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Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Well, Brian Leiter's link to my old essay about Macros and PCs produced a flood of visits to this blog -- 2500+ in a day, rather than the usual 1000 -- and several lengthy comments.  [D. Ghirlandaio, who appears to have adopted, as a handle, the name of a famous Renaissance Italian painter, is pretty clearly angry with me, though I confess I do not quite understand why.]  But reflecting on the essay and the responses got me thinking about something that has long interested me, so I thought I would follow up with a few extended remarks about the difference between identity politics [as it is sometimes called] and old-fashioned radical politics.

Marx observed correctly that capitalism is the most revolutionary force ever loosed upon the world.  It destroyed feudalism, transformed the law, politics, and even the religion of the old order, eliminated the age-old division between the city and the countryside, ate away at the most intimate relations of the family, and, of course, produced an explosion of production and innovation.  Marx may have been overly optimistic that capitalism would substitute the cash nexus for ethnic, religious, national, and other divisions among men and women, thereby preparing the way for a naked clash between labor and capital, but he was not wrong about capitalism's tendency in this direction.

To the capitalist, unencumbered by traditional loyalties and identifications, all that matters is keeping production costs low and finding a market for output.  To the true capitalist, national borders are merely impediments to trade;  the family wage is an irrational and unacceptable obstacle to lowering the price of labor; racial or sexual obstacles in the labor market drive up wages; and any social constraints on the largest possible pool of job-seeking workers is to be resisted as a restraint on profits.

The true capitalist cannot afford to turn up his nose at a customer or an investor of a different nationality, religion, ethnicity, or race, because a competitor of a less delicate sensibility will step in and take away his business. 

To be sure, although this is the inner logic of capitalism, the reality often can be quite other.  For example, in the later nineteenth century, some white northern workers made a devil's bargain with their employers, accepting lower wages in return for the exclusion of the newly freed ex-slaves from good industrial jobs.

The real threat to capitalism has always been not women or Blacks or Jews or Catholics or foreigners in the labor market, but organized workers using their collective power to compel higher wages, better working conditions, and shorter hours, all of which threatened profits.  Thus it was that capitalists, calling on the organized military might of the state, did everything in their power to crush unions, often in bloody pitched battles.  And more recently, when affirmative action at America's universities has been challenged in the courts, multi-national corporations have filed amicus briefs defending such programs, quite correctly judging that any program that increases the availability of well-trained workers of all races and ethnicities will help to drive down wages.

For more than a century now, America has seen a series of Liberation movements -- Women's Liberation, the Civil Rights Movement, LGBT Liberation -- all of which, fundamentally, express the demand that a portion of the population excluded from full and fair participation in the labor market, be freed from the restrictions denying them jobs and wages as well as the education they need to compete successfully for those jobs.

These movements, although they use the language and evoke the emotions of revolutionary change, are in reality demands not for the overthrow of capitalism but for its perfection.  It is contrary to the inner logic of capitalism to exclude the female half of the population from the workplace, because the smaller the pool of workers, the stronger the upward pressure on wages.  From the point of the view of the industrialist, the so-called "family wage" -- a salary for industrial workers sufficient to support a wife and children -- is an irrational expense deducted from profits.  Far better a multi-worker household making essentially the same total wage but offering in return many more hours of labor.

For someone my age and of my ideological leanings, it has been fascinating to watch the ease with which the corporate world has co-opted the symbols of protest and reduced them to advertising images and gimmicks.  Time was when you could tell the politics of a young man at fifty paces by the length of his hair, when artificially amped up music devoid of aesthetic merit was the sound of protest against "the system," when body piercings were a dagger in the heart of The Establishment.  All of this was brilliantly anatomized by my old friend, Herbert Marcuse, under the provocative heading "repressive desublimation."

Despite its ephemeral nature and lack of an agenda for action, the most serious thrust at the established order in recent years has been the Occupy Movement.  Income and wealth inequality is a consequence of capitalism, not a cause, but it is the right target for the early stages of a serious movement for fundamental change.  Yesterday, a protest against Wall Street.  Today a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist as a respectable challenger to the inevitable Democratic presidential nominee.  Tomorrow, dare I hope for a modern revival and transformation of the union movement, that, in the words of the bumper sticker, gave us the weekend?



David said...

Thank you for this post, Professor Wolff. I've saved a link to Marcuse's "One-Dimensional Man" for future reading.

If I may comment on your last sentence, I would say that unions will have to undergo a change in mission before there will be a revival in the union movement. For too long, unions have operated according to a service model. In this model, the union bargains for wages and benefits, sells life insurance and home loans, and represents members in labor disputes. If unions continue to operate this way, they will die out, especially after the court rules on Friedrichs vs. the CTA.

In our union local, we've been moving to a community organizing model. Our teachers' union still engages in collective bargaining and represents members, but it now sees its primary mission as democratically involving members in fighting for labor power and joining with the community to improve the education of their children. This fall we struck over issues that didn't just relate to pay and working conditions; we also fought for increased recess for children and less standardized testing. The parents and community backed us en masse, and we won almost everything we demanded after a week-long strike.

The Chicago Teachers Union is set to go on strike again, and they are using the same strategy we used. I will be interested to see if it works there. If so, I will take it as a hopeful sign.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

David, this is fascinating and very encouraging. Can you point me to something that will tell me more about this development? During the time that I was a member of the faculty union at UMass [now eight years ago], nothing like this was done, although the graduate student teaching assistant union was better.

David said...

Professor Wolff, thank you for your interest. I don't know of any one source that fully captures this development in union organizing. The best source I've found so far is this article on the impending Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike:

NB: The 2012 CTU strike was an inspiration for the Seattle Education Association (SEA) strike I participated in. That is why we're watching the impending 2015 CTU strike with great interest.

There are many articles about the SEA strike, but none of them capture the power and drama of it for the teachers. For example, the preparation for the strike was long and arduous, but when in a general membership meeting the strike vote came, it was unanimous by acclamation. All of us were stunned, and the moment was captured on local television. That is how to start a strike!

We sought the parents' support, and they joined us, by speaking out, by occupying district grounds with "play-ins," by supplying food and water at the picket-line, by joining us on the picket-line, and ultimately by marching down en masse to district headquarters. In the end, the Seattle City council, led by Socialist council member Kshama Sawant, voted unanimously to support us. Members showed impressive solidarity on the picket-line, we gained national and international coverage, we fought the district on the blogs and in social media, and our forty-member bargaining team won concession after concession. We had to give a little, too, but most of us feel we ended up overwhelmingly victorious in the bargain.

This is probably far more than you want to read, but here are a few articles on the Seattle strike:

David Auerbach said...

Ahh, just do the opposite of Albert Shanker, of unsainted memory.

enzo rossi said...

Thanks for these posts. Your view on identity politics seems refreshingly similar to that of critical race theorist Adolph Reed Jr. What do you make of the recent developments at Yale, Mizzou, Oberlin, etc, if I may ask? I reckon the problems are very different from one campus to the next, but the lists of demands are quite similar.

Michael said...

Professor Wolff,

While I am sympathetic to your critique, I don't think that radical politics and identity politics need to be as removed as you suggest they have been. In fact, it's hard for me to see how radical change can truly succeed without attending to questions of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. That's not to say that I agree with the sort of "lean in" "feminism" of Sheryl Sandberg, but I'm not sure such views are taken particularly seriously in the areas of the academy where identity politics is likely to be discussed (although I'm admittedly drawing on limited experience here). My worry with dismissals of identity politics is that they often make it too easy to neglect issues like racism, or relegate them to more specialized work instead of seeing them as central. To be fair, I don't think you are advocating this, but as someone who has learned a lot from critical race theory and women's and gender studies, I wanted to say something in their defense.

Wallace Stevens said...

"Despite its ephemeral nature and lack of an agenda for action, the most serious thrust at the established order in recent years has been the Occupy Movement."

Ay, and there's the rub. I am reminded of lines from the Yeats' poem that you too have quoted recently: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

Occupy was indeed "the most serious thrust at the established order in recent years." But they wanted to be pure, more than they wanted to be anything else. So they could only point, with "passionate intensity," to a problem and not propose a programme--a "conviction." In Yeats' framework they are both the "best" and the "worst." Sad. And then there are the students in the seminar that you describe--a different kind of passionate intensity, focussed in this case on policing speech infractions. Nothing radical about it at all. Also sad.

Andy said...

The Occupy "movement" is not only financed by major capitalists,but its aims are fundamentally materialist in nature and cannot threaten the liberal consensus. Your critique is from within that consensus. Marxism and capitalism pretend to be opposed, but operate with the same methodological assumptions and end goals.

You are right that a "family wage" is irrational to a capitalist, but it is to a Marxist as well, but for different reasons--- to the Marxist, the family is irrational, and a "wage" is a fetish. Fundamentally, economics can tell us nothing about our values, and seeking to promote material prosperity to the exclusion of all goals is a recipe for dehumanisation.

Finally, if you think women's rights, black rights, LGBT rights--- all these movements were anti-capitalist or democratic in some non-capitalist fashion--- I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. LGBT rights, for example, have been invented and promoted for by big capital, for obvious reasons--- children are a drag on profits, and provide alternative, pre-rational commitments that pure consumption cannot displace. So in lieu of a frontal attack---- promote children as a luxury good, and de-link sexuality from procreation and serendipity.

Andy said...

I'm quite pro-union but they only ever had power to the extent they operated as more than labor power organizations. That is--- they derived their power from irrational commitments. This is the significance of mummers and all the parades and holidays that trade unions still provide in Europe. They never had power to change the capitalist system, because within a pure capitalist system class politics has no salience, and workers have no need or desire to unionize. We are already seeing unions devolve to service providers rather than lobbyists for worker interests.

Agitating for unions doesn't tug at anyone's heartstrings anymore-- it's just like crying "war on Christmas." It's a dead thing.