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Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff

Photo Source Kate Ausburn | CC BY 2.0

The statement, “If democracy is indispensable, capitalism must be dispensable” appears on page two of Alan Nasser’s recently published study of US capitalism, Overripe Capitalism: American Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy. He continues by telling the reader that without popular, leftist and militant working class resistance, the likely future for the United States is not democracy, but fascism. Indeed, as Nasser and many others have stated, the current regime in Washington is a very clear testament to this possibility. Although many of Trump’s opponents on the left argue amongst themselves if his regime is fascist, some of his right wing supporters cheer and salute him as if he is. Another point Nasser makes early on in his text is that the only thing that can prevent the US from becoming a fascist nation is the aforementioned working class resistance. 

Nasser’s text is an economic and political history of the United States since the latter part of the nineteenth century. In narrating this history, Nasser does not separate the economic establishment from the nation’s political structure. Instead, each page provides greater proof in the intricate and intimate relationship between the two. It is the author’s contention that capitalism as an economic system is neither moral or immoral. Instead, it is without morals of any kind. Like the algorithms Wall Street whiz kids create, capitalism does not know right from wrong. However, those who apply those algorithms do. Likewise, argues Nasser, the politicians and administrators in Washington, DC know right from wrong. When they vote to increase social spending, these men and women are making a choice to use some of capitalism’s profits to help those left behind in the pursuit of those profits. When the politicians and administrators decide to remove so-called safety net spending, they are choosing to let the people affected by that spending suffer. In other words, they are making a moral choice no matter what decision they make.

Of course, there are other machinations and motives at play in these decisions. For example, the pursuit of profit has blinded stronger men than Donald Trump. It is also true that that pursuit has created an economy that does not fill the needs of all the people. Instead, it creates unneeded products and uses marketing to convince folks that such products are needed. As part of this mechanism, the act of buying and owning certain products creates artificial needs and desires. This understanding, perhaps stated best by Herbert Marcuse in his book One Dimensional Man, is an operative and fundamental part of contemporary human society.

It wasn’t always so. Overripe Capitalism divides the history it provides into two essential sections. The first includes the decades of the late nineteenth century up to and including World War One. This period is defined economically by corporate and financial growth and monopolization. Most profits at this time were reinvested machinery and factories in order to increase production. The years were marked by ever increasing exploitation of labor and a subsequent intensification of labor rebellion. Like always, corporate owners, their investors and upper management was determined to squeeze as much labor for the fewest pennies in order to increase their profit.

The second essential period according to Nasser began in the 1920s. This period is marked by
a turn from the economy’s growth being dependent on increasing production to it being dependent on the population’s ability to consume at greater and greater levels. It was this scenario that gave birth to the myth of the Roaring Twenties. As Nasser makes clear, there were more people buying more things that were not staples, especially automobiles. However, this consumption was not being fueled by increased wages for workers, but by an expansion of credit and unregulated stock manipulation. That credit would be the cause of the 1929 crash and subsequent Great Depression. The years that followed were marked by capitalists’ continued attempts to rein in the government for its own purposes despite the despair and abject poverty that had created. In reaction, communists and other leftist formations organized across the country, helping to create a popular and militant movement defending workers and in opposition to the capitalists and their government. From this set of circumstances came the years of FDR’s administration.

In discussing these years, Nasser emphasizes, like most left-leaning analysts, the role FDR played in saving capitalism. Likewise, he discusses the nature of the programs instituted during his time in office and the built in compromises with Wall Street many of them contained. Most interesting, however, is his discussion of Keynesianism and how it is misunderstood by most economists right to left. As has been stated elsewhere, Overripe Capitalism notes that what saved US capitalism in the mid-twentieth century was the US military’s entry into World War Two and the war time production that entailed..

As Nasser’s narrative continues, the reader is brought up to the current time. The years of economic growth and prosperity following World War Two are discussed, including the fact that those years were mostly prosperous for white-skinned citizens. During this part of the narrative, it becomes clear that what Nasser terms the Golden Years were not meant to last. The collapse began under Nixon and the Democratic party became openly complicit when Jimmy Carter was elected to the White House. The dawning and eventual supremacy of neoliberalism is chronicled in its cancerous ignominy for most of the rest of the text. Also present is a discussion of the role technology plays in making the working class even more irrelevant than it already is. In other words, the reason for replacing humans in McDonalds with robots isn’t efficiency, as much as it is part of capital’s desire to eliminate the unknown quantity human workers represent.

From Wall Street to the police state repression of the economically irrelevant; from the neofascist rallies of the alt-right to the white supremacists in the White House; from the stock market surges to the shrinking value of the US worker’s paycheck, the reasons for our dystopian present are convincingly presented and discussed in this masterwork by Mr. Nasser. As he writes: “the current capitalist command of the American State is the result of repeated efforts, since the early days of the republic, by the capitalist class to gain control of the State. Economic elites have long understood that the hegemony of the capitalist class is possible only if the business class has full command of the State….” As he also makes clear: “No economic crisis, however severe, could spell “the end of capitalism.” Only a politically educated working class, actively organized, could bring about a transition to a post-capitalist future.” The alternative is almost certainly an authoritarian future that makes any dystopian fiction seem gentle by comparison.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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