Friday, November 25, 2016

The End Is Near

The aversion that so many are feeling towards President-Elect Donald Trump is unquestionably justified; I don't think it's necessary to reiterate the countless reasons he is an extremely divisive leader and a generally dangerous individual. But amid the fear among women, racial minorities, and other groups that are being threatened by his presence, there's another demographic that feels (I suspect) uneasy these days: the members of the corporate elite.

Trump's success was largely a result of the enormous class inequities that have appeared in recent decades. By redirecting people's economic concerns towards immigrants and Muslims, while also bringing up some legitimate issues such as the unfairness of the U.S.'s current trade policies, he ran with success against the establishments of both major parties. And while Trump doesn't pose any real threat to the benefactors of the neoliberal paradigm, his victory, I believe, has forced them to reckon with the instability of the political status quo that they've created; if someone like Trump can run for the highest office and win, what about when a genuine enemy of neoliberalism tries to do the same?

Indeed, when such an event materialized earlier in this election in the form of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the response from the representatives of establishment economics was easy to guess; there's clear evidence that during the primary season, the corporate media, the Democratic leadership, and their allies on Wall Street regarded Sanders as a threat and worked to undermine him. Thomas Frank, in an essay about the anti-Sanders bias of the operators of publications like The Washington Post (and by extension economic elites in general), assessed that "For the sort of people who write and edit the opinion pages of the Post, there was something deeply threatening about Sanders and his political views. He seems to have represented something horrifying, something that could not be spoken of directly but that clearly needed to be suppressed."

And while Sanders has since been (illegitimately) vanquished, the subjectively horrifying thing that he represented has only gotten more powerful. What Frank and I are referring to, of course, is the possibility of the public becoming unable to tolerate the current economic system and successfully overturning it.

Well, in the following paragraphs, I'm going to provide some very good reasons for their fear being valid. This piece focuses on the past, present, and future of the neoliberal economic and political order, with the latter subject being what reflects my essay's title.

How we got here

At no point in America's history has the economic system been ideally fair. Even during the 1960's, when income inequality was by far at its lowest point in decades, Martin Luther King JR. felt a need to address economic injustice, calling for an economic bill of rights, a universal basic income, and a strong labor movement. But relatively speaking, the second third of the 20th century was a very good period for the middle and working classes.

After the Great Depression, which was a result of the enormous economic inequality that defined the early 20th century, America's leaders were forced to change how the wealth was distributed. In the 1930's, amid overwhelming public pressure, FDR changed his economic approach from the unrestrained version of capitalism that had previously dominated the political debate to Keynesianism, enacting reforms which reigned in corporate power and greatly reduced poverty. And for the next four decades, this economic paradigm persisted, with both parties for the most part upholding the policies of the New Deal.

It must have been no coincidence, then, that it took a full generation for society to start returning to the old order of corporate rule. Starting in the late 1970's, many academic and political leaders, too young to remember what happened when markets weren't sufficiently regulated and income inequality wasn't kept at a low level, advocated for policies which would return the economic system to its 1920's form. This newly mainstream breed of economic thought, which emerged mainly on the right but was also very much embraced by the Democratic Party, is essentially a perversion of capitalism in that rather than giving all people an equal opportunity to succeed economically, it allowed for corporations and the wealthy to re-write the rules of the game to their benefit.

This societal model, which I've discussed in detail in a past article, was not capitalism as it's often been characterized, but a newer and far more dangerous economic ideology called neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has for the most part dominated the actions of government officials starting with the at-the-time unusually pro-business Carter Administration, and since then America (as well as many other countries, whose governments have also adopted neoliberalism in recent decades) has drifted ever closer to oligarchy.

For the past forty years, cuts to the social safety net, tax reductions for the wealthy, privatization, deregulation, so-called free trade deals, and at the root of it all an increased involvement of money in politics has resulted in the highest levels of economic inequality on record, with half the people in the country living in poverty and much of the rest not being too far ahead as they own very little wealth compared to those at the top. And while Americans very much want to end this feudalistic version of society, because their government is naturally controlled by these same corporate forces which control the economy, their opinions alone don't have much of an impact.

In recent years, though, that's begun to change.

The unraveling of neoliberalism

For quite some time during this period of modern-day robber barons, those who oppose neoliberalism, though very much in the majority, have largely been outside the mainstream of the debate. But an oppressed population can't be expected to remain helpless forever, especially when the oppression becomes increasingly prevalent, and the pot of public resentment towards the current economic order has started to reach a boiling point.

The first major sign that a revolt against neoliberalism is on its way may have come in 1999, with the outbreak of protests in Seattle over the U.S.'s entering into the World Trade Organization. Since then, shows of resistance towards the economic order have appeared whose levels of success would have been impossible in earlier stages of the neoliberal era; most notable among them the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2016 and the Democracy Spring demonstrations that took place this spring.

So it's no surprise that in this election cycle, the economic policies of government officials have started to match up with the wishes of the people.

Firstly, 2016 has been an unusually good year for advocates of a minimum wage increase. In March, California's governor decided to raise the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022, and four states voted on Election day to raise it to $12 an hour by 2020. Similar actions have been taken in New York, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, and Washington DC.

And even the election of Donald Trump was in some ways a victory for the lower classes; there's a slim but present possibility that he'll bring back Glass-Steegal, and his protectionist stance on trade has made it so that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is now dead along with America's involvement in past trade deals like it. Indeed, Bernie Sanders has expressed optimism in some areas in response to Trump's victory, saying "To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him."

Cornel West agrees that a new era has befallen the nation this year as a result of the policies of the past forty years, saying in an op-ed this month that neoliberalism was "brought to its knees" on Election Day. But as even Trump's supporters will come to realize in the next few years, there is much more that needs to happen before economic change can come.

2020 vision

Despite the parts of Trump's agenda that I mentioned, the fact remains that on January 20, 2017, the 40th anniversary of the neoliberal era will involve the inauguration of a president who may do more damage to the economic interests of the bottom 99% than any of his predecessors.

I believe he has the potential to do unprecedented harm in this area not because of his intention to repeal Obamacare, or his trickle-down tax plan, or his vision of a drastically reduced social safety net. The worst thing that I expect to happen to the lower classes under Trump is a financial crisis comparable to the Great Depression.

Unsurprisingly, amid 1920's-level income inequality, there is 1920's-level risk for economic collapse. The economies of the U.S. and many other countries have become highly financialized, making global markets ripe for a dramatic downturn. And perhaps even more importantly, worldwide debt outside the financial sector is at an unprecedented $152 trillion, obviously adding to the possibility of economic catastrophe.

"Nothing is priced correctly, especially money," writes James Kunstler on the current economy's lack of sustainability. "It’s all kept running on an ether of accounting fraud. We can’t come to grips with the resource realities behind the fraud, especially the end of cheap oil. And the bottom line is the already-manifest slowdown of global business. The poobahs of banking pretend to be confounded by all this because everything — their reputations, their jobs, their fortunes — depends on the Potemkin narrative that ever-greater economic expansion lies just around the corner. Not so. What waits around the corner is a global scramble for the table scraps of the late techno-industrial banquet."

When this crash hits sometime in the next few years, it will be disastrous. But it will also present a great opportunity for finally defeating the neoliberal forces which helped create it. The magnitude of the wealth that will be lost in this event, along with the unprecedentedly unfair state of the economy that it will take place in, will without a doubt provoke an effort on the part of the populous to overthrow the corporate state which has a very good chance of succeeding.

This revolt will be part of what the anthropologist Peter Turchin views to be the next major wave of social upheaval, which he's found occurs in cycles throughout history. And according to Turchin, American society's next bout with revolution is set to occur in or around the year 2020-which is shortly after the next recession is likely to happen and the date of what's expected to be the most consequential election in our lifetimes.

In short, 2016 has been just a foreshadowing of the seismic political and social changes that indications say will befall society in the years to come, with the culmination expected to arrive in 2020. The neoliberal order, in spite of all the wealth and power it's consolidated, is ultimately as subject to insurrection from the masses as all the other tyrannical regimes throughout history.

And in the process of its death, many possibilities will appear for improving society that go beyond redistributing the wealth; goals like withdrawing from America's perpetual wars, enacting laws to protect the environment, and even ending the two-party system will become very much doable when the population is mobilized for change on the level I expect it to be in the coming years. And when this happens, hopefully those objectives will also include the proposals of Dr. King.

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