JR'S Free Thought Pages
The Neo-Con Disaster: What can be done?
The regressive neo-conservative ideologies of the past 40 years have been propelled us into a dystopian economic abyss from which we may never emerge. The future looks bleak and most jobs that have been decimated are likely lost forever. The draconian oligarchy that I call the Conservative Corporate Welfare State will not be dismantled by the Great Black Hope Barack Obama or anyone else from the rigor mortis two-party autocracy that exists in the United States and Canada. The conservative elites who own you, the country and its politicians - the corporate lobbyists and the wealthy investor class - will do everything and anything to maintain the status quo, including thievery and force. They always have.
The current economic crisis may well be at least as bad as the crisis that produced the Great Depression of the 1930s for a number of reasons.
First, it is an integrated global economy and it will be exceedingly difficult to coordinate what must be international solutions. There is tremendous economic inequality between the United States and Western Europe on one hand and the rest of the world on the other. The technologically advanced First World can hardly expect developing Third World countries, primarily in Asia, where poverty is ubiquitous, to accept cuts in their growing industrial base just when the tide seems to be turning in their favor.
Second, there are serious problems of environmental degradation and potential disaster associated with global warming caused by industrial development. Unlike during earlier eras, the capitalist economic system can no longer count on new terrain or untapped natural resources to exploit in order to stimulate and sustain economic recovery. The environmental damage and costs have already been massive and widespread - and are perhaps irreversible.
Third, the population of the world has been growing exponentially from about 2 billion in 1930 to almost 7 billion today. Modern capitalism depends heavily on continuous technological breakthroughs to generate development and continually bailout the increasingly susceptible global economic system, but because of human population growth, there is a lot less room to maneuver. But technology has also made much human labor superfluous, creating huge pockets of unemployment. What will happen to of these people who have been dislocated?
Finally, the Great Depression of the 1930s did not end until wartime production shocked it out of its slumbers. Ultimately, World War II stimulated the U.S. economy while the newly produced weapons destroyed the productive capacity of America’s indebted competitors in Europe. Fifty million people died during World War II, so a war of this magnitude is surely not an acceptable economic bailout plan.
Pressure from the left must be for both immediate solutions that protect working people – the middle class, the working poor and huge populations of desperately poor around the world and for long-term global economic viability that at the same time advances social justice. The corporations and the wealthy don’t need government handouts, as income disparities between the super wealthy and the rest of us have increased dramatically over the past thirty years of Neo-Con “voodoo” economic policies. Our liberal democracies have been slowly but surely moving towards oligarchy and plutocracy. This must be reversed before it is too late and we descend into a fascist style Police State. Let's be honest, the last eight years of George W Bush came precipitously close to full-blown fascism. All it will take is a Hitler or Mussolini extreme right wing demagogue or theocrat to offer some facile salvation plan to the masses and they will latch onto it like docile lemmings as recent history has demonstrated.
I believe our demands and actions ought to include the following.
It is far past the time to banish the domination of the huge intrusions of Big Business into politics. The corporate lobby now basically calls all the shots in Washington, and Ottawa is not far behind this alarming phenomenon. As long as corporations by way of their high paid lobbyists are able to buy politicians and elections, there will be no effective way to democratize their predatory behavior and stem the tide of a corporatist oligarchy. In every election over the past several decades they have donated vast sums of money to both Liberal and Conservative parties in a shameless attempt to purchase influence. This should be seen as exactly what it is, bribery, and it’s against the law. The situation is far worse in the United States where in spite of the ravings of pundits from both of the two dominant conservative parties, it’s essentially a one party system with both the Republican and Democratic parties defending the interests of corporatism, class, wealth and privilege. In spite of their claims to the contrary neither of these parties is a votary of either the Middle class or working poor.
It is also time to end the legal myth that corporations are perceived as individual persons, thereby entitled to constitutional protections with the same rights as real people. Corporations are synthetic abstractions, organizations whose charters are underwritten and legally endorsed by their governments. They exist solely for profit and protecting the interests of shareholders. But they have no rights or privileges that are not granted them through the democratic process, such as it is. If they are not socially responsible, their rights and privileges ought to be terminated or, at the very least, any social costs that end up being endured by the public such as pollution or exploitation of workers ought to be subject to the full force of the law. Any corporation that pollutes the environment, exploits workers or communities, cheat consumers, damage the ecosystem, or bribe politicians, should have their charters rescinded, their companies dismantled, split up and sold off by the state.
Capitalist markets may be self-regulating up to a point, but it is time to accept that the self-regulating process does not work in a system based on greed and often intense competition. It is simply far too costly, with predictable economic lows and highs and too much social dislocation, for a civilized society to tolerate. It is also clear that corporations can never effectively “regulate” themselves. The fox guarding the henhouse is a recipe for disaster in any environment that with a pretense to equality of opportunity and social justice. Today’s big corporations are too committed to short-term profitability by whatever means necessary and their obscenely paid executives are only interested in what the next quarterly financial statements look like to Wall Street. Only the public sector, meaning only government agencies genuinely representing the interests of the people, can effectively regulate corporations. This will protect workers, consumers, society in general, pensioners and shareholders. In return for this “service,” corporations should pay requisite high taxes as they once did in the three decades following the Second World War. Corporate tax rates are the lowest they have been for at least 80 years and taxes on capital gains where most of the wealthy make their money, are also at an all time low.
Free, or unregulated trade, is devastating the natural environment as well as destroying the lives and cultures of people around the world and contributing to excessive over-production and a steady downward spiral in incomes for working people. Capital has freedom of movement but for workers this same freedom is severely limited and Union busting has been a national pastime for both Big Business and Conservative governments alike. It is destabilizing the economic system and the planet on which human survival depends. Free trade is never free, especially when it promotes pollution, exploitation of workers and environmental destruction. It is time to call it what it really is – foul trade – and to organize, collectively, and refuse to purchase foul trade goods. An international boycott on goods made in China, and WalMart, its leading distributor in the United States, might be a good start. Hopefully, in a capitalist market place, our position as consumers will give us some leverage. At the same time, we should push for trade agreements that deny countries and companies access to North American markets if they prevent workers from organizing independent unions and deny them living wages and safe working conditions. The history of the labor movement has been a violent one and the concessions won were won from below and were conceded kicking and screaming from above. These rights are now being systematically rescinded on a global scale.
Our global economic system, which balances free market fundamentalism and market discipline for the masses with corporate welfare for the privileged few, is threatening human life on a massive scale.
When you listen carefully to talk of the economy during and following the Canadian and US elections, whether it's Stephane Dion, Jack Layton, or Stephen Harper, Barack Obama or John McCain, the scope of reforms being proposed is incredibly narrow and regressive. Huge bailouts of larcenous financial institutions on the backs of taxpayers, partial nationalization, credit injections, an orgy of tax credits to economically strapped corporations, though dazzling in their variety and technical complexity, their goal is to save, not transform, the lethal fundamental economic structures we already have. The very deregulated unfettered capitalist system that continues to exacerbate climate change, water wars, and hunger, while seriously diminishing our capacity to adapt when we need it most has not been seriously questioned by any of the major political parties in North America. What we need are skeptics and critical thinkers, not true believers.
Changes will not occur without strengthening and deepening democracy by "raising the temperature before quickening the tempo of politics,” says Princeton Law Professor Roberto Unger. One simple step, he suggests, is to give both political parties and social movements equal free time on television to articulate their ideas. But with the major media dominated by right wing reactionary bias, controlled by a half dozen multinational corporations, this has not happened and will likely not happen in the near future. He also emphasizes the need to develop strategies for mixing participatory and representative democracy in a more direct fashion, not unlike proposals promoted by anarchist philosophers, to make decisions more quickly, decentralize power, and experiment with different legal regimes. Strengthening and deepening democratic accountability is also crucial if governments are to foster creativity and innovation. Presently the sense of powerlessness, cynicism and subsequent apathy of voters heading to the polls during election time is patently obvious and not a good sign for the future of democracy. People often hold their nose and vote for the candidate that is the least of the evils presented to them on the ballot. In the most recent election in Canada in November 2008 we had the lowest voter turnout in our history, comparable with the predictable apathy of voters south of the border that has prevailed for several decades.
To encourage investment and broaden avant-garde thinking and practice, Unger suggests that governments set up a chain of organizations to carry out the work of venture capitalists, investing in and providing guidance to small, innovative firms while inventing new legal structures that would allow them to co-operate and compete with one another at the same time. Over the past 100 years the venture capital stock markets have had a dismal record in providing funds for fledgling, creative firms and their incredibly low success rate is appalling. Often venture capital markets are just a glorified casino where paper is shuffled around for the benefit of the promoters and insiders, as the Vancouver Stock Exchange has clearly demonstrated over the years. One could effectively argue that the entire global economy over the past several decades has been a glorified casino, paper shuffling and a Ponzi scheme of one economic bubble and bust after another where no real wealth has been created, at least not for the vast majority of working people. For them it's been an unmitigated disaster.
More generally, Unger advocates an overhaul of our notion of free trade. Today it focuses on the deregulated free movement of goods, services and money often at the expense of a country’s laws meant to protect citizens, while the movement of labor is tightly restricted by immigration laws, and the movement of ideas restricted by aggressive sovereign intellectual property rights. Unger calls for reversing the priorities, freeing the movement of people and ideas - the twin cores of innovation, as well as what we value most outside the economy - while moving things only to the extent that they help democratic societies transform themselves with policies consistent with social justice and to prosper as they see fit.
The policies that most affluent First World countries are now forcing on the poor of the Third World to accept (often under the auspices of the IMF and World Bank) are diametrically opposed to those that enriched those same First World countries when they were in a similar position economically. What the Neo-Conservative ideologues of deregulated free trade, especially in the United States and Great Britain, refuse to admit, is that during their many years of incredible economic growth they have had the highest import tariffs and protectionist policies of any country in the past 200 years.
Countries don't very often get rich by opening their economies and letting international markets do their thing. Trade is beneficial when properly timed and with the right rules, which are different for each country. Markets can only determine price, not quality of life, ethics or justice, and on their own are more likely to lock you in place than propel you onward and upward. Samsung, one of the most successful corporations on the planet, subsidized its infant electronics division with proceeds from its textile production and sugar refining; Nokia's light manufacturing section subsidized the company's money-losing electronics division for seventeen years. Another similar success story is Hyundai. Now they are world leaders in high-tech quality products. To grow, poor countries, like small businesses, will have to defy the market. In today’s world, economic development is about acquiring and mastering advanced technologies.
Not unlike the oppressive days of colonialism, by employing covert imperialistic policies, wealthy First World countries have been denying poor ones of the Third World the very tools they used to enrich themselves.
Throughout its thirty-year history, the champions of neo-conservative socio-economic doctrine - usually often depicted as “liberalization”, deregulation, and privatization - have fought to marginalize politics and demonize government, insisting their model was the only game in town. Margaret Thatcher declared, "There is no alternative" (TINA) an expression which is the quintessence of dogmatism. American economists later devised the Orwellian term "Washington Consensus." But with his unique wit, Thomas Friedman put it best, equating market fundamentalism with a "golden straitjacket”. Even the most extreme proposals expressed by mainstream politicians and economists - like a partial and temporary nationalization of financial institutions - amount to little more than readjusting the strait-jacket.
At a time when American and Canadian infrastructures are collapsing, poverty is growing, the world financial system has melted down, huge regions are running out of fresh water, and one country that is selling and the other buying oil from tar sands that are destroying the ecosystem of huge swaths of Northern Alberta’s Athabasca Valley and the climate, the conventional wisdom that mere tinkering will close Thomas Homer-Dixon’s "ingenuity gap" seems destined to failure.