An Open Letter to Van Jones – or some thoughts on the state of the economy.

From a live performance by Ken Ehrlich

This text was originally presented as a performance at the Democracy and Media Workshop at The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) on September 21, 2009.The workshop was organized by Tom Leeser and also included presentations from the editorial committee of The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest and writer and scholar Janet Sarbanes.

Van Jones, an author and activist, resigned recently from his position as green jobs czar in the Obama administration after a sustained right wing media campaign to discredit him, which focused on his signature of a petition questioning government connections to 9/11 and his former statements aligning himself with revolutionary communism.

Dear Van Jones,

I hope you don't mind my taking the liberty of writing. You probably have more time to read your mail since you've resigned from your position in the Obama administration. What a strange feeling it must be to have rocketed into the frenzied media scape of the Fox news realm...

I wonder if you remember me? In the mid-nineties, when you were an activist with STORM (Standing Together To Organize a Revolutionary Movement), we met on several occasions through my roommate H. (She actually talked about you all the time... about your cuteness, your ego and she even speculated about your viability as a sperm donor... but that's another story entirely)!   I'm actually writing with a bold proposition: namely, that you reconsider your association with communism.

I know... I know... you've moved on. You've “realized” that meaningful change only comes from working within the system. I know... I know... your book book on green jobs was a New York Times Bestseller. I know... I know... you shaved your dreadlocks and traded your Bay Area righteous fashion for slick suits. I know all that. But seriously. What if you tried to start a national conversation on the merits of communism? Communism and Socialism. And I'm not talking about zany right-wing so- called populists crying out “Socialism!” for trying to provide basic healthcare to people. I'm talking about an in-depth provocative and serious conversation, precisely because having that conversation seems to me one of the best ways to identify the fundamental flaws of Capitalism,

O.K. Ready? Here's how I see it: THE FREE MARKET WAS NEVER REALLY FREE! And I mean that in more ways than one. The human and environmental costs of the so-called free market are devastating. Income disparity, poverty, global warming, etc. all reflect to a certain degree the price of the free market. But the larger point here is that at no time in American History (or dare I speculate further and say—never in history?) have markets truly ever been free. This is true for many reasons. The Market is an abstraction, a human invention turned into a force with consequences that exceed even many economists' understanding. The most pervasive myth about the market is that it is somehow natural, like life itself. More specifically, corporate welfare, or if you prefer, subsidies, represent massive hand-outs from the government. The recent bailout of the country's largest financial institutions was just the latest in a long history of the government stepping in when necessary to rescue capitalism. But to rescue it from what? From itself?

Cover of The Green Collar Economy

Van, you probably know your history better than I do but I'm going to go back a bit here just to put some of this in context... As Meyer Weinberg points out, much of the historical wealth within American Capitalism depended on land taken by force from the indigenous inhabitants of this country. By the end of the nineteenth century, land was less central to the means of producing wealth and industry—at this point manufacturing and the railroads became particularly important. Significantly, it was around this time that the distribution of wealth and income gap in the U.S. exceeded or at least matched that of industrial capitalist countries elsewhere. As early as the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke posited an individual “whose essence consisted of proprietorship over his own person.” He was free insofar as he existed independently of others' wills. Hence, the protection of private property, or privately accumulated wealth became the most fundamental function of government. It was in this context, paradoxically, that the pursuit of one's own wealth and therefore freedom justified another person's unfree status as a slave. Another abstraction constructed in the spirit of capitalism and one that has always involved direct and complex intervention by the government is the structure of the corporation. Through legal struggles, capitalists battled over the rights and responsibilities of the corporation. Should or does the corporation have the same legal rights as a citizen? This question was never “left to the market” but constantly negotiated through the legal system. This battle is still being waged today—most visibly recently when the Supreme Court decided that corporations were entitled to more or less the same rights of free speech as an individual.

More recently, American capitalism has been fundamentally transformed by two related factors. The internationalization of finance and the so-called end of the cold war... And here's where things start to get really lively!

In a brilliant essay on the history of neo-liberalism, David Harvey, the Marxist geographer, uses the example of Chile as an instructive lesson in “free market” economics. Immediately following the military coup on September 11 1973 (which by the way was backed by the CIA and strongly supported by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger), Augusto Pinochet, following the advice of U.S. economists mostly from the University of Chicago, initiated a radical program of deregulation and privatization  Every state run infrastructure, including systems like the country's electrical grid and especially the nation's rich copper mining industry, was sold off to the highest bidder. What is interesting here is not so much that a government took what was considered the country's shared wealth and sold it to private interests—that is something in and of itself—but it is particularly noteworthy that a brutal and systematic campaign of state sponsored-repression accompanied it. The population of Chile was literally afraid of being “disappeared” for associating with the wrong people. There was simply no way a sustained campaign of resistance to this privatization scheme could be developed. Further, the economists from the University of Chicago and their students were close advisors to Margaret Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. David Harvey contends that through these economic advisors Great Britain and the U.S. were able to experiment with policies of deregulation and privatization. The so-called center could conduct this experiment on the periphery. Unlike Chile, however, rather than rely primarily on state-sponsored political repression alongside of these schemes, first Thatcher and later Reagan developed intense ideological propaganda campaigns around the notion of “freedom.” As we have seen, since that time, crises of capitalism are presented as and perceived as crises of governance. The strategy of deregulation, in fact, opens up new zones of market freedoms for powerful corporate interests. THE FREE MARKET HAS NEVER BEEN FREE!

Harvey, describing the transformation of American Capitalism under Reagan, puts it succinctly:

“The Market, depicted ideologically as the great means to foster competition and innovation, was in practice to be the great vehicle for the consolidation of monopoly corporate and multinational powers as the nexus of class rule. Tax cuts for the rich simultaneously began the momentous shift towards greater social inequity and the restoration of upper class power.” THE FREE MARKET HAS NEVER BEEN FREE!

Now, Van, before I get too carried away, I want you to know that I'm moving toward the present—towards a discussion of the current economic crisis and the strange reactions to it. Bear with me... A bit more background will help frame the discussion... Just a bit more about the internationalization of finance and the politics of the cold war...

You've heard of Structural Adjustment Programs, right? Well, here's a HYPER condensed version of the acceleration of the internationalization of finance as I see it: As (again) Harvey describes, in the early 1970's countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi had vast amounts of oil wealth at their disposal. Through open military pressure, the Saudis in particular agreed to recycle this oil wealth through New York investment banks, which had emerged, often through direct and indirect pressure, as the central apparatus of global finance. These banks now searched for investment opportunities for these tremendous flows of capital. One of the most profitable and dynamic forms of investment for the banks became investment in so-called developing nations. This meant that governments amenable to massive foreign investment were looked upon favorably, even if they exerted forceful repression on the general population. The World Bank and the IMF often stepped in to facilitate this process through what came to be known as Structural Adjustment Programs—essentially the process of opening up international markets to investment by the U.S. and other rich nations by offering massive “loans” to poor countries and insisting that the shared national wealth be made available to global investors. So... you have coercive tactics, military threats and the use of force, the specter of enormous loans with serious strings attached and all the while the rhetoric of freedom and glory of free markets? Really? THE FREE MARKET HAS NEVER, NEVER BEEN FREE!

O.K. So what if we can all agree that rather than the so-called “triumph of the free market,” the perpetuation of capitalism requires massive intervention from governments and the constant management and manipulation of crises? So what if we agree that there is a massive and fundamental set of contradictions in the rhetoric of free markets and the management of international finance? Now what? Here's where you come in, Van... I know I'm asking a lot. It might be a bit of pressure... but I think you're up to the task. You've always liked the limelight. You've faced pressure before. You've never shied away from controversy.

What if you used the media platform you've carved out for yourself to start a national conversation on the benefits of Communism? I mean you'd have to be polemical about it... Have fun with it. Know from that outset that your diatribes were going to be self-conscious and playful (as I've tried to do here...) Listen, I'm TOTALLY available to help you craft strategy and tactics. Think how fun it will be to proclaim on national television that the rhetoric of the cold war was ABSOLUTE BULLSHIT!! I mean c'mon!!!! Talk about sweet...

I know what you're thinking... you're thinking those tea baggers are already foaming at the mouth because of healthcare. Imagine what they'll do to the guy who starts offering up a defense of Communism. But here's the thing: Maybe there is a way to harness the justifiable rage that exists out there and is being manipulated into serving corporate interests and actually direct that anger where it belongs—directly at the structural dimensions of Capitalism and its apologists. Naive? Probably. Idealistic? Absolutely. But we're in the midst of a widely acknowledged crisis that could be a catalyst for a radical re-thinking of economic orthodoxy rather than handing billions of dollars of money to the very people that orchestrated the financial crisis in the first place. Seriously, Van, I mean 'green jobs'?I know your book sold a lot of copies but what if putting a greener or happier or more tolerant face on Capitalism just isn't going to happen? What if by its very nature Capitalism thrives on the sort of crises and contradictions we all spend out time scratching our heads about and trying to work out?

As Zizek said recently, the question should not be “Is the Communist idea dead?” or “What might Communist ideas still offer us now?” But rather the opposite: What does our current situation look like from the perspective of Communism? From the politics of a radical collective emancipatory politics?

To put it simply, reform isn't going to cut it. Our goal, as utopian as it sounds, should be the end of Capitalism itself. It may very well be that Communist thought is impoverished, but perhaps a thorough engagement with Communism will produce the as-yet-unthought. Perhaps only as Capitalism ends will we truly be able to think of alternatives to it. More just alternatives, more equitable, more sustainable alternatives.

I can imagine you anarchists out there are skeptical of this interest in Communism. You're probably thinking—the end of Capitalism? Yes! But Communism?? No!! You're thinking “The Socialist welfare state is dead! Why try and revive an idea whose death was globally celebrated ten years ago?” And these are fair questions but for the sake of conversation, I'll ask you back: Do we really know how to organize mass societies? I mean we can't even organize our food co-op!! As David Harvey asked recently, “Do we really want a consensus-based anarcho-collective running a nuclear facility?” Maybe if our ultimate goal is the dissolution of the state and modes of organization based on hierarchy and domination, Communism is a good place to begin! And if we can rhetorically re-write the history of the cold war, who knows what possibilities await us.

Van? Van! Are you still listening? Van? I know it seems perverse, in a media environment that feels unsympathetic to even minor reform, to propose a semiotic and structural overhaul to our most cherished national heritage. But it is precisely because Capitalism is so total, so pervasive that this level of perversity is required. How else to dislodge the stranglehold of the naturalized notion that the “free market” is timeless, ahistorical and the triumph of human creativity and thinking?

It's not going to be easy. To fundamentally transform the structure of the economy runs so counter to the entrenched ideology of the last 50 (if not 300!) years some assume only violence could provoke real change. I don't know... We're seeing extreme levels of global violence as it is...

Van? You're eyes are glazing over... I'm losing you... Don't get me wrong: Let's find solidarity with anti-racist and feminist struggles. Let's make alliances with those calling for reform whenever possible... But let's remind ourselves and each other as often as necessary: Our ultimate goal for a more just, a more democratic society should be the fundamental transformation of the existing economic system itself!

Sincerely yours,

Ken Ehrlich

p.s. By the way, all those obnoxious comments you made back in '93? Not a big deal... All in the past. Love you Van.

Ken Ehrlich is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. For more and contact information, please visit:


A Short History of American Capitalism by Meyer Weinberg

Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development by David Harvey
Verso, 2006.

Slavoj Žižek - What does it mean to be a revolutionary today?

David Harvey: The Crisis Today