Weekend at Bernie’s

However fed up they may claim to be, a certain portion of the Left in the United States remains sympathetic if not outright loyal to the Democratic Party. Many of these people are coming to support the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, and for them, the legacy of the postwar American economy looms large. When not focusing on identity politics and fear of republicans, Keynesian economic policy tends to be the ideological basis of the left wing of the Democratic Party. However, that same institution is incapable of bringing forth such reforms, not only due to the capitalist nature of the organization, but also because the leadership understands, at least unconsciously, that such reforms are impossible in the current historical moment.

pool_lounginIn the dark comedy classic Weekend at Bernie’s, two reformist insurance employees discover the corpse of their boss at his weekend beach house. In order to protect their lives and keep the party going, they spend the rest of the film working to maintain the illusion that the lifeless corpse of their boss is still alive and is having the time of his life. To their surprise, and the delight of most of the unknowing spectators, the ruse is successful, and the dead guy brings more joy to everyone who encounters him as a corpse than he probably would have were he still alive.

Bernie Sanders has frequently identified himself in interviews speeches etc. as a “socialist.” When pressed as to what this means, he usually mentions something about Sweden and/or sticks the “democratic” moniker in front of it, presumably to be less scary. Yet Sanders is deliberately appealing to something bigger and more powerful than what is normally found within the bounds of typical political rhetoric. While most of the Democratic Party stoically marches right, Sanders has veered left, raising the specter of old school populism and attempting to appeal to growing outrage over economic inequality. His seemingly unpolished style, appearing and talking like your old socialist uncle who probably still mimeographs his own newsletters, Sanders appeals to the legacy of American unionism and a nostalgia for its former strength. During this period of escalating election time hype it is important to remember that this remains within a framework of mainstream left-of-center politics. By using his position within Democratic Party primary politics, Sanders has drawn more attention to this type of rhetoric than one might have thought feasible. Since Sanders has nowhere to go but up, this has been the key to his appeal. Raise the specter of working class strength, state directed social development, and populist economic outrage, but contain it within a palatable framework and channel it into the old political currents. This is nothing new. If anything this is the new normal. This same self-congratulatory politics could be seen during the 2008 Obama campaign. In his tone and diction Obama sought to subtly evoke the legacy of Martin Luther King, and would later famously install a bust of the man in the Oval Office. Today the Eugene Debs poster in Sander’s office is a similar object of note for reporters. Obama also acted as insurgent candidate against Clinton, filling a necessary power vacuum in the Democratic Party’s shallow bench of celebrity politicians. Obama promised a new kind of politics, albeit of a vaguer sort than Sanders, and sailed in on a wave of popular outrage toward the Bush administration and panic at the sudden emergence of the economic crisis. During Obama’s rise, all of the usual useful idiots pressed the line, excited that someone is able to appeal to loftier notions in anything resembling a mainstream context. To his credit, Sanders policies and political history go slightly deeper than Obama’s, but at the same time this poses a greater hurdle for him. A good deal of the Democratic Party base identifies as moderate or conservative. If Sanders hopes to actually secure a nomination, like Obama or anyone else, he will be forced to make concessions to those components of the party. All of this is moot anyway. Whether or not Sanders gets the nomination, or even if he somehow gets elected, the Democratic Party as a whole and as an institution is both unwilling to and incapable of implementing the kind of economic policy Sanders is touting. For now, Sanders has skillfully exceeded the extremely low expectations surrounding his candidacy and made great strides in closing the gap in the polls against Hillary Clinton. There has been a great deal of euphoria on some sectors of the American Left (to the extent that a Left can be said to exist in America). There has also been a growing chorus of dissident voices pointing out that Sanders platform is much less radical than some are touting it as. I suppose that I stand in the latter camp, but rather than listing the numerous political sins he’s probably committed over the years through his special relationship with the democrats, instead I’m going to examine and critique some of the assumptions underlying his appeal and then briefly look at just how meaningless Sanders conception of socialism really is.

Reformism and Neo-Liberalism

The extent to which one can place hope in reformist efforts today, depends in part as to one’s conception of neo-liberalism. It can be tough to characterize the economic opinions of the Left, since so little of it can be said to hold any kind of economic conception of capitalism. For many people, in today’s environment Clintonite stooge Robert Reich has come to constitute some kind of substantial economic guru for many people. Still, a unifying theme, from soft Marxists like David Harvey and Richard Woolf to liberal reformists like Robert Reich is that the period encompassing neo-liberalism roughly amounts to an attack on the working and middle classes by the rich. That the gutting of US manufacturing, international trade deals, the welfare state, and dying off of trade unions was the result of a concerted effort, lead on a political front by greedy elites who were not satisfied with the previous equilibrium that had been established in the economy. This skillfully and self-servingly reduces structural economic problems to a question of political leadership, and from this standpoint, it makes sense to expect that the United States could return to “peace and prosperity” through the policy decisions of elected officials. Unfortunately this picture does not conform to the reality of the last forty years or capitalism in general.

Capitalists and state planners have adopted neo-liberal economic strategies for a reason. Liberals and soft soc-dems like to paint different accumulation strategies as “irrational” as a basis for justifying opposition and advocating for reform. What all of this ignores is how, under capitalism, the fate of the working class is tied to the needs and trajectory of capitalist accumulation. Following the great depression, and a series of escalating strike waves in manufacturing, a post-war boom in economic prosperity affected many sectors of the American working class. Relatively generous welfare and more progressive tax rates were feasible and prosperous policies in the wake of a robust profit rate. Fueled by the massive capital devaluation of the depression at home, and the literal devaluation of resources as an outcome of the war, the United States emerged as the strongest manufacturing center for a growing and rebuilding world market. Decades of militant labor agitation had strengthened the position of the American working class, allowing it to bargain for a greater portion of the surplus. Constituting a sort of golden period for the “middle class,” the mid-1940s-(1960s) far from being the norm, instead constituted a sort of detente between certain sections of the working class and capital. This came to a halt in the wake of the financial crisis of the 1970’s.

Following the war, Western European and Japanese manufacturers were able to enter the world market with newer machinery operating at higher rates of productivity. Combined with a precarious workforce and targeted market development, these economies were able to undercut American producers, many of whom were still holding fixed capital assets that had yet to yield their full returns. Typically, as in the Great Depression, such crises are followed by a period of capital devaluation. Instead, capitalists opted for a different set of strategies to avert crisis and maintain the course of capital accumulation. Amongst these strategies were privatization, financialization, debt expansion, and a host of strategies to manage increasing surplus populations (incarceration, education, underemployment). What is important to understand is that this turn was driven by the trajectory of the capitalist economy, and not simply reducible to “corporate greed.” The rising organic composition runs as an undercurrent to all of this and has never been satisfactorily addressed. Instead what we have are increasingly sophisticated forms of state economic management. This does not meant that politics are in command, just the opposite, that the state is necessarily commanded by the needs of the economy.

The politician must understand just as well as the capitalist that all functioning of the state is predicated on the maintenance of a robust profit rate. Policies which have a negative effect on the increasingly precarious capitalist growth are a nonstarter, and even those proposing them will typically recoil when forced to consider the real consequences of their decisions (see Syriza). Attempting to bring back Keynesian style redistributive policies under completely different historical economic and political circumstances would be foolish and unrealistic without a militant fighting working class which was fully prepared to tank the capitalist economy in order to build a new one. In periods of a decreasing underlying profit rate, such reforms would heighten class antagonisms and social contradictions rather than reconcile them. And that is far from the story Sanders and company are selling. When leftists go around promising that easy reform and robust economic development can go hand in hand, all they are doing is setting the stage for reaction. Fortunately, we know they are not serious. For Democrats, these ideas can only prove useful to the extent that they will never be realized. But the show must go on, and so they’ll raise the corpse of liberalism every so often, bask in the glow of the party, and return to business as usual the next day. Cause if you step back, from a distance and at a glance these appear to be serious measures. Look at all these people in the crowds, they’re so excited. This many people can’t be getting worked up for nothing, right?

Democratic Party : Unfit for the Working Class

Sanders has spoken of running his campaign “more like a movement” but the fact that he is choosing to lead his “political revolution” within the Democratic Party, and has promised to support whoever the candidate would be (read: Hillary Clinton) should tell anyone who is serious about some kind of substantial political change everything they need to know. But for the sake of clarity, let’s briefly review why it is the Democratic Party is unfit to bring about the kind of change the proletariat needs and many sections of its own base would like to see.

The relationship between the Democratic Party and the American Working class has been opportunistic from the very beginning. Representing the slaveholding interests in the South, the Party used class discontent in the north between workers and bosses as a part of its overall strategy to retain its political foothold in the federal government. Even after the Civil War, this basic class arrangement remained in place, embodied as late as the 1960’s in the white southern populism of George Wallace. Going forward, after the destruction of slavery, the Democrats acted as a force of loyal opposition to the industrial expansionism of the Republican Party. For many however, this is irrelevant. Instead they point to the New Deal of FDR, and Great Society Legislation of Lyndon Johnson in order to shore up political credibility for the Democratic Party. This relies on a form of historical amnesia in which the broader context of each administration is completely forgotten, and this kind of lineage of peace and prosperity is projected across administrations from FDR to Carter to Clinton and sometimes even Obama. In the same breath, the historical lineage tracing back to the Democratic defense of slavery and its current complicity in imperialism is completely disavowed. If we understand the Democratic Party not as the vanguard of American Leftism, or even a bulwark against rightists, but instead as a recuperation mechanism for a particular faction of the ruling class, the political continuities and discontinuities between administrations and eras comes into much clearer focus.

The first Democratic Party president that leftists will point to is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Kennedy left little of substance behind during his short tenure as president, and Johnson’s legacy, in spite of his welfare and civil rights legislation, is remains largely tainted for many by the Vietnam War. By contrast FDR stands as architect of “the good war,” savior of the economy, and redistributor of wealth. However FDR’s New Deal can only be understood within the context of American Capitalism of that era. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the American Working class was gaining serious ground in developing its own political organs and institutions. This era saw the rise of trade Unionism in the AFL and CIO, the fighting syndicalism of the IWW, the developing socialist parties as well as the Communist Party USA. However imperfect these organizations were, their existence indicated a possibility of an American working class capable of asserting itself as an independent political force. Perhaps more importantly wildcat strikes had been taking off in the United States and would continue to escalate through his administration and well through the war. Workers were thus taking on modes of direct action independent of the developing bureaucracies of the representatives of labor. All this boded poorly for the American ruling class, who had enjoyed a relative degree of political hegemony in comparison to much of what had taken place in Western Europe. FDR rode into office on top of a massive economic crisis, and governed in the shadow of dictatorships throughout Europe and growing inter-imperialist conflict globally. FDR’s reforms fell well short of the demands implicit in the actions of the American working class at the time. His penultimate solution, a war economy, served to redirect the trajectory of production and after the war served to place the U.S. as the foremost global superpower. This mode of war production, later termed the “military industrial complex” has been more or less in place ever since. The coexistence of state expansion and welfare spending and a broader imperialist spending and foreign policy could be seen in starker relief under the Johnson administration decades later. While the military spending has remained more or less invariant and essential to capitalist accumulation in the United States, the particular class, economic and historical conditions that produced the former reforms have been gradually eaten away at ever since, often with the direct complicity of the very Democrats who are allegedly supposed to prevent this. Yet still we are promised a return to this, and Sanders brand of cruise missile socialism continues it. Herein lies the focal weak point of Sanders form of left-liberalism. In spite of the frequently hysterical anti-war activism of the left (“no blood for oil man”) here sits no room in this outlook for any meaningful internationalism. When military spending is even seen as a problem, it is understood either as simply an irrational expenditure, or it is opposed on moral terms, as if the U.S. economy received no material benefits from its imperial hegemony and all spending could simply be shifted to infrastructural development with no economic downside.

For many, the strongest case to be made for Sanders insurgent candidacy to be made stems from the fear of repeating the example of Ralph Nader, who acted as a “spoiler” in the 2000 presidential election. In spite of the largely inconclusive evidence regarding Nader’s role, this event has loomed large in the liberal mindset, turning Nader from being the reformist hero of the 1970’s into a pariah responsible from everything from the War in Iraq to 9/11 depending on who you talk to. What followed in the subsequent anti-War movement was a redoubling of efforts in support of the Democratic candidacy, leading to the pathetic spectacle of John Kerry’s run. But what is strange, even on its own terms, about the “lesser of two evils” argument his how the people making it paint this grim picture of our current situation but seldom paint any kind of portrait of how to get out of it except through acquiescence to it. This might have made a modicum of sense to the politically naive during the height of the anti-bush anti-war demonstrations in 2003, but after nearly 8 years of a democratic administration, and following the failure of a Democratic majority to pass meaningful health care reform that wasn’t just a glorified coupon system, the Democrats today are in sore need of credibility. After decades of moving to the right and an eight year presidential term that has produced little reform to speak of, it is becoming I think increasingly difficult for Democrats to sidestep the glaring contradictions between what is expected of them and what they actually do, facilitated in part through the increasingly open information exchange of the internet. Sanders may represent a last ditch effort to recoup the left wing of the party and get people #readyforhillary. What both Sanders, and Nader missed was the basis of political power. Nader believed that it was necessary to build a political institution outside of the Democratic Party. However the Greens have no basis in a strong class capable of acting politically, and their platform remains a sterner variation on the basic liberal schema.

Really-Ideal Socialism

A great deal of the novelty surrounding Sanders campaign is his refusal to completely disavow the term “socialist” whenever it is applied to him. Partly this represents a form of savvy on his part, it is said that Obama’s poll numbers went up the more the term was applied to him by his detractors, and partly it serves as a useful rhetorical maneuver. At the same time, the seemingly increasing receptivity to more leftish politics suggests something about our current moment.

Sander’s vague allusions to Scandinavia and Democratic Socialism, seldom run into the concrete or even link up directly with his policy proposals. Instead it serves as more of a rhetorical function. Even as we near the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, red baiting remains useful for rightists, and an effective measure for shutting down any discussion of reform or even any criticism of the current acceptable functioning of capitalism, no matter how minor. Thanks to the sustainable functioning of the Scandinavian welfare states, left-liberals have a relatively inoffensive model they can point to. In other words, Sander’s “socialism” is really just a way for him to call the bluff of rightists his actual policies themselves are liberal reformist at best.

Historically, socialism as a political goal amounted to more than simply generous welfare spending, public works programs, or highly progressive taxation. Socialism was a project to overcome capitalism and transition to a higher, better mode of society. Even in the classical Social Democratic Party of Germany, the philistine right theorist Edward Bernstein, in all of his gradualist reformism, agreed that capitalism was only a transitional point to socialism. In fact, insofar as he was convinced that said transition was inevitable, he was far more optimistic about the prospects of proletarian triumph than most leftists or even many Marxists today. Sanders and the rest of the “socialism worked in Sweden” school, cannot even comprehend or envision mankind’s social transformation through history. It ignores the class basis of most of the political parties which implemented the said reforms, and it ignores the limitations of the nation state. The Scandinavian examples, as beneficial as they may be for the people living there, are just as symptomatic of the failure of socialism as its success. Because in both cases, and this is true for Europe to a lesser extent, the very national basis of such a system presupposes an anti-immigration politics. Because the benefits and higher wages are secured for a certain set of workers through the reproduction of the particular state and national economy, it must necessarily exclude other workers from entering the economy at a faster rate than growth allows them to integrate, as well as take a place within the broader international system of capitalism. This being the case, it should come as no surprise that Sanders has such shitty attitudes toward immigration:

“Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal…That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States… It would make everybody in America poorer…You’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that… “

If you turned the last sentence on its head, you might have a statement from an actual socialist. It is entirely inconceivable to Sanders that the abolition of nation states could be something desirable or necessary as an eventual goal. This glaring but inadvertent cluelessness is fairly typical of old-school unionist DP politics. Sanders doubles down on state protectionism. He even goes so far as to threaten to put the genie back in the bottle on NAFTA, as if all the Mexican farms run off the land by American agri-business will somehow re-sprout again and the “illegals” will just go back home to their plows. As of yet, Sanders offers no vision on how he might control capital flight, or do anything to deal with the cheaper labor and newer equipment that inevitably emerges in a world market. A globalized market only points even more starkly for international organization and solidarity of the poor and working classes worldwide. Instead Sanders hopes to recreate some kind of accord between the working class and the ruling class. He refers to this accord as “the middle class,” and he refers to it often. This sort of nationalist strategy of cross-class amelioration in the form of expanding the old buffer is, in the light of a genuine class politics, fundamentally reactionary.

The Communist Line

Finally, this brings us to the question: what does the phenomenon of the Bernie Sanders campaign mean for Communists? It is very easy to adopt an oppositional stance, and begin rattling off a laundry list of Bernie Sander’s political sins, but I think it is even more important for Communists to cut right to the heart of the matter. Bernie Sanders is not a socialist, because Bernie Sanders does not seek to move society beyond capitalism. A socialist program must be necessarily transitional to Communism, or it will necessarily transition to failure.

If Sanders represents and capitalizes upon a reviving interest in socialism, then it is our task to clarify what socialism really is and what it means. We must critique the limitations of Sanders overall strategy, and in the process underline what directions things must take in order for there to be real change. We cannot look to sell people on easy magic bullet solutions either with the intention of winning people’s interest or counting on such solutions tanking in order to prepare people for the “real alternative.” Instead we should recognize that people are beginning to recognize some of the limitations of Democratic Party politics. We should push them further. Another component of this as that a lot of mainstream American news and politics runs on fear. The truly skilled politician knows how to transcend this and appear to offer people something beyond this schema, it’s not for nothing that the central word of Obama’s campaign was “Hope.” In his promises of reform, and his seemingly different way of doing things Sanders appeals to a similar mindset. In deconstructing the politics of the Left, we must at the same time point to an alternative politics and a vision for a higher and better form of society. Still, even within this, it is hard to escape the nexus of the current political schema. What is required perhaps more than anything else is a longer and deeper view both of the past and of the future. So long as the lessons and implications of history are ignored, any capacity to imagine future change or long term development will remain necessarily stunted. We must not only oppose all bourgeois political parties, but also the conception that the outlook of our political horizons cannot extend beyond the next four years.

The Party is Over

Weekend at Bernie’s ends with the two main characters getting everything they wanted. An assassin goes mad repeatedly attempting to kill Bernie, and is convinced he is still alive even when he is being taken to jail. The two young men get to keep their jobs, one gets the girl, and the corpse slips out of the ambulance to fall on the beach and be symbolically buried by an indignant youth. So far Sanders has been able to placate the latter element, but if the savvy activists and staff of his campaign have their way, they can take this thing all the way to the general election. There might be more appeal to the Sanders pitch than it seems. Republicans could come off as hysterical (as they did with Obama) crying socialist and communist long after the DP party mainstream, or anyone else, have ceased to really believe it. Whether he wins or is forced to go back to his Senate seat, at the end of all this, careers will be made. And Sanders and his specter of sewer socialism will be wheeled back to be buried in the place that all American working class politics go to die: Washington DC.

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What is our current historical era and how did we get here?

To understand our current conditions and why the working class is currently so weak we must look at the changes that capitalism went through in the 20th century. 

1083017372north1Our current historical period in the broadest sense can be described as the “neo-liberal era” of capitalism. “Neo-liberalism” is sadly an abused term, but really it is just a means of describing the period of capitalism from around 1973 to today. Rather than being a result of an ideological shift from public regulation to market extremism it is a response to structural tendencies in capitalism, particularly the re-emergence of its classic crisis tendencies. In many senses neo-liberalism is really a return to the capitalism of the pre-1945 era, back to capitalism as usual before managerial strata of the bourgeoisie aimed to stabilize rule through Keynesian policies. The dominance of finance capital and labor markets with a large reserve army of the unemployed are hardly novel developments in capitalism. Yet unlike pre-1945 capitalism, the neo-liberal cycle of bourgeois rule was consolidated after new advances in the states ability to integrate class antagonisms through public interest liberalism. In many ways it is continuation of the post-war era’s attempt to liquidate class conflict. Additionally, with the former colonial world now formally independent, imperialism primarily functions through proxy wars rather than direct conflicts between world empires.

The Neo-liberal era according to many has come to end with the financial crisis of 2008, yet what exactly defines the supposed new conjecture is unclear. Much of this was misplaced optimism over the potential of ‘new social movements’ that developed after the 2008 crisis. As far as we are concerned we still are living under a hegemonic ideology which proudly proclaims the end of class conflict and even history itself, where the collapse of the USSR and turn to market reforms by the remains of the “socialist bloc” supposedly signals that no alternative to the market exists.

To understand our current moment we must look at the overall trajectory of capitalism and the class struggle over the past century. At the beginning of the 20th century capitalism had undergone a breakthrough in the development of its modern institutional forms with the managerial, financial and corporate revolutions. Imperialism was raging with an unprecedented intensity with world empires competing to expand colonization of Africa and Asia. From this tendency came World War I, both a crisis of the remaining old regime and the new capitalist one which was coming into dominance. Social-democracy and syndicalism had developed institutions capable of contesting class power, but for the most part ended up rallying behind the nation when the war began.

Out of the crisis of WWI came the most revolutionary and internationalist tendencies of the workers’ movement, as more and more workers realized that the war was a travesty that served the interests of their exploiters. Bolshevism, which would produce both Stalinism and left-communism (the latter the historical tendency we most identity with), emerges as a energizing factor for an international workers movement. In the interwar period world revolution seems to be a real item on the agenda, and capitalist ideologues as well socialists believe the end days of the system are happening before their eyes. At this point even the bourgeois economist Schumpter was able to envision the collapse of capitalism. Due to the intensity of social crisis in this period states are faced with the challenge of integrating antagonistic classes, giving rise to new developments in the bourgeois state. Fascism emerges as a reactionary mass movement, integralist nationalism using the forms of the workers movements to mobilize violent gangs of mostly demobilized soldiers, criminals and petty-bourgeois to crush communism and establish a more authoritarian form of capitalism. In the USA the New Deal emerged as a state response to crisis, not relying on squadrons of blackshirts but on democratic-republican workerism and the development of public interest group liberalism and the administrative welfare state.

The barbarism of WWII brings the United States and the USSR to the hegemonic states in the new world empire. The war sees scattered initiatives of proletarian internationalism but nothing that amounts to a real threat to the dominance of capitalism. Anti-fascist alliances of bourgeois states and workers movements and the acceptance of the labor movement by the capitalist state began a conscious project to integrate the proletariat into the nation as loyal “labor-citizens” that continued after WWII. Yet even before this much of the workers movement was preoccupied with “winning the battle for democracy” and modernizing society by crushing the remains of pre-capitalist state-forms. For example in Germany it was ultimately the SPD who finished the bourgeois revolution and consolidated democracy, while  Russian Social-Democracy kept no secrets about bourgeois revolution and winning political freedom being their initial tasks.

The post-war arrangement of capitalism saw a shift in power towards the managerial strata of the bourgeoisie, with an attempt to rationally plan capitalism on a global scale. Communist internationalism had essentially collapsed as national liberation movements cleared away most of the remains of direct colonial rule from the core to periphery. In the USA and Europe the managerial strata of the capitalist class engaged in a ‘social contract’ of sorts with labor where compliance with the state promised economic growth and wealth redistribution. While waves of wildcat strikes and militancy still existed (from those marginalized from the social contract like black and latino workers), the tendency of the working class towards being integrated into capitalism through this new public interest group liberalism was overwhelming. Both liberal technocrats and New Leftists declared that capitalism had overcome its internal crisis tendencies through the welfare states and mass consumption of the new mixed economies, with class-based revolutionary movements being a thing of the past. Some even believed the USSR and Western capitalist states were both converging towards the same type of planned bureaucratic society.

The return of economic crisis in the 1970’s proved these ideas wrong. Capitalism had failed to provide a means for infinite growth without economic chaos and the ruling class was restructured to the advantage of finance capital, its strategy of accumulation shifting towards an embrace of “creative destruction” and the anarchy of the market. By the late 1970’s a definite political project amongst the capitalist class emerged to maximize the competitiveness of markets and create a fluid global labor market. This meant a shift towards privatization rather than the ideal of the mixed economy, but not necessarily a weakening of the state.

If the post-war Keynesian era was a class compromise, the neo-liberal era would be a direct attack on the working class and their relative stability. Creating a more fluid global labor market would mean attacking the social wage and the power of collective bargaining in the core, increasing the reserve army of labor (more unemployment) and shifting investment in manufacturing towards newly proletarianized laborers in the periphery where development programs are imposed through international financial and state apparatuses. In the core manufacturing doesn’t disappear, but is largely restructured to become less labor intensive where it remains. As a result the masses of unskilled workers increasingly find themselves in service industry jobs such as a food and retail, which are far more decentralized and less concentrated than manufacturing industries. These factors, coupled with a large reserve army of labor, makes traditional union organization almost impossible.

Contrary to the fantasies of its ideologues, the “neo-liberal” arrangement didn’t roll back the power of the bureaucratic and authoritarian state. While civil servants were laid off and nationalized firms were privatized the actual repressive arm of the state took on forms more pervasive and controlling than ever. A rising surplus population of individuals excluded from waged labor can mean for many (both non-employed and those employed in low wage jobs) a reliance on often harmless black market activities and illegalism for survival. State policing and surveillance, especially in low income neighborhoods, takes on a newfound paternalism and intensity in order to control these populations and enforce capitalist relations. Due to discrimination in labor markets and the white supremacist origins of the US state much of this state violence is heavily racialized, creating a stark contradiction to the multicultural ideology of the ruling class.

So why didn’t the working class fight back and protect itself from falling into this position? A big part of it had to do with the previous success of efforts by the capitalist class to integrate the labor movement into the state, a route that was admittedly taken begrudgingly after years of violent struggle. The “class compromise” of the post war era saw an overwhelming tendency towards workers choosing loyalty to the state over radical organizations as a means to secure reforms and a higher standard of living. A lack of even basic defensive organization independent from the state and the conservatism of the labor bureaucracy made resistance difficult. Labor bureaucrats already used to giving concessions to the state would have a difficult time mounting real defenses against privatization campaigns. State co-operation may have been the option with the most immediate benefits for workers in the post-war economy but in the long run it weakened the ability of the working class to fight for its basic interests.

This integration of the proletariat with the state didn’t come out of nowhere and didn’t occur smoothly without resistance either. Both social-democracy and Stalinism, two political phenomena that for us signify the ‘left-wing of capital” played a key role in this process. The political role of both these movements was rallying workers in the name of nation and democracy while systematically repressing genuine communist movements movements that developed within the class. Rather than acting as a force for communism the workers movement tended towards what G.M. Tamas termed “Rousseauian socialism”, socialism which aims to unite “the people” against caste society (the remains of the old regime in Europe continued after the turn of the century) as opposed to class society, which is ultimately only fully realized under capitalism. This was what the politics of social-democracy, the Popular Front, and the Chinese revolution ultimately were about – wiping away the remains of the old regime society that stood in the way of capitalist development while aiming to fully realize the ideals of democracy and civic equality.

The weakness of working class today is not simply due to repression from the state and fascists thugs. These certainly played a role, but much of the left also played a role by repressing the most radical wings of the movement and integrating the working class into their respective national states. The statist/nationalist left contributed much help in the development of the modern labor bureaucracy which once helped contain and manage waged labor. Yet as soon as these institutions become a barrier to the accumulation of capital they come under attack, a tendency that becomes fully fleshed out in the “neo-liberal” period. Largely integrated into the system and lacking independent political institutions, the working class is largely incapable of resisting the more direct phase of intensive disciplining to the domination of the market that marks the current era.

Whether the workers movement was doomed to act as a modernizing force for capitalism to overcome the residuals of the pre-capitalist world or simply made the wrong choices is a pointless question to ask. We can only look at how history played out and theorize on what objective factors may have influenced this. We should also not forget that despite the overwhelming hegemony of what we would call “the left wing of capital” various minorities within the old workers movement looked beyond the bourgeois politics of the hegemonic left and struggled against its role in integrating the proletariat into capitalism. This “communist left” consisting of figures like Amadeo Bordiga, Anton Pannekoek, Sylvia Pankhurst and Gavril Miasnikov was probably the most advanced political expression of the proletariat as a class struggling for Communist society to have existed and serves as vital inspiration for those looking to overcome capital today, though many aspects of their politics may be outdated.

The failure of the left in the 20th century to transcend capitalism has left a legacy where radical social change can only lead to the spectre of “totalitarianism”, where class society can never be overthrown but merely be replaced by another form of it where the new oppressors are only worse than the old. The collapse of the Soviet Union, market reforms in China and Vietnam or the embrace of neo-liberal policies by social-democratic parties have shown that the strategies and vision of the official left to be bankrupt. To most it is clearer than ever that the old ways didn’t work, that Stalinism and social-democracy didn’t offer liberation to the workers. Yet the common sense reaction to this is not to embrace a more radical and critical form of communist politics instead of the old guard left, but rather to reject the possibility of any real alternative to the ruling order. We can hardly blame people for this reaction either, as there is hardly any real alternative for people to choose.

The situation this has led to is very contradictory – on one end the irrationality and barbarism of capitalism is more exposed than ever, yet the formation of a working class collectivity capable of challenging the current order faces an array of obstacles. In the United States and other core economies decentralization of workplaces and de-industrialization leave the workforce largely incapable of the kind of union organization that marked the 20th century workers movement, where workplaces with high concentrations of workers were the norm. The traditional routes of electoral action, if they ever were a correct tactic, are also essentially blocked from having any efficacy as the state-apparatuses of modern capitalism are more subsumed to its laws of motion than ever before. Any party coming to power through electoral victories is bound to make compromises with the middle classes and other bourgeois parties and become managers of capitalism. Ideology also plays a role, as the naturalization of market relations due to their increased penetration of social life and the failure of 20th century socialism makes capitalism appear to be the only way for humanity to exist.

As hopeless as the situation may currently appear we must keep a clear head and avoid embracing despair. The collapse of Stalinism and social-democracy, though their remains may still haunt us, gives us a relatively clean slate to rebuild a genuine communist movement. Moving forward will require a strategy of patience and experimentation in new forms of organization. It will also mean a rejection of the legacy of the statist/nationalist left whose projects have only led back to capitalism.