There is no going back.
We are forty years into that phase of capitalism that those in economic and radical circles know as “neoliberalism”. Margaret Thatcher famously defined it as “There Is No Alternative”. No alternative, that is, to the free market, the free flow of capital.
In brief: the last forty years have seen a massive push by the capitalist classes of the world to privatize, deregulate, capitalize, deunionize, undemocratize. Many books have been written about this process, wherein the US working class has lost 20 per cent of its purchasing power, while union density has dropped from 28% to 12%; wherein the world is now, for the first time in history, more than 50 per cent proletarian; wherein all the old certainties about economics, politics and society are now dead. Consciousness lags behind the course of material changes, so perhaps we should not be surprised that so many, particularly of the older generation, view all of this as a loss of what was a golden age, and cling so doggedly to notions that are now simply a lost cause.
What are these certainties? To anyone who came of age between the time of the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union, whatever you thought of it, there was an alternative somewhere in the world to the Western model of capitalism. When Western capitalism hit the skids in the 1930s, the response of the more far-sighted sections of the bourgeoisie was to take significant chunks of capital out of circulation, off the market, and to lock them up in service to the nation state. This was the pattern, whether you looked at FDR’s New Deal here, or Hitler’s subsuming of national capital under the designation of “national socialism”. The stability of the post-war world was founded on this very premise, that the state was and ought to be the holder of a section of national capital, and that as such, the state would provision bits of that capital to the public at large. How this happened looked somewhat different in each place, but the underlying logic was the same.
There is a public sector, and even a social welfare state in Europe, precisely because there was a living alternative to free-market capitalism, achieved through a thorough-going social revolution from below, precisely at that moment where the capitalist system was about to collapse. This was the basis of the post-war boom, the framework for the “social contract” of the 1950s and 60s. This was the basis of all the old certainties.
Things started to change with the global recession of 1974-75. In the decade that followed, there ensued a massive assault on working class organizations and living standards. The biggest damage was done in the 1980s—it was in that decade that union density in the US was almost halved, with the losses of the last 25 years now just the trickle of an already deflated balloon. After the damage had been done, the 1990s set up the “new normal” of neoliberalism, albeit in time of boom. The 1990s saw the dismantling of Depression-era regulatory laws, the growth in the capitalization of the healthcare sector, and the end of a range of governmental programs (that patchwork commonly known as “welfare”, but which was never a single thing), each of which meant that state-held social capital was dissolved and effectively trickled down to individual corporate players. The development of new sectors of capital accumulation (the dot-com boom) were accompanied by financial speculation and the release of huge amounts of cash to the banking sector by the Federal Reserve Bank (in 1998, ostensibly to ward off the effects of the Asian monetary crisis).
In short, the dynamic of the last forty years is that of the freeing up of previously frozen capital resources, so as to feed the capital flows on the global market. Any chunk of money that is not actively flowing through the system—for example, pension funds, investments in public education, social security pools, social services, etc.—represents a brake on the system, and as such, must be broken up and thrust into the flows of capital. Even where certain of these are already partially exposed to the market, as with traditional defined-benefit pension funds held by municipalities and states, the trend has been toward breaking up these funds and releasing smaller bits to various investors more quickly and freely. More than privatization per se, the impetus is toward capitalization of all existing forms of economic life.
The difficulty for our generation is that, though the Iron Lady is (thankfully) dead and gone, her maxim still rings true. There is no material, living alternative, however flawed or problematic, to the neoliberal framework. Even the crisis which erupted in 2008 could not dislodge the framework, precisely because there was no alternative then; thus, the accelerated attacks on the public domain, on the commons. Despite the fact that neoliberal ideology no longer fit the conditions for capital accumulation, there was no compulsion on the capitalist class to do anything different. Even the governmental bailouts of the banks in each country represented not the negation of neoliberalism, but rather the continued use of the state to facilitate free markets. Austerity is the form assumed by neoliberal policy in conditions of capitalist crisis.
What this means is that there is no going back. There is no model that masses can see, sense, and fight for; there is only a rearguard struggle to stop the worst of the damage. That is why defined-benefit pensions are a thing of the past. That is why fights to stop charter schools are a losing battle. That is why labor-management partnerships are a façade for direct corporate rule. That is why the Democrats are not liberals, as measured by the New Deal or the Great Society. That is why NGO organizing is a dead-end for the Left. That is why union bureaucracies in chronic crisis tend toward solutions that rely not on power on the shop floor, but on increased dues collections from increasingly lower-wage workers and control of financial capital. That is why far-left groups that model themselves on the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (we might add: narrowly and ahistorically) are essentially irrelevant. That is why the military-industrial complex, with all its unknown unknowns, can ignore protests of millions in the streets and forge ahead with war. That is why the European technocrats can ignore repeated one-day general strikes and still impose austerity on nations stretched to the limit by the economic crisis. All the old models are failed, and there is no alternative.
This is not to say that there never will be an alternative; indeed, if that were the case, then the only suitable outlook for those on the left would be cold, hard cynicism. Nor does it mean we have nothing to learn from history; there is likely much more to learn, provided we don’t read back into it a single focus or interpretation. But it does mean that we have a tremendous labor to accomplish in the coming years and decades. We live in a decaying economic and social system that is damaging the natural world around us, to the point that human civilization as we have known it may well become impossible. While there is tremendous urgency, there is also an imperative to critically analyze our context, to think through what we’re doing, and to act intelligently. The first step is to free ourselves from the assumptions of the past. We have to admit, however difficult, that these assumptions no longer have any foundation.
While this post is not specifically about the fight to defend public education, I wanted to articulate this framework, as it has already increasingly grounded what I have written, and will do so even more in the future. We are in a period of reconceiving our alternative to the dictatorship of capital. The old models don’t apply, and we need to be honest about this. Our analyses, our demands, our vision, all have to be ruthlessly examined and refitted to the needs of the current moment and aligned with the trajectory of the movement into the future.