Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion Part 3

Index to all posts in this series.

In the first two parts of this conclusion, I describe the views of Ellen Meiksins Wood, based on her book, Democracy Against Capitalism, and the friendlier vision of capitalism offered by Bruce Scott. See posts 12 and 13 in the index for links. In this post I examine some of the similarities between the two views.

1. Both Scott and Wood use the principles of historical materialism, the basic idea underlying Marxist scholarship. It holds that the social structures that exist at any point are the result of an evolutionary process, and are contingent on the specific circumstances of each society and the actions of individuals and the society as a whole. Scott does not use the term historical materialism, and he certainly isn’t a Marxist, but doesn’t exactly repudiate Marx either.

Karl Marx supposed that liberal markets would be dominated by capitalists (i.e., powerful economic actors), which would lead to their domination of the political system as well. There was some truth to this at the time that he wrote, and it can certainly still happen today, but it is not a necessary outcome as he supposed. P. 62.

However, Scott does follow the general principles of historical materialism. He compares the evolution of capitalism in the US to its evolution in other societies and to the evolution of the economies of other societies. This gives him an outside vantage point which he fully uses.

2. Wood and Scott agree that the separation of political economy into politics and the economy was central to the evolution of capitalism. Wood opens with a discussion of this separation and its importance. Scott emphasizes the role of human agency in the evolution of capitalism.

This essential human role means that capitalism is a mix of sociology, administration, politics, economics, and law, and that any theory of capitalism must include not only an economic level but also a political level, what I call here the third level of political authority. P. 50.

Scott says that capitalism shifts governance of the economy to the private sector through a three-tier system: a democratically elected political authority, institution/infrastructure intermediaries, and firms, with all three levels acting and interacting. This is close to Wood’s view that the private sector controls the economy subject only to the barest intervention by the state. Scott seems to agree with Wood’s assertion that the private sector controls the lives of the productive sector with little or no democratic oversight. Scott doesn’t address this latter point except indirectly. See, e.g. pp. 128, 448, 455, and others. Wood and Scott agree that democratic control of the economy is crucial to a balanced society. Both would benefit from reading modern scholarship on this issue and its history. For those interested, a good place to start is Michel Foucault, Discipilne and Punish, the subject of this post.

3. Wood relies on Marx’ laws of motion of capitalism and other formal statements of Marxism. She goes to some lengths, as do other Marxists, to define terms. Scott echoes this. He carefully analyzes a number of definitions of capitalism and finds them wanting, before moving on to his own definition.

Scott’s definition is based on his observations of the way capitalism works. Marx also described capitalism as he saw it and Scott says Marx was right to think that capitalism would eventually become a struggle between the capitalists and the proletariat, because government had not begun to intervene at that time. See p. 29.

4. Wood insists that Marxian descriptions of the economy are the most accurate, and her book tries to apply those principles to the way things are today. Her recommendations for change and the road to change are straight out of Marx.

Scott is committed to capitalism as the best way to manage the economy. He recognizes that there are problems, but he sees deviations from his model as something to be corrected, not as the natural working of the system. For example, take cable companies. Government and the cable companies arranged the system from the outset to entrench their monopolies in a process that totally ignored public input. The government doesn’t force any real competition, as it does in France, or intervene in price-setting. Absent competition, it’s hard to call cable a capitalist market, or a market at all. That isn’t a deviation from Scott’s model, it’s the way US capitalism works. At some point the deviations from the model tell us that we should rethink the model. We could, for example, treat the model as an ideal form, and use it to change a system. Or we stare coldly at the real problems we face and come up with a new model.

Wood’s commitment to Marx leads to failure to come to grips with the changes in the organization of society and technology in the century since Marx wrote, and her apparent failure to come to grips with non-Marxist thinkers, including Foucault, the Frankfurt School, and Pierre Bourdieu among those I have read for this project. Scott doesn’t discuss these either, even as he says that to analyze capitalism properly we have to take politics and sociology into account. P. 50. Neither focuses on the actual problems facing our society, especially climate change.

5. Both Wood and Scott reject neoliberal doctrine without exactly acknowledging it. Wood thinks that neoliberalism is just the name of the ideology developed to support the form of capitalism Marx predicted. See this article, which I took up in post 6 in the linked index. Scott is equally dismissive. See, e.g. p. 62; here’s a brief taste:

Followers of Friedman tend to not only overlook but also actively reject this role of government in the capitalist system. According to them, informed, voluntary, and bilateral transactions are the essence of a self-regulating capitalist system and therefore that system can and must be free from governmental coercion. But in reality, coercion is to be found in most capitalist markets; large firms coerce those that are smaller, a patent holder enjoys market power, an employer typically authorizes only one employee to make a job offer to a prospective employee, and employees may or may not organize to bargain in a similar format.

As I have said repeatedly in this series, you don’t have to be a Marxist to reject neoliberal capitalism. All it takes is a clear head and a willingness to stare at reality.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 7: Superfluous People

The last chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is devoted to discussion of the totalitarian regime, which comes when the totalitarian movement has taken power. Arendt says that totalitarian movements don’t offer a specific program for government. Instead, they propose to operate under a “scientific” program. For the Nazis, this was the law of nature with its eternal progress towards perfection, which Arendt thinks arises from a skewed form of Darwinism. For the Communists it was the laws of history as supposedly discovered by Marx. Once in power, the totalitarian regime becomes an instrument for the will of the leader, who in turn is an instrument for imposing and acting out those laws. It is here that Arendt takes up the issue of concentration camps. She says that they are instruments for studying ways to reduce individuals to oblivion, to being superfluous, which is the goal of totalitarianism.

Men insofar as they are more than animal reaction and fulfillment of functions are entirely superfluous to totalitarian regimes. Totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men, but toward a system in which men are superfluous. Total power can be achieved and safeguarded only in a world of conditioned reflexes, of marionettes without the slightest trace of spontaneity. Precisely because man’s resources are so great, he can be fully dominated only when he becomes a specimen of the animal-species man.

The totalitarian attempt to make men superfluous reflects ihe experience of modern masses of their superfluity on an overcrowded earth. The world of the dying, in which men are taught they are superfluous through a way of life in which punishment is meted out without connection with crime, in which exploitation is practiced without profit, and where work is performed without product, is a place where senselessness is daily produced anew. Yet, within the framework of the totalitarian ideology, nothing could be more sensible and logical; if the inmates are vermin, it is logical that they should be killed by poison gas; if they are degenerate, they should not be allowed to contaminate the population; if they have “slave-like souls” (Himmler), no one should waste his time trying to re-educate them. … P. 457.

Why is it necessary that people become superfluous? The answer appears in the final chapter, Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government. Ideologies are “… isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise…”. P.468. They are the scientific programs offered by totalitarian movements as the organizing principles of societies. For Arendt, the Nazi ideology revolves around the idea of the laws of nature, of blood, while the Communist ideology revolves around the historical laws of Marxism. In both cases, human beings are in the way of the historical forces, and must be forcibly denied the ability to interfere with the primal force.

Terror is the realization of the law of movement; its chief aim is to make it possible for the force of nature or of history to race freely through mankind, unhindered by any spontaneous human action. As such, terror seeks to “stabilize” men in order to liberate the forces of nature or history. It is this movement which singles out the foes of mankind against whom terror is let loose, and no free action of either opposition or sympathy can be permitted to interfere with the elimination of the “objective enemy” of History or Nature, of the class or the race. Guilt and innocence become senseless notions; “guilty” is he who stands in the way of the natural or historical process which has passed judgment over “inferior races,”, over individuals “unfit to live,” over “dying classes and decadent peoples.” Terror executes these judgments, and before its court, all concerned are subjectively innocent: the murdered because they did nothing against the system, and the murderers because they do not really murder but execute a death sentence pronounced by some higher tribunal. The rulers themselves do not claim to be just or wise, but only to execute historical or natural laws; they do not apply laws, but execute a movement in accordance with its inherent law. Terror is lawfulness, if law is the law of the movement of some supra-human force, Nature or History. P. 465.

That idea, the idea of the unrestrained movement of supra-human forces, should sound familiar. That’s how Arendt described Imperialism, the early form of unrestrained capitalism. It also describes today’s world as seen by the architects of neoliberalism. They warn that everyone loses if The Market is subjected to even the slightest restraint, whether to movement of jobs and capital overseas or to prohibit dumping toxins into earth, air and water. They insist that foreign limitations on patents and copyrights are impossible restraints. They preach that the only legitimate goal of government is to enforce property rights to the utter maximum. For them, the restless movement of money in the hands of the rich and powerful operates in accordance with its own internal logic, logic which cannot be questioned by quasi-humans not gifted with the power to control vast sums of wealth. They tell us that The Market knows all and fixes everything as long as we mere humans do not interfere with its workings. Neoliberal capitalism is a form of supra-human force that Arendt warned us about.

Neoliberalism forms world view of movement conservatives. Here’s an article in the National Review on this issue by one Kevin Williamson. :

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed[mund] Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

Williamson’s NRO colleague David French agrees:

My childhood was different from Kevin’s, but I grew up in Kentucky, live in a rural county in Tennessee, and have seen the challenges of the white working-class first-hand. Simply put, Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin. Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them to file a bogus disability claim.

For generations, conservatives have rightly railed against deterministic progressive notions that put human choices at the mercy of race, class, history, or economics. Those factors can create additional challenges, but they do not relieve any human being of the moral obligation to do their best.

Williamson and French agree that the white working-class people are superfluous, and so are their communities and their way of life. Millions of them should just hire U-Hauls and move to the blessed land of plentiful jobs. They must all lose themselves and their way of life to the inexorable laws of movement, only this time, it’s the inexorable laws of neoliberalism, of rampant unrestrained capitalism. By those rules, individuals cannot act collectively, through unions or through active government. They are permitted to act collectively in their Churches, which emphasize their helplessness in this world except through the will of the Almighty, and therefore pose no real threat to the interests of the rich and powerful.

These white working-class people and their communities aren’t economically viable, and nothing can or should be done to make things different. They should surrender to the external and ungovernable force of hyper-capitalism. They are superfluous, and if they die in misery, leaving their families in poverty, it’s just the natural law of economic freedom working itself out in the passive voice, with the invisible hand of the rich and powerful hidden in a fog of words.

Index to prior posts in this series