Politics may, as Karl Marx suggested, be an epiphenomenon resting on the “economic foundation” of society, but still have interesting things to tell us. The Democratic Party seems—I write this in the aftermath of Super Tuesday—to have successfully eliminated Bernie Sanders as a candidate. This was the work not just of party officials, who made no secret of their intention to control the nomination, but also of the voters, who in most places stuck with the old political machinery. Young voters, on whom rode the hopes of the Sanders camp, remained in the actual largest party—the 40-plus percent of eligible voters who don’t bother to go to the polls. So the choice on offer will be between two elderly white men, both notable liars and scoundrels, and both apparently in some early stage of dementia. If we needed living symbols for the accelerating decline of capitalism, here they are.
Sanders actually, so far as one can tell, wants to make America great again; Noam Chomsky got it exactly right recently when he described him as not a socialist but an Eisenhower Democrat.1 He wants to go back to the 1950s, when an expanding economy allowed for the simultaneous growth of profitable investment and increasing real wages. In that happy time, the rich were taxed and highways built. If the Cold War called for an expanding nuclear arsenal and the occasional use of the CIA or Marines to overthrow an elected government, it was still possible for a former general, then a retiring president, to warn of the dangers of a military-industrial complex.
But those days are gone for good. The defeat in Vietnam, announcing the limits of American state hegemony over much of the world, came together with the mid-1970s economic crisis that signaled the end of the post-war prosperity and the beginning of a long decline of investment, productivity gains, and general well-being in the United States and the world as a whole. Under these circumstances, the End Times idea, so popular among Evangelical Christians, has flourished in secular reality as well. It’s as though it would be pointless to think about the future. In particular, there is no political will to use the flood of imaginary money conjured by the world’s central banks for anything but the short-term goal of further enrichment of the rich. Meanwhile, highways and bridges decay, an impoverished working class is driven into homelessness, and the quickening injection of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere relentlessly acts to melt glaciers, raise sea levels, and produce drought and wildfires here, flooding there, and growing throngs of refugees from war and starvation roaming the earth. In this world, the only “realistic” political positions are personal greed and self-aggrandizement, on the one hand, and the wish-dream that enough talk about “incremental change” will stave off or even just slow down the full descent into social chaos, on the other.
Those who worry about a revival of fascism are on the wrong track. Fascism was a politics of optimism and progress, an attempt to sweep away the effeminacy of parliamentary politics to create a rigorously unified national will, embodied in the Leader, capable of building strong, internationally competitive, national economies. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian despot, may rail at international Jewry in the shape of George Soros, but what he’s really up to is enriching his family and friends by collecting EU agricultural subsidies, while the Hungarians slave away in European auto factories. Trump seems genuinely ignorant about economics and politics (and also genuinely lazy) but in addition to expressing a truth about the competitive relationship among the US, Asia, and Europe, his main efforts have been directed at reducing the tax burden on the wealthy and removing health and environmental regulations weighing on business. This is not Thousand-Year planning, not a struggle to found a resurgence of American strength.
And how could it be? Trump can rant against German automakers, but BMW’s largest factory is in South Carolina. What began as another health crisis cover-up in China is now shutting down the world economy. Even though they recognize that, as an excellent article in the New York Times put it, “the fundamental threat to the world economy is the continued spread of the coronavirus,” governments are no more willing to take the necessary steps to deal with it than they are to slow global climate change. As Adam S. Posen, former rate-setter at the Bank of England and now president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics (no hotbed of leftist thought), put it:
If you don’t spend money for people put out of work with [sic] no fault of their own when there’s a clear public health virtue in making it in workers’ interests to stay home and not spread the virus, then everything else by comparison is a complete waste. … [We] only overspend on things for business, and for very privileged interest groups. We never spend enough for average working people.2
This could be Bernie talking. But look where that got him. If you want to gauge the chances of a Green New Deal, look at the response to Covid-19, a clear and present danger not just to human life but to money-making itself.
So here we are. In the short run, the global recession that was already brewing and is now being hastened by the coronavirus on which it will be blamed, will at least slow down the pace of CO2 emissions.3 (In fact, the Financial Post has already reported the good news that “global oil demand is expected to decline by the largest volume in recorded history in the first quarter, dealing another blow to fiscally vulnerable Canadian oil producers.”4) Capitalism is still powerful enough to generate pandemics, thanks to factory farming, the concentration of people in cities, and inadequate attention to public health,5 but it does not seem able to escape economic stagnation and social paralysis. The wishful thinking that we could escape that fate without shattering political business as usual showed its poverty in the failure of the Sanders campaign. The choice which was always there is once again made clear: if people wish to avoid the future so brilliantly captured by the slogan of Extinction Rebellion they will have to take social affairs into their own hands, and not wait for another elderly gent or lady to fix things for them.
- C.J. Polychroniou, “Noam Chomsky: Sanders Threatens the Establishment by Inspiring Popular Movements,” Truthout, February 3, 2020, https://truthout.org/articles/noam-chomsky-sanders-threatens-the-establishment-by-inspiring-popular-movements/
- Peter S. Goodman, “Richest Countries Slow to Limit Toll,” New York Times, March 4, 2020, p. B5.
- Paul Mattick, “Editor’s Note: Let’s Have That Recession!” Brooklyn Rail, October 2019, https://brooklynrail.org/2019/10/field-notes/Lets-Have-That-Recession
- See the outstanding analysis by Chuang: “Social Contagion: Microbiological class struggle in China,” Chuang,, http://chuangcn.org/2020/02/social-contagion/