Where slavery thrived, inequality rules today

More than a century later, some experts say, a terrible institution is still exacting its price.

By Stephen Mihm  AUGUST 24, 2014

EARLIER THIS MONTH, Standard and Poor’s Rating Services, a credit rating firm that rarely weighs in on social issues, published a scathing report on income inequality and social mobility in the United States. The firm warned that current levels of inequality were “dampening” growth, and predicted that “inequalities will extend into the next generation, with diminished opportunities for upward social mobility.”

This unusual report on inequality, like Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book on the same subject, addresses unequal fortunes, declining mobility, and stagnating economic growth as national or even global problems, which demand similarly large-scale solutions. But scholars are also well aware that these problems vary greatly from place to place. Consider a recent, much-publicized study of social mobility by economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Harvard and Berkeley. As the illuminating map generated by that study shows, children born in some regions—Salt Lake City and San Jose, Calif., for example—have a reasonable shot of moving up the social ladder. By contrast, many parts of the former Confederacy, it seems, are now the places where the American dream goes to die.

Why is that true? At first blush, you might guess race could explain the variation. When the study’s authors crunched the data, they found that the larger the black population in any given county, the lower the overall social mobility. But there was more to the story than blacks unable to break the cycle of poverty. In a passing comment, Chetty and his co-authors observed that “both blacks and whites living in areas with large African-American populations have lower rates of upward income mobility.” Far from being divergent, the fates of poor blacks and poor whites in these regions are curiously, inextricably, intertwined.

Institutions are Built to Maintain, Automate Collective Action

Slavers Built Inegalitarian Institutions

Instead of chalking it up to race, recent research points toward a more startling and somewhat controversial explanation: When we see broad areas of inequality in America today, what we are actually seeing is the lingering stain of slavery. Since 2002, with increasing refinement in the years since, economic historians have argued that the “peculiar institution,” as it was once called, is dead but not gone. Today, in the 21st century, it still casts an economic shadow over both blacks and whites: “Slavery,” writes Harvard economist Nathan Nunn, “had a long-term effect on inequality as well as income.”

His work is representative of a new, more historical direction within economics. Its proponents believe that institutions devised centuries ago tend to persist, structuring economic reality in the 21st century in ways that are largely invisible. Their hope is that, by tracing these connections between past and present, they may be able to point the way toward more effective solutions to today’s seemingly intractable economic problems.

Engerman & Sokoloff’s (2002) Institutional-econ Hypothesis Explains Inequality and Economic Stagnation

IN 2002, two economic historians, Stanley Engerman and Kenneth Sokoloff, published an influential paper that tried to answer a vexing question: why are some countries in the Americas defined by far more extreme and enduring levels of inequality—and by extension, limited social mobility and economic underdevelopment—than others?

The answer, they argued, lay in the earliest history of each country’s settlement. The political and social institutions put in place then tended to perpetuate the status quo. They concluded that societies that began “with extreme inequality tended to adopt institutions that served to advantage members of the elite and hamper social mobility.” This, they asserted, resulted in economic underdevelopment over the long run.

More specifically, they observed that regions where sugar could be profitably grown invariably gave rise to societies defined by extreme inequality. The reason, they speculated, had to do with the fact that large-scale sugar plantations made intensive use of slave labor, generating institutions that privileged a small elite of white planters over a majority of black slaves. These institutions, their later work suggested, could encompass everything from property rights regimes to tax structures to public schools.

Harvard economist Nathan Nunn offered a more detailed statistical analysis of this “Engerman-Sokoloff hypothesis” in a paper first published in 2008. His research confirmed that early slave use in the Americas was correlated with poor long-term growth. More specifically, he examined county-level data on slavery and inequality in the United States, and found a robust correlation between past reliance on slave labor and both economic underdevelopment and contemporary inequality. He disagreed with Engerman and Sokoloff’s claim that it was only large-scale plantation slavery that generated these effects; rather, he found, any kind of slavery seemed to have begotten long-term economic woes.

Nunn also offered a more precise explanation for present-day troubles. In Engerman and Sokoloff’s narrative, slavery led to inequality, which led to economic underdevelopment. But when Nunn examined levels of inequality in 1860—as measured by holdings of land—these proved a poor predictor of future problems. Only the presence of slavery was a harbinger of problems. “It is not economic inequality that caused the subsequent development of poor institutions,” wrote Nunn. “Rather, it was slavery itself.”

Soares, Assuncao & Goulart (2012) clarify that not race but slavery intensity begets long-term economic inequality

This finding was echoed in a study by Brazilian economists Rodrigo Soares, Juliano Assunção, and Tomás Goulart published in the Journal of Comparative Economics in 2012. Soares and his colleagues examined the connection between historical slavery and contemporary inequality in a number of countries, largely in Latin America. The authors found a consistent correlation between the existence—and intensity—of slavery in the past and contemporary inequality. Moreover, this relationship was independent of the number of people of African descent living there today. As Soares said in an interview, “Societies that used more slavery are not more unequal simply because they have relatively more black people.”

The question, then, is how exactly did slavery have this effect on contemporary inequality? Soares and his colleagues speculated that limited political rights for slaves and their descendants played a role, as did negligible access to credit and capital. Racial discrimination, too, would have played a part, though this would not explain why whites born in former slaveholding regions might find themselves subject to higher levels of inequality.

Inequality-transmission Mechanism: Public Institutions are Stunted in Slavery Zones

The Toll of Inegalitarian Anti-public Institutions Over Time: A Dearth of Public Infrastructure Translates Inegalitarian Economic Growth into Economic Stagnation

Nunn, though, advanced an additional explanation, pointing to an idea advanced by Stanford economic historian Gavin Wright in 2006.

In lands turned over to slavery, Wright had observed, there was little incentive to provide so-called public goods—schools, libraries, and other institutions—that attract migrants. In the North, by contrast, the need to attract and retain free labor in areas resulted in a far greater investment in public goods—institutions that would, over the succeeding decades, offer far greater opportunities for social mobility and lay the foundation for sustained, superior economic growth.

As it happens, a contemporary critic of slavery took it upon himself to measure some of these differences between North and South. In 1857, a Southerner named Hinton Rowan Helper published an incendiary book titled “The Impending Crisis.” Though a virulent racist, Helper was no friend of slavery, and he quantified in excruciating detail the relative number of schools, libraries, and other institutions in both free and slaveholding states, finding time and again that his region failed to measure up to the North.

In Pennsylvania he found 393 public libraries, but in South Carolina, a mere 26. In the South, he observed, “the common school-house, the poor man’s college, is hardly known, showing how little interest is felt in the chief treasures of the State, the immortal minds of the multitude who are not born to wealth.”

Antisociological Denouement, or Even Institutional Economists are Professionally, Dogmatically Adverse to Admitting Preferences Are Socially-constructed through History

Institutionalized Hegemony Can Divorce People from Their Own Interests: Southern Whites Surprised to Find They Benefit When Public Institutions Imposed

WHAT SOMEONE like Helper may not have foreseen is that the abolition of slavery would not cure these ills. The destruction of slavery did not destroy all the political institutions, social mores, and cultural traditions that sustained it. Nor did it make public institutions, of the kind that the north had been building for decades, suddenly come into being.

This notion about the “persistence” of economic institutions is part of a larger dialogue within economics. Economists ranging from MIT’s Daron Acemoglu to Harvard’s Melissa Fisher have examined how institutions and practices adopted centuries ago can shape economic reality. But not everyone buys the idea that the past can structure the present in such an enduring, predictable fashion. Wright is among the critics of this approach; he is skeptical of Engerman and Sokoloff’s hypothesis. “The persistence of inequality per se is a myth,” he says, pointing to research that highlights the degree to which inequality has ebbed and flowed in Latin America.

Wright counts himself “unconvinced” regarding comparable claims about the United States. “No doubt slavery has played some kind of background role,” he concedes. But he sees the relationship between historical slavery and contemporary inequality as an interesting correlation, not a directly causal one. Correlating one variable with another across the centuries “isn’t the same as writing history,” he notes. “If you don’t connect the dots, you’re just groping.”

Another criticism of the “persistence” school is that it may justify passivity. If counties or countries have always been poor or unequal because of something that happened so long ago, what chance do contemporary policy makers have at deflecting the dead hand of the past?

But there is room for hope, as Wright’s own research would suggest. In “Sharing the Prize,” an economic history of the civil rights movement published in 2013, Wright found that efforts to end discrimination paid substantial, enduring benefits to black Southerners. Perhaps more surprisingly, he found that the movement benefited whites, too. Many poorer whites found that that the destruction of the old order—the end of poll taxes, for example—ushered in increased levels of public funding for schools, newfound political power, and a host of other economic, political, and educational benefits, particularly in the years immediately following the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Positive Affirmations for Liberals

That revolution, of course, is still a work in progress. As we’ve been reminded over the last two weeks by the clashes in Ferguson, Mo., between mostly black protesters and a mostly white police force, there’s a long way to go before the vestiges of slavery are fully and finally made a thing of the past. But this new body of research may help us grasp that solutions to persistent inequality will require more focused policies. Increasing the level of food stamps, as economist Paul Krugman has suggested, might help, but it is perhaps too diffuse and indiscriminate a solution.

Instead, the best way to deal with the lingering effects of dead institutions like slavery may be to create regional institutions aimed to promoting social mobility and economic growth. Georgia, for example, has tried to level the field with the “HOPE Scholarship,” which enables high schoolers with a “B” average or higher to attend in-state public colleges and universities for free and private in-state schools at a heavy discount.

Such programs, with some modifications, could go a long way toward promoting social mobility in the former slaveholding regions of the United States. That’s not to say that the problems will be easy to solve. But the progress we’ve already made, both politically and economically, would suggest that while we may live in slavery’s shadow, we are not prisoners of the past, either.

Stephen Mihm is an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, and co-author, with Nouriel Roubini, of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance” (2010).

This article was published online in the Boston Globe in 2014; but as of 2019 it is no longer available online, so I have added it here. I have added my own subtitles to help Sociologists navigate through Mihm’s disciplinary metaphysics and personal politics.

References

Chetty, Raj, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez. 2014. “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States.”

(Note for Community Economic Development research: Patrick Kline is the econometrician in this group. He also publishes comparative economic assessments of “place-based policies.”)

Engerman, Stanley and Kenneth Sokoloff. 2002. “Factor Endowments, Inequality, and Paths of Development Among New World Economics.” NBER Working Paper 9259.

Helper, Hinton Rowan. 1857. The Impending Crisis of the South. New York.

Mihm, Stephen. 2007. A Nation Of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, And The Making Of The United States. Harvard.

Nunn, Nathan. 2008. The Long Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades. Quarterly Journal of Economics 123 (1) : 139-176.

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the 21st Century.

Soares, Rodrigo, Juliano Assunção, and Tomás Goulart. 2012. “A Note on Slavery and the Roots of Inequality.” Journal of Comparative Economics 40(4):565–580.

Wright, Gavin. 2006. (Note: Berkeley’s Wright is retired. I cannot locate this reference. Might have to email Mihm.)

Wright, Gavin. 2013. Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

 

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The US is militarized because it is a global class-contested territory

There are four outlier countries in the affluent world, each characterized by an extremely high percentage of the working-class population employed in guarding property from the rest of the working-class population: Greece, the US, the UK, and Spain. Depending on how you count it, 1 out of 4 (or 5) of every US workers is guarding property from other workers. That proportion increased over fourfold in the US between the late 19th century and today. By contrast, there is only 1 guard for every 20 workers in Sweden.

Brought together, empirical analyses by Bowles and Jayadev (2007), and Gourevitch (2015)  reviewing Brecher (2014) and Mitrani (2013), identify correlates of the guard labour market & militarized police state: 1) socio-economic inequality; and 2) a strong history of class contention. Bowles & Jayadev caution that though these factors, and not others, correlate with the policed society, by themselves they cannot explain the extent of guarding and policing in a society, because in the US, guarding continued to rise as a proportion of employment even in the exceptional, lower-inequality Trente Glorieuses period following WWII and prior to 1975. However, as Gourevitch will clarify, even during the short period of reduced aggregate socio-economic inequality in the US, at a finer-grain level of analysis we recognize that inequality reduction was very patchily distributed (Fraser 2017), and quiescence was even briefer, as the Civil Rights Movement was organizing during that period to more widely distribute novel social citizenship and welfare state protections from expropriation.

Although the state is designed to protect large domestic (and some global) capitalists from expropriation, only white male smallholders enjoyed new state protection from expropriation during the short Trente Glorieuses (Fraser 2017), spurring other social groups to organize to expand those protections and state accountability to the entire working class, including African-Americans and other racialized groups, women, and indigenous peoples in the US. This organization was famously met by expanding US police forces and militaries as warfare, and it was met by politicians with carceral expansion (Murakawa 2014), contributing to continued guarding and policing expansion. Moreover, as we see below, in 1947, at the outset of the Trente Glorieuses, the US cemented in an extraordinary legal regime for hobbling working-class people in the US.

While there are surely automatic structural mechanisms, both macro and meso-institutional, favoring capital and crippling working-class people in capitalism, the briefness of the Trente Glorieuses is well explained by the extraordinary level of capitalist organizing to restrain and divest the American working class of collective action capacity, including by diverting work into guarding and militarized policing, as well as via legal mechanisms (Pistor 2019). On both sides of the pond, of course, deregulation of finance, beginning in the City of London only a third of the way into the Trente Glorieuses, permitted the reorientation of US capital from national to global class alignment, permitted inflation coordination as a form of capital strike, and thereby permitted the dismantling of working class-accountable institutions (social citizenship, the welfare state, public infrastructure) within the US state–converting nascent US state capacity to protect workers from expropriation into military, militarized policing, and guarding property, a Nightwatchman state exclusively protecting global capital from expropriation.

But why did the working class, which had developed independent, leading ideas about the good, democratic society, had been highly organized in previous decades, and had innovated and led policy in the FDR era, acquiesce to this massive state conversion, to its tremendous neutralization and increasing disadvantage? Given its former independence and leadership, why did the working class allow itself to be co-opted into a giant police force merely doing the bidding of economic Masters, circling a drain of decreasing capacity to protect itself as a class from expropriation?

There are intermediary steps to this conversion, and path-dependency can be a factor. However, if we explain the rise of the policed society by returning to the question of Why Greece, the US, the UK, and Spain (with NZ, Australia, and Belgium in hot pursuit)?  it becomes reasonable to suggest that in the late capitalist era, these places may be distinguished as the most desirable combined markets and territories from both a capitalist and labour perspective. These are the contested territories of capitalism.

The US and UK contain the globe’s leading financial institutions, all of the top four policed societies feature brash traditions of conservativism and antihuman repression targeting the working class, and Greece, the US, and Spain contain some of the globe’s most liveable territory, from a human perspective, combined with at least moderately-developed economies and institutions. I hypothesize that what distinguishes surveilled, militarized, policed societies is an ongoing history of class warfare over primo global territory. This explanation has the virtue of also explaining the observed correlates of socio-economic inequality and bursts of civil warfare. Greece, the US, the UK, and Spain are barely nations. Riddled by class and regional internal divisions, they are nations in the sense that they are cemented together by heavy resource expenditure on force and nationalism.

We can return to the issue of increasing guard labour in the US during the Trente Glorieuses with the explanation that, despite the cross-class consensual drive to continue the economic expansion initiated with high state-capital coordination during the war, the class conflict over the territory was not closed, and the domestic police force was being built out of the imperial military post-war in order for global capital to resume control of the territory by 1980. This hypothesis is confirmed by the 1947 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, and its perpetual institutional maintenance, preserving the absolute rejection of workers’ human rights in favor of limitless, global capitalist liberty in the US. When the US built global capitalism back up following WWII (Varoufakis 2011), it was rebuilding global capitalist class collective action capacity to storm the lands that everyone wants to claim.

Because it’s capitalism, the global capitalist class has secured the hierarchical social order and regulated collective behaviour in the heavily-policed societies. Interesting follow-up project: A working-class Moneyball TM analyst would recommend the (relatively-neglected) best places for labour to migrate to based on attractive features without the Policed Four’s military level of surveillance, co-optation,  repression, thin citizenship, and mounting expropriation.

Though, a Geographic Economist I once knew said that capital follows labour. Could the working class even abandon the US, UK, Greece, and Spain in significant numbers? Or are compensating factors, and the complicating factors of migration, so overwhelmingly on the side of these four lands that the class conflict and militarization of society cannot help but lurch on?

Certainly the Anglophone model provides a steam valve in its repressive framework. It directs social subsidy to capital, incentivizing a large portion of the American working class to migrate into and through precarious small-business ownership (Nail salons!) as an alternative to suffering the obscene state-reinforced class dehumanization and unfreedoms.

**************************************************

In Lawrence 2014, pp. 205-206 are particularly succinct and poignant summaries of the stand-out manacled life of the American working class. The legal mechanisms for shackling the American working class include the following:

  1. Following its codification by US Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes in the 1937 NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp (affirming the Wagner Act), American law denies “the fact that the coercion and intimidation inherent in a threat of discharge (firing) are intrinsic to virtually all employment contexts” in capitalism (Lawrence 205). US law refuses to recognize and regulate capitalist powers, including capital strike.
  2. Preserving absolute private property right, Taft-Hartley section 2(5) prohibits workers from bargaining (contributing information or decision-making to) many issues affecting their work, the business, the community, and the socio-economy: layoffs, plant closings, production decisions, investment decisions, product pricing, etc.
  3. Enforcing “Right to Work” TM laws, Taft-Hartley section 7 enables vulnerable workers to forfeit to state-protected, politically-mobilized, wealthier employers the workers’ own, human collective action capacity.
  4. Taft-Hartley section 8(b) prohibits the following repertoire of worker solidarity and collective action: sympathy strikes, solidarity strikes, support strikes, industry-level agreements or cross-class planning (in an industry, or in an industrial council).
  5. Taft-Hartley section 303 illegalizes sympathetic boycotts.
  6. Taft-Hartley section 301 enables employers to use their superior economic resources to sue and break labor organizations via US federal court. This includes, when an employer repeatedly violates an employment contract, and if the union responds with a strike, the US courts enable the employer to sue and financially cripple the labour organization; and if a wildcat strike breaks out, the US courts enable the employer to sue and financially cripple the workers’ labor organization.
  7. Taft-Hartley section 14(a) provides a grotesquely-expansive definition of the workers who are not allowed to unionize, whom employers can force to serve as scabs: Any worker whose work includes any sort of “coordination” or “guidance” to other workers.
  8. On behalf of absolute private property right, Adair 1908 established in the US the unilateral managerial right to fire any worker “at will.”
  9. On behalf of absolute private property right, Mackay 1938 established in the US the unilateral managerial right to replace workers with scabs.
  10. US law denies working-class peoples’ rights as human rights (Lawrence 2014: 204). The 2000 Human Rights Watch report highlighted how US labor law violates fundamental human rights.
  11. In labor law, the US stands out as preserving property owner (employer) absolute liberty, based on servitude, per American slaver John C. Calhoun’s and others’ influential formulation.
  12. That is why the US Supreme Court features so many jurists educated in the ancient conservative Catholic legal tradition, developed to support warlords’ feudal privileges.
  13. This extreme anti-worker legal framework, treating working-class people as second-class citizens (or third-class in the case of slaves, prisoner-slaves, immigrants, and immigrant prisoners and prisoner-slaves), is unique in the world for its dogged enforcement and lack of modification over the years (Lawrence 2014: 199). It is also probably why investment capital flooded into the US when Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard in 1971, and why global capital is attracted to the US. The US has committed to sacrifice its own people’s freedom and suppress their human development, in order to most faithfully service domestic and global elites.

 

References

Abraham, David.

Bowles and Jayadev (2007)

Brecher (2014)

Fraser, Nancy. 2017. “From Exploitation to Expropriation: Historic Geographies of Racialized Capitalism: Roepke Lecture in Economic Geography.” Economic Geography 94(1): 1-17.

Gourevitch, Alex. 2015. “Police Work: The Centrality of Labour Repression in American Political History.” Perspectives on Politics 13(3): 762-773.

Klare, Karl E. 1977-78. “Judicial Deradicalization of the Wagner Act and the Origins of Modern Legal Consciousness, 1937-41.” Minnesota Law Review 61: 265-339.

Lawrence, Andrew G. 2014 Employer and Worker Collective Action: A Comparative Study of Germany, South Africa, and the United States. Cambridge.

Lambert, Josiah Bartlett. 2005. If the Workers Took a Notion. ILR Press (Cornell University).

Mitrani (2013)

Mittelstadt, Jennifer. 2015. The Rise of the Military Welfare State. Harvard.

Murakawa, Naomi. 2014. The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. Oxford.

Orren, Karen. 1991. Belated Feudalism: Labor, the Law, and Liberal Development in the United States. Cambridge.

Pistor, Katharina. 2019. The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality. Princeton.

Reply to Reader:

Thanks to the contribution of the reader with an institutionalist meso-level hypothesis on how the US (ignoring the other countries discussed above) produces extreme guarding (not including policing) of the American population. Meso-level, institutional facts, such as high levels of litigation or insurance requirements in the US, suggest a couple of the possible mechanisms for how the US arrives at extreme policing and guarding, and nest under and support the above socio-geographic explanatory (why) framework. Logical modesty begs a distinction between identifying mechanisms and inferring causality. (Causal explanation would have to be able to address the factors the explanatory frameworks address: Why have the mechanisms changed in the top four policed & guarded countries? Why aren’t they as important factors in some other countries? Are they as important in Spain, Greece, and the UK?)

Without assessing common incentives and sanctions driving mechanisms, and without even acquiring a fuller map of mechanisms and their relative contribution to building policed societies, collectives could organize to address a couple of the mechanisms–insurance incentivization and sanctions, and litigation capacity, as suggested in this case. Liberal and conservative political collectives do that all the time. No one really wants to stop reformist organization. I only suggest here that identifying a couple of mechanisms cannot be the be-all and end-all of knowledge. Such undertheorized, piecework reforms are a lot of grinding work, take a lot of coordination and a long time to organize, fail to avoid conflict, still redirect and consume lots of resources, and in the end, the George Bush IIs of the world can keep chortling about how they make the world and the underlings only tap-dance in reaction. The hazard of accepting a couple of institutional mechanisms as a fulsome explanatory framework (accepting how for why) is that if you intervene to suppress these identified mechanisms without considering the underlying cause, you’re just playing whack-a-mole. Whack-a-mole may be profitable for lawyers, and it may occupy political wonks and unfree bureaucrats while more powerful collectives make the decisions, but we pursue social scientific knowledge to improve collective agential contribution to change. They’re two types of knowledge with different functions, built for advancing different types of societies: technocratic v. democratic.

Alternative to using technocratic knowledge to preoccupy the staff, a scientific research contribution for an institutional, meso-level analyst would be to run a regression testing those (litigation rate, volume of insurance requirements for guard protection) and other theorized mechanisms proliferating guard labour (such as extent of military welfare/keynesianism (Mittlestadt 2015), carceral growth rate, etc). If a researcher were able to do that (using rate of change data) across countries, that would be particularly helpful towards mapping out the mechanisms by which policed societies are built. Again, that’s not explanation. It’s not philosophy, and it’s not science. But it would contribute  toward science, a collective knowledge, and thus, unlike technocratic knowledge, would not foreclose against democratic development at the outset.

My thesis presented above is distinctively designed to explain not only Bowles & Jayadev’s comparative findings (About guarded and policed societies, inclusive of, but not just lost in the blare and glare of the US. Because they are comparative, they can support more disciplined, valid hypotheses.), but also the work of political historians (also comparative data, across time). As Gourevitch points out in his review of Mitrani & Brecher’s historical work, we can observe the connection between, on the one hand, the historical, high levels of impactful working class (and Civil Rights Movement) organization and the subsequent growth and militarization of policing in the US, solidified into the extremity and comparative absoluteness of working-class repression in the US, see also the notes on US labour law above (per Lawrence 2014), and changes in citizenship law & administration (See legal theorist David Abraham’s work) since 1970. The macro-level explanatory thesis presented here is designed to explain both the political history of militarized policing and labour law & administration in the US, and Bowles and Jayadev’s comparative studies of guarding, as it is reasonable to explain the coincidence of quantitatively-extreme guarding with quantitatively- and qualitatively-extreme policing, though they may have different arrays of mechanisms of implementation, particularly as we have observed change over time and variation across countries in guarding and policing. (Particularly given policing is a state function, insurance or legal “markets” is not a response that can provide adequate insight or explanatory power.)

Explanatory power: The contribution of the macro-level explanatory thesis, here highlighting the relationship between human preferences in geography, climate, and institutional development–particularly state capacity to protect groups from expropriation (Fraser 2017), (as well as aversion to dislocation and loss of financial, cultural, and social capital), is that it supports and guides a number of reasonable, useful consequent hypotheses concerning support for the ongoing development of social conflicts, policing, militarization, surveillance technology, domestic and international politics, racial formation, gender relations, and migration, within the US and similar policed societies (Greece, Spain, the UK).

For example, some of these consequences even impact lawyers. Consider a consequent hypothesis about the spectacular growth of disciplinary student debt amongst lawyers. A fair question that people have asked is: Why do American lawyers put up with that expropriation? With the theory in this post I suggest: Because despite the fact that debt, expropriation, is a major cost to many lawyers, the US still presents globally-comparative benefits (along with the constraint of illiquid smallholder assets): climate, geography, and state protection from even more expropriation (directly or indirectly transferring capacities and assets to financial metropoles). As well, we can add the hypothesis that a litigious market contributes another offsetting benefit to lawyers. This cost-benefit constellation continues to reduce workers’ strategic degrees of freedom; they cling on, with no recourse to voice and no exit strategy. (As well, in the highly-policed society, the voice of the policed is replaced with the sovereign’s voice (See Scarry 1985).) There’s no effective voice for democratic change–it’s bound and gagged by militarized policing and guarding, and as yet there is no substantial defection (exit). So the expropriation– in this case, law school debt– stays. For now, even lawyers are impotent to protect themselves in significant ways.

I also suggest that even taking into account the adverse conditions that exiting the US would impose within the human lifespan (and which Americans, observing, exploiting, and violating immigrants, are very familiar), this individual cost-benefit rationality is not in equilibrium: The structural and political tendency has been and continues to be toward increasing expropriation. In this sense, global capitalists are all the more committed to claiming the hot, policed societies, because they can easily and cheaply mine them. However, that understandably-strong preference (even backed up by state support and a sense of class entitlement) is also a strategic constraint in the changing context of expropriation.

 

Roaming Rights Now!

Over the last couple of years there have been books and bills introduced to establish Roaming Right in Anglo-American jurisdictions. Roaming Rights were denied in the colonies on the grounds that indigenous people had to be cleared from the land to make way for colonial extraction. As contested as they were and are, Roaming Rights were established for indigenous populations in treaties between colonial and indigenous governments, however.

The racist, colonial denial of universal Roaming Right in Anglo-American law produces an unjust conflation between private land required for living, such as a house, a yard, and a garden, and mass-acreage land privately owned, for example in land speculation, for the accumulation of social power over other citizens, rival rentier capitalists, and global markets. In Marxist terms, this (im)moral conflation reflects the power-blind liberal conflation of capitalist use value–profit–with general use values, which legitimates sovereign-consumer and consumer-market choice arguments, private monopoly and collusion, corporate deregulation, inequality, and general capitalist Best of All Possible Worlds assumption/argumentation. Under this ruling and codified conceptual conflation, even homes have been used in apartheid settler societies not for shelter (use value), a necessary minimal condition of health, enjoyment and development, but as assets (capital) permitting Whites and global economic victors to claim intergenerational wealth over, power over, and capacity to exclude Blacks and smallholders.

This conceptual blindness is the vehicle through which inequality produces inegalitarianism, despite liberalism’s formal subscription to the former and proscription of the latter. While it brings liberalism to coalesce with conservatism, liberalism’s formal separation of inequality and inegalitarianism keeps liberalism able to co-opt the exhausted portions of its egalitarian opposition, and better able to maintain law; in this way, while it’s less immediately appealing than conservative exceptionalism, liberalism can ultimately outcompete raw conservatism, devoted to inequality, inegalitarianism, and exceptionalism. Or, liberalism and conservatism together create a system-stabilizing oscillation of strategies that pragmatists and true-believers alike can insert themselves into.

Because of this lack of conceptual distinction, for a long time, the incapacity to recognize a public interest in cross-population, sustainable use of land and water supported an inegalitarian elite-settler coalition dedicated to absolute, exclusive private property in liberal societies. This institutionalized blindness to public interest, this inegalitarianism can be observed every day in financial apartheid advertisements for gated rural and suburban property and Poor Door urban real estate property, in excluding curtains and punitive air travel policies corralling most travelers, and in the enduring public goods and services poverty of historical slavery counties. It sustains a socialized inability to distinguish depletion activities on land and water from sustainable activities. This apartheid-society conceptual incapacity was useful for establishing colonies as premier global sites of unfettered resource extraction and unfree labor exploitation and expropriation.

Restoring Collective-action Capacity and Freedom in Rural Tributaries

In the latter-day context of global monopoly capitalism, with its institutionalized wealth cores and tributary peripheries, these conceptual incapacities, codified in law, strongly undermine the freedom and reproductive capacity of non-elite, smallholder settlers. It is another case where in the multi-generational run, non-elite settlers would have been better off in coalition with peasantified indigenous people and enslaved workers than serving as grunts for elite colonial interests, under the hope that their own patrimony would be protected, not by a politically- and socially-constructed status such as citizenship, but by a magical, mythical identity conferred only at elite convenience–White Ownership.

To start off with, as discussed above, smallholders’ interests–in securing living space and life enjoyment in balance with others–are not reducible to or stably, largely compatible with mass-property owning rentier-capitalists’ interests in mining wealth for the exclusive, advantageous accumulation of social power and control over other citizens, over rival rentier capitalists, and over global markets. Whiteness politics are the result of a naive, excessive belief in the munificence and durability of economic elites’ instrumentalist marketing campaigns. But as the recent mass primitive accumulation of New Zealand, the Canadian West, and particularly the US West demonstrate, even Christian Texan billionaires–raised as Masters of Whiteness sacralization and politics–will not maintain White coalition in all those places where non-Whites have already been cleared from the land (Turkewitz 2019). If you cannot count on even Evangelical Texas oil-extractionist billionaire patriarchs for White protection, do you think it’s a good social contract option for you to buy into?

As a mystical moral exclusion, a promise of inclusion in an exclusive coalition with ruthless, teeth-baring elites, the White political construction was always designed to be land-owning elites’ paw of control over a traumatized, fearful population, for elites’ own political benefit, if variably distributing lesser resources to a malleable “White” “police” force. The broad Whiteness elite-“police” coalition is easily scrapped–in England, but just as well in the militarized, surveillance-embedded settler colonies–in favor of the narrower elite-police employer relationship in Nightwatchman societies. Today’s capital-intensive, tech-addled Nightwatchman policing relationship with exclusive, absolute, mass private property severely curtails non-elite freedom and enjoyment–from snowmobiling to fishing to hunting, to cross country skiing, mushroom gathering, forest bathing, walking, clean-water swimming, stargazing, fresh air, and so on–outside of capitalism’s expensive urban metropole commodity market.

Roaming Right & Freedom of Movement, Right of the “Starving” Man in an Excluding, Privatized World Economy

In Europe, Roaming Rights were codified in law in the mid-20th century (In England, they were codified in liberal law in 2001). They distinguish the exclusionary space needed for living–the yard, garden, house, barn, garage–from the larger, decommodified space required for people, the public, to both modestly supplement private life and enjoy sustainable use of the political-territory’s land: hiking, fishing, swimming, boating, horse watering, berry gathering, and camping rights, etc. Roaming Rights assume that people are living, reproducing, developing Earthlings, and therefore the public needs to traverse–move freely–and enjoy life in a social, balancing, non-depleting manner. This assumption is not shared by property right law, built for perpetual conquering (See the influential, founding formulations of property right and its underlying assumptions, forwarded by liberal-conservative theorists including Hobbes, Grotius, and Burke’s later reconciliation with capitalist liberalism, etc.). Roaming Right corrects property right and its antihuman excesses.

Organizing for Roaming Rights is important in the settler colonies today because inequality has grown to the point where settlers are financially excluded from global rentier capitalism’s metropoles, while at the same time they are losing access to the dispersed resources required to live and enjoy life in the tributary regions. In this context, tributary settler-indigenous coalition is vital. After all, and all pretty mystifications aside, how are indigenous people made? Indigenous people are not another, animal-like species or colorful otherworldly visitation, as political discourse has predominantly constructed them. Whatever their history and culture, the indigenous have been repeatedly constructed, and will be made out of the raw material of people again, by imperialists prohibiting indigenous people’s free movement and access to the necessities and enjoyment of life outside of inaccessible, commodified, commercial cities. Race is network boundary construction, and it’s not been as tight or class-distinguishing a boundary as wealth accumulators prefer. Today’s FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate industry) and surveillance and military tech do the exact same function, tighter.

Every capitalist elite is afraid of working class settlers and smallholders recognizing that they can be made indigenous or enslaved. To some extent this is an honest, liberal fear, because many smallholding settlers have, with but a little elite threat/encouragement, moved from that sociological, historical realization to “Better you than me” imperial warfare against indigenized people, the enslaved, and descendents thereof (See Wilson 1976).

But that honest fear has always been in coalition with the much more self-interested elite fear that other smallholding settlers will coalesce politically with the indigenized, the enslaved, and their descendants. By suppressing non-elite organic intellectuals, we have hardly come to terms with this liberal-conservative elite coalition, the imperial “civilized” bloc, and its ravaging effects.

Instead, apartheid society is fed a nonstop stream of conservative and liberal high and low cultural enforcement, cementing us apart along the difference-justice telos: Whites must know only their unjust, isolated historical place. Reified, stylized, Black positionality, Black Exceptionalism will carry difference justice (as that is reduced to liberal Dem Party political rentier strategy). In the UK, this quasi-historical (permitting recognition of heritage, but prohibiting recognition of ongoing social construction, social reproduction) cultural pseudo-speciation is further reinforced through regional class distinctions.

The Primitive Accumulation of the US West in the 21st Century

From Turkewitz 2019: “In the last decade, private land in the United States has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. Today, just 100 families own about 42 million acres across the country, a 65,000-square-mile expanse, according to the Land Report, a magazine that tracks large purchases. Researchers at the magazine have found that the amount of land owned by those 100 families has jumped 50 percent since 2007.”

The fracking-lord Wilks brothers “who now own some 700,000 acres across several states, have become a symbol of the out-of-touch owner. In Idaho, as their property has expanded, the brothers have shuttered trails and hired armed guards to patrol their acres, blocking and stymying access not only to their private property, but also to some publicly owned areas…The Wilks brothers see what they are doing as a duty. God had given them much, Justin said. In return, he said, “we feel that we have a responsibility to the land.”

“Gates with “private property” signs were going up across the region. In some places, the Wilkses’ road closings were legal. In other cases, it wasn’t clear. Road law is a tangled knot, and Boise County had little money to grapple with it in court. So the gates stayed up.

…The Wilks family hired a lobbyist to push for a law that would stiffen penalties for trespass…

The problem, said Mr. Horting, “is not the fact that they own the property. It’s that they’ve cut off public roads.”

“We’re being bullied,” he added. “We can’t compete and they know it” (Turkewitz 2019).

As well, financial institutions started dispensing with land titling a few years ago, so in the post-2007 property grab, claims on property are going to fall to might rather than right. It’s a new mass primitive accumulation offensive.

Climate Crisis, Unproductive Capital, & Elite Rentier Strategy

While they let their Republican henchmen lull the peasantry with squeals of “No climate crisis” for decades, billionaire rentier capitalists shifted quietly into land-capturing overdrive.

“Brokers say the new arrivals are driven in part by a desire to invest in natural assets while they are still abundant, particularly amid a fear of economic, political and climate volatility.

‘There is a tremendous underground, not-so-subtle awareness from people who realize that resources are getting scarcer and scarcer,’ said Bernard Uechtritz, a real estate adviser” (Turkewitz 2019).

The Persistent Role of Moralism in Expropriation

Moving into extractive fracking from a Texas religious franchise, the Wilks Bros provide a strong example of how extractivism and expropriation is buttressed by moralism.

While buying political and legal cover, they continually assert that their antisocial land speculation offensive is mandated by God, sacralizing their self-interested conflation of smallholder living space with their own, exclusionary mass capture of land.

Expropriative, Gilded-Age Restoration: Separating Out Global Rentier Capitalists’ Interests from Smallholder Interests

TBD

The Urbanite’s Interest in Roaming Right

Why would an urbanite care about Roaming Right? After all, urbanites are precisely the people who have forfeited Roaming Right in favor of obtaining all their life reproduction needs and enjoyment through the concentrated commodity market of the city, and by proximity to self-interested elite infrastructure. As Mike Davis and Cedric Johnson (2019) clarify, the cosmopolitan eschews the public. Relatedly, the condition of inequality-restoration urbanity, the engine of global monopoly capitalism, is the denial of capitalism’s reproductive dependence upon its sea of expropriation. A city is built on legalized, overlapping claims on future wealth creation, but the ingredients to that wealth creation are not exclusively to be found in the city.

Urban intellectuals and social workers recognize that denial extremely partially, as “gentrification.” Those who cannot live on 100% commodified life, the poor, are removed out of sight from the metropole. Yet at the same time, within and across borders, the tributary countryside is enclosed by global billionaires, and the people in that periphery are shoved to the smallholding margins, left without wealth, without access to fully-commodified life (which affordability, which wage-consumption urban economy depends on rural decommodifications, cheap inputs), or access to non-commodified life reproduction or enjoyment. They are expelled, set marching, set reeling. We admire how they’ve chosen us when they alight amongst us to serve us. Or we demand to speak to the manager. As in past Primitive Accumulation offensives, itinerancy is criminalized, and imperial militarization and an international for-profit carceral industry rages like a climate-crisis Firenado.

In this context, wouldn’t it be more natural, an efficient division of political labor, for urbanites to focus on getting Democrats (or Liberals or NDP) elected to office? Meanwhile urbanites can wait for deprived, low-density rural populations to organize their own solution to their desperate lives. After all, in those moments when those rural folks were organized and slightly-patronized by big owners (See Wilson 1976), they should have seen the limits of the inequality coalition…like wage-earning urbanites do? Something seems to be impeding organization. Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s that massive surveillance, policing, and carceral apparatus (Johnson 2019).

Cities depend on tributaries for most of the raw materials of life bought on the urban market. As well, they depend on using the countryside as an urban waste sink. A pervasive lack of recognition of the non-autonomy of the city, urban commodity fetishism, including imagining the enjoyments–museums, libraries, bars and restaurants, dance venues, art galleries, theatres, orchestras, ballet troupes, poetry nights, etc.–as the sui generis private-collective property of the city, the lack of  conceptualization of how the cheap raw-material market goods come to appear in the city and how wastes disappear from the city, leads to pervasive political mis-analysis.

If cosmopolitans around the world want to stop being ruled by Donald Trump and like politicians, if they want to enjoy the free expression of their cosmopolitan merit, they need to use their geographic concentration as an organization asset to break down the marginalization, the peasantification of the countryside domestic and international, the remnant alignment between rural -tributary smallholders and global rentier capitalists–particularly in an unfree time in which those rentier capitalists are aggressively excluding rural settlers from enjoyable rural life and yet inequality, including tight metropole police exclusion of indigents, prohibits mass rural-urban mobility.

museum display

Artwork by Fernando Garcia-Dory & Amy Franceschini

As beholden as their enjoyment and their identities are to FIRE (Finance Insurance Real Estate capital) patronage and cheap commodity inputs and waste sinks, urbanites need to organize, to reconstruct a smallholder Red-Green alliance traversing the urban-rural divide, and taming private property right, as Swedes did at the turn of the Twentieth Century to establish an effective, semi-independent social democracy. Roaming Right is a great coalition vehicle for such a democratic realignment and legal revolution. City people should use their structurally-superior communication and organization capacity to reach out and help rural people–across race and gender–to secure–but not mine–the non-commodified world they need to live and enjoy themselves, through universal Roaming Right. Recognizing that the past half century of rural expulsions transcends national boundaries, Red-green political coalition could be the “close to home” foundation of internationalist capacity, rather than mere consumption cosmopolitanism.

 

You Are What You Enjoy: Identity, Alienation, & Inegalitarianism in Capitalism

TBD

 

Bibliography

 

Greens of British Columbia. 2017. “Weaver introduces Right to Roam Act.”

Ilgunas, Ken. 2018. This land is our land: How we lost the right to roam and how to take it. Plume Press.

Johnson, Cedric. 2019. “Black political life and the Blue Lives Matter Presidency.” Jacobin, February 17.

Turkewitz, J. 2019. “Who gets to own the West?The New York Times, June 22.

Wikipedia. “Freedom to Roam.”

Wilson, William Julius. 1976. “Class conflict and segregation in the Postbellum South.” Pacific Sociological Review 19 (4): 431-446.

The peasantification of the American working class

The Anglo-American policy was to take from indigenous peoples, and give to non-elite settlers, smallholder property, a mode of life that “begets no community…and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class.” In Anglo-America, there is no effort toward organizing work decently, humanely, with respect for life. All the organization is toward converting (subsidizing) workers into high-risk-saddled (Lotto mentality) smallholders. A million nail shops. Why this has been done is best understood through Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire analysis of peasantry politics. Erica Benner preciently analyzed this in 1995, and Verso republished her work in 2018.

Peasants “were obliged to rely on other classes to protect their interests: ‘they cannot’, Marx wrote, ‘represent themselves; they must be represented.” This, however, has not always, everywhere been true. In Sweden the peasant class for centuries held their own parliamentary seats, reserved for them by economic status, and occupied by the more affluent peasants. It is Anglo culture, including via Anglo liberalism, that structures peasantry to be a politically-subordinate, dehumanizing condition.

This particular sort of peasant culture is reproduced throughout imperial Europe, where for peasants, “war was their poetry, the smallholding, extended and rounded off in imagination, was their fatherland, and patriotism was the ideal form of property” (Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire). While religion and military honour culturally predispose peasants to elite manipulation, however, Marx “firmly rejected the notion that cultural values provide a stronger set of motivations explaining peasant nationalism than their more specific, prudential interests…To espouse an ideology which strikes deep chords in tradition-bound peasant heart is not, (Marx) insisted, a sufficient condition for a successful appeal to the peasantry” (Benner 2018: 129).

Rather, the decisive “question was whether those who issued the (co-optative or coalitional) appeal promised to protect the peasant’s material and social interests. Marx argued that those interests did not necessarily dictate support for reactionary leaders and policies” (Benner 2018: 129). Hence the eventful Red-Green coalition in turn-of-the-20th century Sweden, as well as 1930s Minnesota, etc.

By pouring all Anglo-American policy into incentivizing working-class people to gamble on small businesses–typically a succession of marginal and failing businesses–as diametrically opposed to supporting decent working conditions, the ruling class has ensured the peasantification of the settler working class.

From there, the ruling class strategy– from Clear Channel to the SPA to Focus on the Family and the centralized organization of rural churches–has been to stroke peasantry culture while promising to protect the Anglo-American peasantry’s material and social interests– ensuring that the peasantified Anglo-American working classes support reactionary leaders and policies.

In that sense, Trump is continuity, he is but a part of a longstanding ruling class strategy. He is merely distinguished as a boss rentier at the rentier phase of global monopoly capitalism.

Despite Joe Biden and the Clintons’ avid, patronizing, and peasant-immiserating pursuit of the Arkansas Walmarts-and-for-profit-prison model, the professional political rentiers, particularly in the strategically urban-centric Democrat Party, were failing to co-opt the peasantry. The peasantry had, by policy design, spread beyond the low-population-density, tributary countryside to encompass the American working class, including suburbs and increasingly cities, and including smallholders. The Dems’ exhausted late -20th century Southern strategy (Meritocratic Neoliberalism) in the 21st century is a strategy for private political rentierism, not party success.

 

Bibliography

Benner, Erica. Really existing nationalisms. Verso. Pp. 128-129.

Marx, Karl. 1852. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte.

MMT as a tactic toward challenging rentier capitalism and its production of social and ecological crises

We are dominated by rentier capitalists, see here and here. That is why we are unable to pursue ecologically-rational and socially-rational policy changes. One tactic forwarded toward changing this rolling crisis is MMT . After all, given climate change is such a crisis that we’re being asked to to build nuclear plants and shoot people onto Mars, we should be able to tackle an extremely problematic social group we host, the rentier capitalists, coordinating capital and enforcing the accumulation-maximizing policy and institutions behind climate crisis.

People against MMT argue that capitalists create value or wealth, and states are totally epiphenomenal to that. They argue that if states–even the United States, the origin and capitalist-trusted protector of the global currency–ignore capital strike (the irrational diversions from managing liquidity for productive investment, including diverting  privatized wealth to rivalristic speculative claims on public wealth and future worker income; paying off a guard-dog layer cake of police, war, comms, and FIRE rentiers for their cooperation; hoarding; and so on) and strategically print money to fund socially- and environmentally-rational production, that will structurally cause inflation. These finance spokesgentlemen are arguing that financial rentiers are society’s only protection from price gouging–that is to say, workers demanding a larger share of society’s wealth, “forcing” global capitalists to fight “back” with price gouging (as well as asset-inflationary privatizations of public wealth).  Yes, that is a protection racket. But does the state today, particularly the American state, really have no capacity to modify financialized capitalism’s mafioso imposition?

Not only labor and appropriated ecological- and human-organized work provide the security underlying rents. Also states, particularly that old labor camp prison guard to the world, the United States, play a rather central role in often-forcibly securing the wealth and productive capacity that also is crucial to providing the underlying security for the capitalist class’ rivalristic claims on all that wealth. I think the anti-MMT arguments are a whole theoretical hodge-podge (A handful of class-technocratic warrior neoclassical economics! A dash of romantic structural Marxism! Who cares if the assumptions clash? We’re living in capitalism!) mess of marketeering junk on behalf of finance and against ecological and social change. But there are still important concerns to be worked out, and these involve high-stakes political strategy.

The main thing to recognize about inflation is, all capitalist theory aside, inflation is not necessarily structurally determined. Inflation is also a manipulable political tool for controlling states and territories through populations. In capitalism, capitalists have many degrees of strategic freedom. Highly-coordinated business has strategies besides capital strike. These financially-coordinated capitalist strategies include the capacity to raise prices–to induce inflation until the working class and any working-class accountable state institutions cry uncle and submit. Finance is the organizer of capitalists. We live in an era of financial penetration and domination.

Nixon’s corporate pricing board experiment, and capital’s subsequent refusal to cooperate, showed this to be the case. On the other hand, Nixon was unwilling to get back in there and use the state to bring capitalists back to heel because Nixon was an ideological inegalitarian and pro-capitalist. (And also, because capitalists and their police state are a mafia, Nixon was probably threatened with assassination, or even, like, job loss. JK! Kinda.)

MMT is structurally correct–state debt as a limit is a moral and political variable in the country producing and circulating the global currency.  Implementing policy based on MMT, particularly in a country of exorbitant privilege, could be feasible. But history has shown that the problem of implementing MMT -backed policy simply would be: Is there a way to disrupt or outmanoeuver finance’s capacity to coordinate capitalists to choke out MMT-fueled egalitarian and ecological reform, such as The Green New Deal?

This problem is all Kalecki: I am assuming that capitalists value above all (their ultimate use value is) control over the surplus and the conditions for the reproduction of exploitation and appropriation. So capitalists, particularly those who rely on the US for their wealth appropriation, have insufficient incentive to support pro-ecological and pro-social change. They would much rather wreck the Earth and shoot workers onto Mars, which would be a worse place for humans to live than Winnipeg. This Marxist assumption is borne out in the angry business comms reaction to MMT and the Green New Deal. Moreover, as the US protects global capitalist citizenship, not territorial citizenship, the US incentivizes and attracts the globe’s most antisocial capitalists–those who do not have to live with the social and environmental destruction their strategies create. By calling capital’s bluff, MMT exposes Americans’ conflict with the ultimate capitalist thugs (home-cultivated and beckoned), an over-fed, over-bred, over-cosseted, all-consuming moth blanket devouring the US and the globe…all for the glory of bigger yacht rivalry and owning New Zealand.

However, this is not the Nixon era. For example, today capitalists already compete with each other to capture the future income streams provided by running a mass consumption economy on credit (debt) rather than income, and that highly-coercive private financial appropriation of future popular wealth has already given us enormous asset inflation, as individual asset owners are relieved of current structural limits like income stagnation. What would it look like to have commodity inflation on top of a mountain of asset inflation at the investment- and currency-core of the global capitalist system? That sounds mighty disruptive to me–sure, terrible for the working class, who by structural definition don’t own enough to protect themselves in capitalism…but it also looks like global capital wouldn’t even be able to see the US as a reliable chain gang boss to send their investment capital to anymore.

Because society in the resource-rich US has been organized and disorganized for this very purpose, the US state has small interest in losing the exorbitant privilege status. But in terms of credible threat and degrees of freedom to pursue more developmental and repairing social and environmental policy, the US state could probably bargain a lot better with global capital if its conservative political rentier class were increasingly sidelined. There probably is no ready substitute for the US as the capitalist stronghold. Starting with an imperial Presidency and antidemocratic judiciary, slavery, the Federalist framework and inter-state rivalry, the US worked long and hard to form itself into a giant, once-gilded, increasingly bare-life, militarized working-class prison. (The very structure that permits exceptional, meritorious metropole cosmopolitan sapeurs to efficiently abject and write off “ruined” hinterlands US life, enjoying their exceptional imperial space, instead of organizing for development.)

At this historical juncture, is any state in a position to take over and maintain global capitalists’ currency, to guard the globe’s privatized wealth? Is the City of London, with the (post-Brexit) UK state (not the EU) behind it, ready to step in? It’s a buttress and prod to Wall Street, but if the UK could run the global economy, they would. Now they’re mostly just a financial city-state. Is Brussels, with a European population that has long fought slavery on its shores and is heavily invested in ecological modernization? When Europe, particularly France, manoeuvered toward dropping the gold-backed dollar in the Nixon era, it wasn’t only because the US’s war against the Koreans was paid for with printed money, it was also because the European population did not support the Korean War as a reason to print money.  The incomplete mobilization toward dumping the US dollar required class coalition in Europe. Is China ready to take over the global interior-exterior capitalist gendarme role from the US? It’s still trying to build markets with social credit experiments.

There might be leverage here. Could the US state have any capacity to bargain harder and better with global capital at this historical point? Could this current historical constellation present US-global working class leverage, including through the Justice Democrats, as a contributor to a multi-tiered, internationalist, democratic strategy to distribute wealth for human development and ecological repair? We have less to lose than we have long imagined. Not only are we fast ecologically imploding, not only is wealth being rapidly extracted from the US hinterlands, but now we know, thanks to Piketty et al’s historical research, that capitalism will never be able to fulfill wealth distribution promises, always requires crippling and stunting inequality, and always requires “corrective” war anyway.

We have a lot to gain. What sorts of solidarity organization is needed to support strategy? To strategically soften the impact of belligerent capitalist strike strategies, including inflation and capital withdrawal, could the global working class build solidarity networks past the monstrous US policing system, to help US workers survive a potential, disciplinary inflationary blow-out, to win a class battle against global capitalists from the US, and correct socially- and environmentally-irrational capitalism?

 

A New International?

Because rents of global exploitation and appropriation have trickled down to US workers, it’s been easiest for global workers to say “Fuck that” to solidarity with US workers. On the US side, the working class is too immigration policy-selected, and police- and comms-disorganized to signal willingness to fight and sacrifice for the advancement of socio-economic and ecological rationality. The US has long perfected co-opting and constraining workers to conservatism with policing and military jobs, defanged and dwindling business-subordinated unions like the AFL-CIO, extending public subsidies that workers tap into to cycle through ratty small business ownership, and selling conservative morality narratives suggesting that White and ethnic exploitation and patronage networks are sufficient to weather capitalism.

But strategically, in terms of global internationalist strategy, US worker-consumers occupy a key economic niche, supplying the underlying value to global capitalists’ rents; and US workers have been suffering in that position for a while. Political science data (including Gilens & Page) say that everyday Americans are not as reality-resistant, not as conservative as they’re drawn.

We need organization.

We could also use research: What constellations of conditions, can we observe, reduce finance’s capacity to coordinate capitalists to choke society into submission to their antisocial projects of self-aggrandisement, ceaseless imperial war and social disruption, and ecological annihilation?

We know that a combination of massive-scale capital-destructive war and communist organization is one set of conditions (per Piketty 2014). Are there any others?

Tactical Components for Dismantling Rentier Capitalism’s Chokehold, Addressing Social, Economic and Ecological Problems in the 21st Century

  • Socialists in the state
    • MMT or credible MMT threat
    • UBI & UBS
    • Cooperative capacity building policy and institutions
    • Diverting funding from carceral state to social citizenship supports
  • Working Class Organization
  • Worker Internationalism
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Enabling Conditions for the Effectiveness of the Tactical Components

  • War
  • Socialism
    • Socialist Ideas
    • Socialist Organization
    • Socialists in the US state
  • Lack of state capacity to host global currency and enthrall workers
    • Brexit and City of London-UK decapacitation
    • Chinese consumption capacity not fully developed
    • European workers disinclined to/ too capacitated to tolerate servitude
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Challenges that Reproduce Rentier Capitalism, Social Crises, Ecological Crises

  • US working class co-optation
    • US police/military state
      • US working class disorganization
    • Longtime capitalist-subsidiary unions, such as the AFL-CIO
    • Public subsidization of irrational junk businesses
    • Meritocracy ideology and managerialist incentives
  • Global capitalist organization via finance
    • Capital strike tactical capacity
    • Inflation-inducing tactical capacity
      • working class disorganization and co-optation
      • state decapacitation and subordination
    • Asset-inflation
      • working class disorganization
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The carceral core

the carceral state 21st c

From Bauman, Valerie. 2018. “Incarceration vs. education: America spends more on its prison system than it does on public schools,” The Daily Mail, 25 October.