Hopeless Arguments

Kate Arnoff interviewed Ann Pettifor, for an article entitled “Want to Stop Fascism? Start By Taming the Finance Sector.”  The article demonstrates the hopeless centrism of Pettifor’s solutions, and the limited and self-defeating theory she applies to get there.

The crux of her argument is to apply Karl Polanyi‘s theory from his book The Great Transformation.  Pettifor calls Polanyi’s thesis unique.  It wasn’t.  Rather, it was a milquetoast version of the likes of Veblen, Lenin, Luxembourg, and Marx (Marx’s posthumous publications especially).  Her analysis is also selective and hypocritical.

First, the good.  Pettifor belongs to a school of thought that is sort of the UK counterpart to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).  This means she has a good grasp of how taxes, money creation, and related things really work (as opposed to how the are usually explained by neoclassical economists).  Those points do not come from Karl Polanyi.  Anyway, she rightly focuses on the perceived/self-imposed impotence of government, though in the interview she offers nothing constructive to say about how to create political will to counter that self-imposed feeling of impotence (other than vague reference to China not being impotent when it comes to imposing capital controls, which are not discussed in any meaningful detail in the interview).

As to the bad, well, like most center-left bourgeois liberals these days, her entire program is basically to re-create the “golden age” of the post-WWII “fordist” prosperity.  She refers to “full employment” in that period.  Really?  She must mean full employment for white males.  Because that era depended, in large but unacknowledged measure, on racial segregation and patriarchy.  Include non-whites and women in the statistics and even during the “golden age” there was no full employment or equal access to social welfare programs — as noted by the likes of Alan Nasser, Howard Zinn, Selma James, Jennifer Mittelstadt, and others.  Also, American prosperity during that period was in large part dependent upon the destruction of European manufacturing bases, hence temporarily eliminating that source of competition.  So, there are very real questions about whether those were beggar-thy-neighbor policies, or simply dependent upon the misery of (global) others that are conveniently externalized in the analysis.

Following Polanyi (and Nancy Fraser), she offers essentially a historically-based argument that falls within the realm of sociology.  Much like Polanyi’s, her argument suffers from being anecdotal and selective.  For instance, the interview (and perhaps this is the fault of the interviewer and her editors more than Pettifor) suggests that adopting Polanyi’s political program will defeat the rise of a new fascism.  Historically, this is quite inaccurate.  The sort of New Deal welfare state of the Roosevelt administration did not defeat fascism — recall the term “premature anti-fascist”.  Rather, history showed that Axis powers fascism was defeated largely by communist entry into WWII, at great sacrifice.  Does that not suggest that the way to defeat fascism is communism?  Pettifor is trying to avoid that conclusion, and she does so poorly in this interview.

Polanyi mostly wrote in reaction to the right-wing theorists (Mises, Hayek, Rand, etc.) who wrote in opposition to the political left.  Rather than champion Polanyi, who really offers very little, it seems wiser to simply disregard the idiotic right-wing nutcases that Polanyi argued against and instead simply return to the earlier leftist thinking of Lenin and the like.  Commenting on Polanyi, The Nation cited “Polanyi’s refreshing reminder that a failure to stop an entire system isn’t necessarily a failure: Reform does not preclude something more radical in the future.”  Of course, Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? made precisely the opposite argument, that pursuit of minor reforms and amelioration of symptoms does preclude radical solutions to root causes.  As François Mitterrand said upon the failure of his political program in the 1980s: “In economics, there are two solutions. Either you are a Leninist. Or you won’t change anything.”