Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 10, 2019

How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should have answered Chuck Todd’s question about whether a socialist can be a capitalist

Filed under: DSA,socialism — louisproyect @ 10:06 pm

On Friday night, Chuck Todd interviewed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the Meet the Press Daily show on MSNBC. Like most of the people with shows on MSNBC, Todd identifies with the Democratic Party leadership and would tend to be tougher with someone like Bernie Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez than with Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton. The interview has generated more than the usual buzz since Todd asked her if a democratic socialist can be a capitalist, which is an absurd question since it mixes apples and oranges. The goal was to clearly put her on the spot. A democratic socialist is a politician while a capitalist is someone who is belongs to a class defined by its relationship to the means of production. Much of the interview has the two working at cross-purposes but it is worth watching since it gets to the heart of Ocasio-Cortez’s core beliefs and implicitly those on the left who nod approvingly of her and Sanders’s self-identification as socialists.

We should start off by acknowledging that her supporters in the DSA are much further to the left and would not offer the kind of circumlocutions she puts forward if they were being interviewed. DSA websites are filled with proclamations about the need to abolish private property and produce on the basis of human need. In this sense, they are the continuation of major Social Democratic parties that always insisted on the need for a classless society even if their modus operandi was based on class-collaboration. With Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, you get something different. Their idea of socialism is Sweden under Olof Palme while Olof Palme’s idea was something much closer to the Jacobin editorial board, especially given their affinity with the Meidner Plan that hoped to gradually increase the percentage of corporate shares owned by workers until the boss was eased out. Instead, it was the Meidner plan that was eased out in Sweden.

Replying to the question about whether a socialist (I will dispense with the word democratic because socialism is based on the idea of full democracy) can be a capitalist, Ocasio-Cortez dodges the question as skillfully as Muhammad Ali dodging a punch: “Well, I think it depends on your interpretation. So there are some democratic socialist that would say absolutely not. There are other people that are democratic socialist that would say I think it’s possible.” Todd follows up by asking her “what are you?” This elicits the reply that she is for a “democratic economy”.

A democratic economy? Who would be opposed to that? Ron Paul? The Koch brothers? Barack Obama? Elizabeth Warren?

With respect to Warren, Ocasio-Cortez offers another circumlocution: “So … in some ways whether it’s you’re coming from say Elizabeth Warren’s perspective where she says, you know she says things like I’m a capitalist but we need to have hard rules for the game.” What the hell? Why can’t Ocasio-Cortez just come out and state her economic views directly and clearly? Why drag Warren into the discussion?

About the best you can hope for is what she says in reply to Todd’s question about whether the private sector can do some things better than the public sector:

Yes, I think there’s a lot of things. There’s a lot of consumer goods where the private sector works. And by the way, I think it’s important to delineate that just because you’re in the private sector doesn’t — you can be in the private sector and be a democratically socialist business.

Worker cooperatives are a perfect example of that. It’s not about government takeover, it’s about how much do workers have a say in your business. Do you have workers on the board? Do workers enjoy a decent amount of the wealth that they are creating.

Or is the majority of these profits going to shareholders while you’re paying a worker $15 an hour to live in a New York City apartment. And to that too me is a the difference. It’s not that public — the public sector is democratically socialist and the private sector is not. It’s really about a more nuance understanding of how our economy should work.

Well, there is no doubt that the “private sector” can often produce consumer goods better than the public sector. Just look at the crappy clothes Russians had to put up with in the 1960s. Everybody knows that they backed perestroika in order to get a pair of Levi’s even if today’s Levi’s are garbage. But what does this have to do with the crisis we are living through? Capitalism is degrading the water we drink, the air we breathe and the food we eat. At the rate things are going, the only wildlife left 50 years from now will be pigeons, squirrels and rats.

Predictably, Ocasio-Cortez refers to cooperatives as an example of a “democratically socialist business”. While nobody would minimize the importance of the Brooklyn food co-op or the co-ops that flourished in my hometown of Woodridge, NY that PM described as a “utopia in the Catskills”, they are essentially marginal enterprises. Yes, you can get a good deal on a 50-pound bag of potatoes in Brooklyn and grain to feed your chickens as the Communist poultry farmers did in Woodridge but we are dealing with monstrous capitalist predators like ExxonMobil, Boeing, Dow, General Electric (until it goes bankrupt), Walmart, and American Airlines that will continue to destroy the possibility of humanity’s future into the twenty-second century at the rate things are going. Would adding ExxonMobil workers to the board of directors make any difference? Absolutely not. Most of them probably identify much more with Rex Tillerson rather than Bernie Sanders.

She is much more concerned with people working in the service industries whose plight she suffered when she was working as a waitress in a taqueria. However, we need to figure out a way to reach the vast majority of workers who have the social power to become a new ruling class. The median household income in the USA in 2017 was $61,372. Most people who hold down jobs in auto factories or oil refineries are doing much better than that.

The problem for us is convincing ordinary workers that their interests and that of the ruling class are opposed. While there is little likelihood that the millions of factory workers in the USA are ready to join the DSA, let alone a revolutionary organization, the primary goal of socialists is to draw clear class lines that will help to raise consciousness. Certainly, the speeches given by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez about the “billionaire class” help to draw such lines but what’s sorely missing is a clear and precise diagnosis of the underlying cause of a wide variety of ills that are hard to miss nowadays, from the opioid epidemic to the flooding that ravaged Houston in 2017. American families are becoming increasingly vulnerable to socio-economic dislocations that having nothing to do with minimum wage or whether ExxonMobil refinery workers in Houston are on the board of directors or not. In fact, many of them were probably living in those houses that were devastated by the flood.

If I were a guest on Chuck Todd’s show, and he asked me if a socialist could be a capitalist, I would have answered this way:

Chuck, of course a socialist can be a capitalist. Karl Marx’s partner Friedrich Engels owned a textile mill. But the real question facing the American people is whether we need socialism. I maintain that we do based on the following considerations.

Everything you use, everything you eat or wear, your car, your housing — you didn’t make any of these things. We don’t produce these things as individuals. We produce socially. We have a division of work in the United States, and in the whole world for that matter. People in one part of the world make things which people in another part of the world use.

But, even though we produce socially, through co-operation, we don’t own the means of production socially. And this affects all the basic decisions made in this society about what we produce. These decisions are not made on the basis of what people need, but on the basis of what makes a profit.

Take the question of hunger. There are people going hungry all over the world, and the US government recently reported that there are a lot of people going hungry right here in the United States. And yet, because of the profit system, the US government is now paying some farmers not to farm. Farmers don’t make their decisions by saying: “We need a lot of corn in the US, so I’m going to plant a lot of corn.” They never say that. They say: “How much money am I going to make if I plant corn?” Did you know that if decisions were not made on this basis, then the US alone would have the potential to feed the whole world? The economic potential is there.

I’ll give you another example of how the potential for meeting human needs is destroyed because of the profit system. Say you are a capitalist, and you’re about to build a factory. Do you say: “I’ll build it where it’s nice, where there are trees and fresh air, and where the workers will have nice homes and will be able to go mountain climbing or hunting or swimming?” No, that’s not the way you think. You say: “Well, where’s my market, where are my raw materials coming in, how can I make the most profit?” And this means you might build the factory where you will pump even more poison into the air.

(The italicized paragraphs above are From Peter Camejo’s “How to Make a Revolution in the United States” from 1969).



  1. This DSA statement on Venezuela is better that of any of the r-r-revolutionaries on Marxmail https://www.eastbaydsa.org/news/2019/02/01/statement-venezuela

    Comment by tony — February 11, 2019 @ 2:39 am

  2. Tony, you are aware that Michael Lebowitz is on Marxmail, right?

    Comment by louisproyect — February 11, 2019 @ 3:33 am

  3. Yes, so and a few others who are also not who I was referring to.

    Comment by Tony — February 11, 2019 @ 3:41 am

  4. Yet another great article. Especially the last part. Thank you very much

    Comment by Ramki — February 11, 2019 @ 3:42 am

  5. Tony, in fact nobody on Marxmail supports the protests against Maduro except John Reimann who also supported the protests against Ortega. I know that you hate me but don’t let your hatred warp your judgement.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 11, 2019 @ 1:33 pm

  6. Here we go …. “safely to the right”–the old DNC schuhplatteln. Now the party of Jackson can promise in its turn to be safely to the right of AOC.

    When will they ever learn?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — February 11, 2019 @ 2:26 pm

  7. So is that Austrian idiot Mr Revolutionary Communist Al-Qaeda International or whatever no longer on Marxmail? More to the point, what is wrong with the DSA statement? And why your crusade against DSA, whose future relationship with the Democras is an open question but who (from afar at least) seem to be the only dynamic thing on the US left?
    And why would I hate you? You and Tim Anderson validate my existence. I mean, 9 months after I’ve written anything on any subject and even longer since I wrote on Syria, you’re still banging on about me on Marxmail!

    Comment by tony — February 12, 2019 @ 12:33 am

  8. Why would you hate me? I guess it’s because I am not a cult follower of the PYD that had little interest in what was happening in Syria outside its utopian socialist project based on the batty Murray Bookchin’s writings.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 12, 2019 @ 1:14 am

  9. Reducing the ideology of the Apoist left to Bookchin is absurdly US-centric, but I’ll let that one go because to anyone on the left a “utopian socialist project based on the batty Murray Bookchin’s writings” should be self-evidently preferable to a revolution based on the batty Sayyid Qutb’s writings.

    Comment by tony — February 12, 2019 @ 2:36 am

  10. Sayyid Qutb? Oh, right. Those people demonstrating in 2011 were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. You people are as bad as Max Blumenthal. Even stupider.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 12, 2019 @ 2:44 am

  11. It’s this conflation of the demonstrators of 2011 with the SNC-allied armed opposition, where you and those you get your line on Syria from go wrong. The revolution in the north and east is the true successor to the 2011 uprising, not the Turkish puppets, and other Qutbists.

    Comment by tony — February 12, 2019 @ 3:18 am

  12. The revolution in the north and the east? What a joke. An enclave that has never issued a single statement calling for the overthrow of a blood-soaked dictator, Syria’s Pinochet. For that matter, cutting deals with the mafia state so that Bookchinite experiments can be left in peace. Degenerates.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 12, 2019 @ 3:35 am

  13. Well, they have. More to the point in their enclave they are building a grassroots socialist democracy which they posit as a model for a post-Baathist Syria. If you bothered to read what the two sides were saying in last year’s MSD-regime negotiations, you’d realise this (although some of the sources you use for your cherry-picked half-sentance quotes suggest that you probably do realise this but choose to pretend otherwise). Unsurprisingly, the regime wasn’t interested and the talks went nowhere. Now in a less favourable military situation with MSD diplomacy desperately trying to prevent an Erdoğan-Assad alliance, they’ve toned it down a bit. They’ve hinted that they might accept to be left in control over the territory they currently have (something they explicitly rejected before in talks with the regime, the Americans and the Russians). Although I say might because these hints are generally accompanied by calls for internationally-recognised nationwide elections. (it’s also the case that the MSD’s attitude toward the regime is predicated on the assumption that the latter is no longer an independent actor but has become totally beholden to it’s foreign backers).
    Anyway, I don’t think you’re open to an honest debate. You are capable of doing research and could quite easily see for yourself what they actually stand for. Or you can keep on spreading half-truths and untruths. Playing gotcha with half a sentence from a Rojava leader 6 years ago or an ill-informed remark from an English solidarity activists. And use idiotically Western left-focussed jeers at the spectre of “Bookchinite anarchism” to throw smoke over the very real spectre of reactionary Islamism. If you want to see degenerates checkout what your revolutionaries say about women. And when I say “your revolutionaries” I mean any non-SDF armed opposition group that actually exists. But I will insist on the “actually exists” bit because most of what I see from your side involves taking some politics of some of grassroots unarmed opposition from the early years of the conflict and projecting it onto groups who at best tolerated the grassroots opposition (usually before being wiped out by other opposition groups themselves) and more often were the executioners of the unarmed opposition.

    Comment by tony — February 12, 2019 @ 5:11 am

  14. AOC et al are currently playing into the hands of the DNC. Whether they (all) truly wish to do so or will always do so is another matter (count me as a skeptic), but now they are and this has never ended well.

    The real issue is the absence of a party with more functionality than funding campaigns and running people in elections–an activist party, a labor organizing party, etc., with live human contacts on the ground to combat the influence of the television drug. How far out is this? Ten years for the DSA to get something together after a bunch of “socialists” are in office? Far too long IMHO.

    As far as Syria goes, Louis’s brief replies are minimal but on point and tony’s replies seem to rest on unsupported assertion. “Not what I was referring to” sounds disingenuous to me–wtf was he referring to if not who actually posts on marxmail, and how could that NOT be what was referred to since it was what he said? Waste of time IMHO.

    I hate to appeal for solidarity to people who don’t seem to want it or who want it on unacceptable terms, but the stopped clocks of the Blumenthal-style phony anti-imperialists (mostly not even proforma marxists BTW) are sort of right about Venezuela–this bids fair to be a classic case of the U.S. intervening in full-on imperialist style, though assuredly it will not be an exact repetition of any preceding hist. event.. We need to be concerned about this and about the extinction of all insects at one and the same time–and rapid action (if possible) is sorely needed. Syria is more than “important” (patronizing word) but for now we here have a very limited ability to influence events there, so … .

    Vietnam led to the formation of some left-right alliances with eg libertarianism that have had a pernicious long-term influence–this is why organizing on a broad labor front and NOT on “content of character” abstract antiwar moral grounds as in Vietnam era is so essential this time around …. It was airport workers stopping work that broke the last gov’t shutdown, not Pelosi or AOC BTW. Time’s a’wastin'”

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — February 12, 2019 @ 2:50 pm

  15. A good, classic defense of socialism, Louis. Too bad we don’t have a real, mass socialist party in America. The Green Party is on record as being eco-socialist, but internally it’s dysfunctional, and is only able to run candidates for office—but is unable to maintain a real National Office, or even Regional Organizers. The Democratic Socialists of America are growing, but at this point, anyway, they are too tied to the Democratic Party to be an independent alternative to the current duopoly setup…Maybe The Donald will yet force over-paid and over-weight trade union bureaucrats like Richard Trumka off their fat asses and into the streets–maybe even a (gasp!) General Strike…We can hope…

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

    Comment by Kurt Hill — February 12, 2019 @ 3:23 pm

  16. “Would adding ExxonMobil workers to the board of directors make any difference? Absolutely not.”

    Thank you Louis for this.

    Same can be said about legal efforts to have, say, more women on boards of directors of companies (Margaret Thatcher — though hardly a representative of most women I have known in my life across many countries and three continents — is proof that women can be as vicious as men; it’s the structure that determines the role). More ‘minorities’ on boards of directors of more capitalist companies, the same. Those niceties are things capitalism can endure during ‘good times’ when it is more stable and confident.

    I’m not arguing against equal opportunity laws that were forced on the capitalist state by people’s direct actions. Just agreeing that these reforms were bandages on legs blown off by grenade.

    As soon as capital can politically maneuver to get rid of, say, environmental regulations or miserly welfare benefits, or women’s rights to their bodies, they do just that; as per the latest historical wave of this going into overdrive with Reagan, and now in super-over-drive strapped with steroid rockets, under Trump.

    With the world capitalist system fast sinking down to cannibalism, band-aids are no remedy for the cancer.

    All that said, there is value in the spread of ideas (such as ‘soak the rich’) formerly deemed taboo to even be brought up in the ‘halls of power’. Gramsci’s concept of ‘war or position’ may have been abused by academics, but I would not cede that ground to reformist academics. Gramsci was a revolutionary and this insight of his is very valuable for revolutionaries who have to attend to socially-specific needs within concretely-shaped histories of social development.

    To determine and socially construct a new ‘common sense’ is a key duty of socialists. ‘Halls of power’ (as personified by AOC, for example) may be mis-representing the ideals socialists stand for. But, for socialist vocabulary to have found currency in the ‘halls of power’ is a sign *also* that there are cracks in the system; as the great Canadian poet said, “There’s a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in.”

    Comment by Reza — February 13, 2019 @ 8:18 am

  17. Reza–spread of ideas–agree wholeheartedly–Gramsci “war of position” highly germane–but if the “cracks” are made by e.g. Sanders without a non-DNC mass movement–dare we say as embodied in the socialist party?–there is someone “safely to the right” just waiting with a bucket of plaster and we are expected once again to seek salvation in the mere election of a president. This will inevitably turn out to be a bland temporizer like Obama or the totally chimerical O’Rourke … .

    I can’t believe the number of self-anointed “progressive” Americans who still cling to the illusions of which Obama was an undoubted master ….

    Without Occupy, the hegemony of the “1%” would have remained a forbidden topic for the US left–without Arab Spring (and the necessary explosion of Qaddafi) the actual hell of the real victim nations of imperialism would be off the agenda (except in ass-backwards ritualistic denunciations of “imperialism” that wind up supporting the most repressive forces in many nations). I dare say that without Sanders the word “socialism” would also be off the American table. These phenomena are not of the same weight and value–Sanders isn’t revolutionary but Occupy (sort of) and Arab Spring were: still he made the crack, though he has done nothing else–will AOC widen it or merely continue Sanders’s history of capitulation? Who has the time to find out??

    We are eight years down the road from Occupy and from Arab Spring in the midst of ever-growing rightwing ostrich-ism (head-hiding) worldwide and cascading ecological crises that spell certain extinction for the so-called human race within a century and where are we? Global warming you can sort of imagine controlling, even surviving–but the extinction of all insects???

    I keep coming back to the notion that a sort of vanguardism is necessary if only because some (for want of a better word) cadre of non-corrupt (incorruptible?) activists devoted to service and personally available to the massess, somehow, may be the only thing that can break the alienating spell of the billionaire-financed TV-marketing spectacular in which the American consciousness is imprisoned because There Is No Alternative.

    I’m 71 years old and of no use whatever as an organizer–very little as an activist–so my authority in this context is nil … . Maybe there’s no hope. What a ship of fucking fools we people are.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — February 13, 2019 @ 5:24 pm

  18. Farans _ I agree with everything you say.

    I didn’t mean to say that Sanders or AOC introduced the ‘crack’ in the system. I believe the crack was always there, but as you point out, it was *made visible* by the Occupy movement, which was a social response to the bankruptcy of the capitalism as organized here in the U.S. That social crack, made visible by a movement from below, finally percolated upward, so that established politicians like Sanders (as well as new-comers like AOC) found the vocabulary of the 1% v. 99%. That’s a positive, a result of ‘war or position’: Not Sanders or AOC, but the recognition on a mass scale that the system is setup against the majority.

    But, still, I do share a lot of your pessimism.

    Comment by Reza — February 13, 2019 @ 5:51 pm

  19. Reza–Can’t we say Sanders and AOC–however microscopically–cracked the wall of allowable discourse–the mental hegemony? Everyone can now say “socialism” and refer to the “one percent,” and the billionaire magicians are trying like hell to shove the pigeons and colored hankies back into the hat.

    The objective reality of course has always as you say been full of cracks. (Not sure what to make of your Gramsci reference which one ought to know but I didn’t–not clear on what he meant by the two wars–stages?)

    I’m very hipped (unoriginally) on having a “party” of live human activists or whatever you want to call them available on a nationally (if possible, internationally) organized basis–being out there where people can talk to them, even in OathKeeper paradises like Bucyrus, Ohio. Knowing live, organized (even “professional”), trustworthy, and not corrupt socialist people who want to help you would be a big antidote to the unending, dreamlike, intimate but alienated tv/internet shopping spectacular and criminal grabfest–everyone is Breaking Bad at some level–plus all the disyllabic rant about Gah-ahd and Gaw Duh and leaving things to your higher power.

    A sort of vanguardism with all that implies? Something more organized than workers’ councils and “participatory democracy,” whatever that means–not sure I would like the result but does that matter? How would this differ from the sects that are out there already trying to be Bolsheviks with such disappointing results?

    Kudos to Louis (BTW) for providing this blog and Marxmail–big cracks through which much light pours from live people with something to say and the discipline to say it… .

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — February 14, 2019 @ 4:19 pm

  20. “Can’t we say Sanders and AOC–however microscopically–cracked the wall of allowable discourse–the mental hegemony?”

    Sure. I’ll go along with that.

    As for an organized group of people gathered in a nationwide political organization? That too is absolutely spot on.

    Forty years ago, after we had overthrown the Shah, we had just over one year (and some months) of absolute political freedom. We could get our hands on all kinds of Marxist literature previously banned, we could sell our socialist or communist newspapers (and get beaten up doing so), we organized marches and rallies in defense of Kurds, Turkmens and women’s rights and the freedom of the press, we were organizing neighborhood committees to ensure safety and delivery of food, university and high school classrooms were used to teach about Marxism, political economy and socialism, and on every urban street corner there were lively debates going on about all manner of political ideas. All that was definitely helped along due to a few groups of previously underground organizations that were ready to take up the task of mass education, agitation and mobilization.

    All that, of course, changed quickly since the religious vigilantes were more numerous and more organized. But, you learn a lot from defeats, more so than from easy victories. Such is politics; there are never any guarantees. But, all that mass education did not die out. It can be repressed, but not killed off; and all the cracks in our particular system of capitalism (in Iran) have only gotten wider. Who knows what the next revolutionary wave will bring, or when it will come? But, that experience is now part of our national consciousness, even if not immediately visible.

    Comment by Reza — February 14, 2019 @ 7:11 pm

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