From its publication in the New Left Review in November 2022, Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner’s concept of political capitalism has revealed profound disagreement on the American left.
Case in point: Seth Ackerman’s recent critique, Robert Brenner’s Unprofitable Theory of Global Stagnation, argues Brenner’s analysis amounts to an assault on the country’s social democratic left.
If nothing else, reading Ackerman’s argument prompted me to reacquaint myself with such arcana of Marxist theory as the Okishio thesis and the temporal single-system interpretation.
I can remember being convinced at one point of the correctness of the TSSI (an attempt to refute claims that volumes I and II of Marx’s Capital were mutually inconsistent), but I can’t remember why.
I’m somewhat like a Catholic who learned the arguments for trans-substantiation as an adolescent in catechism class and now can’t remember what they are.
The most recent issue of the New Left Review opens with a thorough and balanced account of the state of play by Lola Seaton and the distinction between class dealignment and political capitalism.
This issue concerns Riley and Brenner’s third thesis: “The hypothesis of ‘class dealignment’ is an inadequate framework for understanding American contemporary politics.”
Underlying this statement are a number of issues about who votes for whom, why, and to what extent (or in what ways) class politics manifests in the electoral politics of the United States.
The concept of class dealignment is, for purposes of this discussion, associated with recent articles written by the Jacobin columnist and Princeton historian Matt Karp. However, the topic has also been percolating in European political sociology for the last few years.
One of the nostrums of 20th-century American politics is that workers and the less affluent tend to vote for the Democrats, while more affluent and educated people tend to vote Republican.
All parties to this discussion seem prepared to stipulate that the last decade has seen a reversal of these tendencies, with white working-class people skewing heavily for Trump and more affluent and educated people moving in the opposite direction.
That’s where the confusion begins.
Karp’s class dealignment account claims that the switch is a result of the rise of identity politics.
The Republicans have mobilised white working-class voters based on racial and/or nativist identifications in a typically nationalist fashion.
The Democrats have mobilised more affluent and educated voters based on a technocratic rationalism.
According to Karp, lower-income people should be more attracted to the Democrats since they have traditionally been the party of the social safety net.
The Republicans, by contrast, have historically been associated with laissez-faire capitalism and have been content to allow social problems to be worked out by the market.
Karp’s argument is idealist in that it views voters as moved by ideological concerns rather than their material interests.
Brenner and Riley, by contrast, argue that what is happening is not a shift away from class to race but a case of the Republican and Democratic parties appealing to different material interests.
Some parts of this case make sense at first blush.
The Democratic Party has refashioned its rhetoric and policies since the 1980s from the progressive liberalism of the New Deal to being the left wing of finance capitalism.
They are a party that is ready to protect your right to end your pregnancy and your capital gains.
The case at the other end of the spectrum seems murkier. Riley and Brenner argue:
[Class dealignment] captures the important fact of Democrats’ continuing struggles to attract white workers – and, increasingly, non-white workers – without a college degree, it fails to explain how white workers as white workers, or native workers as native workers, are being remobilized by the Republican coalition.
What then follows is statistical information indicating that this shift is happening but not why.
In a subsequent paragraph, Riley and Brenner argue,
This shift of white workers without a college degree to the Republican Party is best understood not as a process of class dealignment, but rather as the consequence of the GOP’s successful bid to appeal to the interests of a particular fraction of the working class in nativist and racist terms. The key point is that this segment’s move to the Republicans should not be explained in terms of attitudes or prejudices; rather, those attitudes should be seen as resulting from the class fraction’s objective situation.
The objective situation in question is the fear of white (or native) working-class people that non-whites or immigrants will take their jobs, although the classifications overlap almost entirely.
The question then turns on whether this is, in fact, an “objective” understanding of the position of non-college-educated, working-class whites and what sorts of blandishments the Republicans are offering them.
The niches in the workforce taken up by immigrants are not ones in which they are in direct competition with whites.
Immigrant labour is heavily concentrated in agriculture, domestic work, and the less skilled segments of the construction trades.
Most of the jobs occupied by immigrants, particularly those who have entered the country outside of the legal channels, are jobs that white workers wouldn’t accept because the rate of pay is too low.
Riley and Brenner make some sound points concerning the lack of actual return on the investment of votes in the Democratic Party by white workers since the 1950s. But they don’t make a strong case for the material benefits for white workers of voting for the Republicans.
This would be a hard case to make since the bulk of the GOP’s legislative contingent remains committed to free market solutions in matters of labour policy, and devil takes the hindmost.
Of course, Donald Trump did occasionally make a big deal of demanding that companies reshore jobs. But those demands were generally forgotten within a news cycle or two.
It is worth pointing out that neither American party can bring back stable jobs of the kind that were the bread and butter of white, non-college-educated workers in the 1950s and 1960s.
One can incentivise building factories in the United States. Getting companies to employ humans to produce goods in them is something else.
The outcome of that story is likely to be increased use of robots for the foreseeable future.
It is hard to make a convincing case for the Republican Party as the defender of white workers, or any workers for that matter.
What seems more plausible is that the GOP has mobilised resentment at the disappearance of stable industrial employment by blaming foreigners and non-whites.
There is an interesting parallel here between American politics and those of Western Europe.
Riley and Brenner’s argument that the Democrats failed to deliver for white workers parallels developments in the United Kingdom and Germany underwriting such crises as Brexit and the rise of Alternative für Deutschland.
In the former, the rise of Blairism was based on the Labour Party’s telling British workers that although no support would be forthcoming, they would still do better with Labour than with the Tories.
The German case involves somewhat less cynicism but an otherwise similar dynamic.
The decline of voters for the Social Democrats can be traced to the era of Gerhard Schroeder’s government (1998-2005).
The institutionalisation of the Hartz IV reforms and Schroeder’s status as a defender of neoliberal orthodoxy began the process of severing the SPD from its traditional working-class base.
Riley and Brenner argue that Biden, similarly, is a progressive rather than a social democrat.
This is probably true. Not that it makes a great deal of difference since most of what the US government does results reflects the inclinations of whoever happens to be in the White House.
The American government is like an up-armoured Humvee. It will not be transformed into a hippy bus (or a Volvo) simply by changing the driver.
Alternative capitalism, synonymous with Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and shopping at organic grocery stores, won’t do either.
The solution for whoever wants to oppose the populism of the far-right effectively is similar in both the American and European cases.
Breaking the power of xenophobic identities requires mobilising workers’ material interests, not paying lip service to them.
Given the low growth trap that Riley and Brenner have correctly identified as the central malaise of the US and world economies, this is easier said than done.
But it’s what governments do for working-class voters that will change their ideas.
Photograph courtesy of Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. Published under a Creative Commons license.