Marxism without revolution: Class

by John Quiggin on June 19, 2011

I’ve mentioned Erik Olin Wright’s Envisaging Real Utopias a couple of times, and I’ve also been reading David Harvey’s Enigma of Capital and Jerry Cohen’s if You’re an Egalitarian How Come you’re so Rich. In different ways, all these books raise the question: what becomes of Marxism if you abandon belief in the likelihood or desirability of revolution[1]? To give the shorter JQ upfront, there are lots of valuable insights, but there’s a high risk of political paralysis.

I plan alliteratively, to organise my points under three headings: Class, Capital and Crisis, and in this post I’ll talk about class

The analysis of economics and history in terms of class struggle is the central distinguishing feature of Marxism, and remains essential to any proper understanding. That said, the specifically Marxist class analysis in which the industrial working class, brought together in large factories, and increasingly homogenized and immiserised, serves as the inevitable agent of revolution, clearly hasn’t worked and isn’t going to. In the standard path of capitalist development, the stage when industrial workers (defined broadly to include all kinds of non-agricultural manual workers) constitute even a plurality of the workforce turns out to be quite short-lived. In today’s developed economies, such workers are a small minority of the population, even if you throw in the 100 million or so in China. And the working class considered more generally, as people who earn their living from labour is too heterogeneous to form a self-conscious class-for-itself. In one way or another, Wright, Harvey and Cohen all make or at least acknowledge this point.

As Cohen puts it, the revolutionary working class postulated by Marx had to satisfy four conditions:

1) They constitute the majority of society;
2) they produce the wealth of society;
3) they are the exploited people in society;
4) they are the needy people in society.
To quote this summary from the Directionless Bones blog, 1. and 2. give the proletariat the capacity to revolutionise society, and 3. and 4. give them the reason to do so.

It seems clear, as Cohen says, that no sensible definition of the working class is going to satisfy all four conditions.

On the other hand, there clearly is a self-conscious and generally dominant class, centred on control of capital, but including plenty of people whose source of power and wealth is derived from their job rather than from capital income. On a narrow definition, it includes the top 1 per cent of US households which now receive 25 per cent of all income and hold around 35 per cent of all wealth. More broadly, the top 20 per cent of the population has, in broad terms, increased or maintained its share of national income as the top 1 per cent have become richer. This broader group controls more than half of all income and wealth.

Most of the political elite in developed countries, but particularly in the US, consists of members of the top 1 per cent, or aspirants to rise to this group from the top 20 per cent. Moreover as well as controlling much of the political process through direct participation or political donations, this class exercises power directly through ownership of capital and particularly through control of the financial system. Anyone who attempts to understand policy and politics without taking account of the central role of this class is doomed to failure.

Coming back to Cohen’s conditions, the case to be made against the top 1 per cent is that:

1) They constitute a tiny minority of society
2) they consume far more of the wealth of society than they actually contribute
3) they exploit their control over capital for their own benefit
4) they are the primary obstacle to meeting a wide range of social needs

In a Marxist analysis, it would be natural at this point to use the term “ruling class”, and to stress, even more than I have done, the point that much of what passes for political debate consists of little more than rearrangements of an executive committee derived from, and largely driven by this class. There is a lot to be said for this analysis, but in the absence of any prospect of revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class, it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, except perhaps to defeatism.

And, in some parts of the academic left, defeatism seems to be seen as positively desirable. Once a critical analysis has been performed, demonstrating the hopelessness of any particular attempt to change existing structures without a revolution, the necessary work has been done, and it’s time for a well-earned cafe latte.

More commonly, perhaps, leftists continue to work on projects of reform and resistance with an implicit assumption that no fundamental change is going to take place, while maintaining a non-operational faith in the ultimate possibility or even inevitability of revolution.

If defeatism were obviously justified, this would just be a regrettable fact about the world. In reality, however, the dominant class suffered a series of historic defeats over the century or so between Marx’s own writing and the resurgence of market liberalism in the 1970s. The creation of a democratic welfare state, funded primarily by progressive taxation, produced societies with a more equal distribution of economic and political power than any seen since the emergence of agriculture, and with better standards of living for virtually everyone in the developed world.

And even after decades in which the upper 1 per cent has steadily gained ground, they remain far from omnipotent. Despite continuous attack, the basic structures of the welfare state remain intact, and there have even been some important extensions[2].

The existence of those structures mean that a relatively simple set of feasible political demands, primarily involving reversal of the losses of the past few decades, could form a basis for political opposition to the rule of the top 1 per cent. The key elements are fairly obvious, and include

  • reimposition of control over the financial system
  • restoration of a progressive tax structure, combined with a more vigorous assault on international tax evasion/avoidance
  • shifting the burden of ‘austerity’ back to those responsible for the crisis, and rejection of cuts to the welfare state
  • repeal of anti-union laws and measures to make union organization easier

Of course, setting out a policy program is one thing – the political movement needed to bring it into being is another. And for now, the ruling 1 per cent has managed to turn the anger generated by their failures to their own political advantage. But, far more than in the 1980s and 1990s, or even the first decade of the 2000s, the opening is there for a radical alternative. Even within the dominant class, faith in the beneficience of markets in general and financial markets in particular, has largely dissipated. What remains is a grimly determined class view that “what we have we hold”.

An effective political movement would mobilise the direct interests of the 80 per cent or so of the population who are losing ground in relative terms (and in the US in absolute terms) combined with the broader interest of those in the top 20 per cent of the population in a juster and more stable social order – unlike the top 1 per cent, this group can’t easily insulate themselves from society as a whole or count on passing on their own social position to their children.

There is no obvious political vehicle for such a movement. The social democratic parties (not to mention the US Democratic Party) seem either hopelessly compromised or ineffective, while the Greens seem to be stuck as a permanent minority. But there have been plenty of radical realignments of political party structures in the past, and they often happen just when they seem least likely.

That’s more than enough for a blog post. As always, I’m putting my thoughts out for discussion rather than claiming any finality for them.

fn1. I argued my position on this here. If people want to dispute this, along with Chris’ dismissal of Leninism, please don’t derail discussion on this thread. Just write something to indicate you’d like it, and I’ll open a separate thread for this topic.

fn2. Most notable are the Bush prescription drug benefit and Obama’s health plan. Although these measures were riddled with gifts to powerful interest, they nevertheless represent a very significant extension of the role and responsibility of the state to protect its citizens against the risks associated with ill-health..

{ 78 comments }

1

Timothy Scriven 06.19.11 at 4:03 am

Longish/controversial post- happy to defend/expand upon if necessary

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and while I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, I disagree with aspects of the message. It seems to me that what we have is a collective action problem. It’s all very good and well to talk about mobilizing the direct interests of 80% of the population, and reminding people of these interests would probably help.

The root problem though is that self interest doesn’t make a rational case for political action (if you’re poor- more on that in a moment), especially of the potentially back breaking varieties which would be needed to make real change. Every time I talk to my fellow students to try and motivate political action I get asked, in somewhat more polite terms what’s in it for me? Here “me” isn’t “my class” or even “my gender”, it’s M-E.

On the other hand, if you’re rich, there’s often a very reasonable ROI on employing lobbyists etc.

So basically the right are winning on economics because the self has shrunk, or more bluntly, people have come to approximate the kind of selfish-little-s**t rational calculators that economists would like them to. Solidarity just isn’t a thing anymore, and a collective action problem that favours the powerful has ensued.

The right way to fight this isn’t just to say “you’re getting screwed!”, even though they are (I’m not saying you’re saying this btw). It’s to instil a sense of empathic identification. If folks care about what happens to others, the collective action problem shrinks of disappears.

Getting to this point means abandoning the old leftist rhetorical strategy which is based on indignant rage, with a touch of self interest (or at least something analogous at the level of the class), and replacing it with an approach built around empathy- or empathy and self interest working in tandem (much more motivating). This wins us quite a few framing points to, creating a rhetorical and political ethos of care allows us to position ourselves as the true moral majority. Anyone who doubts the power of empathy, compassionate horror etc to move political action, if used effectively, hasn’t seen been following the live cattle export controversy in Australia closely enough.

Great post btw, the left does need to get a lot more hardnosed about this stuff.

2

Michael Pidgeon 06.19.11 at 4:14 am

Interesting post. I’ve noticed that this doesn’t just happen in academia, but in politics too. What few socialist politicians we have here seem to form a criticism of government/other party positions, and then just protest. They don’t engage in existing political structures or compromise to actually do anything (an understandable, if pointless way to proceed). They then enjoy an untainted “well-earned cafe latte”, as you say.

Out of interest, how is this different from the arguments which led to many Marxists shifting over to social democracy?

3

Luis 06.19.11 at 5:42 am

I thought there were plans for an Olin Wright book seminar at some point? I’d certainly still be interested in reading a seminar (having bought and tackled the book at least partially with the seminar in mind…)

4

Sandwichman 06.19.11 at 5:45 am

“no sensible definition of the working class is going to satisfy all four conditions.”

Are we talking globally? The working class may not satisfy all of those conditions in one place at one time. But is such parochialism essential to a “revolutionary working class”? Wouldn’t it be possible for different tasks of the revolution to be completed by different groups of people at different times and in different places but for those achievement to eventually meld in some greater whole?

5

shah8 06.19.11 at 6:05 am

You can’t discount

1) The use of kyriarchal divide and conquer techniques that force victims to identify with their antagonists.

2) The use of media for distraction. Weinergate was all about not having to talk about actual news, especially on the debt ceiling negotiations. The media also makes sure that there are reservoirs of racism/sexism, etc, etc. It’s pretty long since past any kind of acceptance of coincidences about what happens with Darwin/females in First Class, Drogo in place of Viserys in ASoIaF HBO, or the only nonwhite face in Airbender being the bad guy despite how illogical that sounds.

3) Religion is important for many social functions. I, as an athiest, am privileged and mooching off the believers as much as the top guys are. I actively dislike Richard Dawkins and I think PJ Myers is being counterproductive when he does indiscriminate broadsides against religions. Human societies cannot function without coercive ideologies, because one of the thing coercive ideologies do is simplify the game theoretical matrix so that people can have faith in one another (which lowers informational and emotional costs and increases transactional liquidity–there is a reason religions follows trade and economic expansions). Another of the things religions do is to form a structure around necessary delayed gratification–Joseph in Egypt–through the use of taboos and other deliberate inefficiencies. Yes, we can do these things without religions, but not without a binding narrative. I’m not interested in defaulting to a state, ethnicity, cults of personality/gangs.

3 b) Scriven can talk about some sort of empathetic identification all he likes, but Ben-Gurion types will always beat Weizman types (heh, Mapai over Mapam!). Stalin types will always beat Trotsky types. Right wingers usually wins over leftwingers. Do you know why? People with lots of coercive control over a hard nugget of capability have the edge in intergroup interaction. A coercive ideology about heirarchy with a few carrots and simple scams that appeal to an individual member’s narcissism is much easier to hold together over the short term–especially with the help of some adversarial function. Any left-wing group that hopes to be able to survive has to do the same, at least long enough to let the greater inefficiencies of authoritarian rule take its toll. For example, there are reasons why the NEA does what it does–for example, insists on taking senority in account, even though that seems like such an inefficient way of paying for quality teachers, according to Matt Yglesias! Called instilling empathetic identification–of the sort that gets people to do the work of punishing those who endanger the greater project, like strike-breakers. In group/Out Group stuff.

3 c) This is why we have to, as a group, understand and respect religions for what they are. They are irrational (but people are not the sum of rational parts, and no purely rational ideology would ever capture very many human minds, keep that in mind) and they do horrific things. Nevertheless, current religions now are the main intermediaries (and they have always been, hence the inherent unreliability of peasants in a revolutionary scenario) of who/what people should care about. We can all trip on our feelings of superiority to those churchgoers and be ineffectual cafe latte sippers, or we can build our own little irrational ideology that offers a compelling satisfaction to the masses. Guess how much of an option that is, if you want to change anything. Becoming a believer, even if it ain’t about sky fairies, is mandatory. One has to believe in your friends, to have friends. One has to believe in your society to have a society. Believing in your friends or in your society, looked at with impartial lens, is never rationally in your immediate self interest.

6

gocart mozart 06.19.11 at 6:17 am

Sorry to be so way off topic so early in a thread, but can anyone tell me the difference between compton and coherent X-Rays. i.e. Is one safer than the other? Not my expertise and my Google powers have failed me.

7

Gaspard 06.19.11 at 6:49 am

Could you expand on this, or point me elsewhere: “they consume far more of the wealth of society than they actually contribute”

Do you mean “they receive as income far more than the value they add” e.g., the rent-extracting aspects of the financial sector? In terms of the effects of their consumption as such, or their value added, this doesn’t seem to be true for the JK Rowlings or Steve Jobs, etc. who work in the “real economy”.

I understand that if you take the financial sector out of the statistics, the shift in inequality since the 1970s practically disappears. And shrinking this sector long term is a matter of technocratic opposition from one section of the ruling to the other (i.e. taxation and unionisation would do little here).

8

John Quiggin 06.19.11 at 6:52 am

Gaspard, your expansion in terms of rent extraction by the financial sector is exactly what I have in mind.

9

Timothy Scriven 06.19.11 at 7:23 am

On a not unrelated to my original post “Marxism without revolution” would be a fine title for an anthology, and a very timely anthology to.

10

Gaspard 06.19.11 at 7:58 am

Thanks. If I may, a follow up – it would appear what the Tories in the UK are seeking to do in terms of “firewalling” retail banking is a good example of one part of the 1% taking a step towards your first bullet because of their own particular electoral interests. Perhaps seeking to emphasise these divergent interests within the top 1% or 20%would be a more effective strategy than attacking the top 1% or 20% as a whole, which might lead them to close ranks.

11

voyou 06.19.11 at 8:19 am

It seems clear, as Cohen says, that no sensible definition of the working class is going to satisfy all four conditions.

Why on earth would anyone think this? I’m having trouble thinking of anywhere in the world where the working class not only doesn’t fulfill these conditions, but doesn’t obviously fulfill these conditions.

12

Alison P 06.19.11 at 9:16 am

Yes, same here, voyou. Working people make the stuff, deliver the services, end up with nothing, at risk of poverty at the whim of fate. I suppose ‘needy’ and ‘exploited’ are arguable terms. Actively harmed and made miserable by the system their labour makes possible – yes, obviously.

13

FM 06.19.11 at 10:36 am

Great to see your thoughts on this most important issue JQ. Please keep them coming!

14

Phil 06.19.11 at 10:36 am

I’m a bit less puzzled than voyou, but only a bit. Those who work for a wage rather than profiting from the labour of others are the majority in every nation, with a handful of bizarrely atypical exceptions; that’s how capitalist economies work. Wage-workers produce the wealth in every economy, with a handful of b.ly a. e.s; again, that’s capitalism for you. Point 3 is a bit trickier: wage-workers are, always and everywhere, exploited, but they’re not the only people who are exploited, nor is the wage the only nexus of exploitation. And not all wage-workers are needy, and not all needy people are wage-workers – although we could save point 4 to some extent by arguing that all needy people are either workers or people who have been excluded from waged work.

It could be that when you say ‘working class’ (or even when Gerry Cohen said it) what’s being referred to isn’t the set of all wage workers but the set of all semi-skilled or unskilled workers in factories and farms, or words to that effect. But I don’t think the Marxian model of class assumes that or needs to assume it.

Incidentally, I do think revolution is both desirable and inevitable, even if only in the long run (and you know what they say about the long run), so I’d welcome that other thread.

15

Martin Bento 06.19.11 at 10:45 am

Very interesting post from which one can go many directions. For me the first is: what does the left need to change in its own thinking to further these goals? Your agenda here is primarily restorative: the things you seek were the case in recent history and you want to go back to [some aspects of] that earlier time. So phrased, you can see how this rubs against the instincts of those committed to being “progressive”. I call it the “Pastime Paradise” syndrome. Praise a past state of affairs and prepare to hear lectures about how people always glorify the past sentimentally, usually because they cannot handle the present or future, it imparts a comforting simplicity, it reduces the need to incorporate new information, it is the salve of those who benefit from the status quo, etc.

There are also the more specific variations on the theme. Whenever Krugman talks about how progressive taxation was in the 50’s, how much more economic security there was then, how there was an actual industrial policy and it worked, in any progressive context, there will always be the objection that Krugman would not be praising the 50’s like that if he were [pick one: black, female, gay]. Krugman does often add caveats regarding those issues, unless he has to be quite brief, but that is not enough. It is obligatory that praising any aspect of the 50’s should be accompanied by condemnation of its dark side at at least equal volume, for the sake of balance. However, the reverse is not true. I have never heard a discussion of the evils of Jim Crow interrupted by someone saying “Sure, segregation was bad, but, on the other hand, progressive taxation and redistribution made a tremendous improvement in most people’s lives at that time, including blacks”. Anyone who made such an argument would be accused of changing the subject at best to apologizing for racism at worst. Somehow “balance” only has to exist on one side. The left has to get over its prejudice against the past. If you can never praise the past, then history becomes a ratchet where all your losses are permanent, because even you will not speak up for what you have lost.

If you want to unite people in opposition to an elite, you’re going to have to be willing to conceive of the elite as “them” and everyone else as “us”, and there will be a “against” involved. A resistance to ever seeing the world in these terms, though these terms are basically just the structure of conflict, and you will not get politics without conflict, is making the left unwilling to adopt the mindset you must adopt in a fight.

The centrality of the financial system to the recent disaster and to the increasing inequality of wealth and power in the world, as well as the decreasing financial stability, means the left needs to be willing to articulate criticisms of the financial system that are independent of its criticisms of Capitalism as a whole. At the very least, such a critique must not be taboo. All you have to do is attack the financial system as such and some established lefties (cough Doug Henwood cough) will bring up antisemitism and yell “Nazi!”, Godwin, for once, be damned. Yes, many of the people in the past who have attacked bankers have been antisemites and some of them created a totalitarian system that killed millions. And many of those who argued for economic equality were communists and some of them created several totalitarian systems, more than one of which killed millions. The right needs to get over the second fact, and the left needs to get over the first.

We need a real analysis of where the financial system actually creates value and where it is parasitic. Regulation sufficient to prevent collapse is not sufficient. “Too big to fail” is probably non-operative. In this era, multiple firms can invest in one another so thoroughly, and track each other slow closely, that many will fail more or less at once. In fact, that’s really what happened. It’s not that Lehman crashed the economy. Bear, then Wamu, then Lehmen, AIG next, that’s what crashed it. We also have to articulate alternatives to this system, including things that can be put in place if it fails. It failed, and almost the entire “reputable” left had no response but “save it at all cost”. I understand why. We have no plan B. But we have to oppose this financial system, so we need a plan B, and probably the only point at which a new system can be installed is when this one fails. Which may mean letting it fail despite the short-term human cost.

16

Martin Bento 06.19.11 at 10:52 am

In regards to the points of others: I agree with shah8 that religion has some desirable social effects and think the left needs to be more friendly towards it. I winced when everyone was laughing at the end times prediction, knowing that at least half of the American public takes that stuff seriously, so if you alienate them, you have to get *everyone* el;se on your side and could still lose.

Religion is also the typical way to the empathic concern Scriven wants, and its typical expression is charity, not political change. I’m all for charity, but it won’t change the system.

Gaspard, yes, you could argue for the likes of Rowling and Jobs – and Jobs is an industrial capitalistic, so if you except him, your beef with capitalism as such must at least be qualified. Again, right now, I think we need to zero in on the financial industry.

17

Jack Strocchi 06.19.11 at 10:53 am

Pr Q said:

There is no obvious political vehicle for such a movement. The social democratic parties (not to mention the US Democratic Party) seem either hopelessly compromised or ineffective, while the Greens seem to be stuck as a permanent minority. But there have been plenty of radical realignments of political party structures in the past, and they often happen just when they seem least likely.

This post should be re-named “Revolution without Marxism”. The issue nags away at me on some long, dark nights of the soul.

Ever since Marxism kicked off legions of Left-wing intellectuals have puzzled over the absence of social revolutionary sentiment among various social classes, as if this is the default political position. Its pointless to wail over “the revolution betrayed”, obviously people have higher loyalties. Pretty clearly nationalist unity trumps socialist rivalry. And then there are our own petty bourgeois interests.

I was half-expecting a radical populist reaction to the Right’s spectacular series of own-goals over the past decade: the GWOT, the GFC and the AGW. Or at least some profound reflections and remorse from those mainstream political and economic elites responsible for the series of disasters.

Generally speaking dominant social groups only undergo drastic reform when they have their “A-bomb moment” – the group suffers a reversal so catastrophic that continuing on the same path will result in complete self-destruction. Japan being the paradigmatic example but obviously the business class in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

Instead at the elite level we have had the spectacle of Bush’s colossal misadventure in Iraq shoved down a memory hole, bail-outs-and-bonuses-as-usual for the Wall Street-Washington axis of evil and a shooting the scientific messenger on climate change.

More surprising, at the electoral level the Anglosphere has witnessed a Right-wing populist reaction in the US (Tea-Party), UK (austerity) and AUS (Abbott et al). I certainly did not expect this – my guess is that this is a temporary set-back for the Left. Public enthusiasm for Middle East militarism, finance capitalism and carbon-fueled industrialism is diminishing rapidly, even as support for the Right-wing parties who championed these causes has enjoyed a spike of sorts.

So the Left will probably once again be left hoping for another social disaster. The Right will probably oblige, given its pig-head-in-the-sand attitude towards recent failures. Eventually the cognitive dissonance will prove too deafening, probably when another financial crisis or ecological meltdown hits the fan.

18

Henri Vieuxtemps 06.19.11 at 11:01 am

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China_Business/LE22Cb01.html

…Some insight into working conditions at Foxconn is provided by a diary written by 22-year-old Liu Zhiyi, who spent 28 days working in Foxconn’s main factory while an intern for Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou newspaper. She said the production lines at Foxconn started at 4 a.m., with thousands of uniformed workers, all dressed alike, having to stand as they worked at least eight hours a day.

“With a basic salary of just 900 yuan, they spare no effort to work overtime … But only reliable workers and those who have good relations with department heads are offered such overtime opportunities,” said Liu’s diary, published by the weekly. Ten workers shared one dormitory, but many did not know each others’ names, she wrote.

One striking feature of Foxconn employees is their young age, with 85% of the 420,000 workers in Shenzhen born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Foxconn.

19

John Passant 06.19.11 at 11:03 am

John, with all due respect, I think your view of Marxism borders on caricature.

Tom Bramble addresses some of the points about a changing working class and so called irreconcilable differences in his article in Marxist Left Review called Does the Australian working class have the power to change society? http://marxistleftreview.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=59:does-the-australian-working-class-have-the-power-to-change-society&catid=39:number-2-autumn-2011&Itemid=78

Alex Callinicos, Chris Harman and John Bellamy Foster among others have all written about finance capital, Foster going so far as to talk about the financialisation of capitalism.

20

Chris Bertram 06.19.11 at 11:48 am

I’d love to say lots here. But I’m in Chicago with internet access on my phonEe only .

21

Alison P 06.19.11 at 11:51 am

Point 3 is a bit trickier: wage-workers are, always and everywhere, exploited, but they’re not the only people who are exploited, nor is the wage the only nexus of exploitation.

True, but wage-working is not part of the definition of a potential revolutionary class. The working class are the people who do the work – waged or otherwise. So for example mothers (and carers in general) are working without pay at an essential social function, and are needy and exploited, and could support a revolutionary movement. Pensioners are in downtime when they literally can physically work no longer, but in their time they produced goods and services, and their needs must be met. Their experience could feed into a revolutionary movement.

Anyway, it seems to me our mutual interests (annoyingly) are best served in trying to keep capitalism going for a few decades more, so we have some chance to put alternative structures in place, to reduce suffering when the collapse comes. The issue isn’t how to destroy capitalism – it is self-destructing all around us – the challenge is building lifeboats and getting people into them, before the whole system fails completely.

22

bert 06.19.11 at 11:55 am

Angela Merkel has been pushing for private debtholders to assume at least some of the losses in the current crisis. She has a clear electoral incentive to continue to make this case. Yet this week she announced unconditional surrender.
I know you have views about why this happened, and I look forward to ‘Marxism without revolution: Capital’ to see if you can get beyond defeatism on that one too.

23

Louis Proyect 06.19.11 at 11:59 am

Odd. I don’t have any memory of Quiggin being this radical. I seem to remember him as some sort of Labourite with a particular animus toward anybody who defied the liberal consensus on Yugoslavia. Or maybe I have him confused with some other Timberite.

24

CSProf 06.19.11 at 12:18 pm

“it seems clear, as Cohen says, that no sensible definition of the working class is going to satisfy all four conditions.”

Given common sense, lots of people, even on this thread, arrive at the opposite conclusion. So, for the benefit of the discussion, can you summarize Cohen’s arguments that you found persuasive, or your own?

25

Russell Arben Fox 06.19.11 at 12:19 pm

Luis (#3),

There was a Crooked Timber seminar on Wright’s book planned at one point, but despite some comments from Harry over the months, it may not ever come together. Anyway, you’re not alone–I read the book in anticipation of the seminar too (my thoughts about it are here).

26

Chris Bertram 06.19.11 at 12:35 pm

Trying to overcome pain of typing on this thing ….
Jus to say that the original version of the relevant Cohen essay anticipates some objections put here. Eg Sandwichman on global scope of WC. In his Self -ownership book.

27

Russell Arben Fox 06.19.11 at 12:46 pm

Combining the comments of Timothy Scriven (#1) on “empathy and self interest working in tandem”; and shah8 (#5) on the necessity of religious belief as at least a component of broad solidarity; and Martin Bento (#15 and #16) on the impossibility of getting large numbers of people to recognize their exploitation when progressives keep stigmatizing every aspect of the past…doesn’t this all add up to something well-known in the history of the American left, something called “populism”?

I realize–as I said in response to Chris Betram’s post on the state of the left today–that populist movements have had a rather different history and demographic than has been the case in the UK and Western Europe, but still, think about it. You’ve got an “us vs. them” argument, one which mostly follows actually existing class divides; you’ve got an articulation of the argument through the language of locality and religion; and you’ve got a grounding of that argument in the memory of and a respect and longing for real lived experience. Does that mean populism will invariably be a mixed, often parochial, frequently majoritarian and thus exclusive (perhaps racist, perhaps xenophobic or homophobic) bag? Yes, obviously. And so, the left needs to push for bringing liberal principles to bear whenever they can. But they can be pushed in such a way as to undermine one of the most vital ways that class consciousness can still be constructed and made powerful in an age where, for all sorts of already mentioned reasons, the classic “working class” of Marxist analysis isn’t operable. If you want to understand the “defeatism” of much of the left, I think one large part of it has to be the (perhaps unconscious) assumption that, as much good work as the original Populist/Progressive movements and the New Deal coalition was able to accomplish in the US, it just couldn’t survive the rise of post-1950s feminism, pluralism, and secularism, and so oh well, nothing we can do about it, because Gaia knows we’re never going to give an inch on any of that progress, right?

I would have liked it if Wright could have thought more about the emancipatory possibilities, as well as complications, of populist movements in his book, but he was already taking on everything but the kitchen sink, so I don’t fault him for that. And there is a sense in which his discussion of “interstitial” strategies of emancipation–workshop floor, community action, civil society stuff–overlap with populist rhetoric, particularly through the agency of unions and such.

28

BenK 06.19.11 at 12:59 pm

The single overriding flaw in this analysis is point 4:
they are the primary obstacle to meeting a wide range of social needs

This point is the crux of where class based analysis fails. The 0.1% or less of the population that can live for a generation off its own capital is not nearly enough of a problem to be the primary obstacle to meeting social needs. The primary obstacle to meeting social needs is in fact the human nature of the 100%, not the greed of 1%, 0.1% or supervillains living in dormant volcanoes – or, for that matter, in the bottom 5% in terms of income, where certain other political forces go looking for the ‘other’ to blame for everything.

Making good things out of corruptible and crooked people is a challenge; blaming everything on the very rich is a pathetic and intellectually deficient strategy. Marxism fails every time because it is nothing more than a rhetorically sophisticated strategy for shifting blame away from some people, onto others, in the end unveiling the culpability of the group that remains following the horrific purges and torture.

We cannot in good conscience ever be a party to the horrors that accompany Marxism, either the violence of the gulag, or in fact other kinds of coercive violence. The rich have proven themselves perfectly capable of squandering their own wealth; and, for that matter, of donating it to charities which create public goods no government or local community group would ever construct. By using the rich as scapegoats for the failings of everyone (themselves included), the Marxists show themselves to be envious arrogant narcissists.

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ejh 06.19.11 at 1:21 pm

That’s hilarious.

30

William Timberman 06.19.11 at 1:58 pm

There are two observations to be made here, I think, which in my reading I don’t see being made very often:

1) Maybe Marx was right after all. Maybe the long arc toward social democracy was as much an illusion as the revolution of the industrial proletariat has seemed to those of us born in the West after WWII. Certainly things like the NHS in Britain, or the GI Bill in the U.S., would be hard to conceive of in any but the post-war context, as would the rebound in consumption which occurred just when so much of U.S. industry had acquired so much idle capacity. The post-war imperialism of the U.S. which began — at least in the minds of people like George Kennan — as a sort of global management problem, also played a large role in obscuring what was in fact taking place in the political economy of our age. Even those at the highest levels, who thought they knew what the story was, didn’t in fact know much of anything. If they had, the sense of dread that came of trying to face down the Russian bear might have been seen for the silly diversion that it was.

2) The management problem is still with us. You might say that democracy and Fukushima don’t mix. Or democracy and nuclear missiles, democracy and NSA-style security states, democracy and industrial agriculture, democracy and Three Gorges dams. Small-minded people have vastly increased their power over us and everything else on the planet since 1945, and the necromancy that arose out of propaganda, advertising, miniature cameras and Internet garbage collection on the scale practiced by the NSA et al, may in the end prove more fatal to children and other living things than thermonuclear warheads per se ever could have been.

Whether you call it revolution or not, we have to figure out a way to manage post-industrial economies as well as our remaining cultural animosities without ending up with a dismissive autocracy of either the Koch brothers on the one hand, or the party apparatchiks of the Chinese Central Committee on the other. Decentralization is the key, it seems to me — a decentralization which is more friendly to political democracy than what we’ve been pleased to call Social Democracy up till now. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but maybe, with the help of computers, we can break it up into more rational pieces, — more rational in the sense of allowing us to grapple collectively with the real failures of capitalism, which may otherwise turn the capitalists’ arrogant dismissals of externalized cost into the end of the world as we know it.

31

K. Williams 06.19.11 at 2:04 pm

” the direct interests of the 80 per cent or so of the population who are losing ground in relative terms (and in the US in absolute terms) “

John, come on. You don’t seriously believe that 80 percent of Americans are worse off today than they were three decades ago, do you? Look at longitudinal studies — that is, studies that track how actual individuals do over time — and what you’ll see is that there’s no evidence at all that most Americans have been losing ground in absolute terms. To the extent that the middle class has shrunk over the last thirty years, it’s because more families have moved up and out of the middle class than down. It’s true that many Americans are worse off than they were in 2008, but drawing massive social conclusions from recessions seems like a particularly bad analytical strategy.

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David Kaib 06.19.11 at 2:14 pm

@30 – Pointing to longitudinal studies, without more, makes it difficult to know what exactly you are pointing to. But there seems some obvious answer to your question, including less economic security, less retirement security, a weaker and smaller union sector, continued wage stagnation pared with ever rising health care costs, a series of speculative bubbles bursting, the shifting of the burden of taxation downward, and a present assault on the last vestiges of government action that create the opportunity and security necessary for a middle class.

As for your claim that the middle class is shrinking because more are moving up than down, I must simply ask – what on earth are you talking about?

33

Sandwichman 06.19.11 at 2:27 pm

Further to my earlier comment. I am suggesting that there is an unfounded, unconscious and pervasive expectation that the Aristotelian unities of action, place and time apply to History. Those unities apply to drama and they apply to the writing of history, which is a literary act. But they don’t directly apply to the unfolding of events and the emergence of social institutions in the world. There is much that is “dramatic” about the events in Tahrir square, for example, but those events were not a play.

In Metahistory, Hayden White wrote about how various historian emulated dramatic genres in their recounting of history and he characterized Marx’s style as tragedy. Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative has as its goal the analysis of “the refiguration of human time through the interweaving of history and fiction.” Chapter 9 of volume 3 of Time and Narrative is titled “Should We Renounce Hegel?” and the first sentence of chapter 10 begins, “Having left Hegel behind…”

Of course, there is the irony that to “leave Hegel behind” requires an intense engagement with Hegel, just as to “leave Marx behind” would require such an engagement.

34

skidmarx 06.19.11 at 2:33 pm

There is no obvious political vehicle for such a movement.
No? Really? The objection that existing revolutionary socialist organisations are too small to fit the bill seems to be cut from the same cloth as the one to the possibility of revolution that no revolution has been successful yet.

35

Sandwichman 06.19.11 at 2:49 pm

What the historians contemporary with philosophical Romanticism discovered was more than an internal form of coherence, it was a force — a Macht — that propelled history according to a more or less secret plan, all the while that it left human beings responsible for its emergence. This is why other collective singular terms flocked to history’s side: freedom, justice, progress, revolution. In this sense, “revolution” served as the revealer of an earlier process which at the same time it accelerated. — Time &Narrative volume 3 p. 209-10.

36

Random Lurker 06.19.11 at 3:04 pm

I have two (partly unrelated) observations:
1) In italian, we have two words that reflect the english “class”: “classe” and “ceto”.
When I was in high school, my (self described marxist-leninist) philosophy teacher explained that “classe” referred to the economic position of an individual, whereas “ceto” (wich I think comes from some translation of Max Weber) refers to the cultural habits that are associated to the various classes, so that, for example, a financial capitalist that is born by working class parents would be of capitalist “classe” but of working class “ceto”, thus displaying “new rich” and somehow vulgar tastes. It seems to me that when you say that there is no more a “working class” in marxist sense you mean that there is no more a “working ceto”, which is more a problem of false consciousness than a real change in the structure of society: for example the student of engeneering might believe that he is a small burgoise and that the world will smile to him, but when he will go on the job market he will realize that he’ll get a crappy job and he is really a proletarian.
2) to those that say that we should differentiate between “real economy capitalists” and “financial capitalists”, and to BenK at 27: you are very wrong IMHO. In a capitalist world, “real economy capitalists” don’t pay workers enough to buy all the products they produce (or they would have no profits), and don’t use all the profits they have for personal consumption, because they have very obvious incentives to increase their amount of capital. As a consequence, an underconsumption crisis would arise, but the growth in leverage in the system can counterbalance this tendence for a while (until a Minsky moment happens), so many governments encouraged the overgrowth of the financial system to keep recession away. Thus: “capitalism” is disfunctional beyond the “excessive share” of products consumed by capitalists, because it constrains the growth of the whole pie via crises of underconsumtion, and “financial rents” are a direct consequence of “real economy capitalism”. And, by the way, both Steve Jobs and J. K. Rowling most likely put most of their hard earned money in some sort of financial product, so that they will have their fair share of “financial rents”.

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StevenAttewell 06.19.11 at 3:28 pm

Martin Bento at 15 – I don’t disagree with your larger point about populism, but I do have to disagree about the “Great Compression.” For me, Krugman/the “economic left” and the race/gender/sexuality folks are slightly talking past each other – progressive taxation, the welfare state, and industry policy did not exist because of Jim Crow, but in spite of it. Dixiecrats spent much of the years 1937-1979 trying (with some success) to prevent expansions of the welfare state; the people who designed Social Security designed it to include agricultural and domestic workers (it was Morgenthau and Congress who stripped them out).
So I think the reverse case you describe and the caveats Krugman makes both miss an important point – the New Deal order that survived the war was not the New Deal order that was intended by the New Dealers, and we must keep that in mind if we are to judge New Deal liberalism.

Russell Arben Fox at 27 – I don’t see why majoritarian means exclusive, although that might be a terminology issue. I still ascribe to the civic vs. ethnic nationalism/populism position – there are more open/liberal forms of populism that eschew xenophobia. The Popular Front being a good example of that.

William Timberman at 30 – I think you’re a bit off on post-war political economy. Much of U.S foreign policy (especially in relation to tariffs) was aimed at bolstering anti-communism, not promoting U.S economic interests – U.S industry was traded away consciously.
Also, if American history teaches us anything, decentralization is not a panacea, either politically or economically. Local interests can seize control just as well as national interests, and small businesses will squeeze harder than big businesses because they have slimmer profit margins and less capital base.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 06.19.11 at 3:46 pm

At the very least, decentralization is a requirement for organic experimentation, natural evolution; the alternative to technocratic arrogance.

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Felix 06.19.11 at 4:22 pm

This was a smart and interesting post. Thanks for sharing it.

I’m left with a question only about this: a relatively simple set of feasible political demands, primarily involving reversal of the losses of the past few decades

Is this to imply that if we could rally large numbers around these issues, and win back some losses, that then those large numbers would continue to press for greater reforms to the larger inequalities in the system?

As a veteran and observer of various reformist struggles, it seems to me from a practical standpoint that organizers put enormous resources into fighting to maintain the pittances we have (constantly battling far-right ballot measures and federal economic policies that take away the basics) and are left with no energy to think creatively or work toward our own vision of a more just society. Not to mention, in my experience at least, that after you finally gather enough energy and people to defeat some of these crazy ballot measures (or economic policies, or wars, or whatnot), people quickly dissipate and become disinterested.

I wish I knew how to keep people’s energy, or radicalize people further once they’ve become engaged in a cause. But I don’t ):

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William Timberman 06.19.11 at 4:27 pm

Steven Attewell @ 37

I agree with you about the roots of post-war U.S. foreign policy, although I can see that my terminology is at fault for appearing to disagree. What I meant by a global management problem was that Kennan saw the contest with the Soviets in terms of containing a disruptive force that might wreck the goal of a U.S. led, globally integrated economy. He didn’t see it as a political or ideological competition in the narrow sense, but he did make it clear, in the long telegram (as I remember it, at least) that we might have to bear the burden of some otherwise irrational expenses, not to mention ambiguously evil deeds, to keep the Soviets at bay.

Not everyone understood the undertaking in that way, of course, and consequently the Marshall/Kennan axis, if you can call it that, lost out early in the game to the cold warrior-morons who ranged in sophistication from JFK to Curtis LeMay.

Either way, after 1948 the thwarted aspirations of the common folk anywhere in the world outside the U.S. didn’t even register in our technocratic war rooms, and by the time our war machine arrived in Vietnam, similar aspirations inside the U.S. didn’t matter either. I can imagine Noam Chomsky and George Kennan engaged in a dialogue about what was best for everybody. Sadly, I can’t imagine anything of the sort occurring between Chomsky or Bill McKibben and, say, Sam Nunn or Newt Gingrich.

My point about decentralization certainly doesn’t refute yours, but as Henri implies, what we’ve got now is almost certainly not going to work, and for the first time, we have the purely technological tools to give the lie to the idea that centralized political monopolies are essential to the proper management of complex economies. What we do about that — human nature being what it is — is precisely what’s on the table.

41

LFC 06.19.11 at 4:29 pm

Haven’t read most of the comments, but re Gaspard’s remark that if you take out the financial sector most of the increase in inequality in the US since the 70s disappears: this overlooks the effects of the rise in executive compensation. There is a relevant, long piece in WaPo today (apologies if someone has already mentioned it); the link is at my blog.

42

StevenAttewell 06.19.11 at 4:36 pm

William Timberman – agreed on the cold war issue.

However, I don’t see any evidence for the superiority of decentralization either from you or Henri – only an assertion about the “organic” and “natural” -ness of the local, which I consider really suspect romanticism. Mayor Daley and Bull Connor were local pols, after all.

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William Timberman 06.19.11 at 5:00 pm

StevenAttewell @ 42

I grew up in the American South during the latter days of Jim Crow, so I’m well aware that Ross Barnett and Bull Connor could be well-respected local boys without being de facto exemplars of the benefits of democracy. State’s rights, and other such euphemisms for tyranny, are not exactly what I mean by decentralization, although no doubt as one of its possible manifestations, they’re not to be dismissed lightly.

What I did mean is something probably better discussed at extended length elsewhere, but I assure you that it hasn’t got much to do with romanticism. We might consider, to start with, that Bull Connor and Ross Barnett couldn’t bring on a world-wide economic meltdown, whereas a Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan — in the wrong place at the wrong time — managed it without even breaking a sweat.

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Jim Harrison 06.19.11 at 5:42 pm

Generically Marxist theories of society, history, and economics supposedly emphasize conflict; but a teleological bias persists in them as if it were a given that there is at least the possibility of some sort of more or less stable resolution to class struggle. It seems to me that this view is fundamentally wrong. It will probably always be in the interest of minorities to oppress the rest, and periods of relative social peace and general prosperity will continue to be exceptional and temporary unless there really is some sort of technological omega point that fundamentally changes the subject. That doesn’t mean that individuals and groups can’t make progress in any given situation any more than the fact that walking is in the last analysis a protracted stumble means that you can’t go to the store. It does imply the need for something like methodological pessimism.

I am particularly skeptical of the notion that gradual movement towards social democracy, aka Fukuyama’s Denmark, is a practical replacement for Revolution, not because I have any particular love of Revolutions–I’ve read too much history for that–but because actual social democracies, Denmark included, came to be precisely because there was a revolutionary movement in the world. Does anybody really think that the emergence of the welfare state in Western Europe and the relatively peaceful end of traditional imperialism elsewhere would have taken place in the absence of a credible Red threat? I’m a most unlikely leftist, but I’ve come to believe that most of the world will move further and further right until and unless some political movement arises that puts fear back in the heart of ruling minorities. In the absence of some such perilous drama, the only plausible default case is oligarchy bolstered by legal terrorism, public relations, and superstition.

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William Timberman 06.19.11 at 6:14 pm

Jim H., if the aftermath of proletarian revolution was Marx and Engels’ wet dream of stability, then surely something like Fukuyama’s brand of the end of history is the technocrat’s equivalent. You’ve more likely got a better idea than either of them. Stability of the sort all of us dream of from time to time is one of those consummations devoutly to be wished, but never likely to be seen this side of eternity.

The technocratic paralysis afflicting our best and brightest these days will go because it has to. Whether it goes with a bang or a whimper is hardly ours to decide, any more than we get to decide how many of us it takes with us. We should, however, offer to help avoid the nastier consequences whether anyone asks us or not, and we should definitely be thinking out loud about what we might try afterwards, just in case there prove to be more sympathetic ears among the survivors.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 06.19.11 at 6:38 pm

I’m a most unlikely leftist, but I’ve come to believe that most of the world will move further and further right until and unless some political movement arises that puts fear back in the heart of ruling minorities.

Yeah, that’s what it feels like, looking, in particular, at recent US history, but surely there could be other strategies, other equilibria, with higher levels of communitarianism and nationalism mixed in. The US started and evolved as an unusually libertarian society.

47

John Quiggin 06.19.11 at 7:48 pm

In response to CSProf and some others, let me spell out Cohen’s point as I see it. To get the size of the potentially revolutionary Marxian working class we have to exclude
(i) Business owners, small as well as large (not exploited in the Marxian sense)
(ii) Those living on welfare benefits and pensions (not responsible for production)
(iii) Those wage workers who are not needy (that is, needy enough to be likely to benefit from a revolution)
At a rough guess, the first two classes would account for something like 40 per cent of the population. So even if you class 80 per cent of wage earners as “needy” you don’t have a majority.
And for a Marxian (as opposed to Leninist!) revolutionary class is not as though you want 51 per cent. You want an overwhelming majority.

48

William Timberman 06.19.11 at 7:52 pm

…how many of us it takes with it. Maybe I was thinking of Pogo’s We have met the enemy and he is us. That’s today’s excuse, anyway.

49

K. Williams 06.19.11 at 8:16 pm

“As for your claim that the middle class is shrinking because more are moving up than down, I must simply ask – what on earth are you talking about?”

The percentage of working-age adults who are in families that earn between $40K-$75K (inflation-adjusted) is smaller than it was in 1979. But that’s because the percentage of working-age adults who are in families that make more than $75K has risen, not because the percentage in families who earn less than $75K has gone up. That is, the middle class is shrinking because more working-age adults have moved up the income ladder rather than down.

50

K. Williams 06.19.11 at 8:17 pm

Sorry, that should be “not because the percentage in families who earn less than $40K has gone up.”

51

Bruce Wilder 06.19.11 at 8:25 pm

I know here in the already calcified blogosphere, we are still supposed to believe in the radically de-centralizing potential of the computing/communication revolutions, but isn’t it more sensible to expect the opposite?

The technologies of computing and control, at this time, are introducing the potential for pervasive and cheap control, for the first time in human history. We could have a law against speeding on the freeway, for example, and actually enforce it — not in the sense of fining a few unfortunate scofflaws, but in the sense of detecting and sanctioning every single violation. That is within the realm of the possible now.

There was a time, when computing seemed to be enhancing the power of the individual. Remember when the PC overthrew the mainframe, in American business?
But, we seem to moving very rapidly in the opposite direction. The cellphone/tablet, tied closely to the corporate-controlled “cloud” is replacing the PC.

It is, literally possible, for the clever data miner, to put together a profile of your purchases, finances, interests and movements, simply by linking internet cookies to your credit card, supermarket club card and cellphone. Big Brother then knows what political news you read, what porn you watched, where you went during the day, and what you bought to eat, and how much you owe and how much you own.
Against that background, the imperative to greater global control, to prevent global warming and eco-system collapse, never mind the plutocracy’s ambitions, and I just feel the poverty of Left imagination.

52

Watson Ladd 06.19.11 at 8:26 pm

@47: The idea of a “good” Marxist revolution against the Blanquist coup ignores the way in which Lenin and Marx learned from their revolutionary experience. Marx excoriated the Commune for being hesitant to seize the gold reserves of the Second Empire and so openly challenge state authority, the state authority already committed to shooting down in the name of order those who had earlier called for its establishment. Lenin wrote State and Revolution on the eve of 1917, as though he had nothing better to do then to imagine the state he was about to seize wither away.

On the general point I don’t think one can imagine Marxism without a revolution anymore then one can imagine capitalism without crisis. The image of a soft reformist politics successfully changing the structure of the state ignores the way in which the New Deal and Fascism were both reconstitutive of capital, creating new but essentially capitalist institutions. Post New Deal US was still capitalist, still possessed the same commodification of labor, together with the inability to become a commodity through labor for some, that the pre-crash world had. Where I think Harvey goes wrong is in imagining the New Deal world as stable and destroyed through some political force, whereas it always had the roots of its instability within it.

If by Marxism we mean the worker’s movement as constitutive of capital and as potentially overcoming it, then Marxism today is dead because there is no workers movement. But this is not because the preconditions for such a movement do not actually exist, but because the subjective awareness of capital that exists today is universally degraded. Even here we see only a tepid defense of what came before, as though the success of Wal-Mart at feeding and clothing millions now did not indicate new possibilities to be reclaimed by the worker’s movement.

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Sev 06.19.11 at 8:45 pm

“And the working class considered more generally, as people who earn their living from labour is too heterogeneous to form a self-conscious class-for-itself.”

This makes a lot of sense, as does the rest of the post, but it does leave out the other piece of the dialectic- the motion of capital/ the ruling class, which seems intent on forging just such self-consciousness among those whom they seek to exploit ever more efficiently. We’ve seen hints of this in the anti-austerity demos in Europe and in the US states, Wisconsin especially, where cherished rights are being trampled.
Frankly, it does seem to be true that a great deal of socio-economic initiative flows from the ruling classes, with the rest of us mostly responding to them. This has been true in the past and probably will continue to be.

54

Martin Bento 06.19.11 at 8:52 pm

Steven Attewell, I think you’re misunderstanding me. If I thought the New Deal depended crucially on Jim Crow, I would think those who objected to Krugman’s valorization of the New Deal because of Jim Crow would have a point. I don’t, so I don’t. To the extent Jim Crowers opposed the New Deal, of course, this further weakens Jim Crow as an objection to valorization of some aspects of the 50’s.

Russell Arben Fox, yes, I think populism is where we need to be, and I think the postwar liberal demonization of it misguided.

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shah8 06.19.11 at 9:17 pm

There’s always an idiot who think populism is the answer. Populism is about your next door neighbor, pal, for love and hate.

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StevenAttewell 06.19.11 at 9:27 pm

William Timberman at 43 -
I need some clarification for decentralization, then, because I’m fairly convinced that without economies of scale, you can’t get employers that can pay decent wages and benefits. Small businesses are some of the worst tyrants – not because they want to be, but because they don’t have a choice.

Jim Harrison -

“Does anybody really think that the emergence of the welfare state in Western Europe and the relatively peaceful end of traditional imperialism elsewhere would have taken place in the absence of a credible Red threat?”

Yes. Post 1917, Social Democrats had to work to build political power – against organized Communist parties that genuinely threatened their political position – and in some countries this worked (Scandinavia, Low Countries) and in some it didn’t (Italy, Germany) (France being sort of a mixed bag).

Watson Ladd – The Popular Front in France or Spain?

Martin Bento – I see. Consider me adding on to your statement then. Jim Crow was a bug, not a feature.

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shah8 06.19.11 at 9:39 pm

Yeah…

It’s things like “Jim Crow was a bug, not a feature” that drives me to be curt and demeaning to fools who think that it’s possible to have populism that doesn’t derive its cohesive power from the narcissism of petty differences or other fools who confuse the name of a party with “Popular XXX” with populism the movement style. Short lived, vicious and petty majoritarian politics are all populism has ever amounted to, and there are reasons for that.

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John Quiggin 06.19.11 at 9:42 pm

@K Williams. When I made myy claim as to losing ground in absolute terms I had in mind the last decade or so, during which real median household income has declined. As far as I know, none of the standard excuses applies to this period – the CPI was quality adjusted as proposed by Boskin, household size didn’t change much and the EITC was already in place.

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StevenAttewell 06.19.11 at 10:16 pm

Sha8 – and it’s that kind of historical ignorance that makes me less than concerned about your opinion towards me. Look at the history of the Greenback Party, the Farmer’s Alliance, the Grange, the Knights of Labor, and the complicated racial politics of the People’s Party – populism is a complex political phenomenon.

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William Timberman 06.19.11 at 10:23 pm

StevenAttewell @ 56

Steven, almost 50 years ago, there was this:

The Triple Revolution: Cybernation, Weaponry, Human Rights

Reading it today is an exercise in nostalgia for some of us, and in quaintness, I imagine, for those who weren’t around at the time. Still, it was an honest effort, and the fundamental issues remain pretty much what they were then. If advanced capitalism can produce enough to provide everyone with a decent living, but won’t pay but a few enough to lay their hands on a piece of it, then we have to think about divorcing human well-being from employment in whatever current version of the dark satanic mills it is that tickles our capitalists’ fancy.

There are easy ways to do this, and bloody awful ways. Convincing the custodians of the status quo that this is so, not to mention the rest of us who are mired in the system without any effective say over how it works, is step 1. What I mean by decentralization, then, has to do with how we might manage things, if we were serious about doing so. That we aren’t in fact serious about doing so now, and might not ever be, even in the face of far more serious contradictions, is not something I’d be willing to argue. It is as it manifestly is, and that, of course is where some impatient sod will let slip the dogs of politics — and if we’re as unlucky as we always seem to have been, the dogs of war.

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shah8 06.19.11 at 10:31 pm

Well, yes, I know all that. I’ve certainly read about them, and I also know how they ended up. I didn’t get my malignant attitude about people who advocate populism from knowing too little.

Perhaps you’ll like to read about a successful sorta-populist party (funny how they tend to be urban workers parties), like the Brazilian Worker’s Party that Lula came out of. Wonder if you’ll enjoy the compromises…

Or perhaps you’ll like to read about post war attempts at worker-organized capitalism, and how easily they are destroyed.

Of course, I also get this attitude because there are stupid liberals who thinks “It’s Class, Stupid” and believes thus that lefties just don’t do a great job of appealing to white workers, without really understanding what your average white worker wants out of his or her political party.

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Tony Lynch 06.20.11 at 12:52 am

Isn’t there a different possibility here? I mean that (very briefly) sketched out by James Galbraith in Chapter 10 of “The Predator State”? I certainly think predator/prey has more psychological (and analytical) grip that bourgeoise/proletariat.

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BenK 06.20.11 at 1:03 am

Shah8@57

I am an advocate for local control not because I believe that each locality will be good, but because I believe that no one system will be good for everyone. In my mind, the main thing that broke the American South was that slaves were not free to leave the broader system. The Federal Gov’t (notably the courts) ossified a system in which there was no way to get out for the oppressed.
We can’t expect that everybody will be totally free and happy everywhere. An important component of everybody’s freedom is the ability to participate in organizing the local community; and most of the time that will lead to various malignancies and dysfunctions, just like every family has some dysfunctions. Racism may be one that occurs often enough.
However, as long as there is a reasonable ability to leave a locality and pay the costs to try something else, there will communities that die and those that thrive, and in a dynamic system, communities that thrive will eventually displace, overall, those that die. The process will be dynamic, not static, and some communities will ‘go bad’ and others will die despite generally good structure. This is not a recipe for utopia.

Jim Crow was a pathology; those states were too large, Southern African Americans had relatively few options, the northern states and Mexico weren’t all that much better… but if more government had been pushed down to the county or even town level, there would have been more African American self government. It might not have been good government – or it might have, we don’t know. However, there would have been more freedom for African Americans, and mixed communities that welcomed them and made them feel at home.
Further, racists on both sides of the fence would have had some local space to themselves; perhaps it all would have seemed a little less threatening and they could have worked out their demons with less violence.

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shah8 06.20.11 at 1:23 am

Successful black-governed towns were razed, periodically. Which then leads to the question of “What Part of White Supremacy Don’t You Understand?” There were fucking coups in the cities, post Reconstruction. Black people got frozen out of baseball for almost 80 years. There were neighborhood covenants that said black people couldn’t buy there. There wasn’t really a question of black people being allowed to self-govern, you know. Most toxic localities get that way–Japan wouldn’t be japan if there were no burakumin, just like India and the untouchables, and all the other issues with minorities that are mostly about resenting, using, and abusing them for profit. People really need that sip of power-trip KoolAid. If you’re an industrious beaver, you can look up all the groups Steven Attewell mentioned, and if you can, just check out how many years that org lasted, and specifically, what caused its end. You can also check out what was a pretty strong example of grass-roots activism that *couldn’t* be race-baited into irrelevance, The Wobblies. They got fuckin’ destroyed by the Wilson government and later by the Red Scare. And I think the Wobblies were working directly off of the experience of the Knights of Labor, Grange and other rural populist parties, etc…

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StevenAttewell 06.20.11 at 4:48 am

I’m with sha8 on this one – localism means rule by local elites; central governments divide local elites against one another and at least allow for the possibility of democratic rule.

The Redemption South is a perfect example of why localism doesn’t work – because local elites can and will murder and terrorize people into submission without any other force to check them. As for the right of exit, local elites did their damnedest to make sure that didn’t happen – the Black Codes specifically tied freedmen to year-long contracts, empowered local officials to arrest anyone who didn’t have papers documenting their employment status and location of employment, vagrants could be imprisoned and their labor sold off, etc. After Reconstruction ended, they used debt peonage (and debtors’ prisons) to keep blacks tied down, unable to leave. And it was the re-introduction of state’s rights as legal doctrine that shut off any exit.

During Reconstruction, the Federal government (however imperfectly) actually upheld the rights of freedmen – the 14th amendment was the Second American Revolution because for the first time it placed the Federal government in position as the aegis of the people against those who would violate their rights. Federal troops held the polls open, guarded the courthouses, and hunted down the Klan – if there had been more of them, Redemption would never have happened.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.21.11 at 10:49 am

1. rent and real-economy capital

The OECD have made it clear that a -fictitious- -imputed- ‘indirectly measured’ item (FISIM) has to be created in national accounts to dispel the ‘paradoxical’ appearance that the finance sector rakes off a huge quantity of money without producing anything much at all.

Suppose arguendo that real-economy capital, by contrast, ‘contributes’ more than it extracts. Still, producer surplus (to avoid all the ambiguities and confusions surrounding the term ‘rent’) may (and does) accrue to it. If it gets more than is required to motivate it to ‘contribute’, that is producer surplus.

At this point we get into issues of ‘normal’ profit and the choice of baseline for ‘opportunity cost’ accounting. In effect the standard n-c position here amounts to assuming that an overdetermined return is no real return at all. Simple case: I can invest in a or b and get 8% pa either way. In either case, I forgo the alternative, so that goes down as opportunity cost, so I make only normal profit. But such sophistry aside, the producer surplus is there all right.

Rowling (like Wilt Chamberlain) is a bizarre template for the capitalist, but never mind. Both she and Jobs would still have done whatever good they did for less reward. Rowling wasn’t doing a cost-benefit calc. featuring huge rewards at vanishingly low probability; Jobs might have being doing c/b, but his actual level of reward needn’t have figured in such a calculation of the prospects, even at a very low probability.

I think there’s some resistance to the idea that earned rewards are a function of required motivation rather than actual contribution, which is rather perverse in theoretical terms but useful in ideological ones to those who get themselves into the position of controlling the capital spigot. One way this gets through is based on a vague market-ideological assumption that all ‘benefits of exchange’ must be divvied up between the two parties engaged in the exchange. Then less producer surplus just means more consumer surplus, and neither is better than the other, so stop worrying and learn to love it. But the fact is that if there are windfalls, they should go to whoever needs them most. (And windfalls being motivationally inert, Laffer curve arguments don’t come into it.)

Cohen’s position, and the reason for including conditions 2 & 3 (productivity and expoitation) is that Marxists are committed to entitlement through labour (he unwisely follows Nozick’s tendentious terminology and calls this ‘self-ownership’). I would reject that conception and (leaving aside questions of irony/immanent critique/ad hominem argument) treat this earning idea as primarily a negative one – i.e. surpluses are not earned.

Then jettison the earning-based conditions 2&3 in the definition of the potential revolutionary cadre, and focus instead on the corresponding conditions in the characterisation of the ruling class. The call to revolution is then: they rake off huge surpluses, when such surpluses are the joint property of mankind (or some parochial subset thereof, if we must), to be distributed to the needy and/or by democratic decision. One key difference is that a general strike may no longer be a viable method of bringing about revolution (if it ever was).

2. Populism & Teh Paranoid Style

Not the same as localism, which I detest on grounds of economies of scale – which btw apply to e.g. criminal justice systems (and relatedly, jury members don’t know the defendant and complainant, etc.).

pace StevenAttewell @38; Martin Bento passim, I’d describe it as (or stipulate that it is, viably) a political rather than a substantive position, and in particular isn’t a matter of nationalism or It’s essentially a rejection of the entire political class including auxiliaries in academe, the meeja etc., with the added appeal of a ‘shrill’ insistence on using impolite terms like ‘corrupt’, ‘greedy’ and ‘conspire’. Which seems fair enough to me.

BenK @21 has plutocrats classified with supervillains living in dormant volcanoes – critique of the workings of the ruling class is assimilated to stereotypically lurid conspiracy fantasy. This gambit, with a modicum of polishing, works very well and (disavowals in the abstract notwithstanding) in practice has leftists retreating to a disembodied institutional approach, as mooted by bianca on the other thread, and scrambling over each other to peck at anyone suspected of the taint of ‘conspiracy theory’.

Another aspect of right-agnotology willingly indulged and encouraged by the left: BenK’s extended bout of confabulation about using the rich as scapegoats, envious arrogant narcissists, horrific purges etc. This is an especially crude example of a dominant strand of ‘moderate’ (Washington consensus, anti-populist/elitist) opinion, most famously in recent years expressed by Hofstadter.

It has serious types limiting themselves to the blandest terms of debate, and reinforces the taboo on anything describable, however tenuously, as a ‘conspiracy theory’ by conflating it with xenophobic scapegoating, pogroms, racism, and all the rest of the apparatus of conspiracy-denial. In fact xenophobic scapegoating etc. has historically tended to be exploited, encouraged and even manufactured by the visibly powerful, and is an entirely different phenomenon from subversive claims about conspiratorial and quasi-conspiratorial behaviour by elite actors (many such claims often being rather obviously accurate, modulo vocab).

While I get where he’s coming from and largely agree on other points, I think shah8 falls into this trap when he says populism is about your next door neighbor – it definitely isn’t. It’s about Washington and Manhattan. Also, no coincidence that his narcissism of petty differences echoes BenK’s invocation of narcissism – note the close connection between that psychological defect and paranoia properly so-called.

There’s no essential philosophical, political or psychological connection between ‘populism’/subversive conspiracy theory on the one hand, and xenophobic rabble rousing/the ‘paranoid style’ on the other. The idea that there is has been a persistent and pervasive motif in quietist propaganda since Hof. in the 50s – and indeed earlier, in Popper’s pulp works.

(Consider the second wave of the Red Scare – HUAC’s paranoid stylings, inquisition, the blacklist etc, were part of a top-down repressive campaign similar to the War on Terror. McCarthy took this in a populist direction, which was at first welcomed by his party while in opposition, but which soon became a nuisance – blowback – and he was accordingly censured, and his career ended.)

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shah8 06.21.11 at 2:55 pm

The Carnot cycle applies to everything, even abstract political trends. Sustained political trends are pushed by what people can mine of themselves, their motivations, their needs, etc, etc. Also, people are imperfect thinkers/empathizers(and I think this is an aspect that some populist-theorist deliberately try to miss, sometimes) and are curious and engaged with what is their world. They also tend to think of themselves as most representative of what is human/best of being human. Seriously man, good luck if you think you can keep people from thinking that guy a street over is just like those fat cats on Wall Street! long enough for the rewards of subversive conspiracy theory agitation to accumulate to lefty bennies. There are reasons why populism is a right-wing phenomenon, or guided by the fat cats in the first place.

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Sebastian 06.21.11 at 3:03 pm

“The Redemption South is a perfect example of why localism doesn’t work – because local elites can and will murder and terrorize people into submission without any other force to check them. “

You’re aware that such murdering and terrorizing people into submission has been done on rather non-local governmental scales, right?

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Walt 06.21.11 at 3:17 pm

What a profound insight, Sebastian. Thank you for your contribution.

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Sebastian 06.21.11 at 3:29 pm

It doesn’t have to be profound to be right. Simple works too. You can’t use the idea that “elites can and will murder and terrorize people into submission without any other force to check them” as a damning point against localism when the point offers literally no distinction between localism and nearly all of the non-local governmental schemes.

Both local and non-local governments can be despotic. Both can be semi-democratic. The history on local and non-local governments are very mixed in that respect. Using the idea that local governments can be despotic as an argument for non-local governments is just silly unless you argue that non-local governments have a built in tendency to be non-despotic or less authoritarian. And that, is a rather difficult argument to make in the face of the USSR, China, and some would say the US.

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shah8 06.21.11 at 3:54 pm

That’s really what it’s at for certain people? Simplicity uber alles!

Occam’s Razor does not mean what you think it means.

Don’t make me take out my H.L. Mencken!

Damn, dude, that isn’t even wrong. No…really!

You don’t get to teabag The Internet. The Internet teabags YOU!

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StevenAttewell 06.21.11 at 4:36 pm

Sebastian – I’m sorry I wasn’t being clear; I was taking the Madisonian position in Federalist 10. A larger nation-state has too many competing groups to allow for total hegemony of the Cotton South type – not always the case, but often enough to be of some value.

Keep in mind what I was arguing against: “Decentralization is the key, it seems to me— a decentralization which is more friendly to political democracy than what we’ve been pleased to call Social Democracy up till now. ” on the one hand and “decentralization is a requirement for organic experimentation, natural evolution; the alternative to technocratic arrogance” on the other.

My argument was that decentralization is not more friendly to democracy or a requirement of any kind, but rather leads to domination by local elites. Yes, violence can happen at any level of government, but historically in the U.S, it was local and state governments that did the most violence to Social Democracy and national civil rights protections that gave it the most protection.

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Sebastian 06.21.11 at 4:46 pm

Steven, I can be on board with that to point. But the Madisonian position is for a balance of local and non-local governmental powers. That is in very stark contrast to the historical Marxist models and the socialist revolutionary models as practiced which are largely about getting to a state of extreme non-local governmental powers where the local powers are merely enforcers for the centralized government.

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Sebastian 06.21.11 at 4:49 pm

[sorry for not incorporating this into the last comment]

If you accept the Madisonian position, the question of the times is something like “where are we in the local/non-local balance?”. I’m not sure the answer is totally clear, but the trend has been toward massive centralization, so it seems plausible that some level of decentralization may be needed to restore a good balance.

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StevenAttewell 06.21.11 at 9:24 pm

Fair enough, but I’m talking about the historical American context here, not some ideal Commune. With the people who were on the ground, and the socioeconomic structures they had, and the cultural beliefs they had, would localism be a good thing and Jim Crow a “pathology”?

Or by contrast, would a more centralized government have prevented Redemption?

As regards Madison, I follow him only to a point. For me, Madison’s thesis has to be bolstered with two Corollaries: the Dixiecrat Corollary, which holds that “actually existing” localism opens up vicious repression of local minorities (which could be extended to California’s treatment of Asians, etc.) and the Populist Corollary, which holds that globalized corporate capitalism requires national power to preserve individual economic independence.

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Martin Bento 06.24.11 at 10:17 am

I’ve been debating whether to get into this, but, for the record, here are some info and thoughts on the groups Atttewell mentioned.

Greenback Party Platform

1.pro fiat currency
2.pro women’s right to vote
3.pro 8 hour day
4.anti-monopoly
5.pro power to strike
6.anti private police and militias
7.government rather than bank control of currency, i.e., anti-privatization, also anti the current Ron Paul position
8.pro graduated income tax
9.anti speculation (in land primarily)

All would basically be regarded as left or liberal (American sense) views today. All or almost all are more progressive than Democratic Party positions of the time. 1, 2, 7, and 8 in particular, far from being reactionary, are major elements of 20th century political modernity, which would have to be called accurately futuristic from a 19th century perspective.

Where they ended up: The Greenback issue lost salience after the battle for that particular fiat currency had clearly been lost. Fused with Democratic Party in many states. Some ended up in People’s Party.

The Grange

1.Railroad regulation (I.e., anti-monopoly)
2.Pro-cooperatives
3.Pro regulation of private business in public interest (grain warehouses, but also an important court precedent for the principle)
4.Pro liberalized farm credit through government intervention.
5.Pro woman’s vote
6.Pro direct election of Senators
7.pro prohibition
8.Members included FDR and Truman

8 not an issue position, though telling. 7 not a left or right position intrinsically, but not well-regarded historically. Other positions clearly on the left. 5 and 6 very important for democracy.

Where they ended up: Still extant, but much diminished. More of a charity fraternity today. Also influenced Farmer’s Alliance and Greenback Party.

Farmer’s Alliance

1.Anti-monopoly
2.Pro partial government control of “free market” in public interest, especially banking and communications
3.Silver as well as gold standard (bimetalism)
4.Pro income tax

All but 3 leftist positions, 3 debatable, though the intention was anti-deflation, today an uncontroversial position, though how much inflation is desired is controversial within narrow but significant bounds.

Where they ended up: they were cobbled together from previous groups, some of which, primarily in the South, were racist, though the Alliance also had a large Northern anti-racist contingent. They were soon broken up by pressure from the economic elites they opposed, and by the desire for some but not all groups to form an alliance with the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union, as well as the more clearly left-wing Knights of Labor. Despite some racist elements, the fact that racism was controversial within this group, and many were actively fighting it, looks pretty favorable in contrast to the Democratic Party of the day, particularly in the South where this was a major issue.

The Knights of Labor

1.Strongly pro-labor though not socialist.
2.pro 8 hour day
3.Grew directly from labor movement and sometimes functioned as labor union.
4.After some reluctance, participated in strikes and boycotts
5.Anti child and convict labor
6.Advocated for black inclusion in politics in the North, but tolerated segregation in the South.
7.Excluded some professionals, as well as liquor makers, because considered unproductive members of society.
8.Inclusive of women.
9.Supported exclusion of and violence against Chinese, resulting in riots.

6 shows that racism again was an internal conflict. 7 is debatable as a left-wing position. Rest are left positions, other than 9, of course. This is the primary example of major racist action by one of the populist groups Attewell named, and there is no excusing it. Worth mentioning, however, that the Knights of Labor were also one of the groups that founded and gave many ideas to the Wobblies. Even the Wobbly slogan is derived from the Knights, and the Wobblies were the group endorsed as a contrast to the reactionary and ineffective forces of populism.

People’s Party (19th century edition)

1.Anti-gold standard, pro fiat currency or at least bimetalism (varied somewhat, bimetalism imposed by alliance with Democrat Bryan)
2.Regulation of business
3.Farmer chapters excluded blacks because of influence of South
4.Direct election of Senators
5.graduated income tax
6.8 hour day
7.government control of railroad, telephone, and telegraph
8.Allied with Democrats outside the South, but with Republicans within it. That is to say, with the most progressive party in either case, given local conditions.
9.Supportive of power for women
10.Many of its issues, which were also issues for the other populist parties, taken up by Democrats around the turn of the century.
11.Rallied behind Bryan, a Democrat who adopted some of their issues, after great internal debate. This destroyed the party in the South where it had been allied with the Republicans. Democrats used racist attacks on the Populists after this
12.Many members ended up in the Socialist Party as supporters of Debs.
How did it end up: In the 1892 election, they tried to form an alliance between Southern blacks and poor Southern whites as an electoral base. Some Southern whites resorted to racial violence to try to prevent this. In 1896, the party supported the Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who lost narrowly. After the failed alliance with the Democrats, the party disbanded, but Tom Watson, one of its leaders, later re-established another version of it, and ran for President under its banner. Although Watson had earlier fought Southern racism, arguing that the elites used race to divide the poor, he embraced it at this time. Leftists going to the right in later life is a familiar pattern. In any case, the reconstituted Party went nowhere and soon died.

Overall, the issues that seem common to most or all of these groups were:

1.An end to the gold standard in favor of fiat currency or bimetalism.
2.Greater government control of business, particularly speculators, natural monopolies like railroads and communications, and the financial industry.
3.Greater political power and participation for women.
4.Pro 8 hour day.
5.Pro labor rights.
6.Graduated income tax.
7.Government-directed monetary policy that opposed deflation.

Racism was generally controversial within all groups, save the Knights of Labor when attacking the Chinese, and the People’s Party when reconstituted. This compares favorably to the Democrats of the day, and anyone whose special concern is prejudice should give the populist groups due credit for their feminism. On most other issues, they were far more progressive than either major party. Far from being backwards, many of the things they advocated that seemed way-out at the time are accepted as modern today, at least by liberals – in particular, fiat currencies, women’s suffrage, graduated income tax, non-deflationary monetary policy, and government regulation of the market, particularly the financial industry and natural monopolies. Some did err by backing prohibition, but so did most of the other suffragists, and no one seems to hold it against them. There was certainly racism, but, there was also opposition to racism – for the most part, racism was more strongly the domain of the Democrats, late Watson notwithstanding. Otherwise, there is little here that is petty or vicious, and it is majoritarian in a good sense, unless you oppose the woman’s vote or the direct election of Senators.

As institutions of power and relevance, they were short-lived, other than the Grange, which was not entirely political. Given that much of their platform was eventually achieved, it is not clear that they can be called “failures” on this basis. As for how they ended, they mostly flowed one into another and into other leftist groups, such as Deb’s Socialists and the Wobblies, as the situation developed. Only the People’s Party can be said to have destroyed itself with racism, and that wasn’t even the original party, which destroyed itself by allying with Democrats.

For a long time, American politics had the odd feature that the party of Big Money was also the party that abolished slavery and opposed racism. This meant the ecological niche available for the other party included racism. So a new force emerges defined primarily by opposition to Big Money, or at least the unfettered liberty of such, but also including support for women, anti-deflation, labor rights, some other things. Logically, it is playing for the ecological niche of the Democrats (and expressly so in many cases), as the other is not available by virtue of its basic mission. So there is a strong structural impetus towards racism. Even stronger than the Democrats, in fact, as the major parties in those days largely succeeded over patronage, not ideology. The populists, of course, never acquired enough power for this, so they had to appeal with pure ideology. Despite all this, the populists were usually less racist than the Democrats.

Now, things are different. The racists have found their way to the Party of Big Money, and Big Money was always the primary populist enemy. Like the Democrats, populists no longer have to make such alliances, and basically no longer can. Big Money and racism share a home in the Republican Party, and, if you oppose Big Money, you will not find many racists flocking to you because they are thoroughly indoctrinated and already spoken for. A big part of the purpose of the Republican Party is to convince people who may be motivated by racism, militarism, religion or other things that pro-Big Money sentiment is essential to whatever they favor. The Republicans are very successful at this. And the Republicans are actively playing to the racists too, especially anti-Muslim and anti-latino sentiment, the current hits, but oldies like anti-black bigotry too, especially against Obama. They give the racists no reason to abandon them.

Note also that much of the classic populist platform leans socialist by contemporary standards. How many racists do you find these days embracing such ideas? You will also notice that the Tea Party platform, covertly corporate-funded and consisting basically of Republican cliches stripped of the veneer of reasonableness, has very little in common with “populism”. Even the Paulites, with their gold standards and deregulation do not fit at all with historical populism.

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Watson Ladd 06.25.11 at 1:43 am

@StevenAttewell: The Popular Front for both Trotskists and Stalinists was shaped by the defeat of 1923 that Stalin’s rise to power was. I’m not going to say that Stalinism was entirely a nationalist project ideologically. But I am going to say that Stalinism was the self organized defeat of the Left and showed it by literally stabbing the Republicans in Spain in the back. Importantly, the vulgarization of industrial society and the elimination of revolutionary possibilities continued apiece. The Popular Front meant depoliticization, as entering into alliance with other parties ultimately entailed giving up on being a mass party. Today’s groups like the ISO that take inspiration from the Popular Front are not political because of that.

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StevenAttewell 06.25.11 at 5:52 pm

Martin Bento – good description. I’d add the “ever-normal granary”/”national subtreasury” as a critical innovation of the Grange/Alliance/People’s Party.

I see Populism as one of the most consequential ideological changes in American history – these were bred-in-the-bone Jeffersonians figuring out how to justify a central state in Jeffersonian terms. Without this, I don’t think you get an American Left that has integral links to the American political tradition. Instead, I think you would have gotten a total break and shift to Marxist socialism – even Debs never quite gave up his Jeffersonianism.

Watson Ladd – the stab in the back didn’t happen in France, nor did the Communist Party go with depoliticization. Not that I disagree with the overall point.

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