We have argued that Trump’s election represents a deepening impasse in neoliberalism, and that this impasse results from a systemic crisis in capitalism. As capital works to counteract falling profit rates by contracting social reproduction, it faces a growing problem of legitimacy. Delegitimation deepened slowly but steadily for years and fractured the consensus below the neoliberal order. Now the rise of Trump represents a sudden expansion of these fractures, which extend, like cracks in a windshield, deep into the state. Continue reading Morbid Symptoms: Conclusions
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 is 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 current 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, has been steadily incorporated into capitalist production and the state. In exchange for labor peace and increased productivity, they were 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. Living standards in the postwar period rose for many layers of the working class, thanks to the growing number of cheap consumer goods. But this trend could only continue as long as the worker generated surpluses 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.
Continue reading Morbid Symptoms: The Downward Spiral
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. Part three is here.
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’s, 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.
Continue reading Morbid Symptoms: The Rise of Trump
Today, members of Unity and Struggle, along with comrades from Sloths Against Nuclear State and Barnard Columbia Divest for Climate Justice * will be engaging in the People’s Climate March in New York City. We wrote a short pamphlet to share with people who are engaging in these struggles, and who are working through questions of reform and revolution in regards to climate change and environmental destruction.
“Climate Change is Not an Environmental Issue”
It’s easy to forget the roots of climate change. For many people, climate change and environmental destruction are synonymous with human society, or population growth. Non-profits, academics, and even some radicals blame environmental destruction on the “anthropocene” and “human intervention.” But we want to call the origin of the crisis what it is. We are not only dealing with an environmental crisis. The same root cause that creates climate change is behind inequality, poverty, many contemporary illnesses, homelessness, and everyday alienation. This root cause is not humans, or “human society” writ large. It is instead a particular form of human social relations: capitalism.
Capitalism is the organization of society around production purely for exchange and profit, as opposed to use. Capitalism requires overproduction, debt, endless growth, and most important of all, inequality. Capitalist social relations are inherently anti-democratic. Whether you work for an NGO or for an energy company, you are working for something that exists outside of your direct control. Without inequality, there would be no workers to exploit, no land to grab, and no rents to raise. Without hierarchy, capitalist production would become obsolete–as the people formerly on the bottom would take democratic control over the means of production, and end exploitation. Inequality, hierarchy, exchange, misery, and alienation are all sources of life for capitalism, and sources of death for working and poor people. The state (congress, the police, local civic bodies, courts) exist to maintain inequality and hierarchy, and work out conflicts within the ruling class. Continue reading Against Climate Exceptionalism
On the eve of the “People’s Climate March” 2014, a member of U&S NYC offers up some theses for discussion. It has been rightly observed within U&S that these theses do not engage directly with the crisis itself, and its particular relationship to capitalism. In this regard, they can be understood as supplementary reading to the excellent pamphlet “Why Climate Change is Not And Environmental Issue“. A more rigorous engagement with these questions is forthcoming.
I. The first person to fence off a piece of land and say “this is mine” was the original “climate criminal”. The first person to defend this right was the forebear of today’s “green capitalist”.
II. Green capitalism tells us that the “environmental crisis” can be resolved within capitalism, by capitalist means — legislation, lobbying, fundraising, protest parades, and direct actions that “speak truth to power” and get the wheels of reform turning. Talk of “climate criminals”, the nefarious “Wall Street”, and the need for “climate justice” is perfectly consistent with green capitalism. For green capitalism, the solution to the climate crisis is more effective capitalist democracy, fairer capitalist justice, “Main Street not Wall Street”, or in other words: better capitalism.
III. Branding oneself “anti‐capitalist” hardly makes one any less capitalist; quite the opposite. A savvy eye to niche marketing makes the “anti‐capitalist” promoter of green capitalism a capitalist, par excellence.
IV. Green capitalism parcels out ecological crisis from the struggles we face in our daily lives and forces us to fight for “the environment” in abstraction from the fight for control of our lives. Torn from our everyday experiences of capitalist exploitation (wage labor, austerity, racism, gentrification, patriarchy, sickness, depression…), we are transplanted to the specialized site of the “environmental” struggle: whether through petitions in the halls of power, the theatrics of the ballot box, or long train rides to spectacular demonstrations in neighborhoods where nobody but a “climate justice” non‐profit director could afford to live.
V. Green capitalism seeks not to empower people to take control of their daily lives, but to manage peoples’ outrage into channels deemed acceptable in advance. These parameters are typically defined by legality and adherence to the institutions of the capitalist state, but also allow for a measured illegality as a means of blowing off a little steam. This type of management is intrinsic to the “non‐profit” form, to the political party (reformist and revolutionary), and to all organizations which do not accept the secondary role they play to facilitating independent activity outside of and exceeding their control.
VI. Speaking truth to power, and thus recognizing its legitimacy, offers access to official society as an acknowledged leader, favorable coverage in the press, book deals, “political” credibility in academia, cushy NGO jobs, and even access to ruling class representative politics when one should decide their days of sewing wild oats to be over. Building counterpower — defying self‐appointed movement managers, forging bonds across struggles resistant to leadership from above, and helping to push situations beyond the bounds of any recuperation — offers none of this, as it threatens the ruling class, rather than flattering it.
VII. If the central, albeit unspoken demand of Occupy Wall Street was the right of return to the middle class by those freshly expelled from it, green capitalism offers that possibility to a milieu of young activists who want to put their technocratic smarts to use and be the change they want to see in the world. In this perverse way, the middle class aspirations of Occupy may succeed for its most dedicated partisans, on an individual basis. Whether or not this rope ladder to social mobility is accepted (has and) will determine which side of the class line young activists fall in today’s struggles and the struggles ahead.
VIII. Green capitalism needs a “media strategy” because it has no desire to engage people by any other means. Through spectacular “actions” neatly staged for the press cameras, green capitalism summons modernity’s most effective tool for imposing disempowerment and isolation — capitalist mass media — to “get out the message” in the exact manner of the Ford Motor Company. For green capitalism, the alienation of struggle from daily life becomes the struggle to determine the form alienation should take: green capitalism needs alienated consumers of… green capitalism. It’s no coincidence that so much of “the movement” is preoccupied with what kind of consumers people should be.
IX. Green capitalism deliberately separates tightly-controlled lawful demonstrations from the sanctioned illegality of the “disobedient” direct action. The illegality of the latter allows for the movement-policing of the former, and is a source of its legitimacy. Thus there is a symbiosis, reinforcing their exclusivity. Even in illegality, human activity is tightly managed from above by green capitalism. Meanwhile “civil” illegality itself is scrupulously codified, and put to work peacefully in the service of an improved legality. Illegality which refuses to speak to power, adopting instead a language of its own understood only by its participants, is deemed illegitimate, divisive, and devoid of content. Occupy briefly challenged this dynamic, but many brave blockaders of the Brooklyn Bridge soon amended their story to become victims of a police plot.
X. The specter of the proletariat taking decisive action on its own terms, generalizing its daily struggles toward the struggle against environmental ruin, and pushing beyond the conservative parameters of “the environmental movement” is the nightmare of green capitalism. When this day comes, the self‐appointed leaders of “climate justice” will either suppress the movement back into neatly parceled channels, or will be left on the sidelines to order each other around while the class moves on its own. And there will be no question of willfully turning oneself over to the state for symbolic arrest. How we relate to green capitalism today will partially determine which direction is taken at this coming juncture, though the thrust of this movement will be (thankfully) out of anyone’s hands.
XI. Green capitalism seeks sustainable misery. Its dubious dream — of capitalism surviving ecological crisis and prolonging its project to degrade and disfigure humanity for thousands of years to come — is more horrifying than the prospect of humanity ceasing to exist altogether. Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.
Below is a recent article written by members of the Florence Johnston Collective looking at the current crisis of reproduction and state control over/criminalization of women’s bodies. Last week, a woman in Tennessee was arrested based on her pregnancy outcomes. The Collective will be releasing a second article looking at these issues, along with a pamphlet for print and distribution. See the original post here.
Tennessee recently passed a law, S.B. 1391, making it the first state to prosecute women for criminal assault if their fetus or newborn is considered harmed due to illegal drug use during pregnancy. Criminalization of pregnant women and mothers is one side of the various ways the State attempts to control reproduction and discipline womens’ bodies. This is an attack against working class women of color not unlike those we have seen in Texas, California, nationally and globally. All of these measures will impede women’s access to health care and efface women’s reproductive skills and knowledge. But unlike abortion restrictions and forced sterilization, the Tennessee law is an attempt to divide feminized workers under the guise of “protection” of women and children, a strategy we are likely to see more frequently as the economic crisis deepens.
S.B. 1391 and the Crisis.
Today’s crisis is manifested in the inability of the class to take care of itself, or reproduce itself; it is a crisis of reproduction. Wages are so low that the class cannot afford to get everything it needs to go to work every day. Of course, “everything” we need is a relative term based on time and place; workers in America need a smartphone and cable TV after years of changes in living standards. The class has supplemented this crisis of reproduction with personal debt. We get credit cards to buy clothes and pay our cell phone bills and we take out student loans we will never pay back to make an extra $3/hr. This is what life looks like for the working class today.
For the ruling class, there is another type of hustle. It is a general law of capitalism that profits must always increase. So capitalists make changes to the workplace, by introducing more and more machines and pushing workers out of the production process, to ensure an increased profit. However, this catches up to them. Since workers are the only ones capable of creating value (there is always a worker somewhere in the production process!), the more capitalists push workers out of the production process, the more the profit margin weakens. Couple this phenomenon with the working class’s increased dependence on debt and loans and we find ourselves in today’s economic crisis.
On top of this, because so many workers are pushed out of the production process (consider Detroit’s 23% unemployment rate for example), a surplus population of workers makes it possible for capitalism to pit people against each other in competition for jobs. In this sense, the ruling class has an interest in controlling the actual number of workers there are in the world at a given moment, based on the needs of capital.