A discussion responding to the Capitalism Studies Manifesto and Zaretsky’s “How Capitalism Will End” —

One of my frustrations as the editor of Public Seminar is knowing that there have been interesting responses to our posts, but people are reluctant to publish them on the site itself. We are trying to figure out how to make it easier and more inviting to respond so that this is overcome. But as it happens today I can address the problem more directly. When I linked to Will Milberg and Julia Ott’s Capitalism Studies Manifesto on my Facebook page, a discussion followed about capitalism that relates both to Milberg and Ott’s post and to Eli Zaretsky’s “How Capitalism Will End,” published earlier in the week. I am reproducing the discussion here and adding two more cents.

By way of introduction: I made a long term vocation of studying and working with the opposition to previously existing socialism, in the Soviet bloc and beyond. I was a participant observer of the Democratic Opposition in Central Europe and Solidarność. I think I learned that socialism as a system existing anywhere in the world has been a failure, even as I am still committed to socialist ideals, concerning equality, social justice and a fully developed democracy. The idea that a change in the mode of production will magically address enduring social problems seems to me to be not only naïve but mistaken. Thus, I find the Capitalism Studies Manifesto especially appealing in that it suggests an understanding of capitalisms (in the plural), illuminating possibilities that a blanket critique of capitalism and the blanket celebration obfuscate.

Here the Facebook discussion unedited, starting with my introduction of the Manifesto:

Jeff: A new center of critical study is developing at The New School for Social Research. As someone who believes that there is no systemic alternative to capitalism, I am especially intrigued by the combination of realism and critique in this manifesto. “We apprehend capitalism as both a system fundamentally grounded in violence and the most effective engine for bettering the material condition of mankind ever known.”

George: Looks like Jeffery is in the same company as Thatcher’s there is no alternative, except Jeffery throws in the term ‘systematic’. Tell this to the number of people who are trying to create alternatives. At least they are trying and not throwing down the glove. And one time it was only a dream that man could fly. If Jeffery is right, imagination is dead, and we are screwed.

Jeff: I throw in the word “systemic” because I believe there are different capitalisms, and therefore understand the project is to tame capitalism and to fight for common goods: social justice, freedom, equality, group. individual dignity, etc., directly, not believing that they can only be realized by overthrowing the economy, replacing it with something completely different. Perhaps someday there will be such a thing, but the experience with socialism of the 20th century suggests it is not something we should count on in the near future. My colleague, Eli Zaretsky thinks otherwise, as do you, but I won’t compare you or him to one or another socialist dictator, as you compared me to Thatcher.

Eli: How could there not be a systemic alternative to capitalism? DO you really think that capitalism is some sort of millennial arrival that has solved the problems of economic life for all time? Is it not a particular historical solution to the economic problem? Why rule out alternatives.

Jeff: Sure sometime somewhere there very well be an alternative [I should have written systemic alternative]. But I don’t think there are any signs indicating that it is coming soon, contrary to your argument on PS. I will continue this discussion on the PS Commons.

Eli: I never said soon. I simply don’t know when.

Brian: It sounds like you are all interested in alternatives. To me understanding the alternatives within the system is not only realistic but intellectually strategic – it means critiquing received understandings of that purportedly unitary “system” (in the vein of Marx’s critique of political economy). I would emphasize your commonalities rather than differences.

George: This is a good discussion and should continue in some form. By the way Jeffery looks very good in a wig and does a great Thatcher imitation that Glen Close copied.

Eli: Sometimes it is necessary to establish distance from an object in order to be able to conceptualize it. This is elaborated in Arnheim’s Visual Thinking and is a subject in much art and art criticism. I believe this is the case with capitalism.

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I add, inviting Eli, Brian, George and any one else to add their thoughts: I don’t know when Feudalism became Capitalism. Certainly the people living their lives at the time didn’t see the change when it came. No one fought on the barricades for Capitalism. We can make observations from a distance and see things that people living their lives and acting politically can’t see. I agree, Eli. So maybe some day capitalism will end. In the meanwhile we live in a variety of different modern economies which allow for more or less productivity, more or less social justice. Those concerned with social justice need to fight for it in the details.

Beware of politics guide by observations from the balcony (I am thinking of chapter 3 of Arendt’s The Human Condition), while people must act politically. Being against capitalism misinforms. One should work against injustice. Knowing that feminist ideals are linked with and undermined by economic arrangements doesn’t mean that defeating capitalism is the answer to gender injustice. Knowing that racism is also so linked, doesn’t mean that comes socialism the problems of race will be eradicated.

And by the way George, it wasn’t Glenn Close but my very favorite actress Meryl Streep who played Thatcher. I am flattered you compare her to me. Only if I were as good a social critic as she is an actress.

And by the way Brian, yes, we are all seeking alternatives, but as Francois Furet observed the radical critique of Nazism was Communism, and the most radical critique of Communism was Nazism. And these weren’t attractive alternatives, to say the least.