A sign posted on a construction site says, “Danger Due to Capitalism.” Photo: Mary Crandall, Flickr.
Capitalism co-opts our best visions — through its soft hand, capital reforms its way out of crisis, putting forward more tolerable forms of exploitation.
These days, it seems customary to begin any political commentary with the laundry list of indicators of global decline: exploding wealth inequality, looming environmental collapse, and the resurgence of overt racial terror in far-right governments. We are familiar enough with the mechanics of capitalism’s iron fist to know that we live in a world of precarity, so much so that sometimes we welcome capitalism’s soft hand in mitigating crises of its own making.
The soft hand of capital is the various ways that capitalism and the state co-opt popular struggles to offer a more sustainable set of relations of exploitation and ruling, at times aware of, and attending to, capital’s worst excesses of poverty and destruction. Marx famously declared that capital had contradictions it could never overcome, and would eventually dig its own grave. A segment of environmental radicals argue that capitalism, with its nature-destroying tendencies, is doomed to undermine its own survival.
But if we assume that it might be possible for capital to save itself, from itself, it becomes a central necessity to advance a criticism of those emerging tendencies toward green, sustainable, welfare capitalism.
Capitalism, with the aid of a mediating state, has endured crisis after crisis using each to consolidate more power. Capitalism has historically been quite efficient at commodifying rebellion and selling our resistance back to us in the form of softer forms of domination through the state.
While it is necessary to be attentive to capital’s iron fist — particularly as it threatens our ecological basis for survival — radicals might also take care to consider the soft hand of exploitation, especially when we catastrophize capitalism and lay in wait for its predetermined demise.
Though the political will for capitalism to reform its way out of climate change, political-economic crises and basic crises of legitimacy is anyone’s guess, we look at three spheres of capitalist recuperation to understand the soft hand of capital at work: political-economic, environmental, and social.
The New Deal’s Raw Deal
A prime example of capital’s soft hand is the original New Deal legislation in the US. With the resurgence of interest in a Green New Deal on the left today, the conditions around its inception might sound familiar. In the late 1930s, the global economy was in crisis. Workers bore the brunt of its economic meltdown. Worker-led social movements arose to organize for higher wages. Sympathy with reactionary movements also grew. Hitler, Mussolini, and later Franco found sympathetic allies in the US.
Two popular narratives emerged to explain the tensions in the US and across the globe. The right wing blamed immigrants for straining the US economy. Herbert Hoover’s administration enacted restrictive immigration policies, targeting immigrants for fictional crimes and criminalizing their culture (one famous example: the criminalization of marijuana to target Mexican immigrants was a key policy initiative of Harry J. Anslinger, the US’s Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, appointed first by the Hoover administration).
Thus, workers looking to improve their lot in life, including refugees seeking asylum, were denied entry into the US. Xenophobia, racism, and nativist sentiment bound nativist workers to their racist rulers around shared white supremacist views — sound familiar?
An alternative narrative emerged from the left wing of capital. The American Communist Party grew and unions such as the CIO and AFL saw huge increases in membership. Against the backdrop of Hoover’s right-wing administration’s xenophobia and racism, the liberal left, instead, squarely blamed the wealthy and their alliance with the state in order to rig the game and steal even more of the wealth of workers to line their pockets. This set the stage for voting in a new administration that would rein in the worst tendencies of the bosses.
On Black Thursday — October 4, 1929 — the stock market dropped precipitously, setting the stage to institutionalize this robbery. Riding on the wave of popular demands for working class representation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned on the promise for a New Deal for US workers and won the presidency in 1932. Using demand-side economic policies to fund social projects such as the Works Progress Administration, millions of people returned to work, putting an end to the miles-long bread lines, staggering rates of privation and poverty, and mass expansion of shantytowns characteristic of the Great Depression.
The New Deal is celebrated by many on the Left as a legacy of workers’ empowerment: workers organizing to improve their conditions, leaning on the state to alter life and voting into power friendly governments that ease the miseries produced by capitalism. Keep in mind, this followed in the wake of large-scale radicalism among workers and a widespread desire to destroy capitalism. This resistance and rage was bought out by mitigating the worst excesses of the economic crisis.
The soft hand of capital emerged from the Great Depression to ensure that the conditions for capital accumulation and profit would remain intact. While militant worker organizing put radical labor at the forefront of struggle, the state cleverly co-opted the Left’s aspirations and offered an alternative that kept the main pillars of capitalism intact.
Environmental Destroyers, Then Saviors
Capitalism as it is currently constituted despoils the environment, while the state curbs its most destructive tendencies.
In the 1970s, a scientific consensus was quickly emerging about the destructiveness of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to the ozone layer. Largely a consequence of military and commercial production, the depleted ozone layer threatened to increase cancer risk in humans and other animals and reduce plant growth for global food staples like rice.
In 1987, mere decades after the consolidation of research and intergovernmental bodies, policymakers from nearly every government in the world gathered in Montreal, Canada to sign a treaty phasing out CFC production in under two decades, averting the crisis created by the halocarbon industry.
While companies continued to deny the existence of viable alternatives in the most critical years of ozone depletion, DuPont, a major producer, was later awarded a National Medal of Technology for its efforts in developing replacement compounds.
The most natural comparison to the case of the Montreal Protocol is the ever-deepening crisis of climate change. The threats it poses to capital accumulation are imminent but known. Unlike in the case of ozone depletion, climate change threatens the current foundation of capital accumulation — fossil fuels. The models for a “sustainable” capitalism are emerging, but are not scaled up to the levels necessary to adequately, let alone humanely, respond to climate change. The seeds of a green capitalism, however, are increasingly noteworthy.
Countries spanning the gamut of economic and political power boast aggressive advances towards 100 percent renewable energy use as early as 2040, and the cost of solar energy infrastructure has been steadily decreasing.
Amidst federal retreat from sensible climate policy, US cities are responding to the clarion call of climate justice with initiatives ranging from aggressive emissions reductions goals and setting up electric vehicle infrastructure.
The current center of gravity of the US’s young, hip, left wing of capital, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has been pushing a platform for a Green New Deal that integrates popular concerns for addressing climate change, poverty, issues of representation and more direct participation in the state. Because these policies seek to reform capital’s worst excesses while maintaining its central features (i.e. the wage relation), our response must be against the state.
It is clear that capitalists are paying attention and green capitalism is on the menu. Market solutions alone will not avert catastrophe, but it is the state working in conjunction with market forces that makes such recuperation possible. Another future, aside from catastrophe, seems possible in the immediate term and it could come in the shape of a progressive capitalist politics.
Diversifying the Face of Power
After centuries of more direct exploitation, the state and market have found it increasingly useful to include members of oppressed social groups into the ranks of the power elite. A well-placed femme or Black or brown person in a position of power often serves as a useful release valve for the material struggles of oppressed people.
Barack Obama’s election in 2008 marked a tide of post-racial sentiment, seemingly ushering in a new age where, yes, even a person of color in contemporary America could become President. Three years earlier, Hurricane Katrina had laid bare the entrenchment of racism in US infrastructure and the 2008 economic crisis was just beginning to unravel, disproportionately impoverishing Black and Brown families. Turning out a record number of young voters of color and riding on the promise of “hope” for “change,” Obama’s election and subsequent term continues to hold a dear place in the heart of many.
But in the fallout of the 2008 crisis, Obama also oversaw the obscene transfer of wealth from people of color to white families, apathetically presided over the systematic refusal to prosecute cop killers in the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, ordered the drone killings of a still-unknown number of people and throughout kept the blessing of the liberal electorate.
If we are indeed struggling for a world beyond begging for scraps, we have to point out the ways we maintain the memory of Obama (a manifestation, perhaps, of capital’s soft hand) through the lens of a Trump era (a firmer hand) — and how this imagination more broadly confines us to struggles for representation, absent of material effects.
Capital finds use for Black, Brown, and femme people in power to legitimate its repressive acts. Take Miki Agrawal, CEO (or SHE-e-o, as she refers to herself) of the underwear company THINX, who notoriously offered minimal parental leave and below-market salaries to her femme employees, or the corporatization of Pride that celebrates sexual diversity to the extent that it represents yet another market penetration with few material impacts for working queer people.
Diversifying the face of power legitimizes power; the stereotypical mean-faced boss is not the only one to bring about exploitative and oppressive results. A world where Black and Brown femmes are your boss, your local cop, and your commander-in-chief is still a world with capitalists, violent state enforcers, and rulers.
AOC’s quick downgrade of her pro-Palestinian position as she entered her tenure as a Congresswoman or Kamala Harris’ presidential bid against her backdrop of her prosecutorial give us a glimpse into the future of what the recent wave of Black, Brown, queer and trans congresspeople might do with their newfound power.
#WokeCapitalism Versus a New World
A world where domination can be sustainable for long periods is possible — nothing about going green per se dictates that we will not still live under the boot of our bosses, that Black and Brown folks will not bear the brunt of systemic violence, or that the state’s baton will not come down on us and our resistive movements. With so many intersecting crises at this point in time, it is not hard to imagine a world where our rulers appease some of our greener and more social sensibilities to lay the groundwork for a new version of capitalism.
If there were a possibility to create a softer, greener and more need-aware capitalism, this would almost certainly be created on the backs of low-income femmes of color largely in peripheral nations who continually pay the price without reaping its benefits. A sustainable, socially aware capitalism is likely impossible without the permanent, racialized underclass already manufacturing the solar panels, compost bins, and electric cars of a woke capitalism in the making.
Capitalism takes us to the point of crisis only to credit itself with bringing about solutions. A sustainable, socially ethical, capitalist rainbow-coalition is forming before us and we should be hostile to state attempts to reform capital to keep it afloat.