Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

Rick Wolff: How The American Left Was Neutered After 1945

Posted by Phoenix Woman on February 23, 2013

In the course of discussing something else, Prof. Richard Wolff discusses why, in contrast to the flourishing leftist movements in Europe and elsewhere, the United States’ left is so sadly, pathetically gormless (emphases mine):

… In Europe after 1945, business and conservative efforts to destroy the labor unions and anti-capitalist parties and movements were far less successful than their counterparts in the US. Thus, as the current crisis led to austerity, Europeans opposed to austerity and to capitalism were far less disorganized and far less isolated from one another — and likewise less ideologically disarmed. They could and did mobilize millions for classic, visible street actions to advance their criticisms and demands. They could and did plausibly threaten effective electoral action as well.

In contrast, US history after 1945 displays a relentlessly effective destruction of those organizations whose alliance had forced the New Deal on the Roosevelt government. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the socialist and communist parties had then articulated a powerful opposition to austerity intertwined with serious anti-capitalism. Their opposition to austerity was successful. Very high taxes were imposed on corporations and the rich to pay for a major expansion of social welfare for the masses (social security, unemployment compensation, and a huge federal jobs program). The contrast between FDR’s expansive response to a collapse of the capitalist economy then and those of Bush and Obama now could not be starker. What the labor-left alliance of the 1930s failed to achieve, however, was any change at the micro-level of the capitalist system. Major shareholders and their boards of directors remained in full command and control of capitalist enterprises.

Once the Second World War ended, business and the rich used every possible weapon to roll back the New Deal. From the secured preserves of their corporate positions and wealth, they targeted the social forces (labor, socialists, and communists) that had succeeded in raising their taxes and expanding the powers of a mass-based government. One key strategy was to eradicate the socialist and communist parties as effective social movements; this was achieved in the name of intense Cold War anti-communism. The other key strategy pursued in tandem by business, government, the rich, and the political right entailed attacks on labor unions. Since the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, countless laws, regulations, and private campaigns contributed to a nearly continuous half-century decline in unions’ membership and social influence. If anything, the current crisis through 2012 has intensified that decline.

Thus, US opposition to austerity and capitalism since 2009 differed from European oppositions. The US left had been systematically disorganized, demonized as traitorous, and fragmented. To survive, those who did not abandon their previous political commitments altogether splintered into single-issue social movements (against racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental degradation, etc.). Many sought refuges in more or less safe social enclaves such as the academy, religious institutions, and the arts. When large demonstrations occurred they focused on single issues, minimized or excluded direct criticisms of capitalism, and marginalized or excluded advocacy of alternative economic systems.

For half a century, the capitalist system in the US enjoyed a free pass from the kinds of debates and criticisms that other systems in the US experienced. The educational, medical insurance, transportation, energy, and other systems comprising US society had hardly been damaged by those debates and criticisms. Indeed such debates and criticisms are widely believed to be signs of social health, indispensable to the improvement of those systems. In contrast, criticism and debate over capitalism as a system were considered taboo and replaced by celebration and cheerleading. Protection from criticism and debate enabled capitalism to indulge its darkest tendencies (deepening inequality, speculation, cronyism, corruption, etc.). Any component system within any society rots when kept immune from criticism and debate.

The economic crisis of capitalism since 2007 exposed that rot: the immense weaknesses and flaws that had accumulated over the previous half-century. Financial and other mega-corporations rushed to mobilize massive government assistance to save them from collapse. Clear to all, that rush mocked the previous era’s glib contrast of the private sector as efficient and the public sector as useless or worse. No political gridlock prevented the government from swiftly and nearly unanimously providing those mega-corporations with trillions in loans, guarantees, investments, and other forms of stimulus spending. Yet that same government could not end high and persistent unemployment (for example, by a federal jobs program), nor save millions from foreclosure (for example, by managing a transition from ownership to rental for those who needed that), nor stop real wages, job benefits, and job security from continuous decline (for example, by regulations preventing any declines from 2007 levels for the duration of the crisis). These and many other possible solutions, interventions in free-enterprise capitalism, were not considered, let alone examined and debated. The culture of capitalist dominance and the taboo on criticism of capitalism worked to ignore such solutions, not to mention the question of economic system change.

The same culture produced a left that is chronically disorganized (a condition often repackaged as anti-authoritarianism to disguise its impotence). It also produced a long left hibernation in a few safe social enclaves mentioned above. These afflictions rendered the left ill-equipped to recognize, let alone mobilize or lead, the US population’s increasing alienation from its economic and political leaders and institutions.

The thing speaks for itself.

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