“The great and terrible irony of capitalism is that if left unfettered, it inexorably engineers its own demise, through either revolution or economic collapse.”
Robert Scheer, author, The Great American Stickup
Business leaders became Gods. Lee Iacocca. Carl Icahn. Jack Welch. Ivan Boesky. It was a decade of relentless mergers, acquisitions and leveraged buyouts. Remember Michael Milken, the junk bond king? In 1987, the Oliver Stone movie, Wall Street, came out. Gordon Gecko, the swashbuckling and utterly corrupt corporate raider, announced, “Greed is good” and ever since greed has been our ethos, and we have taken it to heights Gordon Gecko only dreamed about.
The rhetoric of the 80’s and early 90’s was all about Capital and the rights of investors. Labor was a drain on profit that had to be reduced by any means necessary. The assault on organized labor from right-wing think tanks and academics on corporate payrolls picked up steam. American workers were too expensive and demanded too many benefits. To be competitive with the rest of the world, American CEO’s needed the freedom to move production wherever cheap labor could be found. Taiwan. Malaysia. Mexico. Vietnam. Entire industries packed up and departed, abandoning communities and regions they had been tied to for decades. States began competing with each other to lure corporate jobs, offering enormous tax breaks and myriad other concessions if only Boeing or GM or 3M would locate a plant within their borders. States with right-to-work laws on their books did better in this zero-sum bidding war. Why pay union scale wages in Illinois when you can pay just above minimum wage in Alabama?
The American auto industry continued its decline, despite endless concessions from the United Auto Workers. That was the game – wage and pension and benefit concessions for continued operation of this or that plant. If workers refused, management said, fuck you, we’re moving the whole shebang to Mexico.
Compared to his dingbat son, George Herbert Walker Bush was a reasonable man; he spoke of a thousand points of light and a kinder hand. The first Bush was a typical Chamber of Commerce type Republican, a man who rode the family fortune and extensive political and corporate connections through the CIA and the Vice Presidency.
But come the election of 1992, George was ousted by the man from Hope, Bill Clinton, the “new” Democrat who bragged of a Third Way to govern the nation. In essence the Third Way was the recognition of which way the wind was blowing: it was money, not ideas, that won elections, and the place to find reliable sources of campaign money was in corporate boardrooms. With the right messaging and PR tactics and votes on legislation, Democrats could go after the same donors that historically supported Republican candidates and causes. Nobody was better at this shell game than Bill Clinton, the Ivy League educated good ol’ boy, skirt chaser and snake charmer.
Clinton signed NAFTA into law. Clinton pushed a brand of tough welfare reform that made Republicans salivate. Clinton signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, eviscerating the Glass-Steagall Act that had protected the financial industry from itself since the 1930’s. With a stroke of his presidential pen, and the enthusiastic backing of neoliberals like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, Bill Clinton planted the seedlings that became the thorny vines that strangled the economy in 2008.
Of course, George W. Bush and the GOP tended those vines, watered and fertilized them, fed them Miracle Gro and steroids, while the right-wing machine flooded TV and radio and academia with its messages of “individual” responsibility, and a twisted mix of free market tributes, Christian fundamentalism and militarism. W and the people around him pushed a harder, crueler, and unforgiving vision – an American Nightmare built on the bones of the American Dream. Every “public” aspect of American life has come under intense attack: teachers, firefighters, and public servants of every stripe are painted as parasitic drains on government treasuries. It is classic class warfare, and it continues to this day, with cries from Paul Ryan and his ilk for steep cuts in Social Security, Medicare and even food stamps for the neediest citizens, primarily children. As in any authoritarian regime, the military budget and funding for the national security apparatus are sacrosanct.
The danger of any revolution is that it will go too far, lose sight of its initial aims, and gather a perverse momentum that spells its own demise. This is what happened with the Reagan Revolution: it created too much economic inequality and too many zealots eager to sacrifice common sense and moderation for their ideology. The zealots speak of freedom and democracy as they toil to degrade both. Freedom must mean more than the freedom to shop, to consume, to acquire and accumulate worldly goods; democracy is hollow if it consistently ignores the will of the governed.
Hyper social Darwinism, every citizen on his or her own, a gladiator in the economic arena, competing for survival against implacable foes that view mercy as weakness and moderation as a sin. As philosopher Alain Badiou has described our twisted age:
“Privatize everything. Abolish help for the weak, the solitary, the sick and the unemployed. Abolish all aid for everyone except the banks. Don’t look after the poor; let the elderly die. Reduce the wages of the poor, but reduce taxes on the rich. Make everyone work until they are ninety.”
Is this the ethos we want to organize our society around? If so, count me out. We can’t continue like this because it’s not sustainable for our society or the planet on which we depend. We desperately need new social movements and a new economic arrangement that tempers greed and establishes a multiple bottom line that takes the welfare of workers and the health of the environment into account.
Unfortunately, the hour is later than we know.