The Capitalist Economy: The Rise of Inequality And New Ideological Challenges


The rise of economic inequality is now so severe that even the captains of finance capital and their ideological minions had to make it the center of the agenda at Davos, Switzerland. Rather than the failure of markets, as the Davos crowd would have it, inequality reflects the capitalist markets working precisely as they should. Inequality has nothing to do with market imperfection: the more perfect the capitalist market, the higher the rate of return on capital is in comparison to the rate of growth of the economy and of wages, the wider is inequality. The higher this ratio is, the greater inequality is. And what we see are historically high returns on capital, reflecting higher rates of exploitation of labor worldwide.

The six-decade period of growing equality in western nations – starting roughly with the onset of World War I (which began after and in fact offset the depression of 1913) and extending into the early 1970s – was unique and highly unlikely to be repeated. That period represented an exception to the more deeply rooted pattern of growing inequality.

Those unusual six decades were the result of two world wars and the Great Depression. The owners of capital – those at the top of the pyramid of wealth and income – absorbed a series of devastating blows. These included the loss of credibility and authority as markets crashed; physical destruction of capital throughout Europe in both World War I and World War II; the raising of tax rates, especially on high incomes, to finance the wars; high rates of inflation that eroded the assets of creditors; the nationalization of major industries in both England, Germany and France; and the appropriation of industries and property in post-colonial countries.

At the same time, the Great Depression produced the New Deal coalition in the United States, which empowered an insurgent labor movement. The postwar period saw huge gains in growth and productivity, the benefits of which were shared with workers who had strong backing from the trade union movement and from the dominant Democratic Party. Widespread support for liberal social and economic policy was so strong that even a Republican president, who won easily twice, Dwight D. Eisenhower, recognized that an assault on the New Deal would be futile. In his own words Eisenhower argued, “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear from that party again in our political history.”

The six decades between 1914 and 1973 stand out from the past and future because the rate of economic growth exceeded the after-tax rate of return on capital. Since then, the rate of growth of the economy has declined, while the return on capital is rising to its pre-World War I levels, that is the levels they were at at the time of the 1913 depression. This means, simply, that the rate of exploitation has increased. For Black workers this is doubled edged, the increasing rate of exploitation goes alongside catastrophic levels of poverty, unemployment and underemployment. The crisis for the Black working class is all-sided, comprehensive and, under the current regime of capital, irreversible.

If the rate of return on capital remains permanently above the rate of growth of the economy, it generates a changing functional distribution of income in favor of capital and, if capital incomes are more concentrated than incomes from labor (a rather uncontroversial fact), personal income distribution will also get more unequal — which indeed is what we have witnessed in the past 30 years. On a global scale producing the grotesque fact that 85 families have more wealth than 3.5 billion people. Or the astounding fact that 147 global corporations control most of the resources ,production and finance of the planet.

The ideological relationships and the ideological struggle under these circumstances take on new significance to humanity. Ideological processes occurs occur through propaganda and and the penetration of human psychology. Propaganda says things are getting better, in spite of the fact that most people say we’re still in a recession. On the other hand it produces a culture of distraction, to prevent a culture of resistance arising. At the psychological level a collective psychology of nihilism, egotism, and celebrity worship all of which attempts to have the working people internalize attitudes that predispose them to defeatism and “let me do my thingism.”
At the levels of elites, especially for African American elite academics and intellectuals, the ruling class strategy is to produce a discourse that privileges petit bourgeois concerns, with personal identity, “high” culture and matters that do not impact the masses. In fact, the racial bribe is such that these elites are paid well not to talk about or identify with Black suffering.

Amiri Baraka, Cultural Revolution and the Ideological Struggle

Another part of this is the project by elite Black academics to treat the lives and works of outstanding Black radical intellectuals as dead carcasses to be feasted on and deconstructed by these intellectual hyenas. This is now the case with the revolutionary legacy of Amiri Baraka. The same thing goes on with Du Bois and Baldwin, among others.

It is well known that Baraka from 1974 until his death insisted upon a class analysis of culture and politics. His break with petit bourgeois and cultural nationalism was replaced with the idea of Cultural Revolution, anchored to the Black proletarian. However, many of his so called friends from the Black Arts Movement act as though he remained a cultural nationalist. At his funeral none of them mentioned his Marxism, anti-imperialism and rejection of narrow cultural nationalism.

On the other side, academic “experts” are crafting ways to talk about Amiri in ways that make it look like his revolutionary work is not serious, not his best work, is bombastic and propagandistic. Even the so-called feminists among them (female and male) don’t mention the decisive ideological role of his comrade and wife of almost 50 years played in his making his great leap away from petit bourgeois and nationalism. It was she who leapt ahead of him.

In the case of Baraka it his turn to Marxism-Leninism, socialist realism and proletarian art and politics that gets him in trouble with “those who know about these matters.” In reality, though, Baraka never left the blues, Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughn (Sassy) and Dinah Washington. He never left bebop or hard bop, or for that matter Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Jackie Mc, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Coltrane or Thelonius Monk, to name a few. In fact he got even closer to The Music (classical African American/American Music), as he moved to the left, championing and working with the avant-garde—the next generation, the flamethrowers and revolutionaries. Albert Ayler, Ornett Coleman, Cecil Taylor, David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett, Andrew Cyrille, Grachan Moncur III, Arthur Blythe, Don Pullen, Craig Harris and more. They inspired his Afro-proletarian poetry and plays and he inspired them and gave them confidence to remain true to their proletarian roots and vision.

1974 to 2013, almost forty years, is his longest, his most innovative, experimental and creative period. The petit bourgeois poems of the beat period, the nationalism of both the Black Arts Movement and Cultural Nationalism, of the early New Ark years, are reworked, given a new and more profound proletarian grounding after 1974. He announced that Afro-American people’s art must be anchored to the working class (the proletariat), uphold the right to self-determination of the Afro-American people and position itself as a force for ideological clarity against imperialism.

This period, for the petit bourgeois is unpalatable and distasteful. We must defend Baraka’s oeuvre as a living and not a dead carcass to be picked over by intellectual hyenas.

Obama, Imperialism and Ideological Struggle

If there’s anything that the Obama administration and its foreign policy teaches us, is that imperialism has no limits in what it will do and the weapons that it will use against people. And it does this with arrogance, triumphalism and a celebration that I don’t think any of us has ever seen. We can talk about the Reagan and Bush Administrations, but I don’t believe any of us have ever seen anything like this. Drone Wars, targeted assassinations, the continuing operation of Gitmo prison, wars against Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, the turn to encircle China, the support of right wing and fascist forces in the Ukraine. Along with this domestic spying and repressive means using the electronic media surpass anything Hoover’s FBI or COINTELPRO were capable of.

Now of course this creates enormous problems psychologically and ideologically for the Black liberation struggle. The majority of Black folk, albeit disappointed, see Obama as possibility, as progress, as “we now getting our shot at power”, rather than as a representative of imperialism and racism. The Obama symbology has (and let’s hope temporarily) weakened the normal and necessary oppositional stance of Black folk. The Obama presidency rather than opening possibilities for the Black Left, as many leftist thought, has produced the opposite, the relative isolation of the Black Left and the rise to prominence of a new Black petit bourgeoisie. It embraces and apologizes for Obama at any cost. The Black Left has not effectively waged the necessary ideological struggle to clarify precisely what Obamism is. The outstanding exception is the Black Agenda Report. A central task in this moment is for us to ideologically retool, to sharpen our analysis and to within the left fight for both ideological and practical unity on key issues.

Sadly, for the first time in the history of polling Black people support war over peace, and support NSA spying at higher percentages than whites do. You know back in the 1950s, William L Patterson made the statement that the Black liberation struggle is the Achilles’ heel of American imperialism. Well if remain that we have been severely weakened as US imperialism’s Achilles’ heel. We have to find ways to strengthen ourselves as the Achilles’ heel of American imperialism. Because we can’t be internationalists unless we are anti-imperialist, and if we’re not internationalists we’re not left, if we’re not internationalists we’re not revolutionaries. We can’t be internationalists unless we are ideologically clear about imperialism and the multiple and varied forms and manifestations it adopts in order to adapt to its crises and the changes in the global political economy.

We must help our people to understand there cannot be Black liberation on the terms of American imperialism. Malcolm and Martin Luther King taught us that in the 1960s. So we’re confronted in the struggle for unity, Black unity, the unity of Black people, the unity of the working class, and the unity of the people in general, with ideological challenges that are new, ideological challenges that arise in the context of the general crisis at a new stage.

About Anthony Monteiro

I am a activist and scholar who is a professor in the Department of African American Studies at Temple University.
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