Charles Dickens: The engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.
Charles Dickens: The "engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness." bashta/gettyimages.com

The infrastructure bill the Senate voted to take up on Wednesday is missing $2 trillion. It's just gone. The massive investment in communities, schools, research and development, clean energy expansion—all gone. And what remains is an economic package that will have little to no long-term impact.

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But why is this happening? Or, put another way, what is this puny infrastructure bill really about? One could turn to the usual suspect and say: It's all about the power of the fossil fuel industry ("...the largest change [in transportation] was in the area of electric vehicle adoption, which shrank by $142 billion, or 90 percent," writes the New York Times). Or one could turn to the deficit hawks, who were nowhere to be found during Trump's time in the White House. The GOP wants budget surpluses and smaller government. That's their old story.

But a point David Harvey made last year makes much more sense than these old narratives: The GOP does not just want small government, but, above all, to make government not work.


Harvey is a British-born and New York City-based urban geographer and one of the leading Marxist theorists of the past 40 years. His masterpiece is The Limits of Capital, a 1982 work whose theoretical richness is, in English-language Marxist economics, second only to Paul Sweezy's The Theory of Capitalist Development.

In his October 8, 2020 podcast "Stock Market Booms While Americans Face Economic Disaster," Harvey presents the idea that American politics over the past 20 years has been increasingly about "the production of economic and political gridlock." This is the new defining function of the right in Washington.

This function, Harvey argues, is likely a symptom of the GOP's falling popularity. The party has only won the popular vote once in the past 20 years of presidential contests. The GOP's base, which was formed in the late-1970s by the bizarre unification of working- and middle-class white Christian fundamentalists and the elite of the business class, is no longer democratically competitive, which is why the party has resorted to voter suppression, packing courts, and gerrymandering to maintain the power it has left.

The gridlock position has more explanatory power than that which emphasizes deficit hawks, who have become dinosaurs (forgive the pun) in an age that witnessed deficits exploded under Bush and Trump. As for the fossil fuel industry, their political influence is in decline because their economic power is, likewise, in decline. Indeed, in 2021, Exxon Mobile is the only "oil and gas corporation" in the top 50 of the US's Fortune 500. A decade ago, Exxon Mobile, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron Corporation were all in the top 10. It's only a matter of time before Tesla joins Detroit automakers Ford and General Motors in the top 50.

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Under these conditions, gridlock as a political strategy, makes more and more sense. David Harvey:

I don't know how far this is a keen politics in the rest of the world, but in the United States, the key is gridlock. Corporations don't want an activist government. They want the government to be frozen and unable to act. And if it's unable to act, the only thing it can do is to deregulate [business sectors]. And so... the big corporations fund things, like the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, and all the Republicans and so on to use their influence, not to actually construct alternative economy policies... [but] to actually go ahead and get a situation where nobody can do anything.

Harvey understands how radical this proposal is. It means the real fear for the capitalists of the 21st century is an economy that actually works, that eradicates the severity of bank and credit crises (this actually happened during the post-war period), that reduces poverty (again, happened in the post-war period), that meaningfully addresses climate change (this has yet to happen). The British-based South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang has shown that economic growth during the period (neoliberalism) that followed the West's social democratic moment (between 1947 and 1972), was actually lower (from 3.2% down to 2.1%). Pro-business proposals don't work very well in the real world.

Most Marxists would stay away from Harvey's gridlock proposal because it implies capitalism, if given the chance, could work. But we can also ask this question: Is a working capitalism actually capitalism? The way to think along these lines is to see the telos of capitalism as not the generation of wealth but, instead, the generation and preservation of class distinctions. A government that has plans to attack poverty is in fact attacking capitalism.