'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Sub-Proletarianization of America: An Overview 

I was perusing the articles posted over at Counterpunch, and came across one written by a kindred spirit, Carl Ginsberg:

"Crisis” is in the eye of the beholder. The Obama administration thinks in terms of years. Others are on a shorter leash. While millions are being marginalized right now, our president, and a supportive press, prepares us for consumer credit relief in the form of enhanced notice … in a law to be decreed a year from now, in the summer of 2010; he proposes new regulations for stockholder input on executive compensation (don’t the big stockholders already elect the board which pays the managers?); and his economists predict a return to positive economic growth in Q3. Overall, Treasury Secretary Geithner sees “important signs of recovery.” Abby Joseph Cohen of Goldman Sachs puts it this way: “We do see profit margins picking up.” Hang in there everybody. And save.

You wouldn’t know from these sources –in particular the millionaires that make up Obama’s West Wing as well as the wealthy reporters who chronicle it - that multitudes of Americans are getting slammed hard and it’s getting worse everyday, every single day. Crisis is everywhere. Wages and salaries have fallen at an annual rate of 3.1 per cent. Half of that decline is attributed to plummeting manufacturing, where most jobs are unlikely to return soon, if ever. Economist Mark Zandi believes that the US will have negative wage growth this year. According to Money magazine, 30 per cent of workers employed now, or about 42 million people, are independent contractors, part-timers, temporary staffers or self-employed—a contingent workforce expected to grow to 40 per cent in ten years. Crisis as a way of life. “There’s no use trying to avoid the inevitable,” says Money. Obama would say avoiding the inevitable is irresponsible.

For some, joblessness is the antithesis of crisis. It is opportunity. People without work equates to competition for employment which means low wages which means enhanced profits. In case you haven’t noticed, the stock market is up. Bond sales by businesses were $570 billion in Q1, a record…. Net financial investment in Q1 was $340 billion, also a record. Go Go.

I started posting about what I considered to be the essential socioeconomic characteristics of the bursting of the housing bubble in July 2007. At that time, the global economy was still growing, but the dark storm clouds of recession were clearly visible over the horizon, like a squall line in the Panhandle on a late July afternoon. I grasped that the signature feature of the coming crisis would be the increasing vulnerability of the populace as lenders curtailed access to credit. During the final weeks of the presidential campaign, as Congress passed the bailout over massive opposition, I observed, along with others, that the recession, and the governmental response to it, were being exploited to oligopolize the economy. Meanwhile, I warned that workers faced a bleak, insecure future despite the election of Barack Obama.

In short, as described by Ginsberg, I anticipated that corporate interests would seek to recover their lost, outsized profitability by a permanent transformation of the economy, a transformation centered around increased subsidy while workers paid the price through shortened work hours, increased taxes and unemployment. Several important sectors of the economy have experienced enormous job losses and many of them will never return, or, if they do, as noted by Ginsberg, most of them will be temporary ones. It is, as you might imagine, a sensitive subject that the mainstream media addresses with great care.

Back in the summer of 2007, the sub-proletarianization of America was an abstract concept, a tentative generalization of the social consequences of the global collapse of neoliberal economics. Neoliberalism, as it emerged and matured over the last 30 to 40 years, empowered global capital at the expense of workers, especially semi-skilled and unskilled ones, lesser developed countries and poor people overall because its central tenets, privatization of public resources, free movement of capital, deregulation and fiscal austerity, all operated to transfer wealth from laborers to investors, while further concentrating power in transnational corporations and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Meanwhile, governments were deprived of the funds necessary to provide essential social services, such as health, education, housing and welfare, as these were considered prime investment opportunities.

Contrary to a some liberal to progressive idealist thought of the previous decade, I never believed that neoliberalism carried within it the seeds of it own destruction and substitution by a more humane social order. Of course, I perceive a dialetical process in most socioeconomic matters, neoliberalism included, but not necessarily always for the better. So, when the housing bubble burst in 2007, I understood that it meant the end of an era of neoliberal economics as we had known it, but I did not believe that it was a harbinger of a new socially progressive era, as do a lot of my progressive friends who continue to embrace Barack Obama, warts and all.

Instead, I perceived that the bursting of the housing bubble, and the collapse of the numerous pyramid schemes associated with the extension of debt around the world, announced a new historical period in which both people and governments would be forced to prostrate themselves even more before the gods of capital. Demoralized by the recession, people would have even less of an ability to organize themselves effectively in a collective fashion, leaving the way clear for capital to assert even more control over governmental policy. Existing institutions, such as labor unions, for example, would be incapable of facilitating such organization after their enervating record of performance in recent years.

Hence, a nihilism stalks the land, and it is this nihilism that constitutes the primary feature of the sub-proletarianization of America as it has evolved from being an abstract conception of the future into a sinister description of the present. And, what are the other features of this new social order that has almost been completely constructed? Here's a cursory summary:

(1) the subsidization of transnational finance by the federal government without limitation and without preconditions;

(2) the degradation, and, in some instances, the elimination, of essential social services as states are required to brutally slash budgets in response to market pressure as communicated by declining tax revenue, despite the fact that the states, and the people dependent upon their services, had no responsibility for the decisions that caused the collapse of neoliberal finance;

(3) the subjection of people to the ruthlessness of the market, declining wages, job losses and home foreclosures, even as they pay taxes to a federal government that subsidizes the continued operation of financial institutions;

(4) planned benefit reductions in essential social programs for people, such as Medicare and Social Security, programs pejoratively described as entitlements, so as to impose fiscal austerity upon the populace in order to pay for open-ended subsidization of capital;

(5) an increasing tendency to target undocumented immigrants and people of color for the economic collapse, so as to distract attention away from the class warfare currently conducted by the elite;

(6) a fracturing of social movements dependent upon liberal and progressive support along a subterranean fault line separating those who survive, and even thrive, under current economic conditions, and those who do not;

(7) an entrenchment of a form of identity politics, wherein elites in communities of color celebrate their own successes, and ascribe them to neo-Social Darwinist doctrines of personal responsibility even as many of their brethren drown as the last remaining life lines of support in their communities in the form of jobs, government assistance and charitable organizations are pulled away.

Certainly, this is a contentious list, because we are dealing with the characterization of something as it emerges and evolves, and beyond that, there is the recognition that any attempt to characterize anything is inescapably imperfect. For us, the challenge before us is not an academic one of study and characterization, but, rather, what can we do to reverse what looks more and more like the consolidation of a harsh, inflexile system of social control and expropriation that will be with us for many years to come?

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