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Cautioning Trojan Horse Socialism in The Year of Our Bernie

by Austin Smidt on May 7, 2019

I can’t stand political Eeyorism. Much like the lovably, ever-depressive Eeyore’s parade-raining, the tendency to quash political optimism attached to perceived momentum is a stagnating online political trope. Irony aside, here’s some rain for my fellow anti-capitalists: Trojan Horse Socialism does have a serious downside of which we need to be aware. 

Trojan Horse Socialism is the approach whereby popularly desirable policy proposals serve as the vehicle by which democratic socialism can breech the walls of the Shining City on a Hill. Once inside, social democracy opens to the flowering of democratic socialism. First, universal healthcare; then, dictatorship of the proletariat. 

This strategy has been thrust into the political limelight in the wake of the growing popularity of social democratic policy advocacy in the post-Bernie United States. BB (Before Bernie), tentpole proposals such as Medicare for All or free college/debt cancellation were inconceivable as viable galvanizing Democratic Party initiatives, let alone mainstream talking points. However, AB (In the Year of Our Bernie), there has been considerable growth supporting such policies among the American electorate, opening the socio-political landscape into policy terrain that presents both wonderful potency and also regressive compromise. It is this latter possibility that concerns me. As voyagers into foreign political lands, we need to be aware that there be dragons here. 

Why this matters for socialists is that the fervent advocacy for AB policy proposals is exposed to logistical machinations of a self-perpetuating system that actively territorializes political, social, economic, and cultural resources into its gambit. While advocacy for Medicare for All might be a necessary step in the creation of a genuine democratic socialist political economy, it is most assuredly not sufficient. And what is worse, it may even provide the seeds for a greater efflorescence of the emerging neo-feudal assetization of the economy.  

Learning From the Past: The Ambivalence of the Australian Labor Accords 

One way to understand the threat that confronts our journey is by looking at past explorations. Of course, transposing an analogous situation onto our own is limited by the particularities that distinguish the previous from our current historical context. But the value in considering the failures of other encounters with a political clearing is more than merely “understanding history so we know not to repeat the same mistakes.” It is a way to genealogically construct an analytical angle on the hegemonic foe that we are contesting. Even if our corner of the fabric is unique in many ways, there are commonalities to its composition. It is these constitutive consistencies that persist even through diverse iterations. 

As a genealogical test case, we can look to the Accords of the 1980s and 1990s which helped build neoliberalism in Australia. Presented as a cooperative bridge between the concerns of workers and the floundering economic conditions confronting the Hawke-Keating government, the ACTU-Labor Accord was a landmark legislative initiative that expanded healthcare and superannuation (among other social benefits) to all Australians. In exchange for these “offsets,” unions agreed to quell their antagonism to the growing share of capital’s hold over GDP. Former Prime Minister Hawke avers,

The concept is we would provide improvements, particularly in health and education, which they [the unions] would regard as an offset to increase in money wages, so they wouldn’t look for the same degree of increase. That meant they were protected, employers didn’t have to pay as much, so it increased their competitive position. That was the overall concept of justice all round.

Further to this, at the time, Treasurer Keating explicitly claimed that the increasing disproportion of capital’s share of GDP would actually benefit workers in the long run. This was the Aussie version of the “rising tide raises all boats” argument. However, the concessions made to capital have proved to disempower – to the point of near immolation – worker agency in Australia since. 

In her recent landmark exploration of the construction of neoliberalism in Australia, Elizabeth Humphrys provocatively asserts that labour built neoliberalism. Not just the Labor Party (ALP), but with the Aussie “u,” the implication is that there was an affective and libidinal investment into neoliberal rationality by the workers themselves. By champing at the bit for some measure of material protection in a precarious historical moment, unions far too easily relinquished crucial choke points that characterize worker power in contestation to capital’s advances. The result has been the entrenchment of neoliberal rationality and policy within the Australian socio-political and socio-economic landscape. This has led to declines in union participation, legitimized disciplinary actions against union activity, stagnating wages, rising inequality – you know the story. In short, everyone – even labo(u)r – is neoliberal now.  

Understanding the Trojan Horse Relations of Social Democracy

What this genealogy instructs is that the complex relation between democracy and capitalism is fraught through and through. In the agonism between social concerns and economic vitality, the concessions we make have effects that outstretch popular political rationality. Of course, concessions will be made. They must in order to get anything done. However, the issue isn’t merely about identifying which concessions to make, but even more integrally, examining under what conditions these concessions are made. This is a crucial task that must not slip to the background in our zeal to pass policy. Examining the conditions under which concessions are made means that there needs to be a clear understanding of the logistical, technical constitutive powers that operationalize any potential policy. 

Recently, Bhaskar Sunkara graced Fox Business’ WSJ At Large wherein he sought to explain and defend the legitimacy of the rise of socialism in the United States. At the close of the discussion, prompted by Sunkara’s foil Ryan Bourne of the Cato Institute, host Gerry Baker asked if Sunkara was being a tad disingenuous with his motivations for supporting social democratic programs when in reality he wanted to sneak in “real genuine workers’ soviets.” Sunkara  parried the question by asserting that “we need to start with what works. And I think social democracy works and it’s proven.” He closed his retort by saying that the move towards democratic socialism wasn’t a relevant question for the next 10 or 20 years. Later on Twitter, Sunkara wrote that he was surprised by the “informed Fox host” for his perceptive interrogation and that he chose to “dial it back” (presumably for the Fox audience). He continued by remarking, “we need to fight for the ‘near’ (M4A, childcare) and the ‘far’ (socialism w/democratic worker control).” This was promptly quote re-tweeted by Dead Pundits’ Society host Adam Proctor who wrote,

I think this is [sic] brilliant way to sell the democratic road to socialism to a mainstream audience: Worker’s co-ops and other processes of collective ownership are rational, democratic responses to market forces, i.e. capital’s response to class struggle social democracy. It won’t win over the WSJ crowd while we’re appropriating their Lambos, but they certainly can’t caricature us as irrational maniacs in the interim.

The admission of the Trojan Horse Socialism strategy is not surprising. Both Sunkara and Proctor are two of the more consistent and prominent emerging voices on the Millennial socialist left. That is, we know who they are. What deserves attention is whether this strategy is vulnerable to the one experienced by the labor movement in Australia mentioned above. Interestingly, Sunkara hints at the inherent limits of the Trojan Horse strategy in the interview. Sandwiched between his claim that “social democracy works and it’s proven” and his remark that the question of democratic worker control won’t be relevant for the next 10 or 20 years, he notes the persistence of another Trojan Horse within social democracy itself: “[Social democracy is] reliant on the profits of capital. It’s reliant on business investment.” He further explains the leverage capital has under social democracy in its capacity to threaten capital flight until the social democratic institutions become more capital friendly. 

It is this leverage that needs to be unpacked a bit. Often we think of leverage as being something possessed. One has leverage when one is positioned with some advantage in relation to a task, challenge, or need. But leverage is not merely an exogenous capacity encircling the relational. It is also, and perhaps most potently, a constitutive relational force embedded within, as part of the very composition of the relation in the first place. This means that the Trojan Horse within social democracy is not external to the relation between the democratic institutions and capital but is intrinsic in constructing this relation in the first place. Therefore, the Trojan Horse relation within social democracy between democratic institutions and capital is one based on reciprocal concessions as constituted through leverage. As we saw in the example of the Aussie Accord, these concessions have immediate benefits and disadvantages for both sides. The task therefore becomes to prepare for the potential disadvantages facing our ventures so that we don’t get swept away by the neoliberal tide in our AB zeal. 

The Limits of Trojan Horse Socialism and The Emergence of Neo-Feudalism and The Asset Economy

In order to best prepare, we must understand our context. The monstrosity of “neoliberalism” consumes the majority of critical political discourse today. But there is a two-headed dragon emerging from the socio-economic seas that we need to include in the bevy of concerns comprising neoliberal critiques. On one side we have the emergence of what some are calling “the new feudalism”; on the other, the asset economy. 

In a 2016 article entitled “Welcome to the New Feudalism – with Silicon Valley as our Overlords,” Evgeny Morozov describes the steady march of Google and Facebook toward feudal ownership over greater proportions of the economy. By “[destroying] all competition and [making] the world dependent on their platforms,” these neo-feudal lords will increase their control over how economic resources are accessed. One such result could be the institution of micro-payments for everything from time spent web surfing to any and all social media activities. Deemed “mini command economies” by Financial Times Alphaville contributor Izabella Kaminska, the expansion of these platform economies is producing a situation in which the centripetal force of these and other platforms is creating the leverage relations by which any social democratic concessions will take place. 

In a similarly-themed article, Joshua A.T. Fairfield warns of a “Return to the Middle Ages.” Sensational imagery aside, the threat he bespeaks is not restricted to the platforms Google and Facebook. The Internet of Things interconnects the most seemingly-benign of household devices to centralized information processing centers. Our Fishtanks can be used by hackers to breach our data; Roombas map our homes; Fitbits manage our bodies; even the central computers on our cars provide a steady flow of information to mini command economies (increasingly so as electric cars with no autonomous motors gain market share). 

This leads to the second head of the confronting dragon. Beyond the discomfort that comes from privacy being a value of yesteryear is a deeper, ingrained causal mechanism that reveals the potential disadvantages facing the Trojan Horse Socialist strategy: the asset economy. After the recent news of Apple’s reinvention as a services company, Digital Economist and author of Platform Capitalism Nick Srnicek tersely explained this novel phenomenon: “Capitalism on its way to ending private property for the masses and having everything provided as-a-service by quasi-monopolistic firms.” Welcome to the neo-feudal asset economy. This is a world in which mini command economies own the platforms that dictate the limits and demands of socio-economic life and then provide the only conditions under which this life can be lived.

Increasingly, the focus of such neo-feudal capital enterprises is shifting from simple commodity production to asset ownership and management. As landscapes are recomposed into assets controlled by infoscapes, relations of leverage are being reconstituted around new arrangements within the asset economy. Fairfield notes how these mini command economies become the owners of even the devices that we think we own. Our smartphones, for example, are fancy electronic boxes packaged with sensitive proprietary software inside that is owned and controlled by a mini command economy (i.e. corporation). They own. We lease.

As these platforms increase their territorialization of social life, the constitutive leverage relations that condition any social democratic policy prescriptions shift focus, from the logic of the commodity to the logic of the asset. While this may not seem to necessitate a drastic strategic shift, we need to understand these novel leverage relations in order to proactively prepare for the reciprocal concessions that will certainly face any social democratic policy initiatives. In the fight for Medicare for All, for instance, we must be prepared for concessions that allow for universal healthcare on the condition that medical information is collated through the exponential expansion of biopolitical technologies and centralized infoscapes that can be used to securitize this data in the private sector which is tendentially increasing its role as creditor to the public sector. So while the state may provide healthcare, it will be doing so through an expansionary debtor relation with private capital. Which means that not only will our data become an asset for potential securitization but even the supposed purity of the social democratic position (i.e. that social protections embed markets) will be contaminated by the continuing transfer of public payments to service our debts to capital. This in turn produces a population whose increasing priority is the management of its social assets (i.e. datafied human capital). This is not the road to democratic socialism. This is the road to serfdom.

This is why we need to invent novel mechanisms in our perpetual fight for the transformation of the democratic institutions that partake in the leverage relation that constitutes the reciprocal concessions in the first place. Electing Bernie, winning a united government, and building labor coalitions is – I hate to be the Eeyore – not sufficient. There needs to be a strategy to confront the perpetual logistical expansion of the technological logic that frames the very possibilities for any policy initiatives. This requires more than electoral politics; more than building class power; more than non-reformist reform Trojan Horse Socialist strategies to wiggle our way inside. It requires a wholesale recomposition of the technological logic that conditions socio-economic life itself. Until then, it’ll be nothing better than one step forward two steps back, or worse. 

This is not a reproduction of the reform versus revolutionary socialism debate. Rather, this is an analytical reorientation that conditions the very possibilities for that debate. Said otherwise, in order to think through effective strategies that might constitute genuine anti-capitalist endeavors, we need to make sure we acquaint ourselves with the devil we’re preparing to make a deal with.

Austin Smidt
Austin Hayden Smidt is a political philosopher, producer, writer, podcaster, and performer. He is currently producing the cinematic adaptation of the best-selling book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, and is the co-host of the Owls at Dawn, Show Me the Meaning, and I Dig This Movie podcasts. His first book Sartre, Imagination and Dialectical Reason: Creating Society as a Work of Art will be released July 2019.

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