The Crisis: A View from Occupied America
by William K. Tabb
The Monthly Review
The theme of the 2012 Left Forum, “Occupy the System—Confronting Global Capitalism,” calls for a historical imagination informed by a realistic sense of where we are. To occupy the system is first to be aware of the system as a system—a system of unequal privilege and control. It requires that we occupy the narrative of public debate, which is something the Occupy movement, to a remarkable degree, has been able to achieve. Even President Obama, who so far has followed the economic policies of his Wall Street-friendly advisers, has used campaign rhetoric taken from Occupy Wall Street. But this time around voters are hardly convinced that the “Change” Obama promised last election will happen through the existing system.
The breath of fresh air from Occupy and related activism challenges corporate power and capitalism. It rebukes the dominant political parties, which are dependent on the 1% for their funding and in turn represent them in Congress. As Gordon Lafer has said, “If the Republicans are cheerleaders for the 1 percent, most Democrats are quiet collaborators.”1 Both parties have accepted that the major problem facing the country is the deficit—which of course it is not. The project of class-coded austerity (complete with bad cop Republicans and good cop Democrats) is deemed unavoidable, both to pay for the mess and to continue enhancing the wealth and power of the 1%. Neither party wants to discuss what has happened to working people over the last three decades, a scenario which is likely to continue as incomes stagnate or fall for the vast majority of the 99% and wealth and power further concentrate at the top. This not just true for the 1%, but also for the one-tenth of 1% and even the one-one thousandth of the 1%—that is, those billionaires who decide who the viable candidates are and what economic policies Congress and the media should take seriously.
While this recognition is hardly new to Monthly Review readers, there is a sense among Americans, in numbers not seen for some time, that capitalism is losing (and, for many, has already lost) its legitimacy. There is also an understanding that the dominance by a small, corrupt, and exploitative elite is under challenge, as the upsurges from Cairo to Moscow witness. Around the world massive numbers are looking to a post-capitalist social structure based on participatory democracy and social control over the economy, and a displacement of the 1%—the elites and the ruling classes.
Whatever the Dow Jones stock average reads, the crisis for working people will continue for many years at an intense level of suffering and insecurity. Profitability and growth can pick up in the precincts of monopoly capital, while still leaving working people with less and less of the surplus they create. This is both a general aspect of capitalism and a specific trait of this period of rapid financialization that has become globalized alongside the concentration and centralization of transnationalized corporations. There is a growing awareness that the policies the 1% are imposing as their solution to the crisis will actually make things worse—even if the so-called recovery continues in the United States and can miraculously appear in Europe. The preferred policies of the ruling class prefigure a recovery that will allow a tightening of their control.
Some of the basic numbers have been presented in these pages by Michael Yates. The extreme class redistribution of the surplus cannot be overestimated. Between 2009 and 2011, 88 percent of national income growth went to corporate profits, while just 1 percent went to wages. In terms of personal income, in 2010 (the last year for which we have data) 93 percent of all income gains went to the top 1 percent of Americans. In terms of economic inequality, the CIA’s World Factbook puts the United States behind Cameroon and the Ivory Coast, but just ahead of Uganda.
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