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Recession Now, Please

Mural by Diego Rivera showing Karl Marx, in the National Palace in Mexico City. Photograph Source: Wolfgang Sauber – CC BY-SA 3.0

It is a basic fact of economic life in capitalist economies: recessions happen, there are cycles of boom and bust.

By the 1850s, Karl Marx had pretty well figured out the how and why, the underlying mechanisms. His account has held up well over the years, though you would hardly know it to hear mainstream macro-economists tell it.

“Bourgeois economists,” as Marx would have called them, seldom acknowledge the historical and conceptual connections between their work and Marx’s, and they seem not to notice how much some of their views about the trajectories of capitalist economies resemble his.

This is not entirely their fault; many of them have no idea. Much to the detriment of progress in economic science, their training and professional allegiances disincline them to take bodies of theory that “speak truth to (class) power” seriously.

They are, however, very aware of and generally sympathetic towards the work of John Maynard Keynes and others whose thinking is generally in line with Marx’s, notwithstanding the fact that Keynes and his co-thinkers wanted, unlike Marx, to save capitalism, not move beyond it.

Also, mainstream economists have observed quite a few recessions over the past century and a half, and have therefore become adept at identifying signs that suggest when recessions should be expected. They also know in general how to minimize the damage recessions cause and how to get capitalist economies back on track when the time comes.

Needless to say, Trump knows little and cares less about any of this. Nevertheless, his views on the economy, like everything else, do matter — because of the power he wields. On their merits, there is no reason to take them seriously at all.

Outside the blooming buzzing confusion of the Donald’s mind, it is widely accepted that, whether or not a recession is imminent, one is, by now, overdue.

It is also the view of most informed observers that Keynesian fiscal remedies are no longer as feasible or as likely to be effective as they used to be, and also that monetary “solutions” are unlikely to be of much help either.

For this, Trump and the sycophants he has empowered to run the government for him have a lot to answer for; so do Barack Obama and his vaunted neoliberal economic advisors and functionaries.

Nothing that any of them has done has made the next recession any more or less inevitable. When it finally does come, however, it will bring a lot more hurt than it might otherwise have. To some considerable extent, that is on them.

Unchecked Trumpian rule poses almost as great a threat to the health and wellbeing of planet earth as the cretaceous-paleogene asteroid collision that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Even so, if there were ways to postpone the next recession indefinitely, it might almost be worth giving them a try.

This would, of course, mean increasing the likelihood of a second Trump term, so the calculation is not exactly slam-dunk. However, there is no need to agonize over that, because there is now way to keep the next recession permanently at bay; capitalism’s “laws of motion” will exact their due no matter what Washington does.

As long as the American economic system remains capitalist – in other words, as long as major productive assets are privately owned and operate at the mercy of market forces – recessions can be temporarily postponed, but not permanently evaded. The question is not whether, but when.

Trump and his advisors – like Larry Kudlow, the Director of the National Economic Council – disagree, but only because they don’t dare cross their master, or because they haven’t a clue what they are talking about, or both. I’d vote for “both.” Kudlow, by the way, isn’t even a real economist; he just plays one on TV.

Trump can, however, affect the timing of the next recession to some extent. There is, by now, not much more he could do to delay its arrival; his tool chest is depleted. But his tweets and flip-flops on trade and other matters and his increasingly evident mental decline can hasten its onset. The process is already well underway.

It has become harder than ever to claim that there must be some method to Trump’s madness. The story line used to be that he couldn’t have come as far as he has by being stupid; and therefore that what looks like stupidity run riot is actually cleverness in disguise.

Newsflash: Trump is as stupid as he seems, maybe even stupider, and he got as far as he has thanks to his father’s money and political juice, and to the largesse of some of the sleaziest crooks on the face of the earth. It used to be possible to say of those who thought otherwise that they were merely willfully blind. The kindest thing to say about them now is that they are stark raving mad.

All Trump’s flailing about does is cultivate uncertainty, discouraging business investment while encouraging market volatility. This is the standard, timeworn recipe for bringing on long overdue, far-reaching economic downturns.

Ultimately, though, it is up to the gods whose playthings we are to determine when the proverbial shit will hit the fan. Those gods are mean bitches and sons of bitches and, lately they have been especially unkind.

Setting Trump loose upon the world was mischievous and cruel. Turning the less odious duopoly party over to Clintonites — neoliberals, liberal imperialists, unreconstructed corporate stooges – was wicked and heartless as well.

At this point, the GOP is hopeless; Democrats not nearly as much. Indeed, for keeping them on the negative side of the ledger, indications now are that the gods have overplayed their hand.

Or, to put the point somewhat differently, it is now beginning to look like the stars are finally aligning right.

But, of course, the words Shakespeare had Cassius proclaim in “Julius Caesar” are spot on — that “the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” That thought may finally be penetrating the thick skulls of significant numbers of potential Democratic voters.

With Trump acting out egregiously and mainstream Democrats in the House doing nothing more about it than talking up a storm, it would be hard to imagine the public mood not shifting in ways that would force a turn for the better.

Thus, despite the best efforts of Democratic National Committee flacks at MSNBC, CNN, and, of course, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and, worst of all, PBS and NPR, the Democratic Party now has a “squad” with which its Pelosiite-Hoyerite-Schumerian leadership must contend.

It also has Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, front-runners for the presidential nomination, who reject the neoliberal economic policies that the Democratic Party has been championing since the waning days of the Carter administration.

In calling them front-runners, I haven’t forgotten Joe Biden, still in the lead in most polls. It is just that I think that, after nearly three years of Trump, the candidacy of a doddering Clintonite doofus doesn’t – and shouldn’t — merit serious consideration. I trust that this will become increasingly apparent even to the most dull-witted Democratic pundits, and of course to the vast majority of Democratic voters, as the election season unfolds.

The better to defeat Trump and Trumpism next year, Sanders or Warren or whichever candidate finally gets the nod, along with the several rays of light in Congress – there are more of them than just the four that Trump would send back to “where they came from” — will undoubtedly make common cause with corporate Democrats at a tactical level.

This is all to the good. Nevertheless, the time to start working to assure that it goes no deeper than that is already upon us.

When the dust clears, it will become evident that the squad-like new guys and the leading Democrats of the past are not on the same path; that the former want to reconstruct the Democratic Party in ways that will make it authentically progressive, while the latter, wittingly or not, want to restore and bolster the Party that made Trump and Trumpism possible and even inevitable.

It is also relevant that the public mood is undergoing a sea change for reasons that go beyond the sensibilities of a new generation coming of age.

The first signs of this transformation revolved around LGBTQ issues. Remember how in 2004, it worked against John Kerry that the Massachusetts Supreme Court, following Hawaii’s lead, had just ruled in favor of gay marriage. Back then, that was a lot for a Massachusetts Senator seeking the presidency to overcome.

Remember too how in 2008, the vaunted Barack Obama, President Drone, the Deporter-in-Chief that Biden and other “centrists” have lately all but beatified, declared that he was not quite there yet.

Now even Trump is less hostile to the idea than Obama was then; many of the Evangelicals in his base, the kind for whom the sanctity of life effectively terminates with birth, seem OK with it too.

There is reason to hope that attitudes towards America’s gun laws are beginning to change as well. All the polls indicate that much of the public has now come to realize how insane at least some of those laws are.

To be sure, most legislators still fear the NRA, and Trump remains in its pocket, but the idea that it is fast becoming a Paper Tiger is beginning to catch on. That realization is, by now, more widespread than anyone, even a year ago, would have dared to hope.

Could the Israel lobby be next? As Israeli politics veers ever farther to the right, its lobby’s stranglehold over the Democratic Party, though far from shot, is in plain decline — as increasingly many American Jews, especially but not only millennials, lose interest in the ethnocratic settler state, or find themselves embarrassed by it.

Evangelicals, who think that the in-gathering of world Jewry into Israel is key to the End Time, when they will be raptured away into God’s heaven, and Jews who refuse to accept Christ as their savior will be cast into Hell for all eternity, continue to hold fast. They are now more gung ho for the self-described Jewish state than most of its Jewish supporters.

Because Republicans need to keep those Evangelicals on board, they remain steadfast too.

Inasmuch as Israel is still key to that strain of Jewish identity politics that baby boomers and others getting long in the tooth continue to rally around, the Zionist lobby is by no means on the ropes just yet. But the writing is on the wall.

These are not the only ways in which the times are changing. Even so, as long as Trump’s economic policies look good enough to enough people not too ashamed to vote for someone as ludicrous and vile as he, there remains a chance that, come November 2020, voters won’t give him the boot.

Should that come to pass, the end will truly be near.

The gods could care less what we mortals think or want. But, given the stakes, it would still be worthwhile beseeching them, if only they could be bothered to exist, on the off-chance that they might be merciful enough to hurry the next recession along, so that, well in advance of Election Day 2020, the forty percent or so of us that does not already hate Trump with all their heart, soul, and might will finally see the light.

The sooner the better too – because fear of a second Trump term, combined with false beliefs about the wisdom of nominating Biden or some other anodyne corporate Democrat to run against him, could cause the party to make the same mistake that it made in 2016. That mistake, in a word, was to accede to the inveterate cowardice that all but defines the Democratic Party’s soul.

Especially now that it has become possible to wean the party off Clintonism, nominating someone dedicated to perpetuating its Clintonite turn would be almost criminal; it would be an error of stupendous proportions.

***

Marx devoted his later years to discovering “the laws of motion” of capitalist societies; hence his continuing relevance for understanding how and why there is an economic downturn, a recession, in our future.

Before that, though, while still in his twenties, he thought a lot about how the gods and God are nothing more than representations of essentially human traits, separated (alienated) from their source and projected onto materially unreal mental confabulations.

His thinking was influenced by his friend and older colleague, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), the foremost “Young (or Left) Hegelian” philosopher of the 1830s and 1840s. Feuerbach’s philosophical anthropology and critical interpretations of Christian doctrines, set forth in The Essence of Christianity (1841) and elsewhere, are points of reference for theoretical humanists to this day.

In the spirit of that line of thought, I would venture that now would be a good time to pray that the gods or God bring the recession on while there is still time for some good to come of it.

Let us therefore call on the divinities to be remorseful for the harm they – that is, we – have done, and beseech them to make it right.

The animal sacrifices favored by the pagans of Greco-Roman antiquity and by worshipers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the days of the Second Temple might do just as well, but for the fact that, notwithstanding the continuing popularity of Trump and Trumpism in the most venal and benighted quarters of our “city upon a hill,” and of similar excrescences elsewhere around the world, that there is at least some irreversible moral and intellectual progress after all.

Therefore, let us pray for a recession now – not just to increase the likelihood that Trump will be dispatched, but also because a significant economic contraction, coming just as a Democratic president takes over, could sink Medicare for All and the Green New Deal and much else besides.

The suffering to come is inevitable; the sooner it comes and goes, the sooner recovery can begin, and the sooner the reconstruction of the Democratic Party can proceed — along with de-Trumpification and the resumption, after so many years of stasis and regression, of movement forward towards a better possible world.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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