Defining Revolution Down

Cass Sunstein is such an excellent, if unintentional, parody of liberal goo-gooism that it’s hard to tell him from a creation of The Onion. As proof that “our democratic system structures” are not rigged — whatever Gloomy Guses like Elizabeth Warren and Lawrence Lessig may think — Sunstein (“The American System Isn’t Rigged,” BloombergView, August 25) provides a series of examples of “extraordinary reform” designed to “help those against whom the system is supposedly rigged.” They include the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank banking reform, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas regulations, the 2010 food safety law, the stimulus package of 2009, and improvements in civil rights for gays like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling. “A rigged system couldn’t have produced such a range of reforms, many of them aggressively opposed by well-funded private interests.”

No doubt from Sunstein’s managerialist perspective on the Center-Center-Center-Left, these policies represent the outer fringe of wild-eyed leftism. But the cliche about American politics being a game played between the forty and sixty yard lines, if anything, gives the major parties too much credit. The two major parties represent two coalitions of corporate capitalist interests, and even the furthest “Left” Democrats like Warren and Sanders never remotely approach the edge of that middle zone. The New Deal or Social Democratic model favored by the left wing of the Democratic Party is simply a more sustainable model of capitalism favored by the smarter capitalists, as opposed to the kind of strip-mine capitalism favored by the Reagans, Thatchers and Delays.

Although I am an anarchist, I’ve seldom seen anybody better than the Marxists at describing the function of the state — and “radical” reforms of the kind Sunstein salivates over — under capitalism.

The state is, in Marx’s brilliant turn of phrase, the “executive committee of the ruling class.” Sometimes it undertakes actions that promote the interests of one faction of capital at the expense of another (for example, the economic coalition behind the New Deal consisted of the kind export-oriented, capital-intensive industry exemplified by General Electric under Gerard Swope). Sometimes it undertakes actions that are opposed by the majority of capitalists, or negatively affect the profits of major sectors of the capitalist economy, for the sake of the long-term stability of the system as a whole.

A good example is the Ten-Hour Day legislation passed in Marx’s day, which he described as the capitalists acting jointly to regulate the manuring of their fields. If employers had acted privately and unofficially to regulate the hours of labor and secure the conditions necessary for the reproduction of labor-power, there would have been game theory incentives for some employers to defect and impose unsustainable hours on their workers and then replace them — thereby promoting their own short-term profit at the cost of lowering the sustainable long-term rate of profit of their industry as a whole. By acting through the state — their state — they overcame such prisoners’ dilemma problems.

Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, in their 1966 book Monopoly Capital, argued that the state as executive committee sometimes restricted excess profiteering by one industry in the collective interest of capitalism as a whole and its long-term need for sustainable profit. This is especially true of industries that provide resources of central importance to the entire economy (e.g. the anti-trust action against Standard Oil), as well as central infrastructures vital to the system as a whole (e.g. the breakup of AT&T, which occurred long after their book was written, and the recent net neutrality policy of the FCC). It’s no coincidence that the general categories of industry are subject to nationalization in Western Europe (e.g. coal, railroads).

Friedrich Engels anticipated social democracy in Anti-Duhring, where he argued that the capitalist economy would eventually become so centralized and complex as to be beyond the competence of even the great trusts to direct and control; at that point the capitalists would act through their state to manage the entire economy in their own interest whenever necessary by such expedients as nationalizing the railroad and telegraph lines.

In the course of making that argument Engels displayed an understanding of the class nature of the state that’s apparently beyond Sunstein. He said that such “reforms” as nationalizing industry and regulating the economy, as such, would not amount to socialism. They might be steps on the path to socialism, if the state came under the political control of the working class. But so long as the economy and the state itself were controlled by capitalists, it would just be a higher form of capitalism managed through the state.

There’s not a single item in Sunstein’s list of reforms that doesn’t exemplify the same general principle we’ve considered above. Far more meaningful would be all the things that never show up as matters for political debate at all because Democrats and Republicans agree on them. Those things include basically the entire list of structural prerequisites of capitalism.

If the US Congress ever passes legislation abolishing “intellectual property” in pharmaceuticals and software, voiding all absentee titles to vacant land, or placing all industry under worker self-management, I’ll consider the possibility the system isn’t rigged in the interests of the capitalists. I don’t think that day will come any time soon.

But Sunstein’s goo-gooism isn’t limited to the managerial center; it’s also shared by some further to the Left, as evidenced by a writer at The Intercept — a publication that no doubt causes acute hemorrhoidal flare-up in Sunstein — who contrasted “corporate-friendly” politicians with “reformists” like Elizabeth Warren (“Warren Increases the Pain Factor of Choosing Corporate-Friendly Democrats,” Sept. 8).

Gabriel Kolko, in The Triumph of Conservatism, coined the term “political capitalism” for the policies of the capitalist state under the American model of mixed economy:

Political capitalism is the utilization of political outlets to attain conditions of stability, predictability, and security — to attain rationalization — in the economy. Stability is the elimination of internecine competition and erratic fluctuations in the economy. Predictability is the ability, on the basis of politically stabilized and secured means, to plan future economic action on the basis of fairly calculable expectations. By security I mean protection from the political attacks latent in any formally democratic political structure … [By rationalization] I mean … the organization of the economy and the larger political and social spheres in a manner that will allow corporations to function in a predictable and secure environment permitting reasonable profits over the long run.

The legislation Kolko examined — most notably the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act under Roosevelt, and the FTC Act under Wilson — were textbook examples of this function. The same is true of pretty much the entire slate of “reforms” advocated by Warren, Dodd, Frank and Sanders. I don’t believe even their policies could save capitalism — but even making the attempt is pretty “corporate-friendly,” wouldn’t you say?