The hand-wringing has begun. How can American citizens vote to take Congressional control away from the Democratic Party and hand it back to the Republican Party, the very organization that ran the country into the ground during the decade and a half when it controlled either one or both chambers of Congress? How can voters be so blind to their own self-interest?
Actually, the answer isn’t that difficult to figure out. Voting either against one’s own interest or, alternatively, for candidates who do not really represent one’s interests but are promoted as being somewhat less cavalier in their disregard for the principles of representative democracy, is now standard operating procedure. This confusion is yet another reflection of the triumph of Stage-4 corporate consumer capitalism that I spoke about in my last blog.
The nature of that triumph? To have transformed almost all 310 million Americans into a contemporary version of the lumpenproletariat, a class made up of members who not only fail to grasp their collective interests but actually tend to identify with the very social class – the ruling elite – that has its boot on their necks.
As first described in the 19th century, the lumpenproletariat consisted of fringe dwellers at society’s lowest margins – con men, pickpockets, brothel keepers, whores, vagrants, street vendors, drifters and the like. The new American twist? Our lumpenproletariat consists not just of the underclass but the middle class as well.
So how did we end up with this curious state of affairs?
First, and perhaps most important, it required the dismantling of the only class that possessed the size, solidarity, and determination to wrest even minimal reform out of a system dominated by corporations: the industrial working class – the proletariat as opposed to the lumpenproletariat.
It is wrong to assign a monopoly of virtue to any economic class. At the same time, it is true that, over the long period between the rise of the workers movement in the last quarter of the 19th century until the end of World War II, America’s industrial work force mustered the clout and militancy to counter the overwhelming power (and greed) of corporate capitalism, forcing a reluctant ruling elite to accept a ban on child labor, the eight hour day, the 40 hour work week, sick leave, unemployment benefits, the rights of workers to organize unions, and the rest of the still fairly slender list of protections American workers came to enjoy.
After World War II, the corporate class set out to regain the initiative — and its former nearly limitless roster of privileges — by defanging the workers movement. Assisted by an anomalous boom only made possible by the war’s destruction of the industrial capacity in every other advanced nation, the capitalists succeed in co-opting the leadership and then the rank-and-file of the industrial labor movement with promises of a new paradigm in which management and workers would now be partners rather than antagonists, part of the same team working toward the same goal: a prosperous, suburbanized, post-political, post-conflict era of the American Dream.
By the end of the 50s, the combination of good times and constant corporate messaging succeeded in emasculating proletariat militancy, solidarity, and class consciousness. From there it was only a short time before America’s corporate class achieved its next big victory.
Although its long-term effects were unremarked upon at the time, the Supreme Court under Nixon-appointee Warren Burger – the first pro-business Supreme Court since the Depression – used specious arguments to, in effect, overturn usury laws then on the books in a majority of the states. Until the late 70s, for example, Minnesota had a law that capped interest rates on any kind of lending at 9.5 per cent. The Burger Court decision voided that and similar laws.
The end of usury laws ushered in the era of easy credit – and growing national and personal indebtedness – which has now brought the economy to its knees. This, you will recall, was when everyone and his just-paroled brother began receiving multiple “pre-approved” credit card applications in the mail every day of the week. Before long we had the S&L crisis, the dot.com collapse, and the housing bubble – all made possible by the availability of easy credit unleashed by the ability of lenders to charge any rate of interest they thought they could manage to extract.
The other long-term effect of this Supreme Court decision was to trigger a flight of investment capital from industry into the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) segment of the economy. After all, why lend money to a manufacturing company with the prospects of realizing, at most, a 10 percent return on your investment, when you could use that same money to invest in banks, credit card companies, speculative real estate, or for-profit health insurance organizations and realize 15, 20, maybe even 30 per cent rates of return?
The loss of investment was one of the factors that set off the now almost complete outsourcing of industrial jobs – several million of them between the end of the 1970s and 2010. Most of these jobs, not coincidentally, ended up being shipped to so-called developing nations devoid of the vexing employment, health, and safety laws gained at such a great price by the American labor movement. Today, the outsourcing has moved beyond its original target and threatens domestic employment in almost every economic sector.
No proletariat, no class consciousness working on behalf of worker welfare. No militancy, no solidarity, no more problems for corporate capitalism, which was now free to move in with its new-found riches and complete its purchase of the two national parties. Today, the difference between those parties can be summed up in this way: the Republican Party supports endless war abroad and Social Darwinism at home while the Democratic Party supports endless war abroad and Social Darwinism at home – but with tax credits for charitable donations.
The last step in transforming the American public into one great undifferentiated lumpenproletariat involves the media and organized labor’s continuing fecklessness in the face of corporate America’s determination to destroy the workers movement once and for all.
More about that – and what we need to do if we really don’t wish to see the United States turn irreversibly into a feudal nation of masters and serfs in my next blog entry.