On the off chance that Barack Obama really wants to serve the people, as we used to say, and not the Man, he must surely be among the worst negotiators ever to inhabit the White House. Either way, we are in for four more god-awful years.
But even if, during his second term, the economy goes south big time, or greed abetted by neglect leads to unprecedented ecological disasters, and even if the usual gaggle of neo-cons and humanitarian interventionists manage to get their way in the murder, mayhem and quagmire departments, Obama will still be unlikely to go down in history as the worst president ever, and not just because the competition is so stiff.
A more important reason is that the economy he stewards is running out of options; that’s why simply messing everything up, George Bush style, is not as much of a reputation buster as it was just a few years ago. The situation is dire enough to defeat even a leader vastly more capable, and less timid, than the one we have just reelected.
This is not to say that there are no solutions; quite the contrary. Instead of the creeping austerity that has become the “bipartisan” consensus, a substantial dose of public spending would help a lot, especially if the money was invested wisely, as in the Green Party’s proposal for a Green New Deal. But solutions like that lie beyond the horizons of what is politically feasible in dysfunctional Washington DC.
More importantly, and less obviously, measures that would be feasible in less dysfunctional circumstances, are only ways of buying time, of holding off the inevitable.
That may not matter for the next four years, though it does indirectly affect the efficacy of policy initiatives a better president than the one we have might undertake. With Obama in charge, we won’t even get to that point. Dysfunction beyond his control, a consequence of Republican obstinacy and Democratic fecklessness, will see to that.
Nevertheless, it is worth recalling a few incontrovertible truths that have lately vanished from public awareness. They bear on questions about what can be done, and they are more than ever timely. But thanks in part to the (possibly permanent) eclipse of an intellectual and political tradition that has lately gone missing from the political scene, they seldom register anymore – diminishing our chances for pulling out of the present morass in reasonably decent shape.
Not long ago, in what now seems a different universe, it was still possible to talk about “hope” and “change” without irony. And only a couple of decades before that, those words meant more than just holding reaction at bay.
Back when there was a flourishing left, “hope” and “change” were about moving the world forward – making the actual approach a rationally defensible ideal. For more than an entire century, Marxists were preeminent among the forces of forward-looking hope and change.
They disagreed about many things, sometimes bitterly. But all Marxists believed that socialism was capitalism’s future. Along with others, they agreed that private ownership of society’s principal means of production would somehow someday give way to social or collective ownership.
Along with Marxism itself, this conviction has fallen on hard times. The reasons why range from the empirical to the ridiculous to the tragic.
On the empirical side, as capitalism demonstrated its resilience so often and in so many ways, it became impossible to deny that whatever its ultimate fate may be, predictions of its imminent demise were, to say the least, exaggerated. They have not been refuted, but for all practical purposes they might as well have been.
On the ridiculous side, “post-modern” relativists, paragons of murky thinking and obscurantist writing, somehow managed to get across the idea that “master narratives” like the Marxist one, accounts of history’s structure and direction, are chimeras at best; that they cannot possibly be true because, to paraphrase Hamlet, there is neither true nor false “but seeming makes it so.”
This is self-refuting gibberish that can hardly withstand criticism, and there is reason to think that the post-modern moment is already on the wane. Unfortunately, though, the harm is done.
In any case, the decisive factor was Communism’s tragic demise and the historic defeat of the revolutions undertaken in its name.
It is still an open question how “Marxist” Communists were, especially towards the end. But the identification was so widely accepted for so long that the demise of Communism all but inevitably led to the near extinction of Marxism itself.
More importantly, the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, China and elsewhere, seemed to undo a conviction all Marxists, and many others, shared: that, leaving aside temporary setbacks and barring environmental catastrophes or victorious counter-revolutions, epochal transformations, like the one from capitalism to socialism, are irreversible.
All Marxists were sure that so long as its path is not disrupted by exogenous factors, history moves only one way – forward.
Yet, by the end of the 1980s, history seemed to have retrogressed definitively for reasons that were endogenous to the socialist economic system and the political superstructure that superintended it.
Because events confounded expectations, and because the widespread understanding was that Marxism itself, not just Communism, had failed, the Marxist purchase on hope and change came to seem patently untenable. This perception took other socialist tendencies, even social democracy, down with it – diminishing, though not quite annihilating, all of them.
The idea that there is, as it were, no hope for hope is hardly incontrovertible, and it is also far from clear what Marxism’s future may be. What is clear is that, despite today’s conventional wisdom, there is plainly something right-headed in Marx’s core idea: that as technological capacities grow, capitalist property relations become increasingly dysfunctional and, indeed, irrational.
At lower levels of development, private property and market arrangements are useful and perhaps necessary for developing productive capacities. This is what nearly everyone who identified with the Marxist tradition has believed at least since the time of The Communist Manifesto (1848). In the Marxist “master narrative,” developing productive capacities to a point where socialism becomes materially possible was capitalism’s historical mission.
Marxists also believed that, as this mission is progressively discharged, capitalist property relations increasingly “fetter” development, just as earlier forms of property relations fettered development in the past.
When this happens, if agents capable of transforming property relations develop in the interstices of the old economic structure, as will normally be the case, the fetters will be “revolutionized” away; replaced by property relations optimally suited for further development.
Even in today’s political universe, where the word “hope” sticks in the craw and where even cosmetic changes seem all but unattainable (except to gullible liberals at election time), it is hard to deny that something like this has to be right; property relations and levels of development must be broadly compatible.
The idea that capitalist property relations could survive in a world where productive capacities are massively developed is therefore, to say the least, wildly implausible.
For some time now, in “developed” countries, it has been at least arguable that everyone’s needs, along with most actual (as opposed to possible) wants, could be satisfied without imposing significant costs on others, if resources were distributed differently and/or if ownership rights — rights to benefit from and control productive resources — were socialized.
But even if this speculation is too optimistic, it is inconceivable that, as development proceeds, private ownership would remain indispensable. It is very nearly as certain that its indefinite continuation would lead to disabling irrationalities that no political regime can indefinitely withstand.
Communists, along with many others, including Marxists who were not Communists, thought too that it would be possible to get from where we now are to a socialist future through a revolutionary break with the political regimes that superintend capitalist economies.
Indeed, they thought, at first, that the Bolshevik Revolution was only the first step in a process that would soon turn into a broader European revolution which would, in turn, culminate in capitalism’s worldwide demise.
Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way.
But the imposition from above of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe after World War II, along with the Chinese Revolution, allowed the illusion to persist for a long time, as did the emergence of national liberation movements throughout the so-called Third World.
In those days, therefore, it was widely believed that capitalism was vulnerable – that its economic underpinnings were doomed, and that revolutionary change was not only possible but almost inevitable. Indeed, it was happening before everyone’s eyes.
However, at the same time, contrary notions were taking shape. Of these, the most important had already become evident by the 1930s, as capitalist countries everywhere fell into the grip of the Great Depression. By then it had become clear, to all but the most doctrinaire, that capitalism could survive, if not forever then at least for a long time, if it changed its ways.
To that end, the first priority was to boost effective demand by allowing workers a larger share of the increasing wealth they produced as productive capacities grew.
To survive and prosper, capitalists have to invest, not just consume; and investments enhance the productivity of labor and therefore the wealth capitalists are able to appropriate. But as long as capitalists, true to their role in the economic structure, squeeze all they can out of direct producers, paying them as little as they can, investment opportunities become increasingly foreclosed.
This “contradiction” is inherent in the way the system operated. But it was not a cause of problems for capitalists until productive capacities exceeded a certain point.
And so it was that, by the time of the Great Depression, there were plenty of unmet needs and even more unsatisfied wants, and plenty of idle hands available for addressing them, but no way to set them in motion because there was not much in which capitalists could still profitably invest. Capitalist markets had become all but useless for addressing pressing problems.
The remedy was to increase demand by raising wage levels. Then workers and others would be able to consume more, increasing effective demand, and therefore opening up investment opportunities for capitalists. Under capitalism, though, wages are normally set by capitalist firms acting independently. Because the system is anarchic in this sense, raising wages systemically was beyond the means of the state.
In time, though, wages did rise thanks partly to the way a few comparatively enlightened capitalist firms affected the labor market — the higher than normal salaries Ford paid its assembly line workers is a text book example — and because labor militancy was everywhere on the rise. It helped too that there was then a political class that, unlike today’s, actually did something, besides talk, for the labor movement.
For several decades, therefore, wages did rise, inequality diminished, and capitalist economies in developed countries prospered.
Ironically, a consequence of all this progress was a declining interest in alternatives to capitalism. Political repression and a massive ideological offensive didn’t help either and, although it was hard at the time to separate anti-socialist propaganda from cold hard facts, neither did a growing awareness of the shortcomings of the Soviet model and of the crimes of Communists in power.
But even as interest in alternatives to capitalism declined, interest in left alternatives within capitalism increased in ways that led to beneficial changes throughout much of the developed world. As a result, capitalism’s tendency to commodify everything was temporarily stopped in its tracks, and states actually did things that made peoples’ lives better.
However, by the middle or end of the 1970s, it was becoming clear to capitalists that it was no longer in their interest not to squeeze wage levels as much as they could. By then, the Fordian moment had run its course, and there was no longer much that domestic markets could do to keep capital accumulating.
Wages therefore began to decline and fiscal crises began to take shape – in ways that were detrimental to affirmative state institutions and progressive social policies, and to the lives and wellbeing of nearly everyone except, of course, those at the very top.
But even before we got to the point where wages only go down and where even the most sacrosanct welfare state institutions are in mortal jeopardy, it was already plain that capitalist development had taken an irrational turn; that having more productive capacity no longer automatically made life better.
This is why consumerism, as much as wasteful military spending and, worse, the perpetual warfare it enables, became a target of New Left political movements in the 1960s and 70s. By then it was no longer the case that development per se was an unqualified good. The consumer society capitalism was creating was, in the minds of many, less a heaven than a hell.
Eventually, it became apparent to the politicians and technocrats charged with running the show that even the mixed blessing (or curse) of more and more stuff cannot be sustained indefinitely, as the wealth and disposable income of the vast majority slowly but inexorably decline.
And so, they decided on a pair of strategies for keeping consumption up even as wages stagnated or declined: on the one hand, lower taxes and, on the other, facilitate the accumulation of debt.
Governments at all levels could therefore no longer finance their activities through the exercise of taxing powers; they would have to borrow instead.
This set in motion a vicious spiral of declining public provision, which has had the intended consequence of disempowering workers who would otherwise stand up for themselves through collective action. Nothing compels acquiescence as effectively as debt peonage.
It has also turned back progress at all levels, as the rich get richer and everyone else becomes worse off.
The danger, of course, whenever debt is increased, whether by borrowing or, in the case of the government, printing money (“quantitative easing” is the current euphemism) is inflation.
Another danger, related to the first, is social unrest, as living conditions deteriorate. There is a remedy for that, however: outsourcing. To keep the prices of goods and services down, produced them in countries where wages are lower by orders of magnitude.
Outsourcing also keeps profits up, which is why this strategy quickly one the day. And so, capitalism took on an increasingly international coloration and neo-liberal globalization became the worldwide scourge that it is today.
But, as we have learned, these remedies are also recipes for financial bubbles that burst with increasingly devastating consequences. Worse still, an economy that stays afloat by lurching from bubble to bubble is in imminent danger of financial collapse.
The problem is especially acute when, as in our time and place, the financial “industry” calls the shots. Then the state’s ability to keep competing capitalist interests enough in line to keep the system on a safe and steady course – in other words, to act, as what Marx aptly called “the executive committee of the entire bourgeoisie” — is severely diminished.
But even if the financial system holds, it is not possible to go from bubble to bubble forever – because eventually, as debt increases, individuals and governments will become unable even to keep up with the interest. This is why we have the housing crisis we now do, and also why state and local governments are increasingly unable to maintain essential services.
With banks too big to fail or, thanks to deregulation, too under-capitalized to brake up and take over, the repertoire of remedial options is rapidly diminishing. It may have reached the null point already.
The problem, therefore, is not just our President’s lack of “audacity” or imagination; it is the system he and his predecessors have concocted – a Frankenstein system that could turn on its creators, and its beneficiaries, at any moment.
In principle, states could take over bankrupt mega-banks and other financial institutions and either run them themselves or treat them as public utilities. As remarked, a Green New Deal would help a lot too in turning the economy back onto a positive course. Measures like these could keep capitalism going for a while longer yet.
But that is not in the cards and not just because our politicians are not up to the task. The bigger problem is that for a new New Deal to save capitalism in more or less the way the original one did, there must be space for a private ownership market economy to expand – into new industries if not new territories. It isn’t clear that there still is; that even a green New Deal wouldn’t just give rise to a new green bubble.
In any case, the time is past due to put socialism back on the agenda; to think not just about how to save left alternatives within capitalism but how to replace capitalism itself.
If it all comes crashing down, our dysfunctional political regime will have much to answer for. But even if we could somehow get our politics right – a most unlikely prospect given our institutions and our history, and a plain impossibility under Barack Obama — capitalism would still be hurtling towards it own demise and, if all goes well, towards a socialist future.
This used to be well understood. We would do well to recover that understanding now, the better to make use of the opportunities that are bound to present themselves before long; sooner perhaps than anyone now dares hope.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).