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Excerpts From: Is Capitalism a Threat to Democracy? – The New Yorker

June 11, 2018

Excerpts from:

Is Capitalism a Threat to Democracy? – The New Yorker

This is a recent article that I would recommend as must reading.  Here are a few highlights:

In London, in the nineteen-thirties, the émigré Hungarian intellectual Karl Polanyi argued that fascism strips democratic politics away from human society so that “only economic life remains,” a skeleton without flesh.  As he learned how capitalism had challenged the political system of Great Britain, the first nation in the world to industrialize, he decided that it was no accident that fascism was infecting countries as disparate as Japan, Croatia, and Portugal.  In Polanyi’s opinion, whenever the profit-making impulse becomes deadlocked with the need to shield people from its harmful side effects, voters are tempted by the “fascist solution”: reconcile profit and security by forfeiting civic freedom. The insight became the keystone of his masterpiece, “The Great Transformation,” which was published in 1944, as the world was coming to terms with the destruction that fascism had wrought.

(According to Wikipedia, Fascism is defined as ” is a form of radical authoritarian nationalism, characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition and control of industry and commerce, which came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe.”)

Today, as in the nineteen-thirties, strongmen are ascendant worldwide, purging civil servants, subverting the judiciary, and bullying the press.  In a sweeping, angry new book, “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?”  Robert Kuttner champions Polanyi as a neglected prophet. He believes that free markets can be crueller than citizens will tolerate, inflicting a distress that he thinks is making us newly vulnerable to the fascist solution. In Kuttner’s description, however, today’s political impasse is different from that of the nineteen-thirties. It is being caused not by a stalemate between leftist governments and a reactionary business sector but by leftists in government who have reneged on their principles. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Kuttner contends, America’s Democrats, Britain’s Labour Party, and many of Europe’s social democrats have consistently tacked rightward, relinquishing concern for ordinary workers and embracing the power of markets; they have sided with corporations and investors so many times that, by now, workers no longer feel represented by them. When strongmen arrived promising jobs and a shared sense of purpose, working-class voters were ready for the message.

Polanyi starts “The Great Transformation” by giving capitalism its due. For all but eighteen months of the century prior to the First World War, he writes, a web of international trade and investment kept peace among Europe’s great powers. Money crossed borders easily, thanks to the gold standard, a promise by each nation’s central bank to sell gold at a fixed price in its own currency. This both harmonized trade between countries and stabilized relative currency values.  If a country went into a recession or its currency weakened, the only remedy was to attract foreign money by forcing prices down, cutting government spending, or raising interest rates—which, in effect, meant throwing people out of work.  The system was sustainable politically only as long as those whose lives it ruined didn’t have a say. But, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the right to vote spread. In the twenties and thirties, governments began trying to protect citizens’ jobs from shifts in international prices by raising tariffs, so that, in the system’s final years, it hardened national borders instead of opening them, and engendered what Polanyi called a “new crustacean type of nation,” which turned away from international trade, making first one world war, and then another, inevitable.

Polanyi believed that resistance to market forces, which he dubbed “the countermovement,” truly was spontaneous and ad hoc. He pointed to the motley of late-nineteenth-century measures—inspecting food and drink, subsidizing irrigation, regulating coal-mine ventilation, requiring vaccinations, protecting juvenile chimney sweeps, and so on—that were instituted to housebreak capitalism. Because such restraints went against the laws of supply and demand, they were despised by defenders of laissez-faire.  Once the laissez-faire machine started running, it cheerfully annihilated the people and the natural environment that it made use of, unless it was restrained.

British economist John Maynard Keynes likewise argued that capitalist economies aren’t self-adjusting. The markets for labor, goods, and money, he showed, don’t find equilibriums independently but through interactions with one another that can have unfortunate, counterintuitive side effects. In hard times, economies tend to retrench, just when stimulus is most needed; the richer they get, the less likely they are to invest enough to sustain their wealth.  For the next few decades after the 1930’s, the world’s leading economies were tightly managed by their governments. America’s top marginal tax rate stayed at ninety-one per cent until 1964, and anti-usury laws kept a ceiling on interest rates until the late seventies. The memory of the financial chaos of the thirties, and of the fascism that it gave rise to, was still vivid, and the Soviet Union loomed as an alternative, should the Western democracies fail to treat their workers well.

In the three decades following the Second World War, per-capita output grew faster in Western Europe and North America than ever before or since. There were no significant banking or financial crises. The real income of Europeans rose as much as it had in the previous hundred and fifty years, and American unemployment, which had ranged between fourteen and twenty-five per cent in the thirties, dropped to an average of 4.6 per cent in the fifties. The new wealth was widely shared, too; income inequality plummeted across the developed world. And with the plenty came calm.  

The year 1973, in Kuttner’s opinion, marked “the end of the postwar social contract.” Politicians began snipping away restraints on investors and financiers, and the economy returned to spasming and sputtering. Between 1973 and 1992, per-capita income growth in the developed world fell to half of what it had been between 1950 and 1973. Income inequality rebounded. By 2010, the real median earnings of prime-age American workingmen were four per cent lower than they had been in 1970. American women’s earnings rose for a bit longer, as more women made their way into the workforce, but declined after 2000. And, as Polanyi would have predicted, faith in democracy slipped. Kuttner warns that support for right-wing extremists in Western Europe is even higher today than it was in the nineteen-thirties.  

In the mid 70’s, a new economic monster appeared: stagflation, a chimera of inflation, recession, and unemployment. Keynesian economists, who didn’t think that high unemployment and inflation could coëxist, were at a loss for how to handle it. The predicament provided an opening for their critics, most notably Milton Friedman, who argued that incessant government stimulation of the economy risked promoting not only inflation but the expectation of inflation, which could then spiral out of control. Friedman declared Keynesianism discredited and demanded that the government refrain from tampering with the economy, other than to manage the money supply.  

There is no shortage of villains in Kuttner’s narrative: financial deregulation; supply-side tax cuts; the decline of trade unions; the Democratic Party, which, by zigging left on identity politics and zagging right on economics, left conservative white working-class voters amenable to Donald Trump. Perhaps the most vexed issue Kuttner discusses, however, is trade policy—whether American workers should be protected against cheap foreign goods and labor.  

“Basically there are two solutions,” Polanyi wrote in 1935. “The extension of the democratic principle from politics to economics, or the abolition of the democratic ‘political sphere’ altogether.” In other words, socialism or fascism. The choice may not be so stark, however. During America’s golden age of full employment, the economy came, in structural terms, as close as it ever has to socialism, but it remained capitalist at its core, despite the government’s restraining hand. The result was that workers shared directly in the country’s growing wealth, whereas today proposals for fostering greater financial equality hinge on taxing winners in order to fund programs that compensate losers. Such redistributive measures, Kuttner observes, are only “second bests.” They don’t do much for social cohesion: winners resent the loss of earnings; losers, the loss of dignity.  

Can we return to an equality in workers’ primary incomes rather than to one brought about by secondary redistribution? In a recent essay for the journal Democracy, the Roosevelt Institute fellow Jennifer Harris recommends reimagining international trade as an engine for this rather than as an obstacle to it. When negotiating trade deals, for instance, governments could make going to bat for multinationals conditional on their agreeing to, say, pay their workers a higher fraction of what they pay executives.  Failing that, we’d be better off with redistributive programs that are universal—parental leave, national health care—rather than targeted. Benefits available to everyone help people without making them feel like charity cases.

Photo by mandiberg

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