This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
For progressives committed to reasoned debate about public ends—competent democratic government, peace and broadly shared prosperity, an environment that will allow human flourishing in future generations—these are dark times.
In international affairs, when one considers the medieval sectarian religious violence of ISIS (but with modern weapons!); the rising income and political inequality to be found nearly everywhere; our abject failure to arrest species-extinguishing carbon emissions; the private-investor coup of the Trans-Pacific Partnership; a revived Cold War with Russia; and unending air wars on Islamic terrorists that chiefly fuel their recruitment base, there is little trace of an effective progressive presence—or sometimes even sanity.
And in national politics, especially in the rich countries of North America and Europe, things seem even worse. There, for a long generation after World War II, social democracy and its Keynesian welfare state secured an uneasy but productive peace between capitalism and democracy. But that peace is no more. The chief reason is that the world it worked in—national economies still relatively insulated from international competitive pressure, led by a limited number of large, functionally centralized and vertically integrated firms, organizing work in stable systems of hierarchical control—is also no more. It’s been replaced by one of much more internationalized and digitalized production, by changing constellations of functionally decentralized and vertically disintegrated firms, drawing from a global labor force that includes billions of workers paid a tiny fraction of what their rich-country counterparts make.
This new world has disrupted labor movements across the globe and eliminated any trace of the home-country loyalty previously displayed by big business. But its greatest casualty has been public confidence in liberal democracy itself. At no time in the past century has that been lower than today.
You can’t blame the public for this. Politics has truly failed them. For more than a generation now, virtually every important elected leader has told the same story: “Capital is free to move anywhere. Any tax or regulation we impose on it will be cost, and any cost a spur to its movement elsewhere, which will hurt us all. So while we feel your pain, you must understand that our ability to regulate or tax capital is gone. Get used to it.” That this story ignores some crucial facts—the real-world “stickiness” of much investment; the self-supply of most economies; the dependence of the service sector, which supplies most of the jobs requiring immobile labor; the power of government purchasing to shape private markets; and the obvious fact that many taxes pay for things that capital sorely needs—doesn’t stop its devout repetition. Nor did financial capital’s crashing the world system in 2008.