“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
― Woody Allen
Many of us on the left can relate to this quote. We face climate disruption, the continuous rise of authoritarianism, the replacement of the concept of citizens by consumers and a stagnant and deflationary economy. No wonder so many of us view the “gift” of globalization as a poisoned chalice. While I am not ready to check into The Grand Hotel Abyss I know that we are facing very rough times and we will collectively be facing very tough choices.
We are living in a time of a crisis of capitalism. The neoliberal mantra of ‘leave everything to the market’ is beginning to ring hollow, even among the elites. As they gather in Davos this week they are confronted by a profitability problem of the world economy that can be divided into three main parts.
Firstly, there is the problem of manufacturing overcapacity. Most simply, there are too many goods and not enough customers. In the thirty year period after the Second World War the US economy was the world’s engine and the US became the hegemonic power. It’s confrontation with the Soviet Bloc helped to build up the military/industrial complex that drove the economy to unseen heights. Ironically the Vietnam War contributed to a weakening of the US engine, and that along with the oil shocks and subsequent stagflation necessitated a change from the post-war template. The financialization of the economy revved the engine again but without really addressing the underlying weaknesses.
Secondly, as globalization became the watchword and more and more manufacturing left the core countries (the triad of the US/Canada, Europe and Japan [with Germany being a special case]), a labor surplus developed not unrelated to the manufacturing overcapacity previously mentioned. As more people were driven out of agriculture and metropolises became more and more gargantuan and the informal economy grew there was less need for traditional labor in what has been characterized as the formal economy. The rise of automation is contributing to this situation: the concept of a guaranteed basic income (or GBI) has now entered the discussion not only among those who count themselves as progressives but has also been taken up by the elites as a remedy for a sick economy, a potential tactic for reflation of the economy.
Thirdly, debt limits have come into play. Household debt in the core countries has risen exponentially over the last forty years. In the US, as we have seen the entrance by more women into the formal workplace largely due to the inability of the single wage earner to support a family, the tactics for increasing consumption have relied on placing a debt burden on the family. Credit cards were given out like candy at Halloween; people were urged to purchase homes and then take out first, second and even third mortgages to support an aggressive consumerist lifestyle that was not only fiscally unsustainable but also ecologically unsustainable. Add to that a cohort of the young entering the economy with mounds of student debt and the table has been set for disruption on a massive scale.
In short, it is hard to see how there can be sustainable long-term growth under capitalism: we are living in a deflationary period of what economists call “secular stagnation”.
It is important to understand this in order to make sense of the political universe we inhabit and to devise goals to improve our lives and to create the tactics and strategies to achieve our goals.
To many in the core countries, 2016 was the year of political earthquakes, a world turned upside down; not only for progressives but also for the elites. Brexit was the first major quake shortly followed by the Trump quake. But just as geologic earthquakes have their causes and antecedents, so do the political ones. You cannot have people living in debt peonage for extended periods of time (or be a young person entering the work world with a mountain of debt) and not expect that many will want change and begin to question the Pablum they have been spoon-fed by their elites via the media. The Great Recession of eight years ago is just one of the factors that have given rise to right-wing populism.
Too often many on the left assume that any protest against elite politics is progressive; that is palpably untrue. Just because the president and thug-in-chief of the Philippines calls for the removal of US bases and pivots toward China does not make that pivot part of the progressive moment. Bluntly put, the protest against the elites that shores up right-wing populism attests to the failure of the left to successfully educate and motivate the populace.
We on the left are at a political crossroads. The continuing worldwide rise of reactionary forces is like the rise of the seas. Do we have the tools not only to hold back the political tidal wave but reverse its direction and appropriate that energy in the cause of social justice? We progressives are facing a challenge of hard choices and some certain failures as we choose between continuing on the path we have walked for many years or the path that strikes out in new directions.
Let’s honestly confront our weaknesses and failures of the last forty years so that we can begin to craft our goals and the methods to achieve them. Make no mistake, this is a war, a class war and our rulers know that. They have said so in many ways and we need to listen and absorb that truth.
So what is to be done? As I see it the primary goal is to acquire progressive control of the state and social wealth. Call it socialism, economic democracy or what you will, this goal needs to inform the political and social tactics and strategies that are necessary to achieve it.
One strategy that is favored by many progressives is that of a strict localism. Build alternative structures on the local level such as cooperatives and social organizations in which new and old ways of relating to each other based upon truly democratic principles will create and foster the growth of the kernels of the society we would like to see to replace the “red in tooth and claw” capitalism of today. A healthy fear of top down autocracy and Stalinism (where a party comes to represent “the people” and becomes more and more undemocratic and replaces representation with repression and fear) informs this tendency. But much as I support the effort to create these alternative structures, and I do, it is not enough: strict localism is the obverse of the imaginary idea that the power of capital can spread unmediated by the State. This is a fantasy of many on the left: globalization has shown that capital survives and grows through the concentration of financial resources through the liberal use of the State. International and trans-national production could not have developed if capitalist rule did not have absolute power over the resources managed by the State. If progressives wish to disperse and redistribute power democratically we will have ultimately to gain control of capital by controlling and capturing the unity of the State. We also need to concentrate our forces and not just create disparate formations. How is this concentration of forces to be achieved? One idea that has been raised by progressives in Europe and elsewhere is the formation of a “mass connective party”. (I owe much of this discussion to the Italian leftist, Mimmo Porcaro). This party would be made up of autonomous associations (unions, coops, community organizations, social justice alliances that struggle for racial and gender justice, etc.). “The connective party “reaches” the masses not because it unifies them directly within itself (like the old mass party), but because it unifies the autonomous associations that represent them. This result, in principle, can be obtained in several ways: through the formation of a very large network, combined with occasional political agreements; with the formation of hubs capable of managing the network with horizontal and not top-down means; with the establishment of a single party of cadres, with, however, several interfaces that connect it to all the relevant associations; with the formation of a stable federation between parties, associations, movements. The important aspect is that, in any case, the autonomy of individual members is preserved, the idea being accepted that each member can play, from time to time, a hegemonic role, the possibility being accepted of a partial divergence on individual issues and that in any case the construction of effective forms of unity is achieved every time.” (Porcaro).
What is of great importance for the effective working of such a party is to have a clear common political program that defines the main and secondary objectives and to construct a unified strategy around these objectives. There must be a commitment to discussing transparently the strategy and tactics needed so that ideas can flow from within and outside the associations. As one of the core associations that potentially will be part of this new formation, the role of unions in an increasingly automated work environment will need to be dissected. Clearly, the role that they have played over the past one hundred and fifty years will have to change radically in order to suit the new environment. This new type of party will help to coordinate and educate those involved in local struggles and help to disseminate the knowledge of both successful and failed tactics. This party may also engage in electoral struggles.
One of the weaknesses of the Democratic Party as seen in the last election cycle was a clear divide between the professional formations and the so-called “less skilled” groups that engendered a mutual tension. This weakness, this divide, shows the need to build a positive dialectic between multiplicity and unity. So far the left has focused to too great an extent on multiplicity or “intersectionality” to the detriment of unity. Invoking communication is not a replacement for true unity built upon a common creation and understanding of strategic goals.
In politics there are both the many and the one: the many are part of the autonomous associations that may make up the connective party and the one is us as individuals who contribute our intellectual, physical and financial resources to the creation of a better world. There must be a constant dialectic between the many and the one; between the local actions and the strategic concentration of forces. As I said before, like it or not, we are involved in a class war and as in classic war there are times to concentrate one’s forces and times to disperse them, but all tactics must be informed by the strategic goals that we have collectively laid out. Yes we will experience failures, many failures but we will need to learn from them and teach ourselves and others lessons from those failures. Let’s not forget that the actions we take are creating the future. As the nineteenth century Russian Alexander Herzen said, “The future is a variation improvised on a theme of the past.”
I will close with my personal mantra: make love, make jokes, make friends and change the world.
This paper was presented as part of a panel discussion with Cliff DuRand and Joan Roelofs on Globalization & Its Discontents. The event was hosted by the Center for Global Justice on January 19, 2017.