James Livingston is a professor of history at Rutgers University. He is the author of five books, his most recent being Against Thrift. Jack Werner of The World At Large conducted this interview with Livingston at the end of September 2015.
“The Disaccumulation of Capital” and Against Thrift
JW: I want to start off this interview by revisiting a recent piece you wrote in The Nation about the death of historian Martin J. Sklar. There’s a lot going on in this essay. You write about what Sklar meant to the New Left, his four big ideas about American history, and your personal relationship with him. I want to focus on one detail in particular for our readers, Sklar’s theory of “the disaccumulation of capital,” because of its exciting, perhaps revolutionary, implications. Can you explain what Sklar meant by this distinctive turn of phrase?
JL: By “disaccumulation of capital,” he meant—I think—that economic growth (output) no longer required increased inputs of capital and labor, as it had forever, from time out of mind. This meant, in turn, that the relative suppression of consumer spending, which has gone by the names of saving, sacrifice, thrift, among many other aliases, was no longer the condition or the cause of economic growth.
JW: You say that you appropriated Sklar’s theory of disaccumulation for Against Thrift to justify an argument for redistributing income and socializing investment, an idea that most on the Left welcome. But the second half of your book entails another argument that most leftists and liberals find repulsive, a defense of consumer culture. You even call advertising “the last utopian idiom of our time.” Why does an argument for redistributing income require defending consumer culture?
JL: You can’t defend redistribution without defending consumers in all their apparent idiocy. By now it’s clear, to me anyway, that saving, sacrifice, and thrift are diseases, much worse in their psychological and macroeconomic effects than the “bohemian” alternatives. Advertising didn’t “co-opt” the counter culture, as the fatuous Thomas Frank would have it in the Conquest of Cool, it got there first (read the footnotes). That’s why I call it a utopian idiom—it’s the only time I ever borrowed from Horkheimer and Adorno. That’s why Matthew Weiner was able to write that show, what’s it called?
JW: Let’s say you’re correct about the historical record that private investment isn’t necessary to produce economic growth. What does that mean for us as workers in the market? As voters?
JL: It means that capitalists are superfluous men. They’re not “job creators,” they’re predators who live by the law of the jungle. It also means that capitalism is decrepit.
JW: This brings me to the current 2016 election. What are your thoughts on Bernie Sanders in light of Sklar’s theory of disaccumulation? Are Bernie’s ideas about free public college and creating jobs through the government moot if, in your words, “[economic] growth no longer requires net additions to the labor force”?
JL: Yeah, I think “full employment” is a bad idea. That’s the subtitle, not incidentally, of my new book, “Fuck Work.” But Sanders is right to think of higher education as our basic industry—not steel, autos, whatever, but education.
JW: This is the final question in regards to your latest book, Against Thrift. I want to get at what’s really at stake if we don’t take the time to understand the real causes of the Great Recession as explained in Chapters 2 and 3. Namely that huge shifts of income away from labor and consumption and toward capital and profits, or more simply put, economic inequality, caused the 2007-2008 crash. Will we witness another Great Depression if policy makers fail to make lasting changes in our economic structure?
JL: Yeah, we already have, and we haven’t recovered from this one yet. No net gain in jobs since 2000. Banks still sitting on 3 trillion dollars of surplus capital. Income inequality increasing, and yet the fucking Republicans can’t stop talking about lower taxes on corporate income and the wealthy—they’re certifiably insane. Either we eat the rich or they eat us.
Capitalism/Socialism and The Memory of A Historian
JW: I want to shift our discussion to Sklar’s notion that capitalism and socialism became “mixed” during the Progressive Era, 1890-1916, in the United States, and that socialism did not simply vanish from the landscape of American history but became integrated into our economy. Sklar’s worth quoting at length here, even if his prose is dense. It’s a long passage so forgive me.
It is clear that Marx perceived corporate capitalism as representing a hybrid – or an evolving “dialectical unity of opposites” – of capitalist and socialist modes of production, in which the development of one generated the development of the other, and in which the two developed together both antagonistically and symbiotically. As such, corporate capitalism represented a “progressive” development, or as he [Marx] put it, a “necessary transitional phase,” and one marked, by its very nature, by intensifying interaction – marked by both conflict and complementarity – between capitalist and socialist relations, ideas, values, movements, politics, as well as between capitalists and workers as great classes of society.
The way Sklar tells it, capitalism and socialism are two sides of the same coin, they developed together in conflict and agreement. What do we make of such a proposition?
JL: Hell, I don’t know, make of it what you will. In historical terms, I don’t think there’s any way to dispute Sklar’s accounting. Only on ideological grounds, where you insist that capitalism and socialism must exclude each other, can you make the case against Marx. Notice that Sklar isn’t saying it’s a happy or cordial relationship—he’s saying that, as in real life, it’s a meaningful one.
JW: How, then, should we rethink socialism if the question, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” is vacuous?
JL: Rethink it the way Sklar asked us to—as a set of social relations, not the exclusive property of a political party and/or the earnest ideologues who anoint themselves as socialists. Like capitalism, in history as against theory, socialism doesn’t require a cadre, a movement, or a revolution made in its name. There’s no such thing as a capitalist revolution, Barrington Moore, Jr., notwithstanding.
JW: Finally, I want to come full circle to you and Sklar. What did Sklar mean to you as a historian, colleague, and friend?
JL: Marty was, I believe, one of the great historians of the 20th century. Some day my colleagues will agree with that assessment. I was lucky to have wandered, unknowingly, into his orbit in the 1970s. He taught me that it’s not enough to be the smartest guy in the room—he always was, but he also worked harder than anybody else in the room. Now maybe I’m that guy, and I remember his example: keep reading, keep thinking, keep moving, because the law of dreams is the law of intellectual life, maybe even life as such. Marty taught me to learn from books, people, and ideas I couldn’t stomach, not at first. In his way of seeing things, nothing was off limits—nothing. Now mind you, I knew him for 40 years and we didn’t speak to each other for 20 of them. He was an extremely sensitive, difficult person, a truly, profoundly narcissistic personality who could find offense in any utterance. A real asshole, you might say. But then he was also brilliant, I don’t know, maybe even a genius. I look around, maybe I don’t see him, but I always hear him, and he’s always saying, “Go back, rethink that.” Keep moving, or die.