The problem of left strategy dominates this issue of Catalyst. James Galbraith sets the stage in the opening essay in his short but evocative description of the state in our neoliberal era as essentially predatory. The predator state serves the narrow corporate class, most centrally by siphoning national income and wealth upwards, away from the general population and to the richest individuals. Defending both the state and its corporate masters is a phalanx of experts, analysts, and ideologues, whose main goal is to justify this flow of income while combatting attempts at political change.
As Galbraith makes clear, the predator state holds sway on both sides of the Atlantic. What strategies are available to the Left as it seeks to overturn it? In Europe, a central issue is whether the road to progressive reforms goes through the eu, or requires exiting it. Bernd Riexinger, co-chair of Germany’s Die Linke party, argues that progressive exit from the eu would be a poisoned chalice. Even if we tried to resurrect national economic strategies, perhaps of a Keynesian kind, they would be unworkable. The European ruling class simply has too many economic instruments at its disposal to counter such attempts. And demands to exit only fuel racist and xenophobic forces. The only way out, he argues, is to alter the balance of class power on a continent-wide scale.
Costas Lapavitsas agrees that calls for exit have often been pressed by dangerous right-wing forces. But he maintains that the hopes for a progressive are a fantasy, and to ignore this is to yield critical strategic ground to the Right. As long as it is only reactionary parties rejecting the EU and its economic attacks on the working class, the very possibility of left politics in Europe will evaporate. The reality of the EU, Lapavitsas suggests, is that its very structure rules out even a program of mild reforms. The EU is not a neutral institutional mechanism that could be compatible with any of a range of political projects. It is designed to perpetuate the rule of European capital, under German hegemony. Lapavitsas supports his argument with an account of the union’s formation and a compelling analysis of how its institutional structure and policies drove peripheral countries in Europe into crisis and then resolved that crisis at tremendous cost to Europe’s working class and poor. He concludes by stressing that there is no progressive version of the EU to be had — it has to be dismantled if the Left is to advance.
What kinds of policies would be at the heart of such an advance? One of the proposals being floated today is the idea of a universal basic income grant (UBI). This is a guaranteed annual cash payment made by the government to every resident. The left motivation for this proposal is that it would at least partially liberate working people from their dependence on the labor market. In that way, it would reduce employers’ ability to coerce their workforce, since it would decrease the cost of being fired or losing one’s job. If supported by a basic income grant, workers might dare to demand more from their bosses.
While the idea of a basic income has elicited a great deal of support on the Left, it has also met with a wide range of criticisms — as being too timid, too ambitious, unrealistic, immoral, and so forth. David Calnitsky acknowledges that the proposal will not cure capitalism of many of its worst features. But he argues that it will significantly improve the lives of millions of working people by making them more economically secure, increasing their political leverage, and allowing them a degree of freedom that was previously out of reach. Hence, the idea ought to be viewed as a stepping stone to a more ambitious set of demands, not the end point of left strategy.
One of the regions where labor has seemed to be making its biggest strides also happens to be a center of global accumulation — mainland China. In a sweeping analysis of the Chinese labor movement, Ching Kwan Lee suggests that while there has indeed been an increase in labor activism in the country, it should be evaluated with care. She points to several features of the institutional and organizational environment, as well as the nature of workers’ struggles up to now, which have imposed severe limits on the working class’s further political advance. Lee thus calls into question the optimism of much of the Left with respect to China’s possible emergence as a center of class conflict in the global order, at least in the short term.
Between the end of World War II and the end of the century, the US realized its international goals to a degree beyond the wildest dreams of its wartime planners. The Soviet Union collapsed and China along with Vietnam took the capitalist road. Virtually all Third World movements of national liberation were crushed. Every mass, radical, working-class movement, from Brazil to Chile to Portugal to South Africa, was domesticated. By the 1990s, the US seemed to have made the world safe for an untrammeled global neoliberal capitalism successfully governed by an unchallenged US global hegemon. What then was the point, or meaning, of the wave of major military interventions unleashed from around the turn of the twenty-first century in the Middle East and beyond, and with such poor results?
Richard Lachmann offers a novel approach to understanding this development by putting front and center the paradox of apparent US military global superiority and yet glaring US military weakness, as expressed in the series of devastating military defeats — foreshadowed in Vietnam — that the country has suffered in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond. For Lachmann, the key is to understand why modernization has endowed the US with a military of incomparable size and technological sophistication, yet has also prepared it so poorly for the wars the country has actually taken on. Why has the US entered a series of major wars for which it was so ill-prepared, and which it lost so ignominiously? Offering a systematic answer to this question opens the way, argues Lachmann, to identifying and beginning to characterize, a distinct new epoch of US imperialism.
In our second issue we published Mike Parker’s criticism of Michael Schwartz and Joshua Murray’s Catalyst article on the role of the Toyota production system in the US auto industry’s rise and fall. In this issue we publish Schwartz and Murray’s reply to Parker. In exemplary fashion, Schwartz and Murray grant that many of Parker’s concerns are valid. But they continue to maintain that the essentials of their account of why American auto manufacturers lost out to the Japanese still holds, even if, as Parker maintains, Toyotaization did come at the expense of autoworkers and their unions.
The decline of auto was emblematic of the more general economic decline experienced in the 1960s and 1970s, and with it the devastation of so much of the American urban industrial heartland. In a review of recent literature on the rise of mass incarceration in the United States, Adaner Usmani argues that it is in this economic devastation that we find the roots of the carceral state. Usmani examines two recent books on the prison system, which lay the blame for the American gulag squarely on the strain of racism in American liberal culture. Usmani does not deny the salience of racial discrimination, but he argues that the tendency to view mass incarceration as resulting simply from racism is mistaken. The rise of the prison system, along with its racialized character, in fact results from the government’s decision to address the economic devastation visited on the urban working class after the 1970s not by providing more jobs and improving the distribution of income, but with ever-increasing incarceration.
The themes of this issue have been at the center of left political concerns since the Great Recession, if not long before, and we expect that they will preoccupy Catalyst for the foreseeable future. For decades, capitalism has been operating more poorly and speaking to needs of working people less successfully, if at all. It has therefore opened up a field for political resistance more promising than at any time since the 1930s and 1940s. But the fact remains that capital-worker relations have been remarkably transformed, almost beyond recognition, in a brief interval of less than half a century, as have social relations among people of every other sort, be they gender, racial, national, sexual, or cultural. There is much more to understand and a long way to go to put that understanding into practice.