Let Us Be Terrible:
by Jason E. Smith
Considerations on the Jacobin Club
Let us be terrible, so that the people do not have to be.
Less than twenty-four hours after the drubbing handed out to the Sanders campaign on March 15—needing to win big to survive, he was swept across five states, and embarrassed in three—one of the senior editors of the journal Jacobin dashed off what can be considered the publication’s official assessment of this state of affairs (Peter Frase, “The Long March,” March 16). In the months prior, the New York City-centered blog and print journal had lined up dutifully behind this so-called democratic socialist’s seemingly quixotic venture, unleashing a torrent of posts touting its saving graces. These enthusiasms were stoked by the near miss in Iowa, when the seventy-four-year-old Vermont senator barely lost to the Democratic Party’s widely reviled standard-bearer, and by the breakaway win in New Hampshire, his neighboring lily-white Yankee protectorate. The posts remained unrelenting up through Sanders’s surprise win in a deindustrialized and demoralized Michigan. What inspired this reflexive support among the Jacobins was the ideological climate this campaign seemed to foster. This was a political season in which the word “socialism”, if not the thing itself—Sanders’s bid largely put a liberal spin on the populist rallying cries so resonant among disaffected white working-class voters—seemed to gain some traction among the electorate, if not the political classes. Especially among young, often first-time voters who seemed to flock to Sanders, or to flee before the Clinton juggernaut, as if from the plague. Here, then, was Jacobin’s chance: to capture this still-pliable mass of young voters, to color in the still-empty outline of socialism, supply fresh wine for a mottled, aging skin. Surging readership, formidable mailing lists, new networks of gig-economy micro-donors.
Sanders’s crushing electoral defeat did little to discourage the members of the Jacobin club, who had otherwise placed so many eggs in his basket. In a perilous about-face, the journal pitched the argument that this momentous electoral gambit was, all along, not quite what it seemed to the millions caught up in it; that this flurry of activity, with activists new and seasoned pinned for long hours at phone banks, walking precincts, and collecting twenty-seven-dollar donations (that would buy millions of dollars of advertising and personnel), was not just one more dispiriting episode in an ongoing electoral circus. To the contrary, and dizzyingly: “The Sanders campaign is a ‘social movement,’ and it would be a mistake to put too much emphasis on the fact that this particular movement is occurring through the medium of electoral politics.” Originally we were supposed to be persuaded that the Sanders campaign represented a more modest, American-style iteration of what we’d recently witnessed in Europe. The “movement of the squares” (particularly in Spain and Greece, the two countries hardest hit by the 2008 crisis, and closest to the upheavals in North Africa) had pulled in many thousands of young people, new to movements. But these movements’ limit, and the reason for their eventual fizzling, was precisely their refusal of political mediation: the appeal to “real democracy,” as the boilerplate had it, meant that these upheavals remained merely protest movements without teeth, not yet able to contend with the compromises entailed in taking real power. Perhaps the recent thrashing of Syriza in Greece at the hands of the European troika helps account for Jacobin’s inversion of this argumentation: one has to be careful what one wishes for, and the levers of state power in a period of sustained capitalist crisis and stagnation might be revealed as, by and large, ornamental—at least when it comes to intervention in the economy, if not when it comes to the dogged defense of private property. Whatever the case may be, the line of analysis proposed by Frase no longer chides a new “layer of inexperienced activists” for their anarchisant faux radicalism—as the editors routinely did when it came to Occupy, the U.S.’s version of the “squares” movement—but instead for their unseemly attachment to the political apparatus and its pretense to govern, its purchase on real power, its binary fetish of victory and defeat. These emotional young voters, “who have such an affective investment in the campaign,” should be brought along by the sang-froid veterans of socialist strategy, lest “they lose sight of the bigger picture.”
Where do we find ourselves after the electoral sugar high wears off? Jacobin inexplicably insists that Sanders’s now-dead campaign lives on, as “a successor to recent non-electoral movements,” specifically Occupy and Black Lives Matter. But for all of the rescaling of expectations, Frase concludes his article by claiming March 15th was a triumphant date after all: lost in the hubbub of Sanders’s collapse, the evening witnessed two “wins” in county-level Democratic primaries. “To take this all back to the concrete,” he writes, “and to the voting on March 15th, it’s most illuminating to look not at the presidential primary, but to something else that happened in Illinois and Ohio. In Illinois, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez lost her primary by a huge margin, while at the same time Tim McGinty was losing his race in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland.” Such is the topsy-turvy world of Jacobin: crushing defeats become subtle victories; liberal-populists are disguised as socialists; political campaigns are pitched as social movements.
Jacobin has been around for a while now. Its first print issue appeared in Winter 2011 and it has since become a fixture of the NYC Left. This is due in no small part to capitalizing on the unanticipated and ambivalent “success” of the Wall Street wing of the Occupy movement, the novel aspects of which the journal otherwise tended to downplay, disparage, or ignore. The journal’s origins are humble enough, having begun as a pet project of the youth wing of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Much of its vibrancy should be attributed to the obvious talents of its precocious, enterprising editor and publisher, Bhaskar Sunkara, who often touts this publishing project as just one of his many “hustles.” Early on, it received the vampiric blessings of the New York Times, and aging relics performed the laying on of hands.
The initial idea was simple enough: make the DSA’s tired formula—still shadowed by its founder and guru Michael Harrington’s preoccupations—palatable to a generation of young people, born after 1989 and completely at home in the atomized worldlessness of contemporary social media. A hard sell, you would think. The DSA has longstanding ties to the magazine Dissent, a little-read publication that peaked with the anti-New Left fulminations of its founder Irving Howe, and which today eagerly offers its pages not only to the editor of Jacobin, but to the Islamophobic “provocations” of its emeritus editor, Michael Walzer. A generation of young people in the 1960s, radicalized by the civil rights and anti-war movements, experimented with mass direct action, the smashing of monogamy, and even a bit of urban guerilla; Harrington, under the tutelage of Howe and the truculent Max Shachtman, prevaricated (at best) on the question of American intervention in Vietnam. This was, apparently, the price to be paid for pursuing Shachtman’s “realignment” strategy within the Democratic Party, predicated on purging southern Dixiecrats while building a labor-liberal axis. The formation of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in 1973, after Harrington’s split with Shachtman, changed little in this regard: its signal achievement amounted to the support it supplied to Carter in 1976. In its new guise as the DSA, it has drifted from defeat to irrelevance. This is the legacy the editors of Jacobin proposed to reboot and repackage, in a format more responsive to the online behavior of the mysterious “Millennials.” This is the ragged landscape against which Jacobin takes shape, with its democratic-socialist pedagogy and its all-in Sanders boosterism. This is the DNA that made it possible for the Summer 2012 issue to, in the admonishing words of Perry Anderson, “publish [ … ] an inconspicuous summons to its readers to vote for Obama, containing scarcely a mention of the world beyond America.” It could also explain why a journal whose swaggering title promises the scaffold to counter-revolutionaries “curtsied bashfully to the Lord of the Drones.”1
Over the course of the past five years, in the aftermath of Occupy, and as the editorial format has evolved, the political bandwidth of Jacobin has widened as well. While it has always toyed with the disaffected liberals on the fringes of the Democratic Party, more recent contributors have included writers and cadre with primary allegiance to Trotskyist organizations, like the ISO and Solidarity. This newfound ideological range, which allows the journal to waver somehow between Kucinich-style liberalism and the ruins of the Fourth International, is an undoubtedly crafty move on the editors part, given the stated ambitions of the journal: it gives it the allure of being open, non-sectarian, a space for reasoned debate on the Left that gravitates around, and is contained within, the pages of the journal. This premise provides a convenient smoke screen behind which to position the retreaded DSA platform and policy propositions as a kind of central fulcrum, around or against which its respective Right and Left are balanced.
There is undoubtedly a complex set of calculations being played out among the actors involved in this project. Each player seems to imagine itself strategically better leveraged, more cunning than the next. Each faction is, in turn, equally open about its role in this particular arrangement, this cohabitation of currents that one might otherwise assume would rightly be at each other’s throats. The Trots, with a whiff of the old entryist gambit, arrived late on the scene, and seem keen on half-surreptitiously assuming command of an organ or organization built by others. Styling themselves the properly revolutionary Left, they see their own viability as tied to the cultivation of “the robust class-wide organizations built and preserved by social democracy elsewhere”2;their own survival and relevance depend on coaxing into being social democratic institutions within which they can operate. For its part, the DSA core has obsessed, since its first issues and true to its deep and hardly disavowed Shachtmanite roots, over the need for a consolidated liberal milieu to its own Right, so as to feed off of its institutional and organizational foothold (and not least, its access to deep pockets). Jacobin’s fledgling efforts, especially its Summer 2011 double issue, published on the eve of the Occupy movement, were preoccupied with what it lamented as the “death of liberalism.” Where others might find occasion, as the editors put it, to “dance on its grave,” any modest socialist project situating itself on the left wing of the possible must wager not, say, on the resurgence of mass direct action—Tahrir and Tottenham, but also Oakland, Baltimore, and Ferguson—but on the “revival of liberalism”: “Harrington was right. Any future resurgence of the Left will almost certainly coincide with a revival of liberalism, and the liberal ranks will surely supply a disproportionate share of recruits to the radical cause.”3 Here you have the strategic vision of the Jacobin club boiled down to its barest outlines. Theirs is a realignment scenario that would necessarily unfold within the septic confines of the Democratic Party, and in an historical moment in which one key term of this ancient schema, the organized labor movement, has dwindled dramatically, and today hovers on the edge of the void. This doggedly realist commitment to cultivate liberals—in view of winning them over to “socialism”—is punctuated, at moments, by reveries of a break with the Democratic party. Surely the tantalizing scenario of a Sanders nomination will banish any thoughts of taking up residence at the lonely margins of the electoral landscape. Astride this jockeying and gamesmanship, of course, the Party itself stands sovereignly aloof, tasked as it is with positioning its favored daughter on the imperial throne, flanked on either side by the flush financiers of Wall Street and the neo-conservative goons of the old Rumsfeld regime.
The recent publication of The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for a New Century (Macmillan), a book of short essays previously published in Jacobin, Dissent, and The Nation, allows curious readers to locate the key programmatic thrust of the Jacobin project in its desire (as the “coda” of the book puts it) to build a “new majoritarian left coalition.” Edited by two young DSA cadre described unabashedly in the cover copy as “stars” of the “young new left,” it is a useful document for assessing this project as it currently stands. Published with impeccable timing as the Sanders campaign peaked, it wears Jacobin’s strategic calculation on its sleeve—most of the pieces are recycled from earlier print issues of the journal. It goes without saying that the Trotskyist interlopers have been pruned away, revealing a consolidated core program built around a set of long-in-the-tooth DSA talking points, many of them ripped straight from documents drafted in the early 1980s, at the latest. Given this vintage, one could wager that they are unlikely to sway a generation of young people who have come of political age in a period of durable capitalist crisis, the return of mass direct action, and predictable electoral debacles. With one exception, to which I shall return, most of the short articles included, seemingly chosen for the breadth of “issues” a democratic socialist vision must confront, propose an apparently modest or minimal program, which the authors call “economic democracy” or sometimes “redistribution.” Despite the diversity of the topics catalogued (gender, education, race, technology, etc.), a single refrain works its way through the book, a “demand” around which the entire platform coheres: full employment, the right to work.
Such a demand, which has no source in the array of watchwords and slogans that have surfaced out of the churn of recent mass movements in the U.S., has little contemporary resonance. Since the 2008 onset of the current crisis, both the U.S. and the European capitalist core have witnessed a largely jobless recovery, with many in the U.S. and elsewhere dropping out of labor markets altogether, and with youth unemployment in hard-hit countries like Spain and Greece exceeding 50%, dramatic enough that many speak of a “lost generation.” It is no surprise that these are the places where mass movements have been most vital. But nowhere have they gravitated around demands for more work: they have instead converged around demands for real democracy, direct access to socially produced material wealth, and the routing of police from the streets. All of this is lost, however, on the democratic socialist imaginary which, ventriloquizing these same movements, re-activates schemas and formulas cobbled together in the midst of other deep economic collapses, or the tumult and full carnage of world war. Appealing to a well-known 1943 text by Michał Kalecki, for example, Chris Maisano speculates on the supposed advantages afforded by airtight labor markets assured by state-mandated access to employment: heightened bargaining power, higher wages (but also inflation), and so on. One might fall into such reveries, perhaps, if the material conditions that both capital and labor confront were otherwise. But any promise of reversing current trends—high rates of joblessness and underemployment, diminished real income, flagging profits—and increasing the labor share of income would have to wager on restoring profitability to a mode of production that has for four decades sputtered and lurched its way through a chaotic pattern of drift and crisis. Even capitalist élites like Lawrence Summers now routinely speak of secular stagnation and growthless errance, while Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, has recently warned that “the global economy risks becoming trapped in a low-growth, low-inflation, low-interest rate equilibrium.” Jacobin’s most recent issue, “Up from Liberalism,” includes an excellent interview with Robert Brenner, recapitulating his now classic account of the paradoxes of social democracy. But there’s no serious reckoning among the journal’s DSA-aligned editorial team with his masterful account of the decades-long “downturn” experienced by the capitalist mode of production, and how this diminished dynamism, resulting from a system-wide crisis of overcapacity, models or shapes contemporary prospects for action and intervention, both for capital and for labor. They would do well to consider it.
Jacobin’s proposed demand for “full employment” would require, in fact, an extraordinary reinvigoration of the global capitalist economy, a sustained spike in economic growth and job-creation the scale of which would be well-nigh unprecedented. Rather than coming to terms with the forbidding landscape described by Summers, Carney, and Brenner, among others, the journal has appealed to entirely untenable scenarios. In a recent post on Jacobin entitled “When Wonks Attack,” J.W. Mason makes the extravagant claim that, according to “orthodox economic theory” and “every macroeconomics textbook,” the deep recession of the past eight years must necessarily produce, as if through the momentum of a pendulum swing, a “period of exceptionally strong growth.” According to Mason’s own back-of-the-envelope calculations, using the instruments put at his disposal by the regnant economic models, the next near-decade—coinciding, it goes without saying, with a two-term Sanders presidency—should bring an extraordinary resurgence of capitalist dynamism to the tune of 5% growth over the next eight years, and the addition of some three hundred thousand job per month. Such an outré appeal to “orthodoxy,” which requires actively bracketing, in a desperate Verneinung, empirical analyses generated across the political spectrum, is the moving sand on which even an apparently modest proposal of a return to tighter labor markets and rising wages—much less “full” employment—is premised.
A more plausible scenario for the coming years has been widely disseminated in various guises, in the financial papers and tech circles in particular: namely that, to the contrary, a new wave of automation will trigger a devastating crisis of employment, the solutions to which are not going to be found in macroeconomic textbooks, or the blog pages of democratic socialism. A widely cited recent report by the Oxford Martin School on “The Future of Employment” foresees almost half of the current U.S. labor market being engulfed by this tsunami of “computerization,” as existing information technologies are generalized across sectors. Like an earlier phase of automation concentrated in manufacturing, this shedding of human labor-power as machines come to make up a larger fraction of production inputs will require the creation of new types of employment, whether through the expansion of existing sectors, or the creation of new ones. But where the labor displaced by the first Machine Age was soaked up by a burgeoning service sector, a substantial share of it in high-skill and high-wage jobs such as education and healthcare, the coming displacement would—by swiftly replacing much of the labor currently employed in administration and sales, among other types of work—require an unsettling penetration of capitalist markets into the commons of everyday life.
Today, many of the newly created service-sector jobs are the least desirable forms of employment; low-wage “bullshit” jobs in security, customer service, retail, and data entry. What protects them from being supplanted by existing technologies is the minimal outlay these low-wage jobs entail. As refinements in technological inputs proceed apace, the rigors of inter-capitalist competition will require the replacement even of high-skilled, “white-collar,” or professional types of employment, unleashing in turn not only a cratering of labor markets, but a corresponding crisis of under-consumption as well: a significant portion of the population is left without any source of income, and therefore any means to consume the now lower-priced commodities pumped out by surges in machine-assisted productivity. Any expansion of the service sector at this point would require, as Paul Mason has argued, “turn[ing] much of what we currently do for free, socially, into paid work.” In order to put these now jobless masses to work, capitalism would have to develop “new forms of person-to-person micro-services, paid for using micro-payments,” and expand existing forms of friendship into “affection work,” in which the most minimal gestures of human solidarity and intimacy would be mediated by markets and money (“You would have to treat people kissing each other for free the way they treated poachers in the 19th century,” Mason concludes).4 Many across the political spectrum, including some of the contributors to The Future We Want, have proposed a universal basic income as a stopgap measure to re-induce consumption to acceptable capitalist levels in such a scenario, but this would only mean a final evisceration of the social wage in its current form, replaced by cash payouts that would be calibrated low enough to keep unemployed workers tied to labor markets. These markets would in turn most likely mutate away from residual forms of “stable” employment altogether, toward the informality and the micro-services of self-exploitation sale in the gig economy. Uber and Amazon Mechanical Turk for some; the precarious long hours of selling loosies for others (like Eric Garner).
If Chris Maisano’s short essay, which opens the collection, presents full employment as a minimal program or “transitional” demand (no matter how implausible or undesirable it may in fact be), Seth Ackerman’s long, almost baroque revision of what he calls the “maximal social-democratic program” is clearly the centerpiece, the book’s key theoretical elaboration. Originally published in the Winter 2013 print edition of Jacobin, it presents a vision of socialism whose core ambition is to mount a spirited defense of the capitalist order itself—by socializing it. Things get off on the wrong foot with the essay’s epigraph—“Profit is the motor of capitalism. What would it be under socialism?”—a formulation that incorrectly identifies the “motor” of capitalism. Capitalist dynamism depends not on the pursuit of profit, but on the production of surplus value, of which profit is merely one “form of appearance”; it is pursued by individual capitalist firms, not by capitalism itself. This focus on profits sets the tone for the piece, and establishes its ambitions and horizons. What must be protected at all costs is just this capacity for individual capitalist firms to pursue profits by any means necessary. When Ackerman notes that the market socialism he proposes would require, as its foundation, “autonomous” enterprises, he spells out what this means in a euphemistic sequence. A socialist firm of the sort he fantasizes about would have the means and freedom to “enter a market; choose its products and production methods; interact with other firms and individuals, and must close down if [they] cannot get by on [their] own resources.” In short, it will behave like a capitalist firm: exploit labor-power (“choose [. . .] production methods”), compete with other firms in order to drive them out of the market through more “efficient” and exploitative production methods (“interact with other firms”), or be the victim of this same dynamic, should it not be efficient or exploitative enough (“cannot get by on their own resources”). Almost the entirety of the existing capitalist totality is retained in his vision: profits and markets, autonomous firms, banks, and finance, indeed a vibrant, vigorous “capital market.” All of these are left intact, by waving a magic wand over an existing capitalist device or category, and placing the mollifying “socialized” before it (so that we end not only with socialized banks and finance, but even a topsy-turvy “socialized capital market”). In an emblematic moment near the conclusion of the essay, the author even expatiates at length on how best to calculate and reward “managerial bonuses,” to be determined on the basis of each autonomous enterprise’s annual profits. “Under a system like this,” he enthuses, “each manager would have an interest in improving her own firm’s profit performance.” Indeed, she would.
Is it by accident that Ackerman concludes his meditation with the procedure whereby the “managers” of these autonomous firms are chosen—most likely, he writes, by a mysterious “entity” in the surviving capital markets—and subsequently rewarded, annually, for their implementation of particularly “efficient” production methods? It is notable, in any case, that the matter of class struggle is entirely bracketed in this discussion, with “workers” only cited here and there as potential partners in selecting the aforementioned managers, or in certain hypothetical cases, “owning” their own firms. In the meantime, there is work to do, and for those with keys to the Jacobin club this means putting people to work, even as the generalization of new information technologies threaten to wreck or deform dramatically labor-markets as we know them, and indeed threaten the wage-relation as the key hinge on which capitalist society hangs. In a short text on the Black Lives Matter movement included in The Future We Want, Jesse A. Myerson and Mychal Denzel Smith propose to make black lives “really, truly matter” (as their title has it) by bringing full employment, if not to society tout court, at least to what they characterize brazenly as “slums plagued with ‘broken windows’”—a curious turn of phrase. Indeed, the phrase “broken windows” recurs throughout this piece, as if by a kind of repetition compulsion, an unconscious tic. Its resonance will not be lost on this book’s readership, much of whom will live in Brooklyn and Manhattan, even if many of them will be too young to know well the names Rudolph Giuliani, Bill Bratton, or Abner Louima. Full employment, in these pages, means putting the sans-culottes of Ferguson and Baltimore back on the streets, this time “employing people to handle ‘broken windows.’” Full employment as self-policing, such is the program. But the program on the streets will be otherwise: more shattered windows, more routed police, more calls to burn the city down. Maybe this is not a program, but if you listen closely enough, you can hear a welter of demands. Is it for socialized capital markets, and managerial bonuses? Or is it for a city without cops, and free access to all the goods set out before us, because they are ours? Bonuses for everyone.
- Perry Anderson, “Counterpuncher,” New Left Review 85 (January – February 2014), p. 67, No. 65.
- Paul Heideman, “It’s Their Party,” Jacobin 20. Heideman’s article is an excellent account of the history of the democratic socialist “realignment” strategy.
- “Dancing on its Grave,” Jacobin 3 – 4.
- Paul Mason, Postcapitalism (Verso, 2016), p.175.
ContributorJason E. Smith
JASON E. SMITH lives in Los Angeles and writes primarily about contemporary politics, art, and philosophy.