“You can either try to do your best as an individual, or you’ll have to somehow, together with others, fundamentally alter the existing social system.”
Global Uprisings interview series:
I: Mariam Kirollos — Fighting Sexual Assault in Egypt
II: Paul Mason — The Economics of Revolt
III. Paul Mattick — More Business as Usual
The following interview was conducted in December 2013 at Paul Mattick’s home in Brooklyn, NY. Paul Mattick Jr. (born 1944) is a Marxist theorist and philosopher. His latest book is Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (2011, PM Press). Brandon Jourdan is an independent filmmaker and media activist responsible, together with Marianne Maeckelbergh, for the Global Uprising documentary series.
This is the third in a series of interviews conducted with participants from the Global Uprisings conference, which took place during the weekend of November 15-17, 2013.
Brandon Jourdan (Global Uprisings): So looking now at this period of time since we last talked, there was this dominant narrative in the U.S. that the U.S. is in a period of recovery, really starting in 2009…
Paul Mattick: Yes, June 2009, [that’s] when the recovery officially began.
Brandon Jourdan: But that recovery has been fairly weak, I mean, unemployment may have went down, or at least unemployment statistics went down. But the crisis actually seems to have, quite a bit, intensified.
Paul Mattick: Yes.
Brandon Jourdan: Where are we at right now?—in regards to the political and economic situation… on a macro level? Is this crisis really over?
Paul Mattick: My guess was—I don’t like to dignify these things with the name of science or knowledge—but my guess was in 2008 that what we experienced then was the beginning of what would be a very long and deep depression, and I have the impression that that guess was correct. What’s very striking to me is that despite the fact that officially the crisis was to be over—was supposed to be over—and recovery was supposed to have begun by the summer of 2009, by now the consensus, even among normal orthodox economists, has shifted to a much more pessimistic position.
So, for example, Lawrence Summers, who was originally supposed to become the next head of the Federal Reserve, and who’s probably the most important and famous non-ultra-right-wing economist in the United States, produced a paper [in November] in which he said, “we are probably now in a period of long-term or semi-permanent stagnation”—which was a very radical thing for somebody like that to say. Of course, they don’t know much more than I do about what’s going on. They’re also just guessing, and extrapolating from the trends, and also they really don’t have an analytical point of view or theory which would allow them to do much better than guess. But I find it quite interesting and striking that—the extent to which the more realistic economists, the economists who are actually involved with policy, and are paying some attention to the numbers and to what the policy choices facing governments are, are rather pessimistic, and I find that interesting because—of course, I like it because it confirms my own view.
So I would have to say yes, I think we are in a continuing crisis which is not becoming less serious. For example, in the United States, there has been some decline in the unemployment numbers, but that is largely—as is openly admitted when this is discussed—due to the fact that more and more people are dropping out of the labor force. So as the labor force becomes smaller, the unemployment number goes—the percentage—goes down. But, to me, the most striking and fascinating information about the American economy is the rolling tide of bankruptcies: cities in California, Detroit—Philadelphia is on the verge of bankruptcy; and the bankruptcies are largely provoked, although not only provoked, by the inability of one major municipality after another to pay the pensions which they have promised to city workers and state workers. So there simply is not the money available even for the keeping of old promises to the population, much less to deal with the toll which is being exacted now by the continuing decline of the private capitalist economy.
Brandon Jourdan: At the same time, the social results of the crisis are still ongoing. We have, you know—now, I live in the Netherlands—but the Dutch king came out two months ago and said that they’re “ending the social welfare state” … which was ironic, because he’s getting millions of—
Paul Mattick: Not for him, necessarily—right.
Brandon Jourdan: So, the social effects are far from over.
Paul Mattick: No. The social effects are very far from over. That they are continuing to press the weakest countries: Greece, Portugal, Spain—and you can see in the United States, where the same processes are going on with the ongoing attempt to cancel—in fact, by law—the emergency extension of unemployment insurance has not been renewed. So, you know, even the most simple response to the crisis, which is to give people who are unemployed a little extra money for a few months, they are trying to stop [it]. So yes, I say that not only is the crisis ongoing, but the austerity policies, which have been put in place by all governments at this point, are being expanded.
One of the few exceptions was China, where you had an enormous expansion of credit to sort of create a construction bubble throughout the country and this has got out of control, and is now sort of coming to end, and as far as I can tell there is a great deal of anxiety internationally about the effects of this—the coming contraction in China due to the limitation of government spending, which of course was unable to solve the fundamental problem, which is due to the fact that the Chinese economy is basically an export economy, and dependent on the economy in other countries for its own continued progress.
Brandon Jourdan: What would something like the crisis in China mean for the global economy?
Paul Mattick: Well, probably in itself not very much, but it will mean a lot for the Chinese population which already has a rather high level of social conflict. And … Chinese projects do import a certain amount of machine tools and other materials from the external world—from Europe, from Germany—and also, they import a lot of energy from other parts of the world, and China is very dependent on energy exports in the form of oil and coal.
So a decline in the Chinese economy would have a certain dampening effect, but I think it’s not fundamental—the fundamental engines of the world economy remain the United States and Western Europe. And until those areas of the world emerge from the crisis, there will be no general upturn in the world economy as a whole.
Brandon Jourdan: You spoke quite a bit about this in your presentation [at the Global Uprisings conference]—how this crisis differs from other ones, in regards to sovereign debt, and debt in general—private and public debt. Can you tell me just a little bit about that?
Paul Mattick: To put it very briefly, there was the Great Depression of the 1930s, [which] really marked a turning point in the history of capitalism, as has been recognized by almost all commentators in one fashion or another. Not only was it an extremely deep depression which affected very large numbers of people all over the world, and which lasted for a very long time, and not only did the attempt to resolve it give rise to a World War which included the killing of 50 or 60 or possibly even 70 million people, but also—and this is part of the story of that war—it was felt by the major capitalist powers that the social upheavals occasioned by this very long period of depression and mass unemployment required government intervention into the economy on a hitherto unknown scale.
Governments had always, of course, supported capitalists by helping subsidize the building of railroads, and various kinds of schemes. But the actual intervention of the government as a major economic player—as an employer, as a supplier of funds to private industry—had not occurred on such a scale before the mid- to late 1930s. And of course the high point of this process was the Second World War itself, during which, for example, in the United States, about 50% of all economic activity was financed by the government: mainly work production. It was the war, and the government spending for war, which ended unemployment in Germany and in the United States, and curiously enough, after the war, it turned out not to be possible to completely retire the position of the government as an economic actor as had been planned. Governments were still very worried that the end of the war would bring a return of depression conditions, and so they were ready to maintain state activity. And they did—of course not on the same level as during the war.
But the role of the government in economic affairs never went back to the pre-Depression condition, and instead of returning after the Depression to another period of free enterprise, what we had was instead what came to be called the mixed economy of about 65% private capitalism and 35% state activity, and what is very significant is that they have not been able to retire—to get rid of the state’s role in the economy. And any attempt to do so had produced an immediate rise in unemployment—even today, when under the name of austerity, every government in the world is obsessed with limiting the growth of government debt, and limiting government spending. They are actually not really able to decrease the activity of the government in the economies of the major capitalist countries. They are trying to make a kind of compromise, which involves taking it out of the hide of weaker countries, like the European peripheral countries and of course the rest of the world—so that the austerity is being applied unevenly. But they are stuck, in a way—they’re somehow caught between the fear of really eliminating the role of the government, and at the same time being afraid that it might become even larger, which would threaten the continued existence of capitalism as a private free enterprise system.
Brandon Jourdan: So, all these more Keynesian left people who say, “What we need now is a ‘New New Deal’”—they are ignoring this kind of fact.
Paul Mattick: They’re ignoring this. David Harvey for example says, “We need a ‘New New Deal’”, but he doesn’t explain where the money is supposed to come from, because governments don’t have any money. They have to borrow it, they have to tax it, or they can just print it—which is another way of borrowing it or taxing it.
So, the governments themselves—which is to say, the various business interests that are represented by political figures in governments—understand that it would be very dangerous to return completely to a pure capitalist system. But at the same time, they don’t see the possibility of a “New New Deal.” I don’t even think that people would be against it. Don’t forget that Keynesianism was the official policy in the late 1950s and 1960s. By the end of the 1950s Keynesianism had triumphed. There was the famous remark of President Nixon himself, saying “We are all Keynesians now”. So Keynesianism was the official doctrine. It is no longer. The Keynesian economists and the left Keynesians should ask themselves: “Why is this policy, which was the official orthodoxy of every capitalist country in the world, no longer the acceptable policy?”
And, you can either explain it in terms of the kind of meanness or unpleasantness of politicians, or you have to explain it in terms of some deeper rationality which expresses the functioning of the system and an inherent limit to the expansion of the state finance and state-run section of the economy, if the private capitalist system is to continue. What strikes me as so interesting about this is that it’s the end of the enthusiasm for Keynesianism or the end of sort of free-flowing Keynesianism, and the turn to austerity is a kind of recognition of the inherent limits of the present moment of capitalist growth—that they can see on the one hand that it is the limit of growth which calls for Keynesian methods. But the limit of growth also means that you can’t apply them, because the money simply is not there; and a further expansion of government spending would mean really undermining what remains of capitalism.
Brandon Jourdan: And at the same point, there is this kind of failure of Keynesianism, but there is also this other element of the left which focuses on neoliberalism from the 1970s up until the present. But in this crisis, what is interesting is that [governments] are just kind of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks—I mean, there has been anywhere from a cut to certain social spending to, say, the nationalization of banks in, say, Greece and the Netherlands, to some sort of financial stimuluses.
Paul Mattick: Well, first of all, the people who run things themselves don’t really know what to do. They don’t really understand how their system operates, and they don’t know what to do. They have various recipes from the past, and then there are different national traditions: for example, in Europe, there is more social welfare spending; in the United States there is less—and the United States still doesn’t have a serious public health care system which every normal European country now has.
So, also, in some places you can nationalize banks; in the United States, you sort of nationalize the banks—I mean, the banks are basically functioning with government money, they just they don’t call it “nationalizing the banks,” and actually what you have is a kind of—you know—banks taking over the government. But it’s sort of the same thing, and it’s the same people. And you know, it sounds very exciting if you say “oh, well, the government is nationalizing the banks,” but the government and the banks are basically just the same people. So whether you call it a “bank bailout” or a “nationalization of the bank,” the essential thing is that the banks were not able to function, and they had to be rescued by public money.
And then, there are simply local differences that play out in the different political forms and structures through which this was accomplished. But essentially, whether it’s the Netherlands or the United States or Argentina, the process is the same: namely that collective funds have to be used to rescue the financial system which was no longer able to function on its own.
Brandon Jourdan: In some countries, there’s been a legitimation crisis—but, it has been kind of shallow. For instance, in Greece in 2011: at that point, it seemed like every element of society was sick of not just politicians. There was also a frustration with union leadership, frustration with capitalism in general in a more advanced way, I think, than some other countries I’ve been in. There was also similar developments in Spain. But now, there’s sort of, I think, this desire for a sort of social peace—a sort of burnout, like “oh, we haven’t accomplished anything.” What do you think about all these developments? Now there are these kind of “calls” for new political parties, which—whether they liked it or not, are basically a repeat of some of the social democratic parties (SYRIZA, etc). I mean, is it even possible at this period of time to really—for states to both give to the population and create growth? And when does it come a point where we actually have to say, “Well, it’s kind of fucked up that the economy has to grow 3% every year for this to be a functioning economy”?—despite whatever is happening with the environment, which you also have written quite a bit—that, despite what types of exploitation, makes it have this type of growth?
Paul Mattick: Well, you’re raising quite a few questions—which is normal, because they’re all very connected to each other [laughs]. So if I can take them apart a little bit, the first thing which you notice that struck me as very true and very important, namely—one interesting feature of the last, has been the general disgust with politicians, and with politics, with business as usual. And you can see that this is a reaction to the crisis, and to the inability of the politicians to do anything about it. So then, you know, the official story was first of all that capitalism was supposed to be good for everybody. It was supposed to keep growing, and the rising tide would lift all boats. But then if there were any problems, then the government was supposed to step in and take care of those problems.
First, capitalism did not keep growing, and the government has been unable to take care of the problems. So people suddenly discover that the economy is maybe not so great as a social system, and that the politicians cannot be trusted and are just a bunch of crooks—which in their hearts everybody always knew. I mean, anybody who pays any attention to politics knows, as the eternal folklore of modern politics has always held, that politicians are crooks—but people don’t mind it as long as they are getting something out of it. But when they no longer get something out of it, then they get angry at the politicians. On the other hand, since the various social movements that developed in response to this economic downturn have been unable to change anything fundamental in social, political, and economic reality, there are no forces in power which are in a position to act other than the various people who are striving for political positions.
The problem is that there are people who make a living as politicians, and there is nothing else for them to do but continue playing the role of political figures, and making promises, and having strategies and plans, and making coalitions, and when possible even accomplishing this or that, or putting somebody in jail from an earlier regime. So, the political charade goes on. And since there is no alternative that seems to make a difference, there is always a certain percentage of the population which will become interested in it. Sometimes it can operate on an extremely cynical level, like in the United States where you have this peculiar phenomenon of the ultra-reactionary Tea Party people, who are all financed by big business and Wall Street, and who are really only preoccupied with imposing austerity and cutting taxes for the wealthy—and really no other interest whatsoever—but who nonetheless can get some befuddled right-wing yokels to vote for them on the illusion that they are somehow representing the people against Washington and Wall Street.
So you can have a revival of social democratic ideals, but I think a true revival of social democracy is not possible, any more than a true revival of fascism would be a possibility, because both of those require the possibility of government spending, of Keynesianism—and that seems to me at the moment just not to be in the cards. There is no social power that has any force behind it which is interested in further expanding the role of government. The thing that is called neoliberalism—which is not as it claimed to be, a movement for the freeing of markets, because it is entirely dependent or largely dependent on the use of government forces and means to control and manipulate the economy nationally and internationally—but what it did represent was an attempt to utilize the governments to funnel social wealth to smaller and smaller portions of the population: to the largest corporations, to break down the social welfare systems, to ensure that the money at the disposal of the state gets circulated more completely to the top layers of society.
So this remains the dominant structure in politics and in economics, and I think it is extremely unlikely that any political forces able to fight that are going to arise. Because in order to do that, you would have to mobilize—actually mobilize people to take direct action. And I think there is today no political structure, no political organizations, which are interested in mobilizing the kind of energy which has appeared in the global uprisings of the last five years. It would be extremely dangerous to do so. No one is going to do that.
Brandon Jourdan: So when you hear these right-wingers … There’s this kind of rhetoric, that is sort of a joke, about big government, and getting rid of it, [but] actually the government hasn’t gone away (in the crisis)—
Paul Mattick: Oh no, it’s bigger than ever. It’s more directly now devoted to serving the interests of major multinational corporations. That’s more—it always was the major function of governments. But now, that’s sort of—almost their only function.
Brandon Jourdan: That, and policing.
Paul Mattick: And policing, which is the same thing, because—that’s to say, because you must control the population. You need a certain amount of social order. And you know, they’re very open about it. If you read OECD discussions on this question, they will say: “We cannot completely get rid of social welfare measures” because that would threaten what they call “social cohesion” or social peace, meaning: people will riot in the streets. So, they understand that the price of a certain kind of social order, of political passivity in the population is that you don’t let very large numbers of people starve to death in the streets. So they will maintain, as long as possible, a certain level of social welfare spending — although they try to contract it and, you know, make people retire later and make their pensions lower, and so on … But that’s what it’s about. So that … is the other side of policing. Those are the two sides of maintaining social consensus, social order, and social cohesion.
Brandon Jourdan: What do you think of the movements of the last few years? There’s been certainly a show of numbers … lesser here actually than, say, Europe or North Africa—but still, pretty widespread protests, occupations, proliferation of certain general assembly-type organizations—even some factory occupations. The real impact [of these movements]is that they have brought people together, they felt a temporary sense of power—only to be kind of crushed and rolled right over. What do you think about all this and what do you think that it really takes to kind of end such a globalized system like the one we’re living in?
Paul Mattick: Well, it will take much more action, much more serious, and much more long-lasting action. As you said earlier when we were talking, a one-day general strike is a symbolic occasion, and a very exciting one, and [it’s] always nice to see them happen. But to change a society you need a strike that goes on for a month, or a year, because it’s only under such conditions that new issues arise such as “how do we maintain the flow of food?”, “how do we maintain the flow of electricity and gasoline and gas?”, “how do we maintain the operation of public services?”—that means that the strikers then have to begin to reconstruct the social system on their own. And then you come to the point of actually facing the existing society with the attempt to construct new modes of social organization.
So, it’s very exciting, and it’s not just the people who are in those events who feel excited and empowered and free temporarily, but even just reading about them or thinking about them or hearing about them is very exciting and wonderful. But it remains true that none of these events actually threatens the basis of the existing social system, which is the division between the people who own the materials and means for producing and distributing goods, and people who have to work for them in order to earn the money to buy back a certain portion of their product. And unless that division—the division between the ownership and control of social wealth, and the activity of producing more social wealth—unless that division between those two groups of people is overcome, society will remain what it is.
And to the extent that it remains the society that exists, we will be faced—at least for the immediate future—with a continuing depression, with government-imposed austerity, and private enterprise-imposed austerity. So people will have to go much farther than seemed to them reasonable to go, in order to get beyond the existing situation. And that means encountering very high levels of violence from the state, as well as going against all of the training that people experience as they grow up, and which they learn to take for granted—the existing social system is natural and normal—and even to distrust attempts to change it. So people have to undergo an internal change in order to be able to confront the existing social system. And it’s that which I think is so important about these experiments and demonstrations and uprisings of the last year(s)—is that these are the beginning of people get[ting] the idea: “Oh, well, we don’t just have to put up with things as they are.” But they will have to go much farther in order to actually change something.
You can—if you just take one little example, like Egypt—you can, if you demonstrate enough, and you are willing to put up with enough people being killed, you can get rid of Mubarak. But then there’s the army. You know, fighting the army is another thing, because the army is willing to sacrifice Mubarak to restore [order]—they don’t care about him. It’s the army that actually runs Egypt, that owns the economy. And, so, then there’s a battle between a few families which are allied with Mubarak and the other families which are running the economy with the army, and they can let him go. But the next step, if you want it to go farther in Egypt, then you would actually have to take that ownership of the economic system away from the army. But then you have to fight the army—that’s not just going to Tahrir Square and demonstrating for a month. Then you have to be ready to fight the army, and you may not even be able to do that if you’re just Egyptians. You know, maybe that’s something which can only happen in the context of a much larger social upheaval, not just in the Middle East, but in Europe. It would provide a context in which the Egyptian population would be able to oppose the military forces that are running Egypt.
Brandon Jourdan: [Switching topics] Your father was very critical of the state capitalist economies that were developed under the guise of socialism in the 20th century, and was active in Germany, was a revolutionary, and there were these revolutionary explosions that happened around this period of time, before the end of World War One, and you think that any of these movements, now they could look back at these movements and see both inspiring ideas, but also lessons in history that should be learned—
Paul Mattick: Yeah—you know, I was thinking before, that one of the problems—for me, the big problem in thinking about radical change is that on one hand it’s so obvious: you can see the existing system is so irrational, so dangerous, so harmful. And, it would be so easy to change it from a technical point of view—not from a military point of view or, the problem of actually overthrowing it is a very complex and difficult one. But if you just think, “Oh yeah”, you could sort of begin to reorganize it in a more rational way, rather—it doesn’t take a great deal of thought to think how you would at least begin to do that. But on the other hand, if you look at the history of capitalism, there is almost no revolution—you know, there is almost no socialist history. I always think that labor history is one of the most depressing fields of study because it’s a story of endless defeats and endless lost opportunities and endless mistakes and endless delusions. And that’s why there are these sort of little beacons, like [flares], like, people still talk about the Paris Commune: an uprising of one city that lasted for a month.
Why do people still talk about, why do people still think about the Paris Commune in the 21st century? Because it’s one of the very few examples that there is of some kind of—for however short a moment—of the actual attempt to create a different social system. So in this rather miserable history, the period right after the First World War—in fact, the period that ended the First World War—is really an outstanding moment, because it demonstrated a number of very important things, particularly the German revolution. First of all, it showed that revolutions are quite independent of prior organizations of the traditional political sort—that the role of the major left-wing political party was, if anything, an entirely counterrevolutionary one. And the other side of this is that it showed that people have an enormous capacity to organize themselves and to spring into action, if they feel that on one hand their backs are to something that they experience as a wall, and secondly if they can see a way forward.
I mean, it’s quite remarkable that as soon as the movement began with the first mutiny of sailors in Kiel in 1918, it spread so rapidly that within something like two weeks there were ten thousand workers’ and soldiers’ councils throughout the entire country. They had overthrown the government, they were essentially running the localities, they were beginning to organize a new political and economic structure. Having spent years fighting for the success of the Social Democratic Party, they then voted themselves out of control of society and handed it over to the party who returned to society social life as normal. And that was a very terrible defeat. But what’s very striking about that period was the capacity of people to create completely new forms of organization, which were actually quite capable of organizing social, political, and economic life on the scale of a whole country. So that’s a really important lesson which I think is yet to be digested, and one thing that has made it very hard to digest was the simultaneous revolution in Russia, which was quickly taken over and liquidated by the victory of the Bolshevik Party which then became, with the crushing of the revolutionary movement in Western Europe, kind of the dominant voice of anti-capitalism.
And that then became sort of the—because Russia actually existed, there actually was an apparently communist system, a non-capitalist system functioning somewhere—that became then the beacon that everyone who was opposed to capitalism looked to, and that has distracted people for, you know, 80 years from really absorbing and utilizing the actual lessons of the revolutionary upheaval after the First World War. But if we now go back to that, now that—you know, now that communism is dead and buried—it may be possible to go back and look again at that history, and draw some lessons from it. Again, we live in a very different world, so you can’t copy it. You could not reproduce those events today and you can’t reproduce exactly those forms of organization, but what you can see is the enormous capacity of people to create a new structure of social organization that was really quite capable of toppling a well-founded regime, of bringing the war to the end, and of altering daily life—you know, practically from one week to the next in extremely fundamental ways.
Brandon Jourdan: The one thing that strikes me about these little uprisings, you know—when we were doing our project we decided to call it “uprisings,” we weren’t going to call it “revolutions” or anything like that—people can actually shift their ideas and ways of thinking pretty fast.
Paul Mattick: Yes.
Brandon Jourdan: I mean, of course they don’t create new social relationships immediately. There is no sort of externality to capitalism—there’s not really like a real autonomous zone. It can be autonomous and independent yet subservient to the laws of capital. When they want to push it aside, unless you become something big. Can you talk a little bit more about that—the ability of people to transcend? And you talked a little bit about this in your book: about that people can persevere in pretty harsh situations and people can kind of create different forms of life when they’re forced in the position to.
Paul Mattick: Well, again, you know, we don’t have that much experience of it. But I think the main thing you said is really important, which is: it is amazing how rapidly people can change. You know, I remember this even from relatively unimportant examples of this, but thinking of going to a, say, a meeting at a college around 1970 when the American students’ strike against the expansion of the Vietnam war into Cambodia was going on. And a discussion would start in the morning with one or two people saying: “Oh, maybe we should join the strike”—and two hours later, everybody would be involved in it. And it would be quite striking that the discussion would get more and more radical, and people would then begin thinking of things that they could do, and be rushing out to start making projects.
So I think it’s absolutely true that people are ready to—people are able to change very quickly, and it’s probably because people have a lot of resources for creative thought and feeling which are stifled and not utilized in the existing social system. This is something which is always argued, particularly by anarchists who talk about the revolutionary process. And in my experience with that situation, it seems to be true. The other main class of experiences that bear on this are the ones that Rebecca Solnit talks about in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, which is the response of people to natural disasters, where again, typically, you know, so-called “regular people”—which just means whoever happens to be living there—very often respond to disasters by starting to take care of other people, and creating help centers, and cooking food, and building buildings, and people always experience these events as exciting and fulfilling—the best times they ever had in their lives.
So it’s clear that the existing social life is one which is stunting, which does not fulfill some aspect of human personality, which wants to live socially and do things together with other people—and that people will respond to emergency situations in which normal life simply can’t go on, whether because there was an earthquake or a fire or a war which is just hammering them to death—and that in these situations they are able to very quickly start behaving in new ways. And something which is noted by people over and over in every kind of revolutionary or uprising situation, as well as in sort of normal economic or natural disasters, [is] the capacity of people to begin to reconstruct. But then, there always comes the moment where you come up against the limits of the existing social system. For example, one of the interesting features of people’s response to disasters is that authorities immediately begin trying to dismantle all of these self-help organizations. And of course, in more politically radical situations, in situations of uprising or revolutionary moments, of course the authorities are quite seriously involved in trying to prevent the generalization of attempts to create new modes of social life. Human history is not a very cheerful affair—but one of the reasons that I think it would be wrong to just give up or be completely depressed is what does seem to be the capacity of people to engage in a very active and spontaneous way in constructing new modes of social activity.
Brandon Jourdan: So, when you did your talks, and also in your books, you actually use the metaphor of the scissors, of the two blades. There’s one—there’s the constant economic crisis. The other thing is climate change. This was something not really talked so much about at the [Global Uprisings] conference until you sort of injected it. There were a couple of other people that wanted to talk more about this. Do you think that capitalism has any idea of what to do with climate change? I mean, you had—a few years ago, for instance—just a personal anecdote. I went to the COP15, the climate change conference in Copenhagen, and I remember doing a talk then about the sort of green capitalist menace that some of us were convinced, wholeheartedly, that this might be the way that they try to get out of the crisis—to create economic growth. And the fucked up limits of it—all the greenwashing campaigns and all the bullshit that was—sorry, I’m using all these strong words, but it’s just my feelings about it … it just seemed incompatible that any type of positive environmentalism could come from capitalism. And it seems doomed—
Paul Mattick: Yeah, I agree with that. They know what to do. They have to stop burning fossil fuels. They can’t do it. You know, they set limits, they have meetings, they have the Kyoto protocols, they, you know, and—they’re still struggling, and they haven’t even managed in the United States to have a, you know, a carbon taxing system or one of those cap and trade systems where you pay for the right to pollute—something which is already known to be completely ineffective because it has been tried in Europe. So, what they’re struggling for is something that they already know can’t possibly work. So of course they know what to do: they would have to stop burning coal, they would have to stop burning oil, they would have to go solar, they would have to completely change consumption patterns, they would have to completely retool the whole industrial system. They cannot do it, because somebody would have to pay for all that. There are trillions of dollars invested in planting equipment which are premised on this particular regime of energy. And you’re not going to be able to force those people to lose all that money. You would have to have some kind of enormous battle between capitalist entities, and at the moment, there’s no one who can see a way to make money with what are still very underdeveloped technologies.
So there was an article in The New York Times the other day that now the big oil companies are beginning to say: “Okay, we will eventually—they will force us to buy permits to pollute.” So they’re now putting that in their growth prospectuses; they’re putting that in their plans, so presumably that will mean that they will then charge more for energy. And they’re trying to figure out ways to deal with the fact that, politically, the governments will have to do something, and the thing that they will probably do, because it is the least harmful, is to have some kind of a carbon tax or have some kind of cap and trade system of pollution permits—which is already having very bad effects now because people are selling those pollution permits and the system is now [leading] to an increase in pollutants because of the international trade and the permits to pollute. But they see that’s the future.
So no, I don’t think that this is a—I’m sorry, because I think that this is a very serious and terrible problem from the point of view of the human race—but I do not see that they have the slightest chance of dealing with it fast enough, because this is now out there. The problem is that the time scale is actually rather short in which they would have to act, and it is very, very difficult for capitalism which is very disorganized, and which is very competitive, to get itself under control, so to speak, and try to deal with a problem like this. So I actually think that the ecological problems will simply become more and more serious, and this will also put enormous pressure on people in terms of simply the experience of daily life.
Brandon Jourdan: And the thing that capitalists tend to do—is that they offer these really bad solutions, like, oh, natural gas—
Paul Mattick: Then they poison the water supply everywhere and—earthquakes and—yeah. Of course, it’s not because natural gas burns cleaner; the real reason they do it is, there actually is natural gas and they have found a cheap way to get it out which will be paid for by somebody else over the next 50 years, and right now, because the price of oil is relatively high, and the price of coal is even higher than it was, it turns out that gas is cheaper. So now they can make more money with gas. That’s all it is.
Brandon Jourdan: And there’s always these short-term solutions.
Paul Mattick: They have only short-term solutions. They cannot think in a long term way because the money has to be made in the short term.
Brandon Jourdan: I can’t really remember—oh, so there was, really, one kind of fun moment for me at the conference was in the Q&A, when you were asked: “What do we have to do?”—and so I’m just going to ask you that again.
Paul Mattick: The question was what would I like to see happen—and my answer was the abolition of wage-labor and the destruction of the state, which is of course a kind of a flippant answer. But what I mean to say is that I really think there is no solution to these problems, but one which is as fundamental as that. Now it seems like a weirdly old-fashioned thing to say, but that might just be because of my age, maybe now for many younger people it isn’t old-fashioned anymore: to say, “You really have to get rid of capitalism. Capitalism cannot deal with these problems.” Even if capitalism manages to grow again, I do not think that the economy will be able to grow at a rate which will make possible high enough employment levels to sort of afford lives to people that workers got used to in the developed countries in the 1950s and 60s and even 70s. So I think from the economic point of view, the medium- and long-term perspectives are very bleak, and I think from the ecological point of view, the medium- and long-term perspectives are catastrophic, and there simply is no possibility to get out of this without actually changing the social system.
And that means that you must end the ownership and control of the productive system on which human life depends by that minority of humans who control it, and for whom everybody else has to work if they are lucky enough to be able to do so. There is no way out of it. So that’s why, when somebody said at the conference “But what, short of that, could you do?”, the only thing that I could think of to say was: then you have to try to get a job, because other than that you have to survive as well as you can. Those are the choices: either on an individual basis or on a national basis or a group basis, you know, if you are white people, or men, or Europeans, or Northern Europeans, you can try—maybe you can do better than some other group. Or as a particular individual, you might be able to live better than another individual. So you can try to do as best as you can for yourself as an individual, or you have to somehow, together with other people, fundamentally alter the existing social system. And by alter, I mean really destroy it and create a new system: a system of a radically different type, which would be based on the collective democratic control of the interaction of human beings with nature—that the economists call “production”, but which you could also call the “daily life.”
Brandon Jourdan: But I think there is kind of a period of time that is exciting. Within these insurrections or uprisings or protests there have not been real clear examples of a new world, but there’s sort of like a—I think it was a term in the Spanish Civil War—a kind of “revolutionary gymnastics”, which you kind of go through these real social explosions, you develop new ideas…
Paul Mattick: Well, you know, it doesn’t look like they’re going to just sort of peter out—and that’s because nothing is really changing. So people get tired—you know, it’s very interesting, if you look at a country like France, you had a few years ago a lot of energy, and high school strikes, and unemployment demonstrations, and high school teachers were fighting when they were cutting schools, and parents were occupying the schools because they were firing teachers. So then that all just sort of—you know, then people felt “Oh god! Nothing—we’re not getting anywhere.” Then it just sort of dies down. But in the meantime, of course, now things are gradually getting even worse. So it seems to me quite expectable that in the future these things will break out again.
So, it’s possible that if this continues, then people will, through these experiences, both learn of their unwilling discovery, of their own unwillingness simply to put up with the shit, discover their ability to make some kind of effort to protest, and discover the limits of protest, and then people will be faced with the choice: either we have to go farther, we have to go very far in a very radical direction, or we just have to give up. Once people are beginning to act, it’s harder for them to just give up.