Leftist Critiques of Capitalism & the Total Collapse of Marxist Alternatives

Leftist critiques of neo-liberalism, capitalism, and the current economic configuration of liberal democracy in general (to be sure these are broad categories but I’m not certain the people making these critiques are always terribly specific) are remarkably Anglo/Euro-centric. That is, the scope of their analysis never expands to include the way this political-economic system works for, or in, countries in Asia, Africa, South or Central America. It is hardly novel, and obviously correct, to observe that there are real, important, and pressing problems with the way the current liberal democratic order operates in places like the United States, or France, or elsewhere in “the West”. But it seems noteworthy that there are nevertheless huge swathes of the rest of the world which aspire to join exactly that order, which seek to strengthen or implement the practice of democratic politics and safeguard or implement the functioning of free markets. Focusing specifically on the economic component, capitalism continues to lift millions out of poverty in non-industrialized (or non-OECD, maybe) countries, and in this respect it is a far more successful anti-poverty program than any of the ones explicitly designed as such by foreign donors or international organizations.

But it is true that the success of capitalism outside the West has been concurrent with, if not a direct cause of, the destruction of a middle class in Western Europe and North America based on well-paying, blue collar, manufacturing type jobs.* But if you take the left (and admittedly that is an unfairly monolithic term) seriously as a political formation concerned with the plight of the world’s poor and less well-off, you might be at least a bit surprised by the degree to which the gains from global capitalism of those living outside the West seem to be discounted in the left’s criticisms of global capitalism. Why does this happen? Why is the American left so concerned with the destruction of a proletarian middle class at home (yes, yes, that is an oxymoron, but it gets the point across) and so unmoved by the creation of a modern one in places like China, and Nigeria, and Kenya, and India? (or even obliquely hostile to these outcomes, because they are at least in part the product of evil machinations by heartless Western multi-nationals)

Allow me to suggest that this indifference or hostility arises from that realization (or at least sub-conscious recognition) that the collapse of the Soviet Union, combined with the hollowing-out of a manufacturing-based middle class in the West, represents the complete destruction of Marxist possibilities for politics. If you were actually concerned with the status of the poor in any meaningful global sense, you might display a little less antipathy towards phenomena like neo-liberalism or globalization – instead, leftists criticisms of them are evidence of a self-interested reflexive opposition to the collapse of the basis for their political project. This is not to suggest that prior to 1989 the Western left were all closet commies, or that all through the 1990s it harbored secret dreams of a communist revival.

Rather, before state socialism was thoroughly discredited, it at least presented an alternative polestar towards which politicians could navigate, and in so doing maintained a moderating effect on the excesses of unfettered capitalism. And prior to the financial crisis, there was perhaps at least the hope that a thriving middle class could serve as the basis for progressive political success. In short, there were alternatives. Or at least, it seemed like it. But now, in a post-financial crisis world, the growth of the sharing economy and the apparently permanent destruction of industrial-based middle class employment have combined to install (in a discursive sense, at least) neo-liberal policy dominance. So to argue simply for its amelioration in certain ways isn’t really tenable – it’s playing by the rules of a system you think is fundamentally flawed. And thus even if you never wanted the United Soviet States of America, the death of the American “proletarian middle class” at the hands of global capitalism is pretty catastrophic, those foreigners its helping escape poverty be damned.

I’m not sure how much I believe this, and certainly it is a far more cynical interpretation of people’s motivations than I usually think is helpful.** But it is a theory.

*Surely the expansion of the global labor supply has put some amount of downward pressure on wages, but this story can’t be easily disaggregated from the story of, for example, increasing automation in factories