March 2017 Top Stories

“Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible!”

On January 31st of this year, CNN hosted a Town Hall with Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).[1] During the event, NYU-student Trevor Hill shifted from his prescreened question to a more substantive one.

by Ben Feldman

“We’re capitalist. That’s just the way it is.” – Nancy Pelosi

On January 31st of this year, CNN hosted a Town Hall with Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).[1] During the event, NYU-student Trevor Hill shifted from his prescreened question to a more substantive one. Hill asked Pelosi whether she believed that the Democrats needed to embrace a left-Populism that could serve as a real alternative to the bigoted right-populism of Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Pelosi’s response—which begins with the line quoted above—reveals a great deal about the limits of the Democratic imagination.

Pelosi differentiated between the “shareholder” capitalism of the 21st century—whose purpose is solely to generate wealth for investors—and the “stakeholder” capitalism that dominated the post-war boom. Referencing (it seems) an article written by Oil executive Frank Abrams in the Harvard Business Review in 1951, Pelosi noted that, “no less a person in terms of capitalism than the chairman of the Standard Oil of New Jersey…said when we make decisions as managements and CEOs…we take into consideration our shareholders, our management, our workers, our customers, and the community at large.”[2]

Democrats will continue to lose at the local and national levels if they cannot transcend their current politics: a bland, content-less multiculturalism that seeks to cure the ills of society by changing hearts and minds, without having to change structures and institutions.

Pelosi justified her position by noting the lower rates of income inequality under stakeholder capitalism. During this period, CEOs made ‘only’ 40 times more then their employees, rather than the roughly 400:1 disparity of 2017. Herein lies the problem. Pelosi condemns the latter ratio as “an immorality,” but Democrats—who have been suffering devastating electoral defeats at the local level for years before the 2016 election—cannot succeed in inspiring a generation who feel increasingly left out of American capitalism by harkening to its golden days. This rising generation of voters cannot accept a vision of a world where working people would be earning two-and-a-half cents for every dollar given to their employers, rather than a quarter for every one hundred dollars as one that is just and equitable.[3]

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 10.10.18 PM
This chart shows the extraordinary rise in income inequality over the last 35 years. Courtesy of Mother Jones.


Neither Pelosi, nor many other politicians representing the Democratic establishment, seem able to envision creating structures, or building institutions that might dramatically improve the lives of working people. They appear unwilling to address the fundamentally exploitative relationship between individuals, or between individuals and society. They reject the callousness of a Republican Party that seeks to deprive 24 million people of health care who are currently covered, but dismiss as utopian any plan to provide coverage for the 28 million people who still do not have real access under Obamacare. The vision of the corporate Democrat does not extend beyond applying band-aids to a welfare state crumbling under decades of vicious neoliberal assaults.[5]

Listening to Democrats try to craft messaging that will appeal to voters reveals this limited imagination. The mainstream of the Democratic Party is incapable of any utterance that doesn’t sound like something you would say to try to sell a futon or whitening toothpaste. Responding to Donald Trump’s claim that he would ‘make American great again,’ the Clinton campaign’s insipid retort that ‘American is already great,’ was shockingly tone-deaf given the massive social and economic stratification of American society in the 21st century.[6] These sorts of focus-tested, banal faux-profundities—more fit for embroidering on a throw pillow than inspiring people to political action—are indicative of a Party either unwilling or incapable of accepting the degree to which they were in crisis even before the election. Democrats will continue to lose at the local and national levels if they cannot transcend their current politics: a bland, content-less multiculturalism that seeks to cure the ills of society by changing hearts and minds, without having to change structures and institutions.


The grassroots Left, and its few allies within the Democratic firmament demand a bolder vision, and a firmer commitment to addressing wealth and income inequality and expanding the social safety net. Rather than working to tamp down this emergent class-consciousness, the Democratic Party would do well to recall the critiques of American capitalism offered by Herbert Marcuse, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy and other Western Marxian thinkers. Their work in the early 1960s excoriated the limits of the liberal imagination during the period of post-war growth that Pelosi so fondly recalls.[7] Marcuse, Sweezy, and Baran argued that capitalism had been stabilized by providing a basic standard of living for (white) working people, and in doing so had limited the critical imagination of the industrial proletariat. Continuing segregation and a New Deal welfare state whose benefits were given disproportionately to white men, had succeeded in dulling the nascent class-consciousness of the 1930s. This undermined the primary mobilizing force envisioned by Marx and Engles to counter a system whose foundation was one of exploitation. To Marcuse, the industrial labor force of post-war America was defined by “a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behavior,” wherein political visions which, “transcend the established universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced.”[8] The increased material comfort available to working people, combined with a social safety net that disproportionately benefited white, working, men-, led them to affirm a system premised on inequality. Rather than some perversion of the ‘stakeholder capitalism’ lauded by Pelosi, today’s ‘shareholder’ capitalism is that system’s logical culmination.

Baran, Sweezy, and Marcuse believed that the relatively widely distributed material growth of the post-war United States masked a sort of psychological impoverishment. To Marcuse, we were once able to envision a world outside of our own experience through artistic and cultural expression. As art has been increasingly commodified and absorbed into capitalist logic, “the oppositional, alien, and transcendent elements” in culture are destroyed. Easy access to aesthetic and sexual pleasure ultimately (to paraphrase Marcuse) ‘closes the universe of discourse’ by robbing ‘man’ of the ability to recognize, and thus to envision and articulate solutions to more fundamental, psychological needs. Without such articulations, dialectical logic (the basis of all philosophy and of social criticism) is impossible.

Neither Pelosi, nor many other politicians representing the Democratic establishment, seem able to envision creating structures, or building institutions that might dramatically improve the lives of working people. They appear unwilling to address the fundamentally exploitative relationship between individuals, or between individuals and society.

Baran and Sweezy shared Marcuse’s critique of the limits of one-dimensional logic, but placed a greater emphasis on the need to connect what Baran referred to as the “psycho-struggle,” with class struggle. As the foundation of capitalism is material (that is, that the system is at root a means of producing and distributing wealth predicated on extracting surplus value from labor and on the existence and defense of private property), a rational critique of capitalism must be a materialist critique. Detached from this material base, the ‘unhappy consciousness,’ of the American worker cannot “become a force against the prevailing irrationality” of the system, and the ‘psycho-struggle’ would lead not to rational change, but to “cultural degradation,” and the “aggressiveness…[and] emptiness” characteristic of “fascist man.”[9]

While Marx and Engels had seen the industrial working-class as the only potentially revolutionary force within capitalism, this was not because of something essential to industrial labor. Marx and Engels believed that it was the unique exploitation of the industrial worker of the 1850s and 1860s—from whose labor the value that fueled capitalism’s growth was extracted—that gave them their ‘world-historical’ role.[10] Marcuse et al. suggested that, while the revolutionary potential of the (white) working class was extinguished, a fundamental transformation of society remained a possibility, and its agents could be found “underneath the conservative popular base.” Those most exploited by 20th century western capitalism were not white industrial workers within the imperial metropole, but African-Americans and the subjects of colonized nations in the developing world.[11] Only these groups—who existed within capitalism but “outside the democratic process”—retained the critical faculties necessary to conceive of, articulate, and fight for a rational and equitable society. Suppressing the revolutionary radicalism of these groups would drain the resources of the imperial powers. As “rot and breakdown” began to take hold in the West, a stagnant economy would lead to the increasing social (and economic) marginalization of those already on the margins.[12] The shrinking workforce would decrease opportunities for consumption and investment, and a new class-consciousness would spread up from the Third World, eventually reaching critical mass of working people within the imperial metropole.[13]


While the economy of the United States in the 21st century is built on finance and service rather than on industrial production, a growing number of Americans have been pushed to the margins, unable to recognize the system as one that works for them. As is always this case, those on the margins are disproportionately people of color, women, and LGBTQ. Increasingly however, the economically marginalized are likely to share another demographic trait: age.

The most viable long-term strategy almost certainly involves some combination of pressuring elected Democrats and working from the ground up to replace those Democrats who continue to resist that pressure.

In looking back to the ‘youth revolt’ of the 1960s, it is easy to neglect that while left politics were concentrated among the young, the young were not, by and large, active in left-politics. While those under 30 tended to be significantly to the left of their parents’ generation on issues of culture (sexual expression, drug use, etc.), on many important issues associated with the Left, the youth of the 1960s were often more conservative.[14] Further, while the young Left was hostile to the cultural values of their parents, and to the racism, misogyny, and imperialism of the Cold War United States, that generation had no reason to see anything cloudy in their own financial futures.

This is not so for the young Left of today. Indeed, research undertaken by the Equality of Opportunity Project shows that the likelihood that children will earn more than their parents by age 30 has fallen from 90% to 50% over the last 50 years.[15]

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As this chart illustrates, the likelihood of out-earning one’s parents has been in steady decline since World War II. Courtesy of Mother Jones.

As the first generation of Americans since the end of the Second World War who can expect to be worse off than their parents, those under the age of 35 may be the first generation since the Depression capable of joining together a cultural and an economic critique of capitalism, fulfilling Baran and Sweezy’s vision of radical change as articulated in Monopoly Capital. Indeed, though faced with the grim reality of unified Republican rule under Donald Trump, and in spite of the best efforts of the Democratic Party, there are encouraging signs. Most notable is the tremendous youth-support for Bernie Sanders: the Independent Vermont Senator whose ‘democratic socialism’ was met with confusion and derision by the mainstream media and with hostility by the establishment wing of the Democratic Party. Despite low name-recognition and almost no institutional backing, the Sanders campaign received the votes of more young people than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined.[16]

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 10.07.36 PM
Sanders nearly tripled the total number of youth votes for Hillary Clinton. Courtesy of

While the overwhelming majority of Sanders-supporters cast votes for Hillary Clinton in November, many did so joylessly, casting a vote against the vicious bigotry of Donald Trump, rather than for the candidate who asserted that an America plagued by inequities of race, gender, and class was ‘already great.’ While we should avoid mono-causal explanations of the result of a national election, there is no question that a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton relative to that felt for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 played a key role in her defeat.[17]

Some Democrats have offered post-election critiques of Clinton’s strategy—often sounding frustratingly similar to those put forward by Sanders and his supporters during the campaign. However, as the recent election of former Secretary of Labor (and Obama-Clinton partisan) Tom Perez over Congressman (and Sanders surrogate) Keith Ellison for Democratic National Committee Chair shows, the majority of the Party’s power brokers have refused to learn from the mistakes of 2016. Whether or not there is significant fallout from this intransigence remains to be seen. What is less open to debate is that, regardless of whether young Leftists organize within the Democratic Party, or outside of it (in organizations like DSA), short-term success will be measured largely by the sort of pressure we are able to put on elected Democrats: a strategy that we have seen work in the early weeks of the Trump administration, as corporate Democrats like Cory Booker are forced to answer for their ties to pharmaceutical companies and for-profit schools. The most viable long-term strategy almost certainly involves some combination of pressuring elected Democrats and working from the ground up to replace those Democrats who continue to resist that pressure.

During the 2016 primary, moderate liberals castigated Bernie Sanders’s vision as utopian, and dismissed his theory of change—mobilizing the grassroots to demand that their representatives prioritize their constituents over their corporate backers—as both unrealistic and undesirable.[18] However, since January 20th the Sanders strategy of grassroots mobilization has—given the constraints of unified Republican governance—met with astounding success. Marches, rallies, and town halls have played a major role in pressuring Democrats, who by instinct tend to prioritize defending norms over winning power, to take a hard line against Trump nominees. This newly impassioned electorate may have played the key role in stopping the Republicans from destroying the Affordable Care Act.

Whether the abolition of slavery, or the passing of Social Security, major reorganizations of American political, social, and economic life often seem utopian until the very moment that they became reality. If we want the sort of Party that can both resist the Right and articulate a positive political vision, there is only one way forward: to demand the ‘impossible’ until it is impossible no longer.

feldmanBen Feldman is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University researching Intellectual History and Political Economy of the United States. His dissertation, “Liberation from the Affluent Society,” explores the role of the Third World in post-war American political thought. He can be contacted here and followed on Twitter at @ItsBenFeldman.

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[1] The title of this piece is taken from a popular slogan from the student demonstrations in Paris in May of 1968.

[2] Abrams wrote that management needed to “maintain an equitable and workable balance among the claims of the various directly interested groups…a harmonious balance among…the stockholders, employees, customers, and the public at large.” (Frank Abrams, quote in Elena Cabagnaro and George Curiel, The Three Levels of Sustainability (Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf Publishing Limited, 2012). In a widely circulated 2014 article, economist Robert Reich referenced Abrams’ speech, while also distinguishing shareholder and stakeholder capitalism. Robert Reich, “The Rebirth of Stakeholder Capitalism?” (, accessed March 23, 2017).

[3]This is, of course, not to deny that the United States experienced tremendous economic growth and a significant compression of wealth and income between 1945 and 1973, During this period, social mobility—most noticeably for white men, but increasingly for women and people of color as well—was more easily achieved than at any other time in American history (both in spite of, and in some ways because of the fundamentally gendered and racialized construction of the New Deal Order). On this see (among others) Alice Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) and Ira Katznelson Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, A Division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2013).

[4], accessed, 3/29/2017.

[5] Broadly considered, Neoliberalism is a philosophy based on the irrationality of individuals and the ultimate rationality of the market, which ‘makes decisions’ based on the combined input of billions of economic actors. Each actor makes choices and the market values commodities based on these choices. Thus, the market is not only supremely rational, but is the promoter and the protector of individual agency; billions of choices made by self-interested individuals working neatly together to determine the precise value of all things. Neoliberalism is the belief that an unrestrained, unencumbered market, free from government intervention and oversight is, and always has been, the chief source of human liberty. In pursuance of the goal of market liberalization, those operating under the neoliberal umbrella (including a number who eschew the label) follow a broad group of policies, including: destruction of artificial barriers to trade, deregulation of government, and lower taxes.

[6] Due to quirks of the electoral map, the 2016 election was decided in the rust belt, leading to facile analyses that lay the blame for the Democrats’ defeat entirely on the decline of good manufacturing jobs. While the Democrats’ refusal to defend labor unions and manufacturing jobs in the Midwest may be responsible for Trump’s victory over Clinton, it cannot explain gubernatorial defeats in deep-blue Maryland, or 900+ seats lost in state legislatures since 2008. There are a great many working people—and not just white working people—outside of the de-industrializing mid-west for whom America has not been ‘Great’ in a very long time, if ever.

[7] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Monopoly Capital. On Western Marxism and its contested legacy, see (among others): Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: Verso, 1976); Russell Jacoby, Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); and Martin Jay Marxism & Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

[8] Marcuse, 14.

[9] Paul Baran to Paul Sweezy, February 3, 1957.

[10] If one is true to Marx-as-method, rather than Marx-as-doctrine, the assumption that the working class must necessarily continue to be the locus of revolutionary subjectivity would be both an error of reification (one of Marx’s chief critiques of Hegel), and fundamentally un-dialectic.

[11] These thinkers only infrequently recognized the potential revolutionary power of women.

[12] Sweezy to Baran (April 26, 1963).

[13] Of course, this revolutionary wave barely reached the shores of the United States. The age of post-war growth had been presided over by Democrats (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson), and by Republicans (Eisenhower, Nixon) who were largely accepting of the New Deal Order. When that order collapsed under the weight of stagnant growth, rising inflation, and high unemployment during the 1970s, the logic of market fundamentalism rushed in to fill the void. See (among others) Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012); Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Making of he Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009); and Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011 on the rise of the neoliberal economics since the 1970s.

[14] Perhaps counter intuitively, in 22 Gallup polls on support for the War in Vietnam by Age (Under 30, 30-49, Over 49) taken between May, 1965 and May, 1971, every single poll showed support for the war decreasing with age. (, accessed 3/25/2017).

[15] (, accessed 3/25/2017).

[16] Also encouraging is the significant increase in membership of America’s largest socialist organization: Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). DSA has tripled in size over the past twelve months, and at just under 20,000 members, is now the nation’s largest socialist party in generations.

[17] Trump received a lower share of the electorate (27.89%) than Romney in 2012 (28.33%). The Democrats saw their share of the electorate drop from 30.64% to 29.2%. The percentage of eligible voters who stayed home or otherwise rejected both major party candidates rose from 41.03% to 42.91% (a nearly 2 point drop since 2012, and a 4.51 point decline since 2008).

[18] Interviewed by Vox, former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau wrote of Bernie’s place “to build a mobilized grassroots that simply wrestles power away from those who have it,” that “It’s not just that Obama doesn’t think that’s feasible, it’s that he doesn’t think that’s the right way to govern…” also see Jonathan Chait’s, “The Case Against Bernie Sanders,” in New York Magazine

2 comments on ““Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible!”

  1. Pingback: Inheriting Expulsions from the Insurance Industry – The Activist History Review

  2. Pingback: Pragmatism v. Purity?: The Left and Elections – The Activist History Review

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