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The Poverty of 21st Century Progressivism

“The West is living through an economic and social crisis so unprecedented in its tempo, so complex in its effects, that there are many who do not know that it is taking place.”

                    — Michael Harrington, The Next Left (1987)

The nationalization of American International Group and the continuing turmoil in the economy have forced many Americans to take a second look at some of the complex issues facing capitalism in the new millennium.

While mainstream opinion continues to vacillate between the approved economic dogmas of market correction and increased regulation, few have proffered any critical analysis of the structural crisis in the latest phase of capitalism.

The glaring absence of any such consideration in mainstream opinion is to be expected given the ideological blindness — not to mention complicity — of mainstream and business media in promoting the absolute supremacy of free market capitalism.  But the deafening silence of many progressive media outlets on the systematic nature of the crisis is deeply troubling.

While the 2008 presidential election has justifiably received a great deal of attention and has been the subject of a substantial amount of political commentary, it should not be the case that progressives remain silent in light on the tremendous crisis engulfing capitalism in our moment.  Nor should progressive analysis of the current economic crisis be framed by a cult of personality critique that places full blame on the rogue Bush-Cheney regime.

If progressivism is to mean something more than just a euphemism for center-left Democrats or more than the latest Democratic branding strategy in light of the decades long conservative assault on the term liberal, then progressives must articulate a substantive critique of what John Bellamy Foster terms “monopoly finance capital.”

What this means is that analyses of the current economic crisis should be grounded in the long term view of the increased growth and influence of the monetary and financial aspects of capitalist political economy since the mid-1960s and the evolution of this transformation throughout the decades of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and the opening decades of the millennium.  As economist James Crotty noted in 1985:

[I]t is evident that monetary and financial problems have been and continue to be at the very center of the recurring economic crises that have afflicted most capitalist economies in the past fifteen to twenty years.  These economies have experienced roller-coaster inflation, secular stagnation, domestic credit crunches, and recurring waves of bankruptcy. . . .  The business press asks with regularity if an international financial collapse of depression-producing magnitude is very likely, or only moderately likely:  the answer changes from time to time.

In this phase, capitalism represents nothing less than what Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy aptly describe as a “gigantic system of speculating, swindling, and cheating.”  Thus, the economic landscape has been marked by such developments as the deregulation of the savings and loans industry under President Carter, the 1979 bailout of Chrysler, the collapse of over seven hundred saving and loan associations in the 1980s, the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s, the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000, and, of course, the devastating economic crises of the new millennium populated by names such as Enron, WorldCom, Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, and the list goes on.

The dominant responses to the current upheaval in the financial markets have been met with calls for more explicit and robust regulatory controls.  Among other things, this rhetorical strategy fundamentally reaffirms the foundational principles and core correctness of market capitalism while offering an explanatory rationale that places blame on a few unethical individuals and rogue institutions.  Moreover, it fails to shed light on the convergence of interests of business and political elites as well as the ongoing class war that has eviscerated the ranks of unionized labor, stagnated wages, and casualized workers across all sectors of the economy.

It may not be opportune to begin such discussions in final days of a closely fought presidential campaign.

However, if progressives ignore the deep and systemic crisis of capitalism that, at best, marginalizes the lives, dreams, and hopes of the majority of American citizens, progressivism in the 21st century will not only be impoverished, but will also be part of the problem and not the solution to the general crisis of democracy in America.


Corey D. B. Walker is an assistant professor of Africana studies at Brown University and the author of A Noble Fight: African American Freemasons and the Struggle for Democracy in America.  This article first appeared in CounterPunch on 18 September 2008.  It is reproduced here for educational purposes.



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