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Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Observing capitalism in its earliest stages, Marx argued correctly that it was the most revolutionary force ever unleashed on the world.  He saw that as it expanded and displaced previous social relations of production, capitalism eroded religious, ethnic, cultural, national, racial, and gender divisions, seeking always to reduce the labor force as far as possible to a homogeneous mass of workers who could be exchanged for one another readily on the factory floor or in the office.  Although he fatally over-emphasized this tendency, as I have argued in my essay “The Future of Socialism,” his insight was correct.

Sitting in a cafĂ© in the Marais after a visit to the Jewish Museum here in Paris, I found myself reflecting on the way in which Marx’s insight helped me to make sense of the frustrating limitations of the dramatically successful liberation movements on which liberals have focused so much of their energy in the past fifty years or so.  For someone of my age, the social changes in America since the forties and fifties have been astonishing and exhilarating.  The Black Liberation Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, and now the nascent Hispanic movement have changed the cultural and political life of America in ways that are clearly non-reversible, for all the desperate efforts of hysterical reactionaries.

But during that same period, economic inequality has steadily increased, the labor union movement has all but died, and the public discourse has moved markedly to the right on all matters economic.

The simple truth is that none of the “liberation” movements had an economically radical thrust.  In effect, their demands were variations on the same theme:  We Want In!  We demand to be and to be treated as first-class citizens, not second-class citizens, of this capitalist society – which is, after all, just another way of saying We Want To Be Exploited Just Like White Men!

Although this thrust of capitalism is universal, there are always local variations.  In nineteenth century America, for example, Capital struck a deal with white men, including immigrants.  In return for excluding Black men freed by the Civil War from the better industrial jobs, thereby reducing the threat of unemployment to White men, owners were able to hold down wages.  Black women were excluded even from such jobs as department store salesperson until after the Second World War, and in the successful drive to gain the vote for women, the White women who led the suffrage movement deliberately excluded Black women from their demands.

But generally speaking, Capital favors the inclusion of excluded sub-populations in the labor force, for the increase in the numbers of those looking for jobs keeps wages low.  It was not at all surprising that when the Supreme Court weighed the constitutionality of the consideration of race in the admissions processes of the University of Michigan, large corporations filed amicus briefs in favor of the university’s practices.

We now find ourselves at a moment when the last great liberation movement, for the LGBT community, is on a clear path to success, but there is very little evidence of a powerful groundswell of support for economic justice.  To be sure, the obscene rise in the inequality of income and wealth in America has finally become a subject of public discussion.  But at least thus far, even such brilliantly theatrical efforts as the Occupy Movement have had little or no impact on electoral politics.  We will soon see a successful effort by Hillary Clinton to secure first the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidency and then the presidency itself.  I would be quite surprised if Clinton is not president for the eight years following the Obama presidency.  And yet there is not the slightest hint of anything remotely progressive about Hillary Clinton’s economic beliefs, commitments, or programs.

Liberation politics has run its course in America.  Where the demand, the energy, the drive for economic progressivism will come from, I do not know.  As for socialism, don’t get me started.


Jerry Fresia said...

This is why I was very much impressed by the distinction made by Marx between political emancipation and human emancipation in "On the Jewish Question."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

A very good point, Jerry.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

It is not a priori true that we will not become the Ferengi.

Seth said...

"We Want To Be Exploited Just Like White Men!"

... To exploit just like white men ... Is closer to the root motivation. Decoupling specific identities from class solidarity.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Andrew, it has been a while, but I recall the Ferengi as obsequious little people with big ears and bad teeth who will trade anything for anything. I do not think it is fair to the Ferengi to compare them to contemporary Americans.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Seth, you are of course right, but the effect has been as I said.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Seth has hit a nail dead on and square.

Magpie said...

Although there is truth in what Seth says, I'm afraid I feel uncomfortable with the "To exploit just like white men". For one, it is an unfair generalization: it ignores the white men who are also exploited.

Particularly if the idea is to promote class solidarity over specific identities.

Seth said...

Maybe this would be a nicer way to put it: "we don't want to be excluded from the charmed circle of 'winners' in our society, based simply on our ethnicity or other identity markers, etc.". The emphasis is on "let ME win too!". This fails as a way to remake society because it does not question the "lottery" structure of the economy.

I remember Michelle Obama giving a nice speech, probably during the 2008 campaign, about how wonderful and improbable her own life story has been. She didn't mean to, but the subtext she conveyed was -- look it was possible for ONE person to attend Princeton, become a lawyer, get a great job, etc. so if you feel oppressed, get over it. It is realistic and practical advice for any one person to adopt. But it doesn't scale. We can't ALL be rich, you know. That contradicts the definition of "rich" -- having a lot more than most other people.