Marx/ Prashad/ OPOL: Radicalism in a neoliberal age

Published online 24 September 2007.

Crossposted at Docudharma

This is a defense of OPOL’s diary “Why I Am A Radical.”  Some of the respondents thought that OPOL wasn’t “really a radical,” others thought that   our “solution” to present-day political problems should focus on the election of Hillary or Obama or Edwards or whomever, more others just cheered another well-decorated OPOL diary.  Here I wish to set radicalism on the bedrock of economic thinking incited by Karl Marx in the Preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” and compare the words of OPOL to those of Vijay Prashad, from his book “Fat Cats and Running Dogs.”

If you haven’t already, go back to read OPOL’s diary “Why I Am A Radical,” in which he suggests a break from the general notion of “constructive engagement” that has characterized most of the petty-reformist pseudo-initiatives we’ve seen over the past thirty years or so:

If you’re thinking I have nothing but scorn for our political system, you are right.  Just look what it has wrought.  It deserves nothing but scorn.

In the response section, many people doubted that OPOL was a radical.  Here was the most substantive portion of the explanation he gave in his diary:

The hope that we can re-purpose this evil machine and refocus our intelligence, talent and treasure on solving the very real problems of impending environmental disaster, sustainable agriculture, alternative fuels, providing food and potable water for the world’s population, providing rational and meaningful healthcare to all, fixing our broken system of public education, repairing and replacing our crumbling infrastructure and etcetera and etcetera makes me a radical.

Now, OPOL thinks WE can solve these problems.  He suggests, moreover, that our political system deserves nothing but scorn in this regard.

So, for OPOL, being radical involves a basic support for popular rule, in which the people themselves are to solve their problems, regardless of how corrupt the politicians are.

This diary will involve a basic examination of the practical workability of OPOL’s idea of “being radical,” looking both at problem and solutions.

First, the problem:

In “Why I Am A Radical,” OPOL suggests that the main problem of our government is the domination of what he calls the “Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex”:

Now, take a careful look at the graph –- all the links between the various entities are made by money.  This is, in short, economic analysis.  Thus, insofar as this actually describes the reality-at-hand, we are talking about economic power.

What I intend to suggest, in the paragraphs below, is that OPOL’s depiction of our corrupt political realities is confirmed by the economic realities of today, and that what we are faced with today is not that Bush hijo is some wild aberration from a calm and placid political reality, nor that the neoconservatives, nor the Republicans, are some singular villainy in a world otherwise permeated by the Forces of Good, but rather that what is going on today is the result of an economic system characterized by the distortions of neoliberalism.

Back to Marx

There is a philosophy, an old philosophy, which started with the reality of economic power and proceeded from there.  The philosophy I had in mind started with the preface to Marx’s 1859 work, the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

So there are economic relations, and these economic relations form a foundation for society.  Law, politics, and social consciousness “sit atop” economic reality in this way.

Now, the debates I skimmed through when I was an English major in the late ‘80s/ early ’90s borrowed directly from the passage I quoted above, so it’s pretty famous.  Those old debates, however, were about whether the economic base “controlled” culture, or could culture “control” itself or the economic superstructure.  The debate about what controls what, IMO, really ignores the way Marx has framed the above quote.  (Lots of folks claim to read Marx; some of them actually read Marx.)  So it was irrelevant.  Control isn’t the issue: the issue is that, when we read a work of literature or analyze a political system, we look at that object in light of the reigning economic system at the time of its formation, whether that system be early, agricultural capitalism or late financial capitalism or feudalism or the Roman Empire or whatever.

Let’s restore focus in this way.  Marx’s point here is that each cultural situation, regardless of time and place, is framed by the economic world that goes on around it.  Most important for Marx are the “relations of production” of this economic world.  So what are the relations of production?  For Marx, these were characterized under capitalism by the exploitation of wage labor.

Marx viewed the society of his time as divided into two classes: workers and owners.  The owners are that class which owned the capital assets: the factories and other production facilities.  The workers sell their labor to the owners, who use this labor to produce a surplus.  This surplus is represented by the fruits of the workers’ labor, commodities, which are then sold to realize a profit.  The profit, then, is used by the workers to extend their control over society as a whole.  This, in a nutshell, is the theory of surplus value.

In Marx’s version, the owning class serves as a class of vampires, sucking the profit out of the world much as we might imagine a vampire sucking the blood out of his victims.  In such a way, the theory of surplus value leads to a contradiction, which Marx eagerly seized: if the consumers of the working class are too poor because they’ve been working for no wages, they won’t be able to afford the products they created in the factories owned by the owning class.  Thus the capitalist system must eventually stall as an engine of growth, unless a consumer class is created that will buy the system’s products so that the capitalists can realize their profits.

Now, Marx was born too early to recognize the multiplicity of capitalisms that we see.  The biggest distinction we might make between our era and his is that our era has seen the invention of Keynesian economics and the managed economy.  It was this, more than anything, which was responsible for the creation of the modern consumer economy.

Keynes’ innovation was to have governments provide guarantees for those whose economic failures would hurt the economy the most.  Government guarantees were provided by, basically, the printing of more money, and the value of this money would be realized by the growth of the economy as a whole.  It is the wholesale adoption of Keynesian economic policies in the more privileged nations that is responsible for the largest spurt of growth the capitalist system has seen in all history, between (more or less) 1948 and 1971.

Now, we no longer live in a (fully) Keynesian economy (though portions of it are still in evidence), and we probably can’t go back to Keynesian economics, either.  Let me explain.  Keynesian economics required three basic preconditions:

  1. In each economy there needs to be a relatively autonomous national economic system.  In the abovementioned historical period, the autonomy of national economic systems was provided by the Bretton Woods system, which regulated the international monetary system.  Today, the global economy offers individual nations no autonomy, and the universal currency is the US dollar, under a condition known as dollar hegemony.
  1. There needs to be a solid basis for economic growth in each nation, in order to realize each nation’s expansion of the money supply.  Instead, what we have today is uncertain economic growth, at an average rate (outside of China) that is significantly less than what it was during the heyday of Keynesian economics.
  1. There needs to be a class compromise, in which the owning class and the working class both agree to avoid waging any sort of class warfare or class struggle against the other.  Today we witness a full-scale class war, directed from the top, an attempt to dispossess the working class led primarily by the Bush administration.

So none of these “relations of production,” such as once characterized the Keynesian era of capitalism (1948-1971, more or less), fully apply today.  Instead of Keynesianism, what we have for today’s “relations of productions” is neoliberal capitalism, or the “Age of Finance Capital.”  This era is characterized by (in Harry Shutt’s words) the “recurrent excess supply of capital in relation to the demand for it.”  (3)  There are simply too many investors trying to make a profit, and so government becomes the ultimate investment because, since it controls the printing presses which crank out the money, it can be made to crank out a profit for anyone who controls it.  Thus, unlike with Keynesianism, the world of the “Age of Finance Capital” operates within a slow and steady reversion to the “relations of production” that applied during Marx’s era of capitalism, in which what was most obvious was the owning class’s exploitation of the working class.

Situating radicalism in neoliberal times: Vijay Prashad

If we were to combine OPOL’s outrage with an economic analysis of this era, we might get Vijay Prashad’s (2003) book Fat Cats and Running Dogs: The Enron Stage of Capitalism.

Now, Vijay Prashad is one of my favorite writers.  On the covers of his books he describes himself as “associate professor and director of International Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.”  He’s got a Znet page, and a bio put out by the University of Oregon suggests that he grew up in Calcutta.  He does, though, keep in touch with grassroots movements here in the US: his book “Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses” contains a discussion of the Kensington Worker’s Rights Union, among other organizations.  Those folks are radicals.  (Right now I’m busy reading his most recent book, The Darker Nations.  I’ll get back to you on that one.)

Fat Cats and Running Dogs, ostensibly about the scandal accompanying Enron’s bankruptcy, is really about how neoliberalism, as an economic doctrine, serves as a “manual for corporate terrestrial conquest” (68).  This, of course, is the logical extension of the excess of capital discussed in Harry Shutt’s The Trouble with Capitalism; the conversion of the world into a set of mechanisms for corporate profit.  The central metaphor of the book is that the “fat cats” are the corporate leaders, and the “running dogs” are the politicians.  Sound familiar?

So that’s the theme of Prashad’s book.  In the content of Fat Cats, Prashad shows the readers how the Enron scandal, far from being an aberration of the beginning of the 21st century, was the norm, and that “Enronism is here to stay, even as Enron is now gone” (149).  But that’s not why I’m bringing up this book.  I want to read a few select passages from its introduction, to reveal Prashad’s basic affinity with the prose of OPOL.

One of the first things Prashad does in Fat Cats is to suggest that the Enron scandal is not unique:

To indict corporations like Enron alone for the chaos that befell the world after the rise of neoliberalism is to miss the crucial function of the running dogs in the tale.  Politicians who managed the neoliberal state did not willy-nilly have to give in to rapacious corporations.  But they connived with the corporate logic to wrest sovereignty from the people and turn it over to profit.  What neoliberalism did in the last three decades for the nations of the overdeveloped world was to make democracy into a commodity and turn the people’s representatives into its employees.  (5)

Democracy a commodity, politicians sold out to corporations.  Does any of this prose seem familiar?  Prashad’s explanation for how this is so waxes poetic, in OPOL fashion:

The running dogs did not sell their votes; they are not opportunists and did not act on behalf of the fat cats only because they had been paid via campaign contributions.  Rather, they acted for the fat cats because both live off of the continent of sleaze and see the populace as a vast labor pool intended to fatten the hog upon which both feed.  (6)

Remember OPOL’s vow:

The knowledge that our system is so compromised by corruption that it will never (in its present form) serve the people makes me a radical.

And consider OPOL’s dismissal of the “better” running dogs:

The understanding that timidity, simple solutions, or half-measures such as ‘voting for better people’ will not have any appreciable affect on the entrenched and corrupt machine our government has become makes me a radical.

In the introduction to his book, Prashad proceeds to explain the Enron Stage of Capitalism in its essence:

Here is another push by capitalist forces to entrap areas of economic life that had once been outside the sway of the commodity form.  During the era of social democracy from the 1930s to the mid-1970s, capitalist relations did not overwhelm the realm of water, air, energy, health, and education.  But for over three decades, especially since the 1990s, during neoliberal times, these protected zones have come under pressure from transnational corporations and international finance institutions arguing that unproductive zones need to be opened to the efficiency of the profit-driven marketplace.  (7)

Look familiar?  Compare this with OPOL’s list of grievances, especially this summary:

The understanding that the greed-driven dynamic dominated by the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex will doom all life on earth in the foreseeable future if not changed and changed radically makes me a radical.

OK, so Prashad is a bit more specific than OPOL.  OPOL has charisma.  You do the comparisons here.

SO WHAT ARE PRASHAD’S SOLUTIONS?

They look like OPOL’s, though a bit more specific:

Build a people’s economy (202)

For some time now I’ve been trying to get OPOL to think in terms of creating an alternative economy, unplugging the life-blood of the people from the vampire-fangs of corporate control.  Most of my own personal energy has been in this vein, with work on Food Not Bombs and the Pomona College Natural Farm.

Dare to stop police brutality (206)

Certainly OPOL, who knows what police brutality is, can sympathize with this, one of the most central of Prashad’s theses.  OPOL’s words about the Bush police state:

The certain knowledge that our government spies on peaceniks and ordinary Americans as though they were heinous criminals makes me a radical.

Protest the assault on reason (208)

This seems really central not only to OPOL’s diaries, but to the daily fare of DKos as a whole.

CONCLUSION: Is OPOL a radical?

Does it really matter that much?  The entire political spectrum from “right” to “left” (whatever those terms mean anymore) today promises us and our children an eventual death from abrupt climate change or “privatization” or bad medical care or whatever Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.”  What’s necessary is the oversight capability, to see and criticize the system as a whole.  The “mainstream” just isn’t doing it.

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