Has the Left Won in the United States?
The seemingly obvious answer to the question above is no. Presently the main policy debate in Washington is over how to cut the deficit, and what cuts to “entitlement” programs would make the most sense. Foreign policy discussions often focus on which interventions should be considered priorities, while ending the empire of bases and stopping the bombing of countries is off the table. The trend in schools, at both the secondary and higher level, is to insert more of the logic of business and profit-taking into these institutions. Inequality remains steep, and notwithstanding Occupy Wall Street’s famous success at “changing the discourse,” no significant policy proposal to reduce it is on the table. “Socialism” is an insult in the U.S., much more than an ideological orientation. When self-identified socialists manage to accomplish something, they tend to lie low. For example, the right is louder than the left in noting the role of the International Socialist Organization in spurring the confrontational approach of the Chicago Teachers’ Union. Even a very brief assessment like this one should not fail to note that the unionized portion of the paid workforce is now down to about 12%, while the prison population has soared. It is hard to square the picture painted above with a triumphant left.
Yet in a recent piece published in Jacobin Magazine, Rutgers historian James Livingston argues for the strength of socialism in the U.S., and that the left has, in some sense, “won.” Livingston makes his case in the context of comparing present history to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Capitalism did not conquer feudalism through a series of revolutions made in its name, or parties explicitly advocating for capitalism. Therefore the whole question of whether people are advocating for socialism is overrated. In fact, Livingston seems to feel that people advocating for socialism may be an obstacle to its achievement, echoing Hardt and Negri’s call to empty the churches of the Left. In which case, it is not difficult to understand why he feels good about the situation in the U.S. The churches of the left are already mostly empty here.
Livingston offers a heterogeneous list of phenomenon to build his case for the gains of socialism in the U.S. He argues that socialism has no particular political valence. This lack of political valence means he can throw almost anything at all critical of the unhinged domination of market values, anything, roughly speaking, to the left of objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand, into the mix as “socialism”. Catholic philosopher Robert Novick, liberal president Franklin Roosevelt, and neoconservative Irving Kristol are all in this sense “socialist,” something which some tea party acolytes, but few others, might agree with. Long ago, the Hungarian economic historian Karl Polanyi made the point that the self-regulating market was a utopian myth whose attempted realization triggers self-defense efforts with a variety of politics. Livingston’s novel and confusing spin is to call all these efforts socialist.
In Livingston’s view, the U.S. volunteer army is an enclave of socialism, since
The U.S. military is now the farthest outpost of the New Left or the Great Society, where affirmative action has worked to turn a once profoundly racist institution into job training, higher education, and social mobility for working-class kids of every color. It’s the last stand of that once-upon-a-time War on Poverty: a public works program that, within its limited purview, has redeemed MLK’s promissory note of equality. It’s the site of rigorous historical consciousness and training, where the most searching critiques of American empire have become routine: since 1992, it’s become our most reliable intellectual opposition to imperial idiocy.
“Socialism” also seems to involve any organization that might conceivably shape a market, including “trade unions, consumer associations, and other interest groups as well as … public policy.” Advertising and consumerism are also a part of the emergent set of social relations that will constitute socialism. Apparently all this will lead to legitimizing the self-management of society. Furthermore, “The economies of scale and the technological innovations enabled by corporations in the early twentieth century extricated capital and labor from the “process of production,” making both factors superfluous.” In other words, capitalists don’t typically run corporations so much as collect rents, and workers work less and less in factories, and are paid more and more through “entitlement programs” administered by the state, and apparently this creates the terrain to delegitimize capitalism and the logic of wage labor.
“In short, capitalism has stopped making moral sense because it has stopped making economic sense.” Various new social movements (civil rights, feminism, gay rights, et al) have improved social relations for the better. And finally, the internet has opened up new vistas where goods like music and information can be distributed without the mediation of money. Based on this heterogeneous list, “socialism no longer functions as an ethical principle with no bearing on the historical circumstances of our time, which is about as useful as a crucifix when the real vampires approach. Instead of a pious wish that things should be better – an “ought” with no purchase on the “is” – it begins to feel like the fuller expression of an actually existing social reality, something we can live with, build on, and build out. It begins to look like a usable past.” Whereas Walter Benjamin famously wanted to pull the emergency brake on the train of history, Livingston seems to want to place a brick on the gas pedal and yell “full steam ahead!”
It would be difficult to engage with every aspect of this article. In summing it up, I’ve skipped over a sizable amount of philosophical positioning. I don’t have the time and space to undo his conflation of liberalism and the left, two very different political perspectives. And it would be difficult to engage even with all of that which I have included. So I will just make a couple of points. Livingston largely seems to see the U.S. as a coherent political actor absent its relationship to the wider world. Furthermore, he emphasizes continuities in the political economic evolution of the U.S. Although it isn’t always clear, it sounds like he is calling for a deepening of the regulation of the economy, first concretized in the progressive era, and an expansion of the welfare state developed in the New Deal era, as well as a soupcon of the democratization of social life via civil society. As a position paper for the Democratic Socialists of America in 1972 this may have made some sense. Four decades later, it is simply baffling. He altogether fails to illuminate the way a relatively brief period in which class differences were being attenuated in the U.S. has given way to something else entirely.
Class is hardly mentioned in Livingston’s piece. As noted above, he briefly alludes to a trend by which capitalists are increasingly divorced from building and maintaining productive enterprises, instead identifying sources of rent. Those at the bottom depend more and more on government transfers. He regards this as practically proto-socialist, hyping up the supposed erosion of the legitimacy of capitalism. This itself greatly underrates the ideological problem, presuming that polarization will be transformed into hatred for capitalism. But armed with the entire political elite, commercial media, think tanks, numerous “mega-churches” and much of academia, capital can do a great deal to shape popular thought along other lines, as has been done for decades. Furthermore there are many reactionary notions among the working class that can be used against them. It would take work to overcome this, obscured by Livingston’s inevitablist hyperbole.
A look at what he identifies as a “socialist” institution in the US, the military, helps illuminate the direction of classes. He sees it as an enclave of New Deal values, which he problematically equates with socialism, but this romanticizes the current situation. During the heyday of the New Deal regime, the U.S. state made some cross-class claims on the lives and labors of men. Men from a variety of classes served in World War II, and even Korea. Already by the time of the Vietnam War, as the parts of the New Deal coalition were beginning to unravel, the expansion of higher education and student deferments limited the participation of the middle class. And then the anti-war movement, the unintended incubator of the neoliberal middle class political subject, succeeded in eliminating the draft while failing to radically alter U.S. militarism. The military became”volunteer” i.e. an economic draft of working class youth, particularly given their declining prospects as union membership started to collapse. More recently, several other “anti-socialist” trends are apparent. One is differentiation–valorization of a handful of units–special forces, Navy SEALS–as the true saviors of national security, and related devaluing of the rest. Another trend is outsourcing and privatization, the contracting out of major parts of military activity to private companies whose workforce is recruited globally, both at the “elite” level of fascistic mercenaries drawn from ex-military of the U.S., South Africa, Israel, Chile, etc and the “proletariat” level of shit-work drawn from surplus labor pools like the Philipines and Pakistan. A third trend is telecommunicating/automation, as drone strikes are conducted by professionals comfortably operating in Virginia and Nevada. All this leaves the mass of soldiers in the U.S. military increasingly gratuitous and devalued. Do not be surprised if the recent spate of stories about suicides and drug abuse among troops turns into full blown pathologization of them. These trends parallel those in other industries and sectors of the U.S. This is because, like corporations, the military was never a socialist institution in the first place. It was not in the least self managed or democratic. Thus it was not particularly difficult to reconstruct it on more in-egalitarian lines.
New Deal “socialism,” such as it was, played out in the context of U.S. hegemony. The U.S. emerged unscathed from World War II, and was by far the largest economic actor in the world at the time. It’s lack of a colonial empire enabled it to reconstruct world order by embracing demands for independence in the colonized world. Meanwhile, competitive pressure from the Soviet Union strengthened the hand of such internal actors as anti-communist unions and civil rights organizations. All of this started to come unwound forty years ago. First, there was a more difficult world economic environment, as Germany and Japan became much more competitive, and oil producers cooperated to raise prices. Later the Soviet Union imploded, undoing a familiar order. More recently, the rise of China and the apparent ability of Latin America to limit the influence of the U.S. through regional unity has further reshaped the world. In the more difficult environment, the U.S. state developed a tight alliance with the top 10% or so of its population, relegating the rest to mass incarceration, “precarious” labor markets, and a disappearing welfare state.
How does the U.S. look in this context? It is simultaneously too small and too large. The U.S.’s 300 million people is a modest sized population in the new context. Efforts to keep pace with Europe by unifying the hemisphere (the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas) have collapsed. Efforts to unify North America are basically a dud. The U.S. has failed to turn “illegal” immigrants, mostly from Mexico, into citizens, instituting instead a quasi-Apartheid system that intensifies competition at the bottom of the labor market. We should not be surprised if Mexico begins to look south, or attempts to balance its Northern neighbor with powers to the south and west (China). A genuine North American union seems off the table. There is no elite or popular force in the United States interested in such a project.
And then there is the U.S.’s present global role, which is too large, “overstretched,” as many describe it. It involves exercising military, economic and diplomatic power. As Livingston seems to believe that socialism has something to do with the proliferation of civil society organizations (sometimes called non-governmental organizations, or NGOs) and efforts on their part to regulate and shape markets, it should be noted that the U.S.’s global strategy of the last two decades might be summarized as minimizing the impact of NGOs and states on the economic rights of multinationals and finance capital. This attitude eventually drove many NGOs to reconstitute themselves as the respectable wing of the “alter-globalization” movement and the social forums of the next decade, challenging the direction the U.S. was moving the world economy. This opposition ended, or at least slowed, the attempt of the U.S. to unify the top 5% or so of the world around a financially oriented economy (“globalization”). If anything, the U.S. has further antagonized this community globally by asserting the rights of powerful states to kidnap, torture, and assassinate people from around the world in the decade that followed 9-11. The most recent mutation involves adopting these techniques to try to globally stop the democratic potential immanent in the internet. Think of the persecution of Bradley Manning and Megaupload. On cultural questions raised by the rise of political Islam, indigenous peoples, and the rise of civilizational states such as India and China, the U.S. is dogmatically universalist. On environmental questions, it is actively obstructionist.
The U.S. has largely maintained its power through a sort of carryover of its financial power from when it was genuinely hegemonic. That day is over, and now it is hanging on because few other actors in the world actively want to deal with the mess an implosion of U.S. power would cause. This situation won’t last forever. It is possible that the end of U.S. power will be as dramatic as the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Or perhaps a better analogy is Spain after the demise of the Hapsburg project of creating a unified Europe. Spain held on and pretended it was a great power for several centuries more, even as it became a center of backwardness and repression. On the other hand, a revolutionary process from below could conceivably reconstruct the U.S. on terms that would contribute to the larger project of creating a viable world order, one that would undoubtedly take cultural and ecological concerns as seriously as political economic ones. This would require a great deal of work to overcome the disunity at the bottom. It is not immanent in the present direction of the U.S. It does involve seizing contradictions opened by the current economic crisis. It furthermore involves integrating many aspects of the U.S. experience and popular memories. But this is not the same as seeing it immanent in every trend. It involves real work, often against the grain. At one point, Livingston condescendingly suggests that left efforts to push against the individualist ethos of the U.S. constitute a demand for the masses to “get religion.” We should in fact embrace this description. Every successful religion involves finding commonality and introducing a new ethos among disparate actors, and a successful left project would as well. It also involves learning from actors around the world, something entirely missing from Livingston. It involves pulling the emergency brake of history and yelling “stop!” It is the only option for a left worthy of the name.
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