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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Death by a Thousand Cuts…

Many liberal and even radical economists have raised the prospect of a “double-dip recession.” By the phrase “double-dip,” they refer to a repeat of the sharp downturn in growth experienced by most countries in 2008-2009. The possibility of a recurrence, a violent contraction of economic activity, looms over the global economy as it stumbles and falters away from the shock of three years ago.
Since the capitalist economy has yet to expel the profound contradictions that produced the shock, the possibility of another sharp downturn cannot be ruled out.
However, an even worse outcome likely lurks ahead. Indeed, the economic diagnosis is so dire that a dramatic downturn might be welcomed in some circles as a release of the enormous pressures that impinge on the world’s economies. Such a downturn, destroying real and nominal wealth, consolidating productive means, and tragically devastating of living standards, might buy capitalism some breathing room and force policy makers to rethink their road map going forward.
Clearly, economists and politicians learned little or nothing from the 2008-2009 drama. In spite of the much acclaimed “death” of neo-liberalism celebrated in the depths of crisis by liberals like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich, the pre-crisis ideology of market sovereignty, minimal government, and monetary tune-up still reigns supreme. What policy makers have learned is to encourage Central Banks to administer a preemptive monetary transfusion at the first sign of a downturn. While this has yet to stem the bleeding, it has kept the patient from bleeding to death.
Instead of the feared “double dip” recession, we may instead experience something far worse: a grinding slowdown, an intractable stagnation, a kind of economic death from a thousand cuts.
Where the economic watchdogs were caught unawares in 2008, confident that capitalism would continue to show resilience and growth, policy makers are wary today of a similar “Lehman” moment, where markets seize, confidence plunges, and fear grips all economic activity. Thus, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, stands vigilantly at the gate intently looking for any economic interloper, though with no guarantee that he has the weapons to contain it. This vigilance is particularly acute in an election year, when no economic czar wants to be perceived as influencing the election outcome.
Popular mythology, many economists, and far too many Marxists depict economic crisis only as a great shock wave that sends economic life into chaos. Certainly the panic of 1929 implanted that image. But that image is a caricature of the decade of decline and weak, tentative recovery that cycled throughout the Great Depression until interrupted by the buildup for the Second World War.
Today’s crisis mirrors that event in many ways, yet exhibits its own unique features as well. Some of the differences are especially menacing.
Signs of Decline
The economic decline that I identified and forecast in my January post, Summing Up/Taking Stock, continues unabated. The slowdown in the growth of US Gross Domestic Product persisted through the second quarter. Euro-zone growth has actually turned negative, especially and deeply in the Southern European region. The collapsing demand in this critical area has slowed the entire global economy, even the once fast-growing emerging market countries like China, Brazil, India, and Russia. The prospect of global economic growth is dim, stagnation likely, retreat very possible.
The key indicators from the capitalist point-of-view—earnings and productivity—stumbled in the first half of 2012 in the US. The burst of productivity growth that resulted from the harsh discipline imposed by unemployment, wage and benefit contraction, and speedup at the crest of the crisis produced an equally dramatic leap in earnings and the rate of profit. For the capitalist, this signaled “recovery,” though a recover only for the “swells.” Today the momentum from that intensification of exploitation has dissipated—profit and productivity growth is again slowing. The system cannot work for the capitalists without these measures showing healthy growth and hence systemic decline becomes an issue again for the capitalist class.
The European front of the global crisis continues to deteriorate, but at a faster rate. GDP growth is negative through nearly all of the Euro-zone and debt-mongers continue their aggression against bond interest rates, both squeezing sovereign debtors and securing ever higher interest payments from them. The most vulnerable national economies are caught in a vicious scissors’ crisis between escaping debt and restoring growth.
The Peoples’ Republic of China, the world’s second largest economy, has been racked by the global slowdown, dragging its growth prospects downward. Nearly all PRC economic indices are lower than for the same period a year ago. While domestic consumption is up, it is not at the impressive rate of a year ago. Nor is it as balanced as in 2011. Further, bad bank debt is up, private sector profits are down, and credit has slowed.
Other formerly vibrant emerging market economies are also slowing.
Of course the cold economic data mask the human costs of the economic crisis—a literal death by a thousand cuts. Unemployment, job insecurity, wage stagnation or decline, benefit cuts and cost increases, housing foreclosures, family dependencies and a host of other blows are bleeding all those without wealth and power.
Policy Paralysis
Choking any hope of recovery is the poverty of ideas shared by virtually all global policy makers. During the Great Depression, and unlike today, there were three new and radically opposed policy options that emerged as a response to the capitalist crisis (and imperialist war). First was the challenge of socialism. Both the isolation from the capitalist market and the successes of agricultural realignment, industrialization, and planning kept the sole socialist state, the Soviet Union, immune from crisis and enjoying unprecedented twentieth-century growth and development. Most notably in Europe, the appeal of socialism and the attraction of Communist Parties increased dramatically, especially in politically unstable countries like Italy, Germany, and Spain.
In response, rabid nationalism, fanatical anti-Communism, and a corporatist state combined to establish a new form of capitalist rule: fascism. The driving force behind the rise of fascism—its principle purpose—was destruction of the Communist left; it was essentially a counter-revolutionary movement. Fascism’s answer to the economic crisis was militarization, war, a collective tribal mentality, and the dismantling of the parliamentary system. It arose in an historic context, a historically unique moment. Though seldom acknowledged by scholarly accounts, fascism planted deep roots in other countries with significant working class and peasant left-wing movements, countries like Poland, Romania, Finland, and Hungary. Equally neglected by historians is the essential feature of anti-Communism, the feature that generates and animates fascism wherever it reappears.
Many point to the US New Deal as a third way and a less radical response to Communism, a moderate and modest social-democratic program that began as a quasi-corporatist approach (the National Recovery Administration) and morphed into a public sector-driven welfare and public employment project. That it brought relief to millions who would have otherwise suffered needlessly is indisputable. That it did not “solve” the crisis of capitalism is equally indisputable. As with UK Conservative Party governance of that time, the economy stumbled along until war and military spending stamped “paid” to the economic crisis.
Today’s ruling elites, political parties, and media pundits have no new approaches, no new programs to face the increasingly ominous economic challenges. They combine an embarrassing smugness with a near-religious devotion to neo-liberal dogma. Even those advocating a tentative growth model and elements of welfare-state relief are far removed from tackling the severity and the systemic failures of this crisis. From the austere, fanatical market disciplinarians like Paul Ryan and Angela Merkel to their more humane, flexible, and reformist counterparts like Paul Krugman and Francois Hollande, all share a confidence that private ownership and markets are indispensable to economic development and growth. All share the belief that the tools are at hand to steer the global economy back to the course it tracked before 2007; they simply differ on the tools. Even the mythically idealized New Deal vision of the state as the helmsman, directing capitalism-with-a-human-face is beyond the imagination of our contemporary leaders.
Facing a November election in the US, the two parties strive to stoke their respective bases with the predictable rhetorical flourishes. The Democrats hope to convince the electorate that the economy is on the road to recovery or, if voters don’t believe that lie, that it is Republican intransigence that stands in the way of that recovery. The Republicans, on the other hand, want to spin the idea that Democratic Party reckless spending stands in the way of recovery or, if voters don’t believe that lie, that returning to the gold standard will put capitalism back on the rails!
Answering the bell for the left is the usual motley crew that raise the specter of fascism and the banner of the lesser-of-two-evils (they try to have it both ways!). Never mind the lack of a Communist threat to spur fascism; never mind that last season’s lesser evil transforms into this season’s greater evil. As the center shifts inexorably to the right over decades of elections, the institutional left of think tanks, journals, the trade union bureaucracy, and NGOs knows only one answer: vote Democratic!
In France, citizens are living a déjà vu moment: Hollande is Barack Obama with a French accent—promising change and already sowing disappointment. His economic advisers remind the populace of the deficit crisis at every turn, an omen of even more disappointment ahead.
Only in Greece is there a Communist “threat” and only in Greece is there really the threat of fascism embodied in the Golden Dawn movement. Greek Communists—the KKE—present a revolutionary program for Greece’s revival, a program that is advocated by a mass party and is unique to Europe. ABC—the Anything But Communism left—is represented in Greece by SYRIZA, a popular alternative that offers the false option of militant posturing without any revolutionary sacrifice.    
The current leadership of Peoples’ China seems determined to dismantle some of the socialist safeguards that protected the country from the sharp downturn of 2008-2009. On one hand, they want to invite greater risk by reducing the state's semi-monopoly of the banking sector. On the other, they rely heavily upon credit market manipulation rather than careful, balanced planning to stimulate growth. As a result, there is disorder in investment initiatives: unfinished projects, waste, duplication, etc. While there has been a decided shift towards domestic consumption growth, the rate of growth has slowed noticeably since the first of the year. The recent high-profile symbolic blow to the Party’s left leaves many concerns about the PRC’s direction and ability to jump-start the global economy.
In short, the ruling elites throughout the world offer only stale and proven ineffectual policy solutions. They remain locked in the economic thinking that dominated the pre-crisis era. Neither the audacity nor the spirit of experimentation that characterized the Roosevelt administration has yet emerged, a level of response that might at least take the edge off the human cost of economic decline. Even the threat of falling off a “fiscal cliff,” as the Federal Reserve chairman and the independent Congressional Budget Office warn, brings no new ideas or re-thinking.
Some see this as irrational behavior on the part of rulers, but they fail to understand that the last few years have been quite kind to elites: profits rebounded dramatically after 2008-2009. And elites have every reason to believe, despite the current alarm over earnings, that they will continue to patch up their profit-making machinery and move forward thanks to the willingness on the part of the crisis victims to continue sacrificing.
Perhaps they are right, but the masses face a slow death from a thousand cuts; the vast majority will, as they have over the past four years, pay an enormous price to guarantee the health and profitability of monopoly capitalism.
The crisis continues unabated. The only question remaining is who will pay for the destruction in its wake. Ruling elites demand that working people—the masses—pay to restore capitalism to a healthy, profit-turning state. They need no new ideas or new programs to secure that result.
But for the rest of us, we desperately need ideas that will allow us to escape the crisis and the tyranny of monopoly capital. Socialism would answer that call.

Zoltan Zigedy

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What's theory got to do with it?

The history of this young nation has known but a few transformational developments since its revolutionary birth: the Civil War primarily, but also the New Deal reforms and the broadening of civil rights in the latter half of the twentieth century. The first transformation, the destruction of slavery, was the first and only change that profoundly restructured property relations in the US.[i]
The New Deal, on the other hand, expanded the human rights manifesto beyond the eighteenth-century bourgeois deification of property and freedom of action, an expansion that nonetheless remains contested to this day with the continual erosion of the welfare state.
Where the New Deal proffered the additional universal rights to a job, to belong to a union, to food, etc.—what philosophers have come to call positive rights—the civil rights movements of the twentieth century expanded the notion of a citizen to include all those—women, former slaves-- denied by the so-called founding fathers, the colonial elite.
Thus, the goal of establishing a bourgeois republic was not completed for nearly two centuries until the nominal full participation of women and African Americans was achieved with universal voting rights. Yet within two decades after the landmark voting rights legislation, any promise of popular and democratic expression had been decisively dashed by the powerfully persuasive role of money and media. The newer information and entertainment technologies afforded the rich and powerful an overwhelming counter to the creaky machinery of universal suffrage and the myth of voter autonomy. What the bourgeois republic gave in opportunity, the opinion-makers took back with their consensus factories.
Allergy to Theory
Without an understanding of our nation’s history, without theories that weave together events, without a broad and deep grasp of causes and effects, the past and the way forward are mystifying and disorienting. More importantly, without an over-arching theory that explains both the common and uncommon elements occurring in the course of US history, one can only despair at the future. Certainly no hope for altering that course can come without that understanding.
But searching for causes, making historical connections, and scrounging for general laws have seldom known popularity with our fellow citizens. Some, like Professor Richard Hofstadter, have attributed this allergy to theory to a long-standing anti-intellectualism. But the US overflows with intellectuals, both inside and outside of the universities. Pundits of every stripe dominate the daily background noise, the written word, and the sport of national politics; they may not be intellectuals to my liking, but they are intellectuals nonetheless.
No, the problem is an aversion to theory, an aversion born from both unique subjective and objective features of US history. To a great extent, the dynamism of the young nation – its continued expansion and shifting frontier, the influx of waves of immigrants, the broken links with the patterns of European development, the perception of unlimited opportunity, and a host of other “exceptional” features—gave rise to the creed of American Exceptionalism, a view that the US stands outside of the patterns of development shared by other nations. Put simply, the US is seen as making a new history apart from the old patterns; no theory is necessary to explain that which remains unsettled and indeterminate.
From this stance of unique, exceptional social, political, and economic development came adherence to the philosophical framework of pragmatism and empiricism—a concern for the practical and the immediacy of experience. In the US “theoretical” frame of reference, it is the individual, and not the family, neighborhood, work collective or any other social unit that stands at the center of the universe, a posture reinforced and made imperative by the rigors and discipline of an unfettered capitalism that trades on dissolving historically established social ties and identities. 
Except on those rare occasions when Marxist or other collectivist theory-driven movements arise and intrude, our intellectuals celebrate the individual and eschew recognition of any laws of social, economic, and political development. Social life and its history are merely a swirl of sentiments, decisions, accidents and spontaneity, all guided by a quasi-religious sense of destiny.
An Example
A recent study circulating among progressives on the Internet demonstrates the poverty of this prevailing intellectual method in the US. Krishna Savani, a business professor at Columbia University, and Aneeta Rattan, a psychology professor at Stanford University, have authored a paper “explaining” the wide-spread, counter-intuitive acceptance of material inequality in the US. The paper’s title, while couched in the academic idiom, clearly states their conclusion: “A Choice Mind-Set Increases the Acceptance and Maintenance of Wealth Inequality.” That is, the idea that outcomes are determined by choice and not circumstance, privilege, advantage, or prejudice trumps the indignity or sense of injustice people may have over material inequality. Thus, people are less likely to attend to material inequalities when they believe strongly that life’s outcomes are largely a matter of choosing wisely.
They conducted experiments, the results of which showed that:
…highlighting the concept of choice makes people less disturbed by facts about existing
wealth inequality in the United States, more likely to underestimate the role of societal
factors in individuals’ successes, less likely to support the redistribution of educational
resources, and less likely to support raising taxes on the rich—even if doing so would help
resolve a budget deficit crisis. These findings indicate that the culturally valued concept of
choice contributes to the maintenance of wealth inequality.

The professors’ conclusions neither surprise nor satisfy. Opinion polls show that US respondents vastly overestimate their relative position in society; in one poll, nearly two out of five believed that they are or will be in the top 5% of wealth holders, a view that is patently irrational and impossible of fact. Other polls demonstrate that US citizens have a vastly distorted picture of wealth and income distribution in the US, an ignorance that also informs their perception and valuation of inequality. While choice may be one element in the conceptual framework that devalues social justice, there are many others, including deception and simple factual error.
The radical empiricism and theoretical meagerness of the Savani/Rattan study implies that high estimation of individual choices is the decisive factor in the reluctance of US citizens to tackle the explosively growing inequalities in the US. Though the authors may not have intended it, the study leaves the pessimistic impression that the worship of choice (the preference of weighing opportunity over outcome) is deeply and perhaps intractably rooted in the US character.
As an example of social science practiced in the US, the study is impeccable: the numbers are transparent, the statistics are significant, and the experiments are replicable. But as a basis for policy or of robust understanding, the study is frustratingly spare and unhelpful.[ii] 
Most importantly, the study fails to answer the critical question: Would people really choose to place choice above other social values if they were fully informed and unbiased? Or is their embrace of the choice “mind-set” something foisted on them by tradition, peer pressure, media, or propaganda?
Choosing to Choose?
While millions of dollars and thousands of hours could be spent rigorously identifying the “mind-set” that allows citizens to shun policies that address wealth and income inequalities, such an effort would get us no closer to understanding how this mind-set came to be and how it can-- if it can-- be transformed.
But addressing these questions is not a career track for scholars looking for appointment or tenure at elite universities.
Since it would make no sense, all things being equal, for people to freely and knowingly prefer a value (freedom of choice) over other values (equality, for example) that are clearly in their and nearly everyone else’s best interest, we need a theory and not merely an experimental result to move forward. One such theory—the Marxist theory—invokes the notion of a ruling class with its own distinct and anti-majority interests. On such a theory, and in contrast with the study’s barren empiricism, most people elevate certain values above their own interests because still others, operating as a cohesive class, have the desire and means to impose their values upon the rest of us. They could and would, if necessary, impose their will through coercion, but they prefer to use persuasive mechanisms to achieve the appearance of consensus.
The Marxist theory takes it as axiomatic that the ruling class, enjoying a decided advantage in wealth and power, will fully exploit that advantage; it will exercise its wealth and power to market its own interests to those with conflicting interests. The ruling class addresses this project through the ownership of the means of mass persuasion and decisive control of the instruments of governance. Thus, for a Marxist, the monopoly of the media, the indirect, but decisive control of the educational system, and the dominance of political voices and the options they espouse allow the ruling class to plant, nourish, and harvest ideas among the masses, ideas that run counter to the interests of the vast majority. One such idea, among many others, is the notion that individual choice is threatened by any policy that promotes egalitarianism.
The “Consensus” Mechanism at Work
Since the end of the Second World War, the US ruling class has pressed its interests over all others by successfully raising the specter of Communism, in the first place, and the threat of Islamic Fundamentalism, today. Clearly, the anti-Communist hysteria was predictable as a gambit by the ruling class since Communists did indeed threaten to overthrow them. Subsequently, the success in portraying Communism as a threat to the nation, freedom, religion, and any other real or constructed value, allowed the ruling class to destroy any real domestic opposition and eviscerate the militant trade union movement. In a real sense, the left and the trade union movement in the US has yet to recover from this thorough and successful project of mass persuasion. And since the threat of Communism has lost its credibility at this time, the US ruling class saw the necessity of creating a new bogeyman in Islam.
Consolidation and monopolization of the mass media has enabled the deceptions and fantasies that were the building blocks of a false and alien world view shared by the majority of citizens even against their own interests. As new technologies arose and as they were more and more absorbed by giant monopoly media corporations, the bounds of independent thought grew narrower. Even non-conformity became a calculated and manipulated phenomenon. A casual examination of network news, newspapers, and news services shows an uncanny similarity in coverage and point of view. A closer examination shows that the common point of view nearly always coincides with the point of view of elements of the ruling class; that is, whatever diversity is found in the national dialogue simply reflects the diversity of opinion among the ruling elite.
By purchasing the two contesting major parties, the ruling class decidedly controls the electoral arena in the US. It is not necessary for the rulers to send instructions. By merely funding the lobbying effort and shifting campaign contributions, the US ruling class determines the limits of discussion and debate. As a result, a spectacle of largely -- but not exclusively-- white guys with professional degrees, expensive haircuts, near identical suits and ties, and flag pins gather to decide the direction of the country. Few see the bizarreness of this dance of puppets and even fewer recognize the puppeteers who pull their strings.
Theory and Change
The theory advocated here -- the Marxist theory -- has a long history back to its origins in the mid-nineteenth century. The fact that it captures and explains the behavior of many capitalist nations over many years bolsters its scientific credentials. The fact that it accounts for wars, economic crises, oppressive governmental acts, and massive transfers of wealth to the wealthiest – all counter to the interests of the vast majority—attests to its robust explanatory value. Those who have no theory have no explanation or answer for why a tiny minority can shape the course of history without regard to the interests of the majority and without resorting to coercion.
Rather than fueling pessimism and fatalism, the Marxist theory offers a way out. The profound economic crisis that surfaced in 2008 and continues unabated has damaged, disabled, or slowed the consensus mechanisms that have been operating smoothly and effectively for many, many decades; the mythologies created by these mechanisms are crumbling; and the tight grip on the “mind-set” of the US population is loosening.
While the political expression of these changes is retarded by habit, peer pressure, and sheer, naked opportunism, the underlying foundation of conventional political behavior is eroding. Consider the following:
●All of the institutions of governance are at all-time lows in credibility and confidence according to numerous opinion polls.
●Similarly, sectors of monopoly capital are viewed extremely negatively, especially the financial industry.
●Likewise, opinion polls show new lows for the credibility of the mass media.
●The idea that every generation of US citizens does better than its forebears is shattered. This has been a pillar of American Exceptionalism.
●The axiom that education is the key driver of occupational success is crushed in a vice of fewer and fewer high paying jobs and escalating educational costs.
●Income and wealth inequality is too apparent to hide or dismiss.
●Several generations of young people have moved beyond the pollution of anti-Communism. The socialist option now has credible showings in opinion polls, especially among young people.
Though these seeds of discontent are now deeply planted in the national “mind-set,” the ruling class works feverishly to counter their growth. Nonetheless, they will burst through. But we have no guarantee that the discontent will not be deformed by false populism, appeals to nativism, and personality cults. Those waiting for spontaneous risings may be shocked by what they get.
Instead, the moment is ripe for intensifying the battle of ideas. When politics lags behind the national sentiment, there is no better time to engage the ruling class and the false prophets. Regardless of how the forthcoming election turns out, this battle for shaping a genuine national interest remains. If we are serious about transformational change, we must follow the path of the abolitionists who came before. We must show the same persistence and zeal for our cause and not be deterred by electoral sideshows, compromise, and maneuvering.  
For a left largely irrelevant to the outcome of the coming US elections, the moment to inject new ideas—anti-capitalism, socialism---is now.
The pitchforks will eventually come out; it’s only a matter of who they skewer. 

i This is not to, in any way, discount the most important new world re-ordering of property relations: the wholesale expropriation of the property of the native inhabitants.
ii  Despite their “rigor,” they expose their own theoretical bias by contrasting acceptance of choice over taxing the rich to pay down the deficit. It never occurs to them that paying down the deficit might be viewed as a bogus reason to re-frame taxation!

Zoltan Zigedy