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The integral crisis in the U.S. and the purity fetish

Originally published: Midwestern Marx on April 12, 2024 by Carlos L. Garrido (more by Midwestern Marx)  | (Posted Apr 22, 2024)

Lecture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico

The United States tells the world and its citizens that it is the greatest country on the planet, where freedom and democracy reign, and where there is an American dream that gives everyone the opportunity to live flourishing “middle class” lives with white-fenced houses and two cars. For the American working masses, however, as the great critical comedian George Carlin noted, “it’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” When they are awake, what the American masses experience is the American nightmare; lives plagued by stagnant wages, inflation, and various forms of crippling debt. In the era of a decaying empire, the inhabitants of the belly of the beast find their conditions increasingly unbearable. What the U.S. working class is experiencing is an era of comprehensive crisis that has infiltrated all spheres of the capitalist way of life.

Objective Conditions in the U.S.

There are a host of factors that, when analyzed exhaustively, point to the existence of objectively revolutionary conditions in the U.S. In no state in the country is the federal minimum wage ($7.25) enough to survive; even if it is raised to $15, as social democrats and other progressives have called for, it still wouldn’t be enough for a working-class family to survive anywhere in the country. With wages stagnating and inflation at a 40-year high, nearly 60% of Americans are currently living paycheck to paycheck. Many of these people are a lost paycheck away from joining the 600,000 homeless people roaming a country with more than 17 million empty homes. It is not surprising, in a country where there are 33 times more empty homes than homeless people, that 34 million people, including one in eight children, go hungry while 30-40% of the country’s food supply is wasted each year.

As it becomes harder for working-class Americans to survive, more and more have been forced to resort to borrowing. Currently, the average American “has $53,000 in debt in home loans, home equity lines of credit, auto loans, credit card debt, student loan debt, and other debt.” Moreover, because the U.S. is the only developed country in the world without universal health care, the commodification of medicine has left more than half of Americans with medical debt so crippling that many have been prevented from “buying a home or saving for retirement.” Marx called this phenomenon of indebtedness of the poor secondary exploitation, which occurs beyond the moment of production. With a working class experiencing, in general, both types of exploitation (i.e., the one that occurs at the moment of production and the one that occurs later, taking the form of debt), for the first time in history the working class of the empire is being, in its entirety, super-exploited—a phenomenon that previously occurred only on the periphery and within the oppressed peoples of the empire (e.g., African-American and Indigenous communities).

The decadence of the American empire can be seen on the horizon of its cities and towns, where what one finds is decrepit infrastructure rated ‘D’ (here it would be a 6), and cities frequently inhabited by the drug-addicted zombies that the medical-pharmaceutical industrial complex has created. While more than half of federal spending goes to maintaining the world’s most expensive military (spending more than the next 10 countries combined), many U.S. cities, inhabited by millions of Americans, lack access to clean drinking water. In addition, the U.S. has been experiencing a “historic decline” in life expectancy; So much so that today the average Cuban, despite six decades of illegal blockades and hybrid wars against their socialist project, lives about three years longer than the average American.

The hardships faced by the American people are intensified by the experience of living in one of the most economically unequal societies in human history, where even by conservative figures, the “richest 0.1% have roughly the same share of [the] wealth as the poorest 90%.” In the United States, the 59 richest Americans own more wealth than the poorest half of the population (165 million people). While most working-class Americans struggle to meet their daily needs, the country’s wealthiest monopolists–those who control what we watch, buy, and eat–have become richer than ever. In the midst of this abundance of wealth in the elite, more than 60,000 Americans die annually from lack of health insurance.

However, the crisis facing most Americans is not limited to their economic conditions. It is, instead, an integral crisis that has spread to all spheres of life, expressing itself through deep psychological and social ills. These can be seen in the millions affected by the opioid epidemic (which kills 70,000 Americans annually); rising rates of violent crime and school shootings; and in the mental health crisis in which nearly one-third of U.S. adults struggle with depression and anxiety.

For more than a decade, studies of bourgeois institutions have confirmed what Marxists have known since the mid-nineteenth century—that “the modern state is nothing but a committee for administering the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.” The United States, which spreads its blood-soaked hands around the world looting in the name of democracy, has proven to be a place where the dēmos (ordinary people) have anything but power (kratos). As the empirical study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page shows,

In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not govern, at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When the majority of citizens disagree with economic elites or organized interests, they usually lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when a fairly large majority of Americans are in favor of policy change, they usually don’t welcome it.

Far from being the ‘beacon of democracy’ it purports to be, what the U.S. has is a “democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich”, which is the essence of bourgeois democracy. Or, in the words of López-Obrador, in the U.S. what dominates is the oligarchy with a façade of democracy. However, the American people, burdened by the conditions of moribund imperialism, have been catching up with the lies spread by pundits and ideologues to sustain bourgeois hegemony. The United States has some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developed world; about 40 per cent of the eligible population does not participate in presidential elections, and in local elections this number rises to around 73 per cent. More than 60% of Americans are dissatisfied with the two-party system and ready for third-party alternatives, and only about 20% approve of what Congress does. Naturally, it is difficult to participate in a political process in which one does not feel represented. However, both of our imperialist parties have reacted to this public discontent by cracking down on voting rights and the possibility of third parties being on the ballot. In addition, only 11% of Americans trust the media, 90% of which have been consolidated under the control of six companies. Considering the state of the American people, it is not surprising that despite the countless resources devoted to propagandizing the population against socialism, more than 40% of adults have a favorable view of socialism, and among millennials, polls show that 70% would vote for a socialist candidate.

In his pamphlet, “The Collapse of the Second International,” Lenin asks, “What, in general, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation?” And his answer is the following three symptoms: “(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes”, a crisis in the politics of the ruling class, which leads to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes erupts. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient that “the lower classes do not want” to live in the old-fashioned way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes be incapable” of living in the old way; (2) when the suffering and misery of the oppressed classes have become more acute than usual; (3) when, in consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses…” Lenin concludes that “Without these objective changes, which are independent of the will, not only of individual groups and parties, but even of individual classes, a revolution, as a rule, is impossible.”

These conditions constitute the objective factors that can generally be found in a social revolution. We have seen in the above assessment how the American masses are suffering more than usual, and, moreover, how poll after poll has shown that they are not willing to continue living as before (e.g., immense disapproval of Congress and the two-party system). These conditions are becoming what Gramsci called a “crisis of authority,” that is, the moment of a crisis when the “ruling class has lost its consensus [and] is no longer ‘leader’ but only ‘dominant.'” As he famously argued, “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old dies and the new cannot be born; In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

However, the discontent of the masses and their inability to live the old-fashioned way does not, as Lenin pointed out, exhaust all the conditions for an objectively revolutionary situation; firstly, the masses must not only be dissatisfied with the idea of continuing to live as before, but must also show a willingness to act, and, secondly, the ruling class itself must be shaken by the crisis and in a position where it too cannot continue to rule as before.

The willingness of the dissatisfied masses to act can be seen in a variety of places: from the summer uprisings of 2020, where 25-35 million Americans protested the murder of George Floyd; to the ‘Striketober’ wave of 2021 where hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike; to the massive unionization efforts coming from workers at Starbucks, Amazon, and other industries. And, as we’ve seen in recent months, the willingness of leading unions like the Teamsters and United Automobil Workers to strike to meet their demands. While the Teamsters didn’t have to strike against UPS to win a historic contract, the UAW is currently attacking capital’s pressure points with what they call a stand-up strike, one of the most ingenious tactics of militant unionism. It is important to note that in all these struggles there is the working class’s self-consciousness of itself as a class, one that finds itself in an antagonistic position to its bosses and its political puppets. While the old club of the labor aristocracy still exists and is wedded to the Democratic Party, a youth labor militancy is fighting like we haven’t seen them fight since the 1930s, when communists led unions like the CIO. This movement represents the raw material with which a revolutionary organization can form a successful mass struggle for power.

Have any of these conditions shaken the U.S. ruling class? Do they find themselves incapable of governing in the old-fashioned way? Our answer must be a resounding yes! The U.S. empire, with its 900 bases around the world, used to overthrow governments outside its imperial sphere of influence with relative ease. In the international community, especially after the overthrow of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc of Eastern Europe, it achieved an unparalleled global hegemony, only countered in the 1990s by Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. However, all things in this world are in a constant state of flux, and sooner or later, it was expected that ‘the end of history’ would end and that the imperialist unipolarity of the U.S. and NATO would be challenged. It is our era of a bourgeoning multipolar world that marks the crumbling of the U.S. empire, and with it, the ability of its rulers to ‘rule the old-fashioned way.’

​If the U.S. state, an instrument of U.S. monopoly capital and international finance, is incapable of governing internationally as it used to, that is, if it is incapable of continuing the expropriation and super-exploitation of the peoples of the world, this is not simply a crisis of foreign policy, but a crisis of the integral state.

From the failed coup attempts in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba and other countries; failed proxy wars against Russia and China; the development of BRICS+; it becomes an undeniable fact that the ruling class cannot continue to rule the old way, that the era of U.S. imperialist unipolarity is over. As the world continues to turn to China for mutually beneficial relationships in international trade; as the Patria Grande continues its shift to the left and its hemispheric unity against U.S. imperialism; as moves towards de-dollarization take place across the planet, where the dollar is expected to fall to 30% of world trade by 2030 (a brutal blow to a dollar hegemony that has been crucial to our era of imperialism dominated by sanctions and institutions of global finance capital); and as European citizens continue to protest the exacerbation of their material conditions by the U.S.-NATO proxy war against Russia (which is destroying Germany, the heart of the EU economy and the euro, a power that is in a spiral of deindustrialization because much of its industry depended on cheap Russian oil that they no longer have access to after the U.S. blew up the Nordstream pipeline, in the worst case of environmental (and economic) terrorism in human history). As all these factors continue to accumulate, this crisis in the ruling class will become more pronounced.

Moreover, what better description of this crisis of legitimacy than the fact that both parties, in the last two presidential election cycles, have pledged to challenge the election results? First, with the election of Donald Trump in 2016–a victory, of course, that was won despite having lost the popular vote–Democrats spent the next four years pushing the narrative that Trump colluded with Russia, and even tried to impeach him for this. This, along with a long history of anti-Soviet and anti-Russian propaganda, laid the ideological groundwork—especially among previously “anti-war” liberals—for the anti-Russian hysteria and demonization of Putin that today fuels liberals’ thirst for a Third World War. Then, in 2020, so did a significant portion of the Republican party and most of MAGA’s base, who argued that the election was stolen by Democrats.

As Marxists know, democracy in liberal bourgeois states is limited to the peaceful transfer of power from one faction of the ruling class to another through elections already conditioned by the influence of money and big capital. Today we can say that even this superficial appearance of democracy is crumbling. In doing so, we can see here another symptom that the ruling classes cannot rule in the old way.

In essence, by all the standards that the Marxist tradition uses to assess objectively revolutionary conditions, we can say that the United States is currently in an objectively revolutionary situation that can only become more pronounced in the coming months and years. However, “the social revolution demands the unity of objective and subjective conditions.” As Lenin pointed out, “revolution arises only from a situation in which the above-mentioned objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to undertake mass revolutionary action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, even in a period of crisis, “falls,” if not knocked down.”

Subjective Conditions*

However, while we find objectively revolutionary conditions in the U.S., we have a deep crisis in the subjective factor, that is, a poverty of revolutionary organizations and their worldviews. Most of the organizations of the socialist left are governed by the professional managerial class, what in the time of Marx and Engels was simply called the intelligentsia. What were supposed to be working-class organizations, vehicles for the conquest of political power by this class, have become centers of petty-bourgeois radicalism, as Gus Hall used to say. This analysis is not new, many theorists have pointed out how, since the late 1970s, along with the State Department’s attack on communists and socialists in the labor unions, and its promotion, through programs such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, of a compatible anti-communist left, the working-class left has been destroyed and replaced by middle-class “radical recuperators,” as Gabriel Rockhill calls them. The U.S. State Department, as I show in my work, has been effective in creating a “controlled counter-hegemonic left,” a left that speaks radically but in substance always allies itself with imperialism.

This is far from a condemnation of intellectuals in general, but the reality is that, as it currently exists in the U.S., the dominance of the professional managerial class within socialist organizations is deeply alienating to workers, who are less concerned with their middle-class moralism than with surviving in a declining society.

On an ideological level, I have shown that this middle-class left suffers from purity fetish, a worldview that makes them relate to the world on the basis of purity as a condition for support. If something doesn’t live up to the pure ideas that exist in their heads, it’s rejected and condemned. In essence, it is the absence of a dialectical materialist worldview, a flight from a reality governed by movement, contradictions, and interconnectedness, and toward a pure and lofty ideal safe from desecration by the meanness of reality. This purity fetish, I argue in my work, takes three central forms in the United States:

1) Because a bloc of conservative workers are too imperfect or “backward” for the American left, they are considered baskets of deplorables or agents of a “fascist threat.” Instead of raising the consciousness of the so-called backward section of the working population, the purity fetish left condemns them, effectively removing about 30-40% of American workers from the possibility of being organized. This is a ridiculous position which divorces socialists from those working in the pressure points of capital. The purity fetish left, therefore, eschews the task of winning over workers irrespective of the ideas they hold. In doing so, they simply sing to the choir, i.e., the most liberal sections of the middle classes that already agree with them on all the social issues they consider themselves to be enlightened on.

2) The second form that the purity fetish takes is a continuation of the way it is generally present in the tradition of Western Marxism, which has always rejected actually existing socialism because it does not live up to the ideal of socialism in their heads. In doing so, they have often become the leftist parrots of empire, failing to recognize how socialism is to be built, that is, how the process of socialist development occurs under the extreme pressures of imperialist hybrid warfare in a world still dominated by global capital. In its acceptance of capitalist myths about socialism, this left acquiesces to the lie that socialism has always failed, and arrogantly posits itself as the first who will make it work. Instead of debunking the McCarthyite lies with which the ruling class has fed the people, this left accepts them.

3) The third form of the purity fetish is the prevalence of what Georgi Dimitrov called national nihilism: the total rejection of our national past because of its impurities. A large part of the American left sees socialism as synonymous with the destruction of America. Bombastic ultra-left slogans dominate the discourse of many of the left-wing organizers, who treat the history of the United States in a metaphysical way, blind to how the country is a totality in motion, pregnant with contradictions, with histories of slavery, genocide, imperialism, but also with histories of abolitionist struggles, workers’ struggles, anti-imperialist and socialist struggles. It is a history that produces imperialists and looters, but also produced Dubois, King, Henry Winston, and other champions of the people’s struggle against capital, empire, and racism.

This purity fetish left forgets that socialism does not exist in the abstract, that it must be concretized in the conditions and history of the peoples who have won the struggle for political power. As Dimitrov put it, it must socialist in content and national in form. Socialism, especially in its early stages, must always have the specific characteristics of the history of the people: in China it is called socialism with Chinese characteristics, in Venezuela Bolivarian socialism, in Bolivia it means embedding socialism within the indigenous traditions of communalism. etc. Kim Il Sung once wrote “What assets do we have for carrying on the revolution if the history of our people’s struggle is denied.” This is effectively what the national nihilists, rooted in the purity fetish outlook, do.

​To put it in philosophical terms, there cannot be—contrary to the tradition of Western philosophy—abstract universals devoid of the specific forms they take in various contexts. On the contrary, as the Hegelian and Marxist traditions (both rooted in dialectical worldviews) maintain, the universal can only be actual when it is concretized through the particular. In other words, if we don’t take the rational progressive kernels of our national past and use them to fight for socialism, we will not only be doomed to misinterpret U.S. history, but we will fail, as we have, to connect with our people and successfully develop a socialist struggle in our context.

In every instance, the purity fetish of the middle-class left forbids them not only from properly understanding the world, but from changing it. It is no coincidence that the part of the world in which Marxist theoreticians find everything too impure to support is also the one that has failed, even under the most objectively fertile conditions, to produce a successful and meaningful revolutionary movement.

In short, conditions in the U.S. are objectively revolutionary. But the subjective factor is in deep crisis. Processes of social change cannot succeed if these two conditions are not united. For the U.S. left to succeed, it must re-centralize itself in the working masses and dispel its purity fetish outlook, replacing it with the dialectical materialist worldview—the best working tool and sharpest weapon, as Engels pointed out, that Marxism offers the proletariat. It needs a party of the people guided by this outlook, what has been traditionally called a communist party. Although some might bear that name today and tarnish it with decades of fighting for the liberal wing of the ruling, the substance of what a communist party stands for, what it provides the class struggle, is indispensable for our advancement.

It is the only force that can unite the people against the endless wars of empire that not only lead to the deaths of millions around the world, but also to the immiseration of our people and cities, who live under a state that always has money for war, but never any to invest in the people. Only when the people actually come into a position of power and create a society of, by, and for working people, can this fate change. For this we need a communist party, a people’s party.

*This section has been slightly edited from the original lecture.

This article was republished from the author’s Substack, Philosophy in Crisis.

Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American philosophy instructor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He is the director of the Midwestern Marx Institute and the author of The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (2023), Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview (2022), and the forthcoming Hegel, Marxism, and Dialectics (2024). He has written for dozens of scholarly and popular publications around the world and runs various live-broadcast shows for the Midwestern Marx Institute YouTube.

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