Believe It or Not: Karl Marx Is Making a Comeback

It’s true. The “Communist Manifesto” co-author has gotten a second life — and he has some advice for progressives


Source: Salon via Portside

Author: Sean McElwee

Karl Marx is on fire right now. More than a century after his death, the co-author of “The Communist Manifesto” still has the honor of being the first smear against ideas slightly to the left of Hillary Clinton. (See: Thomas Piketty.) Marx also graced the cover of the National Review as recently ast last month. Few other thinkers, and certainly few non-religious figures, can claim the honor of being so widely misappropriated by the political rearguard. But, while most people consider Marx only as a sort of intellectual boogeyman, the manifestation of everything evil on the left, he has much to offer a left increasingly divorced from the working class.

To that end, Marx actually is enjoying something of a renaissance on the left these days. Jacobin, a socialist publication that publishes many Marxist thinkers, was profiled by the the New York Times and boasts Bob Herbert as a contributor. Benjamin Kunkel’s recent compilation of essays, “Utopia or Bust,” earned that author a profile in New York magazine, and the title “The Lena Dunham of Literature.” And that’s not even to mention Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster work, “Capital in the 21st Century,” which harkens back to Marx’s multi-volume magnum opus, Das Kapital. The wave has even extended so far as Capitol Hill, where Sen. Bernie Sanders, D- Vermont, openly calls himself a “democratic socialist.”

Marx most certainly wasn’t right about everything, but he wasn’t wrong about as much as people think. A revival of his thought is good news for progressive America. It can give the left fresh arguments that were previously forgotten to history, and new organizing strategies that they’ve long since abandoned.

* * *

The first problem with the left that Marx might have noted is the wholesale abandonment of the working class. As Perry Anderson points out in his essay, “Considerations on Western Marxism,”

The extreme difficulty of language of much of Western Marxism in the twentieth century was never controlled by the tension of a direct or active relationship to a proletarian audience.

Increasingly, the left is dominated by what the German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg might call Kathedersozialisten – or “professorial socialists.” These thinkers, frequently drenched in academese, talk and debate in a way almost entirely designed to alienate anyone who does not already accept their conclusions. The professorial left seems to have innumerable answers for those wondering what Lacanian psychoanalysis has to offer us, but can give us little guidance as to whether the Working Families Party should support Cuomo or run its own candidate.

Manifesto co-author Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England was a pioneering study of the working class. He and Marx both clearly saw the working class as the means to political power — and viewed persuading them as the most important task the left faced. When Maurice Lachatre asked Marx if he would be willing to serialize Das Kapital, Marx replied, “In this form the book will be more accessible to the working-class, a consideration which to me outweighs everything else.” One struggles, however, to imagine a latter-day Marxist champion like Theodor W. Adorno writing those words. The left abandoned the working class and the working class then abandoned the left. That needs to change.

Marx and Engels also offer the left a new way to discuss ideology. In his brilliant collection, The Agony of the American Left, Marx(ish) historian Christopher Lasch writes,

The Marxian tradition of social thought has always attached great importance to the way in which class interest takes on the quality of objective reality… Lacking an awareness of the human capacity for collective self-deception, the populists tended to postulate conspiratorial explanations of history.

Lasch is arguing that, to a large extent, humans are biased toward the state of affairs that currently exists and then work backwards to justify it to themselves. That is, we’re more likely to embrace a deeply unjust economic system, simply because it’s the one we’ve always known. A recent study bears this out, finding that market competition serves to psychologically legitimize inequalities that would otherwise be considered unjust. Because many on the left, especially populists, do not understand ideology, they often write and argue as though the entire American political system is controlled by a small cabal of business or political leaders conspiring to fool the masses.

The implications of ideology are important and numerous. The left must not fall into the trap of believing that all Americans actually do share our views, but that a conspiracy of the wealthy, or the power of GOP framing, or the influence of money are preventing us from succeeding. To some extent, these things may indeed harm the left, but widespread ideology — the automatic assumption of capitalism’s unmitigated merit, for example — is just as big a problem. We must win the war of ideas before we can win the war of democracy.

The great Italian politician Antonio Gramsci was well aware of the lure of such cabalistic conspiracies, but also of their limitations, and his idea about cultural hegemony led him to advocate for educating the working class. This task is difficult, but it will lead to more substantial progress than simply explaining away failures by complaining about the influence of the wealthy. The rich certainly have different interests than the rest of us, but Gilens and Page note in an often overlooked passage of their oft-cited paper on “American oligarchy,”

The preferences of average citizens are positively and fairly highly correlated, across issues, with the preferences of economic elites.

Groups like the Chamber of Commerce and other business-oriented organizations, on the other hand, have preferences that do not correlate with the interests of the middle class. But even with that caveat, the left should not overstate the extent to which Americans agree with the leftist economic critique. In an apt description of the American ideology, John Steinbeck noted, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

Finally, Marx’s moral critique of capitalism and markets has never been fully comprehended or considered by anyone (other than the socialists, of course) but the most ardent libertarians and a strain of thinkers broadly called communitarians. Broadly speaking, Marx’s critique of capitalism resembles the Catholic church’s critique: That by relying on greed and self-interest, markets degrade humans and encourage our worst impulses. Marx quotes Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens:

This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed;
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench

Marx writes, riffing off of Shakespeare, “I  am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured and therefore so is its possessors. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good.” Jesus warned that the love of money is the root of all evil. This fact seems self-evident. Religious critics of capitalism have noted this core delusion for decades. Economist and Catholic E. F. Schumacher writes,

Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation to man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations: as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic’ you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.

With the exception of libertarians, who have tried to turn the immorality of capitalism into a sort of perverse morality (“greed is good”), most politicians and economists are entirely unconcerned with the fact that capitalism is based on a collective drawing upon our deepest desire: to exploit.

The underlying logic of capitalism is that if we all take our most primordial impulses and mix them up in the magical mechanism called “markets,” we are left with progress. Recent history suggests we may be left with only more ugliness. As G. A. Cohen writes, “the immediate motive to productive activity in a market society is (not always but) typically some mixture of greed and fear.” The participants in market transactions are not interested in fulfilling human needs — they are interested in making a profit. Fulfilling human needs is one way to make a profit — exploitation, the creation of desire through advertising or downright fraud are others. Human progress is an ancillary consideration, individual profit is the goal. Today, speaking in moral terms is not incredibly popular — inequality is seen not as a moral issue in which a small class has a dangerous amount of power, but instead as an inefficiency to be corrected with a technocratic policy.

We don’t know for certain what Marx would say about the modern left. Its radicals often foster a poisonous aversion to pragmatism in favor of pious purity, its politicians are guilty of  wholesale abandonment of the working class, and many of its leading thinkers have succumbed to a dreadful technocratism. Marx failed to account for the adaptability of capitalism and left little in the way of alternatives. In the end, this void was filled by murderers and fools. Marx, a deeply humanistic thinker, would certainly have abhorred the violence in his name some half a century after his death. But rational people do not blame Christ for the Crusades, nor Muhammad for 9/11 nor Nietzsche for the Holocaust. The taboo of Marx has prevented the left from learning his most important lesson; in the words of Gil Scott-Heron, “the revolution will not be televised.”

Sean McElwee is a writer and researcher of public policy. His writing may be viewed at Follow him on Twitter at @seanmcelwee.

Posted by Portside on June 27, 2014








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A Generation of Intellectuals Shaped by 2008 Crash Rescues Marx From History’s Dustbin

Source: Tablet

N.B.: About the author: “Goldberg is the author of two books, the first being Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (Norton 2006), the second being The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World (Penguin 2009) about “the global battle over women’s rights”.[1] She is a former contributing writer at[2] Her work has been published in the magazines The New RepublicRolling Stone, and Glamour, and in The GuardianThe LA Times, and other newspapers.” – from

Author: Michelle Goldberg

“Eight years ago Jay McInerney, poster boy for a certain kind of glossy 1980s literary chic, anointed Benjamin Kunkel as the voice of a new generation. Writing on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, hehailed Kunkel’s first novel, Indecision, for making “the whole flailing, postadolescent, prelife crisis feel fresh and funny again.” He wasn’t alone; many critics were impressed by Kunkel’s evocation of a privileged young man’s passivity and ennui. They were less sure of what to make of his narrator’s culminating conversion to radical politics in South America. “Explaining socialism to the postironic, ambivalent, hopeful, generous twentysomethings of 2005, I suppose, is what sequels are for,” Michael Agger wrote in Slate.

Next March, Kunkel will release his second book, Utopia or Bust. Though not a sequel to Indecision, it will in fact seek to explain, or at least explore, what socialism means now through a series of essays on contemporary leftist thinkers like Fredric Jameson and David Harvey. After the success of Indecision—a spot on the best-seller list, translations into a dozen languages, a Hollywood option—Kunkel didn’t milk his newfound literary stardom in the manner of, say, Jay McInerney. Instead, after falling into a deep depression, he followed the example of his own narrator, moving to Buenos Aires and immersing himself in anticapitalist political theory. In a draft of the introduction to his new book, he writes, “To the disappointment of friends who would prefer to read my fiction—as well as of my literary agent, who would prefer to sell it—I seem to have become a Marxist public intellectual.”

In a strange way, though, Kunkel hasn’t entirely escaped the zeitgeist business. His new book is emerging at a moment of newly fervent interest in Marx among young writers, activists, and scholars, who have begun, the wake of the financial crisis, to identify capitalism as a problem rather than an inevitability.

It’s too simple to say that Marxism is back, because it never truly went away. In the United States after the fall of the Berlin Wall, though, it was largely confined to university English departments, becoming the stuff of abstruse, inward-looking and jargon-choked cultural critique. Then came the economic crash, Occupy Wall Street, and the ongoing disaster of austerity in Europe. “Around the time of Occupy in particular, a lot of different kinds of lefties, working at mainstream or literary publications, sort of found each other, started talking to each other, and found out who was most interested in class politics,” says Sarah Leonard, the 25-year-old associate editor of Dissent, the social-democratic journal founded almost 60 years ago by Irving Howe. “We have essentially found an old politics that makes sense now.”

In the United States, of course, Marxism remains an intellectual current rather than a mass movement. Certainly, millennials are famously progressive; a much-discussed 2011 Pew pollfound that 49 percent of people between 18 and 29 had a favorable view of socialism, while only 46 percent felt positively about capitalism. It’s hard to say exactly what this means—it’s not as if young people are sending Das Kapital racing up the best-seller lists or reconstituting communist cells. Still, it’s been decades since so many young thinkers have been so engaged in imagining a social order not governed by the imperatives of the market.

The reason why is obvious enough. “Now everything is falling apart,” says Doug Henwood, publisher of the Left Business Observer and mentor to several among the new Marxist thinkers. “Not even the most energetic apologists can say things are going well. The basic premises of American life, about upward mobility and all that, it all seems like a cruel joke now.”

Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War has freed people—especially those too young to remember it—to revisit Marxist ideas without worrying that they’re justifying existing repressive regimes. The Soviet Union always hovered over American intellectual life in the 20th century, especially those sectors of it dominated by Jewish City College graduates like Howe and his ideological counterweight Irving Kristol. There were those who condemned it but held fast to socialist ideals—a position epitomized by Dissent—and those, like Kristol, who came to see such ideals as inescapably entwined with tyranny, becoming neoconservatives. Now that communism is a marginal force in the world, these arguments feel very far away. “I suppose that what’s on our mind is not ’89,” says Leonard. “Our crisis is of a different nature. It’s a capitalist crisis, and we have a useful set of analytic tools.”


To cater to the new receptivity to left-wing thought, the radical publishing house Verso—which is co-publishing Kunkel’s new book—recently started issuing a series called Pocket Communism, short, elegantly designed volumes created with addled millennial attention spans in mind. Among them are Alain Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis and Bruno Bosteel’s The Actuality of Communism. They’re being sold beyond the ordinary outlets—at art galleries, for example. Even when these neo-communists aren’t orthodox Marxists—Badiou is something of a Maoist—Marx necessarily looms large in their work. “People are no longer afraid to go back to the texts themselves and use words that were once taboo,” says Sebastian Budgen, a Verso senior editor. “There’s a mentally emancipatory effect of no longer having to justify using Marx.”

Nowhere is this more true than at Jacobin, the socialist magazine founded by 24-year-old Bhaskar Sunkara, which is co-publishing Utopia or Bust with Verso. A uniquely entrepreneurial Marxist, Sunkara was still an undergraduate when he used part of his student loan to publish the first issue of Jacobin in 2011. He now has about 5,000 subscribers, a small number in the grand scheme of things but an impressive one for a leftist journal, comparable to the reach of Dissent. It’s a readership that is disproportionately young, says Sunkara, and one that’s often new to left-wing publishing. “I think that a lot of our readership aren’t people who are choosing Jacobin over Dissent or The Monthly Review,” he says. “They’re more either disillusioned liberals or young people who weren’t that politicized.”

For its part, Dissent, which is edited by Michael Kazin, has been reinvigorated by young staffers like Leonard. Until recently, it had grown dour, known for its doleful struggle against the irresponsibility of other radicals. In 2002, for example, its former co-editor Michael Walzer criticized the progressive response to 9/11 in an essay titled “Can There Be a Decent Left?” Bemoaning the tendency of left intellectuals to “live in America like internal aliens, refusing to identify with their fellow citizens, regarding any hint of patriotic feeling as politically incorrect,” he seemed to be rehashing an ancient argument between the anti-communist left and the ‘60s counterculture.

These days, though, with the magazine’s four full-time staffers all in their twenties, it feels far livelier and more contemporary—at times, it’s even cheeky. Consider, for example, “Cockblocked by Redistribution,” a piece in the fall issue by Katie J.M. Baker, about the failure of a well-known pickup artist to score in Denmark. As Bakerexplains, Daryush Valizadeh, known as Roosh, is the author of a series of priapic travel guides with names likeBang Ukraine and Bang Brazil. (In the latter, he instructs his acolytes that “poor favela chicks are very easy, but quality is a serious problem.”) In Scandinavia, however, poor Roosh found that things were not very easy at all, prompting him to produce an angry denunciation of that country’s women titled Don’t Bang Denmark. Danish women, Roosh lamented, exhibit a maddening lack of desperation, “because the government will take care of her and her cats, whether she is successful at dating or not.”

Baker—until recently a staff writer at the women’s website Jezebel, part of the Gawker network—analyzed Roosh’s predicament in light of Nancy Holmstrom’s 1984essay “A Marxist Theory of Women’s Nature,” discussing the way material conditions create the vulnerabilities that pickup artists exploit. When the sort of smart, au courant young women who work at Jezebel start casually dropping references to Marxist philosophers, something has shifted in the intellectual environment.

Meanwhile n+1, the journal Kunkel cofounded in 2004, has morphed from a hipster downtown cultural-literary publication feted by The New York Times Magazine to a far more explicitly political one. In the most recent issue, there’s a long essay by Dayna Tortorici arguing for the renewed relevance of the 1970s feminist “Wages for Housework” campaign: “Young people in the West who have spent their formative years in the workforce as freelancers, part-timers, adjuncts, unwaged workers, and interns are beginning to feel … that they’re not compensated for the work that they do. … Under these circumstances, the longstanding critique of the exploitation of mothers, wives, grandmothers is felt with new force, among a much younger and much wider population of women and men, with children and without.”

Naturally, some of those who lived through the first iteration of these arguments—and the subsequent cultural disillusionment with left-wing radicalism—will find all this irritating, if not infuriating. There are, after all, good reasons that Marxist political economy fell out of fashion. And it’s true some of the leftmost communist revivalists are disturbingly blithe about the past; at times one senses a self-satisfied avant-garde delight in making outrageous pronouncements. In The Communist Horizon, part of Verso’s Pocket Communism series, the newly fashionable academic Jodi Dean, a professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, airily dismisses the “circumscribed imaginary” in which “communism as Stalinism is linked to authoritarianism, prison camps, and the inadmissibility of criticism,” as if such links are a neoliberal fabrication.

In general, though, the young critics who are engaging with Marx are not so glib. Dissentexcoriated The Communist Horizon, and before it was even published, Jacobin took on Dean’s talk of the same name. Sunkara addressed Dean’s contemptuous description of liberals: “[S]he suggests we single out those who ‘think any evocation of communism should come with qualifications, apologies, condemnations of past excess.’ … [W]hat she presents as a good way to identify liberals, is actually a good test of sanity. Here’s a general rule: make no argument in New York that you wouldn’t make in Warsaw.”

These are not, then, apologists for authoritarianism. Rather, they insist that the terrible regimes of the 20th century do not obviate Marx’s essential insights, and that, with the U.S.S.R. gone, it should be possible to apply those insights without a lot of anti-Stalinist throat-clearing.

After all, if the Soviet example casts a pall on Marxism, it’s hardly an advertisement for unbridled capitalism, either. n+1 cofounder Keith Gessen left the Soviet Union as a child, and it was returning there in 1995 at age 20 that pushed him leftward. “I very much went over there as a kind of young liberal who believed that Russia was transitioning, with a lot of problems, to a liberal capitalist state and that was the right way for it to go,” he says. “What I saw there was that property relations were actually based on violence, that the so-called energies of the Russian people that were being liberated after communism were energies to cheat one another and lie to one another and kill one another.”

Back then, one could at least look to the United States to see capitalism triumphant. That, clearly, is no longer the case. After the financial crisis, “you didn’t need to be Karl Marx to see that people were getting kicked out of their homes,” says Gessen. And privileged young people—particularly the kind of who are inclined to read and write essays about political theory—haven’t just been spectators to immiseration. Graduating with student debt loads that make them feel like indentured servants, they’ve had a far harder time than their predecessors finding decent jobs in academia, publishing, or even that old standby law and are thus denied the bourgeois emollients that have helped past generations of college radicals reconcile themselves to the status quo.

If there were a Republican president, they might see hope in electing a Democrat. But Barack Obama already won, and it didn’t help. “If you win something and you are disappointed with the results, in a way that’s more politicizing than just losing and losing and losing over again,” says Sunkara.

So, they’re hungry for a theory that offers a thoroughgoing critique of the system, not just a way to ameliorate its excesses. “[F]or at least a generation now, not only the broad public but many radical themselves have felt uncertain that the left possessed a basic analysis of contemporary capitalism, let alone a program for its replacement,” Kunkel writes in the introduction to Utopia or Bust. Reaching back into the canon, he and others have found, at least, the former.

As for the latter? In the absence of a clear programmatic goal, never mind a party or organization, the new Marxism has a certain weightlessness. No one seems to have even a wisp of an answer to the perennial question: What is to be done? That very openness, though, gives new energy to the work of young thinkers and writers who feel themselves on yet another hinge of history. For intellectuals, this has always been a consolation of crisis: It frees one from the sort of existential lassitude Kunkel described in Indecision, making ideas feel urgent and important.

Kunkel himself is trying to formulate a vision of what might come next in a book he plans to publish after Utopia or Bust. “It’s meant to be a sketch—not a blueprint—of a post-capitalist future,” he told me by Skype from his apartment in Buenos Aires. “What it tries to do is to describe capitalism as something that, as it grew, added one feature after another. And therefore it’s easier to imagine disassembling. If we can picture how it was put together, it’s easier for us to imagine how it might be taken apart.”

This is a significantly more ambitious goal than that of writing another well-received novel. It might seem grandiose, but it also suggests a cultural optimism that’s otherwise in short supply these days. “It was easy to feel in the nineties that everyone knew what was going to happen,” says Kunkel. “Many people thought it already has happened, and now we just wait for McDonalds franchises and liberalized capital markets to spread across the globe.” Now, looking at the Marxist resurgence among young people, he says, “It’s very exciting to me. In a strange way, it also makes me want to live a long time, knock on wood, because I’d like to see what’s going to happen.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobinwas writing about Jodi Dean’s talk, “The Communist Horizon,” rather than her book of the same name; and that the journal n+1 was founded in 2004, not 2005.


Emphasis Mine


Rob from the Poor, Give to the Rich

From: care2


” Politicians and critics who wonder why the Occupy movement hasn’t disappeared with cooler weather should read a study just released by Citizens for Tax Justice“Corporate Taxpayers & Corporate Tax Dodgers, 2008-2010” makes uncomfortable but important reading.

The study looks at 280 of America’s largest companies, all of them on the Fortune 500 list. These are high-profit corporations so it would be reasonable to expect them to be fair contributors to the system that allows them to operate. After all, they benefit from roads, schools, hospitals, parks and other amenities and services tax dollars provide.

As it turns out, between 2008 and 2010, 78 of them avoided paying any taxes at all. That is only one way these corporations raided the futures of millions of their fellow Americans. Robert McIntyre, Director at Citizens for Tax Justice and lead author on the report, says, “These 280 corporations received a total of nearly $223 billion in tax subsidies. This is wasted money that could have gone to protect Medicare, create jobs and cut the deficit.”

Some of the highlights, or low points, of the report:

  • 38 corporations had negative tax rates all three years. Pepco Holdings topped the list, at -57.6%, with General Electric second at -45.3%.
  • In 2009 49 companies paid zero or less federal taxes
  • In 2008, 22 of the 280 companies did not pay one dollar in federal taxes, but they received $3.3 billion in tax rebates. In 2010, those numbers jumped to 37 companies that paid no taxes but received $7.8 billion in rebates.

The list of tax avoiders and subsidy recipients includes a lot of familiar names, such as Boeing, Yahoo, Yum Brands, Marathon Oil, FedEx, Hewlett Packard, American Express, and Time Warner. Corporations point out they are doing nothing illegal paring their taxes to nothing and receiving rebates. They are merely abiding by tax laws. However, as the report points out, “The laws were not enacted in a vacuum; they were adopted in response to relentless corporate lobbying, threats and campaign support.”

Tax reform is desperately needed in a country where the growing gap between rich and poor is leaving the country at risk for social instability and continuing economic chaos. However, “GOP candidates for president are all promoting huge cuts in the corporate tax or, in several cases, even elimination of the corporate income tax entirely.”

The whole report is worth reading, especially as campaign rhetoric heats to the melting point in advance of the 2012 elections.  Should elected politicians be held accountable for this untenable situation?    Can voters make them change the system?  What do you think?

Related Care2 Stories

Top 10 US Corporate Tax Avoiders Named on Senate Floor

Top 25 Hedge Fund Managers Make Almost $1 Billion Each – And Pay Less Taxes Than You Do

Cantor Tells Republicans to Dig in on Tax Increases

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Incomes down for most but up for wealthiest

growing income gap between the nation’s rich and poor.

News Alert?!

By Associated Press Staff

“The government is reporting that 50 percent of U.S. workers earned less than $26,364 last year, reflecting a growing income gap between the nation’s rich and poor.

According to the Social Security administration, there were fewer jobs, and overall pay was trending down — except for the wealthiest Americans. The number of people making $1 million or more soared by over 18 percent from 2009. There were 5.2 million fewer jobs in 2010 than in 2007, when the deepest recession since the 1930s began.

The payroll figures are based on W-2 forms submitted by employers to the IRS. The figures were posted by Social Security on its website as demonstrations raged on Wall Street and across the country protesting high unemployment and a growing income gap.”

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Why Aren’t Ayn Rand’s Wealthy “Job Creators” … Creating Jobs?

The myth of the wealthy “job creator” has been used for years to underscore a harmful vision of capitalism.

From AlterNet, by John Paul Rollert

 “With the announcement last Monday of President Obama’s plan to pay for his jobs bill with, among other things, the so-called “Buffett Rule,” we’re going to be hearing a lot more about the “job creators.” Over the last year, Congressional Republicans have consistently invoked them as a hex of sorts against any proposal to raise new tax revenue. “I am not for raising taxes in a recession,” Eric Cantor declared last November, when the Bush tax cuts were a bargaining chip in the protracted budget debate, “especially when it comes to the job creators that we need so desperately to start creating jobs again.”

Ten months, no new taxes, and one debt ceiling crisis later, Cantor said the same thing last week in response to the president’s jobs bill: “I sure hope that the president is not suggesting that we pay for his proposals with a massive tax increase at the end of 2012 on job creators that we’re actually counting on to reduce unemployment.” Given that 44 percent of the nation’s unemployed have been without work for at least six months and more Americans are living below the poverty line than at any time in the last 50 years, one marvels at Cantor’s faith in the truant “job creators” as well as his forbearance in the face of human misery. To the jobless, he is counseling the patience of Job.

But who exactly are these “job creators?” The phrase is not new. Republicans have been using it for years to underscore a particular vision of capitalism in which those who have benefitted most by the system are also most essential to its continued success. As long ago as 1991, Newt Gingrich characterized Democratic opposition to a cut in the capital gains tax as evidence that liberals reject this vision. “They hate job creators,” he told a gathering of Senate Republicans, “they’re envious of job creators.  They want to punish job creators.” With no apparent sense of irony, Gingrich added this was proof liberals “believe in class warfare.”

A more telling example for our current political impasse is the debate over the 1993 Clinton budget plan, which aimed to cut the deficit by, among other things, raising the top income tax rate. Congressional Republicans fought the bill tooth and nail, no one more so than former Texas Senator Phil Gramm. On the eve of its passage, he expressed the hope that the bill would “defy history” and prove that “raising taxes on job creators can promote investment and promote job creation.” Gramm, of course, did not think this was very likely to happen. “Only in Cuba and in North Korea and in Washington, D.C., does anybody believe that today,” he said, “but perhaps the whole world is wrong.”

Hindsight suggests that the world wasn’t wrong so much as Phil Gramm, along with every other Republican member of Congress. Not one of them voted for the bill, which cleared the House by only two votes and required Al Gore’s tie-breaking vote in the Senate. While higher taxes on the “job creators” proved no obvious hurdle to economic growth — the economy grew for 116 consecutive months, the most in U.S. history — it did cut the deficit from $290 billion when Clinton took office to $22 billion by 1997 and helped put the country on a projected path to paying off the national debt by 2012.

So much for ancient history. If the term “job creators” is no new addition to the lexicon of American politics, it has enjoyed quite a renaissance since President Obama took office. A Lexis-Nexis search of U.S. newspapers and wire services turns up 1,082 individual mentions of “job creators” in the month before the debt ceiling deal was reached, or just 175 fewer mentions than for George W. Bush’s entire second term.

Jon Stewart, for one, did not fail to notice the uptick. “Republicans are no longer allowed to say that people are rich,” he noted during the deficit ceiling debate, “You have to refer to them as ‘job creators.’” Stewart’s observation is funny only to the extent to which you believe that saying you’re a member of the top tax bracket and saying that you create jobs is not an obvious redundancy. If you believe, however, that the cast of Jersey Shore has just as much claim to being called “job creators” as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, then Stewart’s joke not only falls flat, but misses the point. The wealthy are the “job creators,” whether or not they spend their time actually trying to create jobs.

The problem, of course, with upholding a definition of “job creators” that does not turn on the dedicated effort to create jobs is that it becomes hard to figure out what distinguishes the “job creators,” as a group, from everyone else — at least beyond their relative wealth. All Americans spend, save, and invest in varying degrees; most just do so with a lot less money.

In this light, the “jobs creators” rhetoric highlights a theory of capitalism in which those at the very top of the economic pyramid end up supporting the base. We might call this theory the Visible Hand of Capitalism in order to distinguish it from Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. In The Wealth of Nations, he famously located the enduring success of capitalism in an increasingly complex system of work and exchange that sees “the assistance and co-operation of many thousands.” In such a society, no single group can be meaningfully called the “job creators.” They are as much the managers of capital as the men on the factory line.

As an intellectual matter, the Visible Hand of Capitalism has enjoyed support from figures as disparate as Destutt de Tracy, the French philosopher and economist whom Thomas Jefferson championed, to the steel baron and indefatigable philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. As a rhetorical matter, however, the phrase “job creators” appears to come directly from the work of Ayn Rand. She favored the term “creators” to describe an elite caste in society and her highest human ideal.

John Boehner made reference to Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s most famous novel, in a speech he gave recently to the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. “Job creators in America are essentially on strike,” he said, in an obvious nod to the decision by the “creators” in the novel to go on strike in defiance of an intrusive federal government. The nation immediately begins to falter, and the books concludes with its hero, John Galt, giving a marathon address in which he explains to the rest of the country why America is crumbling. The nation, in brief, has scared away the very people who keep the economy working, leaving behind those who are ill-equipped to fend for themselves. Describing the economic and social theory underpinning this vision, Galt says:

In proportion to the mental energy he spent, the man who creates a new invention receives but a small percentage of his value in terms of material payment, no matter what fortune he makes, no matter what millions he earns. But the man who works as a janitor in the factory producing that invention, receives an enormous payment in proportion to the mental effort that his job requires of him. And the same is true of all men between, on all levels of ambition and ability. The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.

For all that it lacks in human decency, Rand’s vision of who makes capitalism work at least has the advantage of isolating a group of people who actually create something. By contrast, the current “job creators” rhetoric seems to elevate a group of people whose shared tax bracket is their only outstanding trait.

As the debate over the president’s jobs bill takes shape, the “job creators” rhetoric is certainly deserving of a little more scrutiny, especially by those who don’t qualify for the distinction. Otherwise, they might as well accept the judgment of a far greater authority than even John Galt:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

John Paul Rollert is a doctoral student at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His essay, “Does the Top Really Support the Bottom? – Adam Smith and the Problem of the Commercial Pyramid,” was recently published by The Business and Society Review.

Emphasis Mine


Our Capitalist System Is Near Meltdown

The ailing euro is part of a wider crisis. A 1930s-style crash threatens us and our financial partners. Collective action is the only solution.

By Will Hutton, Guardian UK

“Eighty years ago, faced with today’s economic events, nobody would have been in any doubt: we would obviously be living through a crisis in capitalism. Instead, there is a collective unwillingness to call a spade a spade. This is variously a crisis of the European Union, a crisis of the euro, a debt crisis or a crisis of political will. It is all those things, but they are subplots of a much bigger story: the way capitalism has been conceived and practised for the last 30 years has hit the buffers. Unless and until that is recognised, western economies will be locked in stagnation which could even transmute into a major economic disaster.

Simply put, the world has trillions upon trillions of excessive private debt financed by too many different currencies whose risk is allegedly mitigated by even more trillions of financial bets which in aggregate do not minimise the systemic risk one iota. This entire financial edifice, underwritten by tiny amounts of capital, has been created over three decades backed by the theory that markets do not make mistakes. Capitalism is best conceived and practised, runs the theory, by hunter-gatherer bankers and entrepreneurs owing no allegiance to the state or society.

This is nonsense. Business and the state co-generate wealth in a system of complex mutual dependence. Markets are beset by mood swings and uncertainty which, if not offset by government action, lead to violent oscillations. Capitalism without responsibility or proportionality degrades into racketeering and exploitation. The prospect of limitless pay is an open invitation to bad, or even criminal, behaviour. Good capitalism cannot happen without referees to blow the whistle or robust frameworks in which markets can function; neither is reliably created by capitalism itself, hence the role of democratic government. Yet the world is trying to solve the legacy of the last 30 years as if none of this were true and, instead, that the practice and theories that created the mess are still valid.

US treasury secretary Tim Geithner, joining EU finance ministers in Poland as again they pondered how best to end the ongoing euro crisis, was at least recognising today’s interdependencies between countries when he urged his fellow ministers to stop bickering because the markets were terrified by the threat of a catastrophic event – with all the risk that posed the US.

George Osborne was also right to declare that a strong euro was in Britain’s interests. But worrying about how a failed euro might impact on yourself is old speak. What the markets need to hear is that western politicians – whether in the eurozone or not – see the euro as part of the potential solution to capitalism’s current crisis, not its cause, and that they are prepared to do all in their power to support the reforms necessary to make the euro survive and take other measures vital to make the world financial system functional again. Geithner and Osborne must put some money where their mouths are.

The euro’s critics, endlessly emphasising that it is a monetary straitjacket and that the best reform now would be its break-up, miss the point. It was not this so-called straitjacket that is the cause of today’s euro crisis. It is the interaction of the euro system with a once-in-a-century crisis of capitalism that its designers and supporters, like its critics, never anticipated. Yes, what the crisis has exposed is that the eurozone needed a ¤1trillion-plus fund to recapitalise bust banks and underwrite sovereign debt write-downs; this was not written into the original treaty. And that the investment and retail banking arms of the EU’s universal banks need to be ringfenced or formally separated, as Sir John Vickers‘s banking commission proposes for Britain – if they are to be remotely safe. But neither notion was a battle cry of the eurosceptics over the last 10 years.

In fact, the existence of the euro has, until now, been a bulwark against disaster. Suppose it had not been created and that the financial crisis in 2008 had broken over a Europe with multiple floating exchange rates and no European central bank – the eurosceptic utopia. The Irish, Portuguese, Greek, Spanish, Italian and French banking systems would have stood alone and they would have collapsed in a domino effect, interacting with the mega-crisis in Britain and the US. Even some German banks would not have been immune. There would have been a 1930s-scale slump, the break up of the EU and a rise in beggar-my-neighbour devaluations and trade protection.

We have not yet escaped that prospect. If the euro breaks up, the cascade of subsequent bank failures and debt write-downs will be no less threatening and Britain will be pulled into the vortex. The EU has created a “financial stabilisation facility” to try to hold the line. But there is no urgency in launching it; it is still not a proper fund but, rather, a stop-gap provider of borrowing facilities and it is too small. As bad, the German and French governments are wedded to collective European austerity; they want to impose long-term balanced budgets not only on themselves but chilling austerity on the unfortunate states which have to borrow to support their banks and bond markets.

An entire continent is to be blighted by lack of demand in the midst of a capitalist crisis, compounded by Britain’s scorched earth, deficit-reduction plans. Already, many European banks are technically insolvent, recognised by Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s new managing director, if not by the banks themselves.

Last week, the Bank of England joined the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan and the Swiss central bank in promising Europe’s banks vital liquidity in dollars, easing the crisis for a while. Time has been bought; we are pitching in to save ourselves. But the outside world needs to go much further. Europe’s stabilisation facility must become a fund with a capacity to lend and intervene to see off speculators: Britain, the US, Switzerland and Japan, along with China and oil-rich Arab states, need to contribute alongside Germany.

In return for coming to the relief of the German taxpayer, we should demand two key concessions: one, that Europe sets about ringfencing its universal banks’ investment banking operations to make them less vulnerable; and second, that no international cash is forthcoming unless the EU commits to a formal plan for growth in which its stronger countries, notably Germany, promise to stimulate their economies. As part of the package, Britain should agree to defer its own deficit- reduction plans and to issue bonds denominated in euros to contribute to the new euro fund.

We are living through the most dangerous confluence of economic circumstances in modern times. Trying to pretend the interdependencies do not exist or that the collapse of the euro is the answer can only make matters worse. It is a straight choice: we do all we can to help each other or risk going down in what could be the worst economic contraction for a century.

Emphasis Mine


5 Reasons Capitalism Has Failed

The root cause of our recent turmoil is the failure of the dominant economic paradigm — global corporate capitalism.

By Bob Burnett, The Smirking Chimp, via AlterNet

(N.B.: Marx was right, after all…)

We live in interesting times. The global economy is splintering. U.S. voters hate all politicians and there’s political unrest throughout the world. The root cause of this turmoil is the failure of the dominant economic paradigm — global corporate capitalism.

The modern world is ruled by multinational corporations and governed by a capitalistic ideology that believes: Corporations are a special breed of people, motivated solely by self-interest. Corporations seek to maximize return on capital by leveraging productivity and paying the least possible amount for taxes and labor. Corporate executives pledge allegiance to their directors and shareholders. The dominant corporate perspective is short term, the current financial quarter, and the dominant corporate ethic is greed, doing whatever it takes to maximize profit.

Five factors are responsible for the failure of global corporate capitalism. First, global corporations are too big. We’re living in the age of corporate dinosaurs. (The largest multinational is JP Morgan Chase with assets of $2 Trillion, 240,000 employees, and offices in 100 countries.) The original dinosaurs perished because their huge bodies possessed tiny brains. Modern dinosaurs are failing because their massive bureaucracies possess miniscule hearts.

Since the Reagan era global corporations have followed the path of least resistance to profit; they’ve swallowed up their competitors and created monopolies, which have produced humongous bureaucracies. In the short-term, scale helps corporations grow profitable, but in the long-term it makes them inflexible and difficult to manage. Gigantism creates a culture where workers are encouraged to take enormous risks in order to create greater profits; it’s based upon the notion that the corporation is “too big to fail.”

Second, global corporations disdain civil society. They’ve created a culture of organizational narcissism, where workers pledge allegiance to the enterprise. Corporate employees live in a bubble, where they log obscene hours and then vacation with their co-workers. Multinationals develop their own code of ethics and worldview separate from that of any national state. Corporate executives don’t care about the success or failure of any particular country, only the growth and profitability of their global corporation. (Many large corporations pay no U.S. income tax; in 2009 Exxon Mobil actually got a $156 M rebate.)

Third, global corporations are modern outlaws, living outside the law. There is noinvisible hand that regulates multinationals. In 1759 Philosopher Adam Smith argued that while wealthy individuals and corporations were motivated by self interest, an “invisible hand” was operating in the background ensuring that capitalist activities ultimately benefited society. In modern times this concept became the basis for the pronouncements of the Chicago School of Economics that markets were inherently self regulating. However, the last five years have demonstrated that there is no “invisible hand”unregulated markets have spelled disaster for the average person. The “recovery” of 2009-10 ensured that “too big to fail” institutions would survive and the rich would continue to be rich. Meanwhile millions of good jobs were either eliminated or replaced by low-wage jobs with poor or no benefits.

Fourth, global corporations are ruining our natural capital. Four of the top 10 multinational corporations are energy companies, with Exxon Mobil leading the list. But there are many indications that our oil reserves are gone. Meanwhile, other forms of natural capital have been depleted — arable land, water, minerals, forests, fish, and so forth. Multinational corporations have treated the environment as a free resource. When the timberlands of North America began to be depleted, lumber corporations moved to South America and then Asia. Now, the “easy pickings” are gone. Global corporations have ravished the world and citizens of every nation live with the consequences: dirty air, foul water, and pollution of every sort.

Fifth, global corporations have angered the world community. The world GDP is $63 Trillion but multinational corporations garner a disproportionate share — with banks accounting for an estimated $4 trillion (bank assets are $100 trillion). Global black markets make $2 trillion — illegal drugs account for at least $300 billion. In many parts of the world, a worker is not able to earn a living wage, have a bank account or drive a car, but can always obtain drugs, sex, and weapons. And while the world may not be one big village in terms of lifestyle, it shares an image of “the good life” that’s proffered in movies, TV, and the Internet. That’s what teenagers in Afghanistan have in common with teenagers in England; they’ve been fed the same image of success in the global community and they know it’s inaccessible. They are angry and, ultimately, their anger has the same target — multinational corporations (and the governments that support them).

We live in interesting times. The good news is we’re witnessing the failure of global corporate capitalism. The bad news is we don’t know what will replace it.”

(N.B.: Perhaps we do – see

Bob Burnett is a writer and activist in Berkeley, Calif.

Emphasis Mine