At the end of childhood, some millennials go to college to continue accumulating human capital. Harris is a peerless observer of the harrowing economic costs of “meritocracy,” and his chapter on college abounds in withering aperçus. “College admissions offices are the rating agencies for kids,” he writes. “And once the kid-bond is rated, it has four or so years until it’s expected to produce a return.” Because the pressure to accumulate human capital is so intense, students will bear enormous costs to do it. Far from the coddled children of stereotype, Harris points out, most college students are “regular people—mostly regular workers—who spend part of their work-time on their own human capital, like they’ve been told to.” Exhaustion, overwork, and even food insecurity are common. Colleges themselves, meanwhile, reap obscene rewards from their gatekeeping position by offering a worse product for a higher price: hollowed-out pedagogy from exploited adjuncts and graduate students, masked with “shiny extras unrelated to the core educational mission.” Aggrandizing administrations bloat on student debt, the key to the whole scheme. Student debt, Harris argues, is a bloodsucking Keynesian stimulus, turning the value of the future labor of young borrowers into the capital to build stadiums and luxury dorms today, jacking up tuition even higher and allowing another round of borrowing and building.
But not every kid-bond matures. Students who can’t keep up are diagnosed, drugged, and punished. The extraordinary proliferation of mood and attention disorders among the young, and their development into a lucrative pharmaceutical market, is only the logical complement of the human-capital-accumulation regime of testing, supervising, and debt collecting. Depression, Harris notes, is up 1,000 percent over the past century, “with around half of that growth occurring since the late 1980s.” While there’s always a question about changing diagnoses with this sort of figure, Harris is convincing that there’s more to this phenomenon than an artifact of measurement. So too the growing punitive apparatus waiting to catch kids who fail: “We can draw a straight line between the standardization of children in educational reform and the expulsion, arrest, and even murder of the kids who won’t adapt.” On this account, mass incarceration, too, is a generational phenomenon, and it makes its first appearances inside schools, which are now heavily policed zones, as are the public spaces in which working-class kids congregate. “Millennials are cagey and anxious, as befits the most policed modern generation,” Harris writes. In this way, the book effectively argues that widely different experiences of neoliberalism—from the grasping student’s anxiety for good grades to the young person of color dodging the cops—are nonetheless part of the same social process.
HARRIS EMERGED as a writer with anarchist politics over the past decade, particularly in the New York milieus of Occupy Wall Street and the New Inquiry, though one can find his writing in this magazine and early issues of Jacobin as well. The window of possibility, the feeling of historical openness, that was generated by the Occupy moment did not stay open. The halves of the anticapitalist left, embodied on the one hand by Harris’s anarchism and on the other by the emergent democratic socialism of Jacobin, became incompatible—a rupture to which Harris’s work feels like a partial response. You can actually watch this happen in real time in a video of a 2011 panel at Bluestockings bookstore on the Lower East Side. The same day that thousands had rallied to defend the occupation against a police raid, anarchists Harris and Natasha Lennard squared off against socialists Jodi Dean, Doug Henwood, and Chris Maisano in a contentious exchange off which one can read much of the substance of intra-left developments and conflicts of the past six years. Periodically, the camera pans around the packed bookstore, and a sharp eye can pick out a large number of prominent figures from New York’s left-wing world of letters.
fun bit of history
[...] can the political impulses that Harris represents, the ones that come out of our generation’s distinctive experience, mature into potent collectivity? Or are they individualist from the root, bound to decay into posture and then a racket—absent the guidance of more seasoned activists, or without connection to struggles more deeply historically or socially grounded?
[...] What is the proper relationship to the past for those of us who want to make a new future?
The more traditional socialist left argues for continuity. We’ve been doing occupations since forever, Maisano said; let’s rebuild social-democratic institutions like CUNY, Henwood said. Socialism may be embraced by the young now, but in this version it still looks and sounds like Bernie Sanders—still a project of recuperation as much as invention, resuming an effort interrupted by the neoliberal caesura. In some guises, such historical continuity is humbling and useful. In others, it’s boomer narcissism run amok, reducing every left-wing proposition from a young person to an opportunity to force the past into the present. “Don’t repeat my mistakes,” cries the old socialist to the new one. The result can be formally radical but quite often conservative in affect and mood, dabbling soberly in the far-fetched notion that you can change the structure of society while everyone stays the same kind of people. This is one way of understanding why whiteness and masculinity continue to bedevil the socialist left, even in its committed antiracist and feminist quarters. A left that maintains a tether to a usable past is bound more tightly to the historical American nightmare. It can’t rush toward utopia, because it’s committed to engaging with people as they are and nudging them along.
The insurrectionary left, on the other hand, wants year zero. The power of the occupation, Lennard pointed out, is that when you step into it, you become someone else. The problem with becoming someone else, though, is that you’re disinherited from your history, so you can’t wield it effectively to understand the present or get ready for the future. It’s life in a permanent now, a condition reflected in anarchism’s traditional weakness when it comes to strategic calculation and engagement with state institutions—those durable, blunt objects. What was predictable about Occupy’s destruction—in fact, what was predicted at Bluestockings that night—was for this reason hard to prepare for until it was already under way.
It is, in its way, a generational question. If you kill your parents, you won’t hear their warnings, and then you’ll eventually just become them without realizing it. If you listen to them, you’ll become them on purpose. The question is how to become new and stay that way, how to be a stable point moving steadily from past into future without a neurotic relation to either—neither clinging nor leaping. This is the existential core of the strategic question on the left. It’s a question about growing up.
[...] Millennials are not alone, and we are not the only ones facing life changes of momentous social consequence. Generation is not actually just an identity. It’s a relationship: no children without parents, no millennials without boomers. And all of us should have noticed by now that our parents are starting to get old. This will impose new obligations on us and open up new opportunities.
For Johnson, slavery is not something outside of capitalism or the American liberal tradition but the clearest instance of each. (John Locke lodged no complaints against human bondage.) Slavery should be seen not as a sure sign of economic backwardness, but as a technically refined system for coordinating abstract knowledge and bodily violence: intelligence and torture, free trade and imperial war, financial data and brutal physical toil—all adding up to booming world trade, accumulating wealth, and ecological degradation. In this picture, the Cotton Kingdom looks like nothing less than the homeland of neoliberalism, and master and slave, the origin story of contemporary America.
IN LEFT-WING THOUGHT, there’s always been a powerful emancipatory possibility associated with understanding the past; the specific opposite of false consciousness is historical consciousness. To see yourself in time is to grasp the way the world is in flux. Anyone who has ever done any kind of political organizing learns this intuitively: the work of mobilizing is always in urging people to un-forget, to see how their circumstances came to be, how others responded to similar circumstances, and how they might also—now, today. To engage in political struggle is necessarily to do history. Multiple rounds of upheaval in the historical profession since the 1960s—accompanying political upheavals at large—have sharpened this weapon in the hands of the left.
But like everything else, historical interpretation must live in time. Any understanding of history, articulated in the terms of its own age, eventually fades. The inescapably engaged nature of historical inquiry is why for Genovese, writing at midcentury, the slaves mapped onto the docile Western proletariat while slaveholders looked something like the captains of late-Fordist industry, doling out high wages and benefits to keep the lower orders in line. And why for Johnson, trying to give expression to how the past looks from our own moment, the slaves look like the policed, starved, terrorized underclass of global capitalist enterprise; and the slaveholders, or more properly “slave society,” become practically everyone who buys into this world order. Whether the leaders of neoliberal capitalism or the average beneficiaries of cheap commodities—who have something in common with the “poor whites” that planter ideologues hoped to win to their side by making the slave empire large enough to benefit white people across class lines—the white race as such appears out of the shared experience of imperial bounty. Slavery as we’ve come to remember it is the ideological residue of this social order, a memory recycled and processed into a romantic form, in order to quiet contemporary anxieties of dominance.
The enlightening, progressive force of liberalism has carried us far from slavery, we like to think. We are not those people and never could have been. In River of Dark Dreams, we are reminded that between the slave empire and our own age lies only a handful of generations. Johnson shows the historical meaning of this proximity. We are connected not just through the shortness of time but through the persistence of the liberal capitalist tradition itself. The form of freedom fantasized by the slaveholding South, in turn, is the freedom of our own society: ensuring a standard of living sufficient to confirm our self-image and limit domestic conflict; built upon ecological degradation, the conquest of darker nations by international bureaucracies, their enslavement by debt, their forcible integration into a global commercial network; enforced by our own armies of the night, surveilling, killing, torturing without oversight. The myth of our great distance from slavery—of the old South’s fundamental illiberalism—exists precisely to give us a way of managing our experience of this continuity, and to let us continue to enact it.
[...] as a recent forum in the Nation asked, “Does labor deserve its own downfall?” The movement’s long, sad decline must in some way be a comeuppance. Pick your poison: racism and sexism, retrograde valorization of toil and hostility to environmental protection, bureaucratic complacency, institutional rigidity, top-down authoritarianism, political tepidity, toxic organizational culture, history of corruption — need we continue?
These criticisms are not altogether wrong. But they tend to forget the fundamental order of things. It’s the power of the boss that makes for a sorry labor movement, and the political economy of the past five decades has made for a strong boss. Labor markets are slack and layoffs endemic, which keeps wages stagnant, costs low, and shareholders happy. Wage theft is common and largely goes unrectified; health and safety standards are unenforced. A byzantine nest of subcontracts and corporate shells often separates the workers from the profits, so that whatever subentity is the employer always appears in the red. Labor law’s teeth have been worn down to the gum: to take concerted action these days is to invite near-certain employer retaliation with little chance of remedy. And when the boss inevitably tells workers they should be grateful for what they have and warns them that plenty of people would be happy to take their jobs, the workers have no trouble picturing these people. They are their nieces, cousins, and neighbors, stuck in part-time jobs or out of work. The workers feel isolated and discouraged, the organizers wring their hands, and wages and conditions keep deteriorating.
Union opponents think this quiescence means workers don’t want to fight. Romantic union supporters, perhaps including the people at the conference, tend to think that workers are ready for a struggle but held back by conservative middle-class leadership. Neither account fully contemplates the idea that the struggle between labor and capital might more simply reflect the balance of power. The union movement’s problem, in other words, isn’t that workers don’t want to fight; it’s that they don’t want to lose.
Employers have long argued that unions represent a sectional interest only — that they distort the market to the benefit of whoever their members happen to be. But organized labor’s dream is to stand for the common interests of all working people. The more members unions have, the better they will be at representing the interests of the entire working class, organized and unorganized. The flip side of this well-worn aphorism is more rarely stated: the fewer members unions have, the more time must be spent defending the interest of those few members. What these members want, typically, is representation and a good contract. They want the union to be there when the boss tries to screw them. They want it to deliver wage and benefit gains in bargaining, especially as the remnants of the unionized working class find themselves obliged to support the more indebted and underemployed members of their own families.
Union leaders, on the other hand, often know perfectly well that if they only serve their members’ immediate needs, they betray the deeper interests of those very members. The more the standard of living of American workers falls, the clearer this fact becomes for those who are organized. Still, immediate needs often trump long-term planning. Walk into a union hall today and you are likely to find staff concerned with getting a good contract and winning grievance fights, hoping that something offstage will salvage the larger situation.
This problem is no one’s fault but the employers’. But if the union is going to pursue something other than short-term gains or fixes, someone has to pay. People are going to need to recruit and train volunteers to knock on doors. Communications staff will be necessary to generate materials. Researchers will need to be hired to uncover points of strategic opportunity; lawyers, to safeguard the union against hostile courts. And while workers ultimately make the movement, it is usually the organizing staff who create the conditions for them to stand up, by linking them to workers in other parts of the shop and ensuring strategic coordination. Spontaneous working-class action happens occasionally, but today it is riskier than most can afford.
Organized labor, by contrast, is at its finest both reliable bureaucracy and mass spirit. That these two souls contradict each other suggests the difficulty of challenging the socially powerful for decades on end: you must be both lawyer and pamphleteer, accountant and agitator. On the one hand, as Rosa Luxemburg once warned, the working class will ultimately lose every battle but the last one. On the other, a social insurgency fades without interim victories, and these require everyday satisfaction of the needs of the movement’s constituency. Solidarity is the binding together of self-interests on a scale sufficient to win; it demands not just transformative vision but transactional strategy.
Strategy, though, is not a skill learned in the schools of theory that shape left-wing political culture. Rather, it tends to be acquired over years of defeat and passed down through institutional memory — an asset that has become increasingly precious and uncommon as the lights go out on the labor left.
Few, then, know how to recognize strategy when they see it. Take the outrage over a recent Los Angeles minimum-wage proposal. The city, under pressure from organized labor, passed an ordinance raising the hourly wage to $15. Unions, however, sought an exemption for workers covered by union contracts. The right-wing media were the first to report the exemption, citing it as evidence for what every antiunion campaign argues: that the union is a business and dues are its profits; that if the union has to screw over workers to amass an army of low-wage dues payers, it will do so. As the Chamber of Commerce put it, “With sympathetic politicians’ assistance, unions hope that creating an exclusion from minimum wage laws will entice employers to accept unionization to avoid costly new wage mandates.” But the Chamber was joined by some unlikely allies. Marxist commentator Doug Henwood wrote a tweet mocking the desire of unions for the “freedom” to bargain for low wages. Labor historian Erik Loomis — generally an astute observer — decried the move for its “optics.” A minor internet affray resulted, bringing embarrassment on LA’s house of labor.
A more charitable reading of the proposal would be that low-wage workers are concentrated in competitive sectors of the economy with low profit margins. Although bosses will lie about what they can and cannot afford, it’s true that they cannot afford everything. Low-wage workers often prefer good benefits to a pay bump, since it can be easier to get multiple household members into low-wage no-benefit jobs than to get one into a job with health care. A minimum-wage hike thus has, in theory, the potential to limit the ability of workers to organize for better benefits in a low-margin workplace.
The exemption might well have been a miscalculation, particularly given the momentum that has built behind the $15 campaign. But it isn’t self-evidently exploitative just because it sounds bad. Calculations like this, however, require a union bureaucracy — that century-long bête noire of the left. As Kim Moody, a leading labor leftist, has written, “Union ‘leaders,’ those who make the policy, lean not toward the workers, but toward the rulers of the nation. Since most unions are rigidly bureaucratic, there is little opportunity for the workers to make their voices heard under normal circumstances.” This is sufficiently accurate to have become common wisdom. Taken too far, though, the argument imagines workers who will rise up if only they are freed from conservative leadership. It is a legacy of a fundamentally different moment in the history of the American working class — the turn of the 20th century, when capital was hungry for labor, rather than oversupplied with it — and a different balance of power.
The accelerationists are right in one respect: although it’s by no means “necessary,” more of labor may yet be broken before much can recover. It’s only by trial and error that unions have ever figured out how to become what the workers have come to need; the movement has historically grown in great spurts, when new organizational forms emerge that fit the new shape of the ever-changing working class. The idea of industrial unionism, for example — a single organization for each industry, rather than different unions for different trades — was present among American workers from the beginning of mass production in the late 19th century, many decades before its realization in the founding of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in 1935.
While it’s hard to know what could lead to new union growth, to embrace the destruction of existing unions is to cede the initiative entirely. You can’t ever really be ready for the class war, but much of the job of working-class strategy is to stage and escalate conflict at the most advantageous moments. So-called legacy unions represent living traditions with institutional memories of what worked and what didn’t against an individual boss, in a given industry, or among workers of particular types. It’s an error to perceive union defeat as evidence of some strategic mistake. American workers can do everything right and still lose.