Many Christian fundamentalists believe that one day they will awake to the Rapture. On that day, the chosen will mount chariots of fire and be transported to Heaven while the rest of us unworthy survivors, those stranded on this living planet, will be visited by all the horrors the Devil can inflict.
Many Tea Party conservatives believe that one day they will awake to an America purged of all regulation. They will proudly walk out of their exclusive (i.e., white-only), suburban, walled and gated MacMansions with their six-guns proudly strapped to their hips and waving Old Glory. They will be free men and women; America will have fulfilled its divine destiny. America will be in terminal crisis.
Christian fundamentalists and Tea Party conservatives share one thing in common: They are punitive, wishing others harm in order to fulfill their moralistic agenda. For them, politics is a vehicle to impose a religiously structured society based on an unregulated marketplace.
The growing Tea Party and Republican call to end government “regulation” is a fictitious political issue. When challenged by the corporate media, Republican candidates repeatedly cite a handful of truly stupid, obscure regulations that reveal the excessive zeal of governmental bureaucrats. Mainstream journalist, ever-conscious of the requirements of corporate media for advertising, rarely press these opportunist bloviators to lay-out the full scope of regulations they would eliminate.
If mainstream journalist pushed, they would reveal that political and social reactionaries want to return America to the primitive days of the Gilded Age. [see “Decline or Restructuring?: Welcome to the Post-Modern Gilded Age,” CounterPunch, September 17-18, 2011] Such a return to the future would devastate the country.
* * *
When today’s Know-Nothing movement, the Tea Party, calls for an end to government “regulation,” they are invoking those glory days of yore when free-market capitalism knew no limit and greed was inhibited by neither a conscious nor public restraint.
A century ago, America was a nation being remade by the Industrial Revolution. Powerful extraction, manufacturing and banking enterprises reshaped the economy and society. The adoption of industrial agricultural processes increased farm output and decreased labor requirements. A flood of rural and small-town migrants and foreign immigrants transformed cities into metropolises, with the resulting increase in diversity and decrease in direct democracy. In city ghettos and rural mining towns, social privation engendered by laissez-faire capitalism scarred the lives of millions upon millions of Americans. The gluttony of Gilded Age free-market capitalism culminated in the Depression of 1893.
In response, an unlikely coalition of “progressives” rose-up to successfully contain the excesses of free-market capitalism, essentially saving the system from itself. Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, was its champion. Progressivism died with the coming of the Great War.
The post-World War I recovery created the “bubble” prosperity that defined the Roaring ‘20s. It was the period of stock-market run-ups and alcohol-induced Prohibition with the speakeasy and the very illegal cocktail. The gluttony of Roaring ‘20s free-market capitalism culminated in the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In response, an unlikely coalition of “progressives” rose-up to successfully redress the excesses of free-market capitalism, once again saving the system from itself. Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, was its champion. The New Deal died slowly following the great post-WWII recovery.
Rightwing Christian conservatives, particularly Tea Party activists, feel especially threatened by the world-historic forces currently remaking modern life. The world order is shifting and America is changing; the U.S. economic and military hegemony is in crisis. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. All one knows for sure is that the wealthy are getting richer and life for everyone else is stuck if not getting worse.
The reordering of global capitalism is taking a special toll on older, white Americans, the activist core of the Tea Party movement. Their world is in crisis. For four hundred years they symbolized the cultural fiction that constituted what it meant to be an American. Equally important, in the wake of two world wars, they came to represent a global cultural norm, a standard of the good life that was widely promoted. The gluttony the early-21st century free-market capitalism culminated in the Great Recession of 2008, one that continues on ‘til today.
Against this historical background, it is useful to recall how the “regulations” that Republican and Tea Party reactionaries so reject came into being. In an increasingly globalized capitalism, the call for a free-market laissez-faire market is not only naïve but dangerous. Unfettered capitalism leads to the decline in the standard of living. The most self-serving and egregious excesses of capitalism have to be contained. Regulation, if transparent and honest, allows for both public participation in decision-making and better use of private resources.
The following three areas of regulation of free-market capitalism illustrate where the public good contained the excesses of private gain. Such regulation makes modern life less profitable for the few and more humane for the many. One can only wonder what modern life would be like if Tea Party Republicans got their wish and all regulation ended.
Food, water & nonprescription drugs
In the late-19th century, if you were not part of the “1 percent” crowd, life was miserable. Like 3rd-world countries today, essential services of daily life (e.g., water, food and air) were polluted. Crusading journalists dubbed “muckrakers” drew popular attention to many of these horrendous conditions. Upton Sinclair’s book, “The Jungle,” graphically revealed the unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry. Ida Tarbell outed the Standard Oil Company and Samuel Hopkins uncovered false advertising claims used to promote nonprescription drugs.
The outcome of these and other exposés was a series of federal regulations that included the Meat Inspection Act (1906) and the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906). As these were among the first regulatory actions by the federal government, one can only wonder if they will be the first regulation to be abolished by the radical right?
Now, a century later, Americans continue to be killed by polluted food products. The latest crisis is the growing listeriosis outbreak linked to cantaloupes from a Colorado farm. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 109 people in 23 states have been sickened and 21 people have died. Sadly, one must ask whether current regulations are being enforced?
Child labor, minimum wage, 8-hr day & unemployment insurance
Over the last century, the life of the average American has been transformed from the drudgery of the exhausted worker to the overwhelmed consumer. The industrial society has been superseded by the society of the spectacle.
As industrialization moved workers from farms and home workshops into urban areas and factory labor, children were often the preferred employees. Factory owners recognized that child laborers were more manageable, cheaper and less likely to strike. Young girls were the chosen workforce in early New England textile mills. By 1900, children worked in mines, glass factories, textile mills, sweatshops, agriculture enterprises and canneries as well as newsboys, messengers, bootblacks, peddlers and sex workers.
We take the 8-hr workday for granted. In the wake of the Civil War in 1868, the U.S. Congress passed an eight-hour law covering federal employees. Thirty years later, in 1898, the mineworkers won the 8-hr workday. The Progressives ended child labor in the North, leading many factories to move to the South. However, under the New Deal, in 1935 federal unemployment insurance was adopted and, in 1938, a federal minimum wages was introduced.
Bank speculation & deposits
Battles over money, banks and other financial institutions have been part of America since it’s founding. Controversy accompanied the establishment of Bank of Pennsylvania in 1780 organized to fight the Revolutionary War and Andrew Jackson opposition to the Second Bank a half-century later.
The Great Depression shaped the modern banking system. Two critical “regulations” were adopted as part of the New Deal that sought to limit the excesses of casino capitalism the culminated in the Depression. First, Congress enacted the Glass-Steagall Act of 1932 that separated consumer banking from more speculative practices. Second, the Banking Act of 1933 provided insurance protection to deposits, thus ending “runs” on banks that plagued the nation.
Pres. Bill Clinton ended glass-Steagall; Dodd-Frank has not gone far enough to limit big banks engaging in speculative practices. It’s an open question as to how long deposit insurance will be guaranteed.
* * *
The history of America can be written as a chronicle of popular revulsion with the excesses of free-market capitalism. This revulsion, translated into politics, led to the introduction of the regulation (however compromised) that sought to contain the excesses of corporate self-interest. Some examples of this process involve:
- The desire for an equitable way to finance the public good led to taxation policies, including income, inheritance, capital gains & sales taxes.
- The need to not forget the elderly and disabled led to Social Security and old-age pensions.
- The fear of contagious diseases and the recognition that we are all Americans led to healthcare for all.
- Public transport creates the body politic, which is why we have streetlights, roadways and even driver’s licenses.
- Democracy is based on shared communications which is why we have a national postal service; so, why not a public Internet?
- America is one nation, giving rise to the need to protect (i.e., zone) both urban and rural environments.
- A literate and educated public is the foundation of secular democracy. Public schools create a democratic public; education, whether primary, secondary, technical or college, cultivates the future.
- America is a nation of uneven development, thus the need to provide affordable electricity & telecom for impoverished rural and inner-city constituencies.
- We are all Americans, thus the need to protect civil liberties, enforce anti-discrimination policies and cultivate citizenship.
This list is not complete. Many other regulations can be traced to the excesses of free-market capitalism.
Regulation arises to address the excesses of the “free market.” As Marx recognized a century-and-a-half ago, capitalism seeks to turn human beings into things and personal exchanges into commodities. As he understood, and we keep rediscovering, humans resist being reduced to things, objects of profit. Humans want to be subjects of their own fate.
We are once again facing a world-historic struggle between those seeking to oppress, exploit others so as to realize their self-interested gain and, in opposition, those seeking to liberate, empower themselves and others for a shared and ecological prosperity.
If history is to be a guide, as reflected in the Depressions of 1890s and 1930s, we are amidst a social catastrophe that might plunge the country into a second Great Depression. The global capitalist system is in crisis. As the crisis plays out, a new progressive movement is emerging; it first appeared in Madison and now finds its voice among the Occupy Wall Street movement spreading throughout the country.
The real challenge is whether progressives will once again embrace old-world capitalism and seek to save the system from itself or will they call for a new, post-modern moral economy? If they be so bold, the movement would recall the best traditions of the American experience and reframe capitalism for the 21st century.
David Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.