From Politics to Theory and Back

Debates about global economic stagnation are unlikely to resolve the pressing political questions they raise. Better to tackle the politics directly than fall back into theory battles.

From Politics to Theory and Back

Having made our way through a deep dive into Anwar Shaikh's work and then a rapid tour through long wave theory, those of us who have been following the debate between Seth Ackerman and Aaron Benanav in Jacobin about the cogency of Robert Brenner’s theory of global stagnation might forget that it all started with a political question. Earlier this year, Dylan Riley published a short essay in Sidecar criticizing the “neo-Kautskyite” interest in industrial policy. For Riley, green reindustrialization would only mean “a massive exacerbation of the problems of overcapacity on a world scale, putting sharp pressure on the returns of the same private capital that was ‘crowded-in’ by ‘market-making’ industrialization policies.” He concludes that no socialist should “have any truck with self-defeating New Deals, green or otherwise” and that “Blather about New Deals and sepia-toned ‘Rooseveltologia’ should be exposed for what it is: a backward-facing obstacle to the establishment of socialism.” Similar thoughts were expressed in a 2022 piece written with Brenner himself (and already examined in these pages).

Ackerman’s basic intuition is simple: these odious political conclusions seem to follow from the theory of overcapacity and stagnation. If we problematize the theory, then claims about the “backward-facingness” of class struggle social democracy, “Neo-Kautskyism,” Green New Dealism, or however one wants to paint Jacobin-esque politics lose their cogency. This motivating intention has gotten somewhat lost in the ensuing theoretical debate, which I imagine could keep going for some time, especially as Ackerman and Benanav’s arguments appear like two ships passing in the night: Ackerman wants to fault Brenner’s thesis as an iteration of the falling profit-rate theory, and Benanav says in response that it’s nothing of the sort.

Interesting as it would be to pick apart this disagreement, it might be better to go back to Ackerman’s animating thought and simply ask whether or not Riley’s political conclusions necessarily follow from Brennerism, or whether they are just related. That is, if “we’re all stagnationists now,” does that mean that we have no choice but to abandon our commitment to a program that addresses the practical here-and-now concerns of the working class?

For Benanav, at least, not really. Amongst other things, in his recent response he aims to sever the link between theory and politics that Ackerman makes: theorists like himself and Brenner are just trying to make sense of the political economic situation today. Hostility to the vision of public investment embodied in the New Deal could follow from the theory (as it does for Riley), but it needn’t. Indeed, Benanav himself claims rather remarkably that “secular stagnation might one day be reversed” and that “there could be breakthroughs that radically raise the productivity growth rates of capitalist economies.” He even expresses support for the basic vision behind the Green New Deal, which would involve “public investment” becoming “the main engine of growth.”

These concessions are somewhat disorienting. In just a few lines Benanav admits that stagnation could be reversed by hitherto unforeseen developments and advocates precisely such a thing in the form of a “buildout [wherein] the economic growth rate would necessarily rise for one or two generations.” Well, what are we arguing about then?

One sticking point is the question of overcapacity—the basic issue that there is a worldwide glut of manufactured goods, which seems to indicate that there is a hard limit on the scale and duration of some possible reindustrialization. Here I’ll refer to Dustin Guastella’s forthcoming article in the first print issue of Damage, which argues, amongst other things, that the problem of overcapacity is always a problem in a capitalist sense, and that by investing in big, durable infrastructural projects rather than consumer goods, the overcapacity problem does not appear so daunting. There are plenty of bridges to be rebuilt in the United States, and once we run out of them, what should prevent us from building more schools, social housing, or hospitals? Benanav and company might (rightly) reply that overcapacity removes the incentive for private firms to keep the green revolution going. They are justified in their skepticism precisely because, absent an organized working class or a strongly coercive entity like the Chinese Communist Party, private firms would have no reason to invest in capital intensive low-margin productive endeavors. But this only leads us back to the question of how to rebuild that countervailing force capable of disciplining capital in order to make the kinds of investments we would like to see.

Thus, we’re spit back onto the political terrain, where, unfortunately, even the stated necessity of public investment in social development and climate mitigation and adaptation work will not dissuade those who wave the “revolutionary-socialist banner” from their quest to root out the “reformists.” Perhaps, then, a more direct response is required, one that contests the idea, present in Brenner, Riley, and Benanav’s writing, that there is a significant contingent on the contemporary Left that aims essentially for “class compromise.” As Vivek Chibber says here, if through the process of intense struggle, we end up at the renewal of social democracy, so be it. But the means is not class collaboration but class struggle, and the end is not corporatist compromise but democratic socialism. Those in the “more revolutionary than thou” camp would do well to stop caricaturing the so-called “neo-Kautskyites” as if our political horizon is Medicaid expansion.

If we dispense then with the “revolutionary vs. reformist” battle, and see democratic socialists as doing more than stupidly thinking they can get some compromise during a downswing, what are the political implications? Perhaps it’s all just rhetorical. Ackerman rightly worries about the political pessimism that might follow from an emphasis on economic stagnation—how are we to convince unionists to fight if anything approximating that old postwar prosperity is off the table for good?—whereas Benanav thinks the same theory makes it clear just how necessary it is to move beyond capitalism as a system. But again, if Benanav ultimately shares Ackerman’s commitment to trade-union renewal and public investment in big, green infrastructural projects, perhaps we make too much of these disparate emphases.

Still, there is something about Benanav’s conclusion that is cause for concern, already hinted at above. Note that his conception of a Green New Deal is one wherein the economic growth rate would necessarily rise” but only “for one or two generations.” Like some Green New Deal advocates who hope for a “Last Stimulus,” Benanav wants “one last effort to reshape the economy.” Why only one? Well because the hope, as he says, is for a “low-investment” socialist future, and that in the process of once again generating economic growth through green, public investment, we’d begin to transition away from growth altogether. One imagines Samuel Gompers answering the question of what the labor movement wants by saying, “More… but less eventually, and actually some redefinition of both ‘More’ and ‘Less’ as such.” Very fun for a discussion seminar where some reference to Star Trek is hinted at; not so great as a political vision.

Benjamin Y. Fong is the author of Quick Fixes: Drugs in America from Prohibition to the 21st Century Binge (Verso, 2023).