Let us engage in a thought-experiment of sorts, my favorite pastime. The underlying thesis is that certain basic perceptions or suppositions we hold affect our entire outlook, the way we see the world and everything in it: change those perceptions somewhat, put on a different pair of spectacles, and so goes our worldview, I guarantee it. That’s the power of reconceptualization I’m talking about, "the vision thing” for short.
Our modern conception of politics is colored by what I consider more fundamental views concerning the different aspects of a modern society, economic and social. At rock-bottom these derive from our moral views as a civil society.
It is the peculiarity of America – of most of the West, in fact, which has adopted capitalism as the major mode of production – that our thinking about economics and economic processes should become the overall determinant of how we think about society, our fellow women and men, and of politics at large. This hasn’t always been so. It’s a relatively modern phenomenon, peculiar to the West. Our economic thinking has come to dictate how we think and feel about virtually all aspects of living, form social to political.
The division isn’t as clear-cut as I’m representing it to be. the economic, social and political spheres have always been intertwined when it comes to our ways of thinking and feeling, both now and in the past; they've always come as “complete package,” for lack of a better word, never totally separate or distinct from one another. The distinction I’m pressing for is more logical, therefore, than practical, more reflective of the analytical mindset than the empirical one. Even so, the direction of the linear progression (of views) that I argue for here – from the economic to the social and, ultimately, to the political – reflects the thinking of the average woman or man. I present them to you here as a demonstration of how one affects the other. And it's politics that ends up getting a bum rap.
The ultimate question is: should it? must it?
Can we possibly reinvigorate our political thinking and practice and restore it to the way it was intended?
Consider the following account:
Few will disagree that we’re in the midst of a big recession, comparable only to the Great Depression of 1929; and the parallels abound.
All sorts of indices are being invoked in support of the “continuity thesis,” the unshakable belief that our present circumstances are but a replica of past events, if not exactly in every conceivable respect than at least when it comes to the major contours; that for all intents and purposes, we could simply rewind the old movie like a VCR tape and see the present unfold just as it has unfolded once for our parents or grandparents in their lifetime; that what we’re going through right now is just another hiccup, the characteristic aspect of a capitalist system well known for the periodic occurrence and reoccurrence of business cycles, periods of bust and boom; that only if left to its own devices, the system would surely correct itself as it always has; that prosperity, thanks to the ingenuity of the business class, is only around the corner. And so on and so forth.
Indeed, we keep on talking of the unemployment index, presently at ten percent but much higher in real terms, surely unlikely to go down in the foreseeable future. And then, there is the talk of consumer confidence or lack thereof, again at its historical low, coupled of course with reduced inventories and empty shelf space. And last but not least, there is the usual talk of the correct strategies to get us over the hump and up and running again as only America can and will, the little ole engine that could. And it’s precisely in this context that Obama’s economic policies are being compared to those of his nominal predecessor, FDR, as to their efficacy, sound economic thinking, their raison d’être.
Is government spending (and expanding the public sector, which comes part and parcel with the idea) the proper remedy to get us out of the economic straits we’re in, or is it just going to prolong our misery and suffering? Should the private sector be allowed to rebuild itself of its own accord and start functioning again, or should the government intervene in the interim? Is the stimulus package – as an idea, mind you! not in this or that application – a sound economic policy, or is it just a shot in the dark, embraced with no other purpose in mind than to convince the public that doing something is better than doing nothing, a clever guise, perhaps, of trying to conflate the concepts of motion and action?
Never mind the vociferous critics of this devilish plan. They’ll be the first to assert that 1929 is in no way comparable to present times. And their argument is, we’re only adding to our national debt. What may have been possible in FDR times is no longer possible today. Monetarily and economically, we’re on the brink of disaster. Printing more money is only going to hasten our eventual demise and set us aback. In short, the argument is that everything else being equal, the two situations are incomparable, and they may be right.
I doubt their intent, however. Their objection, as I see it, is not so much to the incongruity between our present and our past (because that would imply a new vision) but to the idea itself.
So yes, that’s how I see it. The objections to the continuity thesis (between our present and our past) are but a pretext, merely an excuse for invoking obvious differences between the two situations for the sole purpose of defeating the main idea – the idea that government has any kind of role to play in determining the nation’s economic well-being. For the predominant proposition which informs the naysayers and the obstructionists is that government interference is anathema. Leave it to business, they say, and it will all be fine in the end.
I’m not going to debate now the merits or the demerits of the Keynesian theory. Economics, besides, is not a precise science; some have claimed it to be a dismal science in fact. Consequently, I can take refuge therefore in the fact, the refuge of a scoundrel, but I shan’t. And the main reason is – it’s no big feat to play a Monday-night quarterback or to invoke a 20/20 hindsight.
But even this misses the point, for I don’t see how some could possibly argue what exactly had gotten us out of the Great Depression – FDR’s all-out programs, the war effort, any or all of the above? As far as I am concerned, these are speculations, and there’ll never be a way of ascertaining the exact cause of events, what exactly caused what, which prong of policy was more instrumental than the other. It’s for historians to argue about and for ideologues to assert.
Fortunately, I have a way of bypassing the entire question. And in this spirit, I offer an alternative account.
We have reached the peak of our productive capacity in the good, old-fashioned sense of the term. Except in the area of computer technology and weaponry, high-tech industries for short, we’re no longer the world’s leading producer. It’s no wonder that most of our manufacturing jobs and the requisite technologies have moved overseas, and this trend will only continue. And why shouldn’t it since mass production is all about quantity, not quality: lowering production costs is the ultimate determinant.
Thus, we have effectively compounded the exploitative techniques of the colonial era whereby raw materials were imported for production at home. Today, it’s foreign labor that is being exploited, along with raw materials. Aside from providing the initial expertise and set-up, American companies, which still bear their logo on most of the products sold either domestically or on the global market, are playing the part of the middle man. They’re shadow companies, holding and finance companies in fact, their relationship to the actual producer of goods and services having been reduced to the status of a contractual relationship between a contractor and a subcontractor. Except for supplying their trademark, along with advertising, marketing, and financing, Honeywell, Stanley Tools, Chicago Cutlery, Hotpoint, Mr Coffee – look at your WalMart shelves and see for yourself!– all are manufactures and producers in name only. Even the French have succumbed to this obscene practice of brand-name deception. They, too, lend their name to products manufactured in China, anywhere else for that matter, only contributing thus to the illusion that we’re buying quality and reliability. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to buy a genuine article nowadays unless you shop at Gucci’s or Williams-Sonoma.
But this only reiterates the stark truth that we are not a nation of producers any longer, not when it comes to producing real and tangible products. This function we have long since relinquished. Is it any wonder, therefore, that in the past decade or so, apart now from the technology sector, “financial products,” dubious as they have been, have been the only ones which made the headlines, in which we have really excelled and showed true Yankee ingenuity?
With what disastrous results, I needn’t argue of course. But this only compounds the problem. Indeed, since technology, both in the real sense and as intellectual property, has become our major export and our only economic contribution to the world, we’re running out of economic space – areas of productive activity, I mean – in which to exercise our creativity, our know-how, our entrepreneurial spirit.
It’s for these reasons, mainly, that I view the recent Wall Street debacle, a burn-down or a meltdown, or however else you may want to call it, as a symptom of the disease rather than as its cause – a symptom of a capitalist system having reached its outer limits, of it having nowhere else to go but to self-destruct, of having to eat its own young when worst comes to worst (and that’s in spite of its long-term interests, mind you), of capital having become the be-all and end-all as its name surely implies, of a kind of psychosis whereby making money, paper money, any kind of money, takes precedence over real productivity, when only the bottom line counts and the dividends paid to the stockholders and keepers of the gate, whether yearly or quarterly, instead of spreading the wealth and bringing happiness and well-being to the world at large, never mind the home country and its populace.
Needless to say, there are social consequences and what comes with it, different outlooks which come with subscribing to either account. If the first-mentioned narrative is the one which you find convincing and which fires your imagination, you will tend to view our present unemployment and economic crises as temporary phenomena. Sure, you may empathize to a point with the armies of all those who have been laid off and support unemployment benefits within the limits allowable by law. But then again, you will be against their extension and regard the government as a major enabler.
And here, you will most likely fall back upon the old model inaugurated by the advent of the Great Society and the general concept of welfare which, rather than helping people help themselves, has only made them more dependent on their government for all their subsistence needs and then some, and created a sizeable underclass of welfare recipients and social parasites, which are a constant drain on the nation’s economy and the shrinking number of all those who still chose to remain productive. Indeed, in light of the working model which has served so well in the past, the present government policies can only be seen as perpetuating the malaise in thwarting individual initiative and encouraging a state of permanent dependence. In short, you’d tend to view the growing army of the unemployed as lazy bums and as society’s dregs.
What might you view be if you leaned toward the alternative scenario delineated in A?
Well, for one thing, you’d tend to view the present unemployment picture as chronic, soon to become a permanent feature of our society. And further, in regarding it as being systemic – which is to say, as being structurally-driven rather than representing just another business cycle or just another hiccup – you’d also tend to see it as a symptom of a system that had just ran against a brick wall, not as temporary consequence soon to be abated if and only if . . .
These are crucial differences as regards "the vision thing," and they’re not to be taken lightly. For if the alternative account is even halfway correct, it would appear that a greater and greater proportion of America's population is destined to be reduced to a state of chronic unemployment and condition of utter dependency. And that no government action, whether by way of retooling or re-educating the masses for new and exciting jobs of the 21st century, no amount of growing a business large or small, no kind of expansion whether of its own accord or as a result of artificially-induced measures such as tax incentives and the like – none of the above, whether taken singlehandedly or in tandem – would make a dent. A disproportionate number of the citizens, and their number is not about to decrease but only increase, is about to become totally dispensable and a permanent drain on the economy of the most industrial and technologically-advanced society that had ever existed.
And so, barring another technological revolution on an unprecedented scale (and here, “green jobs” possibly come to mind), the future does indeed look bleak as the vast majority of Americans are going to be left out of any productive kind of participation to speak of. Aside from the professions – in the medical field, weaponry- or computer & information technologies, and the researches from biological to hard sciences – and the government bureaucracy of course, the rest is destined to become burger flappers or service-industry workers if they get so lucky; but even those jobs won’t alleviate the growing number of the unemployed.
Robert Reich had it exactly right when he prophesied years ago that we’re about to become a nation of “symbolic analysts,” about ten percent of the total workforce, and the remaining ninety percent of the gainfully employed serving as gate keepers, the lowly security guards protecting the interests of the rich and famous. No mention was made, mind you, of the unemployed and the perennially unemployable, but that was over fifteen years ago. Even Reich couldn’t foresee the extent to which capitalism, rampant and unabashed, would dig its own grave. One would have to be a true visionary.
But such, perhaps, are the wages of a system that is bound on forever expanding in the interest of ever-greater efficiency. And the price seems to be that however much or minimally the standard of living the world over improves as a result of capitalism’s relentless expansion – and there is no doubt that it does – the local population suffers.
So perhaps we shouldn’t begrudge the rest of the world catching up with us, or rather, us getting down to the level of the pre-industrial nations, not if the gains outweigh the losses, I hasten to add. But do they or have they? And was the sacrifice worth it? Even if one were to consider the beneficial aspects of capitalistic expansion, resulting as it invariably does in the good old leveling effect, most Americans would resoundingly say “no.”
Indeed, therein lies the irony of our age. Whereas the industrial revolution, despite its many hardships and excesses, was instrumental in having brought about full or near-full employment to the masses, improved the material conditions of the average life, and generally speaking, put the working class on the map, the technological revolution, in progress and still unfolding – presumably a higher stage of capitalism’s spectacular advance – appears to have resulted in precisely the opposite effect: it renders a great majority of the earth’s population useless, or at least only marginally productive. It’s as though the very efficiency of the system, its quest for marginal utility, was its own worst enemy. And if this isn’t indicative of a deep-seated, inherent contradiction, I don’t know what is.
If you embrace the earlier vision, you’re likely to speak of individual freedom, liberty, and limited government, because you’ll view the expansion of the latter as encroachment on your constitutionally-guaranteed rights. You’ll see our political, two-party system as a kind of forum, a clearing house for the amicable interplay between public and private interests and their equally amicable or less amicable resolution. And among private interests, you’re definitely going to count your own (economic) freedom to do what you will and pursue financial independence, as well as freedom on the part of corporations to do likewise (for how could you deny the latter while asserting the former?) Consequently, anything or anyone standing in the way of such freedoms, whether the government or the unions, you’d tend to regard as an obstacle, contrary to the spirit of free enterprise.
Inherent in this picture is also the idea that the notion of the public good is pure fiction, a mere figment of the liberal mindset, that it all revolves about individual rights without any reference to a larger community or society, that government interference in the “natural” order of things, any kind of interference, is just that, pure interference, and that the idea of social justice and social retribution is not only ill-conceived but in fact sacrilegious.
What might the other view be?
Well, for one thing, you’d come to realize that the economic shape of the world has well-nigh affected the world’s political landscape. In particular, you’d come to see that our major corporations are no longer ours in any sense of the word but that they’ve come to represent their own self-defined interests rather than national interests or the interests of the citizens. Indeed, the entire countries – and Greece is a perfect example – can become hostage nowadays to financial manipulations and the economic order of things, with the result that the political, again in the old-fashioned sense, is quickly becoming subservient to the economic; that it’s quickly becoming a façade, a superstructure in the Marxian sense of the word, along with the attendant set of laws which, though commonly understood to guarantee due process and the inviolability of the individual, is in effect but another subtle instrument of coercion, only providing an aura of legitimacy to the ruling/economic class. Indeed, you’d come to see that most of what appears nowadays as being undertaken in this or that national interest is in effect nothing but posturing; that national interests, and actions taken on behalf of national interests, are in reality, becoming pre-emptied; that they’re global economic interests first and foremost, only masquerading as political. (I’m speaking of the major players of course.)
Instead of the usual dialectic between individual freedoms, on the one hand, and government interference on the other, you’d be more inclined to talk of the natural opposition between private and public interests, and of the public good as the desirable end, the noble aim of compromise for which politics was so ideally suited, so we’ve been told. Indeed, this used to be a respectable kind of talk once upon a time.
No longer! The private interests have so pre-emptied public interests and become so dominant an aspect of the economic order of things that there is no viable opposition any longer, no room for compromise; they’ve become, in fact, mortal enemies, forever estranged and irreconcilable, antithetical to the core. And the notion of the public good, the presumed resultant of the two forces opposite but equal, has all but disappeared from our political itinerary. Indeed, there’s no longer any middle ground to be hoped for in the requisite sense of reaching a sensible solution (the pending healthcare legislation before us being a case in point). Now, it’s either all or nothing at all, a zero-sum game, complete and total polarization; and any semblance of having resolved what, for all practical purposes, is no longer resolvable, is bound to be a farce and an exercise in futility.
The thinkers of old (Aristotle, Plato) had a soft spot for the idea and practice of politics as somehow defining a niche all its own, separate and distinct from spheres economic and social. The latter was presumed if not to follow from (as a matter of direct or natural consequence), then eventually be guided by, society’s political organization and structure. As to the former, I’m afraid the ancients were rather silent on this subject, although it must be presumed that a certain economic stability and order have always served as a tacit assumption of sorts, as a kind of prerequisite in order for there to be a human society at all, and a political society at that.
But to cut to the chase, the classical notion of politics was that of an art (or science) – both forms of human activity and practice – whose main if not express purpose was to provide a badly-needed corrective, ever-present, always needed, and always intact, a kind of organizational model of the highest order to serve as a general pattern after which to mold all human and social relations, in the interest (need I say?) of attaining a harmonious and relatively conflict-free, orderly society. And the spirit behind, and informing, “the political” in the traditional, classical sense was of course justice, justice in all matters applicable to human relations, be they individual, social or economic. (Don’t forget, according to classical thinkers, politics was but an extension of the moral – the rule of conduct deemed appropriate to govern person-to-person relations – to come to govern all social relations, the entire society in fact.)
Well, it would seem that we’ve moved quite a ways from the classical conception. Apart from some obscure theorists (Claude Frédéric Bastiat comes to mind), the uninformed opinion seems to be that politics, properly understood, ought to be but an expression of the economic order of things and the resulting social order, that it ought to do nothing other than do the latter’s bidding. If free enterprise is the spirit of the day, then by all means, let our politics reflect that spirit. If slavery is in order, then let it reflect that too. Whatever suits public opinion or the sentiment of the day, let politics serve as a stamp of approval, the ultimate validation of things that are simply because (that’s how) they are.
I find such a concept not only abhorrent but intellectually repulsive. It amounts to relinquishing our capacity for judgment, our being able evaluate our situation, our life condition, other than in terms that are strictly self-serving, which is to say, in terms of some other, independent criteria. Politics properly understood, as conceived of by the ancients, was supposed to do this very trick. Nowadays, it’s been stood on its head. It’s been made to justify rather than to question or to correct.