From the new May-June 2014 issue of News & Letters:
Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2014-2014
(Part II was posted yesterday.)
III. Capitalism’s political and economic degeneracy
A. Karl Marx haunts capitalism’s stagnation
Ever present in the political degeneracy is the economic degeneration of capitalism. Five years after the official end of the Great Recession, the U.S. economy is still growing at a rate below the average of the last 30 years–which was already substantially less than the rate preceding the mid-1970s global economic crisis.
In contrast, profits are high and climbing. Last year after-tax corporate profits reached a new high of $1.74 trillion, and in 2012 for the first time they exceeded 10% of gross domestic product. One big factor in this is that employee compensation has fallen to a record low percentage of total income, while the share going to corporate profits is at a record high.
That translates into a recovery for the top 1% in income distribution, who collected 95% percent of total income growth from 2009 to 2012. The other 99% have gained virtually nothing. Economic inequality in the U.S. is larger than it has been at any time since before the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Just as wealth is monopolized by a few, so are most sectors of the economy dominated by corporations with monopoly power, as typified by Monsanto in seeds and biotechnology, Walmart in retail, Comcast in internet service and cable television, Procter & Gamble in razors and detergent. Goldman Sachs, which increased its domination of sectors of finance after the 2008 crash, has branched out into manipulating materials such as copper and aluminum. The most business-friendly Supreme Court in generations has extended the political influence of these monopolists with decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon, declaring unlimited campaign donations to be “free speech.”
All these developments are part and parcel of the economic-political restructuring carried out by the capitalist class in the wake of the 1970s economic crisis, as they seek to counteract the historic fall in the rate of profit.
However, the rate of profit is still low, which is why, despite all the cash corporations are holding onto, business investment is still lower than its 2007 peak and its rate of growth has been declining. Capitalism has not proved itself capable of fully recovering from its structural crisis.
Alongside capitalism’s stagnation, the surge in both questioning of and revolt against it have forced its representatives again and again to try to drive away the revolutionary specter of Marx that never stops haunting them. Just so, The New York Times on March 30 published a “debate” on “Was Marx Right?”–making sure to stack the deck with a management consultant and three economists of the type Marx called “prizefighters for capitalism” arrayed against a token Marxist. The point is that, even as they argue that there is no alternative to capitalism, even these prizefighters have to keep returning to Marx if only to try to bury him. Conspicuously missing from the whole debate is any concept of the Humanism Marx put forward as the second negation, beyond communism’s negation of private property, to actual new human relations as the basis for a new, free society.
The March unemployment report brought hoopla about the number of private jobs having finally rebounded to where it was when the recession began six years ago–as if population growth and government job cuts did not count! In truth, the percentage of adults who have jobs is lower than it has been since 1984, when women were still entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers. The percentage of adult men who have jobs is lower now than at any time from 1948 to 2008. Those of the 99% who work full time make, on average, much less than a few years ago and in fact have gone back to 1979 levels. In addition, part-time employment is rising. Over 7 million people involuntarily work part-time.
AS GOES DETROIT, SO GOES THE NATION
Millions of older people are working because they cannot afford to retire. More than one-third of workers surveyed say they have less than $1,000 in savings. Meanwhile, many companies and government entities are freezing or slashing pensions. The much touted IRAs and 401(k) plans that have replaced many pensions made money for financial companies that run them, but many workers saw their savings melt away during the recession–or don’t make enough money to save enough in the first place.
Detroit is the new paradigm for attacking public employees, especially their pensions and healthcare benefits, and urban citizens, primarily Black and Latino, many living in poverty–as well as for massive privatization of schools, water, trash collection, and who knows what.
As one Detroit community activist expressed it,
“The pension issue in Detroit is part of a much larger movement to take pensions throughout the country. There is at least a trillion dollars in pension money. Pensioners’ money is a pot of gold at the end of a corrupt rainbow.”
The Emergency Manager’s Plan of Adjustment to restructure the city’s finances threatens to cut pensions up to 34%, after retirees have already lost a cost-of-living provision and suffered greatly increased healthcare costs. One retiree who is too young for Medicare said, “Last year I and my husband paid $126 a month in healthcare premiums. Now we have to pay $1,026 a month, with a $3,300 deductible.”
While the media often highlight decaying buildings in Detroit, the country as a whole is delinquent in public investment. Despite the modest infrastructure projects included in President Obama’s 2009 stimulus, the American Society of Civil Engineers still gave the U.S. a D+ in its infrastructure report card last year: 4,000 deficient dams, 400,000 polluted “brownfields” awaiting cleanup, 200 million trips taken daily across deficient bridges, like the I-35 W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007, killing 13 people. A large but unknown number of schools are in disrepair. Gas pipelines in New York City alone, nearly half of which are 75 years old or more, leak thousands of times a year, potentially leading to deadly explosions like the one in Harlem in March.
Just as dangerously, the ruling class has allowed its thought to decay. The global scope of the disintegration of thought glares through such events as
- The electoral power of Europe’s far Right, seen in the passage of Switzerland’s anti-immigrant referendum, the UK Independence Party’s surge in polls past the Liberal Democrats, historic gains by France’s National Front in local elections, the re-election of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and the rise of a far Right bloc in the run-up to elections for the European Parliament;
- Nigeria’s passage of an anti-Gay law giving the green light to a wave of arrests and killings, echoing events in Uganda, Cameroon, and a number of other African countries;
- Brazil’s Left government, headed by former Trotskyist guerrilla Dilma Rousseff, making itself the instrument of international capital displacing the poor, by sending police to evict thousands of people from slums in Rio de Janeiro to make way for soccer’s World Cup.
B. The race toward climate chaos
The bankruptcy of this society’s thought announces itself in the campaign of deception funded by oil companies trying to confuse the public about the reality of climate change. Just as much, it is shown in the disproportion between the scientific consensus about the urgency of confronting mounting perils of climate change and the pathetic inadequacy of any real action taken. Report after report by large scientific bodies highlighted the serious risks of grave food shortages, the loss of islands and coastal areas to rising seas, and extreme heat waves, droughts and floods. The scientific truth has not stopped greenhouse gas emissions from continuing to rise twice as fast as before the Kyoto Protocol was adopted.
Last September’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out that if the world is to have any chance to keep global warming manageable, then humanity’s future emissions of greenhouse gases must be less than what was already generated in the past 250 years of capitalist industrialization. That “carbon budget” means leaving the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground.
The UN negotiations two months later focused instead on disagreements about money, plus some isolated cuts in emissions or encouragement for renewable energy. Similarly, the Obama administration has enacted a few regulations like increased fuel mileage for cars and trucks and restrictions on coal-fired power plants–which is more than any preceding administration accomplished. Yet no mainstream politician in the U.S. or any other large producer of fossil fuels dares to get behind an actual carbon budget. Consequently, while the movement and some scientists have articulated the need to place whole categories of fuels–including coal, tar sands oil, and fracked oil and gas–off-limits, governments blithely state emissions targets with no credible plan to achieve them. ExxonMobil confidently stated that “the scenario where governments restrict hydrocarbon production in a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% [by 2040] is highly unlikely.”
On the contrary, Canada and the U.S. have conspired to maximize tar sands production, including with the Keystone XL pipeline. Saudi Arabia, China and Brazil tried to keep the “carbon budget” point out of the IPCC report. And in the most recent report, the U.S. excised from the Executive Summary an estimate that poor countries will need $100 billion a year to cope with climate change. Getting stuck with a portion of the bill for the effects of capitalist industrialization seems to be a more pressing problem than mitigating and dealing with those effects.
Apparent emission reductions in Europe and the U.S. are largely due to exporting emissions. As transnational industries based in the U.S. and Europe have shifted production to countries like China with low wages and little environmental regulation, emissions increased due to longer shipping and China’s reliance on coal, but that counts against China, now the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Compounding this, as U.S. coal consumption falls, the U.S., Canada and Australia have rushed to supply coal and tar sands oil to China and other “emerging market” countries.
Movements of youth and Indigenous peoples, some under the rubric of “climate justice,” display an entirely different attitude. Indigenous groups from across the U.S. and Canada have pledged to use direct action to resist Keystone XL if President Obama approves the pipeline. Since 2012 the Unist’ot’en resistance camp in Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia has blocked the route of the Pacific Trail pipeline for fracked gas. At Washington University in St. Louis, 20-40 students held a sit-in to protest the college’s ties to coal giant Peabody Energy.
The revolutionary heart of that attitude is manifested in the thought coming from the movement from practice. Francia Marquez Mina, founder of the Association of Afro-Colombian Women, said in a talk on “Afro-Colombians’ Struggle for Land,”
“Capitalism’s strength is at our expense. When we say that we want another model of development, it’s not just my village of La Toma but all of humanity. We need to think about a different form of economic production that is not the capitalist system. They have made us believe that there is no other form of production. We need a different form of development.”
A society that fails to maintain its infrastructure, that throws away the creative abilities of working-age and young people, that drifts toward genocide and war, that normalizes extreme anti-human thought, that races toward destruction of its environmental basis, is a society that no longer believes in its future. What it reveals is the decline of the old capitalist world and the potential for a new human one. Hegel captured it over 200 years ago:
“…the spirit of the time, growing slowly and quietly ripe for the new form it is to assume, disintegrates one fragment after another of the structure of its previous world. That it is tottering to its fall is indicated only by symptoms here and there. Frivolity and again ennui, which are spreading in the established order of things, the undefined foreboding of something unknown–all these betoken that there is something else approaching. This gradual crumbling to pieces, which did not alter the general look and aspect of the whole, is interrupted by the sunrise, which, in a flash and at a single stroke, brings to view the form and structure of the new world.”
11. The Phenomenology of Mind, by G.W.F. Hegel (Harper Torchbooks, 1967).