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.”

Debunking Rockhill

Gabriel Rockhill wrote a piece entitled “Free Speech Is Not the Issue”.  This sanctimonious article unfortunately takes a good premise and spoils it through a weak argument that relies upon a false dichotomy.  Much of the (so-called) argument relies upon ad-hominem attacks on a piece run in another publication, with Rockhill labeling the other article as taking a “supposed,” “thoughtless” and “misguided” position, etc.  While no doubt, Rockhill is correct to focus on the question of power, and to say “the right to be a bigot is not the right to have a university promote your bigotry,” his overall argument fails because it presupposes that people can fight for power or free speech, but not both.  They are presumed to be mutually exclusive.  A historical contrast would be Malcolm X, who quite eloquently argued for both.  Even if parity of power were achieved, wouldn’t it collapse if there was no free speech and hence no way to know and understand power?  Rockhill’s argument is short-sighted in this regard.  This is not to say that the other article is comprehensive and beyond criticism, but rather that the two approaches seem rather complementary in a way Rockhill summarily rejects without significant discussion — indeed, the authors of the other article might well agree with much of what he says regarding power and institutions.  The general tenor of his critique seems to be about which side can better lay claim to moral/ethical purity, and better cultivate an image of the “true” defender of liberty, equality, etc.  And that is a very tiresome debate indeed.  It is the essence of left factionalism that is a persistent thorn in the side of left political action (as Malcolm X noted).  It also overlooks the insights of Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? approach.

Lou Reed – Berlin


Lou ReedBerlin RCA APL1-0207 (1973)

Continuing Lou Reed’s constant effort to describe struggles for transcendence, he delivers a very average album here. Quite universally panned by critics on release, most have since corrected their underestimation of Berlin, some going too far in the other direction to call this some kind of masterpiece. It’s not his best work, but it’s not his worst either.

Combining brash decadence with bleak misery, Reed crafts an unlikely album. On the surface is over-the-top arena rock and maudlin prog rock. Fueling the fire are Reed’s brilliant songs. Coming off the surprise success of Transformer (an excellent but misunderstood album) Lou Reed had the support to assemble quite a studio band including Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, and the Brecker brothers.

Berlin tells an ongoing story. It is a concept album. The storyline is very easy to follow.  Caroline is the main character. Out of the depths of Berlin nightlife (“Berlin” is Reed’s Barbara Streisand song) she falls in love with Jim. “Men of Good Fortune” contemplates the possibilities of the rich and the poor. Reed finds the glory in both without passing judgment. “How Do You Think It Feels” blasts an indignant reply to the first part of the album. After the odd novelty wears off, Caroline and Jim’s relationship burns out. Jim abuses Caroline and leaves her with the children. In her desperate struggle to cope, she sinks deep into a world of drugs (notably amphetamines). The state takes her children, “The Kids,” as society mocks her existence. Reed fades to Caroline’s suicide on ”The Bed.” “Sad Song” is the climax. Jim never fully grasped the situation. Was Caroline’s life for nothing?

The most singularly amazing aspect of Berlin is how Lou Reed turns unreleased Velvet Underground songs (at least, unreleased on proper studio albums) into the bulk of this entirely new story. “Stephanie Says” (a great Velvet Underground song, likely never released because of John Cale’s abrupt severance from the group) became “Caroline Says II.” “Oh, Gin” formed a good part of “Oh, Jim.” It takes remarkable skill to re-work these songs into an ongoing storyline.

These songs stand alone well, but make something more in the context of the ongoing story. I like to think Berlin turned out exactly as Reed planned, but critics wanted nothing of Reed’s designs. The production does seem out of place, exactly as the characters do. Rather than a hindrance, incorporating songwriting, production, and all aspects of the album into it’s story is remarkable. Few dare like Lou Reed.

This album broke Reed free from his glam-rock period. He now stood alone as the solo artist he always wanted to be. He was not understood yet, but the beauty of Lou Reed is his persistence. His attitude has ruined many possibly great works but it also helped plow ahead with something like this.  This record reveals subtle beauty masked with blunt rock and roll. It does find success more than seems apparent at first.  But it still sounds kind of shitty in many ways.

[For what it’s worth, Berlin: Live at St Ann’s Warehouse is slightly better, mostly because it ends with three songs not from Berlin.]