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Brief response to Global Sociologist on Mason's "Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere"

I mentioned that I had too many books to read, and sheesh if Global Sociologist didn't read her book already, and then ping me for a response. Well, I haven't finished the damn book, but in the interests of starting a blog war inititiating a discussion, I'll throw together this post. The book is Paul Mason's Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere, which is well worth reading. Here's an excerpt from Global Sociologist's review, which you should also go read:

It seems pretty obvious that the same causes lead to the same effects: see – austerity all over Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy, especially). But Mubarak had been in synch with the rest of global elites who meets every year in Davos. Actually, most dictators who have been removed from power in the Arab Spring were good friends of Western power. Which is partly why Western media and political classes did not see it coming and were slow to react.... Why?

According to Mason, two reasons explain this blind spot: (1) a stereotypical concept of the Arab world that would make Edward Said turn in his grave (passive but violent, squeezed between terrorism and religious fundamentalism), and (2) when was the last time the mainstream media had a solid discussion of class? For as long as I lived in the US, any suggestion that gross and growing inequalities were going to be a problem at some point was shot down as “class warfare” (as if there had not been a class war since the Reagan era, one that, as Warren Buffett has told us, his class has won already). More broadly, this failure is the inability to conceptualize a systemic failure of capitalism (so, analysis of the crisis was reduced to accusations launched against the lower classes – but not class warfare! – and minorities). The events of the past year, for Mason, reveal the utter failure of capitalist realism but also of the mainstream left.

Some very brief [UPDATE haw --lambert] comments (because I've been following Occupy very much at the micro level, and from far away, and Global Sociologist, being, like, a scholar, has a richer set of analytical tools than I do. [In fact, this has turned into a brain dump. I've got to leave it that way, since I need to go on and do other things. --lambert]

1. I like it that Mason includes the Wisconsin Capitol Occupation and the Ohio SB5 movement in his timeline, which some of us (lambert blushes modestly) noted at the time. Not to take anything away from the organizers of the events that began in the fall, but civil resistance (as Chenoweth calls it) in the United States did not originate on September 17. (One might also consider the Red Shirt / Yellow Shirt events in Thailand, which happened before Egypt, on the same timeline, which Mason does not do.) [It is clear that Occupy provided a template or pattern for rhizomic growth, however.]

2. The quest for historical parallels is fun, but I don't know how useful it is. That said, I'd prefer 1848 to, say, 1917. It's always possible to make things worse, if one classifies slaughtering millions of people as worse.

3. I'm curious why Mason wouldn't pick 1968, as opposed to 1848, for his historical precedent/cautionary tale for what's "kicking off." My take (FWIW) on the 60s is that there were huge victories over time for civil rights and also for gay rights. Here's my potted history painted in very broad strokes, which also turns out to cover my adult lifetime:

Down to the oft-reviled Boomers of the left: It really is a triumph for good and for the human spirit that gay people can marry, for example, even if it did take thirty years of patient courageous work. (Not saying that marriage is the object, just a good metric for considering that gay people might be fully human.) Ditto consolidating the gains of the civil rights movement, social insurance institutions like Medicare, and environmental institutions established by the Last of The Great Liberals, Richard Nixon. However, it seems clear to as well that the oligarchy (what we know now as the 1%) came to class consciousness at that time, and in essence said "Never again."

As a result, in the early and mid-70s, the patriarchs of the 1% put the institutions of the right ("wingnut welfare") in place. The ferocity of the reaction can be judged by the distance from the impeachment of Richard Nixon for Watergate to the "free pass" given to the Reagan administration for Iran Contra: Less than ten years. At this time, the mid-70s, the patriarchs put their ideological institutions into place, mainly in Washington and Chicago, under the aegis of "the free market." The layered architecture of the right, from the shooters all the way up to George Will, et al. was also put into place at that time.

Also in the mid-70s, the patriarchs of the 1% flattened real wages. Families maintained their standard of living by going into debt (I'm so old I remember when plastic cards were used to buy gas, period, for pity's sake) and by becoming "two income" (the sort of feminism that was permissible). Social conflicts over cultural, gender, and race markers were permitted (the "culture wars," which "the left," for some definition of left, has won or is winning). Social conflicts over class were not. The screws on working people were gradually tightened over the entire period, though sometimes the screw would be backed off a little (real wages under Clinton rose) or tightened a little (Reagan's union busting).

That system ("neo-liberalism") is now broken or breaking. The 1% knows this. So do we. So, if they look at "wages and working conditions" (with one's entire life now "work," so mechanized is the consumption process) do the entire 99%.

The 1%, now freed by wealth from the constraints of patriotism, let alone noblesse oblige -- indeed, freed from the constraints of the nation-state altogether -- are attempting to pivot the United States into a resource extraction economy that consumes cheap goods from overseas assets controlled by them, and produces oil, natural gas, coal, and other forms of power suitable for the production of rent (like wind and not solar). Since the institutions that govern a free people are not necessary for this project, the patriarchs of the 1% are systematically dismantling them, and replacing them by institutions suitable for banana republics (the paradigmatic extractive economy). For example, the systematic theft of approximately half the nation's housing through MERS and LPS, and their repackaging into rental units owned by banks, will have the effect of turning a large part of the country into a 21st Century equivalent of a company town.

4. I think the 60s left can only be said to have failed if the opportunity was there for them to succeed. Take the 1870s as an example: In some ways, the United States really is different. For example, and I forget where I picked up this idea, but consider the US in the Gilded Age, with great extremes of wealth and poverty, constant crashes, albeit with huge advances in quality of life (taken as an average!) Just like Europe! So why no Social Democratic party, and why no organized mass militance? The writer argues that it was the Civil War. The men who would have to have been those militants had fought in the 1860s, and doing that again was not on offer. So there's no use looking for the "failure" of the Populist Movement if a success was not there to be had. The rhymes of history in this context are to be sought at the narrative and tactical levels, and not at the strategic. I would bet the same is true for 1848.

Similarly, in the 60s, anybody with any sense who got near the stupid and/or evil mad bombers of the militant wing of the white left got as far away from them as possible. ("Head for the hills" culminated twenty and thirty years on in a third triumph: Organic gardening and farming, which is going to save a lot of lives if or rather when the petroleum-based economy collapses or, more likely, ceases to live.)

But was success for the 60s left there to be had? I don't think so, exactly as in the 1870s in the US. Success would have taken unity with the (then strong) unions, and for whatever reasons, I don't think success was there to be had, as the left defined success (whatever "revolution" might have meant in that case). So I'm not sure I completely accept Mason's argument on "failure of the left." It's ahistorical.* [This is separate from the question of the left's institutional pathologies and factionalism, though to be generous, it's hard to be functional when whatever it is you have set your heart on cannot be, even though it is is right.]

5. Is "success" to be had today? If you define "success" as an end to the institution of private property, probably not. (The OWS statement of grievances, for example, supports private property.) If you define "success" as a transparent and accountable form of governance that curbs the power of the patriarchs of the 1%, I think it is. The country really is facing a crisis of legitimacy, and national institutions really are more fragile and brittle than we think. Plus, the general flattening of wages and skills elimination and general dehumanization increasingly makes people feel they are more alike than different.** The wall seems impossibly strong until somebody punches through it, and it turns out to have been a movie set all along.***

And Mason's book gives me some hope that #5 is right!

NOTE * To be fair, the left did fail as they defined success. One frame for the Hedges "cancer" dust-up might be that Zeese/Flowers, through Stop The Machine (note 60s rhetoric) were, in a way, seeking a form of expiation for the left's self-perceived failures over the last thirty years by putting together the best organization as they understood it. They were eclipsed, for the moment, after the AdBusters announcement, being essentially Elisha Grey to Occupy's Alexander Graham Bell. I, as a not-very-successful software developer, had the silly idea that one builds the product, and then announces it. In fact, many successful software developers announce the product, get funding, and then develop it. Easier in every way! Adbusters seems to have taken the approach of the successful software developer, and StopTheMachine the approach of the unsuccessful one , that is, mine. And nothing succeeds like success...

NOTE ** This is why the career "progressives" continually running interference for Obama is so very pernicious and destructive.

NOTE *** I'd argue -- completely hypothetically, of course -- that seizing a television station and starting to broadcast would be far more effective than wankery like smashing Starbucks windows or chanting "Fuck the Police." That may be armchair strategy, but shit, as Mason points out, AdBusters original call for "September 17" was totally from the armchair. It precipitated organizing, but was not the organizing.

UPDATE Capitalism is not a "systematic failure" for the patriarchs of the 1%. For them it is a tremendous success! Whenever you hear "success" or "failure" ask "for whom"? Also, surrendering the idea that our ruling elites have any notion of "public purpose" will lend clarity to many discussions. Many people, for example, think the elite are "stupid" because some policy that would benefit "everybody" isn't put in place. Well, it's not put in place because the elite don't benefit. They aren't stupid about their own interests as they understand them.

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DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

the biggest win of the late 60's was feminism, at the beginning of the decade women could not go to Harvard, Yale, University of Virginia, or many other top schools because they were men only. Women's liberation changed that. The classified ads in newspapers (remember them?) used to be segregated by Help Wanted Men, Help Wanted Women. It used to be that you could count the number of women politicians IN THE WHOLE COUNTRY on the fingers of your hands. Now we have hundreds of legislators, mayors, and a goodly number of Congresswomen and even a few senators and gasp, supreme court justices.

The 60's were a general cultural revolution with the young pitted against the old. The atmosphere is completely different now, economic suffering affects all ages so we have a broader coalition.

Submitted by lambert on

By the metric of ending patriarchy, not so much. (I'm saying "the patriarchs of the 1%" for a reason; it also has the great merit of being true. "Family values" == aristocracy)

RanDomino's picture
Submitted by RanDomino on

The "victory" of feminism is an illustration of the ultimate failure of the '60s, which paralleled the ultimate failure of the labor movement: There was no fundamental systemic change- instead a small subset got access to privilege. These weren't revolutions or victories, but delaying actions for the bourgeoisie, buying some of us off until we got lazy and disorganized. Union privileges started getting rolled back in the '80s and even right now the usual suspects are attacking women's liberation.

Submitted by blakey on

You're funny

It has never been more about the young vs the old. Youth unemployment has NEVER BEEN higher. Young people today have NEVER been more indebted. You think we are going to join hands with you old boomers, who grew up as the most privileged generation in history and then pulled up the ladder when it was your turn to run things? Nope.

Your feminism that 'liberates' all women, was only ever about middle and upperclass women getting more privilege. They replaced the 'patriarchy' of men in their own class for the 'patriarchy' of the 1% as you say. Replaced their husbands and fathers (who might have actually, you know, cared about them) with distant rich corporate overlords who didn't give one jizz about them.

You won the freedom to make that choice, nothing more. You went from being indirectly enslaved to the rich to being directly enslaved by the rich. That is your victory.

reslez's picture
Submitted by reslez on

Yeah, I suspect the reason for the partial gains of feminism -- which did, if you look at it, fall into a very specific pattern -- was that rich fathers could now send their daughters to Harvard and get their wives positions on corporate boards.

You have to wonder if some of those positions would have gone to white middle class men instead, and if some of the MRA rage is related to fewer advancement opportunities that now go instead to the daughters and wives of the 1%. They say economic mobility has decreased...

And the other tine on the fork was economic necessity that brought middle class women back into the workforce.

Submitted by lambert on

But you seem to be saying the feminist activity didn't take place in the working class. I doubt very much that's true (though I'm not an expert in the sources).

Also:

was that rich fathers could now send their daughters to Harvard and get their wives positions on corporate boards

puts treats these women, middle and upper class though they be, purely as agents of the men in their lives. Surely you don't mean that.

RanDomino's picture
Submitted by RanDomino on

No organized mass militance in the 1870s? Okay, maybe it wasn't "organized" but the Great Railroad Strike would like to have a word with you. Also, the Knights of Labor.

"The OWS statement of grievances, for example, supports private property."
It may depend on your definition of 'private property'. Today, both your home and the business empires of capitalists are considered the same class of 'private property' (on paper, anyway; obviously your home is far less as protected). But today those who are 'against private property' support the right to effective sovereignty over one's home, but think no such right is legitimate for economically-productive property, if someone else actually works there and the 'owner' merely extracts profit. I doubt this discussion was had at OWS and that's a shame.

Submitted by lambert on

[As the side remarks throughout show.]

You're right on the Knights of Labor, the Populists, the Grange, and the other movements, of course. Nevertheless, they never coalesced; "no Social Democratic party" was where I was heading. And I'm thinking the Civil War was one reason why. (Maybe it takes the place of mass conscription and nationalism in neutering "99%" power, as in Europe?)

reslez's picture
Submitted by reslez on

The United States had a frontier. It was an escape valve. If you weren't happy with economic conditions or social justice you went West. You could farm your own plot of land or set up shop in a place with low population density and minimal interference. No such mechanism existed in Europe. Nor does it exist anywhere today.

Submitted by lambert on

But I'm not sure how many working class printers, brewers, mechanics, clerks, steelworkers were going to head out west. Many of them did, for sure... But was lack of numbers really the issue? I can't argue strongly for the Civil War position, lacking evidence, but it seemed an intriguing thought to me I hadn't heard expressed elsewhere.

The overarching point I'm making is that there's no point blaming one's self for failure when there was no success (as one defined it for one's self) to be had. Nevertheless, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

Two ways in which it figures in. The Ds were the party of the working people. But the Civil War and its aftermath splits them completely.They get bonded to the Southern Bourbons who use their racism to prevent them from going left, and to keep the "freed"southern black people down.

In the North the Rs are always waving the bloody shirt at the Ds and use that to divert attention from class conflict. The War also kills a lot of young working people both North and South, so they're not available to organize in social democratic movements. Real movements have to arise among the poor farmers and the waves of immigrants. Those who move west are also getting settled for a generation. It takes them time to realize that the monied interests have control everywhere. When it dawns on everyone that this is reality in the 1880s and 90s, then populism arises. But not until them and not with the socialist ideology that animates the Europen movements.

Anyway, this is a very good post and should be posted at NC too if you can do it, Lambert.

RanDomino's picture
Submitted by RanDomino on

Also, the mind-numbingly terrible violence that was inflicted upon them by the State and capitalists.

Submitted by lambert on

... what, exactly?

That success was there for the taking if only the capitalists had been nicer people? (I mean, of course violence from the 1% of that day was a given; I didn't know I had to keep explaining the obvious).

(Actually, you reinforce my point. If you want mind-numbing violence, look at the Civil War, which cost 620,000 lives, and not the strikes in the 1870s, Homestead, or Haymarket. If indeed a war would have been necessary to overthrow capitalism, then perhaps living memories of the Civil War made that second war unlikely, which was my argument. Success (pre-1906) was not there for them. I don't know whether service in the military also made militancy less likely; perhaps it did.

RanDomino's picture
Submitted by RanDomino on

It means that the will to resist is not infinite. If someone kicks you in the face every time you disobey, eventually you're going to stop. That goes for everyone.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

that the Ds used the group-based politics of race and gender, and the issue of environmentalism to replace class-based politics during the 1970s. They maintained power in Congress by being more friendly to the rich, buying into neo-liberalism and advocating environmentalism and energy independence. It worked pretty well for them for a long-time, but sucked for poorer working people of all races and ethnic groups.