The decline of America first socialism

Robert Brenner was once a leading figure in the US Trotskyist group Solidarity.* Today, Brenner seems to be the elder theoretician of both New Left Review and the US magazine Jacobin.

Solidarity emerged from the International Socialists, the recombination of various Trotskyist factions, and took on the name, in part, as a homage to the Polish Catholic workers’ union Solidarność. Even if I could or did keep track, which I have not, the twists and turns of various socialist parties however is less relevant than that Brenner’s arguments have long taken as their point of departure a debate between Trotskyism and Maoism about who was the vanguard of the global proletariat. Hence Brenner’s debate with the world systems theory of Wallerstein and Frank, denounced for its ‘third worldism.’

Brenner has written the inaugural editorial  for what I assume will be Jacobin’s theoretical publication, Catalyst. And many of his positions have been dispersed through Jacobin into the tumult of social media, not least of which is a disparagement of ‘third worldism’ and the compulsive affirmation of a ‘class first’ position that, in my view, could only sound like Marxism to those who’ve not engaged very much or closely with Marx’s writings. Hostility to ‘third worldism’ and a ‘class first’ position has long accompanied Brenner’s writings. It is more or less explicit in his (non-Marxist) definition of productive labour, his conservative understanding of ‘barriers to competition,’ a metaphysics about the ‘pure’ form of capital destined to unfold in the progressive, stadial development of ‘free labour,’ and a methodological, indeed methodical, nationalism that underpins each of these. Brenner’s idealisation of industrial capitalism as the exemplary form of capitalism is not an argument that finds much support in Marx’s writings; but it does lend itself to a recurrent attempt to explain the decline of US manufacturing while still holding on to a politics of the industrial proletarian of the US as the global vanguard. The end result is that Brenner is more than comfortable making nostalgic appeals to a revanchist white nationalism in the US.

To be sure, it is difficult to not be impressed with the volume of data that Brenner brings to bear in his books. But in many ways, this is the problem. One moment he is making a claim about increasing income inequality, which relies on population-wide data (itself open to question depending on which incomes it includes). The next, he is recounting a theory of decline reliant on a restrictive and nostalgic definition of productive labour and ‘the real economy.’ In support of that theory of decline, he relies on the reported profit margins in manufacturing in G7 countries, ignores the growth of direct investment, and treats economic data sets as if they immediately reflect an uncontested reality. Conflating the production of tangible, tradeable things with productive labour is what the physiocrats, Ricardo and Smith did; not Marx. But that move makes it possible for Brenner to offer Marxist-sounding claims about a decline in the rate of profit and the power of the (US industrial) working class and, at the same time, to preserve his theory of who the political vanguard is while lamenting its decline. Not least among these claims is of a global economic downturn precipitated by the erosion of barriers to competition. Dig down into Brenner’s ‘historical materialist’ scenario, and it’s a complaint about the decline of the (white) male Fordist worker in the United States (and presumably, also, in the global order). But it is a decline that nevertheless survives any suggestion that these workers are not the vanguard because they are, by Brenner’s account, still the productive labour key that mechanistically turns the revolution, at some future point. In the meantime, that key is what college students will invoke in arguments on campuses against ‘identity politics’ like it’s a law of physics. That nowhere is there such a thing as a purely capitalist society by Brenner’s definition, not even in the US, merely underscores his idealisation of industrial production and its conflation with capitalism per se as part of an argument about political vanguards. It is, in other words, a representational bid for political weight within Marxism and the radical Left. But, it’s that representational claim that ends up treating white men’s identity politics as if those politics were entitled by Marxism and its theory of the exemplary form of ‘the working class.’ They are not, it is not.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Brenner has weighed in with a call to “a still embryonic radical left [to] develop the capacity to exploit the implicit and explicit opportunities that are certain to present themselves in the coming period” (emphasis added). When Brenner is not hollowing out Marx’s concepts and refilling them with the substantive cases of US Fordism, he resorts to the now well-worn vocabulary of the far Right (denouncing “the elites”). That Brenner frames this as a question about whether (his idea of) a radical left or the far Right might be better at ‘exploiting the opportunities’ of the present may seem like a clumsy invocation of pragmatism if not outright mercenary opportunism. But it is far more continuous with his longstanding economic nationalism than his throwaway remarks on Trump’s racism, nationalism and misogyny suggest. Brenner has no theory of racism or misogyny aside from an instrumental one. In that editorial, not only is any sense of what racism and misogyny means obscured by his characterisations of equality and multiculturalism as “neoliberalism,” but in his overall theory as here, equality and multiculturalism are taken to mean the destruction of barriers to competition. In Brenner’s view, this is bad and the cause of decline. I’m unsure how this is all that different to ‘foreigners and women take our jobs.’ Moreover, along with his tenuous construction about the decline in the rate of profit, the principal argument of Global Turbulence is that the key conflict within capitalism is between national capitals. To be able to make that argument, Brenner routinely conflates nation-states with individual capitals (wiping out of view any complexity or discrepancy). In Catalyst, he reiterates this: it all comes down to a conflict between the US, China, etc. This is not a theory about class struggle (long ago, Brenner discarded theories of a precipitous wage squeeze). It’s a theory where the conflictual dynamic (the ‘motor of history’) is, according to Brenner, the economic rivalry between nations.

Brenner’s ‘thesis,’ such as it is, is a thesis for white American nostalgia. He goes as far to declare that “[u]ntil now, radical left-wing forces have expressed at best befuddlement and at worst indifference to the indispensable task of challenging the far right for the allegiance of economically depressed, profoundly alienated working-class whites” (emphasis added).

In support of a claim of white decline, he alludes to the Case and Deaton study. The Case and Deaton study compared the mortality rates of all black people and people of color with that of white people without a high school degree, and buried the data on the still-larger rates of mortality among non-white people in the US. That this study was picked up by some journalists and the far Right as evidence of ‘white genocide’ is not as remarkable as Brenner’s effort to give that study credence in purportedly radical left circles. The headline claim that Case and Deaton make rests on an absurd comparison between poor white people and every black person and person of color, draws a very long-bow inference about the cause of a rise in mortality rates (‘white despair’) from data that does not show this, and understates the fact that mortality rates of non-white people in the US is still higher. So much for Brenner’s attention to data. (I won’t here go into why I find Brenner’s understanding of neoliberalism and claims that ‘the white working class’ was decisive to Trump’s election to be similarly inattentive and mostly propagandistic. Much of that can be derived from this article on neoliberalism and this on health care and the AHCA, or much of anything I’ve written before.)

But it is remarkable that Jacobin has been unable to resist its further slide toward prioritizing the ‘white working class,’ which in reality means throwing their support to conservatives and white nationalists on college campuses and on social media. I would have preferred to have been proven wrong about Jacobin‘s embrace of the far Right. Or, at least part of me must have expected Brenner to moderate this trajectory. Because while I’ve not been a fan of Brenner’s theory, I didn’t think I’d be struggling to see how his politics and theory could still plausibly be described as radical Left or Marxist.


* I have no idea if Solidarity is still around or whether Brenner is still a member, hence erring on the side of using the past tense.

** I should say, I am uninterested in questions about who the vanguard is, except insofar as the obsessive preoccupation with this question has routinely fueled entitled attacks by groups within radical and progressive movements and circles, and actively encouraged the political conservatism of those movements at the expense of effective change.

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