Thinking Big

When men are forbidden to think, their thinking sanctions what simply exists.
Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics

Economist Dean Baker has pointed out a startling fact: that in the absence of patent protection for prescription drugs, instead of spending $330 billion annually on medications the US would spend only $30 billion. As Baker suggests, this is one of the most transparent cases in US society of the upward redistribution of wealth through the state, from patients to the drug companies – a gift of $300 billion a year, more than 20 percent of all corporate profits. The conclusion he draws is compelling, and serves as a good starting point for critical Left thinking on the current conjuncture:

It does require that government take an active role in the economy, but it is already taking an active role in the economy in these areas. The difference is that, currently, the conservatives have been setting these rules, while progressives have been polite enough not to pay attention. Instead, they have mostly focused their energy on matters that will have far less impact.

Baker’s proposal is formulated straightforwardly: “we have to be prepared to actually think big, and not just think about big programs.”1

It’s unnecessary to describe here the basic components of rightwing (or neo-liberal) hegemony – that is, “the rules” that conservatives have been setting to which the Left has been “polite enough not to pay attention.” For in the end, the Right’s entire ideological arsenal rests on a simple, completely false, opposition: between the state and civil society, or government and the private sector. State-owned enterprises are said to be wasteful, inefficient, and encouraging of laziness and corruption, while the private sector is deified as an all-powerful, self-regulating and highly efficient engine driving all technological innovation, economic growth, and individual creative activity. Once fully unleashed, i.e. exempted from static bureaucratic government control, the private sector will bring limitless economic freedom and opportunity to all. The public sector on the other hand, being insulated from the market’s inherent dynamism, will continue to be a great sinkhole – of failed social projects, widespread managerial corruption and incompetence, and shamefully misspent taxpayer money.

Of course, no serious economist believes any of this. Yet in the mainstream corporate media the neo-liberal orthodoxy is promoted relentlessly, in a form of lockstep obedience to the powers-that-be that would have made the Nazi movement’s ideologists extremely envious. Take a particularly pungent example: During the summer of 2008, the Republican candidate for president, Senator John McCain, began pushing hard to open up costal areas in the US to offshore oil drilling, the argument being that offshore drilling would immediately lower the price of gas at the pump. Immediately the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) issued a report showing that such drilling would increase world oil production by about one-fifth of one percent – twenty years from now. However, the vast majority of Americans never got this vital piece of information, as economist Mark Weisbrot has recently documented. Weisbrot shows that of the 267 major television programs that mentioned the proposed drilling between June 16 and August 9, 2008, “only one cited the EIA finding.” As a result,

the McCain effort succeeded in shaping public opinion. By the end of July, 69 percent of respondents favored such expanded drilling, and 51 percent said that they believed that “federal laws that prohibit increased drilling for oil offshore or in wilderness areas” were a “major cause of the recent increase in gasoline prices.” The response of political candidates to the election-year pressure of misinformed public opinion then led to the change in policy.2

Returning to Baker’s main point – that the institutionalized Left has “mostly focused their energy on matters that will have far less impact” – an essential task for the Left today is to think hard about where exactly this misplaced energy has gone. In all events, this kind of critique should not be taken as “divisive.” In fact everything to the contrary: that the Marxist tradition’s raison d’être is precisely to question everything, especially all those conceptions of radical social change being put forward in its name.

Upper-Middle Class Multiculturalism and the “Politics of Tolerance”

The “politics of tolerance” has been a mainstay of American middle-class left-liberalism since the 1930s and 1940s. It has played a determining role in the eradication of chauvinistic attitudes within US working-class communities, in particular new immigrant communities where longstanding, i.e. colonialist, Old World antagonisms (between Anglo Protestants and Catholic Irish, say, or Northern Europeans and Southern Europeans) were grafted onto already existing class relations – or, conversely, where New World conflicts (between African Americans and West Indians or Haitians and Dominicans or American Indians and Chicanos) were, once on white supremacist US soil, greatly exacerbated. As many critics and commentators have rightly pointed out regarding Barack Obama’s historic victory in November, the American populace has become over the course of the last twenty years much more civilized. Indeed, rare is it to see or hear (at least publicly) racist, sexist or homophobic ideas and beliefs expressed openly. The same holds true for religion – even the Wiccans have now been granted legitimacy as authentic believers.3 In this way, President Obama’s rather surprising inclusion, in his inaugural address, of atheists in the nation’s growing pantheon of religions and cultures of belief is the ultimate realization of the liberal “politics of tolerance.”

Nonetheless, there remain two major belief systems still waiting in line for admittance into America’s “politics of tolerance”: American socialism and Palestinian nationalism. In the case of the latter, while criticism of the Israeli occupation is finally beginning to gain a popular hearing in the US, the idea that the Palestinian people have a legitimate national claim to all the land of Palestine, on which the state of Israel was, through brute military force, implanted in 1948, is still totally taboo. The “politics of tolerance” is unwavering in its absolute intolerance toward any expression of Palestinian nationalism, which it equates, reflexively, with anti-Semitism, thus ending the debate before it can properly begin.

The case of the former is a lot less talked about. This is due to the fact that, whereas no sane person would ever claim that Palestinian nationalists have taken over the humanities departments at some of the US’s most prestigious academic institutions, it is widely suggested in the commercial media that a vast network of radical leftist professors now administers the entire US university system. These professors are said to be busy at work indoctrinating their students with a broad range of “anti-American” propaganda – pro-abortion rhetoric, anti-Christian evolutionary theory, animal ethics and Veganism, pushing a gay and lesbian lifestyle, blaming US capitalism for all the world’s problems, and so on. Consequently, the idea that the American socialist worldview has been banished from US public discourse – that the communist belief system is treated by the liberal “politics of tolerance” as completely intolerable – is never pursued with any seriousness.

The “Multitude” of New Social Movements

This brings us to the new social movements. Behind a sophisticated postmodern rhetoric of “decentered subjects,” nomadism, and the constructed self, these essentially single issue-based movements have actually followed very closely in the tracks of neo-liberalism’s attack on the welfare state, glamorization of globalization, and de-politicization of fundamental economic policy questions. The new social movements position themselves against the state, regardless of whether the particular state is located in the underdeveloped Third World or the advanced capitalist sphere, is socialist or capitalist. They share in common with neo-liberals the notion that decentralization is a good thing, in that it has opened up fresh opportunities for subaltern groups (or “the Multitude,” as Hardt and Negri’s new paradigm has it4) to assert themselves “globally,” groups hitherto marginalized by highly centralized organizational structures, including leftwing trade unions and Leninist-oriented political parties. The goal of the new social movements is not to seize state power but to successfully navigate its endless interstices – to make constant demands on local governments, organize single-issue campaigns in local communities, hold conferences, conduct outreach, plan rallies and marches, and so on. Nobody could be against this kind of “Town Hall” political agitation, including the ruling class itself, which is precisely the problem with it. Apropos the title of the mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s 1987 book, If Voting Changed Anything They’d Abolish It, if the new social movements posed a serious political threat to the Right, and were deemed unacceptable to the free market by neo-liberalism, they would have been illegalized at their very inception. The question, then, is not about the virtue or desirability of the new social movements, but whether they are really the bold new form of radical Left politics that they claim to be. If the answer is that they are not at all in the tradition of radical leftist emancipatory politics, that a true Left politics actually thinks big, as Baker says, then what we need to propose is an overcoming of the new social movements. Not their negation, but a transcending of them.

What makes the new social movements consistent with middle-class liberalism and not the Marxist tradition is their nonoppositional mode of critique. Žižek in his latest book, In Defense of Lost Causes, refers to this new intellectual style as symptomatic of the contemporary Left’s “fear of directly confronting state power.” He writes:

Those who still insist on fighting state power, let alone directly taking it over, are immediately accused of being stuck in the “old paradigm”: the task today is to resist state power by withdrawing from its scope, subtracting oneself from it, creating new spaces outside its control. This dogma of the contemporary academic Left is best encapsulated by the title of Negri’s interview-book: Goodbye Mister Socialism. The idea is that the time of the old Left in its two versions, reformist and revolutionary, which both aimed at taking over state power and protecting the working class’s corporate rights, is over. Today, the predominant form of exploitation is the exploitation of knowledge, and so on and so forth—there is a new “postmodern” social development going on which the old Left refuses to take into account, and, in order to renovate itself, the Left has to…read Deleuze and Negri and start to practice nomadic resistance, follow the theory of hegemony, and so on. But what if this very mode of defining the problem is part of the problem?5

To put it another way, despite all the radical rhetoric, when it comes to the question of state power the new social movements are, politically speaking, centrist and not leftist.

A perfect illustration of the consequences of the new social movements’ political centrism is the $80 billion in social spending that President Obama, strictly in order to please the Right, removed from his economic stimulus bill. As Paul Krugman immediately pointed out, these very substantial cuts were not based on any coherent economic argument, but were simply a prime opportunity for the centrists “to demonstrate their centrist mojo.” His analysis of Obama’s logic is incisive and completely correct: “Mr. Obama’s postpartisan yearnings may also explain why he didn’t do something crucially important: speak forcefully about how government spending can help support the economy. Instead, he let conservatives define the debate, waiting until late last week before finally saying what needed to be said – that increasing spending is the whole point of the plan.”6 Of course, it is not the case that the new social movements approve of such spineless compromising with the Right or have ever advocated it. The point is that their withdrawal from the battle over state power has enabled it to continue happening.

The Current Conjuncture

The total shape of the current conjuncture can be understood through a single fundamental economic fact: a $3 trillion hole exists in the US economy. Normally, this would be cause for a great deal of excitement and enthusiasm on the Left, very much like the scene in the early 1930s when American socialists were poised to gain full acceptance and influential policy-making roles in FDR’s New Deal coalition – Roosevelt’s famous “troika” of big city political machines, the labor movement, and the avowedly white supremacist “Solid South.” Most disturbing, then, about the current crisis is not simply the absence of an American socialist movement capable of forcing the centrist Obama over to the radical Left. Rather, it is the fact that even though the “Solid South” is weaker today than it has ever been before (far weaker than it was during the 1930s), President Obama is nonetheless pursuing a conciliation strategy toward the Right as if the resounding defeat it suffered in the 2008 elections never happened.7 One would think that with the “Solid South” basically eliminated from the old troika, a radical social reconstruction of US society is much closer at hand than it was during the 1930s. Yet Obama appears determined to accept undue influence from the shrunken conservative constituency – for example, by diluting his stimulus bill with economically useless big business-friendly tax cuts, and continuing the Bush Administration’s aggressive neo-colonialist foreign policy toward the Chávez government in Venezuela, accusing President Chávez of having “impeded progress in the region” and “exporting terrorist activities.”8

This is naturally a very gloomy take on the situation, one that the Left should strongly resist. For to simply wait for the imminent collapse of the entire US system – the logic being that then President Obama will finally rid himself of the neo-liberal Wall Street Clintonites as well as all the neo-con holdovers from the Bush administration and begin putting into practice the sound policy advice of progressive economists like Dean Baker and Paul Krugman – is precisely to fall into the trap of the postmodern Left’s politics of refusal and withdrawal. Once again, the task now is to think big, and to link this thinking with what Gramsci called a “fundamental social group” – with the American proletariat.

Filmmaker Michael Moore’s recent proposal that rather than loaning GM $18 billion, the US government should use these funds to simply buy the entire company and begin the process of producing in Detroit “only cars that are not primarily dependent on oil and, more importantly to build trains, buses, subways and light rail,” is exactly this kind of thinking big.9 Like Baker’s proposal that we immediately eliminate patent protection for prescription drugs, the force of it is in the total impact such a policy would have on the lives of working-class Americans. “Historic blocs” are made precisely this way: they do not arrive on their own from “the Multitude,” nor are they formed by the quilting together of subaltern social groupings.

Cuban filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s outstanding movie about the first days of the Cuban Revolution, Las Doce Sillas (The Twelve Chairs, 1962), illustrates this point beautifully. In frantic search for one of twelve dining-room chairs in which has been hidden a sack of precious jewels – stashed away there by the wealthy owner of the jewels herself, right after getting word of the new socialist government’s nationalization program – the film’s protagonist, Oscar, ends up traversing every stretch of Cuba’s diverse social landscape. Oscar, the former gardener of the wealthy woman’s estate, is tipped off about the twelve chairs by the woman’s greedy blundering nephew, Hipólito Garrigó, who was informed of the jewels’ location during his aunt’s deathbed confession. Oscar agrees to help Hipólito find the chair in exchange for 50 percent of the jewels’ selling price.

The simple genius of Alea’s plot is that it allows for the visualization of twelve different spheres of Cuban society. Suffice it to say that by the end of the movie every significant social group in Cuba is encountered intimately, from street urchins roaming Cuba’s beaches, Havana’s Chinese immigrant community, and the elderly, to middle-class college students working on a volunteer cane-cutting brigade, upper-class counterrevolutionaries plotting to get back their expropriated mansions, and bands of nomadic circus performers. Alea doesn’t trivialize these social groups – each is imbued with the same full sense of humanity and rendered in what can only be described as a genuinely loving way, as the total spirit of Revolutionary Cuba is so powerful and all-encompassing that even the most pernicious of characters is treated with a gentle touch. Still, as Oscar’s search narrows down to the final few chairs, the “historic bloc” responsible for the Revolution’s success takes concrete shape, embodied by the Railway Union Building in Camagüey, the last stop on Oscar’s journey. Here Oscar discovers two things, put in explicit dialectical tension by Alea: that his search for the hidden jewels has been in vain – the last of the twelve chairs is, alas, bereft of them – and that the reason why the jewels aren’t there is because they’ve been used by the government to finance the construction of the Union Railway Building, through which Oscar has just been walking around in awe: a large library stocked with books and journals has been built inside the building, as well as an auditorium for music, dance, and theater; members of the Railway Union are seen everywhere, many reading quietly in the library, others on their way to meetings. This second discovery is, of course, Oscar’s epiphany and, as soon as he makes it, a big – seemingly permanent – smile breaks across his face. Directly outside the Railway Union Building now, he sees that some of the workers have chosen to use their afternoon break to play a game of pick-up baseball. Still beaming, Oscar runs over to the field and joins the workers at play.

To my mind, there is no valid argument against thinking this way about the situation today. This is not a case of nostalgia for a golden revolutionary moment now dead and gone. The fact is that in the course of the next three years the US government will have to spend $3 trillion on social programs – either that, or mass chaos will be soon upon us. The idea is very plain: the size of our thinking should be equal to the size of this sum.

Notes

1. Dean Baker, “New Thinking on the Economy,” Truthout, Feb. 9, 2009:
www.truthout.org/020909J.

2. Mark Weisbrot, “Obama Has Opportunity to Reverse Mistake on Offshore Drilling,” Center for Economic and Policy Research, 22 January 2009:
www.cepr.net/index.php/op-eds-&-columns/op-eds-&-columns/obama-has-opportunity-to-reverse-mistake-on-offshore-drilling.

3. Wiccans are followers of “the Wica,” a form of Goddess-oriented neopagan witchcraft. It was first popularized in 1954 by Gerald Gardner, a retired British civil servant, who claimed he was resurrecting an ancient polytheistic religion which, ever since the early days of Christianity’s institutionalization, had been practiced in secret.

4. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Multitude (2004) is the sequel to their bestselling book Empire (2000). Both works make the argument that the Left should see in late capitalism’s “de-centralization” process ripe opportunities to create from below a new world of “global democracy.” Their thesis is the paradigm of the new social movements.

5. Slajov Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes (London and New York: Verso, 2008), 339.

6. Paul Krugman, “The Destructive Center,” New York Times, Feb. 8, 2009:
www.nytimes.com/2009/02/09/opinion/09krugman.html.

7. In the 2008 elections, the Republican Party lost 21 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate, increasing substantially the Democratic Party’s control of Congress, which it had achieved in the 2006 elections for the first time in 12 years. Most significant about the 2008 elections is that in many southern states, such as Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida, Democrat candidates for office defeated Republican incumbents. With Obama’s victory over John McCain the in the Presidential Election, this is the first time since 1992 that the Democrats won control of both Congress and the White House.

8. See Mark Weisbrot, “Venezuela, an imaginary threat,” The Guardian, Feb. 17, 2009: www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/feb/17/barack-obama-venezuela-hugo-chavez.

9. Michael Moore, “Saving the Big 3 for You and Me,” Salon.com, Dec. 3, 2008:
http://open.salon.com/content.php?cid=55716.

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