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Eve's Review

Failures of Capitalism

"Beyond Market Dystopia, Socialist Register 2020"

Edited by Leo Panitch and Greg Albo

Monthly Review, 294 pages

 

Eve Ottenberg

To define a workable socialism, it's best first to lay out what's wrong with capitalism. Nancy Fraser's excellent essay in "Beyond Market Dystopia" does just this, and these wrongs are three: injustice, irrationality and unfreedom. Injustice inheres in the exploitation of labor and theft of its surplus value. Irrationality exists in capitalism's built-in economic crises. Unfreedom derives from social inequality and class power and also from tyranny in the work-place.

 

Capitalism, Fraser argues, "is no mere economy…It is an institutionalized social order." The economic conditions on which it depends reveal this. There are four: unwaged social reproductive labor (cooking, cleaning, child and elder care, etc.); wealth expropriated from subjugated peoples (mostly in the Global South); free gifts from non-human nature (arable land, breathable air, potable water, etc.); public goods supplied by states (legal orders guaranteeing property rights, contracts and free exchange, transport and communication etc.). So capitalism takes from these four conditions but scarcely acknowledges them at all, indeed irrationally, compulsively and dangerously undermines them.

 

"Reduced to a tap and a sink, non-human nature is open to brute extractivism," by capitalism, as the terrifying evidence of climate change demonstrates all around us. Capital tends to "erode or destroy or deplete…its own presuppositions – which is to say, to eat its own tail." It does so with all four of the conditions it relies on. "If socialism aims to remedy capitalism's wrongs," Fraser writes, "it faces a very big job," because "socialists need to turn things right-side up: to install the nurturing of people, the safeguarding of nature and democratic self-rule as society's highest priorities, which trump efficiency and growth." Any moderately pessimistic onlooker would doubtless say "good luck."

 

But we have reached a point where moderate pessimism is not acceptable. Capitalism has "so callously trashed" all the conditions it depends on that it endangers humanity's future. If not now for socialism, when? Because in the end, socialism is the only governance that can "deinstitutionalize the growth imperative hard-wired into capitalist society." Capitalist growth is a cancer, one that has metastasized over the face of the earth, even as it robs billions of people of any life beyond mere subsistence.

 

"Beyond Market Dystopia" presents 14 essays organized around this theme of what comes after the destructive cyclone that is capitalism. It contains essays on migrants, socialized housing, precarious work, communism in the suburbs and much more. Editors Leo Panitch and Greg Albo have used their theme to reach into society's various realms and to illuminate the possibilities for a better, socialist future. A certain necessary optimism suffuses the whole. But beneath this, in many of these essays, simmers the very realistic anxiety that capitalism has gone too far.

 

Indeed, "Inside Climate News" recently reported that the oceans have absorbed warming caused by anthropogenic climate change equivalent to the explosion of over a billion Hiroshima-sized bombs. That's just what capitalism has done to earth's oceans. What it has done to the air, earth and nature's creatures is equally horrifying. But, as Barbara Harriss-White's essay quotes Chomsky: "We have two choices: to abandon hope and ensure that the worst will happen, or to make use of the opportunities that exist and contribute to a better world. It is not a very difficult choice."

 

In the world of work, Michelle Chen reports that most labor will be freelance by 2027. "In rich and poor nations alike," she writes, "technological innovation will disrupt the role of the state and the power of the labor movement." The gig economy will only expand. Chen advocates countering it with a global crowd-workers' guild or an app-based collective-bargaining agreement. These would be welcome developments, helping technology, she argues, to become a force against capital's consolidation of power "over the emergent global infrastructure" and against capital's "capture of more of our public sphere."

 

Gig workers, Chen argues are in a "constant state of dislocation [that] breeds constant instability." There have been some legal wins: in New York, uber drivers are now entitled to unemployment benefits and in some countries are recognized as employees. Drivers have led wildcat strikes, and they have rioted. Their fight against capital is a fight for life. They are on the front lines of the twenty-first century's class war, in which the billionaire class arrogantly asserts its privilege: to control the lives and bodies of workers, to wring out every last cent, everywhere, just as it pillages the planet, everywhere.

 

The face of that predatory class is Donald Trump. He and his reactionary Republican backers chant that the U.S. will never be socialist, that that is not in our future. He is wrong. It may only come in bits and pieces, one policy at a time, but without that in our future, we likely won't have one.

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The Way Forward

"Lessons of the Spanish Revolution"

Vernon Richards

PM, 286 pages

$21.95

 

Eve Ottenberg

Long after 1936, when the Spanish voted in a leftist government, many Latin American countries followed suit – Cuba with Castro, Chile with Allende, Brazil with Lula, Venezuela with Chavez and Maduro, Nicaragua with Ortega, Bolivia with Morales and others. Vernon Richards' "Lessons of the Spanish Revolution," reprinted some months back, makes one miserable inference very clear: the only people who've learned the lessons of the Spanish revolution are fascists in places like Bolivia and the U.S. government. Certain basic, obvious steps – like replacing reactionary military officers – are rarely taken. As a result – coups; and leaders like Evo Morales have to run for their lives.

 

One problem, however, has become less pronounced – certain internecine battles on the left. At the time of the Spanish civil war, anarchists and communists were at each other's throats. The Latin American left's divisions get less attention today, perhaps because over the decades it became clear that the enemy, backed by the U.S., is so strong that all leftists are targets for elimination. The counterrevolution has been busy, with one assault after another – most recently, with the attempted overthrow of the Maduro government, the imprisonment of Lula on trumped up charges in Brazil and a right-wing military coup in Bolivia. There's little point in communists murdering anarchists when death squads, like those currently busy in Honduras, fill mass graves anyway with students, peasants and every leftist they can find.

 

"Lessons of the Spanish Revolution" anatomizes divisions on the left, and what emerges is a picture of how truly destructive of the revolution they were. From the anarchist perspective – and this book, originally published in the 1950s, is written from the anarchist perspective – the Spanish civil war led to repeated betrayals; betrayal of the anarchist revolution by the communists and by the anarchist leaders themselves. By the end, according to Richards, the revolutionary press was nothing but "the mouthpiece of the government and the 'revolutionary' chauvinists."

 

This book attempts "to counter the enthusiasm on the left for the Popular Front and its communist partners." For Richards and other anarchists, Stalinist Russia was as deadly as Franco – though in fact, it's easy to see why any leftist who fought in the Spanish civil war might have become a Stalinist. The Spanish republicans received no arms from abroad from any leader except Stalin. No country beside the Soviet Union supplied this desperately needed weaponry. This is not to mute Stalinist crimes. They are multitudinous and well documented. And Richards justly calls out the murders committed by Russian secret police in revolutionary Spain. He argues, correctly, that the leftist government should never have dismantled the workers' militias, but his opposition to any government, while principled – on the grounds that government of necessity kills the fighting spirit of any social movement – could well have led to an even swifter defeat by Franco.

 

The two issues for Richards and his fellow anarchists were the social revolution and the armed struggle against fascism. He argues that "it was Moscow's intention to destroy Revolutionary Catalonia," and devotes many pages to proving this point. Nowadays leftist have no such problems. The Soviet Union ceased to exist thirty years ago, and with it vanished all the support, betrayals and internecine left battles that it generated.

 

So things are simpler now, though without the threat of a communist superpower, fascism  rises again. Leftist Mexican president Lopez Obrador, for instance, need not worry about Russian communists infiltrating his base. But he does have to worry about the U.S. empire fomenting a military coup against him. Reactionary U.S. forces have gone into hyperdrive – promoting regime change all over the world, while fascist wannabe Trump proclaims any available neoliberal imbecile the true president of any socialist country he wants to abolish. Leftists everywhere lack the very real strength of being able to threaten overpowering retaliation. They cannot count on China. Chinese socialism, led by billionaire party members, so far appears reluctant to play the role its Soviet predecessor played. China has been slow to aid besieged Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua or Cuba. As a result, splits between anarchists, syndicalists, communists and socialists matter less than in the past, so even do splits between varieties of feminism. To a certain extent, one can argue that the only thing that matters is whether a person is on the left or not. The enemy is far too strong to waste time on niceties of doctrinal difference. Death squads kill indiscriminately.

 

If Richards were writing today, it is doubtful that he would support any Latin American governments. He might encourage the Zapatistas in Mexico, though it's hard to extrapolate from his book's account of the byzantine, internecine battles of leftists in revolutionary Spain. One thing "Lessons of the Spanish Revolution" clarifies: though the world has changed since then, and radically, for leftists, for fascists it has remained much more static. They still overthrow socialist governments and murder leftists. But leftists are being forced to become less violently concerned with their splits or isms, and more pragmatically concerned with what always should have been the focus: survival. I guess that's progress.

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