The latest crash was apparently averted by a hair
Down below, we get to watch the show -- not that we actually know what's going on, mind you -- and we are welcome to acquire a queasy feeling that something just ain't right.
For all of us, the economy has lurched along from bubble to bubble for more than a decade. In fact, it seems from appearances that except for the bubbles and periodic speculative fevers, there's been no economic growth in the United States for a very long time.
And we see that statistically, wages have been stagnant for nigh on 30 or even 40 years, and lately -- since the enormity of the Endless Recession settled in -- they've been declining, precipitously for the Lower Orders, not so fast for the working professionals, but trending downward, ever downward, for more and more Americans, until finally wages and benefits cease altogether when the jobs are not there and the unemployment insurance runs out.
Then what do you do?
In the Lehigh Valley, they go to work for the Amazon warehouses, and they say they're glad to have a job, any job, until the required pace of work becomes too much or the heat in the building lays them low. These are working conditions equivalent to a century ago or more, working conditions that scandalized a nation when they were reported and widely known, but now? Enh. Shrug. Oh well. Too bad for them.
These are the kinds of working conditions that would lead to strikes and sabotage and worse back in the day, but now?
I remember reading some material about the Indianapolis streetcar strike of 1913, material which unfortunately I can't easily retrieve now. It was testimony from the arbitration hearings that took place after the strike, and it depicted a situation that at once oppressive and Kafka-esque for transit workers in Indianapolis on both their urban and interurban lines. (As it happens, my mother's father was a streetcar conductor in Indianapolis during the period and was killed in either an accident or deliberately -- "crushed between the cars" -- following the strike. I have always believed it was deliberate because he was a strike leader.)
Working conditions were grossly unsafe, pay was extraordinarily low, hours were very long, there were no benefits of any kind. Workers were subject to arbitrary firing, extended hours, no consideration for on the job injuries, and on and on. The transit company made it a point to forbid workers to unionize. Anyone who joined the transit union was fired.
But this was typical of the era, and were it not for risk-taking labor leaders, workers and strikers, conditions would not have improved. That most working conditions are marginally better now is a tribute to those many workers who took risks a century and more ago, but what of the deterioration of pay, benefits and working conditions since the late-1970's? Is that because workers haven't been taking risks to force improvements or is it something else?
My question can be put this way: "Is there actually an economy -- greater than subsistence -- in this country?"
If not, why not, and how long has it been so?
We're always talking about the Crisis of Capitalism, and it is very real; certainly the period we're in right now is one of constant capitalist crises, crises that are widely seen by capitalists themselves as opportunities for consolidating their positions. Of course the consolidation is happening at the expense of workers and everyone else, simply to ensure that the best off are not discommoded in any way. Their gambling debts are paid off (not forgiven, note; they are paid off) by governments around the world, and they are paid off again and again. With the money, they then inflate more and more bubbles, but after a while, it becomes clear there is no "real" economic activity going on. Yes, commodity prices are inflated over and over again, and the poorest are forced to once again pay or starve -- after a relatively long period when starvation was rare. We've reached that stage again. There is terrible suffering among the very poorest; for the rest, it is a precipitous -- or slow -- decline into poverty and penury. Survivable subsistence for most.
But is that the natural state of an economy without bubbles?
To get through the initial phases of the recession, I and others proposed very simple actions that could be taken to relieve the suffering of the masses: a comprehensive jobs program to put people back to work immediately, and substantial household debt relief. Bingo, the initial phase of the recession would have been tamed right out of the gate. I would have also canceled all derivative contracts -- those were fueling the collapse after all -- imposed a significant speculation tax and halted foreclosures.
That would have halted -- or rather slowed -- the decline for most people, and it would have kept the consumer economy going for a time at a slightly lower level. Credit would no doubt have been restricted even so, and it would be the relative difficulty of obtaining credit that would ultimately slow the economy significantly.
Ultimately we'd wind up at a quasi-subsistence level anyway.
But the route to it would have been different, and forcing tens of millions of Americans into poverty likely would have been unnecessary.
Those tens of millions have been forced into poverty in order to ensure that those on top not only remain there but continue to profit handsomely from their positions and continue to be able to speculate and gamble in the markets at will.
Curbing the urge to speculate and gamble at will at the top is part of what is necessary to contain the effects of the Endless Recession, but what's been happening instead is that every effort is being made by those who set public policy to enable speculation and gambling at the top, with, I believe, an intention to encourage the inflation of more bubbles.
Apparently the financial class believes that is the only way "economic growth" can occur any more.
"Economic growth" in scare quotes because it isn't real growth at all. It is nothing more than gaming by extraction from the Lower Orders and accumulation and hoarding by those on top. There is no "growth."
At best on the whole it's economic stasis. For the Lower Orders, it's perpetual decline. For those on top, it is a scramble for more and ever more personal wealth, but with less and less purpose except to have and hold and gamble with.
Ultimately, it is decline for almost everyone since the upper tier keeps shrinking.
We've long known what this kind of economy looks like. It can be relatively stable for hundreds and hundreds of years but only by keeping the proles subdued through constant murder and state terror. The economy, however, does not "grow." Whatever benefits the economy provides go to the top; for everyone else, nothing. Or rather, in many cases, less and always less again goes to all the rest. The entire Third World was run this way for generations; still is, except we're all becoming Third World as the crises of capitalism compound. Generally the Third World is quite stable -- except for the periodic revolutions, most of which are put down with surpassing brutality.
A few succeed, but most of them are now little more than distant memories. Or they are more and more ridiculous seeming anachronisms.
It's clear that we, the people, have little or no effect on the economic course our rulers choose to follow. Our interests aren't even considered. The simple steps that could be taken to reverse the decline of the masses are ignored. In fact, in many cases, just the opposite steps are adopted.
Every sign suggest that not only has the American economy stalled, it has ceased altogether, much as Europe's has. China and India (among some few others) continue to grow but their markets are more and more domestic rather than export, and the crisis pattern is manifesting there as well.
Marxist analysis tells us what's wrong and hints at what to do about it, but the realization of what it means to really do something about it -- well beyond the half-measures of the revolutionaries of the past -- has yet to dawn.
And could we do it without going through the dystopian Mad Max phase so prominent in lore and legend (and movies)?
At this point, we aren't even trying. That is WE aren't trying. Other are. They haven't quite found a way yet, but the search continues.
I would only add that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a subsistence economy.
It goes wrong when a handful of economic predators seek their own comfort from other people's more or less futile efforts at subsistence.