Let us take off our rose-colored glasses for a moment. When we look
into American society what do we see? Falling wages and rising
inequality, racial and gender injustice, devastation of inner-city
neighborhoods, expanding environmental degradation, domestic violence,
lack of affordable health care, shallow pro-corporate media, agonized
and wasted urban youth, rampant commercialism, increasing intolerance,
fewer libraries, more prisons, and worse. The inventory of pain reminds
us that current policies don't "promote the general welfare" and can't
ensure "liberty and justice for all." We are saddened and outraged by
the way we now govern ourselves as a people.
Central to all these problems is the deliberate restructuring of the
economy that is under way, promoted chiefly by corporate policies with
the acquiescence of government. Corporations are seeking to increase
their profits and competitiveness by merging and downsizing
(eradicating half a million well-paid jobs each year); replacing
permanent full-time workers with temporary part-timers; deliberately
destroying job security as a way of imposing discipline on working
people, diminishing their power to demand decent wages and benefits
such as health care and retirement packages; and degrading the
environment (mining natural resources at unsustainable rates worldwide,
and using nature as a toilet for unwanted, often toxic, byproducts).
Government's most conspicuous role in all this has been to subsidize
corporate restructuring; wink at massive white-collar crime (e.g., the
$500-billion-plus S&L debacle) and ignore anti-trust laws; cut taxes on
those most able to pay; and reduce social spending on public transit,
affordable housing, parks, playgrounds, schools, hospitals, libraries,
children's nutrition, job training, and so on. This deliberate
restructuring of the economy (the low-wage, high-waste option) was well
under way before the Republican electoral victory last November, which
merely accelerated the process without fundamentally changing it.
As we have discussed previously (REHW #409 and #451), this low-wage,
high-waste option is only benefitting the wealthiest 10% of the
American people --with the vast bulk of benefits going to the
wealthiest 2% --while the remaining 90% of Americans have seen their
incomes stagnate or shrink, their opportunities diminish, their sense
of security vanish. In the midst of the wealthiest economy the world
has ever known, poverty is increasing steadily even among people who
are working full-time; the number of working people with health-care
benefits and retirement plans is dropping; children, particularly, are
being devastated. Clearly we cannot simply "grow" our way out of these
problems (as both the so-called "conservatives" and the liberals assure
us we can) --we've had more-or-less-steady growth for 30 years, during
which time these problems have only worsened.
The political system offers up a brand of so-called "conservatism"
guided by the principle, "Winner take all, and let the devil take the
hindmost." These "conservatives" insist that unregulated markets should
make all important decisions, without control by, or accountability to,
those whose needs the economy supposedly serves (the American people).
In contrast the political system offers up "liberals" who increasingly
have no clear constituency and no clear program. History has shifted
and they have not kept pace. Traditionally, their approach has been to
fix problems by creating government programs. But such fixes cost money
and increasingly the white middle class doesn't see the benefits of
government programs, and so refuses to pay for them.
The old New Deal style of government promised to counteract the
market's worst tendencies with an affirmative state committed to full
employment; a fair distribution of income; and an efficient provision
of essential public goods (schools, libraries, transit, etc.). In New
Deal times, government policy, aided by unions, sought to stabilize
mass demand which gave companies markets for sales and thus gave them
reason to invest, which raised productivity and lowered the costs of
mass consumption goods bought by ever-better-paid workers. The damage
to the environment from such mass production-and-consumption was
ignored, and so was the fact that women almost exclusively (and without
pay) provided all the social glue by raising children, maintaining
traditional families and stable communities, and thus conserving
Specifically, we used to have a nation-state capable of managing the
economic environment within its territory, a national economy
sufficiently insulated from foreign competitors that the benefits of
demand-stimulus could be reliably captured by firms within its borders.
Furthermore, the core of the economy used to be organized into a system
of mass production dominated by lead stable firms (GM, GE and so on).
The size and stability of these firms made them ready targets for
worker organization and made them operate like levers, extending the
benefits of organization throughout the economy. The organization of
production within these firms tended to reinforce class solidarity --
working on the assembly line, it wasn't too hard to figure out which
side you were on.
During this period, class concerns (workers vs. owners) dominated the
politics of equality. The effects of 400 years of racial exclusion were
largely ignored. The fact that women bore the burden of unpaid labor in
the home was largely ignored. The environmental effects of a mass
consumption society were largely ignored.
Now, however, conditions have changed.
** There are sharper limits on the capacity of the state to promote the
general welfare. These limits stem partly from globalization, which
allows quick foreign competitors to capture expanding domestic markets,
and which makes it easier for firms with international operations to
avoid unfavorable tax or regulatory regimes. But to an even larger
degree, the new conditions stem from changed demands on the state --
demands that the "all thumbs and no fingers" state is not well-equipped
to handle: for example, demands to (a) ease labor market transitions as
certain kinds of jobs disappear and others appear; or (b) help firms
modernize; or (c) fill social gaps created when women leave the home to
work, or when companies abandon communities; or (d) develop common
standards which then must be applied in diverse contexts (for example,
occupational safety and health); or (e) promote political deliberation
when money and sound bites have so completely replaced people and
argument that discussion itself seems a waste.
** Traditional mass production, with its core of large firms, has
collapsed. As this collapse has occurred, the white male working class
has been displaced as the main focus of struggles for equality. The
class struggle (workers vs. owners) has shifted to new arenas --race,
gender, environmental and economic justice, and so forth. Increased
competition among firms has produced many responses (for example,
simply paying workers less and demanding more; leaner, more efficient,
production; high-skill strategies aimed at product distinctiveness) --
but all of these responses disrupt the common experiences that formed
the basis of traditional industrial unionism. Firms are now more
decentralized and varied in the terms and conditions of work they
offer. Career paths and rewards are more jumbled, and varying skill-
requirements provide further divisions.
The male working class has fragmented at the same time that women have
joined the work force in large numbers, complicating the task of
workplace organizing, and bringing into focus the costs of raising
children, maintaining traditional families and stable communities, and
conserving culture --costs that used to be hidden in the home. Now that
these costs are explicit, they put new demands on the state (which the
state is not adept at handling), and they blur the boundaries between
society and household because no one is any longer quite sure which
institutions are responsible for what.
** Within the group of people who traditionally supported democratic
ideals, many new concerns tug and pull, seeking dominance. Issues of
gender, race, environment, income and income distribution --all compete
for political space. Life used to be much simpler: the working class
struggle for material improvement was the dominant theme in politics.
But now there is no dominant theme --and consequently no theme that can
unify all those who, in their own individual ways, support democratic
The trend is clear: left to its own devices, this society is headed for
truly ruinous division, inequality, and squalor for much of the
population. To prevent that, an alternative future needs to be
described, its values declared, and sides taken for its advancement.
This will require a sharp break with liberal politics. While liberals
often have reasonable views about political outcomes (some equality,
some decent living standards, some personal freedom), they are elitist
when it comes to making it happen. Liberals don't believe that people
of ordinary means and ordinary intelligence are capable of running
society themselves. (This is the key difference between the liberal
environmentalists [represented by, for example, Environmental Defense
Fund, the Environmental Working Group, and the Natural Resources
Defense Council] and grass-roots environmental justice activists.)
Liberals typically favor the kinder, gentler administration OF people
(usually by the state), rather than BY people --people taking action
themselves through popular organization. Liberals are also deeply
accommodating of corporate power, preferring to mop up after the damage
is done, rather than averting the damage in the first place.
Liberalism worked for a time because its key assumptions held true:
that reasonable progress toward egalitarian ideals could be made
without challenging corporate power; that the state sufficed as an
agent of the people; that the 'natural' organization of people (into,
say, classes, or neighborhoods) assured a multiplier on state efforts.
But that world is now gone, and liberalism is defunct. Unless people
get much better organized, democratic politics will fail for lack of
troops (think of the health care debacle) or lack of administrative
capacity (think of what's happening inside workplaces, inside schools,
and at Superfund dumps), or for lack of ability to convene discussions
that need to occur (about race, public safety, environmental
protection, neighborhood revitalization, and so on).
A new democratic politics is needed, and it must do two things: (1) it
must articulate a social alternative to the "business as usual"
domination of public and everyday life; and (2) it must nurture the
democratic practices and organizations required to give that
alternative a fighting chance.
[To be continued next week.]
 These ideas find their roots in the work of Joel Rogers at
University of Wisconsin, and Joshua Cohen at Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT). Rogers and Cohen deserve credit for these ideas, but
not blame for our bastardized version of them. For example, this week
we have filched at length, and without attribution, from Joshua Cohen
and Joel Rogers, "After Liberalism," BOSTON REVIEW (April/May, 1995),
Descriptor terms: wealth; income distribution; poverty; urban decay;
growth; joel rogers; joshua cohen; females; race; gender; injustice;
inequality; high-wage low-waste option; low-wage high- waste option;
new deal; liberalism;