Constructive “criticism”

A mistake in service of the status quo

So long as the working class allows its dependence on money, and all the horrible results that flow from that, to be understood as the basis of life, the explanations and criticisms we communists make will never be well-received. Before 1989, if any person criticized capitalism, the usual refrain was, “Well, if you hate it so much, why don’t you go to Russia or Cuba and see how it goes?” This was apparently such a zinger it got used well after the Soviet Union had dissolved. I vividly remember back in 2006 arguing with a civics teacher in high school. At one point she became rather irritated by my persistent criticisms of capitalism, and told me to fuck off to the USSR. “You should probably know the Soviet Union hasn’t been around for a few years now,” I responded, after which she me told to shut my mouth or risk getting kicked out of class.

Today, the refrain is, “well, what’s your alternative?” Or better yet: “Your criticism isn’t constructive! All you want is to drag the achievements of civilization down!” Whatever we might say against this system is dismissed because it doesn’t help workers address their practical problems — getting a job, higher wages, a secure pension, etc. It’s true that we criticize these things and point out repeatedly why people’s dreams of success usually fall flat. Communists make arguments, to which the response is typically: “Sure, I agree, but…” With this little phrase they feign agreement on the one hand, while at the same time complaining that these criticisms do not help in everyday struggles. But this overlooks that it has never been the point of a capitalist economy to ensure the livelihood of individual members of society. Rather, sustaining their lives is an unfortunate expense that has to be kept to a minimum — which is why the practical point of view of wanting to just “get along” is a mistake. This pragmatic point of view, which only addresses the immediate concerns of individual workers, obscures the underlying cause of their concerns.

Adorno remarked in his Negative Dialectics (1966): “In keeping with the ominous line that finding faults is easier than grasping the affirmative, today this becomes the clamor for ‘constructive criticism,’ in other words, groveling criticism.” Our contemporary world of wage-labor and wealth is not a consequence of nature, but of history. Communists, who have studied past modes of production, realize that current property relations came into existence and will someday change — if workers organize and do something about it. Communists know this is not the way things have to be organized. Workers are exploited for the gain of others, without reaping the proceeds of their labor, but do not have to accept this extortion by profitable work. Refusing this condition is precisely what we mean by a revolution. However, it is no secret that workers don’t normally think this way. Most of the time they reject radical criticisms of political economy out of hand, without much effort or thought. Abolishing capitalism is dismissed as an absurdity.  Why?

First, I would like to just draw attention to one obvious point. Since the overwhelming majority of wage-earners take it for granted that “there is no alternative” to their dependence on the capitalist system, any fundamental challenge to that system is deemed “unrealistic,” or not “constructive.” This is the dogma we must demonstrate is built on nothing but sand.

One other point: Because of the popular dogma of “constructive criticism,” any criticism that does not take the form of “realistic suggestions for improvement” (i.e., given the absence of alternatives to the prevailing order) is seen as unworthy of discussion. No further thought necessary at all.

Who does this?

Politicians of every kind, ordinary citizens, and even leftists partake in this dogma of “constructive criticism,” as if it were rational and compelling that objections can never lead to a rejection of what is criticized, but only suggestions about how to perfect the current system or mitigate its effects. People want to contribute helpfully to everything that bothers critics.

What are some examples of this?

A recent example which comes to mind is the way some leftists were quick to make calls for an alternative policy during the 2008 economic crisis. Instead of giving an account of what economic crises are and why they occur — instead of asking something simple like “should this economy really be rescued?” — many leftists chose to advocate another way of managing  “alternative crisis policy.” One only has to think for a second to see who such an appeal was directed at to realize that this is, indeed, a groveling criticism.

In 2008 one could not escape hearing that this was the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Yet the crisis wasn’t that millions of people were now homeless, suffering from hunger, or lacked medical care. The crisis wasn’t that people were dying from pollution caused by industry or couldn’t make a living, as this was already the case long before 2008. No one talked about a crisis then. Official crisis reports make it painfully clear that crises only happen when profitmaking is no longer possible. Livelihoods were sacrificed on a massive scale, in order to save the credit apparatus and restore short-term profitability.

Why did this happen?

Simply put, because in the market economy there is no other social justification for an individual’s existence than to produce surplus-value. Communists argue it is better not to wish that it function again. Especially when one remembers that its continued functioning rests on the backs of the masses of wage-earners. Workers are the ones who pay the price for its maintenance.

Yet the complaints made in 2008 were no different than the ones mentioned above. Fingers were pointed at the deterioration of living conditions, and attention was drawn to the difference between living conditions during crises versus those of more “normal” periods. By means of this rhetorical trick, the normal functioning of capitalism — formerly criticized for creating all sorts of awful conditions — becomes longed for again as better than conditions created by the crisis.

Constructive criticism of this sort treats the crisis as a kind of communal emergency. However, this view is mistaken. Many prior calculations do not pan out during a crisis, so there is no general damage that “we all” have to contend with. There is a big difference between the creditworthiness of the state being called into question as opposed to a section of the working class not being able to pay the bills. Wages are cut and workers even dismissed if entrepreneurs cannot find business opportunities. If banks have insufficient prospects for investment, the so-called “real economy” suffers as a result. Such emergencies, which all get placed under the keyword “crisis,” are not just merely different. Rather, they are crises of subjects with conflicting interests.

What are the conflicting interests that get treated as “our problem”?

There are workers who depend on wages, already too low from their point of view in “normal” periods of growth. During times of crisis, workers are denied even these meager wages by others who also belong to the “community” of crisis victims.

Who then denies them these wages?

Obviously, those who are denying their wages are the entrepreneurs who, in the interests of overcoming the economic crisis cut employees’ wages or lay them off en masse. The crisis faced by the entrepreneurs has to do with the success of their business, which struggles to stay afloat during the crisis. Another fellow victim of the crisis is the state, with its budgetary concerns, which must continually harass people to pay for government expenditures and fund costly spending to offset losses. “Civilization” is not as homogenous as one might think with all the talk about “us,” “our community,” and “our collective way of life.”

Those who complained about the economic crisis in a constructive way did not want to hear anything about a contradiction of interests based on economic cross-purposes. Quite the contrary, insofar as the 2008 crisis was treated as a general emergency. All the conflicting interests were incorporated into a large circle of those “affected by the crisis.” Seeing as the whole nation was affected, everyone should come together and wish for a recovery. National emergency was thus conjured up, which somehow had to be dealt with under state control. The Left made its usual accusations: the state was pursuing a “failed crisis policy” or a “failed tax and social policy” that was causing “unfair distribution,” which was why there were no jobs available. Jobs and growth are themselves never questioned, but are rather accepted as natural prerequisites of the economy.

Ruthless criticism of capitalism is extinct nowadays, at any rate. The Left, as the loyal opposition, competes for votes by promising to fight austerity and “neoliberalism.” In other words, it demands a more effective and less crisis-prone economy, while the economy as such, capitalism, is ignored. They do not want to remove the underlying cause of crisis, but rather treat the symptom. What they want is better state management of poverty — not a change in the mode of production, only a change to the unequal distribution of wealth. Exactly where political economy make clear that the livelihood and well-being of the workers is not the aim of capitalist production, a protest movement argues that wages and profits fit together as long as the state does everything right regulating them.

Under this banner, the welfare state in particular is defended, as if the “welfare state” does not once again explicitly show the incompatibility of interests. After all, where do the “socially disadvantaged” souls come from who must be taken care of by state programs? The call for the welfare state accepts as a matter of course the operation of an economy that requires intervention to secure livable conditions for working people.

Leftists who simply advocate for a stronger welfare state fail to appreciate the irreconcilability of wages and profits. They don’t for a moment deny the overarching purpose of capitalist economy, but argue with politicians over the proper means for pursuing this purpose. The alternatives they propose aren’t really alternatives at all, and only serve to demonstrate the severe limits of their imagination.

Thus, the third thing communists have to change in 2018 is clear:

We must make a criticism that says that it is a fundamental mistake to strive to be constructive in making our criticisms, because this means committing oneself from the outset to preservation of the existing order. Criticism must examine whether what is being criticized needs to be improved at all, and not rather abolished. Because one cannot make this system better — on the contrary, it already functions too well! — we have no suggestions for improvement.

Rather, we insist that these problems exist because of the system. It is not our program to contribute mild or well-intentioned suggestions so that what we criticize can succeed. Those affected make a mistake when they criticize constructively from the outset, betting on the wrong horse. For they are always going to be poorly served by the present social order, given its functional requirements and prevailing logic: We believe it is the task of leftwing politics to tell people this.

The vast majority of dependent employees do not think and act as members of a class that is aware of the contradiction between their interests and those of capital and the state which establishes these social conditions. The wage-dependent think and act as responsible members of a national “we” who see their opponents more as “foreigners” (e.g. the refugees) than in local entrepreneurs and politicians. This mistake is fatal. No more constructive criticism; no more nationalist lies; no no more groveling!

Philip Gioan