Author Archives: James C. Tolleson (He/Him)

10/31 Don Robotham

Colin, Marty, and Hugo

We are living in a dangerous moment. The forces on the right are on the march. They have a unified message and a clear leader, a political and economic program, and the power of the state. The left and progressive movement is outraged and defiant but not acting with the same cohesion. We are in for a very long haul and need to think strategically, not only in this country, but in Brazil, Eastern Europe, Turkey, the forces are simmering in Germany. But while these dynamics are not confined to one country, it is important to think about the specifics and particularities in every instance.

Marxism as a form of historical materialism:

Like other bodies of thought, Marxism has both a broad general value and simultaneously the specificity of arising in a specific time and place. Marx and Engels studied the development of capitalism in Western Europe, particularly in Britain. But the achievement of Marx transcends time and place. Marx was able to extract the fundamental core of the capitalist system which reproduces itself wherever capitalism goes. At the heart of the matter, the capitalist system is based on private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of wage labor. This is a universal feature of capitalism, and a whole system of contradictions develops out of this.

Despite these universally applicable core relations, the way capitalism developed in Britain is not the same way it developed in China, Egypt, Brazil, Argentina, etc. In each case, specific features vary across contexts. Japan, Russia, China all tried, for example, to allow capitalism to develop without the old elites losing their position. In the U.S. context, the Civil War had widespread destruction of the old plantocracy in the South. As capitalism began to emerge in the post-Civil War period it was relatively less racist, and then it’s reversed. And this then brings racism into the center of the political and economic history and life of the U.S. It’s a very distinctively U.S. development, very specific to how the U.S. develops. But it’s capitalism, and the broad features of capitalism in the U.S. are no different from the broad features of capitalism anywhere else.

But it’s absolutely crucial, especially politically, to understand what is historically specific to each capitalism, to study, in each instance, which political alliances are generated. It is critical to get away from Eurocentrism in our thinking; Eurocentrism affects Marxism too. This requires us to recover the historical agency of actors in different historical contexts. We can’t apply Manchester to China, or what unfolded in the U.S. to Egypt. To practice a science of the concrete means to be able to take the core features of capitalism and see how they are deeply inserted in the historical specifics. If we aren’t able to do this, we won’t be able to move the political needle. It is not possible to connect with people simply with an abstract theory. It is impossible to apply Marxism in a mechanical way, without deeply grounding it in historical specifics.

But that is not to say we should create a new Marxism. There are general truths of universal importance. Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is the classic example; it can’t be read often enough. In it we see the distance between an abstract grasp of theory and the concrete application with surprising and creative results. Lenin and Mao both grasped this. Manchester or Dutch development can’t be mechanically applied to Russia or China. We need to deeply embed our analysis in a historical way.

Marxism as a dialectical materialism:

This is an old Hegelian story, that of the contradictions, but it is a crucial part of Marxism. It is not a positivism. We can think of dialectics as a “pro” and “con” which inevitably arise out of a particular political situation, in which the two sides are actually irreconcilable within the existing frame of things. If the “pro” is the future, or the historical future struggling to emerge, and the “con” is the past, or the past embedded in the present, we can see the dialectical present as the irreconcilable fight to the end in which one side is going to prevail. This is a deep historical process in which the irreconcilability of the positions drive a process of political and social transformation, out of which a new political and social regime emerges.

This type of dialectical analysis which is directly derived from Hegel is formulated in idealist terms. That is to say, this is a struggle in consciousness, in ways of thinking. So there’s a dialectic between old and new ways of thinking, and the issue is which way of thinking will prevail. In Hegel’s case, will the new liberal French perspective, which Hegel supported, prevail, or will the old German feudal way of thinking prevail. For Hegel, this process is at the core of things, the struggle of ideas, so the dialectic is in the ideological realm. It’s a dialectic in literature, poetry, music, art, philosophy, theory. Marx then took that, and while he agreed, he said the real root of the dialectic is the contradictions in the mode of production.

So he took what was an idealist interpretation of contradictions, and said that these contradictions are materially based and embedded in a set of material relations, and in this case between the ownership of the means of production and the development of the forces of production. That then this concept is so Hegelian it has an ironic cast to it, for Marx argues that, quite unintentionally in the pursuit the developing capitalism and expanding it, the system itself lays the foundation for its ultimate downfall. Because there is a necessity in these contradictions in which capitalism necessarily develops in such a way that it also creates the political forces which will overthrow it.

For Hegel and Marx, this dialectical conception of history is a profound mixture of both a tragic and an optimistic conception at the same time. In other words, victory here is eventually won at a tremendous, unspeakable price.

On social wealth funds:

If one of the challenges to anti-capitalist action is that the left has no clear leader, perhaps a more significant one is that the left has no clear program. One example of a program the left might take up more broadly, as a way to propose rather than just oppose, is the macroeconomic management instrument often known as a “social wealth fund.”

Specific implementations of the general form differ, but the underlying idea is to challenge what we have already identified as the fundamental core of capitalism: private ownership of the means of production, through which labor is exploited. That exploitation is possible because the human heritage of innovation and increased productivity, which is ultimately the property of the public, has been stolen—that is, appropriated by capital. If the accumulation and increasing concentration of wealth is conditioned by this theft, it is further ensured by certain rights that have accrued to capital as a result of its power over the juridical apparatus. Any viable plan to socialize capital, to use capital for social purposes, must therefore involve encroaching on the rights of capital.

The social wealth fund encroaches on those rights and undermines private ownership by placing assets under the control of a public body. Very generally, firms are “taxed” in the form of stock, which is a representation of ownership, rather than being taxed in the form of currency paid to the state. Stock is a form of ownership, but also an asset that generates income through dividends. These dividends can be used to fund social services, which in some cases include universal basic income. The more significant intervention, however, is that a portion of dividends can be reinvested. In other words, dividends are turned into capital, but capital that is socialized since it is controlled by a public body.

There are, of course, many challenges to such a plan. Not least of which is that social wealth funds appear to be simply another technocratic solution to a fundamentally social problem. However, we should imagine these proposals as one way among many to build a movement by mobilizing people and engaging them in leftist causes, not as some ultimate solution. The term “social” obscures that social wealth funds have the potential to go beyond nationalizing or socializing assets. Rather, they are part of a broader struggle to subordinate capital. More problematic, however, is that in their current implementations these instruments often take the nation state as a given and so remain limited in their application to the problem of globalized capital. Since funds are modeled on taxes, they can only “tax” firms that are based in the country where the fund operates. However, funds can invest in publicly traded corporations outside their own nation-state, potentially extending their reach beyond these boundaries. The issue remains, of course, about who makes the decisions on which investments to make. Perhaps even more challenging is what happens when a national fund accumulates enough stock to significantly steer the decision-making process of multinational corporations. Given that the interests of nation-states are not always aligned, and given that national wealth varies widely among nations, such funds also have the potential to perpetuate certain inequalities in global decision-making processes.

Further information on social wealth funds:

Concluding remarks:

The far right has won elections by speaking in nationalist terms, and speaking to the anger people feel over the last 30 years of living under a neoliberal agenda that has exported their jobs, cut their wages, and continues to minimize their social benefits. The established left in the US failed to acknowledge and admit to their role in the continuing detriment of their working population’s lives.  Trump, on the other hand, mobilized this angry core.

Prof. Robotham stressed the significance of the current critique and attack of global capitalism coming from the right in U.S. politics, when it traditionally has been the left critiquing this global model. He sees the ultra right as pushing their agenda best, which happens to be anti global capitalism in many ways.  The ultra right is leading a pushback against global capitalism, currently within the framework of traditional conservatism, but this looks like it could fall further to the right into an explicitly racist state, which would lead to a crisis in democracy.

In response to these strong forces it seems the left stands divided and unsure what to do. The usual liberalism defensive position has been “listen, it’s not as bad as you think, or as bad as they say.”  That’s the stance Hillary Clinton upheld.  That’s not going to cut it anymore.  People are angry and the left needs to step up with a clear platform that connects with the masses.

1. Marx’s dialectical and materialist conception of history helps us to think together the fundamental core relations of capital, which apply universally wherever a capitalist mode of production develops, as well as the deeply historically specific features of any particular instance of capitalism which emerge out of vastly different social and historical circumstances. But to what extent does Marx’s method of historical analysis, and the economic categories (such as labor-time) which inform historical and dialectical materialism, help us to understand non- or post-capitalist social formations? Is historical materialism a trans-historical social science or are its categories specific to capitalist societies? If the latter is the case, how might Marx’s conception of history be reconceived for a post-capitalist social order?

2. Professor Robotham stressed that the course of action of the left has to go beyond merely opposing the right. What economic proposals can the left present or utilize?

3. Another question this recent movement raises: Can a conservative, authoritarian project be fully realized within a bourgeoisie constitutional framework? (i.e. free press, free speech, freedom of assembly)

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