Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Road Not (to Be) Taken-Why There Is No Linkspartei in the USA: The American Sonderweg and the Structural Barriers to Popular Third Parties in the US Political System

Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Road Not (to Be) Taken-Why There Is No Linkspartei in the USA: The American Sonderweg and the Structural Barriers to Popular Third Parties in the US Political System

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

The history of the USA is the history of a Sonderweg--a unique path. The fact that the USA is the only advanced capitalist country within Western civilisation that did not produce an institutionalised labour movement comparable to the social-democratic and communist traditions of Europe is evidence of this. (1) This American Sonderweg, which is the result of the singular constitution of us capitalist development (Sombart, 1969; Lipset, 1970; Laslett & Lipset, 1974; Debouzy, 1984; Lipset & Marks, 2000), has corresponded in socioeconomic terms to a racialisation of class struggles (D'Eramo, 1998: 161-75), and to an extreme degree of class fragmentation. Ideologically, this development corresponded to a pronounced radical individualism which, as an ontological myth of the foundations of us national character, extends from de Crevecoeur to Frederick Jackson Turner, to the strange, simultaneously antimodern, conservative as well as markedly liberal us version of the Romantic movement--transcendentalism. It also left its traces on the strong liberal and anarchist tradition in the us left, which is partly derived from it. This individualism connects to a deeply ingrained ideology of private property that has prevailed to this day, despite the creation of a class of doppelt freie Lohnarbeiter (doubly free wage labourers) and the corresponding destruction of the us ideal of a levelling competitive-capitalist/agrarian society of artisans and small landowners. Politically, the early emergence of an urban-capitalist aristocracy, admonished at one time by the left and today by the right, led to a much more immediate form of class domination. The exiled German social-conservative Rudolf Meyer (1839-1899) summed this up in a letter to his longtime friend Friedrich Engels:

   In America the social evils of Europe appear potentiated because
   the classe dirigeante in Europe groans under the same pressure from
   the state as the subjected class, whereas here it comprises and
   creates the state, which, as far as it exists, is naturally its
   unquestioning servant and murders without compassion or law at its
   command, as in Chicago [during the Haymarket incident]. (Meyer,
   1889)

It is no accident that the uniqueness of the us political system as described by Meyer led, in the USA, to a long and fertile tradition of sociological research into elites. Extending from Gustavus Myers and Thorstein Veblen to Charles Beard, and C. Wright Mills to G. William Domhoff, this tradition has embodied an effective challenge to the dominating ideological theories of the pluralistic state. However, as Gramsci's ideas gained currency in the late-1960s and the 1970s, the instrumentalist conceptions of the state often associated with this tradition came under harsh criticism. It was during his most functionalistic phase that, in the well-known Poulantzas-Miliband debate, Nicos Poulantzas confronted Ralph Miliband, calling him a 'representative' of this traditional (Anglo-)American version of 'state theory'. Among many us leftists, the debate (and Poulantzas's criticism) awoke a desire to refine their own efforts at understanding the relationship between the economic and the political, in the direction of a sophisticated, actual theory of the state. Going beyond the actors' level, which had already been observed, the idea was to consider the regulatory involvement of the state in the economic structures of capitalist accumulation, and also to enable a logical-theoretical understanding of the general role of the state in capitalist societies that renders it a specifically capitalist state (Block, 1987: 4-7; Panitch, 2002: 90).

The essentially methodological debate between a historically-concrete, empirical-sociological orientation towards form (Miliband) and the abstract, logical-structural determination of function to which Poulantzas's approach was reduced, was eventually decided in favour of Poulantzas. …

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