A World in Revolt: The Global Backlash Against Budget Cuts and the U.S. Non-Response
by Anthony Dimaggio
Protests in the U.S.: What are we Waiting for?
The United States is suffering under its own economic calamity over the last few years too. Unemployment is consistently increasing, while massive state budget cuts are succeeding in throwing out hundreds of thousands across the states in recent years. Underemployment is currently at over 20 percent, while unemployment benefits were barely extended in a bitter national debate between both parties this summer. To make matters worse, the economy is limpingalong, showing little sign of a real recovery, while the specter of future bank and financial failures loom in the background.
Many will wonder, why is there so much activism throughout the rest of the world, but comparatively much less in the United States in resisting neoliberalism and austerity based budget cuts? Part of the explanation in the cases of resistance in Greece, Spain, Mozambique, South Africa, and Bangladesh is the fact that workers in those countries are comparatively much worse off than Americans when it comes to deteriorating pay, benefits, and other worker protections. Unemployment levels are often much higher than in the U.S., while pay levels have long been comparative lower. This explanation, however, is partial at best. The U.K. is characterized by a stronger social welfare state than that seen in the U.S., and less extreme conditions for workers, with 7.8 percent unemployment compared to the United States’ 9.6 percent unemployment. Yet, British public sector workers are far more organized and intolerant of the gutting of public education France has a similar level of unemployment to the U.S. at 10 percent and a far more advanced social welfare state, yet its workers have responded with a coordinated national campaign to protest budget cuts. In contrast, American protests against far larger austerity measures (in the form of mass layoffs and talk of serious pension cuts) is being met by scattered local protests at best. No salient national campaign is emrging in this country, nor does it appear that one is on the horizon in the near future.
The relatively stronger position of labor unions throughout Western Europe also doesn’t fully explain the weak level of protests in the U.S. Most of the strikes and protests discussed above were led by public sector workers, an area of the U.S. economy that has traditionally been characterized by strong unionization and organization. While only 7.2 percent of U.S. private sector workers are part of a union, the figure is at nearly 40 percent of public workers, and that figure actually grew from 2008 to 2009.
A major cause of U.S. apathy is the depoliticization of the American electorate and the lack of a collective working class consciousness. A majority of Americans distrust their political officials, while a growing number feel that they cannot rely upon the national government to improve their living standards. This latter trend should be particularly disturbing for those on the left who see the national government as the primary medium for promoting the improvement of living standards for the masses. Establishing universal health care and universal funding for higher education, in addition to the strengthening of food stamps, head start, job training, Social Security, and a slew of other welfare programs will only be accomplished by increasing our support for, and reliance on the national government. These progressive victories will not emerge by “getting government out of our lives,” or by turning our back on national politics.
Americans are incessantly bombarded by conservative propaganda stressing the theme that government is the problem, rather than part of the solution in terms of promoting American prosperity. Diversionary mass media direct public attention toward fashionable consumption and meaningless celebrity news, rather than toward important political and economic issues such as whether Americans will have a job tomorrow as a result of massive budget cuts and a weakening economy. American educational institutions do a pitiful job in informing the young about the importance of social and political action in bringing about positive social change. Finally, structural changes in the economy force Americans to work longer hours for less pay, leaving less time for political education and activism.
All of these forces come together to wreak havoc on the prospects for renewed progressive activism among the American public. Progressive change is further hindered by the emergence of faux ”social movements” like the Tea Party, supplemented by “grassroots uprisings” in the form of birtherism and anti-Muslim racism. These “movements” are largely media-induced, fueled by right-wing Republican and punditry-based hatred, which seeks to take advantage of the very real economic grievances of middle America. There is more than a bit of Nazi-esque race-baiting and scape-goating involved in this process.
Until we begin to address the structural problems that plague American society, we will see little progress in organizing the masses to oppose the reactionary assault on the populace. Without action, there will be little support for a progressive agenda for real change. Americans must realize that the only way forward is through a direct confrontation with political and economic elites. Positive progressive change is never willingly given up by elites - it must be forcibly taken from below. This is the most important lesson to take from the global backlash against neoliberalism.
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