My last post generated some interesting conversation on Facebook. A couple of people posed interesting challenges, and my responses quickly became way too long for FB comments. I decided they were probably too long even for a comment on the original entry, so I made them into a new post. This post is a bit esoteric for this blog, but it’s a slow Wednesday: it’s either turgid analysis or a video response to Dave Kliger’s latest absurdity. If the latter is your cup of tea, here you go!

If you’re interested in some further considerations on economic context and the political bloc I suggested in my last post,  read on.

The Viability of Reform Struggles Given Capitalism’s Inability to Mount a Full Recovery

G. argued that this strategic discussion needed to take into account the intractability of the current economic situation of capitalism. Does “assembling a reform-oriented force in California” assume that the system is more or less stable and that the money will be there for reforms?

My response: What’s the prognosis for capitalism, or what is a reasonable range of prognoses that movement activists could use as a point of departure? I think you and I would agree that a return to the “boom times” of capitalism – such as the post-WWII boom that allowed profits for US capital as well as stable, relatively well-paying jobs for working-class people with “middle-class” aspirations – is unlikely at best. This was the context in which a full-throated reformism seemed to make some sense. Even the relative boom (which I suppose some would see as a succession of speculative bubbles) through which capitalism achieved profitability in the 1980s and 90s seems unlikely to return soon, at least in the US.

I would tend to argue that over the short-to-medium term, a collapse is also unlikely. I’m not sure if we disagree there. It did seem to me that some people in the movement were more or less banking on this, at least last fall. People wrote things on blogs that suggesting that they were expecting a level of collapse or at least severe contraction such that roaming bands of friends occupying buildings would seem like a model of the kind of necessary mutual aid needed to survive the coming, deep depression. I don’t find that prognosis or that strategic vision terribly plausible or compelling.*

Furthermore, there’s a political problem here. There’s a long history on the left of waiting for economic collapse as a deus ex machina to create new, revolutionary social subjects. That hasn’t worked out so well. It tends to produce a schizophrenic back-and-forth between deterministic quiescence (“nothing to do until the crisis arrives…”) and voluntaristic exuberance (“the crisis is here, so let’s act now and stop talking”). Voluntaristic exuberance sometimes produces worthwhile results even when it’s not grounded in reality. I think that was the case to some extent in the student movement last fall. But ultimately if it’s not replaced with a better analysis, it tends to fizzle, and the people involved in it tend to burn out.

Also, if a collapse did happen sooner rather than later, I would be very worried. Virulent strains of racism and Glenn Beck style law-and-order proto fascism seem more likely to take off in that event than anything associated with the left.

Struggles over Distribution of Resources Given a Stagnation Scenario

It seems to me that there are three likely scenarios: 1) a second crash around the magnitude of the 2008 crash; 2) a prolonged period of more or less stagnation (smaller crashes and tepid, “jobless” recoveries); 3) capital restores its profitability outside of the US and US capital loses ground. 1) seems to me like it might look a lot like 2) over the medium term, and 3) might also look a lot like 2) as a lived political reality in the US (though a global recovery might also rub off on the US to some extent, probably more for the wealthy than for workers). Particularly given the seeming inability of the Democrats nationally to articulate any robust reforms even within a “centrist” rubric, the most likely scenario seems to be one of relative stagnation and official policies of “austerity neoliberalism.”

If we assume some kind of continuing stagnation, then it’s true that the old, 1945-73 reformism (we can win substantial gains for the working classes through reform fights) is not that plausible. Reform battles take another shape: the struggle over the distribution of a more-or-less stagnant pool of resources. Since capital wants growth and profitability, it will respond to stagnation with more and more austerity and attempts to realign public spending priorities towards its own goals (for example, creating an educated and hopefully docile workforce with the kinds of skills Silicon Valley wants, hardly a robust model of public education). Popular struggles take the form of fightbacks against this austerity and a vision of a better world without restoring capitalist growth, through (radical) redistribution.

Perhaps this is not that different from what you are saying. But I do think in this kind of struggle it is legitimate and basically accurate to say, “the state / the administration has the money; this austerity being imposed on us is a function of priorities and lack of democratic control.” This is basically accurate but perhaps not the full story in the sense that some of our demands may be things the system can accommodate with relative ease while others (in theory, if we had the strength to win them) might eventually create a very difficult situation for capital, to the extent that it not only wants to grow but needs to grow to avoid contraction and crisis.

In this kind of struggle, people over time will tend to reach conclusions that cut against the grain of capitalism as a system: we could redistribute these resources and organize an economy that would be environmentally sustainable, an economy not based on the principle of growth. In that sense I do think that revolutionary politics are inherently important and not just “a nice extra” for this movement. But I also think that those kinds of conclusions will only be reached by masses of working people over a long period of time and involvement in struggles that are initially articulated with reform goals.

I remain somewhat agnostic about the different possibilities inherent in the current objective situation; materialist prognostication has always seemed to me to be a very slippery enterprise. To paraphrase a scene from an 80s sitcom, even the best dialectics can’t predict the future, though perhaps they can predict the past with 80% accuracy. Also, I only learn from my predictions when they turn out to be wrong, and I love being wrong for this reason. Being right is boring, and tends to make me gradually stupider over time.

The Cohesion of a New Historic Bloc in California

S. wondered why I refered to Silicon Valley and Hollywood business interests as leading the Democratic Party and wondered whether I was forgetting about large Asian and Latino concentrations in places like LA and the Silicon Valley.

My response: I’m referring to “leading social groups” as those within a bloc who lead it politically – usually they will set the agenda, control its administration, and gently or roughly cajole other forces within the bloc to go along with their wishes. Part of the long-term task of the left, I think, is to develop the organizational and political capacity of subordinate social groups in such a way that they can become politically hegemonic.

To be more specific about CA, as I see it there are two main blocs in state politics, and they don’t exactly match up with parties. There’s a “centrist” (socially liberal, fiscally moderate) bloc and a hard right, socially reactionary bloc which is against state spending if it has a democratic / redistributive character. The latter is basically confined within the Republican Party, but they don’t even constitute a majority within it. They’re a subset.

The “centrist” bloc basically leads the Democratic Party and the other wing of the Republican Party at the state level. This is the bloc I think is dominated by Silicon Valley and Hollywood business interests. On the one hand, they want educated workers, so they want to restore education funding to some extent. Of course the goal of “an educated workforce” implies a certain agenda for what education should be doing, and we’re seeing that agenda enacted across the state – e.g. the move towards a business-friendly way of doing science and engineering at the UC level. On the other hand, they have an ethic of “fiscal responsibility” which encourages them to enact some forms of austerity (and we should remember that last year’s budget, which slashed everything, was passed by Democrats over Republican objections).

There are lots of folks with more progressive or even left politics within the Democratic coalition, but these politics don’t tend to come out at the statewide level. And there are lots of people within the (relatively) subordinate sectors of the “centrist” bloc, especially working-class people in communities of color and unions / union members, but also coastal, educated left-liberals, who would probably support a “progressive” or center-left bloc if it existed.

So part of my proposal is that the movement needs to create a political space in California in which a bloc could emerge. (Incidentally, I don’t imagine that right away this would be expressed as a new political party, though if we gathered enough strength that would be worth considering.) Initially I think we would want this to be a pressure bloc, but one that puts out a political vision of how things might be different rather than just saying “stop this or that awful thing you’ve proposed.” I imagine that some Democratic politicians would want to relate to such a bloc, and I think we would probably want to allow them to do so in an entirely subordinate capacity. (Green and P&F activists might end up being a useful part of such a bloc, though for my money P&F has confined itself to an echo chamber for decades.)

* I should say that this is not the only rationale advanced for occupations, and I’m friendly to several of the other rationales: they create a sense of political crisis to match the institutional crisis we face; they create media opportunities; they can open direct, participatory political spaces; they can function as a tactical escalation that forces administrators and politicians to respond differently; etc.