Rightward and downward: “What’s Left?” December 2018, MRR #427

My wife, my friends, everybody I know is pissed that I’m not more pissed off about that horrible, horrible man Donald Trump. That I seem pretty sanguine about the hurricane of political, social, and human destruction Trump and the GOP have wrought in such a short period of time or the damage they will continue to inflict for decades to come through, for instance, the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. So, why am I not more freaked out about Trump?

The answer is that, in my lifetime, I’ve seen this nation’s relatively liberal politics go consistently downhill and rightward to the present. I first became aware of American politics writ large when I was 8 years old, when John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960. My parents had been Democrats and Adlai Stevenson supporters, so my frame of reference started from a liberal “Golden Age,” the “one brief shining moment” that was the myth of JFK and Camelot. But unlike many people who believe the fifty-eight years that followed have witnessed ups and downs, good times and bad, pendulum swings left and right, and are therefore upset, desperate, and obsessed with the rise of Trump, I see those years all of a piece, a steady right wing devolution as we go straight to hell in a handbasket.

The relatively lean, muscular structure of the American state prior to 1929 permitted the nation to create an empire—by conquering the native populations, expanding its rule from coast to coast under Manifest Destiny, and asserting its power across the western hemisphere under the Monroe Doctrine. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in confronting the challenges first of the Great Depression and then the second World War, radically transformed American government in riding a wave of socialist/communist militancy. FDR crafted the modern warfare/welfare/corporatist state that attempted to democratically sidestep the excesses of Soviet Communism and European Fascism while outflanking the Old Left’s upsurge domestically. Considered the height of American Liberalism, the New Deal has been disingenuously celebrated by that same Old Left even after a smooth political transition to the rabid anti-communism of the Eisenhower era. The guns-and-butter Kennedy/Johnson years continued the anti-communist military intervention and domestic social welfare expansion permitted by First World economic affluence, as New Left* activism and organizing surged. It must be remembered that Nixon arguably was the last liberal president.

These two prolonged separate Leftist periods were when progressive coalitions mobilized to move the Democratic party and American politics dramatically to the left. Four briefer, distinct occasions when ultra-conservative coalitions mobilized to purposefully move the Republican party and American politics profoundly to the right need also be noted: McCarthyism and the era of “Father Knows Best” morality; the prefiguring Goldwater presidential campaign; the rise of the New Right presaging Reagan’s presidential bid in a new age of austerity; and the Tea Party movement that anticipated the rise of Donald Trump and independent Trumpism. Yet Democratic party governance after 1975 was not a reversal or even a holding pattern so much as a more gradual rightward descent: Carter with economic deregulation and Cold War escalation; Clinton in slashing welfare and promoting free trade; and Obama as the drone-bombing-deporter-in-chief and TPP champion.

I’ve summarized this country’s inexorable political slide to the right over the last half century. The changeover from Keynesian affluence to neoliberal austerity however hints at something more fundamental underlying American politics whether you see those politics as a swinging pendulum or, like me, as a steady flush down the porcelain highway. American capitalism made the switch from making profits out of industrial productivity to financial speculation somewhere around 1975, accounting for both the decline of the 60s New Leftist surge and the defeat of the 70s labor upsurge. In commercial capitalism profit is extracted almost exclusively from circulation, from trade, from the buying and selling of commodities. Under industrial capitalism profit is extracted not just from circulation but also from the labor process in which factory workers are paid less than the value they produce from their labor—from surplus value. Surplus value is then used to construct more factories and to hire more workers for wages in an ever-expanding cycle of profit-making.

But capitalism suffers from a tendency for the rate of profit to fall (in the interpretation of Marx I favor), which not only results in the boom-and-bust economic cycle we’re all familiar with but also in an increasing inability to sustain industrial production. In my lifetime we’ve seen industrial production become so unprofitable that US industrial labor has been outsourced and factories moved to the Third World, resulting in America’s overall deindustrialization and conversion to a service economy. More and more, capitalism in the US is based on extracting profit from financial transactions and speculation, a far less profitable form of capitalism then even the trade in commodities of commercial capitalism. Capitalism worldwide also suffers from the same declining rate of profit, meaning that in China, Vietnam, and other Third World nations industrial production is contracting, meaning that industrial capitalism is slumping internationally and being replaced by finance capitalism. Finance capitalism is not merely a capitalism in decline, it is capitalism heading for the mother of all crises.

Some students of the 1929 Great Depression have contended that, in liberal democracies, deep economic depressions as suffered by the interwar US are conducive to the growth of socialist movements whereas runaway inflations as experienced by Weimar Germany are favorable to the rise of fascist movements. During depressions, people who have no money or work are screwed but for those who do, money has value, work has meaning, and society has integrity, giving the edge to socialism which values labor. During inflations, it doesn’t matter whether people have money or work because money has no value, work has no meaning, and society is crumbling, giving the advantage to fascism which values power.

A similar dynamic can be seen in the transition from industrial capitalism to finance capitalism in liberal democracies. In industrial capitalist societies, work and capital are intrinsically productive and so leftist movements and ideologies are widespread. Government spending and services grow, welfare programs and economic regulation expand, and the public realm and labor unions are endorsed. In finance capitalist societies, work and capital are mostly unproductive and so rightist movements and ideologies are prevalent. The economy is deregulated and financialized, the welfare state is rolled back, labor unions are crushed, the public realm is privatized, and government spending and services are cut back. About all they have in common is an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy. Marxists consider industrial capitalism in terms of constant vs variable capital while consigning finance capitalism to the category of fictitious capital.

Whether Keynesian or neoliberal, democratic or authoritarian, the state serves as the monopoly of legitimate violence, the bulwark for the existing social order, and the lynchpin for the nation and economy. The state functions the same whether under affluent industrial capitalism or austere finance capitalism, so why does society exhibit leftist unrest in the former and rightist agitation in the latter? A staid principle developed in the 1950s was that of the revolution of rising expectations in which “rising expectations embodied the twentieth century’s ‘real’ revolution insofar as it represented for the vast majority of the world’s population a break from centuries of stagnation, fatalism, and exploitation.” The growing affluence from 1945 to 1975 caused expectations to rise in the population at large all over the world, which in turn lead to civil unrest, insurgencies, and revolutions according to the theory. But did persistent austerity after 1975 cause the opposite: widespread social reaction, stagnation, and obedience? The results are dubious either way the theory cuts. The inconclusive empirical evidence, methodological constraints, and conceptual criticisms of the whole revolution of rising expectations thesis makes it useless.

I’m of the Marxist mindset that the social superstructure follows the economic base much as form follows function in the principle enunciated by modernist architecture and industrial design. It also means, in a Gramscian sense, that social superstructure can gain autonomy to act back on the economic base, but the starting point is crucial. We make our own history, but we don’t make it as we please; we don’t make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

I just snuck in another Marx quote.

*New Left in this case does not refer to the politics that grew up around organizations like Students for a Democratic Society but to Leftist organizing and movements that flourished from the Civil Rights movement beginning in 1955 to the collapse of the anti-Vietnam war movement in 1975.

SIGNIFICANT DATE RANGES: Old Left: 1930-50; New Left: 1955-75; Keynesian industrial affluence: 1945-75; neoliberal finance austerity: 1975 onward; McCarthyism/Eisenhower era: 1950-1960; Goldwater campaign: 1963-64; New Right: 1980-88; Tea Party/independent Trumpism: 2009 onward.

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Political upsurge vs ideological decay: “What’s Left?” August 2018, MRR #423

Metaphors are powerful. Metaphors are poetry disguised as prose. People who use metaphors claim they’re a shortcut to truth and meaning.

Last month I used the biological metaphor of species complex to tease out additional structure and definition of the usual Left/Right political compass. In the process I promised to cover various social contexts in given historical periods that illustrate increased Left/Right political conversions and crossovers but instead managed to drop yet another metaphor by using Mao’s metaphor with politics and war. From the 1960s war on poverty and the 1970s war on drugs to the 21st century wars on terrorism and the truth, the metaphor of war has been much used and abused. Instead, I’ll use another metaphor from Mao to “put politics in command” in coming to terms with political change, conversion, and crossover socially and historically. In the process, I will renege on my previous promise by severely limiting the scope of this inquiry to the rise of and interplay between the New Left and the New Right.

Karl Marx wrote “[c]onstant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” in arguing that the French 1789 Revolution was the first bourgeois revolution of the capitalist era. The notion that capitalism was born of revolution and continues through constant revolution—economically, politically, and socially—has been challenged by Ellen Meiksins Wood and Robert Brenner who trace its origins back to the “peaceful” agriculture revolution of England in the 1700s. Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, in turn, trace the kernel of capitalism all the way back to 1250 and the Mediterranean Venetian/Genoese commercial empires. But while capitalism’s genesis and initial features are in dispute, the constantly replicating, ever expanding, relentlessly revolutionizing reality of capitalism—from its embryonic beginnings to the present world capitalist system—is not.

Today, we live in an all-encompassing capitalist world. But socialism in one form or another arose to oppose capitalism roughly from 1820 onwards, with the concerted Communist challenge lasting from 1917 to 1991. The division of the world into two contending camps—capitalist vs socialist—was problematic all along. The left of the Left argued that social democracy was only state liberalism, that Leninism was merely state capitalism, and that both were not actual alternatives to capitalism. Further, a non-aligned movement of countries arose after the second World War to challenge the notion of a bipolar either/or world based on two competing power blocs. By the 1960s the rise of the New Left joined divisions on the Left, splits within socialism, and non-capitalist/non-Marxist options vying for recognition.

The seemingly intractable Cold War standoff between “the Free World” (which wasn’t free) and “the Communist Bloc” (which wasn’t communist) allowed a New Left to effloresce worldwide. In the United States, white college students of liberal, radical, and sometimes Marxist political bent formed organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The New Left was directly powered by the motors of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and ran in dual-engine-mode alongside the hippie youth counterculture throughout the 1960s. It had no unified intent—whether criticizing orthodox Marxist and labor union movements, furthering and revitalizing the Left’s historic goals, or creating an entirely novel, unique Left—but its vitality and energy generated a plethora of corollary social movements, from the Black, women’s and gay movements to various Third World solidarity movements and the ecology movement. Anarchism revived from the dead, Trotskyism came in from the fringes, and Maoism found prominence via the New Communist Movement. 

Forming, changing, revising, or reversing one’s politics in those heady days when political boundaries were rapidly expanding and highly fluid—or non-existent—was common, and often meant rapid-fire crossovers or conversions. Last column I mentioned Murray Bookchin who started out as a Stalinist, became a Trotskyist, and ended up an influential anarchist communist. More telling was the political journey of Karl Hess. As Barry Goldwater’s speech writer in 1964, he was widely credited for the famous Goldwater line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Eventually he became a left anarchist, joined SDS and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), championed back-to-the-land and intentional urban communities, and promoted appropriate technologies and left-right libertarian unity.

The New Left reached its pinnacle in 1968, which Mark Kurlansky rightly called “the year that rocked the world.” “To some, 1968 was the year of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Yet it was also the year of the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy assassinations; the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; Prague Spring; the antiwar movement and the Tet Offensive; Black Power; the generation gap; avant-garde theater; the upsurge of the women’s movement; and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.” To this add the student/worker uprising in Paris of May/June, 1968. But 1968 simultaneously witnessed the failure of the New Left, starting with the collapse of SDS itself. For all the hype that Paris 1968 was a near-revolution inspired by the Situationists, Mouvement Communiste points out that for the most part French workers passed on the rioting to sit passively watching their TVs in a vindication of the persuasive Madison Avenue power of the Spectacle.

The recuperative powers of capitalism proved far greater. The cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s were often profoundly individualistic, even libertine, something that capitalism easily coopted. This was something more than that 1968’s rebellious youth “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.” (John Lichfield; “Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968,” The Independent, 9/23/08) “[S]ince 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the New Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” (Geoffrey Wheatcroft; “It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” Guardian Weekly, 9/5/08) The year 1968 may have changed the world, but after “the revolution that wasn’t,” most everybody went back to their normal lives and conventional jobs.

Finally comes the power of out-and-out reaction, starting with Nixon and culminating with the neoliberalism of Reagan and Thatcher. It’s not by coincidence that the neofascist Ordre Noveau and the New Right Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne (GRECE) emerged in France in 1968. The latter, founded by Alain de Benoist, demonstrated what Kevin Coogan wrote in Dreamer of the Day that: “periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the ‘Red-Brown alliance’ in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’.” And make no mistake, the 1970s and 1980s were a period of profound ideological decay.

The Right retrenched and regrouped after 1968, not only halting the surge of the Left—both Old and New—but eventually gaining unquestioned ascendence while presiding over the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the dispersal of the political Left, and the contraction of the labor movement. The European New Right (nouvelle droite/ENR) was minuscule compared to the rest of the Right however, and it certainly was microscopic compared to the New Left to which de Benoist grandiosely juxtoposed his efforts. While the 1960s were a worldwide political and cultural phenomenon, de Benoist fantasized about the “metapolitics” of “culture wars” and “right-wing Gramscianism.” To Fascism’s organic hierarchies, militarism, anti-egalitarianism, and elitism, de Benoist tacked on a faux revolutionary élan, “the right to difference,” and a Europe of a hundred ethnic flags, then called it all groundbreaking. It was his claim to a sui generis fascism-by-euphemism in the ENR that succeeded in seducing the by-then jaded American New Left academic journal Telos.

Telos started publishing in May, 1968, and was committed to non-conformist critical political theory, analyzing all manner of neo-Marxist, anarchist, New Left, and Frankfurt School debates. But by the early 1990s, with the sorry state of “real existing socialism” and the disappointments engendered by its failures—or worse—its successes, coupled to the Left’s need for intellectual schema plus its desire for the “next big thing” in the form of new political paradigms, the disillusioned neo-Marxists and anarchists of Telos jumped at the chance of engaging with the ENR in debating de Benoist’s bright shiny bullshit. The discussion was initiated enthusiastically by the ENR and fueled by an American anti-intellectual populism, resulting in an ENR-Telos rapprochement by 1999. Telos became the most prominent crossover to the dark side, switching from once vigorous New Left to ever necrotic New Right.

In times of radical social change, political change is vibrant and vital. In times of reactionary social decay, political change is deformed and grotesque.

[This analysis of the ENR-Telos political dance owes much to Tamir Bar-on’s Where have all the fascists gone?]

Capitalism In Crisis or Without End: “What’s Left?” September 2017, MRR #412

This is the conclusion to my overlong analysis last column of the crisis of the Left and the crisis on the Right (Party like it’s the 1960s: “What’s Left?” July 2017, MRR #410).

Our story so far:

Interregnums are instances of revolutionary class conflict, either regional and diffuse (Great Peasants’ War, 1524-25; English Glorious Revolution, 1688) or more consolidated and national (French 1789 Revolution, Russian 1917 Revolution, Spanish 1936-39 civil war). Related regional interregnums were strung together into a broad, territorial interregnum (religious conflicts/wars across continental Europe, 1517-1648), while associated national interregnums were linked into a global interregnum (WWI through WWII, 1914-1945).

The French 1789 Revolution gave rise to our modern Left-Right political landscape and modernity itself. The Right is both a revolt against the modern world and a reaction to the Left. In Europe, the moderate Right and reactionary Right were joined by a Fascist Right, while in the United States various radical and new Rights emerged. But in the face of international socialism and communism after WW2, an effort was made by Buckley and the National Review to define, unify, and defend an official conservative movement.

When the Left in the 1980s experienced a crisis due to the defeat of organized labor, the collapse of real existing socialist regimes, and the decline of Marxism, the Right underwent a corresponding crisis. More fractious than the Left due to its non-programmatic, non-rational nature, the Right exploded, particularly in patriot and populist terms. The secular, religious, and xenophobic Right can barely contain the proliferation of groups and ideologies, unlike the Left which neatly divides into antiauthoritarian, parliamentary, and Leninist types.

Because the Right is invariably a reaction to the Left, when things fell apart and the center on the Left could not hold, mere anarchy was loosed both on the Right and the Left. The crisis of the Left was matched by a crisis on the Right—with mindless proliferation, sectarian infighting, and growing Red/Brown crossover on the Right—which in turn marked the beginning of another global interregnum. But what is the cause of this crisis on Left and Right, and of the global interregnum? Is it the fabled Marxist final crisis of capitalism?

First, I need to backtrack.

I called myself paleo, more or less orthodox, and old school in my Marxism when it comes to class struggle, modes of production, and the origins of modernity. Yet I’m also hep, au currant, and with it when it comes to updating my Marxist political economy with a little world systems theory (Braudel, Wallerstein, Arrighi). Capitalism started to develop in embryonic form as a world system of exploitation and appropriation as early as 1450, and went through two cycles of capital accumulation (the Genoese and Dutch cycles) prior to the British cycle which acted as a context for the French 1789 Revolution and Europe’s industrial takeoff. So not only is it correct to call the English civil war (1642-51) a prequel to the bourgeois revolutions that ushered in the modern world, it’s clear that the Renaissance prefigured the Enlightenment, and that the modernity of Machiavelli and Hobbes presaged the modernity of Locke and Rousseau. The extensive trading networks, market relations, and commercial expansion of capitalism prior to 1750 did not possess capital’s “relentless and systematic development of the productive forces” that the industrialization of the British cycle initiated, as Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Woods noted. Whether we call the period from 1450 to 1750 pre-capitalism or proto-capitalism or market capitalism, we need to distinguish it from modern capitalism proper after 1750. Hence the use of the French 1789 Revolution as a convenient benchmark for the advent of modern industrial capitalism, modernity, and modern Left-Right politics.

The Marxist-influenced world systems school argues that each cycle of capital accumulation responsible for the rise of the current world economy is comprised of commercial, production, and financial phases. The commercial phase is characterized by making profit from trade and commerce—simple circulation and exchange. The production phase is distinguished by making profit from the whole process of industrialization—building factories to produce commodities, hiring workers, paying them less than what the commodities are sold for, and then valorizing the resultant surplus value into capital. The final financial phase is typified by making profit from investing in everything else that makes money—trade, commerce, manufacturing, factory production, services—which is just one step removed from simple exchange and circulation once again. What is most profitable in this three-phase cycle schema is the production phase because that’s where infrastructure is produced, the working class is reproduced, and capital is fully valorized. The commercial and financial phases are merely making money off of circulating money, and the financial phase in particular is seen as capitalism in decline.

This tripartite model is problematic and weakest when it comes to the pre-industrial Genoese and Dutch cycles, and only comes into its own with the British and American cycles. What’s more, its best to take this theory as descriptive rather than prescriptive. The center for world capitalist market power shifted from Genoa, through the Netherlands and Britain, to the United States, where it is predicted to shift again, probably to Asia, since American-centered capitalism is financializing and thus in decline. But will that shift occur? Or are we in the End Time, the final crisis of capitalism?

This model works admirably well in describing what happened when American-based capitalism changed from production to finance, which can be pinned down roughly to 1973. The Keynesianism of the Kennedy/Johnson era transitioned to the neoliberalism of the Thatcher/Reagan era when the political and cultural unrest, growth in social programs and expansion of the welfare state, and strong organized labor and strong middle class of the 1960s gave way to the rollback of government regulations, the welfare state, the public realm, and unions of the 1980s. The neoliberal trend began when the rank-and-file labor rebellions and wildcat strikes of the 1970s were routed, then was formalized with the defeat of organized labor by Reagan’s breaking the PATCO unions and Thatcher’s trouncing the striking miners, and was finally enshrined with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Marxism appears to be bankrupt. This is, of course, the beginning of my crisis of the Left and on the Right, and my global interregnum. But why did it happen?

The short, Marxist answer is that the change from Keynesianism to neoliberalism, from affluence to austerity, from production to finance, is due to a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. If I had to choose between the lively polemics and exhortations of the 1848 Manuscripts, Communist Manifesto, and Critique of the Gotha Program versus the dry scientific analysis of Capital’s three volumes, I would choose the former every time. That’s because my mathematical chops are seriously lacking, even though I think there are insights to be had in Marxist economic statistics, formulas, and models. One such outstanding Marxist economist was Henryk Grossman whose work The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System attempted to formulate mathematical laws of capital accumulation, how it operates and why it falls short. The tendency for the rate of profit to fall (mainly due to the changing organic composition of capital) can be offset by capitalism’s creative destruction (state austerity, economic depression, war).

In the grand scheme of things then, when capitalist production became less and less profitable the economy transitioned to finance capitalism. Neoliberalism as the ideology of finance capitalism is all about deregulating and financializing the economy, rolling back the welfare state, crushing organized labor, and privatizing the public realm to reverse the falling rate of profit, and as such it’s a rightwing ideology of capitalist decline and crisis. Will this be capitalism’s final crisis as originally predicted by Marx himself, or simply the shift of capitalist power in a world economy to Asia as currently predicted by world systems theory? I can’t say, since I’m being descriptive and not prescriptive. But is capitalism-without-end really possible, or are we quickly reaching the planet’s carrying capacity for cancerous economic growth? That’s a question that will have to wait for a future column.

NOTE: Financial capitalism is a whole system, to include the state and most corporations, not merely the international banking system. This must be made clear in a time of Left/Right Red/Brown crossover politics. I’m particularly leery of talk about “international bankers” or that not-so-clever portmanteau “banksters” because it so easily slips into teleological conspiracy theory and “international jewish” idiocy.

FOOTNOTE: After La Méditerranée, Braudel’s most famous work is Civilisation Matérielle, Économie et Capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe (Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800). The first volume was published in 1967, and was translated to English in 1973. The last of the three-volume work appeared in 1979.[9] The work is a broad-scale history of the pre-industrial modern world, presented in the minute detail demanded by the methodological school called cliometrics, and focusing on how regular people made economies work. Like all Braudel’s major works, the book mixed traditional economic material with thick description of the social impact of economic events on various facets of everyday life, including food, fashion, and other social customs. The third volume, subtitled “The Perspective of the World”, was strongly influenced by the work of German scholars like Werner Sombart. In this volume, Braudel traced the impact of the centers of Western capitalism on the rest of the world. Braudel wrote the series both as a way of explanation for the modern way and partly as a refutation of the Marxist view of history.[10]

Braudel discussed the idea of long-term cycles in the capitalist economy that he saw developing in Europe in the 12th century. Particular cities, and later nation-states, follow each other sequentially as centers of these cycles: Venice and Genoa in the 13th through the 15th centuries (1250–1510); Antwerp in the 16th century (1500–1569); Amsterdam in the 16th through 18th centuries (1570–1733); and London (and England) in the 18th and 19th centuries (1733–1896). He used the word “structures” to denote a variety of social structures, such as organized behaviours, attitudes, and conventions, as well as physical structures and infrastructures. He argued that the structures established in Europe during the Middle Ages contributed to the successes of present-day European-based cultures. He attributed much of this to the long-standing independence of city-states, which, though later subjugated by larger geographic states, were not always completely suppressed—probably for reasons of utility.

Braudel argued that capitalists have typically been monopolists and not, as is usually assumed, entrepreneurs operating in competitive markets. He argued that capitalists did not specialize and did not use free markets, thus diverging from both liberal (Adam Smith) and Marxian interpretations. In Braudel’s view, the state in capitalist countries has served as a guarantor of monopolists rather than a protector of competition, as it is usually portrayed. He asserted that capitalists have had power and cunning on their side as they have arrayed themselves against the majority of the population.[11]

It should be noted that an agrarian structure is a long-term structure in the Braudelian understanding of the concept. On a larger scale the agrarian structure is more dependent on the regional, social, cultural and historical factors than on the state’s undertaken activities.[12]

Fashion Statement or Counterculture: “What’s Left?” July 2016, MRR #398

FashionStatement
I attended a “Faces of Death” party in San Diego between 1980 and 1982. I don’t remember the exact date as I was drinking heavily at the time, and some details are pretty much a blur from those days. “Faces of Death” was a film compilation of various explicit on-camera death scenes—half of them fake—which led to a movie series, and then a horror genre. I’d heard that Boyd Rice organized the party, not around a video showing but in honor of the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. The living room had a shrine set up, with black and red altar cloths and lit tapered black candles featuring a framed picture of Ian alongside one of Adolf Hitler. Boyd hadn’t yet transitioned into full-on racist fascism, so this was him being transgressive and oh-so-naughty. The soundtrack for the evening, besides Joy Division, included Throbbing Gristle, Boyd’s band Non, Cabaret Voltaire, and others.

I found the whole party morose and boring, and left soon after arriving, no doubt in search of more alcohol. But all the future dark tribes, from Industrial to Goth, were present in embryo. I’ve told this story many times before. What’s brought it to mind now was Genesis P-Orridge posting on his FB page a slick conspiracy video-remastering of the hoax “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” using the Rothschild family. I’m FB friends with several anti-fascists, and the reaction was intense. One individual in particular, someone whom I’d been corresponding with back and forth since before FB when he was commenting on my political blog, stated that he was distressed over what Genesis had done because he really liked both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. In the FB exchange, I realized I harbored prejudices born of that experience some 35 years prior, that a “certain kind of music” invariably leads to fascism.

I should have known better. In my Hit List review of Craig O’Hara’s book “The Philosophy of Punk” I’d argued against his idea that punk is inherently anarchist by contending that no type of politics is innate to punk as a genre of music. Aside from a visceral rebellion often characteristic of youth, it’s really all just about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. I also didn’t learn from my about-face on country western music, when I came to appreciate Hank William’s Sr. and not to categorize the entire musical genre as “redneck.” And yet, country western music is consistently associated with conservative politics, punk rock with anarchism, and industrial/goth music with fascism. How can we account for these persistent connections without labeling them innate or inherent?

Which brings us to the relationship between music and politics. I’m sick and tired of writing about the elections anyway and besides, the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are playing out even as this issue is being sold on newsstands.

“If the right kind of beat makes you tap your foot,” Frank Zappa once said, provocatively. “[W]hat kind of beat makes you curl your fist and strike?” Zappa was ardently anti-censorship, so this bit of hyperbole was meant to highlight the complex relationship between music and other forms of human behavior, not to nail it down. However, I will attempt to do just that by mediating the links between music and politics through the lens of counterculture. Let’s begin with the mother of all countercultures, the hippie counterculture. Forgive me if what follows is painted in broad strokes. The making of that counterculture, to paraphrase Theodore Roszak, involved the merging of a genre of music influenced by folk, blues and rock with various unconventional lifestyles from the Romantics, Bohemians and the Beats, all in opposition to the prevailing Establishment culture of the day. Rock music and bohemian hipster lifestyles overlapped, and the counterculture was born from their interaction on this common ground.

Characterizing the hippie counterculture as all about “peace and love” is simplistic but fair, even as it misses the communalism underlying that social movement. Plenty of hippies like Stewart Brand had a philosophical hankering for capitalist libertarianism, and many others went on to become successful entrepreneurs. But the 60s were all about communalism—about crash pads, coops and communes—and as such the counterculture countered competitive American individualism. Hippie communalism was central to a naïve back-to-the-land movement, which laid the basis for today’s concerns with vegetarianism and organic agriculture. This conscious collectivism accounts for the incipient anarcho-leftism of much of the hippie counterculture, and it also explains the New Age fascism evident in other aspects. And to call the politics of the hippies collectivist is vague at best.

The 60s counterculture encompassed millions of young people around the world and by the Death of Hippie (dated 1967, 1968 or 1969, depending) there were already inklings of a smaller counter-counterculture in the making. Proto-punk music was emerging, and there was a growing disdain for the hippie “peace and love” mentality as too idealistic and impractical. Anger and aggression replaced those hippie sentiments—expressed in sayings like “search and destroy” and “fuck shit up”—and hippie communalism mutated into punk collectivism (squats, punk houses, venue collectives, etc.). DIY became the byword of punk action and the whole package, while not explicitly anarchist, tended toward the politically anarchic.

Also in reaction to the hippie counterculture, but somewhat later in time and still smaller in numbers, the industrial/goth/dark counter-counterculture took shape. There were distinct types of music and kinds of collectivism (Throbbing Gristle came out of the COUM Transmissions art collective and Laibach is part of the NSK art collective), but the doom and gloom of this scene was augmented by an intense obsession with all that is transgressive. And my argument paralleling punk rock is that while there was nothing in the industrial/goth/dark music scene that was inherently fascist, the fascination with being “oh so naughty” and transgressive also accounts for the tendency toward fascist imagery and even politics in the music.

This oversimplified history is not prescriptive, but descriptive. I’m trying to explain political trends without arguing that certain politics are innate to certain musical genres. Hippie peace and love was far different from punk anger and aggression or industrial/goth doom and gloom. But, apart from youthful rebellion and a desire to épater la bourgeoisie, these countercultures and counter-countercultures had at least three things in common: communal structures, DIY motivations, and transgressive impulses. Hippie communalism was intensely DIY, with the Whole Earth Catalog epitomizing the era. But hippie transgression was unashamedly hedonistic. I would contend that this counterculture went the furthest toward parrying the prevailing culture and creating a viable, wholistic alternative society that escaped simple left-or-right politics. In reacting against bourgeois society and the hippie counterculture, punk and industrial/goth further narrowed their respective cultural arenas, and further fragmented the wider society into numerous contending, jostling subcultures. Punk was violently transgressive, but its DIY emphasis was central, implying anarchistic politics. And industrial/goth was as DIY as punk, but it was the fascination with transgressive naughtiness that accounts for that counter-counterculture’s infatuation with fascist symbolism, which often spilled over into actual fascism.

Of course, it can be argued that whether it’s culture, counterculture, or counter-counterculture, the Western context for all of this is bourgeois individualism. From the libertinism and “do your own thing” of the 60s, the emphasis has been on the individual through punk and industrial/goth, various forms of communalism notwithstanding. Even to say that “it’s only rock and roll” is to acknowledge the primacy of this socio-political context for the cultural rebellions from the 60s onward.

I published an anarcho-punk zine called San Diego’s Daily Impulse from 1985 through 1989, which I distributed free at shows and to record stores. As part of that zine, I and a small group of friends put on an Anarchy Picnic in May, 1985. Several hundred people gathered to share food and beverage, acoustic music, and activities like frisbee and hacky-sack around literature tables, chalk, and sheets of butcher paper sprinkled with crayons and paint in Balboa Park. It was clear at the Anarchy Picnic that divisions like hippie, punk and goth were ephemeral, that tastes in music and fashion were not rigid, and that people mixed-and-matched scenes and countercultures as they desired. In the midst of this sunny picnic, with all the fun and frivolity, a couple strolled into the park wearing full Nazi Sturmabteilung uniforms, complete with prominent swastika armbands. The man was an SA-Gruppenführer, the woman his she-wolf of the SA, and together they walked a pair of Dobermans. They feigned being haughty and aloof, but it was clear that they pranced and preened over being so naughty and transgressive in their Nazi regalia.

No surprise, the Anarchy Picnickers ignored them.

Season of the Witch redux: “What’s Left?” July 2013, MRR #362

If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.

Originally, Mickey Mantle
and often repeated by Wavy Gravy, Peter Coyote, et al

And who should I say is calling?

Leonard Cohen, “Who by Fire”

I’ve just read Season of the Witch by David Talbot. In large part, Talbot’s style might be called nonfiction picaresque. Season of the Witch is a portrait of San Francisco, of the city’s outlaw social elements that became mainstream over two decades. For all of Talbot’s attempts to be hip and groovy, in deference to his subject matter, he often comes across as glib and pretentious. Had the book been a thousand pages, over twice its published length, still it would have been far from comprehensive or inclusive. Nor could Talbot have managed otherwise, despite his intent. Nevertheless, the work’s omissions are sometimes glaring. I snickered long and hard at the credulous psychedelic spirituality that the hippie counterculture trumpeted back in the day. Yet to fail to mention, even in passing, either Stephen Levine or the San Francisco Oracle, the newspaper that he helped to found, is negligent in the extreme. Most sobering is to go through the book’s index and realize that, no matter how abbreviated the history presented, the roster of obituaries is daunting.

Talbot’s book is a case history of “live fast, die young”—death by drugs, violence, crime, war, disease, accident, natural or human made disaster, and rarely, old age. Season of the Witch follows the decline and fall of the counterculture with a litany of death and destruction. Corpses mounted throughout the two decades from 1965 to 1985: the FBI decimation of the Black Panther Party through Cointelpro operations, the violent spasms of New Left urban guerrilla warfare via the Symbionese Liberation Army and New World Liberation Front, the terror of the Zodiac serial murders, the racial butchery of the Zebra killings, the horrific Peoples Temple mass suicide, the assassination of Moscone and Milk that inaugurated the AIDS pandemic. It is sometimes difficult to remember, first and foremost, that the era was epitomized by efforts at liberation, from the hippie effort to free one’s mind to women’s liberation, black liberation, chicano liberation, Asian liberation, gay liberation. I have a dog in this fight, no less than the producers and readers of this magazine, in criticizing Talbot’s almost complete exclusion of punk at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s from this compendium. (Jello Biafra and The Dead Kennedys are mentioned in passing) However, punk hasn’t been immune from premature death and wanton destruction either. Or, to quote Talbot: “There was always a brutal toughness in the beat and hippie” and punk “cultures, a shrugging awareness that casualties were inevitable when you challenged life’s limits. […] It takes a reckless kind of soul to tear down monuments and torch bridges, to shake the dead grip of the past. But by the end of the sixties, the revolution was entering its Jacobin phase, and the wreckage was growing wanton. If the revolution liberated the human imagination, it also unleashed humanity’s demons.”

Actually, I consider myself a late hippie and an early punk, having grown up at the tail end of the one counterculture and almost too old for the start of the other. I admired the Diggers; those “heavy hippies” like Emmett Grogan, Peter Coyote, and Peter Berg who sneered at the counterculture for believing that peace and love were sufficient, who helped conduct the brief-lived Free City experiment, and who resorted to arming themselves to defend their community, their politics and themselves. Of course, there was plenty to criticize about them as well, which takes us beyond a jejune book report of Season of the Witch. The Diggers free communalism was a precursor to the communization efforts and debates of Tiqqun/Invisible Committee on the one hand, and End Notes/Théorie Communiste on the other hand. Yet the insurrectionary anarchism and left communism of this current milieu suffers from the same problem that plagued the Diggers’ 60s hip anarchism, that of an inability to sustain itself over time, against the assaults of state and capital. At least Makhno managed to field a guerrilla anarchist army in the Ukraine capable of defeating Russia’s counterrevolutionary White Armies as well as of giving the Bolsheviks a run for their money. And Spain’s anarchists attempted a true social revolution on the ground while defending the Spanish Republic from Franco’s fascist hordes. Post 1950s anarchism, and its left communist sidekick with avant-garde delusions, have always been fugacious, unable to sustain a capacity for self-organization, self-activity and self-discipline, incapable of standing the tests of history and power. But this was so last column.

More to the point, both Peter Coyote and Emmett Grogan were strung out on heroin by 1969, a habit that in Grogan’s case killed him on a NYC subway car on April 1, 1978. The tendency to cite and mourn for those famous and influential who died too young, so conspicuous in Season of the Witch, is my inclination as well. There were untold unknown dead from the excesses of the Haight in particular and of the hippie counterculture in general. A well-respected columnist in the pages of this magazine on occasion writes an obituary of a well-known punk rocker who has met his untimely end. But who grieves for the numerous nameless punks who have also lived fast and died young, without amounting to anything in the process? Neil Young’s lyric that “[i]t’s better to burn out/than to fade away/than it is to rust” doesn’t speak to the anonymity and universality of death as most of us experience it. And for those who have survived their youth, despite all their excesses, there are the lingering aches and pains, injuries and traumas, damages and diseases to remind them each and every day. Whether or not they regretted their youthful indiscretions is beside the point. Coming to terms with their mortality in light of their experiences is. Complications arise when they don’t die, when they continue to grow old and continue to harm themselves.

I raged through my youthful excesses, then settled into decades of slow, measured, incremental drug abuse. I’ve stopped, but the destruction to my body and brain are irreparable, no matter what science currently says about neuroplasticity, or the capacity of human physiology to heal itself. As I said last column, there’s nothing with regard to socialism even remotely on the horizon that is capable of reversing humanity’s or the planet’s downhill slide into slow-motion apocalypse. Without the potentiality for socialist politics to materially change things, only two possibilities remain. On the one hand, taking political action amounts to symbolic acts and gestures, of which I’m not a big fan. On the other hand, engaging in political action is an expression of personal commitment or individual desire, or simply because, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit once put it, it’s a better way to live. That leaves little of the political that is not solely personal. In turn, I’m left with the three things that Siddhartha Gautama described as inevitable; old age, sickness, and death. And that’s if I’m extremely lucky. Old age, sickness, death; three aspects of life that are undeniably personal, but at the same time universal, experienced by every human being sooner or later.

Between the eternal Buddhist verities concerning human experience and the universalities of leftist politics downgraded to the merely personal, there is much that I still enjoy. The love for my wife, the affection for friends, my writing, compelling music, literature, film, art and food, New York and Paris in the fall, mindful meditation, scintillating company, a good laugh. Yet the movement of my life over the past six decades has been a process of telescoping down, of reverting from the macro to the micro, of focusing from the big picture to the mundane. David Talbot’s Season of the Witch starts in 1965 with a generation attempting the promethean, the creation of a counterculture as the first step toward achieving a revolutionary, universal consciousness. It ends in 1985 with one subculture of another generation coming to terms with its own inevitable mortality through the widespread death of many of its members in the AIDS pandemic. Talbot does his best to couch his history as some sort of ultimate triumph of the human spirit, some sort of “deliverance” attained through perseverance and despite tremendous odds. Nevertheless, Season of the Witch is a profoundly pessimistic chronicle, of a constriction of human hope and possibility. This demoralized narrowing of vision, of focus, of scope is what speaks to me at this point in my life.

That’s more than enough doom and gloom.

Nostalgia for the 60s: “What’s Left?” September 2008, MRR #304

I was having flashbacks.

I laid out the columns for MRR #302 at the end of May. As I sat in front of a computer in the Mother Ship—MRR HQ—the soundtrack playing was ‘60s rock’n’roll, protopunk, garage, psychedelia, whatever you want to call it. The Seeds, 13th Floor Elevators, Them, on vinyl of course. Yet, other than myself, no one listening had been born when that music was first produced.

Intellectually, I understand the impact that Sky Saxon, Roky Erickson, Van Morrison and their break-out bands had on the music that followed, up to the present day. Emotionally, however, I was asking myself, why the hell does anybody listen to this crap? That’s because the music threatened to invoke nostalgia. I’m no fan of nostalgia, even on the best of days.

For me, nostalgia is pitiable emotion conjured up by less than accurate memory. I’m particularly repelled by nostalgia for the “good old days” of the 1960s because, in my opinion having lived through the decade, very little was changed by the unrest and ferment of those years. Recently, I listened to a Brecht Forum panel discussion on Obama and the Left put on by the Nation Magazine and broadcast on NPR. I couldn’t help shaking my head, and chuckling out loud. For all our pipe dreams of revolution and overthrowing the Establishment in the ‘60s, in America today the Left is a joke. I recognize that we were delusional at the time, but it still makes me sad, and not a little angry, to realize how pathetically insignificant the Left, not to mention the left of the Left, is at present. And how out-and-out reactionary this society remains.

Which is weird because conservatives in this country believe exactly the opposite, that the Left won what they call the Culture Wars of the 1960s. For them, the remnants of LBJ’s Great Society welfare state and the much curtailed countercultural hedonism of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll are signs that the Antichrist triumphed some forty years ago, which conservatives have been assiduously fighting to overturn ever since. The Right has successfully used affirmative action, feminism, liberal media, abortion, gay rights, school prayer, et al, to distract people from the reality that corporate capitalism is fast reducing the United States to a Third World banana republic.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft summarized popular attitudes to that contentious decade in a Guardian Weekly opinion piece (“It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” 9/5/08) when he wrote:

[André Glucksmann] now sees les événements de mai as “a monument, either sublime or detested, that we want to commemorate or bury,” which is one way of putting it. Another is that 40 years ago were sown the seeds of the story since, when “the right has won politically and the left has won culturally.” Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but not for long.

Wheatcroft proceeds to systematically demolish the myths of 1968, beginning by comparing Paris 1968 to Europe in 1848, using the analogy of sexual orgasm followed by post-coital depression. “Even at the time, as Paris was brought to a halt by rebellious kids, there was an awful lot of play-acting.” He quotes the French Communist Party’s analysis of those events as “street party, not revolution,” and favorably mentions AJP Taylor’s comment about 1848: “it’s a sure sign of political backwardness when any movement is led by students.”

The list of ‘60s veterans who have become part of the establishment, even right-wingers, is disheartening, and not at all “amusing, if unkind” as Wheatcroft puts it. But he is particularly cogent when he discusses the political consequences of 1968:

The copains believed they would bring down Charles de Gaulle, but they didn’t. When he did resign the next year, he was succeeded by Georges Pompidou, and the Elysée palace has been occupied by the right for 26 of the past 40 years. Likewise, British youths jeered at Harold Wilson, who was duly replaced two years later by Edward Heath, and the Tories were in power for 22 of the next 27 years.

Across the Atlantic, 1968 saw assassination, riot and antiwar protest; the year ended with Richard Nixon’s election, and Republicans have been in the White House for 28 of the 40 years since. It’s true that the US eventually left Vietnam; that country now has an explosive capitalist economy—not quite what those who chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, We will fight and we will win!” had in mind.

Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the collapse of Soviet Bloc Communism heralded the political and economic victory of the Right, as foreshadowed in 1968. Yet, with respect to the cultural (“or emotional or sexual”) victory of the Left, Wheatcroft contends that “even there, the story is ambiguous.” For, as he points out, the 1960s cultural upheavals were profoundly individualistic, even libertine, and that “since 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” I consider myself a proxy soixante-huitard, yet I heartily agree with Wheatcroft’s rather bleak assessment of the legacy of 1968. I’m even inclined to second Eric Hobsbawm’s comment that “the revolution is puritan,” by which “[h]e meant that the sex-drugs-and-rock hedonism of the 1960s was not only not the same thing as changing the foundations of society, it might be actively inimical to doing so.”

Damn, I’m getting old.

This analysis doesn’t take into account that the rebellions of the 1960s had two disparate sources; the hippie counterculture and the student New Left. Hippies were often proudly anti-political, whereas New Leftists frequently dismissed the counterculture as escapist. Wheatcroft is essentially saying that while the counterculture nominally won, the New Left was resoundingly defeated. Another way to look at this period is to see both counterculture and New Left going down to defeat, with the ruling elite of the day then selectively recuperating elements from each camp in order to stave off future rebellion. Had these two aspects of the ‘60s truly triumphed to any degree, we might have seen a creative fusion that could have shaped a stunningly libertarian socialism to shame Stalin’s gulags and Mao’s reeducation camps. But this is the stuff of science fiction and alternative history, not of thoughtful analysis.

As I write this column the San Francisco Mime Troupe begins a new season of free theater in the city’s parks. The current production, called “Red State,” has as one of its themes that the US economy is becoming so bad that the Right can no longer bamboozle the American public with social and moral issues. The sleight-of-hand trickery that stirred up people with the red flags of gay marriage, teenage abortion, reverse discrimination against whites, and welfare mothers on crack so that they voted, and acted, against their economic interests, is no longer working. Economic issues are once more coming to the fore, and overshadowing the rabidly repressive social agenda of the conservative movement. We should comprehend and encourage this potential, instead of futilely pining for the “good old days” of the ‘60s.

Being Middle Class: “What’s Left?” November 2007, MRR #294

I no longer have to work for a living, thanks to circumstances I won’t go into at the moment. I can do my own projects full time, and I can actually enjoy the rest of my life. I’ve got credit cards and investments. I own a car and a house. No doubt about it, I’ve become middle class.

In a way, I’ve loosely paralleled my parents’ journey up the social ladder. They started out as working class Polish immigrants from war-torn Europe in the mid-1950s. By the time I went off to UC Santa Cruz in 1972, they were solidly, comfortably middle class. I dropped out of graduate school in 1979 to join the wage-laboring proletariat. Now, I too am middle class, though my social status is far more precarious than was my parents’.

Take health care, for example. I exhausted my eighteen months of Federal COBRA Blue Shield health insurance from my last job a few weeks ago. I paid the full cost of the insurance, that is, what the company paid as well as what had previously been deducted from my paycheck, plus a COBRA administration fee. Now I’m on Cal-COBRA, the California-mandated equivalent, for the next year and a half. That’s costing me almost forty dollars a month more, for the same coverage. And, unless Ah-nold manages to push through his market-based knock-off of universal health care, I’ll use Federal HIPAA regulations to convert to a permanent health insurance policy, which promises to cost even more for less coverage.

Being middle class, I can afford to purchase supplemental health insurance to augment my HIPAA policy. That I’m now entirely dependent on legally protected health care and insurance portability has not escaped me, however. When COBRA screwed up a couple of months ago and reported that I wasn’t paid up, resulting in the temporary cancellation of my coverage, I completely freaked out. My anxiety went through the roof and I was in a panic until I straightened out the error. One of my middle class lifelines is my health care, and the incident demonstrated how shaky that was.

My parents made their climb up the economic ladder when folks had careers. People sought to work for a company for life. Unions had a measure of strength in those days, and one of their top demands was always job security. My dad worked most of his life for the government, a civil servant who went from loading dock foreman to managing the Pacific missile range. He retired early, and was guaranteed perks like access to high-level health care and a pension with built-in cost-of-living adjustments.

By the time I toppled out of the ivory tower’s rarified atmosphere, into the murk and mire of wage slavery, the idea of a career had become a joke. The deindustrialization of the United States was beginning in earnest, unions were crumbling, and corporate capitalism was demonstrating its lack of loyalty to the American working class in spades. Workers were reciprocating, and no one expected to work for the same company for life. I never worked at the same job for more than six or seven years. Many of the companies I worked for tried their damnedest not to provide benefits to their employees, one in particular going so far as to declare all its workers freelancers and independent contractors until busted by the government. My last job canned me, allowing me to take an early retirement as well, but leaving me with bare bones health care.

I realize that having shitty, expensive health insurance is better than having no health insurance at all. Forty seven million Americans-mostly working class and poor-are uninsured, so I hold onto my pitiful policy tooth and nail. Nor am I ashamed to say that if the Governator pushes through a better deal for me, I’d take it in a New York minute. My point is that, while being working class is still hell, becoming middle class is not the guarantee of security it once was.

My mom didn’t have to work. Now, it takes two people, sometimes working two or three jobs each, to maintain the middle class life my dad could afford on his salary alone. Not only has the range of health care and pension benefits become shabbier, it’s no longer a sure thing as health insurers regularly deny or cancel coverage, and corporate pension plans go belly-up one after another. Middle class saving has plummeted over the last forty years, and a good number of people in that middle class are also just one or two paychecks from the street. So, while it can be debated as to whether the American middle-class has shrunk demographically in the past few decades, there can be no doubt that, today, it takes a lot more time and effort to maintain a middle class existence that is far more economically precarious.

Now, for the sixty-four dollar question. Might there be a reason for this, other than the relentless avarice of corporations needing to maximize profits?

My parents were part of a post-World War II economic wave that saw the explosive growth of private-sector wealth, suburbs, the white middle class, and a consumer-oriented economy. In 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a book, The Affluent Society, the title of which neatly summarized how America portrayed itself going into the ’60s. And affluence meant the ability to buy more and more commodities, with the growing leisure time to enjoy them. Both the threat demonstrated by union organizing and the socialist upsurge during the Great Depression, and the need during the Cold War to outperform the Soviet Union, helped to underpin an economic prosperity that, in turn, produced its own discontents.

This much-touted affluence did not include significant parts of the society-black people for instance-which helped precipitate a civil rights movement, race riots in America’s cities, the rise of a black middle class, black power, and revolutionary nationalism. The burgeoning affluent white middle class raised a generation with the comforts of abundance, only to see significant numbers of their children rebel, even reject their middle class status, by protesting the Vietnam war, immersing themselves in New Left politics, or dropping out to become hippies. By turning affluence into austerity and putting the screws to the middle class, it was hoped that a repeat of the social unrest of the 60s could be avoided.

There was an interesting notion circulating in those years that uprisings by the oppressed didn’t occur when social conditions were at their worst, but actually happened when there was the glimmer of improvement. The rising expectations and aspirations sparked by incremental progress was what prompted rebellion and revolution in the lower classes, not the total desperation of being up against the wall with nothing left to lose. Fostering a climate of increasing scarcity in which even the middle class finds it harder and harder just to tread water helps insure that America’s oppressed minorities don’t get any wrong ideas.

Those who participated in the various social movements of the 1960’s who neither flew off into the ether of Hindu/LSD mysticism nor sank into the quicksand of one or another kind of Leninism-that is, those who straddled the divide between the counterculture and the New Left-often came to similar conclusions about America’s affluent society. The more politically aware communalists, Diggers, Yippies, Provos, Motherfuckers, et al, realized that US society was so wealthy, so abundant in commodities and leisure time, that an entire alternative social order could maintain itself, even flourish, simply on what this society threw away. Some even fancied that their marginal cultural and political spaces would grow strong enough to entirely supplant the dominant society. The absurdity of this fantasy aside, any potential for creating an alternative social order by siphoning off or stealing a fraction of society’s prosperity was easily annulled by replacing abundance with scarcity. If the lower and middle classes spend all their waking hours just struggling to make ends meet, that possibility is effectively negated.

Not to be too heavy handed, but the history lesson here bears repeating.

America’s economic collapse in the Great Depression generated unprecedented labor organizing, the most radical elements of which had called for both revolution and socialism. The bourgeoisie responded to this threat with equal parts carrot, stick, and diversion. The diversion was entry into the second World War, which drafted American workers and shipped them overseas to fight and kill German and Japanese workers. The stick was a savage post-war anti-communism, under the catchall called McCarthyism, which domesticated the American working class and gelded its union movement. And the carrot was a post-war consumer economy and leisure society built on the myth that everyone was middle class. When the affluent society failed to lull significant segments of the population into soporific acceptance of the status quo, and instead produced the racial conflicts, political protests, and countercultural experimentation that we now call the ’60s, it was time for a further tweak. Austerity replaces affluence, the middle class is driven to the edge, and the ruling class once again turns their full attention to maximizing profits.

What may disturb some of you is that I seem to think that the capitalist ruling class-the bourgeoisie-is some kind of secret, totally evil, smoke-filled backroom cabal that is consciously conspiring to fuck over the rest of us. Nothing could be further from the truth. I really do loath conspiracy theories, of any sort. But I do assume that, nine times out of ten, people act out of their economic interests, and that different social classes in society have different economic interests. After that, systems theory and Marxist notions of “class consciousness” can adequately explain how the capitalist class asserts its interests, and control, over the working class.

A basic tenet of systems theory is that, an ecosystem for example, can be entirely self-organizing and self-regulating based solely on the autonomous, self-activity of its members. There is no “grand council” of the redwood forest for instance, yet the redwood forest functions just fine without one. There is overwhelming evidence that biological systems, and growing evidence that social systems, abide by this rule. All living systems, and in theory human social systems, thus have an innate capacity to self-organize and self-regulate. That this can apply to social classes within a larger society is not much of a stretch.

Follow up systems theory with Marx’s idea that one of the preconditions for a social class to gain power in society is for that class to become self-aware. In other words, class conscious. This requires that the class in question go beyond the unconscious self-activity, self-organization, and self-regulation common to all systems, towards the creation of organs and institutions of self-reflection. self-governance, and self-defense. In Marxist terms, the social class must move from being a “class in itself” to a “class for itself.” The bourgeoisie exemplifies just such a “class for itself” with its various business newspapers and journals, its numerous commercial and manufacturing associations, its vast private security and intelligence apparatus, and its well-oiled lobbying and influence machinery. Thanks to such class conscious activity and organization, they are in de facto control over government at all levels of society, affirming Marx’s definition of the state as “the executive committee of the ruling class.”

The capitalist ruling class, therefore, does not have to conspire to globalize the economy, or bust the unions, or undermine the middle class. It does so openly, discussing such matters candidly in the Wall Street Journal and then carrying them out through the marketplace and government policy. Obviously there is obfuscation, public relations, and influence buying. But out-and-out conspiracy? It’s hardly needed. Nor, I might add, is the bourgeoisie particularly evil. It is merely pursuing its class interests, with a vengeance.

Common wisdom used to be that the poor far outnumbered the rich, and that a strong, prosperous middle class was the best possible bulwark against the poor ultimately expropriating the rich. Supposedly, this was one of the lessons the bourgeoisie learned from the Great Depression. This astute observation no longer holds much influence these days as the middle class gets driven to the wall. Whether this means that poor and working people will rise up and “expropriate the expropriators” is, at this point, the subject of another column.

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