Revolutions of 1848

Excerpts from

Clark, Christopher. 2019. “Why should we think about the Revolutions of 1848 now?” London Review of Books 7 March.

Conceptualizing Revolutionary Change in Space & Time

Clark depicts the Revolutions of 1848 as having “sparked” an exceptional, spatial “transcontinental cascade.”

Rather than contrasting revolutionary moments, we can regard the 1848 Revolutions as part of a slow-release cascade over time, an “Extended European Revolution” that also included the French Revolution of 1789, the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, the July Revolution of 1830, the Paris Commune of 1870, and the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

Yet perhaps under liberal constraint and from a military strategy point of view, revolution has been largely understood not as a complex, non-linear, punctuated process over both space and time, but as the exceptional event. Impressively-social, shared emotion, democratic confidence, has been thought to restructure perception and in so doing diffuse sovereign agency, an unpredictable emotional spasm coordinating signalling and so action. The event, this social-emotional Mayfly moment across space (but not time) that perceptibly, if ephemerally, overmasters elite hierarchy, becomes fetishized in 20th century imperial Western social philosophy as the limit–the romantic simultaneous birth and death– of democratic change. 

“For politically sentient Europeans, 1848 was an all-encompassing moment of shared experience. It turned everyone into contemporaries.” The simultaneous 1848 Revolutions was a shared affective experience, a “euphoria of unanimity.”

Opposed to understanding revolution as a complex, punctuated, non-linear process over time, an Animal Spirits-type explanation for revolution has ancillary functions. It permits liberals and conservatives to tendentiously frame revolution as an exceptionally, unjustly violent eruption, doomed to failure. The explanation further permits conservatives and liberals to maintain a view of the “mob” as a sub-rational species to be managed, making democracy impossible or restricting it to parliamentary process, as Clark observes liberals prefer.

Our conceptualization of revolution has been twice-adulterated by the interests cohering hierarchical social orders.

Further fragmenting and misrepresenting revolution, the shared trans-regional event of the 1848 Revolutions was rewritten ex post facto as isolated, exceptional national events.

“These revolutions were experienced as European upheavals – the evidence for this is superabundant – but, as Axel Körner pointed out, they were nationalised in retrospect.”

Revolutionary organization innovations

Coalitional assembly reformations

“The Revolutions of 1848 were revolutions of assemblies: the Constituent Assembly in Paris, which made way for the single-chamber legislature known as the National Assembly; the Prussian Constituent Assembly or Nationalversammlung in Berlin, elected under new laws created for the purpose; the Frankfurt Parliament, convoked in the elegant circular chamber of St Paul’s Church in the city of Frankfurt. The Hungarian Diet was a very old body, but in 1848 a new national Diet was convened in the city of Pest. When the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I dissolved the Diet by decree, a new Hungarian national assembly met in the Protestant Great Church of Debrecen. The revolutionary insurgents of Naples, Piedmont-Sardinia, Tuscany and the Papal States all established new parliamentary bodies. The revolutionaries of Sicily, seeking to break away from the rule of Naples, founded their own Sicilian parliament, which in April 1848 deposed the Bourbon king in Naples, Ferdinando II.”

Organization innovations introduced by revolutionaries, but reviled by liberals

1848 Revolutions were a fluorescence of both polity and social movement innovation, representing both the included bourgeois citizenry and the working class excluded by absolute private property right. “But the assemblies were merely one theatre of action. By the summer of 1848, they were coming under pressure, not just from the monarchical executives in many states, but also from a range of more radical groups: networks of clubs and ‘committees’, for example, or radical counter-assemblies such as the General Crafts and Manufacturing Congress founded in Frankfurt in July 1848 to speak for workers in the skilled trades whose interests were not represented in the liberal and middle-class-dominated National Assembly. This body in turn split after five days into two separate congresses, because it proved impossible to bridge the divide between masters and journeymen.”

“Liberals revered parliaments and looked with disgust on the clubs and assemblies of the radicals which seemed to them to parody the sublime procedural culture of properly elected and constituted chambers. Even more alarming, from the perspective of ‘chamber liberals’, were organised demonstrations intended to intervene directly in the affairs of parliaments. In Paris on 15 May 1848 a crowd broke into the lightly guarded chamber of the National Assembly, disrupted the proceedings, read out a petition and then marched off to the Hôtel de Ville to proclaim an ‘insurrectionary government’ to be headed by noted radicals.”

“The tension between parliamentary and other forms of representation – between representative and direct forms of democracy – is another feature of 1848 that resonates with today’s political scene, in which parliaments have fallen in public esteem and a diverse array of competing non- or extra-parliamentary groups has come into being, using social media and organising around issues that may not command the attention of professional politicians.”

Revolution promulgates a cascade of non-linear transformations

Within 1848, the spring “euphoria of unanimity” degraded into summertime “violent clashes between liberal (or in France republican) leaders and radical crowds on the streets of the larger cities in Prussia and France,” and by fall the conservative reaction was ascendant. “In September, October and November, counter-revolution unfolded in Berlin, Prague, the Kingdom of Naples and Vienna. Parliaments were shut down, troops returned en masse to the streets, insurgents were arrested and sentenced.”

A radical revolt redoubled its efforts before they were crushed by conservative-commanded European militaries in the summer of 1849: “a second phase, radical revolt dominated by democrats and socialists of various kinds broke out in the southern German states (especially Baden and Württemberg), in western and southern France, and in Rome, where the radicals, after the flight of the pope on 24 November, eventually declared a republic.”

“In the south of Germany, this second-wave upheaval was only extinguished in the summer of 1849, when Prussian troops captured the fortress of Rastatt in Baden, the last stronghold of the radical insurgency. Shortly afterwards, in August 1849, French troops crushed the Roman republic and restored the papacy, much to the chagrin of those who had once revered France as the patron of revolution. At about the same time, the bitter war over the future of the Kingdom of Hungary was brought to an end, as Austrian and Russian troops occupied the country.”

Legacy: Strategizing how to counter the international/global power of elites’ military-force infrastructure

While revolutionary organizers strove to build internationalist networks, conservative elites own the military infrastructure that has allowed elites to successfully, and violently, operate across boundaries.The radicals and liberals were impressively successful in creating transnational networks, but these networks were horizontal: they lacked the vertical structures and resources required to wield decisive force. The counter-revolution, by contrast, drew on the combined resources of armies whose loyalty to the traditional powers had never been seriously in question.” “The Prussians intervened against the revolution in Baden and Württemberg. The French intervened in the Papal States against the Roman republic. The Russians intervened in Hungary.”

Clark argues that this collective experience of the international military might of hierarchical conservatism was also profoundly influential on the development of Western ideas. While revolution was reduced to senseless, brutal failure–or at best, beautiful but doomed, youthful, romantic folly–and dismissed in the minds of most conservatives and liberals, others put much thought to how democratic progress could advance in the face of conservatism’s military command efficiency–how networks could beat hierarchies. “You find this (latter) quest in Marx and Engels (especially Engels), in Ludwig von Rochau’s Grundsätze der Realpolitik (1853), in the Saint-Simonian technocracy that infiltrated administrative practice in France after 1848, and in the primacy of ‘blood and iron’ so memorably articulated by Bismarck.”

Yet the revolutions prompted a vast transformation in ideas, and in political and especially administrative practice across Europe. 

Legacy: Administrative practice shifts

Saint-Simonian technocracy… infiltrated administrative practice in France after 1848.”

In Social Structures of the Economy (2005) and Manet (2019), Bourdieu showed how Saint-Simonian French administrative practice provides ample space for elites to legitimately commandeer the state, deftly avoiding Weber’s  dreaded “Iron Cage” of rationality. First elites’ sons are washed through elite universities, where they learn to master articulating elite interests in an abstract, neutral register–either technocratic or philosophical. Then, starting immediately upon graduation, they are imported into state-supported leadership positions within bureaucracies, academies, and the public sphere. They don’t follow bureaucratic career steps to influence. The state bureaucracies and institutions are subordinated to politically-organized French capital.

Legacy: A 3-way division of political vision and prescription

Ideas forwarded by the 1848 revolutions include the necessity of social rights to secure or counterbalance the economic and political liberty of elites, such as are protected by states–law and militaries. Leading up to the 1848 Revolutions, in the 1840s Europeans realized that full-time (overtime) labor in exploitative and extractive capitalism would far too often result in pauperization, while the rich enjoyed the elite liberty of unbounded accumulation and political power.

This 1840s recognition promoted a distinct political tri-furcation: Conservatives argue that socio-economic inequality is divine and natural, a good thing; liberals demur that socio-economic inequality is negative, but they argue that socio-economic inequality is a symptom of illegitimate state interventions undercutting natural market equilibrium; socialists argue that socio-economic inequality is the result of elite interest maximization prioritized by capitalism, as that unbalanced, unchecked elite interest maximization destroys life, and stunts and militarizes polity, institutional, and disposition development.

What is to be done about socio-economic inequality? 

For conservatives, divine social inequality provides an opportunity for elites to express their monopoly on human virtue via absolute, exclusive Herrenvolk liberty, including discretionary, ad hoc forays into chivalrous charity.

For liberals, illegitimate social inequality provides a theoretical pretense for reorienting states to support further wealth accumulation, deregulating markets and liberating capitalists from social and ecological responsibilities.

Socialists strategize how egalitarian ideas and network organization can effectively contend with international, militarized conservative and liberal opposition, to permit democratic development.

Legacy: Revolutions constrain and channel elites’ discourse and tactical degrees of freedom

Yet aspects of the democratic ideas persisted through the counterrevolution, channeling inegalitarians’ behaviour, their degrees of freedom. “Counter-revolutionaries were as often as not – in their own eyes – the executors, rather than the gravediggers, of the revolution.” For example, “Louis Napoleon, who became president of France at the end of 1848 before making himself emperor in 1852, did not depict himself as the crusher of revolution, but as the restorer of order.” Against the far more laissez-faire liberal and conservative prescriptions, Napoleon “spoke of the need not to block, but to channel the forces unleashed by the revolution, to establish the state as the vanguard of material progress.”

Revolutions are also driven by anti-revolutionary, imperial socio-spatial management

Clark explains the global quality of the European Revolutions of 1848 with reference to how British ruling elites, managing the spatial distribution of disruption, dispersed protest to British Empire tributaries.

“The news of revolution in Paris had a profound impact on the French Caribbean and the measures adopted by London to avoid revolution on the British mainland triggered protests and uprisings across the imperial periphery as the historian Miles Taylor has shown. The transportation en masse of potential trouble-makers from England and Ireland triggered protests in Australia and the Cape Colony. To keep sugar cheap the British government abandoned the system of tariff walls known as ‘imperial preference’, exposing colonial planters in Jamaica and British Guyana to competition from outside the British Empire and giving rise to protests, riots and political paralysis. In Ceylon, the introduction of new taxes to cut costs without burdening British middle-class taxpayers triggered the emergence of a protest movement that soon encompassed around sixty thousand men.”

An empire, as a militarized hierarchy, controls the spatial distribution of disruption in order to contain revolution. After 1776, Atlantic elites successfully contained revolution in the Anglo-American empire, including both the Commonwealth countries and the US. London’s role–managing disruption spatially–in maintaining capitalist stability in the face of the Extended European Revolution, has over time resulted in a consumption-stimulating Anglo-American domestic class settlement. This successful system of imperial redirection, on behalf of capitalist metropole stabilization, is what has earned London and New York their status as secure depositories for global wealth in the capitalist-extractivist-slavery era. 

However, the Extended European Revolution shows that in prioritizing the accumulation of power over the development of life, the imperial disruption shell game contributes a procession of social and mounting environmental destabilization globally over time.

Legacy: Revolutions embed revolutionaries within some states, channeling institutional and policy development

Revolutionaries became embedded in the militarily-imposed state, constraining its conservative capacities. “More than a third of the préfets of post-1848 Bonapartist France were former radicals; so was the Austrian minister of the interior from July 1849, Alexander von Bach, whose name had once stood on the lists of suspect liberals kept by the Vienna police department.”

Revolution promoting the integration of some revolutionaries into European states has not overcome militarized, inegalitarian capitalism. But it has forged a more socially- and environmentally-rational, more-democratic Continental Europe, despite European elites’ command of international military force.

This is a fundamental distinction between Continental Europe and UK class compromises. In that sense, I am not really surprised about Brexit.


Aziz Rana’s Internationalist Platform

Aziz Rana’s (2019) policy-development prescription (somewhat reformulated by me) for Justice Dems and labor organizers, as a polity-challenger coalition:

1) Labor organizing, building networks capacitating internationalist immigrant organizing leadership.

Problem: “The overwhelming tendency–and not just on the Right–is to present immigration as an issue that begins at the national border, with virtually no attention paid to the particular histories, international economic pressures, and specific US foreign policy practices that generate migration patterns” (Rana 2019).

2) Democratic budgeting exercises reworking the security state budget, to demonstrate popular capacity to democratize foreign policy, and to reintegrate foreign and domestic policy beyond the shallow, corporate-military “America First” working-class appeasement campaign.
3) Policy ideas for transitioning the US from overgrown military keynesianism on behalf of global capitalists to a wealth-circulating, democratic-tech developing, social reproductive economy appropriate to an “overdeveloped” (rentier capitalist) economy.
4) Develop trade policy with constraints on transnational property rights, linked to the domestic economy via enforced labor and environmental standards throughout supply chains, as well as policing redirected toward repatriating (sharing across production-impacted countries) excess profits and other private accumulation stockpiles.
I would add:

5) Organizing needs to address the great portions of the American working class materially and symbolically co-opted by the capitalist security state, particularly guard labor and owners of marginal businesses. These are the American working class, herded by right wing orgs and socially- subsidized into supporting global, militarized rents extractivism at the astronomical cost of global, social and environmental destabilization. Besides designing and investing in a democratic social reproductive economy to reincentivize this working class population, how can as many as possible of these co-opted working-class Americans be reorganized into supporting a transition to democracy, demilitarization, and a social reproductive economy? David Graeber’s lesson in “Army of Altruists” (2007) can be a starting point in organizing strategy: People want to work together for a great purpose.

6) Required: an assessment of policing and military capacity to tolerate v. oppose advancement to a democratic economy and polity in the US. Assessment needs to include an inventory of tools of suppression at police and military disposal.

7) Required: an assessment of the implications of US demilitarization and democratization on international investors, private and state, and their capacity to tolerate v. oppose, including an inventory of tools of suppression at their disposal.

8) Required: an assessment of antidemocratic imperial state partners’ capacity to tolerate v. oppose US demilitarization and democratization, including an inventory of tools of suppression at their disposal.

9) Note that the fight for social democracy in Sweden required that political organizers concentrate on building unions and a union confederation across the country for three decades before launching into the polity with a political party.

This planning sketch recognizes that much of finance-organized capital, as well as the conservative-Catholic US judiciary, and most of the polity are organized against democratic development. As well, it also recognizes historical structural shifts, including those identified by Rana, that can enable organizing toward stymied social, economic, and political democratic emancipation.

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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Fight Over Freedoms (excerpt)

The post-WWII Anglosphere, to which so many migrated, was full of the notion that whatever redistribution was going on after all that sturm und drang, it must mean an increase in unfreedom, servitude.

We cherish that criticism. Some of those Austrian Empire diaspora thinkers’ ideas were the product of conservative resolve, cast in the cauldron of European class conflict. Others, including Frankfurt School exponents, were moving out of a Marxist background. As Polanyi pointed out in “On Freedom,” “Marx saw still something more, and this constitutes his historic greatness. He understood that capitalist society is not just unjust but also un-free.”
Counter to Marx’s perception of unfreedom in capitalism, the shared conservative conceptualization of freedom arrived again on Anglo-American shores and integrated into the 20th century heart of capitalism, reinforcing slavers’ institutions and culture. Conservatism has always argued that true freedom is absolute sovereignty, based on exceptional masters wrestling for dominance atop a society of bent and broken slaves. The democratic Enlightenment exponents, by stark contrast, pursued materialist philosophy’s ancient insistence that freedom is egaliberte, requiring strong education and other associational institutions socializing citizens –including newcomers, both youth and immigrants–into exchanging ideas, information, and grievances for democratic development.


Democratic Enlightenment exponents argued that it would be possible to build egaliberte, as an inclusive, developmental human freedom distinct from both conservative Herrenvolk freedom and the transitory revolutionary moment of universal absolute sovereignty. But the undertaking would always suffer heavy opposition. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) rightly worried that in the context of the complex society, the democratic alternative to the imperial Hobbesian protection racket would not work if collective action capacity were distributed unevenly, as it is systematically in capitalism, nor if external organizations—such as contemporary trade agreements–could eviscerate the legally-institutionalized decisions arrived at through the democratic General Will.  Adam Smith (1776) recognized that capitalism and capitalists’ states would always excessively organize capitalists’ collective action capacity, and disorganize workers, requiring a welfare state ballast to maintain productive capitalism. Charles Fourier (1808) argued that societies need to replace private property law with law recognizing capitalists as conditional trustees of the social wealth, while Friedrich Hegel (1820) dared to argue briefly for the Right of the Starving Man as a state-protected corrective to private property right in an already-owned world. In the late 19th century, Marx and Engels launched from Hegel, philosophical materialism, and Smith to analyze how capitalism’s hysterical, incomplete recognition of working classes’ human capacities and contributions leads to characteristic economic-incentive breakdown, capitalist crises; they further analyzed how capitalist collective action capacity redirected and extended those crises.  Viriginia Woolf’s private, clandestine, “anonymous and secret Society of Outsiders” formulation (1938) of what egaliberte could look like proposed a cleft habitus of entitlement and feminized dehumanization. Social reproduction feminists, starting with Alexandra Kollontai (1915), pushed states to increasingly protect “social” citizenship rights to balance private property right and might, in an attempt to distribute sovereign agency and supervene the probationary status capitalism had tentatively allowed workers.

Today the post-WWII conservative hybrid reformulation of the egaliberte approach still resonates when we reify revolution, as if wildfire mass organization were pure and final and tending toward freedom, and when we deny all the ways–including their constraints and limitations–that people in different times and places have organized and fought to not just capture but broaden the distribution of recognition, wealth and power, though their victories could be swamped and redirected, more or less aborted.

Revolution is precious and necessary, no doubt. Not just as youthful consumers, we yearn for successful wildfire re-organization, for the overdue break with unfree delegated agency, and for the universal, decisionist assumption of sovereign agency that we assume can, in superhuman speed, break the bulwarks of inegalitarian surveillance, policing, comms, and institutionalized and network-secured compliance incentives. Such revolutions spread the contagion of hope, as Kant observed and Nietzsche condemned. In his 1798 Conflict of the Faculties, Kant argued that the virtue of revolution lies in inducing global recognition that we are all human, and that sovereign agency can be shared. Yet for all the blinding light they emit—universal decisionism!, revolutions do not solve our inherited anxiety over the distribution of sovereignty, nor elite entitlement to exclusive sovereignty and absolute power. Neither can mass killing.  As with Kurtz in the Congo, we carry those problems with us conceptually and emotionally.

Our inherited aestheticization and attachment to the divine moment of absolute decisionism—whether universal as in revolution, or, as in conservatism, sociologically rare and exclusive, has too often convinced us to discount and dismiss the conceptual and materialized footholds, not just the identified traps, aborted egaliberte organization has built. Our societies have started to construct, but we have not usually prioritized or sustained, the institutions and associations required for democratic development. We haven’t been able to. As conservative-liberal thinkers back to Hobbes and Burke have recognized, capitalism, with its vacillating, degenerating recognition of the contribution of labor, is a property structure of elite hyper-capacitation and vast delegated agency, a Shock and Awe organizational machine for dominating and replicating a Hobbesian world.  It proliferates the antithesis of human development.

So revolution and mass killing have not yet proven effective means of durably overcoming elite entitlement and reinforced collective action capacity. Revolution is but a countervailing shocking moment of universal decisionism & sovereign agency. As much as revolution–breaking out of mass delegated agency—has a moderating function and is overdue, the even tougher social change question will continue to be the democratic Enlightenment one: How do people organize away from our habituated conceptualization of freedom as exclusive sovereign agency and decisionism, toward a broadly-distributed sovereign agency and capacity to exchange ideas, information, grievances, and upon that basis rebuild toward universal human development in ecological context?

Our contribution to knowledge of what happened to class, institutions, and politics in the US, from the exceptional era of social liberalism to neoliberalization, the conservative-liberal restoration, will be undergirded by our analysis of the contentious politics of freedom across social fields. Which kind of unfreedom are Americans haunted by, the conservative or the democratic? Is their vision of this unfreedom based on conservative or democratic assumptions, including conservative or democratic distributions of misanthropy and anthrophilia? What role do the knowledge techniques of democratic scientific knowledge v. elitist scientism and decisionist logical abstraction have to play in supporting Americans’ impactful moral economy of freedom?

6 pivotal class collective action moments in the US, second half of the Twentieth Century

…that led to the complete evisceration of the US working class’ capacity to contribute political leadership,[1] and thus stripped the US of capacity for public good, and stripped the nation from the state. This dismantling of US social and state capacity resulted in the triumph of charismatic-front direct capitalist rule in the US.

1)    No political party organized labour, or built working class collective action capacity across the US

By contrast, the Social Democratic Party (SAP) in Sweden methodically propelled itself to political hegemony by first and foremost working to build unions and a labour movement in Sweden.[1]

In 1930s Minnesota, the Farmer-Labour party had similarly worked with organized and state management radicals to build worker collective action capacity, including with anti-racism programs, and power resources; but on altruistic behalf of anti-fascist solidarity, the national Democratic Party took over and dismantled the Farmer-Laborers in WWII.[2]

While this strategy eventually provided Humphrey, Mondale and Freeman the political force to oust the controlling Southern slaver Democrats from the Democrat Party–to the benefit of the Republicans, and so permitted liberals to use the Democrat Party to help leftists reduce some of the apartheid features of US society at the tail end of the financial regulation era, the victory was pyrrhic. The deregulation of finance was soon to undercut desegregation by restoring inegalitarianism and Herrenvolk democracy, inequality and economic scarcity, and labor import substitution.

Why is this pivotal? Where the Swedish Social Democrats built working class cohesion and collective capacity, and a strategic radical organized edge to “moderate,” state repression of communists shut down the working class’ capacity to organize, institutionalize, and coordinate external-internal (social movement-polity organization) strategy, preventing labor autonomy, cohesion & collective action capacity, and power resources development in the US.

In comparison, in Canada, during WWII when the Atlantic ruling class required labor cooperation but Canada did not have strong policing capacity, the state prioritized targeting and imprisoning (especially labor-organizing) communists, while developing legislation to channel wildcat strike labor eruptions under liberal, labor-policing professional, bureaucratic unions.

Because policy tends to be shared and it is well known that significant resources were devoted to repressing communists in the Atlantic ruling class’ nation-states, evidence from Canada supports Kolin’s (2017) historical research conclusion, suggesting that under historical conditions more favorable to the establishment of labor power resources, the US shared and pursued the communist repression priority as the keystone in the Atlantic ruling class’ broader labor-repression strategy. Without communist organizers, the American working class could not build an effective inside-outside strategy capable of supporting labor political capacity to advance the public good.

Against the capitalist hegemony that only states and labor cause economic decline, no ideas. laws,[3] policies, or institutions capable of moderating and directing capital for the public good, capable of countering both regional and international capitalist strategy, could sustainably develop in the US.

2)    Instead, professionalized policing targets, represses labor collective action capacity in the US

In addition to the communist repression priority as the keystone in its broader labor-repression strategy, the US and its capitalist class had built up and continued to amass strong public and private policing capacity with which to repress labor and prevent the development of working-class power resources. The US was able to further minimize class compromise, minimizing the development of robust labor rights law and labor-policing unions. The combination of exclusive union representation, mandatory agency fees, no-strike clauses, and “Management Rights” TM were until 2018 the foundation of (the peculiar and now dismissed) American labor laws.

Bereft of an organized radical edge, professional organized labour, as structured by Anglo-American law, mainly served to police its own members, forbidding and punishing collective action and strikes.

In the latter 20th century, after the global capitalist mid-century demonstration of finance’s power (coordinating capital and enforcing inflation until US politicians submitted), Democrats as well as Republicans devoted their efforts to policing and cutting down vestigal unions and labour cohesion and communication capacity.[4]

Why is this pivotal? Deeply-crippled working classes made the US (and UK) a beacon for global capitalist investment support, the basis of the “Trickle Down” claim that exclusive elite liberty and rule can contribute to the larger “club society” (Therborn 2017) economic welfare.

Obviously, while the US (and UK) rose to global prominence on the backs of slavery, colonial genocide, and other forms of terror visited upon working class peoples, there is a profound, venerable debate over the value of Herrenvolk democracy (Losurdo 2011) as it broadly cripples human development while attracting resources distributed to reinforce economic, political and social inequality and ecological entropy (Climate crisis). At best, Herrenvolk democracy broadly fosters lotto-mentality dispositions that occasionally throw up anti-social, risk-affine fresh recruits to the benefit of ruling class reproduction, and, in the conservatized-liberal Hobbesian spirit, it manufactures exclusive, strong militarized state capacity, and in that sense, a protection racket worthy of Great Apes.

3)    Anti-communist campaigns left a flaccid, rudderless, unsustainable liberalism[5]

Why is this pivotal? The US was incapable of sustainably governing global economy as a democratic country because (see Geoff Mann, 2017, In the long run we are all dead) liberal leadership only fleetingly, unseriously entertained the notion that capitalists need moderation, which requires strategic labor capacity and power resources. Communists would have been needed to maintain such a counter-hegemonic vision, to coordinate a robust, complex labor organization structure including both multiple levels of institutionalized, multi-dimensional power resources (in unions, union federations, and the state) and agile disruption capacity.

While it arose with a spectacular democratic revolution, the US collapsed into a frail, senile liberalism requiring extensive conservative buttressing and a humiliating return to slavery ideology and institutions, which the media, the police institutions, the carceral institutions, the militaries, elite US academia, and the US judiciary and its conservative constitutional law supply to the global Nightwatchman state that has replaced the nation-state.

4)    1955-1963 the UK deregulated financial speculation, enabling currency speculation on the dollar.[6] The US state did not shut the deregulation down.

The UK deregulates finance, breaks US state-US capitalist alignment

Why is this pivotal? Because the US’s global job, per Bretton Woods & the Marshall Plan, was to direct capital into productive activities, economic growth. This required, inter alia, repressing global finance’s capacity to coordinate and direct capital. In this, Keynesian economic theory tentatively broke with the conservative economics tradition. Keynesianism in its boldest hour assumed distinctively that not just states, and not just labour, but capital can cause economic problems and crisis, especially since (per Smith 1776) it is capable of exclusionary, excessive cohesion capacity and power concentration.[7]

All the other countries stuck with the plan. But Keynesians were elitists; ultimately, their fear and loathing of the working class crushed their innovative but wavering resolve to moderate capitalist power (Mann 2017). When the UK subverted financial regulation from 1955-63, partly in order to maintain global financial power in London, it cut the US state’s alignment with US capital, and ended the US state’s capacity to manage capital at all.

While the US had supported the UK’s financial deregulation as a way of removing war expenditure pressure on the dollar, US capital was immediately organized into an inflation crisis campaign targeting the US’s inflation-vulnerable “strength” at the center of global capitalism: The dollar as the currency of exchange, and the US’s assumption of repressive imperial warfare.

Although ceteris paribus, cheapening money can reduce money lending returns in favor of borrowers, ceteris was not paribus. After decades of state regulation of finance, state deregulation of finance allowed finance to gain the global system-regulating upperhand as the quantity of global money flowed into the banks, offsetting the decline of individual units of money, concentrating and coordinating capital.

Sponsored conservative economists were loosed to develop policy intervention models again based on the Atlantic ruling class (Van Der Pijl 2012) belief that only states and labor hurt the economy (Blyth 2002). A fearful, chastened liberalism shrivelled and crawled back into the womb of conservatism.

5) In the early 1970s, after Nixon’s corporatist pricing board demonstrated that capital could stabilize prices, capitalists, coordinated by finance, refused to do it voluntarily.[8]

Boss Battle: You’ll have your inflation & you’ll eat it too

Despite emerging from and influenced by an era of state semi-autonomy, Nixon was an ideological pro-capitalist. He shrugged. Why is this pivotal? US capitalists collectively jacked up commodity prices as Saudi Arabia (Britain’s long time satellite.) led OPEC to jack up oil prices, creating a heightened inflation crisis and hysteria throughout the US. With the help of conservative economists, capitalists maintained that this inflation was the sole fault of the US state and American labour, meaning that American labour would have to be completely repressed and the US state–the state’s institutionalizing, coordinating, legal and police coercion, and resource distribution capacity–would have to be completely captured by capitalists.[9]

Liberalism and its Rule of Law ideal (“Judicial Activism,” it was then-derided by conservative jurists and comms pros) were left desanguinated corpses in the US, though the state’s institutions were still embedded with and surrounded by armies of liberal lawyers and bureaucrats. The next steps would be the conservatization of those managerial forces, the denunionization and the demeaning of the US working class, and the import substitution of a new, un-enfranchised labor force.

6) From Nixon on, US state efforts to use policy and institution building to mediate capitalist interests with societal interests (OSHA, the EPA, a Fed independent of Wall Street, state responsibility for directing new economic sector development, etc.) were killed or occupied directly by unfriendly capitalists.

Charismatic Reagan was propelled into the front of the Executive to host the Republican restoration of direct capitalist rule over US institutions.

The Dem Party’s only response, from the liberal repertoire, was to sell itself as a “Credible” organization that could more conveniently (than direct rule with charismatic fronts) be delegated the management of capitalist interests.[10] From the conservative (Public Choice) repertoire, the Dems could extract rents for this convenience service and the reassuring, resonant professionalism they performed for international audiences in capitalist countries with semi-independent professional states and remnant liberal institutions. But the neoliberal Dems’ convenient, performative professionalism has offered no value-added for working class Americans–on the contrary, even contributing and managing policies to disorganize and police the American working class, and usually, precious little value-added for regional and global capitalists.

Why is this pivotal? Blanket-policed by their employers, professional unions, political parties, and the police, American labour rapidly realized that they had no collective action capacity and no institutional power, not even in the state. Further, culturally, intellectually, labour would only be conceptualized as an economic problem to be targeted.[11] Without any labour power resources in the US, US and global capitalists were liberated to absolutely, directly run the country (with the currency and the military) at the center of global capitalism.

If not permitted the full range of human collective capacity, American smallholders and working class people were allowed to work ethnic, racial, religious, and gender identity networks. They could align with the Credible Delegates Party or they could align with the Charismatic Direct Capitalist Rule Party. As time, repression, and inequality marched on, it became evident that it didn’t matter. Working class Americans and smallholders would get nothing—padded with crippling law and policing, economic disruption, precarious exploitation, debt, criminalization, incarceration, disenfranchisement, pollution, alienation, racialization, sexual assault, shame, and contempt.

Charismatic Direct Capitalist Rule in the US

Trump, as a charismatic capitalist ruler, offers a wink, a little reality teevee strum und drang, a little business shock ‘n’ awe, a little commedia dell’arte to symbolically lighten the inescapable burdens carried by hundreds of millions of Americans, workers and their guards, managers, and owners. Along with powerless labour, they still have guarding, policing, and incarceration economic opportunities, military national socialism, access to beautiful public lands, lovely climates, remnant infrastructure, and more, slightly higher- quality commodity goods than much of the world. It could be worse…

[1] Blyth 2002, Chapter 4. From Blyth, Mark. 2002. Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge.

[2] Delton, Jennifer. Making Minnesota Liberal.

[3] Glasbeek 2017.

[4] Murakawa 2015, etc.

[5] Kolin, Andrew. 2017. Political economy of labour repression in the United States. Lexington Books.

[6] Schenk, Catherine R. 1998. “The Origins of the Eurodollar Market in London: 1955-1963.” Explorations in Economic History 35: 221-238.

[7] Per Smith 1776.

[8] Blyth 2002: 135-6

[9] Blyth 2002, Ch. 5.

[10] Blyth 2002, Ch. 6.

[11] Blyth 2002.

[1] As observed in Gilens & Page 2014.

Olaf Palme, 1964, on theory’s role in political and social change

“Politics, comrades, it is to want something. Social Democratic politics, it is to want to change because change provides promises of improvement, nourishes the imagination and energy, stimulates dreams and vision.

But naturally will must have a focus and a change must have a goal. We socialists are presumptuous enough to want something because the idea is the driving force of will, and we are bold enough to want change because change may make utopias into reality.

This is fundamental. Often we encounter the claim that ideologies are dead, that their capacity to pierce reality has decayed in withered phrases that could possibly be used to distort the perception of people, but that have lost their ability to innovate, initiate and stimulate. People rail against ideological superstition with a frenzy that would have blown Don Quixote’s mind and made his windmills leak.

To a certain extent, one can go along with this. The grandiose imaginations of the 1800s, their efforts to find a unified formula for explanation and a solution for all social problems have been corrected by an inexorable reality. Yet we are all strongly influenced by those ideologies, and we have much to learn from them. We cannot escape the allure of logic and symmetry, the thought’s stature and the imagination’s power of illumination that we encounter in their bold blueprints. We find an analysis of the social and economic conditions that remains viable to this day.

But we no longer believe in any unified theory. We cannot beat the scriptures and find absolute answers, and we experience ourselves not as participants in a destiny-bound process. There is no longer any absolute truth, but at least  two or three alternative truths, depending on the values assumed and how we interpret a complex reality. School children in communist states may rattle off quotations from Marx and Lenin with the same studious frenzy that our children recite hymn verses, and American industry associations may divulge writings that with basically the same narrow vision expound private capitalism’s gospel. For us, free debate has funneled into the place of nailed theses. Our fate is constantly asking questions and surely to try again, to doubt authority and distrust authority. Our responsibility is to deepen our knowledge, refuel independently and anchor our ideas in a personal conviction. It is perhaps less grandiose. But that is our freedom and our honor.

But the attack on ideologies is driven even further. Sometimes ideology is dismissed with a sigh of relief and deliverance. Finally, they say, we can free ourselves from “the dead hand of the past” and from “the suffocating hand of the future”. Finally, we can proceed to evaluate each issue on its own merits, for the special circumstances existing in each case.

We can be practical, realistic, and grounded. “All theory, dear friend, is grey. But the golden tree of actual life springs ever green,” we recite from Goethe’s Faust. Let us toss theory in the waste basket, let us value life.

Perhaps that can be hard hitting. I may dare to wreak havoc in response: when you remove the long direction of will provided by a foundation of theory and value engagement, you remove the emotional conviction, leaving cold, raw power and politics, as democracy fades to gray. Without theory, possibly one can make things a little better, but one can never change society. Possibly one can do something else, but one can never make something different. If you go ahead with the nose to the ground, without perspective, and without looking at a future that lasts beyond the next quarter, you can never do harm in society, and you are equally unprepared for the problems that the future offers. The historical experience clearly tells us that the ascendance of the practical man drives ideas out of the political arena, promulgating a vigorous decay of democratic policy.”

(To be continued, from P. 6 of “Politik ar att vilja” 1964.)

The Power and the Mediocrity of the Sign

In “What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland’s School Success,” Anu Partanen reveals capitalist Anglo-America’s elephant-in-the-room-sized blind spot, why its focus on competition and “excellence” results in diminishing performance in order to promote concentrated power and idealism.

The Finns (Per Sahlberg) on education reform that demands accountability from teachers: “There is no word for accountability in Finnish. Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.

The Finns (Samuli Paronen) on competition: “Real winners do not compete.” There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The driver of education policy in Finland is not competition amongst teachers and schools, policy forcing the ideal conservative conditions of bellum omnia contra omnes, but rather cooperation. School choice is not an issue, nor is putting education in the hands of the private sector and profit motive. This is in distinct contrast to America, Sahlberg observes, where “schools are a shop.”

The Finnish education reform goal was always equality and equity, never “excellence” or whatever conservative daydreams that word stands in for. “Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.” What the world dominated by conservative Anglo-american capitalist dogma still cannot face is that it is equality that most efficiently produces star performances and substantive excellence.

Tiger Moms’ genius boys in Shanghai and Singpore can put in 20-hour days of rote memorization and exhaustive cramming, and only manage to approximate in performance the Finnish children who are simply well cared for and supported by valued, independent, unionized teachers and their egalitarian society. Surely, the East Asian genius boys are better poster boys for conservative capitalist discipline; but just as surely they are inefficient…and 99% of these memorizers and crammers will never be able to write a non-plagiarized essay, that is, communicate independently, like humans can.

Why does egalitarianism more efficiently make excellence? The answer is right in front of our nose, right in front of our blind spot. It’s because in the inequality tradition, poor people are overwhelmingly, structurally prevented from attaining their human potentials, and, a factor that perversely torments conservative theorists much more, the rich enjoy the comfort of knowing that surrounded by throngs of shackled “competitors,” they can enjoy many a good old slack.

In such a conservative culture, it is the appearance and ideal of excellence that matters, because the sign unmoored is directed by and justifies power. To be chosen is a sign, necessarily imposed upon the material world. The grim “play” of signs, only ordered by the mystified, atopic distribution of power in a reified collective imagination (a world not made but given, or made by all because you cannot choose unfreely), is Anglos’ obsession, and the more people you can induce to submit to this obsession, the more human life chances are allocated by market power and the more absolutely necessary capitalism (or its feudal and slavery complements)  is for any life chance at all.

At or adhered to central nodes of global capitalist accumulation, Anglo-Americans are altogether too kind, too attentive to, too solicitous of the promotional, the unmoored sign, constantly mistaking it for the legitimate, autarkic limits of knowable (meta)reality. Our literature, for one example, is far too ready to believe that the con man is the true knower.