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A “Better Deal” for American Workers?

Photo by 7beachbum | CC BY 2.0

For those people in the United States who still believe there are two major political parties, the Democrats’ Senator Chuck Schumer on July 24th  of this year published an op-ed in the New York Times  in the form of a policy statement intended to speak to “Americans clamoring for bold changes to our politics and our economy.”  This statement was the synthesis of a public event staged in Berryville, Virginia, a small town that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and is represented by a Republican in Congress. One might call this event “taking the fight to the enemy” if, indeed, anyone believes that the Democrats and the Republicans are actually in opposition beyond the rhetorical feints.

As I have written in The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States (Routledge 2017): “If there is a difference between the two parties it is this: while the Democrats have a finger in the hole in the crumbling dike that is holding back the tidal wave of predatory capitalism (complete privatization of all resources), the Republicans are trying to tear the dike down. Thus, the Republicans provide a convenient alibi for the equally entrenched corporatism (neoliberalism) of the Democratic Party.” Donald Trump has brought in the wrecking crew to demolish the dike that the Democrats since the Reagan years have done nothing to rebuild. The continually rising figures in wealth and income inequality for the last 40 years make the case.

Over these decades, there have been no policy proposals from either party that speak to reversing this trend. The $15 per hour minimum wage proposed by the Democrats (by 2020) is still a poverty level wage if one recognizes, as the Economic Policy Institute does, that the real poverty level is twice that of the official government number for a family of four: a laughable (if you are not that family) $24,000 a year. The only way in fact to significantly raise the standard of living of the working classes—when the Republicans and Democrats address the middle-class they are addressing a ghost—is by substantial transfers from the military budget, which devours over half of federal discretionary spending, to social services, including health, education, child care,  and unemployment, with the institution of a single-payer health care system, which, as proven by all those countries that have one, would universalize coverage, reduce costs, decrease infant mortality rates and improve longevity.

In January, as Health-Care Now reports: “Representative John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) reintroduced H.R. 676, ‘The Expanded And Improved Medicare For All Act.’ This bill would establish a privately-delivered, publicly-financed universal health care system, where physicians and non-profit health care providers would be in charge of medical decisions — not insurance companies….H.R.676 has been introduced in Congress since 2003, and has a broad base of support among universal health care activists, organized labor, physicians, nurses, and social justice organizations across the nation.” But it does not appear on the agenda of either of the two major parties; for which the word “profit” is sacrosanct.

So what the Democrats are now promising as “a better deal to the American people” is simply a promise to stick a finger back in the dike when what the dike requires if it is not to collapse completely is complete rebuilding with sustainable material. My book suggests that such a rebuilding plan can be found in the theory and practice of Indigenous communities, which are based in the idea of balance (kinship, reciprocity and sustainability) not competition and productivity, which, given the state of the planet (climate change, limits on resources, and population growth) have seen their day as a viable paradigm. For Indigenous ideas of social balance i.e. justice, take a look at the Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, for example, or read the latest Zapatista manifesto, Critical Thought in the Face of the Capitalist Hydra I or go online and google Buen Vivir: A Brief Introduction to Latin America’s New Concepts for the Good Life and the Rights of Nature.  

But immediately, let’s ask Schumer and the Democrats what exactly is this deal “better” than? “Better deal” of course echoes FDR’s and the Democrats’ New Deal, which mobilized federal spending to reverse the Great Depression, a reversal that was finally accomplished by the industrial mobilization of WWII. In contrast, in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, the bulk of federal spending was mobilized to prop-up the big banks that had caused the recession in the first place. Unemployment is near 4% now because only 62% of the work forces is active and because the majority of jobs being created are low-paying work without benefits. Based on the research by economists Lawrence F. Katz of Harvard and Alan B. Krueger of Princeton, as reported in Investing.com, 95% of jobs created during the Obama era were temporary, contractual jobs or part-time employment.

So the “better deal” the Democrats brought us during the past eight years was no deal at all or at best a very bad one: the assurance of poverty-level work for the vast majority. Schumer does not mention this in his op-ed. Indeed,  for the most part the piece reads as if the Democrats had suddenly emerged on a scene devastated by some alien force rather than by the collusion of both parties over the last forty years. “The wealthiest special interests,” Schumer writes as if he and the Dems were not part of these interests, “can spend an unlimited, undisclosed amount of money to influence elections and protect their special deals in Washington. As a result, our system favors short-term gains for shareholders instead of long-term benefits for workers.”

When Schumer finally admits that the Democrats bear some responsibility for the desperate state of the union, it is not by commission but by omission that they have sinned: “Democrats have too often hesitated from taking on those misguided policies directly and unflinchingly — so much so that many Americans don’t know what we stand for. Not after today. Democrats will show the country that we’re the party on the side of working people — and that we stand for three simple things. First, we’re going to increase people’s pay. Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.” The syntax of the sentence disavows any responsibility for writing “the misguided policies” that have devastated working people even as it promises to stand “on the side of working people.” In its denial of joint responsibility with the Republicans and of collusion with the “wealthiest special interests,” this pronouncement is an act of bad faith: an empty promise.

And, indeed, the policy promises that follow in the article are an incoherent (unconnected) mélange of the kind that characterized the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Beginning with a promise of reducing drug costs,  the list includes “fight[ing] to allow regulators to break up big companies if they are hurting consumers,”  and bringing “those without a college degree…back into the labor force or retrained to secure full-time, higher-paying work,” including giving “small businesses…a large tax credit to train workers for unfulfilled jobs.” “In the coming months,” Schumer concludes the list, “we’ll offer additional ideas, from rebuilding rural America to fundamentally changing our trade laws to benefit workers, not multinational corporations.”

The ideas, if we can dignify them with that name, are in fact the usual sound-bites of political campaigns with their empty promises of  transformational “change,” on which both Obama and Trump ran. But there is no challenge to or even bare questioning of the capitalist system that brought us to the collapse of liberal democracy because there is no taking responsibility for that system. There is not even a nod here to the program espoused by the Sanders campaign, which had the virtue of a single focus on income inequality and policies, like single-payer health care and federally subsidized education, to address the radical inequality that now characterizes life in the U.S. But, then,  neither Bernie Sanders nor Elizabeth Warren, representing the farthest left of our two major political parties, have dared to attack the military budget, which is so entrenched at this point in an economy of endless war that it will take a revolution of some kind to transfer a major part of that budget to the kind of social services that are necessary to reduce the inequality that makes U.S. democracy impossible.

The “better deal” of the Democrats, then, promises to be more of the same deal. No doubt there will be some patching of the dike in places, which is what in effect Schumer and the Dems are actually promising, if Trump and friends don’t tear it down first; but it will only be patching and that will not hold the dike for long, so the question is, after the deluge, what? And climate change is not going to wait past a certain point, which we may have already passed, for human beings to embrace a sane alternative of the kind I have suggested in Indigenous thinking. The Standing Rock protests against the DAPL pipeline were a foreshadowing of the wave of the possible future, washing away the capitalist dike to make way for a balanced world, or there will be no future.

FDR’s New Deal, temporarily saving capitalism from itself, might recall for us his last State of the Union address where he proposed a real “better deal,” an economic bill of rights, guaranteeing for everyone a living wage along with decent medical care, education, housing, and “The rights to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.”  “‘Necessitous men,’ FDR said, ‘are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” By this measure, which strikes me as accurate, the U.S. is not a free country; and we, the people, are living in a one-party state under the dictatorship of corporate capital.

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Eric Cheyfitz is a professor of American and Native American studies at Cornell University. His latest book is The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States.

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