By Howard Richards
Now What Should We Do? (an agenda for Berniecrats after the United States election)
My young friend Charlie cancelled his gym membership so he could donate more money to the Bernie Sanders for President campaign. In October, he was writing me e mails like this one: “We have to move Hillary to the left. We have to keep pressuring her to honor her promises to work with Bernie to achieve a political revolution, issue by issue. Break up the big banks. Tax the wealthy. Cancel free trade deals. Increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Reform the financing of political campaigns. Make a serious effort to harmonize human life with a sustainable biosphere. Make university education free at public institutions and write off student loan debt. Enact single-payer health care. End austerity policies. Reform criminal justice.”
Now what do we do? I sympathize with Charlie’s aspirations. I have some ideas about what Bernie’s many supporters can do now. When history looks back on the 2016 elections, it may not see who won as most important. What was really important -what was really a breakthrough- was that in the Democratic primaries young people voted overwhelmingly for a democratic socialist.
Let me outline my somewhat different analysis. I call my analysis “realist.” I cannot make up my mind whether to call it a “realist social theory” or a “realist philosophy” or a “realist viewpoint.” I will call it a theory/philosophy/viewpoint (TPV).
First let me give five reasons why these clouds have silver linings.
Next I will briefly outline the realist theory/philosophy/viewpoint (TPV) I am recommending. I hope my few words here will entice someone to read other works where I have set out similar views at greater length, such as my Understanding the Global Economy and The Impossibility of Politics, as well as the works of other authors I will name.
Last I will offer some of my own answers to the question “Now what should we do?”
Dark Clouds with Silver Linings
- If Hillary had won, the probability of the approval of progressive legislation by the Republican Congress would have been zero. Building social democracy in America by pushing Hillary to the left was never a real option. What would have really happened would have been gridlock and failure. Now what will really happen will also be failure. Now the Republicans will be clearly responsible for the failure. What the Democrats will regret is that they did not run Bernie. What the Republicans will regret was that their turn to govern came with an incompetent leader. (My frank view is that the USA is in for hard times now whoever governs.)
- Today (as I see it) American opinion is divided among two main factions convinced heart mind and soul that their own viewpoint is logically and morally superior to the viewpoint of anyone who might disagree. Both dominant factions are fundamentally mistaken. There is very little room for dialogue and compromise between the two main factions. There is room for organizing necessary conversations and for introducing a TPV that is scientifically valid and which will orient solutions to problems that will really work.
What I mean by two main factions, both scientifically invalid and both convinced they are right is this: Paul Ryan and his fellow conservatives have no doubt that the policy prescriptions of Austrian and Chicago economics are right on the button. Those who disagree are seen as sleepwalkers walking with their eyes closed straight into inevitable economic stagnation, national decay, unpayable debt, and insolvent entitlement programs. Tea partyers similarly have unwavering faith in certain 18th century ideals –limited government, almost unlimited property rights, individual liberty and free markets. Conservatives are no doubt correct to see these as among the ideals that guided the founding fathers when they wrote the Constitution. They take the view that the core principles behind the Constitution have not changed and should not change. On such a viewpoint, it makes little or no sense to compromise with people who do not agree. Whoever thinks differently must be unintelligent or unpatriotic or both.
Liberal or centrist policy wonks like those at the Brookings Institution and Hillary herself, even if some of their number might never have read The Open Society and its Enemies or a translation of Logik der Forschung, strike me as followers of Karl Popper (and of others with similar outdated views in the philosophy of social science). They are also confident that their viewpoint is logically impeccable. Unless I am missing something, they swim in what realists call “the actualist fallacy” as a fish swims in water. They feel no more need to question their own rationality than a fish feels a need for a towel. The experts who have done the research and read the literature team up with the Methodists and their fellow travelers of other denominations who practice the good will toward all that they preach. The people of good will want to solve the problems. When they want to know how to solve the problems they ask the experts. Whatever the policy wonks do not yet know about health care or education or employment or prisons or taxes or banks or wars they will in the fullness of time find out by doing more statistical analysis of Big Data, more randomized trials, multiple regressions, pilot studies, surveys, double-blind experiments, and ethnographic field work. Science plus love will solve all problems except for those residual unsolvable problems consigned to the dustbin labeled “structural.” People who see things differently are from a Popperian policy wonk point of view uninformed or uncaring.
- It gets worse, but it gets worse in a way that could make level heads like maybe you and I could be more and more scarce and more and more in demand. In the USA, today truth itself is in danger of dissolving in the intensity of conflict. People like Paul Ryan and Hillary Clinton, even though they are extremely overconfident about opinions that are demonstrably unrealistic, at least have coherent viewpoints that they rationally defend. But when civility disintegrates coherence and rationality can be thrown out the window. As Caroline Richards poignantly portrays in her novel Sweet Country set in Chile at the time of the 1973 military coup, at a certain point in the breakdown of democracy truth ceases to exist. Was there an attempt to assassinate General Carlos Prats (the constitutionalist commander of the army loyal to President Allende) at the corner of Costanera Boulevard and Pedro de Valdivia Street in Santiago in August of 1973? Or did an unprovoked General Prats threaten innocent bystanders? When social breakdown passes a certain point, nobody cares what the facts are. The purpose of saying whatever you say is to declare what side you are on and to fight for your side. The United States may be approaching that point. It may have passed it. Were twelve or more women sexually assaulted by Donald Trump? Or are they all paid liars?
- Here is the saddest part. Democratic socialism, in all of its forms that have been tried so far, does not work, not even in Denmark. The administration of President Sanders would have been a failure. I briefly say why below. The details of why these sad truths are true are stated at length by Jürgen Habermas in The Legitimation Crisis and by me and my co-author Joanna Swanger in The Dilemmas of Social Democracies. (DSD) Looking on the bright side, since Bernie did not win in 2016, and even the somewhat social democratic Hillary Clinton did not win, now we have four more years to design an approach that will work and will not fail. We even have Elizabeth Warren waiting in the wings in case Bernie at age 78 decides not to run again.
- Fifth, the USA and world economies are unstable. There is nothing Donald Trump or Paul Ryan or anyone else can do to change that. Donald Trump repeatedly said, “If Hillary Clinton is elected, there will be a disaster.” What will actually happen –I am quite sure and you can call me a liar if I turn out to be wrong- is that Donald Trump is elected and there will be a disaster.
A Realist Theory/Philosophy/Viewpoint (TPV)
Everything I have written so far has had too narrow a focus. It has been about people, what people think, what people do. Realists focus more on the social structures that pre-exist people. Without pre-existing structures people, could not be who they are, think what they think, or do what they do. For example, Bernie could not have run for President without the pre-existing laws that established the position of President. To change the course of history, we need to think both about actors and about structures.
We can educate about structures and do things to change structures even when Republicans control all three branches of government.
From a scientific point of view, we have a better grasp of reality when we study the underlying structures (also called generative mechanisms) that tend to produce the phenomena observed. (Roy Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science. This book plus its sequel The Possibility of Naturalism demonstrate why the methodologies typical of policy wonks are limited and inadequate.)
From a practical point of view, we need a theory/philosophy/viewpoint that provides guidance for solving the structural problems –the ones that elude the positivist (“actualist”, “irrealist”) thinking of the average policy wonk. We need an historical approach to social science that pays due respect to the ideals of the 18th century uncritically embraced by USA conservatives while updating them to solve the problems of the 21st. We need a comprehensive viewpoint –and we will find it in ecology- that provides intellectual common ground -analogous to the literal common ground that is the one earth we share- to help us to establish communication among practitioners of diverse rationalities. We need to see through the imaginary worlds of mathematical economic models that hold the real-world captive. We need to see the causal powers that really drive the economy in order to build an economics of justice, an economics of solidarity. (Tony Lawson, Economics and Reality, consult also the quarterly Real World Economics Review)
If we could see these things that we need to see (a theory/philosophy/viewpoint is a way of seeing) then we could see how the political revolution Bernie Sanders started could succeed. I mean this in two senses: in the sense that there is a TPV people can believe in, and in the sense, that unlike previous versions of democratic socialism a realist version would work.
I mean all of this more as an offer to help you make your own theory/philosophy/viewpoint than a pitch to sell you mine. Step One is to craft a definition of “structure” or rather “social structure.” Here is mine (adapted from Reconstructing Sociology by Douglas Porpora and The Construction of Social Reality by John Searle):
Social structure consists of material social relations that constitute positions. For example, the relations among the owners and non-owners of the means of production. Social relations are established by constitutive rules. For example: (another example), by the legal rules that constitute the positions of buyers and sellers. If you are confused by the phrase “constitutive rules” or by anything else, I suggest consulting Google. Google knows everything.
For a Step Two I suggest reading the following outline; and for a Step Three reading some of the books and authors I am mentioning.
Outline of One (not the only) Realist TPV
The work of the world that provides the daily bread of all of us is motivated too much by profit. Without profit, it does not get done. To be more precise, it is motivated by the accumulation of capital.
It has not always been so. The human body evolved as the body of a cultural animal, designed to live in tribes with material social relations organized by cultures. (Nancy Tanner, On Becoming Human; Catherine Hoppers and Howard Richards, Rethinking Thinking; Howard Richards and Joanna Swanger, Gandhi and the Future of Economics) It took nature many millennia to evolve an animal that would leave the house every morning with a wallet in his pocket or in her purse.
Assuming capital accumulation to be what Louis Althusser calls the structure-in-dominance of the system, I set aside for the moment other motivations that also get meals cooked, diapers changed, houses built, the sick cared for, gardens tended and the dead buried, such as (some of) the motives that drive public policies, love, custom, meeting basic needs, vocation, mission, what Jerome Bruner and Douglas McGregor call intrinsic motivation, solidarity, service, glory, duty, self-realization… (Abraham Maslow, A Theory of Motivation).
In a system driven by accumulation production starts with money and ends with more money. It starts with buying human resources and other inputs for production. It ends with selling the products. If production is not profitable it does not happen.
Everything depends on selling. In other words, on buying, since every sale is a purchase from the point of view of the buyer and every purchase is a sale from the point of view of the seller. Everything is governed by the constitutive rules of the language game of buying and selling.
The winners of the game end up with more money than they started with. Then they can invest their money again in a new round of production, and once again turn money into more money, and so on and on. This is how they accumulate.
Those who do not succeed in selling their labor or whatever they may have to sell at a decent price are the excluded. They lose the game. They are redundant. They have no role to play in the achieving of the objective of the system: namely the objective of turning money into more money.
With rare and temporary exceptions, there are always losers. The fact that someone needs to sell to make a living does not obligate anybody to buy. People, businesses, and governments often choose to keep some of their money instead of spending it. What John Maynard Keynes called a chronic insufficiency of effective demand is more than a theorem that revolutionized economics. It is a logical consequence of the constitutive rules of markets. It is a consequence of the fundamental fact that although our bodies evolved to live in tribes today we live in markets, not in tribes.
Since production depends mainly on accumulation, and since without production life cannot go on, it becomes a physical necessity to impose what the Grenoble economists and David Harvey call a regime of accumulation. This means that everything about society -education, wages, taxes, police, culture, religion, sports, and even (according to Fredric Jameson) the unconscious mind…etc.- must be organized to achieve the confidence of investors. I mean the confidence of investors that they will make profits.
Here is in brief why social democracy and democratic socialism, in the forms they have taken so far, do not work: They sap the confidence of investors by eating into their profits. For example, they raise taxes and wages. (See DSD for details on why the “Keynesian miracle” of raising profits by raising sales by raising wages and similar gambits in the absence of temporary unusual circumstances do not work.)
It gets worse. Each of the 196 countries in the world is trying to grow its economy by making itself more attractive to investors than the other 195.
At the level of ideas (what Margaret Archer calls the cultural level) here is the culture shift needed to make Bernie’s political revolution a success: We must redefine the problem. The problem is not how to attract investment. The problem is how to transform social structure so that our lives no longer physically depend on attracting investment.
At the level of social structure here is the transformation needed: strengthen social relations powered by other motivations that also get meals cooked, diapers changed, houses built, the sick cared for, gardens tended and the dead buried, such as (some of) the motives that drive public policies, love, custom, meeting basic needs, vocation, mission, what Jerome Bruner and Douglas McGregor call intrinsic motivation, solidarity, service, glory, duty, self-realization… (Evelin Lindner, A Dignity Economy; Gavin Andersson (forthcoming), Unbounded Organization: Embracing the Societal Enterprise).
Now What Do We Do?
Now we do many things for many reasons. Let me suggest five priorities responding to the preceding list of five dark clouds with silver linings:
- Let’s give priority to keeping Bernie’s movement alive and growing stronger. 2018 will be the year to take back the Congress.
- Let’s tell the earth story. It is a story that includes the 18th century and the 21st, as well as the Big Bang, the first unicellular organisms, the Agricultural Revolution, Buddha, Christ, and Mohammed. We are one species in one biosphere on one planet. One family with one home. All of our diverse ways of thinking and acting are –as Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked—episodes in the natural history of human beings. Every word is human. As Antonio Gramsci remarked, the role of the intellectual is to adjust culture to its physical functions. Therefore, let us engage in conversations with people we disagree with, read books by authors we think are wrong, pray for our enemies, organize necessary conversations. As Socrates remarked, if we seek truth together then even if we do not find the truth we will be better persons –which is perhaps another way of saying what Gramsci and Wittgenstein said. (Even if you cannot understand this paragraph; even if as we say in California talk you cannot get behind where my head is at; you may still be able to try out my recommendations and see if they work for you.)
- Let’s gather facts and respect them. Do our homework. Show up at meetings prepared to discuss the issues. Gandhi: Truth is God, God is truth. (For a defense of the concept of truth in spite of Michel Foucault et.al. see the final chapters of John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality.)
- Strengthen all the ways of doing good things that are not capitalist. Tap the unlimited potential of unbounded organization (www.unboundedorganization.org). By definition (by my definition, which is one of at least three found in the writings of the man who coined the term, Karl Marx) “capitalism” starts with money and acts for the purpose of turning the initial sum into a larger sum. All other ways of doing things are not capitalist. Their number is in principle infinite. Being not capitalist includes many “material practices” (Fernand Braeden’s term) that used to exist but have fallen into disuse. It includes many material practices that humans may invent in the future that at this moment in history have never yet existed.
Being not capitalist can include the investors and the entrepreneurs themselves when they are not just in it for the money; when their calling is to produce goods and services and employment to meet human needs, and to create social surplus for social purposes (“shared value”). Being not capitalist certainly includes all the hole-in-the-wall mini-markets and auto repair shops and beauty salons and small cafés whose owners are in business not to accumulate capital but to make a living for themselves and their families.
There is a political purpose behind strengthening all the dimensions and sectors of life that are not capitalist. It is to liberate humanity from the physical necessity of living if not under one regime of accumulation then under some other regime of accumulation. It is to cut capitalism down to size, to make it smaller than the law instead of bigger than the law.
- The next time the economy crashes, let’s treat it as an opportunity to strengthen the not capitalist institutions and practices that we need to strengthen anyway, with or without a crash.