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Capital Strike?


Elizabeth Bruenig’s column in the Washington Post yesterday is strange. At the heart of it is an analogy to help us make sense of advertisers abandoning Laura Ingraham’s show in light of her taunting David Hogg:

Yet it’s not quite right to classify these advertisers’ decisions as a straightforward boycott. In the context of Ingraham’s long career in right-wing media, sniping at a teenager over college admissions is perhaps one of her less obscene stunts, which suggests it’s unlikely that these companies suddenly grew a collective conscience and decided to bring their expenditures into accord with their morals. It’s more likely that Ingraham is the victim of a capital strike, when investors withdraw or withhold investments en masse because they’ve determined that potential hazards outweigh potential gains.

As Dana Houle noted on twitter, this conceptualization seems to miss a key point about strikes: that they are oriented toward using leverage to motivate some kind of change in behavior or conduct, with a plan to return to something approximating the status quo ante when demands are met. As far as I can tell, nothing like this expectation obtains in this case. While there is some etymological grounding for referring to a refusal to invest as a general matter as a “capital strike” this seems materially and substantively different than declining a particular venue for advertising in crucial ways; declining to invest in an economy at all and choosing how to distribute spending unrelated to the primary economic activity aren’t comparable. And, of course, when capital does withdraw from a sector, country, or region in protest of some policy, there’s an implicit demand the policy change. Is there any reason to think there’s some concrete step Ingraham could take that would bring these advertisers back?

Moving on: What is the function of this dubious and strained analogy? Breunig seems concerned that some on the left might make the mistake of concluding capital is now their trusted friend and ally. Fair enough, I suppose, if anyone is that naïve. Beyond this banality, the point of the analogy appears to be this:

But the fact that we can’t rely on capital to do much besides look out for its own cupidinous interests presents more than comeuppance for conservatives who’ve spent the past few decades building strategic political alliances with big business. It also foregrounds a key imbalance in our politics: While capital can strike on a whim and effectively shut down a political program or initiative, labor’s ability to similarly assert itself in the public sphere is comparatively limited.

In capitalist societies, the balance of power between capital and labor has tended to favor the former most of the time. Nonetheless, there’s been considerable variation in that balance of power; labor’s position vis a vis capital is not a constant. Capital’s capacity to choose its preferred venues for advertising its wares and services, on the other hand, has to the best of my knowledge been pretty consistently quite robust. That discretion has been used to advance political goals I find salutory and political goals I find repugnant, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t have a clear or direct empirical or logical relationship with the power balance between labor and capital. If the point of the column is to warn us to be ever vigilant and suspicious about capital, again, fair enough, but what does this have anything to do with withdrawing advertising from the Laura Ingraham show. The rest of the column discusses the dangers of laws that tilt power to capital vis a vis labor—right to work, no-strike, etc. All bad! All largely irrelevant to the power to revisit the choice of one’s advertising venue.

Being savvy, cynical, and generally distrustful about capital as a political ally is, indeed, wise. Conflating capital’s freedom to select venues for advertising with capital’s power to crush labor doesn’t help us do this in any way I can discern. The power of capital is not an undifferentiated mass, but something that exists in particular forms and domains that are not necessarily interchangeable.

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