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Sunday, September 5, 2010


I am not sure how interesting this debate is to anyone save Chris and myself, so I am going to have one more go at responding to some of the things he and others have said and then move on to other topics. First things first. Chris is obviously intelligent and knowledgeable, so, that being the case, he is, as far as I am concerned, the best judge of the world from his perspective [by which I mean, the world in which he actually lives, not the world "in his opinion."] I am not in a position to tell him how he ought to weigh the realities and demands of his life, nor would he, I am sure, try to tell me how I ought to see my life. I am in the twilight of my years, and he is at the beginning of what will, I trust, be a long and deeply committed life. In a country of more than three hundred million people, there will be a vast array of such different and sometimes conflicting points of view. Anyone who is serious about social change, as Chris and I are, must recognize and acknowledge that fact, and work with it.

As I have often observed, major social change is not like brain surgery -- a delicate, exquisitely precise activity in which the slightest wrong move can be catastrophic. Rather it is like an avalanche, with pebbles, boulders, tree trunks, and great gobbets of dirt rolling down a hill. The important thing is to be on the right side of the hill. I watched, and was the tiniest of pebbles on the fringes of, the great social change called the Civil Rights Movement. Down the hill thundered Ella Baker, John Lewis, Malcolm, Martin, great boulders and tree trunks all. Along with them came smaller rocks and branches -- among them my colleagues in the UMass Afro-American Studies department, Mike Thelwell, Esther Terry, Bill Strickland. I also was a tiny pebble in the other great social change of my lifetime, the movement for Women's Liberation.

Now, neither of these movements was revolutionary, if by that you mean, as I do, a challenge to the hegemony of Capital. Indeed, both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Liberation Movement can best be understood as perfections of, not threats to, Capitalism. Both of them removed irrational and counter-productive constraints on the labor market. Capitalism, as I suggested in an earlier post, is a thoroughly secular socio-economic formation that treats all persons alike -- as exploitable labor.

Contrary to Chris, I do not view the so-called Tea Party movement as in the slightest revolutionary. It neither seeks to undermine capitalism nor could have the slightest effect on capitalism if it tried to. It is at its most serious [and this is very serious indeed, in my opinion], a mobilization of right-wing sentiment capable of swaying elections, especially in an off year. In this way, it is similar too, though a good deal less impressive than, the mobilization of sentiment by the 2008 Obama campaign, which also was not in the slightest revolutionary.

As I have argued at length in my paper, "The Future of Socialism," Marx was correct in asserting that revolutionary socio-economic change arises out of transformations of the social relations of production internal to the established order. In the past century, the greatest transformation of capitalism has been the substitution of joint stock limited liability corporations for privately owned enterprises. This change, which is now complete, has totally altered the structure of the ownership and control of capital, in ways that make Capitalism less vulnerable to a socialist transformation, not more. [Or at least, so it appears to me].

So talk of Revolution, though thrilling, is analytically without a material basis in the present structure of the economy.

One word about the structure of American politics in comparison to the politics of most Europeans nations. The Founding Fathers knew exactly what they were doing when they designed our political system. It was explicitly intended to protect and preserve the institution of slavery, and so it did for three-quarters of a century. I think it is quite possible that a parliamentary system, coupled with a voting system other than our winner-take-all method of choosing representatives, might produce a more progressive politics, but I also am quite sure that a wide array of entrenched interests protected by the present system would have little difficulty in defeating any effort to make a fundamental constitutional revision.

Where does all of that leave Chris and me? It is for Chris to say where it leaves him, but I have already indicated where it leaves me -- disappointed and dismayed, but not dissuaded from doing what I can to improve the lives of my fellow Americans [as well as others elsewhere in the world, but there are limits to what one old guy can attempt!] As regards Afghanistan, I have several times written on this blog that Obama's decisions are wrong -- wrong strategically, wrong morally, even wrong politically. The larger issue, which I addressed not too long ago on this blog, is the imperial American world policy that all politicians, left, right, and center have pursued for the last sixty years and more. I protested against the abortive invasion of Cuba by Kennedy, and I have been protesting every other American imperial move since. I never expected Obama to alter that imperial stance, and, quite frankly, I think that if, mirabile dictu, a socialist revolution took place in American tomorrow, the new Maximum Leader would pursue the same unjustifiable imperial policy. Nothing in the world politics of the last three quarters of a century suggests otherwise.


Scott said...

It seems to me that you're implicitly adopting a false dichotomy between revolution and reformism. What ever happened to focusing on building alternative institutions? What of the new society growing in the womb of the old? I'm not saying that one should completely ignore electoral politics, I'm merely suggesting that in terms of time, effort and analysis, electoral politics should take a backseat to non-political projects actively working towards building a better world.

Chris said...

I very much enjoyed the discussion, and thank you for having it. As I said earlier, regardless of our disagreements, I count you as one of the good guys; and your literary work has been of inestimable value to me.
Thank you.