Saturday, 17 September 2016

Seven Left Myths about Capitalism

By Blair Taylor


Occupy Wall Street has renewed hope for a left political renaissance by challenging economic inequality and the neoliberal discourse that legitimated it, and reintroducing the word capitalism to political debate. The “greed” of the “1%,” counterpoised to the hardworking, rule- abiding 99%, has emerged as the dominant political frame of OWS. Rhetorically powerful, the slogan’s elegant simplicity conceals as much as it reveals. The language of “corruption,” the betrayal of Main Street by parasitic Wall Street bankers, and nationalist appeals to “take America back” all express a deep confusion as to the nature of the current crisis. This often results in a highly personalized moral critique of capitalism rather than a systemic one. 


The crisis wracking capitalism today cannot be understood as simply the evil actions of greedy bankers and the 1%. In fact, as Max Weber pointed out, unlike the ostentatious opulence of earlier economic forms like feudalism, capitalism actually has tendencies which check greed for example how intra-capitalist competition forces firms to save and reinvest. Thus the logic of states wielding coercive external power in human form as armies and police is quite different from that of capitalism, wherein power is more difficult to pinpoint or assign personal agency to. Conflating these two modes of power leads to very different political demands and outcomes. Capitalist power acts not only or even primarily on us from outside, but through us, as worker and capitalist alike are caught up in an impersonal competitive imperative that would quickly bankrupt any turncoat bankers or CEOs who might suddenly take Occupy’s message to heart.


With this in mind, I would like to examine seven myths about capitalism commonly found on the left that offer an incomplete critique of capitalism that points in the direction of insufficient reform or towards reactionary rather than emancipatory forms of anti-capitalism. 

Greed 


Why is decrying greed problematic? Because focusing on greed personalizes what is a structural problem, making it individual rather than systemic in nature. Although there are certainly greedy people, this is not a moral failing or “human nature,but people acting quite rationally within the structures of capitalism. Our present age of mergers and megacorporations is no accident; they are the winners within a capitalism driven by a grow-or-die imperative fueled by never-ending competition. Within capitalism there is little space to act “ethically,” as institutionalized competition forces everyone from owners looking to cut costs, workers seeking to maximize gain, and consumers hunting for the best price to act immorally. By subjecting them to economic calculation, capitalism makes a mockery of our deepest ethical values. An analysis emphasizing greed points towards changing morality, when what is really needed is to get rid of the institutions that incentivize such behavior.

Corruption


Another familiar charge in the current crisis is corruption that greed drove bankers to break their own rules, wrecking the economy in the process. But capitalism obeys only one fundamental rule: generate ever more profit or perish. The language of corruption implies exception, a situation wherein something has gone wrong; but the problem is rather the rule: the ordinary workings of capitalism. Although there are always scandals where outright deception, bribery, or insider trading occurs, the reality is that very few laws were broken in creating the current crisis. Calls for getting money out of politics only get us to the point of nations with strict election finance laws, like England, where politicians still govern according to the needs of capital. Corruption is not the problem.


Economic Nationalism 


Strong nationalist currents have also surfaced in Occupy Wall Street. Whether it’s purple armbands that signify the mixing of the red white and blue of the flag, or the language of “Take America Back,there’s a strong desire for a return to normalcy, defined as a middle class standard of living. But the idea that the state, like “the economy,” is a neutral and unified entity that works for the good of all is a falsehood: the nation-state never protected anyone from capitalism, but rather provides for its smooth functioning. Likewise, there was no “Golden Erawhen capitalism somehow respected national borders in its search for new exploitable resources, labor, markets, and profit. At best it struck a compromise with a small percentage of mostly white workers in the West for a short time in the wake of World War Two. America’s post-war economic dominance has faded; international competition has brought the austerity it once imposed on the third world home. In addition to reinforcing the state, such economic nationalism displays a callous disregard for people in other nations, as well as immigrants; a poignant reminder why rightwing libertarian elements were prominent in the early days of Occupy. But we don’t want to go back to an American Dream that was built largely on the backs of people of color both in the US and abroad. Capitalism has never worked for “the people,” American or otherwise, and never will.

Finance Critique


Another line of argument identifies finance as the culprit, contrasting the speculative greed of Wall Street to an honest and hardworking Main Street which produces tangible goods and services. It is claimed that Wall Street is a casino economy that doesn’t produce anything useful, has no loyalty to American workers, and is run by amoral CEOs who make astounding salaries. But this distinction between a real and unreal economy is a fiction, Main Street operates according to the same logic as Wall Street on a smaller scale, and may even finance parts of it. But more fundamentally, to single out banking misses the point: all capitalist enterprise exists to produce profit, not meet human needs.
 
Finance as a sector has certainly grown in size and importance, but this must be contextualized within a larger trajectory of capitalist development the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) economy became central to the neoliberal project because, aided by technological development, it was a convenient and low-cost strategy for dealing with the crisis of capital accumulation in the 1970s finding new ways to extract profit in the face of international competition, automation, and the gains of workers’ movements.2 But Wall Street is no more or less parasitic than any other sector of the economy. This populist analysis blames opulence, money, and abstract exchange while ignoring the equally problematic nature of good old fashioned exploitative wage labor, or how the two are mutually intertwined. Furthermore, both lines of argument must also cope with a present reality wherein to even be exploited as waged labor is increasingly the luxurious privilege of a dwindling few. The irony is that workers today appear to need capitalism more than it needs them.


Size/Anti-Corporatism 


The American left has often substituted a critique of corporations in place of a critique of capitalism. And it’s easy to beat up corporate giants like Wal-Mart, Coca Cola, and Bank of America, whose global operations obviously do much harm. However, the problem is not a quantitative one of size or scale, but rather qualitative. Capitalism is a social logic which impels small companies to act the same way, and sometimes even worse. Large corporations, because of their size, reach, visibility, and superior resources, are often in a better position to be unionized or otherwise pressured to pay better and offer benefits smaller businesses simply can’t offer.
 

In a conversation during the early days of OWS, activist “preacher” Reverend Billy expressed exactly this critique, stating that Brooklyn bodegas (corner stores) posed an alternative to “the 1%” economy because they build community you might know the person behind the counter or be able to momentarily leave your kid there while running an errand. Yet these same bodegas are often family businesses employing family members who are un- or underpaid, work long hours and lack vacations or health care. OWS has suggested moving money out of big banks like Bank of America and Chase and into smaller credit unions. Unfortunately, it turns out many credit unions are engaged in the same practices as larger banks, only at a local level.4


Focusing on large corporations also has the tendency to reduce politics to aesthetics: absent a critique of the common logic behind large and small firms, politics becomes a search for authenticity too easily channeled into consumption and individualism. Size is not the problem; the only real difference between Wal-Mart and Etsy is taste and market share.


Conspiracy


These various partial critiques easily combine to produce conspiratorial views of capitalism. In this view the problem is the result of a secret, hidden cabal of evildoers we just need to rip off the façade and voilà! liberation. This narrative of redemptive revelation is seductive, but it ignores the systemic nature of capitalism. Marx stated that capitalism operates “behind our backs,” appearing natural and rendering exploitation invisible so that when problems are identified, conspiratorial perspectives become attractive. But the problem is not the secret machinations of the Federal Reserve, bankers, Jews, or the trilateral commission; it is the fundamentally irrational logic of capitalism.5

 
Alternatives and the Myth of Autonomy


Faced with the ugliness of capitalism, understandably people often look to alternatives such as cooperative enterprises, community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, local currencies and barter networks. These projects often provide important and desirable things like higher quality products, a sense of community, or increased self-management. However, their limitations are too often overlooked or simply wished away. Embedded in the same capitalist logic and subjected to the same market pressures as traditional firms, they can easily become indistinguishable from entrepreneurship with noble intentions. But you can’t small business your way out of capitalism. The workers’ cooperative of Mondragon in Spain is an instructive example. Forced to compete with traditional firms, their avowed political aims like higher wages, longer vacations, or environmental considerations become a competitive disadvantage in relation to firms lacking such moral scruples. The result is that Mondragon increasingly resembles a typical capitalist enterprise, compelled to make similar decisions only with fewer bosses to blame.


Such projects are often oblivious to the long history of attempts to economically move away from capitalism, or to restrain it politically. In France, 1981 Francois Mitterand tried to implement a moderate socialist program and was rewarded with massive capital flight, he quickly changed course. In Greece, it was socialists who presided over post-crisis austerity. The “market” also recently punished France for its insolence in electing a socialist president. If even powerful nation-states are powerless to control capital, how can small enterprises expect to fare any better? 


In their zeal to transcend the many horrors of capitalism, many of these strategies seek to jump outside of it. But “autonomy” from capitalism is even more impossible than autonomy from the state it has captured. Limited by the competitive pressures of a market economy and private ownership, every social gain won by alternative economic projects or reform-minded politicians constitutes a competitive disadvantage against capitalist firms, or nations, lacking such scruples. The result is typically liquidation or a more self-managed form of capitalism not so distant from the quintessential entrepreneurial dream of “being your own boss.” However, acknowledging Adorno’s insight “There is no right life in the wrong oneis not to admit defeat but instead to demand a politics which squarely confronts the structural limitations and opportunities posed by the totality of capitalism. 

Why Does Our Analysis of Capitalism Matter?


Having an accurate understanding of capitalism is not simply a nitpicky or academic concern; it is important because different analyses of capitalism lead in very different political directions, not all of which are emancipatory. Unfortunately, some of the critiques put forth by Occupy today unwittingly echo slogans from National Socialism – to “take backthe economy from a disloyal and parasitic class, make the economy work for the “right” national group, etc... The left has no monopoly on critiques of capitalism, and given its present historical weakness there is great danger in the rise of reactionary forms of anticapitalism. Around the world today right wing movements and parties tap into economic discontent and channel it into nationalism, blaming foreigners, welfare recipients, and “disloyal” corporations. One common nationalist demand is to make capitalism work once again” for the native-born citizens of their respective countries. But such nationalist and fascist critiques of capitalism are false solutions in that they misunderstand the nature of capitalism and pose authoritarian solutions that destroy freedom. 


The documentary film “Inside Job” provides a good example of this constellation of false critiques, and the problematic political solutions they imply. It portrays the economic crisis as a classic case of a few “bad apples” whose greed and bad morals, established through their use of cocaine and prostitutes, also happen to ruin the economy. The film even goes so far as to biologize the problem, showing brain scans that allegedly show how excited bankers get when handling money! Its final panoramic shot of the Statue of Liberty suggests a patriotic return to economic nationalism; naively utopian in the face of a globalized capitalist economy that has long since rendered even such mythical notions quaint. 


Many historical factors sustain today’s fuzzy thinking about capitalism. One is the legacy of the Cold War: the collapse of “actually existing socialism” and resulting “End of History” consensus only strengthened a hysterical anticommunism that made talking about capitalism, let alone socialism or communism, almost impossible in the United States. Systematic repression from McCarthyism to COINTELPRO also contributed to the rise of a left which largely neglected political economy for 40 years, while more robust critiques and history of capitalism languished in ever-dwindling sectarian Marxist circles. American traditions of pluralism, pragmatism, and anti-intellectualism also work against a deeper theoretical understanding of capitalism. This also sheds light on the current popularity of prefigurative politics. While the desire to model the world we want in the here and now is an admirable one, it also holds out the seductive fiction that we don’t need politics, analysis, or organization we can lead by example, until so many people join that the world changes. Thus prefigurative politics fills the vacuum of clear left political ideas, allowing populists and anarchists to converge in practical matters while carefully avoiding addressing questions or demands which will inevitably entail fragmenting the perceived unity of the 99% according to how they understand the nature of the problem and thus the appropriate solution.
 
The Need For Radical Thinking 
 
After years of neglect, Left thinking about the economy has become vague, opportunistic, lacking vision. Many simply nod along to recycled Keynesian solutions of those like Paul Krugman, which fail to explain why social democracy was steamrolled by neoliberalism in the first place. The economic crisis of 2008 revealed that capitalism is only in “crisis” when it hurts capital. But if the fundamental issue is to make the economy serve human need rather than the other way around, then why stop halfway? Capitalism certainly hasn’t – the most “successful” revolution in terms of transforming the globe in the last 40 years has been the market utopianism of neoliberalism. We must also think big: we don’t just want a bigger slice, but the whole damn bakery! 


In this regard, we should learn from the capitalists, who ironically have taken up traditional left demands more ably than the left itself has. Automation has made fewer jobs necessary, and everyone knows work sucks anyway, so why valorize toil and demand useless busywork jobs? Instead of chastising the 1% for their lives of idle luxury, the left should demand it for all. And sadly it has been the capitalists, not workers, who have shown they have no nation. The left should follow suit with a militantly cosmopolitan internationalism that has no more use for borders than transnational corporations do. The “crisis” has revealed that what used to be deemed impossible is in fact a matter of political will, as the state has bailed out banks and nationalized the auto industry but left people to fend for themselves. The result is a perverse socialism in reverse: socializing all the risk while privatizing all the wealth. Our task is simple, but not easy: the current crisis has shown that a society organized around production for the accumulation of profit doesn’t work – even according to its own standards. It’s up to us to reverse this communism for capital, making our vast productive and intellectual capacities serve humanity, not the other way around.
 
Notes:
 











1 Ross Wolff, “Concerning Greed and Romantic Anticapitalist nostalgia.” http://rosswolfe.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/concerning-greed-and-romantic-anti-capitalist-nostalgia-for-a- kinder-gentler-capitalism-past/. The Charnel House.


2 David Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005 


3 Doug Henwood. “Small is Not Beautiful.” National Post (Canada), September 23, 2003. http://lbo- news.com/2011/11/26/from-the-archives-the-small-business-myth/ 


4 Henwood, Doug. Moving Money (revisited).Left Business Observer. November 8th, 2011. http://lbo- news.com/2011/11/08/moving-money-revisited/
  
5 Spencer Sunshine. “Occupied with Conspiracies? The Occupy Movement, Populist Anti-Elitism, and the Conspiracy Theorists.” Shift Magazine, November 2011. http://shiftmag.co.uk/?p=512

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Attacks on Israel Ignore the Long History of Arab Conflict


 By Murray Bookchin

There is certainly much one can criticize about Israeli policy, particularly under the Likud government which orchestrated the invasion of Lebanon. But the torrent of anti-Israeli sentiment that has surfaced in the local press and the virtual equation of Zionism with anti-Arab racism impels me to reply with some vigor.

For years I had hoped that Israel or Palestine could have evolved into a Swiss-like confederation of Jews and Arabs, a confederation in which both peoples could live peacefully with each other and develop their cultures creatively and harmoniously.

Tragically, this was not to be. The United Nations resolution of 1947, which partitioned Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, was followed by the invasion of the country by Arab armies, notably the Egyptian, Syria, and highly trained Jordanian “Arab Legion” with direct or indirect aid from Iraq and other Arab nations.

In some cases these armies, particularly the Arab irregulars who accompanied them, took no prisoners in their assaults on Jewish communities. Generally, they tried to systematically obliterate all Jewish settlements in their paths until they were stopped by furious and costly Jewish resistance.

The invasion and the annihilatory combat it created set a terrible pattern of fear and bitterness that is not easy to erase from the minds of Israeli Jews. That a desperate lunatic element of Jewish zealots behaved in kind before it was stopped by the newly formed Israeli military forces should not allow us to forget the Jewish men and women who were slaughtered by the stalwarts of Arab nationalism even after they had raised white flags of surrender.

I have seen very little mention of this fearful pattern of “combat” which stained the Arab invasions of Palestine and so profoundly influenced Jewish confidence in the value of “truce negotiations” and the predictability of peace agreements with Arab irredentists. Indeed, the partition lines that were eventually established after the 1948 invasions were the product of bloody warfare – literally the give-and-take of battle – not the “imperialistic” or “land-grabbing Zionists,” to use the language that is so much in vogue these days.

Nor do I hear any longer of the ernest attempts by the the Haganah – the Jewish citizens' militia of the partition era – to encourage Arabs to remain in their neighborhoods and towns, of the Israeli vehicles with loudspeakers that went through the streets of Jaffa, for example, urging Arabs not to succumb to the feelings of panic engendered by battle conditions and by extremists on both sides of the conflict.

That many Arabs remained in Israel clearly challenges the myth that Israeli Jews tried to rid the country of its Moslem inhabitants. What seems to be totally ignored is the certainty that there would have been an Arab state in Palestine side-by-side with a Jewish one if Egyptian armies to the south, Syrian in the north, and Jordanian in the east had not tried to seize both U.N.-Partitioned lands with imperialist interests of their own and, when this failed, used the Palestinian refugees as pawns in future negotiations with the Israelis and their western supporters.

There is another myth that must be removed: that the present volatile situation in the Middle East has its source in the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts; indeed, that the relationship between the Jews and Arabs was “beatific” until it was poisoned by “Zionist ambitions.” Leaving aside the simplistic image of Middle East problems that this notion fosters, the extend to which it is a sheer distortion of Jewish-Arab relations in the past verges on the unspeakable.

Are we to forget that Arab persecution of Jews, while less genocidal than European, has a centuries-long history of its own with the exception of Oslem Spain and Ottoman Turkey? That Arab pogroms against the Jews accompanies the Jewish settlement of pre-World War II Palestine, culminating in the extermination of the ages-old Jewish community of Hebron (once the seat of the Hebrew tribal confederacy) in the late 1920s? That the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in the 1930s (the precursor of Yassar Arafat two generations ago) was an avowed admirer of Hitler and called for a “holy war” of extermination of Palestinian Jews up to and into World War II? That Jordan's “Arab Legion” systematically leveled the old Jewish quarter of Jerusalem in 1948 and stabled horses at the Western Wall of Herod's Temple, defiling the most sacred place of world Judaism?

Are we to forget that General Hafez Assad, the so-called “president” of Syria (elected by a “majority” of 99.97 percent of the Syrian “electorate”) slaughtered between 6,000 to 10,000 people in Kama in February 1982, for daring to challenge his leadership of the country?

One wonders why there was no storm of protest when Amnesty International in 1983 declared that “Syrian security forces have practiced systematic violations of human rights, including torture and political killings, and have been operating with impunity under the country's emergency laws”? Why is there no concern over Syrian imperialism – notably Assad's fantasy of absorbing Lebanon and Palestine, including Israel, in you please, into a Syrian empire – a goal every objective expert in the Middle East knows to be Assad's Arabic version of Rabi Kahane's insane version of a “Greater-Israel” -- a notion that has been vigorously denounced by responsible Jewish and Zionist organizations in Israel and abroad.

If the “core problem” of the Middle East, to use Miriam Ward's words in her Vermont Perspective of April 27, is the confiscation of Palestinian land by Israel, what would the whole area look like if Israel and its Jewish population magically disappeared from the scene? Would Syria be less of a police state than it is today and would its Sunni Moslem majority feel less dominated, exploited, and manipulated by General Assad, who tends to speak for the Alawite Moslem minority of the country?

Would Saudi princes cease to squander much of their country's wealth on limosines, palaces, jewels, and real estate abroad, much less bring a modicum of freedom to their own people at home? Would Egyptian landowners, living in lavish opulence amidst incredible squalor, return a fraction of their landholdings to a starved Egyptian peasantry? Would Iraq free its Kurdish peopulation to speak only of its most vocal and rebellious minorities, or meet their demands for genuine equal autonomy?

Would the Iraq-Iran war come to an end, a war that has already claimed a million lives in the past few years? Would Colonel Khadafy cease to be a strutting militarist who has been trying to eat away at the territories of many of his neighbors? Would Khomeni and Moslem fundamentalism, whose main thrust is against any form of modernity and western culture, give equality to women and freedom to critics of Iran's present-dat theocratic regime?

What is so disquieting about many persistent attacks of Israel is that they help to completely obfuscate what is really a “core problem” of the Palestinian people. This abandoned people is being used in the most unconscionable manner by the Arab states to conceal deep-seated economic, social, and cultural problems in their own lands and in the Middle East as a whole. That the differences between the Israelis and Palestinians have to be resoled equitably such that both people can live with a sense of security that resolves their fears of what has happened in the past and achieve a constructive harmony with each other goes without saying.

I am not sure what that solution will be. But it certainly will not be achieved by acts of PLO-related terrorism against independently minded Arab mayors who are trying to negotiate a settlement between the two peoples at one end of the spectrum or lunatics like Rabbit Kahane at the other end who are trying to expel the Palestinians from their landholdings and communities.

But crucial as such a settlement surely is, we should not bury the real “core problem” of the Middle East as embodied by its cynical politicians, landowners, oil barons, military juntas, fanatic clerics, and imperialistic predators in the welter and tragic problems that have emerged between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Given this background, it would be wise to remember that both peoples have more interests in common than they have differences. It would be a splendid example of political independence if people who raise a justifiable hue about military juntas in Latin America would remind themselves that they are confronted with an exact parallel in the Middle East -- from Colonel Khadafy to General Assad?