A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
– from W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
It’s hard not to fall prey to apocalyptic thinking as one comprehends the combination of the recent unemployment reports, the Gulf Oil catastrophe, and the blog wars between economists debating whether the future will bring a “slow recovery” (synonym for “no recovery that working families will be able to see or feel”) or “a double dip recession” (synonym for a pit whose trough cannot yet be discerned).
Add to this the deteriorating prospects, and permanent legacy, of two expensive and ill-advised wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; states, cities and counties defaulting on their pension, education, environmental, health, welfare and emergency services; unjustified and unsustainable inequality – the fundamental cause of the Great Recession – increasing, not decreasing.
Millions are saying: if this is a recovery, how much worse can hell be?
Of course, starved of resources or leadership, or both, history – remember Katrina and New Orleans? – advises that there is no depth to which human society cannot sink if fundamental assumptions, or “states of mind”, about economic – and thus political – sustainability secede from reality. Recent trends in the distribution of wealth actually accentuate inequality, but the spread bears no relation to real productivity, real increases in the values produced by working people. And this has been true for most of the past three to four decades.
The labor theory of value implies that economic value (in the sense of market value or average price) consists wholly of the amount and quality of some quantity of human labor – “dead” labor in the form of a piece of manufactured capital equipment, or live hours being added each day. A brick of solid gold embedded in a mountain has value, but no economic value, until it is mined and made available as a commodity, processes that are all subjects of work.
We add value to each other’s lives as we exchange, usually via money, new goods or services we create or help create – things we do not, and cannot, produce for ourselves.
The study of labor markets in industrialized countries over most of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries – a big slice of capitalist history – shows that there has been a strong, long-range, tendency for real average wages and salaries to track average national productivity gains. Yet since 1975 – with a couple of exceptions in the late 90s –this trend has NOT been holding. Not surprisingly, economic and political instability in the United States is also, decidedly, increasing.
There are some objective forces to keep in mind. For example: many states are now insolvent. If they cannot borrow, even from the federal government, they will have no alternative other than defaulting on obligations – pensions, health, etc. – plus cutting essential services. People will sue, go on strike, protest, and more – since state constitutions typically require states to pay all contract debts. But barring federal bailout, there will be little standing between the citizens and the collapse of a growing number of public institutions and services.
In addition, globalization has and will continue to greatly – but very unevenly – diversify the global distribution of wealth. Only strengthening the enforcement powers of international democratic institutions like the ILO (the UN’s International Labor Organization) can ultimately remedy the negative impact of openness to trade on hard-won national protections for workers. Many American workers, and businesses, will have to aggressively retrain, re-educate and reinvest in very high-productivity work to maintain and advance their standard of living. No employee should expect that the ups and downs of the protectionist debates in Congress, which are mostly noise, will give them much of a breather.
Perhaps even more ominous, for the long run, are emerging calculations on the national state of workers’ pensions, health coverage costs and reduced wages in the wake of the Great Recession. These calculations show a sustained 20 percent decline in real wages and overall wealth for working people since the “bubble cap” year of 2007. Keep in mind that 2007 “capped” 35 years of either a worsening or a flat labor market.
It is hard to find a pension plan in either the private or public sector – other than TIAA-CREF – that is not grossly underfunded, if not in actual default. Despite the president’s efforts to move universal health coverage forward, rising costs are still years from being contained – meaning years of still rising deductibles and co-pays even for those who are covered. Even if coverage becomes more universal, a big struggle lies ahead to insure workers can actually afford to use the coverage.
Economist Paul Krugman cited the Yeats poem above using “the worst lack all conviction” to indict the Blue Dog tendencies: opportunistic, short-change, dead-end and duck-your-head positions.
But the answer has to lie in the fires that can be built in each town or city to mobilize majorities to get organized and take responsibility for themselves and their own protection. Elected representatives at every grassroots level must be, or become, champions of redressing inequality and restoring equity, or be replaced by leaders who are such champions.
Current polls offer the humorous (if the situation were not so serious) conclusion that 60 percent of the country is unsatisfied with Obama, 70 percent is unsatisfied with the Democrats, and 80 percent is unsatisfied with the Republicans!
The left is small in the U.S. – but, like in Bethlehem, big things can happen. To the Beast approaching: “No pasaran!” Each town can say: You shall not pass!