Combating the Ills of Neoliberalism

I finished, over the holiday break, four rather different books: Hardt and Negri’s Assembly (Oxford UP, 2017); Donatella deela Porta’s Social Movements in Times of Austerity (Polity, 2015); Mark Kurlansky’s history, 1968: The Year that Rocked the World (Random House, 2005); and a book by a military historian about the war in Pacific in 1944-45, with primary emphasis on the battles in the Marianas, the taking of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. [James Hornfischer, The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-45 (Bantam, 2017).]  My father was part of the Marine contingent on both Saipan and Tinian, which was part of my reason for reading the book.

It would be east enough to make fun of the Hardt and Negri. They keep insisting that a successful social movement must have “lasting institutions” and a strategy that will enable it to survive over the long haul.  But everything they value is evanescent, a fact mostly attributable to their anarchistic horror of leaders, intellectuals, bureaucracy, organization, hierarchy, representation (as opposed to direct democracy), etc. etc.  The della Porta book only confirms that the most recent anti-neoliberalism protestors share all of Hardt and Negri’s suspicions of hierarchy and organization.  In fact, Kurlansky’s makes it clear that SDS, especially in its Columbia moment in 1968, shared the same antipathy to leadership.

I can’t help but believe that the hyper organized world of the right, with its top-down command structure and its deployment of money to hire the cadres required to lobby the state, and find the loopholes in existing regulations/tax laws, and fight its battles in courts, will continue to eat the left’s lunch so long as the left insists on fighting shy of organization and an articulated strategy complete with plans for its being carried out.

At one level it is just a boring question of scale.  Boring because this issue has troubled theorists of democracy since before the flood.  Direct democracy in any populace larger than two or three thousand just seems impossible.  It is even bloody inefficient and frustrating when the numbers are relatively small.

But, even more significant (or so it seems to me), is the breezy way that Hardt and Negri write off the state.  They see no path back to a revitalized social democracy because they believe the state is a dead letter.  Della Porta correctly sees that many of the anti-austerity protests are “restorative” in focus.  That is, they want the state to restore lost benefits, protections, security etc.  But she also correctly notes that the fundamental crisis is that the state has become unresponsive.  The desires and complaints of citizens go unheard.  Oligarchy or plutocracy means the state does not attend to the needs of its citizens.

So, yes, there is a crisis of the state.  But to simply let the state be captured by the 1% out of either a fatalistic sense that it can never be otherwise or because relying on an analytic that claims the state is powerless in the world of global capital seems incredibly foolhardy.  It’s not an either/or when it comes to power.  Of course, the state is not omnipotent; it never was, and it is probably true that it is less powerful now (in Europe and North America; all bets are off in the rest of the world) than it was in 1950 (at least in the US and UK and USSR; Spain and France would be interesting cases to consider in that year, whereas Germany hardly had a state at the time.)  Certainly the state is stronger now in Singapore or South Korea than it was in 1950. What about China?  That’s a fascinating question, probably best answered by saying more powerful in some respects, less powerful in others—which just indicates exactly how silly it is to say the state is no longer a significant actor, or that the state’s power can be determined along some one-dimensional axis.

The logic of direct democracy leads to smaller and smaller political units precisely at the time when globalization means that economic units are getting larger and larger.  It’s enough to make the cigar chomping capitalist salivate.  No possible countervailing power to capital on the horizon.  How could anyone possibly think that some kind of political control over the economic could be achieved by getting smaller?  Yes, the state has drifted far from democratic accountability.  And, yes, such accountability was never all that great in the past (although definitely better in the case of the US than it currently is).  But to simply decide we need to find/locate democracy elsewhere seems to me a suicidal path to follow, a ceding of the field of power to the people we most want to divest of power.

Hardt and Negri are clear that a transfer of power is what they seek.  They are dodgy on the issue of violence in relation to such a transfer.  They insist violence under current conditions is bound to be counter-productive, but their historical examples (the historical figures they admire) all used violence for political ends.  Similarly, they are dodgy about power.  Like a number of other recent figures (including Judith Butler who follows Arendt’s lead in her meditations on this issue), Hardt and Negri want power without sovereignty.  I am very sympathetic to this desire, but I can’t work my way to a clear understanding of what it means.  I get the slogan but, as often in Hardt and Negri (for example, the call for “lasting institutions” or their desire to have the multitude determine strategy and the leaders only tactics), there is not enough meat behind the slogan to actually understand what it could possibly mean—either in theory or in practice.

But I said I didn’t want to just carp about their work.  I am in quest of something very specific: some strategy/tactic (I don’t think the distinction means much in the context of my quest) that the left could effectively employ at this dark moment.  Della Porta tells us that social movement studies teaches us that “innovations” in strategy/tactics are few and far between, usually only slight deviations from previous forms.  In addition, she places, I think, her finger on another dilemma (besides the one about the limits on human ingenuity): the anti-austerity movements combine a deep skepticism about the ability of existing political institutions to respond adequately to citizens’ needs with a failure to create “new organizational forms” that would substitute for the existing political infrastructure.  The result is a not very satisfying mixture of “prefigurative” politics with rather pathetic appeals to the powers that be.  The prefigurative part is the attempted creation of the democratic spaces the movement wants to make more general.  The appeals part (the passivity) is looking to the state for redress of grievances.  To quote her:

[E]ven if movements have stressed prefiguration, citizens need a (paradigmatic) change of public policy decisions.  What they claim is a return of the public, which also means states and other public institutions taking back competences they had released during neoliberalism.  Even if the appeal is to reconstruct (decentralized) commons, robust interventions of legal and institutional character are required.  This is difficult to implement until the movements are able to influence institutional decision-making” (221).

What I fail to see is even a half-hearted attempt to imagine concretely what shape the “robust interventions of legal and institutional character” should be.  Forgive all debt is not an actionable plan.  Restructuring the legal terms of debt is—and requires specific proposals.  And then there has to be a way to exert real pressure on the mandarins who are currently immune to it.

I said I wouldn’t carp—and here it has been all carping.  I am going to reserve my positive point for tomorrow, one that actually comes back to the World War II narrative in an odd way.

But, before that, a last summary statement: the evils—and the means for achieving those evils—of neoliberalism are, by now, clearly understood by the commentators on the left.  The analysis of neoliberalism in both Hardt/Negri and della Porta are completely convincing.  Privatization emerges as equally important as, and perhaps much more nefarious than, globalization.  Thus, what the left now desires is also quite clear: a reclaiming of the commons, the construction (or reconstruction) of a public domain immune from rents, and a robust democracy that occupies (that salient term) that common space and allows for collective control of the polity.  I have no argument with either the analysis or the desires.  I am only searching about for some means that seem plausible—plausible in the sense of having some chance of leading to a successful consummation of these desires.

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