Roots of the 21st Century Social Crisis

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Ours is a period of profound social crisis: our social discourse and political “possibilities” rigidly limited by a narrow ideological hegemony, political system failures, continuous economic dislocation even in “boom” or “growth” years, an increasingly precarious worklife for an ever-growing proportion of the population, an increasingly damaged natural world, and an increasingly violent and fragmented social world.  Concepts like class consciousness, social solidarity, and a sense of enduring community have largely disappeared, or, more accurately, been expunged from our social reality.  This interconnected web of problems is what I’ve taken to calling the 21st Century Social Crisis.  This crisis has its origin in the collapse of the 20th century’s once highly successful social compromise between the powers of capital and of the people, what I call the 20th Century Synthesis.

At the dawn of the 20th Century the capitalist classes of the industrialized nations stood at a pinnacle of wealth and power once limited to a handful of despots of the world’s richest and most powerful kingdoms.  Their wealth gained by the ownership of industry was being extended and augmented by a vast expansion of imperial assets, and the ever growing ability of increasingly concentrated capital to extract profit from both their national working classes and the colonized subject peoples of their empires.  (Indeed, in many respects that sounds little different from the prevailing social conditions today.)

But a system built on the accumulation of wealth extracted by the exploitation of large numbers of working people contained within itself a great vulnerability: what if those large numbers of working people chose to no longer submit to expropriation and instead began to act in their collective class self-interests, political and economic?  Their own self-interests that were in direct conflict with the interests of their capitalist rulers?  This is precisely what was happening at the beginning of the last century, and which is conspicuously absent from the social and economic world of today.

Despite the widespread use across the industrialized world of everything from “Anti-Socialist Laws” to artillery by crown, cross and capital, the growing movement of socialist and working class mobilization, in parties and unions, both reformist and revolutionary, was beginning to break down the hegemony of Gilded Age capital.  Within a couple decades, the growth and success of both reformist and revolutionary socialist parties dragged capital kicking and screaming into a new social contract, what I call the 20th Century Synthesis.   No longer could capital act with impunity and without accountability.  

While in general, in most places, the anti-capitalist forces accepted that capital would retain ultimate ownership and control, it was within a new regime of government regulation of business practices on the one hand, and the creation of social democratic welfare state entitlements on the other.   In the words of Russian social democrat Boris Kagarlitsky:

During the social democratic epoch, capitalism appeared before us in the guise of a “civilised” regulated market and of the “welfare state”, while the left, content with its achievements, declared that it had renounced the slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In the US, our limited version of this widespread compromise was the New Deal.  Our version was limited precisely to the degree that the socialist/anti-capitalist forces were weaker in the US than in countries where a better bargain was driven for working people.

But decisively, as Kagarlitsky noted, “The social democratic order, however, turned out to be reversible, just like any compromise.”

As Loren Goldner points out, the reversibility of that compromise wasn’t some act of God or force of nature, it was deliberately imposed as capital took advantage of political conditions to force organized labor to purge itself of its anti-capitalist elements:

One might characterize the U.S. at the height of its world power in 1945 as a “liberal democratic welfare state” (while recalling that one pillar of the ruling coalition was the Dixiecrat Jim Crow South, to which none of those adjectives applied). This was, at any rate, the official ideology. It must also be recalled that from 1947 to 1955 this liberal democracy used McCarthyism to cripple the CIO and push the remaining element of labor radicalism that had helped build the CIO to the margins.

This effort was entirely successful; as this graph shows, it was precisely at the point in time of the Red Scare counterattack that organized labor had its deepest roots in the US workforce.  From the time the AFL-CIO purged its ranks of “the reds”, the decline in union membership has been continuous.

In the early 70s, organized capital recognized the opportunity to begin actively reversing elements of the 20th Century Synthesis, in a strategy publicly laid out in the so-called “Powell Memorandum”.  Soon after its widespread dissemination, its author was rewarded with an appointment to the US Supreme Court.

As the 70s moved forward, organized capital invested heavily in the new institutions and networks it would need to launch the final assault on the 20th Century Synthesis, the Business Roundtable, the Heritage Foundation and countless other similar enterprises.  By the early 80s the battle between a renascent capital and an eviscerated and listless resistance turned the underlying class struggle into a rout.  In the form of Reaganism-Thatcherism, the unchallenged hegemony became fixed on American society.  That subsequent Democratic administrations have no more challenged Reaganism than Ike challenged the New Deal is the proof positive that Reaganist capitalism is authentically hegemonic.

The rapid expansion of economic inequality in the US in this era of the unchallenged hegemony of capital is undeniable:

Wealth and Inequality in America

Goldner examines out how the of the retreat and decline of the forces that imposed the 20th Century Synthesis on capital are inextricably linked, and the direction that our capitalist society entirely unburdened by an anti-capitalist resistance is heading:

The whole thrust of contemporary ideology-one also largely accepted by the Democratic Party … is to blame the chaos of the 1960’s stemming from the Vietnam War and the black movement on the “permissive” ideology of New Deal liberalism…Meanwhile, the hollowing out of the political system continues. The Democratic Party today is a party of corporate lawyers. Forty years ago, it was still rooted in local urban political machines and in the unions. A similar gap has arisen between the business elite that controls the Republican Party and the small-town lower-middle class constituency that supports the Republican “cultural agenda” of a backlash against “permissiveness”, as on the abortion issue, or the separation of church and state. The entire official political system is mobilized with a “hard” Hobbesian edge against the “social”: the program is to close factories, close schools, close hospitals, build prisons.

Since September 11, all of the hollowing out processes have only accelerated. The Bush administration has been able to push through a huge arms build-up, a massive budget deficit (the Democrats now attack him in the name of a balanced budget!), serious rollback of the constitution in the Homeland Security Act, and a massive tax cut for the rich because there is no official opposition.

Even the vestiges of what was once the most aggressive and progressive segment of the American labor movement now find themselves being crushed between the triumphal march of hegemonic capital on one hand, and their own compromised complicity on the other:

The rise of American industry in the last century, coupled with a militant union with democratic values, helped bring industrial workers into the middle class. The last 30 years, however, have seen a reversal in the fortunes of auto workers that picked up speed as it went along. Today, a new hire at GM will make half of what a seniority worker makes and will not receive a company-paid pension or health care when he or she retires…

The hallmarks of the redefined union? According to the News, “aggressive, and increasingly desperate, concessions” that have resulted in an “eviscerated” membership. Today, there are 355,000 UAW members in all sectors, from universities to aerospace, compared to 470,000 members at GM alone in the 1970s.

What brought my once mighty union crashing to the ground? Certainly a number of changes strained the domestic auto industry: increased foreign competition, a period of poor quality and design, the oil crisis, the globalization of capital, NAFTA, the current economic collapse, and more. Obviously, many of these factors were beyond the scope of the UAW to impact on its own.

But the two main strategies the International settled on to protect members were labor-management cooperation schemes and concessions. History has shown that neither saved jobs.

The main reason for the failure to develop more appropriate strategies is the Administration Caucus’s abandonment of democratic traditions and an unwillingness to listen to points of view that leaders found threatening.

Because of the failure of the leadership to allow open debate, opposition or reform movements arose in every decade since the 1960s, always with proposals that would take on the companies and encourage members to own the union. They were ruthlessly crushed, through threats, intimidation, bribes, lies, and collusion with management.

Kagarlitsky may be writing of and for Russia, but he  sums up the collapse of the 20th Century Synthesis in a manner completely applicable to the US as well:

[Over]the past fifteen or twenty years the nation-state has been totally reconfigured. No longer does it serve its citizens, but to use the language of Putin, it solves the problems of “competitiveness”; in other words, it gratifies the wishes of transnational capital … Meanwhile, the crucial new feature of the contemporary scene is not that the nation-state is growing weaker, but that the corporations are privatising it. In this respect we have seen a turning back of the process that was under way throughout most of the twentieth century – the process through which the state, under the pressure of the working classes, was gradually being transformed from an organ of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie into a system of institutions functioning on the basis of compromise between classes.

Even advocates of capitalism readily acknowledge that the reality of today’s hegemonic capitalism is contrary to the system’s own ideological justifications:

Globalization is exacerbating all the problems in the world. We like to think that capitalism is an engine for equality, but that’s not really the case anymore. The very things we rely on for progress are now the things that cause us risk.

Today’s economic news, again, by officially recognized “Serious People”, features the twinned concepts of “wage restraint” and “higher corporate profits”.  Who could have predicted that Corporate America would increase its profitability by squeezing more out of their employees?  You’d have to be one of them looney left anti-capitalists to think like that, or so the conventional wisdom holds.  But what was that the poet said about the center holding?

In the US, one of the main effects of globalization has been widespread deindustrialization.  This not only imposes new demands and burdens on a workforce in relative economic decline, it changes the nature of work life in a fundamental way as I wrote back in 2007:

Are you now, or have you ever been, precarious?  Are you working temp or part-time, contingent or “subcontracted”?  Are you an “assistant manager” on salary in a chain store, unlimited hours and no benefits?  Is your neighborhood in the sights of a real estate developer?  Is your company shifting work overseas?  Are they hiring undocumented workers at ridiculously low wages?  If so, then you’re precarious…

Now we have entered a new phase, moving away from the huge fixed capital plants of the industrial era, to a more diffused and dispersed form of capitalism, less capital frozen in physical assets, more fluid and constantly changing and in motion.  This sort of capitalism requires a very different work force, one that comes into being as highly flexible, highly mobile, and in the process of production is subject to very different conditions than the industrial working class.  For the industrial working class, it was the nature of work to be fixed and set for the indefinite future, for a lifetime.  It is this contemporary form of capitalism with its centrifugal momentum that is the driving force in pushing the workforce into these increasingly dominant forms of precarity described above.

In the contemporary system of a globalized neoliberal hegemony, this dispersed, fluid, decentralized capitalism spreads this precarity everywhere readily.  More people more stressed, more exposed, more precarious on more fronts every day.  Are you one of them–one of us?  This kind of unsettled, casualized and informalized work life, this “flexploitation” isn’t limited to any age or race or gender demographic, although those factors decisively shape and define specific precarities.  The first condition for the creation of a new class seems quite clearly to have been met.  While the traditional centralized industrial proletariat continues to exist, it plays an increasingly lesser role in the overall forces of production, while the role of the contingent, precarious worker continues to increase.

Another consequence of the hegemony of capital is the massive and deliberate disinvestment in infrastructure and other public goods:

Plenty of businesses and governments furloughed workers this year, but Hawaii went further – it furloughed its schoolchildren. Public schools across the state closed on 17 Fridays during the past school year to save money, giving students the shortest academic year in the nation and sending working parents scrambling to find care for them.

Many transit systems have cut service to make ends meet, but Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, decided to cut all the way, and shut down its entire public bus system. Its last buses ran on March 31, stranding 8,400 daily riders.

Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.

Faced with the steepest and longest decline in tax collections on record, state, county and city governments have resorted to major life-changing cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety that, not too long ago, would have been unthinkable. And services in many areas could get worse before they get better.

The changed economic and social conditions such as the new precarity of work life require that a new movement sufficient to challenge today’s hegemonic capitalism will differ in significant ways from that which imposed the 20th Century Synthesis on capital.  Conditions change and so must means.  But some things are permanent, and one of the truly eternal verities of politics and economics is that you cannot wring concessions from those whose interests you do not threaten.  Until there is a force as committed to breaking the hegemony of capital as capital is to maintaining and expanding its hegemony, then the increasing hegemony of capital, the sequestering of all wealth in private hands and the deliberate starvation of public needs and infrastructure, and the increasing precarity of labor are all the future holds.  Without a significant anticapitalist movement, the future is the worst case scenario described by the authors of the pamphlet that panicked Glenn Beck, “The Coming Insurrection”:

From whatever angle you approach it, the present offers no way out. This is not the least of its virtues…  Everyone agrees that things can only get worse. “The future has no future” is the wisdom of an age that, for all its appearance of perfect normalcy, has reached the level of consciousness of the first punks.

To change that future, we have to change this present.  No one else can do it for us. And we can’t buy ourselves a better future, even for an every day lower price at Wal-Mart..


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  1. over at GOS, thought I’d bring it over here for those who prefer to avoid orange anymore.  Y’know, for the tips and free drinks and stuff!  😉

  2. unproductive wealth sucking it out of the peripheries of power.

  3. Collar World leads to no openness and no accountability, and that is the REAL problem, to me.

    Other than help desk call center type work, white collar workers exempt their work from hard analysis, they do make the rules, after all, and the white collar workers can spend their time playing office war games – blaming others + taking undue credit = take fat paycheck.

    current organizational models are just a new version of the Egyptian bureaucracy running the slaves almost into the ground – just not too far into the ground, or the pyramid schemes on infinite housing prices in cul de sacs won’t work …

    christianity & blah blah blah have tried for decades to make altruistic people, cuz altruistic people will change society –

    know what? there will ALWAYS be selfish pigs who want the surplus of the community going into their pockets so that they can live large – without genetic engineering, that ain’t ever gonna change.  And, it doesn’t matter at all what the name of the system is, without open and transparent systems, there can’t be accountability, and without accountability, the pol pots and the robert rubin robber barons got a much better chance at ruling.

    the post WW2 affluence in north america which trickled down to the peee-ons was kind of an accident – given American global hegemony, some of that mountain of global pilfered wealth accidently went into the community, instead of just more pyramids for the powerful.

    We’re back in a pyramid building phase – the historical norm.

    Maybe this internet thing will help get the drooling fools off their Survivng the Lost American Dancing Idol idiot asses??


  4. In a larger context, I see our present difficulties as reflecting our (historically speaking) failure to construct an intellectual foundation that consciously built upon the American and [to a lesser degree]French Revolutions. Those were significant radical events that had the potential of growing into a meaningful transformation of Western political thought [see the Declaration of Independence for example]. Unfortunately, the deep currents of priviledge and power could never be truly broken up. They once again have coalesced.

    Clearly, events themselves appear insufficient to change thought or behaviour. One would think the moral outrage of poisonous gas and trench warfare in WWI would have done it, or the Atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Certainly, the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Holocausts? Natural disasters don’t change thinking much. Neither does the continuous starvation of millions and the ravages of disease.

    All the “isms” have been lumped together in an idiot concoction to manipulate the people into believing the pursuit of liberal democracy is antithetical to our history instead of in the natural development of it.

    There are certainly plenty of insightful thinkers in the last couple hundred years, but they are regularly marginalized and ridiculed (if necessary)by propaganda or media or whatever one may call the powers that formulate popular opinion.

    “Insightful” now becomes radical and threatening, and the

    Aristocracts and Monied Gentry have successfully convinced a huge part of the working class in the U.S. to identify with them. The oligarchs mesmerize with the same architecture and symbolism they did in deep antiquity, except today they’ve added flashing lights. So much for literacy without reflection.


  5. …an historic artifact myself, my education was enthusiastically absorbed before the breakdown, before our societal failure:

    to construct an intellectual foundation that consciously built upon the American and [to a lesser degree]French Revolutions.


    That education was exciting, but certainly did not prepare me for what has happened to this world.  Graduating high school in 1950, I entered UC Berkeley in the Fall–the year of the loyalty oath.  Some of my classes were cancelled as professors refused to sign:

    I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of…

    Something happened to the psyche during WWII.  We humans, especially in the U.S., became very paranoid, fearful, suspicious and valued more than ever before the need to conform, to not rock the boat.  and we could see what happened to those who did speak out on the principles upon which we had been schooled as HUAC and “blacklists” ruined peoples’ lives.  I feel these traits were amplified by The Bomb!  The bomb brought with it both fear and guilt.

    Who knows all the reasons?  I only know that I am bewildered by the dumbing down of this country.  


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