Comments on Victor Wallis “Capitalism Unhinged”
Victor Wallis’s powerful piece on “Capitalism Unhinged” provoked many reactions in those of us who read it. He has kindly invited me to write some brief comments, along with other members of the Socialism and Democracy editorial board. What follows is a series of thoughts provoked by Victor’s analysis. Specifically, I am trying to address the issue of how it is possible, in the light of such a fragmented political landscape, to envision a powerful social movement that could lead us out of the Trumpian darkness.
The obstacles to such a development are enormous. First is the extreme atomization and isolation of the US populace. One of the main achievements of ruling capitalist elites, especially in the United States, has been the creation of a culture of extreme individualism. From hairstyles to clothing to politics, there are enormous rewards for competing as an individual and very few for creating communities of solidarity. The powerful trade union movement of the 1930s to the 1950s, with its model of collective, militant action, was weakened by the post-World War II purge of Communist leadership and eventually reduced to a shadow of its former self. Witness the recent resounding defeat of the United Auto Workers in its drive to organize the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi.1
Unfortunately the success of mainstream feminism in the United States and elsewhere has contributed to this phenomenon. The collective impulse of the late 1960s and 1970s, in which “women’s liberation” meant a unified struggle for the rights of women, has been effectively replaced by a new form of individualism. Success in the corporate boardroom, rather than equal pay, childcare for all, or even universal reproductive rights, has become the hallmark of what “feminism” now means.2
Second, I would cite the overwhelming power of the Global War on Terror to inhibit political action. The brilliantly orchestrated GWOT, ostensibly in response to the (still unexplained) tragic events of September 11, 2001, has created an atmosphere where political organizing around nearly every issue, from prisoners’ rights to environmental protection, can be treated as suspect, subversive, and even criminal. This climate has a very chilling effect. Thus it has become possible for the United States and/or its allies, along with its mercenaries, to attack Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and other sovereign nations, and to rain down drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere, without any powerful antiwar movement emerging within the United States. (There was considerable organizing around the war on Iraq before it erupted, but very little visible activism since, with the honorable exception of groups like Code Pink.)
And third, there is considerable fragmentation of political efforts. The women’s movement, LGBT activism, Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights (at this writing protesting the end of the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals or DACA program), and the very weakened labor unions – all seem to be moving on very different tracks. Nevertheless in the face of this extreme repression there have been some “green shoots”: the massive outpouring of airport demonstrations in January 2017 in response to the Muslim ban;3 the Global Women’s Strike for peace on March 8, 2017;4 the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement; the strong response to the murderous Charlottesville white supremacy march on August 12 in Boston and elsewhere.5
Two other campaigns preceding the Trump ascendancy are worthy of mention: the very successful Fight for Fifteen, led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the less successful but highly visible struggle to block the Dakota Access pipeline, led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota.6
It seems clear that, in reaction to the extreme nihilism of the Trump incumbency, and even before the fateful 2016 election, many people have been willing to risk arrest to bear witness to an alternative set of values. Against white supremacy and neo-Nazism, a repudiation of racism. Against sexist violence, solidarity across gender lines. Against police murders, justice and accountability. Against capitalist exploitation, a fight for a living wage. And against environmental degradation, a fight for the planet led by our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
From a traditional Marxist point of view, most of these campaigns and struggles do not meet the strict criterion of being class-based. And indeed, many writers have commented critically on the shift in United States politics from class to “identity politics” since the 1960s. There is a widespread nostalgia in some quarters for a period in which class, rather than gender, race, or sexual identity, was the underlying organizing principle: the working class against the ruling class, rather than the apparent fragmentation into groups whose solidarity is based on personal characteristics.
Yet in my view there is no point in railing against historical developments which have had their own logic. The Black civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the Indigenous people’s movement, and the environmental movement, to name a few non-class-based entities, have all developed a profound critique of capitalism from their own vantage points. They have made it clear that an organized undermining of the capitalist system will have to address itself to the fault-lines of race, gender, and sexuality that the system itself has produced. And indeed, as Kshama Savant, the twice-elected socialist member of the Seattle City Council, has pointed out,
The society we are fighting for has to be free from all oppressions. From an economic standpoint, you cannot have democratic economies unless the society at that time also works toward eliminating all forms of oppression: misogyny, racism, discrimination against native people, sexual violence…. You cannot fight for economic justice without also being a fighter against black oppression or against racism, against misogyny, against sexual inequality. … The logic of the capitalist system is such that if you’re fighting racism, it forces you to reach anticapitalist conclusions.7
Can these various energized movements lay the groundwork for a unified movement that can envisage and work toward an alternative to the death-dealing capitalism of endless terror and war? Only time will tell. But the stakes are now so high, with the threat of a nuclear exchange with North Korea, and the visible effects of global warming drowning people from Houston to Mumbai, that we have no choice but to try.
1. See Chris Brooks, “Why did Nissan Workers Vote No?” Labor Notes, #462 (September 2017), 1, 3-5.
2. See Hester Eisenstein, Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World, Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2009.