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In Ron Suskind’s book “Confidence Men” Barack Obama is reported in 2008 to have argued to his economic advisors that the unfolding labor market catastrophe was the result of “productivity gains” rather than the economic crisis. That is, with 800,000 jobs per month being lost, Mr. Obama thought the cause to be an economy that was performing as it should. The relevant difference was that there was a role for government when job losses were caused by an economic crisis, but much less so when they are due to productivity gains.
Assuming for a moment that he had correctly diagnosed the reason for the job losses, in what world would the country losing 800,000 jobs per month not be a problem requiring government attention, if only through cynical political calculations? And considering the timing of the job losses, what is the likelihood that massive, job killing productivity gains suddenly took hold in the midst of an economic collapse? Even neoliberal ideologues saw the danger to the continued implementation of their program in that circumstance. In 2008 the IMF (International Monetary Fund) offered a public mea culpa for the decades of economic misery that they had caused before jumping back onto the austerity bandwagon so as not to be irrelevant to the dissolution of the European Union.
My point here is not to dump on Mr. Obama who is busy re-inventing himself as an economic populist, most probably because pollsters informed him that citizens who vote haven’t yet joined his view that mass unemployment can be a good thing. But it is to ask the question: if job losses of the like seen in 2008 fit into one’s narrative of how the economy is supposed to function, what are the conditions under which it would be deemed not to be functioning? The question is of course rhetorical. The neoliberal worldview, of which Mr. Obama is an apparent acolyte, is deductive and therefore only subject to challenge where facts don’t matter, at the premises.
The useful reason for trashing the neoliberal orthodoxy of the last forty years, in addition to that it feels so good, is that the only way around it for purposes of recovering civil society to solve the problems that unemployment, among other social ills, is causing, is to run right over it. Again, assume that the job losses of the Lesser Depression were the result of productivity gains, an erstwhile “good” in the neoliberal worldview. What possible offset would be needed for non-true believers to deem it to be such? Job gains overseas? America has been set up for the employed. Americans have mortgages, school loans, car payments and food costs money. Of what value is a theoretical systemic benefit when the world consists of actual human beings with economically embedded lives?
When not acting as an obstacle, the political leadership in the West has rendered itself irrelevant to solving the social problems that we face. Democrats will bust a populist move for a few months and get a few of you excited but in the end it will turn out to be the same misdirection that they have served up for forty years. Libertarians like Ron Paul will appear attractive until you put their economic prescriptions next to Wall Street’s and see that they are identical. Be that as it may, the problems remain. So while it only wastes a few minutes to vote, looking for salvation in the existing political order is absolutely life defeating.
If the political system could be recovered, real possibilities do exist: as FDR demonstrated, every unemployed person who wants a job could be given a job tomorrow doing things that need to be done. The health care infrastructure could be converted from care-denial insurance schemes to a public health care system that provides cradle-to-grave health care for everyone. Public education could be re-engineered so that all citizens receive high quality education from pre-school through graduate school. And a massive publicly funded effort could shift economic production from a path of environmental suicide toward sustainability.
The seemingly impenetrable wall between what is and what could be today is the same one faced in the West in the 1930s. Of help back then was that an alternative system, socialism, stood ready to fill the void should capitalism implode from its own weight. FDR saved capitalism by smoothing its sociopathic excesses with programs that served human needs. It took fifty years for the West to forget the snarling beast that capitalism is. It took only a bit less time for capitalism to remind us of what we had forgotten. Whatever happens with this rebellion or that, the die has been cast. Tens of millions of unemployed and dispossessed have no other choice than to rebel. With no FDR on the horizon, perhaps we will get it right this time.
Rob Urie is and artist and political economist in New York.