Toward a better discussion about political economy

Published online 26 December 2011.

This is a response to all of the floating discussion of “the best political system” and “the best economic system” that I have seen, most recently, in an online discussion, occurring largely before Christmas, about what to put on the banners used in the Occupy The Rose Parade entry for Occupy Los Angeles.  Someone in the group proposed “End Capitalism” on one of the banners, to which numerous others registered “concerns.”  I suggested that we could create banners that recommended what we thought should replace the capitalist system, specifically “Economics for the 99%.”

At any rate, the discussion about political economy, and specifically about putting “End Capitalism” on a Rose Parade banner, needs to attain some focus — so that’s what this diary is about.

Towards the end of a better discussion of political economy, especially in the American context, I would like to establish these three general principles:

1. Mostly you go with the system you’re in.  If you were born into a petit-bourgeois background and you own a small business, you’re probably in favor of the capitalist system.  That shouldn’t keep you from seeing that the capitalist system might not last forever.  But it should be a reminder to everyone that if the capitalist system could satisfy everyone’s needs, we’d all be rationally in favor of it.  The system certainly offers quite a few privileges to plenty of people, and the privileged are pretty happy, right?  But even if we’re not in favor of it, we’re usually obliged to “play along” with capitalism until such time as our frustrations with the system can achieve a focus.

(Parenthetically, it nonetheless continually amazes me that many of the worst-off among the 99%, people whose needs aren’t met by the system, nonetheless support capitalism and the rights of the very wealthy to profit at their expense.  I suppose this points to the absurdity of the notion of “self-interest,” with which many such individuals defend capitalism.  Should it be in my self-interest to support capitalism while clinging to the assumption that someday it might make me a millionaire?  Yeah, right, I’m going to be a millionaire, ha ha.  So that’s pretty delusional.  What’s important to academic theory about “self-interest” (typically in departments of Economics or Political Science) is that all the individual “self-interests” are seen (with an overall systems view) to come together to justify the status quo in much the manner in which they did in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, in which the Invisible Hand is said to justify the capitalist marketplace.  In real life, however, the collective self-interest is ripped off by a system produced by the collective pursuit of self-interest.  One can see this in the persistence of large-scale social problems across the world today, and in the mass-media consumerist idiocy which defines “self-interest” on our television sets.)

Generally, people conform to the systems of political economy in which they live.  You don’t get to “choose” being for or against capitalism in the same way as you would “choose” a brand of beer or soda pop or an NFL team to root for.  In fact, our equation of choice with consumer choice reinforces the status quo.  Even Kalle Lasn, the “inventor” of Occupy, plays into this way of thinking.  See for instance his “stated position on capitalism“:

A deep transformation of capitalism is something we’d like to see: a bottoms-up capitalism with a free market that gives entrepreneurs the ability to launch their business ventures.

I have to take Lasn’s position as non-serious.  How would you create a system in which everyone (or even a meaningful portion of the 99%) could be an “entrepreneur” in any serious sense?  Would anyone like to calculate, here, the resources needed for such a “deep transformation of capitalism,” both in terms of raw materials, labor, consumer base, competition for market share, earning profits on margin, long-term business survival, and so on?   How many startup businesses survive the first five years anyway?

Lasn’s position makes sense only if our choice of political economy were like a consumer choice.  Rather, because it is capitalism outside, we are obliged to choose a role within a global capitalist system, and so most of us are workers, mortgage- or rent-payers, subordinates, and so on.  In the drama that is capitalism, most of us are workers, and a privileged few are owners.  Perhaps our role is marginal: we have the peculiar fortune to live in a commune or something like that.  But generally we are “in the soup.”  On rare occasions, however, crisis forces the issue, and we have an opportunity to do something to bring another, non-capitalist world into being.  Or, also possibly, there will come a time when we will be able to insert our choices into the coming post-capitalism, as capitalism destroys itself.  The folks who invented that slogan “There Is No Alternative” thought they had the issue wrapped up for all time — but they didn’t.

2.  No system will last forever.  Generally speaking, much of what counts as “liberal” or “progressive” these days is a nostalgia for the Golden Age of Capitalism, between 1948 and 1971.  A couple of years ago this thinking was connected to the hope that Barack Obama would be the “next FDR,” or the despairing thought that he might just be the next Herbert Hoover.  In real life, Barack Obama is the next Barack Obama.  Moreover, 2009 was not a repeat of 1933, just as 2012 will be uniquely 2012.  History does not repeat itself.

I can’t help but believe that the nostalgia for the Golden Age of Capitalism is connected to the equally cloistered belief that the supposed “alternatives” to capitalism (under the banner of freedom and democracy) are socialism (under the banner of high taxes), communism (under the banner of party dictatorship), or fascism as in Mussolini’s regime.  The central idea connecting all of these popular conceptions of politics and economics is that we can chop history up into little bits and order them as if they were items on a menu.  Oh, I’d like a slice of American capitalism circa 1965 and a half-pint of Swedish “socialism” circa 1980, please.  It doesn’t really work that way, so let’s face up to the fact that it’s going to be 2012 soon.

To sum up: we can’t go back to fascism or Soviet-style “communism” because those forms of life were characteristic of an expanding capitalist system, whereas our  capitalist system, today, is in decline.  Moreover, the Golden Age capitalism of the 1950s and 1960s (never mind FDR) will not be coming back because plenty of rapid economic growth would lay all too bare the limits on resources — imagine, for instance, $10 per gallon gasoline.  We are just simply no longer at those points in the history of the world, so let’s focus upon what we can do here and now.

This goes back to my first point — that a “choice” of systems of political economy is really a non-choice.  There is one capitalist system now, it applies everywhere to varying degrees, and it has a lifespan.  The mental hurdle under discussion here, however, is that of whether capitalism is eternal (much as the ancient Romans used to think that the Roman Empire was something eternal), or if it might end at some point.

In the alternate perspective being promoted here, capitalism ends at some point, to be replaced by something else.  The fundamental problem I see with capitalism lasting forever is what thinkers have called the “metabolic rift” between (capitalist) society and nature.  Capitalist business, if taken far enough, will consume the planet, and leave behind mounds of trash.  “Green capitalism” will at best mitigate some of the aspects of this problem, while leaving its central dynamic intact.  “Green capitalism” will no doubt continue to be the favorite doctrine of rich liberals all the way up to the point at which the environmental damage done to planet Earth by the capitalist system really starts to impact them.

If you’ll remember your history of the Middle Ages and early modernity, intellectual thought about politics was guided by the idea of the Roman Empire long, LONG after the old Roman Empire collapsed in the west in the 5th century after Christ.  This was justified, at least in the case of the (9th century) Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne, through the doctrine of translatio imperii — the transfer of empire — so that a portion of Europe ruled largely by Franks (and ultimately by Germans) could call itself the “Roman Empire” in the sense of the “Holy Roman Empire” (abolished by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806) without any real connection to the Roman Empire of old.  I have no doubt that future historians will invent a doctrine of translatio capitalisti — the transfer of capitalism — to create some pseudo-revival of the capitalist system so they can point and say “look!  capitalism!” long after the system in place now has run aground.  Nonetheless I think we can do better than that.

3.  Fundamental change will not take decades.  The idea that “fundamental change will take decades” is typically a slogan voiced by reformists who want to advocate minor changes to the American political landscape, with the argument that such changes are better than the wholesale regression promised by the Republicans.  Here I am not taking issue with the minor changes, nor with the attempt to make lists of such minor changes in order to promote the agenda of the Obama administration.  Rather, what’s at issue is the idea that it is fruitless to pursue a more radical agenda because “fundamental change will take decades” to enact.  This argument is backed by the dubious assumption that the existing system is stable.  It’s not.

Each day, 85 million barrels of oil are burned and the resultant carbon dioxide effluent let loose into the atmosphere, with the transformative effect of adding 2.3 parts per million to Earth’s carbon dioxide endowment each year.  And we’re supposed to believe that there’s no fundamental change going on right here right now?  We can also examine the recent history of popular uprising to see how change is now afoot.  Let’s start with the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and the revolt against Scott Walker in Wisconsin.  Are we really supposed to believe that all this will take decades to change anything?  What about the crisis situation in Europe?  Decades?

I have to assume that the people who are flying the banner of “fundamental change will take decades” are the same people who assume that the Occupy movement is about “free speech rights.”  Why, it can’t be about enacting real social change — they’ve got no demands, they support no politicians, and so on.  Why, it’s just common sense — if you want social change, you elect politicians to do it for you.  Take a look at this cartoon, found at the bottom of a piece by Roger Ebert.  The piece by Roger Ebert I find unobjectionable; the cartoon, however… yeah, let’s elect another politician, that’ll work.  Occupy is only about free speech rights anyway, and our free speech rights are not absolute (unless we are mass media corporations controlling the airwaves).  No wonder they assume fundamental change will take decades.

Conclusion: does that help any?
Generally I find discussion about politics and economics, or political economy to be specific, to revolve around trivialities.  Should Occupy hold a sign saying “End Capitalism” in its place at the Rose Parade?  Sure.  Occupy should publicize as many opinions as it possibly can.  Let a thousand opinions bloom.  Open the debate as widely as possible, and let no opinion lie unexamined.  More discussion is better.

Eventually, though, I would like discussion about political economy to attain some focus, and not just to wander around in desultory fashion.  What will the future be like?  What can we do about it?  What are our choices?  These are questions which to me push the conversation forward.

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