Corporate and financial elites have largely succeeded in seizing the current economic crisis of their own making to ram through attacks on social programs they’ve always despised. With the politicians and the Supreme Court in their pockets they apparently believe that now is their time to contort the institutions of American society into a consortium servicing their narrow class interests. But the protests in Europe and on Wall Street are evidence that a growing number of people are on to them.
Even the sober capitalists of Europe have had enough with the United States telling them what to do. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s glacially cold reception he recently had on the other side of Atlantic while meeting with E.U. mucky-mucks speaks volumes. Geithner’s mission appears to have been little more than to make sure those crazy “socialistic” Europeans don’t do anything rash like pass a small tax on international financial transactions. Geithner’s haranguing fell on deaf ears and illustrates the diminished capacity of the United States to throw its weight around in the global economy. Even hardcore capitalists are displaying a lack of faith in U.S. economic leadership, compounding the legitimacy crisis that has already engulfed millions of less exalted members of the global community.
“Economics have been one driving force, with growing income inequality, high unemployment and recession-driven cuts in social spending breeding widespread malaise,” a page-one New York Times article states. “Alienation runs especially deep in Europe, with boycotts and strikes that, in London and Athens, erupted into violence.” Today, the “paper of record,” which proved useless in exposing the major cataclysmic event of our age (the housing bubble and mortgage fraud), recognizes the folly of austerity measures as a magic economic elixir.
For a nation that not long ago had its share of riots and rebellions, such as those that rocked Watts, Newark, and Detroit in the mid-1960s, (along with the Rodney King riot of 1992 and the Battle in Seattle in 1999), the dangers of wave after wave of savage budget cuts to vital social programs as well as what’s going on in many European capitals should be a bit sobering.
Since the 1960s there have been roughly two schools of thought in America on protests that turn into riots. One school concludes that the way to deal with that kind of violence is to deploy more water canon, rubber bullets, and tear gas.
The other side tries to place these events within their social context. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy articulated this more sociologically sound interpretation. Although both leaders insisted that law and order must be restored in riot-ravaged cities and that there was no excuse for destroying property, they also asked: What are the underlying social causes of the rebellions?
The Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to analyze the ’60s riots, concluded that extreme poverty, hopelessness, and racial discrimination created a societal tinderbox that was ready to explode into flames. (In Detroit alone there was over $50 million in property damage, 7,000 arrests, and forty-three people killed.) The Commission’s findings were never given a fruitful airing.
In 1965, after touring the bombed out neighborhoods of Watts and being spurned by L.A.’s mayor, King left the city in disgust, saying that the political leaders displayed “a blind intransigence and ignorance of the tremendous social forces which are at work here.” He went on to launch the Poor People’s Campaign and lead a mass movement that would make its central demand government action to alleviate poverty.
Robert Kennedy, who also toured Watts, pushed for legislation to deal aggressively with urban poverty and initiated a bold experiment in the impoverished Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Seeking solutions and understanding the social conditions that produced riots became the chief animating expressions of both MLK and RFK’s concepts of justice in their final years. The fact that both King and Kennedy were assassinated at a time when they were pushing for changes in the class and caste structures of American society tells us something about the bitterness of that period — a bitterness that might return if our political “representatives” continue this long backsliding into tolerating (and in some cases even promoting) ever greater levels of poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness. The racial discrimination inherent in the current crisis jumps out at you in the form of shocking statistics that show that African Americans have been among the most victimized by not only the predatory lending practices and cuts to social programs but also the layoffs, unemployment, and shrinking opportunities.
Social programs originally enacted to blunt the social costs of the private sector’s dumping of “externalities” on the public are now being systematically dismantled. The noise about bowing down to the needs of the “Job Creators” won’t alter the basic inequality and injustice that make up the core of the problem. The captains of industry and finance at some point must be forced to recognize that the costs of repression and the attendant calls for more radical reform will render their austerity measures failures.
All of this austerity targeting working people is not only digging a deeper economic pit but it’s rapidly lowering the quality of life. People are starting to catch on that their suffering is directly related to the abuses of a tiny wealthy elite’s desire not to pay one cent in additional taxes. These corporate and banking elites, in case you haven’t noticed, are becoming very unpopular. Do they really think they can use their power over our governing institutions to turn the screws on working people without ever suffering any kind of backlash? The failure of the private sector to meet basic human needs at some point will spawn a legitimacy crisis that leads millions of people to stop believing in the “efficiency” of global capitalism. In the 1980s, what brought on the collapse of the Soviet bloc as much as anything else were the actions of tens of millions of people living under those regimes who simply stopped believing in the system. This is pretty serious stuff.
During the Cold War one of the big criticisms of Soviet communism was that the individual was coerced into serving “the system.” Yet today we’re hearing the exact same message from capitalist elites telling us that the individual must serve the interests of the “Job Creators,” i.e. giant corporations and banks. Working people are being told that they must sacrifice their hopes and dreams, their unions and pensions, sometimes even their homes, for a vague promise that someday in the distant future their quiet servitude to the system will be rewarded when prosperity begins “trickling down.” (Best of luck with that.)
There’s a keen sense out there that the millions of good-paying public sector jobs that have been sacrificed on the altar of Wall Street’s malfeasance are never coming back. The wretched state of things is becoming the new normal. It’s now considered “good news” when the unemployment rate in some cities reaches 11.9 percent. In past years the County and City of Sacramento have spent up to $700,000 on temporary shelters for homeless people during the winter. This upcoming winter, due to the fiscal crisis, the city plans to spend $0 — Zero. These kind of dismal local stories are being repeated all over the country. And what are the elites talking about? They’re talking about more budget cuts, more austerity, more coddling of the giant corporations and banks. Hail to the “Job Creators!”
If destroying the livelihoods and futures of millions of Americans was perfectly legal and not a single financial services mover and shaker is going to go jail for the epic fraud committed it tells us something: the whole grand rip-off was pulled off with the help of our elected “leaders” whose priorities are so wrong they all should be run out of Washington on a rail. This perfectly legal grand larceny against the country must not go unpunished. And it’s up to the people to start doing the punishing.
The primordial moment for this pursuit of justice has begun. It lies with the people who are now occupying Wall Street and, with a little luck their numbers might grow until some remnant of “justice” is done. What’s missed is that if the whole sordid episode goes unpunished amidst all the suffering out there more and more people are simply going to stop believing in the system they’re being told they must serve.