Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Future for Progressives

yes! magazine published an article by James Gustave Speth entitled "Building the New Economy: Ten Steps We Can Take Now." (No, that's not a typo. The magazine title comes in all lower-case, so in the interests of accuracy, it appears here in lower case.) You can read the article at

With Speth's step 1, I have no argument. Our current political economy is indeed failing us socially, economically, environmentally, and politically. Speth's step 2 (progressive fusion) does not follow from step 1. There's an assumption that a set of progressive policies would correct the failure. If these policies would correct the failure, then progressive fusion makes a great deal of sense. If they would not, then progressive fusion is irrelevant, and so are steps 3-10.

What is lacking between step 1 and step 2 is an analysis of why the system is failing. Step 1 says only that the system of political economy needs to change. If we are all "progressives," then saying it needs to change in the direction of becoming more progressive is an idea we might like to believe. That does not make it right, or even close to right.

Let's step back and be explicit about what it means to be a progressive. The movement originated about a century ago. The Center for American Progress (CAP) says it "is known primarily for two major developments in American politics:

"One, political reforms crafted to break up the power of privileged interests, such as expanded suffrage, direct primaries, direct election of senators, and the initiative and referendum process

"Two, economic reforms structured to counterbalance the excessive power of business and to fight inequality measures such as the graduated income and inheritance taxes, the right to organize and other labor protections, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, old age and disability provisions, food and drug safety laws, and conservation measures"

[end quote from CAP]

These reforms were largely implemented by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In combination with the outcome of WW II, they were successful in ending the Great Depression and initiating a period of prosperity that lasted for a number of decades.

One could argue that the oil shocks of the 1970s marked the beginnings of the failure of progressive policies. We might believe the financial crisis that interrupted the 2008 Presidential campaigns was the decisive turning point. We might look at the "free trade" mania of the 1990 that resulted in the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs and other implementation of "globalization" as critical mistakes.

Regardless of when we identify the beginnings of American economic and political decline, the first impulse of today's progressives is to think, "This is just like the Great Depression. We should fix it the same way we fixed the Great Depression."

That's just wrong. It's a natural thought, but it is wrong. Today's economic crisis is not the same as the Great Depression of the 1930's. This is the Greater Depression. This will last longer and be more severe than the last Great Depression, and it cannot be solved in the same way.

There are similarities, to be sure. To start the Great Depression, a big financial bubble originating in the stock markets was popped. To start our 21st Century version, a big financial bubble originating in mortgage financing was popped. In both cases, the crisis was used as an excuse to extend corporate control of government and society by those parties - Democrats and Republicans in the United States today; Fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany then - who were in favor of corporate control in any case.

The similarities are overwhelmed by huge differences. In the 1930s, resources needed to grow the economy - energy sources, iron and copper ores, food, farmland, and so on - were abundant and cheap. The environment, in spite of the Dust Bowl caused by a combination of unsustainable farming and drought, was not nearly as degraded as it is today.

Then, the crisis was primarily financial and political. Once the economy of the 1930s was sufficiently stimulated, prosperity returned and lasted for many decades.

Now, in spite of a huge stimulus program, prosperity has not returned. Median real wages have continued declining. The mortgage crisis, instead of being resolved by letting bankrupt institutions go bankrupt, has been turned into a sovereign debt crisis. European countries are the first to admit contracting economies, but they won't be the last.

In terms of resources, the world has changed a lot since 1930. Now, the world has roughly three times the population it did at the onset of the Great Depression. Even if natural resources were not themselves depleted, this means that we now would have 1/3 of the resources per capita. In fact, we have much less than 1/3 of the resources per capita.

Peak oil is driving a frantic search for alternative fuels and for oil in absurdly inaccessible and difficult regions of the earth. Global warming is bringing both more flooding and more drought, with even more to come. Most ocean fish stocks have already collapsed and the ocean is becoming more acidic, meaning recovery is at best unlikely. There are lots of ways in which economic growth since the Great Depression has overshot natural limits.

The short story is, the resources needed to grow the economy have largely been used up and are now in short supply. Then, resources needed to grow the economy - energy sources, iron and copper ores, food, farmland, and so on - were abundant and cheap. The environment then was not threatened by the accumulation of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere driving both global warming and ocean acidification. It was not threatened by fallout from Chernobyl and Fukushima and all the potential meltdowns we still might experience. If and when the financial part of today's economic failures is fixed, we still cannot expect a peacefully growing economy.

Progressive solutions have been tried. They worked, to allow an expanding global economy to benefit both ordinary people as well as corporations. They won't work again, because the real economy is not capable of continued growth. For the foreseeable future, we are going to have a contracting global economy and, with the winding down of the American Empire, an American economy that contracts more rapidly than others.

It should be clear that corporations are now mostly opposed to the welfare of the general population. Wal-Mart has displaced local businesses (both retail and manufacturing) by promoting cheap labor in manufacturing overseas and less than living wages for the ordinary workers in its outlets. So many corporations have restored profits by laying off workers and closing plants that it is an accepted management strategy, and has been for decades in the former industrial heartland of America. It's commonplace to note that banks got bailed out while the rest of us did not, and the rest of us are supposed to pay for the bailout.

If we want to have a society that operates on principles of democracy, social justice and protecting the natural environment, we're going to have to figure out how we can do this in a contracting economy, and without making the false promise that our policies can restore the old kind of economic growth, or any economic growth at all.

We need to use democratic means to advance our values under conditions of economic contraction. To do that, we either have to break the corporate control of politics or hope for the self-destruction of that corporate control; or both. We need to overcome the military response to protest and dissent. We need to create an economy that works within boundaries set by the natural environment. That does not mean unlimited energy for everyone, or even comfort for everyone, but we need the large majority of the population to support long-term sustainability.

If and when we have worked all that out, I'm pretty sure we'll be so different from the progressives of 1890-1920 that we will no more be progressives than we will be abolitionists or suffragists or environmentalists. Whatever we will call ourselves, we will be living in a much warmer world with limited resources, diminished population and much less per capita energy consumption than we are now used to. I doubt we'll want to call it progress, though I hope it will be better than the numerous dystopias imagined in "Mad Max," "The Hunger Games" and so on.

Progressive fusion is a dead end. The progressive approach of the last century is no match for the issues of this century. We need realistic ways of responding to the issues of today. To repeat the main point:  These issues will not be solved by a resumption of economic growth, because the global economy has already grown past its natural limits.

Art Myatt

1 comment:

  1. Hi Art, I just read this article last night, and enjoy your comments. I think it is important to point out that "conservative fusion" is based on so many lies. We need to be persistant in pointing those lies out to those with conservative views.