Roughly two months ago, I wrote about how from reading between this lines of media reports that unseen pressures were at a much higher level than usual:
The feeling I have is that of generalized tension, the social/political equivalent of the sort of disturbance that animals detect in advance of earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, of pressure building up along major fault lines. The other way to articulate this vibe is that it is as if events are being influenced by a large unseen gravitational or magnetic force, as if a black hole had moved into the ‘hood. We can’t see the hidden superdense object, but we can infer that it’s distorting the space around it.
Now if you just want to go with the “maybe this is just your neurosis” view, we are in the midst of a counterrevolution, and it’s not exactly cheery to be watching its progress on a daily basis.
This week has had an outbreak of events that could be read as concrete manifestations, including the revelation that the US has listened in on 35 head of state, which is producing a diplomatic uproar (Merkel and Hollande are demanding personal explanations from Obama) and former NSA director Michael Hayden giving “on background” interviews critical of the Administration on the Acela, which were then live-tweeted. But for my money, one of the most telling manifestation was a BBC interview of comedian Russell Brand discussing revolution going viral. That was the result of another remarkable development, that Brand was invited to guest edit the New Statesman. Mind you, Brand has written top-notch political commentary. But the New Statesman having him edit an entire edition devoted to the topic of revolution (see his essay) is a double-dip into what Daniel Hallin called the sphere of deviance.
They may have had the unfortunate side effect of overshadowing some very important pieces by Ian Welsh on developing a new ideology. I wanted to flag one of the important issues he discusses in the his first one, since the number of comments on it in the Links section where I included it led me to believe most readers skipped past it.
One issue I’ve long been bothered by is the libertarian fixation on the state as the source of coercive power. The strong form version is that the state is the only party with coercive power (and please don’t try denying that a lot of libertarians say that; there are plenty of examples in comments in past posts). Libertarians widely, if not universally, depict markets and commerce as less or even non-coercive.
What is remarkable is how we’ve blinded ourselves to the coercive element of our own system. From Robert Heilbroner in Behind the Veil of Economics:
This negative form of power contrasts sharply with with that of the privileged elites in precapitalist social formations. In these imperial kingdoms or feudal holdings, disciplinary power is exercised by the direct use or display of coercive power. The social power of capital is of a different kind….The capitalist may deny others access to his resources, but he may not force them to work with him. Clearly, such power requires circumstances that make the withholding of access of critical consequence. These circumstances can only arise if the general populace is unable to secure a living unless it can gain access to privately owned resources or wealth…
The organization of production is generally regarded as a wholly “economic” activity, ignoring the political function served by the wage-labor relationships in lieu of baliffs and senechals. In a like fashion, the discharge of political authority is regarded as essentially separable from the operation of the economic realm, ignoring the provision of the legal, military, and material contributions without which the private sphere could not function properly or even exist. In this way, the presence of the two realms, each responsible for part of the activities necessary for the maintenance of the social formation, not only gives capitalism a structure entirely different from that of any precapitalist society, but also establishes the basis for a problem that uniquely preoccupies capitalism, namely, the appropriate role of the state vis-a-vis the sphere of production and distribution.
What struck me about Heilbroner’s discussion, as if he was tip-toeing around the issue, and it was not clear whether because he could not formulate a crisp description of the power relationships, or that it was clear to him but he really didn’t want to come out and say what he saw.
Ian Welsh ventures where Heilbroner hesitated to go:
The fundamental idea of our current regime is one that most people have forgotten, because it is associated with Marx, and one must not talk about even the things Marx got right, because the USSR went bad. It is that we are wage laborers. We work for other people, we don’t control the means of production. Absent a job, we live in poverty. Sure, there are some exceptions, but they are exceptions. We are impelled, as it were, by Marx’s whip of hunger. It took a lot of work to set up this system, as Polyani notes in his book “the Great Transformation”, but now that it has happened, it is invisible to us.
We have to sell our labor (or be supported by someone who does that) as a condition of survival. Now that may not seem peculiar since that has been the state of affairs in most advanced economies for generations. The seeming exceptions, like farmers and even fishermen, are now little capitalists; they own equipment and sell their goods to wholesalers of various sorts. This order was imposed after the feudal era. As Yasha Levine explained, citing Michael Perelmen’s The Invention of Capitalism:
Faced with a peasantry that didn’t feel like playing the role of slave, philosophers, economists, politicians, moralists and leading business figures began advocating for government action. Over time, they enacted a series of laws and measures designed to push peasants out of the old and into the new by destroying their traditional means of self-support.
“The brutal acts associated with the process of stripping the majority of the people of the means of producing for themselves might seem far removed from the laissez-faire reputation of classical political economy,” writes Perelman. “In reality, the dispossession of the majority of small-scale producers and the construction of laissez-faire are closely connected, so much so that Marx, or at least his translators, labeled this expropriation of the masses as ‘‘primitive accumulation.’’
Perelman outlines the many different policies through which peasants were forced off the land—from the enactment of so-called Game Laws that prohibited peasants from hunting, to the destruction of the peasant productivity by fencing the commons into smaller lots—but by far the most interesting parts of the book are where you get to read Adam Smith’s proto-capitalist colleagues complaining and whining about how peasants are too independent and comfortable to be properly exploited, and trying to figure out how to force them to accept a life of wage slavery.
And this might put the “failure of capitalism” theme in context. If you have a system that requires that people sell their labor as a condition of survival, yet fails to provide enough opportunities to sell labor to go around, you have conditions for revolt. Hungry, desperate people having nothing to lose. That, and not charity, is the root of the welfare state, to provide a buffer for when the capitalist system chokes up and presumably on a short-term basis, fails to provide enough jobs (that and to provide for people who are infirm, handicapped, or otherwise cannot work, which communities in England did in the early modern era).
So you can see the obvious tension: the capitalist classes in America, to increase their riches further, have been squeezing workers harder by not hiring as they did in the past. We’ve never had a “recovery” in the post-WWII era with so little of GDP growth going to labor (meaning both hiring and wage increases). In the past, the average was over 60% and the lowest was 55%. I haven’t seen a recent update, but the last figures I saw was that the level for this “recovery” was under 30%. Yet simultaneously, theres’s a full-bore effort on to gut the remaining safety nets. If this isn’t a prescription for social and political instability, I don’t know what is.
And Welsh gives some clues in a must-read new post as to why we are in a mess:
Basically, being a hunter-gatherer is about as good as it gets for most of human existence. There are some better agricultural societies to live in for brief periods (certain periods of Roman history, say) but they are rare. Industrial society produces better medicine and goods, but we work harder and have vastly more chronic disease even at the same age, and industrial society includes as its concommitent things like the widespread rape in the Congo and African poverty: that’s a requirement of our society, is not incidental.
But hunter-gatherers lose confrontations with pastoralists and agricultural societies. It’s a great way to live, but more dense societies were better at violence, so hunter-gatherers were forced to the margins….
If you want a society, then, which is prosperous and egalitarian, with the proceeds of increased production going to everyone and not just a few, you must have an internal structure of power which gives ordinary people quite a bit, makes concentration of power in private hands difficult, makes the government unable to use too much power against its own citizenry while (and this is the important bit) still being able to defend itself externally, and able to resist internal putsches. Egalitarian societies which cannot defend themselves get overwhelmed by hierarchical societies which are better at violence.
This extends to monetary matters. If outsiders with money can buy up your society and upset your internal political and productive relationships because they are more efficient, or just bigger, or have their capital more concentrated: if you will let them buy you up because some part of your society wants to cash out, then whatever internal relationships you have are vulnerable. This has happened to vast swathes of the third world, where Westerners come in and buy out traditional relationships. NAFTA pushed millions of Mexicans off their farms, made Mexico weaker because those people now needed to pay for food (often foreign, and also less nutritious) and made Mexico, objectively, worse off than before NAFTA. But some Mexicans got very rich by selling out…
We think of irrationality as bad, but rational decision making leads to be betrayal. If someone’s going to offer me more than I can otherwise earn to betray the rest of my people, a lot of folks are going to take that deal unless they have the irrational belief that it’s wrong, and a rational belief that if they do it, those who have an irrational belief in the system will hurt them, or even kill them.
This is ideology. Any ideological system that doesn’t produce people willing to die and kill for it, will lose to an ideology that does. The question is not whether violence is permitted, the question is when it is permitted. Most of us want to live in a peaceful society, I certainly do. But that peace is always and everywhere undergirded by rules about when to commit violence, a willingness to do so and an ability do it well. Societies and ideologies that do not do violence well exist at the sufferance of those who do, and live under the conditions and in the places that those good at violence permit. Generally very bad conditions.
This is a very nasty conundrum at the root of power that few like to discuss so directly. It should not be surprising that there are no easy answers, and even enlightened compromises are difficult to keep in balance over time.