FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

On the Road to Ryan and Ruin

In the 132 years between 1797 and 1929, there was no effective regulation of U.S. economy. No federal agencies existed to control corruption, fraud and exploitation on the part of the business class. Even during the Civil War, economic management on a national level was minimal and war profiteering common. As a result the country experienced 33 major economic downturns which impacted roughly 60 of the years in question. These included 22 recessions, 4 depressions, and 7 economic “panics” (bank runs and failures).

Then came the Great Depression starting with the crash of the New York stock market in 1929. This soon became a worldwide affair which lasted until the onset of World War II. Millions were thrown out of work, agricultural production partially collapsed, and the fear of rebellion and revolution was palpable both in the U.S. and Europe.

It is to be noted that the way capitalism worked over these 132 years was a function of ideology. This was (and still is) the so-called free market ideology which taught that if the government was kept as small as possible (basically having responsibility for internal order, external defense, and the enforcement of contracts), the citizenry would have to pay very low taxes and be left alone to pursue their own prosperity. Thus, as the ideology goes, everyone would be free to maximize their own wealth and in doing so also maximize the wealth of the community as a whole.

The Great Depression was a real moment of truth for the capitalist West because it suggested to the open-minded that the free market ideology was seriously flawed. Free market practices had brought the economic system to the brink of collapse, and Russia’s newly triumphant communists represented serious competition. So the question that had to be answered was how best to modify the capitalist system so as to preserve the position of the ruling elite.

It was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who came up with an answer, at least for the United States. Through a series of economic and social experiments he crafted the New Dealand promoted the notion of the welfare state. It should be emphasized that this was not socialism. In essence, the New Deal was capitalism with safety nets and subsidies. It meant that some entrepreneurs in areas such as agriculture, defense, and other businesses, actually got money from the government to produce their products. On the other end of the spectrum, government money was made available to keep the really poor people from starving and the unemployed solvent while they sought new employment. A national pension plan was devised in the form of social security, and bank deposits up to a certain amount were insured. In addition, new agencies were created to monitor business activities, particularly the stock market and the banks, to prevent the sort of activities that had brought on many of the economic downturns of the past. This was a major step away from the ideal of a wholly free market but most of the citizenry, with the Great Depression at their backs, understood the necessity of the New Deal. Of course, taxes would eventually have to go up to help pay for it all.

How Quickly We Forget

Essentially, Roosevelt and the New Deal saved capitalism from itself. Left to those, such as Herbert Hoover, who could not escape the paradigm of free market ideology, capitalism in the U.S. may well have followed much of Europe in succumbing to the revolutionary movements of the right or the left.

It has been 67 years since the end of WWII and during that time there have been 11 recessions impacting only 10 years of that timespan. Most of these recessions have been mild affairs compared to the 33 that came prior to the onset of the Great Depression, and the welfare safety net has helped the hardest hit to survive. However, since the 1980s, the U.S. economy has become more unstable and some of the downturns more severe.

What of the steadfast adherents to the free market ideology? It would have been nice for the world if the Great Depression had put an end to them all–but that was not to be. For those who can understand things only with the help of rigid and all inclusive paradigms, ideology is what makes sense of an otherwise chaotic world. Ideology is also what defines good and evil for such minds. So it stood to reason that many committed free marketeers would retreat into a temporary silence and wait for a time to reassert their beliefs.

It did not take long. In fact, counting from 1939 and the outbreak of the World War II (the event that finally marked the end of the Great Depression), it took only until 1980 or 41 years. That is two generations which is actually just about right. Unless purposefully passed on from one generation to the next, both skills and memories tend to dim and lose their meaning. So it has been with the memories of what unregulated capitalism cost the nation in the years before the New Deal.

Why did things change for the worse in 1980? That was the year Ronald Reagan, a B grade actor and man of little intelligence, surrounded by neoconservatives and free marketeer ideologues, was elected president. Working within the context of generational forgetfulness, he set us all on a path toward deregulation and a resurgence of the free market ideology. It is to be noted that the country’s most recent recession (2007-2009) has been the worst of the post war era and a direct result of prior deregulation.

We are still on that path and the living proof of this fact is that the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney has just selected Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. Ryan is the Chairman of the Budget Committee in the Republican controlled House of Representatives, and author of a proposed federal budget that would slash social spending (and those safety nets) by some $3.3 trillion, ditch Medicare and Medicaid, while simultaneously cutting taxes for the wealthy. Ryan is no less than the reincarnation of a free marketeer who wants to recreate the circumstances that brought us all 33 major economic downturns crowned by the Great Depression. How quickly people forget.

Social Darwinism As Well

It was University of California Professor Robert Reich who recently explained what Paul Ryan in a position of real power would mean. “More than any other politician today, Paul Ryan exemplifies the Social Darwinism at the core of the today’s Republican Party.” And what is Social Darwinism? It is a belief in the necessity of a struggle for survival where only the “fittest” survive. Here is how William Graham Sumner, the 19th century’s leading American spokesman for this outlook, put it. “Civilization has a simple choice. It is either liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest or not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.” This is may well be Paul Ryan’s version of the struggle between good and evil. By the way, liberty here is defined as the freedom of individuals to pursue wealth in an unfettered way.

Following this ideology, a Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan presidency would most likely increase the pace of deregulation and destroy what is left of the country’s safety nets. It would ultimately devastate the middle class, greatly increase the ranks of the poor and unemployed, do away with union rights, and reserve prosperity for the upper class alone. All of this will be done in the name of the liberty. And, it will be guided by an ideological paradigm that has already been historically proven to be disastrous.

We can speculate about popular reaction to these policies as time goes on. There will probably be eventual protest in the streets. Those in power will respond with red-baiting tactics and repression against the protesting victims of their policies. Also, keep in mind that these ideologues will almost certainly bring us a new set of wars. And, as we already know, in wartime repression comes easier. If the electoral system works, those responsible should be cast out of office in four to eight years.

All in all it is a pretty grim picture. It was George Santayana (1863 to 1952), a philosopher with both Spanish and American roots who said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We in the United States, so thoroughly attached to our local here and now, are certainly candidates for this fate.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester PA.

COMING IN SEPTEMBER

A Special Memorial Issue of CounterPunch

Featuring recollections of Alexander Cockburn from Jeffrey St. Clair, Peter Linebaugh, Paul Craig Roberts, Noam Chomsky, Mike Whitney, Doug Peacock, Perry Anderson, Becky Grant, Dennis Kucinich, Michael Neumann, Susannah Hecht, P. Sainath, Ben Tripp, Alison Weir, James Ridgeway, JoAnn Wypijewski, John Strausbaugh, Pierre Sprey, Carolyn Cooke, Conn Hallinan, James Wolcott, Laura Flanders, Ken Silverstein, Tariq Ali and many others …

Subscribe to CounterPunch Today to Reserve Your Copy


More articles by:

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
Mel Gurtov
Weaponizing Humanitarian Aid
Thomas Knapp
Lame Duck Shutdown Theater Time: Pride Goeth Before a Wall?
George Wuerthner
The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Selfhood and Her Ability to Act in the Public Domain: Resilience of Nadia Murad
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
On the Killing of an Ash Tree
Graham Peebles
Britain’s Homeless Crisis
Louis Proyect
America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment
Steve Carlson
A Hell of a Time
Dan Corjescu
America and The Last Ship
Jeffrey St. Clair
Booked Up: the 25 Best Books of 2018
David Yearsley
Bikini by Rita, Voice by Anita
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail