My thanks to Andrew Hartman for his thoughtful, provocative, even persuasive review of my recent book. I’m almost ready to recant. To my ears, the review is pitch-perfect because it exemplifies exactly the leftist positions I’ve been trying to put in question for many years, but it never offers them on faith, as self-evident truths. By the same token, it never dismisses my arguments with the righteous anger of the true believer.
Hartman and I disagree, of course, but my purpose here is not to demonstrate that I’m right and he’s wrong. For the time being, I don’t care who wins the argument. My purpose is to suggest that our disagreements are worth much more attention than they now get on the academic Left and in the larger culture. When they get the attention they deserve, I’ll start caring about the winner.
Let me begin with the usual quibbles, and then turn to the crucial questions Hartman raises—the questions of socialism, Marxism, and inequality. As usual in venues seemingly removed from the immediate demands of political action, these questions boil down to the very practical one Lenin asked in 1903: What is to be done?
Hartman twice declares that my arguments are “counter-intuitive,” maybe even maddeningly so. I have to ask, whose intuition? Or rather, whose assumptions am I challenging, and how did they get so deeply embedded in academic locutions that to retrieve and examine them is to embarrass everybody in the room? Hartman seems to think that Christopher Lasch is the only cultural/intellectual historian who would disagree with my skepticism about Populism and my comedic rendition of corporate capitalism. The fact is that every important historian writing in this genre, from Casey Blake and Robert Westbrook to Jackson Lears and James Kloppenberg, agrees with Lasch and disagrees with me (just like Hartman himself).
You will find some uneasy acceptance of my arguments in English departments—where the political and psychological stakes are less because debate about the canon is commonplace—but not in History departments. In the latter, the “dominant culture” among Americanists is still determined by the progressive historiographical legacy founded by Turner, Beard, and Parrington, then renovated by Gabriel Kolko, James Weinstein, Lawrence Goodwyn, Philip Scranton, Herbert Gutman, David Montgomery, Richard Bensel, Gretchen Ritter, Elizabeth Sanders, the list is endless—through which the defeat of the Populists, the fall of the house of labor, and the triumph of corporate capitalism are uniformly narrated as tragedy (notice that the two great counter-progressive historians, Richard Hofstadter and William Appleman Williams, are missing from the list). In this sense, my arguments aren’t counter-intuitive; instead, they’re up against the kind of received wisdom that has strong institutional grounding and formidable intellectual weight.
So when Hartman says “Livingston makes a whole series of counter-intuitive claims that serve as a defense of consumer capitalism and the corporate order,” he’s restating, with thoroughly enjoyable exasperation, what is obvious to Americanists in History departments: anybody who departs from the progressive narrative of the tragedy residing in the triumph of corporate capitalism is beyond the pale, off the reservation, at the margin, and probably on the run, professionally speaking.
But I’m defending neither capitalism nor corporations. I’m claiming that what Hartman calls the corporate order is a complex social formation in which at least two modes of production—capitalism and socialism—coexist and interpenetrate, each challenging but also invigorating the other. This claim is an empirical proposition to be tested by reference to the historical record, not dismissed on ideological grounds, as if socialism is recognizable only when it abolishes the garish colors of consumer capitalism and dons the drab insignia of the totalitarian state. This claim is also a way of contesting the notion of American “exceptionalism,” and thus insisting that socialism is not a foreign import—in other words, it’s not a barbarian host that grows somewhere beyond the perimeters of capitalism, then invades and obliterates the earlier, decadent mode of production. It grows and develops from within the older organism itself, and not always in the beautiful forms and dimensions we’d like to measure (a grotesque example of this ugly process is the post-Vietnam, all-volunteer military, an institution that has resolutely enacted the social goals of the civil rights movement, the Great Society, and yes, the so-called second wave of feminism).
For what it’s worth, I’m an old-fashioned socialist who has studied the Soviet variation on the theme of communism and the American variation on the theme of capitalism. I figure I’m still on the Left because I can say that capitalism underwrites freedom only insofar as the regulation and socialization of markets become the goals of both public policy and private associations; and that socialism underwrites democracy only insofar as markets become and remain indispensable devices in the allocation of resources. Capitalism is not reducible to free markets; socialism is not reducible to state command or elimination of markets. Socialism resides in and flows from markets; capitalism requires the regulation and reform of markets. In short: social democracy requires functional markets, and vice versa.*
Unlike Hartman, I don’t think that Marxism has any predictable political valence. I heard no irony when Alexandre Kojeve called himself a right-wing Marxist, and I see no shocking deviation when Eugene Genovese presents his admiration of the Southern Tradition, his fear of democracy, his distaste for finance capital, and his revulsion at consumerism in the same key of Marxism he once used to sing the praises of slave culture. You can be a Marxist, a conservative, and a critic of globalized corporate capitalism, all at once. As I suggested in the book, Fredric Jameson is all three, along with Frank Lentricchia and David Harvey. But in my usage, “conservative” is no more an epithet than is “liberal”—neither is the opposite or the enemy of what Hartman designates “the type of culture I would call leftist.”
In any event, Hartman is right. Yes, I should have taken Jameson’s version of post-modernism more seriously, if only because it treats cultural moments (in his case, realism, modernism, postmodernism) as I try to, as both harbingers and registers of changes in the capitalist mode of production since the early 19th century. But when Jameson (following Ernest Mandel) announces that “late or multinational or consumer capitalism, far from being inconsistent with Marx’s great nineteenth century analysis, constitutes, on the contrary, the purest form of capital yet to have emerged,” I have to wonder how the very late Marx, the one who wrote Volume III of Capital, disappeared from their periodization of capitalism.
This “old mole,” this Marx, insisted that modern corporations and modern credit had combined to effect “the abolition of capital as private property within the boundaries of capitalist production itself,” thus paving the way for a new, “socialised mode of production” rather than what Mandel and Jameson call the “purest form of capital.” I followed the old mole’s lead in trying to assess the “unspoken socialism” that regulated both government spending and the political sensibilities of the American electorate at the end of the 20th century—in trying to say that socialism develops as an impure “political unconscious” in the most unlikely places, even in the absence of a subjectivity or a party or a movement that promotes it.**
But what is to be said and done about inequality? If the Left won the culture wars engendered by the conflicts of the 1960s, and if an “unspoken socialism” has reshaped party politics, why then the widening income gap between the super-rich and the fabled middle class, not to mention “the” working class and the poor who languish at the bottom of those quintiles? I’ve heard this question many times, as you might imagine. Thanks to Andrew Hartman’s sharpened formulation of it, I can give you some answers that will, I hope, become questions, as in hypotheses.
Of course I agree completely with Hartman’s summary of the issue: “the fact of growing inequality calls into question the premise that the left is winning the national political battle.” But then I’ve never claimed that the Left “was winning the political struggle in spite of increasing inequality,” as he characterizes my position. Again, all I’ve said is that the Left won the culture wars, and that an “unspoken socialism” has haunted the political imaginary of both Left and Right. In fact, in other venues I have argued that since the 1970s, the Right has used political means to block the cultural effects of the Left, mainly by exploiting the differences between state and federal jurisdictions, or by recourse to unprecedented judicial and extraordinary executive powers—in much the same way that, in the 1850s, the ruling race of the South used political means to block the remarkable cultural effects of anti-slavery movements at the North. (The more contemporary analogy would note the political means by which white supremacists blocked the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, leading toward the reinvention of the Republican Party, North and South, as the bulwark of the ancien regime.)
This is not mere casuistry: I’m not trying to dodge the bullet Hartman aims so well. I’m trying to say that cultural changes and electoral programs live in different time zones, and that’s a good thing. Cultural revolution—paradigm change—precedes and informs political innovation, or the result is a coup, not a revolution. The failure of the Right’s repeated attempts to use political measures as a brake on the Left’s cultural gains would suggest as much: like the embarrassed emperor, the “unitary executive” peddled by Bush, Cheney, Addington, and Yoo had no clothes, and will soon be retired to the nudist camp of history.
“It is beyond doubt that the United States is now more tolerant than it was sixty years ago,” Hartman admits, “when many more forms of discrimination were still legal.” So we agree that we inhabit a more egalitarian place—a type of culture I would call leftist—where minorities and women (not to mention everybody else) have more opportunities than they did just a generation ago. And yet we also agree that economic inequality has somehow increased. How is either—the agreement or the fact of the matter—even conceivable?
One way to understand the discrepancies is to understand that the supply-side revolution wasn’t a right-wing conspiracy or, as David Courtwright would have it, the unintended consequence of baby-boomers’ interest in their own bottom lines. In the 1970s, the catastrophe of “stagflation” allowed for new, radical, anti-Keynesian approaches to the causes of economic growth—but the bipartisan consensus that ensued invariably emphasized enhanced private investment as the cure for what ailed us. In other words, the liberals and the leftists collaborated with their counterparts on the Right because they could see no theoretical or practical alternatives: government spending and regulation seemed to have exhausted their once-salutary effects on economic growth. The liberals and the leftists didn’t just pitch in, they led the fight against regulation (usually by criticizing “big business” and citing anti-trust law as their warrant for “restoring competition”), and they didn’t just stand by as the Reaganauts rewrote the tax code—they believed that new incentives to private investment were in order, and they eagerly provided such incentives. They still believe, and they act accordingly, which is why tax breaks for “job creation” by private enterprise were the bulk of Obama’s stimulus plan.
So do the rest of us still believe, especially in incentives for those small businessmen who supposedly create most of the new jobs. When we talk about income redistribution, we say that it’s the right thing to do, not that it would be better for economic growth—we speak the abstract language of moral philosophy, not the hard-edged vernacular of immediate interest, we speak as if “ought” and “is” are still opposites. In the absence of a theory, a paradigm, a program, whatever, that would convincingly explain why private investment is unnecessary to fuel growth—and why consumer culture is better for us than the abstinent alternatives—we will continue to speak this clotted Kantian dialect, and we will have nothing to say about income inequality except that, well, it’s just not right.***
The other way to understand the discrepancies Hartman correctly cites would, then, be to criticize the academic Left for its studied ignorance of political economy, or to criticize the larger, more political Left for its inability to recover from what I call the pathos of productivity—from the idea that effort and reward (or work and income) must be aligned in a transparent relation, just as crime and punishment must be. I will, for diplomatic reasons, present my criticisms as questions.
In view of “deindustrialization,” why hasn’t the Left, however construed, said: “All right then, good-paying jobs are going elsewhere, but instead of demanding the repatriation of those jobs so that we can return to back-breaking but well-paying industrial labor, our position is, enough already with productivity—our position is, FUCK WORK”? Why hasn’t the Left said: “Our task is to figure out how to detach the receipt of income from the creation of value, in keeping with the old socialist criterion of need, ‘from each according’ and all that”? Why hasn’t the Left kept faith with its historic mission, which is not to put us back to work but to liberate us from alienated labor?
I have no good answers, not just now, not when Obama looks defeated. But, like the disagreements I have with Andrew Hartman, these questions are worth much more attention than they now get on the academic Left and in the larger culture.
*On the relation between markets, capitalism, and freedom, the place to begin or end is Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962), a jolly gloss on the stern lessons of F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944), a rigorous book that deserves better treatment than Glenn Beck can give it. My understanding of the relevant issues is based on Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (1944); Lawrence R. Klein, The Keynesian Revolution (1948); Charles Lindblom, Politics and Markets (1977); and Irving Kristol (yes, him), Two Cheers for Capitalism (1978). On the relation between markets, socialism, and democracy, I’m drawing on Wlodzimierz Brus, Economics and Politics of Socialism (1961, trans. 1978), Istvan Friss, ed., Reform of the Economic Mechanism in Hungary (1969), Radoslav Selucky, Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe (1972), and Marxism, Socialism, Freedom (1978); and Martin J. Sklar, The United States as a Developing Country (1992).
** See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism (1990), pp. 35-37, 266-78, 301-26; and Karl Marx, Capital, 3 vols. (1867-1894, Kerr ed. 1909), 3: 451-57, 515-19, 549-56.
*** These are some of the problems I address in Attention Shoppers: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Souls, forthcoming from Basic/Perseus Books in 2011.