What is to be Done: A New Left Strategy

The following are three brief, consecutive contributions by Rick Wolff, on this topic, presented to a workshop organized by the North Atlantic Left Dialogue  in Berlin, Germany, November 20-21, 2010.


1.    Theses for the workshop:


Central issues dominating politics in North Atlantic nations today include the impact of the economic crisis, its causes, state responses, and who will pay for the state responses. The crisis exemplifies capitalism’s inherent instability. It carries both risk and opportunity for capitalism. The risk is that its victims will question capitalism per se and possibly seek a different post-capitalist class structure. The opportunity lies in a devaluation of means of production and labor power that creates conditions for renewed capitalist growth. Supporters of capitalism work politically to minimize the risk and take advantage of the opportunity.


Supporters of neo-liberal forms of capitalism use the crisis to further agendas of privatization, marketization, and welfare state destruction. Their strategy (e.g. Tea Parties in US) enlists victims of the crisis in a new crusade against the state as cause of the crisis through its corrupt favoring of various scapegoats such as the “rich,” the “poor,” the” immigrants” and so on. Their goal is to shift the costs of the crisis and of the state’s crisis response onto the masses via austerity programs defined as attacks on the evil, irresponsible, and corrupt state. 


Supporters of welfare state capitalism use the crisis to resume the pre-1975 dominance of Keynesianism. Their strategy enlists workers and the left to support changing state policies and politicians to produce a capitalism with a human face. Their goal is (1) state borrowing (via deficits) for stimulus programs sufficient to employ the masses and achieve economic growth, and (2) use that growth to cover the costs of servicing the state’s increased debts and thereby avoid disruptive, dangerous social conflicts over who pays those servicing costs. 


Struggles between austerity and deficit-finance stimulus programs replay classic conflicts between neo-liberal and Keynesian supporters of capitalism. Hence a key political question: can the political left – or at least a large portion of it – refuse to be caught up in and thus coopted by this struggle between the different factions of capitalism’s supporters (see Marx’s parallel argument in Essay on Free Trade)? Can a left emerge that defines a different project, namely one that targets capitalism per se as the problem and the supersession of capitalism as the solution? Without such a left, North Atlantic politics will yield various contested mixtures of austerity and deficit-financed stimulus depending on the relative strengths of their supporters.


A new basic strategy for the left to respond effectively to this situation would supplement but also constrain – and thereby differ from – classical socialism. Beyond advocating (a) socialized over private property in means of production, and (b) planning over markets as the means of distributing productive resources and produced outputs, this new strategy would radically reorganize many production sites in society. There, instead of capitalist corporations’ boards of directors selected by major shareholders, collectives of all workers at each site would democratically decide what, how, and where to produce and who will receive distributions of the surpluses those workers produced. This reorganization would institutionally subsume the state to such collectives of workers whose surplus distributions would furnish the state’s means of functioning. This reorganization would immediately transform workers’ on-the-job lives and their powers as citizens. It would thereby add a micro-level democratization to the classic macro-changes – socialized property and planning – heretofore over-emphasized by classical socialism and communism.


2.    Comments on the theses:


We all seem agreed that we need both (1) immediate, short-term, popular entry projects and simultaneously (2) a clear anti-capitalist, social transformative project. Whatever program we develop must somehow combine or at least include both (1) and (2).


Some of us systematically emphasize (1) and make (2) secondary; others of us do the opposite. We often talk past one another and often irritate one another by doing this. While we affirm the need to do/combine both (1) and (2), so far little concrete has jelled/congealed that seems generally to satisfy and fulfill that affirmation.


In the US during its last great surge of anti-capitalism mixed with immediate reformism – the 1930s Great Depression – the reformism eventually triumphed at the expense of the anti-capitalism. Corporations were taxed and regulated in the interest of economic recovery, economic growth, and social welfare. Capitalists on corporate boards of directors (elected by major shareholders) were left in their positions of appropriators and distributors of the surplus (in Marx’s sense of that term). They used portions of those surpluses to evade, weaken, and/or eventually eliminate the reforms’ constraints on their profitability and freedom of action. Because reformism in the US lost its anti-capitalist partner, most reforms proved to be unsustainable. I think that lesson usually applies to reformisms.


Thus, at the most basic level, to combine entry projects/reforms with a class-transformational project requires confronting the position of capitalists as hegemonic appropriators and distributors of the social surplus. To go beyond any set of reforms requires complimenting them with an explicit project of workers’ securing for themselves positions as appropriators and distributors of the surpluses they produce. Only then will they be in a position to (1) secure the reforms they may achieve, and (2) contest with and counteract capitalists in terms of how (for what social purposes) the social surplus is used. This argument applies equally whether the capitalists to be countered are private, shareholder-elected boards of directors or state-appointed officials.


3.    Further comments on the theses:


Let me briefly embellish my proposal.


The entry project of a major public employment program to “solve” the mostly private sector unemployment in the US would go beyond the usually level of reform (as, for example, in Obama’s 2009 stimulus program) in four dimensions.


First, it would stress direct public employment in the following industries: (a) constructing an environmentally focused public mass transportation system, (b) constructing a mass institution for low-cost, high-quality public day care for children 6 months and older expanding to after-school programs through high-school, and (c) reviving FDR’s WPA program from the 1930s for unemployed people with arts or crafts qualifications.


Second, it would encourage (or organize), support, train, and subsidize start-up enterprises in which the formerly unemployed workers would collectively function as their own board of directors. Ownership of such enterprises, initially and later, could be organized in various public and/or private ways. By insisting that the unemployed take jobs within such enterprises, we secure an absolutely new and different, anti-capitalist dimension of our direct public employment program.


Third, our program directly supports basic changes in the social conditions of women and children. Women’s work outside the household would gain a key support – day-care – freeing them from part of one major responsibility inside the household. Because these new day-care enterprises’ workers would function collectively as their own board of directors, children would gain regular, intense experience with this non-capitalist mode of organizing work.


Fourth, such a program for direct public employment would be funded by tax increases on the rich and/or reductions in military outlays (ending Iraq and Afghanistan occupations) Tax increases (especially adding new, higher federal income tax brackets on those earning over $400,000) and on business enterprises should replace borrowing (deficit finance) to secure funding for this public employment program. Here the state of Oregon’s 2009-2010 similar response to the current crisis (taxing the rich and business rather than cutting state services and payrolls as tax revenues fell) could serve as a partial model.


All three contributions above can be found at the website of the North Atlantic Left Dialogue.

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