Stephen Whitefield talks to American Marxist economist David Ruccio.
Stephen Whitefield is Professor of Politics, Rhodes Pelczynski Tutorial Fellow in Politics, Pembroke College, University of Oxford. David Ruccio’s website and blog can be found at https://anticap.wordpress.com/
Stephen Whitefield: David, it is a great pleasure to start this conversation with you. We met first in Louisville Kentucky in 2000 and we’ve been friends since then. You were the founder and editor of the journal Rethinking Marxism and you are a professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame. So, I have three questions at the start that I think will be of great interest to our readers. First, and a personal question, how did you develop an interest in Marx and Marxism? Second, what would you say is distinctive about the journal you edited for so many years? And third, how does a Marxist economist fit with both broader orthodox economics, which in my experience is pretty right wing, and in a Catholic university like Notre Dame?
David Ruccio: The pleasure is all mine, Stephen. I’ve always enjoyed our conversations, which over the years have covered a wide variety of topics – from the perilous state of the left to the thrills and spills of world football. I am curious to see where this conversation will go. Let me take your opening questions in turn. As one of my professors used to say, “We choose theories, and theories choose us.” So it was with my interest in Marxism. Such ideas were “in the air” when I became politically active in the 1960s. I bought my first book by Herbert Marcuse at the age of 16 at a bookshop in Grand Central Station in New York City, and I encountered my first Marxian idea – imperialism – during the anti-Vietnam War movement. Things got a bit more formalized in college when, given my interest in Latin America, I discovered the Marxian critique of dependency theory. And then I went to graduate school in the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to study the Marxian critique of political economy only later discovering that, with a PhD, I might actually get a job in higher education. Now, looking back, I can’t imagine ever not seeing the world through a Marxian lens.
But, of course, there are different Marxisms out there. Some of us at the University of Massachusetts weren’t particularly satisfied with traditional Marxism, especially the more scientistic, “laws of motion” versions that were the received legacy in the United States. At the same time, we weren’t ready to simply abandon Marxism. Influenced by post-structuralism and the critique of all forms of determinism, we wanted to open up the Marxian tradition to a new engagement with itself and to contemporary work (what came to be called postmodernism) in philosophy and social theory. But the existing radical and Marxist journals weren’t interested in publishing that kind of work. So, we started our own journal, Rethinking Marxism, where we looked to publish new Marxian ideas in relation to the natural and social sciences and the arts. Although we published the first issue of the journal at what many considered the worst possible time, just before the Fall of the [Berlin] Wall, I’m proud to say the journal is now in its twenty-ninth year of publication.
So, there I was, a professor of economics – writing on various aspects of Marxian theory, editing a Marxist journal – in a discipline that has never been particularly open to Marxian ideas. And it’s only gotten worse in recent decades, as my colleagues in economics have gone from disdain to ignorance. At one time, economists in the United States might have been critical of Capital but at least they knew something about it. Now, given the increasing narrowness of the discipline – courses in economic history and history of economic thought are no longer even offered in most doctoral programs in economics – they’ve never been exposed to even the rudiments of theories other than neoclassical and Keynesian economics. Much the same has happened at the University of Notre Dame, the premier Catholic university in the United States. I was initially hired in a department that prided itself on being eclectic, with professors from a wide variety of theoretical traditions who worked in areas closely associated with Catholic notions of economic and social justice: Third World development, labor, and public policy. Unfortunately, the university administration later decided they wanted a purely neoclassical economic program and they took the unusual step of closing us down. Now, in the aftermath of the greatest economic crisis since the first Great Depression, when mainstream economics has been called into question around the world, they’re saddled with a department confined to the set of ideas that brought about the crash in the first place. It’s a sad state of affairs for economics – and, even more, for the masses of people who have been victims of the ideas and policies advocated by mainstream economists.
SW: Look, I want to get us on to discussing contemporary politics in the United States, as well as how this connects with developments in many other parts of the world. But let me first push you to clarify how the form of Marxism that you advocated in your journal engaged politically. Of course, Marxism was always highly intellectualised. To my mind, however, it is reasonable to demand of it the provision of practical solutions to the contradictions of capitalist production, effective political organisation, and a focus on winning power. How did you bridge that divide? It also seems to me that there is a Marxism that tries to say things that are true about the world – such as the tendency (not law) for the organic composition of capital to rise, which strikes me as quite helpful for understanding inequality and the contemporary labour market – and there is another which views its task as critique of the “common sense” of capitalist social relations that mistakes itself as social science – critique of neoclassical economics being the prime example. Now, I am sure that clever people can explain how this is a false dichotomy. But in terms of practical politics by abandoning claims to be scientific, isn’t Marxism even within the university more easily marginalised from fighting to make its claims dominant in the discipline of economics? So you end up looking to find academic positions in cultural studies, which is no place at all to build a counter-hegemony.
MARXISM AS SCIENCE OR CRITIQUE?
DR: Presenting Marxism as a science rather than as a critique isn’t going to make it dominant in the discipline of economics. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. Mimicking the “science” of neoclassical economics merely serves to undermine the originality of the Marxian critique of political economy. Contesting the mainstream idea of science – with all the baggage modernist science carries within economics, not to mention the dangers neoclassical economic science has wrought on the world – is to my mind a better way of disrupting the discipline of economics and creating a space for critical stances, including Marxism. Then, you get different sciences, in the plural, different discourses or stories about capitalism in the world today. So, Marxism is both a critique – a twofold critique of mainstream economic theory and of capitalism – and a science – of how capitalism works. And often, as in recent years, doesn’t work. Thus, for example, Marxism gives us the tools to criticize neoclassical conceptions of income inequality, in terms of individual choices and given endowments, and to provide an alternative explanation, beginning with capitalist exploitation and the way the surplus is distributed by capitalists to others at the top of the distribution of income.
But that combination of critique and alternative science doesn’t give you a practical politics – even though the point of it all is to both interpret and change the world. There’s a reason why you don’t find, in all of Marx’s oeuvre, a blueprint for what an alternative to capitalism might look like, much less how to get there. As I explain to my students, Marxism expresses both an arrogance and a humility: an arrogance to denaturalize capitalism and to proclaim an alternative way of organizing economic and social life is possible but also a humility in not thinking that comes from the pen of one or another thinker, no matter how revolutionary. That’s what political movements and parties do – they organize the masses to make changes in existing programs and institutions without any predetermined trajectory or endpoint. It’s what I refer to not as the progress of history but rather progress within history – connecting struggles on different issues into something larger, more far-reaching, and thus making things better for the majority of people by demanding and making changes in the world as it is.
SW: Let’s talk then about parties and movements and practical politics. I think I get your call for humility and for pluralistic open-mindedness. These are certainly antidotes to the dominant culture of Marxism in most places in the 20th century – sectarian, dogmatic, aggressive. Would you say that through the journal you have shifted the terms of discussion in the US among Marxists and re-integrated Marxism within the broader left? What is the influence of a Marxist critical approach in current US politics?
There is another side to this too – the side of those on the right for whom exactly the Leninist approach to party discipline and a focus on state power seems a perfect description. Can these highly organised and ruthless forces possibly be fought on anything other their own terms? I remember the day after Labour won the 1997 attending a talk in Oxford by Peter Mandelson, who I think had been a Communist as a student and who had lost none of his Leninist fascination with power. I asked him if he thought that Labour in power could do anything to change the discourse towards more open enquiry, dissent and discussion – of the sort that I think Corbyn may favour. No, said Mandelson: echoing Stalin on the class struggle, Labour in office would require ever more strict centralisation of power to fight its organised right-wing opposition. I can’t say I liked it, but that Labour leadership finally got rid of the Tories after 18 years and won three elections. So, what is the appropriate form for organising the left and progressives in the United States if winning power is a central goal?
DR: As Marxists, politics is of course never far from what we think and do. But, in the journal itself, we actually shied away from explicitly political discussions – as a self-conscious decision to avoid the kinds of divisive, sectarian debates and taking-of-sides that have rent asunder so many organizations on the left. Still, the rethinking of Marxism has had implications for left-wing politics: a discursive focus on class (without attributing to class any kind of causal priority), looking for forms of collectivity subjectivity or ways of being-in-common (instead of presuming a common being), identifying and creating instances of non-capitalism (such as gift-exchange and worker co-operatives) instead of enduring the long wait for “the revolution” to happen, and so on.
SPECTACULAR SANDERS CAMPAIGN
As I see it, while Marxism continues to play but a very minor role in US politics, at least directly, the kinds of issues Marxists tend to think about and organize around – class identities and struggles, criticizing and disrupting the existing common sense, expanding the realm of freedom, and so on – are certainly present in contemporary political discourse, especially in the wake of the crash of 2007–08 and during the uneven recovery from the Second Great Depression. The spectacular but unexpected success of the Bernie Sanders campaign is a testament to the resonance of those issues, especially among young people. In fact, although I hesitate to comment on events on your side of the pond, to judge by recent polls, something similar appears to be happening right now with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
The problem in the United States is the left has little if any role in national politics – although, I want to add, there are millions of people who would be open to an explicitly left-wing political organization or party. The last time the left had a real chance of leaving its mark was in the mid-1980s, with the National Rainbow Coalition. It was a wide coalition, with an explicitly class message; with a national leader, Jesse Jackson; which also left considerable autonomy to local organizations, which is especially important in such a big, diverse country. Right now – and I readily admit my view is quite controversial on the left – the only alternative is within the Democratic Party. The mainstream of the party is in disarray after the 2016 debacle against Donald Trump, and the other existing and potential activists in the party are ripe for new ideas and new ways of articulating a 50-state strategy of changing political discourse and ultimately winning power. This is a time, at least in the United States, not for enforcing ideological discipline, but for creating a broad tent and giving people – especially young people – a chance to learn what real political debate and organizing are all about.
SW: Can you give me some examples of successes that people on the left might look to in the United States? We both know Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who runs a progressive Democratic city in the heart of the Trump-loving state of Indiana. He ran recently for Chair of the Democratic National Committee and while he didn’t win, he made an impression. What does he stand for and is it scalable? Are there other examples that might be worth considering too?
DR: Mayor Pete, as he is known, was the youngest mayor of a US city with at least 100,000 residents when he was first elected in 2011. Then, in 2015, he won re-election with over 80% of the vote – after announcing he is gay. This in a deindustrialized city in Indiana, a state that gave Donald Trump a 19-percent-point victory over Hillary Clinton. What Buttigieg represents, as a mayor and a candidate for Chair of the Democratic National Committee, is a direct counter both to Barak Obama’s Democratic Party – which, while successful at a national level, oversaw tremendous erosion in terms of state-level governorships and legislatures – and to Clinton’s – which failed at the national level and continued the slide at the state level. This is significant because a great deal of recent legislation overturning social rights and tearing apart the social safety net has been passed, by Republicans, at the state level.
The other problem with the Democratic Party, going back to Bill Clinton (and perhaps even further), has been a commitment to policies, from budget deficits to international trade, that can best be described as neoliberal – celebrating individual decisions in markets and a general aversion to commonweal projects, which had long been the pride of American progressivism. Hillary’s loss in November, especially among working-class voters, called both aspects of the existing Democratic strategy into question.
FILLING THE VOID
What we don’t know yet is who will fill the void. Clearly, the enthusiasm with which the Sanders campaign was greeted has made everyone sit up and take notice. New social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, the demonstrations across the country during and after Trump’s inauguration, and survey results, according to which millennials are no longer afraid of socialism, indicate a potential base of support for a different kind of Democratic Party – one that is able to challenge Trump’s political populism, which focuses on the failures of politicians and entrenched interests within government, with an economic populism, which for Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others clearly distinguishes the interests of working people from those of economic elites.
SW: Well, I have been wondering who would be the first in this conversation to use the T word. You put the case that there is a choice to be made by some voters between forms of populism. Let me say a little bit about my own research with my colleague Robert Rohrschneider on European parties. Yes, the anti-globalisation left and the nationalist right do share hostility to national democratic institutions in practice, though on the left I think this is an example of “critical democrats” while on the right much of it is anti-democratic, which makes these two currents incompatible. Beyond critiques of national democracy, however, the anti-globalisation left and nationalist right have very little in common. Ideologically, this part of the left is socially liberal and pro-migrant as well as being much more economically left than the “Third Way” of old. The nationalist right by contrast is extremely illiberal and anti-migrant, as we know, but also just is not as some people claim, economically left at all. Socially and ideologically, these political currents are fishing in very different pools and there is not a lot of cross-over. That is why fewer Sanders supporters went to Trump – about 8% or so – than Clinton supporters went to McCain. That’s why I believe the path to a left anti-globalisation victory has to go a different route, not of course ignoring Trump supporters but not relying on them. Tell me I am wrong.
But regarding Trump, millions of words have already been written about his base of support. Clearly, he is not even trying to deliver on whatever phony economic populist claims he made as candidate. But what is the best way for a principled left in the US to fight him? I have in mind a narrative frame that will unite people who already dislike him, with those who can be persuaded, in a way that will maximize the space later for progressive politics to emerge. I doubt you think that labelling him a Russian stooge is the frame to choose. But what is?
DR: You’re right. Many words have already been written, most of them at best wasted (and many of them analytically suspect and politically dangerous), about Trump’s bases of support. Your research on European parties, on the other hand, gives a clear picture of the different ways international/globalization issues have cut across and been integrated into traditional party families and their positions on domestic matters. In the United States, what this has meant is a meeting-of-the-minds on globalization between mainstream Republicans and Democrats – basically, promote free trade and adopt government policies to win the competitive race – notwithstanding their differences on a whole host of other issues. This creates an alternative space with respect to international issues on the right, for Trump, and on the left, for Sanders.
BUREAUCRATS VERSUS WALL STREET
I agree, there’s little overlap between Trump and Sanders supporters, at least in the short term. That stems, at least in part, from their different approaches to populism. Trump/Tea Party populism tends to blame everything on the bureaucrats in Washington, while Sanders/Occupy populism sees the enemy as Wall Street and large corporations. And those differences stem from or at least coincide with, to borrow a concept from Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, the “deep stories” – about who they are, what their values are – people feel to be true.
In the longer term, there’s more fluidity – in part because of growing disenchantment with the actual policies pursued by Trump and the rest of the Republican administration in Washington (not to mention in states like Kansas), but also because the younger generation is not bound by the same stories as their parents and older generations. And we shouldn’t forget that Sanders did have notable primary victories in states like Michigan and West Virginia, which in the general election went for Trump.
That’s one reason a left that is both critical of capitalist globalization and defends immigrant rights and other socially liberal causes can’t simply bypass the concerns of at least some of the voters who, last year, voted for Trump. We also need to be clear that it wasn’t the white working class, however defined, that was the key to Trump’s victory. His margin over Clinton was in fact much higher among wealthy white voters.
NARRATIVE FRAME FOR THE LEFT
That leaves a large space that can be occupied by the “principled left”: a coalition of working-class voters, which is not just blue-collar – but instead includes many others, including white-collar workers, technicians, and professionals, in the 99% – and not just ethnic and racial minorities – since the largest group within the US working-class is, and will remain for some time, white. But what’s the narrative frame that can push the Democratic Party to the left and win elections? I agree, it’s not casting Trump as a Russian stooge, which most people are simply not concerned about. It does, however, include calling out Trump and his family members and administration as the contemporary equivalent of the corrupt, self-serving, conspicuously consuming landed aristocracy. And it means creating a discourse that “we” – or at least most of us – are in this together. So, not just jobs (and certainly not jobs in old industries, which will never be recovered) but high-quality, decent-paying jobs in both left-behind towns and growing cities, and of course a significant increase in the minimum wage. Not uncontrolled immigration but certainly a path to citizenship for undocumented workers and their families. And a sense of community, of a generous being-in-common. That needs to occur both nationally, improving and expanding – not cutting – Social Security, public higher education, and healthcare, and internationally, concerned with human rights and the victims of famine, wars, and natural disasters, and not just corporate issues.
My sense is the space for that reframing of both Trump and the larger issues at stake is large and growing in the United States. How does it look from where you stand, especially in light of the results of the recent snap election?
SW: In too many ways I am informed by the political experience of the failure of the left in the 1970s and 1980s, the brutal victory of Thatcher – which even Reagan failed to achieve in such measure in the US – a brief period of hope for socialism with a human face under Gorbachev that culminated in the absolute victory of neoliberalism on the right and the left, Blairism and war, to which the Crash provided the coda. I suspect I may be part of the most pessimistic generation of people on the left ever, who have tasted almost nothing but defeat and betrayal. So, to be honest, I was deeply and pleasantly surprised by Corbyn’s ability to make progress against a Tory machine that used all its tricks to monster him and by the apparent surge in turnout and support among young people who weren’t frightened. Now, of course the fact that Labour didn’t actually win triggers all my worries, and the philistine “common sense” of capitalism plus vicious nationalism will no doubt be mobilised when the next election happens. But I am willing to be tentatively hopeful that progressive change can happen here, of the sort that was won in 1945. But uncertainty abounds, about Brexit and the United Kingdom. I don’t know exactly how it will end.
So, let me put a final speculative question to you. How does Trump and Trumpism end? With a bang or a whimper or with outright victory for an anti-democratic brutal right?
DR: I’m just a bit older than you and remain scarred by many of the same events – from Reaganism and its right-wing successors to Clinton and the increasing failures of mainstream liberalism, from unending war to the most severe economic collapse since the first Great Depression. For me, the most disappointing thing is that it seems to have fallen to the left to defend bourgeois democratic processes and institutions. When I was young, I figured we could leave that to the mainstream parties and our job was to challenge them and, with promises of “real” freedom, to move far beyond that. Alas, we’re now forced to lower ourselves and vote for Clinton and Macron, in an attempt to stop Trump and Le Pen. And, yes, as I remind my left-wing friends, while Sanders gives us some hope, he never had to face the Wall Street/Red Scare machine that would have been unleashed on him had he actually made it to the general election. Corbyn did better than anyone, including many Labour parliamentarians and pollsters, expected – except, of course, he didn’t win.
But, borrowing from Gramsci, we have to join our “pessimism of the intellect” with an “optimism of the will.” In fact, it is quite possible that Trumpism signals just how bankrupt the mainstream thinking of both major political parties is in the United States – the Democrats who managed to snatch defeat from victory and the Republicans for providing cover for Trump in order to get what they most want: an even more desperate working class, the elimination of business regulations, and tax cuts for their already-obscenely wealthy friends.
That provides a real opportunity for the left, which needs to go beyond mere “resistance” to Trump. I think we can agree this isn’t fascism we’re talking about, either now or in the foreseeable future. It is nasty and brutish, but also bumbling and incompetent. Basically, we’re talking about a band of right-wing opportunists who will say and do anything to attempt to stay in power as they attempt to build a bridge to the nineteenth century. So, at least in the United States, we need both to defend the gains that have recently been made – for example, in health insurance and with respect to climate change – and challenge the existing model of “exclusion” and grotesque levels of inequality, which is endorsed by the mainstream of both parties.
Personally, I don’t see it in terms of stages or models – either of how Trumpism ends or of how the left moves forward. There’s too much uncertainty, which can actually be turned to our advantage. People are still looking for answers. It’s more a matter, to borrow from Gramsci once more, of continuing to do the patient, careful intellectual and political work of challenging the existing common sense and of creating new discursive spaces and strategic alliances. In the United States, I think that means working both inside the Democratic Party and labor unions and outside those institutions, in local communities, to show how unreasonable the existing reason is and to pose very concrete demands for the majority of Americans: decent, well-paying jobs; affordable, high-quality healthcare; access to well-financed public colleges and universities; and so on.
Neither Trump and the Republicans nor most of their Democratic opponents have any interest in satisfying those demands. Not in this lifetime at least. The left now has to show that it can.
Stephen, I know what we’ve discussed doesn’t rise to the level of a complete analysis of the mess we’re in or of a specific program for getting out of it. That’s frustrating. But I really appreciate the opportunity to discuss these issues with you, especially since we share the belief that only the democratic left presents a way forward.