For years, U.S. political and economic leaders saw themselves in mortal combat with communist nations for the allegiance of peoples at home and abroad. The pressure of being in competition with an alternative economic system set limits on how thoroughly Western leaders dared to mistreat their own working populations.
Indeed, during the Cold War, pains were taken to demonstrate how much finer life was for workers under capitalism. Time and again, the argument was made that U.S. workers enjoyed a higher standard of living than their opposite numbers chafing under the yoke of communism.
Statistics were rolled out to show that Soviet workers had to toil many more hours than our workers to buy various consumer goods. No comparisons were offered in regard to medical care, rent, housing, education, transportation, and other services that were heavily subsidized in communist countries.
The concern about communism helped the civil rights struggle. Since we supposedly were competing with Moscow for the hearts and minds of nonwhites in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, it was considered imperative that we rid ourselves of Jim Crow and grant equality to our own people of color. Many of the arguments made against segregation were couched in just that opportunistic rhetoric: not racial equality for justice’s sake but because it would improve America’s image in the Cold War.
The overthrow of communism in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European nations caused much rejoicing among the higher circles in this country. Except for a few holdouts like Cuba and North Korea, transnational corporate capitalism now seemed to have its grip on the entire globe.
Yet, an impatient plaint soon could be detected in conservative publications. It went something like this: “If everywhere socialism is being rolled back by the free market, why is there no rollback here in the United States? Why do we have to continue tolerating all sorts of collectivist regulations and not-for profit services?”
By 1992, it became clear to many conservatives that now was the time to cast off all restraint and sock it to the employee class. The competition for their hearts and minds was over. As Margaret Thatcher is credited with saying: TINA (There Is No Alternative) was now the new order of things.
There was no other place for working masses to think of going. Triumphant global capitalism was now the only game in town. Having scored a total victory, Big Capital now would be able to write its own ticket at home and abroad. There would be no more accommodation, not with blue-collar workers, nor even with white-collar professionals or middle management. The politico-economic reactionaries who preside over this country no longer feet that they need to make a “historic compromise” with those who work for a living.
Throughout history, there has been only one thing that ruling classes have ever wanted — and that is everything: all the choice lands, forests, game, herds, harvests, mineral deposits, and precious metals of the earth; all the wealth, riches, and profitable returns; all the productive facilities, gainful inventiveness, and technologies; all the control positions of the state and other major institutions; all public supports and subsidies, privileges and immunities; all the protections of the law with none of its constraints; all the services, comforts, luxuries, and advantages of civil society with none of the taxes and costs.
Every ruling class has wanted only this: all the rewards and none of the burdens. The operational code is: we have a lot; we can get more; we want it all.
What we are witnessing is the Third Worldization of the United States, the economic downgrading of a relatively prosperous population. Corporate circles see no reason why millions of working people should be able to enjoy a middle-class living standard, with home ownership, surplus income, paid vacations, medical insurance, seniority, and secure long-term employment. They also see no reason why the middle class itself should be as large as it is.
As the haves would have it, people must lower their expectations, work harder, and be satisfied with less. The more they get, the more they will demand, until we will end up with a social democracy — or worse. Better to keep them down and hungry with their noses to the grindstone.
It’s time to return to nineteenth-century standards, the kind that currently obtain throughout the Third World — specifically, an unorganized working populace that toils for a bare subsistence; a mass of unemployed, desperate poor who help to depress wages and serve as a target for the misplaced resentment of those just above them; a small, shrinking middle class that hangs on by its bleeding fingers; and a tiny, obscenely rich owning class that has it all.
The haves are pulling out the stops. For them, it’s time to cut back drastically on such luxuries as public education, affordable medical care, public libraries, mass transportation and other publicly funded human services, so that “people will get government off their backs and have the opportunity to learn how to take care of themselves.”
So it is time to do away with unions, business regulations, taxes on investment income, minimum-wage laws, occupational safety, consumer safety, and environmental protections. All these things cut into profits. Every dollar that goes into the public sector is one less for the private sector. And the haves want it all.
The reactionary rollback in the United States is being replicated to a lesser degree throughout most of Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Many commentators — including some who pretend to be on the left — are insisting more than ever that class is no longer a key concept, and class conflict is no longer a central issue. They tell us we must not succumb to what they simplistically and repeatedly refer to as the politics of nostalgia; we must realize that Marxism (of any variety) is no longer relevant.
In fact the global corporate elites are waging class war more determinedly than ever. “Capitalism with a human face” has become capitalism in your face. Perhaps the problem with some of our friends is that they are succumbing to the politics of denial.
Michael Parenti’s most recent books are Superpatriotism (City Lights) and The Assassination of Julius Caesar (New Press), now out in paperback.