“Off and Running: Opportunity of a Lifetime” first appeared on PoliticalAffairs.net on February 6, 2009. Read it on PoliticalAffairs.net.
I was standing on the Washington Mall on Inauguration Day, alongside nearly two million other people on Inauguration Day, and proudly watched the first African American take the oath of office in our nation’s history. That alone made the day deeply memorable, joyful, and historic. But I couldn’t help but think – and I’m sure that millions of others had the same thought – that the transfer of power from Bush to President Obama not only tore down a barrier that once was thought near impenetrable, but also signified the fading away of one era and the beginning of another.
It was hard not to think on that cold day in our nation’s capital that the worst of the past 30 years of right wing extremist rule is behind us and that an era of progressive change is within reach, no longer an idle dream.
Just look at the new lay of the land: a friend of labor and its allies sits in the White House. Larger Democratic majorities control Congress. A feeling of renewal and hope is in the air. Public opinion polls show a high favorability rating for our new President. And the labor and people’s movement that was so instrumental to the election’s outcome, after a short holiday pause, is off and running.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party, notwithstanding its efforts to distance itself from arguably the worst president in our history, is on the defensive. Its grassroots constituency is dispirited. And, its governing philosophy of free markets, minimal government, fear, and division, and especially racist division, is discredited.
Now no one expects that the going will be easy in the coming months and years. There is, after all, eight years of extreme right-wing misrule to clean up. The multinational corporations and banks haven’t gone into hibernation. Right-wing Republicans, while badly weakened, still retain enough influence in Congress and elsewhere to block or slow down progressive measures. And the challenges facing the Obama administration are immense, and none more than the economic crisis. If there were such a thing as an economic tsunami, I would say we are experiencing it. Not since the Great Depression has the economy been in such bad shape, which leads many economists to predict that the downturn will be L-shaped, that is, deep and prolonged. Furthermore, the economic contraction is worldwide. No country or region will escape its pain and long reach. Nor can any national economy, ours included, hope to make a full recovery without global coordination and cooperation. In an integrated global economy, we either swim together or sink together. Financialization – two-edged sword
While the present economic turbulence was triggered by the collapse of the housing markets over the past two years, its underlying cause goes back to the mid-1970s. At that time US economy was rocked to its core by the interweaving of seemingly stubborn and contradictory economic problems – high inflation and unemployment, declining confidence in the dollar as a means of international payment, new competitive rivals in Europe and Asia, and a falling profit rate, all of which occurred in the context of overproduction in world commodity markets. Stagflation was the term coined to describe this contradictory phenomenon. Faced with this unraveling of the economy and a crisis of profitability, then-chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker stepped into the breech and pushed up interest rates to near 20 per cent. This spike in interest rates threw the country into a deep recession, sending unemployment rates to the highest level since the Great Depression, forcing the closing of scores of manufacturing plants and a great number of family farms, laying waste to cities and whole regions, and bringing incredible hardship to the working class, and especially African-American, Latino and other racial minorities and women workers.
The rate hike also opened the door for a many-sided attack on labor and its allies, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the pre-Depression era. Wage and benefit concessions were demanded. New labor saving techniques and computerization invaded the workplace. Rules governing seniority, job classifications, line speed, and safety were either eliminated or routinely violated. And, the relocation of production to non-union and offshore sites became standard fare.
If we thought this was only done to dramatically increase the corporate share of the value that workers create in the production process relative to what they receive, we would be wrong. It was also motivated by the overarching desire of corporate capital to cripple the social power of the labor movement and disrupt its alliance with its most durable and powerful ally – the African American people.
Now we can’t leave it at this, because, in addition to the working class and its allies taking a pounding, there is another side to this intricate story – Volcker’s interest rate spike also wrung inflation out of the economy, restored confidence in the dollar in international money markets, and, especially important to us, redirected domestic and foreign investment capital (and there was plenty of it), abruptly and massively from the “real” economy – auto, steel, machine tool, construction, and so on – into financial channels and speculative ventures where returns were markedly higher. Once in financial channels, money/speculative capital stayed there, but it did not sit on its hands. Its financial agents (banks, investment houses, hedge funds, private equity firms, mutual funds, and so on) intent on expanding their profits in an increasingly toothless regulatory environment raced at breakneck speed into a massive buying and selling and borrowing and spending speculative spree for the next three decades. And all this led to an explosion of the financial sector in terms of employment, transactions, and profits. Nearly 40 percent of corporate profits came from this sector in the early years of this decade – not to mention the salaries, bonuses, stock options, and dividends of Wall Street insiders. Capital that produces little, destroys much If this transformation of the US economy into a speculative casino run by the “masters of the universe,” hunkered down on Wall Street, has its roots in the unraveling of the U.S. economy three decades ago, what greased the skids during this period was the production and easy availability, seemingly without end, of staggering amounts of debt — corporate, consumer and government.
Debt is as old as capitalism. But what is different in recent decades is that the production of debt and the accompanying speculative excesses and bubbles were not simply passing moments at the end of the business cycle, but essential to evolution, interrelations, and functioning of the overall economy. Without the massive piling up of debt and speculative bubbles first in internet technology, then in the stock market, and most recently, in housing, engineered by the Wall Street/Washington complex, the performance of the US and world economy would have been far, far worse.
But, as we are painfully learning, turning our economy into a financial casino built on the pileup of massive amounts of debt and bubbles that eventually burst is a two-edged sword. While it stimulates the economy, restores profitability and enriches the corporate class on a scale never seen, it also introduces enormous instability, economic insecurity, income inequality, and imbalances and distortions into the arteries and structure of the US and world economy. In other words, the growth of the financial sector and bubble driven economics were an unstable, bloodsucking, leech-like, and temporary fix for a sluggish, underperforming economy and the vehicle for the financial titans of US capitalism to reassert their power.
But as events have shown – it could not forever mask and compensate for stagnation tendencies, declining income of working people, and the shrinkage of the material goods sector of the economy. In fact, its remedy of rerouting capital into finance and turning the financial sector and speculation into the main dynamo of the US and global economy only served to postpone the crisis to a later day and, in doing so, assured that it would be on a much broader scale as we now see.
A Wal-Mart economy of low wages, even when combined with financial speculation and massive debt creation is unsustainable and eventually erupts into crisis. At some point, the chickens do come home to roost.. None of this, however, could have happened without the political ascendancy of the right wing extremism 30 years ago. If Volcker struck the first blow in 1979, it was the Reagan administration, entering the White House shortly thereafter, and then successive administrations that were the decisive ideological and political/practical agent of this reorientation of the economy, upheaval in class relations, and current economic mess. Reaganites – main agents of neoliberalism
At the ideological level, the Reaganites said that government is best that governs least, that markets are self-correcting and efficient; that vast income inequality is a good thing, that deregulation and privatization are the best cures for what ails economy and the “welfare state,” and that tax cuts for the wealthy trickle down to working people and lift all boats. But the Reaganites didn’t stop here. At the political-economic level, they dismantled the model of economic governance at the state and corporate level, a model that had its origins in the New Deal and then was expanded on by successive administrations in the next three decades. It rested on a measure of class compromise, social benefits for the unemployed, the elderly, the young and the sick, a legal environment favorable to union organizing, the removal of discriminatory barriers to equality, the expansion of democratic rights, and expansive fiscal and monetary polices at the federal level that favored broadly shared prosperity. In its place, the Reaganites built another model of governance popularly called neoliberalism. If Roosevelt’s New Deal favored working people then Reagan’s Raw Deal stripped working people of income and rights, turned racism and other forms of discrimination into an instrument of practical politics and ideological mystification, and provided a feast of riches to the wealthiest corporations and families.
It was no accident that the first actions of the Reagan administration were to bust PATCO, endorse the interest rate hikes of Volcker, and cut taxes for the wealthiest families and corporations. This two bit actor turned the agencies of government that were established to protect labor, civil, and other rights into attack dogs against these very same rights. This new model of political governance, popularly called neoliberalism, combined with an increased readiness to project military power globally, was designed to strengthen in a qualitative way the position of US capitalism at home and abroad. But, as is said, the best laid plans of mice and men often come to naught, at least in the long run. If I could sum up before moving on, the present economic crisis cannot be simply laid on the doorstep of the sub-prime leading crisis. Instead it was the result of the interweaving of a short-term cyclical crisis of the economy, especially in housing, with a longer term crisis of overproduction (too many commodities and too little purchasing power) and over accumulation (too much surplus value and too few ways to absorb it profitably), and the political ascendancy of the extreme right, dating back three decades.
It may go without saying, but the crisis in its short and long term form were driven by the system’s built-in objective of amassing maximum corporate profits and power through wage exploitation (the process by which a sizeable portion of the values that workers create in the labor process are appropriated by the capitalist class) and the dispossession (usually coerced) of people’s collective possessions (for example, social security) and rights, domestically and internationally.
A new New Deal
Given this situation, the Obama administration faces daunting challenges. Nevertheless, the new President, in my view, is off to a quick start. In less than two weeks he has:
* Issued an order to close Guantanamo prison and end torture – a practice that stains our image, violates our constitution, and endangers our troops in the field.
* Signed the Lilly Ledbetter bill that would give much greater scope to workers’ discrimination claims as well as a bill that would extend health care to millions of children.
* Released funds to clinics that serve women heath care needs in the developing countries.
* Expressed support for higher fuel efficiency standards for motor vehicles – something the UAW also supports.
* Opened up a greatly needed dialogue with the Muslim and Arab world.
* Dispatched George Mitchell to the Middle East in hopes of mediating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – a conflict that cannot be solved by military means, but only by negotiation between the Israeli government and the representatives of the Palestinian people with aim of establishing an independent and viable Palestinian state and the right of both states live peacefully and within secure borders.
* The President met with military generals to map out a withdrawal plan for Iraq.
Of course, the Obama administration’s immediate challenge will be to revive the economy. And the overarching question is: from where will the economic recovery come from in the near term? The only answer is: thru the massive injections of money from the federal government into the economy, into the hands of people who will spend it. Lagging demand for goods and services is the problem.
In this regard, the President’s stimulus bill passed this week in the House should be welcomed and supported. Despite what Republicans say, it is a good bill that will ease the pain of this crisis, create jobs, and begin to reflate the economy. Some economists, like Paul Krugman, say that it isn’t enough, that a trillion dollars plus and additional infrastructure spending would be better. I would agree with Krugman, but I also see the current bill as a first installment of the administration’s recovery plan. In fact, Krugman may have the economics right, but the politics wrong.
President Obama in my opinion would make a mistake if he proceeded like a bull in a china shop. He’s the president of the country, not an op-ed writer for the New York Times, and thus has a different set of considerations and pressures. On the other hand, if the President agrees to too many concession demands from the Republican side it will water down the bill’s stimulus potential and come back to bite him later on.
I would further add that even if Obama had introduced and passed a bigger stimulus package, there is no guarantee that a full-blooded and sustained recovery of the economy will follow. According to conventional wisdom and mainstream economists, high growth rates, near full employment, and healthy profit rates are the normal condition of a capitalist economy. Departures from this norm, it is said, are only passing moments during which capitalism removes barriers to future growth and creates the conditions for a new expansion that surpasses old peaks in production, employment and profits. There is considerable evidence to question this view. Indeed, one has to wonder what the long-run prospects of US and world capitalism are. Was the “golden age” of U.S. capitalism from 1945-1973, during which economic growth rates, investment levels and living standards steadily increased, the norm or the exception to the norm? Will the last thirty years of sluggish and lopsided growth continue, but at a significantly lower level, much like Japan did for an entire decade in the 1990s? Is US capitalism, restrained by big corporate interests (energy, military, health care, pharmaceutical, financial and others), capable of going over to a new and robust growth path, resting on green industry, jobs and technology, on military conversion to peacetime production, on rising living standards and rights for working people, and on racial and gender equality? Given these realities, I maintain that the economic recovery plan must include not only a sizeable and sustained economic stimulus, but also far-reaching political and economic reforms in order to restructure the economy along new lines. One without the other is not enough. Both economic stimulus and political-economic restructuring are necessary if US economy is to have any chance of resuming a developmental growth path that is robust, sustainable (in a double sense – economically and environmentally) and favors the interests of the working class and its allies.
If this is the case, the Obama administration and the broad coalition that supports him will almost inevitably have to consider – and they already are – the following measures:
* Public ownership of the financial system and the elimination of the shadow banking system and exotic derivatives.
* Public control of the Federal Reserve Bank.
* Counter-crisis spending of a bigger size and scope to invigorate and sustain a full recovery and meet human needs – something that the New Deal never accomplished.
* Strengthening of union rights in order to rebalance the power between labor and capital in the economic and political arenas.
* Trade agreements that have at their core the protection and advancement of international working class interests.
* Equality in conditions of life for racially minorities and women.
* Democratic public takeover of the energy complex as well as a readiness to consider the takeover of other basic industries whose future is problematic in private hands.
* Turning education, childcare, and healthcare into “no profit” zones.
* Rerouting investment capital from unproductive investment (military, finance and so forth) to productive investment in a green economy and public infrastructure.
* Changing direction of our nation’s foreign policy toward cooperation, disarmament, and diplomacy. We can’t have threats, guns and military occupations on the one hand and butter, democracy, goodwill, and peace on the other.
* Full scale assault on global warming.
* Serious and sustained commitment to assisting the developing countries that are locked in poverty and misery. New model of economic governance needed
Or to approach the same issue in another way: Will the political-economic reforms be modest, or will they be radical in nature, and when taken together, constitute a new model of political-economic governance at the state and corporate level – a new New Deal? By that I mean a reconfiguring of the role and functions of government and corporations so that they favor working people, the racially and nationally oppressed, women, youth, seniors, small business people and other social groupings. Such a model would draw from the New Deal experience, but in the end it has to be shaped by today’s conditions and requirements for political and economic advance for the broadest sections of the American people as well as people across the globe. The new model of governance wouldn’t be socialist, but it would challenge corporate power, profits and prerogatives. Depression conditions prompted President Franklin Roosevelt and his advisers — albeit with a mighty assist from a powerful all-people’s coalition led by the industrial unions and the multiracial working class — to reconfigure the role and functions of the state to the advantage of the ordinary people. This reconfiguration wasn’t easy or done in a day.
Indeed, it was a hard fought struggle that combined unity of the Roosevelt-led coalition at every turn, mass mobilization, and a good dose of experimentation. The broad people’s movement would do well to study the New Deal experience, not in a mechanical way, but with an eye to gaining insights for today’s struggles and challenges. New casting of political actors
In the meantime, we have some immediate struggles on our hands But the good news is that the broad movement that elected President Obama and larger majorities in the Congress is up and running.
This movement, or if you like, this loose coalition in which labor plays a larger and larger leadership role, can exercise an enormous influence on the political process. Never before has a coalition with such breadth walked on the political stage of our country. It is far larger than the coalition that entered the election process a year ago; it is larger still than the coalition that came out of the Democratic Party convention in August. The task of labor and its allies is to provide energy and leadership to this wide-ranging coalition. Yes, we can bring issues and positions into the political process that go beyond the initiatives of the Obama administration. But we should do this within the framework of the main task of supporting Obama’s program of action.
We can disagree with the Obama administration without being disagreeable. Our tone should be respectful. We now have not simply a friend, but a people’s advocate in the White House.
When the administration and Congress take positive initiatives, they should be wholeheartedly supported and welcomed. Nor should anyone think that everything will be done in 100 days. After all, main elements of the New Deal were codified into law in 1935, 1936 and 1937.
Of course, change won’t be easy. The pressures to weaken, even mothball, progressive, anti-corporate measures will come from many quarters.
That said, the opportunities for working class and people’s gains are extraordinary. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Starring us in the face are some immediate challenges.
First, we have to support the passage of the President’s stimulus bill in the Senate.
Second, we have to bloc any Republican efforts to derail the nomination of Hilda Solis, the nominee for the Secretary of Labor. This is the first round in the battle to pass the EFCA. Some may think this is a struggle of only the labor movement. But nothing could be further from the truth. A bigger labor movement in this country would strengthen the struggle on every front. No one expressed this point better than Martin Luther King toward the end of his life.
Third, we have to join others in resisting evictions and foreclosures – not to mention cutbacks and layoffs at the state and city level.
Fourth, the wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan have to be brought to a close. As former President Lyndon Johnson realized too late, wars of occupation (in this case Vietnam) can quickly ruin a presidency that has great promise.
Well, you probably have other and probably better ideas.
In any case, we have our work cut out for us. But I think we can confidently say that change is coming. And we will build a more perfect union.
Yes We Can!