Capitalism Unhinged: Crisis of Legitimacy in the United States*
I recall that in the first classroom lecture I gave, in September 1968, I referred to capitalism as being in crisis. I have never stopped saying this, year after year.
But doesn’t such repetition vitiate the meaning of “crisis”? How can a crisis be more than a transitory episode? If the condition is chronic, are we not then speaking no longer of a historically specific moment but rather of an enduring structure?
My answer is that there is no incompatibility between these two assertions. The crisis is indeed historically specific, but it is also enduring. Cutting across both these observations is the evident fact that all the components of the crisis of capitalism are now intensifying. The crisis is thus at once historical and structural.
Crisis, as Marx and Engels pointed out, is inherent in the capitalist cycle of boom and bust. But, as they also noted, the cumulative impact of such routine crises is to engender a series of bigger crises, which it becomes increasingly difficult – and ever more costly – for the system to counteract. Within this scenario, crises of legitimacy are integral to the larger crisis of the system as a whole.
I want to discuss this phenomenon with reference to the current situation in the United States. The US occupies a distinctive position within the larger structure of capitalism – a position which accounts for the extreme nature of the behaviors observable in the country’s politics. Although that global position has undergone changes over time, all these changes have been in the direction of reinforcing the traits and behaviors that marked the country at its birth.
The initial peculiarity of the US was that its European settlers established within the same national borders two variants of capitalist relations which, elsewhere in the world, existed only in separate countries: on the one hand, in the northern states, a manufacturing economy based on wage labor, and on the other, in the southern states, a plantation economy based on slave labor.
The settlement of both regions involved the destruction of pre-existing indigenous communities, a process which placed a premium on an armed European citizenry, for whom the indigenous peoples were classified – even in legal documents – as less than human. In the southern states, repression of Native peoples would coexist with the exploitation of African and African-descended slaves. The northern economies, for their part, shared complicity in the slave trade, and the ruling elites of the two regions collaborated in designing the constitution under which the new republic would be governed. The North–South ruling-class partnership permeated the country’s economy and would be reaffirmed, in varying guises, over the course of subsequent generations, whether in the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, the Compromise of 1876 (which in effect decreed federal hands-off toward the resurrection of racist rule in the South), or, a century later, in the Republican Party’s “Southern strategy,” which laid the basis for gradually dismantling the voting-rights gains of the 1960s.
The significance of the original North–South collaboration has reasserted itself in recent elections, especially that of 2016, which once again brought to the fore the systematic under-representation of oppressed communities as well as the related distortion in representation (reflecting the attribution of an identical number of Senators to each state) that was institutionalized by the Electoral College. What was crucial, both in 1787 and in 2016, was the establishment of mechanisms to assure that populations lacking voting-rights would nonetheless be counted for purposes of determining the total political weight (in national elections) of a given state.1
The Electoral College is the most immediate factor that skewed the 2016 outcome. Although there are other, more fundamental conditions underlying the rise of Trump, this particular institution is relevant to the “constitutional” dimension of the current crisis. The functional absurdity of the constitutional system is shown not only in the fact that the election was “won” by a candidate who received almost 3 million fewer votes than his nearest rival, but also in the fact that the only politically explicit legal mechanism for overturning that outcome is the impeachment process.
Impeachment depends on charging the president with crimes, which may include violation of the Constitution. In Trump’s case, one can say that his culpability was provable from the outset, in the sense that his far-flung business interests violate a clause in the Constitution that prohibits such entanglements. But the problem is that, under the constitutional rules for impeachment, this legal assessment would have to be accepted by the House of Representatives, whose current majority is made up of Trump’s fellow Republicans. (Although some of these could conceivably turn against him, the chances of this leading to a removal of his whole appointed team – including his vice-president – are negligible.)
The constitutional structure as a whole has thus enabled an extreme lack of accountability, not only to the objective policy-needs of most citizens, but even to their expressed preferences (as illustrated by the continuing popularity of the social-democratic 2016 candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders).2 This elitist aspect of the Constitution has of course characterized it from the beginning, but its extreme impact at the present moment reflects other dimensions of crisis.
This brings us back to the broader question of the US’s position as the world’s preeminent super-power, with the greatest military arsenal in history. We need to keep in mind, on the one hand, that the global imperial structure is a natural continuation and extension of the country’s internal development – the continent-wide conquest carried out by Euro-Americans (which was widely popular except among its victims) – and on the other, how the military ideology and operations required for maintaining global supremacy have in turn fed back into further shaping the domestic political culture.
The convergence of these two causal chains – continental expansion evolving into global empire while imperial ideology nourishes all forms of supremacist behavior at home – is epitomized not only in the person of Donald Trump, but also, and more importantly, in the institutions and culture that have enabled such a figure to obtain substantial popular support (well short of a majority, but enough to weigh heavily in any political confrontation).
In relation to the subject of crisis, we can say immediately that the most extreme and unhinged personification of capitalist greed has taken top office – and has appointed the richest Cabinet in history, in terms of the personal wealth of its members – to preside over the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. This occurrence, despite the contingent nature of some of its immediate causes, is the culmination of a long process, characterized by crises – or extreme developments – along several interrelated axes.
- Especially striking is the military dimension – the spread of US military bases into almost every corner of the globe,3 with important additions, during the last three decades, not only in former Soviet space, but also in West Asia and parts of Africa, together with the inherently unending succession of military operations implied by the stated goal of a “war on terror,” whose limitless scope – implying permanent asymmetrical warfare – was formalized in the National Security Strategy document issued by the Bush II presidency in 2002 and reaffirmed in practice by Obama and Trump.
- The economic dimension of crisis is expressed in the financialization that has taken place since the 1970s, i.e., in the international outsourcing of much of the manufacturing sector and the concurrent shift, domestically, to a service economy with heightened levels of financial speculation. Such activity both depends on and drives the proliferation of ever-more instantaneous and sophisticated high-tech devices. At the same time, it undermines the economic sectors in which the labor movement had a strong presence, thereby exacerbating social/economic inequality and, with it, the scope of popular discontent. The financial meltdown of 2008 and subsequent “recovery” – in which the government rescued banks but not people who lost their homes – only aggravated the inequality, paving the way for further crises.
- In the political sphere, there has been a more or less steady retreat from the progressive measures of earlier decades, as the flooding of the electoral arena by corporate funding has washed away even the most minimal guarantees to non-corporate candidates for elective office. The country’s two dominant parties have been equally complicit in this process, especially since the 1984 formation of the Democratic Leadership Council, which explicitly renounced the Democratic Party’s New Deal legacy of social welfare policies. While the party still invokes some of the old progressive rhetoric, its global financial and military priorities are indistinguishable from those of the Republicans. The crisis to which this leads creates anxiety among those who have suffered economic decline over the last three decades (a majority of the population), who now doubt the capacity of the Democrats – as well as the Republicans – to address their needs.4
- The legacy of slavery has not disappeared, and indeed has contributed to the current crisis not only via the Electoral College but in other, more direct ways as well. It’s worth noting that 160 of Trump’s 306 electoral votes came from states of the former Confederacy (he won all of them except Virginia). Beyond this, the former beneficiaries of slavery have adapted to new conditions in ways that preserve key aspects of the old power structure. At one level, they have perpetuated the vigilante culture associated with the imposition of white supremacy (and symbolized by the Ku Klux Klan) – with the difference that a high proportion of the terror is now carried out by police officers. At another level, following the 1960s termination of legal segregation and in response to the subsequent surge of revolutionary sentiment in the black population, the federal government embarked on a deliberate campaign of criminalization, largely on the pretext of combating a drug trade that the government itself had done much to promote.5 A key outcome has been to imprison a higher proportion of the population than any other country. At any given moment, approximately 7 million people in the US are under some form of penal supervision (with additional millions of family members directly affected); among ex-prisoners, an estimated 6 million are permanently disenfranchised under the laws of many of the US states.6 Moreover, large prison-populations are included in the census-count in rural areas where they are typically held, but are not counted in the urban communities from which they typically come.
- The criminalization that is applied to the black working class has its equivalents in relation to other targeted population groups. These have reached an extreme level in (a) the drive to place a total ban on refugees from Muslim-majority countries – ironic in view of the US role in creating the devastation they seek to escape – and (b), in regard to mostly Latino working-class immigrants, the draconian measures of targeting and deportation aimed not only at those without documents but also now, under Trump, against people brought to the US as young children and given temporary authorization to remain as part of the DACA program (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) instituted under Obama.
- The already limited scope of public services in the US has been reduced even more in recent decades through privatization agendas applied especially to public health, education, the penal system, and mass communications. All this has been accelerated under the Trump presidency, building in some cases on initiatives taken in separate states. Many urban public schools have been closed; private prisons have been built; and there is now a drive by the Federal Communications Commission to abrogate “Net Neutrality,” i.e., to impose full commodification of access to the Internet (parallel to the 2010 Supreme Court decision which, supposedly in the name of “free speech,” allows unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns).7
- Astronomical campaign expenditures and the disenfranchisement of ex-prisoners, added to long-standing distortions generated by the Electoral College, are two aspects of a broader crisis of the electoral system. Numerous stratagems are employed to limit the votes of populations of poor people (disproportionately people of color). These include, in addition to gerrymandering: 1) burdensome identification requirements; 2) restrictions on times available for voting; 3) limitations on the availability of polling places in targeted districts; 4) circulating false and sometimes legally intimidating information; and 5) removal of voters’ names from the registry on the invented pretext (based on similarities of names) that they are simultaneously registered in more than one state (an accusation that has never been followed up by an actual prosecution).8 On top of all these measures is the almost universal reliance on computers for casting and counting votes. The computers are subject to manipulation but are shielded by corporate proprietary rights from any kind of inspection.9 The resulting distortions take place within a legal framework in which there is no constitutional guarantee of the right to vote and in which, in the primary campaigns, the dates for voting and the rules of eligibility to vote are set by the contending parties, differ from state to state, and are administered by openly partisan state officials. As the dominant parties become increasingly unpopular (in the 2016 election, surveys showed that both major candidates were viewed negatively by a majority of the population),10 manipulation of the voting process will become ever more essential to their keeping a grip on power.
- Capping all these measures and presaging irreversible damage is the Trump government’s ferocious assault on environmental protection. The ecological crisis has already taken on extreme proportions,11 but the agents of capital are so intent on assuring the continuation of unobstructed resource-plunder that they go to the point of suppressing scientific findings – prohibiting even any mention of climate-change – in the very government agency that is responsible for environmental protection (the EPA).
- This whole arsenal of impositions from above has generated and been strengthened by a recrudescence – harking back to the 1930s – of rabid right-wing mobilization at the base. Although that constituency has been a steady presence in US society since the post-World War II Red Scare, its violence has become increasingly brazen – as recently shown by the armed Nazis in Charlottesville12 – under the sway of Trump’s bombast and in tune with his openly racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic agendas. The fusion of unrestrained greed at the top with the appeal of blatant supremacism at the base is clearly in the tradition of fascism, which has always been the bourgeoisie’s fallback when its business-as-usual politics are discredited.13
- Finally, we cannot ignore in all this the enabling role played by the corporate media. Crude right-wing outlets such as Fox News emit disinformation directly, but the more respected and sophisticated New York Times (for example), faced with environmental denialism, has lent its “liberal” image to legitimating that pseudo-scientific posture by offering it a regular platform on its Op-Ed page.14 The overall mix of right-wing rants with centrist conformity (which the Right calls “liberal”) results in a wall of imposed ignorance, exemplified by 24/7 TV coverage of extreme weather events without a single interview of a scientist who might allude to rising ocean-temperatures.
If we can conclude anything from this brief survey, it is that the US polity has lost all capacity to deal rationally – in terms of long-term viability – with the problems that it faces. Lacking a rational/effective response, it falls back on the twin strategies of distraction and repression (which correspond, not coincidentally, to the two export sectors in which the US leads the world: the entertainment industry and the arms industry).
Another way of characterizing this historical moment would be as a breakdown of the ruling class’s political apparatus. This is the sense in which one might speak of a “crisis of the political” – or crisis of legitimacy – which, though singularly acute in the US, finds parallels in the sharpening polarization visible in countries around the world.15
As our account makes clear, some elements of this crisis are peculiar to the US, and some are system-wide. Even those developments that are distinctively “American,” however, have a global impact. This was especially true in the immediate post-World War II period. At that time, US power was to some extent matched by the country’s relative domestic prosperity (as the only major power that was not physically devastated by the war), and US capitalist culture was widely admired and imitated.
Some aspects of the current crisis, however, are inherently system-wide; we should address these before returning to the specifically US dimensions of the crisis. The system-wide dimension of crisis involves the new stage of development that has been reached in the course of the incessant process of technological transformation – characterized in the Communist Manifesto as one of “everlasting uncertainty and agitation” – that is inherent to the capitalist drive for profit.
Like capitalist crisis, capitalist technological transformation is at once historical and structural. It occurs in an uninterrupted succession of innovations, but it is also marked, in the course of this progression, by specific new phases, reflecting multi-dimensional qualitative changes that are manifested both in production relations and in social, political, and cultural developments.
The new technological phase which frames the current crisis (the one set in motion by the 2008 financial meltdown) is characterized by pervasive computerization.16 The associated innovations intersect with the political crisis in a number of ways:
a) They replace human labor-power in many occupations (skilled as well as unskilled), thereby aggravating unemployment and creating downward pressure on wages.
b) They facilitate the coordination of work at widely dispersed sites around the globe, thus making enterprises less dependent on the domestic labor-force while weakening the labor movement everywhere.
c) They displace routine tasks onto uncompensated users or consumers, who then must themselves acquire the necessary instruments (computers, smart-phones, etc.) and the skills to use them.
d) They speed up speculative trading, increasing its scope, thereby reinforcing financial bubbles, whose “bursting” ignites or amplifies political crisis.
e) They make possible a new form of military aggression, epitomized by drone warfare, in which targets are attacked from great distances with no risk of casualties to the aggressor (whose leaders subsequently respond with hypocritical denunciation when its own citizens are subjected to terrorist attacks).
f) They introduce, as noted above, a new source of untraceable corruption into the electoral process, as electronic voting machines are subject to surreptitious programming by their corporate owners.
g) They provide a new medium for a constant flow of instantaneous one-way messaging from those in power to the general population (e.g. Trump’s tweets).
h) The imbalance between a steady barrage of messages from a centralized source and the disparate responses from diverse oppositional sources reinforces the power of the state to shape public opinion.
i) The same dynamic obstructs any attempts to refute deliberate misinformation. Thus, in the last months of the 2016 US election campaign, Facebook carried a higher number of invented stories (e.g., one which asserted that the Pope had endorsed Trump) than it did of reports of actual events.17
j) The shift of all transactions to digitized formatting – whether we’re speaking of credit-card purchases, internet-searches, social networking, or interactions with police or other authorities – facilitates total surveillance.
k) The mass addiction to social networking and to the use of hand-held electronic devices that are always within immediate reach has effects which, although not yet fully understood, are surely conditioned by profit-calculations on the part of their designers, and have tended to reinforce pre-existing proclivities – some of them dangerous – among their users.18
In what way do these global expressions of high-tech capitalism interact with features distinctive to the US polity?
Some of the pertinent links are clear almost by definition. It should come as no surprise, for example, that the global US military presence entails a worldwide surveillance apparatus. But beyond such broad patterns, the technological sophistication is tied to a highly complex and contradictory infrastructure. The most advanced technology does not necessarily indicate the greatest efficiency. In fact, the opposite is more typically the case, as one sees that what spurs the newest refinements is precisely the complexity of the conditions – reflecting institutional irrationalities ranging from traffic-congestion to war to massive population movements to speculative financial transactions to variations in legal codes to stratagems for criminal activity – that the apparatus is expected to address.
The chaotic interplay of such phenomena, superimposed upon the accelerating deterioration of the natural environment, is a source of constant danger to individuals – in rough proportion to the precariousness of their social standing – but is at the same time, by contrast, a source of reinforcement to the power of capital. In effect, the very disorganization of the social whole serves to keep people from recognizing any intentionality in the structures of domination. The locus of power is obscured by the surface appearance of a seemingly random set of barriers to any effective popular challenge. The cacophony of electoral regulations is a perfect expression of this larger framework of purposeful disorder – realizing the constitutional goal expressed in 1788 by James Madison when he described the new republic as one that, by virtue of its vastness and diversity, would keep any popular majority from being able to perceive and implement its common interest against that of the propertied class.19
It is the very extremity – and hence urgency – of the resulting conjuncture that provides the grounding for whatever popular counter-thrust may develop. Signs pointing in such a direction are not lacking. Within the US, they include: 1) numerous surveys since 2012 showing an openness to socialism (unprecedented since the 1930s), especially among young people and among African Americans; 2) the unexpected resonance of a political campaign – that of Bernie Sanders in 2016 – that located the blame for people’s hardships squarely in the extreme concentration of wealth;20 3) the successes of Socialist or independent Left municipal councilors in Seattle and in Richmond, California; 4) the sudden growth in membership of socialist organizations following Trump’s 2016 victory; 5) the proliferation of radical sources of information and analysis on current affairs, thanks partly to new dimensions of “citizen journalism” made possible by social media (e.g., documenting police killings); and 6) the massive popular mobilizations that have arisen in response to those killings (Black Lives Matter) and to Trump’s investiture, his Muslim travel-ban, and the explosion of white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville.
What is lacking, of course, is the revolutionary political force that can build on these developments and carry them to the next level. The term revolution has itself been abused in the rush of agents from every imaginable vantage point to tap the depths of mass anger. A foretaste of this practice was the right-wing “Reagan revolution” pitch of the 1980s. Sanders later proclaimed “Our Revolution” as the continuation of his 2016 presidential run, but, despite the rotten treatment he received during the campaign at the hands of the Clinton machine, he steered the so-named organization into supporting Democratic candidates. Perhaps the ultimate commentary on this fad came from France when the centrist and pro-“Europe” presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron – standard-bearer for continuing the broadly unpopular policy of neoliberal austerity – chose Révolution as the title for his 2016 book-length credo.
The authentic revolution will become possible to the extent that theory (as Marx put it) grips the masses. A crisis of legitimacy, i.e., the massive popular rejection of the established order, is a necessary precondition to that moment. At present in the US, the grounds for such rejection are felt – albeit to varying degrees and often incoherently – in multiple constituencies. At a mass level, the sentiment is perhaps strongest and most sharply focused among prisoners, both because of the treatment to which they are routinely subjected (perhaps slavery’s most direct legacy)21 and because of the opportunities they have for collective reinforcement of their perceptions. While each constituency must come to consciousness on its own terms, all must be ready to see how their own struggles are bound up with those of other oppressed groups – and with the struggle for our common survival in face of the devastating continuation of capitalist plunder.
There can be no simple recipe for bringing the various constituencies together. The necessary solidarity can be encouraged by theoretical understanding (to spotlight their common subjection to the hardships and the restraints imposed by capital), but it also requires organically emerging leaders who are willing to seek out such understanding and who are at once close enough to their communities to enjoy credibility and yet also sufficiently independent-minded to transcend parochial assumptions as to who can be their comrades.
*Expanded and updated from an article first published in German in Das Argument: Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Sozialwissenschaften, no. 323 (2017/3); republished with the kind permission of its editors; originally presented in a panel “The Crisis of the Political,” Institut für kritische Theorie, Berlin, June 9, 2017. For their comments and suggestions, I thank Mat Callahan, Al Campbell, George Comninel, Hester Eisenstein, Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Carl Grey Martin, Ludmila Melchior-Yahil, Liz Mestres, Gerald Meyer, and Suren Moodliar.
1. A similar outcome is regularly produced in the House of Representatives by means of gerrymandering: “In 2012, Democratic Party candidates managed to win only 201 of 435 US House of Representatives elections despite receiving an overall majority of the total combined votes in nationwide House election races.” Jowei Chen and David Cottrell, “Evaluating partisan gains from Congressional gerrymandering,” Electoral Studies 44 (2016), 329, http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jowei/gerrymandering.pdf
3. See David Vine, Base Nation: How U.S. Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (New York: Henry Holt, 2015).
4. See Chris Hedges, “Trump Is the Symptom, Not the Disease” (May 14, 2017), http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/trump_is_the_symptom_not_the_disease_20170514
5. On the police role, see Steve Martinot, “Probing the Epidemic of Police Murders,” Socialism and Democracy, 27:1 (March 2013); on criminalization, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), and Mumia Abu-Jamal and Johanna Fernández, eds., The Roots of Mass Incarceration: Locking up Black Dissidents and Punishing the Poor, special issue of Socialism and Democracy, 28:3 (November 2014); on government complicity in the drug trade, Gary Webb, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998).
6. U.S. Department of Justice, Correctional Populations in the United States, 2014 (January 2016), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus14.pdf; The Sentencing Project, Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer (2016), http://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Felony-Disenfranchisement-Primer.pdf
7. See John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money-and-Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (New York: Nation Books, 2013).
8. Such measures played a decisive role in “swing states” that Trump won by a narrow margin. In Wisconsin, where the winning margin was less than 30,000 votes, more than 200,000 people were disqualified by a new voter-ID law; in Michigan, where the winning margin was only 10,000, some 75,000 votes in the heavily African American city of Detroit were lost as a result of malfunctioning optical scanners; in North Carolina, tens of thousands of African American votes were blocked by a reduction in the number of polling stations.
9. On this and other methods of electoral fraud, see especially Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2016), as well as the works of Mark Crispin Miller.
11. See especially Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).
12. See the graphic half-hour HBO documentary (including interviews) at https://video.vice.com/en_us/video/charlottesville-race-and-terror-vice-news-tonight-on-hbo/59921b1d2f8d32d808bddfbc
13. See John Bellamy Foster, Trump in the White House: Tragedy and Farce (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2017).
14. Jim Naureckas, “Three Reasons Bret Stephens Should Not Be a NYT Columnist–and the Real Reason He Is One” (May 2, 2017), http://fair.org/home/three-reasons-bret-stephens-should-not-be-a-nyt-columnist-and-the-real-reason-he-is-one/ The vital stake of capital in ignoring environmental science is explained and acknowledged by some of its enforcers in Chapter 1 of Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).
15. I have in mind, for example, the growing right-wing movements in Europe, the drive of the Israeli government to impose total loyalty, and the August 2017 decision of the quintessentially corrupt Temer government in Brazil to open vast areas of the Amazon to private development.
16.For general discussion, see Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Hightech Kapitalismus in der grossen Krise (Hamburg: Argument Verlag, 2012).
18. Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life (London: Verso, 2017), 24. See also John Lanchester, “You Are the Product,” London Review of Books, 39:16 (August 17, 2017).
19. The Federalist Papers [available in many editions], No. 10 (4th paragraph from the end). See also Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
20. See Jan Rehmann, “Bernie Sanders and the Hegemonic Crisis of Neoliberal Capitalism,” Socialism and Democracy, 30:3 (November 2016).
21. See Victor Wallis, “13th and the Culture of Surplus Punishment,” San Francisco Bay View, August 2017, http://sfbayview.com/2017/07/13th-and-the-culture-of-surplus-punishment/