Today, the debate in Washington about the debt ceiling and budget deficits has been skewed beyond recognition, endangering the viability of government as an effective instrument of popular will. The intent to cut federal spending in the face of a crisis of demand in the private economy is currently shared by mainstream political actors of both Parties, even though many distinguished economists and enlightened businesspeople see a severe economic downturn ahead if government spending is cut dramatically. Those few who have an understanding of macroeconomics have been until now effectively shut out of the discussion. Fragments of real economic concerns are embedded in largely false narratives about the economy and trotted out for the political and economic benefit of established players or added to a chaotic whirl of words that benefits no one.
Official Washington’s alarm about rising public budget deficits is entirely mistimed from the point of view of the welfare of the American people and the stability of the economy; politicians are striving to appear as the most virtuous budget cutter at a time when households are struggling under past debts and can’t afford to buy new goods and services, shrinking the overall economy. Government spending is, for the economy as a whole, the only way out at this time, even if at a later date this spending will need to be curbed. On top of deficit mania, is the use of the threat of not raising the debt ceiling by Republicans to demand even more savage cuts to the economic role of government and to the already fragile social safety net. These deficit terrorists are trying to realize their quixotic, nostalgic dream of a “limited government” society that will start to look more and more like the world of Mad Max or 19th Century America with grinding depressions every decade or two, vast social inequality, and violent social unrest.
The debt ceiling crisis in Washington has exposed President Obama as an easily manipulated leader of the party that might have stood against the push to cut public spending and tank the economy, i.e. the Democrats. Obama has attempted to use the debt ceiling debate, in efforts to appear “serious” and “adult” to poorly informed parts of the electorate, to demand a package of both spending cuts and tax increases. He has wanted to “go big” particularly on spending cuts to show that he is willing to compromise while misrecognizing the intents and the tactics of his Republican opponents. He has been abdicating his role as a defender of the American public against the depredations of the increasingly deranged Tea Party Right by offering unnecessary concessions and cuts in social spending. His Administration seems also to be firmly in the pocket of Wall Street as is his Republican opposition, even though at this time Wall Streeters are probably most concerned about the debt ceiling being raised by any means necessary. Either out of entirely naive idealized notions about compromise or sly, corrupt collusion with the off-kilter goals of his adversaries, Obama has continued to strengthen his Republican opponents by not fighting with them.
There is a school of thought, typified by the ordinarily very acute political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC, which claims that Obama has a high level of control in terms of tactics and is getting the better of his Republican rivals. According to this view, Obama is engaged in a game of “rope-a-dope” with his GOP rivals which will expose them as insincere in their interest in deficit cutting and as simply handmaidens of the ultra-rich and corporations, pushing only for tax breaks for the wealthy without regard for deficit reduction. This will strengthen the perception of Obama as the “only adult in the room” which will help his re-election chances. In my view, this is a Pyrrhic victory for Obama in that deficit cutting is exactly the wrong thing to do at this time, especially when it involves large-scale cuts in social spending.
Obama, despite high hopes earlier on, has proven so far to be a disastrous drain on the progressive hopes and dreams that he had mobilized to get elected, as well as the wish for “Change” from the Bush Administration by broad swaths of the American public beyond progressives. His vision of government by consensus between established economic and political elites, including his crazed Republican adversaries, has worked against hopes for change, which have re-directed much popular anger so far to retrograde libertarian causes like the Tea Party.
While in superficial appearance, name, and biography a change from the usual Washington politician, Obama has worked to stifle or box-in social and economic change in the “veal pen” of diminished expectations. The White House is now broadcasting a video that is an attempt at a direct response to this disappointment in his Administration, within which Obama is shown counseling students to have “principles” but to compromise readily to avoid “disappointment”. This apparently is the President’s personal philosophy which diminishes the role of desire and hope that at another point was so political expedient for him to foster in others. While allowing his Republican opponents the privilege of acting upon and pushing for their “maximum program” with a utopian basis, Democrats and progressives are, in Obama’s world, asked to trim their expectations and hopes for the future.
Ripping Apart the American Tapestry
As are most human societies at this point in history, American society is a complex and at times fragile, entity, that can be thought of as a dynamic, multi-dimensional tapestry that is always in the process of becoming. The American tapestry is distinguished by the diversity of individuals from a broad variety of cultures and ethnicities that make up its many “threads”. On the other hand, political diversity within the American tapestry has been narrowed for the most part to two somewhat “monochrome” choices that are in many respects quite similar. There are forces and people that attempt to weave this tapestry together and there are others who are either indifferent to the coherence of American society or, seemingly, seek actively to rip apart the threads of the tapestry. On individual and group levels, racism, despair, and pure predation on others are some of the fundamental forces that pull apart the fabric of American society, while acceptance of or delight in human differences, positive social emotions and feelings of duty to others help bring our society closer together.
Social cohesion, as represented by the tapestry metaphor, is in many cases desirable and justified. Social cohesion is a prerequisite for national “teamwork” writ large, for the ability of the society as a whole to solve major problems together. Without social cohesion, it is difficult for the rules of society to function, as individuals take it upon themselves to do what is immediately pleasing to him or her rather than consider the interests of the social group.
Social cohesion is not “all-good” or “all-bad” but it is definitely contested terrain as to how society and social groups should act and live. Because of the dominance of the discourse of Freedom and Liberty in America, social cohesion is generally ignored as a value in public discussions while in relatively homogenous societies and in particular in East Asia it is an acknowledged social value. Cultural and ethnic diversity makes it more challenging to define social cohesion and also often politicizes the notion of social cohesion itself: who is in the “in-group” and who is in the “out-group” becomes a matter of policy and cultural conflict. Sadly, in the last few days, we have seen how a single deranged individual in Norway has perpetrated great evil because, in part, he couldn’t accept the increasing cultural diversity in that country. Our world demands that we create a post-tribal consciousness that nevertheless puts a value on a cohesive society.
Social cohesion has had a varied history in the United States, beyond the American emphasis on individual liberty. The mid-20th Century American social “contract” reinforced in significant areas by Jim Crow laws or systematic discrimination against women or gay people created a type of social cohesion that needed to be pulled apart to enable these groups a chance at greater social equality and social integration. On a smaller-than-national level, there are disagreements about the degree to which corporations and other organizations can insist upon the cohesion of their workforces, with civil libertarians and trade unionists pointing out how hierarchical relationships and in-group/out-group dynamics at work can hurt people. The smallest social groups, families, can be places of great warmth and sources of strength but can also stifle and harm their members; their cohesion can at times be questioned as an absolute social good. However to assume that social cohesion is entirely optional or always a path to oppression of individuals or those considered to be “other” is a recipe for neglect of how a society can work and stay together, let alone take on major tasks like the energy and climate transition facing us all.
The work of maintaining the cohesiveness of the American social tapestry is very much a “work in progress” with an uncertain outcome. Americans’ tendency to redefine themselves gives Americans themselves a difficult and fluid target for self-understanding. Also, due to geography, economic and cultural factors, Americans have difficulty figuring out how their culture contrasts with others; the fact that our language and culture have been hegemonic in the world over the past 65 years makes it difficult for Americans to understand where their culture ends and other cultures begin. Interethnic tensions and diversity makes American identity a moving target and under constant negotiation and dispute, whether openly or privately.
Political Economy and Social Cohesion
There are also larger forces that work upon the American tapestry either reinforcing it or rending it apart on a predictable basis. The boom-bust cycle of the economy can tear at the fabric of society both at the peaks and particularly at the troughs of the business cycle. Innovation, often heralded as an unalloyed good, can also rip at existing social relationships, with new technologies offering both new opportunities and the loss of ways of life. Competition and the shifting fortunes of various business entities can lead to changes in employment, work relationships and changes in the type of work available and the type of products and services produced in a given place. While not nearly as socially mobile as we once were, Americans are still geographically one of the most mobile peoples, changing where we live very frequently, often in response to the rapid changes in economic opportunity in a given area. With increased geographic mobility comes often decreased social cohesion.
Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction” by the capitalist market economy is often celebrated as an explanation for the occasional carnage associated with swings in the business cycle. The degree of creativity or value created in that process has been a matter of political and scientific dispute for a long time. Since Schumpeter’s time, there has developed a widely held view that left to their own devices our economies are mostly destructive of the natural environment. More controversial is whether the social dislocations associated with our economy are more destructive than creative for society as a whole; communitarians, localists, the socialist left and anti-market far rightists are more likely to believe that our economy’s destructiveness outweighs its creativity. Those who put a higher premium on individual liberty, on the left, in the center and on the right, are more positively inclined towards the tendency of market economies to continually alter and tear apart social relationships.
Government is one of the critical forces that can hold together the social tapestry by creating systems that enable people to live together without harming each other too much and live adequately productive and pleasant lives. If the social and political goal is some fairly harmonious shared “lifeworld” among people and fairly widely distributed happiness of some kind, there is the requirement for more involvement of the government and larger size of government to dampen the vicissitudes of the business cycle and the unregulated market’s tendency to create social and economic inequality.
Government can also tear apart social relations via fighting wars and totalitarian/absolutist social experiments. Wars, especially total wars, tear apart the social fabrics of other countries by design. Totalitarian governments like those of the Nazis, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Kim’s North Korea also tore apart the (domestic) social fabric by design, often to realize the megalomaniacal vision of a power-mad, paranoid leader. These leaders have justified their experiments via claiming they represent the greater good of humanity or the nation. “Limited government” conservatives make a great deal of these regimes and claim, inaccurately, that the role of all governments is similar to the devastating experiments in social engineering attempted by these governments.
Supposedly pro-business conservatives who champion “limited government” tend to be indifferent to quality of life issues for ordinary people but, at the same time, they also strategically overlook that the state provides businesses with the infrastructure needed for businesses to prosper. Hidden in there is the narcissistic myth of the “self-foundation” of business “by itself”, i.e. giving birth to itself. Many of the great surges in business productivity in the US were preceded by large investments by government in providing the “ground” or framework for markets to grow and prosper (New Deal, World War II, Interstate system, Space Program, Defense Department support for microprocessor development). Without government’s stabilizing role and broad acceptance of the legitimacy of the social order, businesses, contrary to the current mythos, would not have a viable market in which to sell their goods and services. Or alternatively, a legitimate social order degrades into a plutarchy or an oligarchy as self-interests of the wealthy and powerful are allowed to become amplified via the political process and concentration of economic power.
A sensitive point among those who argue against government intervention in the economy is examining the instability and unequal outcomes that emerge from unregulated market interactions, in particular financial markets. The “limited government” myth is premised on a self-flattering idea that markets and businesses are “in control of themselves” at all times. Advocates of the “market vs. government” and opponents of governments stabilizing regulatory role tend to be in denial about the destabilizing role of swings in the business cycle and in particular those related to financial speculation. They assume that business cycles and finance do not lead to instability therefore, one doesn’t need a powerful government to stabilize the economy. They also believe that the market and business generates a just world, within which those that prosper deserve all that they take in, while those that do not deserve to be swept aside without regard.
Liquidationism and Millenarianism of the Right
There is a still more extreme, purely predatory position that is now being expressed more openly in government and in some sectors of business, liquidationism. Instead of denying the instability of market economies, liquidationists think that ripping up the social tapestry via instability is good, often justifying their views via reliance on libertarian ideals. Liquidationism is the idea that a recession or depression enables the closure or buying up of businesses and social assets in a productive way, enabling those assets to “return to their rightful owners”. Those who have a relative advantage will see their advantage increased via the distress of businesses and individuals that are hit harder by the economic downturn. Liquidationism is purely predatory in that assets will become more and more concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest individuals and corporations; financial might will always “make right” in the liquidationist worldview.
Liquidationists justify their position via a Social Darwinian or Ayn Randian view that all “fitness” in a society is concentrated in (wealthy) individual families or businesses and not in their assembly together as a society. The increased competition or success of individuals is to them a “sign” of individual fitness, which is all that exists or all that counts. There is to them little recognition of the importance of a habitable “commons” or public space within which businesses and people can transact fairly and for the most part peacefully with each other. The outcome of oligarchy seems then entirely justified to the liquidationist.
The “Shock Doctrine” explored by the journalist Naomi Klein analyzes how government power is used by elites in a manner that supports liquidationist ideas and oligarchs. Starting her analysis in the 1970’s in Latin America, Klein describes how crises are fomented or exaggerated to push through radical reforms that favor established business and political elites; the “shock” of the crisis is used as an opportunity to cut social welfare and government regulation favorable to ordinary people because it is made to appear as a “necessary” response to an artificial crisis. Those who see themselves as engineers or beneficiaries of a shock doctrine strategy view the holes created in the social tapestry as opportunities to rework the social fabric in favor of their own narrow interests. Pieces of that tapestry then become targets for acquisition by wealthy individuals or politically favored corporations.
While liquidationism is generally a secular philosophy of the right-wing rich, there is a also a streak of millenarianism in the current Tea Party Right that dove-tails with liquidationist tendencies. Millenarianism is an old religious tradition in the West and elsewhere, that is also a folk “theory” of radical social change. Millenarians are waiting for a “Day of Judgment” when a savior will appear or a critical “End of Time” event will happen, undoing the existing social order in sometimes violent fashion. The Judeo-Christian tradition based on a religious narrative that includes a “Second Coming” or the coming of a messiah, has a millenarian structure, which is, depending on the sect, paid greater or lesser attention. Fundamentalist Christianity has a strong fascination with the millenarian aspects of Christianity, in particular via the notion of “the Rapture”. While the journalist Jeff Sharlet disputes that millenarianism is important among contemporary Christian fundamentalists, the popularity of the “Left Behind” books leads one to believe that millenarianism remains a strong narrative within current American popular religious thought.
Tea Party millenarianism can be viewed as a secular belief, perhaps fueled by the religious tradition, that we should not hold onto the “things of this world” but instead “let go” and allow events like running into the debt ceiling “happen”. There is a conviction in the new crop of Congresspeople but also shared by others on the Republican Right, that “Big Government” is entirely rotten and needs to be swept away in a manner not unlike what might occur at the time of “the Second Coming”. The carelessness with which opprobrium is heaped upon government is one sign of the contempt with which these politicians view the institution in which they seek to exert power. To be then the “sword of the Lord” in destroying vital social institutions like Social Security or Medicare, upon which are heaped all manner of “sins”, is a righteous calling for these people.
These politician-“prophets” are not interested in a policy that actually improves life in society because they have a millenarian’s sense of the future, i.e. that the “end of Time” is upon us. While they may become more secularized and accept a deal that slashes government spending, they feel that they are part of a “jihad” which exempts them from responsibility for their actions. Like members of Al Qaeda, they walk among and participate in institutions that they seem to see as entirely “other” which they want to destroy. Or alternatively, they feel that as they are standing up for some entrenched, wealthy interests, that it won’t matter for them personally what happens to society as a whole because their wealthy patrons will “take care of them”. Certainly the revolving door between government and establishment lobbies or corporations would justify some of these assumptions about being personally “saved” by wealthy patrons.
While religious millenarianism sometimes offers a “happy” resolution to the chaos associated with the “End of Days” by suggesting that the “meek shall inherit the earth” and justice will be done, there is a particular grim form of chaos and resolution offered by Tea Party millenarians. From their point of view or the point of view of their backers, they see a highly hierarchical society with an exaggerated chasm between those who succeed and those who fail. Their “Judgment Day” means rewards for the “have’s” and punishment for the “have nots”.
There is then a coming together of these two streams of the radical Right, one secular, the other quasi-religious, around tearing up the “tapestry” of American society, and in particular its governmental stabilizers, like regulation and social programs. Secular liquidationists seem to see the individual parts of the tapestry as potential “assets” for their patrons to own but do not recognize the binding and systematizing efforts of government to keep these parts of America working together as a whole. They only seem to see the trees and not the forest, to mix metaphors. Perhaps in some cases this is out of a mindset that cannot comprehend the “big picture”, in some cases out of overwhelming greed, and in other cases out of a misguided or even malevolent plan to break up the social system that has sustained them and most Americans throughout the last 75 years. This has taken concrete form in the actual liquidation of the assets of governments (Indiana Toll Road, the parking meters of Chicago, etc.) that are being sold off to private investors.
Repairing and Reinforcing the American Tapestry: Good Intentions Are Not Enough
To stop the insane efforts of politicians of the Right and self-defeating Democrats from further ripping apart the social fabric, it needs to be made clear to Americans that it is worthwhile to invest time and effort in rebuilding our society. The value of a coherent, well-functioning society and political system needs to be discovered or re-discovered for many. New social movements, like Van Jones’s Rebuild the Dream movement as well as the fight in Wisconsin for union rights are emerging that will help give people who have never seen or participated in social movements an opportunity to help create a social system that benefits primarily the majority of Americans. We are at a point now where we must start to weave anew an inclusive and cohesive American tapestry on the basis of movements independent of either political party.
Progressives and liberals have often sufficed themselves with expressions of and actions that express good intentions. Even conservatives with strong ethical commitments, like Herbert Hoover, have supported and celebrated good intentions through voluntary charitable work, even as their politics and economics undermined the integrity of the social fabric. There are also many conservative cynics who express an “allergy” towards all good intentions, lambasting liberals/progressives for expressing and believing in good intentions. While cynicism is to be rejected by everybody who hopes for a better world, good intentions, while attractive and even addictive, are just a starting place.
To create a new or reinvigorate a movement towards greater social cohesion that is healthy, dynamic and future-oriented, good intentions on the individual level and expressions of individual virtue need to be supplemented and guided by a systematic analysis of what has gone wrong in the past and what can go right in economics and politics.
To do this, a reinvigoration of the social sciences is required, as they have failed to explain, let alone restrain, the destructive tendencies of individuals, politicians and businesses. A systematic understanding of the instability of market economies, as well as their benefits needs to be developed, rather than simply joining remnants of a Keynesian perspective onto the dominant neo-liberal economic synthesis. Additionally we need an understanding of how political power works and how American democracy can be made more democratic and more effective in addressing our needs. Unlike on the political Right, our understanding of economics and politics must be empirically based and face uncomfortable realities that may challenge our own and others’ pre-conceptions.
President Obama’s idolization of compromise can be viewed as one response to this lack of vision on the progressive Left, as the Right is allowed its unreal fantasies while progressives are supposed to make do with a few modifications of the Right’s vision of “limited government” and unregulated markets. A politics built more on our “pro-social” impulses is required, even as we recognize the limits of the human animal to conform to our highest ambitions for ourselves.
In sum, a reinvigorated progressive movement can work to weave together the American tapestry driven both by moral courage and intellectual rigor. However, the attempted laming of government by the current leadership in Washington with the exception of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a few Senators like Bernie Sanders, must be stopped. Without the effective instrument of government, adequately funded by tax revenue and the ability to run deficits when needed, we will see a shredding of our social tapestry and the decline of our civilization.