On Understanding Capitalism
AT ONE POINT during the night that Occupy Wall Street was destroyed, a half-circle of riot cops pinned a group of protestors to a wall. At that moment, when everything was falling apart and people were crying and wandering through the night amid the tear gas, artificial light, and amplified police noise, one of the trapped protesters screamed, “Mic check!” I don’t remember exactly what he or those echoing him then said, but the cops seemed startled. There was a sense, if only for a moment, that the initiative had shifted. We quickly saw that it hadn’t. But hearing Occupy’s emblematic tactic used not to conduct routine matters in the park or to perform activism in a grad school auditorium but rather amid the movement’s very destruction seemed to crystallize Occupy’s fundamental defiance.
Left organizations, such as the now-defunct International Socialist Organization, were caught off guard by Occupy Wall Street, which they had initially dismissed as an irrelevant gathering of politically immature anarchists. As soon as the movement’s electric spontaneity ignited, however, left organizations scrambled to associate themselves with it. And, once it was systematically smashed by the federal government and the NYPD, these organizations clucked that such a leaderless movement had been bound to fail all along.
With the 10th anniversary of Occupy approaching, left organizations have still not entirely escaped the movement’s shadow, which can be seen in Hadas Thier’s A People’s Guide to Capitalism. Thier aims to elucidate Karl Marx’s Capital (volumes one through three), and, conveying the exceptional relevance and power of Marx’s thought with clear and engaging prose, she often succeeds. She begins by denaturalizing capitalism’s historic origins in primitive accumulation (“dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” as Marx put it) and guides the reader through discussions of the labor theory of value, the origins and function of money and profit, and the mechanisms of capital accumulation and crisis, before concluding with a discussion of credit and finance.
The book works particularly well as a primer, supplying readers with ample history and theory with which to repudiate capitalism. Capitalism is efficient, you say? What of its systemic use of planned obsolescence and the astronomical waste evident not only in the competitive production of marketable exchange values (while millions go hungry) but also in landfills, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, so massive that they can be seen from space? Anyone can make it under capitalism, you say? But if the entire working class somehow “made it” (meaning in practice that they acquired Porsches and joined the exploiting class), capitalism would instantly collapse — whom would they exploit? It is a system that both needs and reproduces poverty. For instance, full employment is prevented lest it produce inflation; labor is a business cost, after all. Meanwhile, those “lucky” enough to have jobs cannot afford to retire from them without assistance from outside the market (e.g., Social Security).
Interestingly, though, Thier does not address some of the most ubiquitous arguments for capitalism. Namely, if we are to eliminate private property and, with it, capitalism’s ever-present threat of “work or starve,” what mechanism will a future system use to motivate people to work? And once the wealth that capitalism previously produced is redistributed, what mechanism will then be used to ensure that future wealth is generated? On the one hand, these are loaded questions containing capitalist presuppositions regarding the nature of work, production, and wealth. And the notion that critics are required to provide solutions to the problems they criticize is similarly fallacious. A doctor does not refrain from providing a diagnosis just because there is no cure for the disease. Or, as Anton Pannekoek noted in Workers’ Councils, there is little point in developing blueprints for the future society, since revolutionary struggle will invariably result in entirely unanticipated problems while rendering many existing ones irrelevant. With revolutionary consciousness born of struggle, we will be positioned to see what we currently cannot.
On the other hand, it is fair to ask just who the “People” are that Thier is seeking to guide. Assuming that her readers are not confined to the minuscule ranks of the already converted, the non-committed ought to be convinced of what the fight for communism can mean. This is a question not of blueprints, as Thier recognizes, but of values and imagination. Yet few will be motivated to enter such a struggle in the first place, which will require far more daunting sacrifices than voting for Bernie Sanders, if the goal is merely an improved version of today’s wretched society.
Alternately, nobody should be expected to accept on faith Thier’s assertion that “socialism would use every advance to make more time for humans to rest, play, and thrive.” Thier supports this claim by quoting Leon Trotsky’s promotion of leisure, yet she notably severs Trotsky from the Soviet experiment that he helped inspire and violently defended. If, however, one can blame the counterrevolution for Trotsky’s violence, it is far more dubious to blame external forces for Lenin’s enthusiastic praise of the dehumanizing labor strategies of the American mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor. Thier herself condemns Taylor’s scientific management but does not consider why Taylorism was so amenable to not only capitalists but also the world’s most important socialist leader, who had in fact decried Taylorism until he took over the state. Rather preposterously then, Thier dodges the significance of the Soviet Union altogether by waving away the “false ‘socialisms’ of the totalitarian states of the past,” leaving us to guess at the ways in which the USSR’s socialism was false and preventing us from drawing any lessons from either its accomplishments or its failures.
Top US admiral bristles at criticism of ‘woke’ military: ‘We are not weak’
Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of Naval Operations, rebuffed pointed interrogations by GOP lawmakers who grilled him over his decision to recommend sailors read a book deemed by some conservatives as anti-American.
The U.S. Navy’s top admiral also defended moves to address and root out racism and extremism in the forces as well as its efforts to bolster inclusion and diversity, which have prompted criticism from some conservatives and Republican lawmakers.
“Do you personally consider advocating for the destruction of American capitalism to be extremist?” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., asked Gilday during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, referring to a passage from Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist,” which argues capitalism and racism are interlinked.
Banks continued to interrogate the admiral over specific quotes from Kendi’s book, which was a No. 1 New York Times best seller in 2020, and statements he had made elsewhere in the past.
Visibly distraught, Gilday fired back:
“I am not going to sit here and defend cherry-picked quotes from somebody’s book,” he said. “This is a bigger issue than Kendi’s book. What this is really about is trying to paint the United States military, and the United States Navy, as weak, as woke.”
He added that sailors had spent 341 days at sea last year with minimal port visits — the longest deployments the Navy has done, he said.
“We are not weak. We are strong,” Gilday said.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., also challenged the admiral by citing specific quotes from the book and asked him how those ideas laid out by Kendi would further advance or improve the Navy’s power.
Gilday responded by arguing the importance of transparency and open dialogue about racism.
“There is racism in the Navy just as there is racism in our country, and the way we are going to get out of it is by being honest and not to sweep it under the rug,” he expounded, adding that he does not agree with everything the author says in the book.
The key point however, he said, is for sailors “to be able to think critically.”
The exchange was the latest in vociferous complaints from some conservative leaders and lawmakers who suggest the armed forces are becoming a pawn for the country’s culture wars and “wokeness” ideology, as the military takes steps to address issues of racial inclusion, extremism, racism and white supremacy.
And only last week, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., accosted Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about Kendi’s book, which Cotton said promoted “critical race theories” at a different Senate Armed Services Committee hearing where Austin was testifying.
Days earlier, Cotton and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas — two combat veterans — launched a “whistleblowers” online platform to report examples of “woke ideology” in the military.
“Enough is enough. We won’t let our military fall to woke ideology,” Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, said in a tweet.
Also in February, Austin instructed a one-day stand-down across the Defense Department pausing regular activities to address extremism and white nationalism in the ranks — an issue Austin declared as a priority after a number of rioters at the U.S. Capitol in January were found to have military backgrounds.
The stand down completed in April was an effort to better understand the scope of the problem of extremism in the ranks, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said in a briefing then.
Earlier, Austin had revoked a ban on diversity training for the military.
More recently, in May, a U.S. Army animated ad focused on soldier diversity — featuring the real story of a soldier who enlisted after being raised by two mothers in California — drew criticism and political backlash from some conservative lawmakers.
“Holy crap,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a tweet. “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea. . . .”
Cruz was referring to a TikTok video that compared the U.S. Army ad with a Russia campaign that showed buff soldiers doing push-ups and leaping out of airplanes, adding that the contrast made the American soldiers “into pansies.”
The confrontation Tuesday is also the latest in reproaches by Rep. Banks, who is a Naval Reserve officer, and other GOP members over Gilday’s recommendation to include Kendi’s book in the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program.
In February, Banks sent a letter to Gilday arguing that the views promoted in the book are “explicitly anti-American” and demanded Gilday explain the Navy’s decision to include it on the reading list or remove it.
Gilday responded to Banks in a letter obtained by Fox News saying that the book was included on the list because “it evokes the author’s own personal journey in understanding barriers to true inclusion, the deep nuances of racism and racial inequalities.”
Lamborn and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, D-Mo., also wrote a letter to the admiral to convey their concern about the inclusion of Kendi’s book as well as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Jason Pierceson’s “Sexual Minorities and Politics.”
The GOP lawmakers argued the books “reinforce a view that America is a confederation of identity categories of the oppressed and their oppressors rather than a common homeland of individual citizens who are united by common purposes,“ Lamborn and Hartzler wrote, according to Fox News.
Looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021
Our understanding of events refines with time. New developments reframe the issues, and prompt reassessment of the solutions applied, their design and outcomes. What does looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021 tell us?
For three decades, India celebrated and criticised the 1991 reforms. The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout. The reforms, they insist, were ‘home-grown’. In the years leading up to 1991, technocrats in government had been thinking and writing about how India’s economic policies had been blocking the country’s rise to potential and the structural changes needed. If the broad range of reforms—including tearing down the industrial license permit raj, an exchange rate correction, and liberalising foreign direct investment and trade policies—could be launched within a matter of days of a new government joining office, they argue, it is because the blueprints were ready, waiting for the go-ahead from the political leadership.
The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout.
At least two well-regarded technocrats that were important in the 1991 reforms disagree—publicly and in off-the-record conversations. In a media interview last month, one of them, the economic adviser in the reforms team, Dr Ashok Desai, suggested that if there were any reformers in government before the IMF “forced” India to liberalise in 1991, “they hid themselves very well”. According to him, after the BOP crisis was resolved, finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh turned “dead against reforms”.
The multiple versions of the reforms story make it difficult to separate fact from romance. It cannot be disputed, though, that the 1991 BOP crisis was a turning point for the economy. India had tided over BOP crises earlier with loans from the IMF, repaid them prematurely, and avoided going through with the bailout’s conditionalities. 1991 was singularly different because India was on the brink of default, which is likely to have forced politicians to set politics aside and listen to technocrats. Any default on external obligations would have meant hurting India’s credibility grievously and an inescapable sense of national shame. The government probably took the view that there was no choice other than to take corrective steps. Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao named Dr Manmohan Singh, who had been a technocrat in government and was well regarded in global policy circles, as his finance minister. Dr Singh clearly had the Prime Minister’s, his party’s and the IMF’s trust. Records irrefutably show that the Congress party’s acceptance of the reversals in the interventionist economic policies of the first four post-Independence decades was not secured by the Prime Minister. He had delegated the task of tackling doubts and resistance within the party to his ministers, in particular, the finance minister and the commerce minister, and an aide in his office. The finance minister defended the reforms on the floor of the house in Parliament.
Taxpayer-funded NPR mocks ‘CaPitAliSm,’ prompting calls to ‘defund’ media outlet
National Public Radio (NPR) ignited a social media firestorm Thursday night over a tweet that appears to mock capitalism, despite taxpayer dollars accounting for much of the organization’s annual budget.
The outlet posted a story titled “And Now, Crocs With Stiletto Heels” that explores a curious new collaboration between luxury fashion brand Balenciaga and Crocs, the rubber slipper company responsible for fashion faux pas among the millions of comfort-clinging owners nationwide.
The caption accompanying the article, which was written in both uppercase and lowercase letters, appears to mock the collaboration: “CaPitAliSm bReEds InNovAtiOn,” it reads.
The tweet’s language sparked outrage on social media, with figures like conservative Tim Young calling out the irony in NPR’s three-word post.
“You wouldn’t exist without capitalism, clown who is tweeting on behalf of NPR,” he wrote.
“Job at public news station wouldn’t exist wo capitalism,” another user echoed. “Are you guys ok?”
“Our tax money shouldn’t pay for this,” one person expressed.
“It’s still a hell of a lot better than communism at breeding innovation, even if some of the products are silly,” one woman fired back.