What would Karl do? Part 3: Radicals reflect on the current incarnation of global capital

Part 3 of an extended conversation between broadcast journalist Angie Coro, members of Inkwell, and Sasha Lilley about Capital and Its Discontents:

W: Tony Judt talked a lot about “visual representations of collective identity,” in Ill Fares the Land.” We had our face-to-face rituals—such as going to the Post Office for our mail or our pension—that have now been replaced by “friends” or “communities” across the world. Yet, we remain local persons, electing politicians within specified borders.

Sasha Lilley: While I haven’t read the Judt book, W, I do think that the ways our lives are structured, in and out of work, have a significant impact on the potential for us to come together collectively.

A young writer called Jim Straub published a very interesting article several years ago about the inverse relationship between union membership and membership in evangelical churches in the Midwest. He argued that as unions have been declining as a result of deindustrialization, conservative evangelical churches have stepped into the void left by them. These mega-churches offer people social supports of various kinds, at a time when public services and the social safety net have been cut back, such as childcare, job help, money, as well as a face-to-face sociability. I think that there is a visceral need that people have for such tangible, in-person communality and that the left should take heed of this.

That isn’t to suggest that the internet can’t add to such feelings of solidarity. During my short foray into The Well, I’ve been impressed both by how smart and how amicable the conversations appear to be here. What I’ve seen bucks the conventional wisdom that the Internet—and the Left—don’t bring out the best in people. While I don’t want to take the conversation too far afield, I’d love to know why you all think that’s not the case here. The lack of anonymity can only be a partial answer, I would think.

PR: Quite right about evangelical churches providing these services. Sarah Posner’s book, God’s Profits, alerted me to this. The painful irony is that many of these churches were GOP recruiting grounds, especially during the Rove era, and as wage stagnation, non-military job prospects, and access to higher education worsened under GOP policies, the parishioners depended on their churches even more.

DG: And those churches sold them out by encouraging them to vote in the plutocrats' interest rather than the community's. 

Sasha, I think accountability is the single most important factor in the generally civil tone of the WELL. The fact that people pay to be here is also important; people are extremely unlikely to pay a hundred bucks a year for a place to spraypaint.

Angie Coiro: One thing I admire about so much of your book is the refusal to treat issues, people, and groups with a sweeping good/bad brush. Let’s apply that to unions. I doubt too many people here would argue that labor unions are conceptually good and necessary to a fair economic structure. But in practice, we see in unions sometimes the same faults we do in other elements: power struggles, money grabbing, corruption. In some egregious cases (locally, the MUNI transit union comes to mind*), the power of the union can actually interfere with the best possible product and service reaching the consumer.

The economic fall is both challenge and opportunity for wider unionization. But what has to happen within the unions to make best possible outcome universally and in terms of service as important as the standing of the individual employee? How do we (and I include myself, as a union organizer and proponent) show the public that what’s best for the union IS best for the larger society, and eliminate those instances where that hasn’t been the case?

Example: <>

For another questionable result of union power, see <>

Sasha Lilley: Unions have not done themselves a lot of favors in quite a while. As I mentioned earlier, the structure of unions has been very problematic, and many of their leaders have often been very cosy with management—along with out and out corruption in some cases—making some bizarre deals in the process. These deals are ultimately not good for their workers and can be alienating to everyone else. As a friend who heads up a progressive East Coast union puts it, over the past thirty years, unions have acted in many ways like a special interest—asking for narrow sectoral protections—so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they are easily smeared as a special interest now.

This is an extremely difficult time for unions. They’re being demonized by politicians and much of the media, while facing some of the most aggressive anti-union legislation and cuts to their members. They’ve been making concessions about wages and benefits for years, to the point where for many unions, there’s not a lot left to give up. But if they’re not seen to be making concessions, they’re attacked for being greedy. And unions are being pitted against each other, especially private sector against public sector unions. (Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that some private sector unions have been reluctant to come out for public sector workers, since public sector workers didn’t come out for them when they were under attack in previous years.)

This is really the time that labor should make it clear that their interests are the interests of the public at large (your grandmother deserves medical care from someone who’s not forced to give assembly-line type treatment, your kids should be taught in small classes, union workers wages can lift the wages of non-union workers—the examples are endless). They also need to fight for those who don’t have union protections (the vast majority of workers), the unemployed, and those who rely on the services union workers provide, and make it clear that that’s what they’re doing.

Some of that is happening. Here in California, alliances have been forged between education workers, staff, and students, who have seen their tuition skyrocket and classes disappear. Wisconsin, of course, epitomized that spirit. A clear majority of Americans support collective bargaining rights and polls show most US workers would prefer to be in a union if given the choice. So despite the demonization, much of the public gets it. But those in unions need to extend their work and solidarity outward.

And unions, as I’ve said earlier, need to find ways to reinvent themselves and jettison the old ways of doing things, which ultimately must come from inside unions themselves. One example of such reform efforts, for a union which is more bottom up, not interested in making sweetheart deals, and oriented to the wider community—can be seen with the small but feisty National Union of Healthcare Workers. Another is the reform caucus—Academic Workers for a Democratic Union—which just swept the leadership of the UAW local that represents graduate students in the UC system.

Angie Coiro: On another note—I couldn’t help but think of this discussion today, when I saw this headline from the New York Times: “Health Insurers Making Record Profits as Many Postpone Care.”

Companies continue to press for higher premiums, saying they need protection against any sudden uptick in demand once people have more money to spend on their health.

Story at <>

In other words: thank god, consumers can’t afford to get the care they need right now. We’re raking in the gold. But just in case the economy improves, and people start demanding what they’re paying for, we need MORE MONEY.

Once I stopped vomiting, I had two thoughts:

1.) Kudos to the Times for putting the insurer’s demands succinctly in context; and

2.) I can’t wait to hear what Sasha’s got to say about this.

Sasha Lilley: How appallingly cynical the health insurance industry is, Angie. But it’s not too surprising. That sort of thing is happening everywhere.

One of the themes of my book is how economic crises can be beneficial for the business class (at least those who manage not to go bankrupt). Aside from wiping out competitors, businesses can take advantage of workers who are desperate to hold onto their jobs (or to not spend money on high deductibles and co-payments in this case).

What we’ve seen, following the collapse of corporate profits at the start of the crisis, is that profits have gone through the roof in the last several years. They’re as high as they’ve ever been. (In the 3rd quarter of last year, U.S. corporate profits were the highest measured since the government starting keeping records—over sixty years ago: Workers are working harder and faster — labor productivity is soaring—but no one feels secure enough to demand higher wages. Since 2008, the cost of labor in the US has had its sharpest cumulative decline since the 1950s.

One can analyze the resulting vast upward transfer of wealth by any number of measures, but one way is to look at the luxury goods sector. Its sales are skyrocketing. In 2010, the world’s largest luxury goods group had sales jump by an unprecedented 19%. Someone’s doing well, but it’s not most of us.

LD: Sasha, what unions have you belonged to and what were your experiences?

Sasha Lilley: My personal experiences with unions have been very positive, Lena. I’m a member of the Communications Workers of America Local 9415, where I’m an elected shop steward for our bargaining unit (which is my second stint as union steward for CWA). My workplace, KPFA Radio, is famously dysfunctional, to say the least. While we’re a small bargaining unit within CWA, the larger union has consistently come out for us, through all our trials and tribulations—which I’m afraid have been many at this point.

And we’ve received tremendous support from workers in other unions, from people walking our picket lines to taking up our cause in myriad other ways. I recently went to a meeting of the Alameda County Central Labor Council to talk about the challenges that workers at KPFA are facing, and rank and file workers from a wide variety of unions jumped up to make donations to KPFA, in order to help us during our fund drive. Unions are one of the few places where the notion of solidarity is a fundamental value (whether or not its effectively practiced) and during a time like this they’re needed more than ever. But, as has been mentioned before, for their own survival they need to reorient themselves.

Sasha Lilley: I just realized, T, that I didn’t answer your question a little while back about whether the outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries has made American elites less concerned about the wellbeing of people in the United States.

I’m not so sure that the location of production is the main problem. I think there is a basic divide between the interests of those in the business class and the rest of us, whether manufacturing is going on overseas, or whether we’re producing services domestically (which most of us are doing).

I think you zeroed in on the problem when you wrote that “corporations survive by returning a profit to their shareholders.” That involves squeezing both folks abroad and those of us here (as I alluded to earlier when I wrote about how the rate of profit in the United States is as high as it’s been in 60 odd years, while workers in the US are working at an incredibly fast rate).

At the level of national politics, those in both parties are following policies that favor those corporations and businesses (which shouldn’t be surprising, since both parties are funded by those corporations and are enmeshed in their world). In the case of the Republicans, they’re somewhat more forthright about their goals. In the case of the Democrats, they talk about how much they don’t want to do these things — tax breaks for the wealthy, cuts to essential social welfare programs, etc — and then they go along with them anyhow.

DG: I don’t think we’re seeing the unraveling of capitalism. I think we are seeing the unraveling of society. Capital is the parasite that has taken over the host. Those with the most bucks can protect themselves from the misery much longer than the rest of us can, but eventually the air itself will be toxic. Greed kills.

TAB: I think D makes a very important point. It’s stunning to me that the ultra-wealthy right don’t see that ultimately they’re cutting off the roots of their own wealth.

W: But not for a long time. There are too many people to exploit and too many services and goods to commoditize. As capital becomes more voracious and society shrinks, the process will, I think, accelerate. Collapses, too, and they will accelerate the wealth transfer and further diminishment of society.

Sasha Lilley: Capitalism may have appeared to be unraveling. But it’s not so simple, as we know. Crises are times where capitalism tries to renew itself. I think that’s what we’re witnessing right now. It’s not the business class that is hurting, but what David is calling “society”—the rest of us, to varying degrees.

(High profit rates, however, do not necessarily indicate that elites have overcome the crisis. Various analysts, such as “Capital and Its Discontents” contributor David McNally, argue that the business class has just pushed the day of reckoning into the future and that it can’t be avoided indefinitely. The years ahead may be very rocky indeed.)

D, I think that you’re right that those with money believe they can insulate themselves from the fallout of the system from which they profit. It’s been alarming to see the shift by elites from giving lip service to preventing global warming, to now simply mitigating its effects with no intention of stopping it. And, of course, the wealthy can buy second houses that are high above sea level or may live behind walled communities, so their experience of climate change will undoubtedly be substantially different than for the rest of us.

Yes, sooner or later the air will be so fouled that it affects them as well. But I think that, in the main, they’re not interested in societal solutions, but rather individual or class-based ones, which by definition will be partial.

The historian Karl Polanyi, in his classic work The Great Transformation, wrote about what he called the double movement: the tendency within capitalist societies to oscillate between cycles of unbridled rule of the market—where workers and nature are pushed to their breaking point as elites pursue maximum profits—and cycles of intervention by the state in support of social welfare, when elites become concerned that the toll of the laissez faire system may lead to social explosion or various social problems (roving bands of poor people, epidemics, and other manifestations of the break down of the status quo). Then elites push again for increased exploitation, since profits aren’t high enough when workers and nature are somewhat protected, starting a new round yet again.

After three decades of neoliberalism, one might have wondered whether, just based on the appalling rate of plunder and destruction of nature, there might be a counter-movement, slowing that destruction down. But it’s clear that without substantial social movements demanding it, elites will not act to protect the environment or decrease the squeeze on workers. (Let’s not forget that the most progressive president in recent history when it came to the environment—passing the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act—was none other than Richard Nixon. Clearly that wasn’t because he was a green—far from it—but because the environmental movement was at its height and he was pushed into signing such legislation kicking and screaming.)

Angie Coiro: D said something very provocative, drawing a distinction between capitalism and society. Right now, I can’t imagine separating one from the other in the US, and to some extent the western world as a whole. We are what we own, buy, labor on, aspire to be career-wise. I wonder how much one could truly be extricated from the other. (Let me take this parenthetical moment to acknowledge the many individuals and groups who work hard to discover and nurture what they are as people and subcultures. I’m glad they exist, but I fear they’re very much a minority in the US.)

Sasha, what steps lie before us to relegate capitalism to a healthier role in society? What would that look like? I doubt there’s full consensus among the many, many minds you’ve interviewed, both for this book and in your career overall. But what are the common points that come up with any frequency?

Sasha Lilley: Angie, there are two general tendencies on the left about that question, in my experience.

The first current suggests that we should aspire to return to the type of capitalism that predominated in the US and the developed capitalist countries of Europe and Asia, and to some degree Latin America and Africa, from World War II to the 1970s or so. In the United States, that’s often referred to as the Golden Age of capitalism. It was characterized by almost full employment (especially for white males), some degree of social provisions through the welfare state—more so in Europe and Canada than in the United States—and by an international monetary system where currencies were pegged to the US dollar, which was fixed to the gold standard, creating a fair amount of financial stability. The argument one hears from these folks is that if we could institute the kinds of policies and regulations that were in place during those times, we’d have a fairly livable form of capitalism.

The second perspective asserts that period of postwar capitalism was a historic anomaly to which it would be very hard to return. The thinkers in that camp point to how by the early 1970s relatively full employment was leading to eroded profits—which capitalists are never happy about—and great worker militancy, as workers demanded higher wages and more control over their work lives. (There was a monetary component to this as well, which perhaps is getting a bit too wonky, but suffice it to say that the US was forced to take the dollar off the gold standard and the stability that had characterized the international monetary system fell apart.) These thinkers argue that, from the vantage point of the business class, a switch needed to be made to what we now know as neoliberalism—the cutting back of social welfare, no commitment to full employment, attacks on unions and workers, etc.—which has been terrible for the rest of us.

They believe that if there was ever an attempt to return to that other form of capitalism—which they argue capitalists would not go for anyway—those in power would end up with the same kinds of profitability problems as they did in the 1970s. These thinkers therefore conclude that we need to think about life beyond capitalism—which, of course, is easier said than done.

PR: I have to admit that to me, much of the broader discussion these days feels like mystification. Many would disagree, but it seems pretty clear to me that a mixed economy is a sensible way to provide goods and services on the one hand and social equity and environmental protection on the other.

It’s a given in mainstream economics that markets fail all the time. That’s why governments step in to provide public goods like defense, infrastructure, education, law enforcement, fire protection, and (increasingly) health care. And it’s starting to look like we in the U.S. need to add journalism to that list. (It’s already the case in most industrialized democracies.)

I suppose that puts me in the first category above, and my short stay in Sweden in the early 1980s gave me a hint of what’s possible in this department. When I returned to the United States, it was all about rolling back those state interventions in favor of a free-market fundamentalism that has cost us dearly ever since.

Yes, the post-war period was unique in many ways. Still, it doesn’t feel like nostalgia to argue for the merits of a mixed economy. It’s telling that such an argument even needs to be made, but I guess that’s a perverse tribute to the free marketeers and kleptocrats who are currently running the show.

Sasha, your book is a series of interviews, so your own views aren’t always featured, but it sounds like you favor something more novel. Can you elaborate?

GW: That sounds interesting. I’m also curious about how the work you did on this book has shaped your interpretation of current events including trade, debt and monetary issues. Has it provided you with a more powerful contemporary lens?

Sasha Lilley: That markets fail is, as you say P, a given in mainstream economics. And you’re right that it’s a sign of the times that other forms of organizing the economy aren’t even debated. But I think one needs to ask whether there is the political appetite amongst elites for that sort of mixed economy (for the reasons I mentioned previously about profitability), especially without the threat of social upheaval or the popularity of more radical alternatives. What is striking when one looks over the last three decades of neoliberalism is how many of the governments that pushed through or furthered privatization and cuts to the welfare state were actually headed by Social Democratic parties of various stripes.

And of course Sweden is no longer the country that it once was (which is immediately apparent if you read the best-selling Swedish crime fiction writer Stieg Larsson, whom I have to confess I read compulsively when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published). One of the contributors to my book, David Harvey, describes the process of taking Sweden at least partially down the road of what you term free market fundamentalism and illustrates the political/economic question that I’m attempting to flag:

“There was a really serious threat to the ownership structure in Sweden during the 1970s. In effect, there was a proposal to buy out ownership entirely and turn it into a sort of worker-owned democracy. The political elites in Sweden were horrified by this and fought a tremendous battle against it. The way they fought was partly, again, through ideological mechanisms. The bankers controlled the Nobel Prize in economics, that went to Hayek, went to Friedman, that went to all the neoliberal figures to try to give legitimacy to all the neoliberal arguments. But then also the Swedes organized themselves as a confederacy of industrial magnates, organized themselves, built think tanks and the like. And every time there was any kind of crisis or difficulty in the Swedish economy, and all of these economies run into difficulties at some point or other, they would really push the argument: the problem is the strength of the welfare state, it’s the huge expenditures of the welfare state. But they never actually managed to make it work too well. So they came up with the interesting strategy of going into the European Union, because the European Union had a very neoliberal structure—through the Maastricht Treaty. So the Swedish Confederation persuaded everyone they should go into Europe, and then it was the European rules that allowed the more neoliberal policies to be introduced into Sweden in the 1990s. It hasn’t gone very far in Sweden because the unions are still very strong and the political history is very strong over social democracy and the like. But, nevertheless, there has been a process towards a limited neoliberalization in Sweden as a result of the activities of these political elites and their strategy of taking Sweden into Europe.”

In terms of my own views, I imagine it’s becoming fairly clear that I’m skeptical that elites would consider reversing course without large-scale movements pushing for something much more radical (which is of course how the New Deal came about in this country, where elites were genuinely concerned about social revolution). And my feeling is that if we did have such formidable movements bent on thoroughgoing social transformation, then why stop at a mixed economy?

TN: Let’s talk about your book! I take it that your view is that we are watching the unraveling of capitalism as it undergoes its fourth global crisis. Would you give us some history there please?

Your statement: “organizing for a post capitalist future is delusional” merits some comment.

“The force of ideas, born out of action, help us understand the world we unwittingly construct . . . the book attempts to construct, grasp, the vulnerabilities of the current order; weigh and devise avenues for fracture and revolt . . .”(I’m recapping your intro). Is that intentional? I mean do you hope and do your collaborators and compatriots hope to wittingly grasp a vision of a new world order(s) and construct a future(s)?

You say your premise is a “perceived radical project in the Global North that would be fortified by these ideas . . . The thinkers in the book are rooted in critical and contrarian lineages of the Marxist tradition.” Why would that work now, when it hasn’t in the past? What is different that might allow it to take root?

Re the theme of commodification, you say, “the answer to the crises of nature and capital lies in public abundance replacing private wealth.” Can that take place gradually (are there current examples?) or must it be preceded by a revolution of thought and action? History would indicate it generally requires a great leader and communicator. Any on the forefront?


Sasha Lilley: T, thanks for these questions (and sorry for the lag in catching up with them). Various contributors to the book suggest we are living through the fourth global crisis of the capitalist system. What makes this the fourth? The first global crisis took place in 1870-1880 and led to the further expansion of capitalism globally. The second was the Great Depression, which led to the opposite effect: countries putting up tariffs and limiting foreign investment and trade with each other. The third was in the 1970s, the resolution of which involved the expansion that came to be known as neoliberal globalization —which ultimately led to the crisis of the last several years.

When I wrote in the Introduction to Capital and Its Discontents that “the idea of organizing for a postcapitalist future commonly seems delusional,” I was taking issue with such thinking. The thrust of my argument is that we have been living through such pessimistic times for so long, that those of us on the left have internalized the notion that the world couldn’t be organized any differently. As I mentioned there (referencing a quote that is often attributed to Fredric Jameson), it’s become easier to imagine the end of the world, than the end of capitalism. I think we need to resist such thinking.

I’m arguing for the unfashionable notion of reengaging with transformative or utopian thinking, in the broadest sense of that word. That means thinking differently in all sorts of respects, including within the radical and Marxist traditions, which give us wonderful tools for understanding capitalism. In answer to your question, I do indeed proffer this book as a modest contribution to creating a better world. And that involves very honestly looking at the failures of the Left—why so many radical social experiments have ended disastrously or not endured—without then assuming that capitalism is the only way, or that somehow it’s tied to our basic nature as humans. It is my belief that the failures of the left originated not from an excess of utopianism—as is usually argued—but too little. Whatever one’s perspective, these are discussions and debates that I think we need to have.

Regarding your final question: I believe it’s possible to replace private wealth with public abundance in ways that are partial or gradual—just look at public parks, which obviously didn’t come about because of a social revolution. But within a capitalist society there will always be great pressures on the public sector, either to subsidize the private through various means, or to be privatized itself. One of the contributors to my book, Ursula Huws, has written about how in the midst of this most recent economic crisis, a new round of expansion and profit has been launched by privatizing public services and turning them into new commodities.

So it comes back to the political economic questions that I was discussing with P. And, as I was suggesting to him, any thoroughgoing transformation of private luxury into public abundance would only happen through large-scale social mobilization. Given that I believe this is an essential dimension to slowing climate change, among other looming perils—given the immense ecological and human waste of profit-driven production, as well as the consumption of the affluent—it strikes me as very urgent.

TN: Thanks for that; it is what I like most about your book, that you engage with your contributors and are not afraid to disagree with them while still affirming your commitment to making positive change in the world. The dialog in itself opens me to re-listening to the old ones and hearing the new ones.

I have to admit when I first started reading it, I took a deep sigh and said to myself, “Oh no, here we go again.” By the end of your introduction I was surprised by how comprehensive it was and am thoroughly enjoying being intellectually and viscerally challenged.

W: I thought your introduction was the best part of the book!

One large obstacle to any movement to build public abundance is what I call the outsourcing of personal responsibility, aided and abetted by the commodification of skills and abilities ordinary people used to have. When people feel helpless to do, but only to buy, they are less able to figure out how and what to do and then do it. Helpless individuals do not create strong collective action.

W: Having lived in Sweden, I would say that the Henning Mankell books reflect Swedish anxiety about the solidity of their system far more than the extremes of Stieg Larsson!

Swedes are far more invested in their communal and individual rights and responsibilities; in the United States, I’d say the investment is far more in benefits. Sweden is thirty to forty years behind the United States in the adoption of our destructive economic and political patterns, which gives them a huge opportunity not to repeat the same mistakes.

Returning to outsourcing of personal responsibility, which I see underlying fragmented political action on the left: I recently heard a San Francisco policeman speaking about the 2010 Bay-to-Breakers (estimated 60,000 runners) and the thirty tons of garbage (one pound per runner) that was cleared away afterwards. I contrasted that with a 2005 concert at an inn in Sweden enjoyed by about three hundred people, including me. In Rattvik at the inn, a stage was setup, that was all. People came with chairs, picnics, blankets, tables, whatever they needed, set them up, reveled in the music, packed up, and took everything away with them. There were no bins for recycling or garbage, not a speck of detritus left on the grass. People cleaning up after themselves took less than half an hour.

That level of care for the commons is usual in Sweden and is also reflected in strong Swedish unions and the proprietary pride individual Swedes take in their health care and education systems. That personal investment, butressed by their quotitian shouldering their political responsibilities while asserting their rights, strongly affirms the Swedish commitment to the commons.

Is a firm and universal commitment to the commons less possible in a huge, wildly diverse country like the United States?

PR: That’s the question I had when I returned from Sweden. It’s not obvious that their customs, institutions, etc. will map onto ours in any straightforward way. And I like Sasha’s point about what elites will or won’t tolerate—and where that leaves the rest of us when it comes to political strategy.

But the main point for me is we know this arrangement CAN work. Like a lot of things in life, you have to keep at it, but a mixed economy of that kind isn’t a utopian dream full of unforeseen and perhaps grave risks.

Sasha Lilley: Thanks, T and W, for the kind words about the book. I’m so glad you’ve gotten something out of it (including my introduction)—that’s really gratifying to hear.

You bring up an interesting point, W, about how commodification makes it harder for us to do things that we once used to know how to do. I think that’s very true. Perhaps that’s most apparent with how we eat. Many people no longer know how to cook well and are dependent on packaged food or eating out for most of their meals, often to the detriment of their health. Then add to this the fact that Americans work more hours than any other industrialized country—we work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers and 499 more hours per year than French workers— and you can see why people find themselves relying on things like packaged foods or other ostensibly time-saving commodities. (And, of course, lots of fast food is in effect subsidized, with cheap corn syrup providing calories at low cost.)

I don’t think that means we should resist commodification by all spinning our own wool and weaving our own clothes, since it would be difficult for us to have the time for any other activities that we value if we were all involved in such subsistence tasks. But replacing private wealth with public wealth would involve asking how might we live our lives differently. As Ursula Huws argues, do we really all need our own lawnmower? Can’t we share some of these things between us, for example between neighbors, or through institutions like the wonderful Berkeley Tool Lending Library (where I borrowed a soil tamper— something I only needed once)?

But you do raise an interesting political question: what sort of effect might this process of commodification have on our ability to act and to act together? It’s worth thinking about. As I mentioned early in our discussion, Ursula Huws argues that the process of creating evermore commodities has made us increasingly isolated from each other, as cars replace trains and buses, or even DVDs replace going to the movies, where we might encounter each other and talk about our problems and perhaps decide to act together.

I should add that it’s also the case that tasks that others used to do for a wage are now being done by us for free—and to the benefit of businesses, who now don’t have to pay for those employees. Huws makes the point that early in the twentieth century, one would go to the store, give the clerk a list of what you wanted, and then that would be packaged and delivered to your house. Now you go and pick out the products, put them in bags, and transport them yourself. It’s now standard to buy your plane ticket online, rather than from an agent, check in yourself, print out your own boarding pass, and so on (even bring your own food!). Some of those changes may be welcome, but other aspects can be really frustrating, and of course quite profitable for others.

DG: “Helpless individuals do not create strong collective action.” Very good point, W. Thank you. I’m afraid I agree with this, too: “(referencing a quote that is often attributed to Fredric Jameson), it’s become easier to imagine the end of the world, than the end of capitalism.”

This feels like a silly question, but: is there a spiritual component to this? I have come to believe that you can only change the world one soul at a time, by inspiration and instruction and example, and that coercion never leads to positive nor permanent change. Over the half-century of my life I have watched the very language drained of its compassion as the public discourse has been perverted to the cause of capitalism over the needs of humanity. How can we attain a critical mass of decency to end this race to extinction?

Angie Coiro: (I love that question, D, and am eagerly awaiting this answer. This opens up a whole ‘nother realm.)

Sasha Lilley: I’m probably not the best person to answer questions about the role of the spiritual, David, as I’m a very non-spiritual sort. But I do recognize that many other people feel differently.

I think that people can go through momentous shifts in how they see the world—what you perhaps might call “spiritual” change—when they witness collective action taking place—and even more when they’re part of it. I think that tends to be more likely than individual change in isolation from others. (Of course, that then raises the question, what leads to collective action? As we saw with Wisconsin, is hard to know what ingredients will set off a response in one case and not in countless others.)

I can’t say I have the answer to the very difficult question you pose about how to attain “a critical mass of decency to end this race to extinction.” But I do think there are lots of decent people out there, some who are more entangled in ideology of capitalism than others, and some who have more of a grasp on the nature of the system around them than others. I’m not sure if individual decency is the problem, but rather how to help people get beyond despair and cynicism to imagining, and acting upon, the notion that we could structure our lives differently. Which circles back to the remark by Sam Gindin that Angie flagged early in our conversation, where he says: “I don’t think you have to convince people that capitalism isn’t wonderful. You just have to convince them that there is something they can do about it.”

There are reasons to have hope. Polls show that the current age cohort of eighteen to twenty-four is the most progressive on record. And despite the conventional wisdom, people do not tend to become more conservative as they get older. However, they do become more conservative the wealthier they get—which for the young, who have among the highest rates of unemployment (at 17.6 percent), isn’t very likely to happen any time soon.

Angie Coiro: Sasha, I find this to be the elephant in the corner in so many strategic and/or philosophical discussions: what about the decline in American education? How will that impact any effort to organize and mobilize political will?

The Right and the Republicans are immensely skilled at not only capitalizing on American political ignorance, but at demonizing education and knowledge. The most educated are “liberal elites”; public schooling is an “entitlement”, while its teachers are “union thugs.”

Couple that with rampant, mindless consumerism, which in my opinion largely derives from citizens swallowing the tale that happiness derives from owning stuff.

And combine those two elements with the pervasiveness of non-stop, lowest-common-denominator entertainment: the rise of reality TV, the ever-more-abnormal imagery of women, the conflation of news with entertainment and (in the case of Fox) deliberate manipulation of content to political ends.

Stir it all together, and we have a populace that, for the most part, would never pick up your book, or take interest in the critical issues it raises. An alarming percentage of them have no idea what socialism, communism, and fascism really are, but use the terms interchangeably and frequently. I find myself wondering how many could accurately define capitalism.

Most don’t know who their elected representatives are. Many have thrown up their hands at civic involvement, citing the belief that they have no power and/or all politicians are alike, and have it all rigged. And we’ve seen how many never bother to vote.

Even for those interested in more education and understanding of the world they inhabit, educational opportunities are diminishing, and expectations dropping.


All of the above is context for this: sometimes I feel we on the left overestimate how much our fellow citizens know or care what’s happening to our country. We’re keenly aware of those we disagree with. We can fall into forgetting or dismissing, though, the great populace that, with education and guidance, could constitute a firehose of power for good.

How do we reach them? What’s being done now, and what needs to be done? Do you believe the Left is focusing enough on outreach and teaching? Or do you feel I’m painting the portrait more dismal than it really is?

Sasha Lilley: Your question is a thorny one, Angie. There’s no doubt that the state of the educational system in the United States is abysmal. By some estimates, a fifth of the population is functionally illiterate (not able to read a lease or do simple arithmetic). I certainly believe that reading and thinking critically are important for the growth of the left (and I could go on about how the decline of publishing and much of the media bodes badly as well). Yet there were stronger social movements in the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century when literacy was even lower, so education isn’t enough of an answer. (And of course there are all the other things that you point to in our times. I don’t think it’s insignificant that the average American watches almost forty hours of television a week—about as much as a full time job!)

I think you’re correct about who we on the left focus on—mainly the right, whose size we may overestimate. There’s obviously a much larger group of people who are largely detached from politics as we conceive it, as you point out. Noam Chomsky argues that those folks tend to have more progressive views than are reflected in U.S. politics. If that’s true, there is still the question, which we keep circling back to, about how to help convince people that change is possible and action is worth taking.

The left does not always do the best job in reaching beyond the choir (something that I think about a lot with the alternative media). But I also believe that the left has not spent enough time focusing on issues that affect people materially. That may seem simplistic, but I think it’s basically true. Class and class issues seemed to go by the wayside for much of the left over the past several decades—often based on the assumption that poor and working class people were reactionary. So, yes, I do think the left hasn’t done enough to reach those depoliticized and demobilized folks whom you point to. And since the left has often written these people off, it’s even easier for the right to use the trope that the left is comprised a bunch of privileged, latte-sipping snobs.

If I can reference Chomsky yet again: I asked him about why parts of the radical left dropped their traditional focus on class. He responded by saying, [That view has] “gotten some traction because of the class struggle which exists has become one-sided. I mean, there is one group of people who are basically vulgar Marxists and who are dedicated to class struggle, constantly: that’s the business class. It’s a highly class-conscious business class. They are fighting a bitter class struggle all the time. If everyone else had said, ‘Hey, we’re going to worry about something else,’ they win. And it’s become an attractive position, for one thing, because it allows you to focus your attention on things that are quite important, but aren’t going change the class struggle.”

This seems to be changing now, though, and that’s heartening.

And lest we forget, change can bubble up even in countries where leftwing movements have long been squelched. Just look at what’s going on in Spain over the last week and a half, where a disaffected population of young people, a great many of whom have no future job prospects, have taken to the country’s squares to protest against the neoliberal policies of their government. (My favorite placard, channeling Monty Python: Nobody expects the Spanish Revolution!) The question now posed is whether the Arab Spring will become a European Summer. One can only hope the contagion will spread.

W: To return to the mundane, when we returned from Sweden to the US and I set about making a home, I was horrified by the quantities of stuff needed. In Sweden we shared a tool room, gardening equipment and furnishings, and laundry facilities with the other residents. Transport was great; waiting for the bus for more than four minutes made us antsy! We—dressed in white tie—rode the bus to the Nobel Prize festivities. No one blinked.

We have one car now instead of none; the bus on our street was cancelled as a budgetary necessity. Yet, when I walk down the hill to take a different bus, I am regarded askance and pan-handled quite vigorously.

I have been gratified to become involved in neighborhood activities, such as picking up garbage, cleaning up graffiti, doing park maintenance, mutually preparing for emergencies, etc. It’s a small start toward increasing the value of the commons and shifting slightly towards public wealth.

Sasha Lilley: As I believe this is the last day for this conversation, I think these are some very good thoughts to end on, W. We know that there are other—richer—ways of organizing our lives, based on sharing and equality, and even small actions in our neighborhoods or workplaces can remind us of this. The system we live under may seem permanent and immutable, but it’s not. That’s easy to forget, but we shouldn’t.

Going back to a question T and you posed earlier, I don’t think that the size and diversity of the United States are the reasons that the commons are so eroded here and that individuals often treat poorly what remains. I believe it has to do with the very different trajectories of the left and right in a country like Sweden compared to the US, and the ways that neoliberalism reverberates and is enlaced with the values and contours of our everyday lives. I’d wager that you’d probably find a greater commitment to the commons in India, an incredibly large and diverse country, where neoliberalism is more recently established.

(On a slightly different note, I recently finished reading Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing. Is there any particular book that you would recommend by him that you think captures Swedish anxieties? I’m now on to Ian Rankin, who writes about social issues—in the case of my current choice, the speculative property boom and bust in Edinburgh—through the medium of crime fiction. I’m well aware that there are lots of rightwing crime fiction writers, but it’s heartening to realize that some of the bestselling authors in the world these days are lefties.)

Sasha Lilley: I want to thank all of you for participating in this conversation with me over the past two weeks. It’s been a great pleasure and privilege to engage with you. I especially want to thank Angie, Julie, and David for setting it up and leading the charge.

Although some of my conclusions may appear a bit bleak, I’m actually hopeful—perhaps by temperament —about the potential for social change. Moments of rupture can materialize from protracted dark times and I think there is a great deal of promise, as well as peril, in these years ahead.

Angie Coiro: Sasha, you’ve been marvelous. I’m so glad the Inkwell team set this up. It’s a real treat to see your depth of thought and benefit from your knowledge.

I’m especially encouraged at your answer to my last question. Historical proof that conditions like these have been overcome lends some relief to the bleakness you refer to, and that I’m sure affects us all from time to time.

I wish you the best of luck at KPFA, with your show and with the situation overall there. Thanks again!

MM: Thank you very much—I haven’t been able to participate much, but this has been a very interesting read. And we share tastes in crime fiction.

DW: Sasha you should stick around the Well a little. Check out the crime fiction conference. I’m sure people there would like some injection of political content into the discussions of crime fiction.

GW: Sasha, Angie—this has been very thought provoking. Thank you.

TN: No way can this be over already! We’re just getting started. Sasha, thanks for such a great book and discussion with us . . . You’ve made me think, go to the bookstore and read up, and broken some of my boxes. All good and very refreshing for me . . . thanks so much and blessings on all you do.

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