In ‘seven theses on American Politics’, Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner situate the 2022 mid-term results in the context of a broader capitalist conjuncture, one in which the ‘long downturn’ diagnosed in Brenner’s Economics of Global Turbulence (1998) has given birth to what they describe as ‘political capitalism’. Under this new regime of accumulation, ‘raw political power, rather than productive investment, is the key determinant of the rate of return’. Through most of the twentieth century, Riley and Brenner argue, Republicans and Democrats represented different coalitions of capitalists who appealed to voters with promises of future growth and prosperity. In today’s zero-sum conditions of secular stagnation, the parties have become ‘fiscal rather than productivist coalitions’, promising tax credits and state subsidies, or tariffs and small-business handouts.footnote1
In the last number of nlr, Matt Karp engaged with Riley and Brenner’s diagnosis of a new ‘non-class but robustly material’ us politics, counter-posing an alternative ‘class’ explanation for white workers’ gop vote.footnote2 Here I want to concentrate instead on the underlying political-economic presuppositions of their ‘Seven Theses’: the claim that we are witnessing the rise of a new ‘political capitalism’ characterized by politically engineered upward redistribution, and the Brennerite analysis of the long downturn that underpins it. I think the case made so far for this new regime has been unconvincing, but I appreciate the spur to thinking offered by the article and its ‘experimental and provisional spirit’. What follows, which raises doubts and questions rather than proposing an alternative model, is offered in the same inquiring spirit.
The first thing to say about the hypothesis of a new ‘political capitalism’ is that there is something to talk about here. For some, the immediate response will be that capitalist profits have always depended on political power. That is true; but it is also the case that the nature of the capitalist economy’s dependence on politics has shifted over time. The objective trend towards the socialization of production under capitalism has its counterpart in new roles for the state, such as the coordination of investment and crisis management. Recent examples would include debt cancellation by executive order and the extraordinary role played by government transfers in maintaining household incomes during the Covid-19 pandemic. Riley and Brenner are right to initiate a discussion about this.
However, the claim that the politicization of capitalism is something new requires an examination of relevant historical precedents (and an acknowledgement that those pointing to this history are not simply saying that the relationship between capital and the state has never changed). Inter alia, these precedents might include the nineteenth-century railroads, which inspired Gabriel Kolko to apply the term ‘political capitalism’ to Progressive Era regulation.footnote3 Capitalist as they undoubtedly were, and are, ‘raw political power’ played an undeniable role in imperialism, the late-developmental state and the military-industrial complex. Some consideration of the Marxist debates in the 1970s about organized and disorganized capitalism would also be useful; for example, the conclusion to Erik Olin Wright’s Class, Crisis and the State (1978) lists ‘the progressive politicization of the accumulation process itself’ as one of the principle contradictions of advanced capitalism.footnote4
Similar views could be found in the business press of the period. A 1971 article on ‘The Coming of the Managed Economy’, for example, quotes a Nixon adviser predicting that the us was going to become ‘an absolutely regulated economy’ in the 1980s: ‘Within ten years, fifty per cent of our industrial production will be controlled by the government.’footnote5 As the adviser pointed out, there was plenty of reason to think this way at the time: ‘Washington already calls the tune in housing, airlines, railroads and aircraft production.’ Think of the Penn Central bankruptcy and partial nationalization of the railroads, the Lockheed bailout, the various interventions into the airlines, the government’s assistance to itt both at home and in Chile, and the remarkable level of interpenetration between the Nixon Administration and corporate interests.footnote6 Not to mention a defence budget which had roughly equalled, or even exceeded, total fixed business investment for decades.
Indeed, with the solitary exception of quantitative easing, every item in the list of new forms of political extraction presented by Riley and Brenner—tax breaks, the privatization of public assets at bargain-basement prices, low interest rates, stock market booms with irrational consequences, massive state spending aimed directly at private industry—existed at different points in the 1945–1973 ‘golden age’ of capitalism. Given all this, it is surprising that the only historical precedent for political accumulation invoked in ‘Seven Theses on American Politics’ is feudalism: ‘The dramatic intensification of lobbying could be understood as a form of “political accumulation”, different of course from its feudal forebear, but nonetheless highly distinctive.’footnote7 Surely there is something more recent than feudalism to which lobbying can be compared?
The article’s claim about the emergence of a new form of political accumulation is an uncertain echo of a stronger one that Brenner floated in a lecture title a couple of years ago: ‘From Capitalism to Feudalism?’.footnote8 In ‘Capitalist Functionalism’, a response to David Harvey from late 2021, Riley also flirted with the idea, declaring that there is ‘something different from capitalism that needs to be accounted for’ in phenomena such as ‘politically engineered asset bubbles and stock-market run-ups.’footnote9 But by the end of that article he opted for the more plausible idea of ‘a new form of capitalism emerging, based on political mechanisms and associated with a new form of state and a new pattern of social stratification.’