The conventional wisdom is that corporate capital has an enduring commitment to science, education, transportation, health and nutrition, public amenities, urban development, equal opportunity, and more. Business executives are considered solid citizens as well as savvy investors. We are told that they are interested in the modernization of the state, economy, and society as well as their own enterprises.
There was at one time a grain of truth to this portrayal of the corporate class. Coming out of World War II, a broad alliance, with U.S. corporations occupying a dominant position, expanded the public sector, trained a skilled workforce, steadily improved wages and social benefits, renovated the infrastructure, built a national system of interstate highways, invested in public education, struck down the most egregious barriers of racial exclusion, and promoted vigorous economic growth.
Corporate capital’s principal reason for being was still profit-making, but its profit-making strategy was tethered to the modernization of the domestic economy, state and society.
To a degree, it was a win-win situation insofar as both the corporations and the people gained, even though very unequally, from this arrangement. The socialist Michael Harrington, in an analysis of this era, wrote:
“The welfare state was thus not simply the result of socialist and liberal conscience and working class struggle. It was also a function of a capitalist socialization process, a way of allowing the system to absorb the enormous productivity of the new forms of collective labor.”
But the arrangement didn’t last. By the mid-1970s, this commitment of significant sections of the corporate elite began to fray, and then in the decades that followed it came apart at the seams, as the transnational corporations, with the assistance of right-wing extremists occupying powerful positions in government, drastically and negatively restructured the state, economy and society.
By the first decade of this century, the effects were apparent.
On one side we have experienced a historically unprecedented shift of wealth and power to the moneybags on Wall Street and across America.
On the other side, we have seen the deterioration of infrastructure, the destruction of the social safety net, the undermining of the public school system, the decay of urban and rural communities, the privatization of public assets, the growth of poverty and inequality, the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector and massive loss of jobs, the dismantling of regulations on corporate misbehavior, the lowering of workers’ wages, the lifting of barriers inhibiting international capital flows, the imposition of unfair trade agreements, and a faltering – now stagnant – domestic economy.
It isn’t pretty!
What explains the change of heart of big sections of the transnational corporate class? Why did they pull the plug? Are they meaner than capitalists and wealthy families of the previous era? Perhaps, but that really doesn’t answer the question.
The explanation in my view lies in the evolution, dynamics and profit imperatives of the world economy over the past three decades.
The markets, supply of exploitable labor, and investment strategies of U.S. transnational corporations are worldwide in scope now.
Their production sites stretch across regions and time zones, thanks to new technologies that, in effect, reduce time and distance (think Internet).
That doesn’t mean that domestic production sites, consumption markets and workforces are of no consequence, but their importance to the transnational masters of the world is far less today. Unlike in the early postwar period, the corporate planning unit is a world economy, now cluttered with powerful foreign-based corporations and new state competitors like China and India.
This being so, the commitment of major sections of the transnational elite to a people-friendly public sector, a vibrant national economy and a modern society has waned in recent decades. In fact, this elite is turning the state into its personal ATM machine and a military juggernaut to enforce its will at home and abroad. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this social grouping has become a parasite sucking the life out of our government, economy and society, while living in bubbles of luxury, racial exclusion and class privilege and exploiting labor globally.
This new reality has ominous implications for the future of the American people.
It doesn’t alter the strategic necessity of defeating right-wing extremists, whose plan is to regain complete control of the federal government in 2012.
Why? Because, in the midst of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, this supposedly “neo-populist” political bloc (tea partiers and their far-right Republican allies) is leading the charge for, doing the dirty work of, that grouping of the transnational corporations.
So we have to keep at it – maybe make some adjustments to take into account the objective basis for broadening and deepening the people’s coalition. Let’s also keep in mind: the stakes couldn’t be much higher, both now and in 2012.