Samuel Farber's Social Decay and Transformation

— Charlie Post

Social Decay and Transformation:
A View from the Left
by Samuel Farber
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2000; xxii + 177 pp. $55 (hardcover only).

SAMUEL FARBER'S SOCIAL Decay and Transformation addresses a paradox of U.S. politics. On the one hand, the untrammeled operation of the capitalist market over the past two decades has produced various forms of social decay, what Farber describes as “a regress from the democratic, egalitarian and humanist elements of modernism.” (xv)

The rollback of gains made by working and oppressed peoples in the 1930s and 1960s -- unionization, social welfare benefits and the like -- has produced a sharp rise on homelessness, poverty, crime and violence, and drug and alcohol abuse; a growth of the prison population; a decline of public education and the resurgence  of mysticism and a “culture of luck and fortune.” (xvi)

On the other hand, it is the political right wing, the political and ideological spokespeople of capital and broad sectors of the old and new middle class, which has dominated the discussion of social decay. While their promotion of the “free market” and unrestrained capital accumulation is responsible for the real social decay that affects contemporary U.S. society, it is the right who have defined the terms of debate.

In the right's world-view, real social decay is equated with the democratic gains of the 1960s in the areas of racial and gender equality, greater freedom of sexual expression and the growth of social welfare and public education. The right then locates the roots of decay in the decline of “traditional morality” based on respect for authority in politics, the family and the labor market.

In Farber's view, the right has dominated the discussion of social decay because the majority of the left intelligentsia -- the academics and journalists who place the role of “public intellectuals” -- has generally remained silent.

For Farber, this failure to confront the issue of social decay flows from the left's political demoralization and defensiveness during the past two decades. Faced with the decline of the labor and social movements since the 1970s, an important part of the left has despaired ever winning a majority of the population to a progressive, rational and collectivist alternative to capitalism and its culture of “Hobbesian individualism.”

Postmodernism's trendy rejection of science and rationality (the ability to comprehend the objective relations and processes that shape social life) and the notion of progress has provided ideological justification for much of the contemporary left intellectuals' political demoralization. Postmodernism's “moral and cultural relativism,” according to Farber, reflects a variant of the backward-looking critiques of capitalism associated with the nineteenth century German neo-romantics, Nietzsche, Tonnies, Sombart and Spengler.

The intelligentsia's despair at ever winning a majority to its politics has led not only to its silence on the issue of social decay, but a tendency toward the “romanticization of the oppressed.”

The tendency to equate all actions and behaviors of working and oppressed people with “protest” has led to belittling the role of political ideas and strategy in organizing popular social movements, and glorifiying behavior that in no way constitutes “resistance.” The result has been the right's intellectual hegemony:

“It is bad enough that the American right can successfully draw on the traditions of American individualism and has broad access to a wide variety of media and institutions such as fundamentalist churches ... this bad situation is made worse by the left's inability to handle and provide persuasive answers to real social and moral questions that are demagogically formulated by the right. Thus, faced with a deteriorating social reality and the right wing's effort to shift the blame from systemic capitalist causes to the victims among the racial minorities and the poor, important sections of the left often react by denying or minimizing the seriousness of the problems, changing the subject, or sometimes even romantically converting problems into virtues. Unfortunately, these denials of reality by the left provide greater credibility to the right and to its analysis of the causes and solutions of social and moral decay.” (138)

A Progressive View of “Progress”

To construct an alternative left analysis of social decay, we require a “normative” evaluation of social behaviors based on a notion of “progress.”

Unlike the bourgeois optimists of the nineteenth century and vulgar Marxists in the twentieth century, Farber defines progress as both increased human material and technical mastery of the world and the movement toward social and economic equality and cooperation.

From this perspective, Farber argues that a left analysis of social decay and transformation should begin from three key propositions.

First, real decay (rising drug abuse, homelessness, crime, etc.) must be distinguished from the right's attacks on the social advances of the 1960s (greater racial and gender equality, sexual freedom, greater social provisions).

Second, the left must produce an alternative analysis of the roots of social decay. Such an analysis starts with how the unconstrained operation of capitalism, rather than the behaviors of racial minorities and the poor (the so-called “culture of poverty”) has led to increased poverty, crime, violence and the like.

Finally, the left must pose an alternative solution, one which offers alternative policies to the right within capitalism and points to an alternative, democratic and collectivist society beyond capitalism.

Farber utilizes this framework in a series of thought-provoking discussions of various theories of social decay and transformation. The “communitarian movement” (11-14) of Amitai Etzioni and others, advisors to both Democratic and Republican politicians, has advocated a rebuilding of community (shared cultural values and norms) through a sharp constriction of individual liberties -- from the finger-printing of welfare recipients, to an abandonment of the “presumption of innocence” in criminal trials, to the restriction of women's right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

While recognizing that the alternative “civil libertarian” perspective is based on a view of “people as atomized entities without obligations and responsibilities to other citizens,” Farber argues that the communitarians' blindness “to the dangers of abuse of authority and coercion, particularly on the part of the state” makes the latter's “political record . . . inferior and to the right” of the former.

For his part Farber draws upon the work of both Jane Jacobs and Lenin(1) to project a new community based on:

“. . . the development of solidarity as the only viable alternative to the extreme individualism and atomization of late capitalism . . . I conceive of solidarity as the mutual aid and support among strangers, public women and men who objectively belong to and identify with some “imagined community” of working people . . . You don't need to personally know or be the neighbor of people in a picket line or demonstration in order to identify with, support and join them. (16)

Farber addresses the work of Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist who has argued that Americans' participation in the voluntary organizations (PTAs, bowling leagues, fraternal organizations) that make civil life possible has declined since the Second World War (Chapter 2).

The right has taken up Putnam's work, arguing that the rise of “big government” generally, and the welfare state specifically, has undermined voluntary organizations. To restore the institutional basis of civil life, government programs must be dismantled to make room for a flowering of voluntary organizations, beginning with private charities to replace public welfare.

Farber agrees with those left-wing critics of Putnam who point to his tendency to dismiss the impact of class inequality (longer hours, increased stress at work) on participation in voluntary organizations. However, he criticizes Katha Pollitt and others for minimizing the issue of declining civil participation, ignoring the increasing privatization of leisure, and neglecting the tendency of self-help networks (like Alcoholics Anonymous) to displace organizations like unions.

Farber argues convincingly that the historic weakness of the U.S. labor movement is at the root of much of the decline of civic life since the Second World War. The labor movement's inability to win large scale public transportation and housing on the scale found in Europe led to the privatization of housing and transport (the house in the suburbs and the private car), longer working and commuting time, all of which undermine the ability of workers to participate in voluntary organizations.

Farber makes a passionate case that the decline of voluntary organizations has been especially costly for working people, who require a rich variety of such organizations (tenant and community organizations, unions, etc.) to develop political and organizational skills and build the power necessary to restrain and eventually defeat capital.

Manners, Protest and Temperance

Farber then takes up the issue of public civility: the decline of manners so actively bemoaned by New York City's Mayor Giuliani and other right-wing politicians who speak for segments of the upper and middle classes who are unable to shelter themselves from all the effects (“aggressive panhandling” and the presence of the homeless near offices, theaters, etc.) of welfare reform and poverty.

While Farber completely agrees with those left intellectuals who argue that the real crimes are poverty and homelessness, he believes that there has been a real decline in manners and public civility. Rejecting the African-American conservative Stephen L. Carter's defense of all manners on the basis of “customs and convention,” Farber at the same time argues that Benjamin DeMott's implicit equation of all uncivil behaviors on the part of the exploited and oppressed with protest is equally false.

Recognizing that the left intelligentsia's tendency to decry the issue of manners as simply a “bourgeois” attempt to mask class domination is rooted in the century long struggle against Puritanism, censorship and prohibition, Farber also makes a compelling case that not all forms of public courtesy are incompatible with social equality.

The left should distinguish between manners and other behavioral rules that reinforce class domination and those that are either “a necessary lubricant of human relations, particularly among strangers” or are “rooted in rules of hygiene that are bound to develop with the advancement of science and technology.” (45)

Making his point with a fascinating discussion of public flatulence, Farber concludes that declining public civility between working people is one symptom of the difficulties they face in acting collectively in opposition to the political and economic roots of social decay.

Farber's discussion of “The Many Faces of Temperance” (Chapter 4) is one of the most interesting in the book. He makes a clear distinction between what can be called bourgeois and “working class temperance.”

“Bourgeois temperance” was part of the bourgeoisie's attempt to impose capitalist work discipline -- the intensification, routinization and extension of work that actually promotes working-class alcoholism. For this strand of temperance, there is no distinction between social drinking and alcoholism; alcoholism was an individual moral failing and the root cause of poverty.

Advocates of temperance among the politically active minority of the working class who built the unions, parties and cooperatives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, saw the struggle against alcoholism as part of the struggle to build a movement capable of confronting capital.

For “working class temperance” advocates, there was a clear distinction between social drinking (an important element of working class sociability) and alcoholism. The latter was a social disease rooted in the capitalist labor-process, and ending alcoholism was not a cure for social problems of poverty and exploitation.

Farber details this discussion with an analysis of different currents within the Women's Christian Temperance Union in the United States and the attitude of Spanish anarchists toward alcoholism.(2)

A Fatal Lumpen Strategy

Farber's treatment of working-class temperance movements and the Black Panther Party (an earlier version of which appeared in this magazine)(3) contrasts two very different left-wing and popular responses to capitalist social decay.

On the one hand, working-class temperance advocates confronted the debilitating effects of alcoholism in the context of building a working-class movement (unions, parties, cooperatives, etc.) that could, in Marx's words, “make the working class fit to rule.” On the other, the Panthers' romanticization of the lumpen proletariat and its adaptation of lumpen behaviors and lifestyle undermined the Panthers' ability to build an effective movement in the Black community against racism and capitalism.

In contrast to working-class temperance movements, the Black Panther Party, arguably the largest and most important African-American revolutionary organization to emerge in from the radicalization of the 1960s, was unable to resist the effects of social decay. The Panther leadership adapted a self-conscious orientation not to employed and semi-employed Black workers, but to the “lumpen proletariat” -- the long-term unemployed who survived through “hustling,” petty criminal activity and the like.

This political orientation, as recent memoirs by former Panthers have revealed, soon led to the adaptation of lumpen behavior in the Party. The growth of gangsterism (including drug dealing, racketeering and petty theft), the use of violence to settle political disputes, and macho and sexist behavior toward female party members all manifested, according to Farber, a profound “lack of political responsibility to the African-American community.” (76)

This internal degeneration made it extremely difficult for the Panthers to respond effectively to the external capitalist state repression launched against them in the 1970s, and was a key factor in the collapse of this promising organization of African-American revolutionaries.

Farber concludes his discussions of the Panthers by contrasting them to Malcolm X, whose political evolution from a street hustler to a revolutionary required his abandoning the behavior and life-style of the lumpen through his membership in the Nation of Islam.

Hidden Transcripts and Hegemony

In the second part of his book, Farber turns to “Social Transformation and Reason” -- the centrality of “politics and ideas . . . to the process of social transformation and the protest movements against the old order that necessarily precede it . . . the ideological and political self-education of the powerless.” (97)

Farber develops his thinking through a critique of two influential historians and theorists of popular struggles, the political scientist James C. Scott and the historian Robin D.G. Kelley. Recognizing the important intellectual and political contributions of both Scott and Kelley, Farber sees both scholars minimizing the role of ideas in popular politics and “romanticizing” the oppressed.

In Scott's work, Farber finds quite useful his notion of “hidden transcripts” of resistance -- the hidden sabotage and symbolic actions taken by the oppressed “behind the back” of the powerful. However, Farber questions Scott's rejection of the concepts of “hegemony” and “false consciousness” in the analysis of popular resistance to oppression.

Scott equates “hegemony,” Gramsci's notion that the exploited and oppressed often accept some ideas of the dominant classes, with the subordinated groups' complete acceptance of the ideals and dominance of their oppressors.

Scott instead argues that the general absence of systemic popular challenges to exploitation and oppression come from realistic assessment of the balance of forces on the part of the oppressed, who realize that open revolt simply will not be successful most of the time.

Scott also rejects the notion of “false consciousness,” but on the postmodernist grounds that “there is no social location or analytical position from which the truth value of a text or discourse may be judged.”(4) Thus, no popular understanding of oppression, strategy for struggle or alternative social arrangement can be judged superior to any other.

Farber first points out that Scott's use of the term “hegemony” to mean ideological “consensus” are at odds with the Gramsci's and most Marxists' use of the term. More important, Scott's claim that the oppressed never accept any of the ideas of their oppressors is both historically inaccurate and theoretically untenable.

Farber reviews a small part of the historical literature to demonstrate how peasants in pre-capitalist societies and workers under capitalism have internalized ruling-class ideas, from deference to nationalism, racism, individualism and competition.

On a theoretical level, Scott's rejection of the concept of hegemony ignores how ruling class ideology “is practically built into capitalist societies.” (99) The absence of direct coercion in the everyday process of capitalist exploitation makes private property, competition, the wage relations and other aspects of capitalist social relations appear as “laws of nature.”

As a result, the exploited and oppressed need to develop their own ideas, their own ideology to free themselves from the almost inescapable influence of ruling class ideas under capitalism.

Farber's critique of Scott's rejection of “false consciousness” begins with the recognition that there “are good reasons to reject many uses of `false consciousness.'” Farber rejects idealist versions of “false consciousness” that argue “that certain ideas are not only mistaken but also have no basis of foundation in the experiences and people's social position in the real world.” (105)

He also rejects George Lukacs notion of “imputed” class-consciousness, another idealist construction that assigns an ideal-typical consciousness to every social class. Because he insists that there must be some normative basis to evaluate the ideas of the oppressed, Farber believes that “the dangers emanating from a dogmatic relativism and nihilism are greater today than the dangers posed by a dogmatic Marxist schematism.”

The notion of “false consciousness” can “be used as an evaluative concept to assess the level of human rationality attained by individuals and movements alike:”

“(T)his concept also has considerable liberatory potential. To the extent that [the concept of] false consciousness evaluates ideas that may undermine people's expressed desires and best understood self-interest for material improvement and freedom . . . then to that extent it could be a weapon against demagogic manipulation and for self-mastery and autonomy . . . the proper use of false consciousness can help in a political education which, among other things, exposes false prophets and attractive but deceptive ideas appealing to the lowest rather than the highest instincts in people.” (108-109)

Robin Kelley's Race Rebels

For Farber, Robin D.G. Kelley's work is much more nuanced than Scott's. Kelley's first book Hammer and Hoe,(5) which Farber does not discuss, analyzes the dynamic synthesis of traditions of popular resistance among southern African Americans with the shifting politics of U.S. Communism that produced (and later strangled) a powerful social movement among African-American workers and farmers in the south of the 1930s.(6)

Kelley returns to the theme of traditions of popular resistance among Black workers in his collection of essays Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class.(7) Farber devotes a chapter to a discussion of this work.

Race Rebels, says Farber, “demonstrates a keen sense of the class stratification and internal conflicts within the African-American community . . . a fine grasp of the cultural texture and specificity of the Black community” and brings a “welcome emphasis on issues concerning personal autonomy and dignity and the `thick description' of the telling detail, a detail that may sometimes point to the small victories that, if nothing else, help to maintain the morale of the oppressed.” (114)

Drawing on the work of George Rawick and others, Kelley illuminates the varied forms of resistance the exploited and oppressed engage in that are not explicitly political. Kellys insistence that apparently non-political forms and institutions (benevolent societies, fraternal organizations, Black religious practices) shape community and labor struggles; and his uncovering of small group, semi-spontaneous forms of resistance are invaluable additions to our understanding of class and racial struggle.

Farber points however to Kelley's tendency to make “every action of the oppressed as important as every other action” and to equate all actions of the oppressed with resistance to oppression.

Kelley's failure to analyze “consciousness, intention and purposes and the role they play in resistance” (114) mar his insightful work. Farber argues that not all actions by the oppressed constitute resistance, and that not all forms of resistance are equally political, i.e. equally informed by clear goals and involve self-organization.

Some of the actions of the oppressed Kelley identifies as resistance (wearing of Zoot suits in the 1940s and children's pranks on segregated school buses in the 1950s) are better understood as “alternative” behaviors that do not alter the relationship of forces between oppressor and oppressed.

Other actions are best understood as forms of resistance without clear goals or organization, including quitting lousy jobs, “stealing” fuel, water and electricity from utility companies, sabotage of machinery or confronting racist bus drivers and ticket-takers on segregated buses.

Finally, there are explicitly political acts of protest and rebellion, the most important that Kelley analyzes in Race Rebels being the May 1963 street demonstrations and confrontations with the police in Birmingham, Alabama.

In Farber's view, the tendency to treat all actions of the oppressed as equally important forms of resistance entails an “insufficient sense of analytical discrimination, proportion and perspective” (114), which leads Kelley to an “idealization of behavior which is in fact far more dehumanizing than anything that could remotely be considered resistance.” (119)

Farber challenges Kelley's claims that prostitution and criminal activity (theft) represent a rebellion against low-waged, alienated labor for capitalists. Regarding prostitution, Farber asserts:

“ (I)t is peculiar to see leftists who would normally condemn the recent neoliberal extension and consolidation of market principles in areas such as health and education look with approval or at least indifference to the extension of the market into one of the most personal and intimate aspects of life: sexual relations.” (120)

Viewing crime as resistance tends to ignore its exploitative and predatory aspects, as Kelley again fails to make crucial distinctions between crimes against capital (taking home products or supplies from work; appropriating resources from “common” grounds and property) and the crimes committed against other (mostly non-white) working people.

Kelley takes the romanticization of crime further when he criticizes Malcolm X's abandonment of the life of a “hustler” for the middle-class norms of the Nation of Islam. Farber concedes that the Nation of Islam did in fact attempt to inculcate middle-class behaviors and lifestyles among its converts, yet the abandonment of the behaviors and lifestyles of the lumpenized “hustler” was a necessary condition for Malcolm's evolution into a political militant and revolutionary.

A Cultural Revolution?

Farber concludes the book with a discussion of how a working-class, revolutionary left in power dealt with the issues of social decay and cultural revolution, using the example of the Bolsheviks in the 1920s.

While Farber has written extensively on the Bolsheviks' political and ideological violations of workers' democracy during the Civil War,(8) he recognizes that “the twenties became a decade of bold cultural experimentation and innovation, in sharp contrast with the oppressive cultural monolithism that later became the norm under Stalin.” (127)

The Bolsheviks, in contrast to today's postmodernists, were unabashed advocates of enlightenment as the core of “cultural revolution.” Leading Bolsheviks (Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Lenin, Krupskaya) rejected calls for a state sanctioned “proletarian culture” and asserted the need for the working class to appropriate the best elements of past cultural production, whether from bourgeois or even pre-bourgeois societies.

But the central cultural questions the Bolsheviks struggled with in the post-revolutionary period involved the transformation of “everyday life:” the raising of popular literacy, improving punctuality and personal hygiene, ending corruption, establishing the social conditions for women's emancipation and the like.

Farber focuses on Leon Trotsky's fascinating collection of articles Problems of Everyday Life,(9) originally published in 1923. In these essays, Trotsky was an unabashed advocate of the cultural enlightenment of the working class through the ending of what he viewed as the “barbarities” of everyday life, including swearing, which he argued was the “legacy of slavery, humiliation and disrespect for human dignity -- one's own and that of other people.”(10)

Trotsky also rejected bureaucratic attempts to transform working class behaviors, including public exposure of those whose personal behaviors failed to live up to the new standards. Instead, Trotsky believed that new behaviors and customs would develop with the spread of education and growth of economic security and could not bureaucratically be imposed from above.

Much of this cultural education would be the work of voluntary groups and associations, whose activities would be crucial to spreading cultural enlightenment in much the way Soviet voluntary organizations in the 1920s make important contributions to the development of the cinema, aviation and new armaments for the Red Army.

For Farber, the Bolsheviks' strategy for struggling against social decay, a cultural revolution that spread enlightenment to all aspects of working class life, represents a model for the left both in power and in opposition. While political power is necessary for the completion of an enlightening cultural revolution, Farber also argues:

“Any left-wing group that has outgrown the status of a sect (even while still being short of having become a successful contender for power) will necessarily be an important carrier of cultural activity and consequently have a substantial cultural impact . . . The question then becomes what should be the specific content and orientation of the group or party's cultural vision and message for the oppositional present as well as for the hopefully victorious future. (137)

Revitalizing the Left

Farber's work makes important strides in defining the content of a revitalized left's struggle for cultural “counter-hegemony.” Rather than ignoring difficult aspects of social decay or romanticizing the exploited and oppressed, the left must recapture its Enlightenment roots and pose an alternative analysis and solution to those proposed by the right.

Farber's argument, however, does suffer from certain drawbacks. First, he does not adequately acknowledge that broad elements of the left intelligentsia, in fact, have taken up key aspects of social decay in the past two decades.

Recent work by Christian Parenti on the growth of the prison system as a means of repression,(11) the work of Michael Katz(12) and others on the history and growth of poverty, and recent work on homeessness(13) have all addressed real aspects of social decay, attempting to locate the roots of this decay in the workings of the capitalist market and discussing real solutions to these problems around which a revitalized left could struggle.

At points, Farber fails to distinguish between the contemporary left's ability to address these aspects of social decay and the more difficult aspects, such as civic participation and manners.

A more important shortcoming is Farber's failure to confront explicitly the postmodernist epistemological relativism that inform, explicitly or implicitly, many contemporary analyses of popular resistance. (See the above quote from James C. Scott, that “there is no social location or analytical position” for evaluating “truth value of a text of discourse.”)

Both the contempt for the role of ideas in popular struggles, and the failure to distinguish various forms of resistance, often rest on a denial of objective, structural limits on social and political action. This rejection is one of the effects of post-modernism's nearly hegemonic influence on left academics today.(14)

Marxist Alternative to Postmodernism

According to the postmodernists, social and physical realities existing independent of the human mind are deemed to be unknowable. Reacting to bourgeois ideologists' appropriation of the claim of “scientific objectivity,” the postmodernists reject any attempt to analyze underlying social relations and processes (laws of motion) of capitalism or any other society as a retreat to enlightenment traditions of “grand narratives.”

At best, different social groups (classes, races-ethnicities, genders, sexual preferences, etc.) develop their own distinctive language based “discourses” about the world, which provide the foundation of their distinctive and multiple “identities.” From the postmodernist perspective, any and all discourses of the “subaltern” (oppressed) groups and any and all of their behaviors and activities are equally valid and effective forms of “resistance.”

Marxists, while recognizing that the effects of one's social position on consciousness makes a “royal road to science” impossible, strive to comprehend the objective relations and processes of capitalist societies in order to make a reasonable judgment of the efficacy of different behaviors and strategies of the oppressed and exploited.

A clear defense of a Marxist understanding of how the structure and logic of capital accumulation and the capitalist state both limit and make possible different strategies for struggle would have greatly strengthened Farber's critical discussion of both Scott and Kelley.

James C. Scott is explicit in his embrace of postmodernism's epistemological relativism, hence of course his claim that there can be no such thing as “false consciousness.” Farber's critique of this view would have been greatly strengthened by a discussion of how certain ideas -- racism among white workers for example -- is rooted in the experience of labor-market competition among workers.(15)

These ideas constitute a “false consciousness” and inadequate basis for defending even the sectoral interests of white workers, inasmuch as competition among workers weakens their position against capital and leads to a downward spiral of wages and working conditions.(16)

Thus, the structural limits and dynamics of capitalism as a social system necessitate clear ideas among the politically active minority of workers -- an analysis that rejects labor market competition and its ideologies of racism, sexism, homophobia and nationalism; a strategy based on class-wide mobilization and action against capital; and a vision of limiting the destructive effects of labor market competition.

Robin Kelley's relationship to postmodernism is much more ambiguous. Certainly he is a political thinker deeply committed to determining which political strategies are effective tools for liberation, and which are not. In Hammer and Hoe, Kelley demonstrates how popular traditions of non-political resistance can alter the relationship of forces when fused with political organization and strategy based on a realistic assessment of capitalism and class struggle.

According to Farber, this same theme is present in Race Rebels, where Kelley “points to the limitations of the Black middle class and objects to the view postulating an internally harmonious Black community as disingenuous and obstructing serious historical research on class relations within African-American communities.” (114)

On the other hand, Kelley echoes many postmodernist themes when he claims:

“(F)or a worker to accept reformist trade union strategies while stealing from work, to fight streetcar conductors while voting down strike action in ones local, to leave work early in order to participate in religious revival meetings or rendezvous with one's lover, or to choose to attend a dance rather than a CIO mass meeting is not necessarily a sign of an `immature' class consciousness, but reflects the multiple ways working people live, experience, and interpret the world around them.”(17)

Any attempt to distinguish various forms of resistance requires an understanding of how capitalist accumulation and political institutions place on forms of struggle and their conscious expression.(18)

A clear understanding of the structure of accumulation and the changing conditions of profitability is crucial to understanding what forms of action have no effect on power relations in the workplace; under what circumstances spontaneous, unorganized small group action can alter these power relations in favor of workers; and under what circumstances only organized and conscious action by broader groups of workers can defend past gains and create new ones.

Similarly, a structural analysis of the limits on political action help us understand why certain behaviors -- prostitution or petty criminality -- not only have no positive impact on the relationship of forces between oppressed and oppressors, but actually help reproduce the power of the dominant social classes and groups.

Despite these shortcomings, Farber's Social Decay and Transformation is an important beginning in the development of a serious left examination of the issues of social decay. The book is clearly written, brief and will hopefully spark a serious debate on the contemporary U.S. left.


  1. See Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), and Lenin's comments on the possibility of mutual responsibility without the need for “special bodies of armed men” in The State and Revolution.
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  2. It would have been interesting if Farber had included a discussion of the Scandinavian labor movement and temperance. On a recent visit to Sweden and Norway, I discovered that the labor movement's temperance tradition remains strong, even on the revolutionary left. As a North American I was quite shocked to learn that Swedish and Norwegian revolutionaries not only abstained from what many of us would consider harmless recreational drugs (marijuana), but opposed legalization of drugs in their countries. One Norwegian comrade told me that the statutes of the revolutionary youth organization he belongs to (with over 500 members in a population of less than five million), and the larger youth organization of the Left Socialist Party, commit their members to struggling against drug and alcohol abuse.
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  3. “Social Decay and Class in African-American Struggle: The Black Panthers Reconsidered,” Against the Current 64 (September-October 1996, 22-31.
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  4. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990), x; cited in Farber, 106.
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  5. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
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  6. For an analysis of the effects of the shifting politics of U.S. Communism on working class and popular movements, see C. Post, “Rethinking CPUSA History: Was the `Popular Front' the Only Option?” ATC 63 (July-August 1996), 22-33. See also Alan Wald's two-part review essay “African Americans, Culture and Communism,” ATC 84 and 86 (January-February and May-June 2000).
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  7. New York: The Free Press, 1994.
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  8. Before Stalinism. The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (London: Verso, 1990).
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  9. The English version of Trotsky's 1923 essays was published along with additional materials as the collection Problems of Everyday Life (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973).
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  10. Problems of Everyday Life, 52, quoted in Farber, 133.
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  11. Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (London: Verso, 1999).
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  12. The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989).
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  13. David Wagner, Checkerboard Square: Culture and Resistance in a Homeless Community (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993).
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  14. My discussion of postmodernism is drawn from: Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990); Bryan D. Palmer, Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster (eds.), In Defense of History (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997).
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  15. For a full presentation of this analysis see R. Brenner and J. Brenner, Reagan the Right and the Working Class, ATC 2 (old series, Winter 1981).
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  16. The theoretical basis for this argument is presented in Howard Botwinick, Persistent Inequalities: Wage Disparity Under Capitalist Competition (Princeton University Press, 1993). Kim Moody, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism (London: Verso, 1988) and Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy (London: Verso, 1997) presents an historical analysis of how increased competition among workers in the United States and globally has provided a fertile environment for racist and nationalist consciousness and produced a “race to the bottom.”
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  17. Race Rebels, 34.
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  18. An excellent example of such an analysis is presented in R. Brenner, “The Problem of Reformism,” Against the Current 43 (March-April 1993).
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from ATC 95 (November/December 2001)

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