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Tuesday, April 9, 2019


I am trying very hard to get you to think in a different way about military and foreign affairs, and I am failing.  You go on telling one another stories [all true, of course] about the bad things America has done or would do, as though you were trying to determine who the good guys and the bad guys are, and I am completely unable to get you to think beyond that frame of reference.   You are all so traumatized by the dominant narrative of America as the Beacon of Freedom and Last Best Hope for Humanity that you cannot get past protesting “But, But, But, Look at Cuba, Look at Viet Nam, Look at Slavery, Look at Iran, Look at Look at Look at, Chomsky says …”

As I said, this is preaching to the choir.  It provides a cheap thrill but gets us nowhere.

When we try to think clearly about what America ought to be doing, we encounter a problem, namely that America is part of a world capitalist system.  Now capitalism may be a system that rests on the exploitation of workers, as Marx says.  Or it may be the most revolutionary force ever to appear on earth, as Marx also says.  But for better and for worse, it has conquered the globe, and so we must try at least for now to think what, if anything, that we would consider an improvement on the present state of world affairs is compatible with the basic structure of a capitalist world economic order.

You will recall that some years ago I wrote a lengthy review essay on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  Let me repeat why I found that book so important.  I grew up and matured during what the French call les trentes glorieuses, the period of time when the relentless march of economic inequality reversed itself and a kinder gentler capitalism seemed to have emerged from the chaos of world depression and war.  The centerpiece of Piketty’s statistical analysis is the conclusion that this period was not a transformation of capitalism but a two generation long dip followed by a return to ever greater inequality and what Piketty, using the French term, calls patrimonial capitalism [which is to say, the inheritance of vast accumulations of wealth alongside stagnation for the bottom half of society.]  Most striking was Piketty’s demonstration that this is a worldwide phenomenon, regardless of local politics.

It is obvious upon even a moment’s reflection that nation-states are not going to allow for any set of social, political, or military policies that fundamentally interferes with the march of capital accumulation, because nation-states, with very few exceptions, are controlled by capitalists.  The only counterforce currently powerful enough to interfere with that march is religious fanaticism, a complication that Marx did not, alas, foresee.

Tomorrow I shall try to figure out what this implies for those of us seeking a better way.


s. wallerstein said...

As one of the regular commenters who is most apt to bring up Viet Nam or Cuba, let me say a word or two in my and our defense.

I know that you have been aware of the evils of U.S. imperialism for even longer than I have, and my comments about Cuba or Viet Nam are not directed at you. Your blog receives a huge number of visits each day, which is a tribute to your learning, political acumen and writing ability and not all of those who visit you have been lefties since the 60's or before then in your case.

As you know, since, say, Occupy Wall St. and the Bernie 2016 campaign, a whole new generation of socialists and anti-imperialists have appeared in the U.S. political scene and as is often the case with young people (and it was the case with me when I was their age), their convictions at times lack the background information and the set arguments, the many times rehearsed and practiced political debate chess moves that veterans have to back their convictions.

So besides showing off how much I know and entertaining myself on a dull afternoon, I'm also trying to reach those hypothetical younger readers with less political experience and above all, who did not live through and experience the Bay of Pigs invasion and the U.S.
intervention in Viet Nam as you and I did.

howard b said...

Religious fanaticism is fed by anomie that is fed perhaps by capitalism.
When solidarity is restricted to religious fanaticism, then revolution is reactionary.
The solution is to create forms of solidarity, within the current framework, that will spillover into a new regime, perhaps Marxist.
The two wild cards are technology and the radicalism or idealism of youth.
Youth or most youth are natural socialists. They get all they need from their family et al and they give their all.
If the youth keep their idealism, their teen spirit, you might say, they may help change the course.
Technology is mostly disruptive and perhaps Orwellian, it is a weapon and it creates false forms of solidarity and it is coopted by capitalism.
But any weapon can be used for good or ill.
So the youth usher in a more equitable and just and sustainable system, and they employ technology to serve people rather than exploit and enslave people.
Utopian and sketchy- perhaps, but the youth and emerging technology might make the difference

Tom Hickey said...

I have been following Modern Monetary Theory and blogging about it as Mike Norman Economics for about ten years. I am convinced that understanding this point of view is essential to moderating the capitalist system, although I don't think that capitalism can be successfully transformed and will eventually succumb to its internal inconsistencies (Widerspruch).

I am persuade that Marx and analysis based on Marx & Engels cut to the core of the issues the way no others have. Marx summed up the situation in Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, especially in the words, "No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation." "Capitalism (there are many form of it) is still the dominant mode of production and the Atlanticists are determined to keep it that way. While China poses an alternative, the Chinese leadership post Deng is increasingly adopting capitalism in developing "socialism with Chinese characteristics," and there is no prospect on the horizon that the Chinese system will replace the Western capitalist system in the global economy.

MMT is a Post Keynesian, Institutionalist school of macroeconomics that shows how a democracy with an educated electorate can use existing policy space to craft a system that serves all, replacing the current oligarchy. While this would not end capitalism based on bourgeois liberalism, it would enable the people to tame it, free of the myths that make this seem impossible, sidetrack it, or co-opt it.

The question then becomes how capitalism might be replaced by a new mode of production. Looking at history as Marx in the next line of that quote above, feudalism arose as the most efficient socio-economic system in the agricultural age, while capitalism arose in the industrial age. The world is now making a transition to the digital age and it may be expected that the most efficient socio-economic system will be instrumental in birthing it. Societies are complex adaptive systems subject to emergence, so it is not possible to know from the past how the future will unfold. So far, it is mostly stabbing in the dark in trying to predict it or construct a suitable alternative.

If Marx was correct, and I think he was to a significant extent, we should be looking to the economic system and how it can be modified in the direction of shifting the mode of production away from capitalism. MMT is stride in that direction in US and UK politics. AOC's GND is MMT-based, for instance.


Tom Hickey said...


I did an MA thesis on social change in the early 70s. While I considered Marx as philosopher at the time, I ignored him as economist. Later, I came to see that social and political philosophy requires a foundation in economic and finance, as Marx himself came to realize, out of which came Das Kapital, and his very productive collaboration with Engels.

Marx was responding to the debate at his time, and in particular to the concern of classical economists with economic rent, rent-seeking and rent extraction. See Michael Hudson on this. Capitalism is based on rent and rent extraction, which is the basis of expropriation. Neoclassical economics aka marginalism did away with this consideration by arguing that capital and labor each receive their marginal contributions.

These views are now enculturated and change requires changing the whole Western culture based on consumerism, which the rest of the world is intent on adopting, too.

So I don't think that is a matter that can be addressed adequately in a blog or blog comments based on the scope and scale of what is involved. But we could start with educating the public on the policy space available and then start proposing how to allocate resources within it. This is now happening with the GND, which is addressed not only at climate change but also the dysfunctionality of contemporary society. This has to be more than an economic endeavor and a political endeavor but also a coming together around what kind of world we want to live in and how to craft it. In other words, this is a process and it is likely going to take many years to unfold. But it is beginning to happen in the national discourse in the US and UK.


LFC said...

Prof. Wolff presents himself, implicitly at any rate, as a voice of realism (I'm using it in the common-sense meaning of the word), yet his two proposals so far -- institution of a draft and reduction of the nuclear arsenal to a small submarine force adequate for a second strike -- have close to no chance of passage, even w Dem majorities in both houses of Cong. and Sanders/Warren (for instance) in office. The draft, though there are reasonable arguments to be made for it, is politically a non-starter, and while Sanders/Warren might begin to phase out land-based ICBMs, the power of the mil. establishment is such that that is basically all they would or could do, I think, w/r/t the nuclear arsenal.

So on the one hand we are urged, at least implictly, to be realistic and, on the other hand, the proposals advanced so far are hardly that. (But perhaps I am taking too narrow a view of the intended boundaries of realism in this context.)

Speaking of realism, we are told (correctly) that America is part of a global capitalist system, but it is not acknowledged that the U.S. is also part of an inter-state system that also encompasses the globe, is separate from and not purely an epiphenomenon of the capitalist system, and is organized to some extent by a separate logic (or logics). Connected to the failure to acknowledge the existence of the inter-state system as a "thing" of any importance is the view that the world is a purely Hobbesian one and that rules and norms are of minimal importance (a view I think is not right).

With confusions and/or errors of this sort as a foundation, the question "what changes can we propose in U.S. military and/or foreign policy that would alter the world for the better and also not directly challenge, or not be incompatible with, the global capitalist order?" is probably unlikely to generate any especially useful responses.

Finally, a problem with assuming or believing that *everything* the U.S. does in the world is bad is that it short-circuits analysis and substitutes ready-made answers for answers based on investigation. To take one example, Trump recently said he would cut U.S. aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador in an apparent fit of pique about their alleged failure to control migration through Mexico to the U.S. If you assume a priori that everything the U.S. does is bad, then Trump's proposal can't really worsen matters since U.S. aid to the Central American countries can't have been doing any good in the first place and must have been purely an expression of patron-client relations (or something). But if, like me, you are not an expert on the region, then perhaps some investigation of the actual effects of U.S. aid to these three countries is in order before deciding that it can't have been doing any good so cutting it doesn't matter.

(By the way, I'm not sure why Prof. Wolff writes that *all* the commenters here are doing nothing but telling each other stories about how nefarious the U.S. is in the world and always has been etc., since that statement is incorrect. My own view is that the list of bad acts is indeed a long one, but it doesn't quite take up the entire picture.)

s. wallerstein said...


You're distorting my position and what I imagine is the position of other critics of U.S. military interventions abroad.

I have nothing against U.S. humanitarian aid to Central America or to any other area with conditions of extreme poverty and I have never said anything in this blog which would imply that I was opposed to such aid. I believe that we are all able to distinguish between military intervention and humanitarian aid.

Jerry Fresia said...

I take your point, preachy as my tendency often is.

Okay then: LFC's point about being realistic is a valid limitation too, just as much as the imperatives of global capitalism. I think we can link some of these.

In 2018, the strong popular approval of the US military was 74% while that of Congress was only 11%. However, in 1973, the approval of the military was 56% while that of Congress was 42% and given this political situation (due in part to a host of revelations), the Congress was able to pass the War Powers Resolution (by an override of Nixon's veto no less), create the Office of Inspector General (although excusing oversight of the military), and establish the Church committee which was critical in further elevating citizen understanding of what the American security state was and did. My point here is that we ought to be thinking about how to impact political reality as much as statutory changes specifically focused on the military.

So Piketty identified a period, while not transformative, in which capitalism was kinder gentler, to use the Professor's phrase. Did Piketty explain why (I'm just asking)? My guess is that during that dip, Nixon was correct in saying that "we are all Keynesians now." Today, it would not be incorrect to say that we are all neoliberals now. Therefore, I think it would behoove us to think not only of ways containing the security state but of finance capitalism as well. In general this would require the defeat of the capitalist class as a class.

With all of the above in mind, here's my statutory suggestions:

1. Reduce the CIA to an intelligence collection agency only; i.e., shifting all military/covert operations to the military, as JFK had begun to do.
2. Revisit the War Powers Resolution (with teeth!); i.e., eliminate Presidential authority to wage war by fiat (with appropriate exceptions that would preserve the power granted to Congress to declare war).
3. Insert an office of Inspector General in Congressional committees that are assigned oversight responsibility of the military, whose charge would be to report yearly in open hearings any assassinations efforts, war crimes (as adjudicated by the UN), and attempts to overthrow foreign governments and/or meddle in the elections of other governments by the US.
4. Universal basic income and stakeholder grants, as outlined by recently deceased Erik Olin Wright.

Matt said...

I often disagree w/ Jerry, at least to a degree, but his list of proposals here seem clearly reasonable and plausible to me. As to one of the other topics mentioned in the main text, I'd recommend this book by my friend, Daniel Halliday:

It's short, relatively non-technical, and, I think, very persuasive not just to it's normative claim (I think few people here need to be convinced that unrestrained rights to bequeath wealth are unjust) but also as to the proposed mechanism. It would be hard to implement, but not obviously harder than many other radical changes that have come over the years. (I don't agree with everything in the book, of course, but it is really good.)

N. Nihilist said...

Thank you for a concise and dead-on accurate statement that does not require the theoretical apparatus of historical materialism to grasp:

It is obvious upon even a moment’s reflection that nation-states are not going to allow for any set of social, political, or military policies that fundamentally interferes with the march of capital accumulation, because nation-states, with very few exceptions, are controlled by capitalists. The only counterforce currently powerful enough to interfere with that march is religious fanaticism, a complication that Marx did not, alas, foresee.

I'm curious though what you think of the view of Dr Steve Davies, who finds that there are two political realignments taking place currently that cross-cut the political left and right. These are the divide between nationalism versus cosmopolitanism ( the main political division ) and the divison between two conceptions of individual identity: the view identity is fixed and not chosen, and the view that identity should be self-determined as far as possible. You might find that Dr Davies's remarks on meritocracy comport with your own. A url:

Chris said...

Propose a high universal basic income, and get it passed. Make sure it's large enough that no one HAS to work a job they don't want to work. This will send capitalism into a death spiral, since at least in America, approximately 13% of people 'like their job'. Granted, if 87% of jobs are abandoned because people give up on them, the economy will tank and that basic income will be worthless. At this point we can start to reorganize the economy in the direction of automation and human fulfillment. Maybe. Or there will be chaos in the streets. Socialism or barbarism.