The United States is a country that the GOP has successfully divided the way the Berlin Wall divided Germany when it comes to its society, its economy, and its politics. It’s not Berlin yet, but it’s as close as the nearest brick.
In fact, it seems obvious to me that now, more than ever, there are two separate countries inhabiting the land from the sea to shining sea. I live in one-the one that is part of the visible United States. The United States that is linked to its own economy, where there is at least a conceivable future for the people born into it. The one where people are fortunate enough to still have jobs, even though they make less than they did 25 years ago.
I work in an office downtown. But about 10 blocks to the west is another United States entirely. Where it’s not safe to walk after dark. Where the street lights sometimes work, sometimes don’t. Where people are genuinely starving…not hungry… starving. It’s astonishing how little we have to do with each other, despite such a close proximity.
There’re no walls separating the two areas in my city but there might as well be. We’ve somehow managed to proceed to two separate futures and I don’t think it’s unique to the U.S.
Owning Stuff Earnings vs Producing Stuff Earnings
A lot of us understand profit. A lot of us don’t. In my U.S. we evaluate by profit. We listen to the Wall Street analysts and sometimes even believe that they know something about business. Mostly they just know about selling us on the fact that they know something about business. And the notion that capital is the metric, that profit is the metric by which we’re going to measure the health of our society is one of the fundamental mistakes of the last 30 years in my country. I would put the date of the beginning of those mistakes about the time the so-called Republican icon Ronald Reagan took office…yep, that was the beginning of the real separation.
But the great irony of it is that the only thing that actually works in my country is not politically ideological. It is impure, and it embodies both politically ideological perspectives but never actually reaches any kind of partisan or philosophical perfection.
It’s pragmatic, in that it includes the best aspects of socialistic thought. But it also includes aspects of free-market capitalism and it works best when we don’t let it work too well. And that’s a hard idea to grasp – that there isn’t one single silver bullet that gets us out of the mess we’ve dug for ourselves. And we’ve dug one helluva mess.
After the second world war, the west emerged with the U.S. economy coming out of its wartime excessiveness, emerging as the best product. It was the best product. It worked the best. It was demonstrating its might not only in terms of what it did during the war but in terms of just how simplistic it was in creating massive amounts of wealth.
Plus, it provided a lot more freedom and was doing the one thing that guaranteed that the 20th century was going to be the American century.
It took a working class that had no discretionary income at the beginning of the century–which means that it was working on survival wages–and turned it into a consumer class that not only had money to buy all the stuff that they needed to live but enough money to buy a bunch of crap that they wanted but didn’t need, and that was the engine that drove us. That’s the engine of capitalism. People making enough money to buy crap they don’t need. Somewhere along the way, we let the wealthy convince the politicians that giving them more was what made capitalism work. It isn’t. It doesn’t. The more people with discretionary income, the better capitalism works. It’s not rocket surgery (sorry GWB fans, I couldn’t resist).
And it wasn’t just that we could supply stuff to other countries, or that we had the factories or know-how or capital, it was that we created our own demand and started exporting that demand throughout the west. And the standard of living that our enormous middle class achieved made it possible to fund research that produced ways to manufacture stuff at an incredible rate and sell it. And make others think that they should have those things that our middle class had.
And we did that by not giving in to either political ideology wholeheartedly. That was the new deal. That was the great society. That was the culmination of all of those arguments about collective bargaining and union wages and it was an argument that meant neither side gets to win all the time.
Labor doesn’t get to win all its demands, but capital (owners) don’t get to either. It’s in that tension, it’s in the actual struggle between the two, that capitalism actually becomes best at functioning, that it becomes something that every level in society has a stake in, that they all share. They don’t always share it equally, but they have a good shot at it.
The Strength of the Middle Class vs Getting “Trickle-Downed” Upon
The unions that formed before Reagan mattered. The unions were a big part of the equation. It didn’t matter that they won all the time or lost all the time. It mattered that they had to win some of the time; that they had to put up a fight; that they had to argue for the demand; and that they had to force the variable into the equation the idea that workers were not worth less, they were worth more.
But we began to discard that notion when a charismatic actor became President and convinced us to believe in the idea of trickle-down and the idea of the market economy in which the market knows best, to the point where now libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought. It’s astonishing to me. But it is. It’s never made sense, it’s never been put to the test, it’s never been the predominant driving force behind a single country in the history of mankind. Never.
Think about what those people are saying, “I don’t need anything but my own ability to earn a profit” and believing it. They are saying, “I’m not connected to society. I don’t care how the road got built, I don’t care where the firefighter comes from, I don’t care who educates the kids other than my kids. I am me. I can create my own existence, provide everything I need for me, and I don’t need to care about anyone else and they don’t need to care about me. It’s the triumph of the self. I am me, hear me roar”.
Bullshit. It doesn’t work that way now and never has in all of recorded history.
That we’ve gotten to this point is both astonishing and depressing to me because in winning its victory, in seeing that the Great Ronny Raygun’s “Wall come down” and seeing the former U.S.S.R ‘s turn towards our way of thinking in terms of markets or being vulnerable, you would have thought that we would have learned what works. Nope, not us.
Instead we’ve descended into what can only be described as the ultimate embodiment of greed. This is just greed. It’s an inability to see that we’re all connected, and an inability to see that the idea of two Americas is far-fetched.
Most societies are exactly what they sound like. If everybody is invested and if everyone just believes that they have “some”, it doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to get the same amount. It doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be people who stand to make the most. It’s not each according to their needs or anything that is purely Marxist, but it is that everybody feels that if the society succeeds, we/I succeed, and I don’t get left behind.
It also means there isn’t a single country in the west now, right now,that is able to sustain it’s existence its entire population. That in itself is a dangerous realization.
And so in my U.S. you’re seeing a horror show. You’re seeing a retrenchment, a redefining if you will, of “family income”. You’re seeing the total abandonment of basic services, such as public education; functional public education. You’re seeing the underclass hunted through a made-up war on drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor. Since 2002, you’re also seeing it turn us into the most imprisoned country in the history of mankind. In terms of the sheer number of people we’ve put in U.S. prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons there’s no other country on the face of the Earth that jails people at the number and rate that we are.
Socialism Has Become a Dirty Word
We have also become something other than what we claim as the proverbial American dream where all races, religions, (or lack thereof) and genders are treated as equals…and all because of our inability to share, or to even contemplate an impulse of sharing, lest we be accused of <gasp> socialism. How can looking out for one another have become a notion of evil? How can caring for one another have become evil? Are we no longer able to think clearly?
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m totally committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s been won. But the idea that it cannot be joined in any shape or form to a social construct is what is astounding to me. The notion that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to any reasonable extent, in this United States, should be tantamount to heresy.
And so capitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory by its own greedy, sweaty, hamburger-greased hand. That’s the shocking end of this story, unless we find a way to reverse this gawd-awful course. Unless we can find a way to take into consideration, that owning is not as valuable as earning we are doomed as a society.
And one of the things that “owners” would want unequivocally is the diminishment of labor. They would want labor to be diminished because labor’s a cost. And if labor is diminished, let’s translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less. Like 3/5 of a person, not a whole person.
Unless We Reverse Course
The idea that the market will somehow solve such concerns as environmental viability, our racial divides, our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is constantly changing; the idea that the market is going to pay attention to all of the human concerns and still maximize profit is juvenile, dangerous, and extremely unrealistic. It’s a juvenile notion that’ still being argued passionately even as we’re going down the tubes.
And I’m astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice.
If you watched the debacle that was, and is, the fight over something as basic as public health policy in the U.S over the last couple of years, envisage the ineffectiveness that Americans are going to offer the world when it comes to something really complicated like global warming. We can’t even get healthcare for our citizens on a basic level without blowing a gasket, shutting down the entire government like a tantrumatic child holding its breath. Every other western country can manage to do it, but not my country. No sir. We preach democracy across the world at the same time Republicans are doing everything they can do to suppress large segments of the population from voting. And they know it and brag about it.
On Twitter, Facebook and Google+ the argument quickly disintegrates into: “Got-damn this socialist president. Does he think I’m going to pay to keep other people healthy? It’s got-damn socialism, motherfucker.”
What the hell do people think group health insurance is? You know you ask these idiots, “Do you have group health insurance where you work?”
“Well hell yeah, I get mine” you know, ” from my Duck Dynasty store…”, or whatever. Well, the whole idea with group insurance is the same. Some will use it, some won’t, but it will be there when you get sick.
The treatment comes because you have enough people in your “Duck Dynasty store”, or whatever, so that you’re able to get health insurance because there are enough of them healthy at any given time to pay for those that aren’t at any given time. So the actuarial tables work and all of you, when you do get sick, are able to have the resources there to get better because you’re relying on the idea of the group.
And they nod their heads, and you say, “Well, dumbass, that’s socialism. You know it is.”
Therein lies the great horror show to come if the dumbasses are able to convince enough other dumbasses that sharing, and community, and taking care of everyone is, well, evil? What are we going to do with all these people that we’ve managed to marginalize if this absurd possibility comes to fruition? I guess the body-bag business will boom.
In this last recession we began to see the economy shrug and start to throw white middle-class people into the same boat, so that they became vulnerable like the lower income class. All of a sudden a certain faith in the economic engine, in the economic authority of Wall Street, and market logic started to fall away from the once mighty middle-class. The wealthy robbed them of their life-long 401k contributions, IRAs, pensions, and nobody went to jail, and nobody paid it back. And suddenly they realized it’s not just about race, it’s about something even more frightening.
It’s about class. Are you at the top of the wave or are you at the bottom?
So Are We Coming to the Fork in the Road?
So how does it get better?
In 1932, it got better because they dealt the cards again and there was a shared logic that said nobody’s going to get left behind. We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to get the banks open. From the depths of that depression a social construct was made between labor and owners that actually allowed people to have some hope.
We’re either going to do that again in some practical way once or we’re going to keep going the way we’re going. If we choose the latter, at some point there’s going to be enough people standing on the outside looking in at this mess that somebody’s going to pick up a brick, because when people get to the end of their rope, there’s always a brick.
I hope we go for the first option but I’m losing confidence. And I see a lot of bricks lying around.