Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Harry Targ

So where shall we start our revolutionary anti-capitalist movement? Mental conceptions? The relation to nature? Daily life and reproductive practices? Social relations? Technologies and organizational forms? Labour processes? The capture of institutions and their revolutionary transformation?

…the implication of the co-evolutionary theory here proposed is that we can start anywhere and everywhere as long as we do not stay where we start from!...it becomes imperative to envision alliances between a whole range of social forces configured around the different spheres. (
David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, Oxford Press, 2010, 138)

Class Struggle in an Age of Economic Crisis

In a recent book David Harvey, Marxist geographer, summarized the economic crises of the 1970s and beyond including growing global monopolistic competition, declining profits in non-financial corporations and the uneven spread of global capitalism with new fronts in East Asia. As analyzed by Harvey these economic crises stimulated the following responses:

a)an assault on unions, outsourcing of work, speed-up based on technology, and overall “global wage repressions.”

b)deindustrialization in the capitalist core and qualitative shifts in economic activity from industry and service to financial speculation; what is referred to as financialization. New financial schemes such as collateralized debt obligations and derivatives emerged to generate new vehicles for the making of profit.

c) overcoming declines in demand by creating a growing system of global and local debt and credit.

d)“accumulation by dispossession” including sucking assets from working class people, particularly those of color, and appropriation of land in rural areas of the Global South.

Economic Impacts of the Crisis of Capitalism

Harvey’s narrative suggests that since the 1970s we have seen the transformation of the U.S. capitalist system from one based on the production of commodities for sale to one based on the provisioning of services for lower wages. Even the service economy is being superseded by an economy driven by debt and speculation, from a “real” to a “virtual” economy. Significant changes in the economic life of the United States over the last forty years include:

-growing income and wealth inequality

-substantial increases in the proportion of wealth and income accumulated by the top one percent in the society

-further consolidation of corporations and banks such that fewer and fewer corporations and banks control more and more of society’s resources

-economic shifts from investments in production to financial speculation, using opaque institutional forms such as hedge funds and derivatives

-growing indebtedness-personal, regional, and global

-the construction of a world based on billions of people living in poverty

-escalating economic processes that destroy the natural environment.

Returning to the Current Political Crisis

The long-term economic crises discussed above refer to the rapid transformations of the capitalist system: concentrations of capital creating new winners and losers, class struggle, declining rates of profit, and global economic and political competition. Political crises refer to the reallocations of power in the struggle over the shape of society. Central to the capitalist era is the struggle for power between capital and labor. Often, access to and relative control of the state is central to understanding the constellation of forces existent in any given time.

The discussion above suggests ways in which economic structures and processes have affected the distribution of power in the United States. The analysis gives some sense of the prospects and possibilities of strategies for progressive political change. Understanding the character of political crises requires both structural analyses, covering decades, and contextual analyses about strategies, tactics, personalities, and political activities, whether electoral or not. Activists and pundits have been combining the two in pre-election debate and post-election assessments. While the two kinds of analyses are inter-connected, they have their own theoretical and practical assumptions which may be very different.

For example, as to structural analyses the era of a permanent war economy, financialization, deindustrialization, and neoliberal globalization have affected politics in the following ways:

-The power of the organized working class, indeed the entire working class, has declined dramatically.
-Union strength has declined by one-third since the 1960s, particularly among traditionally higher paid industrial workers.
-For the working class today insecurity and isolation have replaced the potential of solidarity with others.
-The most virulent forms of racism have been reenergized, fueling fear and hate.
-In the age of insecurity in which we live, masses of people are as likely to blame fellow victims for their troubles as those who rule over them.
-The transfers across generations of the stories about victories achieved over capital have been forgotten.
-The momentum of parallel civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental rights activism has dissipated as well.
-New generations of activists organize around identities and single issues at the expense of organizing around bold visions of a new society.
-The old social democratic vision of a state that provides safety nets for suffering people has been defeated by corruption, incompetence, and sustained efforts by representatives of the ruling class to delegitimize government.
- While these tendencies listed above have always existed in American history, they are particularly important background features of the economic and political age of the “Reagan revolution” from 1980 to today.

Contextual analyses add to our understanding of the recent 2010 election:

-President Obama, in the face of competing pressures from neoliberal financiers and progressive populists, tended to adopt policies of the former rather than the latter which benefited Wall Street but not Main Street.
-President Obama ignored the calls from a variety of articulate spokespersons to propose and fight for an economic stimulus package, including a massive green jobs agenda, which would have stimulated some economic recovery.
-President Obama chose a political tactic of “reaching” out to the Republican opposition in the Congress despite the fact that its approach was to resist every effort at compromise.
-President Obama chose to continue war and intervention over peace.
-Sectors of the Democratic Party took the erroneous view that the American polity is “center-right” and therefore the best reforms that could be achieved (and accepted) would be tepid ones. -The Administration and Congress chose to ignore clear polling data that indicated that most Americans would support single payer health care, the Employee Free Choice Act, a green jobs agenda and other prominent proposals.
-President Obama frittered away an enormous outpouring of support for his charisma and lopsided majorities in both houses of Congress. The Congressional leadership refused to challenge the arcane rules that required 60 vote majorities to pass legislation in the Senate.
-The grassroots organization of young, working class, and minority communities was allowed to dissipate. The mass movement that elected Barack Obama was demobilized.
-And finally, progressives and socialists were unable to fashion a strategy that on the one hand would maintain critical support for Obama and on the other hand demand that he and his party deliver the progressive agenda at home and abroad that was implied if not directly promised.

These “errors” occurred in the context of a thirty year economic crisis that engendered a qualitative shift in wealth and power. Millions and millions of dollars were spent by think tanks, party leaders, and most importantly, the media to shape the consciousness of the American people. Despite the thousands of blogs, websites, and electronic media, the ideas of the ruling class about capitalism, about the threats of people of color, and about the government were transmitted 24/7 from Fox to CNN to the New York Times.

Never before have working people had greater access to greater numbers of media with so little diversity of ideas.

What Now?

In a clear-headed way, progressives and socialists need to revisit the political and economic history of our times, assessing the distribution of resources and forces for and against social change. Most Marxist narratives of the history of the last 40 or 50 years tell a common story; a story of shifting capital from manufacturing to finance, income and wealth from the bottom to the top, and the marginalizing economically and politically of all whose power is limited in capitalist societies-workers, people of color, women, and immigrants. When they have risen up angry, political institutions have been forced to respond by ameliorating the worst of people’s pain and suffering. Along the way struggle has taken a variety of forms-electoral, mass mobilizations, local/national/global, and has addressed various issues.

Harvey disaggregates the history of capitalism during its recent phases and articulates a “co-revolutionary theory” for progressives and socialists to respond to the crises of our time. The “co-revolutionary theory” recognizes that the history of capitalism has involved changes in technology, in relations between humans and nature, and in how people relate to each other in institutions, in the work place, and on the street. Also changes have occurred in cognitive and emotional ways in which people understand the world in which they live. Finally, people’s relationships to politics have changed.

Each of these constitutes a different location for struggle; over control of the workplace, against environmental destruction, against racism or attacks on immigrants for example. Activism might take an electoral form, street heat, or in social relations such as building communities of solidarity. As Harvey suggests: “An anti-capitalist political movement can start anywhere….The trick is to keep the political movement moving from one moment to another in mutually reinforcing ways.” He claims that this is how capitalism arose out of feudalism and this is how 21st century socialism can emerge out of capitalism. I would argue that what many have called “building a progressive majority” is part of the same trajectory Harvey is suggesting.

Since most progressive and socialist organizations today have limited resources, they need to identify those cites they can most influence, always recognizing the dialectical interconnections among each and that the relative salience and connections between them are ever changing. Today organizations such as the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) should concentrate on labor and jobs, the environment, and militarism and global interventionism. CCDS is particularly equipped to work with others on these projects and to use electronic and communications skills to transform what Harvey calls “mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs.”

This essay of necessity began with a grounding in the long history of capitalism and political struggle and its impacts on economic and political life, and ended with “what now?” It is not a simple road map. Rather it is a check-list of what is relevant to understanding structures and processes and contexts to advance discussion and debate. Paraphrasing Marx, people make history but not precisely in ways of their choosing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Harry Targ

Social Construction of the 2010 Election

It is fashionable but true to refer to the “social construction” of reality. What this means is that while certain things happen, and certain realities are determined by our senses to be correct, how we interpret their meanings varies based on some combination of our interests, outlook, and ideology. When talking about the elections different people may interpret the results in different ways. For political activists the social constructions we use should have some value in helping us understand and change the reality we believe to be true.

Some of the “data”

From data reported in the media between November 3rd and 10th, 2010 the new United States Senate will be comprised of 51 Democratic Senators and 2 Independents and 47 Republicans. The Republicans experienced their biggest gains in the House of Representatives winning 239 seats to 189 for the Democrats (as of November 3). The 2011 distribution of the governorships will include at least 29 Republicans and 18 Democrats. In sum, the elections brought Republican control to the House of Representatives and significant shifts in gubernatorial contests which will impact on the redistricting of House of Representative districts for the next decade.

At the state level, Republican candidates won 650 seats in legislative assemblies, taking control of 19 legislative bodies from Democrats. For example, Republicans gained both state houses in Alabama, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. They won an additional house to take control of both houses in Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Through gubernatorial and legislative victories at the state level Republicans will control the designation of 170 congressional districts while Democrats will control 70. The rest, about 200, will be determined by bipartisan bodies. Republicans won three state legislatures in the Northeast, eight in the South, nine in the Midwest, and five in the West. Looking at a USA map of red and blue states, 27 states will be red in the next period http://www.usastoday.com/news/politics/2010-11-04 .

USA Today quoted a North Carolina Republican who succinctly summarized the situation in his state. “‘The ability to reshape political boundaries gives this election a lasting impact that extends far beyond last night and today,’ says Tom Fetzer, North Carolina's Republican Party chairman.” According to USA Today one party control had not existed in that state since 1888.

What Can Exit Polls Tell Us?

Pollsters often are interested, as we are, in discovering who voted and why. For years polling organizations have done exit polling; asking people who they were, how they voted, and why. While these data are subject to all the weaknesses of polling in general, they can shed some light on questions relevant to pundits and activists. Looking at CNN Politics http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2010/results/polls/ the following findings are noteworthy:

-Males voted Republican (55 to 42%), Females Democratic (49 to 48%)
-60% of whites voted Republican, which was 78% of turnout
-90% of African-Americans voted Democratic, 10% of turnout
-65% of Latinos voted Democratic, 8% of turnout
-56% of Asian-Americans voted Democratic, 2% of turnout

By gender and race, 35% of white men voted Democratic; 40% of white women; 85% of Black men; 93% of Black women; 61% of Latino men; 69% of Latinas

By age, 56% of the 18-29 cohort voted for Democrats (11% of voters);47% of 30-44 year olds (22% of voters); 46% of 45-64 (44% of voters); and over 65 years old 40% voted Democratic (23% of voters).

By income those making under $30,000 and between $30,000 and $50,000 voted Democratic by 57 and 51 %. Those earning more that $50,000 (making up 66% of voters) were more likely to vote for Republicans. Only 35% of those earning more than $200,000 voted Democratic.

As to education and voter preference, only those with no high school degrees (60%) and post graduate degrees (52%) voted more for Democrats.

Finally I include the breakdown of voting by ideology: 90% of liberals voted Democrat and 14% of conservatives but 56% of moderates voted Democrat.

What to Make of All This?

1) I don’t know. Media pundits of course have been making up many different narratives to explain the voting outcome. Some began constructing the Republican wave scenario many months ago. But in the end, the outcome is unclear.

2) While the exit polls cited here say little about issues that mattered, it seems clear that the economy is the number one issue shaping voter decisions. Pollsters have long argued that economic issues trump virtually everything else when issues matter.

3) Exit poll data confirms once again that race, class, and gender remain the big determinants of voting choices. What Tim Wise recently suggested about race applies very well. Tea Party activists have proclaimed they want “to take back their country.” That clearly is about race.

4) As some have suggested, aside from some progressive leaders such as Russ Feingold and Alan Grayson, the Democrats most likely to have lost were the “blue dog” Democrats who in fact had won in 2008 in traditionally mixed or Republican districts. Progressive Democrats tended to do better in the House races.

5) The biggest disaster for progressives may turn out to be the state races. Republican and Tea Party victories at the governors’ and legislative levels will lead to damaging Congressional redistricting and a host of reactionary policies that the right wing has been eager to reestablish.

In Indiana what probably will be on the agenda in a state legislature that has gone Republican (with a Republican governor) along with redistricting will be Right to Work legislation, new laws limiting the rights of public employees to be in unions, new laws allowing school districts to fire teachers (without their pensions) when their students do not perform to test standards, caps on taxes, a draconian anti-immigration law, and perhaps even a state so-called “student bill of rights” which will allow legislators to interfere with what is taught at public universities.

6)However, looking at the electoral system longitudinally, say from 1980, may suggest that not as much has changed as the apocalyptic among us might believe. We need to look at election results, both presidential and off-year to see the extent to which trends and magnitudes differ or not from the results of 2010. My suspicion at this point is that the changes at the level of the federal government have not been that different over the years and the state results in 2010 constitute a return to state political life before 2008.

If there is some truth and usefulness to my social construction, what does it mean for building the progressive majority? Well, it means we need to continue to do what we have been doing only do more of it and do it better. We need to continue an “inside/outside” strategy that targets critical legislation, giving support to the handful of progressives who survive, and perhaps most centrally to mobilize to stop the brutal shifts in policy planned by Republicans (with Democratic complicity) in state houses across America, as well as at the national level.

Perhaps with the election over, we can brainstorm about how to best increase the militancy of our outside strategy. We need to support alternative institutions: coops, alternative print and electronic media, and build third parties where possible. We need to get out in the street more: not so much national mobilizations but regional and local ones. We need to concentrate our messages such as “education not war,” “health care not warfare,” or “build a Green jobs program.” And we should figure out ways to link up more effectively with our brothers and sisters around the world. After all, the right wing shift in political life is not unique to the United States.

Finally, perhaps now is a good time to raise our voices about “21st Century Socialism.” If they can call President Obama and Nancy Pelosi Socialists, we need to articulate what real Socialism is about.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Harry Targ

Well, the thing is, we’re all interconnected. There are no rich. There are no middle class. There are no poor. We all are interconnected in the economy. You remember a few years ago, when they tried to tax the yachts, that didn’t work. You know who lost their jobs? The people making the boats, the guys making 50,000 and 60,000 dollars a year lost their jobs. We all either work for rich people or we sell stuff to rich people. So just punishing rich people is as bad for the economy as punishing anyone. Let’s not punish anyone. Let’s keep taxes low and let’s cut spending.” (Senator-elect Rand Paul from Kentucky in an election night interview with Wolf Blitzer, CNN)

On Ideology and Consciousness

In an essay, called “The German Ideology” Karl Marx argued that the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas. While the relationship between ideology, dominant societal values, and ruling classes is more complicated today than Marx observed in the 1840s, the basic point is well taken. The relative legitimacy of ideas is related to the power in society of economic and political elites. If people could hear or read different ideas they would be in a better position to choose which ones best fit their interests.

Six media complexes control more than half of the communications about the world that Americans receive via television, radio, music, movies, and the internet. Today, the “battle of ideas” is fought out between those multinational corporations that speak for the “far rightwing” in American political life (probably most supported by domestic capital, real estate, insurance and energy companies) and those that represent global finance capital. Media corporations present news and opinions reflecting modest, not fundamental, differences about policies, programs, and institutions. Basically they all represent the interests of the largest sectors of capitalist institutions in the international political economy. For the most part, mainstream media ignore the peace movement, trade union activism, anti-racist struggles, the environmental movement and the global connections among all these movements. When working people appear on local television screens, they are usually presented as victims, as the powerless, not the empowered.

In this context building a progressive majority requires multi-level struggles over the communication of diverse ideas about how political and economic structures and processes work and what alternatives there are to them. As difficult as it might be, the coming period requires an escalation of the battle of ideas, a battle for the consciousness of the vast majority of the people.

Commanding Heights: The Battle of Ideas

A few years ago, PBS aired a six-hour series on the importance of the new age of “globalization.” They framed their portrait of late twentieth century economic and political history around the key “battle of ideas” that shaped the century. Reduced to its most vital core, the broadcast claimed that the greatest debate of the twentieth century was that between free marketer Frederick Hayek and mixed economy capitalist theorist John Maynard Keynes.

In intricate detail, the video pointed out how Keynes captured the consciousness of ruling elites and masses during the Great Depression of the 1930s and influenced the post-war global economic order framed by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and programs such as the Marshall Plan. In addition, British Labor Party policies after the war were highlighted as examples of the Keynesian approach (which alas the video suggests was proven to be erroneous by the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s). It is interesting to note that revolutionary socialism from the Bolshevik Revolution, to China, to Cuba, to the rise of dependency theories about the global economy were all subsumed under the mantel of Keynesianism.

The polar opposite to the Keynesian model of society, was reflected in the personage of Frederick Hayek, obscure Viennese economist who worked, almost by stealth, to build a core of supporters to retake intellectual power when the mixed economy approach of Keynes would falter. Hayek built a network of economic gurus from the University of Chicago, the world of fiction (such as Ayn Rand), and the rightwing of the Tory Party in Britain and the Republican Party in the United States. Their fundamental theoretical proposition was that markets were good for people and government was bad. The video pointed out that this ideology, known around the world as “neoliberalism,” became dominant in these two countries in the 1970s, in international financial institutions, and among marginalized elites, mostly military dictators, from the Global South. The collapse of most Socialist states in the late 1980s confirmed, the documentary claimed, what the followers of Hayek had been arguing since the 1920s.

Neoliberalism Doesn’t Make Sense

Central to the approach of descendents of Hayek is that markets, when “free,” can provide for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Markets stimulate productivity, growth, equality, and the maximum development of each and every individual who takes advantage of the opportunities that free enterprise offers the citizenry. When pain and suffering prevail, the theory proposes, the heavy hand of government lurks in the background. Government for these analysts is the problem not the solution. Finally, these theorists claim, history has validated Hayek.

The problem with the free market approach is that it is dead wrong, theoretically, historically, and empirically. There is no question that sectors of the world have experienced enormous growth, technological advancements, and miraculous feats such as space travel but they have all come on the backs of millions upon millions of people who have lived lives of pain, hunger, despair, and brutal dehumanization. Tiny percentages of the world’s elites have thrived on the backs of over 90 percent of the world’s people ever since capitalism emerged from the vestiges of feudalism.

Furthermore, the economic growth and development in the era of capitalism have been intimately connected with the rise of state power, not in the service of humankind, but in the service of economic ruling classes. Navies, armies, munitions all came from state resources. The evil slave trade, the backbone of modern capitalism, could not have been created and sustained without state power. In the Western Hemisphere, it was government armies, serving the interests of emerging capitalist elites, who committed genocide against peoples from the North Pole to the South Pole.

On a more positive note, as a result of mobilizations in support of mass demands, governments have provided some health care, public education, libraries, roads, and research and development that have improved the lives of some of humankind. There never was a time since the rise of capitalism that state power was not central to whatever human development has occurred.

Finally, capitalism is a system based on the maximization of profit, more and more capital accumulation, and increasing power, spatial control, and the control of the minds and actions of all humankind. It is in the very logic of the economic system that this must occur. However, governments from time to time have mitigated the unbridled growth of power and control of capital when the traditionally disenfranchised and exploited have demanded reforms or revolution.

If we return to the “battle of ideas” as portrayed in the documentary “Commanding Heights,” the claim was made that in the twentieth century the followers of John Maynard Keynes successfully challenged the free marketers’ philosophy. Keynes recognized that capitalism created disruptions both in terms of growth and the well-being of workers. He argued that some governmental intervention was needed to override short-term economic crises. This perspective gained influence when coupled with mass demands for change from workers. Governments that adopted mixed economies, such as reflected in the New Deal policies of the Roosevelt administration, were designed to mollify militants. The Keynesian “revolution” was designed to “save” the capitalist system from those who demanded a new system.

What Does All This Mean for Building a Progressive Majority in 2010 and Beyond

We have to find a way to engage more effectively in “the battle of ideas.” First, we need to communicate the basic proposition that the free marketers’ ideas do not make sense. They are not logical. If these ideas were ever relevant it was in tiny villages and rural communities before the capitalist revolution. In fact, the less the government has been involved in serving the interests of working people, the more it was involved in promoting exploitation, war, environmental devastation, and all the problems 400 years of capitalism have left us with today.

Second, some government policies within the capitalist system can help people today. We need to allocate much more government money to create jobs-public and private-to build a new green economy. People employed by the state are workers just as are those who work for the private sector. Those who argue that government now has to cut back on expenditures and give more tax breaks to the rich are narrowly self-interested or ill-informed.

Third, we also need to make it clear that while governments representing the interests of working people provide the only alternative to the unbridled accumulation of power by the economic ruling classes at this time, we will have to create a new system in the long run where there are no economic ruling classes. But for now the first educational and activist priority is convincing the people that the policies advocated by Republicans, most Democrats, and Tea Party spokespersons do not make sense. Saying “YOUR IDEAS DON’T MAKE SENSE” to Rand Paul’s claims referred to above is a place to start.