To reclaim the state, we have to start with ourselves

One of the joys of living is reading brilliant writing and I read a lot as a consequence. Not all of my reading is brilliant though, as you might expect, given my profession. As a young postgraduate student, one of the best books I read, among many, was – Labor and Monopoly Capital – which was written by – Harry Braverman – and published by the Monthly Review Press in 1974. It was a prescient piece of writing and is still 100 per cent relevant to the struggles today for working people against capital – both industrial and financial. It provides us with a path to resistance. It also points us in the direction of identifying the problems in the world today. And those problems start at the most elemental level – us.

Further reading

I have written about these themes before and these posts are indicative of many:

1. Why progressive values align more closely with our basic needs (January 21, 2019).

2. Neoliberalism corrupts the core of societal values (March 28, 2018).

3. Why Uber is not a progressive development (August 16, 2016).

4. The mass consumption era and the rise of neo-liberalism (January 7, 2016).

5. Self-imposed corporate regulations control workers but choke productivity (October 30, 2014).

6. Bullshit jobs – the essence of capitalist control and realisation (September 5, 2013).

7. Sport and doping – the spreading tentacles of capital (February 11, 2013).

8. We need more artists and fewer entrepreneurs (January 10, 2013).

9. The labour market is not like the market for bananas (August 17, 2012).

Harry Braverman

He began his working life as a coppersmith and these trade skills allowed him to work in industry for many years, while, at the same time developing radical frames of references for what he was experiencing.

The way the Great Depression damaged the workers and enhanced capital led him to become politically active in the Young People’s Socialist League.

He crafted his writing skills using a pseudonym (“Harry Frankel”) while the red-baiting antics of the FBI got him sacked from his job at a Steel mill.

Later in the 1960s, he became an editor in a New York-based publishing house (Grove Press) which published the works of the American beats, lots of alternative poetry and produced a literary magazine where the likes of Bertoit Brecht and Albert Camus would be published.

One of the better publishers that is.

He then moved to the managing director’s role at Monthly Review Press, his final paid job.

In 1974, he published the magnificent book – Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century – which traced the way in which Capitalism was impacting on the design of work in America.

Every person who aspires to a Left sensitivity should read this book.

Harry Braverman examined what he termed his “de-skilling” hypothesis where capital systematically restructured labour processes to enhance their control in order to extract higher profits.

He also proposed that commodification was becoming generalised under Capitalism – extending into more and more areas of our ‘social’ lives.

Progressively, these “labour processes” (market-values) subsume our whole lives – sport, leisure, learning, family – the lot.

Everything becomes a capitalist surplus-creating process.

This process has intensified under neoliberalism – it seeks to commodify everything. That is create labour processes that produce commodities for profit.

The spread of the labour process is one of the characteristic features of the last several decades.

Even those activities that have previously been part of our non-working lives – our lives away from the oppression of work – are targets for commodification.

If you read Labor and Monopoly Capital, you will find that Braverman tried to reorientate the debate on the Left back to the essence of work and the dynamics of surplus value production as it affected the way people worked and lived.

He was particularly interested in how workplaces were changing as the corporate structures became more concentrated and politically powerful.

This was the beginning of the period when the Left were becoming obsessed with ‘post modernism’ and losing touch with the essence of the Marxist tradition.

So various dead-ends starting emerging – gender, ethnicity, sexuality. Identity politics!

I am not saying these are dead-ends because of their unimportance. Each of these issues is crucially important. But as the Left splintered into various groups pursuing one identity issue or another, it lost a central organising focus – the class conflict between labour and capital – within which the pursuit of these identity issues would have been more powerful and effective.

With the two trends – an obsession with ‘individualism’ (breaking down the collective and societal understandings of poverty, unemployment etc) and the broadening of the labour processes – many aspects of our society changed fundamentally.

Harry Braverman wrote (p.14):

And finally, the new wave of radicalism of the 1960s was animated by its own peculiar and in some ways unprecedented concerns. Since the discontents of youth, intellectuals, feminists, ghetto populations, etc., were produced not by the “breakdown” of capitalism but by capitalism functioning at the top of its form, so to speak, working at its most rapid and energetic pace, the focus of rebellion was now somewhat different from that of the past. At least in part, dissatisfaction centered not so much on capitalism’s inability to provide work as on the work it provides, not on the collapse of its productive processes but on the appalling effects of these processes at their most “successful.” It is not that the pressures of poverty, unemployment, and want have been eliminated — far from it — but rather that these have been supplemented by a discontent which cannot be touched by providing more prosperity and jobs because these are the very things that produced this discontent in the first place.

Remember this was written in 1974 and he was commenting on the experience of an evolving full employment situation where workers had jobs but the jobs were being redesigned, restructured – call it how you like – into activities that increasingly alienated the workers and increased the surplus value creation for capital.

So, calling for more jobs might sound like a reasonable thing for a Leftist to advocate but our conception of full employment has to be different now to ensure we are not just satisfied with creating work.

Politicians are wont to tell us how many jobs they are creating as if that is a standard to aspire to.

But what Harry Braverman was telling us way back then was that more Capitalism of the evolved state he was commenting on is no way forward.

Contemporary commentary

Fast track to December 16, 2021, and Serbian economist – Branko Milanovic – has written an excellent Op Ed – Why it is not the crisis of capitalism: The sources of discontent – which is a recycled version of an earlier Op Ed from the same author that I read in 2019.

He clearly is influenced by Harry Braverman’s insights (whether knowingly or through a sort of ‘unity of science’ phenomenon) and notes that Capitalism has been very successful:

… both in terms of its geographical span and the expansion to the areas (like leisure time, or social media) where it has created entirely new markets and commodified things that historically were never objects of transaction.

When Harry Braverman was writing, the geographical span of Capitalism was limited by the Soviet bloc, China, Cuba, etc

That has all changed since and even China’s ‘private sector’ produces “80% of value added”.

He also notes the conversion of “non-markets” into surplus-creating (profitable) activities.

People now rent their own cars (uber) or their homes (Airbnb), in addition to a host of other areas of life that were mediated through price-setting markets.

We no longer walk to the shop to buy a pizza – a teenager on a scooter buzzes it to us – for a pittance from the franchise that runs the shop.

The point that Branko Milanovic makes here is that these new forms of capitalist expansion are just an expression of what Karl Marx identified way back then.

In this blog post – The Left confuses globalisation with neo-liberalism and gets lost (April 27, 2016) – I discussed that exact point.

In the – Communist Manifesto – published in 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels discuss the way that discoveries of new lands (America, Rounding the Cape, etc) “opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie”.

They wrote:

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

They were obviously aware of the tendency of capitalism to geographical spread to open up new markets and new spaces to extract raw materials.

The search for new markets and new ways of organising production is not new and has been going on for centuries.

The widening of this push into these non-market areas of life has had a fundamental impact on our thinking.

Branko Milanovic writes:

This does not mean that we would all immediately run to rent our homes or drive our cars as taxis, but it means that we are aware of the financial loss that we make by not doing so. For many of us, once the price is right (whether because our circumstances change or the relative price increases), we shall join the new markets and thus reinforce them.

And so the gig economy has evolved as the most recent manifestation of this market broadening phenomenon.

As Harry Braverman identified in the quote above – we cannot want more of that because it makes us unhappy.

The other point he makes is that while the expansion that Marx and Engels were writing about in the C19th benefitted the elites in Europe and allowed them to appease workers with higher wages, which morphed into the era of mass consumption era, which, in turn, morphed into something even more comprehensive where aspects of our lives that were previously considered ‘non work’ (which meant non capitalist) became markets, with commodities supplied to support.

But as capitalism’s never-ending search for ‘market’ penetration continued the beneficiaries changed.

The most recent period of global expansion has not “benefit disproportionately rich countries and their populations”.

Rather, it has “benefited especially Asia, populous countries like China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia” and created a “gap between the expectations entertained by the Western middle classes and their low income growth”.

This hollowing out of the middle class in advanced nations – which is behind phenomenon such as Brexit, Trump, Yellow Vests, etc – has also been accompanied by a ‘market’ penetration into politics:

The expansion of market-like approach to societies in all (or almost all) of their aspects, which is indeed a feature of advanced capitalism, has also transformed politics into a business activity. In principle, politics, no more than our leisure time, was regarded as an area of market transactions. But both have become so. This has made politics more corrupt.

We now distrust our polity more than ever.

And they lie, cheat, defraud and get away with it.

His overall conclusion is that this “crisis is not of capitalism per se” but rather its uneven geographical spread and the “capitalist expansion to the areas that were traditionally not considered apt for commercialization”.

His solution is to wind back the “field of action” of the capitalist system.

Which is where I diverge.

I think that Karl Marx understood that capitalism had tendencies to ensure that capital as a class could reproduce.

The sort of market penetration into our previously ‘non-market’ lives is not something that can be easily wound back.

The resistance of the capitalist class is one thing.

But as noted above, after several decades of neoliberal penetration into our lives, we – us – have become the problem that needs to be addressed first.

We need to activate along the lines we wrote about in our book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017).

But to do that we need to lift our levels of education.

Progressives have to stop saying things like “we need to tax the rich to afford hospital care” or “it is fine for the government to borrow while interest rates are low” or “if our governments are not careful with taxpayers’ money then the financial markets will exact discipline” – and all the rest of the nonsense that many well-meaning commentators pump out to sound erudite.

But all they are doing is maintaining this ‘market penetration’ mentality and distorting our own personal calculations into ‘can we make a buck’ by renting our house out while we go on holiday sort of thinking.


The problem is capitalism.

Because the logic of that system evolves into what we have.

Harry Braverman understood that even though he didn’t live to see the worst of what it has become.

As the first step, education.

Then, reclaim the state.

Then evolve the production and distribution system away from one that needs to colonise every aspect of our lives with ‘markets’.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2021 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing is what our society has become under neoliberal/neofeudal capitalism. The range of Bullshit Jobs expands in our modern financialised era as exemplified by the growth of the gig economy. The owners of capital indoctrinate the many into normalising the view that they are all mini-capitalists and can get to the top if only they work a bit harder. All the while the wealth gap widens. Lots of serfs and very few lords. Never stand between a gaggle of capitalists and a bucket of money.

    Without the extended pause and relative turmoil (aided and abetted by the negligence and incompetence of many elements of the deskilled state) provided by the pandemic many would not have had the opportunity to hop off the mousewheel for long enough to look around and assess reality. I am thankful for that, but the personal and societal price paid continues to be high and seems far from over. It’s as if the planet is telling us something and trying to warn us of worse to come if we don’t change.

    Without a doubt societal equity has retreated in Australia since I began full paid work just over fifty years ago. Also, while job quality and its capacity to provide a livable wage has diminished, economists and politicians point to numbers without regard to value, in all senses of that term. Dollar value is what capital secures while labour gets a number and the environment is trashed. Braverman in 1974 may have been pointing the reader towards today as we seem to be approaching an end or inflection point to our neoliberal capitalist ways.

  2. Very first book I read on politics and economics was A brief history of Neoliberalism by David Harvey. Which led me to Michael Hudson and then MMT.

    Funnily enough I just finished David Harvey’s Anti Capitalist Chronicles series on you tube last night. As my body clock is all over the place because of the Ashes. I wanted to find out where Harvey is now with his thinking regarding neoliberalism.

    This is very similar to the point he has reached and that is we have to change ourselves. He talks about competition and the 2 ice cream sellers on a beach and what happens when a third comes along. Monopolist competition after Bretton Woods collapsed and the falling profit rate and the mass markets. How all of this plays out in cities and rural areas. How the 2 ice cream sellers analogy plays out with a 2 party political system and what happens when you add 3 or 4 more political parties.

    The “we have to change ourselves” part of the series which he talked about in the video called how do we break from Neoliberalism was fascinating. It hit home with me because it is how I have been feeling lately regarding MMT and progressives. It centred around the creation of neoliberal ideas and how they were formed and then turned into policies. I agree with Harvey that endless debates and books are written around these ideas, but very little literature has been produced regarding who created them and how they done it. Where the ideas came from which he calls ruling class ideas and how those ideas became economic policy. What happens in debates and in the books is when debating the ideas 9/10 is the how and who is always forgotten about and they get a free ride.

    He talks about the Habitus Which are the certain things that are never discussed, never thought about, don’t appear, because people do not seem to be conscious about them. That are the grounding for social and political life. They are the hidden things that we take for granted like common sense. That seem natural and people behaving naturally. When the reality is that we are responding to cultural signals like when we walk into a room or into the town centre. We know how to act and go into auto pilot in certain cultural surroundings. Or you’ve driven 2 miles in a car and wondered how you got there as you didn’t even need to think about it.

    What is the habits of neoliberalism ?

    Which was the 50 year bombardment of individuality. What has the government done for me rather than what has the government done for everybody. The Tina mantra there is no alternative. How we now act when we are faced with differences has changed. It has been a bombardment of how we are told to think about the changes that happen around us.

    We all do it each and every one of us. If something occurs we immediately translate it in this way or that way, but no it is not really this way or that way that is the Habitus at work. The hidden things we don’t see the natural way we look at things. Neoliberalism has been relentless and changed our Habitus so that we automatically think about things on neoliberal terms. Just think of the deficit and debt narrative and how we have to bring both down, as there is no alternative, it must be done and how that worked for 40 years. Until eventually our natural way of thinking about things, our habitus becomes neoliberal. Our common sense becomes neoliberal.

    See below the line comments sections in the Guardian, Telegraph and Independent for details.

    How the habitus in these areas have changed considerably. The culture has changed, the common sense has to changed to the point that not only are the ideas not even debated and that those who created the ideas get off Scott free. They are now defended the tribe defend them as if they were the ruling class themselves.

    To change the habitus is very difficult after 50 years of hard programming from above. To do that you must start with yourself. Don’t we MMT’rs know it. We face it every day and see just how hard wired these ideas of the last 50 years are entrenched.

    My view is MMT’rs suffer from it themselves. The habitus has created the perception that the ideas were wrong, the people in charge are stupid and that it is an intellectual debate we are involved in. We always give these people the benefit of the doubt and that no evil or anything untoward is going on. This should be decided in a class room.

    For me that’s the 50 year habitus at work. The relentless Bombardment of it makes us start from that view point. For me the MMT lens is much sharper and better used when you start from the point of view of who created these ideas in the first place and why. Never giving them a free lunch or allowing them to step back into the shadows when the ideas are being debated. That these people were never stupid in the first place and knew exactly how things worked. They understand MMT fully and they had to otherwise how did they know how to change it so effectively into supporting their own interests.

    We shout they are stupid and look this is the mistake you’ve made. They shout back what mistake it works perfectly for us.

    Like the famous George Best interview. George was dating a super model, his bed was covered with bank notes and drinking champagne. The interviewer asks where did it all go wrong George ?

    Here’s David Harvey’s series of you are interested.

  3. Every MMT’r had to start with themselves first. We had to change how we think about things and break free from our own neoliberal habitus. We have all been through that process each and every one of us.

    Like freeing ourselves from the Matrix.

    Even after studying the government accounts and seeing the truth for myself. It took me another year to actually admit to myself that I had been brainwashed. That I had allowed the neoliberal habitus that was created to control the way I thought about things.

    That’s why it is so difficult to get people to change their point of view. How do you convince others that they need to start with themselves first. Reversing the habitus that has been created within the things people never see, their natural instincts was never going to be easy. Without actually controlling the media ourselves.

  4. Bill says: “We need to activate along the lines we wrote about in our book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017). But to do that we need to lift our levels of education.” No doubt we need to reclaim the state, but can virtue, what Thoreau called the “desire greatly to do good,” be instilled via increased information, even true information like MMT? What we’re suffering from on the most fundamental level, the neoliberal “habitus” Derek talks about, is not so much a lack of information, which more education could remedy, but a lack of virtue, of character, of ethical passion and courage. Again, let me say that the mortal enemy of neoliberalism, what it fears the most and knows has the power to destroy it, is not socialism or communism but idealism, which is not merely politically oppositional but politically transcendent. And idealism comes from something much deeper and more elemental than information. It comes from love and wisdom, which no amount of education can summon from our hearts and minds. Lifting these existential levels involves inner work, the self-nurturing of reverence for life. How many times has Bill told us that MMT is value-neutral, that the use to which its knowledge is put depends entirely on meta-economic principles? Change those, and you change the world. Would not the the rekindling of idealism be a stake through neoliberalism’s heart?–if it had one.

  5. I agree, education is key. In the UK, we’ve had 92 years since everyone over 21 could vote, but our education studiously avoids giving voters help in exercising their democratic choice.
    To help with my education, I’m wondering whether MrShigemitsu could clarify what exactly is ‘net cash requirement’ in your comment a few days ago: ‘Given that BoE Asset Purchases (QE) entirely equal the UK Government’s net cash requirement, the response to the pandemic has not “cost” the UK anything at all in money terms.’ thanks in advance.

  6. Excellent and insightful post about an essential component of reform that is rarely mentioned in the standard orthodox or heterodox discourse for change. The artificial separation of the political, economic, and social systems has blinded us to the obvious linkages, clearly articulated in the Great Transformation by Polanyi (see my brief summary at ). To enable massive surplus production created by the industrial revolution, radical and coordinated changes were required in political, economic, and social institutions. In particular, the commodification of land and labor dehumanized us and also led to the climate crisis unfolding around us. Genuine reform requires undoing the Great Transformation – excess production can only be sustained by excess consumption. We have been brainwashed by economic theory into thinking that the goal of our lives is to maximize the pleasure we get from consumption of goods and services. In fact, goods are not the sources of welfare and happiness – this is the product of certain character traits as well as social relationships. I gave a talk on this theme at Helsinki Institution of Sustainable Development with the title: “Alternative Models for Development: Becoming the Change We Want to See” (see ). Both Polanyi and this talk come at the problem from very different perspectives from that of Braverman, but reach the same conclusion: we must change ourselves to change the world

  7. Reading ‘General System Theory’ by Ludwig Bertalanffy describing real-world complex systems. There is a beautiful concept he borrows from Gestalt to explain perceptions in terms of gestalts rather than by analysing their constituents, emphasising the importance of both a top-down and a bottom-up approach. When problem-solving, the left seems to have more of a scientific approach focusing on individual parts, not the common goal or the relationships of the elements. You are right; for society to be prosperous, we need individuals to be competent and do things for themselves with the help of their community to lead meaningful lives. The conditions we live under is important and often overlooked.

  8. Yeh the only way that’s going to change is to have a state with teeth ,,naitionalist third position or @ form of naitional socialism….the modern ,left,are just chasing shadows and the conservatives are just another clown show….

  9. Trying to get ,people ,to change their point of view is pointless. for a kick off its a compositional fallacy with billions of people on the planet it’s pointless boiling things down to ,individuals ,educating themselves we would be here for another 1000 yrs and with climate change that’s a non starter ,also as pointed out by Bertrand de jouvenels their is heirachy to contend with and I’m sure educating people with no sway on power is next to useless..change is top down not bottom up.

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