Where’s the Legitimacy Crisis?

In her excellent 2003 book Forces of Labor, Beverly Silver discerns within the history of capitalism an ongoing tension between the system’s simultaneous need for both profitability and legitimacy.  That is, it needs to ensure that capital can squeeze as much value as possible out of the workers while making sure that it doesn’t exploit them so much as to invite rebellion.

Of course, this conflict can likely never be permanently resolved within the confines of a capitalist system.  The method used to solve a crisis of profitability eventually stimulates a crisis of legitimacy, and vice versa.  The Great Depression and the two world wars delegitimized capitalism to the point where the continued acquiescence of the working class depended upon the establishment of the welfare state.  Profitability and legitimacy more or less peacefully coexisted in the West until the early 1970s, when the political and economic effects of the full employment welfare state (i.e. a politically powerful, economically secure working class) began to cut into profits and continued capital accumulation.  In response, capital organized itself politically, bashed the workers into submission, and embarked on a decades-long project to restore profitability and growth.

Domestic profits of financial corporations increased $33.3 billion in the third quarter, in contrast to a decrease of $3.4 billion in the second.  Domestic profits of nonfinancial corporations increased $18.6 billion in the third quarter, compared with an increase of $48.2 billion in the second.  In the third quarter, real gross value added of nonfinancial corporations decreased, and profits per unit of real value added increased.  The increase in unit profits reflected a larger increase in unit prices than in the unit labor costs and the unit nonlabor costs corporations incurred.

The rest-of-the-world component of profits decreased $7.5 billion in the third quarter, in contrast to an increase of $2.8 billion in the second.  This measure is calculated as (1) receipts by U.S. residents of earnings from their foreign affiliates plus dividends received by U.S. residents from unaffiliated foreign corporations minus (2) payments by U.S. affiliates of earnings to their foreign parents plus dividends paid by U.S. corporations to unaffiliated foreign residents.  The third-quarter decrease was accounted for by a larger increase in payments than in receipts.

SOURCE: Bureau of Economic Analysis, “National Income and Product Accounts: Gross Domestic Product, 3rd quarter 2010 (second estimate); Corporate Profits, 3rd quarter 2010 (preliminary),” 23 November 2010.

There can be little doubt that at least in the short run profitability has been restored, the recent financial crisis notwithstanding.  The New York Times reported that U.S. businesses posted a $1.659 trillion (yes, with a “t”) annualized rate of profit in the third quarter, the highest rate ever since the government began recording this statistic 60 years ago.  The report tried to claim that much of this staggering performance comes from the activities from U.S. companies abroad, but this is just eyewash.  Capital has used the ongoing economic crisis to squeeze workers even harder.  Companies around the U.S. are forcing unions to accept two-tier wage structures in contract negotiations (and of course, union leaderships are not fighting against such concessions hard enough).  They’re also cutting jobs and using the threat of further layoffs to squeeze more work out of the remaining workers, increasing profits even though sales have decreased.  Will those lost jobs ever come back?  It’s not likely.  Meanwhile, the rich are partying like it’s 2006, driving through lower Manhattan in brand new Lamborghinis, hiring dwarves for bachelor parties, wolfing down steaks at fancy restaurants, and budgeting for thousands of dollars worth of plastic surgery.

The big question now is whether or not we will see the pendulum swing back the other way, whether or not capital’s drive to restore profitability has reached an inflection point where it will stimulate a crisis of legitimacy.  There’s certainly lots of anger and resentment out there, but most of it is formless and inchoate.  Much has been made of the Tea Party’s sound and fury, but by all indications it is little more than a white upper-middle-class temper tantrum, not a populist movement of downwardly mobile working-class people.  The pain and anger that millions of people in the U.S. feel as a result of the crisis has yet to be expressed in any significant way yet, politically.  The labor-led One Nation Working Together rally and the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert confabulation don’t count, it seems to me.

Indeed, one of the most salient facts about the current conjuncture is the staggering passivity of the American public in the face of what might be the sharpest attack on its living standards in decades, even sharper than in the early years of the neoliberal offensive.  By contrast, workers, students, and sections of the middle classes in Europe have not been so silent.  Workers in Greece continue to fight massive cuts in public spending, and even though they lost French workers created significant disruption in protest of the government’s raising of the retirement age.  In early November, 50,000 students marched through central London, where a sizable minority smashed up Tory headquarters.  Students all over the UK took to the streets again later in the same month to protest the coalition government’s massive cuts to education.  And 100,000 Irish marched through Dublin in protest of their government’s ongoing austerity program, which has done nothing to achieve its ostensible goals of appeasing the bond markets and restoring business confidence.

Perhaps it will take some more time for workers, students, and the precarious middle classes in the U.S. to stir from their political torpor and challenge the unmitigated ass-kicking we have been suffering for the past two years (and the last three decades, for that matter).  After all, the Great Depression began in 1929 but social movements did not begin to stir in any significant fashion until 1933.  Perhaps consciousness needs to catch up with the pace of events, which has been truly disorienting at times.

It’s possible that the coming drive to slash Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will provide the impetus for massive, disruptive protest.  But as of yet, here in the U.S. neither capital nor a state that has so clearly failed to protect the people has been forced to confront the kind of legitimacy crisis we might have expected to occur.  The situation seems unsustainable, but the neoliberal regime in the U.S. appears to be almost immune to a crisis of legitimacy, able to deflect and sublimate discontent in a thousand different ways.  One hopes that the pendulum will swing once again, and that capital and its political servants feel the fightback that they so richly deserve.  Silver’s book does its best to marshal the evidence that it will, but the current situation is less than encouraging.

Chris Maisano is a member of the Young Democratic Socialists New York City chapter.  He studied at Rutgers and Drexel University and currently works as a librarian at a large public library branch in Brooklyn.  This article was first published in The Activist on 29 November 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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