Today’s American radicals seem to agree that orthodox Marxism, while retaining some excellent analytical features, is insufficient to our situation. (There’s also the question of whether or not the mention of it is tactical poison, how deep the old brainwashing runs. It’s true that in spring of 2009 this poll
offered evidence of open-mindedness toward the term “socialism” and a healthy skepticism regarding “capitalism.” But that’s just one data point. At any rate, I think the tactical issue is a moot point if we agree that Marxism is an inadequate framework for concepts and action anyway. In that case, there’s no point gratuitously injecting it into the rhetorical mix.)
What remains valid is the analysis of class struggle as the basic dynamic of history and especially of modern history, the extraction of surplus value as the characteristic crime of the parasite, and the overall tendency of the system towards oligopoly.
On the other hand Marx was wrong about how capitalism, strictly defined, was going to purge all rents and feudal vestiges. Here Marx shared in a misconception endemic to classical economists. What really happens at every point is that true competitive practices are used to vanquish residual feudalism, but then the “competitor”, the moment he becomes strong enough, switches from capitalist mode to oligopoly racketeer mode. He switches from innovation, efficiency-seeking, and customer service to lobbying, cons, bribery, extortion, and every kind of anti-competitive action. He becomes a rent seeker. He reinstates a new feudalism. And so the last 40 years have seen the great switch from the capitalist stage of economic history to the refeudalizing stage. (Of course, the entire capitalist stage was riddled with feudal remnants and neo-feudal restorations. Imperialism, globalization, and financialization have been the main stages for this. And of course natural resources have always been treated as a slave plantation, and never with the slightest semblance of rational planning.)
Marx and the rest of classical economics failed to see or didn’t emphasize this. On the other hand, neoclassicism has been dedicated to the Big Lie that this neo-feudal project, and the law of rent-seeking I just described, don’t exist. Chicago economics simply claims as religious dogma that this is “capitalism”, this is the “free market”. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is the core slogan of this Big Lie. The real purport of it is, “It may look to you like the finance sector and other corporate oligopolies are pure parasites who produce nothing and only destroy. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch! So if these actors exist, they have to be important producers, even if you’re having trouble seeing what they produce. If they weren’t producing, they couldn’t exist. Ipso facto.”
So there’s one way in which the Marxian prognostication of the unified proletariat facing the monopoly capitalist has failed to materialize. We face instead monopoly neo-feudalism, so anyone who still wants to use Marxism has to recompute.
Similarly, the unified industrial proletariat also looked for a while like it was cohering on schedule but then disintegrated. Much of it was offshored, and much of the rest was dispersed into the “service” and “information” economies. Meanwhile unionism, so long wrangled over as a rival of socialism, followed the organized socialist movement into decrepitude. By now there’s little organization among “the workers” at all. Structurally, they’re an atomized rabble. There was also the mid-century co-optation via the “American Dream” and “ownership society” scams, both temporarily zombified by the debt economy. Now that this debt is collapsing and this middle class is being liquidated, the American worker finds himself left alone with no protection, no organizational framework, lacking even any ideas for what such a framework could be.
I’ve previously commented on the parallels between the US kleptocracy today and the Ancien Regime of the 18th century. These parallels are many and profound. But one major difference, which arguably makes today’s task far more difficult, is that by the 1780s the industrial and cultural life of all of France had become physically concentrated in Paris. As Tocqueville put it, “At the outbreak of the French Revolution this initial revolution had already been completed…..Thus Paris had become the master of France and already an army was gathering which was to turn into the master of Paris.”
While Tocqueville here describes conditions ripe for the bourgeois revolution, the Marxist framework expected the same conditions for the eventual proletarian revolution – physical concentration of economic power. Instead, while today power is tremendously concentrated and becoming more so (that part of the Marxist prognostication is correct), it has been physically dispersed, literally all over the planet via offshoring of the proletariat itself. There’s simply no physical basis for the requisite class consciousness to develop even if this class itself really existed the way Marx had envisioned. (Ending the draft and replacing the civilian army with a corporatized mercenary army was another clever gambit of the elites. As was replacing much taxation with deficit spending. On every front the goal has been to temporarily change the citizen into a naked atom who’s not oppressed but simply neglected, so that he loses even the consciousness of being an oppressed citizen. The plan is that once the real oppression is imposed, the atom will be utterly helpless to recover any level of citizen consciousness.)
So what’s the real nature of our class struggle today, if we still tried to look at it from a Marxist perspective? Luckily, Marx himself provided some clues in his 1848 articles on “The Class Struggle in France”, discussing the revolution of that year.
Marx gives here a basic rule which we can remove from all dogmatic contexts:
As soon as it has risen up, a class in which the revolutionary interests of society are concentrated finds the content and the material for its revolutionary activity directly in its own situation: foes to be laid low, measures dictated by the needs of the struggle to be taken; the consequences of its own deeds drive it on.
He goes on to comment:
The struggle against capital in its developed, modern form, in its decisive aspect, the struggle of the industrial wage-worker against the industrial bourgeois, is in France a partial phenomenon, which after the February days could so much the less supply the national content of the revolution, since the struggle against capital’s secondary modes of exploitation, that of the peasant against usury and mortgages or of the petty bourgeois against the wholesale dealer, banker and manufacturer, in a word, against bankruptcy, was still hidden in the general uprising against the finance aristocracy.
So in light of this, what’s our “revolutionary material”? Clearly the framework of the “industrial wage-worker against the industrial bourgeois” is obsolete. Instead we have, as the dominant phenomena, the “struggle against capital’s secondary modes of exploitation”. We have “the peasant”, i.e. the small farmer and housedebtor, against usury and mortgages; and we have the “petty bourgeois”, the small businessman, against Walmartization and bankruptcy, in every sector.
Marx goes on to describe how, in order to preserve its position, the bourgeoisie had to ally itself with feudal elements. These elements would later come to dominate it; the user would become the used. And isn’t this what has happened with neo-feudalism today? Commentators keep saying how the non-finance capitalists are under the banksters’ thumb. Marx teaches that the bourgeoisie liquidates itself that way.
So that’s the real end stage we’re reaching – not proletarian revolution, but refeudalization. It was never linear progress but a peaking curve, concurrent with Peak Oil. (That’s because the industrial revolution and classical economics including Marxism are creatures of the Oil Age.)
So therefore we face refeudalization, this time permanent. But that doesn’t have to mean we return to the same political and socioeconomic organization as prevailed under medieval feudalism. There’s also the medieval commune and town as exemplars. We’ve learned enough from our modern political experience to apply the lesson of true federation, true cooperation, to any post-oil economy.
This leads back to how Marx himself would say ours is a “petty bourgeois” and “peasant” situation. We face the same assaults and assert the same demands. According to Leninist snobbery this would render us “counter-revolutionary”, the way he labeled the SRs and anarchists. But since Lenin was really seeking a different form of centralized elitist tyranny, we know that his revolutionary antagonists were the true revolutionaries, while the Bolsheviks turned out to be counter-revolutionaries themselves, once ensconced in power.
Bakunin turned out to be correct, about one possible version of Marxism (it must be admitted, this is the version Marx himself eventually seems to have validated). But as we see from the “revolutionary materials” passage from 1848 (let alone from earlier writings), there are in fact other possible paths of analysis and strategy.
So this was a contribution toward brainstorming the situation. Like I said, orthodox “Marxism” probably doesn’t have much utility going forward, but I wanted to explore one possible Marxian thread which provides a way of looking at our situation. I’m sure there are others.