September 2011        

Adrift in treacherous waters

by Zoltan Zigedy

The mass euphoria associated with the presidential election of Barack Obama is now a faint memory in the United States. For most US citizens the last three years are a lost opportunity for changing economic and political course. Today, the dominant mood is of fear and desperation.
     The recovery from the collapse of the economy never came; instead, the public suffers high and persistent unemployment, stagnant or declining wages, intensified exploitation in the work-place, and inflated prices for basic goods.
     The restoration of civil liberties, the stepping back from the fear-mongering associated with the Bush administration and the reversal of the coarseness of public life never came either. US foreign policy became, if anything, more aggressive and nasty, signalled by new wars and with sanctioned assassination as the order of the day.
     Granted, the tarnished image of the United States was buffed internationally by the new president’s eloquence and manners, which seduced many.
     Even a casual look back at the interests and priorities of the American public revealed by opinion polls just before the 2008 election demonstrates a current administration out of touch with those concerns and devoted primarily to corporate welfare and to re-election. In short, what the people wanted they did not get.
     Instead the United States is mired in a deep economic and political crisis, a critical and decisive component of the global capitalist crisis but with its own distinct and novel features.

A sinking economy

Denial comes easy to bourgeois economists and capitalist policy-makers. Driven more by wishful thinking and rigid dogma than by facts and trends, they have forecast a reliable exit from the slump of 2008. Blind to the deep structural contradictions of 21st-century capitalism, these present-day wizards see only a momentary setback to capitalism’s inevitable march forward. They were wrong, and they are wrong.
     For decades, US capitalism has sought new mechanisms for generating profits from an economy surrendering commodity production and services to low-wage areas through technological change and unfettered labour markets. At the same time the concentration—the over-accumulation—of capital in fewer and fewer hands proceeded at an even faster pace; wealth and income inequalities in the United States reached levels even greater than those existing before the Great Depression.
     But this enormous accumulated pool of capital struggled to find investment opportunities with an adequate return. As any good Marxist knows, capitalists accumulate only to invest and accumulate more. This challenge of over-accumulation was met by investing in riskier and riskier endeavours and by retooling the financial sector into an enormous leveraging behemoth, fitted out with new exotic and shaky financial instruments.
     In mid-decade this colossal financial super-accumulator accounted for more than 40 per cent of corporate profits in the United States. By running far ahead of real material wealth production, it was bound to run out of steam. And it did.
     With the collapse of profits, US capitalism turned to the tried and true method of intensified exploitation. Millions were cast off from their jobs, leaving the same work to be done by far fewer employees. Consequently, over the last two years labour productivity soared at unprecedented rates. With little game-changing investment in labour-saving technologies, this amounted to equally unprecedented exploitation: sweated labour. A weakened and compliant labour movement gave little resistance. Predictably, profits soared and served as the basis for the Pollyanna projections of swift recovery.
     But it was not to be. Because little attention was paid to the profound structural contradictions of US capitalism, cracks began to appear early in 2011 in the false recovery: labour productivity began to decline in the first two quarters; unemployment proved obstinate, with many losing their benefits and their buying power; wages were stagnant or declining, further reducing buying power and consumer spending; growth in GDP was sagging; exports were off; and profits showed slippage. The weak “recovery” ran out of steam.
     Today the signs continue to point to decline. Delinquent mortgages are again on the rise; new home sales are declining; banks are in trouble; manufacturing is slowing; and growth projections are trending downwards. More ominously, American policy-makers have eagerly joined the rest of the world in embracing public-sector debt hysteria. At a moment when the American economy desperately needs jobs and consumer spending, political leaders are chopping public-sector jobs, wages, and benefits. This insanity will only add to the downturn. Public-sector shrinkage, coupled with slowing growth, leads to even greater debt as a percentage of GDP and . . . even slower growth and deeper crisis.

A crisis in the economy begets a crisis in society

The US two-party system has been honed into a well-oiled vehicle for advancing corporate interests while pacifying liberals and the fringe right. The two parties have successfully subordinated critical economic and social issues to a less substantial contest between authoritarian Christian fundamentalism and liberal tolerance and diversity. While this fight often decides issues of life-and-death importance to many, it diverts attention from the crucial questions that most profoundly shape the daily lives and prospects of the masses of workers, women, and minorities.
     For the Democrats, only matters that avoid challenging corporate dominance and the rule of wealth are admitted to their action agenda, with labour and minority interests relegated to platitudes and campaign speeches.
     Similarly for the Republicans, their corporate agenda is masked by the rhetoric of prayer, “family values,” and anti-government demagogy. This charade gives free play to the interests of corporations and the wealthy. In effect, the two parties have mounted intense, money-driven campaigns only to dissipate dissatisfaction by taking turns at the helm of government.
     But today this mechanism of elite rule is faltering. The brutal economic disaster has discredited the two-party system. The incumbent president—thought to be a shoo-in for re-election—has seen his approval rating drop below 40 per cent. The Congress has earned an approval rating approaching 15 per cent, declining rapidly and beating all previous records.
     The Republicans sense an opportunity to best a floundering incumbent but are saddled with candidates with shrill, extreme-right positions that especially frighten corporate Republicans. While the much-ballyhooed “Tea Party” faction of the Republican Party has served as the anti-Obama storm-troopers over the last three years, it represents no more than the same 15 to 20 per cent of the electorate that always fester on the margin of American politics. Nonetheless their media-driven, outsize impact on politics threatens to foul the two-party nest.
     Recently, in a feature article in the Wall Street Journal on 27 August 2011, one of the most astute, thoughtful voices of the right, Peggy Noonan, warned the Republican front-runner, Rick Perry, to tone down the Tea Party bluster. As a spokesperson for corporate Republicans, she fears the “know-nothing” rhetoric of the Tea Party as well as electoral prospects. Tellingly, she also warns that with this extremism “the left will be on fire. The only thing leashing them now is the fact of Mr. Obama [emphasis added].”
     Noonan unintentionally puts her finger on the great failing of the American left during the Obama presidency. American leftists eagerly welcomed the leash that Noonan observes. They put aside independent political action and joined the Obama bandwagon. Like the labour movement, the left counted on corporate Democrats to press forward a progressive agenda, a confidence that was naïve and unwarranted.
     For those of us in the Marxist-Leninist left, we must do everything to sever the leash and take bold, independent political initiatives. It is time to return to the streets against wars and aggression, for jobs, and for social justice. There are no others who grasp the depths of this crisis. There are no others disposed to lead it.

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