Socialist Worker

Dissecting the heart of the beast

A new book by Jonathan Neale asks, ‘What’s wrong with America?’ He told Anindya Bhattacharyya why he wrote it

Issue No. 1918

Your new book is very ambitious in terms of its scope. What prompted you to write it?

There is a gap—a gap in the market, but also a political gap. People are looking at what Bush is doing, but they don’t understand the dynamic.

They don’t understand how foreign policy, domestic policy and what’s happening to the unions are all one process.

The people at the top of the country—the people on Wall Street and in the White House—know it’s one process.

You start the book off looking closely at economic issues, in particular the falling rate of profit (see below). Why did you start there, rather than on more familiar issues?

I wanted to take a good analytical look at the US political scene, and how that fits in with what is happening internationally. The falling rate of profit is what is pushing it.

Neo-liberalism is designed to increase private companies’ profits, and to drive down the welfare state, government spending and working class incomes.

And that is happening because economic conditions are getting worse for them.

The rate of profit fell all over the industrial world in the 1970s and has not since been restored.

More firms are going bust, which leads to increased competition between corporations, national economies and regional economies. And inequality of every kind gets worse.

That is not just a crisis for us, it is a crisis for the people who run the corporations.

They are all scared that they will go under, so they compete, but they also attack working people more viciously.

I tried writing the book the other way round—starting with familiar issues and sneaking up on the reader with the Marxism and economics.

My partner read it and told me I was bottling the serious logical argument. So I rewrote it, and it worked.

Where did the title come from?

The editor suggested the title. She asked me, “Do you want to write a book called What’s Wrong With America?” and I said, “Yes, I do.”

She said it was a book for people who had been on the 15 February anti-war demonstration, and who knew there was something wrong, something more than “Bush is stupid”.

The book is pitched at people both in the US and in the movement internationally. Was it difficult to write a single book that would address two distinct audiences?

I thought it would pose a lot more problems than it did. But there’s much more in common around the world now.

I was recently invited to an anti-war conference in Egypt. I didn’t really know what to say, so I gave the same talk as I did in London—and it worked.

I tried not to focus the book too narrowly on people in extreme poverty.

The problem with that approach is that it leaves out the majority of working people in the middle.

If you focus on the really poor you can lapse into moralising.

I noticed that with the first draft of the book, so I rewrote it to be more analytical.

The right dismisses any criticism of capitalism, imperialism or globalisation as “anti-Americanism”. You don’t explicitly address those arguments. Why not?

I decided that life’s too short! But it’s true that anti-Americanism is on the rise. People watch what’s happening in Abu Ghraib or Fallujah and think, “It’s the Americans.”

I find even in myself a kind of hostility every time I hear George Bush’s accent—which was the accent I was raised with, one that for many years made me feel at home.

I’m really having an argument with people whose hearts are going towards nationalism.

You can see it all over Europe, with the argument that the EU would be a good counterweight to the US.

You can see it in Palestinian leaders who are looking for alliances with the EU. You can see it in different ways with John Kerry.

You discuss class at considerable length—talking about people’s misunderstanding on the issue.

That’s one section where I’m writing mainly for an American audience. Very few people in America have heard what I am saying here.

Most people do not think in those terms. So you have to explain it in detail.

Otherwise they just think you are on some Marxist rant that makes no sense, and you lose them.

You place a strong emphasis throughout the book on people’s personal emotions, gender politics and so on.

I was an abortion and HIV counsellor for 16 years. So I’m at home with talking about those things—more than most economists or Marxist writers.

Many of these issues are key political arguments in America.

But all too often people say, “Politics, economics and ideology over here—emotions, feelings, gender issues, women and children over there.”

If you were making an economic argument you would need to understand the figures that backed it up.

Similarly, if you’re going to discuss AIDS you need to understand what coming out of the closet feels like.

You discuss the US working class in a lot of detail. I certainly did not realise how significant the air traffic controllers’ strike under Reagan was. Was that intended primarily for non-US readers?

No. Americans don’t know that either! People who are 25 now were one year old when the air traffic controllers’ strike happened.

Working class people know that what happens at work is central to their life experience and influences everything that happens to them.

But others, college students for instance, often don’t know that class struggle is crucial for the rest of politics.

Reagan went for the air traffic controllers first, three years before the war on drugs, and before he attacked the rights of gay men.

It’s not just about air traffic controllers, but the way that it terrifies everyone else.

You also talk about the ruling class and how to gauge their intentions—to what extent their actions are deliberate and conscious.

I thought a lot about how to present that section of the book.

I try to persuade readers that there is a ruling class, and that it is made of real human beings.

If you don’t try to explain that in all its real complexity, the reader won’t believe what you are saying.

In the US context the ruling class are much more organised and institutionalised. They have interlocking directorships—they meet, talk and argue with each other. That is how the ruling class actually works.

Your book demonstrates the Marxist method, but it is a matter of showing that method rather than saying it.

I don’t say, “This is the Marxist method.” I still worry that after the fall of the USSR, you lose people if you do that.

The main reason for the Marxist method is that it is the best way to make sense of the world.

The movement can fight on its heart, but it can’t win without understanding. And there is much too little understanding at the moment.

In each new historical period you have to apply the method to what is new. I found it was enormously ambitious to do that.

I had written about Afghanistan and a history of the Vietnam War, but this time I tried to go back to basics, take the Marxist method and put it all together.

The way to win people is not to try to have an argument with what everyone else says, but to pull it together and make sense of it as a whole.

That way we can see how it all works. And it’s immensely satisfying intellectually.


Key idea

What is the falling rate of profit?

JONATHAN Neale places Karl Marx’s idea of the falling rate of profit at the centre of his new book.

Marx argued that, even while capitalists continue to make huge profits, there is a tendency for the return on their investment to decrease over time.

They are forced to invest an ever-greater amount of money for each pound of profit they make. Because profit is absolutely central to capitalism, the tendency for the rate of profit to fall leads to deepening crisis for the whole capitalist system.

Jonathan Neale’s What’s Wrong With America? is available from Bookmarks (£10.99). Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com


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Article information

Features
Sat 11 Sep 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1918
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