Saturday, April 26, 2014

Book Review: Trotskyism by Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos' Trotskyism (full text here) is a guide to the political philosophy of Leon Trotsky, as well as the various fragmenting and squabbling factions that claimed his heritage after his death.  The book is helpful in drawing out the differences in various tendencies but, as this review indicates, the further the book goes on the less reliable and representative of Trotskyism it becomes (ending with a detailed analysis of Callinicos' favorite sect).  Below I will offer a thumbnail sketch of the book's content, with an emphasis on the earlier material.

Callinicos frames Trotskyism as "best understood as the attempt to continue classical Marxism in conditions defined by, on the one hand, the success of the advanced capitalist countries in weathering revolutionary pressures that were at their greatest in the inter-war years, and on the other, the betrayal of the hopes raised by the October Revolution by the rise of Stalinism in the USSR and its extension after 1945 to Eastern Europe and China." (2-3)   The Trotskyist tradition can be contrasted with that of Western Marxism in that it does not share the latter's "distance from any form of political practice and... preoccupation with questions of philosophy and aesthetics." (3)

He admits, however, that Trotskyism has often functioned as "a welter of squabbling sects united as much by their complete irrelevance to the realities of political life as by their endless competition for the mantle of orthodoxy inherited from the prophet.  ... [T]his image has a large degree of truth.  Yet the marginality and fragmentation of the Trotskyist movement do not of themselves constitute grounds for dismissing the ideas which it embodies and has sought, in various ways, to develop." (1-2)

Trotskyism takes much of its theory from the concepts expounded in Trotsky's writings and practice.  For instance: combined and uneven development (8), permanent revolution (9) (at the time that he essentially won Lenin over to this position -- also to be contrasted with the Menshevik stagist position -- he joined the Bolsheviks; Trotsky also was won over to Lenin's centralized party idea at roughly the same time) and his opposition to popular fronts (11) (but support of united fronts).

Stalin differed with Trotsky (particularly in the Left Opposition) over socialism in one country (12), the New Economic Policy (13), collectivization and the Five Year Plan (14) -- "Trotsky himself had advocated much lower growth targets than those set in the First Five Year Plan and opposed the coercion of the peasantry into collective farms" (14).  After his expulsion from the USSR, Trotsky wavered on whether a revolution would be necessary to overthrow Stalin or whether it could be accomplished by reforms, but he did both term the USSR a degenerated workers' state (15) and maintain that the unaccountable bureaucracy that Stalin headed was not a class in and of itself.

In founding the Fourth International (FI), Trotsky made a series of predictions that would prove to be contradicted.  Most importantly, he believed that capitalism was about to collapse ("Mankind's productive forces stagnate") (19) and that therefore "the historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership." (20)  The FI's attitude towards World War II was to support the USSR (24), while predicting that the Stalin regime and Western democracies would be overthrown in the process (26); also, that the democratic powers' victory would be just as frightful as that of the fascist powers. (23)

Another dilemma for Trotskyism was Stalin's post-WWII conquest of "buffer states" (and the Stalin-eque Chinese Communist Party takeover in 1949) -- were those states now socialist states as well, since the state now controlled the means of production, even if they had become that way via "revolutions from above" and not proletarian uprisings? (27)  The FI came up with a new category of a deformed workers' state to classify these regimes. (32)

A split in the Fourth International turned around Pablo and Mandel's philosophies.  Most notably, some in the FI condemned the "Pabloism" of advocating entrism sui generis, seemingly subordinating Trotskyists to Stalinist parties.  The Pabloist International Committee of the Fourth International formed as a result of irreconcilable differences with the FI. (35)

Max Shachtman broke with the FI and formed the Workers' Party in part because of his disagreement with supporting the USSR after the Hitler-Stalin Pact (among other differences). (24)  He would go on to form a school of thought that rejected Trotsky's explanation of the USSR's degeneration in favor of a theory of bureaucratic collectivism.  Many of its adherents later turned towards the political right. (60)

Another method of rejecting Trotsky's degenerated workers' state analysis of the USSR was viewing the USSR as a form of state capitalism.  This theory was upheld both by C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya of the Johnson-Forest Tendency as well as Tony Cliff. (Chapters 4 and 5)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Review: Multitude by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Reading Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's 2004 follow up to Empire is a maddening exercise.  Wrapped in layers of superfluous pedantry and literary digressions, the book's core argument is not terribly complicated.  The idea of the multitude is, however, a novel revolutionary construction, albeit without a clear politics to make any practical use of it.

For Hardt and Negri (HN), the "multitude" is a not a unit with a unified identity, unlike the "workers" of Marxist yore.  Rather, it is a "multiplicity of... singular differences," (xiv) a group that brings about the possibility of "democracy on a global scale." (xi)  This multitude "must discover the common that allows them to communicate and act together" (xv) to resist the Empire, a "new form of sovereignty" (xii) that includes states, corporations, supranational institutions, etc.

The book is divided into three parts, War, Multitude and Democracy.  In War, HN lay out our contemporary landscape: we are living in a world of constant, interminable, global civil war, where war is the "primary organizing principle of society." (12)  The state of exception that traditionally signified war "has become permanent and general" (7) and this war is "indistinguishable from police activity." (14)  However, one should note that the "dominant military power often finds itself at a disadvantage in asymmetrical conflicts," (51) facing a "network enemy," (55) which prompts it to formulate new tactics and strategies in response.  So far, HN seem to be describing approximately the George W. Bush "war on terror."  But HN go a step further in claiming that the multitude's resistance is creating the conditions for its own political ascendance: "The distributed network structure provides the model for an absolutely democratic organization that corresponds to the dominant forms of economic and social production and is also the most powerful weapon against the ruling power structure." (88)

HN open the Multitude section declaring "Political action aimed at transformation and liberation today can only be conducted on the basis of the multitude." (99)  In the multitude, HN state, there is "no political priority among the forms of labor" (106).  "Immaterial labor" (a term with a very expansive and ambiguous definition) is becoming the hegemonic form of production in post-Fordist society (108) -- labor that is also unusually flexible, mobile and precarious (112).  This multitude includes the so-called lumpenproletariat because they too are "included in social production," (129) a type of production that happens "equally inside and outside the factory walls... [and] inside and outside the wage relationship." (135)  (HN helpfully distill the differences between their method and Marx's in Excursus 1 (140-153).)  Signs of the multitude were glimpsed, HN claim, during the Seattle WTO protests, Zapatista movement, global Iraq War protests and 2001 Argentine actions. (215-7) (Excursus 2 (219-227) addresses critiques of HN's philosophy, sometimes unconvincingly.)

In the Democracy section, HN observe that democracy is "confronted today by a leap of scale." (236)  They see contemporary forms of democracy as inadequate for the multitude, quipping "The political lexicon of modern liberalism is a cold, bloodless cadaver." (273)  They conclude by arguing "What is necessary is an audacious act of political imagination to break with the past, like the one accomplished in the eighteenth century." (308)

It is clear that HN had recent anti-globalization and anti-war protests on their mind when they wrote this book, but conceiving those actions as the basis of a new democracy / resistance / movement that obviates all previous ways of thinking about politics seems misguided, especially since the Iraq War protests would seem to have been the high point of this network.  It seems that in the absence of a powerful Left HN have used a "weakness is strength"-type argument to position society on the precipice of a new global democracy.  In the end, HN's classless "us" vs their undifferentiated "them" fails to convince.

Also see this review of Empire in NLR.

Thanks to Aaron Benanav for conversations regarding this book.

Book Review: A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey

Many often throw around the term "neoliberalism," to refer to recent political, economic and historical events, but what is it, exactly?  David Harvey attempts to answer this question in 2005's A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

Harvey opens the book with the definition: "Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade." (2)  This goes hand in hand with the neoliberal state, which Harvey says is "a state apparatus whose fundamental mission [is] to facilitate the conditions for profitable capital accumulation on the part of both domestic and foreign capital." (7)  Harvey writes that neoliberalism has become "hegemonic as a mode of discourse." (3)

Harvey identifies some notable events in the advent of neoliberalism as:
  • The 1971 Lewis Powell Memo (43)
  • The 1971 dismantling of the Bretton Woods system (12) 
  • Policy changes in Chile after the 1973 Pinochet coup ("The first experiment with neoliberal state formation" (7))
  • The 1970s New York City fiscal crisis ("a coup by the financial institutions against... New York City" (45))
  • The 1979 Volker shock ("a necessary but not sufficient condition for neoliberalization" (24)) when the Carter-appointed chairman of the Fed hiked interest rates dramatically, curtailing inflation without regard to employment
  • The foundation of think tanks / takeover of economics departments to promote neoliberal ideology (54-7)
  • The union-busting, etc. policies of Thatcher and Reagan 
  • "Structural adjustment" policies of the IMF (29)
  • Deng Xiaoping's 1978 announcement of Chinese economic reforms (120)
To address the question of why neoliberalism has dawned upon the world, Harvey traces the beginning back to when "embedded liberalism" proved "inconsistent with the requirements of capital accumulation." (13)  Since the bourgeoisie saw its economic and political power disintegrating, Harvey argues, "The upper classes had to move decisively if they were to protect themselves from political and economic annihilation." (15)  He states the evidence suggests that neoliberalism is a political project to restore class power, even though neoliberalism's ideologues proclaim it as a promoter of economic growth and freedom -- goals on which neoliberalism has continuously failed to deliver. (19)

Even the neoliberal theory, as embodied in such documents as the missives of the Mont Pelerin Society, has its contradictions: its distrust of state power vs its advocacy of a strong and coercive state; its scientific rigor vs its political commitments to freedom and defining corporations as individuals in legal terms (21).  In practice, neoliberalism provides further contradictions with the theory: squeamishness over democracy, monopoly power, collective action and market failure (66-8); favoritism of a "good investment climate" and preferring financial stability to population welfare; forcing international state borrowers to pay back bad loans (70-74); its tendency towards authoritarianism and financial moral hazard (79-81); etc.

Such contradictions prompt Harvey to declare the neoliberal state "either a transitional or unstable political form." (79)  He sees the increasing neoliberalization of authoritarian states (China) and increasing authoritarianism of neoliberal states (US, UK) as converging to the same type of regime, a neoconservative one that provides "order as an answer to the chaos of individual interests" and "overweening morality as the necessary social glue to keep the body politic secure in the face of external and internal dangers." (82)  But Harvey warns against this development, advising, "To avoid catastrophic outcomes therefore requires rejection of the neoconservative solution to the contradictions of neoliberalism." (86)

The neoliberal state has a paradoxical relationship with nationalism.  On the one hand, "the umbilical cord that tied together state and nation under embedded liberalism had to be cut if neoliberalism was to flourish." (84)  On the other hand, the state needs to mobilize nationalism to promote itself in a competitive global marketplace.  But cultivating this nationalism can also pose a danger to neoliberal interests at times, either in the form of anti-immigrant movements or national movements against neoliberal leaders. (85)

Chapter four details case studies of various countries' experience with neoliberalism -- Harvey highlights Mexico, Argentina, South Korea and Sweden.  Chapter five deals with the case of China.

Evaluating the success of neoliberalism according to its stated aims, Harvey finds "its actual record turns out to be nothing short of dismal." (154)  However, policy has not changed because neoliberalism "has been a huge success from the standpoint of the upper classes." (156)  That is because "The main substantive achievement of neoliberalism... has been to redistribute, rather than to generate, wealth and income." (159)  Harvey believes the "accumulation by dispossession" regime that neoliberalism has brought about utilizes techniques of privatization and commodification, financialization, the management and manipulation of crises and state redistribution to achieve its ends. (160-5)

In the final chapter Harvey ponders the end of neoliberalism, warning that "regimes of accumulation rarely if ever dissolve peacefully." (189)  "The consolidation of neoconservative authoritarianism," Harvey opines, "emerges as one potential answer." (195)  As for alternatives, and in what can be read as a possible predictor of Occupy Wall Street, Harvey notes, "there is no reason to rule out the resurgence of popular social democratic or even populist anti-neoliberal politics within the US in future years." (199)  But he admits in any event, "There is no proletarian field of utopian Marxian fantasy to which we can retire." (202)

Robbert Brenner has a review and critique of Harvey's thinking in "What Is, and What Is Not, Imperialism?" which offers a much more exhaustive analysis.

Thanks to Aaron Benanav for conversations regarding this book.