Communists need to co-opt the neoliberal agenda
I know this is going to sound like I have lost my mind, but communists have to co-opt the neoliberal agenda.
No, I am not joking: just to clarify my position, I want to provide a workable textbook (i.e., wikipedia) definition about what I mean specifically when I say communists have to co-opt neoliberalism so that there is no confusion about what I am arguing:
“Neoliberalism refers primarily to the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. These include extensive economic liberalization policies such as privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980.
Currently, neoliberalism is most commonly used to refer to market-oriented reform policies such as “eliminating price controls, deregulating capital markets, lowering trade barriers”, and reducing state influence on the economy, especially through privatization and austerity. Other scholars note that neoliberalism is associated with the economic policies introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States.”
While the definition of neoliberalism is subject to some controversy, communists would likely agree that the one offered by Robert W. McChesney: “capitalism with the gloves off,” pretty much captures the spirit of the term. With its emphasis on dramatically reducing state control of the national economy, privatization, austerity, ending capital controls, lowering trade barriers and generally aligning the policies of national economies with Washington’s, it may be hard to see why any communist should accept neoliberalism, much less advocate going beyond it.
Nevertheless, at least in in Europe and North America, communists need their own post-Keynesian plan for radical restructuring of national economies and should be prepared to go much further than the neoliberals. Specifically, they need to go hard after the bloated state sector with a plan for radical reductions in public spending linked to a vision of a post-welfare state society. This vision must detail how such a radical restructuring can, of itself, ensure a greater equality, protect the living standards of the working class and the environment without reliance on the existing state.
I can almost here the groans among communists. Neoliberalism has more or less served as the target for radical Leftist outrage for the last forty years. The problem with this, however, is that, despite all their protests to the contrary, neoliberalism has been the default position of the Left for most of that time.
In one contest after another, we have seen radicals (including many communists) side with the neoliberals against parties advocating protectionism, limits on migration, national prejudices, etc. While, in spirit, the Left opposes neoliberalism, as a practical matter the Left ends up in bed with the Clintons, the Remainers and, as this weekend will probably show yet again, the Macrons. Rather than honestly facing this dilemma, the Left chooses to hide its head in the sand and avoid the implications of constantly ending up in bed with neoliberalism in almost every election since Thatcher issued her famous challenge: “There is no alternative.”
The Left’s flirtation with neoliberalism is like having a night of sex with a person you don’t want to have anything to do with in the light of the next day and would rather blamed the whole unfortunate incident on alcohol:
No one wanted to vote for Clinton, “But Trump.”
No one wants to remain, “But, Farage.”
No one wants Macron, “But, Le Pen.”
It basically comes down to the fact that no one wants neoliberalism, but fascism is even worse. Rather than acknowledge that we now live in a neoliberal world, and figure out our strategy based on this fact, we keep on waking up next to that guy again and blaming it on the wine.
The problem isn’t the neoliberals; it’s us.
If you look at Left literature, Left party programs and Left discourse generally, the state remains the premise of all of its action: Government should eliminate poverty; we need new tax laws to fix this problem; the state should take from the one percent and give to the ninety-nine percent. In practice, however, the actual parties and candidates the Left have supported over the last four decades have only turbo-charged the impact of neoliberalism on the conditions of the working class.
The explanation of this two-faced behavior is understandable: most of what the Left stands for — open borders, free movement of workers, and an end to the state — are far more closely aligned with the aims of neoliberalism than it is with Farage, Le Pen and Trump. The recent talk in the UK about Lexit just feeds the fire on the Right without appreciably advancing the Left’s cause.
The Left has to overcome its silly attachment to the state. If the Left doesn’t decisively ad irrevocably distance itself from the reactionaries like Le Pen, it is going to be making a big mistake. The idea we can retreat to the golden age of the social welfare state sounds exactly like what Trump and Le Pen are promising: “We will bring back your jobs.”
Jobs are not coming back and we need to face this reality.
To the working class, who have suffered austerity for decades now, this false promise is very tempting. It is false because the nation state cannot be revived and even if it could we should want nothing to do with it. Does anyone really want a do over on the 20th century? I don’t think we do. For 40 years now, the Left has deluded itself that it has another option. But for most of that time, I have seen nothing but longing for a return to a world that never existed. Meanwhile capital has been remaking the world market; globalizing production, making nations ever more dependent on one another and feeding a growing population of proletarians utterly cut off from employment. This is the world we live in and we need to face reality.
Let me tell you something: the neoliberals are going to win by default, because the Left has nothing. The real danger is not Trump or Le Pen or AfD or UKIP — the cannot win because the entire trajectory of the capitalist mode of production has already historically condemned them. The real danger is that while the Left dithers, Merkel, May, Macron, Clinton and the rest of the neoliberals will be imposing their own solution to the crisis of the fascist state. They want to strip the state of its control over national economies on their terms. That means, in the simplest possible terms, defense spending stays and social spending goes. It means pensions are reduced, retirements delayed, hours and aggregate working lifetimes increased and wages slashed through inflation.
And the Left have nothing to offer but the tired old fascist programs of the Keynesian era; no idea how we will survive when these programs are gone.
In France this weekend people are going to vote for Macron, who wrote Hollande’s economic program, simply because the only alternative is Le Pen. The voter has a choice: go with the open fascist, Le Pen, who wants to closed France’s border and expel Muslims or cast your ballot for the very guy who wrote the neoliberal agenda for France. In the United States it was the same thing: Clinton versus Trump; in the UK the same: Remain or Leave.
Now it’s Macron or Le Pen in France. How many times do we have to come to this point before anything changes? There is no third option anywhere, because, after 40 years, the Left still hasn’t come up with one. I mean, what have we been doing for the last 40 years? How is it that 40 years after Thatcher declared there was no alternative to neoliberalism, the Left hasn’t yet produced one?
Everybody already knows we can’t go back toward Le Pen — the golden age of the welfare state never really existed, except in the minds of some doddering old veterans of 1968, who swear to us something happened that year when they were in college. I can tell you that nothing happened in 1968. It is all the fantastical delusion of a bunch of senior citizens.
You read that right: ’68 never happened!
And ahead of us is only Macron and neoliberalism. Austerity is nothing more than the restructuring of national economies in such a way as to prevent the nation state from controlling capital. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that agenda, except they also want us to work longer hours for less wages. I see no reason why we can’t have free trade and free movement of labor and capital with shorter hours and higher wages.
There is no reason for each working class to retreat behind its borders as Trump, Farage and Le Pen want us to. We can abolish borders and dramatically slash spending in the public sector as long as we also cut hours of labor. In most of Europe the state consumes around fifty percent of GDP, but produces nothing. The unproductive consumption comes at a huge cost that finds its way into every good we purchase. The neoliberals want to maintain much of this bloated sector, including NATO spending. By reducing hours of labor the entire public sector can be eliminated without any consequences for the working class. Getting rid of these costs improve the real standard of living because its is deflationary. Your nominal wages go further because prices are lower.
For this reason I think communists should make an effort to “out-neoliberal” the neoliberals. But my argument goes further: we don’t just want social spending gone; we want all state spending gone. Every communist knows the working class does not now and has never needed a state. That is some bourgeois bullshit, not ours. But, if you aim to completely eliminate the state, you have to reduce hours of labor to make room for all the folks who will be let go in the public sector.
Does this make me a right-wing Marxist? Of course not. What communist has ever aimed for anything but a society without a state? Why would pushing for elimination of the public sector be unusual — it is just a step toward our goals?
The only way to beat the neoliberals is to push the boundaries of radical restructuring beyond where they are willing to go. You cannot beat the neoliberals by “resisting” change. As the Invisible Committee wrote in 2014, those positions are already lost. We keep losing because we keep defending capitalist political relations that are already obsolete.
To give an example of what I mean by the term “going beyond neoliberalism.”: The Left is so concerned that capitalists “pay their fair share” they have never asked why the working class pays any taxes at all. Both the profits of capital and the expenditures of the state are surplus value squeezed from the working class. All surplus value in society is created by the working class. Why are we being forced to pay twice? Why do the capitalists spend all week stealing our labor and then the state comes in and grabs its additional share from our paychecks.
If the neoliberals want government to play a diminished role in the economy, we should demand they start by eliminating all direct and indirect taxes on wage labor. Rather than complaining about Trump’s taxes, how about we complain about our own taxes? How about we ask why in addition to creating surplus value for the capitalist, we also have to hand over our meager wages to the state? If the state is that desperate for revenue, everyone knows that the top one percent has received the lion’s share of the recovery. Take their profits, not our wages.
Every politician running for office promises to make the wealthy pay their fair share; yet once they get in office, the taxes on the wealthy are reduced. This makes perfect sense: if you want to create jobs in a capitalist economy, expansion of employment depends on profits. You cannot take profits from the capitalists and still expect them to create jobs. Everybody knows this simple truth. But the consumption power of our society depends on the wages of the working class. If the state is stealing our wages, with what are we to purchase what we have already produced? Investment depends on the capitalist class and the consumption power of society depends on the working class. Where in this equation is there any room for the state, which produces nothing? We don’t need the state; it can go away as far as we are concerned.
Thus the neoliberal agenda to take the gloves off of capitalism has far deadlier implication for capitalism than it has for us. We aren’t the ones who call out the cops on strikers and protesters. We are not the ones who build aircraft carriers to threaten China and Russia. We’re not the ones bombing Syria and Afghanistan. I see no role for the state in mankind’s future and we should start realizing that future today.
For far too long, communists who advocate getting rid of the state have gotten a lot of pushback from other communists. This pushback comes in the form of dire predictions about what the capitalists will do if the state goes away. Yet every crime committed by the capitalists today has been done on their behalf by the state. This pushback is unforgiveable; every communist knows the state is not now and has never been a constraint on capital.
We have nothing to fear from the neoliberal agenda to reduce state control of the economy; but we have everything to fear from the state power falling into the hands of folks like Trump, Farage and Le Pen. Instead of finding ourselves waking up on the morning after a night of election celebration uncomfortably sandwiched between Clinton and Macron, we need to figure out what a world market with greatly diminished influence of states looks like.
To strip the state of its control over the national economy means we deny it every policy tool it now possesses. No state should be able to put up barriers to movement of workers, capital or goods. No state should be able to run deficits to boost its GDP. No state should be able to station troops on foreign territory. No state should be able to impose taxes on wage labor. We have to deny the state of its capacity to respond to capitalist economic crises so that society will have no choice but to reduce hours of labor. All fiscal and monetary policy tools should be stripped out of the hands of politicians.
I accept that most of the Left will balk at the idea that the state should have no role in the economy and if the trajectory of the mode of production were just a matter of the wishes of Leftists, that would be a fair point. But it is not. Every time we get in bed with Macron, May and Clinton, we move further down this same path. But we do it in such a way that the working class bears the brunt of the neoliberal agenda. For once let’s try to figure out how the state is stripped of its pretension to manage society in a way that benefits our class, not the other class.
No matter what we decide, it is coming anyways — nothing can prevent the ongoing neoliberal transformation of the state and the world market.