Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Grifting, co-option, and a dialectic of resistance

Marxist professor of anthropology and geography David Harvey, in a recent article for Jacobin:
Here’s a proposition to think over. What if every dominant mode of production, with its particular political configuration, creates a mode of opposition as a mirror image to itself? During the era of Fordist organization of the production process, the mirror image was a large centralized trade union movement and democratically centralist political parties. The reorganization of the production process and turn to flexible accumulation during neoliberal times has produced a Left that is also, in many ways, its mirror: networking, decentralized, non-hierarchical.
This strikes me as uncontroversially true. While unions and parties do play a continued role in the organization of political resistance to capitalism, the modern vanguard of the left is today located among various Occupy, Black Lives Matter and Fight For $15 style activist movements, local community and college based organizations, proto-national organizations still in their embryonic stage like DSA, and so on.

A kind of natural selection is at work here: only smaller, decentralized leftist movements can survive, because capitalism inevitably co-opts and destroys the larger ones. Black Lives Matter, for example, has long been a movement at war with neoliberal attempts to hijack it, and both Occupy Wall Street and Fight For $15 have had their share of problems too. In what I suspect will set a template for future counter-revolution, however, Politico reported Sunday on the destruction of a quite different popular front:
The Tea Party movement is pretty much dead now, but it didn’t die a natural death. It was murdered...the spontaneous uprising...degenerated into a form of pyramid scheme that transferred tens of millions of dollars from rural, poorer Southerners and Midwesterners to bicoastal political operatives...[It] was drained of its vitality and resources by national political action committees that dunned the movement’s true believers endlessly for money to support its candidates and causes...
This overstates the extent to which the Tea Party was a genuine grassroots movement (it was largely astroturfed from the beginning), but it's the endgame that matters here. As it always does, capitalism turned the movement into a resource to be exploited by the bourgeoisie. All of the usual market forces were at work here: "lawyers and consultants...saw a chance to get rich", dozens of PACs began competing for activist donations, and by 2014 they were extracting $43m in a single election cycle. Today, the movement's enthusiasm has been almost completely tapped out: as Politico notes, "just 17 percent of Americans [now] support" it.

What I find fascinating is how neatly this trend fits into standard Marxist crisis theory - and the implications that directly follow. Once we view political activism itself as a set of resources (mainly labor and donor capital) that can be exploited, it follows directly that capitalism will, with increasingly ruthless efficiency, incorporate popular resistance into its profit model. As long as political resistance emerges in forms that can be commodified, capitalist exploitation will outpace the efficacy of revolution. Victories for the left will always be fleeting at best, and ever subject to co-option and rollback.

What will end this process, if we apply this Marxist analysis, is the engine of capitalism itself. It is tempting to suppose that attempts to co-opt and exploit political movements, as we saw with the Tea Party, will always ultimately be governed by what the bourgeoisie wants to happen politically. But as Marx notes, "since the aim of capital is not to minister to certain wants, but to produce profit", production will "tend to exceed" the "limited dimensions of consumption under capitalism". Here, this would mean that the grifters and entrepreneurs who try to profit off of political activism will ultimately overreach, and will try to exploit more labor and capital from political movements than there is to exploit.

It's difficult to guess how this contradiction will express itself historically, but I would like to propose a guess. Capitalism survives largely because people still feel like it allows them some degree of control - there is still, even among the left, a sense that we might be able to work through liberal-democratic channels to resist it and regulate it. But inevitably, it will become clear that even our liberal activism is just another racket that gets exploited for the profit and power of the bourgeoisie. It is when people begin to truly feel their powerlessness within liberalism, when they feel that their political agency has been absolutely commodified, that capitalism will run out of exploitable activism. What will take its place is the one kind of activism that capitalism can by definition not exploit: resistance to capitalism itself.