In his book, “Debt: The First 5000 Years”, David Graeber levels the accusation against the Left, that it lacks imagination to see beyond present society. I think Graeber’s accusation is accurate and can be seen in his own antistatist (i.e., anti-political and anti-economic) argument. Contrary to Graeber’s argument that money has no essence, it is precisely because money has an essence that fascist state issued debt monies (treasuries) represent a world historical money-form: this debt-money implies money itself has become obsolete.
The entire point of bourgeois misdirection in this crisis is to convince us that our choices are between debt or unemployment — that is between “growth” and “austerity”, and between taxes and reductions in our pensions, social security, and wages; that is, a choice between “kicking the can down the road”, or “taking our medicine now”.
It is important that the debate be framed this way, because these are the only two options consistent with existing relations of production. Since these choices are both consistent with existing capitalist relations of production, the fascist state does not care which option you choose. Just as Washington does not care whether Obama or Romney wins the next election, it does not care whether this crisis is resolved by debt or unemployment. You are free to make your choice based on what feels right to you — letting people go years without a job, or piling up the public debt.
Your choices are posed in this way because it is assumed you have already accepted the premise of these choices: It is assumed you have accepted the idea that this crisis can only addressed at your expense. You have, therefore, accepted the premise that you must either take the hit to your standard of living now, or in the future. Whether you take the hit now or in the future, you accept that this is the only way forward.
This is why there are so many people running around trying to stock up on guns, beans and gold — assuming the big hit is coming. It is just a matter of time, we are told — shit is going to get funky.
It is absolutely necessary that you never question this premise, and everything is aimed at preventing you from ever questioning this premise. This is not just the message coming from Washington and its servile agents in the media and economics profession; it is also the message delivered on the Left and the Right. On the Right, it is expressed in a demand to end the deficits no matter what the cost, on the Left it is expressed in a demand to end austerity no matter how this ends in more public debt.
It is not just that these contradictory demands appear as polar wings of politics, it is that the demands themselves must be posed as an unbridgeable contradiction. In fact, there is nothing that prevents the Left from adopting the Right’s demand against deficits as well as its own against austerity. And there is nothing that prevents the Right from adopting both a demand against deficits and a demand against austerity. But if this phony contradiction is not maintained, there is no Left or Right — and the point of politics is that there should always be a Left and a Right.
I think this is the revolutionary significance of the Occupy movement’s idea of addressing debt; it breaches this false contradiction. Occupy, which has already clearly taken on austerity, is now adding the question of debt to its argument. With a movement that opposes both austerity and debt, the phony opposition between Left and Right will be ended. Combining a demand against austerity with a demand against debt, announces working people will not pay for this crisis now or in the future. It throws down a gauntlet to Washington and Wall Street in the form of a demand that is not consistent with capitalism or the state.
The significance of these two modest demands against austerity and debt, when combined, are far greater than it may look on the surface. For instance read this quote from David Graeber:
“One realization really startled me when researching the book: that is, the realization that throughout human history, most people have been in debt. Think about it for a second. Could the majority of the human race really be improvident failures unable to manage their affairs, and thus justly dependent on the rich? Of course not. Rather, states and elites have always colluded to ensure that their subjects become debtors; not least, because debt is the easiest way to take a relation of violent inequality, of violent extraction, and make it seem not only moral, but make it seem like it’s the victim who’s to blame.”
How does this describe euro-austerity and the continuing argument that Greece “deserves” austerity now because of its past public profligacy? The fact is the public debt Greece accumulated in the past was just the inter-temporal shift of austerity and nothing more.
And not only private debt, but public debt more so, since Washington can, through its inflationary monetary policy, extend the impact of this austerity throughout the world market. Washington can, therefore, under the pretext of increasing its own debt, impose an austerity on every nation trading in dollars.
Debt, Inflation, Unemployment and Austerity
Consider the problem of debt and austerity from another perspective: In an austerity, unemployment rises, wages and pension are slashed. An increase in debt now is nothing more than the inter-temporal transfer of these same effects over some period of time going forward — wages and pensions are gradually slashed over time. This is accomplished through inflation, and can be made to appear as the result of “natural” forces rather than deliberate policy.
Employment growth slows and persistent high level of unemployment can last for a decade or more. What is accomplished all at once in an austerity regime is, with debt, accomplished over a period of time. All the effects of austerity are still felt by the mass of society, but the torture is extended sometimes a decade or longer.
The state must impose this austerity on behalf of capital because it nothing more than capital organized as the state, but the question is whether the population will accept it all at once, or whether it must be stretched out. This is politics — how much pain can the proles take, and it is a practical question. If people surround the government and demand it resign, this government can be replaced by one “committed to growth”, i.e., the accumulation of even more public debt.
Although this new government only promises to stretch austerity over a decade, instead of imposing it all at once, it is sold as compassion. Twenty five percent unemployment now, or ten percent over the next decade; slashing wages and pensions now, or inflating away their value and compelling people to work longer — make your choice, folks. In either case, the mass of society suffers the effect of unemployment and reduced subsistence through state policy.
Occupy is taking on precisely this policy in both of its possible manifestations. It is combating both an immediate imposition of an austerity regime and an inter-temporal imposition of this regime through debt.
We have to consider also the relationship between unemployment and wages: the reduction of wages is the aim and unemployment is the means. In a market where there is low unemployment, there is less competition among the working class — it has the opportunity to organize itself. Moreover, even where there is some unemployment this occurs against a backdrop where this unemployment is unevenly distributed — in specific sectors or regions of the world market the demand for labor power may even exceed the supply. The impact this has on profits is obvious, and the capitalist class responds to this with all the means at its disposal — introducing new machines, reducing wages, layoffs.
What Keynes explained to the capitalist class is that its typical response to this condition — slashing wages — is counterproductive. Since the Great Depression, profitability cannot be restored simply by slashing wages — as Greece and Spain is demonstrating graphically. What is gained by slashing wages, is lost when the working class goes into the market to purchase goods. The state, Keynes argued, can accomplish the task far more efficiently than capitalists in slashing wages. This is because the method employed — debt — has the effect of subsidizing profits even as the purchasing power of wages fall.
Of course, Kurz explains, this results in the accumulation of debt that cannot be paid off — but that is the can that must be “kicked down the road”. In the long run the debt cannot be paid off, but in the interim it can transfer the product of labor from wages to profits. And, as Keynes observed, in the long run you will be dead after having slaved your entire life away to service that debt.
It is not just private debt that transfers the product of labor from one class to the other, state debt has this very same effect. Your take home pay doesn’t change, but the prices of what this take home pay buys spirals out of sight. In the choice between austerity and debt, debt is actually the preferred option because the state doesn’t provoke people into the streets. As Keynes explained in his General Theory, unions will fight a cut in their wages, but not one imposed through debt and inflation.
“Thus it is fortunate that the workers, though unconsciously, are instinctively more reasonable economists than the classical school, inasmuch as they resist reductions of money-wages, which are seldom or never of an all-round character, even though the existing real equivalent of these wages exceeds the marginal disutility of the existing employment; whereas they do not resist reductions of real wages, which are associated with increases in aggregate employment and leave relative money-wages unchanged, unless the reduction proceeds so far as to threaten a reduction of the real wage below the marginal disutility of the existing volume of employment. Every trade union will put up some resistance to a cut in money-wages, however small. But since no trade union would dream of striking on every occasion of a rise in the cost of living, they do not raise the obstacle to any increase in aggregate employment which is attributed to them by the classical school.” (my emphasis)
I bet you could count the number of major demonstrations against inflation in the past forty years on a single hand — I know of no strikes produced by it. Nobody ever surrounded the congress to demand a reduction in inflation nor fought the police in the streets with firebombs because of it. As a matter of fact, the prima facie silliness of the euro-austerity regime in Spain, Greece, Ireland, Portugal etc., suggests the states and ruling classes of those nations are now trapped and cannot employ debt to meet their aims.
By taking on the issue of debt Occupy is in fact taking on one of the most powerful tools in the state’s arsenal for imposing austerity — debt. Occupy is showing that it is not just a matter of austerity versus debt, but also of austerity through debt. The debt campaign is big because it calls bullshit on both the Democrats and the GOP and can appeal to whatever healthy elements remain in the Tea Party.
As a side note I also want to point out that not one Marxist critic of David Graeber was able to uncover this hidden connection between debt and austerity that Occupy has discovered purely through its practical activity alone. This includes that asshole over at Jacobin, Mike Beggs; that “humanist marxist” Andrew Kliman; Dean, Deseriis, and a host of other imbeciles. Nor does it appear in the writings of Marxists who feel an obligation to repair capitalism, such as Dumenil, Levy, Saad-Filho and that sorry lot.
What good is a goddamned theory if the people using it are idiots.
Oh yeah. And fuck Zizek too!
I have been reading Stathis Gourgouris “A Quick Assessment of the Electoral Situation”, which is a very interesting take on the outcome of the election in Greece. It is interesting because, for some reason, Gourgouris wants to analyze the events solely within the realm of politics; which is to say he places the events in Greece entirely within the limits of a dying domestic parliamentary democracy. No doubt most people see this as a mere “election outcome”, so the piece is useful in that sense as meaningful political analysis; but it is also disappointing as it brings nothing new to the table. For me, it is an example of mainstream punditry worming its way into social criticism — focusing our attention precisely on the least important aspect of what has occurred.
I want to take a moment to sum up some of my thoughts regarding Marxism that has occurred to me during my occupation of the Marxist Academy. This is only a rough outline of those ideas and I welcome comments on them from readers of this blog.
I have been reading David Harvey’s “Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition” (2010). Harvey’s theory of the current crisis differs somewhat from the other Marxists I have been following. I actually rather enjoyed reading Harvey because he is simple to read without being simplistic like Wolff’s and Resnick’s piece. Harvey gave this originally as a talk to the World Social Forum in 2010,
Harvey opens his talk by stating boldly:
The historical geography of capitalist development is at a key inflexion point in which the geographical configurations of power are rapidly shifting at the very moment when the temporal dynamic is facing very serious constraints. Three percent compound growth (generally considered the minimum satisfactory growth rate for a healthy capitalist economy) is becoming less and less feasible to sustain without resort to all manner of fictions (such as those that have characterized asset markets and financial affairs over the last two decades). There are good reasons to believe that there is no alternative to a new global order of governance that will eventually have to manage the transition to a zero growth economy.
I liked his argument here, but, I think, he could have clarified things by explaining what he meant by “three percent compound growth…” Growth is one of those terms from bourgeois economics that has been adopted into the lexicon of Marxism as a category without critical examination. When Harvey then proposes that “compound growth” must sooner or later give way to “zero growth”, he unwittingly injures his own argument.
Theories of the Current Crisis: John O’Connor, Neoliberalism and the Long Painful Death of the Nation State
The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over.
Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
I am now reading John O’Connor’s “Marxism and the Three Movements of Neoliberalism” (PDF)
O’Connor proposes what he calls a “Marxian conceptual and empirical framework for understanding the disparate research on neoliberalism”. As with Saad-Filho’s work, John O’Connor’s is deeply flawed and is not in any fashion based on Marx’s theory of the Capitalist mode of production. Rather than an exercise in historical materialist analysis, O’Connor serves up a rehash of progressive nostalgia for a mythical pre-1970s Keynesian social compact, combined with a laundry list of ideological and policy crimes by the Neoliberal world order. We end with no more understanding of this thing, Neoliberalism, within the context of history, than we did at the beginning. O’Connor fails the essential test of the historical materialist critique of the capitalist mode of production.
If Neoliberalism is simply an ideological, policy, or governance construct, why is this construct the necessary form of ideology, policy and governance at this stage of development of the mode of production?
Fascism and the Myth of Keynesian Social Accommodation
For some strange reason, O’Connor arbitrarily begins his narrative in 1950 — completely bypassing a decade of depression ending in world war . He wants us to ignore this catastrophe and the war of redivision of the planet that ended in the destruction of much of Europe and Japan — 80 million dead and the productive capacity of Europe and Japan laying in ruins. He also wants us to ignore the rise of the fascist state and the debasement of currency that made that war possible. This allows him to portray the period roughly from 1950 to 1974 as a “Golden Age of Capitalism” following Glyn and Hosbawm.
Completely ignoring the fact that Europe and Japan lay in ruins at the end of the war — and, therefore, that any measure of post-war expansion begins from a base determined by this previous horrific loss of productive capacity — O’Connor tells us the “post-war economic boom was exceptional in capitalist history for its explosive growth, high profits, technological innovation, and reliance on government policy.” This last thing “reliance on government policy” is the kicker, because O’Connor is now going to use it as a crutch to get him to 1974. The “Golden Age” was made possible by two things: class accommodation at home and state involvement in the accumulation process. We don’t get any critical look at this so-called class accommodation nor state involvement in the accumulation process. In fact, both are filler material, placed there solely to let O’Connor to segue into the “crisis” of 1974-82. With this filler material O’Connor can stuff in the typical myth-story about a “Golden Age”” which he finds already present in our national political discourse.
Gone is the Great Depression, the debasement of the currency and the rise of the fascist state, the catastrophic wars of the 30s and 40s, US aggression in Korea, and a series of other police actions and coups, the red scare, the arms race, the Suez incident, Vietnam and the horrors of the United States’ Southeast Asian murderous rampage. What was blood red in reality, becomes a hazy faint shade of pink in O’Connor’s make-believe world of “I Love Lucy”. At some point, someone is going to have to call Marxists out on their patriarchal, racist, elitist, Anglocentric, rewrite of history. Frankly, the shit is just fucking unnerving — there was no “Golden Age” of capitalism! For John O’Connor, Saad-Filho, Richard Wolff and the rest of the Marxist Academy to continue referring to this myth is just bizarre!
The period under question begins not in 1950, but in 1929 with the collapse of capitalism world-wide, from which capitalism never recovered. Rather, all industrial states stepped in as the national capitalist and immediately imposed a continuous wage reduction regime across the board on their respective working classes in a ruthless act of class warfare. Then each fascist state turned on its neighbors and slaughtered everyone they could get their hands on in an orgy of bloodletting. It wasn’t enough to kill them — NO! — they then leveled their cities, destroyed their factories and productive capacity, and stole their resources to starve them out.
You want to see the “Golden Age” of Keyesianism — just look at World War II. Thanks to Lord Keynes the United States was able to devote 40% of its GDP to slaughter and pillage, and still have “economic growth”. In the United States alone 1500 factories were built from scratch to murder strangers — not feed them and ourselves. Sixteen million men were withdrawn from all productive labor and sent to murder, fully outfitted and fed by American industry — the same American industry which, just months earlier, could neither hire nor feed them — that’s your fucking Keynesian “Golden Age”, bitches.
The insult to the 100 million dead in two global wars of redivision cannot be worst than out of the mouth of a Marxist who states, as John O’Connor does, “the USA and Britain took steps to ensure that a stable liberal world order was recreated”.
The Second Great Depression
Having used this “Golden Age” of capitalism as a crutch to get him to 1974, O’Connor misses the beginning of the crisis in the 1960s. Had he done the least bit of analysis on the period 1929 to 1950 he might have noticed a little event called debasement of the currency. With this debasement, and the devaluation of wages by 70% that accompanied it, American capitalism went through an expansion phase. That expansion was not just fueled by the devaluation of wages, but also the war expenditures of World War II and the absorption of a hefty section of post-war Europe and Japan into the newly emerging fascist American Empire. This expansion phase comes to a head not in 1974, but in the mid-sixties with the collapse of the London gold pool in 1968 (pdf) , which facilitated manipulation of gold bullion price and allowed the US to share in the extraction of surplus value wrung from the European and Japan working classes — the so-called “exorbitant privilege”, a term coined by the French. (Of course, since Marxists are MARXist in name only, they have ignored the implications of the French critique.)
The crisis begins in the mid-sixties with a run on US gold reserves, and culminates in the collapse of Bretton Woods, and the end of dollar convertibility for settling international obligations. But this is just its superficial expression — what really happened is that the new productive capacity of Europe and Japan came online. For a period this overaccumulation was disguised by the murderous war on Vietnam and the swelling of American domestic spending to stem protests. But all of this comes to a head with the opening moments of the Second Great Depression of the 20th Century — the Great Stagflation. This depression triggers the collapse of Bretton Woods and the end of dollar convertibility by the Nixon administration. And it occurs not in 1974 but years earlier, although the actual expression of this crisis in unemployment is itself triggered by the massive inflation that occurs as Washington tries desperately to spend its way out of the contraction. Those of a certain age will remember Nixon declaring fatuously, “I am now a Keynesian in economics”.
The attempt to slow the contraction by a massive expansion of government spending ultimately fails and the Federal Reserve has to choke off credit in the midst of a depression to slow the inflation of prices. Nixon is gone, Gerald Ford is running around handing out “Whip Inflation Now” (WIN) buttons, and the Fed is trying to douse inflation with unemployment. None of this has any effect on the depression, however, which continues unabated for the next five or six years — in other words Keynesian economic policy is overcome by the growing productive capacity of society and the dissolution of nation-state economic management begins.
Only at this point do we finally reach O’Connor’s dating of the initial emergence of what eventually becomes neoliberalism — the crisis has, by this time, gone on for nearly a decade.
Neoliberalism and the Demise of the Nation State
The easiest way to understand neoliberalism is to understand exactly what the fascist state accomplished that can now only be accomplished by its demise. The success of the fascist states rested on what O’Connor terms a “distinct structural, institutional, and class foundation.”
This state led monopoly capitalism, as described by Fine and Harris (1979), was marked by the socialization of economic activity, in which the state took an active role in the accumulation process. Economic socialization helped offset the unproductive costs of accumulation and the reproduction of the labor force (Gough and Eisenschitz 1996). Through a wide variety of non-market mechanisms, the state balanced the social nature of production with the private appropriation of capital.
Okay, I admit I haven’t a clue what this means — so I am going to parse it.
“State led monopoly capitalism” appears to be some sort of a distinction from the state-as-capitalist — a concept that is apparently alien to Marxists. What role does the state play in this “state led monopoly capitalism” – clearly it is not the capitalist, so is it leading the capitalists? So how is it leading them? And to where? Well, it appears to be leading them toward some “socialization of economic activity” — which is clearly not socialism, but “socialization”. Which is to say, the capitalist accumulation process, having grown beyond the control of various forms of private management, must at some point fall under the direct management of the state. How does this work? Well, the state takes “an active role in the accumulation process”.
Okay, now I am stumped. What exactly is “an active role in the accumulation process”?
O’Connor tells us that it “helped offset the unproductive costs of accumulation and the reproduction of the labor force”. So what are these unproductive costs of accumulation and the reproduction of the labor force? Clearly by “the reproduction of the labor force” O’Connor can only mean wages and (perhaps) a meager provision of public education and a national health system. Can the state add to wages, educate, or cure illness? Not likely, since it is a bloated parasite on society, it can’t even put a chicken in a single pot. Since the state creates nothing, and produces nothing, it can only “offset … the reproduction of the labor force” by driving wages down. Perhaps I got this wrong; perhaps the state can magically whip up a subsidy for wages by creating food, clothing, and shelter out of nothing. I am not as educated as fucking Marxists Academics, but it seems to me all O’Connor is suggesting is that the state devalues labor power!
Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Obama is feeding the working class from that victory garden over at the White House.
And what are the “unproductive costs of accumulation”? How does the fascist state “offset” these costs pray tell me? Frankly, I have never heard of the term “unproductive costs of accumulation” before I read this paper — the term appears nowhere in Marx. Nowhere in three fucking volumes of Capital does Marx ever mention an animal going by the name of “unproductive costs of accumulation”. Even if we assume the state plays some role in offsetting these mysterious costs, there are only two classes for the distribution of the social product of labor: workers and capitalists. If the state is “offsetting the unproductive costs of accumulation” for the capitalists, it has to be taking it from the working class.
So when I parse O’Connor’s argument, “Economic socialization helped offset the unproductive costs of accumulation and the reproduction of the labor force”, I only get two things out of it: “devaluation of the wages of the working class” and “more devaluation of the wages of the working class”. Since I am not a Marxist, you probably can understand why I come to that ‘absurd’ conclusion. If I were a Marxist, I could invent another phantom source of value for the state to redistribute as wages and profits.
Once we get past the silliness about the Keynesian “Golden Age” of capitalism, it is clear neoliberalism is not in the least a switch from social accommodation between capital and wage labor to coercive competition as O”Connor argues, but simply an intensification of systematic impoverishment of wage labor, for which Keynesian state policy was, by the 1960s and 1970s, insufficient to realize. This does not in the least require any modification of Marx’s labor theory of value, nor any special explanations. It simply requires us to grasp national capitals behave just like privately owned capitals, but with grim consequences for both national sovereignty and national fiscal/monetary policy. Which means these national capitals, although for a time appearing quite permanent features of economic analysis, were always transitory and subject to the very same laws as determine the capitalist mode of production generally: equalization of the rate of profit, concentration and centralization of capital, overaccumulation, falling rate and mass of profit, a growing superfluity of capital, a growing mass of workers who fill the ranks of the industrial reserve, etc.
What is distinct about these national capitals, however, is the constitution of purely national political class struggles. The political contest between any class of wage laborers and their national capital is fought out within the context of a nation-state form that is rapidly approaching extinction. Already countries very close to the core of Europe have been stripped of their national sovereignty, not to mention peripheral nations. And the more these nations lose their sovereignty, the more indifferent they become to both their domestic working class and domestic capitalist class.
There is a lot of material out there produced by Marxists trying to get their head around Neoliberalism and its role in the current crisis. So as part of my Occupy the Marxist Academy I am going to do a few posts on it.
First up: Alfredo Saad-Filho’s “Neoliberalism in Crisis: A Marxist Analysis”, which can be found here. Saad-Filho argues Neoliberalism is not simply an ideology or a set of policies, but the “current configuration” of capitalist accumulation. In particular, Neoliberalism is a response to the “structural problems of capitalist reproduction after the displacement of Keynesianism”.