Ismael Hossein-zadeh has an essay this week about how Marxism is better than Keynesianism at explaining the current terrible economic picture, and has better prescriptions for fixing it as well. To me the article is a great example of both the strengths and (greater) weaknesses of Marxist critique.
Marxist critique is strongest in describing the nature of capitalism and the environment it seeks to create. Capitalism seems to gravitate toward a permanent “reserve army of labor” - lots of out of work people who would love to have a job. Having a pool of idle but willing unemployed puts pressure on those who do have jobs. It puts downward pressure on wages, discourages organizing, and gives maximum leverage to the employer.
So far, so good. That dynamic should be front and center in any discussion on how to improve things. Asserting the right of collective bargaining and finding ways to support it is crucial. Getting all those people on the sidelines back into the game is vital. The article also has some interesting material on how the globalization of capital and labor are challenges that Keynes did not seem to anticipate, and that his theory does not adequately address.
Hossein-zadeh’s critique starts to go astray with what he calls structural or systemic causes of unemployment, with Keynesianism producing a perpetual cat-and-mouse game. Stimulus spending gets an economy out of an economic downturn. When the economy is humming again the stimulus is pared back, which leaves the field open for capitalist exploitation, which then brings about an economic downturn. Repeat forever. In this telling Keynesianism is the cause of downturns, because that cycle could be done away with forever by not ending the stimulus. That seems at best uncharitable, since Keynesianism doesn’t claim to abolish the business cycle. It merely describes the tools to use during down times.
But Hossein-zadeh really goes far afield when he conflates Keynesians’ prescriptions with their expectations:
The Keynesian view that the government can fine-tune the economy through fiscal and monetary policies to maintain continuous growth is based on the idea that capitalism can be controlled or manipulated by the state and managed by professional economists from government departments in the interest of all. The effectiveness of the Keynesian model is, therefore, based largely on a hope, or illusion; since in reality the power relation between the state and the market/capitalism is usually the other way around. Contrary to the Keynesian perception, economic policy making is more than simply an administrative or technical matter of choice; more importantly, it is a deeply socio-political matter that is organically intertwined with the class nature of the state and the policy making apparatus.
It’s fair to describe the Keynesian approach as administrative or technical - magneto trouble and all that - but I haven’t gotten the impression that Keynesians, Paul Krugman foremost among them, are under any illusion that policymakers are compelled to embrace Keynesianism. There certainly seems to be a great deal of frustration about the nature of the public debate. The austerity narrative continues to be ascendant in spite of the overwhelming evidence of the harm it has caused. Keynesian policy, particularly the 2009 stimulus package, has been vindicated (and Krugman wrote at the time that it was actually not large enough) - yet it still seems to be regarded as disreputable in the capitol.
So of course Keynesians are frustrated, but not because they thought Washington was required to implement Keynesian policies and had not. They are frustrated because they see the current problem as a technocratic one with a known solution - but austerity budgeting continues to rule the day, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it has failed. The carburetor is broken; fix it. Krugman sees a moral or ethical dimension as well: the refusal to fix it has inflicted a great deal of unnecessary misery. But Keynesianism ultimately just says, if this is your problem, here’s the solution.
Keynesianism is also clear about the role government plays in the economy: Let the private sector be the economic engine of first resort and government the last. If businesses are creating lots of jobs at good wages, money is circulating through the economy, and everything is going swimmingly, then leave it at that. If the private sector is stagnating or shrinking though, then the public sector needs to step in and provide the spending and job creation that the private sector isn’t. Once that changes - once businesses start hiring and spending again - government backs off and lets them do their thing. Policymakers can choose not to do that, and the expected result will be to make the problem worse. No illusions required. (Krugman does get irritated when leaders plead ignorance or act like no one knows what the answer is, though.)
Marxist critiques like Hossein-zadeh’s, on the other hand, lead with a lot of “workers of the world, unite” rhetoric, but leave what comes after the revolution offstage. Maybe it’s because that role - a centrally planned economy - doesn’t have a very good track record, and would be a tough sell for an American audience. Maybe it’s because it is much more entertaining to issue calls to arms than to figure out how to make a just, equitable and vibrant economy in a nation with hundreds of millions of citizens. Whatever the reason, though, it leaves a glaring and obvious hole in the center of the argument. And if you can’t bring yourself to name the thing you want, you can’t expect to reach anyone not already in the fold.
There’s a similar hole in the description of how the change will come about. Hossein-zadeh says Keynesianism’s fatal flaw is its expectation that politicians sympathetic to big money will enact policies antagonistic to it. (Again, I don’t think that’s true - Keynesiansm just describes how to address the issue. Whether leaders actually take that approach is another matter.) Hossein-zadeh envisions a bottom-up approach, with change being generated by “overwhelming political pressure from workers and other grassroots.” But he never describes how to build that pressure, and that makes his position look as fanciful as the one he criticizes. He writes: “the Marxian view that meaningful, lasting economic safety-net programs can be carried out only through overwhelming pressure from the masses - and only on a coordinated global scale - provides a more logical and promising solution.” OK, great. How?
Building a political movement in response to a gradually developing disaster is unbelievably difficult. It’s far more likely to spontaneously occur in response to a spectacular event. The activism in Ferguson since the killing of Mike Brown is a good recent example. (And incidentally, if one wants to build a grassroots social justice movement, identifying and supporting the issues people are currently speaking out on might be a good starting point - even if the issue isn’t the one you’re focused on.) A hurricane and a drought are both extreme ecological events, but one happens suddenly and visibly while the other is gradual and harder to spot. Which of those is more likely to inspire a strong response?
Marxist critique depends on workers rising up en masse, but never seems to describe how that happens. It leaves the hardest task to the imagination. And since spontaneous large scale organizing doesn’t just naturally happen on its own, the likely situation is for people in bad situations to stay in them. (Which can easily lead to a theoretical love of the common man souring into contempt for the actual sheeple who participate in their own oppression.) Hossein-zadeh is presumably aware of this, since he links to a piece by Alan Nasser noting that “US workers tend to quiescence.” Isn’t that a rather big hurdle? How does he propose to overcome it? Instead of utopian calls for wide scale mobilization, presumably led by those doing the calling, why not show solidarity with those already doing so on a smaller scale?
Why not go to those in Ferguson, or those fighting water shutoffs in Detroit, and say “what do you need us to do?” Marxist prescriptions like Hossein-zadeh’s never seem to want to get into the details, or to recognize the activism already dotting the landscape. It always seems to boil down to, everyone throw in with us. And that might be the biggest illusion of all.
Several weeks ago members of the group Concerned Citizens Ohio met with a state representative to discuss fracking, injection wells, pipelines and the natural gas industry in general. Here is something I’ve noticed about these meetings: If you want officials to take action, figure out how to put them on the spot. For instance, when we met with township trustees about injection wells, they were pleasant if slightly exasperated. The state controls all that, our hands are tied, they assured us.
But when we asked them to sign a purely symbolic statement urging the state to return siting authority for injection wells back to local communities, boy howdy did the sparks fly. When they could claim they were powerless they were very nice, but when we asked them to do something they were clearly able to - even something harmless like a nonbinding gesture to Columbus - their backs went up.
Now, a heated exchange like that is not my idea of success; I’d much rather have them willing to work with us. That won’t always be possible though, and getting reluctant officials on record as being unwilling to even lift a finger is useful too. If nothing else, it lets you know who you can count on. Either way, though, the idea is to bring to officials something they have unquestioned authority to act on. And make sure to keep the “something” singular. With a multiple part question or request it’s easy to pick the most favorable one, address that and ignore the rest. I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave wiggle room like that; better to pick the best available issue and stay on it.
That approach seems best suited for a legislative session or other official meeting, though. At a town hall or arranged date with a group, the best you can probably get is a promise to introduce something or a pledge to work on it. On the other hand, a more informal setting can be useful for “what the heck are you people doing, anyway?” type questions. When it comes to fracking, Republicans are usually on board, while Democrats are equivocal allies at best. In Ohio, a handful of representatives have been good on the issue, but others are already cashing in - and the national party is increasingly siding (via) with the oil and gas industry.
So approaching a Democratic officeholder with environmental or quality of life issues, no matter how heartfelt and sincerely expressed, is probably not going to accomplish much. The response will be, different studies say different things, and any anyway look at the big picture: things have really improved over the last few decades (the river never catches fire any more!) Unless some urgent problem is happening, arguments about long term risk and degradation will unfortunately not get much traction.
It seems better to go right at the main pillar of their support on the issue - jobs and the economy. The right approach can put them on the spot. Here is an adapted version of my comments (as I best remember them) at the meeting with the state rep. (Greetings etc. omitted.) Feel free to adapt them for any meetings you may have, and let me know if you have any thoughts on how to improve them:
It really bothers me to see how timid Democrats have been on fracking. Any time a Republican says “jobs” Democrats dive under the desk, but the promise of jobs is largely a mirage. Last summer the Plain Dealer reported that employment had increased less than one percent since drilling began in eastern counties. In January the Dispatch noted that the jobs aren’t there, and even the industry has started touting “auxiliary economic activity” instead. Transients come into town while the infrastructure is being built, leave when it’s done, and the community has little to show for it.
There’s a temporary bump in sales receipts for restaurants, hotels and strip clubs, but no long term benefit. It isn’t like a steel mill that employs thousands of locals at good wages year after year (and supports ancillary business as well, incidentally). Fracking has been going on here long enough for the results to be in. It doesn’t create jobs in the way citizens would like to believe, and it should now be a political for any officeholder to say so. Democrats have the evidence to hit back, and hit back hard, on those claims. A handful of exceptions like Nickie Antonio and Bob Hagan have spoken out on the issue, but most have just done a whole lot of shutting up. And it’s enormously frustrating.
Here are two questions you will not often hear from your average American: How large a threat is Iran’s fictional ICBM arsenal, and what is the Pentagon doing to protect us from this imaginary threat? I am pleased to report our government is working on the answers. They are, in order, “worryingly grave” and “send more money and we’ll get back to you.”
I know this because Portage county has been selected as one of four sites under consideration for a proposed ICBM interceptor site. I confess that I haven’t kept up with missile defense of late. I knew it had its roots in Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, that it has been wildly expensive over the years (the New York Times estimates $250 billion), that the priority assigned to it has waxed and waned with the fortunes of its political champions, and that it has shown dubious effectiveness. It seemed like one of those zombie defense programs (e.g.) that no amount of failure or bad publicity can kill. But I’m resigned to a certain level of expensive Pentagon boondoggles; as long as they aren’t being used for saber rattling or launching wars I don’t pay close attention.
The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act requires the MDA [Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency] to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to evaluate possible additional locations in the U.S. best suited for future deployment of a Continental United States Interceptor Site (CIS) capable of protecting the homeland against threats from nations, such as North Korea and Iran. The existing Ballistic Missile Defense System provides protection of the U.S. from a limited ballistic missile attack, and the Department of Defense has not made a decision to deploy or construct the CIS.
As part of the selection process, the MDA held (PDF) what it called a public scoping meeting in Ravenna on Tuesday to review the EIS. The MDA had some logo-emblazoned signs in the parking lot directing people to the gym; just outside it was a sign-in table.
Inside the gym was an open house where the public was invited to review placard-sized versions of these slides. There were a great number of spokespeople and uniformed personnel on hand. My rough guess would be one for every two citizens.
There was also a “missile defense is wonderful” video showing on a loop, to make sure the public was scoped in the right direction.
There wasn’t a huge focus on environmental impact, the ostensible reason for the meeting - it seemed more geared towards selling the public on the program. The approach was a little off though. For one, there was no introduction to the subject. It would have been nice if someone from MDA gave an overview of the program, explained why it was vital to national security, what the impact might be locally (both in terms of jobs and environment), and otherwise introduced the topic. Hell, even ODNR gave us a canned presentation - the Pentagon couldn’t do as much? Maybe that was by design, however. As a friend emailed: “In the old days they’d have a public meeting where people were allowed to speak and hear from one another in the community. Now things have changed and they just do an information seminar with displays and pick people off one by one for feedback reducing the ability of citizens to communicate with one another.”
People just went from station to station and talked to MDA representatives. I spoke briefly to one and asked about the repeated failures of the program. He countered that a test in June failed to fail, and said that the failures were actually helpful because they helped to understand what to do next. I then asked how much money had been spent on the program, and he replied that he didn’t know and couldn’t speak to it. He suggested that I was taking at a “whole pie” view, and he was just there to discuss one slice of it. I responded that it looked like the MDA was only presenting the slices that looked tastiest, and it would have been nice to see some concerns addressed as well.
Now, those who work for MDA will obviously be in favor of it. At a very minimum it employs them, so if the MDA went away they would either be transferred or out of a job entirely. It isn’t surprising that they have a positive view of missile defense. But any attempt to generate public support for MDA ought to treat us like grown ups, and be at least a little forthcoming about the problems as well. The “everything is awesome” approach might go over well to those already in favor it, but it won’t persuade anyone who has reservations.
It all seemed like a very lightweight and informal way to treat a proposal that could have such significant consequences. That might be enough though. It already has the vocal support of both of Ohio’s Senators (bipartisanship!) so it doesn’t look like there will be much political resistance to it. It may have all just been a formality. I certainly hope for their sake it was, because as I wrote in a comment (and told a reporter), I came to it skeptical and left opposed. Whether public sentiment matters is something else, of course.
The story of the Detroit water crisis is getting a familiar treatment in the media. Once again a major story of mass activism at home is getting relatively short shrift while international stories get saturation coverage. In the same way that protests abroad dominated American headlines while those in Madison were largely ignored, efforts to stop the water shutoffs are barely recognized in favor of news from Ukraine and Gaza.
Those stories are important as well, but it seems that big media outlets have an almost institutional reluctance to report on major events if they don’t affect the right people. While cultural flash points like abortion and marriage equality get at least some coverage, economic ones struggle to make it on the radar - barring a dramatic moment like Anthony Bologna’s pepper spraying of kettled protesters. (For as big a story as Occupy Wall Street became, it was largely ignored by mainstream outlets until that footage went viral.)
Part of the reason is probably that even large news organizations are not equipped to cover certain stories. Newspapers have business sections, but not labor or worker sections, so a story like the union uprising in Madison didn’t have a natural home. Sometimes a story might be too depressing, and the water shutoffs in Detroit sure as hell clear that bar. Why bring your readers down by telling them about low income people being forced into unlivable conditions, right?
But I think outlets are tempted to ignore these stories for perhaps an even more powerful reason: they make too fundamental a critique of our contemporary capitalist narrative. For the last several decades we have been told that capital is mobile; unions are archaic; free trade and globalization are inevitable; government is sclerotic, bureaucratic and ineffective; and privatization is efficient.
The Detroit water crisis cuts against much of that. As Rose Hackman points out in a terrific piece, the shutoffs are being done as part of an effort to privatize the municipal water supply. It is being rammed through by an autocrat who has replaced the city’s democratically elected leaders. It is being overseen (and outsourced, naturally) by a department stocked with business executives - the kind of people we are routinely assured have the management experience to whip things into shape. These are all supposed to be best practices, yet they add up to the unconscionable infliction of misery on a mass scale. How can this be reported without calling into question the very way we are told the world works these days?
Detroit papers have by turns reported it using tortured attempts at balance (“Critics have portrayed water service as an essential human right”) (via), while Hackman writes of The Detroit News jeering at “water scofflaws.” (She also notes the stigmatizing: painting blue lines in front of houses that have had water turned off. This, along with Poor Doors, are the latest examples of the hardy perennial favorite You Should Be Ashamed For Not Having Enough Money.) Meanwhile, throwing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at sports team owners is business as usual, impossibly crowded classrooms are an experiment, and curious anomalies escape notice.
Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. The international community has taken notice, and at least some highly placed citizens are aware of that. Visibility and shame from outside might compensate for the lack of reporting here. The community has been actively resisting the shutoffs and getting the word out, with or without mass media coverage. Here might be the most interesting twist: The war in Gaza is one of the stories crowding out coverage of Detroit, and many have begun to realize how social media is allowing the kind of on-the-ground eyewitness reporting that was previously almost impossible.
That kind of coverage has, for the first time, outflanked Israel’s ability to shape narratives to its liking. Yet the same thing is happening in Detroit as citizens protest, risk arrest in blockades and otherwise try to put themselves in the way of this great injustice. Their efforts from the scene can now be viewed by the whole world, and have the same potential to route around traditional gatekeepers’ attempts to frame the story. It would be quite a shock if, while those gatekeepers marvel from thousands of miles away as one seemingly unshakable pillar falls, their own begins to crack at the foundation.
You can donate to the Detroit Water Brigade here.
The recent semi-retirement of DougJ bummed me out. In addition to writing the funniest line ever posted on the Internet (“Apparently, Qatari humor is a little too edgy for American audiences”), he regularly made astute observations about politics. In May, for instance:
Most politics is about turf wars. For example no one cares about the budget deficit per se, it’s just a concept that Galtians and neo-Confederates latch onto to promote policies keep the blahs and poors in their place. And establishment media latches onto it to keep the hippies in their place.
Anyway, this is why I generally recommend ignoring the so-called substance of human beings’ arguments and focusing instead on the psychology that motivates their positions.
Now, the pitfall to that is understanding what really motivates someone - presuming to know another’s thoughts is dicey. Doing so frequently, and with no more support than “knowing” it’s true, makes one susceptible to conspiratorial thinking, wild accusations of bad faith, and tribalism.
On the other hand, some kinds of behaviors and patterns are pretty hard to miss. Take Doug’s example with the deficit. When Republicans are president, conservatives might carp about the deficit but don’t do anything about it. Ronald Reagan joked the deficit was big enough to take care of itself and everyone had a hearty laugh. Dick Cheney famously sneered “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter,” and who on the right challenged him? Yet when a Democrat is president the GOP shuts down the government over it. That’s pretty much a case study in ignoring the substance and focusing on the psychology.
There are lots of other instances. Glenn Greenwald’s concern over David Sirota’s ouster at Pando Daily looks a little different in light of the unsparing criticism Pando’s Mark Ames has had for Greenwald’s boss Pierre Omidyar. Seems like there was at least a little turf war mixed in with any sincere interest on that one. Situations like these are not conflicts of interest, but they should function in a similar way: readers who know about them should take them into account when evaluating a piece. Or in DougJ’s formulation, consider the motivation before the content.
Jonathan Chait supplied a splendid example this week. It began when Diane Ravitch made a mildly sexist comment about Campbell Brown:
“I have trouble with this issue because it’s so totally illogical,” says Diane Ravitch, an education historian. “It’s hard to understand why anyone thinks taking away teachers’ due-process rights will lead to great teachers in every classroom.”
As for Brown, Ravitch is dismissive: “She is a good media figure because of her looks, but she doesn’t seem to know or understand anything about teaching and why tenure matters…I know it sounds sexist to say that she is pretty, but that makes her telegenic, even if what she has to say is total nonsense.”
That last line is kind of dumb and Ravitch even acknowledged its sexism as she said it, so ding her for that. Chait had a much more dramatic reading though: “Genuinely curious to see if left ideological solidarity protects @DianeRavitch from backlash for this blatant sexism.” Chait has a nice perch at New York magazine for sounding off on whatever strikes his fancy, yet sexism - blatant or otherwise - has largely managed to escape his notice (though to be fair, he has certified the bangability of withered hags like Cameron Diaz).
He’s written about Ravitch before, though, and about the charter school movement she opposes. He makes no secret of his visceral revulsion towards teacher unions. Both he and his wife have sung the praises of KIPP charter schools, and she works at a charter school where multiple board members have KIPP ties. It would have been nice for Chait to let his readers know about that. It certainly would explain how he somehow misses the disreputable whiff of Campbell Brown’s new pro-charter operation, and also how he misses the legitimate concerns Ravitch has expressed about KIPP.
In fact, that is a characteristic of his analysis when he digs in on a wrongheaded position. I first noticed it when Ta-Nehisi Coates was methodically dismantling him back in April: he zooms out to a high level view - and we’re talking International Space Station altitude - which prevents him from cluttering up his beautiful mind with troublesome details.
One would think, for example, that given his interest in Ohio he might know about the charter school scandals here. Shouldn’t these developments cause him to revisit his bland, unsupported assertion that “charter schools are more aggressive about creating accountability standards to promote good teachers and coach up or replace bad ones”? I am, to borrow a phrase, genuinely curious to see if new information is capable of changing his opinion.
Of course, I’m not actually curious about that - no more so than Chait was about the response to Ravitch’s comments. His family has a direct financial interest in charter schools; as long as that’s the case it’s hard to imagine him being anything less than an enthusiastic cheerleader. He’s got his cause to sell.
What this week showed, though, is that he’s willing to grab any handy issue to try and discredit an opponent. He may have thought he was scoring some clever points, but to anyone who’s followed his work he was doing something else: Identifying as someone to be evaluated by DougJ’s guideline. Ignore the substance of his arguments, and look at the motivation.