Robert Reich and the Common Sense of US Imperialism

Robert Reich crudely misrepresents socialism, ignoring that dictatorship and state intervention serve different social classes under socialism and capitalism. His analysis overlooks the historical roots of the capitalist state in the US and its development as a colonizing force extending its tentacles around the world in the service of the rich and powerful.

Robert Reich is a Democratic Party propagandist. He is a syndicated columnist and a well-known and influential political commentator. His political positions overlap those of Bernie Sanders, who has called Reich “one of the most important voices in America, fighting for an economy that works for all people and not just those at the top.”

Reich positions himself as a defender of the workers and a harsh critic of corporate CEOs. For those reasons he appeals to left-liberal Democrats and the left wing of the Democratic Party. The points of view that he propagates serve as a line of defense for the US capitalist/imperialist order, appealing to people who may otherwise be prone to adopt more radical, even revolutionary political positions.

Any analysis of social relations articulates a particular worldview. In capitalist society, the dominant “common sense” understanding of social relations is delimited by what the ruling class deems acceptable. Robert Reich does not stray beyond those bounds. Hence, it is important to unmask the true class interests behind his ideas, as they are widely promoted under the guise of defending the poor.

Is liberation from oppression and want even possible under capitalism? In his book “The System. Who Rigged it. How to Fix it,” Reich cautions: “Don’t assume that we’re locked in a battle between capitalism and socialism. We already have socialism – for the very rich. Most Americans are subject to harsh capitalism.” [1] This is an interesting way of putting things. It is actually confusion mongering and a misrepresentation of what socialism really is. It is pro-capitalist propaganda.

What conception of socialism is he putting forward? What does Reich mean by “socialism for the very rich”? He answers: “Socialism for the rich means that the oligarchy is not held accountable.” [1]

Thus, socialism means lack of accountability for a social group or class. How are we to understand this? His idea of socialism is that a class or group imposes its unrestricted will on the rest of society. In this case, “the very rich” do that, to the detriment of everyone else. As a good liberal he thinks this is completely unacceptable and should be opposed. But is this actually socialism?

In essence he is conflating socialism with dictatorship. And, of course, he would be right if one were to mean the dictatorship of the proletariat. But in his liberal mind, all dictatorship is bad. He sees no distinction between the dictatorship of the working class and the dictatorship of the very rich.

Can dictatorship and democracy exist at the same time? Yes. The dictatorship of the colonized over their oppressors is necessary to free themselves from oppression. So is the dictatorship of the proletariat over the capitalists, because capitalism is based on the dictatorship of money and profit-making. 

Democracy does not just mean casting a ballot in support of a politician. Power and control over matters directly affecting one’s own daily life at the workplace and one’s own health and wellbeing cannot be reduced to the multibillion-dollar US electoral circus. Working conditions and the power of the workers on the shop floor and in the fields, in the service industry and industrial production, are also a matter for democracy. And here regular people are subject to the ruthless dictatorship of the capitalist class. 

The rule of the working class and of the oppressed masses under socialism entails accountability to the masses of people. It means democracy. It means power over the decision making affecting one’s own daily life, working conditions, and what and how things are produced and distributed in society. But it does not mean subservience to those who would subject people to oppression and exploitation. The unrestricted will of the colonized and of the proletariat entails democracy for the vast majority; while imposing restrictions and bringing about the eventual elimination of the oppressors as a class.

There is another aspect to Reich’s claim, in the same book, that “America does practice one form of socialism – socialism for the rich.” By this he means that the state intervenes in favor of the rich. He cites the bailout of Wall Street in 2008. And adds, “If this isn’t socialism, what is?” [1] This, again, is confusion mongering. It completely muddles up the class character of the state. For him, state intervention in favor of a social class, any class, is socialism. But the state is not above classes, and in socialist society the state is an instrument to advance and defend the interests of the working class and colonized peoples, not the capitalists.

But for Reich, dictatorship and democracy are conceived as absolute, isolated from each other and from social reality. Democracy means “interest-group pluralism.” We are all in this together kind-of-thing. This arrangement, which according to him was operative in the US in the last century, before it was supposedly corrupted by corporate greed, “channeled the views of individual citizens and made American democracy function. The political power of big corporations was offset by the power of labor unions, farm cooperatives, retailers, and smaller banks.” [1]

This is metaphysical thinking. It is thinking of democracy in the abstract, detached from actual social relations and historical developments. Accordingly, democracy and the dictatorship of a given class cannot coexist. The state in the US can thus revert to a supposedly above-class status, contrary to its actual role as a guarantor of the stability of the capitalist system. In this immaterial world, one appeals to corporate CEOs to “do more for workers” [2] even after Amazon crushes its workers’ unionizing drive.

The metaphysical way of thinking considers things abstracted from their actual material conditions of existence, based on entities that do not change and develop as a result of internally contradictory aspects (such as dictatorship and democracy) and of classes with contradictory and opposing interests. Thus, democracy can be defined as something pure and absolute. And the state can be a guarantor of this pure democracy. Things can be thought of independently of their interconnections. US society can be analyzed and considered independently from the imperialist plunder perpetrated by US capital abroad. And the idea of the US as an exemplary society can take root and be promoted by the ruling elites independently of their predatory character.

In Robert Reich’s head there are abstract individuals, whether capitalists or workers, white or Black, Indigenous or settlers and their descendants, who are free to enter into contractual relations with one another. Individuals who exist in historical isolation from the land theft perpetrated against the Indigenous inhabitants of these lands. Detached from the capitalist accumulation resulting from the colossal theft of a whole continent and the massive enslavement of African peoples. They exist in isolation from the US imperialist plunder of the Global South. None of that matters. Each person has their own individual interests to protect. And these can be protected in a well-functioning American democracy, ruled through interest-group pluralism.

According to this way of thinking, the state can exist above social classes, as a mediator between social forces that can coexist in peace and harmony. Not as having evolved as an instrument for the disciplining of the exploited and oppressed to promote the well-functioning of a capitalist order for the benefit of the rich and powerful.

These views disguise the thrust for domination and profit inherent in capitalism and imperialism. Under Reich’s  “common sense” conception, worker and capitalist are “on a level.” Capitalism is not an exploitative system. There is no dictatorship in the workplace. Police murders of Black people are not systemic and not inherent to the socioeconomic relations that emerged from the historical development of capitalism in the US. There is a disconnect between this capitalist system and the 800 US military bases that ring the globe to back up profit making.

Such disconnects cannot be brushed aside. US imperial designs go hand in hand with internal policies on the home front. But Reich mystifies this connection. In metaphysical fashion, the activities of US capital abroad are detached from its predatory nature. In an opinion piece in The Guardian calling on Biden to follow through with his industrial policy, he notes that “some of Biden’s emerging industrial policy is coming in response to China.” [3] He continues: “Last week’s annual intelligence report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warns that Beijing threatens American leadership in an array of emerging technologies.” And he goes on to praise this policy and its tie-in with various technologies linked to “national security,” to be funded through Biden’s military budget. The policy is presented as necessary and beneficial to the American people: “Devastating climate change, a deadly pandemic and the rise of China as a technological powerhouse require an active government pushing the private sector to achieve public purposes.” [3]

But the reality is that US government policy towards China is not guided by a desire to advance the interests of the working class or the oppressed masses in this country. The steps taken by the Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations towards China are aimed at advancing US capitalist and imperialist interests and at maintaining the US position as a global hegemon.

“Contrary to Karl Marx,” says Reich, “there is nothing about capitalism that leads inexorably to mounting economic insecurity and widening inequality.” [4] In other words, forget the whole history of exploitation and oppression of racial capitalism in the United States. Forget the centuries old imperialist and colonialist plunder of the Global South. Forget the history of uninterrupted wars of the United States. Capitalism can be good.

For the metaphysician there is a disconnect between the economic and political power of the United States and its settler colonial wars against the Indigenous nations of North America. The territorial theft of half of Mexico in the 1800s. The repeated US interventions in Central and South America throughout the 20th century. The overthrow of elected governments in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, and Honduras. The wars of aggression against liberation movements in South-East Asia, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The destruction of entire countries in Iraq and Libya in pursuit of oil. The hybrid wars against anti-imperialist governments and peoples in Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia. Never mind all that. Forget the lesser people. “There is nothing about capitalism that leads inexorably to mounting insecurity and widening inequality,” says Reich in his book [4] “Saving Capitalism. For the Many, Not the Few”

Metaphysical thinking ignores the interconnections between social phenomena. The brutal repression of the Black liberation movement in the United States is not thought of in its historical context as an integral part of the development of racialized capitalism in the US. The fact that the median household income among Black people is so much lower than among white people and poverty rates so much higher, are not understood as inherent features of the capitalist system in this country. Ignoring the systemic nature of racialized capitalism allows Reich to make the claim that there is nothing in capitalism leading to widening inequality.

By Reich’s logic, police violence and the unending murder and incarceration of Black people are not seen in terms of the historical development of capitalism in the US. The contradictory interests of colonized peoples and opposing social forces are erased. The Black liberation movement may be treated as an internal enemy by the FBI, the Black Panthers may be persecuted and murdered by the US government, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X may be assassinated, Newark, Detroit and LA may explode in rebellion against racist police violence, but “interest-group pluralism” makes “American democracy” work.

This thinking throws out the window the interconnectedness of social phenomena, and the different class and social forces in contention. The harsh realities of racial capitalism and imperialism, the theft and oppression perpetrated against Indigenous peoples and the Global South, the unending wars of conquest. They all vanish into thin air. US plunder abroad is not part of the equation. The efforts of colonized peoples to throw off the yoke of imperial oppression evaporate. By disguising the interests of the capitalist/imperialist class, Reich is presenting a false picture of reality, a metaphysical picture of reality.

References

1. Robert Reich, “The System. Who Rigged it. How to Fix It”
2. Robert Reich, “Musk, Bezos have celestial plans but should do more for workers here on Earth,” The Baltimore Sun, April 29, 2021.
3. Robert Reich, “Biden is poised to transform how America treats industry. He must follow through,” The Guardian, April 18, 2021.
4. Robert Reich, “Saving Capitalism. For the Many, Not the Few”

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