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The Turning Point
Posted on Feb 22, 2007
Breakdown and Paralysis
Perhaps the better question, then, is: Will the presidential election of 2008 turn out to be a turning-point election of historic proportions. The greatest unknown is whether or not the status quo is headed for a breakdown crisis severe enough to clear the ground for such a transformative moment.
Signs certainly point in that direction. The convergence of imperial defeat, economic insecurity and rampant corporate malfeasance might be enough all by themselves. But the sudden change in the political status of global warming—once the dim, background hum of some far distant disturbance, now more like the heart-stopping premonitory theme music from the soundtrack of “Jaws”—magnifies the crisis of the whole global order, at home and abroad. Anatole Lieven has called it global capitalism’s “existential challenge.” Life as we’ve known it may be beginning to end. Congress is already holding hearings about the natural apocalypse to come, and all but the most ostrich-like politicians acknowledge global warming as an urgent reality; a fact on the ground, so to speak, no longer a debatable theory.
The Bush administration—and so the old order—has staked a lot on Iraq, not just its geopolitical and global economic ambitions. Its already severely diminished status as a moral exemplar of democracy and civil liberties won’t survive this latest plunge into military mayhem. Moreover, the president’s “surge” plan is a mortal threat to the secret source of the regime’s strength at home. The politics of fear and imperial bravado, which once won it legions of followers, may, in the aftermath of the surge, reach its own turning point as those voters abandon ship as fast as they once climbed aboard. Can the administration or the old order survive a fiasco of such proportions?
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Once upon a time, poverty was associated with the super-exploitation of those who toiled for meager reward. Then, in mid-20th-century America, poverty came to be associated with the lack of work, with those so marginalized they were shut out of the main avenues of modern commerce and industry. Nowadays, we are rushing back to the 19th century. Today, 30 million people in the United States work long and hard and still live in poverty.
Insecurity even more pervasive than this once supplied the energy responsible for supplanting laissez-faire capitalism with the New Deal. Might we be approaching something of that scale and scope today? Though there can be no definitive answer to this, there also can be no question that a general crisis of economic insecurity confronts the old order. All of its self-serving and adventitious rhetoric about the heroics of risk fall on increasingly deaf ears.
Not incidentally, since we live in the age of the global sweatshop, that older order is now global in scope; and the international financial mechanisms that so far have kept the global system humming for the U.S. are themselves under great and increasing strain. The system is, at present, being kept aloft by the needs of China, Japan and other major economic powers. One day soon they may find the burden of swallowing gargantuan amounts of U.S. debt insupportable.
Are we heading toward a breakdown like the one which, in the early 1970s, forced the Nixon administration to scrap the Bretton Woods financial system, the defining economic institution of the postwar Pax Americana? Together with defeat in Vietnam, the devaluation of the dollar and the end of fixed exchange rates for international currencies exacerbated the general impasse in which the New Deal order then found itself.
When it comes to the social reputation of our corporate elite, is it necessary to say anything more than Enron? The litany of shameless profiteering, felonious behavior, cronyism and corruption at the apex of the private economy has arguably called into question the “right to rule” of those presiding over the country’s key economic institutions. Even at the regime’s hubristic height following Bush’s presidential victory in 2004, he discovered he’d crossed a bridge too far in his attempt to turn over the Social Security system to Wall Street. Trust in the corporate elite has only grown frailer since then. Cynicism mixed with rage is a potentially explosive brew that fuels the economic populism even someone as “establishment” as James Webb articulated in his alternate State of the Union address.
What may make these converging dilemmas over-ripe for change is the response of the old order itself. One sign that some decisive crisis has arrived is the growing incapacity of those in charge to adapt—as if the dire nature of what’s happening dries up the springs of their political imaginations, forcing them to fall back on brittle orthodoxies. Andrew Mellon’s notion of liquidating everything in sight as a way out of the Great Depression was one case of mental paralysis, a retreat to what had once “worked”; after all, the periodic busts endemic to the laissez-faire capitalist life cycle had, in the past, always cured themselves, even if the “cure” included a great deal of what we would today call “collateral damage.” The Bush administration is similarly falling back on its own orthodoxies, each move only betraying just how out of touch its top officials are with the new political and social realities forming around them.
Take its reaction to the stunning electoral defeat it suffered last November. The president’s new “surge” plan, the self-destructive decision to forge ahead in Iraq without a scintilla of reasonable hope of success, even from the standpoint of the most cynical imperialist, is such a reaction: instinctive, unreflective, inflexible and probably deeply believed in. In other words, there is a resort to the ideological fixations that have long-driven this regime—and the larger political order from which it rose—but which only become ever more rigidified as reality bites back.
So, for another example, the administration’s response to the crisis of economic insecurity has amounted to an ideological provocation shoved right in the teeth of its own electoral repudiation. Bush proposed a massive cut in Medicare and Medicaid and, even more in-your-face than that, a tax on the health insurance of those dwindling remnants of the New Deal order who still enjoy some decent level of employer-funded healthcare.
Everything the old regime can imagine to defend itself ends up making things worse. With some poetic license, one is reminded of an inversion of that old Marxist axiom in which the capitalists, not the proletariat, become the gravediggers of capitalism.
The Open Door
Of course, that is a gross exaggeration. The question of the moment is not: Will 2008 be a turning-point election, but rather can it be one? Here, everything depends not on what the old order does on its own behalf, no matter how boneheaded, but on how the gathering forces of opposition respond to the system’s crisis. Is there a willingness to build a clear, programmatic alternative inside the Democratic Party? It is, after all, an institution deeply infected with free market/free trade ideology and most of the imperial presumptions of the conservative counterrevolution.
Is there a readiness to mobilize around nonmarket solutions to the general crisis: To fight openly for the re-regulation of the economy and its planned re-industrialization; for its re-unionization; for redistributive policies to supplant the ide fixe of economic growth; for the dismantling of the petro-industrial complex and its replacement by a new, non-fossil-fuel system of energy production; for a global assault on the global sweatshop?
Will there be a new era of polarization rather than centrism, partisanship rather than bipartisanship, a head-on confrontation with the Democratic Leadership Council, like the guerrilla wars once waged against the John Jacob Raskob and Al Smith elite of the pre-New Deal Democratic Party or the one waged by the Goldwater legions against the silk-stocking Rockefeller Republicans? Once upon a time, someone as mild-mannered as Franklin Delano Roosevelt found it within himself to “welcome the hatred” of those he labeled “economic royalists.” Might there be someone equally unafraid waiting in the wings today?
Is there a new order being born, ready to challenge the old one where it is both weakest and also strongest: namely, in the imperial arena? Not only has global aggression proved deadly to all, depraved in its moral consequences, and life-threatening to basic democratic principles and institutions at home, but it has also been the most fruitful, life-giving incubator of the conservative cultural populism which the old order has relied on for a generation. Anti-World War I intellectual Randolph Bourne’s prophetic aperu—“War is the health of the State”—needs to be made even more embracing: War has become the health of a whole political culture, not to mention the vast, hard-wired military-industrial apparatus with which it lives in symbiotic bliss. Is there a will to take on that system of cherished phobias, delusional consolations, and implacable interests?
Finally, there is the X factor, most unknowable of all, but also most critical in converting a mere election into something more transformative. Might a social movement or movements emerge from outside the boundaries of conventional politics, catalytic enough to fundamentally alter the prevailing metabolism of political life? Might the mass demonstrations of immigrants portend something of that kind? Might the antiwar movement soon enter a period of more sustained and varied opposition in the face of this administration’s barbaric obtuseness? Straws in the wind as we race toward 2008.
Steve Fraser is co-founder of the American Empire Project and editor at large of the journal New Labor Forum. He is the author of “Every Man a Speculator; A History of Wall Street in American Life” and most recently co-editor of “Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy.”
© 2007 Steve Fraser
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