The state and the future of socialism / by Michael A. Lebowitz

Wojciech Fangor, “Forging the Scythes” (1954). Image courtesy the Museum of Warsaw.

Reprinted in Canadian Dimension on April 28, 2023

When capital is in crisis, there are always two options—to give in or to move in.

The following essay by Marxist economist Michael A. Lebowitz was first published in the 2013 edition of Socialist Register. Lebowitz, who passed away on April 19, 2023 at the age of 85, was a giant of the socialist left. Over the years, Canadian Dimension published several of his essays. He taught at Simon Fraser University for decades and was the author of numerous books including Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class and Build It Now: Socialism for the 21st Century. He was Director, Program in Transformative Practice and Human Development, Centro Internacional Miranda, in Caracas, Venezuela, from 2006-11.

We are in the midst of a class war. That’s not unusual. There is always class war in capitalism—although sometimes it is hidden and sometimes there is the interlude of an apparent Carthaginian Peace. But the class war has intensified now because of the crisis in capitalism—a crisis rooted in the over-accumulation of capital. And, in this crisis, capital has intensified the class war against the working class. Austerity, cutbacks, the need to sacrifice—these are the demands of capital as it calls upon workers to bear the burden of capital’s own failures. This is a war conducted by capitalist states against workers to compel them to give up their achievements from past struggles. And, in some places (but, unfortunately, not all), we see that the working class is saying, ‘no.’ In some cases, we see that workers are fighting to defend their past successes within capitalism and that they are fighting against the racism and xenophobia which are the default position when workers are under attack but are not in struggle against capital. Such struggles, as Marx knew, are ‘indispensable’—they are the only means of preventing workers ‘from becoming apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production.’ But, who will win this class war?

In his recent book, The Communist Hypothesis, Alain Badiou describes the past defeats of May 1968, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Paris Commune as well as those of factory occupations and other such struggles as defeats ‘covered with glory.’ Because they remain in our memory as inspirations, they must be contrasted, he insists, to the ‘defeat without glory’ that social democracy brings. This is certainly true. However, we need to acknowledge that the current struggles against capital’s attempt to make the working class rescue it from yet another of its crises may yet be added to the list of glorious defeats. Of course, it is necessary to try to stop the cutbacks and to communicate to capital how high its costs will be for attempting to shift the burden of its own failures to workers. And, of course, we must celebrate those struggles taking place wherever the working class has not been anesthetized as a result of previous defeats without glory, leaving only what Marx once described as ‘a heart-broken, a weak-minded, a worn-out, unresisting mass.’

But it is not enough to say ‘no.’ There are those who think that an accumulation of loudly screamed no’s can be sufficient—let alone the ‘silent farts’ celebrated by John Holloway. These poets of negation demonstrate thereby that they don’t understand why and how capital reproduces itself. Why is it that after so many defeats so many still cannot see what Marx grasped in the nineteenth century – that capital has the tendency to produce a working class which views the existence of capital as necessary? ‘The advance of capitalist production,’ he stressed, ‘develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of this mode of production as self-evident natural laws.’

Marx understood that capitalism tends to produce the workers it needs, workers who look upon capitalism as common sense. Given the mystification of capital (arising from the sale of labour-power) which makes productivity, profits and progress appear as the result of the capitalist’s contribution, it followed that ‘the organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance.’

And, Marx added that capital’s generation of a reserve army of the unemployed ‘sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker’ and that the capitalist can rely upon the worker’s ‘dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them.’ Obviously, for Marx, capital’s walls will never be brought down by loud screams or silent farts.

Even with a certain resistance marked by struggles over wages, working conditions and the defence of past gains, as long as workers look upon the requirements of capital as ‘self-evident natural laws,’ those struggles occur within the bounds of the capitalist relation. In the end, workers’ subordination to the logic of capital means that faced with capitalism’s crises they sooner or later act to ensure the conditions for the expanded reproduction of capital. Nowhere is this clearer than in the defeats without glory of social democracy.

And, defeat when capitalism is in crisis means that capital can emerge from the crisis by restructuring itself—as it did internationally with the Bretton Woods package after the crises of the 1930s and the 1970s. As is often noted, there is a big difference between a crisis in capitalism and a crisis of capitalism. The latter requires conscious actors prepared to put an end to capitalism, prepared to challenge and defeat the logic of capital. But this requires a vision which can appear to workers as an alternative common sense, as their common sense.

Like the ‘worst architect,’ we must build our goal in our minds before we can construct it in reality; only this conscious focus can ensure the ‘purposeful will’ required to complete the defeat of the logic of capital. To struggle against a situation in which workers ‘by education, tradition and habit’ look upon capital’s needs ‘as self-evident natural laws,’ we must struggle for an alternative common sense. But what is the vision of a new society whose requirements workers may look upon as ‘self-evident natural laws’? Clearly, it won’t be found in the results of twentieth century attempts to build socialism, which, to use Marx’s phrase, ended ‘in a miserable fit of the blues.’

The ‘key link’ for twenty-first century socialism

‘We have to reinvent socialism.’ With this statement, Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, electrified activists in his closing speech at the January 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. ‘It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union,’ he stressed, ‘but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.’ If we are ever going to end the poverty of the majority of the world, capitalism must be transcended, Chavez argued. ‘But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.’

There, at its core, is the vision of socialism for the twenty-first century. Rather than expansion of the means of production or direction by the state, human beings must be at the centre of the new socialist society. This marks a return to Marx’s vision—to the contrast he drew in Capital between a society subordinate to the logic of capital (where ‘the worker exists to satisfy the need of the existing values for valorization’) and the logic of a new society, that ‘inverse situation, in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development.’ This concept of the worker’s need for development is the culmination of Marx’s consistent stress upon the centrality of the development of human capacity—the ‘development of the rich individuality,’ as the real wealth and explicit goal of the new society. Here was the ‘inverse situation’ which would allow for ‘the all-round development of the individual,’ the ‘complete working out of the human content,’ the ‘development of all human powers as such the end in itself,’ a society of associated producers in which ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’

But this is only one side of Marx’s perspective. A focus upon the full development of human potential was characteristic of much socialist thought in the nineteenth century. What Marx added to this emphasis upon human development was his understanding of how that development of human capacities occurs. In his Theses on Feuerbach, he was quite clear that it is not by giving people gifts, not by changing circumstances for them. Rather, we change only through real practice, by changing circumstances ourselves. Marx’s concept of ‘revolutionary practice,’ that concept of ‘the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change,’ is the red thread that runs throughout his work. Marx was most consistent on this point when talking about the struggles of workers against capital and how this revolutionary practice transforms ‘circumstances and men,’ expanding their capabilities and making them fit to create a new world.

But this process of changing ourselves is not at all limited to the sphere of political and economic struggle. In the very act of producing, Marx indicated, ‘the producers change, too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and new ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language.’ And, certainly, the relations within which workers produce affect the nature of the workers produced. After all, that was Marx’s point about how capitalist productive relations ‘distort the worker into a fragment of a man’ and degrade him and ‘alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process.’ It is essential to recognize that every human activity has as its result a joint product—both the change in the object of labour and the change in the labourer herself. Unfortunately, that second product is often forgotten.

Marx’s combination of human development and practice constitutes the key link. Taken seriously, it has definite implications for relations within the workplace – rather than capitalism’s joint product (the fragmented, crippled human being whose enjoyment consists in possessing and consuming things), it implies a person who is able to develop all her potential through her activity. Taken seriously, that key link has definite implications for the nature of the state—rather than allowing us every few years to elect those who misrule us as our representatives to a state which stands over and above us, it implies what Marx called the ‘self-government of the producers,’ the ‘reabsorption of the state power by society as its own living forces.’ Taken seriously, that key link has definite implications for the nature of the party—rather than a body that sees itself as superior to social movements and whose members are meant to learn the merits of discipline in following the decisions made by infallible central committees, it implies a party which learns from popular initiative and unleashes the creative energy of masses through their own practice. Taken seriously, that key link has obvious implications for building socialism.

Consider the characteristic of socialist production implicit in this key link. What are the circumstances that have as their joint product ‘the totally developed individual, for whom the different social functions are different modes of activity he takes up in turn’? Given the ‘dialectical inversion’ peculiar to capitalist production that cripples the body and mind of the worker and alienates her from ‘the intellectual potentialities of the labour process,’ it is clear that to develop the capacities of people the producers must put an end to what Marx called, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, ‘the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour.’

For the development of rich human beings, the worker must be able to call ‘his own muscles into play under the control of his own brain.’ Expanding the capabilities of people requires both mental and manual activity. Not only does the combination of education with productive labour make it possible to increase the efficiency of production; this is also, as Marx pointed out in Capital, ‘the only method of producing fully developed human beings.’ Here, then, is the way to ensure that ‘the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly.’

The activity through which people develop their capacities, however, is not limited to the sphere of production as narrowly defined within capitalism. Every activity with the goal of providing inputs into the development of human beings needs be understood as an aspect of production. And the goals that guide production must be democratically established so that people can transform both their circumstances and themselves and thereby produce themselves as subjects in the new society. The implication is obvious—every aspect of production must be a site for the collective decision-making and variety of activity that develops human capacities and builds solidarity among the particular associated producers.

When workers act in workplaces and communities in conscious cooperation with others, they produce themselves as people conscious of their interdependence and of their own collective power. The joint product of their activity is the development of the capacities of the producers—precisely Marx’s point when he says that ‘when the worker cooperates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species.’ Creating the conditions in workplaces and communities by which people can develop their capacities is an essential aspect of the concept of socialism for the twenty-first century. But it is only one element. How can the worker’s own need for development be realized if capital owns our social heritage—the products of the social brain and the social hand? And, how can we develop our own potential if we look upon other producers as enemies or as our markets—i.e., if individual material self-interest is our motivation?

Capitalism is an organic system, one which has the tendency to reproduce the conditions of its existence (including a working class which looks upon its requirements as ‘self-evident natural laws’). That is its strength. To counter that and to satisfy ‘the worker’s own need for development,’ the socialist alternative also must be an organic system, a particular combination of production, distribution and consumption, a system of reproduction. What Chavez named in January 2007 as ‘the elementary triangle of socialism’ (social property, social production and satisfaction of social needs) is a step forward toward a conception of such a system.

Consider the logic of this socialist combination, this conception of socialism for the twenty-first century:

1. Social ownership of the means of production is critical within this structure because it is the only way to ensure that our communal, social productivity is directed to the free development of all rather than used to satisfy the private goals of capitalists, groups of producers or state bureaucrats. But, this concerns more than our current activity. Social ownership of our social heritage, the results of past social labour, is an assertion that all living human beings have the right to the full development of their potential—to real wealth, the development of human capacity. It is the recognition that ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’

2. Social production organized by workers builds new relations among producers—relations of cooperation and solidarity. It allows workers to end ‘the crippling of body and mind’ and the loss of ‘every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity’ that comes from the separation of head and hand. Organization of production in all spheres by workers, thus, is a condition for the full development of the producers, for the development of their capabilities—a condition for the production of rich human beings.

3. Satisfaction of communal needs and purposes as the goal of productive activity means that, instead of interacting as separate and indifferent individuals, we function as members of a community. Rather than looking upon our own capacity as our property and as a means of securing as much as possible in an exchange, we start from the recognition of our common humanity and, thus, of the importance of conditions in which everyone is able to develop her full potential. When our productive activity is oriented to the needs of others, it both builds solidarity among people and produces socialist human beings.

These three sides of the ‘socialist triangle’ mutually interact to form a structure in which ‘all the elements coexist simultaneously and support one another,’ as Marx put it. ‘This is the case with every organic whole.’ Yet, the very interdependence of the three sides suggests that realization of each element depends upon the existence of the other two. Without production for social needs, no real social property; without social property, no worker decision-making oriented toward society’s needs; without worker decision-making, no transformation of people and their needs.

The state’s place within ‘socialism as an organic system’

Is there a place for the state in socialism as an organic system? In the absence of a mechanism by which this particular combination of production, distribution and consumption can be realized, it remains purely a vision. Thus, implicit in the concept of socialism as an organic system is a set of institutions and practices through which all members of society can share the fruits of social labour and are able to satisfy their ‘own need for development.’ To produce and reproduce ‘rich human beings’ in a society based upon solidarity requires a conscious attempt to ensure that the necessary conditions for full human development infuse all levels of society.

Consider one possible scenario for a process of participatory diagnosis and planning. At the level of an individual neighbourhood, it is possible for neighbours to discuss directly the kind of community they want to live in and what they see as necessary for the development of their capacities and that of those around them. While this process identifies needs, the discussion also allows this community to explore its own ability to satisfy those needs itself; in other words, it identifies the capabilities of the community. Thus, at the level of the community, there is a direct attempt to coordinate the system of needs and the system of labours. In addition to being able to identify its needs and the extent to which those can be satisfied locally through the labour of community members, this process (which occurs under the guidance of elected neighbourhood councils) has a second product. By sharing and attempting to reconcile views of the most urgent needs of members of this community, there is a learning process—one in which protagonism builds and reinforces solidarity—i.e., the process of participatory diagnosis produces particular people, a particular joint product. At the core of this process, thus, is revolutionary practice—the simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change.

Of course, the probability of a precise match between capabilities and needs within this community is negligible. The community is likely to have needs it cannot satisfy locally and capacities it does not need. In this situation, autarky supports neither the ability of people to secure the use-values they identify as important for their development nor the satisfaction in meaningful activity that can come from meeting the needs of others outside their immediate neighbourhood. Thus, to satisfy ‘the worker’s own need for development,’ the community needs to go beyond this barrier in order to coordinate with other communities in a larger body.

The commune represents a further step, bringing together the information transmitted by local neighbourhood councils about the needs and capabilities of their communities as well as drawing upon the knowledge of workers within units of production in this geographical area. Do workers have the capacity to satisfy the needs identified by the communities? By exploring this question in their workers councils, workers engage in conscious consideration of production options within their workplaces and focus upon the logic of producing for communal needs; however, to answer this question adequately requires more than responses from individual production units taken separately. By combining their knowledge and capabilities, workers in particular workplaces can achieve results which are greater than the sum of their individual parts taken separately. But, here again, more than a process of producing for communal needs and purposes occurs. Cooperation within and between units of production for this purpose generates solidarity among the combined workers and reinforces their understanding of the goals of production.

Throughout this process, community members and workers can interact through communal meetings and a communal parliament. And, the result of the process is that the commune councils have at their disposal data on (a) needs that can be satisfied from within the commune and (b) the needs which cannot be satisfied locally. Further, there is information on (c) the potential output of workplaces that can be provisionally utilized within the commune, and (d) the potential output of workplaces that is unutilized. Thus, there is both an indication of the level of needs that provisionally can be satisfied locally as well as identification of the excess demand and excess supply within each commune.

To stop here would reproduce the problem of remaining at the level of the individual neighbourhood. To create the conditions for the free development of all, it is necessary to go beyond geographical barriers. Thus, this process is extended to larger areas: the data from communes is transmitted upward to cities (communal cities), to the states or provinces and ultimately to the national level – to bodies composed of delegates from the communes, cities and the states, respectively. At the national level, then, it is possible to identify (a) provisionally satisfied needs, (b) unsatisfied needs, (c) provisionally assigned output and (d) provisionally unassigned output. It is fair to assume that there will not be a balance between needs and capacities at the first iteration.

Accordingly, the process of reconciling the system of needs and the system of labours is an essential requirement of the set of institutions and practices characteristic of socialism as an organic system. If there are excess needs, there are two logical resorts: (1) find a way to increase output (a question for workers councils to explore), and (2) recognize the necessity to reduce satisfaction of some needs. Thus, a critical discussion must occur here—what is to be unsatisfied? Exploration of this question requires a discussion of the relative requirements of different areas and the different types of needs to be given priority. It is only at this level that identification of national and regional inequality occurs as well as a discussion of priorities and choices for the society as a whole. This dialogue needs to take place not only at the national level but at every level down to the neighbourhood. Such a discussion is absolutely essential because, through such a process of participatory planning, people learn about the needs and capacities of others elsewhere in the society. There is no other way to build solidarity than to put faces upon other members of society. Thus, throughout this process, there are two products: development of the plan and the development of the people who participate in its construction.

The result of this scenario is a process of production for communal needs and communal purposes in which protagonism within the workplace and community ensures that this is social production organized by the producers. Obviously, too, the third side of the socialist triangle, social ownership, is present in that there is neither production for capital nor production for any particular group, i.e. a process of group ownership. In each workplace, workers are conscious that their productive activity is for society. In short, begin with communality, and the product of our activity is ‘a communal, general product from the outset.’

How, though, could the concept of socialism as an organic system be made real in the absence of institutions and practices such as these? This combination and articulation of councils and delegates at different levels of society is necessary to ensure the reproduction of a society in which the ‘free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’ And, it is a state—a particular type of state, a state from below, a state of the commune-type. This state does not wither away—rather, it is an integral part of socialism as an organic system.

Of course, some people may not wish to call this set of institutions a state because these are society’s ‘own living forces’—i.e., not ‘an organ standing above society’ but ‘one completely subordinate to it.’ How would designation of this as a state be compatible with the view that, by definition, as Holloway puts it, ‘the state is the assassin of hope’? Like those who conceive of labour as inherently a burden (and thus can think of nothing better than to reduce it to zero), those who reject these institutions as a state demonstrate that they are trapped in the categories of old societies.

Old habits die slowly, though. And, taxonomy should not trump content. So, if some people prefer to call these articulated councils a non-state or the ‘Unstate,’ this should not present a problem—as long as they agree that socialism as an organic system requires these institutions and practices in order to be real.

Michael A. Lebowitz. Photo from Flickr.

Subordinating the old society: Contested reproduction

However, an organic system does not drop from the sky. In socialism as an organic system (to paraphrase Marx’s description of capitalism as an organic system), ‘every economic relation presupposes every other in its [socialist] economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition, this is the case with every organic system.’ Yet, a new system never produces its own premises at the outset. Rather, when a new system emerges, it necessarily inherits premises from the old. Its premises and presuppositions are ‘historic’ ones, premises which are produced outside the system and which thus do not arise upon its own foundations.

In short, every new system as it emerges is inevitably defective: it is ‘in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society.’ Accordingly, the development of an organic system is a process of becoming. ‘Its development to its totality,’ Marx indicated, ‘consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks. This is historically how it becomes a totality.’

In the 1920s, the Soviet economist Evgeny Preobrazhensky made this very point about how a new system develops. ‘Not a single economic formation,’ he argued, ‘can develop in a pure form, on the basis merely of the immanent laws which are inherent to the particular formation. This would be in contradiction to the very idea of development. The development of any economic form means its ousting of other economic forms, the subordination of these forms to the new form, and their gradual elimination.’ So, what is to be subordinated? If socialism is to develop into an organic system, social ownership of the means of production must supplant private ownership; worker management must replace despotism in the workplace; and productive activity based upon solidarity and community must subordinate individual self-interest. And, of course, the old state must be transcended, replaced by the new organs which foster the simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change.

Obviously, this cannot happen overnight. It also, however, is something that cannot take place in stages. The idea of putting off some questions until a later stage is prepared is alien to a concept of an organic system. The continued presence of elements of capitalism does not simply mean that socialism is at yet incomplete because a few parts are missing. After all, what kinds of people are produced within the old relations? In fact, every moment that people act within old relations is a process of reproducing old ideas and attitudes. Working within a hierarchy, functioning without the ability to make decisions in the workplace and society, focusing upon self-interest rather than upon solidarity—these activities produce people on a daily basis; it is the reproduction of the conservatism of everyday life—indeed, the reproduction of elements of capitalism.

The concept of socialism for the twenty-first century as an organic system theoretically posits what the experience of the twentieth century has demonstrated – the need to build all sides of the socialist triangle. One war, three fronts. In the absence of a struggle to subordinate all the elements of the old society, the new society is inevitably infected by the old society. And, the matter is worse if we choose homeopathic medicine to cure the infection. In short, rather than build upon defects (such as the orientation toward material self-interest that Marx warned about in his Critique of the Gotha Programme), the point is to subordinate them.

Just as capitalism, though, required the development of a specifically capitalist mode of production to be an organic system, socialism also cannot subordinate all elements of society to itself until it develops a specifically socialist mode of production. Consider capitalism before it developed to the point where it produced its own premises in their capitalist form—i.e., when it was still in the process of becoming. That process of becoming necessarily involved the contracted reproduction of the existing relations—relations Marx described as ones in which the producer ‘as owner of his own conditions of labour, employs that labour to enrich himself instead of the capitalist.’ The separation of producers from those means of production and the compulsion to sell their labour-power marked the beginning of capitalist relations. Wherever possible, however, workers attempted to extract themselves and to become independent producers rather than to sell their ‘birth-right for a mess of pottage.’ This possibility was always present as wages increased with the accumulation of capital in the absence of the specifically capitalist mode of production. ‘Two diametrically opposed economic systems’ were present—and not only in the colonies where the problem of non-reproduction of wage-labourers was most marked.

The struggle over the subordination of the elements of production, thus, did not end with the original (or primitive) development of capitalist relations of production. Reproduction of those new relations was not secure until the development of the specifically capitalist mode of production that ensures reproduction of the premises of the system. ‘As soon as capitalist production stands on its own feet,’ Marx noted, ‘it not only maintains this separation [between workers and the means of production] but reproduces it on a constantly extending scale.’ Until capital developed upon its own foundations, however, differing relations and differing logics existed simultaneously.

So, what happens when differing relations coexist? Rather than peaceful coexistence, there is contested reproduction—with each system attempting to expand at the expense of the other. Considering the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Preobrazhensky argued that the state economy was in ‘an uninterrupted economic war with the tendencies of capitalist development, with the tendencies of capitalist restoration.’ This, he proposed, was a ‘struggle between two mutually hostile systems,’ a war between two regulating principles—one, the result of the spontaneous effects of commodity—capitalist relations (‘the law of value’); and the other, based upon the conscious decisions of the regulatory organs of the state (which he called ‘the law of primitive socialist accumulation’). And, Preobrazhensky argued that each of these regulating principles was ‘fighting for the type of regulation which is organically characteristic of the particular system of production-relations, taken in its pure form.’ However, the result of their interaction was that the Soviet economy was regulated by neither in its pure form. There was not a simple combination or addition of the productive relations and their associated regulating principles; rather, they interpenetrated—coexisting, limiting and (significantly) deforming each other.

Preobrazhensky’s insight, in short, was that in the process of becoming of a new system, two systems and two logics do not simply exist side-by-side. They interact. They interpenetrate. And, they deform each other. Rather than the combination permitting the best of both worlds, the effect can be the worst of the two worlds. Precisely because there is contested reproduction between differing sets of productive relations, the interaction of the systems can generate crises, inefficiencies and irrationality that wouldn’t be found in either system in its purity. Accordingly, as is well known, Preobrazhensky argued that rather than search for balance between the two, it was essential that what he called primitive socialist accumulation subordinate and replace the law of value.

But consider capitalism in its process of becoming. How, in the absence of the specifically capitalist mode of production, were capitalist relations of production reproduced? After all, the interaction between what Marx had called ‘two diametrically opposed economic systems’ was definitely producing problems that would not occur outside that combination. This was exactly what was occurring when the labour-intensive accumulation of capital produced a tendency for the non-reproduction of wage-labour as the result of rising wages. Marx was quite clear on what capital’s answer was—i.e., how capital ensured the reproduction of capitalist relations of production under these conditions. He detailed the measures undertaken with the emergence of capitalism—‘the bloody discipline,’ the ‘police methods,’ ‘the state compulsion to confine the struggle between capital and labour within limits convenient for capital.’ In direct contrast to the conditions for the reproduction of capitalist relations once the specifically capitalist mode of production has been developed, he argued that ‘the rising bourgeoisie needs the power of the state, and uses it to “regulate” wages.’

In short, until capital produced its own premises with the development of the specifically capitalist mode of production, it needed what I have called a ‘capitalist mode of regulation’—a mode of regulation which could ensure the compatibility of the behaviour of workers with the requirements of capital. In the absence of what Marx called ‘the sheer force of economic relations,’ that specific mode of regulation relied upon the coercive power of the state to prevent wages from rising and to compel workers (through ‘grotesquely terroristic laws’) ‘into accepting the discipline necessary for the system of wage-labour.’

The necessity of a socialist mode of regulation

Can the associated producers, in their turn, use such a state to support socialist productive relations before the development of socialism as an organic system? Consider the situation described in the Communist Manifesto where the ‘battle of democracy’ has been won (through a revolutionary rupture or a longer process) with the result that a government representing workers exists. At every step in the process of the becoming of socialism, the elements of capitalism and socialism (‘two diametrically opposed economic systems’) will interact and produce systemic incoherence and crisis. For example, when capitalist elements dominate, attempts to subordinate or make ‘despotic inroads’ upon them will tend to generate a capital strike and an economic crisis. If a government is prepared to break with the logic of capital, it will understand (as the Manifesto indicates) that it is ‘compelled to go always further’ and to make ‘further inroads upon the old social order’ and thus to ‘wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State.’ In contrast, the sorry history of social democracy has been that, sooner or later, it yields to the logic of capital and reinforces its rule.

A socialist mode of regulation must achieve consciously what a specifically socialist mode of production will tend to do spontaneously—ensure the reproduction of socialist relations of production. The building and reproduction of those relations (represented by the sides of the socialist triangle) ‘consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks.’ Thus, the socialist mode of regulation must subordinate consciously every element which supports the old society—both the institutions and the common sense that supports those old relations. Further, it must create new socialist elements which can become the premises and foundation for the new society.

The socialist mode of regulation, accordingly, must embrace the Battle of Ideas—the ideological struggle oriented toward human development. It must stress how the logic of capital is contrary to the development of our potential, and it must use every example of capital’s response to measures supportive of human development as yet another demonstration of the perversion of capitalism. Further, the acceptance of the logic of capital as ‘self-evident natural laws’ must be challenged by development of a coherent alternative which stresses the importance of democratic, participatory and protagonistic practice in workplaces and communities and emphasizes a new social rationality based upon cooperation and solidarity. Of course, an ideological struggle cannot succeed by itself. Without the creation of institutions like workers councils and neighbourhood councils, which provide the necessary space for human development through practice, the battle of ideas lacks a real basis for the development (‘both individual and collective’) of new socialist subjects. Indeed, this mode of regulation requires a state that supports this struggle ideologically, economically and militarily and thus serves as the midwife for the birth of the new society.

But, what do we mean by the state? Do we mean the old state or the emerging new state based upon workers councils and neighbourhood councils as its cells? How could the old infected state whose very institutions involve a ‘systematic and hierarchic division of labour’—a state which has the character of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism—possibly be part of the socialist mode of regulation?

Marx and Engels grasped that the working class ‘cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and use it for its own purpose.’ At last, Marx proclaimed, following what he saw as the spontaneous discovery by workers in the Paris Commune of an alternative form of state—a new democratic and decentralized state where the legitimate functions of the state were to be ‘wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.’ At last, the necessary form of the workers’ state has been discovered: the Commune (which combined legislative and executive functions) was ‘the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of Labour.’ Here was the state which would ‘serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class-rule.’

The commune form represented the destruction of centralized state power insofar as that state stands above society. Marx called it ‘the reabsorption of the state power by society as its own living forces instead of as forces controlling and subduing it, by the popular masses themselves, forming their own force instead of the organised force of their suppression—the political form of their social emancipation.’ With the conversion of the state ‘from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it,’ self-governing producers thus wield the state for their own purposes, continuously changing both circumstances and themselves.

This new type of state, based upon direct protagonistic democracy in workplace and community, is indeed essential for the development of socialism as an organic system. Not only does it permit the unleashing of tacit knowledge and popular energy to link the capacities of people to communal needs and purposes but it has as its joint product new social subjects with new capacities, pride and dignity. With the transparency that is necessary for any control from below, those councils in workplaces and communities can police waste, sabotage and other attempts to reverse the process effectively; and, this too, reinforces the sense that the process belongs to the people and is not alien to and above them.

Yet, that new state does not drop from the sky. For one, given the effects of the ‘education, tradition and habit’ of those formed within the old society, we should not be surprised at the power of the old ideas to undermine efforts to build the new state from below. Although people transform themselves through their practice in workers and communal councils, they do so in small units and the spontaneous focus of these cells of the new state inevitably will be one of localism and self-interest (both individual and collective). The development of solidarity and a concept of community that goes beyond the local to other communities and workplaces (and beyond the self-interest that is manifested as consumerism) will tend to emerge only through practice.

These cells, of course, need to be connected if they are to emerge as the new state. They need to develop horizontal and vertical links with other workplaces and communities (as well as with bodies which consolidate these). But the creation of such links through the delegation of spokespersons on their behalf is not the same as the development of solidarity that transcends local self-interest. It takes time before the concept of the whole develops organically in these units and is internalized. In short, although the course of development of socialism as an organic system requires the creation of links based upon solidarity from below and the acceptance of collective democracy that transcends the particular, that process cannot be instantaneous. Accordingly, the new state is not capable initially of making essential decisions that require concentration and coordination of forces.

In contrast, the old state is more likely to be able to see the overall picture at the outset. With the presence of revolutionary actors in the government of the old state, it is possible to confront not only individual capitals but the power of capital as a whole. This is essential because the process of subordinating capital requires the working class to take the power of the existing state away from capital (and thereby to remove its access to the military forces of the state). This is the strength of the old state; it is well situated to identify critical bottlenecks and places for initiatives that require a concentration of forces (including actions to defend the process militarily against internal and external enemies determined to reverse every inroad). Can we imagine building a new society without taking the existing power away from those who possess it in the old society? In contrast to modern fantasists, Marx understood that ‘the transfer of the organized forces of society, viz., the state power, from capitalists and landlords to the producers themselves’ is necessary; he understood that you cannot change the world without taking power.

However, as might be expected from this ‘engine of despotism,’ with its ‘systematic and hierarchic division of labour’ and ‘ready-made state machinery,’ the old state has the tendency to act from above to change circumstances for people rather than to foster revolutionary practice. That state remains above society; it divides society into two parts, one part of which is superior to society and which would bestow socialism as a gift to an underlying population. How could the old hierarchical state—even if made more democratic—foster the key link of human development and practice? Inherent in the logic of representative democracy is the separation of governing from the governed. Thus, rather than the necessary involvement of people which ‘ensures their complete development, both individual and collective,’ the spontaneous tendency of such a state is to reproduce ‘the delusion as if administration and political governing were mysteries, transcendent functions only to be trusted to the hands of a trained caste.’ The faces may change in the legislative branch, but the face of the old state to those below is that of the functionary, ‘an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself.’ That is precisely why the Commune’s combination of legislative and executive bodies is so central to the development of a state which is society’s ‘own living forces instead of… forces controlling and subduing it.’

During the interregnum when the old state cannot yet die and the new state is not yet able to stand upon its own feet, a great many morbid symptoms appear. Both states are necessary at the outset for the subordination of the old society and the nurturing of the new. However, the inherent tension between the top-down orientation from within the old state and the bottom-up emphasis of the worker and community councils is obvious. In their interaction over a period of indeterminate length, each state will tend to deform the other.

Thus, the desire on the part of revolutionaries in the old state to enact national policies according to a predetermined timetable, for example, tends toward the creation of uniform rules which ignore differences in the history and practices of the cells of the emerging state from below. Both in those cases where organic development is lagging and those where it is more advanced, the effect of demands placed by the old state upon the new shoots will tend to deform their development, as the impatience of functionaries of the old state will either turn the cells of the new into instruments of the old state, or impose a uniformity that tends to reverse unique advances and thereby to discourage initiative and enthusiasm.

Nor, viewed from the other angle, can the old state easily achieve goals of coherent planning, balance and equality when worker and communal councils assert their right to self-determination. As long as these local units insist upon their unique character and the right to pursue their own collective self-interest without interference, the tendency will be to foster relations of exchange (the quid pro quo), inequality and a lack of solidarity. Here, again, the combination of the two states produces incoherence rather than the best of both worlds.

In the context of growing tension and crises produced by the interaction of two diametrically opposed systems, there will be those in the old state who see the solution as the enforcement of power from above. Similarly, there will be those in the new cells who will see the solution as the removal of any authority above the individual unit in order to permit the unfettered pursuit of their particular collective interest. Both those tendencies must be struggled against because each leads to a different deformation of the socialist triangle of social production organized by workers, using socially owned means of production for the purpose of satisfying social needs.

The socialist mode of regulation requires a combination of revolutionary actors within both the old state and the new. Within the old state, it is essential that the policies pursued focus upon both the changing of circumstances and the changing of human beings; this calls for the rejection of capitalist measures of accounting and efficiency and their replacement by a concept of socialist accounting which explicitly recognizes the joint product which emerges from the key link of human development and practice. Within the cells of the new socialist state, on the other hand, the struggle must be against the defects associated with the self-orientation inherited from the old society. In both workplaces and communities, it is essential to find ways to build solidarity with other communities and society as a whole and to develop the understanding that the free development of each has as its condition the free development of all.

In short, the socialist mode of regulation involves a combination of the nurturing of the new state and the withering away of the old. In this process, there is a natural alliance within both the old and the new, not with the goal of achieving a balance between the two states, but unified in the commitment toward building a new socialism oriented explicitly toward human development and defined by the socialist triangle.

The state and the struggle for socialism

This combination of old and new states, however, is not only essential for ensuring the reproduction of socialist relations. A struggle against one-sidedness must be at the core of a strategy to end capitalism and to build socialism. Some people, however, focus only upon the new state (or, if you will, the ‘Unstate’) and reject the idea of using the old state. ‘The very notion that society can be changed through the winning of state power,’ Holloway argues, is the source of all our sense of betrayal; we need to understand, he announces, that ‘to struggle through the state is to become involved in the active process of defeating yourself.’ Why? Because ‘once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.’ And, why even try? After all, the existing state cannot ‘be made to function in the interests of the working class’ because as a capitalist state ‘its own continued existence is tied to the reproduction of capitalist social relations as a whole.’ The state is ‘just one node in a web of social relations’ and, indeed, is ‘not the locus of power that it appears to be.’

From this perspective, the need to use the state (the armed ‘node’) to rip apart that web of social relations is just so old fashioned—so nineteenth and twentieth century. Forget the military, police, judicial and legislative apparatus now at the disposal of capital. The alternative to capital’s power is already there: ‘ubiquitous power implies ubiquitous resistance. Ubiquitous yes implies ubiquitous no.’ With the Hegelian magic by which things can be miraculously transformed into their opposites (as long as we don’t watch too closely), we come to understand that electoral abstention is victory, lack of leadership is leadership, and the ‘Many’ (the multiplicity of negative struggles against capitalism) is by definition ‘One.’ Negating the existing state through the mind means that it continues in the hands of capital in reality.

The other form of one-sidedness focuses exclusively upon the capture of the old state. Whether choosing the electoral road or invoking glorious victories of the past to support a direct assault upon state power, from this perspective the process of building the institutions and practices characteristic of the new state must be subordinated to the principal task. Social movements essential for the organic development of a new socialist consciousness based upon practice are viewed instrumentally—as fodder for election committees or as the source of cadres for the party. Subordinate, subordinate—that is holy Moses and the prophets! Thus, whether due to the imperatives of electoral rhythm or to the perceived need to rehearse military discipline, the tendency of parties fixated upon the old state is to draw the lifeblood from the incipient elements of the new state and to suppress within their own ranks those who would argue otherwise.

According to Marta Harnecker, this lack of respect for the autonomous development of popular movements was characteristic of elements of the political left in Latin America and brought with it a ‘verticalism, which cancels out people’s initiative’ and a ‘traditional narrow conception of politics’ which ‘tends to reduce politics to the struggle that has to do with political-legal institutions and to exaggerate the role of the state.’ And, the tendency for ‘hierarchization’ is the kernel of truth, too, in Holloway’s argument that the party, ‘whether vanguardist or parliamentary,’ subordinates ‘the myriad forms of class struggle to the overriding aim of gaining control of the state.’

However, rather than inherent in a party as such, this ‘hegemonist’ characteristic is precisely the result of a one-sidedness focused upon the old state. A different left is possible. As Harnecker argues, to build the left essential for socialism for the twenty-first century, we have to change the traditional vision of politics and overcome the narrow definition of power. The new political instrument must grasp the importance of practice for developing consciousness and capacities, needs to learn to listen to popular movements and to respect and nourish them. But it also has a special role—it should not ‘try to gather to its bosom all the legitimate representatives of struggles for emancipation but should strive to coordinate their practices into a single political project’—i.e., to create the spaces where they can learn from each other.

There is an organic link between state and party, and a party which recognizes the necessity for the articulation of old and new state in the process of building socialism differs substantially from one which focuses solely upon the capture of the old state. It is necessarily ‘a political organization which, as it advances a national programme which enables broad sectors of society to rally round the same battle standard, also helps these sectors to transform themselves into the active subjects building the new society for which the battle is being waged.’ In short, the party that is needed is one that learns to walk on two legs.

Two sides, two struggles: a party determined to defeat capital and to build the new state from below must always be consciousness of the danger of one-sidedness. Thus, if crises within capitalism propel a political organization into government, it must not only use that opportunity to defeat the logic of capital and to reduce capital’s power over the old state but also to use the power it has to foster the accelerated development of the sprouts of the new state. And, if conditions are not such as to permit a party to grasp the reins of power in the old state, then it must work to create those conditions by encouraging the autonomous development of social movements through which people can develop their powers and capacities and by building unity among them based upon recognition of difference.

Thus, just as a socialist mode of regulation requires the articulation of old and new state in the process of building socialism as an organic system, so also must we walk on two legs in order to defeat capital and to build collective power. And, at no time is it more possible to demonstrate clearly the gap between the logic of capital and the logic of human development than in the intensified class war when capital is in crisis and the nature of capital comes to the surface. It provides the opportunity to shatter the idea that accepting the demands of capital is common sense. But to show there is an alternative we need the vision of a society in which the free development of each is understood as the condition for the free development of all. And we need to reinforce that vision with more than rhetoric. Unless we are creating through our struggles the spaces which prefigure the new society, we face more glorious defeats.

When capital is in crisis, there are always two options—to give in or to move in. If masses are armed with a clear conception of the socialist alternative, they can turn a crisis in capitalism into the crisis of capitalism. Of course, it is possible that, as the result of our ideological disarmament, the current struggles against the capitalist offensive ultimately may lead to a glorious defeat. It is possible but we must take that chance.

Michael A. Lebowitz (1937-2023) taught Marxian Economics and Comparative Economic Systems at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia since 1965. He was directing the programme in Transformative Practice and Human Development at Centro Internacional Miranda (CIM). His latest book is Between Capitalism and Community (New York: Monthly Review Press 2021). His publications can be found at

The World Economy Is Changing—the People Know, But Their Leaders Don’t / by Richard D. Wolff

Image by

Originally posted in Counterpunch on June 7, 2023

The year 2020 marked parity between the total GDP of the G7 (the U.S. plus allies) and the total GDP of the BRICS group (China plus allies). Since then, the BRICS economies grew faster than the G7 economies. Now a third of total world output comes from the BRICS countries while the G7 accounts for below 30 percent. Beyond the obvious symbolism, this difference entails real political, cultural, and economic consequences. Bringing Ukraine’s Zelenskyy to Hiroshima to address the G7 recently failed to distract the G7’s attention from the huge global issue: what is growing in the world economy vs. what is declining.

The evident failure of the economic sanctions war against Russia offers yet more evidence of the relative strength of the BRICS alliance. That alliance now can and does offer nations alternatives to accommodating the demands and pressures of the once-hegemonic G7. The latter’s efforts to isolate Russia seem to have boomeranged and exposed instead the relative isolation of the G7. Even France’s Macron wondered out loud whether France might be betting on the wrong horse in that G7 vs. BRICS economic race just under the surface of the Ukraine war. Perhaps earlier, less-developed precursors of that race influenced failed U.S. land wars in Asia from Korea through Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.

China increasingly competes openly with the United States and its international lending allies (the IMF and the World Bank) in development loans to the Global South. The G7 attack the Chinese, charging them with replicating the predatory lending for which G7 colonialism was and G7 neocolonialism is justly infamous. The attacks have had little effect given the needs for such borrowing that drive the welcome offered to China’s loan policies. Time will tell whether shifting economic collaboration from the G7 to China leaves centuries of predatory lending behind. Meanwhile, the political and cultural changes accompanying China’s global economic activities are already evident: for example, African nations’ neutrality toward the Ukraine-Russia war despite G7 pressures.

De-dollarization represents yet another dimension of the now rapid realignments in the world economy. Since 2000, the proportion of central banks’ currency reserves held in U.S. dollars has fallen by half. That decline continues. Every week brings news of countries cutting trade and investment payments in U.S. dollars in favor of payments in their own currencies or other currencies than the U.S. dollar. Saudi Arabia is closing down the petrodollar system that crucially supported the U.S. dollar as the pre-eminent global currency. Reduced global reliance on the U.S. dollar also reduces dollars available for loans to the U.S. government to finance its borrowings. The long-term effects of that, especially as the U.S. government runs immense budget deficits, will likely be significant.

China recently brokered the rapprochement between enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pretending that such peace-making is insignificant represents purely wishful thinking. China can and will likely continue to make peace for two key reasons. First, it has resources (loans, trade deals, investments) to commit to sweeten accommodations between adversaries. Second, China’s stunning growth over the last three decades was accomplished under and by means of a global regime mostly at peace. Wars then were mostly confined to specific, very poor Asian locations. Those wars minimally disrupted the world trade and capital flows that enriched China.

Neoliberal globalization benefited China disproportionally. So China and BRICS countries have replaced the United States as the champion of continuing a broadly defined global free trade and capital movements regime. Defusing conflicts, especially in the contentious Middle East, enables China to promote the peaceful world economy in which it prospered. In contrast, the economic nationalism (trade wars, tariff policies, targeted sanctions, etc.) pursued by Trump and Biden has struck China as a threat and a danger. In reaction, China has been able to mobilize many other nations to resist and oppose United States and G7 policies in various global forums.

The source of China’s remarkable economic growth—and the key to BRICS countries’ now successful challenge to the G7’s global economic dominance—has been its hybrid economic model. China broke from the Soviet model by not organizing industry as primarily state-owned-and-operated enterprises. It broke from the U.S. model by not organizing industries as privately owned and operated enterprises. Instead, it organized a hybrid combining both state and private enterprises under the political supervision and ultimate control of the Chinese Communist Party. This hybrid macroeconomic structure enabled China’s economic growth to outperform both the USSR and the United States. Both China’s private and state enterprises organize their workplaces—their production systems’ micro-level—into the employer-employee structures exemplified by both Soviet public and U.S. private enterprises. China did not break from those microeconomic structures.

If we define capitalism precisely as that particular microeconomic structure (employer-employee, wage labor, etc.), we can differentiate it from the master-slave or lord-serf microeconomic structures of slave and feudal workplaces. Following that definition, what China constructed is a hybrid state-plus-private capitalism run by a communist party. It is a rather original and particular class structure designated by the nation’s self-description as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” That class structure proved its superiority to both the USSR and the G7 in terms of its achieved rates of economic growth and independent technological development. China has become the first systemic and global competitor that the United States has had to face in the last century.

Lenin once referred to the early USSR as a “state capitalism” challenged by the task of making a further transition to post-capitalist socialism. Xi Jinping could refer to China today as a hybrid state-plus-private capitalism similarly challenged by the task of navigating its way forward to a genuinely post-capitalist socialism. That would involve and require a transition from the employer-employee workplace structure to the democratic alternative microeconomic structure: a workplace cooperative community or a workers’ self-directed enterprise. The USSR never made that transition. Two key questions follow for China: Can it? And will it?

The United States also faces two key questions. First, how much longer will most U.S. leaders persist in denying its economic and global declines, acting as if the U.S. position had not changed since the 1970s and 1980s? Second, how can such leaders’ behavior be explained when large American majorities acknowledge those declines as ongoing long-term trends? A Pew Research Center random poll taken among Americans between March 27 and April 2, 2023, asked what they expected the situation of the United States to be in 2050 compared with today. Some 66 percent expect the U.S. economy will be weaker. Seventy-one percent expect the United States will be less important in the world. Seventy-seven percent expect the United States will be more politically divided. Eighty-one percent expect the gap between rich and poor will grow. The people clearly sense what their leaders desperately deny. That difference haunts U.S. politics.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Richard Wolff is the author of Capitalism Hits the Fan and Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens. He is founder of Democracy at Work.

Rabble Rousers Shows How Activists Beat the Rich to Build Social Housing in New York City / by Samuel Stein

The documentary Rabble Rousers covers the activists behind the Cooper Square community land trust. (New Day Films)

Originally published in Jacobin on June 4, 2023

The documentary Rabble Rousers tells the story of the New York activists who overcame enormous odds to build the Cooper Square community land trust — and points to the limits of movements that don’t contend for broader control over the state and capital.

If you’ve been around housing movements in New York City, or the United States, or maybe anywhere, you have probably heard about a place called Cooper Square, where the people did the impossible: beat back the real estate speculators and aligned power brokers to take control of a piece of their neighborhood, creating permanently affordable social housing while supporting a flourishing arts infrastructure and a slew of small businesses.

A good number of people know that this happened; far fewer know how it happened. The new documentary film Rabble Rousers: Frances Goldin and the Fight for Cooper Square, which opens March 24 at the Firehouse Theater in Manhattan’s Chinatown, aims to change that.

Rabble Rousers tells the story of Cooper Square, a twelve-block section of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and its legendary lead organizer, Frances Goldin. The film takes viewers from Goldin’s youth in the 1920s to the day in 2012 when the Cooper Square Community Land Trust (CLT) and Mutual Housing Association formally took over the area’s land and buildings. It’s a long and complicated story to tell, and producing this film has been a labor of love from directors Kelly Anderson, Ryan Joseph, and Kathryn Barnier for over a decade.

Full disclosure: I’m biased. The directors are friends of mine. Some of the people interviewed have been my teachers and mentors, and many of the activists who speak in the film are colleagues who I’ve collaborated with on campaigns and educational projects. The first time I organized a protest I asked Frances Goldin to speak. So maybe it’s no surprise that I think this is a fantastic film that everyone with an interest in housing movements and grassroots planning should see. But my bias also means I’d be pretty pissed off if I felt the directors missed the mark – if the story they were telling didn’t line up with the history, or betrayed the true character of the people it presents. From my perspective, they nailed it.

Rabble Rousers does several things that will be notable to an audience of progressive planners. First, it tells the history of the struggle for Cooper Square from being slated for Urban Renewal demolition in the late 1950s to the formation of the community land trust, with plenty of attention paid to all the unpredictable forks in the road. The filmmakers tell the story through interviews with CLT organizers and members (including Goldin, Tito Delgado, Val Orseli, Gisela Jasmine Gomez, Amir Bey, Maria Torres-Bird) and connected scholar-activists (Frances Fox Piven, Tom Angotti, Ron Shiffman), archival footage, documents brought to life with animation, a helpful timeline, and plenty of character development. We see the community come together not just to oppose their own displacement, but to work with Walter Thabit — one of the cofounders of the Planner’s Network’s precursor organization, Planners for Equal Opportunity — to create their own alternate plan, premised on the idea that the people themselves could determine which structures should be saved, built, or demolished. The plan called for the city to use a “checkerboarding” strategy to house the neighborhood’s poor and working-class residents without displacement. They wanted the city to build public housing on a large vacant lot, move tenants from nearby decrepit housing into that development, tear down the bad old housing, rebuild it, move tenants from other nearby decrepit housing into that development, and repeat until everyone in the neighborhood had decent housing. They fought Robert Moses, Richard Nixon, and every mayor from Robert Wagner to Ed Koch until they reformulated their plan and won control of their buildings through a community land trust.

In the course of this telling, the film also demonstrates and explains key concepts that can often be confusing or overly abstract. This film is as good as anything at showing what CLTs and mutual housing associations are, how they work, why they keep an area affordable, and what it takes to win them. Rabble Rousers also helps demonstrate the relationship between complex socio-spatial processes like disinvestment, “planned shrinkage,” gentrification, and community control through a concrete, historically and geographically specific example.

The documentary also examines an important piece of political history that is not often a part of our discourse around community planning: the early relationship between the fight for public housing and the fight for CLTs. Cooper Square Community Land Trust is known best as a functioning example of this model of community land and housing stewardship. The CLT movement is sometimes thought of as distinct from the movement for public housing. In fact, it can be seen as a turn away from large-scale state ownership of land and housing and toward a smaller-scale vision of community control. But Rabble Rousers shows us that for the people who built the CLT, public housing was always Plan A. It was only after the Nixon administration put a moratorium on federal public housing construction and the city government entered into a fiscal crisis that the activists devised the CLT alternative. In other words, the activists didn’t give up on public housing, the state did. This subtle but crucial corrective is reason alone to watch this film.

The filmmakers don’t sugarcoat the way the CLT got the land and the funds to renovate their decaying buildings. According to Cooper Square veteran Val Orseli, realizing that they had built up “the power to block” but they didn’t “have the money to build,” they allowed the city to sell two large, vacant lots at the southern edge of the neighborhood — which were the cornerstones of the public housing “checkerboarding” strategy — to private developers to build luxury housing. In exchange, they got 25 percent affordability in those two new buildings, and more important, secured tens of millions of dollars from the city to bring their buildings up to code. Once the buildings were renovated, they were transferred over to the community in the form of a community land trust and a mutual housing association, with apartments selling for $250 each and never appreciating in exchange value. There is still more to this story — we aren’t told where people moved to while the city was fixing their apartments, and I’m pretty sure federal vouchers are also a part of Cooper Square’s financing strategy — but the filmmakers don’t shy away from the fact that while they won something incredible, there were real costs and trade-offs involved.

Finally, Rabble Rousers closes by pointing its audience to the future. As the credits roll, we see a new generation of activists organizing to establish East Harlem/El Barrio CLT, about five miles north of Cooper Square. We see tenant activist Raquel Namuche Pacheco organizing a building (sounding a lot like a young Frances Goldin), and Picture the Homeless member and activist Marcus Moore talking about Cooper Square’s inspiration (sounding a lot like a young Tito Delgado). By closing with its gaze on a new CLT struggle, the film reminds us why Cooper Square matters — not just for itself, but as an inspiration for popular movements near and far.

But the film also closes on a sober note: Cooper Square may be forever affordable, but what about all that surrounds it? Frances Fox Piven notes that “the harms done by Robert Moses shrink if you compare them to the harms done by Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” and urges us to view the Cooper Square story as two truths at once: a remarkable achievement, and also a drop in the bucket. This may not be the triumphant conclusion many viewers expect, given that Cooper Square is often treated — accurately! — as a historic victory over enormous odds.

If Rabble Rousers is the story of a victory in community planning and the CLT movement, it’s also a demonstration of those movement’s limits. Community-based planning is just that: community-based. Without control over the state and capital, it can only ever be local and partial. This is not anything the protagonists of this story don’t know already — Frances Goldin got into this movement via Communism, and while she left the party (or the party left her) she remained a radical and an internationalist to the end. Shortly before she died in 2020, when much of her memory had left her, I saw of video of her singing every word of “Der Internatsyonal” (“The Internationale” in Yiddish). She may have dedicated much of her time to a hyperlocal struggle, but she never took her gaze off of the wider world.

For those working in Goldin’s political lineage, the question this forces us to grapple with is: How do we engage in local struggle without losing sight of what lies beyond? What’s our theory of how local struggles relate to the rest of the world, and to the global capitalist system that structures our local politics? One can reasonably argue any of the following: that the demand to “scale up” local struggles is in fact a masculinist imposition on anything that works on a smaller scale; that a network of local projects can join together and take on the world; that we can do it all at once, and organize both local projects and global uprisings; or that the global is simply beyond the reach of our movements right now, and so we do what we can where we are.

Any of these are plausible responses, but we need some kind of theory to explain the duality Piven poses at the end of this film: the presence of Cooper Square, and the disappearance of much that once surrounded it. Watching Rabble Rousers should get us all thinking about what that answer might be.

In the closing moments of the film, Goldin says, “I think that fighting back is a very life-giving force.” She explains that organizing and protesting forced her to have hope and to keep going for over ninety years.

I’m forty. Some days my stockpile of hope is in short supply. I’m sure sometimes Frances Goldin felt the same way. But she didn’t quit, right up to her dying days. This film is a reminder that it may take fifty years, but victories do come. And the day after they come, there’s still a world to win.

Republished from Progressive City.

Samuel Stein is a housing policy analyst and advocate in New York City, and author of the book Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State.

The Implications of New US Troop Arrivals in Peru / By W. T. Whitney Jr.

Starting from June 1, the United States will deploy its regular military units in Peru | /

Beginning in June, detachments of U.S. troops will be arriving in Peru and staying until December 31, 2023. Peru’s Congress, supported by only 6% of Peruvians, on May 26 approved a resolution introduced in January that “authorized the entry of naval units and foreign military personnel with weapons of war.”

U.S. military personnel are heading for Peru on a training and advisory mission.  U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force troops will be active throughout that country. Most of them apparently will stay for less than the allotted seven months. They are bringing weapons and equipment. The U.S. Southern Command appointed a Peruvian general as “deputy commanding general-interoperability.”

They arrive following massive popular protests that erupted in reaction to Peru’s rightwing Congress on December 7, 2022 having ordered the arrest of the democratically-elected President Pedro Castillo. His politics were progressive. The protests provoked violent military and police repression; over 70 Peruvians were killed. Demonstrations peaked in February, but will revive in July, according to reports.

Castillo remains in prison, and his replacement, former Vice-President President Dina Boluarte, is widely reviled. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently issued a report documenting “serious violations by the police and military” that took place shortly after she became president.  Peru’s Public Ministry, investigating “the presumed crime of genocide,” required that Boluarte testify on June 6.   

The U.S. troops will be arriving amid an upsurge of Peru’s underclass. Peru’s mostly rural, poor, and indigenous majority did elect the inexperienced Castillo as president in July 2021. They are now calling for Boluarte’s removal, new presidential elections, and a Constituent Assembly. Six of ten Peruvians regard the current political crisis as stemming from “racism and anti-indigenous discrimination,” according to a recent poll.

Resumen Latinoamericano reports that the U.S. forces heading to Peru will include 25 Special Forces troops arriving with weapons and equipment and 42 other Special Forces troops charged with preparing Peru’s intelligence command for “joint special operations;” 160 additional U.S. troops will be utilizing nine U.S. airplanes.

Eventually, 970 U.S. Air Force and Special Forces personnel will have taken part in the U.S. Southern Command’s so-called “Resolute Sentinel 23.” Previous U.S. military interventions in Latin America have been similarly named. The phrasing of this intervention’s official purpose is odd: “to “integrate combat interoperability and disaster response training in addition to medical exchanges, training and aid and construction projects.”

The coup government, under whose auspices the U.S. troops will be operating, is a creature of conservative political parties and the business establishment. In April it announced plans to privatize lithium mining, thus reversing President Castillo’s efforts to nationalize the processing of lithium. The government is easing the authorization procedures that enable foreign corporations to extract copper. Lawyer and former Castillo advisor Raúl Noblecilla cites control over Peru’s mineral wealth as to why U.S. troops are in Peru; their presence there indicates “how lackey and sell-out governments function.”   

Academician Jorge Lora Cam states that “the usurper government” seeks to “deepen extractive plunder with blood and fire … unify the right with left-leaning elements infected by neoliberalism … and prepare for permanent political power.”  He adds that under the auspices of “political criminals,” the country’s economy is newly “at risk because Peru’s foreign debt now amounts to $100 billion dollars.”

The imminent arrival of U.S. military forces provoked other criticism. Former foreign Minister Héctor Béjar insisted that, “the spurious government was using the presence of these troops to intimidate the Peruvian people who have announced new protests for July.” 

A spokesperson for the Communist Party of Peru – “Patria Roja” explained that, “the entry of U.S. troops in Peru is an affront to our sovereignty and represents explicit backing by the U.S. government of the nefarious Boluarte regime, which is responsible for repression against the Peruvian people.” 

The U.S. military, of course, has long interacted with its Peruvian counterpart. Instances include: military exercises in 2017, “Regional Emergency Operations Centers” in 2018, a “naval mission in 1920,” U.S. Army involvement “from 1946 to 1969,” and U.S. training of thousands of Peruvian military personnel from the 1940s on.  TeleSur in 2015 reported that, “Hundreds of Peruvians protested Wednesday … against the [anticipated] arrival of 3,200 [U.S.]soldiers with ships, airplanes, and various kinds of weapons.”

Peruvians are hardly alone as a targeted people.  Some 800 U.S. bases are distributed throughout the world, and “173,000 troops [were] deployed in 159 countries as of 2020.” The setting is of military intrusion extending over decades in Peru and now across the world.  What’s the cost and how are payments arranged for?

The projected U.S. military budget for FY 2024 exceeds $1.5 trillion, according to a recent analysis. There are two sets of military activities and each requires its own funding approach. The U.S. government has to pay for potential war against enemies like China and Russia and for military operations elsewhere.

To portray China and Russia as threats to the U.S. status quo garners so much attention as to spark fellow-feeling for the military- industrial complex, and the funding flows.  Rationales for the other kinds of involvement may lack crowd appeal. They are: shoring up the worldwide capitalist economy, serving corporate interests, and countering leftist insurgencies. 

We conclude that congressional and tax-payer generosity in response to exaggerated threats to the U.S. status quo and to the worldwide capitalist system may translate into so much funding that enough is left over to pay for U.S. meddling in the other countries.

Panama may be one of them: The Biden administration may be on the verge of sending U.S. troops to the Darién region of Panama “to counter illicit drug trafficking, human trafficking, and irregular immigration.”  

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.

Plutocracy Uses Technology to Clobber the Poor / by Eve Ottenberg

Photograph Source: Mike Mozart – CC BY 2.0

Originally posted in Counterpunch on June 2, 2023

Technology wielded by oligarchic government is a nightmare. From killer police dog robots to facial recognition in public housing, it’s not just the poor who are targets, it’s everybody. But the poor and the left get smacked with it the worst. It’s open season on antifa, a season inaugurated by killer Kyle Rittenhouse shooting two Black Lives Matter protestors to death, getting off scott free and becoming the darling of far-right celebrities. As for how technology crushes the poor, just take the case of 33-year-old Tania Acabou, who found herself a victim of constant surveillance in her public housing project.

Cameras bought through the department of Housing and Urban Development have been installed in public housing, supposedly to fight crime. Instead, the poor domiciled there find themselves under continuous watch. “It got to the point where it was like harassment,” Acabou told the Washington Post after being evicted from her New Bedford, Massachusetts project due to this surveillance. The Post reported May 16 that Acabou received “an eviction notice in 2021 after the housing authority…used cameras to investigate her over several months…The housing authority believed her ex was living at the house without contributing rent [he was babysitting their kids]…violating a policy that restricts overnight visitors to 21 nights per year.”

In a Steubenville, Ohio project, the Post added, “One man was filmed spitting in a hallway. A woman was recorded removing a cart from a communal laundry room. Footage in both cases was presented to a judge to help evict the residents in court.” So if you’re poor, you live under a security microscope with the excuse that it fights crime, when really it just fights you. One woman, threatened with eviction “for lending her key fob to an unauthorized guest,” explained that her declining vision necessitated a friend bringing her groceries. She was allowed to stay.

HUD used federal crime fighting grants to buy the cameras. But as anyone with a brain can deduce, this surveillance is aimed at public housing residents, not criminals. Or maybe, as far as HUD’s concerned, the residents are the criminals…While several states have limited police use of facial recognition, as the Post notes, because it produces false matches, HUD does not appear to have caught on. “In rural Scott County, Va., cameras equipped with facial recognition scan everyone who walks past them, looking for people barred from public housing,” according to the Post. “In New Bedford, Mass., software is used to search hours of recordings to find any movement near the doorways of residents suspected of violating overnight guest rules.” So if you reside in public housing or visit someone there, you are treated as a potential lawbreaker.

In Rolette, North Dakota, over 107 cameras record nearly 100 residents, as is almost the proportion, the Post notes, in New York’s Rikers Island jail. In other words, surprise! Poverty is criminalized. You can be sure no billionaire would ever tolerate this nonstop, punitive scrutiny. Nor would any government official attempt it.

But technological brutality doesn’t stop there when it comes to clobbering the poor. They get robot police dogs. “Last year, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) began leasing a canine-like robot…” Scientific American reported May 7. “Officers deployed the robot in…a hostage situation in the Bronx and an incident at a public housing building in Manhattan.” Note the locales. All very low rent. No canine robots called Spot for swankier precincts like Park or Fifth Avenues on the Upper East Side.

Though the NYPD stopped using the robot in April, “other U.S. police departments have been testing their own Spot models.” But the article’s gist is that the public does not accept and is not ready for robotic policing. Nevertheless, on May 24, the Los Angeles city council approved a $278,000 robotic dog, according to CBS. Happily, the dog is not armed, as it is merely a surveillance device. Still, one councilwoman referred to it as “depersonalized, military-style technology.” But that fits with our military-style police, who have the latest in army hardware, from tanklike vehicles to machine guns, amirite?

Meanwhile, according to Wired April 15, the NYPD flaunts more than mere robot dogs, as it tests a “Knightscope K5 robot.” What is this thing that will soon patrol city streets? “The human-sized ovoid K5 is equipped with cameras, sensors and speakers. It’s meant to patrol and surveil its surroundings, deterring break-ins and vandalism.” They also roam around Silicon Valley, “where they’ve mostly been met with mocking suspicion and drunken violence.”

Bad enough robots replace proles on the job. Now robots police ordinary people, while they live under constant digital surveillance. If this sounds like some sci-fi dystopian future to you, well, that’s because it is. And it is already here, for many poor and even middle-income people.

So far, lethal police weapons remain in human hands (where they already do plenty of damage). This is lucky, because these robots could easily be deadly machines targeting proles and their neighbors just a few steps down the social ladder, the homeless destitute. Why just these low-income people? Well, what else would you expect in a country that, faced with a massively indebted population, proposes that those so impoverished they depend on the government to eat, should work for their food stamps, rather than raising taxes on the obscenely rich? The rightwing itch to bring back the horrors of the workhouse grows stronger with each passing year. We’ve already got vigorous young fascist governors signing laws to permit children to moil in slaughterhouses, where you can be sure they’re lucky if they even earn minimum wage.

GOP House speaker Kevin McCarthy wants to make the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy permanent, while shrinking low-income housing, food subsidies, child care, and Head Start. The SNAP changes are dreadful. They extend work requirements to people without children between ages 50 and 54. Previously, the 20-hour per week work requirement to receive SNAP ended at age 50. “In reality,” as Max Bruenig of the Peoples Policy Project tweeted May 27, “this is just an indiscriminate cull of a bunch of 50 to 54 year olds from SNAP who won’t realize there are any new forms they need to fill out.” So this aging cohort of proles better get ready to lose weight. The congressional GOP is fine with them starving.

There was even talk of making Medicaid recipients work for those doctors’ appointments. That’s because we live in an oligarchy. The richest ten percent own congress, in fact, numerous legislators are multimillionaires. They have no sympathy for the penniless. Rather, they exhibit hatred. They prefer to wage class war on the poor rather than give up a single dollar to ameliorate the lives of the wretchedly dispossessed.

No wonder we’ve got robot police dogs. The only question is, when will our rulers roll out robot police?

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Roman Summer. She can be reached at her website.

60 years of Cuban medical solidarity / by People’s Dispatch

Photo: People’s Dispatch

Originally published in People’s Dispatch on June, 2023

As of May 2022, 605,000 health workers from Cuba have served in 165 countries and have dealt with emergency programs for the response to infectious disease, relief work after hurricanes and earthquakes and provision of primary health care.

The last week of May marked the 60th anniversary of the first batch of Cuban health workers who went to Algeria to support rebuilding efforts after its liberation from France. As of May 2022, 605,000 health workers from Cuba have served in 165 countries and have dealt with emergency programs for the response to infectious disease, relief work after hurricanes and earthquakes and provision of primary health care.

Peoples Dispatch, formerly The Dawn News, is an international media project with the mission of bringing to you voices from people’s movements and organizations across the globe. Since its establishment three years ago, it has sought to ensure that the coverage of news from around the world is not restricted to the rhetoric of politicians and the fortunes of big companies but encompasses the richness and diversity of mobilizations from around the world.

SNAP expansion helped me survive as a poor senior, but now it’s gone / by Joyce Kendrick

Seth Wenig / AP

Originally published in the People’s World on May 31, 2023

One thing I was grateful for during the pandemic was masks—and not just for safety reasons.

I’m on Medicare for disability, which unfortunately doesn’t cover dental care. At 60 years old, I’ve lost many of my teeth. It was nice hiding behind a mask for a while.

But I was grateful for another reason, too: For once, Congress actually expanded the social safety net.

With stimulus payments and extra SNAP benefits, it was so much easier to survive. Before, I had to supplement my tiny benefits at food pantries, where choices are limited. It was a challenge to get food that I could eat without my teeth.

These are things about being poor that people don’t understand until it happens to them.

I was raised in a loving family in a middle-class neighborhood. But as a child, I suffered over a decade of traumatic sexual abuse by a neighbor who kept me quiet with violent threats.

I’ve struggled with my physical and mental health ever since. It was especially hard to get a correct mental health diagnosis in the years before people understood the trauma that comes from the kind of abuse I experienced.

It was difficult to hold down a job. After two failed back surgeries, and with my mental health struggles, I was forced to rely on disability. With just $700 a month of benefits, I moved into a motel room.

That’s the life I was living before lawmakers expanded services during the pandemic.

After the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, my SNAP benefits mercifully increased to $284 per month. The stimulus payments allowed me to get back on my feet again. And at around the same time, I learned about Medicare’s Extra Help program, which got my monthly $165 Medicare premium covered by Medicaid.

At last, I could focus on more than just trying to survive.

I found housing through a family member. I received some proper mental health treatment and was finally diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I got nutritious food that I was able to eat.

But now all that’s gone. Lawmakers let the SNAP expansion and other pandemic programs expire, and I’ve been told I’m no longer eligible for Medicare’s Extra Help program. So, I’m in survival mode again.

My story is hardly unique.

The expanded SNAP benefits kept 4.2 million people out of poverty during 2021, including 14% of children out of poverty, while the expanded Child Tax Credit cut child poverty nearly in half.

Combined with the direct stimulus payments, the American Rescue Plan brought poverty down by 22%, illustrating that poverty is indeed a political choice in America. By July 2022, the unemployment level had fallen to a 50-year low of 3.5%.

With pandemic aid expired, those gains are being reversed. More of us will have to choose between paying for health care and car repairs, or between putting food on the table and seeing a dentist.

We need stronger safety net protections that won’t be torn away by lawmakers or complicated eligibility requirements. But now whenever I turn on the news, I hear politicians demanding we slash human needs programs even further so they can extend tax giveaways to the very wealthy. How is that fair?

That’s why I’ve joined the Poor People’s Campaign—a movement led by people like me, impacted by policies that harm the poor in order to help the wealthy. We know that proper social investments keep us out of poverty, drastically reduce unemployment, and give lifelong positive benefits to children. So, we’re fighting back.

In the world’s wealthiest country, we must learn this lesson and move in that direction again—not away from it. Join us.

Institute for Policy Studies / OtherWords

Joyce Kendrick is the Southwest Ohio co-leader of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. She lives in Middletown, Ohio.

Committee Advances Bills to Increase Protections for Farmworkers / by Andy O’Brien


Originally published in the Maine AFL-CIO News on June 2, 2023

The Maine AFL-CIO applauds the Legislature’s Labor & Housing Committee for advancing a bill that will improve wages and working conditions for thousands of farmworkers in Maine.

“For too long, farmworkers have struggled with low wages and lack of rights and protections that other workers enjoy. This legislation will ensure that workers in the agricultural industry are finally eligible for our state minimum wage and that they are protected from retaliation when discussing wages and working conditions amongst each other,” said Matt Schlobohm, Executive Director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “This is a compromise that will meaningfully improve the lives of thousands of hardworking people in Maine who put food on our tables. We look forward to it becoming law.”

Workers in agriculture were intentionally excluded from benefits and protections in the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the rights of workers to unionize and collectively bargain. Farmworkers were also originally exempted from wage and overtime protections in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

Although current law requires that farmworkers be paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, they are still not eligible to be paid overtime when working over 40 hours a week. They are also not considered employees under Maine law, so they are not eligible for the state minimum wage of $13.80 and are not entitled to overtime when working over 40 hours a week.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross introduced LD 398 and LD 525 to fix these historic inequities and grant farmworkers the right to unionize and be overtime eligible. A stakeholder group met repeatedly on these bills.

The amended version of LD 398 is a compromise that will officially – and finally – make farmworkers employees under Maine labor law. This means that the measure will make them eligible for the state minimum wage of $13.80 and be protected from working more than 80 hours of overtime in any consecutive two-week period. In addition, the amendment will grant farm workers the right to engage in “concerted activity” to improve their wages and working conditions without fear of intimidation or retaliation. This includes:

  • Workers discussing wages, working conditions, terms of employment and/or other matters related to their employment amongst themselves;
  • Conferring with their employer with regard to wages, working conditions, terms of employment and other matters related to their employment;
  • Conferring with organizations that provide services to agricultural employees; government agencies and the press;
  • Publicizing complaints about wages, working conditions, terms of employment and other matters related to their employment, and
  • Taking any action to file, prosecute, testify about, participate in the investigation of or support in any way a complaint about a violation by an agricultural employer

Farmworkers are some of the lowest paid workers in Maine and the most exploited. A 2020 report found that nationally farm employers stole $76 million in wages from 154,000 workers over 20 years. Agriculture also ranks among the most dangerous sectors with one of the highest fatal injury rates. Workers are vulnerable to sexual abuse, extreme heat waves, toxic pesticides and accidents with heavy machinery.

The committee also voted to carry over LD 525which would give farmworkers the right to unionize, until the next legislative session.

Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO, a statewide federation of 160 local unions representing 40,000 workers. However, his opinions are his own and don’t represent the views of his employer. He is also a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445.

Nurses’ Safe Staffing Bill is Voted “Ought to Pass” Out of Labor & Housing Committee / by Andy O’Brien

Photo: Maine AFL-CIO News

Originally published in the Maine AFL-CIO News on May 26, 2023

On Wednesday the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee voted to support LD 1639, the Maine Quality Care Act, and send it to the full legislature, announced Maine State Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (MSNA/NNOC). The Labor and Housing Committee voted to endorse this bill as “ought to pass.”

If passed by the full state legislature, the Maine Quality Care Act will set enforceable nurse-to-patient ratios in Maine’s hospitals. The bill covers the following health care facilities: privately owned or privately operated hospitals (including acute care, specialty, and psychiatric hospitals), freestanding emergency departments, and ambulatory surgical facilities.

“This is a historic victory for nurses and patients in the state of Maine,” said MSNA President Cokie Giles, RN. “We have never been so close to ensuring that our patients have the nursing care they need and deserve.”

Please contact your legislators & ask them to support LD 1639!

With its passage, the Maine Quality Care Act will make Maine the second state in the country to pass legally enforceable nurse-to-patient ratios. In 1999, California enacted its safe staffing law. Studies show that mandated RN-to-patient ratios improve patient care and reduce patient mortality. When RNs are forced to care for too many patients at one time, patients are at higher risk of preventable medical errors, avoidable complications, falls and injuriespressure ulcers, increased length of hospital stay, higher numbers of hospital readmissions, and death.

In her strong letter of support to the Maine Legislature, Linda Aiken, University of Pennsylvania Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research, the leading research center on the nursing workforce and outcomes of hospital nurse staffing, stated that “a very large and rigorous research literature of more than 35 years consisting of hundreds of studies and multiple systematic reviews published in the most prestigious scientific journals in health care” show “that the more patients nurses in hospitals care for each, the worse the outcomes are including preventable deaths, preventable hospital acquired infections, poor patient satisfaction and worse financial outcomes for hospitals resulting from longer patient stays, Medicare penalties for excess readmissions, and high nurse turnover that costs hospitals many millions of dollars every year.”

Safe staffing helps recruit and retain registered nurses. When California’s law took effect in 2004, it attracted nurses back to direct-care nursing, and reduced nurse burnout, keeping experienced RNs at the patient bedside.

“California’s example shows us what is possible,” said Giles. “By making conditions better for patients and nurses, we can have safe staffing and better patient outcomes. Now that we have made history in Maine by getting this bill voted out of committee, we are looking forward to passage of this bill by the full Maine State Legislature. From there, we look forward to our safe staffing bill getting to Governor Mills’s desk. We expect the next few weeks to be a lot of work, but we are used to hard work and perseverance when it comes to our patients’ lives.”

Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO, a statewide federation of 160 local unions representing 40,000 workers. However, his opinions are his own and don’t represent the views of his employer. He is also a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445.

One Hundred Years of Mrinal Sen / by Devarsi Ghosh

Indian filmmaker Mrinal Sen at the Munich Filmfest in Munich, Germany, in 1990. (kpa / United Archives via Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on June 4, 2023

This year marks the centennial of Mrinal Sen, one of India’s most brilliant Marxist filmmakers. His work combined a formal inventiveness that rivaled that of the French New Wave with an unflinching commitment to attacking the hypocrisies of India’s elite.

A hundred years have passed since the birth of Mrinal Sen, one of India’s most brilliant and prolific postwar filmmakers. He was born in Faridpur, a city in what is now Bangladesh but was, at the time of Sen’s birth in 1923, part of the British-ruled Bengal Presidency, a subdivision of the empire in India. In the forty-seven years (1955–2002) in which he was active, Sen produced twenty-eight kaleidoscopic feature films. Each ran roughshod over barriers of time and geographical space. Poverty, hunger, class struggle, anger, revolution, and middle-class complacency haunted his films.

With these subjects, Sen developed and unleashed a kinetic, hypermodern aesthetic. This cinematographic language combined filmed fiction with documentary and newspaper headlines, creating new ways of storytelling that went beyond classical Hollywood-style narrative. Sen’s innovativeness explains why he became popular in Europe, where the experimental films of Jean-Luc Godard and the fairy-tale-like parables of Éric Rohmer were all the rage, but not in the United States. The great Hollywood films of the postwar era focused on stories of individual triumph and embraced an act-based structure that Sen eschewed. While his contemporary Satyajit Ray, author of classics such as The Apu Trilogy (1955–59), Jalsaghar (1958), and Mahanagar (1963), worked masterfully within the confines of traditional cinema, earning him praise from establishment figures such as Martin Scorsese, and, eventually, an honorary Oscar, Sen continued to work on the margins.

As evidence, look no further than a scene from Sen’s anthology film, Calcutta 71 (1972). In one scene, the director takes us to a party full of uptown liberals waxing eloquent about India’s burning political issues in the 1970s: poverty, corruption, unemployment, and so on. Leading the pack is a political figure who laments about the 1943 Bengal famine, widely attributed to Winston Churchill’s policies, which claimed millions of lives. But, we learn, it was the famine that helped this person grow his business as a black marketeer. Later, this same profiteer drunkenly argues for revolution. Meanwhile, striking workers have forced his factories to sit idle. What, the scene forces us to ask, does politics mean to a middle class that can throw around the word revolution so casually while exploiting workers?

All the while a rock band performs live. The music is intercut with images of the famine and on-screen text: “unemployment, degeneration, hunger, betrayal of our ancestors.” Finally, the charade is interrupted by an explosion. From the darkness emerges the disembodied head of a communist activist who was shot dead by the police. He announces that he is dead before adding:

Can you guess why I am here? I have come to tell you that I know who murdered me. But I won’t tell you their names. I want you to find out who they are. You might experience discomfort in the process, but you will not stay so comfortable, so indifferent.

The roots of such storytelling lie in Sen’s past. Unlike Ray, Scorsese, and most great filmmakers, Sen came to filmmaking later in life. He was first an activist, then an intellectual, followed by a short stint as a film critic, after which he eventually managed to find a gig as a director.

Sen’s father Dineshchandra was a lawyer closely associated with Indian freedom fighters. His son had his coming of age as a student in the teeming metropolis of Calcutta, now Kolkata. There he witnessed firsthand the savagery of the Bengal famine. While riots and World War II raged on, Sen associated with the Communist Party’s cultural wing and locked himself up in the library. During the war years he discovered Rudolf Arnheim’s influential Film as Art and turned his attention to aesthetics and film theory. In 1945, Sen published the article “The Cinema and the People” in a magazine rolled out by the Indo-Soviet Friendship Society. By the early 1950s, his first book on cinema, about Charlie Chaplin, was out.

It would take Sen almost a decade and a half to really find his groove as a director. Leftist ideas and a concern for the oppressed masses made it hard for him to translate his cinema into something that a primarily middle-class theatergoing Bengali audience were comfortable with. It was only after the political ferment of the 1970s hit India, creating by a massive distrust in the state, rampant corruption, and the rise of militant communism, that Sen’s career took off. The tumult of the world brought out the best in him.

Sen’s most notable films in his early period include Baishey Shravana (1960), Akash Kusum (1965), and Bhuvan Shome (1969). Baishey Shravana literally means the twenty-second day of the Shravana month in the Bengali calendar, August 7, 1941, according to the Gregorian calendar — the day Rabindranath Tagore died. Sen upends the meaning of this day in Bengali cultural life by making it the wedding date of a doomed rural couple. Plagued by famine and extreme poverty, the man and woman drift apart until the latter decides to take her own life on the anniversary of their wedding.

In Akash Kusum, Sen turns to the story of an urban couple. A young man wants to get rich quick and conveniently falls in love with a rich woman. But this romance comes at a cost: the man feels compelled to present himself as a successful entrepreneur and fabricate a whole life story. The lies compound and eventually their weight becomes too much for him to bear. The film is typical of Sen’s oeuvre insofar as it depicts individuals caught in dilemmas that are the product of their contradictory ambitions. In one scene, a friend tells the protagonist, “Don’t you see how big business is dominating? You cannot make it as a small businessman. Those days are gone.” The hero disagrees: “Don’t talk like a communist.”

Among the film’s highlights is Sen’s use of freeze frames and still photographs. These experiments get intense in Bhuvan Shome, which ended up being a commercial success. Made in Hindi, a decision that guaranteed a wider market in India, the film is a quirky drama about a hoity-toity bureaucrat who rethinks his life after meeting a young rural woman. Although a gentle film by Sen’s standards, his most well-known techniques were born here: use of documentary footage, documentary-like narration and commentary, and animation, all interspersed with freeze frames.

The film’s success gave Sen leeway to make cinema as he pleased, just when Naxalism, a Mao-inspired militant guerilla movement, had taken off in Bengal before spreading to the rest of India in the 1970s. Sen figured he could use the skill set he had developed so far to become a chronicler of the movement. This led to his second period that resulted in the critically acclaimed Calcutta trilogy, which includes Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1972) and Padatik (1973).

In these films, Sen is at his most aesthetically footloose and politically blunt. Interview follows a young Bengali man’s daylong ordeal to find the right suit to wear for a job interview with a British company. When his traditional Bengali kurta and dhoti doesn’t impress his prospective employers, a kernel of revolutionary animosity develops in the hero. He hurls stones at a clothes shop and strips a mannequin of its suit.

Like Brecht, Sen insists on the theatricality of the whole performance and never lets the audience forget that they are watching something staged. When lead actor Ranjit Mallick, called Ranjit in the film, is confronted with a film magazine carrying a photo of himself, he turns to the camera and explains that he is in Mrinal Sen’s new film and points to the cinematographer K. K. Mahajan, who has his camera pointed back at Ranjit. Near the end of the film, an agitated Ranjit has to debate an unseen audience in the darkness about his attitude about the whole day. The effect is to prevent the viewer from falling into a passive consumerist relation to cinema and instead maintain a critical attention on what is happening before them.

Calcutta 71 is perhaps Sen’s most ambitious film. In it, he connects three stories about poverty and its dehumanizing effects on oppressed and oppressor alike. The first is set in an unspecified time, possibly in preindependence India, the second during the Bengal famine, and the third shows the postindependence generation’s simmering anger. All three stories collide in the fantastic aforementioned party sequence.

Sen was as much a brilliant humorist as his was a social critic. A wonderful sequence in Calcutta 71 involves a group of business owners revolting against the Communists, carrying banners reading “Rulers of the World Unite,” and play-acting armed violence while the audio track plays the sound of gunfire and bombing.

It is in the third film in the series, Padatik, that Sen starts to question the methods and achievements, if any, of the Naxalites. A young revolutionary finds shelter in the house of an affluent woman who secretly sympathizes with his politics. During his stay, he questions the dogmatic nature of the Naxalite leadership and wonders if there is any point to his revolution.

By the late ’70s, something in Sen had shifted. A melancholy mood, born out of the pyrrhic victories of radical politics, characterizes his films of this period. After the left government won the 1977 state elections in West Bengal, he turned his gaze inward to investigate the responsibility and complacency of the middle class, of which Sen had become a part. The Left ruled West Bengal for the next thirty-four years. During this time, Sen’s work became sparse and quiet, aesthetically stripped down but thematically intense.

Kharij (1982) involves a middle-class family reconsidering their values after their domestic help, a little boy, dies accidentally from carbon-monoxide poisoning. Sen’s 1991 film, Mahaprithibi, is his reaction to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany: a family in Calcutta is broken when an elderly woman kills herself. Why? She wonders what was the purpose of her Naxalite son’s death. What did her other son achieve by escaping to Germany? What was the point of it all?

For almost a decade, Sen stayed away from cinema, emerging finally in 2002 to produce his final film, Aamar Bhuvan. Its mood, gentle and optimistic, breaks with that of many of his previous works. Had two decades of global neoliberalism, terrorism, the rise of the Hindu right-wing in India, and old age softened Sen? Aamar Bhuvan, which translates to “my world,” deals entirely with an all-Muslim community in a village. Despite the world burning and breaking, as on-screen text announces in the beginning, people continue to live with love, compassion, and empathy. The film is remarkably kind and full of good-natured people despite all darkness. Rather than a withdrawal from reality, the film is an attack on the prejudice meted out against India’s Muslim minority, made more radical by the Hindu nationalism of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party .

One hundred years on, Sen still stands as one of the most inventive filmmakers of his generation. His work provides a model of how politics and formal inventiveness can be fused in art without kowtowing to didactic simplifications.

Devarsi Ghosh is a journalist based in Kolkata, India.