Saturday, August 26, 2023

"Reflections On ‘Political Capitalism’"

From New Left Review, Issue 142, July/August 2023:

Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner’s ‘Seven Theses on American Politics’, published after the us midterms last winter, has outlasted its immediate occasion in striking fashion. The article sparked a thoughtful, expansive, at times technically intricate debate that has ranged beyond the pages of New Left Review—drawing responses in Jacobin and Brooklyn Rail, spawning Substacks and podcasts—and spanned the generations. Riley and Brenner’s interlocutors in the journal so far—Matthew Karp, Tim Barker and Aaron Benanav—are part of a cohort of radical intellectuals shaped by the fallout of the 2007–12 crisis; the richness and rigour of today’s discussion far surpasses what left analysis could muster a decade ago.footnote1 The proximate purpose of ‘Seven Theses’ was two-fold: first, to explain the Democrats’ unexpectedly robust performance in the midterms, and, second, to assess the ideological complexion and macro-economic consequences of ‘Bidenism’—the Administration’s fiscal stimuli and eco-nationalist neo-industrial policies: the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, and the chips and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, both passed in the summer of 2022. Riley and Brenner’s assorted theses—‘rough’, ‘unfinished’ and ‘proposed in an experimental and provisional spirit’—were ‘intended to provoke further discussion’. Before revisiting them in detail, it is worth reflecting: why did they succeed?

Bucking the tendency of American political commentary to neglect the ‘economic history structuring shifts in the political system’,footnote2 ‘Seven Theses’ attempted to apprehend conjunctural developments—election results, government policies—by linking them to a ‘deep structural transformation’ within American capitalism, namely the emergence of a ‘new regime of accumulation: let us call it political capitalism’, under which ‘raw political power, rather than productive investment, is the key determinant of the rate of return’. By sketching these structural, longer-term changes in the dynamics of accumulation, Riley and Brenner sought to clarify the conditions and parameters of politics. It is the bracing depth of their analysis that accounts for the intensity and calibre of the engagement it has attracted—as well as, perhaps, for the preponderantly critical character of the responses. An inquiry into the material substratum and ‘structures’ of American politics, inevitably somewhat schematic and broad-brush, is bound to elide or distort some of the more nuanced aspects of the conjuncture, especially one as complex and fluctuating as the early 2020s.

Whatever the pitfalls of the approach, the perplexing characteristics of the present period, most agree, warrant fresh, ambitious theorizing of the kind on display in ‘Seven Theses’. The debate is an attempt to grapple with a succession of unprecedented crises—and the distinctive political reactions they elicited—in the heartlands of the capitalist system: the slow and faltering recovery from the near-meltdown of the financial system in 2008, austerity and foreclosures hitting working people as quantitative easing and near-zero interest rates drove asset prices to dizzy heights; the rise of new tech giants with a private-monopoly hold over digital communications and algorithmic regulation; the political shock of Trump’s victory to the two-party system and the liberal establishment; the deterioration of us–China relations, beginning in 2018, and ominously ramped up under Biden; the onslaught of extreme weather events as the world warms faster than predicted; the watershed of the pandemic, with the Federal government pouring cash into workers’ and companies’ bank accounts, as large sections of the global economy went into lockdown; soaring consumer prices, with food and fuel spikes driven by a ferocious land war in Europe and supply-chain hangovers from Covid-19, alongside a tight labour market—with unemployment in the us, as of June, still at 3.6 per cent despite ten successive rate hikes by the Fed since March 2022.footnote3 Beneath these shocks, the symptoms of a deeper, longer-running malaise linger, stemming from the secular deceleration of the world economy and aggravated by the weak, uneven recovery of the 2010s: stagnating real wages and worsening precarity, depressed rates of accumulation even as profits have revived, a hypertrophied and brittle financial sector increasingly dependent on monetary stimulus and bailouts. Whether or not political capitalism, the flagship concept of ‘Seven Theses’, is an apt way of capturing the novelties, not to say morbidities, of the era, few could question that there is, as Barker put it, ‘something to talk about here’.

Political capitalism played a less prominent but still animating role in earlier analyses by both Riley and Brenner, including ‘Escalating Plunder’, Brenner’s blistering audit of the Fed bailouts authorized by the cares Act, passed by Trump in March 2020, and Riley’s ‘Faultlines’, published after Biden’s election later that year. But the concept also draws and expands on ideas formulated in older writings. An important antecedent to the present discussion is Brenner’s editorial launching Catalyst magazine in 2017, where he adumbrated the lineaments of the new regime. But the key historical account, setting the scene for its emergence, is Brenner’s influential study of the postwar trajectory of world capitalism, first laid out in a special issue of nlr in 1998 and later published as The Economics of Global Turbulence (2006), various aspects of which have been revisited over the course of the debate.footnote4 Not only did ‘Seven Theses’ reignite broader, older arguments about the vicissitudes of the capitalist system, but the emphases and parameters of the debate that ensued have shifted as it has progressed, with ‘political capitalism’ deployed to explain quite disparate local phenomena, from pandemic relief to the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank.footnote5

It is perhaps little surprise, given its all-encompassing and protean character—and with the real-world referents rapidly evolving—that the debate has at times seemed in danger of becoming at once involuted and diffuse. What follows, then, will seek, first, to narrow the discussion, and second, to open it out: to distinguish a few of the most salient and fundamental questions raised, and to reflect on the political stakes involved in posing them. Along the way, the aim will be, if not to resolve, then at least to acknowledge and define the areas of surface confusion and contradiction, ambiguity and irony, dappling the concept of ‘political capitalism’. The hope is that recasting the discussion in leaner and more reflective terms will facilitate further exchange of a focused, attentive and productive kind.

The seven theses
Given midterms traditionally punish the incumbent party, why did the bruited ‘red wave’ fail to douse Congress despite Biden’s lacklustre approval ratings amid entrenched inflationary pressures?footnote6 Conventional analysis pointed to immediate, contingent factors—the Supreme Court’s overturning of the constitutional right to abortion in the summer of 2022, the off-putting extremity of the Republican candidates endorsed by Trump (and, in some cases, deliberately boosted by Democrat donors’ funds). For Riley and Brenner, these explanations ‘miss the larger picture’: the sociological recomposition of the two major parties’ bases over the last two decades that has transformed the character of elections. While much of the twentieth century saw ‘significant electoral swings, and big congressional majorities’, the twenty-first has been distinguished by feverish deadlock, with narrow victories scraped by turning out ‘a deeply but closely divided electorate’.

The ‘peculiar intensity’ of recent elections—hyper-partisanship producing a kind of churning stasis: ‘two symmetrical waves, crashing into one another’footnote7—is an effect, Riley and Brenner claim, of the rise of a new electoral structure ‘axed on conflicts of material interest within the working class’, defined capaciously as the 68–80 per cent of American households ‘who do not own assets and therefore must subsist on wage income’. The new structure is the upshot of a two-way shift widely known by the shorthand ‘class dealignment’, which Matthew Karp summarizes as ‘the movement of poorer and lower-educated voters toward the Republican Party, and the parallel migration of wealthier and higher-educated voters toward the Democrats’.footnote8 The Democrats’ strong showing in the midterms, Riley and Brenner argue, is a reflection of the Party’s ‘neo-technocratic’ appeal to its core constituency among the ‘credentialled’ fraction of wage-earners. In a highly polarized political landscape, turn-out is a major determinant of success, and the well-educated who now lean Democratic are more likely to be politically engaged, an extra advantage in off-year polls....