By most accounts, that Napoleon was a pretty smart fellow. Riding the crest of the energy unleashed by the French Revolution, he revolutionized how war was fought. Year after year, La Grande Armée laid low the feudal armies arrayed against him. His Napoleonic Code established a New World Order.
Going a country too far, he invaded Russia, that adventure leading to the slaughter of his army and bitter exile for himself.
He escaped exile and made his way back to Paris. The French people rallied to his banner, and La Grande Armée marched to his drums once again. But it had been fatally scarred by the Russian debacle, and his foes had studied Napoleon’s methods all too well. There would be no replay of the glory days as the armies of Europe assembled against him.
It has been written that Napoleon’s Waterloo campaign was marked by blunder after blunder, as he lurched first one way then another, charging ahead while wracked by indecision. Indeed. Was the Napoleon of 1815 less smart than Napoleon the Conqueror? Not a relevant question. At root, the material conditions were completely different, as were the possibilities. The Old Guard marching to its doom at Waterloo was not the same Grande Armée that had once terrorized the crowned heads of Europe.
Now the farce.
Somehow the Hillary debacle got me thinking about Waterloo, particularly the endless rehashes of what she did wrong, who struck the fatal blow, etc. (“Et tu, Bernie?”)
Yes, there were lots of things that could be called mistakes. There were so many. But what were the fundamentals. Just as Napoleon’s “problem” was that his weakened army was beset by decisively stronger forces than his (as Von Clausewitz put it, numerical superiority must at some point overpower everything else), so Hillary — with her billion dollar warchest and thousands of endorsements and a lapdog Mainstream Media — was beset by the failing fundamentals of the system she sought to command.
As the Monday morning quarterbacks would have it, her so-called “mistake” was that she failed to reach out to the millions upon millions of Americans who had been suffering through the Obama years and long before. Mistake, they call it. But she was wholly a creature of the billionaire class whose raison d’etre was to profit from that suffering. Would one criticize a rattlesnake for over-reliance on its venom? Theoretically, she could have made more grandiose promises, but she could not have done so with a straight face. In fact, during her debates with Sanders, her refusal to make such promises was her main selling point. She couldn’t sell what she didn’t have and still be Hillary.
That last point is the tough one to get. Her billionaire class could not have delivered. All else flows from that.
Time to pull out Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine.
Way back to 1913, the eve of the “War to End All Wars,” when Rosa Luxemburg published her epic treatise The Accumulation of Capital.
Marx had laid out a brilliant theory integrating economics, politics and philosophy, combined with a stirring call to action (“You have nothing to lose but your chains!”). He had a model showing how capitalism worked, while containing the seeds of its own destruction. Not paying the workers it exploited enough to buy back the goods they produced, capitalism was beset by a falling rate of profit and an increasingly extreme boom bust cycle. The drive to industrialization was creating the system’s own gravediggers — the industrial proletariat would form a collective revolutionary force far more powerful than the pre-capitalist serf and peasant societies that capitalism had superseded. However, Marx’s call to action, based on the working class becoming a self-conscious class-for-itself, was paradoxically coupled with a prediction of socialist inevitability.
Luxemburg, a Polish Jew, was a brilliant economist as well as a leader of the German Social Democratic Party. In the world she looked upon, the revolution wasn’t exactly going according to plan. Even as the revolutionaries of her day swore their eternal class brotherhood, the industrial proletariat of each European nation was about to go to war against its class brothers. The tsar (aka the “hangman of Europe”) was held up as the Russian Donald Trump for the enlightened Germans. Prussian militarism served the same purpose for the freedom-loving French and English.
“Capitalism is prepared to set the world on fire,” Luxemburg warned. “Socialist inevitability” was not a sure bet. The question she posed to the working class was “socialism or barbarism?” Should the revolution fail … well, fail it did, at least in Germany. The 16 million dead in the trenches of World War I was only a foretaste of the horrors to come as the 20th century staggers into the 21st.
Luxemburg was murdered for her part in the unsuccessful German Revolution that followed the war. To the popular mind, she goes down as little more than a footnote to Marxism’s history of failure. She is best remembered (if at all) for her disputes with Lenin regarding the measures required to defend the Russian Revolution, and the merits of Polish nationalism. She was the “nice one” to Lenin the Hard-Ass. But as a Marxist theoretician, she deserves much more than a footnote.
Looking into the abyss …
Luxemburg needed to answer why capitalism hadn’t collapsed already. Tossing aside socialist inevitability, she posed two answers:
- Marx had analyzed capitalism as a closed system. His model posited an economy of capitalists and workers, and he brilliantly analyzed that relationship. But in the real world, capitalism existed alongside pre-capitalist systems, i.e., peasant economies. Thus it was sustained not only by the exploitation of labor, but by sucking the value out of the pre-capitalist and non-capitalist economies existing alongside it through unequal trade relationships. Capital devours all.
- Capitalist subjectivity (activity) is not merely a mechanical reflection of raw economics. To put it most simply, if capitalists think they can invest money and make a profit in doing so, then they will invest money. Capitalists may be stupid, investments may fail, shit can happen. But if they believe, then they will invest, and they are still investing. But now they invest in paper (the stock market), not real productive capacity.
Furthermore, capitalism is not a collection of self-contained or self-sufficient national sectors, with each experiencing the entirety of the drama of decline within its own borders. Rather it is a world system, marked by pockets of prosperity, and areas of irredeemable misery, with the military might of the relatively prosperous sectors holding in check the “wretched of the earth.” One doesn’t need fancy Marxist theory to see the obvious.
The harsh truth is that capitalism has outlived its gravediggers, at least as envisaged by Marx. The industrial workforce could once have threatened to stop the motor of the world. Shut down steel, you shut down coal, shut down auto. Shut down auto, you shut down rubber and glass, etc., the shockwaves of the General Strike potentially become an unstoppable force. These days, you threaten to shut down steel, they laugh and say they were planning to shut it down anyway. The leverage is gone. So we cast about to find a comparable revolutionary force. Or rather, a comparable ORGANIZED revolutionary force.
What remains of the Marxist dream, as amended by Luxemburg, is the specter of an irreversible descent into barbarism, which has been unfolding before our very eyes. The fall of capitalism has to be seen not as one big bust, a single spectacular collapse that drives the working class to overthrow it as imagined by 1960’s leftists, but rather a prolonged descent that can be “managed.” (Not with a bang but a whimper.) The essence of the neocon vision is the global management of that descent.
Beginning to say “No!”
Americans are finally losing what made them the most exceptional people in the world — their ability to shut their eyes to the rest of the world. It was okay to watch vast swaths of Africa turning into death camps without walls, or ignore the million-plus Iraqis dead from military action, death squads, hunger and disease, as long as the OFFICIAL unemployment rate looked good.
With Americans finally beginning to see, the last election cycle saw two major insurgencies rebelling against the Establishment status quo, centered around Bernie Sanders on what was once called the Left, and Donald Trump around what was once called the Right. Both movements shared an understanding that the neocon vision of economic management was turning into a death march. The New World Order had stripped away any protections for workers afforded by national boundaries. The immiseration of “distant” sectors of the world was blowing back home, and the country was engaged in a deliberate policy of constant war and chaos. “Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia,” per 1984.
Both insurgencies had progressive elements, and both rested on fundamentally flawed assumptions. Trump posited, more or less, that if the United States could reinforce its national boundaries (physical and economic) it could somehow exempt itself from the contradictions of capitalist development or under-development afflicting the rest of the world. (Interestingly, the most ambitious attempt to actually do that had been in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. And if Stalin couldn’t pull it off, well …)
The Sanders Political Revolution was a more attractive alternative. Evoking a resurrection of Roosevelt’s New Deal, it promised taxing the rich, reducing the military budget, and increasing wages and social services for the Multitude (or the Precariat, i.e., all those one paycheck or less from total impoverishment).
But this is not 1936. Recall what I said about capitalist subjectivity, or expectations. In 1936, Roosevelt saw real possibilities. America was hurting, but the French and British in particular had been devastated by World War I. Their empires were shaken. From a global, historic perspective, they were ripe for the plucking, and Roosevelt was one tough mother-plucker. Following WW II, his successors scarfed down those shaky empires, replacing plain old imperialism (colonialism) with neo-imperialism, what was to evolve into the neocon New World Order.
Now the string has run out. Economists can still quibble over Marx’s theory of value, but the simple empirics are overwhelming: falling real income, the collapse of any stable full-time labor market, spiraling public debt, weakening balance of trade, and a barely functional infrastructure. Bubbles like a skyrocketing Dow and insane levels of student debt are awaiting just a pin-prick to burst.
The World strikes back.
The options don’t look good.
There is no material basis for a resurrection of the New Deal. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be fighting to defend what it had gained and more. Much more. But it does mean that we have to understand the parameters both economic and political that we operate under.
Take healthcare as an example. That industry, including Big Pharma, the insurance barons, and massive hospital franchise operations, are dripping oodles of cash. Yet they claim that Obamacare (set up to leave them in control) is bankrupting them through its ridiculously modest regulations. We could of course just call them liars, which they are. Greedy liars. Yet Obamacare is truly in a death spiral, with the insurance companies pulling out of the very program that Obama set up for them.
How could that be? Because they are in cutthroat competition with each other, for one thing, leaving them all on the edge of the precipice as the normal way of doing business. But fundamentally, so much of their wealth is paper wealth. So we see the Dow zooming over 20,000 now, on the one hand, yet that is not reflected in the production of real goods and services for real people, on the other.
But couldn’t we just convert to the public healthcare system they use in Europe? Couldn’t we just take the massive spending of the Military-Industrial Complex and use it to build housing, repair our infrastructure, etc.? If we could only elect a Congress willing to do so?
That is a fundamental question, and alas, the answer is very simple and very difficult at the same time. Our economic system is set up to generate profit in very particular ways.
Have you ever tried to beat a sword into a plowshare? How about beating Goldman Sachs into a university? Or General Motors into a rapid transit system? Just take their money, you suggest? But it’s only paper! Real productive capacity has atrophied and hundred-dollar bills don’t even make good toilet paper. Who would manage it? The current Masters of the Universe? How about the people running McDonald’s franchises? But the Democratic Party is interested in no such transformation, because the deep social transformation those things would require would of necessity mark the end of the Democratic Party as well, greater evil or lesser evil or whatever level of evil you would assign them. Modern capitalism is a cultural, moral, and political system. It penetrates deep into every facet of our society, of our daily lives.
Imagine having Congress just pass a bill that says, “Hereinafter the United States will operate as a socialist country.” C’mon, get up off the floor and stop laughing, think about it. What would it take?
Then look at the hysteria generated by Trump saying “Maybe Putin ain’t so bad, or maybe NATO ain’t so great. And maybe the TPP ain’t such a good deal either.” Let there be no mistake. If you looked at the media coverage after the election, those were the issues that really inflamed the Establishment, that provoked the Democratic Party into an unprecedented frenzy, that pulled the Deep State out from under its covers. They weren’t lamenting what would happen to people on Food Stamps, what would happen to the unions, what would happen to ordinary people. They were (and are) scared to death of what would happen to their neocon foreign policy, what would happen to their union-gutting business deals, what would happen if they couldn’t wage constant wars in the Middle East and threaten new wars in Asia.
People had and have good reasons to fear the coming reign of Donald Trump AND Mike Pence AND Paul Ryan AND Mitch McConnell, but those fears were diverted into outrage against one man, to attempt to cripple his capacity to make peace with Russia and cooperate with the Russians in combating ISIS and other real terrorists.
You can’t do it under the current system …
Old doors are closing, but new ones are opening. Step one is to embrace, yes, embrace the fact that things are going to get worse. Embrace, not celebrate. Delusion is not helpful. It’s going to get worse under Trump. It would also have gotten worse under Hillary (you can always call a war). There is no miracle solution. People keep coming up with “one little candle” theories, i.e., “If only everybody would …” But some people do this, others do that, lots of people do nothing, there is no unitary “everybody” able to function as a conscious actor, to light those candles all at once. That shouldn’t be news to anyone.
So we fight on anyway. You watch a boxing match, one thing you often see is a fighter putting on an insane grin after getting their head smashed, or their ribs crushed, as their blood drips onto the canvas. Show no pain. A smart boxer knows from experience that you feel your own pain much worse than it APPEARS your opponent is feeling theirs. Stick to the fundamentals. Even as your head is spinning, you know that your repeated body shots (if you’ve delivered them) are taking their toll. Is your opponent’s guard a mite lower? Footwork a little slower? Hang in there.
So we are reeling. People’s pain is genuine. Out of a sense of desperation, there is an overwhelming pull to clutch at any relief, any prospect of rescue, any stick of wood bobbing in the high seas around us. And the Democratic Party is still there. It is always there, offering comfort in our misery, in our pain. The media tout how, during the last months of the campaign, Obama’s “favorables” kept going up. But that was less a tribute to Obama than it was a cry of despair as the grim recognition sank in that either Hillary or Trump was going to end up our next president.
Now think like the smart boxer. How is the fight going?
Our own weakness (speaking of “us” broadly) is manifest. Huge numbers came out into the streets for the women’s marches, to be sure. And certainly the sentiments of the individuals marching were progressive, often more radical than their self-appointed leaders.
But the focus on Trump as the overall basis of unity rendered them cuddly but impotent. The whole affair was so manipulated to, among other things, reaffirm our touching faith in the CIA and the “17 intelligence services” who since their inception have been lying to everyone about everything, and meddling unashamedly in (overthrowing) foreign governments. People seized on every utterance of the Washington Post and the New York Times and Huffington Post as God’s own truth as long as it was bad for Trump. It focused the fires of a new Cold War against Russia, and the ongoing policies of endless war in the Middle East (we should have invaded sooner and more often, pundits claim without challenge). “Oceana has always been …”
Perhaps worst of all, it has created an atmosphere of hysteria and an accompanying authoritarianism (fascist this, fascist that) that has poisoned our political environment against any possibility of reasoned dialogue, while the Democratic Party and the CIA and the MSM laugh all the way to the cemetery.
Consider the upshot had the “soft coup” actually succeeded in keeping Trump out of the White House. We would now have Mike Pence in the White House, and a Congress that, unlike Trump, had made NO promises about not gutting Social Security and Medicare, which would be sending combat divisions to Syria as we speak, and who would be reviving the TPP. The same forces that saw that as the best outcome are still at it, as they keep cranking up the chaos. Now it’s immigration, tomorrow maybe the Israeli-style “Wall,” but their endgame is the same: rev up the Cold War and secure the neocon New World Order. And millions of progressives would be celebrating!
If we stop the discussion at this point, then there is truly no option but to begin stockpiling canned goods and buying a shotgun.
But like a smart boxer, we need to examine the “pain” of the bipartisan Establishment. Notice that their breathing is becoming more labored, that their swings are getting wilder. The bipartisan Establishment too is in a state of hysteria. It is no small thing that we are seeing the emergence of the Deep State in all its glory.
The situation has gotten out of control. With fundamental economic interests (TPP) and neocon militarism (Cold War with Russia) threatened, time to call out the Deep State, the so-called “Permanent Government” of Wall Street, mega-corporations, the Pentagon,” and the Beltway Establishment. They decided to, one way or another, set aside the last election. The CIA leads the attack, and the desperate Democrats provide the foot-soldiers. Their attempted soft coup against Trump was a very costly failure. Once people sober up, it will not be forgotten that it was the CIA, et al., (and not the Russians) that tried to “meddle” with our democratic process.
Meanwhile, we have massive (check the polls) contempt for the media, Congress, and Wall Street. The entire system is profoundly unstable. Luxemburg’s terminal crisis is (and has been) upon us. One final proof: If Hillary and the DNC could actually deliver jobs and income and infrastructure and social services to the American people, why wouldn’t they have promised to? Roosevelt, in his day, knew that meeting fundamental needs stabilizes the system. (Hell, even the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, creator of the modern welfare state, knew that circa 1880!)
But they can’t. Bernie Sanders (silly boy) actually made such promises, and the Establishment savaged him. “No, no, Bernie, you’re playing with fire.” (Have you ever tried to beat a sword into a plowshare?) I say once again, Hillary’s main selling point was that she was promising so little.
So what is to be done?
Step 1: Calm the fuck down!
We have a long, hard fight on our hands. The long-time stance of the Democratic Party is to pander to instant gratification. Crisis now! (Crumbs now!) But hysteria burns itself out, the current 1984-style 2-minute hate sessions against Trump cannot be sustained indefinitely (unless they drag us into a war, of course). So calm the fuck down. Don’t give a goddamn inch to the anti-Russia hysteria that is an Establishment bottom line.
Then plaster on our own smiles and examine the forces in play:
We see that the bipartisan neocon Establishment is terribly isolated, their political survival contingent on the respective Trump and Sanders (both anti-Establishment) forces being kept at each other’s throats. Part of that enmity is due to cynical Establishment manipulation, and part is due to very real issues of race and class and good-old U.S. jingoism. There is no quick fix, no short-term pandering to racism that will heal the breach anytime soon.
Think strategically, or as Alcoholics Anonymous preaches to those trying to sober up, “accept the things I cannot change, [have] Courage to change the things I can.” Stay steady. There are good Democrats and there are bad Democrats. There are even good Republicans. Calm down, stay steady, and people will gather around you, first in ones and twos, then small groups, then larger ones. The mass hysteria is irrational. But just as a “stage whisper” is heard by the audience even in the back rows, so a calm, steady voice will eventually get through. You can’t out-shout the hysterical.
Pick and choose our issues strategically, not get sucked into the outrage of the moment. Remember that fueling the anti-Trump conflagration puts everything on one individual. It lets the major party Establishments walk scot-free. So for instance, defending Obamacare is a trap. It’s widely hated for good reasons (no price controls, huge deductibles, runaway drug prices, the Mandate). And it’s going down. Better to fight NOW for single-payer, healthcare for all, a measure that would benefit working people across the board, a basis for long-term unity. That radical logic applies to many issues. Jobs for all. Expand Social Security. Get the hell out of the Middle East. Class interests are where our strength lies, not the wisdom of Meryl Streep.
If you can’t do it under the current system, then maybe …
We know that Trump is no more immune to the Luxemburg terminal crisis than Hillary. That he will betray his working class supporters is a sure bet. And at THAT POINT, there will be new possibilities. Easier said than done? Yeah, well, get ready to do some hard work. This will take political courage and a lot of brains. As they used to say, “Things are tough all over. Pretty soon a man won’t be able to sell his own mother.”
And recognize, “Indignation is not courage. Outrage is not brains.”
— Jeff Roby
January 31, 2017