Capital and Its Discontents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult

Reviewed by Paul

Sasha Lilley (ed.), Capital and Its Discontents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult (Oakland: PM Press, 2011)

This extraordinary book appears near the head of the new radical “Spectre” series edited by Lilley, a radio broadcaster of the acclaimed “Against the Grain” interview series, which offers both a running commentary on current problems and a reprise of near-forgotten classics. In the latter category, E.P. Thompson’s giant (500+-page) William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, returned to print last year with a decided splash. The greatest historian in the English language until his 1993 passing, Thompson began as a biographer of his favorite British figure, the utopian who was also a founding figure of the socialist movement, epic interior designer, and defender of old buildings as well as the threatened English countryside. “Spectre” has, then, the broad aim and humane spirit badly needed to revive radical thought today.

Capital and Its Discontents brings to the printed page fifteen interviews conducted by Lilley for radio. They are rightly called “conversations,” as the astute interviewer presses hard questions in order to get hard answers. This is particularly important because events since the onset of the “Arab Spring” seem to have overwhelmed, or at least put on the back shelf, the dark notes of radical pessimism that nearly and sometimes completely overwhelmed Marxists, anarchists and Greens alike until little over a year ago.

Lilley wants her interviewees to see deeply, without losing sight of goals that have become well-nigh invisible. Sometimes in the outcome, the pessimism is too heavy, because thinkers like Tariq Ali want so badly for listeners and readers to drop the later 20th-century paradigms of “liberation” – capital challenged on all sides by nationalist-minded insurgents of the Third World allied to radical students in the West. The market, armed by US military force above all, came, saw and conquered as the Soviet Bloc fell, leaving us all in a new place. Not in all respects a worse place, but definitely a different one.

But what is this place, and how has it changed? Vivek Chibber, another of the deep pessimists, epitomizes the close look at the “national capitalism” that started with a vision of socialist planning but seemingly demanded an alliance with the developing capitalist base of underdeveloped economies, squeezed the countryside for low-priced resources (human and otherwise), and built industry from the bottom up. It looked good on paper, all the “growth.” In the end, however, workers’ movements and most of the middle classes were sidelined, and capitalism won out, although in places like South Korea it was a well-controlled capitalism successfully using the power of the State. Here we are now, for instance in India (Chibber’s homeland), with sixty years or more of socialist planning if not down the drain, then unrelated to socialist objectives of a cooperative economy. “Development” successfully squeezed the countryside for cheap labor and resources, with all the consequences we know so well by now.

David McNally offers another side of the same coin in his analysis of the ongoing crisis of profitability and the near-total financial bust of 2007-09. Sinking profits since the 1970s prompted the financialization of the economy. The resulting crises should open new paths of resistance. The US, losing its commanding lead in the global economy, went off the gold standard, placed its future into in the hands of high-prestige swindlers, given ballast in the short run by military power but in the process doubly undercut – or so it now seems. McNally suggests that the Left put forward cooperative “stimulus” ideas, echoing the “sewer socialism” of a century ago. Good idea, but less than no luck so far, as privatization of remaining public resources marches onward.

Ellen Meiksins Wood, with her deep Marxist mastery of early capitalist history, gives us a succinct and sometimes surprising view of the rise of Empire, going back to Roman times. The Romans developed their empire through the spread of private property, a big innovation, as the Dutch commercialized national holdings well over a millennium later. The English replaced the ties of blood with the ties of property, out in the countryside, which eventually gave them a national strength unparalleled. She argues that full-blown imperialism emerges only after the Second World War, because only by then was the world prepared to be completely conquered. At that, global capital can’t manage the system, and national capitals have their own competing interests. Chaos hides behind an infinite number of smaller contradictions.

Many of the other interviewees follow these logical paths, but in different ways that make all of them interesting and fruitful to read. Among the most unusual, I count John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review editor and eco-socialist savant. He argues that 20th-century Marxists, for the most part, threw out the Enlightenment baby with the War Science bathwater. That is: Lukács and other big thinkers pushed scientific questions aside as inherently utilitarian, alien to their own vision of revolution. In doing so, they unintentionally avoided Marx’s own fascination (he wrote his thesis on Epicurus!). Marx sought a holistic understanding of the contradictions of capitalist phenomena, such as the absorption of the medieval British countryside and its inhabitants into quasi-modern society, with enormous suffering and destruction (one wishes that Marxists and particularly Engels had listened more to what William Morris was trying to tell them about hedgerows and such).

Where does all that lead us? It’s not exactly a fair question, because so much of what we see in front of us now has happened in just the few months since this book went to press. As the final entry—an interview with libertarian thinker Andrej Grubacic—reads, there really is no strategic clarity for the Left. More troubling for Gruabacic (most of us outside of the InfoShop world would not necessarily have noticed) is that the revival of anarchism during the 1990s is now itself badly out of date.

What we have seen in Wisconsin (where this reviewer lives and cheerfully takes part in the struggles) is a big “NO!” to loss of existing rights and services, accompanied by an enormous amount of spontaneous creativity in many different venues (a large portion of these being humorous by intent), adding up to a great education in struggle, if no strategic conclusions. The strategy is to defeat what is in front of us; and the learning process includes a realization of how little alternative the Democrats have to offer to the Republican offensive. Avowed anarchists are few, avowed socialists hardly more numerous among the 100,000 or more people in motion. Jolly beer drinkers are many, along with families of all ages and types, all seemingly eager to chant “What’s Disgusting? Union Busting!” and yet more hopefully, “THIS is what democracy looks like.” That is, ourselves.

I am hoping some of these 100,000 will find their way to Capital and Its Discontents. It would do them a lot of good.

Paul Buhle Madison, Wisconsin