By Dan Kervick
Margaret Thatcher is dead.
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were seminal conservative politicians who came to power in 1979 and 1980 at the end of a period of profound transformation in the Anglo-American world. A postwar system forged in war, and built on a broad foundation of industrial labor, rising middle class prosperity, and an active government hand in economic development was transforming itself socially and economically into something quite different.
Many of the increasingly well-educated and aspirational children of the postwar workforce were moving out of industrial labor and into a variety of non-labor services and professions, seeding the new social antagonisms and divisions these kinds of class shifts always entail. With a globalizing economy, industrial production moved toward cheaper and less protected labor abroad, and the labor security that had once been so prized by the public came to be seen by many as something standing in the way of low consumer prices and economic dynamism. An unpopular American war brought the era of universal male draft registration to an end, further widening the social gap between those with multiple economic options and those for whom military service was one of the few available escapes from a bleak economic future. At the same time, the prosperous and mobile economies of the developed world, with their ravenous hunger for fossil fuels, had become dependent for their energy resources on politically unstable regimes outside their borders, making them vulnerable to costly energy supply shocks. By the time Thatcher and Reagan came along, the postwar egalitarian and labor-centered order was moribund, and the two conservative leaders were able to tip it over. The equality-minded left found itself without a programmatic alternative to the old consensus framework that had built a prosperous, deep and secure middle class on the wreckage of the depression and the industrial foundation laid down by the war. To some extent that vacuum on the left still exists.
Now, in 2008, we’re at the end of a similar cycle. But this time what is ending is the political order that Thatcher and Reagan themselves helped build. The collapse of 2008 has shown us a nakedly bankrupt and dysfunctional neoliberal system: a financialized and poorly regulated predator economy organized to funnel money to parasites collecting rents on the output of others whose aspirations are systematically squashed. The system has given us unprecedented social inequality along with prolonged and seemingly permanent unemployment at levels that would once have been considered an appalling national scandal for all but the most incompetently run banana republics. The system is loosely supervised by political elites who are alienated from their electorates and who rarely even pretend to serve the voters anymore. These politicians are often little more than rent collecting bag men for the ownership class they work for. A laughably unpopular US Congress occupies itself with performing obstructionist services for its paymasters and positively revels in its unresponsiveness to national needs. The major media personalities and channels, employees of the small percentage of people who own the country, try to spread a veneer of normality over the gathering debacle, and distract the masses with pseudo-reality entertainments aimed at inculcating feelings of inferiority, humiliation and subordination. And the events in Europe seem more demented by the day, as the mad inquisitors of the Euro-da-fé continue their persecution of the unfortunate.
But these reactionary responses from the plutocracy are unsustainable and deluded. Eventually, enterprising and alert politicians will seize both the ripe political opportunities that are now open to them and the moral high-ground, and will start to put together broad-based movements to sweep out the detritus of the old order. Certainly this kind of innovation and risk-taking will not come from the current cohort of leaders. Barack Obama’s political strategy seems to be to make himself as useful as possible to the stakeholders in the existing order, and to try to breathe new, sustaining life into the faltering ancien régime. Along with his fellow-conservative fellow-leaders in Europe – David Cameron and Angela Merkel – Obama will surely go down as one of the more incompetent and obtusely destructive national executives in modern history. In addition to being grossly unsuited to meeting the challenges of the times, Obama’s administration is also corrupt. The most brazen crimes have gone unprosecuted; and wide-open political opportunities for progressive reform and change have been perverted to redound to the benefit of the super-rich. The media poobahs opt to hand out bravery awards for this kind of obsequious pandering to the plutocracy, and Obama will no doubt be rewarded handsomely after 2017 with foundation grants, lucrative speaking engagements and other forms of corporate booty for services rendered.
The plutocracy has learned something important from the collapse of 2008 and its aftermath. If you cause a depression; if you loot and exploit the vulnerable to enrich yourselves while spreading the gap between rich and poor; and if you even go so far as to steal the homes and other assets of your victims in broad daylight, then mainstream parties of the contemporary West will do nothing to stop you. So it’s now open season on the less affluent portions of the population of the United States and Europe, who happen to be a majority. For a few years now, the sincerely progressive members of these parties have been so stunned and wrong-footed by the enormity of the unfolding betrayals that they have lost themselves in denial and misplaced anger at critics. They are also paralyzed by fear, convinced by their leaders that there is always something worse over the horizon, and that the leaders’ lesser brand of evil is the only thing standing between the public and a political fate worse than death. But this ruse is beginning to wear off. Even though Obama has long signaled his eager desire to chip away at social insurance programs, shrink the public sector and punish the vulnerable, many of his supporters refused to accept the plain meaning of his words. But his recent direct assault on Social Security and Medicare seems to have shocked many of the remaining faithful into finally recognizing the obvious. While stockholder profits soar and the gap between rich and the rest expands, Obama has concluded that the elderly and the sick are getting too much money.
Millions of genuinely progressive and instinctively optimistic people still have a vision of the world they want to help create, and are ready to get busy creating it. But they are saddled with a political establishment that lacks the courage, integrity and basic honesty to help them, and is in the pocket of the stakeholders in the unraveling neoliberal rackets. While the situation might seem bleak, I think we have just been going through the early Hoover-like phase of political response to the second Great Depression. The governments that will begin to take shape in the decade ahead will take the initiative to spearhead economic development behind a new progressive economic strategy driven by active government engagement and citizen involvement. They will make it the public’s business to provide employment to each and every person who wants to participate in building the better future to come. They will finally take up the task of building a new and more sustainable society organized around work, solidarity, shared prosperity, equality, and a reinvigorated participatory democracy.