We already knew Joe Biden was a useful idiot for the “Green” (actually greenwashed) or “Progressive” wing of corporate capital, because of his indignation over the “theft” of “intellectual property.” He denounced “stealing” songs or movies as morally equivalent to a “smash-and-grab at Macy’s” — and in keeping with that belief has supervised FBI actions to shut down alleged “file-sharing” websites, based entirely on executive fiat, from Disney headquarters. But as demonstrated by his recent scolding on the state of America’s infrastructure (Emily Badger, “Joe Biden is very angry at us for skimping on America’s infrastructure,” Washington Post, Oct. 21), that’s not the only aspect of the “Progressive” Capitalist model he endorses.
In the past, Biden said, the US invested in big transportation projects — like the national railroad system, civil aviation and the Interstate Highway System — even when there didn’t seem to be money for it.
And indeed it did. Large-scale transportation infrastructure has been central to the rise of the American corporate economy. And investment in infrastructure has always been an important part of American political agendas that served big business interests. The Federalists and Whigs supported subsidized transportation infrastructure — “internal improvements” — for promoting commerce. The Transcontinental Railroad and the rest of the centralized nationwide system of trunk lines was made possible by enormous land grants and other subsidies; and that system, according to Alfred Chandler, was what enabled big national manufacturing corporations for the first time to produce for nationwide wholesale and retail networks. The American civil aviation system is almost entirely a creature of the state; the airport infrastructure was built at taxpayer expense, and the postwar ascendancy of jumbo jets was made possible only by Truman’s heavy bomber program, which made them feasible by fully utilizing the expensive dies needed to produce them. The Interstate Highway program — supervised by former GM chief Charlie Wilson — made possible the centralization of food processing and retail, and in particular the big box stores’ “warehouses on wheels” distribution model. It also promoted the creation of urban freeway systems and the other concomitants of the car culture and suburban real estate boom.
And don’t forget the role that large-scale hydroelectric dams have played in the growth of American agribusiness, like providing cheap irrigation water to the big California operations.
These gigantic infrastructure projects have served two major roles. First, by absorbing massive quantities of otherwise idle surplus capital and creating the basis for entirely new industries, they serve as one of the “counteracting tendencies to the falling direct rate of profit” that Marx described in volume 3 of Capital. As Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy wrote in Monopoly Capital, the state remedies the crisis of surplus capital by taxing it and then investing it directly. Such infrastructure also amounts to what James O’Connor, in Fiscal Crisis of the State, described as socializing the operating costs of big business in order to render capital artificially profitable.
So if you enjoy living in a society dominated by big business, you should love infrastructure as much as Biden does.
Of course “intellectual property” — Biden’s other hobbyhorse — also played a central role in the rise of American corporate capitalism. According to leftist economic historian David Noble, American industrial cartels depended heavily on the exchange and pooling of patents. AT&T had its origins in the Bell Patent Association, and by the time the original Bell patents expired Bell labs had hedged them in with a whole host of patents on secondary aspects of telephony in order to lock AT&T indefinitely into control of the market. Westinghouse and GE created a stable consumer appliances industry by pooling their patents. The US chemical industry was able to get big only after the WWI Justice Department seized German chemical patents and distributed them to the American players. And RCA was created by pooling the patents of five major radio companies.
Both of these dependencies — infrastructure and “intellectual property” — apply to the new Green/Progressive Capitalist coalition in spades. The key players in this new industrial model see it as another “social structure of accumulation” or “Kondratiev long-wave,” which will once again provide a generation-long investment sink for surplus capital and subsidize the profitability of a whole cluster of new industries. This model is celebrated in economist Paul Romer’s “New Growth Theory,” and fronted by so-called “patriotic billionaires” (I pause to vomit) like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates along with Bono. It’s heavily centered on new, “green” technologies and other forms of high tech, and even more so on the use of “intellectual property” to enclose the new technologies as a source of rent. The early proponents of the “Information Super-Highway” in the late ’80s and early ’90s — Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Bill Gates — envisioned the Internet as a glorified cable TV system of static corporate websites, walled gardens and one-way streaming of proprietary content. Fortunately the more horizontal, hyperlinked World Wide Web forestalled this. Today, likewise, the same coalition hopes to enclose solar and wind power, energy-efficient technologies and mass transit infrastructure and milk profits off it by interposing themselves as gatekeepers between the technologies of abundance and the consumer. Even if Tim Berners Lee prevented the creation of a totally enclosed Web, the entertainment industry is still doing its best to promote a unidirectional model of streaming proprietary content.
It’s telling that Biden chides us for not having “across the board… the single most sophisticated infrastructure in the world” because new smart infrastructures are the other main component of the Progressive Capitalist model. GE’s hope for enclosing the distributed micromanufacturing revolution as a proprietary, walled-garden “Internet of Things” depends on a high-speed Internet and smart power grid. Warren Buffet’s wind farms, likewise, are only profitable if a taxpayer-funded smart grid exists to transport their power to urban markets.
Biden himself is an enthusiast for high-speed rail. High-speed rail is basically a subsidized yuppie boondoggle for business travelers who, in a rationally organized world, would be telecommunicating — if their jobs existed in the first place. It’s especially sad because it diverts investment from ordinary rail — like freight rail — which would be far more cost-effective. For the cost of providing Amtrak service to the northeastern corridor, or building high-speed rail between LA, Sacramento and the Bay, it would be possible to expand existing bottlenecks in the national rail system and replace some 80% of long-haul trucking with freight rail shipping. And local light commuter rail systems, using existing infrastructure, would be a far more rational investment than building new regional infrastructure for business travel.
Sadly, many on the Left who should know better are taken in by greenwashed corporate capitalism’s claims to be a genuine alternative. Writers for the Solidarity Economy Network — many of whose activities I support, and which I regard as an enormously promising umbrella organization of valuable alternative economy organizations — frequently show indications of having bought in to the kind of “Progressive Capitalism” that seeks to coopt and enclose them as a source of profit. These manifestations include hopes to “save Detroit” — a fundamentally pathological product of mid-20th century mass-production industrial gigantism — by converting the legacy auto industry to producing buses or high-speed trains (For example, the SEN website reproduced a story from Shanghai Daily under the title “Why It Matters If You Have a Green Industrial Policy vs. a Military-Industrial Policy,” Oct. 22). No, it really doesn’t — except to the rival coalitions of corporate pigs competing for taxpayer money.
Don’t be deceived. “Progressive Capitalism” is a counterfeit of genuine distributed, open-source, cooperative and commons-based economics — an attempt to put new wine in old bottles, and appropriate the technologies and possibilities of the successor society as a source of vitality for a dying system. When you see Rachel Maddow standing in front of a giant dam on one of her PSAs, or Joe Biden conjuring up the ghosts of FDR and Charlie Wilson, remember that no one capitalist political party is the servant of corporate capital. They all are.