Eat the Rich

Americans like to keep things simple and direct, so here it is: they rule. For the simple reason that they (the ruling class) have all the money. The top 5% of US citizens own almost 2/3 of the country’s wealth, or 63.5%. Compare that massive share to 12.8% for the bottom 80% — that is, “the rest of us,” as Rhonda Winter puts it in the excellent article from which this pie chart is taken.

Now go a little further, into the research she drew her chart from — a briefing paper of the Economic Policy Institute called “The State of Working America” — and you find that the top 1% holds over 1/3, or 35.6%, of the country’s net worth. Elsewhere, in The Nation, you will find such interesting tidbits as “In 2006, the top 0.01 percent averaged 976 times more income that America’s bottom 90%” — a thousand-fold gap between “them” and “the rest of us.”

click it for the big picture

The whole point is, though, that very few people go any further, because very few people have any idea how unequal the United States has become. We are, apparently, a nation of idealists, which is a good thing. We are also, however, a nation of blind idealists, which is a pretty bad thing across the board. A couple of psychologists named Norton and Ariely did a study comparing people’s ideas of what inequality is and what it should be with the actual facts on the ground. Anyone interested in creating a more progressive political order should turn up the attention meter right here.

It turns out that in strictly economic terms, Americans are not full-on egalitarians, but on average, they think everyone should have at least a piece of the pie. They think the top 20% should have around 30% of the wealth, the bottom 20% should have around 10%, and so on according to a smoothly sliding scale. They realize it’s not true, of course, and they estimate that the top 20% may in reality be holding over half of the spoils. What they do not realize is not only that the top 20% swallows a whopping 85% of the pie (with, of course, the top 5% taking the lion’s share of that). Even more crucially, they also do not realize that the bottom 40% — what economists call the 4th and 5th quintiles — are for all practical purposes off the chart, simply invisible, because they (or maybe “we,” depending on who you are) own only 0.2% and 0.1% of the wealth respectively. Let’s put that in plainer terms. Almost half the people in this country get virtually nothing from the deal.

source: Norton and Ariely, pdf here

I would draw two conclusions from this psychological study. The first is that the United States is ripe (and even wildly overdue) for a political revolt against the plutocracy. No doubt you will reply, “But that’s exactly what the Tea Party is calling for!” And so they are…in part. But every day the newspaper shows that most of the Tea Party rage against Wall Street is being successfully channeled into rage against Big Government, while the resentment against taxation acts to preserve the massive tax cuts that for the past thirty years have overwhelmingly benefited the super-rich. An atavistic fear of Obama’s black skin and a constant barrage of ideology from Fox News and the Koch brothers’ think tanks and political action committees seem to be doing the job just perfectly for the plutocracy. However, as unemployment rises even while the profits of the super-rich increase, I am not sure this situation can go on indefinitely. Beware the day when right-wing rage from the red-state grassroots finds a serious political translation, because even if it castigates the rich, the sound of that vengeful and nationalistic voice will not be agreeable to your ears.

This leads to my second conclusion. We organic intellectuals on the Left — and this “we” is finally serious, I am speaking to those who might actually read this site — are not doing our job. We have no Tea Party. We are for equality, social democracy, outright socialism, a workers’ revolution, all power to the multitudes or whatever, but we are not getting the word out to the left-of-center masses. We have the information, thanks to studies like the ones I have been quoting, but we are not able to turn information into action, not even on the simplest of demands: tax the rich and control the banksters. Yet these very simple demands could lead directly onwards to more progressive policies that we are all support, such as cutting the military budgets, achieving universal health care, restoring public education and replacing the prison economy with job-producing community development programs. It’s clear that the Dems will not do these things, because in their vast majority they belong to the upper 5%. So we have to create the conditions for a political revolt from the grassroots, and we have to do it in a way that is not simply cooptable by smooth-talking people like the current president.

Here’s one idea, only one among many. Copy the image at the top of the article and take it down to your local button-making shop. Pick a fat button and ask them to put big letters around the bottom that say, “Eat the Rich!” Get a whole bunch of those buttons, wear them, distribute them and start talking to whoever you meet about the facts and figures that are discussed in this blog post and in any of hundreds of readily available left-of-center publications. Start an open, public, regular meeting group to discuss those facts and figures and many other things that make the present what it is. Do your job as a public intellectual, educate the people around you and learn from them, build grassroots awareness and rage wherever your roots happen to be. Hold the course in that direction as the unemployment figures rise, and make contact with as many similar groups as you can find. All of this will lead in very interesting directions. Keep it up and maybe soon we’ll all get together for a big ‘ole political banquet and finally eat the rich!

Features Projects

Three Crises: 30s – 70s – Now

Here is the outline of a self-organized seminar which we are preparing at Mess Hall in Chicago for the Fall, as one activity of the Slow-Motion Research/Action Collective. It is an outgrowth of Four Pathways through Chaos and the Technopolitics projects, as well as the Public School events around the UC strikes. Hopefully in this seminar we can develop and share a precise but also useful analysis of the current crisis, and lay some foundations for autonomous research and education practices in this city and in collaboration with other groups. Get in touch if you are interested!


GOALS: The seminar program seeks to develop a framework for understanding the present political-economic crisis and for acting against and beyond it. Historical study is integrated with militant research and artistic expression. The program is a first step toward a self-organized university, including Internet resources for sharing research notes and reference materials.

FORMAT: Eight two-part sessions, each four hours long with a half-hour break in the middle. The first part of each session will be a course delivered by Brian Holmes, with readings that may be done in advance or afterwards. Each installment of the course will be accompanied by another presentation, screening, artistic event or organizing session offering some parallel to or resonance with the material; these are developed by a collective working group. Readings will be posted on the web and full course notes as well as reference materials will be made available immediately after each session. Distanced participation or parallel sessions in other cities are welcome.

CONCEPT: The development of capitalism is marked, every thirty or forty years, by the eruption of extended economic crises that restructure the entire system in organizational, technological, financial and geopolitical terms, while also affecting daily life and commonly held values and attitudes. In the course of these crises, conditions of exploitation and domination are challenged by grassroots and anti-systemic movements, with major opportunities for positive change. However, each historical crisis has also elicited an elite response, stabilizing the worldwide capitalist system on the basis of a new integration/repression of a broad range classes, interest groups, genders and minority populations (whose definition, composition and character also change with the times). In the United States, because of its leading position within twentieth-century capitalism, the domestic resolution of each of the previous two crises has helped to restructure not only national social relations, but also the international political-economic order. And each time, progressive demands that emerged from the crisis period have been transformed into ideologies covering a new structure of inequality and oppression. By examining the crises of the 1930s and the 1970s along with the top-down responses and the resulting hegemonic compromises, we will cut through the inherited ideological confusions, gain insight into our own positions within neoliberal society, identify the elite projects on the horizon and begin to formulate our own possible agency during the upcoming period of instability and chaos.


1. Introduction: technopolitical paradigms, crisis, and the formation of new hegemonies.

We begin with a theoretical look at more-or-less coherent periods of capitalist development, known as technopolitical paradigms. During twenty to thirty-year periods, technologies, organizational forms, national institutions and global economic and military agreements all find a working fit that allows for growth and expansion, up to a limit-point where the paradigm begins to encounter conditions of stagnation, internal contradiction and increasing crisis. Autonomist Marxism helps us understand the dynamics of grassroots protagonism during the crisis periods. To grasp the mechanisms whereby systemic order is recreated, we can draw on Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony as the construction of a set of discourses and practices that articulate the behaviors of the diverse classes, in order to secure their consent to a new social hierarchy. Hegemony is first achieved at the national level; but when its formation is successful it spreads throughout world society. The ingredients of a hegemony are moral, aesthetic, philosophical and epistemological; but these abstract categories of thought and imagination are intertwined from the start with economic practices and institutional forms. Hegemony is the force of desire and belief that knits a paradigm together and sustains it despite manifest injustices.

2.Working-class movements and the socialist challenge during the Great Depression.

This session describes the emergence of Fordist-Taylorist mass production in the United States, then turns to economic and geopolitical conditions following the Crash of ‘29. We follow the interaction between labor movements and socialist/communist doctrines, while examining the major institutional innovations of the Roosevelt administration. Can the 1930s be understood as a “regulation crisis” of assembly-line mass production? What are the forces that provoked the crisis? Has the “New Deal” become an idealized figure of class compromise for succeeding generations? What does it cover over?

3. The Council on Foreign Relations during WWII and the US version of Keynesian Fordism.

Only after 1938 was the economic crisis resolved through the state orchestration of innovation and production, effected by wartime institutions. Corporate leaders from the Council on Foreign Relations were directly inducted to the Roosevelt government and planned the postwar monetary and free-trade order enshrined in the Bretton-Woods agreements. How was the intense labor militancy of the 1930s absorbed into the Cold War domestic balance? To what extent did the American experience shape the industrial boom in the Keynesian social democracies of Western Europe and Japan? How were the industrial welfare states supported and enabled by neocolonial trade and resource extraction?

4. The ‘60s revolts, Third-World self-assertion, stagflation and the monetary chaos of the ‘70s.

The brief convergence of labor movements, student revolts and minority rights campaigns in 1968 was a global phenomenon, spurred on by Third World liberation and the struggle in Vietnam. Wildcat strikes, entitlement claims and the political imposition of higher resource prices (notably by OPEC) were all key factors in the long stagnation of the 1970s. We examine the breakdown of Bretton-Woods, the conquest of relative autonomy by Western Europe and Japan and the last surge of decolonization movements in the 60s, followed in the ’70s by the Third World push for a New International Economic Order. We also look at the fear and anxiety that the ’68 revolts produced in ruling classes across the world. Does the US internalize global economic and social contradictions during this period? Which aspects of the social and cultural revolts posed real obstacles to the existing economic structure? Which ones became raw materials for the formation of a new hegemonic compromise?

5. The Trilateral Commission and the transnational hegemony of Neoliberal Informationalism.

The launch of the Trilateral Commission by Nelson Rockefeller and Zbigniew Brzezinski in 1973 is an elite response to the crisis, with concrete political effects: some twenty members of the Commission were named to the Carter administration in 1976. During the decade the coming of “postindustrial society” was announced by sociology, while technoscientific innovations like the microprocessor went into production. Cooperation among trilateral elites was paralleled by financialization, the rise of networks, the creation of transnational futures and options exchanges, etc. However, the Treasury-induced US recession of 1980-82, the “Star Wars” military buildup and the emergence of a new innovation system are specifically American contributions to the new technopolitical paradigm that takes shape in the US in the 1980s, before going global after 1989. So we have to understand the difference and complementarity of Republican and democratic responses to the crisis (the right-wing Heritage Foundation was also founded in 1973). What are the defining features of Neoliberal Informationalism? Who are its beneficiaries – and losers? How is the geography of capitalist accumulation transformed by the new hegemony? What sort of commodity is transmitted over the electronic networks? And what does it mean to be a consenting “citizen” of the trilateral state-system?

6. BRIC countries, counter-globalization, Latin American and Middle Eastern social movements.

With the breakdown of the USSR in 1989, followed by the first Gulf War, the world-space is opened up for transformation by the trilateral economic system. The 1990s witnesses the largest capitalist expansion since the postwar industrial boom, driven by Neoliberal Informationalism. The global boom of the net economy was supposed to be synonymous with “the end of history” and the universal triumph of liberal democracy – but that soon hit the dustbin. After tracking the expansion of trilateral capitalism we focus on the economic rise of the Gulf states and the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), as well as the political currents of the counter-globalization movements, Salafi Jihad, Latin American Leftism and finally, the Arab Spring (and following hot summer). Do these diverse economic and political assertions mark the end of the trilateral hegemony and the reemergence of a multipolar order?

7. Financial crisis, climate change and elite attempts to stabilize Neoliberal Informationalism.

Here we examine the inherently volatile dynamics of the informational economy, culminating in the Asian crisis of 1997-98, the dot-com bust of 2000 and finally, the credit crunch of 2008 and the ongoing fiscal crisis of the neoliberal state. The central product of Neoliberal Informationalism now reveals itself to be the financial derivative. Little has been done in the United States to control finance capital, but the debt crisis has massively punished the lower ranks of society and seriously eroded the status of the middle classes, with a major attack on the public university system and a move to cut all remaining welfare-state entitlements. What is the significance of the bailout programs? How have the European Union and Japan faced the crisis? What paths have been taken by the Gulf states, and above all, by China? Is contemporary economic geography now changing? Do we see the beginnings of new alliances among international elites, outside the traditional arenas of trilateral negotiation?

8. Perspectives for egalitarian and ecological social change in the upcoming decade.

In the absence of meaningful reform and redistribution, continued financial turmoil appears certain, along with a reorganization of the monetary-military order. Meanwhile, climate change is already upon us, advancing much faster than previously anticipated. The result of all this is unlikely to be business as usual. What we face is a triple crisis, economic, geopolitical and ecological, with consequences that cannot be predicted on the basis of past experience. Can we identify some of the central contradictions that will mark the upcoming years? Which institutions and social bargains have already come under severe stress? In what ways will the ecological crisis begin to produce political responses? How will class relations within the United States interact with crossborder and worldwide struggles? Is it possible to imagine — and work toward — a positive transformation of the current technopolitical paradigm?


Comments. Ideas. Contributions. Welcome.


FAULT LINES & SUBDUCTION ZONES: The Slow-Motion Crisis of Global Capital

The housing-price collapse of 2008, the credit crunch, the bank failures, the downswing of the world economy, the fiscal crisis of the sovereign states, all have been expressed as wild gyrations in the global circulation of information, attention, emotion. Everything undergoes tremendous acceleration at the crucial moments, before the wave recedes into a blur. We are sure that beneath the surface agitation, something has really changed. Institutions have been destroyed. The course of individual lives has dramatically shifted. The composition of the social classes has been altered in depth. For the first time since the 1970s, the continuity of the American way of development appears uncertain. Yet people find their surrounding environments exactly the same; while world leaders call for just one thing, a return to normal.

Amidst the paralysis of public debate, questions arise for those who can neither forget, nor clearly remember. How do we perceive social change? How do we grasp the facts that will prove decisive in the future? When will the surging wave return again? How do our own lives make a difference to the slow-motion crisis of global capital?

In his new book, The Enigma of Capital, David Harvey makes an important remark: the major crises of the capitalist system – like the Great Depression, the stagflation of the 1970s or the current deflation of the financialized economies – are never really “resolved.” Instead, the determinants of the crisis are shifted around to new places within the system, masking persistent instabilities and sowing the seeds of future upheavals. This means that the key components of the present social order – its technologies, organizational forms, labor relations, monetary instruments, its claims to rationality, security, justice etc. – all derive from the stopgap measures of the 1970s-80s, introduced to alleviate the last major downswing. But it also means that current chaos of the global markets will lead to further crucial shifts in the dynamics of social existence, with long-term outcomes that will inevitably be conditioned by the particular paths taken over the next decade or two. Such shifts in the compass of society do not only arise from decisions at the top. Instead they result from interactions between distinct and semi-autonomous “activity spheres,” of which Harvey names seven: “technologies and organizational forms; social relations; institutional and administrative arrangements; production and labor processes; relations to nature; the reproduction of daily life and of the species; and ‘mental conceptions of the world.’” Capital, for Harvey, plays the mediating role: “The relations between the spheres are not causal but dialectically interwoven through the circulation and accumulation of capital.”

Harvey’s work coincides in a number of ways with with the research program developed by Armin Medosch and myself, as a vehicle to investigate the dynamics of the crisis. Like him we are interested in the contradictions that can lead to the break-up of a more-or-less coherent phase of capital accumulation. That implies a concerted study of the phases themselves. One of our departure points is a chronological analysis of industrial development into “long waves” unfolding over roughly fifty-year spans, marked by successive phases of emergence, expansion, contraction and decline (or spring, summer, fall and winter phases). The long waves are themselves continually punctuated by shorter, sharper oscillations, generally known as business cycles, which occupy the newspaper headlines. Nonetheless, only these longer spans indicate the time frame within which something like a phase or a period can take form. The hypothesis of the long waves, launched by the statistical observations of Nikolai Kondratiev in the early 1920s, has been made more robust by the so-called “technological innovation school” which associates each wave with a group of major innovations around which economic growth is structured, thus giving rise to successive “ages”: the age of water-powered textile production; of steam and railways; of electricity and steel; of assembly line mass production (“Fordism”); and finally the present age of microelectronics and computer networks. Of course we’re aware that each of these five ages do not simply replace all that has gone before, as though starting each time from a clean slate. Instead they are layered onto each other one after the other, via the major periods of infrastructural development whereby the industrial societies seek to resolve the problems of excess capacity and shrinking markets, or what Harvey calls the “capital surplus absorption problem.”

Long waves of technological development provide us with a temporal framework in which to observe the development of crisis tendencies. Taking a further cue from the French “Regulation School” economists, we propose that the major phases of development should not be conceived in merely industrial or economic terms, but rather as “technopolitical paradigms” which embed each set of technologies and organizational forms within a cultural and institutional mix, while still allowing for the proactive role of specific political forces in the shaping of each period. Here we refer directly to the innovation-school theorist Carlota Perez, who points to at least some of the political and institutional factors that can help a long wave of technological development to consolidate itself and reach what she calls its “maturity phase”; but we also refer, as she does, to the constitution of scientific paradigms as studied by Thomas Kuhn. Finally, we draw on Giovanni Arrighi and the world systems theorists to understand the rise, expansion, decline and displacement of hegemonic centers in the geographical dynamics of capital. It is here that the images of “fault lines and subduction zones” – also referring to earlier research in the collaborative seminar “Continental Drift” – take on all their contemporary meaning. It should be stressed that all of these aspects feed directly into lived experience. By analyzing in detail the different facets that make up the current technopolitical paradigm, we hope to describe the texture and dynamics of the present period, to show how it emerged from the contradictions and decline of the previous one, and to identify in advance the weaknesses and bifurcations that will again throw the system into a prolonged period of chaos. The point is to seek a number of different pathways through this upcoming period of chaos.

Harvey enumerates seven “activity spheres” whose co-evolutions account for the crisis-prone dynamics of capitalism. We have adopted an analogous approach, which consists in a somewhat larger number of analytic categories into four broad fields: Productive Process, Integrative Processes, Global Protocols and Agents of Change. The first group includes the leading technologies of a given period, the energy sources that power them, the organizational forms that structure their production and the strategies of distribution and financing that bring them to market – in short, the most obviously “capitalist” aspects of the social order. The second group of analytic categories is derived from the Regulation School and from Karl Polanyi’s description of the ways that supposedly self-regulating markets are embedded in an institutional mix. These “Integrative Processes” include the wage relation between capital and labor and the forms of consumption and usage, as well as the core values and the legal and administrative devices that structure daily life; all of which mark the greatest subsisting areas of national, regional and ethnic divergence in an otherwise unifying world. The third group, “Global Protocols,” encompasses what Harvey in his new book refers to as the “state-finance nexus,” i.e. the international commercial and monetary order along with the border regimes and acts of sovereign military power that enforce such an order. Here, however, we also include what could be called an “epistemic regime,” which refers to scientific, legal and administrative norms and standards that have attained transnational validity at any given period, thus contributing to set the overarching parameters of a technopolitical paradigm. Finally, with the category “Agents of Change” we refer not only to the corporate and national innovation systems that drive technical change, but also to the subcultures, oppressed groups, entrepreneurial elites, revolutionary and mafia networks, and last but not least, the artistic and political vanguards that come to disrupt current forms of organization and introduce new inventions and values into the world.

graphic by Armin Medosch at The Next Layer

What we’re attempting is a synthesis of some major forms of social, economic and cultural analysis on the Left, in order to respond, during this moment of suspended crisis, to what Harvey calls “the enigma of capital.” The phrase is a strong one, and interestingly, it does not receive any explicit elaboration in the book. For my part, I’d formulate the riddle like this: How does the process of capital accumulation continue to make us who we are, despite its deep contradictions and recurrent breakdowns, and despite all the desires and efforts to overcome it and to steer society in some fundamentally different direction? No doubt it is on the eve of the great turning points, particularly those involving major wars and other disasters, when the juggernaut of capital accumulation appears most unstoppable and most deadly, that such an enigma takes on all its disturbing force. You may have noticed that the “activity sphere” which Harvey dubs “relations to nature” has no single place within our four broad fields of inquiry. This is because in the age of hyper-production, frenzied resource extraction and unchecked global warming, when ecological imbalances have arisen as a new central contradiction within capitalist accumulation, the relation to nature stands out as an essential factor within every field of human activity. The enigma of liberation is how we can cease to be what we always were, to find some other collective pathway for social development. Yet it would be naïve to think that capitalism is on the verge of some apocalyptic self-dissolution, or that a sixth technopolitical paradigm will not emerge after the decline of the present one. What we need is not eschatology (the science of final days) but instead, a strategic understanding of social complexity that can lend positive force to the diverse forms of human agency.

David Harvey ends his book with a chapter entitled “What is to be Done? And Who is Going to Do It?” Originally presented at the World Social Forum 2010 in Brazil under the title “Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition,” the text examines the currently existing forces of resistance in order to formulate a “co-revolutionary” strategy of transformation operating across the dialectically interconnected spheres of capitalist society. Rather than maintaining or abandoning a working-class position, rather than taking up an anarchist, feminist, post-colonial, indigenista or progressive middle-class stance, he approaches contemporary society as a mosaic of repressive constraints and revolutionary possibilities, where each specific form of resistance or sectoral alternative is dependent on awareness of and active collaboration with the others. The Old Left notion of a vanguard party leading a single class at the cutting edge of capitalist development has totally disappeared, without any depreciation of the role of organized labor. What’s being broached here is an understanding of the potential for solidarity in multiplicity. The initial delivery of the talk at the Social Forum and its wide distribution on the net before the publication of the book express the desire of a great leftist intellectual to find new ways, not only of delivering a message, but above all, of opening up collective capacities of perception and expression. As though the prelude to any co-revolutionary strategy was a process of radical co-education.

This is what interests me today. How to knit together the disparate strands of resistance to the current mode of social development? How to regain a strategic mode of thinking on the Left? How to develop cultural forms which can support political engagement and activism through the expression of a sharable and enabling – rather than paralyzing – framework of understanding? These are obviously not questions which any one group can answer. What has been happening recently, and indeed, over the last decade and more, is a multiplication of experimental spaces of learning and action, in which aspects of the social/ecological question are brought into existential focus by people who have specific issues. Many activist campaigns have been developed whose importance should not be minimized, even in these dark days after the bank bailout and the rebooting of financially driven globalization, the failure of the climate summit in Copenhagen, the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, etc. Yet despite important moments of convergence at local, national and transnational levels, clearly the coordinating capacities of the Left are radically insufficient when it comes to addressing the slow-motion crisis of global capital, and embracing the opportunities it offers. Is this not due to the absence of a philosophical and strategic horizon, where a powerful utopian vision combines with a concrete grasp of the many partial and sometimes internally contradictory steps that are needed to get anywhere? The point is not that we missed the opportunity of the 2008 meltdown and failed to impose any re-evaluation of the basic tenets of neoliberalism, because that’s water under the bridge, what’s done is done. Rather, the point is that much like the sudden melt of the Arctic ice in 2007, this last set of wild gyrations in the world economy signals the outset of a longer, slower crisis that will undoubtedly last for well over decade, before some new and perhaps extremely tenuous equilibrium is found. Now is the time to begin collaborating on a shared strategic framework – and really, on a new kind of common sense – that can help to coordinate the efforts of egalitarian ecological and social justice movements across a tumultuous period of systemic change that everyone will have to live through and face in the flesh.

Overarching goals don’t exclude specific acts. Over the course of the next year I will be participating in relatively small collaborative seminars in order to develop the ideas outlined here, and above all, to find clues for the elaboration of a radical pedagogy that is capable of putting abstract ideas to work in real contexts, with diverse groups of people. In a period when alternative and oppositional thinking is on the verge of being literally kicked out of public universities, the practice of collaborative pedagogy is itself a strategic concern. It is shocking and dismaying to realize – as we often had the opportunity to do over the last two years – that there presently exists no alternative school of economics, including the centrist Keynesians, that can effectively challenge the delirious and discredited dogma of neoliberalism, at least not in the USA. But an ecological-egalitarian science of social development will not spring full-blown from today’s free-market universities. It will need both an overwhelming desire from the public for something more humane, and a very clear and widely distributed consciousness of what actually exists, which is where the detailed analysis of our excessively complex society has its necessary place. By collaboratively examining the constitution of neoliberal society in all its different aspects, and by allowing oneself to feel its immense and unbearable power to make us what we are today, we might begin to find the inflection points where that social order is already breaking down and sliding irrevocably toward a new configuration. The important thing is to find ways of guiding, at least to some degree, the chaotic processes of change that are clearly coming.

* * * * *

— Next Seminar: Baltimore, August 7-8:

— Initial project texts:

–Previous seminar notes (first two pathways):

–A couple of background texts:



COME ON, COGNITARIANS: One more effort if you want some equality

Free time? Out of work? Looking for a good summer read? Try the short, sharp, maybe even shocking book called In and Out of Crisis: The Global Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives, by Greg Albo, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch (available on It goes straight to the sorry state of financially driven capitalism – which is the state we’re in (the USA).

The authors all live in Canada, but they focus on the US banking system. Their writing is concise and lucid, without the hasty diagnostics and predictions of decline that plague so many Marxists. Two ideas inform the discussion of recent events. The first is that despite incessant proclamations, the corporate makeover of American society since the age of Reagan has not involved deregulation and the downsizing of big government. Instead it’s been all about re-regulating the economic game in favor of the largest players, and shifting both tax revenues and borrowed funds to serve new priorities (such as bailing out the banks whenever there’s a crisis). The second key idea is that the astronomical sums of computerized finance are not simply “speculative” or “fictitious” capital, as critics on the conservative Right and radical Left often say. Instead they are directive forces, shaping global urban and industrial development through the allocation of credit, offering nearly irrresistible incentives for certain kinds of avaricious behavior and exerting powerful disciplinary effects on companies, local governments and individuals. What we face in today’s society is not just “speculation gone wild,” but an increasingly integrated system of management whose leading institutions, the investment banks, now appear to have been strengthened rather than weakened by the crisis. As the authors observe, “financialization gives rise to such financial volatility that crises actually become one of the developmental features of neoliberalism, and this reinforces rather than undermines the central position of financial interests in capitalist power structures.” The point is that despite radical dreams of one great big apocalyptic blowout, such a finely tuned system of national and planetary management is not going to disappear in an eyeblink. It can only be confronted and beaten back over the course of the upcoming years and decades, by social forces which are presently dormant or have yet to be developed.

Albo, Gindin and Panitch are basically unionists. They devote much of their effort to understanding how the egalitarian politics of organized labor has been neutralized by the enlistment of workers as unwilling participants in the competition between firms and nations. What results, under the threat of layoffs and joblessness, is a downward spiral of concessions that leaves workers individually poorer and collectively short on resources for the development of cultures of solidarity and progressive social transformation. Under these conditions, no one could blame the three authors if they focus on the needed changes in organized labor, which in their view would include moving beyond traditional collective bargaining, toward broad community campaigns that involve people outside a single sector or place of employment. There are a lot of good ideas in this book, and its lucidity inspires lots of respect for serious socialist organizers. Still I ended up feeling restless, particularly when reading that the sharp declines in union membership “reflect, in part, the difficulty of organizing the service sector, where about 80 percent of employment is now found.” After the recent GM bankruptcy, surely we need to look beyond the likes of the UAW? As a freelance writer and translator with academic degrees gathering dust on a wall, I feel much closer to that amorphous “service sector” than to assembly lines and shop stewards. For personal, economic and cultural reasons, my main man in this summer’s quest for class consciousness has not been a union organizer or even a direct actionist from a group like “Take Back the Land.” Instead it’s been a critic of the contemporary knowledge factories.

Life among the Lambs

Check out “The Structure and Silence of the Cognitariat,” an article by a UC Santa Barbara professor named Christopher Newfield. It’s a great piece, clear, concise and packed full of pertinent things you probably don’t know (find it in the edu-factory journal). The footnotes of Newfield’s text include some quotes in French that could be tough for les Americains. But hey, that allowed me to “apply” my dusty old Romance Languages degree, always a thrill. The text turns out to be a direct reply to concepts of class consciousness developed over the last decade in the French journal Multitudes, for which I used to write during another life in gay Paree.

Working with Antonio Negri, Maurizio Lazzarato and other Italian autonomists, we analyzed a basic contradiction at the heart of the knowledge society, or what we called “cognitive capitalism.” Namely, that knowledge is inherently abundant and proliferates under conditions of free circulation and cooperative development; while capitalism requires relative scarcity, absolutely private property and strict hierarchical control over producers. In an economy that’s increasingly based on communication, the application of science and the consumption of aesthetic goods and services, that contradiction is potentially very important. It often makes the knowledge worker feel that there’s something wrong with this picture. “Why do I keep getting controlled, when information wants to be free?” If that contradiction could be exacerbated, some of us thought during those heady days of the counter-globalization movements, then maybe we could launch a new kind of revolution. Cultural-intellectual sabotage, anyone?

Chris Newfield is more cautious, but in the end he’s working with a variation on the same ideas. Against the backdrop of the ongoing budget crisis of the University of California, he asks why knowledge societies like the US, Germany or France would chronically underfund their universities? Aren’t they the crucial institutions of cognitive capitalism, and maybe even of financially driven globalization? The seeming paradox is that while the old industrial corporations needed large numbers of college graduates to perform their management functions – a need most willingly fulfilled by the publics universities of the 50s and 60s – the New Economy flagships like Microsoft, with their pure brainpower products, have managed to severely restrict the numbers of salaried intellectual workers they employ, mainly by the use of temp contracts and outsourcing schemes. Similarly but more shockingly wheen you first find out about it, the universities themselves employ an average of 70% short-term contractuals and grad students to teach their undergraduate classes. If you want to see what direction the whole operation is headed, definitely watch the PBS Frontline reportage on “College, Inc.” which was still an eye-opener for me despite lots of reading on these subjects. There you see vocational business schools raking in big money for often fraudulent degrees. What you don’t hear a lot about anymore are real careers. Bizarrely, the number of good white collar jobs seems to be shrinking as the knowledge economy grows.

Newfield finds the solution to the paradox in the practices of knowledge management that began to be employed in the 1990s, at the time when massive numbers of kids who had grown up with the intellectual technologies of computers and the Internet just started coming on the job market. He quotes a suit named Thomas A. Stewart who makes a distinction between three different categories of knowledge. The first and lowest forms of knowledge are “commodity skills” like typing quick and talking nicely on the phone – skills which are easily obtained, add no value to the firm, require no particular concern for the employee and should be outsourced from the get-go. Next are “leveraged skills” requiring a lot of advanced education (my old standby of translation would be one, but computer programming is the classic example). These kinds of skills (“leveraged,” I suppose, by all the borrowing the owner did to acquire them) do add some value to the firm, but they can still can be codified, routinized, maybe even partially robotized, and rapidly gotten out of the way just like the others. What that leaves are “proprietary skills,” i.e. “the company-specific talents around which an organization builds a business.” These are the only kind that really matter, because they allow the firm to develop and own intellectual property, build a brand and cash in on some rare, secretly produced and closely guarded service. Now the hidden structure of the cognitariat leaps into view. The financial discipline of the firm requires it to make the distinction between the three types of knowledge, and to treat its employees accordingly. In the best of cases it can even practice “open innovation” which entails giving up entirely on in-house researchers or creatives and simply scanning the available knowledge resources, typically found in public universities, whose production can be creamed off at will for the price of a few small grants, maybe an endowed chair or a piece of fancy equipment. Under this scenario, the predatory strategy of the corporation is complete. Only the top researchers, managers and marketers will take home a real salary.

The new hierarchy of knowledge workers in the firm is bound up, in its turn, with much broader transformations. Christopher Newfield is also the author of an essential book entitled Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (2008). Briefly put, his thesis is that with the expanded educational entitlements of the post-WWII period, the US began developing an enlarged, fully multicultural middle class that was potentially hegemonic and that began to transform society in its own diverse and complex image. In this new formation (which is described in a lot of cultural studies work) working class traditions and more recent immigrant cultures begin to fuse into a democratic hybrid, sustained by the models of success and the possibilities of self-invention that arose in the public universities. A new kind of language and even a new common sense emerge, dubbed “PC” by its critics and symbolized, in literary terms, by a complex artifact like I, Rigoberta Menchu, the oral history of a Guatemalan peasant activist as told to a metropolitan researcher with a microphone and a publishing contract. The conservative Right bitterly hated this kind of leftist talk-literature. But there was a little more to the opposition than a question of taste. What we called the “culture wars” of the late 80s and early 90s, says Newfield, was in fact the spearhead of a concerted attack by older elites against this new, radically democratic class formation – an attack that culminated with the dominance of neoliberal and then neoconservative ideology, the skyrocketing inequality of our own time and now the massive expropriation of middle- and working-class savings in the infamous “financial crisis.” The book repeats this fascinating thesis maybe once too often, but it is a goldmine of precise economic and sociological information for anyone interested in contemporary managerial techniques and the politics of education in the USA.

Working from this perspective, Newfield now suggests that we have a three-tiered university system. First come the top twenty private schools like Harvard and Yale, or the Ivy League Plus, that educates around 1% of the society. Next, “a group of about 150 colleges and universities that are ‘selective’ and have good reputations outside their local area.” And finally, some 3,500 institutions of sort-of higher learning for the hoi polloi, offering degrees with no particular value on the job market. At this point the scholarly author gets uncharacteristically angry, plays another very jarring French chord and claims that our society now resembles nothing so much as the Ancien Régime with its “Three Estates,” or stratified social standings. The First Estate, corresponding to the old aristocrats, is the top 0.1% of Americans who are essentially the bankers and financiers whose activities are described so well by Albo, Gindin and Panitch – the ruling class if you don’t mind me sayin’. The Second Estate, corresponding to the clergy of olden times, are the top 1% who earn over $350,000 a year. These are the upper votaries of capital and the state, who speak “technical languages of law, management and finance that are largely indecipherable even to highly educated non-specialists, and maintain an invisible empire of ownership structures and lucrative transactions whose existence makes itself known only through occasional disasters like the 2008 financial meltdown.” Mon Dieu! The Third Estate – le Peuple – are the rest of us, crammed into the vast category of the powerless and the silent despite the huge differences between the top 20% who are still “middle class” and all the rest who do not just worry over the “fear of falling,” but rather, get the experience of being pushed off the cliff and feel the indignity of not being able to pay their rent or their mortgage in the richest country in the world.

What I’m trying to get at is that the budgetary crisis and the conditions of precarious living that afflict knowledge workers are tightly entangled with and also sharply cut off from the directive actions of the financial elites who just robbed the country and strengthened their own positions in the process. What’s happening in the US is a sweeping and carefully concerted operation, not to resolve any of the major social and ecological problems that are staring us in the face, but to assure a strict separation of the classes. The divide is not into the traditional Three Estates that make for great satire, but instead into at least five groups: the aristocratic super-rich; the high priesthood of technocrats and traders; the merchant class who sell their soul to placate their fear of falling; everyone else on the roller coaster down to the bottom; and finally, the new immigrants who believe they can climb this weird human ladder (at least until they get to the state of Arizona).

So here’s another paradox: quite a large number of us in the third and fourth and fifth estates are well educated, we can speak all the languages we need. Tell me, what explains the silence of the lambs?

Starting Where You Are

Newfield doesn’t answer his own implicit question, except to say that in the advanced economies “the knowledge worker masses are still middle class on a world scale,” or in other words, they still have a long way to fall. Maybe, but an earthquake just happened and the cliff came a lot closer. What he criticizes in the theories of the Multitudes group is an excess of rosy optimism: the belief that an inherent contradiction of the knowledge economy would necessarily produce a revolt against its particularly well-constructed structure of injustice. Point well taken. With a fairly good grasp of the American scene I always felt exactly the same, and eventually I found myself on the political fault line that split the journal in two, right in the middle of the financial crisis in 2008. Yet like my autonomist friends and like Newfield, I still think some kind of mobilization of educated workers is necessary, desirable and maybe the most passionately inspiring thing you can do today, if starting from where you are means figuring out what to make of your scientific, technical, or cultural skills and your university education. Amid the bewildering complexity of the predatory knowledge economy, what’s missing is an active egalitarian and ecological critique of the owning and managing classes, a critique that does not remain locked away in the university but reaches out to the rest of society. That’s what we can build in the wake of the budgetary crisis, now that the new lines of inclusion and exclusion have been drawn and the writing on the wall is legible to practically everyone. The least you can say is that it’s getting urgent – after the lies of the Bush era, Katrina, the bailouts and the foreclosures, the Copenhagen debacle, the BP disaster that’s directly attributable to the pressures of neoliberal financial management, etc etc etc. The question is how to do it, when the traditional centers of education are so deeply instrumentalized?

According to Newfield we need a two-track strategy, the first of which should reveal “the hidden subsidies through which the Third Estate and its institutions support the other two – in many case, the ways by which public universities support private industry.” He warns that this first strategy may set off an internal civil war among the top faculty in research universities, which I guess is supposed to indicate how difficult this track will be to follow. The other strategy is “to re-imagine and articulate the broad social and cultural missions that will flow from the other nine-tenths of knowledge workers… whose ideas about diversity, equality, justice, technology for use, sustainable development and so many others are essential to the indirect modes through which knowledge and education create social value beyond that which economics can measure.” That sounds easier, to the extent that it can be done not only or maybe not even primarily inside the universities, but in self-organized seminars, affinity groups, clubs, artists’ collectives, cultural scenes, hacker labs and so forth, where the diverse languages of society mingle and knowledge circulates, hybridizes, throws off its old skins and moults into new colors. But this time, let’s try to find a path between the dark black cynical pessimism of typical American critics and that rosy Multitudes stuff I mentioned just before. Something more than a snap of the fingers is needed to delegitimate an extended technocracy that holds all the cards of power in its many active hands. If you look around, you’ll see that the sites of self-organized education and action in American society are very few, very fragmented, and far too often lacking in the subtle kind of creative focus that can at once rise to the level of the problems that face us, and not get co-opted into the very jargons and structures they seek to challenge. As the public universities are downsized (or really, expropriated) under the disciplinary pressure of the current budget crisis, an entire social process is waiting to be invented.

The US Social Forum, held in Detroit amid the ruins awaiting at the bottom, was sweet and delicious precisely because it was like a wide-open university, a laboratory upside-down, a radical experiment mixing very different people in order to find new ways of acting together. The combination of union organizers, community groups, radical intellectuals, artists, direct activists, social workers and many other sectors is fundamental to the politics we need on the Left, not just for strikes and protests but also when it comes to changing something within the key institutions of a rareified knowledge economy. Experiences like the Forum, or like a university occupation, can be a great inspiration for the deeper and slower work that starts from wherever you are, from your own class and cultural and economic position. Many groups are now trying out processes of invention, and we can encourage each other not by the sort of mutual denunciations that used to be the stock-in-trade of the extreme left, but instead by telling the stories of different attempts and by presenting the material, intellectual, social and artistic results. Of course there is a wider horizon to the singular experiments. At some point, by some combination of careful efforts, the dam has to break and larger numbers of people from all levels of society have to realize that something is wrong with this picture. Knowledge workers could help a lot by creating a clear language and a good set of images, to say what it is and to see it clearly. What we need to build are new and complex forms of pressure from below: social counter-forces to the disciplinary powers brought to bear by finance capitalism.

Creating those counter-forces is not going to be easy and it cannot be accomplished by any single group or tendency or philosophy. A very subtle form of political vocation has to find its original expressions on the tongues of the widely different sectors of society which are all under threat. Those whom we try to address in this webzine – the people who feel in some way interpellated by the current crisis of the university – are obviously just one group among others, as complex and fragmented as any other. The challenging thing is to give the fragments that we are some political coherency. But what else is there to do?

Come on, cognitarians. It’s going to be a wild ride. We’ve got some very interesting years ahead of us.

Opening march, US Social Forum, Detroit (photo Claire Pentecost)


Report Back: The US Social Forum Detroit 2010

Another City for Another World

Was I really in the USA?