What exactly was Ronald Reagan’s historical role? The tributes and denunciations of him are flowing in, and they predictably turn on each author’s feelings about conservative policies. If you support tax cuts, welfare cuts, race-baiting, an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy, you probably remember Reagan fondly. If not, not. Yet Reagan played a specific historic role, and it should be foregrounded to better understand where we are today. The closest I’ve seen to a description of that role is provided by David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist:
To understand the intellectual content of Reagan’s optimism, start with American conservatism before Reagan. ..Conservatives felt that events were moving in the wrong direction and that the American spiritual catastrophe was growing ever worse. Whittaker Chambers observed that when he left communism and joined the democratic camp, he was joining the losing side of history. . Reagan agreed with these old conservatives about communism and other things. But he transformed their movement from a past- and loss-oriented movement to a future- and possibility-oriented one, based on a certain idea about America. While others regarded the Soviet Union as permanent, he couldn’t. “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple and some would say simplistic. It is this: `We win and they lose,’ ” he once said.
Brooks is basically right (although many of the references to American conservatives could be extended to the world). Reagan was central to the revival of the right wing worldwide, and to the (temporary) disorientation and disintegration of the left. By the end of his two terms, the US appeared more powerful than ever. Of course, this process looks very different from the left side of the fence, where I stand, than it does to Brooks. For one thing, the Soviet Union, while playing a part, seems nowhere near as central to the picture. But overall, it is accurate enough. It is hard for young people on the left to imagine the disintegration of our worldview between roughly 1980 and 1990 (the final, definitive blow being not the collapse of the Berlin wall but the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas). Before, and even during the eighties, it seemed as if the third world was rife with revolutionary movements-South Africa! The Philippines! Palestine! El Salvador! All would inevitably end with victory for our side, placing an ever-tightening squeeze on US imperialism. By 1990, this vision had vanished. Not only that, but moderate variants on the left like the British Labor Party and the American Democratic Party also had become completely eviscerated by that point. To fully understand how it happened, and where we have gone from there, we need to look back a little further.
In retrospect, the early seventies can be seen as the high water mark for the revolutionary socialist left that so many pinned their hopes on in the twentieth century. The Vietnamese had, as the saying went, kicked Uncle Sam’s ass. As a result, not only did Southeast Asian countries go communist; when the Portugese empire was exhausted, the US was in no position to step in to stop revolutionaries in Angola and Mozambique. Indeed, a revolutionary process unfolded in Portugal itself, right in Western Europe. Beyond the world of revolutionaries, the concept of socialism was extremely popular. As Eric Hobsbawm notes, nearly every government in the third world at this time was calling itself ‘socialist’. Many backed up the claim with the nationalization of some imperialist economic holdings. Meanwhile, demands for a ‘New International Economic Order’ and OPEC both revealed a third world prepared to make more assertive economic demands on the traditional imperialist powers. If the revolutionary left wasn’t really sure what to make of China (coming out of the Cultural Revolution and meeting with Nixon) or the Soviet Union, at least these appeared to be stable socialist societies who had improved the standard of living of their citizens, and the latter offered some support to revolutionaries worldwide.
At the same time, the US was reeling. Its economy was undergoing unprecedented ‘stagflation’. Spending during Vietnam had led it to loose control of the world’s supply of dollars. Workers were engaging in wildcat strikes, and environmental regulations were increasing. Abroad, Jimmy Carter made a half-hearted effort to distance the US from its traditional policies through the advocacy of ‘human rights’. But when 1979 witnessed another round of revolutions-Iran, Nicaragua (both important US allies), Grenada-Carter turned to the right, inaugurating most of the policies associated with Reagan. This point is worth emphasizing-it was Carter, not Reagan, who told poor women ‘life is unfair’, who began to aid the Muhajadeen in Afghanistan, who rushed arms to the death squads in El Salvador, who started to escalate arms spending, and who appointed Paul Volcker to the federal reserve (see below).
Carter carried out these policies in a dour manner; when Reagan ascended to the White House he embraced them. This was the key difference; Carter acted as if he’d been forced to the right, while Reagan was a genuine enthusiast. After all, Reagan had cut his teeth on confrontations with student demonstrators during the late sixties in California. Although Republicans had often held the presidency since World War II, Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford could not accurately be described as ‘right wing’. None challenged the New Deal order of relatively high wages and substantial welfare programs instituted under FDR and LBJ. Reagan was different. Earning the first endorsement of a major presidential candidate in the twentieth century by the Ku Klux Klan, Reagan was genuinely eager to confront all those at home and abroad who stood as obstacles to unhinged US capitalism. Reagan globally empowered reactionaries and those obsessed with greed to come out of the woodwork and claim their place as leaders. Reagan’s record of aiding counterrevolutionaries abroad and building up the military at home is well known, as are his efforts to cut taxes, and demonize the poor. Nor should we forget his repression of the air traffic controllers, marking the decisive end of the New Deal regime of labor relations. Less appreciated, although perhaps most effective, were the policies of Paul Volcker, which Reagan strongly supported. Volcker raised interest rates to 16.4 percent in 1981, plunging the US into a deep recession. Christian Parenti quotes Volcker telling the New York Times the recession was necessary because ‘the standard of living of the average American has to decline.’ Parenti shares authors Harrison and Bluestone’s assessment of the recession, which, according to them,
Did precisely what it was designed to do. With more than ten million people unemployed in 1982 it was impossible for organized labor to maintain wage standards let alone raise them Essentially, with wage growth arrested by unemployment, what growth occurred during the Reagan period rebounded mostly to the profits side of the capital-labor ledger.
Giovanni Arrighi explains what these policies, in conjunction with several others (deregulation, deficit spending on arms, and military actions in the third world), accomplished on a world scale:
The tightening of US monetary policies drastically curtailed the demand for Third World supplies Between 1980 and 1988, the real prices of the South’s commodity exports declined by some 40 percent From then on, it would no longer be First World bankers begging Third world states to borrow their overabundant capital; it would be Third World states begging First World governments and bankers to grant them the credit needed to stay afloat in an increasingly integrated, competitive, and shrinking world market. To make things worse Third World states were soon joined in their cut-throat competition for mobile capital by Second World states (i.e. the Soviet bloc).
In this climate, none of the revolutionary regimes from the seventies were able to accomplish much. Increasing their difficulties were the various terrorists Reagan armed to harass them-contras, Muhajadeen, etc. And the worsening fate for Third World regimes surely undermined the appeal of revolution in states like South Africa and the Philipines, which ultimately pursued democratic openings that carefully avoided in any way threatening the economic interests of the US and other wealthy nations. Reagan’s policies succeeded in disciplining labor unions at home and Third World regimes abroad. Labor unions were reduced to bargaining how much they would be willing to give back. Blacks, another once threatening constituency, were locked up in larger and larger numbers. Yuppies, on the other hand, enjoyed the bounty of capital gravitating towards the US (although this is by no means a formula for a durable economy). Abroad, third world regimes were forced to sell off industries they’d nationalized, open the floodgates to foreign investment and profit-taking, and reduce social services. The failure of revolutionary regimes to find their footing on this turf, as much as the fall of the Soviet Empire, accounts for the disintegration of the revolutionary socialist left worldwide. Indeed, the fall of the Soviet Empire was as much a response to this process as to the arms buildup we hear so much more about-the widespread labor unrest in Poland, for example, was directed at government efforts to impose ‘austerity’ in the new climate.
The key accomplishment of Reagan was to take the wind out of the sails of the left worldwide and at home. Missing from most of the tributes to Reagan is his impact on the Democratic party-by 1996, it had literally written labor unions out of its platform. Like Reagan, Bill Clinton also demonized the poor, failed to expand social programs, and accelerated the inprisonment binge. In a sense, it was this shifting of the consensus of the political class to the right, rather than the particular battles he won or lost, that was Reagan’s most impressive accomplishment.
In retrospect, the revolutionary socialist left, and domestic labor unions, had very profound problems of their own. Both failed to engage with the new politics of feminism and environmentalism. Both never abandoned authoritarian traditions. Both, in their own ways, put far too much faith on state power as the way to insure their well-being and achieve social change. Some progress on all these fronts could be witnessed when the left began to regain its footing at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. They are still being wrestled with at the yearly meetings of the World Social Forum and everywhere else the left is regrouping.
It is frequently said that Bush shares Reagan’s vision. But Marx’s comment about history appearing first as tragedy, then as farce, has never seemed more apropos. Reagan rallied the wealthy classes worldwide; Bush has divided them. Reagan increased the US’ power while avoiding much direct military action; Bush has mired the US in two hapless occupations. Reagan brought about a new day for US world power, albeit presiding over an order that everywhere undermined the well-being of the poor. Bush has likely hastened the departure of the US from the world stage.
STEVEN SHERMAN is a sociologist living in North Carolina. Check out his Three Hegemons blog.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.