What Should Progressives Stand For? A Survey and a Proposal

What do progressives stand for? What does the Democratic Party stand for? Can Democrats and progressives win the House and eventually the Senate and presidency just by standing back and letting Trump and the Republicans self-destruct? And if the Democrats do gain power, will they do something or will the Republicans just come roaring back in a few years?

I’ve taken a look at the platforms of the Democratic Party and the Green Party, the agendas of the Bernie Sanders-linked Our Revolution and the Movement for Black Lives (Black Lives Matter, or BLM), the budget of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), and various other statements from progressive groups. While they all do an admirable job of listing myriad solutions for myriad problems, I find that they are all lacking a central organizing principle about what to do about an economy that is not working for most of its citizens. While they all acknowledge ever-increasing inequality and the economic difficulties that the great majority of the public are experiencing — indeed, this was the central principle of Sanders’ almost successful run for the Presidency — these groups, to varying degrees, lack an alternative framework to the neoliberal/conservative story that markets are always superior to government. There is no explanation of how the government could fix the economy.

Infrastructure created the state, and the state created infrastructure

Ironically, the Republican party formed in the 1850s partly in order to remedy this situation. The budding industrial firms of the day needed good infrastructure and a decently educated, free workforce in order to expand. When the proto-fascist South left the Union, Congress was able to pass legislation encouraging railroad and college building. Fast forward almost 100 years to the New Deal, and the Democratic party finally got on board in a big way by starting a whole series of infrastructure-building government agencies, of which the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) are perhaps the best known. WWII provided the motivation to rebuild the manufacturing sector. From Eisenhower and the Interstate Highway System to LBJ and the Great Society and Federal support for education and suburbia, this ‘builder’ mentality led to the public’s respect for the capabilities of government that even conservatives could agree on, at least to some extent.

With a newly rebuilt and expanding infrastructure and manufacturing sector, after World War II the country (and the rest of the developed world) enjoyed thirty ‘golden years’ of rising wages and salaries (I explained the self-reinforcing dynamic of manufacturing growth in a previous article, “More Power to the Workers: The political economy of Seymour Melman”). But instead of reinvesting this bounty back into infrastructure and manufacturing, the ruling class did what ruling classes have done for thousands of years — they built a huge military and gave in to the temptations of empire, redirecting much of the remaining wealth to the financial sector and into the hands of billionaires. As manufacturing declined, so did the unions, and the Democratic party became dependent on corporate money and proudly became ‘Cold War liberals’. The resulting turn to a market-centered, neoliberal and militaristic framework turned off large sectors of the Democratic base, including the elusive white working class, and without a decent progressive story about what has happened these past 50 years, an opening has been created for a new proto-fascist story: the economy is sour because of the immigrants, various kinds of ‘others’, and a coddling Federal government.

Politics like its 1929

The current political climate looks dangerously similar to the 1920s. Then, various right-wing movements were not ‘proto’, they were simply ‘fascist’. The various democratic forces put all or most of their faith in the market, while the one-party state of the USSR was trying to figure out what to do. By the 1930s, these three kinds of states had morphed into various kinds of infrastructure-and-manufacturing-centered entities: the European fascists with their autobahns and trains-running-on-time, the Soviets with their Five-Year plans and rapid industrialization, and the New Deal with its WPA, CCC, and other alphabet agencies.

Today, we again see the same three tendencies emerging: democratic governments that are economically weak; a one-party state, China, rising to become the world’s most powerful country because of its focus on manufacturing and infrastructure; and a supremacist, ‘soft fascist’ form of government that is gaining strength in much of the rest of the world, Trump and Bannon being a possible vanguard in the US. There are a couple of questions here: first, can democracies do what the US did in the 1930s, and commit themselves to providing millions of good jobs building infrastructure? And second, why are the 1920s coming back? Didn’t people learn its lessons?

Unfortunately, the biggest lesson that many people chose to learn from the 1920s through 1940s was that an economically strong government, either fascist or communist, can be bad. It should have been clear that what saved capitalism, at least in the US, was the fact that the government had indeed intervened quite significantly into the economy. The government improved the labor system by legalizing unions, created a safety net, and provided jobs by building infrastructure. The main positive lesson that liberals took away from these successes was that the government needed to occasionally create deficits in order to manage the business cycle. In the 1960s John Kenneth Galbraith argued that the state (government) is necessary in order to wield ‘countervailing power’ against the might of the constantly growing global corporations, but he assumed that there would always be a manufacturing sector with its attendant countervailing unions.

The 1920s are repeating themselves because without a strong government presence in the economy, the reign of markets, corporations, and billionaires will inevitably lead to a ruined middle and working class (as Karl Polanyi warned after WWII) and the siren call of supremacist movements will become more and more tempting. That is why in the age of technological marvels like smart phones we are seeing the emergence of political forms last seen in the age of the radio.

The tepid progressive response

How do you prevent big corporations, billionaires and military budgets from sucking the wealth out of a modern industrial system, thus impoverishing the vast majority of the citizenry? The consensus among progressive groups seems to be to increase taxes on the rich (BLM,Democratsthe Greens and CPC), raise the minimum wage, and change trade policy in some form, while cutting military budgets — although only Black Lives Matter really attacks this problem. They all have proposals to increase professional and working class power by making education more affordable and preventing health expenses from impoverishing people. Increased infrastructure spending is proposed by the DemocratsOur Revolutionthe Green Party, the the CPC, and BLM up to about $200 billion per year, to fix what is clearly crumbling.

There is also the Democrats’ reasonable but completely inadequate idea to end tax breaks that corporations receive by outsourcing factories(the CPC and other platforms also support this). This idea first appeared in a starring role during John Kerry’s unsuccessful 2004 presidential run. I think he lost the election when, in the middle of a media frenzy about factories that were closing here and opening abroad, he completely killed all media interest in the story by coming up with the idea of ending tax breaks for outsourcing. George W. Bush had been on the defensive until that point, and as a result of this uninspiring idea the whole issue faded away. The Democratic platform, while also calling for some added infrastructure spending, still uses this tax break as a central idea for helping the manufacturing sector.

During a debate with Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton proudly proclaimed that her health and college plans ‘would not add a single dime to the deficit’. Well, that is certainly inspiring, not. Budget deficits have never sat well with Democrats — FDR created a recession in the late 1930s because he wanted to get back to a balanced budget — but Bill Clinton’s great pride in creating budget surpluses and the difficulty of increasing spending while Republicans hold veto power has led to an obsession with preventing deficits. The Republicans gladly increase deficits when it is to their advantage, because it gives them the excuse to try to then cut civilian programs. And because the Democrats go along with the story that deficits are bad, they have a hard time preventing the further immiseration of the professional and working classes.

What we actually need right now is a massive increase in spending to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure and create new green infrastructure to prevent the worst of global warming and other environmental catastrophes. This spending could provide a decent job to anyone who wants one and at the same time rebuild the critical manufacturing sector (I have proposed an approximately $1.5 trillion per year plan for this purpose). A self-respecting Democratic official might respond that no policy of this kind has a chance in the ‘current political environment’. But the whole idea is to change the ‘political environment’. If the Democrats and progressives more generally don’t offer something attractive to the voting public, the Right will morph into a full-scale supremacist/fascist movement and hand out a lot of jobs in the military and ‘security’ forces, with perhaps some infrastructure spending thrown in.

Most of the public doesn’t care about deficits, they care about having decent jobs that are secure and well-paid. When the Republicans want to fund wars or bail out the financial system, they simply create money. The Democrats should do the same, but do it in the service of creating something useful, the infrastructure. If there is a good reason to soak the rich, like creating jobs and building infrastructure, I think the public would then readily support tax increases on the rich and corporations. The same goes for cutting the military — the best way to reduce the military-industrial complex is to replace much of it with a program of infrastructure reconstruction, or more generally, a program of economic reconstruction.

A permanent role for large-scale infrastructure maintenance and reconstruction is the next step in the evolution of the state. That is, there should exist a permanent sector of the economy that consists of thousands of factories and tens of millions of people who permanently spend all of their time maintaining, updating, and expanding national infrastructure. There are four main goals that the state can achieve by creating a permanent capacity to create and maintain these systems.

Infrastructure enables the creation of wealth and economic growth

First, infrastructure is necessary for almost all of the wealth generated in a civilization. The first civilizations were based on creating water infrastructure for irrigation, and constructing roads and ports for moving the resulting agricultural output. Transportation systems like roads are necessary, not only for markets to exist, but for producing finished goods by moving the unfinished goods from one place to another. Cities were so unhealthy before modern sewage and water systems that they needed constant immigration from rural areas or they would have disappeared. Cities, because of their density, have always been the source of manufacturing and technological innovation and production, and water and transport systems have been crucial to their rise. The more recent rapid increase in the standard of living has been made possible by electrical networks, which revolutionized both the home and the factory. Communications needs always go along with transportation expansion, and of course we could not even survive without access to the smart phones that we have had since the far away era of 2009.

Infrastructure need not only be physical. Education networks have been established since the Republicans passed the Land Grant College Act in the 1860s. We have created a vast network of health care facilities. The financial system should also be considered a kind of infrastructure. The defining characteristic of an infrastructure system is that it works best if it covers an entire area, not just parts of it, and that it is built for the long-term, generally at least 20 years.

Because of its all-encompassing and long-term nature, the infrastructure has to be consciously designed and implemented, that is, it has to be planned. Because it must be consciously planned, the government has to build it — the market can’t do it. Since the market could not exist without infrastructure, and the government builds infrastructure, then the government is just as important a part of the economy as the market. You can’t have iPhones without an internet, or cars without roads, or a modern home without electricity and water systems, or professionals and skilled workers without an educational system.

While almost all the progressive proposals for infrastructure spending talk about fixing currently existing infrastructure, each era in modern history has been made possible by the creation of new infrastructure. From irrigation systems to drinking water systems, from roads to ports, from finance to education, from electricity to highways and air travel systems, and most recently to the internet and now, hopefully, to high-speed rail and renewable energy, civilization has progressed by creating the infrastructure that makes epochal advances possible.

Rebuild manufacturing by rebuilding infrastructure

The second important reason infrastructure helps economies is that it provides a ‘market’, or more properly demand, for manufacturing industries. Infrastructure spending on suburbia created a constant stream of orders for American manufacturers in the 1950s and 1960s, as government spending undoubtably helped Europe and Japan to reindustrialize after WWII by rebuilding their ruined infrastructure. The Democratic Party platform is the only one that notes that infrastructure building ‘will substantially increase demand for American-made steel and other products manufactured in the United States’ — and Trump and Bannon pointed this out as well, which makes it all the more imperative that other progressive agendas make this connection.

Note however, that this strategy of infrastructure-supporting-manufacturing only works if the manufacturing is done within the country that is creating the infrastructure. This is called ‘domestic content’ in the policy world, that is, the goods that are used to make something must themselves be produced domestically. This is actually still the law of the land for Federal purchases, except that during the Reagan administration, the president was given the capability to grant ‘waivers’, which they have almost always done.

Much of the progressive response to deindustrialization has focused on trade policy, and Trump talked about Nafta and TPP during the campaign as well. Tariffs, the charging of taxes or fees on goods coming into the country, have been a focus of political debate for the entire modern era. The first Republicans established higher tariffs, which were very effective in helping the US industrialize in the face of the then-superpower, the UK. I find trade theory to be one of the more ridiculous aspects of economics, because it doesn’t deal with the long-term rise or decline of a national economy. What neoclassical economics can’t understand is that an economy is made of networks of complementary industries that need to be in close proximity to each other in order to optimally innovate and thrive. When you build an infrastructure, you need all of the different ‘niches’ of the industrial ‘ecosystem’ to co-evolve, and so building an infrastructure binds together the various parts of the economy (the whole is greater than the sum of the parts). The economy is an ecosystem. Free trade can tear apart this ecosystem, and thus lead to economic decline.

There are many reasonable ideas about changing trade policies within the various progressive platforms and agendas (for instance, the Democratic Party and BLM), but by simply focusing on trade without talking about how the government needs to build up manufacturing, these smart proposals still wind up relying on the market to ultimately solve the problem. As Seymour Melman wrote in his book “The Demilitarized Society’ in the 1990s, the US has reached a ‘point of no return’, that is, the market has become so deindustrialized (particularly with respect to industrial machinery production), that it no longer can rebuild itself. The US economy therefore needs help from the government to provide the resources to rebuild the manufacturing sectors. Thus an infrastructure building program is a necessary complement to progressive trade policies, without which the trade policies will fail.

Infrastructure is a job creator

The third reason that infrastructure building is an integral part of a modern economy is that it provides jobs. The state needs to evolve into the organization that provides a job guarantee to everyone who wants a job, and those jobs should be tied to the critical task of constantly rebuilding the society. To some extent this job-creating function has been going on since civilization began, but in the New Deal it was the main reason for initiating the various agencies that eventually employed millions of unemployed people. Actually building up the country was a secondary goal, although it was the main long-term consequence.

There has been much made of the threat of automation to the workforce. As I argued previously, industrial society has always been ‘automating’. The problem is that the demand for the more productively produced output is not keeping up with supply because the lower 90% of the population is not gaining enough income to provide that demand. That is, you could keep the same or greater number of people employed making things, even with more and more automation, if the lowered price of the goods led to greater demand. If you give everybody a good job, partly by building infrastructure, and if a truly full employment economy led to higher wages, you would go a long way to creating the needed demand for the goods coming out of the automating factories. If you combined this greater labor power with a Global Marshall Plan as advocated by Martin Luther King, Seymour Melman, Michael Lerner at Tikkun and others, then you would have another outlet for a constantly increasing supply of goods (the original Marshall Plan was a program in which the US basically gave away billions in goods to ruined nations after WWII in order to help them rebuild). If the US helped billions of people escape poverty, you would have another reason to decrease a bloated military budget because one of the main sources of war, poverty, would be virtually eliminated.

Thus providing an infrastructure-centered job guarantee is an important policy in a continually automating world. There have been several job guarantee proposals recently, for instance by Jeff Spross and Jared Bernstein and Ben Steinberg, but these proposals view a job guarantee as a way to provide work when recession looms, that is, the jobs would eventually go away, much as the WPA disappeared when WWII led to a truly full employment economy (Harry Hopkins, the head of the WPA, originally wanted it to be permanent). What I am proposing is that infrastructure creation and maintenance become a large, permanent part of the workforce — from about 1% now to about 10%. If the business cycle turned down and people lost their jobs, this governmental work force (employed at local, state and Federal levels, mostly with Federal financing) would simply initiate more needed projects, and would implement less projects as private firms picked up hiring (assuming people would want to go back). If indeed we reached automation at levels that led to large-scale unemployment, then declines in manufacturing employment could be offset by more infrastructure building.

The rich and powerful of Silicon Valley seem to like the idea of a ‘universal basic income’, or UBI, although the suggested income level is pretty low, at about $12,000 per year. I think the reason they prefer a UBI is that it is a market-based solution. It is up to the recipient to spend the money within the market, while a job guarantee requires the government to come up with a way to employ people, and possibly produce things that Silicon Valley would rather make money creating (BLM does advocate for what they call a guaranteed minimum livable income, as does the Green Party). UBI should be reserved for people who are unable to work, because there is plenty that needs to be done, and in addition it will be politically easier for conservatives to cut everybody’s basic income than to cut what the public perceives to be crucial infrastructure spending. By 1968 Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both calling for a combination of job guarantees, infrastructure building, and UBI.

This infrastructure need not be physical. For instance, we could set up a ‘care-giver’ network that would be used for the elderly and young. The financial system, as proposed by Ellen Brown and others, could become mostly public. The educational system needs expansion. There are all kinds of environmental services that are desperately needed, such as the types of activities that the CCC accomplished. There could be a permanent CCC employing millions of people to restore and maintain ecosystems, which would provide a way for rural Americans and Native Americans to maintain their traditions while at the same enjoying a comfortable standard of living.

Green infrastructure or collapse, the choice is ours

These environmental services could be an important part of the fourth use of infrastructure: to maintain the ecosystems on which our civilization depends. The history of civilization clearly shows that, while infrastructure has been the foundation of wealth creation, done poorly it can also destroy ecosystems and thus doom civilization. The infrastructure can be the cause of both rise and decline. Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’ is a concise tale of self-inflicted environmental collapse. We face a contradictory situation today: we now have the science to know if we are destroying our own ecosystems, but we also have a global economic system that is destroying the entire global ecosystem, the biosphere.

Fortunately we also have the technological capabilities now to create an infrastructure that is environmentally benign. In my book Manufacturing Green Prosperity and my chapter for a book about green energy I lay out one way to achieve a green infrastructure, one that emits virtually no greenhouse gases and allows most ecosystems to recover. This plan involves changing cultural patterns (such as long distance car trips), and even worse, challenges the power of some of the most powerful forces in the global civilization, for instance, the countries and companies that control fossil fuels.

Global warming, as threatening as it is, is not the only long term ecological problem. Our agricultural system is destroying the soil, which might be considered a part of the infrastructure as well. Our mining activities threaten many ecosystems, as does the pollution from many of our factories. Eliminating or drastically decreasing both will require manufacturing for reuse or recycling, which is certainly possible, but will entail quite a bit of work — another good use of environmental service workers.

If, say, half the population could be convinced that it would be better to live in a walkable neighborhood in their city, town or suburb, as opposed to being completely dependent on oil-dependent cars, then tens of millions more people would be needed to build the large apartment and commercial buildings that would make walkability possible (and the infrastructure that goes with it). If most of the rest of the population lived, say, within 15 miles of a rail-linked town center, then actually-existing electric cars could be used to get into ‘town’. The fate of civilization would not depend on whether or not the Elon Musks of the world could produce affordable long-distance electric cars.

The electricity for all of this activity could be supplied by a continental wind and solar energy-fed electric grid that could use large battery systems to smooth out wind and solar ups and downs and eliminate fossil fuel and nuclear generated electricity. Instead of planes, people could use the more comfortable high-speed rail that the rest of the world has already discovered, and places that already have subway systems, like New York City, could be upgraded while other metropolitan areas could get new ones. Building all of this would require the work of tens of millions of people, and could virtually on its own create a full employment economy. All of the progressive agendas call for a $15 minimum wage, and of course this is a humane thing to do, but wouldn’t it be better if people could get good construction and infrastructure jobs instead of higher paying jobs at McDonalds?

Infrastructure thus enables modern wealth creation and growth, supports manufacturing, creates millions or even tens of millions of jobs, and ideally can be used to prevent ecological collapse.

Towards Economic Democracy

Infrastructure building is what I would call a medium term solution to the problem of staving off fascist movements, worse income inequality and environmental collapse. We would still be leaving most economic power in the hands of huge global corporations and billionaires, and they would try to continually chip away at any gains that the bottom 90% make. They would continue to warp the processes of democracy — voting rights, district boundaries, funding, court systems, press freedoms — the way they are trying to do now, across the globe. All of our progressive friends are looking for ways to ‘get money out of politics’ or in other ways make the US more democratic, small d, and they have many good proposals, such as public funding of elections (for instance, see proposals from the DemocratsOur Revolutionthe Greens, and BLM).

However, in the long-term, I think that progressives should be working toward a society in which most businesses are owned and operated by their employees, that is, what we can call economic democracy. The most highly developed example is in the Mondragon Cooperative system in the Basque region of Spain, but the general idea is that the employees, not shareholders, elect the board of directors. The employees would not be able to sell their shares in the firm, and would have to give them up when they leave, so the firms could not revert back to absentee and managerial ownership. The Green Party and particularly Democratic Socialists of America put forward versions of this idea.

Since the employee-owned-and-operated firms would represent the interests of all of their employees, firms would not be financing candidates that only serve the interests of the ruling class, and in fact it would be more difficult for a powerful billionaire class to emerge in the first place.

An economically democratic society would need less regulation than now because much governmental regulation is concerned with preventing corporations from doing evil things, like polluting their environment or harming their workers. If the workers control the corporation, they will not want to harm themselves or the environment in which they live. And they certainly would not want to shut down their factory or office and move it to China or India.

The hard part is how to get there. Germany implemented a system in which firms still have outside shareholders, but the employees elect officers of a board that has final say over most of the firm’s important decisions (they call this ‘codetermination’). The Germans were able to do this because labor was in a very strong position after WWII, since much of the business class had collaborated with the Nazis. The Americans and British retained their business classes, thus leading to our records of inequality.

My colleague Brian D’Agostino has put forward an innovative proposal to achieve the goal of economic democracy by substituting corporate taxes for Federal stock ownership. The accumulation of stock would eventually lead to the Federal government holding controlling interest in most companies, which the government could then hand over to the employees. Some form of employee control within governmental bureaucracies would also have to be instituted if we wanted true economic democracy.

What progressives should stand for

Thus while progressive proposals for deepening democracy should be pursued in the short to medium term, the best long term solution is economic democracy. The term ‘economic democracy’ is often meant to include more than democracy within the firm. Making infrastructure a major part of the economy would expand economic democracy because the government that builds the infrastructure is democratically controlled, infrastructure is used by everybody, and the act of making infrastructure building central expands economic power across the society. Rebuilding manufacturing and giving the working class power by guaranteeing employment does not just increase people’s standard of living, it potentially gives them more political power — which is exactly why the business class does not like manufacturing, or much infrastructure building for that matter.

We can see the effects of the decline of manufacturing and infrastructure most starkly in the community that the Black Lives Matter agenda addresses, the African-American community. As William Julius Wilson has been pointing out for decades now, African-Americans were the first to be hit by deindustrialization. The ‘Great Migration’ of African-Americans from the South to the North that took place during WWII and after was made possible by the expansion of manufacturing jobs in the North. The allegedly permanent urban blight, about which so much ink has been spilled, was primarily caused by the flight of factories from cities such as Newark, Baltimore, St. Louis and Detroit that have become symbols of black poverty. Black Lives Matter calls for massive infrastructure spending and other initiatives to help solve this problem. If, as the result of an infrastructure-centered job guarantee program the African-American unemployment rate fell to zero, many of the manifestations of the current lack of economic power, such as police harassment and abuse, would be greatly mitigated. Economic power in Black and other communities of color would not eliminate racism or its effects, but it would be a holistic solution for a litany of problems.

Similar economic problems apply to declining white working class communities. It is not necessary, as is occurring currently within the pundit class, to pit appeals to the white working class against appeals to people of color. By rebuilding manufacturing, guaranteeing a good job, restoring rural areas, and improving the standard of living by improving the infrastructure, progressives can appeal across color, gender, religious, disability and most class lines because every group in the bottom 90% or so would gain greatly from a systemic economic solution.

If the idea of the state as infrastructure builder was a central economic motivation for progressive agendas, then it would become much easier to ‘plug in’ other parts of the progressive agenda to the progressive whole. The health system should be part of the infrastructure, therefore, Medicare for all makes perfect sense. Public college should be tuition-free, and we should provide universal pre-k and childcare, because these are crucial parts of the national infrastructure. Banks should be public and offer credit to local neighborhoods and small businesses because finance is part of the infrastructure. The various parts of the progressive agenda can be weaved together as a system, the agenda items would have a central organizing principle, instead of standing separately as silos or presented as a long laundry list of disconnected ideas.

Unfortunately, government has become that which can not be named, while the market is constantly praised and celebrated. ‘The market should be regulated’, ‘people need a safety net’, ‘rights should be protected’. Yes, but by what? Your neighbor? Norms? Progressives are afraid to defend the one institution that is amenable to democratic control, the government. Clearly, the government has taken on many functions in the past few hundred years, as regulator, provider of a safety net, and protector of civil liberties. Progressives have been turned off by the only set of governmental functions that the right likes, military/police functions. But the solution is not to equate the entire government with its militaristic side, the solution is to demilitarize the state and defend the good parts.

Progressives need to rediscover the ancient functions of government as builder and supporter of production, both manufacturing and agricultural. There is plenty of infrastructure building in American and world history to be proud of in the past hundred years or so that can provide lessons for current agendas. Promoting economic democracy is a new function of government that could help evolve left-of-center parties from declining, boring remnants of the past into inspiring and attractive political movements of the future.

Globally, we face the triple threat of growing economic inequality, the political rise of the supremacist right, and the collapse of the biosphere. Reenvisioning a society based on political and economic democracy, green infrastructure building, and an all-encompassing inclusiveness is a way forward. To turn Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan on their head, there is no alternative to government as the solution.

Jon Rynn is the author of Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American Middle Class, and many other writings available at JonRynn.com. His twitter handle is @JonathanRynn

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