It’s always fascinating to observe ruling classes seemingly willfully destroying the conditions for their own future rule. History is covered with the ashes of self-immolated wealthy classes, grim reminders of the autosarcophagous nature of infinite greed. In 18th-century France, there was the parasitic aristocracy that shunted all responsibility for the kingdom’s finances onto the lower classes, thus setting the stage for the French Revolution. Today, there is the parasitic oligarchy that strips the lower and middle classes of everything but their labor power and their debt, thus setting the stage for … revolution?
Let’s consider some of the remarkable methods the US ruling class (or at least dominant factions of it) are currently using to sabotage their own future rule. To a large extent, these devices fall under the category “neoliberal,” which is to say a fetishization of privatization and marketization, but that only obscures their real origin: the dominance of the capitalist mode of production itself. Neoliberalism is but a vicious manifestation and continuation of basic tendencies that have characterized capitalism for centuries, including the obsessive pursuit of profit, suppression of popular power, class polarization, increasing capital mobility, unfettered imperialism, the pillaging of the natural environment, etc. The salient difference between now and earlier is that on a global level, these tendencies appear to be approaching their limits, reaching such a fever pitch that they’re undermining the possibility of capitalism in the future.
The Short-Sightedness of Infinite Greed
Daily headlines testify to the institutional myopia. Congressional Republicans seem to be trying as hard as they can to arouse the enmity of as many people as possible by passing the horrifying American Health Care Act — which is only serving to build support for a single-payer system. Trump’s tax plan, which admittedly is pie in the sky, proposes “one of the biggest tax cuts in American history” (according to the director of Trump’s National Economic Council) — to benefit the wealthy, who don’t have enough money yet. More fodder for populist rage on the left. And, of course, yet another device to “starve the beast,” i.e., hamstring the federal government’s ability to administer society in such a way that society continues to function.
Trump’s budget, as we know, is a masterpiece of misanthropy. Among its shining provisions are $2 trillion of cuts to health programs, a 31 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency, $472 billion slashed from income security programs, and $346 billion of cuts to education, training and employment programs. It has no chance of becoming law, but since it’s just an extreme version of Republican priorities, it doesn’t bode well for the country’s future. Which is to say, it doesn’t bode well for the ruling class’s untrammeled exercise of power — because of the civic collapse and consequent popular resistance it augurs.
Public education, for instance, has been an integral component of the mass middle-class nation-state, one of the guarantors of relative social order (in part by supporting the hope, at least, of social mobility). It isn’t news to say that neither the Trump administration nor the billionaire class as a whole is enamored of public education. They loathe the idea of paying taxes to help people who are “beneath” them, and in fact dislike anything opposed to the gospel of privatization and atomization. And, of course, there’s a lot of money to be made from privatizing education. Hence the ongoing nationwide crusade to destroy public education. State educational funding has been cut in the last decade; tuition at four-year public colleges has simultaneously increased 28 percent, exacerbating the student debt crisis; the spread of charter schools continues to chip away at the funding and the culture of robust public education; and the constant political, budgetary and corporate media attacks on teachers and their unions basically serve the function of attacking mass education itself.
With Trump and US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at the helm, the war on students, teachers and public schools is only escalating. In DeVos’s crosshairs are after-school programs, arts programs, child care programs, money for teacher training and class-size reduction, financial aid for low-income college students, adult basic literacy instruction, etc. Voucher and market strategies, on the other hand, are given over $1 billion in Trump’s budget.
The most obvious example of the ruling class’s disregard for its own future power and well-being is the case of global warming. If civilization collapses, dragging down with it most life on Earth, then, however much the wealthiest of the wealthy try to barricade themselves in Xanadus remote from climate chaos and the misery of the rabble, their quality of life is going to be affected. But as usual, short-term gain matters more than any other value, including long-term self-interest.
It’s true that much of the oligarchy is worried about global warming, as shown by the outrage from even US business interests and politicians over Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement. But the efforts devoted to addressing climate change are pathetic. The corporate media scarcely even mention it, at least by comparison with the coverage it would get from a genuinely free press. Carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is at an unbelievable 408 parts per million. We’re on track to hit 500 parts per million by 2050. Antarctica’s ice sheet is melting at an accelerating rate. Coastal areas are in danger of being wiped out by the end of the century or earlier. The Amazon rainforest could be a memory within our lifetimes. Meanwhile, even on the state level in the US, “the progress [in reducing carbon emissions] is slow,” according to one expert, “and the near-term targets are low.”
The longer the oligarchy abdicates responsibility for the well-being of future generations, the more ammunition it gives to radical popular movements whose aim is to completely transform the US political economy.
Last, I would mention the ruling class’s apparent equanimity regarding the probability of another economic collapse in the near future, possibly a greater collapse than that of 2008-2009. The work of Marxist economists, such as David Harvey, Robert Brenner and the Monthly Review school illuminates the fundamental weaknesses of the US economy from a long-term perspective — weaknesses that have much to do with “excessive capitalist empowerment vis-à-vis labour and consequent wage repression,” to quote Harvey. The only reason the economy functions at all is the existence of a colossal amount of debt, which temporarily solves the problem of low aggregate demand. But, as Reuters columnist James Saft points out, consumer debt growth — which has lately been occurring at a far faster rate than incomes and the economy are growing — “can’t outpace wages forever.” Corrections, like that of 2008, are inevitable.
The Republican Party is doing what it can to ensure that the next crash is as catastrophic as possible by moving to gut the Dodd-Frank regulations, which would facilitate a resurgence of predatory lending and other practices that led to the 2008 crash.
Of course, the ultra-rich can expect to be bailed out again in the event of a crash. They don’t have much to fear in this respect. What should cause them some concern are the “pitchforks” that will be brandished next time around: the surge of populist rage (largely left-wing) that will quite possibly signal the beginning of the end of neoliberal hegemony.
We should, after all, recall an earlier parallel to our own time. In 1930 organized labor and the left were in an abysmal state, having experienced a decade of repression so cataclysmic that historian David Montgomery famously referred to it as “the fall of the house of labor.” The unionization rate was at 7 percent, barely above our current private-sector unionization rate. And yet, within six years, after the emergence of continent-wide protest movements in the context of the Great Depression, the political economy had moved so dramatically to the left that the US welfare state was born, the federal government was committed to protecting unions and industrial unionism was making epochal advances that laid the basis for the sustained prosperity of the postwar era.
The Case for Optimism
The advantage of a Marxian, “dialectical” point of view is that it allows one to see silver linings in developments that look entirely and straightforwardly disastrous. Just as the mature welfare-state in the West didn’t and couldn’t emerge until the horrors of the Depression and World War II had paved the way for it (in part by mobilizing the left on an epic scale), so the crises of the coming decades could potentially prepare the ground for a reconstruction of society on a more just and democratic foundation.
Said differently, modern history is cyclical. The ferment of US labor and the left in the Progressive Era — with the Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist Party of America, the Western Federation of Miners, epidemics of strikes — was finally crushed by the reactionary backlash of the Red Scare, and then the triumphalist New Era in the 1920s, when “the business of America [was] business,” as Calvin Coolidge said. The decimation of labor, which suppressed aggregate demand (because of consequent low wages and insecure employment), helped cause the Depression, which saw a revitalization of the left. During and after World War II, big business launched a remarkably successful counteroffensive (associated, misleadingly, with the name of Joe McCarthy, who was a bit player) that purged politics, culture and organized labor of almost every hint of leftism.
But this phase of nearly unchecked Cold War corporatism succumbed to the turbulence of the 1960s and ’70s. African Americans, students, women, antiwar activists, environmentalists and rank-and-file workers erupted against the repressive bureaucratic regime of centrist liberalism, permanently changing US culture and politics. In response, business and conservatives mobilized once again, determined this time to annihilate organized labor and the New Deal state itself, which they saw as a challenge to their power and profits. Thus came neoliberalism, another triumphalist “New Era” of brutal repression and “end of history” propaganda (this time with a dash of postmodernism thrown in for good measure). By 2017, we’re overdue for the next left-wing phase of the cycle.
But this time it’s going to be different. It’s not just another phase that will be followed by a reactionary backlash. As I’ve argued at length in Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, the unique historical role of neoliberalism has been to bring the long epoch of capitalism to its global consummation — which, in classic dialectical fashion, could end up precipitating its downfall. In fact, the nation-state system itself, which is integrally connected to capitalism, is in the early stages of its long decline. The political economy of privatization and social atomization on the one hand, and transnationalism on the other, which has emerged on the basis of information technology deployed in a neoliberal context, is unraveling the social fabric of the nation-state — in part by facilitating the emergence of a global consciousness and the undermining of a national one. This, in turn, is making possible the rise of global social movements (which, incidentally, are what Marxism was all about to begin with: “Workers of the world, unite!”).
The middle class has historically been the conservative bastion of an inequitable social order. As it collapses, many of its members may be seduced by the political right, but others — together with the majority of the lower classes and minorities — may join progressives and radicals. Both Jeremy Corbyn’s success in the UK’s recent election and Bernie Sanders’s enormous popularity demonstrate that the left wing has but to broadcast its message effectively in order to build a mass popular movement.
As the least progressive sectors of business struggle to push capitalism to its most misanthropic, world-destroying extremes, liberal and leftist institutions will surely acquire more support from the populace, more resources and more power.
The coming decades are going to see the apocalyptic struggle between labor/humanity and capital (particularly the most reactionary sectors of capital) that Marx prophesied but for which he got the timeline wrong (not foreseeing state capitalism and the welfare state). As the least progressive sectors of business struggle to push capitalism to its most misanthropic, world-destroying extremes, liberal and leftist institutions will surely acquire more support from the populace, more resources and more power. They already are. The precise dynamics of this process can’t be foreseen, but that it will happen can be predicted with near-certainty simply given the cyclical/dialectical logic of history. The only alternative is total repression of the population for an indefinite period of time.
It’s unlikely we’ll see a return to 20th-century social democracy, because the nationalistic, heavily unionized political economy that produced that social formation is dead. It has succumbed to relative fragmentation and atomization. Instead, we’ll likely see momentum grow behind more radical initiatives like the democratization of ownership — which is proposed in the Labor Party’s manifesto and has been championed by Bernie Sanders and other senators. The very structures of government and the economy will be thrown into question as the idea spreads that humanity’s current predicament is a direct product of these structures. Popular pressures to address global warming will reinforce and align with anti-capitalist movements, as it becomes clearer that only radical changes in the economy will be adequate to meet the ecological threat. The very inseparability of all the crises afflicting the country and the world — militarism, the privatization of resources, climate change, income inequality, economic stagnation, unemployment — will likely foment wholesale popular radicalization.
Moreover, the fact that the victims of the stagnant status quo include huge numbers of young people is extremely dangerous to the oligarchy. The youth will be the shock troops of the revolution.
One of the lessons of history is that the longer an elite prevents change from happening, the more it ensures that the change, when it comes, will be radical and all-encompassing. The French royalty learned this to its cost when it was swept aside by revolution in the 1790s. Tsar Nicholas II learned the lesson when his hidebound conservatism eventually empowered the Bolsheviks and got him and his family massacred. The Southern plantation aristocracy in the US learned it when its viciously reactionary politics and unwillingness to compromise led to the Civil War and slavery’s abolition. The US ruling class learned it when its crushing of labor in the 1920s indirectly led to a flood of progressive legislation in the 1930s. And in the next couple of decades, our ruling class will likely learn this lesson once again.