What is power? pt. 4: we need a new historic bloc

Published online 4 August 2009.

This is to elaborate on a previous diary on Gramsci: as I argued there, we need a new historic bloc.  I’m updating the argument to discuss the Congressional contest for a “robust public option”; the old historic bloc appears to have partially collapsed, with the deflation of Republican popularity, yet no new historic bloc has arisen.  The attempt to create a “robust public option” may have encountered so much resistance, I argue, because it is trying to work with the old historic bloc.  We, therefore, need a new one.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

So what’s a historic bloc?

The idea of a “historic bloc” comes from the language of the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci — just to quote from the Wikipedia page, Gramsci argues that a historic bloc:

forms the basis of consent to a certain social order, which produces and re-produces the hegemony of the dominant class through a nexus of institutions, social relations and ideas.

Thus the old, existing historic bloc is based on the corporate order, which reproduces the hegemony of the dominant class through the acquiescence of other institutions to this corporate order, and through concepts such as property, money, efficiency, economic growth, finance, insurance, and “development.”  This constitutes an order which will be known to history as neoliberalism, and it is based upon the reintroduction of old, “liberal” philosophy (recycled John Locke) in new, corporatist guises.  The pre-neoliberal historic bloc granted us “jobs”; the neoliberal historic bloc makes us all into “independent contractors,” which makes us “free” but which means that the corporations which run our lives do not have to take care of us outside of the wage they pay us.

I have written elsewhere at length on neoliberalism.  Let me just say in brief that neoliberalism is a declining stage of the capitalist system, in which corporate profit is deemed to be the most important thing worth saving on the sinking economic ship, and so everything else is to be tossed overboard to keep it afloat.  The capitalist system, however, experienced its heyday in (more or less) the robust economies of the 1950s and 1960s, and thus has a long way to go before it actually goes under.

So how did it get this way?  Below is a rather abbreviated explanation.

The history of the current historic bloc: neoliberalism

1973: The US makes the rest of the world blink, obliging it to accept a surplus of US dollars which will never be based upon any precious metal or anything but faith, and thus neoliberalism is born, in which the world economy eventually becomes based upon dollar hegemony, and the economists who founded the Mont Pelerin society are granted their political heyday.

1973, September 11th: President Salvador Allende, faced with a military uprising, commits suicide and is replaced as Chile’s leader by General Augusto Pinochet, who institutes an incubator regime for neoliberal economics, headed by Milton Friedman.  The result, of course, is an enormous divide in wealth and power between Chile’s richest and its poorest individuals.  This is duscussed thoroughly in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and Kees van der Pijl’s Global Rivalries from the Cold War to Iraq.  Chile, then, was the foreshadowing of things to come, the beginning of the new world which appeared at the dawn of the 21st century.

1975: “The Crisis of Democracy” is published as a “report to the Trilateral Commission” — in it, Samuel Huntington argues that the public makes too many demands upon the democratic nations, and that elite rule needs to be re-asserted (esp. in the US) through a revolution of lowered expectations.

1980: Jimmy Carter, fortified by prior diplomacy from Zbig Brzezinski, institutes a ramp-up of military spending, and supports the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan.  This eventually morphs into the “War on Terror,” the excuse for global US hegemony which replaced the Cold War.

1981: Ronald Reagan becomes US President.  This inaugurates an era of military Keynesianism in which the US is granted a blank check through dollar hegemony and uses that blank check to fill up on advanced weapons systems and fancy fighter planes.  M. Shahid Alam calls the ensuing era of Third World history “Imperialism II,” the era of IMF/ World Bank-led corporate imperialism.  With Reagan we get the implementation of a US-centered global hegemony with the main beneficiaries being a transnational capitalist class, with the dominant discourse being one of “global competitiveness” and “total quality management,” and with the dominant environmental perspective being one of “sustainable development.”  See Leslie Sklair’s piece for further elaboration.

1988: The nomination of Michael Dukakis means that, for the first time, both major US political parties are running Presidential candidates on neoliberal platforms.  For the next twenty years, the main ambition of the Democratic Party becomes the election of a President running on a neoliberal platform, an ambition which runs from Clinton to Gore to Kerry to Obama.  The Democratic Leadership Council is said to oversee this process.

1991: The Soviet Union, prompted by G8 demands that its economy be subjected to neoliberal “austerity planning,” is abolished by Boris Yeltsin.  Its economies thereafter succumb to an economic depression of horrendous proportions.  Francis Fukuyama thereafter declares that the conversion of the world to the principles of liberal (aka capitalist) democracy will be the “end of history.”

1996: The “Welfare Bill” is signed into law by Democratic Party President Bill Clinton after its passage by a Republican Congress, seriously eroding the guarantees of the “safety net” in the US, and thus of what is left of the support system the Federal government provides to the poorest of its individuals.

1997: The Project for a New American Century is born.  Amidst the triumph of the reigning neoliberal historical bloc, a group of right-wingers create a think tank on the premise that they can be the “more aggressive than thou” vanguard of reigning hegemonic neoliberalism, called “neoconservatism.”  (Indeed, the neoconservatives date back to Reagan; but Reagan’s militarism was based on the Cold War, whereas the PNACers had to invent their excuse  with the highly dubious PR campaign which accompanied 9/11/01.)  The PNACers are to receive their wish in Dick Cheney’s “war on the world” concept when Cheney is appointed to the Vice-Presidency.

1998: The Glass-Steagall Act is largely repealed by the same cast of characters which gave us the Welfare Bill, thus allowing for the sort of unregulated financial speculation which was to bring the economy down a decade later.

1999: Bill Clinton was to use the Serbian government’s failure to accede to the “Rambouillet accords” to grant it a couple months of bombing; thus he was to champion the concept of “humanitarian warfare” for the sake of (in this case) gratuitous bombing.  George W. Bush was to expand greatly upon this device, later, in Iraq.

2002: Kees van der Pijl publishes “The Aesthetics of Empire and the Defeat of the Left,” in which the world’s political class is said to be tied to the management of neoliberal states, with the resultant effect that the “old Left” is GLOBALLY rendered politically null and void.  Thus, we are told, the entire global political class is wedded to neoliberalism.

*****

What the history of the formation of the old historic bloc reveals is a transformation of how the world is conceived, and of the integration of the so-called “Left” into this conceptual transformation.  This historic bloc is universally called “neoliberalism,” and it views each individual as an “entrepreneur of himself,” to use Michel Foucault’s phrase. Nation-states do not matter under neoliberalism — what matters is that global US military hegemony insures that all regimes will be conduits for the easy penetration of global markets by corporate capital.  Productive capital is under the thumb of financial capital, and even environmental protection must be phrased in such a way so as to ensure the hegemony of financial capital (e.g. “cap-and-trade”).

Now, certain recent events have shaken the foundations of neoliberalism, namely the “recession” and the subsequent collapse in Republican fortunes.  But does this really change the political situation?  Perhaps the Democratic Party has a few more people in political office who are willing to dissent from the neoliberal “historic” bloc, and perhaps more of them are now in office than were in office last year.  But does that mean we already have a new “historic bloc”?

I don’t think so.  Perhaps we’ve got enough of a pull on Congress to get some sort of watered-down “health insurance reform” going.  But too many of the old people are still in power, with too many of the old ideas circulating around DC.  Wish us the luck to see if any parts of our health care agenda are left standing after the lobbyists try to get to them in September.

(Meanwhile the facts of the economy’s tanking will hit the poorest of Americans the hardest, while granting record profits to Goldman Sachs and friends.)

We’ve got to be thinking about reversing thirty-five years of backward movement on a wide variety of issues.  Look, Obama, for all his decency of character, is still a neoliberal, and (in sum) his neoliberal appointees haven’t really changed much of anything about America so far.  We need to be out there with our own educational institutions, our social get-togethers, our outlets for direct action, our think-tanks.  We need to be looking to the next election, to which hindrances in Congress are going to be tossed out of office, and to how we are going to get new people elected to fill their spots.  We need something that will appeal, in radical fashion, to the hopes and dreams of the most intelligent fraction of the working class.  And that something has got to engage their everyday lives in a way that will lead, down the road, to a more democratic and ecologically sane world for all which will exist outside of the corporate order in eventual hopes of replacing it.

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