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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Dismal and Hopeful Future

The Dismal and Hopeful Future

By Chris Wright
July 21, 2015

One doesn’t have to be a brilliant social analyst to see that
the contemporary world order is doomed, destined to start
visibly crumbling within the next decade or two at the latest.

The neoliberal system, in fact the corporate capitalist system,
is radically unsustainable.

It is too unstable, too universally rapacious, too humanly
exploitative, too environmentally destructive, too demoniacally
self-consuming for capitalism can profit from its self-immolation,
to last much longer.

Is it even necessary anymore to argue for these claims?

Capitalism means self-sabotage.

It's profit-making interest lies in paying wage-earners as little as possible, and ideally in mechanizing and automating them out of existence, for they’re expensive and troublesome with their demands for, “rights” and other such nonsense.

On the other hand, capitalism needs markets; it needs entities
to sell things to, for that’s how it makes profit.

Any sort of entity would serve its purposes–alien creatures, super-advanced machines, genetically enhanced chimpanzees, whatever, but, tragically capitalism has so far been forced to do business with the very beings it exploits and wants to deny income to: Humans. Cruel irony.

The mass of mankind, against which capitalism wars in the sphere of production, it has to make nice to in the sphere of consumption, to blandish and cajole into buying commodities.

This fusion of consumer and producer in the same being is the
tragic contradiction that torments capitalism and drives it to
manic-depression–exuberance followed by depression followed
by exuberance.

The capitalist elite revels in Romanesque debauchery as it squeezes money out of the sweat and blood of the workers, but the party ends once markets have, as a result, so shrunk, or the worm of doubt has so grown in the minds of investors, that investment is cut back to the point of ending growth.

The spread of credit may keep the party going for a long time, postponing the full effect of long-term stagnating or declining wages (and ever more precarious employment), but the reckoning has to come sooner or later.

An economy cannot be sustained forever on wishful thinking, namely the wish that aggregate demand will remain indefinitely high even as less and less of the nation’s wealth and income are going to the bottom 99 percent.

All this is just Marxian common sense, which Keynes diluted and helped make mainstream during and after the Great Depression.

So, we’re in a situation now quite similar to that which caused
the Great Depression.

There isn’t any doubt that we’re in for another such event, this time more global and protracted (though also uneven and possibly not as dramatic, at least initially).

We’re entering the epoch of stagnation and crisis, environmental crisis too, and population crisis, and political crisis, and every other crisis you can think of.

We’re embarking on the slow demise of a civilization.

Incidentally, the common comparisons between the current
situation and the fall of the Roman Republic and the Empire
are not altogether facile or superficial.

In all three cases, the rise of, “income inequality” is a
determining factor, as the top one percent or fraction
of one percent appropriates ever more wealth and
increases its power.

In the case of the Roman Republic, which succumbed to civil
wars and Julius Caesar and then the Empire, republican forms
were gradually corrupted by the enormous wealth that flowed
to Rome’s elite as a result of its imperial conquests and

Sound familiar?

The rich were able to dispossess many of the poor, including soldiers, from their land, and the senatorial government did little to address the impoverishment of the masses, since it represented and consisted of the (congenitally short-sighted) rich.

Soldiers therefore became intensely loyal to their generals,
since it was only through a general’s land grant that they
would be guaranteed an income after being discharged.

Ambitious generals were thus able to build up huge, loyal private armies that made them effectively autonomous of the Roman government.

The Senate could only look on helplessly as civil wars between generals ensued, the ultimate victor of which was Octavian, or Augustus.

Such social calamities are always what happen when the rich
get too rich and are given too much license to do as they want.

They dismantle or ignore rules that aren’t in their short-term private interest, rules, nowadays, like the welfare state, protection of public resources, and collective bargaining between employers and employees, which inevitably causes the slow disintegration of social bonds, of any kind of social compact, public-spiritedness, and the very fabric of society.

Privatization (such as Rome’s privatization of the army and much
of the land, and the U.S.’s privatization of education, natural
resources, etc.) destroys public goods, thus ultimately destroying
society itself–for what is society if not one great public good, one
great, “commons”?

There is much we can learn from the fall of Rome, which
happened twice and from similar underlying causes both

But as for the future, is there any hope?

It might seem not, but, ironically, some hope is justified
by virtue precisely of the catastrophes we’re in for.

At the same time as these corrode the foundations of a depraved civilization, they will create, or rather, are creating the conditions for an upsurge of popular movements and democratic initiatives that will begin outside the mainstream and eventually become visible and widespread.

As any Marxist, anyone with common sense should understand, history progresses largely by means of silver linings in terrible circumstances.

This is the essence of the so-called, “dialectical” interpretation
of history.

In this connection it’s worth mentioning the three possible, “plans” that left-wing activists in Greece have come up with for their country’s future, since their conceptualization, if modified, applies to the future of the entire world.

Plan A, favored by the Syriza government, was to remain
in the eurozone but end austerity.

That plan hasn’t worked out so well, in light of Syriza’s
capitulation to the Troika.

Plan B, favored by the left wing of Syriza, envisioned a Greek default and exit from the eurozone, followed by rapid statist reconstruction of the economy.

This plan, too, is unrealistic, at least for now.

Plan C is what’s left, and ultimately the one that is both most
revolutionary and most realistic. Jerome Roos’s formulation is
clear and compelling:

[Plan C calls for] a reinvigorated project of the commons
and communal solidarity.

In contrast to both Plan A and Plan B, Plan C would be a bottom-up project organized by local communities that would situate itself directly on the terrain of everyday life.

It's main contributions would be threefold.

First, through solidarity networks and communal support systems,
it would enhance popular resilience by securing the means of social
reproduction under conditions of extreme precarity.

Second, by creating new and strengthening existing organs of
popular power, the commons would collectively act as bases
for continued grassroots resistance to further austerity and

History has shown that, without powerful grassroots movements
exerting pressure from below, even left governments are easily
led astray by the siren call of domestic and international capital.

To prevent this, the still relatively small and dispersed movement of commoners will have to become an organized force of political opposition.

Third, a project of the commons has revolutionary potential insofar as its protagonists manage to reclaim the means of production and reproduction; democratize workplaces, communities and existing political institutions; and contribute to a fundamental transformation of social relations from below.

All of this is clearly still a far way off, but Plan C is precisely about cultivating this sense of perspective and direction — taking the struggle far beyond the stale dichotomies of state and market, euro and drachma.

These ideas are stated in the context of the crisis in Greece,
but they generalize worldwide.

Plan A, for us, is the path that the left wing of the Democratic
party would pursue: remain basically in our current political
economy, enact no sweeping reforms, merely tinker
technocratically in a more proactive way than the Obama
administration has done, particularly with regard to issues of
the economy and the environment.

This plan would fall victim to the profound unsustainability
of the corporate-capitalist political economy that it doesn’t
truly challenge.

Plan B would amount to a thoroughgoing shift in the state’s policies, in fact a global shift (necessarily), incorporating something like Thomas Piketty’s global wealth tax, but also much more.

In order to set society on a new track, it would necessitate radical-left state intervention in the economy on a level that would make the postwar European welfare state seem puny.

Given the balance of power between big business and the democratic resistance, this option is totally impossible.

The only other option is the Plan C that Roos outlines–and that Gar Alperovitz and others have discussed in the context of the United States.

Slowly build up a new society from below, a less atomized
and more democratic society.

Spread cooperatives of every kind, and public banking,
participatory budgeting, perhaps community land trusts
and community development corporations, “solidarity
networks” and “communal support systems” of types
that can’t really be foreseen at present.

All this has to be done in alliance with overt political resistance, social movements that force the state (at all levels) towards the left, but not in a sudden colossal coup that attempts to reconstruct society from the top down, an impossibility.

What’s important to understand is that Plan C is not simply
something that should be done, something that depends only
on the will of activists (however important that is); rather,
it almost certainly will be done. It is the direction in which
history is proceeding, coincident with the deterioration of
corporate capitalism.

In the coming decades, as crisis savages civilization, people and
communities across the West and across the world will be driven,
for the sake of their survival and their political dignity, to invent
creative solutions to their plight to network with each other and
to cooperate in the production and distribution of resources.

The state will mutate in ways we can’t foresee in response to
these initiatives and this resistance, and slowly, laboriously,
a very different society will mature in the interstices and
finally in the mainstream of a dying ancient régime.

I’ve discussed the “historical logic” of such transformations here
and here–where, incidentally, I also explain why this, “gradualist”
model of revolution is the only one consistent with the logic of

Marx and all his followers misunderstood his own thought when
he and they adopted a statist model of revolution (as if social
revolution consists of seizing the national state, shooting your
opponents, and then somehow instituting economic democracy
through bureaucratic channels of political will).

Plan C will mature far in the future, but the seeds of it are
already planted, even in the U.S.

Yes! Magazine has showcased some of these, and the Democracy Collaborative is one of the organizations in the vanguard of the coming revolution.

Among the many glimmers of hope are the following.

Several cities in the United States have begun investing in worker cooperatives, which are, in essence, examples of socialism–economic-democracy on a small scale.

The common leftist criticism that, for now, they are forced to operate in a capitalist context and engage with the market is irrelevant.

New York City’s 2016 budget includes $2.1 million for developing worker co-ops, up from $1.2 million in 2015, which itself was up from $0 in 2014.

Madison, Wisconsin is giving $1 million each year for the next
five years to establish new worker co-ops.

The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio have had so much publicity since 2010 that it’s hardly even necessary to mention them here.

Similarly publicized has been the United Steelworkers’ cooperation with Mondragon to establish manufacturing worker cooperatives, the first time since the 1880s that a mainstream labor union has been so closely involved in establishing co-ops.

Nor is it the only one.

Participatory budgeting, having been tried first in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, is now finally starting to spread across the West.

It came to the United States to Chicago in 2009, and since then has been replicated in many other cities, though as yet only on a small scale.

As its successes are publicized, it will continue to be replicated
and expanded.

Public banking has had difficulty in expanding beyond North Dakota, the only state with its own bank, a remarkably profitable and socially efficacious one.

Since 2009 a plethora of bills have been introduced in legislatures to establish state banks, but so far none has come to fruition.

Entrenched interests have been able to stifle the growing
advocacy for socially conscious banking.

But one can expect that after the next financial crisis, an
inevitability, and then the next, and the next, the capacity
of the elite to resist radical change will weaken substantially,
largely because of massive popular movements.

Karl Marx was right, though, not to try to sketch what sorts of institutions would spring up during and after the “revolution.”

Even now, we don’t know what new forms of social organization will appear in the next forty years and after.

Society is too complex for us to predict these things.

The main point I’m making is just the old Marxist one that
progress works in mysterious ways.

The political economy of the twentieth-century capitalist
nation-state is being dismantled by capitalism.

The nation-state is being progressively atomized, fragmented, polarized between rich and poor, parcelized and privatized, which in the long run will cause the demise of capitalism itself.

For capitalism and the centralized nation-state have grown up together since the fourteenth century, and they will die together.

It’s possible they’ll take humanity with them, or that a Hobbesian state of nature will ensue, but more likely is that, “Plan C” will mature to the degree, and at the same pace, that capitalism succumbs to itself.

The way that historical progress happens, through crisis and the heightening of mass misery to the point that the elite can no longer resist popular movements, is indescribably cruel, but it does, at least, give us cause to hope for something good out of the horrors that await us.

Chris Wright is a doctoral candidate in U.S. labor history, and
the author of Notes of an Underground Humanist and Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the
United States.

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