Capitalism and its many crises

In an era when capitalism championed by corporates is the global order, the author’s analysis of contemporary America deserves attention.

Published : Feb 14, 2018 12:30 IST

WRITTEN in 2016 immediately after Donald Trump assumed office as the President of the United States, this book aims to present a critical analysis of the contemporary nature of the American economy, polity and society. Dale L. Johnson, the author, trained as a sociologist in the U.S. and was a student activist in the 1960s, but after retirement lives in Costa Rica.

The blurb states: “The author analyses neoliberal global order and its political expressions through discussions of the dominance of finance capital in the late twentieth century, the triumph of ideology, the closing of avenues to reform, the problem of the captive state, and a sociological analysis of ‘divide and conquer’.” Anybody who reads the book must be prepared for this broad sweep and also for the author’s frequent admission: “I am given to overstatement to try to make a polemical statement.”

The setting of the book is the dramatic uprising early in the present century by a mob to take over Wall Street, the heart of U.S. capitalism, claiming to be the 99 per cent against the richest 1 per cent. Statistical analyses done by scholars, voluntary agencies and even official bodies such as the International Monetary Fund have shown that globally and within most countries, too, the top 1 per cent of the population has possibly 50 per cent of the wealth, and within that, the share of the top 0.1 per cent is even more disproportionate. Over time the distribution is becoming more unequal. Johnson explains why this is happening. Growing inequality in income and wealth is an inherent feature of capitalism and particularly so when finance comes to dominate the economy as has been happening since the 1980s, first in the U.S. and then globally. The rule is not trickling down but rushing up, says the author, a case of what he calls “degenerative development”.

Why is this happening in the U.S. of all places, claimed to be the land of the free and the home of democracy? The major part of the book is the attempt to provide the answer. A simple answer is that the U.S. is not a democracy (“of the people, by the people and for the people”) but a plutocracy (rule of the rich, by and for the rich). The wealthy dominate the U.S. Congress: In 2007, 45 per cent of representatives and 67 per cent of Senators were millionaires, and their wealth increased 11 per cent in the crisis years 2008-11. In the same period, some 50 million people turned to food stamps to eat, and efforts have been on to curtail programmes such as Medicaid; 40 per cent of households earn incomes near or below the recognised poverty line.

Why then are the people not revolting or, at least, speaking up? Indeed, there is a lot of speaking up as witnessed during the election campaign where popular discontent found expression almost as a “class war” but was presented as the problems of the “middle class”.

A hidden weakness of democracies is the tendency to have the discontent of the majority communicated either as vague categories such as the middle class or as the more specific complaints of colour, domicile, religion, sex, and so on. Class as an analytical category gets diffused by descriptive specificities of more obvious differences.

There are other methods used by the rulers to glide over the innate conflict between those who benefit from the capitalist system and those who are exploited by it. One of them is to pretend to be the self-appointed champion of “freedom” throughout the world and to go to war against other countries to defend it. The wars against Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq (and against “dictatorships” in Latin America) are clear examples. They divert attention from domestic issues, and of course, the manufacture and sale of arms are among the more profitable avenues for the capitalist class.

Closely related to this are the constant claims made about “American exceptionalism” and America being entrusted with the mission of spreading democracy and Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” so that it can regain the global leadership that is its right. Hence its intelligence agencies have the obligation to be active all over the world. And it claims to have the right to use unilateral pre-emptive military means against any nation or political group or social movement that appears to challenge its global mission.

In the closing chapters of the book, the author turns to some strategies for change. To pretend that war, terror and torture are not one’s concern, to submit to the inhumanity of the destruction of social programmes, to claim ignorance or innocence in the face of these or to observe passively the dirtiest of deeds of rulers is to be complicit, he says. He adds that it is a moral obligation for decent human beings to protest against injustice in whatever form it takes.

What he considers most appropriate in the contemporary scene in the U.S. is the platform presented by Bernie Sanders, who lost to Hillary Clinton in the bid for nomination as the Democratic candidate in the latest presidential election.

Sanders’ election manifesto had some features of socialism but did not go far enough. “What is needed is a political vehicle for the total elimination of capitalism as a system. A viable third party in the United States, even if successfully founded, is trapped in the rigged two-party arrangement and an electoral college system that gives disproportionate weight to rural and less populated states where the Republicans rule.”

This is not a counsel of despair, though. Johnson quotes the slogan of the 1968 worldwide student revolt: “Be Realistic, Imagine the Impossible.” Where there is not much room for reform, demanding the impossible is the strategic guideline, says the author. “Go where you are not supposed to go; say what you are not supposed to say; stay where they tell you to leave…. These are the main means to get attention and therefore to achieve the broadcasting of just cause to a wider audience…. The power of the downtrodden lies mainly in making normality unworkable, in placing bodies in places so the wheels of routine don’t turn.”

More active strategies must also be tried, boycott, disinvestment, sanctions, and so on. Demands and actions must be prioritised too. A sit-in may be effective on some occasions; a more powerful protest will be required against war; when “law and order” is put forward as justification for official use of force, violating the law may have to be the strategy. The cause and the context decide the course of action.

Given that capitalism championed by corporates is now the global order and that ruling establishments in most countries of the world are aligned with it, Johnson’s analysis of contemporary America deserves attention notwithstanding many of its overstatements and polemics.

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