Why did the capitalist counter-revolution of the late 20th century prove to be so successful?

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Niccolo and Donkey
Why did the capitalist counter-revolution of the late 20th century prove to be so successful?

New Left Review

January 31, 2013

January 31, 2013 [​IMG]

Monument to Labour, Constantin Meunier, Brussels. Photograph by Hannes De Geest
From New Left Review :

While there are a number of plausible labels that might be attached to the 20th century, in terms of social history it was clearly the age of the working class. For the first time, working people who lacked property became a major and sustained political force. This rupture was heralded by Pope Leo XIII—leader of the world’s oldest and largest social organization—in his encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. The Pope noted that the progress of industry had led to ‘the accumulation of affluence among the few and misery ( inopia ) among the multitude’; but the period had also been characterized by the ‘greater self-confidence and tighter cohesion’ of the workers. On a global level, trade unions gained a foothold in most big industrial enterprises, and in many other firms too. Working-class parties became major electoral forces—sometimes dominant ones—in Europe and its Australasian offshoots. The October Revolution in Russia provided a model of political organization and social change for China and Vietnam. Nehru’s India set itself the avowed goal of following a ‘socialist pattern of development’, as did the majority of post-colonial states. Many African countries spoke of building ‘working-class parties’ when they could boast no more proletarians than would fill a few classrooms.​

May Day began on the streets of Chicago in 1886, and was celebrated in Havana and other Latin American cities as early as 1890. Organized labour proved to be an important force in the Americas, even if it was usually kept subordinate. The US New Deal marked a confluence between enlightened liberalism and the industrial working class, which succeeded in organizing itself during the Depression years through heroic struggles. Samuel Gompers may have epitomized the parochial craft unionism which preceded the New Deal, but he was a formidable negotiator on behalf of the skilled workers that his movement represented, and was honoured with a monument in Washington that exceeded any bestowed upon a workers’ leader in Paris, London or Berlin.​

Samuel Gompers Memorial, Washington, D.C.​
Mexico’s small working class was not a leading actor in its Revolution—though not a negligible one, either—but the post-revolutionary elite expended much energy absorbing organized labour into its machinery of power. The Revolution’s first president, Venustiano Carranza, forged his social base through a pact with the anarcho-syndicalist workers of Mexico City (the Casa del Obrero Mundial), and in the 1930s Lázaro Cárdenas gave the structures of the new order an explicitly workerist orientation. While that could hardly be said of Getúlio Vargas and his ‘New State’ in Brazil, a raft of progressive labour laws became one of its legacies. In Argentina, it was working-class mobilization, notably directed by Trotskyist militants, that brought Juan Perón to power, guaranteeing Argentine trade unionism—or at least its leadership—a major voice in the Peronist movement ever since. Bolivia’s miners played a central role in the Revolution of 1952, and when tin production collapsed in the 1980s, the organizing skills of those obliged to seek work elsewhere provided Evo Morales and his coca growers with a spine of disciplined cadres.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to the centrality of the working class in the last century was paid by the most fanatical enemies of independent workers’ movements, the Fascists. The idea of ‘corporatism’ was vital to Mussolini’s Italy: purporting to bring labour and capital together, in reality corralling labour into a field fenced off by capital and the state. Hitler’s movement called itself the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, and his Germany became the second country in the world—trailing after the Soviet Union but ahead of Sweden—to establish May Day as a public holiday, the ‘Day of German Labour’. In the first eighty years of the 20th century, workers could not be written off or dismissed. If you were not with them, you had to keep them under tight control.​

Workers became heroes or models , not only for the artists of the left-wing avant-garde, from Brecht to Picasso, but also for more conservative figures, such as the Belgian sculptor Constantin Meunier—creator of several statues depicting workers of different occupations, and of an ambitious ‘Monument to Labour’, erected posthumously in Brussels in the presence of the King. In Germany, the Prussian officer-writer Ernst Jünger penned an admiring essay, ‘The Worker’, in 1932, predicting the end of the Herrschaft (domination) of the third estate and its replacement by ‘the Herrschaft of the worker, of liberal democracy by labour or state democracy’.​


There are, then, lasting progressive achievements from the 20th century. But the defeats of the left as that century drew to a close must also be understood. The dominant Euro-American school of thought cannot explain why this capitalist counter-revolution proved to be so successful. Marx had predicted a clash between forces and relations of production—one increasingly social in character, the other private and capitalist—that would sharpen over time. This was the Marxian Grand Dialectic and, shorn of its apocalyptic trappings, it was vindicated by the passage of time.​

Niccolo and Donkey
Team Zissou

How could it not? The neo-liberals abandoned the working class as too white, too religious, too armed and too patriotic. So they wrecked their culture, put them in head-to-head economic competition with prospective spouses, moved their jobs overseas, and flooded non-mobile trades with cheap immigrant labor. The working class is being ground into dirt as documented by Charles Murray. Let me know when New Left Review gets around to acknowledging this.

This is very much true but for the sake of accuracy I wouldn't confuse neoliberals with the New Left and their academic descendants. In this context, neoliberals means those promoting supply side economics: Reagan, Thatcher, and others responsible for the "capitalist counter-revolution of the late 20th century" mentioned in the article. To answer that question, I will turn to James Heartfield who noted in The Death of the Subject Explained that when the Left started using the language of "rights", the Right started using the language of "freedom". Outside of academic circles, the latter is always more attractive since it signifies possibility instead of static expectation guaranteed by the State.

What this really means is the working class became fetishized by the bohemian bourgeoisie. While some actual members of the working class probably found this inspiring or flattering, there were plenty more who would have found it patronizing or at least very silly. They lived a proletarian existence and knew that it was marked more by daily drudgery than grand heroism. The "freedom" offered by the neoliberal Right translated to class mobility for many which is why large sectors of the working class voted for Reagan and Thatcher. Of course, the outcome of their actual policies was much different. What ST describes above had bipartisan support but for different reasons (business-elite and cultural-elite).
President Camacho

Like popfop and SST said, what changed was not so much working class but what the "Left" platform entailed. In America within the DNC, for example, there is only a small number of politicians (the so-called "Blue Dog Coalition") who can be considered "pro-labor" and champions of the working class in the sense described by the author. But this contingent is a woefully small minority of the American left; most American leftists ARE in fact "neoliberals" in the tradition of Reagan and Thatcher: mistrustful of unions, free trade backers, Wall Street shills, etc.

But the "mainstream" left really reserves its deepest passion and commitment for only thing: Organized Fagging.

Sam Spade

Without delving into the problem that this "counter-revolution" was not capitalist, per se, the real answer is that such policies were required in order to provide the necessary funding to support the expanding welfare state (pensions and health care especially), which was, of course, starting to eat on its base capital even as far back as the late 1960s (see Nixon reneging on Bretton Woods II). This necessary funding, of course, could only be achieved by private markets, or private monopolies with government support and backing (i.e. the Italian fascist model), as the public bond market itself could not support the massive increases in debt necessary to address the exponential rise of such costs.

However, this game stopped in 2007. The only thing that is stopping recognition of the imminent depression is the attempt of the public bond market to support the massive overhang of debt in the system which would normally cause a collapse. But keep in mind that this creates a whole host of really large societal problems - devaluation of buying power, lack of investment as public debt crowds out private debt, etc. The correct bet is that this attempt to save collapse breaks down at some sort of Minsky moment. Predicting when that will occur is next to impossible, of course.


The capitalist counter-revolution proved to be successful because the Third World became a source of funding for the prosperity of the first world, making class conflict non-imminent. Marx never expected, that the gran bourgeoisie would prefer to build up industrial base of its potential enemy in a bid to postpone the problem of inequality.

As Gramsci describes, the West didn't really solve the problem of poverty of the working class but outsourced it for the time being - to third world nations, who keep on doing those ipods and cheap sneakers in sweatshops and factories; as well as a new underclass was created in Western nations themselves to do the dirty job for very low salaries - hence the wonder of immigration. Mass immigration is anti-marxist whatever one may think, since the effect of labor immigration is akin to the effect of strikebrechers on a strike.
And the West will have to face the reinvigorated conflict between bourgeoisie and working class once again as soon as third world in a strictly marxist sense has national bourgeoisie of its own defeat the compradorian bourgeoisie, that depends on the West for its survival. With China turning to tap its own population's money reserves and the underclass declining to have a role of eternal caste of plumbers, we can see, that this battle is due to start again sooner, rather than later.

Team Zissou
Yes. 2007 should have been the Great Re-set. I'm still surprised the Fed managed to pull it off. I don't think they will next time.