Thinking the Unthinkable


The election of 2004 will be picked over like carrion for years to come; yet its skeletal outlines are well in place and there to be reflected upon by anyone with eyes to see. The election represents, in effect, the interaction of a number of tendencies that have long been observed and decried by observers on the left, in particular:

  • A steady, ongoing corruption of the political process, manifest in the internal moral decay of the Democratic Party, now subject to rampant pusillanimity and subservience to an increasingly corrupt, confident Republican Party linked to the Christian Right; the corruption of the latter now extends to frank criminality as evinced, for example, in widespread voting fraud;
  • A parallel corruption of the press, fawningly subservient to state power and shockingly derelict in presenting elementary facts, much less their interpretation, to a bemused and confused public. Swept up in the logic of entertainment and trivialization, the press may have reached a nadir in its failure to provide even minimally adequate coverage of the abovementioned voting fraud.

There are innumerable important details to be considered, which I will set aside for lack of space. I want to attend, rather, first, to some of the broad implications of these changes; and second, to the matter of their cause, as a way of setting the stage for exploring the essential condition of what is to be done.   By ignoring the voting fraud in Ohio and elsewhere, the official media let it be known that the collapse of electoral democracy is not newsworthy.1 This of course makes them as complicitous in its destruction as a Democratic Party that would not fight for a fair outcome. In any case, toleration of the blatant criminality evinced in the last two Presidential elections means that we have effectively lost the self-corrective mechanism that has acted like a gyroscope for some two centuries to keep the system of American representative democracy on keel.

Nobody with any sense will delude him- or herself that bourgeois democracy represents the finest achievement of civilization. But it has defined a kind of stable reference against which the parameters of political choice have been able to take shape. The prospect of voting the rascals out of office has been a kind of foundation on which politics has been constructed. To lose this possibility means becoming ever more open to an accelerating radical right trajectory inasmuch as the popular forces which can be set against the right lose effective means of representation. In this way, the fascist endgame that many have feared can loom without any particular coup or dramatic event.

This is not the place to haggle over the meaning of fascism and whether it applies to contemporary America. Fascism, like any historical formation, does not appear and reappear as an identifiable species whose inner genetic mechanism provides a readily recognizable phenotype, as though it were a kind of warbler being looked out for by birdwatchers. We do not need a man with a toothbrush mustache, or a balcony, or a military coup, for fascism to arise, nor are we its external observers. Fascism is the reconfiguration of bourgeois rule along authoritarian and corporatist lines once its democratic scaffold has disintegrated. In the doing, it will engage such legitimating alliances (notably in the present instance, Christian fundamentalism, with its various crusades against women and minorities) along with such secondary measures, e.g., forms of racism, mythopoesis, etc., as are necessary to weave together its social fabric. We are caught up in this, and, inhabiting its inside, cannot be expected to fully see it for what it is.

I am not claiming that all corrective measures have been exhausted or that the game, so to speak, is over. Quite to the contrary, numerous means of affecting events still remain open; indeed, the purpose of this discussion is to lay bare certain principles by which they may be realized. But though we are still some way from a totalitarian closure, the unprecedented degree of criminality endemic to recent elections and the equally unprecedented degree of cynicism and fatalism with which this has been greeted tells us that we are undergoing an accelerating radical/authoritarian right takeover headed in a fascist direction, and that the prime challenge for contemporary politics is to come to grips with this.

The Spectre of Capital

Viewing the degeneration of the mainstream parties and the mainstream press, one is impressed by certain common systematic features. To go directly to the point, both are manifestations of the dynamics of capital breaking through all boundaries in the relentless drive toward accumulation—that “Moses and the Prophets” which Marx recognized as the watchword of the epoch. If capital, crudely put, is “money in motion,” its essence can be seen in the inexorable changeover of politics from an activity guided by the principle of “one person, one vote,” to that of “one dollar, one vote,” and, correspondingly, of the takeover of the media by giant corporate interests. The foundation of this development is the increasing division of wealth in the United States. But this division itself is grounded in crisis. Indeed, the present conjuncture was set into motion by the accumulation crises of the early 1970s, and may be viewed as the unfolding of the steps taken to remediate them. As Mickelthwait and Wooldridge describe in their study of the rise of the right in America:

More generally [contrasted to the rise of right-wing foundations in the 1970s], virtually everybody with a corner office in corporate America in the 1970s was moaning about the same things: the economy was in the doldrums, America was losing its competitive edge abroad, they were being regulated “up to their necks,” “the other side” was winning. In 1972, the heads of the 500 biggest companies established the Business Roundtable to lobby for their interests on trade-union rights, antitrust, deregulation and taxes.2

There was no “right” waiting in its lair to spring loose. Rather did neoliberalism develop as class struggle from above. One result of this was to jettison the arrangement that had guided capitalist policy and configured politics since the 1920s, the “Fordist” entente between capital and labor. This was replaced with heightened exploitation of labor, heightened aggressiveness of capital domestically as well as internationally, and with the right-wing politics to match, all of which surfaced and took shape with Reagan.

 It is important to grasp this as a dialectical process, set into motion by various conjunctures, and setting into motion other conjunctures in turn. Those who undertook to radically critique the media in the 80s did so in alarm over its rightward shift and the structural changes responsible for this chiefly, the massive consolidation of the great media conglomerates and the associated loss of alternative voices.3 These were the result of the emerging neoliberal consensus, but they also pointed toward worse. One said back then that ifthese tendencies were allowed to proceed unchecked, we were going to get a really bad press in the future, one that will further suppress alternative voices while carrying the water of capital—a press, in other words, quite capable of cynically standing by as the electoral gyroscope that had stabilized bourgeois democracy for over 200 years is wrecked and thrown on the scrap-heap. Such a press would not only reflect the rightward shift, but open new ground for it, by normalizing what would have been viewed as unthinkable in an earlier day. To repeat an often-stated observation, under prevailing conditions, the Center shifts rightward, in a process that is disturbingly self-reinforcing.

The question of what is thinkable or not is a vexing reminder of old, essentially unresolved, debates about “base” and “superstructure.” As capital lurched into post-Fordism like a great beast of accumulation, as Reagan took power as its avatar and as Clinton opportunistically signed aboard as the “responsible” Democrat of the moment, the next thing we knew, intellectuals in the academy, media and the state suddenly began spouting, as though by force of magic, self-evident “truths” that would have been considered despicable in old-fashioned Fordist times.4  Ideas like the supreme value of productivity and efficiency for the working classes; or the imperative for government to abandon its pretense to taking care of those afflicted by life, began to be seen as moderate and reasonable. At the same time other remnants of the recent past became unthinkable, for example, that there could be something like a guaranteed annual income for all, or as the UN dared think in 1948, a universal human right which assured among other things, health care, housing, even the right to meaningful work.

The Contours of Opportunism

It is relatively easy to see the forces pressing in this direction being those of capital itself. But dialectics postulates the trajectory of history as the result of an interplay between opposed moments. Thus, the Right’s strength and the Left’s weakness are not simple opposites, but a movement in which the strength of one derives from the weakness of the other. This leads us to examine more closely the abyss that is the Democratic Party.

Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council did not invent opportunism, but inherited it and profited from it in an ethos defined by Post-Fordism and the decline of the democratic media. Opportunism has been a regular feature of class society in which power is deployed between a central authority and courtiers who vie for influence. However, power changes its face as times evolve, becoming under capitalism factored between state and “market,” where the latter term gets its inverted commas to indicate that what is entailed are not traditional markets where producers and consumers meet in open exchange, but a globalized domain under the aegis of accumulation. The salient feature of capital from this perspective—and it is one that with time steadily grows in importance to dominate all others—is the relentless drive to extend the domain of commodity formation to embrace all reality, nature and humanity alike.5

What makes an opportunist is the selling out of one’s authentic values to accommodate the reigning power structure. One thereby advances that aspect of the self rewarded by centralized power. Just what configures “authentic values” is of course not transparent, and an adequate discussion is not possible here. Let me simply say that an authentic value would be one which contains within itself the universal -- i.e., the “Wholeness” of the universe and the fullfilment of human being that comes from its appropriation, as against the aggrandizement of the self (or Ego). In an earlier epoch this value structure could be encapsulated in religious terms, and reached its first great syntheses in the teachings of Buddha and Christ. Under the regime of capital, it would have to develop further in order to counter the depredations of commodity-invasion, else it could not claim to represent the universal.

The first great epoch of socialist organizing addressed the commodification of human beings into labor power. By resisting this through the building of working class institutions, countermeasures were taken against the corruption of humanity by capitalist exploitation. But at the same time, the nascent movements of the Second International fell victim to another kind of domination, the corporatist insertion of bureaucratic unions and parties as the mediation of the working class.

The rupture that has led to the abyss of the Democratic Party became formalized in the now-obscure work of Eduard Bernstein in the now-forgotten time of 1895. What Bernstein wrote then in Evolutionary Socialism (with the imprimatur of Frederick Engels in his last years) deserves study as an object lesson in the degeneration of a great spiritual ideal. To the extent that Bernstein is remembered at all, it is as the proponent of the idea that the working class can vote itself into power and achieve the ends of the revolution without any particular upheaval. This is indeed what he proposed; but its deeper aspect was revealed in his discussion of another remark, that “the movement means everything for me and what is usually called ‘the final aim of socialism’ is nothing.” In defending this statement Bernstein went on to say:

I have at no time had an excessive interest in the future, beyond general principles. My thoughts and my efforts are concerned with the duties of the present and the near future, and I only busy myself with the perspectives beyond so far as they give me a line of conduct for suitable action now.6

This was the sort of statement that led Rosa Luxemburg to write scathingly of Bernstein as an opportunist, in one of the first instances known to me of the usage of that word. And indeed, Bernstein’s logic can scarcely be surpassed as an example of contemporary opportunism. It became the hallmark of Social Democracy and all its cousins, like the Democrats in the United States.7 As Luxemburg saw, once notions like those advanced by Bernstein are put into practice, socialism is finished, since it is nothing without its “final aim,” which depends upon the envisioning of a future that is not a mere extension of the present but its radical negation, not just a rearrangement of ownership and a reshuffling of social roles, but a new beginning of society, a “negation of the negation,” to use a term of Hegel’s that Marx appropriated on a number of occasions and that deeply guides his thought.8

If socialism, as a practical ideal, is finished, then capital’s reign is rendered practically eternal. The Social Democrat cum Democrat cum liberal cum “progressive”9 is trapped in an eternal present which, denying the future, denies history and impoverishes human existence. Failure of the imagination -- a defect built into contemporary liberalism at its foundation -- is the real ground of the unthinkability that allows the work of the propaganda machine to go forward.

The liberal social democrat believes in nothing, then, despite the fine phrases about “the people.” Nothing, ultimately, is left to him but self-advancement; this further betrayal of the ideal further corrupts his moral sense, and renders the liberal the willing instrument of the violence behind capital’s smooth and abstract façade. Thus Noske and Ebert, Social Democratic tools of the Junkers in Berlin, accepted responsibility for the orders to summarily execute Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht; thus Clinton gloried in the execution of the brain-damaged Ricky Lee Rector in 1992, and carried out the wars in the Balkans; thus Kerry signed on to the invasion of Iraq. And all in vain: the faithlessness of the liberal compromiser will also be rejected by many voters (irrespective of electoral fraud) who put faith in an unspeakable yet single-minded and hence reassuring politician like Bush.

A parallel loss of faith afflicted many followers of the Leninist alternative to social democracy who, witnessing the degeneration of their own ideal, also abandoned hope that capital could be overcome, and retreated in one direction or another. This collapse has, since 1989 (indeed, for a long time before), been another condition of the seemingly unstoppable surge of the right.

If that is now to be checked, the lesson is clear: socialism has to be, so to speak, un-finished; this is less difficult than it seems once one realizes that it never really got started. The necessity for this is given in the global ruin wrought by ever-expanding, metastasizing capital, sufficient to begin arousing new and global forms of resistance, which now assumes ecological as well as socio-economic form.10 The faculty for this remains, as ever, the human imagination, born anew with each child. And its requirement is the refusal of death-dealing capital, a negation that clears space for new affirmation. It is time to begin thinking again, and acting accordingly.The Right Nation (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 79.


1. This meant, among other things, not reporting the finding by a professor of Statistics that the probability that the large mass of  “irregularities” which favored Bush took place by chance is 1: 150,000,000.

2. John Mickelthwait & Adrian Wooldridge,

3. The most influential of these studies was Edward Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (New York: Pantheon, 1988). Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), more or less launched the genre, in response to the beginnings of massive media consolidation.

4. As President Eisenhower wrote his brother Edgar on May 2, 1956: "Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again.... There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt...a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."

5. For a recent survey, see James Ridgeway, It’s All for Sale (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2004).

6. Quoted in David McLellan, ed., Marxism: Essential Writings (Oxford University Press, 1988), 79.

7. Since the United States has never had enough of a workers’ movement to field a true Labor Party, the roots of the Democrats lie in populist soil as well as in a wide and ethnically divided working-class constituency. During the New Deal, capital’s near collapse led the Roosevelt adminstration to forge this into a simulacrum of social democracy, which, notwithstanding the criticisms launched here, represented the high water mark of antagonism to capital within the history of the United States (indeed, some of its branches, such as the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, were quasi socialist). Post war anticommunism crushed these tendencies and set the electorally grounded left on its present course. See Joel Kovel, Red Hunting in the Promised Land (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

8. For discussion, see Raya Dunayevskaya, The Power of Negativity, eds. Peter Hudis & Kevin B. Anderson (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2002).

9. For whom “progress” is given the incremental quality that denies any radical negation of the given. Obviously, among progressives there are many of an existentially radical persuasion. It is the “liberal” as compromiser-in-depth, who cannot envision fundamental alternatives, that we address.

10. See Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature (London: Zed, 2002).