On Anti-Corporatism And Its Critique

Published online 28 December 2009.

This is a response to a number of recent statements in the blogosphere about “anti-corporatism,” the belief that what’s wrong with American politics is its domination by corporate power.  Here I argue that the divide between “Left” and “Right” is quite real — but on a wide variety of issues no traction will be gained unless we oppose neoliberalism, the political economy of choice for the corporate order.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

Jeffrey Feldman‘s quote of Glenn Greenwald defines the parameters of debate well:

Whether you call it “a government takeover of the private sector” or a “private sector takeover of government,” it’s the same thing:  a merger of government power and corporate interests which benefits both of the merged entities (the party in power and the corporations) at everyone else’s expense.  Growing anger over that is rooted far more in an insider/outsider dichotomy over who controls Washington than it is in the standard conservative/liberal ideological splits from the 1990s.

The “anti-corporatist” suggestion, then, is that the conservative/liberal political divide is in some sense obsolete, and that we ought to think in terms of a corporate/ anti-corporate divide.

However, thereisnospoon, writing yesterday, thinks he has a “way out.”  He argues:

As Feldman makes clear, the Right envisions a society in which no government can encompass a corporation, while the Left desires a society in which no Corporation can encompass or purchase a government.

But this doesn’t really do justice to either position.  The “Left” in this country takes a number of positions on a number of issues.  Keeping corporations out of government is not necessarily its highest, or even a very high, priority for the “Left,” although it certainly can be a priority.  Protecting the environment, protecting the consumer, educating children, feeding the hungry, securing peace, raising wages: those are “Left” priorities.

The “Right,” moreover, does not necessarily approve of corporate control of government either, as part of its general complaint against “big government.”  thereisnospoon’s main thesis is:

There is a Left.  There is a Right.  There is a battle royale, and it is not illusory.

But the truth of this statement depends to an important extent upon one’s perspective.  For most of us, the “Left” and the “Right” are real: the “Left” stands for freedom through personal self-discovery, prosperity through public activism amidst the benefits of social democracy, environmental protection, respect for difference, peace on Earth.  The “Right” comes at this with a tribal set of prohibitions upon “out-of-place” behavior, insistence upon “strong defense” internationally and “small government” domestically, and a trust that “laissez-faire capitalism” will settle relations between people and between people and nature.  Jeffrey Feldman expresses the popular perspective on the “Left”-“Right” divide in this fashion:

In the left pushes for a system where private business entities are kept separate from the state, whereas the right pushes for a system where private business interests are left unfettered by government.

But, remember, this is only one perspective upon the “Left”-“Right” divide: here I will call it the popular perspective because it is the perspective of “the people.”

The political classes do not share that perspective.  For the political classes, “Left” and “Right” are two different public-relations stances, meant to placate voters of different political ideologies while keeping in power adherents to the ideological formation typically called the “Washington Consensus,” aka neoliberalism.  Neoliberalism is sold to the “Right” as “neoconservatism” and dolled up in the foreign-policy stances of the Project for a New American Century; Neoliberalism is sold to the “Left” through what I have here called “progressive ideology“: a study of the 2004 campaign of John Kerry would reveal a more exact contour for this particular strategy.  Neoliberal “leftists” are portrayed in the media as “fiscal conservatives and social liberals” with resumes which reveal an attachment to liberal causes.  Again the example of John Kerry: he has cred as an antiwar activist during Vietnam, and his wife is a prominent philanthropist.

Feldman’s characterization of corporatism as an important issue

One of Feldman’s presumptions about Glenn Greenwald’s argument is that the “Left”-“Right” distinction is (for Greenwald) a form of false consciousness, and that Greenwald’s argument makes implicit claims, including this one which he argues:

Implicit Claim 2: The Only People With Consciousness are those who See the Battle Against “Corporatism” as the True Political Landscape
According to Greenwald’s logic, those who no longer see the political landscape in terms of left vs. right, but not see it in terms of insider vs. outsider–they are the only people who are truly awake or conscious, meaning: they see reality for what it is, not for what the corporations and the ruling party want them to see.

“Left” and “Right” characterize real ideological differences.  These differences, however, are not expressed in the same way when they become differences in Federal-level policymaking: “Left” and “Right” become “Left” neoliberalism and “Right” neoliberalism.  The “Right” neoliberal Presidency, for instance, gave us Reagan and the two Bushes, the “Left” neoliberal Presidency gave us part of Carter, Clinton, and Obama (so far).  The former was worse in some ways, but this doesn’t take away from the unsavory content of the latter.  Meanwhile you have disturbing continuities between the two neoliberalisms, like the continuation of hemp prohibition, the pursuit of “deregulation” in the service of corporate profits, the depreciation of wages under the aegis of “free trade,” the continued exercise of the global US warfare state, and so on.

*****

Neoliberalism as an issue

Neoliberalism itself requires examination.  Eugene’s diary of yesterday glances upon it: I think we should go deeper.  I believe that most of what have been seeing in politics for the past thirty years is a playing-out of the dynamic established during the 1970s, when a vast surplus of capital (i.e. corporate power) creates a dynamic in which government progressively throws all of its traditional functions overboard in order to protect the profits on capital (or “the corporations”).  This was explained quite well in Harry Shutt’s 1998 book The Trouble With Capitalism.  Most importantly, Harry Shutt (yeah, see the link) explains why neoliberalism is the political economy of choice for the corporate order: corporations like the “free market” rhetoric because it allows them to keep wages down while enabling them to penetrate foreign markets.  The purpose of neoliberalism, then, needs to be kept in mind: neoliberalism is a facade for corporate ownership of government.  (David Harvey calls it “accumulation through dispossession.”)

Shutt’s critique of neoliberalism becomes painfully terse on p. 87 of his masterwork, where he says:

…the weight of official opinion is stll clearly convinced that the primary duty of government in the global economy is to prop up corporate profits at all costs despite the demonstrable reality of a surplus supply of capital.  (87)

Thus the capitalist system in this era becomes self-devouring.  William K. Tabb expresses how this dynamic works in a paper prominently quoted in the Monthly Review:

In an article on “The Centrality of Finance,” in the August 2007 issue of the Journal of World-System Research, MR and MR Press author William K. Tabb writes:

Real global growth averaged 4.9 percent a year during the Golden Age of national Keynesianism (1950–1973). It was 3.4 percent between 1974 and 1979; 3.3 percent in the 1980s; and only 2.3 percent in the 1990s, the decade with the slowest growth since World War II.  The slowing of the real economy led investors to seek higher returns in financial speculation….[I]increased liquidity and lower costs of borrowing encouraged in turn further expansion of finance. The coincident trends of growing inequality and insecurity…and the spreading power of rapid financialization do not suggest a smooth continued expansion path for a society based on increased debt and growing leverage.

Thus as aggregate profit levels decline, on average, from decade to decade, corporations tend to invest more and more in 1) financial Ponzi schemes and 2) increasing dependency upon government largesse, which is what the anti-corporatists call “corporatism.”  That, then, should explain to you why we’re talking about “corporatism” right now.

Whither anti-corporatism?

The big question here is one of whether or not anti-corporatism is worth our time.  Eugene certainly thinks it is.  He argues:

If you want to defeat the right, we must defeat corporatism.

But what does “defeating corporatism” mean?  Eugene thinks it starts with a rejection of “1990s politics.”  Here he defines:

What I mean by “1990s politics” is the notion that progressives must abandon their own beliefs, desires, wants and needs, and sign on to a neoliberal, pro-corporate agenda that is inimical to them out of a deliberately misstated assessment of “political reality.”

So Eugene is correct and this is the point.  Progressives must reject neoliberalism if they wish to make the “Left”-“Right” opposition politically relevant for a range of issues.  And neoliberalism, then, is the system of political economy that the corporate order that the corporate order chooses.  Want action on health care?  I’m sure that CIGNA, Blue Cross and others can offer you a list of options, all of them expensive, but if you don’t want what’s on the list, you’ll have to fight the corporate order.  Want to end war?  Sorry, militarism makes a profit, so if you don’t like it you’ll have to fight the corporate order.  And so on.

There is an urgently needed political conversation, here and in the blogosphere in general, about what sort of system of political economy is to succeed neoliberalism.  It’s not going to stay this way forever — the corporations can only go so far in ripping off the planet and its people.  Eventually the political classes will get rid of neoliberalism, and replace it with some form of mercantilist practice, so that it can protect its corporate order while everything around it crumbles.

Many people would like to see a return to the populist Keynesianism of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s.  Others do not think the situation is right, because the environment is “maxed out” on human intervention.  Minqi Li:

After centuries of global capitalist accumulation, the global environment is on the verge of collapse and there is no more ecological space for another major expansion of global capitalism.

Like I said, this is a conversation which urgently needs to happen.  But it’s never going to happen if, in Eugene’s words, we keep playing the game of 1990s politics — if we keep supporting the neoliberal policy package, through acquiescence if not actively.  I still have no idea what it means to “defeat corporatism” — but I do know that good things will happen if I oppose the corporate order.

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