Can communists fix “the poorest big city” in the US?

by Jehu

According to this article, Philadelphia, the site of the Democratic National Convention and long managed by the Democratic Party, has another unmentioned and less savory reputation. It is “the poorest big city” in the US.

“The nation is focused on Philadelphia as a smiling, spruced up city hosting hordes of delegates, visitors, protesters and journalists. But away from the TV cameras, thousands who live in the poorest neighborhoods know it’s unlikely that outsiders will see their Philadelphia, one defined by poverty, hardship and hopelessness.”

While I was reading it, I found myself asking, “When was the last time I read anything by a Marxist on how to fix poverty?”

Now, obviously, poverty is natural to the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism has an inherent tendency to impoverish wage workers as it concentrates wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Marxists thus have argued that if we want to fix poverty we have to get rid of capitalism. There is nothing wrong with this statement in and of itself, but it does beg the question: How do we get from point A to point B? Is there nothing short of communism that can fix this?

Let me give an analogy: Capital does not simply have a built in tendency to impoverish the working class,  it also has a tendency toward a falling rate of profit. Yet we know as Marxists that the law that leads to a falling rate of profit can be paralyzed by what Marx called countervailing influences. If there are measures that convert the law of the falling rate of profit into a tendency exists,  what (if any) measures exist to slow or reverse impoverishment — not a ‘fix’ for poverty, of course, and certainly not a ‘cure’ for it, but do Marxists have any policy tools that might slow or temporarily paralyze it?

Bizarrely, most socialist parties running for office today, including the Green Party (GP) and the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), mostly rely a on what we can broadly defines as Keynesian measures to fix poverty — measures like a state guarantee of full employment and a minimum wage. The PSL, for instance, is calling for a job guarantee with a minimum wage of $20/hour. Their platform states:

“Tens of millions are jobless and under-employed because the capitalists control employment. A decent-paying job must be a legal, guaranteed right. The minimum wage should be raised to $20 per hour and a living income must be guaranteed for those who cannot work.”

My problem with the approach that relies on Keynesian measures is that these measures fetishize wage employment and the state, which provides the jobs guarantee. How do you ever get to communism if you can only propose to fix the ills of capitalism by fetishizing wage labor and the state? Marxists are put in the uncomfortable position of arguing poverty can only be addressed by having the working class work harder and longer. What sort of communism is this that demands more wage labor, rather than its abolition?

The problem here is that Marxist economist have done a very poor job of providing an alternative set of policy tools for parties like PSL and GP to use. In part at least, this is because most of our Marxist economists got to examine labor theory only after years spent studying bourgeois economics and Keynesian state policies. In bourgeois economics, the private capitalist firms operate according to one set of laws and the state intervenes to manage them using another set. Capital creates monopolies and concentrates wealth, then the state intervenes with palliatives like the minimum wage and full employment. All the policy tools proposed by the Keynesians essentially expect the state to intervene after the fact to correct for capital.

Instead of critiquing the Keynesian approach to problems like poverty, most Marxist economists, habituated to this fallacy by years of rote learning, fall for it — and then,  at the end, tack on the obligatory statement that poverty can’t be fixed under capitalism; to solve it we need for socialism. This hardly provides any help to socialist parties trying to convince people to vote against the two main fascist parties.

Carchedi, for instance, admits Keynesian measures can’t solve the inherent problems of capitalism, but then he goes on to argue we should fight for them anyway:

“The above should not be construed as if labour should be indifferent to state-induced capital-financed redistribution and/or investment policies. On the contrary, labour should strongly struggle for such policies. But this struggle should be carried out not from a Keynesian perspective but from the proper, Marxist, perspective.

The Keynesian approach considers Keynesian policies as a way to improve both labour’s conditions and capital’s condition, a way to counter or exit the slump. From the Marxist perspective, state-induced capital-financed distribution and/or investment policies need not be Keynesian, ie need not carry the ideological content attached to the word, the community of interests between the two fundamental classes. The Marxist perspective stresses (a) that these policies may improve labour’s lot but are impotent against the crisis-they can at most postpone it, and (b) the political potential of these policies. Through the struggle of labour for better living and working conditions, consciousness can arise and grow among workers that each time these policies are paid for by capital, capital is weakened both economically and politically, and that labour can exploit this to weaken the yoke of capital.”

This is silly on two points:

First, what, may I ask, is the political potential of a jobs guarantee? What is the political implication of fetishizing wage labor and the state? What does PSL’s demand for a jobs guarantee accomplish but to demand more unpaid labor time? From Marx, we know capital constantly reduces the living labor required for production of commodities, but capital does this solely with an eye toward increasing the aggregate unpaid labor time of the wage workers. At this point, state intervention is necessary to constantly increase employment (i.e., aggregate labor time). Keynesian-style measures are only meant to accomplish what capital cannot accomplish on its own today. These measures have the effect of extending the shelf life of capitalism much as Marx’s countervailing influences paralyze the falling rate of profit.

Second, contrary to Carchedi, this does not mean Keynesian policies don’t work — just the opposite: Keynesian policies have worked wonderfully. Amazingly, we have now gone more than eighty years without a significant replay of the Great Depression — something that would have been unthinkable to most Marxist living in Marx’s time. This is entirely due to Keynesian measures through which the state manages the production of surplus value.

But is this what Marxists want right now? To extend the lifespan of capitalism? Are these the sorts of policies they need in their platforms? Based on labor theory of value, do Marxists have any measures of their own to address poverty that do not rely on employing the existing state to increase the unpaid labor of the working class?

Why haven’t Marxists economists been able to come up with any original ideas based on labor theory to support the various parties out there? Marxists rightly point out the poverty is endemic to the capitalist mode of production. And they rightly point out that this tendency can only be abolished with the abolition of capitalism. But they offer no steps that get us to this ultimate goal and instead support policies that only push communism further off into the future.

If our only fix for poverty is food stamp socialism, we will never get to communism. I think Marxists economist should be confronted on this — only by forcing them to respond will they change their behavior. If you can confront Sanders for his failures around #blacklivesmatter, we can certainly confront Kliman, Harvey, Carchedi et al.