How to Kill a Vampire

The Republican Party has dominated American politics for more than three decades. It strode into power as the muscular guardian of white privilege, moral authority, efficient markets, male power, and military strength, but it wasn’t long before its central project came into view. The past thirty years have been a testament to its success: the right has overseen the most dramatic upward transfer of wealth and power in American history. Its assault on living standards has risen to new levels of intensity, afflicts tens of millions of families from almost all social classes, and has driven the political system to the point of collapse. The United States now enjoys the distinction of being the most unequal OECD country on the planet, with levels of inequality and social distress that mirror those of many overt plutocracies. Millions of us are feeling the effects of an historic offensive by capital that has been reshaping the country’s life for a generation.

The GOP’s long run has rested on its use of American antistatism to craft a powerful attack on social welfare. But its hostility to Washington is a selective matter. It hasn’t led to reduced funding for the military, the FBI, federal prisons, or other elements of the state’s repressive apparatus. But it has led to regressive taxes, fewer regulations, and more privatization – all accomplished through the aggressive use of political power. That’s because the right’s core project is not defending liberty, or cutting back on intrusive bureaucrats, or unleashing the power of entrepreneurs. It’s using state power so capital can organize as many areas of life as possible.

It is imperative that this era be brought to an end. To do so, the left must articulate two core positions: first, that there are fundamental areas of social life that should not be organized by market forces at all. The second is that even in those areas that are commodified, capital’s range of action has to be strictly limited. The central principle that gives life to both of these positions is the requirement that capital be regulated in the service of social goals that are higher, and more compelling, than private profit.

The bitter divisions that now paralyze the political system are signs that the right’s hegemony is coming under serious strain. As the Tea Party’s tail continues to wag the GOP’s dog, the Republicans can do little more than cling to the same slogans that swept them into power a generation ago. Their ideological rigidity and stubborn fidelity to the programs that have brought ruin to so many might be signs that a new political regime is taking shape. These periods of transition carry within them confusing currents and contradictory impulses that usually manifest themselves most violently in the ranks of the dominant party. But right-wingers aren’t the only ones who are disoriented. Given the enormity of the stakes, theoretical clarity and historical understanding are essential.

The level of inequality is breathtaking and, thanks to the Occupy movement of blessed memory, has begun to percolate into the country’s political consciousness. It confirms what many families know from their own lived experience: the past thirty years have seen stagnation or decline for the vast majority of Americans and stupendous gains by a tiny minority. Since 1985, the lower 60% of U.S. households has lost more than $4 trillion, almost all of which has gone to the richest 5% of the population. This has accompanied the general decline in living standards that can no longer be described simply in terms of dollars and cents but has spilled over to many areas of life. Collapsing public education systems, rising personal and family debt, fewer employment benefits, shorter vacations, suffocating levels of anxiety, lower real wages, stagnating upward mobility, an “obesity epidemic,” the world’s highest rate of incarceration – all these familiar problems are signs that economic inequality has precipitated a general social crisis. To take just one example, consider the implications of the fact that there are precisely four countries in the world that do not have a national policy of paid leave for new parents: Swaziland, Papua New Guinea, Liberia, and – you guessed it – the United States, where fewer than half a dozen states offer paid leave. The economy has become a zero-sum game; it’s simply no longer the case that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” as John F. Kennedy famously observed. The staggering wealth at the top has been taken from everyone else.

None of this should be particularly surprising, especially since it’s been known for some time that market processes tend to channel wealth and power to those who already have both. Unregulated markets are unstable and destructive, and it doesn’t take a very sophisticated understanding of history to grasp how important it is to mitigate the damage they inflict. Societies have sought to protect themselves in a variety of ways, from momentary explosions of popular anger and attempts to build institutions to more comprehensive measures of supervision. Indeed, the most successful period of recent American history – the thirty-year Keynesian “golden age”—featured a bipartisan agreement that broad prosperity required active governmental planning, regulation, and redistribution. The middle-class consumers’ republic that was built in the post-World War II era was hobbled by racism, sexism and lots more, but it did stabilize a capitalist order that was undergirded by a relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth and a set of public and private institutions that provided an important measure of social security.

The consensus that made all this possible began to unravel with Keynesianism’s failure to resolve the stagflation that ruined Jimmy Carter and ushered in the long presidency of Ronald Reagan. Social disintegration has accelerated in recent years, fed by the political consequences of accelerating inequality and a relentless attack on social welfare that would have made even Reagan blanch. Margaret Thatcher’s infamous 1987 claim that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families” was a characteristically brutal assault on the fundamental proposition of the modern welfare state and now appears to have been an opening shot in capital’s long offensive – a shot which, it should be noted, was fired from 10 Downing Street, not from the headquarters of some bank or mining company. Recent developments have clarified matters in this country as well, laying bare the political root of the current crisis but also containing the hints of its political resolution.

Economic forces like technology, globalization, “flatness,” skill shifts,” and the “education premium” have certainly contributed to the unprecedented level of American inequality. But far too many journalists, pundits and economists overstate their importance because they ignore the politics of the problem. After all, the same economic forces are at work in other countries; if anything, they have more impact in economies that are more exposed to the international system than we are. But most of them have taken steps to protect their societies from the forces that have been ravaging American life. Indeed, the only countries that have permitted inequality to tear at the social fabric and damage the lives of so many people are those, like the United Kingdom, that have marched in lockstep with us. The crucial difference between those countries that have managed to protect their populations’ standard of living and those that haven’t can be found in differences in government policy. With all their tribulations, the European social democracies are still the most successful societies on the planet.

The contemporary Republican Party is the most right-wing national political formation of the past hundred years. Based in the South and driven by the resentments of its white, male, petty-bourgeois electoral base, it has consolidated its role as the unabashed servant of wealth and is the major institutional barrier to any efforts to mitigate the whip of the market. Its tripartite mantra of regressive taxes, deregulation and privatization summarizes its bitter resistance to any policy that would subject capital to democratic supervision. Its willingness to inflict pain on a broad swath of the population makes it unique among broad Western parties, but the problem is much bigger than what’s happened to the GOP. As it has rushed rightward over the past thirty years, the Democrats have drifted in the same direction. But there are still significant differences between them, and those differences matter. The Democrats remain the party of government and a measure of downward redistribution, while the GOP is happy to deploy state power in the interests of wealth. The result is a situation where the national legislature has earned historic levels of scorn and contempt. Unprecedented levels of partisanship and ideological cohesion have paralyzed a Congress that now stands as the talking-shop of a political class whose incompetence is matched only by the magnitude of the tasks it is unable to face.

It’s no longer a matter of the poor versus the rich. Economic inequality, political paralysis and ideological confusion threaten the livelihoods of tens of millions of beleaguered middle-class families. Faced with a decline in their standard of living and their hopes for their children, many voters are approaching the 2012 presidential election with a volatile mixture of rage, disappointment and cynicism. The basic political imperative of our time – the absolute necessity to impose measures of social regulation on economic processes – has been obscured by Republican brutality and Democratic unwillingness to call a spade a spade.

Inequality should never have been allowed to develop to this point, but national elections can sometimes illuminate fundamental principles. It’s a measure of the crisis we face that this illumination will not come from either of the two major parties. Just as capital can be disciplined only from outside the logic of the marketplace, so theoretical clarity and practical guidance will come only from outside the logic of the party system. There’s nothing new about this; all the waves of reform that have worked to civilize American capitalism originated from outside the formal structures of party politics. Marx’s description of capital as a “vampire” driven by unquenchable blood-lust stands as a brilliant anticipation of contemporary anxieties and popular culture. More importantly, it’s a guide to action.

There aren’t enough wooden daggers or silver crucifixes lying around to kill off this particular member of the Undead yet, but legend has it that sunlight is a powerful, renewable and widely-available poison. And, thanks to the long history of the labor movement and the work of left-wing theorists, we already know the basic principle that can shed light on our situation. It’s the core of what Marx famously called the “political economy of the working class,” and he expressed it with his usual clarity when describing the victory of the Ten Hours’ Bill in England. After summarizing the hysterical claims of British industrialists that any restriction of their control over their workers’ hours would ruin the entire economy and undermine the foundations of civilization, he articulated the principle with elegant simplicity in his Inaugural Address to the First International: “social production controlled by social foresight.”

We won’t be able to organize this for a long time, but the breadth and comprehensiveness of political affairs allows us to raise general issues that look beyond the boundaries of the disastrous present. Above all, we have to have the courage of our convictions. This means more regulation, not less; more centralization, not less; more progressive taxation, not less; more bureaucracy, not less; more state, not less. It’s a measure of American backwardness and the left’s impotence that this elementary matter is even on the table.

No one else can talk like this. The Republican Party is the organized face of capitalist brutality and reaction. The Democrats – the “second-most enthusiastic capitalist party in the world,” in Kevin Phillips’s apt description – are too compromised and intimidated to articulate the principles of meaningful reform with any consistency. And the Occupiers, whose great accomplishment was to raise the issue of inequality in a morally unassailable way, are fast becoming irrelevant because of their resistance to politics, their indifference to theory, and their refusal to learn the lessons of history.

The immediate question is how to relate to the Democratic Party generally, and to President Obama in particular. Many on the left are fond of saying how “disappointed” they are in the way the administration handled the bank bailout, the criminality of its predecessor, the health care debate, the war in Afghanistan, and a host of other issues. And there’s plenty to be disappointed about, although one should always be careful about how far one wants to run with one’s disappointment.

Part of the problem stems from the left’s inability to understand the Democratic Party. Treating FDR and the New Deal as the standard from which to assess the reformist bona fides of this or that figure runs the risk of treating a rare moment as a normal one. The Democrats are the home of whatever reformist impulse can still be found in the two-party system, but we should be careful about being overly enthusiastic. Many of us had elevated hopes about what was possible in the aftermath of the Bush years. Economic crisis seemed to offer the opportunity to change things in a radical way, and Rahm Emanuel’s widely-reported observation that one should not let a good crisis go to waste allowed us to indulge our hopes that Obama would lead the country to a radical rejection of Reaganism. Things didn’t turn out as many of us wanted, but it’s not clear whether the new administration’s caution and the GOP’s unanimous resistance were more important than our own impatience. Subjectivism and over-enthusiasm are no substitutes for a sober assessment of a given situation and a clear-eyed understanding of its possibilities. To take a prominent example, it was never realistic to expect the President to allow the global financial system to explode – or even to preside over a series of measured failures that would have led to its radical restructuring. Sandy Weill, the former president of Citigroup and one of the principal architects of the financial goliaths that have brought the world to its knees, has now found religion and wants to break up the big banks. It’s a wonderful opportunity to engage our cynicism as we hear him want to renew the Glass-Steagall Act that he did so much to destroy, but let’s not forget how far things have moved from the first few months of the Obama presidency.

There was no realistic alternative to the bank bailout, but that doesn’t mean that the administration has to be supported root and branch. It could have fired the management of all banks that took TARP money, imposed haircuts on some of the debt, and wiped out the bank shareholders. Obama deserves serious criticism for his refusal to punish the banks for their destructive recklessness – a refusal that will surely come back to haunt us. The task is to formulate a responsible criticism that looks beyond what the Democrats are able to offer and still makes sense. This requires a level of maturity that’s difficult to find when impatience and disappointment rule the day.

Health care reform is a perfect case in point. The Affordable Health Care Act is a lot of things rolled into one. Some of the left-wing critiques are valid, important and necessary. The act delivers millions of new customers to the private insurance companies and preserves the central role of profit in the delivery of health care. It moved forward because the Democrats bribed Big Pharma. The administration never tried to banish capital from the health care industry, never seriously pursued the possibility of “Medicare for all” or even the relatively weak “public option.” For those of us who really did want a “government takeover” of health care, Obama’s caution sounded a lot like capitulation. So a lot of us were “disappointed” in the outcome of the whole effort.

The ACA falls short of our dreams, but the Republicans really hate it because it directly attacks everything the modern Right stands for. The Act organizes the single biggest downward redistribution of wealth in a generation. It enlists the power of the state to eliminate one of the most disgraceful elements of American inequality: the inability of many people to afford medical care after they leave a job or get sick. And it does so in large measure by taxing the rich, cutting Medicare subsidies for private insurers, and channeling most of its benefits and subsidies to households making less than four times the poverty level. It organizes important and unprecedented benefits for 47 million American women, offering a wide range of preventive services with no co-pays or deductibles. It stands as a rejoinder to Dame Thatcher, affirming the central role of mutual responsibility and solidarity – even if it’s organized through private insurance. None of this requires our uncritical praise, but surely the Right’s hatred ought to count for more than our disappointment.

Part of the problem is that the left has been so isolated and powerless for so long that we don’t know what to do except complain. The only two Democratic presidents during the Age of Reagan – Clinton and Obama – came under sustained leftist criticism, but we really need to examine our expectations along with their failings. Clinton, arguably the most successful politician of his generation, managed to defeat some of the more rabid elements of the congressional Right. His was a rearguard action, but it protected Medicare and Medicaid, oversaw the lowest Black and Latino unemployment rates in American history, and implemented a series of redistributive measures over bitter Republican opposition. The Bush presidency made any real improvements impossible, and the Obama administration has been hobbled by unremitting hostility and resistance from the Right. But the old adage remains true: it is the left’s responsibility to fight for the most wide-ranging and substantive democratization of social life. This means articulating and advancing the “political economy of labor,” the core of which is the social regulation of capital. This task is immeasurably easier with a Democratic president than a Republican.

Supporting Obama’s reelection doesn’t mean tailing behind him or the Democratic Party. Political independence means advancing programs that go beyond what they can accommodate. Elementary political maturity certainly requires us to be careful about what “beyond” means. The really important thing, though, is that all of this is infinitely easier with an administration that is already committed to mitigating inequality. The fight for “Medicare for all” that finally eliminates the private insurers, for example, will surely be an important step on the road to building a society whose wealth would benefit all. Current law allows for local initiatives in this direction. The process is well under way in Vermont and is starting to develop in other places, powered by years of organization and pushed forward by patients, providers, experts, activists and others who recognize how disastrous it has been allow private insurers to organize the country’s healthcare system. After years of grass-roots organizing, proponents of a single-payer system finally prevailed in the state legislature and helped elect a favorable governor. This struggle hasn’t been embraced by the national Democratic Party, is often opposed by organized labor and has not been supported by the Obama administration – but it hasn’t encountered the uncompromising opposition that one would expect from Romney and the Republicans. The ACA enables Vermont to wage a struggle that has implications for tens of millions of people around the country. It is morally impermissible for the left to oppose a measure that will dramatically improve the fortunes of so many people. The political economy of capital has met its match in the political economy of labor for the moment, but the final outcome of this local fight depends in no small part on what happens in Washington.

This is why the left has to actively support Obama’s reelection. The Republicans’ capacity, and their demonstrated willingness, to inflict real misery is reason enough. There’s no arguing with them, no compromising with them, no bipartisanship possible with them. Obama has never seemed to understand just how intractable the opposition is, how barbaric it’s willing to be, and how important it is that it be destroyed. But there’s more at stake than Obama’s mistaken hope that he can compromise with animals. A national administration that is committed to defending the welfare state creates room to fight for expanding the social protections that have been under assault for a generation. In a country where the most basic propositions of civilized life are up for grabs, this is no small matter. We are not numerous enough, not organized enough, not coherent enough, and not united enough to have a significant effect on national affairs. It will be some time before we are. That will depend on a lot of things – one of which is how clear we are in articulating the political economy of labor in a way that makes sense. And here’s the thing: only we can do it.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Jeff Madrick: The Reluctant Vote

By Benjamin Barber: Prudence or Principle? Why I will Vote for Obama and Why I Won’t Blame You This Year If You Don’t

By Stephen Eric Bronner: The Right, The Left, The Election: The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and The Presidential Campaign of 2012

By Judith Stein: The Day After Election Day

By Rogers M. Smith: Progressivism, Polarization, and the 2012 Election

By Lauren Langman: Why Obama Will Win the Election . . . and the Left Should Hope So

By John Ehrenberg: How to Kill a Vampire

By Claire Snyder-Hall: The King of the 1% v. The American Republic

By Steve Early: Labor’s Quadrennial Condition: Between A Rock and A Hard Place

By Chip Berlet: Vote for Democrats—Then Organize to Kick Their Butts

By Richard Meagher: Founding Principles

By Alyson Cole: What’s Wrong with Victims?