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Morbid Symptoms: The Downward Spiral

The following post is the second part in our notes on Trump. Part one can be found here. We’ll look at the limits and potentials of the forces arrayed against Trump in part three.

In our last post, we located the Trump regime within a global right wing resurgence enabled by capitalist crisis and the failures of social democracy. Now we can examine how this resurgence developed in the U.S. context. In this piece, we will explore how conservative hegemony emerged from the crisis of the 1970s, developed through the Reagan years and exhausted itself in the Obama era. We will then trace how Trump builds on the history of conservative hegemony even as he rends it in two, and outline the degree to which the incoming Trump regime stands to deepen authoritarianism.

For decades, the U.S. neoliberal elite legitimated falling wages and living standards by keeping the economy afloat with successive credit-fueled bubbles and playing on white racialist resentments. But this strategy began to collapse with the onset of the Great Recession, after years of erosion. Now the the content of conservative hegemony is turning against itself, and Trumpism in the result. On one side are neoliberal efforts to contract social reproduction, and thereby struggle to renew the profitability of capitalism. On the other side are appeals to white populist nationalism, which increasingly undermine the norms of the bourgeois state and civil society. Both elements have been integral to neoliberal rule, but they can also become contradictory. As they contend in productive tension, they threaten a spiraling descent into authoritarianism and deepening capitalist retrogression.

Trump’s election signals that the turbulent waters of social contradiction have begun to spin faster. To grasp the dangers of this dynamic and how to overcome them, we have to trace their emergence from our own history, starting with the last capitalist crisis.

A New Hegemony from the Wreckage

In the late 1970s the U.S. capitalist class faced economic stagnation, rising inflation, and working class revolt in the streets and on the assembly line. In a bid to renew investment, they turned to attacking the costs of labor power, creating a new kind of working class in the process and detonating the Keynesian consensus that had stood for forty years. The 1970s crisis did not lead – as many had hoped – to a revolutionary challenge to capitalism, but to the emergence of a conservative hegemony that would expand and deepen for four decades.

Since the Great Depression, the trade unions, and later the civil rights leadership, had been steadily incorporated into capitalist production and the state. In exchange for labor peace and increased productivity, they had been promised expanded democratic rights, racial integration into civil society, and rising real wages. This period marked the definitive transition to the real domination of capital: the incorporation and reorganization of the whole of society according to the needs of capitalist value production. It resulted in a reduction of labor power, not only in terms of the gap between wage levels and the immense surpluses created at the time, but also through labor’s subjugation as an appendage of automation and the remaking of everyday life. The gap between the condition of workers and the enormous productive forces of capitalism continued to widen, sharpening a key contradiction of capitalism. Though living standards in the postwar period rose for many layers of the working class, thanks to the growing number of cheap consumer goods, this could only continue as long as the surpluses workers generated rose even faster. With economic stagnation in the 1970s – a combination of falling growth and soaring inflation – the material basis for the Keynesian regime dissolved. The capitalist class had to find a new way to rule.
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Morbid Symptoms: The Rise of Trump

The following series attempts to understand the rise of Donald Trump, particularly in the context of capitalist crisis and the emerging power of the populist and far right. Part one is below. Part two is here.

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The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
– Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

The election of Donald Trump––despite his losing the popular vote––has come as a shock to many Americans. While most recognized that the campaign had tightened after the intervention of the FBI, it was assumed that Clinton would edge out Trump on election day. But even if the Democratic Party had narrowly won the presidential election, it would have told us nothing about the development of mass rightwing populism and white nationalism in the U.S. This force represents both an immediate threat and a long-term strategic challenge to those of us seeking liberation. How can we understand what has happened? And what can be done?

Capitalist Crisis and the Rise of Trump

Trump’s rise is a consequence of the ongoing and deepening crisis of global capitalism. Since the 1970s capital has faced the problem of falling profits, and the resulting crises have made it difficult for the political and economic order to reproduce itself in a reliable way. For decades capitalists confronted this problem by cutting costs, especially the cost of labor power: slashing wages, benefits, health care, education, and housing. In the former Third World this entailed gutting the developmentalist regimes that took power after decolonization. In the capitalist core (like the U.S. and Europe) it required dismantling social democracy.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, capital sought to remove any roadblocks to profitability, starting with institutions such as unions and labor parties, and the rights won through a century of worker, civil rights, women, and queer struggles. The great concentrations of industry and proletarian power were broken apart through globalization. Labor parties and nationalist governments were incorporated into the management of capital, and made partners in exploitation. In many countries, new technocratic politicians and managers came to control national governments, state bureaucracies, and major institutions like schools. This was the “neoliberal” elite.

The neoliberals operated on a consensus that cut across the political spectrum: the economy would only be sustained through capitalist globalization abroad and austerity at home. In the capitalist core, this meant abandoning sections of the working class that had previously enjoyed some political representation and economic benefits, largely through the inclusion of unions and social democratic voting blocs. The elites carrying out this program united former “progressives” alongside conservatives. Bill Clinton––who signed NAFTA in 1993, expanded mass incarceration in 1994, and gutted welfare in 1996––is a great example.
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Fanon and the Theory of Race

Fanon 1It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others
– W.E.B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folks

He who is reluctant to recognize me is against me
– Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary
— Malcolm X, Speech at the Founding of the OAAU

Frantz Fanon is one of the most important 20th century thinkers on race, and any serious theory and strategy dealing with the reality of race has to grapple with his work.[1] At the same time, Fanon remains one of the most misunderstood revolutionary thinkers. Part of the reason lies in the hybrid nature of his work, which draws from, among other fields of knowledge, philosophy, psychiatry, literature, anthropology and marxism. Another reason for the conflicting interpretation of his work may be the conditions under which his writings were produced, often addressing the immediate theoretical issues of the day, whether in France, Algeria, the Caribbean, or the anti-colonial struggles in Africa. Further, dying of leukemia at the young age of 36, Fanon was robbed of the opportunity to more fully develop and synthesize his diverse and fragmented work.

During his lifetime, Fanon was first and foremost known as an associate of the FLN, the leading party of the Algerian Revolution, a proponent of the Algerian Revolution as a model of anti-colonial revolution, and a critic of the emerging national bourgeoisie. In addition, Fanon fostered relationships with French intellectuals, most famously Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. However, Fanon’s work was never widely known in his lifetime in France, or, more broadly, in the metropoles.

It was not until Les Damnés del la terre was translated into English in 1965 as The Wretched of the Earth that Fanon reached a wider audience. The emergence of nationalist and Third Worldist movements, both globally and in the “Western” countries, meant new life for Fanon’s work, as these movements drew on his work in various ways. Wretched of the Earth was at the center of this Fanon revival, while other important works, such as Black Skin, White Masks, were relatively ignored. Later, after these movements subsided, Fanon was the subject of intense appropriation and critique within American universities. The different moments and places in the reception and interpretation of his work meant that Fanon has been interpreted in widely different, and contradictory ways.

The purpose of this essay is to briefly examine some of the core tenets of Fanon’s understanding of race, and it by no means provides an exhaustive account of his work.[2] Important areas of his writing are left untouched, as is most of the historical context. Instead, this essay explores some of the key categories and methodology Fanon uses in his analysis of race, with the aim of drawing out some of the lines in his thought. A particular emphasis is placed on his concept of racial alienation. The hope is to encourage others to take up Fanon, or engage with those who have already done so, as one step in the necessary reconstruction of a revolutionary theory of race and white supremacy for today.

The notes below approach the question primarily through a close reading of the important chapter in Black Skin, White Masks, “The Lived Experience of the Black Man,” although other parts of his work are touched on. This chapter is important because it lays out his core concepts of racial alienation and its self-abolition.
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Capitalism and the Value Form

The following post is the third installment in an ongoing series on some of the key ideas in Marx’s thought. Part one can be found here. The second part is linked here. The last two parts will follow as they are completed: “What is Capital?” and, lastly, “Communism”.

Capitalist Society and the Value Form

Marx begins Capital by raising the question of wealth: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form” (125). In putting forward the contradiction between increased productivity of labor and the division of labor, Marx was able to show that as wealth grows so does exploitation and misery. It is only with capitalism that this contradiction reaches its limit. In no other form of society has the concentration and accumulation of productive powers been so great and exploitation so immense. In capitalism, as Marx writes elsewhere, “the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production” (“Estranged Labor”).

So far we have been discussing Marx’s ideas for all societies in general. But Marx’s aim was to understand what was particular about capitalist society, a form of production that was, from a world perspective, only embryonic in his own day. For Marx capitalist society is characterized by the value form, a form of existence and social relations unique in human history. What follows is an attempt to summarize and synthesize this concept.

The Dual Character of Labor

For Marx, central to understanding the organization of capitalist society is the dual character of the commodity. He argues in Capital that one side of the commodity is defined by how it is used, or “use-value.” He defines use by how the commodity “satisfies human needs of whatever kind” (125). We have seen how the idea of “human needs” plays an important role in Marx’s thought. Throughout history human beings have produced uses to satisfy and express their needs, giving rise to particular forms of society.

When looked at as a use the commodity is indistinguishable from the process of fulfilling needs as a general characteristic of all human societies. As such, commodities “constitute the material content of wealth, whatever its social form may be” (Capital, 126). However, the production of uses takes, or, more precisely, cannot be separated from a specific form in each society or historical epoch. In capitalist society, Marx argues, the production of uses has a dual character that consists of its use and its exchange value. As he writes in Capital: “In the form of society to be considered here [uses] are also the material bearers of exchange value” (126).

Marx defines exchange-value as “the quantitative relation, the proportion, in which use-values of one kind exchange for use-values of another kind” (Capital, 126). This type of exchange is necessary because of the division of labor in capitalist society, which is composed of separate workers producing privately and selling their labor power to produce single uses. He writes:

The totality of heterogeneous use-values or physical commodities reflects a totality of similarly heterogeneous forms of useful labour, which differ in order, genus, species and variety; in short, a social division of labour. This division of labour is a necessary condition for commodity production….Only the products of mutually independent acts of labour, performed in isolation, can confront each other as commodities. (Capital, 132)

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Hands Up Turn Up: Ferguson Jailbreaks out of History

Let the economists fret over the $27 million lost, and the city planners sigh over one of their most beautiful supermarkets gone up in smoke, and McIntyre blubber over his slain deputy sheriff. Let the sociologists bemoan the absurdity and intoxication of this rebellion. The role of a revolutionary publication is not only to justify the Los Angeles insurgents, but to help elucidate their perspectives, to explain theoretically the truth for which such practical action expresses the search.

– The Situationist International, on the 1965 Watts Rebellion

Things have unfolded rapidly in Ferguson, Missouri. On Thursday and Friday, we have seen reports of “festive” conditions, as locals hug the state highway patrol officers tapped by the Governor to replace the St. Louis County police force, and Captain Ronald Johnson marching alongside protesters.

Yet the mood changed Friday and Saturday night, as some protesters returned to the militancy we saw Mon-Wed nights, facing off with the cops, sporadically blockading the street, occasionally looting, and defying the state of emergency and curfew that followed. The situation on the ground, as the pundits say, is “fluid.”

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U&S members and other comrades have engaged our respective communities with flyering, solidarity protests, and participation in larger, nationally coordinated demonstrations. In between, we have put our heads together to draft some notes analyzing what is happening in Ferguson and nationally, since we see this moment as a qualitative leap forward for the U.S. proletariat and black politics. It is an exciting moment. We are all stretched to the max so please excuse the sparseness, partially thought, scattered nature of the notes below, which were thrown together by many different people as events unfolded over the week. We wanted to have a place holder on the blog where we can discuss what has been unfolding in Ferguson and have place to link to updates, report backs, etc., to draw out clearer, more substantive ideas, and help accomplish the task the Situationists laid out fifty years ago.

Ferguson’s Racial Dynamics

We don’t have a ton of knowledge about Ferguson in particular. Nationally, bloggers and activists have released information about racial profiling practices in Ferguson (apparently the NAACP had already been asking for a federal investigation in this regard):

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Beyond these numbers, some of us feel Ferguson represents a kind of “perfect storm” of racialized social relations. St. Louis, like Louisville and Cincinnati, are long-time deindustrialized cities, which are very segregated, with a large black population and vastly white local government and police department. These cities, historically, have witnessed some of the worst “race riots” in US history, and today the police and other public officials in Ferguson are upholding this tradition of white supremacy in overt ways, in supposedly “post-racial” America: harsh repression of protests, leaving Mike Brown’s body in the street for 4 hours, refusing to release the cop’s name for several days, etc.
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Dirt Road Revolutionary: On Shutdowns and Party Politics

While Washington D.C. has arguably been experiencing a slow-moving constitutional crisis in the last few years, unknown in recent U.S. history, there has been something like a “counter-revolutionary” surge at the state level in which the rightwing of the Republican party has passed dozens, if not hundreds of laws targeting nearly every sector of the working class and the oppressed. Some of the most important laws have targeted reproductive and voting rights, as well as unions.

In order to advance our understanding of these critical developments, we are reposting a piece from our comrade over at Dirt Road Revolutionary.

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ON SHUTDOWNS AND PARTY POLITICS

by Dirt Road Revolutionary

Most “Millenials” today are a little too young to remember the last two shutdowns under Clinton, so the events that have unfolded over the last week are really a new experience for a group that has been much discussed and often maligned in recent weeks. What is absolutely, frustratingly familiar, however, is the wading pool shallow discussions parading themselves around as serious journalism and analysis. Professional loudmouths and hand wringers dance and shuffle around on cable news, the best print journalism maps only the surface technicalities and the worst tries to split the difference between cowardice and insanity. Of course, no one has anything approaching a serious practical – or even “impractical” by today’s bankrupt “pragmatism” – suggestion on what to do whatsoever to escape this trajectory of self-destruction.

The first, most obvious, most undeniable point to be made is this: the current shutdown in the Federal government today is a direct result of the rise of a new Tea Party faction in American politics. While the mainstream media has largely been obsessed with the theatrics of the debacle, the U.S. Left has failed to provide even a glimmer of an analysis that is compelling or practical in any way whatsoever.

The phrase that the two parties are “two wings of capital” has been repeated by fellow activists by rote so many times that it has become completely bankrupt. The Socialist Worker has largely hopped on this same trope in recent days:

So it will be all the more important for those who want an alternative to the status quo in Washington to remind themselves and others of a hidden-in-plain-sight truth about American politics–that the Democrats and Republicans agree about much more than they disagree.

The key problem with this kind of sloganeering is that it actually tells us nothing. It simply freezes capital into a seemingly eternal thing, with two wings also frozen in loyal opposition, only superficially different but ultimately homogenous and unchanging. This is cheap nonsense masquerading as analysis and needs to be recognized as such.
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What is to be Done? and the Need for Organization

revs97The following essay was written awhile ago and sat around waiting to be fixed up. It can be read as a follow up to notes on Lars Lih’s important book, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context. Only recently the essay was finally fixed up enough to post here.

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It is important to deal with Lenin’s concept of organization in WITBD. The point is not to elevate WITBD into a set of principles that can be abstractly and universally applied. Like any work, WITBD is a product of history. As Lih noted in the beginning of his book such an approach has been an evident enough problem in the history of “Leninism”. However, despite Lih’s attempt to downplay the importance of WITBD in subsequent bolshevik thinking about organization, Lenin’s work—including WITBD—continues to be a necessary reference point for rethinking the role of revolutionary groups and organizations in our own day. By restoring the detailed context of Lenin’s concept of organization and reestablishing its connection to Kautsky, Lih provides the basis to learn from and critique Lenin and Leninism. In doing so he makes WITBD alive again—a renewed and important departure point for thinking about revolutionary groups and organization.

As Lih argues, the importance of WITBD was found in its generalization of already existing practices in the Russian underground, codifying and synthesizing those practices into a broad whole. The generalizing character of WITBD is what continues to make it so valuable today.
The Need for Revolutionary Theory

The first principle that Lenin elaborates is the necessity of revolutionary theory. Lenin writes, “[w]ithout a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement” (696). A revolutionary theory is necessary to understand the system as a whole from the standpoint of the working class and the oppressed, and their necessary struggle for liberation. According to Lenin, only the revolutionary organization can develop such theory and put it in practical relationship with a workers movement through a program and tactics of struggle. For Lenin in such a role the organization articulates the relationship of the class in motion between its historical tasks and its concrete existence. Finally, not only is the elaboration of theory necessary so is its defense against reformists, or what today would be called progressives

The specific tasks that correspond to the construction of theory and its defense only become clearer when Lenin gives an account of the history of the workers movement in Russia. He argues that the strikes of the mid-1890s signaled an important leap in the form of activity by Russian workers. For the first time they demonstrated “the awakening of the antagonism between workers and owners” which was expressed in the form of collective action and specific demands on the capitalists (702). However, Lenin cautions, these struggles remained “a tred-iunionist struggle” and were “not yet a Social-Democratic one” because “there did not exist among these workers—nor could it have existed at that time—an awareness of the irreconcilable opposition of their interests to the entire political and social order” (701-702). In other words, for Lenin revolutionary theory grasps the totality of relations of capitalism and therefore the standpoint of abolishing the system itself. Trade unionism, on the other hand, is form that corresponds to workers as workers. As a result, Lenin implies, trade unionism without revolutionary theory and its organization leads to a focus solely on distribution of the surplus in the form of the wage.
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Notes on chapter one of Marx’s Capital, Part One

The following is the first part of some notes on chapter one of Capital. The second part will follow in the upcoming months.

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The Dual Character of the Commodity is the Dual Character of Labor

Marx begins chapter one of Capital by describing the dual character of the commodity. One side of the commodity is defined by how it is used. Marx calls this “use-value.” He defines use by how the commodity “satisfies human needs of whatever kind” (125). The idea of “human needs” plays an important role in Marx’s thought and takes on a number of interrelated meanings. In the German Ideology he argues “The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history” (47). Throughout history human beings have produced things, or “uses,” to address their basic and expanded needs, which gives rise to particular forms of society, specific kinds of social relations and subjectivities.

When looked at as merely a use, the commodity is indistinguishable from the process of satisfying needs as a general characteristic of all human societies. So, as various kinds of uses to fulfill our many needs, commodities “constitute the material content of wealth, whatever its social form may be.” However, Marx concludes in Capital that a commodity takes on characteristics that are specific to capitalist society, which only becomes clear when he looks at the other side of the commodity: exchange. “In the form of society to be considered here [in Capital] they are also the material bearers of exchange value” (126).

The production of uses to satisfy needs in capitalist society takes a specific form of exchange. While historically there have been other types of exchange, these reflected non-capitalist forms of society. One of Marx’s tasks is to show how the form of exchange in capitalism, and therefore the social relations or form of that society is historically unprecedented and something new.

So the tendency for the production of uses to satisfy needs to take on a specific form of exchange is the other side of the commodity. What form does this exchange take place in capitalism? “Exchange-value appears first of all as the quantitative relation, the proportion, in which use-values of one kind exchange for use-values of another kind” (126). As Marx explains:
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