Apocalypse Now

There is something rather disconcerting about someone choosing to reassure calm by declaring, “don’t panic.” It’s akin to saying, “don’t turn around.” The first thing one instantly does, of course, is turn around. Hence, when President Obama asserts the resiliency of the enfeebled economy by declaring that it is not time to “panic,” we know that the time to panic has indeed arrived.


Nearly three years after the financial collapse of 2008, and one year removed from the Administration’s “Recovery Summer,” the economy remains stymied. As Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke now admits, “Some of the head winds might be stronger or more persistent than we thought.” Accordingly, the Fed has downgraded projected gross domestic product (GDP) growth for 2011, adjusted from 2.9 percent to 2.7 percent. Meanwhile, the year’s real first quarter growth registered a scant 0.04 percent, with second quarter growth increasing to only 1.3 percent—the specter of a double-dip recession looms.


GDP, though, is a rather lousy measure of economic health. Depleting natural resources and pumping carbon and soot into the atmosphere, after all, both stimulate GDP. But such “growth” should hardly be celebrated. So putting GDP and our growth fetish aside, the most important economic metric to focus on is employment. And it is here that panic is perhaps most merited.


Although the last year has indeed seen steady job growth, the rate of job creation has been quite anemic—far below that needed to both rehire the millions laid off since 2008 and keep pace with population growth. Moreover, neutered by the austerity frenzy gripping legislatures across the nation, the stimulus potential of the public sector has vanished. As a result, instead of creating jobs, the public sector has been left to hemorrhage jobs (over 90,000 since May).


All told, 14 million Americans are now unemployed (over 6 million of whom have been without a job for 27 weeks or longer), with the unemployment rate forecast to linger at, or near, 9 percent into 2012. This, though, doesn’t even account for the estimated 11 million who remain mired in chronic underemployment. Behold our new economy.


Unfortunately, the onset of severe economic hardship dates well prior to the financial collapse of 2008. Since the late 1970s and the rise of neoliberal economic policies, the perpetual U.S. divide between the elite and the poor has ruptured into a deep chasm. The Economic Policy Institute reports that since 1979, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans have collected two-thirds of all income gains, with the wealthiest 1 percent siphoning off a remarkable 38.7 percent. During this same time period, real family income has declined 7.4 percent for the nation’s lowest fifth, while increasing 49 percent for the wealthiest.


Accompanying, and exacerbating, economic inequality has been a precipitous decline in social mobility. The American dream has become nothing more than an illusory fantasy. Low-income children in the U.S. (defined as those whose parents reside in the lowest fifth of income earners) have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of income earners in their life. Meanwhile, the children of the richest 5th have a 22 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent in their life. This solidifying and rather caste-like system has left the U.S. to languish behind nearly all other high-income countries (Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden) in social mobility. America may certainly still be the land of opportunity—albeit privileged opportunity.


In short, we can see that the rich are getting richer, while the poor and all those in-between are getting poorer. This, then, is our new “normal.” But as the late Tony Jubt remarked in his last book, Ill Fares The Land, “Much of what appears ‘natural’ [or ‘normal’] today dates from the 1980s.” So, whence have we come?


The Systemic Collapse


Emerging from the Second World War as both victorious and an economic superpower, the U.S. experienced unprecedented levels of economic growth. This growth, largely driven by government intervention (what is known as Keynesian economics), saw corporate profits and worker wages grow in relative harmony. This social compact forged between capital and labor birthed the American middle class, expanding economic opportunity and prosperity like never before.


By the 1970s, however, this stasis began to crumble. Declining rates of profit, from 42 percent by the late 1960s down to 38 percent by the early 1970s, functioned to dismantle the post-war accord. The Keynesian economic model, instrumental in recovering from the Great Depression, was unable to restore either declining rates of profit or contain the specter of deflation. Thus, the Keynesian model was cast aside, paving the way for the rise of a new and neoliberal-based economic paradigm.


By prioritizing the interests of private capital over those of labor and the state (i.e., breaking the post-war social compact), the neoliberal model seemingly offered the economic elite a means with which to spur growth and restore rates of profit. However, as the geographer David Harvey has since demonstrated, the neoliberal turn ultimately failed to stimulate economic growth. Neoliberalism, though, cannot be understood as a failure as such for it proved to be quite successful at redistributing wealth. In effect, neoliberalism flipped the redistribution mechanisms of the Keynesian welfare state on its head—siphoning wealth out of the pocket books of the working class and into the portfolios of the affluent. Hence, Harvey’s claim that neoliberalism can be conceptualized as nothing but a “restoration or reconstitution of naked class power.”


In the 2008 financial collapse, however, the bankruptcy of the neoliberal model came unmasked. To preserve the integrity of the financial system and that of the “free” market, you will recall, the state (i.e., the tax paying public) had to intervene with a $700 billion bailout. Neoliberal prophets on Wall Street and in the centers of power in Washington were left groveling at the public trough.


This tactical retreat back to the state for salvation has relegated neoliberalism to little more than farce. Consequently, much as in the 1970s, we now embark on a period of transition in which the neoliberal model is to be cast away and replaced. The question is whether this replacement model will be a further reaction from the elite (as happened in the 1970s) or a rebalancing transformation toward a more equitable paradigm (as happened in the Keynesian-based post-war years).


The question over the particular form the next economic model will take, nevertheless, may very well prove to be moot. For the crisis we face is far more substantial than merely a structural crisis of neo-lib eralism—it is a systemic crisis, a crisis of capitalism (and quite possibly a terminal crisis at that). Capitalism is based on one simple principle: capital accumulation for the sake of more capital accumulation (i.e., endless accumulation).


The system, in other words, is predicated on ceaseless growth, no matter the detrimental effects of said growth (hence the aforementioned limits of measuring GDP). The problem in this—an insurmountable one, mind you—is that we live in a finite world. Put differently, markets and resources are not limitless or inexhaustible. One may only offshore production so many times, just as one may extract only so many barrels of oil, or tons of coal. Endless accumulation and growth are simply not sustainable.


Therefore, the true issue faced is whether we shall be the ones to shepherd a transformative shift toward a rationally based economic system—one which accounts for, and adapts to, the finite nature of our planet—or, if we shall instead stand idle and let external forces impose a new economic reality.


The latter, it appears, is already underway. As severe weather ravages the globe (drowning one region as another is left parched), scientists urgently warn that it is only going to get worse. Mass extinctions of marine life will occur within the next 50 years, we are told, while the next century will see access to drinkable water shrivel and food insecurity intensify. We can be assured, the science shows, that climate change, driven and accelerated by the continual dumping of massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere (what economists simply refer to as the “externalities” of growth), potentially threatens to snuff out the planet’s delicate balance of life.


Our present economic system, we now clearly see, is untenable. Capitalism as we know it is in its death throes. Will we rise to deliver the final blow ourselves, or cede the task to the overheating planet and risk being thrown out with the failing system?


Life In the End Times


In 1932, Aldous Huxley penned his classic Brave New World. In the novel, Huxley wrote of a dystopian future world in which an enslaved society remained chained and shackled, not by brute force, but by abundant drug use and cultural spectacle. Huxley foresaw that if given readily available escapes, most would rather flee their bleak reality than seek to change it. For Huxley understood that social stability, no matter how despotic and inequitable a particular society is, provides a certain alluring measure of comfort.


And as we face a crumbling economic system, leaving us awash in inequality and mounting environmental catastrophe, we too have chosen the comforts of escapism. And why not flee when doing so becomes nearly as effortless as in Huxley’s dystopia? Beyond our own drug-induced escapes—of which there are plenty—our most cherished and collectively shared mechanism of escape comes via our fixation on celebrity. We live in a celebrity culture, one in which the famous serve as our high priestesses. This culture has borne the pornography of celebrity; for nothing delivers quite the arousal—nor is seemingly as addictive—as our celebrity fixation. 


This addiction to celebrity, and the accompanying exuberance of wealth, was perhaps no more evident than in the hysteria over the British royal wedding. The American media’s blanketed coverage of the wedding gave the impression that it was some sort of official national holiday in the former colonies. Remarkably, as the Neilsen rating agency reported, American television networks devoted twice as many stories to the royal nuptials than their British counterparts. This particular escape, paradoxically, was inescapable.


Our daily hit of celebrity, though, becomes all the more desirable when all is not well in the world of celebrity extravagance. But then again, pornography is never produced for the pleasure of those on screen, but rather for the individual viewer. Thus, we convulse with immense pleasure at watching the personal implosions of Tiger Woods, Charlie Sheen, and Lindsay Lohan; we pine for the latest graphic detail of the perverted online life of Congress- person Anthony Weiner; we are transfixed by the murder trial of Casey Anthony, as if it were a mere television drama; and we long for the next celebrity or public official to run afoul of our faux moral code and have their scintillating private life thrust into the public domain.


But why, exactly, are we so captivated by celebrity? Perhaps it is because the pornography of celebrity blurs our individual reality to such a degree that the mere spectacle offered is transfixed into a pseudo-reality. The trials and tribulations of each celebrity figure become our own.


The culture created by this celebrity-induced obsession is one in which self worth becomes tied to one’s personal fame. To be worthy we must become known—we must become a celebrity ourselves. Thus, we cling to the illusion that our talents will be “discovered” for the world to see. Hence, we market ourselves online via social media and watch television shows which scour the country for the next “star” (“American Idol,” “America’s Got Talent,” etc.).


Of course, for all those with a more sober self-assessment, there remains the ultimate salvation provided by religious fundamentalism. Which, as the millions reading the New York Times bestseller, Heaven Is For Real, would tell us, offers proof of the ultimate light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.


The Privatization of Politics


In their 2005 book chronicling the Bush-era repeal of the estate tax, Death by a Thousand Cuts, Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro reported that nearly 40 percent of Americans believe they are either in the top 1 percent of wealth earners, or will be there soon. American adoration with the cult of celebrity and wealth is not quite so absurd if one truly believes she is destined to reach such heights herself. The irony, of course, is that this runs counter to the actually occurring declines in social mobility. To “make it” today has in fact never been harder.  


The collective delusion and fixation on the trivial also serves to remove politics from the public realm and place it squarely in the control of the private elite and their cavalcade of “specialists” and “experts.” But, why struggle to change the system when we believe we will simply “work it,” enrich ourselves, and escape our former destitution? Exit, as Albert Hirschman would say, takes precedence over voice.


And it is in a world dominated by exit where draconian budget cuts become, not an issue to be debated by those bearing the costs, but one to be finessed by the technocratic experts who limit their squabble to the particular programs to shutter. Sure, Medicare may not be there when I retire, all the aspiring elite assert, but I’ll make it big and won’t need it. And if one fails to reach fame, we all understand, it is assuredly due to some personal failure. 


The very notion of politics, we see, becomes lost in our collective delusion. The nihilistic individualism of our celebrity culture yields a world of “what’s in it for me.” Feminists used to say that the personal is political, but now it is clear that it is more that the political is personal. In other words, the political is moving from the collective public sphere to the individualized private sphere—we are undergoing a privatization of politics. This leaves an illusion of politics where there is little to none. It creates a politics to be watched from a distance, but never to be engaged.


The 2012 “Choice”


Despite the orgy of celebrity cultural kitsch asphyxiating politics, the starkness of our economic reality ensures that the 2012 elections will, at least fleetingly, drift into the consciousness of the confounded voter. And despite waging three wars in three different countries (U.S. involvement in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen aren’t formally confirmed by “official” sources and thus, we are assured, don’t really count), it is indeed the jobs picture that is sure to dominate the 2012 presidential campaign. A recovering labor market will surely bode well for President Obama, who has solidified his foreign policy posture after the assassination of Osama bin Laden. However, continued economic malaise into 2012, as is expected, will only signal further trouble for the president and congressional Democrats.


Yet, instead of aggressively pushing for an ambitious jobs program and shaming any and all Republican obstructionists in Congress (nearly four out of every five Americans, after all, want Congress to do more to create jobs), Obama has instead embarked upon a charm offensive targeting the American business class. Seen in the President’s Council on Jobs and Competiveness, Obama has bought wholesale into the mystic and mythology of the private sector, and its rather flawed notion that the government simply ought to get out of its way. The counter notion that the private industry (harboring nearly $2 trillion in cash reserves according to the Wall Street Journal) ought to put-up or get out of the way of any potential governmental job program appears simply beyond the pale.


But as Obama tours the country with General Electric CEO, Jeffrey Immelt (chair of the president’s jobs council and head of a company that has laid off nearly 40,000 workers since 2000), the brainless cast of Republican presidential hopefuls fight over the opportunity to take on an increasingly vulnerable incumbent. Rising to the fore as the media anointed frontrunner, is Mitt Romney. In most head-to-head polling Romney is running in a near dead heat with Obama, with a June ABC News/Washington Post poll giving Romney a three-point advantage among registered voters.


The rise of the former governor of Massachusetts is due in large measure to his shrewd positioning as the lone “grown-up” in a parade of amateurish Republican primary hopefuls. This coveted “grown-up” status, Romney maintains, derives from his stellar business credentials. Romney, you see, claims his economic know-how derives from his personal business experience, in which he “earned” his millions. Of course, Romney acquired his wealth as an executive at Bain Capital by firing thousands of employees—a true stalwart of the American business class. One must give Romney credit, though, for having the sheer gall of basing his entire candidacy on such flimsy ground.


The media, as we would expect, has diligently abided by Romney’s concocted economic expertise. Why question a candidate’s public relations messaging when one can just wait for the next inevitable sex scandal to arrive?


So it would appear that the 2012 presidential “choice” will come down to an incumbent Democrat kneeling at the altar of big business and a Republican (if Romney is indeed able to navigate the ultra-right trending Republican electorate) who comes well adept at doling out the pink slip.


Signs of Hope?


Is all lost? It would certainly appear so, but hope always stubbornly endures. Everywhere there are signs of a great awakening. The Arab Spring and the backlash against the imposed draconian austerity measures in Greece and Spain are leading fronts in this global awakening. In the U.S., the uprising against collective bargaining restrictions in Wisconsin and the birth of the U.S. Uncut movement both offer promising signs. Yet, despite the awe-inspiring nature of mass mobilizations, such acts alone will not suffice. For the fundamental change needed to avert the disaster we are barreling towards, the power amassing in the streets will need to be channeled and funneled into our workplaces (for those still with jobs), our communities, and our legislative chambers.


The most promising sign in regard to this necessary synthesis, was seen in the speech AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka delivered at the National Press Club in late May. In the speech, Trumpa declared: “We have listened hard and what workers want is an independent labor movement that builds the power of working people—in the workplace and in political life…. Our role is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate. It is to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our country.”


Perhaps this is nothing more than empty rhetoric. After all, Trumka’s predecessor John Sweeney spoke about the need to build labor’s political independence all the way back in 1995. But if accomplishing nothing else, the brazen attack on American unions, and the working class more broadly, has served to illustrate that fundamental change must come now. The old and tired quandary of lesser evilism is no longer a viable framework (if it ever really were). Would the economy be any worse under a President McCain, we must ask. Would the attack on the working class be any harsher under a President McCain? Would the U.S. be in any more foreign wars under a President McCain? Would the attack on civil liberties be any worse under a President McCain? And so on.


Our task entails no less than a massive educational undertaking from which to wake the American populace up. It entails not an effort to lower unemployment, but one to end unemployment and bring jobs to all. It entails building a popular independent movement of the left—from near scratch no less. Our task entails nothing short of reclaiming politics from the vises of the upper echelons of the elite.


The sheer difficulty of this task, however, is no reason to refrain from taking up the challenge. Simply ignoring the realities of the class war, as the last three decades have proven, does not inoculate one from its effects. Moreover, if we fail to engage in the struggle we might as well cede our greatest strength—our hope and vision for a better world. If this were to occur, the only remaining task would be to succumb to panic.


Ben Schreiner is a freelance writer living in Salem, Oregon whose work has appeared in Political Affairs and on counterpunch.org. He may be reached via email at bnschreiner@gmail.com.