Seymour Melman and the New American Revolution: A Reconstructionist Alternative

By Jonathan Feldman


On December 30, 1917 Seymour Melman was born in New York City. The 100th anniversary of his birth helps bring his intellectual legacy into focus. Melman was the most significant reconstructionist thinker of the 20th Century, championing alternatives to militarism, capitalism, and social decay by advancing a systematic counter-planning program for disarmament and economic democracy. His legacy remains of critical importance because today the United States is currently a society in which the economic, political and cultural systems are spiraling into an abyss. Economic and social reconstruction is the idea that planned alternatives to the incumbent mechanisms for organizing economic, political and cultural power exist in alternative institutional designs and matching systems to extend these designs.

The economic realities are well-known, defined by an economic system in which the richest 1% of the population controlled 38.6% of the nation’s wealth in 2016 according to the Federal Reserve. The bottom 90% controlled only 22.8% of the wealth. This wealth concentration is well-known and is linked to financialization of the U.S. economy which is matched by deindustrialization and the decline of the “real economy.” Melman analyzed this problem tied to Wall Street hegemony and managerial attacks on worker’s power in his classic 1983 study Profits without Production. Here Melman illustrated how profits –and thus power—could be accumulated despite the decline of industrial work and manufacturing. In fact, the rise in administrative overheads associated with the over-extension of managerial power actually helped reduce both the competiveness and competence of U.S. firms.

In politics, the Republican Party has emerged as a Trojan Horse society, helping to defund the welfare state and advancing the aims of the predatory warfare state. The 2018 defense bill signed by President Trump allotted about $634 billion for core Pentagon operations and allotted an addition $66 billion for military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. More money was available for troops, jet fighters, ships and other weapons, even though there are millions of U.S. citizens living in poverty (40.6 million in 2016). Melman addressed the problem of the enduring post-war militarism of the U.S. in perhaps his most famous book, The Permanent War Economy, first published in 1974. The subheading of that book was “American Capitalism in Decline.” This economy emerged as way to consolidate the military largess bestowed on aerospace, communications, electronics and other war-serving industries, not to mention universities, military bases and associated institutions serving the military economy. This corporatist system, linking the state, corporations, trade unions and other actors was described by Melman in Pentagon Capitalism: The Political Economy of War, a 1971 book which showed how the state was the top manager who used its procurement and managerial power to direct these various “sub-managements.”

In culture, we see the reign of post-truth politics, in which politicians knowingly lie in order to advance political objectives and ideology makes facts irrelevant. A report by David Leonhardt and colleagues in The New York Times found that “in his first 10 months, Trump told nearly six times as many falsehoods as Obama did during his entire presidency.” The problem, however, is that the underlying system of U.S. governance has been based on many bipartisan myths. Melman’s career was based on trying to uncover such myths.

One such myth embraced by both the Republican and Democratic Parties was the idea that military power can be used without any limits. In Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. tried to defeat guerilla operations in which the opposing military was embedded in civilian zones. Attacking such areas deflated the U.S. military’s legitimacy with the projection of military power undermining U.S. political power in the region being attacked. In Vietnam, the U.S. lost politically and a backlash against that war triggered a domestic revolt. In Iraq, the toppling of Hussein pushed Iraq into the Iranian orbit, a country which is nominally a principal adversary of U.S. elites. In Afghanistan, the U.S. continues to fight its longest war with thousands dead and “no end in sight.” When it comes to terrorism, Melman saw terrorist actions as tied to alienation, individuals cut off and remote from social integration. Clearly social inclusion could remedy such a situation, but economic decline and an absence of solidarity simply compounded terrorist threats (whatever the diverse origins).

Another key myth was the ability to organize and sustain a “post-industrial society.” A report in Industry Week (August 21, 2014) noted that between 2001 and 2010, the U.S. economy shed 33% of its manufacturing jobs (about 5.8 million), which represented a 42% decline when controlling for the increase in the workforce. After controlling for increased in the working-age population during this period, Germany lost only 11% of its manufacturing jobs. While scholars debate whether trade or automation and productivity is more significant in causing such job loss, automation in a nation state serving to protect the domestic organization of work will clearly preserve more manufacturing jobs than others. In fact, the integration of automation and cooperative workforces can preserve jobs, a point made by Melman in his last great work, After Capitalism: From Managerialism to Workplace Democracy. Melman’s support for the domestic anchoring of jobs through proactive investments in civilian infrastructure including sustainable forms of alternative energy and mass transportation also belied the associated myths of globalization and free markets—both of which failed to automatically yield a proactive welfare state responsive to maintaining full and sustainable employment.

Alternatives to a Society Spiraling into Abyss


Melman believe in a revolution in thinking and acting centered on the reorganization of economic life and the nation’s security system. He believed the core alternative to economic decline was the democratic organization of workplaces. He favored the Mondragon Industrial Cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain as the exemplary model for such an alternative. These cooperatives went beyond the small scale, and potentially vulnerable, stand-alone “socialism in one firm” model of local cooperative enterprise. Mondragon has networks diversified lines of businesses, not only creating a more resilient system in the face of reduced demand in particular sectors, but also promoting the potential for job ladders such that workers could be more easily transferred from one job to another when job loss struck. Mondragon combines a technical university, development bank and cooperatives in one integrated system.

Melman believed that both political and economic decline could be reversed by vastly scaling back the U.S. military budget which represented a gigantic opportunity cost to the national economy. The other side of the $1 trillion military budget was a vast development fund which Melman believed could be used to modernize the U.S.’s energy and transportation infrastructure and reinvest in other areas of economic decay self-evident in collapsing bridges, polluted waterways, and congested transit systems. He linked urban under-development and deficits in ecological remediation to wasteful military budgets.

The program for demilitarization required four key elements, outlined by Melman in The Demilitarized Society: Disarmament and Conversion. First, he championed a comprehensive program for general and complete disarmament (GCD) in multi-lateral disarmament treaties of the sort favored by President John F. Kennedy and described in his famous June 10, 1963 American University address. Rather than have so-called “rogue states” disarm, all nations would coordinate their military budget and military power projection systems. In contrast to proliferation reduction strategies which beg the question as to why countries like North Korea would pursue nuclear weapons (to defend against a U.S. military attack). This was a program for not only nuclear but also conventional weapons reductions.

Second, disarmament treaties would be linked to a program of military budget reductions and alternative civilian investments. These reductions could pay for needed infrastructure improvements, including the need to rebuild mass transit and energy systems, a theme taken up by Brian D’Agostino and Jon Rynn in a series of studies. Alternative government investments in needed civilian areas could provide the alternative markets needed to help transition military-serving investments into more useful civilian activity.

Third, the conversion of military factories, bases, laboratories and affiliated institutions like universities could provide a way to recoup wasted resources and provide a security system for those threatened by military budget reductions. Conversion involved advanced planning and reorganizing workers, engineers, managers and technology. For example, at one point in the post-Vietnam War era, the Boeing-Vertol company (which made helicopters used in the Vietnam War) successfully produced subway cars used by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).

Finally, disarmament would also have to provide for an alternative security system which would maintain security even during a period of declining global military spending. Melman supported a kind of international police force useful in peacekeeping and related missions. He recognized that the multi-year disarmament process would still leave in place defensive systems as more offensive systems were initially scaled back. Melman recognized that Britain’s unilateral disarmament campaigns were political fiascos which made the left an easy political prey to the political right. In contrast, the GCD approach still left room for comprehensive cutbacks without the political fallout associated with claims that states were left vulnerable to attack. Verification and inspection systems would insure that cuts could be made safety and any cheating could be detecting by states attempting to conceal weapons systems.

Ideology and the Power to Plan


Where did the power come from to demilitarize the economy and change the degenerate state? Melman believed that workers’ own self-organization through cooperatives provided an essential mechanism to create the primitive accumulation of economic power which would have a significant political spin-off effect. He believed that once cooperatives reached a certain scale they would act as a kind of lobbying system to redirect the political culture to more productive and sustainable pursuits as opposed to predatory, militaristic and ecocidal ones.

The biggest obstacle to economic and political democracy lay not in technical or economic barriers, however. In a series of studies published in the 1950s, like Dynamic Factors in Industrial Productivity and Decision-Making and Productivity, Melman showed how cooperative firms could actually be more productive and efficient than normal capitalist enterprises. One reason was that workers’ self-management lessened the need for costly managerial supervision. Another reason was that workers’ had direct knowledge of how to marshal and organize the shop floor, whereas managers’ knowledge was more remote and hence less operational. Workers learned by doing and had the knowledge to organize work, but an alienating system blocked such knowledge as workers were blocked from decision-making power even though workers was “responsible” for their work.

If workers could organize economic power on a grassroots level, so too could communities directly organize political power on a local level. Thus, Melman convened “The U.S. After the Cold War: Claiming the Peace Dividend,” a May 2, 1990 national town meeting in which dozens of cities rallied in face-to-face meetings to cut the military budget and invest in needed urban and ecological investments in a peace economy. Political democracy in this case was extended by a radio network broadcast over Pacifica and dozens of affiliated stations.

The key barrier to extending democracy lay in the educational system and social movements which had failed to embrace the legacy of self-management and economic democracy. Trade unions, while necessary for advancing workers’ interests, had become focused on narrow pay or social benefits schemes. They often divorced themselves from questions regarding how work was actually organized. Melman believed that peace movements, while opposing senseless wars, had “become safe for the Pentagon.” By being remote from the culture of production, they did not realize the simple fact that producing and selling weapons generates capital and power, thereby requiring more than a reactive protest system to Pentagon capital accumulation. In contrast, the founder of Mondragon, José María Arizmendiarrieta Madariaga, realized in the Nazi bombing campaign of the Spanish Republic that technology had become the source of ultimate power. The other side of Picasso’s Guernica was a system in which workers themselves could control technology for their own use, providing an alternative to capitalists and militarists monopoly over technological power.

Ultimately, through his prolific publishing career, activism with trade unions and the peace movement, and continuing dialogue with scholars and assorted intellectuals, Melman held out hope that critically informed knowledge could promote an alternative system for organizing power. Although he recognized how universities had become servants to both the Pentagon and Wall Street (and indulged in growing administrative overheads and extensions to their managerial control), Melman still clung to the belief in the power of the idea and alternative formulation to established wisdom. The Trump presidency has falsely marshalled the lessons of the U.S.’s economic and political decline. Today’s activists would be wise to embrace Melman’s ideas to fill the power vacuum in the wake of the administration’s legitimacy crisis and movement reactive malaise. “Resistance,” the movement’s hegemonic meme, is not reconstruction.


Jonathan Michael Feldman studied under Seymour Melman at Columbia University and worked with him to establish the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament in Washington, D.C. Feldman can be reached on Twitter @globalteachin.


Studiecirklar hösten 2016

Studiecirkel 1: The Crisis of Democracy and the Rise of the Far-Right

Datum: 19 september 2016

Plats: Konditori Ritorno, Odengatan 80

Tid: 18.00

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This discussion begins with an overview on some of the ways that electoral democracies in the West have become hollowed out. This hollowing out is predicated in part on how intermediary institutions in the media, trade unions, the university and the arts have lost a lot of their critical content and ability to advance workers’ and middle class interests, substitutes to these being the politics of scarcity, identity politics and marginal symbolic improvements. The first essay examines the role of the electoral sphere and political parties. The second essay explores how the limits to globalization create a space for the far-right. While traditional anti-racist concerns are as important as ever, these have become encoded in the political ambitions of Neo-liberal politicians in the US, the UK, Sweden and elsewhere.

Peter Mair, “Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy,” New Left Review, 42, November-December 2006: 25-51. PDF made available in Facebook Event. 

Jonathan Michael Feldman, “Beyond Brexit and Lexit: Towards Social and Economic Reconstruction,” Global Teach-In, June 25, 2016, edited and updated June 27, 2016.

Studiecirkel 2: Alienation and De-Alienation

Datum: 3 oktober 2016

Plats: Konditori Ritorno, Odengatan 80

Tid: 18.00

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Alienation is about the weakening of capacities through disenabling intermediaries. These include dysfunctional employers, landlords, mass media culture that creates what Stanley Aronowitz called “colonized leisure.” In contrast, de-alienation is about creating enabling intermediaries that broaden capacities and restore democratic and accountability controls. Alienation can be defined in three ways. First, as a psychological reaction to society, being cut off from others. Second, as an objective process in which the individual is separated from fellow community members, their labor power (creative capacities), the products of their labor (creative capacities) and their species (e.g. being subjugated to an ecosystem that even poisons the individual). Third, alienation is a kind of psychological/material state of separation marked by what Sartre called “serial groups.” This passage partially clarifies some of Sartre’s basic ideas:

Atomization forces acted constantly on the workers and serialized them. A group is said to be a serial group when each of its members, though he may be in circumstances as all the others, remains alone and defines himself and behaves like someone else, who in turn is other than himself. The workers articulated and confirmed serial thinking as though it were their own thinking, but it was actually the thinking of the ruling class, who imposed it on the workers from the outside. Not that they found it either accurate or clear, but it justified their passivity by its reference to larger conditions (Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Maoists in France,” in Life/Situations: Essays Written and Spoken, New York: Pantheon, 1977: 166-167).

The first reading builds on the previous discussion of the limits of Western democracy and relates it to this idea of serialization and alienation. The second article examines how to reverse the alienation process through what Lawrence Cohen and Seymour Melman called “de-alienation.” Melman also referred to the systematic accumulation of power as related to “extension systems.” Sartre ignored economic democracy but did show the limits to electoral political interventions.

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Elections: Trap for Fools,” in Life/Situations, New York: Pantheon Books, 1977: 198-210. Accessible at:

Jonathan Michael Feldman, “Social Inclusion, Capacities Development and the Principle of Extension,” in From Community Economic Development and Ethnic Entrepreneurship to Economic Democracy: The Cooperative Development, Norrköping: Partnership for Multi-Ethnic Inclusion, May 2002. PDF made available in Facebook event.

Studiecirkel 3: Power Elites

Datum: 17 oktober 2016

Plats: Konditori Ritorno, Odengatan 80 

Tid: 18.00

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There was a major investigation of the structure of power within Sweden that was completed in 1990. About 20 books and ninety reports were completed in service of this investigation. Two academic journal articles, published by one of the lead investigators, will be reviewed. Recently, Bo Rothstein called for a new investigation. He explained that the original investigation was rather influential, although associated with certain limitations which he explains.

We can view the original investigation in several ways. One way is to see this as a model for critical social science, where the absence of a power investigation is seen as a large step backwards. Another way to view this investigation is as an academic exercise by several elite academic institutions, one of them being Uppsala University (particularly their department of government), designed to investigate other elite institutions. The academic exercise had some useful observations, but we must analyze what was not done even in the original study.

While the two studies cited below increasingly conceive of the media’s growing power, they have no conception of militarism or the military’s claim on economic resources. Words like “cooperative,” “militarism,” and “alienation” are not part of the vocabulary used to understand power. The concept of “iron triangle,” a phrase used to indicate links between companies, government agencies and legislative bodies, is used in passing, this reference hardly constitutes an explanation of the Swedish military industrial complex or militarism. While the word “class” appears repeatedly, the idea of “capitalism” is missing. Much attention is paid to the policy structures of the existing state, but less so on the underlying logic of how capitalism, alienation, and the absence of economic democracy structures how power is deployed and how political parties react. The two studies do pay attention to social movements, particularly the labor movement, as a central actor. Yet, neither looks at the non-profit industrial complex or details the ways in which globalization may have influence splits within the labor movement, particularly evident given the rise of the Swedish Democrats. You won’t find the word “racism” in either study, which many today would regard as a limitation. Thus, these two report summaries are remarkable as discursive documents and framing systems, as interesting for what they don’t say as what they say. It is not clear whether the original investigation addressed how ideological frames help reproduce the power of elites, i.e. the creation of paradigmatic boundaries that reproduce power structures by killing off alternative, more critical ideas.

Olof Petersson, “The Study of Power and Democracy in Sweden,” Scandinavian Political Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1988: 145-158. PDF made available in Facebook event.

Olof Petersson, “Democracy and Power in Sweden,” Scandinavian Political Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1991: 173-191. PDF made available in Facebook event.

Bo Rothstein, ”Maktutredning behövs för att kartlägga det nya Sverige,” Dagens Nyheter, October 26, 2014.

Studiecirkel 4: A Theory of Political Commitment

Datum: 31 oktober 2016

Plats: Konditori Ritorno, Odengatan 80

Tid: 18.00

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The de-alienation process can be assessed in various ways. One way is the commitment to a social cause, social movement or ethics in action. The other is as part of an effort to design and build alternative institutions. Knowledge and ethics are more in focus in the former, power accumulation systems in the latter. Yet, ethnics, knowledge and power are interlaced in each. The first of these readings speak again about how the PMC in the form of intellectuals uses its power in an inauthentic, non-committed way. In contrast, the second article, a profile of John Gerassi, gives us an example of authentic political commitment.

John Gerassi, “Sartre Accuses Intellectuals of Bad Faith,” The New York Times, October 17, 1971. PDF made available in Facebook event.

Jonathan Michael Feldman, “En hyllning till John ’Tito’ Gerassi,” SCISER, September 12 2016.

Studiecirkel 5: The Politics of Design

Datum: 14 november 2016

Plats: Konditori Ritorno, Odengatan 80

Tid: 18.00

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These two readings explain how we can design and build alternative institutions. The general principles are outlines in the first of these two readings, under the heading “The Politics of Design.” The idea is to rediscover a discourse associated with thinkers like Paul Goodman, Seymour Melman, Barry Commoner, Gar Alperovitz, Jessica Gordon Nembhard and others who have promoted a system to build de-alienating, capacity-enhancing spaces. The application of this idea, via reconstruction, is applied to technology and the ecological crisis in the second article.

Jonathan Michael Feldman, “Some Notes on the Politics of Design,” Department of Economic History, Stockholm University, 2016. PDF made available in Facebook event.

Jonathan Michael Feldman, “Technology, Power and Social Change: Three Marx Inspired Views,” Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 30, No. 2: 28-72. PDF made available in Facebook event.

Beyond Brexit and Lexit


The idea that remaining within the EU will automatically provide benefits and resolve problems is a kind of magical thinking. It has ultimately proved dangerous with the evidence being the systematic rise of far Right parties, austerity, a limited system to save and integrate immigrants or prevent the wars or economic disasters which accelerated immigration. Nevertheless, citizens can mobilize nationally via their states and put pressure on the EU. If anything the Brexit vote clearly shows contingency vis-à-vis the European Union.

By Jonathan M. Feldman


The basic problems at hand are the following. First, part of Cosmopolitanism is associated with an anti-racist, pro-migration set of policies. Call that progressive or Left Cosmopolitanism. Second, part of Cosmopolitanism is associated with using migration, free movement of capital, and globalization to break the power of unions and reduce living standards. Call that reactionary or Right Cosmopolitanism. The two are related and partially overlap. In theory, a solidarity system would strengthen the former at the expense of the later, but these systems can’t come from traditional trade union approaches (other than organizing the unorganized) and don’t naturally or necessarily occur within the European Union Framework. Some elements of identity politics and new social movements are perfectly happy with the synergies between Left and Right Cosmopolitanism. They engage in bad faith.

Second, part of Nationalism is associated with racism, xenophobia and the embrace of national capitalism and capitalists. Call this Reactionary Nationalism. Third, part of Nationalism is associated with managed trade, regulations, industrial policy and using the state to control or limit capitalism, advanced public services and needs. Call this Progressive Nationalism. The two are related as even some far Right groups call for national controls over who controls and owns industry. Yet, a nationally-owned industry can sell out its workers just as well as a foreign-owned industry (sometimes the foreign-owned industry is better able to preserve jobs). Some elements of the so-called Trotskyite left engage in a de facto rhetorical alliance that profits from the synergies between Left and Right Nationalism. They too engage in bad faith.

The Political Scarcity of the Left versus Reconstruction


The limits of Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism as paradigms are self-evident, even as each potentially has progressive elements to them. The bad faith illustrated above is part of the problem. Each element of bad faith is based on the politics of scarcity in the political accumulation of capital (be it economic, political or media capital). What is needed is an agenda to support: a) solidarity, b) the disarmament and alternative foreign policy regimes that would limit wars, arms exports fueling them, and hence a fair share of migration, c) the promotion of a sustainable society based on coalitions linking labor, environmentalists, immigrants, the children or grand children of immigrants, peace groups, and some elements of socially responsible businesses, and the progressive elements of the welfare state among other parties, d) economic democracy, media democracy and political democracy based on the ensemble of power that links networks of cooperatives, citizens’ controlled banks, face to face deliberative and media networked forms in a kind of local political space that is integrated regionally, nationally, and internationally, and e) the progressive integration of consumption and production, in which cooperative forms of each sustain one another. Yet, remaining or exiting the EU does not automatically produce these.

The alternative agenda discussed above is what we mean by “Economic and Social Reconstruction.” It is an agenda that embraces economic reconstruction and new forms of democratic engagement based on the use of political organizing, media organizing, the use of a political canvassing system, study circles, and a series of new institutions be they cooperatives, peoples’ universities, alternative banks, consumption federations and multi-product firms making needed alternative energy and mass transportation systems. Reconstruction requires new spatial arrangements, alternative planning regimes and a political engagement with these.

A Plague on Both their Houses


Is Brexit automatically Social and Economic Reconstruction? No, it is not. It is a political platform which far Right groups can easily exploit resulting in a political vacuum generated by leaving the European Union, unless we are talking about the Scottish response which is not Brexit but Scotenter, the Scottish entry into the European Union on its own terms. Does this mean that nationalism is automatically bad? No, as I already indicated there are progressive elements to nationalism in the form of managed trade, (national) industrial policies and the like. The problem is that Brexit involves an unholy alliance between reactionary and progressive Nationalism that basically represents a faustian bargain. It is a faustian bargain because exiting the EU does not automatically promise wonderful things as the political and economic elites can just as well embrace neoliberalism within the EU as outside of it if there is no Social and Economic Reconstruction. Does this mean that leaving the EU does not provide theoretically advantages? No, it does not mean that. Yet, when you Brexit without Social and Economic Reconstruction you basically engage in magical thinking that in my opinion is dangerous, even as I respect elements of the Brexit position.

Is remaining within the European Union automatically Social and Economic Reconstruction? No it is not, it is a political platform dominated by transnational corporations, political elites and forces of neo-liberal capitalism. The idea that remaining within the EU will automatically provide benefits and resolve problems is a kind of magical thinking. It has ultimately proved dangerous with the evidence being the systematic rise of far Right parties, austerity, a limited system to save and integrate immigrants or prevent the wars or economic disasters which accelerated immigration. These wars were partially triggered by U.S. militarism but received some assistance from various EU nations (via arms exports, cooperation with NATO, or reactionary foreign policies that would likely exist with or without the EU).

As we can see, either side of this debate can engage in magical thinking. Either side can claim elements of logic to their side, but neither really can promote the high road for Europe or the global community.

Can we argue that the EU facilitates Social and Economic Reconstruction? There are some research programs within the EU that can do this, but in actuality the constraints placed on independent national state actions are highly problematic. There should be demands placed on the EU to make changes.

Can we argue that the EU cannot be reformed ever and is a dead weight on progressive social and economic alternatives? Can we argue that the EU blocks Social and Economic Reconstruction? There is some truth to this position perhaps, but it may confuse a discursive, political, economic and media space with the forces that control this space. Thus, assuming that an institution like the Democratic Party is always militarist, global capitalist, and the like when the Bernie Sanders campaign showed how to contest who controls that space reveals a kind of dialectical quality to such spaces. Yes, the EU was an elite project and the Democratic Party was not simply an elite project. Nevertheless, citizens can mobilize nationally via their states and put pressure on the EU. If anything the Brexit vote clearly shows contingency vis-à-vis the European Union. Please note this is not necessarily a progressive contingency, with the probability for that enhanced by Social and Economic Reconstruction. Also note that the Sanders campaign (or the Left in cooperation with it) could have done far more to promote Social and Economic Reconstruction as outlined here.

As exiting does not necessarily lead to Social and Economic Reconstruction and could very well empower the far Right (if it had not done this already), one can’t easily argue that remaining in the EU changes the balance of forces within the EU. Even if the elites want to keep the EU as their vehicle does not mean that it is impossible to create alternatives to that vehicle. If the Left really had its act together, pressed seriously for Social and Economic Reconstruction, and mobilized in a variety of ways and then failed to reform the EU, then it would make sense to promote a Lexit, a left-exit to the EU in which the Left dominated the discourse around exit and the creation of an alternative pan-European if not global network supporting Social and Economic Reconstruction. Yet, the Lexit forces of today skipped that stage, engaging in a kind of opportunistic alliance with the far Right. This opportunism was based on some reasoned arguments and a gloss over the failures of the British Left to systematically engage in Social and Economic Reconstruction.

The Detractors and Follow Up Analysis:

More Dead Ends?


I now apply the above ideas by reviewing just two articles related to this whole debate. Let us start with Elliot Murphy’s, “Another Tamriel is Possible: Brexit Proposals vs. Solutions” as published in Counterpunch. Murphy writes that “virtually the entire British political elite is in favour of remaining in the European Union. Aside from a handful of Tory careerists like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove who see a disagreement with David Cameron’s leadership as a way to secure their own position within the party, the forces of reaction and business across the wingspan of British politics are flocking to support the EU.” I am not sure what Murphy’s point is here. The balance of the elite are also against forms of racism, does this make their position less valid? And, Cameron’s attack on London’s new mayor was a kind of racist attack, but hardly consistent with the EU’s line or hardly opposed by embracing the very forces aligned with Islamophobia.

Murphy writes “a vote to Leave would pull the EU in a considerably less neoliberal direction, likely benefiting other European countries – not to the mention the global South, in particular Africa, which has enjoyed a fundamentally exploitative relation with the EU since its inception.” I don’t see any evidence for this whatsoever. It is clear that the Brexit vote potentially pushes the EU in a progressive direction, but not necessarily so. Certainly, it is not so without Social and Economic Reconstruction, in any meaningful extent. Britain enjoyed a long history of imperialism and neocolonialism without the EU if Murphy cared to notice.

Murphy criticizes the AEiP movement as follows: “When Michael Chessum, a major organiser of the pro-Remain ‘Another Europe is Possible’ (AEiP) movement, is questioned about what concrete ‘changes’ he would like to see in EU, he simply dodges the question. Chessum’s behaviour generalises. To my knowledge, not a single supporter of Remain has presented a satisfying answer to the question of how we are supposed to go about reforming the EU.” The answer, however, is rather straightforward. One builds up structures and power outside the EU and applies pressure to the UK state and EU. If after trying to build up such structures and power, reform becomes impossible you have at least three options: a) demand concessions if you gain control over the UK state, b) exit if after gaining power or control over that state, you fail, c) use the base of power you accumulate through Social and Economic Reconstruction to strike the best deal with the EU possible, inside or outside the EU. So, the answer is relatively straight forward. Again, one can consider the endless possibilities associated with the New Economy Virtuous Cycle that usually exceed the imagination of the political left. When the Brexit folks embrace this agenda, then please let me know.

Murphy’s critique of Yanis Varoufakis, Ed Rooksby and trade union leaders in Britain all point to the same failure of imagination by both this group and Murphy himself. So, the failure of imagination is quite ubiquitous. Murphy may understand this as when he writes: “It is not as if another EU is inherently unreachable, but rather that without any posited, realistic steps to achieve it, the hopes of the Remain camp will quickly dissolve after June 23rd, no matter which side wins.” He continues, “Concrete solutions are lacking, then, as it is no good for the Left camp of Remain to simply point voters in the direction of Owen Jones columns and Caroline Lucas YouTube videos instead.”

Murphy continues, “the foundational pro-austerity, market liberalisation principles of the EU are established by the same treaties, which can be modified only by a unanimous agreement by all 28 member states.” This might be true but then we saw how Cameron was able to gain some concessions from the EU despite one state being up against a number of other EU states. What if it was not Cameron, but a Labour Party Prime Minister backed by a transnational social movement? Could he have gotten more concessions? Capitalism with or without the EU represents barriers. Leaving the EU does not eliminate capitalism or Neoliberalism, it just creates a different arena to fight within. But, the fight must be had and is not triggered or generated automatically by Brexit.

Let us now turn to Murphy’s analysis of Noam Chomsky’s arguments: “The Left Remain camp have also recently been galvanised by Noam Chomsky’s tenuous support for their cause, with Owen Jones and AEiP posting quotations of the professor’s brief statements on the matter. Chomsky’s reasons for supporting Remain are extremely weak and don’t stand up to much scrutiny. His reasoning is as follows: The racist Right is in favour of Leave, therefore we should Remain. But the racist Right is also in favour of Remain. Chomsky’s logic seems to be as follows: If P, therefore Q, so why not Z?” Here Murphy engages in bad faith. He does not understand that the discursive moment is largely tied to a right-wing anti-immigrant agenda tied to a reaction to austerity. They are linked. It does not matter that the number of voters supporting exit far outnumber the far Right voters. Why? Because the Far Right has triggered a larger discourse which mainstream parties, particularly on the Right, react to. The media embrace and legitimize large aspects of the Far Right discourse and that influences far more persons than the number of Far Right voters. This discourse is based on the coupling of anti-austerity with Brexit. This coupling is made possible by the failures of the Left as exploited by the Right. Brexit does not decouple anti-austerity and anti-racism. This is Chomsky’s larger argument which Murphy buries.

It is true that a racist and anti-immigrant vote is not the sole driver of the Brexit campaign and many hurt by austerity had what they felt to be good reasons for voting against the EU. Rather, as Billy Bragg explains, this was certainly true and just as true was the fact that the Far Right are net gainers from Brexit. The coupling of anti-austerity and racism is based on the “Socialism of Fools,” or more charitably a kind of false promise that a victory over austerity necessarily simply follows by beating the horse of Reactionary Cosmopolitanism.

Murphy continues by suggesting that Obama’s opposition to Brexit does not mean that a Brexit vote would leave Britain more subordinate to US power. Here again, his logic fails him. First, Obama and the U.S. military industrial complex are not quite the same thing. The former is less powerful than the latter. Obama’s whole election and administration accommodated this power. So, it may be that Obama wants the UK in the EU to bolster something economically (or US blocking a closer Chinese alliance with the UK that would also make the UK that more military dependent on the US) whereas the military industrial complex would gain from Brexit. Look at Germany, economically aligned with Russia on gas pipelines, military aligned with NATO. UK remains in NATO but is outside of EU in Brexit. So, Brexit could benefit the US militarily but not economically, with Obama himself being more concerned with the economic implications. In any case, it is something of an open question and Chomsky is not necessarily wrong.

Murphy correctly points out limitations to the EU: “State aid to declining industries, along with renationalisation, are not permitted by current EU laws (under directive 2012/34/EU), and any mildly progressive government which managed to get elected in 2020 would be hindered from the outset by the EU. Considerable reforms of the energy market would also be illegal under EU directives 2009/72EU and 2009/73/EU.” This is true, but in Sweden the government created a somewhat significant pharmaceutical R&D center for displaced technical workers from that sector and the EU did not block that. The EU did not block the wind energy cooperatives that exit in Sweden either. So, the EU is hardly blocking all the elements of a research-linked industrial policy or progressive aspects of energy policy. Thus, Murphy is correct to point these things out but can’t explain why the Danes who are in the EU have a vibrant wind production sector and thousands of green jobs, whereas UK green job production in some areas is less impressive. Rather, he selectively cherry picks the worst case arguments but leaves out the necessary counterfactual arguments.

Murphy continues to provide negative examples, but does not think them through logically. For example, he writes: “McDonnell’s plans for People’s Quantitative Easing? Outlawed by Article 123 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.” Does the EU prevent a progressive bank like JAK bank in Sweden? No. Does the EU prevent the organization of millions of left voters to patronize and support this bank? No. Does the EU prevent unions from organizing their members to patronize JAK and use it as a bank to extend industrial cooperatives? No. Over and over, we see how the EU despite its great limitations becomes for Lexit or Murphy the fulcrum of all (or most) of the Left’s failures when it is the Left itself which is most to blame. Or, how Brexit was to be a necessary condition for success, but Brexit’s reactionary pitfalls are papered over.

Here is another Murphy argument: “The series of anti-trade union laws introduced in Britain over the past few decades? The EU has no qualms with these whatsoever, showing no interest in providing even modest forms of protection for workers.” Yes, but this simply shows how British Neoliberalism can thrive even without the EU, thank you very much! Murphy seems to acknowledge as much: “Given the sheer dominance of the traditional forces of international finance on both sides of the mainstream debate, talk of a Lexit or a Left Remain become highly misleading: There will be only a ‘Rexit’ or a right-dominated Remain – at least in the short term.” Murphy acknowledges Chomsky’s arguments later on (creating a puzzling inconsistency): “Brexit will likely boost the anti-immigrant Tory, UKIP and Labour base in the short term.” Nevertheless, he quickly runs over to magical thinking: “Yet over the coming years it will permit a future Labour-run Britain to implement mildly social democratic reforms much more easily, to be otherwise hindered by the EU’s strictures – that is, if Corbyn goes on the offensive and exploits the Tory’s weaknesses to a greater extent than he currently seems willing to do. A Corbyn-led Britain (or at least a Corbynite-influenced Labour Britain) outside the EU would be free from the direct influence of the European Central Bank, which is legally committed to favour deflation and stagnation over growth. Government aid to failing industries is barred…” What if the far Right is empowered at the expense of Lexit? How does Brexit politically empower Corbyn to do anything? There is no natural or logical connection here because this is thinking by non-sequitor.

Recent evidence suggests that Brexit led to divisions in the Labour Party, but only time will tell. Brexit encouraged a revolt in the Labour Party by what some consider the Tony Blair wing of the party, although others point to poll data that suggests that Labour gained at the expense of UKIP and the Conservatives. If UKIP and the Conservatives lost support because of a backlash against Brexit and/or the immediate economic fallout of Brexit, then greater Labour support for these reasons hardly bolsters the case for Brexit. A wave of racist incidents followed Brexit as documented by The Washington Post and The Guardian, which reveals far right opportunism but also the ways in which the discursive space is exploited even if UKIP’s poll numbers decreased. These shifts and turns in British politics might be explained by the lack of political understanding of what the European Union even is, even though voters for Brexit suffering from austerity certainly reacted to that.

We have reason to suspect the non-sequitor when Murphy later writes: “leaving the EU would by no means result in immediately significant changes or wins for the European Left.” The next sentence is telling, “but it would crucially open up an entirely different kind of debate from the one inevitably resulting from a Remain vote (especially given the bizarre fixation of the Remain campaigns – including AEiP – solely on the virtues of the EU, and not its considerable shortcomings). In addition, it would lead to the kind of debate in which leftists would no longer feel compelled to recycle myths about how David Cameron is somehow ‘better’ on immigration issues than Boris Johnson.” What is the problem with Murphy’s logic here? He confuses a discursive shift with the generation of an alternative media platform. Unlike the U.S., with its network of community and Pacifica or radical radio stations, the U.K. lacks any such equivalent. The BBC is under pressure from the Right, further constraining that space. The country is littered with reactionary tabloids. A few bright spots, like The Guardian and The Independent, are often outgunned in media power. Here we see clearly the magical thinking which conflates discursive openings with the hard work of Social and Economic Reconstruction.

Murphy still engages in the kind of bean counting approach to measuring the far Right’s power which I have already criticized. Let us look at one example: “The sight of Johnson trying to lead an increasingly fractured and rebellious party, forced into a number of substantial retreats, would be nothing less than a gift to the entirety of the UK Left.” Here is a confusion between individual politicians and personalities and the larger framework of far Right discursive power. As I stated, the far Right leverages power by its own numbers and by its effects on the other Right parties and (I can now add) by the politics of scarcity, i.e. the Left does not have a comprehensive integration policy for immigrants (linked to cooperatives, efficiency in skills trading and skills banks, facilitating self-organization and the like), and the role played by mass media. While Johnson himself might find problems in ruling the conservatives, that does not mitigate all these other advantages of the far Right. The Brexit victory will be leveraged effectively by a larger network of forces that is far larger than just one politician.

Murphy turns to arguments by Baroness Jenny Jones, a prominent Green Party member, in a Fabian Society essay, “A Fork in the Road.” She writes, “Personally, I fear [the EU] is unreformable…And latterly I’ve been horrified too by the deep influence of big business – corporate lobbyists outnumber NGO lobbyists by 15-1. What chance is there of tough progressive action on poverty or the environment.” This is a very important and interesting argument, but applied to Brexit, it leaves many questions unanswered.

First, does the Left in the UK do everything it could do to increase its political, economic, and media power leverage? No, it does not. It does not create a radical media space to challenge entrenched corporate interests. It does not link its consumptive power to generate cooperatives on the production side whose profits could be used to patronize this media.

Second, by failing to accumulate such power, it does not allow itself to advance a progressive agenda within the potential of its power accumulation trajectory inside or outside the EU.

Third, leaving the EU does not change the balance of power with big corporate lobbyists in any significant way. More tedious and specious mind-numbing logic. Murphy concludes, “a vote for Leave isn’t just a vote against the neoliberal forces of the Troika: It is also a vote against our own ruling classes.” No, it is a vote against the preferences of your ruling class, but it does not and will not defeat them; it will only displace the battles you have with them to new terrains, new terrains where you will lose the battle without Social and Economic Reconstruction.

Paul Mason and Brexit.2


Paul Mason wrote a kind of political obituary for the the UK’s links to the EU in “Britain is not a rainy, fascist island–here’s my plan for ProgrExit,” published in The Guardian. The gist of this article is that the gig is up, i.e. it’s too late to put the pieces together again of a now fragmented British romance with the EU. Mason writes, “We must prevent the Conservative Right using the Brexit negotiations to reshape Britain into a rule-free space for corporations; we need to take control of the process whereby the rights of the citizen are redefined against those of a newly sovereign state.” Mason calls for making the most of the fait accompli of exit: “we can and must fight to place social justice and democracy at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. I call this ProgrExit – progressive exit. It can be done, but only if all the progressive parties of Britain set aside some of what divides them and unite around a common objective.”

While Mason is clearly one of Britain’s most sophisticated analysts of political and economic affairs, there are a few questions one might want to ask about this article.

First, one can ask whether or not Mason understands the limits of majoritarian democracy. Mason writes, “Labour must clearly accept Brexit. There can be no second referendum, no legal sabotage effort. Labour has to become a party designed to deliver social justice outside the EU. It should, for the foreseeable future, abandon the objective of a return to EU membership. We are out, and must make the best of it.” If 48 percent opposed Brexit, the acceptance of the 52 percent who supported are hardly representative of all opinions. In Social and Economic Reconstruction the logic is not based on majorities but critical minorities who attempt to convince and influence majorities. Siding with 52 percent is hardly a sufficient response.

Second, while Mason is correct that the Left has to put its spin on things, we have an interesting situation in which the real winner is the far Right. After all, both the Conservative and Labour Party leaders opposed and UKIP embraced Brexit. Therefore, embracing Brexit objectively aligns one with UKIP’s agenda even as you scramble to come up with a Left response to UKIP. Rather than force something that UKIP has to respond to, the Left’s immediate thought is to react to what UKIP helped set into motion. This means that a Left response is going to partially be reactive, no matter how “proactive” it may seem in design or intentions.

Third, Mason calls for early elections, but here he appears to put the cart before the horse. I have already suggested that political mobilizations without media and economic mobilizations will always be limited affairs. Rather than get the Labour Party on a track to create and implement such comprehensive mobilizations, Mason wants to rush Labour into an election. I don’t understand the logic of such thinking at all. Labour could be organizing the public through town meetings and an ad hoc virtual town hall system of cities using the Internet and progressive media such as exists in the UK. He need not have an election to do this.

Fourth, Labour is in a bind if Brexit leads Scotland to leave the UK. Mason writes, “Labour – which cannot govern what is left of the UK alone, once Scotland leaves – should accede to [proportional representation].” If Scotland’s departure weakens the Left’s political power or possibilities of a political majority within the UK, I don’t see that the natural war of position” as being the electoral route. Rather, to repeat again and again, the natural war of position is in the organization of an alternative economic and media space as well as through a system of direct democracy. Does the UK even have a labor radio network like WINS, the U.S.-based radio network? How does the Left mobilizing for an election or putting a progressive spin on Brexit lead to the creation of such institutions? Answer, they don’t lead to this of necessity.

Finally, while Mason is correct that Scotland is on its way out of the UK or is likely to leave, the real questions for us should rather be the following (none of which Mason takes up): (a) If Scotland leaves the UK, can the new Scottish state create a progressive bank which is aligned with the cooperative banks of Mondragon and banks like JAK in Sweden? Could this bank be used to leverage the creation of cooperatives in Scotland and the balance of the UK? (b) If Scotland creates cooperatives that are part of large networks, could these federations start organizing sustainable industries and work in the areas abandoned by transnational capitalists in England, Wales or Northern Ireland? (c) Can Scotland create a Left broadcasting network similar in format to RT (Russian Television) or Al Jazeera which broadcasts progressive programming into the UK and competes with the BBC from the Left? Are we just going to view Scotland’s decisions as some sort of political variable and leave out all the important questions related to economic, banking, and media power?

Conclusions:  The Short-Term, Medium-Term and Long-Term Solutions are the Same


Brexit or Lexit, either way you slice it, we have a victory for the far Right and only a theoretical opportunity for the Left of the UK or Europe. The same magical thinking that always puts a progressive gloss on everything the EU does finds analogous thinking in the magical thinking that assumes that Brexit translates into a stunning defeat for Neoliberalism. Rather, Neoliberalism, simply can shift its attentions to ruling the UK without the EU. There is no substitute for the primitive accumulation of the economic, media and political capital necessary for Social and Economic Reconstruction. Remaining in the EU or exiting the EU does not automatically produce such power accumulation systems on behalf of democratic impulse, autonomy, and the creation of a sustainable society. The Right and Left each search for short cuts. The far Left is totally naive about their capacities and ability to control or manipulate the situation because their deconstructive discourse about the EU is largely divorced from a reconstructive discourse. The far Right have shown themselves clever in manipulating or setting the agenda for the mass media and large electoral blocks by marrying anti-austerity with racist xenophobia. The far Left may try to fantasize itself out of its objective alliance with this unholy marriage by projecting things that they hope they can do, but probably will never accomplish without a far more radical program that they themselves hardly (or ever) embrace.

In summary, staying in the EU or exiting it does not or did not produce the necessary outcomes in and of itself. The far Left commits a tactical error by aligning themselves objectively (but not subjectively) with the far Right. They can’t produce any meaningful anti-imperialist, anti-militarist, or anti-austerity agenda simply by leaving the EU. Either way you look at it (a radical alternative outside the EU or a reformed EU which accommodates reconstruction), you need reconstruction and the agenda outlined in this essay. And guess what? The Left fails over and over and over to give us the discourse we need, with a few notable exceptions.