Tea Party's "absurd" socialism obsession: An actual Marxist sounds off

When the right claims that Barack Obama will implement socialism, it may actually be helping the cause it abhors

Published March 27, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jason Reed)
(Reuters/Jason Reed)

My hope is that we arrive at a common-ist revolution before we hit capitalist collapse,” novelist and essayist Benjamin Kunkel told Salon. In an era of Tea Party denunciations of Obama as a socialist, and increased mainstream talk about “capitalism” and Marx, Kunkel’s new book, “Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis,” sets out “to contribute something in the way of intellectual orientation to the project of replacing a capitalism bent on social polarization, the hollowing out of democracy, and ecological ruin with another, better order.” Salon spoke with Kunkel about feminism’s relationship with Marxism, radicals’ relationships with reformers, and Michele Bachmann’s “quite absurd” warning’s about Obama socialism.

At the start of your book, you say that for a long time your “belief in my beliefs” was weakened by an “ideological consensus” that “socialism of any kind was a recipe for political oppression and shoddy goods, whereas free markets could be counted on to foster democracy and other forms of consumer choice.” Why don’t you believe that?

I think that it’s pretty clear that in Western countries in the 19th century … a conflict between democracy and capitalism was widely recognized. And the fact that the socialist movement came to be associated in the 20th century with these party-state dictatorships meant that the natural affinity, as I see it, between socialism and democracy was forgotten about by a lot of people.

But capitalism clearly leads to these enormous concentrations of wealth, which are fundamentally incompatible with democratic liberalism over time … The concentration of wealth leads to a real inequality of opportunity, of course, that is not really compatible with democracy -- and obviously it tremendously distorts democracy in the sense of the expression of the popular will. As we see in this country, where we’ve more or less formalized the democratic dictatorship of capital through our campaign finance system …

Through most of the period of the socialist movement … it has seemed that capitalism and democracy were at odds, and I think that’s how it seems again today. And in a way the middle of the 20th century comes to seem like an anomaly.

What do you think has happened to that consensus?

Well, obviously it’s substantially intact. But it seems to be faltering, probably for everyone, and especially for younger people, who on the one hand don’t associate the left with command economies and dictatorships, and on the other hand, just for everyone, because it’s clear that capitalism is not doing a great job in terms of delivering either democracy or broad-based prosperity …

Another important development is probably that the opposition between markets and the left seems to be breaking down -- and ought to be breaking down. It ought to break down for a number of reasons. First of all, because there’s no inherent incompatibility -- at least as far as I’m concerned, and as far as many people are concerned -- between resort to markets and having a complex economy, and having a substantial or, even, if you want, an absolute equality of income … People like some things about markets, and I think rightly so, but I don’t really see why there ought to be a free market in terms of labor, so that there’s no minimum wage nor any maximum wage …

So at least in theory, you could have a market economy where everybody receives the same income. It might not work for other reasons -- because there would be, I suppose, no incentive at all to do a better job than someone else in terms of what you received in compensation -- but at least in theory, there’s no incompatibility between an absolute equality of income, and absolute freedom in terms of how that income’s spent.

Are there any examples, large scale or small scale, that you look to for what that could look like?

Well I think the most nearly socialist countries that we have examples of are the Scandinavian ones, which have had very prosperous economies.

And there are familiar Marxist accounts … of the problems you can get into if you have a serious maldistribution of income in terms of the functioning of a market economy. On the one hand, you keep effective demand out of the hands of too many people. And on the other hand, for this reason, you can end up with corporations and wealthy individuals just sitting on their cash income – you know, just hoarding it rather than investing it or spending.

What do you think the experience in Scandinavia suggests about the prospects of having socialism within one country, within a larger capitalist system?

I think if a revolution takes place of any kind, you’re going to have whatever new mode of production you’ve got in one country to start out with. And you could say that the England of the 17th century was capitalism in one country. And it wouldn’t have probably survived as such had not the rest of the world attained this point, as Neil Davidson calls it … of “systemic irreversibility.” But to me it seems that there’s nothing strange about having whatever it is that you have, whether it’s capitalism or communism, or for that matter fascism, in just one country to start.

In 2012, Michele Bachmann told Iowa caucus-goers, “We are unwilling to allow Barack Obama to implement socialism in the United States of America.” What do you make of that kind of rhetoric on the right? Does it help or hurt Americans’ interest in or openness to actual socialism?

I think it ought to help …

One the one hand, it’s quite absurd: Obama’s obviously a neoliberal in the line of every president we’ve had since Reagan.

And at the same time, she’s not altogether wrong, in that if you go back and look at the 10 demands that are stated in the Communist Manifesto – and they deliberately picked the word “communist,” because “socialist” sounded too reformist, so we’re not even talking about socialism, we’re talking about so-called communism -- if you look at those 10 demands, they’ve been substantially realized in the United States. And you know, evidently we’re living under a totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship and have been for nearly a hundred years -- that’s the America that Michele Bachmann loves, it’s a Stalinist dictatorship … I mean, by some measures, right, you could say that [based on overlap with the Manifesto].

Capitalism and socialism … these are things that coexist. Obviously with the New Economic [Policy] under Lenin, there was reintroduced a degree of capitalism in the Soviet Union. You could argue that the Soviet Union was itself – lots of people have [argued it], so I don’t want to get into this myself – a situation of state capitalism.

So I don’t think that there’s any absolute opposition between capitalism -- or, rather, let’s say markets -- and limits to economic rationality, or limits to markets.

You wrote in a 2011 essay, printed in this book, that “Marxism seems better prepared to interpret the world than to change it.” Is there any way in which that’s changed in the past few years? And do you think that either a journal like n+1, which you helped found, or a book like this makes some meaningful difference on that scale?

That was before Occupy. And Occupy, of course, was more anarchist than Marxist in spirit, but there were plenty of Marxists -- or socialists, or whatever you want to call them -- involved with the movement. And so I think that Marxism seems better prepared to change the world than it was a few years ago.

But of course there’s a long, long, long, long way to go. And I think a book like this ideally will help, but that’s truly a matter of faith rather than sort of logical conviction.

But you know, it seems to me, insofar as these ideas have been, in many people’s minds, sufficiently discredited that they never needed to look into them in the first place, hopefully the fact that you can pick up this relatively slender book and get an idea of some of this stuff … might have, you know, a minor influence on changing the world for the better. I would be the last person to suggest that it would have an enormous influence.

You write that “intellectual disorientation has thinned our ranks and abetted our organizational disarray.” Why do you think that one leads to the other? If the goal is to build a mass movement, is it necessary, or even desirable, to have ideological coherence?

I don’t think ideological consensus is necessary, or ideological coherence uniting everyone. But probably for individual activists it’s important to have some idea what they’re struggling for. And I think to draw people into the ranks of activism or organizing and so forth … it’s nice for them to be able to articulate in some rudimentary way a vision of what world it is that we’re after.

I think that the success of neoliberal ideology is such that people who would never use the word “neoliberal” or “ideology” could probably give you a pretty coherent – it might be false – but a kind of logically coherent account of why it is that maximum liberation of the market ought to lead to the best society that we can live in.

And so many people who are not intellectuals, who don’t use words like “neoliberalism” or “ideology,” I think have a pretty coherent neoliberal ideology … So I don’t see why there can’t be a left counter-ideology that attains a similar scope.

In considering David Harvey, you note an overlap in some Marxists’ and neo-Keynesians’ arguments as they regard collapse of demand due to declining wages as a potential problem for capital. Later, in critiquing Slavoj Zizek, you write that “The heyday of the welfare state was accompanied, after all, by far more worker and student radicalization than the era of neoliberalism that followed it, which demoralized radicals and reformers alike.” What does that suggest about the way radicals and reformers should interact with each other?

There is no left pedigree to the “revolution of rising expectations,” so it can be a dangerous concept to use, but I do think that something like that can take place. And [that] when people get more from their lives and from the world, they also want more. And when they’re struggling just to get by, that takes up the bulk of their time and their thoughts.

And it’s interesting that, say, the real improvements in standards of living that are pretty broad-based in a country like Brazil have led to increased radicalism among this new and very shaky middle class -- a middle class that’s fairly poor by our standards …

You could argue that the period after the Second World War was characterized by a revolution of rising expectations: People expected to be able to live more comfortably than previous generations, to be better educated than previous generations, and also to live in a society that was less racist, that was more egalitarian, and that more nearly achieved the goals of feminism. So I suppose it’s in that sense that reforms and improvements in how people live prior to the revolution can lead toward something that would actually replace this mode of production with another.

Catharine MacKinnon wrote in 1989 that “Marxists and feminists each accuse the other of seeking what in each one’s terms is reform,” rather than “fundamental transformation.” She argued: “Feminist demands, it is claimed, could be fully satisfied within capitalism, so their pursuit undermines and deflects the effort for basic change.” Whereas “Marxist demands, it is claimed, could be (and in part have been) satisfied without altering women’s inequality to men.” McKinnon argued, “Neither set of allegations is groundless.” Do you agree?

Well, that’s a neat trick to say “neither set of allegations is groundless.” To say that they’re [not] groundless doesn’t mean that their gravamen is correct.

I think the only kind of Marxism worth having is a general project of human emancipation, which includes, of course, the female half of the species. Meanwhile, before any such general emancipation has been brought about, clearly women ought to have the same rights of access to an unequal society that men enjoy.

I would feel the same under feudalism -- you know, that women have every right to the same prerogatives of lordship, even though they were ladies. And inheritance, and to keep their property after getting married …

If you’re going to have feudalism, you might as well have it be a feminist feudalism …

If you’re going to have class society, it ought not to be racist …

Before there’s common ownership of the means of production -- or at least substantial means of production, wide-scale means of production -- it seems to me very important to fight for equality of access to an unfair society.

You note the frequent Marxist references to our current moment as “late capitalism,” but also David Harvey’s argument that, in your words, “a system bent on overaccumulation will not collapse of its own top-heaviness. Do you expect to see an end to capitalism in your lifetime? And if you do, will it be because of an ecological calamity of some kind?

I think the chances are pretty good. I mean, I don’t know what Vegas odds are going to be on the collapse of capitalism …

Should I live to, you know, three score and 10, I think the chances are decent -- I think certainly within the century. You know, I don’t know. I mean, it’s always hazardous to predict …

It seems to me that it’s very clear that capitalism won’t last forever, for -- at the very least for ecological reasons. Or at least it won’t be the capitalism of persistent per capita economic growth that we’ve become accustomed to over a few centuries. So I don’t expect per capita economic growth to continue under [a] capitalist regime of accumulation for the rest of this century.

It may do so, and I’m not totally confident that there will be a collapse. But I think that the chances are pretty good there will be a collapse – or, better, the overthrow of capitalism, and its transcendence in socialist, or communist or -- as I sometimes like to say – “common-ist” terms …

These internal contradictions of capitalism somewhere are going to meet ecological contradictions, and it’s not quite clear, you know, which would spell the end of the system first.

What is it in particular that suggests to you that the chances are “pretty good”?

A revolution doesn’t take place automatically, right? It takes place because there is a loss of legitimacy … It seems to me that certainly it would be implausible to imagine that this would happen everywhere at once. But it seems to me not implausible that, as capitalism presides over increasing inequalities of wealth, and this sort of relentless ecological deterioration, that certain populations -- who knows where first -- will say that they won’t tolerate capitalism any further. There’s also the possibility, I suppose, of true collapse of the civilization …

But my hope is that we arrive at a common-ist revolution before we hit capitalist collapse …

[Circling back to Bachmann,] it doesn’t make any sense [for me] to say that we’ve been living under a Stalinist dictatorship for the better part of the 20th century. I just think that people who hate the idea of socialism, and hate the idea of Marx, and think that he was just a sort of embryonic Stalin, might just go back and look at those 10 demands in the Communist Manifesto, and see which of them they disagree with. Maybe there’s one or two, but it won’t be a lot.

By Josh Eidelson

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