The recent struggle over collective bargaining rights has harnessed a great deal of positive energy. People across the country understand this to be a defining issue of social justice and are struggling to locate it in the wider context of the global capitalist crisis. But in my opinion we only muddle the issue and prevent deeper understanding by constant reference to "building the middle class".
The current progressive/ populist/ labor conjuncture relies on a nostalgic, sentimental approach to the problems now facing workers. It harkens back to the New Deal and Roosevelt or Maynard Keynes for answers to problems fundamentally different from those of earlier times. This approach is doomed to fail because of certain crucial, false assumptions , because "progressive" leadership is wedded to the status quo, and because new voices are excluded from the dialogue.
Even if this crisis WERE the same as the depression of the 1930's, would the Left seek the same accommodation as it did then? In order to save capitalism from itself, the State intervened in a massive way with stimulus, tax policy and the extension of rights but even the turn from laissez faire to a social wage and welfare state policies did not create real econnomic growth. It is crucial to remember it took war-based expansion for that "middle class" to grow. At the same time this prosperous, manufacturing-industrial base grew, the energy towards building a truly democratic, just system was quashed. Suburbs spread across the landscape but the environment suffered and workers signed no-strike contracts and Taft-Hartley.
We are seeing that same type of reformist strategy now as capitalism is once more saved from itself. This time the calls for "austerity" are creating a backlash over particular budget items but workers accept the basic narrative that they are partners in a process to preserve The American Dream. Lacking a radical perspective, they are being lured by Big Labor and Old Guard Liberals away from any real fight and into yet another accommdation. Yet again they are being told to vote and legislate and regulate their way back to the "middle class" , and despite the treachery and utter corruption of the hollow charade called "politics" they seem willing to yet again follow rather than lead.
The brutal fact is; the worlds workers can not all live what we have called the "middle class" life. We must ask: is the consumption part of that American Dream sustainable? Now that Capital is global the worlds workers can no longer think of their issues in isolation. And it is time to recognize that the Social Democratic welfare state model has also failed. Now the reformed, kinder gentler capitalism of progressivism must be abandoned along with the limited struggle for mere accomodations. A boader, deeper struggle must begin, one informed by a much more radical critique.
The crisis is here. Recall petitions cannot save us now. "There is something going on here…but you don't know what it is.."