have vast material resources on their side, such as can only be acquired through large-scale participation in productive activities. As the capitalist economy descends into global crisis/stagnation over the next twenty, fifty, and a hundred years, one can predict that an “alternative economy,” a “solidarity economy” of cooperative and socialized relations of production will emerge both in society’s interstices and, sooner or later, in the mainstream. In many cases it will be sponsored and promoted by the state (on local, regional, and national levels), in an attempt to assuage social discontent; but its growth will only have the effect of hollowing out the hegemony of capitalism and ultimately facilitating its downfall. And thereby the downfall, or radical transformation, of the capitalist state.

I can’t go into the detail necessary to flesh out this gradualist notion of revolution, but in my abovementioned book I’ve argued that it not only radically revises the Marxian conception (on the basis of a single conceptual alteration), in effect updating it for the twenty-first century, but that it is thoroughly grounded in Marxian concepts—in fact, is truer to the fundamentals of historical materialism than Marx’s own vision of proletarian revolution was. The new society has to be erected on the foundation of emerging production relations, which cannot but take a very long time to broadly colonize society. And class struggle, that key Marxian concept, will of course be essential to the transformation: decades of continuous conflict between the masters and the oppressed, including every variety of disruptive political activity, will attend the construction—from the grassroots up to the national government—of anti-capitalist modes of production.

Glimmers of non-capitalist economic relations are already appearing even in the reactionary United States. In the last decade more and more scholars, journalists, and activists have investigated and promoted these new relations; one has but to read Gar Alperovitz, Ellen Brown, and all the contributors to Yes! Magazine, Shareable.net, Community-Wealth.org, etc. A transnational movement is growing beneath the radar of the mass media. It is still in an embryonic state, but as activists publicize its successes, ever more people will be drawn to it in their search for a solution to the dysfunctional economy of the ancien régime. Local and national governments, unaware of its long-term anti-capitalist implications, are already supporting the alternative economy, as I describe in my book.

I’ll also refer the reader to the book for responses to the conventional Marxian objections that cooperatives, for instance, are forced to compromise their principles by operating in the market economy, and that interstitial developments are not revolutionary. At this point in history, it should be obvious to everyone that a socialist revolution cannot occur in one fell swoop, one great moment of historical rupture, as “the working class” or its Leninist leaders storm the State, shoot all their opponents, and impose sweeping diktats to totally restructure society. (What an incredibly idealistic and utopian conception that is!) The conquest of political power will occur piecemeal, gradually; it will suffer setbacks and then proceed to new victories, then suffer more defeats, etc., in a century-long (or longer) process that happens at different rates in different countries. 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 corporate capitalism will constitute a formidable weapon on the side of progress.

One reasonable, though rather optimistic, blueprint for the early stages of this process is the British Labour Party’s Manifesto, which lays out principles that can be adapted to other countries. Such a plan will necessarily encounter so much resistance that, early on, even if the Labour Party comes to power, only certain parts of it will be able to be implemented. But plans such as this will provide ideals that can be approximated ever more closely as the international left grows in strength; and eventually more radical goals may become feasible.

But we must follow Marx, again, in shunning speculation on the specifics of this long evolution. He is sometimes criticized for saying too little about what socialism or communism would look like, but this was in fact very democratic and sensible of him. It is for the people engaged in struggles to hammer out their own institutions, “to learn in the dialectic of history,” as Rosa Luxemburg said. Nor is it possible, in any case, to foresee the future in detail. All we can do is try to advance the struggle and leave the rest to our descendants.

*****

Marx is practically inexhaustible, and one cannot begin to do him justice in a single article. His work has something for both anarchists and Leninists, for existentialists and their critics, cultural theorists and economists, philosophers and even scientists. Few thinkers have ever been subjected to such critical scrutiny and yet held up so well over centuries. To attack him, as usefully idiotic lackeys of the capitalist class do, for being responsible for twentieth-century totalitarianism is naïve idealism of the crudest sort. Ideas do not make history, though they can be useful tools in the hands of reactionaries or revolutionaries. They can be misunderstood, too, and used inappropriately or in ways directly contrary to their spirit—as the Christianity of Jesus has, for example.

But in our time of despair and desperation, with the future of the species itself in doubt, there is one more valid criticism to be made of Marx: he was too sectarian. Too eager to attack people on the left with whom he disagreed. In this case, Chomsky’s attitude is more sensible: the left must unite and not exhaust its energy in internecine battles. Let’s be done with all the recriminations between Marxists and anarchists and left-liberals, all the squabbling that has gone on since the mid-nineteenth century. It’s time to unite against the threat of fascism and—not to speak over-grandiosely—save life on Earth.

Let’s honor the memory of all the heroes and martyrs who have come before us by rising to the occasion, at this climactic moment of history.

  1. In my summary of G. E. M. de Ste. Croix’s 1981 masterpiece The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests, I added the following thoughts to the foregoing account: “Class struggle is central to history in still more ways; for instance, virtually by analytical necessity it has been, directly or indirectly, the main cause of popular resistance and rebellions. Likewise, the ideologies and cultures of the lower classes have been in large measure sublimations of class interest and conflict. Most wars, too, have been undertaken so that rulers (effectively the ruling class) could gain control over resources, which is sort of the class struggle by other means. Wars grow out of class dynamics, and are intended to benefit the rich and powerful. In any case, the very tasks of survival in complex societies are structured by class antagonisms, which determine who gets what resources when and in what ways.”
  2. In reality, of course, political and economic relations are fused together. But analytically one can distinguish economic activities from narrowly political, governmental activities.

Imprisoned for a Day: A Personal Reflection

In a world defined by social atomization, bureaucratization, and ant-like regimentation along institutionally sanctioned channels that exist but to uphold hierarchies of power, it is practically a moral obligation for anyone who wants to be fully human to break out of his bubble and, if possible, experience the world as “the other” does. In particular, as those without a voice do. If such experience isn’t always literally possible, we ought at least to imaginatively inhabit other perspectives, say by reading primary sources or watching documentaries, or simply by talking to people from a different walk of life than our own. The result might be not only education but even, perhaps, inspiration.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to experience a bit of life from a perspective I’m not accustomed to: the inside of a jail cell. I was left with a kind of insight that an academic like me doesn’t always achieve, an experiential or empathic insight. And I thought it would be worth communicating my impressions, if only to play some tiny part in giving a voice to the “voiceless.” For, as much abstract knowledge as we may have about the evils of the system bearing the Orwellian name “criminal justice,” the matter appears in a different and darker light from within the dungeon cages underground.

The reason for my 24-hour incarceration is too trivial to mention, scarcely more than a petty misunderstanding. And the experience itself was, of course, a mere joke compared to what others experience, just a stroll in a sunlit park compared to what the 23 million or so imprisoned and released felons in this country—in addition to millions of those guilty of misdemeanors (not to mention millions of immigrants detained for weeks and months)—have gone through. But it was memorable enough, and perhaps worth relating.

I was struck, first of all, by the insidious psychological effect of having to place your hands behind your back so they can be handcuffed. This coerced action performed in the presence of onlookers instantly manipulates you into an unwanted self-categorization: you can’t help but see yourself as others now see you, an offender, a criminal, a bad ‘other.’ Or rather, while rejecting the value-judgment, you’re aware that that’s the category into which you’ve been placed, by the officers, the onlookers, and especially the handcuffs. All of a sudden you don’t unproblematically belong to society anymore; your personhood has been qualified and thrown into question. You’re now half-person and half-ominous-question-mark. (“What’s going on? What did he do? What crime did he commit?”)

I was careful to obey every command to the letter, since, as we know, there’s nothing a police officer likes less than being contradicted, so my treatment was far better than it could have been. Still, I was puzzled by the length of time I had to sit in the car while the officers talked outside in what seemed a rather nonchalant way, given my shackled hands. That’s another insidious technique of control for which you have a heightened appreciation when you’re on its receiving end: the power to elongate time. It truly becomes impressive once you’re behind bars.

After making it to the precinct, the trial-by-paperwork begins. More waiting, and more unscratchable itches on your back and face, as initial reports are filed. I came to have a better understanding of the social role of the police as I saw throughout the evening how much “paperwork,” or electronic work, they have to file whenever an arrest is made. I had already understood that the police’s true function isn’t so much to protect people (as is claimed) as to protect “order,” the given system of social relations, which is to say the power of the powerful. The police officer is the “bouncer” for society, whose job it is to keep out the undesirables, those who either refuse to conform or have committed the crime of being poor and dark-skinned.

But now I saw more clearly that, in effect, what the police are is just bureaucrats with guns. Bureaucrats who dress up in blue and walk among us to make sure we’re following the rules, and who take us in to be processed and labeled and categorized if we violate some rule or other (or even if we don’t), and ideally to be frightened into never violating that rule again (if, that is, we’re lucky enough to be released at all). None of this is to say there’s no value in such a role; surely there can be, particularly with regard to addressing violent crime. But, given the amount of paperwork and the continuous human “processing” the job entails, to belong to the “force” is to be a fancy-dressed bureaucrat-in-the-trenches.

At length, after being divested of various items of clothing and whatever is in your pockets, the shackles are taken off and you’re safely behind bars. Your company is your cellmates (if you have any), your worries, and time. Lots of time. I sat there for about eight hours, which seemed even longer, due to the human brain’s self-flagellating tendency to dwell lugubriously on moments of nothingness (while speeding through moments of joy). I was fortunate soon to have a couple of talkative cellmates, both of whom were there for having thrown a punch or two; but even their presence was of limited use in accelerating the ticking of the clock.

We were waiting to be transferred to the Brooklyn Detention Complex, where we would wait till the next day to see the judge. If all went well, we’d be free, at least provisionally, by that evening.

So after a suitably punishing length of time, the handcuffs were snapped back on and we were transported to our luxury accommodations for the rest of the night. Actually, the precinct was a far more agreeable place, as you might expect, being less populated and less redolent of sweaty unwashed bodies crammed together in tiny spaces lacking ventilation and windows. The initial holding pens, in particular, were noisome: it would be cruel and inhumane to pack pigs into those enclosures, much less dozens of humans. At least one’s nose grew numb to the smell.

Finally we were herded into the main area to be processed again (to have the mug shots taken and so on). Though it was around 1:00 in the morning there were serpentine lines, scores of shackled men and women shuffling along—nearly all of them African-American or Hispanic. A dreary semi-silence punctuated by commands from officers. Dull-looking bureaucrats from a Kafka novel sitting at desks, directing us where to go. It was a subterranean world we had entered.

At last the intake process was finished and we were taken down dark corridors to the cellblock area, in the bowels of the earth. You can imagine the conditions in each cell: a vomitous toilet in the corner, a metal sink next to it, benches against the concrete wall…and that’s all. So there we were, about thirteen of us in a cramped cell, as the bars shut behind us. I recalled Malcolm X’s admonition:

Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars—caged. I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars.

To be sure, it’s easy to get over the memory when you’re confined for only a day. Still, the contrivance of the steel bars is an effective contribution to the psychological function of jails and prisons, viz. to dehumanize, to animalize, to infantilize. To fill with resentment and impotent outrage, and make hate.

Some of us claimed a bit of space on a bench; the rest sat or lay on the floor, settling in for a long night of sleeplessness. One guy made a pillow out of several inedible cheese sandwiches in little bags he had found strewn around the cell. (That’s the food we’re given, in addition to a small portion of cereal in the morning.) Those of us on the floor spent the night trying to avoid collisions between legs.

Sleep would likely have been impossible for me anyway, but it was made even more so by a few cellmates who had an impressive talent for remaining animated hour after hour, in a most vocal way. The guffaws were frequent. I listened to interesting conversations about, e.g., the relative merits of an astonishing galaxy of hip-hop artists, quite intelligent music criticism being expounded at great length, even to the point of heated debate. Later, conversation extended to those in the cage across the hall, questions being shouted as to where they lived, what acquaintances they all had in common, what they had been talking about over there, etc. “What’s your name, man? Oh, you live on Broadway? Me too! Monroe? I’m a couple blocks away, at Jefferson! You know Malik? He’s on Madison—works at the Subway there.” The irony wasn’t lost on me that this institution, meant to segregate and isolate, could also bring people together.

In fact, throughout the night and the next day I observed how easy it was for a camaraderie to develop among the inmates, the first inklings of a solidarity against the cops. While profanity-laced tirades against guards occurred occasionally—due to ignoring requests for food or for the time, or for being granted a phone call—more often the attitude was informal respect and easygoing familiarity. But that didn’t preclude a definite collective identity, an “us vs. them” mentality, based on a sense of shared injustice and oppression (or, more generally, shared interests). Everyone I talked to took it for granted that the criminal justice system is wildly racist—they were surprised that a “white boy” was in there with them. But the race factor, or any other divisive factor, didn’t really matter: when requests or demands or complaints were made to the guards, it was far more common to hear the words “we” and “us” than “I” or “me.”

Of course, this isn’t to deny that vicious divisions between inmates or groups of inmates can emerge in prisons. It was merely striking to observe the spontaneous appearance of a collective consciousness even despite, and because of, the radically anti-social environment we were trapped in.

What I found even more striking, and more poignant, was the casual familiarity with jail that most of the men displayed. None of them seemed particularly discomfited by it, except the next day when the waiting, prolonged hour after endless hour despite previous assurances of speed and efficiency, grew intolerable. More than a few guys took me under their wing, as it were, and explained how the system worked and why legally I had nothing to fear. “What did you do? Oh, that’s the lowest level of misdemeanor. You’ll be fine—they’ll release you and you’ll be on probation, and then the case will be dismissed. You have nothing to worry about.” Their expertise reminded me of Dave Chappelle’s bit: “Every black dude in this room is a qualified paralegal. If one of us even started to do something wrong, an old black man would pop out of nowhere—‘Nigga don’t do that, that’s five to ten!’”

It was clear that jail, and its ever-present possibility, was just a part of their lives, as, say, being paid very little is a part of the life of an adjunct professor. I tried to imagine what that would be like, how different all my frames of reference would be. I would literally perceive the world differently: my perceptions would incorporate and embody utterly different value-judgments than they do, different expectations from moment to moment, and I’d have to be cognizant of entire dimensions of experience—fears, worries, possibilities, factors to be taken into consideration—that are currently beyond my horizons. The understanding sank in on a visceral level of how incredibly privileged I am.

But more than that: I could see my own views of the world changing somewhat. After all, to sit on a floor against steel bars for twelve hours, and then several hours more when I was moved up to the even more crowded holding pen we wait in until the court is ready to see us, is an experience that encourages introspection. The situation felt both surreal and much more real than my ordinary life. I thought of my daily routines, the mindless reading of news in the morning and evening, the pleasantries exchanged with fellow professors and students, the Youtube-watching at night in between grading and perusals of academic journals. I thought of the throngs that flood the streets of Manhattan every day on their shopping missions or sightseeing missions, and the bar-socializing with acquaintances—the trivialities shouted across the table over the din. It all seemed more hollow than ever.

Millions of us chatting happily outside or going to movies, averting our gaze from every unpleasantness, while other millions rot in steel-enclosed windowless misery—for throwing a few punches or having marijuana on them, or not legally being an American, or being poor and black in a white society. At this point I could say that our usual complacent behavior is contemptible and unconscionable, but what hit me most forcefully was just how false and empty it is. We live in and through illusion; our entire quotidian existence is grounded in denial. We have a pathetically partial view of the world, a parochial little outlook conditioned by frivolity and routine, blind to the very foundation of society underground in these cages that police the “dangerous classes.” I felt that here was the truth, the beating heart of America.

For, as we know, we live in an overwhelmingly bureaucratized society, a world increasingly shorn of human connections—sacrificed on the altar of marketization and privatization—which is precisely why it’s hurtling towards doom. Humanity is simply a non-factor in the political-economic equation. In fact, for a long time I’ve thought that the Holocaust, the apotheosis of bureaucratic inhumanity, is the clue to the moral essence of capitalist modernity, the perfect symbol. But on a less murderous scale, mass confinement in cages is an equally apt emblem. The prisoners are almost totally helpless, totally at the mercy of bureaucratic diktats and the whims of guards and wardens. And we know how helpless we all tend to feel with regard to any bureaucracy—government bureaucracies, insurance bureaucracies, workplace bureaucracies, bank bureaucracies. We’re completely subordinated to power, with hardly any recourses. The arbitrary power over life and death is only more pronounced in the case of the “criminal justice” bureaucracy.

The prison bureaucracy takes the alienating tendencies of capitalist institutions to their logical and literal conclusion, in the separation of people into their own concrete cells and the enforcement of this atomization by armed guards. Actually, in a sense, jail or even prison might, perversely, be less atomizing than the broader capitalist civilization they reflect, given that the basic unit of society is no longer the community or the family but really the lone individual with his computer and his smartphone—and, for his social context, the bureaucracy in which he is embedded (as employee, consumer, and citizen). At least in jail a “collective consciousness” can emerge, together with real sympathy and empathy. And the human interactions tend to have a stripped-down quality, a directness and rawness, very different from the impersonal fakeness outside.

By around 11 a.m. the remaining conversations in the cellblock had died down. By 12:00, and then 1:00, and then 2:00, an absolute listlessness had settled on us, except for periodic ejaculations of disgust at whatever incompetence or malice was keeping us down there. Time had stopped. I began to wonder if I’d ever be released; the thought of freedom seemed too good to be true. Maybe I’d be stuck here another day, or longer. Would I have to miss work on Monday? Some of the guys had missed work that day, putting their jobs in jeopardy. I looked at the bodies sprawled on the floor and thought, This is what matters in the world. The rest is a lie, as long as this exists. The way I’d lived, immersed in thoughts of self, seemed absurd and shameful. All that mattered was to fight against this, and all suffering. I had to make changes, drastic changes in how I lived. That this could exist, or conditions infinitely worse than this, was completely intolerable.

To think that every day in cities and towns across the country tens of thousands of people were streaming, handcuffed, into jails, prisons, and detention centers, there to languish at the mercy of the System, was beyond horrifying. What would people outside think if they could see through the thick walls of the Brooklyn Detention Complex and know what was going on in here! All those free, relatively carefree people right outside, strolling down the streets blissfully unaware of the mass suffering just a couple hundred feet away. The moral imperative was to de-atomize, to bring to light and bring together. Arbitrary power thrives on atomization, and grows to Goliath dimensions as long as it can live in the dark. The necessity is to shine a light on it and kill it.

At long last the moment of deliverance arrived: my name was called. Full of hope, I left the cell…to be transferred to another cell. In which there were perhaps thirty people, though it was scarcely larger than the one I’d spent the night in. But at least I was closer—so I hoped—to freedom. I was also trepidatious, not knowing what to expect when I faced the judge, for instance whether he would set bail, or whether the DA would prosecute despite the pitiful triviality of the incident that had landed me there. Soon after I was in the new cell, a man came in cursing the judge, whom he had just seen. “That motherfucker set bail even higher than they asked for! $2000. As soon as I saw him look down at the sheet, I knew it was over. They said I had an old warrant for littering, so they went after me.” Littering.

To be sure, others had committed more serious crimes. One middle-aged guy, a jovial fellow, had been caught shoplifting at Macy’s (to sell the items later). “I know what I did wrong now,” he said. “I gotta be more careful when there aren’t crowds. In the holiday season it was different—I probably took $20,000 worth. Easy. There are so many people it’s easy.” I noticed that they all drew a distinction between stealing and taking. “You don’t steal,” one guy said. “You take. A woman steals, I take. You gotta take it, just take what you need, it’s yours, and walk out of there.” Earlier I had talked to a pregnant young woman, attractive, confident, and articulate, who said she regularly steals—no, takes—expensive items from Macy’s (again, to sell them on the street). It isn’t really theft because she thinks she’s entitled to it, in light of how much the government takes from her and how cruelly the System treats people like her (i.e., poor African-Americans). She has a job, but the pay isn’t enough for her to provide for her family. It was clear to me that this sort of theft is widespread.

The situation, then, is predictably absurd: people are denied the ability to earn a living, and, in addition, government steals money from them when they can find work—yes, steals, for the logic of government is, arguably, no different from that of a protection racket—so they have to turn to illicit means of surviving; but in that case, if discovered, they’re sent to prison. So it’s Scylla or Charybdis. Deprivation or—deprivation in prison.

Meanwhile, my own brief period of deprivation was about to come to an end. The last couple of hours weren’t particularly eventful, aside from when one of the inmates had a seizure, complete with foaming at the mouth. I can’t say if it was due to negligence by the authorities, but my guess is not, since they acted fairly promptly to get him medical assistance. At any rate, by this point I was more than ready for freedom. Not to mention food. The thought of both was sweeter than I had ever known.

In the early evening my name was called for the last time, and I made my way to the courtroom. Whence to freedom, a half-hour later. Having no criminal record, I was let off easy. What happened to the others, I don’t know. What I do know is that as I walked outside into the drizzling rain, the taste of freedom in the air, people in handcuffs were being ushered into the back entrance of the building, out of the rain-scented air and into the sweat-stinking holding pens. Many of them would be repeat offenders, and this latest arrest might have dire effects on their lives. It would be harder to get a job, which would tempt them to take what they needed, which would raise the possibility of another arrest, and so the cycle would continue. The System would continue to be fed fresh meat, and it would grow bigger in scale, and ever more lives would be ground up in its gears. The System would continue to dominate a diabolically regimented society—unless its victims and their advocates could, somehow, throw a wrench into its gears and grind them to a halt.

I didn’t know how that could be done, but, newly inspired, I knew I had to take part.

Privatization Is Killing Us: Dispatches from the War on Society

As the capitalist elite continues to pour ever more resources into its crusade to dismantle society, it’s important to keep a tally of the damage done—if only to direct popular attention to where it’s needed most, and to where the Left’s own resources are needed most. High on the list of capitalist priorities, and thus of priorities for left-wing resistance, is the goal to privatize everything from education to nature to policing and soldiering. With that in mind, here’s a list of some recent “negative externalities” of privatization that I’ve culled from news sources.

Children, teachers, and rat feces

Let’s start with Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, jewel of neoliberalism. In February 2014, the Chicago Public Schools decided to outsource management of custodians to Aramark and SodexoMAGIC. The rationale for privatization is supposed to be that it cuts costs and improves “efficiency” or effectiveness. Left unsaid is the means by which costs are cut: primarily from the fact that private companies have a freer hand than government in treating employees viciously. It’s easier for corporations to lay off employees, reduce wages and benefits, degrade working conditions, and destroy unions than it is for governments to do so, since corporations are totalitarian institutions. Whether the overall deal is a net financial gain for government is a difficult question, to which studies have given conflicting answers. Some have found that it actually ends up costing more money in the long run, while others have concluded privatization may in some cases yield savings of about 10 percent. But these reports don’t factor in all the extra costs, such as the time and money it takes to review proposals by companies, negotiate contracts, review contract terms, deal with the inevitable lawsuits, etc.

And then there are the costs to the public, which, of course, don’t count.

Tim Cawley, the chief administrative officer behind CPS’s decision to outsource custodial management, claimed it would indirectly improve “family and community engagement”—which in a sense it did, since parents have felt compelled to volunteer to clean up bathrooms and classrooms. Because of cutbacks in the number (and the pay) of janitors, it has been left to parents and teachers to clean up pools of urine in bathrooms, feces smeared on walls (in preschools), clogged toilet bowls, enormous amounts of trash, rat droppings, and the like. Toilet paper and soap supplies have repeatedly run out in many schools, forcing teachers to buy supplies themselves. (In some schools, students have been asked to bring in their own toilet paper, tissues, soap, and paper towels.) Leaky ceilings, cockroach infestations, rotting floors, outbreaks of bed bugs, exposed asbestos, the presence of dust and grime aggravating respiratory illnesses, and rotting garbage do not exactly “result in an enhanced learning environment,” despite Cawley’s assurances.

“It’s gross and disgusting and my health is being affected,” one teacher says. “I want to be outside the minute I’m in here. It smells. Everything smells and I can’t focus. If I can’t focus to teach, how can kids focus to learn?”

While these conditions have been known about for years, only a recent exposé by the Chicago Sun-Times has finally persuaded CPS to act—by hiring an extra 200 janitors this summer, of whom 100 will remain in the fall. The janitors’ union had asked for 500 more permanent hires.

There is good news on the legislative front, though: on April 10, the Illinois House Labor and Commerce Committee voted favorably on a bill that would allow members of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain over non-salary issues such as crowded classes and filthy schools. (This is a right denied only to Chicago teachers.) The bill now heads to the House.

Barbarism, Inc.

Few business models can be as morally putrid as private prisons. The government pays the company a per diem rate per prisoner, so shareholders make more money the more people are incarcerated. Which gives them an incentive to lobby for harsh laws, as they have done effectively in recent decades. The company also has an incentive to keep conditions as bad as possible for both prisoners and employees, since, of course, cost-cutting is good for profit-making. Study after study has revealed the obvious and outrageous moral hazards of the private prison industry.

But with a creature in the White House who supports the expansion of this sociopathic industry, it’s useful to be reminded of just how horrible it is. A few weeks ago the New York Times published an article on the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a privately run prison in which gang members have been allowed to beat other prisoners (for extended periods of time), a mentally ill man on suicide watch hanged himself, and inmates have to protect themselves with crudely made knives and other weapons because there aren’t enough guards to maintain order. And the ones who are there aren’t well-trained. One prisoner was charged by a man with a knife and a long section of pipe while he was being escorted to his jail cell; the two guards escorting him just ran away, and he was stabbed and hit for several minutes before other guards arrived. “They laughed and told [the assailant] not to do it again,” the victim recalled. The medical staff did effectively nothing for his wounds.

Meanwhile, the recent “crackdown” on undocumented immigrants has meant a bonanza for the profits of certain corporations. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a private prison company called CoreCivic, Inc. that runs the Steward Detention Center in Georgia has been making money off people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The scheme is to force immigrants to work for as little as $1 a day cleaning, cooking, and maintaining the detention center, which would otherwise have to be maintained by actual employees. Those who refuse to work are “threatened with solitary confinement and the loss of access to basic necessities, like food, clothing, products for personal hygiene, and phone calls to loved ones, in violation of federal anti-trafficking laws.” Lawsuits have been filed in several states to challenge these sorts of work practices.

For-profit Medicaid hindrance

Under the perpetual pretext of cutting costs and increasing efficiency, a number of states, including (among others) Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Kansas, have in recent years partly or wholly privatized Medicaid. The “efficiency” pretext, incidentally, is ironic, given the likely truth of David Graeber’s “Iron Law of Liberalism,” that “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.” The explosion of bureaucracy in the market-obsessed neoliberal era bears out this law.

What have been the consequences of these privatizations? Iowa is an illustrative case. According to a series of editorials for which Andie Dominick of the Des Moines Register won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize, the results have not been pretty. Since April 2016, three for-profit insurers have taken over management of health care for more than 500,000 Iowans, many of whom have, as a result, now lost access to services, equipment (such as wheelchairs), and even nutritional supplements. Against the advice of medical professionals, the insurers simply refuse to pay for needed care.

Healthcare providers have been underpaid or not paid at all. A nursing home was forced to borrow $150,000 while waiting for reimbursements; a mental health facility was owed $300,000; a family planning clinic had to close. To take only three examples. The state has had to bail out the insurers and assume financial risk—which is ironic, since the supposed point of privatization was to provide state budget predictability in Medicaid spending. Before the privatization debacle, Iowa’s Medicaid had lower per-person spending than many other states and provided reliable reimbursements to providers and consistency in coverage for vulnerable people.

Because of problems similar to Iowa’s, Connecticut in 2012 fired the insurance companies managing its Medicaid programs and transitioned back to the traditional “fee for service” model, according to which the state reimburses providers directly. The results were what you’d expect: the monthly cost of care per patient dropped $718 in 2012 to $670 in 2015; the number of doctors willing to accept Medicaid patients increased; and administrative costs dropped from 12 percent to 5 percent.

Turns out market forces aren’t so “efficient” after all.

Nature for sale

Already in his short tenure in office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has shown he can privatize with the best of them. There isn’t space here to list all the creative ways he’s trying to destroy the natural environment or restrict its enjoyment to a select few, but we can consider a few examples.

In December 2017, on Zinke’s recommendation and at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, Trump announced he was going to reduce Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument by 50 percent. Legal challenges to these orders are currently winding through the courts.

Zinke has ordered the Bureau of Land Management to hold oil and gas lease sales of public lands every 90 days, in addition to “eliminating burdensome regulations” related to oil and natural gas development. He has started the process of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas drilling, and is pushing for an expedited timeline of leasing land by 2019. Meanwhile, he’s trying to make drilling less safe by reversing safety regulations that were put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In January 2018 Zinke proposed an offshore drilling plan that would open 90 percent of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf for oil and gas lease sales. By comparison, the current program puts 94 percent of the OCS off-limits. (Zinke said he’d exempt Florida from the plan, as a favor to his friend Governor Rick Scott, but it appears that this exemption wasn’t a formal action and that Florida is, in fact, being considered for offshore drilling.) Zinke’s draft plan also proposes the largest number of lease sales in U.S. history.

Selling land to corporations is one method of privatization; another is to restrict enjoyment of public parks to those who can afford to pay. Zinke is pursuing this second path as well. In 2016 the National Park Service offered 16 free-admission days at national parks; in 2017 the number was down to 10; this year it’s down to four. The Interior Department had also planned to massively increase entrance fees at the country’s most popular parks—from $25 to $70—but scrapped the plan due to public backlash. Instead, the department will enact a more limited increase at all parks that charge an entrance fee.

With the Trump administration’s term less than half over, we can expect a slew of similar predatory plans in the coming years.

Business as usual

None of these trends is at all surprising, since they emerge from tendencies fundamental to capitalism for centuries. These tendencies have simply been unshackled from prior restraints in the neoliberal era. The destructive, antisocial essence of capitalism has been given free rein, like a raging bull that has broken free of its yoke, such that society is approaching the literal realization of capitalism’s misanthropic telos.

In the long run, two outcomes seem possible. Either humanity will find itself in the Hobbesian state of nature—which is the inner logic and meaning of capitalism—or the crises into which we are fast plunging ourselves will call forth such massive global resistance that a revolutionary social transformation will, at length, come to pass. What it will look like can’t be foreseen (though informed speculations can be useful). All that can be predicted with certainty is that unless the generations now living devote their very existence to the Resistance, humanity won’t have much of a future.

Business as usual is no longer an option.

Privatization Is Killing Us: Dispatches from the War on Society

As the capitalist elite continues to pour ever more resources into its crusade to dismantle society, it’s important to keep a tally of the damage done—if only to direct popular attention to where it’s needed most, and to where the Left’s own resources are needed most. High on the list of capitalist priorities, and thus of priorities for left-wing resistance, is the goal to privatize everything from education to nature to policing and soldiering. With that in mind, here’s a list of some recent “negative externalities” of privatization that I’ve culled from news sources.

Children, teachers, and rat feces

Let’s start with Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, jewel of neoliberalism. In February 2014, the Chicago Public Schools decided to outsource management of custodians to Aramark and SodexoMAGIC. The rationale for privatization is supposed to be that it cuts costs and improves “efficiency” or effectiveness. Left unsaid is the means by which costs are cut: primarily from the fact that private companies have a freer hand than government in treating employees viciously. It’s easier for corporations to lay off employees, reduce wages and benefits, degrade working conditions, and destroy unions than it is for governments to do so, since corporations are totalitarian institutions. Whether the overall deal is a net financial gain for government is a difficult question, to which studies have given conflicting answers. Some have found that it actually ends up costing more money in the long run, while others have concluded privatization may in some cases yield savings of about 10 percent. But these reports don’t factor in all the extra costs, such as the time and money it takes to review proposals by companies, negotiate contracts, review contract terms, deal with the inevitable lawsuits, etc.

And then there are the costs to the public, which, of course, don’t count.

Tim Cawley, the chief administrative officer behind CPS’s decision to outsource custodial management, claimed it would indirectly improve “family and community engagement”—which in a sense it did, since parents have felt compelled to volunteer to clean up bathrooms and classrooms. Because of cutbacks in the number (and the pay) of janitors, it has been left to parents and teachers to clean up pools of urine in bathrooms, feces smeared on walls (in preschools), clogged toilet bowls, enormous amounts of trash, rat droppings, and the like. Toilet paper and soap supplies have repeatedly run out in many schools, forcing teachers to buy supplies themselves. (In some schools, students have been asked to bring in their own toilet paper, tissues, soap, and paper towels.) Leaky ceilings, cockroach infestations, rotting floors, outbreaks of bed bugs, exposed asbestos, the presence of dust and grime aggravating respiratory illnesses, and rotting garbage do not exactly “result in an enhanced learning environment,” despite Cawley’s assurances.

“It’s gross and disgusting and my health is being affected,” one teacher says. “I want to be outside the minute I’m in here. It smells. Everything smells and I can’t focus. If I can’t focus to teach, how can kids focus to learn?”

While these conditions have been known about for years, only a recent exposé by the Chicago Sun-Times has finally persuaded CPS to act—by hiring an extra 200 janitors this summer, of whom 100 will remain in the fall. The janitors’ union had asked for 500 more permanent hires.

There is good news on the legislative front, though: on April 10, the Illinois House Labor and Commerce Committee voted favorably on a bill that would allow members of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain over non-salary issues such as crowded classes and filthy schools. (This is a right denied only to Chicago teachers.) The bill now heads to the House.

Barbarism, Inc.

Few business models can be as morally putrid as private prisons. The government pays the company a per diem rate per prisoner, so shareholders make more money the more people are incarcerated. Which gives them an incentive to lobby for harsh laws, as they have done effectively in recent decades. The company also has an incentive to keep conditions as bad as possible for both prisoners and employees, since, of course, cost-cutting is good for profit-making. Study after study has revealed the obvious and outrageous moral hazards of the private prison industry.

But with a creature in the White House who supports the expansion of this sociopathic industry, it’s useful to be reminded of just how horrible it is. A few weeks ago the New York Times published an article on the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a privately run prison in which gang members have been allowed to beat other prisoners (for extended periods of time), a mentally ill man on suicide watch hanged himself, and inmates have to protect themselves with crudely made knives and other weapons because there aren’t enough guards to maintain order. And the ones who are there aren’t well-trained. One prisoner was charged by a man with a knife and a long section of pipe while he was being escorted to his jail cell; the two guards escorting him just ran away, and he was stabbed and hit for several minutes before other guards arrived. “They laughed and told [the assailant] not to do it again,” the victim recalled. The medical staff did effectively nothing for his wounds.

Meanwhile, the recent “crackdown” on undocumented immigrants has meant a bonanza for the profits of certain corporations. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a private prison company called CoreCivic, Inc. that runs the Steward Detention Center in Georgia has been making money off people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The scheme is to force immigrants to work for as little as $1 a day cleaning, cooking, and maintaining the detention center, which would otherwise have to be maintained by actual employees. Those who refuse to work are “threatened with solitary confinement and the loss of access to basic necessities, like food, clothing, products for personal hygiene, and phone calls to loved ones, in violation of federal anti-trafficking laws.” Lawsuits have been filed in several states to challenge these sorts of work practices.

For-profit Medicaid hindrance

Under the perpetual pretext of cutting costs and increasing efficiency, a number of states, including (among others) Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Kansas, have in recent years partly or wholly privatized Medicaid. The “efficiency” pretext, incidentally, is ironic, given the likely truth of David Graeber’s “Iron Law of Liberalism,” that “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.” The explosion of bureaucracy in the market-obsessed neoliberal era bears out this law.

What have been the consequences of these privatizations? Iowa is an illustrative case. According to a series of editorials for which Andie Dominick of the Des Moines Register won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize, the results have not been pretty. Since April 2016, three for-profit insurers have taken over management of health care for more than 500,000 Iowans, many of whom have, as a result, now lost access to services, equipment (such as wheelchairs), and even nutritional supplements. Against the advice of medical professionals, the insurers simply refuse to pay for needed care.

Healthcare providers have been underpaid or not paid at all. A nursing home was forced to borrow $150,000 while waiting for reimbursements; a mental health facility was owed $300,000; a family planning clinic had to close. To take only three examples. The state has had to bail out the insurers and assume financial risk—which is ironic, since the supposed point of privatization was to provide state budget predictability in Medicaid spending. Before the privatization debacle, Iowa’s Medicaid had lower per-person spending than many other states and provided reliable reimbursements to providers and consistency in coverage for vulnerable people.

Because of problems similar to Iowa’s, Connecticut in 2012 fired the insurance companies managing its Medicaid programs and transitioned back to the traditional “fee for service” model, according to which the state reimburses providers directly. The results were what you’d expect: the monthly cost of care per patient dropped $718 in 2012 to $670 in 2015; the number of doctors willing to accept Medicaid patients increased; and administrative costs dropped from 12 percent to 5 percent.

Turns out market forces aren’t so “efficient” after all.

Nature for sale

Already in his short tenure in office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has shown he can privatize with the best of them. There isn’t space here to list all the creative ways he’s trying to destroy the natural environment or restrict its enjoyment to a select few, but we can consider a few examples.

In December 2017, on Zinke’s recommendation and at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, Trump announced he was going to reduce Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument by 50 percent. Legal challenges to these orders are currently winding through the courts.

Zinke has ordered the Bureau of Land Management to hold oil and gas lease sales of public lands every 90 days, in addition to “eliminating burdensome regulations” related to oil and natural gas development. He has started the process of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas drilling, and is pushing for an expedited timeline of leasing land by 2019. Meanwhile, he’s trying to make drilling less safe by reversing safety regulations that were put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In January 2018 Zinke proposed an offshore drilling plan that would open 90 percent of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf for oil and gas lease sales. By comparison, the current program puts 94 percent of the OCS off-limits. (Zinke said he’d exempt Florida from the plan, as a favor to his friend Governor Rick Scott, but it appears that this exemption wasn’t a formal action and that Florida is, in fact, being considered for offshore drilling.) Zinke’s draft plan also proposes the largest number of lease sales in U.S. history.

Selling land to corporations is one method of privatization; another is to restrict enjoyment of public parks to those who can afford to pay. Zinke is pursuing this second path as well. In 2016 the National Park Service offered 16 free-admission days at national parks; in 2017 the number was down to 10; this year it’s down to four. The Interior Department had also planned to massively increase entrance fees at the country’s most popular parks—from $25 to $70—but scrapped the plan due to public backlash. Instead, the department will enact a more limited increase at all parks that charge an entrance fee.

With the Trump administration’s term less than half over, we can expect a slew of similar predatory plans in the coming years.

Business as usual

None of these trends is at all surprising, since they emerge from tendencies fundamental to capitalism for centuries. These tendencies have simply been unshackled from prior restraints in the neoliberal era. The destructive, antisocial essence of capitalism has been given free rein, like a raging bull that has broken free of its yoke, such that society is approaching the literal realization of capitalism’s misanthropic telos.

In the long run, two outcomes seem possible. Either humanity will find itself in the Hobbesian state of nature—which is the inner logic and meaning of capitalism—or the crises into which we are fast plunging ourselves will call forth such massive global resistance that a revolutionary social transformation will, at length, come to pass. What it will look like can’t be foreseen (though informed speculations can be useful). All that can be predicted with certainty is that unless the generations now living devote their very existence to the Resistance, humanity won’t have much of a future.

Business as usual is no longer an option.

Privatization Is Killing Us: Dispatches from the War on Society

As the capitalist elite continues to pour ever more resources into its crusade to dismantle society, it’s important to keep a tally of the damage done—if only to direct popular attention to where it’s needed most, and to where the Left’s own resources are needed most. High on the list of capitalist priorities, and thus of priorities for left-wing resistance, is the goal to privatize everything from education to nature to policing and soldiering. With that in mind, here’s a list of some recent “negative externalities” of privatization that I’ve culled from news sources.

Children, teachers, and rat feces

Let’s start with Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, jewel of neoliberalism. In February 2014, the Chicago Public Schools decided to outsource management of custodians to Aramark and SodexoMAGIC. The rationale for privatization is supposed to be that it cuts costs and improves “efficiency” or effectiveness. Left unsaid is the means by which costs are cut: primarily from the fact that private companies have a freer hand than government in treating employees viciously. It’s easier for corporations to lay off employees, reduce wages and benefits, degrade working conditions, and destroy unions than it is for governments to do so, since corporations are totalitarian institutions. Whether the overall deal is a net financial gain for government is a difficult question, to which studies have given conflicting answers. Some have found that it actually ends up costing more money in the long run, while others have concluded privatization may in some cases yield savings of about 10 percent. But these reports don’t factor in all the extra costs, such as the time and money it takes to review proposals by companies, negotiate contracts, review contract terms, deal with the inevitable lawsuits, etc.

And then there are the costs to the public, which, of course, don’t count.

Tim Cawley, the chief administrative officer behind CPS’s decision to outsource custodial management, claimed it would indirectly improve “family and community engagement”—which in a sense it did, since parents have felt compelled to volunteer to clean up bathrooms and classrooms. Because of cutbacks in the number (and the pay) of janitors, it has been left to parents and teachers to clean up pools of urine in bathrooms, feces smeared on walls (in preschools), clogged toilet bowls, enormous amounts of trash, rat droppings, and the like. Toilet paper and soap supplies have repeatedly run out in many schools, forcing teachers to buy supplies themselves. (In some schools, students have been asked to bring in their own toilet paper, tissues, soap, and paper towels.) Leaky ceilings, cockroach infestations, rotting floors, outbreaks of bed bugs, exposed asbestos, the presence of dust and grime aggravating respiratory illnesses, and rotting garbage do not exactly “result in an enhanced learning environment,” despite Cawley’s assurances.

“It’s gross and disgusting and my health is being affected,” one teacher says. “I want to be outside the minute I’m in here. It smells. Everything smells and I can’t focus. If I can’t focus to teach, how can kids focus to learn?”

While these conditions have been known about for years, only a recent exposé by the Chicago Sun-Times has finally persuaded CPS to act—by hiring an extra 200 janitors this summer, of whom 100 will remain in the fall. The janitors’ union had asked for 500 more permanent hires.

There is good news on the legislative front, though: on April 10, the Illinois House Labor and Commerce Committee voted favorably on a bill that would allow members of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain over non-salary issues such as crowded classes and filthy schools. (This is a right denied only to Chicago teachers.) The bill now heads to the House.

Barbarism, Inc.

Few business models can be as morally putrid as private prisons. The government pays the company a per diem rate per prisoner, so shareholders make more money the more people are incarcerated. Which gives them an incentive to lobby for harsh laws, as they have done effectively in recent decades. The company also has an incentive to keep conditions as bad as possible for both prisoners and employees, since, of course, cost-cutting is good for profit-making. Study after study has revealed the obvious and outrageous moral hazards of the private prison industry.

But with a creature in the White House who supports the expansion of this sociopathic industry, it’s useful to be reminded of just how horrible it is. A few weeks ago the New York Times published an article on the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a privately run prison in which gang members have been allowed to beat other prisoners (for extended periods of time), a mentally ill man on suicide watch hanged himself, and inmates have to protect themselves with crudely made knives and other weapons because there aren’t enough guards to maintain order. And the ones who are there aren’t well-trained. One prisoner was charged by a man with a knife and a long section of pipe while he was being escorted to his jail cell; the two guards escorting him just ran away, and he was stabbed and hit for several minutes before other guards arrived. “They laughed and told [the assailant] not to do it again,” the victim recalled. The medical staff did effectively nothing for his wounds.

Meanwhile, the recent “crackdown” on undocumented immigrants has meant a bonanza for the profits of certain corporations. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a private prison company called CoreCivic, Inc. that runs the Steward Detention Center in Georgia has been making money off people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The scheme is to force immigrants to work for as little as $1 a day cleaning, cooking, and maintaining the detention center, which would otherwise have to be maintained by actual employees. Those who refuse to work are “threatened with solitary confinement and the loss of access to basic necessities, like food, clothing, products for personal hygiene, and phone calls to loved ones, in violation of federal anti-trafficking laws.” Lawsuits have been filed in several states to challenge these sorts of work practices.

For-profit Medicaid hindrance

Under the perpetual pretext of cutting costs and increasing efficiency, a number of states, including (among others) Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Kansas, have in recent years partly or wholly privatized Medicaid. The “efficiency” pretext, incidentally, is ironic, given the likely truth of David Graeber’s “Iron Law of Liberalism,” that “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.” The explosion of bureaucracy in the market-obsessed neoliberal era bears out this law.

What have been the consequences of these privatizations? Iowa is an illustrative case. According to a series of editorials for which Andie Dominick of the Des Moines Register won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize, the results have not been pretty. Since April 2016, three for-profit insurers have taken over management of health care for more than 500,000 Iowans, many of whom have, as a result, now lost access to services, equipment (such as wheelchairs), and even nutritional supplements. Against the advice of medical professionals, the insurers simply refuse to pay for needed care.

Healthcare providers have been underpaid or not paid at all. A nursing home was forced to borrow $150,000 while waiting for reimbursements; a mental health facility was owed $300,000; a family planning clinic had to close. To take only three examples. The state has had to bail out the insurers and assume financial risk—which is ironic, since the supposed point of privatization was to provide state budget predictability in Medicaid spending. Before the privatization debacle, Iowa’s Medicaid had lower per-person spending than many other states and provided reliable reimbursements to providers and consistency in coverage for vulnerable people.

Because of problems similar to Iowa’s, Connecticut in 2012 fired the insurance companies managing its Medicaid programs and transitioned back to the traditional “fee for service” model, according to which the state reimburses providers directly. The results were what you’d expect: the monthly cost of care per patient dropped $718 in 2012 to $670 in 2015; the number of doctors willing to accept Medicaid patients increased; and administrative costs dropped from 12 percent to 5 percent.

Turns out market forces aren’t so “efficient” after all.

Nature for sale

Already in his short tenure in office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has shown he can privatize with the best of them. There isn’t space here to list all the creative ways he’s trying to destroy the natural environment or restrict its enjoyment to a select few, but we can consider a few examples.

In December 2017, on Zinke’s recommendation and at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, Trump announced he was going to reduce Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument by 50 percent. Legal challenges to these orders are currently winding through the courts.

Zinke has ordered the Bureau of Land Management to hold oil and gas lease sales of public lands every 90 days, in addition to “eliminating burdensome regulations” related to oil and natural gas development. He has started the process of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas drilling, and is pushing for an expedited timeline of leasing land by 2019. Meanwhile, he’s trying to make drilling less safe by reversing safety regulations that were put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In January 2018 Zinke proposed an offshore drilling plan that would open 90 percent of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf for oil and gas lease sales. By comparison, the current program puts 94 percent of the OCS off-limits. (Zinke said he’d exempt Florida from the plan, as a favor to his friend Governor Rick Scott, but it appears that this exemption wasn’t a formal action and that Florida is, in fact, being considered for offshore drilling.) Zinke’s draft plan also proposes the largest number of lease sales in U.S. history.

Selling land to corporations is one method of privatization; another is to restrict enjoyment of public parks to those who can afford to pay. Zinke is pursuing this second path as well. In 2016 the National Park Service offered 16 free-admission days at national parks; in 2017 the number was down to 10; this year it’s down to four. The Interior Department had also planned to massively increase entrance fees at the country’s most popular parks—from $25 to $70—but scrapped the plan due to public backlash. Instead, the department will enact a more limited increase at all parks that charge an entrance fee.

With the Trump administration’s term less than half over, we can expect a slew of similar predatory plans in the coming years.

Business as usual

None of these trends is at all surprising, since they emerge from tendencies fundamental to capitalism for centuries. These tendencies have simply been unshackled from prior restraints in the neoliberal era. The destructive, antisocial essence of capitalism has been given free rein, like a raging bull that has broken free of its yoke, such that society is approaching the literal realization of capitalism’s misanthropic telos.

In the long run, two outcomes seem possible. Either humanity will find itself in the Hobbesian state of nature—which is the inner logic and meaning of capitalism—or the crises into which we are fast plunging ourselves will call forth such massive global resistance that a revolutionary social transformation will, at length, come to pass. What it will look like can’t be foreseen (though informed speculations can be useful). All that can be predicted with certainty is that unless the generations now living devote their very existence to the Resistance, humanity won’t have much of a future.

Business as usual is no longer an option.

The Necessity of a Moral Revolution

We’re embarking on a revolutionary era, an era that promises to be more radical even than the 1930s. No society of overwhelming decadence and moral rot, luxuriantly productive of elite human fungi whose function is but to drain the vitality of the whole, is destined to last very long. No society that can throw up a bewigged slug as its leader has much of a future. As it parasitizes itself to death, new social forms are bound to sprout in abundance (through the energy of activists and organizers).

The core of the protracted revolution, of course, is to create new institutions, ultimately new relations of production. Every revolution is essentially a matter of changing social structures; the goal of transforming ideologies makes sense only as facilitating institutional change. Nevertheless, to spread new ways of thinking, new values, can indeed serve as an effective midwife of revolution, and thus is a task worth undertaking.

The fundamental moral transition that has to occur (in order, for example, to save humanity from collective suicide) is from a kind of nefarious egoism to a beneficent communism. This is the ideological core of the coming social changes, this shift from individualistic greed—“Gain wealth, forgetting all but self”—to collective solidarity. We have to stop seeing the world through the distorted lens of the private capitalist self, the self whose raison d’­être is to accumulate private property, private experiences, private resentments, finally private neuroses, and instead see the world as what it is, a vast community stretching through time and space. Such a change of vision might facilitate the necessary institutional changes—which themselves, later, will naturally engender and instill this communist-type vision.

The very notion of “private property,” of “this is mine, and I alone earned it,” has to be recognized as a form of moral idiocy or insanity. Here, I would do better to quote the old anarchist Kropotkin than to offer my own formulations, which would pale beside his. In his classic The Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin explained just how stupid is the idea of entitlement to a private piece of property (as though “no one else deserves it”):

Take a civilized country. The forests which once covered it have been cleared, the marshes drained, the climate improved. It has been made habitable. The soil, which bore formerly only a coarse vegetation, is covered today with rich harvests… Thousands of highways and railroads furrow the earth, and pierce the mountains. The rivers have been made navigable; the coasts, carefully surveyed, are easy of access; artificial harbors, laboriously dug out and protected against the fury of the sea, afford shelter to the ships…

Millions of human beings have labored to create this civilization on which we pride ourselves today. Other millions, scattered through the globe, labor to maintain it. Without them nothing would be left in fifty years but ruins.

There is not even a thought, or an invention, which is not common property, born of the past and the present. Thousands of inventors, known and unknown, who have died in poverty, have cooperated in the invention of each of these machines which embody the genius of man. Thousands of writers, of poets, of scholars, have labored to increase knowledge, to dissipate error, and to create that atmosphere of scientific thought without which the marvels of our century could never have appeared. And these thousands of philosophers, of scholars, of inventors…have been upheld and nourished through life, both physically and mentally, by legions of workers and craftsmen of all sorts…

By what right then can anyone whatever appropriate the least morsel of this immense whole and say – This is mine, not yours?1

As he goes on to argue, the wage system itself, which is conceptually and institutionally a close relative of private property, is morally absurd. And not only because it’s repugnant for people to be forced to rent themselves to others in order to survive. Or because wage-earners necessarily can’t receive the full equivalent of the value they have produced (for then the capitalist couldn’t make any profit). Perhaps equally ridiculous is the idea that it’s possible to “measure” labor at all, to quantitatively compare workers’ contributions, when there are so many qualitative differences between the work that each person does. How can one say whose work is more valuable than another’s? Why should a plumber’s work be considered less valuable than an engineer’s? Why a financial consultant’s more valuable than a sanitation worker’s? (If anything, the reverse makes far more sense.)

The only principle that makes logical and moral sense is “to put the needs above the works, and first of all to recognize the right to live, and later on the right to well-being for all those who take their share in production.” Society has to be rid, once and for all, of the obsessive “who deserves what?” mentality, the apportioning mentality, the “mine vs. yours” pathology.

“If middle-class society is decaying,” Kropotkin writes—thereby, incidentally, proving the timelessness of his thoughts—“if we have got into a blind alley from which we cannot emerge without attacking past institutions with torch and hatchet, it is precisely because we have given too much to counting. It is because we have let ourselves be influenced into giving only to receive. It is because we have aimed at turning society into a commercial company based on debit and credit.”2

Actually, as I’ve written elsewhere (following David Graeber), even contemporary capitalist society, whose utopia is to make everyone an enemy of everyone else (that’s what thoroughgoing privatization would mean), couldn’t function without a substratum of implicit communism. Everything would instantly break down if people stopped giving what they could to those in need, whether money, time, free labor, gifts, advice, ideas, or encouragement. Social life itself is essentially communistic, based on community, generosity, and sympathy. The general systematization of private property is a perversion.

Kropotkin’s arguments suffice to answer the misanthropic refrain of conservatives that “it’s wrong to give something to people who have done nothing to earn it.” But other answers are possible. One might point out that people born into the middle or upper class have done nothing to “earn” their privileged position. The wealthy haven’t earned the inheritance they receive from their parents. White Americans didn’t earn their skin-color or the fact that they weren’t born in, say, a Haitian slum. People who benefit from charisma or physical beauty or intelligence did nothing to earn that; they were born with it. They deserve no credit for it. Somebody who happens to meet the right person at the right time and is launched on a successful career is the beneficiary of luck—as, in short, every “successful” person is, in innumerable ways.

Nor does any of this begin to address all the ways that the wealthy or corporations or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs benefit from state policy designed to give them what they want and to strip the poor of the right to live. Through the agency of the state (e.g., its corporate welfare programs, defense budget, patent and copyright protections, and, to some extent, interest payments on bonds), the population subsidizes the power and wealth of people whose ideology is to shame those who benefit from state programs. According to their own ideology, then, these “libertarians” in the business class ought to have their property confiscated, since, strictly speaking, they have “earned” none or little of it.

In fact, to the degree that our economy has become mainly a rentier economy, owned by parasites on the productive labor of others, it is sheer farce to talk about property-owners’ right to their wealth—which is to say their right to exclude others from ownership. For where would this right come from, if there isn’t even a pretense of their having earned all they own? How rich would Bill Gates be without the “rent” he receives from ridiculously stringent copyright protection for Windows and other Microsoft products? He is merely the lucky beneficiary of government policies that serve to hinder the diffusion of knowledge and wealth.

All this private property-exalting thinking, therefore, has to be cast aside onto the dung-heap of history. Rather than Reverence for Property, we ought to strive for something like the Reverence for Life that Albert Schweitzer wrote about and embodied. That is, we ought to explicitly embrace the moral communism (“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”) to which we’re already implicitly committed whenever we act as though guided by the Golden Rule, which is to say whenever we act morally at all. To be moral is, in essence, to act like a communist.

“Let us go then, you and I,” and bring forth the moral revolution.

  1. Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread and Other Writings, ed. Marshall Shatz (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 13­–16. More concisely, “the means of production being the collective work of humanity, the product should be the collective property of the race. Individual appropriation is neither just nor serviceable. All belongs to all. All things are for all men, since all men have need of them…and since it is not possible to evaluate everyone’s part in the production of the world’s wealth.”
  2. Ibid., 154, 155.

The Necessity of a Moral Revolution

We’re embarking on a revolutionary era, an era that promises to be more radical even than the 1930s. No society of overwhelming decadence and moral rot, luxuriantly productive of elite human fungi whose function is but to drain the vitality of the whole, is destined to last very long. No society that can throw up a bewigged slug as its leader has much of a future. As it parasitizes itself to death, new social forms are bound to sprout in abundance (through the energy of activists and organizers).

The core of the protracted revolution, of course, is to create new institutions, ultimately new relations of production. Every revolution is essentially a matter of changing social structures; the goal of transforming ideologies makes sense only as facilitating institutional change. Nevertheless, to spread new ways of thinking, new values, can indeed serve as an effective midwife of revolution, and thus is a task worth undertaking.

The fundamental moral transition that has to occur (in order, for example, to save humanity from collective suicide) is from a kind of nefarious egoism to a beneficent communism. This is the ideological core of the coming social changes, this shift from individualistic greed—“Gain wealth, forgetting all but self”—to collective solidarity. We have to stop seeing the world through the distorted lens of the private capitalist self, the self whose raison d’­être is to accumulate private property, private experiences, private resentments, finally private neuroses, and instead see the world as what it is, a vast community stretching through time and space. Such a change of vision might facilitate the necessary institutional changes—which themselves, later, will naturally engender and instill this communist-type vision.

The very notion of “private property,” of “this is mine, and I alone earned it,” has to be recognized as a form of moral idiocy or insanity. Here, I would do better to quote the old anarchist Kropotkin than to offer my own formulations, which would pale beside his. In his classic The Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin explained just how stupid is the idea of entitlement to a private piece of property (as though “no one else deserves it”):

Take a civilized country. The forests which once covered it have been cleared, the marshes drained, the climate improved. It has been made habitable. The soil, which bore formerly only a coarse vegetation, is covered today with rich harvests… Thousands of highways and railroads furrow the earth, and pierce the mountains. The rivers have been made navigable; the coasts, carefully surveyed, are easy of access; artificial harbors, laboriously dug out and protected against the fury of the sea, afford shelter to the ships…

Millions of human beings have labored to create this civilization on which we pride ourselves today. Other millions, scattered through the globe, labor to maintain it. Without them nothing would be left in fifty years but ruins.

There is not even a thought, or an invention, which is not common property, born of the past and the present. Thousands of inventors, known and unknown, who have died in poverty, have cooperated in the invention of each of these machines which embody the genius of man. Thousands of writers, of poets, of scholars, have labored to increase knowledge, to dissipate error, and to create that atmosphere of scientific thought without which the marvels of our century could never have appeared. And these thousands of philosophers, of scholars, of inventors…have been upheld and nourished through life, both physically and mentally, by legions of workers and craftsmen of all sorts…

By what right then can anyone whatever appropriate the least morsel of this immense whole and say – This is mine, not yours?[1]

As he goes on to argue, the wage system itself, which is conceptually and institutionally a close relative of private property, is morally absurd. And not only because it’s repugnant for people to be forced to rent themselves to others in order to survive. Or because wage-earners necessarily can’t receive the full equivalent of the value they have produced (for then the capitalist couldn’t make any profit). Perhaps equally ridiculous is the idea that it’s possible to “measure” labor at all, to quantitatively compare workers’ contributions, when there are so many qualitative differences between the work that each person does. How can one say whose work is more valuable than another’s? Why should a plumber’s work be considered less valuable than an engineer’s? Why a financial consultant’s more valuable than a sanitation worker’s? (If anything, the reverse makes far more sense.)

The only principle that makes logical and moral sense is “to put the needs above the works, and first of all to recognize the right to live, and later on the right to well-being for all those who take their share in production.” Society has to be rid, once and for all, of the obsessive “who deserves what?” mentality, the apportioning mentality, the “mine vs. yours” pathology.

“If middle-class society is decaying,” Kropotkin writes—thereby, incidentally, proving the timelessness of his thoughts—“if we have got into a blind alley from which we cannot emerge without attacking past institutions with torch and hatchet, it is precisely because we have given too much to counting. It is because we have let ourselves be influenced into giving only to receive. It is because we have aimed at turning society into a commercial company based on debit and credit.”[2]

Actually, as I’ve written elsewhere (following David Graeber), even contemporary capitalist society, whose utopia is to make everyone an enemy of everyone else (that’s what thoroughgoing privatization would mean), couldn’t function without a substratum of implicit communism. Everything would instantly break down if people stopped giving what they could to those in need, whether money, time, free labor, gifts, advice, ideas, or encouragement. Social life itself is essentially communistic, based on community, generosity, and sympathy. The general systematization of private property is a perversion.

Kropotkin’s arguments suffice to answer the misanthropic refrain of conservatives that “it’s wrong to give something to people who have done nothing to earn it.” But other answers are possible. One might point out that people born into the middle or upper class have done nothing to “earn” their privileged position. The wealthy haven’t earned the inheritance they receive from their parents. White Americans didn’t earn their skin-color or the fact that they weren’t born in, say, a Haitian slum. People who benefit from charisma or physical beauty or intelligence did nothing to earn that; they were born with it. They deserve no credit for it. Somebody who happens to meet the right person at the right time and is launched on a successful career is the beneficiary of luck—as, in short, every “successful” person is, in innumerable ways.

Nor does any of this begin to address all the ways that the wealthy or corporations or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs benefit from state policy designed to give them what they want and to strip the poor of the right to live. Through the agency of the state (e.g., its corporate welfare programs, defense budget, patent and copyright protections, and, to some extent, interest payments on bonds), the population subsidizes the power and wealth of people whose ideology is to shame those who benefit from state programs. According to their own ideology, then, these “libertarians” in the business class ought to have their property confiscated, since, strictly speaking, they have “earned” none or little of it.

In fact, to the degree that our economy has become mainly a rentier economy, owned by parasites on the productive labor of others, it is sheer farce to talk about property-owners’ right to their wealth—which is to say their right to exclude others from ownership. For where would this right come from, if there isn’t even a pretense of their having earned all they own? How rich would Bill Gates be without the “rent” he receives from ridiculously stringent copyright protection for Windows and other Microsoft products? He is merely the lucky beneficiary of government policies that serve to hinder the diffusion of knowledge and wealth.

All this private property-exalting thinking, therefore, has to be cast aside onto the dung-heap of history. Rather than Reverence for Property, we ought to strive for something like the Reverence for Life that Albert Schweitzer wrote about and embodied. That is, we ought to explicitly embrace the moral communism (“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”) to which we’re already implicitly committed whenever we act as though guided by the Golden Rule, which is to say whenever we act morally at all. To be moral is, in essence, to act like a communist.

“Let us go then, you and I,” and bring forth the moral revolution.

Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is the author of Notes of an Underground HumanistWorker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, and Finding Our Compass: Reflections on a World in Crisis. His website is www.wrightswriting.com.

Notes.

[1] Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread and Other Writings, ed. Marshall Shatz (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 13­–16. More concisely, “the means of production being the collective work of humanity, the product should be the collective property of the race. Individual appropriation is neither just nor serviceable. All belongs to all. All things are for all men, since all men have need of them…and since it is not possible to evaluate everyone’s part in the production of the world’s wealth.”

[2] Ibid., 154, 155.