Mastodon Twitter Instagram Youtube
Oct 22, 15

Militant Reformism and the Prospects for Reforming Capitalism

Anyone who has spent much time around the radical left will know that there is an important historical law: the tendency of the rate of prophet to rise. The radical left has predicted at least nine out of the last four economic crises, and predicted a wide range of outcomes for the crises that actually happened: “Communism will descend from heaven and land on earth!” “The earth will open up and fascism will pour out!” And so forth. Each time the economy bottoms out there are people who invoke bearded old demigods and intone magic words – “hocus crisis! abra-ca-dialectic!” – in order to predict that this time – finally, at long last – capitalism is just so completely fucked that the system simply cannot recover and thus, now, at long last, we’re in a new kind of historical moment, a special emergency situation unlike other moments, which requires one last final push.1

Having just mocked predictions about the future of capitalism, in what follows I’m going to make some predictions of my own. (You see, I have a particularly clear crystal ball… accio hypocrisy!) I think that currently capitalism probably does have the capacity to recover and to grant concessions which demobilize or prevent serious challenges to the system. My main point here, though, is about reformism. By reformism, in this chapter, I mean a social vision that limits itself only to achieving a better capitalism. And by “reforms,” I mean deep alterations to capitalism-as-it-exists on a structural level that could rescue it from (the current) crisis and instability. I think for the foreseeable future reformism will very likely be the center of gravity among diverse social movements that act in response to capitalism. More importantly, I think we may see the emergence of reformist politics tied to militant tactics: fight like hell for a better capitalism.

If I’m right, this militant reformism will pose some questions for radicals. How should radicals intervene in reform-oriented movements? What’s at stake in the ways we might choose to engage reformism in our organizing? How do repression, austerity, and reform shape our movements and how can we shape the possibilities for each? I should add, I’m aware that there’s a long history of answers to these and similar questions. Other people have confronted crises in the past. Other radicals have responded to reformism in a variety of ways. This chapter is not a history of those moments or of radical responses to reform efforts, though such histories would probably be sources of important insights for us today. What this chapter is instead is a sketch or a hypothesis of militant reformism as it may be emerging in the present and what that may mean for those of us from a communist persuasion.2

Most of my closest political friends and comrades and I are young enough that we have lived most or all of our lives in periods of relative working class defeat and retreat – periods of low levels and intensities of struggle. We have more experience with workplace struggles that are very small to moderate in size relative to the size of the working class as a whole. Truly massive struggles are much larger than anything that many of us have experienced. In the current period, we may see struggles of that size. If that happens, a lot of it will be, at least initially, reformist in character. We will see a rise in demands for reform — we’re going to see more reformism. We already are seeing this. Whether or not reform is possible will shape how we respond to reformists.

The idea that reform is impossible is appealing. If reform is impossible, then the capitalist system has less options for responding to massive working class movements.3 We don’t have to argue in favor of communism over a reformed capitalism, and we’re closer to a communist society. Reformist forces can never really win out. If reformists gain (or keep) dominant positions in social movements and in ideas, the worst they can do is temporarily distract the working class away from revolutionary tasks but they can’t actually win reforms. And we, the communists, will still be here when the reforms don’t actually materialize.

Unfortunately, we don’t actually know that reform is impossible. To be fair, we also don’t know if they’re possible. Only the actual creation of reforms would demonstrate their possibility in a conclusive way. I think we can say, though, that reform is plausible. I think this is important because if reforms do happen, and radicals have been operating under the assumption that reforms are impossible, we will be unprepared if reforms actually occur.

Part 1. The State

Understanding reform requires talking about the state. Capitalists tend to have a good sense of their interests as employers. These terms aren’t ideal but employer-consciousness arises organically from the social relationship of employment under capitalism. Capitalist employers have a sense that their employees produce surplus value and they act accordingly. If they don’t, they face threats from the rest of the economy – a capitalist who pays higher wages than other capitalists who sell similar goods/services will, all things being equal, fall behind. If they don’t become more competitive, they will go out of business. If capitalist employers don’t get enough surplus value from employees, they face penalties. These penalties help make employers relatively aware of their position as employers.

Awareness of the dynamics of being an employer is not the same thing as being a class conscious capitalist, however. Every capitalist is a capitalist in relation to his or her employees, but not every capitalist acts in ways that are favorable to the capitalist class as a whole or the long term life of the capitalist system (particularly because capitalists are usually competing with one another). As an analogy, anyone who works for a living is in some way aware of the power relationships involved in being an employee but not all employees are class conscious workers. Workers sometimes act in ways that are bad for other workers or the working class as a whole. Similar things can happen with capitalists. Being a worker doesn’t automatically provide working class consciousness. Likewise, being a capitalist doesn’t automatically make someone a class conscious capitalist.

One of the roles of the state is to help identify needs for the current capitalist system and needs of the long term health of the capitalist system and to try to get capitalists to act in line with those perceived systemic needs. This can serve to create capitalist class consciousness or at least to discipline capitalists to act in ways that planners believe are good for capitalism. In some cases this can result in long term benefits to actually existing capitalists but in other cases it involves some businesses being put out of business and, eventually, some of them or their descendants being ejected out of the capitalist class. This is part of why capitalists hesitate in the face of state introduction of changes – no capitalist wants to lose. If they do so enough times, they or their children might have to actually work for a living… In the words of the historian of slavery Eugene Genovese, in his book Roll, Jordan, Roll, “the great object of social reform is to prevent a fundamental change in class relations.” This means that reformers “must fight against those reactionaries who cannot understand the need for secondary, although not necessarily trivial, change in order to prevent deeper change (…) reactionaries will insist that any change, no matter how slight, will set in motion forces of dissolution.”4

Sometimes capitalists oppose reform because they are ideologically reactionary; sometimes they do so because they believe that they will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the new version of capitalism that will exist after the reform.

The state is in part a mechanism for helping identify problems that are systemic – tied to the interests of the capitalist class as a whole – and a way to work out politically how to respond to the capitalists’ class interests. That is, visionary capitalists and their functionaries in foundations and think tanks can use the state to put forward proposals and communicate them to others to try to win them to this view. If that fails, with enough political support from other capitalists (and some workers, in many cases), particular parts of the capitalist class can get the state to do certain things, to discipline individual capitalists who aren’t acting in line with what is believed to be the capitalist class’s over all interests.

Individual capitalists or fractions of the capitalist class don’t necessarily pursue the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. Often there is disagreement among the fractions of the capitalist class about what is the best course of action to pursue. That a given fraction is dominant does not mean it necessarily does what is best for the capitalist class, but usually the dominant fractions, and those who the state acts in service of, will believe they are doing what’s best for capitalism over all. The dominant fraction can be wrong, though. One example of this is health insurance in the US. The only measure according to which ‘our’ healthcare/health insurance (non)system makes sense is that of the profits of insurers. The current non-system poses public health risks (which can become political and economic problems) – for many people it results in less preventive care, which is cheaper to provide than other forms of healthcare. So it causes worse health outcomes, which cause loss of economic productivity and more expensive health care. This arrangement also raises the costs of the same procedure in the US. By maintaining a very minimal floor – you can always get treatment in a hospital emergency room if you have an immediate healthcare problem – the system results in a very large amount of public dollars going to healthcare, in addition to the excessively high private healthcare and health insurance costs. These expenditures are inefficient from an over-all social perspective, however, even according capitalist logic, because the high expenditures purchase lower quality healthcare. This is not good for anyone except the insurers making money off of it. Some of the costs are passed onto employers as well as causing conflicts with employees that could be avoided. This is a form of highly mediated inter-capitalist conflict with regard to who gets what share of the total surplus wealth extracted from workers (some companies have to pay what would otherwise be profits). Overall it’s not good for US capitalism beyond insurers and a few others. That this arrangement continues demonstrates that changes in these arrangements are not natural or built in to capitalism or predetermined—they’re political. Those politics include the class struggle above all, but also political conflict among the capitalists.

Sometimes an individual capitalist or group of capitalists pursue things that are believed by the dominant capitalists to be detrimental to the capitalist class as a whole and so they need to be brought in line. To quote Genovese again,


“The most advanced fraction of the slaveholders – those who most clearly perceived interest and needs of the class as a whole – steadily worked to make their class more conscious of its nature, spirit, and destiny. (…) For any such political center, the class as a whole must be brought to a higher understanding of itself – transformed from a class-in-itself, reacting to pressures on its objective position, into a class-for-itself, consciously striving to shape the world in its own image. Only possession of public power can discipline a class as a whole, and through it, the other classes of society. The juridical system may become, then, not merely an expression of class interest, nor even merely an expression of the willingness of the rulers to mediate with the ruled; it may become an instrument by which the advanced section of the ruling class imposes its viewpoint upon the class as a whole and the wider society. The law must discipline the ruling class.”5

Genovese is overly statist when he writes that “possession of public power” is a requirement, but he is right that state power plays this role in capitalism, in helping the capitalist class guide and discipline itself. Here’s Genovese again:


“The slaveholders fell back on a kind of dual power: that which they collectively exercised as a class, even against their own individual impulses, through their effective control of state power; and that which they reserved to themselves as individuals who commanded other human beings in bondage. In general, this duality appears in all systems of class rule, for the collective judgment of the ruling class, coherently organized in the common interest, cannot be expected to coincide with the sum total of the individual interests and judgments of its members; first because the law tends to reflect the will of the most politically coherent and determined fraction, and second, because the sum total of the individual interests and judgments of the members of the ruling class generally, rather than occasionally, pulls against the collective needs of a class that must appeal to other classes for support at critical junctures.”6

None of this is to say that these sorts of struggles always reinforce capitalism. My point is that there is a connection between the struggle over immediate conditions and the struggle to end capitalism. but not all victories in any particular struggles over the terms of life and work under capitalism bring us closer to the end of capitalism. Indeed, in certain historical circumstances capitalists and their states or parts of their states will work to improve the lives of workers in order to make sure capitalism remains intact. Workers’ struggles can sometimes temporarily serve as a tool which some capitalists use to get an advantage over others and can sometimes be a source of innovations within capitalist institutions, innovations that strengthen the system and boost profits. Struggles and efforts can play this role even when strongly opposed by actually existing capitalists because capitalists, like workers, don’t always believe in or act in accord with the interests of their class as a whole. That capitalists fight or fought hard in opposing a reform can sometimes make it seem like a given struggle or victory is more radical than it is.

Part 2. Historical background.

The changes that happened in the U.S. in the 1930s in response to the economic crisis had two basic sources which related to each other in mutually reinforcing ways: a changed view on the part of the state regarding working class organization and working class militancy. Nelson Lichtenstein has written that the labor law reforms of the 1930s involved the extension into workplaces of rights that were “thoroughly bourgeois” and yet “their achievement required something close to revolutionary action, or so it seemed during the summer and fall of 1934.”7 While there were important policy changes, as Lichtenstein writes, “a law is not a social movement.” For the new policies to have “real social and political meaning, the United States required a working-class mobilization of explosive power.”8

The government reforms and working class militancy of the 1930s changed the institutions that create the costs and benefits of unionization. And radicals played a crucial role in that. To quote from Lichtenstein again, “Because of their exceptional ability as mass organizers, [CIO leader John L.] Lewis hired scores of communists and socialists (…) When a reporter probed his decision to hire so many Communists, Lewis replied, “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?” That is to say, Lewis expected to make use of radicals to build the CIO, and expected to stay in control of the process and the results. Licthenstein continues, “Such radicals were and are essential to the organization of a trade union movement, in the United States even more so than in other countries with an established socialist tradition. Indeed, if it were left to those whose aspirations were shaped merely by the trade union idea, most labor drives would have died at birth. This is because the founding of a trade union is a personally risky business whose costs and dangers are disproportionately born by those who take the early initiative.” Workers who took on early militant action “gambled with their jobs, and sometimes their lives. Most workers therefore remained passive, not because they endorsed the industrial status quo, but because defeat might well threaten what little security they had managed to achieve. (…) Only those individuals with an intense political or religious vision, only those radicals who saw the organizing project as part of a collective enterprise, and only those who understood the unions as a lever with which to build a new society could hope to calculate that the hardships they endured might reap such a magnificent political and social reward.”9

That is to say, commitment to a vision beyond a short-term cost/benefit calculation helped create the militant minority of the working class that was one key ingredient to the restructuring that happened in the 1930s. The other big ingredient was the new disposition toward reform on the part of state planners. Working class militancy played a key role in creating that new disposition as well. Rhonda Levine writes that the militant “extraparliamentary struggles of the industrial working class forced Democratic congressman and senators to take a more liberal position within congressional debates, thereby moving the Democratic party to the left on the political spectrum.” Levine also argues that the Democrats only backed the new labor relations legislation at first in the attempt to offer a legislative alternative to American Federation of Labor-supported legislation calling for limits on work hours.10 The Roosevelt administration and Congress initially did not support the proposals that Senator Robert Wagner put out for dealing with industrial relations; the strike wave of 1934 brought politicians around on this.11

The combination of working class militancy and reform-minded politicians helped create the conditions where U.S. unions gained five million members between 1933 and 1937. Lichtenstein makes the point that the U.S. labor movement has tended to grow in bursts like this. Big upheavals happen—initially involving militant minorities of the working class then larger numbers – and union membership grows. Between upheavals, membership tends to level out and begin to decline.

Since Ronald Reagan’s attack on the air traffic controllers’ union over thirty years ago, employers have been on the offensive against unions and the U.S government has done very little about this, and in some cases has aided it. This is different from an earlier era. In the 1930s the U.S. capitalist state made collective bargaining a key part of economic policy and of the governance of the working people. That is, collective bargaining formed a key part of the capitalist system in the United States for a while, where collective bargaining was a system of governance that channeled and shaped workers’ activities and struggles, as well as helping promote economic activity by putting more money in workers’ hands. The attack on unions in more recent times represents in part a move away from the use of unions as a tool for capitalists and the capitalist state to try to govern the working class, and a move away from the use of unions as a tool for the capitalist state to try to govern capitalists.

But militancy can re-enliven existing institutions of dispute resolution. That is, militancy can help re-invigorate older forms of institutionalizing truces in the class struggle. I think the foreseeable future might proceed in terms of tactical breaks from existing institutions. The response from the official powers will be repression, or a combination of repression and the re-enlivening those institutions.

It can be hard to imagine existing institutions working again. Many of us have grown up politically in a time when people have been disaffected from the institutions of capitalist society. We are cynical about the ballot box, the court system, and so on. We are used to these institutions being of little use in helping people resolve disputes and meet needs in the short term. This cynicism about institutions is partly because the capitalists and the capitalist state have moved away from using these institutions as effective means of governing us and organizing capitalism. The 1930s crisis and eventual recovery should teach us, however: existing institutions can change.

Capitalism is made of up conflicts between capitalists and working class people. There’s tremendous conflict among some working class people, including over how to best navigate the workers vs capitalist conflict. Another important dynamic within capitalism is conflict between capitalists. Capitalists get their wealth from exploiting workers, but the capitalists also conflict with each other over who will get how much of a share of that wealth. That conflict between capitalists has to be governed or it will cause larger problems. Some of the time the capitalist state tries to make use of the working class as a source of power to govern capitalists.

Some of the time class struggle helps create, in the words of Michel Aglietta, “major transformations in the social organization of labor which alone can provide the basis for the conditions of a new and lasting accumulation.” That is, sometimes class struggle helps to re-enliven the institutions of capitalist society, or to create new institutions, and these institutions help prop up capital accumulation.12 This can happen even when struggles involve tactical violations of capitalist property rights – as in the case of the sit down strikes that helped build the CIO.

Currently institutions of capitalist society are not likely to negotiate or concede. That can lead to rising working class militancy and more room for radical ideas to spread. Radicals, as specialists in militancy (or at least advocates of militancy) might gain more legitimacy as a result. Then, militancy practiced in larger numbers might re-enliven capitalist institutions. It’s important to note that those institutions are tools for capitalist rule, even though they are different sorts of tools than the guns and clubs of the police.

Part 3. Prospects for reform today.

It seems to me that the core question about the possibilities of reform is whether or not we’re currently touching objective systemic limits that dictate capitalist responses. In my view, the current moment is political, about priorities and decisions, and is not dictated straightforwardly by economic possibility. Overall, I think arguments like “economic conditions mean that global elites are unable to do XYZ” strike me as wrongheaded in part because of an overemphasis on structural imperatives and an underemphasis on ideology and the politics of elites. As an analogy, I once heard about a union organizing drive at a facility for the developmentally disabled in the early 2000s. This was a privatized facility that was still dependent on state subsidy rates—Medicaid reimbursements, which had been cut or stagnant. In contract negotiations, according to the financial data supplied by the bosses, they honestly couldn’t afford to give out the raises that the union wanted to get in negotiation. So the union lobbied like crazy to get Medicaid reimbursements for group homes raised in that state. They succeeded, then fought to make sure the bosses actually handed over the raises. That was a case where the employer ran up against real limits in terms of profitability and simply couldn’t give a meaningful concession. I don’t think we’re in a moment where the capitalist system as a whole has run up against a limit like that in such a way that no meaningful reforms are possible.

Before I go on, I should say, by “reform” I mean two things that are only partly related. What really matters about reforms, from a communist perspective, is whether or not the reforms shore up capitalism in some way, by making capitalism more stable or profitable, or by blunting or preventing working class struggle. Economically, it costs to implement reforms. Other than nature and expropriation, all wealth comes from workers, but the capitalists claim that wealth. So the costs of reform have to come from somewhere and often require capitalists to give up a bit of the wealth they claim belongs to them. At the same time, reforms can prove profitable despite initial costs. And reforms don’t have to be economic in a narrow sense. Reforms can also include the extension of rights or the end to repression. Amnesty International lists many human rights abuses in the United States that could be eliminated, including police brutality and the death penalty. Between 2003 and 2006, the most recent years I can find information on, police in the U.S. killed 1553 people. These types of killings could be eliminated or reduced by reform. Doing so would also reduce the sparks that give rise to riots; while police brutality alone rarely causes riots, it is often an important catalyst.

I do think that reforms are unlikely in the near future. The current capitalist class and the government (at least in the US) seem to me more in the mood to bust heads and throw people into the street than they are in the mood to issue concessions. They have been for a while. If the working class goes on the offensive, though, this might change. And there are some voices among the capitalists and their ideologists who have called for reform. Billionaire Warren Buffet, for example, has called for more taxes on the rich, and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, no radical, has been writing in the New York Times for a while about reforms that would help capitalism. These voices seem to be drowned out by the majority of capitalists and pro-capitalist voices, but that doesn’t mean that reform is systematically impossible in the present.

At one point, most capitalists—certainly most US capitalists, and most high level US government personnel—were ideologically quite close to Klansmen. This changed. Capitalists can change their minds and decide to do capitalism differently. They don’t do so in a vacuum, of course; this happens when forces within the capitalist class convince other capitalists that it’s in their interests to change. Mass struggles are a hugely important factor in shaping how capitalists see their interests and in how intra-capitalist class politics play out. In any case, I think that under the disposition of the current capitalists reform is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean reform is structurally impossible. And we’re in a volatile moment and the disposition of the capitalists may change if we see large working class offensives.

Now I want to address two arguments I’ve seen that say that reform is impossible. At one point a good friend of mine suggested that currently we are in a downturn in the global economy that is so severe that there aren’t resources available for the capitalists and governments to pay for reforms. That sounds good, but historically speaking, if anything, being at a low point seems to make reforms more likely, not less likely.

The UK was at a major economic downturn in the 1840s. That decade saw big changes to workplace health and safety law of a kind that Karl Marx argued helped English capitalists.13 The US was at a major lowpoint around 1890 or 1900. That was an era of increasing social reform, including the regulation of food safety, ‘protective’ legislation about women workers, and workers’ compensation. The UK was at a lowpoint again in the 1890s and in 1897 the UK introduced workmen’s compensation (and keep in mind that reforms in this era usually involved a few years of commissions studying them and so on, so the impulse toward reform dates from close to, or prior to, the low economic point). The 1930s were a decade of massive global economic crisis. In the United States the 1930s saw the creation of the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Social Security Act. So I don’t see evidence that being in a major downturn equals limited social reform possibilities. The policy planners of the 1930s certainly thought that active state engagement via social reform was a way to aid the upward swing out of the valley.

A second sort of argument I’ve seen about the impossibility of reform is about the falling rate of profit. The claim that there is a trend for the rate of profit to fall means that over time capitalists will get a lower percentage on their investments. That doesn’t mean they will get less wealth. It means their wealth will increase by a smaller percentage. The rate of profit would have to decline to zero in order for the “it will all collapse under its own weight” sort of arguments to be true. And even then it could still be possible to destroy a lot of capital in order to create new room for growth. Given the frequency of wars, political and economic elites seem to be relatively okay with that as a fix.

Imagine a small business without much machinery. The company spends $300,000 a year and generates a profit of $100,000 a year. That’s a rate of profit of 33% over the year. Now imagine a bigger company that spends $300,000,000 and generates a profit of $3,000,000. That’s a rate of profit of only 1% over the year. But it’s still a much larger real quantity of wealth—the larger business made ten times the absolute profits as the smaller company. Whatever else there is to say about all this, a tendency of the rate of profit to fall is not the same thing as a tendency for capitalists to actually run out of wealth. If there are profits being made then there is surplus value being extracted from workers and some of that surplus value could be directed toward workers as a type of reform. To put it another way—repression is expensive. If they can afford repression, they can afford reform. The low estimates are that the city of Oakland spent $2.5 million cracking down on Occupy Oakland. At least some of that could have been spent differently, on reforms. At the national level, the Defense Budget recently got another fifty billion dollars. This too is money that could be spent differently.

There has been a massive speedup in the US, so that “Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans.” This has been accompanied by rising incomes for the very wealthy and high profits for capitalists. It seems to me that the money is there for reform. I’m not the only one who thinks this.14 Billionaire Warren Buffett has made news repeatedly by saying that he pays too little in taxes.15

Matias Vernengo argues that current policies in the US are about where wealth goes among the capitalists. That is, the current moment is one in which social inequality and wealth polarization has increased rapidly in ways that are the result of economic policy and the disposition of the capitalists. The left wing of capital has begun to argue that this has reached destabilizing proportions. For Vernengo as for Buffett, tax policy should change, which would fund redistribution.16

Some pro-capitalist commentators have argued not only that reform is possible but that it’s needed to help capitalism recover. Here’s The Economist:


“America is currently on course for the most stringent fiscal tightening of any big economy in 2012, as temporary tax cuts and unemployment insurance expire at the end of this year. (…) For all the tirades against the Europeans, America’s economy risks being pushed into recession by its own fiscal policy—and by the fact that both parties are more interested in positioning themselves for the 2012 elections than in reaching the compromises needed to steer away from that hazardous course.”17

Similarly, Dean Baker recently argued that:


“…corporate profits were revised sharply higher for both 2009 and 2010. The share of profits in corporate sector output hit a new record high, more than a full percentage point above its previous peak. Finance was the biggest winner within the corporate sector, accounting for 31.7% of corporate profits, also a record high. (…) the economy was plunging even more rapidly than we had previously recognised in the two quarters following the collapse of Lehman. Yet, the plunge stopped in the second quarter of 2009 – just as the stimulus came on line. This was followed by respectable growth over the next four quarters. Growth then weakened again as the impact of the stimulus began to fade at the end of 2010 and the start of this year. In other words, the growth pattern shown by the revised data sure makes it appear that the stimulus worked. The main problem would seem to be that the stimulus was not big enough and it wasn’t left in place long enough to lift the economy to anywhere near potential output.”18

Writing about the debt ceiling deal and rumbling about the US deficit, economist James Galbraith writes that austerity measures are the redistribution of wealth—in an upward direction.


“The right steps would be to lower – not raise – the Social Security early retirement age, permitting for a few years older workers to exit the labor force permanently on better terms than are available to them today. This together with a lower age of access to Medicare would work quickly to rebalance the labor force, reducing unemployment and futile job search among older workers while increasing job openings for the young. It is the application of plain common sense. And unlike all the pressures to enact long-term cuts in these programs, it would help solve one of today’s important problems right away.”

Galbraith writes about Social Security that:


“the financial crisis has left the country with 11 million fewer jobs than Americans need now. No matter how aggressive the policy, we are not going to find 11 million new jobs soon. So common sense suggests we should make some decisions about who should have the first crack: older people, who have already worked three or four decades at hard jobs? Or younger people, many just out of school, with fresh skills and ambitions? The answer is obvious. Older people who would like to retire and would do so if they could afford it should get some help. The right step is to reduce, not increase, the full-benefits retirement age. As a rough cut, why not enact a three-year window during which the age for receiving full Social Security benefits would drop to 62—providing a voluntary, one-time, grab-it-now bonus for leaving work? Let them go home! With a secure pension and medical care, they will be happier. Young people who need work will be happier. And there will also be more jobs. With pension security, older people will consume services until the end of their lives.”19

Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman has said that:


“We currently have a deeply depressed economy. We will almost certainly continue to have a depressed economy all through next year. And we will probably have a depressed economy through 2013 as well, if not beyond. The worst thing you can do in these circumstances is slash government spending, since that will depress the economy even further. Pay no attention to those who invoke the confidence fairy, claiming that tough action on the budget will reassure businesses and consumers, leading them to spend more. It doesn’t work that way, a fact confirmed by many studies of the historical record. Indeed, slashing spending while the economy is depressed won’t even help the budget situation much, and might well make it worse. On one side, interest rates on federal borrowing are currently very low, so spending cuts now will do little to reduce future interest costs. On the other side, making the economy weaker now will also hurt its long-run prospects, which will in turn reduce future revenue. So those demanding spending cuts now are like medieval doctors who treated the sick by bleeding them, and thereby made them even sicker.”20

So far arguments like these are in the minority among the capitalists, their governments, and their intellectual lackeys, but there is a conversation about them happening. If reform is impossible, we don’t need to think much about any of this. If reform is possible, then arguments like these will compete with arguments about why reform shouldn’t happen. If social movements continue to rise, we’ll also see arguments that the answer is repression, not reform. I think the outcome of those arguments among capitalists will be political. The answer won’t be inevitable and it won’t be determined by the economy in a narrow or mechanical way, which is to say, I don’t think that we’ve yet run into objective limits to capitalism such that the capitalists have no options other than keep doing what they’re doing now or get more repressive. They may well opt for either of those choices, but none of this is inevitable or a matter of simple economic requirements. Whatever happens will be in part the result of how the capitalists respond to the struggles of the working class. That capitalist response will be shaped by the changing disposition of the capitalist class—how it sees itself, how it sees the world, what it believes in, who is hegemonic within it. This is politics, not objective necessity.

Austerity is the current big push. Against this, we see and will see more large social movements. If social conflict gets really intense, though, ruling class priorities can change with regard to the allocation of surplus value. Reforms will be a way for the system to try to compensate, to temporarily relieve pressures from below and to stratify the class in some way to break up the class composition that drove the uprisings.

Reforms have at least three functions. One is to oil the hinges of capitalists’ actions—extending credit to companies so they can buy stuff to make stuff to sell stuff etc, in order to avoid problems that capitalists run into that aren’t an immediate/short-term product of workers struggles. Another is to prevent or defuse social unrest on the part of some constituencies—not everyone, just enough people to keep too large a swath from boiling over too far. (One of the most interesting things I think came out of the race traitor type analysis was the point that white skin privilege was analogous to social democracy in this way.) We saw glimmers of this possibility in the struggles in Wisconsin earlier in 2011-12, as the Democrats broke legislative quorum and temporarily became kind of folk heroes to many, and in the degree to which the mobilizations didn’t find a way to really move beyond the interests of unionized public sector workers.21 The legislative recall played a similar role.

A third function of reform is to govern the capitalist class in the interests of systemic stability. That is, reforms are partly a way to spread and enforce capitalist class consciousness. While every capitalist is likely to have a clear boss-consciousness in relation to their subordinates within their enterprise, there’s no guarantee they’ll be class conscious as capitalists—in some ways various laments that have been written in the mainstream press about CEOs taking the money and running, or industries that pollute, or the way insurance companies raise costs for other companies and create systemic pressures in the US, or the problems with finance capitalists—these are all individual capitalists or subgroups of capitalists who are not primarily thinking/acting in terms of the long term interests of the capitalist class and the stability of the capitalist system.

Reforms involve revision to institutional arrangements that direct the flow of wealth in capitalist society (wealth which originated from the exploitation of the working class). We tend to call “reforms” those institutional revisions that redistribute wealth to the working class directly—wage rises, for instance—or indirectly via “the social wage.” In the past 30-40 years in the US we’ve seen substantial institutional revisions that redirect wealth, in an upward direction, and we’ve seen institutional revisions in the form of greater amounts of money spent on repression. In my view, if these institutional changes are possible—if there is additional wealth available to go to capitalists and to go to paying for repression—then other institutional revisions are possible. This wealth could be redirected differently, the wealth could go to reforms that improve the lives of the working class.

Setting aside the large scale possibilities for reform, I think there is also a rising current of reformist forces within social movements today. Some reformists in social movements will encourage working within existing institutions through measures like elections, lobbying, lawsuits, referenda and recalls, and so on. These reformists will fail as much or more than they succeed at least for the short term. Other reformists will get more militant and these militant reformists will play increasingly important roles, providing funding and personnel to movements. Their militancy will minimize differences with them and radicals. The militant reformists will work together quietly behind the scenes with less militant reformists on some occasions. For example, the militant reformists will agree with other reformists that electoral reforms are needed, but will place less priority on pursuing that goal immediately in the near future, perhaps based on a different analysis of where institutions are at currently. The militancy of some reformists, and often their sincerity, will confuse good-hearted radicals who will not understand (or be able to act against) the militant reformist forces.

Part of what’s going on right now is a collapsing future for a lot of people. A lot of people will have worse lives than they would have had under prior versions of capitalism. One piece of that is restructuring the private and public institutions of social reproduction and the people who work in them. That will lead to serious conflict, as we saw in the struggles in Madison, Wisconsin. Anti-austerity struggles are prone to militancy and are prone to defensiveness and a type of pro-system conservatism because they’re based on defending rights/legal claims/property claims that capitalists and their governments are trying to eliminate.

Part four. Radicals should…

A rise in militant reformism would pose questions for radicals—namely, how radicals can and should relate to militant reformist groupings. I’m skeptical about what militant reform struggles are going to accomplish. I would say radicals should avoid militant reform struggles unless we have nothing better to do. Then again, a lot radicals really don’t have anything better to do, and in those cases could do a lot worse than to participate in militant reformist struggles. If we do participate, then we should participate with a plan to eventually have something better to do, and we should be honest with ourselves about whether or not, and how, we are actually accomplishing that plan.

When we do participate in militant reform projects, I think a lot of us on the left tend to think of ourselves as standing for things like militancy, and democracy, and a lot of us, definitely myself included, have spent recent times focusing more on how to fight effectively. We engage with current events from that place: let’s learn as much as we can. Let’s make these fights as effective as we can. Let’s try to make this struggle more democratic. Let’s work to reduce racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression and hierarchy within this struggle. All of that is good and important. But that only takes us so far. And if we’re not careful, those impulses will set us up to get played by reformists in strategic roles such that we end up accomplishing less than we hope.

It is precisely the fact that people can get some of their needs met and their disputes resolved through existing institutions that makes (or rather made, and might again make) those institutions effective organs of capitalist rule. Many of the prevailing institutions of negotiation haven’t worked well in recent years, and the cost of this institutional breakdown has been low for the capitalists. With rising militancy, the costs of ineffective negotiation and dispute resolution will get higher, and we may see those institutions start to work better again, or we may see new ones created. Many of us like to say “direct action gets the goods,” which is a short-hand “existing institutions don’t pay out, so to get what you want, you need to fight outside those institutions.” That may not always be true. It may end up that some of the time following the routines of institutions of negotiation gets the goods (and it may end up that forms of direct action to get the goods become routinized). If that happens, we’ll need to drop the “our way wins better” schtick, and we’ll need to be able to articulate our social vision on its merits based on the inherent limitations of our lives under capitalism and based on our vision of human liberation. We should aim to expand people’s ethical horizons in order to foster a sense that humans deserve more out of life than school, work, retirement, and death. We need to spread the actual social vision we believe in, that humans deserve decent lives of our own choosing, and that a society where people get what they deserve is genuinely possible. We also need to spread a notion of what we need to get rid of in human society in order to meet those ethical standards—we need a revolutionary break with what exists. In my view, struggle is important to the degree that it connects with and helps advance a longer term social vision, radicalizes more people, and prepares people to participate in the struggles of the working class against capitalism. That is to say, alongside building power, and building willingness to use that power, there has to be building the values that inform how and why to use that power, so that we’re ready for real social ruptures that place capitalist rule into question in a real way.

In addition, at some point, militant reformism has to give way to militant radicalism, which is to say, to openly politicized struggle beyond just short term improvements to life under capitalism. In my view, when this happens it will exist in tension with militant reformist institutions and groups, at best, and at times in open conflict. We can bet that reformist forces will scheme on radicals to keep us in our role as a loyal rent-a-mob. If our participation in reformist struggles amounts to little more than “we are loyal soldiers and we talk some politics on the side” then we’re never going to post a challenge to capitalism. Eventually, people operating within militant reformist struggles will need to move into positions of conflict with reformists, either taking over and radicalizing reformist institutions (I’m skeptical about how much this can actually succeed) or breaking out of those institutions in order to form radical alternatives. Radicals acting as loyal members of reformist projects are just that, loyal members of reformist projects, until we start to come into conflict with other forces in those projects. Without a plan for how to move beyond that loyal role, that’s where we’ll stay.

As I said, I think radicals should avoid militant reform struggles – instead of militant reformism, how about practicing militant radicalism? I’m an IWW member, so I believe it’s possible to building a revolutionary union which both fights for gains in the short term and advocates for replacing capitalism with a good society. We in the IWW don’t have a monopoly on this vision. For an example I find particularly inspiring and illuminating, see Solidarity Federation’s book Fighting For Ourselves. I mean here not so much to advocate revolutionary unionism, but rather a general approach to organizing. Revolutionary unionism is just one example of that type. The main characteristic of this organizing is that it combines fighting for gains now with fighting against capitalism. It combines things that some radicals (wrongly, in my opinion) see as the separate areas of politics and economics or political and mass organizing.

That said, regardless of whether or not they’re politically radical, our projects will remain at the level of negotiation for the foreseeable future. Negotiation is a social relationship, it’s built in to the relationships between employers and employees on a small scale and between the capitalist class and the working class on a large scale. Until millions and millions of people in the working class are done negotiating, class struggle will involve negotiation. One big question we should talk about is what it would look like to actually move beyond negotiation, and what we can do to start to get to that point.

We should talk about better and worse forms of negotiation within struggles. The social relationship of negotiation between classes can be institutionalized in a variety of ways. A rise in working class militancy can re-enliven old institutions of negotiation or foster the creation of new ones. Indeed, militant reformism is basically a call for people to fight like hell until there are better institutions in place so that we don’t have to fight so hard anymore and have better lives under capitalism. For the foreseeable future we’re probably going to be dealing with forms of negotiation between classes. But all forms of negotiation are not equal. There are two basic ways to think about what makes forms of negotiation better: how much is a form of negotiation useful for use getting more of what the participants want and need, and what does a form of negotiation do to the participants—how do struggles change what we want and need?22

Radicals should talk about what it would look like for a radical practice that is not only ideologically different from reformism, and not only a matter of spreading ideas, but different in the short term at the level of how struggle is carried out. Some people will say that this is not currently viable. In that case, we should flesh out when it will become viable, how we will know, and how we can help struggles reach the point where radical alternatives become genuinely viable.

I hope this chapter helps open some conversation. I definitely don’t see it as the last word on anything and I see much of my points here as hypotheses in need of further testing through inquiry. There are a few additional areas where I think further inquiry is especially important. These are the ones that jump out at me; I’m sure others are possible. First off, there’s paying attention to large-scale economic, policy, and social movement developments at various levels – globally, regionally, and nationally. Second, tracking the intellectual development of militant reformism: the people involved in there efforts are smart, sincere, and skilled, even though they have a different social vision than we do as radicals. Paying attention to what they’re writing and saying will help radicals orient ourselves. Third, case studies of specific militant reformist projects will be particularly important because militant reform projects will differ from each other due to a bunch of different factors. We’ll learn better how to navigate within and against them if we’re talking about them. I attempted one case study, about Occupy Homes.23 Fourth, radicals doing organizing in militant reformist settings should compare notes and rigorously assess our successes and failures, in order to get better at navigating within those settings. We should also think through what our goals should and shouldn’t be, realistically, and how organizing in militant reform settings can or can’t help advance revolution. Fifth and finally, we should continue to develop working alternatives in both theory and practice. Often militant reformist projects suck up radicals’ time and energy because there’s few radical projects that are comparable.


1 If you haven’t noticed, I am slightly skeptical about predictions of a final crisis of capitalism. The idea of a final crisis suggests that we shouldn’t worry much about the fact that capitalism has emerged from past crises, because in the final crisis things will be different, because capitalism is different today and now, this time around, there is no chance that the system can recover. To be clear, I am not saying capitalism always has the capacity to recover from crisis. I’m saying recovery or not is an open question, and I’m implying that some people are too quick to jump to the conclusion that recovery’s off the table. We should tone down the level of certainty with which we make predictions. We shouldn’t assume that the system will restore itself, and we shouldn’t assume it won’t. We should instead look around and examine what elements might form the basis for potential restoration of the system and what obstacles such a restoration will face. In my view, current signs point to eventual economic recovery, and, as I try to lay out in this chapter, I think there are ways in which the left and working class struggle can make that recovery more likely.

2 I should say, I don’t argue for this political perspective here; I presume it. I don’t know how much of my argument actually relies on this perspective except that reform is only inadequate if we believe it’s possible and desirable to remake society in a good way through revolution.

3 For an overview of recent arguments that reform is impossible, see Juan Conatz’s “Is Reform Possible?”

4 Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Random House, 1974), 49.

5 Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 27.

6 Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 46-47.

7 Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 32.

8 Lichtenstein, State of the Union , 39.

9 Lichtenstein, State of the Union , 45.

10 Rhonda Levine, Class Struggle and the New Deal: Industrial labor, Industrial capital, and the State (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988), 149.

11 I give an overview of the origins of the system of labor law that governed labor relations in the U.S. in the postwar period in “Just and Peaceful Labor Relations,” U.S. capitalists have increasingly abandoned this system of labor regulation since the late 1970s or early 1980s. Rising working class militancy will likely create efforts to reenliven that system or replace it with another form of state mediation of struggle.

12 Michel Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience (London: New Left Books, 1979), 364.

13 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I , chapter ten, section 6. Online at

14 Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, “All Work and No Pay: The Great Speed Up,”

15 Warren Buffett, “A Minimum Tax for the Wealthy”

16 Matías Vernengo, “The Debt Ceiling: A Guide for the Bewildered,”

17 “The World Economy: Be Afraid,”

18 Dean Baker, “US debt deal: how Washington lost the plot,”

19 James K. Galbraith, “Unconventional Wisdom,”

20 Paul Krugman, “The President Surrenders,”

21 Geert Dhondt, “Toward an American Revolutionary Praxis” See . Dhondt’s essay is worth reading. Radicals in the U.S. should take up his call to learn more about the history of abolitionist movements. I agree with him that the history of abolition and the historically grounded criticism of white supremacy in the United States makes “important contributions to the development of an American revolutionary praxis.” That said, I’m skeptical of the claim made by him and others influenced by Race Traitor that race is the structurally most important facet of U.S. capitalism, and skeptical of the characterization of the abolitionist movement as revolutionary. It seems to me equally plausible that the abolitionist movement was an incredibly important and laudible reformist movement.

22 I have addressed the issue of what struggle does to and for participants in “Struggle Changes People,” and “Mottos and Watchwords, The issue of particular organizational forms has been the subject of much conversation among some of us in the IWW around a discussion paper called “Direct Unionism.” The paper is online at as are various responses to the paper which appeared in the Industrial Worker newspaper and elsewhere. Scott Nappalos has recently suggested that an important factor in how radicals think about methods of struggle should be the relationship between struggle and the degree of equilibrium capitalism currently has. See his “Thrown Off Balance,”

23 See my “Occupy vs Eviction: Radicals, Reform, and Dispossession” at

Tags: ,
While you’re here, we need your support. To continue running the website, we need support from community members like you. Will you support It’s Going Down, and help build independent media? donate?

Share This:

We set up Recomposition to share our writing, to share other material that we recommend people read for discussion, and to help ourselves develop our thoughts through writing. We hope workplace organizers and revolutionaries get something out of the writing on our site. We welcome responses, as they can help us deepen our own thinking and practice.

More Like This