Why it really is about capitalism: updated

Published online 27 September 2011.

What will the pivotal issue of the 21st century be?  Where will the fulcrum of controversy for tomorrow’s political life rest?

What are the options?  Global warming?  Well, possibly, but positioning “global warming” as a pivotal issue presupposes that we have a solution, and we don’t.  Peak oil?  Who’s going to do anything about it?  Bailouts to banksters?  Who’s going to stop them?  Education?  Is anyone really for it, or do we just want to promote its stereotype some more?

No, the one pivotal issue of the 21st century will be capitalism.  The reason for this is simple: everything as regards the other issues will get worse until we confront capitalism, which (in its current stage) is the dysfunction at the heart of the crisis of society.

An analysis of the overall scene, one carefully overlooked by those engaged in the rush to promote candidates and campaigns and “more and better Democrats,” reveals some frightening truths.  Money today buys policy:

Uniquely among legislatures in the developed world, US congressional parties now post prices for key slots in the lawmaking process.

Tom Ferguson, the subject of this interview, is of course correct, but tunnel-visioned.  Here is what Dylan Ratigan says about him:

He says the media needs to do a better job covering money in politics.  ”When you have a kind of political language here that’s utterly contrived and utterly devoid of reality, but that’s the stuff in which people have to try to think through their theories of politics.  And the biggest failure in the American media right now is the inability to lead money in politics together into a narrative that makes sense or has any contact with reality,” explains Ferguson.

Now you’d think that a guy who recognizes that policy is a commodity would also recognize that the mass media are commodities too, and that if five or six corporations control almost all of the mass media, then you’re going to get what money tells you you can have.  Ferguson needs to take the next step, clearly.  Someone should send him a copy of Karl Marx’s early classic analysis of the role of money under capitalism, The Power of Money, especially the part where it says with great Shakespearean vigor:

The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has [In the manuscript: ‘is’. – Ed.] power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities?

Please add that to your repertoire, Professor.


Given all this, you’d think more people would be outraged at the ability of money to turn the political world upside down, and give us the Super Congress, or maybe a default in Greece or something like that.  If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention, or so say the bumper stickers.  But what would the point be of such outrage?  “Capitalism is totally kewl, but don’t commodify our politics”?  Would that be the point?  Or maybe “Let’s go back to electing more and better Democrats, while voicing token outrage over Citizens United“?  Under capitalism everything is a commodity, so none of those positions are really tenable.  What’s tenable is that we accept the reality of universal commodification, as materially real as the nose on your face, and from there we have two options: 1) join the system and make as much money as we can in order to gain power over the system, or 2) look for hidey-holes somewhere in the world in which to survive the ongoing commodification of the world.  Perhaps a third alternative will open up in the future; that is what I am hoping for here.

I suppose the other alternative in the field of controversy for the political wonks, a popular one now at Firedoglake, is to blame Obama for the whole state of affairs, from a provincially American perspective.  (It is perhaps a contradiction in terms to say “provincially American,” for how can one really be “provincial” about a nation-state with military operations in 120 other countries?  But you get the idea.)  The “blame Obama” trend can’t really be attributed to “white racism,” because Obama’s popularity is slipping across all demographic categories.  The trend, moreover, can be correlated with Obama policy decisions.  It is around Obama’s policies, then, that a major fulcrum of controversy exists today.

But I don’t really think that the blamers of Obama are seeing Obama’s situation (and ours) from his perspective.  If they were to do so, I argue, the fulcrum of controversy would shift significantly.  Obama’s assigned (and self-assigned) task is to save the capitalist system; his existential mentor in this regard is Ronald Reagan.  One can only refute such a position by knowing how it is that capitalism is beyond saving — to nitpick about Barack Obama’s modus operandi is to embrace a fatal ignorance of the realities of power within the system.  Moreover, one can only get a clearer picture of this “how” by looking carefully at the system as a whole, and at where it is headed.  Doing this was the purpose of my previous, little-read diary.

Now, to be honest, the capitalist system has been a robust, dynamic system.  Kees van der Pijl charts the rise of the first capitalist state: the UK after the Glorious Revolution, in 1688.  Capitalism has so far been able to use technological and social-systems innovation to expand its way out of all previous crises.  The problem, as Jason W. Moore points out, is that there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of saviors for the capitalist system as it heads through the current crisis.  Things are just going to get less and less rational under capitalism, and re-electing Obama and electing another Obama after Obama are not real solutions for this situation.  Prices of what Moore calls the “four cheaps” (fuel, food, natural resources, and labor) have not gone down, and can be expected to go up significantly, and this will threaten profitability for the system as a whole.  As Moore suggests,

Since the 1970s, capital has moved so rapidly to appropriate and exhaust the conditions of its reproduction that it is far from clear that capitalism can survive the crises that neoliberalism is provoking.

So this is why capitalism is the pivotal issue of this century.  To put it dichotomously: Are we to put more energy into our politicians with hopes that they can save the capitalist system, once again, from the next economic crisis to come, or are we to put more energy into whatever it is we think can survive this era and blossom into the next system of political economy, after capitalism?  That’s the controversy to come.

Update: I’ve decided to remove the Rastani stuff from this diary — the debate about Rastani’s credentials distracts from my main point.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s