After the trauma of the Great Depression, the New Deal reforms of the 1930s briefly “civilized” capitalism. For a few decades after World War II, unionized white workers did unprecedentedly well. Pensions and medical insurance, vacations, cost-of-living and productivity escalators, credit unions, and sick days – all that and more became the norm for a sizable segment of the American working class.
The Indochina war, the OPEC oil embargo, and other costs of empire, along with the increasing competitiveness of Western Europe and Japan, put an end to this civilized interlude. American capitalism began to cannibalize itself in the 1980s, morphing from a manufacturing economy to a finance-based one. Individual plants and whole companies were sold off or drastically downsized, with the proceeds going to hedge funds or private equity firms, or else moved overseas to regions with cheap labor and few regulations. Technical innovation in business focused on cost-cutting measures, which usually meant fewer employees. Unionized jobs disappeared, government revenues plummeted, public services starved, and infrastructure decayed. Levels of median income, home ownership, public health, and educational performance all tanked. In nearly every measure of general welfare, the United States fell below nearly every other developed country.
How have the authors of this catastrophe have gotten away with it? Why is there so little organized resistance to plutocracy in this new Gilded Age? The most obvious reason is the decline of organized labor. This was not a spontaneous development; it was the primary element in business’s strategy of rolling back the New Deal. In the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Republican Party played the “race card,” inflaming resentment among Southern whites, which was a major obstacle to labor organizing there. A large-scale odyssey of manufacturing industry to the non-union Sun Belt followed. The Reagan administration began the now decades-long practice of stacking the National Labor Relations Board with anti-labor appointees determined not to enforce the Fair Labor Practices Act. And then came globalization.
During the Cold War, the “Free World” meant that part of the world in which American business could operate free of unruly unions or excessively welfare-minded governments. Democracy was unimportant to US policymakers, except for public relations purposes; and “communism” simply meant unwillingness to provide a sufficiently favorable investment climate. When the Cold War ended, business rejoiced, not because people were liberated but because capital was. A century after it was launched in the late 1800s, the Open Door Policy triumphed on a global scale. One so-called “free trade” agreement after another has extended a common regime of “investor rights” worldwide, empowering debtors and sharply limiting the ability of workers or consumers to organize and of states to tax, regulate, or provide essential services.
In addition to gaining a stranglehold on economic life, business has undertaken a long march through the political landscape. "Efficiency," "incentives," “personal responsibility," "the ownership society" and other slogans have served to disguise class warfare: a sustained assault on the income and security of the vast majority. Concentrating media ownership in a few giant corporations; slashing public funding for education at all levels; creating a cottage industry of junk science and dubious policy research; placing industry flacks at the head of regulatory agencies; packing the appellate judiciary with younger, less experienced, rabidly partisan conservative judges; and most important, spending huge sums to elect friendly legislators and providing them with lucrative employment when they leave office – these are the mechanisms of business hegemony in 21st-century America. The resulting political system is a complex and intricate machine that wonderfully facilitates certain kinds of initiative – money-driven ones – while efficiently frustrating others – citizen-driven ones. It has been skillfully engineered to make fundamental change extremely difficult and to prevent our even imagining alternatives.
The damage, to individual lives and to our common life, is inestimable. Something must be done. Knowing what to do is the easy part. Europe's economy is as efficient and innovative as America's, and its population has more leisure, job security, social supports, and quality health care. The US could doubtless catch up by returning to the spirit of the New Deal. The steps are obvious: restore progressive taxation, curtail tax evasion by the rich, sharply regulate the financial industry, extend Medicare to all, make public higher education free, reduce military spending, limit campaign contributions, link trade agreements to foreign labor rights, and appoint people to the Labor Department, FDA, HUD, EPA, SEC, and IRS who want to achieve rather than frustrate the purposes of these agencies. If there is a will, these are the obvious ways.
But how to get there? What might a democratic resistance movement look like? It would no doubt feature some version of the “committees of correspondence” that flourished in the American colonial period, only more permanent and less ad hoc. There would be continuous discussion, in small groups, in living rooms, church halls, school buildings, workplace lounges, libraries, municipal buildings, and other venues of political issues, organized by ordinary citizens, employees, neighbors, etc. These groups would make use of information about these issues collected by public agencies and made available on the Web, information equal in quality and depth to the information available to policymakers and industry lobbyists. The meetings of these groups would be regularly attended by public officials, who would have plenty of time to do so once they were released from the time-devouring obligations of fund-raising and electioneering.
The local discussion groups would communicate regularly with one another, sharing information and conclusions, and would join in formulating questions and instructions for local officials and legislators. They would also send delegates to state and regional citizens’ groups, which would conduct discussions with other such groups and then, jointly or separately, with state and national legislators and policymakers.
Such groups at all levels, particularly the higher-level ones, would also monitor and criticize media coverage of issues that concern them, exactly as industry and other (e.g., religious) interest groups do today. They would commission, and in some cases, write articles for the media – articles which, unlike the continuous stream of corporate propaganda that largely constitutes present-day “reporting” in many local and regional newspapers, would openly acknowledge their origin – and would propose guests on radio and television discussions of contentious issues. And just as business advertisers boycott publications of media programs they consider ideologically unsound, the citizen/worker groups would orchestrate pressure, including boycotts, of chronically biased media outlets. This is not a complete remedy for the extreme concentration of ownership in newspapers, radio, and television at present, and for their resulting pervasive pro-media bias. But it’s a step.
Something like this scheme might help restore some substance to this society’s hollow democratic pretensions. Of course, genuine democracy in any form depends on broad economic equality. The preconditions of democracy are: 1) minimum economic security is universal, so that no one’s economic welfare can be jeopardized by political activism that might be anathema to her employer; 2) gross inequality of resources does not give some political opinions vastly greater possibilities of publicity or promotion (ie, lobbying) than others, as at present; and 3) the material prerequisites of political activity – leisure, education, at least modest disposable income – are universally available. Even this bare preliminary statement suggests how many light-years the United States currently is from anything worthy to be called democracy, and also makes clear how rapidly we’re traveling away from, rather than toward, the ideal.
Will all – or any – of the above happen? Over Big Money’s dead body. Far more likely is a continued bread-and-circuses electoral oligarchy, with increased surveillance and repression as the allotment of grub and gadgets to the lower orders has to be parceled out among a growing global army of proletarians. Technology without democracy: a Blade Runner world.
What has happened to American democracy, so proud and vigorous in Lincoln’s time and still relatively honest and humane as recently as the 1950s and 60s? Where is our country's civic pride, its democratic honor? Why is American politics so far to the right not only of European but even of American public opinion? Why are our elected representatives so often corrupt mediocrities? Why are so many Americans either ignorant and resentful or demoralized and passive? What should one do when the best of one's fellow citizens lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity?
I hope you have some ideas.
I had meant to end there. But something I read last night by Elizabeth Kolbert, the great science journalist and New Yorker staff writer, compels me to say a few words more What I’m tempted to say now is: please ignore everything I’ve said up to this point and devote your every ounce of energy to preventing the loss of countless lives and the destruction of our civilization by climate change. The fact that the worst may not happen does not mean that the worst won’t happen. It very well may happen. And if it does, it will, as likely as not, happen quickly, too quickly for an effective response, even if there is one. If the Greenland ice sheet melts, or if the Antarctic ice sheet melts, or if one or more of the volcanoes on the ocean floor under the Antarctic ice sheet erupts, or if the billions of tons of methane sequestered under the soil in the Arctic circle escapes into the atmosphere – and none of these things is at all unlikely over the medium- to long term – then within a very few years, this room where we’re sitting will be underwater, or at any rate not far above the water line. Eighty percent of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a coastline. The potential disruption is unimaginable. And sea-level rise is far from the only life-threatening consequence of climate change.
We have known for 30 years that we were storing up disaster for our descendants. They will be incredulous and enraged that we couldn’t bestir ourselves for their sake. Let’s bestir ourselves.