Jacobin Magazine Shocker: Even if SYRIZA wins, the Left will probably lose

jacobin_logoPeter Bratsis over at Jacobin is trying to manage down your expectations regarding the probable impact of a now likely SYRIZA win:

“Regrettably, the political conjuncture in Greece and beyond does not present us with an urgent task of deciding which path to socialism is the best. All political parties (Syriza, KKE, Antarsya, included) are, quite the opposite, largely debating which path is best for restoring jobs, wages, health care, education, and the like. No one is advocating a radical break with the past and the creation of a new society.

The desire on the streets, in the meeting halls, and in the voting booths is not the desire for the new and more excellent, it is a desire for security, predictability, and jobs.”

According to Bratsis then, the revolutionary impulse of socialist parties is being blunted by the conservative attitudes of the working class? (I think I have that right.)

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Response to the critics of the term “fascist state”

I have received a large amount of criticism from Marxists regarding my insistence that the present state is fully fascist in every sense of the term. The most recent comes in the form of criticism that I am somehow being dishonest in my employment of the term fascist state and designation of Keynesian economic policies as essentially fascist:

People need to stop villainising Keynes. There’s an entire branch of economics that merges Keynes with Marx. The workers were hardly the most screwed by Keynesian policy: the petite bourgeoisie, with their vast savings, were far worse off (relative to what they had been before). Post-war Europe was one of the better times to be a worker in capitalism, far better than modern neoclassical neoliberalism.

Also, stop calling modern governments “fascist”. It’s just intellectually dishonest.

presidents1The resistance of the Left to the term fascism is understandable for reason I will show. However, I insist my use of the term fully conforms with historical materialism, no matter how grating it may be for “progressives” and other Leftists. I base my assessment of the present state wholly on the argument made by Marx and Engels throughout their entire careers. In particular, I base it on the explicit argument made by Engels in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. I offer my take in hope it will spark a discussion on the subject of the nature of the present state and the impossibility the state can in any way serve as a path to communism.

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Open Marxism’s Unspoken Prescription for the Current Crisis: Vote Harder

Continuing with the discussion of Holloway and Picciotto’s paper, “Capital, Crisis and the State”, which makes up chapter 3 of Simon Clarke’s book, The State Debate.

hatebushIn my last post, I showed how Holloway and Picciotto arrived at the conclusion that the definition of capital as the production of value and surplus value was insufficient basis to explain “the political”. I think the critical part of this story was the struggle to place the post-war full employment policies of the fascist state and implementation of “progressive” legislation of the 1960s and 1970s in some consistent theoretical context. “Open Marxism” was trying to explain policies that appeared to contradict Marx’s infamous base-superstructure analogy of “the political”.

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Open Marxism and the “Benefit” of Longer Hours of Labor for the Working Class

In a paper that forms chapter 3 of Simon Clarke’s book, The State Debate, Holloway and Picciotto, having decided “the political” is relatively separate from “the economic” must explain why this is so. But they have to do this while avoiding being associated with “orthodox Marxist determinism” prevalent in the Third International variant of Marxism.

As I argued, to do this, they redefine capital as a historically “specific form of class domination” and set this definition against Marx’s definition of capital as the production of value and surplus value. Within this historically specific form of class domination, “the political” and “the economic” are two separate moments of the totality. This, they argue, avoids the “iron economic determinism” by providing “an understanding of the determinants and limits of state action”. base-superstructureThe state sphere is separate from the sphere of direct exploitation, but it is not separate from capital as a specific form of class domination.

The solution, however, is made more difficult because Holloway and Picciotto cannot employ Engels as their convenient whipping boy: Engels’s “positivism” did not lead to the formulation of the foundation-superstructure analogy; Marx’s “dialectical method” did.

Ignoring for the moment that their definition of capital as an historically specific form of class domination flies completely in the face of Marx’s definition of capital as the production of value and surplus value and his elaboration of the whole base-superstructure thingy, what is gained by this redefinition of capital? While this redefinition might be useful in critiquing the reformism of Second International Marxism, it still doesn’t explain how “the political” is actually determined by “class domination”, since there is no obvious mechanism outside Marx’s own base-superstructure analogy. Holloway and Picciotto admit:

“If we insist on starting with the category of capital because it is the contradictions of the capital relation (as the basic form taken by class antagonism in capitalist society) which provide the basis for understanding the dynamic of social and political development in capitalism, the problem of the nature of the relation between the actions of the state and the accumulation of capital remains.”

This, I really need to emphasize, IS NOT a mere theoretical question: “Open Marxism” is trying to grapple with the fascist state, in order to explain so-called “progressive” legislation. In the United States, for instance, since the end of WWII, we saw, among other things, the collapse of segregation, the Civil Rights Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, the establishment of a woman’s right to choose, and a host of other reforms. Any argument on the relation between the mode of production and the state had to explain how this “progressive” legislation came about. At the same time: we have Vietnam and Chile, which horrors requires little or no elaboration, not to mention Thatcher/Reagan neoliberalism. The state appeared to accommodate a very wide spectrum of activity that could not be directly traced to exploitation in the factory.

“Open Marxism” argued the whole base-superstructure analogy did not seem to captures the true nuance of the relation between state and the mode of production. Holloway and Picciotto ask:

“[Should] this problem simply be dismissed as being no problem, the autonomy of the political denied, the correspondence between the actions (and structure) of the state and the requirements of capital accumulation taken for granted?”

The key phrase in the question is “Should this problem simply be dismissed as no problem”. The writers are reacting to the tendency among Marxists to simply dismiss the range or spectrum of fascist state action. If, in the end, all fascist state action boils down to the requirement of capital, even profound developments like the end of segregation can be ignored.

But ignored by whom? Certainly black workers did not ignore the end of a century of segregation; women workers did not ignore the end of the prohibition on abortions in the United States; and anyone concerned with the environment did not ignore the establishment of the EPA by the Nixon administration. Finally, no Marxist could ignore the collapse of Bretton Woods, which signaled either the death of capitalism or the death of labor theory.

Placing these real historical events in a consistent theoretical context seemed necessary, but neither 2nd International Marxism nor 3rd International Marxism seemed up to the task. In this regard, the example Holloway and Picciotto refers to in this section is telling because it deals with a cornerstone policy of the fascist state. Some writer named David Yaffe pointed out that the fascist state policy of full employment runs into the problem, “that there are limits to the extent and effect of state expenditure which result from its unproductive nature and hence the requirements of accumulation.” The constant extension of total social hours of labor came at the cost of an increasing mass of unproductive fascist state expenditures. There is, in Yaffe’s view, a limit to the policy of full employment. The argument is compelling and relevant to our situation today — unfortunately Holloway and Picciotto tells us little else about the paper. However another of Yaffe’s papers along these line can be found here.

In their response, Holloway and Picciotto criticize Yaffe for not expanding on his analysis of the state in this discussion:

“What results is a rather monolithic view of the state in which the growth of the state apparatus is attributed simply to the state’s post-war commitment to full employment, and in which the effect of state expenditure is seen as being adequately grasped by its classification into the categories of ‘productive’ or ‘unproductive’

However no matter their criticism of Yaffe for neglecting the state, Holloway and Picciotto are forced to concede his analysis “may” be crudely valid:

“But then how are we to understand the role of bourgeois democracy, and how are we to see individual state actions which apparently do not correspond to the interests of capital?”

Yaffe’s argument, they explain, focuses on one aspect of the limitation of fascist state action: that its expenditures represent a deduction from the total surplus value! In this assertion, Holloway and Picciotto are not only wrong, but horribly off-base in their criticism of Yaffe, which appears to make three questionable assumptions: First, they assume that the full employment policies of the fascist state were undertaken for the benefit of the working class. Second, they assume this alleged benefit is paid for by a deduction from the total surplus produced by capital. Third, they assume this deduction is “limited by the competing claims of private capitals on that surplus value which must be met if accumulation is to continue.”

All three of these assumptions were terribly wrong.

The constant extension of hours of labor (so-called full employment) was itself the “class domination” imposed on the working class for the purpose of expanding (not deducting from) the production of surplus value by unproductively consuming the resultant product of labor. Holloway and Picciotto (and perhaps also Yaffe, it is not clear) all begin their analysis of full employment with the totally outlandish assumption that longer hours of wage slavery is a benefit for the working class!!!!

From their point of view, if there is anything to be explained regarding this “benefit”, it is the limit on the state’s ability to grant it. Apparently it never occurred to these bumbling fools that the interest of capital is always to extend hours of labor even if this can only happen in the form of increasingly unproductive activity on behalf of the fascist state. Having assumed (apparently along with Yaffe) that ever longer hours of labor is a “benefit” for the wage slave, Holloway and Picciotto then have the gall to chastise the writer for not recognizing,

“the other limitations arising from the nature of the state’s structural relation to, and separation from the immediate process of exploitation — limitations which greatly restrict or render impossible state action in the rational interests of capital, irrespective of the limits of state expenditure.”

Which is to say, since longer hours of labor benefit wage labor, not capital, there must be a separate political limit on the state providing this benefit that arises from the nature of the state itself.


“Open Marxism” and the Myth of the Class Struggle

capitalistThere is a truism of sorts stated in Sol Picciotto’s paper: “the crisis of international capital is also a crisis of the international state system.” Given this, the aim of labor theory has to be to uncover this crisis and its material reality beneath fetishized forms of appearance.

For “open Marxism” to say the crisis of international capital is also a crisis of the international state system is, however, ambiguous at best and in practice completely misleading. No one will take exception to the idea the crisis of capitalism is also a crisis of the state, however I think Picciotto defines it this way in order to assert we are facing two different crises, not one and the same crisis.

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Simon Clarke’s “The State Debate” and the puzzling case of the Boeing strike

Boeing machinists march from company's Renton, Washington factory to their union hall to vote on the company's final contract offerIn his paper (published as chapter 8 of Simon Clarke’s book, “The State Debate”), Sol Picciotto states:

“The principle of territoriality of jurisdiction is the corner-stone of the international system based on the nation-state. The transition from the personal sovereign to an abstract sovereignty of public authorities over a defined territory was a key element in the development of the capitalist international system, since it provided a multifarious framework which permitted and facilitated the global circulation of commodities and capital. The independent and equal sovereign nation-state is therefore a fetishised form of appearance, for the world system is not made up of an aggregation of compartmentalised units, but is rather a single system in which state power is allocated between territorial entities.”

Frankly, this statement is ambiguous — it is not really clear to me exactly what of the “independent and equal sovereign nation-state”, is a fetishized appearance of the world market for Picciotto.

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The World Market and the Illusion of the Nation-State

Chapter 8 of Simon Clarke’s book is a paper by Sol Picciotto “The Internationalization of capital and the international state system”, written sometime in the 1980s. The aim of the paper seems to be to describe how the “capitalist state system” was adapting to the growing “internationalization of capital”. india-colonial-period-01

I put all of these terms in quotes, since, in large part, they presuppose the outcome of the discussion. In first place the term “internationalization of capital” assume capital is more or less a national form. In second place the terms imply there is something that can be called a “traditional nation-state”. To give an example of the problem this presents to analysis, consider the British empire. Was India a “traditional nation-state”? Was Great Britain? Was the colonization of India by Britain an “international state system”?

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The State Debate 20 Years Later: How Aufheben Transcends Marx’s “Incoherent and Undeveloped” Theory of the State

page58_1It is now twenty years on since Simon Clarke published his book, The State Debate” in hopes it would serve as a “launching pad for the struggles of the future.” And more than thirty years have passed since the depression of the 1970s came to an end with the “neoliberal expansion” of the 1980s and 1990s. However, in a disappointing and altogether troubling 2010 commentary on the material discussed in Clarke’s book, Aufheben summed up the situation facing Marxists in the 1970s in pretty much the same words as did Clarke in 1991:

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You can’t understand the state if you don’t understand capital

One of the fundamental problems of Marxism’s explanation of the role of the state is its rather weak grasp of capital itself.

Richard NixonIn my last post I argued there was nothing extraordinary about the failure of social democracy in the 1970s, nor its success in the 1960s. Even if we leave politics out of the equation altogether, we would expect wages to rise during booms and fall during busts. This is pretty much what occurred in fact according to Simon Clarke. Clarke attributes the cause to the success or failure of social democracy, when in fact, social democracy had no real impact on wages.

Where Keynesian policies did seem to work, however, is during the depression of the 1970s. During the 1970s, the depression never led to the fall in output and employment that was seen in the Great Depression. While social democracy is not necessary to explain the rise and fall of wages, it does seem to have an effect on output and employment. In the depression, we should have seen output collapse severely and a population of excess workers to form up in all advanced countries.

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A Brief Note on Simon Clarke’s “The State Debate”

I have been reading the introduction to Simon Clarke’s, 1991 book “The State Debate”. The book is an interesting collection of paper produced by writers in the 1970s trying to come to grips with the fascist state. It does not appear any of them are directly trying to grapple with fascism; rather they seem to grappling with the previous formulations of the problem of the state and society.

Clarke makes this interesting statement:

“There was no way in which economic issues could be isolated from political questions in the atmosphere of growing economic crisis and sharpening political and ideological conflict through the 1970s.”

Yet, most of the authors referred to in this book are attempting just this: to isolate economic issues from political questions. As Clarke describes it, at the outset there were two poles in the debate: The first pole proposed “an immediate identification of the state with the interests of capital”. The second pole proposed, “institutional separation of the state from the economy, and so stressed the autonomy of the state as a political institution.”

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