Reading, Watching 04.15
Reform and/or Revolution
This is a regular feature for paid subscribers, wherein I write a little bit about what I’ve been recently reading, watching, and/or listening to. I hope you enjoy!
In a commentary for the New Left Review this week, the sociologist Dylan Riley argues that the Biden administration’s attempts to promote decarbonization and green jobs through industrial policy are doomed to failure and that the same could be said of the “neo-Kautskyite” left’s more ambitious vision of a Green New Deal. After all, neither Biden nor reformist socialists “have a credible answer to the structural logic of capital.” Those who comprehend that logic know that “gradualism cannot work” and that the alternative course of action is straightforward: “The commanding heights of the economy — in this period, finance — must be seized at once.” Any other strategy, Riley explains, is doomed to failure.
Riley feels no responsibility to explain how, precisely, the infinitesimal segment of the U.S. population that regards Bernie Sanders as intolerably reactionary is to seize control of high finance, in defiance of the U.S. military, posthaste. In his (apparent) view, all that is required to establish the implausibility of any and all attempts at reform are a few tendentious theoretical premises; all that’s needed to establish the plausibility of revolution, by contrast, is nothing.
Levitz generates a broader critique of the attitudes behind Riley’s project in general:
Riley is a smart and learned sociologist. His reflections on Donald Trump’s “patrimonial” mode of governance are insightful and amusing. And his critique of Biden’s policies is not entirely without merit. It is certainly the case that the private sector cannot be trusted to make adequate investments in care or education. You don’t need to accept Marxist arguments about a falling rate of profit to recognize that caring for the impoverished elderly will never be a profitable undertaking.
Yet Riley’s ability to function as a useful critic of American liberalism is utterly compromised by his evident preoccupation with discrediting mundane forms of political engagement. In a previous New Left Review essay, Riley and Brenner cited the Affordable Care Act (which increased taxes on capital gains to finance an extension of public health insurance to millions of working-class people) and the CARES Act (which effected a historic drop in the U.S. poverty rate) as examples of “politically constituted rip-off”s that abetted capitalist accumulation through upward redistribution. It isn’t hard to understand why a staunch anti-capitalist might be attracted to the idea that the U.S. economy is incapable of growth, that capitalism has entered an inexorable crisis of profitability, and that any attempt to incrementally reduce the needless suffering of ordinary Americans is hopeless, as the political system is incapable of doing anything beyond reallocating rents between different elites. But that is not an excuse for intellectuals to promulgate such ideas in defiance of evidence to the contrary.
For my part, I find the whole idea of “seizing the commanding heights” of finance seems very vague and difficult to imagine working. For one thing, the system of finance is based on the belief in future profits. In the classical revolutionary scenario, workers can occupy factories and direct production. Well, what’s gonna happen in the Rileyan revolution? Will the workers seize Goldman Sachs, take over the Bloomberg terminals, and move the money once destined for derivatives markets into green energy? Or, would they seize the Federal Reserve, instead. Would Jerome Powell be forced to read a communique announcing the dictatorship of the proletariat as grim-faced commissars stand behind him, hands resting gently on the holsters of their revolvers? Under such a situation, what would all the tools of finance even amount to? What would all that money be even worth?