Book Review: Michael Harrington. The Twilight of Capitalism. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976. Available through Powell's, a unionized bookstore.
Midway through The Twilight of Capitalism, Michael Harrington tells how President Roosevelt met with an emissary from William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, was given to ordering the editors of his news empire to paint the Roosevelt program as "essentially Communism," and the President himself as "Stalin Delano Roosevelt." But when Roosevelt sat down with Hearst’s deputy the President told him point-blank:
I want to save our system, the capitalist system... It may be necessary to throw to the wolves the forty-six men who are reported to have incomes in excess of one million dollars a year.
For Harrington that was the dream scenario, as it is today for many liberals and democrats: capitalism would save itself, and in the process, be transformed. For Harrington, though, the transformation would take us all the way to socialism. Vain hope? The Twilight of Capitalism was published in 1976, the year a well-meaning, progressive and politically conflicted President came to power amidst a major economic crisis; four years later, Carter was replaced by Reagan: the Twilight promised by Harrington, like Richard Wagner’s, has been dull, repetitive, and seemingly endless.
Rosa Luxemburg wrote that we often think we’ve moved beyond Marx when in fact we’re not even ready for him. Half of Harrington’s book is devoted to a superb clarification of post-modern Marxism, meaning that train of thought he calls "underground Marxism" and others "Western Marxism," and that encompasses the early Marx, Lukács, Adorno, Korsch, Benjamin, Sartre and a number of postmodernists. It’s so easy to get lost in Harrington’s insights that you may end up wondering, by the time you reach the second half of this book, how they apply to his social, political and economic situation, and ours. Take the Labor Theory of Value—please. This is the theory that the value of an object produced by a worker is equivalent to the work the worker puts in, as opposed to the newfangled Teabag talking point that the worker contributes nothing at all. If the Labor Theory of Value were applicable, then there’d be some validity to those progressive arguments, Marxist or otherwise, that the value circulating in society is a fixed amount of pie to which the capitalist helps herself more than she should, and the producer less than he can. The purpose of reform and revolution, then, would be to cut and redistribute the pie in a more egalitarian way; but as Harrington points out, that’s not what Marx meant. Marx discusses this theory in Book I of Capital but he doesn’t endorse it or wish to suggest that the pie has a fixed value. Harrington here comes to two major insights about Marx that elude many traditional Marxists, not to mention those anti-Marxist economists who love to take up Marx’s ideas while claiming to have transcended him—their private little aufhebung, as it were. Fact is, the concept of the Labor Theory of Value is not Marx’s, it’s Ricardo’s, and Marx discusses it as an abstract concept, not as "the" Truth, least of all the Truth of Capitalism. Marxism is not a positivism; it is not what is laughably called a "science;" It does not meet the standards of idealist positivism that have ruled Western thought since the Enlightenment. Where capitalist science attempts to induct universal truths universally applicable from singular events, the Marxist movement of thought is to analyze certain appearances (e.g. the apparently cogent argument that a worker produces surplus-value) and from that analysis return to an inductive understanding of the here-and-now—of capitalist production for instance, in which the Labor Theory of Value is the fantasy, the ghost, the dream perpetually postponed that haunts the harsh reality of Capital. When singers of the Internationale proclaim, "At last ends the Age of Kant," they really mean it.
And since Marx is not a positivist he’s not a functionalist either; how these two are connected is the subject of a fascinating debate between Jürgen Habermas, the last of the Frankfurt School, and Karl Popper, the theorist of the Open-for-Business Society. And because Marx isn’t a functionalist his theory breaks through the brilliant argument, commonly found in every department of every American university, that Things Are The Way they Are Because That’s The Way They Are. TINA: There is No Alternative according to Maggie Thatcher, whose fave economist was Friedrich Hayek, who happened to be a close friend and intellectual ally of Popper—I told you this was a closed system. In the positivist "Idylls of equilibrium" narrated by capitalist economists and others the premiss serves as its own conclusion; but Marx the dialectician tells us things are they way they are because of the things they are not, and therefore the capitalist system, because it is uniquely open and inclusive and dynamic, is bound to change, to change even into its apparent opposite.
It’s the specific form of this transformation that takes up the second half of Harrington’s book, in terms meant originally for the situation in 1975 but applicable today. Marx, according to Harrington, was the first to see that the type of situation we live today—an enormous expansion of credit followed by a sickening plunge of the economy as credit contracts—is not the cause of the crisis but its symptom: not a deviation from capitalism, but capitalism in its own true self. The system will not self-correct because it’s not a self-correcting system.
If so, what comes next? Will capitalism bounce back or will it bounce back only by transforming itself so radically that it won’t even merit the name of capitalism? Harrington’s answer is directed first at true-red, blood-and-thunder revolutionary leftists. Government, he claims, is not a mere tool of capital, quoting Marx who says that the state under capitalism is the "executive committee of the bourgeoisie." Harrington takes this to mean that the state mediates for the dominant classes without necessarily dominating. Harrington would surely point to Obama, who does not see himself as representing the class that elected him but as mediating (or is it mitigating?) like a community organizer. Harrington himself played an important role in defining the Kennedy-Johnson "War on Poverty" of the nineteen-sixties, and his conversation with his fellow-Marxists sounds like the type of conversation Obama might have had with Bill Ayres; further yet, Harrington argues that the state is so conflicted in its relations with capital that it must, at some point, turn against capital in order to survive: no doubt the Greeks, the Irish and the Icelanders would cheer.
And Americans? The wider questions here are, first: whether and how the American experience of government differs from that of other countries, and second: whether and how the American experience has changed over time. Harrington implicitly follows William Appleman Williams, the American historian whose arguments influenced much of the Left in the ‘sixties. Williams thought America had a socialist side from its founding, if by "socialism" you mean what the French call La Sociale, the impulse to have a government that benefits society as a whole—a government that is one through social solidarity, Gemeinschaft. It’s worth noting that the teabaggers explicitly acknowledge this: if the First Thanksgiving was really a break with the socialist Indians (or the socialists back in England, or both), then clearly there was socialism here before there was a free market. And the teabaggers, of course, are in the curious position of arguing that American Gemeinschaft – social solidarity—consists in the absence of social solidarity. According to Williams this socialist side never disappeared entirely, and that is what we mean when we admit that there is no such thing as a free-market economy—even Adam Smith was aware of that. There are only variants of socialism that tend, more or less, towards the azimuth of a free market. The Marxist take on the "free" market (which happens to be that of Williams and a number of American historians) is very much like the Marxist take on the Value Theory of Labor: it’s a fiction, but a fiction that carries enormous weight in understanding the dynamics and history of capitalism.
Problem is, Government must repeatedly get into the business of business to save the free market from itself. But the more deeply it gets into business the more it enters in direct competition with this supposedly free market. This is most obvious in the case of Obamacare, but the same dynamic occurred in the cultural sector with the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts. This, suggests Harrington, leads to two potential conflicts within the state: first, that the more the state sides with the market, the weaker it becomes, for instance by socializing losses (e.g., A.I.G.) while privatizing gains (e.g., A.I.G.).
The second conflict comes from the fact that the state finds itself caught between two kinds of socialism, as it is today: socialism for corporations, or socialism for hoomins. This is not just oopsies, it’s inevitable, it’s part and parcel of capitalism. For instance, in 1969 the Council of Economic Advisers pointed out that building low-income housing was a poor investment strategy: it made better sense for the Government to invest in luxury high-rises because they would create far more capital. Plus ça change... The saddest part of Harrington’s book is a quote from JFK: "It’s a ridiculous situation for us to be squeezing down essential public activities in order not to touch private investment.... But apparently that’s life."
Rinse, wash, repeat. Harrington, like most leftists of the ‘sixties, follows another argument of Williams': that America had constantly postponed its reckoning with Socialism, the theory that says that essential public activities do count for more than profits and that the job of Government is to ensure the well-being of the citizenry instead of running to the Invisible Hand for a handout. According to Williams, as long as America imagined itself as a pioneer land with resources available further out West, the problem could be postponed: there was always another commune or community further out, where a man could be a man (or LGBT for that matter) without calling on Big Government to restrain or protect him—especially if he or she was LGBT, or black, or whatever. Gradually, it would dawn on Americans that resources were finite, the glaciers were melting and a man and/or whatever could, and had to, depend on others. No place to hide.
Are we there yet? I couldn’t tell you, and Harrington couldn’t either, he died in 1989. We’ve just gone through an election in which, it seemed to some, a number of voters voted against their own best interests or, if you prefer, voted for their own, short-term interests and against the interests of the community as a whole; but there’s a subtle difference between voting against one’s interests and pissing against the wind, and my hunch is these voters fall into the latter category. Elections in a democratic society are no more indicative of the will of the people than riots in any kind of society: at best, they’re a People’s Veto. The voters voting in Republicans, the Republicans voted in and the occult forces financing the process all have one word in common, and the word is No. So we have a fragile coalition built around a common interest in government gridlock—and why not, if Government is threatening to become the enemy of whatever its enemies perceive to be the free market?
As the Italian nobleman in Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo put it, everything has to change in order for things to remain exactly as they are: the US has endured two centuries and more, not because it represents the Will of the People, but because it was never fashioned to represent that will but to resist it, a finely calibrated instrument of gridlock. The recent election suggests that the thing being gridlocked, like the opposition to slavery in 1860, has become so much a part of American society that all actions against it may be rearguard actions, the actions of people with their backs against the wall:
It is time to think of resistance in a new way, something that is no longer carried out to reform a system but as an end in itself... We must not make it easy for them. But we also must no longer live in self-delusion.
Sounds like some teabagger scanning the horizon for the black helicopters bearing the Red Star, doesn’t it? Actually it’s Chris Hedges, left-liberal, throwing in the towel. Caught between caving in to the teabaggers and bankers on one side, and the only efficient resistance possible on the other, Hedges opts for self-immolation: better dead than red and/or reactionary. There’s an elephant in the room, and it’s not the GOP.
[9/9/2012; last revised 2/2/2013]
WOID XIX-38.Socialism or Teabaggery