Also in Counterpunch
The problem is not that the corporations are “out of control,” the problem is that the corporations are so much “in control.” By seeing neoliberalism as Free Market Fundamentalism (FMF) rather than Corporate Power we underestimate the challenges ahead. FMF does not help us to know what tactics and strategies are best because it cannot tell us about the enemy we face: Corporate Power.
If the corporations have merged with the state, then the liberal-regulatory state is finished and our faith in it’s ability to protect us is a poor substitute for self-knowlege and self-determination. Instead, we should realize that we are finally on our own. Mass movements making revolutionary demands and organizing projects aimed at building independent people power will have the best chance at overthrowing the corporate power.
The tension between seeing the problem as FMF or as corporate power will only be resolved by the highest stakes gamble imaginable. Can we dismantle corporate power and stop climate change through normal electoral means or will revolutionary upheavals provide the answers we need?
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures
The recipes for action suggested by those writers who emphasize FMF give too much weight to elections and incremental change. Take Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage for example. On the one hand Monbiot supports community projects. Agreed. Communal approaches are very important and benefit from being rooted in existing institutions and relationships.
Monbiot also calls for the return to the “protective,” liberal state including an intriguing call for a constitutional convention by citizens and important electoral reforms. But his proposals for recapturing the state are essentially a more energetic version of electoral campaigning. The mass upheavals and deep organizing that created the liberal state in the first place are largely absent. We need both the commune and revolution.
Naomi Klein’s No is Not Enough, while full of good advise and insight, also shows just how hard it is to see a passage beyond the corporate order. The author’s vantage point shifts back and forth between FMF and corporate power and her strategic advice reflects that.
Klein’s re-telling of Standing Rock is moving and true. Standing Rock calls on us to take action by building transformative social movements against what Klein rightly calls “ecocidal capitalism.” She recognizes that native communities have the experience and knowledge to lead the new environmental movement. So far so good.
Klein’s other major example is the LEAP Manifesto. It’s another good start, as is the coalition-building it hopes to promote: but to what end? Utopian visions are important, as Klein argues, but the future LEAP calls for is not nearly utopian enough. LEAP calls for more rigorous corporate regulations, ending austerity and expanding social inclusion. It’s all fine, but how is that different from returning to a new and improved liberal-regulatory state?
Klein praises social movements but tends to distill them into their programs, platforms and manifestos, which can then be deployed in the electoral arena. Although Klein addresses the shortcomings of the electoral process she then writes, “But the real trick is going to be to get those dreams on the ballot with a winning strategy as quickly as possible.”
Programs and manifestos are half the story. The other half is the capacity of social movements for disruption. Martin Luther King’s take on this is classic:
“The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
Yes, social movements are the true creators of ideals and visions but they are also the source of the kind of actions that put pressure on the system from the outside.
For Klein, recent “left-wing almost-wins” in US or French elections, took us “within an arm’s reach of power.” While a Sander’s win may well have been, and may well be, a huge step forward, his agenda would have been hamstrung by the corporate state and the war machine. The fact that corporate Democrats closed ranks to cheat Sanders out of the 2016 nomination was a very telling indication of what Sanders would have faced if elected — even from his own deeply corporate and pro-war party.
If we ever want to get closer than “an arm’s reach of power” we will need millions of people acting in ways that threaten the elite’s power and profit. The quest for limitless power and profit is the new rule underlying the corporate state and the main driver of climate disaster. We must overturn this rule knowing full well just how deeply entrenched corporate power is. No easy victories.
So instead of revolution — a word barely mentioned — or the stranglehold of the two-party system on government — a problem not analysed — or electoral fraud by both parties — an obstacle not considered — Klein’s understandable desire to instill hope, plus the focus on FMF, cycles us back to elections as the main strategy.
If only neoliberalism were simply an extreme form of capitalism we could turn off like a switch — instead of the final outcome of capitalism’s historical development — or just bad ideology and bad policies — instead of a system of corporate rule exercised by the state — then maybe the people could take power using normal electoral means.
Solutions Need to Match the Scale of the Problems
Among the popular writers on neoliberalism Chris Hedges most persistently points to the need for massive non-violent civil disobedience as the way forward. Perhaps it was his 20 years as a war correspondent that allowed him to see the depths to which we have fallen and the heights to which we must climb — if we want to win. It is no coincidence that Hedges uses the concept of corporate power more than any other major popularizer of the neoliberal critique.
“The problem is not Trump. It is a political system, dominated by corporate power and the mandarins of the two major political parties….We will wrest back political control by dismantling the corporate state, and this means massive and sustained civil disobedience like that demonstrated by teachers around the country this year…”
Corporate power has produced multiple interlocking crises that cannot be resolved within the existing system. Consider the mountain of evidence on wealth inequality — a crisis responsible for much of the social dysfunction we face precisely because it combines and intensifies the inequalities of race, gender and class, threatens our environment and democracy and magnifies global inequalities produced by empire and colonialism.
Researchers from fourteen universities have studied wealth inequality over thousands of years finding that the US is one of the most unequal countries in all of history. In The Great Leveller, Stanford Universities’ Walter Scheidel has concluded that once inequality has grown to existing levels, history gives us no examples of it being resolved using normal means. Scheidel claims that mass warfare, pandemic, state collapse or transformative revolution are the most likely outcomes.
All the Means At Our Disposal
It’s hard to see that any movement against corporate power could succeed without using all the non-violent means at its disposal: social movement unionism, tenants unions, massive non-violent civil disobedience, strikes, communes, cooperatives of all sorts, occupations, rank and file groups, full-fledged social movement for peace and justice and all the forms of disruptive protest activities they can produce. Election do matter, but without these struggles and disruptions electoral efforts will fail to deliver.
No one is going to save us. How do we save ourselves? It is impossible to know in advance, with any certainty, which tactic or strategy is best. Wild experimentation with strategy combined with disciplined, dedicated practice will resolve what debate alone cannot.
We must also use all the visionary means at our disposal.
We should make revolutionary demands that would lead to dismantling corporate power: abolishing the fossil fuel regime, ending empire and war, converting large corporations — the banks first of all — into public utilities placed under democratic control, expropriating billionaires, cancelling debts, abolishing the militarized penal system, returning large tracts of land to natives, paying reparations to populations once enslaved and no taxation without representation. We need many forms of experimentation in economic and workplace democracy, including worker ownership of enterprise and housing, public promotion of local economies and the transfer of significant political authority to local assemblies.
Revolutionary demands take on their ultimate power when linked to universal values — for it is with universal values that we can communicate with the millions. When such demands are carried by mass movements in the name of values like freedom and democracy, then the political climate changes and new horizons become visible. Whatever name you wish to call it, this would be transformative revolution.
A new political climate based on revolutionary expectations will be the conditions under which the demands for minimum standards and minimum reforms can best be gained — rather than relying on a slow build-up of reforms. Minimum standards such as universal health care, free and fair elections, living wages, decent housing, ending prison labor — these kinds of reforms are achievable only when we aim much higher.
We might bridge the gap between reform and revolution, developing better synergy and coordination between different wings of the movement, by pursuing “revolutionary reforms.” What issues will move millions by the self-evident righteousness and reasonableness of the cause but also be something that corporate power cannot agree to without undermining their own hegemony?
We need a special kind of intermediate program sometimes described as a transition program or revolutionary reforms. What kinds of struggles would allow millions of people to make the passage between what is and what ought to be?
Perhaps the best bet is the environmental crisis because it is so universal and so catastrophic. The Green Party’s Green New Deal recalls past periods of reform but since it must include an uncompromising call for an end to war and dismantling of empire — if it is to work — then we have a reform with revolutionary potential.
Naomi Klein starts us off on the climate crisis with a focus on ideology and markets when she writes,
“To admit that the climate crisis is real is to admit the end of the neoliberal project….[T]o avert climate chaos, we need to challenge the capitalist ideologies that have conquered the world since the 1980s….[T]he oligarch class cannot continue to run riot without rules.”
Obama proved, with record oil production, that it takes more than admitting to problems — it requires sweeping and decisive action — and fast. Massive movements for a whole and healthy earth will finally reveal whether or not neoliberalism is more than just an “ideology” and whether or not it “runs riot without rules” or has created a new set of rules enforced by the state.
By recognizing corporate power Chris Hedges offers a strategic counterpoint:
“To assume that Obama or the Democratic Party, simply because they acknowledge the reality of climate change while the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party does not, is better equipped to deal with the crisis is incorrect. [B]oth parties have and will do nothing to halt the ravaging of the planet. If Sheldon Wolin is right–and I believe he is–then when we begin to build our mass movements–and…acts of civil disobedience…We have to understand that the corporate state, including the Democratic elite, will react the way all calcified states react. They will use the security and surveillance apparatus….If the response of the corporate state is repression rather than reform, then our strategy and our tactics must be different… We will have to view the state, including the Democratic establishment, as antagonistic to genuine reform, and we will have to speak in the language of overthrow and revolution.”
The corporate state is not just bad ideology. It’s a system of hard and fast structures that command violence, surveillance and propaganda to achieve its goals. When “the language of overthrow and revolution” is spoken, it will be given voice by mass movements to defend the planet and realize the promise of universal values.
While different interpretations of neoliberalism lead to different strategies, the point is to plot a course that can allow better synergy between reform and revolution — a course that will allow millions of everyday people to transition beyond the existing order. If people want to stop big oil’s pipelines thinking regulation is the answer — there is nothing wrong with that. Let’s test it out. Projects like the Green New Deal can draw support from reformers as well as revolutionaries. Let’s test that one out too.
Let’s be good organizers and start where people are at, not where we want them to be. If we do that we just might end up with a whole people fighting for a whole earth. And that would be enough to bring down the corporate empire we have bowed down to for far too long.