The Coming Capitalist Crisis and the Tasks for Socialists

by Ben M

As we pass the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent descent of the world economy into the Great Recession, the horizon is once again darkening for capitalism. While economic forecasts often resort to little more than reading tea leaves, e.g.- the regular predictions of a “double dip” recession during the early 2010s that never materialized, the warning signs of new and potentially greater recession are getting harder to ignore.

The last few months have seen noticeably volatile stock markets (oftentimes set off by a Trump tweet) as well as the total collapse of the cryptocurrency market (set off by the fact it was always a bubble and only fools thought they could cash out in time). But the economy isn’t the financial and stock markets- they are just the turbulent foam on top of deeper shifts in the world economy; rather something longer term has started to errode the capitalist class’ confidence in their own ascendancy.

First is the paradoxical fear of growth. The economy has technically been growing continuously since June 2009 (though you might not have noticed), which is an unusually long time without what capitalist economists like to call “self correction”, i.e. the capitalist cycle of boom and bust,  kicking in. During that time over 85% of that growth went to the fabled 1%, something you may have noticed. This has created a highly “efficient” and massively topheavy economy of low wage workers working harder than ever to make things they can’t afford for an uppercrust of capitalists with more money than they know what to do with. The rich can only buy so much, and with most of Americans sinking more and more of their paychecks into just paying off loans and for the essentials, there is a rising fear of what would happen when a glut in consumer goods occur. The extent of how far overproduction has oriented itself for the needs of the rich can be seen in the absurd scenario of the explosion in construction of empty luxury condos, helping to fuel the housing crisis.

On the macro side, the China vs Trump trade war, combined with the massive payout to corporate America through Trump’s tax cuts, was meant to fuel some form of nationalistic re-industrialization. Instead of this MAGA pipe dream, something very different has emerged. Major capitalist enterprises has re-invested their tax cut windfall not into expanded domestic production, but rather buying back their own stock, hitting records not seen since right before the last recession in 2007. At the same time General Motors (GM) has announced the closure of three plants and the layoff of 5,600 industrial workers, to help create the “lean” overly automated and disposable workforce for the future. Combined, these look like companies battering down the hatches for the economic storms to come.

While these problems alone could potentially set off a recession, changes to the US financial sector could have a bigger impact. The last decade of economic growth for the rich has been financed in part by dirt cheap loans at super-low interest rates set by the US Federal Reserve. Essentially this means the Fed has been printing money for a decade to keep the cost of the loans that keep the economy rolling low, but that is soon to change. With the Fed expected to raise interest rates to something more close to reality, the overly leveraged financial markets are freaking out that the days of easy money are gone. At the same time the International Monetary Fund is saying that they don’t have the resources on hand to meet a financial crisis when it hits.

Short term Treasury bond rates are closing in on the long term rates, meaning long term outlook isn’t looking good from the financial markets’ perspective, a typical early sign of a recession. Demand for raw materials is holding steady for now, though we are starting to see a flurry of bankruptcies in principal industries impacted by Trump’s trade war, an apparent slowdown in some manufacturing sectors, and lower homebuilder confidence. It is still difficult to perceive through the noise to the deeper trends, but once we start to see slacking demand for the raw materials and capital equipment needed to expand production, then we will know we are in trouble.

So what does this all mean? To help situate us and begin to see through the fog of often contradictory economic data, we can start with the classic theory of capitalist crisis first outlined by Marx and Engels as early as the Communist Manifesto,

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells… It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.

What Marx and Engels are talking about here is capitalism’s inherent drive to over expand, to overproduce. Individual capitalist companies are in fierce competition to take over greater segments of their market or else risk falling by the wayside. Since there is no coordination between them, and their outlook is purely short term, there is constant habit of “supply to overstrip demand” to use the mainstream economics speak. Capitalism isn’t producing for human demand necessarily, they are producing to achieve profits. So there is a deep irrationality to production, seen for instance in the explosion of luxury condo construction that house no one because the housing costs are too high.

Simultaneously, there is a drive within capitalism to forever reinvest in production in such a way that undermines capitalism’s ability to realize the profits it is after to begin with. To stay competitive, capitalist enterprises since the early days of the industrial revolution have had a strong incentive to find ways to replace more and more workers with automated machinery to help lower costs (see GM’s recent announcement to layoff thousands of workers while still aiming to meet similar if not high production quotas). The structural problems hit when you start laying off and underpaying the working class to such an extent they can’t buy your products anymore. This drive to ever automate and an ever increasing pool of precarious workers with bullshit jobs was first called out by Marx when he said capitalism, “dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer … it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his [sic] hands his means of subsistence, … to make him [sic] superfluous. [T]his antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity.

These factors of overproduction for a consuming workforce that have been edged out of their sources of a livelihood inevitably and recurrenly explode into a full economic crisis. As the late Marxist economist and historian Chris Harmen said, “Thus what makes sense for an individual capitalist—investment in new technology—plants the seeds of crisis for the system as a whole. Eventually the competitive drive of capitalists to keep ahead of other capitalists results in a massive scale of new investment which cannot be sustained by the rate of profit. If some capitalists are to make an adequate profit it can only be at the expense of other capitalists who are driven out of business. The drive to accumulate leads inevitably to crisis. And the greater the scale of past accumulation, the deeper the crises will be.1

Growth itself, paradoxically, then becomes the biggest threat to capitalism’s continued expansion.

Attempts to mediate these structural tendencies of capitalist growth through the financial market – using it as something of an emergency cushion – have mostly made had the effect to kick the can down the road. As Marxist economist Ernest Mandel details, the production cycle does interact and impact the financial markets, but often the two are autonomous. “Marx visualised the business cycle as intimately intertwined with a credit cycle, which can acquire a relative autonomy in relation to what occurs in production properly speaking. An (over) expansion of credit can enable the capitalist system to sell temporarily more goods that the sum of real incomes created in current production plus past savings could buy. Likewise, credit (over) expansion can enable them to invest temporarily more capital than really accumulated surplus-value … would have enabled them to invest … But all this is only true temporarily. In the longer run, debts must be paid.” Sooner or later the costs of capitalist over-expansion and overproductions come home to roost.

Looking at more historical examples, we see how and when each ‘boom’ is in a way creating the conditions for the next ‘bust’, that each recession is in part the creation of capitalism’s inability to fully “fix” the prior recession. The Great Recession came from world capitalism’s shift to the US housing market after the dotcom bubble and the wider financialization of capitalism as a means to address the stagflation of the 1970s. Too many eggs in one overproduced basket of the housing market, and a too highly leveraged financial market led to a spectacular bust. The 70s recession originated from the failure of Keynesian economics to overcome declining rates of profit in a period when the US was facing increased international competition. Keynesian demand side economics was adopted as a way to pull world capitalism out of the Great Depression of the 1930s but it would take a World War and the construction of a permanent arms economy to pull that off. And so on and so on.

The coming crisis in capitalism likely will have its origins in how the Great Recession was temporarily overcome by the capitalist class. The strategy the capitalist class pursued after 2007 largely followed the, “[t]raditional methods for the restoration of profits,” identified by Marxist economist Joel Geier at the time, of, “cheapening the elements of capital (plant and equipment, raw materials) and labor costs; using the reserve army of the unemployed to raise the rate of exploitation on the job; destroying inefficient capitals; and the healthier capitals buying up their distressed rivals on the cheap.” In other words, in order to return profit rates the capitalist class oversaw the total amelioration of the world working class through austerity to lower labor costs, combined with the massive influx of pure additive cash liquidity by capitalist governments to grease the wheels of corporate centralization. The temporary overcoming of what can be called the “Neoliberal Recession” of 2007 required the single greatest transfer of wealth from the working class to the capitalist class in human history. The current economy is a castle built on sand.

So when is the recession going to hit? No idea, and anyone who says otherwise is probably a charlatan. It could be 3 weeks, 6 months or 4 years before these contradictions start to hit. Many economists are talking about 2020, but that just speculation. The final economic trigger could be anything, but will likely be something ridiculous and petty in one of capitalism’s weak links, cause that’s just the times we live in. We don’t know when it will hit, but we know, due to the fact that capitalism is crisis-prone by its own profit motive fueled nature of perpetual growth, that it eventually will. By then we need to be ready.

We can already predict what Trump’s response will be – the wholesale destruction of what remains of the social safety net and a jingoistic campaign of divide and rule like nothing we have ever seen in the US (and that’s saying something). While it’s too easy to fall into hyperbole, we have already seen this monster erect kiddy concentration camps and deploy armed forces to the border to gas mothers and babies. Now imagine what he is capable of with a mandate from his fanatical base for a “final solution” to the sudden economic woes. Even if the crash happens after the new Democrat controlled House takes office, the logic of what Naomi Klein called the “shock doctrine”, combined with the history of the Democrats’ legendary spinelessness, indicates they will likely go along with the worst of what Trump comes up. “Bipartisanship” in the face of this crisis and this president will mean Democrats’ complicity in ethnic cleansing.

But it is the energy this will give to the fascist alt-right which is the most immediate threat. These killers who have shown their true intentions from Pittsburgh to Charlottesville will jump immediately on the opportunity to spread their nativist poison. We must prepare to confront the right at all cost. We can’t sit passively and hope people will naturally take anti-capitalist conclusions from the coming crisis. The right is perfecting its methods of taking the disenchantment of downwardly mobile pople and turning it towards fascism. But the same crisis that empowers the counter-revolutionary right can empower the revolutionary left. It all matters who is the best organized and the most bold. We must think of ourselves as actors, not just reactors to the titanic forces of world capitalism.

We will need to seize the initiative and capture the narrative of the coming crash. Protests, rallies, pickets, and organizing then is our first responsibility. Blog posts, videos, media spots, “memes” that articulare a anti-capitalist message are our next. There is an answer and alternative to more years of amelioration, austerity, unemployment, and low wages. The rich don’t have to get away with it this time. We can build a new world without borders, unemployment, debt, pollution, or crisis, and it is called socialism. And we can be ready this time to win it.

Now we have a left that has learned much in 10 years of post recession political struggle. Occupy taught us the importance of organization. The Obama wars taught us the value of anti-imperialism even in time of liberal warmongering. Black Lives Matter showed us a shining vision of uncompromising politics of human dignity that could seize the streets. #MeToo made clear that we either make our spaces accessible, safe, and intersectional, or we are little better than our enemies. And the strike waves of teachers from Chicago to West Virginia has proven again that workers have the power to bring this rotten system to heel.

For all of its room for improvement, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is in the best position to synthesize the past lessons, take advantage of the coming crisis, and go on the anti-capitalist offensive. It membership may be learning largely by building a mass socialist movement by the seat of our fucking pants, with a shoestring budget and prayer, but it is happening here. Our elected members are front and center, our protests are in your face, our message is spreading, and we are already shifting the “politics of the possible.” It is heady and confusing times, but by some strange decree of fate, whatever comes next in the American working class struggle will likely have its foci in part in the Democratic Socialists of America.

It is the job of every socialist to invest their time in analyzing the current political-economic climate and to figure out how to intervene in it. To that end there are number of steps the DSA and our local chapters need to prepare for the coming crisis built around the old Industrial Workers of the World tinirity: Educate, Agitate, Organize.

First we must deepen our political education. Comrades need to understand how capitalism works and how it doesn’t, why economic crises happen, and prepare to articulate this knowledge to a mass audience. With this knowledge we need to be thinking about how to prepare our agitational media. We need to be able to rapidly deploy our anti-capitalist  narrative through all means, from our elected members in Congress to our members holding placards at rallies, in order to counter and smash the fash right’s.

This, then, becomes a basis for our organizing. We need to take this time to deepen our relationship with local activists, our community neighbors, fellow socialists and progressives, all to prepare for a united left wing offensive. We must center and expand our labor organizing and immigrant solidarity work as our blood and air. In doing so we must be ready to flex our muscles and our direct action and protest organizing abilities. With 55,000 members, but only a fraction regularly engaged, member mobilization is critical. Chapters should be exploring all means to better activate their membership and get people out to protests, strike solidarity, ICE blockade actions, etc. Please forgive the pun, but real politics happens in the streets not the tweets.

And above all else, we must be adaptable, flexible, and our eyes fixed firmly to the political situation. As can be seen in France, things can rapidly accelerate in times of political and economic crisis. Shifting political winds can give opportunity or risk, and the ability for an organization to turn on a dime with tactics and strategies as the occasion dictates is no easy task. A lot will come down to local chapters and individual comrades making the right call on the fly as things progress. Preparing ourselves for the potential struggles ahead could help to make the difference.

 

Having Children Won’t Fix You: A Socialist Feminist Response to Connor Kilpatrick

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Emma Goldman tells a mostly cis male crowd about birth control in 1916. Hey, if it was worth saying once, it’s worth saying again. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

By Amy Brown

Connor Kilpatrick’s recent essay for Jacobin, “It’s Okay to Have Children,” argues for having children by speaking on behalf of women As a cis woman, I’ll start this off with a personal anecdote, since accounts of or data from personal experience are notably absent from the essay. Then I’ll move onto a more general critique.

It’s September 2018, which means that it’s almost 20 years since I conceived my son, who is my only child. I did not “decide” to conceive my son: in fact, his conception was the accidental result of a one-night stand under the influence. Nor would I characterize my carrying the pregnancy to term as a “decision” so much as an inchoate impulse. I was raised Catholic, felt terribly lonely at the time, and believed on some level that a child would “fix” me.

At the time of my pregnancy, I made good money and had solid health insurance. By the terms of Kilpatrick’s argument, in which financial support is the main guarantee of happy moms and kids, this should have been true. Instead, I found myself completely undone by the prospect of spending most of my waking hours with a tiny, dependent human being. I discovered quickly that I had very little on the inside to give this child. Fearful of the rage that would result from being trapped in what looked to me like a domestic graveyard for 18+ years, and even more fearful that I would take that out on my son, I placed him in an open adoption. (Middle-class white ladies get to elect open adoptions; not everyone is as fortunate.)

The only thing I regret about the adoption is not being able to watch my son grow up, although I saw him twice a year for most of his childhood and adolescence. I am certain he was and is better off where he was. I know that I am certainly better off for having had freedom from family responsibility, which, even though I was born with a uterus, is decidedly Not My Thing. I was born and raised to be a thinker and writer. I’m not social at all; had I been born with a penis, I would likely been able to have had a partner and family too.

All of this runs contrary to the central threads of Kilpatrick’s essay. While that essay gives an occasional nod to legal abortion access and freedom from nuclear family structures in socialist countries, it makes the following poorly founded assumptions:

  • The vast majority of people who can get pregnant (referred to below as AFAB folks or cishet women) want at their core to bear (or raise) children at some point in their lives.
  • There is a prevalent social stigma against people who want to bear and raise children.
  • Child-bearing comes about via an individual and conscious decision as opposed to being primarily the product of biological determinism and social and economic forces.
  • Refraining from having children is in accord with the current capitalist hegemony, as evinced by present or future threats to state budgeting for health insurance and education.

Gender Essentialism and Social Pressure to Have Children

Using phrases like “the desires of women” (apparently, all women), Kilpatrick really seems to think that most or all AFAB folks want to bear and raise children.

To the contrary, many AFAB folks do not want to bear or raise children at all, regardless of economic circumstances. Cishet men, who bear less of the childcare burden, are, unsurprisingly, more likely to want children than their partners. Some of the reluctance of cishet women regarding children has to do with the anticipated perennial lack of reciprocity in cishet households around chores: guess who still does most of the (unpaid) work. I’ll say more about unwaged household work later.

The CDC study that Kilpatrick mentions (but does not cite) regarding the gap between the desired number and actual number of children borne by Americans, by necessity, does not focus primarily on the number of American AFAB folks whose desired number of children is zero. As many AFAB folks who don’t want kids can attest, talking or going public about your desire not to have any children is grounds for a wide range of signs of social disapproval, ranging from hurt-puppy looks to downright familial rejection¹:

  • If you are under 40 and want a tubal ligation (i.e. permanent sterilization), you can generally expect a fight or complete refusal from your gynecologist.
  • If you are bold enough to join a public support group for people who don’t want children, such as the NoKidding! group, you can expect public shaming and character assassination. This blogger had such a piece published and repeatedly republished in the Atlanta State Constitution.
  • Many cishet women who don’t want children partner with men who, while initially supportive at the outset of their relationship, back off and often dump them when they don’t change their tune as time goes on and the march down the aisle becomes more plausible.

It remains an act of social defiance, and quite a bit of work, for cishet women to refrain consciously from having children. Any “stigma” to the contrary seems to be confined to recent thinkpieces in the Guardian and New York Times and certain works of literary fiction, all of which are read mostly by wealthy white liberals. In other words, the stigma against childbirth that Kilpatrick mentions, if it in fact exists, would affect mostly white women.

Moreover, any preference to remain child-free today is quickly being mooted (again) by capitalist forces: the increased unavailability of safe, legal abortions and the cost of prescriptions and procedures for birth control threaten to make those who can get pregnant dependent on their children’s biological fathers (or on their extended families) on a widespread basis, just as their grandmothers and great-grandmothers were.

Pregnancy and Childrearing as a “Decision”

Kilpatrick really need not worry about most cishet women not bearing children at all or being forced into a “decision” not to get pregnant. If you have a uterus and ovaries, have sex (ever) with someone with a penis and active sperm, and do not have a biological impediment to fertility, odds are that sooner or later you will get pregnant, and eventually one of those pregnancies will come to term.

But what about birth control? Again, if you’re AFAB, have sex with people with penises, haven’t had your tubes tied, and don’t have another impediment to fertility, you probably will miss a birth control dosage eventually. There are more reliable, less error-prone BC methods, such as IUDs and longer-lasting hormonal birth control, but their side effects may make you have to discontinue them.² Birth control, by itself, does not make pregnancy and childbirth into a real “choice” for everyone.

Kilpatrick uses the word “decision” in connection with pregnancy and childbirth quite a bit. In the face of biological determinism, social pressure, and economic necessity, thinking about pregnancy and childbirth in terms of free will is a destructive fallacy. The teen moms Kilpatrick mentions whose “decisions” to bear and raise children are lauded by (white) academics and the chattering classes? Did anyone talk to those teen moms about the circumstances of their pregnancies and births? Perhaps they thought about having abortions but because of parental consent laws, were prevented from doing so. Another interesting question: how much unpaid support they’re getting from people outside their families of origin. (The burden of childcare for children of teen moms often falls on the grandparents, many of whom have full-time jobs and have already been through the childcare mill at least once.)

Stigmas and demonization, while destructive to their targets, simply do not prevent childbirth. A recent study by the United Nations projected that this planet will be home to 11 billion people by the year 2100, 82 years from now. Even more daunting: that amounts to an increase of nearly 9 billion people since the year 1950. Given that exploitative societies and systems combine to make life difficult at best for the vast majority of those billions living today, one wonders how any call for or encouragement of more human births can possibly be justified.

The Fate of People Who Bear Children in a Capitalist Society: 150 Years of Socialist Feminist Thought

Socialist feminists, from Marx and Engels onward³, have spent quite a bit of time thinking and writing about the many people who can and do get pregnant. It’s valuable when thinking about these issues to read what they’ve written. You can find an excellent survey of socialist feminist writing in Feminist Perspectives on Class and Work (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

By the time the Industrial Revolution was well underway in Europe, the historical exclusion of cis women from the sphere of waged work was so pervasive, and so destructive to their freedom and autonomy, that Karl Marx himself remarked⁴:

However terrible and disgusting the dissolution, under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless, modern industry, assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and the relations between the sexes…

Moreover, it is obvious that the fact of the collective working group being composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages, must necessarily, under suitable conditions, become a source of humane development; although in its spontaneously developed, brutal, capitalistic form, where the labourer exists for the process of production, and not the process of production for the labourer, that fact is a pestiferous source of corruption and slavery.

By the mid-twentieth century, Western capitalist society, with respect to labor of all kinds, consisted largely of two work realms: the waged workplace, whose inhabitants were primarily cis men (with the exception of gendered waged work such as teaching and nursing), and the household, where the (unpaid) cooking and cleaning work to help the husband maintain his job and get the children to school fell to the wife.⁵

It was this world upon which the socialist feminists of the 1960’s and 1970’s based their refinements of Marxist thought with respect to the role in a capitalist society of unwaged reproductive labor. To summarize: historically, as capitalism has taken hold, AFAB folks have been forced out of the waged labor market in favor of bearing and raising children and providing unpaid domestic support for their cis male partners.⁶ This made them economically dependent on those partners no matter how well (or poorly) those partners provided for their families. Unpaid reproductive labor enables capitalist enterprises to ensure the relative health and stability of their (cis male) labor forces without having to spend more money on them.

Over the last 40 years, socialist feminists, by and large, have proposed two main solutions to the problem of unpaid reproductive labor⁷:

  • Compensate unpaid household and childcare work with a wage. These ideas, the fruit of the 1970’s Wages for Housework movement, have given way to the far less radical notion of integrating AFAB people into the waged workforce on a grand scale.
  • Remove barriers to AFAB folks working for a wage. The last few decades have in fact seen a large uptick in cis women in the workplace, which has afforded them some independence and, in many cases, ability to choose work that suits them better than household or childcare work would do.

Availability of waged work to AFAB folks has done some of what Marx thought it might do: it’s given them some independence to choose work that might suit them and, in many cases, has allowed them to choose (or to leave) their partners without massive economic consequences.

It should be noted, of course, that much of the available work for cis women is still highly gendered and subject to other biases:

  • Should they prefer traditionally male work (such as programming or construction), they often face harassment and intimidation on the job with little or no help from their employers (or, often, their largely-male unions).
  • Ancestry and class background will often limit the jobs that are available.

Also, making waged work available to AFAB folks does not solve the problem of unequal responsibility for reproductive labor: in fact, they generally wind up doing more hours of work of all kinds per week than their cis male counterparts.⁸ In some ways, they are super-workers in a way that nineteenth-century capitalists could only have dreamed of: performing waged work often at a deep discount of a cis man’s wage, then sustaining their partners and children (laborers-to-be) with domestic work. If the household’s waged income is high enough, some of the domestic work is typically outsourced, many times to folks of color at a low wage. While this frees wealthy white cis women from some work responsibility, it simply shifts the burden to their sisters of color.

How, then, do we go about achieving gender parity AND a society in which people can do waged work (or not) AND bear and raise children (or not) as they desire? Kilpatrick alludes favorably to some circumstances that resonate with arguments made by autonomous Marxists like Kathi Weeks. It is these that I’ll turn to next.

Happiness and the “Refusal of Work”

Kilpatrick mentions a study that found that some of the happiest people in the world are Dutch women, many of whom, thanks to a robust welfare state, do not work full-time. While this finding could easily be construed as a reason to steer or coerce AFAB folks from waged work back into the kitchen and bedroom, it also happens to be a telling commentary on waged work.

The fact is that “the workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society”⁹. Having to enter into a contract to sell your wages is bad enough, but the exercise of authority and hierarchy that follows on a daily basis is, if you’re paying attention at all, much more destructive to your well-being over time.

According to Kathi Weeks, orthodox Marxist and socialist feminist thought, especially of the Anglo-American variety, uncritically promotes an ethic that work, and lots of it, is good for the person and for the soul.¹⁰ For example, orthodox Marxism holds that organization at the industrial workplace will bring about a socialist revolution. This requires a workplace and a substantial time commitment at that place. Many socialist feminists see no problem with a substantial part-time commitment to waged work and a second shift of unpaid work, although they would like to see cis male partners take more of a share in that. That’s still…a lot of work, especially when commuting is figured in. All told, primacy is given to being very busy quite a bit in some recognizable way.

Autonomous Marxist thought¹¹ has given rise to the notion of “refusal of work” and a “post-work” world. Following this line of thought, Weeks (reiterating and restating the demands of the Wages For Housework movement) argues that universal basic income (UBI) would allow people a choice simply to do less. They could engage in “work” as is defined today that interests them or that needs to be done to support themselves and their families, and the dichotomy between “valued” labor for a wage and “unvalued” labor at home would disappear.

It’s important to note that “refusal of work” does not signify turning away from all life-sustaining labor, but rather refuses to valorize work as the superlative moral good of the world of Weber’s Protestant ethic. Food needs to be obtained, prepared, and stored; baby bums need wiping and changing’ leftist screeds must be written. What the “refusal of work” theorists say is that those activities are no inherently “better” than producing YouTube makeup how-to videos or birdwatching, and that yes, fewer hours per day of busyness than the Western tradition prescribes is probably better for most people overall.

The notion of our current neoliberal governments espousing anything like UBI is in fact controversial. To benefit most people, the authors of a UBI scheme would truly have to have the interests of most people at heart. The best chance of that would be with a socialist government. That being said, Weeks’ critique of unthinking replication of a “work makes you whole” ethic is on point, especially in the United States.

Conclusion

Kilpatrick does not mention UBI as a possible solution to overall economic and social inequality or the unhappiness caused by overemphasis on work. It’s unclear whose unhappiness he would like to reduce. Simply guaranteeing more money available for certain people to have and raise children will not help everyone: for example, it did not help me.

Gender-based beliefs about or prescriptions for behavior, or creations of anti-natalist bogeymen whose “scariness” just happens to coincide with some of capitalism’s more insidious forces against less privileged people, will not help us achieve a more equitable or happier society.

It’s also clear that the higher rate of population growth we’ve seen over the last few decades has not led to more people being happier or more free. In addition to a fair distribution of wealth, social attitudes and practices that create reproductive justice are a possibility. As enunciated by the international, multi-ethnic SisterSong movement, a society that honors the principles of reproductive justice would offer:

  • Freedom to have children, or not to have children, as you desire. This freedom includes the practices of birth control and abortion but is not limited to those practices.
  • Freedom to RAISE any children you bear in a healthy, happy environment. This includes support from the community (not just the biological family) in raising those children.
  • Sexual freedom for all, pointedly for non-men and for queer people. Sexual freedom encompasses the desire to be celibate: compulsory or expected sex does not have a place here.
  • Access to reproductive health services for all. Reproductive health services for trans folks who don’t intend to have children are very much part of this.

Donna Haraway’s intriguing book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene adds an important point to the necessary element of reproductive justice: recognition that humans share the planet with nonhuman creatures and that any reproductive freedom for humans cannot be practiced with full justice unless successful co-existence with nonhuman creatures is continually taken into account. The human species cannot survive without its non-human counterparts.

We have some excellent ideas available to us to guide the way toward reproductive justice that aren’t just about having more kids. Let’s talk about those instead.

Amy E. Brown, socialist feminist, toils in Cambridge, MA and spins a few miles north of the city. She sells her labor by writing software documentation, and she does this and that to help build a socialist movement where she lives and works. When she’s not busy with all of that, she’s out on her bike, reading, or listening to podcasts like Jessa Crispin’s Public Intellectual, which is where she learned about Donna Haraway. Many thanks to John Reilly for his thoughtful review and comments.

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¹ I’m a member of several “child-free” channels on social media and can attest to the positive horror expressed to AFAB people who intend to prevent conception permanently. This is a social force that Kilpatrick either doesn’t know about or fails to mention.

² Interestingly, new birth control methods intended for use by AMAB folks tend to fail in trials because of side effects that, while the subject of legitimate concern, are no worse than those frequently endured by AFAB folks who use birth control. Because AFAB folks generally pay a higher price for pregnancy than do AMAB folks, however, they put up with it and continue to take birth control that harms their health.

³ It’s often a pleasure for a modern feminist to read Marx or Engels: some of their attitudes are typically Victorian, but in general they were friends to women in word and deed. Their critiques of the nuclear family, which is too often a crucible of misogyny, are particularly refreshing.

⁴ Karl Marx, Capital.

⁵ Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke University Press, 2011), p. 28. Available at https://libcom.org/files/the-problem-with-work_-feminism-marxism-kathi-weeks.pdf.

⁶ Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia, 2004), passim.

⁷ Weeks, p. 12.

⁸ Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (Viking Penguin, 1989), reissued 1997 and 2012, passim.

⁹ Michael Denning, Culture in an Age of Three Worlds (Verso, 2004), p. 224, cited in Weeks, p. 23.

¹⁰ Weeks, passim.

¹¹ “Anarchist Perspectives on Work and its Other,” Feminist Perspectives on Class and Work (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Electoralism Won’t Shift the Overton Window On Socialism: Art Will

*This contains minor spoilers for “Sorry to Bother You”

By Jibran M

The Democratic Socialists of America are currently at a curious cross-roads. As membership numbers swell along with nominally socialist politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets mainstream attention, what role should DSA play in endorsing, running, and electing candidates? As Kim Moody has already argued at length, “The specter of the past that haunts DSA, however, remains the Democratic Party.” As a socialist, and as an anti-capitalist, I fervently believe that we must revolutionize politics from below. Socialists must prioritize building power amongst the working class; not by endorsing the power structures that inspired our action in the first place.

As any cursory search on Twitter can tell you: a big reason people are excited about these mainstream candidates endorsing socialist policies (but equivocating on socialism itself) is that it “mainstreams” socialist ideals and shifts the “overton window,” that is, the window of discourse that is perceived as palatable within the public sphere, towards a more palatable socialism. Although it might seem cool that “socialism” is getting air-time on the likes of CNN, is the working class truly in possession of the discourse? Proselytizing socialism requires our collective attention. We must seize the means of the production of those ideas themselves.

Leftist ideals can and should permeate not through the mouths of elected officials that are easily bullied by bourgeois machinery, but through empowering the discourse itself through revolutionary art and culture.

Paul Klee: <i>Angelus Novus</i>, 1920
Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, a favorite of German Marxist, Walter Benjamin and the subject of his 1940 essay, “Theses on the Concept of History

While we cannot create an objective science of art, we can discuss how art can be a vehicle for ideology; it is therefore subject to its own scientific critique. French Marxist Philosopher, Louis Althusser once argued, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects.” If we are to define art as an artist’s representation of an idea (their subject) then we can follow that we are the subject of an ideology, which the bourgeois has spread through art and propaganda. For centuries, the elite have interpellated their subjects with their own ideology. From ideology that justifies the continued imprisonment of Palestinians, to memes that legitimize atrocities towards “illegal” immigrants, the elite materialize ideology - through the power they wield - to maintain authority. In fact, bourgeois philosophy and art itself continues to live through denying the status of any alternative:

The real question is not whether Marx, Engels and Lenin are or are not real philosophers, whether their philosophical statements are formally irreproachable, whether they do or do not make foolish statements about Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’, whether their materialism is or is not pre-critical, etc. For all these questions are and always have been posed inside a certain practice of philosophy. The real question bears precisely on this traditional practice which Lenin brings back into question by proposing a quite different practice of philosophy.

This different practice contains something like a promise or outline of an objective knowledge of philosophy’s mode of being. A knowledge of philosophy as a Holzweg der Holzwege. But the last thing philosophers and philosophy can bear, the intolerable, is perhaps precisely the idea of this knowledge. What philosophy cannot bear is the idea of a theory (i.e. of an objective knowledge) of philosophy capable of changing its traditional practice. Such a theory may be fatal for philosophy, since it lives by its denegation (emphasis mine).

Louis Althusser, 1971 – Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays

In other words, the denial of status of Marxist thought is crucial for the survival of the ruling class. Elite capitalists sees their own world view as universal. Things that are accepted as universal - such as the Earth being a sphere - are beyond partisan reproach and ultimately, beyond scientific analysis. Unlike the dimensions of the Earth, ideology isn’t objective. Because of this, any attempt to meaningfully critique a bourgeois ideology is met with ridicule and sometimes, violence.

How often have we seen films such as Mission Impossible: Fall Out, that glorify the exploits of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)? What about documentaries such as Ken Burns’ Civil War that attempts to rehabilitate Robert E. Lee’s reputation from someone who had virulent views toward black people to a kindly, conflicted war hero? If you dug really deep into my own Tumblr archives, you could see that even I admired Lee thanks to what I saw in the Ken Burns documentary at the highly impressionable age of 18.

It’s clear that the bourgeois has been able to permeate its ideology through art and culture. However, if art is a vehicle for ideology, and if we are subject to the ideology embedded in the art we consume, the bourgeois are only in control of that vehicle for the moment. But, if socialists can engage in their own promulgation of truly revolutionary art, then there lies hope to truly shift the “Overton Window” into a more favorable direction.

We’ve already seen success with this through the smashing success of self-avowed communist, Boots Riley’s groundbreaking work, Sorry to Bother You. It is absolutely crucial that political movements have their own signifiers. And, as Briahna Gray stated so succinctly for The Intercept, “The connection between art and a political movement is what makes Sorry to Bother You feel revolutionary.”

Riley, in an interview for Vulture, discussed how his entire movie “deals with performance.” This is painfully evident in a pivotal scene where a white audience yells at the protagonist, Cassius Green (played by the remarkable Lakeith Stanfield) to “Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap!” as the CEO of the richest company in the world glares at him.

What Riley is trying to highlight with this scene is that in America, we are subtly coerced through philosophy, through ideology, and through art to perform for the benefit of those in power.

Sorry to Bother You – with its critical and commercial success – gives people an opportunity (just look at the people Boots Riley is retweeting), to perform anti-capitalism. Through a medium such as blockbuster art, Boots Riley has equipped people with a framework to discuss the everyday societal ills reinforced by capitalism such as isolation from our loved ones thanks to professional stress, the tension between solidarity with our colleagues and striving for our own individual success, and the fact that maybe we can, in fact,  strive for fair wages for all.

Sorry to Bother You, hopefully, is but a small yet deliberate ripple. As socialists, and as good comrades, we must do our best to champion - whether it be through RTs on Twitter or through Patreon support - art from our peers that is beyond culturally significant, but revolutionary.

Mass Movements aren’t built through personalities but they are built through symbols. Revolution is not built by milquetoast platitudes such as “all men are brothers!” but through forceful memes. Here’s one you might be familiar with, “Workers of the world, unite!”

Independent Power or Betrayal

Horace Vernet’s painting depicting the fighting near the Pantheon during the “June Days” in Paris in 1848

By Edward P

The PEWG Newsletter has carried one recommendation with a brief synopsis for a classic socialist text every two weeks since its launch. We’ll be a running a regular series where authors discuss why you should read and what lessons you can take from one of these classic works. If there is a book, essay, speech, or poem that is meaningful to how you understand socialism, please submit it here!

From the last two bolded words in the marxists.org translation, this is the PERMANENT REVOLUTION speech in my mind, but it’s actual, more pedestrian title, is the Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. You should give it a read! It’s pretty short and like Karl Marx’s more popularly targeted works easy to read minus words like bourgeoisie and proletariat (the capitalist class and the working class).

Historical Context

At the beginning of 1848, Europe was a ruled by by an interdependent set of reactionary governments. The old aristocracy that seemed to have been swept away by the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquests had reasserted itself, and built an above ground set of alliances and a below ground spy network intended to prevent a repeat of 1792. Where the representative government existed, enfranchisement was severely limited. In France, there were only around 300,000 eligible voters out of a population of nearly 36 Million.

The rising middle-class, the small merchants, doctors, and lawyers, chafed under the repressive regimes and agitated for having a say in government. When they finally took to the streets, first in Paris on February 22, 1848 , they were joined by a new class of people, the industrial proletariat, a group of urban people either drawn to the cities by new factory work or forced off their farms by the recurrent famines of the 1840s. They were pioneers in a new way of living where one had to sell their labor to live, but the opportunity to do so was not always a given.

This alliance of urban middle and working-class toppled or destabilized the governments of Europe one by one through the early part of the year. In France, it brought in a new government including the socialist Louis Blanc and the working-class leader Alexandre Martin (nom de guerre: Albert). However the desires of workers for reforms to the economic system were stymied by their erstwhile allies. Across the continent, the revolutionary coalition came apart and the forces of reaction clawed back the liberal democratic gains.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were active participants in these revolutions as well. Marx used his recently received inheritance to buy weapons for workers in Brussels, and both Marx and Engels moved from Brussels to Cologne (with the prodding of the Belgian government), where they pamphletted in support of the revolutionaries. Engels served as an aide-de-camp to August Willich, (who has an interesting story in his own right; he’d later split with Marx over whether workers should rise up immediately, then go on to be a general in the Union army during the American Civil War) in an armed uprising against the Prussian government.

Marx delivered this speech in 1850 as the revolutionary energy of 1848 had fully given way to reaction and counter-revolution. He was chiefly interested in what lessons the League of Communists, for whom he and Engels had written the Communist Manifesto in 1847 but had played little role as an organization in the 1848 revolutions, could draw from the tumultuous year.

Betrayal and Class Interest

Marx believed the main lesson of 1848 was the betrayal of the working-class by the liberal bourgeoisie, the section of the capitalist class that was kept out of formal power by either a lack of franchise or lack of a feudal title.

It was indeed the bourgeoisie which took possession of the state authority in the wake of the March movement of 1848 and used this power to drive the workers, its allies in the struggle, back into their former oppressed position. Although the bourgeoisie could accomplish this only by entering into an alliance with the feudal party, which had been defeated in March, and eventually even had to surrender power once more to this feudal absolutist party, it has nevertheless secured favourable conditions for itself.

The reimposition of the old order’s authority in Germany meant that another revolution was inevitable. Marx thought the revolutionary energy would come from another class, the petite bourgeoisie — meaning the shopkeepers, clerks, doctors, and small government functionaries. This was the class of people who agitated most for an expanded franchise in the 1848 revolutions. In France, they also made up the bulk of the National Guard — a militia whose participation early in the revolution toppled the monarchy, but who would then turn against the street protests when they demanded further reforms.

None of these classes — the liberal bourgeoisie, the petite bourgeoisie, and the workers — were powerful enough on their own to carry out their agenda. All had to act in concert with other classes to overcome the entrenched power of the state; though in the case of the proletariat it was a lack of consciousness and organization that stymied their power. In Marx’s conception, classes would only cooperate with each other to the point where they were able to achieve their ends, then turn back to the remnants of the old order; their gains and position secured.

The petite bourgeoisie — having failed to achieve their ends in the German revolutions — still looked to the working-class to bolster their strength for further revolution. Who would the workers look to in the next revolution? The petite bourgeoisie or themselves?

Institutions and Power

Institutions are never neutral. Political parties, companies, churches, schools, media outlets –  they are created out of the interests of certain classes or sections of classes and find their form and function based on the mode of production of production and the social relations that arise from it. Institutions built by the bourgeoisie serve their class interests — reproducing the social relationship, the wage laborers’ subordination to the holder of capital.

Take, for example, Northeastern University’s cooperation with ICE. Universities are institutions that make a pretense of neutrality — talking about academic freedom and the specialness of campus life, and, indeed, a Northeastern spokeswoman said, “Efforts to restrict which federal agencies a faculty member can approach for research funding are antithetical to academic freedom.” It is obviously ridiculous that any association with ICE could be neutral or a matter of academic freedom. The University aligns itself with a particularly brutal governmental institution because it is a capitalist institution and it is in the interests of capital to create an oppressed underclass of laborers.

Marx warned against the working-class being drawn into the institutions of other classes. He believed that ending capitalism, socializing property, and putting the productive forces of society toward the benefits of society were where the working class’s true interests lay. To accomplish these ends, workers had to build their own power independent from other classes.

Instead of lowering themselves to the level of an applauding chorus, the workers, and above all the League, must work for the creation of an independent organization of the workers’ party, both secret and open, and alongside the official democrats, and the League must aim to make every one of its communes a center and nucleus of workers’ associations in which the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence.

That isn’t to say they would be unable to, at times, make common cause with other classes. Democracy and basic freedoms that made open organizing possible did not exist in the German states in 1850. Marx felt that the workers could cooperate on narrow lines, “[the worker’s party] cooperates with [the petite bourgeoise’s party] against the party which they aim to overthrow; it opposes them wherever they wish to secure their own position.” But that they must always maintain their independence and not be draw into the institutions of opposing classes, even in the face of appeals to unity of the democratic opposition:

At the moment, while the democratic petty bourgeois are everywhere oppressed, they preach to the proletariat general unity and reconciliation; they extend the hand of friendship, and seek to found a great opposition party which will embrace all shades of democratic opinion; that is, they seek to ensnare the workers in a party organization in which general social-democratic phrases prevail while their particular interests are kept hidden behind, and in which, for the sake of preserving the peace, the specific demands of the proletariat may not be presented.

Workers, rather than being content with small wins whenever democracy was advanced or the power of capital curtailed, need to keep pushing for the victories to go further. One revolution in one aspect of society’s organization is not enough, they must keep the revolution going until they have won completely. Workers could only keep the revolutionary spirit going by being organized independently from other classes, building their own consciousness instead of taking it from capitalist institutions.

But they themselves must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organized party of the proletariat. Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.

What Are We Building?

So what kind of institution are we building with our participation in the DSA? We are not yet organically of the working-class; we lack a base of support among working-class people such that we could claim to the speak for them. DSA isn’t yet a space for working-class people, as a class, to raise their consciousness and talk about their interests and positions.

We also lack independence from other class interests to establish a workers’ party. We should be very familiar with the calls for unity with petite bourgeoisie politicians and calls to work with the Democratic Party or other progressive groups rather than attempting to build our own institutions.

If we want to overcome these limitations, and really engage in a process of party building, we have to start by grounding our understanding of our situation in materialism. Recognizing that we are situated in a historical moment of class struggle, we have to examine what the class interests are at work in each task we pick up as an organization. We create a collective understanding of what these interests are, through study, rigorous debate, and democratic internal processes.

From there, we can move beyond our reflexive organizational alignment with progressive and liberal interests to establish independence as an organization. With a shared materialist understanding of these interests, what classes they seek to advance, we can understand how to engage with them strategically — when to ally with when they want to overthrow and oppose when they want to secure their position.

We should be building a working-class party. A party that advances only the interests of the working-class that is social revolution. We can’t simply decide to create this party wholecloth, but, by engaging in work that challenges the existing power of capital and by demonstrating a commitment to the interests of working-people above those of small business owners, labor bureaucrats, and other petite bourgeois elements that have historically made up the DSA, we can start the work of building “…a center and nucleus of workers’ associations.” Building independent, organized power should be criteria we evaluate our work by. Building a new workers party should be our end goal.