Full Employment and the Myth of the General Strike
Georges Sorel thought he had made a ‘happy choice’ with his use of the term ‘myth.’ But he soon was disabused of that illusion by critics who dismissed the anachronism of myths and others who accused him of falsifying “the real opinions of revolutionaries.”
In his essay, “Myths of the Twentieth Century” published three decades after Sorel’s Réflexions sur la violence,,” Robert Binkley credited Sorel — along with Henri Bergson, William James, Vilfredo Pareto and Sir James Frazier — with having “prepared the way” for the 20th century’s metaphysical ‘Tower of Babel’ and, consequently, with having betrayed ‘truth’. “For truth became a variable, determined by a personal equation, a problem, or a culture. As the prestige of truth fell, the prestige of myth rose… Men began to talk of the myth of science, the Christian myth, the myth of the nation, the myth of socialism, the myth of the general strike.”
Binkley must have realized that he was blaming the messenger for the message. Whatever science and progress might have meant to its 19th century eulogists. their status as “truth” was contingent and ephemeral. Critics did not concoct out of nothing the defects they criticized.
Binkley summarized “four great myths in the contemporary western world” in the following passage:
These four are: the original Christian myth, from which the others are descended ; its secularized version of the world order or great society; the materialistic version with its eschatology of the proletarian paradise; and the antithetic or reactionary myth of the nation, with its mystery of blood and soil.
I will take the liberty of designating Binkley’s “world order or great society,” the myth of political democracy, which is consistent with its Wilsonian heritage that Binkley invokes. Sorel’s myth of the general strike takes on greater substance in comparison and contrast to the political democracy myth.
Elections per se are not intrinsically democratic any more than they are intrinsically fascist, socialist or spiritualist. Elections offer a choice between given candidates for given offices in given institutions. They are affirmations of the status quo. Rejecting that status quo is never on the ballot, least of all when voters are led to believe they have an option of rejecting it.
It was acknowledged during the New Deal that the realization of political democracy required at least a modicum of economic democracy. Collective bargaining, full employment and fair employment standards and practices were promoted as incremental steps on the road to economic and thus political democracy.
The reaction against these reforms from the business lobby was swift, harsh, and unrelenting. “Free enterprise” — not economic democracy — was upheld as the American Way. “Industry” (that is to say, property) — not collective action — was proclaimed the fountainhead of shorter hours, higher pay and the world’s highest standard of living. Any other way was un-American.
No vision of economic democracy was on offer in last month’s U.S. Presidential elections, only a Hobson’s choice between two versions of economic despotism — a neo-liberal, technocratic dynasty and a wheeler-dealer, flim-flam man. The glaring disparity between the two and a half million popular vote margin for the former and the gerrymandered electoral college outcome in favor of the latter only added incongruity to effrontery. Ironically, the creed of individualism raises no objection to the design of winner-take-all state sovereignty trumping the principle of popular sovereignty. On the contrary, the denial of political democracy is vindicated by its effectiveness in preventing the tyranny of full employment, collective bargaining and fair labor standards.
If, as Branko Milanovic claims, communism has perished as a secular religion, political democracy only perseveres as a hollowed-out husk. In fact, the idea of political democracy is more invested in the threat of a general strike than any 21st century pundit would care to imagine. Electoral reforms in Britain during the 19th century were advanced on the premise that it was “to prevent the necessity of revolution,” as Whig Prime Minister, Lord Grey put it in 1831. The truth of that proposition was illustrated eleven years later in the general strike known as the Plug-Plot Riots, which melded outrage over wage cuts to Chartist demands for universal male suffrage, annual parliamentary elections by secret ballot and equal-sized constituencies.
Andreas Malm recounted the history of that 1842 general strike in Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. The narrative is essential to Malm’s prescription for politically addressing climate change: “What is needed today,” Malm asks, “if not some global version of the Plug Plot Riots? Go and stop the smoke!”
What, then, remains of political democracy, economic democracy and the long-term problem of full employment? The myth of political democracy has repudiated itself. What was touted toward the end of the second world war as “jobs for all after the war” was transformed over the next five years into the imperative of economic growth in accordance with the theory that growth was needed to maintain full employment in a technologically-advancing economy.
As Malm points out, though, “an economy of self-sustaining growth [is] predicated on the growing consumption of fossil fuels.” (Not, of course, some ‘hypothetical’ economy but any and all actually-existing economies.) There is no question of eco-technological fine-tuning. Malm is unequivocal:
The tradition of the dead is breathing down the necks of the living, leaving them with two choices: smash their way out of business-as-usual — and the heavier the breath, the more extreme the measures must be — or succumb to an accumulated, unbearable destiny. … The famed ‘window of opportunity’ for abolishing the fossil economy and stabilising climate within tolerable bounds — even returning it to safer conditions — is still there; if emissions were reduced to zero, the rise in temperatures would soon taper off. Such an enterprise would have to stage a full-scale onslaught on the structural nightmares bequeathed by the past. It would be a revolution against history, an exodus, an escape from it in the last moment, and it would have to know what it has to struggle against.
The presumably unimaginable suddenly comes into focus as the only conceivable — and not unprecedented — way forward.
Sorel’s theory of myth distinguishes between “intellectualist philosophy” and the inner depths of emotional experience that “are not descriptions of things but expressions of a will to act.” Fundamental to his theory is a thoroughgoing pessimism — not the disappointed hope of the optimist but an apprehension and conviction of the intransigence of social conditions such that they “can only disappear through a catastrophe which involves the whole.” For the pessimist, then, the “path towards deliverance” entails “many heroic acts,” “courageous propaganda” and “considerable moral progress,” none of which sacrifices could be motivated by a dispassionate analysis of facts. It thus became evident to Sorel that:
…men who are participating in great social movements always picture their coming action in the form of images of battle in which their cause is certain to triumph. I proposed to give the name of ‘myths’ to these constructions, knowledge of which is so important for historians: the general strike of the syndicalists and Marx’s catastrophic revolution are such myths.
The pertinence of Sorel’s pessimism is illustrated by the feeble “if only” post-election retrospectives of Democrats and their social democratic critics. If only the result could be overturned by a recount or principled defection of electors. If only Bernie Sanders had been the nominee — or if only he had not damaged Hillary Clinton by challenging her in the primaries. If only the FBI had honored traditional protocols about disclosing information in the climax of a campaign — or if only they had disclosed information about foreign interference, too. If only the media hadn’t given Trump billions of dollars worth of free publicity…
The truth, though, is that even if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic Party nominee and even if he won a landslide victory along with majorities in both houses of congress — Sanders, like Syriza in Greece, would have been forced to yield before the threat of a general strike of capital. The corrosive effect on political democracy of the perpetual threat of capitalist general strike makes preparation of the proletarian general strike the only path to deliverance from plutocracy and ecological catastrophe.
I will have to read this again after some thought. It is good . . .
My sons and daughters, many are called but few are chosen. The only system that works — “works” meaning the greatest good for the greatest number — is a system in which the power of the actors is balances: as they all go for each others’ throats. As well understood by our nation’s founders.
6% labor union density does not make for balanced economic or political power.
Can anybody here tell me why (progressive) states cannot make union busting a felony? If there were no other labor law at all, no one would argue they cannot. Federal preemption doesn’t mean states don’t have the right to protect actors in markets (any form of markets) from unbalanced power.
DD to put it very simply the SCOTUS is rigged, the DOJ is rigged and the Dept. of Labor and the NLRB is rigged. Second union busting became very popular sport over the past 20 years or so, So much so that unions went from about 30% of the labor force to you say 6% now. That did not happen by accident and most unions were looked down upon as the root to all their operating problems . Third many public sector unions have “no strike” clauses so what kind of union is it really not just an association. Unions actually were what brought respect, dignity, and pride back into many shops and gave workers a voice in what was happening toward improvement, stability and fairness. Real labor unions are poised to make a big comeback but only if the Trump administration stays union friendly and probably will since he won with so many blue collar voters.
“Real labor unions are poised to make a big comeback but only if the Trump administration stays union friendly and probably will since he won with so many blue collar voters”
There is a fifty year record of Trump’s thoughts on unions. There is a fifty year history of the GOP’s thoughts on unions.
How in the world can you make a statement like that?
William, that post had to be in jest.
EM I thought you and BM were gone. Darn. I do not like having always to explain to stupidity or mentally challenged people . First you do not know nothing of or about the power of unions nor does Trump. Trump was also surprised to win the election as much as you and BM were. Nobody saw it coming but I did. I know you did not. Secondly for Trump to make any gains with making things here again to make us great again he will need all the help from skilled unions that he can get. Real simple economics that I know you cannot understand so spare me you insult, comical, fairy tail rebuttal if you would…
Cut the personal insults or all your comments on my threads will be “moderated” which is to say deleted.
Feel free, we do have a large collect of trolls as of recent.
i agree with you generally… if i understand you. But I can’t help noting that while an author needs an image (verbal) to hang his thesis on, and subsequent authors will lean on that image to give structure to their thoughts, the fate of “myth” is that after the intellectuals are through with it, it is taken up by the hacks who debase it until “there is no such thing as truth.” Well, there is, but it takes a little work to establish it even in science, and maybe heroic action to give it a chance in politics.
Yes, that is the sense in which Binkley is blaming the philosophers for the Tower of Babel. The alternative, I am afraid, would be for authors to avoid all imagery — in which case there would be no authorship, only pedantry.
i should say that by heroic acts i do not mean gunfire, or even “protests.” But dogged efforts to reach and persuade the people past the point of the existing political elite to pretend they are seriously interested in well being of human beings.
Oddly, I think Trump won by doing just that… but he did it with a heavy dose of “or we’ll kill them.” And people are very, very susceptible to that kind of heroic imagery.
Trump did indeed play on myth. So did HRC, for that matter. All politics is mythology. The important point is to choose your myth wisely and not to eschew myth in favor of some “more realistic” myth solely on the basis of convention.
that makes sense. i have nothing against “myth” except that us low lifes have to put up with each new intellectual fad as it comes along and becomes solemnized as absolute truth by the jabbering class.
Nice posting. This is the sort of big thinking I appreciate from you folks.
The myths I hate:
SSI as an entitlement
That private industry can always do better that government
The reality I never see discussed in public forums:
The effects of private finance on our form of social organization
The Fortune 500(0) of Trusts
The effects of unfettered global inheritance
I am not sorry that I keep challenging “economists” to explain to the public how the world really works. I keep sending folks that are ignorant of SSI to this web site for excellent education, thanks!
please forgive me: my purpose here is not pedantry. SSI is Supplemental Security Income and it is a welfare program not part of what is usually called Social Security or OASDI: Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance, which are NOT welfare.
Anymore I don’t know what people mean when they say “entitlement.” I think people are entitled to their Social Security pensions or benefits because they paid for them. Other people use “entitlement” as some kind of swear word “people think they are entitled to welfare”. Journalists use the word the way they use every other word… it sounds right, they heard someone important say it.
I have been fighting for ten years now to get people to understand that Social Security is not welfare. It is insurance that workers pay for themselves. No money comes from “taxes.” FICA is not a tax though it is called “the payroll tax,” and like a tax it is not voluntary and it is paid to the government. But unlike a tax you get your money back. It is held for you and earns interest while protected from inflation and market losses, and insured — by the workers own money: they insure each other – against certain kinds of personal losses: death, disability, and a lifetime of wages too low to save enough to retire on.
People twist words and meanings to avoid understanding that the workers pay for their own Social Security benefits.
And for ten years I have been trying to get ONE politician or journalist to understand that Social Security is not going broke. It is not going to be a burden on the young. It can continue to pay pensions forever if only the people can understand that they have to pay for it themselves, and the projected increase in costs due mostly to living longer, together with the projected failure of incomes to keep up — on a percentage basis — with those costs, can be paid for entirely by raising their own “tax” about one dollar per week from time to time… though essentially every year for about the next ten, then at rapidly decreasing intervals for the following about fifty years. At the end of the day, the increased cost will amount to about 2% of income for each the worker and the employer, while wages will have increased over 100%. This means that the worker in the future will pay an unnoticeable increase in the percent of his wages, but will have more than twice as much money in his pocket AFTER paying the “tax” than he has today…plus having paid for a retirement that will be longer at a higher standard of living.
Not ONE politician or journalist has been interested in hearing that. and the “non partisan experts” as well as the “defenders of Social Security”, both of whom know it is true, don’t want the people to hear about it.
And the few people who understand it are, like me, completely clueless about how to tell the people.
I apologize for not being current on terms, I am 68. I have always known and used the acronym SSI as Social Security Insurance but now read I am wrong in that regard.
I just went and searched for the term social security insurance i quotes and it seems I am not alone. Where can I read a history of the acronyms related to social security?
Please and thank you for all your efforts to educate folks. You do a great job and I am sorry that many continue to cling to their brain washed ignorance.
no need to apologize. people use the language they hear, and SSI is very frequently used to mean Social Security. it’s just that if you are going to try to get people thinking straight about how it works it’s a good idea to make the distinction between SSI and OASDI or even SSA… which is the Social Security Administration.
I know of no place where you can read up on the abbreviations. It’s just a matter of learn as you go. If you have the time read the Trustees Report, not the “Summary”– which is a political document. If you read the Report very slowly and try to understand what each paragraph really means, and keep a pencil handy to do some arithmetic, you will learn a lot. And the stuff you don’t understand or get wrong can be cleared up by talking “honestly” with other people who have made the effort.
I wish I could get everyone to do that. but there is not a chance.
I’m not sure the average Jane and Joe would see “myth” as anything more than a story. Maybe a fable. But substance leading to action? I don’t think the populace is that sophisticated.
I’m not sure the average Jane and Joe is the audience for what I write. A few weeks ago riding home on the bus I overheard a conversation between two non-union construction workers. They were grousing about how the unions were just out for themselves, about how the immigrants who couldn’t even speak English were taking all the jobs. And then out of the blue they started talking about what was needed was a general strike! Those two wouldn’t have needed any of the elaborate rationale that I posted above. They just went straight there.
avg may be setting the bar a bit high. sophisticated indeed. they would need to have read the particular essays in question and followed the thread to derive any meaning whatsoever from the philosophical essay here that reads like something from Dylan Thomas: It sounds like it means something but just what is hard to determine.
“colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”
not sure who the non average j and j might be. folks who read modern philosophy are rare.
those ignorant workers you mention have been around for thousands of years… even when i was a child. they need all the education we can figure out how to get them to eat.
on the other hand they can tell where it hurts. it’s a mistake to let Trump tell them everything they need to know.
December 5, 2016 1:02 am
I’m not sure the average Jane and Joe is the audience for what I write. ”
Yes, but they are the voters. And that anti union argument? I just shake my head. Just had that debate on facebook with a nephew who owns a construction company.