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The Green New Deal Challenges The Domination Of Capital

The Green New Deal is an overarching statement of political goals for the Democratic Party, something the party has not had for decades. It lays out a vision of a future inspired by the best the party has to offer, Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, which he laid out in January 1941 as the US stared at the unfolding crisis in Europe. In this post I called for just such a statement, and this is everything I could have hoped for. It is a combination of Roosevelt’s unfinished goals and the massive work done by liberals to expand the reach of the Constitution to previously disfavored groups. It offers hope and possibility as we confront the crisis of environmental disaster.

It also offers a stunning contrast to the closed and frightened Republican/MAGA plutocratic vision for this nation. Their hounds immediately attacked the messenger, the message and anyone who might want to consider the message with their usual childish insults and trollish memes, their version of political discussion. A few conservatives recognize the seriousness of the problem of climate change, but have nothing to offer, as reported by Emily Atkin in The New Republic.

Here is the text of H.R. 109. I encourage everyone to take a few minutes and read it. The summaries I’ve seen are insufficient to convey the brilliance of the document.

The Green New Deal acknowledges that meeting the challenge of impending climate disaster will be enormously disruptive. It’s most important virtue is that it doesn’t assume that the entire burden of the disruption will be borne by working people. Instead, it insures that workers are protected from disruption, not with some phony job training program, but with real protection. Equally important, it insures that capital will not be able to grab vast profits or control adaptation for their cash benefit.

Capitalism has brought staggering social and environmental changes in this country. Frequently, the technology that has produced those changes was the product of government research and development. Capitalists imposed all the costs of those social and environmental changes on working people and the poor while sucking up all the benefits for themselves. You don’t see the rich living next door to petroleum processing plants or airports or gravel pits or trash dumps. You don’t see their kids suffering from asthma caused by factory pollution or heavy truck traffic or worse. You don’t see them unable to pay medical bills or take their kids for needed medical attention. That’s for the little people.

The Green New Deal says that’s over. When the price of natural gas dropped, capitalists stopped using coal, and coal miners lost their jobs, their insurance, their homes and their futures. Under the Green New Deal, when natural gas is phased out every displaced worker will have a job and health care, because the Green New Deal offers a job guarantee and insists on universal access to health care. Communities, especially marginalized people, will participate in decisions about location of new manufacturing facilities and other issues affecting them, and that participation will enable all of us to protect ourselves from the costs capitalists impose on us today.

The Green New Deal recognizes that a substantial research and development program will be needed to create new technology to meet its goals. That’s going to be funded by the government. But this time there is no free ride for the capitalists. Section 4.1 requires the government to provide and leverage

… in a way that ensures that the public receives appropriate ownership stakes and returns on investment, adequate capital (including through community grants, public banks, and other public financing), technical expertise, supporting policies, and other forms of assistance to communities, organizations, Federal, State, and local government agencies, and businesses working on the Green New Deal mobilization ….

The entire document is designed to rebalance power in deciding the future of the nation. It is explicitly small-d democratic. It explicitly favors the interests of the vast majority. It explicitly slashes the power of the rich to dictate what, if any, response will be made to the threat of climate change.

This rebalancing is a serious challenge not just to capital and the rich, it is a serious challenge to both parties. Democrats claim to be the party of the people. The Green New Deal forces them to prove it. The Republicans represent the interests of the rich against the interests of working people. The Green New Deal makes this contradiction concrete. Both parties claim to want the best for the future of the country. The Green New Deal forces them to come up with positive programs or to do nothing in the face of mounting inequality, a zero-sum political economy, and impending environmental catastrophe.

There’s an even more direct assault on the dominance of capital in the Green New Deal. It calls for decarbonization of the economy. That directly threatens the wealth and power of a number of rich people, for example, the Koch family, whose fortunes are grounded on petroleum. The value of their fortunes will fall as oil becomes a mere feedstock for chemical processing. So will the fortunes of others, Russian oligarchs, Saudi princes, and African kleptocrats. The finances of a number of regimes of varying degrees of hostility to the US, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, the oil emirates, Iran, Iraq, and maybe ISIS. Their power will drop as the value of their natural resources falls. These are ruthless people with no interest in planetary survival. They will fight to the death to prevent the loss of power and wealth.

Meanwhile the media focuses on the horse-race and the cost. Can the Green New Deal pass? How could we ever pay for it? Every single article I’ve read makes a point of saying it’s politically impossible and almost all whine about the money. No one thinks the Senate with its piratical crew of Republican science deniers and Trumpists will ever pass it. And costs are not an issue until we agree to move it forward, and when it becomes real, brilliant economists like Stephanie Kelton will lead the way.

Right now every Democratic politicians opposed to the idea has to explain why their tweaks to neoliberal capitalism will accomplish something without crushing their voters. Republicans will continue to deny until the evidence overwhelms even their astonishing capacity for self-delusion. The rest of us have a planning document, something we can turn into legislation, something we can actually do that will make a difference. We’ll be working on it while the brain-dead bitch about the impertinence of the youngs, and politicians pour perfume on their campaign treasuries to hide the stench of raw petroleum.

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Economics in Critical Theory

In The Dialectical Imagination, Martin Jay says that economics was not a central part of Critical Theory, but that several scholars of the Frankfurt School worked in the area. One of the leading economists was Friedrich Pollock, especially after the Institute moved to New York. Like the other scholars of the Institute for Social Research, Pollock was trained in Marxist economics. This school mosttly followed Marx in thinking that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. One of those contradictions was that the aggressive accumulation of capital would impoverish the working class, which would then rise up and lead the revolution.

By the early 1900s, it was obvious that the problem of pauperization of the proletariat was at least partially solved, and capitalism didn’t collapse. The leading Marxist explanation was the rise of what Marxists call “monopoly capitalism”, as taught by the Austrian economist Rudolf Hilferding, discussed here. Classical economics treated the economy as made up of many firms (or, as Marx called them, capitals) each too small to affect prices, and all responding to the demands of buyers.

Unlike the classical economists, however, Marx recognized that such an economy was inherently unstable and impermanent. The way to succeed in a competitive market is to cut costs and expand production, a process which requires incessant accumulation of capital in ever new technological and organizational forms. In Marx’s words: “The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities depends, ceteris paribus, on the productiveness of labor, and this again on the scale of production. Therefore the larger capitals beat the smaller.” Further, the credit system which “begins as a modest helper of accumulation” soon “becomes a new and formidable weapon in the competition in the competitive struggle, and finally it transforms itself into an immense social mechanism for the centralization of capitals” (Marx, 1894, ch. 27).

In this setting, labor itself is a commodity, so that one of the goals of the firm is to drive down wages as low as possible. That was the basis for the assumption that the proletariat would be impoverished: the firm would drive the price of labor to barely enough to support life. The process of capital accumulation in “ever new technological and organizational forms” did occur, as we know from the Gilded Age in the US when trusts and cartels dominated industrial production. That process was eventually slowed down by anti-trust laws and other laws. By the 1970s, antitrust enforcement came under assault, and today we see the results in our own oligopoly.

Monopoly capitalism has its own contradictions. In theory, there is no limit to cartelization, but in practice, there are limits. Technological change is a major force, and occasionally democratic processes interfere with the actions of capital. Another major force is the general distrust of large firms that was common in the early 20th Century, but that seems less of a factor today.

Based on the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the Communists in Russia Pollock thought that monopoly capitalism had reached its limits. Pollock saw Soviet Communism and German fascism as a new form of capitalism, State Capitalism. In both countries, the new regime preserved the forms of private property, but in effect all production was organized to carry out the aims of the central government. The profit motive was subordinated; instead the productive processes was organized to achieve dominance over the population. The state was controlled by a mixture of party members and bureaucrats in Russia, and by the party and a group corporate executives and rich people in Germany. Pollock argued that this was the future of capitalism.

In the US, he might have seen some elements of state capitalism in the following: a) the use of central planning, as in the National Recovery Act: b) the encouragement of technological innovation; c) the use of central banks both to stabilize and direct capital deployment; d) a form of job guarantee, as in the Civilian Conservation Corps; and e) a large and growing military sector. These trends in the US were baby steps compared with Russia and the Axis Powers, but they were real changes.

The Frankfurt School was right about the movement towards monopoly and oligopoly, and it was right about the increasing involvement of the State in this process. They were wrong to think that capitalism would turn into State Capitalism at least in the US and Europe, but in other parts of the world there are forms of the new regime. It’s important to note that not only were they right, but right for the right reasons. Here’s a discussion of the contradictions of capitalism from the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics that shows the way this happens.

Critical Theory rejected the idea of economic determinism which was characteristic of orthodox Marxists. The Frankfurt School saw economics relations as one aspect of human behavior along with all the different interests and concerns people might have. They rejected the idea that economic relations were determinative of human behavior and therefore of the future, according to Martin Jay.

Pollack wrote that the profit motive “… had always been a variant of the power motive.” P. 155. The power motive drove towards dominance over nature, and because humans are part of nature, it included the drive to dominate other humans. The theory that the fundamental problem with capitalism is that the profit motive becomes entwined with the drive to dominate became a central focus of Critical Theory. They saw its effect in culture and academia. All knowledge becomes instrumental, only useful or even pursued if it can be used in capital accumulation. They argued that nature becomes invisible. The natural world is only useful for its resources, not because humans are part of nature, or because its beauty and terror contribute to our lives. Other human beings become objects, not agents in their pursuit of their own interests. The Frankfurt School was right about dominance, too.

Security, Territory and Population: Foucault on Power

Security, Territory and Population: Foucault on Power

In this post I discussed some aspects of Foucault’s method of inquiry, focused on some of the terms he uses. That post was based on other sources besides Foucault himself. Before moving on in the discussion of Security, Territory and Population, I think it will be helpful to see how Foucault understands power, particularly in the government sense. I thank commenter Alan for this link to an interview of Foucault from November 1980. There are several related strands of thought in this discussion. This post focuses on power but the entire essay is worth reading to see Foucault’s understanding of morality and of the role of the philosopher.

For Foucault, power is a relationship. In its broadest sense, power ts a relationship in which one person has the ability to guide another, to influence the behavior of another. This is an unequal relationship, but it is in itself neither good nor bad. For example, the interviewer asks if it would be oppressive to stop a child who was scribbling on a wall.

And there’s no reason why this manner of guiding the behavior of others should not ultimately have results which are positive, valuable, interesting, and so on. If I had a kid, I assure you he would not write on the walls—or if he did, it would be against my will. The very idea!

It can involve physical force, but there are other relations where it doesn’t involve force, but other factors in a relationship.

Good. I exercise power over you: I influence your behavior, or I try to do so. And I try to guide your behavior, to lead your behavior. The simplest means of doing this, obviously, is to take you by the hand and force you to go here or there. That’s the limit case, the zero-degree of power. And it’s actually in that moment that power ceases to be power and becomes mere physical force. On the other hand, if I use my age, my social position, the knowledge I may have about this or that, to make you behave in some particular way—that is to say, I’m not forcing you at all and I’m leaving you completely free—that’s when I begin to exercise power. It’s clear that power should not be defined as a constraining act of violence that represses individuals, forcing them to do something or preventing them from doing some other thing. But it takes place when there is a relation between two free subjects, and this relation is unbalanced, so that one can act upon the other, and the other is acted upon, or allows himself to be acted upon.

Therefore, power is not always repressive. It can take a certain number of forms. And it is possible to have relations of power that are open.

A good example of an open system of power relationships is that of parent and child. Parents are heavily affected by babies, and change their behavior to comfort and soothe the child, At the same time, the child is affected by the parents, and gradually begins to be affected by the desires and guidance of the parents. Not, of course, without friction, and not in every case, but certainly as a general rule, the child and the parents come to equilibrium, and when one or the other changes, for example by aging, the equilibrium changes too. Or consider our process of education. In the early years, the child is the object of a practice of education. The system makes certain demands, not by force, but by other means. Over time, the situation changes and the students become part of the practice of education, both through their own demands on the system, and through their own attempts to educate themselves outside and inside the system. In college, students are more or less completely in charge of their own learning, and the teachers can learn from the students as well, and many do.

This gets us close to the idea of power in governments. Government has the power to influence and guide our behavior and to some extent even our thinking. The relationship is not completely open, but citizens have the abililty and the right to influence government actions. Depending on the responsiveness of the government actors to the concerns and demands of citizens, it can be more open, or it could be more repressive or worse.

Relations of power are not in themselves forms of repression. But what happens is that, in society, in most societies, organizations are created to freeze the relations of power, hold those relations in a state of asymmetry, so that a certain number of persons get an advantage, socially, economically, politically, institutionally, etc. And this totally freezes the situation. That’s what one calls power in the strict sense of the term: it’s a specific type of power relation that has been institutionalized, frozen, immobilized, to the profit of some and to the detriment of others.

When power is frozen in a society, in its institutions, its organization, and its laws, sooner or later it becomes intolerable, Foucault says. And, of course, what seems acceptable at one point in time may become intolerable at a later time. When power relationships reach the point that people no longer accept their position as subjects of that power, something has to change. Foucault’s goal is to analyze those frozen relationships and see what can be done to liquefy them so that there is more mobility, more freedom, more openness.

This definition and this application help me to think about our situation in the US. Power relationships are unequal. If people agree to be governed, they are in fact accepting a certain kind of inequality: they are saying someone else is likely to be better than they are at guiding or leading in some area of their lives. This is the basis for a decent society. Power relations, relations of inequality, do not have to be oppressive. As long as each side is heard, and decisions take into account as much as possible of the interests of all concerned, then the exercise of power may not be what some want, but it is not oppressive.

People who don’t agree to be governed frequently talk about that rejection in terms of power: “Its those damned liberals and intellectuals always telling me what to believe, they think they’re so smart. They can’t make me do anything.” Foucault would say they confuse mere physical force (“make me do anything”) with his definition of power as influence or guidance or something more forceful.

Everyone is subject to influence by someone else. It might be Fox News or Trump or a Preacher; or some French philosopher; but there’s always someone. Many of the anti-liberals are perfectly willing to be governed by those who defend their prejudices and hatreds, and insist that the rest of us be subject to the same people. The insistence on purity of principle has a strong potential to be oppressive.