If the Left Debated the Campaign Issues
— ELECTION DISSENSION —
"Election Dissension" is part of a Z Magazine series on all things electoral. We welcome your contributions to the discussion; send to [email protected]. The previous interviews with Michael Albert, "Serving the Dominant Elites" and "If the Left Debated the Campaign Issues: On Foreign Policy," were published in the April & May issues. The full discussion is available on DVD via Z Video Productions — Eds.
An interview with Michael Albert by Lydia Sargent
SARGENT: We’ve discussed elections and foreign policy. Let’s turn to the economy. Some predict a recession, even a depression. The candidates seem to have nothing new to offer, not surprisingly, although Clinton refers at one point to ending corporate welfare or at least affecting it. As a left candidate how would you approach talking about changing the direction of the economy?
ALBERT: When they say that we have too much corporate welfare, that’s true. It doesn’t suffice to point out that people are doing less well than they might. It might be more informative to say that there are 40 to 50 million people in the United States living below the poverty line. How can there be that many people below the poverty line in a country as wealthy as the United States? Well, only if you have a very skewed distribution of wealth. So a candidate could say, "Look, the problem with the U.S. economy is that it enriches the few and impoverishes the many. Or it enriches the few and allows the many to get by. That’s probably 60-70 percent of the population that worries all the time about such things.
So what does this mean? Well, it means the economy is misoriented. It means the economy is oriented toward profit. It’s oriented toward the well being of those who are best off. Candidates could say all that, but they don’t. The reason they don’t say all that is because to say it in that way would cue investors—the people who finance elections and permit candidates to enact policies—that the candidate in question was not an agent of their interests.
When Huckabee was campaigning and doing fairly well, he referred to Wal-Mart as a genius of the marketplace.
And it is. Wal-Mart is a case study in the genius of the marketplace doing what the marketplace is meant to do, which is to maintain power relations and enrich the powerful. The confusion is that the population hears that as if it’s genius at production, it’s genius at efficiency, it’s genius at using resources in a clever and creative way. But that isn’t what it’s genius at. In fact, it’s impoverished and psychotic at those things. It’s really effective at marshaling resources in such a way as to enhance the profit of the few.
How do we see that it’s bad at the other? Well, how can it be efficient to have 40 or 50 million people living in poverty? That’s not efficient. That is wasting 40-50 million people’s capacities. If a capitalist were to say "a portion of my productive potential is lying fallow, that’s inefficient," what would they mean? They’d mean "it isn’t being utilized to make me profits." But when a large portion of the human population is "lying fallow"— unemployed or underemployed or robbed of its capacities by an educational system that basically deskills and deeducates, the capitalist doesn’t say that’s inefficient. It’s not utilizing the productive capacities of a population, but it is enriching the capitalist. So the capitalist is happy with that.
When candidates say they’re interested in change you can test it in some ways. You can see whether they are going to tax profits at 80 or 90 or 100 percent. Are they going to raise inheritance taxes? Are they going to redistribute wealth so that poorer communities get a much bigger slice of the wealth in order to redress the imbalances?
Huckabee also said, "Consumerism is addictive but tranquility is immaterial."
I have no idea what that means, except this: the idea that consumerism is addictive has some merit, in the following sense. The economy is organized so the only road, the only avenue to a modicum of fulfillment for people is consumption. When the advertisements that we see use sex, friendship, and dignity to sell all manner of commodities, it’s not a lie. This is a big mistake that many people make. They look at this stuff and they say to themselves, "Oh, stupid people being tricked." Nobody’s being tricked. It’s true. The economy is so skewed and people’s opportunities in life are so restricted that to have friends, a sex life, dignity, and respect requires consumerism.
What’s crazy is to have an economy organized in such a fashion so that toothpaste and clothing and types of cars and all manner of items are a prerequisite for fulfillment.
Candidates are always making promises about taxes. How would you talk about taxes?
The idea of taxes is not bad. The idea that there are many things in an economy that are collectively consumed, which must be provided in a collective manner—for example, by a government—is true. Anybody who thinks it isn’t should ask themselves what they would be doing if they didn’t have clean water, electricity (before it was privatized), roads, and all manner of things that are provided in this way.
It isn’t just the military for which you need taxes. The fact that so much goes to the military is horrible. And there’s a reason for that. The economic system we live under has to produce at a high level. It needs to keep churning. How do you keep it churning? You have to keep pouring out product. You have to keep spending. One way to do this would be to spend on education, infrastructure, rebuilding cities, parks, health care, and all kinds of things that would improve the quality of people’s lives.
Another way to do it—a quite different way—is to spend money on missiles and tanks and all manner of things that don’t improve people’s lives, but are used to enforce unjust hierarchies. Why is that done? Most people think it’s because the army is so important to the powers that be. There’s some truth in that. It is important. They do want that apparatus of power. But that’s not the sole reason. The second reason is that to spend lots of society’s productive output on welfare, unemployment insurance, health care for all, decent housing, etc. would empower people. It would cause people currently living threadbare existences to have more confidence and more comfort. It would put them in a position to demand still more.
What else would be important to talk about during a left campaign?
One thing candidates typically won’t talk about is the types of people that exist in the United States, understanding them as classes. Of course, there are many different occupations and many different roles in the economy. One way to think about people in the economy is that there are some who own factories, workplaces, etc.—that’s about 2 percent of the population. These people are tremendously wealthy. In some cases, so wealthy that it is almost unfathomable. Bill Gates, for instance—not because of how hard he works or how long or how difficult and dangerous the conditions but because he has a piece of paper in his pocket, a deed to Microsoft that is worth more than the entire economies of many third world countries. So that’s one class—the owning class or the capitalist class, the class for which our economy is named.
There’s another group that largely monopolizes empowering conditions of work. They have workplace conditions that give them a considerable degree of control over their own lives and the lives of the people "below" them. They’re managers, lawyers, doctors, engineers. They have the credentials of authority. They have incomes, typically, many times that of the third class—working people, who do mostly rote and onerous work.
Our economy is skewed in such a way that the capitalist class is by far the richest and most powerful (2 percent). The second class—the coordinator class—comes next (20 percent). It is still rich and powerful compared to workers beneath them (about 80 percent). Candidates won’t talk about that because their money and their credibility and what policies they are allowed to pursue are a function of support from the first group. The third group is relatively irrelevant except for tallying votes. So candidates speak to the third group to tally votes, but they take the interests of the first group seriously.
Take education. What do we do regarding education in the United States? We spend most of our money on the rich and powerful—the 2 percent and the 20 percent. Those sectors receive education designed to prepare them to play an engaging role in society, to function with a degree of authority and influence over economic outcomes. The other 80 percent goes to school and essentially learns to take orders and endure boredom in order to occupy the slot of a working person in the U.S.
If a candidate is going to have a program about economics and you’re serious about what’s going to happen in the U.S. economy as a result of your programs, you have to say two things. You have to say not just that "people need more education," but you also have to tell the reason why they don’t get it. And the reason is because in this economy if they were to get it, the 80 percent would come into the economy with too high expectations, too much knowledge, and too much confidence. They would likely then demand more out of life than rote and obedient conditions of work.
What kind of an economy would you be proposing, as a left candidate?
For a left candidate to propose the kind of economy I believe in—a participatory economy—wouldn’t make much sense unless you could have a campaign in which the candidate was in a position to talk with the American people for a year about what the features of such a thing would be. Otherwise it would sound crazy because it would be from nowhere. People wouldn’t even know what it meant.
What I would talk about is altering the economy in a direction that would lead to more justice, solidarity, equity, and people controlling their own lives. What that means is altering the way markets operate, eventually doing away with them. It would mean altering the way we allocate income, eventually making it equitable. It would mean altering the way we make decisions eventually making it self-management. I would…
By self-management, you mean…?
…I mean people having a say over their lives in proportion to the way they’re affected. I would alter the way people interrelate—from competition to cooperation. Those kinds of steps entail a different economy. Our economy has institutions that violate all those values. Our economy systematically causes people to be egocentric and anti-social; to get ahead you must ignore the conditions of other people.
Why are markets so objectionable?
To interact in the marketplace you have to buy cheap and sell dear. In other words you have to rip off the person you are engaging with. For you to do better that person has to do worse. It’s anti-social. To function at the head of a corporation you have to abide by the interests of those who own it. That means you have to generate profits. If you don’t generate profits, your corporation will go out of business.
Even if you you’re inclined to be more humane, you have no choice. The American corporation is an institution in which the disparity in power between the top and the bottom is worse than it is in a political dictatorship. There’s no political dictator who even entertained the idea of having a say over when people could go to the bathroom.
As a left candidate couldn’t you offer some program changes?
I would offer changes that moved in the right direction. Here’s some: let’s cut the work week from 40—actually from what’s probably 60 to 70 hours a week for 80 percent of the population—to 30 hours a week. What do we do with all that "lost productivity?" First of all, we transfer people from producing useless stuff to producing useful stuff that would benefit people. That goes a long way toward making up a lot of that lost labor.
Imagine it was 50 years ago and people said, "What we need is to shorten the work week, and that includes surgeons and doctors. Therefore, we’d have much less doctoring. Where are we going to get it from?" What if someone suggested we get it from the people who weren’t previously doing it. The response would probably be, "That’s impossible. Those people are incapable of it." Well, 40 years ago, if you had looked you would have seen there were virtually no women doing surgery. It wasn’t because they were genetically incapable of it. History shows that was a lie. It was the social structures that precluded their being surgeons. Well, it’s also a lie that working people can’t do creative work.
So a serious left candidate would say, "Look, our economy is stifling people’s capacities. It is not utilizing the capacities of working people. We could all benefit from more output and less labor time—having more time to live a life."
If you accept the skewing of outcomes for the population—the super- haves, the haves, and the have-nots—it becomes difficult to do much. That’s what candidates accept. What they’re doing is debating over modest alterations—if you take them at their word, which is already a big stretch—while maintaining that basic situation.