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Reading Richard Seymour in the Age of Austerity
Dating back to the overthrow of Salvador Allende, financial austerity has been the watchword of the capitalist class. Frederick Hayek supplanted John Maynard Keynes in the ideological driver’s seat, as the free market became sacrosanct. Adding to the neoliberal momentum, the collapse of the Soviet Union caused Karl Marx to lose his official status for a third of mankind. Despite the hiccup of interest in Karl Marx following the 2007 financial meltdown and rueful reflections by Francis Fukuyama that it might not be the end of history after all, the mantra of balanced budgets and eliminating “waste” was taken up by politicians and pundits alike. To paraphrase W.H. Auden, we seem to be living through an Age of Austerity.
As perhaps the first study to take these issues head-on, Richard Seymour’s “Against Austerity” is a must-read primer for old hands in the class struggle and newcomers alike. Leaving aside the merits of his arguments—and they are plentiful—Seymour would be worth reading if for no other reason than his elegant and witty style. At the risk of inflating the young man’s ego, I regard him as the most compelling prose stylist on the left since Alexander Cockburn in his heyday and Christopher Hitchens before he turned into Mr. Hyde. Also, unlike most people who write for leftwing publishing houses, Seymour has a brash but self-effacing manner that is as refreshing as a cold beer on a sweltering summer night. From the book’s preface:
There is also a certain familiar use of esoteric political theory and rococo ornamentation that some readers will find off-putting. I hope so anyway. Those readers would be far better off reading something else. (Or, alternatively, stay and have your middlebrow sensibilities challenged.) This book comes with swearing and unapologetic intellectual swagger.
I imagine you’re scanning this page while still in the bookshop calculating whether you’d be willing to be seen reading this book on the train. If the above appeals to you, you’re probably a bit ‘wrong’ in some way, but I welcome you. If it doesn’t, then make your way the holy apotheosis of bookshops that is the ‘3 for 2′ section. And buy yet more inconsequential shit with which to line your shelf of good intentions.
Besides an introduction and conclusion, “Against Austerity” has three chapters titled “Class”, “State”, and “Ideology” that pretty much cover the rugged terrain that activists and intellectuals of the left have to navigate on a day-to-day basis.
The first sentence in the chapter on “Class” puts forward a key concept: Austerity is a class strategy. And just above that first sentence is an epigraph that indicates the ruling class’s implicit agreement: “Class is a communist concept – Margaret Thatcher.”
During Thatcher’s reign, as well as during the Reagan administration, you begin to see the state budget equated with that of the household as if Britain “spending beyond its means” meant the same thing as a low-income family buying champagne and caviar on credit cards. That balanced budgets have undermined economic growth means little to governments protecting the profits of the rich. Their interests are short-term, even if humanity’s is long-term.
The chapter also has a very useful review of some of the theoretical controversies on the nature of the financial crisis that shook the global economy in 2007 and that lingers on to this day. Seymour disagrees with those (Andrew Kliman et al) who view the crisis as the inevitable outcome of a falling rate of profit. This only makes sense if you view the period from 1948 to 1973 as “normal”, whereas in fact this “golden age” of high profits was exceptional. I think this makes perfect sense. As economist Doug Henwood once pointed out, the troubles capitalist economies have been enduring since 1973 have more to do with those of the age of the robber barons than the 1930s in many ways. Indeed, they are only troubles for working people since the bosses are doing quite nicely. Since the assault on workers and trade unions is a return to the “normalcy” of Andrew Carnegie and William McKinley, it is little wonder that neoliberal and social Darwinist ways of thinking are taking hold among the elites and in popular culture. What else could explain the newfound popularity of the batty Ayn Rand?
Also, unlike many of the scholars and journalists who blame a parasitical financial system on today’s woes, Seymour regards finance as a necessary and even productive component of the capitalist economy. It is also very good at disciplining the working class. By making IRA’s, credit cards and home mortgages so easy to come by, the bourgeoisie incentivizes discipline on the job. After all, who would want to risk missing a mortgage payment by going out on strike?
The chapter on the “State” pays close attention to the contradictions embedded in a bourgeois democracy embarking on a program of austerity. It requires the consent of the governed even as it plunges the fiscal knife into its back. While preserving the right to vote and even to protest, it simultaneously infringes on basic freedoms.
Seymour pays considerable attention to theories of the state found in the late Nicos Poulantzas’s writings. For much of the left, the state is a thing that can be smashed, like a Starbuck’s window or a policeman’s jaw. Instead, it should be seen more in terms of social relationships—having that much in common with the Marxist understanding of class. In a fascinating review of British history, he points out that the merchants and plantation owners of the 17th century had to rally the lower classes around them in order to challenge the monarchy and become hegemonic. In other words, the particular forms that the state adopts reflect the class struggle.
Furthermore, this points to the possibility that power blocs wield control of the state at any given time. In the immediate post-WWII period, this meant that heavy industry in alliance with the AFL-CIO bureaucracy could co-manage Keynesian economics whether a Democrat or a Republican president was in power. After all, it was Nixon who said, “I am now a Keynesian”.
The financial crisis of the early 70s, precipitated by both the recovery of the Japanese and German economies and by the assertiveness of the OPEC states, changed the composition and direction of a new power bloc that found neoliberalism in its interest rather than the Fordist/New Deal alliance of past decades. While Republicans and Tories were “early responders” in this political-economic shift, it was up to Democrats and New Labour to keep it going as a review of the Bill Clinton and Tony Blair governments amply points out.
Turning to the chapter on “Ideology”, we find the same preoccupations found in the not so bad documentary starring Slavoj Zizek titled “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology”. But naturally I would prefer Richard Seymour, who takes his Marxism neat and without a postmodernist chaser. It is in this chapter that Seymour takes on one of the major conundrums facing the left. How does the capitalist class face so little fightback? Are they putting something in the water? Workers either seek individual solutions, like the Flint, Michigan natives who relocate to Texas or raise rabbits in Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me”, or fritter away their time and energy on doomed-to-fail reformist schemas.
The answer to this is fairly straightforward. It is not simply the consent of the governed that plays a role. It has to be coupled with coercion, even if the force being deployed is by no means extrajudicial. More and more, the neoliberal state uses repression to keep the masses in line like a mailed fist in a velvet glove. For example, if you protest the government over austerity in London (or New York, for that matter), you will have to put up with “kettling”, a tactic that confines protesters in a small area. Not only is it a form of coercion, it also serves ideological goals by portraying the young dissidents as potentially dangerous criminals who have to be constrained.
Seymour notes that the ideological precepts of the party in power do not even have to be shared by the majority. During Thatcher’s reign, polls reflected that most opposed her austerity drive. However, the minority that supported her was far more homogeneous and far more fervent than those opposed. While “Against Austerity” is focused on British politics, one cannot help but think of the futility of those Nation Magazine or Huffington Post opinion pieces gloating over the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson “wasting” their money on failed ultraright campaigns. The purpose is not just to win elections but also to pressure American society from the right. Campaign ads erode support for social spending even if a Democrat wins—so much so that the winner will find ways to mollify his enemies as the Bill De Blasio mayoralty now demonstrates.
Against this dreary panoply, is there any alternative? That is the subject of Richard Seymour’s guardedly optimistic conclusion on “Strategy”. His recommendations are contained with sections reprising the aforementioned chapters although not in the same order.
With respect to class, he urges the left to overcome its self-doubts and get behind an updated version of the Alternative Economic Strategy put forward by Labour in the early 70s. Ed Rooksby, a former member of the SWP like Seymour, has thought this through and offers just such a program here . It states:
As we have seen, the only way to break out of the current spiral of decline is to end austerity and to boost growth through raising demand. A socialist economic strategy would begin with a massive stimulus package financed through public borrowing. Such a programme should more than pay for itself (and, further, help to reduce the accumulated debt) through the kick-starting of economic growth and thus the generation of increasing tax revenues and the lowering of unemployment benefit payment costs.
Turning to the state, we obviously have to think in terms of politics, particularly electoral politics since that is the only way to have a real impact—as long, of course, as it is wedded to mass action. The closest the European left has come to realizing such an instrument is with Syriza in Greece, a party that held out great promise. Once Seymour became committed to the idea that such a party could make more of an impact on the class struggle than sterile propagandizing for socialist revolution, he became a target of his former comrades in the SWP, just as was the case with Ed Rooksby who had the same perspective. If there is any guarantee that Syriza not drift off into social democratic directions (and there never could be one in reality), it is in building the social movements linked to it, which can apply pressure from the left. This formula might sound similar to the one that sections of the left applied to the Obama administration, but only on the basis of obscuring the class composition of the two parties. The Democratic Party is dominated by real estate, finance, and retail sectors of the capitalist class while Syriza’s base is primarily middle-class and proletarian. It is much easier to pressure a restaurant owner than Goldman-Sachs, after all.
Finally, on the question of class, Seymour points to the student movement in Quebec that defied a typically neoliberal state’s austerity measures (rising university fees) and countered its demagogic appeal to working-class families that the students were middle-class and “spoiled”. Indeed, the Quebec student movement was one of the few successful campaigns against austerity in recent memory.
The structures of direct democracy built on campuses sustained the momentum behind the strikes, enabling students to meet, discuss and make decisions on a regular basis. Each month, the movement called a mass mobilisation, with tens of thousands of students gathering in the Place du Canada in Montreal. But there was also a heated debate over the strategy and goals of the movement. It wasn’t enough to keep the momentum going. In addition to the strikes, radical students sought to disrupt the smooth functioning of the economy and the government, carrying out blockades and occupations of banks and government buildings.
Importantly, the student leadership refused to be divided. When the government excluded Classe [the student group leading the strike] from negotiations, in the hope of engaging the more moderate student federations in a compromise, the latter walked out. But students also reached out to the labour movement. Theirs was a class issue, they insisted, and Classe called for a ‘social strike’ of both students and workers. They consciously sought alliances with Rio Tinto workers locked out of their jobs, public sector workers facing cuts, campaigns against increased fees for healthcare, and local resistance to the government’s attempts to turn over northern resources to the mining industry. Neighbourhood protests — the notorious ‘casserole’ protests involving residents banging pots and pans — became a regular occurrence.
While the Quebec student strike seems like an outlier among so many failed attempts to reverse the course of austerity, the elements are in place in both Britain and the United States to replicate its success. Indeed, the Wisconsin struggle of 2011 against Scott Walker assumed many of the dimensions of the one that took place in Quebec. Eventually, as Seymour points out, it sputtered to an unhappy conclusion because of the power of Democratic Party politicians to turn it into a recall campaign rather than continuing the militant mass movement that put Governor Scott Walker on the defensive.
This once again raises the need for a mass party to the left of the Democrats that can unite mass struggles in the streets with those being waged over state policies. Even if a Syriza-type formation initially lacked the power to do anything except elect a state legislator here and there, they would at least have the power to call a press conference and raise holy hell over some austerity measure.
At the risk of sounding stodgy, I will conclude with the advice that Lenin gave ultraleftists in 1920. After 94 years, it still makes sense: “Whilst you lack the strength to do away with bourgeois parliaments and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work within them because it is there that you will still find workers who are duped by the priests and stultified by the conditions of rural life; otherwise you risk turning into nothing but windbags.”
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.