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Posts Tagged ‘socialism’

Karl Polanyi on Socialism

Every form of socialism is based on the hope of mankind to attain to a form of social being in which people could normally in their every day existence actualize their responsibilities to their fellows because they would know how their commissions and omissions affect them, and they would be able to act accordingly. Life in society is not free. We influence, burden, harm, and disturb the lives of our fellows whether we will it or not. We must bide by the truth that we humans are condemned to live upon the freedom of our fellows, that we are condemned to live upon the work and toil, upon the health and life, of others.

-Letter to a friend, 1929

David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism

I just finished David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Penguin, 2007). I highlighted a lot of passages (incidentally, it was the first whole ebook I’ve read–which was fine except for the need for an internet connection), which I want to go back over and write about here, but the main argument that he makes, much like the Canadian authors I’ve been reading (see category->neoliberalism in Canada), is that neoliberalism is not fundamentally about monetarist economic policies: it is really about the restoration of elite class power. In Harvey’s words, neoliberalism can be interpreted “either as a utopian project to realize a theoretical design for the reorganization of international capitalism or as a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites” (19). So, on the one hand neoliberalism could be about rejuvenating (international) capitalism in response to the crises that occurred in the 1970s, (which is how it is described in the mainstream, and sold to the masses), or on the other hand it could be seen as opportunism designed to counter the general progress that had been made between the end of the Second World War and the 1970s towards a more equitable distribution of wealth and power within a capitalist system (i.e. Keynesianism, or what Harvey calls ‘embedded liberalism’).

Harvey backs up his belief in neoliberalism as a project to restore class power mostly by analyzing the track record of neoliberalism during the last 30 years: has human well-being increased in general? has society become more equitable? has the distribution of wealth become more even? has the world become more democratic? A number of indicators show that by these standards the record of neoliberalism is abysmal, which does not necessarily mean that neoliberalism is an elite class project–it could just mean that neoliberals have failed in their utopian project (the goal of which is to bring freedom and prosperity to all via the free-market and extreme individualism). However, given the rapid transfer of wealth from the poor to the wealthy, and given the large gap between neoliberalism in theory and neoliberalism in practice, it seems that freedom and prosperity for all may not be the true goal of those who influence policy. This is, I think, where Harvey’s theory of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ comes in. Here is a long passage about it:

The main substantive achievement of neoliberalization, however, has been to redistribute, rather than to generate, wealth and income. I have elsewhere provided an account of the main mechanisms whereby this was achieved under the rubric of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. 9 By this I mean the continuation and proliferation of accumulation practices which Marx had treated of as ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ during the rise of capitalism. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations (compare the cases, described above, of Mexico and of China, where 70 million peasants are thought to have been displaced in recent times); conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights (most spectacularly represented by China); suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neocolonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade (which continues particularly in the sex industry); and usury, the national debt and, most devastating of all, the use of the credit system as a radical means of accumulation by dispossession. The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in both backing and promoting these processes.
Harvey, David. Brief History of Neoliberalism.
Oxford, , GBR: Oxford University Press, UK, 2007. p 159.
http://site.ebrary.com/lib/ocultrent/Doc?id=10180656&ppg=168
Copyright © 2007. Oxford University Press, UK. All rights reserved.

“The main substantive achievement of neoliberalization, however, has been to redistribute, rather than to generate, wealth and income. I have elsewhere provided an account of the main mechanisms whereby this was achieved under the rubric of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. By this I mean the continuation and proliferation of accumulation practices which Marx had treated of as ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ during the rise of capitalism. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations (compare the cases, described above, of Mexico and of China, where 70 million peasants are thought to have been displaced in recent times); conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights (most spectacularly represented by China); suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neocolonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade (which continues particularly in the sex industry); and usury, the national debt and, most devastating of all, the use of the credit system as a radical means of accumulation by dispossession. The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in both backing and promoting these processes” (159)

One of the earlier examples of accumulation by dispossession is the Mexican debt crisis in the early 1980s when Mexico declared that it could no longer pay off the massive debt that it had acquired to foreign banks:

“What the Mexico case demonstrated, however, was a key difference between liberal and neoliberal practice: under the former, lenders take the losses that arise from bad investment decisions, while under the latter the borrowers are forced by state and international powers to take on board the cost of debt repayment no matter what the consequences for the livelihood and well-being of the local population. If this required the surrender of assets to foreign companies at fire-sale prices, then so be it. This, it turns out, is not consistent with neoliberal theory.” (29)

Just who are the elite who are actively securing their own class power? Taking ‘accumulation by dispossession’ as a premise, the economic recovery during the neoliberal era is not based on the generation of (much) new wealth through the expansion of industry. Rather, new ‘wealth’ and accumulation are the result of finanzcialization (numbers games), enclosure of commons (e.g. the commodification and privatization of water), and the diminishment of the power of organized labour (e.g. the decline of wage rates in real terms). Thus, “one substantial core of rising class power under neoliberalism lies…with the CEOs, the key operators on corporate boards, and the leaders in the financial, legal, and technical apparatuses that surround this inner sanctum of capitalist activity” (33). Another group of highly influential elites are the owners of the massive corporations that have come to dominate the world economy, for example Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, Carlos Slim in Mexico, perhaps Conrad Black in Canada, and the Walton family. “the incredible ability not only to amass large personal fortunes but to exercise a controlling power over large segments of the economy confers on these few individuals immense economic power to influence political processes. Small wonder that the net worth of the 358 richest people in 1996 was ‘equal to the combined income of the poorest 45 per cent of the world’s population––2.3 billion people’. Worse still, ‘the world’s 200 richest people more than doubled their net worth in the four years to 1998, to more than $1 trillion. The assets of the top three billionaires [were by then] more than the combined GNP of all least developed countries and their 600 million people’”(43).

“While this disparate group of individuals embedded in the corporate, financial, trading, and developer worlds do not necessarily conspire as a class, and while there may be frequent tensions between them, they nevertheless possess a certain accordance of interests that generally recognizes the advantages (and now some of the dangers) to be derived from neoliberalization. They also possess, through organizations like the World Economic Forum at Davos, means of exchanging ideas and of consorting and consulting with political leaders. They exercise immense influence over global affairs and possess a freedom of action that no ordinary citizen possesses” (45).

There are a lot of other interesting parts in this book, including the influence of neoliberalism on ethics and rights (e.g. the connections between negative rights, privatization, and individualism); on postmodernism as a symptom of neoliberalism (the idea that “postmodern intellectual currents…accord, without knowing it, with the White House line that truth is both socially constructed and a mere effect of discourse,”(198) or in other words that there are no absolute moral truths so we can/should do whatever we want or whatever best suits our interests or acquisition of power); on democratic processes (e.g. the rise of NGOs, which are essentially private sector (i.e. not democratically accountable) groups); on the current tendency towards neoconservativism, which has less interest than neoliberalism in disguising its embrace of authoritarianism; the contradictions caused by neoliberal policy (e.g. the tendency toward large monopolistic companies like walmart and google, rather than increased innovation through competition); on Polanyi and the value of alternative, collective rights (e.g.”the the right to life chances, to political association and ‘good’ governance, for control over production by the direct producers, to the inviolability and integrity of the human body, to engage in critique without fear of retaliation, to a decent and healthy living environment, to collective control of common property resources”(213)); and more.

I haven’t offered any critical comments on Harvey’s book here, possibly because I think that it is pretty much right on. I thought that the chapter on China was very dry and economistic, and I tend to twinge whenever I read sweeping condemnations of China, entirely as a result of the influence of SLE. This is a very unpopular stance though these days. It is interesting though that Harvey’s criticism of China and its ‘human rights record’ is not coming from the usual place of (hypocritical) outrage about how draconian China is compared to the free and liberal west. Harvey is critical of Deng’s neoliberal turn, and the whole idea of ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ which has involved the destruction of the iron rice bowl, the creation of an elite class, increased privatization of services, implementation of user fees, the dislocation of millions of peasants, and the destruction of the power and influence of organized labourers. Hmmm, it seems that I ended up being uncritical of Harvey again…

Leo Panitch on what socialism is, and liberalism isn’t

The socialist ‘utopian goal’ is built around realizing our potential to be full human beings. What separates this ideal from its liberal roots is not only socialism’s commitment to extending this principle to all members of society, but also its insistence that the flowering of human capacities isn’t a liberation of the individual from the social, but is only achievable through the social. Ideals are always linked to some notion of justice and freedom. Notions of justice revolve around the egalitarianism of certain outcomes (like distribution of income or wealth) or the legitimacy of a process for reaching goals even if the ultimate results are unequal (equal access to opportunities). Notions of freedom generally divide into freedom from an external arbitrary authority (the state) or the freedom to participate in setting the broad parameters that frame the context of our lives (as in current liberal democracies). The socialist ideal does not exclude these other moral spaces, but locates them on the specific terrain of capacities: capitalism is unjust and undemocratic not because of this or that imperfection in relation to equality or freedom, but because at its core it involves the control by some of the use and development of the potential of others, and because the competition it fosters frustrates humanity’s capacity for liberation through the social.1

  1. ”Transcending Pessimism”, Socialist Register 2000 []

Greg Albo “Neoliberalism, the State, and the left: A Canadian Perspective”

In the entries in this series I am writing about my current readings on left writings relating to neoliberalism in Canada.

Greg Albo’s1 essay sets out to analyze the state of neoliberalism in Canada in order to analyze the state of the left. As such, this essay is situated within the body of left work that is theorizing about how to have a successful mass movement to construct a socialist alternative. Rather than having an explicitly Gramscian analysis, Albo focus specifically on the contest between neoliberalism and the left as being a class struggle, and points out early that neoliberalism does not describe just a set of economic and financial policies, but rather a “particular form of class rule within capitalism” and that “neoliberalism developed out of an important shift in the balance of class forces and the defeat of the left” (48). Albo highlights three aspects of neoliberalism that he believe are important for the left to consider in its work to confront the neoliberal social order.

First, its is important to recognize the global economic developments of the last thirty years, and the entrenchment, internationally, of capitalists and their technical economic policies, and also the lack of a left alternative. Second, there have been transformations within the ruling block in Canada. Financialization and growth in export-oriented and multinational capital in Canada means that “the political terrain for another grand social compromise with a national bourgeoisie has evaporated” (51). Third, as most other left authors point out, it is “entirely misleading to see neoliberalism as an attack on the state in favour of the market, or as a hollowing out of the state to the global and local, or a bypassing of the state by corporate power” (51). Rather, control and use of the state has been and is an important tool for neoliberal class power. Albo, like Saad-Filho concludes that defeat of neoliberalism cannot come via electoral process: “the political role of the market is being strengthened to offset any democratic initiatives being fought through the state.” (52) And, he recognizes that important non-parliamentary action-oriented groups have already formed and done work, including union groups, the anti-globalization movement, anti-racist campaigns, and other. But, Albo believes that “the constructive challenges of a viable socialist politics remains—the capacity to wage strikes for class-wide demands, electoral gains advancing a radical political program, and building egalitarian social alternatives in our everyday lives” (53). His visions seems to be the creation of a radical political culture.

  1. Albo, Greg. “Neoliberalism, the State, and the Left: A Canadian Perspective.” Monthly Review 54, no. 1 (May 2002): 46-55. []

William Carroll and Murray Shaw “Consolidating Policy Neoliberal Bloc in Canada, 1976 to 1996”

In the entries in this series I am writing about my current readings on left writings relating to neoliberalism in Canada.

William Carroll and Murray Shaw’s essay “Consolidating Policy Neoliberal Bloc in Canada, 1976 to 1996”1 interrogates the activism of five prominent organizations that led, and continue to lead, the “consolidation of neoliberal hegemony in Canadian public policy”(195). These five organizations are the Conference Board of Canada, the C.D. Howe Institute, the Business Coalition on National Issues, the Fraser Institute, and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. Carroll and Shaw outline political and policy backgrounds of these five organizations, with a focus on the contexts that gave rise to each organization, and on the particular niche role that each organization plays in advancing neoliberal policy. For example, the Fraser Institute functions to create more legitimacy for far-right views by publishing a lot of material and disseminating it widely; the C.D. Howe Institute, in contrast, has an image of more academic rigour and functions as a mainstream legitimator of the economic principles of neoliberalism (fiscal responsibility, international competitiveness, etc.). In the final section of the paper, Carroll and Shaw, both sociologists, undertake to map the connections in the “corporate policy network,” particularly the instances of interlocking directorships between the five main policy activist groups and leading corporations. This is reminiscent of Ryerson’s analysis in ___, but with a focus on connections to neoliberal policy leaders. The study is also situated within a Gramscian framework, which the authors describe on pp 196-197, specifically outlining “four concepts which converge on a view of neoliberalism as a political and cultural accomplishment: a hegemonic accomplishment” (196).

  1. Carroll, William and Murray Shaw. “Consolidating a Neoliberal Policy Bloc in Canada, 1976 to 1996.” Canadian Public Policy 27, no. 2 (2001). []

Alfredo Saad-Filho “Marxian and Keynesian Critiques of Neoliberalism”

In the entries in this series I am writing about my current readings on left writings relating to neoliberalism in Canada.

In Alfredo Saad-Filho’s essay “Marxian and Keynesian Critiques of Neoliberalism,”1 he outlines the main thrusts of these two political-economic systems and assesses their relative strengths, accuracy, and usefulness. His point of departure is the observation that despite its recent unpopularity and political defeat in some parts of the world, neoliberalism remains “the dominant modality of social and economic reproduction in most countries” (337). Saad-Filho argues that by delineating the analyses of Keynesians and Marxists it becomes clear that only Marxism can adequately understand the continued dominance of neoliberalism. Specifically, Keynesianism fails in its level of analysis, in its underestimation of the agency of neoliberals in support of their (class) interests, and in its prescription for overcoming neoliberalism. Keynesianism analysis does not go deep enough in understanding the influence of neoliberalism: “Keynesian analyses tend to describe conflicts around the process of accumulation, while obscuring or ignoring completely conflicts about the nature of capitalist accumulation” (341). As a result it does not criticize capitalism. Keynesianism fails to appreciate the extent of the agency of those promoting neoliberalism, who will act in their own interests to ensure their continued wealth. Neoliberalism is “not merely a set of economic and social policies,” it “combines an accumulation strategy, a mode of social and economic reproduction and a mode of exploitation and social domination based on the systematic use of state power to impose…a hegemonic project of recomposition of the rule of capital in all areas of social life” (342). Finally, Keynesianism predicts that a strong government with the correct policies could overcome the neoliberal agenda. This both ignores the embeddeness of the state in the social, political, and economic forces that have been taken over by neoliberalism. Recognition of this embededness means acknowledging that change must involve popular movements that challenge the state.

  1. Saad-Filho, Alfredo. “Marxian and Keynesian Critiques of Neoliberalism.” Socialist Register, 2008: 337-345. []

Capital by Michael Moore

Last night I saw Capital, Michael Moore’s new film. Like his other films, this one jumped around frequently, I assume as a tactic to keep viewers’ interest. Moore’s basic thesis is “Capitalism is bad,” not a very refined thesis, but he doesn’t present a very refined argument. While he does spend some time presenting the basic tenants of Capitalism (free enterprise, free market, etc), Moore’s main focus throughout is really on the deregulation of the financial system since Reagan. (There is an article/book by Thomas Frank on this very topic in an issue of Harper’s magazine.) As such, he spends lots of time connecting the dots between the bad mortgage crisis last fall and the politicians and lobbyists in Washington who made literally millions and millions of dollars off of it and then bailed themselves out with public money when it went sour. He makes his argument not so much through stats, reason, or logic (though there is some of this), but through a series of anecdotal stories of the struggles of real people (family in Peoria, MI who lost their home to rising mortgage payments, workers in a window and door factory who after the factory closes stage a prolonged sit down until their back wages are paid, etc.). I don’t at all mean to sound derisive of this approach. I think it is valuable not only for its effectiveness, but also for its refusal to play by the established (or establishment) rules of how you are supposed to present an argument and to whom you are supposed to go to for evidence (surely, not the people themselves). In this way it reminds me of Zinn’s approach to “the people’s history.”

Moore also, as in other films of his, makes some sweeping comparisons between the USA (failing, foolish) and the EU and Japan (utopian, enlightened), and eventually eases his audience towards the use and possible understanding of the dreaded “S word”. The film culminates in a Moore’s plea to his fellow Americans to join him in the struggle for…Democracy! But for those of us disappointed with his last-second lack of courage to proclaim what he really wants us to struggle for, the closing music takes the form of a bizarre, big band version of the Internationale, further evidence of what Moore really meant to say.

Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story

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Recently Laura and I watched Prarie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story, which I must say is a rather inspiring film for a lefty. The film is 3 hours long, and obviously quite low-budget, but the acting is good and the story is excellent and important. It is worth the 3 hour committment to get to know what made canada’s greatest citizen ever (according to CBCers…) tick. I was also amazed to learn of the other progressive and foresighted policies and programs that the TD government brought in besides public healthcare. For example:

  • a bill of rights (preceding the Canadian Charter of rights and freedoms by 35 years, and the UN Charter by 18 months)
  • public automobile insurance
  • rural electricity
  • public energy corporation

the list goes on and on these are just a few….a full list is here.

I was also struck by a quote of his, near the end of his life:

The only test of our character that matters is how we look after each other, not how we look after ourselves.

Seems obvious, but well-put.