"This Changes Everything . . ."
— The Editors
REMEMBER THOSE ADS for the Viper, that hyped-up, super-computerized Dodge yuppiemobile that adjusted itself for road conditions, programmed its own itinerary, virtually drove itself and offered more luxury features than the average first-class airline trip? The slogan for that promotional campaign—"This Changes Everything"—fits perfectly the sudden economic downturn and fear of recession.
When the U.S. economy looked like that car, replacing government social security with individual worker stock portfolios appeared to many free-market advocates as the greatest idea since the invention of capitalism. News from Japan of a chronic recession and rumors of bank failures seemed to be from a different planet. The Asian crash of 1998 (to say nothing of the Mexican bailout of 1995) was history.
Swelling government surpluses projected into the infinite future—why not, when the calculations assumed five percent economic growth per year and abolition of unemployment and welfare along with the business cycle? So why not eliminate inheritance tax and grant enormous income tax cuts for the wealthy—don't they deserve a decent return on all that money they spend on politicians? And with times so good, sure, throw in a few pennies in tax relief for the average wage-earner too.
As recently as last Christmas, did it really matter to the elites that the incoming President of the United States was a flyweight elected by nobody, installed in office by five right-wing judges, known for his limited attention span and disinterest in complicated detail? Prosperity was self-perpetuating, requiring only the occasional deft adjustments by the Federal Reserve and the good sense of the government to keep the globalization going, and its hands off wealth creators like Nike and Microsoft.
Remember then? But now, a 60% collapse of NASDAQ, a nearly 20% fall on Wall Street, manufacturing employment down by a few hundred thousand, barely one percent growth in the fourth quarter of 2000, an energy supply and price crisis in California caused by an ideology-and-greed-driven deregulation—"This Changes Everything."
Take those faraway Japanese banks, for example, burdened with massive uncollectible loans from Japan's industrial recession and the bursting of the 1980s real-estate bubble. Economic experts know that the biggest signs of distress and potential Depression aren't so much the famous stock market crashes (1929) as the less-remembered bank and credit collapses (1931).
The prospect of large-scale bank failures in Japan, exacerbated by its weak and discredited government, synchronized with the onset of a U.S. recession, would be profoundly traumatic for the entire world capitalist economy. In that case, watch for the rhetoric of "global free trade" to turn into a nasty spiral of tariff and trade battles, cut-throat currency devaluations and all the methods of old-fashioned economic warfare that can exacerbate a full-fledged international Depression.
Is such a combination of circumstances going to bring on such a result right now? The chances are that it won't—but the point is that the stakes are high, and that leadership (real or perceived) is suddenly important in a way that it wasn't when good times looked like forever. With the failure of the two recent Federal Reserve interest rate cuts to stop the stock market slide, Alan Greenspan's status also badly slipped—but even monetary policy has its limits, if profits (or expected profits) are declining too rapidly to induce new investment.
Without venturing predictions, then, let's simply assume that the likeliest scenario is a relatively brief recession (two to three quarters), but with at least the possibility of a longer and nastier downturn. In any case, it doesn't really take a major recession to have a sharp and brutal impact on the most vulnerable layers of the U.S. population—to say nothing of the poor countries on the wrong side of global free trade and drug patent laws.
The present stock market slide is unprecedented in its direct and immediate impact on broad layers of the working population. Some 40% of working families now have some form of stock market investment, including individual retirement funds (IRAs and 401Ks) that have replaced what used to be employer-funded pension plans. Thus, a stock market slump has a double impact: It affects the immediate economic fortunes of a larger-than-ever proportion of the U.S. population, and has a more direct impact on consumer confidence, with a major potential feedback into the real economy.
When it comes to the real U.S. economy—the production of goods and services in which people actually work and create surplus value—it is important to bear in mind two rough structural constants: (1) Actual unemployment is about double the official figure, and (2) African-American unemployment (in real figures) is about double the (real) national average. That's why "a mild recession," in the soothing and benign language of the commentators, means a Depression for Black America
The Clinton-era boom famously reduced official national unemployment to around 4%, creating an enormous reservoir of Black support for an administration that was seen to be giving millions of people access to jobs for the first time. But the underside of that era, of course, was the destruction of fifty years of welfare entitlements under a bipartisan rampage at both the federal and state levels.
Thus, when the economic downturn inevitably turns those last hired—and in general, the lowest paid—into the first fired, many will face the prospect of returning to the scrap heap of structural unemployment with little remaining safety net, with welfare shrunk and benefits constricted by lifetime term limits.
At the same time, the boom itself was built on vaunted "productivity growth." Much of this was ascribed to technological advance and the miracles of internet commerce—and of course there is some truth in this. But the fact is that the intensity of work (that is, the pace, the stress and the danger) has also notoriously grown during the `90s in manufacturing and service sectors alike.
An economic downturn tends to worsen, not lighten the pressure: Enterprises lay off as many workers as possible and turn the screws on those remaining. At the Lordstown, Ohio General Motors plant, members of UAW Local 1112 on January 12 ratified concessionary work rules that include "collapsing skilled classifications, reducing the size of teams and having teams cover absenteeism, restricting intra-plant transfers, and outsourcing of janitorial work and other `good jobs' usually held by those with the most seniority." (Labor Notes, March 2001)
The alternative, Lordstown workers were told, was losing the plant's work to other locals that had already agreed to "competitive agreements." This is the usual sad story of the race-to-the-bottom, pitting workers against each other from country to country, city to city, plant to plant.
Politics of Corporate Supremacy
In the political arena, we are witnessing (as we did in the early Reagan years) that the Republican Party is prepared to use its power when given a chance—no matter how illegitimately that power may be obtained—while the Democrats habitually squander theirs. That's hardly coincidental: The Republicans are essentially an open party of corporate supremacy, whereas the Democrats are forced to maintain the pretense of a party of working and oppressed people while pursuing the business agenda.
It was as striking as it was outrageous that the first act of the new Republican Congress and the hard-right Bush administration was to wipe out, after ten hours of debate, workplace ergonomic standards for which trade union and occupational safety and health advocates had struggled for ten years.
This, too, corresponds to the corporate imperative to squeeze out more and more production regardless of danger to the work force. The protective standards, before they could go into effect, were killed by politicians who are mainly at risk of repetitive-motion syndrome from stuffing corporate cash into their campaign treasuries. Sixteen Democratic representatives and six Democratic Senators voted with the Republican majority on this issue.
The regulations could have been put into effect five years ago, in Clinton's first term, and would by now have been politically all but impossible to eliminate. But true to form Clinton waited to the very end, in between selling pardons.
At the same time, companies will increasingly be on the offensive to force workers to bear the brunt of rising health costs—to say nothing of pensions. Many firms got in the habit of funding their pension plans not by paying actual money, but relying on ever-rising paper values of stock. The collapse of those values puts workers' retirement funds at risk.
Where the resistance will come from is not yet clear. But the relative quiescence of the labor movement, intimidated and fearful in the new economic and political climate, is not the final word. From Mexico City to Porto Alegre to Quebec City to Cincinnati—as various reports in this issue of Against the Current help illustrate—people cannot be expected to take what a rotten system offers them lying down.
Killing Off Kyoto
IN A MODEST but potentially significant bit of good news for the environment, the Bush administration officially walked away from the Kyoto agreement on greenhouse-gas emissions reduction.
What's good about it? Simply this: It is now clear to anyone who cares about the desperate state of the planet, and the appalling potential of catastrophic climate change, that the greatest obstacle to reversing this course is the world's leading capitalist power and greenhouse polluter, the United States.
Any attempt to create international institutions to combat global warming and habitat destruction must be a grassroots effort, independent of and against United States corporate policy. Under a continuation of the Clinton-Gore regime, that fundamental truth would have been disguised—whereas today it is crystal clear to every environmentalist, radical or mainstream.
Clinton-Gore never intended to seriously fight to ratify (let alone implement) Kyoto. Their project was to strangle the Kyoto protocols (and the environmental justice movement in general) in the guise of embracing them, pursuing the policies of corporate globalization while giving the process a rhetorical environmental veneer.
It is to the credit of George Bush and his oil-uber-alles Cabinet that the cover has been blown, and a secondary side benefit that Christie Todd Whitman has been made to look like a fool.
ATC 92, May-June 2001