Crisis Maneuvers

Käthe Kollwitz, The Volunteers (plate 2) from War, 1921-22.

Which Crisis?

Each day in 2020 brings more shocking news than the last. The unprecedented surge in unemployment has already produced a mountain of unpaid debts and rents, and this is only the beginning. Businesses are shuttering at a clip, investor confidence has fallen off a cliff, and stock markets are convulsing erratically. Yet with the word “collapse” gracing the lips of some commentators, it is important to keep in mind a historical pattern: economic crises have more to do with development than they do with breakdown. 

It should bring us no comfort to recognize that periodic crises are essential moments in the overall process of reproduction and transformation in capitalist societies. For more than a century, Marxists have demonstrated the necessity of these phases for capitalist development. Once a period of economic growth gives way to stagnation, an economic crisis precipitated by a shock to the system devalues fixed capital, increases exploitation, and eliminates weaker firms. This process concentrates power in the hands of the largest corporations and decimates the wages of workers

In short, an economic crisis jumpstarts a worn-out engine of accumulation – of capital on the one hand, and of misery on the other. While the particular trajectory of each recovery varies, at a general level capitalist economic crises till the soil with an eye toward increasing extraction next season, even if other kinds of collapse will complicate the harvest.

Apart from these cyclical economic crises, there are also periodic crises in the political systems of capitalist societies, and these are made of different stuff. If the economy runs on exploitation, bourgeois politics runs on domination, with each cycle proceeding according to its own rhythm. A political upheaval may or may not erupt following an economic crisis because the components of a capitalist society are not synchronized by an all-powerful hand. In other words, economic and political cycles are relatively autonomous from one other. Capitalist society has multiple engines which run at the same time.

This is no accident. Relative autonomy is essential for the system’s long-term preservation and expansion. Marx long ago identified the crucial role played by the capitalist state in ensuring the reproduction of capitalist society. He demonstrated that the individual capitalist, driven by competition with other capitalists, is compelled not only to exploit their workers, but to continuously increase their exploitation. Left unchecked, the capitalist will carry this process to its extreme, sooner driving workers to death than voluntarily implementing life-saving measures to sustain labor-power over the long term. 

Capitalist society, which requires labor-power in order to function, has a self-defense mechanism to guard against the reckless predations of individual capitalists and even of particular fractions of the capitalist class. The mechanism is the capitalist state, which should not be confused with the state of liberal fantasy that supposedly adjudicates disputes between different social groups in a neutral fashion. The capitalist state does not referee the great match of class struggle; it coaches one side, a side full of ball hogs.

The capitalist state’s relative autonomy does not mean that the economy has an independent existence. All capitalist states, including those following a neoliberal playbook, intervene in economic activity, whether by regulating tariff and tax rates or slashing minimum wage laws and collective bargaining rights. Across its different incarnations, the capitalist state maintains the social conditions required for economic growth and increasing profits. Absent a major political breakthrough from below, its operations ensure that the vast majority of society is continually forced to go back to work and further enrich a tiny sliver of the population. 

The economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have provoked great uncertainty among state managers regarding the future of capitalism. In the latest act of their long-running drama, tension hinges not on the question of whether states will help restore profits, but what cost in human lives they will entertain in order to do so. But the perspective of capitalist reproduction is not the only one available to us. With organizational determination and practice, we might be able to find our own bearings inside this storm, and begin to set off down a different path. 

Political Crisis

Like economic crises, political crises appear in capitalist societies with such regularity that they too seem to be essential moments of reproduction. Rather than violently restoring the conditions of profitability, as economic crises do, political crises often replenish the vital organs of institutionalized political power. We can think of this as the “conjunctural” aspect of any political crisis.

Nicos Poulantzas has explored the problem of political crises in painstaking detail, and his analysis contains a number of insights which can aid our interpretation of the tendencies playing out today. Poulantzas defines a political crisis as a modification in the relations of force between classes and class fractions in struggle. This may include the exacerbation of contradictions which already exist between different social forces, as well as the consolidation of new alliances. It can designate a shuffle in the “power bloc” – a term which refers to the contradictory unity of social and political forces that dominates the apparatuses of the capitalist state – and it may also affect relations between the dominated and exploited class fractions, sowing new divisions or, on occasion, new articulations.

Among dominant forces, political crisis can mean that one fraction of capital challenges the hegemony of another in the power bloc. These class fractions can be measured in various ways. For example, one can imagine a scenario not long from now in which green-tech capital usurps the hegemony of fossil capital in the U.S. social formation. Or one could consider fractions from a different perspective and analyze political gains made by small-scale energy producers at the expense of large corporations.

Political crisis can also signify an intensifying contradiction between the power bloc and the dominated social classes, or the fractions external to the power bloc which previously supported it. May 1968 dislodged traditional allegiances between technicians and engineers and their employers in France. Techno-scientific workers there and elsewhere grew increasingly restless over the subsequent decade, with many rejecting the lures of professionalism and throwing their lot in with working-class antagonism against bosses and the state.

Indeed, political relationships between dominated and exploited class fractions are often reconfigured during a political crisis. Turbulence provides opportunities for social forces to come onto the political scene and call traditional organizational ties between representatives and the rank-and-file into question. 

Take the long political crisis of the 2010s in the United States. The wave of unionization among non-profit workers and journalists at the end of the decade, for example, might have been expected as an effect of the proletarianization of those traditionally “white-collar” professions. But it would have been difficult to forecast that workers in these fields, the service industries, and tech would flock to moribund political organizations – or create new ones – to pursue alliances with historically organized workers as well as immigrant and tenant organizations. Leftward politicization was no automatic outcome of material deprivation or economic anxiety; the formidable growth of the far-right over the past decade attests to the fluidity of political allegiances in moments of political crisis. The point is that crises indicate a general loosening of existing compacts and provide space for experimental practices and new organizational forms.

Crises in the Time of Coronavirus

The coronavirus appears to be precipitating a global economic crisis that some analysts have been expecting for years. But the jolt of the outbreak has also accelerated a disaster that was already in motion. Highlighting frictions between state management initiatives as they surface might be one way to identify possible room for maneuver.

Take the cases of the United Kingdom and the United States, where homeownership rates are high and where owners (especially older ones) are key to the power bloc governing each social formation. Soon after the onset of the pandemic both countries announced national moratoria on mortgage payments, while on the topic of rent relief both states have remained silent. 

Instead of addressing rent directly, the U.S. CARES Act provides a one-time transfer of $1,200 for each individual earning less than $75,000 per year (plus $500 per qualifying child), and smaller payouts for those making up to $100,000 annually. Without a rent cancellation, moratorium, or reduction, those funds will only make a brief pitstop in workers’ bank accounts. Most will be transferred straight into the coffers of landlords relieved of their own monthly payments – that is, if they do not own their properties outright. This is only one example of how the U.S. state’s response promises to shore up the commitment of homeowners to the existing power bloc, forestalling the emergence of any political alignment between mortgage-payers and rent-payers during the crisis.

In the U.S. social formation, the sparks of a longer unfolding political crisis have multiplied over the past three years. While Trump’s rise is symptomatic of a deeper process that must be traced back at least to the Bill Clinton era, the electoral outcome of 2016 has nevertheless reshaped relations between state and local governments (especially those run by Democrats) and federal agencies. This has been evident as representatives and public officials in sanctuary cities have called for an end to deportations by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), with judges in some states barring ICE agents from making courthouse arrests. 

Contradictions have intensified in recent weeks around different levels of response to the coronavirus. The scramble by individual states to procure ventilators and personal protective gear by outbidding one other and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) led several governors to publicly rebuke the Trump administration for its handling of the outbreak. When Trump signalled that he would have everyone return to work by Easter – a proposal he later walked back – California Governor Gavin Newsom, whose fiefdom encompasses the world’s fifth largest economy, suggested that the lockdown of his own “nation-state” could last much longer. 

These relations remain in flux. Clusters of states on both coasts are now planning to resume economic activity at a regional level as the federal government continues to waffle. Trump’s tantrum in response to gubernatorial coordination has prompted some to speak of a “constitutional crisis” erupting between states and the federal government, not to mention ongoing disputes between mayors of cities and their respective state governments.

Although we should closely monitor this discord, it will not on its own redound to the benefit of workers. If the presumptive Democratic nominee continues to oppose universal healthcare, Trump could promise to expand Medicare and Medicaid, win a decisive reelection, and double down on his own priorities with a new mandate. In the interim, long-time austerity advocate Andrew Cuomo, crowned with coronavirus laurels, could ascend to the throne of the Democratic Party. Neither reform nor revolution simply results from so many heightening contradictions; without a fight, the most exploited and oppressed suffer the worst paroxysms of a political system in crisis. As Poulantzas once warned, “Wild animals are most dangerous when they are wounded.”

The age of COVID-19 has added horrific detail to this illustration. Trump has expanded militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border under the pretext of curbing the spread of the virus. Governors have suspended collective bargaining agreements, access to abortion is being restricted in a number of states, and racist attacks are on the rise nationwide. Employers are increasing surveillance of staff working from home, and the right is encouraging college students to expose radical professors lecturing online. Neo-Nazis are trying to politicize the emergency to their own advantage, seeking a new batch of recruits through propaganda of the deed. The situation is most certainly not excellent.

The Organic Aspects of Crisis 

The U.S. capitalist state comprises a series of levels coordinated in a federated structure. Managers of one stratum are now preparing to play a more dominant role in the event that the federal government proves unable to handle the economic fallout of the pandemic. If these and other fractures were to spread, they could point toward a possible crisis of the state.

A state in crisis is one that persistently fails to fulfill its function of propping up processes of accumulation and reproduction. If a crisis of the state is acute, not only will there be competition between different class fractions for dominance of the apparatuses of the state, but a given form of capitalist state – military dictatorship, say – may prove to be inadequate. This makes it difficult for the hegemonic class or fraction to maintain the legitimacy of its state in the eyes of those who wish to safeguard capitalist reproduction. As a result, a crisis of the state often indicates the accrual of new powers to the administration, army, or police. Laws may be cast aside, and states of emergency and exception are often declared.

But, to recall the conjunctural aspect of crises, even acute crises of the state can be mechanisms of reproduction for a system of domination. One such process unfolds at the heart of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel The Leopard. In Lampedusa’s story, Tancredi, the headstrong nephew of the aging aristocrat Don Fabrizio, joins the Garibaldini fighting against the old Kingdom of the Two Sicilies during the Italian Risorgimento of the 1860s. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” he tells his uncle, who begrudgingly subsidizes the young revolutionary. With this line, Lampedusa summarized the dilemma faced by landowners of the Italian South, who were forced to enter into a junior partnership with the northern industrial bourgeoisie under the umbrella of a unified Italian social formation, in order to keep their holdings and remain party to the power bloc. 

Reflecting on European political history in his prison writings, Antonio Gramsci observed that under certain circumstances a conjunctural crisis may provide a window onto a deeper sort of crisis, which he called an “organic crisis.” An organic crisis permeates all levels of society including the economic structure, political institutions, relationships between parties and their members, and longstanding ideologies. Stuart Hall, in his reading of Gramsci, emphasized that the conjunctural and the organic ought not to be considered mutually exclusive designations but rather dimensions of any given crisis. The conjunctural aspects of a crisis provide the immediate terrain on which competing social forces attempt to steer its quick resolution, while the organic aspects of a crisis point to a deeper impasse, one that requires a more formative “effort” if it is to be overcome.

The organic quality of our own contemporary crises may be glimpsed through an analysis which begins from the abrupt shutdown of major sectors of the economy in mid-March. The number of U.S. workers seeking unemployment benefits leapt first to 3.3 million, with 6.9 million applying the next week and 6.6 the following. The week ending March 28 demolished the previous record from 1982 by a factor of ten, while the total new jobless claims over the past three weeks has surpassed what forty-four weeks of the Great Recession wrought. The United States may soon have an unemployment rate somewhere between 16% and 32%, possibly surpassing the effects of the Great Depression

These statistics and bleak projections of future job losses prompted Congress to pass the largest stimulus bill in history, and two weeks later officials are already considering further injections. But if the scope of this conjunctural intervention should command our attention, the channels of cashflow sound the alarm. 

The stimulus promises to give an unprecedented boost to corporations and the wealthy. Its impact is likely to dwarf the Obama administration’s response to the 2008 crisis, which, gilding the lily after four decades of polarization, prompted “the largest spike in wealth inequality in postwar American history.” Advancing emancipatory politics today demands we identify these elements which link our present crises to one another and to a longer history of class struggle.

Ideological Struggle

Hall underlines that efforts from above to resolve an organic crisis are likely to be not merely defensive, but also formative. Initiatives may include restructuring existing relations, producing new blocs, and disseminating new “philosophies.” In his view the work required to construct new political projects always entails ideological struggle. 

Ideology does not refer merely to a set of ideas. It denotes an imaginary relation to real conditions of existence inscribed in specific institutions and practices. Louis Althusser, borrowing a line from Blaise Pascal, provided a memorable snapshot: “Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe.” What is important here is the inversion of action and thought, or more specifically, Althusser’s injunction to reject analyses of ideology that take a disembodied “belief” or consciousness as their starting point. Instead, to understand the “materiality” of ideological struggle, he suggested we turn our attention to what he called the ideological state apparatuses (ISAs): the education system, the media, bourgeois political parties, and so on. 

In Althusser’s telling, the ISAs must be distinguished from the repressive state apparatus (RSA) – the army and the police – as distinct components of the capitalist state. Because of the weaker degree of unity they possess, the ISAs harbor particularly deep contradictions. Some of these contradictions exist between forces within the power bloc, but non-hegemonic classes or fractions may also be able to marshall resources in the ISAs, promoting ideologies that correspond to different relations. Althusser crucially pointed out that the ISAs were “not only the stake, but also the site of class struggle.” Poulantzas went further, emphasizing that the ISAs were not exclusively dominated by the hegemonic class, and that through struggle they may even become “the first strongholds of a new class power.”

To be sure, while there are competing ideologies in every capitalist society, the dominant ideology associated with the dominant class is the cement of a given social formation. The dominant ideology for us is capitalist ideology with a neoliberal sheen of entrepreneurialism, individualism, meritocracy, and so on. But as the rituals of capitalist society – like growing up to find a better job than one’s parents, or buying a bigger house – become less practicable for younger generations, capitalist ideology is left open to attack.

Indeed, ideological struggle from below shows promise at this particular moment for two additional reasons that are conjuncturally specific. The first is that the notion has acquired a degree of popular purchase through a major presidential campaign. The second is that, as a tactic, it can be carried out at a safe physical distance from other people, at least for a time.

Exit polls from Democratic Party primaries in a number of states showed clear majorities of voters supporting a single-payer healthcare program, as well as, in certain cases, “socialism.” Many have remarked upon the ideological shift this would appear to indicate. We should also emphasize it as an index of how effective counter-hegemonic apparatuses, or counter-hegemonic movements within existing apparatuses, have become. A host of left political organizations and international networks; new unions, dissident caucuses, and extra-union worker organizations; and a rich ecosystem of journals, newspapers, podcasts, publishers, and websites have seized on contradictions in the post-2008 conjuncture to demonstrate the perniciousness of “leaning in” and “doing what you love.”

There is now a surfeit of material for counter-institutions waging this battle in the time of coronavirus. App-based delivery workers, many of them migrants who lack even basic workplace protections, are supplying countless households with basic sustenance. Precarious adjunct faculty are putting in extra hours to teach tenured colleagues how to set up Blackboard accounts. Amazon workers are being fired for protesting unsafe working conditions at a moment when the richest man in the world is reaping record profits from the surge in online consumption. The human costs of the capitalist devaluation of socially necessary reproductive labor – such as childcare, healthcare, and the production of food – are being felt across the country, in poor and racialized communities most of all.

Meanwhile traditional justifications of the capitalist division of labor – of pay differentials based on a worker’s “skill,” or their contribution to GDP – are ripe for mass re-examination. The labor performed by workers in the dark corners of the capitalist economy – grocery clerks, janitors, prisoners, warehouse workers – can be continually scrutinized. The gap between those who can afford to work and place orders from home, and those compelled to risk infection in order to survive, underscores an old fact in a new way: remuneration is not tied to labor’s usefulness, but to its exchange value in a capitalist economic market. 

And, as is well known, political choices made by capitalist state managers have determined the scale of the threat that coronavirus poses in the United States. For years, calls by scientists and medical researchers for greater investments in vaccine research and personal protective gear for hospital workers have been ignored by public health officials, who instead opted to channel funds toward abstinence education. In recent weeks the Department of Agriculture has moved to further weaken inspection regulations in slaughterhouses, fanning the flames of the next pandemic. 

These decisions must be condemned. The same goes for entrusting public health to the profitability whims of pharmaceutical corporations, or leaving paid sick leave to gerrymandered legislatures. If left forces have been studiously chiseling away at the edges of capitalist ideology for some time, coronavirus must be wielded like a jackhammer. We must demonstrate that all this is not necessary.

Highlighting the organic aspects of the present conjunctural crisis may be the most felicitous mode of political practice available to us in the era of social distancing, but continuing the ideological struggle will mean more than posting online. New organizational commitments – understood in terms of ritual rather than affinity – are necessary if we are to fortify institutions capable of waging persistent ideological struggle against the craven apologists of capitalism. To seize the opportunity provided by the conjunctural crisis, we need to ensure political transformation takes root in everyday class practices.

Practice and Provocation

In many of the Democratic primary exit polls in which voters supported a “single public health insurance plan for all,” the candidate whose campaign championed Medicare for All did not receive a majority of votes. Whether a subjective flaw or a structural constraint better explains Sanders’s loss, the disjuncture highlights a problem. If the coronavirus has sped up the slow-motion death spiral of a forty-year-old common sense, carrying the organic crisis through to fulfillment requires a different sort of process to unfold. Instead of asking how to elect a candidate, we now have the opportunity to ask ourselves a different sort of question: What concrete organizational work is required to effect the leap from the mass exposure of inessential work to the practical critique of surplus labor?

Grasping the organic aspects of the current crisis should lead us to a new conviction, not only to reject the existing system and all of its accomplices, but to set ourselves on the path of constructing new outlets for working-class self-organization. We are unlikely to experience a real organic crisis of capitalist power without an exercise of autonomous working-class power capable of both unmaking the structures of capitalist domination and weaving new social relations that escape hierarchical divisions of labor.

While direct working-class struggles did not single handedly instigate every dimension of crisis we now face, we must grasp the role played by masses of workers who have pushed and organized to stop work. Many won leave by wildcatting, threatening sick-outs, making militant demands, and putting unprecedented public pressure on their employers. Shopfloor antagonism  echoes again through long-unionized workplaces, and creative tactics are being deployed among fragmented workforces across the country. Mutual aid and solidarity networks are flourishing in neighborhoods from coast to coast. All are implicitly bound by a political choice opposed to the one that got us into this mess: the choice of our lives over their profits.

To return to where we began, just as an economic crisis should not be mistaken for an endpoint, the mere existence of an organic crisis does not indicate that the capitalist system is finished. Daniel Bensaïd has suggested that for a situation to become revolutionary it will require “a subject [which] takes hold of the process of deconstructing and reconstructing a social formation.” In other words, to pursue radical social change, we need not only chaos under heaven, but intervention and imposition of an alternative from below. 

A first crucial component of this process is for left political organizations to struggle against the dominant ideological presentation of the crisis, both in terms of its structural causes as well as the forms of its resolution that we allow ourselves to imagine. What then might determine the fulfillment of the organic crisis’s promise – shifting it from latent to operational – is the level of political struggle waged by the working class as it steps through the window opened by the conjuncture, taking hold of an objective opportunity for subjective intervention. To borrow from Mario Tronti, we need to bring the initiative of crisis into “working-class hands.”

The pandemic has proven that capitalists and the state cannot do anything without the working class’s active collaboration. The path forward involves not only refusing work, but refusing to resolve the contradictions of capitalist society by means of a force with sufficient resilience to withstand the coming onslaught, as the state attempts to balance the bailout on our backs. Gramsci long ago underlined what the composition of this force entails:

The decisive element in every situation is the permanently organized and long prepared force which can be put into the field when it is judged that a situation is favourable (and it can be favourable only in so far as such a force exists, and is full of fighting spirit). Therefore the essential task is that of systematically and patiently ensuring that this force is formed, developed, and rendered ever more homogeneous, compact, and self-aware.

This force – or these forces, for we do not have a centralized party structure as Gramsci once did – is composed of a great number of active members in close and frequent communication, capable of coordinating local actions and nimbly shifting resources in dynamic response to encounters with the adversary. A shared horizon of struggle is built through rich internal debate and political education, and self-managed initiatives are by definition planned democratically. Organization is not so much about the principle of decision as the primacy of collective practice. 

Outside the cyclical political routine, there is precedent for an organized subjective force sweeping away a state which bears a great accumulation of contradictions. It can be found in the history of working-class revolution. Today’s problem is how to develop this process on an international terrain shaped by forty years of neoliberal hegemony. Organizational experiments, rooted in a working-class perspective on the crises of today, can help build the force required to provoke the next one.

Author of the article

is a member of the Viewpoint editorial collective. He is the editor and translator of The Weapon of Organization: Mario Tronti’s Political Revolution in Marxism (Common Notions, 2020).